a short story from juan rulfo


Juan Rulfo (1917– 1986) was a Mexican novelist, short story writer, and photographer. Rulfo’s large reputation rests on two books, the short novel Pedro Páramo (1955), and a collection of short stories, The Burning Plain (1953). He is the father of director Juan Carlos Rulfo.

Juan Rulfo, "Because We Are So Poor"


Everything is going from bad to worse around here. Last week my Aunt Jacinta died, and on Saturday, after we’d buried her and weren’t feeling quite so bad, it started to rain. That made my father angry, because the whole barley crop was drying in the sun, and the storm came up so fast we didn’t have a chance to get any of it under cover. All we could do was huddle under the lean-to, watching the rain destroy the whole crop.


And just yesterday, when my sister Tacha was twelve years old we found out that the river carried away the cow my father gave her for her birthday. The river started to rise three nights ago before dawn. I was sound asleep, but it made so much noise dragging at its banks that I woke up and jumped out of bed with the covers in my hand, as if I’d dreamed the roof were caving in. Afterward I went back to bed because I knew it was just the sound of the river, and pretty soon it put me to sleep again.


When I got up the sky was full of black clouds, and the noise of the river was even louder. It sounded close, and it had the rotten smell flood-water has, like the stink of a trash-fire.


By the time I went to take a look, the river was already up over its banks" It was rising little by little all along the street and running into the house of that woman they call The Drum. You could hear the splash of the water going into the corral and out the gate. The Drum was hurrying back and forth, throwing her chickens into the street so they could find someplace to hide where the current wouldn’t reach them.


Over on the other side near the bend, the river must have carried off the tamarind tree at the edge of my Aunt Jacinta’s corral, because you couldn’t see it any more. It was the only tamarind in the village, so everybody knows this is the biggest flood that’s come down the river in years.


My sister and I went back in the afternoon to look at it again. The water was dirtier and thicker, and it was well up over where the bridge used to be. We stayed there for hours, just watching, without getting tired. Then we walked up along the ravine to hear what the people were saying. Down below, near the river, the water made so much noise you could see their mouths opening and shutting but you couldn’t hear a word. They were looking at the river up along the ravine, too, and trying to figure out how much damage it had done. Up there I found out that the river carried off La Serpentina, the cow my father gave Tacha for her birthday. La Serpentina had one white ear and one red ear, and beauti­ful eyes.


I don’t know why she ever decided to try crossing that river when she must have known it wasn’t the same river any more. La Serpentina wasn’t that restless. She must have been walking in her sleep, ‘to let herself get drowned like that for no reason at all. When I’d open the corral gate in the morning she’d have stood there all day with her eyes shut, sighing the way a cow does when she’s asleep.


So that’s what must have happened to her, she must have been asleep. Perhaps it occurred to her to wake up when she felt the water pounding at her ribs. She’d have got frightened then and tried to come back, but the water would have knocked her down and turned her over and over. I suppose she bellowed for help. She could bellow like God only knows how.


We found a man who saw her when the river dragged her off, and I asked him if she didn’t have a little calf with her. He said he didn’t remember. He just remembered he saw a spotted cow go past him with its hooves in the air, and then it sank and he couldn’t see its hooves or horns or anything. He was so busy pulling tree-trunks and branches out of the water, for firewood, he didn’t have time to watch whether it came up again.


So now we don’t know if the calf is still alive or if it fol­lowed its mother into the river. God help the two of them if it did. The troubles we’ve had in our house can happen all over again, now that my sister Tacha hasn’t got anything left. What I mean is that my father worked hard to buy La Serpentina when she was still a calf, so he could give her to Tacha so she’d have a little capital and wouldn’t grow up to be a whore like my other two sisters.


According to my father, they went bad because we are so poor. They weren’t contented, they started grumbling when they were just girls, and as soon as they grew up they started to go around with the worst kind of men, learning everything bad. They learned fast, too. They understood those soft whistles when the men stood outside and called them in the middle of the night, and later they even went off in the day­time. They’d go to the river for water every minute or two, and sometimes you’d even surprise them right in the corral, both of them rolling around naked with a man on top.


