Translated by Lee Braden
I am fortunate enough to have a good friend in Puerto Rico. We first became acquainted several years ago through our mutual appreciation of literature. Over these years, we have shared many interesting discussions on literary works and their authors. Being Puerto Rican, she has been a great resource when questions have arisen regarding the brilliant and intriguing works of the Spanish / Hispanic canon. Among the wonderful writers on whom she has enthused is Carlos Fuentes. I had to admit to being largely ignorant of his work. To help address this lack in my reading, my friend organised for the delivery of a small volume by him. It duly arrived in my letterbox, here in Melbourne. To my surprise (and that of my friend) I discovered that the new book, prefaced with a biographical note and introduction written in scholarly English prose, had its main body of text written in Spanish.
I’m afraid that I can’t claim to be much of a Spanish speaker. Au contraire. However, on reflection, my initial surprise and frustration made way to excited anticipation. After all, what better way to read an author’s work than in the voice in which it was imagined, and then captured? How better to get the feeling of rhyme and metre, of colour and cadence? Here I have been presented with not only an opportunity to enjoy the language of Carlos Fuentes, but to learn a little of it as well.
I am so excited with the prospect of meeting Senor Fuentes…
A note on the completed translation:
I have learnt a lot during this process. What I have ultimately created is a translation, not an interpretation. Although, for me, the technical difficulties were many, the process was eased by the excellence, and the poetry, of the original composition. I have translated every paragraph, every sentence, and every word, taking care to recreate them as closely as possible to the original source, while maintaining a fluidity which, I hope, does justice to the text as a whole. I have done this to the extent that I have even endeavoured to replicate the precise punctuation and layout used in the Spanish text. I felt it would be more than presumptuous to attempt to rearrange the carefully chosen words of a master writer in any way, shape or form, no matter how trivial the adjustment. Consequently, the result is, I think, closer and more true to the original text than the only other English translation of which I am aware.
Lee Braden, 27 May 2017
translation by Lee Braden
You read the advertisement: this is no ordinary offer. You read it again, and again. It seems to be directed at you, and you alone. Distracted, you allow your ash to drop into your cheap coffee cup in this small, cheap café. You read it again. Young historian required. Well organised. Scrupulous. Expert in French. Excellent colloquial knowledge. Able to perform secretarial work. Youthful, knowledge of French, preferable if has lived in France for some time. Three thousand pesos a month. Food and comfortable room, sunny, proper studio. Only your name is missing. Only the lack of the blackest and showiest letters from the notice to announce: Felipe Montero. Applies to Felipe Montero, former fellow of the Sorbonne, historian burdened with useless data, accustomed to yellowing papers, assistant history teacher at private schools, on nine hundred pesos per month. But reading this you may suspect a prank. Donceles 815. Come in person. There is no telephone.
You gather your briefcase and leave a tip. You think that another young historian, with a situation like your own, has already read this notice, taken the lead, and filled the vacancy. You try to ignore this as you walk to the corner. You wait for the bus, light a cigarillo, and silently repeat the dates that you must memorize in order for these sleepy children to respect you. You have to get ready. The bus is approaching and you’re looking at the toes of your black shoes. You have to get ready. You put your hand in your pocket, you play with the copper coins, you finally select thirty cents, clench them in your fist, and stretch your arm to grasp the iron bar of the bus that never stops, jump on, make your way to pay the thirty cents, squeeze yourself between the standing passengers, support your right hand on the handrail, press the briefcase to your side and absentmindedly place your left hand over the back pocket of your trousers, where you keep your wallet.
You will live through this day like all the others, and will not remember it until the next day when, seated at the table in the small café, you order breakfast and open the newspaper. On the announcements page, there again, standing out, are those words: young historian. No one came yesterday. You read the advertisement. You are stopped by the last line: four thousand pesos.
You will be surprised to imagine that someone lives in Donceles Street. You have always believed that no one lives in the old centre of the city. You walk slowly, trying to distinguish number 815 in this conglomerate of old colonial palaces converted to workshops, watchmakers, cobblers, and outlets for bottled water. The numbers have been revised, overlaid, confused. 13 next to 200, the numbered blue tiles – 47 – above the new placard written with chalk: now 924. You look up to the second storey: there nothing changes. Jukeboxes do not disturb, mercury lamps do not illuminate, displays of trinkets do not adorn the second level of the buildings. Tezontle tablets, niches with saints crowned by pigeons, carved stone of Mexican Baroque, lattice-work balconies, the swirls and dips of embossed panels, the sandstone gargoyles. Windows darkened by long, green drapes: the window from which someone withdraws as you look at it, look at the cover of tangled vines, you lower your gaze to the paint stripping from the hallway and discover 815, before 69.
You tap in vain with the doorknocker, this dog’s head in copper, worn smooth: like the head of a canine foetus in the natural science museum. You imagine that the dog smiles at you and you release your icy grip. The door yields to your touch, and before entering you take a last look over your shoulder, you frown as the long, motionless row of trucks and cars grunt, whistle, and release the unhealthy smoke of their haste. You try, in vain, to retain a single image of this undifferentiated world outside.
