Double Death Jump

 by Ignacio Ferrando


March 13th, Thomas Solvein bent his knees, bowed to the public, grabbed the trapeze bar and jumped off the platform under the watchful eye of his wife. He and Eliza had been separated for twelve years without hearing from one another, searching for each other in the news, asking family and neighbors, but on March 13th, the same day that George Bataille brought his erotisme to the printing press and surgeon Ake Senning put his first pacemaker into a dying man, the Great Circus passed through the old city in the outskirts of Berlin, and Solvein, now a trapeze artist, knew that Eliza would not miss the occasion to see him again. It was the last number of the evening and from the air, feeling the elastic tension and the pendular swinging of the trapeze, Thomas Solvein could see the audience forming a scattered mass, excited and festive. The spring storm had gotten worse over the course of the evening and many neighbors, especially those who lived in Wansee Bay, had opted to stay home, watching TV and playing écarté. Any good trapeze artist knows that you should never do a double death jump on a day like that, with a storm, and your wife, whom you haven’t seen in over a decade, watching you from the stands. You also shouldn’t do it on the 13th. Much less without a protection net or safety wires, as Thomas Solvein intended. As he’d told Ariadna two hours earlier, “when a trapeze artist goes out without a net, it’s because he feels the intimate need to do so.” He stressed the adjective “intimate” as if it hid an invisible justification. His trapeze partner looked at him with a certain distance. She was used to his ridiculous reflections and would have liked to add that she also knew about the need for balance and that one only jumps without a net when one wants to die or at least needs to know that they still have that last escape. But she merely held his gaze and smiled and said yes, she would jump with him that stormy evening, even if it was the 13th and they didn’t have any safety wires or a net.

In the air, Thomas Solvein felt that familiar weightlessness of the world below and listened to the murmur of the children in the audience, captivated by the swinging trapeze. He searched for Eliza in the crowd but realized that he didn’t even have a vague, hazy memory of her. She would have changed after twelve years, of course. He remembered her “tenderness,” yes, that was her best accessory, her sweet face, her sweet nose, her lips, her bun with a pencil through it and her white blouses, always white, and the sound of the sewing machine and her straight back and the silhouette of her profile against the evening twilight. Everything about Eliza was repetition, he thought, gaining momentum. The light that evening was sinister, as were the spotlights hanging from the big top. All trapeze artists know to be careful not to get blinded by the lights. Thomas Solvein looked straight ahead, forcing the angle, and saw that Ariadna was already there, counting the seconds, concentrating on synchronizing the jump. Her thigh was wound up in the ascent rope and she looked like a mermaid with her scaled sequin suit, extending her hand to wave at the crowd.

While swinging, Thomas Solvein thought about a lot of things. One of them, which might explain all the rest, was that, just as cars go faster on the highway and your heart accelerates for no apparent reason in a tachycardia, on the trapeze, the seconds seem longer and everything becomes more fleeting and intense. Sometimes he had the feeling of being divided in two, of being two different people, two irreconcilable halves, and then, in the loneliness of the trapeze, he felt the need to speak to his antagonist, who was more reasonable and worthy. And if today, finally, I let go and do a triple? he asked him, you wouldn’t be able to do anything, not today, today would be too late, he yelled at him, and if I just let go and fall on top of everybody? The other side of him stayed quiet, indifferent. It’ll be easy, he continued, just one wish and you’ll end up bleeding to death on the hard sand floor. But his reasonable half, with whom he spoke in an inconsiderate and informal way, knew that he was an imposter and that he liked to show off, especially while hanging from a trapeze when both their lives depended on him.