Finally my father chased them out of the house. He put up with them as long as he could, but then he couldn’t stand it any longer and he chased them right down the street. They went to Ayutla or someplace, I’m not sure where. But I know they went bad.


That’s why my father is so worried about Tacha. He doesn’t want her to turn out like her two sisters, he wants her to grow up to be decent and marry a good man, and La Serpentina would have been a security for her while she was growing up. With the cow she wouldn’t keep thinking how poor we are. That’s going to be difficult now. Almost any­body would have had the courage to marry her, if only to get her beautiful cow.


The only hope is that the calf is still alive. Please God it didn’t decide to go into the river with its mother. Because if that’s what happened, my sister Tacha is just a little way away from turning bad, and my mother doesn’t want that.


My mother says she doesn’t know why God punished her so much by giving her such daughters. There’s never been a bad woman in her family from her grandmother up to now. They were all brought up to fear God and be obedient and respectful. She tries to remember what she’s ever done to deserve giving birth to one whore after another, but she can’t remember any sin or evil she’s ever committed. Every time she thinks about those two she cries, and says, "May God be good to them."


But my father says there’s no use thinking about them, they’re just bad. The thing to worry about is that Tacha’s still left. She’s growing fast, and her breasts are beginning to look like her sisters’, sharp-pointed and high up and anxious to be looked at.


"Yes," my father says, "anybody that looks at her, she gives him an eyeful. You just wait, she’ll end up bad like the others." So Tacha is my father’s biggest worry.


And Tacha is crying now, because she knows the river killed La Serpentina. She’s here beside me, in her rose-­colored dress, looking at the river and crying about her cow. The little streams of dirty water keep running down her face, and you’d think she had the very river itself inside her.


I put my arm around her and try to comfort her, but she can’t understand. She just cries harder, and her sobs sound like the river tugging at its banks. Now she’s trembling all over. The flood keeps rising, and the dirty spray from the river splashes on her face. Her two little tits are moving up and down as she sobs, as if they were beginning to swell out so as to start destroying her.


ned flanders, depraved sex fiend: a new take on the simpsons from javier calvo

 

The short stories of Spanish writer Javier Calvo are shot through with manipulated quotes from other texts, both middle-brow and academic, while his plots are often cribbed from novels, television shows and films, and his "open" conception of narrative derives from the so-called Free Cinema and the montage techniques of avant-garde filmmakers. But what he does with all of this is a concoction all his own . . . poor Matt Groening!


 

“ned flanders”

by javier calvo

      

The neon lights of the motel are reflected in old Flanders’ glasses. Inside the room, a cigarette slowly burns down between his thick yellow fingers. Behind him, Lisa is sitting on the bed. A sheet half covers the yellow nakedness of her child’s body. Flanders silently watches the cars flash past at speed on the interstate. Lisa is taking slow melancholy gulps from the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels. All of a sudden old Flanders’ short-sighted eyes encounter the reflection in the dirty glass of the window of little Lisa’s round, alcohol-fuddled eyes. That moment encapsulates all of their lives. Their present, their past and their future. It is all there, inscribed in the deoxyribose-nucleic skein of the sweating night. The years of apprenticeship, the first job, marriage, the slow incursion of boredom, the kids and, in the end, the sudden discovery that neither work nor family can promise more than a resigned and unremarkable decline. And the embryo of what lies in store for them: Flanders’ old age, the final pangs of melancholy and the efforts to conceal his secret life, that false compartment where the last vestiges of his desire are concentrated. And Lisa leaving, going far away from little Springfield, to a brighter future of big cities, doctorates cum laude, academic seminars and a senior post in the administration that her parents will contemplate with tears and the blissful smile of irremediable ignorance. A future in which Ned will be no more than an escapade to be forgotten, exciting for the two or three weeks it takes to sate the little girl’s curiosity. It’s all there, exposed, beneath the revealing light of the neon sign. The past versus the future. The fag end in his yellow fingers. Ned Flanders.

 

"Subversion is a type of violence reserved for the strong. All that is left for the rest of us mortals is perversion."

