03 Oct The Intelligence of the Species
The Intelligence of the Species
by Abdón Ubidia
Translated by Nathan Horowitz
Nearly year I visited that place, a typical tropical Third World city. Flat and broad, disproportionate, with a small wealthy zone surrounded by precariously- inhabited swamps. The perfect squareness of its central streets laid down like a weaving atop the humid plain. A broad river of turgid water. Ferryboats. Barges. Lubricated air caressing sweaty bodies. There was a waterfront with tall buildings. Then the commercial district. The financial district. The hotel district.
Low, barren mountains seemed to reverberate on the horizon. This time, I was staying in a hotel next to a public park. In the park was a gigantic tree with a colony of iguanas that seemed to move only rarely, as if to the rhythm of the slow palpitations of the foliage caused by the breezes of warm, stinking air that blew in from the port. Perhaps wishing to make me feel guilty when he heard what company I represented, a man told me that the enormous ficus tree was one of the last of its species that remained after the coastal forests had been cut down.
And that the colony of iguanas was perhaps the last remaining population of that species along the whole length of the coast. That impressed me quite a bit. When I learned that I was going to have to wait in the city an extra week for a seat on the plane to return to my country, I asked them to change my room.
From the hotel’s restaurant Fd seen that the end of one of the tree’s branches nearly touched the window of one of the rooms on the seventh floor. There was an iguana on the branch that had barely moved in days, its stillness contrasting with the rapidity of its fellows. It must have been ill. With an ambiguous smile, the receptionist told me I was in luck, the room was unoccupied. I couldn’t sleep the whole night.
The window’s curtains were closed. But I knew that on the other side, very close to the glass as if emerging from the night itself, and watching the yellow light that shone through the curtains with its ancient reptile eyes, was the iguana. I got up several times. I tried to read but I couldn’t concentrate on the adventures of the secret agent in the bestselling spy novel I’d bought at the airport. I put the book down and turned on the TV There were no local channels.
The stations stopped broadcasting at midnight. Typical of tropical countries in those years. I left the TV on with the sound off and the screen filled with static. I went near the curtain. But I didn’t touch it. I went back to the novel. Then the newspaper. Then the cigarettes.
Eventually morning came. I took a shower and went to the restaurant. From there I could see that the iguana was still clinging to the branch. I went out on the street. Walked around the city. Doorways with peeling paint. Vendors of various things walking around. Glass display cases with all kinds of merchandise. The people, sallow and small, buying, selling, walking around. Someone shoved me and ran away.
Maybe he had been trying to steal my wallet. Or my watch. I felt more out of place than ever The city had always been hostile toward me. I had been ripped off there several times. Maybe even now, someone was following me to attack me. I felt slightly dizzy and the palms of my hands moistened. I thought about visiting the headquarters of the company I did business with. Invite some executive to lunch.
Or one of the secretaries. As I had on other occasions. I didn’t do it. I didn’t feel like pretending to be sociable. Or catching some tropical disease. I went into a bar I walked out. I walked down the avenues. As always, I got lost. After midday, I hailed a taxi and returned to the hotel. I went directly to my room. The smell of cleanliness greeted me. The room had been made up, and the curtains were open. I went to the window. I slid it open, to the left.
The tree was right in front of me. And in the tree, very close, within arm’s reach, the iguana. I pretended not to see it. I tried to look off to the left. To examine the half-gothic, half-modern architecture of the pale yellow church that rose from one side of the park. I couldn’t do it. Against my will, my eyes sought out the iguana’s eyes.
They weren’t red, as I had imagined them. They were pale green. The pupil was not round, either, but vertically elongated. I examined the scaly, oblong body with its central crest of spines. It was somewhat less than a meter long. The tail, adorned with black rings. The arms, almost human. The iguana’s skin seemed not to be an intrinsic element: it seemed to have been put on afterwards, like a wetsuit.
