Miriam tells them that he built the house himself with his own hands. She tells them how he piled up the rocks on rainy days, so that they’d get good and soaked before he soldered them into the cement. She tells them that it’s on the border of two regions, a magical place, inhabited by spirits, meigas. She explains what meigas are, using the original name, they repeat it, stopping on each syllable, with the respect of someone reciting a prayer.
Miriam makes up this whole story, jumping from one sentence to the next on tiptoes, like agile feet over river rocks, and she modulates her soft voice in such a way that he himself ends up believing this distorted version of the truth. Miriam goes silent, a pause long enough for Rafael to glance at his hands, no longer rough like before. Then he arches his back, now less flexible, and thinks that soon it will all be gone, this house, filled up with the careless junk collected by Miriam, who hasn’t shut up since they arrived.
“I’m going out to get some air.”
When Rafael says this, she gesticulates for the English. She begins to smoke an invisible cigarette and blows out smoke no one can see. She looks like a showgirl. He’ll wait till he’s outside to light it. In the entryway, he’s distracted by the wallpaper, which she hung haphazardly one Sunday morning, just to see how it looked, just to try it out. One corner wants to come unstuck. He rubs his fingertips over it, caressing it. The paper peels up like a strip of beech bark.
The cold surprises him. He lights the cigarette and walks in circles, staring at the orangey ember of its tip. He turns and looks behind him. He takes it in from this perspective. The land is on a hillside. There’s a part where the slope flattens out. On really rainy days, the water flows rapidly in that direction, as if it’s being chased by a bird of prey. Inside, someone uncorks another bottle and immediately a peal of laughter is heard. He thinks it was Miriam. Then he thinks that it could’ve been any woman.
“In a year, maybe two, you won’t even remember this place,” she’d said to him.
They’d arranged to meet the English to close the sale.
He went alone in the morning. The highway seemed more empty of cars, more hollow. The ploughed fields blurred past in the rearview mirror.
“I’m going to take one last look,” he’d said picking up the car keys. “I’m sure there’s something we left behind.”
He closes the door. He doesn’t expect an answer.
When he arrives, he goes up to the top floor. The fluorescent light in the bathroom trembles. He looks at himself in the mirror, opens the side sections and sees his face triple. It’s the last time I’ll shave in this sink, he thinks, and he doesn’t know if that’s why he does it so slowly, sliding the razor several times over the same grooves. Before pulling up the metal stopper, he looks for the crack in the tile behind the hot water tap. He only has to feel around for a few seconds. There it is. A quarter turn of the wrench scraped the enamel when it was installed. He moves a bit closer, raises his chin to shave a dimple, then he wipes his face. He packs everything up with the carefulness of a murderer and goes outside.
He needs a ladder from the garage to take down the swing. He remembers when the girls swung in it, a photo of Miriam rocking back and forth with the littlest one in her arms. He wondered where that photo was, if it had been lost in the most recent move. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The girls are grown, they’re busy with other things. He tries to remove the nails, but they’ve been encrusted in the tree for so long that they’ve become part of the branch. He gets the pruning shears and cuts the ropes. The seat hits the ground with a thud.
He’s tired from the effort. His heart pounds, for a different reason than it did back then, a faraway sound, like from the bottom of a well.
The lounge chair is still in the garden. He straddles it and looks at the woods in front of him. Someone has left behind a book of crossword puzzles, open to the middle. It must’ve been Miriam. She always starts things with manic enthusiasm then never finishes, he thinks. He picks the book up by its spine, the same way he’d pick up a puppy by the scruff of its neck, and tries to fill in the three horizontal lines that are missing. Mesopotaminan River, six letters. Roman emperor, eight. C-L-A-U-D-I-U-S. Claudius fits, but he doesn’t have a pen. He’d have to go inside and rummage through the drawers to find one. He crumples the book and throws it against a tree. The wind violently ruffles the top pages.
“I’ll put it all in the car and get rid of it,” he says aloud.
