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Short Fiction | About the Author | Spanish Original |
     
   
   
 
ECSTASY  
          by Carlos Gardini  
   
   
   

          Durán had put that house up with his own hands, in the days when it didn't hurt him to bend his back or lift sacks. He had built it during his summer holidays, with the help of a couple of labourers, turning deaf ears to the protests of his wife and children. He had fitted it out with every convenience - grill, log fireplace, Italian tiles, double garage.
      Now he looked back on those summers with pride. He lived in the midst of sand dunes and beach. Once a week he went into the village in the pick-up to stock up on provisions, and everybody called him Mr Durán. He was Mr Durán and he had his house, his beach and his solitude, while so many of his friends lived a life of debts, illnesses, grandchildren and other nuisances.
      On his bright days Durán felt that he was the lord of creation. I'm happy here, nobody fucks with me here, he thought. He had a good retirement. He had cable TV, a well stocked bookcase, a stereo where he could listen to Ellington or Gillespie at full volume without anyone complaining, because his nearest neighbours lived two hundred yards away. He had his rents, his property, he had this beach house that no architect with a lot of absurd ideas had ever interfered in. He didn't have to justify himself to anybody.
      But there were dark days, too.
      On the dark days he thought how his children only visited him a couple of times a year, and reluctantly at that, how his wife was his ex and had been living with another man for the last ten years, how in the village everybody called him Mr Durán but no one ever bought him a beer. He had a tidy sum in the bank and a good stock of food, but nobody called him by his first name.
      He had fulfilled his lifetime's ambition, but he was a stupid old man in a stupid house on a beach on the edge of nowhere on the borders of Patagonia, away in the south of a stupid country that was so far south it fell off the map.
      On his dark days Durán prayed for some miracle. He didn't believe in prayer or in miracles, but he had nothing better to do. He wasn't expecting a visit from the president, and he didn't have a date with Kim Basinger.
       

One afternoon in spring Durán was looking at the sea from in front of the house, stretched out on the deckchair. The Atlantic was dark and choppy. On the horizon storm clouds were heaped up into mountains, swallowing the last rays of the sun. Through the window came the music from the stereo, Thelonius Monk playing 'Round Midnight.
      It was one of his dark days. Durán listened to Monk and prayed for a miracle.
      A girl was walking up the beach.
      Durán sat up in the deckchair, he looked at her. Silhouetted against the sunset, she seemed like a mirage. Maybe she was the miracle he didn't believe in.
      She was wearing shorts, a sweater round her shoulders, her hair tied up in a knotted towel. The only jewellery she wore was a stone ring. She had a good figure, but the clothes didn't look right on her, as if they were borrowed. And there was something funny about her walk.
      The girl came towards him, and smiled or made a face that looked like a smile.
      'Can I help you in some way?' Durán asked, his voice the voice of a good neighbour. He saw that the girl's ring had little scribbles on it. He thought he would like to do more than help her. It was some time since he had been with a woman.
      'I'm hungry,' the girl said.
      And what about me? Durán thought. Suddenly the darkness of his dark days engulfed him. He wanted to tell her to go to hell, he thought about the nerve of this brat. Brat wasn't the right word. At first he had thought she was about twenty or so, now he put her at thirty, or forty. Perhaps it was the way she walked, at once gawky and mature. There were no wrinkles on her olive skin, but it had an earthy texture. And her voice. There was something strange in her voice, like the sound of stones colliding under water. Her accent was foreign, or very pure.
      Durán got up from the deckchair. He noted that the brat, the girl, the woman, had a strong smell of seaweed or saltpetre. Why not? he thought. He didn't have anything better to do. He wasn't expecting a visit from the governor, and he didn't have a date with Sharon Stone.
      'Come in,' he said. 'We can open a bottle of Chilean wine.'

