Copyright 1974 by Roberta Kalechofsky
This is the full text of the novel, in one file. The print version (originally entitled Justice My Brother) was originally published in 1974 by the Writer's Cooperative. Roberta's works are available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com Her other books include: Orestes in Progress, The Martyrdom of Stephen Werner, A View of Toledo, Solomon's Wisdom, Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human Rights, and Bodmin 1349, which are available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com
Micah Publications also publishes Jewish vegetarian and animal rightsbooks, such as: The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, Vegetarian Judaism--A Guide for Everyone, and Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. For a full list with descriptions, see www.micahbooks.com
Review of this novel.
The wall that enclosed the farm of Julio Donajero was built in the traditional manner of the countryside. It was made of stones that had been picked up along the slopes of the cerros, unimportant mountains whose deception lay in their incredible steepness and loose rocky ground. These stones had been crudely cemented into place until the pile was high enough so that a man could just see over the top. Then a layer of cement had been put down across the last row and thousands of bits of colored glass had been stuck into the cement, pointed upwards. The hills and farms were dotted with these walls. They followed the curve of the earth. They made the land into a visual statement and gave it a continuity of dread and control.
After the midday rain the sunset was low and red. It danced through the pieces of glass and burned on the far horizon. Through the sunset Ricardo, Julio's young brother, rode towards the farm. His skin was tight and sallow and in his eyes there was an old look of hatred. On the horse in front of him was the rifle which Ricardo had strapped to his saddle. The rifle had Julio's initials on it and from time to time Ricardo's thumb rubbed the outline of the initials with a tense pressure. He rode with his back hunched over the neck of the horse, his sombrero drawn down over his face. He was riding to kill his brother.
He had started out in haste from San Vincente several hours before, during the rain, for a neighbor had told him that the police had come looking for him again. Ricardo knew Julio had sent the police to get back the horse. That was Julio's way. Swiftly Ricardo saddled the animal and rode out of San Vincente. But this time he did not hide. Twice before Julio had sent the police for the horse and Ricardo had fled like a fugitive, humiliated before the villagers who laughed at him. This time he turned the horse towards the farm.
Julio's behavior was an old friction to Ricardo. His decision to kill him was not precipitous. Sometimes he felt he had been born with the need to do this. Wherever Julio stood, the ground was bad for Ricardo. Sometimes when he thought about Julio he could feel nothing of himself but a bruise. He had worked hard for Julio, he had helped him build his farm. The horse was his, he had earned him with his labor. He had also earned the gun and the clothes he wore, for Julio always paid him in goods which he then claimed back. That was Julio's way, and Ricardo always gave back what he had earned, or Julio would threaten to have him arrested. Twice he had sat in jail, accused of theft by his own brother. The other villagers shied away from hiring him. They had no love for Julio, but they did not intend to cross tempers with him for Ricardo's sake.
He crossed the mean and scrubby forest that tore at his boots and kicked the horse up the steep incline of el Ocelotepetl. "Vaya," he said harshly and kicked at the horse. The road turned into a muddy stream in the rain. The horse continually lost his footing and slipped. The rain ran down Ricardo's face. He could not believe what he was going to do. He was a gentle man, he thought, with pity for a fate which had made him a violent man.
He fingered his brother's initials in the wooden handle of the rifle, and over and over he heard the crack of the gun like a sound of cruel liberation. He could see himself kneeling beside Julio's dead body with pity and remorse. The thought was bitter to him, that he desired to love his brother and could not. As a boy he had always held his breath at the angry look in Julio's eyes. When their father had died Julio had become the head of the family and ruled the house with an angry grudge. Everyone was in fear of him, even the old mother. His sisters found accommodation in derision; but Ricardo had wanted to love his brother. He gripped the rifle and kicked at the horse. The road wound up and around and he knew by the shape of the massive granite boulders that they were almost at the top of el Ocelotepetl, the Peak of the Tiger. He could feel its shape in the smoky darkness, the pressure of its size. Like tigers, the hills slunk away one after the other.
They said the mountain was alive. During the day it crouched like a tiger, but at night it stalked under the cover of darkness, maintaining the law of anger and the defense of the claw. An army of men in the days of the Conquest had disappeared into the belly of the mountain, and recently an Indian had been found in the shrubbery with his arm torn out and the skin ripped from his chest, on his face the marks of a claw, the unaccountable mark of a universe that jumbled the logic of men, except if one believed that the mountain was hungry for flesh and doomed to a lonely anger. Anger is lonely, Ricardo thought. Its sensation is private. It is in the belly, in the flesh. How is it that a man cannot cut it out?
The road fell down sharply and caught him by surprise. His horse travelled faster. Ricardo felt the labored breathing of the animal. Still, he kicked him. They galloped through the village of Netzahualcoyotl, down the rocky, terraced streets. The square adobe huts shrank in the rain, and his horse's hooves beat on the cobblestones that shone wet. Soon he saw the small, sharp hills and the little dips of farms between them. He saw Julio's farm enclosed behind its wet stone wall.
The rain stopped suddenly. There was unexpected silence after its uproar. Ricardo headed the horse towards the farm, and with a last burst of speed sprang over the gate.
Julio's wife peeped through the window and ran out.
"Go away," she said. "Go away and leave us in peace."
"In peace?" Ricardo smiled bitterly. "Why should I leave you in peace?" His eyes clouded over and he looked towards the house impatiently.
"All this will surely end in death," she cried. "Go away, go away."
"Death is good enough for me," he said. He stiffened as he saw his brother come out of the house.
Julio kept his stance, as he always did, compacted of mute violence, taut and bullish. He looked around with sluggish eyes, pained and defensive and met the world with a phlegmatic indifference that was not so much born of disinterestedness as of the felt superiority of distrust. His mustache hung with indolence and marked his mouth with bristling apathy.
Once he had had an impressive courage, but its source was this apathy and his courage had gone untested. Julio thought of himself as a fearless man. He was irritable, impatient and scornful and had become habituated to a feeling of power that he could induce in himself merely by counting others out. Conceptually, people were static to him. He estimated one or two qualities in them and built his relationships accordingly. As a soldier he had slept in the fields by himself to avoid hearing tales of danger. In the past, he had always been able to ignore loneliness. He had no sentimental ideas about his wife or his children. They worked for him. They lived in the house together. Fealty was their strongest bond, and on this he assumed the permanence of everything he counted on. He loved hard, physical work, and was a farmer out of the need to use his energies. His soul was built like a chain and all that it needed to collapse was to remove one link. His life was about to undergo a change. He was a man standing on one foot.
He looked at Ricardo with a bored tolerance. "Felícita," he called to his wife, "do not speak to him. What has he come for this time? Some bread, a pail of milk?" He kept his machete in his hand, gripping its handle. His three sons came out of the house behind him.
Ricardo pushed out his lower lip in a gesture of ironic amusement, but it was not a successful expression. He looked from Julio to Felícita to gain time as he raised the rifle to his eye, like a bad actor rehearsing for the part of a killer. Who could take him seriously?
Still, it had been many years since Julio had looked into a gun. It had been many years since anyone had challenged him, for everyone took his courage for granted. Even Julio took his courage for granted, as he took for granted the loyalty of his family. He snapped his fingers at his children as though demanding something of them, but they looked confused. The wind stirred. His children moved away from him, giving him a clearing to himself. The middle boy looked at Ricardo with interest.
Felícita stood stupidly, as if waiting for an order. Ricardo looked through the sight and levelled the gun. One of Julio's sons let out a low whistle. Julio looked at him with confusion. The wind passed over his face and waved his hair like the dispossessed bristles on a dead rat. Trembling, Ricardo shot the gun. The bullet chipped out a small hole in the bottom of the house and sent the sandy dirt into a fine spray. The horse reared. He lifted his front legs and clawed the air as he tried to scramble across the sky. Felícita was appalled, but she did not run to Julio. Instinctively he threw his hands over his face. His sensations died momentarily, but he was alive. He knew he was alive, but he stood somewhere in a space where no one else human was with him. He watched Felícita through a wet haze over his eyes. She watched back. His sons, too, stood at a distance and looked at him. A bird swooped a wing towards him. Tears ran from his eyes and mucuous from his nose as if he suffered a disease of liquefaction. His face was white and an unfamiliar agony left its mark on it. He looked at his family and thought: he would pay them back for their disloyalty. Ricardo felt relieved and sickened that the deed was not done, humiliated and outraged. He felt as if he had killed Julio, but he hadn't, and he could not shoot the gun again.
"Never mind," he said with effort, "I will take my revenge one day." He turned his horse and galloped away.
Julio sat in the dust and watched Ricardo ride away. His bones were burning with terror and his lower region had turned to water. He had no control over his body. His breath would not come, and his urine would not stop. He did not tell himself that this was fear. He did not know it. He was preoccupied with trying to gain control over himself. He heard the expiration of suspense from his children, but not another sound.
Felícita came to him. He waved her away. "Go back to the house. Can you not see that I am all right?"
"He is crazy," she cried.
"Sí. Now go back to the house," and he pushed her away.
When Felícita and his sons had gone, Julio got up. He stared at the wet ground uncomprehendingly. Then he pushed some dry sand over the spot with his feet.
When he came into the house a few minutes later, Felícita pounced on him. "Let us go away," she said. "There is too much bad feeling between you and Ricardo. It must come to no good in the end." His children stood at the far end of the room and watched him with dark faces and white eyes.
Julio sat down at the table and cut open a plum with his knife. "Let Ricardo watch out. I too own a gun. I own a knife and a machete and I am not particular. And I do not miss." He looked across the table at his sons and smiled scornfully.
Felícita sighed to herself now that the terror was over, but grumbled, "Either way it will be no good."
"It will be good." Julio slapped the table with his hand. "Do not talk so much and do your work."
Felícita went back to the griddle and poured the corn dough on it. She sat on her haunches for a long time and watched the griddle. For years she had had a premonition about Ricardo. She did not like him, although she was glad that he was there to help Julio. She did not like his weakness; she did not trust it. Now he had shown her what she had feared.
She said to Julio, without turning around, "Ricardo did not miss. He marked you with death and left you alive for his own purpose."
"Ricardo missed," Julio said wrathfully, "I can assure you. He never could shoot. I know because I tried to teach him. I tried to teach him how to how to shoot, how to farm, how to steal, how to make love. I can assure you Ricardo missed. He never could learn anything, neither to farm, nor to steal, nor to shoot."
"Look down at your left sleeve," Felícita said. A piece of material, finely cut out as a seamstress' notch, was missing from the arm. "A man does not miss by so little at close range."
Julio threw the jacket at her. "A man aims at what he wants to," he shouted. "This is my house, my farm, my land, my rule. If you cannot control your fears, leave."
He got up from the table and went into the next room that was separated by a curtain and threw himself down on his bed. Felícita went to the makeshift altar that stood on a table against the wall. She looked at a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe that was propped in the center of the table and made the sign of the cross. She took out a talisman of Tlaloc from a small box on the table and hung it by its ribbon over the picture and made the sign of the cross. "Protect me," she whispered, sensing a personal jeopardy in the balance of forces. Then she told her sons to go outside, for they would disturb Julio if they stayed in the house.
They sauntered behind the house, silently excited with what had happened. Juan, the youngest, crouched on the ground and drew pictures in the dirt with a stick, waiting for the talk to begin.
"What do you think?" Hernán finally said. "Do you think Ricardo missed?"
He spoke to Julio, the eldest, two years older than himself.
Julio spit in the sand. "Of course not," he said. "If he had only missed, Papa would have flung his machete at him." This clarified the silence for them. "Ricardo left the mark of death on him."
There was a fine sense of melodrama in this and even Juan, who was too young to understand, enjoyed the sensation. "He should go for Ricardo tonight," Hernán said.
'Sí, he should," Julio agreed.
"Do you think he will?"
Julio shrugged his shoulders. "A man who is marked with death has no more power left."
Their father lay on his bed and stared at the curtain in front of him. The room was dark except for the pinpoints of light that filtered through the slats of the wall where the daylight and the talk of his sons slipped through. "Ricardo missed," he hissed back at them under his breath. He closed his eyes and thought of his eldest son. The boy was tall and big.
It was a bad thing for a boy to be taller than his father. It was time for Julio the son to marry, for he would soon be eighteen.
In the morning Julio did an unprecedented thing. He took his own breakfast and left without his son. "Let them find an empty house," he thought and went out. He passed the spot where he had fallen. The ground was dry. He pulled his sombrero over his eyes and went down into the fields.
That evening Julio told his wife that it was time for their eldest son to marry, and she agreed. He watched Felícita with narrowed eyes, but as she agreed nothing more was said for several days, while her mind was taken up with reviewing the young girls in the village. There were only two señoritas who were pleasing to her, and she felt sure that one of them would be chosen.
Then a week later, after their evening meal, Julio told her that in the morning he would leave for Cuernavaca.
"But why," she asked, "we have nothing to buy or sell there at this time."
"Sí," we have," Julio said. Felícita waited for him to explain, but Julio sat and drank his coffee in silence. She went to the hearth to put out the fire and to scrape what was left of the corn dough into a clay pot.
"I will buy my son a bride in Cuernavaca," he said suddenly, continuing to drink his coffee.
Felícita scrambled up from her knees. "In Cuernavaca?" she cried, "but why from there?"
Julio's eyes rolled sluggishly under their lids. "It will make no difference to you where the bride is from. Julio will not live with us. He will live with the parents of the girl, so it will make no difference to you where she is from."
Felícita sat down heavily in her chair. "I do not want a girl from Cuernavaca." Of what use was such a marriage if she could not have a daughter-in-law in the house to help her with the chores and to gossip with. She had been unlucky with sons and there had been no one to help her. She did the work of three women and wanted relief.
"Oh, well," Julio said. "That is how it will be anyway. Even if the girl is from Netzahualcoyotl or San Vincente or Donaciano Sur, Julio will not live with us, so it can make no difference to you where the bride is from."
"That is a bad thing," Felícita exclaimed. "The bride must live in the home of her husband's parents. It has always been that way."
"It must not be any way but how I like it. Now I have a girl in mind. She is from the family of Manuel Cholopis. He weaves baskets. I sell him many things for his straw."
"A basket weaver!" Felícita sneered.
"Sí, a basket weaver. What do you think our son is fit for?"
"Last week he was fit for farming. This week he is only fit for the daughter of a basket weaver."
Julio's eyes rolled under his lids, but he made no answer. He would not contend about such an issue with a woman. It was good business to do it thus. His son was not a good farmer. It was better for him to go to the city. He and Hernán and Juan could work the farm by themselves. For poor farming he could not afford to feed two extra mouths and pay the chichitomin into the bargain. Julio had come many times with him to Cuernavaca and had shown interest in trade. He had shown interest in Eustaquia Cholopis. What was wrong then with the transaction?
"I say it is a good thing. Julio will have a good house in Cuernavaca. That much I will ask for from Manuel Cholopis. In return Julio will work one year for him before the wedding and I will give thirty pesos for the chichitomin."
Felícita drew the corners of her mouth down into silent obedience. They waited until the other children went to bed and then Julio told his son. "You know Eustaquia Cholopis?"
Julio knew immediately what they were going to say to him. He fought back his smile. "Sí," he said cautiously. "I will ask her father for you."
Julio could not help smiling now. How could his father have known his feelings? He felt foolish that they had been obvious. He answered with restraint. "If she is to your liking."
"Sí, she is to my liking."
His son looked about him, waiting for congratulations, but nothing else was said. Felícita kept her head turned away from him. "And you?" he asked his mother and touched her shoulder.
She shrugged it off and waved her hand. "Oh, me, I do not know her."
Julio felt uneasy. He thought his mother was angry because a girl had not been chosen from the village. But for that he was grateful, for there was not a girl in the village who interested him. He liked the girls from the city very much. As for their liking to live on a farm, they would soon get used to it. "Oh, as for that," he smiled, "you will come to know her."
"Sí, sí, sí," Julio said and dismissed the subject. "Now I must go to sleep to leave early in the morning," and he left the room.
Felícita followed him and lay down beside him. Juan now slept with his brothers in the other bed and they had a bed to themselves.
"It is the best thing," Julio said, but Felícita lay awake and thought of good reasons against this marriage.
Julio left after breakfast. The road he took led him through a corner of the farm. It was a good farm, for his hard work, brutal work, had made it that way. The land had not meant itself to be farmed, for the earth was poor,sandy and almost white, but Julio had farmed it. He had never had enough money for a plough, and even if he had had he did not see why he should pay for the labor of oxen when his own cost him nothing. Originally, he had owned only a few acres, but from government money given him in payment for his services as a soldier, he had added to these acres. The farm was divided into thirds and only one third could be tilled during the year.
Unlike most farmers who lived in the village Julio lived on his farm site, and as recompense for the neighbors he didn't have, he had a house with two rooms and a wooden floor in place of the usual earthen one. He considered it uneconomical to spend time travelling to his farm and to pay someone to guard it against animals and evil spirits. Now the corn shoots stood straight in the sun. He would take some along to Manuel Cholopis and say to him, "You see, my son comes from a farm that grows corn like this," but he left them in the fields for the regular harvest. He thought how when the time came for that he would have to hire strangers to help him now that Ricardo was gone and his son, Julio, would soon be going. They would not be able to do the work themselves. Juan was still a child, better left in the house with his mother, and Hernán did not have the strength for farming that his brother had. Julio remembered there was a time before he had had sons to help him when he had worked the farm by himself. He wondered if he could do this again. Felícita used to come into the fields then, but against her will and ashamed to do such work. He no longer had the ambition to put up with her rancorous antagonisms, but it was a grim thought that they might have to hire strangers, for instinctively he felt that his authority and power depended upon familiarity with those whom he ruled. The trail through the farm began to climb upwards, through the portion that had been left fallow for that year. The land was still black. It had been burnt and reseeded for almost twenty years, and each year it was harder to cultivate and grew poorer corn. Gloomily Julio thought of the work it would take to reseed it when the time came. His horse stumbled on a stone, and he kicked it viciously for this blunder. They made their way through the charred portion of the farm and followed the trail out into the forest. The tall trees closed overhead and shut out what there was of the early sun. A damp chill rose from the forest floor. Julio felt the cold against his chest and drew his serape close about him. Sí, he thought again, it was true, they must now hire strangers.
When Ricardo left his brother's farm he headed the horse back towards San Vincente. That way the sun still lay and he had no other destination. It had been some time since he had found work and he had to try the surrounding villages. The loose stones slipped from under the horse's hooves, but Ricardo urged him on. He meant to get to San Vincente before the cold darkness closed over the cerros. Peak of the Wounded, of the Butterfly, Peak of Light, of Air, of the Treasure. All around him were the upheavals of the earth. He knew where each one stood, though he could hardly see the path in the graying twilight.
The ledge went up steeply and he felt the hard breathing of the horse.
"Poor animal," he murmured. He was sorry he had ridden him so hard, but there was no helping that now. That too he blamed on Julio, that his animal labored painfully. But Ricardo felt guilty. Gentle, weak, his passions swollen beyond what his nerves could bear, he wished to comfort, but he was repelled by a world of human ugliness that seemed at every turn to betray his need to love. Sometimes he thought he had powers of divination and that he could smell the evil in a man: he would feel someone brush against him in the marketplace, and would shudder. The sensation of knowing was physical and painful. If others did not wish to hire him it was good enough, for except that he must earn his living he did not wish to work for anyone.
The human race hurt his eyes to look at it, though he felt that its disease was his and fitful needs for self-mortification would seize him. He had a temperament capable of self flagellation and even suicide. He had dreams of love and of having children which existed alongside a wish to vanish from existence. He thought of how he had missed killing Julio. He was helplessly something he did not wish to be, and he would be this thing until he died.
It was late and the cerros melted into the darkness. Only instinct knew where they were. He made his way down the trail and rode through the village where he found lodgings at the edge of the town in a small, dirty-white hotel. He put his horse into the barn and went into the lobby, humiliated by the fact that he asked for a room he could not pay for.
"For how long?" the owner said, taking note of his demeanor and the gun carried haphazardly in his hand.
"One, two, three days. Maybe a year," Ricardo laughed disagreeably. "Who can tell?"
"You are looking for work?"
"San Vincente is no good for work."
"What place is good?"
"Any place is good but San Vincente. You come from Netzahualcoyotl? That is a good place for work. Why do you go from Netzahualcoyotl if you are looking for work?"
Ricardo's face clouded over. "Maybe someday I go back to Netzahualcoyotl," he said truculently. "First I need money, my own money."
"Ah, you need money?" the owner said and gave him the pen to sign with.
"That is what work is for." His eyes wandered over Ricardo's tense shoulders, his haunted eyes, his empty hands and surmised that he was fleeing from someone. Later that night the owner, Mariano Ruiz, came to his room, emboldened by Ricardo's demeanor.
"You wish work?"
"No, in San Vincente."
"There is no work in San Vincente. In Cuernavaca there is work."
Ricardo pushed himself up on the bed and lit a cigarette. "I am a farmer. In Cuernavaca there are no farms."
Señor Ruiz sat down in a shadow and let his eyes wander over Ricardo's slight build, his slim hands, his small head shaped like a plum, his vulnerability. "This is a bad season for farming. What crop do you harvest?"
"Corn. What other crop is there?"
"Money," Mariano Ruiz said. He drew his chair to the side of the bed. "You look like a man of moods. Tomorrow maybe you will be unfit. But tonight I think you are fit to harvest money."
Ricardo smiled ruefully. "Then this work does not last so long."
"It does not have to. Tomorrow you will be able to buy your own land," he said sympathetically, understanding the hunger of the landless and the rejected for a little power. Hunger and humiliation were simple motives.
Ricardo understood too, but he was not the man to do criminal work.
Mariano Ruiz opened his hands with a gesture of futility. "Sí," he said, "sometimes fortune comes to us like that." But he was not insistent, he did not wish to be responsible for a weak man. Yet, who knows when a bird is let loose what nest it will find for its home. He kept silent and let Ricardo make up his mind.
Ricardo knew only that he could not return to Netzahualcoyotl, for no one there would hire him. But where else was there to go? Without his village he felt confused, expelled from his physical and psychic environment. He thought of the days ahead without work, without food, without pay for this room. Hills rose up in his mind, brown, dry, without green, without water. "You should know, Señor, there is little I can do except farm. What is it you expect of me?"
Señor Ruiz clicked his teeth at such despondency, though this was exactly the trait he needed. He took out a small box from his pocket. "Nothing more than to deliver this box to a Mr. Schencker in Cuernavaca."
Ricardo looked suspiciously at the box. "What is in it?"
Señor Ruiz laughed. "I do not have to tell you that and I think you would not look. But I believe in being honest. A diamond is in the box. It has come all the way from South Africa by way of Germany and Austria and is bound for," he spread his hands, "who knows? I do not know and do not want to know, but I assure you it is perfectly legal, only a matter of evading the tariff. All you need to know is the way between here and Cuernavaca."
Ricardo drew in his breath with a whistle. "Why don't you deliver it yourself and collect my pay for this errand?"
"No, Señor. I too am a poor man. I am content with a little. I will come so far and no further. If I leave my hotel in the season for tourists and appear in Cuernavaca, immediately there will be suspicion, and so on and so on. Besides, my wife cannot be left alone to do all the business in my absence, but you, a man without property, without work, without anything to tie you to a routine, you have a right to appear anywhere."
Ricardo tried to decide whether to believe him or not. "Tell me, do you approach in this way any man who walks into your lobby? How do you know I will not report you?"
"No Señor, I do not approach everyone and I do not think you will report me for the matter of a tariff when I do not think you have the money to pay for this room. There are authorities for everything. That is how it is, Señor. I would not wish to report you if you left in the morning without paying. You have left Netzahualcoyotl where there is work to come to San Vincente were there is no work. I do not know your personal life, but I guess that you wish to exchange it for another one."
Ricardo crushed his cigarette out in the ashtray next to his bed, swung his feet off the bed and paced around the room with tortured energy. Señor Ruiz had estimated him properly. Ricardo's soul was naked to the world. He stopped at the window and watched the moon light up the rust colored tiles on the surrounding roofs and run black in the narrow lanes of the street.
It was true, he was not a farmer, he was not a tradesman, he was not anything. His hatred for his brother made him unfit for ordinary life.
With suicidal self pity, he said, "What must I do?"
"Only carry this box to Cuernavaca. I will give you the address where to deliver it. You will memorize it, and after you have delivered the box you will forget the address and go away. Do not loiter in your execution of this task, and do not again deal in such business, even if Mr. Schencker himself should ask you to. Your contact must be of the slightest nature."
"When do I start?"
"First you will eat a good meal."
"Do you mean tonight? Back through the cerros? I have just come from there. You would not have me travel that way at night?"
"Why not? You are acquainted with the terrain."
"Sí, like my hand. But I would not travel through the cerros through the night."
Señor Ruiz stood up and smiled, "You sleep with your hand at night."
"Sí, I must."
"Sí, you must also forget these legends. The mountains are the mountains. Your hand is your hand. Still, at night you fear them both. That is not economical. One half of your life your hand is useless."
"I do not fear my hand will attack me," Ricardo said impatiently. "Now, Señor, give me the box and the address and let us go to supper."
After he had eaten Señor Ruiz went with him to the stable. It was decided that he should have a new horse, for his own was too tired to make the return journey, and that he would leave his gun behind, for a man with a gun was suspicious. It was agreed that he would come back in a month's time for his things, but Ricardo doubted whether he would see his horse again. He stroked the animal on his nose and bade him to be well. Then he mounted his new horse. Señor Ruiz led him out of the stable and to the path that led up to the mountains. "Now you know everything," he said. "When you come to Cuernavaca do not loiter with the task, although you must wait for the right moment to do it. Do not go right away to el Méjico to collect your money. Wait a week's time to dispel connections. You have now enough money to see you through this time. When you come to the post office in el Méjico ask for an envelope for Doménico Alvarez. Your money will be in that name." He patted Ricardo's thigh. "Adiós."
"Sí," Ricardo said moodily and spurred his horse. How swiftly his life had changed. He was spinning like a weathervane. Any wind had him. Again he felt the ground rising. The grade was familiar, but it was a comfort not to see how high they were and how sheer the drop was. Often, as he had come this way in the daytime, picking his steps along the narrow ledges, he had grown dizzy with an almost loving loss of himself as he saw how close to death they walked. He had not thought to find the night so comfortable. It flattened out the peaks, it filled in the ravines and closed up the caves where one kept watchful eyes for animals and ghosts. Yet he knew it was for this reason that the night was treacherous. He had to check his instinct to yield to its dark arms.
The night was cold, but Ricardo felt sweat over his eyes. His clothes stuck to him and the reins slipped from his wet hands. Then in a valley of cold darkness he felt the falling movement of the ground, the trembling sickness of death, as he thought they had plunged over the edge. Ghosts, spirits, wind and memory fluttered. He surrendered his will and put his arms around the horse's neck and let him carry him down.
When they came into Cuernavaca, the sound of the horse's hoofs on paved road roused him. The sun was coming up. Instinctively, he was hungry. He bought some breakfast and fed the horse. Then, following his instructions, he led the animal to the outskirts of the town and gave him a pat on his buttocks. Relieved, he said, "Go home and tell your master we have arrived."
He strolled back into the center of the town, found lodgings, and thought about his moves. He was to become familiar with Mr. Schencker's routine, so that casually, as a beggar, a peddlar or even a thief he could accost him in the street and drop the box into his hands. They need not talk to one another. Indeed, Ricardo had been instructed not to talk to him.
Mr.Schencker would know immediately what his purpose was. Ricardo had been told that he had been waiting seven months for someone to deliver this box to him. He wondered how many faces Señor Ruiz had scrutinized and had passed over until his judgment had settled on him.
After his supper he went immediately to the neighborhood of Mr. Schencker and found his house. It was a large, white stucco, three stories high. Though most of it was hidden from view by a white concrete wall that ran around it, Ricardo did not think it looked like the house of a man who could not pay the government tariff. There were several balconies that projected from the windows, with potted plants arranged on them in dusty cheerfulness.