It was marked with a broad combination of blues, grays, oranges and yellows. I leaned halfway out the window. Seven stories down, people were walking hurriedly. I didn’t dare touch the triangular head that topped off the lethargic body. I slowly passed my hand just a few centimeters in front of the half- open mouth, which looked like a fish’s.
The iguana barely moved. And its prehistoric eyes barely blinked. It really must have been sick. And confused after taking a wrong turn down this branch. Maybe it sensed its death approaching, and didn’t care anymore. I raised my eyes and spotted two other iguanas on distant branches. For a moment, in the depth of the foliage I made out a fragment of another body darting toward the center of the ficus.
I thought how strange it was to have in front of me all that remained of a nearly-extinct species. How many individuals lived in the tree? Twenty? Fifty? Not many more. I revisited an old idea of mine: “We individuals are not really individuals. We are expendable parts of our species. The species is the real individual.” I closed the window and left the room.
The elevator brought me to the ground floor. I didn’t drop the key off at the desk. A prostitute smiled and winked at me. I ignored her. The doorman didn’t get to the door fast enough to open it for me. I crossed the street. An old wrought-iron fence enclosed the park. I walked around to one of its gates.
This was the oldest park in the city. It had a stone fountain and a gazebo with columns of wrought iron painted green. Then there was the ficus. The trunk was enormous, and the thick roots spread out across the ground. Up above, in the dense foliage, many oval pupils must have registered my presence. A robin flew out of the ficus and headed for a palm tree. I looked for a long time and only lowered my head when dizziness came over me. My neck hurt. At my side, four or five children — shoeshine boys and candy vendors — asked me for money. I sent them away with a few harsh words.
Then I examined the ficus’s old trunk. One chainsaw would be enough to finish it off. I shivered. I was out of sorts. But that might have occurred to anyone. I resolved to calm down. I walked the few blocks that separated the park from the waterfront. I wandered out on the wooden pier. There, I got on one of the ferryboats that crossed the river.
Night had fallen when I went back to the hotel. The window of my room was still open. The light from the street vaguely illuminated the outlines of the ficus tree. I didn’t turn on the lights in the room. I must have slept for several hours. And when I awoke, I lay still without wanting to move.
I only got out of bed at dawn. Then, of course, I went to the window. The reptile had not changed its position. It made me think of an exhausted policeman. Or a fugitive applying for an impossible asylum. I turned around and went into the bathroom. I unscrewed the nickel-plated tube of one of the towel racks. I returned armed with it.
First came the menacing movements. Then the hard jabs. Then the desperate necessity of wounding the scaly skin. But the dying iguana wouldn’t budge. It remained stuck to the branch by its sharp claws. Finally I swung the tube with all my strength at the triangular head. I thought I heard something like the chirp of a bird come from the silent mouth.
Perhaps it was just my imagination. In any case, the body loosened its grip and fell to the street — which at that hour of the morning was still deserted — with a sound like that of a soft fruit hitting the ground. There was a silence. Then I perceived an agitation racing around the whole tree.
Tremblings of leaves. Palpitations. Shakings of leaves. I even saw a pair of iguanas running in opposite directions. I wiped my hand across my sweaty face. And kept staring out the window without any urge to look down at what had fallen to the street. I went back into the bathroom. I wasn’t able to put the tube back in. I took a long shower. Then I left the hotel. I went to the waterfront. I ducked into a floating restaurant.
I ordered something. I didn’t touch it. At any other time I would have felt like doing some tourism in the surrounding villages. But not now. Sitting in that little restaurant watching some aquatic plants — lechuguinos, the locals called them — floating adrift on the roiling waters of the river, was almost the same as sitting in my room at the hotel. In any event, I still had five hot, humid, endless days until I could take my return flight. But what would it mean to return? I felt the presence of the void.
