Manuel Mujica Láinez

Selected Stories
from “Misteriosa Buenos Aires” (1950)

Manuel Mujica Láinez
Manuel Mujica Láinez

For me, the beginning of Buenos Aires is but a tale. / I judge it as eternal as water or air.” (Jorge Luis Borges, “Mythical Founding of Buenos Aires”). It might seem curious to introduce the translations of these stories by Manuel Mujica Láinez with a quote from another author (even though it is no other than Borges); but I think there is no better description of the imaginary they transmitted me when I read them for the first time, so many years ago. Today —after discovering in astonishment that this work has not been translated into English—, I return to them to do their author justice, with this humble translation of a few stories. Let it be taken as a sign of gratitude from a reader to a writer, for having offered his stories and fantasies.

Misteriosa Buenos Aires

I
The Hunger
1536

Around the uneven palisade crowning the plateau opposite the river, the Indians’ bonfires crackle day and night. In the starless darkness they are even more frightful. The Spaniards, carefully posted among the trunks, in the brilliance of the bonfires unbraided by the wind’s madness, watch the dancing shadows of the savages. Every now and then, a gust of icy wind, penetrating the clay and straw hovels, brings along the yells and war songs. And soon resumes the rain of flaming arrows, their comets illuminating the barren landscape. During the truces, the groans of the Adelantado, who never abandons his bed, add terror to the conquerors. They would have wished to take him out; they would have wished to pull him on his litter, as he brandished his sword like a madman, towards the ships which nod past the beach of tufas, to unfurl the sails and escape from this damned land; but the fence of Indians allows it not. And when it is neither the shouts of the besiegers nor the laments of Mendoza, there is the anguished begging of those eaten away by hunger, and whose complaint grows like the tide, below the other voices, the beating of the gusts, the discrete shots of the arquebuses, the crackle and collapse of burning buildings.

Thus have passed many days; several days. They keep the count no more. Today there is not a crust of bread left to partake of. Everything has been snatched away, torn, ground: the meagre portions first, then the rotten flour, the rats, the filthy bugs, the boiled boots whose leather they sucked on desperately. Now chiefs and soldiers lie all over, by the weak fires or close to the defensive posts. It is hard to tell the alive from the dead.

Don Pedro refuses to see his own swollen eyes and his lips like dry figs, but within his miserable and rich hut he is hounded by the ghost of those faces without torsos, creeping over the mocking luxury of the furniture from Guadix, adhering to the large tapestry with the emblems of the Order of Santiago; they appear on the tables, close to the useless Erasmus and Virgil, among the disordered dishes which, clean of food, reveal in their shine the heraldic “Ave Maria” of the founder.

The sick man writhes as if possessed. His right hand, with the wooden rosary coiled around, grips the bed’s tassels. He tugs them angrily, as if he wished to drag the damask canopy and bury himself under its embroidered allegories. But even there the troop’s groaning would have reached him. Even there would have slid the spectral voice of Osorio, the one he had assassinated at the beach of Janeiro, and that of his brother don Diego, murdered by the Querandí on the day of Corpus Christi, and the other, more distant voices of those he led in the sack of Rome, when the Pope had to take refuge with his cardinals in the castle of Sant Angelo. And had that dreadful wail of tongueless mouths not arrived, he would never have been able to evade the persecution of corrupt flesh, whose stink invades the room and is stronger than that of medicines. Oh!, he needs not to lean out the window to remember that outside, at the very centre of the camp, are oscillating the corpses of the three Spaniards he had hanged for stealing and eating a horse. He imagines them, dismembered, for he knows other companions have devoured their thighs.

When will Ayolas return, Virgin of Buen Aire? When will return those who went to Brazil for supplies? When will this martyrdom come to an end and when will they set off for the land of metals and pearls? He bites his lips, but out of them rises the frightening roar. And his blurred vision returns to the plates where the painted shield of the Marquess of Santillana resembles in his delirium a red and green fruit.

