The late Julio Cortázar was a sickly child and spent many hours in bed. Perhaps those memories inspired “Cefalea,” the feverish story of the care and feeding of fantastical creatures called the mancuspias, which debuted in his 1951 collection Bestiario. Tor.com is proud to share with you “Headache,” the first ever English translation of “Cefalea.”
The rights to translate “Headache” English were arranged by Ann VanderMeer. Translation by Michael Cisco.
We owe the most beautiful images in this story to Dr. Margaret L. Tyler. Her admirable poem, A Guide to the Most Common Remedies for Symptoms of Vertigo and Headaches appeared in the review HOMEOPATHY (published by the Argentinian Association of Homeopathic Medicine), vol. XIV, no. 32, April 1946, page 33 passim. Likewise, we thank Ireneo Fernando Cruz, who first imparted to us, during a tripto San Juan, his knowledge of the mancuspias.
We look after the mancuspias until pretty late in the afternoon. Now that the summer heat has come they have become changeable and full of caprices, the latecomers require special nourishment and we bring them malted oats in big china bowls; the largest ones are shedding the fur on their backs, so we have to keep them separated, tying a blanket around them and taking care they do not socialize at night with the other mancuspias that sleep in cages and receive food every eight hours.
We aren’t feeling well. It’s been coming on since the morning, maybe caused by the hot wind that blows every day at dawn, before the rising of a sun that pours down on the house all day like a rain of hot pitch. It is hard for us to attend to the sick animals—this at around eleven—and check up on the young ones taking their naps. Walking is getting to be more difficult, keeping up the routine; we suspect that one solitary night of neglect could spell doom for the mancuspias, and irreparably ruin our lives. So we proceed without a thought, completing tasks one after the other alternating according to routine, pausing only for food (there are bits of bread on the table and on top of the mantelpiece in the living room) or to stare at ourselves in the mirror that duplicates the bedroom. At night we fall abruptly into bed, and the inclination to brush our teeth before sleeping yields to our fatigue, so that we can only manage a wave of the hand toward the lamp or the medicine bottles. Outside is the sound of the adult mancuspias walking and walking in circles.
We’re not feeling well. One of us has to take Aconitum, a name derived from drugs containing large amounts of aconite in solution, which are used if, for example, fear induces an attack of vertigo. Aconitum is a violent thunderstorm, that passes quickly. How else would you describe the counterattack of an anxiety that is triggered by any insignificant thing, by nothing. A woman is abruptly confronted with a dog and begins to feel wildly dizzy. Then aconitum, and after a little while the fit becomes a sweet giddiness, with a tendency to move in reverse (this happened to us, but it was a case of Bryonia, which caused us to collapse just the same, with a feeling as if we were sinking into bed).
The other one of us, in marked contrast, is thoroughly Nux Vomica. After bringing the mancuspias their malted oats, maybe after doing too much bending down to fill the bowl, one experiences a rush as if the brains were suddenly spinning, not that everything around one spins—as is the case with vertigo—rather it is the vision itself that spins, such that the inner consciousness rotates like a gyroscope in its hoop, while the exterior is all tremendously immobile, it is only that which is fleeing, and impossible to grasp. We have wondered if it might not be a case of Phosphorus, because one is terrified by the perfume of flowers (or of the little mancuspias, that smell weakly of lilacs) and it physically resembles the phosphorus box: tall, thin, craving cold drinks, ice cream and salt.
At night it is not so bad, the fatigue and the silence come to our aid—because the mancuspias keep watch sweetly over the silence of the pampa—and at times we sleep until dawn and awake with a hopeful feeling that things will improve. If one of us jumps out of bed before the other, that one may be smitten with trepidation at the prospect of a repetition of the phenomenon Camphora monobromata, which causes one to believe one is going in one direction when in reality one is going the opposite way. It’s terrible, we go with complete assurance toward the bathroom, and suddenly we are pressing up against the naked skin of the tall mirror. We always laugh off such things, because you have to keep your mind on the work and we would gain nothing by getting disheartened so early on. We look for the capsules, to follow the instructions of Dr. Harbin scrupulously without comment or discouragement. (Maybe we’re secretly a touch Natrum muriaticum. Typically, a natrum cries, but nobody can be permitted to see that. One is sad, one is reserved; one likes salt).
