ESTER PRIMAVERA by ROBERTO ARLT
Translated from the Spanish by Lucas Lyndes
A previously untranslated classic Argentinean short story.
I AM OVERCOME by an inexorable emotion at the thought of Ester Primavera.
It’s as if a gust of hot wind had suddenly struck my face. And yet the mountain ridge is capped with snow. Velvety white icicles line the forks of a walnut tree beneath the garret I occupy on the third floor of the Pasteur Wing at the Santa Mónica Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
Her name brings the past flooding back. My red fits grow paler with the beauty of each subsequent memory. To speak her name is to feel a hot wind suddenly strike my cold cheeks.
Stretched out on a long patio chair, covered to my chin with a dark blanket, I think of her constantly. I’ve spent seven hundred days thinking at all hours of Ester Primavera, the only living creature I have so atrociously offended. No, that’s not the word. It’s not that I’ve offended her. It’s worse than that: I’ve uprooted all hope of earthly kindness from inside her. Never more will she dare to dream, so crudely have I savaged her soul. And from that dishonor I derive a delicious sadness, which flares up under my skin. Now I know I am ready to die. I never suspected that remorse could reach such delectable depths; that sin might be such a frightfully soft pillow, where we recline forever with the anguish that ferments inside us.
I know she will never be able to forget me. The stare of that tall creature, moving her shoulders ever-so-slightly as she walks, is all the beauty that keeps me bolted to the world of the living I left behind for this hell.
I see her still. That long and delicate semblance, arranged in an expression of torment, as if always on approaching me she had just then freed herself from some enormous load she had been shouldering. It was this effort that kept her agility intact. As she walked, the frill of her black dress whirled about her knees, and a ringlet of her hair combed over her temple until just above her earlobe seemed to attend her gait, that rush to throw herself into the unknown. Sometimes her throat was wrapped in furs, and on seeing her pass you might mistake her for a stranger returning from far-off cities. And so it was that she approached me. Her twenty-three years, which had slipped through every possible plane of perpendicular existence, her twenty-three years bottled up in that graceful body strode toward me, as if I, in that present, constituted the definitive raison d’être of her entire past… Yes, this; she had lived twenty-three years for this: to stride along the broad sidewalk toward me with her tormented expression.
Santa Mónica Sanatorium.
How right they were to give to this red hell a name so synonymous with meekness, this place where death has tinged every semblance yellow, home to almost one thousand consumptives among its four wards: two for men and two for women.
Oh! And there are times when one might cry forever… And the circle of mountains there, that circle surpassed by mountain ridges more distant still, the circle where the gleaming rails disappear around a curve, where the trains glide past like toy caravans. The river, when there is sun, offers glints of light amidst the green; the cliffs colored violet in the dusk and red like embers at dawn; and higher up, Ucul, and down below, Cerro del Diablo, and along the tortuous horizontal slope, the blue methylene triangle of the reservoir behind the dam, forever advancing. And by night, by day, women coughing, men sitting up in bed, made rigid by fevered hallucinations or the taste of blood welling up on their palates from deep within. And God who reigns over all our souls gone taciturn with sin.
TO THE RIGHT of my patio chair, the half-breed Leiva. Profile like a beast rampant and brushstrokes of black mane over a hazel forehead.
To my left a red Jewish boy reposes, always silent, so as to slow the tuberculosis as it devours his larynx. Beyond him, in a long row that occupies the roofed patio, wooden chairs, and resting in them, children, men, adolescents, all wrapped in dark regulation blankets. Almost all of them have yellow skin stuck to the flat bones of their faces, their ears transparent, their eyes aflame or gone glassy, their nostrils palpitating as they slowly inhale the glacial air coming off the mountain.
Between the lashes of those half-open eyelids, there languish flashes of memory. Some of these eyes still hold fast to something seen recently; and then, in hiding, they glaze over with tears. All of us are like that, always remembering something in this mountaintop sanatorium. I think of her; for seven hundred days now, I have thought of Ester Primavera. When I speak her name aloud, my cheeks are struck by a gust of hot wind. And yet the gray snow covers the mountain peaks. Below them, all is black in the caverns.
