The Incredible And Sad Tale Of Innocent Erendira And Her Heartless Grandmother
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Erendira was bathing her grandmother when the wind of her misfortune began to blow. The enormous mansion of moon like concrete lost in the solitude of the desert trembled down to its foundations with the first attack. But Erendira and her grandmother were used to the risks of the wild nature there, and in the bathroom decorated with a series of peacocks and childish mosaics of Roman baths they scarcely paid any attention to the wind. The grandmother, naked and huge in the marble tub, looked like a handsome white whale. The granddaughter had just turned fourteen and was languid, soft-boned, and too meek for her age. With a parsimony that had something like sacred rigor about it, she was bathing her grandmother with water in which purifying herbs and aromatic leaves had been boiled, the latter clinging to the succulent back, the flowing metal-colored hair, and the powerful shoulders which were so mercilessly tattooed as to put sailors to shame. “Last night I dreamt I was expecting a letter,” the grandmother said. Erendira, who never spoke except when it was unavoidable, asked: “What day was it in the dream?”
“Then it was a letter with bad news,” Erendira said, “but it will never arrive.” When she had finished bathing her grandmother, she took her to her bedroom. The grandmother was so fat that she could only walk by leaning on her granddaughter’s shoulder or on a staff that looked like a bishop’s crosier, but even during her most difficult efforts the power of an antiquated grandeur was evident. In the bedroom, which had been furnished with an excessive and somewhat demented taste, like the whole house, Erendira needed two more hours to get her grandmother ready.
She untangled her hair strand by strand, perfumed and combed it, put an equatorially flowered dress on her, put talcum powder on her face, bright red lipstick on her mouth, rouge on her cheeks, musk on her eyelids, and mother-of-pearl polish on her nails, and when she had her decked out like a larger than life-size doll, she led her to an artificial garden with suffocating flowers that were like the ones on the dress, seated her in a large chair that had the foundation and the pedigree of a throne, and left her listening to elusive records on a phonograph that had a speaker like a megaphone. While the grandmother floated through the swamps of the past, Erendira busied herself sweeping the house, which was dark and motley, with bizarre furniture and statues of invented Caesars, chandeliers of teardrops and alabaster angels, a gilded piano, and numerous clocks of unthinkable sizes and shapes. There was a cistern in the courtyard for the storage of water carried over many years from distant springs on the backs of Indians, and hitched to a ring on the cistern wall was a broken-down ostrich, the only feathered creature who could survive the torment of that accursed climate.
The house was far away from everything, in the heart of the desert, next to a settlement with miserable and burning streets where the goats committed suicide from desolation when the wind of misfortune blew. That incomprehensible refuge had been built by the grandmother’s husband, a legendary smuggler whose name was Amadis, by whom she had a son whose name was also Amadis and who was Erendira’s father. No one knew either the origins or the motivations of that family. The best known version in the language of the Indians was that Amadis the father had rescued his beautiful wife from a house of prostitution in the Antilles, where he had killed a man in a knife fight, and that he had transplanted her forever in the impunity of the desert.
When the Amadises died, one of melancholy fevers and the other riddled with bullets in a fight over a woman, the grandmother buried their bodies in the courtyard, sent away the fourteen barefoot servant girls, and continued ruminating on her dreams of grandeur in the shadows of the furtive house, thanks to the sacrifices of the bastard granddaughter whom she had reared since birth. Erendira needed six hours just to set and wind the clocks. The day when her misfortune began she didn’t have to do that because the clocks had enough winding left to last until the next morning, but on the other hand, she had to bathe and overdress her grandmother, scrub the floors, cook lunch, and polish the crystalware. Around eleven o’clock, when she was changing the water in the ostrich’s bowl and watering the desert weeds around the twin graves of the Amadises, she had to fight off the anger of the wind, which had become unbearable, but she didn’t have the slightest feeling that it was the wind of her misfortune.
At twelve o’clock she was wiping the last champagne glasses when she caught the smell of broth and had to perform the miracle of running to the kitchen without leaving a disaster of Venetian glass in her wake. She just managed to take the pot off the stove as it was beginning to boil over. Then she put on a stew she had already prepared and took advantage of a chance to sit down and rest on a stool in the kitchen. She closed her eyes, opened them again with an unfatigued expression, and began pouring the soup into the tureen. She was working as she slept. The grandmother had sat down alone at the head of a banquet table with silver candlesticks set for twelve people. She shook her little bell and Erendira arrived almost immediately with the steaming tureen. As Erendira was serving the soup, her grandmother noticed the somnambulist look and passed her hand in front of her eyes as if wiping an invisible pane of glass. The girl didn’t see the hand. The grandmother followed her with her look and when Erendira turned to go back to the kitchen, she shouted at her: “Erendira!”
Having been awakened all of a sudden, the girl dropped the tureen onto the rug. “That’s all right, child,” the grandmother said to her with assuring tenderness. “You fell asleep while you were walking about again.” “My body has that habit,” Erendira said by way of an excuse. Still hazy with sleep, she picked up the tureen, and tried to clean the stain on the rug. “Leave it,” her grandmother dissuaded her. “You can wash it this afternoon.” So in addition to her regular afternoon chores, Erendira had to wash the dining room rug, and she took advantage of her presence at the washtub to do Monday’s laundry as well, while the wind went around the house looking for a way in.
She had so much to do that night came upon her without her realizing it, and when she put the dining room rug back in its place it was time to go to bed. The grandmother had been fooling around on the piano all afternoon, singing the songs of her times to herself in a falsetto, and she had stains of musk and tears on her eyelids. But when she lay down on her bed in her muslin nightgown, the bitterness of fond memories returned. “Take advantage of tomorrow to wash the living room rug too,” she told Erendira. “It hasn’t seen the sun since the days of all the noise.” “Yes, Grandmother,” the girl answered.
She picked up a feather fan and began to fan the implacable matron, who recited the list of nighttime orders to her as she sank into sleep. “Iron all the clothes before you go to bed so you can sleep with a clear conscience.” “Yes, Grandmother.”
“Check the clothes closets carefully, because moths get hungrier on windy nights.” “Yes, Grandmother.”
“With the time you have left, take the flowers out into the courtyard so they can get a breath of air.” “Yes, Grandmother.” “And feed the ostrich.”
She had fallen asleep but she was still giving orders, for it was from her that the granddaughter had inherited the ability to be alive still while sleeping. Erendira left the room without making any noise and did the final chores of the night, still replying to the sleeping grandmother’s orders. “Give the graves some water.”
“And if the Amadises arrive, tell them not to come in,” the grandmother said, “because Porfirio Galan’s gang is waiting to kill them.” Erendira didn’t answer her any more because she knew that the grandmother was getting lost in her delirium, but she didn’t miss a single order. When she finished checking the window bolts and put out the last lights, she took a candlestick from the dining room and lighted her way to her bedroom as the pauses in the wind were filled with the peaceful and enormous breathing of her sleeping grandmother. Her room was also luxurious, but not so much as her grandmother’s, and it was piled high with the rag dolls and wind-up animals of her recent childhood. Overcome by the barbarous chores of the day, Erendira didn’t have the strength to get undressed and she put the candlestick on the night table and fell onto the bed. A short while later the wind of her misfortune came into the bedroom like a pack of hounds and knocked the candle over against the curtain.
At dawn, when the wind finally stopped, a few thick and scattered drops of rain began to fall, putting out the last embers and hardening the smoking ashes of the mansion. The people in the village, Indians for the most part, tried to rescue the remains of the disaster: the charred corpse of the ostrich, the frame of the gilded piano, the torso of a statue. The grandmother was contemplating the residue of her fortune with an impenetrable depression. Erendira, sitting between the two graves of the Amadises, had stopped weeping. When the grandmother was convinced that very few things remained intact among the ruins, she looked at her granddaughter with sincere pity. “My poor child,” she sighed. “Life won’t be long enough for you to pay me back for this mishap.”
She began to pay it back that very day, beneath the noise of the rain, when she was taken to the village storekeeper, a skinny and premature widower who was quite well known in the desert for the good price he paid for virginity. As the grandmother waited undauntedly, the widower examined Erendira with scientific austerity: he considered the strength of her thighs, the size of her breasts, the diameter of her hips. He didn’t say a word until he had some calculation of what she was worth. “She’s still quite immature,” he said then. “She has the teats of a bitch.” Then he had her get on a scale to prove his decision with figures. Erendira weighed ninety pounds. “She isn’t worth more than a hundred pesos,” the widower said. The grandmother was scandalized.
“A hundred pesos for a girl who’s completely new! ” she almost shouted. “No, sir, that shows a great lack of respect for virtue on your part.” “I’ll make it a hundred and fifty,” the widower said.
“This girl caused me damages amounting to more than a million pesos,” the grandmother said. “At this rate she’ll need two hundred years to pay me back.” “You’re lucky that the only good feature she has is her age,” the widower said. The storm threatened to knock the house down, and there were so many leaks in the roof that it was raining almost as much inside as out. The grandmother felt all alone in a world of disaster. “Just raise it to three hundred,” she said.
“Two hundred and fifty.”
Finally they agreed on two hundred and twenty pesos in cash and some provisions. The grandmother then signaled Erendira to go with the widower and he led her by the hand to the back room as if he were taking her to school. “I’ll wait for you here,” the grandmother said.
