YOU WILL KNOW how to forgive me the lack of order in this narrative. Following the footsteps of the people involved rather than the order of events, I jump from beginning to end and from the end back to the beginning. Like a grasshopper being swatted. But I can’t seem to do it any other way. I tell the story as it comes to me and don’t stop to make a novel of it. It probably wouldn’t come out at all if I did that. And besides I’d run the risk of talking and talking only to get out of breath all of a sudden and be brought up short with no hope of getting started again.
The years passed over our heads as they do over all the world. Life in our house went down the same drains as always, and unless I were to make things up, there is very little I could mention that you could not imagine for yourself.
Fifteen years after my sister was born; and just when my mother looked most like a scarecrow after all those years, so that we might have expected anything but another child, the old woman swelled up in the belly. God knows who did it. I suspect that she was already involved at the time with Senor Rafael. In any case, we had only to wait the usual length of time to add another member to our family. The birth of poor Mario -for such we were to call our new brother-was more of an accidental and bothersome affair than anything else. For, as if the scandal caused by my mother’s giving birth were not enough, and by way of last straw, the whole thing coincided with the death of my father. Looked at in cold blood-and except for the tragic side of it-it would make anyone laugh.
Two days before Mario’s appearance, we had locked my father up in a cupboard. A mad dog had given him a bite and, though at first it seemed that he was not going to get rabies, he soon came down with the shakes, and that put us all on guard. Señora Engracia let us in on the fact that one look from a rabid man would cause my mother to abort. Since there was nothing to do for the poor fellow, we got him out of the way with the help of the neighbours. Every ruse and dodge was needed, for he tried to bite us all, and if he had managed to sink his teeth into anyone, they would surely have lost an arm, at least. I still recall those hours with agony and fright . . .
Lord, what a struggle! He roared like a lion, swore he would murder us all, and his eyes flashed such fire that I am sure he would have been as good as his word had God allowed him. Two days, as I said, he had passed in the cupboard, shouting like a maniac all the time, and kicking at the door, so that we had to reinforce it with boards. He made such a ruckus that it is no wonder Mario, beset also by my mother’s screams, came into the world in fear and trembling, rather stupefied in fact. My father finally fell silent the following night—which was the day of the Three Kings*—and when we went to get him out, thinking he must be dead, we found him huddled on the floor with such a look of unholy terror on his face that he must have gone straight down into the bowels of Hell.
I was most horrified by the fact that my mother, instead of crying, as I expected, began to laugh. I had no choice but to choke back a couple of tears which had started up when I saw the body, with its bloodshot eyes staring wide, and a purple tongue lolling out of its half-open mouth. When it came time to bury him, Don Manuel, the village priest, preached me a small sermon as soon as he saw me. I don’t much remember what he said. He spoke of the other life, of heaven and hell, of the Virgin Mary, of my father’s memory. When it occurred to me to suggest that as far as the memory of father was concerned, the best thing to do was to forget it altogether, Don Manuel passed his hand over my head and said that Death took men from one kingdom to another and that she grew resentful if we hated what she brought before God for judgment. Well, of course he didn’t tell it to me in exactly those words, but in solemn measured phrases, though what he meant was surely not very far from what I’ve written down here. From that day on, whenever I saw Don Manuel I would salute him and kiss his hand, but then when I got married and my wife told me I looked like a mincing pansy doing such things, I could no longer greet him. Later I learned that Don Manuel had said that I was just like a rose in a dungheap, and God knows I was seized with a fury to throttle him on the instant. Then the urge blew over and, since 1 am naturally quick to change even when violent, in the end I forgot it. Besides, after thinking it over carefully, I was never very sure of having understood the remark. Like as not Don Manuel had not said any such thing-it doesn’t pay to believe everything people tell you. Even if he had said it . . . who knows what he might have meant! Who knows if he meant what I thought he meant!