He remains in that position for a few seconds. He caresses the striped fabric of the lounge chair, the holes that time and use have left on its surface. He should fold it up, but he’s not sure he remembers how. He could stuff it in somehow, even if he had to leave the trunk open, and toss it onto the dump, beside the shredded couches, washing machine chassis. To seal the goodbye, he takes the keys out of his jeans’ pocket and stabs the longest one into the foam cushion. Another hole, new, fresh, intentional, separates a blue stripe from a white one. And no one will ever bother to sew it up.
He stands up and drags himself out of the small garden, his eyes fixed on the river. He can see it through the trees which have become denser with the summer. He feels like he’s following someone’s trail, a guide, past the property line. Under his feet, the ground is wet. In the canopy of the tallest tree, he hears a bird singing. He listens. He wonders if it will still be perched there when this place no longer belongs to him and he thinks that it will be, for a long time, until the next cold season. He turns around, admires the overgrown lawn that reaches the base of the house, the subtle yellowish color, the gray stone wall. He continues walking. He pushes aside some branches that weren’t there last year, or any previous year. It’s like pushing back a lush curtain. Then he can see, from afar, without having to walk down to the bank, Ruth’s silhouette stepping out of the water, her legs, her rounded shoulders, her hair soaked from the swim, with the unsteady wobble of someone standing on rounded pebbles.
“Take off that old jacket,” she’d shout from the water, her arms outstretched.
Miriam welcomed them today with her arms outstretched.
“Welcome to your home,” she’d said, fluidly, but her pronunciation had been better when she’d rehearsed it beforehand.
Miriam speaks only basic English and the English don’t speak any Spanish at all. It doesn’t matter. They really like the Galician wine Rafael keeps in the pantry.
“Bueno, muy bueno,” they say in unison. That much they can say.
Rafael goes inside proceeded by a mouthful of smoke that he doesn’t try to hide. In front of him, Miriam holds a bottle by the neck. She wipes it with a cloth before removing the cork. The English are starting to get a little drunk, they speak quickly to each other and Miriam can’t keep up. They’ve sat on the couch with their glasses in their hands. You’d think they’d lived there all their lives. Miriam has turned on the television and tries to explain a game show. They seem interested, but maybe they’re just being polite and don’t actually understand anything.
“Come here, sit with us,” Miriam says.
But he remains standing beside the window, hoping they finish all the wine, until there’s nothing left there.
Outside the window, on the other side of the garden, the hillside waves gently, like a huge carpet being shaken out and left flapping in the wind.
Ruth worked at his company, which made their meetings very easy. They left work at the same time, met on the second level of the parking garage. No one parked there because they could park on the street level and save themselves a few flights of stairs. Ruth was twenty-five years old, her eyes were murky and her nose was straight. She was always preceded by the echo of her heels on the cement floor of the parking garage.
In the beginning, he didn’t take her to the house. At first they went to the hostels on the outskirts of town, trying not to repeat the same ones too often. Ruth reserved the rooms herself. He remembered her boldness, always ready to play. On one occasion, they’d ended up in a hotel at the airport. The planes roared like furious elephants and then they couldn’t hear anything. Then a terrifying silence. Out the window, like now, but in another place, was the glass-walled side of a terminal.
As he drove, Ruth sat beside him, her svelte ballerina’s neck, her cheeks, her perfume mixed with the smell of the office collected behind her neck.
“I like your car,” she’d say. “Have I ever told you l like your car?”
They’d sit and have coffee at the metal table in the garden. Ruth’s blouse wet from her hair. She stretched out sometimes on the striped chair, recently purchased at the time, and closed her eyes, but she didn’t fall asleep. Without makeup or with smudges of mascara under her eyes she was even more attractive. Rafael walked around barefoot and he didn’t think about her, he thought about the days that would come, about all the Fridays of his life that would be completely uneventful, exactly the same as that one.
“Is there any cheese left in the fridge?” asked Ruth.
On one occasion they shared a cake, him standing, her sitting on the countertop. They didn’t even use plates. Rafael doesn’t want to recall whether it was left over from a kid’s party, one of the girls’ birthdays.
