Norberto Luis Romero
For more than a week Ethel hasn‘t gone to school. No one tells the children a thing but they know, they know that she has disappeared and that they are searching for her beyond the whirlpool, down river, where the falls flow into the pit. But the inhabitants of Pentecostės are very discreet, reflective, and very patient. She’ll return, they say, contrary to what they do: look for her while the children are at school so they won’t know a thing.
She’ll be back, her mother says. Ethel can’t have gone very far, she can’t have gotten lost, she knows town and the country, and she’d never go near the swamp.
The children multiply by five aloud. Again and again they repeat the numbers, paying no attention to what they’re saying, repeat like parrots. That’s what they are, parrots, says teacher plum.
Teacher plum they call him behind his back.
Ethel left her house carrying her pack with her lesson book, her box of colored pencils, ballpoint, lined pad, block of paper, also caligraphy pencil, with bronze pen and inkwell, a little dark cupcake wrapped in brown paper for the long recess.
But Ethel did not arrive at school.
Ethel went the usual way, took the little curved path that goes by the big abandoned house. She, like the other kids, was never afraid. For years the house has been without doors or windows; it has almost no roof, and nobody’s there, but that morning Ethel heard a noise behind her and turned around, thinking Braulio would come running behind her, but she didn’t see Braulio. She saw nobody. There was nobody, only the house and the forever thorn-bushes, the twisted, half dried chañar tree, and the mountains beyond, blackened from old fires, and the red roof of the women’s sanatorium visible above the eucalyptuses. Ethel saw nothing more, nothing more. She tripped. Her pack bag fell to the ground and opened, and from it poured the colored pencils, which made a rainbow on the ground, an entangled rainbow without shape or sense, and she felt in her nose the smell of pencils, the black graphite, the recently sharpened wood. Her round Bakelite inkwell, her unspeaking wordless inkwell, broke in two, the ink spilled and was quickly absorbed by the ground. Nothing remains. She saw only one thing: a boot that plastered the black cake, black as the darkness that she divined instantly. And she heard only the bird, the lark that every morning sang perched on the chañar, and the lark said things to her for the first time, that were not only the song, that were also words; though she did not hear them, there were words, yes, and sentences and all those things that form language, those words that the teacher writes on the blackboard and that they copy in their notebooks, those words in the lesson book.
And like an echo came to her mind a poem that was on page 21:
When the sun’s first light
Gives the country its first hue
The partridge appears
Very rounded by its trill.
Ethel doesn’t know what hue or trill is. She doesn’t know those words whose meaning the teacher has not revealed to her, but the partridge didn’t say exactly those words, it said others, others she doesn’t remember. The partridge…what did the partridge say to her…? Come…you’re good… Yes, Ethel is, a very good girl, of the least mischievous, of those who study and almost never stain their duster or splash ink on it. Then why do I hurt if I didn’t do anything?
She wears her yellow dress
With a short cape
And is so genteel, so ladylike
That, to have a chat…
Then it’s the partridge that talks to her, not the lark. It’s the partridge with its yellow dress that goes walking when the sun comes out, or perhaps it goes to school like her.
Then the sky is blotted out.
In front of the mansion they found the backpack, one shoe, the black cake crushed in the brown paper, colored pencils, and the broken inkwell.
The children of Pentecostés know, know because they see it all. They spend the day in the street and there’s no limit to their actions: they chase toads, persecute guinea-pigs, play tag. They see everything, though they don’t seem to, because they have eyes in their souls. That afternoon it rained, rained hard, and there was lightning and thunder like explosions. The dogs were frightened and separated and each shot toward the mount; like crazed, they ran with their tails between their legs and theirs ears glued to their heads, howling in pain. In a while it was over and sun appeared in the blue sky over Pentecostés. There were puddles everywhere, and plenty of mud. And the toads came out of the spaces under the stones, leaping like crazy here and there, hundreds of toads of all sizes, silent, hungry and insatiable, devouring mosquitoes, flying ants, and other insects that appear after rain.
