Translated from Spanish by Clementine Rabassa
From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1979, Vol. 1, No. 1
In the late afternoon Florencio went down to the cabin with his little girl, taking the back road full of holes and loose stones that only Mariano and Zulma were up to following in their jeep. Zulma opened the door for them, and Florencio thought that her eyes looked as if she had been peeling onions. Mariano appeared from the other room, he told them to come in, but Florencio only wanted to ask them to take care of the little girl until the next morning because he had to go to the coast on an urgent matter and there was nobody in the village he could ask to do him this favor. Of course, said Zulma, leave her, don’t worry, we’ll set up a bed for her here downstairs. Come on in and have a drink, Mariano insisted, it’ll only take five minutes, but Florencio had left his car in the village square, he had to take off right away; he thanked them, kissed his little girl who had already spotted the stack of magazines on the bench. When the door closed, Zulma and Mariano looked at each other almost questioningly, as if everything had happened too fast. Mariano shrugged his shoulders and returned to his workshop where he was gluing an old chair; Zulma asked the little girl if she was hungry, she suggested she play with the magazines, in the closet there was a ball and a net for catching butterflies; the little girl said thank you and began to look at the magazines; Zulma watched her a moment while she prepared the artichokes for dinner that evening and thought she could let her play by herself.
Dusk fell early in the south now, they barely had a month left before returning to the capital and getting into that other life during the winter which, in any case, was only a continuation of this one, distantly together, amicably friends, respecting and performing the many trivial, delicate, conventional ceremonies of a couple, as now, when Mariano needed one of the burners to heat the glue jar and Zulma took the pot of potatoes off saying she’d finish cooking them later, and Mariano said thanks because the chair was almost ready and it would be better to do all the gluing in one application, but he had to heat the jar first, of course. The little girl was leafing through the magazines at the end of the large room that was used both as a kitchen and as a living room, Mariano looked in the pantry for some candy to give her; it was time to go out into the garden to have a drink as they watched night fall upon the hills. There was never anybody on the road, the first house in the village could barely be seen at the highest point; in front of them the slope kept on descending to the bottom of the valley which was already in the shadows. Go ahead and pour, I’ll be right there, said Zulma. Everything was done in cyclical fashion, each thing in its time and a time for each thing, except for the little girl who had suddenly disturbed the pattern just a bit; a stool and a glass of milk for her, a stroke of her hair, and praise for how well she was behaving. The cigarettes, the swallows clustering above the cabin; everything went along repeating itself, fitting into the right slot, the chair must be almost dry by now, stuck together like that new day which had nothing new about it. The insignificant difference was the little girl that afternoon, as sometimes the mailman would draw them out of their solitude for a moment at midday with a letter for Mariano or Zulma that the addressee would receive and put away without saying a word. One more month of foreseeable repetitions, like rehearsals, and the jeep loaded to the top would take them back to the apartment in the capital, to the life that was only different in form, Zulma’s group or Mariano’s artist friends, afternoons in the stores for her and evenings in the cafes for Mariano, a coming and going separately although they always got together to perform the linking ceremonies, the morning kiss, the neutral programs in common, as now when Mariano offered her another drink and Zulma accepted with her eyes lost in the most distant hills that were tinted already in deep violet.
What would you like to have for supper, little one? Me? Anything you say, ma’am. She probably doesn’t like artichokes, said Mariano. Yes, I like them, said the little girl, with oil and vinegar, but only a little salt because it burns. They laughed, they would make a special vinaigrette dressing for her. And boiled eggs, how do you like them? With a teaspoon, said the little girl. And only a little salt, because it burns, teased Mariano. Salt burns a lot, said the little girl, I give my doll her mashed potatoes without salt, today I didn’t bring her because my daddy was in a hurry and wouldn’t let me. It’s going to be a lovely night, thought Zulma out loud, see how clear the air is towards the north. Yes, it won’t be too hot, said Mariano bringing the chairs into the downstairs room and turning on the lamps next to the picture window that faced the valley. Automatically he also turned on the radio. Nixon is going to Peking, how about that, said Mariano. There’s nothing sacred, said Zulma, and they both laughed at the same time. The little girl was into the magazines and marking the comic strip pages as though she planned to reread them.