Baitos, the crossbowman, also imagines. Curled up in the corner of his tent, on the hard soil, he thinks the Adelantado and his captains are indulging in marvellous feasts, while he perishes with his entrails scratched by hunger. His hatred towards the chiefs becomes then more frenzied. Such anger nurtures him, feeds him, bars him from lying to die. It is an entirely unjustified hatred, but which in his life devoid of fervour acts as a violent incentive. At Morón de la Frontera he detested the lords. He came to America believing that there the gentlemen and the peasants would become rich, and there would be no differences. How wrong was he! Spain had not sent to the Indies such a noble navy as that which anchored at the River Plate. Everyone put on airs of a duke. On the bridges and in the chambers they conversed as if they were in palaces. Baitos has spied on them with his small eyes, squinting under his bushy eyebrows. The only one he had some esteem for since he would sometimes approach the commoner soldiers, was Juan Osorio, and his fate is well-known: he was assassinated at Janeiro. The lords had him killed out of fear and envy. Oh, he hates them so, so much, with their ceremony and their airs and graces! As if everyone was not born the same way! And even more angered is he when they pretend to sweeten their tone and speak to the sailors as equals. Lie, lies! He is tempted to rejoice after the foundation’s disaster, which has dealt such a harsh blow to those false princes’ ambitions. Yes! And why not rejoice?

The hunger clouds his mind and makes him delirious. Now he blames the chiefs for the situation. The hunger! The hunger! Oh!; to get his teeth into a piece of meat! But there is not… There is not… Just today, with his brother Francisco, holding up each other, they searched the camp. There is nothing left to steal. His brother has offered in vain, in exchange for an armadillo, for a snake, for some leather, for a bite, the only jewel he possesses: that silver ring with a wrought cross his mother gave him when he set sail from San Lúcar. But even had he offered a mountain of gold, it would have been in vain, for there is not, there is not. There is nothing left but tighten their pain-punctured stomach and double up and shiver in the corner of the tent.

The wind spreads the stench of the hanged. Baitos opens his eyes and licks his deformed lips. The hanged! Tonight is his brother’s turn to stand guard by the gallows. He must be there now, with the crossbow. Why not crawl towards him? Together they could take one of the bodies down and then…

He takes his wide hunting knife and comes out staggering.

It is a freezing night in June. The wan moon turns the huts, the tents and the scarce fires pale. It would seem that for a few hours there will be peace with the Indians, themselves starving too, since the attack has waned. Baitos gropes blindly among the bushes, towards the gallows. They must be this way. Yes, there, there they are, like three grotesque pendula, the three mutilated corpses. They hang, armless, legless… A few more steps and he shall reach them. His brother must be nearby. A few more steps…

But suddenly, four shadows arise out of the night. They approach one of the bonfires, and the crossbowman feels his anger revive, poked by the untimely presences. Now he sees them. They are four lords, four chiefs: the teenager don Francisco de Mendoza, former steward to don Fernando, King of the Romans; the very young don Diego Barba, knight of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem; Carlos Dubrin, milk-brother of our lord Charles V; and Bernardo Centurión, the Genoese, old captain of four of prince Andrea Doria’s galleys.

Baitos hides behind a barrel. He is irritated to see that not even now, when everyone is assailed by death, have they lost none of their presence and their pride. At least he believes so. And holding on to the barrel to avoid falling, for he is almost depleted of strength, he confirms that the knight of Saint John still flaunts his red coat of arms, with a white, eight-pointed cross open like a flower on the left side, and that the Italian wears over his armour the huge otter-fur cloak which makes him so vain.

