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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?”
“No lack.”
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.
“Who’s that?”
“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…”
“How much?”
“Two pesos.”
“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?”
“Ten pesos.”
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.

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Mrs. Xabela’s Wake (La Vetlla de Donya Xabela)

From Gent de l’Alta Vall

By Pere Calders

Mrs Xabela, coming back from the market one morning loaded with groceries, fell off the bus and sustained such grave injuries that she died soon after. She was already very old, and her crippled, withered corpse was on display to the curious public until an ambulance came around to collect it and bring it to the Hospital Juárez.
That’s where her son and her daughter-in-law, Marga, awaited her. Marga, upon seeing the corpse and having proof of the death, felt an ineffable sensation of relief.  The two women had not only never gotten along, but had hated each other with all the hatred to which a lack of understanding gives rise in such cases. Since her wedding, Marga had never quite felt like the mistress of her own house, and, lo and behold, thanks to an unexpected twist of fate, the nuisance that had seemed ingrained in her daily life was gone. She cried from joy and pleasure and took advantage of the tears to feign condolence. She squeezed the arm of her husband, whom grief had left in shock, and set in motion the necessary formalities.
She asked a doctor if they could take the deceased to hold a wake at home, as was due, and when she was denied – because they still had to undergo the legal procedures surrounding the autopsy – Marga was taken by surprise.
“Is she not good and dead? Is there still something to be done?”
While confirming that she was indeed dead, the doctor placated her. So they went back home and, the man was struck by the strange impulse to construct a bier. He was a carpenter, and they lived and worked in the bottom floor of an apartment building, by Santa Maria.
When the neighbors found out that Mrs. Xabela had died in an accident, they began to file through silently, or talking in quiet tones. Almost all of them asked if they were going to bring Mrs. Xabela home and hold a wake. And Marga always answered:
“Of course we will! We’re decent folks. She’s Apol·linar’s mother, after all…”
Apol·linar, the carpenter, seemed not to notice anything around him and was assembling his bier as though divinely inspired. He brought some quilts and curtains, one of his wife’s shawls, some vases from Oaxaca, a large print of Santa Isabel, some glass balls and garlands they had been saving for the Christmas tree, and he managed to arrange everything harmoniously. He selected and arranged things, stepped back to appraise the effect, and did not tire of fiddling with it until he was pleased with the result. He sent a helper boy to buy flowers and candles, and meanwhile prepared some candlesticks with remarkable dexterity.
Around noon, his friend Xon, who already had heard the news, showed up, and upon seeing the preparations, shattered his illusions in a couple of words:
“They won’t let you hold a wake for Mrs. Xabela here. Since she died in an accident, she’ll most likely go straight from the hospital to the cemetery.”
Apol·linar was devastated and could not accept it. He said that since forever, all the wakes for the deceased had been held at home, and it couldn’t be that his mother, of all people, should be left out of that tradition.
His friend Xon answered that he had a certain influence and that with fifty pesos, perhaps, he could set everything straight. The carpenter took a couple of bills from a snuff box that he kept in a wardrobe, counted them, and said:
“I’m five pesos short. You put them in and we’ll handle it later.”
The friend had just left when the apprentice arrived with the candles and the flowers. Apol·linar, after placing the candles in the candlesticks and arranging the new elements, put some tools in a cloth bag and sent the apprentice to go pawn them. Marga warned that they would have to buy drinks and food for the friends and family who would come to the wake and so the man took an electric motor out of one of the machines in the workshop and handed it to the boy, for him to add to the tools’ fate. He also handed him his wristwatch and the boy said that with all that, they wouldn’t let him onto the bus or, in any case, he wouldn’t be able to carry it. Marga borrowed five pesos from a neighbor of hers and gave them to the apprentice to take a taxi.
People came, attracted by the news. If Mrs. Xabela had passed away from natural causes, few would have even paid their most formulary respects. But now everyone wanted to know what had happened, if it had been the driver or the woman’s fault, if they were going to sue the transit company and if the woman had ceased to exist right there on the street or in the hospital.
Marga answered all the questions patiently and repeated the same responses, added little details here and there in hopes of fostering a local legend. She, who had always led such an insignificant life, began to discover the pleasure of being the center of such widespread attention.
In the afternoon, the friend Xon showed up with two lads carrying a wooden box containing Mrs. Xabela. Apol·linar, locked in stubborn silence, tirelessly assembling on the bier all the colorful or just shiny things within his reach, received the corpse with genuine and moving grief. He ordered them to uncover the coffin and to place it appropriately on the bier. Now, with all the items necessary to achieve his final goal, the carpenter removed some ornaments and added others – more of the latter – and all the necrophilia of their people began to spread through the neighborhood through this filial homage. People presented themselves, transcendental, almost on tiptoe, and everyone was helping out. Someone lit the candles and others brought more flowers, or pictures, or little oil lamps that they placed respectfully around the monument Apol·linar had constructed.
Mrs. Xabela looked dreadful. She had a repulsive expression, and her face was swollen and turning purple. A friendly woman came up beside her, gazed at her for a while and then, in an exaltation of politeness, said:
“It’s good. Good that she’s… She doesn’t seem dead.”