Michel Foucault

 

—read the rest of “Ned Flanders” at The Barcelona Review

 

 

homage to enrique vila-matas, by way of j.d. salinger and paul auster

“Brooklyn Trilogy”

 Eduardo Lago

 

For Paul & Enrique

 

1

 

In the early eighties, during his first trip to New York, the writer Enrique Vila-Matas waited at a bus stop on Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum. He thought he would have a dry martini at the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel, some thirty blocks south. When he got on the bus, he gave a fleeting glance at the passengers, and discovered among them a girl of astonishing beauty. He looked for a spot from where to watch her discreetly and sat down. He had been right, she was very attractive, but something distracted him from his original intentions. The girl was seated next to a man who, upon close inspection, turned out to be none other than J.D. Salinger, that’s right, the one and only Jerome David Salinger. After a few stops, Salinger and his companion got off the bus, had an argument about a key that apparently had been lost and that was that. This is the version of events as they appear in Bartleby & Co. The truth, however, is somewhat different. What follows is an account of how things really happened.

 

When Enrique Vila-Matas realized that he was riding on the same bus as J.D. Salinger, that most invisible of writers, he was overcome with emotion and made up his mind to follow him. It was a bold decision, for not only did he not speak a word of English, but he did not have the slightest idea how to get around in a city as confusing as New York. When the author of The Catcher in the Rye got off the bus, the Catalan writer followed him. They cut two lonely figures on the stretch of the sidewalk along Central Park. Anxious, the Catalan flipped up the collar of his raincoat, put on his hat and a pair of sunglasses, and waited for the New York novelist to go on his way. Completely unaware of Vila-Matas’s presence, Salinger headed for a wide path and started to cross the park. Vila-Matas counted to three before beginning his pursuit, managing to keep a prudent distance most of the time. Twenty-six minutes later, the two novelists came out from the park up by the Dakota. Salinger went down 72nd Street, with Vila-Matas on his heels. They looked like two comic book characters.

 

On Columbus Avenue, Salinger went into a music store. Vila-Matas bided his time, pretending to be interested in a window display across the street. He saw a reflection on the glass and, startled, realized it was his own face. After about ten minutes, Salinger came out of the music store carrying an orange plastic bag. He continued west on 72nd Street, reached Verdi Square near Broadway, and walked toward the marquee at the entrance of the subway station. Vila-Matas’s blood ran cold at the idea that Salinger might go down to take the train, but that is exactly what he did. After a moment’s hesitation, Vila-Matas broke into a run and did not stop until he found himself inside the station. Salinger was in line at the glass booth. Vila-Matas stepped in right behind him. When it was his turn, Salinger put a dollar through the concave slot underneath the bulletproof glass and showed his left index finger to the attendant, who gazed at him indifferently, took the dollar and slid back a token. Vila-Matas copycatted Salinger’s actions one by one. The booth attendant stared at him with a glint of disdain, and was about to say something, but in the end just took the dollar and gave him his token. Immensely relieved, Vila-Matas entered the netherworld, in pursuit of his prey. After a few minutes, the Number 2 express train to Brooklyn arrived at the station. Salinger stepped into a car, and his pursuer went into an adjacent one, not to arouse suspicion. He watched him for the entire ride through the elongated windows between cars. At Grand Army Plaza, Salinger got off. It was the first time ever that Vila-Matas had set foot in Brooklyn. Once on the street, he flipped up the collar of his raincoat and put on his hat and sunglasses. Some fifty steps between them, the two men walked ten or eleven blocks on Eighth Avenue, and made a right on Second Street, a steep downhill. A few doors before Seventh Avenue, Salinger nimbly climbed the steps and went into a brownstone. When he closed the door behind him, his pursuer ran to the stoop, jotted down the number on the glass pane, continued toward Seventh Avenue, and hailed the first yellow taxi that he saw. Once inside, he showed the driver the hotel’s business card, afraid he would not understand his English. The guy nodded, and off they went. Vila-Matas began to tremble; he could not believe what he had just done. He was proud of himself. Few could boast that they have seen Salinger in the flesh. He decided that he would tell the story in his next book. He would recount it exactly as it had happened, no need to resort to fiction in order to embellish the experience he had just lived through.

 

Good afternoon, Mr. Vila, did you have a good day? asked the receptionist, handing him the key to his room.

