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. These are common Mexican folk medicines sold in bulk at any outdoor market, as well as by poor people in the alleyways of my small colonial city Guanajuato, Mexico. 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 redoubtable title of 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?
But then there is the kidney infection. Did someone spit on my kidneys? Or sneeze on them? Or is it something far more sinister? Like some kind of design flaw? Having to do with 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 your urinary canal and 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 believe I have maintained a positive attitude. I listen to Antonio Vivaldi. I practice writing English in the hope of someday being included in a Writer’s Quotation Book like the one edited by James Charlton. Something for beaten down writers to keep in a little homemade shelf beside the toilet. To give relief. I also follow actor Michael Cain’s advice. 1. Change your weakness into your strength. In my case, starting with urine on the brain. And 2. Never compare yourself with other writers, artists, painters, or actors. And I might 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. And so I also take white pills of some weight and heft at 12-hour intervals. Pill of kidney, tail of horse, horse, as in Greek hippos, kámpos, as in Greek, 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 myself with all the force I can muster. The lead-weighted rudder, levered against the passing water, plows a boiling white furrow behind us. A cat boat mast is placed 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 under water.
“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 the last part. 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, more likely: “Return to Village and Vacate the bladder.”
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, and which is better. Meanwhile, the tip of the boom, pushed too far out by the force of the wind, is dragging in the greenish water and pulling us toward our tipping point. And so, now there is no choice. I push the tiller away from me, the bow slews up into the wind, and we heel over even more. I leap to windward side 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, then the sail, and then the rest of us—and we begin to sink.
It’s all 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 catboat 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–thump of pistons. It’s the Boston-Nantasket steamer and she hasn’t slowed down in the least and is navigating blind through the fog of heavy rain and is coming straight at me.
“Are you 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 itself, hissing as it comes like an oversized Costa Rican Ctenosaur lizzard. And just when I’m about to dive away from it like Huck and Jim, 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 troughs that come at intervals too close for recovery. But the old tub refuses to sink. A line of portholes on the steamer rushes by. One of them is open. A boy about eight peers through, staring at me open-mouthed and wide-eyed. The great hull shields me temporarily from the wind. It’s like a Melville moment of mother whales and calves circling below in a quiet green deep. I see a man, close up, standing at the stern of the steamer, out of sight from the other passengers. About my age, in his middle 80’s, that is, 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 admonition. 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–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. Nor an unbalanced catboat to keep me from drowning.