The children of Pentecostés also came out of their houses, running to stamp on toads. The toads flew from one side of the streets to the other, they burst with a deafening noise, and shouts and laughter were heard throughout the town. It was batrachian joy, as Teacher plum called it when he reproached them for that foot-stomping conduct: Would you like that to be done to you, hey, Fernández? Twisted ear, penitence, to the corner, face to the wall, no recreation, stay after class.
In a week the toads were as dried as carob husks, twisted and grotesque. Braulio hears his parents arguing softly. Surely they are talking about Ethel. They whisper and glance sideways where he is playing under the dining room table. And surely they’re also speaking of Ethel’s mother, of her father, who disappeared years ago. He left like Ethel. Ethel went far away like her father, who took the only train, the seven o’clock—that’s what they say—but Braulio knows it’s not true, that Ethel disappeared into the air as chalk vanishes before settling on the floor. Ethel has become a fine white dust.
The children know that they found the pack, the pencils…and more than once they have gone near the mansion in search of some remains, but the police had carried everything away. They did not return. But Braulio found on the road in the dust a tiny piece of red lead. He said nothing and put it in his pocket.
One day her name appeared on the blackboard.
Braulio instinctively looked at his hands, so did the other kids; they all saw one another looking at their palms, verifying that they had not done it. And no sooner had the teacher entered the classroom, he quickly erased it. Ethel became dust again, but not completely. ETHEL very light, could still be read, until from so much writing over it nothing could be seen. ETHEL, palimpsest.
Then somebody said under his breath, Ethel whore. Master plum did not hear it because his back was turned and he’s a little hard of hearing, but Braulio did, although he didn’t know whose mouth it had come from. Their eyes said nothing, all were opaque at the moment that Braulio’s eyes ran over the rows, searching for that mean mouth that had said the bad word. And someone murmured the bad word again in one of the neighboring rows. But why if Ethel is so good, studious, and applied, always with her white duster, impeccable, starched like cardboard so it crackles when she sits at her desk beside Braulio?
Under the lid of Braulio’s desk the name Mateo, who is a grade ahead, is carved, the desk was his; and Julio’s, who finished sixth grade; and Marcial’s; and Marcelino’s. Braulio thinks that one day he must do the same, leave proof of his passing as most of the kids (only the boys) of Pentecostés do, though he knows that it’s wrong, that if teacher plum were to discover it, he’d castigate him by imposing punishment during recess, face to the wall, or after class in the mysterious quietude of the empty school.
Pentecostés is small, they all know one another and everything is known, secrets flower in all their mouths five minutes after sworn under the seven keys of secrecy. The atmosphere at Braulio’s house is rarefied, the silence palpable, as dense as a stone wall. For some days now Braulio’s parents seem to move within narrow paths, since the name dissolved in the cloud of chalk. But the air that populates the stone walls is not exclusive to their house; in the other houses in town the same occurs, and they all seem to be taut, silent, their glances vacant as statues’.
In the street they play cops and robbers, tag, hopscotch, bowls, statues, and make a game even of their huddles, like every day, but something has changed: no Ethel with her long braids with long silk laces.
In the sky the clouds speak mysteriously and Braulio clearly hears Ethel’s name. Yes, the cloud has named her. He looks up, leaving his game of bowls, though it’s his turn. Come on, throw! But he is observing the clouds, their outline diffused as chalk dust, seeking beyond them Ethel’s name. They said it and he clearly heard it. They know she didn’t take the train to the city, they know where she is because they see from the height of the sky.
I’m not crazy. The clouds said Ethel.
But the clouds scattered without saying a word again and he went on with the game under the sky about to get dark.
It’s time for each to go home to supper. Tomorrow will be Saturday. There’ll be time to go on playing, to scrutinize the clouds and sharpen their ears for when the clouds name her and see if the others, who always know everything, hear it, so they won’t call him crazy. But what will happen tomorrow if there are no clouds? Who will pronounce Ethel’s name, summoning her return or so she won’t be forgotten?