 

A tremendous one, Enrique, I swear. (No misprint here, the receptionist’s name was also Enrique.) I’ll tell you everything in a second, said the writer, his pulse quickening, but first I need a whiskey. Make it a triple. Right now. It can’t wait.

 

The receptionist dialed the bar.

 

Enrique, I need your help, said Vila-Matas, after downing half the glass of whiskey.

 

Of course, anything, sir.

 

After finishing his story, the writer killed his drink and said:

 

I feel better now. I was really worked up. Er…Enrique, you know who Salinger is, of course? Jerome David Salinger?

 

I’m afraid not, sir, the receptionist replied. I have no clue. Who is he? Is he a soccer player for Barcelona?

 

Never mind, said Vila-Matas. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a piece of paper. Look here. It’s Salinger’s address.

 

If I may for a second, sir, the receptionist said, grabbing the paper.

 

Of course, Vila-Matas replied.

 

Without uttering another word, Enrique checked the Brooklyn phone book.

 

What the hell are you doing? demanded the writer.

 

Just what I feared, sir. There is not a single Salinger in the whole neighborhood, sighed Enrique. Did you happen to check the name on the mailbox?

 

No, I didn’t, it didn’t occur to me, Vila-Matas replied, slightly upset. Why would I have done such a thing? I know that it was him and that’s enough. Besides, what you say doesn’t make sense. Why would someone like him announce his name in such a way? Salinger is famous for his anonymity. No one knows where he lives.

 

I wouldn’t be so sure. You’d better double-check.

 

Damn! Vila-Matas exclaimed. You may be illiterate, but you behave like a writer. When something good happens to a friend, you turn green with envy. Wait, I have an idea. Let’s call a detective agency, they’ll figure it out. Here, give me the phone book.

 

Together, they looked through the entries under private investigators. The receptionist slid his index finger down a column of names. When Vila-Matas saw the name Pinkerton, he leapt up and said jubilantly:

 

That one! The one in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s books, no less. No need to look further. Give me the number so I can jot it down. Let’s not waste any time. After writing down the number, he said precisely: Go ahead, call it now.

 

The receptionist took the paper, and infected with the writer’s enthusiasm, quickly punched in the numbers.

 

Is this the Pinkerton Agency? he asked

 

Vila-Matas watched him expectantly. From the other end of the line, there emerged a weirdly inflected voice, which sounded like some kind of intergalactic meowing.

 

The receptionist mumbled an apology and hung up.

 

Wrong number, sir. That wasn’t the Pinkerton agency.

 

What number did you dial, you idiot?

 

The one you gave me, sir.

 

There were two numbers on the piece of paper, one in red ink above, and the other in blue ink below. Which one did you dial? The red one or the blue one?

 

The blue one below. Isn’t that what you just wrote down?

 

No, it’s the other one, man, above. The one below belongs to the writer that Herralde wants me to meet. He has just read the manuscript of his memoir and he says that one day he will be a big shot.

 

What? Would you like me to call again, sir?

 

Forget it, he said. I’ve changed my mind. Too much excitement for one day. We’ll try again tomorrow.

 

The following day, at the same time, Vila-Matas came down to the lobby, but his friend Enrique was not there. Another receptionist informed him in very poor Spanish that Tuesday was Enrique’s day off. Frustrated, the writer went back up to his room. He did not want to wait until the next day, but he wasn’t sure what to do. The new receptionist did not inspire the same kind of confidence that Enrique did. He mulled over the situation, gulping down two little bottles of whiskey from the minibar, occasionally looking over the paper with the phone numbers. Finally, in angry determination, he underlined the words PINKERTON AGENCY and said them out loud several times, as if he were rehearsing. Then suddenly, he lifted the receiver, dialed the number and when he heard someone pick up, said with a heavy accent:

 

Pinkerton Agency, pleez.

 

A series of frightful and incomprehensible sounds lodged in his inner ear. Terrified, Vila-Matas hung up. Because of his nerves, he had dialed the number of the unknown writer again.

 

This is crazy, he thought. No only did I mix up the numbers again, but I don’t know why I am calling when I don’t speak a word of English. I have no other choice but to wait for Enrique until tomorrow.

