I am a mutant, a short story by Camila Oberto
I am a mutant, I know well. A combination of genes that is different from that of my remote past and of the past-which-is-only-just-gone-by, as D. H. Lawrence called it, that intermediate period of time that still hovers unresolvedly in my background. And unlike the joining and merging of yesterday’s storm of emotions too, which, however, changed my stability—yes, I am different from my yesterday self too.
I’m disrupted, unplugged. And all my efforts to reach a stable configuration result only in a new volatile form, like the one of today. This mutation, and much more besides, reflects badly on my body. I was a ranunculus, I remember. And now I am a wild olive tree, still not old but dried out and convoluted.
We emerged from the pinewoods and were suddenly in front of the sea. And my father said: “Here we are. Three days of travel, thousands of kilometres, but finally we’ve reached the ocean.”
My mother breathed in deeply, pretending she formed a whole with nature, and that the iodine breeze, if any, could cancel the tensions of those days, the problems and the reasons that had forced our trip together. My brother Marco and I, two badly formed ranunculi, stayed silent, overwhelmed by the immensity of the panorama.
“Agoraphobia,” my mother whispered in an intense voice.
And then she repeated: “Agoraphobia,” as if she wasn’t scared but was searching for a sort of drug able to obnubilate her senses.
“What?” my father asked. “Can you imagine anything more impressive? The gate of the North Sea jerks open here, in Brittany. Those waves down there come from Iceland, from the Pole…” He looked at us: “Children, was it worth it?”
A fog of millions of microdrops, and sand and salt climbed up the cliff and we were lost, in a blink.
Was it worth it?
Something has been missing for twenty-five years, nothing else than an absence or a fog, and I’m now here again, leaning over the ocean, I don’t know why. Maybe not in the exact lookout of my youth—everything has changed, the pinewoods too, which is not a pinewoods actually but a number of tall, sparse and blown-by-the-wind pines—but the panorama is the same, as well as the feeling, the meaning of the word “agoraphobia” and the question: was it worth it?
Maybe it was the fog, I guess, a radioactive fog that embraced me and modified my predisposition. I simply gave up; maybe this is the answer. And the mist reset everything. Brittany was a magnet, I understand, the right place to detonate my parents’ marriage, to throw all of us through the false window of our family, and to erase my solidity, if any.
Youth is a horrible laboratory. My double-stranded DNA was different then, when I was unable to understand, when I took the fog for granted, with its respirable particles and discolouration.
“I’ve been living here,” my mother told me three days ago, “for twelve years.” Twelve years without meeting her?
She continued, mercilessly: “In this greyness of Rostock, far from the Bavaria of our past, from your voices, the colours, the hills. Always pretending to see the ocean, while this sea—look from this window—is only a puddle of regrets and distance.”
“Why?” I asked. And I was sincere, and naive, and stupid. “You had a house in Passau.” I paused. “Our house.” It was our border house; that was what we called it before the disaggregation of our family, since it was built barely one hundred metres from the Austrian border.
She went on, smoking her third cigarette: “Can you imagine how strong the call of your own children is, when they have left?”
“I was…” I didn’t finish my phrase.
“Yes,” she butted in on my indecision, “you were elsewhere. I know; it wasn’t your fault after all. But Marco was dead, in Passau.” She paused for a while, inhaling the smoke strongly. “I couldn’t stand that place any longer.”
She asked, “Do you understand?” but I knew that she was not dealing with me. She was searching for a self-consolation or rather a self-acquittal. She used to live alone, and speak to herself.
I looked at Marco, as the fog was rapidly rising up to us. He was two years younger than me. I have hazy memories of his face. Though, I remember his need for love. He was a rascal, a rebel because he needed a mother and a father. And also during that car trip, he bothered us, on every occasion, in every hotel and gasoline station, in every restaurant. But my mother was only concerned with the terrible task of relating to my father back then. And my father, instead, had other horizons, other dreams to pursue. For him, the family was quite a burden, well represented by that annoying and incomprehensible child. He wanted to reach Brittany and go beyond…
I grasped Marco’s hand, and for a long moment we were alone, suspended over the vacuum. I remember the sound of the waves down there, and the massive taste of saltiness. We were alone. His hand was cold as if it was made of wax…
I felt the same density, the same touch when he was in the morgue of the Passau hospital. An overdose of heroine, they told the two of us, my mother and me. My father was in Marbella with his new family, and didn’t come.
I pampered Marco with tenderness, but he wasn’t there any more. His body was a puppet of wax, small, pale and distant. I should have pampered him when he needed me, when I was still a plant with yellow, highly lustrous petals. So lustrous that it seemed they were made of plastic. Did Marco want to get away from plastic?
