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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the April 2018 issue

People in the Room

In this excerpt from her first-ever book-length translation into English, Borges contemporary Norah Lange seeks to cast a light onto the enigma of her three mysterious neighbors’ identities. 
 

Despite their excuses, I tried many times to convince them of how easy and convenient it would be for them to communicate, and even call for help, if they had a telephone.

“The afternoon I saw you at the post office, it was reassuring to know I could call home and ask someone to come and get me. What if one of you happened to be alone one night, and needed something? . . . You need only call me, or call someone else . . .”

“None of us is ever alone,” they would answer, but when I noticed the second showing enough interest to persuade the others, I persisted. Except for the lack of calls, and perhaps its dubious usefulness since few families in that part of Belgrano had a telephone, I hardly suspected the reason behind their resistance and misgivings. Since no one ever visited them, the chances of anyone calling were so slim that perhaps they preferred to shield themselves from this new way of being forgotten. Someone might, on seeing their names in the directory, discard what was left of an old memory, and return, puzzled, to the habit of forgetting them.

I knew my efforts came only from wanting to telephone them myself, to get closer to them, to force them to be precise and at least say who they were; but so as to hide my intentions, I offered my own experience, explained how for us the telephone had been a novelty, and described how keenly we’d tried to guess at the owner of the still-courteous voice uttering the words in a careful tone, as if fearing, as it passed through houses, courtyards, and side streets, that a stranger might listen in on what it didn’t quite dare say. I also told them that at first the telephone was so entertaining that one of us would call our house from a local store, to make sure the crucial voice was still in its place at the other end of the line, traversing wires, accepting its movement through the air, grazing the treetops, saying, “Who is it?” It was almost like opening a letter, except the voice would disappear, and afterward one was left with the pleasure of the voice and the way it changed.

Perhaps my eagerness made her reflect on remembered streets, where her first call might ring out, and return her to familiar places, even if she only asked to be put through, and didn’t say a word. That afternoon, though, the second made up her mind, and, with a serious look, as if I were experienced in the matter and could give her advice, she asked, “Will our last name have to be in the directory?”

I don’t know why it occurred to me that I should take this chance to provoke her, to compel her, for once, to be precise.

“You could give your maiden name,” I suggested, hoping any answer she gave might bring me closer to her past, explain her stubborn, unchanging evenings.

“I can’t,” she murmured quickly. “I can’t,” she said again, as if she had to live in hiding, or hesitated to use her name, because in fact she was married, or because some burning resentment or some strange sense of shame prevented her from confessing her widowhood. The eldest turned toward her, unsurprised. I thought I’d been left with another chance in ruins, confronting another mystery I’d never be able to solve, but I didn’t dare persist. I also thought her answer couldn’t have been meant for me, since she never told me anything about her life. Unwilling to write a name on the usual applications, she seemed to me to be looking, through a half-open door, at a house she used to visit in company, since she was loved by many, sure she would return to its long table, where on Sunday nights they played cards, promising, as they said their good-byes, that there would be other such Sundays, as she felt the hand of a man on her arm for the walk home, waiting for him to open the front door, and she, later, would turn on the bedroom light, perhaps pulling aside the mosquito net from the wide bed, her eyes falling briefly on the cushions with white covers—she had always been fond of those square, slightly stiff cushions—with their halting conversations in the safe and peaceful bedroom, where she might lie awake a while longer, since she liked to hear his breath so close before turning over in the dark, and not to pray, since it was late, and she loved him, and she couldn’t pray that she loved him. 

And as my mind wandered, wishing to find her alone, free at last from the destiny I forced her to share with her sisters, she looked at the eldest and declared, “Tomorrow we’ll go to the telephone company. We don’t have to answer it, anyway . . .”

She stared at her evenly, without any sign of annoyance, and I had the impression that something just like a sudden sigh of relief had been set free, though not for long, since it would surely return to its place as soon as I left.

A week passed and I visited them twice, without daring to mention the telephone. One afternoon she said, while the two younger sisters stared at me as if it was all my fault, “Tomorrow they’re coming to install the telephone,” and murmured two numbers, which I collected carefully, taking my leave earlier than on other days, to allow them a final evening alone before the change, leaving each to her suspicions, to her way of preparing to turn a deaf ear to the telephone as soon as its shrillness startled the house, determined not to answer, even though they were convinced that no one knew their number.