 
      Durán had lit the fire in the fireplace. Out the window you could see the gleam of the surf, a misty sea, the mountains of storm clouds. The stereo was still playing Thelonius Monk. The woman had eaten like she was famished, in silence, with her eyes bulging out of their sockets. Like a Somalian refugee, Durán thought.
      'Have you satisfied your hunger?' he asked her, drinking a glass of Chilean wine. He wanted the words to sound like an insinuation. Hunger might lead to other things.
      'Hunger. Yes,' said the brat or girl, looking at the leftovers as if she couldn't believe that she had eaten so much.
      Durán felt ridiculous, disconcerted. Perhaps the woman was making fun of him. He asked her if she was from the area.
      'From what area?' she asked, pronouncing each word as if the joints of her face were hurting her.
      Durán sighed. Was she making fun of him or was she from Mars? He noted that she looked at each object in the room as if she had never seen anything like it before: television, stereo, books, the photo on the mantelpiece of Durán posing with his children. She stopped for an instant in front of the television, which was switched on with the sound right down. It showed images of war: a Rambo film, or the CNN news.
      'I just wanted to know if we're neighbours,' Durán said. He meant that to sound like an insinuation, too (as good neighbours we might end up in bed), but as soon as he said it, it seemed stupid. He wasn't up to that kind of thing any more.
      The woman didn't answer. Durán asked her if she liked jazz or if she'd prefer some other music.
      'Music,' the woman repeated, looking into the fire.
      Durán curved his lips, poured himself more wine, went over to the window, looked at the storm clouds. He remembered that they hadn't introduced themselves, they hadn't spoken heir names, and he felt strange. It was as if acting strangely was natural with this woman. But even if she was from Mars, she must at least have a name.
      He turned to face her, but he couldn't ask her. He saw that she was looking at him intensely.
      'I want to tell you a story,' the woman said with sudden fluency.
      'The story of your life?' Durán asked, trying to be funny.
      'The story of my life, and the story of my death,' she said, with perfect seriousness.
      Durán shrugged his shoulders, although he didn't want to shrug his shoulders. He didn't know what to do or what to say or what to feel. He didn't know whether to laugh or to feel alarmed, and what he did was press the remote to change the television channel. He sat down opposite the woman without answering her, but she didn't expect an answer.
      She untied the towel covering her head, and shook out her black hair, which fell in a cascade over her shoulders.
      She cleared her throat, fixed her eyes on him and told him the story of her life and the story of her death.

 
      I was born on an island of sand and rocks. All there was there were a couple of fishing villages and the ruins of a city that was already very old. It was a magnificent city, whose history we knew from the legends of my people, and it was the only thing that stopped me from giving in to the temptation my island offered of believing that the world was a peaceful place whose only upheavals were the tempests of passion and of the sea.
      My first source of information about the outside world was that city, whose blackened walls and faded friezes told of splendours and horrors that left me speechless, and made me fear for my fragility in a pitiless world: women coupling with bulls, bloodthirsty gods who played with men and were in their turn the playthings of other gods. The blackened walls, the rusted spears and the skeletons heaped up in the dungeons showed that the friezes did not lie: if the gods existed, they were cruel and played with us; if there were no gods, our fate was even more uncertain. Maybe we, the inhabitants of a couple of dusty villages, were descended from those people who in times long gone had carried imagination, lust and ferocity to such extremes.
      As for the women and the bulls, somebody explained to me that they were imitations of other friezes he had seen on another island, whose dazzling beauty he described to me.
      That somebody was Perseus, an artist who had come to our island in search of peace and quiet, he said. He was called Perseus, like the half-god for whom we had such great respect on my island, because there were so many statues of him amongst the ruins of the burned city, but Perseus didn't believe in the gods.

