Authors: Gabriel García Márquez,Gregory Rabassa,J.S. Bernstein
‘Where’d you pick up that fever?’ José asked.
‘I decided just a minute ago,’ the woman said. ‘Just a minute ago I realized it’s a dirty business.’
José grabbed the cloth again and started to clean the glass in front of her. He spoke without looking at her.
‘Of course, the way you do it it’s a dirty business. You should have known that a long time ago.’
‘I was getting to know it a long time ago,’ the woman said, ‘but I was only convinced of it just a little while ago. Men disgust me.’
José smiled. He raised his head to look at her, still smiling, but he saw her concentrated, perplexed, talking with her shoulders raised, twirling on the stool with
a taciturn expression, her face gilded by premature autumnal grain.
‘Don’t you think they ought to lay off a woman who kills a man because after she’s been with him she feels disgust with him and everyone who’s been with her?’
‘There’s no reason to go that far,’ José said, moved, a thread of pity in his voice.
‘What if the woman tells the man he disgusts her while she watches him get dressed
because she remembers that she’s been rolling around with him all afternoon and feels that neither soap nor sponge can get his smell off her?’
‘That all goes away, queen,’ José said, a little indifferent now, polishing the counter. ‘There’s no reason to kill him. Just let him go.’
But the woman kept on talking, and her voice was a uniform, flowing, passionate current.
‘But what if the woman
tells him he disgusts her and the man stops getting dressed and runs over to her again, kisses her again, does …?’
‘No decent man would ever do that,’ José says.
‘What if he does?’ the woman asks, with exasperating anxiety. ‘What if the man isn’t decent and does it and then the woman feels that he disgusts her so much that she could die, and she knows that the only way to end it all is to stick
a knife in under him?’
‘That’s terrible,’ José said. ‘Luckily there’s no man who would do what you say.’
‘Well,’ the woman said, completely exasperated now. ‘What if he did? Suppose he did.’
‘In any case it’s not that bad,’ José said. He kept on cleaning the counter without changing position, less intent on the conversation now.
The woman pounded the counter with her knuckles. She became affirmative,
‘You’re a savage, José,’ she said. ‘You don’t understand anything.’ She grabbed him firmly by the sleeve. ‘Come on, tell me that the woman should kill him.’
‘O.K.,’ José said with a conciliatory bias. ‘It’s all probably just the way you say it is.’
‘Isn’t that self-defense?’ the woman asked, grabbing him by the sleeve.
Then José gave her a lukewarm and pleasant look.
he said. And he winked at her, with an expression that was at the same time a cordial comprehension and a fearful compromise of complicity. But the woman was serious. She let go of him.
‘Would you tell a lie to defend a woman who does that?’ she asked.
‘That depends,’ said José.
‘Depends on what?’ the woman asked.
‘Depends on the woman,’ said José.
‘Suppose it’s a woman you love a lot,’ the
woman said. ‘Not to be with her, but like you say, you love her a lot.’
‘O.K., anything you say, queen,’ José said, relaxed, bored.
He’d gone off again. He’d looked at the clock. He’d seen that it was going on half-past six. He’d thought that in a few minutes the restaurant would be filling up with people and maybe that was why he began to polish the glass with greater effort, looking at the
street through the window. The woman stayed on her stool, silent, concentrating, watching the man’s movements with an air of declining sadness. Watching him as a lamp about to go out might have looked at a man. Suddenly,
without reacting, she spoke again with the unctuous voice of servitude.
The man looked at her with a thick, sad tenderness, like a maternal ox. He didn’t look at her
to hear her, just to look at her, to know that she was there, waiting for a look that had no reason to be one of protection or solidarity. Just the look of a plaything.
‘I told you I was leaving tomorrow and you didn’t say anything,’ the woman said.
‘Yes,’ José said. ‘You didn’t tell me where.’
‘Out there,’ the woman said. ‘Where there aren’t any men who want to sleep with somebody.’
‘Are you really going away?’ he asked, as if becoming aware of life, quickly changing the expression on his face.
