A Christmas, the boys once again asked for a rowing boat.
All right,’ said their father, ‘we’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.’
Toto, who was nine years old, and Joel, who was seven, were more determined than their parents thought.
'No,' they said in chorus. 'We need it here and now.'
'But,' said their mother, 'the only navigable water here is what comes out of the shower.'
She and her husband were right. Their house in Cartagena de Indias had a terrace with a dock on the bay, and a shed that could hold two large yachts. Here in Madrid, on the other hand, they were crowded into a fifth-floor apartment at 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end neither of them could refuse, because they had promised the children a boat, complete with sextant and compass, if they won the third-year prize in primary school, and they had. So their father bought everything and said nothing to his wife, who was more reluctant to pay gambling debts than he was. It was a beautiful aluminium boat with a gold stripe at the waterline.
'The boat's in the garage,' their father announced at lunch. 'The problem is, there's no way to bring it up in the lift or by the stairs, and it's blocking the whole garage.'
On the following Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited all their classmates over to help bring the boat up the stairs, and they managed to carry it as far as the utility room.
'Well done,' said their father. 'Now what?'
'Now nothing,' said the boys. 'All we wanted was to have the boat in the room, and now it's there.'
On Wednesday night, like every Wednesday, their parents went to the cinema. The boys, lords and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows and then broke the bulb glowing in one of the living-room lamps. A jet of golden light as cool as water began to pour out of the broken bulb, and they let it run to a depth of almost three feet. Then they turned off the electricity, took out the rowing boat, and navigated wherever they pleased among the islands of the house.
This fabulous adventure was the result of a frivolous remark I had made while taking part in a seminar on the poetry of household objects. Toto asked me why the light went on with just the touch of a switch, and I could not be bothered to think about it twice.
'Light is like water,' I answered. 'You turn on the tap and out it comes.' And so they went on sailing every Wednesday night, learning how to use the sextant and the compass, until their parents came home from the cinema and found them sleeping like angels on dry land. Months later, longing to go further, they asked for complete skin-diving outfits: masks, flippers, tanks, and harpoon guns.
'It's bad enough to have a useless rowing boat in the utility room,' said their father. 'Now you want diving equipment too.'
'What if we win the Gold Gardenia Prize for the first term?' said Joel.
'No,' said their mother in alarm. 'That's enough.'
Their father told her not to be so inflexible.
'These children don't win so much as a brass farthing when they're supposed to,' she said, 'but when it comes to getting something they want, they're capable of winning anything.'
In the end the parents didn’t say yes and didn’t say no. But in July, Toto and Joel, who had been at the bottom of the class for the past two years, each won a Gold Gardenia and a public tribute from the headmaster. That same afternoon, without having to ask again, they found the diving outfits in their bedroom, still in the original packaging. And so the following Wednesday, while their parents were at the movies seeing Last Tango in Paris, they filled the apartment to a depth of two fathoms, dived like tame sharks under the furniture, and salvaged from the bottom of the light things that had been lost in darkness for years.
At the school prize-giving, the brothers were held up as examples for the whole school and were given certificates of excellence. This time they did not have to put in a request for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. They were very moderate: all they wanted was to give a party at home as a treat for their classmates.
Their father was radiant. ‘It’s proof of their maturity,’ he said to his wife. The next Wednesday, while the parents were watching The Battle of Algiers, people walking along the Paseo de la Castellana saw a cascade of light falling from an old building hidden among the trees. It spilled over the balconies, poured in torrents down the facade, and rushed along the great avenue in a golden flood that lit the city all the way to the Guadarrama.
Called to deal with the emergency, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor and found the apartment brimming with light all the way to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs covered in leopard-skin were floating at different levels in the living-room, among the bottles from the bar and the grand piano with its Manila shawl fluttering half submerged like a golden manta ray. Household objects, in the fullness of their poetry, were flying through the kitchen sky on their own wings. Brass instruments, which the children used when they were dancing, were drifting among the brightly coloured fish freed from their mother’s aquarium, the only creatures lively and happy in the vast illuminated marsh. All the toothbrushes were floating in the bathroom, along with Papa’s condoms and Mama’s jars of cream and spare dentures, and the television set from the master bedroom was afloat on its side, still tuned to the final part of the midnight movie for adults.
At the end of the corridor, Toto was sitting in the stern of the boat, all at sea, clutching the oars tightly with his mask on and only just enough air to reach the lighthouse he was searching for, while Joel was bobbing in the prow, still charting the north star with his sextant; and floating throughout the house were their thirty-seven classmates, eternalised in the moment of peeing into a pot of geraniums, or singing the school song with the words changed to make fun of the headmaster, or sneaking a glass of brandy from Papa’s bottle. For they had turned on so many lights at the same time that the apartment had flooded, and the whole fourth-year class at the elementary school of Saint Julian the Hospitaler had drowned on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, with no ocean or river, whose landbound population had never mastered the science of navigating on light.
'Strange Pilgrims', translated by Edith Grossman, is published by Cape