the short story project


Juan Cárdenas | from:Spanish

Down the Path

Translated by : Kit Maude

Almost, almost there, but not quite. Something woke me up. A noise. I’m dripping wet, but I didn’t get there. I’m still half asleep. Nearly, but not quite. The wind is blowing through the coffee groves; maybe a branch fell onto one of the bushes. It’s funny and a little embarrassing. I was dreaming about Johnnier, the young man who looks after the estate during the week. 

This afternoon I went to pick up the keys to the house and felt something new when he handed them over. Something in his scent, in his intimidating simian gait. This time, I sort of liked the way he walked; it was a kind of half-ironic lope. He was making fun of himself, showing off, as though he were saying: Have you noticed the way I walk, like an ape? Have you noticed how I act like an animal to seem more stupid than I really am?  

Maybe I imagined it. I’m still half asleep. I should open my eyes and go to the window or out onto the veranda to investigate the noise. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve misread the signals. Then I go and make a fool of myself, my lust brazenly exposed for all to see. I’ve had more than my share of misunderstandings. My friends tell me that a woman has to make herself the object of desire. I never knew how or why a woman would want to make herself the object of desire. If I want something, I ask for it. My friends think that my defiant attitude befits a man better. Johnnier, I now realize, is much smarter than he seems. What if I went to visit him at home? What if I got up, stepped out into the night, saddled the mare and rode through the darkness to his house? It would be a lot of trouble, particularly because the mare is asleep, and I know that she doesn’t like being woken up unexpectedly. She gets surly and difficult. But what if I did? There’s nothing to stop me. Nothing. What if I went down the narrow path, down the slope, crossed the muddy field with the ruined house, rode along the river, crossed over the bamboo bridge and then climbed up the steep slope on the other side to Johnnier’s house. What if I got to Johnnier’s house and knocked on the door? I’d make up an excuse for being there. He’d invite me in and offer me a glass of wine or whatever, some rum maybe. The idea wakes me up; now I’m fully awake. My eyes are open wide in the animal darkness of my plan: riding through the middle of the night to knock on a peasant’s door and go to bed with him. Doing in real life what just a few moments earlier I had been enjoying in my dream. Johnnier’s stiff cock in my hand. In my mouth. In other circumstances it would seem ridiculous, but we’re in the countryside. The rules are different here. In the countryside, if you want something you take it.     

Now that I think about it, I’m unusually horny right now. It’s not the kind of horniness that comes from inside your body; this isn’t your everyday lust. This comes from outside. It’s here in the room, rising up from the earth, and now that my eyes are wide open I think I can see a black mist, slightly blacker than the surrounding darkness. It slips inside my body, then playfully billows out of my mouth and twists through my hair before plunging back down under the sheets where it finally re-enters my body as though it had now been sifted for greater purity. It’s here inside, but it comes from outside. From the enormous weight of the world you can sense out there. You realize that this lust forms in the heart of the coffee grove, in the sound of footsteps over dry leaves, in the warm rocks cooling in the darkness, in the inexplicably empty nest left by a bluebird in a guama tree. In a rotten branch that wakes me up with its fall. 

Make yourself the object of desire. What if my mother was right? Staying quiet, knowing how to attract attention effortlessly, to catch someone’s eye and sit still like a pretty, passive thing. Immobility and silence, the key would appear to be skilful management of those two variables. Ordinarily, I’d be disgusted with myself if I acted like that with a city man; it would be demeaning. But wasn’t that exactly what I did with Johnnier when he gave me the keys and swaggered around like an ape? I was polite and haughty – anyone watching would have said I’d been acting cold. And I also allowed myself to be looked at, I deigned to smile, I stood perfectly still, reducing myself to the status of a pretty object that just stands and watches. Above all, I stayed sweetly silent, firmly silent, because the estate is mine. I bought it through my work, my effort, my independence. I’m the boss, so let’s have some respect around here.  My expression must have conveyed something along those lines. But maybe my eyes lingered a little too long on Johnnier’s body, the threatening, musical way he lurched from side to side, his face looking as though it had been superimposed with the features of several different animals, a bear on top of a bat on top of an alligator on top of a cat. The wind rustles through the coffee grove in unpredictable gusts that break up the long, dry silence. I’m so wet; the lust won’t go away. In fact, it’s expanding deep into the darkness.

I have no idea when I got up and reached for my clothes, pulling on the first things I could find – mud-spattered jeans, a woollen jacket, wellington boots, a poncho, my rucksack and the machete, just in case. You never know. 