The house was a conventional one and disappointed Ricardo with its look of ordinary doings. But patiently and obediently he spent the next two days watching the house and, when he could, following Mr. Schencker on his errands. From time to time he fingered the box in his pocket and tried to inject it with more drama. He longed to escape vacancy and needed a passion, whether of a criminal or of a religious nature. Yet the time he spent in Cuernavaca came to seem as an interim period in which he was nothing but an instrument in the ambitions of another man. After the first half-day he became maliciously bored. He had waited outside Mr. Schencker's house from six:thirty in the morning until almost ten, he had followed him to his office and then had waited in the street until three in the afternoon. The business of spying was tiresome. By the second day he was fretful with the idleness of his watch and conceived a loathing for Mr. Schencker whom he imagined detained him from other business. Mr. Schencker was large, fat, and sweated in his clothes, even to the outer layers of his white jacket.
He changed his clothes frequently, and the excessive fastidiousness in a nature that was not designed for it, the constant battle against self-nature, antagonized Ricardo. He could not decide how to accost this man. He could not measure him, and three days went by in which he tried to exert his imagination to this peculiar task.
On the evening of the third day he sat down in a café for his supper and wondered again how to do this thing. After his supper he went to a nearby church. He selected a statue of Mary that stood to the right of the altar and seated himself in front of it. The half-burnt candles on the pedestal threw long shadows in the folds of the drapes and lit up the waxen face which gazed down on him, but it was dark where her hands reached overhead with prayer to heaven. Ricardo covered his face with his hands and prayed that he deliver this diamond soon, "for I must do it sometime," he said to her. He took his hands away and looked up at Mary. Her mouth was tiny and half-smiling, pursed with unconfused serenity. Her nose was small and straight, softened by a shadow and her eyes were hollow, emptied of thought as they gazed at him. She seemed too slight to carry such a burden of motherhood, and Ricardo felt more desolate than ever. "Why do I float upon this earth?" he asked her. "It is not true that I have kin. I am fatherless and motherless. I feel that I have been made like a machine from some parts in a garage. I do not think that I was ever born." He looked up at her, hoping she would dissuade him of this awful feeling, that she would miraculously arrange for him to be born again as some other person. That was what he wanted! To be born again and feel himself to be human.
He left the church and stood on the steps outside with a dizzy sense of aimlessness. From the top of the steps he looked down on the zocalo and the Friday night strollers in the plaza across the street. The serenata had begun. The music from the band bounced against the night with a jaunty tilt and pervaded the air with magic and gaiety. When he felt better he went down to the sidewalk and crossed the street to the plaza, following the scent of the crowd and the distraction of the festivity.
The band played on a raised platform and around it in a circle the girls walked clockwise while the men circled them counter clockwise. Ricardo sat down on a bench and watched them. The musicians in their tattered, bravely red uniforms looked warm and overworked. They played a peculiar tune, jaunty and sad, comical and brave, a ragged piece of music through which the trumpeter pierced with a massive sadness that filled the night like an organ.
Ricardo closed his eyes and listened to the music. It was a lonely thing like himself in spite of a dense crowdedness of stars and people. The park glittered with lights and the air was filled with whispers. Everyone had a companion. The conviviality was insidious. The girls smiled and their teeth were healthy. They raised their arms and the light caught the dark hair in the hollow of their armpits. The boys looked alternately serious and daring and irresponsible. He saw some men who were older than he was.
Mostly, these were serious and scanned the female faces with a declared purpose. Some looked as if they might say: I have a piece of good land, some horses. My wife must be young so that she can work hard. Come, I know what I am worth and what you are worth. We are worth the same thing in love. Others looked more uncertain as if they were not sure whether they had land or horses, and others with a sad frankness sought to catch the eyes of the unattractive women, while still others looked tired as if they went around out of habit. These walked with their heads down and did not bother to look at anyone.
But the señoritas smiled with embarrassed boldness, and Ricardo felt himself caught in the contagion of wooing. He fidgeted on his seat, then he stood up abruptly and stepped into the outer circle. Some of the younger boys slapped him on his back with welcome and pushed him along. The procedure was awkward to him. He put his hands behind his back and walked slowly with his eyes on the ground.
Little by little he raised his eyes and looked into the passing faces. He was surprised when one or two looked back at him. Their interest excited him. His eyes went from girl to girl, and as the night became warmer each one became possible.
Then he caught sight of Mr. Schencker sitting on a bench close by, his white suit immaculate against the dark background. He was talking with another man; they paid no attention to the serenata. Ricardo was annoyed that he was there. His presence distracted him from the magical circle; the faces blurred. He made up his mind that he must deliver the box as soon as possible, that night. If the other man left Mr. Schencker for a moment, he would do it and be done with the problem. He did not take his eyes from the bench, and the girls passed like shadows.
A half hour went by and Ricardo wearied of the movement. The boys jostled him along and the girls passed him, brown and dark-haired, vying for his attention. Mr. Schencker and his friend continued to sit on the bench. The tree above bent low branches and shrouded them in a discreet enclosure.
People strolled behind them, faces peered into the circle, faces passed and reappeared, caught the light upon their foreheads and went back into the dark of the trees.
Ricardo was afraid that the night would end and nothing would come of it. He watched so intently for his moment that soon he knew every tree and stone that was near the bench. Around and around he went, time and again he passed the place where Mr. Schencker sat and then, uncannily, as if he had slid out of the night, in a little clearing to the left of the bench stood Julio who watched him with disbelief. How had he come there? Each time Ricardo came round in the circle, Julio was there under a street light, watching him. Ricardo felt dizzy, but he looked back at Julio long and grimly.
Julio pushed his lower lip out and wet it. He stared back at Ricardo for a moment, then he lowered his eyes.
The circle became unbearable. Some boys pushed Ricardo in the shoulder and he pushed them back roughly. The young girls smiled with nothing but white teeth, and the older men went around and around, their hard eyes calculating chances and risks.
Suddenly the man left Mr. Schencker. Immediately Ricardo stepped from the circle and approached his bench from the left, deliberately walking across Julio's path. "Señor Schencker," Ricardo smiled
Julio hesitated, then he faded behind a nearby tree.
Mr. Schenker looked up carefully. "Sí?" he said.
"I have something to deliver to you," Ricardo said. He took out the box and placed it in his hand. Ricardo felt Mr. Schencker's palm cup itself under his and his fingers close on the box with instinctive knowledge.
"Gracias," he said, "gracias."
But Ricardo did not move away. He was seduced by the thought that Julio was secretly watching him and said loudly, "Can I do anything else for you?"
Mr. Schencker glanced at him with veiled surprise. "No, Señor," he whispered, "you have done everything already. Gracias, gracias."
But still Ricardo did not move. He wished to elongate the moment for as long as possible. Mr. Schencker put his hand in his pocket for his wallet.
Ricardo was disappointed. "Please, Señor," he said, "truly if you wish me to do anything more I stay at the Casa del Noche." Ricardo was convinced that Julio was watching him and carefully chose his demeanor as he spoke louder than necesssary.
Mr. Schencker took his hand away. "Gracias," he said, "it is most kind of you to tell me so." He rose heavily and went away. When he arrived at his house he went into his study and thought about what he should do about this curious incident. Then he made a telephone call.
Julio left Cuernavaca immediately. He did not wait for the morning to make this trip.
When Felícita heard someone at the door late at night, she woke up with alarm. "Julio, Juan, Hernán," she called. But Julio had already banged in the door. "Shut up. It is me."
Felícita lit a candle. "What are you doing home?"
"Do you know what I saw this night?"
Felícita shrugged her shoulders.
Julio took off his serape. Abruptly he sat down on a chair and stared straight ahead. Felícita waited for him to speak.
"Sí, I saw a bad thing tonight," he said in a low voice with a nod of his head, as if he were talking to himself. His eyes rolled around to where Felícita was standing, to see if she were listening. She had never seen Julio frightened. Immediately she deemed he had seen a ghost and wanted to go for the priest. He took out a cigarette and looked at it before he lit it, as if all things were new to him. Then he said: "In the afternoon I went to the house of Manuel Cholopis. We struck a good bargain." Felícita nodded her head dryly to this. "First I thought I would leave immediately after this, but then I thought to myself, this is Friday night, I will walk through the plaza and listen to the music." Felícita looked at him dry-eyed. There was hardness in her soul towards him for this, but she passed it over with a flicker of her eyes. "And there in the circle," Julio said, "in the serenata, was Ricardo, Ricardo in Cuernavaca, looking for a wife."
"So what is that?" Felícita asked, relieved that that was all that had frightened him. His impatience with her obtuseness burst out: "Ricardo has no money to get married with. Why should he be in Cuernavaca looking for a wife!"
"Perhaps he has found work, or he was only flirting."
Julio's eyes rolled beneath his swollen eyelids. "Sí, he has found work. I saw him speaking with Señor Schencker. Do you know who Señor Schencker is?"
"How should I know?" she shrugged her shoulders.
Julio drew in on his cigarette. "They say many things about Señor Schencker. They say he is very wealthy. They say he is a lawyer. They say he is a foreigner, that he deals in contraband goods. They say he hires people to murder other people."
Felícita had no taste for catastrophe. "Why does the government not arrest him?"
Julio looked at her, puzzled. Suddenly he felt lonely. Only he could see the handwriting on the wall, and that was a lonely feeling. "What do I care why the government does not arrest him," he exploded. "Can you not see what I see? I am not telling you an idle tale."
Felícita blinked her eyes with indifference. The hour was late, and she had no sense for the devious. Julio was talking in circles and she suspected that he was being highhanded with her.
"Now, what is this about Señor Schencker?" she asked with a trace of boredom.
Julio clicked his tongue with disgust. "When a man who swears vengeance on you becomes the friend of a man who murders without care, it is something to think about."
"But if Ricardo wishes to murder you, why does he need someone else to do it?"
"Because he cannot do it himself. That much I am sure of. I say he missed because he could not do it. But see," he grabbed his head between his hands, "what lengths a man will go to to get around his own soul."
"All this is in your mind," Felícita sniffed. Her feet were beginning to get cold. The startle had worn off and she paid attention to her tiredness.
Julio thought he was not explaining himself well. Again he felt a momentous wave of loneliness, for the third time in his life since Ricardo had come to kill him. He felt hatred for his wife that she could not see his thoughts, and he would not say anything more to her. He stood up to go to bed and made an unprecedented announcement. "Tomorrow I will see about selling the farm."
Felícita's eyes opened wide. There was a gasp in her throat. "What are you talking about? This is a night for jokes!"
Julio smiled with satisfaction. Now Felícita read his thoughts very well. "Sí," he repeated more emphatically, "Tomorrow I will see about selling the farm." It gave him some of his self-control back to see her reaction. But the idea startled him as well, even as he said it. "Now do you understand me?" he shouted at her.
"But where will we go?" she cried.
"We will buy land somewhere else." He waved his hand. "Wherever you go there is dirt and earth."
Felícita buried her face in her hands. "We will starve," she cried remorsefully.
Julio sat down again, heavily. Her cries settled the fact that he intended to sell the farm. He shrugged his shoulders to diminish the impact of the idea. "What of it? That is a known death and nothing to fear. I have gone hungry many times. There is nothing to it. One always finds food in the end."
"Sí, garbage, dogs, rats," she said bitterly, for one took much in marriage, but in return one expected to be fed.
Julio waved her anger away. "We will not starve. The price I will get for this farm will buy me a good farm anywhere in the country. That I can assure you. What is there in Netzahualcoyotl? Rocks, texcal, cerros. For a man who wishes to farm, the land must yield itself a little. I have always wanted to feel rich earth in my hands, to think to myself that my labor will be cut by a little, for the earth is willing. I tell you this land here," he hit the table with his fist, "I attacked her. Sí, I dug my strength into her and demanded what I wished. Now I am tired and I wish for the land to be easy." He clasped his hands together and held them tensely between his knees. "You yourself said last week, let us leave. When Ricardo came, then you wanted to leave."
"Last week you said your son was a good farmer."
Julio jumped up and laughed. "So, each man carries his own burden. Sí, and I will carry mine. Julio," he shouted for his son.
All the brothers knew what was being said, for the separation of rooms meant nothing, but Julio listened with special eagerness for news about himself.
He stepped out and waited expectantly.
"I have seen Manuel Cholopis this day," his father said.
Julio's face lit up. His father looked at him with derision. "Sí, I saw your future father-in-law. Everything is arranged. You will work for him for one year and live in his house. At the end of that time you will marry his daughter. Manuel will build a good house for you nearby in the street in which he lives."
Julio looked at his father blankly. "Qué es? What is this? Why should he build a house for me?"
"Because that is where you will live."
"But am I not to live in your house. What can I do in Cuernavaca? I cannot farm there."
"You can weave baskets there," Felícita sneered.
Julio looked from one to the other. He now understood the arrangement. He had been betrayed, but why? "What is the good of such a marriage. I will be a servant to my wife in the house that her father built. She is a girl from the city. She must come to the farm. If I who am from the farm go to the city I must learn from her. It will never work, such a marriage."
"You wish not to marry her?" Julio shouted. He appeared dumbfounded and personally piqued. "I have already paid the chichitomin. and now you wish not to marry her? Do you think Manuel will return this money?"
"Am I being driven away?" his son asked.
"Ach," Julio said with disgust. "Do you think I wish to lose a good farmer? Not only do I lose my money but I must now pay for a laborer to take your place. But Eustaquia Cholopis took your eye and I said to myself that my son will marry from the heart. Sí. I saw for myself how glad you were with her and I did what I could. So now you are angry with me."
Julio did not know what to think. His father put his arm about him.
"Come," he said. "I will pack your things for you. Go tomorrow to Cuernavaca. In a week's time you will feel differently. Besides," he waved his hand, "I think to sell this farm and go elsewhere. It will be good to know that my eldest son has work and a house and a bride."
"Why do you sell the farm?" his son asked, amazed.
Julio's face clouded over. "Because I am tired of it. Sí. That is enough of an answer. Now I am tired of talking too," and he went into his bedroom.
When Julio left in the morning he said goodbye to his father. "Basta," Julio said to him irritably, "enough brooding. You will do well in Cuernavaca."
"Sí," the son answered without warmth. Then he turned his horse and started for the road. Angrily he bent down along the way and ripped out a blade of grass. "Sí," he thought, stung with the turn of events, and moodily made his journey to the house of his bride.
Ricardo slept badly that night. The air was hot and his room was a small one. The rain had come and gone hours ago, but the air was still heavy with wetness. Time and again he woke and saw vividly the details of the evening, how he went round and round in the circle under the plaza lights while the band played its majestic and sad melody and Señor Schencker sat on the green bench in his white suit; and how Julio's head had appeared from between the dark trees. Everything was wet. All the lights were muted and covered with rings of wetness. The rain hung over their heads and the people walked with difficulty as if through slime. They went round him and he shuddered as they passed his shoulder. They peered at each other through a wet twilight. How had he not noticed any of these things? Mr. Schencker nodded his head through the wetness and said: Gracias. It is most kind of you to tell me so; Julio watched all the while from behind a dark tree, and Ricardo knew that he had placed his life in jeopardy. But to whom? He could not tell. Yet the danger was there. He felt it sharp and close.
There could be no one else in the room. It was too small, there were no closets, no furniture to hide behind. Only his bed and the shadow outside the door that came and went. He could not lie still. He made up his mind to find Julio. He knew where he would probably lodge, he would enter his room quietly and lay a hand on his shoulder. Julio, he would say, you fear death, Julio? and then the agony would pass through them both.
Ricardo got up from the bed. Quietly he went down the hallway and slipped out of the hotel. The streets were dark, there were no people in them, only the sound of a drunken laugh and the shadow of a man a few paces behind him. In the lonely street his mind became attuned to the man's step. He began to walk faster, he crossed the park and came to the open plaza, but everything was dark and deserted. Still he heard the footsteps behind him. He wanted to call out in the dark, "Julio. Sí, it is Ricardo. Come here." But he did not. With the soul of the hunted, he could not change his role. He was being pursued, another had molded the circumstances of the night and he had to run.
He came into a lighted district where there were a few cabarets and he paused for a second to choose his route. But even in the light the shadow came closer. With a little cry, Ricardo felt the stranger's hands on his back and he darted into a nearby doorway. He tried to hold his breath. He squeezed into the doorway as tightly as he could. The shadow stopped too. It lingered just beyond his eyes' range, for Ricardo did not dare to turn his head. The door behind him was closed. He could not move to open it, and he knew that the man, whoever he was, had found him exactly. With a willessness that could not hope, he squeezed his eyes shut and then the sharp, precise clatter, the violence of the night, sounded, and he slumped to the floor, aware of a pain in his shoulder.
He lay still and felt his heart beating, and over his hand where it had flown involuntarily to his shoulder, he felt the blood running, but he was no longer sick. He felt better than he had for hours, since he had seen Julio staring at him from behind the tree. So that is how he had felt when I held the gun, he thought, and a passion seized him, an agony of heat and pain flooded his belly and his genitals, his thighs and his calves. He could not tell whether he commiserated with love and anguish for Julio's agony, or whether he was glad for it.
The door opened behind him and a woman looked at him with a musty charity. She saw the blood and hesitated, holding in check an exhausted pity. Then she said in a tired voice, "Señor, are you hurt?"
"Sí," Ricardo looked up, gratefully.
She seemed angry with herself for coming to his aid, but she helped him to his feet. "Come in," she said, and led him into a cabaret, a small, square room whose brick walls were uncovered. They sat down at a table and she brought over some wet towels and two drinks. Others looked at them hastily and covertly. The shot had been heard, but curiosity lay quiescent in the darkened room. Only the woman who had helped him looked at him with constrained pity. Sympathy, she knew, was invariably costly, and what could she do for him anyway? They sat in silence until Ricardo said, "You do not ask me about this thing."
The woman raised her hand as if to ward off an evil. "I do not want to know. I came down to get you. That is enough."
Ricardo was disappointed, for he felt talkative, he wanted to talk about the uniqueness of his pain. The room was dark and crowded. Blue lights were strung along the ceiling and brown tables and chairs stood everywhere. Now and then somebody laughed in a high pitch mixed with drink. Ricardo felt dizzy. Faintness came at him like birds that lifted him off the ground and then set him back in the dark room.
"It was my brother," he said. He meant to have her hear him, and he felt that this would startle her attention. Besides, it was most likely Julio.
The woman raised her shoulder to her ear as if to say that it mattered not a whit to her, but Ricardo sensed that the movement was merely habitual, and that underneath it he had scratched her curiosity. He saw what she was and that her gestures had been acquired in the trade, deliberately to leave her with the least possible amount of commitment to any tale she was likely to hear. But she was human and curious. People love each other, he said lightheadedly to himself, that is why they like to hear tales of other people. They are desperate for news of another's soul. For a moment he felt confused in this new belief. The thought made him feel gay and miserable at the same time.
"Sí, my brother," he whispered. He waved his hand haphazardly. "We have a long enmity."
"That is bad when it is that way between brothers," she said phlegmatically.
"Sí. Worse than when it is between friends. It is something in the blood." Ricardo waved his hand again. "When the blood makes an enemy of its own kind, it is worse, much worse than otherwise. It is a bad enemy, I think." He seemed to have forgotten his thought. He opened his eyes a few seconds later. "Do you know how that is?"
She lowered her head. Suddenly Ricardo took her hand. "Tell me what I am to do?" The woman took her hand away. The blood was soaking through the towels she had given him. He could no longer sit erect in his chair. Some people nearby gazed covertly, pretending not to see anything.
"If you wish to talk to me," she said indifferently, "my room is in the next street." She shrugged her shoulders to indicate how little it mattered to her, but she helped him to his feet and helped him out of the cabaret. When he sat down on her bed she asked him if he had money for a doctor. He took out all he had and gave it to her. Then he lay down to rest while she went to fetch a doctor. The unfamiliar room, dirty and gray like a rat's hole, twirled through his brain. The woman came back soon with a doctor who gave Ricardo some liquor to drink. Then he cut out the bullet. Ricardo passed out for a time. When he regained consciousness the doctor was still there and Ricardo asked him for the bullet.
The doctor looked at him curiously. "What will you do with it? Shoot it back?" The woman's eyes flickered. Ricardo smiled distractedly, but he held his palm open for it. When the doctor put the bullet in his hand he closed his fingers over it and fell asleep.
He woke several times in the next few days, took some food and went back to rest, but he did not let go of the bullet. By the fourth day he felt well enough to get out of bed and dress.
"You go, Señor?" the woman said.
"Sí," he laughed and hit his chest. "I feel good this morning. I bet you it is a fine day outside."
"Sí, the sun is shining."
Ricardo looked at her and felt very warm in his heart. She had a small, white, unpretty face, thick, red lips and small, round, unshapely eyes, but her face had become familiar to him and it looked like a good face.
"Where will you go?" she asked.
He gazed blankly at the floor. Then he felt the bullet in his palm.
Carefully he laid it in the pocket of his pants. "I do not know. My horse is in San Vincente. I must go there to get him. But first I must go to el Mejico. After that?" he shrugged his shoulders, "who knows? This morning I will not think about it. I will think only as far as el Mejico."
When he was ready to leave he looked with embarrassment at her. He had no money. "The other night I gave you money for the doctor."
"Sí," she said.
"This morning I have no money at all."
"Señor," she said, "you have been in my room for four days and I could not have any customers."
"Sí, I know. But I have no money for breakfast."
She clucked her tongue and took out from her purse two pesos. Ricardo looked at them dimly. He had given her more than fifty pesos. "But you were kind to me."
"Sí," she shrugged her shoulders. "My kindness does not cost. It is my room that costs."
Ricardo left. He no longer had an appetite for breakfast and walked aimlessly about. After a while he sat down on a bench. His shoulder throbbed and his belly hurt with anger. It was with an effort that he went into a café to eat. Now, I must find work, he thought, real work. He had not enough money to feed himself for the day, and he must wait a few more days before he could go to Mexico City. After he had finished eating he asked the owner of the café if there was something he could do, but there was no work for him. He went out into the street and stopped and inquired in all the cafés and shops. There was no work.
He thought of his fifty pesos, and thought of the woman who had helped him. In the end she had been cruel to him. But only in the end, he reminded himself, and he did not know what to make of her. Soon he came to the stall which Manuel Cholopis owned in the market.. "What can you do?" Manuel said.
"Collect the straw, dye it, stitch it. I will go from house to house and sell for you. I need work for only a few days."
Manuel Cholopis looked at him suspiciously, but he said congenially, "Aaaach, I have too many workers already. I have four sons who need work and now a new worker." He nodded his head in the direction of a young man who sat on a box and braided lengths of straw. As soon as Ricardo saw the young Julio, he understood. He had not been able to persuade himself that the man who followed him that night had been his brother. His shadow had been too thin, narrow-shouldered and his step too light. But it had been Julio, his son.
"What are you doing here?" he shouted at him.
"This is my daughter's husband in one year's time," Manuel said, but Ricardo did not believe him and pushed him aside.
"It is true," Julio said with humiliation.
"Ha!" Ricardo said, "Since when does my brother permit his son to weave baskets for his bride?"
Julio shrugged his shoulders. "I do not know," he said, "but that is how it is."
Ricardo thought for a while, then decided not to believe him. He put his hands on Julio's shoulders and said, "I will not take up my quarrel with you, but I promise I will be at the farm by this night." He turned to leave but Julio caught his arm.
"Jesu," he said, "can you not let it go?" Ricardo shrugged him off and walked away.
Julio turned to Manuel and said, "I must go to my father's farm today. I will be back in the afternoon," and he quickly saddled his horse.
Julio arrived at the farm by late morning. His father came out of the door at the sound of the horse and regarded him suspiciously.
"Qué es?" he said. "What is this?"
Julio hesitated, for he had come for his father's benefit and the thought touched his sense of irony. When he had guessed Ricardo's mind he had been frantic to make the journey as quickly as possible and warn his father, but now as he faced him he remembered the deception that had been practised on him and the generous impulse died. His father looked at him with frank suspicion that he had deserted the pact.
"What is it?" he asked. "Is not Eustaquia worth some weaving?"
His son got off his horse and walked into the house. "First I will eat," he said. "Then I will tell you."
Julio walked into the house behind him and grabbed him by the back of his shirt. "Since when do you speak to me in this way?"
"Since the year in which I was betrayed," he turned on his father.
"Basta," Felícita said. "Qué es?" she asked her son soothingly. "You do not wish to go through with this marriage?"
"No, but I will, for it is better to weave baskets and to be alive than to farm the land of a dead man." He spoke with deliberate histrionic emphasis. Julio drew his eyes closed to a glint. "So?" he said, "in Cuernavaca you find much gossip."
"Some," his son said truculently.
"And you have come all this way to tell me what you know," Julio said mockingly.
His son lowered his eyes. "That is why I came when I first started out, but now I would not have come."
"Then I am fortunate that you are here. Tell me quickly what it is that you know."
Julio shifted his gaze uncomfortably. His charity had turned into his humiliation. He could not withhold the warning from his father, but it was out of straitened discipline and unloving obedience that he answered him. "I saw Ricardo in the marketplace. This morning. He is bound for here."
Julio thought for a minute. "Then why is he not here? You have arrived."
"I cannot tell you why he has not come. Perhaps he comes on foot. He had no horse when I saw him."
"No horse?" Julio laughed. "What would he do with his horse? He cannot sell it, for it has my mark on it and who would buy a thief's horse?" His son lowered his eyes again."You gave the horse to Ricardo," he said with pain.
"Sí, in return for three month's labor."
"He was only one week short and you drove him away."
"Then he should send me back one leg from the horse," Julio laughed.
"Basta," he shouted. "Each man sees justice in his own way. Go back to your bride. I will take care of this matter myself."
"First let him eat," Felícita said. "The rain is starting."
Julio shrugged his shoulders by way of consent. He put on his sandals and his serape and went to saddle his horse.
"Where are you going?" Felícita asked.
Julio did not answer her. He went outside and saddled his horse and mounted it.
"Where are you going?" Felícita ran after him.
"Pack what you can," he said in a quick voice. "Bring Hernán and Juan in from the fields and get the wagon. I will go into the village to see who will buy the farm."
"You are crazy," Felícita said, but he had already turned his horse away. "You are crazy," she shouted after him. "Come back. You are crazy."
Her son came out of the house. "What is it?" he asked.
"He has gone to sell the farm," she said in a hoarse rasp.
"Is it because of Ricardo?" he asked with awe.
"Sí," she cried, "sí, sí, sí, because of Ricardo, because of a man half his size."
Julio shuffled his feet in the sand. "What shall we do?"
"Go bring your brothers in from the fields. Quickly," she hissed, as if she were scatting a cat.
When they returned, Felícita had already rolled up the straw mats and taken apart the boards of the bed frames. "You, Hernán," she said, "bring the wagon to the door."
When he stood uncertainly, she shouted at him, "Do as I tell you. He is sick. Sí, he is sick. He has seen a ghost. He has been bewitched. There is nothing we can do now."
"Maybe I should go for the priest," Julio said.
"Aaii, the priest," she said in a voice hard as a stone,"I have not one peso with me to pay him."
"He has never been afraid," Julio said.
"Sí. That is true. But you must ask elsewhere why he is now afraid," she said with futility. "You, Hernán, bring the wagon pronto."
Hernán brought the wagon in front of the doorway and Felícita began to pile the comal, the metate, her clay pots, the straw mats, the two bed frames, the chairs and the table on to it. She took the clothes down from their hooks and laid them in a wooden chest which Julio and Hernán hoisted on to the wagon. Then she went to the little makeshift altar at the back of the room and began to disassemble it. She put into the wooden chest the picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the straw flowers she had braided, the candles, and folded away the paper tablecloth.
When Julio returned they were finished packing and were waiting for him. His face was gray. The rain dripped off his sombrero and his serape was soaking so that you could tell that his shoulders and chest were wet. His sluggish eyes rolled with disbelief and anger. He took the money out of his pocket and flung it on the floor. "Two thousand pesos," he said. "For the land, for the house, for three hogs and a cow," he shouted. Tears came to his eyes. "May Ricardo rot in an open grave. May his flesh stink up the wind that it is carried in."