This Bernardo Centurión he execrates more than anyone else. Already in San Lúcar de Barrameda, upon setting sail, he stored up against him an aversion which has grown throughout the voyage. The soldiers’ tales about him fomented his animosity. He knows he has been the captain of four of Prince Doria’s galleys and that he has fought under his command at Naples and Greece. The Turkish slaves roared under his whip, chained to the oars. He also knows that the great admiral himself gave him that fur cloak the same day the Emperor granted him the grace of the Fleece. So what? Does that justify so much conceit, by chance? Anyone looking at him, while onboard the ship, could have thought it was Andrea Doria himself coming to America. His way of turning his swarthy, almost African head, and of making the gold earrings flash over the fur collar forces Baitos to clench his teeth and fists. Captain, captain of Prince Andrea Doria’s navy! So what? Is he less of a man, by any chance? He also counts two arms and two legs and everything necessary…

The lords talk by the light of the bonfire. Shiny are their palms and their rings when they move them with the sobriety of the courtesan gesture; shiny is the cross of Malta; shiny is the lace of the King of the Romans’ steward, over the tattered doublet; and the otter cloak opens, lavishly, when its owner places his hands on his hips. The Genoese turns his curly head with arrogance and the round earrings shake. Behind, the three corpses revolve among the wind’s fingers.

Hunger and hatred choke the crossbowman. He desires to shout but fails, and he falls in a faint, silently, on the short grass.

When he regained consciousness, the moon had hidden and the fire barely blinked, soon to extinguishing. The wind had become silent and instead could be heard the distant howling of the Indians. He stood up heavily and looked towards the gallows. He hardly made out the executed. He saw everything as if covered in a thin fog. Someone moved, close by. He held his breath, and the captain of Doria’s otter cloak stood out, magnificent, by the red light of the embers. The others were no longer there. No one: not the King’s steward, not Carlos Dubrin, not the knight of Saint John. No one. He surveyed amid the darkness. No one: not his brother, not even the lord don Rodrigo de Cepeda, who used to do his round at that hour, with his prayer book.

Bernardo Centurión stands between him and the corpses: Bernardo Centurión alone, for the sentinels are far from there. And a few metres away swing the maimed bodies. Hunger so tortures him that he knows he shall become mad if he does not mollify it soon. He bites his own arm until he feels, on his tongue, the warmth of blood. He would devour himself, if he could. He would cut off that arm. And the three livid bodies hang, with their awful temptation… If only the Genoese went away for good… For good… And why not, truly, in the most terribly true sense, for good? Why not take advantage of the occasion before him and eliminate him forever? No one will ever know. A single leap and the hunting knife will be buried in the Italian’s back. But can he, thus exhausted, jump so? In Morón de la Frontera he would have been sure of his adroitness, of his agility…

No, it was not a leap; it was a cornered hunter rushing forward. He had to lift the hilt with both hands to stick the blade. And how it disappeared into the smoothness of the otters! How it went inside, on its way to the heart, into the flesh of that animal he is hunting and he has reached at last! The beast falls with a muffled growl, shaking with convulsions, and he falls over it and feels, on his face, on his forehead, on his nose, on his cheeks, the caress of its skin. Twice, thrice he pulls out the knife. In his delirium, he ignores whether he has killed the Prince of Doria’s captain or one of the tigers wandering around the encampment. Until the death rattles cease. He searches under the cloak, and when he stumbles upon the arm of the man he has just stabbed, he severs it with his knife and sinks in his hunger-sharpened teeth. He thinks not in the horror of what he is doing, but in biting, in sating. Only then the crimson brushstroke from the embers reveals to him further away, much further away, knocked down by the palisade, the Italian corsair. He has an arrow stuck between the glass eyes. Baitos’s teeth run into his mother’s silver ring, the ring with a wrought cross, and he sees his brother’s crooked face, among those furs which Francisco took from the captain after his death, to wrap himself up.

The crossbowman shouts inhumanly. Like a drunk man, he climbs the stockade of coral tree and willow trunks, and he starts running downhill, towards the Indians’ bonfires. His eyes pop out of their sockets, as if his brother’s torn hand clasped his throat tighter and tighter.

Ulrich Schmidl - Vera historia - Buenas Aeres
“Buenas Aeres”, illustration from Ulrich Schmidl’s Vera Historia

III
The Mermaid
1541

Running along the great rivers, from the palisades of Buenos Aires to the fortress of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, come the tidings about the white men, about their victories and despairs, their mad journeys and the treacherous passion with which they kill each other. The tidings are carried by the Indians in their canoes and pass from tribe to tribe, coming deep into the forests, shedding on the plains, becoming disfigured, confused, billowed. They are brought by ferocious or curious creatures: jaguars, pumas, vizcachas, armadillos, bespattered serpents, monkeys, parrots, and infinite hummingbirds. And they are also reported in their whirl by opposing winds: the South-eastern, blowing with the smell of water; the dusty Pampero; the Northern, pushing the clouds of locusts; the Southern, its mouth rough with frost.