“Yes, Grandmother,” said Erendira.
The back room was a kind of shed with four brick columns, a roof of rotted palm leaves, and an adobe wall three feet high, through which outdoor disturbances got into the building. Placed on top of the adobe wall were pots with cacti and other plants of aridity. Hanging between two columns and flapping like the free sail of a drifting sloop was a faded hammock. Over the whistle of the storm and the lash of the water one could hear distant shouts, the howling of far-off animals, the cries of a shipwreck. When Erendira and the widower went into the shed they had to hold on so as not to be knocked down by a gust of rain which left them soaked. Their voices could not be heard but their movements became clear in the roar of the squall. At the widower’s first attempt, Erendira shouted something inaudible and tried to get away.
The widower answered her without any voice, twisted her arm by the wrist, and dragged her to the hammock. She fought him off with a scratch on the face and shouted in silence again, but he replied with a solemn slap which lifted her off the ground and suspended her in the air for an instant with her long Medusa hair floating in space. He grabbed her about the waist before she touched ground again, flung her into the hammock with a brutal heave, and held her down with his knees. Erendira then succumbed to terror, lost consciousness, and remained as if fascinated by the moonbeams from a fish that was floating through the storm air, while the widower undressed her, tearing off her clothes with a methodical clawing, as if he were pulling up grass, scattering them with great tugs of color that waved like streamers and went off with the wind. When there was no other man left in the village who could pay anything for Erendira’s love, her grandmother put her on a truck to go where the smugglers were.
They made the trip on the back of the truck in the open, among sacks of rice and buckets of lard and what had been left by the fire: the headboard of the viceregal bed, a warrior angel, the scorched throne, and other pieces of useless junk. In a trunk with two crosses painted in broad strokes they carried the bones of the Amadises. The grandmother protected herself from the sun with a tattered umbrella and it was hard for her to breathe because of the torment of sweat and dust, but even in that unhappy state she kept control of her dignity. Behind the pile of cans and sacks of rice Erendira paid for the trip and the cartage by making love for twenty pesos a turn with the truck’s loader. At first her system of defense was the same as she had used against the widower’s attack, but the loader’s approach was different, slow and wise, and he ended up taming her with tenderness. So when they reached the first town after a deadly journey, Erendira and the loader were relaxing from good love behind the parapet of cargo. The driver shouted to the grandmother: “Here’s where the world begins.”
The grandmother observed with disbelief the miserable and solitary streets of a town somewhat larger but just as sad as the one they had abandoned. “It doesn’t look like it to me,” she said.
“It’s mission country,” the driver said.
“I’m not interested in charity, I’m interested in smugglers,” said the grandmother. Listening to the dialogue from behind the load, Erendira dug into a sack of rice with her finger. Suddenly she found a string, pulled on it, and drew out a necklace of genuine pearls. She looked at it amazed, holding it between her fingers like a dead snake, while the driver answered her grandmother: “Don’t be daydreaming, ma’am. There’s no such thing as smugglers.” “Of course not,” the grandmother said. “I’ve got your word for it.” “Try to find one and you’ll see,” the driver bantered. “Everybody talks about them, but no one’s ever seen one.” The loader realized that Erendira had pulled out the necklace and hastened to take it away from her and stick it back into the sack of rice.
The grandmother, who had decided to stay in spite of the poverty of the town, then called to her granddaughter to help her out of the truck. Erendira said good-bye to the loader with a kiss that was hurried but spontaneous and true. The grandmother waited, sitting on her throne in the middle of the street, until they finished unloading the goods. The last item was the trunk with the remains of the Amadises. “This thing weighs as much as a dead man,” said the driver, laughing. “There are two of them,” the grandmother said, “so treat them with the proper respect.” “I bet they’re marble statues.” The driver laughed again.
He put the trunk with bones down carelessly among the singed furniture and held out his open hand to the grandmother. “Fifty pesos,” he said.
“Your slave has already paid on the right-hand side.”
The driver looked at his helper with surprise and the latter made an affirmative sign. The driver then went back to the cab, where a woman in mourning was riding, in her arms a baby who was crying from the heat. The loader, quite sure of himself, told the grandmother: “Erendira is coming with me, if it’s all right by you. My intentions are honorable.” The girl intervened, surprised:
“I didn’t say anything!”
“The idea was all mine,” the loader said.
The grandmother looked him up and down, now, to make him feel small but trying to measure the true size of his guts. “It’s all right by me,” she told him, “provided you pay me what I lost because of her carelessness. It’s eight hundred seventy-two thousand three hundred fifteen pesos, less the four hundred and twenty which she’s already paid me, making it eight hundred seventy-one thousand eight hundred ninety-five.” The truck started up.
“Believe me, I’d give you that pile of money if I had it,” the loader said seriously. “The girl is worth it.” The grandmother was pleased with the boy’s decision.
“Well, then, come back when you have it, son,” she answered in a sympathetic tone. “But you’d better go now, because if we figure out accounts again you’ll end up owing me ten pesos.” The loader jumped onto the back of the truck and it went off. From there he waved good-bye to Erendira, but she was still so surprised that she didn’t answer him. In the same vacant lot where the truck had left them, Erendira and her grandmother improvised a shelter to live in from sheets of zinc and the remains of Oriental rugs. They laid two mats on the ground and slept as well as they had in the mansion until the sun opened holes in the ceiling and burned their faces. Just the opposite of what normally happened, it was the grandmother who busied herself that morning fixing up Erendira. She made up her face in the style of sepulchral beauty that had been the vogue in her youth and touched her up with artificial fingernails and an organdy bow that looked like a butterfly on her head. “You look awful,” she admitted, “but it’s better that way: men are quite stupid when it comes to female matters.”
Long before they saw them they both recognized the sound of two mules walking on the flint of the desert. At a command from her grandmother, Erendira lay down on the mat the way an amateur actress might have done at the moment when the curtain was about to go up. Leaning on her bishop’s crosier, the grandmother went out of the shelter and sat down on the throne to wait for the mules to pass. The mailman was coming. He was only twenty years old, but his work had aged him, and he was wearing a khaki uniform, leggings, a pith helmet, and had a military pistol on his cartridge belt. He was riding a good mule and leading by the halter another, more timeworn one, on whom the canvas mailbags were piled. As he passed by the grandmother he saluted her and kept on going, but she signaled him to look inside the shelter. The man stopped and saw Erendira lying on the mat in her posthumous make-up and wearing a purple-trimmed dress. “Do you like it?” the grandmother asked.
The mailman hadn’t understood until then what the proposition was. “It doesn’t look bad to someone who’s been on a diet,” he said, smiling. “Fifty pesos,” the grandmother said. “Boy, you’re asking a mint!” he said. “I can eat for a whole month on that.” “Don’t be a tightwad,” the grandmother said. “The air mail pays even better than being a priest.” “I’m the domestic mail,” the man said. “The airmail man travels in a pickup truck.” “In any case, love is just as important as eating,” the grandmother said. “But it doesn’t feed you.”
The grandmother realized that a man who lived from what other people were waiting for had more than enough time for bargaining. “How much have you got?” she asked him. The mailman dismounted, took some chewed-up bills from his pocket, and showed them to the grandmother. She snatched them up all together with a rapid hand just as if they had been a ball. “I’ll lower the price for you,” she said, “but on one condition: that you spread the word all around.” “All the way to the other side of the world,” the mailman said. “That’s what I’m for.” Erendira, who had been unable to blink, then took off her artificial eyelashes and moved to one side of the mat to make room for the chance boyfriend. As soon as he was in the shelter, the grandmother closed the entrance with an energetic tug on the sliding curtain. It was an effective deal. Taken by the words of the mailman, men came from very far away to become acquainted with the newness of Erendira.
Behind the men came gambling tables and food stands, and behind them all came a photographer on a bicycle, who, across from the encampment, set up a camera with a mourning sleeve on a tripod and a backdrop of a lake with listless swans. The grandmother, fanning herself on her throne, seemed alien to her own bazaar. The only thing that interested her was keeping order in the line of customers who were waiting their turn and checking the exact amount of money they paid in advance to go in to Erendira. At first she had been so strict that she refused a good customer because he was five pesos short. But with the passage of months she was assimilating the lessons of reality and she ended up letting people in who completed their payment with religious medals, family relics, wedding rings, and anything her bite could prove was bona-fide gold even if it didn’t shine. After a long stay in that first town, the grandmother had sufficient money to buy a donkey, and she went off into the desert in search of places more propitious for the payment of the debt.
She traveled on a litter that had been improvised on top of the donkey and she was protected from the motionless sun by the half-spoked umbrella that Erendira held over her head. Behind them walked four Indian bearers with the remnants of the encampment: the sleeping mats, the restored throne, the alabaster angel, and the trunks with the remains of the Amadises. The photographer followed the caravan on his bicycle, but never catching up, as if he were going to a different festival. Six months had passed since the fire when the grandmother was able to get a complete picture of the business.
“If things go on like this,” she told Erendira, “you will have paid me the debt inside of eight years, seven months, and eleven days.” She went back over her calculations with her eyes closed, fumbling with the seeds she was taking out of a cord pouch where she also kept the money, and she corrected herself: “All that, of course, not counting the pay and board of the Indians and other minor expenses.” Erendira, who was keeping in step with the donkey, bowed down by the heat and dust, did not reproach her grandmother for her figures, but she had to hold back her tears. “I’ve got ground glass in my bones,” she said.