Theirs was the last number that evening. The storm fell hard on the big top, creating a chaotic, constant pounding. In the air, the oxygen was charged with ozone and the ground let off a warm smell of elephant urine and wet earth. While swinging, Thomas remembered the dampness pervading the frozen sheets in the cabin he and Eliza had shared in the country, when they were still a married couple. They only went there when they needed to forgive each other for some infidelity or when something inhospitable appeared between them with a silent din. It was a small cabin near the wetlands with high reed ceilings, the smell of firewood and the crackling of the hearth and the infinite horizon of reeds and her and Thomas Solvein, a tight-rope walker then, read endless texts lounging on the couch, naked feet touching, The Gulag Archipelago, for example, words upon more words and then the fight, the negotiation, the evidence and the breakdown of Thomas’s few certainties, and the heat inside near the hearth, the uneasiness and the last shouts before going to bed, and outside the storm and flashes, all poetry as adornment for the eternal time spent in that cabin. The next morning, as the storm got worse, they went out to walk on the trail and reached the wetlands where ghostly trees grew tiptoeing their roots over the water and they got lost in the reeds, feet sinking in the black mud. They knew the wetlands by heart, but the marsh changed its own impulsive geography and replaced the trails they made as a force of habit, forming a dynamic and unsustainable labyrinth. Nobody in the world, Thomas Solvein liked to think, could find them there, in the middle of the reeds, gathering duckweeds in their hands. The duckweeds were tiny specks of green that floated in the corners of the marsh. As the water drained through their fingers, the duckweeds stayed stuck to their skin, like alien moles. Eliza put them all over her face and they laughed together, each one at the other. Sometimes, posed in that position, with the excuse of the reeds covering their heads, Thomas Solvein got serious, took her neck, with his two hands, strong (he felt her weak neck and the feeling that life, what was normal, she, was something fragile and subtle) and asked her what would happen if he killed her right there, if he kept squeezing his hands until she couldn’t breathe anymore and she turned blue and stopped kicking, “if you shout, nobody will hear you,” “if you try to escape, you know I’ll get you,” “what would happen,” he continued, “if you were to die at the hands of the person who loves you the most in this world.” It would just be an inexplicable contradiction, Thomas thought, but there are contradictions as admissible as they are terrifying. She then closed her eyes, lazy, as if she were a virgin surrendering to her parents’ sacrifice, wracked with silence, resigned to the idea of death and said, “there couldn’t be anything better than dying in your hands.” When Thomas Solvein removed them from her neck, her skin was red and there were white fingerprints in the middle that disappeared little by little. The duckweeds fell off her skin as Eliza got up and straightened her skirt to go back to the cabin.

Solvein lowered himself from the trapeze bar, hanging from the back of his knees, extending his hands as far as he could reach. The bar creaked, flexing under his weight. In that inverted pendular world, Ariadna rubbed her hands with chalk on the platform and adjusted her wristband. A circle of light framed her body against the big top, near the center tension cable. Thomas Solvein had always thought that Ariadna moved with the meticulous elegance of an Italian tightrope walker. If she’d heard him she would have told him that elegance cannot be meticulous and that Italians may be many things, but they are never meticulous or elegant. Yes, that’s why he fell in love with her. Not because of her habit of correcting him all the time, but because of her body, her curves, her hips and the meticulous elegance, he repeated, because it was precise, studied and unalterable. Three adjectives in disuse, sliding down her figure. Ariadna murmured something between her lips, caught the bar by the ropes and jumped in the air, throwing herself into the synchronized swinging that Thomas had initiated mere seconds earlier. And then he saw her, there below, in the audience, in one of the first rows. It was Eliza. Without a doubt. Time passes and people change, thought Thomas, your skin becomes wrinkled and your eyes sink from longing, the tear beds get deeper, you learn to suffer, you change, you’re someone else, but there are things, thought Thomas, your tenderness, the pencil in your bun, the white blouse, the look, those things, which remain unalterable, indolent to history.