    Marga, lowering her eyes as though she were the object of undeserved praise, answered: “It’s an honor, ma’am,” and immediately covered her face humbly with a shawl.
The boy arrived, with money from the pawn shop. So they bought fruit wine, pulque, a couple of bottles of tequila and some edibles, and with all that the daughter-in-law prepared everything which was necessary for the proper treatment of the guests.
Then, she received two old women who offered, in keeping with tradition, to weep during the wake. They were asking for ten pesos and food, but they settled for less and started to cry. Apol·linar, suddenly exasperated by the laments, said that if they didn’t cry softly he would kill them, and the friend Xon led him into another room and made the necessary remarks: life and death, always hand in hand, and resignation as the only defense to face them both.
“It’s just so terrible to see that saint stretched out there, unmoving, and me, unable to do anything,” said Apol·linar.
He had been applying the word “saint” to his mother for a while now, and he himself began to be taken in by the adjective. And it ended up spreading to the others, and now around the bier people were already speaking veneratingly of saintly Mrs. Xabela. They were praising her spirit of sacrifice, the tenacity with which she had always remained celibate, to dedicate all her care to her sons, who as adults hadn’t returned what she deserved.
For lack of chairs, the bedroom, workshop, and kitchen were full of people standing, and there was already a small group outside the door of the house. Many of the people were strangers: attracted by the funeral rites, they had joined willingly, and were eating, and held a glass, and wore the same face of compunction as everyone. Some, better at adapting, were praising Mrs. Xabela.
Marga went from one to the other, filling glasses, serving hors d’oeuvres and orchestrating the tragedy of the wake. She felt happy, important, and didn’t envy anyone. She had always wanted to have people at her house, for a party, or whatever it might be that allowed her an illusion of society, and now she had achieved it for the first time, after dreaming for so long. At one point, she surprised herself because, while passing around with a tray, she found herself thanking Mrs. Xabela for having died and granting her the pleasure of doing the honors as mistress of the house.
The more they drank, the louder the guests talked. One of them, a timid man whom no one in the neighborhood knew and who had ended up there by accident had a guitar and his entire aim seemed to be to not touch the strings, for no one to approach it, so that no sound should break the solemnity of the proceedings. The first glass of tequila he drank made his eyes turn ted. He took one or two more and kept on going from one side to another, keeping his air of solitude. He got bumped from side to side but he kept protecting the guitar, with impenetrable sullenness. Without realizing it, he ended up next to the box and stood still, gazing at the corpse, with impressive stillness. Suddenly, he lifted the guitar with both hands, cried out “Cursed old woman!” and brought the instrument down with all his strength onto the deceased. The guitar was in pieces, and the air displaced by the swing extinguished a candle. The shiny handkerchief Mrs. Xabela wore to cover up an incision they had made in the hospital fell to the side and in an instant, the painstakingly achieved order, the solemn and funerary tone that Apol·linar had worked so hard for, took on the appearance of an uncivilized party. Someone threw themselves on the timid man and the battle was going to spread when Marga grabbed the stranger by the belt and dragged him to the street.
Apol·linar hadn’t realized anything and was explaining to the friend Xon that if he had had gypsum, he would have added another layer to the bier. He ceaselessly extolled the virtues of the dead woman and said that when worries would push her to drink too much, the saintly woman would lock herself in her room and try to cause as little commotion as possible.
As darkness fell, the gossiping died down and the less enthusiastic funeral-goers began to retire. Marga wanted them to stay, explaining that soon the burial agency employees would show up, whom she referred to in a veiled manner, as though they were an attraction worth seeing. However, a good portion of the visitors filed past the bier one last time and some said one final gallantry to Mrs. Xabela.
A little while later, an envoy from the funeral home arrived. Marga had imagined that at least two people would have shown up, and was somewhat disappointed. The man, with an air of silent efficiency, gave two or three turns around the bier and asked who had built it.
“Me,” replied Apol·linar with pride. “I’m a master carpenter.”
The employee wanted to know if he was inclined to make biers by commission and how much he would charge, but he replied that the creative impulse had to be from the heart and that these kinds of things had no price. In any case, he carefully kept the card that the mortician handed him, in case one day he thought better of it, and right away they got to work organizing the details of the funeral. They agreed that the next day, bright and early, the agency would come by to pick up the corpse.
In the night hours, a new pattern of behavior emerged. The people kept holding their glasses and chewing and swallowing tirelessly. They were at the point where reason still tries – less and less enthusiastically – to temper the effects of alcohol, giving everyone an affectedly serious air. Countless small fortresses of common sense were on the verge of capitulation, and the warning signs began to lose their initial timidity.  A neighbor started to sing a sad song, which could have appeared appropriate because it was about the mourning of two deaths and the return of mortal remains to the soil. Regardless, the tune aroused in someone else the memory of another song, which exalted the feats of a knight who, without dismounting, had ridden through the door of a church to abduct a married woman. So he started to sing it, and a couple of voices accompanied him. Apol·linar followed the beat with his right foot, and, trying to do so with his arms, spilled his glass, and the friend Xon filled it up again.