“Try to sleep.”
She closed her eyes, took in a deep breath of scorching air, and went on walking in her sleep.
A small truck loaded with cages appeared, frightening goats in the dust of the horizon, and the clamor of the birds was like a splash of cool water for the Sunday torpor of San Miguel del Desierto. At the wheel was a corpulent Dutch farmer, his skin splintered by the outdoors, and with a squirrel-colored mustache he had inherited from some great-grandfather. His son Ulises, who was riding in the other seat, was a gilded adolescent with lonely maritime eyes and with the appearance of a furtive angel. The Dutchman noticed a tent in front of which all the soldiers of the local garrison were awaiting their turn. They were sitting on the ground, drinking out of the same bottle, which passed from mouth to mouth, and they had almond branches on their heads as if camouflaged for combat. The Dutchman asked in his language: “What the devil can they be selling there?”
“A woman,” his son answered quite naturally. “Her name is Erendira.” “How do you know?”
“Everybody in the desert knows,” Ulises answered. The Dutchman stopped at the small hotel in town and got out. Ulises stayed in the truck. With agile fingers he opened a briefcase that his father had left on the seat, took out a roll of bills, put several in his pocket, and left everything just the way it had been. That night, while his father was asleep, he climbed out the hotel window and went to stand in line in front of Erendira’s tent. The festivities were at their height.
The drunken recruits were dancing by themselves so as not to waste the free music, and the photographer was taking nighttime pictures with magnesium papers. As she watched over her business, the grandmother counted the bank notes in her lap, dividing them into equal piles and arranging them in a basket. There were only twelve soldiers at that time, but the evening line had grown with civilian customers. Ulises was the last one. It was the turn of a soldier with a woeful appearance. The grandmother not only blocked his way but avoided contact with his money. “No, son,” she told him. “You couldn’t go in for all the gold in the world. You bring bad luck.” The soldier, who wasn’t from those parts, was puzzled.
“What do you mean?”
“You bring down the evil shadows,” the grandmother said. “A person only has to look at your face.” She waved him off with her hand, but without touching
him, and made way for the next soldier. “Go right in, handsome,” she told him good-naturedly, “but don’t take too long, your country needs you.” The soldier went in but he came right out again because Erendira wanted to talk to her grandmother. She hung the basket of money on her arm and went into the tent, which wasn’t very roomy, but which was neat and clean. In the back, on an army cot, Erendira was unable to repress the trembling in her body, and she was in sorry shape, all dirty with soldier sweat. “Grandmother,” she sobbed, “I’m dying.”
The grandmother felt her forehead and when she saw she had no fever, she tried to console her. “There are only ten soldiers left,” she said.
Erendira began to weep with the shrieks of a frightened animal. The grandmother realized then that she had gone beyond the limits of horror and, stroking her head, she helped her calm down. “The trouble is that you’re weak,” she told her. “Come on, don’t cry any more, take a bath in sage water to get your blood back into shape.” She left the tent when Erendira was calmer and she gave the soldier waiting his money back. “That’s all for today,” she told him. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll give you the first place in line.” Then she shouted to those lined up: “That’s all, boys. Tomorrow morning at nine.”
Soldiers and civilians broke ranks with shouts of protest. The grandmother confronted them, in a good mood but brandishing the devastating crosier in earnest. “You’re an inconsiderate bunch of slobs!” she shouted. “What do you think the girl is made of, iron? I’d like to see you in her place. You perverts! You shitty bums!” The men answered her with even cruder insults, but she ended up controlling the revolt and stood guard with her staff until they took away the snack tables and dismantled the gambling stands. She was about to go back into the tent when she saw Ulises, as large as life, all by himself in the dark and empty space where the line of men had been before. He had an unreal aura about him and he seemed to be visible in the shadows because of the very glow of his beauty. “You,” the grandmother asked him. “What happened to your wings?” “The one who had wings was my grandfather,” Ulises answered in his natural way, “but nobody believed it.” The grandmother examined him again with fascination. “Well, I do,” she said.
“Put them on and come back tomorrow.” She went into the tent and left Ulises burning where he stood. Erendira felt better after her bath. She had put on a short, lace-trimmed slip and she was drying her hair before going to bed, but she was still making an effort to hold back her tears. Her grandmother was asleep. Behind Erendira’s bed, very slowly, Ulises’ head appeared. She saw the anxious and diaphanous eyes, but before saying anything she rubbed her head with the towel in order to prove that it wasn’t an illusion. When Ulises blinked for the first time, Erendira asked him in a very low voice: “Who are you?”
Ulises showed himself down to his shoulders. “My name is Ulises,” he said. He showed her the bills he had stolen and added: “I’ve got money.”
Erendira put her hands on the bed, brought her face close to that of Ulises, and went on talking to him as if in a kindergarten game. “You were supposed to get in line,” she told him.
“I waited all night long,” Ulises said.
“Well, now you have to wait until tomorrow,” Erendira said. “I feel as if someone had been beating me on the kidneys.” At that instant the grandmother began to talk in her sleep. “It’s going on twenty years since it rained last,” she said. “It was such a terrible storm that the rain was all mixed in with sea water, and the next morning the house was full of fish and snails and your grandfather Amadis, may he rest in peace, saw a glowing manta ray floating through the air.” Ulises hid behind the bed again. Erendira showed an amused smile. “Take it easy,” she told him. “She always acts kind of crazy when she’s asleep, but not even an earthquake can wake her up.” Ulises reappeared. Erendira looked at him with a smile that was naughty and even a little affectionate and took the soiled sheet off the mattress. “Come,” she said. “Help me change the sheet.”
Then Ulises came from behind the bed and took one end of the sheet. Since the sheet was much larger than the mattress, they had to fold it several times. With every fold Ulises drew closer to Erendira. “I was going crazy wanting to see you,” he suddenly said. “Everybody says you’re very pretty and they’re right.” “But I’m going to die,” Erendira said.
“My mother says that people who die in the desert don’t go to heaven but to the sea,” Ulises said. Erendira put the dirty sheet aside and covered the mattress with another, which was clean and ironed. “I never saw the sea,” she said.
“It’s like the desert but with water,” said Ulises.
“Then you can’t walk on it.”
“My father knew a man who could,” Ulises said, “but that was a long time ago.” Erendira was fascinated but she wanted to sleep.
“If you come very early tomorrow you can be first in line,” she said. “I’m leaving with my father at dawn,” said Ulises.
“Won’t you be coming back this way?”
“Who can tell?” Ulises said. “We just happened along now because we got lost on the road to the border.” Erendira looked thoughtfully at her sleeping grandmother.
“All right,” she decided. “Give me the money.”
Ulises gave it to her. Erendira lay down on the bed but he remained trembling where he was: at the decisive moment his determination had weakened. Erendira took him by the hand to hurry him up and only then did she notice his tribulation. She was familiar with that fear. “Is it the first time?” she asked him.
Ulises didn’t answer but he smiled in desolation. Erendira became a different person. “Breathe slowly,” she told him. “That’s the way it always is the first time. Afterwards you won’t even notice.” She laid him down beside her and while she was taking his clothes off she was calming him maternally. “What’s your name?”
“That’s a gringo name,” Erendira said.
“No, a sailor name.”
Erendira uncovered his chest, gave a few little orphan kisses, sniffed him. “It’s like you were made of gold all over,” she said, “but you smell of flowers.” “It must be the oranges,” Ulises said.
Calmer now, he gave a smile of complicity.
“We carry a lot of birds along to throw people off the track,” he added, “but what we’re doing is smuggling a load of oranges across the border.” “Oranges aren’t contraband,” Erendira said.
“These are,” said Ulises. “Each one is worth fifty thousand pesos.” Erendira laughed for the first time in a long while. “What I like about you,” she said, “is the serious way you make up nonsense.” She had become spontaneous and talkative again, as if Ulises’ innocence had changed not only her mood but her character. The grandmother, such a short distance away from misfortune, was still talking in her sleep. “Around those times, at the beginning of March, they brought you home,” she said. “You looked like a lizard wrapped in cotton. Amadis, your father, who was young and handsome, was so happy that afternoon that he sent for twenty carts loaded with flowers and arrived strewing them along the street until the whole village was gold with flowers like the sea.”
She ranted on with great shouts and with a stubborn passion for several hours. But Ulises couldn’t hear her because Erendira had loved him so much and so truthfully that she loved him again for half price while her grandmother was raving and kept on loving him for nothing until dawn. A group of missionaries holding up their crucifixes stood shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the desert. A wind as fierce as the wind of misfortune shook their burlap habits and their rough beards and they were barely able to stand on their feet. Behind them was the mission, a colonial pile of stone with a tiny belfry on top of the harsh whitewashed walls. The youngest missionary, who was in charge of the group, pointed to a natural crack in the glazed clay ground. “You shall not pass beyond this line!” he shouted.
The four Indian bearers carrying the grandmother in a litter made of boards stopped when they heard the shout. Even though she was uncomfortable sitting on the planks of the litter and her spirit was dulled by the dust and sweat of the desert, the grandmother maintained her haughtiness intact. Erendira was on foot. Behind the litter came a file of eight Indians carrying the baggage and at the very end the photographer on his bicycle. “The desert doesn’t belong to anyone,” the grandmother said. “It belongs to God,” the missionary said, “and you are violating his sacred laws with your filthy business.” The grandmother then recognized the missionary’s peninsular usage and diction and avoided a head-on confrontation so as not to break her head against his intransigence. She went back to being herself. “I don’t understand your mysteries, son.”