Next to her there was a boy with very open, very black eyes, looking up at the height of the trapeze at that very moment. Thomas Solvein could not avoid fantasizing that the child was as old as his separation, twelve years, and that he was the fruit of something that was as painful as it was necessary. Eliza was staring at him, unafraid, like those afternoons in the wetlands when she let herself be strangled with such docility. Ariadna was now swinging in front of him. One afternoon, in the back of the caravan, she had also confessed that the double death jump was as close as you could get to being rescued from death. “It’s like jumping into the abyss and, in the inertia, being caught by two hands that free you from the free fall.” Sometimes Ariadna was too much like Eliza. They had repeated the jump thousands of times, following a dangerous but flawless protocol. She would pull her legs up as high as possible and, extending her arms, she would wait for him to catch her in the precise moment, mathematic, not before not after, exact, physics applied to the body. “It’s like being a suicide victim regretting it a thousand times over,” she said, “there’s always someone determined to rescue you.” When they were coming back from the wetlands, he and Eliza had the same feeling, that there was someone determined to rescue them from themselves. Sunday afternoon, after the traffic jam, they reached the city and everything became constant repetition.

Thomas had lived on the ground floor for many years, he’d been a tolerant neighbor, he’d organized barbecues and he’d had a decent run. He was working in construction in Berlin, walking on beams at great heights and keeping his balance with his arms. Not many people know it, but in construction, as in rock climbing, there’s always a pioneer risking his life, someone who lays the first beam, the first post, the first plank that will serve for his comrades to walk across behind him. That worker doesn’t have any safety measures, he depends on his own balance for a few minutes. Enough to die each day. When work was over, Thomas Solvein stayed on the metal beams for a moment, exploring the entire expanse of the city, calm, sleeping, the puzzle of streets and avenues, the pollution like a grey carpet, the skyscrapers bracing the horizon. The trapeze, he was sure now, was in his body.

And one day he left everything. He joined that entourage of scoundrels going from town to town, without leaving a trace other than the ridiculous flyers stuck under car windshield wipers and the elliptical silhouette of the tent, like a flying saucer, in the empty grounds, far beyond the reeds. And now Eliza was there, with her son, watching Thomas fly above from the ground below, a childish demand for an explanation whose answer was unknown. Trapeze artists work instinctively. There’s no other way, no other explanation, to jump into the abyss. Reason and logic would otherwise make something like this impossible. That’s why, following his instinct, he left home and Eliza never heard from him again. He changed his name to Thomas Solvein, which was more professional (although deep down, he only intended to erase his tracks), and put on his flying suit, a tight, black leotard, and hung from the trapeze. It was easy, like fulfilling a childish necessity. The mountain cabin and the circus trapeze weren’t all that different. Isolated, waterproof universes to inhabit. The story of Eliza and Thomas Solvein could have been one of the saddest, most vulgar stories published by the world of incomprehension, but since he sensed the danger when she told him that she was pregnant, he fled before the inevitable became reality. He remembered that Saturday morning in the cabin. From the window, he could see the wetlands combed by the wind from the north, cold, almost mythological, and far away on the trail, the procession of cut-out silhouettes from the circus with its signs, its trucks, that despondent and downcast elephant and those clowns practicing on stilts. Ariadna was leading a panther, but he couldn’t see much more because the wind stopped and the reeds stood back up and, besides, at that time he still didn’t know Ariadna and couldn’t have known that she was the girl with the panther. Thomas Solvein turned around and saw that Eliza was sleeping and his instinct, the only motor running when everything else fails, brought him to the certainty, unstable, presumptuous, that he had to escape and that he had do it in a humiliating, cowardly way. He didn’t even leave a note. While Eliza was sleeping, he grabbed a few changes of clothes, a book by Valery and escaped from the house like a thief, following the fungus-covered paths to the trail. Eliza must have woken up when he closed the door, but since it wasn’t the first time that Thomas Solvein had escaped, she probably thought it was just another of her husband’s unsuccessful pranks. But that day he didn’t come back and the circus people hired him to clean the cages, to help set up and to feed the animals. The first person he spoke to was Ariadna’s husband. He was Bullet Man, a deformed Jew, older than her, with an unpronounceable Swiss name, a secondary character that always wore gloves and never apologized to anyone. Ariadna and Thomas observed each other in silence as he fed the alligator and she hung up her husband’s immense long underwear and the thousands of gloves he wore for no apparent reason. They smiled at each other, of course, she with her absolute goddess superiority and he with the selfless submission of an animal feeder. Like the pieces of a puzzle, like a deciphered hieroglyphic, as if you were playing poker and Aces suddenly appeared in your hands, one evening, all those flirtations and games through the clothesline and Bullet Man’s long underwear became a long, light, unplanned kiss, a kiss that, ultimately, not only brought together a few millimeters of skin, but also vast expanses of desire. As they made love, Thomas noticed that the caravan ceiling was plastered with newspaper clippings, “Bullet Man traces a perfect parabola, y=x2,” “dumbfounded mathematician verifies perfection of technique,” “Bullet Man bursts through the big top”… and when they were finished, wrapped in the folds of sheets, he told her, “only a stranger can cure a fugitive.” She did not respond, she just kissed his armpits, between his ribs, on his belly button, her lips leaving behind an inextinguishable trace of saliva.

