Victorio Ferri Tells a Tale
For Carlos Monsiváis
I know my name is Victorio. I know people think I’m mad (a fiction that at times infuriates me; and others merely amuses me). I know I'm different from the others, but my father, my sister, my cousin José, and even Jesusa, are different too, and no one thinks they're mad; worse things are said about them. I know we’re nothing like other people, but even among us there isn't even a hint of similarity. I’ve heard it said that my father is the devil, and though I’ve never seen any external mark that identifies him as such, my conviction that he is who he is remains incorruptible. Even so, at times it's a source of pride; in general, it neither pleases nor frightens me to be one of the evil one’s offspring.
When a peon dares to speak about my family, he says that our house is hell itself. Before hearing that assertion the first time, I imagined the devil’s abode to be different (I thought, of course, of the traditional flames), but I changed my mind and gave credence to the words, when after a painful and arduous meditation it occurred to me that none of the houses I know looks like ours. Evil does not dwell in them, but it dwells in ours.
My father’s wickedness is so prodigious that it exhausts me; I've seen the pleasure in his eyes when he orders a peon locked in the rooms at the back of the house. When he orders them flogged and contemplates the blood that flows from their shredded backs, he bares his teeth in delight. He’s the only one on the hacienda who’s able to laugh this way, although I’m learning to do it too. My laugh is becoming so terrifying that women cross themselves upon hearing it. We both bare our teeth and emit a sort of gleeful bray when we’re overcome with satisfaction. None of the peons dares laugh like us, not even when they’re weary from drink. Joy, if they can remember it, confers on their faces a grimace that doesn’t quite make a smile.
Fear has taken its thrown on our properties. My father has assumed his father’s position, and when he in turn disappears I shall become the lord of the comarca; I shall become the devil: I’ll be the Lash, the Fire, and the Punishment. I shall oblige my cousin José to accept money in exchange for his share of the hacienda, and, because he prefers life in the city, he’ll be able to go to that part of Mexico he’s always talking about, which only God knows whether it exits or whether he merely imagines it just to make us jealous; and I shall keep for myself the lands, the houses, and the men, and the river where my father drowned his brother Jacobo, and, much to my woe, the sky that blankets us every day, in a different color, with clouds that change from one moment to the next, only to change again. I endeavor to look up as little as possible, such does it terrify me when things aren’t the same, that they escape dizzyingly from my sight. Whereas Carolina, to annoy me, despite the fact I’m her elder and she should show me respect, spends long periods of time gazing at the sky, and at night, during dinner, adorned in a silly expression that dares not come from ecstasy, remarks that the evening clouds were golden on a lilac background, or that at dusk the water’s color succumbed to that of fire, and other such nonsense. If anyone in our house is truly possessed with madness, it would be she. My father, indulgent, feigns excessive attention and encourages her to continue, as if the foolishness he’s hearing made any sense to him! He never speaks to me during meals, but it would be silly for me to resent it, as I am the only one he favors with his intimacy each morning, at sunrise, when I’m just getting home and he, with coffee in hand that he sips hurriedly, sets out to the fields to become drunk on the sun and violently stupefy himself with the harshest of tasks. Because the devil (I have yet to understand why, but he does) is compelled by necessity to forget his crime. If I drowned Carolina in the river, I’m certain that I wouldn’t feel the slightest remorse. Perhaps one day, when I rid myself of these filthy sheets that no one has bothered to change since I fell ill, I shall do it. Then I’ll be able to feel myself in my father’s skin, to know firsthand what I intuit in him, even though, regrettably, incomprehensibly, a difference will forever stand between us: he loved his brother more than the palm tree he planted in front of the colonnade, and his chestnut mare and the filly she foaled; whereas to me Carolina is nothing more than an inconvenient weight and nauseating presence.
These days, illness has led me to rip away more than one veil that until now had remained untouched. Despite having always slept in this room, I can say it is only now betraying its secrets. I had never noticed, for example. that there are ten beams that span the ceiling, or that on the wall opposite where I now lie there are two large spots caused by the humidity or that, and I find this oversight unbearable, beneath the heavy mahogany dresser dozens of mice have built nests. The desire to catch them and feel their beating death on my lips torments me. But such pleasure is, for now, forbidden me.
Do not think that many discoveries I make day after day reconciles me to my illness, nothing of the sort! The yearning, more intense with each passing moment, for my nightly escapades is constant. Sometimes I wonder if someone is taking my place, if someone whose name I do not know is usurping my duties. That sudden concern disappears at the very moment it is born; it overjoys me to think that no one on the hacienda is able to fulfill the requirements that such a laborious and delicate occupation demands. Only I, who am known to the dogs, the horses, the domestic animals, am able to get close enough to the shanties to hear what the laborers are whispering without causing the barking, clucking, or braying that such animals would make to betray someone else.
I provided my first service without realizing it. I discovered that behind Lupe’s house a mole had dug a hole. Lying there, lost in the contemplation of the hole, I spent many an hour waiting for the odd-looking creature to appear. Instead, I watched, to my regret, the sun defeated once again, and with its annihilation I was overwhelmed by a deep sleep that was impossible to resist. When I awoke, night had fallen. Inside the shanty, you could hear the soft murmur of hasty and trusting voices. I pressed my ear to a crevice, and for the first time I discovered the tales that were circulating about my house. When I repeated the conversation, my service was rewarded. It seems that my father was flattered when it was revealed to him that I, against all expectation, might be useful to him. I was happy because, from that moment, I occupied an undeniably superior position to Carolina.
