.Animals at the End of the World (University of Texas Press, 2020) is the debut novel by Colombian author Gloria Susana Esquivel, translated by Robin Myers. The poetic and poignant coming-of-age story is told through the eyes of six-year-old Inés as she navigates the adult world of her grandparents’ confined house with her only friend, the maid’s daughter Mariá. After escaping the house together, the girls confront the “animals” that populate Bogotá in the 1980s, facing the outer world and the even greater mysteries of family life.
I lived with my mother in my grandparents’ house: a confusing Chinese box where I frittered away the infinite hours of childhood playing hide-and-seek with myself.
My grandparents had moved to the city three decades before with enough capital to expand their business. They bought the house, which at the time was an archetype of the modern architecture invading the city. They decorated it in strict accordance with the catalogues, and they never worried about whether long leather couches or faux wood finishing on every kitchen cabinet and appliance would ever be fashionable again. There they raised their six children: three boys and three girls, who constantly rebelled against the subtle stasis that their parents had imposed on them.
Nothing and no one aged in that house: not the furniture, not Julia, not my grandparents. My uncles, on the other hand, spent their childhoods and youths papering the desk in their shared bedroom with stickers from World Cup albums they patiently collected every four years, and they searched Müller’s weathered face for any evidence that time had actually passed. Meanwhile, my mother and her sisters devoted themselves to collecting dozens of suitors, who would walk back and forth in front of the house, waiting for my grandfather to step out so they could sneak into that strange museum. For three decades, the children moved around like restless particles, resisting repose. They started and finished their studies, acquired and abandoned vices, formed and splintered families, made all the wise and ill-fated decisions it was possible to make inside the house. Then they left and never came back.
Except for Mom. She did come back. After her marriage ended and she lost her job as a flight attendant, she reappeared on the doorstep of her childhood home, baby in tow, and asked my grandmother for help in raising me. And so I started growing up inside this strange, infinite labyrinth, observing my mother’s long siestas under the silence and heavy surveillance of my grandparents and Julia.
On the second floor were the three bedrooms that my aunts and uncles once shared, gradually left vacant as each one made his or her escape. I reconquered these territories. Rarely visited by my grandparents, this part of the house was more like a cemetery for incomplete furniture. It was there that I learned to play alone, accompanied by nothing but a bed base with no mattress that no one had ever reclaimed, collecting the bits of fluff that accumulated on the empty, sloping shelves of an unstable library.
My grandfather’s studio, the kitchen, and my grandmother’s deck were also located on this floor. Their ceilings were all glass, which meant that you could always see the color of the sky. The bedroom I shared with my mother was right next to the kitchen, and we were wakened every morning by Grandma’s blackbirds. You could only reach the deck by cutting across the kitchen, and you could only go up to my grandparents’ bedroom, on the third floor, by cutting across the deck. In this way, our room, the blackbirds’ room, and my grandparents’ room were connected like a set of residential train cars that sequestered us from the vastness of the house.
Downstairs was another world and never a wholly familiar one. Every corner of the first floor contained a secret, a nook, a cupboard, a hallway, or a staircase that didn’t seem to lead anywhere at all. The front door opened onto a bone-white hall where my grandparents hosted their parties. A chandelier, hung with hundreds of tear-shaped crystals that swayed menacingly overhead, gleamed onto a mottled stone floor. The walls were draped with enormous tapestries depicting romantic Indian scenes: abducted princesses, shirtless musicians strumming their lyres, prancing dancers, all lit by the white light winking out from the glass tears overhead. A record player occupied one corner of the hall; atop it was the horrible collection of porcelain clowns that
my grandmother sometimes offered me as extras in the games starring my dolls. Behind this space was a series of corridors, vectors that connected the first-floor rooms. And all of those rooms were faded copies of the vast white entrance hall: the only difference was the size of the tapestries, the lamp, and the clowns, which were randomly smaller or larger in each of the subsequent rooms. But their arrangement was always designed as a macabre mirror of the first.
No matter how many times I wandered the hallways, something kept me from remembering which corridor led to which corner, which cranny, which room. Whenever I turned a doorknob, I felt the surging anxiety of an unpleasant surprise. Searching for the guest room, for example, I’d find myself in the middle of my grandmother’s sewing room. My greatest fear was the thought that, just as each room was a tattered copy of the main hall, the house might also contain different copies of me.
I imagined stumbling across another fragile little blonde girl behind one of those doors. Her skin was gray and dry. Her pupils were albino-blank. She lived in one of the first-floor rooms. She was one of my doubles and I was terrified that I might encounter her someday. But despite my fear, I played at trying to find her. I suspected that this particular nightmare encoded one of the house’s greatest secrets, and I knew I’d have to be brave and look the other girl in the eyes, which were also my eyes. I tiptoed down the hall, not making a sound, so she wouldn’t sense me creeping up on her. Maybe she was in the guests’ living room or hidden deep inside my grandparents’ liquor cabinet. I approached with the silence of a huntress patiently studying her prey, and I slipped around the corners where I suspected she might be lurking. Sometimes my grandmother caught me in this game of single-player hide-and-seek, and she shouted at me to break the trance: Inés! Stop crawling around on the floor. You’re wrinkling your dress. Those aren’t games for a little girl. And I fled to the second floor, relieved, abandoningany chance of encountering my gloomy reflection, atleast for that day.