You close the hallway door behind you and you try to penetrate the darkness of this covered alley-courtyard, where you can smell the moss, the dampness of the plants, the rotting roots, the perfume, soporific and thick—. You look in vain for a light to guide you. You search for matches in the pocket of your bag but a cascading and sharp voice warns you from afar:
—No … it is not necessary. I’ll tell you. Walk thirteen steps forward and you will find the staircase on your right. Go, please. There are twenty-two steps. Count them.
Thirteen. Right. Twenty-two.
The smell of dampness, of rotting plants, surrounds you as you take your steps, first on stone tiles, then on spongy boards, sodden from the humidity and closeness. You count softly up to twenty-two and stop, the match-box between your hands, the briefcase pressed against your ribs. You touch this door that smells of old, damp pine; you feel for a handle; you end up pushing and feel, now, a rug beneath your feet. A thin rug, badly crumpled, over which you stumble into new light, dim and suffuse, revealing odd shapes.
—Senora—you say in a low monotone, because you think you might recall a woman’s voice
—Now on your left. The first door. Be so kind.
You push this door – you no longer expect any to be properly closed, you already know they are all doors of impact – and scattered light is woven through your eyelashes, as though you were passing over a fine silken web. You see only these walls of uneven reflection, with dozens of flashing lights. You finally perceive them to be candles, placed on randomly scattered shelves and ledges. Slightly, their light glimmers through silver hearts, crystal bottles, framed glass, and behind this flickering sheen, in the background, onto a bed and a hand that seems to beckon you with its slow movement.
You see it when you turn your back on that firmament of devotional lights. You stumble to the foot of the bed; you go around and approach the bedside. There, this petite figure is lost in the immensity of the bed; reaching out you do not touch another hand, but thick skin, fur, the ears of an object that nibbles with a stubborn silence and offers you its red eyes: you smile and caress the rabbit that lies beside the hand that, finally, touches yours with cold fingers that pause, long, on your moist palm, which you turn to touch the lace pillow, to release your hand from the other.
—Felipe Montero. I read your advertisement
—Yes, I know. Sorry, there is no chair.
—I’m fine. Don’t worry.
—It is well. Please, show your profile. I don’t see you well. To light you. Like this. Clear.
—I read your advertisement …
—Of course. You read it. Do you feel qualified? -Avez vous fait des etudes?
—A Paris, madame
—Ah, oui, ca me fait Plaisir, toujour, toujour. Toujour, d’entendre…oui…vous savez…on etait tellement habitue…et apres
You turn aside so that the combined light from the silver, wax, and glass, draws a net of silk that gathers around white hair and frames a face so old it is almost infantile. The tight buttons of a collar that lead to ears hidden in the covers, quilts surround the entire body with the exception of the arms wrapped in a worsted shawl, pale hands resting on the belly: you peer into the face, until a movement of the rabbit allows you to divert your gaze and discretely observe these crumbs, these crusts of bread scattered upon the red silk quilts, threadbare and without lustre.
—I’m going to seed. I don’t have many years left, Mr Montero, and so I have violated the habit of a lifetime by placing this notice in the newspaper.
—Yes, that’s why I’m here
—Yes. Then you agree.
—Well, I’d like to know more…
—Naturally. You are curious.
You are startled in observing the night table, different coloured bottles, aluminium spoons, the lines of tablets and capsules, other glasses spotted with whitish liquid that are arranged on the floor, within reach of the hand of the woman lying on this low bed. You realize that it is barely raised above the ground when the rabbit jumps and is lost in the darkness.
—I offer four thousand pesos
—Yes, that what the announcement said today
—Ah, then it came out already
—Yes, it came out
—It is about the papers of my husband, General Llorente. It should be arranged before I die. They must be published. I have decided recently.
—And the general himself, is not able to…?
—He died at sixty years, sir. They are his unfinished memoirs. They must be completed. Before I die.
—I will inform you of everything. You will learn to edit in the style of my husband. It will suffice for you to arrange and read the papers to be fascinated by such prose, such transparency, such, such…
—Yes, I understand.
—Saga, Saga. Where is it? Ici Saga…
You raise the eyes that you had kept lowered, and she has already closed her lips, but that word, again, you listen to it again as if the old lady was saying it now. Stay still. You look towards the back; you are blinded by the bright halo flashing around religious objects. When you look again at the old lady, you feel that her eyes have been opened wide and are clear, liquid, immense, almost the colour of the yellow cornea around them, so that only the black dot of the pupil breaks that clarity lost, minutes earlier, in thick folds of eyelids drooping to protect that gaze that now returns to hide – you think – at the bottom of its dry cave.
—Then you will stay. Your quarters are ready. There in the light.
—Perhaps, madam, it would be best not to be importunate. I can continue to live as usual and revise the papers in my own home.
—My conditions are that you live here. There is not much time.
The lady moves for the first time since you entered her bedroom; she extends her hand again, you sense breathing by your side, and between the lady and you another hand extends and touches the fingers of the old one. You look to the side and a girl is there, a girl who you fail to see full length because she is so close and her appearance so unexpected, without any sound – not even the sounds that are not heard but are real because you feel them immediately, because in spite of everything they are stronger than the silence that accompanied them –.
—I told you that it would return…
—Aura. My companion. My niece.
