translation by M. Romo-Carmona
A week later, Bernabé arrived. He had already digested, but badly, the news given to him at the first-daughter. With a grunt he greeted the old woman who answered with a similar one. And then stayed mute. The man figuring that he wouldn’t speak of Esperanza if she didn’t ask him, the old woman bent on not asking a thing if he didn’t spontaneously give news.
It was Venancia who intervened.
“Is Mami better?”
“Better. More relieved--” and added no details.
“Does she get up yet?”
“No... and I don’t want no more questions. Get me a maté.”
The man sent through the ranch a slow, wary look. It all looked the way it did when Esperanza was healthy, a time so remote that he didn’t quite place it. When they had just married, about then. And there weren’t so many kids. Birthing and birthing. Poor Esperanza! ... And his Adam’s apple wavered in sudden emotion. What he needed was for her to die on top of it. She was so thin, so white, without strength when he said goodbye to her. The doctor told him to come back for her after a month. Well... that was life... and now the old woman was in the ranch. Why did el patrón butt into other people’s business? Why had he sent the old lady to the ranch? His ranch was his own. That’s all he needed... he took another look around, noticing everything. When he got to the sewing machine, without turning, he said slowly and straining:
“Looks like you brought yourself all your junk. What do you think, you’re always gonna live in the ranch?”
“While el patrón says nothing different...”
The man blurted something and kept looking. It was also true that he, alone with the pack of kids and with that Venancia who didn’t know how to do anything, so slow about everything, no point... he frowned now, at the candle the old lady was lighting.
“I don’t go for them luxuries--” choking even more on the words, because he was furious.
“I pay for them,” answered the old lady firmly.
A week later came a message from the hospital that Esperanza was in extremely grave condition. Both the messenger and Bernabé left, and days later the man returned as if his head had dropped between his shoulders, his arms dangling. Esperanza had died.
Life spun for a time around the one absent. There was talk of “the deceased,” the children had long confidences with the grandmother and even the man. Suffocated by the memories, he would say a few words upon which he emptied his sadness.
But in the grandmother, the re-weaving of what had been Esperanza’s existence in those years, gathered from the interminable stories of the children, turned into punches, scrubbing, washing, towards which she felt with a sort of cold fear, that anytime it was going to ignite the fire of her old anger, that was now hatred towards the man.
One of the boys said: “Over there, in the mountains under the oak with red flowers, papá buried the babies.”
Or, Venancia would say: “But he was forever on top of her and then it was the complaining because she’d get pregnant.”
And another of the children would add: “Sometimes she cried a lot and she screamed, remember?”
“And the time Venancia went and yelled at him, ‘leave her alone, leave her alone, can’t you see she’s dying?’”
“And the beating he gave her.”
“Who?” asked the grandmother.
“Venancia, for butting in.”
Eufrasia didn’t talk of leaving. Bernabé didn’t tell her to go. No news came from the houses.
The winter began. Wind that came down from the Andes, sharp and whistling, cutting the leaves and mocking the bare branches on the trees. One couldn’t hear the insistent song of the cachañas and only some slow bird of prey crossed the sky in menacing flight. Birds which were of no account with Eufrasia, her slingshot and her prodigious aim that reached them, and then there was the shouting of the children looking for the dead bird through valley and mountain.
The clouds came from the north, black, gray, white; they blended, formed and dissipated monstrous shapes, they’d blow away. But sometimes they’d thicken until they formed just one cloud, low and gray and then the rain fell, persistent, interminable, despairing. It would clear up, barely a day or two, three at the most as a bonus, and the game of the wind would begin anew with the clouds, until another storm made the mountain and the lagoon disappear in the threads of rain, isolating the family in the confinement of the ranch, in slow, interminable hours, days, weeks, indistinct, growing heavily into stupor.
For the grandmother there was always activity, domestic tasks, sewing, knitting, teaching the children. The man would go to one of the shacks and with the ax in a constant gleaming flutter, would split wood for the hearth that must be kept constantly burning, keeping the cold from seeping deep into his bones with his movements.
But every chore became mechanical. It was done without pleasure. Without displeasure as well. It was done. The rest was the stubborn falling of the rain, the shouting of the wind, the booming fall of a tree up in the mountain, and waiting until the rain became less oppressive, until the pull of the south wind would drag away the clouds.
The worst storm began within the ranch one afternoon when the grandmother said:
“When you marry again...” looking at the man straight in the face.
Bernabé loosened his head, with difficulty of movement and thought.
“Sure. A widower is useless. You’re young still. A man with a ranch should have his own woman.”
“Hm!” he grumbled, stunned.
“You must have your eyes set on someone,” continued the grandmother, rolling a cigarette.
“The things you say... what notions”
But Eufrasia impudently put her cards on the table. “As for the kids, don’t trouble yourself. I’ll take them all to the houses, Venancia, too. You’ll be free just as if you were single.”
