Juan Rulfo (trans. Douglas J. Weatherford)
Through the hole in the roof, I watched flocks of thrushes pass overhead, those birds that flutter about in the late afternoon just before darkness closes the roads. Then, a few clouds already scattered by the breeze that emerges to usher out the day.
The evening star appeared after that, followed by the moon.
The man and the woman were not there with me. They had gone out through the patio door and by the time they returned night had fallen. As such, they had no idea what had happened while they were gone.
And this is what took place:
Coming in from the street, a woman entered the room. She was old, so very old, and so thin it seemed as if her leathery skin had shriveled tightly around her body. She examined the room with big round eyes. Maybe she saw me. Perhaps she thought I was asleep. She headed straight for the bed and retrieved a trunk from beneath it. She rummaged through it. She tucked some sheets under her arm and tiptoed out as if trying not to wake me.
I kept completely still, holding my breath, trying to look away. But after a while I managed to turn my head in her direction, toward where the evening star was now shining right next to the moon.
—Drink this! —I heard.
I didn’t dare move my head again.
—Drink it! It’ll do you good. It’s orange blossom water. I can tell you’re frightened because you’re trembling. This will help ease your fear.
I recognized the hands, and when I raised my head, I recog- nized the face. The man, standing behind her, asked:
—Are you feeling sick?
—I don’t know. I see people and things I don’t think others can see. A woman was just here. You must’ve watched her leave.
—Let’s go —he told the woman—. Let him be. He must be a mystic.
—We ought to lay him on the bed. Look how he’s shaking. He’s got to have a fever.
—Don’t listen to him. These people get themselves all worked up just for the attention. I met one of them over at the Media Luna who claimed to be clairvoyant. What he failed to foresee was that he was gonna die as soon as the patrón divined his deceit. This guy here must be one of those same mystics. They spend their lives traveling from town to town just “to see what Providence has in store for them.” But around here he won’t find a single person who’d give him so much as a bite to eat. Notice how he’s stopped trembling. Probably because he’s listening to what we’re saying.
As if time had turned backwards. I saw the star next to the moon once more. The clouds breaking apart. The flocks of thrushes.
And then suddenly the afternoon sky still full of light.
The walls reflecting the afternoon sun. My footsteps sounding against the cobblestones. The muleteer telling me: “Look for doña Eduviges, if she’s still alive!”
Then a darkened room. A woman snoring at my side. I noticed that her breathing was uneven, as if she were dreaming, or as if she weren’t sleeping at all, but rather imitating the sounds that come with sleep. The bed was made of otate reeds and covered with burlap sacks that smelled of urine, as if they’d never been aired out in the sun. The pillow was an old rag wrapped around some pochote tree fibers or a piece of wool so full of sweat it had become as stiff as a log.
I could feel the woman’s naked legs against my knees, and her breath next to my face. I sat up in bed, supporting myself against the pillow that felt like an adobe brick.
—You’re not asleep? —she asked.
—I’m not tired. I slept all day. Where’s your brother? —He’s out there somewhere. You heard him say he needed to go out. Might not be back tonight.
—So he left all the same? Even when you didn’t want him to? —Yes. And he might not return. That’s how it began with everyone else who left. I’m just going over here, I’m just going over there. Until they ended up so far away it was easier not to come back. He’s been trying to leave for some time, and I wonder if it might be his turn. Maybe he didn’t say so, but he’s chosen this moment to take off so you’ll stay and take care of me. He saw his chance. The runaway calf was just an excuse. You’ll see, he’s not coming back.
I wanted to tell her: “I’m going outside for a bit of air. I feel sick.” Instead, I said:
—Don’t worry. He’ll be back.
When I got up, she said:
—I left something for you on the coals in the kitchen. It’s not much, but maybe it’ll ease your hunger. I found a few tortillas warming on the coals and a piece of dried meat.
—It’s what I was able to get you —I heard her say from over there—. I traded with my sister for two clean sheets I’vebeen keeping from when my mother was still alive. She must’ve dropped by to pick them up. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Donis, but she’s the woman who gave you such a fright when you saw her earlier.
A black sky, filled with stars. And next to the moon the larg-est star of them all.
Juan Rulfo (1918-1986) is the author of what is probably the most important novel in Mexican literature. Pedro Páramo was published in 1955 and went on to be translated into 45 languages, sell over a million copies in English alone and initiate an entire literary movement. Rulfo was also an anthropologist and photographer who wrote one other book, The Burning Plain.
Douglas J. Weatherford, Professor of Hispanic Literature and Film at Brigham Young University, has published extensively on Juan Rulfo, with particular emphasis on the author’s connection to film. In 2017, Weatherford released the first English-language translation of Rulfo’s second novel, El gallo de oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, Deep Vellum).
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