f i c t i o n

2-1slavuski-a.GIF (1984 bytes)


Victoria Slavuski
tr. Edith Grossman


2-1t.jpg (4637 bytes)he Selene dropped anchor under a porcelain blue sky. Beatriz was in the crowd on the shore, waving to Julio as he lurched down the rope ladder holding a bottle in one hand. When he caught sight of her he made an abrupt gesture of greeting, almost fell into the water, and had to be carried to the pier by two sailors. He staggered forward, bumping into some fishermen, and throwing his arms wide he shouted: “Oh, my beloved island, I never should have left you,” Selkirk’s words that even the tourists learn and, in the knotty confusion between the man and his literary double, almost everyone attributes to Robinson Crusoe. When he embraced Beatriz he lost his balance, and she had to keep him from slipping to the ground. Eladio and Colorado held him between them and helped him to the house. “I can’t believe it,” he protested, “they’re treating me like a drunk.” Ada asked what was wrong with him. “His father. . .” Beatriz answered, “you know, a telegram came saying he wasn’t well, and then the turmoil, the emptiness. . . .”

Ada and Beatriz walked together as they watched the men unload the ship. They talked about Julio’s extraordinary eyes, about his lock of prematurely white hair, about how it would be hard to choose between his athlete’s shoulders and Eladio’s dark, agile grace. The hatches had been opened and they could see into the hold of the Selene, its wooden arches illuminated by lanterns, the back-lit figures of fishermen moving cargo about. Beatriz compared the hull and arches to the stomach and rib cage of a dragon, adding that originally there had been no battles between heroes and dragons, as dragons were initially sea monsters that swallowed the hero and, like living ships, transported him in their bellies. She hurriedly turned the talk about Julio to the inner workings of the group’s love life: she wanted to create, as quickly as possible, an intimacy that would encourage Ada to confide in her. At first, she said, Julio always talked about his wife’s imminent arrival on Juan Fernández, but that never happened. Perhaps the supposed geological research that kept him here was a smoke screen to hide the collapse of his marriage. Beatriz went on: after receiving a letter that ended his relationship with the woman who had been his lover for years, Colorado became involved in a tortuous, short-lived romance with a South African tourist, and in another one, longer and less complicated, with a colleague of Julio’s who spent a few months on the island. Pablo was a loner, and except for a turbulent, lethal affair when he was twenty with the woman who was his professor of literature, his love life was as unfathomable as the angels’. She fell silent, waiting for Ada to speak. “And Beatriz?” Ada asked, surprising her so much that she smiled vaguely, raised her eyebrows, and attempted to change the subject. But Ada insisted and Beatriz said that, like her, she was trying to forget. Her eyes brimming with curiosity, Ada asked what it was she wanted to forget. Beatriz smiled: she would like to forget that she, unlike Ada, had nothing to forget. In her case, she added with a grimace, other people were the ones who had to forget.

“Those two look lost in space,” Colorado called as he passed them on his way to the dock with Julio, who was now almost fully recovered.

He had raised his voice to tease them, and they continued joking as they walked together to the Selene. The two men must have been talking about Ada, because Julio asked about the documentary. “It’s still in the planning stage,” she said, lowering her eyes, and Colorado, who did not stop looking at her, offered to help with any material she might need about the island. Julio remarked that on the Mainland there was a good deal of tension, rumors of divisions within the military, the expectation of armed conflicts. He had brought a message from Agualdo’s son, who had been sent to a northern garrison, which would delay his return to the island for three months. Colorado said he was fed up with social immaturity on the Mainland, and he asked Julio to talk about something else: one of the advantages of being on Juan Fernández was not having to listen to any more political discussions. Julio said he couldn’t make him be quiet, that escapism was the most ambiguous element in Colorado’s relationship to the island. If he thought Juan Fernádnez was not part of the world, Julio insisted, he was profoundly mistaken. Beatriz decided to change the subject by asking Julio if he had heard anything aboard the Selene about a certain don Willie, but Julio said he hadn’t. When Beatriz repeated what Chicho had said, Colorado became very interested: he was writing an article about the Miskito Indian who had been abandoned on the island in the seventeenth century. They were joined by Pablo. Ada walked between him and Colorado, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were rivals for her attention. Julio put his arm around Beatriz’ shoulder and pointed to the Selene: “The Caleuche,” he said with a smile. He found it inconceivable that the superstition still survived at this late date. Beatriz moved away and said that myths were reborn all the time, that in 1931 the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Hankou, China, declared that he had seen a dragon emerging from the Khan River, and in 1960, in Andalusia, a newspaper reported sightings of a horned dragon in an orchard in Escobinas.

