Luz Argentina Chiriboga
Translated by Juanita Coleman
Even hurrying, it had not been easy for Candelaria to get to the place, but there she was. The early hours of the morning were the best, providing the perfect opportunity to get to know the location. Upon arriving, she swung down from her horse, tied him to a tree and went up to the front door of the mansion. Candelaria was a black woman of thirty-two, tall and robust, who as a child had had another name, her true one, the name her parents gave her. The sun shone between the laurels, the oaks, the chestnuts; trills and jubilations flowed from the celebrating birds. The wind assaulted her face, making her feel again the same tension that she had repressed during her infancy, when her parents worked on the hacienda.
She went in search of the owner of the land that was for sale; her desire was to acquire a few hectares to dedicate herself to farming. Candelaria, who had lived through that long-ago era of grand passions, tried to overcome her uneasiness. She had been awake since dawn, with her heart oppressed by the uncertainty of her business. She mounted Pío, her horse, and went in search of the lord of the mansion. Unlike in previous days, when she had wandered her house in floral skirts and short-sleeved blouses, now she donned brown riding breeches, a long-sleeved shirt, and leather boots, which she wore only because they were new. They were part of the fortune she had inherited from her mistress and so, though they fit her quite tightly, she put them on to impress the man selling the land, the mansion’s owner. In the future, she promised herself, she’d never wear them again, though she didn’t know when she’d be able to take them off.
Before setting out on her journey, she lit three green candles for Yemayá, the goddess of the rivers, of the seas and the rains, to secure good land that would be enough for her to sow her seeds and let them flower. Candelaria was already happy because she was convinced that she would grant her what she longed for. Candelaria knocked on the door of the antique-style mansion, waited a long time and, when she thought that no one was at home, an old man leaned out, his blue eyes, upon seeing her, furrowing in a frown.
The mansion was enormous, cheerless and dark; it looked like an old convent, with damp walls. The old white man, thin, with a cigar in his mouth, observed her without saying a word. He wasn’t sure how to treat a black woman interested in buying his mansion. A cage with a blue-colored bird hung in a window. Calendaria smiled slightly, trying to conceal her obvious fear of the owner’s reaction.
She approached, unsettled, with quick steps, greeting him with a nod and he returned the gesture. Indecisive, Candelaria inquired after his health and told him how beautiful the scenery was. She saw that the old man was beginning to pale, but she continued speaking and, since the door was open, she went in. And if, in the first moment, she intended to excuse herself, after a few seconds, she thought it would be better to continue. She surprised herself by proceeding with such assertiveness. She didn’t like acting this way, it wasn’t what she really wanted, but these were the manners that the white people used. The man wanted to say something, something like: black people don’t come to my house, but his intention stayed strangled in his throat. A dense and heavy silence fell. Candelaria continued to be fascinated and looked around. He could not imagine that this woman would have the audacity to buy his land and his mansion.
His emotions were mixed due to the contradictory feelings that Candelaria had provoked in him. Shortly, a tic appeared at the corner of his mouth. She waited a bit for the old man to calm himself, already starting to feel frustrated. She waited for him to ask her about the purpose of her visit, but it was like she didn’t exist. The woman had the disagreeable impression that the old man would not sell her the land or the mansion. It made her uncomfortable that he had not asked her to pass through to the living room; the way he was looking at her with haughtiness and contempt was infuriating her.
Worried that she would not be able to buy the land, she sat. The furniture had loose springs. There was only one open window that barely permitted the entry of the sun’s rays. In this menthol-smelling shadow, they started talking. The old man’s voice was nasal and he choked when he breathed, and once in a while he took a drag off his cigar. When he confirmed that she was interested in buying his land, he frowned and did not conceal his surprise. The man’s hands trembled; he was an old man who seemed to be high in the hierarchy, of a strange character, with an arrogant gaze. Candelaria waited hopelessly for his response, with a lump of tears in her throat—Yemayá would not deny her this miracle.