The half-breed Leiva lights a cigarette.
“Want a puff, Seven?” he says to me.
We smoke with caution; it’s been forbidden to us. We blow the smoke out beneath the blankets, and suddenly the nicotine contracts our stomachs in a dizzy spell. From inside the room comes constant coughing. It’s Bed Three. A few concise words are crossed.
“Did you sleep last night?”
“Still running a temperature?”
“When are they putting in the chest tube?”
“What?… So I can keep on like this?”
A black man lies ecstatic in the patio chair, his coal gray head collapsed in infinite fatigue against the fabric. Leiva looks at him and says, “That one won’t make it past winter.”
From inside the room comes the sound of coughing. Now it’s Nine, Nine who just won’t finish dying, Nine who bet the ward medic a crate of beer bottles “that I won’t die this winter.” And he won’t die. He won’t die because his willpower is going to get him through until spring. And the doctor, a specialist, is sulking over this “case.” He says to him—the sick man is practically a friend and he knows his situation all too well—”But there’s no way you’ll make it. Can’t you see you haven’t even got this much lung tissue left in you?” And he turns his pinkie nail to the patient.
Nine, cornered into a whitewashed right angle of the room, laughs with a subterranean death rattle in his acrid fog of decomposition. “Forget about it ‘til spring, doctor. Don’t you go getting your hopes up.”
And the medic walks away from the bedside in exasperation, intrigued by this “case” whose very progress is the negation of all his knowledge. But before he goes, he says with a laugh, “Why don’t you just die? Do me a favor. Is it that much to ask?”
“No, it’s you who’s going to do me a favor by paying up with that crate of beer.”
The doctor has tuberculosis, too. “Just a corner of the left lung, that’s all.” The intern as well—”practically nothing, the right lung’s just a bit soft”—and so on. All of us moving about like specters in this hell named for a saint, all of us know we’re sentenced to death. Today, tomorrow, next year… one day…
The fine damsel’s name strikes my cheeks like a gust of hot wind. Leiva coughs, the Jewish boy dreams of his father’s fur shop, where right this instant Mordecai and Levi are probably laughing by the samovar, and the chapel bell tolls. A toy-like train disappears around the gleaming bend of the tracks and pierces the black caverns. And Buenos Aires, so far away… so far away…
It’s enough to make you kill yourself, but kill yourself there, in Buenos Aires… On the threshold of her doorway.
I knew that I wanted her to be mine forever when, on the tram to Palermo, I answered Ester Primavera’s question with these words: “No, don’t even dream of it. I’ll never get married, and especially not to you.”
“No matter. We’ll be friends then. And when I have a suitor, I’ll stroll up to you with him so you can meet him. Although I won’t say a word to you, naturally.” With her eyelids lowered, she avoided me as if she’d just committed a wrongful deed.
“So you’re accustomed to these cynical games, then?”
“Yes. I once had a friend very like you…”
I laughed and said, “How strange!… Women who frequently change friends always seem to find another just like the one before him.”
“How delightful you are!… Well, as I was saying, when the situation became risky, I would take my distance so I could return when I felt stronger.”
“Do you realize just how deliciously shameless you are? I’m beginning to think you’re sizing me up.”
“What? Don’t you feel at peace by my side?”
“Look me in the eyes.”
A lock of hair left her temple uncovered, and despite her malicious smile there persisted in her an expression of fatigue that rent her pale little face with suffering.
“And your boyfriend? What was his opinion of that cynical game?”
“He wasn’t familiar with it.”
Suddenly she looked at me gravely. “Yes. I’m bored of so much stupidity. Do you know what it means to be a woman?”
“No. I can’t even imagine.”
“Then why do keep looking at me with that face? Don’t get angry, but you seem like a bit of a halfwit. Wait, what are you thinking?”
“Nothing… You can probably imagine what I’m thinking. But remember this: if you ever dare to play a dirty trick on me, I won’t let you forget me as long as you live.”
