Telepathy and Other Impressions

A short story by Ecuadorian writer Abdón Ubidia, translated by Nathan D. Horowitz, published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2000

I had a girlfriend when I was a kid. Her name was Susi. She was skinny and had freckles. I won her over with the only skill I had: imitating animals. It was during summer vacation in a dry little town. Calling Susi my girlfriend is just a manner of speaking. Neither of us knew anything. She and I were just always together. Sometimes we were by ourselves. Sometimes we joined the gangs of kids that roamed the white sand paths, the streams with their banks of red clay, and the eucalyptus woods, or got together in the morning to go down to the swimming pool, or in the night to sing around a bonfire, catch fireflies and gaze at the starry sky.

There was a boy who played the accordion. Another recited poetry. Another was famous for his traps to catch three different species of doves. Another boy swam like a fish. I couldn’t do any of these things. When I jumped off the board, they had to pull me from the water half-dead.

My animal impressions impressed almost no one. My mother and father got really angry at me one day. My aunt was asking me questions and I answered her with whinnies.

“What grade are you in?”

I whinnied.

“When did you learn to whinny?”

I whinnied.

“You really like horses, huh?”

I whinnied.

“That’s enough, boy! Don’t be an idiot,” my parents snapped. But, though I nearly burst into tears, I didn’t stop whinnying.  

Other times I would bark or meow. I felt, though, that my masterwork was to baa. I could even confuse the sheep themselves.

Did I say that my poor little talent attracted Susi? She was also different from the rest. Instead of playing marbles or hopscotch, she preferred to climb trees with me.

Hidden in the bushes on the other side of the chain link fence, I would call to her with three quacks.

“Go on, Susi, the duck is looking for you,” said her mother one day. I was mortified at being discovered.     

In the luminous afternoons of that dusty summer, I would meet Susi at the gate of her family’s little summer house, and we would go walking into town. Tiny, identical homes. Streets of parched earth. Steely blue-green agaves, some thrusting up a single shoot laden with capers. Jagged-leafed higuerillas. Ovens for calcining limestone. Ovens for baking bread. The dry park. The church with its miraculous Christ. The villagers, a barefoot child, a bundle of firewood, a cow, a donkey laden with sacks of quicklime.

I think that was happiness: the blue sky, the wind that shook the trees, and Susi walking beside me. She would tell me about her parents, her friends, her life in the country’s interior in a city that I would only come to know much later.

Always seated on a porch was the Professor, as everyone called him. Aged, paraplegic, wrinkled like parchment and dry as the land itself. Forever repeating his eternal discourse to anyone who came near: the climate here, excellent for rheumatism; the “healthful waters,” rich in iron and other minerals; the limestone quarries; the likely deposits of coal, et cetera. Such an expenditure of hot air seemed an attempt by the old man to convince himself that he had not spent his life in vain here, at the edge of the world.

The pool lay underneath a tremendous pipe, next to the river. In the fantastic cliffs and outcroppings above, you could see all the ages of the earth. Layers of limestone, sandstone, sandy clay, blue clay and red dirt. High above, at the top of the mountain’s wall, appeared thin, solitary algarrobo trees stretched by the wind. Along the river, green proliferated. And, in the middle of the river, among the round stones, barely covered by the yellow waters, one could see, here and there, enormous black chunks of lignite, corroded by time. According to the Professor, the lignite proved irrefutably that there were coal deposits in the area, which would, in the “promissory future,” transform the destiny of the nation. “Healthful” and “promissory” were the Professor’s key words—among others even stranger.

One day, Susi told him of my skills as an imitator.

“Let’s see, boy. Begin your act,” he said without smiling. (He never smiled.) I strove to excel at my imitations. Susi approved each grunt, whistle, and meow with a nervous laugh, while the Professor, grave and attentive, listened in silence.

When I concluded my repertoire, he commented:

“I congratulate you, boy. You have a brilliant future as an animal imitator.”

He fell silent, pursing his lips. He focused his eyes on an imaginary point and meditated.

“But there is one bird whose song you’ll never be able to imitate.”

“He can imitate anything that was on Noah’s ark,” Susi protested.

The Professor spoke a name I’ve since forgotten. “It’s a bird that lives in caves and only goes out at night,” he added. “Its song isn’t like other birds’. It has no voice. It sings with its mind, telepathically. A French scientist who came here thirty years ago told me about it. He took a few pairs back to his country to study. He promised he would write and tell me what he found out, but he never did.”

The Professor’s voice sounded tired and hesitant, as if he were trying to remember something in the distant past.

“The people of this village,” he murmured, “say that only people who are in love can hear that song. If that’s true, I think I’ve heard it only once. But that was centuries ago. Never again. Never again.”

He made a gesture that could have served to brush away a fly or a bad memory. Then he resumed his explanation.

“I think it’s left over from before the great flood. Dinosaurs used to roam this land. Some time ago the intact skeleton of a mammoth was found nearby. Anyone can see that this is where the universe must have begun. The volcanoes, the mineral waters, the iron, the coal, the limestone, the whole terrain proves it. Even the starry nights, so pure you can see the whole sky gathered together here. That’s why I say the bird is from before the flood. Because some of those animals had no voices. A gland in their brains enabled them to call to each other telepathically. We have the gland too, but it’s atrophied and we can use it only very rarely. The scientists should figure out how to reactivate it, instead of building atom bombs.”

When we left the Professor, Susi and I ran to the pool to tell the other kids about the strange bird.

The next morning, the expedition to the caves was ready. Somebody carried a Petromax lamp, somebody else had a flashlight, another an air rifle, another a butterfly net.
It was a fiasco. The caves we entered either weren’t very deep, or they narrowed quickly. We found nothing but some bats and a few ferns. Two boys caught a bat and carried it back to the changing rooms of the pool. They crucified it on a wooden door and stuck a lit cigarette in its mouth.