Marga was experiencing the birth of a universal love. She gazed at the faces of the visitors and felt that she loved them all very much, and that she could hardly live without them close by. Flitting from side to side, her eyes bumped into the Mrs. Xabela’s inert corpse, and suffered a new jolt of tenderness. If she had always been as she was now, calm and silent, how she would have loved Mrs. Xabela! From the soles of her feet, an vague bubbling sensation spread up through her body, and her eyes moistened. Overpowered by an impulse, she knelt at the foot of the bier and put her arms around it, so impetuously that it caused the detachment of a string of glass balls, which fell to the ground and broke.
Apol·linar leapt up and jerked his wife by the hair. His vaporous inner happiness had given way  – with the grief at his mother’s death like a beloved landscape hidden behind fog – to inordinate indignation. He pushed Marga away with a kick, and set about restoring the bier with the same loving concern as before. He took a couple of oil lamps from the headboard and put them to one side. But now, he did not have his original lucidity and his inspiration did not help him. Seeing the poverty of the results obtained, he sat down once again and began to sob, covering his face with his hands.
The night hours passed, alternating between exaltation and dejection. Twice, Apol·linar wanted to beat his wife, but they ended up hugging, while she murmured:
“Your poor mother, such a saint, such a saint!…”
The light of day entered through a crack, moved forwards slowly and crept up the bier, setting it atwinkle. The friend Xon had fallen asleep and a neighbor aroused him, because his snores detracted from the desired gravity. Marga began distributing food and drink, as there was a general awakening, and felt again her importance as mistress.  Some of the wake goers felt ill, and so she gave them home remedies and had words full of social aptitude for everyone.
When, at the break of day, the personnel of the funeral home showed up with a black truck which paraded carved wooden palms on the sides, Marga begged them to wait a little. But they, of course, were not in the mood. They knew the shifting dispositions of hundreds of wake goers after trying nights, and they got to work. The woman asked Apol·linar to procure a postponement of the formalities, and the carpenter – whom the diurnal light had imbued with a new type of transcendence – began to argue with the employees, who alleged that the delay had elapsed and they were under the obligation to take the corpse.
With the stubbornness common to indians and mestissos, they started a tedious verbal battle. In the end, since he was short of arguments, Apol·linar shoved one of his opponents and right away, a pushing battle started, thought cut short since the carpenter received reinforcements from his friends and neighbors to expel the men he himself had contracted. They dragged them to the street and shut the door, securing it from inside with all sorts of contraptions.
They were left in a belligerent mood and were visibly agitated. They agreed to keep the corpse at all costs, and set about making defensive preparations. But the others were not inclined to give in either. For them, it was a question of pride: a funeral placed under their responsibility never stopped halfway, and moreover, someone mentioned in passing that the law was their ally, which lent them great confidence. And furthermore, with their expert glance, they ascertained that Mrs. Xabela had no time for expansive sentimentality and that in the interest of public health, she should be buried immediately.
They warned the nearest police station on the phone, and, after a short while, a jeep showed up with a couple of men in uniform. Apol·linar told the sergeant who was warning him to give in that they would never get in with words alone. He felt as though this moment represented his life’s calling and a swell of heroism strengthened him.
One of the women began to cry and shut herself in the kitchen. The friend Xon was talking about similar experiences during the revolution and tried to take command two or three times. But Apol·linar didn’t let anyone surpass his authority, derived from being the son of the deceased and the builder of the bier.
Marga was the heart of the hopeless attempt. She observed everything and rushed around wherever she was needed. When she heard that they were roughly pounding on the door from the outside with some heavy object, she realized that the old wood wouldn’t last long. So she threw herself on her husband, and, screaming, told him:
“Don’t let them rob you of your mother, Apol·linar! You only have one mother…. Before they take her from you, burn her!”
Burn her! Everyone grasped the magnitude of her initiative, and when Apol·linar started to heap wood shavings around the foot of the bier, everyone helped out. From under a work bench, the carpenter took out a can of gasoline and sprayed it on the pyre. Then, he made a legendary gesture: with a box of matches in his hands, he addressed those outside and said:
“If you try to get in, I’ll set it all on fire!”
For a moment, the pounding on the door stopped. But then it resumed with even more force. So Apol·linar lit a match and threw it on the shavings. A huge flame leapt up around Mrs. Xabela and the fire spread rapidly. It burned the wood, the cloth, the ornaments on the bier, and advanced along every combustible path, with insectile avidity.
If, from the height she must have found herself, Mrs. Xabela had been able to see her funeral celebrations, gazing over the entire agitated neighborhood, the swarm of tiny figures in a frenzy, and hear the firefighters’ sirens and the humming of hundreds of voices, she couldn’t have helped but experience a reproachable feeling of vanity. She would gotten news of the fire from the arms of smoke pouring out of doors and windows, and the fire itself appearing suddenly on the street and seizing a fruit cart. And her son Apol·linar, led by two members of the Red Cross, thrashing and defending himself despite having his hair on fire. And her daughter-in-law Marga, with her clothes full of flames, running and screaming until someone smothered her in a blanket. And all the friends, relatives, and neighbors who had been such pleasant company, writhing in disgrace.
But what would draw Mrs. Xabela’s attention most especially would be to gaze down on herself in the center of the pyre, serene and absent, until the fire, stretching the muscles of her face, force her first to smile, then make a grotesque grimace, and finally adopt the face she always made when she turned on her children, when they annoyed her by the violence of their childish games or, as adults, by their difficult lifestyles.