Felícita quickly picked up the money. "Give it back. Give it back quickly."
Julio waved her down.
"What has come over you?" she cried. "Ricardo has killed you already. You have no need to run. Here," she took his machete from his belt. "Take it and find him, Better use the money to bring the priest here. You suffer from el espanto," she hissed.
"El espanto? Sí," he said in a voice that was new to his family. "But I will not be able to find him. Nor will the priest, for he will come in the dark. I did not tell you that I dreamed three nights ago how he and my son, Julio, said things to each other. I could not hear them. In a dream you do not hear, but you know what is being said. Then Julio came today on his horse, but he said nothing. He sat on his horse and laughed. When he came this afternoon I knew right away. Sí. It is as I have dreamed it. He will come in the dark." He looked around at his family. "Basta," he said angrily, "make haste and let us leave."
Felícita put down the machete. "Sí. Make haste We are now pursued by dreams and I am married to this till I die." She felt overtaken by an unprecedented scorn, an emotion she had never felt towards her husband, but then she had never known him to have felt fear. Now they both faced each other with a complex of new feelings that had not been in the tradition of their lives, that they had not known existed in the relationship between a husband and wife. "Maybe now you will find women," she turned her bitterness on him. "Sí," she looked about at her son, recollecting herself for the moment. But then she disregarded even this caution and turned back to her husband. "What woman will you find to cook for you now and to eat your garbage?"
Julio took hold of her hands and pinched them tightly. "Ask your saints to protect you," he said and walked out of the house.
Felícita did not fear Julio's threats. Physical pain did not frighten her. Chaos did. She looked about the empty room. Only the hearth was left. Her sons had gone out to help Julio tie down their things with hemp. The curtain that had divided the two rooms had been taken down. Hernán had disassembled the table where the altar had stood and had taken it out.
There was no longer any shape to the house, nothing to mark the occupations and habits of those who had lived in it, which had seemed as unquestionably permanent to her as the village she had been born into. Now it was nothing but an empty room and she stood in the empty corner and looked at the three stones of the hearth set in a triangle. This they could not take, for Julio had cemented them into the floor. "Sí," she thought, "I ask for protection." But she could not say what she was to be protected from. She had once feared Julio, but everything she had feared had shown her its teeth and she had learned not courage nor not to fear, but that fear would not annihilate her. So she had reckoned fear when Julio had first lain down beside her, fourteen and young beyond remembering it any more, had lain down beside her in the dark, wordless and entered her body with an abrupt physicality and had left her just as abruptly with her eyes open, listening to the insects crawling on the floor. When his son was being born that first corruption pierced her body again and again for three days and nights while his mother watched her with eyes that said, "All is as it should be and there will be no voices of comfort." That she had learned, that there were no voices of comfort. Now unfamiliar feelings floated up in her, and she had no preparation for them. Nothing but life to begin again, and the fear of that.
When she left the house, Julio was sitting in the wagon. Felícita climbed in beside him, and Hernán and Juan climbed into the back with the household belongings. No one spoke. Their eldest son untied his horse and mounted him to go back to Cuernavaca. The afternoon rain drove in with hard winds.
Soon the land was running with mud. The wagon started up and Julio watched his father and mother and his brothers drive away through the slanting rain. He had a perplexed feeling, a sense of density about life he had not felt before. He watched for some time after they had gone, then spurred his horse and rode back to Cuernavaca.
Ricardo walked all that day from Cuernavaca to Netzahualcoyotl. The rain wet him through his clothes and his feet slipped on the paths. His sandals became clogged with mud and he had to stop frequently to empty them. His shoulder hurt and he kept his hand over it. He could feel the heat from the wound through his wet shirt.
The maguey stretched along the flat plains like clusters of thorny stars in the steaming gray. In the distance, the rain was thick like smoke hissing from the ground. The cars went by in small huddles of comfort through the beguiling monotony of the rain.
The land on both sides of the road was a flat, yellow plain that stretched for miles. It enveloped him all around in monotonous stretches of rain through which he could see nothing. He moved dreamily in the wet movement . Weak and in pain he lowered his eyes and remembered his life as he walked along the road. His old mother sat in the square room enclosed on all sides by the rain. She sat at the table with her fantastically hard eyes that were like plum stones, and the grim wisdom in her grim set lips which did not argue with anyone, but with a point of her finger and a nod of her head said everything. His three sisters sat with puffed and sullen faces. With a nod of her head his mother routed them from their flagrant daydreams and without a margin of hope set them to work at the household tasks. Go to market, grind the corn, sew the clothes, sweep the floor, fetch the water, make the tortillas. Ricardo, a belated infant, sat on a chair near the table and looked at the strangers. The rain fell outside. It hit the earth with a fuzzy thud. Everybody else was quiet. Julio portioned out the food. Ricardo was very hungry, but he dare not ask for more. He could not understand why there was a prohibition, or if there was one except that Julio portioned out the food, and nobody asked for more than what they got. He could smell the damp earth of the floor and the wet clothes dripping over the fire, he could hear the rain splashing outside but he could not hear anyone talking. They sat around the table, their faces bent over their plates and ate silently. He could feel the scratch on his legs from the chair, and the warm steam from the food on his eyes, but he could not hear them talking, only the orgiastic, voluptuously indulgent, churning, smacking sound of food and saliva in Julio's mouth.
Cars passed him, but he did not flag any down. His face was hidden under his sombrero and it was not clear whether he was a young man or an old one. He was lost in the past. He sat at the table. He was six years old, and everyone was very big. Julio ate with one hand and with the other dipped the big spoon into the pot and put the food on the plates as they went by. Ricardo was stung with disappointment at his little portion. The food he was given to eat was never enough.
As if he carried the little boy he once was, he entered Netzahualcoyotl late that afternoon with the misplaced ambition to defend this little boy. It was true that the child was somebody else whose destiny was finished, but Ricardo wanted to retrieve him and for his sake set a fire in the world. He demanded payment for this child's inarticulateness.
He went through the village quickly and came out into the countryside. The rain had stopped and there was a low haze of sullen clouds in the sky. He walked through the mud and across the little streams of water. The later afternoon sun picked out the colors in the bits of glass that were stuck into the walls around the farms. This time it must be finished. To kill Julio would be everything he could say about life. This time he must do it. He picked up a large rock to use as a weapon. His shoulder was in great pain, and that was good. He needed to remember pain. He pushed open the gate to Julio's farm and almost footless, like wind, made his way across the front yard. The mud cushioned his steps and the earth sank beneath his feet. His heart beat uncomfortably. The rock was an ungainly weapon. It required a different pose. The thought that he might fail again spread through him like a sickness. He crossed the front yard and looked into a window of the hut. The fire was out, the furnishings were gone. No one was there, the fire was out, the altar was gone. He wheeled around. Everything was empty. There was no wagon in the yard. The gate swung idly, the sun dried in the late sun, covering the tracks of the wagon, the mud turned to sand and the pebbles began to show lifeless in the dry heat. Everything was empty. Not a soul in the fields, not a sound from the road. Empty! Excruciatingly empty! A fit seized him and he began to shake uncontrollably. Julio was gone and his plate was empty. He was a stick shaking without meaning. He was empty, he was sand blowing without shape.
He was nothing, only sand that took one shape when Julio called and another shape when he did not. Julio was gone and he was falling apart, blowing away like sand in a wind. He shuddered violently. His soul was wet through and through. Yet somewhere there must be power, he thought. The earth has terrible forces. Somewhere there must be power to breathe. He looked about him at the emptiness and shut his eyes. Julio had humbled him again.
He walked out of the yard and through the gate. The sun danced along the bits of glass in the wall and picked out the colors of red, purple, green, black. But the gate swung open on an empty yard. Ricardo needed air, the high, thin air of the cerros. The sun that had come out so late in the day burned terrifically. It was a setting sun and hung precariously on a distant peak, though wet breezes informed the atmosphere of more rain. Everything in the twilight warned against the mountains, the growing darkness, the moving clouds gathering into humps of hugeness, the air which had picked up wind and speed. Nevertheless, Ricardo went up and up until he could look back down and barely make out Julio's farm surrounded by its wall of dancing color. Dimly he could see the gate swinging in the growing wind. No one came to fasten it. The dried earth blew in little swirls, the wind blew through the open door.
Ricardo cut off the main path and climbed straight into the mountain. He caught hold of the boulders with his hands. His shoulder tore at him with pain, but he drew himself further up the mountain. Soon he was on top of El Ocelotepetl. He could feel its shape in the gray darkness, it boulders hanging all about him. His shoulder tore his body apart. He wanted to be rid of the pain, to cut it out, to cut off some part of himself and be rid of his pain. There was lightning in the distance and the black clouds came up on his right. The rain thundered in his head: Everything gotten had to be paid for. One made a sacrifice for everything, for rain, for corn, for harvest, for peace. Perhaps he could cut off his arm and offer it and be rid of his pain. How was it he could not live in this world in a simple, human way as others seemed to do.
The lightning cracked overhead and unleashed the rain. With a leap Ricardo fled across the mountain top and crossed on to El Tlaminetepetl, Peak of the Wounded. His foot slipped in the wetness and he clung to the boulders with his fingers. He could hear his nails scratch on the rocks as he struggled to keep his grip. One step below him was death. His foot cringed away from the crevice, his toes curled on the shrubbery, his hands dug themselves into sheer rock, his armpits were stretched beyond endurance. With malice the rain beat him on his head and struck his eyes. He hung over the edge of death and he wanted to die, but his fingers would not let go. They were filled with treason. They had departed from the willing mind and sought their own preservation. With a leap of freedom and terror his mind fell down and lay torn at the bottom of the mountain, but his body clung, his fingers scratched on the rock for life, and his arms were flung around El Tlaminetepetl.
Thus he clung for half an hour while the rain beat him against the peak. There was no thought in him now, neither desire to die nor surprise that he lived. No terror or fear, hope or pain. He lay like a broken doll with his cheek on the rock and his arms around the wet boulder. There was only persistence.
After a while the rain abated. The lightning was in the distance and the thunder rolled away over further peaks. Ricardo pulled himself up on top of the peak. His armpits ached and his back was wrenched. Everywhere around him the world was awash with rain. He could not see any villages or other peaks. The countryside was gone. He alone crawled across the top of the world in cold loneliness until he found a small cave into which he squeezed himself. There was a statue of Jesus in it, and a few flowers, intensely red and white, with beaten petals.
It grew dark and he was cold, but he did not think of going down from the mountain to find food and shelter. He sat and shivered and looked at the statue of Jesus. It was carved fom dark wood and smelled of rotting dampness. Its jowls were cut with deep ruts to mark the pain of death, and the belly was crumpled with wrinkles, an elongated sagging over the loin cloth, as if gravity were his tormentor.
The smell of the wet wood and the rot warmed Ricardo's nostrils. It was drugging like the odor that comes out of a pestiferous hole and it crowded his head with a thousand memories, smell upon smell rising from the earth.
He thought of the rain in a damp house, he thought of the food standing on the table, the children who lay three in a bed rubbing their dust and their grease and their scum into the straw. He could smell the flesh, the sweat, the urine in the child's bed. He was not sure but that he dozed, for he started once or twice with the thought that someone was near him. But there was no one.
Little by little the rain stopped altogether and the air blew with a dry wind. Ricardo sat dazed in the cave as the known universe resumed itself. He thought the world had been washed away. The stars continued to come out, enormously and innocent of tragedy. He could make out the villages below and his heart went cold at the sight of them. Netzahualcoyotl down below. San Vincente to the south, Donciane Sur to the west. He knew every step along the way. When he went down, he went down to the same world. He dragged himself out of the cave and supported himself against the side of the mountain. He looked down into the valley for a long time. Like Satan who, after having heard the rumor that a world had been created, circled the earth in search of a way to enter it, Ricardo looked into the dark valley and wondered how it was possible for him to find a way into the world. "Jesu," he cried, "for pity's sake, be merciful and give me love." He did not love the world, he would destroy it if he could, but he longed to love it, he longed desperately, sickeningly, with all the aching senses of his body to find himself in the human spectrum, he longed beyond any gift, beyond any offering the world could make, to love this loveless world.
The day was drawing to a close when Julio and his family approached the outskirts of the capital city. Again the rain clouds hung low and behind them they could see sheets of water falling over an isolated region. Tlaloc had spared them that at least, Felícita thought, and they had passed through the mountains during a few hours of sunshine. But when had they ever prayed against rain or had found the gift superfluous? They were turned against their gods. If they were not in Netzahualcoyotl farming, of what use was Tlaloc? Rain, rain, rain and rain. For what purpose now? Henceforth all would be mischief.
Juan and Hernán sat in the back of the wagon. They rested on their haunches and wore their sombreros low over their eyes. Juan would have spoken with his brother, but Hernán showed no interest. There was eight years between them, for the gods had been good to Felícita and had spared her children.
She had no gift for child-bearing and had prayed to Mary to give her the tranquillity of a barren womb. When several years had passed after Hernán, she thought her prayers had been answered, but then her body had flickered and had splintered into pieces with shudders. Now it was eight years again since Juan had been born and a terrible startle had gone through her again. How treacherous the gods had become.
Hernán was uncomfortable with his parents throughout the trip. No one spoke. His father drove the horse sullenly and slowly as if he were in no hurry to get anywhere. Hernán did not know how his father felt except that he looked two ways at the same time, and his mother sat far away from him. Hernán kept his hat over his eyes and his eyes open and wakeful as the wagon rolled through the streets. There were sidewalks so white they looked as if they had been painted, and the houses rose up in many shapes and angles. He kept his hat low and looked as if he were sleeping, but he watched everything.
"Basta," Julio said and reined in the horse. "We stop here."
Felícita looked about her with a grimly accepting air. It was a narrow street with no sidewalk. The buildings grew up flat from the black street. The windows were black with no glass in them. She had never seen tall buildings before, one after the other, but she had seen garbage and she saw that it stood in huge piles before every doorway and that it ran in the streets with the black water. Her eyes were hard as nuts.
Julio got down from the wagon and disappeared into a doorway. Felícita waited for him. The rain began to fall. Neither she nor the children moved, and the rain rolled down their faces like down the flat buildings. Soon he came out. "Bueno," he said, "we stay here for a few days." They climbed out of the wagon and took with them whatever they could carry. Felícita followed Julio out of habit. Obedience was the one quality she remembered from their relationship.
They climbed four flights of stairs before Julio opened the door to their room. The floor and the walls were made of gray slats, with pink holes in them where the rats had chewed. The rain blew in through an open window. A smell of decaying wood was everywhere.
They put down what they had carried up. Felícita unpiled the straw mats and placed them against a wall away from the window.
"It will be all right," Julio said. "I had this address once when I came to el Méjico many years ago." Felícita stood in the middle of the empty room, a look of sullen resentment on her face which she tried to hide. But he saw it very well. He knew that her grim willessness was a pose she was using to wound him with, as if in her severe negation of herself, in the perfection of her wifely obedience she would rob him of every pretence that he had a wife. All through the trip she had sat like that, like a wooden doll, like a wooden statue in the side of the mountain, with a wooden face and wooden eyes that saw everything but did not blink. All through the trip, he could not speak to her because she sat thus, with her eyes moving neither to the left nor to the right and the rain falling from her as down the side of a house and the sun drying her as if she were a patch of ground that lays and waits for itself to be dried. Was it his fault he had had a dream? He did not ask for it. But dreams should be listened to sometimes. He had thought, even as he was selling the farm, that he would go back and get his gun. Sí. If he did not like a man he took his gun or his machete and waited for him. That was him, Julio.
The thought revived him as if he had forgotten who he was and the next morning he told Felícita that they would return. "I have had enough. Let Ricardo look out for his life as he can."
Felícita regarded him with sluggish eyes. It was the first time she had slept in a strange room, and she had not slept well. She had been out of bed for hours, rising at dawn out of habit, but there were no chores to perform and she had stood for hours watching the blank brick building opposite her room where a feeble sun penetrated its dark window. Everything had been stripped away: chores, work, duty, gossip, arguments. There were only empty hours and an empty room. She did not even know where to cook their breakfast. And there was no food. Sí, she would like to go back, but first Julio must know that everything had been stripped away.
"What will you do in Netzahualcoyotl?" she asked with scorn. "Do you think you can buy back your farm for two thousand pesos? What kind of farm can you buy for that money? You think we can break new ground? You think I can still pull rocks on my back? The farm will not even yield us enough to feed ourselves. It will not have a house with two rooms and a wooden floor. Ha!" she hissed, "what sort of a farm will it be now that you have only yourself and Hernán to work it?" So she went on, though she was in pain to return at any price or loss. But a disease had infected her system, and it was more important to wound Julio than to protect her life.
He listened to her with mocking patience, but he felt the foolishness of what he had done. He could not understand the man who would do the thing he had done, and it was this which kept him from becoming angry as her behavior demanded. He had been tricked by a dream, a moment's lapse of thinking, whose cost was incalculable. Felícita's words were of his own practical nature and they made him feel as foolish as a man who has gone out of his home without his clothes and is surprised by his nakedness.
"Basta," he said weakly in an indefinable voice. "Basta," he shouted and raised his arm to her. "All will go well in spite of your evil tongue," and he left the house with a declared rage.
Felícita felt desolate when he had gone, but her sense of desolation gave her power, it gave her unvoiced protests, brooding contempt and arguments which she rehearsed silently all afternoon or sporadically to her sons; it gave her an inconsolable weapon against Julio.
She did not go out all day and she would not permit Juan or Hernán to go out. They sulked about the room and argued viciously with each other. In the late afternoon they were all very hungry, but Felícita had no money with her. By late evening their hunger had become painful; they had not eaten in more than a day. Juan lay with his head on her shoulder and whined, and Hernán drew pictures in the dust on the floor and rubbed them out with his feet. They were bored, listless, hungry, argumentative; but a fire raged in Felícita and she reckoned the hours that they waited as so many weapons for her use.
Julio finally returned, drunk. "Get me some water," he grumbled. She took out a clay pot and sent Hernán down the hall to the bathroom to get the water. Julio washed his face enormously, he splashed the water over his head and down his chest. Then he lay down on a mat and fell asleep.
"I am hungry," Hernán whispered.
"Sí," Felícita said. She lay Juan down on a mat and beckoned to Hernán to lay himself down too.
Hernán lay down, but he looked at her with puzzled eyes. "I am hungry," he said again.
"Sí," she said. "That is an ugly feeling," and she lay herself down on a mat. But she did not sleep. All night long the sensation of hunger kept her awake, and she did not know whether she relished it or whether she sought to accommodate herself to it with foreboding. Never before had she known hunger. Her father would not permit such a thing. Her hunger was so acute now it was a thing not to be argued with. It kicked and pinched her, it flushed her with heat and emptied her with blasts of cold air. A man who permitted his family to go hungry was evil. She listened to the sound of Julio sleeping next to her. His breathing was deep and laborious like a man who is walking quickly to catch something before it disappears. Julio dreamed. He dreamed that he was standing on a stretch of sand in the afternoon under a pearlized sky. His silhouette hung on the horizon, black in the sunlight, a figure of heat, the outline of an old power. That was him, he knew, and he ran as hard as he could to catch himself.
In the morning he gave Hernán some money. "There is a store at the end of this street. Buy some food and bring it back quickly."
"Where will we cook it?" Felícita asked.
"Here you can buy food that does not need cooking, bread, fruit, cheese. Go."
When Hernán returned with the packages and they sat down on the floor to eat Felícita thought of not eating, as if to touch food would be a betrayal of her suffering, but Julio pushed the bread to her. "Eat. You are right, Felícita. It would be foolish to go back now. I tell you what. Yesterday I spoke with three men. One man owns a restaurant. Hernán will sweep the floor for him and wash the dishes." Felícita's mouth dropped open, but she made no sound.
"I am to go to work?" Hernán asked with surprise and eagerness.
"You are a stupid boy," Felícita said.
"It will be only for a little while," Julio said, surprising himself that he sought to mollify her.
"And who are the other men you spoke to?" she mocked.
Julio did not enjoy this conversation. Usually when he parcelled out the work for the family and told each what he would do, it set the future in order; but this morning nothing was in order. He ignored the mockery in Felícita's voice; he would not tell her what their future would be, although he had thought it out very well. Last night there had been a light in his dream, a light that had bored a hole into his head like a vision of himself in power and in sunlight. He would not tell her again that he meant to buy back the farm and that Ricardo had better look out for himself. It had come to him during the day how this trip to el Méjico would throw Ricardo off the track. He would think that Julio had sold the farm. It was a matter of time and of the correct moment.
"For the second man," he said, "you and Juan will sell newspapers. They say a small child sells more newspapers and you will go with Juan to see that he does not get into trouble and that he counts his change."
Felícita pulled the wrinkled lids over her eyes and looked at her food. She made no sound except to chew it.
"And I am going to sell bread in the streets. So, we will soon have more to eat than we had on the farm."
"I never went hungry," Felícita said, "but last night I was hungry. Even on a small farm you can find what to feed yourself with. You never go hungry on a farm."
"Aaach, I have had enough of the farm. To think I have only to stand in one place and sell bread. Is this not better than pushing my hands in dirt? I tell you what, it was a good saint that sent us away from the farm. Sí. I did not tell you how a saint spoke to me how I was growing old and soon would not be able to dig and told me to find another trade before I would be too old. Sí, that was why I sent Julio to Cuernavaca. You see how it was, how I established him with a wife and a house and a trade before I sold the farm. What do you think you would do anyway if I could not farm the land? You would have to gather wood to sell, or make tortillas and sell them on the road. So now you sell newspapers and they are lighter than wood and you do not have to cook them."
Felícita looked at him through glazed eyes as if she were looking at a cold fact of existence through a dream. "Which saint was it that told you this?" "Saint Dominic," Julio said and bit into his bread.
Ricardo walked along the side of the road. The sun was already hot, but a little morning wind made the heat bearable. He had been walking for over an hour. He was tortured with hunger. Grimly he thought it possible that he might faint by the side of the road. He had seen men lying thus, their skin quivering for survival, their nails scratching in the sand to hold on while they slowly lost their battle for life. His belly flamed with hunger.
He paid its pain the respect of minute attention. That much he had learned on the mountain top, that his body had an autonomous life whose will he could not break. In the end, it was the soul that whimpered with defeat. Several cars passed him on the road and set up a little wind. He began to wait for the cars so that he could take advantage of them by turning his head to the road for the breeze. He knew that he could not walk more than another hour and then he must sit down, and then he must lie down, and then he would close his eyes and scratch in the sand.
How soon the time passed. Perhaps he had held out for more than an hour, perhaps it had been for two hours, he thought with a dismal sense of honor for his struggle; but then his legs folded underneath him and he sat down by the side of the road and stared into the silver space of air.
The cars continued to pass him, and as the day wore on they came more quickly. Instinctively he lifted his chin as he heard the drone of a motor and caught the gas-filled beeeze on his lips. Hazily he thought that it was time to lie down, but his body remained rigid to the thought. Still, his eyes closed and behind them darkness swam in flashes of silver.
"Señor," someone nudged him on the shoulder. "Señor, are you sleeping?" The voice was sympathetic yet impatient.
Ricardo opened his eyes and tried to smile. He saw that a car had stopped beside him, that the sun was overhead, that it was noon, that time had passed. "I am hungry," he said peevishly.
"Sí. Get in the car and we will go to eat." He helped Ricardo up. "I am a priest," he told him. Ricardo was surprised.
"Why are you surprised?" the man asked.
"I do not know," Ricardo shrugged his shoulders. "I have known some priests, but I never thought to ride in a car with one."
"Do not be humble in spite of what the scriptures say. My name is Father Ferenza. And you?"
"Ricardo Donajero." He climbed into the car, amazed and suspicious, wondering if he were being kidnapped. They found a café, and Father Ferenza gave Ricardo some money. "Go in yourself," he said. "I will wait for you. I am not hungry and I have work to do." He took out a portfolio of papers and began to examine them.
When Ricardo returned he got back into the car hesitantly. "Where are we going?"
Father Ferenza smiled at him. "I am going to la Ciudad, but I do not know where you are going."
Ricardo's face lit up with gratitude for good fortune. "That is where I am going too. I have money waiting for me in a post office."
"Sí." He wondered if the priest would regret his favor if he knew that he drove Ricardo to collect illegal money. "The money," he said, "I worked honestly for it, but I think it is a thief's money." He immediately regretted his confession.
"Sí," Ricardo said, but controlled his desire to talk any further about this. "Why did you stop on the road for me?"
"You looked hungry."
Ricardo glanced at him with embarrassed surprise. "And you feed all the hungry?"
"All that I find. Hunger is the only evil. Hunger for food, hunger for love, hunger for comfort."
Ricardo smacked his thigh and broke out into an embarrassed laugh. "I have known some priests, but none that were good. They were not bad, but they were not good."
"Perhaps you have not lived long enough," Father Ferenza said, amused. He drove his car impatiently, darting in and out of lanes. He kept his left arm out the window and the sun flashed on his wristwatch. He was of medium height, a bit bullish in build, around fifty, with graying black, wiry, short cropped hair. His face was dark, a hint of the mestizo, the skin on it as taut and brown as old parchment. He wore rimless glasses behind which his brown eyes were restless, briskly assaying the world. He displayed no sentimentality, nothing of the emotion that led him to stop on the road and inquire after a stranger's condition. He was dressed conservatively in a dark suit, but his clothes seemed chosen for efficiency, like a serviceable travelling companion. Ricardo noticed that his shoes were clean and shone like mirrors as his feet went up and down with expert impatience on the accelerator and clutch.
"Why do you stare at me?" Father Ferenza asked, hoping to snare him. Ricardo blushed. "I do not know, Padre," he whispered, and turned away. Father Ferenza was touched that he had not denied it, and gauged Ricardo's simplicity. "I am flattered," he said, without irony.
Ricardo turned back and stared at him more frankly. "You do not look like a priest."
"How many priests have you seen?"
"Three or four."
"And how many times?"
"At the fiestas. Two or three times a year and two or three times in church."
"You are not a religious man?"
"Sí, I am," Ricardo answered with pique. "In my village we go to the rezandero. Only the cacique go to the priest."
"Then how do you know how a priest looks?"
"I have seen him in the church."
Father Ferenza smiled cunningly. He was not above enjoying the surprise that his manner inspired. "You mean I do not look as you think a priest should look, praying and mumbling and wearing black robes."
To Ricardo this was blasphemy. Father Ferenza was content. "Well, Señor, you see, I am not a religious man either." Ricardo became suspicious, even fearful that Father Ferenza might be a demon. He made up his mind to restrain his curiosity, lest it ensnare him, but his curiosity got the better of him: "If, as you say, you are a priest but you are not a religious man, how do you pray for your people, how can you cure their souls?"
"Oh, sí," Father Ferenza responded offhandedly, "I do not know if I cure their souls."
"But what do you tell them when they ask things?"
"Sometimes I tell them what I believe. Sometimes I tell them what they believe. Sometimes I tell them what it is good for them to hear and nobody believes."
"But how can you give a man an answer then?"
"Señor, I cannot give a man an answer." "Then of what use are you?"
Father Ferenza gripped the wheel of the car and swerved out of lane. When the car righted itself, he laughed. "I do not know, but I have a great self-pride."
"Sí, it must be. But what do you tell the dying?"
Father Ferenza looked at him over his glasses. "What is there to say to them?"
"If they ask where they are going and if they will see God?"
Father Ferenza sighed. "The dying I have seen are concerned with what they are leaving, not where they are going."
"But do you not believe they are going somewhere?"
Father Ferenza said almost belligerently, "No, Señor, I do not believe so." Ricardo whistled under his breath. "Sí, you are not a religious man." He reflected on this for a while and shook his head with fear and dismay.
"Then what is the use?"
"The use of what?" Father Ferenza said testily.
"What is the use of life," Ricardo said heavily, "if there is no better life after this one?"
"If you do not know the use of this life what is the use of another one?" Ricardo felt driven back on vague memorizations of answers. "Is it not true that in the next world all things will be made clear?"