 

The matter settled, he took a sleeping pill and drank two more little bottles of whiskey. The following day, when he saw his friend at his post, he said:

 

Enrique, I am tired of all of this. Do me a favor, call the Pinkerton Agency and settle this damn thing for me. You weren’t here yesterday, so I called them, but when they answered I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

 

No need to call any more, sir. I tookadvantage of my day off to solve the mystery.

 

I don’t get it. What do you mean?

 

Enrique smiled and showed him an envelope.

 

Very simple, I went by the address that you wrote down and checked in the mailbox, which is what you should have done in the first place. This letter proves beyond a doubt the identity of the guy you were following.

 

What have you done, for God’s sake? You stole a letter from the mailbox? That’s a federal crime. They are going to throw both our asses in jail.

 

I had no other way to convince you, sir. Besides, there’s no harm to the addressee. I’ll tell the bellhop to go to Brooklyn right now and put it back where I got it from, end of story. It’s his job, after all, to do that sort of thing. Without opening it, there is no crime.

 

Vila-Matas took the envelope and read it:

 

Paul Auster. . . But that’s the writer that Jorge wanted me to meet. It’s a small world, Enrique. Our paths have finally crossed. 

read on…

chapter five of cela’s the family of pascual duarte

"my heart is more like a machine for making blood to be spilt in a knife fight . . ."

 

Camilo José Cela Sculpture in Guadalajara, Spain

IT WAS THE WILL of Heaven that two weeks should elapse since I last wrote anything. During that time, what with questioning and visits from the defense lawyer on the one hand, and being moved to this new place on the other, I didn’t have a free minute to pick up my pen. Now, after reading this batch of papers—not too large a pile at that—the most confusing ideas swirl around in my head, surging about in a great tide, so that no matter how I try I can’t decide how to begin again. A heap of trouble, that’s what this story amounts to, a deal of misfortune; as you will have observed, and there is always the danger that I will lose heart altogether when I get on with the rest of the story, which is even more miserable. I can only marvel at the awful accuracy of my memory in these moments when all the events of my life, none of which can be undone, are being set down as big as they might be on a blackboard. It’s funny—and also sad, God knows!—to stop and think that if all this effort of will I’m making these days had been made a few years back, I wouldn’t be locked up in this cell writing it all down, but sitting in the sun in the corral or fishing for eels in the creek or chasing rabbits over the hills. I’d be doing any of those things that most people do without thinking. I’d be free, as most men are free, without a thought of being free. I’d have God knows how many more years of life ahead of me, like most men, with no notion about how slow I should spend them . . .


The place they’ve brought me to now is an improvement. Through my window I can see a small garden, as well cared for and tidy as a parlor, and beyond it, all the way to the sierra, I can see the plain, as brown as a man’s skin. From time to time a line of mules crosses on the way to Portugal; donkeys jog along out to the small houses; and women and children walk by on their way to the well.


I breathe my own air, the free air that comes and goes from my cell, free because they haven’t any charges against it; it’s the same air that a passing muleteer may breathe’ tomorrow, or some other day … I can see a butterfly, a splash of color, wheeling around the sunflowers. It flutters into the cell, takes a couple of turns around the room, and makes its easy way out. as they’ve got nothing against it, either. Perhaps it will go on to light on the warden’s pillow . . .


I use my cap to catch the mouse nibbling at what I’d left for him. I look at him closely, and then I let him go—I’ve got no charge to hold him on—and watch him run off in his mincing way into the hole where he hides, and from where he comes to eat the stranger’s food, the leftovers of a stranger who stays in the cell only a short time, before he quits the place, most often, to go to Hell.


You would probably not believe me if I were to tell you that such sadness sweeps over me, such melancholy, I almost dare say my repentance is much the same as a saint’s. Probably you would not believe me, for the reports you have of me must be pretty bad, and the opinion formed of me by now the same, and yet . . . I tell you what I tell you, perhaps merely for the telling, perhaps merely so as not to give up my fixed idea that you will understand what I tell you and believe the truth of what I do not swear to on my salvation only because there would be little use swearing on that . . . There is such a bitter taste in my throat that I think my heart must pump bile instead of blood. It ‘mounts in my chest and leaves an acid taste under my tongue. It floods my mouth, but dries me up inside, as if it were a foul wind from a cemetery niche.


