The Virgin of the Train Tracks (La Verge de les Vies)
From Gent de l’Alta Vall
By Pere Calders
Near the Nonoalco bridge, at the level crossing which gives entry to a large industrial zone, the switchman Xebo Canabal languidly followed the path of a white cloud which slowly transformed to trace out a pink crest.
Xebo, an employee at the Ferrocarrils Nacionals factory, was bored. In the beginning, the fact that he had been assigned to watch an unimportant crossing had seemed fortunate. He sat next to the little wooden house which sheltered him from bad weather, and contemplated the comings and goings of the people while spinning out his philosophy. In those early times, the man thought he had achieved an ideal long coveted by him and his ancestors: to live with great economy of movement, to have entire hours to let your ideas wander, without the jolts that responsibility entailed. He liked to abandon himself to the sun’s caress, with his straw hat tilted over his eyes, and await something unknown with great patience.
But the initial period of fulfillment didn’t last long. Since he was little, Xebo had gone through periods of restlessness, of strange impatience which took on diverse forms and made him to do things which a normal observer would never have attributed to his temperament.
Then, after the period of lassitude, in which simple contemplation had filled the slow, slow passing of time, Xebo embarked on a communicative stage. He tried to converse with the truck drivers who stopped for the train to pass, or with the workers who usually made a short stop for water at a tap close to the barrier. The conversations were brief and jumbled, but between words, during the silences, they looked at each other from the corner of their eyes; that seemed to be the main appeal of the interaction. Xebo would talk first:
“What’s the word?”
The other never hurried. Since he already knew what he had to say, he wasn’t in a rush. Finally, he would say:
“Here, that’s it. Killing time…”
That phrase contained all the depth of thought they had inherited, and they would be overwhelmed for a moment. “Here” meant the world, their little universe as they knew it. “That’s it” signified the unimportance of earthly things. And “killing time” referred to life and it’s way of inexorably slipping away.
This was an almost ritual way of becoming acquainted. Then they would just carry on as they could. Xebo would start up again:
“Lots of work?”
Those five words gave them a pretext to meditate a little longer and in the end they said goodbye, intimately satisfied by their little social adventure, by the human contact that they had managed to establish. Sometimes, the switchman found himself with some loquacious individual, who in substance said the same as the others, but more verbosely, with more clichés. Generally, they were chauffeurs or bus drivers, kept sharp by their contact with people, and Xebo didn’t like them. His deep primitive purity made him distrust people who talked too much, and moreover, what he liked about conversations was the opportunity to be silent from time to time.
Furthermore, the social game tended to repeat itself monotonously and the tedium still weighed on the switchman’s spirit. He was missing something he couldn’t explain to himself and the hours, as the work day went by, became longer in his reckoning. One day, while he was abandoning himself to the gentle flight of deep thought, a boy came up to the metallic black box which enclosed the traffic light mechanism and started to draw on the smooth surface with white chalk. The lines of the drawing stood out against the matte black backdrop of the box with unusual vigor and Xebo gazed at the effect, fascinated. Calmly, but without doubt or vacillation, the boy precariously gave shape to an eagle with outstreched wings and when he finished his work, he looked at it with his hands in his pockets, hopped over the rail and strolled away whistling a familiar melody.
Canabal went up to the traffic light. He looked at the drawing with a daydreaming gaze, felt the metallic surface and then rubbed his fingertips, to get the chalk dust off. He dampened a sheet with the well water and erased the white streaks. Under the beating sun, the metal had become hot and the water evaporated right away. All that remained was the matte black, exercising a triumphal attraction over the switchman.
Xebo took a worn-out chair from the little house, got close to the traffic light, sat down, and tested its height and distance with aerial calligraphy, tracing imaginary drawings. From time to time he closed his eyes. He would formulate an idea and was used to abandoning himself to slow games of reasoning. But he had already reached a decision. He took advantage of the first free moment to head to the closest commercial zone and bought himself a box of colored chalks.
At the beginning of the next day, the switchman deployed his creativity against the black metal. Timidly, he drew a vase and some flowers, but before he finished the result displeased him and he erased the lines. He took on a pensive pose for a while, his gaze lowered, and in the end he made another attempt. Unhurriedly, showing great meticulousness in the details, he traced the silhouette of an indian bird-vendor, bent under the weight of a mountain of cages. He filled the part corresponding to clothing in white and with little flakes of vivid colors he represented the birds. He contemplated his work, smiling, and from the intimate satisfaction he experienced, he could affirm that he was assigned from now on to the vague class of artists. He would be a figurist, primary, childlike, with a tendency (in conflict with his natural aptitudes) towards realism.
