Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
María Ospina’s debut novel, Solo un poco aquí (Just a little here), explores how animals move across the landscapes that humans transform. Through the stories of these non-human beings, Ospina forces us to meet each animal’s gaze and asks us to be curious about how they might feel and what they might think.
Ospina speculates about the journeys of these animals, which include two abandoned dogs who find solace in each other’s company in Bogotá until one is taken to the countryside; an orphaned porcupine who has to survive on human milk and ends up in a shelter far from the mountains of her birth; a beetle who has just emerged from the dirt and gets very lost; and the one highlighted here, a migratory tanager who is flying from Connecticut to a cloud forest in the Colombian Andes, surviving disorienting lights, razed forests, and other human-made disasters.
The journey is southward and also ascending. Accompanying the jungle as it climbs the first buds of the cordillera. Rising along the impatient layers from deep in the earth that have stretched to scrape the heavens for thousands of years. The tanager gathers the misty air under his wings, tenses his tail feathers, and aims the crown of his head toward the heights in order to gradually climb the thrusting surface of earth, carpeted by thick forests and clouds that announce the end of the lowlands. As if his wings welcomed those tenacious folds. Perhaps when he feels the world wrinkle he intuits that he is nearing the canopy where he will finally be able to rest for a few months.
At dawn, when he is assaulted by fatigue, he will need to find shelter among the root graveyards that interrupt the forest. Will he notice that the landscape was greener and more wooded on his last migration? Will sadness overtake him? None of the lone trees clinging to life in the meadows of cattle or crops seem to appeal. He flaps his wings until he finds a bit of thick tree cover that has survived amid the carved-out cliffs at the foot of Dabeiba, a town that peeks out among mountains staring one another down. He enters an ancient forest that slopes toward a deep ravine. From high in the branches, he can see the first rays of light announcing the strange hour when humans long for more night but the cosmos refuses.
Bursts of machine-gun fire echo nearby. Maybe he interprets the sound as thunder from a windless storm and concludes that he must first attend to his hunger and thirst, nourish his fading life force. When the helicopter passes, buffeting the humid calm of the canopy, the tanager suspends his hunt so that he can tighten his grip on a branch and fight the blast of wind until the machine finally moves on. Despite the disarray of his feathers, perhaps he feels relief when he hears the clamor of the forest again, hears the cicadas and the crickets again, though the gunfire continues on a neighboring mountain.
Then, interrupting his breakfast, a small plane arrives with its din and its drizzle of fine, white rain. Most of the poison falls on the crops but some also reaches the trees that survived the logging, where the tanager is resting, as a toxic dew that burns flesh and clouds eyes. A spray that leaves wings sticky and coats berries, changing the flavor of things and stinging the tongue. An acrid puddle staining the iron that has, for ages, mingled gently with the water. A cutting bitterness. Pain, maybe?
Perhaps when he feels the world wrinkle he intuits that he is nearing the canopy where he will finally be able to rest for a few months.
Everything begins to chitter again as the small plane flies off. The bug-hungry bird makes his way over to the riverbank, to a ceiba tree that must be hundreds of years old. Perhaps the noise of the water lapping the rocks drowns out the voices of a little girl, her mother, and her dog, who have stopped nearby to wash off the poison. The mother steps out of the river and lets the water drip out of her clothes while she kicks at the stones in a rage.
“Now I know why the striped owl sang last night.”
“What did it say, ma?”
The girl lifts the reluctant dog and carries it into the water with her.
“They announce danger. You telling me no one taught you that? It’s infallible. I just thought your auntie’s cancer was getting worse. Should have known it was those army sonsabitches come to spray our crop.”
The girl wonders what infallible means.
“But what if we wash the leaves, ma?”
“The damage is done, love. The coca will die before sunset. Everything around it is screwed just as bad, you’ll see. That’s how it is with those bastards the government sends. They come and destroy everything, just like that.”
“Let’s find a toucan, then.”
The girl’s grandfather recently told her that drinking water out of any container from which a toucan had sipped would bring good luck, and she’d gotten into the habit of trying to cheer her mother whenever she saw her get angry over things that should have made her sad.
“Listen to you.”
“I’m being serious, ma. Haven’t you seen toucans around here? If they live in these trees, then I’m sure they come down here to drink from the river. We can drink some of this water here and I know it’ll fix everything. Or at least make things a little better. What do you say?”
“Don’t even think about drinking that water right now. They might be spraying upstream, where all those crops are. Anyway, I haven’t seen a toucan around here for a long time.”
“Do the planes scare them off?”
The mother doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells her daughter to go look for hummingbirds. She has taught her that seeing them in flight can improve your fate.
