Music Below Ground

 

Tout es Beau das ce que l´on aime;
Tout ce qu´on a de l´esprit.

—Perrault

 

The abuelo was a son of a bitch. He would beat his wife into unconsciousness. His children would scream through the locked bedroom door as he pummeled her with his bare fists. And yet, in his right and sober mind, he was the most serene fellow in the world. And one more thing could be said in his favor: he played the requinto1 like an angel.

On the weekends he would go out to his habitual birthday serenades, quiceañera parties, weddings, celebrations of saints, and community fundraisers. He was, as the abuela would say, the gatecrasher at every event. He always put on his frock coat and his starched shirt. The dark glasses perched on his nose gave the impression of resting upon a hawk’s beak. As he walked, he could still feel the sting of aftershave on his chin. The brilliance of his diligently-shined moccasins was visible from some distance away. And his requinto, mounted in its case upon his back, resembled a sleeping child about to break into tears.

A small, spare being, the abuelo, but with an excellent sense of humor; though the depths of his black eyes hinted at an unimaginable sadness. When he laughed, one sensed a tepid loneliness, like the breath of an abandoned dog. During the week he worked with a desperate determination in his carpentry shop. At five in the morning, while the rest of the town was still under the spell of darkness, he started up his saw and cut, sanded, and lacquered doors and dressers until lunchtime.

As product of his growing dipsomania, his gaze was glassy, and he had enormous bags beneath his eyes that accentuated his melancholy figure. On Friday afternoons he left in a rush and he didn’t appear again until Sunday evening, when he would return home completely inebriated, famished, his suit shriveled.

“Get me something to eat, woman!” he would yell, as he removed his filthy shoes on the kitchen floor and an unbearable stench invaded the warm air of the narrow room.

“Go get it from your whores,” the abuela would respond from the bedroom; perhaps already trembling a bit. And then the fight would begin. Every single accursed Sunday.

She no longer asked him, as she had when she still had hopes for a different life, where he was going when he picked up his requinto and caressed it, apparently lost in a daydream of inconsolable melodies. On that Friday it thus seemed perfectly normal that the abuelo would bathe, put on his black pin-striped suit, shave with gusto and iron his immaculately white shirt.

And so he left, as though the destination held nothing more in store than a hangover that would be alleviated by his saw and hammer. He had become accustomed to the constant trembling and watery eyes known to habitual drinkers. But when he began to strum his requinto, already warmed by alcohol, he made the instrument sing with a sharpness that moved one to tears.

The thing is, that Sunday he didn’t arrive. The abuela was up until the wee hours of the morning, biting her nails, pacing to and fro, tidying up and moving things from one spot to another. It just wasn’t normal that the man hadn’t arrived to fuck with her, pin her against the kitchen chair and start knocking her around. Maybe the abuela missed that. Who knew.

It was Tuesday and the abuelo had yet to appear. His children began to ask for him. The abuela brushed them off, saying: “He’s off wandering around drunk, as usual”. And there was nothing more to be said. For years the grandfather had always arrived on Sunday, as the final stop on his drunken rounds. He had a sort of biological clock that prevented him from continuing. In former times—a more vigorous bohemian age during his twenties and thirties—it wasn’t unusual for him to arrive clean-faced and recently bathed in the middle of the week. But now the son of a bitch didn’t show up at all.

The woman, still a young muchacha with thick legs and large breasts, arrived around seven in the morning. She yelled so loudly that the abuela ran out barefoot and still in her transparent petticoat and nightgown. She let out a ¿Qué pasa?, annoyed by the early-morning chill that had begun to creep into her bones. The woman said that the abuelo had arrived to her house early on Monday morning covered in blood, that he was in bad shape, that his hands were a mess and his face was swollen from beating. The abuela looked the woman up and down, suspicious.

“And the requinto?” she asked as though nothing else mattered, as though it were all another of the old man’s ruses to save his hide.

“I don’t know,” the woman responded. “He’s close to dying, señora, we have to do something.”

“‘We’?” the abuela shot back, more awake now. “And who are you?” 

“It doesn’t matter, señora. I don´t know what to do anymore, you’re his wife, I´m nothing more than a friend.”

“A friend?” replied the grandmother sarcastically, “Moza is what you are, whore!”

“Don’t insult me, señora. Better you get changed and let’s go. I´m scared. He hasn’t stopped vomiting blood.”

“Bah…” said the requinto-player’s wife with contempt, and went back inside with a slam of the door.

The woman was left stupefied, pale. The eldest son, who had heard everything, came out. He took the woman by the arm and they left together. The abuelo was in intensive care for a week. He had truly been close to death. The beating he’d taken had resulted in various broken ribs, traumatic cerebral lesions, and worst of all, fractures to his wrists. The woman was with him the entire time. The abuela never set foot in the hospital.

