We sensed that a shadow had caressed the door, but it couldn’t be the cat. My sister Candelaria was the first to notice it. She stopped playing the piano nearly at the same time. I had been observing a colossal painting that hung on the wall of the salon, feeling somnolent from the lesson’s stammering repetition. The painting was of a nude woman reclining beside a grotto, scarcely veiled by the modesty of her hair, one of her hands fallen to her side, like a leaf. I found it tedious to try and figure out why the apple she held in her fingers weighed so heavily as to tire her forearm that way. Miss Chevalier’s eyes were wide open, and with them she followed the score of a sonata my sister was already playing too hesitantly. All this led me to think that it was nearly impossible for the intruder, who had already succeeded in disturbing the keys of the C Major under my sister’s fingers, to infiltrate the piano’s wood any further and still go unnoticed. Or that the teacher, who by now had turned her head and her gaze toward the open door, wouldn’t somehow endeavor to correct the breach of courtesy, which she would never have indulged in us.
“Pardon the interruption, children,” she said ceremoniously.
She stood up and we watched her disappear along the path previously cut by her eyes.
Margarita entered, held at the arm by Miss Chevalier, and moved to the middle of the salon, where she stood with her eyes lowered and brows raised, smoothing crisply and kittenishly one of the pleats of her little dress. My sister carried on with the angry striking of the keys; the sight of the girl reminded me of those crumpled papers left strewn across the floor after a party, along with little toys and pieces of candy spilled from the abdomen of a recently clubbed piñata. Margarita curtsied, clutching a bit of the lace from her salmon-colored dress, ageing a little in the process, in the time it took to fold her skirts, bend her knees, straighten herself back up, and cop a rather poor imitation of an adult woman’s pouty frown, as if her derision was in some way a tonic for having to enact the ceremony at all, and in this final rebellious act, in her face’s lack of domestication, somehow salvage herself from the involuntary humiliation. The piano note, repeated like a hammer, finally digressed. At that precise instant, Margarita uttered her name, and Miss Chevalier, appeased now by the discreet and modest inflection with which that name had been pronounced, freed her.
“A lady never draws attention to herself unnecessarily,” she said, sitting down and arranging with both hands the mauve-colored linen skirts she wore when she gave lessons. “Either she receives attention for being what she is, or better not to be seen at all.”
Obviously her niece—later I found out that’s who she was—couldn’t have cared less about the etiquette lesson or having had to enact the earlier spectacle. The second the old woman’s attention was distracted, Margarita signaled me over to the yard outside and I shrugged my shoulders to say that I wasn’t sure whether to follow her or stay where I was.
The old woman, who caught sight of our hurried negotiation, agreed that our going outdoors would be the best thing that could happen to the afternoon. She settled her spectacles on her nose—a long and emphatic nose along which nothing was allowed to slip—and stiffly, her attention already fixed once again on the notes of the piano, told us that we could both be excused.
“I want to see you back here in forty minutes, Gregorio,” she scolded me before the fact; and when she glimpsed the envy in my little sister’s eyes, added, pointing straight at her: “You had better get started.”
The yard of the Chevalier residence was, more than anything else, a great esplanade of unruly grass in which puddles of dry dirt were interrupted by shocks of weeds, sprouting here and there. No matter what anyone did to stop them, the weeds propagated with the incontinence of an ancient hunger. Along the edges there were mostly shrubs and leafy bushes that provided shade even when the sun wasn’t out. They formed small cays of thick vegetation where Margarita and I eventually found refuge, particularly in the shade of an almond tree, whose pink leaves in the springtime could be seen from the town’s main street, a massive and incongruous tree, because everything else around it was like a desert, and nothing less than a miracle. All of the community’s educated citizens had the custom of tipping their hats to it, wiping the sweat from their brow, and the gesture of its blossoms always filled the women with either romantic musings or melancholy.
But Margarita chose to put my fidelity to the test from the very start, perhaps because the effort of having introduced herself had put her in a bad mood, or because she had finally found a playmate with whom to redeem her everyday boredom. I saw her look at me askance, goading me to approach her in that corner of the garden.
“Ah, you want me to dig,” I said, pointing to the shovel that was sticking out of the pile of picked weeds and recently dug-up earth.
Margarita didn’t answer; but I knew that she did, that’s exactly what she wanted, for me to excavate. It didn’t seem like a plastic shovel could do much against the hard earth, but I tried anyway. I was stirred by the desire to please her, so I also began turning the earth.
Before long, she took the shovel away from me. She was older than I was, so it wasn’t difficult for her to remove a stiff, crusty scab of earth, and with it an ill-fated strand of roots filched from the lawn.
I finally understood what she was looking for, observing the void that had bitten into the ground: a few cochineal bugs spilled out, scampering quickly to hide themselves again, like coy women trying to cover their bodies. Others, maybe older and more audacious, coiled into themselves like accordions exhaling the sounds of their own resignation.
