Diverse Roots in Two Movements

Federica Consalvi (trans. Beth Fowler)

Autgust 17, 2022


This story first appeared in Issue One of Revista Casapaís in the original Spanish in September, 2021. It is reprinted here in English, translated by Beth Fowler, by kind permission of Revista Casapaís and Federica Consalvi.

The Broken Ceiba

Some trees shout out loud. The ceiba in the garden of my apartment block made a ruckus of the highest order. And it wasn’t the only thing that shouted. The guacharacas cried out from six in the morning, hidden among its branches, which were so dense with leaves and fluffy seed pods that the birds were invisible. Its shade was the perfect spot for a leisurely breakfast, or to while away the time; we kept each other company.

I understand why the neighbours hated my tree. Its thick, barb-studded trunk was just a taster, hinting at the size of its roots, which stretched as far as the edge of the slope and threatened to erupt through the soil. Its tall and noisy branches obstructed the best view of the city. I was so enthralled by them I had forgotten what it was they blocked out. The ceiba and its ruckus were the only things the gardeners and landscapers had been unable to tame during their backyard maintenance of the building. Neither the tree nor the dawn-loving guacharacas.

It survived twenty-three rainy seasons. Each time one came to an end, the tree would become even more luxuriant, more rebellious. It was almost as old as I was. One year, I was away from home when the downpours started and my neighbours reported that the ceiba was spilling over the edge of the drop. The earth could no longer take its weight. It was on the verge of collapsing on to the road that led down towards the city centre. There was nothing else for it, they said, they had to cut it down to a stump, no more than forty centimetres. I wasn’t present at the mutilation.

Whether it made a crash as it fell, I don’t know. And if it did, it was only to make way for the silence of its new surroundings. All I saw was a few images of the view that had been unveiled to us all: in the background, a city rising up in a valley and in the middle, the broken trunk of my ceiba. I saw it there, ready to dry out in that desolate backyard during the six months of drought that would follow. There was nothing I could do but mourn it. I stopped going to parks to stretch out under the trees. I no longer strolled along leafy avenues. I shut myself away more often than usual in another apartment that didn’t even have an external window, enveloped in an absolute quiet. I couldn’t even contemplate the pair of guacharacas swirling overhead. In fact, to my mind, those birds didn’t exist anywhere but there, where the ceibas grow.

I haven’t been back to that apartment since it happened. I might even say I’ve got used to not thinking about the ceiba, to windows without garden views. A few days ago, while I was eating dinner, I thought I heard a rustling. My neighbour from the old block messaged me to complain that my ceiba was putting down new roots. It was lifting the paving again. The same ceiba they had cut down two years ago because my garden could no longer contain it and it was holding up the traffic on Calle Suapure. I got a strange feeling in my stomach. Something seemed to be sprouting from there and shouting out all through my body. I unfastened my belt because it was pressing on me and I removed my earrings because rust was gathering on my lobes. I cried a bit and felt as though I were watering myself. It’s impossible to contain a ceiba, just as it’s impossible to contain a whole person inside a body. All of a sudden, my own paving was starting to lift at the edges.

The Birth

He closed his eyes, feeling slightly dizzy, unable to identify what was dream and what was real. He felt the urge to touch his belly button, as though a mountaineer had got lost at the base of a Tepui and he had to pull him up to the table-flat mountain top with his fingers. Round the edges, the skin felt smooth and tense beneath the jungle. It occurred to him that he had never cleaned his belly button. In fact, he had no memory of ever consciously touching it at any moment in his life. It struck him as rather alien, something forbidden and unseemly.

Little by little, he inserted his finger towards the centre of his body. He drew light, descending circles that every so often produced tiny shivers. When his skin tingled, he paused to enjoy the weather, a storm of warm water to irrigate him. He soon reached the point where he could descend no farther. Much to his surprise, this wasn’t because he had reached the bottom, but because his finger had come up against a stone, solid and cold. He worked it loose with the help of his thumb and tossed it to the foot of the bed. Then he reinserted his finger and felt another blockage. This time it was compacted earth, which crumbled when he tried to get it out, showering him with its moistness. This distressed him: how could so many things possibly fit into a space as small as a belly button? He had to get out of bed and shake off all the soil. It kept on coming, unstoppable, from the centre of his body. It smelled of fertilizer. It was flooding the room. He was forced to sit atop the mound of earth and search for something to cling on to, just like a ship adrift, on the other side of the world, in the Caspian Sea, searching for a port in which to anchor.

When he thought he had stemmed the haemorrhage of soil, he decided to make sure the belly button was empty. Now there was something firmer inside. He doubled over himself to see if he could identify it and there it was: a little green shoot, tiny and fragile. He tried to catch it between his thumb and forefinger, but couldn’t quite grasp it. His instinct was to push, push it out along with the belly button, even if it meant giving birth to an intestine. He managed to make the tiny green shoot grow a little more. His skin burned. Stretch marks began to appear.

By this stage, he was able to grab hold of the tip and tug on it. Fifteen, thirty, fifty centimetres. A metre. The little branch kept on coming, embedding itself in the soil. He felt the burn, but he couldn’t stop it. On it crept, taking ownership of that borrowed room. It grew bigger and bigger, darker and darker, no more a feeble shoot. With a voracious violence, it became a trunk. There was no space left for it to grow. His belly button became a great, vertigo-inducing, bottomless crevice, cleaving him in two. The trunk was appropriating the skin of his abdomen, merging it with the bark of the tree in that room that no longer felt alien to him.

The trunk broadened and pushed against him, sinking itself into the depths of the earth. He realized that hundreds of trees had been felled just for this one to emerge, for his face to snag on the branches growing furiously toward the roof and to spread amongst all the leaves, which opened suddenly, like the many eyes of Argus in front of Hera. He could feel the breeze shaking its boughs. At the base of the tree, his arms and legs became porous. They blended with the earth and grasped at the floor in mouthless drinking motions. He didn’t know what kind of tree it was. He couldn’t see it. He was inside it.

Federica Consalvi was born in Venezuela in 1988 and now lives in Madrid, where she is completing a Master's in Narrative at the Escuela de Escritores (School of Writers). She has had short stories published by La Rompedora, 2019; Editorial Concordia, 2020; and Revista Casapaís, 2021.

Beth Fowler lives in Scotland and has been a translator from Spanish and Portuguese to English since 2009. She won the Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize in 2010 and since then has translated four novels, several short stories, plays and scripts.