My insolence pleased her. Smiling malevolently, she said, “Tell me… Just out of curiosity… Don’t be angry… You’re not the kind of man who meets a girl, and then says to her after a week, with his puppy dog eyes, ‘Won’t you give me some proof of your affection, miss?,’ and asks for a kiss?”
I observed her dourly. “I may very well never ask you for or give you a thing.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m not interested in anything you might have to give.”
“And how do I interest you, then?”
“As entertainment… Nothing more. When I’m bored of putting up with your insolence, I’ll abandon you.”
“So you find my soul attractive, then?”
“Yes, but no one else is going to see things that way.”
“And why not?”
“It would be best not to talk of it.”
Now we walked amidst the green silence of the trees. With a childlike voice she told me of other climes, of outbreaks of suffering. In Rome she had visited a hospital for those mutilated in the war. She saw faces that looked as if they’d been sent through the rollers of a laminating machine, and craniums cut off at obtuse angles, as if trepanned with a drill. She had visited the lands of ice and cetaceans. She had loved a man who gambled away one night—on the tabletop in a ghastly tavern in Comodoro, among prospectors and murderers—his entire fortune. And he left her standing there in her bridal gown so he could continue living his lawless existence among the card sharks of Arroyo Pescado.
We conversed all morning long. The tip of her parasol alit on the sun dapples that covered the red gravel of the paths. I thought of the singular contrast between the substance of what she was narrating and the delicate tone of her voice, such that her charm was doubled by the overlapping persons I discovered in her: in her trusting intimacy she was a child, while in her acts she was a woman.
And we treated each other not as strangers, but as people who have known one another a long time now, between whom no secrets exist, for whom the nakedness of the soul has laid bare all possibilities.
As she delved into those events, careful not to complain out of deference to any lack of interest on my part, her voice became warmer and more refined, so that one involuntarily understood he was in the presence of a young lady. And these two words, so far as she was concerned, took on a sense of perfection, perfect and visible like a silver tuberose sprouting from an iron bar.
And then with sadness, we said goodbye. But before disappearing, she doubled back and said to me, “Thank you for looking upon me with eyes so free from desire. With you I shall always be able to talk about anything. Don’t think poorly of me.”
Then, moving her shoulders slightly, the skirt whirling round her agile legs, she disappeared.
OF THE FIVE OF US who gather each night in that room, who is the vilest?
Yes, always, two hours after dinner, we gather for a mate. The first to arrive is Sacco, with onion head and boxer’s body, paler than a votive candle, who was a hood back in Buenos Aires. He’s got a rap sheet longer than a thesis paper. Then comes the hunchback Febre, who steals flasks of morphine from the nurses’ station; then Paya, brawny, bow-legged, his milky face forever clean-shaven, with a spark of bitter light deep in his hazel eyes and the magnificent bearing of one used to relying on his physique.
They come to “our” room while the Jewish boy is asleep. Leiva the Eraser prepares the mate while Sacco tunes up the guitar, covering the instrument’s body with his broad chest.
We all drink mate from the same metal straw; we no longer fear contagion and one germ more or one less among us matters little. The conversation flags shortly after starting, and more often than not we sit in silence.
Oh, yes! We call Leiva “The Eraser.” He doesn’t like to talk about the people he’s rubbed out. He calls it “rubbing someone out” when he’s murdered them. But when he gets drunk at the dive bar next to the bus stop in Ucul, at the turnoff to the sanatorium, he starts to reminisce. This happens on Sundays, when the cockfights are held and even the highest-ranking politician in the department comes to town, every last slob in Ucul with a peso to bet. Leiva, his elbows propped on the table, looking somberly out at the rectangle of distant meadow framed by the doorway, evokes the good old days with certain euphemisms.
He was a cattle herder in Las Varillas. “Outside San Rafael,” he “rubbed out” his first person. Under the obtuse angle of the garret roof, the guitar strings tuned by Sacco leave diapasons hanging in the air turned white with smoke, as the notes gradually grow dim. The hunchback rests his jute sandals on the edge of the brazier, and with his marmoset’s face, rocking his head back and forth, he follows the rhythm of the dulcet tones.
Paya, his neck wrapped in a silk kerchief, takes refuge in sullen silence, occupying an angle of the room where the roof hangs lowest.