Before he finished his first graphic work, Xebo had admirers behind him; first of all, a lad who was gazing at the drawing with fascination, and then two track workers, and an old woman who had a food stall nearby. They almost didn’t say anything, but they showed a general air of approbation and the switchman, humanly sensitive to flattery, lived a happy moment. The woman tilted her head, got close to the drawing of the indian and, without hurrying, said:
“He looks like my brother-in-law.”
One of the workers half-closed his eyes and got close in turn. He looked and looked again at the profile of the bird-vendor, as if it were hard for him to believe what he was seeing, and, finally, he expressed his conclusion in words:
“Would you believe it? He also looks like mine…”
By some quivering mystery which linked their spirits in a moving communion, that notable fact set the foundation of Xebo’s fame as an artist. They all agreed (with a simple motion of the face or with half-words full of respect) that a man capable of drawing other people’s brothers-in-law without knowing them was necessarily someone.
For the rest of the day, Xebo left his work on display. He gathered a couple more stimulating opinions and two bus drivers stopped their vehicles to admire the novelty.
“It’s Natxo’s brother-in-law,” answered the switchman with a spark of pride.
And, after a short pause, added:
“It’s also Mrs. Cuca’s brother-in-law.”
The doubling up of personalities in the figure of a modest native bird-vendor filled them with stupor. Xebo himself didn’t know what to make of it.
The switchman spent that night tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep, thinking of new graphical representations. The next day, he waited for the sun to heat the metal and erased the drawing with a damp sheet. In doing so, he had to overcome a mute resistance. While he gazed, engrossed, at the wet patch, evaporating like a little receding wave, Xebo felt the pain of self-destruction.
But his new creative restlessness, fed during his insomnia, distracted him, and he began to draw an upright, hieratic girl, holding a red flower in one hand. He lovingly colored the shawl which covered the figures’ shoulders, the woolen ribbon woven together with the tassels and embroidery that the girl had on the neck of her blouse. He worked with utmost dedication, and when a train conductor announced his approach with a plaintive whistle, Xebo got up reluctantly, muttering insults, and roughly activated the mechanism which lowered the barriers. His gaze lost, he brandished a little red flag as the wagons streamed by. He lacked the aptitude to clearly formulate his ideas, but he was tormented by a new and disconcerting feeling of enslavement.
He raised the barriers and once again stood face to face with his work. He thought it had come out well, without freeing himself of the artist’s fear; not everything was right. The girl’s left eye was bigger than the other and the stem of the flower she was holding in one hand was still free of the fingers which should have been grasping it, and was left floating mysteriously in the air. But the figure gave off a special charm, and he himself was receptive to the imperative of that grace, so he couldn’t bring himself to fix the mistakes.
Someone told him:
“It’s everyone’s mother.”
He turned his head and found himself with the lad who went over the crossing two to three times a day. Xebo replied:
“It’s just a girl…”
The lad respectfully doffed his cap and span it in his hands. He half-closed his eyes and furrowed his brow, making an effort to think and turn his ideas into words. They enjoyed one of their long silences; some machines maneuvered by the tracks and various vehicles went over the crossing. Canabal rushed from the barriers to the signaling lever and the other was silent and upright, as though in the middle of a ceremonious visit. When he had managed to strengthen his first conclusion, he put his cap back on and said:
“Who knows! I say it’s everyone’s mother…”
He was convinced that he was right and took on the air of not wanting to discuss it further. He walked away, hopping over the tracks, grabbing his cap with his hands so that it wouldn’t fly away.
Xebo was annoyed by the other man’s stubbornness. An inexplicable modesty and a respect which confusedly dominated him made him reject the idea of giving the figure other attributes than profane ones.
He dampened a sheet and erased the girl, with the modicum of sorrow that the fleeting quality of his work always caused him.
But Xebo Canabal was beginning an era of welcome understanding for his creative gifts. A faithful audience stimulated him and popular criticism (when it was made) was always to help him. Every so often, he tried to represent inanimate objects, but his admirers begged him to go back to figures, mostly human, and he ended up dedicating himself to them exclusively.
When his hands were surer of their craft, he brought himself to draw and color recent news items: the triumph of a local boxer, miscellaneous news or resounding crimes and, sometimes, graphical commentary on the political situation, especially to opine bitingly about the municipal administration.