Who can lose time contemplating such vanities when there’s work waiting for us in the corral, in the greenhouse and in the dairy? Chango and Leonor are already stirring up a racket outside, and when we go out with the thermometers and drive them toward the bath, those two precipitate themselves into the work as if they wanted to become tired quickly, to look busy for us and postpone their goofing off for later. We know what’s what, and thankfully we are still fit enough to handle the daily work ourselves. As long as we’re not too busy, or suffering headaches, we can keep it up. Now it’s February, in May the mancuspias will be sold and we will be secure through the wintertime. We can hold out.
The mancuspias are very entertaining, in part because they are clever and full of wickedness, in part because raising their young is a tricky business, which requires exacting oversight, incessant and thorough. There isn’t much to say about it, but here’s an example of how it works: one of us releases the mother mancuspias from their greenhouses—that would be at 6:30 AM—and they are gathered in the corral, which is lined with dry grass. They are left to frolic for twenty minutes, while the others check the young left in their numbered pigeonholes where each one undergoes a quick physical and rectal temperature exam. Those who exceed 37 C are returned to their pigeonholes while the rest are placed in a chute of sheet metal to nurse with their mothers. This might be the most beautiful time of morning, as we are touched by the joy of the little mancuspias and their mothers, their noisy, nonstop chatter. Leaning on the railing of the corral we forget the phantom of midday that approaches us, the hard afternoon that will not be postponed. For a moment we are a little afraid to look toward the ground of the corral—a very distinct case of Onosmodium—but the episode passes and the light saves us from the complementary symptom, the headache that is aggravated by darkness.
Eight o’clock is bathtime, one of us goes and throws handfuls of Krüschen salts and bran into the basins, the other tells Chango to bring buckets of tepid water. The mother mancuspias don’t like the bath, so they have to be handled carefully by the ears and legs, held firmly like rabbits, and dunked and redunked in the water over and over. The mancuspias bristle in desperation, and that is what we want, as it allows the salt to penetrate to their very delicate skin.
The task of feeding the mothers falls to Leonor, who does it very well; we have never known there to be an error in the distribution of portions. They are given malted oats, and twice a week they get milk with white wine. We don’t entirely trust Chango, it seems to us that he drinks the wine himself, so it would be better to keep the Bordelaise inside, but the house is small and the sweet smell would leak out when the sun is high anyway.
Maybe what we’re saying would be monotonous and useless if things did not gradually alter as they repeat; the last few days—now that we are entering into the critical weaning period—one of us must acknowledge, with bitter feelings, that a Silica phase is coming on. It begins the moment one goes to sleep, a loss of stability, an inner leap, a vertigo that scales the spinal chord and into the head; just like the creepy crawling (it can be described in no other terms) of the little mancuspias up the posts of the corrals. Then, suddenly, above the black hole of sleep we’d fallen deliciously into, we sense just what hard and caustic post the playful mancuspias are climbing on. And closing the eyes makes it worse. So much for sleeping, no one sleeps with open eyes; we’re dying of fatigue but a little nod-off is enough to make us feel vertigo crawling, swinging in the skull, as if the head were full of living things spinning around and around inside. Like mancuspias do.
And it is pretty ridiculous, since it’s well-known that the illness proceeds from a lack of silica, which is to say, sand. And we are surrounded by sand dunes here, we live in a little valley threatened by immense dunes of sand, and yet we have none when we go to sleep.
Notwithstanding the likelihood that encroachment will continue, we prefer to spend a bit of time severely doped up; by noon we have noticed the medications taking effect, and the afternoon of work that follows comes off seemingly without a hitch, except maybe for a few minor derangements of things, so that, after a little while, the objects seem to stand motionless before us; a sensation at the very edge of life in every way. We suspect things are becoming more Dulcamara, but it is not easy to be sure.