It was the same void I had felt just before I killed the iguana, when I drew near the window and had a strong desire to jump out of it. I returned to my interior nonsense: ‘And what if we individuals are nothing but expendable cells of the body of our species?” In the final analysis, I might consider myself an individual who could be sacrificed for the greater good of something I would never be entirely able to understand.
Despite my sorrow and revulsion at the turn of events, my life had become entirely devoted to being a salesman in remote backwaters. Wasn’t I, then, a living example of such a sacrifice? “My God, what a horrible age I’m at,” I said to myself, thinking that I had reached a point in my existence where lies were impossible and truths were stranger than they had ever been.
“Abandoned by my species. I’m the loneliest man in the world,” I went on, feeling I had been completely used up and squeezed out. “I worked and I reproduced, and now I can’t make sense out of any of that,” I added. Then a shaft of light fell onto my heart.
“And what if I try to escape?” I said to myself “To whatever extent I can,” I added. Observing the community of iguanas had helped me understand it all at once. The iguana I killed no longer belonged to its species. It had outlived its usefulness. Condemned to die of old age or sickness, its fate was unalterable.
Somehow it knew that. But beyond it and the other iguanas — among them — above them — there was another entity. Let me see if I can explain it all at once. I’m referring again to the species. Cornered by man, up in that tree. I had had the opportunity to see it in the totality of its physical manifestation.
It was like a god. It had the lives of the individuals at its disposal. It materialized in them, but it was not them. It knew more than they did. It impelled them to live, to eat what they could, to reproduce, to build nests for their young. It had figured out a way to survive the invasion of humans, if only barely. And perhaps there were now mutant iguanas that could live in the sewers, or in the polluted waters of the port. Amidst all that, there was the fragility of the particular lives of the individuals.
The world’s mind was not in them. It was in the species. The species was the bearer of true intelligence and knowledge. That iguana, exposed to death, lost at the end of a branch, separated from and forgotten by its kin, with no will to fight for its life, had taught me well. Its species had repudiated it. Its individual life and death had become unimportant.
Who knows what message it had received, expelling it. I had received mine. It was a profound, silent message, a command I didn’t want to hear; if it had had a voice, it would have said this: “Your existence doesn’t matter anymore. It now has no meaning. Therefore, you should not defend it. You are now allowed to die, if you wish.”
Did I mention that I had followed all the rules for humans? That I had gotten married, had children in whom I barely recognized myself, owned a house, worked at a demanding job? Did I mention that one day I had the sensation that I had diligently complied with everything that had been required of me? Did I mention that one day I felt exhausted, empty, and ripped off?
I don’t know how the spirit of my species was able to communicate with me. But I do think that on that day, I received the expulsion message. If I died, my species — which as everyone knows is the most intelligent of all — would go on populating the planet, expanding its frontiers, eliminating other species, throwing itself into the sky, reaching the stars.
My death wouldn’t change any of that. Seated at one of the little tables of that floating restaurant, in front of a plate of food that had gotten cold, watching the lechuguinos floating in the turbid water of the river, I realized that I could escape and save myself.
One thing was certain: to return to the hotel, wait for the plane, fly back to my country, go home, and go back to work, would be to accept the death that had been arranged for me. So I made a decision. I called the waiter over and paid. I walked to the pier I waited. I wasn’t in a hurry At last, balancing on the small waves, the ferryboat drew alongside. Across the river were the miserable little villages.
And beyond them the mountains. And then what remained of the tropical rainforest. I would not lack for horizons. In some town I would find a woman, and a job perhaps as odious as all jobs are. It wouldn’t matter I’d get together with the woman, I’d love her and have children with her, I’d build a house and I’d work.
And when that damned message — the void — returned to me, I’d leave again in search of other women, other houses, other children, other jobs. Perhaps that way, with so many different lives, I would postpone the end that had been decreed for me, and stay within the good graces of my species as long as possible. From a railing of a wooden ferryboat packed with poor people, I watched the lechuguinos floating in the turbid waters of the river.