Flowerbed

 

Photo: @florenciapotter, Unsplash.

I intend this document to serve as corroboration for my prior statements: I would not change a single word. I assume that you will refuse to understand my motivations, but it would be nonetheless courteous of you to accept that I am not a liar. As I have previously explained, Señor and Señora B were my neighbors. Señora B never went to Mass. Señora B’s husband never went to Mass either. This in itself should give you a pretty good picture of the two of them. Other than that, Señor B worked in publishing. I saw him leave the house every morning. He carried a black leather briefcase and wore thick glasses. He’d leave the house at 8:15 and always said a friendly hello, and he’d come back after sundown.   

Señora and Señor B had two children. Señora B’s children liked to pull up my flowerbed. This was infuriating, and I scolded them every time, but they never learned to behave. They just pulled up the flowers and ran away when they saw me. Señora B’s children looked like a couple of rosy-cheeked little cherubs, so charming and pleasant it was almost hard to believe how demonic they really were. They went against the grain of our neighborhood of modest houses and nice people. Yes, Señora B’s children were different. I suppose they owed it to their mother: Señora B, clearly, was a different kind of mother. Not only did Señora B never go to Mass, she never ran errands either: she didn’t go to the bakery, or the market, or the hardware store, or any other place where you’d expect to see the rest of the women in the neighborhood. Señora B rarely went out, and as time went on I’d see her less and less. I watched her children—a pair of frighteningly identical twins—walk to and from school, always on their own. They rang the bell in the afternoon, and Señora B opened the door, greeting them with a vague smile. Then she let them in.

I found Señora B unsettling because she looked so inconceivably like my dear Josefina, my tormented angel, may she rest in peace. 

There was a time when Señora B would go out, alone, every Sunday in the afternoon. It was strange, because she never actually went anywhere. She just wandered around. Then she’d sit on the bench in the church square, and there she would stay. Her clothes were always out of style, and she usually wore a black sun hat with a big daisy, also black, hanging from the brim and covering her right eye when you looked at her head on.  

Her appearance must have made the other women in the neighborhood uncomfortable. They rarely approached her, but when they did, it seemed always more out of morbid curiosity than any genuine interest in her or her family. She didn’t pay them much attention, anyway. Instead, she’d say a mild hello, like she knew she could get rid of them just by giving them a strange look or a little shake of her black daisy. I watched from my window, and it was always the same scene: Señora B would shake her daisy and the neighbor women would swiftly say their goodbyes, leaving Señora B staring after them, satisfied.

But then Señora B stopped leaving the house entirely, or almost, with just a few exceptions. The last couple of times I saw her she looked pretty run-down, with matted blonde hair and a distracted expression on her otherwise immaculate face.

There wasn’t much talk of Señora B in the neighborhood, at least not in public. But whenever the Lópezes from across the street or the Villalbas from next door came over we always talked about the Bs. We were a little shy about it at first, but over time it became something like a hobby. We rarely got together without talking about them. The Lópezes were extremely nice, well-educated and outgoing. They were quick to smile, and spending an evening with them was always a pleasure: they were happy people, and they radiated warmth. Señora Villalba might have been the most striking woman in the neighborhood. Her husband was the head of the library, and even though he could be a little guarded, it was a point of pride to have him over because he was such a good example of hard work and education for the entire neighborhood. 

My children were already grown and it had been a while since they’d lived at home, but they still came to visit two or three times a year. I liked having the Lópezes and the Villalbas over during these visits, because both couples have known my children since they were young. And because my neighbors would always, without fail, compare my children to Señor and Señora B’s children. Your children have always been so polite—they told me—and look how charming they’ve grown up to be. I know they saw my children as the antithesis of Señora B’s, because they’d go right on to ask: So are they still pulling up your flowers, Don Manuel? Now, I’d just play the part of the tolerant neighbor and wave my hand as if to say it wasn’t important, but all this did was encourage them. Señora López would say I was being too generous and I should give Señor B a piece of my mind. I’d shoot them the sort of look that made it clear I thought that speaking with Señor and Señora B could serve no purpose whatsoever, but after that, we’d talk of nothing else for the rest of the night.

Generally speaking, what seemed to irritate the Lópezes about Señora B was her lack of manners. They never missed a chance to bring up the day she had come to Señor López’s birthday party by herself (her husband allegedly sick at home), badly dressed and fairly drunk, and ended up in the pianist’s lap singing an unseemly jazz song with a voice like a demon in heat. It was something they could never forget, and they laughed when they told the story. I was glad, truly glad, that they told me about the incident: I understood then that the frenzied, guttural noises I sometimes heard at night must have been coming from Señora B. I imagined her drunk, possessed, trying to sing some flamboyant oddity.

Sir, madness is a very sad thing. My dear Josefina suffered from it: she was never quite alone with herself. It really is a terrible situation to be in. You never know exactly how many souls are walking around your own house. And I’ll tell you, it’s worst at night. Our bed was a true hell. You have to understand how painful this was for me. I was so in love with her when we got married, and we were so completely happy during the years when we were raising our children. When my Josefina lost her way, I often took her to Mass and asked the priest to sit down with her, but whatever had taken hold of her just wouldn’t let her go. Its hooks were in her. She got no rest, the poor thing.

The Villalbas weren’t as chatty as the Lópezes, but they clearly shared the same veiled disapproval of Señora B’s erratic performance as a mother. See, it wasn’t just a question of the way Señora B’s children behaved in the neighborhood, with the neighbors. No, it was also that they simply weren’t well groomed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they were dirty, which was in direct contrast to all the other children, who were properly bathed with their hair nicely combed. This was the reason the whole neighborhood rejected Señora B. Since the Villalbas couldn’t have children of their own, I think they were even more sensitive to the issue. For my part, I had no sympathy whatsoever for the little devils; they were a lost cause to me. I may not have said such a thing out loud, in deference to the Villalbas, but I think we understood each other. I’m sure our feelings toward the Bs were mutual. 

