sleepwalker’s lullaby Isabel Zapata

Poem by Isabel Zapata

Illustration by Mario Flores

Translation by Jeremy Osner***



sleepwalker’s lullaby


science calls it ‘selective memory’:

this is why I can’t remember Dr. Zinser, nor

do I remember why they took out half your stomach, what

the heparin was for; nor the last time

that you laughed — what shiny thing it was you saw

out your window; the nurse’s name

who washed your lifeless body.


but I remember your words, that time you told me

in the video shop on Avenida Revolución,

how it would be a good thing to rent a new movie,

instead of watching “The Witches” yet again;

I remember the story of the bear that wasn’t,

they built a factory over him while he slept,

and when he came out of his cave, the foreman thought

he was a worker, and took him to the supervisor, the vice-president,

the president, who told him, you’re just

a stupid man, unshaven, in a fur coat.



one of the doctors told us, three months


a missile counting down


ninety days eighty nine

eight seven six five.



I know you didn’t want to die

but a thousand times I said you did: now she’s resting,

they were such difficult months,

the pain must have been unbearable.


I told little six-year-old Alejandro about heaven,

such a lovely place, how happy you must be

to see your parents, to play with la negra,

to have the time — at last! — to see Egypt.

I squeezed him then, and his eyes were shining

with a wonderful childish mish-mash of shock

and dismay, to see so many

of his family weeping at once.



they put your body in an oven, your ashes

in a little wooden chest; the chest, in a slot

in the church’s wall, and screwed it in tight

so it would never open.

the priest said something about death and hope,

but what does that matter: you’re trapped now in that crypt–

there are animals whose grave is the open savannah.



they say I look like you. at times

my brothers will look at me like

something of yours stolen from death,

something dark and sweet that we hide away

for ourselves.


as for my father, he says it reproachfully.

he can’t bear seeing echoed in his youngest daughter,

the turbulence of your mood, your habit

of weeping uncontrollably, tasteless

melancholy. he looks at me weary

and hisses through pursed lips:

don’t be so dramatic. you’re acting like your mother.



ask if your parents left off

loving each other when they begat you.

if so, you’ll never gladly look at the light;

you’ll have to reinvent it every day.¹


the analyst asked me about your marriage

to my father. I told her, they had been split up for a while,

the pregnancy was a mistake, my father was already

with someone else. the doctor looked at me, perturbed,

with a subtle movement of her head: –so,

do you think your parents didn’t love each other?

–I think they were confused.



I have a photo of us, our backs to the camera,

walking on the beach. I’m six years

old, a tiny pink outfit, platform sneakers,

my hair an uncombed ponytail

(I have that still). my hand’s

in yours, and far off you can see the sun’s

disk, in yellow, round perfection.


I can’t make out where you end

and I begin, in this picture.



mother, sister, pitcher, puddle, cliff,

disfigured creature of the ocean floor,

first model for my face, ephemeral

jacaranda flower, loose rope, cluster

of corrugated tin and shadows, remember


me, warm whisper,

in the evening’s freshest hour, tell me

what the deserts of death smell like,

how the rivers flow in its kingdom.


there has to be a place where you exist,

to rest my head upon the cornice of the world

to watch sorrow deflate on the horizon.

***Jeremy Osner has translated Spanish-language fiction and essays by diverse authors including Hernán Rivera Letelier, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Slavko Zupcic and Marta Aponte Alsina.

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