Father Ferenza said irritably, "Señor, if they are made clear in the next world, of what use is it for this world? That is what I wish those who come to me to think about. Do not wait for the next world."
Ricardo was intrigued but alarmed. He had heard others speak this way, men who had joined revolutionary bands, but never had he heard a priest speak this way. They passed the long fields of maguey plants. Slowly the fields were replaced by houses, a filling station, brick buildings, a cinema. Soon they entered the city and were driving through its outskirts of rural villages and the perceptible beginnings of a metropolis. Father Ferenza waited for Ricardo to tell him where he should be left off, but as he said nothing, he drove into the city in the direction of his home. Ricardo sat up alertly as they passed into a residential section, the fringe of cosmopolitan life whose energy is spent in escaping the disorder of the center. He had a sensation of immense cleanliness, of so much whiteness and swept walks and freshly painted walls it was as if the sun sat in the streets. All the gardens came to a trim finish, all the trees and bushes were pinned back by low walls, disorder and excess were checked everywhere and the dust was laid to rest under a paved road. Ricardo was dazzled.
"This is my home," Father Ferenza said as they drove down a wide-lawned boulevard. The sun was cooler and the air so full of blue and gold and the mik of white clouds that Ricardo felt as if his soul were being washed in a stream. He came abreast of la Ciudad with feelings of veneration.
"I do not know where you wish to go," Father Ferenza said. The car stopped in front of a house set back behind a low stucco wall. A patch of orange hung out from one of the windows, a balcony floating in space, a gay and brilliant patch of orange against the blue sky. Father Ferenza looked at Ricardo and smiled, "Señor, you come from a poor village. I am not a rich man."
Ricardo felt stupid, but the priest patted his thigh. "Do not take all things so heavily. In two days' time you will know the difference between la calle Tomás and Lomas de Chapultepec."
"Is that where the richest men live?"
"No, Señor, there are no richest men. There are the rich and those who are richer and always someone who is richer."
"Sí," Ricardo sighed, disappointed at this fresh proof of the impossibility of knowing anything, even of knowing who is the richest man in the world. "Now where is it you wish to go?"
"To the post office in la calle de Reyes."
Father Ferenza took some money from his wallet and gave it to him. "That is a long way from here. You will have to take a bus."
Ricardo tried to give back the money. "Tomorrow I will be a rich man," he said.
"Sí? That is very good. But today you cannot pay for the bus you must take and you must wait for tomorrow to become rich. In the meantime, one must eat and sleep." He put the bill in Ricardo's hand. "Walk to the end of this street, then left, you will find the bus to take you to la Calle de Reyes. There you will be able to find a room to sleep in until tomorrow.
Now, Señor, adiós."
"I wish to thank you."
"Sí, sí, buena suerte."
But Ricardo did not go towards the bus. He was too dazzled to do anything so definite. He stayed in the neighborhood of Father Ferenza's house and walked around and around the blocks encircling the house. He watched the twilight rub out the incredible light from the sidewalks and the white walls, from the red roses and the blue lilacs that grew everywhere. The colors pierced him and he clung to them with hunger for their clarity against the growing night. Even at twilight, the air remained pure as if the sun was still shining. The trees and flowers retreated into the night, but the stars came out, incredibly still, incredibly pure, incredibly bright. Everywhere the smudge had been wiped away from the world, and the colors of objects were bright. Ricardo had never known anything else but a dusty village and he now felt that men who did not breathe dust in with their every breath were different from men who did. For them life was blue, life was green, life was orange.
He found a small park close by and lay down on a bench and looked into the blackblue of the sky. An orange flag blew across the night. It was jaunty, it was cocksure, it was childish, naive, frisky. Never had he seen such a color before. He felt it must take a different kind of people to hang such a color from one's window. But the soul, Ricardo thought as he fell asleep, the soul could never be orange. The color of the soul was black. In the morning the sky struck his eyes with light again. The leaves came back green. As he boarded the bus the breeze blew through his shirt with the crispness of early air. But by the time he arrived at his destination the sun was hot and the air was worn and musty. La calle de Reyes was dense and packed hotly with people, stores and buses. Exhaust fumes, talk and noise hung over the rooftops with the sultry smudge of a dirty summer street. Girls pulled each other by the arm and the men walked quickly, their legs clicking in haste in their gray pants. Fruit cores and dirt lay in the streets and the shop windows reflected everything with double noise and movement. Before he went into the post office Ricardo treated himself to a full breakfast. He had not spent much time thinking about what he would do with his money. He did not understand its sum, but he felt confident it would be enough to assuage his appetite.
In the stilted words he had rehearsed for himself he asked the postal clerk for an envelope for Dominico Alvarez. The administrador de correos looked in the mailbox under "A" and returned, shaking his head.
Ricardo felt a sick premonition. He asked the official to look under "Donajero." The administrador de correos pursed his lips with offense. He looked in the mailbok marked "D." Showing impatience that anyone doubted his efficiency, he shouted at Ricardo, "No, Señor, nada, nada," and waved him aside. Ricardo's mouth dried. The earth fell inside him with a small explosion of dust, people and trust.
Outside the sky was foggy. Ricardo looked up and down the street wondering where now to go. Neither direction meant anything to him. The block was long, hot and crowded with people. A cat walked along the curb. Ricardo watched it until it disappeared between the legs of the crowd. When he could not see it anymore he stared into the window of a china shop until the owner came out with a suspicious glance at his serape and sandals and told him to move on. He moved down the block to another window. A peddlar came by and touched him on his arm to catch his attention. Revolted, Ricardo drew his arm in under his serape and hurried away. He did the only thing he knew what to do in the city: he took the bus back to Father Ferenza's house.
A servant told him to wait and shuffled away without haste. His ears tingled with shame.
"Sí, I am here," he said as Father Ferenza came towards him, with pen still in hand from his writing desk. "The money was not there."
"No?" Father Ferenza said without surprise.
"Sí. It was not there," Ricardo said with disbelief. I have come back because again I am hungry and again I am without money." His spirit collapsed. He sat down on a bench and wiped his brow. "I do not know where to go. I do not know at all where to go. My soul is dead."
Father Ferenza screwed the top on to his pen. "Come, first we will eat. As always. Then we will talk of souls." He led Ricardo into the dining room.
"So," he said as if retelling a familiar story. "You have no friends, no money, no trade, no relations, and now no soul."
"I have a brother," Ricardo said.
"Sí? And what does your brother do?"
"He is a farmer."
"Why do you not work for him?"
"It is not that way between us."
"Is he a prosperous farmer?"
"Then it is very bad between you if you cannot work for him and he can afford to hire you.
Ricardo eyes clouded over. "Sí, it is very bad between us. I wish to murder him."
The servant brought in food and Father Ferenza spread a napkin on his lap.
"Eat. That much you can do."
Ricardo ate obediently, though he was not hungry. Suddenly he leaned across to Father Ferenza and said, "Do you believe that Cain was an evil man?" "Is that why you do not murder your brother? Because you do not wish to be an evil man?"
Ricardo smiled badly as if he were displaying a sack of stolen goods and, not wishing to appear ashamed, appeared brazen. "I am already an evil man." "Then why do you not murder your brother and complete your destiny?"
Ricardo gasped. "Do you sanction this?"
Father Ferenza clicked his tongue. "I, I do not sanction anything." But he reconsidered this approach. "What if I did?" When Ricardo did not answer, he leaned across and said, "You see? My sanction only makes your thoughts more burdensome because your soul knows best what it wants to do." Ricardo covered his face with his hand and pressed the tired ideas from his eyes like tears. "Padre, do you love the human race?"
"It is not easy to say one way or the other. Almost any answer is bound to be wrong, for the world moves about you in such a fashion, always changing its pattern that sometimes you are moved to love and sometimes you are moved to hatred."
"But it is wrong to hate."
"Perhaps so," Father Ferenza shrugged his shoulders without conviction, "but it is human. I do not argue with the human. That is my own humility. To accept what was fashioned, for thus we were fashioned. You do not argue with nature because she gave claws to the tiger. You learn to defend yourself against the claws. And it is possible to learn how to defend our souls against the claws of others."
"But how is it possible to live and work among others unless you have some love for them? Often I have wondered how it is possible to take a woman into your bed if you do not love her. But I have done that very thing and it is a mystery to me how I have done it, for afterwards I only felt a greater hatred for her and for myself."
"Perhaps that hatred is testimony of the love you wish were there." Father Ferenza whistled mischievously. "Whew! What a sacrifice man makes of himself. If he cannot love he wishes to destroy himself. Now what is the use of that. You see, you thought you were an evil man. Now you discover that sometimes hatred is proof of your good heart, as it was with the prophets. Their hatred grew on the same tree as their love."
Such a sermon was too much for Ricardo. Everything Father Ferenza said was the opposite of what he expected to hear. He grew fearful again that he was an evil spirit in disguise, for it was thus evil spirits worked, beguiling you with confusion. They attacked your mind and blurred your knowledge of good and evil.
"You do not eat," Father Ferenza said.
"Sí, I am not hungry." Suddenly Ricardo felt clever. "The devil has taken my appetite away."
Father Ferenza's nostrils pinched together as if what Ricardo said dispelled a bad odor. "Señor, you have lost your appetite, nothing more. The devil did not carry it away with wings." He decided that Ricardo was not a likable person, mixing his sublimity with streaks of boorish cleverness, and his self-annihilating humility with a maudlin appreciation of it, but he thought he should alleviate his immediate needs. More he could not do for him, for Ricardo believed in the devil and Father Ferenza knew that in the minds of the villagers and the Indians a belief in the devil was almost enough to create one. "Let us pretend that you do not have a brother. Let us forget him for a little while, until your soul heals. You do not need to remind yourself every day of your lashes. I have need here for another servant, a man to sweep the rooms, polish the furniture, run errands for me. Would you like to do this?"
Ricardo forgot his terror that Father Ferenza was a devil. "Sí, sí." He grabbed his hand and kissed it. Father Ferenza clicked his teeth with disgust.
Felícita's feet were cold as she stood barefoot on the mosaic floor under the marquee. She leaned against the red enamel box of the ticket seller and adjusted the strap on her shoulder that held up her sack of newspapers. Her shapeless cotton skirt hung to the middle of her bare legs with an uneven hem. Her feet looked almost leprous in their stumpy, callous growth and her breasts rested against her ribs like sacks in her blouse.
She poked Juan to stand with more attention. It was past midnight and the doors would soon open to let out the last spectators. She let down her rebozo and shifted the baby to her hip. He made a moan of annoyance at being disturbed. This one was not healthy. He was almost two and could not walks. His legs were thin and bent and when he stood on them they bowed out in such a curve she thought the bones would crack. And still she had had all the travail for bringing him into the world.
The doors opened and people began to come out. She poked Juan again. Immediately he jerked himself into movement and to call out his wares in birdlike cheeps. "Paper, Meester, Meester, Meester, paper, ekxtras, allekxtras, very good paper, meester." He threw himself into the crowd with mechanical automation and ran frantically between the legs of the spectators. He wore white short pants and a shirt whose sleeves had been ripped off. His legs and arms were dirty, and to the spectators rubbing their eyes from the darkness of the movie house he looked like a romantic street urchin. They smiled benevolently as he attacked them like an insect buzzing his paper in their faces.
Felícita remained where she was. From a sack on her right hip she drew out papers and held them high overhead. Juan now spoke more Spanish than Nahuatl and had learned some English words from the tourists, but Felícita had learned nothing more than the few Spanish words she had always known, and she remained silent, grunting now and then to call attention to herself. Otherwise she remained silent and stared with black eyes into the faces that moved about her, while Juan scampered like a pig bleating and oinking his papers. Only when the shuffle of his bare feet stopped did she move her eyes to single him out and make sure of his whereabouts. She could count his sales with her ears, hearing the lapse of his feet and the shuffle of a paper, and she looked at him not for her comfort but to impress him with her presence and the obedience that would be exacted from him in the tally of his change. Then her eyes moved back to the interior of the crowd and stared into it without expression. She singled no one out, she found nothing of interest in the people who went by, their clothes did not arouse her jealousy. Only the figure who paused to buy a paper from her brought her to life.
But one thing she had seen which confused her and made her set her lips grimly together: that was that the work which she and Juan did was looked upon as a plight. She saw that many bought papers from them out of kindness as if they were beggars, and intuitively Juan changed his voice to capitalize on this. Occasionally an American would look at the small boy, then look at his wristwatch and shake his head disapprovingly; and when the baby cried the people would look at her with curiosity and a watery sympathy. What is there to a baby crying? Felícita thought with bewilderment. Always these people looked at her bare feet. She had come to see that she and Juan carried on themselves the signs of dismal poverty. It only hurt her pride a little, but every bone in her body chattered with bewilderment and loneliness, for without being strange to herself she was strange to others.
The crowd began to thin and she had not sold a single paper, while Juan still had half of his. He bleated more loudly with frantic haste while a sharper gleam of urgency crept into her immobile eyes and she stared harder. Now they would have to go to the restaurants and the cafés to finish their sales, and they would not return home for another two hours.
They made their way out of the lobby and walked up the Paseo de la Reforma for half a mile. Felícita walked ahead of Juan and he followed behind, stopping to look into the blackened windows of the shops. He picked up a stick and ran it along the bars that protected the windows. Clap, clap, clap in the windless night. When the stores stopped, he dropped the stick and ran to catch up with his mother.
They turned down a dark street and found an open restaurant. Felícita poked Juan to go in, but she stayed outside. The baby had begun to cry and she removed her rebozo. She sat down on the curb and started to nurse him, though she knew he was not crying from hunger, for he scarcely ate. She removed a breast and put it into his mouth, but he would not suck. Time and again he opened his mouth to cry and she pushed the nipple between his gums, but he would not suck. She clamped his face between her fingers and pushed his chin up with her thumb, but he only choked and struggled, and she could hear his struggle against eating in the back of his throat while tears slid out of his eyes.
Never had she heard this one cry from hunger. He cried from something she could not find. Her distress for him was mixed with anger. Julio said it was her milk. He said she had become like a poisonous root and her milk had gone bad. Sí, it was true. The saliva ran black in her mouth. When she had felt the baby push out from between her legs a scream had fallen over her, and her thighs wrenched themselves free from the grasp of the midwife. Her thighs screamed out how it was in their power to crush this brown worm and she had felt her knees grate against the bone of his head.
She drew out some drops of milk with her finger and tried to smear them on the baby's tongue to entice him to eat. It sat on his tongue for a few seconds, then slowly he rolled it to the back of his mouth and swallowed it.
She squeezed out some more and placed them in his mouth. When he swallowed them again she drew the nipple in between his teeth. He sucked speculatively for a few seconds. Then his mouth fell open, he dropped the nipple and fell into a drugged sleep.
Felícita sat quietly with her rage and waited for Juan to return. A man came down the street and passed her. He paused a few feet away and came back.
"Señora, are you without a home?" he asked.
"Nada, nada," she waved her hand at the stranger. She had become accustomed to people looking at her as if she were homeless and did not bother to look up. She kept her head lowered to the baby and sat in the shadow of her rebozo.
The stranger noticed her sack of newspapers. He took some money from his pocket and pressed it into her hand. "Permit me to buy your papers."
Felícita looked up with a curiosity quickened to the advantages of charity. Her brow wrinkled as she recognized Ricardo's voice. She drew her lids over her eyes and sunk her face down beneath the shadow of her rebozo. "Gracias," she said as she held out her hand for the money.
Ricardo hesitated a second. Then he bent down and took one paper from her sack. "Señora, keep the newspapers and give them to your friends."
Felícita smiled. "Gracias," she said in a muffled, simpering voice. "Gracias. May Christ protect you."
When he walked away she shifted the baby back into the rebozo. She stood up and adjusted the sack of newspapers to her shoulder and spat on the sidewalk.
Ricardo's appearance was not a suprise to her. Twice before she had seen him in the street and once Hernán had come home and said he had seen Ricardo come into the restaurant where he waited on tables, and that he had come with another man.
Julio's lips had curled with anger, tasting in his mouth the co-mingling of the fact of Ricardo's appearance and Hernán's excitement about it. Hernán ran like a river with the news. "The other man was Señor Schencker," Julio screamed, and struck Hernán on his lips, embittered by the thought that for his son Ricardo was a different experience than it was for him. "You are no son of mine."
Felícita thought Hernán was stupid to have told his father this news. She herself had told no one that she had seen Ricardo, once emerging from the cinema and once crossing her path in an automobile. What was there to tell? She was confident that some day or night Julio would see Ricardo for himself. The city was not so big that they would not find each other if Julio did not take it into his head to leave out of fear.
"You made a mistake," she said to Hernán. "How can Ricardo be here? There is no work in such a city."
Julio hesitated between interpretations. "That is true," he said.
"Who then could it have been?" Hernán asked.
Felícita shrugged her shoulders. "Where would Ricardo have money to eat in your restaurant?"
Julio tensed up. "Señor Schencker could give it to him." Felícita's lips curled with smile. "Would Señor Schencker be seen with someone like Ricardo?" Julio's face relaxed. "True, Ricardo never earned an honest peso that I did not give him." But he watched his son carefully, and when Hernán scratched his head and dismissed the subject he continued to watch him with brooding eyes. Felícita wondered whether he had not himself once or twice caught sight of an old ghost.
When Ricardo had been with Father Ferenza for a month he took a day's holiday to go back to San Vincente and claim his horse and rifle. He did not know what he would do with the animal in el Mejico, but he felt that he owed it to himself to reclaim him. Also, he intended to force Señor Ruiz to pay him his money. He could not bear the injustice.
The bus left him off at the northern end of the village and he had to walk the short mile down to the other end where the hotel was. Even at the distance of two blocks away he could see that the hotel looked strange. There was a dissonant atmosphere of quiet. There were no cars parked in front of the hotel and no one was to be seen near the grounds. The door to the stable hung open.
A heavy, old woman snored on a chair in the lobby.
When Señor Ruiz did not appear, when no one appeared, he woke the woman. She sat up with a start and snored through her nose as if all her snores were rushing out at once.
"Señor Ruiz?" Ricardo said.
Her eyes gleamed at him quickly. She placed her large hands on her heavy thighs and looked at him with an accusing intelligence. There was no sleep left in her now. "What do you want him for?"
"He has my horse."
"There is no horse here. "Look for yourself," she jerked her head contemptuously in the direction of the stable.
"Where is Señor Ruiz?" Ricardo asked apprehensively.
The woman shook her head vigorously so that her earrings clicked. "In prison," she said with malice.
Ricardo turned his eyes away, for he did not trust himself to look at her. He took out some tobacco and rolled it into a cigarette. "What is he in prison for?" he asked, feigning indifference. "For being a thief," she said with a sense of injury.
"Are you his wife?"
"Sí, and who are you?"
He waved his hand. He knew enough not to declare his identity, although he felt that she knew who he was.
She smiled unpleasantly. "They have arrested him along with Señor Schencker and others. Do you know who Señor Schencker is?"
"No, Señora. I only left my horse here and I would like him back."
"Which horse was that, Señor?"
Ricardo bit his lip. "It had the mark, J.D. on the left side of the belly. A brown horse with that mark."
"Oh, that horse," she laughed, and her earrings clicked again. "That horse has been sold. Everything was sold, little by little."
"That was not right. The horse was mine. Now I have nothing."
"Oh, sí," the woman said sharply. Her earrings swung forward like rapiers.
"The hotel has been closed down for business. Only I am permitted to live here. I was not given instructions on how I should feed myself when the hotel is closed. Maybe you were given instructions and you have come to tell them to me. Everyone had instructions but me, Señor." Ricardo turned away to walk out of the lobby. "Do you have instructions for me, Señor," the woman screamed after him.
"No, Señora," he said, and walked out.
After that Ricardo stayed with Father Ferenza for three years. At first, he did little more than household tasks for him. He worked in the kitchen, in the garden, he mended clothes and did shopping. He did his jobs painfully well and his manner grated on Father Ferenza's nerves. After Ricardo had been with him for about a year he invited him on his visits to his parishioners. "The journey to the desperate ones," he called these visits, "the true function of the priest, to sit an hour or so with a sick man and relieve him of the tedium of dying."
For some months they had been visiting the home of Señor Mendore, a man of fifty-three who had been stricken with tuberculosis and had about a year to live. In this last year Ricardo became his nurse and companion.
At first he found little to sympathize with Señor Mendore in spite of his being sick. The señor was wealthy and well attended. This fact alone was enough to make his painful situation seem unreal to Ricardo. In addition, Señor Mendore feared death and was often craven, and there were long hours of tedious embarrassment. He gave his money away impulsively, then regretted it and used perverse means to arouse gratitude. He complained, cavilled and beleagured his children for love, and they attended to his wants with a host of confused emotions, rivaling each other to please their father and living in an atmosphere of cloudy enmity whose source and reasons puzzled them. Ricardo came to know the Mendore family well. The eldest son, Luis, was the child of a former marriage and it was the belief of all the children that this first wife was the only person whom their father had ever loved. They clothed their wants in the fiction that Señor Mendore had suffered some transformation of spirit at her death, which had left him with little ardor for anything but the past. Though he was well read and aware of the currents of the day, in his personal life he used that past which had been spent with an ideal and unknown wife to make all his judgments. "A young man does not recover from the death of a young and beautiful wife," he would say.
Señor Mendore had an unpleasant voice. To Ricardo, it sounded like a thin, bituminous stream coated with mucous. His eyes were lightly yellow and when he was not uncomfortable they were satisfied eyes. He had small, cherry red lips which he pursed and wet continually. When some point he had made satisfied him he would purse his lips into a red cupid's bow with moist reflectiveness. He had a short, sharp goatee beard which gave his face a professorial cast.
It was clear that his early marriage held many morals for him. He would speak about it with significant pauses, waiting with pursed lips and yellow-eyed satisfaction for his point to be taken up. When it was not he would goad his audience. "She was sick for three years. I nursed her with my own hands, bathed her, fed her, breathed air into her mouth."
Manuel, the youngest child, would ask, as if his conscience had been stung, if his father were thirsty and wanted some water and Margarita, his daughter, would ask if he were cold and needed a shawl. The eldest child, Luis, was often singled out as an example for the other children who could not determine whether Luis was in a favored position or not. Nor could Luis. He himself had no love for a mother he could not remember and he prayed that his father would stop favoring him.
"Luis, Luis," Señor Mendore would say, "I put rings on your fingers. Go and light a candle for your mother." Luis did so, obediently and, without knowing why, felt an endless loss of self-respect.
Ricardo tried to find him likable because he had endured an early disappointment. "This Maria Mendore," he asked Father Ferenza one night, "did you know her?"
"Sí. It is a marriage that goes back thirty years."
"Is it as the señor says, the passion he had with her?"
Father Ferenza was lighting tapers in the church and he looked at the flames thoughtfully. He could not decide whether Ricardo was being inquisitive or hopeful. "No," he said.
"No?" Ricardo repeated incredulously.
"No," Father Ferenza said emphatically. "No, my friend, the hope does not lie in that direction." He guided Ricardo out of the church and into the refectory and rang for his servant to bring some drinks. "Señore Mendore," he said, sitting down, "regarded his first wife with no more love than he regards his second wife. But when he was married to Maria he regarded his mother who had passed away a few years before very highly. Always he told Maria how it had been thus and thus between himself and his mother, how his mother had tended to him when he was sick, how long and loving were her letters to him when he was away. He drove her crazy with his talk. But when he married his second wife he exalted Maria. Always he believed that he loved someone once, and perhaps it is true that when death has removed a person from his sphere of combat that he feels free to love. Who can say? The complaint is that love resides somewhere, but not with the living and he exhorts the living to regard this."
"But why does he do this?"
"Because he is desperate to believe that he has loved someone."
"But he is mean. He abuses his children and his wife with these memories."
The servant brought in a bottle of brandy and some glasses. Father Ferenza poured out two drinks and passed one to Ricardo. "You find it hard to like the señor?"
Ricardo answered with a trace of his old harshness. "He is an evil man." He felt awkward about this pronouncement, so added, "I thought to find some mercy for him in the early death of his first wife. But if it is as you say, I cannot find any mercy for him."
Father Ferenza took his glasses off and smiled. "You sought to write a romance, but you should regard Señor Mendore's desperation." He decided to send Ricardo to tend the señor's wants daily.
At first, after his disillusionment, Ricardo sat stiffly by Señor Mendore's bed. He nursed him untenderly and wished him well rid of. But one late afternoon Señor Mendore awoke from a fitful sleep and said suddenly, "When I die, be tender to my wife. Let her come to you, Padre, and cry her fullest, for she will not know whether to be glad or unhappy that I am gone and her confusion will grieve her." Then he opened his eyes and saw that it was not Father Ferenza who sat next to him. He closed his eyes again and seemed to sink into pain. "Nor you, Señor," he said.
In the morning Señor Mendore spoke differently. He told Ricardo how Luis adored him, how, as a baby, he would fall asleep with head against his shoulder. "Even today sometimes he says, Papa, give me that place on your shoulder to rest my head." When Luis came that afternoon, Señor Mendore told how Juanita, the youngest girl, had crept to his bedside during the night and had cried, "Papa, please do not die. I love you, Papa. Do not die and leave me." Luis pulled the blankets up about his father and asked if he were warm enough. Señor Mendore seemed pleased. When Luis left he said to Ricardo, "You see how my boy regards me. My poor boy." After some five minutes his body shook with crying.
Ricardo laid him back against his pillow and tried to give him his medicine. But he saw that Señor Mendore was sleeping. From that day he felt as if he were standing on the edge of Señor Mendore's soul. "Nevertheless, he is difficult," he said to hmself. "It is wrong to set one's children against each other," and as he sat by his bed and talked to him or read to him and watched his lips and his beard hold a silent conversation in the air, he had to remind himself of those tears in order to recapture the compassion he longed to feel for him.
One afternoon the conversation turned to the subject of parents and children. "Sí," Señor Mendore said emphatically, "that is a great evil that a man can do. If he cannot create friendship for his children he should have them reared apart. In my house, as you see, there has always been harmony. Though Luis is the firstborn and the son of my adored Maria I have taught him never to set himself above the others."
Ricardo was too astounded to feel his customary loathing. "How is it possible?" he asked Father Ferenza.
"He does not wish to know."
"But why should he escape that?"
"He does not escape. The soul takes retribution upon itself."
Ricardo thought of Julio, as he did at such conjunctions of thought. For a long time he believed that he felt towards Julio as he had always felt, until one night, a few days before Señor Mendore died, he unexpectedly met with him. Ricardo had left Señor Mendore's house late at night. It was June and the air was warm. He walked the two miles back to Father Ferenza's house, through a residential area out on to the Paseo de la Reforma. He walked up the boulevard for half a mile and then turned into the darkness of another neighborhood to go across the city. The houses rose up impenetrable and black, hostile to the stranger. In the daytime they were gray and shabby and showed their weakness through a thousand chinks in the bricks, but at night they were ominous. Ricardo had been used to poverty, but not to the poverty of the city. Like Julio's family it alienated him with a system of different tensions. He turned up a block where there was more light from several bars, but instead of relieving the darkness the light framed the ominous with more intensity. A man came through one of the frames and went up the street. For an instant, before he turned away, Ricardo caught sight of his face like a snatch of light from the grave. His heart jerked. "Qué es? It cannot be," he said to himself. The man was stocky, square-shouldered, dressed in baggy pants and a dark, crumpled jacket. He slumped against the night as if he were drunk. There was a fuzzy incoherence to his movements. He was balanced for falling and leaned into the street, but his feet still went forward with a heaviness.
Ricardo followed behind. He had no idea of what he meant to do. Though he had no weapon with him he did not think it would be difficult to kill Julio in his condition. Anything would do, a brick or a broken bottle. But his passion had become a dull habit, its expression the husk of a dead emotion.
He followed Julio, drifting between a loyalty to his outrage and indifference to it. Still, out of the worn ache he would have provoked himself to the deed, except that suddenly Julio tripped. He lurched forward with a staccato, kangaroo hop while his arms flapped in the air . But Julio did not fall. He righted himself and shook his fist at the crack that had done him such damage. Then he looked up and saw Ricardo standing behind him. With a shriek he turned and fled down the street.
