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A Week in October

The Announcement

I only noticed the deep silence in our shabby room when I became aware of the fluttering wings of a fly trapped between the lampshade and the light bulb. There was no noise from the street below. It was as if the outside world had disappeared. Lionel lay on his back staring up at the ceiling, completely serene, so quiet and still that it was almost as if he weren’t there. He had just put out his cigarette, and the white smoke hovered in the air. I was sitting beside him with my legs drawn up and my chin resting on my knees.

“It’s strange how things happen,” I said.

Lionel said nothing.

“Don’t you think this is strange? Sometimes I wonder whether everything is preordained. What do you think? Perhaps the two of us were meant to spend these hours together making love. When I think about it, I get shivers. It would mean that all of this is predetermined and that there are no real choices in life. I would rather believe that, within certain limits, we are free to make decisions for ourselves and we control our own destinies. What do you think?”

Still no answer.

I turned toward him... He lay still, staring up at the white ceiling. His eyes were open, fixed, unchanging, without the slightest glimmer or expression, extinguished. He made no sound, and his face had taken on the quality of marble.

This is how his life came to an end. Without a sound, without a sign, without the slightest warning. Like a mosquito moving from here to there.

At first I thought my bad luck had rubbed off on him, that I had become a kind of King Midas in reverse, killing everything I touched. I felt as responsible for his death as I have felt at times for my own approaching demise. But now I realize that even though this illness is the prelude to my own end, it was not the cause of my lover’s death. Lionel’s death had its own origin, the previous Saturday in my garden when I saw a strange old woman pissing next to one of the plum trees.

On that morning of Saturday, October 9, as I was turning the soil in a spot where I was about to plant some tomatoes, I had a strange sensation, like the one I felt the day we buried my grandmother at the Molco cemetery. The essence of things had changed; it was as if the plum trees Clemente had planted, the leaves of the ferns, the soil I had just turned so carefully, and even I myself, had been invaded by a new presence. I looked at the sky and noticed that it had gone dark; a mass of dense, black clouds closed in overhead, and a moment later the world was enveloped in a heavy silence. “How strange, it’s only eleven in the morning, there must be a storm coming,” I thought, trying to contain my increasing anxiety. I noticed that all the living things around me had stopped breathing. The air was thick, like a hazy midsummer afternoon. I felt as if I had awakened in a hot, static dream, in which I was trapped in the crushing stillness of a sudden and inexplicable night.

Suddenly I was sure that someone else was in the garden with me. I turned my head, and saw a tall, bony old woman, dressed in black rags. She had materialized out of nowhere and was squatting as she pissed next to the trunk of a plum tree, only a few feet away from me. She did not look at me. She just went on as if I did not exist. My eyes were fixed on the gushing liquid. It was a clear, continuous stream. The pale gold torrent fascinated me; in my mind, the piss of death should have been a viscous green liquid that emitted a fetid odor that stayed with you forever. The old woman just went on pissing ever so calmly, without any sense of urgency or shame. It was as if she would never stop. I knew that all I could do was wait for her to finish.

“This is it,” I thought, my mind racing, a whirlwind of dark thoughts crisscrossing like bullets in my brain. “This old woman has come for me. There’s no doubt about it. When she’s finished she’ll say, ‘Well, Clara, the rubber band has been stretched to the limit, and I will not return alone to the pastures where eternity sleeps.’ That’s it, my time has come, this is the end of the line. Where is it written that one will die in bed, or in a hospital after struggling for two weeks with a serious illness? There are no set conditions for death. ‘This fell sergeant, Death, is Strict in his arrest,’ Shakespeare wrote. He is indifferent to the age of his victims. People die when and where they least expect it: in the bathtub, while driving, while giving a speech. Or while reading Dubliners, like my father. How and when one dies is of the slightest importance; the difficult part is what comes after: waking up and not knowing what to do or where to go; feeling that there is no ground beneath one’s feet, that there is nothing but air all around; finding oneself in a place where one sees no one and hears only an internal rumbling, a place where there is no way to distinguish between day and night, because neither light nor the absence of light exists. And knowing that one will be there, in that state, forever...” This last thought made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

As these thoughts went through my head, the woman looked up at me, brushing an oily lock of her hair off her forehead. Her gaze was familiar. I realized with horror that her eyes were my own... How terrifying, she was me... Something very bad must be about to happen, this is the sign. At that moment I did not know what it could be, or what the horrible woman who stared at me with my own eyes had come to tell me. The most natural thing was to assume that this was how my illness had decided to announce my ultimate demise, but a little voice told me no, the old woman had come to warn me about something else.

What she was actually announcing was my lover’s death, but, of course, at the time there was no way to know this because my lover did not yet exist. Or rather he existed for many other people, but not for me.

And then to my astonishment the old woman vanished, as unexpectedly as she had appeared. The sky began to brighten; my heart rang in my ears as I hurriedly picked up my gloves, which I had dropped, as well as the hoe and the small rake I had bought a few days earlier. I ran into the house. As I crossed the dining room I stopped in front of the mirror next to the door. I was still me, Clara Griffin, and nothing had changed. Here was my pale, thin face, the same face as on every other day, my black eyes, my full, sensual lips...

