Authors: Anne Enright
‘Go on, now. Run along!’ said Eliza, and the young man, in a clumsy imitation of childhood, dashed into the house.
‘Poor child,’ she said, when he was gone. ‘His mother is dying, you know.’
She said it so perfectly – perhaps she meant well. And to fill the doctor’s silence she took his arm and said,
‘You know, Doctor Stewart, I am the most fortunate woman in Paraguay. So it is a sort of motto with me – one must always
Stewart looked at her birds. There was, indeed, a vulture, chained to a stake in the corner, and it was very beautiful. He did not want to touch the woman at his side. He did not want her hand on his arm.
She enquired after his lodgings – did he have a garden? And his aunt, was she well? When all this failed she signed to a servant,
‘You must meet Pancho,’ she said.
Her son. Whose heart he had heard fluttering through this woman’s thick skin. He must be four or five by now. The stories told of a little animal, who bit his nurse and would not learn to read, but when Stewart saw him appear in the doorway he thought him pure beyond the normal purity of children, he thought him pure like a flame. And so his mother played out her scene. She ran forward and embraced him; her lovely knee bent, her lovely silk in the dust. The child fought to be clear, and started to talk,
the angle their faces held was so perfect, the distance between them so radiant and careful, that Stewart forgave her – of what crime he did not yet know. This was the antidote. This was what he wanted. This. He wanted to possess, not the body of a woman, but the still air between her downturned face and the upturned face of her child. Air that is shaped by cheek and eyelash, by smiling lips and hopeful, reassuring eyes. He did not want to have a woman – not even this woman, Eliza Lynch – what he wanted was to give some woman, or to take from some woman, his son.
After which sentimental ambush, Francine seemed to him to be treated well enough; to be properly fed and tended in a room that was small but clean – to be a normally melancholic set of problems, symptoms, assuagements; a tropical illness; a usual, hopeless attempt at dying.
On the other side of town, old López was taking his time. Never a thin man, now he was fat-seeming in peculiar places. The lids of his eyes grew tight and heavy, the lobes of his ears plumped up. Stewart does him with diuretics, with dandelion powder and digitalis, and his piss filled buckets. He swelled, pissed himself smaller, swelled again, and Stewart, no stranger to liquid pleasures and liquid pain, found himself going through a dry time. He was seen, when drunk, to slop his
into the street; the coarse wine gulping and spattering into the dust. Stewart in his cups abhorred drink and when he was sober, he was not so fond of tea.
In fact, rumours of his sobriety had been mistimed. He stopped drinking during the first illness; the ulcer that made the Dictator’s flesh become, as it were, runny. He stopped once, and then he stopped again. He stopped six or seven times in all. But he did not actually stop (for the last time, for the first actual time) until that night at the theatre when,
to go, he brushed against the virgin, Venancia Báez.
Or perhaps this was just the story he told himself at the time – that the two reasons he became sober were the two brown eyes of Venancia Báez, brown as oblivion, brown as black is brown (or brown, as he said after they were married, as a monkey’s; playful and wise). Because the story changed when they were in the middle of the war and the lovely Venancia became querulous and small, because the war did not suit her, and she saw no reason why it should. The war made her hoard things and grow fat, and she could not make love when the war was on, she could not be pleasant, even to her own children. When this happened, Stewart decided it was the Dictator’s illness that made him give up drink after all, because this carnage, the waste of it, the pile of limbs he harvested from wounded men growing beside him on the floor, all this made him feel alive and undiluted. The early days of war made him so simple he thought he had found his true self; that all wrong turnings and seemingly blind alleys of his life had led him here, and so they must have been the right turnings after all.
Another story might simply be that Stewart was more sick of drinking than he was sick of himself – always a delicate equation. One night he woke up to his dead mother’s touch and found it was a dog licking at the vomit in his hair – and what lingered, what won out you might say, was his mother and not the dog. This was a story for his old age when his mother – so long forgotten – was back with him again, all the time.
