I follow my translator’s recommendations in all matters. He says drink teas of pelo de elote (hair of corn) and cola de caballo (tail of horse.) This is for my kidney infection, which, it appears has grown worse and invaded other areas. Possibly the hippocampus, where trauma is often recorded and rarely forgotten.
Translating what? you may ask. My first novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, from English to Spanish, now with the transfixing title: El Pianista de Pancho Villa.
I know. I have asked myself the same question. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, why not leave the book alone?
Then there’s the kidney infection. Did someone spit on my kidneys? Or Sneeze? Or is it something far more sinister? A design error. This thing called la próstata. I have to say it in Spanish to gain distance. But that’s like trying to gain distance from an adolescent python that has wrapped himself around my urinary canal and evidently forced the liquid up into the brain. It is hard for me to talk about these things. My sense of privacy and all that. This is why I have turned to Hair of Corn and Tail of Horse, seeking some sort of resolution short of Death. I have maintained a positive attitude. I listen to Antonio Vivaldi. I practice writing English in the hope of someday being included in some sort of Writer’s Quotation Book like the one edited by James Charlton. Something for beaten down writers to keep in a little shelf beside the toilet. To give relief.
I also follow actor Michael Cain’s advice: 1) Change your weakness into a strength. Starting with urine on the brain. And 2) Never compare yourself with other writers, artists and actors. And I add: Never compare your kidneys with anyone else’s.
You could argue that writing is a kind of infection of both the hippocampus and at least one kidney. I also take white pills of some weight and heft, at 12-hour intervals. Pill of kidney, tail of horse, (horse, as in Greek híppos; but, alas, also kámpos, as in sea monster), I’m not sure which, but one of them produces a roaring between the ears, as if I am standing too close to an angry sea.
“Have you taken you pill?” my wife asks.
“Of course I have,” I snap, and pull the straight–grained fir tiller toward me with all the force I can muster. The weighted rudder, levered against the passing water, plows a boiling white furrow behind us. A cat boat mast is too far forward. The rigging is unbalanced. It makes her want to flee into the wind and, at the same time, drives the leeward gunnel underwater.
“Are you alright?” my sweet wife asks.
“Yes, fine,” I say. “It’s just a problem of balance. And urine.” But I do not say that. Because I know she will reflexively seek a solution.
“Do you have your life vest on?” she asks, wisely.
“Yes,” I lie. And I’m amazed at her prescience.
I can hear Vivaldi too. The piece is Nisi Dominus. RV 608. Don’t worry, I also don’t know what the numbers mean. R and V. Perhaps: “Return to village and dry your nets.” Or: “Return to village and pee.”
Nisi Dominus means, “Unless with God, you’re screwed.” Being open- minded, I ask myself whether I’m with God, or whether God is with me. Meanwhile, the tip of the boom, pushed too far out by the force of the wind, is dragging in the water and pulling us toward our tipping point. There is no choice now. I push the tiller away from me, the bow slews up into the wind. And we heel over even more. I leap to windward to counterbalance. But I am not quick enough. The wind catches the exposed raised side of the hull, and over we go. The mast goes under first, sucking the sail after it, and then the rest of us—and we begin to sink.
It is a metaphor for Death, one that, like Urine, has been forced up into the hippocampus.
My wife asks, “Have you taken your pill?”
I say I have.
“What about side effects?”
“Not really,” I say, but I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that she doesn’t believe me. The water is cold and I want to pee. The mast points straight down, and I claw my way up onto the bottom of the capsized sailboat and cling to the exposed center board. The old tub appears to have trapped some air, and we stop sinking. A thick, warm rain drums down on us. The air smells of salt and mud flats. I hear something approaching. The thump of pistons. It’s the Boston-Nantasket steamer and she hasn’t slowed down in the least and is navigating blind. And is coming straight at me.
“Are going to have an egg?” my wife asks me.
“Nisi Dominus,” I say.
She frowns. She puts the eggs back in the refrigerator without giving me one. I get to my knees on the upturned hull. The bow of the steamer, copper-plated and blunt, throws water out ahead of it, hissing as it comes. Just when I’m about to dive away from it, it sheers off, missing me and my catboat by about—I want to say—twenty próstatas. The bow wave and hull wave, mountainous, raise us up and throw us down into the troughs at intervals too close for recovery. But my old tub refuses to sink. A line of portholes rushes by. One of them is open. A boy about eight peers through, staring at me. Wide-eyed. The steamer hull shields me temporarily from the wind. It’s like a Melville moment of mother whales and calves circling below in the quiet green deep. I see a man, close up, standing at the stern, out of sight from the other passengers. About my age, his sea legs braced, trying to keep his balance, at the same time trying to pee down into the angry sea. He looks at me. I look at him. As he goes by, he releases one hand and points toward the sky, saying, I assume, “Just a second, it takes me a bit to finish. Then I’ll sound the alarm, and we’ll circle back to get you.”
But more likely it’s a kind of benediction. Something to do with Vivaldi and Nisi Dominus. Something like, “You can’t sail a catboat in a gale and expect to come away un-drowned, if you have not honored God.” Or: “The unauthorized mixing of Tail of Horse and Hair of Corn with Bactrim—the latter without a doctor’s prescription—and you will reap the wind.”
The sailboat begins to sink again, and I hear no thump of pistons from the returning steamer.
I feel my wife touching my right kidney, from the outside of course. A soothing stroke. Tender. Nisi uxor, I think. “Without wife, there is no hope.”
And I am glad that I have, it appears, honored her sufficiently. And do not need the Nantasket steamer. Or an unbalanced catboat.
Not at all.