He thinks, remembering his furnished apartment on the corner of Corrientes and Talcahuano. He reminisces…
Who amongst the five is the vilest?
Each of us has led a wayward or tragic life.
One summer morning I was surprised by a terrible pain in my lung. Paya felt the blood rise to his lips like a water fountain one night while cutting cards, with a two thousand peso bet on a full house. Leiva was brought down by the flu, Sacco by his coughing, a cough so insistent that a fit tipped off a fellow bus passenger just as Sacco was lightening his pockets.
Bored and brooding, we sit around Leiva, who has now taken up the guitar. Our foreheads remain bowed, our faces set in a virile expression, an affirmation of our desire to live more cruelly still. The boy with laryngitis sleeps with his face to the wall, and his red hair leaves a copper stain on the pillow. Paya lets the cigarette butt smolder between his lips. He thinks of “the life,” the police lineups, the nights spent in the clink. He thinks of the radiant afternoons at the races, the black stands filled with porteños, the jockeys’ colored shirts slipping vertiginously around the track: green, red, yellow shirts swelled up in the wind as the working stiffs sucked on oranges by the dozen, shouting their heads off as their favorites ran by.
Leiva bleeds a tango onto the weeping strings of the guitar. Our cruel expressions crumble in a convulsive tremor of facial nerves. Like wild beasts in the forest, we catch the scent of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires so far away. Among the snowy mountains, Ester Primavera’s name strikes my cheeks like a gust of perfumed wind, and Leiva’s profile, turned leathery by sun and wind, remains bowed over the lute. His eyes, too, settle on a distant recollection, the green and violet pampa, the restless cattle in the mountain mist, the cup of cane liquor drunk at the counter, with one hand on his holster and the glass raised in a toast.
Sacco, on the edge of my bed, cleans his nails with the tip of a knife. He, too, reminisces. He’s back in Cell Block Three, with the thieves awaiting a visit the next morning from the woman who will bring them clothes, or news from their lawyers; then dusk, with their repugnant rations in the trash, still steaming, followed by the interminable card games; the excitement of reencounters, trips to court in the prison bus, tales of con jobs, the prolegomenon of the holding cells, the letter sent in an attempt to cheat some poor sap with tales of fraudulent bankruptcy… The exhilaration of freedom… The profound exhilaration of that jailer’s shout: “Sacco… Bring your stuff on up to the front.”
Like a gust of hot wind, Ester Primaver’s name strikes my cheeks.
The tango sounds out scenes of anguish, where the women wear purple shoes and the men’s faces are like maps made of gashes and knife scars.
Straightening up in pain, Sacco suddenly says, “The old bellows are killing me. Been killing me for three days.”
A twitch contracts his thin lips over his twisted teeth.
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah. A lot…”
“Why don’t you have them cup and bleed you?”
“I’m sick to death of the incisions. My back looks like it’s been through the meat grinder…”
I SAW HER the day after our talk. What evil spirit suggested to me such a wicked experiment? I don’t know. Afterward I’ve often thought that my illness must have been growing inside of me already, and the malice evident in all of my actions was the consequence of a nervous imbalance brought on by the toxins secreted by the bacteria. I would later discover that there are a great number of depraved consumptives, inflamed by temperaments that have brought suffering upon their fellow man.
The evil hidden in each man is endowed with dark impulses when the blood becomes poisoned, in a kind of repressed hatred of which the sick man is well aware, though this doesn’t stop him from letting it seep into his personal relationships. The act is accompanied by a bitter pleasure, a sort of morbid desperation.
Oh, that’s right! I saw her the next night in the doorway of her home, which opens onto the garden. She could do nothing but stare at me. I had the presentiment that something was going to happen. I didn’t speak, my words held in by the anguish of the lie I was about to tell her. It was a madman’s test.
I said to her, “I’m married.”
Her head bent toward the back of her neck as if she had received a cross to the jaw. Her facial features went slack in an explosion of white heat. The skin of her jaw and her lips drew taught with a quiver. A thin wrinkle parted her forehead, and for an instant her eyelids trembled above her eyes, from which her soul seemed to be trying to escape. Then, for a moment, her gaze fell still behind the rigid lashes permeated by a dying spark.
