Exotic Birds

Reina Roffé


During the bitterest days of my European exile, I turn to the photo album where I keep, along with more recent memories, a few images from my childhood—images that enlarged and corrected, come back to me in dreams and in disturbing moments of insomnia. That is when I see the child I was and the people I loved, and when my first and perhaps only home comes clearly into view. In that house, as if on stage or in a boxing ring, everyone defended his or her own territory with blood, sweat, and tears. Aunt Reche, however, seemed to stay behind the scenes: she didn’t want to fight over the space, she wanted to leave it. I secretly shared her desire. We both believed that beyond the walls of that house a kind of salvation awaited us.

Aunt Reche waited for several years, passing up many incidents that would have given her more than enough reason to leave, until she finally found the right opportunity. One never knows when a dead branch will sprout flowers. In fact, I never did find out how that particular argument started in the kitchen, the epicenter of all the daily quarrels. I am convinced that it was nothing serious because only a few words and shouts were exchanged, but it was the drop that made the glass overflow.

I remember watching a bird trying to fly across the patio in the oblique drizzle that had been falling since morning, when I heard a clear, forceful voice:

“I’m leaving for good.”

After making the announcement, Aunt Reche ran through the hallway heading toward the stairs.

She was finally running from the house and from herself. What was she like? What had she been like just moments before some alien power took over and put her in motion? That motion was now suspended in its own impulse, in the fury of escaping, in her legs, her feet, her step, in the slight sway of her entire body.

She was a tired woman. Her tiredness was not new, it was as much a part of her as was her pale skin, her slight smile, and the eyes that revealed her disgust, her tedium, the smothered cry, and the conviction that nothing was worthwhile.

When she was little she used to walk along the dirt streets of a pretentiously named town in the province of Santa Fe, until she reached the train station where she would hide and dream of getting on the train that would take her to Buenos Aires. However, when the family finally did move to the capital, she was interested only in the port where the Sephardic Jews from Morocco used to disembark, among them her own young parents, who arrived at the beginning of the century.

As I remember her, I find it difficult to attribute her permanent air of melancholy to her nomadic appearance (she always seemed to be somewhere else). None of the stories about her provides a reason to justify her absence, the withdrawal into herself that made her invisible to everyone else.

No one ever saw her. Her apprenticeship for becoming invisible must have started very early, when she was still a child and spent long hours following the paths of the ants along the cracks in the flagstones. There must have been something in her infancy, in the solitude of her childhood days. But in her case, it was a different kind of solitude, one without which nothing was possible for her.

In the Jobson-Vera mansion, where she was born around 1925, her parents and siblings ignored her, not because they didn’t love her, but because of her determination to be ignored, to become a colorless spot, an imperceptible filigree on the floor or on the walls. The teachers used to give her very high grades in school, but they complained that she was like an extension of the bench she occupied in the classroom: dull, quiet, doing what was required.

She was compliant. I know she was especially dedicated to the Friday afternoon chore she assumed when she still lived in the small town. Lacking a synagogue, the Sephardic community of Jobson, consisting of three or four families at that time, had improvised a prayer room in the back room of the store that belonged to her father, the grandfather that I never met. Seldom did the ten men needed for the rabbi to begin the ceremony appear. Aunt Reche had the job of going in search of those who were missing. She didn’t understand this law but, although I can imagine her indignation at the fact that women’s presence didn’t count, I am convinced that she took her weekly duty very seriously. According to her older sister, who never kept secrets for her, once when Aunt Reche couldn’t find the tenth man, she decided to take his place. She put on the cast-off clothes of the men of the house, covered her blossoming curves with a large coat, greased down her hair, put on a yarmulke, and took her place next to the other men.

She went unnoticed on that occasion and also again at the age of twenty, when she repeated the feat, needlessly, in the temple on Piedras Street in Buenos Aires, no less, which was always full. These are the only mischievous things or transgressions she is known to have committed. Later on she lost interest in everything and decided to act like a robot whose actions were preprogramed.

And in spite of that, her heart beat quickly. Even today I believe I can hear her rapid, furious puffing on the day she ran toward the stairs with the intention of reaching the last door of the house. I have her image frozen in my memory: Aunt Reche moving against a cobalt blue background, Aunt Reche who felt emotions, who felt love and anger although she was submerged in death. Certainly she expected more than anyone else did. How much more? A little more affection, a little more tolerance, the little extra promised by the lottery, the illusory bonuses of the business of life? I suspect that the magnitude of what she hoped for had become a burden, all out of proportion to what she could bear.

From there, perhaps, came her sleepless nights and the premature knowledge of failure and sorrow—a primordial, pre-existing, unyielding sorrow that nevertheless made her rebel against her own knowledge that life was only life passing by. Could her relentless, barren insomnia have been the cause of these impressions? How could she fill the void, flirt with the darkness without going crazy with the thought—first innocent and then obsessive—that all effort was in vain, that love was a meaningless fiction, nothing more than an et cetera that justified all the theories that popular philosophy at once proposed and rejected in sayings, proverbs, songs, and movies. The only real connection for her was the tick-tock of the clocks, the predictable church bells, the emergency sirens, the cat fight on the roof, the pulse of the night pounding in her head.

Translated by


Reina Roffé, “Exotic Birds,” trans. Margaret Stanton, from The House of Memory: Stories of Jewish Women Writers of Latin America, ed. Marjorie Agosín (New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1999), pp. 162–64. Used with permission of Margaret Stanton, Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 10.

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