I stopped writing at this point, for maybe twenty minutes, or an hour, or two … Down along the path some people made their way. How clearly I saw them just now! They could not for a moment have thought that I was watching them, they walked so unconcerned. T
hey were a party of two men, a woman, and a little boy. They seemed happy just to be walking along the path. The men must have both been around thirty. The Woman was a bit younger. The boy could not have been more than six. He was barefoot, and he was romping along in and out of the bushes like a goat. All he had on was a little shirt that left him bare from the belly down. He would trot on ahead, then stop and throw a stone at some bird he’d flushed from cover . . . He wasn’t at all like little Mario, and yet how he did remind me of my brother!


The wo
man must have been the mother. She was dark, like all country women, and a kind of joy seemed to run through her whole body so that it made one joy­ful just to look at her. She was very different from my mother, and yet, why did she make me think of her? You must forgive me. I can’t go on this way. I’m very near to crying . . . A self-respecting man can not let himself be overcome by tears, as if he were a simple woman.


I
t will be best if I get on with my story. It’s sad, of course, but it’s even sadder philosophizing about it. And anyway I’m not made to philosophize, I don’t have the heart for it. My heart is more like a machine for making blood to be spilt in a knife fight . . .

chapter four of cela’s the family of pascual duarte

Bookseller Photo 

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!"

"Me?"

"Yes, you!"

—————————

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?"

"Yes!"

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?"

"Yes!"


* "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.

 

 

the rest of chapter three of the family of pascual duarte

The neighboring women all stuck their oars in and prescribed their favorite herbs. But we set more store by Señora Engracia, and it was with her we took counsel to cure Rosario. The treatment she ordered was complicated enough, God knows, but since we all put our hearts and souls into the cure, it seems to have worked, for although a slow process, she was soon showing signs of improvement. The old proverb was right: you can’t kill a weed (though I don’t mean to imply that Rosario was altogether a weed, neither would I put my hand in the fire to prove that she was altogether a flowering herb). And so as soon as the brew prescribed by Señora Engracia began to work, we could sit back and just let time pass. For she recovered her health, and with it, all her jaunty exuberance.

She was no sooner well again, and happiness momentarily visited on our parents-who were united only in their common concern for the girl—when the vixen again outfoxed us, She scooped up the skimpy savings at hand and, without more ado or so much as a curtsy, took French leave, this time to Almendralejo, where she repaired to the house kept by Nieves La Madrileña. Truth is—or so I think, at least—that there is always a trace of good even in the worst scoundrel, male or female, for Rosario did not altogether wipe us from her memory. From time to time, on the Saint’s Day of one of us or at Christmastime, she would send us a little something in the way of money, which kept us as well as a belt keeps a well-fed belly. But the gesture was meritorious, for she was certainly not swimming in wealth, though she might have to look as if she were, given her need to dress for her gaudy trade. In Almendralejo she was to meet the man who would work her in, not the ruin of her honor, which must have been good and ruined by that time, but of her pocketbook. Having lost the former, the latter was the only thing she needed to watch. The individual in question bore the name of Paco López, alias "Stretch."* There is no denying that he cut a handsome figure, though his look was not altogether straightforward, since he had one glass eye in place of a real one he had lost in God knows what tussle, and thus his gaze wavered. The wild look in his eye would have unnerved the toughest bully. He was tall, a regular goldilocks, straight as a willow, and he walked so erect that the person who first called him "Stretch" was certainly inspired. His face was his only fortune. Since women were so mesmerized that they maintained him, he preferred not to work. I take a dim view of this, probably only because I could never get along like that. According to rumor, he had been a novice bullfighter in the bull ringsof Andalusia. I don’t know whether I believe that, for he struck me as a man who was brave only with women. But since these creatures, my sister among them, believed it firmly, he led the grand life, for you know yourself the way women idolize bullfighters.

