Pink Slime


The following is from Fernanda Trías’s Pink Slime. Trías was born in Uruguay and is the award-winning author of three novels, two of which have been published in English. A writer and instructor of creative writing, she holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She was awarded the National Uruguayan Literature Prize, The Critics’ Choice Award Bartolomé Hidalgo, and the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz International Prize in Mexico for her novel Pink Slime. She currently lives in Bogotá, Colombia, where she is a teacher at the creative writing MFA program of Instituto Caro y Cuervo. In 2017, she was selected as Writer-in-Residence at the Casa de Velázquez in Madrid.

When the fog rolled in, the port turned into a swamp. Shadows fell across the plaza, filtering between the trees and leaving the long marks of their fingers on all they touched. Under each unbroken surface, mold cleaved silent through wood, rust bored into metal. Everything was rotting. We were, too. If I didn’t have Mauro, I’d spend all day wandering around, guided through the fog by the neon sign flickering in the distance: PAL CE HOTE . The missing letters hadn’t changed, though it wasn’t a hotel anymore; like so many other buildings in the city, it had been taken over by squatters. What day was that? Sometimes I can still hear the neon, its electric hum and the crackle of another letter on the verge of shorting out. The squatters kept the sign lit, but not out of laziness or nostalgia. They did it to remind themselves they were alive. That they could still do something arbitrary, something purely aesthetic. That they could still transform the landscape.

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If I’m going to tell this story I should choose a starting point, begin somewhere. But where? I was never any good with beginnings. The day I saw the fish? Certain details leave their mark on time and render a moment unforgettable. It was cold, and the fog condensed into droplets on the overflowing dumpsters. I don’t know where all that garbage came from. It seemed to consume and excrete itself. And how do you know we’re not the waste? Max might have said something like that. I remember turning at the old corner store, with its windows boarded over, and how the greenish-red light of the hotel sign washed over me as I stepped onto the rambla.

Mauro would be back the next day, bringing with him another month of confinement and work. Cooking, cleaning, monitoring his every movement. Each time they came to collect him I spent a whole day catching up on the sleep he threatened or interrupted. This endless vigil was the reason Mauro’s parents paid me the exorbitant salary they knew would never compensate me. Breathing in the stale air of the port, prowling the streets, visiting my mother or Max— these were the luxuries I afforded myself on the days my time didn’t carry a price. If I was lucky, that is, and there was no wind.

The only people on the rambla were fishermen with the collars of their jackets pulled up around their ears, their hands red and cracked. The water stretched wide in all directions, an estuary where the river became a shoreless sea. The fog blurred the horizon. It was ten o’clock or eleven or three under that flat, milky light. The algae floated nearby like bloodshot phlegm, but the fishermen seemed not to care. They rested their buckets next to their beach chairs, baited their hooks, and gathered the strength of their brittle arms to cast their lines as far as they could. I liked the sound of the reels spooling out: it reminded me of summers spent riding my bicycle in San Felipe, no brakes, knees angled high to avoid the pedals. That bicycle contained my whole childhood, just like those beaches that would later be cordoned off with yellow tape the wind would periodically destroy and a few policemen in face masks would rehang. KEEP OUT, it said. Why? You’d have to be crazy to want to go like that: infected, exposed to a nameless disease that didn’t even promise a speedy death.

Once, long before I married Max, I saw fog as dense as it was that day. It was in San Felipe, just before dawn, sometime in early December. I remember because the beach town was still empty, except for the few of us who had been summering there all our lives. Max and I walked slowly along the road, not looking at the black sand of the beach, accustomed to the rhythm of the breaking waves. That sound was like a watch to us, a certainty of all the summers to come. Unlike the tourists, we didn’t go to San Felipe to get away from it all. We went there to affirm the continuity of something. It was pitch-dark except for Max’s flashlight, but we knew the way. We stopped near the lookout, where lovers often hid, and leaned over the white wooden banisters. Max pointed his flashlight at the beach and through the fog we saw a swarming mass of crabs. The sand seemed to breathe, to swell like a sleeping beast. The crabs gleamed in their halo of light, they gushed from cracks in the boardwalk. Hundreds of them, tiny. What did Max say? I don’t remember. I think we were both shaken, as if we had just been alerted to the existence of something incomprehensible, something bigger than ourselves.

In winter along the rambla, though, there was no sign of so much as a mullet. The fishermen’s buckets were empty, their bait waiting useless in plastic bags. I sat down near a man wearing a Russian-style hat with earflaps. My hands trembled from the cold, but I didn’t do anything to still them. Unlike Max, I didn’t view a person’s will as independent from their body. This belief had led him to dedicate the last few years to extravagant experiments: purges, privations, weights hooked through his skin. The ecstasy of pain. The fasting organism is a single vast membrane, he would say, a thirsty plant left too long in the dark. Maybe. But Max was after something else: to separate himself from his body, that indomitable desire-generating machine, which knew neither conscience nor limits—repugnant but also innocent, pure.

The fisherman sensed I was looking at him. With my feet dangling over the water, my maskless face, and my backpack, which seemed to be loaded with stones, he must have thought I was another lost soul ready to jump into the river. Maybe my whole family was dead, admitted one by one to the critical care wing at Clinics, never to emerge. The water barely made a sound as it lapped against the seawall and the air was completely still. How long could this calm last? Every war had its cease-fires, even this one we fought unarmed.

The line suddenly tensed, and I watched the fisherman cinch and reel in until a small fish popped into the air. It arched weakly, but the glint off its silvery scales brought a smile to the man’s face. He grabbed it with his gloveless hand and removed the hook. No one could know what death and what miracle that animal held within it, and the two of us admired it accordingly. I expected the man to drop it into his bucket, even if just for a little while, but he threw it back immediately. It was so slight that it made no noise as it broke the surface. The last fish. One minute later and it would be far away, immune to the dense seaweed, to the death trap of algae and waste. The man turned to look at me, gesturing with his hand.

This is the starting point I choose for my story, its false beginning. I could easily make an omen of it, justify it as a sign of things to come, but I won’t. That’s all: an hour like any other on a day like any other, except for the fish that soared through the air and fell back into the water.


From Pink Slime by Fernanda Trias. Copyright © 2020 by Fernanda Trias. English language copyright © 2024 by Heather Cleary. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

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