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from the April 2019 issue

A Bitter Pill

In this short story, Alia Trabucco Zerán spins a tale of class, connection, and human cruelty in Chile. 
 

Neither good nor bad. Neither nice nor unpleasant. Neither short nor long. It was life, period. The cloth wipes the grime. The broom gathers the trash. The water wets the soap.

As I already said, the señora, the lady of the house, treated me well. If you ask her, she’ll say she considered me part of the family. Exactly which part I still don’t know. 

I hadn’t been at the house long when she took it upon herself to start instructing me, to steer that meek, practically mute young thing down the right path. She would say:

Teresa, my girl, take note.

I would stare at her, stare without really looking while in my mind I tried to conjure loud thoughts; anything to stop me having to listen to her talk about me as if she really knew me. In time, mercifully, she stopped talking to me altogether. Or maybe that’s not quite true. Maybe we did still have conversations, if you can call them that. The señora would emerge from the shower, open the bathroom door, check I was still in her room—smoothening the bed sheets or shaking out the rugs—and then start talking. She talked as she dried under her arms and in the folds of her thighs, as she put on her deodorant, rubbed perfume onto her wrists, and as she slathered her skin, all that skin, in piles and piles of expensive creams. She spoke as if she were fully dressed, or as if I couldn’t really see her.

The girl, her darling little girl, would also be there. Sitting at the foot of the bed, facing the bathroom door, she would take in her mother’s every move. How to use eyeliner. How to paint her lips. How to brush her hair. How to talk without looking at you. I just listened, gentlemen. And every now and then I nodded. I nodded like the meek, well-behaved girl I was supposed to be. And I beat out the pillows, and from the floor I picked up sweaty shirts, stinking socks, underpants beaded with semen. 

You can’t imagine how desperately I wanted to shovel those words back into her mouth. How I longed to become deaf.

 

Female. Lower class. Development within normal range and having adapted to her environment reasonably fast given the circumstances of her life.

 

I began suffering from the same pain my mother had always complained of. A deep, slow throbbing around my waist which prevented me from working. I had to get up earlier simply to get through all my jobs. Wake the girl, air her sheets, prepare her milk. Sweep and scoop up the dirt and throw it in the trash. Air, dust, polish, fold. The pain forced me to stop every two or three hours. I suppose the doctor must have caught me in the middle of one such break, or maybe he heard my groans and found me trying to pick up the laundry basket. He wanted to know how bad the pain was on a scale of one to ten. I didn’t reply. The pain made my legs numb and my back as stiff as a board; by no means could it be contained in a number. The doctor said:

Take these pills, Teresa.

I always loathed hearing my name come from his mouth: a coffee, Teresa, two slices of toast with butter, my black shoes, a glass of cold water, Teresa, where’s my white shirt, my woolen sweater, Teresa, my clean socks, bring them to me, I’m late. Whenever he spoke my name he would drag out the S till it was all used up and then leave it hanging there, effectively raising a wall with his silence.             Teresa.          His father before him used to call out my mother’s name. And my mother, like me, always answered: sí señorno señora. To us, they were never more than that: the señores, the family. Their names are irrelevant to this case.

 

The suspect is aware of herself and her surroundings, lucid, has adequate self-control, and her powers of reasoning are within normal range.

 

The doctor handed me the pills and told me I should take them four times a day. Every six hours, he added, as if I wasn’t capable of dividing the day into four myself; four windows full of things things things to do. I should take a pill with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a final one in the middle of the night.

I didn’t have to set an alarm. The pain was always there to remind me it was time to wake up. And so, still half asleep, not even bothering to turn on the light, I would reach out, fumble blindly for the bottle of pills on the nightstand and place one right in the middle of my tongue. I could never swallow it. Let me finish, gentlemen. I want you to listen to me now. My body stiff from pain and tiredness, I would lie there, my eyes either open or closed, with that pill dissolving on my tongue and one niggling thought which drove me to distraction: that it was impossible, absolutely unthinkable, to think I could cure that, inside of me, with something which could take.

 

She does not, nor has she previously suffered from episodes of insanity or dementia. 

 

On my days off I tended to spend every last hour in the back room; the one you, gentlemen, insist on calling my room. I didn’t care to go out. I didn’t want to move. I would stay in, lying motionless on my back with my hands resting on my thighs and the television on. And there, with my body finally at ease, I would watch the morning mass, the commercials, the kid’s shows, the news at one, more commercials. And I would relish the calm, the absolute rest and repose, until, after hours and hours spent waiting, that same something inside of me would snap again. Then, the chest of drawers, the nightstand, the lamp, the walls, the ceiling, the television; every object in the room would open up suddenly, to receive me. They accepted me as one of their own, and I was able to escape myself and to enter into the silent space with them. Into the great family of objects. And I would gaze at those hands for the first time: the knobby fingers, the bitten-down nails, the withered, blanched knuckles. Two strange hands cast onto a body that was now dying, that was slowly dying of unreality.