The Mermaid heard of them years ago, when the expeditions of Juan Díaz de Solís and Sebastián Caboto appeared, amazing the river landscape. She left her refuge in the lake of Itapuá only to see them. All of them she has seen, as she saw afterwards those who came aboard the magnificent fleet of Don Pedro de Mendoza, the founder. And she has grown restless. Her companions questioned her, mockingly:

“Have you found? Have you found?”

And the Mermaid just shook her head, sadly.

No, she had not found. So she told the Anta, with its mule ears and calf snout, who nurtures in its womb the mysterious bezoar stone; so she told the Carbuncle, who holds an ember on the forehead; so she told the Giant, who lives near the rumbling falls and goes to the Peña Pobre to fish, naked. She had not found. She had not found.

She never returned to the lake of Itapuá anymore. Swimming idly, half-hidden by the willows’ fringes, the birds silenced their bustle to listen to her sing.

She traverses the patriarchal rivers from end to end. She fears neither the whirls nor the waterfalls raising curtains of transparent rain; neither the winter’s harshness nor the summer’s flame. The water plays with her breasts and her hair; with her agile arms; with the blue-scaled tail, extended in thin, rainbow-coloured caudal fins. Sometimes she submerges for hours, and sometimes she lies on the tranquil current, while a sun-ray reposes on the freshness of her torso. The yacares go along for a stretch; around flutter the ducks and the pigeons known as apicazú, but soon they grow weary, and the Mermaid continues her journey, downstream, upstream, arched like a swan, her arms loose like braids, reminiscent of certain Renaissance jewels, with baroque pearls, enamels and rubies.

“Have you found? Have you found?”

The scorn: Have you found?

She sighs, feeling she shall never find. White men are like natives: just men. Their skin is finer and fairer, but that is what they are: just men. And she cannot love a man. She cannot love a man who is just a man, nor a fish that is just a fish.

Now she swims along the River Plate, towards Mendoza’s village. The Giant has referred to her that some brigantines descended from Asunción, and thanks to the pheasants she knows that their chiefs intend to depopulate Buenos Aires. Precarious was life in the city. And sad. Only five years have passed since the Adelantado built the huts there. And they will be destroyed.

In the vagueness of the twilight, the Mermaid discerns the three ships nodding in the Riachuelo. Further on, over the plateau, blaze the fires in the death-fated village.

She approaches cautiously. There is almost no one left on the brigantines. That allows her to come near. Never as today has she rubbed the bows with the delicate breast; never has she seen so closely the square rigs which tremble with the passing breeze.

Those are old, poorly caulked ships. The night of June collapses over them. And the Mermaid strokes silently around the hulls. On the biggest one, high up on the stem, under the bowsprit, she notices an armed figure, and she immediately hides, fearing detection. Then she reappears, her dark hair wet, her dark lashes dripping.

Is it a man? Is it a man wielding a knife? Or not… Or is it not a man… Her heart jumps. She dives in again. The night covers everything. Only shine bright in the sky, the cold stars; and in the village, the fires of those preparing for the journey. They have burnt the ship turned fortress, the chapel, the houses. Some men and women weep and refuse to embark, while the cows utter sonorous, desperate moos, sounding like melancholy horns in the desolate darkness.

At dawn, the loading of the brigantines proceeds. They are departing today. In what used to be Buenos Aires, there only remains a letter with instructions for those who arrive at the port, advising them to beware of the Indians and promising Paradise in Asunción, where the Christians count with seven hundred women slaves to serve them.

The ships sail up the river, among the islands of the delta. The Mermaid follows them from a distance, balancing on the swing of the foamy wakes.