In the air the down of the adult mancuspias floats gently, after our naps we go with scissors, rubber bags, and Chango out to the corral where they are gathered for shearing. The nights in February are cooling already, the mancuspias needed their coats to sleep in, because they sleep stretched out and so are more vulnerable than animals that curl up to sleep with their legs crossed. However, the fur on the back sheds, sloughing off bit by bit and floating in the air, eventually filling the corral with a floury haze of lint that tickles the nostrils and chases us back into the house. So we gather them together and trim their backs only halfway, being careful not to leave them too much exposed to the cold. When the clippings are too short to billow in the air, they fall in a yellowish residue of dust that Leonor wets down with the hose and rolls up into the daily wad of paste, which is then tossed down the well.
One of us has his hands full matching up the males to the young mancuspias, weighing these chicks while Chango reads aloud the results of the previous day’s weight checks, verifying the development of each mancuspia and separating out the more slow-developing ones for extra feed. We keep this up until nightfall; until finally Leonor distributes the oats of the second meal in a flash, and then we lock up the mother mancuspias while the little ones squeal and obstinately try to follow alongside them. It’s Chango’s job to take them off separately, while we inspect the veranda. At eight we close the doors and windows; at eight we are inside, alone.
This was once a sweet moment, when we would recount incidents and hopes. But now that we are not feeling well it seems as if this hour only extends the tedium. Vainly do we beguile ourselves with the arrangement of our little pharmacy—the alphabetical order is constantly being upset by oversight—; on and on we linger silently at the table, reading the manual of Alvarez de Toledo (“Educate Yourself”) or of the Humphreys (“Homeopathic Mentor”). One of us has been experiencing an intermittent Pulsatilla phase, that is to say, exhibiting symptoms of volubility, moroseness, exactingness, and irritability. This comes on at dusk, and coincides with the Petroleum stage that affects the other, a state in which everything—things, voices, memories—roll over one, as the sufferer becomes tumescent and stiff. There is no conflict between them, it’s hardly comparable to the other, and tolerable enough. Afterwards, sometimes, sleep will come.
We would not wish to insert an artificially sequential scheme into these notes, one which will increase in articulation until it bursts with all the pathos of a great orchestra, after which the voices subside and droop into the tranquility of satiety. Sometimes we write of things that have already happened to us (like the great Glonoinum headache the day that the second litter of mancuspias was born), and sometimes we write of what happens now or just this morning. We believe it necessary to document these phases for Dr. Harbin to add to his new medical history when we go back to Buenos Aires. We are not clever, we know that we lose the thread pretty fast, but Dr. Harbin prefers to understand the details surrounding the case. This rubbing against the bathroom window that we hear at night might be significant. It might be a symptom of Cannibis indica; already it is known that a Cannibis indica has exalted sensations, with exaggerations of time and distance. It could be a mancuspia who has gotten loose and come to the light.