Night arrived in between the insecticide Mariano was spraying in the bedroom upstairs and the perfume of an onion that Zulma cut while humming along with a pop tune on the radio. Midway through supper the little girl began to doze over the boiled egg; they joked with her, they prodded her to finish; Mariano had already prepared the cot for her with an inflatable mattress in the farthest corner of the kitchen so they wouldn’t bother her if they stayed awhile in the room downstairs listening to records or reading. The little girl ate her peach and admitted she was sleepy. Go to bed, sweetie, said Zulma, don’t forget if you have to tinkle, you only have to go upstairs, we’ll leave the stairway light on. The little girl half asleep gave them a kiss on the cheek, but before she lay down she selected a magazine and placed it under the pillow. They’re unbelievable, said Mariano, such an unattainable world and to think it once was ours, everybody’s. Perhaps it’s not so different, said Zulma, clearing the table, you too have your compulsions, the bottle of cologne on the left and the razor on the right, and as for me, forget it. But they weren’t compulsions, thought Mariano, rather a response to death and nothingness, fixing things and times, establishing rituals and passages in opposition to chaos which was full of holes and smudges. Only now he no longer said it aloud, more and more there seemed to be less of a need to talk to Zulma, and Zulma didn’t say anything either that might prompt an exchange of ideas. Take the coffee pot, I’ve already set the cups on the stool by the chimney. Check to see if there’s any sugar left in the bowl, there’s a new package in the pantry. I can’t find the corkscrew, this bottle of rum has a good color, don’t you think? Yes, a lovely color. Since you’re going up, bring the cigarettes I left on the dresser. This rum is really good stuff. It’s hot, don’t you think so? Yes, it’s stifling, we’d better not open the windows, the place will fill up with moths and mosquitoes.
When Zulma heard the first sound, Mariano was looking among the stack of records for a Beethoven sonata which he hadn’t listened to that summer. He stood still with his hand in the air, he looked at Zulma. A noise as if on the stone steps of the garden, but nobody came to the cabin at that hour, nobody ever came at night. From the kitchen he switched on the lamp that illuminated the nearest part of the garden, saw no one and turned it off. Probably a dog looking around for something to eat, said Zulma. It sounded strange, almost like a snort, said Mariano. An enormous white blur lashed against the window. Zulma muffled a scream, Mariano, with his back towards her, turned around too late, the pane reflected only the pictures and furniture in the room. He had no time to ask anything, the snort resounded near the north wall; a whinny that was smothered just like Zulma’s scream, her hands up to her mouth and pressing against the back wall, staring at the window. It’s a horse, said Mariano, I hear his hooves, he’s galloping through the garden. His mane, his lips, almost as if they were bleeding, an enormous white head was grazing the window; the horse barely looked at them, the white blotch was erased on the right, they heard his hooves again, an abrupt silence coming from the side of the stone steps, the neighing, the flight. But there are no horses in these parts, said Mariano, who had grabbed the bottle of rum by the neck before realizing it and putting it back again on the stool. He wants to come in, said Zulma, glued to the rear wall. Of course not, what a foolish idea, he probably escaped from some herd in the valley and headed for the light. I tell you, he wants to come in, he’s rabid and wants to get inside. Horses don’t get rabies, as far as I know, said Mariano, I think he’s gone, I’ll take a look from the upstairs window. No, please, stay here, I can still hear him, he’s on the terrace steps, he’s stomping on the plants, he’ll be back, and what if he breaks the window and gets in? Don’t be silly, what do you mean he’ll break the window, said Mariano weakly, maybe if we turn off the lights he’ll go away. I don’t know, I don’t know, said Zulma, sliding down until she was sitting on the stool, I heard how he whinnied, he’s there upstairs. They heard the hooves coming down the steps, the irritated heavy snort against the door, Mariano thought he felt something like pressure on the door, a repeated rubbing, and Zulma ran to him screaming hysterically. He cast her off, not violently, extended his hand towards the light switch; in the dark (the only light still on was in the kitchen where the little girl was sleeping), the neighing and the hooves became louder, but the horse was no longer in front of the door; he could be heard back and forth in the garden. Mariano ran to turn out the kitchen light without even looking towards the corner where they had put the little girl to bed; he returned to put his arms around Zulma who was sobbing. He caressed her hair and face, asking her to be quiet so he could listen better. In the window the horse rubbed his head against the large pane, not too forcefully, the white blotch appeared transparent in the darkness; they sensed the horse looking inside, as though searching for something, but he could not see them any longer, and yet there he still was, whinnying and puffing, bolting abruptly from side to side. Zulma’s body slipped through Mariano’s arms and he helped her sit on the stool again, propping her up against the wall. Don’t move, don’t say anything, he’s leaving now, you’ll see. He wants to come in, Zulma said feebly, I know he wants to come in, and what if he breaks the window, what’s going to happen if he kicks it in? Sh, said Mariano, please shut up. He’s going to come in, muttered Zulma. And I don’t even have a shotgun, said Mariano, I’d blast five shots into his head, the son of a bitch. He’s not there anymore, said Zulma, rising suddenly, I hear him above, if he sees the terrace door he might come in. It’s shut tight, don’t be afraid, remember in the dark he’s not about to enter a house where he couldn’t even move around, he’s not that dumb. Oh yes, said Zulma, he wants to come in, he’ll crush us against the walls, I know he wants to come in. Sh, repeated Mariano, who also was thinking about it, and could do nothing but wait with his back soaked in cold perspiration. Once again the hooves echoed upon the flagstone steps, and suddenly silence, the distant crickets, a bird high in a walnut tree.
