Passion is a fungus. It takes root in the lungs, the eyes, the pulse. The words infestation, control, servitude, sickness are not uttered until the plague has already spread too far to be eliminated through the futile exercise of human will. Selva Almada writes a story about the coveting of another man’s wife, this old yet intolerably current sin: wanting what is not mine. And more: wanting what is yours. Trapped in the middle, a woman who is no one’s property—although she is considered such—a woman whose thoughts and desires are unknown to all. So who is the foreman’s wife? What does she think of these men who desire her? What does she think of the way they view the feminine sex? A story about the place held by women in a hyper-masculine universe. A story with infinite ramifications. And, also, a story you can’t stop reading until the end.
Sitting on each side of the double bed, Jana Rietter and I watch over the wounded man. The yellow light from the kerosene lamp gives the room a ghostly atmosphere. Despite the large open windows, the heat is still unbearable at midnight. The sweat from my back and chest soak through my shirt.
From time to time, Rietter moves, says unintelligible things in a thick and guttural voice, as if the words were coming up from the bottom of a well. Then she leans over him and places the moistened rag on his forehead. That calms him.
The weak light allows me to watch her without her noticing.
Jana has a face like a bird: small round eyes, a little bit too far apart, shiny; small mouth with thin lips; a long neck. She wouldn’t have been a particularly pretty bird, her hair is a dull blonde color and her voice is rough. But as a woman, she’s pretty. Hers is a slightly eccentric beauty, to be sure: you have to get used to looking at her in order to find her pretty. Probably because she’s so different to the women here.
The first time I saw her I thought her perfectly plain and I remember that it made me happy: I thought it was better for her, for her husband, and for everyone. An attractive woman in such a masculine environment can cause problems in the long run.
From time to time she looks at me and smiles. I suppose it’s her way of thanking me for staying with her. Or with her husband.
Under the bloodstained bandages on his thigh, Rietter’s leg is a mash of ripped flesh and tissue. It must be very painful. If he hadn’t swallowed an entire bottle of whiskey, he’d surely be shrieking with pain. But he forbids us to call the doctor. No need to cause such a fuss, he said.
Rietter the German arrived a little under a year ago to take over the foreman position at the lumber mill. The previous one had an accident with a machine. I take care of the books and manage the workers. I’m Rietter’s right hand, just like I was with the last one. I was the one who welcomed them and helped them get settled in the house the company reserves for the foremen. It’s the only company house, actually, because the rest of the employees live in the makeshift wooden barracks.
Rietter took to me immediately. He doesn’t get along with the workers, he looks down on them, and he’s thankful to have me as a mediator.
You help me avoid having to get mixed up with them, he told me more than once: Do you notice how they’re all so shifty eyed? I don’t like it. It seems like they’re always plotting something against you when you try to talk to them.
Despite his friendliness toward me, his attitude makes it perfectly clear that I’m not like him: if I were, one of us would be useless here. But, to his eyes, I’m not like them either, which is what I think he admires most about me.
Perhaps as a gesture of gratitude or because I’m the only person he has any interaction with here, shortly after his arrival he invited me to dinner at his house and since then I’ve eaten with them every single night.
On the first few evenings, we talked about work, politics, and things like that. The foreman is a great conversationalist and he always finds something to talk about. The references he makes to his past are vague and he never gives details about his reasons for coming here. But from his comments I’ve picked up that he’s spent his entire life in big cities. He might have managed a factory at some point.
It took Jana Rietter a few months to get used to my regular presence at her table. She’s a very shy woman. Although she was always friendly, I sometimes thought that it bothered her to have me as a dinner guest every single night, that she saw it as an intrusion and even an abuse of her hospitality. I said this to the German but he brushed off my worries with a wave of his hand. Of course not, he said, she likes you, it just takes her a while to get used to new faces: you’ll see, you’re going to be great friends.
Although that’s not exactly how it happened, little by little she began to join our conversations.
After dinner, the three of us would sit on the porch and have another bottle of wine. Sometimes we’d sit for a long time in silence, listening to the sounds of the woods, dark, dense, outlined against a sky plagued with stars. One night, I caught a glimpse of Rietter’s hand caressing his wife’s bare calf; that’s when I knew it was time for me to go.
Alone, in the darkness of my bunk, I smoked my last cigarette and I went to sleep thinking about the intimate relations I’d just witnessed the preface to and that surely progressed as soon as I’d left. The section of Jana’s milky skin sticking out from under her skirt flashed over and over in my mind until I fell asleep.
In his stupor, Rietter swipes at the air and tries to remove his bandages. I hold his right arm still for a few minutes until he stops flailing. Jana looks at me, alarmed, and I smile to make her feel better.