The missionary pointed at Erendira.
“That child is underage.”
“But she’s my granddaughter.”
“So much the worse,” the missionary replied. “Put her under our care willingly or we’ll have to seek recourse in other ways.” The grandmother had not expected them to go so far.
“All right, if that’s how it is.” She surrendered in fear. “But sooner or later I’ll pass, you’ll see.” Three days after the encounter with the missionaries, the grandmother and Erendira were sleeping in a village near the mission when a group of stealthy, mute bodies, creeping along like an infantry patrol, slipped into the tent. They were six Indian novices, strong and young, their rough cloth habits seeming to glow in the moonlight. Without making a sound they cloaked Erendira in a mosquito netting, picked her up without waking her, and carried her off wrapper-like a large, fragile fish caught in a lunar net. There were no means left untried by the grandmother in an attempt to rescue her granddaughter from the protection of the missionaries.
Only when they had all failed, from the most direct to the most devious, did she turn to the civil authority, which was vested in a military man. She found him in the courtyard of his home, his chest bare, shooting with an army rifle at a dark and solitary cloud in the burning sky. He was trying to perforate it to bring on rain, and his shots were furious and useless, but he did take the necessary time out to listen to the grandmother. “I can’t do anything,” he explained to her when he had heard her out. “The priesties, according to the concordat, have the right to keep the girl until she comes of age. Or until she gets married.” “Then why do they have you here as mayor?” the grandmother asked. “To make it rain,” was the mayor’s answer.
Then, seeing that the cloud had moved out of range, he interrupted his official duties and gave his full attention to the grandmother. “What you need is someone with a lot of weight who will vouch for you,” he told her. “Someone who can swear to your moral standing and your good behavior in a signed letter. Do you know Senator Onesimo Sanchez?” Sitting under the naked sun on a stool that was too narrow for her astral buttocks, the grandmother answered with a solemn rage: “I’m just a poor woman all alone in the vastness of the desert.” The mayor, his right eye twisted from the heat, looked at her with pity.
“Then don’t waste your time, ma’am,” he said. “You’ll rot in hell.” She didn’t rot, of course. She set up her tent across from the mission and sat down to think, like a solitary warrior besieging a fortified city. The wandering photographer, who knew her quite well, loaded his gear onto the carrier of his bicycle and was ready to leave all alone when he saw her in the full sun with her eyes fixed on the mission. “Let’s see who gets tired first,” the grandmother said, “they or I.” “They’ve been here for three hundred years and they can still take it,” the photographer said. “I’m leaving.” Only then did the grandmother notice the loaded bicycle.
“Where are you going?”
“Wherever the wind takes me,” the photographer said, and he left. “It’s a big world.” The grandmother sighed.
“Not as big as you think, you ingrate.”
But she didn’t move her head in spite of her anger so as not to lose sight of the mission. She didn’t move it for many, many days of mineral heat, for many, many nights of wild winds, for all the time she was meditating and no one came out of the mission. The Indians built a lean-to of palm leaves beside the tent and hung their hammocks there, but the grandmother stood watch until very late, nodding on her throne and chewing the uncooked grain in her pouch with the invincible laziness of a resting ox. One night a convoy of slow covered trucks passed very close to her and the only lights they carried were wreaths of colored bulbs which gave them the ghostly size of sleep-walking altars.
The grandmother recognized them at once because they were just like the trucks of the Amadises. The last truck in the convoy slowed, stopped, and a man got out of the cab to adjust something in back. He looked like a replica of the Amadises, wearing a hat with a turned-up brim, high boots, two crossed cartridge belts across his chest, an army rifle, and two pistols. Overcome by an irresistible temptation, the grandmother called to the man. “Don’t you know who I am?” she asked him.
The man lighted her pitilessly with a flashlight. For an instant he studied the face worn out by vigil, the eyes dim from fatigue, the withered hair of the woman who, even at her age, in her sorry state, and with that crude light on her face, could have said that she had been the most beautiful woman in the world. When he examined her enough to be sure that he had never seen her before, he turned out the light. “The only thing I know for sure is that you’re not the Virgin of Perpetual Help.” “Quite the contrary,” the grandmother said with a very sweet voice. “I’m the Lady.” The man put his hand to his pistol out of pure instinct.
“Then you’re not of this world,” he said, tense. “What is it you want?” “For you to help me rescue my granddaughter, Big Amadis’s granddaughter, the daughter of our son Amadis, held captive in that mission.” The man overcame his fear.
“You knocked on the wrong door,” he said. “If you think we’re about to get mixed up in God’s affairs, you’re not the one you say you are, you never knew the Amadises, and you haven’t got the whoriest notion of what smuggling’s all about.” Early that morning the grandmother slept less than before. She lay awake pondering things, wrapped in a wool blanket while the early hour got her memory all mixed up and the repressed raving struggled to get out even though she was awake, and she had to tighten her heart with her hand so as not to be suffocated by the memory of a house by the sea with great red flowers where she had been happy. She remained that way until the mission bell rang and the first lights went on in the windows and the desert became saturated with the smell of the hot bread of matins. Only then did she abandon her fatigue, tricked by the illusion that Erendira had got up and was looking for a way to escape and come back to her. Erendira, however, had not lost a single night’s sleep since they had taken her to the mission.
They had cut her hair with pruning shears until her head was like a brush, they put a hermit’s rough cassock on her and gave her a bucket of whitewash and a broom so that she could whitewash the stairs every time someone went up or down. It was mule work because there was an incessant coming and going of muddied missionaries and novice carriers, but Erendira felt as if every day were Sunday after the fearsome galley that had been her bed. Besides, she wasn’t the only one worn out at night, because that mission was dedicated to fighting not against the devil but against the desert. Erendira had seen the Indian novices bulldogging cows in the barn in order to milk them, jumping up and down on planks for days on end in order to press cheese, helping a goat through a difficult birth. She had seen them sweat like tanned stevedores hauling water from the cistern, watering by hand a bold garden that other novices cultivated with hoes in order to plant vegetables in the flintstone of the desert. She had seen the earthly inferno of the ovens for baking bread and the rooms for ironing clothes.
She had seen a nun chase a pig through the courtyard, slide along holding the runaway animal by the ears, and roll in a mud puddle without letting go until two novices in leather aprons helped her get it under control and one of them cut its throat with a butcher knife as they all became covered with blood and mire. In the isolation ward of the infirmary she had seen tubercular nuns in their nightgown shrouds, waiting for God’s last command as they embroidered bridal sheets on the terraces while the men preached in the desert. Erendira was living in her shadows and discovering other forms of beauty and horror that she had never imagined in the narrow world of her bed, but neither the coarsest nor the most persuasive of the novices had managed to get her to say a word since they had taken her to the mission. One morning, while she was preparing the whitewash in her bucket, she heard string music that was like a light even more diaphanous than the light of the desert.
Captivated by the miracle, she peeped into an immense and empty salon with bare walls and large windows through which the dazzling June light poured in and remained still, and in the center of the room she saw a very beautiful nun whom she had never seen before playing an Easter oratorio on the clavichord. Erendira listened to the music without blinking, her heart hanging by a thread, until the lunch bell rang. After eating, while she whitewashed the stairs with her reed brush, she waited until all the novices had finished going up and coming down, and she was alone, with no one to hear her, and then she spoke for the first time since she had entered the mission. “I’m happy,” she said.
So that put an end to the hopes the grandmother had that Erendira would run away to rejoin her, but she maintained her granite siege without having made any decision until Pentecost. During that time the missionaries were combing the desert in search of pregnant concubines in order to get them married. They traveled all the way to the most remote settlements in a broken-down truck with four well-armed soldiers and a chest of cheap cloth. The most difficult part of that Indian hunt was to convince the women, who defended themselves against divine grace with the truthful argument that men, sleeping in their hammocks with legs spread, felt they had the right to demand much heavier work from legitimate wives than from concubines. It was necessary to seduce them with trickery, dissolving the will of God in the syrup of their own language so that it would seem less harsh to them, but even the most crafty of them ended up being convinced by a pair of flashy earrings.
The men, on the other hand, once the women’s acceptance had been obtained, were routed out of their hammocks with rifle butts, bound, and hauled away in the back of the truck to be married by force. For several days the grandmother saw the little truck loaded with pregnant Indian women heading for the mission, but she failed to recognize her opportunity. She recognized it on Pentecost Sunday itself, when she heard the rockets and the ringing of the bells and saw the miserable and merry crowd that was going to the festival, and she saw that among the crowds there were pregnant women with the veil and crown of a bride holding the arms of their casual mates, whom they would legitimize in the collective wedding.
Among the last in the procession a boy passed, innocent of heart, with gourd-cut Indian hair and dressed in rags, carrying an Easter candle with a silk bow in his hand. The grandmother called him over. “Tell me something, son,” she asked with her smoothest voice. “What part do you have in this affair?” The boy felt intimidated by the candle and it was hard for him to close his mouth because of his donkey teeth. “The priests are going to give me my first communion,” he said. “How much did they pay you?”