Finally, she regained her intense passion.
“No, it isn’t possible… Say it’s not so.”
Instead of taking pity on her distress, a somber expectation held me steadfast. If Death had stood by her side and her life had depended on my saying the word, it was a word I would not have pronounced. Was this not, after all, the loveliest moment of our lives? Could we bottle up more anguish for the future than at that very moment? There, we were perfectly authentic; I, a man who gambled away a woman before her very eyes… Everything else was a lie… What was authentic was this, the pain of this girl who had forgotten her duties to herself according to convention, who had forgotten all appearances, thus transforming her into an eternal child; at that very moment, I was not worthy to kiss the dust trodden by her feet.
Suddenly, she moved away. She said, “No, this isn’t possible. We must see each other tomorrow.”
And we saw each other not just once, but many times. She prodded further at my lie, that lie that was someone else’s truth, and I couldn’t contradict my tale.
I strolled through the gardens with that lovely creature. With her gray parasol, she opened furrows in the sand, and under the delicate weave of her straw hat, she smiled like a convalescent. Having forgotten it all, we spoke of the mountains I had never seen, and the cliffs that sit by the sea’s edge (this I didn’t know), where the stench of the algae renders the icy atmosphere as penetrating as that of another planet.
She had seen the far-off lands of the South, the solitude of lighthouses, the sadness of violet sunsets, the awful tedium of the sand whipped up ceaselessly by the winds on the dunes. And as I listened to Ester Primavera, my fleeting happiness became more intense than suffering; mine was a hopeless love. And Ester Primavera understood what was taking place inside me, and so that I would never forget her, so that I might always remember those passing moments, she adorned them with her infinitely delicate words and her childish demeanor; that will to bring everything to a close, hidden under such a frail and sweet appearance, seemed inconceivable.
One day we said goodbye forever. Her eyes filled up with tears.
THE GUITAR rings out raucously in the half-breed Leiva’s hands. Sacco is brewing mate. The black mountain exhales a savage breeze like a monster slowly respiring. Outside, the windows of each ward are lit up. Making his way with a flashlight, a nurse walks along a sandy path, his white apron inflated by the wind. In his hand he carries a bag of oxygen.
Paya, seated on the edge of Leiva’s bed, smokes leisurely. No one speaks; we listen to the tango, a tango that plumbs the back alleys of death in the shape of a woman coming in from the streets.
Suddenly, the Jewish boy awakes in terror. Disheveled, with his back against the headboard, he coughs nonstop.
“There’s a lot of smoke in here,” says Leiva.
“Yeah, a lot.”
Paya opens the window and a gust of frozen air eddies for an instant in the foggy atmosphere. The Jewish boy coughs constantly, with his kerchief pressed against his lips. Then he looks at the kerchief and smiles joyously. The fabric is still white.
“There’s no blood?”
The redhead shakes his head no.
This is our obsession. And we always keep up on one another.
There’s not a single one of us who doesn’t know just where his lesion is situated, along with those of his roommates. We listen to each other’s insides. Some guys have a real keen ear. They pick up before the doctors do the sibilant sound of leaking air somewhere in the back or chest indicating a deadly crevice.
We talk of the disease’s progress with a sickly erudition. We even place bets—yes, bets—on the dying patients in our wings. Packs of cigarettes are gambled away to see who nails the time of death of the next to go. A complicated and ghastly game, since sometimes the dying man doesn’t die, instead “reacting,” entering into convalescence, curing himself of the disease and then mocking the gamblers, becoming so enthusiastic as to ironically search out another “candidate” on whom to place bets.
In life and death, there are moments that seem to us worth less than the butt of the cigarette we smoke so morosely.
If not for the memory of Ester Primavera, I reflect, I would have killed myself already. In the midst of all this misery, her name strikes my cheeks like a gust of hot wind.