I look at the time. It’s a little past one in the morning. On a regular night, Rietter and I would be going in to El Descanso, the whorehouse some six kilometers away.
One time, about two or three months after we met, he asked me if I ever went there. I told him I did. For a moment, I was afraid that a happily married man like him might disapprove, but I’m a bachelor in the end and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone. But his face lit up: I’d like to go with you, he said. Of course, I answered, one of these nights… And why not tonight, he suggested.
At that moment, his wife was cleaning the kitchen and I couldn’t help but glance in her direction. Oh, don’t worry about Jana, he said.
For some reason it really bothered me. I can’t today, I told him. That’s all right, he said, we can go tomorrow. Do you know how to drive? I told him I did. Perfect, he said.
Now I think that my anger that night was because I’d started to take an interest in Jana. Deep down I must’ve thought that he was giving her a raw deal and that if I had a wife like her I’d never even think of betraying her with a whore. It might’ve been that very night that I started to see the foreman’s wife in a new light.
The next night, as if she were trying to make things easier on us, Jana excused herself as soon as we finished eating, saying she was very tired, and she went to her bedroom without even clearing the table.
Then Rietter and I took off.
As I drove his car down the bumpy road, I thought that the German had been lucky that night, Jana’s turning in early had saved us the excuse that I’d been thinking up all afternoon, as if I were the one who had something to hide. But over time I realized that what had happened that night was no coincidence. The situation repeated itself a few times a week: Jana claimed to be tired and we were free to go to El Descanso.
Of course, I never had the nerve to ask him how he handled the issue with his wife. At first I felt uncomfortable around her, as if I were taking her husband away, driving him into the arms of other women. But it didn’t seem like anything had changed between them. Jana didn’t treat me any differently either: she was the same friendly hostess as always.
Not only was Rietter crazy about hookers, they were fascinated by him too. More than once the owner of the bar had to intervene and force them to go with other clients. If it were up to them, they’d spend all night fluttering around the German, fighting over the honor of rolling around with him in one of the rooms. This caused a good deal of ill will among the other men and often led to episodes of violence against the women. No one would’ve dared get into it with Rietter.
Jana slips out of the room. I rub my palm over the sheets. On this very bed, Rietter has his way with her whenever he feels like it. Lying just like he is now, with her straddled across his hips, naked and sweaty, her breasts swaying with the movements of sex.
In the darkness, Jana’s white body must shine like those tiny invertebrates that live in the depths of the seas.
For the last few months, I’ve taken Rietter to the whorehouse every night. I’ve even loaned him money. I hoped that if he satisfied himself with those women, he wouldn’t want to touch his wife later. At the same time, I hoped she’d get fed up with his escapades. Maybe she’d confide her distress in me. The obvious didn’t occur to me: since I went there along with Rietter every night, I was probably no better than him in her eyes.
Despite my hopes, Rietter’s marriage seemed to be better than ever. Although they were very reserved and unaffectionate, it was clear they weren’t putting on a front for me, the only spectator to their domestic life: they truly got along well.
This made me mad at her. Alone in my bunk, unable to fall asleep, I sometimes sympathized with the foreman: I told myself that Jana must be useless and that’s why he spent all night at the whorehouse. Other times I thought that if Rietter liked prostitutes so much, it wouldn’t be surprising if his wife, in the past, had been one herself. Then I’d go crazy with jealousy: I no longer cared about Rietter but about the long line of men that had been able to so easily access what was forbidden to me. To get her out of my head, I looked to other women; but no matter what I did with them, in my head, it was always her I was doing it with.
After these fits of fury, I’d see her again, serving dinner or neatly rolling a cigarette in the darkness of the porch, and I’d feel ashamed and I’d have to resist the urge to throw myself at her feet and beg her forgiveness.
The German is no fool and for a while now I’ve known he’s aware of my feelings for his wife. Sometimes, I suspect that even he encourages it. I think it all started with the photo session.
Rietter is a photography aficionado. He once offered to take my portrait. He said I had a very photogenic face. Then he started adding Jana in to the compositions (that’s what he calls them: compositions). He has us pose, forcing us to stand very close together for a long time, our bodies brushing against each other. We usually have to repeat the same scene several times. He scolds Jana for not being sufficiently enthusiastic and we have to do it over. He’s taken dozens of photos of us, although I’ve never seen a single one. Me sitting and her standing with her hands resting on my shoulders. The two of us with our arms around each other’s waists. Sitting on the checkered tablecloth, my head in her lap, acting out a picnic scene. Standing right next to each other, leaning on the porch railing. As if in his hands, we were kids playing house.
