Through the Wasteland

Through the Wasteland

Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water.

    – T. S. Eliot


Lil died just after birth. The umbilical cord curled around her neck, as if she’d been hanged. Lara and Leo sobbed hoarsely in the delivery room, fully aware that the midwife was cutting the umbilical cord between them. The memory made him shiver. He stepped inside to try and calm down. Home was empty of both partner and dog. Except for the library, the place was completely deserted. He noticed his right hand trembling. Fear stayed in his body. When he skipped that stop sign, it had entered the bone. He left the keys in the hall, hung his jacket up on the hook and paused to read the framed letter Dr T. had written over three years ago in the corridor on his way to the lounge.

Dear Sir,

With the information at my disposal, I would like to confirm the prescription of radiotherapy,
 and our ability to take care of Anfortas.

If possible, please come to see us on Wednesday 4 December.

Let us know which time between 9 am and 4 pm would be best.

Yours faithfully,

Doctor T.


A few steps further, he paused nostalgically to re-read a framed poem for the thousandth time. It was the first one he’d given his wife, four years ago, before they were together. He’d bought one of the poems young booksellers copied out to sell by the cash registers in a two-storey bookshop on the Seine’s left bank in Paris’ Latin Quarter. You couldn’t choose your poem; you had to purchase a random envelope to open and read immediately outside. Unfortunately, the place was so crowded with tourists, all traces of Hemingway, Joyce, and company had been lost; so even though the second floor was a library, and it was comforting to see young people making a living typing out old poems on ancient typewriters, he had never returned. His poem turned out to be The Best Thing in the World. Knowing it would make him sad, he recited a few verses out loud:

Truth, not cruel to a friend;

Pleasure, not in haste to end;

Beauty, not self-decked and curled

They had met in a world with no social networks where their professions (translator and writer) meant they corresponded for months before actually seeing each other. Now Leo was suffering from a long bout of writer’s block that left him feeling impotent. Lost in thought, he was slow to notice the sound of the key turning in the lock. She was the only other person with a key to that door, and the cadence of her unlocking was so particular he would have joyously recognised it anywhere. He wasn’t one to parsimoniously, indolently, await her approach, particularly as he was always dying to see her, so they met half-way down the corridor. Despite being nearly 12 years old, their dog still moved with graceful agility. His tail oscillated with metronomic precision, as if silently playing a beautiful piano sonata. Leo bent to stroke its head where the cheekbone was gently sunken by a trigeminal nerve tumour diagnosed after one of the regular MRI scans on the brain tumour last Christmas. He lifted the dog for a kiss and returned him gently to the floor. Lara was busy hanging her jacket in the entrance and swapping black platform boots for fluffy, padded slippers, so she was still in the entrance by the time Leo reached her. He was always surprised at how nervous seeing her made him, no matter how little they’d been apart.

“I was just thinking about you.” Still slightly surprised at having suddenly encountered him, she smiled at his voice.

“And what exactly were you thinking?”

“That you’re a woman without a face.”

“Thanks a bunch.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do!”

They spoke with absolute certainty, stepped towards each other, looked into each other’s eyes and gave a salutary peck on the lips. Their greeting could have been perfectly formal, but it was also a very emotional gesture. The tingling in his right hand disappeared instantly.

It wasn’t the first time Leo confessed loving without knowing the details of her face. Lara was disconcerted. His confession had filled her with immense affection on its first utterance, and that feeling had never faded in all these years. However, she now thought of him as her best friend. This repeated declaration of love, sealed over the years since their relationship began, evoked the web of complex feelings that had invaded and at times stunned, leaving her heart racing like an echo fighting not to fade.

There was no need to ask why he was crazy about her again, in his romantic, foolish, desperate way; in a world where trying to persuade someone that love without irresistible physical attraction is possible, was like preaching in the wilderness. No matter how often he told her, she was still perplexed, and seized the opportunity to delve into the explanation every time they discussed the subject. This time was no exception. He didn’t want her voice to ever stop exciting him, or to become indifferent to the frequency at which they spoke. He’d never met anyone he so wanted to talk to, who wrote so well, who listened to him so carefully and with whom he could enjoy such caring, deep conversation. As they walked down the narrow hall, Leo laced the fingers of his right hand in her left, and ended up hugging her before they reached the lounge.

“What’s wrong?”

