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The Tomb Garden

El jardín de las tumbas
by Amparo Dávila
Translated from Spanish by
Matthew Gleeson & Audrey Harris
Issue 31 Online Exclusive

A Diego de Mesa

 

I

…a la entrada de la capilla hay una inscripción en latín que yo leo siempre cuando cruzo la puerta… La memoria fue tan fiel que sintió como si hiciera muy poco tiempo desde la última vez que estuvo en el convento. Recordaba con toda claridad el gran patio central con su majestuosa arquería, la capilla a un lado, el jardín, el enorme comedor con su larga mesa, las galerías, las celdas, el escritorio de su padre, donde siempre lo encontraba escribiendo, leyendo, pensando; la puerta que separaba el mundo de la luz y el mundo de la sombra, el mundo de lo conocido y el mundo de lo desconocido, de aquel misterio temido y anhelado…

…todos los veranos salimos de vacaciones y mi familia renta un viejo convento abandonado para ir a descansar y a huir del calor de la ciudad. Yo debo haber tenido unos cuantos meses la primera vez que me llevaron al convento y desde entonces no hemos dejado de ir verano tras verano durante muchos años. ¡Qué felices somos mis hermanos y yo de dejar por un tiempo el departamento de la ciudad, la escuela y las tareas, de tener todo el día para jugar y tanto espacio!

…comenzamos a hacer planes y preparativos para las vacaciones con varios meses de anticipación. Seleccionamos cuidadosamente los juguetes y la ropa que vamos a llevar y ahorramos casi todo el dinero que mi padre nos da los domingos, para dulces y helados. Con ese dinero compramos las cosas que necesitamos para nuestros juegos…

…durante el día el viejo convento es un lugar maravilloso. Las horas se nos van jugando a la pelota en el patio central o en el jardín. Nuestro jardín fue el cementerio de los frailes y está lleno de tumbas que sólo tienen unas lápidas de cantera al nivel del suelo; en algunas todavía se pueden leer los nombres de los monjes, en otras están ya borrados. Sólo hay una tumba grande con monumento, la de un obispo que, según cuentan, vino a visitar el convento y se murió de pronto. Nosotros corremos y brincamos sobre las tumbas atrapando ardillas o cazando mariposas; otras veces somos exploradores en busca de grandes tesoros cuyo hallazgo nos convertirá de la noche a la mañana en señores poderosos… No pudo menos que sonreír. La lectura del diario lo complacía y no dejó de sentir nostalgia de aquella edad tan desprovista de malicia literaria y de las complicaciones de la vida.

for Diego de Mesa

 

I

…at the entrance to the chapel there’s a Latin inscription I read every time I cross the threshold… The memory was so precise that he felt hardly any time had passed since the last time he’d been in the monastery. He remembered with utter clarity the large central patio with its majestic arches, the chapel on one side, the garden, the huge dining room with its long table, the galleries, the cells; his father’s desk, where he always found him writing, reading, thinking; the door that separated the world of daylight from the world of shadow, the known from the feared, longed-for unknown…

every summer we go on vacation and my family rents an old abandoned monastery where we relax and get away from the heat of the city. I must have been just a few months old the first time they brought me to the monastery, and since then we’ve come every year without missing a single summer. My brothers and I are so happy to leave the apartment in the city for a while, to escape school and homework, to have the whole day for playing and so much space!

…we start making plans and getting ready for summer vacation months beforehand. We carefully pick out the toys and clothes we’re going to bring, and we save almost all the money Father gives us on Sundays for candy and ice cream. We use this money to buy the things we need for our games…

…during the day the old monastery is an incredible place. The hours fly by while we play ball in the main patio or the garden. Our garden was the monks’ cemetery, and it’s full of graves that are marked only by gravestones set in the dirt; on some of them you can still read the monks’ names, others are already worn away. There’s only one big tomb with a monument, which people say belongs to a bishop who came to visit the monastery and died suddenly. We run and jump over the graves, catching squirrels or chasing butterflies; other times we’re explorers in search of great treasures which, if we find them, will turn us into rich and powerful lords overnight… He couldn’t help smiling. Reading the diary pleased him, and he still felt nostalgia for that time of life when he had been so innocent of literary concerns and life’s complications. He had kept it from the age of nine to sixteen, and it was divided in two parts: the first contained episodes from his childhood and the second the beginning of his life as a young man. He’d stopped writing the diary when he left for France. He’d felt then that he was moving on to a more serious stage of life and that the diary was a sign of adolescence…