One time, someone had told him:
“Take into account, Xebo, that your duty is almost official…”
The insinuation that his work might be known in high spheres flattered him, and that gave brilliance to his wit. From then on, at the foot of each composition, he wrote an allusive phrase which, with time, became as famous as the drawing.
When he couldn’t find inspiration and prescinded written explanations, there was always someone who amicably demanded the text. He would make the vague gesture of an overwhelmed artist, and the spectators would admire him even more. At that time, you could come across dialogs like the following:
“They’re very strange. They don’t always feel like doing things. Last week, on the radio, Maria Dora didn’t know the words to a song…”
“Yeah. I have a cousin, and the same thing happens to him.”
“Which cousin? The barber?”
“No. A cousin of mine who’s a torero. When he wants to he’s very good. But sometimes…”
By such inscrutable reflections, this kind of conversation would give rise to long meditations. Xebo found himself the center of general attention and he was happy.
One time, a group of tourists took the switchman’s portrait next to his work and a few days later graphic review from the capital sent a photographer and an editor for them to do an article on Canabal. The photography showed the author upright, stretched out and pointing to his latest work: the illustration of an accident between a bus and a tram that had happened the day before. Xebo’s answers to the questions the reporter had asked him appeared curiously transformed, such that read in another context they would have been mortifying. But in Nonoalco the article was a sensation. It was, in a manner of speaking, the definitive consecration of an artist who had risen from humble surroundings, despite the way of thinking and feeling of the people of those same surroundings. The fact that a man should find his own path without the help of others inspired popular hope.
Xebo got organized. Mondays and Thursdays he changed themes, which allowed him to register the most salient news items. There were families who never missed the change and some fathers took advantage of Xebo’s creations to take on a rudimentary didactic attitude in front of their children. The spectators planted themselves in front of the work and remained silent for long periods. Finally, the commentary would burst out and the kids, almost on tiptoes, would go up to admire the box of colored chalk. The popular artist now glossed what was written below, and his words often gave rise to veiled mutterings against officials. That made the people feel important, and in their own way, they lived in a state of sweet exaltation. The women formed a separate group (they deliberately abstained from politics) and limited themselves to talking soberly about the men’s attitude.
“They make a racket and then they spend hours without saying a word.”
“My husband almost doesn’t eat on Mondays and Thursdays.”
“And the other day, mine got cocky and decided not to pay the rent.”
They complained about men’s rebellious nature, but resignedly, without getting too annoyed. They never forgot to close the conversation with phrases of admiration for Xebo Canabal. But it was also a whispered, attenuated admiration:
“What a man! If he wanted to, with those hands, he could become a conductor…”
“Yes. They say that, in the end, they do it so they don’t have to work.”
The mysterious plural always came up: “they are like this,” “they couldn’t help it,” “it’s as though they were being impelled and had to go along by force.” They grouped singers, stars in magazines, minstrels, actors and actresses, notable jockeys, and famous criminals who had provoked their interest together in a fictitious world, and threw around names without detracting from the switchman’s. In the neighborhood, this constituted a triumph.
One day, the man responsible for the courtyard nearest to the crossing that Xebo guarded struck up a conversation with the artist. Dodging the topic, lengthening his speech with subterfuge, he ended up saying:
“As you know, I got married recently. Tomorrow I’m baptizing my first son and I would like you to paint the ceremony.”
One could consider that the man responsible for the courtyard was one of Xebo’s immediate superiors. But the man would not bend:
“That’s different. It’s something else. I, in front of the barrier, am just a servant and you can order me to do whatever you want.”
“I understand, I understand. I’m prepared to pay you for your work…”
“Oh, no! I would spend half of that just on the chalk.”
They remained taciturn, face to face with one another, so that haste would not sour the deal. They affected indifference to the affair which brought them together, and one talked about the early morning express train, the other about a pain in his right knee. In the end, the hierarchical superior said:
“How much would you like to make?”
It was an audacious move, an exaggerated figure. The budget for the whole baptism was only slightly larger.
“They all do the same thing,” thought the man responsible for the patio. “It goes to their head and they take advantage of it.” The plural appeared again, marking the boundary between daily life and the beautiful but fearsome adventure of the artist.
They continued to digress, fleeing the central issue: prolix explanations of climatic states or about things related to the railway. From time to time, taking advantage of the silences, they would suddenly broach the subject of the baptism and the painting. In the end, they settled it for three pesos and a box of chalk, the value of which Xebo demanded in advance. He also had one whim: he required that the baptismal procession pass over the crossing.
