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Authors: Isabel Allende

Paula (8 page)

BOOK: Paula
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“We are in love,” Ramón reported respectfully, but with a firm voice and using the plural, even though recent letters had sowed some doubts about the reciprocity of that love. “Allow me to prove to you that I am a man of honor, and that I can make your daughter happy.” My grandfather's eyes bore into Ramón, trying to perceive his most secret intentions, but he must have liked what he saw.

“All right,” he decided finally. “If that's how it is, you are coming to live in my house, because I don't want my daughter off by herself God knows where. And in passing, I warn you to take good care of her. The first whiff of any monkey business and you will have me to contend with. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly,” the provisional fiancé replied, trembling slightly, but not lowering his eyes.

That was the beginning of a thirty-year unqualified friendship between an improbable father-in-law and an illicit son-in-law. Soon afterward, a truck arrived at our house and disgorged into our patio an enormous crate which in turn vomited out an infinitude of household goods. The first time I saw my Tío Ramón, I thought my mother was playing a joke.
That
was the prince she had been sighing over? I had never seen such an ugly man. Until then, my brothers and I had slept beside our mother; that night my bed was transferred to the ironing room, surrounded by wardrobes with diabolical mirrors, and Pancho and Juan were moved into Margara's room. I still did not realize that something basic had changed in the family order, even though when our Aunt Carmelita came to visit, Ramón made a hasty exit through a window. The truth was revealed to me later, one day when I came home from school at an inopportune hour, went into my mother's bedroom without knocking, as I always had, and found her sleeping her siesta with that stranger we were to call Tío Ramón. I was stabbed by a fit of jealousy I did not recover from until ten years later, when I was at last able to accept him. He took charge of us children, just as he had promised that memorable day in Lima. He raised us with a firm hand and unfailing good humor; he set limits and sent clear messages, without sentimental demonstrations, and without compromise. I recognize now that he put up with my contrariness without trying to buy my esteem or ceding an inch of his authority, until he won me over totally. He is the only father I have known, and now I think he is really handsome!

M
Y MOTHER
'
S LIFE IS A NOVEL SHE HAS FORBIDDEN ME TO WRITE
; I cannot reveal her secrets and mysteries until fifty years after her death, but by then, if my descendants honor my instructions and scatter my ashes at sea, I shall be food for the fish. Even though we rarely agree on anything, I have loved her longer than anyone in my lifetime. Our relationship began the day of my conception and has already lasted a half-century; it is, furthermore, the only truly unconditional love—neither one's children nor one's most fervent lovers love in that way. She is with me now in Madrid. She has the silver hair and the wrinkles of her seventy years but her dark green eyes still blaze with the old passion, even after the grief of these last months, which tends to make everything opaque. We share a couple of hotel rooms a few blocks from the hospital, where we have a small oven and refrigerator. We live primarily on the thick chocolate and crullers we buy in a little shop, although sometimes in our small kitchen we prepare a robust lentil and sausage soup that would raise Lazarus from the dead. We wake very early, while it is still dark; Mother lies in bed awhile as I hurriedly dress and brew coffee. I leave first, picking my way through the dirty snow and ice, and an hour or two later she joins me in the hospital. We spend the day in the corridor of lost steps, next to the door to the intensive care unit, just the two of us, until evening, when Ernesto comes from work and your friends and the nuns from your school drop by to visit. In keeping with the regulations, we can cross that ominous threshold only twice a day; we dress in green surgical gowns, slip plastic bags over our shoes, and walk the twenty-one long steps to your room, Paula, our hearts in our throats. Your bed is the first on the left; there are twelve beds in the room, some empty, some occupied. Cardiac and postoperative patients, victims of accidents, drugs, and failed suicides stay for a few days and then disappear; some return to life, others are wheeled out under a sheet. Beside you is don Manuel, slowly dying. Sometimes he raises himself a little to look at you with pain-clouded eyes. “How beautiful your daughter is!” he tells me. Almost always, he asks what happened to you, but he is so deep in the misery of his own illness that as soon as I tell him, he forgets. Yesterday I told him a story, and for the first time he listened with all his attention. Once there was a princess who on the day she was baptized received many gifts from her fairy godmothers, but, before her mother could stop him, one wicked sorcerer placed a time bomb in her body. When the young girl had lived twenty-eight happy years, everyone had forgotten the curse, but the clock was ticking on, inexorably counting down the minutes. Then one terrible day the bomb noiselessly exploded. Enzymes lost their way in the labyrinth of her veins, and the girl sank into a sleep deep as death. “May God watch over your princess,” don Manuel sighed.