Three years have passed since my father ordered Lupe to be punished for being a malcontent. The passage of time has made a man of me, and, thanks to my work, I have accumulated knowledge that, while natural to me, does not cease to be remarkable: I have managed to see into the deepest night; my ear has become as sharp as the otter’s; I walk so stealthily, so, if it can be said, wingedly, that a squirrel would envy my steps; I can lie on the roofs of the shacks and remain there for long periods of time until I hear those words that my mouth will repeat later. I able to sniff out those who are going to speak. I can say, proudly, that my nights are rarely wasted, since from the looks on their faces, from the way in which their mouths quiver, from a certain twitch that I perceive in their muscles, from an aroma that emanates from their bodies, I am able to identify those whom a final shame, or the embers of dignity, rancor, despair, will drag through the night toward confidences, confessions, whispers. I have managed to go undiscovered during these three years; and to attribute to the satanic powers of my father the ability to know their words and to punish them. In their guilelessness, they come to believe this to be one of the devil’s qualities. I laugh. My certainty that he is the devil has much deeper roots.
Sometimes, just to amuse myself, I go and spy on Jesusa’s hut. There I have been allowed to contemplate how her firm petite body becomes intertwined with my father’s old age. Their lewd contortions delight me. I tell myself, deep inside, that Jesusa’s tenderness should be directed at me, that I am her same age, and not at the evil one, who long ago turned seventy.
The doctor has come on several occasions. He examines me with pretentious concern. He turns to my father and in a grave and compassionate voice declares that there is no cure, that any treatment is useless, and that it is merely a question of awaiting death. At that moment, I see how my father’s green eyes grow brighter. A look of glee (of mockery) comes over them and by then I cannot contain a thunderous peal of laughter that causes the doctor to grow pale with incomprehension and fear. When he at last leaves, the sinister one also unleashes a guffaw, pats me on the back, and we both laugh like madmen.
It is known that among the many misfortunes that can beset man, the worst arise from loneliness, which, I sense, is attempting to fell me, to break me, to put thoughts into my mind. Until a month ago I was completely happy. I spent my mornings sleeping; during the afternoon, I’d wander the countryside, go to the river, or lie face down on the grass, waiting for the hours to come and go. At night, I’d listen. It was always painful for me to think; so, I avoided doing it. Now, I think of things, and that terrifies me. Even though I know I’m not going to die, that the doctor is mistaken, that there will always be a man at Refugio, because when the father dies the son must assume command: that’s how it has always been, and things can’t suddenly be any other way (which is why my father and I, when anyone says otherwise, burst into laughter). But when I’m alone and sad and at the end of a long day I begin to think, I’m overwhelmed with doubts. I have concluded that nothing inevitably happens in just one way. The repetition of the most trivial facts produces variations, exceptions, nuances. Why, then, should the hacienda not be without the son to replace the master? I have been vexed by something more unsettling of late, as I think about the possibility that my father may believe that I’m going to die and that his laughter may have been something other than mere mocking of the doctor, but rather the delight that my disappearance produces in him, the joy of finally ridding himself of my voice and my presence. It is possible that those who hate me have succeeded in convincing him of my madness…
In the Ferri chapel in the parish church of San Rafael there is a small plaque that reads:
Victorio Ferri died in childhood.
His father and sister remember him with love.
Mexico City, 1957
Translated by George Henson
Sergio Pitol Demeneghi (1933-2018) was a Mexican writer, translator, editor, and diplomat. His multifaceted literary work set him apart as one of the essential voices of contemporary Mexican letters and Spanish-language literature in general. He received his qualifications as a lawyer from UNAM, the Universidad Veracruzana, and the University of Bristol, and his legal expertise drew him to the promotion of human rights in Mexico. He has been recognized for his intellectual accomplishments in creative writing and as a cultural promoter, especially in the preservation and promotion of Mexican art and history on an international scale. After being a student in Rome, a translator in Beijing and Barcelona, a university professor in Xalapa and Bristol, and a diplomat, he worked as a foreign service officer starting in 1960, serving as the cultural advisor of the Mexican embassies in France, Hungary, Poland, and the Soviet Union. He also worked as director of Cultural Affairs of the Secretary of Foreign Relations, director of International Affairs of the National Institute of Fine Arts, and Mexican ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Among other awards and distinctions, he received the Cervantes Prize in 2005, marking his recognition as a writer who, through his body of work, has contributed to the enrichment and legacy of Spanish-language literature.
George Henson is the translator of many of Latin America’s most important writers, including Cervantes laureates Sergio Pitol (The Art of Flight, The Journey, The Magician of Vienna, and Mephisto’s Waltz: Selected Short Stories) and Elena Poniatowska (The Heart of the Artichoke). His translations have appeared in World Literature Today, the Paris Review, Granta, and Two Lines. In addition to serving as an editor-at-large for Latin American Literature Today, he is an assistant professor of Spanish Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.