On the appointed day, he put them all facing him, standing up straight one next to the other. He had trouble making the godmother understand that she should hold the child facing him, like a little suspended chrysalis. They were giggling a little, but from excitement, and they were under the fear that some crease in their clothing would show up or that he would get their expressions wrong.
“It’ll be a job,” said Xebo. “I won’t have it until tomorrow. There are six figures without counting the child.”
He filled them with stupor saying they could go now, that he had already “seen” them. They didn’t know what to make of it. To capture them like that, with one glance, seemed to them like a prodigy of virtuosity, and at the same time, let them down a little.
“It wasn’t even worth coming out here,” said one of the infant’s uncles.
“Well, the main event is the baptism,” answered the father regretfully.
“Of course, of course…”
They walked away with the usual air of people crossing a maze of train tracks: skipping and swinging their bodies like a flock of penguins.
Canabal worked firmly until nightfall and he had two heads left to finish up. He had stopped because of these heads and he himself couldn’t have explained the reason for his hesitation. The mystery was even deeper because the figures all looked like each other and in the end, it was inevitable that the two left would end up looking like the rest. He calmed down by telling himself that most of them were relatives, or close friends. An inscrutable reason for conflating their features. He poured his soul into the clothing, bringing all his faculties into play. He tweaked it so that the petticoats of the female figures stuck out, to draw the adorned edges with great application.
Bright and early the next day, Xebo finished his work and was satisfied with it. The first to admire it was a paper boy who at first couldn’t guess what it showed. Trying to identify the characters, he mentioned names which had nothing to do with the scene depicted. But when Xebo explained it to him, he immediately agreed that the resemblance was prodigious. “Especially the noses,” he said.
Certainly, the noses had something which drew the gaze, and both of them contemplated them for a while in a state of placid abstraction.
The paper boy went on his way and soon after Xebo saw the baptismal procession from far away, returning in almost the same formation as the day before. They all slowed their gait, undoubtedly shackled by emotion.
The father made a gesture with his hand and the switchman responded in kind, visibly restrained.
Lining up, the six of them – and the child, naturally in a state of indifference -, placed themselves before the graphic composition. A still and rigorous silence fell. They glanced at each other from time to time, out of the corners of their eyes, without moving their heads. A girl murmured some words and the father spiffed her on the back of her neck, so that a flower she wore in her braid was left askew.
At that moment, Canabal had the air of an inspired and faithful artist. He realized that in the drawing, the girl in question had no flowers in her hair, and he quickly sketched one and colored it in, going over the edge afterwards in his meticulous way. This made a huge impression. The girl herself stopped her whimpering to adjust her flower in imitation of the drawing, and as though that childish submission were an order, everyone got about adjusting themselves to the figures created by Xebo. Because of an error, excusably made in haste, the artist had drawn the godmother with an apron that, in reality, another woman was wearing, and they switched their pieces of clothing in silence, while another member of the group held the infant. The father, who was holding his railway cap in his hands, put it on, because the drawing was like that. They all collaborated, they all showed goodwill and respect. Miraculously, the work and the people became more and more similar.
Curious passersby joined the group. Slowly, they overcame their initial reserve and started the commentary.
The father’s voice stood out from the others:
“It has merit.”
These words confirmed the triumph. If the person paying for it was happy, and the spectators felt admiration, few things could obscure the switchman’s success.
Xebo was feeling the breath of glory. He patiently answered questions, although some of them tested the docility of his temperament. Solemnly, the father opened a way through the crowd to go up to Xebo, embraced him, and then gave him the agreed sum. He asked him to keep the work on display for two or three days, a request which was accepted right away amid general joy.
As the conversations began to flag, a train with two wagons arrived and the people dispersed.
As one would have expected, not everything in Xebo’s art was easy. He had one tenacious, implacable critic: the lad who admired the girl with the flower, one of the first works. He went over the crossing every day, but never again had he doffed his cap before a drawing. He glanced at them disparagingly, stopping for an instant, and setting off again without a word. Although the popular artist had much more significant addicts in the neighborhood than the lad, it mortified him that the lad should not pay homage to the fame which was generally attributed to him, and one day he stopped him to resolutely ask him his opinion.
Upon reflecting, arduously articulating his words, the lad said:
“You’ll never make anything like that image again. You sinned by erasing it and now your hands are dirty.”
As sometimes happened in some members of the lower class, the lad spoke little but sententiously, using words which he may not have understood, but had force themselves, and shone brilliantly when, by inscrutable chance, the definition and the word coincided with what he really meant.
“Everything you make is mundane,” he added.