…when night falls everything wears a different face. Our castle (we pretend the monastery is a fairy-tale castle) transforms into a series of long, dark galleries submerged in silence. Nothing could make us go into the garden or cross the main patio alone; in the moonlight they’re filled with terrifying, monstrous shadows. The peach and almond trees sway in the wind like specters swooping down on us… Marcos lit a cigarette and stoked the fire in the fireplace; winter was coming and the nights were growing cold. He had come home to his apartment intending to finish the essay he’d promised Pablo for his journal, and while looking up some bibliographic references he had found the old diary. And now he didn’t feel like working. Really, he felt too tired to try to write. It had been a long day— just thinking about everything he’d done exhausted him…

…my brothers and I have always been sure that the treasure the monks buried when they left the monastery is in the bishop’s tomb. We excavate around the sides of the monument, trying to tunnel our way to the bishop’s coffin. We take turns digging, and one of us, or a friend, climbs a tree to keep watch for any intruder who might tell our parents on us. When they call us to come eat, we carefully cover the holes with branches and dirt so no one will suspect what we’re doing and beat us to the treasure…

…we’ve never reached the bishop’s coffin because the holes we dig one day are full of dirt again the next. If we ever reach it, I wonder if we’ll be brave enough to open it; no doubt the treasure’s there, but so is the bishop, eaten by worms, his eyes gone, and just the thought of him is too much for us. Just for desecrating his tomb, he comes for me every night…

…we have dinner at seven; our father sits at the head of the long table. We children aren’t allowed to speak, and we always eat in silence. When we finish, Father gives thanks for the dinner, the day we’ve lived through, and many other things. Then we say goodnight and go upstairs to bed. I go first because I’m the youngest, and we each carry a candle. Both of my brothers sleep in the same cell; I sleep alone. Our nanny Jacinta comes with me and stays while I undress; once I’m in bed she blows out the candle and leaves the cell. Then the night of terror begins for me, and I don’t know, I’ll never know, if it’s the same for my brothers. I’ve never been able to tell them how scared I feel or anything about what happens to me at night; I’m afraid they’ll make fun of me and give me some ridiculous, embarrassing nickname. I want to shout to my nanny not to leave me alone, not to blow out the candle, but I’m too ashamed to say a word… At forty years old he still couldn’t conquer his fear of the dark. He felt lost in the dark and sometimes found himself paralyzed—he always felt like he was about to stumble into something, or he had the strange sensation that he wasn’t in his house, or wherever he’d been when the lights went out, that he was in another unfamiliar place where presences surrounded him, pressing in on him, coming closer and closer…

…the shadowy world of darkness and growing silence casts its spell on me when I’m alone in the cell, a cold and sticky sweat trickles down my forehead, my heart beats loudly, and a thousand shadows stir. I shrink into my bed until I’m curled into a ball and pull the blankets up to my nose. I try to think about Christmas or my birthday, about school prizes, but it’s useless, nothing can distract me or calm my fears. I can never close my eyes, because I sense that this increases the danger. Time slows down, and the nights are eternal. Shadows coming and going, murmurs, footsteps, the rustle of monks’ habits, flutterings, dragging chains, whispered prayers, low moans, an icy wind cutting me to the bone, and then the bishop without a face before me, his face gone, his eyes gone, empty… Sometimes he would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night; the faint light of the moon or the streetlights filtering in through the blinds would have a bluish tinge, almost metallic, and everything would begin to spin inside that disturbing atmosphere. His heart would beat violently and a cold fright would course through him, finally paralyzing him completely when he realized he wasn’t alone—that someone seated in front of his bed was staring at him with empty eye sockets, piercing him to the soul… An eternity of anguish and unbearable dread would pass before his mind began working again and he discovered, or rather understood, that the bishop was only the clothes he’d left flung over the chair…