Julia’s bedroom was also located in one of those confusing parts of the house. It was a large space completely crammed with furniture, and it had a bathroom and one of the few windows that looked onto the outside world. The two beds, bedside tables, dresser, and desk that occupied the room, all jigsaw-puzzled around each other, were transformed during the day as she went about her household tasks. They became mountainous paths or colossal boulders I scaled to seek refuge from a floor that I imagined as covered in lava, or boogers, and which I forbade myself from touching with my feet. On her windowsill were various flowerpots filled with Peruvian lilies and petunias that shone in the midday light as it spread across the yellow walls—the only glimpse of color I remember on the first floor of the house. This made her bedroom one of my favorite places, especially when it stopped raining. I’d sprawl out in the sun, imagining that my body was covered with little purple membranes, and I’d follow the current of my dream in hopes that I’d wake metamorphosed into a lily, and then I’d practice meticulously moving my fingers, which were now leaves and petals, like a set of pincers to entrap flies, dust, and any other object that dared drift close to me.
I was Inés, decorative plant. Inés, house pet. Inés, porcelain animal, lost in the infinite recesses of the house and its silence.
The house was also inhabited by the beast, which always woke when I wasn’t paying attention. Sometimes, when I was hiding from my double, I’d get disoriented in the corridor that led to one of the sewing rooms, open the wrong door, and find myself face to face with it. Furious. Panting. Demanding silence and cursing the fact that it couldn’t find peace in its own house. I’d close the door very carefully and carry on with my games, leaving the beast to its rage, knowing it was best to leave it alone. After all, since I didn’t speak beast, any word or gesture of mine could be misinterpreted and unleash roars and thumps that would leave my knees trembling.
No matter how hard I tried to study its behavior or anticipate its attacks, it remained utterly unpredictable to me. Julia saw its wrath as a runaway horse galloping furiously over the hills, never gauging the speed and strength of its hoofs, stopping only when it found a place to rest. She shrewdly counseled me to get out of its way whenever I heard it snort and shout about important papers, my messy room, or how ridiculous it was that a girl my age didn’t talk. Unintelligible reproofs. Muffled bellows in what sounded to me like a foreign language.
If I was unlucky enough to cross its path, it would bare its teeth and unhinge its jaw. It would bring its canines very close to my face and threaten to swallow me up. I could sense its insatiable hunger for my flesh.
It was enormous.
Poised to attack.
Strong enough to snatch me into the air with a single swipe and rattle my bones.
It seemed incensed by my very presence. It howled and flashed its terrible teeth, ready to snap at my fingers, and I quickly dropped my gaze, terrified that it would trap me in its jaws.
When we gathered at the table, the beast bristled at how slowly I ate and sat close beside me, teeming with impatience. It gripped spoonfuls of rice or soup in its beast-hands and fed me violently. The metal struck and scraped the roof of my mouth, and I gagged against the mass of food. I hurried to swallow my disgust, awaiting the next swiftly approaching spoonful. If I froze or threw up a little, the beast would grunt with exasperation and stalk off: I was a lost cause, it would shout. Or it would seize the plate and toss it over my head, engulfing me in pasta sauce or oatmeal, and sit there staring at me. Maybe it expected me to talk back, to yell, to reach out and give it a thwack. But I felt paralyzed by its rage, and I’d just fix my gaze on something in the kitchen, my belly cold and quivering.
I collected my fear in my mouth, along the edge of my loosest teeth, and I stifled my screams. I accepted its smacks and clouts. Some on the head. Others on my body. And I imagined myself completely sheathed in firm, hard-wearing, copper-plated armor, a full-body shield that could cushion any blow. The metal plates resounded with every muted shout. They transformed the blows into a conspiratorial echo that rumbled through the house like thunder.
But there were other times when the beast and I kept each other company in silence. It stroked my head with clumsy hands as it drank long swigs of whiskey, holding them in its mouth, as in the crop of a giant bird, before releasing the drink to warm its throat. And then it swallowed with a great popping sound and a rush of bitter wood-breath, a sharp smell that mingled with the scent of its aftershave. When it was feeling generous or cheerful, it would offer me a sip, too, insisting that it would soothe the ache in my baby teeth. I’d timidly accept. The alcohol roiled my stomach and made me feel sick. The beast patted me on the back, praising my courage, and took my face into its gargantuan paws to shake it like a snow globe. Laughing, it told me that it had a piece of string in its pocket and it was going to tie one end around the doorknob and the other around my teeth so that they’d all jump out at once and I’d finally be able to show off a new smile. Then it gave me a kiss that coated my cheeks with its sour spittle and walked away, slowly, whistling, paws clasped behind its back.
No matter what sort of state he was in, these moments with my grandfather always left me flooded with a feeling of uncertainty that became a tepid stream of pee I’d allow to escape over my shoes and relieve my fear.
The warm drops would soak through my underpants before they fled and trickled down my legs. It was a yellow pain. Exquisite.
Gloria Susana Esquivel is a journalist, translator and poet. She teaches in the creative writing master’s program at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo in Bogotá and has one published book of poems, El lado salvaje (Cardumen libros, 2016). Animals at the End of the World is her first novel. Her work has appeared in Arcadia, SoHo, Bienestar, Bakánica and Diners magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Revista de Poesía of UNAM, Palabras Errantes magazine and Matera magazine.
Robin Myers is a Mexico City–based translator, poet, and author of Conflations/Amalgama (Antélope, 2016), among other collections published in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. Recent book-length translations include The Restless Dead by Cristina Rivera Garza (Vanderbilt University Press, 2020), Cars on Fire by Mónica Ramón Ríos (Open Letter, 2020), and Animals at the End of the World by Gloria Susana Esquivel (University of Texas Press, 2020). Other work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, The Common, the Harvard Review, Two Lines, Waxwing, Asymptote, and the Los Angeles Review of Books..