At the sight
of you pilgrims coming up to our
fire, like day and night, a phrase came to mind that translates
theater into actuality and attests to the present by telling what is
yet to come. By different plotlines we’ve been brought into this
same word-space, and now that we are sharing this asylum let us
recall, happy memory, the one known as the Home of the Good
Shepherd, there on the outskirts of my home town. It was a walled
oasis of green in the midst of an urbanized wasteland. I saw it
often on the way to the cemetery where I used to keep the accounts —
my very first job — and in the shade of plaster angels tried to
fashion sonnets with the polish of marble.
Ungraspable present, intermingled
phantom of the past and of the
I made no great dent in the world of the elegiac
and at length decided I would be better off as the Shepherd’s
gardener, cultivating flower beds as well as bucolic verses — or
even heroic ones, for nothing hindered me from being in reality the
Masked Thunderbolt of some notoriety in the arenas of the area. My
ambitions went no further than those circus jousts, fuel enough to
kindle the spirit that was to write about them as epic feats. I
learned wrestling as a child, and I took pleasure in it, so you can
say I had what it took for free-form wrestling, where nothing else
is needed. Truly free? we would ask in those days before each match,
and we still do that now, mask to mask, with a gesture that
ambitious wanna-be wrestlers have learned in self defense to
recognize and answer.
Thus there are four classes of free-form
wrestling. The highest is when one real fighter asks and the other
replies: Truly free. This occurs but rarely; wrestlers of this kind
are so few that it seems sheer wastefulness for them to stake their
all just to amuse a crowd that will be pleased with anything at all.
Most often we play an acting game where we win or lose on the
strength of dramatic coherence, according to the course of the story
and the wheel of time. Upstarts and frauds as a rule give in
beforehand; this is the lowest class of bout and is over with in
just two falls. When some yearning for nobility makes them actually
run the risk, the encounter is pedagogical, and then a certain rein
is allowed… He is saying all this in the garden at the Home of the
Good Shepherd, with Gabriela listening and watching him prune the
No one knows for certain whether her name was
Gabriela, nor his Amado; the original legend prevails here, or
rather its ghostly remains in the folds of the old woman’s memory, a
garden of mist and lethargy, a fading out to a page almost blank:
truly free for the yes of bare feet and needles of hoarfrost, aurora
borealis, and a young, pregnant body with the salt of the earth in
her veins — what is the sign for that? Down pathways of childhood
she searches for it until time to go home. It is her parents’ house
and she sets foot in it with a stranger’s shyness. Everything the
way it used to be and all deserted until, in a hallway, in front of
the door to the room full of toys and trinkets, she finds several
children squeezed together on a sofa, and among them she recognizes
her brother, who stares at her as at a stranger.
–Sit down here, little girl, he says, making room.
My sister Gabriela is going to show us a name, but first the
servants get to show off.
–The name’s, of course.
–Who are they?
–She makes them out of whatever she finds in
there. Straw hat, canvas apron, a spade, a pasteboard Judas face
left over from last year’s Easter celebration. The ogre comes out
and we ask him, “Are you the Dominion of Canada?” “No,” he answers,
“I am merely the last of his servants.” And then the next-to-last
comes out, and one by one the rest, scarier and scarier each of
–And the name?
–That comes after the first one.
–Is it the name you said?
–Dominion of Canada is only the name of the name.
But hush now, little girl. The door is opening.
The monster appears with a roar and approaches the
trembling spectators. He has your eyes, Gabriela, your father’s eyes
— an emissary of death or a traveler used to such ways, he touches
you with his cold hand. We are dreaming, sister; it’s all part of
the game, something that happens. The light crystallizes in the sky
and the leaves of grass are glass shards, pain of childbirth.
–Are you the Dominion of Canada?
–He is the forest, the girl is told. He is all the
trees in the forest, the fire and whoever gazes into it, the fruit
of your womb, the stream of free action. Shall we follow it?
The pruning shears click, birds sing, insects
buzz, the lawn resounds with sunlight.
–Amado, the old woman says, I must go to the city
where my children live.