Is it a man? Is it a man wielding a knife?

She had to wait for the afternoon’s indecisive light to see him. He had not abandoned his lookout post. With a trident in his right and a buckler in his arm, he guarded the bowsprit, tugged by the foresails with the slightest rocking. No, he was not a man. He was a being like her, of her own ambiguous caste, only half his body a man; for the rest of it, from waist to feet, was transformed into a corbel attached to the ship. A stiff, triangular beard divided his breast. A small crown surrounded his forehead. And so, half man and half capital, all of him dark, tanned, grooved by the storms, he seemed to drag the ship by the impulse of his robust torso.

The Mermaid gasped. The soldiers’ heads emerged on the board. And she hid. She dived in so deep that her hands became entangled in the strange, colourless plants, and the waves became full of bubbles.

The night sets up once again its gloomy tents, and the daughter of the Sea risks approaching the prow and sliding up to the bowsprit, avoiding the yellow stains of the lit lanterns. In their brightness, the Figurehead is even more beautiful. Light climbs his Ocean god’s beard, up to his eyes gazing into the horizon.

The Mermaid calls him in a low voice. She calls him, and so soft is her voice that the nocturnal animals, roaring and laughing in the thickets nearby, become quiet at once.

But the Figurehead with the sharp trident answers not, and only can be heard the water splashing around the sides of the brigantine and the page’s psalmody, announcing the hour by the hourglass.

Now the Mermaid begins singing to seduce the impassive one, and the boards of the three ships become populated with marvelled heads. Even Domingo Martínez de Irala, the violent chief, bursts in the bridge. And everyone imagines a bird singing in the verdant grove and surveys the trees’ darkness. The Mermaid sings and the men remember their Spanish villages, the familiar rivers murmuring in the gardens, the country houses, the stone towers standing before the flight of the swallows. And they remember their distant loves, their far youths, the women they caressed under the shade of the wide oaks, when the tabors and the flutes sounded and the buzzing bees made the fields drowsy. They smell the fragrance of hay and wine, mixing to the murmur of fast distaves. It is as if a waft of air from Castile, from Andalusia, from Extremadura, rocked the sails and the King’s banners.

The Figurehead is the only one unaffected by that outlandish voice.

And the men go away one by one when the song ceases. They plunge into their beds or into the rope reels and dream. It could be said that the three brigantines have suddenly blossomed, that there are garlands hanging from the sails, with so many dreams.

The Mermaid stretches in the quiet water. Slowly, anxiously, she ties herself to the old prow. Her tail beats against the worn-out boards. Using her nails and fins, she begins ascending towards the Figurehead who, up there, points out the route to treasures. Now she girdles the broken corbel. Now she embraces the wooden waist. Now she presses her desperation against the insensitive trunk.

She kisses the carved lips, the painted eyes.

She hugs him, she hugs him and down her cheeks roll the tears she never cried. She feels so sweet and terrible a pain, for the short trident has pierced her breast and her pale blood flows from the wound, over the Figurehead’s slender body.

Then, a plaintive cry is heard and the statue snaps off the bowsprit. They fall into the river, embraced in a single form, and they sink, inseparable, among the silvery escape of the silversides, of the prochilods, of the sorubims.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse

VI
The Book
1605

“A pair of black velvet slippers!”

The pulpero raises them, like two big beetles, for the sun to highlight their luxury.

Under the eave, the four players look towards him. The notary keeps the card raised and exclaims:

“If I win, I shall buy them.”

And the pulpero’s daughter, in her affected voice:

“They are worthy of the Mister’s foot.”

The latter winks at her and the game proceeds, for the Flemish acting as banker calls them to order.

“Twelve yards of Netherlandish cloth! Two adorned bedspreads, with their fringes!”

Under the shade of the vine, Lope enters what is dictated, drawing his beautiful round letter.

