Mother Backwards

By Andrés Neuman
Translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn
This story first appeared in The Coffin Factory, issue 3

I entered the hospital dying of hatred and wanting to give thanks. How fragile is rage. We might shout, hit, spit at a stranger. The same person to whom – depending on their verdict, depending on whether they tell us what we are anxious to hear – we might suddenly express our admiration, or hug, or swear an oath of loyalty. And it would be genuine, that love.

I entered without thinking anything, thinking about not thinking. I knew that my mother’s present, my future, depended on the toss of a coin. And that that coin was not in my hands and maybe not in the hands of anyone else either, not even those of the doctor. I have always thought that the absence of god liberated us from an unbearable weight. But more than once, I have missed the idea of divine mercy when entering or leaving a hospital. Filled with seats, corridors, hierarchies and ceremonies of hope, silent on their upper floors, hospitals are the closest thing to a cathedral in which we unbelievers may tread.

I entered trying to avoid this kind of reasoning, because I was afraid that I would end up praying like a cynic. I lent an arm to my mother, who so many times had given me hers when the world was enormous and my legs very short. Is it possible to shrink overnight? Can someone’s body turn into a sponge that has soaked up so many fears that it gains in density, while losing volume? My mother seemed shorter, thinner, but nevertheless more laden down than before, as if earthbound. Her porous hand closed over mine. I imagined a child in a bathtub, naked, expectant, squeezing a sponge. And I wanted to say something to my mother, and I didn’t know how to speak.

The proximity of death presses in on us in such a way that we become capable of forgetting our convictions: they ooze from us like a liquid. Is that necessarily a weakness? Perhaps it is the ultimate strength: to arrive where we never suspected we would arrive. Death hones our attention. It awakens us twice over. The first night I spent with my mother when she was admitted to hospital, or when she was admitted into some zone of herself, a suspicion was confirmed in me: that certain loves cannot be returned. However much a son repays his parents, there will always remain a debt, shivering with cold. I have heard it said – I myself have repeated it – that no one asks to be born. But to be born because of another’s will commits us even more: someone has made us a gift. A gift which, as is usually the case, we have not requested. The only consistent way of rejecting it would be to commit suicide at once, without the least complaint. And no one who accompanies his ailing mother, his shrunken mother, to hospital, would think about taking his own life. Which was given by her.

From what sickness did my mother suffer? It doesn’t matter now. It is the least of our concerns. A sickness that had her walking like a little girl, step by step drawing closer to the awkward creature she had been at the beginning of time. She confused the names and function of her fingers as if caught up in an indecipherable game. She mixed up words. She could not go forward in a straight line. She was doubled over like a tree that doesn’t trust its branches.

We entered the hospital, we never stopped coming in, that threshold was a country, a border within another border, and we kept entering the hospital, and someone tossed a coin and the coin fell. It is so basic that reason breaks down. An illness has its phases, its precedents, its causes. The fall of a coin, on the other hand, does not have a history or any shades of meaning. It is an event that uses itself up, resolves itself alone. Memory can suspend the coin, protract its ascent, recreate the tiny vacillations it makes during its parabola. But these ruses will only be possible after it has fallen. The original movement, the flight of the coin, takes place in an absolute present. And no one – this I now know – no one is capable of speculation while watching a coin fall.

The sponge, she said. Move the sponge a little higher, my mother said, sitting in the bathtub in her room. Up, there, the sponge, she urged me, and I was struck by the effort she had to make in order to utter such a simple phrase. And I moved the sponge over her back, drew circles on her shoulders, ran the sponge over the scapula, down the spinal column, and before finishing I wrote on her damp skin the phrase that I had not known how to say before, when, together, we crossed the border.
Andrés Neuman was born in 1977 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Neuman was selected as one of Granta’s The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists and was elected to the Bogotá-39 list. His fourth novel, Traveler of the Century, was the winner of the Alfaguara Prize and the National Critics Prize, Spain’s two most prestigious literary awards, and has been translated into ten languages; the English translation was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2012.

Richard Gwyn is a poet, translator, and award-winning author of two novels, The Colour of a Dog Running Away and Deep Hanging Out. His work has appeared in over a dozen languages. His most recent book, a memoir, is The Vagabond’s Breakfast (2011) and his next is a book of translations from Spanish: A Complicated Mammal: Selected Poems of Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, due in September.

The Coffin Factory is a literary magazine that publishes phenomenal fiction, essays, and art three times a year. In addition to Andrés Neuman (featured in issues 1 and 3), The Coffin Factory has published Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Simic, James Franco, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Roberto Bolaño, Milan Kundera, José Saramago, Edwidge Danticat, and Justin Taylor (among others). The Coffin Factory can be found online at, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

“A Hell of One’s Own,” by Andrés Neuman (Coffin Factory, issue 1)

An excerpt from Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century