Juan Rulfo – Tell Them Not to Kill Me!

rulfo_juan
Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo (1917–1986), was a highly influential Mexican writer, screenwriter and photographer. He is best known for two literary works, a collection of harshly realistic short stories entitled El Llano en llamas [The Plain in Flames] published in 1953, and the short novel, Pedro Páramo from 1955, which tells the story of a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, only to discover a literal ghost town populated by spectral figures.

Within a few years of publication Pedro Páramo was recognized as a Latin American masterpiece and it had a tremendous influence on the later generation of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar, to name a few.

“Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” is one of the stories in El Llano en llamas which center on life in rural Mexico around the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920). It is the most popular story in the collection and was written in 1951.

Note: this is a re-posting from October 2015 with a corrected translation of Rulfo’s short story


Tell Them Not to Kill Me!

      “Tell them not to kill me, Justino! Go on, tell them that. Please! Tell them. Please tell them.”
      “I can’t. There’s a sergeant there who won’t hear a word about you.”
      “Make him listen. Use your wits and tell him they’ve scared me enough. Tell him please for the love of God.”
      “It wasn’t just to scare you. Seems they really mean to kill you. And I don’t want to go back there.”
      “Go once more. Just once, to see what you can do.”
      “No. I don’t feel like going. Because if I do they’ll know I’m your son. If I keep pestering them they’ll find out who I am and they’ll decide to shoot me too. Better leave things the way they are now.”
      “Go on, Justino. Ask them to take a little pity on me. Just tell them that.”
      Justino clenched his teeth and shook his head saying no. And he continued to shake his head for some time.

Justino got up from the pile of stones on which he was sitting and walked to the gate of the corral. Then he turned to say,
      “All right, I’ll go. But if they decide to shoot me too, who’ll care for my wife and kids?”
      “Providence will take care of them, Justino. Go off now and see what you can do for me. That’s what matters.”

They’d brought him in at dawn. It was well into the morning now and he was still there, tied to a post, waiting. He couldn’t keep still. He’d tried to sleep for a while to calm down, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t hungry either. He wanted nothing. Just to live. Now that he knew they were really going to kill him, all he could feel was his great desire to stay alive, as only a man just brought back to life would feel. Who’d have thought that that affair, so old, so stale, so dead and buried as he thought, would crop up again? That business when he had to kill Don Lupe. Not for no reason either, as the Alimas tried to make out, but because he had his reasons. He remembered: Don Lupe Terreros, the owner of the Puerta de Piedra, and his compadre besides. The one that he, Juvencio Nava, had to kill, because being the owner of the Puerta de Piedra and his compadre too he’d refused to let his animals graze on his land.

At first he’d done nothing because of the relationship. But later, when the drought came, when he saw how his animals were dying off one by one, plagued by hunger, and how his compadre Lupe continued to refuse to let him use his pastures, that was when he began breaking through the fence and driving his herd of skinny animals to the pasture where they could get their fill of grass. And Don Lupe didn’t like it and ordered the fence to be mended, so that he, Juvencio Nava, had to cut open the hole again. So, during the day the hole was repaired and at night it was opened again, while the cattle remained there right next to the fence, always waiting, his cattle that till then could only smell the grass without being able to taste it.

And he and Don Lupe argued time and again without coming to any agreement. Until one day Don Lupe said to him,
      “Look here, Juvencio, if you let another animal in my pasture, I’ll kill it.”
And he said to him,
      “Look here, Don Lupe, it’s not my fault that the animals fend for themselves. They’re innocent. You’ll have to pay for it, if you kill them.”

And he killed one of my yearlings. This happened thirty-five years ago in March, because in April I was already up in the mountains, on the run from the summons. The ten cows I gave the judge didn’t do me any good, or the mortgage on my house either, to pay for getting me out of jail. Later on they still took all the rest, so they wouldn’t hound me, but they kept after me all the same. That’s why I came to live with my son on this other little plot of land I had which is called Palo de Venado. And my son grew up and married my daughter-in-law Ignacia and had eight children. So it happened a long time ago and ought to be forgotten by now. But I guess it’s not.

I figured then that with about a hundred pesos everything could be sorted. Dead Don Lupe left just a wife and two little kids still crawling. And his widow died soon afterward too, they say from grief. They took the kids away to some relatives. So there was nothing to fear from them. But the rest of the people insisted that I was still wanted and had been found guilty in my absence just to scare me so they could keep on robbing me. Every time someone came to the village they told me, “There are some strangers in town, Juvencio.” And I’d take to the hills and hide in the bushes for days on end with nothing to eat but herbs. Sometimes I had to leave at midnight, as though the dogs were after me. It’s been that way my whole life. Not just a year or two. My whole life.

And now they’d come for him when he no longer expected anyone, confident that people had forgotten all about it, believing that he’d spend at least his last days in peace. “At least,” he thought, “I’ll have some peace in my old age. They’ll leave me alone.”