After going beyond a certain distance, the family doesn’t exist. You cannot pull the rope again and again: it breaks. Our family became distant for each of us, a distant sensation and a mistake. An embarrassing memory too, an inconvenience. Only my mother, I understand now, believed in that utopia, though she handled it to in the wrong way. She had to forget my father and dedicate her love to us, Marco and I—oh, it is so easy to say that now.
Where was I then? Why didn’t I help her?
I was a mutant; it is true. This is the reason. After Marco’s death, I wasn’t a flower or a plant but a semi beast lost in one clinic then the next, immersed in the same mist that had accompanied me on our return from Brittany. A terrible ogre, always starving, dying for lack of something to read: books, books and books again, in a continuous present, out of time and responsibility. A mutant without sense of time, yes. So I read Kafka too and I knew the meaning of his Metamorphosis, surely. And even Camus and his The Stranger. But my mutation was different, no doubt. I was not a large, monstrous insect-like creature or a detached alien. I was a supernatural being, able to fly over the towns and lands, able to understand all the characters and the development of history, and the secret facts and the hidden actions that are behind the scenes. It was enough to read and read, like filling a car with petrol, oh yes, without rest. It was a kind of bulimia, a reading disorder. What splendid feelings sometimes. And what a horrible experience, at other times, when the stories grabbed me by the throat and forced me to learn the chasms of our existence.
A mutant, however, must be courageous, brave; I know. And I rode my own mutation through years and years of reading, forgetting my links, and my mother too.
For this reason, my mother said: “It wasn’t your fault.” However she didn’t add poor girl, or my poor daughter, because, after all, I lived a strange but not bad indeed life.
For seven years I’ve been in the latest clinic, the Bethel Institute, in Bielefeld.
When the radioactivity of the fog lost its energy, I woke one morning without my superpowers. The combination of my genes had once more changed: I was a plant again, an olive tree specifically. And I needed the lash of the wind, and the closeness to the sea.
I went to Rostock, three days ago.
The ferry that goes to Gedser in Denmark had just left the terminal—I don’t know why, but this event seemed to me some work of fate. I was there, near the pier, and everything was too late: my wake, my search for my mother, and my return to my roots. I had bought back my sense of time.
“Why Rostock then?” I asked to my mother.
“I wanted to escape my nostalgia and pull my rope up to its limit,” she answered, lighting her fourth cigarette. “And the limit was just Rostock.” She paused, with pain. “Rostock is the limit, the edge eventually.” She was like I remember her that day in Brittany, a nervous brunette, a quick smile sometimes, her lips in a bitter shape.
“And now?” I asked her.
“And now?” I insisted.
“Will you want to stay here, with me?”
“Yes. Beyond, there is only the low sea, often yellow. There is no ocean. In summer they put beach chairs and multi-coloured umbrella on that brown ground that they call the beach. But, honestly, everything seems grey. The sea too.” She paused again, then added: “It is my world, now, and it is grey without other voices.”
We stayed in silence.
Then she said sadly: “Twelve years.”
“I’ve lost count of…”
“I know, but for me they have been twelve years…”
“And now you want to go away again,” she eventually stated, staring at my eyes. Then she said, tiredly: “You are exactly like your father.”
And I understood that there is not an end, ever.
She still needed the existential and unceasing dialectics with my father and I was her hope, her possibility of starting again. Of course, I had to be like him.
And I was in need of the wind. I desperately longed for the ocean, for the storms that come from Iceland and the Pole, which were able to bend me to their wills. Oh, the magnet was still working and Brittany was calling me. But I’m not like my father was. I don’t want to go beyond. I want to be moulded, pressed and subjugated, right here, only that.
However, I should have kept the way open, a future possibility of sharing our loneliness, instead of being trenchant. “I have to go,” is a cruel phrase actually.
When I woke up, two days ago at dawn, my mother was dead. Some white droll bled from her lips. On the bedside table, a small bottle of sleeping pills, quite empty, was her only message. Otherwise, she seemed very composed in her final rest. She was supine, her head lightly turned to the right.
I got in my old car and drove—without stopping—to somewhere near the Fort du Petit Minou in Brittany, a place that I remembered. In Rue de la Corniche I saw the sparse pinewoods on the left. Then I turned back, parked my car and walked up to the plateau that faces the ocean, and its cliff. This is the right place for a wild olive tree to tackle the wind of noroît, which brings the rain.
I am a mutant. So I’m justified: I don’t have responsibility for my past. I remember what happened, I’m conscious of all that, my brother, my mother… but it was really up to another myself.
I don’t know the order of the tides, but I know the fog. The wind stops suddenly and a great whisper comes from the north-west immensity. A deep breath and the mist rises.
A moment of suspension and I am immersed again, alone, over the vacuum.
Argentinian, temporarily in Hong Kong, she was a journalist and, throughout her career, she has been writing articles mainly dedicated to culture. Her first book in English, which helped her to retrace her roots and revive the link with her homeland, is Aunt Suelita and the Devil’s Project.