If little Mario had had any sense or any feeling when he quit this vale of tears, it’s certain he would not have gone off very satisfied. He wasn’t with us long. It seemed as if he had gotten wind of the sort of family waiting for him and he chose to sacrifice them for the company of the innocents in limbo. God knows he took the right road. How much sorrow he spared himself by sparing himself any more years on earth! He was not quite ten when he quit our house. If that was little enough time for all the suffering he was to endure, it was more than enough for him to have learned to walk and to talk, neither of which he managed to do. The poor fellow never got beyond dragging himself along the floor as if he were a snake and making some squeaking sounds in his throat and nose as if he were a rat. It was all he ever learned. From the very first we all saw that the poor wretch, who had been born a halfwit, would die a halfwit. It took him eighteen months to sprout the first tooth in his head, and when he did so it was so far out of place the Señora Engracia, our perpetual savior, had to yank it out with a string, for fear it would stab him in the tongue. At about the same the time as the tooth incident—and who knows if because of all the blood he swallowed in the affair?—a measly rash or eruption broke out on his behind (begging your pardon), which began to look flayed and raw as a consequence of his wetting himself on the pus from the sores. When it came time to treat the wounds with vinegar and salt, the little creature cried such bitter tears and wailed so, that the hardest heart would have been moved to tenderness. From time to time he enjoyed a bit of peace, playing with a bottle, which was what most appealed to him, or lying out in the sun, inside the corral or in the street door. And so the kid went along, sometimes better sometimes worse, but a bit easier now, until one day—when the little creature was four—his luck turned, turned against him for good. Though he hadn’t done a thing, though he hadn’t bothered a soul or tempted God, a hog (begging your pardon), chewed off his ears.
Don Raimundo, the pharmacist, sprinkled him with some yellowish powder, seroformalin it was, for antiseptic purposes. It was terribly sad to see him like that, turned yellow and without ears, so sad that the neighboring women would bring things to console him, a fritter or two on Sundays, some almonds, some olives in oil, or a bit of sausage . . . Poor Mario, how he did appreciate these small comforts, his black eyes glowing. If he had been badly off before, he was much worse off after the incident of the hog (begging your pardon). He passed the days and nights howling and crying like a lost soul. My mother’s small store of patience gave out when he needed it most, and so he spent the months eating whatever scraps were thrown him, and so filthy at even I, who—why lie?—never washed too much, was revolted. Whenever a hog (begging your pardon) came in sight, an event which happened as many times daily in those parts as one wished it wouldn’t, little brother was seized with a fury which drove him wild. He screamed even louder than usual, he scurried to get behind anything at all, and there was a horror in his eyes and face that was frightful enough to have stopped Satan himself dead in his tracks if he had come up out of Hell at the moment.
I remember one day—it was a Sunday—when he flew into one of those fits and went completely wild. In his raging terror he decided—God knows why—to attack Senor Rafael, who had come to call. Ever since the death of my father this friend of my mother’s came and went from our place as if he were on conquered ground. Little brother had the unfortunate inspiration to take a bite out of the old man’s leg. He never should have done it. It was the worst thing he could have thought of, because the old man gave him a kick with the other foot, right on one of the scars where his ears had been, knocked him senseless, and left him like one dead. Little brother began to seep through his ear hole, and I wondered if he wouldn’t seep to death. The old fool laughed as if he had accomplished a great deed. I felt such loathing for him from that day on that I would have done him in, by my soul’s salvation, the first chance I had, if the Lord himself had not taken him out of my way.
The little creature lay stretched at full length, and my mother—I can assure you I was taken aback to see how low she acted just then—made no attempt to pick him up. She even laughed, by way of accompanying her friend. God knows I wanted to pick the poor child up off the ground, only I chose not to . . . But if Señor Rafael had called me weak at that moment, by God I would have pulverized him in my mother’s face!
I walked into the village to try to forget the incident. On the way I met my sister—who was living at home at the time—and told her what had happened. I saw such hatred flicker in her eyes that it occurred to me then and there that she would make a very bad enemy. For some reason Ithought of Stretch, and laughed to myself to think how my sister might some day put on those eyes just for him.
When we came home a good two hours after the incident, Señor Rafael was just taking his leave. Mario still lay thrown down where I had left him, whimpering low, his mouth to the ground and his scar all livid and more awful than a clown in Lent. I thought my sister would raise the roof, but she merely picked him up off the ground and leaned him back against the bread trough. She seemed more beautiful than ever me that day, with her blue dress the color of the sky, and her air of fierce motherhood, though she was no mother and never would be . . .
When Señor Rafael was gone at last, my mother picked up Mario and cradled him in her lap. She licked his wound all night long, like a bitch licking its pups just after delivery. The kid let himself be loved, and smiled . . . He fell asleep, and on his lips you could still make out the outline of a smile. That night was the only time in his life, surely that I ever saw him smile . . .