I step out of the house and walk along the veranda without turning on the lights, heading for the stable. I don’t want to scare the mare, for her to rear away from me. It’s been hard enough getting on with her, learning to ride her without being laughed at by the labourers. But the mare is awake already, and when I see the jelly around her big eyes I feel as though she’s been waiting for me all this time. I pull open the stable door, clicking my tongue, and taste the scent of the noble beast, which has been gathering all night. I stroke her mane. She seems comfortable, ready for an adventure. I manage to saddle her without any trouble, then I lead her out of the stable by the bridle. In the moonlight she allows me to climb onto her. She can barely feel the weight of my small body, she just lets out a little grunt. What a delight to ride on a clear night. A man would probably start to whistle, but I prefer to let the sounds of the night guide the way. Hidden behind a couple of coffee bushes, through which I have to cut my way with my machete, is the dry path. It’s a little dusty because it hasn’t rained in days. The mare heads on down it. She’s stocky; spirited but slow. She knows where we’re going, she knows how to get there. And while she takes the lead, my mind begins to wander, as though it were on the back of another animal. A strange thought forms: this estate isn’t mine. Or, rather, I’m just the owner. I bought it about a year ago after years of hard work. The deed is in my name. But the estate isn’t mine. Property is a feeling. Sometimes it’s a sense that one has sunk roots, sometimes it’s that one has conquered territory and sometimes it’s a mixture of the two. But deep down I don’t feel that way at all. I don’t feel rooted or a sense of ownership. I can say that to myself with complete honesty now that I’m riding through the darkness, feeding the sensation that I’m heading into the interior of the landscape – I mean, into the engine room of the landscape where, now that my eyes have become accustomed to the darkness, I think I can finally see how the gears and complex system of façades really work. The very centre, the factory where everything that seems so pretty and picturesque in the daylight is produced. It sits so still in the light, making itself the object of desire, looking back at us in silence. Why did I buy the estate? Why do I come here every weekend, often without any civilized company? And where is this rampant lust coming from? The mare’s muscles are keeping the electricity between my legs alive. I’m coming, Johnnier, I’m almost there. I’m coming to your door. I’m going to knock, softly at first. Maybe I’ll wake you up. Maybe you’re already awake, thinking about me, waiting for me. Wondering whether you should saddle your horse to come and find me, but I know you wouldn’t dare. I know that you respect me in spite of yourself, that you’re a little afraid of me even, because you know that I’m the boss. The lust generates words that pile up inside of me like leaves in the shadows. The mare goes on and on through the coffee grove, keeping to a path she knows by heart, and I can barely believe that I’m here doing what I’m doing at this hour. Another crazy idea begins to form, that all this secret machinery of the landscape might be part of someone else’s dream. Ciphers, archetypes of someone else’s subconscious. This night-time horse ride might be the misogynist fantasy of someone who’s asleep right now dreaming about me. Or I might be dreaming. I myself could be someone else, a man maybe, imagining all this in a nightmare. In that case, this mare wouldn’t be a mare but my penis. And the path through the coffee grove isn’t just a simple path through a coffee grove but an allegory. Something more, something else. Symbolic of who knows what trauma. For some reason this reminds me that I have a torch in my pack. I try turning it on, and it works, a wayward stream of yellow light flows out of the device like an unthinking genie from a lamp. The foliage reveals a little of its colour, frozen in surprise but also somehow contorted in discomfort in the harsh light. Before turning off the torch, I aimlessly light up different sections of my surroundings: the tree tops, a barbed-wire fence, the ground. This minor magical act brings to mind a far-off time, a memory that arrives like a falling branch. I was a little girl, I must have been about seven, and my daddy had taken me on an outing to a place very similar to this one. My daddy worked as a lawyer for a small company that sold spare parts for heavy vehicles. Once a year the company owner organized an outing to one of his properties but he only invited a select group of employees, those whom he judged deserved it. That year my father was one of the chosen few. It was the first and last time, and he decided to take me instead of my mother because he could only take one companion and thought that I’d enjoy the outing much more because I’d get to see the countryside, play with other children, swim in the river and maybe, just maybe, ride a horse. I don’t remember having done any of those things, I don’t remember any other children being there, just other employees with their wives eating bowl after bowl of stew and drinking beer and rum. By the afternoon they were all drunk, my father included. He’d spent all day being awkward, whispering in corners, walking from one side of the gallery to the other with a bottle of beer in his hand and chain smoking. I played on my own to one side and was starting to get bored of my own company when I saw my father step away from the others and sit on a boulder by a ravine. I’d seen my father sad and drunk plenty of times, but I’d never seen him looking so thoughtful, as though the toughest part of his spirit was being ground down, pestled into dust. I went over and crouched down beside him, but I didn’t say anything. My father looked at me with a bitter smile. Across the ravine, a lovely landscape not dissimilar to this one with its coffee groves, guama trees, bogs, guayacans in bloom and fields of cows stretched out before us. My father’s eyes drank in the landscape. He smoked and drank, smoked and drank. There, he said suddenly, pointing into the ravine. You see that scorched tree? It got hit by lightning in ’47. Your great-grandfather asked to be buried under that burned-out tree, and he’s still there, unless some local idiot has dug up the grave thinking they’d found an Inca tomb. Over there, at the foot of the ravine, where you see those old iron bars and fence posts, that was where the train stopped and the coffee was loaded up to be taken to Buenaventura. We grew first-rate coffee here, tons of it. These farms produced whatever you wanted, everything from sugarloaf to plantains, yucca, meat, eggs… everything. Whatever you planted just came up. My great-grandfather came here with nothing but the clothes on his back. He panned for gold in gullies near Bolívar. He worked very hard, saving up everything he could until he had enough to buy some land. Then he bought the land next to the first plot, and the farm grew. We were so happy in those years; it was bliss. You can’t imagine. But nothing lasts forever. Happiness is fleeting. We lost everything. Or, rather, it was taken from us. My grandfather was killed. His brothers, too. Only the women and children were left. And, of course, if you have no land, you’re nobody. Listen to me now, and listen well. You’re nothing without land, less than nothing. Without land you’re worse than an animal.