He’d clung to this hope with all his heart. That’s why it was hard for him to imagine that he’d die like this, suddenly, at this time of life, after having fought so hard to ward off death, after having spent his best years running from one place to another because of the scares, now when his body was all dried up and leathery from the bad days when he’d had to go into hiding from everybody. Hadn’t he even let his wife go off and desert him? The day when he learned his wife had left him, the idea of going out in search of her didn’t even cross his mind. He let her go without trying to find out at all who she went with or where, so he wouldn’t have to go down to the village. He let her go as he’d let everything else go, without putting up a fight. All he had left to take care of was his life, and he’d do that, if nothing else. He couldn’t let them kill him. He couldn’t. Much less now.

But that’s why they brought him from there, from Palo de Venado. They didn’t need to tie him up for him to follow them. He walked alone, tied by his fear. They realized he couldn’t run with his old body, with those skinny legs of his like dry kindling, paralysed with the fear of dying. Because that’s where he was headed. Towards death. They told him so.

That’s when he knew. He began to feel that burning sensation in his stomach that always came on suddenly when he saw death nearby, making his eyes big with fear and his mouth swell up with those mouthfuls of sour water he had no choice but to swallow. And that thing that made his feet heavy while his head felt soft and his heart pounded with all its might against his ribs. No, he couldn’t get used to the idea that they were going to kill him. There had to be some hope. Somewhere there still had to be some hope left. Maybe they’d made a mistake. Perhaps they were looking for another Juvencio Nava and not him.

He walked along in silence between those men, with his arms drooping at his sides. The dawn was dark, starless. The wind blew gently, carrying back and forth the dry earth, that stank of the odour of piss that dusty roads have. His eyes, that had developed a squint over the years, gazed down at the ground, there under his feet, despite the darkness. His whole life was there in the land. Sixty years of living on it, of grasping it tightly in his hands, of tasting it like one tastes the flavour of meat. For a long time he’d been sifting it with his eyes, savouring each piece as if it were the last, almost knowing it would be the last.

Then, as though wishing to say something, he looked at the men who were marching along beside him. He was going to tell them to free him, to let him go; “I haven’t hurt anybody, lads,” he was going to say to them, but he kept silent. “A little further on I’ll tell them,” he thought. And he just looked at them. He could even imagine they were his friends, but he didn’t want to. They weren’t. He didn’t know who they were. He watched them moving at his side and squatting from time to time to see where the road continued.

He’d seen them for the first time as the afternoon turned grey, when everything seemed colourless. They’d crossed the furrows trampling over the tender corn. And that’s why he’d gone out there: to tell them that the corn was just coming through. But they didn’t stop. He’d seen them in time. He’d always been lucky enough to see everything in time. He could’ve hidden, wandered up into the hills for a few hours until they left and then come down again. Already it was time for the rains to come, but the rains hadn’t come and the corn was beginning to wilt. Soon it’d be all dried up.

So it hadn’t even been worth going out there, getting among those men, as in a hole he’d been unable to pull himself out of. And so he walked on beside them, holding back how much he wanted to tell them to let him go. He couldn’t see their faces, only their bodies, which swayed toward him and then away from him. So when he began to talk he didn’t know if they’d heard him. He said: “I’ve never hurt anybody.” That’s what he said. But nothing changed. Not one of the bodies seemed to pay attention. The faces didn’t turn to look at him. They kept right on, as if they were walking in their sleep.

Then he thought that there was nothing else he could say, that he’d have to look for hope somewhere else. He let his arms fall again to his sides and walked through the first houses of the village, among those four men, shrouded by the black color of the night.

      “Here’s the man, colonel.”
      They’d stopped in front of the narrow doorway. He stood with his hat in his hand, respectfully, waiting to see someone come out. But only the voice came out,
      “Which man?”
      “From Palo de Venado, colonel. The one you ordered us to bring in.”
      “Ask him if he ever lived in Alima,” came the voice from inside again.
      “Hey, you. Ever lived in Alima?” the sergeant facing him repeated the question.
      “Yes. Tell the colonel that’s where I’m from. And that I lived there till not long ago.”
      “Ask him if he knew Guadalupe Terreros.”
      “He says did you know Guadalupe Terreros?”
      “Don Lupe? Yes. Tell him that I knew him. He’s dead.”
      Then the voice inside changed tone: “I know he’s dead,” it said.
      And the voice continued talking, as if it was conversing with someone there on the other side of the mud wall.
      “Guadalupe Terreros was my father. When I grew up and looked for him they told me he was dead. It’s hard to grow up knowing that the thing we have to hang on to to take roots from is dead. That’s what happened to us. Later on I learned that he’d been hacked to death with a machete and then an ox prod stuck in his belly. They told me he lasted more than two days and that when they found him, lying in a ditch, he was still in agony and begging for his family to be looked after. Things seem to be forgotten as time goes by. You try to forget. What you can’t forget is discovering that the one who did it is still alive, feeding his rotten soul with the illusion of eternal life. I couldn’t forgive that man, even though I don’t know him; but the fact that I know where he is makes me want to finish him off. I can’t forgive him for being alive still. He should never have been born.”