They are in the courtyard with rammed earth. On one side, around a table sheltered by the eave, four men –the Flemish miller, the notary, a Dominican friar and a soldier– try their luck at lansquenet, the game invented in Germany during the times of Charles V or even before, when his grandfather Maximilian of Habsburg reigned; the game the troops took from one extreme of the imperial dominions to the other. More nearby, close to the vine, the pulpero’s daughter has placed herself on a chair, between two large jars. She is a girl who would be pretty if she took away the layer of vermillion and ceruse with which she intends to enhance her charm. Among so much cheap makeup, her wet eyes sparkle. She wears a very wide skirt, a farthingale, and she smoothes its plaits with her black-edged nails. The coloured glasses of a costume jewel shake on her chest, under the ruff. With sleeves rolled, sweating, her father bustles about in the courtyard. A Negro helps him open the barrels and the boxes, wherefrom he gets the goods which were stealthily unloaded the night before. Those are smuggled packages from Porto Bello, on the other extreme of America, sent by Pedro Gonzalez Refolio, a Sevillian. Buenos Aires smuggles from the governor down, since it is the only way for commerce to survive, and so the shopkeeper’s tone is barely demure while dictating:

“Arquebuses! Seven arquebuses!”

The soldier turns towards him. His eyes jump before the matchlock guns and the hooks. The banker complains:

“Let us play, gentlemen!”

And he shuffles the cards, whose ace of golds boasts the shield of Castile and León and the double-headed eagle.

“A fine, three-broadloom carpet! Four sheets from Ruán!”

Lope keeps writing down in his notebook. Neither the pulpero nor his daughter knows how to write, so the young man is in charge of accountancy and of copying. He bores to death. The girl notices that; she leaves the packages for a while and, with a thousand flirtatious contrivances, approaches him. She pours a glass of wine for him:

“For the writer.”

The writer sighs and drinks it in a gulp. Writer! That is what he would like to be, not a wretched scribe. The girl devours him with her eyes. She leans to pick the glass and murmurs:

“Will you come tonight?”

The teenager has no time to answer, for the pulpero is now saying:

“It is over. One… Two… Three… Five yards of white satin for chasubles…”

He has unfolded them as he measured them, and now he emerges, sweatier and uglier than ever, among so much fragile purity overflowing the barrels.

“And what is this?”

With his right hand, he lifts a book which was hidden deep in the box. The merchant is startled:

“How the hell did this get among the merchandise?”

He opens it clumsily and, since the letters mean nothing to him, he throws it towards the players. The notary catches it in the air. He holds the cards with a hand and skims it through with the other.

“It is a work published this year. Look, your Mercies: Madrid, 1605.”

The banker, beset by mosquitoes, loses his patience:

“What are we doing here? Reading or playing?”

On his left, he makes the Dominican cut the deck.

The friar takes in turn the book –it does not contain much: barely more than three hundred pages–, and declares, doctoral:

“Perhaps it is a dangerous traveller and we should submit it to the Holy Office.”

“None of that,” argues the owner of the pulperia. “They would start inquiring upon how it reached me.”

And the soldier: “It can be nothing bad, for it is dedicated to the Duke of Béjar.”

The notary cleans his glasses and puffs:

“As for me, there is no duke but the Duke of Lerma.”

And so all of them start arguing. Naming the favourite was enough to disturb the calm in the courtyard, as if a hundred wasps had broken in. For a moment, the tone is lowered and the characters glimpse around: the pulpero, annoyed, has said that lord Phillip III is the Duke’s slave and that that lofty man rules Spain at will. Over the different voices, the miller raises his own:

“Shall we play? Shall we play, then?”

The girl claps from her hard chair and takes advantage of the confusion to settle a fiery gaze on Lope.

“Peace, gentlemen!”, begs the Dominican. “I have been reading the beginning of this book and it deserves no fuss. It is a book of mockery.”

The notary shakes his head:

“What shall be of us with such foolish things as are now published? Just give me something like those books we used to read and delight in when we were boys. Las Sergas de Esplandián…”

Lisuarte de Grecia…”

Palmerín de Oliva…”

The players have become silent, for the sudden remembrance has brought them back to their youth and to the novels which made them dream in distant Spain, in the quietness of the far hamlets, in the provincial lodgings where, by the light of the candle, the fantastic warriors appeared, with a lady on the rump of the horse, delivering marvellous speeches to the clash of golden weapons.