To you I tell different stories, Paula.

My childhood was a time of unvoiced fears: terror of Margara, who detested me; fear that my father would come back to claim us, or that my mother would die or get married; fear of the devil, of my uncles' games of Ruffin, or of the things bad men can do to little girls. Don't ever get into an automobile with someone you don't know, Don't speak to anyone in the street, Don't let anyone touch your body, Never go anywhere near the gypsies. I always believed I was different; as long as I can remember I have felt like an outcast, as if I didn't really belong to my family, or to my surroundings, or to any group. I suppose that it is from that feeling of loneliness the questions arise that lead one to write, and that books are conceived in the search for answers. My consolation in moments of panic was the ever-present spirit of Memé, who would emerge from the folds of the drapes to keep me company. The cellar was the dark belly of the house, a locked and forbidden place I entered by slipping through a cellar window. I felt at home in that damp-smelling cave where I used to play, defeating the darkness with lighted candles, or with the same flashlight I used when I read under the covers at night. I spent hours in the silent games, secretive reading, and complicated ceremonies lonely children invent. I had stored away a good supply of candles stolen from the kitchen, and I had a box where I kept bread and cracker crumbs to feed the mice. No one suspected my excursions into the depths of the earth; the servants attributed the noises and lights to my grandmother's ghost, and never came anywhere near. My subterranean kingdom consisted of two large, low-ceilinged rooms with a hard dirt floor; all the bones of the house were exposed there, the guts of the plumbing, the fright wig of the electric wires. There were piles of broken furniture, ripped mattresses, heavy, ancient suitcases for sea voyages no one remembered now. In one metal trunk bearing my father's initials, I found a collection of books, a fabulous inheritance that illuminated those childhood years,
A Child's Treasury of Literature
: Salgari, Shaw, Verne, Twain, Wilde, London, and others. In my mind, they were forbidden books, since they had belonged to that T.A. whose name could not be spoken aloud. I never dared take them into the daylight but, with the help of my candle, I gobbled them down with the voraciousness inspired by secrecy—as years later I hid to devour
A Thousand and One Nights
. In fact there were no censored books in that house; no one had time to keep an eye on the children, much less their taste in books. When I was nine I dove into the complete works of Shakespeare, my first gift from Tío Ramón, a beautiful edition that I read through several times, never thinking of literary quality, only intrigue and tragedy—that is, for the same reasons that earlier I had listened to serials on the radio and that now I write fiction. I lived every story as if it were my own life; I was each of those characters, especially the villains, who were much more attractive to me than the virtuous heroes. My imagination inevitably tilted toward the lurid. If I read about redskins scalping their enemies, I presumed that the victims lived on, and continued their battle wearing tight-fitting bison skin caps to contain the brains spilling through cracks in their hairless craniums—and from there it was only a step to imagining that their ideas leaked out as well. I drew characters on bristol board, cut them out, and propped them up with toothpicks; those were my first ventures in theater. I told stories to my stupefied brothers, terrible tales of suspense that filled their days with terror and their sleep with nightmares, as years later I entertained my children—and also a few men in the intimacy of our bed, where a well-told fable tends to be the most powerful aphrodisiac.

Tío Ramón had a substantial influence on many aspects of my character, although in some instances it has taken me forty years to relate his teaching with my actions. He was half-owner, with a friend, of a Ford that had seen much better days. Tío Ramón drove it Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and every other Sunday, yielding it to his friend the rest of the week. One of the Sundays he had the car, he took my brothers, my mother, and me to The Open Door, a farm on the outskirts of Santiago where they housed nonviolent mental patients. He knew the place well, because he had spent childhood vacations there as the guest of relatives who administered the agricultural operations. We entered the grounds by joggling along a dirt road lined with large plane trees arching greenly overhead. On one side were pastures, and on the other the buildings, encircled by an orchard of fruit trees where a few peaceful inmates in faded smocks were aimlessly roaming. They rushed to meet us, running alongside the car, poking their hands and faces through the windows, and yelling, “Hello! Hello!” We shrank back in our seats, terrified, as Tío Ramón greeted them by name; some had been there for years, and he had played with them as a boy. For a reasonable price, he negotiated with the supervisor to let us go into the orchard.