I looked at her and she smiled, pointing to that mute ruckus; I watched her shake an empty marmalade jar and drop the little bugs she’d captured with her fingers inside.
I waited for her to say something, to scold me for how I had shown disgust over touching them with my fingers, but she went back to digging again, a smile budding as she repeated the same abduction, far from caring about me.
This allowed me to observe her more closely.
The first thing that captured my attention was the functional truce her little black shoes had engaged with the coarseness of the lawn. They were made of patent leather and gleamed like the skin of an apple polished on a suit sleeve. The only thing new about them was their shine; the leather itself had cracks in it, and despite the excess, showed the signs of wear and tear.
What’s more, Margarita was petite like her aunt, and so pale that her veins showed unnaturally through the skin of her arms, despite their being plump and soft like the rest of her body. It resembled a woven network of little worms beneath her skin, mapping a strange fluvial cartography that got tangled up in its own sinuous curves and slopes. Her legs were covered in smoke-colored tights that on many occasions attested to being sturdy but flexible; and her extremely long, tangled hair was worn down in a sort of wild aureole. When she smiled, her teeth would sit like a sharp row of little fangs along a wrinkly band of red gums. Regardless of how often or under what circumstances she smiled, it always frightened me, though I tried not to show it. How many times I would avoid making jokes just so I didn’t have to see her happy! If she wrote out some comment that required my laughter, I’d restrain myself. It would leave her bewildered or gloomy, but her smile was like a dangerous precipice.
I watched her smiling precisely from that precipice: picking up cochineals and filling a glass jar with them, tumbling to the bottom, upside down, a concert of quick, unproductive little legs.
After a while, we tired of the cochineal normality and the space in the garden that offered them up and went to dig in other areas of ground, excavating fresh earth or looking into the tiny universe hidden beneath the leaf of a tree. Margarita’s eyes lit up with each tiny creature she startled. She’d watch them move, a little worm arched its long, spongy body: a snail stiffened its antennae, and she’d always let out an eager squeal that I mistook for fear when it was pure joy.
That afternoon I asked, just to say something:
“Can you imagine the number of insects we would find down there if we had a shovel that wasn’t made of plastic?”
Perhaps out of modesty or some other misgiving, she preferred not to answer me and before disappearing back into the house, she placed the shovel in my hands. I watched her walk away in long strides, as if her hips were weighing her down somehow; and the next thing I saw was myself imitating her harsh stabs at the earth, on the fringes of a brick wall this time, which shed pinkish dust where my shovel sunk in and burrowed. I didn’t find anything that we hadn’t seen before: snails, worms, cochineals . . . (ants were apparently of no interest to her and I thought I understood why); I must have told her, somewhat embarrassed, that I hadn’t come across anything new when she gathered up the folds of her dress and sat down by my side.
“I’m sorry,” I said, returning the shovel to her.
We shared a few more mysteries, rooting among the leaves and covering ourselves in clammy earth molded by our hands. But it was true: there were no more new bugs, and after a while we gave up grubbing in the bark, in the holes of the walls, or under a brick that had settled into the mud.
At some point, Margarita opened the kit she had concealed in her dress to sneak outside, and again I glimpsed those little teeth that seemed to suffer so much whenever she laughed.
“Tweezers?” I asked, looking at what she had selected, worrying that she wanted to play with the cosmetic impulse that little girls have.
One by one we extracted the instruments, the tweezers, a nail clipper, the files, and a small pair of curvy, blunt-edged nostril-hair scissors. We observed them solemnly, like children do the most quotidian and innocuous objects. I seemed to sense an excited twitch in her arm and though I didn’t hear her say it, I knew she was inviting me to share in what had caused her to shiver; I turned around in time to see a cricket cautiously folding into itself, closing its useless wings, unable to hop, perhaps intimidated by the strange shadow under which both of us, Margarita and I, held it motionless and on the edge. We never gave it time to accommodate another flight instinct. I leveled the container she’d reserved for the bigger insects, and the cricket landed in the cardboard box on its first hop, from where it looked at us almost sorrowfully and bereft of a desire to jump again. Margarita observed the instruments we’d removed from her aunt’s kit, then looked me straight in the eyes, seeking in them the confirmation she was foraging. There was glee in her expression, her long lashes opening and closing as if they were clapping mischievously.
Understanding what she desired, I said yes.
She began cutting the cricket’s antennae with the little scissors, which kept it quiet and disoriented. It was easy for both of us to stretch its body out with the tweezers once it could no longer jump, the bigger legs first, followed by the six little ones. If we had a magnifying glass, we would have been able to see its resemblance to frogs.
But it didn’t happen like that.
It was just a cricket that we cut to pieces.
"Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde" © Carlos Yushimito. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 Valerie Miles. All rights reserved.
This is the first of a three-part installment of Carlos Yushimito's short story "Lessons for a Boy Who Arrived Late." The remaining installments will appear in future issues of Words without Borders.