The young woman tilts her head and the old woman, at the same time, repeats the gesture.
—He is Mr Montero. He is going to live with us.
You move a few steps so that the light of the candles does not blind you. The girl keeps her eyes closed, her hands across a thigh: she does not look at you. She opens her eyes little by little, as if afraid of the bright glare in the bedroom. Finally, you see those eyes of sea that flow, foaming, ebb to calm green, catch fire again wavelike: you see them and tell yourself that it is not true, those beautiful green eyes like all the beautiful green eyes that you have ever known or can ever know. However, you deceive yourself: those eyes flow, are transformed, as if to offer a landscape that only you could imagine and hope for.
—Yes. I am going to live with you.
The old woman smiles, with a sharp laugh, sensing your interest, and tells you that the young woman will show you to your room, while you think of the four thousand pesos salary, and that painstaking research work is pleasant, and that it excludes physical effort with movement to and fro and the inevitable and annoying encounters with others. You think all of this as you follow in the footsteps of the girl – you realise that you are not following by sight but by sound: following the rustling skirt, the rustle of taffeta – and this longing to look again in those eyes. You climb behind the sounds, in darkness, without adjusting to the darkness: you remember that it must be about six in the afternoon and are surprised by the flood of light from your room, as the hand of Aura pushes the door – another door without a lock – and stepping aside she says to you:
-Here are your quarters. We hope to dine within an hour.
And she walks away with the sound of taffeta, and you are unable to see her face again.
You close – push – the door behind you and finally raise your eyes to the immense skylight that serves as the ceiling. You smile as you realise that you have enough light to blind you in contrast with the gloom of the rest of the house. Try, happily, the softness of the mattress on the golden metal bed as you look around the room: the red woollen carpet, the walls papered gold and olive, the red velvet chair, the old desk of walnut and green leather, antique oil-lamp, lights for your nights of research, the shelf fixed to the desk, at your fingertips, with bound volumes. You walk towards another door, and having pushed it, discover an old-fashioned bathroom: four legged tub, with flowers painted on porcelain, a blue ewer, an uncomfortable toilet. You look in the large oval mirror of the wardrobe, also of walnut, placed in the bathroom. You move your thick eyebrows, and your long, full mouth fogs the mirror; you close your dark eyes and, when you open them, the fog has gone. You stop holding your breath and run a hand through your dark, straight hair; touching with her your upright profile, your thin cheeks. As your face fogs up again, you repeat that name, Aura.
You consult the clock, after smoking two cigarettes lying on the bed. Stand up, take the bag and run the comb through your hair. You push the door and try to recall the path you took on the way up. You want to leave the door open so that the light of the oil-lamp will guide you. It is impossible because it springs closed. You could entertain yourself by swinging that door. You could take the oil-lamp to descend by. You give up because you already know that this house is always in darkness. You are obliged to know her and to recognise her by touch. You move cautiously, like a blind man, with arms outstretched, brushing against the wall, and your shoulder inadvertently presses the electric light switch. You stop, blinking, in the illuminated centre of this long bare corridor. To the rear, the banister and the spiral staircase.
You descend counting the steps: another immediate custom imposed on you by the house of Mrs. Llorente. Low counting and you take a step backwards when you find the pink eyes of the rabbit that immediately turns its back and jumps away.
You have no time to stop in the hallway because Aura, in a partly open opaque glass door, will await you with the candelabrum in her hand. You walk, smiling, towards her; you stop to listen, and close to the hand of Aura, confirm that there are several cats – and you follow her into the room: These are the cats – says Aura – there are so many mice in this part of the city.
You cross the living room: silk lined furniture, display cases with porcelain dolls, musical clocks, crystal balls and decorations; Persian rugs, bucolic paintings, green velvet curtains drawn. Aura dressed in green.
-Are you comfortable?
-Yes. But I need to pick up my things in the house where…
-It’s not necessary. The servant already went to find them.
-They shouldn’t have bothered.
You follow, always behind her, into the dining room. She places the candelabrum in the centre of the table; you feel a damp cold. All the walls of the room are clad in dark wood, carved in the gothic style, with peaked arches and rosettes. The cats have stopped meowing. When you take your seat you notice that there are four places set and that there are two hot plates beside silver casseroles and an old and bright bottle covered in a greenish film.
Aura opens the casserole. You inhale the pungent smell of the kidneys in onion sauce that she serves while you take the old bottle and fill the cut crystal glasses with thick red liquid. You try, out of curiosity, to read the wine label, but the film prevents it. From the other platter, Aura takes some whole roasted tomatoes.
-Pardon – you say, looking at the two extra settings, the two unoccupied chairs – Are we waiting for someone else?
Aura continues serving the tomatoes:
-No. Mrs. Consuelo is feeling weak tonight. She will not join us.
-Mrs. Consuela? Your aunt?
-Yes. Please come and see her after dinner.
You eat in silence. You drink the particularly thick wine, and you turn repeatedly to look then glance away, so that Aura is not surprised by the impudence of this urge that you cannot control. You want, even then, to fix the girl’s features in your mind. Whenever you look away, you have already forgotten and an undeniable urgency forces you to look anew. She keeps, as always, her eyes low and you, looking for the packet of cigarettes in the bag, find this latchkey, remembering, you say to Aura:
-Ah! Forgot that a drawer of my desk is unlocked. I have my documents there.