…when the first light of day starts to seep in through the skylight in the cell, the bishop leaves, together with the shadows and noises. The terror of night fades away, and I begin to recognize the cell and all my things. I stretch out in bed for the first time all night, my arms and legs lose their stiffness, and I fall right to sleep. Soon Jacinta´s voice wakes me…

…I’d like to know how my brothers’ nights are, if they’re anything like mine. But I’ve never dared to ask. At breakfast they’re always fresh and happy, full of plans for the day. Sometimes my mother notices how pale I am, and how I can’t keep from yawning. “Are you sick, dear, did you sleep poorly?” And she looks me over carefully. I rush to assure her that I’m very well and that I slept all night. As I speak, I feel myself turning red, scared my own voice will give me away. I could never bear my parents asking me questions and my brothers mocking me. “So you’re scared of ghosts? And what kind of ghosts are they, son?” I can almost hear my father’s voice and I can even imagine his smile… He still didn’t know much about his brothers—they cared about each other and respected each other in everything, they sought each other out regularly and chatted easily together, but there had always been a kind of inner barrier he couldn’t break through. Maybe he lived wrapped up in his own world and wasn’t interested in being part of theirs. “I wish you were simpler, like your brothers, you live too much inside yourself, my dear,” his mother often told him. “I’d love to know what goes on in your world!” His world was his alone, perpetually full of unease, distress over everything and nothing, anxiety that grew over the years, restlessness, constant boredom with what he had or the desire for something different, going back and forth looking for a place he couldn’t find, a sense of peace he never found, his loneliness a constant burden. Not even his work helped—only while he was producing it did it belong to him, afterward it might as well be someone else’s, so remote, as if it hadn’t been created by him…

 

II

…every night I leave the monastery. While everyone is sleeping I slip out without a sound. I still can’t get over the fear of seeing or sensing the bishop there in the muffled darkness of the cell, the bishop without a face who stalked me for so many years, when all I could do was spend the night frozen with terror… He must have been about sixteen when he began to sneak out at night. He still remembered the excitement of his first breathless escapes, and his fear of being caught by his parents…

…I pretend to go to bed so no one will suspect me, and when everything’s quiet I hurry out of the monastery. In the town tavern I have a few drinks with the campesino boys—I need this to whip up my courage. I feel very self-conscious in front of them, they’re so decisive and direct in everything they do. At first they didn’t really accept me, but little by little I’ve been able to gain their trust and respect…

Last night he’d drunk a lot, stupidly; he felt angry remembering it. The get-together had been going along very pleasantly and everyone was happy. José was definitely a great conversationalist, full of irony, prone to making fun of himself and everyone else. But suddenly that joke José made bothered him; knowing him as well as he did, Marcos was sure he’d already made everyone else laugh at his expense before. He tensed up and started tossing back drink after drink until he fell into a stupor. It was always the same; for one reason or another, or for no reason at all, he drank like a sponge. It used to be out of shyness—“getting up the courage,” as he thought when he was sixteen—but later…

…I can definitely say I live a double life—by day I’m one person in the monastery with my parents and brothers, and by night in the tavern I’m another. There I drink, play cards, dance foxtrot and danzón, and I end the night in Carmen’s narrow bed… He couldn’t explain how despite his great shyness then, when just being around one of his brothers’ girl friends made him blush, he’d sought out the body of a woman to escape the solitude of the night. He still felt that sensation of being the sole survivor of a shipwreck: no voices, no warmth, like falling suddenly into death, solitude of the body and solitude inside, emptiness, darkness, crushing silence. The dread of being alone had always haunted him and always would. Often, when he was already on his way home to sleep, well into the night, after having been at some party, his terror assailed him. He wouldn’t go home—he’d duck into the first bar or café he found open and wait patiently there, having drinks or sipping coffee, until day broke. Often it was six or seven in the morning when he finally arrived at his apartment to find the doorwoman sweeping the sidewalk outside. “Must have been quite a party, young man.” And she’d look at him suspiciously…

…last night they almost caught me. Matilde came out of the kitchen when I thought she’d already gone to bed. I pressed myself against a pillar, almost embedding myself in it, and held my breath. Luckily the wind blew out her candle. She muttered something between her teeth and turned around to light it. I’ve never run so fast in my life. Just thinking they might have caught me and I wouldn’t be able to sneak out at night anymore, I felt sick. In the tavern everyone noticed. “You look like you got a good scare,” said Jacobo when he saw me, and he made me swallow a bunch of wine without stopping for air…

