Helena or the Annunciation
Before Helena you hated the piano. Every last Friday of the month you had to be there on the dot at seven in the afternoon with your hair neat, your flowing dress and your shoes well polished, at the musical gatherings. The piano was a tradition in the family. Your grandmother successfully executed Brahms in a theater in the capital, when he was not yet known in the province. This was accounted for by the playbill, an elegantly printed rectangular piece of glossy paper that adorned one of the walls of the music room.
Your first memory of Helena is that of an ethereal woman sitting lazily on the wicker chair in the hall. She wears thick dark tortoiseshell glasses and a sheer white fitted dress with a generous neckline. The sun, filtering through the leaden window glass, hits her squarely in the face, creating a kind of halo around her long, reddish hair. You liked it from the beginning: none of the previous teachers would have dared to show up at your house dressed like that.
She doesn’t seem like an honorable woman, your mother said when, after greeting her, she called you aside to the library.
If not with her, to hell with classes, you replied immediately; at least she's not an old person.
Your cousin Fausta was the favorite granddaughter at that time. At twelve she could perform anything from a Chopin mazurka to a Liszt Hungarian rhapsody with the virtuosity of a professional, according to your grandmother. On the other hand, you were already turning fourteen and the only thing you interpreted with any decorum were the pieces from the Anna Magdalena Bach book. To your mother’s distress, you were no more than “a girl without talent, who was greatly missed by her father.”
Helena was young and slim, with green eyes and large, pointed breasts that trembled as she scanned the keyboard. She wasn’t wearing a bra, her skin exuded a scent of rose water. She seemed to understand your hostility to that majestic ancient Bechstein from the beginning. Without pressure, she used to say, better to focus your energy on releasing the tension of the body so the rhythm flows. Tenderly she took your hands, inviting you to close your eyes while she was massaging your fingers one by one, at length, until she felt the footsteps of someone approaching the music room.
You never excelled as much as in those first few months after she arrived. Do you perceive the difference between respecting the score and sharing the composer’s feelings? she asked anxiously at the end of each piece. At your doubtful silence, she fixed the greenness of her pupils upon you and said, laconic: Oh dear, how much you still have to live!
Rain trickling down the roof, rushing to the floor; the insistent buzzing of crickets after the downpour, the clamor of birds retreating to their nests in the afternoon, any rustle of nature was a pretext for a new lesson. Listen, listen! Are you ready to translate those sounds on the piano? And she would sit down next to you on the bench to closely follow the rehearsal, filling the atmosphere with her perfume.
By then, your mother was beginning to appreciate her. The suspicion she had felt at first had gradually transformed into bedazzlement. She looked at her happily. She came in to listen while you practiced. She even gave her consent for you to learn something by Satie, a “revolutionary” French composer you had never heard of, just because he was the teacher’s favorite. After a while, she began to invite the pianist to talk and drink coffee liqueur in the library after class. You took advantage of their laughs to finish off the tiramisu and the Russian charlotte. It was as if there were always a party at home.
Helena soon became a regular presence in your family. Classes were extended from three to five times a week and one of the guest rooms was set up for when she wanted to stay the night. On Saturdays you could see her in the theater or in a restaurant keeping you and your mother company. You loved hearing her speak about love and eternity: there is no passion, she said, like the passion born from sharing a beautiful symphony; good music favors the communion of lovers. But most of all you enjoyed hearing her laugh. Hers was a frank, contagious, free laugh that filled you with joy.
One Sunday morning, after having spent the weekend together at home, you woke up restless. You had a nightmare and your heart was racing. The sheets seemed to have been charged with faint currents of electricity. Every time your body stirred on the bed, an inexplicable pleasure ran through your skin. In the dream, you were a naked maiden condemned to die on the guillotine. A crowd of ragged men waited attentively by the scaffold. You could feel, like needles, the people’s leering stares. And just when the executioner touched the spring and the blade was going to fall on your neck, you opened your eyes. The library clock announced two in the morning. In the silence of the night voices, laughter, groans reached your ears. Was it possible? Were they still there? You would have liked to get up, put on some clothes, walk quietly to the library and surprise them, but after that dream, still lost, with your heart pounding full of new rumors, you preferred to sleep. You felt full. You dreamed of women. Beautiful females with large breasts, wide hips, and long hair. Mermaids of soft shapes who bathed on the bank of a river, lathering each other.
But the gossip was not lacking. In that small town, in the case of such a well-known family, someone had to go and warm up your grandmother’s head, warning her, alerting her. And at one of the gatherings, when you premiered the Gymnopédies, you heard her complain, indignant, to your mother: that strange and sophisticated music is not to my liking. I’m sure it’s that influence, your new teacher. Everyone talks about you all. Do me a favor and get rid of that woman.
At home, while you were preparing your clothes for bed, you were thinking about it. What was going to happen now? Usually, Grandma intruded in a less direct way, but when she requested something, there was no choice but to obey. Plus, there was the question of her assets. None of her children, your mother included, would have wanted to upset her and risk losing them. It was over. Your mother wasn’t going to give her any excuses. And less so in her condition as a single woman.
That night it was impossible for you to fall asleep. You went down to the music room and sat at the piano for a long time. It had rained and the whistling of the wind was streaming through the windows. Dawn came while you were playing. Lights were turned on in the rooms, but no one dared to interrupt the concert. Had she had the chance to be with you, Helena would have said: Finally, my sweetheart! You have managed to unleash your inner passion! At the end, you fell exhausted into the leather chair where she used to sit.
Helena stopped coming to class. Your mother gave no explanation and was locked in her room for a whole week without allowing anyone to bother her. Almost a year has passed and her eyes still get wet when you perform the Gymnopédies. Of course, this happens only in your house, where they allow you to receive your friends at any time of the night and wear short dresses with a pronounced neckline. For the Friday gatherings, you have gone back to Bach.
Translated by Jorge López Landó
Carlos Martín Briceño was born in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico in 1966. He has obtained national and international short story awards, including the 2012 Max Aub International Prize and the 2018 José Fuentes Mares National Literature Prize. He also received the Beatriz Espejo National Prize in 2003, the Autonomous University of Yucatán Prize in 2004, and an honorable mention in the 2008 San Luis Potosí National Contest, which was organized by the National Institute of Fine Arts. He is the author of seven books of short stories, including Los mártires del Freeway y otras historias (2006 and 2008), Caída libre (2010), Montezuma’s Revenge y otros deleites (2014), De la vasta piel: Antología personal (2017), and Toda felicidad nos cuesta muertos (2020). He is also the author of the novel La muerte del Ruiseñor (2017) and the book of chronicles Viaje al centro de las letras (2018). His stories are included in more than a dozen Mexican and international anthologies. He is a member of the National System of Art Creators.
With our twentieth issue, we celebrate the close of five years of publication. The cover feature reflects on LALT’s achievements thus far and on our goals for the years to come. Other dossiers highlight Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz on the centennial of his birth, 2006 Neustadt Prize winner Claribel Alegría, Spanish-language creative writing programs, and poetry and prose in translation from Quechua.