But no matter how he told it or lied about it as the years went by, the fact was that Stewart took to English tea and constant attendance on the bloated form of old López. And when he was not by the bedside he was under the window of Venancia Báez, in the Latin style, courting her father like a woman – getting his love letters written by one of
elderly spinster Cordals, who poured all her dreams into them, and knew the form.
It was two years from that first sighting in the theatre before he would see the naked breast of Venancia Báez again, two years before he laid eyes upon her bare throat or the skin of her lovely arms. Every Sunday, he looked at her on the way to Mass, hidden under a mantilla of black lace, with her heavy velvet dress creeping over her like moss, and sometimes he wondered if, under it, her body had not changed. He gave her diseases in his head; a goitre pushing at the pearls she wore that night, a spreading psoriasis, a phthisical rattle souring her sweet and easy lungs. Besides, he had fallen in love with a child and she was turning into a woman. There was nothing he could do to hold or stop it – he was caught between his desire for what he had lost already and his desire for what he might gain, and this maddened him, as though he was in love with the future and in love with the past, and his days moved with vegetable slowness, while somewhere inside her deep, cool house, Venancia Báez bloomed.
Meanwhile the theatre was shut. The place was a brothel, after all, and who could think of such pleasures while they waited for the death of old López? He must be dying – the doctor was sober, he grew more sober from day to day, and everywhere there was a frenzy of calm.
Outside his shuttered window the country seemed to stall, but surged ahead at the same time. Railway lines snaked out into the countryside, the rails slapped down one after the other; gathering speed, like a woman who knits faster to finish before she runs out of wool. The orders issued one after the other – or were they imagined? – from the dark room where old López lay dropsical. It was as though his weakness made him omnipotent. His wife Doña Paula took her true place as Cerberus at his iron-studded door, and sometimes forbade admission to
own sons, who sloped about like whipped pups and cut each other in the street.
Everywhere in Asunción, people rode this current wave, not realising that the whole vast tide was about to turn. They said the next president would be a Cordal, they said that Francisco was finished, and they gloated over the humiliation of Eliza Lynch. It was coming any day now. It was here. She was seen leaving at night with a wooden crate full of gold. She was seen with the marks of a beating. She was seen diseased.
When Stewart went out to La Recoleta these days, he found Eliza frozen with panic. Francisco sat in the upstairs drawing room with a distant look, as though listening to his father’s breath labouring on the other side of town. One afternoon, she did not serve him herself, but sent their son across the room with the delicate burden of a glass of brandy for his father’s teeth. Eliza pushed him in the small of his back, as though sending a toy boat on to the water, and the luminous child wavered and set out on the long journey to his father’s chair. He stood in front of the old bull and the brandy flared in the light, and his father looked at him, and the child returned the look with a serious, sweet smile. For a moment, thought the doctor, it all hung in the balance, whether López would take the offered glass, or strike it from the boy’s hand. He shifted massively and pushed against the arm of the chair, as though bracing himself to stand. And then he subsided.
‘On the table,’ he said, meaning the small console at his side. The child set the glass carefully down and López booted him back to his Mama, with a languid kick to the backside.
‘Time we cut your hair,’ he said. ‘Eh, Pancho?’
He showed Stewart a piece of paper – the first ever railway ticket for the first railway in the Southern Americas. He was so proud of it, he did not want to let it out of his
. He fingered it and flattened it out on the round of his thigh; until he was surprised to see that he had rolled it altogether into a tight little cigarro, which he popped, as the doctor took his leave, into Eliza’s
And: He loves her, thought Stewart. He loves her after all. Because there – beyond the conspiracy of their drawing room and the conspiracy of their bed – was a look passed between them that might well be called ‘love’, being gentle and fierce and completely empty. Stewart thought of the stories that were current now – that Eliza procured the daughters of distant landowners for him; that she checked with their own fathers whether they were virgins, like buying heifers – and they did not give him the usual satisfaction. In fact they made him sad. Her ‘dear friend’ loved her. What else was there to say?