He almost wasn’t moving the muscles in his face nor modulating his voice, but mysteriously gave the last sentence a tone of loathing. And Xebo bowed his head, almost ashamed, unable to muster a reply.
For a couple of days, the switchman insistently repeated to himself that the lad was a nobody, that maybe his attitude was driven by the envy aroused by such a great difference between two destinies. But inside he had a gnawing which wouldn’t leave him alone, because despite not quite understanding the words by which his work was condemned, he intuited a mortifying truth and didn’t know how to defend himself from it based on soliloquies.
In the middle of his unease, Xebo lived moments of exultation. It seemed to him that with chalk in his hand he could refute any attack and, by a very human opposition of impulses, he wanted to face his problem on the grounds that the lad proposed: he started to draw a maiden and a halo which radiated around the whole figure. He filled the back with diminutive stars and left for the end his ambitious intention of providing the image with a face different from the ones he had made thus far, which expressed the tenderness and beatitude which Canabal considered appropriate. Miraculously, he pulled it all off with a smile which sprang from a gentle curve of chalk, and by tracing large forward-facing eyes, loving and astonished.
Xebo had worked without taking note of the time, only interrupting his work to open and close the barriers and change the signals, which he did mechanically, with an automatism which did not call for the collaboration of his conscious will. By an instinctual reflex, he turned around and saw Mrs. Cuca, the old lady with the food stall, upright behind him, in an expectant pose. She had covered her head with her shawl, and her hands were clasped as though she were going to pray.
This was the beginning of a series of displays of respect on the part of Xebo’s usual public. This time they didn’t ask anything, nor did anyone take a direct interest in the lack of a caption. They stopped in front of the figure with a serious air and the men took off their caps and stood engrossed for a long while.
The next day, around midmorning, the lad, whose opinion was the most important to Xebo, showed up. The man had an immediate reaction. He kneeled and said:
“How beautiful, my son!”
And to correct himself fairly, as was the law between honest people, he completed his judgment:
“That’s it, that’s it! Don’t touch this one, it has to stay like this…”
The switchman was happy, his vanity satisfied. He thought he would leave the drawing on display for two or three more days than usual and he let himself sweetly reap the praise.
In the early afternoon, two women brought pots of flowers and placed them at the foot of the image and later people came with oil lamps and little candles. Everyone stood for a long while before the colored drawing, with the strict air and silent sadness of indians. It was an external sadness, because a hidden euphoria made them think of old dances and the explosion of firecrackers and rockets. Closing their eyes, they saw vivid colors, flaming from the reverberation of a contained violence.
The procession continued well into the darkness of night, and little groups remained on guard the entire night. When Xebo finished his shift, he left behind him the murmur of soft prayer, and joined it again the next morning, as soon as day broke. Someone had placed a garland around the figure, and some men were setting up a little sloped wooden roof to protect the drawing.
Everything happened quietly, but with untiring activity, Xebo realized that no one paid any attention to him, and that, in the end, they viewed him with hostility, out of fear that he should want to erase the drawing. They turned their backs to him, they moved him aside without violence when he got in the way of the offerings, and in general, they would rather have known that he was far away and forgotten about his authority as switchman.
A little before noon there was a commotion: along one of the streets which gave onto the crossing, a committee was slowly advancing, in the middle of which was a woman walking on her knees, her arms outstretched and the index finger and thumb of each hand united at the tip. The friends or relatives of the woman preceded her, putting blankets and pieces of clothing in front of her to make the going less painful, since after all it must have been hard to bear. They stopped often and helped her, without raising their voices or gesticulating.
Canabal went forward to receive them and told them that all this put him in a compromising situation. He tried to divert their route, grabbing them by the arms and going from one to the other with useless attempts at persuasion. He invoked his responsibility, the Cuernavaca train which was about to cross and the sin they would commit by the vice of exaggeration.
“You don’t interpret anything,” he told them. “That’s the problem.”
He made a wide motion with his arms, indicating that this was the village’s flaw: a lack of interpretation. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but it was definitely relevant, and in that moment, he would have given his life to be an apostle of increasing popular interpretation.
The group pushed on. They pulled him by the sleeves and made him follow their route, until they all arrived in front of the figure. There, the woman sobbed and gave thanks for some favor received. She covered her face with her shawl and bowed her head to the ground, repeating that reverential motion mechanically. Everyone was moved, except Xebo, who persisted in his attempt to return to reasonable proportions, and began to show himself jealous of his authority. All of a sudden, he invoked the Code of General Communications and assured them that the army would help him clear the way if the people resisted.