–Do you have children, ma’am?
–They gave me this home, I mean, they brought me
here. They used to visit me each year. Last year no one came but my
daughter, the one who dislikes me.
–Ungrateful wretches, ma’am, one and all. Why must
you go to them?
–It’s not them, Amado. It’s my names.
–Do they have them?
–They are them, and their children: names that
have run in the family.
–For me the name is no object. When I wrestle it’s
not to win renown for my own, and here amongst the hedges and the
flowers, why should I pursue the glory and the nothing of a name?
As always when he came upon a good line of verse,
Amado looked around nervously, calculating whether to appropriate it
for his own. Gabriela brought him back to the point.
–Neither am I making this trip for myself.
–But going out on the road alone, at your age?
–My age has decided for me, but alone I’m not able
to. Would you go with me, Amado?
–If it means getting away from here, I’m ready.
–Friday we’ll take the train.
In the interim she puts her belongings in order,
writes down some instructions, spends time in the chapel. Thursday
morning, when the residents of the home take their insomnia out into
the sun, they find her at the head of the garden. She has a pile of
good clothes which she proceeds to give away. An unsenile shiver
shoots through the women, cold hits their bones, greed remembered.
They finger the possessions that anchor them to the world, and as
they thank her they look into eyes already vague. At the sound of
the breakfast bell they leave, and Gabriela wanders among flowers
and hedges. She drowned in the morning light and was a very pale
corpse — a flush on her cheeks like dawn over ice — so that the
director remembered his own parents abandoned in the hyperborean
night: motionless, side by side, and between their teeth the last
grains of salt. The gardener lit the candles. Three old women were
already praying in the corner. The director lit his pipe.
–I don’t understand why she’d want to be
transferred there. Here we have a quiet cemetery, quite spacious,
but in the city, no, not even room to lie down. But tell me, Amado,
are you going with her?
–I told her I would, sir.
–Get some rest then. You’ll leave for the station
after the wake. That is, right away, if the set is ready. What do
you say, good women?
–Ark of the covenant.
–Health of the sick.
Another dawn saturates the air with scarlet fire,
purple shadows. Alongside the train Amado argues with some men who
want to stow the coffin he calls his mother in the baggage car. –She
can’t travel alone, he insists, and they allow him to travel at her
side. He sees the world passing by through a crack in the siding. He
hears about roads and places from employees who get progressively
less sullen at successive railway stations. Someone warns him to
expect the opposite as they near the city; there they stick more to
regulations. At nightfall he eats his dinner on the sealed coffin
lid and decides he will not return to the Home. He has his mask and
his poetry with him, and as for the garden, didn’t he take care of
it just for Gabriela’s sake? In the blink of a drowsy eye he saw
her, and daylight on the leaves.
–This is where we agreed to travel together, Amado;
the moment endures, and that’s our time for play. I’ll still hear
about your exploits and I hope to reveal my person to you when this
disguise imposed on me by my long life finally wears off. Out there
time is passing and it’s time for something new. Walk straight
ahead, don’t look back.
An impulse moves him, the inertia of his body. He
awakens; the train has stopped. He slides the door back. An open
plain, stars in the sky. He gets down and starts to walk, crunching
the gravel with his weight, and clambers up a slope. Just
discernible, he stands there, a makeshift creature in her gunsight.
He was a young animal, with a coffin on his back,
and Ophelia held her fire. Flustered, she just stared at him, like a
child suppressing giggles. He smelled his chance, let out a soft
grunt, and went off over the plain without turning his head. They
both thought they had dreamed each other. –Because, she says, that’s
the way I met Arthur: wandering from carnival to fair with
everything he owned on his back, an unlucky gambler who won me in a
wager and ended up losing me. Don’t ask me how; you tell me what it
was. And strumming the lute, I respond to her: a pair of hearts, but
the second one he had up his sleeve, and that was the death of him.