The grandmother took a roll of bills from her pouch and the boy looked at them with surprise. “I’m going to give you twenty,” the grandmother said. “Not for you to make your first communion, but for you to get married.” “Who to?”
So Erendira was married in the courtyard of the mission in her hermit’s cassock and a silk shawl that the novices gave her, and without even knowing the name of the groom her grandmother had bought for her. With uncertain hope she withstood the torment of kneeling on the saltpeter ground, the goat-hair stink of the two hundred pregnant brides, the punishment of the Epistle of Saint Paul hammered out in Latin under the motionless and burning sun, because the missionaries had found no way to oppose the wile of that unforeseen marriage, but had given her a promise as a last attempt to keep her in the mission. Nevertheless, after the ceremony in the presence of the apostolic prefect, the military mayor who shot at the clouds, her recent husband, and her impassive grandmother, Erendira found herself once more under the spell that had dominated her since birth. When they asked her what her free, true, and definitive will was, she didn’t even give a sigh of hesitation. “I want to leave,” she said. And she clarified things by pointing at her husband. “But not with him, with my grandmother.”
Ulises had wasted a whole afternoon trying to steal an orange from his father’s grove, because the older man wouldn’t take his eyes off him while they were pruning the sick trees, and his mother kept watch from the house. So he gave up his plan, for that day at least, and grudgingly helped his father until they had pruned the last orange trees. The extensive grove was quiet and hidden, and the wooden house with a tin roof had copper grating over the windows and a large porch set on pilings, with primitive plants bearing intense flowers. Ulises’ mother was on the porch sitting back in a Viennese rocking chair with smoked leaves on her temples to relieve her headache, and her full-blooded-Indian look followed her son like a beam of invisible light to the most remote corners of the orange grove.
She was quite beautiful, much younger than her husband, and not only did she still wear the garb of her tribe, but she knew the most ancient secrets of her blood. When Ulises returned to the house with the pruning tools, his mother asked him for her four o’clock medicine, which was on a nearby table. As soon as he touched them, the glass and the bottle changed color. Then, out of pure play, he touched a glass pitcher that was on the table beside some tumblers and the pitcher also turned blue. His mother observed him while she was taking her medicine and when she was sure that it was not a delirium of her pain, she asked him in the Guajiro Indian language: “How long has that been happening to you?”
Ever since we came back from the desert,” Ulises said, also in Guajiro. “It only happens with glass things.” In order to demonstrate, one after the other he touched the glasses that were on the table and they all turned different colors. “Those things happen only because of love,” his mother said. “Who is it?” Ulises didn’t answer. His father, who couldn’t understand the Guajiro language, was passing by the porch at that moment with a cluster of oranges. “What are you two talking about?” he asked Ulises in Dutch.
“Nothing special,” Ulises answered.
Ulises’ mother didn’t know any Dutch. When her husband went into the house, she asked her son in Guajiro: “What did he say?”
“Nothing special,” Ulises answered. He lost sight of his father when he went into the house, but he saw him again through a window of the office. The mother waited until she was alone with Ulises and then repeated: “Tell me who it is.”
“It’s nobody,” Ulises said.
He answered without paying attention because he was hanging on his father’s movements in the office. He had seen him put the oranges on top of the safe when he worked out the combination. But while he was keeping an eye on his father, his mother was keeping an eye on him. “You haven’t eaten any bread for a long time,” she observed. “I don’t like it.”
The mother’s face suddenly took on an unaccustomed liveliness. “That’s a lie,” she said. “It’s because you’re love-sick and people who are lovesick can’t eat bread.” Her voice, like her eyes, had passed from entreaty to threat. “It would be better if you told me who it was,” she said, “or I’ll make you take some purifying baths.” In the office the Dutchman opened the safe, put the oranges inside, and closed the armored door. Ulises moved away from the window then and answered his mother impatiently. “I already told you there wasn’t anyone,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, ask Papa.” The Dutchman appeared in the office doorway lighting his sailor’s pipe and carrying his threadbare Bible under his arm. His wife asked him in Spanish: “Who did you meet in the desert?”
“Nobody,” her husband answered, a little in the clouds. “If you don’t believe me, ask Ulises.” He sat down at the end of the hall and sucked on his pipe until the tobacco was used up. Then he opened the Bible at random and recited spot passages for almost two hours in flowing and ringing Dutch. At midnight Ulises was still thinking with such intensity that he couldn’t sleep. He rolled about in his hammock for another hour, trying to overcome the pain of memories until the very pain gave him the strength he needed to make a decision. Then he put on his cowboy pants, his plaid shirt, and his riding boots, jumped through the window, and fled from the house in the truck loaded with birds. As he went through the groves he picked the three ripe oranges he had been unable to steal that afternoon. He traveled across the desert for the rest of the night and at dawn he asked in towns and villages about the whereabouts of Erendira, but no one could tell him. Finally they informed him that she was traveling in the electoral campaign retinue of Senator Onesimo Sanchez and that on that day he was probably in Nueva Castilla.
He didn’t find him there but in the next town and Erendira was no longer with him, for the grandmother had managed to get the senator to vouch for her morality in a letter written in his own hand, and with it she was going about opening the most tightly barred doors in the desert. On the third day he came across the domestic mailman and the latter told him what direction to follow. “They’re heading toward the sea,” he said, “and you’d better hurry because the goddamned old woman plans to cross over to the island of Aruba.” Following that direction, after half a day’s journey Ulises spotted the broad, stained tent that the grandmother had bought from a bankrupt circus. The wandering photographer had come back to her, convinced that the world was really not as large as he had thought, and he had set up his idyllic backdrops near the tent. A band of brass-blowers was captivating Erendira’s clientele with a taciturn waltz. Ulises waited for his turn to go in, and the first thing that caught his attention was the order and cleanliness of the inside of the tent.
The grandmother’s bed had recovered its viceregal splendor, the statue of the angel was in its place beside the funerary trunk of the Amadises, and in addition, there was a pewter bathtub with lion’s feet. Lying on her new canopied bed, Erendira was naked and placid, irradiating a childlike glow under the light that filtered through the tent. She was sleeping with her eyes open. Ulises stopped beside her, the oranges in his hand, and he noticed that she was looking at him without seeing him. Then he passed his hand over her eyes and called her by the name he had invented when he wanted to think about her: “Aridnere.”
Erendira woke up. She felt naked in front of Ulises, let out a squeak, and covered herself with the sheet up to her neck. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “I’m horrible.”
“You’re the color of an orange all over,” Ulises said. He raised the fruits to her eyes so that she could compare. “Look.” Erendira uncovered her eyes and saw that indeed the oranges did have her color. “I don’t want you to stay now,” she said.
“I only came to show you this,” Ulises said. “Look here.”
He broke open an orange with his nails, split it in two with his hands, and showed Erendira what was inside: stuck in the heart of the fruit was a genuine diamond. “These are the oranges we take across the border,” he said.
“But they’re living oranges!” Erendira exclaimed.
“Of course.” Ulises smiled. “My father grows them.”
Erendira couldn’t believe it. She uncovered her face, took the diamond in her fingers and contemplated it with surprise. “With three like these we can take a trip around the world,” Ulises said. Erendira gave him back the diamond with a look of disappointment. Ulises went on: “Besides, I’ve got a pickup truck,” he said. “And besides that … Look!” From underneath his shirt he took an ancient pistol.
“I can’t leave for ten years,” Erendira said.
“You’ll leave,” Ulises said. “Tonight, when the white whale falls asleep, I’ll be outside there calling like an owl.” He made such a true imitation of the call of an owl that Erendira’s eyes smiled for the first time. “It’s my grandmother,” she said.
They both laughed at the mistake, but Erendira picked up the thread again. “No one can leave for anywhere without her grandmother’s permission.” “There’s no reason to say anything.” “She’ll find out in any case,” Erendira said. “She can dream things.” “When she starts to dream that you’re leaving we’ll already be across the border. We’ll cross over like smugglers,” Ulises said. Grasping the pistol with the confidence of a movie gunfighter, he imitated the sounds of the shots to excite Erendira with his audacity. She didn’t say yes or no, but her eyes gave a sigh and she sent Ulises away with a kiss. Ulises, touched, whispered: “Tomorrow we’ll be watching the ships go by.”
That night, a little after seven o’clock, Erendira was combing her grandmother’s hair when the wind of her misfortune blew again. In the shelter of the tent were the Indian bearers and the leader of the brass band, waiting to be paid. The grandmother finished counting out the bills on a chest she had within reach, and after consulting a ledger she paid the oldest of the Indians. “Here you are,” she told him. “Twenty pesos for the week, less eight for meals, less three for water, less fifty cents on account for the new shirts, that’s eight fifty. Count it.” The oldest Indian counted the money and they all withdrew with a bow. “Thank you, white lady.”
Next came the leader of the band. The grandmother consulted her ledger and turned to the photographer, who was trying to repair the bellows of his camera with wads of gutta-percha. “What’s it going to be?” she asked him. “Will you or won’t you pay a quarter of the cost of the music?” The photographer didn’t even raise his head to answer.
“Music doesn’t come out in pictures.”
“But it makes people want to have their pictures taken,” the grandmother answered. “On the contrary,” said the photographer. “It reminds them of the dead and then they come out in the picture with their eyes closed.” The bandleader intervened.