‘That depends on you,’ the woman said. ‘If you know enough to say what time I got here, I’ll go away tomorrow and I’ll never get mixed up in this again. Would you like that?’
José gave an affirmative nod, smiling and concrete. The woman leaned over to where he was.
‘If I come back here someday I’ll get jealous when I find another woman talking to you, at this time and on this same stool.’
‘If you come back here you’ll have to bring me something,’ José said.
‘I promise you that I’ll look everywhere for the tame bear, bring him to you,’ the woman said.
José smiled and waved the cloth through the air that separated him from the woman, as if he were cleaning
an invisible pane of glass. The woman smiled too, with an expression of cordiality and coquetry now. Then the man went away, polishing the glass to the other end of the counter.
‘What, then?’ José said without looking at her.
‘Will you really tell anyone who asks you that I got here at a quarter to six?’ the woman said.
‘What for?’ José said, still without looking at her now, as if he had barely
‘That doesn’t matter,’ the woman said. ‘The thing is that you do it.’
José then saw the first customer come in through the swinging door and walk over to a corner table. He looked at the clock. It was six-thirty on the dot.
‘O.K., queen,’ he said distractedly. ‘Anything you say. I always do whatever you want.’
‘Well,’ the woman said. ‘Start cooking my steak, then.’
The man went
to the refrigerator, took out a plate with a piece of meat on it, and left it on the table. Then he lighted the stove.
‘I’m going to cook you a good farewell steak, queen,’ he said.
‘Thank you, Pepillo,’ the woman said.
She remained thoughtful as if suddenly she had become sunken in a strange subworld peopled with muddy, unknown forms. Across the counter she couldn’t hear the noise that the
raw meat made when it fell into the burning grease. Afterward she didn’t hear the dry and bubbling crackle as José turned the flank over in the frying pan and the succulent smell of the marinated meat by measured moments saturated the air of the restaurant. She remained like that, concentrated, reconcentrated, until she raised her head again, blinking as if she were coming back out of a momentary
death. Then she saw the man beside the stove, lighted up by the happy, rising fire.
‘What are you thinking about?’ the woman asked.
‘I was wondering whether you could find the little windup bear someplace,’ José said.
‘Of course I can,’ the woman said. ‘But what I want is for you to give me everything I asked for as a going-away present.’
José looked at her from the stove.
‘How often have I got to tell you?’ he said. ‘Do you want something besides the best steak I’ve got?’
‘Yes,’ the woman said.
‘What is it?’ José asked.
‘I want another quarter of an hour.’
José drew back and looked at the clock. Then he looked at the customer, who was still silent, waiting in the corner, and finally at the meat roasting in the pan. Only then did he speak.
‘I really don’t understand,
queen,’ he said.
‘Don’t be foolish, José,’ the woman said. ‘Just remember that I’ve been here since five-thirty.’
Nabo was lying face down in the hay. He felt the smell of a urinated stable rubbing on his body. On his brown and shiny skin he felt the warm embers of the last horses, but he couldn’t feel the skin. Nabo couldn’t feel anything. It was as if he’d gone to sleep with the last blow of the horseshoe on his forehead and now that was the only feeling
he had. He opened his eyes. He closed them again and then was quiet, stretched out, stiff, as he had been all afternoon, feeling himself growing without time, until someone behind him said: ‘Come on, Nabo. You’ve slept enough already.’ He turned over and didn’t see the horses; the door was closed. Nabo must have imagined that the animals were somewhere in the darkness in spite of the fact that he
couldn’t hear their impatient stamping. He imagined that the person speaking to him was doing it from outside the stable, because the door was closed from inside and barred. Once more the voice behind him said: ‘That’s right, Nabo, you’ve slept enough already. You’ve been asleep for almost three days.’ Only then did Nabo open his eyes completely and remember: ‘I’m here because a horse kicked me.’