Ludovico will say where, once he leaves the enduring moment in which
Gabriela wants to appear returned to her youth, dressed in filmy
white. As a matter of fact she is out to wed her son, but we are not
in Thebes nor is this a comedy of errors even though we are looking
at the director and the queen through a gap in the scenery, and you
can Wt in that line about our servants doing our living for us. Oh,
how she flirts! how shamelessly she struts, while describing what
she wants to wear. Ludovico takes refuge in his tobacco smoke and
peers about, on the lookout for anyone coming to his aid. He does
not see us, for although we are on the stage with them, our plot
line is a different one and it will take a few turns before both
come together. Still, a shortcut can always be found; leave it to
your faithful servant, actually a prince in disguise who loves you
in silence and keeps an eye on you with averted face. I cannot
reveal my true rank, you know, because it is tarnished by a terrible
secret that you will eventually discover when the story makes clear,
and if that never happens I will just forget. We will still exchange
gentle discourse, here or at the end of time. But someone is
–The beast again.
–What brings you here, boy? Do you come from
burying your mother or were your spirits dampened because you didn’t
find us deep in fornication? You’re much too early; I was just
starting to seduce her. But if you were the one with the box on his
back and if it did contain the remains of the one who brought you
forth, a knock on the head should suffice to remind you that what
God did not give, not even he can take away, whatever you make of
it. Give me your spade. Don’t tell me you were digging with your
hands; your nails are dirty but not torn.
The actress sought some sign in his eyes. They
brightened and seemed on the verge of recognizing her when she
frivolously turned hers away.
–It’s not he.
Dangling from the broken thread, you held a hand
out to the woman — a plea to the abyss in the fall. The minstrel
seized you by the arm, unsheathing a dagger.
–Tell me, he growled, did her husband send you?
You denied this, frightened, and repeated your
–Speak up, then, she said. Perhaps we did get
confused and you were only passing this way leading your ailing
–Or following your itinerant teacher, this
–This old man and I, you said, we’ve just met.
–Kill him in some dark corner, then, and inherit
his maladies, if he has nothing else. The thing is, choose your
fate. Behold, the child is father to the man, and in sacrificing you
I revoke my origin.
A quick strike with the dagger: coldness of steel
in your breast. So much to say and your final breath only a sob,
night in your eyes, far-off gleaming, a death-pale crowd — you were
running through it again, your arrival at the camp with the old
pilgrim, the fire livid and rain like drops of blood. –Like day and
night, said the jester; enter, good souls, into the violent circle
where your death comes to life — though not yours, old man, for the
prey you’ve brought frees you. Give him time, let him roam around in
the underbrush until he hears the song and the purple ray of the sun
rips through the storm clouds to show him the goddess dancing in the
clearing, that madwoman who now, motionless and mocking, is
attending his dying moans. Whistling, the man wipes his dagger; the
young man searches himself for the wound, although he had only seen
the blade emerging from the hilt, not from himself.
–Astonishing, said the former, these visitations
of death’s agony. You’d think yourself alive and whole, eager to
take on your best years.
–By the way, love, she said, you lack a name.
–Amado would do, for lack of a Francisco.
–But there is a Francisco. That’s my name.
–Here, and in hell? You talk only in confession,
and that not too often, but in your pouch you bring pencil and paper
just like that other one with his maternal coffin. He bears too much
weight there, but you carry only that of your guilt; there’s your
edge over him. Yes, of course, you’re just beginning; you’ve hardly
seen anything but your family and the area of their wanderings, and
your experience embraces nothing further than incest with your
sister — later on you’ll read us those Egyptian memoirs — but think
of the March hare and the tortoise of Elea.
I have no idea how he knew my name nor whether my
intended crime already showed through. The woman looked at me with
–Is this another of your novels, then? I never
expected you would cast me as an itinerant dancer or a drowned
–One changes, I said. Beauty does not.
–Still the reflection?
–Light on the water. Dance again.
–To which music?
–Our lives are rivers.
–Here are strings for you to play it on, said the
–I don’t know the fingering; only in you may I be
said to know it.
–I’m not in your novel; I mean, who is? We just
happen, that’s all. As easy as rolling dice. Can anyone find a story
–By following the thread and tying up the loose
–If that’s what you believe, then unyarn the
enduring moment and let’s go on.