 
      I met Perseus when I was a young girl, and at that time he seemed to me to be an old man. I used to help my father with the fishing gear after the day's work. It was a task usually done by the boy children, but my father had no sons and had lost his other daughter in a storm. My mother had died of an illness.
      Perseus lived in a house on the top of a hill, one of the few hills on our flat island. They talked about him in the village, maybe because there wasn't much to talk about, but it was the first time I had seen him. To me, he was a legend, although at that time I didn't know the word, or perhaps in my coarse native tongue ­ a dialect of what they now call Greek ­ that word was synonymous with knowledge.
      Perseus traded statues for food. Today my reason tells me it is incredible that anybody in that dump of a village should have been interested in the statues, but my heart reminds me that those statues had brought us a breath of life. Partly because the stranger was called Perseus, partly because we saw in the statues a stylisation of the things we lived every day. When Perseus made a statue of a fish, we never saw the fish in the same way again.
      That day at dusk Perseus came to my father to ask him for some fish and wine. He offered him a sculpture which represented the ruined city. However, the city in the sculpture wasn't in ruins, but evoked in detail all the splendours of the city that once had been.
      My father looked at it with suspicion. I looked at it in wonder. I saw myself in miniature, walking around the city in miniature just as I often walked around the city in ruins.
      'Why me?' my father muttered. 'You've never offered me anything before.'
      It was true, and it was striking, because the outsider had been living on our island for years.
      'I have been discourteous,' Perseus excused himself.
      My father didn't reply. He was a man of few words.
      Perseus looked at me, and I smiled at him. He stroked my hair, and my father pushed his hand away. Perseus stayed where he was, and at last my father made up his mind to speak.
      'You can have wine and fish. I don't want your sculpture.'
      I wanted the sculpture more than anything in the world, but I resolved to say nothing. My father had a heavy hand.
      'But I want to pay you. And I want to make amends for my rudeness. I want to offer you my friendship.'
      'I don't need your payment or your friendship. Your rudeness means nothing to me.'
      Perseus lowered his head, his eyes met mine.
      'If you will not accept it, will you permit me to give it to your daughter?'
      'What does my daughter want with the sculpture of a dead city?' my father laughed.

 
      'And what did you want it for?' asked Durán.
      He didn't believe a word of it, of course, but he was disconcerted by the ease and the precision with which this girl who at first could barely communicate spoke. She told her story with the same eagerness as she had devoured the food, and with the same wild eyes.
      Durán's question, or the tone of the question, interrupted her all of a sudden. She looked at him with displeasure, and did not deign to reply. Her eyes made it known that she would answer the question, but only as part of her story.
      I'm in my own house and I'll ask what I like, Durán thought. But he bowed his head and let her go on.