“What makes them close their eyes isn’t the music,” he said. “It’s the lightning you make taking pictures at night.” “It’s the music,” the photographer insisted.
The grandmother put an end to the dispute. “Don’t be a cheapskate,” she said to the photographer. “Look how well things have been going for Senator Onesimo Sanchez and it’s thanks to the musicians he has along.” Then, in a harsh tone, she concluded: “So pay what you ought to or go follow your fortune by yourself. It’s not right for that poor child to carry the whole burden of expenses.” “I’ll follow my fortune by myself,” the photographer said. “After all, an artist is what I am.” The grandmother shrugged her shoulders and took care of the musician. She handed him a bundle of bills that matched the figure written in her ledger. “Two hundred and fifty-four numbers,” she told him “At fifty cents apiece, plus thirty-two on Sundays and holidays at sixty cents apiece, that’s one hundred fifty-six twenty.” The musician wouldn’t accept the money.
“It’s one hundred eighty-two forty,” he said. “Waltzes cost more.” “Why is that?”
“Because they’re sadder,” the musician said.
The grandmother made him take the money.
“Well, this week you’ll play us two happy numbers for each waltz I owe you for and we’ll be even.” The musician didn’t understand the grandmother’s logic, but he accepted the figures while he unraveled the tangle. At that moment the fearsome wind threatened to uproot the tent, and in the silence that it left in its wake, outside, clear and gloomy, the call of an owl was heard. Erendira didn’t know what to do to disguise her upset. She closed the chest with the money and hid it under the bed, but the grandmother recognized the fear in her hand when she gave her the key. “Don’t be frightened,” she told her.
“There are always owls on windy nights.” Still she didn’t seem so convinced when she saw the photographer go out with the camera on his back. “Wait till tomorrow if you’d like,” she told him. “Death is on the loose tonight.” The photographer had also noticed the call of the owl, but he didn’t change his intentions. “Stay, son,” the grandmother insisted. “Even if it’s just because of the liking I have for you.” “But I won’t pay for the music,” the photographer said.
“Oh, no,” the grandmother said. “Not that.”
“You see?” the photographer said. “You’ve got no love for anybody.” The grandmother grew pale with rage.
“Then beat it!” she said. “You lowlife!”
She felt so outraged that she was still venting her rage on him while Erendira helped her go to bed. “Son of an evil mother,” she muttered. “What does that bastard know about anyone else’s heart?” Erendira paid no attention to her, because the owl was calling her with tenacious insistence during the pauses in the wind and she was tormented by uncertainty. The grandmother finally went to bed with the same ritual that had been de rigueur in the ancient mansion, and while her granddaughter fanned her she overcame her anger and once more breathed her sterile breath. “You have to get up early,” she said then, “so you can boil the infusion for my bath before the people get here.” “Yes, Grandmother.”
“With the time you have left, wash the Indians’ dirty laundry and that way we’ll have something else to take off their pay next week.” “Yes, Grandmother,” Erendira said.
“And sleep slowly so that you won’t get tired, because tomorrow is Thursday, the longest day of the week.” “Yes, Grandmother.”
“And feed the ostrich.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” Erendira said.
She left the fan at the head of the bed and lighted two altar candles in front of the chest with their dead. The grandmother, asleep now, was lagging behind with her orders. “Don’t forget to light the candles for the Amadises.”
Erendira knew then that she wouldn’t wake up, because she had begun to rave.
She heard the wind barking about the tent, but she didn’t recognize it as the wind of her misfortune that time either. She looked out into the night until the owl called again and her instinct for freedom in the end prevailed over her grandmother’s spell. She hadn’t taken five steps outside the tent when she came across the photographer, who was lashing his equipment to the carrier of his bicycle. His accomplice’s smile calmed her down. “I don’t know anything,” the photographer said, “I haven’t seen anything, and I won’t pay for the music.” He took his leave with a blessing for all. Then Erendira ran toward the desert, having decided once and for all, and she was swallowed up in the shadows of the wind where the owl was calling. That time the grandmother went to the civil authorities at once. The commandant of the local detachment leaped out of his hammock at six in the morning when she put the senator’s letter before his eyes.
Ulises’ father was waiting at the door. “How in hell do you expect me to know what it says!” the commandant shouted. “I can’t read.” “It’s a letter of recommendation from Senator Onesimo Sanchez,” the grandmother said. Without further questions, the commandant took down a rifle he had near his hammock and began to shout orders to his men. Five minutes later they were all in a military truck flying toward the border against a contrary wind that had erased all trace of the fugitives. The commandant rode in the front seat beside the driver. In back were the Dutchman and the grandmother, with an armed policeman on each running board. Close to town they stopped a convoy of trucks covered with waterproof canvases. Several men who were riding concealed in the rear raised the canvas and aimed at the small vehicle with machine guns and army rifles. The commandant asked the driver of the first truck how far back they had passed a farm truck loaded with birds. The driver started up before he answered.
“We’re not stool pigeons,” he said indignantly, “we’re smugglers.” The commandant saw the sooty barrels of the machine guns pass close to his eyes and he raised his arms and smiled. “At least,” he shouted at them, “you could have the decency not to go around in broad daylight.” The last truck had a sign on its rear bumper: I THINK OF YOU, ERENDIRA. The wind became drier as they headed north and the sun was fiercer than the wind. It was hard to breathe because of the heat and dust inside the closed-in truck. The grandmother was the first to spot the photographer: he was pedaling along in the same direction in which they were flying, with no protection against the sun except for a handkerchief tied around his head. “There he is.” She pointed. “He was their accomplice, the lowlife.” The commandant ordered one of the policemen on the running board to take charge of the photographer. “Grab him and wait for us here,” he said. “We’ll be right back.” The policeman jumped off the running board and shouted twice for the photographer to halt.
The photographer didn’t hear him because of the wind blowing in the opposite direction. When the truck went on, the grandmother made an enigmatic gesture to him, but he confused it with a greeting, smiled, and waved. He didn’t hear the shot. He flipped into the air and fell dead on top of his bicycle, his head blown apart by a rifle bullet, and he never knew where it came from. Before noon they began to see feathers. They were passing by in the wind and they were feathers from young birds. The Dutchman recognized them because they were from his birds, plucked out by the wind. The driver changed direction, pushed the gas pedal to the floor, and in half an hour they could make out the pickup truck on the horizon.
When Ulises saw the military vehicle appear in the rearview mirror, he made an effort to increase the distance between them, but the motor couldn’t do any better. They had traveled with no sleep and were done in from fatigue and thirst. Erendira, who was dozing on Ulises’ shoulder, woke up in fright. She saw the truck that was about to overtake them and with innocent determination she took the pistol from the glove compartment. “It’s no good,” Ulises said. “It used to belong to Sir Francis Drake.” She pounded it several times and threw it out the window. The military patrol passed the broken- down truck loaded with birds plucked by the wind, turned sharply, and cut it off.
It was around that time that I came to know them, their moment of greatest splendor, but I wouldn’t look into the details of their lives until many years later when Rafael Escalona, in a song, revealed the terrible ending of the drama and I thought it would be good to tell the tale. I was traveling about selling encyclopedias and medical books in the province of Riohacha. Alvaro Cepeda Samudio, who was also traveling in the region, selling beer-cooling equipment, took me through the desert towns in his truck with the intention of talking to me about something and we talked so much about nothing and drank so much beer that without knowing when or where we crossed the entire desert and reached the border. There was the tent of wandering love under hanging canvas signs: ERENDIRA IS BEST; LEAVE AND COME BACK — ERENDIRA WAITS FOR YOU; THERE’S NO LIFE WITHOUT ERENDIRA.
The endless wavy line composed of men of diverse races and ranks looked like a snake with human vertebrae dozing through vacant lots and squares, through gaudy bazaars and noisy marketplaces, coming out of the streets of that city, which was noisy with passing merchants. Every street was a public gambling den, every house a saloon, every doorway a refuge for fugitives. The many undecipherable songs and the shouted offerings of wares formed a single roar of panic in the hallucinating heat. Among the throng of men without a country and sharpers was Blacaman the Good, up on a table and asking for a real serpent in order to test an antidote of his invention on his own flesh. There was the woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents, who would let herself be touched for fifty cents so that people would see there was no trick, and she would answer questions of those who might care to ask about her misfortune.
There was an envoy from the eternal life who announced the imminent coming of the fearsome astral bat, whose burning brimstone breath would overturn the order of nature and bring the mysteries of the sea to the surface. The one restful backwater was the red-light district, reached only by the embers of the urban din. Women from the four quadrants of the nautical rose yawned with boredom in the abandoned cabarets. They had slept their siestas sitting up, unawakened by people who wanted them, and they were still waiting for the astral bat under the fans that spun on the ceilings. Suddenly one of them got up and went to a balcony with pots of pansies that overlooked the street. Down there the row of Erendira’s suitors was passing. “Come on,” the woman shouted at them. “What’s that one got that we don’t have?” “A letter from a senator,” someone shouted.