We started out optimists, and we have not lost hope of gaining a good sum with the sale of the young ones. We rise early, since time is of the essence during the final phase, and, at least to begin with, we are almost unaffected by the flight of Chango and Leonor. Without advance notice, without fulfilling any of their statutory obligations, last night those sons of bitches made off with our horse and the sulky, one of our rugs, the carbide lantern, and the latest issue of Mundo Argentino. The silence in the corrals made us suspect their absence, we have to rush to release the young and get them nursing, preparing the baths, the malted oats. We keep telling ourselves not to brood over this occurrence, we work without admitting that now we are alone, without a horse to cover the six leagues to Puan, with provisions for a week, now being used by useless bums making the rounds of towns, now that the stupid rumor has spread that we breed mancuspias and everybody should keep clear of us for fear of infection. Only with healthy exertion can we tolerate the conspiracy of forces that oppresses us at midday, at the height of the lunch hour (one of us throws together a plate of tongue and a can of peas, fried ham and eggs), that rejects the idea of going without our siesta, locks us up within the shade of the bedroom more implacably than the double bolted doors. It’s only now that we clearly remember last night’s bad sleep, that weird vertigo, transparent, if one may be permitted such an expression. Waking, starting up, looking straight ahead at some object—the wardrobe, for example—which is seen spinning at variable velocity and deviating inconsistently on one edge (the right side); while at the same time, through the vortex, the same wardrobe can be seen standing firmly in place and not moving. One doesn’t have to think too hard to recognize it as a Cyclamen stage, of the kind that responds to treatment in only a few minutes and braces us to get up and back to work again. Far worse to be jolted out of the depths of a siesta (when things are so very much themselves, when the sun brusquely draws its edges around things) by agitation and jabber from the corral of the adult mancuspias, when one of them abruptly and with disquiet renounces their fattening repose. We don’t want to go out, the high sun would mean a headache, how can we chance the possibility of headaches now, when everything depends on our work. But what else can we do, the disquiet of the mancuspias is growing, now it is possible to hear from the house the unprecedented racket spreading over the corrals, so then we throw on our protective pith helmets, and divide up after a hasty consultation. One of us hustles out to the mothers in their crates while the other verifies that all the gates are locked, and the water level in the Australian tank is all right, and checks for the possible invasion of a fox or a mountain lion. We had only just arrived at the entrance to the corral when we were blinded by the sun. Like albinos we waver between the white flashes, we would like to continue the work but it is late, the Belladona stage harasses us and flings us down exhausted in the somber recesses of the barn. Congested, face red and hot; pupils dilated. Violent pulsation in the head and carotid. Violent twinges and lancings. Headache like shaking. Pressing down with each step like a weight on the occipital. Cleavings and impalements. Exploding pain; as if it were driving into the brain; worse when bending forward, as if the brain were dribbling outward, as if it were shoving its way out the front, or the eyes were being forced out. (Like this, like that; but the truth is never like anything.) Worse with the noises, the shaking, motion, light. And then just like that it stops, the shadow and the coolness banish it all in an instant, leaving us to a marvelous gratitude, a wish to run, shaking our heads, amazed that just a moment before . . . But there is work to do, and now we suspect that the disquiet of the mancuspias results from a lack of fresh water, thanks to the absence of Leonor and Chango—they are so sensitive that they must be feeling that absence in some way—, and this morning’s work was a little different from usual, owing to our blunders, our difficulties.
Since it is not a shearing day, one of us is occupied with arrangements for breeding and with weight control; it is obvious that the young ones have suddenly gotten worse since yesterday. The mothers eat poorly, sniffing languidly at the malted oats before deigning to nibble the tepid porridge. In silence, we attend to the last tasks, now the coming of the night has a different feeling that we do not wish to examine, and we do not deviate, as we did before, from the established and functional order, with Leonor and Chango and the mancuspias in their proper places. To close the doors of the house is to shut out an unlegislated world, in which night and dawn do as they please. We enter fearfully and overcautiously, demurring for a while, incapable of putting it off and this makes us furtive and evasive, with all the night waiting like a watching eye.