"Wait," Ricardo shouted after him, "Julio, wait." He ran after him, calling his name. "Julio, Julio, mio," but the man ran faster and faster and fell somewhere into the night.
Julio threw open the door to his apartment and slumped in. Felícita and Hernán sat up alertly on their mats. Felícita nudged Hernán to lie down again. She saw that Julio was drunk and did not think it worth while to lose sleep over that. But Julio went to Hernán's mat and dragged at his shoulder. "Sí, it is true," he said in a stunned whisper. "Ricardo is here, in la Ciudad." Hernán sat up with interest and importance, for he deemed himself to have been the first to know this.
Felícita took her long, gray hair in her hands and began to braid it, though it was not time to dress.
"Sí, did I not tell you?" Hernán said. His voice was alive with pleasure, for the prospect of Ricardo so close to them augured a drama. He felt the breath of a crisis and he was the first one to have scented it. "Where did you meet with him?" He spoke now as an equal to his father.
Julio could not comprehend Hernán's voice. He blinked stupidly at it and tried to disregard it. For the moment he wanted Hernán to tell his story again. "I was in la calle de San Juan. A man was there waiting for me when I turned into the street. He followed me from behind, but I took no notice until he made me fall. Then I saw that this man was Ricardo and that he was about to strike me on my head. I had no weapon, so I fled him."
Felícita listened carefully to Julio's story. She saw that he was very drunk and decided to discount what he said.
"Now, tell me, Hernán," Julio pressed him, "when you saw Ricardo, did he see you?"
"No." Then Hernán answered less surely. "How can I tell? If I was there to see him maybe he saw me."
"Aaaiieee," Julio lamented. "How would he know if I am here if he did not see you. Cow! Gray bull! Tell me that?"
Hernán saw that he was to be blamed for the crisis and leaned away from Julio, anticipating his fury. "Who was this man he was with?" Julio shouted. Was it Señor Schencker? Tell me, quickly, who was it?" Hernán drew his legs up. "I do not know who he was."
"Sí," Julio laughed, "and you do not know if Ricardo saw you!" The unjust implications stung Hernán and whetted his instinct for self-preservation. "It was not Ricardo I saw," he said with superb audacity.
Julio's sluggish eyes rolled with stupor. Felícita waited for him to hit the boy, but he did not. He reeled on his feet as if the air was drugging him. His eyes rolled with confusion and he swayed over Hernán's mat like a man regarding a snake that had changed its shape before his eyes. Felícita lay back on her mat and breathed more easily. The storm was passing without lightning. "Sí, it is as he tells you," she said, "Ricardo is not here. You are drunk, Julio. Nothing more."
Julio burst through his stupor. "Sí, I am drunk, but I have my eyes. I tell you I saw Ricardo. He tried to kill me."
Felícita waved this away. "Come to bed," she yawned.
"Sí, to bed," he laughed, then savagely changed his tone. "Vamos, Tonight we leave. We go north, vamos. Pack now."
But Felícita continued to braid and unbraid her hair and said indolently, "It is a bad dream, Julio. Ricardo is not here. Sí, I met with someone yesterday who saw him in San Vincente a short while ago. They say he has been there a year. There is now work in San Vincente. Why would he come here?"
Julio sat down and thought about this. Felícita lowered her chin on her chest and watched him with sharp, black eyes. But Julio stood up again and said sullenly, "Still, we go tonight. It is time for me to farm again.
Three years here," he spit on the floor. "Let us go."
"But there is time," Felícita protested. "We can leave in the morning or next week. Let us wait until the infant has some health. And then there is the turisto. The summer is the time to stay in la Ciudad." Her voice held out comforts like a cat stretching itself.
Julio agreed against his judgment. It was the first time Felícita had won an argument and she took note of this. Dios, she thought to herself, how a man changes. She had contempt for her victory, but a miserly relish of the first, small triumph she meant to build into a hoard.
Julio was ill at ease for weeks. He no longer went out at night to drink, but stayed at home and got drunk, and Felícita and the children had all the discomforts of his abuse. Hernán began to stay out in the streets until very late, and Felícita and Juan lingered on their newspaper route. Julio was left to himself in the empty room.
One night when Felícita and Juan were coming home they stopped at a restaurant to finish off their last papers and Felícita peered over the curtain to watch his sales. She saw Ricardo sitting in a corner by himself, reading a newspaper. Juan stopped not far from his table, open-mouthed. Felícita scraped on the window and beckoned to him to come out. On their way home, she told him to say nothing. It is time for destiny to take its shape, she said to herself, shifting her eyes to adjust to the dark street. But Julio would no longer stay and one day, again, they packed their things. It was decided that Hernán would remain in the city. He was past eighteen and knew how to make a living for himself. Felícita wanted him to come.
Though their savings were low, she argued that he would be a good worker on the farm, Julio would need his help. But he did not answer her. His eyes rolled with sluggish thoughts as he put their possessions into the wagon.
They went up to their room one last time to make sure that every scrap had been packed away, except for the few things which Hernán would need. Julio looked around with satisfaction. Then he said to Hernán, "Sí, and this time if you see Ricardo, see him well."
"I did not see Ricardo," Hernán said.
"Stay, Julio," Felícita pleaded. "Let us unpack. Ricardo is in San Vincente."
But the memory of that night came to him like a wave of sea-sickness. It was true that he could not remember it visually anymore, but it had turned into the disease of the sensation that follows a nightmare. His wife and sons watched him with narrowed eyes. "Ricardo is in San Vincente?" he said to Felícita.
He looked at her and the sensation attacked him again like a snake slithering in the folds of his belly. He felt that he must leave that room and that city, or it would destroy him. "What is that to me?" he shouted. "Let him be where he is," and turned and left.
Ricardo lay awake all night and thought of his encounter. The image of Julio falling forward amazed him, Julio grasping at the air, his legs breaking at his knees as the soles of his feet came up like a runner projected beyond his control. It enveloped the other images he had of Julio mocking him, cheating him, belittling him.
Ricardo's room was small but tidy in the manner in which Father Ferenza provided for himself and his servant. Father Ferenza did not tolerate filth. "Let us at least sweep our floors," he would say, like an efficient housewife who had an incessant struggle against the dust of the country. Ricardo's room was on the ground floor, behind the kitchen. From there he had access to the back garden. A screen door kept out the insects and let in the air. As Father Ferenza would say, "You see, we can filter our experiences, as indeed we must," and Ricardo had become used to thinking of the nature of control. His cot was narrow, but the linens were fresh. There was a simple three drawer dresser and a floor lamp which stood by his head. A woven rug of roman stripes lay on the floor. There was a wooden crucifix above the dresser and a crucifix on the wall.
When Ricardo came home that evening the freshness of the room, the odor of soap, the cleanliness of the sheets as he lay down in his bed, the rug shaken out in the morning wind, the nearness of the garden, filled the room with a sweet clarity. In this room he felt safe to disinter the memories he had of Julio, but they would not come. Like babes sleeping under tombstones, they seemed content with burial. There was only the memory of Julio in combat with his body, betrayed by toes and arms and spine, crumbling with anathema of himself. Ricardo turned over on his side towards the wall and held the scene before him until he fell asleep, exhausted with trying to decipher it.
The next day he went to Señor Mendore's house. The señor had had a bad night. His cheekbones stood out like small balls, and long wrinkles ran down on either side of his face where the loose skin had folded on itself. His forehead had become grotesquely broad and the skin on it shone like wax. He had begun the final stage of dying. Ricardo saw that he knew it, though his family seemed unaware. They saw merely that he seemed more ill than usual and counted it as a spell that would pass. Though they waited for him to die, they had also come to feel that this was a condition that was lifelong. They had been preparing themselves for a year, yet death would catch them by surprise as they imagined they still had time to make adjustments.
He did not complain that he was going to die. The rhetoric had dropped from his life. He had no expression for his fears and seemed emotionally idle, though Ricardo saw that now and then he looked about the room with surprise, his eyes roamed over the carved rum table, the heavily flowered drapes. A corner of his lip twitched uncontrollably. Occasionally he slept for an hour or two, then woke, startled beyond endurance that he had woken again for the hundreth time. His eyes would fix upon some flowers, some stitching in the quilt and dilate, opening with astonishment at the endless pattern of matter. An infinity of zigzagging of flowers, stitches, curtains, petals, blankets, embroidery, glasses, dust, pills and pillows filled his soul as if he would never see enough of the sheer and plain matter of existence. Thus he passed through the last three days of his life.
When his family was with him, he fell into an hypnotic retelling of his marriage with Maria. "Jesus knows how much I loved her and cared for her." He flogged them with this memory. He exhorted them beyond their patience. But he was weak. His story dribbled out like senile mutterings. The language was a fossil, though he remained devoted to it up to the hour of his death.
That last hour he slept, a calm baby-like sleep. The balls of his cheeks were florid. He was partially sitting, humped up on two pillows, and his head had fallen on his left shoulder. His small red lips pursed and danced like cherries while his breath escaped with a contented wheezing. Ricardo thought he looked so ludicrous that he must be innocent. He summoned the family. They came promptly, decorously. Luis held his hands clasped in front of him as if he were before a pulpit. The señor's wife stood uncertainly with her arms hanging by her side. Juanita stood next to her mother and waited for her to tell her what to do. Her brother and sister stood also with an air of pious expectation and looked not at their father, but somewhere on the pillow to the left of him as if they had decided that the place of death would occur there.
The afternoon rains started. The sky turned dark and darker until the rain was released. It spread across the windows, beat on the roof and ran down the sides of the building. The room was enclosed in rain and the lights lowered to a twilight gray.
Father Ferenza bent over Señor Mendore and gave him the last rites while the doctor stood apart with the air of one who has been ousted from his position by circumstances. Ricardo stood by the window and listened to the rain. Its sound enveloped the room and spread its gray color everywhere.
Suddenly Señor Mendore's eyes flew open. They became glassy and brittle, a point of horny penetration that rested on each object in the room with monomaniacal energy. They dug their way into the surrounding space as if they intended to uncover something which lay buried beneath the air. The family stood piously by his bedside. His eyes rested upon them, one by one, as if seeing them for the first time rather than the last. They looked back passively and calmly,determined not to be caught by surprise by anything death might do. Then his fingers began to make a movement on his sheet as if they were drumming on the top of a table. The movement made a scratching sound. His children were dismayed by the noise. The sound went on for a full five minutes, forming a litany with Father Ferenza's prayers. The señor looked at his family with his yellow, horny stare, intense, intent, prolonged beyond endurance. His eyes dug into space and cut squares into it. His wife and children looked back with mild curiosity, wondering why he looked at them, his hands gripped his sheet tensely at this last pattern of existence. His family, not sure if he were dead yet uncertain what to do, waited patiently to be told.
Ricardo turned away.
Father Ferenza stood up and motioned that it was over. The señor's family broke into movement as if they had been released from paralysis. His wife went over to the bed and put her husband's arms under the blanket. His son, Luis, closed his eyes.
Ricardo picked up his hat and went outside to wait for Father Ferenza. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still low with clouds. Some sun came through them in patches of watery yellow. Ricardo sat down in the garden. The stone bench was wet and he felt chilled as the dampness went through his clothes and reached his body. He kept his hat on his lap and turned its brim around and around in his hands.
Roses predominated. The sweet odor lay thickly in the air with the wet of the rain. It was the only element which suffused the garden. The fountain had been turned down. The birds had gone. It was a stilled garden.
The sun made repeated attempts to come out. It blew up into light several times and then declined into shadow. Late twilight developed, and the day passed into night.
Ricardo thought of Señor Mendore, how he used his goatee beard as a pointer when he wished to emphasize something, how he pursed his red lips with contentment at his own sayings. He was unlikable. The hours with him had passed in a state of painful constraint. The blinds were always drawn in his room and the air was always gray. He would lecture on the medicinal effects of the sun, and his eyes would contract painfully when the blinds were up. He was a braggart. He said he believed that every man had a worth for God, but Ricardo found that it was uncomfortable for him to venture his own opinion in his presence. "Of course, you may be right," he would say in a hoarsely gratuitous manner, but his yellow eyes would contract at anyone else's opinions.
Ricardo looked about the garden. Forms came through the twilight, struggling to hold their identity against the night: the marble fountain, the butter-yellow heads of the tearoses; but the trunk of a tree had already dissolved into the dark immensity, and as the night grew the only living thing was the odor of the roses, a painful sweet smell of loveliness. Ricardo spread the fingers of his hand and looked down at them and thought, "I lost no one who was dear to me. What has gone from me?" He looked at the night through the spaces of his fingers.
Father Ferenza came down through the stone archway. Ricardo started to get up, but the padre motioned to him to remain sitting and he seated himelf too. Father Ferenza shook his head with dismay and said to Ricardo, "He was a difficult man to like. Do not blame yourself." Ricardo shook his head with assent, but he was sorry that it was so. Father Ferenza patted his thigh sympathetically. It struck Ricardo that Father Ferenza had said what he had only to relieve him. "But you yourself did not find it difficult to like him?" he asked.
Father Ferenza shrugged his shoulders as if to say that his feelings did not matter. It was the only self-effacing gesture Ricardo had ever seen him make and he missed its meaning in the plethora of Father Ferenza's theatrical ones which he had become accustomed to. "I was his priest," Father Ferenza said, "I was not his wife or his child. I could afford to like him."
Ricardo thought Father Ferenza was being ironical with him, but Father Ferenza insisted, "Sí, it is true," sensing Ricardo's disbelief. "When people must combat each other for their lives, the temperament of a man may be fatal. Nothing is wasted between human beings, no gesture, no word, no ridicule, no caress. Everything is added into the totality of the combat." He looked at the garden through his rimless glasses as if amazed at the procedure of nightfall. "But, I, as a priest, in a sense disinherited from the human race, am free to love it, to give to it the love that each human being wishes to give it."
The note of personal decline was struck. Somewhere in a dark corner of the garden a bird piped in loneliness. Its note struck through the odor of the roses and then sank into some dismal depth of itself. The night grew cold for the season, and winter mingled with the smell of summer.
"Every man wishes to love, Ricardo," Father Ferenza said, "and he must find the way for himself. This is my way. It is the way out of the human race and into the human race." Ricardo listened as if he were listening to his own heartbeat. In the dull light Father Ferenza saw that Ricardo paid minute attention to his words. The attitude piqued him. "Come," he said hastily, and stood up in his autocratic fashion.
Ricardo was annoyed. He wanted to linger, but Father Ferenza was already out of the garden and they walked home rapidly. Ricardo could not detain him and in his irritability he said accusingly, "But you will not miss him."
Father Ferenza stopped under a lamplight and squinted at him over his glasses. "Qué es?" he said. "Has he become your possession that you hoard affection for him?"
Ricardo stuck his hands in his pockets.
"What is it you wish for this man?"
Ricardo shrugged his shoulders. His feelings felt foolish to him. "I do not wish anything for him."
They turned into a street and continued walking. "Then what is you wish of me?" Ricardo did not answer, and Father Ferenza's irritation did not pass.
He said to Ricardo, "Did you never see a man die?"
"Sí," Ricardo said. "I saw a man gored by the bull. He died on the sand, and I saw a man kicked by a horse. He died in my brother's house. But I never saw a man die while his family was about him."
Father Ferenza felt devastated. He is a dolt and always has been one, he said to himself. He thought of a dozen remarks he could make, sorting out from his bushel of consolations the one that would suit Ricardo, but Ricardo's face hung towards him in the night like a moon twisted out of shape, tortured by its own light. Father Ferenza took his hand and held it between his own. "Come," he said, "it is getting late."
This time Ricardo found the courage to detain him. He had something he had wanted to say for a long time, and this night he would say it at last. "I have been thinking, Padre," he said in his excessively modest voice, "for some time now I have been thinking how it would be if I were to become a priest. It is as you say. Each man must find his own way to love. For me, I cannot go back into the old habits of life, and yet I must find a way." So it has come to this, Father Ferenza thought, not entirely with surprise, for he had divined this possibility in the gathering force of Ricardo's passion. His temper craved service. He was molded in the posture of humility, the bent knee, the hanging head of shame, and had a veritable talent for humility. He would serve, he would serve endlessly, he would hang his own self on a cross for a beggar's whim. Work and service would save Ricardo. Free to pity, recognized as a member of that class elected to pity, his compassion could free itself. Yet all the qualities that would succeed in Ricardo as a priest repelled Father Ferenza. For him the priesthood required mentality. It was the conquest of the mind over the soul, that nascent, unruly possession of man, not the other way around.
Passion by itself was awed by the distraught, it was sickened and driven by the desperate, and eventually succumbed to the hypnosis of superstition which it cultivated as an antidote. How many good priests had he seen enter the profession with the passion of the calling and had ended with their souls in tortured darkness, believing in the darkness, praying to the darkness. They spoke with pride of the mystery of life and resolved religion as a cry in the wilderness. Mystery was repugnant to Father Ferenza; he distrusted it as hopelessness, and whatever was hopelessness could not be the divinity of Christ to him.
No, Father Ferenza thought, as if he were saving the Church from a threatening enemy, he would not let Ricardo become a priest. Ricardo floated on the dark water of mystery. It was the mystery of himself which gave heat to his ardor.
But what! what! Father Ferenza thought. Ricardo shifted his feet burdensomely in the silence. Father Ferenza put his arm around his shoulder. "Sí," he said, "each man must find his own way, but in the priest's way you lose many other ways." He guided Ricardo back into walking and gave to his step and voice a quality of casualness as if they were deciding what suit Ricardo should wear. "How would it be if you should become a rezandero. Then you could do the work of the priest and still be free to live as you wish." Ricardo was disappointed. It had been a momentous act for him to speak of this ambition to Father Ferenza and he had hoped it would please him. He longed for the dignity of the profession, to emulate Father Ferenza in this calling. For a moment he had thought that he could achieve it, but he submitted to Father Ferenza's counsel and adjusted his hopes to it.
Julio and Felícita were on the road nine days. During that time Felícita never asked Julio when the journey would end. She bent her will to an unknown future and tried not to think about it, for when she did, the future seemed to abound in hazard. But as they travelled more and more north, further and further from any point she could call home she became morbidly afraid and little by little she surrendered herself to the jogging motion of the wagon and the fear that crept into her soul.
The land rose very steeply, very high, climbing hour after hour without any sign that it would turn down. They looked at a canyon below. They sat above the peaks and saw the clouds leave trails around the mountains. And still the road rose, going higher and higher until they were surrounded by the mountains with their impact of color: a story of russet and green and brown. The peaks rose infinitely, cut gorges, chasms and canyons forever. They could not see behind or beyond them. They were entombed in the mountains, pounded into the brown dust.
Suddenly, with the treacherous autocracy of a mountain that rules the land, the road turned down. Felícita heard Julio let out his breath with relief. They travelled for half a day and the mountains rose above them. They went down into a valley, and she saw that Julio held the reins easily again. Like a bad dream passing into unreality, the mountains dwindled into flat country.
It seemed to her that by now they must have passed out of the land known as Mexico and had travelled into a country for which no name existed in her mind. She did not know where she was, in what district, in what country, in what part of the world or if more world would exist when they would wake up in the morning and resume travelling. She sat rigidly on top of the wagon and watched every shape on the earth's surface for familiarity, breathing hard when a strange animal appeared on the road. Her fear gave her eyes a sharp greediness. They shifted and consumed shapes as they tested each object for inherent danger. She remembered from her childhood a story about the land of the dead that lay somewhere about. The story came back to her with the chilling closeness of possibility. Every day she sat rigidly and watched the land for signs of her whereabouts and her hands became cold, her breath became short and unfamiliar, a thing she could not rely on anymore.
She could not eat, her stomach felt as small as the head of a pin, and her mouth was dry, without spit, useless for food. She did not ask Julio where they were going because she knew that he could not tell her. Her fear became a matter of temperament, a quality which entered into her being and changed her forever. Like an animal whose coloring changes with the environment, Felícita shed the characteristics of her nature one by one the further north they went, until she did not know herself anymore, and it seemed to her that the only one who did know her, who could tell her who she was, and by whom she was still Felícita Donajero born in Netzahualcoyotl, was her husband. She made no physical move towards him, yet loathingly she clung to him more each day. For Julio this unbending confirmed his belief that the city would have made her unfit as a wife, had they stayed.
Occasionally they came into a village and she listened attentively to the speech of the inhabitants, noting where it was familiar and where it was not. Formerly her lack of understanding would have turned to ridicule of others, now it gave the sharp edge to her sense of strangeness and turned into fear. Having never been fluent in Spanish, she passed through the villages silently, dependent upon Julio to fetch her water and food, dependent upon him for information. Almost deliberately, she intensified the mystery and the danger of her whereabouts, leaning upon Julio with a perversely softened femininity.
The sight of children relieved her. She had never been fond of children, but the sight of them brought her back to the realization that the men and the women whom she saw about her, who looked at her with such dark, humble, yet arrogant curiosity, were husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. In the children was the tale of domesticity, the only story she could remember from Netzahualcoyotl. Sitting on top of the wagon in a strange village, she would pick up her baby and spread him out on her lap as if she were assuring these strangers of her own place in the world. The child was as sickly as ever. Now almost three he looked like a baby of a year and a half. He could stand and walk, but rarely did. His face was long and his cheeks were yellow and flat. His fingers were small and inept. He never approached another child to play or to fight; he watched his toys taken by other children with ineffectual eyes and a faint interest in what they would do with them. He seemed content to sit and to stay alive. But when Felícita spread him out on her lap in a foreign place she felt as if he were a talisman. The wants of a baby cut deeply with every society and she knew that through him she had a claim to human benefits.
Julio begrudged the child. In the manner of his native economy, the child was care and an expense without hope of recompense. He would not live to be a worker. Nor could Juan be made into one. Taken out of the city Juan became as ineffectual as his infant brother. Throughout the trip he had been useless. He sat in the back of the wagon with his knees drawn up and his head pulled down. Julio had thought Juan would be dependable since he had done well in the city. The boy had a shrewd and agile look in his eyes and his voice, when he sold his papers, was blended of whines, forlorn requests and a childish, chattering flattery. Felícita had seen that he appealed, and they had counted on his trade as a regular thing. But now they saw that he would never be made into a farmer. His work was in his voice. It massaged the ear, it pleaded with a customer, it amused with a quick drop into laughter, it flattened out into a cry. He performed; he needed the audience of careless people at night. He was hopeless on the trip. Time and again he asked when they would go back. Julio's square face bloated out along his cheeks. He felt that Juan asked this question deliberately to taunt him. He had said that they would leave la Ciudad to buy farm land, for how could they be farmers if they stayed in the city? He had announced that he had had enough of la Ciudad. Selling bread was a woman's job. The city gave Felícita evil ways. She did her work in the room in a silent, tight-lipped manner, walking on silent, bare feet, and pausing only to look at him with hard, removed eyes. He was flattened against the wall and could not tell when she looked at him whether she looked at him or behind him.
Juan and Hernán too had taken on the ways of the city. They stayed out all night like preying animals who live in the dark, and their mother roamed the streets like a dog scenting the pavement for food. Only he was left in the room. He remembered with an angry and yet satisfied humor that when he was a farmer and had had money for women Felícita had been content to wait for him at home. Now that there were few women he could afford his wife felt safe to leave him in loneliness. Sí, it was so, that the way to control a wife was with jealousy of other women.
The first time Julio had gone out to find a woman and had found his pockets empty, he was irritated but laid the desire aside for another time with the goodwill of a man who did not expect his oldest habits to be interrupted. He took his lust for granted, he did not quarrel with it and it had never given him an inconvenient moment. Even when there was no longer money to accommodate his appetite he did not foresee danger. With autocratic assumption in his rights as a husband he took Felícita when he wanted her. He felt nothing but the backbone of resignation, but since it was not a reciprocal feeling he lusted for but the demonstration of his power, Julio suffered no loss unless Felícita absented herself.
One night he waited for her to come home. The hour had become unusually late. It was two or three hours past midnight. He could not remember when he had last heard the church bells ring. He drank tequila to pass the time and after a while lay down on his mat to sleep. Less than an hour passed when he woke up. He cursed Felícita and thought that never in his life had his wife not been home when he wanted her. He got up and left the room, banging the door behind him without bothering to lock it, and went to a house that he was familiar with. Gruffly he remembered that he had spent good money here and regretted the times that he had done so out of mere largess of feeling.
The house was recessed in a court, attached on both sides by similar houses that formed a square around the court. The buildings were in old Spanish stucco style, dominated by arches that ornamented the wall enclosing the court, the terraces and the doors. Small wrought iron lanterns hung from each doorway. Built by the ambitions of respectabililty, at night the scene was precious. But in the daytime descent was evident. Then the shabbiness was brazen, almost self-satisfied and self-infatuated.
He rang the bell and waited. A few seconds later the door was flung open with the gusto of a raucous welcome. A woman stood in the doorway with a smile of painful and extreme sex appeal. She wore no other makeup but an intense amount of lipstick. Her black peasant blouse was pulled so low on her chest that only the nipples of her pendulous breasts were covered. "Julio Donajero," she laughed as if this was something silly. There was an aura about her of a perpetual and giddy embarrassment, artful, usable, sincere.
He leaned in through the doorway drunkenly. Somewhere in his brain, like a secret, he remembered that he had no money, but contrary to his feelings, with a cunning sense of the appropriate emotion, he dropped his demeanor of self-justification and, throwing his body about sheepishly, ambled into the room. In the cramped time of three or four minutes he performed the mechanics of a wooer. They stopped at a door to a room that led off the foyer and the woman held her hand out for her money.
Julio drew in his breath. Then he waved his hand nonchalantly and said he would pay her later. Her eyes snapped shut like the clasp on a pocketbook. She drew herself away and looked at him like a suspicious housewife at a bad bargain. "Cuando?" she said.
Julio kept his arm around her waist. He waved his other hand again. "Sí. I will pay," he asserted. "Tomorrow. The next day."
She took his hand off her waist and said, "Then you come back. Tomorrow. The next day."
For a moment he felt only disbelief, then a volcanic rage. He struck her with his closed fist on her chin. Her eyes flew open like beads in a doll's head and she fell to the floor.
He left the house and walked home quickly. He thought, with morbid hatred, that if Felícita were not home he would find her and kill her. Never had a husband been treated this way by his wife. His feeling of injustice was so intense, he spoke out loud, muttering invectives to himself with a drunken slur. He made up his mind that from this night forth Felícita would stay in the room where she belonged. His pattern of life had become unpredictable, and even his body had been broken of its habits and comforts.
He stumbled through the dark streets, making loud rancorous complaints. He turned down one dark alley after another, not clearly going home, not clearly staying out. The sidewalks became narrow. The streets stretched out behind him long and lonely. The hair along his neck bristled as if he sensed danger, as if the street were forming itself into a human being behind him. He strained his ears to hear a sound, but his head felt thick as if a bag were over it. He could hear nothing, but he smelled the breath of a pursuer, he felt the eyes of a hunter measuring him. He sprang forward and began to run, lurching forward, arms splaying out, almost falling. Not till he came into the street of his own home, did he stop to catch his breath. Then, out of habit, he curled his hands into fists and felt the stone-like strength of his upper arms.
Julio did not go out at night anymore. When he wanted to drink, he bought his liquor in the daytime and drank by himself at night. Increasingly, Felícita and the children stayed out later and later. His loneliness enraged him. The habit of command was useless in an empty room.
Peremptorily, after a month, he made the decision to leave the city. "I have had enough of woman's work. It is time to go back to the farm."
Felícita squinted her eyes and did not bother to ask him what farm. Nor did Julio think about it until they were seated on top of the wagon, for up until then he thought he was going back to Netzahualcoyotl, in spite of the fact that there was no money left with which to buy back the farm. That he could not return unless he had money, he regarded as the petty intrusion of a devil, a stupid god who did not count for much and who got in your way.