I ran into him once, when I was out hunting partridge, skirting about "Los Jarales"—Don Jésus’ estate. He had come out from Almendralejo to get some air, walking a little way into the woods. He was all dressed up, in a coffee-colored suit, a cap on his head and a wicker cane in his hand. We greeted each other, and he, the sly dog, noticing that I did not ask after my sister, tried to draw me out, so he could get in a few barks. I put him off, and he must have been aware that I was backing down. Without further ado, and like a man forced to do something disagreeable, he cut loose on me just as we were saying goodbye.

"How is Rosario?"

"You ought to know … "

"Me?"

"Man, if you don’t, then nobody does."

"Why should I know how she is?"

He spoke so seriously that anyone would have said that he had never told a lie in his life. It annoyed me to talk to him about Rosario. I couldn’t help it. You know how it is.

He kept hitting the beds of thyme underfoot with his stick.

"All right, then. You might as well know. She’s good, see? Didn’t you want to know that?"

"Look, Stretch, listen here. I’m not one to take much, and I don’t waste time on words. Don’t get me started! Don’t get me into a rage!"

"Get you into a rage? How can I, when you haven’t got any rage at all about you? Now what would you like to know about Rosario? What has she got to do with you? So she is your sister. But she’s my girl, if it comes to that."

He had got around me with words, he had beat me at talk, but if we had come to grips I swear to you by the souls of my dead I would have killed him before he could have laid a hand on me. I was anxious to cool off, for I knew my own character, and besides it wasn’t right for me to start when I had a shotgun in my hand and he had only a stick.

"Look, Stretch, the best thing to do, is to shut up, both of us! So she’s your girl. Well, let her be what she wants. What’s that to me?"

Stretch was laughing. He seemed to want a fight. "You know what I say to you?"

"What?"

"That if you had had my sister I would have killed you."

God knows that my keeping quiet that day cost me my health. But, I didn’t want to hit him. I don’t know why. I was surprised he talked to me that way. In the village no one would have dared say half so much.

"And if I find you following me around again, I’ll kill you in the bull ring on market day."

"Big talk!"

“Stick you with a sword right between the horns!"

"Look, Stretch! … Look, Stretch! … "

—————————

A thorn that day was stuck in my side and it’s still sticking there.           

Why I didn’t tear it out at the time is something I don’t understand to this day. Some while later, when Rosario came home to recover from another bout of fever, she told me what followed these words. When Stretch went to see his girl that night at La Nieves’ house, he called her outside. 

"Do you know you’ve got a brother who isn’t even a man?"        

. . .   


"And who runs and hides like a rabbit when it hears voices?"

My sister tried to defend me, but it was no use. That fellow had won the day. He had beaten me, the only battle I ever lost because I didn’t keep to my own ground, and talked instead of fought.

 "Look, dove . . . Let’s talk about something else. What have you got for me?"

 "Eight pesetas."

 "Is that all?" 

 "That’s all. What do you expect? It’s a bad time … "

 Stretch hit her across the face with his wicker stick until he was tired of the game.

 Then …

 "You know you’ve got a brother who isn’t even a man?"

 —————————

 My sister asked me to stay in the village for her sake, for her own good.

The thorn in my side felt as if it were being rubbed. Why I didn’t tear it out at the time is something I don’t understand to this day …

* "El Estirao," from estirado: stretched: stuck-up, presumptuous, "hotshot."

from chapter three of camilo josé cela’s the family of pascual duarte

La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pacual Duarte) by Camilo Jos� Cela: Book Cover