 
      I wanted that statue for many things. That dead city could change my life, I thought. And I was right, although I didn't know it. And of course I didn't say so in words, although I undoubtedly did with my eyes.
      Perseus didn't know what to say. My father signalled to him to take the fish, and he went into the hut to get the wine. He came out again with an earthenware amphora. Perseus still hadn't chosen the fish.
      'I haven't got all day,' my father said, and he gave him the earthenware amphora.
      Perseus hesitated before taking it. Then he said, 'I do not want to offend you by refusing to accept your gift.'
      'I'm not giving you anything.'
      'You give me your wine and your fish without accepting anything in return. What is that called?' My father wanted to get away, but all he could do was stammer. He was no good with words. But he was no good at offending people, either. He looked down and saw my eyes fixed on the little city of stone.
      'I accept the sculpture,' he said at last, shaking hands with Perseus.
      Perseus gave me the city, picked up the wine and the fish and walked away across the beach.
      Compared to me he was an old man, but in my eyes he was like a god. I couldn't have known it then, but I had fallen in love with him.
      I spent years looking and wondering at that little city. I imagined the gods that had founded it, the priests who had worshipped them, the great ships that sailed in and out of the harbour. I imagined the sun of the Mediterranean ­ our sun and our sea, which didn't have that name then ­ bathing its white walls. I imagined the destruction, the sacking, the oblivion. And I visited the city in ruins, and each of the cities helped me explore the other: each great wall, each passageway, each temple, each precinct. I no longer knew which was the original and which was the replica. At night I rummaged in these precincts with my fingers, setting little stones and bits of knotted string there to represent people. By day I wandered through their equivalents, I spoke with the ghosts of those people. With the passage of time, my interest in the bedrooms grew. The bedroom of the king and queen, the common people's bedrooms. My girlfriends told me things about grown-ups and bedrooms and I imagined those things in the city. I imagined myself in the arms of a bull, I imagined myself in Perseus' arms.
      At that time Perseus came to visit us more often, and we had several statues he had made: a whale, a fish some sailors had told him about that had no name in our language; Homer, a poet who had sung the glories and loves of gods, warriors and seafarers; Poseidon, a god we called by another name and regarded as the creator of the world; my father's hands, which were callused and rough but had caressed my mother tenderly. Even my father reluctantly admitted the seduction of these carvings and sculptures.
      'You bring the stone to life,' he said to him one day, and at once fell silent, embarrassed. My father couldn't bestow praise without feeling ashamed.
      He died when I was about twenty, clutching in his hands the hands of stone.
      We buried them with him, in a cemetery that was a strip of stony soil dotted with mounds of white pebbles whose order indicated the dead person's name, since we didn't know how to read or write. The whole village was there, as it was at every burial, and people from the neighbouring village as well. When I looked towards the hill, I saw that Perseus was watching the ceremony with his hands over his eyes. I thought he was shading them from the sun, but later he confessed to me that he had cried that afternoon.
      After that day, the women of the village told me they were concerned about me. I was alone, and I wouldn't take any of our men for a husband. The village would take care of me, out of respect for my father, but I had to do something about the situation. A woman ought not to be alone. Many of the women were afraid I would wither without bearing fruit, while others were worried I would flirt with their husbands. I had no idea what love was.
      I had made love ­ what we called making love ­ in the precincts of the ruined city, with some of my girlfriends. We looked at the friezes and imitated the embraces, the caresses. There was no pleasure, only the promise of pleasure. Later my friends started to go out with men, and they got married. When a young man tried to kiss me, I rejected him. I didn't know why. I didn't know it was my love for Perseus. I didn't know it was my horror of the flesh. Perseus had shown me that the stone made things last that didn't last. I knew that Perseus' city in miniature had more life that the city in ruins it imitated. I knew that if I opened up my father's grave I would find his stone hands intact, while his hands of flesh would be shrivelled claws.
      When he came to visit me, Perseus too spoke to me about my marriage. He advised me to accept one of the young men of the village.
      I didn't answer him.
      'I'm sure there are statues you haven't shown me,' I said instead.
      Perseus was unsettled for an instant. I saw that he was blushing.
      'What's your secret?' I asked.
      'My secret?'
      'Your stones are alive. I've never seen sculptures so alive.'
      'You have never seen sculptures,' Perseus laughed.
      I looked at him with disdain.
      'I'm a fisherman's daughter, but I know every one of the statues that has survived in the old city. I'm sure that they date from different periods, because I can recognise different styles.'