She gave me the cue, and addressing the other
couple I started again: –The mother is dressed in mourning. This is
not the moment but the last of its reflections.
There was a silence, and then she said: –But what
play is this? Who’s writing it?
Ludovico looked away. It had stopped raining and
was almost night. Songs of birds and insects, whispers in the brush,
dripping from the branches. The question forgotten, the forgotten
messenger responded: –I should like to be that author, my Lady, not
this bit-player. In truth, I would drape your body only with
gorgeous silks and precious stones.
–And pile them on her with a pitchfork, no doubt,
said Ludovico. But what else happens in your play? We’re interested
in any plots and twists whatsoever.
–The play, sir, has just been conceived in the
light of these emerald eyes. It needs a little time for gestation.
–And a little more light in your sleepless nights,
I assume. Go on; you’re not doing badly. An ass can lie in a queen’s
lap. Didn’t you use your eyewash today, my love? What do you see
–No way an ass, but a sensitive, discreet young
man who’d be well worth encouraging.
–But you desire an ass. Come with me to the
wardrobe caravan, and I’ll take your measurements. Keep on with your
conceiving, my boy, and see what you beget.
Braying, he carried off the queen astride his
back. I returned to the spot where I received the message and it
felt like the desert of centuries. I called your name, o son of
Thebes, for the sole purpose of cursing you when my foot sank into a
mud puddle. In truth, you might well have gone away to Corinth with
your sister, married her, and founded a dynasty. You recovered your
sanity all too soon. All that because of a body hanging? Enough;
turn about. Let’s put an end to this procrastination once and for
all, by word or blood, where they come together in due course.
The next day we took our leave of the actors the
sooner to get to the pilgrimage camp. Coming out of the forest I
killed a rabbit with my slingshot and hung it over my shoulder from
a stick. The old man watched me with austere gravity, but once we
resumed our progress he felt of the prey.
–Not bad for a start, he said.
–Gets better, I replied.
–You cook ’em, too?
–Eat ’em raw.
–Thereby hangs a tale.
–Bring it forth, then, while we roast this fellow.
I didn’t want to relinquish the weight of the
victim nor the bloody trail it left behind us. But our supper had
been rather frugal and I remembered the last meal yesterday with my
–Agreed, I said. A civilized ceremony. People
leave ruined cities to found new ones. You and I, old man, we have
to set aright this forlorn pilgrimage that meanders along, going
anywhere and nowhere; we have to return it to its fated course. You,
because of your age, must recollect what that is; just you make it
known to me, and mine will be the voice to spread it around.
The old man laughed.
–It’s not as simple as that, he said, but
eventually you’ll see this for yourself. In the meantime, the tale
and the rabbit. You skin it while I gather firewood.
They set up camp at the foot of an isolated tree.
The sky was blue, with clouds here and there, and a quiet breeze
blowing. The old man was having trouble starting the fire because
there was no dry wood. Francisco smiled as he skewered the now naked
–Must barbarity triumph? You did wrong, master, to
arouse my appetite.
He bit into the corpse, pulled off a chunk, and
chewed for a long time. The smile left his face and seemed to pass
over to the old man’s. He swallowed as best he could; not
ungracefully he set up the rabbit next to the firewood and went to
clean his hands and blade on the wet grass. The old man toiled on.
Francisco came up to him with a notebook.
–One might say I’m selling my birthright for a
mess of rabbit, but the story I’ve set down here is the one I’m
about to tell you, so it will stay written down. Make an offering of
this paper to Brother Fire to see if he’ll favor us before your
invocations use up all the tinder.
–The other looked at him.
–I’m really beginning to know you, he said.
And he tore the first pages from the notebook.
©Copyright 1982, 1988, 1992, 2002
by Juan Tovar.
Translation copyright ©2002 by
Leland H. Chambers.
OF A DAY, to be published by
Company in October of 2002.
CRIATURA DE UN DÍA has appeared in three editions
in Mexico since 1974. The text for
the English translation was revised and expanded
and, until a new edition appears in
Spanish, is definitive.
Published with permission.