“Get out, children, these are nice people,” Tío Ramón ordered. “You can climb the trees, eat all you want, and also fill this sack.
We are filthy rich
.”

I don't know how he arranged it, but the patients helped us. We soon lost our fear of them, and all of us ended up in the branches, streaming with juice, wolfing down apricots and pulling them from the branches by handfuls to drop into our sack. If we bit into one that wasn't sweet enough, we threw it away and picked another. We bombed each other with ripe apricots: a true orgy of bursting fruit and laughter. We ate till we could eat no more, then kissed our new friends goodbye and piled into the old Ford for the return trip, continuing to stuff ourselves from the overflowing bag of fruit until stopped by stomach cramps. That day, for the first time ever, I realized that life can be generous. I had never experienced anything similar with my grandfather, or any other member of my family, all of whom believed that paucity is a blessing and avarice a virtue. From time to time, Tata would appear with a tray of little cakes, always counted out, one for each: never too many and never too few. Money was sacred and we children were taught early on how difficult it was to earn it. My grandfather had a fortune, but I never suspected that until much later. Tío Ramón was poor as a churchmouse, but I didn't know that either, because he always showed us how to enjoy the little we had. At the most difficult moments of my life, when it has seemed that every door was closed to me, the taste of those apricots comes back to comfort me with the notion that abundance is always within reach, if only one knows how to find it.

My memories of childhood are dramatic, like everyone else's, I suppose, because the banalities are lost; with me, it may also be my sense of the tragic. They say that geography can determine character. I come from a very beautiful land, but one battered by calamities: summer droughts; winter floods when irrigation ditches overflow and the poor die of pneumonia; rising rivers from melting snow in the mountains and seaquakes that with a single wave wash ships onto dry land, stranding them in the middle of a plaza; wild fires and erupting volcanoes; plagues of flies, snails, and ants; apocalyptic earthquakes and an uninterrupted string of minor temblors that no one even notices; and if to the poverty of half the population we add isolation, there is more than enough material from which to construct melodrama.

Pelvina López-Pun, the dog that was placed in my cradle from the day I was born, with the idea of immunizing me against epidemics and allergies, was a lascivious bitch that every six months was inseminated by some street cur despite the ingenious subterfuges improvised by my mother—such as outfitting her in rubber pants. When Pelvina was in heat, she would push her rear against the iron fence in the garden as an impatient pack of mutts waited to offer their love through the bars. Often when I came home from school I would find a dog stuck on one side, Pelvina howling on the other, and my uncles, weak with laughter, trying to separate them with blasts of cold water from the garden hose. Afterward, Margara would drown the litter of newborn pups, just like the kittens. One summer we were all ready to leave for vacation but had to postpone the trip because Pelvina was in heat and could not be taken anywhere in that condition; we had no pen at the beach, and it had been demonstrated that the rubber pants were little protection against the onslaught of true passion. Tata threw such a fit that my mother decided to put an ad in the newspaper: “Purebred bulldog bitch, European papers, sweet tempered, seeking loving owners who can appreciate her.” She explained her reasons to us but we thought the whole idea was unspeakable, and deduced that if she was capable of getting rid of Pelvina she could do the same to any of us. We begged in vain. On Saturday a couple came to the house who were interested in adopting her. Hidden beneath the stairway, we could see Margara's hopeful smile as she led them to the drawing room—that woman hated the dog as much as she did me. Soon Mother came out to look for Pelvina, to show her off to the potential buyers. She searched the house from top to bottom before she found all of us in the bathroom; my brothers and I had locked ourselves in with the dog, after shaving patches on her back and painting them with Mercurochrome. Pushing and threatening, Mother managed to open the door; Pelvina shot down the stairs and leaped onto the sofa with the couple, who at the sight of the apparent sores screamed and fell over one another to get to the door before they were infected. Three months later, Margara had to do away with a half-dozen bastard pups, as we burned in flames of guilt. Soon thereafter, Pelvina mysteriously died; there is little doubt that Margara had something to do with the death.

BOOK: Paula
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