And she murmurs:
-So . . . Do you want to go?
She says it like a reproach. You feel confused and extend the hand with the key hung by a finger, you offer it.
– Not urgent
But she moves away from the touch of your hands, keeps hers on her lap, finally looks up and again you doubt your senses, you attribute to the wine your light-headedness, the dizziness produced by those green eyes, clear, bright, and you stand behind Aura, caressing the wooden back of the Gothic chair, not daring to touch the bare shoulders of the girl, the head that stays still. You make an effort to contain yourself, distract yourself by listening to the imperceptible beat of another door, behind you, which should lead to the kitchen, deconstruct the two plastic parts of the dining room: the compact circle of light thrown by the candlestick that illuminates the table and one end of the carved wall, the larger circle of shadow, surrounding the first. You have, at last, the courage to approach her, take her hand, open it and place the key ring, the promise, on her smooth palm.
You see her squeeze her hand closed, hold your gaze, murmuring:
-thank you . . . –, rises, hurries from the dining room.
You take Aura’s place, stretch your legs, light a cigarette, invaded by a pleasure that you have never known, that you knew was within you, but only now fully experience, liberating it, throwing it out because you know that this time it is answered . . . And Mrs. Consuela waits for you: she warned you: she waits for you after dinner . . .
You know the way. You take the candlestick and cross the room and the foyer. The first door, in front of you, is that of the old woman. You knock, no answer. Knock again. You push the door; she waits for you. You enter cautiously, murmuring:
-Mrs . . . Mrs . . .
She will not have heard you, because you find her lying before this wall of devotions, her head resting upon her clenched fists. You see her from afar, twisted, covered by that coarse woollen nightgown, her head sunk in her thin shoulders: thin as medieval sculpture, gaunt: her legs appear like two strands beneath the nightgown, weak, covered by inflamed erysipelas; you think of the constant rubbing of the rough wool on her skin until she raises her fists and strikes the air weakly, as if she were fighting a battle against the images that, on approaching, you begin to distinguish: Christ, Mary, San Sebastian, Saint Lucia, Archangel Michael, the smiling demons, the only ones smiling in this iconography of pain and anger: smiling because, in the old engraving illuminated by candlelight, they pierce tridents through the skin of those condemned, empty cauldrons of boiling water, rape women, get drunk, enjoy freedoms forbidden the saints. You approach this central image, surrounded by the tears of the Sorrowful, the blood of the Crucified One, the pleasure of Luzbel, the rage of the Archangel, viscera preserved in jars of alcohol, silver hearts: Mrs. Consuelo, kneeling, shakes her fists, babbling words that, nearing her, you can hear:
-It comes, City of God; it sounds, Gabriel’s trumpet; Oh, but how long does the world die!
She beats her chest until she collapses, in front of the images and the candles, with a fit of coughing. You take her by the elbows, you lead her gently to the bed, you are surprised by the size of the woman: almost a girl. Bent double, hunchbacked, with the deformed spine: you know that, if not for your presence, she would have to return to the bed on hands and knees. You lay her on the big bed of crumbs and old duvets, cover her, wait for her breathing to regulate, while involuntary tears run down her transparent cheeks.
-Sorry . . . Forgive me, Mr. Montero . . . To the old there only remains . . . the pleasure of devotion . . . Pass me the cloth, please.
-Miss Aura told me . . .
-Yes, exactly. I do not want us to lose any time . . . You must . . . you should begin work as soon as possible . . . Thank you . . .
-Try to rest.
-Thank you . . . Take . . .
The old woman lifts her hands to her collar, unbuttons it, lowers her head to remove a purple ribbon which she now passes to you: heavy because a copper key hangs from the ribbon.
-In that corner . . . Open that trunk and bring the papers that are on the right, on the top . . . Tied with a yellow cord.
-I cannot see very well . . .
-Ah, yes . . . I’m so used to the darkness. To my right . . . Walk and you will stumble into the container . . . They have walled us in, Mr Montero. They have built around us, they have taken the light from us. They have tried to force me to sell. I’ll die first. This house is full of memories for me. Only dead will I be removed from here . . . That’s it. Thank you. Can you begin reading this part. I’ll be giving you the rest. Good night, Mr. Montero. Thank you. Look: your candle has gone out. Light it, please. No, no keep the key. Accept it. I trust you.
-Madam . . . There is a nest of mice in that corner . . .
-Mice? I never go over there . . .
-You should bring the cats here.
-Cats? Which cats? Good night. I’m going to sleep. I am weary.
That same night you read the yellowed papers, written in a mustard-coloured ink; sometimes perforated carelessly by tobacco ash, tainted by flies. General Llorente’s French did not enjoy the excellence with which his wife had attributed it. You see that you can improve the style considerably, tighten the diffuse narration of past events: childhood in a hacienda in 19th century Oaxaca, military studies in France, friendship with the Duke of Morny, with the intimate circle of Napoleon III, the return to Mexico in the staff of Maximilian, the ceremonies and soirees of the Empire, the battles, the collapse, the Hill of the Bells, the exile in Paris. Nothing that had not been told by others. You undress thinking of the distorted whim of the old lady, of the false value she has attached to these memories. You lie down smiling, thinking of your four thousand pesos.