Luckily we are drowsy. The sun and work can dispense with more than one of our worries. We’re straying off into sleep over our cold leftovers, pitifully masticating shrivelled bits of fried egg and bread soggy with milk. Something scratches once again at the bathroom window, and what seems like furtive slithering can be heard on the roof; the wind isn’t blowing, it is the night of the full moon and the roosters would be crowing before midnight, if we had roosters. We go to bed without a word, doling out the last doses of the medication groping blindly with our fingers. With the light out—but those aren’t the right words, the light is not put out, the light is simply gone, the house is a tenebrous well and outside everything is lit by the full moon—we want to say something to ourselves and we’re barely able to ask ourselves about tomorrow, about how we will get the feed from town. And we slept. One hour, no more, the ashen thread the window throws has barely edged toward the bed. All of a sudden we are alert in the dark, listening in the dark so that we may listen better. There’s something going on among the mancuspias, the noise is now a rabid or terrified clamor, in which we can make out the keen howling of the females and the more bronchial ululations of the males, suddenly interrupted, like a volley of silence moving over the house, then once again the clamor mounts against the night and the distance. We do not think of going out there, just listening is already too much, one of us wonders if the shrieks are coming from outside or in here because sometimes they seem to be coming from the inside, and over the course of this vigil we enter into an Aconitum stage, where all is confused and nothing is less certain than its opposite. Yes, the headaches come on with a violence that can hardly be described. Sensation of ripping, of burning in the brain, in the scalp, with fear, with fever, with anguish. Fullness and heaviness in the forehead, as if there were a weight inside that is pushing outward: as if everything were being torn out through the forehead. Aconitum is abrupt; savage; worse in cold winds; with anxiety, anguish, fear. The mancuspias surround the house, it is useless to repeat that they are in the corrals, that the locks are holding.
We do not notice the dawn, toward five o’clock we tumble from restless dreams as our hands stir to life at the usual hour, lifting capsules to our mouths. There has been a knocking at the living room door for some time now, the blows increase with fury until the sneakers put one of us on and go creeping up to the keyhole. It’s the police, come to tell us that Chango has been arrested; they are bringing the sulky back, which they suspected had been stolen and abandoned. There’s a report to sign, all is well, the high sun and the great silence of the corrals. The police inspect the corrals, one covers his nose with a handkerchief, making like he is coughing. We tell them what they want to hear, we sign, and they take their leave almost at a run, they go far back from the corrals and look at them, and at us too, stealing a glance into the interior (which emits a stagnant odor from the open doorway), and they almost hurry off. It is very strange that these brutes didn’t want to poke around a bit more. They fled this place like the plague, scurrying along the side road.
One of us seems to decide personally that the other will take the sulky and hunt up some feed, while the morning chores are attended to. We get going without enthusiasm, the horse is worn out because it has been driven relentlessly already, consequently we go along little by little and lingeringly. All is in order, so that means the mancuspias were not the ones that are making noises in the house, the roof tiles will have to be fumigated for rats, amazing the racket that one solitary rat can make in the night. We open the corrals, gather the mothers together but there’s barely any malted oats left and the mancuspias are fighting ferociously, ripping pieces from the back and neck. The blood sprays from them, and it takes the whip and shouts to separate them. In the aftermath, the little ones nurse with difficulty and imperfectly, we can tell the chicks are famished, yet some of them wobble over to us or support themselves leaning against the barbed wire. There is a male lying dead in the entrance to his crate, inexplicably. And the horse doesn’t want to trot, we’re already ten lots from the house with further to go, and his head is nodding and snorting. Dejected, we undertake the tour, seeing how the last remnants of feed are lost in one convulsion of violence.
We’re not all that determined to go through with it, and so we come back to the veranda. There is a dying mancuspia chick on the first step. We lift it, we put it in the basket with straw, we want to know what it is dying of but it dies the obscure death of an animal. And the locks are intact, there is no way to know how this mancuspia got out, if its death was its escape or if its escape was its death. We put ten capsules of Nux Vomica in its beak. They remain there like little pearls, which it is unable to swallow. From where we are we can see a male fallen on its hands; trying to raise itself with a shudder, letting itself fall again as if praying.
We seem to hear cries, so near to us that we look under the straw chairs on the veranda; Dr. Harbin has prepared us for brute assaults in the morning, but we didn’t imagine it could have taken the form of a headache like this. Occipital pain, so much that there is, now and again, an explosion of crying: Apis, pains like bee stings. We throw our heads back, or press them against the pillow (somehow we’ve managed to get into bed). Without thirst, but sweating; scanty urine, piercing cries. As if bruised, sensitive to the touch; once we shook hands, and it was terrible. Until that fades, little by little, and we are left with the fear of a repetition with a different animal, since we have already had the bee, maybe next time it will be the serpent’s image. It’s two thirty.
