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The Olive Green Dress

El vestido verde aceituna
by Silvina Ocampo
Translated from Spanish by
Suzanne Jill Levine & Katie Lateef-Jan
Issue 31 Online Exclusive

Las vidrieras venían a su encuentro. Había salido nada más que para hacer compras esa mañana. Miss Hilton se sonrojaba fácilmente, tenía una piel transparente de papel manteca, como los paquetes en los cuales se ve todo lo que viene envuelto; pero dentro de esas transparencias había capas delgadísimas de misterio, detrás de las ramificaciones de venas que crecían como un arbolito sobre su frente. No tenía ninguna edad y uno creía sorprender en ella un gesto de infancia, jus­to en el momento en que se acentuaban las arrugas más profundas de la cara y la blancura de las trenzas. Otras veces uno creía sorprender en ella una lisura de muchacha joven y un pelo muy rubio, justo en el mo­mento en que se acentuaban los gestos intermitentes de la vejez.

Había viajado por todo el mundo en un barco de carga, envuelta en marineros y humo negro. Conocía América y casi todo el Oriente. Soñaba siempre vol­ver a Ceilán. Allí había conocido a un indio que vivía en un jardín rodeado de serpientes. Miss Hilton se bañaba con un traje de baño largo y grande como un globo a la luz de la luna, en un mar tibio donde uno buscaba el agua indefinidamente, sin encontrarla, por­que era de la misma temperatura que el aire. Se había comprado un sombrero ancho de paja con un pavo real pintado encima, que llovía alas en ondas sobre su cara pensativa. Le habían regalado piedras y pulseras, le habían regalado chales y serpientes embalsamadas, pájaros apolillados que guardaba en un baúl, en la casa de pensión. Toda su vida estaba encerrada en aquel baúl, toda su vida estaba consagrada a juntar modes­tas curiosidades a lo largo de sus viajes, para después, en un gesto de intimidad suprema que la acercaba súbitamente a los seres, abrir el baúl y mostrar uno por uno sus recuerdos. Entonces volvía a bañarse en las playas tibias de Ceilán, volvía a viajar por la China, donde un chino amenazó matarla si no se casaba con él. Volvía a viajar por España, donde se desmayaba en las corridas de toros, debajo de las alas de pavo real del sombrero que temblaba anunciándole de antemano, como un termómetro, su desmayo. Volvía a viajar por Italia. En Venecia iba de dama de compañía de una argentina. Había dormido en un cuarto debajo de un cielo pintado donde descansaba sobre una par­va de pasto una pastora vestida de color rosa con una hoz en la mano. Había visitado todos los museos. Le gustaban más que los canales las calles angostas, de cementerio, de Venecia, donde sus piernas corrían y no se dormían como en las góndolas.

The display windows came forward to meet her. She had left the house only to go shopping that morning. Miss Hilton blushed easily and had translucent skin like wax paper, like those packages you can see through to all that’s wrapped inside. But inside those transparencies were the thinnest layers of mystery, behind branching veins that grew like a little tree on her forehead. She was ageless and sometimes one seemed to catch her making some childish gesture, just at the moment when the deepest wrinkles on her face stood out, as well as her long white hair. Other times she seemed to have smooth skin like a young girl and very blonde hair, precisely at the moment when her sporadic gestures of old age seemed to stand out.

She had traveled all over the world on a cargo ship, surrounded by sailors and black smoke. She knew America and almost all of Asia. She was always dreaming of returning to Ceylon.[1] There she had met an Indian man who lived in a garden filled with snakes. Miss Hilton would bathe in a long ample bathing suit, like a balloon in the moonlight, in a lukewarm sea where one was always seeking water without finding it, because it was the same temperature as the air. She had bought a wide straw hat with a peacock painted on top, which would rain wings in waves on her pensive face. She had been given precious stones and bracelets, shawls, embalmed snakes and moth-eaten birds that she kept in a trunk, in the boarding house. Her whole life was locked up in that trunk; her whole life was consecrated to gathering modest curiosities on all her trips, in order afterwards, in a supreme gesture that brought her into sudden intimacy with other beings, to open the trunk and, one by one, display her memories. Then she would once again bathe in the warm waters of Ceylon, once again travel around China, where a Chinese man threatened to kill her if she didn’t marry him. She would return to Spain where she’d faint at the bullfights, under the peacock wings of her hat that trembled, announcing beforehand, like a thermometer, the fainting spell. She would return to Italy: in Venice she was lady-in-waiting to an Argentine heiress. She had slept in a room under a painted ceiling where a shepherdess dressed in pink rested on a haystack with a sickle in her hand. She had visited all the museums. More than the canals she liked Venice’s narrow streets, like the rows of a cemetery, where her legs would run and not fall asleep as in the gondolas.