Some time passed without any new mishaps for Mario. But there is no escape for anyone pursued by Gate, though he hide beneath the very stones, and so the day came when he was missed and nowhere to be found, and finally turned up floating face down in an oil vat. It was Rosario who found him. He was caught in the posture of a thieving owl tipped over by a gust of wind, turned up head over heels down into the vat, his nose stuck in the muck at the bottom. When we lifted him out, a thin trickle of oil poured from his mouth, like a gold thread being unwound from a spool in his belly. His hair, which in life had always been the dim color of ash, shone with such lively luster that one would have thought it had resurrected on his death. Such were the wonders associated with the death of little Mario.
My mother didn’t shed a tear over the death of her son either. A woman really has to have a hard heart and dry entrails when she can’t even find a few tears to mark her own child’s doom. For my part I can say, and I am not ashamed to admit it, that I cried. And so did my sister Rosario. I grew to hate my mother profoundly and my hate grew so fast that I began to be afraid of myself. A woman who doesn’t weep is like a fountain that doesn’t flow, worthless. Or like a bird in the sky that doesn’t sing—whose wings should drop off, God willing, for plain unmusical varmints have no need for such things!
I have pondered a lot and often, till this day, truth to tell, on the reason I came to lose first my respect and then all affection for my mother, and finally to abandon even the formalities as the years went by. I pondered the matter because I wanted to make a clearing in my memory which would allow me to see when it was that she ceased to be a mother for me and became an enemy, a deadly enemy—for there is no deeper hatred than blood hatred, hatred for one’s own blood. She became an enemy who aroused all my bile, all my spleen, for nothing is hated with more relish than someone one resembles, until in the end one abominates one’s likeness. After much thought, and after coming to no clear conclusion, I can only say I had already lost my respect for her a long time before, when I was unable to find in her any virtue at all worthy of imitation, or gift of God to copy, and I had to be rid of her, get her out of my system, when I saw I had no room in me for so much evil. I took some time to get to hate her, really hate her, for neither love nor hate is a matter of a day, but if I were to date the. beginning of my hatred from around the time of Mario’s death, I don’t think I would be very far off.
We had to dry the little fellow off with strips of lint so that he shouldn’t appear all greasy and oily at the Last Judgment, and to dress him up in some percale we found around the house, and a pair of rope-soled sandals which I fetched from the village. We tied a purple ribbon the color of mallow in a bowknot over his Adam’s apple, and the little tie looked like a butterfly that had innocently alighted on a corpse. Señor Rafael, who in life had treated the boy in such an unholy manner and now felt moved by charity for the dead, helped us put the coffin together. The man came and went, from one side to the other, as attentive and eager as a bride. First he brought the nails, then a board or two, then a pot of white-lead paint. I began to concentrate all my attention on his cheery bustle, and, without knowing exactly why, either then or now, I got the impression that he was as happy as a lark. He began to repeat, with an absent-minded expression:
"It’s God’s will! Another little cherub in Heaven! . . ." I was so astonished that even now I don’t know how to say all I thought. And he would go on repeating, as if it were a refrain, while he nailed down a board or laid on the paint:
"Another little cherub in Heaven! A new little cherub in Heaven! . . ." His words resounded in me as if I had had a clock in there, a clock about to shatter my ribs . . . a clock that ticked in time with his words as they came out of him slowly and oh-so-carefully, and his eyes, his wet little blue eyes, like those of a snake, looking at me with an attempt at sympathy, while I paid him back with a suffocating hatred that coursed through my blood. I recall those hours with loathing.
"Another little cherub in Heaven! A new little cherub in Heaven!"
The son of his mother! What a fox! Let’s talk of something else . . .
To tell the truth, I never knew, perhaps because it never occurred to me to think about it seriously, what the angels might be like. There was a time when I imagined them fair-haired and dressed in flowing blue or rose-colored folds. Later, I thought they might be cloud-colored and more elongated than stalks of wheat. Whatever I thought, I can say for sure that I always imagined them to be altogether different from my brother Mario, and that of course was the reason I looked for something hidden in Señor Rafael’s words, some double meaning, something as cunning and sly as might be expected from such a dog.