The maid, Francine, died gurgling. The cancer that belonged to Francisco’s former mistress, Juana Pesoa, broke through the wall of her belly, and she died terribly. And old López revived, to die some more. His daughters cleaned the body of the Dictator down to the waist, his wife tended below. The cloths they used were buried in an unmarked spot, and the priests fought at his door. Then – it might have been the incessant irritation of the cathedral bells, it might have been the first railway train that ran so enthusiastically past the end of the first railway track – but somewhere along the way the people got tired of the Dictator’s dying, and with their boredom came hatred and a need to be released from his terrible grasp. It was time to separate the quick from the dead. It was time to sing again, and dance with a bottle balanced on your head. It was time for Eliza’s picnic.
She held it onboard the
When Stewart made his afternoon visit to his (now, finally, fiancée) Venancia Báez, he was surprised to see the card that she held out, trembling, for his approval. It was
thick board, gilt-edged, such as Stewart had seen many times – though not, he realised with a pang, since he arrived in Asunción.
‘And what is it to do with me?’ he said, annoyed by his nostalgia for the life he had left behind – one in which there were many such wonderful, ordinary objects. Venancia’s aunt, napping in the corner of the room, opened one cold eye.
‘You must go if you like,’ he said, and knew, even as he spoke, that liking had nothing to do with it. Venancia pushed the card against her chest and gave him a brown look. The invitation had been issued in the name of Eliza Lynch.
Fifty Basque peasants had lately arrived in Asunción and they sat at the docks, waiting to be shipped upriver to a clearing in the forest. The clearing would be christened Nueva Bordeaux. There would be a fiesta. The men would travel overland, while the ladies made their way to the new town by river, and on the river there would be held a grand picnic.
By now, the laboured breath of old López had turned to a milky pink foam. At the docks, the Basques swiped at the air in front of their faces, their eyes hard with disbelief, as the virgins and matrons picked their way through to the newly arrived bales of cloth. Another dress. Another shroud to be stitched for the corpse of their virtue. A strange, elegiac act of choosing between
crêpe de Chine
silk, spilled out like gorgeous water in front of them. They fingered it and loved it and let it drop, as though they were to be sumptuously married, but all to the wrong man.
Stewart told Venancia to wear blue. He told her to smile. He said that they must think of the future now, they must take their chance. His ambition surprised him. Of course, he was doing it for her – the lovely Venancia who must be fed and housed and dressed in the finest – and so he
her too; because the price of Venancia, the price of his future, was to show himself in such a way in front of the clever eyes of Eliza Lynch.
‘But it is I who will be shamed,’ said Venancia. In which case, Stewart told her, she would not be alone. Venancia cheered up a little. It was true: every woman she knew would be on that boat. They would talk about it for months.
But, in the event, no one talked of Eliza’s picnic on the river, once it was done. In ‘Nueva Bordeaux’ the men speechified and drank and did something Basque with a live duck while they waited for the ladies to arrive. But the ladies did not arrive and, some time before dark, the men left the new colonists in their clearing with a heap of provisions (a few precious iron spades, sacks of seed corn that would turn to mould, sacks of manioc that they would plant at the wrong time), and they rode home. There was talk of a collision on the river, of shifting sandbars, but around a curve of the bank, they spotted the
, her fires banked and her rigging bare. The captain heard their shouts and answered with a whistle blast, and then slowly the great ship turned with the current, got up a lazy head of steam and followed them back to Asunción.
The men waited on their womenfolk at the dock. They watched them disembark, in single file. They handed the ladies into carriages, or sat them on their horses, or if the horses were worn-out, they took the bridle in one hand and their wife’s hand in the other. And if their wife was exhausted they held her about the waist, and in this wanton way the streets filled with couples and their trailing animals and trailing servants; the men silent, the women stumbling and quietly weeping – or laughing, some of them – until the sad bacchanal was fully dispersed and the doors of their houses shut, one by one.