The other kids laughed and joked, and, in passing, made fun of Susi and me. And a chubby little girl, her eyes brimming with tears, said to us, “There’s your telepathic bird, you bastards.”

The episode brought Susi and me even closer. At twilight, we went back to the caves. That’s when we saw, flying out of a cave, a flock of strange, silent birds, large, fast and black against the orange sky.

“The Professor never lies,” said Susi. “But we can’t tell anyone about what we’ve seen.”

That’s how the secrets began.

Another secret involved us climbing to the tops of a pair of trees that had grown up together in isolation in the middle of a dry plain. The trees were very tall, and they rocked back and forth slowly. Their crowns moved apart and came together with the sudden shifts in the wind. Susi and I pretended we were riding the backs of those giant reptiles from the Professor’s discourses. We would bring eucalyptus and capuli nuts up there with us, and pebbles from the river. We’d let them fall, to watch them shrink and disappear out of sight.

In those heights, we would converse, in fragments of phrases half-lost amid the rustle of the wind in the leaves, while the crowns of our trees swayed together and apart.

Up there, I told Susi that I had come to that town completely by chance. First, because the climate had been recommended to my grandmother for her rheumatism, and then, because my mother was in hospital in our city, very sick, and my father couldn’t leave her alone. Otherwise, we would have gone to the beach as always.

And up there, Susi asked me, one day:

“Do you know the big secret?”
“What one?”
“The secret of life.”

“I never heard there was one.”

“This afternoon I’ll show it to you,” she said.

We met after lunch and headed to the river. We walked along the bank, gathering ferns and little white flowers. Sometimes I would pick up a pebble to give her, and she would tuck it in the pink purse she always carried. At a shallow area where the river curved, there was a lot of oily oxidation on the rocks. Susi said it was good for mosquito bites, and added that we were almost there. The path was getting narrower. There wasn’t much space between the river and the moist cliff wall covered with ferns. We had to take off our shoes and wade. I rolled up my pant legs as high as I could, and she gathered her skirt in back and tied it up in front like a washerwoman.

Susi’s calves were much more tanned than her feet and thighs. I told her so. She laughed and said it was true of both of us because we didn’t spend much time at the pool. The water was up to our knees and sometimes higher. I felt the sand and the pebbles move under my feet among the whirling currents. Then the river turned abruptly. A little beach appeared, surrounded by bushes and grasses. At the other end was a small waterfall.

“This is the place,” said Susi. “Now we have to hide and wait.”

He was perhaps a bit younger than she. After kissing, they took their clothes off and bathed in the waterfall. Then they lay in the grass and started doing something I had never seen or had any idea that people did.

“OK, let’s go,” whispered Susi.

I told her that I, personally, had no wish to move from my hiding place.

Then Susi couldn’t keep from laughing. The couple scrambled away in one direction and we in another.

Back in town, seated on a stone bench in the park, Susi explained to me what her older sister had explained to her.

“But don’t say a word about what we saw to anyone. It’s a big secret,” she warned.

I listened to her, half-intrigued, half-annoyed. Susi was ten years old, like me, and going into fifth grade. But she knew a lot more important things, and in light of them, my imitations seemed useless and stupid.
“I’m never going to imitate animals again,” I told her.

“Why not?” she asked, and I thought I saw a flicker of complaint cross her freckled face.

I didn’t know what to respond, and she dropped the subject.

“Tomorrow let’s go on bikes to the Inca ruins,” she said. “And the day after tomorrow, let’s ride horses to the volcano crater.”

But there were no Inca ruins or volcano craters. That night, my father came in from the city. My mother had gotten worse and they were going to operate. She had asked him to bring me to her. We would leave at dawn.

I had never seen a face as sad as my father’s was, that night. It was the face of desolation itself. My grandmother tried to console him, speaking of God and Christ and the miracles and the saints in heaven. But she looked as sad as he did.

It was very late, but we weren’t sleepy. My father suggested we take a walk around town. At that hour, everyone was asleep. The only light came from the stars, a silvery splendor that barely sketched the outlines of paths and houses.

As we walked, my father talked to me about the stars and the constellations. Their infinite number and infinite distances. Light years; our insignificance. He pointed out Orion and Ursa Major, Venus and Mercury.

“Among these millions and millions of stars, there must be a planet like ours. But its inhabitants are probably more advanced—they’ve probably discovered immortality.”

With a sigh, he fell silent. And we walked quietly for a long time, listening to the wind whispering in the trees and, from time to time, the hoot of an owl.

“Mars,” my father said suddenly, “is distinguished by its red color. And Venus by its brightness.”

But I couldn’t see either of them. Nor the Milky Way, nor the other, more distant galaxies, nor the deep, black, infinite sky constellated with ancient stars that perhaps no longer existed except as waves of light.

My eyes were full of tears and I could barely see the path.

I wasn’t crying for my mother. I was sure the operation would do its job, as turned out to be the case, because it wasn’t right that anything bad should happen to her. I was crying for Susi. I was never going to see her again. I was convinced of that, too. And I had no way to tell her so, or even to say goodbye.

I don’t know how I calmed down and led my father along the path I always took. I had an idea. As we approached Susi’s house, I began to call to her with my mind, trying to imitate the echo I thought I’d made out when the strange birds were flying out of their cave that evening by the river.

When we passed in front of her house, I found that Susi had heard the sound of my thought. I could see her at her window, barely illuminated by starlight and waving goodbye with that gesture I’ll never forget.

I never went back to imitating animals out loud. And despite the years that passed, and the wanderings of my capricious heart, I was only able to imitate that telepathic song a couple of times more—just twice more, in all my life.


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