The boy’s funeral, like my father’s years ago, was a poor, dreary affair. Only five or six people, no more, fell in line behind the box: Don Manuel, Santiago the altar boy, Lola, three or four old women, and me. Santiago went in front, with the cross, whistling low and kicking stones out of his way. Next came the coffin. Next, Don Manuel with his white vestments over the cassock, like a dressing gown. Next, the old women, weeping and wailing, so that they seemed as if they were all of them the mothers of whatever was on its way to the cemetery in the locked box.
In those days Lola was already halfway to being my girl. I say halfway because the truth was that although we exchanged looks full of longing, I had never gone so far as to court her openly. I was a bit afraid she would turn me down, and, though she was always deliberately putting herself within my reach so as to help me make up my mind, timidity always got the better of me, and the affair kept getting more and more dragged-out. I was nearly thirty, while she, who was a bit younger than my sister Rosario, was twenty-one or twenty-two. She was tall, dark-skinned, black-haired. Her eyes were so deep and dark that it was disturbing to look into them. Her flesh was taut, tight from the health bursting in her, and she was so well developed that a man would have taken her for a young mother. Nevertheless, and before I go on and risk the danger of forgetting it, I want to tell you, by way of sticking to the truth in all things, that she was as whole at that time as on the day she was born and as ignorant of the male as a novice in a convent. I want to stress this point, to avoid giving anyone the wrong idea about her. Whatever she might do later—and only God knows the complete story to the end—that is something between her and her conscience. But in those days she was so far from any idea of vice that I would give my soul to the Devil in an instant if he could show me proof to the contrary. She carried herself with such assurance, with such arrogant strength, that she resembled anything but a poor little country girl. And her crop of hair gathered into a thick braid hanging down her head was so mighty that months later, when I was her lord and master, I used to like to beat it against my cheeks. It was soft and smelled of sunshine and thyme, and of the cold beads of sweet sweat that showed on the down at her temples when she was flushed . . .
To return to what we were saying: the funeral went off well enough. Since the grave was already dug, all we had to do was to lower my brother into it and cover him over. Don Mañuel said a few prayers in Latin, and the women knelt by the grave. When Lola went down on her knees she showed the smooth whiteness of her legs above her black stockings, tight as blood sausage. I blush to say what I must, and may God apply the effort it cost me to say it toward the salvation of my soul, for the truth is that at that moment I was glad my brother had died . . . Lola’s legs shone like silverplate, the blood pounded in my temples, and my heart seemed ready to burst from my chest.
I did not see Don Mañuel or the women leave. I was like a man in a trance, stupefied, and when I began to come to my senses I found myself sitting on the fresh earth above Mario’s body. Why I was there, or how long a time had elasped are two things I’ll never know. I remember that the blood was still coursing in my forehead and that my heart was still trying to flyaway. The sun was falling. Its last rays were nailed to a sad cypress tree, my only company. It was hot. Tremors were running through my body. I couldn’t move. I was transfixed, as spellbound as if a wolf had looked me in the eye.
Lola was standing there. Her breasts rose and fell as she breathed . . .
"Lola! . . ."
"Well, here I am."
"What are you doing here?"
"Nothing in particular. I’m just here . . .”
I got up and took her by the arm.
"What are you doing here?"
"Nothing! Can’t you see that? Nothing!"
Lola gave me a terrifying look. Her voice was like a voice from beyond, from beneath the earth, like that of an apparition.
"You’re just like your dead brother!"
The struggle was violent. Flung to earth, held down, she was more beautiful than ever … Her breasts rose and fell as she breathed faster and faster … I grabbed her by the hair and held her close in the dirt . . . She struggled, slithered . . .
I bit her until blood came, until she was worn out and docile as a young mare . . .
"Is this what you wanted?"
Lola smiled up at me with her even teeth . . . Then she stroked my hair.
"You’re not like your brother at all! . . . You’re a man! . . ."
The words were a deep sound in her throat.
"You’re a man . . ."
The earth was soft, I remember it well. Half a dozen red poppies had sprouted for my dead brother: six drops of blood.
"You’re not like your brother! You’re a man!"
"Do you love me?"
* "El día de los Reyes": Epiphany, or Twelfth Night. The Spanish "Christmas," as regards gift-giving, commemorating the oration of the Magi at the manger in Bethlehem.
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