You sleep, without a sound, until the shaft of light wakes you, at six in the morning, because the glass ceiling has no blinds. You cover your eyes with the pillow and try to go back to sleep. After ten minutes, you give up and walk to the bathroom, where you find all your things arranged on the table, your few suits hanging in the closet. You have finished shaving when an imploring and pained caterwauling destroys the silence of the morning.
It reaches your ears with an atrocious vibration, rending, pleading. You try to locate its source: you open the door to the corridor but you don’t hear it there: the caterwaul slides in from above, from the skylight. You quickly climb onto the chair, from the chair to the bench, and leaning on the bookshelf you can reach the skylight, open one of its windows, rise with effort and peer into the side garden, this block of tangled yew trees and brambles where five, six, seven cats – you cannot count them: you cannot support yourself there for more than one second – chained together, they are covered in fire, they give off an opaque smoke, a smell of burning fur. You doubt, when you fall back on the armchair, whether you have in fact seen that; perhaps you only associated that image with the appalling caterwauling that persists, diminishes, eventually ends.
You put on your shirt, pass a paper over the tips of your black shoes and listen, this time, the warning bell seems to fill the hallways of the house and move closer to your door. You look into the corridor; Aura approaches with the bell in her hand, inclines her head toward you, tells you that breakfast is ready. You try to stop her. Aura has already descended the spiral staircase, ringing the black painted bell, as if to raise a whole hospice, an entire boarding school.
You follow her, in shirtsleeves, but when you reach the hall you cannot find her. The door of the old woman’s bedroom opens behind you: you can see the hand that appears behind the barely open door, places that porcelain in the hallway and withdraws, closing it again.
In the dining room, you find your breakfast served, this time in a single setting. You eat quickly, you return to the hallway, you knock on the door of Mrs. Consuelo. That voice, weak but sharp, asks you to enter. Nothing has changed. The permanent darkness. The glow of the candles and the silver miracles.
-Good morning Mr Montero. Did you sleep well?
-Yes, I read until late.
The old lady waves a hand as if to dismiss you.
-No, no, no. I don’t want your opinion. Work on these papers and when you finish I’ll give you the others.
-That’s good, Mrs. Can I visit the garden?
-What garden Mr. Montero?
-The one behind my room.
-There is no garden in this house. We lost the garden when they built around the house.
-I thought I could work better in the open air.
-In this house there is only that dark yard where you came in. There my niece grows some shade plants. But that’s all.
-It’s okay Mrs.
-I wish, to rest all day. Come and see me tonight.
-It’s okay Mrs.
Check the papers all day, leaving unmarked the paragraphs you think to retain, rewriting those you think weak, smoking cigarette after cigarette and reflecting that you must pace your work so that the review is extended as much as possible. If you can save at least twelve thousand pesos, you could spend about a year devoted to your own work, postponed, almost forgotten. Your great work covering all the Spanish settlements and conquests in America. A work that summarises all the scattered chronicles, makes them intelligible, reveals the correspondence between all the companies and adventurers of the golden age, between the human prototypes and the major fact of the Renaissance. In fact, you end up abandoning the tedious papers of the military man of the Empire to begin writing briefs and summaries of your own work. Time flies and only when you hear the bell again, you consult your watch, take your bag and go down to the dining room.
Aura will be seated already; this time the head of the table is occupied by Mrs. Llorente, wrapped in her shawl and camisole, topped with her cap, bent over the plate. But the fourth place is also set. You notice in passing; no longer do you worry. If the price of your future creative freedom is to accept all the manias of this old woman, you can pay it without difficulty. You try, while watching her slurping soup, to calculate her age. There is a moment when it is no longer possible to distinguish the passage of years: Mrs. Consuela, long since has crossed that border. The general does not mention it in what you have read from the memoirs. But had the general been forty-two years old at the time of the French invasion and died in 1901, forty years later, he would have died at eighty-two. He would have married Mrs. Consuela after the defeat of Queretaro and the exile, but she would have been a girl then . . .
The dates confuse you, because the lady is already speaking, with that sharp, slight murmur, that bird chirrup; she is speaking to Aura and you listen, attentive to the food, to that flat list of complaints, pains, suspicion of disease, more complaints about the price of medicine, the humidity of the house. You would like to intervene in the domestic conversation by asking about the servant who collected your things yesterday but whom you have never seen, who never serves the table: you would ask if, of a sudden, you were not surprised to realize that Aura up to this moment had not opened her mouth to eat, had a mechanical fatality, as if waiting for an external impulse to take the spoon, the knife, to slice the kidneys – you taste, again, that diet of kidneys, apparently the favourite of the house – and bring them to her mouth. You look quickly from the aunt to the niece and from the niece to the aunt, but Mrs. Consuelo, at that moment, ceases all movement and, at the same time, Aura leaves the knife on the plate and remains immobile and you perceive that a fraction of a second earlier, Mrs. Consuelo did the same.
Remain several minutes in silence: you finish eating, they immobile like statues, watching you eat. Finally the lady says:
– I’ve grown tired. Should not eat at the table. Come Aura, accompany me to the bedroom.