When the grandfather regained consciousness, he looked at his hands, bandaged, fingers just visible: “And the requinto?” He buried his face into his pillow, biting it. He wailed in desperation. In the days that followed he ate little and slept less, his gaze lost through the window bordering the blank white wall.

He returned home after a week, calmer; he sat at the table with difficulty. Both of his arms were in casts, rigid, and he wiggled his fingers like the legs of a fly in an effort to reach his spoon. His eldest son appeared to feed him the steaming broth of just-plucked chicken. It tasted like his wife’s cooking.

He spent various nights in the bed beside the mother of his children, who remained silent. He lay awake staring at the ceiling. He had never been able to sleep in such a position. He missed the nights on which, exhausted, he fell into a deep slumber until five in the morning, the hour at which the noise of the saw motor and the gleam of metal awaited him. The wood’s surface would glide beneath his fingers, and it was as though he shaped a living body, as though he could feel the spirit of the laurel transforming itself into a night stand. There was nothing to be said of the requinto. He was dead to it.

The following week, an unknown man appeared at the door of the house. He carried a large sack over his shoulder. He asked for the señora. The abuelo was still in bed. The abuela went outside and was startled when she saw the man. She hastily shoved him towards street. They could be seen to argue, but in the end he gave the sack to the abuela. She quickly retreated, disappearing amongst the avocados, custard apples, lemons and tangerines. She returned to the house fatigued, sweaty, perhaps a little nervous. She went into the kitchen to start preparing breakfast.

That night, the abuelo was at last able to sleep. He dreamt that his requinto was, as ever, beside his bed, and that in the morning he arose and began to tune it. When he awoke he was happy. He had a desire to bathe, to put on clean clothes, to gaze through the window at the garden that the winter had brought into bloom. He spent the day contemplating the trunks and the green branches of the avocado trees, the white lemon flowers which had begun to multiply. It was as though he was seeing everything for the first time. The entire day was occupied by this new discovery.

But with the night, nostalgia returned. He dreamt that in the midst of the garden, he began to play. The agile movements of his fingers between the frets, the plucking of vellum against strings, drew forth from the mouth of the requinto a sound which made the very trees shiver. And then his song could be heard: “Ódiame por piedad yo te lo pido, ódiame sin medida ni clemencia…”. Waltz criollo, music of hell.

He awoke around midnight. His wife ingenuously thought that he was going to let out a noisy stream of urine, as was his custom. His extended arms, erect and rigid with plaster, gave him the classic appearance of a sleepwalker.

The abuela followed him momentarily with her gaze before continuing with her slumber. The abuelo crossed the living room and the kitchen, and opened the back door with difficulty using the knuckles of his fly fingers before disappearing into the thicket. The woman rolled over in bed. The empty space startled her. She sat up with with the alarmed realization that the other sleeper had vanished. She pulled a coat around her shoulders, sure that the abuelo had fallen asleep on the comfortable lid of the toilet, a spot from where she had pulled him away from many times. But he wasn’t there.

She went to the back door. She opened it. The cold midnight air slapped her across the face like an actual blow. She began to run between the avocados, custard apples, lemons and tangerines. She stopped in the middle of the garden, her breath shallow and fearful, possessed of a desire to flee. She saw him then: the abuelo, kneeling, possessed by a demon, rooting around with his immobilized arms, searching desperately as though a sound—a voice?—sharp and profound, was calling to him from the center of the earth…




NOTES



1. Translator’s note: Type of small, high-pitched guitar, common in Mexico and Latin America.

Contributors

Santiago Vizcaíno

Santiago Vizcaí­no has worked as an editor at the newspaper Hoy, at Superbrands Ecuador, and at the Office of Publications in Ecuador's Benjamí­n Carrión Casa de la Cultura. He is currently the editor of the magazine Nuestro Patrimonio (Our Patrimony) His work has appeared in various magazines, including Letras del Ecuador, Rocinante, Retrovisor and Casa de las Américas. His first book of poetry, Devastací­on en la tarde(Destruction in the Afternoon) and a book-length study called Decir el silencio: Aproximación a la poesía de Alejandra Pizarnik (Telling Silence: An Approach to the Poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik), were published in 2008.

Kimrey Anna Batts

KIMREY ANNA BATTS' literary translations have appeared in Rocinante magazine and she has done a variety of journalistic translation work for the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism. At the end of 2014, her translation of Santiago Vizcaínos book of short stories Matricide (Matar a mama) will be published by La Caí­da Press (Buenos Aires).

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