Where the river forms a whirlpool, there is an enormous rock from which the kids dive into the water, but never into the whirlpool itself, but farther off some yards because there is no danger there that the water will swallow them in its vortex. The rock not only serves to dive from its height, but also as a place to gather to talk or to look toward the skirt of the sierra and see how the weeds are swallowing the ruins of the two sanatoriums, how they are splitting the walls of the men’s pavilion and sinking the English tiles that people steal. And from the top of the rock they weave stories of the tuberculars, of the dead, of pulmonary infections capable of killing off all of Pentecostés. In the air of its rooms the bacilli persist, everybody knows it; to approach is to expose yourself to contagion; entering the galleries and passage can immediately infect you. There, in those spacious rooms crammed with iron beds eaten by rust, in the rickety metallic wardrobes, on high tables with lights so bright they were almost ethereal, in all the equipment that was one day in contact with the sick bodies, bacilli nest and wait in the air, disposed to invade the mouth and nose until reaching the chest, where they eat the lungs bit by bit. That’s why the sick spit blood. Everybody in Pentacostés knows that, because it was famous precisely for the men’s and women’s sanatoriums, to which sad ones past recovery came from all the cities. Even when the wind blows in the direction of the town, passing the sanatoriums, it’s dangerous, best to shut doors and windows and go out as little as possible.
Pentecostés is dying, it’s had years of agony since they closed the sanatoriums. Those who could, went to other towns because work had ended. The old remember it with nostalgia; they earned good money, relatives arrived continually from the cities to see their sick. Everything was sold. Now there are almost no businesses—the bakery, the butcher, the general store, and a bar with deserted billiards. The windows and doors of the train station are shut tight, and on the roof weeds and the stones the kids toss proliferate. Rust has accumulated, making rails hardly visible, and people have taken to putting up sleepers in their houses.
For days Ethel-chalk-dust has not gone to school and not appeared. Everyone knows it, but nobody says a word. Only now and then adults murmur those things that children don’t understand but whose bitter undertone they perceive and suffer. That’s why they know that Ethel will not come back from where she’s gone, because when their elders stop looking straight at them, they’re hiding something, and for some time their mothers have been avoiding their eyes when they seek answers.
The bad word did not appear on the blackboard again, but they know that it is still there palpitating like a heart under the black made ratty by chalk. And once, during one of their recesses, a boy dared to say it, though in a very low voice; and when they reprimanded his conduct, he denied it, but he quickly justified himself by saying that Ethel was bad because his father said so.
Braulio was alone, standing on the top of the rock, looking down into the river, throwing stones into the whirlpool and, as so many other times, asking for answers from the churning vortex. And it is possible that that day the river might answer Braulio because there was an instant in which the blue sky, as blue as ever, seemed to be diluted into clouds of fear over the light reddish horizon, and the facades of the abandoned sanatoriums became tinted a golden yellow. Braulio associated the color with the brass nimbus over the heads of the angels in the Pentecostés church. It was then when he learned from their mouths that Ethel had been converted into one of them and that she was near, since he felt under his skin the presence of his friend like a light electric current that raised the incipient hairs on his arms.
Braulio ran with all his might, crossed Pentecostés along the main street, reached his house, and rushed in like a downpour, from fatigue hardly murmuring, Ethel, Ethel is there, under the arches.
It was getting dark when the authorities and the police, handkerchiefs over their mouths, entered the ruined men’s pavilion. They did not need artificial lights because the sun still agonized on the façade and penetrated the galleries, low, yellow as bronze, and fell on the dangling body of Ethel among debris, garbage, and thickets.
Braulio hides a little cologne flask that was his father’s in which he has saved a few bits of red lead. In bed he keeps staring at it until he finally falls asleep. At times he dreams of Ethel. Never again did that name or the unpronounceable word appear on the blackboard. One day Braulio wrote his own name on the underside of the desk top among the palimpsest of names of old students, where perhaps an unpronounceable name is hidden, deeply carved with a penknife.
Translated by H.E. Francis from the Spanish