 

The given reports allude to slight difficulties in remembering details and events (first report) and poor language skills (second report).  

 

But you haven’t locked me up here to talk about objects or how I was alarmed by the feel of my own fingers against my legs. You want me to talk about the girl, to tell you what happened.

The ironing board was stored down by the side of the fridge. Don’t look at me like that, gentlemen. That is how the story begins. It was an old ironing board with metal legs and a faded floral cover. I only had to unfold it and that screech, the sound of the feet against the floor, was all it took. Daisy was never long in coming. In her usual doleful manner she would appear at the laundry room door, push it gently with her muzzle and, as if no one could see her, as if she were invisible, lie down in the doorway. From there, curled up, she would watch me. With her squiffy, pale blue eyes she stared straight at me, as if really seeing me. She was blind, Daisy. Perhaps that’s why she thought that no one could see her when she snuck into the house. She wasn’t ours. What am I saying, ours? After everything that’s gone on. What I mean is that Daisy didn’t belong to the family. She didn’t belong to anyone, and, since she was alone and stray, that little dog was mine.

 

She was part of the family unit.

 

She never got over her mistrust. Half her body outside, the other inside, she would wait for a bone, a bit of milk, a morsel of bread. That was all. She demolished whatever I gave her and licked the palm of my hand in gratitude. If she was hungry, she didn’t ask for more. She would simply cup her head between her front legs, close her eyes and sleep. Sometimes her legs shook as if she were chasing an animal in her dreams. At other times she would wag her tail against the floor as if she were counting: one, two, three, four. And if I made a noise, if I coughed or sneezed, if I hummed a tune, she would raise her light brown head with its patchwork white muzzle and sniff the air as if to check I was still there, keeping her company.

            

During the trial she never appears to take offence.

 

I didn’t think the señora was being serious. I didn’t think her capable.

With the old board facing the door, facing Daisy, I stood ironing: the girl’s T-shirts, the dishtowels, my aprons. I didn’t mind ironing. Shrinking the world like that. Some materials resisted, which meant I had to press and singe them slower to reduce them to their smallest possible size. Huge white bed sheets transformed into neat squares of light. 

Sometimes the girl would watch me iron. At other times, she ate her snack in silence at the kitchen table and I would watch her chew every mouthful with her mouth perfectly shut, her neck straight, her elbows never, ever on the table. And all the while I would iron: the armchairs, the beds, the tiles, the chairs, the pots and pans, the trees. I would have ironed my own hands had I not needed them to iron.

 

She was a trusted employee. 

            

The señora didn’t like Daisy coming to visit me at the house. She was afraid of what that animal might do to her, to her husband, to her children, to her children’s children. She was scared it might give them rabies. The girl, on the other hand, wasn’t bothered by Daisy. One time she even stroked her. She walked cautiously toward her, crouched down and ran the palm of her hand down Daisy’s closed eyelids. As if she too loved her.

Between life and death, gentlemen, there’s little difference. Curing and killing, fixing and afflicting: two sides of the same coin. Ask the doctor. He was the one who brought that little bottle of pills into the house. I wouldn’t have even known what they were called, where to get hold of them, what to do with them. It was a white bottle, as I said, and so very similar to the one for my backache pills. Only on this one the label read, in big blue letters, poison.

I know how to read. I know how to write. I know the secret of the word “poison.”

 

Strychnine is the most common alkaloid. Its chemical formula is C21 H22 N2 O2.

 

Daisy never went near the front door. She wasn’t stupid. She didn’t sniff around the house when the doctor and the señora were in. Instead she came to the back door, and even then she only stayed if I was there to protect her. But it’s true, she was hungry. And hunger, gentlemen, is a weakness.

That afternoon I was in the kitchen. I might have been washing the dishes or slicing an onion or peeling potatoes. I don’t remember. The señora came in and began opening all of the drawers. The doctor had hidden them high up, in the cupboard, where the girl couldn’t reach them. They were white but with a black dot like a period in the middle. Finally, the señora found them. She took one out, wrapped it in a slice of ham and hurried out into the backyard. 

All of the kitchen drawers were left half open.

 

A dose of up to a few milligrams causes increased sensitivity of the sensory organs. A dose of 10 to 20 milligrams triggers shaking, diarrhea and anxiety.

 

I stopped chopping or mopping or whatever it was that I was doing and ran as fast as I could to the front door. 

There, outside, a few steps from the entrance, was Daisy. At first I thought she was sleeping, and I let out all of the air in my body. But moving in closer I saw her eyes. Those pale blue eyes were wide open. As if seeing for the first time. Her mouth was shut, sealed for good. And a fine trickle of blood, outstretched and winding, drew a short path from there to my feet. A message that I, and only I, could decipher. 

Daisy’s body shuddered in silence. She didn’t growl. She didn’t bark. There was barely a groan, at the end, as if a very heavy door were closing.