The lady will try to hold your attention: she will look at you directly so that you look at her, although her words are addressed to her niece. You must make an effort to avert that gaze – again open, clear, yellow, stripped of the veils and wrinkles that normally cover it – and fix yours on Aura, who in turn stares at a lost point and moves her lips silently, rises with movements similar to those that you associate with dreams, takes the arms of the old hunchback and leads her slowly out of the dining room.
Alone, you serve yourself the coffee that has been there since the beginning of lunch, the cold coffee that you sip while you frown and wonder if the lady does not possess a secret power over the girl, if the girl, your beautiful Aura dressed in green, will not be kept against her will in this old, gloomy house. It would, however, be so easy to escape while the old woman sits in her darkened room. And you cannot ignore the path that opens in your imagination: perhaps Aura expects you to save her from the chains that, for some secret reason, this capricious and imbalanced old woman has imposed on her. You recall Aura minutes before, inanimate, brutalized by terror: unable to speak before the tyrant, moving her lips silently, as if in silence she begged for freedom, imprisoned to imitate all the movements of Mrs. Consuelo, as if only that which the old woman did was allowed to the young one.
You rebel against this image of total alienation: You walk, this time towards the other door which opens on the hallway at the foot of the stairs, which is next to the bedroom of the old woman: Aura must live there: there is another part to the house. Push the door and enter that bedroom, also dark, with whitewashed walls, where the only adornment is a black Christ. On the left, you see the door that should lead to the bedroom of the widow. Walking on tiptoe, you approach it, place your hand against the wood, desist in your effort: you must speak with Aura alone.
And if Aura wants you to help her, she will come to your room. You remain there, forgetting the yellow papers, your own annotated notes, thinking only of the elusive beauty of your Aura – the more you think about her, the more you want to do it, not only because you think of her beauty and desire her, but because now you want to liberate her: you have found a moral reason for your desire; you will feel innocent and satisfied – and when you hear the warning of the bell again, you do not go down to dinner because you could not endure another scene like that of midday. Perhaps Aura will realize and, after dinner, will come up to find you.
You make an effort to review the papers. Tired, you slowly undress, you fall on the bed, you soon fall asleep and for the first time in many years you dream, you dream of one thing, you dream of this stark hand that moves toward you with the bell in the hand, shouting that you move away, that they all move away, and when that face with vacant eyes is close to yours, you wake up with a muted cry, sweating, and you feel those hands that caress your face and your hair, those lips that murmur in the softest voice, comfort you, ask for calm and affection. You reach out your own hands to find the other body, naked, then trembling slightly, the latchkey which you recognize, and with it the woman who leans over you, kisses you, smothers your whole body with kisses. You cannot see her in the darkness of the starless night, but you smell in her hair the perfume of the plants of the courtyard, feel the soft and most tender skin of her arms, touch the interlaced flower of the delicate veins in her breasts, kiss her, and do not ask for words.
When you have parted, exhausted, from her embrace, you hear her first murmur: “You are my husband”. You nod. She will tell you that it is dawn; she will say goodbye saying that she waits for you that night in the bedroom. You nod again, before falling asleep, satisfied, light, pleasure fading, holding by your fingertips the body of Aura, your trembling, your delivery: the girl Aura.
You have trouble waking. There are several knocks and you rise from the bed heavily, groaning. Aura, on the other side of the door, will tell you not to open: Mrs. Consuelo wants to talk to you; awaits you in her bedroom.
After ten minutes you enter the sanctuary of the widow. Wrapped up, sheltered against the lace cushions: you sidle up to the immobile figure, her eyes shut behind the drooping eyelids, wrinkled, pale: you see the wrinkles and puffy cheekbones, the complete fatigue of the skin.
Without opening her eyes, she says:
-Did you bring the key?
-Yes . . . I think so. Yes, here it is.
-You can read the next folio. It’s in the same place, with the blue ribbon.
You walk, this time with disgust, toward that chest around which the rats swarm, poke their beady eyes between rotten floorboards, scamper toward the holes in the wall. Open the chest and remove the second folio of papers. You return to the foot of the bed; Mrs Consuela caresses her white rabbit. From the buttoned throat of the old lady, this dull cackling issues:
-Do you not like animals?
-No. Not particularly. Perhaps because I have never had one.
-They are good friends, good companions, especially when old age and solitude come.
-Yes. It must be so.
-They are natural beings Mr Montero. Beings without temptation.
-What did you say the name was?
-The doe? Saga. Wise. Follow your instincts. It is natural and free.
-I thought it was a rabbit.
-Ah, you cannot distinguish yet.
-Well, the important thing is that you do not feel alone.
-They want us to be alone, Mr Montero, because they say that solitude is necessary to attain holiness. They have forgotten that in solitude the temptation is greater.
-I do not understand, senora.
-Ah, better, better. You can keep working.
You turn your back. You walk towards the door. You leave the bedroom. In the hall, you clench your teeth. Why do you not have the courage to tell her that you love the girl? Why do you not go in and tell her, at once, that you plan to take Aura with you when you finish the work. You go back to the door; you push it, hesitantly, and through the gap you see Mrs. Consuelo standing erect, transformed, with that tunic in her arms: that blue tunic with gold buttons, red epaulettes, shiny insignia of crowned eagle, that tunic that the old woman nibbles ferociously, kisses tenderly, holds to the man to turn in a swaying dance step. You close the door.