Only the miller from Flanders, who has never read anything, insists with his complaint:

“If we are not playing, I am leaving.”

The others calm down.

“We should give it to Lope,” concludes the notary. “Nothing new could appeal to us now, for we have been educated in the office of fine literature. Gentlemen, our race is becoming lost. The age of stupidity and leniency begins. Oh, don Duardos of Brittany, don Clarisel, don Lisuarte!”

The pulpero roars with loud laughter and aligns the arquebuses under the vine.

“Another round of Guadalcanal wine!” And the book, almost unbound after so much tugging, flutters once again through the air, towards the meditative boy sharpening his quill.

Now the house is asleep, dark with shadows, white with infinite stars. The girl, tired of waiting for her listless lover, crosses the courtyard in tiptoe, towards his room. She peeps through the door and sees him, lying flat over the bed. By the light of a candle, he is reading the book, the damned book with butter-coloured covers. He laughs, engrossed, a thousand leagues from Buenos Aires, from the grocer, from the smell of fruit and garlic overflowing the house.

The pulpero’s daughter and her pride cannot stand it. She gets in and reproaches him in a low voice, in a hectic whisper, fearing her father might hear:

“You bastard! Why haven’t you come?”

Lope wishes to reply, but he neither dares raise his voice. Then, a stifled dialogue ensues, between the girl whose flush strives to appear from below the vermillion mask, and the lad who defends himself with the volume, as if chasing flies away.

At last, she takes the book away from him, so fiercely that he is left with the parchment covers in his hands. And she escapes pressing it against her chest, furious, towards her room.

There, in front of the mirror, the familiar presence of vulgar jewels, of ointment pots and of horn and shell combs calms her down but does nothing to lower the fever of her disappointment. She begins to comb her fair hair. The book remains abandoned amid the vases. She speaks alone, grimacing, appraising the grace of her dimples, of her profile. She reproaches the absent lover for his indifference, his coldness. Her green eyes, clouded by tears, come to rest over the abandoned book, reviving her fury. She turns the pages, anxious. Some lines in the first pages do not cover the whole folio. She ignores that those are verses. She wishes she knew what they say, what those mysterious, inimical letters mean, so attractive that their seduction was stronger than those charms only the impassive mirror enjoys.

And so, with deliberate slowness, she tears pages at random, she twists them, she bends them in ringlets and ties them into her own golden curls. She lies down, her hair transformed into a caricature of Medusa, among whose absurd curls appear, here and there, the torn fragments of Don Quixote de La Mancha. And she cries.

Jan Davidszoon de Heem - Books and Pamphlets
Books and Pamphlets, Jan Davidszoon de Heem

VIII
Miracle
1610

The brother porter opens his eyes, but this time it is not the brightness of dawn which, upon sliding into his cell, puts an end to his short sleep. There is still an hour left for sunrise, and in the window, the stars have not paled yet. The old man stirs on the hard bed, restless. He pricks up his ears and notices that he has been woken up not by light, but by some music coming from the convent’s gallery. The brother rubs his eyes and reaches the door in his room. Everything is silent, as if Buenos Aires were a city buried under sand for centuries. The only living thing is that singular, most sweet music, undulating within the Franciscan convent of the Eleven Thousand Virgins.

The porter recognises or thinks he recognises it, yet at once he understands himself to be mistaken. No, it cannot be Father Francisco Solano’s violin. Father Solano is now in Lima, more than seven hundred leagues away from the River Plate. And yet…! The brother made the journey from Spain together with him, twenty years ago, and has not forgotten the sound of that violin. Music by angels it seemed, when the holy man sat on the prow and caressed the strings with the bow. Some seamen assured that the fish lifted their jaws and fins, to better listen to him, from within the ship’s foam. And one of them told that one night he had seen a mermaid, a true mermaid with a scaled tail and black lichen hair, who escorted the fleet for a long time, balancing on the waves to the violin’s rhythm.