THEY FIXED UP a makeshift bed for Rosario by spreading a pillow of thick wool in the shallow bottom of a box, and there they kept her, beside my other’s bedside, bound up in strips of cotton and so covered up that I often wondered if they wouldn’t finally smother her. I don’t know why, but until then I had imagined all babies to be as white as milk. So that I remember the bad impression my little sister made on me when I saw she was sticky all over and red as a boiled crab. She had some thin fuzz on the top of her head, like a starling or a young pigeon in the nest, which she lost in a few months, and her hands were like thin little claws, so transparent that it made one shiver to see them. When, three or four days after hav­ing been born they unwound the cotton bands so as to clean her up a bit, I was able to see .what the little creature was really like, and I can say, almost, that she did not seem as repulsive as the first time. Her high color had faded, and her eyes—which were still not open—seemed to want to move their lids. Even her hands seemed to have relaxed. Señora Engracia gave her a good cleaning with rosemary water. Whatever else she might have been, Señora Engracia was certainly a friend to the distressed. She bound the child up again in the least filthy bands, putting aside the dirtiest to wash. The little creature was so happy she fell asleep, and she slept so long at one stretch no one would have guessed there was a newborn baby in such a silent house. My father would sit on the floor beside the small box, and the hours would pass as he watched his daughter, with the face of a lover, as Señora Engracia said, so that I almost forgot his real nature. He would eventually get up to take a turn around the village, and then, when we were least expecting him back, at an hour we were never used to seeing him, there he was, sitting at the side of the box again, his face gone soft and tender and his look become so meek that anyone who might have seen him would have thought, if they didn’t know him already, that he was one of the Three Wise Men of the East in front of the manger.

Rosario grew up among us, sickly and thin—there was little enough life to suck from my mother’s empty breasts!—and her first years were so hard that she was more than once on the point of taking leave of us all. My father went around out of sorts as he saw the little creature did not flourish, and, since he resolved all problems by pouring more wine down his gullet, my mother and I were forced to live through a bad spell, so bad that we longed for the old days, which at the time had seemed like the bottom, before we had known that there could be worse. How mysterious the ways of mortal man, who abominates what he has and later looks back in nostalgia! My mother, who had sunken into a state of health even worse than before giving birth, received some spectacular thrashings. Though it was not an easy matter for the old man to catch me, he would deliver himself of some great absent-minded kicks whenever we ran into each other, and more than once he brought the blood to my behind (begging your pardon), or left my ribs as marked as if he had used a branding iron on them.

Gradually the baby girl got fatter and stronger, nourished by some red wine broths which hadbeen recommended to my mother. Rosario was by nature lively, and the mere passing of time helped. Though she did take longer than ordinary in learning to walk, she burst into speech at a tender age, and talked such fine talk she had us all bewitched.

The period when the child is the same day after day soon passed. Rosario grew, she became almost a maiden, you might say, and when we came to take notice we saw she was quicker and slyer than a lizard. As no one in our family had ever shown a tendency to use their brains for the purpose for which they were intended, the girl was soon Queen of the May and had us walking around with our backs straight as boards. If her natural bent had been that way, she might have accomplished something decent or worthwhile, but since obviously God did not wish any of us to be distinguished by good deeds, she set her feet on other pathways and it soon became clear to us that if she was no fool it was too bad she was not. She served for all purposes—none of them good. She was as offhand and nimble a thief as an old gypsy woman. She took a liking for liquor at an early age. She acted as gobetween in the old woman’s flings. And so, since no one bothered to straighten her out, or to use her cleverness in a good cause, she went from bad to worse. Until, one day, when the girl was four­teen, she made off with the few objects of value we had about our shack and headed for Trujillo, to La Elvira’s house. You can imagine the reaction to Rosario’s flight at home. My father blamed my mother, my mother blamed my father . . . Rosarios absence made itself felt most of all by the increased number of brawls in which my father indulged himself Before, when she Was around he carried on behind her back. Now, when she was nowhere about, any hour and place at all struck him as being just right to stage a riot. It was curious that my father, a pigheaded brute second to none, should have paid any attention to only this young girl. One look from Rosario was enough to quiet him down, and on more than one occasion a good round of drub­bings was avoided because of her mere presence. Who would ever have guessed that such a beast could have been tamed by such a slip of a girl!

She was away in Trujillo about five months. At the end of it, she came home with a fever, and more dead than alive. For nearly a year she lay in bed. The fever, of a malign nature, brought her so close to the tomb that my father insisted—for though he might be a drunk and a brawler, he was also an Old Christian: no convert he, but a solid-gold Catholic—he insisted she be given the last rites and prepared for the eventuality of making the last voyage. Like all ills, hers had its ups and downs. The days in which she seemed to revive were followed by nights in which we were sure she was going. My parents were sunk in gloom, and of all those sad early days of my life the only peaceful recollection I have is of those months, which passed without the sound of blows resounding between our walls. That’s how pre­occupied the old folks were!