She has ceased to be a woman who will one day grow old, with her white hair and her old woman’s smile, worn-out and sad. Bound to me by indignity, for seven hundred days now remorse has persisted inside of me like a splendid and perpetual metal shard. My joy lies in knowing that on my deathbed, as the nurses walk by without looking at me, the tattered image of that delicate creature will be there to accompany me until the end. Yet how to ask for her forgiveness? Even so, for seven hundred days now, I think of her at all hours.
Wrapped in an overcoat, I walk out to the gallery with a blanket on my back. In truth, this is forbidden, but I find a corner in the blackness and stretch out on a patio chair. It’s so dark out that the acrid odor of the espinillo trees seems like the voice of the earth. A dark mass juts up parallel to my face: the mountain. Far away, uncertain as stars, a cord of yellow lights reticulates the distance in a hypothetical plane. These are the streets of Ucul.
My flesh hardens on my bones. It’s so cold! Snowflakes fall. They look like feathers turning about themselves. And I think, “Why did I act so vilely with that child?”
And once again I fall back into that vulgar memory.
A month after everything had come to an end between us, I ran across her in the street in the company of an individual. He was puny, with an office manager’s mug, cat whiskers, and a mulatto face. She directed an ironic look at me, as if saying, “What do you think of this guy?” I stood for a quarter of an hour on the street corner, my mouth open… But what right had I to be incensed? Hadn’t she warned me already?
“I’ll get married to the first one who comes along and shows me he loves me just a little.”
Had that ironic look really appeared in those same eyes, once so teary? Was that possible? A cold rancor, one of those rages muted by the ferocity latent in every man, comprised solely of immediate action, took me to a café. I reflected that I needed to erase her from my life, to put her in a position that would make any further friendship between us impossible. She must abhor me so much that in the future, even were I to kneel before her as she passed, all such humiliation would be useless. I would be the only man she would hate with the patience of eternity.
So I asked for note paper and I wrote the most despicable letter that has ever left my hands. My ferocity and my desperation piled insult upon insult, distorting events she had narrated to me, exalting details of her life that would suggest to a third party with no knowledge of our relationship the idea of an intimacy that had never existed, and I refined each affront to make it more atrocious and unforgettable, not with coarse words, but by scorning her noble spirit, twisting her ideas, embarrassing her in such a way over her generosity that I suddenly thought, were she to read that letter right then, she would kneel before me and beg me not to send it. And yet, she was innocent.
Since I knew she was not at home at that very moment, but in the street conversing with another man, I sent it to her in the certainty that it would be received by her mother or her brother, who wouldn’t doubt what was written there because the references were to events that I could have only heard from her.
I called over a shoeshine boy and offered him a peso to deliver the letter. I instructed him to clap loudly so that the servant wouldn’t sequester it; the others in the house couldn’t help but ask who was in the doorway raising such a raucous. The boy, after abandoning his kit at the foot of the table, disappeared along the acacia-capped street, taking great bounds.
“It’s done now,” I thought to myself.
And yet I was unsure of what was happening inside me. A new serenity steeled my nerves. The shoeshine boy came back, and in the description he gave me of the man who had received the letter, I recognized her brother. I gave the boy his peso and he went away.
I set off down the street. I walked at peace, observing the sun dapples in the doorways, the green of the gardens, until I stopped to pick up a child who, running out of a passageway, had tripped and fallen. The child’s mother thanked me. I walked at peace, as if my personality were completely divorced from all wickedness. And yet there had occurred something as enormous and impossible to remedy as the progress of the sun or the passing of a planet. Only by impelling my mind was I able to imagine the arrival of the ragged child riotously clapping his hands, and the surprise of all those people at receiving, addressed to such a daughter…
I couldn’t help but laugh; sleep had trapped me in its gears. I imagined a gentleman brandishing the letter between interrupted attempts at domestic morals and Ciceronian invectives truncated by the mother’s fainting spell, the sisters crying over a possible catastrophe, the brother angrily interrogating the maid regarding my countenance so that he might pummel me, the frightened servant watching for the “girl’s” arrival and muttering between her teeth, “The things that happen, my Lord!” while the cook gloated among the pots and pans, delighting in the gossip that she would relate to her husband later that night, in the meantime praising the morals of the poor and saying with grotesque sufficiency, as she hung up a skillet: “Oh, no, better to be poor and principled…”
My chortling exploded so sonorously in the street that passersby stopped to look at me, convinced I had gone mad, and a watchman finally came over and asked me, “What’s going on, friend?…”
I looked at him insolently and responded that first of all, I was no friend of his, and then, “What? Is it forbidden to laugh at one’s own thoughts?”