The mention of armed force had an effect and in a few moments everyone clustered on either side of the barriers, with a sad gaze and a sullen air.
Xebo Canabal started up again paternally:
“You don’t try to understand, and you always end up the same way, you fools.”
While he caught his breath to carry on with the oration, someone replied:
“Keep it civil, eh? Because, up til now, we’ve all treated each other decently.”
Between them, the appeal to decency always took on a tone of offended dignity.
They were touchy, and all of a sudden they got fussy and distrustful. Xebo changed attitudes:
“But we’re straying from the point: a drawing is one thing and an icon another. This is a drawing. If anyone should know it’s me! Tomorrow I’ll erase it, and that’s enough.”
The feared threat brought them to their senses and they shot each other glances of secret knowledge. On tiptoes, a man went up to the lightbox and took some measurements. The switchman didn’t see him, because he was engrossed in gazing at a pair of people going from group to group taking a headcount. Everything happened silently or in a whisper, such that Xebo, who was intrigued but made an effort not to let it show, couldn’t have known what was being prepared.
As the day went on, women with baskets of food came and set up an active trade. An old man spread a newspaper on the ground and placed three piles of sunflower seeds on it. He sat in front of the stop and took on a somnolent air, without advertising his wares or showing even the slightest interest in attracting customers. From time to time, a client showed up, grabbed a handful of seeds without saying anything and left a little coin on the ground, confirming that good merchandise sells itself without effort nor propaganda, by the simple weight of its prestige.
“Something bad is gonna happen,” Xebo was murmuring. “Someone’s gonna end up smeared onto the rails and then the lamentations will come. Then you’ll do what you always do; you want to cover the well after the baby has already drowned.
But what was certain was that no one was paying any attention to his words and they only registered his presence to prove to him that he was a nuisance.
“You still aren’t on vacation, Xebo?” a boy asked him, lilting and drawling his words with a snide air.
And the people smiled moderately, stifling their emotions and their way of expressing them.
Unknowingly, Canabal was suffering from the ancient bitterness of a man devoured by his work. Acting upon an irate impulse, he grabbed a sheet and hinted at the action of erasing the drawing. But there was a permanent guard who restrained him. It was a tacit watch, who took over for each other spontaneously without organization or previous instruction, who only stood aside for each train to pass, while Xebo was busy with levers and flags and couldn’t be distracted.
At nightfall, Canabal had bitten his lips in rancor so much that he had left a wound. He left work sulking and grumbled all the way home. He had a bad night: he awoke often and uttered sentences putting the efficacy of the Revolution and the expropriation of oil into doubt.
The next day had a new surprise in store for him. They had placed a wooden frame with a thick pane of glass in front of the drawing, fastening it with solid screws.
The lad who had pushed Xebo to his present misfortune received him with these words:
“Now you can be happy, my son. Your hands are the chosen ones. Wash them well and don’t make anything again…”
That comforted the switchman a little, but it saddened him to think that this new glory wouldn’t last like the other, constantly renewed by the shock of each creation with his public.
A resigned capacity for submission suddenly filled him, a lassitude which made him give in before the inevitable. He gazed at the line of people, who were lighting new oil lamps, bringing flowers or offering arms, legs, hearts or heads made of silver, nailing them into the wooden frame. He had been the origin of this popular mobilization and now they left him by the wayside, they made him feel alienated and redundant. Like a point of light that grows into a flame, a hope was born in him: “I’ll buy a chalkboard,” he thought, “and I’ll make my drawing next to the traffic light.” Then, he articulated the thought aloud and the lad replied:
“Don’t even try! You wouldn’t be worthy of the gift you’ve been given, and furthermore, we would erase your blackboard.”
Canabal gathered the true force of the threat and knew that his art had just died.
For a couple of days, Xebo tried to find interior peace by returning to his contemplative states. But he had already felt the flutter of success and he couldn’t stay quiet. If he tried to follow, like before, the formations of clouds, beautiful colored-chalk compositions came to him, and if he closed his eyes to protect them from the sun with his straw hat, he imagined posters scathing situations and people, or illustrating stories from the streets.
And even if he had been in a good state of mind, they wouldn’t have left him alone to let his thoughts wander, because there was always the babble of people, the constantly renewed pilgrimage and the ever-growing place dedicated to pots and oil lamps. New roofs were being put up to protect all this, and Xebo felt more and more cornered. He ended up hating his own artwork with all his soul and he often looked at his drawing askance, with a dull irritation. His feeling as not irreverent, he had just wanted to depict a pure maiden. Everything that had happened afterwards escaped his faculty of comprehension.