“Is there any wine in the kitchen?” Miriam asks. “I think these people drank it all.”
“If there’s none left in the pantry, we’re all out.”
He looks Miriam in the eye. Her face reminds him of all the photos they’ve put into the photo albums.
The English finally understand how the game show works and are overcome with a kind of euphoria. It consists of guessing a location through images that appear for a few seconds on screen. They assure them that there is a similar TV program in their country. They go silent when the image of a very tall tower shaped like a mushroom appears.
“Toronto, Canada,” says the English man, accentuating the first A.
The game show host confirms the answer. Miriam claps.
“Muy bien, muy Bueno.”
She says this in Spanish. They understand and the English man responds by sticking up his thumbs in a gesture of triumph.
Rafael sits in one of the chairs at the table where they had dinner, at a prudential distance from the others. Crumpled paper napkins and breadcrumbs on the tablecloth, dried pâté on the dessert plates. He rubs his chin, shaved this morning. The glass of the window returns his translucent and deformed reflection, his hair gray and too long, his bulging abdomen that now makes him uncomfortable in certain positions, like when tying his shoes or fertilizing the hydrangeas.
“We’ll be good friends for a long time,” Ruth had promised.
He’s suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief, deep relief and sadness. He tries to remember the name of the blond guy, Julian or Jaime, the reason Ruth never went back into the river. When the company retired him early, he drove by the new offices many times. Sometimes he was tempted to go down into the parking garage, look for her red Golf. He never had the nerve. She’d probably bought a new car by now, a convertible. She might even have a child.
The English sleep in what is now already their former bedroom. Rafael can’t fall asleep. He hears distant noises in the night, an intermittent flapping of wings. His insomnia pulls his thoughts to the tank of the toilet on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. He imagines the trickle of water, the calcium solidifying slowly on the walls of the bowl. Miriam drank a little too much and her breathing, from the other single bed, is rhythmic. She hugs a pillow tightly.
They’re spending the night in the room where the girls used to sleep. There’s a sky of glowing stars above their heads, missing the heavier planets which over time came unstuck as the glue deteriorated. Rafael sleeps in some uncertain location between the moon and Orion.
In the morning a sharp light comes in through the vertical slats of the shutters. He feels someone shaking his shoulder.
“Come on, man, get up.”
His head is heavy. He slept badly, in fits and starts, waking up every once in a while and wondering where he was. He suddenly remembers. The last hours of light, some loose tiles on the shed that he fixed that morning, the hands of the English man gripping the right side of the page, the tip of the pen signing the check. He feels an almost imperceptible twist of his heart, which disappears almost immediately.
“Let’s go, what are you waiting for, let’s get out of here.”
It’s the first time he’s heard Miriam use this expression. He sits up, annoyed, and puts on his jacket. He slept in his clothes. His body leaves a deep groove in the bedspread. He rubs his hand over the top, but the wrinkles don’t disappear. It’s Miriam who closes the front door, after placing the set of keys on the table in the entryway.
“You think they’ll see them?” she asks once they’re already outside.
Rafael shrugs his shoulders. He stares into the hedges with an expression of boredom, he sighs. He remembers for an instant Ruth’s face with her makeup smudged and all he knows is that one of her nostrils was smaller than the other.
“They’ll see the keys, right?” Miriam asks again.
Miriam looks up to the windows on the second floor. A few fluffy clouds chase each other across the bright blue sky. Rafael is certain Miriam is going to say something to him, that she’s going to ask him to force open the door to write them a note and stick it to the fridge or something like that, but then she gets in the car and says in a girlish voice: “Will you drive me to the city?”
The gravel crunches under the weight of the tires. Rafael reverses. He’s always afraid of running over the dog when he does this and he opens the door to see better, but the dog died of old age and is buried under the oak. He pictures the girls’ hot tears as he threw shovelfuls of dirt over the animal.
Under the back wheels there’s nothing but a gentle slope and the white rocks marking the way out.