We prefer to complete these reports while the light lasts and we are still all right. One of us should go into town now. If we wait until after the siesta, it will be too late to make the trip, and we will remain alone all night in the house, perhaps without the means to medicate ourselves … The siesta stagnates in silence, the rooms are getting hot, if we go into the veranda the gleam of the chalky ground, the barns, the tiled roofs, drives us back. Other mancuspias have died but the remainder are keeping quiet, one must draw near to hear them panting in their boxes. One of us thinks that we can sell them, that we must go to town. The other is getting together these notes and he doesn’t think much about anything. No going anywhere until the heat breaks, and that won’t be ‘til night. We go out just before seven, there are still a few handfuls of feed left in the barn, a fine oaten dust sifts from shaking bags, we gather it up like treasure. They get a whiff of it, and the agitation in the crates is violent. We do not dare to release them, it is better to drop a spoonful of porridge into each crate, in this way it seems that more of them are satisfied, that the distribution is more even. Nor do we dare to remove the dead mancuspias, nor is there an explanation for ten empty crates, or for how some of the young ones came to be mixed in with the males in the corral. It can barely be seen, now that night is falling all at once and Chango has robbed us of the carbide lamp.
It seems as if, in the road, there against the mountainous willows, there were people. If we are going to send someone to town, this is the moment; there is still time. Sometimes we wonder if they aren’t spying on us, the people are so ignorant and they don’t have much between their eyes. We prefer not to think and we close the door happily, retreating to the house where everything is more our own. We would like to consult the manuals so as to avoid a new Apis, or some other, still worse beast; we leave supper and read aloud, almost without hearing. Some phrases climb over the others, and outside it is the same, some mancuspias howl louder than the rest, keeping it up and repeating a piercing ululation. “Crotalus cascavella causes peculiar hallucinations . . .” One of us repeats the line, we’re glad we know Latin so well, crotalo cascabel, rattlesnake rattle, but it is redundant because cascabel, rattle, is equivalent to crotalo, rattlesnake. Maybe the manual does not want to alarm the ailing layman by naming the animal directly. Nevertheless it does present this name, this terrible serpent . . . “whose venom acts with horrible intensity.” We have to yell to make ourselves heard over the clamor of the mancuspias, once again we can feel them surrounding the house, on the roof, scratching at the windows, against the lintels. In a way it isn’t so strange, for lately we’ve seen so many open crates, but the house is closed and the light in the dining room enwraps us in its chill protection while we shout over the scratching. Everything is clear in the manual, direct unprejudiced language for invalids, the description of the symptoms: headache and great excitement, caused by the onset of sleep. (Good thing we won’t be doing any sleeping.) The cranium squeezes the brain like a steel helmet—well said. Something living roams in circles within the head. (In that case, the house is our head, we feel the roaming, each window is an ear shut against the howls of the mancuspias right outside.) Head and chest burdened by iron armor. A red hot iron driven into the vertex. We are not sure about that word vertex, a moment ago the lights flickered, dwindling little by little, we must have forgotten to start the mill this afternoon. When reading is no longer possible, we light a candle right next to the manual so we can familiarize ourselves completely with the symptoms, it is better to know in case, later on—Stabbing pains sharp in the right temple, it is a terrible serpent whose venom acts with horrible intensity (we just read this, it is difficult to make out by candlelight), something living roams in circles within the head, we read that too, it’s just like that, something living that roams in circles. We are not worried, it is worse outside, if there is an outside. We look at each other across the manual, and if one of us gestures at the howling that keeps getting louder and louder, we just go on reading as if we were sure all of this was in there, something living that roams in circles howling at the windows, at the ears, the mancuspias, dying of hunger, howling.
“Cefalea”, Bestiario © Heirs of JULIO CORTÁZAR, 1956
Art copyright © 2014 Dave McKean