When she was convinced that the proprietor would not negotiate, though he observed her with curiosity, she watched him put his head between his hands. How could it be possible that this was happening to him; how would he sell his mansion and his land to a black woman? No, this couldn’t be happening to him. He would have been able to sell it at half of the asking price, or as a last resort, leave it to a white man, but it was the only thing that he had. This didn’t make any sense; no, he couldn’t sell her his mansion, even though it was in ruins, maintaining its lineage from other eras. A sea of doubts sent waves crashing against him; a growing anguish squeezed his heart. Suddenly, he had a coughing fit, and she lifted his arm to help him stand, made him walk to the window; then, with a fan that she saw on the table, she gave him air. He looked at her rather sadly, barely able to speak, and told her that his son Ernesto was not at home.
When she prepared to leave the place, he gestured at her to sit down. She accepted, but as the son was delayed in arriving, he told her to come back another day, though her worry was that another interested party would arrive and close the deal. She had anticipated returning as soon as possible, to avoid the darkness of the night. She asked his permission to look over the mansion, and her first impression was of a gloomy building. In the midst of the thick shadows, a path opened up, and she arrived at a more inviting hallway where various portraits were hanging, illuminated by the violent light that the sun projected. The face of a young man with curly hair and a Roman profile shone in all its’ splendor. Candelaria stopped to look at it – he was not handsome, but he had a definite personality. He wore a cloth jacket and she supposed that his mother must have been happy to have such a son.
They did not go back to talking about selling the land, but she felt the landowner examining her sidelong; she thought about saying something, but stopped, convinced that it would be better for the old man to initiate the conversation. He would think, perhaps, that this woman couldn’t pay the value of the hacienda; no doubt he did not want to make deals with women. He looked at her like a strange insect; surely he was taking in the features of the young woman’s personality. She raised her head, looked at herself in a mirror that adorned the waiting room. She faced the image of a black woman with lively eyes, full lips, a large mouth, a clear forehead, snub-nosed—her smooth cheeks stood out, she stood up straight, and her white teeth could be seen when she smiled. The old man did not have another alternative but to speak.
He started by apologizing that she had found him in house clothes, for he had not been expecting a visit and especially not early in the morning. Candelaria understood that she had made an error in arriving at that hour; she expressed her apologies to him, but she was afraid of returning alone, and asked him not to worry about his clothes.
The old man was driving away her fear and her annoyance, and she raised her eyes to look at him; he did not seem as enraged as he did at first. He breathed in deeply and, supporting himself on the seat, went to change position; when he couldn’t, he started to shake. She guessed that he was gravely ill; she saw that he was very pale, that he felt ridiculous about his ailments. Calendaria went in search of the kitchen, turning around a few times before she found it. Everything was in disarray; she looked for matches, made a fire in a gas cooker and rapidly prepared a cup of coffee. When the table was set with the cold meats she had brought, she helped the old man sit down; he was surprised by what was served, so much that he left the plates almost empty. Upon finishing, he felt overwhelmed and emotionlessly, he thanked her.
She went to let Pío loose to graze and then went back to leaving the kitchen in order. Though now he treated her with friendliness, the old man eyed her disrespectfully, reaffirming to himself that he would not sell her his mansion or his lands. Candelaria continued to wait for Ernesto and chatted politely with the homeowner, though she did not possess the intellectual level of the gentleman, considering she had been a housemaid and her mistress, Doña Rosario, had only taught her the essentials. When her mistress fell ill it was she that answered the correspondence. It was the time in which the lady sought out Pablo to teach me to play the guitar, and that was how we fell in love, with him holding his arm over one of my breasts. He was twenty-five and I was twenty. Pablo, a strong black man, seemed like a sea animal; his body was always damp. When I saw him for the first time, it seemed impossible for me to conceive of such a beautiful young man.
If I buy this mansion, I will go look for him, I thought. We hadn’t just learned to play the guitar but also to smile at life. It was precisely remembering those images that made her sigh. The old man’s eyes shied away from hers, but upon hearing her sighs, their gazes met and, due to his discomfiture, the old man smiled slightly. Candelaria went back to observing him—he seemed tired and he exclaimed, trying to stand up, that he wanted to go to the other room. She put him on her arm and he latched onto her until he sat on the sofa.