“That drawing lost me,” he said one day. “It’s as if they cut off my hands and held them prisoner between the layer of chalk and the metal.”
An old woman who was listening was horrified.
“Don’t say that, Mr. Xebo! You could be punished…”
“I always think and say it: when I can, I’ll take advantage of whatever distraction to break the glass and erase the drawing. Let’s see if you find anyone who can make another one like it!”
A group had formed around the switchman. The women were murmuring prayers of mercy for the blasphemy and the men agreed that he wouldn’t escape punishment. The idea of Xebo’s punishment imposed itself with widespread acceptance and the same people who earlier had pointed him out to friends and relatives as the author of the admirable compositions, now were saying:
“That’s him, see? He doesn’t watch his words and he’ll be punished.”
“It’ll do him some good.”
“Yeah. One day, when he least expects it, he’ll pay for it all.”
They found it natural and fitting. In fact, they seemed to getting impatient. “He’s still hanging around here?” they asked each other in sincere stupor.
“Still. But it’s a fact. I wouldn’t want to have a dirty conscience like him and always be so close to the train tracks.”
So they waited for the train to resolve things and, as sometimes happens, their desire became a prophecy. One evening, as a maneuvering locomotive approached, Xebo couldn’t close the gates. He struggled desperately and upon realizing that the mechanism didn’t work, waved the red flag trying to warn a bus driver approaching at great speed. Inexplicably, the driver didn’t pay attention to the signals and entered the crossing without slowing down. Canabal covered his face with his hands and turned away. The air opened like a sharp-tipped flower and a giant crash turned all the other sounds into silence. Thousands of objects of fragments of objects filled the air, shot in all directions, and one of them, tracing an aerial curve, struck the switchman’s wrist. It wasn’t a very strong blow and Xebo retained his senses in part, but he lost the notion of space and time for a while. He sat on the ground and gazed expressionlessly at the coming and going of the people, and listened to the wails and cries, trying to remember what had happened. Ambulances and police cars showed up and Xebo recognized something familiar about them, but he couldn’t place them precisely in his understanding. Reclaimed by an deep necessity, the first perception he recovered was the instinct to save himself, and he tried to flee. But a woman recognized him in the tumult and had him detained by a uniformed officer. Canabal did not put up the slightest resistance; suddenly all this seemed strange and in the end he was glad that others would take his life into their hands. And that one phase of his life was ending and another one beginning, doing away with uneasiness and resentment.
He didn’t realize his new sorrow until a week had gone by. They had subjected him to long interrogations, the purpose of which he didn’t understand. One person pressured him not to say a word and another required that he tell them everything. In reality, he couldn’t have added much information to what everyone already knew and he suddenly found himself a pawn in the struggle between two powers which far exceeded him: the National Railway and the bus company.
Talking to other detainees planted a fear in him which tormented him night and day. They told him about the Maria Islands, about the gangs of prisoners the government regularly sent to the island penitentiary and about the hard life the captives faced in an abominable climate, watched over by cruel guards.
During the judicial business, Xebo’s art compromised him. There was a general consensus that you couldn’t paint and watch for trains at the same time, and the rarely confessed hatred of regular people for artists flared.
“So you were drawing on the job? You lazy fool!”
“The opposite, sir. Twice the work. It’s a question of spirit…”
“You wretch! You’ll end up on the islands!”
The allusion to his fear made him pale and lower his eyes. It was one thing when his cellmates put forth the menace, but another when proffered by a passerby in a tie and collar, with an aura of authority. “So it’s for sure,” he thought. And he spent all day pondering and all night weaving his insomnias. He tried to imagine compositions where justice was shown in a sorry state, but he didn’t find solace in it and was more and more afraid. “Only a miracle can save you,” he said to himself, and gave new validity to an old faith. He went over it little by little, haltingly, in interior monologs. “There was no evil intention, that’s obvious. I never wanted to fail anyone. Forgive me! See, one goes with a natural impulse and sins. It’s hard to foresee. Without learning, you lose track of the path without realizing it.”
He was more loquacious silently than aloud and he lengthened his reflections with heavy insistence until he came upon an improvised prayer in which, in a pained tone, he made his innocence stand out and demanded redeeming attention.
Finally, he made a promise. He repeated the agreement every evening and renewed it the next morning, always emphasizing that he didn’t wish anybody harm. That had to be clear because afterwards, with the haze of time, things got mixed up and he would end up finding he himself guilty.