Attracted by the shouts and the laughter, other women came out onto the balcony. “The line’s been like that for days,” one of them said. “Just imagine, fifty pesos apiece.” The one who had come out first made a decision:
“Well, I’m going to go find out what jewel that seven month baby has got.” “Me too,” another said. “It’ll be better than sitting here warming our chairs for free.” On the way others joined them and when they got to Erendira’s tent they made up a rowdy procession. They went in without any announcement, used pillows to chase away the man they found spending himself as best he could for his money, and they picked up Erendira’s bed and carried it out into the street like a litter. “This is an outrage!” the grandmother shouted. “You pack of traitors, you bandits!” And then, turning to the men in line: “And you, you sissies, where do you keep your balls, letting this attack against a poor defenseless child go on? Damned fags!” She kept on shouting as far as her voice would carry, distributing whacks with her crosier against all who came within reach, but her rage was inaudible amongst the shouts and mocking whistles of the crowd.
Erendira couldn’t escape the ridicule because she was prevented by the dog chain that the grandmother used to hitch her to a slat of the bed ever since she had tried to run away. But they didn’t harm her. They exhibited her on the canopied altar along the noisiest streets like the allegorical passage of the enchained penitent and finally they set her down like a catafalque in the center of the main square. Erendira was all coiled up, her face hidden, but not weeping, and she stayed that way under the terrible sun in the square, biting with shame and rage at the dog chain of her evil destiny until someone was charitable enough to cover her with a shirt. That was the only time I saw them, but I found out that they had stayed in that border town under the protection of the public forces until the grandmother’s chests were bursting and then they left the desert and headed toward the sea.
Never had such opulence been seen gathered together in that realm of poor people. It was a procession of ox-drawn carts on which cheap replicas of the paraphernalia lost in the disaster of the mansion were piled, not just the imperial busts and rare clocks, but also a secondhand piano and a Victrola with a crank and the records of nostalgia. A team of Indians took care of the cargo and a band of musicians announced their triumphal arrival in the villages. The grandmother traveled on a litter with paper wreaths, chomping on the grains in her pouch, in the shadow of a church canopy. Her monumental size had increased, because under her blouse she was wearing a vest of sailcloth in which she kept the gold bars the way one keeps cartridges in a bandoleer. Erendira was beside her, dressed in gaudy fabrics and with trinkets hanging, but with the dog chain still on her ankle. “You’ve got no reason to complain,” her grandmother had said to her when they left the border town. “You’ve got the clothes of a queen, a luxurious bed, a musical band of your own, and fourteen Indians at your service. Don’t you think that’s splendid?” “Yes, Grandmother.”
“When you no longer have me,” the grandmother went on, “you won’t be left to the mercy of men because you’ll have your own home in an important city. You’ll be free and happy.” It was a new and unforeseen vision of the future. On the other hand, she no longer spoke about the original debt, whose details had become twisted and whose installments had grown as the costs of the business became more complicated. Still Erendira didn’t let slip any sigh that would have given a person a glimpse of her thoughts. She submitted in silence to the torture of the bed in the saltpeter pits, in the torpor of the lakeside towns, in the lunar craters of the talcum mines, while her grandmother sang the vision of the future to her as if she were reading cards. One afternoon, as they came out of an oppressive canyon, they noticed a wind of ancient laurels and they caught snatches of Jamaica conversations and felt an urge to live and a knot in their hearts. They had reached the sea. “There it is,” the grandmother said, breathing in the glassy light of the Caribbean after half a lifetime of exile. “Don’t you like it?” “Yes, Grandmother.”
They pitched the tent there. The grandmother spent the night talking without dreaming and sometimes she mixed up her nostalgia with clairvoyance of the future. She slept later than usual and awoke relaxed by the sound of the sea. Nevertheless, when Erendira was bathing her she again made predictions of the future and it was such a feverish clairvoyance that it seemed like the delirium of a vigil. “You’ll be a noble lady,” she told her. “A lady of quality, venerated by those under your protection and favored and honored by the highest authorities. Ships’ captains will send you postcards from every port in the world.” Erendira wasn’t listening to her. The warm water perfumed with oregano was pouring into the bathtub through a tube fed from outside. Erendira picked it up in a gourd, impenetrable, not even breathing,
and poured it over her grandmother with one hand while she soaped her with the other.
“The prestige of your house will fly from mouth to mouth from the string of the Antilles to the realm of Holland,” the grandmother was saying. “And it will be more important than the presidential palace, because the affairs of government will be discussed there and the fate of the nation will be decided.” Suddenly the water in the tube stopped. Erendira left the tent to find out what was going on and saw the Indian in charge of pouring water into the tube chopping wood by the kitchen. “It ran out,” the Indian said. “We have to cool more water.” Erendira went to the stove, where there was another large pot with aromatic herbs boiling. She wrapped her hands in a cloth and saw that she could lift the pot without the help of the Indian. “You can go,” she told him. “I’ll pour the water.”
She waited until the Indian had left the kitchen. Then she took the boiling pot off the stove, lifted it with great effort to the height of the tube, and was about to pour the deadly water into the conduit to the bathtub when the grandmother shouted from inside the tent: “Erendira!”
It was as if she had seen. The granddaughter, frightened by the shout, repented at the last minute. “Coming, Grandmother,” she said. “I’m cooling off the water.” That night she lay thinking until quite late while her grandmother sang in her sleep, wearing the golden vest. Erendira looked at her from her bed with intense eyes that in the shadows resembled those of a cat. Then she went to bed like a person who had drowned, her arms on her breast and her eyes open, and she called with all the strength of her inner voice: “Ulises!”
Ulises woke up suddenly in the house on the orange plantation. He had heard Erendira’s voice so clearly that he was looking for her in the shadows of the room. After an instant of reflection, he made a bundle of his clothing and shoes and left the bedroom. He had crossed the porch when his father’s voice surprised him: “Where are you going?”
Ulises saw him blue in the moonlight.
“Into the world,” he answered.
“This time I won’t stop you,” the Dutchman said. “But I warn you of one thing: wherever you go your father’s curse will follow you.” “So be it,” said Ulises.
Surprised and even a little proud of his son’s resolution, the Dutchman followed him through the orange grove with a look that slowly began to smile. His wife was behind him with her beautiful Indian woman’s way of standing. The Dutchman spoke when Ulises closed the gate. “He’ll be back,” he said, “beaten down by life, sooner than you think.” “You’re so stupid,” she sighed. “He’ll never come back.”
On that occasion Ulises didn’t have to ask anyone where Erendira was. He crossed the desert hiding in passing trucks, stealing to eat and sleep and stealing many times for the pure pleasure of the risk until he found the tent in another seaside town which the glass buildings gave the look of an illuminated city and where resounded the nocturnal farewells of ships weighing anchor for the island of Aruba. Erendira was asleep chained to the slat and in the same position of a drowned person on the beach from which she had called him. Ulises stood looking at her for a long time without waking her up, but he looked at her with such intensity that Erendira awoke.
Then they kissed in the darkness, caressed each other slowly, got undressed wearily, with a silent tenderness and a hidden happiness that was more than ever like love. At the other end of the tent the sleeping grandmother gave a monumental turn and began to rant. “That was during the time the Greek ship arrived,” she said. “It was a crew of madmen who made the women happy and didn’t pay them with money but with sponges, living sponges that later on walked about the houses moaning like patients in a hospital and making the children cry so that they could drink the tears.” She made a subterranean movement and sat up in bed.
“That was when he arrived, my God,” she shouted, “stronger, taller, and much more of a man than Amadis.” Ulises, who until then had not paid any attention to the raving, tried to hide when he saw the grandmother sitting up in bed. Erendira calmed him. “Take it easy,” she told him. “Every time she gets to that part she sits up in bed, but she doesn’t wake up.” Ulises leaned on her shoulder.
“I was singing with the sailors that night and I thought it was an earthquake,” the grandmother went on. “They all must have thought the same thing because they ran away shouting, dying with laughter, and only he remained under the starsong canopy. I remember as if it had been yesterday that I was singing the song that everyone was singing those days. Even the parrots in the courtyard sang it.” Flat as a mat, as one can sing only in dreams, she sang the lines of her bitterness: Lord, oh, Lord, give me back the innocence I had so I can feel his love all over again from the start. Only then did Ulises become interested in the grandmother’s nostalgia.
“There he was,” she was saying, “with a macaw on his shoulder and a cannibal-killing blunderbuss, the way Guatarral arrived in the Guianas, and I felt his breath of death when he stood opposite me and said: ‘I’ve been around the world a thousand times and seen women of every nation, so I can tell you on good authority that you are the haughtiest and the most obliging, the most beautiful woman on earth.'” She lay down again and sobbed on her pillow. Ulises and Erendira remained silent for a long time, rocked in the shadows by the sleeping old woman’s great breathing. Suddenly Erendira, without the slightest quiver in her voice, asked: “Would you dare to kill her?”
Taken by surprise, Ulises didn’t know what to answer.
“Who knows,” he said. “Would you dare?”
“I can’t,” Erendira said. “She’s my grandmother.”
Then Ulises looked once more at the enormous sleeping body as if measuring its quantity of life and decided: “For you I’d be capable of anything.”
Ulises bought a pound of rat poison, mixed it with whipped cream and raspberry jam, and poured that fatal cream into a piece of pastry from which he had removed the original filling. Then he put some thickened cream on top, smoothing it with a spoon until there was no trace of his sinister maneuver, and he completed the trick with seventy-two little pink candles. The grandmother sat up on her throne waving her threatening crosier when she saw him come into the tent with the birthday cake. “You brazen devil!” she shouted. “How dare you set foot in this place?” Ulises hid behind his angel face.