Almost royally he intended not to pay this god any heed. But the morning on which they set out, sitting in their wagon in a brilliant early sun, Julio leaned over, flicked the horse with his whip and, as if his shoulders were crushed beneath the weight of his delusions, he sank into himself and turned the wagon north.
No one showed surprise. Not even Julio. It was what everyone had expected, even Julio. They went north for nine days, and Juan and Felícita shrank steadily in the immensity of the monotonous hours in the jogging wagon. Along lonely tracts of sand glowing mauve in the twilight sun they looked like the last people of an ancient race crossing the rim of the earth in bitter exile.
On the ninth day they arrived at a small, industrial city, a dirty, ungainly city. It was hard to tell where people lived. The streets were filled with shops and factories, only some small white houses were on the perimeter. The dominant structure was the blackened factory that extended for whole square blocks with its parking lots. Here the streets were paved with cobblestones. Only the shopping center had sidewalks. The paved center of the town merged abruptly with the narrow, cobblestoned lanes. The rural and the metropolitan were pressed into close confinement and life made discontinuous jumps from one neighborhood to another. In the distance were the broad plains of the farmland surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Most of the land for miles around was sparsely populated and the city seemed like an acccidental knot of activity in an otherwise deserted valley.
They left the wagon outside the city and went by foot to inspect it. Felícita carried the baby in her arms. She walked behind Julio without curiosity or interest. Juan walked beside his father, hopping with excitement. Only decorum kept him from running ahead of his parents as he looked into the shop windows and the crowds with fiery pleasure, glad to be in a city again.
When they had gone through the business district several times, Julio told them to wait on a corner while he went to look for a room. After close to an hour he returned and told them he had found a place to live. Felícita wrapped the baby in her rebozo and they went back for the wagon. Julio drove it down the main street, the Avenida de los Extranjeros. At the northern extremity of the street just before the neighborhood made one of its collisional changes, he turned into a narrow, cobblestoned alley which they followed for half a mile. He stopped the wagon before a low three storied building that was made of flat boards whose sides were decorated with advertising posters. The house was one of identical houses built the length of both sides of a street that ran continuously until it ended in the country. All the houses were three stories, all were made of wooden boards, flattened against space, without ornament or depth except for the posters that were covered with obscene words and political messages. The sidewalk was a foot wide, the street was too narrow for two wagons to pass each other. Behind the houses was the black chimney of a factory. The sun was setting behind it and its silhouette was as sharp and flat as a piece of black cardboard.
They drew the wagon up in front of the house and began to unpack it. Felícita set the baby down on the floor and carried in their pots and utensils. Julio unrolled the mats and brought in the table and chairs. Then he and Juan left to stable the horse. Felícita was left alone.
The room was on the ground floor and the floor was made of packed earth. There were no curtains on the windows. She took out an old skirt from her roll of clothes and hung it over the back window that looked out over empty lots and the outline of the factory. Having shut out this sight, she unpacked the crucifix and hung it on a wall. Then she sat down in a chair and stared at it without prayer until Julio and Juan came home. They brought provisions with them. Julio portioned out the food and once more reckoned their future for them.
In the morning he took Juan with him to look for work. He had made up his mind that they would not be street vendors again, but it was not easy to find other kinds of work. Juan found a job before his father did, for the shrewd owner of a cheap jewelry store was quick to see the appeal in his childish eyes and presumptuous smile. It was Juan who told them that the name of the city was El Lara, and that they were only a hundred miles from the United States, emphasizing this fact with its implication for the tourist trade.
It took Julio another week to find work in the factory across the lot from their house and when he did no one questioned the permanence of this new life.
Felícita never went into the business district and had very little to do with the town beyond her room and the street in which they lived. By herself, one morning, after they had been in El Lara for half a year, she took the northern road out of the city and walked until she came to a small Indian village. She was not surprised, for she approached the world with the expectation that it was thus that it was really populated. She found out on what days the villagers met for market and twice a week walked the eight miles out to the village and the eight miles back to their room with her purchases rolled into a canvas bag on her head. Except for the two market days, the village was deserted, sunbaked and shrivelled as a heap of ruins, but on Tuesdays and Fridays its streets were packed with stalls, the farmers brought their live produce to be sold, chickens shrieked and were slaughtered and eaten in the streets, the villagers brought their woven blankets and baskets and ropes of strung jade which they wore around their necks and sold from their bodies. Felícita could speak little of their language and never came to trust them, but among their wares of hemp and straw, live poultry and corn she knew her way, and when she stopped to bargain for a purchase her tongue became shrewd and familiar.
At first she attended to the marketing circumspectly, but within a few weeks' time she brought to it a zeal grounded in an instinct for survival. She bought flour and corn meal and baked her own breads, she bought live fowl and slaughtered them at home, she bought yard goods and made clothes from them. A sense of direction took shape in her mind. It was personal and fanatic. She worked very hard and saved every manner of little thing, a piece of thread, pins found in the road, an empty eyeglass case, a child's toy or a comb, and stored them away with a vague notion of their future use.
She became petty and harangued over trifles. She would not let Julio throw away his old sandals, but rewove them. When Juan took to smoking, she scavenged the streets for butts for him so that he would not buy cigarettes.
Juan was impatient with her, and in the manner of a cacique held her ways in contempt. Felícita made no defense.She could not think of one. She merely shrugged her shoulders with scorn and did not bother to answer him.
For Juan, these days, she had little affection. More and more he was not a child of hers. He walked in a way she had never seen a boy walk, almost on his toes, his heels barely touching the ground. His shoulders swung with an aggressive swagger and although he was only thirteen his skin was becoming rough and he wore his black hair straight back and short. He never wore a serape and rarely a sombrero. His lips were still soft and he protruded them in a deliberate manner. Juan was small, his shoulders were delicate and his thighs were like well shaped models of a man made wholly without muscle. But his face was handome, and when he smiled there was a burst of sensuality. He looked at everyone through light brown eyes waiting to be flattered. He had the look of a sexually-wise gnome, ridiculous in his cheap imitation of adulthood, coarse, frightening and enticing in the imitation.
Felícita had never seen the shape of such a person before. Sexuality she knew as power, brutality, loneliness, but never as flattery. More than Julio, she distrusted Juan, for she and Julio still had a past in common. But this, her third son, she knew would bring home no wife to her as a companion.
She knew too that it was as a result of her economy that Julio now had money for women. She resented his absences, but only in the way of reckoning rights that were due her whether she wanted them or not. On nights when she was left alone, she never went to bed until he came home. She waited for him with the rationale of the grudge and felt her feelings grow into hatred, massed round with memories. Then her youngest child would stumble across the room, an aspect of the human that had been torn from her, and her jealousy would be distracted by the sight of him. Her emotional life went in a worn cycle: for her jealousy was an inescapable condition of being a woman, and self-effacement in being a mother was protection against the violence of a jealousy she could not appease or diminish.
When Julio did come home she would call upon her right to preach to him, but often she remained silent at the sight of his relaxed, drunken jaw, the sound of his snoring, the replenishment of his manhood that would start its cycle again in the morning. She listened to his grunts and furry belches that released an odor of cheap whiskey; and she nourished her jealousy in silence.
Never had she desired to lie down beside him, but in Netzahualcoyotl, reproach was traditional, it was part of the babble of feminity that filled every household. Only here, seeing him on a stranger soil, he was illuminated grotesquely in the light of alien feelings and reproach became meaningless. She had no female companions to share it with, so she kept silent. More and more, she surrounded herself with village ways. Not once did she visit the church in Santo Tomás Plaza, but walked the eight miles to Navarrete every Sunday to hear Mass, and often climbed up into the hills with the child on her back to bring corn and flowers to a shrine of Mary. Even to her neighbors, many of whom had come from villages themselves, she was an oddity.
But to Julio she had become mild and wise in her mildness. He did not reckon her mildness and silence as the straitened limits of endurance, but as the obedience which was the foundation of a good wife. He did not reckon the hazardous nature of virtue in extremis, and by the time they had been in El Lara half a dozen years he had become comfortable with the terms of living available to them.
For the most part, during the weekdays, overcome with hard work and hard rest, the town was quiet. Occasionally a drunkard staggered along the darkened Avenida de los Extranjeros. Glitter was confined to a few tavern lights along some of the side streets. But beginning with Friday the tourist influx swelled the population by a third. The main street became choked with traffic, luggage stood everywhere on the sidewalks in front of hotels, and restaurants that had been closed all week opened up. Peddlers and panderers appeared everywhere. A dozen men, some crippled, some blind, some beggars, some thieves, stood in the doorway of every store and watched the crowd for signs of fallibility.
Children descended in droves to beg, like hordes of mice nibbling at the goodwill that envelopes the atmosphere of tourist resorts. The side streets became arms of the main avenue, lit with stalls like cheap jewelry strung around the neck of the city. There was no one who did not make an extra peso between Friday and Sunday, and open profiteering passed with smiles and the conviviality of a holiday.
Sometimes Juan gave his father some jewelry to sell when he could. Julio often found that the holidaymakers, and even the local inhabitants, were amenable to any kind of sale. There was a note of excess and hilarity to the bargaining, although the buyer often looked peevish and the seller extended a steely affability. But contemptuous and obvious profit-making passed as a form of sociability, and in this way Julio found access to the social life around him. Often he found that people bought a brooch or a pair of earrings as if they were buying a piece of his face, the brooding darkness of his peasant eyes, the swarthiness of his Indian skin. Untouched by the sentiments he told them that, "Sí! it was true, he had made the earrings himself," or that he had found the brooch buried in a garden near the pyramids.
Even when he had nothing to sell he placed himself on a spot along the Avenida de los Extranjeros to watch the procession. On Saturday night one could sit on the curb in front of a store and drink. Sometimes when he got drunk someone would give him a few centavos and put him on a bus. Once when he had gone to sleep in the doorway of a store he woke up and found a blanket on him.
Life, energy, goodwill, sociability, avarice had an emotional timetable in El Lara. Rhythmically the town burst from a grimy, semi-depressed, industrial city into the glittering marketplace of a tourist stopover whose swollen crowds absorbed everyone into a pattern of jesting, watching, playing and calculating, parading sentiments that were driven into eddies of feverish clowning. The town was amused by its own deceit.
Though Julio was familiar with cities, it was in El Lara that he became a citizen of a metropolis, and after six years he did not regard the novelty of his status. Only fitfully, when he chanced to come home particularly late through the dark streets or when he accidentally found himself alone in the room, did a trembling seize him. It would come at first like a thickening of the air and he looked at objects as if through an opaque curtain. Sometimes he thought he heard a voice behind his neck and he became aware of listening for sounds. The air would become a gray jelly, thickening and shaking before his eyes, and the objects he looked at seemed arranged helter-skelter in the gray mold. There was no continuity of his visual sense and everything he saw, meticulous with familiarity, was strange. Then his hands would grow cold and his shoulders would shake. Sometimes he trembled visibly and acutely, sometimes inwardly and silently, but always without control. He could do nothing to bring himself to stop, and the trembling only ceased when someone knocked on the door or something diverted his attention.
Julio believed this was a sickness brought on by the work in the factory. From the beginning he did not like it. He did not like being shut indoors all day. He had never spent a whole day within a room and the absence of continual sun and air made his body cry with fatigue. He was alarmed at the power of environmental pressure and his body's lack of accommodation to change. His eyes grew sleepy in the yellow darkness of the factory, and the continual din of the machines penetrated to the tissues of his nervous system. Weeks and weeks went by and he could not get used to it. He exerted himself terribly and in the end made a nervewracking adjustment.
Another disturbance marred his life. He often had dreams which he could not remember. In the morning he would have a sense of turmoil, but all that was left of the dream was a bad mood and a film over his eyes. There was no content, no memory. His mind was like a hole, an empty plate from which the food had disappeared. Julio was not used to moodiness and this sickness at awakening left him a stranger with himself.
But he made good money and lived nearly as close to the comforts he liked best. These comforts were not merely hedonistic; they had the density of values of status and of his connection to life. His right to many women, to as many as he could afford, was traditional. So that when he thought about his old life it seemed to him that he was as well off now as he had ever been. After nine years of being absent from his farm, he felt that he was well suited to the life of a city.
But one day he had an accident. It was a warm summer morning, very early and still gray, though a dawn sun beat through clouds that were low and thick.
It was Tuesday and as always on market day, Felícita had left before Julio was up. He rose and took the breakfast she set for him. The night had been warm and his neck was wet with perspiration. The sky was oppressive. It hung about the windows and threatened to crush the roof. As he ate his breakfast he remembered that he must have dreamed again during the night, for his head was full of a thick incoherence. Every now and then he thought he caught hold of a part of his dream, but it slithered into the hole in his mind. There was no content, no figures, only a knowledge that there had been something there during the night. He thought he knew what he had dreamed about, that it was when he was a small boy carried on his father's shoulders and the world jogged and juggled about him. His father bent to avoid a branch and the world tilted forward. But it was not that that he remembered, for all he felt in the morning was motion, a jogging motion of his body, an inconstancy in the movement of his hands, loss of control over his legs. But he remembered nothing, he had made up the story to fit his feelings.
He felt piqued that Felícita was not home and in retaliation ate little of the breakfast she made for him. He left for work still hungry, but paid no attention to this feeling.
The way to the factory led him across the lot behind their room, about a half mile's walk. The dawn hanging over the empty area surrounded him with the feeling of thick space. He felt as if he were suffocating in the clouds. He coughed jerkily to clear his throat. The sun palpitated through the gray air. It quivered like a sick heart.
Bus after bus passed him on the road, carrying workers to other factories. Some turned in at the parking lot in front of him, sweeping two enormous lights over his face as they moved across his path. Figures ran through the open space through the milky wetness into the building which swallowed them like a whale.
For the first time Julio could not control his revulsion. He refused to move. The air became too thick. He lifted his legs with great effort and pushed himself against the tide of grayness that pushed him back. The small trailer café on the parking lot stood out dimly like an object at twilight. The buses moved without noise. The people ran soundlessly. Everything went further and further away. He could not hear them. Slowly it got darker and he could not see them. One by one his senses turned off as if little by little he were going to seep. He could not remember if he had left his bed that morning. He had been dreaming. He was always dreaming, and now he would know what it was he was dreaming. This time he would stay asleep and find out. He closed his eyes, but the sun came out and instead of the darkness of sleep he was immersed in a red that was a color neither of sleep nor of waking. A silhouette stood in the center of it, the black outline of a man of power; vision and identification and yearning blurred and Julio ran towards the black figure.
"Julio," someone shouted his name urgently with a long ascending Ju-u-u like a wing that opened up over his head. There was warning in the sound. He raised his head, smelled the air, and the sun burst through the sky and rolled toward him like a flaming ball. "Julio," someone screamed. The wind rushed into a tunnel and the sun crashed into him.
Late that afternoon Felícita walked down the road. She carried her stock of purchases on her head. Bent by its weight, her steps were careful and monotonous, so that one could not tell whether she had a source of energy or was endlessly tired. The boy walked alongside her. His face was very long, almost attenuated beyond expression, but there was nothing else in his manner to attract attention. He seemed to be enduring.
The sun was on their left and low. The day had started out as all her marketing days started. They woke before the dawn and set out to walk while it was still cool. The morning was cloudier than usual, but Felícita regarded this as lucky, for it was cool and they did not have to stop for water, which made the travelling easier. But by the time they arrived at Navarrete the day had swelled with heat. The boy whined, for he did not like to be warm and she had to shelter him every so often in a store. She delayed their return until the sun set a bit so that she would not have to carry him as well as her pack. She knew she would be late for supper, but this gave her satisfaction.
They passed the factory and she could see that many of the workers were already gone. The parking lot was almost empty. There was a half-shift that stayed on after darkness and from the few remaining cars and the slant of the sun she reckoned that Julio's shift had ended.
Automatically she adjusted the pack on her head as she braced herself for his anger at her lateness. The boy walked beside her, neither firmly nor infirmly, beyond the possibility of complaint. He knew nothing of the world outside of Felícita and his monotonous gait alongside hers expressed the air of his narrow life.
Felícita turned in at their house and opened the door, but Julio was not there. Instead, Juan sprang from his mat where he had been impatiently waiting for her.
Felícita swung the pack off her head and narrowed her eyes. "Qué es?" she asked with subdued scorn, sensing his irritability. "Do you take your father's place?" Juan was now eighteen and affected the manner of an equal with his parents. He took out a cigarette and lit it with another expression of impatience.
Felícita turned away. Everything about Juan set her at variance with him.
He was a new kind of person, his gestures were new to her, his emotions were new. He did not become angry, he stood alert with impatience and his body was a suspended expression of annoyance. He put out the match with a wave of his hand. "There has been an accident," he said, but he did not say it as straightforwardly as he intended to. His voice hesitated. He was aware of misfortune. "I was at work this morning and a man from the factory came and told me a bus ran over Papa. He is at the hospital."
Felícita turned around and stared at him. Juan did not know what else to say. He had delivered himself of the facts, but her silence weakened him and he said, "Do you want to see him? I can take you to the hospital." Without a word, Felícita took the boy by the hand and walked out the door. Juan followed and directed her to the center of the town. The hospital was on a side street off the main avenue. It was a low, red brick building, two stories high. Felícita entered the lobby and was told to wait for the doctor. She stood at the desk and held the little boy tightly by the hand.
She stared at her naked, dusty feet reflected in the polished floor, and the little boy stared at nothing. Juan leaned his elbow on the desk and bit at the cuticle on his thumb.
"Señora Donajero," the doctor said. She moved her eyes towards him without greeting. "Your son has told you that there has been an accident?" He tried to smile. "But there is nothing to be alarmed at. Fortunately, only his legs were run over." Felícita's eyes shifted, signally nothing. The doctor wavered. "Sí," he said bravely, "it is a misfortune, but considering the manner in which he was struck it is not a bad misfortune. As it is, he has lost but one leg."
Felícita stepped back from him abruptly, needing space. "Is it so?" she whispered hoarsely.
"Sí, Mama, it is true," Juan said. "They have removed the left leg."
"Es muerte," Felícita whispered and crossed herself. "Es muerte," she screamed and her eyes swam with tears for what fate had done with her. She went into Julio's room and sat down by his bed. In seconds she calculated their future. It lay crippled on the bed in front of her and now looked to her for support. "They have told you?" he said. His voice trembled, for he saw that an issue had been closed between them.
"Sí," she hissed, "they have told me," she said with fury and looked at him like a thorny stranger. The skin on his jaw hung loosely disconnected from the bone beneath. Felícita felt, with revulsion, that she could lift it off his face with her fingers. His brown eyes lay flat with shock as he tried to judge his new position. He knew what his worth was now and, with simple peevishness, was resigned. He shrugged his shoulders. "Do as you wish."
The tide of combat in him was running out and Felícita felt its withdrawal. "Do as I wish?" she laughed. "I wish to do nothing."
Julio's chin jerked convulsively. The shock in his eyes expanded like a wound through which his fear bled. "You will not leave me here to die?" he whispered.
Felícita watched him greedily. "Mi esposo," she said with a crass tenderness. "Mi esposo," she laughed.
Julio raised himself on his elbows and stared at her. "Felícita,you will not leave me here to die?"
"Mi esposo," she laughed. She folded her arms on her bosom and ate him with her black eyes. "Mi esposo," she hissed.
Felícita came only one time to visit Julio in the hospital. This was to tell him that she had found work as a laundress in a private house.
"And what will you do, Julio, when you get better?"
He winced. Greedily, but still with apprehension, she watched him collapse. She herself went every morning to the house of Señora de Sejos with dread and loathing. Every morning she walked through the center of town, out to its southern perimeter where there was a flock of well-kept houses with gardens and walls. Though she left in the predawn when the streets were deserted, she kept her rebozo drawn across her face like a mask against foreign sensations. Julio had been in the hospital for three months and she was by herself and foreign to everyone. El Lara was still the end of the world for her and she remembered, more persistently now, how far from home she was. The thought struck her disastrously. She sensed in all that lonely distance that she could not traverse by herself, or convince Julio to do with her, her vulnerability to death by simple decay; and she could not escape the feeling that the process had begun. Each morning she made her way cautiously as if one misstep would precipitate her over the edge of existence. Though the city was innocent in the half-alive light, she premeditated doom, and in consequence stuck savagely to her old ways. She wore an amulet of Tlaloc around her neck. As she walked through the town she rubbed it feverishly between her thumb and forefinger and spoke to it in Nahuatl.
Her hair had become iron gray and a swelling in her back had settled into a permanent hump. Since the relinquishment of her connection to Navarrete her posture had become elderly, her carriage conveyed the absent-mindedness of those who are loosely connected to life. She always kept her head lowered to the ground as if she was looking for something and she walked with a flatfooted, exhausted shuffle.
She looked at nothing as she went through the town. She saw nothing but the step in front of her. If her mind was anywhere it was in the past of her girlhood, when her hair was thick and long and her bosom was barely there. If she felt a wet cobblestone underfoot it reminded her of the slippery stones in the village of her youth when she went to the well for water and the water splashed from her pails over the cobblestones and tickled her bare toes. She walked barefooted then on cobblestone streets in the dawn and the sun lay on her shoulders where she balanced two buckets and dreamed of days to come. When she was alone with these memories they overpowered her and she smilingly allowed the unreal to pass for the real. But she knew enough not to tell anyone about these small slips in time, and never spoke to anyone about her past life. The street was deserted. She pointed her toe on a stone like a young girl. The little boy never minded; he never minded anything; he kept his hand in hers and that was his sole requirement. The sun was on her cheek and she breathed in the wonderful air. Then the house of Señora de Sejos came into view around the road and she was stricken with grief.
She arranged her emotions for the day, for her basic shrewdness never left her. Señora de Sejos was a plump, chatty individual who was nonplussed by her wealth and afraid of her servants. She asked their opinions about her table stettings and furniture, if they would run an errand and when they would be available for service. Rhythmically her goodwill broke down and she shouted at them that she was mistress of the house and that it was she who gave the orders.
Felícita displayed avid interest when her opinion was sought and appeared pleasingly guilty when Señora de Sejos was in temper. She produced the emotions asked for, but for the rest of the time she accustomed her mind to blankness. When she left the house at dusk she could remember nothing that had happened during the day.
She begrudged Julio his stay in the hospital, since there was nothing wrong with his health that the hospital could mend. Although the doctor had told her at the time of her visit that his respiratory tract was inflamed and that his pressure was high, to her eyes he seemed to be the same as always except that he was missing a leg and preferred silence to talk. This last she calculated as a more significant change than the loss of his leg. She eyed him suspiciously and wondered what means he would take now to establish his authority. But if Julio meant to combat her, it was with an obliquity that was beyond her imagination to predict, for it was Julio who rejected his authority. He had no use for it any longer, nor for his strength which he allowed to diminish without pride or care. For weeks after he came home from the hospital he sat all day in the room by a window and looked out. Felícita left the little boy in his care and together they sat and watched the slant of the sun down the alleyway of the long street. When Felícita argued with him to find work he shrugged his shoulders and pointed to his missing leg. "Who will give a cripple work?" he said without pity or regret. There was a note of hypocritical expediency in his voice as if he were exploiting the advantages of weakness. "Sí," he said, "one must see the signs of disease and old age when they are upon you," and with a craven stoicism he ceased to struggle. His honor forced him to admit that Felícita had fared better than he had, and he made himself comfortable with the lesser role. With the sense of an evasive victory, Felícita accepted the authority of the family and shouldered the burden of supporting them. Eventually Julio found work. Sometimes he sold lottery tickets or cheap candy and sometimes he begged. He used his money for drink, which he retained as his last privilege. He no longer went to the brothels and taverns but drank by himself, preserving this last habit of male indulgence, which he now exercised wantonly, stumbling in the streets and attracting an attention which he came to crave.
He spent a great deal of his time out on the street, usually on some corner along the Avenida de los Extranjeros where he could pick up stray coins or hear of stolen goods which had to be passed from hand to hand. He spent hours standing on his one leg, his armpits slung heavily over his crutches. He looked as if he knew secret comforts of deformity.
The passerbys were habitual. Some called to him by his name, some by the nickname, el estropeado. Julio himself often referred to his deformity, for he saw that men were embarrassed by it and their embarrassment made their sympathy available. They felt for him a loathing pity and a guilt that they could not sympathize freely and they indulged him in drinks and pennies. He smiled when he referred to himself, joked, sometimes jerked the stump of his thigh and made a piquant remark. They were alarmed and caught off balance by his open references and he gave them a showy display of his lameness. He swung his body between his crutches. The crutches caught in cracks in the sidewalk. He himself looked embarrassed. He was clumsy. He slipped and sprawled and had to be helped. He apologized for being crippled. He smiled wanly at his difficulty. Clownishly, with the antics of an acrobat, he disentangled his crutches. How inconvenient he was with himself. Men helped him across the street. Someone always put him on board the bus when he needed one, and paid for him. When he got drunk he crawled into the shelter of a store and slept soundly until he was sober. Awake, his eyes were mobile; there was a glimmer of constant light, the twinkle of the circus opportunist, the rakish clown. Alone, his eyes returned to their habitual sluggishness except that they lacked the old glint of cynicism and merely looked tired. He was all gray now. He was too thin for his structure and his face was covered with loose flesh and gray bristles. Aging gave him a harmless look.
They were growing old in this city of El Lara and only Felícita, who had to support them, regarded the event with fear. At night, when she returned from her work, she found Julio's insouciance intolerable and spoke to him constantly of going home. Then his eyes revolved sluggishly in their old manner and there was a familiar glimmer of combat in them. His thick lids closed partially over his eyes and he looked at her uncomprehendingly. "Sí, Julio, let us go back to Netzahualcoyotl," she said, half commanding, half pleading.
Julio scratched his chest with an air of sober thoughtfulness. "I will think about it."
Felícita saved hard, as if she expected to make the journey. Her meals became sparse, she mended over and over again the same clothes. In three years' time she bought nothing for herself, for Julio or the small boy. He now accompanied Julio on his street corners and sold newspapers. Felícita mistrusted him out of the room; he was slow-witted and did not know enough to sit down when he was tired, but the temptation to have another wage earner was great. She counted everything in terms of its contribution to their going home. With a sense of imminent disintegration, her whole self agitated at the thought of remaining in El Lara, and only the plan to go home brought into harmony the host of random emotions that floated loosely within her. When she had enough money to buy a new horse and wagon, she felt as if she had reached a plateau of safety, but she remembered that there were nine days to cross the wilderness and began to save for stock. Julio did not know of these plans, and if it had not been for the fact that he suffered a stroke, they would have come to nothing. Unlike Felícita, he had worn his place in the society of El Lara. On a farm he would be as abhorrent as a wounded animal is to its pack. In a village he would be the ridicule of children. The sympathy he received, even in the form of derision, flattered him. And he had now the adult company of Juan who brought him stories and the talk of the brothels and taverns. Juan had married and had lived away for a short time. But he had deserted his wife and had come back to live with his parents. Since he was a good wage earner they did not argue with him.
Only slowly did Felícita come to know the secret satisfactions of Julio's existence, and when she did, this complete apostasy from the rules and habits of their old life made her plan of returning home a monomaniacal duty. She went days without eating in order to save money. She sold their table and chairs, most of their pots and plates and put away the money from the sales. She told Julio there was no money at all and sold some of his clothes. When he had his stroke she refused to send for the doctor, and when Juan sent for him she refused to buy medicine.
"It is better that God has taken away his tongue," she said and that day went out of the room by herself to purchase a horse and wagon. That night she drove it down the narrow street and while Julio lay on his cot, his mouth twisting with paralyzed protests, she loaded what was left of their possessions on to the wagon and covered them with canvas. When the doctor came to see Julio, she told him that she wished Julio to be helped to the hospital. Carefully he aided her in putting Julio into the wagon. They laid him out in a little clearing Felícita had made for him in the back of the wagon. Julio's eyes jumped in his head. His lids clicked open and shut. His face was tortured with effort, but he could make no sound. Felícita settled the little boy next to her up front and, without a word to Juan drove the wagon through the town and out through the southern exit. With the instinct of the animal who goes home to die, she turned the wagon southward and started the journey.