The next day, after the telephone installers had left, I observed the faces from my window. There was nothing to suggest they were afraid, that the telephone was there in the vestibule, irrelevant and useless, imbued with voices that were strange or sweet, insolent or intrusive. I looked at them many times before deciding to hear their voices, to confirm their variations, their timorousness, as if someone was watching them, forcing them to speak to people they didn’t know, and perhaps hated.     

I went to my telephone, picked up the receiver, and recited the numbers after two zeros, not preparing my words, since, in fact, I didn’t know what to tell them. It seemed intrusive to call without having asked them first. I shouldn’t have been so cruel. It wasn’t my place to be cruel. Nor could I ask, “Is that you?” since even if one of them confirmed that it was—without my knowing to which of them I was speaking—it would be absurd to tell them that I lived across the street, the only proof of my existence during the moments they couldn’t see me. 

I listened to the telephone’s low hum, which stretched out monotonously, until the operator said, “There’s no answer,” and I replaced the receiver, as if I’d lost them again. I went back to the drawing room to watch them, thinking they ought to answer, and get used to being brave. None of them had moved. I decided to cross the street and tell them I was going to call them, and that they should answer, even if only so they could get used to the telephone.

“All you have to do is lift the receiver and ask, ‘Who is it?’” I explained to the eldest, hoping she would be the one to answer. It was too much to tell her to say “Hello,” since I knew she would never dare to utter it. The “Who is it?” might, on the other hand, bear a likeness to many things that could wound them, but in a familiar way. When I begged her to answer, she accepted, sadly, as if I was demanding a sacrifice.

Before asking to be put through, I stood by the telephone for a while, so my voice would sound as it always did. Then, determined to face her, to tell her my name and all the clear, inessential things I’d never said in her house, I murmured the number to the operator. I thought I could beg her to let me speak to one of her sisters so she’d have to ask me which one, and then tell me her name. The hum lasted a moment, then suddenly stopped. Someone had lifted the receiver. There was a silence, which began to expand. A few seconds passed. My silence mingled with hers, wrapped around it, seemed almost to touch it, as if an unexpected hand had brushed against another in the dark, unable to say precisely to whom it belonged.

I would have preferred to feel the silence less; I would have preferred to be brave enough to ask, “Is that you?” or to ease her fear by murmuring, “It’s me,” but then the “It’s me” might sound like a different voice coming from a happy summer, and she might make a mistake, forget it was really me and not some presence emerging from a fated evening to tell her again that it loved her, or to say, simply, that life had forced them apart.

When the silence had almost swelled to a sob suspended in the air, gently, taking care not to hurt her, trying not to let her believe I was abandoning her, I replaced the receiver and returned, slowly, to my window, my silence unbroken, tender, while she too returned to her place. 

The next day I waited for her to mention it, but she said nothing of our silence; we spoke of other things, and only when she showed me out, as if she’d reached a conclusion after much deliberation, did she say, “Sad people are almost always well-behaved.”

Even though I didn’t like the way she looked at me, I said hurriedly, “Your sisters are sad and perfect . . . like you.”

“They started too late,” she answered, and, after a look that soon seemed to grow weary, she said just what I’d hoped, and would always be grateful for, even though I was scared to death, even though it forced me to flee and not visit them for days on end, because I didn’t want to be like them.

“Perhaps if you were to start now . . .”

I never called her again. 


***

I know I was wrong to turn on the light, startling them with its unaccustomed glare, though no one else would have thought it such a terrible thing to do. From the moment I decided to do it, though, something told me I shouldn’t. But everything, in their presence, acquired gravity, a sense of parting, of bitter oblivion, of mysterious, ineffable ways. To make myself feel better, I thought of how some people can be wounded forever by the slightest look. Others, though, may have their hearts touched, their most hidden pains revealed, be reminded of a name they were once called, and simply smile, as if it would take much more to hurt them. But not them. Whenever I stood up suddenly, or one of them said, “It’s Monday,” it was as if something fled in fright from the scraping of my chair, or as if we had to meditate for a while on it being Monday, placing it among important days with promised candles, because it came from far away, laden with red, foreboding signs, so they could claim it as a premonition.