Upstream, the tanager splashes himself uneasily in a shallow pool formed by the river. Perhaps he feels lighter after washing off the resin caked on his feathers and the bitter smell of the poison that covered him. Downstream, the girl walks along the rocks, scouring the trees until she gets tired of finding nothing but mosquitos, butterflies, and wasps. When the din of a helicopter she knows means war finally fades into the distance, she hears so much chirping that she’s certain one of those birds must be the kind that tells of good things to come.
”That’s how it is with those bastards the government sends. They come and destroy everything, just like that.”
Months later, after mother and daughter have padlocked their home, abandoned their shriveled crop, sold the cow and two chickens, and taken the dog to live with an aunt in Medellín, the girl will think every night about the forest where she played hide and seek with her cousins and the river she visited until the day of the poison. She will recall the sound of its rushing waters when she goes to the Parque de los Pies Descalzos with her mother to sell candies and cell phone minutes. The excitement of the city kids splashing barefoot in the fountains will seem ridiculous to her. She will want to brag that she once lived next to a real river, to tell them there are toucans and hummingbirds there, and that this park is nothing compared to the currents she knew back home. In the end, though, she will just stare at them angrily from the street corner.
At one point, she will come across a real toucan in the wild animal sanctuary where her teachers at the foundation for displaced children will take her on a field trip. Before this unsettling vision, she will see other creatures that escaped the devastation. She will feel relieved that the jaguar gnawing on a bone seems happy not to be the pet of a drug lord anymore, even though his new landscape is also fenced in. And that the sloth seems to be at peace, even though the truck that ran him over left him with only three paws. That the seven morrocoy turtles can swim to their hearts’ content in the sanctuary’s channels after years of living in jars and crates. That the iguana can deftly climb an orange tree instead of spending her days trying to ignore the rocks thrown at her through the bars of her cage in a hotel in Capurganá. That the capuchin monkeys, especially the one whose hand had been mutilated, are swinging from branches instead of being chained to the arms of the men who tried to sell them along the road in Urabá. That the macaw with the broken beak no longer needs to face his executioner or dream of breaking free from the cord that bound him for so long to a metal bar. That the orange-winged parrots can take solace, as they wait to be freed again, in the trees that grow under the netting, after surviving weeks of darkness inside boxes slamming against one another in trucks and on small planes; that they’d escaped the fate of being sent to Europe in the cargo hold of a ship loaded with sugar.
Only at the end, when the girl is looking for a place to sit and cry, will she see her perched on the branch of a cashew tree, her huge beak bursting shameless from her yellow face. A sword that seems like pure artifice, as if the bird’s body existed only to support that riot of color. In awe, the girl will press herself against the bars of the cage to watch her shred a papaya while mocking any notion of camouflage. She will admire the red, orange, and blue spots that interrupt the green of her beak, as if new colors were about to be born there, colors she’d never seen before. She will wonder if someone has painted the fine lines that cross it and whether the bird drinks blood every day to keep its tip that shade of crimson. She will think of that beak as shears to cut even the strongest flower: a magical box, a queenly blade. She will envy that bright case, which protects a long tongue able to taste whatever it desires, something she cannot do.
A sword that seems like pure artifice, as if the bird’s body existed only to support that riot of color.
She will listen, rapt, as the guide explains that this female toucan, now named Guapa, was found early that year in the parking lot of a Medellín shopping mall. She will ask when they are going to release her and will be sad to learn that the bird wouldn’t be able to survive in the forest after living in the city for so long.
“Could somebody adopt her?”
The guide will laugh. Then the girl will search desperately for the dish where the bird dips her colors but will not find it. She will feel an intense desire to drink the water that has touched that beak, a fierce hunger to tear it off and scratch her skin with it, caress the world with it, mixing juices. She will think that when she is older, she will get a job rescuing stolen animals, saving wild animals from the people who snatched them from the forests to sell them without permission. That night, she will tell her mother that she wants to be a police officer who specializes in protecting living creatures, not the kind that destroys crops. What she will not reveal (afraid that her mother will dash her hopes) is that she wants to do this work so she can one day rescue a toucan from its wrongful captivity and drink the miraculous water transformed by its beak. To bring their good luck back.
Upstream, between clasped branches and smashed fruits, the tanager moves farther and farther from the woman and her daughter. Once he is sated, he twists and fans his wings to dig around in his feathers to remove the parasites that have settled there along the way. The girl and her mother wait all afternoon in the drizzle beside the foamy riverbank, bored of slapping away mosquitos, until the sound of helicopters is finally replaced by the hooting of owls. Only then do they set out with the dog for their poisoned home. As if all that thundering had broken his momentum, the tanager spends another day brushing his small body against the rebel foliage of that forest where everything pulses and bears witness. Perhaps he is confused by the war, which still echoes nearby. By its strong wind, which doesn’t smell like the leaves or flutter them gently from below. Its strange smoke. Its intermittent din. Its white liquid.