They travelled through the day without a pause. By nightfall they had travelled across the narrow neck of a stretch of desert so flat and shapeless the road disappeared into it. They slept in the wagon at night. By noon of the next day a red peak stood on the horizon, and Felícita set her eyes on it.
Julio could not protest and the realization than an act of great consequence had been done against his will pierced his pride again and again. His rage was a black pit, and he sank into it as memories of older rages came back to him. The birth of Ricardo, an unlikable boy with an unlikable face, small and soft as a plum, helpless with sadness, whining, inarticulate, sexless, openly fearful; a latecomer to life and unwanted, a charge put upon him like a last minute thought; a contradiction to life, born on the last sexual throb of his mother, an aged woman with flattened breasts. Ricardo, she named him for his father, whose name none ever said with serious intention. And between the firstborn and the last was the waste of three daughters, inept housekeepers, taciturn natures, without an asset for redemption in their drifting lives.
They appeared now, as always, with their sullen accusation against him that they were no better than they were. Margarita with her thin brown hair over her eyes, brushing it, braiding it, unbraiding it, spraying it about her head with a religious fanaticism, flinging it, tossing it, sobbing behind it, indolently disappearing behind it, trailing her hair like whiplashes across his eyes; Consuelo with the high beaked nose, sitting with her hands clasped in her lap, peevish and assertive about her ugliness. "Sí, someone will marry you, Consuelo, but they will not marry your nose." They laughed and Consuelo stabbed the air with her beak. And Manuela. God and man had cut her off at the age of twelve. She had been raped on the way back from the well and in her struggle had been knocked on her ears with a blow that had left her deaf. So she screwed her face up, twisted her mouth to a side and craned her neck when she wanted to hear. No one could decide if it had left her dull-witted also, for shortly afterwards she ceased to speak. The whisper in the village was that she had seduced her attacker, for Manuela was beautiful at the age of twelve, and that her deafness was God's punishment. The whisper was that Ricardo was her son, for the mother in a fit of shame had secluded her belly for five months and the child was born, as if by arrangement with the devil, nine months after Manuela had lost her hearing. His family rose up in his mind like shapes fixed at some stage of adulteration: the mother, the cunning housekeeper whose complaints had settled into grim silence; the father, too much older than the mother, scratching his gray beard when he heard of his son's birth, excited for a moment, and then indifferent, drifting into an irresponsible old age which the mother and Julio, matched in temperament, watched for its demise; Margarita, Consuela, Manuela, and Ricardo, an unseasonable birth. The image of Ricardo sucking milk at his mother's dried dugs had turned Julio's bones to lava. Ricardo craved kindness, Ricardo craved notice, Ricardo craved what Julio could not give him, and Ricardo sat with his sisters at the table and looked at him with accusations.
The sun rose and the wagon continued to roll. Julio could tell by the pull of gravity on his feet that they were climbing the mountains. The wagon remained at a slant throughout the day. The sun rose and stood overhead. Ricardo craved what he could not give him. Julio lay on his back and looked at a blank sky in which the sun scorched his eyes that he could not close, and where no one thought to give him even the shade of a sombrero.
It took Felícita and Julio three years to recross the land to Netzahualcoyotl, for they had to stop often at various villages and work for months at a time in order to make the necessary money. The small boy died in the village of Sangre de Cristo, a hundred miles outside of Mexico City. He died simply, without climax to a disease or accident, having merely used up his resources. His closed lids were wrinkled as if he had become an old man. Exhaustion marked every angle of the homely face.
For a long time afterwards Felícita refused to leave the village of Sangre de Cristo where he was buried. In former years, Julio would have chided her for her insensible behavior, but he took a notion into his head that his wife was demoniacal and contented himself with only observing her ways. Her left eye had been torn in an accident on the journey. While they had been travelling through the mountains the wheel of the wagon had become stuck in a cleft between two rocks. They could not push the wagon out or loosen the wheel. Felícita took down the axe from the wagon and began to chip the rocks apart. A piece of stone hit her left eye and cut the eyeball. It never healed properly and the eye was left bloodshot with veined lines running out of a bloodclot. By the time they reached a village with a doctor, she had lost the sight of the eye and the muscles of her left cheek twitched around it.
Julio had recovered all his functions except his speech, and when he spoke his tongue hung out of his mouth. Before he could utter a sound he had to curl the tip of his tongue back into his mouth, twist it around between his teeth and straighten it out into a flat spade on which he sat his words. He had to make four or five tongue maneuvers for every sound and his speech unnerved Felícita. She called him chatterbox to shut him up. If she saw his tongue working for speech she would say, "Nada, nada, do you have a tale to tell us?" He would look at her with bitter eyes and remain silent. Even when he did not speak she would sometimes taunt him "Julio, tell us a story to make us laugh, tell us about your whores, about the one with the red hair you know where that you told Juan."
Sometimes he called her back a one-eyed witch. "Wa-wa-won-eye-wi-wi-witch," he would cry.
"Aiii, sí, sí, sí," she would cry back as if her feelings had been wounded. Then she would put her hands on her hips and look at him with her one eye. "You wish to have words with me?" and laugh hilariously.
Julio thought many times of turning the wagon around, for since his recovery he drove the horse, but he could not be sure that Felícita would go with him, and the closer they got to home the more likely it was that she would return to Netzahualcoyotl by herself. He tried several times to coax her into staying in one of the villages they passed through, for one village was as good as another as far as he was concerned.
"How will we get our living here?" she argued.
"A-a-as we nu-n-now," he said.
"Sí," she laughed,"I carry wood down from the mountains, I wash and sew, I grind corn for others."
"S-s-s-s-sí," he laughed too. His tongue hung out like a dog lapping water.
"An-an-and wha-wha-what wi-wi-will you nu ho-ho-home?" "Maybe you will recover your tongue by then and ask for work." Julio waved her away. He regarded this desire of hers to go home as more of her demoniacal unreasonableness. It was mountainous work for them to recross the land, only to arrive old and deformed, as little wanted in Netzahualcoyotl as anywhere else. But when Felícita lingered in Sangre de Cristo he began to prod her. They were but a hundred miles from Netzahualcoyotl. To stay in Sangre de Cristo was the most foolish decision of all. They were neither home nor far away. At least in Netzahualcoyotl they might count on some old acquaintances to help them. Their son Julio might have his own shop by now. He could do him a good turn by gathering and drying straw for him. How far was Cuernavaca from Netzahualcoyotl? He could sell his baskets for him in the village. Felícita eyed him sardonically, then asked meticulously, "Who will understand you to buy from you?" Julio was not hurt, for it was only a passing thought. He had offered it because it was unreasonable to stay in Sangre de Cristo. "Por qué?" Felícita said in the same crisp voice, as if she were full of clarity when, in fact, she only needed small reason for being anywhere. Sangre de Cristo lay off the main road. There were few tourists who passed through and begging was slow. There was little money for drink. Julio spent his days in their room or standing for hours in the plaza. Sometimes he sat on a bench, sometimes he stood under a tree, sometimes he lingered near one of the fountains. Occasionally he made his way to the edge of the village, a little up the hill where the cemetery lay, and sat down by a grave and begged for a candle for his son. The child's grave lay further up the hill, but Julio considered it dangerous for him to climb so high. He sat under a ridge in the slope and the hill hung over him with shade. Streams ran down the slope and formed a rivulet at the bottom of the hill. Some of the tombstones had already been loosened by the continual running of water. Julio felt a benumbed contentment here. There was no other place that was likely to be more easeful than Sangre de Cristo, but he would not give Felícita the satisfaction of knowing that he was content to stay here. One night towards the end of October an unexpected terrific rain fell on the village, which lasted throughout the night. The raindrops were as big as marbles and the rain fell with a thick slash against the earth. The water ran down from the hills and the streets that were not paved turned into streams. One could hear the loosened pebbles and stones hitting each other as they tumbled down the hillside. The rain beat like the feet of dancers, grinding the earth into dissolution. Everything swam down. Wet sombreros lay in the streets like decapitated heads. Th earth and loose rocks from the cemetery hill moved sluggishly down to the road. A tombstone loosened and rolled down the hill. The water ran down the cliff in a sheet and made a waterfall over the ridge. The line of stones on top of the ridge loosened. First one fell, then a second, then slowly, with the tortuosity of lava, the ridge collapsed into the lower part of the hill, burying again the stones and the graves that had been buried on it. The rain continued. The hill turned into a river of mud. There was a pause, like the seconds between tremors of an earthquake. Then the top of the hill collapsed and carried with it all that was left of the cemetery. No one in the village heard the collapse, for the sound of the rain was too loud. The villagers were used to prolonged torrents and had gone to sleep. The electric power had been shut off. Few had money enough or concern to burn candles. When nature turned malignant the best thing to do was to sleep through the onslaught. The first villager to see the destruction was an old woman who had gone out early in the morning to collect herbs and berries in the bushes that grew between the tombstones. It was still dark and the clamminess of the morning angered her. She was very old and it was hard for her to work in the mud. She came to the end of the village and there was no hill for her to climb. She thought she had lost her way. She looked about, sleepy and puzzled, cursing, and started off in another direction. Half an hour later she came back and muttered again. She turned in several directions. The dark was lifting and light crawled about her feet. She noticed the first tombstone and bent down to examine it. Then she stood up and noticed the mountain of tombstones that lay about her. She ran back to the home of her daughter and roused her. Within an hour all the villagers were at the site. It was hardly dawn yet and the ground was still cold and muddy. Barefoot, with drawn, fated faces and silent lips they crawled between the stones and the bodies that had been thrown up and tried to collect what belonged to them.
Felícita worked with frenzy. She dug and clawed at every pertinent object.
She found her son's tombstone, but nothing else that she could with piety claim was hers. Once she thought a woman had found his head and she snatched it from her hands. The woman let out a moan, "Mi pequeño," she cried and snatched it back. But Felícita dug her nails into the scalp and would not let go. "Mi pequeño," the woman cried, "mi pequeño." She gave a violent pull and the skin came loose in Felícita's hand.
"Old woman," a man said to her, "can you not see that this one is but recently dead? Do not be conceited," he laughed.
Felícita returned to her room in the late afternoon. By that time the sun had been out for hours and the ground was baked hard. What was buried in it would have to be dug up with a shovel. Some of the villagers returned after siesta and worked until twilight. Felícita went with them. She watched every person who made a claim and examined their goods. She dug for three days and when she could find nothing, she went from door to door asking if someone had not made a mistake. There were burials all that week on a new hillside, and she watched each one with frantic, hostile eyes.
Finally she came back to their room one afternoon and began to pack their things.
Julio watched her, leaning on his crutches in the doorway.
"Qué-qué-qué-es?" he asked suspiciously.
Felícita shrugged her shoulders, "Now we leave."
Julio's lids lowered with a glazed dumbness. "P-p-p-por qué."
Felícita stood up and looked at him with rage. Her blind eye was red and the bloodclot shone like a marble. "Por qué," she screeched at him. "Por qué? por qué?" She flapped her hands at him as if she were shooing a bird away. "Por qué?" she laughed. She bent down again and rolled up their mats. "Por qué?" she laughed under her breath.
Julio stood on his leg like a bird perched timorously and looked at her with an exaggerated expression of bewilderment. He treated her incoherence with a shock he did not always feel, but which it felt better to assume. "Sí," he said with excessive rationalism, "P-p-p-por qué?" Since his stutter and slow speech made it impossible for him to speak in anger, he gave it the weight of studied concern.
But Felícita was not to be caught. From her crouching position she ducked her head under her arm and looked at him around the corner of her back with the watchfulness of a cat with a sense of humor. "Por nada."
Julio put up with Felícita like a man with a cross to bear. He was stoical. He let her have her way without too much arguing and with broad strokes of humoring, so that Felícita felt that her domination was a gift that he bestowed upon her. Though she was realistic enough to know better she could not dismantle the atmosphere of his largess. In retaliation she could only peck at it like a bird, wounding and nibbling, but never destroying. She eyed Julio with her swollen fury and packed their things into their wagon.
They arrived in Netzahualcoyotl a week later. As the wagon approached the village Felícita set her eyes into a hard, investigatory stare as if she had come home only to evaluate what she had left. Julio drove the wagon and kept his head on a side in a cavalier fashion. A cigarette hung from his lips and he winked one eye against the smoke. He had put his crutches in the back of the wagon and kept his stump hidden under his right thigh. He held the reins laxly as if he were a driver at his wife's disposal and made an elaborate display of male patience. As they came into the village he drew the horse up and waited for Felícita's directions. She gave none. Her hands lay folded in her lap and her sombrero sat on her head like a pail. Julio clicked softly and the horse started up. They went three times around the village and then he drew the horse to a halt. "Q-q-q-q-qué pase?" he asked.
She blinked her eyes. A shade of fear passed over her like a ghost from El Lara, from Navarrete, from la Ciudad, from Sangre de Cristo. But she said nothing. She stared at every face. A few old women stared back, and occasionally there was a glimmer of possible recognition in an uninterested eye, but on the whole, no. They had changed too much; not merely aged according to a style related to their personalities. Their personalities had changed; they had come home different people. No one recognized them and they made no effort to remind anyone, as if they had no past themselves. Julio shrugged his shoulders truculently and drove out into the country where he stopped the wagon. Felícita looked at the sun, squinted her eyes, then looked at the forest around her. Julio held the reins and waited.
A rodent scooted across their path and jumped into a hole in the ground by the side of the road and was lost to sight. Felícita bent forward and looked at it.
"Sí," Julio sighed. He cracked the whip on the horse and they drove frantically towards the old farm. When they found the house unowned and unoccupied they settled into it like scarecrows, and hid there.
Ricardo came to the door of the house and shook the rain from his hat. An old man with a thick, white mustache opened the door for him. He looked at Ricardo with hostility and suspicion. Ricardo ignored his glance.
"Where is your wife?" he asked. The man rolled his eyes towards a cot at the back of the room. Ricardo wiped his brow with his sleeve and went over to the woman. He looked at her and decided that she was probably past the aid of a doctor.
"Señora," he said gently, "where is your pain?" The woman pointed to the lower part of her abdomen. She too looked at him with hostility in spite of her pain and her fear of dying.
Her husband sat in a chair in a corner and sulked that the priest could not come. He did not appreciate the service of the rezandero although he had seen Ricardo before in the home of friends and knew of his reputation. His fees were modest and consequently he was popular. So reasoned the husband. He watched Ricardo with a shrewish suspicion, although he knew the gossip that went round that this one was saintly. He kept his own opinion in reserve for the time being.
Ricardo was aware of his position. Father Ferenza had told him to be patient. They will come to accept you, he had said, but when they do you will not know that you are being accepted. They will offend you and bite your fingers, but they will use you. You are not looking for comfort, are you?
It had been two years since Ricardo had paid a visit to him. His leavetaking had caused him a pain more than he had expected. How would he live without Father Ferenza's irritations and scoldings and patience? He had come to rely on him for the breath in his mouth and the eyes in his head.
He taught himself to read and write so that he could communicate with him, and for several years came back to Mexico City every half year to visit him. But two years had gone by now and he had not found time to see him. He commented to himself, as he sat by the old lady's bed with her husband's shrewd eyes fixed on him, that this was the comfort he had sought: that there would be more agonies than he would have time to attend to; that he would always be tired, and would be exhilarated by his exhaustion. That was success: to be tired and not to find the time to rest. When he lay down in his bed at night, relief did not come right away. Rather his exhaustion mounted and reached a peak, and only slowly began to descend and to leave his body little by little. Then, mindful of the pain leaving his shoulders, his calves and his feet, he lowered himself down into sleep. But he fell asleep before the process was finished and never knew, waking, if his body had found complete relief. Just before sleep arrived, on a thin margin between rest and restlessness, hands and faces swam before him. They came up out of a dark hole like ghosts shaken loose from their graves. They were all crippled, all deformed, they existed in parts and leftovers of the anatomy. There were hands crawling out of their graves, fingers that searched for a foothold, eyes that crawled over him like toes. They searched in his clothes and his pockets for comfort, they rested on his arms and crawled under his jacket. They were his parishioners.
He was dirty. The homes he visited were dirty. The cockroaches dragged across the floor and fled into corners at the approach of light. The dying wrapped themselves in worm- eaten blankets. Dust floated in their wine.
Often he dreamed that he was back in his room in Father Ferenza's house, a room behind the kitchen, that was swept and dusted everyday, where the odor of wet roses came through the screen door. He liked to imagine that he had spent his childhood there, and that he had gone from his father's house like the prodigal son, immodest and sure of the lavishness of love, to set his teeth into human hatred. But it was not that way: he had gone from his brother's house, and hatred had been his origin, his childhood, his mother, his feared playmate, his destroyer and his dream.
How like a vain girl he was, ashamed of her origins and pretending to a king for a father. But it was not vanity that made him sometimes wish he had spent his childhood in a room where the rain fell all around him and where he was kept dry. His soul need a past it could identify with. Gentle Ricardo, childlike, passive, low-speaking Ricardo. Violence was unreal to him. Hurt frightened. The mother who violated the lives around her with the cruel stare of her black eyes was a monster talked about by those who wished to discipline their children. She was no one's mother. He had been born of gentle hands. They had been cupped around to hold his head as he had emerged into the universe. He was one with his father, one with the spirit who had created him, one with the man who had fed and nourished him. In deference to this feeling, Ricardo changed his name to Ferenza, which he kept secret until Father Ferenza died.
He put his hands on the woman's abdomen and gently squeezed her belly as if he were kneading dough. The woman squealed with pain and looked at him with reproach.
Ricardo made a silent comment to himself, then turned away to the husband. "There is an obstruction," he said.
"Sí, sí," the husband shook his head as if he already knew this. Then he stood up and looked at Ricardo with hard, candid eyes. "You are not a doctor, Señor." Ricardo looked back at him with equally candid eyes. "Can you afford a doctor?" The man flapped his arms with beleaguerment. Ricardo's trial was over. He took out a bottle of medicine from his bag and gave it to him with instructions. The man looked at it doubtfully. "Will this cure her?" he said, almost aristocratically.
Ricardo's nostrils dilated. "No, Señor. Nothing will cure her. This will ease her."
The man sucked his mouth into a thin line. "But you are not a doctor."
"No, Señor," Ricardo said and put his hat on. As he opened the door, the woman screamed at him. "Do not come back here. I want the priest. Do you hear?" The words hit him like dishes flung at his back. He closed the door behind him and looked at the rain. Then he mounted his horse and started for his room in the village.
The way led him past Julio's old farm. He passsed it often on his visits out to the country and always felt mystified by his detachment from it, like a tourist who visits a much advertised place, searching for veracity, feeling cheapened by grandiose expectations. It was nothing but the waste of imagination.
It had been unoccupied for a year. The glass pieces on top of the wall had been chipped away and in many places the top of the wall was harmless. Any intruder could climb over. The rain stopped and Ricardo let his horse wander along the wall, searching for the grass that grew between the stones.
The farm was deserted. It had been sold twice since Julio had left. Neither owner could make a living from it, and its last owner had sold the land in parcels to rancheros who used it for grazing. No one needed the house and it stood cut away from the land it had once belonged to. A high wire fence ran behind the house where the new boundary had been set. The left half of the front yard was cut away too. The house stood on an oddly shaped triangular piece of shrunken land, looking like the domain of curious creatures: a house in a forest belonging to nothing, a creation of domicile seen in the woods where there is no life for miles around. It looked as if it had grown out of the earth like a mushroom. No one would buy it now. It belonged to no land. Eventually some creature would hide away in it, some sort of half-man who had been scraped together out of disappointments, too much drink and unhappy diseases. He would grow some corn along the front stoop, keep a chicken in the point of the triangle and sustain himself like that for years.
Whenever Ricardo passed the farm he felt as empty as it was. When he looked at the house he felt that he too had an open door through which the wind and the rain blew, leaving him cold and damp. He had not seen Julio for fifteen years. He had forgotten what it felt like to hate him.
He turned his horse away from the wall and took the trail that led up to El Tlahuitepetl. Behind his back blowsy clouds blew in from the north. In the twilight sky they were shot full of blue mountings into the night. They rolled fiercely southwards, like a shoal of blue whales riding the sky.
In a few days winter would be upon them. Already a spray of frost bordered the trail up to El Tlahuitepetl, but it was unsteady frost and melted away at a breath from the horse. Ricardo urged him up the side of the mountain. It was a steep ascent, not as steep as El Ocelotepetl, but its way wound up longer and higher. Rocks were buried into its body and a growth of fuzzy, yellow grass covered it. From its round base to its height the mountain tapered, slimming itself upwards like a spire. From its summit Ricardo could look down on each of the cerros. A patch of snow ornamented a peak and gave it a dazzling appearance. There was a legend that said that the mountain was so high that it gorged the sun and that the sun bled light all about it.
The peak sparkled and sang with light even when night fell on it. It was called the Peak of Light, the mountain of perpetual daylight. A quality of the light, a low slant of the sun at eye-level, reminded Ricardo of the day he had left Father Ferenza's house. It had been late afternoon and the sun had spread lavish shadows in the corners of the house and under the balcony.
They were standing outside in the front yard, near the gate, Father Ferenza with pen in hand, as usual. The sun glanced off his rimless glasses. He squinted for a moment and said uneasily, "Well, my son, it seems that when all is said and done, only adiós remains." He put his arms on Ricardo's shoulders. "But you must understand how I say it to you." Ricardo threw himself into his arms with misery at his going. Father Ferenza cackled like a hen, surprised at the discomfort of its chick. "Do not hope for too much," he said anxiously, immediately annoyed with himself for saying that. Alarm flooded Ricardo's face. He looked like a man about to dive from a height beyond his courage. His weakness oppressed Father Ferenza, and he wanted to see him gone. He said in a cavalier tone. "On second thought, hope for everything."
But there had been no resurrection. There was only work. After twelve years of exhaustion there had been no resurrection. Without vanity or humility, Ricardo knew his worth, the worth of the donkey, the ass, the beast of burden. Fatigue was his only means of self-measurement. In his nightly exhaustion he lay in an ocean in which he could feel the moving presence of his work.
Love, when it had come, was an attrition that had worn out his ability to feel. He knew what was left of him and yet some satisfaction, like a small circle of sensation, inhered in that mass of shredded senses. He had survived despair. He had outlived violence. He had taken the wild animal and had made him serve. He could look down on the spot that had been Julio's farm and could not remember the times he had looked down on it with a wild misanthropy. Only intelligence told him that it had been so. That time had died unceremoniously, yet he had transmuted his nature. Like Joshua, he had transfixed the sun and stopped the movement of an inexorable fate. He had taken destiny out of their lives and had sent it rolling in another direction.
Now they were two loose human beings rattling around in the universe. There must have been many taverns Julio had sat in by now and told of his maniacal brother hounding him with a gun. "And with my gun," Ricardo could hear him say, as he choked with hoarse laughter. It was not a story Julio was likely to repress. Ricardo felt embarrassed for himself.
He remounted his horse. A little below was el Cihuapapelotzin, a mound at the foor of El Tlahuitepetl, a fitful, gnome-like mountain, flattened on its base like a snub nose. In the distance was El Ocelotepetl and El Tlaminetepetl. It was already dark there. Up on El Tlahuitepetl night had started below. It spread upwards from the earth, flattening into darkness all the life at the base of its mountain. Ricardo nudged his horse and started down.
Father Ferenza lay in his bed and looked at Ricardo with embarrassment. "So it has finally come to my death," he said.
Ricardo made a movement to deny this, but Father Ferenza stopped him. "How many dying have I sat with? Do you think I do not know my own business?"
He fumbled behind his pillow for his handkerchief, blew on his glasses, wiped them and put them back on his nose. "I hear the servants whispering.
When they come in here they are embarrassed. They shuffle around, do what they have to do quickly and run out as if they are escaping from me. Believe me, Ricardo, you can tell more about the state of your health from your servants than you can from your doctor."
It was true, Ricardo thought, for he could not look directly at Father Ferenza. His white, bushy hair stood straight up, uncut and too thick. His face was unevenly red with white patches. The fever was visible and hurt to look at. His glasses would not stay fixed on his nose and his pajamas were too large for him. They were opened at the neck and continually slid off one shoulder. The appearance of this disorganized, frowsy looking individual took Ricardo by surprise. Father Ferenza looked like a second-rate actor being hurried off the stage before he could finish his lines. He continually searched in his breast pocket and the drawer of his night table. He had orders for everyone. He dictated quantities of messages to Ricardo, which lapsed into incoherence as the day wore on. Ricardo feared being assailed by grief, but he sat by Father Ferenza day and night as if he could ward off the death that was coming. It had been six years since he had seen him and now he had come, finally, on request. He had planned visits to him, written letters to expect him and had telegrammed hasty postponements. He had been absent in the Yucatan for the last eighteen months, where he had attached himself to a mission and had come back to find the last letter from Father Ferenza. There were no more postponements. Ricardo reached Mexico City that night.
Father Ferenza was asleep when he arrived and Ricardo stayed the night in his old room. When he lay down in bed his familiar bodily aches attacked him. He was also aging. His lean body had settled into a disjointed posture. His right shoulder was permanently haunched and he carried his arms stiffly in front of him, rounded at the elbows as if they could not unbend. When he lay down his back straightened painfully, but the crisp linen was a hurtful memory. For a moment he forgot why he had returned, for it seemed to him that he had returned for cleanliness. His eyes were attacked with the pain of extreme tiredness. He had not slept for two days, he had travelled day and night to get home from the Yucatan, and then had immediately started for Mexico City. During the last few miles he had lost control over his eyes. They swung in his head like marbles. Now they closed with aching tiredness as soon as he lay down. When he woke in the morning he felt as if he had been asleep for years. He listened to the bird calls and watched the sun cut a path down the screen door. Lying in bed was a bitter luxury; he was assailed with self pity and felt that this room in the middle of these small garden sensations was owed to him as something which could ease his exhaustion. The sun shimmied down the screen door and lowered itself on to the floor, it crept about tentatively like a child and then jumped into the middle of the room and sparkled there. Ricardo watched it and thought: There had been laughter sometimes. He could remember a day when his sister had come out of the house and had flung her hair in the blue air to dry it. The sky was brilliant, like a peacock spreading its best colors. It was after the rain or before the rain. She went over and tickled Ricardo on his cheek with the tip of her wet hair. His mother looked at them with grim eyes as if she had no choice but to put up with pleasure. Ricardo rolled away from his sister's hair, not too fast or too far, for he wanted her to play with him and give him the attention of her odd moment of ease.
He missed Julio. But he kept that emotion at bay. He was afraid to miss him, for the feeling formed liaisons with other emotions which were unworkable, longings for things that never were, pretensions to other emotions, tenderness or humor. It was easy, in missing Julio, to believe that their lives had been something other than what they had been. But Ricardo had a sense of honor about his emotions: they might sicken him, they might destroy him, but he could not falsify them. Julio was not dear to him. If he missed him, that was another pain to be put away with the others. It was not a chosen state of mind. It was unavoidable, like breathing and excretion, and perhaps the worst of the forces in man. It tricked him into loving, into believing and accepting. It was the aching for the commonplace of life, and could be pathological: the hankering of the prisoner for his cell, the cured man for his disease. But if he were to find Julio now, what would they say to one another? I have changed? Let us be friends? What recompense could language make after the doom which sounded through twenty years of their separation?
A servant knocked on the door and said that Father Ferenza was up and was waiting for him.
Ricardo expected to see the old, sober, efficient face, wry in the corners of the mouth, almost prissy, the air of savior faire blended with hurry and emergency, the lusterless, intelligent eyes; but he saw Father Ferenza looked at him with an open mouth like a peasant at his first fiesta.
"You are gray," he croaked. "You are all gray."
"Sí," Ricardo said solemnly, "so are you."
"Sí, but I was gray when you last saw me. We already knew that I was old." Ricardo was disappointed. He was one of the few men who found his physical self boring, yet Father Ferenza regarded him now from that point of view, scanning his body. "You still have the face of a child. Be careful. You will look wizened, by and by. Small bones become gnarled with the years. Your shoulder already stoops like a gnome's. Why can you not straighten it out? Your teeth are still good. That is a miracle." He sighed like a mother satisfied that she had saved the best part of her child. "But your skin is dried. It is no longer pleasant."
