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Habits of the Artichoke

Fernando Sorrentino
Smaller text sizeDefault text sizeBigger text size Add to my bookshelf epub mobi Permalink MapNear the corner of Triunvirato and De los Incas avenues, Buenos Aires

Very few people are familiar with Ohm Alley. Its only block of any length runs near the corner of Triunvirato and De los Incas avenues. I live in a small balcony apartment facing the inner courtyard.

Even though I am forty-eight, I have never felt I would—or could—get married. I manage quite well on my own. My specialty is not agriculture or botany; I teach Spanish, literature, and Latin. I don’t know anything about those natural, rural sciences, but I do know a thing or two about linguistics and etymology. It is from these fields that I began my approach to the artichoke—alcaucil in Spanish.

As you know, a significant percentage of the Spanish lexicon has its origin in the language of the Arab invaders of the eighth century. Sometimes they would create a word by giving an Arabic form to a Latin or Neo-Latin noun that was in current usage in Spain.

Such is the case with the Mozarabic caucil, which derives from the Latin capitiellum, meaning “little head.” Thus, alcaucil (article plus noun) means “the little head.” This popular name has, shall we say, greater “expressivity” and “utility” than the scientific term Cynara scolymus.

Let us see why.

In Buenos Aires no one has ever seen an artichoke plant. From the vegetable markets, we are acquainted with, specifically, those little lifeless heads whose heart (better said, receptacle) and the bases of whose leaves (or rather, scales) are, certainly, very tasty. Well, then, these little heads contain the seed of the flower, and the horticulturist pulls them off the plant before it can develop, as, otherwise, the heads become hard and inedible.

I lived my whole life in complete ignorance of the morphology, life, and abits of the artichoke. Now, however, I can say without being pedantic that I have acquired a good deal of information and have become somewhat of an authority on the subject. I am aware, of course, that, regarding the artichoke, much remains to be learned.

The artichoke can be cultivated in a flower pot of generous proportions. Since it is a kind of thistle, a tough, hardy plant, it requires little care; it grows quickly; it reaches a height of approximately one meter, and horizontally speaking, a longitude that has, until now, been impossible to determine.

Although, as a rule, I don’t find plants interesting or attractive, I accepted with feigned gratitude the artichoke plant given to me by a neighbor nicknamed Peaches: simple and boring, of a certain age and myopia, she has a son named Sebastian who is rather a dim bulb.

Young Sebas—an apocope favored by his mother and his friends—had difficulty completing tenth grade. Somehow I found myself giving him free Spanish lessons so he could attempt to learn in a few days what he had not managed to learn, or even suspect, in the previous eleven or twelve months.

I don’t make any bones about the fact that I am an excellent Spanish teacher, with twenty years’ experience—and weariness—wielding the chalk. But Sebas—hopelessly plebeian and empty-headed—ended up as I had foreseen, duly flunked by the March examining committee.

Madame Peaches—maternal bias apart—managed to understand that the fault lay not with me but with her son, and in order to thank me in some way, gave me the aforesaid artichoke plant.

Madame Peaches visited my apartment briefly, committed untold errors and half-truths as she spoke, paid not the slightest attention to anything I said, conveyed her disillusioned view of the world, and—at last!—withdrew, leaving me with the sensation of displeasure that people of low intelligence and boundless ignorance habitually arouse in me. And there on the balcony the artichoke plant remained, together with a certain ill will, in its red and white flowerpot.

Little by little it began to propagate a multitude of dull-green heads (artichokes). By their own weight, they pulled down the resisting stems and began to creep along the balcony floor as if they were the many claws of an amorphous, unidentifiable animal, a kind of spiny land-octopus, with something of the stony green rigidity of prehistoric beasts.

Thus, a week must have passed.

I have spent years vainly fighting the advance of red ants, those invincible, omnivorous little insects that occupy an infinite number of caves in my apartment. One afternoon I happened to be sitting on the balcony; I was reading the newspaper and drinking mate.

And so I observed that four of the many artichoke heads were hunting down red ants. Their strategy was at once simple and efficient. With their scales down and their stem up, they would run like spiders, seize an ant with delicate exactitude, and through rapid traction and mastication, carry it to the center of the artichoke, where it was ingested.