His right hand started trembling again, so he released Lara, and raised the head resting on his chest to try and hold her with his left hand.

“I nearly crashed today.”

“What?! You haven’t stopped taking your medication?”

“No, no. I’ve been trembling for a while now. I missed a stop sign.”

“Oooph! How on earth did you manage that? Was something on your mind?”

“I saw you going to a jazz concert at the Chess club last Tuesday… with that pretentious poet. I didn’t know how to tell you. I couldn’t believe you were there… without me. It’s where we met. It’s where I first read your essay.”

“I’m not great at the minute. I get overwhelmed by sadness. I feel so lonely, sometimes. Nothing new, really.”


Leo retired early that evening: he had to get up early. Flight TO7751 left Porto for Orly at 10 a.m. But he didn’t sleep a wink. A few months ago they had stopped chatting in bed until three in the morning. He missed it so much it hurt. Barely touched breakfast. Shut the suitcase packed the night before, checked he hadn’t forgotten anything: his ID, Anfortas’ passport and medication, the flight and accommodation booking references, pet carrier and dog food. Lara cried and hugged the dog. He felt as if he were saying goodbye to them both. He hid behind the bedroom door, trying to calm himself down.

“Come, come in Leo,” something broke in him every time her voice quivered.

They embraced, and Leo tried unsuccessfully to stop his hands slipping off her shoulder blades.

“Have you packed your medicines?” asked Lara, as they slowly pulled apart.

“Yes,” he lied. His fingertips, the last areas of their bodies still touching, let go.

“Please take them. You know I’ll be really worried if you don’t…” She burst into tears again, covering her eyes with her hands.

Guilty, he didn’t have the courage to approach. His only instinct was to try and ease the situation by calming her with a joke: “You know they won’t let me fly the plane.”

It was hard to tell whether Lara was sobbing or laughing now, but she was obviously a little calmer. They had reached a tacit agreement that he would take his medication as prescribed.


Anfortas no longer needed tranquilizers to fly. He had got used to sleeping in the carrier for the duration of the journey. The airline wouldn’t even let him poke his head out of the openings, despite the fact he paid twice as much for his ticket than anyone else. At Orly they took a taxi to their usual hotel in an industrial estate in Créteil. It was just a few hundred meters from the veterinary clinic, and used by workers from the neighbouring factories. Leo had befriended Flebas, a young Phoenician receptionist who used to be a camel herder in the Aral Sea, and who had always treated him like a brother, even inviting him to share couscous with his family at New Year. Leo was still touched by this memory. He hadn’t slept all night, so he lay down on the bed for a long time after saying hello, overwhelmed by nostalgia. They would probably never return. The couscous reminded him of a visit to Belleville, in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, which was now mainly home to the descendants of Algerians and Tunisians saved from drowning in the Mediterranean. As dusk fell, they gathered with their neighbours on the numerous benches and squares on that Parisian hill, where a beer was half what it cost in the rest of the city, and all the restaurants served couscous. A poster on one of their doors explained couscous is a family dish, made to be enjoyed together as a community.

He thought about the two Syrian merchants who owned Le CM bistro opposite the town hall in Créteil’s historic centre. They’d become friends over the years he travelled to Paris for Anfortas’ check-ups. He wouldn’t have swapped eating there for the best brasserie in Paris. He’d go back and see them tomorrow.

In the morning, they’d take metro line 8 before lunch. He could see Lara’s profile in the RATP logo: the blue outline of woman’s featureless face flows over a turquoise circle, representing the Seine’s route through Paris. They got out in the 5th arrondissement. Anfortas barked noisily as soon as they emerged from the station and started walking towards one of the bridges. At the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral, they contemplated the Seine, which had turned an intense red.

Their 9 am appointment was at the Micen Veterinary Clinic, 58 rue Auguste Perret. Leo read about a chemical factory dam-break that polluted Paris’ waterways, transfiguring the water into something that looked like blood over breakfast in the hotel café. He couldn’t stop thinking about Anfortas as they walked, leash-bound, to the clinic. Young, Anfortas had pulled them both along, but now there were times Leo practically had to drag his dog. The MRI results showed that, although the brain tumour remained stable over three years after radiotherapy, this treatment had had no impact on the trigeminal nerve. The tumour was now large, and unstoppable. Admiringly, thankfully, he shook hands with Doctors T and S. They had helped Anfortas live much longer than his prognosis, and after giving Lara, his French friends and the rest of the family the bad news, he re-packed their bags again, ready to return to Spain.