The storm had turned into a deafening downpour. Solvein felt the tension cable trembling and the expectant silence in the stands. He couldn’t take his eyes off Eliza, down there, contemplating his swinging body, with her hands on her lap, as if she presumed something serious was about to happen. The inverted world under the big top was a world of affection traffickers. They professed a protective love to each other, almost tribal. That year the Great Circus travelled around the country, from one end to the other, through the white landscapes of Flensburg and Lek, on small roads where time didn’t exist, and when it was too cold and impossible to breathe, they returned to Lower Saxony, to eat smoked meat and enjoy the weather and the green color of the world around them. In one of those warmer towns, they left Bullet Man on the side of the road, with his suitcase at his feet and his gaze fallen on a small cluster of houses. Like all secondary characters, he reached exile through his own free will, aware of his nullity in the story’s plot. That was when Ariadna mentioned creating a number together. “The day you no longer love me,” she joked, “all you have to do is let me slip.” “I’ll look at you,” she continued, “I swear that I won’t let our eyes separate even for a moment as I fall to the floor.” Later she shrunk against his chest like a sea-star out of water, searching for Thomas Solvein’s breath. Ariadna had a gifted body for balance, while Eliza had been conceived under the atmospheric pressure of good sense. Ariadna was above, Eliza was below. He began to count, one, two, three. Thomas Solvein knew that vertigo was a luxury he could never allow himself, but now the ground, the stands and Eliza, took on a distant light. Ariadna clapped twice and extended her arms before shouting the command in the distance. He felt his sweaty, moist hands. The rain fell on the big top forming a turbulent noise, the drumming of a metronome gone crazy. Three, four, Ariadna swung in the distance, gaining momentum for the jump. She gave him the second warning. At the third she would let go of the bar, do two somersaults and when she unfolded her body, slowly, opening herself to the emptiness, he had to grab her wrists, squeeze and feel that she was squeezing too and thus free her from the fall. The seconds on the trapeze, as Thomas always thought, dilated, the lights were gleaming snakes and the movements were extremely precise. He could see each of Ariadna’s gestures in her approach swing towards him while Eliza observed from below, with her eyes closed and the drumroll and the absolute silence in the audience and the kids pointing their fingers and the notion that something could go wrong, that with such strict protocols, the smallest mistake could have major consequences.

Thomas Solvein asked his reasonable side what would happen if he let go of Ariadna, if he let her fall, he asked: will she look into my eyes like she promised? And if so what will her eyes reflect? will they show betrayal? the end? submission? Possibly or maybe it’ll become a death fall, frenetic kicking in a hysterical pirouette, a scream building under the big top, mingling with the terror of the audience. What would happen if I was the one who fell? I shouted at him, what would Eliza think when she saw us strewn across the sand, forming an impossible X, broken? She’d think that she never should have come to the 9:00 show, she’d curse the 13th, the last performance and she would have the irremissible certainty that some things end and only memories remain, like scars with poorly sewn stitches. She’d think that she should never have desecrated the unstable balance of a trapeze artist. And if we both fall? I asked, and if Ariadna and I speed to a romantic death, a last communion, a dual suicide? Of course, if Ariadna had been able to censor his thoughts, she would’ve said that a suicide, no matter how much you try, could never be dual, it could be synchronized or in solidarity, or both things, but in the end it’s an act of intimate loneliness. The murder victim would be her.