I didn’t shout either, gentlemen. Not then, and not later. I understood that if I shouted, if I opened my mouth to release my long wail, I would never stop. That wail, like the first cry, would mark the start of real life.  

The master was standing beside her, erect and stock still. He glanced at me and ordered me to take care of it.

He said:

Take care of all this, Teresa.

He said:

Give the floor a good scrub, Teresa.

Teresa     Teresa     Teresa    Teresa

I felt a burning sensation in my mouth and behind my eyes, as if I were on fire. 

            

The drug’s principle effect on the nervous system is caused by a clear increase in synaptic transmissions. This produces a sensation of terror, shuddering and tightness in the chest.

 

I had to put her in a black garbage bag.

I had to scrub the floor, but the stain wouldn’t go.

I had to carry her over my shoulder and walk with her, with the body that had been Daisy, beyond the property boundaries.

The ground had dried up from the dry spell. It wasn’t raining, and I knew that it would never again rain on that land, but the black bag against the floor sounded like the ocean’s pleas:

Shush.

Shush.

Shush.

 

The word “poison” written in blue ink.

 

The señora had said:

People will believe what they want.

I went back to the house, hid away in the back room and lay down on the bed. I blinked. The rise and fall of my eyelids made my eyes smart. Daisy was out on the road, alone. She’d be eaten by vultures, worms, all manner of vile beasts. I would have killed her painlessly, gentleman. I would have closed her eyelids. I would have kissed her little head and, before closing her mouth, before sealing it for good, placed a morsel of bread on her tongue.

I don’t know how much time must have passed. I know that it was still night. And then, moved by who knows what force, by what will, I got up. 

I got up, gentlemen, and I went back out onto the road.

 

The heart was failing to contract and dilate.

 

My breath came out white and silent in the darkness, and it was then, as I dragged Daisy back to the house, that I had an idea. An idea covered in thorns.

I used a digging bar and a shovel. And by myself I dug a pit in the interior courtyard, in front of the laundry room door where Daisy used to watch me. 

I pushed her in, covered her in dirt and placed a piece of bread on top of the mound.

Then I really knew there was no way out. There would be no escaping a shadow that vast.

            

The law seeks to protect victims. It hopes to provide them with refuge within the home.

                        

I made my bed, splashed my face, brushed my hair, and took a cold shower. I brushed my teeth, put the water on to boil, and I put the dishes away. The forks with the forks. The spoons with the spoons. The knives with the knives.

The señora said:

Lay the table for five.

The señor, the señora, their two guests and the girl.

 

There was nothing in the family history, dating back several generations, to suggest any congenital defect that could occasion such a rare, quick, and aggressive death.

            

Skin the rabbit butcher it season the meat add wine salt pepper onion put it in the oven wash the potatoes check the oven remove the eyes the eyes the eyes Daisy’s eyes peel and chop them boil them and wash the parsley and cut the parsley and serve the food and die and die and die and die.

 

The pills had a black dot in the middle.

            

They ate the lot: the rabbit, the potatoes, the onions, the parsley.

All of them, except for the girl.

The girl, who was sitting opposite her father, refused to touch her plate. She must have seen a real rabbit in the countryside, or perhaps a dead dog in her own back yard.

The señora said:

Would you like a glass of warm milk, my darling?

She was the apple of her eye.

            

Asphyxia can occur for various reasons.

            

I walked back into the dining room holding a full white glass, a glass full of whiteness and the girl said yes yes yes. 

She said yes without saying a word.

And she drank that clean, amnesic milk.              

 

The powder was white.

 

I waited in the kitchen and made myself a tea. A black tea with some bread.

            

Barbiturates such as pentothal, amital, and nembutal are specific antidotes for strychnine.

 

Something like a sigh, that’s what I heard.

And then a commotion, some shouts and a silence just like Daisy’s.

Teresa.                Teresa.             Teresa.              Teresa.   

            

It should have frightened her, given her modest condition as a servant.

 

I still had to wash and dry the dishes. Soak the pans. Mop the floor. Water the potted plants. Put away the forks with the forks. The spoons with the spoons. The knives with the knives. I still hadn’t done everything, all those things, so many things, when the señora came into the kitchen.

My tea was still warm.

 

A black tea with some bread.

 

The señora took a few short steps, as if hesitating, as if her body no longer belonged to her suddenly, as if she were scared of tripping and falling over a nonexistent cliff edge.

 

A colorless, odorless substance.

 

And she looked me in the eyes, gentlemen. For the first and only time in all those years, the señora looked me in the eyes.

 

Evident mental incapacitation.

Primitive character.

 

And when she saw them, when at last she looked into my eyes, she turned white. 

I saw her. She turned white. 

My eyes, too, had a black dot in the middle.

Their very own period. 
 

"A Bitter Pill" © Alia Trabucco Zerán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.

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