In reality, he had made two promises: a big one, asking much, that he should come away free of all guilt and maybe even with an compensation. That was a lot to ask, he realized, and the truth is that he couldn’t bring himself to trust in it. The other one was that, if they condemned him, they at least not send him to the islands. That petition seemed more reasonable and he never tired of repeating it, sometimes uttering vague threats which mostly affected him. He would amicably mutter: “If I get out of it, all the better. I’ll carry this with me all my life. Otherwise, I’ll be deliberately lost, which isn’t to anyone’s advantage. Well!”
Going down that path, he started to get excited and ended up saying, almost aloud, that if you asked for something properly and you came away with nothing, it wasn’t worth getting annoyed.
One day, they carried him out almost by force. They returned the objects he was wearing at the moment of his arrest and they left him on the street. It turned out that the National Railways had proven that the bus driver had been driving under the influence, for which reason all the blame for the accident rested on him and his company.
Xebo went to see his superior, asking to return to his work.
“No way!” he was told.
“It’s that it was already proven that I’m not guilty.”
“That’s exactly it. If, without even being guilty, you ended up in such a mess, the day that you really blow it, you’ll ruin us all.”
Canabal didn’t quite understand, but it seemed to him that in the end the words had an irrefutable logic. He had a vague knowledge of labor laws that would have protected him, and despite that, it didn’t occur to him to seek protection behind them. As for him, he had decided to let the law rest in peace for the rest of his days.
He was under an obligation, and he would honor it, since a deal is a deal. He repented well, bought some things and, barefoot, set off towards home over the crossing, next to the wagons, walking over the gravel.
The path was painful and he advanced slowly. His forehead became covered in drops of sweat, while he formulated complaints between clenched teeth, tensing his feet muscles to harden the soles. “Yes, he was right,” he thought, “The day you really screw up, it’s over.”
He arrived at the crossing and, humbly and patiently, got in line. He was curious to meet his successor and he discovered him next to the traffic light, with a tin can in his hands. He was the son-in-law of the supervisor who had denied him reentry and he respectfully held the tin can, into which people were dropping coins.
His drawing was hard to see, framed in flowers and various ornaments which had begun to accumulate. The line moved forward calmly, because each person stopped for a while in front of the figure.
When it was his turn, Xebo nailed a silver heart into the wooden frame and lit a candle. A genuine fervor possessed him and he wanted to show his gratitude. He lifted his gaze and came upon his drawing, which all of the lines and spots of color he knew so well. To not be distracted, he closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but he had seen something which worried him. He opened his eyes anew and confirmed that, indeed, one of the maiden’s hands was bigger than the other. He had never realized it, but now he saw it with absolute clarity. If it hadn’t been for the glass, the wooden frame and the pieces of junk that the people had heaped up, he would have corrected the proportions in an instant. He had to make the fingers of the right hand longer and, while he was at it, he would make more stars in the background and give the halos brighter colors. He was sure he would have more success if he tried again, because the figure he was gazing at did not please him. That thought came as a shock to him, and he repented of allowing ideas straying from the promise which had brought him here to enter his head.
He tried to look into his soul, and was even pinching himself forcefully, pretending to respectfully cross his arms, but in vain. He opened his eyes again and saw badly drawn fragments of the figure, or ones which he would have done better this time, or badly painted colors which irritated him. Behind him, someone cleared their throat to hurry him up, and then he faced the maiden resolutely and he felt that she was his own, and firmly linked to the railway tracks, and thus, the earth. Expressing gratitude would have been like thanking himself and that made him blush.
Regardless, the agreement was in place and he didn’t want to let down his end. Suddenly possessed by a creative fervor, he closed his eyes again and imagined the Maiden he would draw if his hands were truly anointed with grace. He saw her clearly and could talk to her and thank her. He could ask her other things, and when the man behind him in line started to show signs of impatience, muttering and elbowing him, Xebo Canabal made another promise: if it was granted to him to reach Sinaloa; if his mother’s sister who lived there gave him room and board, he would paint the Maiden, such as the lad could never imagine her. People could only bring themselves to gaze at her on their knees, and Xebo kneeled and reached out his hands for them to be blessed.
Afterwards, he split off from the line and arduously put on his sandals. His feet were swollen and the soles were bloody, and he almost couldn’t stand up.
He limped away, holding onto the barrier alongside the tracks, and, as he passed in front of a food vendor, he said triumphantly:
“You see everything in miniature. Where I’m going now, if my voice is heard, huge stalls will rise up, immense pyramids of sunflower seeds…”
And he smiled with effort, paradoxically sad from all the effort in store for him before reaching Sinaloa.