I also knew that rather than visiting them, having them within reach of my hand and my voice, what interested me most was to watch them. To watch them uninterrupted, even if they sat in the same place all night, smoking incessantly. There was always a chance of a subtle change; one of them would stop watching the smoke, another might say something about a mirror or a marble staircase, and I could collect those words as if they were the secret key to other episodes they hadn’t yet revealed to me.  

I shouldn’t have done it, though, and later it was useless to tell myself so, useless to try to explain myself, in the hope someone might ask me why I had acted that way, only for me to remain silent, since no one else knew that house, or their faces lined up in a row. Of course, a stranger, someone with no attachment to them—not to the way I might describe them, nor to a certain kind of sadness, someone who, at the very least, had some respect for the vague outline of a wish, for a favorite flower, for a yearning for rain—might consider it all to be useless and farfetched, my suspicions excessive. But I was consumed.

Sometimes, back at my house, I would toss a book onto my bed, have a drink of water, or laugh just as I used to, and I felt the three faces crossing the street to admonish me, or to tell me I was making gains. I knew if the faces crossed too often, I could always escape. I needed only to expose them, and perhaps smile, as if their faces had come to an end. But that was a long way ahead. The mere thought of smiling after telling someone about them saddened me, as if I’d been asked to describe the face of someone who’d died.

One evening, I decided it wasn’t enough; it didn’t suffice to spy on them, to sit with them so I could watch them. Nor was it possible for me to visit them more often. And at that moment I had a thought of which I’d never believed myself capable, as if I hated them, as if I’d wanted to humiliate them, to throw them into disarray forever, force them to banish me, and for their hatred to pursue me for the rest of their lives, when in fact I loved them so much that at that precise moment I would have done anything they’d asked. 

We were in the drawing room. It was almost time to go home. The lamp they always used scarcely lit the room’s corners, but its dim light fell on the three faces, and was magnified by them. One of them recalled a blue dress stored away in a trunk. She seemed to be enjoying the memory, as night drew on. I thought the blue dress must have suited her well, much better than those dark, charcoal grays they’d worn ever since I met them. I thought their dresses might be to blame for many things they said, or that they at least were a change of topic. Because even if they said words like “street,” or “station,” those words always gained a new meaning in their mouths. When other people spoke of such things, everything stayed calm; too calm. But when I heard her mention the blue dress, I sensed the difference at once. I believe the idea began in that moment, on some breezy boulevard she must have walked along, on some balcony she had looked out from—free from the weight of her mahogany wardrobe, burdened by such dark colors—her arms adorned with bracelets, as someone came around a corner. I wanted to see her more clearly, to see how she looked when she said “blue dress,” beneath the overhead light. 

Unnoticed by them, and in the silence they seemed to let fall and be filled with a sad, mothless dust, I looked around me, to see if I could find the switch. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling had four lights. I had never seen it lit. I thought I could say my good-byes, and press the switch as if by mistake, distracted. The blue dress floated in the distance, beckoning me from above their faces, shouting at me, laughing, descending a marble staircase, hiding behind a column, leaning over to tend damp ferns, giving me the strength to look at them squarely. Then, almost automatically, since I’d already decided, I got up and walked toward the door. I remember murmuring, “See you tomorrow,” and my voice seemed to say it as if many things should be resolved by the time I saw them again, and when they answered, “See you tomorrow, God willing,” I stepped away, toward the door, pretended to have forgotten something, and, leaning on the wall with one hand, I pressed the switch.

The drawing room lit up with a glare that startled me, too. I managed to force myself to murmur, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.” But it was too late to forget. I would never be able to forget it, because the room seemed to fill with blue dresses, with uncovered arms, bare necks, but most of all, with something cool, endlessly cool, and when I looked at them, one by one, it was as if, in a dark room, their three white faces—waxen, framed with lightly starched lace, and gathered in a beautiful vigil—had been cast by a spotlight onto a screen.

She flinched and lifted a hand to her throat, as if to clutch at a necklace, then she cried:

“Turn the light off! You should be ashamed!”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured again, and, without touching the switch, I fled from the room, determined not to come back, since it would be impossible for their faces to have a more beautiful ending.


From Personas en la sala. © The Estate of Norah Lange. By arrangement with And Other Stories. Translation © 2018 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.

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