f i c t i o n

j u a n  t o v a r  

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 future…

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 hedges.

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.

–Whose servants?

–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 them.

–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.

–Morning star.

–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 approaching.

–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 entreaty.

–Speak up, then, she said. Perhaps we did get confused and you were only passing this way leading your ailing father.

–Or following your itinerant teacher, this temperate Templar.

–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 sisterly eyes.

–Is this another of your novels, then? I never expected you would cast me as an itinerant dancer or a drowned damsel.

–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 minstrel.

–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 here?

–By following the thread and tying up the loose ends.

–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 there?

–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.

–Barbaric ceremony.

–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 family.

–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 flesh.

–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.

From CREATURE OF A DAY, to be published by

McPherson & 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.



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