      'For example?' Perseus asked, mockingly.
      'For example, the bulls in the temple and the bulls in the side chamber. The former are like the ones in the main avenue, the latter like the ones in the harbour. And there are passages with friezes where you can see intermediate stages.'
      Perseus looked at me in astonishment.
      'I'm a village girl,' I told him, 'but I've spent my life wandering around that city. And this one.' I pointed to the miniature city.
      Perseus went over to it. He hadn't seen it since the day he had given it to me.
      'I had almost forgotten it,' he said, 'but I remember that day.'
      'I remember it too. That day changed my life.'
      'Really?' Perseus said. He looked out of the window of the hut, as if to say that nothing ever changed there.
      'And I want to know a different kind of life,' I added.
      'To make statues?' Perseus sighed.
      'Not to make them. I want to be a statue.'
      Perseus looked at me in alarm.
      'To be a statue? And what does that mean?'
      'I know there's a secret, and I'm going to find it out,' I insisted. 'I want to see your sculptures.'
      'I can't bring them here,' Perseus said.
      'I don't want you to bring them here. I want you to take me to see them.'
      'I can't show you them all.'
      'I bet you can't. There are things you couldn't show to a village girl.'
      Perseus blushed. For the first time he stumbled over the words in speaking our dialect.
      'Perhaps you might be able to come tomorrow.'
      'I want to go now. I don't want you to be prepared. I want to catch you out in your naughtiness.'
      Perseus nodded assent, and couldn't conceal a smile. With his greying hair and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes he might look like an old man still, but in the shyness of his gaze a god was hiding.
      That evening Perseus showed me the statues. In two nudes I recognised a couple of girls from the village..
      'Is this what you didn't want to show me?' I asked.
      'This is not important.'
      'No?' I asked with a smile.
      'No,' he replied with sudden seriousness.
      There were gods, monsters, battles, winged beasts with lion's faces, animals I had never seen. I couldn't tell which were real and which were imaginary, although in time I learned that it made no sense to distinguish between them. I also discovered a phallus of stone, and another nude which intrigued me. I stood there looking at the statue. In those days I didn't know about mirrors ­ although I had seen my reflection in the water of a lake in the centre of the island ­ but looking at that statue was like looking at myself in an imperfect mirror. That statue was me, naked, life-size. That nude was more intense than those of the other girls.
      'You've been spying on me,' I said, annoyed, although I felt pleased, too.
      'No,' Perseus said. 'I've seen you in dreams.'
      'You saw them in dreams too?'
      'No. But Milena in my dreams was more intense than they were in reality,' he said, using my name as I were somebody else.
      We looked at one another for an instant in silence. He confessed that, yes, he had a secret. He told me he had dreamed about me since I was a little girl. That was why he had always avoided approaching my father. He loved the woman I would be, but he was ashamed to look with the eyes of desire at the girl I was then.
      He came up close, he undid my tunic, he stripped me naked. I didn't resist. Now I was an exact replica of the statue which represented me.
      'You will be a statue,' he promised me.
      'All you're interested in is enjoying my body,' I replied in sudden apprehension, feeling defenceless, naked in more than body.
      'No, I only want to make it eternal,' he said sadly.
      That sadness convinced me. I had felt manipulated when I recalled his elusive attitude, his suggestion that I should marry one of the village men and his refusal to take me to his house. I had thought it was a manoeuvre to seduce me, but now I understood that his reserved manner was a shy way of gaining the complete approval of the woman of his dreams.
      He didn't possess me immediately. With his hands he touched every part of my body, every pore, and then he rested his hand on an unworked block of stone. The stone was like water in his hands, and little by little it transformed itself into an imitation of my body. The result made the forms of the earlier statue pale. If that first statue was an imperfect mirror of my image, I was the imperfect reflection of this.
      'But this is only a test piece,' he said in the end.
      'Will the other one be more perfect than Milena?' I murmured, imitating his way of naming me as if I was somebody else.
      'The other one will be Milena,' Perseus said.
      And when I saw the finished statue, I understood that the contact between us was total. He, too, undressed, and kissed me gently, but I pushed him away for a moment and asked him to deflower me with the stone phallus.
      That disturbed him, but it fascinated him, too.
      'It might hurt you,' he objected.
      'We both know that it won't.'
      He confessed, a little ashamed, that he had caressed my statue with that phallus. He said it in a whisper, fearful of offending me. I told him I admired his tenderness and he smiled.
      I opened my legs.
      In that initial pain I understood that the stone was more perfect than the flesh.
      That night, after the ecstasy, Perseus told me his story.