Without turning on the light, now that the window let the night’s vague clarity enter, Mariano filled a glass with rum and held it against Zulma’s lips, forcing her to drink even though her teeth hit the glass, and the liquor spilled on her blouse; then holding the bottle by the neck he took a long swig and went to the kitchen to check on the little girl. With her hand under the pillow as if clutching the precious magazine, incredibly she was asleep and had heard nothing, she hardly seemed to be there while in the big room Zulma’s sobbing broke every so often into a smothered hiccough, almost a shout. It’s all over, it’s over, said Mariano, sitting up against her and shaking her gently, it was nothing but a scare. He’ll be back, said Zulma, her eyes nailed to the window. No, he’s probably far off by now, no doubt he escaped from some herd down below. No horse does that, said Zulma, no horse tries to enter a house like that. It’s strange, I’ll grant you that, said Mariano, maybe we’d better take a look outside, I have the lantern right here. But Zulma had pressed herself against the wall, the idea of opening the door, of going out towards the white shadow that might be near, waiting under the trees, ready to charge. Look, if we don’t check to see if he’s gone, nobody will sleep tonight, said Mariano. Let’s give him a little more time; meanwhile you go to bed, and I’ll give you a tranquilizer; an extra dose, poor kid, you’ve certainly earned it. Zulma ended up by accepting passively; without turning on the lights, they went towards the stairs and with his hand Mariano motioned towards the little girl asleep, but Zulma scarcely looked at her, she was climbing the stairs reeling, Mariano had to hold her as they entered the bedroom because she was about to bump into the doorframe. From the window that faced the eaves they looked at the stone steps, the highest terrace of the garden. You see, he’s gone, said Mariano, fixing Zulma’s pillow, watching her undress with mechanical gestures, staring at the window. He made her drink the drops, dabbed cologne on her neck and hands, gently lifted the sheet up to Zulma’s shoulders as she closed her eyes and trembled. He wiped her cheeks, waited a moment and went downstairs to look for the lantern; carrying it unlit in one hand and an ax in the other, little by little he opened the door of the large room and went out to the lower terrace where he could get full view of the entire side of the house facing eastward; the night was identical to so many other summer nights, the crickets chirped in the distance, a frog let fall two alternating drops of sound. Not needing the lantern, Mariano saw the trampled lilac bush, the huge prints in the pansy bed, the flowerpot overturned at the bottom of the steps; so it wasn’t an hallucination, and, of course, it was better that it not be; in the morning he would go with Florencio to check on the herds in the valley, they weren’t going to get the upper hand so easily. Before going in he set the flowerpot straight, went up to the front trees and listened for a long while to the crickets and the frog; when he looked towards the house, Zulma was standing at the bedroom window, naked, motionless.
The little girl had not moved; Mariano went upstairs without making any noise and began to smoke next to Zulma. You see, he’s gone, now we can sleep in peace, tomorrow we’ll see. Little by little he led her towards the bed, undressed, stretched out on his back still smoking. Go to sleep, everything is all right, it was only an absurd fright. He stroked her hair, his fingers slid down to her shoulder, grazing her breasts lightly. Zulma turned on her side, her back towards him, not speaking; this too was like so many other summer nights.