“I meant no offense, sir.”
Then the delirium passed. Nothing could change what was done.
The night came, and I knew she was out there, suffering.
AS THE DAYS went by, I experienced every kind of remorse. I imagined Ester Primavera as the afternoon came to an end, alone in her bedroom. The pale creature, with her arms resting on the rectangular bronze headboard of her bed as she gazed at the pillows, would be thinking of me. And she would ask herself, “Is it possible I could have been so wrong? Is it possible for such a monster to be enclosed inside that man? Then all those words he said were lies, then all human words are lies? How could I have failed to see the falseness in his face and eyes? And how could I have told him about myself? How could I express so many sincere perspectives, give to him my purest self without moving him? He must be the vilest of all the men I’ve ever known. Why did it all happen?”
I never saw her as I did then, so sad in my memories. It seemed to me that all her dreams, floating like svelte parallelepipeds in the luminous morning air, were collapsing, covering her with the dust of the earth.
And as I reconstructed all the sorrows she must be suffering because of me, from afar I felt bound to her substance, and if in those instants Ester Primavera had come to kill me, I would not have moved.
How many times in those days I must have thought of the delight in dying by her hand. Because I had believed that through my terrible infamy I would scrub her from my conscience and that her pale face would dwell in me never more, but I was wrong. My cruel offense inserted her in my days, more immobile and fixed than a sword passed perpendicularly through my heart. And with each beat, the deep gash slowly expands.
For a time the fan blades of night and day revolved before my eyes as if I were drunk.
Many months later, I ran into her.
I was walking with my head down, when I instinctively lifted it. Ester Primavera crossed the street in my direction, coming toward me. I thought, “Oh, how happy I would be if she were to slap me.”
Could she have divined what was going on inside me?
Rapidly, with a slight movement of her shoulders, her semblance ragged, her gaze fixed, she advanced toward me. Her black dress whirled around her agile legs. A lock of hair left her temple uncovered, and her throat was wrapped in a short black fur.
Her steps became ever slower. She looked at me with stillness in her soul. I was the one who had made her suffer so… Suddenly she was only a step away… This was the same woman who had stood next to me one day, who talked of the mountains, the ocean, the cliffs… Our eyes were closer still; there was a lunar clarity in her face, the fine wrinkles of suffering crossed her forehead… Her lips twisted, and without saying a word, she disappeared…
For seven hundred days now, I have thought of her. Always of writing to her from this hell to ask her forgiveness.
The snow falls obliquely. In the darkness, a nurse advances. Suddenly, in his right hand, the bulb of the electric lantern flashes. He shines a white cone of light on me, and says drily, “Seven, go lay down.”
For seven hundred days now, I have thought of her. The snow falls obliquely. I get up from the patio chair and head to the ward. But before arriving, I skirt a railing with a view to the south. There, eight hundred kilometers away, lies Buenos Aires. The infinite night occupies a desolate space. And I think: “Ester Primavera…”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ROBERTO ARLT (1900–1942) was an Argentine writer. His novels El juguete rabioso (1926) and Los siete locos (1929) have been respectively translated as The Mad Toy and The Seven Madmen. The latter will be republished by NYRB Classics in December 2015.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
LUCAS LYNDES is co-founder of Ox & Pigeon Electronic Books, a digital publisher of international literature in translation. His translation of the novel The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre was published by Frisch & Co. He lives in Lima, Peru.
‘Ester Primavera’ originally appeared in Spanish in La Nación, Buenos Aires (9 September, 1928). This English translation is copyright © 2015 Lucas Lyndes. All rights reserved.
Header photograph: ‘Eye’ by Hans Van Den Berg @ Flickr. Republished under this Creative Commons licence.