"Will you not ask me how I have been?" Ricardo cried with exasperation.
"I see how you have been. The climate in the Yucatan does not agree with your skin and you look tired." He squinted his eyes and said sharply, "I do not take confession anymore. I have been retired." He settled himself against his pillows and said more gently, "All I want is to enjoy the sight of you. If I wanted to hear about the progress of your soul I would have asked for a letter. Tell me, Ricardo, I have a few days, perhaps hours to live, must I still be your mentor?"
Ricardo was wounded. He thought that Father Ferenza was evading him. He talked again of his appearance, talked of his house and the gardens, an old parrot he had had for eight years who used to memorize his sermons. He continued to examine Ricardo sharply. Ricardo tolerated this babble because he loved him, and out of a sense of piety for the dying but, yes, he wanted to talk of his soul, of his exhaustion and his amazing tranquility. Once Father Ferenza asked him if he still longed to be a priest. A wry expression passed over his face as he remembered his old intellectual loyalties, so that he had chosen the lesser position for Ricardo, for his son, had denied him status, honorability. Ricardo said lamely, "I am used to what I am."
Father Ferenza looked at him over the hump of blankets on his chest. "Sí," he said, and began to cry. As the afternoon wore on he looked more ruminative. The skin on his face grayed. The old scrutiny, the flippancy, the irony faded out from his eyes.
A servant entered and brought him some soup. He motioned to her to leave it on the night table, but she smiled at him as if he were a naughty boy with a ruse, and proceeded to feed it to him. As she brought her hand with the spoon to his mouth, he placed his hand over hers. "Manuela," he said, "how long have you been with me?"
"Seventeen years," she said.
He put his head back on the pillow and looked at her. "You are gray."
"What was the color of my hair when you came to work for me?"
"Black," she said.
"Sí. And yours was black too." He squinted at her and said with awe,
"Manuela, we have grown old together."
"Did you notice when I turned gray."
"Sí, Padre. It was not long ago."
"True," Father Ferenza whispered, "it happened all at once."
Manuela continued to feed him. Father Ferenza lay against his pillows and his mouth opened rhythmically for the soup. Suddenly he roused himself and said, "Manuela, it is possible I may not live through the night. Soon you will go to the kitchen and prepare for tomorrow. I may not see you again. Bend to me that I may kiss you."
Manuela put the spoon down in her bowl. "Sí, Padre," she said, her eyes filling with tears, "we may not see each other again." She clasped her hands together and fell to her knees. "Give me your blessing, Padre, give me your blessing."
Father Ferenza shrank into his pillows. Wearily he raised his fingers and made the sign of the cross. "Be at peace, Manuela, do not grieve and be sure to feed Ricardo when I am gone. He is getting altogether too thin." After supper the doctor appeared. Father Ferenza regained his humor. He made it a point to frustrate the doctor. He threatened to get out of bed, he lit a cigar. The doctor did not conceal his impatience. It was tedious to deal with errant behavior, it got in the way of skillful medicine. He expected Father Ferenza to understand professional necessities.
Then the doctor left and night fell.
"Well, there is only one visitor left," Father Fereneza said. He squeezed his eyes with his fingers. "Go to bed, Ricardo. The servants will come by every so often to see to me."
But Ricardo leaned towards him. "I will not leave you," he said.
Father Ferenza smiled to himself. After a while he said, "Ricardo, will you confess me?"
Ricardo sat back, shocked. "No, my padre. I am not a true priest."
Father Ferenza hiccoughed softly. "Then go for the true priest, Miguel de Melanja. You will find him in the Avenida del Norte. 110 Avenida del Norte."
The request was expected, yet seemed like an imposition on reality. Ricardo put his jacket on and opened the door. "Ricardo," Father Ferenza called to him, "the priest will confess me, but who will comfort me?"
Ricardo returned to his room in Netzahualcoyotl a week later. His house was at the bottom of a steep descent. It was separated on both sides from his neighbors by hog plum trees and palm trees. A basket was attached to his door where messages could be left. The floor of his room was packed earth and a hole in an angled corner contained the facilities for a fire. He had a table, two chairs, a mat and a cross.
He opened the door and did not bother to empty the contents of the basket that hung on it. His grief was intense; He did not know when it would diminsh or if it ever would. He did not feel more alone than he had ever felt, though he counted himself now as utterly friendless. It was not loneliness that pained him; his grief turned continually around the point how awareness of his own death had changed Father Ferenza.
When he had returned with the priest, he was in a coma. Alone, he had lapsed into unconsciousness without preparation, for he was still sitting upright in bed, although his head had fallen on his shoulder. There was a deep frown on his forehead. He held his glasses between his fingers as if he had just removed them for a moment. His eyes were shut tight with a wrinkled squeezing as if he had a headache and intended to rest his eyes for a while. His pajama top had slid apart and revealed a plump, white shoulder. His chin rested on it, hurt, innocent, his head drawn to his body in a convolution of pain and lonely self comfort.
Ricardo wished he had not looked that way. It was for this he grieved. This last pose was beyond change and broke the will of man to hope.
In the morning he still had not emptied the basket, but an old man came to his door, one of the uncertain ones with sombrero in hand and hunched back. He coughed and smiled with embarrassment. "We expected you this morning," he said.
"I have only returned last night," Ricardo said impatiently.
"Sí. We heard your horse. My letter," he jerked his thumb towards the basket hanging on the open door, "is in there. It has been in there for three days."
Ricardo rolled his tired eyes. "What is it?" he said with unaccustomed sharpness. It seemed to him that the man had no right to be here, waiting for him, not giving him enough time to consider a world in which there was no Father Ferenza. Sharply he thought, he must not waste his pity on others, he must hoard it for himself.
The man took a step backwards out the door, soundlessly on his padded sandals. "Am I intruding?" he asked, dismayed with clumsiness.
"No, Señor," Ricardo said. "Tell me what it is. I am here to be intruded upon. No, Señor?"
The man was suspended with dismay and hesitancy, sombrero in hand, his hope wilting in the early sun.
"Let us not regard my disposition," Ricardo said. "Tell me what it is."
"It is my daughter," he said quickly. "Three times she has carried a child and has lost it, and now it is the time for her fourth child. Her husband had said that if the baby is not born alive he will beat her and leave her. Bless her that the child may live."
Ricardo looked at the old man standing in the doorway. "Why don't you go to the priest? His blessing has more power than mine."
The man pulled on his pockets in a meaningful way. "We have no money."
Then he looked at Ricardo as a new thought occurred to him. "Will you charge much?"
"One centavo." Ricardo put on his serape and his sombrero, knowing he would go though he continued to argue the case. "Why do you want my blessing? Do you not know that the child will live or die whether I bless it or not?"
The man smiled graciously. "Sí, Señor, but it may do some good."
Ricardo went behind the house and untied his horse. He beckoned to the man to mount behind him.
"It is in San Juan," the man told him.
Ricardo turned the horse north. "My fame has spread far," he said rudely.
The man put his arms around Ricardo's waist. "Sí, Señor, you are well thought of."
"Sí?" Ricardo said. Then he muttered to himself, "Sí, sí." They rode in silence until Ricardo said again, "Tell me, Señor, if you believe my blessing has power, why would you go to the priest if you could afford it?"
"Señor, if I could afford it I would go to the bishop."
"Pero, por qué?"
"Because one cannot tell, Señor, it might do some good."
"Do you spend your money so foolishly, on a questionable bargain?"
The man was silent for a while. Ricardo felt his arms around his waist, his cheek against his back. "No, Señor, it is that the bargain is only questionable if you do not need the goods."
"Sí, and my availability is part of the price. I am the best kind of bargain you can hope to get."
The old man sighed uncomfortably. He had not thought to find this man unpleasant but, still, for a centavo, he could not quarrel with him.
"Do not be unhappy, viejo," Ricardo said. "Do you not see that I too bargain?" He lowered his head moodily towards the horse's mane. "I used to think it was saintly of me to charge only enough to cover my needs. I saw how poor you were and my ambition to help was great but, truly, Señor, I was selling my availability to you at a cheaper price than the priest."
He pressed his nose into the horse's mane and felt the coarse hair fly against his eyes and his cheeks. The morning was bright and windy, a winter blue spread across the sky. The trees rose up, dark and green, almost black in the cluster along the bark. Ricardo felt the horse's mane against his face like wisps of punishment.
The old man sighed again. He did not like complexity and it seemed to him that all complexity was deliberate. "But, Señor," he said plaintively, "if you did not come, we would have to go without."
Sí, Ricardo said to himself, for the answer did not surprise him. Sí, sí, he said to himself, I am better than nothing. He put his face down on the horse's neck and smelled the musty, cloistral odor of the working skin sliding over the horse's neck bones.
They came out into the country. Behind a slope to his right he could see the broken wall of Julio's farm. The present landowners had replaced the wall with chicken wire that ran across their property. What remained of the old wall looked like a remnant from another civilization, a section of ruin unrelated to anything else around it.
The door to the house was shut. It caught Ricardo's attention by that fact, for there was a premeditated air of privacy about it. A creature had found a home for itself after all, in the economy of desperation. He was part of that economy.
Julio and Felícita had been living in the house for almost four years. There was no land left to farm, but the house gave them shelter and seclusion. It marooned them on the triangular patch miles from the village and from other farm owners. No one questioned their right to the house. No one else wanted it.
It was anyone's guess, for months after they arrived, how they fed themselves. None of the landowners claimed to employ them and none of the shopkeepers could remember if the woman had purchased so much as a thimble of flour. A few remembered seeing the wagon in the village the day they arrived, and that it was laden with covered goods. The speculation was that they had entrenched themselves with a hoard of food, and the villagers waited for the supply to exhaust itself.
Ricardo paid no heed to the gossip and did not inquire after the strangers. He had a vague sense of attachment towards them insofar as they occupied a house which had once belonged to his family. However, in defiance of this sentiment, he avoided listening to stories about them and so knew almost nothing.
A few months after their arrival, the woman did appear in the village to sell her horse and wagon. With uncommon mannishness, she wore a sombrero on her head which shielded the dead light of her injured eye and drove the horse with a whipping authority. But there was a wild, yellowy glint that darted from her black eyes, and to the amazement of the villagers she got the best of the bargain from her purchaser. Her manner settled their attitude towards her. They felt a mixture of ridicule and respect. With the money she had now she bought two sacks of corn and coffee which she carried back on her shoulders.
After that, her appearance became more regular. She came frequently to sell straw hats, wood, herbs, odds and ends of trade and barter. Between them, Felícita and Julio made a business for themselves. In the tourist months Julio wove the hats from the fibers of plants Felícita gathered. She sold them in the village or along the road, sometimes walking fifteen miles in a day along the highway to Cuernavaca, though she never went as far as the city itself and her son did not know that his parents had returned. The matter had become inconsequential to them. Survival was all engrossing. In the winter months they earned some money from the firewood Felícita gathered and sold. Since she was out most of the day on the mountains or in the fields gathering wood or straw, Julio tended to the house. He never came into the village. When they had been in Netzahualcoyotl almost three years he had appeared only twice, when Felícita out of spite had refused to buy him liquor and he had been forced to go and buy it himself, walking on crutches for six miles, dragging his body and his stump into the village. The sight of him had engendered so much curiosity that she decided it was best to appease him hereafter and buy him his tequila.
He ground the corn in the morning and made the breakfast. Felícita usually went out before dawn to gather what she could. When the weather was warm, he sat in front of the house where he dyed and twisted straw for the hats. In the winter he rarely went outside, for he was attacked with rheumatic pains that made it difficult for him to stand the cold.
They persisted with something of the quality of beaten vultures, presenting in their skeletal frames the remnants of disordered energy. But one morning when Felícita returned after her trip into the village to sell wood, she found Julio still in bed. He did not look so much sick as stubbornly refusing to move and when she walked in through the door he looked at her with reproachful eyes as one who expected criticism for a piece of bad luck that was no fault of his own.
She clicked her tongue with annoyance and went over to the bed. "Julio, can you speak?" But he could not. She put her head to a side and studied him. Then she clicked her tongue with annoyance again and put her rebozo back on. "I will go for the padre," she said and walked out angrily.
She went back to the village and asked in the shops for the home of a man they called Father Ferenza, but when she got to his room he was not there. She looked about for a neighbor to question, but there were only some children in the street eyeing her with satisfaction that she looked exactly as a witch should look. She hissed at them and they scooted with hilarity.
She sat down by the door and began her wait for the padre. She drew her knees up to her chin and rested her head on them. Her hat bobbed precariously on the top of her head. When the children approached she looked up and hissed, and when they disappeared she went back to her rest. Once she heard them creep up softly, like mice scratching on the grass. She did not look up. She kept her head bent and peeked over the rim of her arm. Three or four danced back and forth in front of her. She bent her head lower, her back sagged as if she were asleep. She heard them whisper and slyly kept watch over the rim of her arm. One boy stared at her with fatuous boldness. He pulled out a long weed from the earth and from a small distance touched her cheek. She sniffled and twitched as if she had been disturbed in her sleep. He approached closer and knocked her hat off her head. Quickly, with the dart of a snake's head, her hand whipped out and closed around his ankles. The boy shrieked with fear and fell down on the ground. Felícita held his ankle. She looked at the others and, without moving her eyes, dug her nails into the boy's skin until it bled.
The boy's mother ran out of her hut and threw a pail of water on her.
Felícita kept her fingers closed on the boy's ankle. "Where is the padre?" she asked.
"He has gone to the next village," the woman screamed.
Felícita stood up, unruffled and with poise recovered her hat. "Gracias," she said and started down the road.
The walk was only a few miles. It was late in the morning and she had not had anything to eat, although Felícita could endure hunger. She thought of the boys and laughed to herself. Her sombrero tottered on her head. "Sí, I was sleeping," she laughed. "Sí, sí, "she laughed, reflecting how she and the children played by the same duplicitous rules.
She followed a trail around the base of the mountains. Everything on the mountain was dead. The air was not so cold, but the ground was frozen with winter and knew its season of hardness. Felícita's bare toes felt among the fissures of the ground with the sensitivity of a reptile. She went down through a small canyon and came out into the village. She asked, and was directed to the house where a baptism was taking place.
"The padre," she said, when her knock was answered.
"Sí. He is just having some wine with us. Wait for him. He will be out shortly."
Ricardo came out immediately. "Señora," he said. She put her head on a side and squinted at him coquettishly. He recognized her as the "witch" of the village whom he had once rescued from taunting children, a favor she had repaid by spitting on the ground near his feet. "Sí," she said and beckoned that he follow her. "It is on the other side of Netzahualcoyotl. It is my husband. He cannot move or speak." She looked at him boldly as if testing his ability to recognize her, but she saw that she was a stranger to him, a suppliant among others.
"Sí, I will come." He disappeared around the house and came back with his horse.
Felícita looked annoyed. "I will walk."
"Por favor," Ricardo said. "Mount behind me."
"No, Señor," she said, "I never ride on a horse or behind one. I am never so far from my home that I cannot walk back."
"But it is best to hurry."
Felícita smiled at him. "He will not run away."
Ricardo blinked his eyes at this, and mounted the horse. "Bueno, Señora, let us go, no matter how."
Felícita shrugged her shoulders and they went down into the narrow canyon.
"Have you no horse yourself," Ricardo asked.
"Sí, we have." Then she looked vaguely about and corrected herself. "No, we have sold him and the wagon." She peeped at Ricardo from under her sombrero. "Once we gave a horse away."
"Were you then prosperous?"
"Sí." She looked at him again from under her sombrero with coquetry. Then shrugged her shoulders again and seemed to weary of talking.
"You are now living here four years," Ricardo said, for he remembered when he had first seen a light at the house.
"Sí," but the number meant nothing to her. Time had become irrelevant.
"Where did you come from?"
She looked puzzled, as if she had not understood the question. "From Netzahualcoyotl."
Ricardo watched her with controlled curiosity. He had heard tales in the village that she was mad, but he did not think so. In his few contacts with her she had always responded with clarity, with even a disturbing sly intelligence like a court jester speaking doubletalk. She walked slowly and stooped now and then to pick up stones which she stored in a well of her rebozo.
"How has it been for you to live here?" he asked.
"As well as for you, Señor."
"Where are your children?"
She bent down and examined a pink rock with a bit of silver running through it. She looked at him from under her hat and laughed like a child. "They are everywhere, Señor. Some are here. Some are in the city. Some are in the north. Some are above the ground. Some are below the ground." She poked under a low bush, then straightened up and smiled brilliantly at him. "Señora," he said patiently, "you do not care for conversation?" She stood up from examining the rocks and looked at him earnestly. "Sí, Padre, I care much." She smiled slyly. "But my husband, he does not care," and she burst out laughing.
Ricardo looked sharply at her. There were yellow glints in her eyes. She was mirthful and intelligent, like a child aware of its reputation for ingenuousness. Ricardo did not speak again.
They came out of the canyon and took the trail that ran around the bottom of the mountain. They passed under the boulder of El Ocelotepetl and it cast its shadow over them like a net. She walked ahead of the horse, darting now and again into the forest for a stone or a herb and reappeared with a bright, alerted look. They went along the outskirts of the village and out into the country. When they came to the farm she pointed out the house to him, looking at him from under her sombrero with a bold secretiveness.
"Sí, Señora, I know," Ricardo said.
"How do you know?" she asked sharply. Her bloodshot eye quizzed him with its dead light.
"It is common knowledge in the village where you live."
"Sí?" she smiled. Then she grunted to herself and led the horse in through the gate.
She flung the door open and stood back to let Ricardo pass. "He is in there," she said, hushing up laughter like a schoolgirl.
She acted calculatedly. Ricardo's heart fluttered with the sensation that he was being deceived about something, but the sensation was incoherent, probably, he thought, brought on by the experience of re-entering Julio's house after so many years. He lowered his head and went in through the sagging doorway, armored against memory. The room was painfully bare. Felícita banged the door shut behind them. "I have brought the rezandero," she screeched. "He is all we can afford."
Ricardo's head dropped with the instinct of humiliation.
It was dark in the room. Though it was mid afternoon outside, the closing of the door shut out the light in the room. The two windows had been boarded up with cardboard and straw for the winter and only diamond-like splinters shone through them. Ricardo could not resist a moment to look about him. He had not been in the house for twenty-five years. There was no sign of his brother's family. That house had vanished. That family had vanished, and in its place were two discordant people. No object in the room was familiar to him. The place where Felícita's shrine had stood was empty, the place where the hearth had been was empty. He guessed that they ate only cold meals. He felt the woman's eyes upon him and checked his gaze. She sat down on the floor in a corner of the room, her knees drawn up to her chest, her head curled down on her knees as if she had gone to sleep, but Ricardo saw that her eyes watched him intently. "What do you see?" she called to him.
"Only a house," he said, "like many other houses."
"Does it not smell worse here?"
He did not answer her, but went directly to the bed where the man lay, his body inert as if death had already settled into it. The blanket had slid half off him and a cockroach crawled over his leg with a sense of possession. Ricardo sat down on the edge of the bed and wondered what he could do to help the man. The soiled disorder of the patient was repugnant.
He lay in day-old urine. His beard and mustache had not been cut in days and his face was covered with bristle stained with tobacco juice. Ricardo could not tell whether he was old or simply ill kempt. His hair was still thick and vigorous, but the skin on his face and body hung like a sack that had lost its contents. He reminded him of Señor Mendore, his skin folded on itself like wrinkles on a mountainside. Dying had started within and was radiating out towards the skin. Only his eyes registered amazement as Ricardo bent over to listen to his heartbeat. He noticed the amputated leg.
"How was he crippled?" he asked Felícita.
"He did it himself," she said. Seeing his incredulity, she laughed, "Sí, sí, he did it himself." Then she yawned as if bored by these questions, and curled her head down as if to sleep.
It does not matter, Ricardo thought, looking at the man whose face was hidden by a dirty growth of beard, his history is past. He took his pulse. A sense of ineffectualness came over him as if he sought to resuscitate a corpse. But not so, for the man's eyes watched Ricardo with amazement.
"Señora," Ricardo said, "your husband must be put in a hospital immediately. I will get a wagon and help you."
"Padre," she smiled broadly, "we have no money. Once we had money, but now we are too poor to be well. I can cure him. He has been thus before and see how long he has lived."
"Señora," Ricardo pleaded, "I can do nothing for him. He must have a regular doctor."
She seemed dismayed, like a child. "They say you are a saint." Ricardo drew in his breath as if he had been insulted. "No, Señora, and if
I were he would still need a doctor."
Felícita's blood-shot eye glinted at him.. "Do you think he will live?"
Ricardo shrugged his shoulders. "He might, but there is little hope."
Felícita got up on her knees and crawled to Ricardo. She took his hand in hers and stroked it. "Then give him your comfort," she smiled.
Ricardo decided the woman was unreliable and that her husband should be removed immediately. He went back to the bed and said, "Señor, I cannot disguise your condition from you. I am going to leave you for a while to make preparations to take you to the hospital in San Vincente. Do you understand what I have said? Blink your eyes if you have understood me."
Julio stared at Ricardo with frantic eyes. "Señor, we must try to communicate. I am not a doctor. I know something about medicine, but not enough for your ailment. You cannot depend on me. Try to understand. I will leave to make arrangements to take you to the hospital. Do not fear. You will be treated well there. Now blink once to tell me that you have understood, for I do not wish to leave you in doubt."
Julio did not blink. Felícita came to the bedside and folded her arms on her breasts. "Do not keep the padre waiting," she screeched. "Have you lost your tongue?"
Ricardo took her by the arm and led her back into her corner. She folded up and sat down like a ruffled hen cackling her disorders. He came back to the bed and looked into Julio's eyes, but those eyes only widened enormously as they tried to adjust to an inner darkness. They grew large and black and bulged out from under their wrinkled lids like turtles thrusting their heads out from their shells, distended and malformed, moribund with oversize. A sick, yellow fluid filled the lower rims and spread out to the corners.
Ricardo saw that he was in extreme terror. He looked about the room for something to distract him, but there was nothing, not even a table or a chair. It occurred to him that the man was probably hungry and he asked Felícita what was available. She rubbed her knees with a thoughtful air and jerked her head towards a large pot in which there was some soup. Ricardo set a fire and put the pot on a tripod over the fire. When the soup was warm he took it to Julio in a bowl, but he could not get him to eat. He saw that his mouth and eyes were not paralyzed, for the man looked at the soup with frenzy and hunger and parted his lips. But the soup ran out of the corners of his mouth.
Felícita stood at the foot of the bed and watched avidly. "You see," she laughed as if she had warned Ricardo that this would happen, and snatched the bowl away. "Do not waste it, do not feed those who are no longer hungry."
"Señora," Ricardo cried with exasperation.
"Sí?" she said, clutching the bowl to her breast. He decided it would be best to remove the sick man as soon as possible. He put out the fire, not trusting Felícita to keep it from spreading and put his hat on his head. "I will go for a doctor." As he went to the door the stricken man's eyes followed him with a terrible canniness, filled with terror and pus that spilled out from the lids like dirty tears.
Ricardo rode to the village where he reported the case at the hospital, but there was no doctor available to come with him and he returned to the house without one. The ride to San Vincente and back had taken him several hours. It was twilight when he returned, and opened the door again. The splintered light at the window had disappeared and the floor seemed to rise up in a mound. Felícita sat in her corner, still holding her bowl, although it was empty.
Ricardo sat down on the edge of the bed and told Julio that a doctor would come as soon as possible. A shade of consummate disbelief mingled with a penetrating cognizance passed over Julio's eyes, an expression that startled Ricardo's memory. Who are these people? he thought, bracing himself against recollection. Impatiently he picked up the man's wrist to test his pulse again, to play for time. Julio's hand lay in his, unable to resist or to reflect antagonism. His tongue hung out of his mouth like a panting dog, without language for its terror.
Ricardo put his ear to his chest and listened to his heart. It beat rapidly with amazing life, as if the heartbeat had an urgent message. Terror passed through Julio's eyes like a hand pulling a nightmare across his face. Sweat began to fall through his rigid, paralyzed skin. The pillow behind became wet, the mat became wet, the sweat leaked out of his pores and his body was covered with wet as if he were liquefying. Ricardo bent down to murmur comfort and saw himself reflected in the sick man's eyes. He was a stranger to himself, but not to his brother. Julio stared into his eyes as if into the darkness of death. The sweat flowed from him. He was locked into his fear, helpless to combat it or retreat from it. His only escape was into death.
Ricardo made the sign of the cross and began to say the prayer for his soul.
Julio's eyelids flickered. The sluggish lids flickered with familiar resentment and lowered halfway, through which a rim of red suspicion kept watch over his fate.
Felícita came to the foot of the bed. "Is it done?" she asked. She held the bowl of soup in the crook of her elbow and dipped her fingers into them, sucking the beads of juice.
"Sí," Ricardo said.
"Sí," she said and looked at Julio to verify the fact. The shade of some fanciful thought passed across her face. The corners of her mouth twitched with a smile or a pain. "Can you give me money to bury him?" she asked. Ricardo was taken aback. Poverty is bold, he said to himself. But he told the woman he would bring her money in the morning and assist in the burial.
]"Sí," she said in a matter-of-fact voice. She held her bowl and sucked on her fingers and looked at him with candid understanding, and he had the feeling that she was drawing a wayward, crazy circle about them. She looked at him too familiarly, and in this look he felt an intimacy he could not dismiss though he could not find facts to support it. It is because I am in this house that I feel this way, he thought, fighting a temptation to both remember and to forget. He clung to his present mission as the only clear fact in his life.The woman dipped her fingers in the soup bowl while her husband lay dead on a dirty bed. Ricardo hesitated, uncertain whether to leave her or not, to linger, to probe. Then abruptly he put his sombrero on and walked out. "Adiós, Señora," he said, "I will be here in the morning."
"Sí," she said, herself suddenly indifferent.
He mounted his horse and rode out through the gate with relief, and went down the trail to Netzahualcoyotl. It was too dark to see clearly. Ricardo could only sense the emptiness of the farm lands stretching about him.
Occasionally he passed the elongated form of a tree or heard his horse's hoofs hit a rock. But other than the quiet breath of their movement there was no other sound. It was winter and the farms were deserted. The inhabitants, even those who thought it wise to watch for ghosts and witches, had gone to the village for the cold months. Ricardo realized that the woman would be alone until the spring. Automatically, with the training of twenty years which made certain emotions instinctive, he thought of extending comfort, of coming by every so often to visit, but an older emotion, a hybrid between fear and hate, checked him.
They went up a low hill that skirted another farm. He could not see the lights of the village yet and he looked down into the dark countryside. He thought again of the woman, alone in the hut, jerking about in the empty room like a crazy rattlesnake, alone in her deathwatch. He stopped his horse and paused to think. He could see her sitting by the bed, and he thought of the man who lay on the bed. Behind the ill-kempt beard and the wrinkled skin, the dark eyes shifted with the rotatory movement of an inert and heavy cynicism, the expression that was as complete as a philosophy, bringing back the proportions of character. The woman's eyes gleamed yellow at him, full of veiled recognition. He shook the images away with resentment. The man's watchfulness was a silent harangue which Ricardo refused to accept. The woman's craziness hurt him, and he felt irritated, even indignant at her reproach. He had worked hard enough to be beyond reproach. He was tired. He was always tired. He had not slept for a day and half. Memory could not penetrate his tiredness. Only longing for sleep. In the morning he would send another rezandero to her, perhaps even a priest would go. He himself was too weary. His eyes began to close even as he sat on his horse. The effort to keep them open was bitter. Sluggishly, his head falling on his chest, he prodded his horse over the hump of the hill and down its falling side. The sky was cold with stars, brilliant, painless points of inhuman aloofness that fell with a slight curving in front of him, following irrevocable laws of cycling, laws which had been set a billion years ago into the indigenous framework of the universe. It was eternity, without warmth or tenderness, which gave solemnity to the night, as if holiness were no more than constancy of design.