The following is from Gabriela Ponce’s Blood Red. Ponce is a writer, playwright and theater director, as well as a professor of performing arts at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. Her previous books include a collection of stories, Antropofaguitas, the novel Sanguínea (Severo Editorial), which was awarded the Gallegos Lara prize by the Municipality of Quito for Best Novel of the Year, and Solo hay un jardín: en el fondo de todo hay un jardín (La Caída editorial) a compilation of her plays.
I won’t give details about the retreat, but there is something I’ll try to narrate. I could start with the anecdotal: I cried for three days, this fondness of mine for crying. But I also can’t say that this cry was just a cry. It could have been the meticulous sound of the phagocytosis. Of a pain that fed off me to become something else. The similarity and difference of this pain that came back to me in disconnected moments, as if the nucleus of my being began to violently disintegrate, showing me there wasn’t anything: no center, no possibility of identifying myself. I hated and loved understanding this is what happens, love gave way to hatred, forging love always meant forging hatred, fucking hell, but it isn’t so simple to differentiate the two in this amalgam, you get lost. There’s something concrete around this cry that eludes anecdote. Something like a revelation that took place not in the thoughts that stray but in the colorful flesh or substance, I don’t know. We were in the middle of the jungle. A wild place. At a retreat that wasn’t spiritual or experiential or any of that bullshit. I don’t know what it was, I still can’t say what it was about. Or what the leftovers of my blood in a delicate screen that functioned as a filter in the latrine meant. A clump of coagulated blood on the screen, my fingers grabbing it so it wouldn’t clog the plumbing and burying it in the grass. There wasn’t a bathroom. There wasn’t a shower. No amenities. I’d started bleeding again, like I bled back then: gushing and not understanding how losing so much blood was normal and wasn’t killing me. In my catastrophic fantasies, those that occupied a large part of my interior world, those that if they were to stop would mean the end of everything, because I am catastrophic fantasizing, I imagined emptying out, turning pale, and dying from so much blood leaving my vagina. I imagined my wake, my burial, the lives of others continuing without me, and the pleasureful image of being idealized and supreme revived me. I really bled solid. Pieces of me that had solidified in ways I couldn’t understand, chunks of entrails that left the sensation of a hole inside me. It seemed like nothing was left after each period, but then it would come back the following month and dismember me with pieces that sometimes became dust, sometimes those pieces were dry red dust that I watched accumulate like a mountain of sand on my white pads. I woke up that first morning of the retreat and felt the blood come, but the blood flowed not only with that intensity but also a deep repressed sensation like opening a door and feeling the storm, the hail that again nears and that is going to come in kicking the body, ripping open ancient wounds, breaking mugs and glasses, vomiting little white acid pills on those wounds to scratch the skin so that everything is then blood on blood. When the pain came on like that, I was scared. The flow had a strength that opened holes in the ground and made me look down from the shame and pleasure. This time everything could be worse, exacerbated by the immense landscape, open, incapable of containing anything. I thought about grabbing my things and running away. I was used to running. I didn’t run. With the tears pouring out in seas with the same force as the blood and hail, I woke María, who was sleeping in the next bed, and a grimace formed on my lips. I think it was the expression of a scream or horror because she grabbed my arm and said let’s go to the river. We walked and upon stepping into the wildness of the northwestern jungle wearing shorts and boots that slid uncontrollably in the wet mud, because on top of everything, it was raining, I thought about thousands of things, again the maddening wandering thoughts, spraying images, feeling my knees shake and a spiral forming in my throat, slipping and getting up, accumulating the past like an inevitable future. The desolation on the tips of my hard nipples, the fear mounting in my coccyx. We reached the bank, and I stripped, covering my chest with my hands and crying about something so serious I could barely think about it, something so serious it became neutral, something that wasn’t still or moving and had always existed. This pain precedes me, I thought. And that thought was immediately followed by another—it’s the women—but the image of the neutral prevailed again. It wasn’t a man or a woman or me. This pain is a monster, I thought. I tried to name it again, but the incessant repetition returned. This pain precedes me, again, like a mantra, this pain precedes me, and while I tried to think to reach some sort of calm in the origin of that evil, I was met with the image of a nucleus splitting open in a pebble touching the crest of a wave that, in the moment, formed in the river, coming from who knows where. María grabbed my hand and put me in the freezing water, washing the snot and tears that streamed down my naked body and poured from my holes, I knelt down, balancing on a rock, and María’s hands grabbed the soap and started on my back while saying words like a slow song and caressed my buttocks with a piece of soap or with her hand, maybe it was her hand with a leaf or maybe it was just her hand