Yes: she was fifteen when we met – you read in the second folio of memoirs—: elle avait quinze ans lorsque je l’ai connue et, si j’ose le dire, ce sont ses yeux verts qui ont fait ma perdition: the green eyes of Consuelo who was fifteen years old in 1867, when general Llorente left with her and took her to live in Paris, in exile. Ma jeune Poupée, wrote the general in moments of inspiration, ma jeune Poupée aux yeux verts; Je t’ai comblee d’amour: described the house in which they lived, walks, dances, horse-drawn carriages, the world of the Second Empire; without great relief, certainly. J’ai meme supporte ta haine des chats, moi qu’ t’aimais tellement les jolies bêtes . . . One day he found her, legs apart, with the crinoline raised in front of her, martyring a cat, and could not draw her attention because he found that tu faisas ca d’un facon si innocent, par pur enfantillage and was so excited in fact, they made love that night, if you give credit to your reading, with a hyperbolic passion, parce que tu m’avais dit que torturer les chats etait ta maniere a toi de rendre notre amour favorable, par un sacrifice symbolique . . . You’ve calculated: Mrs. Consuelo will be one hundred and nine years old today . . . You close the folio. Forty-nine at the time of death of her husband. Tu sais si bien t’habiller, ma douce Consuelo, toujours drapee dans des velours verts, verts comme tes yeux. Je pense que tu seras toujours belle, meme dans cent ans . . . Always dressed in green. Always beautiful, even in a hundred years. Tu es si fiere de ta beaute; que ne ferais-tu pas pour rester toujours jeune?
You know, on closing the folio again, that this is why Aura lives in this house: to perpetuate the illusion of youth and beauty of the poor old crazy woman. Aura, encased as a mirror, as another icon of that religious wall, riddled with miracles, preserved hearts, demons and imaginary saints.
You toss the papers aside and descend, suspecting the only place where Aura could be in the morning: the place assigned by the greedy old woman.
You find her in the kitchen, yes, at the moment of beheading a male goat: the steam that rises from the open neck, the smell of spilled blood, the hard, open eyes of the animal make you nauseous: behind this image is lost that of Aura, badly dressed, with hair mussed, blood-stained, who looks at you without recognition, who continues the butchery . . . — .
You run into the hallway, the living room, the dining room, the kitchen where Aura skins the goat slowly, absorbed in her work, without hearing you enter or your words, looking through you as though you were air.
You fall into a stupor, fall to the bottom of the dream that is your only way out, your denial of the madness. “She’s crazy, she’s crazy,” you repeat to yourself to fall asleep, repeating with the words the image of the old woman who, in the air, skins the goat of air with her air knife: “she’s crazy. . .”.
In the depths of the dark abyss, in your silent dream, with open mouths, in silence, you will see her advance towards you, from the black depths of the abyss, you will see her advance on all fours.
moving her emaciated hand, advancing toward you until her face sticks against yours and you see the bleeding gums of the old woman, those toothless gums and you scream and she moves away again, sowing along the abyss the yellow teeth she is extracting from the blood stained apron:
your scream is the echo of Aura’s scream, before you in the dream, Aura screams because hands have torn away half her green taffeta skirt, and
this sheared head,
with the torn pleats of the skirt between her hands, she turns toward you and laughs in silence, with the old woman’s teeth superimposed over her own, while Aura’s legs, her naked legs, fall apart and fly toward the abyss . . .
Hear the knock on the door, the bell following the knock, the dinner bell. The headache prevents you reading the numerals, the position of the hands on the clock; you know that it’s late: before your supine head, the night clouds pass behind the skylight. You get up painfully, bewildered, hungry. Place the glass jug beneath the bath tap. wait for the water to flow, fill the jug which you remove and empty into the basin in which you wash your face, brush your teeth with your old brush daubed with green paste, sprinkle your hair – unaware that you should have done all this in reverse –, comb carefully before the oval mirror of the walnut dresser, knot your tie, take the bag and descend to an empty dining room, where only one place is set: yours.
And beside your plate, under the napkin, that object that you rub between your fingers, that flimsy doll, of rag, filled with stuffing that leaks through the badly stitched shoulder: the face painted with Chinese ink, the naked body, detailed with scant brushstrokes. You eat your dinner cold – kidneys, tomatoes, wine – with the right hand: you hold the doll between the fingers of the left.
Eat mechanically, with the doll in the left hand and the fork in the other, without realizing, initially, your own hypnotic state, later, seeing the reason in your oppressive nap, in your nightmare, identifying, finally, your sleepwalking movements with those of Aura, with those of the old woman : looking with disgust at that hideous doll which your fingers caress, in which you begin to suspect a secret disease, a contagion. Let it fall to the ground. You wipe your lips with the napkin. Check your watch and remember what Aura has said to you in the bedroom.
You cautiously approach the door of Mrs. Consuela and hear not a sound. Check your watch again: just nine o’clock. You decide to go down, groping, to the covered courtyard, without lights, that you have not visited since you crossed it, without seeing, the day you arrived at this house.