Getting to sleep should have been difficult, but no sooner had Mariano put out his cigarette than he dropped off suddenly; the window was still open and no doubt mosquitoes would enter, but sleep came first, with no dreams, total nothingness from which he emerged at some moment driven by an indescribable panic, the pressure of Zulma’s fingers on one shoulder, the panting. Almost without realizing it, he was now listening to the night, the perfect silence punctuated by the crickets. Go to sleep, Zulma, it’s nothing, you must have been dreaming. Insisting she agree with him, that she lie down again, turning her back on him now that she had suddenly withdrawn her hand and was sitting up rigid, looking towards the closed door. He got up at the same time as Zulma, helpless to stop her from opening the door and going to the top of the stairs, clinging to her and asking himself vaguely if it wouldn’t be better to slap her, to bring her back to bed by force, to break such petrified remoteness. In the middle of the staircase Zulma stopped, taking hold of the bannister. You know why the little girl is there? With a voice that must have still belonged to the nightmare. The little girl? Two more steps, now almost in the bend that led to the kitchen. Zulma, please. And her voice cracking, almost in falsetto: she’s there to let him in, I tell you she’s going to let him in. Zulma, don’t make me do something I’ll regret. And her voice, almost triumphant, still rising in tone, look, just look if you don’t believe me; the bed’s empty, the magazine on the floor. With a start Mariano headed for Zulma, he sprang towards the light switch. The little girl looked at them, her pink pyjamas against the door that faced the large room, her face drowsy. What are you doing up at this hour, said Mariano wrapping a dish towel around his waist. The little girl looked at Zulma nude, somewhere between being asleep and embarrassed she looked at her as if wanting to go back to bed, on the brink of tears. I got up to tinkle, she said. And you went out to the garden when we had told you to go upstairs to the bathroom. The little girl began to pout, her hands comically lost in the pockets of her pyjamas. It’s ok, go to bed, said Mariano, stroking her hair. He covered her, and placed the magazine under the pillow for her; the little girl turned towards the wall, a finger in her mouth as if to console herself. Go ahead up, said Mariano, you see there’s nothing wrong, don’t stand there like a sleepwalker. He saw her take a couple of steps towards the door of the large room, he blocked her path; everything was fine now, damn it. But don’t you realize she’s opened the door for him, said Zulma with that voice which wasn’t hers. Stop the nonsense, Zulma. Go see if it’s not so, or let me go. Mariano’s hand closed around her trembling forearm. Get upstairs right now, pushing her till he had led her to the foot of the steps, looking as he went by at the little girl who hadn’t moved, she must be asleep by now. On the first step Zulma screamed and tried to escape, but the stairway was narrow and Mariano kept shoving her with his whole body; the towel unfastened and fell to the bottom of the stairs. Holding onto her by the shoulders and hurling her upwards to the landing, he flung her toward the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. She’s going to let him in, Zulma repeated, the door is open and he’ll get in. Lie down, said Mariano. I’m telling you the door is open. It doesn’t matter if he comes in or not, let him come in if he wants to, I don’t give a damn now whether he comes in or not. He caught Zulma’s hands as they tried to repel him, from behind he pushed against the bed, they fell together, Zulma sobbing and begging, helpless to move under the weight of a body that girded her more and more, that bent her to a will murmured mouth to mouth, wildly amidst tears and obscenities. I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to ever again, I don’t want to, but it was too late now, her strength and pride yielding to that leveling weight, returning her to an impossible past, to the summers without letters and without horses. At some moment—it was beginning to get light—Mariano dressed in silence and went down to the kitchen; the little girl was sleeping with her finger in her mouth, the door of the big room was open. Zulma had been right, the little girl had opened the door but the horse hadn’t entered the house. Unless, he thought about it, lighting his first cigarette and looking at the blue ridge of the hills, unless Zulma had been right about that too and the horse had entered the house, but how could they prove it if they had not heard him, if everything was in order, if the clock would continue to measure the morning and later Florencio would come to get the little girl, probably around twelve the mailman would arrive whistling from afar, leaving for them on the garden table the letters that he or Zulma would pick up without saying anything, shortly before deciding by mutual consent what was best to prepare for lunch.