Mild Fate (Fortuna Lleu)

From Gent de l’Alta Vall

By Pere Calders

At the entrance to a hut underneath a large metal structure, Trinidad Romero lets the hours slowly pass. He is wrapped in a blanket which covers half his face and the only thing left visible are his eyes, darting in the gap between the hat and the blanket.
He hears someone knock at the door and rises calmly, walks slowly over and asks who’s there.
“It’s me, brother. Let me in.”
A fog of tequila surrounds the visitor. He’s heavily, crassly drunk.
Trinidad returns to his seat indifferently and asks:
“What’s the word?”
The other is slurring his speech, can’t string together his words, and with effort manages to say that he is ready to kill anyone who’s had dealings with the gringos.
“Sit down, man, sit down.”
Trinidad ignores him. With a piece of wood he stirs the embers of the fire by which he’s warming himself and stares off blankly, as if alone. The drunkard grabs his arm violently.
“I don’t know why, but seems to me even you’ve been dealing with them!”
He gets rid of him with a shove and his friend falls on his back, grotesquely.
“Come on, get out of here. Let me be. I don’t want to hurt you.”
But the friend stumbles to his feet, and grabs onto him. In the struggle, Trinidad brushes the fire and burns his ankle. Pain blinds him, and without thinking, he grabs an iron pipe and smashes it with all his strength onto the head of his friend, who collapses face down with open eyes.
Trinidad stands upright and silent for a good while. Finally, he takes off his straw hat and scratches his wrist.
“Ah, what a man!” he says, amicably addressing the motionless body. “Always looking for trouble…”
He crouches and shakes him: “Hey Lalo! You hear me?” He seems to stir a little and with the same pipe, he gives him two more blows.
“Poor guy! That way he won’t suffer.”
Then, he gives himself over to meditation. He paces from one side to the other and stops now and then in front of a ditch half-filled with cement. When he reaches a decision, he kneels by Lalo’s corpse and rifles through his pockets; he takes out a couple of copper coins, a knife, his military booklet and a small bottle of tequila, with a little bit of liquor left in it. He raises it against the light to see how much liquid it contains, and with an ample smile begins to drink by sips, without haste, savoring it and running his tongue over his lips.
When he’s done, he heaves a sigh of well-being and returns to his task. He grabs Lalo’s feet to drag him, and then realizes that his shoes are almost new. He sits down and places the sole of his foot against the dead man’s sole, to verify the size, and sees with dismay that they would be a little loose on him.
He finishes with the distractions and tosses his friend’s body into one of the trenches, covering him with cement. He uses a shovel to carefully flatten the surface, and when he is satisfied with his work, he takes of his hat, reverently joins his hands and prays for the soul of the departed. A vague melancholy cuts his breath; in a short time, he’s lost two of his closest companions, both in tragic circumstances. And now this one, so jovial when he was in a good mood and so handy with a guitar…
Nothing else occurs to him and with that, he ends the funeral rites. He immediately gets to shaping an idea which makes his heart race: he’s gonna have to tell Lupe, Lalo’s lover, and, if she agrees, and things work out, provide for her.
He abandons his work without nervousness; no one ever enters and, most likely, when he gets back, everything will be the same.
It’s a cold night, with the gusts so characteristic of the Valley of Mexico. At ten P.M., San Juan de Letrán Avenue starts to decline and the few people who travel down it do so silently; the screeching of the wheels of a tram and the muffled sound of mechanical music accompany Trinidad’s thoughts. Lupe lives in the neighborhood of Portales and he walks to the bus stop that will take him there. And he reflects in the clumsy way he can; he closes his eyes and imagines Lupe’s figure, who always seems to walk around half-dressed, with that characteristic motion of pulling up her clothes so her breasts don’t fall out.
On the way, the lurching bus helps him sink into a pleasant doze. The minor torment of not being able to formulate the idea floating through his brain makes him worry, but in a dim, distant way.
He gets off the bus, crosses two streets and enters Lupe’s building; he crosses the yard, parting the damp, hanging clothing and has to crouch twice because the wires knock his hat off. On the landing he steps on a dog, which surprises and irritates him so much that he slams him into a washbasin with a kick.
He gives three knocks on the door, so weak that no one hears them. He waits, he patiently waits, and after a couple of minutes he knocks again, with the same timidity. The third time he strikes with more force and a light turns on inside. The doors is cracked ajar and he says:
“It’s Trinidad Romero.”
The woman lets him in. She’s wearing a tight dress that she threw on, and nothing underneath.  Trinidad looks at her, following her slowly with his eyes; she lifts her arms to fix her hair and the man gazes at her armpits admiringly. Lupe smiles:
“What a miracle!”
“So, I came to say that Lalo died…”
She drops a safety pin she was holding between her teeth and her eyes widen. She is silent for a good while and then asks:
“But how? What happened?”
“It was his time. He fell into the trap.”
That explains everything, and Lupe collapses onto a chair, grabbing her head between her hands. “We were going to get married by both laws…” she says, between sobs. And he, who wants to answer her, holds himself back so as not to taint the memory of the deceased. While he respects the – now silent –  woman’s pain, Trinidad stares at a portrait of Lalo hanging on the wall. “Pretty soon, you’ll have another one just like it made.” The idea makes him smile, but he covers his face with his hat out of a vague feeling of delicacy.
“Where do they have him? The Red Cross or the Green?” asks Lupe.
“Neither.”
“But where is he?”
“Who knows!…”
“Well we have to hold a wake. We’re decent people. Someone must know where he is.”
“Nope. No one knows. You already know how reserved he was and how hard to understand, sometimes.”
“But is it certain he died?”
“Sure as can be. Look…”
He hands  her Lalo’s military booklet,, and the presence of an official document, even though it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with it, dispelled her doubts.
Trinidad, crumpling his hat between his hands, says with an impersonal air:
“I was saying that someone has to come live here…”
“Yes, of course. A poor woman, all alone… And the rent too…”
“What does it come to?”
“Four pesos a day.”
He lowers his eyes and thinks for a good while. Then he looks at Lupe and tries to make out her strong, brown body under the scanty clothing.
“I could do it…” he finally says.
“But look, Lalo looked after me, we were gonna get married by both laws…”
“Later on, if we decide to, we could get a civil marriage. Not in the church, because my wife is still alive. You know that when I kicked her out she went to Querétaro, with one of her sisters.
“Yes, of course.”
Trinidad gets more and more impatient and the longer the conversation drags out, the less he can wait. Now he can take it no longer: he goes up close to Lupe and, with one jerk, rips off her dress. They struggle briefly and he forces her to the ground. He gives her one strong blow to the face with his fist, and she gives in.