The man finished sipping the mate slowly, and handed it to Venancia who waited, immobile, standing by.
“The kids are mine and no one takes them from the ranch. That’s all I need!”
“For you it would be an advantage--”
“I already told you the kids don’t leave the ranch. Got it?”
Eufrasia finished rolling the cigarette with calm, she grabbed the tongues and took an ember, giving birth to a sudden glow that illuminated her features of hard and cracked earth.
“And you think you’ll find a woman to bury herself in here, to take on six kids on top of it? What nonsense...”
Through the man’s chest, like something alive running in his blood, violence began to grow, trembling in his muscles, glowing through his numb, staring eyes, fixed upon the fire.
“And you’re not a man to go without a woman, what I think is strange is that you haven’t gone to find one. ‘Course you’re not gonna find another like Esperanza...”
He heard her without understanding the words, deafened now by the violence that beat within his brain. Suddenly, he did feel the need to do something, to shake the ranch until it crumbled, to grab the old woman and throw her head first into the lagoon... brusque and sudden, one of his hands extended and upset the mate that Venancia offered him.
“Will you shut up? Will you shut your mouth? Will you mind your own business?” Eufrasia turned her profile, supported her elbows on her knees, joined her hands letting them fall almost to the floor and remained mute and still, with the cigarette dangling from her mouth, stuck there and marking now and then a red dot of fire.
The man moved his head from side to side, mumbling curses, throwing furious looks around him. Venancia picked up the cup that rolled to a corner, the sipping straw from another spot. But how to pick up the mate herb strewn around? She turned to the grandmother who didn’t look at her although she knew she was desperately consulting her; with the cup in one hand, the sipper in another, she timidly turned to the father and asked him finally:
“Should I brew you another maté?”
“No. And no one drinks anymore maté tonight. Everybody to bed.”
The five kids, peeling potatoes in the corridor, raised their head an instant and looked through the door, where night already tarred the room in darkness and the fire licked in long and smoky flames. One elbowed the other and whispered:
“He’s fit to be tied!”
“It’s a good thing that abuela...”
The man shouted as if violence again pumped him full of its corrosive venom, “To bed I said. Didn’t you hear?”
The kids brought in the basin with the peeled potatoes, the bucket with the potatoes not yet peeled; piled up the rinds, put away the knives. The grandmother yelled without annoyance, surprising them. “You know very well you’re supposed to wash the knives. Stubborn...”
The five pairs of eyes, expectant and tender, turned to look at her. They smiled, took out the knives, they washed them and put them away again.
“To bed!” insisted the man, obsessed with his idea-- “Why do you take so long!”
They came in on the sly, bumping into each other, then disappeared through the door that opened onto the room with the small cots and in a corner, the wider one where the grandmother slept with Venancia. The man stood up and went to the front door that reverberated in the whole ranch. He turned, looked at the old woman, still immobile, and said, stumbling upon his words.
“I already got my way once, and married Esperanza. Don’t think that you’ll get yours and take the kids. The kids stay in the ranch... the extra one in the ranch is you... now you know it--” and he turned to the door of his bedroom where the french bed and headboard stood pompously, wedding gift from la patrona, the pride of the ranch.
The old woman didn’t answer or make a move. She gnawed her resentment. He’d won once! Well, they would see who won now... but at the same time that he swallowed those bitter scrapes, she was alert to the noises emanating from the bedroom. When silence fell, justifying only the crackling within the hearth and the insistent whistling of the wind outside, Eufrasia rose slowly, brewed the yerba maté, took out bread and began to come and go with the precision of a nocturnal critter, serving the children, silent, enchanted with the adventure.
|Maté gourd and sipping silver straw|
The violence didn’t leave the man’s chest. It was always there, persistent. At times, in the midst of work, in that fluttering of the ax above his head, he felt it so alive that, disconcerted, with that late understanding that was his, he’d put down the tool and stand there, staring at his hands, because within them as within his chest he felt something crawling that drove him to make a fist and to hit, to smash.
He barely spoke with his family. He hated the boss. Hated the old lady, hated the children, hated Esperanza, so feeble, not enough of a woman, incapable of bearing children... and who died, leaving him alone with the kids and the old woman... That was the main thing, for that he was a man, to settle and have children. She went and died... and the old woman who wanted to take his kids, why, if they were his? Busybody... the kids were his, for him to do with them as he pleased. All of them. The kids and Venancia. To beat them if he wanted. To leave them without supper. She’d learn, the damned hag...
He fell into the habit of beating the children. Over anything. Over nothing. Horrible beatings. With his huge hands like hammers. At first the old woman didn’t wish to interfere. When she did, the man looked at her in a rage and yelled at her:
“Remember when you used to hit Esperanza...”