Everyone was waiting for the men to finish unloading so that Agualdo’s would open for business. A good number of volunteers helped with the cases of red Macul that Agualdo and his sons-in-law brought up from the dock in wheelbarrows. “The drought is over,” said Eladio, brandishing the first opened bottle. Ada had sunk back into her lethargy and barely noticed the activity around her. Beatriz, in the role of guardian and guide, tried to infect Ada with her own inexhaustible enthusiasm for the island. She explained that the days preceding the arrival of the Selene were characterized by a total abstinence from alcohol. By then the island had been squeezed dry, not even a drop of Eladio’s dreadful homemade whiskey remained for emergencies, since the most desperate had already consumed all the alcohol in the infirmary. The appearance of the Selene, Beatriz continued, provoked a catharsis: “A return to a state of original innocence, or corruption. Class distinctions are erased. . . .” But Ada, her gaze opaque, insisted on returning to her room. Beatriz practically had to drag her to Agualdo’s, repeating over and over again that she could not miss the most important social event in the village, that it was absolutely essential for any documentary about the island.

Nano, who was carrying cases of wine, brushed them as he passed. He turned his head, eyes gleaming: he had done it intentionally. And Beatriz could not take her eyes off his bare torso with its broad shoulders and slender waist, bending and stretching under the weight of the cases. “A fabulous. . .” Beatriz murmured, “. . .body,” Ada finished the phrase. “Too bad he’s a savage,” Beatriz said. “Last month he rode a horse right into Rosa Reed’s dining room.”

As they spoke, Nano would stop working, put his hands on his hips, and look at them. Then he stretched out in front of Agualdo’s door to smoke a cigarette and stare up at the sky. Beatriz felt faint as she followed the line of his long neck, his strong, well-modeled, mestizo chin, his shining hair, the powerful body radiating energy, something flashing in his eyes when their glances met. Ada insisted on leaving, but an idea occurred to Beatriz:

“Don’t leave me alone, Ada, please,” she said, pointing at Nano. Ada agreed to sit on the schoolhouse steps, diagonally across from Agualdo’s. Chicho brought them the second bottle.

According to Pablo, there was a Caucasian proverb that said it was advisable to have at least two reasons for doing anything, and Beatriz had them. One was her preoccupation with Ada. The other was Nano. But most of all, she had spoken of him to nurture the tone of mutual confidences: between two women, establishing the topic “talking-about-men” is decisive and can have incalculable consequences. She thought at the time that Ada might resort to real suicide as a substitute for her symbolic crime, and she believed that if Ada began to tell her story she might exorcise it, at least in part.

“Your Eric. . .was he a savage too?” she asked, not taking her eyes off Nano, hearing how out of place her words sounded beneath the school’s deserted eaves as she used the familiar with Ada for the first time.

“No,” Ada said, and she moved first one leg and then the other away, distancing herself from the conversation.

Beatriz filled the two glasses. Ada emptied hers immediately.

“Did you meet him in New York?” Beatriz pressed on, returning to the formal Usted because of how Ada had pulled back, looking at a place where there was nothing to see, discovering at the same time that she could not use with Ada and that a red spider hung from the eaves at about the height of her nose.

“Yes,” she said after a long silence.

Beatriz brushed away the spider and poured more wine. She raised her glass and said:

“To Juan Fernández.”

Ada raised hers and said:

“To New York.”

And that was all she said, apparently intent upon observing the bottom of her empty glass as if the most awful battle on earth were being fought there.

“Ada. . .Ada. . .can you hear me?” said Beatriz, tapping the stem of her glass.

She poured more wine.

“The wind in New York,” Ada said suddenly to herself, “tunnels down the streets at incredible speed. Terrifying. You can’t walk.”

Beatriz intuited that this was the wind pushing Ada toward the beginning of her story. She took her fourth glass of wine and tried to become attuned, allow her sensibility to grow supple and slip into Ada’s world. She closed her eyes in an effort to enter the scene and said:

“A windy day and all alone. That wind makes you feel abandoned.”

“Yes,” said Ada. “I feel so alone I want to stop living, become a figure in a painting.”

“Something unmoving,” Beatriz said, her eyes still closed, imitating Ada’s tone, trying to be Ada, to avert silence.

“One of those days when taking part in the movement of life, the rushing around, the activity, seems horrifying, outrageous,” Ada continued.

“A time when you want to be part of an unmoving image of happiness,” said Beatriz.

“A painting with a center, like an Annunciation, the Infant Jesus, or anything else, and all around faces shining with expressions of love and joyful surprise. I want to be surrounded by the cruelty of love. That’s what I’m thinking when the wind blows us against the walls.”

“Why are you out walking in that wind?”