with mud. She moved down my thighs and stopped, we both looked at the blood, and then she gently touched my pubic hair and continued over my breasts, softly moving aside my hand, she touched my nipples and then my neck and continued over my hair, my long, knotted hair between her fingers, untangling leaves lodged in it. Me, crying even harder and grabbing my vagina, she, saying strange little words, the blood like a distant tributary painting the water, stones, wet leaves. She hugged me and we sank into the water, me touching her wavy hair, she squeezing my waist, feeling her firm buttocks, resting my arms on her back, surrounding our bodies in water, calming my blood and me with her, everything coming together far from thought. Immense, the sky. What bodies do together when they touch, when fingers slide through holes and caress creased, fragile textures, volumes, and stains, moistening the reddest parts with white fingertips. The pleasure of touch. The water flowing in my holes along with those fingers to soften my organs. That afternoon, after one of the retreat’s collective therapy sessions, we returned to the river, this time farther away from camp, where the tributary formed a waterfall. The two of us went back with a Frenchman who had a silent beauty concentrated in his eyes. When beauty is silent, when it doesn’t manifest itself but is always hiding, the gleam seeps in and bursts out in swift, sudden flashes; this makes me dizzy and then nervously laugh. The three of us went to the river. Laughing with the same thickness with which I’d cried that morning, I thought about getting in the water again, but I was so embarrassed by the blood that I stayed on the bank while they submerged themselves and swam to the waterfall and felt the velocity of the vertical water on their heads. Their bodies moved between laughs that multiplied and were thousands of laughs, they were the laughs of everything, they were the laughs of the rocks I was sitting on and whose vibration aroused and moved me and those two incompatible sensations accelerated my legs that were entering the water, far from the other two, vibrating, because sensation is always vibration, the man from the cave had told me when he explained rhythm and got lost in the depths of a musical thought in which breath, that’s what he called it, gave origin to all forms of movement. María’s body was bony and long and coincided with the roundness of the Frenchman’s body, it coincided in opposition (or in synchronicity, I don’t know). They were different but coinciding bodies. I pictured their mouths kissing and everything made perfect sense, especially in terms of rhythm. The jealousy I had felt toward her for years, for the carelessness with which she carried her beauty (especially her hair), became admiration. I did everything for her to love me and then, when my hair was something like her hair and her fingers also donned big rings like mine, I already loved her and she loved me and I could no longer distinguish what was mine and what was hers and that later led us to hatred and luckily back to love, but this story isn’t relevant right now. In that moment she and the Frenchman were also me in the river. I remembered then what that morning, amid the desolation, in that slow litany, she had asked me to observe: the disorder of everything, that’s what she’d said, observe the forms, please, their disordered appearance, and she named them one by one:
Tree, stone, river
vine, fish, finger
arm, face, air
sky, bird, leaf
and all those words sounded like a song or a poem or like the conjunction and that was the reason for being or the possibility of being of the things, of the leaves and the air and her finger in that moment, carefully rubbing the borders of my interior. She always talked a lot and much of what she said, above all when she made an effort, I found rather banal, but when she lost the seriousness, she was capable of saying things that surprised and elucidated me, and that morning, that recitation of things while she touched me had concluded with a phrase that alluded to the existence of something mysterious, that’s how she said it, something that traverses the world, that traverses the leaf but doesn’t kill it. That idea had calmed my spirit, and in the afternoon, watching her body receive the crash of water next to another body, it became an ineffable revelation, like every revelation is. A thought escaping from the loss to anchor itself in a single image. It wasn’t the experience of unity, nor was it the experience of dissolution, nor was it the conjunction allowing itself, everything, to be, but a multiplication and a derailment. That’s what we were. I felt in that moment the multiplication like an echo of the stone in my belly—my belly full of myomas, a doctor telling me I won’t be able to have children—and I also felt the pleasure of the forms and the deviations between the forms and their names. I held my gaze on a tree and savored the word leaf. The leaves, that green made from the earth, from the roots and exposed in so many shapes in the air. Material that’s always immersed in another material: intimacy stronger than contiguity and conjunction. To say it like that isn’t precise, either. It sounds pretentious and elemental and confused, but it’s true that those sensations led me to say a phrase I remember exactly: I want to start over. I immediately knew it was impossible and sank into the water strangely feeling a relief that made me float and breathe lying atop the water, finally not afraid.
From Blood Red by Gabriela Ponce, translated by Sarah Booker. Used with permission of the publisher, Restless Books. Copyright 2020 by Gabriela Ponce. Translation copyright 2022 by Sarah Booker.