He didn’t know what hour he was living. The days had been left behind. It was as if someone had passed a damp sponge over those remote Saturday nights when he used to go to the town square. He forgot about the white shirt. He forgot that he had a green hat made of green straw and dark pants. He forgot that he didn’t have any shoes. Nabo would go to the square on Saturday nights and sit in a corner,
silent, not to
listen to the music but to watch the black man. Every Saturday he saw him. The Negro wore horn-rimmed glasses, tied to his ears, and he played the saxophone at one of the rear music stands. Nabo saw the black man but the black man didn’t see Nabo. At least, if someone had known that Nabo went to the square on Saturday nights to see the Negro and had asked him (not now, because he
couldn’t remember) whether the black man had ever seen him, Nabo would have said no. It was the only thing he did after currying the horses: watch the black man.
One Saturday the Negro wasn’t at his place in the band. Nabo probably thought at first that he wasn’t going to play anymore in the public concerts in spite of the fact that the music stand was there. Although for that reason precisely,
the fact that the music stand was there, he thought later that the Negro would be back the following Saturday. But on the following Saturday he wasn’t back and the music stand wasn’t in its place.
Nabo rolled onto one side and he saw the man talking to him. At first he didn’t recognize him, blotted out by the darkness of the stable. The man was sitting on a jutting beam, talking and patting his
knees. ‘A horse kicked me,’ Nabo said again, trying to recognize the man. ‘That’s right,’ the man said. ‘The horses aren’t here now and we’re waiting for you in the choir.’ Nabo shook his head. He still hadn’t begun to think, but now he thought he’d seen the man somewhere. Nabo didn’t understand, but he didn’t find it strange either that someone should say that to him, because every day while he
curried the horses he invented songs to distract them. Then he would sing the same songs he sang to the horses in the living room to distract the mute girl. When he was singing if someone had told him that he was taking him to a choir, it wouldn’t have surprised him. Now he was surprised even less because he didn’t understand. He was fatigued, dulled, brutish. ‘I want to know where the horses are,’
he said. And the man said: ‘I already told you, the horses aren’t here. All we’re interested in is to get a voice like yours.’ And perhaps,
face down in the hay, Nabo heard, but he couldn’t distinguish the pain that the horseshoe had left on his forehead from his other disordered sensations. He turned his head on the hay and fell asleep.
Nabo still went to the square for two or three weeks in
spite of the fact that the Negro was no longer in the band. Perhaps someone would have answered him if Nabo had asked what had happened to the black man. But he didn’t ask and kept on going to the concerts until another man with another saxophone came to take the Negro’s spot. Then Nabo was convinced that the Negro wouldn’t be back and he decided not to return to the square. When he awoke he thought
he had slept a very short time. The smell of damp hay still burned in his nose. The darkness was still there before his eyes, surrounding him. And the man was still in the corner. The obscure and peaceful voice of the man who patted his knees, saying: ‘We’re waiting for you, Nabo. You’ve been asleep for almost two years and you refuse to get up.’ Then Nabo closed his eyes again. He opened them
again, kept looking at the corner, and saw the man once more, disoriented, perplexed. Only then did he recognize him.
If the people in the house had known what Nabo was doing on the square on Saturday nights, they probably would have thought that when he stopped going he did so because now he had music at home. That was when we brought the gramophone to amuse the girl. Since it needed someone
to wind it up all day, it seemed most natural that that person should be Nabo. He could do it when he didn’t have to take care of the horses. The girl remained seated, listening to records. Sometimes, when the music was playing, the girl would get out of her chair, still looking at the wall, drooling, and would drag herself to the veranda. Nabo would lift the needle and start to sing. In the beginning,
when he first came to the house and we asked him what he could do, Nabo said that he could sing. But that didn’t interest anyone. What we needed was a boy to curry the horses. Nabo stayed, but he kept on singing, as if we had hired him to sing and the business of currying the horses
was only a distraction that made the work easier. That went on for more than a year, until those of us in the house
grew used to the idea that the girl would never be able to walk, would never recognize anyone, would always be the little dead and lonely girl who listened to the gramophone looking coldly at the wall until we lifted her out of her chair and took her to her room. Then she ceased to pain us, but Nabo was still faithful, punctual, cranking the gramophone. That was during the time when Nabo was still
going to the square on Saturday nights. One day, when the boy was in the stable, someone beside the gramophone said: ‘Nabo!’ We were on the veranda, not concerned about something no one could have said. But when we heard it a second time: ‘Nabo!’ we raised our heads and asked ‘Who’s with the girl?’ And someone said: ‘I didn’t see anyone come in.’ And another said: ‘I’m sure I heard a voice calling
Nabo.’ But when we went to look all we found was the girl on the floor, leaning against the wall.