“I probably should have killed her then. She wouldn’t have lived the dog’s life you put her through, you animal...”
The man approached her, menacing, but the woman straightened and looked back with her eyes so full of hateful flames, the mouth so hard, her being writhing with utter indignation, that the man could not finish his gesture.
“Just try to lay a hand on me and see what happens...”
He didn’t know what could happen to him, capable of annihilating her with no other tool than his powerful hands. He didn’t know what the old woman could do to harm him. But the thing is that he suddenly lowered his head, he turned, his arms hanging at his sides, and he left the ranch.
She had won this time. Owing to what grace, Eufrasia didn’t know. But what about other times? Outside, the rain continued at longer and closer intervals. The wind was always the same, hard and sharp. It seemed to lull at times, to swoon in an unexpected warmth, in a sort of reprieve with thin clouds.
One morning, the sky woke up clean and the sun glittered in crackling crystals, in sudden iridescence all the ice that the cold formed in complicity with the night.
The children ran frantically over the slippery white surface. Venancia stretched out like a cat, letting the sun run over her face. Eufrasia bustled around quickly and in silence.
Bernabé was distant, checking the dock. The bridge extended over the drop and united the two sides of the mountain over the uproar of the waters, the fences of tall stakes, tree trunks fractured and interred one next to the other, in interminable lines marking out the pastures.
The man came back at mid-afternoon, cranky, and unusually communicative.
“There are only a few pilings left of the dock.. It’s all got to be done again. At least the fences and the bridge didn’t fare too bad. There’s enough work at the dock for a while.”
One of the kids said, “Can you take me to the mountain tomorrow to help you, Papi?”
“And us, too, please...?” said the rest all at once and with great excitement.
Eufrasia, sitting in her habitual spot by the fire, silently and with her profile turned, tightened her lips expressing her disapproval.
“Me, too, Papi,” added Venancia coming closer to the man, wheedling, smiling because the dimples were always there, in her cheeks, smiling although a smile didn’t shape her mouth and her small eyes shining, lost in the black shadow of the long, arching lashes, just like her mother.
“Esperanza,” mumbled the man, and he stared with his mouth open and his Adam’s apple wavering. “Esperanza... my God, it’s scary how she looks just like her...” he added, as though talking to himself.
The old woman, still sitting sideways, spied him out of the corner of her eye. The kids and Venancia shouted in a chorus: “He’ll take us, he’ll take us...”
The man seemed to follow something that occurred within. He looked at his hands, where the violence bugged him. He made fists. Suddenly he threw himself over the kids, chasing them with blows that fell indiscriminately over any of them. Over Venancia. The girl began to bleed through the nose, crying in shouts, and she didn’t manage to escape like the others.
“God help us!” said the grandmother and rose to help her.
But the man had frozen again staring at his hands and, just as suddenly, he felt that something melted in his chest in a warm avalanche, as if he cried inside. Exactly: a warm tide. And he approached Venancia, almost at the same time as the grandmother.
“You beast... leave her alone... one day you’ll end up incriminating yourself with one of your children...”
The man shook, because the violence returned and ran through his muscles, nestling there, next to his throat, and bubbling in his hands. He yelled.
“That’s why she’s my daughter... to do whatever I want with her... with her, with the kids and with you, too...” This time he managed to hit her once, but no more, because the old woman, prodigiously agile, thinking faster than he, avoided him and left the ranch.
She went to huddle next to the oven, hard, her head sideways, outward profile, her cheeks burning where she received the blow. But her rage burned hotter inside. The stakes, the mops, the logs piled up, they were no longer a weight. What was Venancia doing inside the house? Was he hitting her, that animal? No, because she couldn’t hear screams and she could separate noises, classify them, a necessary labor of her job at the mill; she could tell from the rumble if it was working well, if it wasn’t running well, and where the problem was. The kids were far away, playing in the field, forgetting the blows. The girl had a bloody nose, but, what was she doing there, bleeding? The girl, didn’t she look so much like Esperanza! Well. But, why didn’t she go and find her? What to do? She decided suddenly. She returned to the house.
The girl was rubbing her nose with a rag. Bernabé had dropped on a chair, undone, and his Adam’s apple was wavering more now. He didn’t seem to be aware of Eufrasia’s presence.
Straight ahead if possible. If not, through rough terrain, crawling. Once she had lost, yes, but this time she would win. Straight ahead would mean going to the houses and telling the boss what went on at the ranch. And letting him intervene, take the kids away from the man and give them to her. She needed no other rooms, the two by the back courtyard were big enough and they could all be accommodated perfectly. It was the only hope.
Time was slowly settling into the thaw, the waters also receded and in two more weeks it would be possible to traverse to the first-daughter land parcel. Of course, the man wouldn’t go with her, and that was a bad road. Although beasts know better than anyone how to find the way. She would go. It was best.