You touch the damp walls, slimy; inhale the perfumed air and you want to deconstruct the elements of the smell, recognize the aromas heavy, sumptuous, around you. The burning phosphorous illuminates, flickering, that narrow and humid, tiled courtyard, on which grow, on every side, the plants sown in the margins of reddish and loose earth. Distinguish the tall forms, flowing, that cast their shadows in the light of the match that is consumed, burns your fingers, forces you to light another to finish recognition of the flowers, the fruits, the stalks of which you recall mention in old chronicles: the forgotten herbs that grow fragrant, dormant: the wide, long, cleft, hairy leaves of the henbane: the stalk with flowers, yellow on the outside, red inside; the leaves heart-shaped and sharp of the nightshade; the ashen fluff of the mullein, its flowers blooming; the bushy bouquets of the evonimo and its off-white flowers; the belladonna. They come alive in the light of your match, sway with their shadows as you recall the uses of this herbarium that dilates the pupils, numbs pain, alleviates childbirth, consoles, tires the will, consoles with a voluptuous calm.
You remain alone with the perfume when the third match goes out. Climb slowly to the hallway, again you put your ear to the door of Mrs. Consuelo, continue, on tiptoe, to that of Aura: push, without warning, and enter that bare room, where a circle of light illuminates the bed, the great Mexican crucifix, the woman who advances toward you when the door closes.
Aura dressed in green, with the taffeta robe revealing, as this woman advances toward you, thighs the colour of the moon: the woman, to hold close again, the woman, not the girl of yesterday: the girl of yesterday – when touching her fingers, her waist – could not have been more than twenty years old; the woman of today – and caress her black hair, loose, pale cheek – seems like forty: something has hardened, between yesterday and today, around the green eyes, the redness of the lips has grown darker, from her previous form, as if she had a happy grimace, a shady smile: as though alternating, like that plant in the courtyard, the taste of honey and bitterness. You do not have time for more thought:
-Sit on the bed, Felipe.
-We are going to play. You do not do anything. Let me do everything.
Sitting on the bed, try to distinguish the origin of that diffuse light, opaline, which barely allows you to separate objects, the presence of Aura, from the golden atmosphere which envelops them. She will have seen you looking up, looking for the source. From her voice, you know she is kneeling in front of you:
-The sky is neither high nor low. It is above and below us at the same time.
She will remove your shoes, your socks, and stroke your bare feet.
You feel the warm water that bathes your soles, the relief, while she washes you with a thick cloth, directs furtive glances to the black wood Christ, finally leaves your feet, takes you by the hand, highlights a few buds of violet in her loose hair, takes you between her arms and hums this melody, this waltz that you dance with her, lifted by the whisper of her voice, turning to the slow rhythm, solemn, that she imposes upon you, oblivious to the light movement of her hands, which unbutton your shirt, caress your chest, feel for your back, hold it. You also murmur that song without lyrics, that melody that rises naturally from your throat: the two turn closer and closer to the bed; you stifle the murmured song with your hungry kisses on the mouth of Aura, arrest the dance with your hurried kisses on the shoulders, the breasts of Aura.
You have the empty robe between your hands. Aura, squatting on the bed, places this object against her closed thighs, caresses them, beckons you with her hand. Caresses that thin floury slice, breaks it on her thighs indifferent to the crumbs that roll about her hips: offers you half of the wafer that you take, put in your mouth at the same time as her, swallow with difficulty: you fall onto the naked body of Aura, her arms open, extended from one side of the bed to the other, like the black Christ hanging on the wall with his scarlet silk loincloth, his knees apart, his wounded side, his crown of thorns mounted on the black wig, matted, streaked with silver. Aura will open like an altar.
You whisper Aura’s name in Aura’s ear. You feel the woman’s arms full against your back. You hear her warm voice in your ear:
-Will you always love me?
-Always, Aura, I will love you forever.
-Always? Do you swear to me?
-Even though I should grow old? Even though I should lose my beauty? Even though I should have white hair?
-Always, my love, always.
-Even if I die, Felipe? Will you always love me, even when I die?
-Always, always. I swear. Nothing can separate me from you.
-Come, Felipe, come . . .
Reach for, upon waking, Aura’s back but only touch the pillow, still warm, and the white sheets that envelop you.
Murmur her name again.
Open your eyes: see her smiling, standing at the foot of the bed, but not looking at you. See her walk slowly to that corner of the room, sit on the floor, place her arms on the black knees emerging from the darkness that you try to penetrate, caress the wrinkled hand that becomes increasingly clear from the depth of the darkness: at the feet of the old woman Mrs. Consuelo, who is sitting in the armchair that you notice for the first time: Mrs. Consuelo who smiles at you, nodding, smiling at you along with Aura who nods her head at the same time as the old woman: the two smile at you, grateful to you. Leaning back, without will, you think that the old woman has been in the bedroom all the time;
remember their movements, their voice, their dance
no matter how much you say she has not been there
The two rise together, Consuelo from the chair, Aura from the floor. The two will turn their back on you, walk slowly towards the door that communicates with the old lady’s bedroom, will pass together into the room where the lights flicker in front of the images, close the door behind them, leave you to sleep in Aura’s bed.
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