“I’ve come to ask your forgiveness,” he said, “on this day, your birthday.” Disarmed by his lie, which had hit its mark, the grandmother had the table set as if for a wedding feast. She sat Ulises down on her right while Erendira served them, and after blowing out the candles with one devastating gust, she cut the cake into two equal parts. She served Ulises. “A man who knows how to get himself forgiven has earned half of heaven,” she said. “I give you the first piece, which is the piece of happiness.” “I don’t like sweet things,” he said. “You take it.”
The grandmother offered Erendira a piece of cake. She took it into the kitchen and threw it in the garbage. The grandmother ate the rest all by herself. She put whole pieces into her mouth and swallowed them without chewing, moaning with delight and looking at Ulises from the limbo of her pleasure. When there was no more on her plate she also ate what Ulises had turned down. While she was chewing the last bit, with her fingers she picked up the crumbs from the tablecloth and put them into her mouth. She had eaten enough arsenic to exterminate a whole generation of rats. And yet she played the piano and sang until midnight, went to bed happy, and was able to have a normal sleep. The only thing new was a rocklike scratch in her breathing. Erendira and Ulises kept watch over her from the other bed, and they were only waiting for her death rattle. But the voice was as alive as ever when she began to rave.
“I went crazy, my God, I went crazy!” she shouted. “I put two bars on the bedroom door so he couldn’t get in; I put the dresser and table against the door and the chairs on the table, and all he had to do was give a little knock with his ring for the defenses to fall apart, the chairs to fall off the table by themselves, the table and dresser to separate by themselves, the bars to move out of their slots by themselves.” Erendira and Ulises looked at her with growing surprise as the delirium became more profound and dramatic and the voice more intimate. “I felt I was going to die, soaked in the sweat of fear, begging inside for the door to open without opening, for him to enter without entering, for him never to go away but never to come back either so I wouldn’t have to kill him!”
She went on repeating her drama for several hours, even the most intimate details, as if she had lived it again in her dream. A little before dawn she rolled over in bed with a movement of seismic accommodation and the voice broke with the imminence of sobs. “I warned him and he laughed,” she shouted. “I warned him again and he laughed again, until he opened his eyes in terror, saying, ‘Agh, queen! Agh, queen!’ and his voice wasn’t coming out of his mouth but through the cut the knife had made in his throat.” Ulises, terrified at the grandmother’s fearful evocation, grabbed Erendira’s hand. “Murdering old woman!” he exclaimed.
Erendira didn’t pay any attention to him because at that instant dawn began to break. The clocks struck five. “Go!” Erendira said. “She’s going to wake up now.”
“She’s got more life in her than an elephant,” Ulises exclaimed. “It can’t be!” Erendira cut him with a knifing look.
“The whole trouble,” she said, “is that you’re no good at all for killing anybody.” Ulises was so affected by the crudeness of the reproach that he left the tent. Erendira kept on looking at the sleeping grandmother with her secret hate, with the rage of her frustration, as the sun rose and the bird air awakened. Then the grandmother opened her eyes and looked at her with a placid smile. “God be with you, child.”
The only noticeable change was a beginning of disorder in the daily routine. It was Wednesday, but the grandmother wanted to put on a Sunday dress, decided that Erendira would receive no customers before eleven o’-clock, and asked her to paint her nails garnet and give her a pontifical coiffure. “I never had so much of an urge to have my picture taken,” she exclaimed. Erendira began to comb her grandmother’s hair, but as she drew the comb through the tangles a clump of hair remained between the teeth. She showed it to her grandmother in alarm. The grandmother examined it, pulled on another clump with her fingers, and another bush of hair was left in her hand. She threw it on the ground, tried again and pulled out a larger lock.
Then she began to pull her hair with both hands, dying with laughter, throwing the handfuls into the air with an incomprehensible jubilation until her head looked like a peeled coconut. Erendira had no more news of Ulises until two weeks later when she caught the call of the owl outside the tent. The grandmother had begun to play the piano and was so absorbed in her nostalgia that she was unaware of reality. She had a wig of radiant feathers on her head. Erendira answered the call and only then did she notice the wick that came out of the piano and went on through the underbrush and was lost in the darkness. She ran to where Ulises was, hid next to him among the bushes, and with tight hearts they both watched the little blue flame that crept along the wick, crossed the dark space, and went into the tent. “Cover your ears,” Ulises said.
They both did, without any need, for there was no explosion. The tent lighted up inside with a radiant glow, burst in silence, and disappeared in a whirlwind of wet powder. When Erendira dared enter, thinking that her grandmother was dead, she found her with her wig singed and her night shirt in tatters, but more alive than ever, trying to put out the fire with a blanket. Ulises slipped away under the protection of the shouts of the Indians, who didn’t know what to do, confused by the grandmother’s contradictory orders. When they finally managed to conquer the flames and get rid of the smoke, they were looking at a shipwreck. “It’s like the work of the evil one,” the grandmother said. “Pianos don’t explode just like that.” She made all kinds of conjectures to establish the causes of the new disaster, but Erendira’s evasions and her impassive attitude ended up confusing her.
She couldn’t find the slightest crack in her granddaughter’s behavior, nor did she consider the existence of Ulises. She was awake until dawn, threading suppositions together and calculating the loss. She slept little and poorly. On the following morning, when Erendira took the vest with the gold bars off her grandmother, she found fire blisters on her shoulders and raw flesh on her breast. “I had good reason to be turning over in my sleep,” she said as Erendira put egg whites on the burns. “And besides, I had a strange dream.” She made an effort at concentration to evoke the image until it was as clear in her memory as in the dream. “It was a peacock in a white hammock,” she said.
Erendira was surprised but she immediately assumed her everyday expression once more. “It’s a good sign,” she lied, “Peacocks in dreams are animals with long lives.” “May God hear you,” the grandmother said, “because we’re back where we started. We have to begin all over again.” Erendira didn’t change her expression. She went out of the tent with the plate of compresses and left her grandmother with her torso soaked in egg white and her skull daubed with mustard. She was putting more egg whites into the plate under the palm shelter that served as a kitchen when she saw Ulises’ eyes appear behind the stove as she had seen them the first time behind her bed. She wasn’t startled, but told him in a weary voice: “The only thing you’ve managed to do is increase my debt.”
Ulises’ eyes clouded over with anxiety. He was motionless, looking at Erendira in silence, watching her crack the eggs with a fixed expression of absolute disdain, as if he didn’t exist. After a moment the eyes moved, looked over the things in the kitchen, the hanging pots, the strings of annatto, the carving knife. Ulises stood-up, still not saying anything, went in under the shelter, and took down the knife. Erendira didn’t look at him again, but when Ulises left the shelter she told him in a very low voice: “Be careful, because she’s already had a warning of death. She dreamed about a peacock in a white hammock.” The grandmother saw Ulises come in with the knife, and making a supreme effort, she stood up without the aid of her staff and raised her arms. “Boy!” she shouted. “Have you gone mad?”
Ulises jumped on her and plunged the knife into her naked breast. The grandmother moaned, fell on him, and tried to strangle him with her powerful bear arms. “Son of a bitch,” she growled. “I discovered too late that you have the face of a traitor angel.” She was unable to say anything more because Ulises managed to free the knife and stab her a second time in the side. The grandmother let out a hidden moan and hugged her attacker with more strength. Ulises gave her a third stab, without pity, and a spurt of blood, released by high pressure, sprinkled his face: it was oily blood, shiny and green, just like mint honey. Erendira appeared at the entrance with the plate in her hand and watched the struggle with criminal impassivity. Huge, monolithic, roaring with pain and rage, the grandmother grasped Ulises’ body. Her arms, her legs, even her hairless skull were green with blood.
Her enormous bellows-breathing, upset by the first rattles of death, filled the whole area. Ulises managed to free his arm with the weapon once more, opened a cut in her belly, and an explosion of blood soaked him in green from head to toe. The grandmother tried to reach the open air which she needed in order to live now and fell face down. Ulises got away from the lifeless arms and without pausing a moment gave the vast fallen body a final thrust. Erendira then put the plate on a table and leaned over her grandmother, scrutinizing her without touching her. When she was convinced that she was dead her face suddenly acquired all the maturity of an older person which her twenty years of misfortune had not given her. With quick and precise movements she grabbed the gold vest and left the tent. Ulises remained sitting by the corpse, exhausted by the fight, and the more he tried to clean his face the more it was daubed with that green and living matter that seemed to be flowing from his fingers.
Only when he saw Erendira go out with the gold vest did he become aware of his state. He shouted to her but got no answer. He dragged himself to the entrance to the tent and he saw Erendira starting to run along the shore away from the city. Then he made a last effort to chase her, calling her with painful shouts that were no longer those of a lover but of a son, yet he was overcome by the terrible drain of having killed a woman without anybody’s help. The grandmother’s Indians caught up to him lying face down on the beach, weeping from solitude and fear. Erendira had not heard him. She was running into the wind, swifter than a deer, and no voice of this world could stop her. Without turning her head she ran past the salt-peter pits, the talcum craters, the torpor of the shacks, until the natural science of the sea ended and the desert began, but she still kept on running with the gold vest beyond the arid winds and the never-ending sunsets and she was never heard of again nor was the slightest trace of her misfortune ever found.