One night, Señor Villalba invited me over for dinner. The Lópezes were invited too. I accepted. It was a Friday evening: warm, clear, the scent of jasmine filling the block. An unbeatable setting for an evening with such treasured friends. The plan was to eat in the Villalbas’ garden, amid their enviable collection of magnolias, hortensias, and rose bushes. I appreciate the beauty of a well-kept garden, and Señora Villalba had a gift; her garden was quite possibly the most beautiful one in the entire neighborhood. I selected a cabernet sauvignon from my private wine cellar and left the house. I was happy, thinking only about going straight to the Villalbas’, but I then couldn’t help but look at my flowerbed. I noticed then that the little cretins had pulled up more than half the flowers. I felt a flash of rage. I went straight to Señora B’s house and pressed my finger on the doorbell. For a very long time. No one answered. I remember it as if it were yesterday: the lights were on, but no one answered. They’re home, I thought. They’re not going to answer. And I felt a surge of rabid indignation: her body, it was there. I know it was. I had looked inside the window and seen Señora B’s silhouette, and it was completely nude. Shaken, I dropped my gaze. But when I brought my eyes back up to look again she was gone. I stood there, feeling so powerless I could have had a conniption, and the Lópezes saw me as they were crossing the street. They led me by the arm to the Villalbas’ house. Then they sat me down in the comfortable parlor armchair and Señora Villalba fanned me with a magazine as the others asked if I was all right. When I came to my senses and saw the fuss they were making over me, I was embarrassed. In the end, I gave them all a smile, to make it seem as though the incident didn’t bother me, but we spent the evening talking about the Bs all the same. Señor López even offered to talk to Señor B himself, on my behalf. I tried to refuse, but he ended up convincing me it was for the best. 

In fact, early the next morning, as the birds were still shaking off sleep, I saw Señor López standing outside his house, ready to intercept Señor B as soon as he went out to buy a newspaper. I was suddenly mortified. I simply couldn’t let Señor López intercede, so I got dressed and went over to thank him and explain that I would resolve the issue myself. It wasn’t easy, but eventually I managed to get him to accept my decision.

I spent much of the morning going over what had happened the night before. I didn’t recognize myself in my own actions, ringing the doorbell like an ill-bred teenager. I asked myself if I had really seen Señora B in the nude. The memory of her sculpted body disturbed me. She was so like my Josefina had been, when she was young. 

I decided to head over to Don Antonio’s nursery before he closed. I needed to replant the flowers. 

I spent the evening in the flowerbed. I planted white daisies. And crisp, sky-blue lilies. I looked appraisingly at my work. Señora Villalba came by to congratulate me, and she urged me to talk to the Bs. It’s not fair, she said, what they keep doing to you.

I had mud all over my clothes and I was exhausted, but I thought Señora Villalba had a point. Besides, it wasn’t just about me; I couldn’t allow them to keep doing this to my dear Josefina. I never stopped showering her with flowers, and I wasn’t about to let those little bastards keep getting away with this desecration. 

You already know the rest. I cleaned myself up, got dressed, and rang the bell. Señora B opened the door. She was wearing a long nightgown, black lace. Her blonde hair fell, slack, down to her hips. She smiled, inviting me in. I said thank you, but that I had only come to speak with her about a specific issue. I didn’t have time to step away: Señora B grabbed my arm and pulled me inside. The place was in complete disarray. I can’t even put the images in order. There was clothing strewn everywhere, loose socks, books, drinking glasses. There were half-finished paintings, none of them hanging, instead leaning against the wall, on the floor, on an armchair. Inscrutable paintings of naked bodies, women’s bodies, broken bodies, bodies in pieces. The scene smelled of jasmine, oil paint, vodka. I looked at Señora B, tried to regain my composure. I couldn’t. Finally, I managed to ask her if she was a painter. She cackled in response, and now I knew for sure that the indecent voices that haunted me at night were coming from her throat. She fixed her eyes on mine, as if asking what the purpose of my visit was. Her eyes—I had never seen them so close—seemed slack like her hair, bottomless and unfocused, like moons in a random orbit. And they were gray. Absolutely gray. I lost myself in those eyes. I could barely form a sentence. They looked so much like my Josefina’s eyes. Such delicate eyes. Eyes full of rain. I tried to say something about my flowerbed and her children, but as I was putting the words together I began to feel like I was speaking to a ghost. Like she no longer saw me, no longer heard me. She just smiled that innocent smile. It was Josefina’s smile: she was standing before me, indictments streaming from her lips. They were terrible things, the things those lips said to me: that I hurt her, that she had been cold in my flowerbed. That’s what she said to me. Over and over again. I shook my head. I told her no, no—I had done it to save her. And when I tried to throw myself into her arms, to embrace her, to tell her I loved her, Señora B appeared to me again. And when I saw her, my hands wrapped around her neck. Sir, I couldn’t let her go. I saw her start to shake, her face red, eyes wild. Then she just fell to the floor, eyes calm, finally, like you found her. 

Translated by Will Morningstar

 

Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston, with a master’s degree in religion and anthropology from Harvard Divinity School. His translation work has appeared in Strange Horizons and the Massachusetts Review.

Languages

LALT No. 17
Number 17

In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Albalucía Ángel

Dossier: Octavio Paz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Chronicle

Interviews

Pandemic Postcards

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Dossier: Eduardo Chirinos

Nota Bene