The next day, early in the morning, Trinidad steps out into the street. He has been thinking; he won’t give her four pesos a day; three and a half, or better yet a round three, seems more reasonable.
He gets to the site before the other workers and sees that no one has entered in his absence. He glances into the trench, and slowly, he is overpowered by a feeling of self-importance. He’s astute and brave. He smiles with just half of his mouth, because he has a deep, ancestral instinct to hide his emotions.
People start arriving, and one of the foremen asks:
“Who touched that trench?”
“Who knows!”
The foreman doesn’t ask anything else and the brigades get to work. After a while, the little scene has undergone a fairly large transformation, because when the architect arrives, he can’t suspect a thing. While formulating that thought, Trinidad has a spark of tenderness for Lalo: “He’ll rest easy here, poor guy.” And since the foundations were blessed, it appears he won’t be lacking anything.
Normally, as men get to the site, Trinidad leaves. But on paydays, like today, he has to wait for the architect with the money, and the hours seem especially long. Now he distracts himself by thinking of Lupe and he mulls over their shared intimacy. He smiles again lightly.
And now the architect doesn’t show up, but in his place the assistant comes, with a black briefcase under his arm. He sits in front of a table and starts to organize the envelopes that contain the money. Trinidad walks up unhurriedly, takes off his hat and reminds them that, since he already finished his work, they always pay him before everyone else. The assistant doesn’t know how things work very well, but he wants to seem like he gets it and fakes great aplomb. He separates a bag from the others and reads:
“Armida Morales?”
Trinidad doesn’t affirm or deny it. His respectful silence could equally well mean one thing or the other, and he’s always ready for an advantage that requires no effort. The assistant gives him the envelope and he scrawls an illegible signature in the booklet they hand him.
Armida Morales guards the materials and in the envelope there are twenty pesos more than what Trinidad earns. He already knows that the error will soon be discovered and they will ask him for an explanation. But who knows! He’ll say he doesn’t know a thing and he’ll defend himself behind his ignorance. What he has to do is spend the money right away, so that when they ask about it there won’t be anything to be done about it. Let them take it out of his pay in two weeks, if they want!…
The idea to get Lupe a present occurs him and he heads to a jewelry store that he passes often. The owner of the store, from behind the counter, is arguing with a tax inspector and is visibly agitated. Almost without seeing him, he deals with Trinidad, who chooses a bracelet with coins hanging on it and pays with a fifty peso bill. The shopkeeper gives him his change in such haste that he gives him ten extra pesos. Trinidad sees in but doesn’t bat an eyelid: he takes the money and puts them in the envelope completely casually.
Outside, he congratulates himself again for his shrewdness. And he suddenly thinks of something that seems appropriate: if things keep going so well for him, he’ll bring a candle to the Virgin of Acatitlan.
Before he continues on his way, with his short steps and humble appearance, Trinidad reaffirms the promise, taking off his straw hat and crossing himself reverently with the envelope.