…if my mother knew where I spend my nights, it would upset her terribly and she wouldn’t understand. Mothers are never ready to let their children stop being children. Sometimes when I kiss her goodnight I’m overcome with guilt and remorse for lying to her, but as soon as I enter the cell, all I want is to run away as fast as I can…

…the brawl last night was dangerous, and it’s lucky I didn’t come out of it with a huge bruise on my face. I shouldn’t have stepped in, but if I hadn’t, everyone would have looked down on me and I’d never be able to go back to the tavern again. All day I felt bad, sore and tired, and I didn’t feel like doing anything…

…I’m not in love with Carmen, I have a feeling love should be something different. During the day I hardly even think of her and I don’t feel any need to see her; I wouldn’t even know what to talk about with her. And it’s not that she’s ugly—all the boys think she’s pretty. Sometimes I think I won’t go looking for her anymore, but I can´t leave her, the night doesn’t scare me when I’m by her side, her body is like a refuge… He still believed that love should be something other than this; every time he broke things off with someone he repeated the same thing to himself and hoped it would be different next time, but he was tired now—why not admit it?—tired of so many cheap conquests, , of finding pleasure for pleasure’s sake and nothing more. How he envied his brothers sometimes! And certain friends too, people who found a woman and anchored themselves—they were happy with their small daily lives, which might lack excitement but brought them security and company, not this overwhelming loneliness that grew ever bigger and harder to fill, this wandering around with nowhere to go like a stray dog, even if his address book was filled with the names and phone numbers of a thousand women who meant no more for the most part than a brief fling or a caprice. He felt cold, felt the need to have someone there, a dog, a cat, a familiar face, even if it weren’t true love or a great passion; just some company, to hear footsteps, hear something fall and break, someone else’s breathing, the warmth of a body mingling with his in sleep, a warmth so familiar it felt like his own. He felt colder; he poured himself a glass of cognac and drew closer to the fireplace. He began to look over his books, his records, his collections of pipes and stamps, the thousand objects he’d accumulated over the years, all those things he’d bought to give the apartment a sense of home; there he sat in the middle of that static world, distressingly alone. He drank one cognac, then another; the clock of a distant church struck three in the morning. He yawned, he was tired, reading those diaries had stirred up many things inside him that he preferred to ignore because he had no solution for them. He undressed and got into bed. Before turning out the light, he organized his plans for the next day: breakfast with X, then go to the tailor, pick up the books he’d ordered at the bookstore, eat lunch somewhere, and sit down to work all afternoon and part of the night until he finished the essay. He slept deeply then.

 

The daylight entered triumphantly through the skylight in the cell.

“I thought you were up and dressed already. Look at you, taking advantage of your parents going into town today,” said Jacinta. “But I’ll tell them how lazy you’ve been when they get back.”

Marcos opened his eyes with great effort and looked at Jacinta through the mist of sleep.

“And don’t give me that look like a dying lamb, I don’t feel sorry for you at all. Get up quick, your brothers are already eating breakfast,” Jacinta went on.

The boy stirred in bed, yawning, and as he awoke and his mind began to clear, he felt an enormous sense of relief when he saw that another harrowing night had fortunately ended, and it was day again.

 

 

_____

 

Amparo Dávila, “El jardín de las tumbas,” from Cuentos reunidos, Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2009.

Born in 1928 in Zacatecas, Amparo Dávila is one of Mexico’s finest masters of the short story. Her collections of stories and poetry include Tiempo destrozado, Música concreta, and Árboles petrificados, for which she won the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize in 1977. In 2015, she was honored with the Medalla de Bellas Artes. (Photo courtesy of New Directions)
Translator
  Matthew Gleeson is a writer and translator based in Mexico; his translation of José Revueltas’s novel Earthly Days is due out in 2019. Together with Audrey Harris, he is the translator of Amparo Dávila's The Houseguest and Other Stories (New Directions, 2018).
Translator
Audrey Harris holds a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she currently teaches. Together with Matthew Gleeson, she is the translator of Amparo Dávila's The Houseguest and Other Stories (New Directions, 2018).