பிரம்மராஜனுக்கும் மீட்சிக்கும் ஆர்.சிவகுமாருக்கும்
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Translated from the Spanish by J. S. Bernstein
The train emerged from the quivering tunnel of sandy rocks, began to cross the symmetrical, interminable banana plantations, and the air be-came humid and they couldn't feel the sea breeze any more. A stifling blast of smoke came in the car window. On the narrow road parallel to the railway there were oxcarts loaded with green bunches of bananas. Beyond the road, in uncultivated spaces set at odd intervals there were offices with electric fans, red-brick build-ings, and residences with chairs and little white tables on the terraces among dusty palm trees and rosebushes. It was eleven in the morning, and the heat had not yet begun.
"You'd better close the window," the woman said. "Your hair will get full of soot."
The girl tried to, but the shade wouldn't move because of the rust.
They were the only passengers in the lone third-class car. Since the smoke of the locomo-tive kept coming through the window, the girl left her seat and put down the only things they had with them: a plastic sack with some things to eat and a bouquet of flowers wrapped in newspaper. She sat on the opposite seat, away from the window, facing her mother. They were both in severe and poor mourning clothes.
The girl was twelve years old, and it was the first time she'd ever been on a train. The woman seemed too old to be her mother, because of the blue veins on her eyelids and her small, soft, and shapeless body, in a dress cut like a cassock. She was riding with her spinal column braced firmly against the back of the seat, and held a peeling patent-leather handbag in her lap with bothhands. She bore the conscientious serenity of someone accustomed to poverty.
By twelve the heat had begun. The train stopped for ten minutes to take on water at a station where there was no town. Outside, in the mysterious silence of the plantations, the shadows seemed clean. But the still air inside the car smelled like untanned leather. The train did not pick up speed. It stopped at two identi-cal towns with wooden houses painted bright colors. The woman's head nodded and she sank into sleep. The girl took off her shoes. Then she went to the washroom to put the bouquet of flowers in some water.
When she came back to her seat, her mother was waiting to eat. She gave her a piece of cheese, half a corn-meal pancake, and a cookie, and took an equal portion out of the plastic sack for herself. While they ate, the train crossed an iron bridge very slowly and passed a town just like the ones before, except that in this one there was a crowd in the plaza. A band was play-ing a lively tune under the oppressive sun. At the other side of town the plantations ended in a plain which was cracked from the drought.
The woman stopped eating.
"Put on your shoes," she said.
The girl looked outside. She saw nothing but the deserted plain, where the train began to pick up speed again, but she put the last piece of cookie into the sack and quickly put on her shoes. The woman gave her a comb.
"Comb your hair," she said.
The train whistle began to blow while the girl was combing her hair. The woman dried the sweat from her neck and wiped the oil from her face with her fingers. When the girl stopped combing, the train was passing the outlying houses of a town larger but sadder than the ear-lier ones.
"If you feel like doing anything, do it now," said the woman. "Later, don't take a drink any-where even if you're dying of thirst. Above all, no crying."
The girl nodded her head. A dry, burning wind came in the window, together with the locomotive's whistle and the clatter of the old cars. The woman folded the plastic bag with the rest of the food and put it in the handbag. For a moment a complete picture of the town, on that bright August Tuesday, shone in the window. The girl wrapped the flowers in the soaking-wet newspapers, moved a little farther away from the window, and stared at her mother. She re-ceived a pleasant expression in return. The train began to whistle and slowed down. A moment later it stopped.
There was no one at the station. On the other side of the street, on the sidewalk shaded by the almond trees, only the pool hall was open. The town was floating in the heat. The woman and the girl got off the train and crossed the abandoned station—the tiles split apart by the grass growing up between—and over to the shady side of the street.
It was almost two. At that hour, weighted down by drowsiness, the town was taking a si-esta. The stores, the town offices, the public school were closed at eleven, and didn't reopen until a little before four, when the train went back. Only the hotel across from the station, with its bar and pool hall, and the telegraph of-fice at one side of the plaza stayed open. The houses, most of them built on the banana com-pany's model, had their doors locked from in-side and their blinds drawn. In some of them it was so hot that the residents ate lunch in the patio. Others leaned a chair against the wall, inthe shade of the almond trees, and took their siesta right out in the street.
Keeping to the protective shade of the al-mond trees, the woman and the girl entered the town without disturbing the siesta. They went directly to the parish house. The woman scratched the metal grating on the door with her fingernail, waited a moment, and scratched again. An electric fan was humming inside. They did not hear the steps. They hardly heard the slight creaking of a door, and immediately a cau-tious voice, right next to the metal grating: "Who is it?" The woman tried to see through the grating.
"I need the priest," she said. "He's sleeping now." "It's an emergency," the woman insisted. Her voice showed a calm determination. The door was opened a little way, noise-lessly, and a plump, older woman appeared, with very pale skin and hair the color of iron. Her eyes seemed too small behind her thick eye-glasses.
"Come in," she said, and opened the door all the way.
They entered a room permeated with an old smell of flowers. The woman of the house led them to a wooden bench and signaled them to sit down. The girl did so, but her mother re-mained standing, absent-mindedly, with both hands clutching the handbag. No noise could be heard above the electric fan.
The woman of the house reappeared at the door at the far end of the room. "He says you should come back after three," she said in a very low voice. "He just lay down five minutes ago." "The train leaves at three-thirty," said the woman.
It was a brief and self-assured reply, but her voice remained pleasant, full of undertones. The woman of the house smiled for the first time.