The airline always gave passengers travelling with pets a window seat—a rare privilege. Leo was overcome by nostalgia, and spent the return flight staring at the parched, rainless clouds obscuring the horizon, recalling Paris flashbacks: misty walks around the lake with Anfortas in Créteil—he always managed to catch trout; browsing for old books in French, searching for work on Paris and Créteil, finding gems he’d never heard of at the Joyen bookshop, which occupied a house used by a homonymous French resistance captain, a member of the proprietor’s family whose name was commemorated by a plaque on the façade. The evening stroll to the heart of the Marais that took them to a square not named on any Parisian map: where the waitress at a Jewish restaurant with a beautiful, ivy-framed façade informed him that, the square’s name had recently been changed to honour the hundreds of local college students deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Three months after their return, Anfortas began struggling to keep his balance. He lost his appetite a week later. The local vet gave put him to sleep when he no longer had the energy to get up. Anfortas died in his bed, embracing and embraced by his parents. Their only consolation was having treated him as he deserved: like a king.

He could have been buried in the Abros canine cemetery, but Lara and Leo knew he wouldn’t want to be away from home, so they decided to cremate him. They had split up four months ago, and although they didn’t see each other outside Lara’s visits to Anfortas, they still talked every day.

A young American poet Lara translated strode into The Chapel Perilous, the café where they were waiting to pick up Anfortas’ ashes. Each knew the other, but the newcomer introduced himself all the same. Leo felt as if the U.S. House of Representatives Usher had announced the President and shrank down in his seat to avoid being given a State of Union address. He managed to extend a hand, remembering the anthropologist’s theory that this friendly gesture had evolved out of the need to prove you weren’t armed. Leo couldn’t help laughing. Lara scrutinised his face from the other side of the table, so he managed to avoid being triggered again. Last time they’d discussed the poet, he’d launched into a ferocious attack based on the fact that, in literary circles, the most commented element of his work was the elegant Prada jacket he always wore to recitals. Yet in spite of his bitterness and bewilderment, he didn’t want to let her down. Albert said something unintelligible. Leo noticed how she immediately tilted her head and gazed at him with the eyes of a slaughtered ram. Greatly moved, he knew this was an irrefutable sign she was in love. It had been too long since he last saw that gesture. Their intimacy made him almost anonymously aware of their complicity and communion. Albert would never be capable of interpreting all Lara’s thoughts. It pained him to realise he’d been selfishly deceiving himself all those years. No matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to fill her spirits. The television in the bar silently screened images of Spain’s Tablas de Daimiel and Doñana National Parks. These protected wetlands were utterly dry, aquifers empty. The marsh had become an arid plain, streams were now stony paths. He couldn’t avoid murmuring: I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Lara’s voice brought him round.

“We went to the theatre this weekend. In the end, instead of Yerma, we saw Voadora’s adaptation of The Tempest.”

He gazed at the riverbanks through the window. The water was low, and they were covered in withered, dry plants.

“I wrote a poem, Leo. Would you recite it for me?”

“I’d love to.”

She handed him a notebook, open at the relevant page. Without thinking too hard, to avoid being overcome, he slowly read out:

By the waters of Lérez I sat down and wept,

I sank in the waters of Mitsuse.

But then I went down to the sea

And with the rumble of dry, barren thunder

I dragged myself through the waste land.

For some time, a guitarist had been strumming a few soft, melancholic, chords in the background. Suddenly, Lara stood up and whispered in his ear. The musician nodded, broke off, and after a brief silence, began to play. Concentrating, Lara sang a few verses from a song she’d translated. Her melodious, broken voice told of nightmares and prophetic dreams, of a baby surrounded by wild, hungry wolves, and a flood following the downpour. The solemnity of the moment left you either spellbound or ready for violence.

Leo watched Lara walk back to their table, like he would never see her again.

“Excuse me. This is a difficult day. I’m going to go back to the clinic and wait for the urn.”

He stood. They stood with him.

“Shall I come with you, Leo?”

“No, no, don’t worry. We’ll walk home together, one last time… I owe him that.”