 
      'It seems that everybody has a story,' Durán muttered.
      'Not you?' Milena asked, in a different tone, in a Spanish that was somewhere between pure and broken.
      'No, me no,' Durán replied with scorn, but also with pain, because he knew it was true. He had no story, or his story was worth nothing.
      He pressed the remote control of the television. The screen showed a tribal dance: a National Geographic documentary or a rap video.

 
      Perseus had studied the art of sculpture with the great masters of his country. He had been considered an exemplary disciple, and had made statues for the temples of the gods. Then his country was invaded by foreigners. As a citizen, he had to take up arms. In battle, what he protected most were his eyes and his hands. He had to travel to exotic regions far to the east of his homeland. In his moments of leisure, he carved in stone or wood for his comrades. He felt no resentment, because he believed he was doing his duty. In the east, a captured magician revealed his secrets to him in return for the chance to escape. Perseus did not consider this a betrayal, because in that wise man he saw no enemy. But when, years later, he returned to his homeland, people could see that something in him had changed. They found his new statues offensive, because what was dominant in them was not the sun of harmony but the night of chaos. His colleagues, jealous of his position and envious of his talent, schemed together to discredit him. In the end the authorities exiled him, accusing him of practising an art that would corrupt the city. He wandered from island to island, and finally reached ours on the first strange ship to be seen there in more than twenty years.
      'The magician showed me how to give form to a person's soul in a statue. In this way, when people die, they continue to live in the stone.'
      'Have you ever tried it?'
      'This is the first time. The magician warned me that I must not squander this power, that I must look for the right person. When I dreamed of Milena, I knew I had found that person,' he said, still naming me as if I were somebody else.
      'And have you never thought of making your own image?'
      'No, except for this,' he said, pointing to the stone phallus. He made up his mind to tell me this because he loved me, but he was ashamed because I had caught him in a moment of male weakness, or a display of vanity.
      'That's not bad to start with,' I joked, 'but I would like you to sculpt your whole body as well.'
      'That would be an act of supreme vanity,' he said.
      He told me the story of a man called Narcissus, who had drowned himself in a pool through falling in love with his own reflection.
      'But it wouldn't be to look at yourself, but so that I could look at you,' I replied.
      'That is expressly forbidden. I confess that I tried to do it, but my hands became clumsy when they attempted to imitate my own image,' Perseus said. And he added, bitterly, 'The magic I was taught has its own logic, although my people did not want to understand it',
      Instead, he told me, he had carved a ring of stone with his name inside it. If anything were to happen to him, if he were to die, a spark of his spirit would endure in that ring. If a man of flesh and blood ever put on that ring, he would be transformed into a statue of Perseus in which he would return to life.
      'It would be a statue of Perseus?'
      'It would be a statue of your deepest desires.'
      He showed me the stone ring, he put it on a finger of my statue.
      That man had revealed to me my body and had entrusted to me his spirit. I decided not to go back to the village, although my people would hate me for living with an outsider.
      Our happiness didn't last long. The sea, which for so long had isolated us from the troubles of the outside world, betrayed us one day. Pirates came, looking for riches they didn't find. The treasures of the ancient city were of no value to them, since there were no precious metals or gems. They got food, but that didn't satisfy them. They razed the villages, leaving death and suffering in their wake. They climbed up to the house on the hill and destroyed the statues, all except mine, which they looked on with superstitious awe. They stabbed Perseus, they tried to rape me. I struggled, and one of them stuck his knife into me. As his companions berated him for his clumsy haste, I could feel my body stiffening.
      But my body wasn't stiffening. Instead, my body was now the statue.
      I saw my own death with my new eyes, my eyes of stone. I saw myself bleed, I saw myself die, I saw Perseus die, as I screamed voicelessly with my throat of stone.
      Two or three of the pirates hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me off to their ship. As we sailed out to sea, I saw the ancient city from the deck. I remembered its bulls, its courtesans and its gods. I remembered the city in miniature that Perseus had sculpted for me when I was a girl, and the devotion with which I had explored the two cities. I wanted to cry, but I could shed no tears. Even stone, in its perfection, had its limitations.
      The ring with Perseus' name was my one consolation in my stolid immortality.

 
      'Immortality,' Durán said. His tone was not mocking. He was looking at the floor as if the word was written on the carpet.
      He raised his eyes. Milena went on with the story of her life and the story of her death.

 
      On the ship I gradually learned to experience my life of stone: ears of stone, eyes of stone, flesh of stone. Everything was close yet far away. It was a purer, more lucid life, but also a deader life. The pirates left the statue on deck, and during the voyage subjected it to outrages and abuses. These men were brutalised by suffering and combat. They admired the statue's feminine curves, which was gratifying, perhaps, but they could not appreciate the magnitude of the beauty that Perseus had created with his magical hands.
      Time passed as in a dream. The centuries slipped by in seconds, which in their turn were hours, which were centuries. My passion for Perseus made my stone flesh tingle as if the blood still coursed in my veins. I heard the voices, and picked up the languages. I saw the outlines, and made out the forms.
      The world was a succession of vague shapes and murmurs.
      The pirates were captured and executed by the lord of some island, who brought me to his palace. His customs were shocking to a village girl like me, but they would have been just as shocking to an artist, traveller and soldier like Perseus. He used my beauty to adorn his banquets and orgies. Years or decades later he was overthrown by crusaders, who unceremoniously locked me away in a storeroom. The crusaders were succeeded by Moslems, whom I became aware of when they came to have a look at me, although they left me in the storeroom. The Moslems were replaced by another lot of crusaders, rough, barbarous people who admired me in their way, until the presence of the priests obliged them to abandon me in some ruins. They were followed by Spaniards, Genoese, Turks, Venetians. An artist discovered me amidst the ruins. He praised my beauty, and promised to restore me, but when he came to examine me he found I was intact and swore there was magic in the stone. I next found myself in a palazzo in Venice, from where I saw a great celebration with fireworks whose light bathed the crowds of people watching from the gondolas. From there, Napoleonic troops carried me to a great house in France, where I was admired by a nobleman who called me Merveilleuse. His descendants thought me indecent, and hid me in a cellar. Some time later a German officer found me in the cellar and promised ­ without knowing that I could hear and understand ­ to take me to his house in Berlin. When the Allies landed in France, he changed his plans and decided to take me to South America, together with other treasures, other secrets and other fugitives. The ship was torpedoed just off these shores, and the last human sounds I heard before we went down were curses in German against the British. At the bottom of the sea I found a world that was more silent but just as turbulent. I watched the fishes devour the dead, and other fishes devour these in their turn.
      After so many centuries, I now noticed a change in myself. The water was softening me. I remembered that Perseus' magic had its logic. Water doesn't soften stone, but this stone was an extension of my flesh. My stony flesh regained its flexibility, but the stoniness of my flesh stopped me from drowning.
      It was like getting back the sense of feeling. One day I found I could move my head, look down at the ring, pronounce Perseus' name. Another day I managed to move my fingers. I recovered the imperfection of the flesh. I swam, I rose to the surface. I came to a beach. On the beach there were groups of bathers. I found a bag with clothes in it and I stole it. I walked for days. I thought for days.

 
      'Now I want to ask you something,' Milena said.
      Durán had got up from the sofa. He had his back to her, looking at the sea. It had grown dark. The Chilean wine was finished. A starry sky broke through the dark, torn clouds. The stereo was still repeating the Thelonious Monk record. Durán looked at the dark Atlantic and thought of the luminous Mediterranean. He looked at the telephone and thought about calling the police: I've got a madwoman here in my house who thinks she's a statue.
      He turned around. On the television glistening bodies were writhing over one another. An erotic film, or a martial arts movie.
      Milena was sitting in the firelight. Her skin seemed even more earthy than before. No, not earthy. The word was stony. The lustre of the skin evoked the texture of the ring she wore on her finger.
      She seemed to have no doubt that Durán believed her, and she didn't seem to be making fun of him. She was so crazy it didn't even cross her mind that he might not believe her. Durán asked her what she wanted to ask him.
      'I'm hardening once again,' she said. 'The flesh is struggling against the stone. I can already feel the hardness in my veins. Soon I will be a statue again. The stone will win, with its redeeming perfection.'
      Durán sighed, bitter at the dirty trick fate had played on him. God, if he existed, hadn't wanted to waste a miracle on him. He'd preferred to play a joke on him instead.
      'And what can I do?'
      'I need your body,' she said.
      Before listening to that story, Durán would have given anything to hear those words. Now they provoked stupor, fear.
      'Please,' she said, getting up. Her voice was more cracked than before. It was if the words were grinding in each sentence.
      She took off the ring, held it out to him. Durán saw that the scribbles on the ring were not scribbles. They were Greek letters. He couldn't read Greek, but anybody who'd learned basic geometry could recognise a pi.
      'I need your body for you to be Perseus. Before I turn into a statue again, I want to have the living statue of Perseus with me.'
      Maybe the best thing was to play along with her. Let her put the ring on him, have her believe that he was Perseus. And maybe then take her to bed. A woman was a woman, even if she was nuts. He wouldn't be harming anybody, perhaps he would make her happy, and he could do with letting off some steam.
      'It won't even hurt you,' she said.
      It was a joke, but Milena was so serious that she unsettled him. She unsettled him when she smiled, too. She hadn't smiled once the whole night. When she smiled, Milena's face made a cracking sound. A sound like stone cracking.
      Durán felt panic.
      He hit her on the face, pushed her away from him.
      Milena fell on the floor. The ring fell on the floor.
      Durán, devastated, noted how his hand hurt as if he had punched concrete.
      'Your body should be mine,' she said. 'Perseus'.'
      Durán took a step backwards.
      'No,' he said.
      'Your body will die. The worms will eat it,' Milena said.
      Yes, Durán thought. He would die. The worms would eat him, but in the meantime he had his good retirement, his rents and his house by the sea. Nobody could take away what was his. He had slogged his guts out all his life to get where he was. He was the lord of creation. He had rents, properties, and everybody in the village knew his pick-up. He was free, wasn't he? Of course he was free. He was Mr Durán. He could spend hours and hours listening to his stupid records and he could bore himself for hours and hours looking at the stupid sand and he could wait months and months for his children to visit him so he could receive them with stupid reproaches.
      He wanted to cry. He cried. He didn't have eyes of stone.
      'What do I stand to gain?' he said, without believing what he was saying.
      Milena stood up, got the ring back, took off her clothes. She was more and more stone and less and less flesh, but now the stone was taking on a lustre that was dazzling, a texture more desirable than that of a body of flesh.
      'You could have me,' Milena said.
      Durán felt an erection, the first in months.
      'You would be Perseus,' Milena said.
      I would have a story, Durán thought. He would no longer be Mr Durán, Mr Nobody.
      'No,' he said. But he thought he had nothing better to do. He wasn't expecting a visit from the finance minister, and he didn't have a date with Ellen Barkin.
      Milena came up to him, ring in hand.
      Durán was going to hit her again, but he couldn't.
      'Not here,' he said. 'I know a better place.'
      He took her hand, felt its stony hardness, led her towards the door. Milena followed him, more alive than ever. They stepped out into the midnight, and from the house came the chords of 'Round Midnight. He led her to some scrub which grew amongst the dunes, a place from which you could see the sea. A blue moon was floating between the mountains of storm clouds which covered the horizon.
      Milena lay down on her back on the sand. Durán stripped off, felt ashamed of his flabby body, felt cold. The cold shrunk his testicles. He lost the erection.
      He asked Milena for the ring, he put it on his finger.
      It was as if concrete had been injected into his veins. His body hardened. He got the erection back. He was no longer flabby, he had the build of a god, and Milena observed his transformation in fascination.
      He leaned over her, penetrated that body of stone with his body of stone. He was still Durán, but now he was Perseus. He remembered his death, he remembered his statues, he remembered the island, he remembered his dreams with Milena, he remembered his exile and he remembered his magic. He was Durán, he was Perseus, he was Milena, because his stone was fused with hers, he was her.
      Durán thought about what his neighbours would say when they saw this statue of two lovers, Perseus thought about the prodigy of his resurrection, Milena thought about her regained happiness.
      Milena recalled Perseus' words: a statue of your deepest desires.
      Her deepest desires were like electric whiplashes. Pulsing spasms swept through her stone muscles. She evoked the ancient city on her island and saw that Durán, who was Perseus, was also a bull, and heard that his cry of stone was a bellow. She saw the image they would be: stone and flesh, woman and bull.
      Gradually the thoughts ceased. All that was left were the emotions, and a movement that was immobility.
      In that tripled ecstasy, the stone was more perfect than the flesh.

 © 1996 Carlos Gardini            | About the Author | Spanish Original |

English translation © 1998 by Graham Thomson

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