“Ah, old age!” she heard him complain, but she went to give Pío some grass.
The place was paradise. The trees projected their shade in endless dialogue with the wind. The completely clear sky invited one to stroll. Slowly, she was getting to know the marvel of forests that the property possessed. She prayed to Yemayá with a trembling voice; she was nervous from waiting for the old man’s son. She jumped onto Pío so that, as if he already knew the hacienda well, he could carry her to a river of crystalline waters. Lying back in the grass, she waited for the horse to quench his thirst.
When she returned to the mansion, the old man was sleeping with the expression of a baby. His pale and gaunt face inspired sympathy. She went in search of a blanket to cover his legs. Candelaria felt remorse for leaving him alone, for he coughed frequently and she feared that he would have another coughing fit, that he could need her help. Upon hearing him snore, she walked around the mansion and climbed a marble spiral staircase that snaked up five floors and looked like a serpent.
Candelaria arrived panting and breathless but took the initiative to enter one of the fifteen bedrooms the mansion possessed. The walls, papered with French tapestries, shone with a yellowish luster, and in a corner, a glass cabinet guarded tiny porcelain figures while a recliner sat to one side. On a mahogany cabinet lay a guitar. She took it with her. In that afternoon that she wandered about the mansion, the room maintained its old latent elegance. It was a large room, with glass lamps hanging from the wall. The walls were decorated with rock crystal mirrors that made it shine beautifully. She went down to where the old man was resting and started to sing various songs. She was far from a guitar virtuoso, but she wanted to bring peace to the owner of the mansion. Her voice jumped from one melody to another, the songs familiar to the old man, who awoke with his eyes full of tears. He believed he was living in a dream and that his son Ernesto, the owner of the guitar, had returned. Candelaria apologized, but did not know the cause of his sobbing. He looked at her with searching eyes.
In reality, the man lived alone, and for more than a year he had been in complete solitude and he was dying in the mansion like it was the bottom of an aquarium. The mansion with its cold stairs had become a shadowy fortress. The owner said that his son Ernesto had gone out dressed in a gray suit, a raincoat and a scarf twisted around his neck; he was tall and thin and he knew how to play the guitar. The old man could not continue, for his weeping was drowning his words. He still could not believe his only son was dead.
The man had been nervous the entire day, and now anguish had seized him; he could not calm himself. Candelaria gave him a glass of sugared water to drink to calm his nerves. When she drew near him, she detected a stench, as he had not bathed himself for some time. She carried him to the bathroom where there was a claw-footed tub and, without getting upset, she helped him to bathe. They ended up sitting in the twilight.
There she began to sing again; the place was so distant and so solitary that Calendaria supposed they could be the only inhabitants for miles. The old man needed to talk and he was sure that she would listen. He started to remember the labyrinths of his existence. He talked about a huge beach where there were many hotels exclusively for the nobility. On vacation, he went to get to know the place—it was a Sunday in April, he couldn’t remember the year anymore. He stopped a moment, put his ideas in order, and said, the most elegant hotel in the city. Rosa was on the beach, singing in a low soprano voice. I was astonished upon seeing her, as brilliant as the Sun. I sent her the first letter in which I told her she was not to blame for making me fall in love with her. Rosa answered me, “Come to me and we will waste no time.”
When he recovered from anxiety and his surprise, he gave her a diamond ring; after three months they married and had Ernesto. Rosa never lost her enthusiasm for the guitar and for song. She died and then Ernesto, the only bond that held me to life, was carried off as well.
“Your pain is my pain, sir.”
Candelaria, with an inclination of her head, bid him farewell. As she reached the gate, she breathed in the summery, chlorophyllic air. She went in search of Pío, who continued to avail himself of the greenness. Looking at the sky, she smiled. Yemayá, on this occasion, had failed her. But when she went to depart, the face of the old man appeared in the window, his eyes full of tears. He waved at her to wait.
Candelaria looked at him, paralyzed, without saying a word. The old man, with trembling steps, approached her to stop her. When he had recovered his calm, he said:
“Even without money, I will give you everything, but take me with you.”