He proffered his hand to the poet and looked him in the eyes. The young American shook it with a nod. Leo gave Lara a brief embrace, and noticed something in his jacket pocket. Automatically, he reached to check what it was, but Lara held his hand.

“Do that later, when you get home.”


He couldn’t feel a thing, he was so dazed, even in such tough, strange circumstances. Waiting at the vet’s, he managed to work out that the little parcel contained one of his favourite books of poetry. He saw himself as just another member of the herd of alienated proletariat walking, downcast, through the wasteland. He hated being so unable to cope and despised himself for falling so deeply into self-pity. He carried the urn home through the brambles, thistles and scrub on Sinai Street. A crowd in the bar watched towers collapse. Once home, he locked himself in the library, laid the urn on his desk, pushed the pile of books he was reading away with one hand and rested his head on the baize. Some time later, he picked up a sheet of the scrap paper he used to make notes on his reading, and wrote to his sister, asking her to place Anfortas’ urn in his coffin when he died. He tossed all his other notes to the floor. Why keep reading? If he could only go back to writing… but he was dry. Lately, all he’d been able to scribble was a dedication. When Madame Sosostris’ prophecy were fulfilled… He should have died young. Basho wrote that his dreams wandered over barren plains four days before dying. He fished for the car keys in his jacket pocket, but was prevented from reaching them by a little box. It contained a handwritten page. The first few paragraphs were an excerpt from a Salinger short story in Lara’s beautiful handwriting. Years ago, he had written the same passage out for her, replacing the name Esme with Lara. It was her favourite section. The protagonist, a sensitive writer suffering a nervous breakdown after the Normandy landings, reads a note written inside a book by a Nazi official, just before her arrest: “Dear God, Life is Hell” before adding a phrase by Dostoevsky “What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” The final paragraph was a note from Lara:

I know I no longer have any right to ask you anything, but despite my embarrassment I wanted to request one last favour: I know you’ll be able to do it. Write a story about us. The midwife cut the umbilical cord, but we still haven’t done it ourselves. We haven’t even talked about it. How could we, when we didn’t know we were drowning? Although our daughter was never born, it will give us consolation. Our names will still be writ in water, but our lives, our shared time, won’t be dust, and may even become like roots sprouting in this sterile, rocky land.

That was it. Leo’s half-smile revealed the almost imperceptible scar on his upper lip, the only sign they had been trapped in the rubble of an earthquake. He squinted at the glow of lightning bringing a storm full of rain.

That was all Lara needed to say. Revitalized, he sat up, placed her note carefully back inside the box (he’d take it to be framed first thing in the morning), picked his books off the floor, flung the windows open and watched how the contractions in his right hand, his writing hand, gradually stopped trembling in the twilight of that cruel spring afternoon. He opened a notebook, plucked an upright pen out of the holder, and began to write.


To Groucho “Anfortas” Canareira (2010-2023)

In memoriam


About the Author

Á. D. Canareira is originally from Ourense, Spain. He is currently an elementary school teacher in his hometown. He has published some short stories in magazines like "La indiferencia de un colodrillo" in Hispanic Culture Review, "The Inner Keep" in The Nelligan Review and "La torre del homenaje" in Borderland. His works also include a Spanish translation and an essay about Mark Twain's "A Dog's Tale" in both "Gambito de papel" and as a book.


Clare Gaunt is the translator of very beautiful non-fiction children’s books: Majestic Mountains: Discover Earth’s Mighty Peaks and Majestic Oceans: Discover the World Beneath the Waves by Mia Cassany and illustrated by Marcos Navarro. Follow-up title, What Does A Jellyfish Eat? is due to be published in late 2023. Over the past 15 years, she has honed her craft translating and editing creative texts, scripts, reports and academic articles from French and Spanish into English. Her clients include the European Universities Association, Domestika, Editorial Planeta, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Filmax, MSF, and the Centre of Studies for Peace J.M. Delàs. She has also written occasional reviews for The Guardian and World Kid Lit. Clare is usually to be found with her nose in a book. She loves beautiful stories, caring, resounding voices, and great ideas. Once upon a time she graduated in English from the University of Cambridge and has moved to many places since. Her life is shared with her Spanish/Colombian partner, a 9-year-old, and a cat. She is a kindred spirit to all travellers. Clare translated Á. D. Canareira's "The Inner Keep." It has just been published by The Nelligan Review.


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash