issue 36: may - june 2003 

 | author bio  | Spanish original | Ernesto's Mother

Girl from
Somewhere Else

Abelardo Castillo

translated by Graham Thomson

When she answered that she wasn’t from here, I thought, not very imaginatively, that she was talking about Buenos Aires. It’s fate, I told her, I’m not from here either, and I added that it was a nice way to begin a love affair. She looked at me with an expression I can only describe as distaste, the way very young women tend to look at the guy they’ve just met when he says something stupid. Later on, age teaches them to disguise these little signs of coldness, these barriers of disdain, so that they assent, consent and in time even respect us, when the fact is that they’ve grown up and no longer expect too much from men.

What I’m talking about happened fifteen years ago, in the autumn. I know it was autumn because I met her in Lezica Park and one of the first things she said was that the path to the bridge is always covered with leaves, like this path to the plaza. I asked her what bridge, and she described it to me. When you get off the train, you turn right and there’s a path with a row of plane trees on either side, then you’re at the wooden bridge. Then she talked about the sand dunes. I didn’t pay much attention. I was seriously considering whether I fancied this girl or not, which could only mean that I didn’t fancy her; and that (I know now) was really the worst way to begin a love affair. You only have to start looking for virtues, openness, traces of beauty in a woman for that woman to turn into a misfortune.

I’m fifty now; today, she wouldn’t be more than thirty. What I mean is that that night in the park she would have been about sixteen, although I don’t know why I’ve written that today she ‘wouldn’t’ be. Perhaps because I only think of her as she was then, an adolescent slightly too intense for my taste, rather sombre, tall, with very black hair and thin legs. There was nothing about her face, except her nose perhaps, that particularly caught the eye. She had what is usually described as an imperious nose. Her eyes, seen from the front, were neither large nor one of those hypnotic, impossible colours like mauve, for example; they weren’t even green. She was part of my life for almost two years and I have no recollection of the colour of her eyes. Maybe they were dark grey, although they could turn a darker shade that made them almost black. But perhaps that impression was created by her eyelashes, and that’s why I’ve said that, seen from the front, there was nothing special about her eyes. Seen in profile, on the other hand, they were astonishing. And that was the first trace of beauty I discovered in her. The second was her feet. Nowhere in the history of art is there an adequate model for a naked foot like the one that was revealed to me that same night in one of the hotels near the park. I suppose someone might be thinking that if she was sixteen she can’t have looked very young, or they wouldn’t have let her check in to a hotel with me. The fact is that I never knew her real age; she seemed sixteen. And she never stopped seeming it. Of course at that age an extra year or two is the same as a day, so there was no reason why she should change all that much, but for a long time now I’ve been wondering if her first confession that night (I’m not from here) didn’t mean something other than I imagined. There are other worlds, that’s obvious. They are as real as this one; and I wouldn’t be saying anything startling if I declared that they’re here in this one.

As for the hotel, it requires some explanation. In those days women carried those huge bags, like haversacks. I never knew what they put in there, but it was as if they went around Buenos Aires with their house on their backs, like snails. What was incredible was how much they weighed. And you only have to reflect for a moment on the weight of those Pandora’s bags and the number of blocks a woman could walk with one on her back to have serious doubts about the physical frailty of women, or the women of my day, at least. ‘If it wasn’t for your face, I would suggest going to sleep in a hotel,’ I said to her. I don’t believe I have ever in my life uttered a phrase so direct or with less intention of being taken seriously. She looked at me, furrowing her brow, as if she was considering the practical aspect of the problem. We were sitting on a bench in the plaza; right there she opened her bag, took out some sunglasses, took out a big straw hat, restored it to its original shape with two or three quick flicks of the wrist that seemed like a conjuring trick, took out some gold sandals with higher than average heels, which she quickly changed for her trainers and football socks, put on the hat and said, ‘Let’s go’. Women’s mimetic ability is no discovery of mine. Given two or three basic attributes, any dairymaid can be transformed into a duchess, if she’s dressed in the right clothes; and the history of the world proves that this happens all the time.

A few seconds before I had sitting by my side an adolescent in baggy trousers, a chiripá blanket and juvenile delinquent shoes; I now had standing before me a remarkably tall young woman in more or less oriental slippers, with a sun hat, a wrap round her shoulders and dark glasses. A film star trying to conceal her identity or a princess of the house of Monaco travelling around Argentina incognito. In the violet half-light of the hotel reception, she really was an awesome sight. Maybe she still looked fairly young, but nobody in the world would have dared to annoy her by asking her age. I need hardly add that by now I was carrying the formidable bag. She was holding a purse that later turned out to serve a more scholastic function, but could pass for that other class of mysterious —because Lilliputian— object that women carry at parties and which might contain a handkerchief measuring ten square centimetres, an aspirin, a postage stamp.

We went upstairs and I collapsed on the bed, exhausted by the haversack. And now perhaps I ought to say that I have seen a few women undress. Not so many as I would like to make people believe, but I have seen a few. I never saw any woman who undressed, for the first time, like her. Neither artifice nor calculation nor eroticism: she undressed like a girl who is going to have a bath, which in fact she did. When she finally approached the bed, wrapped in a big towel, I said the second of the many stupid things I was to say to her in my life. I asked her how many times she had performed the quick-change number with the sandals, the glasses and the hat. I don’t remember if she spoke; I recall that she opened her eyes and put her hands up to her chest, as if she was drowning. Her pupils gleamed in the darkness like those of a frightened animal. On more than one occasion I suspected that she was a little crazy or that she wasn’t quite real; that night was the first. It took me some time to calm her, to get into bed with her, too. Afterwards I asked her why she had agreed to come. ‘Because of the way you asked me,’ she said, smiling.

What happened that night, what happened until the early hours of the next day and of other days, I prefer not to recall in words. What a woman does with a man, other women have done and will do with other men. Only idiots believe that this inevitability is the poverty of love, they don’t know that there lies its eternity, its lineage, its mystery. Perhaps not all women mutter almost with hatred ‘I’m not from here, I’m not from here’ when sex loses them in that region that only they know; but whatever they say or don’t say, every man has felt that when it all finally ends they seem to come back from somewhere else. At times she would describe it to me. There is the dome of a little church that can be seen through the trees if you stop at the right place on the bridge. Sometimes there’s a stream of translucent water among whose stones swim little black fish that might be small tadpoles, although she found that idea upsetting. Other times there was no stream, but there were long walks lined with mulberry trees. Only once was there a lighthouse. Those unexpected variants, which at first seemed to me to be fancies, distractions or lies, in time drew a detailed map that I can now reconstruct tree by tree, house by house, dune by dune. Because the dunes were always there, in her words and in her dreams. Just as the path with the double row of plane trees, covered with leaves, was always there and, at the end of the path, the wooden bridge from which the bell tower of the little church can be seen. I don’t remember these things from the first night, but from other nights, coming back from a local cinema, strolling past the harbour and waking up in my apartment or in some hotel where the sun hat had been replaced by a red dress with a startling neckline and eyes made-up like a panda.

I know that what I’m about to write now sounds childish, novelesque, too facile to be written, but I never knew her real name. Nor did I know where she lived or with whom. With a very old grandfather, she reluctantly told me one afternoon when I insisted almost angrily. The grandfather, that afternoon at least, was all but blind and barely in contact with reality, which meant that she could come home any time she liked and even stay away from home for a day or two, as long as she didn’t let him die of hunger. Early one morning I suggested coming with her. She asked me if I was mad. What would her Aunt Amelia think if she turned up with an older man after being away from home for a whole day? That night she had spoken to me about the lighthouse; I woke with a start and I saw her sitting on the bed, watching me from very close, with wide-open eyes. ‘I dreamt about the lighthouse again,’ she told me. I said that wasn’t true and I heard her scream for the first time. ‘What do you know about me?’ she screamed. ‘You don’t know anything about me. I dreamt about the lighthouse again and it was the lighthouse where I used to play when I was a little girl; it isn’t there now, but it was the same lighthouse.’ I replied that it wasn’t possible that she could have dreamt about a lighthouse again, since she had never mentioned any lighthouse before. She looked at me with resentment, then she looked at me with fear. She started to get dressed and she seemed rattled. ‘I can’t have dreamt about the lighthouse,’ she said suddenly, ‘I made it all up.’

That was the morning when I suggested coming with her and she told me about her Aunt Amelia. I pointed out to her that up until then she had been living with her grandfather. She looked at me without expression, or perhaps with the same disdainful look as the first day. ‘I’m not going to see you any more,’ she said to me. And for a time she didn’t. If she had never come back, perhaps I would not now be looking for the little town beyond the trees and the bridge; but one day I walked into my apartment and found her sitting on my bed. She was totally absorbed in a comic book and eating a dark sugar pastry. Her hair was longer. She raised a hand and, without taking her eyes off the magazine, greeted me with a little wiggle of her fingers. I had no time to be surprised because two things happened. Seeing her there, so irrefutable and casual, made me aware that if she hadn’t come back I would have had no way of finding her. The other was something she said. I had asked her where she had been all this time, and with casual gaiety she immediately replied, ‘At home.’ It wasn’t the words, but the tone in which she spoke them. I knew that she wasn’t talking about the house of her blind grandfather or her Aunt Amelia, even allowing that they existed. She wasn’t even thinking the word ‘home’ in the same sense as I was, in the conventional sense of a thing people live in. She said ‘home’ the way a mermaid would say she had been back in the sea for a few months.

I was going to ask her how she had got in, but I kept my mouth shut. From that day on I learnt to keep my mouth shut. First of all, I found it a little disturbing to admit that I cared far less about her home, her real home, in some district of Buenos Aires, than the place she dreamt about and sometimes described to me, as if talking in her sleep, without paying any heed to whether certain details coincided or not. Secondly, I noticed one or two things I should have noticed long before, which in passing aggravated my previous fear, my unexpected anxiety at what I might have lost if she hadn’t come back. I realized, for example, that I loved her, and it seemed inconceivable that I had found this out gradually. I also realized that I ought not to pester her with questions, or frighten her. Violence frightened her, and sarcasm and vulgarity made her sad. I now know that when a man starts to take these things into account either his general view of life greatly improves or he goes soft in the head.

I still think that life is terrible; perhaps that’s why I’m looking for the little town. A couple of weeks after her return she asked me for the first time what was bothering me. It wasn’t like her to ask that kind of thing, which properly understood is perhaps a sign of childish selfishness, where the word ‘childish’ explains better than anything else could what I was saying about one’s general view of life and going soft in the head. I had a sudden intuition and I said, no, that nothing was bothering me, I was just wondering if she had seen the lighthouse again when she was there. Then I put my hand on her shoulder and pointed out the gap of a demolition site. ‘Look at that wall,’ I said to her, ‘with the marks on the party wall you can reconstruct what the house was like.’ ‘Yes’, she said, ‘so you can, but you can’t tell if that’s nice or sad. No, the lighthouse isn’t there any more and I think I never saw it, it must be one of those stories my grandfather tells me.’ I asked her why they should have planted a row of mulberry trees on either side of the path. She laughed and asked me what I was talking about. ‘They’re not mulberries,’ she said, ‘they’re very tall, very old plane trees, the street with the mulberry trees is old Eglantina’s, the woman who used to give us sunflower seeds.’ I remarked that the dunes, driven by the wind, must cover everything. She went on laughing. ‘The dunes are over to the other side, as you’re leaving the town. And they don’t cover the houses, but it is true that they move in the night, and when you wake up everything is changed and it’s as if the whole town had shifted to a different place.’

She fell silent. She was watching me with distrust; I sensed it not in her eyes, which I couldn’t see, but in the tightness of her skin beneath my hand. It was as if every part of her body were meshed with the same intense sensitive matter. I said I was sleepy, that perhaps she should put her hat on. She said she hadn’t brought the hat or the dark glasses or the make-up and that she hated hotels. I was about to reply that she hadn’t seemed to hate them so much the last time, but I cautiously admitted that, if I gave it a little thought, I didn’t like them either. We walked towards my apartment. ‘I’m going up,’ I said to her in the doorway. She followed me. When we got to the bedroom I had another intuition. ‘And now you put on the hat and show me your foot.’ She laughed again. And, that night at least, I felt that at times I have a certain natural skill for doing some things right.

We all have a tendency to think that happiness is in the past. I, too, have felt that some portion of that time was happiness, but I couldn’t go on living if I thought that everything that has been allotted to me was over now. One of these days I’m suddenly going to get old, I know, but I also know that if I cross that bridge she will be able to recognize my face. I now know the place as if I’d been born there, not with absolute accuracy because memory changes things, switches them around and ghosts them, but with sufficient certainty to know what its essential forms are. I read once that all small towns are alike. Whoever wrote that must hate people. There is not one single town, with sand dunes or not, that is identical to any other, because it is we who invent its places, construct its houses, lay out its streets and decide the course of its streams between the stones. All of us who are not from here know this. It took me more than forty years to learn this truth, that a crazy tall girl with an Arabian foot knew at sixteen.

When in the end she disappeared, I still didn’t know these things, but I was already familiar with the details, the topography, the colour of the town. At seven in the evening, in autumn, you half close your eyes in the dunes, and it’s like almost golden ash. When the stream is flowing, the area by the bridge at night is like an upside-down sky of a very deep blue, mobile, because the fireflies are reflected in the water and it’s as if the constellations were coming out of the ground. There are two windmills. Old Matías has a horse as old as Methuselah, more than thirty years old. ‘He’s almost your age, Abelardo,’ she said to me, alarmed, one of the last nights we saw one another. I replied that, in one sense at least, horses are not always like people. I already said that a sarcastic tone annoyed or upset her. ‘Why do you say "in some sense",’ she asked me. I was tired and a little distracted that night; I made a joke about the sexual behaviour that some young women of her age considered natural in males. I spent an hour explaining to her that it was a joke, and another hour convincing her that she should go to bed with me. Tiredness produces paradoxical effects, and so do a woman’s wounded sensibilities. It was like being sacrificed to an insane deity and at the same time killing her, like exchanging souls with a corpse and emptying yourself in it and filling yourself with it and waking ten times in someone else’s heaven and someone else’s hell. Whatever I didn’t yet know about the place, I discovered that night. Not only because she talked for hours, between sleep and waking, but because I saw it. I saw it inside her when I was her.

When she woke, at four the morning, I pretended to be asleep. When she left the house, I half dressed, pulled a coat on top and followed her. Tiredness gave me the lucidity and resolve of a criminal. It was more than just the desire to know where she went when she left me; it was the urge to get her back when she didn’t come any more. Because that night I also discovered that, for some reason, it couldn’t last much longer, and that she, without knowing it, would decide the moment of the separation. I saw her house, her real house, in a real, squalid neighbourhood away on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It was a low, single-storey house, on one of those unpaved blocks there still were then, and maybe still are, in the Pompey district. It had a chicken-wire fence and, at the front, a garden with some geraniums and a stunted tree. She was cutting something off the little tree and gathering it in the palm of her other hand. Then she raised the palm of her hand to her mouth and went into the house without turning on the light. I waited for over an hour and she didn’t come out again. She lived there and she didn’t know I had followed her.

When I got back to my apartment I kept on repeating the name of the street and the number of the block. That was not the way to find her again, but we cling to the last moment to the consolation of the real. I saw her again, of course, a few times. Nothing changed. Neither the local cinemas nor the meetings in the park, nor even the ritual of the hat in the hotel. One day she told me that her grandfather was dying, and I knew, at last, what even she didn’t know: that I wasn’t going to see her any more. I let some time go by and I went out to Pompey. Something occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of till that moment. They’re going to tell me they don’t know her, that they never saw her. They did know her, though. The girl with the black hair, who visited her grandfather in the yellow house. She didn’t come round there any more, the fact is she didn’t live in the house, she used to come and go, and when the old man died she stopped coming. I asked about her Aunt Amelia. There never was an Aunt Amelia, there were just the two of them. In fact, him alone; the girl just called from time to time.

And that’s all. That was fifteen years ago; for the last ten years I’ve been looking for the town. I know that it exists, because she dreamt of it and she knew how to get there. I also have other reasons, which you won’t be sharing. On a strip of land in Pompey, I saw some plane trees. The tree in the garden of the little house was a mulberry.

©Abelardo Castillo
translation Graham Thomson 2003

Spanish original

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author bio

Argentinean author Abelardo Castillo is the founder of the literary reviews El  Grillo de Papel (which later continued as El Escarabajo de Oro) and El ornitorrinco. He has written novels and drama, but above all is known for his short stories, characterized by a subtle narrative tension, some of which have been translated into English, French, Italian, German, Russian and Polish. A full lising of his work can be found at the author’s website.


 tbr 36           May - June 2003 

Short Fiction

  Iain Bahlaj

     Tilt (novel extract)
  Ron Butlin
   Vivaldi, The Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and The Number Three

  Greg Chandler
     Bee’s Tree

  Abelardo Castillo
     Ernesto’s Mother

     Girl from Somewhere Else

    Picks from Back Issues

  Anne Donovan

  Steven Rinehart
     Burning Luv


  Gretchen McCullough May 2003: Letter from Cairo


   Answers to last issue’s quiz, All About Books

Book Reviews

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Tilt by Iain Bahlaj
Shoedog by George P. Pelecanos
Harry and Ida Swop Teeth by Stephen Jones

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

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