Fauna, by Quim Monzó

The cat pursues the rat through the entire house and falls, one after another, into the traps that he himself laid for the rodent. He falls in the pot of tar, slips on the banana peel and ends up in the meat grinder, which chops him into bits. While he is still trying to get himself back together, he touches the doorknob, not knowing that the rat connected it to the electrical current: all his hairs stick up, he goes from black to white, to yellow, to purple, his eyeballs pop out of their sockets and spin around eighteen times, his tongue folds and unfolds into a zigzag, he falls, scorched, to the ground, and turns into a mound of smoking black dust. Until the mistress of the house comes with a broom and dustpan, scoops him up and dumps him into the garbage pail.
But right away he’s on the prowl again. Ah! He would give anything to be rid of that worthless rat who no one could possibly like. Why doesn’t he ever win? Why is it always the little critter who gets away? The cat knows, moreover, that rats annoy most of humanity. For many men, of all the vicissitudes of war, the one that they remember with the most horror (more than the bombs, more than the dumdum bullets, more than the sleepless nights, more than the hungry days and more than the shoeless journeys, their feet wrapped in sheets) are the rats. Why, then, do some people forget that repulsion and side with the rat? Just because he’s the little one?
The cat goes back on the offensive. He swears, once again, that this time the rat won’t get away. He sets the house on fire; everything burns but the rat gets away. And the master of the house, when he gets back from work, beats the cat with a shovel. The cat doesn’t let up. He continues to pursue the rat. He finally catches him, stuffs him in a cement truck, and when he’s about to start it up, the dog appears. By some law as incomprehensible as it is atavistic, the dog is always the rat’s friend. This dog is carrying an oversized hammer in his hand. He lets it fall onto the cat’s head, which gets crushed as flat as a piece of paper.
But he gets himself back together right away, receives a package in the mail and smiles. He fills the rat’s hiding hole with gunpowder and sets it alight. Everything explodes, just when he realizes the rat wasn’t inside it, and that he’s watching him from the door, repugnantly tittering. Always the same.
Until one surprising day, many episodes later, the cat triumphs.
After a pursuit through the house’s hallways (a pursuit like so many others), the cat catches the rat. It’s happened so many times, but… The cat has held the rat in his paw so many times, like now, and he’s gotten away, so not even the cat himself is convinced that this time is for real. He spears the rat with a three-tined fork, and from each of the holes appears a stream of blood. The cat turns on the burner. He puts a pan on top. He pours oil in. When the oil is boiling, he places the rat in it, who slowly roasts, between such frenetic shrieks that the cat himself has to plug his ears with corks. Thats when he realizes that something strange is happening. This time is for real. The rat’s body is stiffening, turning blacker and blacker and smoking. The rat looks at the cat with eyes that he will never forget, and dies. The cat continues to roast the corpse. Then he takes the pan off and burns him directly on the flames, until he is just a black and crumpled skin. He takes him off the flames, looks at him closely, touches him with his fingers: he disintegrates into ten thousand charred specks that the swirling wind disperses to the four corners of the world. For one instant, he is immensely happy.