But it was dangerous to leave the kids alone. If she could sneak out with Venancia! Impossible. Venancia, so slow, backward, now she beheld her father with panicked terror after he hit her... and if she left alone and something happened in the ranch? But, what was going to happen, what? Nothing... And, she would shrug her shoulders.
Something fearful, dark, and pulsating immobilized her there. She didn’t know what. Fear of something undefined. Irrational fear.
At the next row, another afternoon, when Bernabé beat everybody up, including herself, without apparent motive other than to satisfy that itching in his hands and sometimes, almost the aching in his loins, Eufrasia yelled as she ran off:
“You’ll work things out soon enough with the boss--” and she froze when she heard him answer, biting and choking on the words, his hands hanging and the eyes lost in the flesh of the lids.
“El patrón... when he sees me... I’ll take the kids and leave. El patrón... big deal, the boss. Let him mind his own business, el patrón!”
It had become a habit with Eufrasia, now that the weather was clear, to go sit under the lean-to by the oven. She’d bring a bench, the sewing or knitting, and there she’d live out the hours, alone, waiting for the man and the children, because it had also become a habit with him to take them to work at dawn. Which filled the kids with mirth, forgetting the blows and the curses while going by the lagoon to cross over to the mountain boundaries, or waiting for the salmon to bite, or helping the father choose the trees to be felled and chopped to make more fences, or the other marvelous adventure that consisted of crossing-- testing their equilibrium, the bridge that lay over the chasm, a primitive and dangerous setup.
They returned hungry and tired. Eufrasia had dinner ready, Venancia served it awkwardly, the man ordered everybody to bed soon afterwards, and the kids were so tired, so absolutely spent with the walking, the air and the sun, stuffed with dinner, that they fell like stones to the bottom of their sleep, without a chance for the grandmother to obtain the least bit of information about what they’d done during the day.
Again, the man had won... and there she was. The perfect fool, working the whole day so that “his lordship” would find the golden bread, the savory chowder, the roasted potatoes and the water boiling to brew the mate. And clean clothes and the ranch spic and span... fool.
She began to wander around. She made careful trips along the trail until she reached the bridge over the drop. She was hidden in the maze of trees, of the bushes and vines, appearing suddenly in front of the ranch, looking for straight paths between the bridge and her usual spot under the lean-to by the oven. She vented her bad humor on the birds, even the smallest ones always found by the pebbles of her slingshot. Wanderings without witnesses, because she always made sure that the echo carried no traces of the others, faraway in the mountains.
They returned from the woods. That morning the man had laid out the net and the kids waited impatiently to see the catch. Venancia had made herself a crown of little leaves and she walked ahead. She crossed the bridge first, as if her bare feet adhered to the gnarled log, firm and secure. A boy passed, whistling, giving no importance to the chasm below, deep and green, alive. The rest of the kids came with the man who carried the ax. It looked like he was going to cross first, but he let the kids by, who crossed and caught up with the others and went running to the boat ramp to see the net. The man set foot on the bridge. Like the kids he seemed adhered to the bark of the tree. But in the middle, suddenly, he hesitated, hurt by the stone on the forehead, hesitated, wavered and disappeared into the walls of the precipice, submerged in the humid uproar.
The children waited for him at the boat ramp.
“Must have gone straight to the ranch--” one said.
“Do we pick up the net?” proposed another.
“Let’s just do it,” said Venancia. “And if he gets mad, let him.”
They struggled a while. Pulled out the fish. They stuck them through long branches from the water making skewers. And they started off towards the ranch with their load.
The grandmother awaited them quietly under the lean-to by the oven, with her hands crossed over her sewing.
“Look, abuela: trouts and a small salmon.”
“And, Papi?” asked one of the kids.
“He hasn’t gotten over here--” said the grandmother and turned her profile.
“Bah! He must have forgotten something and gone back to the mountain.”
“Why don’t you go after him? It’s pretty late and he must be hungry.”
They came back a while later. The father wasn’t there. What should they do? Should they go look for him on the other side of the bridge?
“No,” said the grandmother. “It’s night already. Go inside and eat. He’ll be coming.”
They ate and this time it was the grandmother who immediately gave the order to go to bed. They were dropping from exhaustion. Dropping from exhaustion in the midst of their sleep.
The grandmother remained a long time in her other usual place, the one of the long winter nights, near the hearth, her head turned onto her shoulder, a marten in watch, her profile steady in the twilight, in her hand the cigarette, rolled slowly, slowly ignited and glowing, from time to time in a red dot. Then she turned towards the door of the man’s room.
“Now I won... and forever... hm!” she said it, she thought she said it, but with her mouth closed, as though barred by the lower lip, she didn’t move a muscle, nor did she utter a sound.
She rose then, to close the front door. But she didn’t close it, she left it open. Open, because for the others, the man could still come back.