She found herself in the Anchor haberdashery, buying hairpins to keep her long thin braids wrapped around her head. She liked the shop windows of haberdasheries for a certain tasty atmosphere with their rows of candy-colored buttons, sewing kits in the shape of candy boxes, and lace edging made of paper. The hairpins had to be golden. Her last pupil, who was crazy about hairdos, had begged to do her hair one day when, recovering from a cold, she wasn’t allowed to go out for a walk. Miss Hilton had given in because there was nobody in the house: she had let her hair be done by the hands of her fourteen-year-old pupil and from that day on had adopted that braid hairdo, seen from the front with her own eyes, a Greek head, but seen from the back by the eyes of others, a jumble of loose hairs that fell like rain over her wrinkled neck. From that day on, several painters had looked at her persistently, and one of them had asked permission to do a portrait of her, because of her extraordinary resemblance to Miss Edith Cavell. The days that she was going to pose for the painter, Miss Hilton wore an olive green velvet dress that was thick like the upholstery of an ancient prie-dieu. The painter’s studio was hazy with smoke, but Miss Hilton’s straw hat carried her to infinite sunny regions, near the outskirts of Bombay.

On the walls hung paintings of naked women, but she liked the landscapes with sunsets, and one afternoon she took her pupil to show her a painting where you could see a flock of sheep under a tree gilded by the setting sun. Miss Hilton looked around desperately for the painting, while the two of them waited for the painter. There was no landscape; all the paintings had turned into naked women, and it was a naked woman who had the beautiful hairdo with braids in a painting recently done on an easel. In front of her pupil that day, Miss Hilton had posed stiffer than ever, against the window, swathed in her velvet dress.

The next morning, when she went to her pupil’s house, nobody was there. On the table in the study she was met by an envelope with the money they owed her for half the month, with a little card that said in big indignant letters, written by the lady of the house: “We don’t want teachers who have such little modesty.” Miss Hilton didn’t quite get the meaning of the sentence; the word modesty swam around her head dressed in olive green velvet. She felt growing in her a woman who was easily a femme fatale, and went home with her face flushed as if she had just played a game of tennis.

Opening her purse to pay for the hairpins, she found the insulting card that still peered out amid the papers, and she looked at it furtively as if it were a pornographic photograph.

 

 

[1] In 1937 when these stories were written, Sri Lanka, which would change its name in 1972, was still known as Ceylon under British colonial rule.

 

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Reprinted with the permission of City Lights, from Forgotten Journey by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Suzanne Jilll Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan. Forthcoming from City Lights Books in October 2019.

Silvina Ocampo (1903–1993) was a central figure of Argentine literary circles. She was an early contributor to Argentina's Sur magazine, where she worked closely with its founder, her sister Victoria Ocampo; Adolfo Bioy Casares, her husband; and Jorge Luis Borges. (Photo credit: Adolfo Bioy Casares)
Translator
Suzanne Jill Levine is General Editor of Penguin's paperback classics of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry and essays, and a noted translator of Latin American prose and poetry by distinguished writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Jose Donoso, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Director of Translation Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, her most recent published translation is Cristina Rivera Garza's The Taiga Syndrome (The Dorothy Project, 2018).
Translator
Katie Lateef-Jan is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara in Comparative Literature with a doctoral emphasis in Translation Studies. Her research focuses on twentieth-century Latin American literature, specifically Argentine fantastic fiction. She is the co-editor with Suzanne Jill Levine of Untranslatability Goes Global: The Translator's Dilemma (2018). Her translations from the Spanish have appeared in Granta, Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, and ZYZZYVA.