By carefully observing the way the moving stems, or tentacles, widened at certain points, I could tell that the ants’ bodies were transported to the central stem, where—I imagined—the digestive apparatus of the artichoke must be located. More than once I had seen something similar in documentaries. When the snake swallows a mouse or a frog, the victim’s body can be seen sliding through the body of the executioner; just so did the artichokes eat.

I was elated. This incident seemed auspicious. The artichokes were untiring and insatiable. I realized that, in no time, they would achieve what I had failed to do for years: they would make an end, definitively, of all the red ants in my apartment, those ants that I, in my impotence, so hated.

Indeed, that is what happened. The time came when not a single red ant remained. Then the artichoke began to spread out, looking for other food.

Some artichokes strangled and devoured the other balcony plants: hollyhocks, geraniums, a rosebush that had never flourished, some ancient ferns, a wild, spiny cactus. Other artichokes, however, preferred to dig in the ground, capturing useful earthworms and harmful vermin alike. A third group climbed the walls and penetrated the spiders’ dark lairs.

Truly, those artichokes had a healthy appetite, and they were growing. They were constantly growing. It did not take them long to occupy the whole balcony. Like a climbing vine, they covered the floor, the ceiling, the walls, twisting and turning until they formed an impenetrable jungle.

I must confess, at that point I was a bit scared: I feared, stupidly, that the plant would continue growing until it occupied the whole apartment.

“Very well,” I told it, “if that is your intention, I will starve you to death.”

I lowered the gray wooden blinds and hermetically sealed the panes in the dining room and bedroom. I was sure that, deprived of food, the artichoke plant would languish, weaken, shrink, and finally wither away in dried-up fragments until it died.

I took that precautionary measure Monday, April 11, 1988. Because of some labor dispute or another, classes at my school were suspended toward the end of the week. I took the opportunity to escape briefly to the seaside resort of Mar del Plata, accompanied by a sort of girlfriend—middle-aged, of course—whom I have been dating for many years, a math teacher named Liliana Tedeschi. Both train lovers, averse to buses, we departed from Constitución Station Wednesday night and subsequently spent three beautiful days in that charming autumnal city.

Sunday, April 17, around eight in the morning, I found myself back in my apartment on Ohm Alley. As I am afraid of thieves, my door is armored and has two safety bolts. Feeling modestly proud of my foresight, I opened the first bolt, I opened the second, I pushed the door. I noticed that there was a certain amount of resistance: not too much, it is true, but, in fact, resistance.

Then I entered a kind of artichoke wonderland. I was met by a strong current of air: in my absence, these characters had first eaten up the wooden blinds and then destroyed the window panes. Now, like giant jellyfish, they had scattered throughout the apartment and methodically covered floors, walls, and ceilings, they snaked around corners, they scrambled up the furniture, investigated nooks and crannies...

This is what I saw at first glance. I promptly tried to assess the situation more systematically. Although I tried to remain calm, I could not help becoming indignant in the face of such abuses.

The artichokes had opened the refrigerator, the freezer and all the cupboards, and had eaten the cheese, the butter, the frozen meats, the potatoes, the tomatoes, the pasta, the rice, the flour, the crackers... Walking across the kitchen, I stumbled over now-empty jars of marmalade, olives, pickles, chimichurri sauce...

They had devoured everything that was humanly edible, and now, before my enraged eyes, they fell upon everything that was artichokably edible, namely, any form of organic matter—dead or alive. And I saw them chewing, clawing, and gnawing on the furniture-leather, feathers, wood, and all. And I saw them chewing, clawing, and gnawing on the books—oh, God!—my precious books, lovingly collected over a period of thirty years, the books that I had underlined and annotated—never using ink, just pencil—in my neat, careful handwriting, not once, but a thousand times!

I do not own a butcher knife, but I have a pair of scissors for cutting up chickens. I stuck an artichoke stem between the steel blades and—full of hate and joyously malicious—snipped off the enemy’s abominable head.

The beheaded artichoke rolled a few centimeters. Instantly, the cut stem branched into countless smaller stems, and simultaneously, fifteen, twenty, fifty new heads were born. Furiously, they threw themselves at me, trying to bite into my shoes, my legs, my hands.