Perhaps I had not been visited by death, and perhaps it is wrong to believe in such strange visions. Once I was back inside my bright, comfortable home I felt safe. Not that I really cared for that house; I never had. Or rather, I had never been truly happy there. Now that I think about it I don’t know if I have ever been truly happy anywhere, but I know that in that house I always felt as if I were living in a space that was not my own. Everything there was beautiful, but it was hushed and insipid, a house where good taste and harmony reigned, where everything had its rightful place, and everything was painstakingly clean. Nothing there was ugly, but nothing belonged to me. It was a place without a soul. The furniture, the paintings, the carpets, the antique furniture, everything had been chosen by Clemente. Even before these items had arrived at our house, their placement was already determined. It was as if even before those rooms were built --- designed for the measured, precise life that Clemente loved and I found depressing --- Clemente had already decided what objects he would select and where he would place them. There were the two Flemish stuffed chairs on either side of the chimney, the English desk next to the window that had once belonged to a president, the beautiful Regency bookcase against the back wall that Clemente had bought in Valparaíso, and the blue Sèvres vase on the table in the vestibule. And there was the Coromandel screen, once the property of a French millionaire who had decided she did not want to die in Chile and had returned to her old house in Saint Jean de Luz. And the Queen Anne mirror Clemente had given me for our tenth anniversary. “This mirror is a rare piece from the early eighteenth century,” he had said as he handed me the delicate lacquered object, a mirror with a small drawer underneath, large enough for three compacts and two brushes. “The mirror of our discontent,” as he later christened it. Perhaps I would have felt that this beautiful object was truly mine if Clemente hadn’t said, when I mentioned I would like to keep it in our room to use as a vanity, that our room was not the appropriate place for such a piece and we would keep it on the side table near the dining room door.

When Clemente was a child his paternal grandfather lived in a Tudor mansion, which still exists. The house filled his adolescent imagination with dreams. The old man was a millionaire “in dollars,” a specimen so rare in Chile at the time that they could be counted with the fingers of one hand. He detested Clemente’s mother and called her “the foreigner.” He loved to tell people that his son could have married anyone but instead had chosen this unknown Dutch girl. Clemente was ten years old when his father died, and his mother, who had become hard and taciturn, did not let him visit his grandfather after that. Clemente, who adored the old man, never again saw him or anyone else from his father’s side of the family. He spent the rest of his childhood in a depressing apartment with his widowed mother, who was filled with bitterness toward the society that had excluded her. He continued to dream of his grandfather’s mansion and way of life. When he built his own house, Clemente unconsciously settled the score with his mother, who had estranged him from half of his family and exiled him to their dank, gray apartment, which was always filled with the lingering fragrance of cooked cauliflower and wet rags. The smell engulfed him each time he set foot in the place. His mother seemed determined to bask in her misery by being as unhappy as she possibly could and allowing her surroundings --- the chipped bathroom mirror, the slimy strips of cloth she used to hold together the putrid pipes, the sagging curtains, the chipping paint on the walls --- to reveal her unhappiness. All of this misery conspired against any lingering affection Clemente might have felt for their messy, ramshackle home.

Many years later, when she criticized him for building such a luxurious, expensive house, he expressed his feelings about his childhood --- in his own way, of course: “I need to live in harmony with my sensibilities, Mother.” The main qualities of our home were equilibrium and light: perfectly calibrated illumination, ample spaces, high ceilings, bright walls. It was the polar opposite of the smelly hovel he had grown up in. The paintings were lit indirectly by special spotlights Clemente had built into the corners of the rooms. In the winter, the fireplace was lit at four o’clock, every day. Bathed in the glimmer of the flames, the beautiful white marble Buddha in the living room came to life. In the summer months the house was filled with the syrupy sweetness of jasmines. And beyond the windows lay the carefully tended garden, surrounded by ferns, and beyond that, the kitchen garden I had planted with my own hands. That was before I knew that my death had a preordained date. This was where, earlier that morning, I had experienced the hair-raising vision of the old woman.

“I know it’s impossible, I know there’s no escaping an illness like mine, but I wish there were something I could do to pull away from its reach, something that would allow me a release from myself,” I had said one day to Clemente as we stood on the terrace, watching the darkening sky. “Why don’t you try writing?” he answered, without hesitation, as if he had been thinking about it for a long time. I was surprised that he came up with the idea so casually, without hesitation. He had stumbled upon the one thing I had always wanted to do: to write a novel. When I was young, I had written a few stories and I told myself that one day I would be a great writer. But the impulse never went beyond believing in my own delusions. I have never been a disciplined person and I’ve spent years not knowing what I want and not living the way I want. Perhaps now that the date and time of my death had been revealed to me, I was ready to write. But how would I begin?

A Week in October
by by Elizabeth Subercaseaux

  • hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 159051288X
  • ISBN-13: 9781590512883