Common Sense, by Quim Monzó

Every time the woman with common sense goes to bed with someone, she tells her boyfriend she did it, not in moment of lasciviousness, but because she fell in love. She doesn’t have anything to feel guilty about (the woman and her boyfriend have a clear and flexible pact, with respect to that) but it’s as if she felt cleaner if, every time she goes to bed with someone, she insists that she was in love. On the other hand, every time her boyfriend hooks up with someone, the woman assumes he is driven only by lasciviousness, and that irritates her. It’s not that she gets jealous. No. She’s not jealous at all. It just bothers her that her boyfriend should be so vulgar, so carnal. The boyfriend, however, does get jealous when he knows that she goes to bed with someone else. But it’s an understandable jealousy: because she falls in love. And if the person with whom you have a (more or less flexible) pact of cohabitation falls in love with another, jealousy is logical.
What criterion does the woman use to affirm that her affairs are the result of love, and her boyfriend’s, of lust? The man says; a very simple criterion: that she is herself (thus justifying everything) and he is not only not her, but a man, with the historical burden that that entails. The woman denies it, even though the years have taught her that, indeed, men and women act differently. But she doesn’t say it because, even though she doubts her belief less and less, it’s a generalization. There are always exceptions, although she has never in her life been as close to recognizing that the adage that men are all the same, despite being a platitude (and therefore repugnant) is, at least partly, true: maybe not all of them, but the vast majority of men are the same. The woman with common sense knows what she’s talking about: she’s fallen in love with many men, and all of them, without fail and despite their efforts to embellish it, in the end just hook up with her out of lasciviousness. Lasciviousness that she often succumbs to because (she must admit) ever since she was little she has been a romantic, and love stupefies her such that, as soon as a man puts his arm around her shoulder, kisses her earlobe and puts his hand between her legs, even though she opens her mouth to say no, no never comes out, and she always says yes.

The Will to Overcome, by Quim Monzó

Dorotea is sitting in front of her dressing table. She runs the brush through her hair, slowly, while watching in the mirror as Tintin listlessly pulls off his sweater, listlessly tosses it on the sofa, listlessly runs his hand through his beard, against the direction of the hair, and goes to take a shower. Dorotea gets up, takes off her gown, leaves it on the stool, gets into bed and listens to the running water. She considers the possibility of picking up the book she was reading yesterday and reading for a while, but in fact she’s not in the mood. It’s better to leave it were it was, on the bedside table, and wait for her husband to get out of the shower. They could talk for a while, Tintin and her. When Tintin comes back, still drying himself, he looks so tired to Dorotea that she’s sure he won’t want to talk. She asks him if he’s tired. Tintin says he is, gets into bed, says good night, turns out the light, and, seven seconds later (as Dorotea contemplates him, unsure whether to turn out her light too, or to go back to her old idea, to read for a while), begins to snore.

It’s been a long time since things have changed. When did they stop fucking? Dorotea streches the skin of her arm taut. It’s sagging. She strokes her breasts. They hang down. They were never large breasts, but at least before they were perky. Maybe that’s why. Her friend Carlota said these things happen all the time. She takes off the sheet, gets up, turns out the light on the bedside table and goes to the living room. She lights a cigarette and, blowing smoke rings from her mouth (she learned it from her first boyfriend, at seventeen), looks at herself in the glass of the balcony, which reflects her pyjama’d image. She passes her hand over her face. She’s never thought herself pretty. Those thin lips… Those thick eyebrows… That pointy nose… How could Tintin possibly be attracted to her? When you’re young, an unremarkable face is made up for by the softness of the skin, the heat of the flesh. When you pass forty, things change.

That’s why she decides to go to the esthetician. She goes the very next day. She gets her eyebrows redone. It takes all morning and she comes out delighted. She gazes at herself in the glass of a shoe store window. As soon as she sees her, her friend Carlota tells her: with the eyebrows thinner, and, above all, separate, her face is much improved. She arrives at home with a mix of excitement and fear. Excitement in case Tintin sees her, finds her amazingly beautiful and they fall in love all over again. And fear in case he sees her, he doesn’t like the change and scorns her as frivolous and banal. Or, even worse, if he laughs at it.
But Tintin comes home and doesn’t even notice. A week later, Dorotea goes to a plastic surgeon. She says she doesn’t like the lips she has: thin, cold, unappealing. She gets silicone injected. Now she has thick, sensual, avid lips. Carlota says it’s an outstanding change and asks her if she’s going to make any more. Despite the friend’s approval, what happened with the eyebrows makes Dorotea go home with low expectations. She’s mistaken: this time Tintin notices right away. For the first time in months, they copulate.

Comforted by her success, Dorotea returns to the surgeon. She gets silicone cushions implanted in her breasts. They look wonderful. Upright, perky, the perfect size. This time, Carlota wrinkles her nose. She asks her if she’s sure she’s not taking it too far, if all this, in a way, wouldn’t transform her from herself into a plastic woman, like the ones in movies and magazines that men buy. Would she still be herself, despite the eyebrows, the inflated lips and the silicone breasts? Doesn’t she feel a little like an android?
Dorotea gets offended; of course she’s still herself. Who else, if not? She decides that maybe Carlota is getting envious of her upgrades. Dorotea returns to the surgeon. At this level of their professional relationship, there is already what one could call trust. That’s why it’s the same surgeon who tells her the next step has to be the nose. Dorotea considers getting irritated at that way of his telling her she has a dreadful nose; but she weighs it; it would be idiotic to get offended. The doctor is right; she knows it, and knows that if he says it, it’s to help (her, that is). She trims her nose. The shortened little nose once again savagely awakens Tintin’s libido.