"All right," she said.
When the far door closed again, the woman sat down next to her daughter. The narrow wait-ing room was poor, neat, and clean. On the other side of the wooden railing which divided the room, there was a worktable, a plain one with an oilcloth cover, and on top of the table a primitive typewriter next to a vase of flowers. The parish records were beyond. You could see that it was an office kept in order by a spinster.
The far door opened and this time the priest appeared, cleaning his glasses with a handker-chief. Only when he put them on was it evident that he was the brother of the woman who had opened the door.
"How can I help you?" he asked.
"The keys to the cemetery," said the woman.
The girl was seated with the flowers in her lap and her feet crossed under the bench. The priest looked at her, then looked at the woman, and then through the wire mesh of the window at the bright, cloudless sky.
"In this heat," he said. "You could have waited until the sun went down."
The woman moved her head silently. The priest crossed to the other side of the railing, took out of the cabinet a notebook covered in oilcloth, a wooden penholder, and an inkwell, and sat down at the table. There was more than enough hair on his hands to account for what was missing on his head.
"Which grave are you going to visit?" he asked.
"Carlos Centeno's," said the woman.
"Carlos Centeno," the woman repeated.
The priest still did not understand.
"He's the thief who was killed here last week," said the woman in the same tone of voice. "I am his mother."
The priest scrutinized her. She stared at him with quiet self-control, and the Father blushed. He lowered his head and began to write. As he filled the page, he asked the woman to identify herself, and she replied unhesitatingly, with pre cise details, as if she were reading them. The Father began to sweat. The girl unhooked the buckle of her left shoe, slipped her heel out of it, and rested it on the bench rail. She did the same with the right one.
It had all started the Monday of the previous week, at three in the morning, a few blocks from there. Rebecca, a lonely widow who lived in a house full of odds and ends, heard above the sound of the drizzling rain someone trying to force the front door from outside. She got up, rummaged around in her closet for an ancient revolver that no one had fired since the days of Colonel Aureliano Buendia,1 and went into the living room without turning on the lights. Ori-enting herself not so much by the noise at the lock as by a terror developed in her by twenty-eight years of loneliness, she fixed in her imagi-nation not only the spot where the door was but also the exact height of the lock. She clutched the weapon with both hands, closed her eyes, and squeezed the trigger. It was the first time in her life that she had fired a gun. Immediately after the explosion, she could hear nothing ex-cept the murmur of the drizzle on the galva-nized roof. Then she heard a little metallic bump on the cement porch, and a very low voice, pleasant but terribly exhausted: "Ah, Mother." The man they found dead in front of the house in the morning, his nose blown to bits, wore a flannel shirt with colored stripes, everyday pants with a rope for a belt, and was barefoot. No one in town knew him.
"So his name was Carlos Centeno," mur-mured the Father when he finished writing.
"Centeno Ayala,"2 said the woman. "He was my only boy."
The priest went back to the cabinet. Two big rusty keys hung on the inside of the door; the girl imagined, as her mother had when she was a girl and as the priest himself must have imagined at some time, that they were Saint Peter's keys.3 He took them down, put them on the open note-book on the railing, and pointed with his forefin-ger to a place on the page he had just written, looking at the woman.
The woman scribbled her name, holding the handbag under her arm. The girl picked up the flowers, came to the railing shuffling her feet, and watched her mother attentively.
The priest sighed.
"Didn't you ever try to get him on the right track?"
The woman answered when she finished signing.
"He was a very good man."
The priest looked first at the woman and then at the girl, and realized with a kind of pious amazement that they were not about to cry. The woman continued in the same tone:
"I told him never to steal anything that any-one needed to eat, and he minded me. On the other hand, before, when he used to box, he used to spend three days in bed, exhausted from being punched."
"All his teeth had to be pulled out," inter-rupted the girl.
"That's right," the woman agreed. "Every mouthful I ate those days tasted of the beatings my son got on Saturday nights."
"God's will is inscrutable," said the Father.
But he said it without much conviction, partly because experience had made him a little skeptical and partly because of the heat. He sug-gested that they cover their heads to guard against sunstroke. Yawning, and now almost completely asleep, he gave them instructions about how to find Carlos Centeno's grave. When they came back, they didn't have to knock. They should put the key under the door; and in the same place, if they could, they should put an offering for the Church. The woman listened to his directions with great attention, but thanked him without smiling.
The Father had noticed that there was some-one looking inside, his nose pressed against the metal grating, even before he opened the door to the street. Outside was a group of children. When the door was opened wide, the children scattered. Ordinarily, at that hour there was no one in the street. Now there were not only chil-dren. There were groups of people under the almond trees. The Father scanned the street swimming in the heat and then he understood. Softly, he closed the door again.
"Wait a moment," he said without looking at the woman.
His sister appeared at the far door with a black jacket over her nightshirt and her hair down over her shoulders. She looked silently at the Father.
"What was it?" he asked.
"The people have noticed," murmured his sister.
"You'd better go out by the door to the patio," said the Father.
"It's the same there," said his sister. "Every-body is at the windows."
The woman seemed not to have understood until then. She tried to look into the street through the metal grating. Then she took the bouquet of flowers from the girl and began to move toward the door. The girl followed her.
"Wait until the sun goes down," said the Fa-ther.
"You'll melt," said his sister, motionless at the back of the room. "Wait and I'll lend you a parasol."
"Thank you," replied the woman. "We're all right this way."
She took the girl by the hand and went into the street.