Then, bit by bit, I retreated toward the bathroom and the bedroom, where the density of artichokes per square centimeter was considerably lower. I am—or I tell myself I am—a person who is quite rational, and I was determined to maintain my composure; it was simply a matter of staying calm and thinking a little, since I never doubted—I have always had great confidence in myself—that I would soon find a solution to the problem presented by these artichokes.

I began to reason.

During my absence, what had exasperated them, even driven them mad? Unquestionably, it was the lack of food. Indeed, during the previous weeks—when they had been eating normally—the behavior of the artichokes had been dignified and judicious. I had only, then, to provide them with the necessary food in order for them to return to their former calm, docile selves.

Using the bedroom telephone—there was little left of bed, lamp tables, closets, or clothes—I called the Two Friends market. The first friend sells meat; the second friend, fruits and vegetables. From the first, I ordered eight kilos of cheap cuts: liver, lungs, bones. From the second, potatoes and squash, which cost little but yield much. I asked them to deliver it all right away: thus I could satisfy, temporarily, the artichokes’ hunger. Later I could seek—and would find—the definitive solution.

While the artichokes and I waited for the food supplies, they continued to gnaw. The noise produced by their gnawing is similar to the sound of a box of matches being shaken, with the exception that no one is constantly shaking a box of matches, while, on the other hand, the artichokes were gnawing, gnawing, gnawing the whole time. They continued gnawing on what was left of the furniture, going for the wood and spurning any lacquer, metal, or plastic adhering to it.

I thought: “As long as they have something to eat, I will be safe.” And then, immediately: “What is taking the Two Friends so long?”

Then the doorbell rang (not the intercom buzzer, but the bell of the apartment): it rang with that long, impatient sound that I abhor. Anticipating my movement, an artichoke pressed the spring lock and opened the door, slowly.

Through the opening, against the darker background of the hallway, wearing a white apron and cap, and with an enormous wicker basket carried in both hands, appeared the fat, primitive errand boy whom I had seen many times washing down the sidewalk in front of the Two Friends market.

The young man—an enormous twenty-year-old blockhead weighing close to a hundred kilos—hesitated a moment between greeting me and entering. There was nothing else he could do: in a matter of seconds he was enfolded by a green web, ductile and efficient, consisting of forty or fifty artichokes. He could not scream or move his arms. With artichokes on his eyes, at his throat, and in his mouth, half strangled, and, whether alive or already dead I do not know, he was dragged—lightly as a feather—to the middle of the dining room, and there the artichokes, in a riotous rumble, got down to the task of piercing and eating their way through the fat boy from the market, as well as his wicker basket, the potatoes and squash, the liver, lungs, and bones.

That image of the little artichokes running all over his great body reminded me of red ants when they dissect a cockroach, dead or alive.

While these artichokes were ingesting the errand boy, others had locked the apartment door and were now guarding it, far from my reach.

I therefore shut myself up in the bathroom, an area that was still devoid of artichokes. I slid the metal bolt into place, then sat on the edge of the bathtub trying to imagine a quick way to defeat them. With an advanced case of nerves and little time to think, the best plan I could come up with was to start a fire. But, using what? Already, there was hardly anything left that was flammable, my house was just a skeleton of inorganic materials. This, and similar speculation, was useless in the end. The best thing—I told myself—is not to think at all. And to wait. Seated on the edge of the bathtub, to wait. Contemplating with stupid attention those familiar objects that were so deprived of interest: the sink, the mirror, the tiles...

The artichokes have already begun gnawing and perforating the bathroom door in twenty different places. Soon there will be twenty narrow openings and, suddenly, twenty dull-green heads advancing toward me.

I am waiting: neither resigned nor passive. I have torn out the towel rack and am grasping it like a cudgel: I shall not give up without a fight; I intend to inflict the maximum damage. I repeat what I said in the beginning: I have learned a great deal, but there is still a lot I don’t know about the habits of the artichoke.

Translation: Michele McKay Aynesworth
Table of related information
Copyright ©Fernando Sorrentino, 1995
By the same author RSS
Date of publicationMay 2004
Collection RSSThe Fictile Word
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