Nabo came back early and went to bed. It was the following Saturday that he didn’t return to the square because the Negro had been replaced. And three weeks later, on a Monday, the gramophone began to play while Nabo was in the stable. No one worried at first. Only later, when we saw the black boy
coming, singing and still dripping from the water of the horses, did we ask him: ‘How’d you get out?’ He said: ‘Through the door. I’ve been in the stable since noon.’ ‘The gramophone’s playing. Can’t you hear it?’ we asked him. And Nabo said he could. And we asked him: ‘Who wound it up?’ And he, shrugging his shoulders: ‘The girl. She’s been winding it for a long time now.’
That was the way things
were until the day we found him lying face down on the hay, locked in the stable and with the edge of the horseshoe encrusted on his forehead. When we picked him up by the shoulders, Nabo said: ‘I’m here because a horse kicked me.’ But no one was interested in what he might have said. We were interested in his cold, dead eyes and mouth full of green froth. He spent the whole night weeping, burning
with fever, delirious, talking about the comb that he’d
lost in the hay in the stable. That was the first day. On the following day, when he opened his eyes and said: ‘I’m thirsty,’ and we brought him water, he drank it all down in one swallow and twice asked for a little more. We asked him how he felt and he said: ‘I feel as if a horse had kicked me.’ And he kept on talking all day and all night.
And finally he sat up in bed, pointed up with his forefinger, and said that the galloping of the horses had kept him awake all night. But he’d had no fever since the night before. He was no longer delirious, but he kept on talking until they put a handkerchief in his mouth. Then Nabo began to sing behind the handkerchief, saying that next to his ear he could hear the breathing of the blind horses
looking for water on top of the closed door. When we took out the handkerchief so that he could eat something, he turned toward the wall and we all thought that he’d fallen asleep and it was even possible that he had fallen asleep for a while. But when he awoke he was no longer on the bed. His feet were tied and his hands were tied to a brace beam in the room. Trussed up, Nabo began to sing.
When he recognized him, Nabo said to the man: ‘I’ve seen you before.’ And the man said: ‘Every Saturday you used to watch me in the square.’ And Nabo said: ‘That’s right, but I thought I saw you and you didn’t see me.’ And the man said: ‘I never saw you, but later on, when I stopped coming, I felt as if someone had stopped watching me on Saturdays.’ And Nabo said: ‘You never came back, but I kept
on going for three or four weeks.’ And the man, still not moving, patting himself on the knees: ‘I couldn’t go back to the square even though it was the only thing that was worth anything.’ Nabo tried to sit up, shook his head in the hay, and still he heard the cold, obstinate voice, until he no longer had time even to know that he was falling asleep again. Always, ever since the horse had kicked
him, that happened. And he always heard the voice: ‘We’re waiting for you, Nabo. There’s no longer any way to measure the time you’ve been asleep.’
Four weeks after the Negro had stopped coming to the band, Nabo was combing the tail of one of the horses. He’d
never done that. He would just curry them and sing in the meantime. But on Wednesday he’d gone to the market and had seen a comb and had
said to himself: ‘That comb is for combing the horses’ tails.’ That was when the whole thing happened with the horse that gave him a kick and left him all mixed up for the rest of his life, ten or fifteen years before. Somebody in the house said: ‘It would have been better if he’d died that day and hadn’t gone on like this, all through, talking nonsense for the rest of his life.’ But no one had
seen him again ever since the day we locked him up. Only we knew that he was there, locked up in the room, and since then the girl hadn’t moved the gramophone again. But in the house we had very little interest in knowing about it. We’d locked him up as if he were a horse, as if the kick had passed the sluggishness on to him and encrusted on his forehead was all the stupidity of horses: animalness.