My daddy went quiet for a long time, smoking and drinking, smoking and drinking, and in the end he asked: Can you imagine if all we see before us belonged to you? Can you imagine if we had horses and we could ride through those fields, you and I, seeing to the livestock and the crops? I remember that I tried very hard to imagine it.

A few days after that my father quit his job at the parts company. Or maybe he was fired, I don’t know. Then everything started to go wrong. Money was very tight. I went to a school mismanaged by Spanish nuns; my mother got a job as a cashier in a supermarket. A few months later my father left my mother and we never saw him again. People say that he went off to live in Caquetá with another woman and other children. People say that he became a drug dealer in Panama and that he worked with the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers. They say that he’s in prison in the USA and that he has a lot of land held in trust in other people’s names. They say a lot of things. I never bothered to find out what really happened to him. But I don’t resent him for leaving us. My mother was happy without him, and so was I. I could study, give classes at the university, save up and eventually buy this estate.

Now the path is coming out of the coffee grove and starts to stretch out across what we call the bad field, the field where the livestock can’t graze because it makes them sick. From here you can see the ruins of the old house in the moonlight. Who lived here? Or, rather, how long as it been since someone lived here? This is the first time I’ve ever thought about the previous owners. I entertain myself for a little while fantasizing about the ruin, and now I start to think I can see movement behind the empty windows. The breeze gusts through what’s left of the building, making strange noises. Voices, murmurs. It makes me shiver, and for the first time since I embarked on this mad jaunt I feel scared. I decide not to look at the house. I quicken the pace. The mare is nervous. I don’t know if I’m transmitting my fear or she senses something, too. I’m terrified to look behind me. Suddenly I feel as though someone’s been following me for some time. I get goosebumps. I keep my eyes fixed straight ahead and ride faster. The mare responds well. We’re allies in this; it reassures me to think so. Soon we get to end of the bad field, and beyond a shallow ditch we see the river. At this time of year it flows weak and cold. I don’t want to look behind me. I just want to get to Johnnier’s house. The mare has shifted from a trot to a gallop in the moonlight. The prospect of a fall scares me less than stopping and looking back. When we get to the bamboo bridge the mare stops abruptly. I hear my ragged breath getting louder around me and sometimes I think that my breaths are multiplying, echoing in the surrounding shadows, as though there were someone behind me, breathing just as loudly, just as fearfully. The mare knows that she can’t cross the bridge with me on top of her. She knows that I have to get off and lead her. And that’s what I do. I dismount, still refusing to look behind me, and walk in front of the mare. Then I have to decide if it’s better to use my free hand to light the way in front or brandish the machete. I choose the latter; it’s not that dark after all. You can see the bamboo perfectly well. And if I do have to defend myself the torch won’t do me much good. The things one has to do to get laid in this backwater. This thought makes me laugh, and I calm down a little.

On the other side of the river I get back on the horse. The mare seems calmer, too. Obviously I was scaring her with my vivid imagination.

We gallop up the hill, and finally Johnnier’s house appears at the top; it looks peaceful. The house of a good, hardworking man, I think. There’s a light on. Still, before dismounting, I lead the horse to the front of the house to announce myself the way people do around here, with the sound of horseshoes on the ground. No one appears at the window.

Eventually I get off the horse and knock on the door. By now I realize that not a trace of the lust that brought me here is left in my body. But it’s too late. I’ve set out on this crazy adventure and have to face the consequences.

The door opens. Johnnier looks me over with an unreadable expression. He’s utterly dumbfounded.

Good evening, I say shyly. I ask him if I can come in. He steps back and lets me in. He doesn’t bother to conceal his confusion. I’m scared to sleep at home, I say as he offers me a wooden chair.

Johnnier thinks about his reply for a good long while. You can sleep here, he says. There’s only one bed, but I can sleep in the hammock tonight, no problem. Not that I’ll be getting any sleep, he mutters.

After a while he starts to make coffee. What are you afraid of? he asks.

I don’t know, I say, I heard a noise.

As the water heats up, Johnnier sits across from me in another chair and takes out a bottle of rum. I realize that he’s been drinking for hours. He’s drunk, but he can hide it, partly because he’s so large and partly because of his tough-guy demeanour, the way he looks you in the eye without saying a word.

I’m scared, too, he says. That’s why I can’t sleep.

I look at him in surprise. What are you afraid of? I ask.

I’m afraid of the witches, he answers. I’m scared of witches.

What witches?

The witches, he says, the ones that live here. They’re everywhere. They scare me. Look what they do to me, he says irritably, almost with a sob, and he shows me the scars on his back. They live in that fucking old witches’ house. I can’t stand it any more. I’m leaving tomorrow.        


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