Just after copulation he looks at her with distrust.
“Who are you getting yourself redone for? Who are you trying to please by redoing your lips, your breasts, your nose? Don’t fool me, Dorotea.”
Dorotea lays her head down on the marital biceps. She’s not getting herself redone for anyone, she tells him. Just for him, although it sounds like a lie. And after she’s said it she starts to daydream. Maybe now, with her new face and inflated breasts, she could blind any man she wanted. But is that what she wants?

She doesn’t want that. What she wants is to please her husband more and more. That’s why the next thing she did was get a facelift. And after that a hip replacement. The surgeon recommended it. It’s a new technique, unthinkable just a few years ago, that allows her to swap her old, wide hips for a new pair, made out of a semiorganic material. She can forget about cellulitis and liposuction now. Before that, though, she has her legs changed (they give her a very svelte pair instead), her arms changed, her arteries changed, her neck changed. The fact that one day, while she was coming out of the clinic, she saw Carlota enter, go up to the reception and ask for the time, confirms the success of all these changes. Despite all her efforts not to, she’s ended up going to the surgeon too! At point, Dorotea has changed so much that she permits herself the luxury of observing Carlota without being recognized.

The next day Dorotea returns to the clinic. To give her cheekbones svelteness they change her skull, and that takes her a while to get used to. Especially the circuit board which, implanted between the two hemispheres of her brain, allows her to scan her surroundings, see in the dark, analyze people’s insides with x-rays. When they remove the bandages she takes a walk down the hallway. Doctors, patients and visitors stare her up and down. If they knew the legs were premade, the hips semiorganic and the eyebrows and cheekbones modified, if they knew they she even has a little circuit board implanted thanks to which she can read the obscenities they think when they see her on the screens that are her eyes. Tintin doesn’t know it either; that’s why, when he visits the clinic that evening (later than he said) and gives a banal excuse to justify his delay, on the screens that are her eyes, Dorotea discovers that Tintin has been reluctant to act, but that that evening (hence the delay) he had finally told Carlota they wouldn’t see each other any more. Dorotea hugs her husband and weeps with joy.

With Heart in Hand, by Quim Monzó

They become engaged on New Year’s Eve, at the stroke of midnight, while in the city the fireworks are exploding and people are embracing each other: in houses, in the streets, at parties. For both of them, the period of friendship is over and the engagement that leads to marriage is beginning. When will they be married? They’ll decide later; right now the emotion is too intense. They look each other in the eyes and swear eternal love and faithfulness. They decide to wash away their past lovers. They also promise to be completely honest with each other; to never lie.
“We’ll be completely honest with each other. We’ll never lie to each other, under any pretense and with any excuse.”
“A single lie would be the death of our love.”
These promises excite them even more. At two in the morning they fall asleep on the sofa, exhausted, in each other’s arms.
They wake up at noon with a hangover. They shower, they dress, and they step out into the street with sunglasses on.
“Shall we eat?” he says.
“Yeah. Not much for me. A couple of tapas and I’ll be fine. But you must be hungry.”
He is about to say that no, anything is fine, but he remembers his promise.
“Yes. I am hungry. But I’m fine with tapas. You eat a couple and I’ll have more.”
“No. You must want to get a table. Wouldn’t you rather we go to a restaurant?”
They’ve promised to be completely honest with each other. He can’t tell her, then, what he would have told her otherwise: that he’s fine with getting tapas in a bar. Now he must recognize that in fact, he would rather go to a restaurant and get a table.
“So let’s go,” she says. “Should we go to that Japanese restaurant that we went to a week ago and you liked so much?”
A week ago they hadn’t yet promised to be completely honest with one another. Moreover, he never said he liked the Japanese restaurant. He remembers it clearly: to answer her questions, he had said that the restaurant had seemed alright, a wording that did not express the enthusiasm she now attributed to him.
“I told you it seemed alright, not that I liked it.”
“In other words, you didn’t like it.”
He has to tell her:
“I hate Japanese food.”
She looks in his eyes bashfully.
“You know I like it a lot.”
“I know.”
He is not sure if the promise requires it or not, but since he’d rather take it all the way than fall short, he speaks the rest of his mind: that one of the things that he dislikes about her (and which has to do with a certain attitude that she thinks is uppity but in the end is just vulgar) is her passion for going to restaurants that replace good cooking with good advertisement. She tells him he’s an idiot. He finds himself forced to tell her that he doesn’t feel like an idiot at all and that he’s convinced that, if one had to test who had the more powerful brain, hers would not come out the victor. These words offend the woman, who slaps him angrily while repeating that he’s an idiot, an incorrigible idiot, that he will be one his whole life and that she never wants to see him again, an offer he immediately takes her up on.