But this music must be something else, because Father Francisco Solano is in Perú, and coming down from Perú to Buenos Aires, aboard the slow wagons, takes a lot of time. And yet, and yet…! Who plays the violin like that in this city? Nobody. Nobody knows, like Solano, how to get the notes which make you sigh and smile, enrapturing the soul. The Indians in Tucumán left aside their arrows, clasped their hands together and came to his miraculous call. And the jaguars in the rainforests too, like those tigers in ancient paintings, yoked by garlands to triumphal chariots. The brother porter has been witness to such prodigies in San Miguel del Tucumán and in La Rioja, where the orange tree planted by the miracle-worker blossoms.

It is ineffable music, most simple, most easy, which however brings to mind the celestial instruments and the choirs lined up by the divine Throne. It travels around the convent’s cloister in Buenos Aires, air-like, as a harmonious breeze, and the brother porter follows it, his heart beating.

In the courtyard where the cypress Fray Luis de Bolaños takes care of stands, the enchanting spectacle stops the lay brother, who crosses himself. It is already the month of July, but the air becomes stuffed with spring-like fragrance and warmth. The entire tree is laden with immobile, attentive birds. The porter discerns the kiskadee’s yellow breast and the meadowlark’s red breast, and the thrush’s mourning and the mockingbird’s grey feathers, and the cardinal’s crest and the flycatcher’s long tail. The convent of the Eleven Thousand Virgins has never seen so many birds. The lapwings are perched on a scaffolding, where the works ordered by Fray Martín Ignacio de Loyola, bishop of Paraguay and nephew of the Saint, have ensued. And there are horneros and woodpeckers among the scaffolding, and plovers and scarlet flycatchers and robins and hummingbirds and even a solemn owl. They are listening to the invisible violin, their round eyes crackling, their wings still. The cypress resembles an enchanted tree giving birds as fruit.

The music swings around the gallery, and further on the brother runs into the convent’s cat and dog. Without moving tail nor ear, like two Egyptian statues, they stand guard before Fray Luis de Bolaños’s cell. Between them, a hanging spider has quit working on its web to listen to the unique melody. And the brother porter observes that the little beasts which move around the cloister’s solitude at that hour are also standing, fascinated, like detained in their march by a superior order. There are the little mousses, the doctoral toads, the lizard, the insects with brown and green carapace, the luminous worms and, in a corner, as if embalmed for a museum, a countryside vizcacha. Nothing moves, not an elytron, not an antenna, not a whisker. They are barely known to be alive by the slight tremor of their maws, by a quick wink.

The brother porter pinches himself to verify whether he is dreaming. But no, he is not dreaming. And the chords keep coming from Fray Luis’s cell.

The lay brother pushes the door and is stunned by a new marvel. A strange clamour overflows the bare chamber. In the middle, the esparto mat the Franciscan has for a bed is silhouetted against the earthen floor. Fray Luis de Bolaños is in prayer, enraptured, and the marvel is that he is not touching the floor, but is floating over it, several inches above. His chaguar lace hangs in the air. Thus has he been seen on other occasions by the Indians in his reductions of Itatí, of Baradero, of Caazapá, of Yaguarón. Around, like a musical halo, the sounds of the violin itself coil his ring.

The brother porter falls on bended knees, his forehead deep between his palms. All of a sudden, the hidden concert ceases. The brother raises his eyes and notices Fray Luis on his feet by his side, telling him:

“The holy Father Francisco Solano has died today in the Convent of Jesus, in Lima. Let us pray for him.”

“Pater Noster…”, murmurs the lay brother.

The cold of July comes in now through the cell’s window. When the violin becomes quiet, the silence which made Buenos Aires drowsy breaks with the clamour of wagons thundering the street, with the bells tolling, with the clicking heels of the devout women, coming well muffled up to the first mass, with the voices of the slaves who sluice the courtyard in the neighbouring house. The birds have begun flying. They shall not return to Fray Luis’s cypress until Spring.

Giotto - Legend of St Francis - Sermon to the Birds
St. Francis preaching to the birds, Giotto
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