And we left him isolated within four walls as if we’d decided he should die of imprisonment because we weren’t cold-blooded enough to kill him in any other way. Fourteen years passed like that until one of the children grew up and said he had the urge to see his face. And he opened the door.
Nabo saw the man again. ‘A horse kicked me,’ he said. And the man said: ‘You’ve been saying that for centuries
and in the meantime we’ve been waiting for you in the choir.’ Nabo shook his head again, sank his wounded forehead into the hay once more, and thought he suddenly remembered how things had happened. ‘It was the first time I ever combed a horse’s tail,’ he said. And the man said: ‘We wanted it that way so you would come and sing in the choir.’ And Nabo said: ‘I shouldn’t have bought the comb.’
And the man said: ‘You would have come across it in any case. We’d decided that you’d find the comb and comb the horses’ tails.’ And Nabo said: ‘I’d never stood behind them before.’ And the man, still tranquil, still not showing impatience: ‘But you did stand there and the horse kicked you. It was the only way for you to come to the choir.’ And the conversation, implacable, daily, went on until
someone in the house said: ‘It must be fifteen years since
anyone opened that door.’ The girl (she hadn’t grown, she was over thirty and was beginning to get sad in her eyelids) was sitting looking at the wall when they opened the door. She turned her face in the other direction, sniffing. And when they closed the door, they said again: ‘Nabo’s peaceful. There’s nothing moving inside anymore.
One of these days he’ll die and we won’t be able to tell except for the smell.’ And someone said: ‘We can tell by the food. He’s never stopped eating. He’s fine like that, locked up with no one to bother him. He gets good light from the rear side.’ And things stayed like that; except that the girl kept on looking toward the door, sniffing the warm fumes that filtered through the cracks. She stayed
like that until early in the morning, when we heard a metallic sound in the living room and we remembered that it was the same sound that had been heard fifteen years before when Nabo was winding the gramophone. We got up, lighted the lamp, and heard the first measures of the forgotten song; the sad song that had been dead on the records for such a long time. The sound kept on, more and more strained,
until a dry sound was heard at the instant we reached the living room, and we could still hear the record playing and saw the girl in the corner beside the gramophone, looking at the wall and holding up the crank. We didn’t say anything, but went back to our rooms remembering that someone had told us sometime that the girl knew how to crank the gramophone. Thinking that, we stayed awake, listening
to the worn little tune from the record that was still spinning on what was left of the broken spring.
The day before, when they opened the door, it smelled of biological waste, of a dead body. The one who had opened it shouted: ‘Nabo! Nabo!’ But nobody answered from inside. Beside the opening was the empty plate. Three times a day the plate was put under the door and three times a day the plate
came out again with no food on it. That was how we knew that Nabo was alive. But by no other means. There was no more moving inside, no more singing. And it must have been after they closed the door that Nabo said to the man: ‘I can’t
go to the choir.’ And the man asked why. And Nabo said: ‘Because I haven’t got any shoes.’ And the man, raising his feet, said: ‘That doesn’t matter. Nobody wear
shoes here.’ And Nabo saw the hard, yellow soles of the bare feet the man was holding up. ‘I’ve been waiting for you here for an eternity,’ the man said. ‘The horse only kicked me a moment ago,’ Nabo said. ‘Now I’ll throw a little water on my face and take them out for a walk.’ And the man said: ‘The horses don’t need you anymore. There aren’t any more horses. You’re the one who should come with
us.’ And Nabo said: ‘The horses should have been here.’ He got up a little, sank his hands into the hay while the man said: ‘They haven’t had anyone to look after them for fifteen years.’ But Nabo was scratching the ground under the hay, saying: ‘The comb must still be here.’ And the man said: ‘They closed up the stable fifteen years ago. It’s full of rubbish now.’ And Nabo said: ‘Rubbish doesn’t
collect in one afternoon. Until I find the comb I won’t move out of here.’