“Because it’s Estrella’s birthday, she’s one of my five friends.”

Estrella, Leonora, Luisa, Lois, Paulina. She might see them infrequently, or often, but she spoke to all of them regularly on the phone.

“I’m with Renzo. The wind whips us, pushes us against the buildings, sometimes we can’t walk. My hands are freezing.”

A handful of people in Estrella’s huge, half-finished loft. They talk about the usual things: New York is always its own protagonist in their conversations. They talk about the third man to scale the facade of the World Trade Center. About high rents. About street muggings. About unbelievable scenes witnessed in the subway. About stock prices falling, and interest rates rising. About cocaine replacing opiates. About the Mafia of art gallery owners. Hours go by. They can hear the wind rattling metal blinds against walls. Always the same people. Never anyone new. Renzo has his coat on, but Estrella asks Ada to sing a song before she goes, corrals her with a guitar. The one about the fisherman. Please, a birthday present. Ada has a tiny repertoire of three partially-learned songs taught to her by the Brazilian who took her to the island for the first time.

With her coat over her arm she began the one she learned on Juan Fernández, and as she sang she could hear the doorbell.

When she finished the song and looked up from the guitar strings, he was there in front of her in his long raincoat, his legs set slightly apart like an undercover police detective. Her glance moved from his shoes to his wrinkled trousers to the hat angled to one side. The apparition seemed to be inspecting her. The stranger who had materialized as if by magic was observing her, standing there in his oversized raincoat, his expression both amiable and sardonic. Gray eyes, light, tousled hair, he looks at her with the smile of someone who has watched her undress through a crack in the door. As Estrella embraced her he applauded, his chin up and his arms stretched toward her, a mannered, theatrical gesture, his head tilted back in a smile that made his eyes disappear. Who was the mysterious visitor who had come out of the night to stand in front of her?

“A friend of  Kiki’s, a performer and director; the latest thing off-off-Broadway,” whispered Estrella. She introduced them. Ada was a film-editor, and he shook her hand with the same smile of complicity with himself, as if he found everything, absolutely everything, strangely amusing. They sat in a corner, facing each other, he smiled again in the same way, his eyes turned into slits, and said in English, with a heavy accent she could not identify:

“I can see you in my show. With the guitar.”

What show? The one he was directing, it would open soon at the East Theater. Something very free, hardly any structure, with the possibility of infinite variation, “Like life itself,” he said. Now he was speaking with long pauses, with a sultry, husky voice, very serious. All his friends were going to take part. As if it were a party. All of them would do whatever they wanted. But with moments of immobility, as if time had stopped, as if they were living sculptures. Kiki was going to bring her giant iguana. A Frenchwoman he knew was going to prepare crepes on stage. Someone was going to draw on a black curtain with a laser. And Ada could take part, singing in a corner, singing the song she had just been singing, with a guitar.

“With a guitar. In a corner. Singing exactly what you sang just now.” Pause. “Brazilian?”

“No, forty per cent Colombian, forty per cent Argentine, twenty per cent Hungarian.”

Ada liked everything. His raincoat that was too long. His creased trousers. His eyes, even when she couldn’t see them (because of his feline Chinese smile). His uncombed hair. His look of a mistreated Peter Pan washed ashore by the night, blown there by the icy wind, a shipwreck survivor with the air of a blind man when he smiled.

Renzo insisted on leaving and Ada begged for more time. The stranger understood and smiled at Renzo again with his Chinese eyes, as if Renzo were really a mirror in which he was smiling at himself. He asked Ada if she liked solving puzzles. She nodded, trying with all her might to look intriguing. He drew something on a piece of paper.

Did Beatriz want Ada to draw it for her? She picked up a stick and touched it nine times to the dry ground in front of the steps where they were sitting:

. . .
. . .
. . .

Ada -- he smiled with his Chinese eyes -- had to connect all the dots with a single straight line that could be broken only three times. Renzo came over, and he stopped talking but continued to look at her through the slits of his eyes gleaming, perhaps, with the light of marijuana, though Ada found his glance as intoxicating as liquor. Renzo, ignored, tugged at her sleeve, but she could not move. He seemed to be looking at her again ironically. Aloof from his own hint of a smile, ironic toward everything, including himself. Renzo walked to the door. Finally Ada stood up and said:

“And if I can’t solve it?”

“It isn’t important. Good-bye. Good luck.”

The stranger continued to smile, as if it amused him enormously that Ada, who had just come into his life, would instantly and forever vanish from it, her song unsung, the puzzle unsolved.

“Good-bye,” he said again, his smile broadening, his eyebrows raised so high it seemed as if they were about to fly off his face, as if he did not see Renzo’s increasingly somber face staring at him from the door.