She seems to dislike having her photo taken. Every time we touch under Rietter’s gaze, spying on us through the lens of the camera, I feel her body tense. But he confided in me one night that he had a very nice series of nudes of his wife. I was afraid he’d offer to show them to me, but he didn’t.
I’m startled by Jana’s hand on my shoulder. Come, she says. We walk out into the warm night. On the little porch table sits a plate of cheese, bread, and pickled nutria. Also two glasses and a bottle of wine.
Have a seat. Eat something, she says: you haven’t had a bite since all this started. It’s true. I hadn’t realized I was starving.
She eats a bit of bread and cheese too, taking little bites. Like a bird.
Moths dance around the gas light. They flutter, crazed, blinded by the brightness; every now and then one of them manages to fly right into the glass tube and they burst into flames. The others don’t seem to notice their friend’s immolation. The one inside idiotically bangs against the tube trying to break through the glass barrier until it falls into the very center of the flame. It quickly burns out with an almost imperceptible crackle.
That afternoon, Rietter and I had gone hunting. We had to go deep into the woods, an hour on foot, until we found the tracks of a wild hog. I proposed we separate. An imprudent measure on my part since I knew Rietter was an inexperienced hunter and he’d never encountered one of those animals. But I didn’t think anything bad would happen. It’s true that over the previous days I’d been fantasizing about something definitive happening to him, but it was his idea to go hunting. Hunting isn’t a sport that interests me, even though as a teenager, encouraged by my father, I did a lot of it. The night before, Rietter had said: I’ve lived out here in the woods a year and we haven’t gone hunting once. You’re coming with me tomorrow. They told me the woods were full of wild hogs. I told him it was true, that the place was crawling with wild boars, but that I wasn’t the best companion for those kinds of outings. But like any time he got an idea into his head, the German wouldn’t take no for an answer. The next day, he was waiting for me with the shotguns ready. So we went.
It’s true that I shouldn’t have left him alone. I remember having moved farther away from him than necessary. But looking back it wasn’t enough. I clearly heard Rietter’s shouts and the shot of his rifle. Then, a thick silence. The sounds of the woods had suddenly stopped. I started to make my way through the low branches. Quickly, but not panicked. As if I accepted that I was too late. I remember that’s what I thought: it’s already over now.
When I got to the spot, Rietter was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The animal, also bloody, was barely moving about a meter away. It fixed a glassy eye on me. Rietter was immobile and his eyes were closed. I leaned over and he suddenly opened them. Where the hell did you go, he asked. Then he sat halfway up, resting his weight on his elbows, and he looked at the hog. Did I kill it? Then he said: I killed it! And he let out a loud laugh. Then, the relief and remorse disappeared in an instant and a deep and burning rage began to spread through my chest. Let’s go, man, don’t just stand there: don’t you see my leg’s injured, he said. I dragged him to a clearing and I went in search of help.
Up to now, I haven’t had time to relive the sequence of events. What would’ve happened if Rietter hadn’t managed to shoot it in time? More than likely the boar would’ve killed him. How would his wife have taken it? When we got back and she saw he was injured, Jana barely expressed alarm. For a second I thought that she’d also been hoping for an accident like that afternoon’s. In reality that thought was more wishful thinking than anything else. Evidently, Jana was a practical woman and instead of becoming frantic and sobbing with worry like any other woman in her situation would’ve, she’d calmly administered first aid to her husband.
As we cleaned his wound, the foreman stared at me for two long minutes. I was afraid he’d accuse me of some evil intentions. But he just started laughing and said: You thought I was dead? You don’t know me: it takes more than one of those beasts to get me out of the way, right Jana? I turned red, even though he was joking. Then he said: Oh, Jana, we must be thankful that our friend was near: if it weren’t for him I’d have bled to death in those woods. She smiled.
Do you have a light? Her voice brings me back to her side. It must be around four in the morning. Above the trees, the sky has that indefinite color of the hour before dawn.
Without realizing it, we’ve finished a bottle of wine, each given over to our own thoughts. I’ll never know hers. Jana Rietter is a mysterious woman.
I’ll go get Dr. Malthus in the morning, I tell her.
I don’t like Malthus, she says.
He’s a good doctor, I say.
My husband likes him as well, she says. And after a moment: It’s fine, bring him.
When she finishes her cigarette, she stands up and walks inside. I overtake her in the middle of the living room and I pull her into my arms. There is no surprise in her eyes; just something like curiosity. I kiss her and Jana Rietter’s mouth opens naturally to mine. It’s wet, warm, and sweet. Her tongue has traces of tobacco and wine. The kiss lasted just an instant, but it seemed like the longest kiss of my life.
Then she pushed me away firmly. Leave, she ordered.
Before leaving, I take one last glance through the open bedroom door. In the middle of the bed, Rietter seems to have finally fallen asleep.