Five, six. Thomas was marking the time. He saw Eliza two more times in the swinging interval. One of those times their eyes met ineffectively. At least that’s what Thomas Solvein thought at 40 meters above the ground. And then Ariadna shouted, the last signal, ten and she let go of the bar. He saw her trace an exact arch with her body closed, entering a rotation on the invisible axis passing through her abdomen. During these two slow rotations his attention was drawn to the stands, to Eliza, to that boy with the big, black, immense eyes, as Ariadna completed the two somersaults and executed the double death jump. He extended his arms as far as he could, opened the palms of his hands and realized that they were dripping with sweat. Ariadna began to open, like a newborn after months of darkness, Thomas breathed in the wetland air one more time, the stench of the cages and the figure of Bullet Man getting smaller in the rearview mirror. A lot happened while he was up there as Ariadna traced a perfect curve towards his arms and then it occurred to him to move his hands away, to let her slip through the air and then, while he was thinking of how to do it, how to move away and repeat the story of his life, complete resignation, he felt the violent and familiar smack of Ariadna’s hands upon completing her trajectory. She grabbed his forearms tightly but he didn’t want to respond. He felt how she slipped down his skin, how the weak applause was starting, how people were breathing when the drumroll finished, but she kept slipping in that useless swing, invisible to the crowd’s eyes. And she must have understood because she looked up and looked him in the eyes and it was a look that didn’t ask for any explanations, a last look of farewell, almost a promise. Below was the hard sand floor and Eliza and that boy and Ariadna smiled due to her own weakness and started releasing the pressure from her fingers, as he had done with Eliza’s neck in the wetlands, and he felt her slip until, at the last second, Thomas squeezed tightly, so tight that he felt the narrowness of her bones, he squeezed and squeezed with so much strength that if Eliza’s neck had been in its place, it would have snapped with a fragile, precise, vertebral break. Breaks can never be vertebral, that’s what Ariadna would have told him if she hadn’t surrendered and submitted to the fall.

Then Ariadna, with the same precision and agility as always, did a pirouette, escaped from his arms and returned to the platform. From up there, among the applause, she waved at the audience, extending her arm. Then the crowd’s effusiveness lost intensity and people started getting up from their seats, forming a resigned flow of the defeated silently going home to their houses on the lake. Eliza and the boy got up and, hand in hand, got lost under the big top, without ever turning around. Ariadna observed him from the platform, taking off her wristband without looking him in the eyes.

From up there, Thomas Solvein thought that he was right, just as cars go faster on the highway and your heart accelerates for no apparent reason in a tachycardia, on the trapeze, on a day like that, everything intensified and became more fleeting and real.


Ignacio Ferrando (Asturias, Spain, 1972) has published various award-winning short story collections, including “Sicily, Winter” (2008) and “Inner Ceremonies” (2006), as well as novels such as “A Centimeter of Sea,” which received the City of Irún’s Novel Award in 2011. His second novel, “The Skin of Strangers,” was recently published at the end of 2012 to high acclaim, and his third novel, “The Rumor and the Insects,” is scheduled to be published this year. His work has been featured in various anthologies and collections and has been translated into both English and German. Ferrando has received numerous awards, including: the RNE “Critical Eye” Award (2011), the Gabriel Aresti Award (2010), the Juan Rulfo Award (2008), the City of San Sebastián Award (2008), the UNED Fiction Award (2007), the City of Huelva Award (2007) and the Fernández Lema Award (2007), the Hucha de Oro (2006), and the NH Vargas Llosa Award (2006).

Heather E. Higle (Stamford, CT, USA, 1979) has a degree in Spanish and English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a Diploma in Translation from the Chartered Institute of Linguists. She has been working as a freelance translator in Madrid, Spain, for nearly a decade and has translated numerous short stories for award-winning contemporary Spanish authors, such as Ginés Cutillas and Mercedes Cebrián, who has been published in various languages and different countries


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