“I’d like to know the answer,” Ada said in a faint voice.

The stranger shrugged, looked at Renzo, and said:


“Could you write it down for me on the back of the paper?” Ada asked, her voice even fainter, not knowing what she was saying, speaking only to prolong their time together, put off the moment of parting. “I won’t look at it until I solve it,” she added, gazing straight into his eyes. “I promise,” her smile promising other things.

He looked at her one last time with his Chinese eyes, took the paper and wrote something. Ada left, Renzo pulling her by the wrist because her hand held the piece of paper. In the elevator she sneaked a glance at it. He had written a cryptic message, “Before you ask the answer is no,” and beside it a telephone number without a name: the first three digits meant he lived somewhere on the Lower West Side.

“I was lost, do you understand? Lost. Thunderstruck.”

“Could you sing the song for me?” asked Beatriz.

“It’s gone, you know? Forgotten. I’ve forgotten the words.”

“Hum it,” said Beatriz.

Ada edged away from her.

“Why?” she asked, her tone fearful.

“Because I can’t picture the two of you,” Beatriz replied, “and I can’t imagine you’ve sung it since then. The song may help.”

Ada stood, and stumbled; she was very pale.

“You want to steal the beginning of my story from me,” she said, her eyes made bigger by the wine.

Ada stepped back, then turned and began to walk away, taking great strides and holding her shoulders high. Chicho, who must have been watching nearby, immediately appeared.

“She left,” Beatriz said with a shrug.

Chicho gave her a reproachful look and ran after Ada. Beatriz followed him, they caught up to Ada, and eventually began nudging her toward Agualdo’s.

“You can’t miss it, it’s the most important day on the island,” Beatriz repeated.

Beatriz tried to keep her balance in the eye of a small hurricane of contradictory feelings: exhausted by the effort to enter Ada’s world, encouraged because at last she had begun to tell her story, disturbed because she had tried to run away. Why, in so short a time, had helping Ada become so important? It unsettled her but she found it more crucial than her own equilibrium. Keeping her balance: a constant, for Beatriz. Watching over her emotions, cutting them back the way Japanese gardeners prune dwarf trees, sacrificing intensity for the sake of composure.

Nano was still smoking in front of the door, and his eyes flashed when he moved back slightly to let them pass, though Beatriz could still feel his breath in her ear, the length of his warm body pressing against hers. The rest of the group greeted them from the bar with shouts and raised glasses.


The night was far advanced in Agualdo’s, and the smoke made it difficult to breathe. A few fishermen were already lying on the floor in the corners and Rosa, sitting at the bar on one of the two high stools, guarded on one side by Señor Alexander (to whom she was forever joined in holy matrimony) and on the other by the Chief of Police (to whom she was momentarily joined by the thumb he had placed between the seat and her thigh) presided over the scene, dressed in red like a devouring goddess wreathed in smoke, her face rosy from the reflection of her dress, puffing on a long meerschaum cigarette-holder, her eyes obscured by smoke tinged pink by the cellophane around the light bulbs.

“But she’s a whale, I mean it, a whale,” said Eladio as soon as they came in, an expression of disapproval moving across his dark face.

According to Eladio, her most faithful enemy, chronicler, and commentator, Rosa had put on her bullfighter’s “suit of lights,” worn only on special occasions, in honor of the treasure-hunters’ arrival. This was a bright red dress covered in sequins, with a double row of flounces and an abysmally plunging neckline. Knotted around her thick neck, and separating it from her square, bloated face and bulging eyes, she wore a tiny gauze handkerchief that, according to Ada, inspired an infinite number of adjectives and, in brief, “made you want to cry.”

At Rosa’s feet lay Chief, the dog that always managed to show up at the most private parties, and whose head was being patted by the Chief of Police, not because of any sudden affection for the canine species in general or for this dog, his namesake, in particular, but because with each caress he squeezed Rosa’s robust calf between thumb and forefinger while she crooned “Bésame, bésame mucho, as if tonight were the very last time.”

Pablo had set himself up as Rosa Reed’s defender because, Eladio claimed, they were both fat, although their corpulence was as dissimilar as their souls. With his visored cap turned around, which is how he wore it in his rare moments of enthusiasm, Pablo expounded a theory of seduction in a low, musical voice: even the most awful woman could be exciting because the male animal did not respond to the beauty of a body or its movements, did not see a woman’s visible form but only her invisible desire to excite him. And he ended by saying: “In other words, these matters are much more spiritual than they seem.” Eladio’s response to this elaborate discourse was: “But she looks like a whale, damn it, only a prick like you could think a whale’s exciting.”




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