Outside you could clearly hear every word he said. Then he shouted:
      “Take him away and tie him up for a while, so he suffers a while, and then shoot
him!”
      “Look at me, colonel!” he said. “I’m worthless now. It won’t be long before I die all by myself, crippled by old age. Don’t kill me!”
      “Take him away!” the voice from inside said again.
      “I’ve already paid for it, colonel. I’ve paid many times over. They took everything away from me. They punished me in so many ways. I’ve spent almost forty years hiding like a leper, always with the fear they’d kill me at any moment. I don’t deserve to die like this, colonel. At least let the Lord pardon me. Don’t kill me! Tell them not to kill me!”

There he was, as though they’d beaten him, beating his hat on the ground. Crying out.
      Immediately the voice from inside said:
      “Tie him up and give him something to drink until he gets drunk so the shots won’t hurt him.”

Now at last, he’d found peace. There he was, slumped at the foot of the post. His son Justino had come and his son Justino had gone and he had returned and now was coming again.

He slung him on top of the donkey. He cinched him tightly against the saddle so that he wouldn’t fall off onto the road. He put his head in a sack so that it wouldn’t scare those who saw him. And then he brought the donkey to a canter, and away they went, hurrying to reach Palo de Venado in time to arrange the dead man’s wake.
      “Your daughter-in-law and your grandchildren will miss you,” he was saying to him. “They’ll look at your face and won’t believe it’s you. They’ll think a coyote has been chewing on you when they see your face full of holes from all the bullets they fired at you.”

Translation by John Lyons


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The Good Times

montana forestHere is another of the short stories I wrote in 1992. Reading it recently for the first time in over twenty years, it seemed to me that this story, along with many of the others in the collection Bleeding Hearts, had been written by someone else. I remembered nothing about the characters and could not recall the circumstances in which I was writing at the time, nor even where I was living. I have a vague recollection that my life was going through a period of turmoil, or that it was about to go through such a period. It is also clear to me that through these short pieces of fiction, I was trying to undestand something about my life, and trying to muster a little worldly wisdom to pass on to the reader through my narrator. Trying and failing. That is what writing is about for much of the time, doing one’s best, knowing that often it is not good enough and that maybe it will never be good enough but that it is the best you can do at the time. There is the famous quotation from Samuel Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’m not so sure that in subsequent years I succeeded in failing better. For the most part I abandoned writing fiction and concentrated on what I believe to be my only hope to progress as a writer, which is to write poetry. There too, I have had my failures, but failure is something that goes with the territory. Writing is, after all, a pursuit, in the sense of a chasing after something elusive: the truth, the philosopher’s stone, whatever. The truth about who we are and what we feel and what we know as conscious, sensitive human beings. It all sounds so easy and yet it is the greatest challenge any of us faces in our lives: to find the truth and to be faithful to it, to live it and to feel it and to express it, and to make it the cornerstone of our relationships. To be true to ourselves and to those we love, and to be true and honest in the wider world. Again, it sounds so easy when put into a simple sentence, but in practice it’s another matter.

Since 1992 I have been through other periods of turmoil: that too is part of the nature of life, the sine curve of our existence, the good times and the bad. Occasionally I think I have come to greater understanding, only to discover that past mistakes have been repeated, past failings have re-emerged, and on the surface I would appear to have learnt nothing from my experiences. So now I take it a day at the time, aware that at any moment life might release another curve ball and I need to do my best in meeting the challenge, and to accept, in all humility, that my best might not be enough.


The Good Times

The things I’ve heard tonight have shocked me. Not that they are shocking in themselves. What’s shocking is that all this should be happening in my house, between my parents. Sure I have plenty of friends who tell me worse stories, about their parents, about the goings-on, the fights, the separations, the divorces. But somehow, I always thought my parents were above that. They always seemed to me to be a perfectly matched couple. Sure they’ve had their differences over the years, but nothing they couldn’t handle. They’ve always kissed and made up. But now this, this has changed everything and I know my life will never be the same again. I will never be able to talk to them with the same trust, I just know that. They haven’t mentioned me yet, but sooner or later they’ll get around to me. I’m not top of their agenda tonight. Kids rarely are. I’ll be fifteen in three months time. In three years I’ll be able to leave home, if I still have a home to leave.

        “How did it happen,” my father is asking her. “How did you meet him?”
       The question irritates my mother, I can tell from her voice.
        “Does that really matter, Ray. Haven’t we been through all this?”
        “I’d like to know,” he says. “I’d just like to know.”
        “You think you’ll feel better if you know,” she asks.
        “No,” he says. “No, I don’t think that. I’d just like to know how it all happened, how it started. Is that too much to ask?”
       It goes quiet for a while. She wants to put a gloss on it, make it sound not as bad as it is. Perhaps she wants to minimise the hurt. These are delicate things to relate.
        “Well,” she begins, “first of all he was just a customer. A regular. In there two, maybe three evenings a week.”
        “Married,” my father asks, “Does he have a wife and family, kids? Is he leaving them for you?”
       My mother is angry.
        “Are you going to let me tell this or are you going to interrupt all the time because if you are….”
       My father says nothing.
        “Anyway,” my mother says, “we just got talking, the way you do. I must have spoken with hundreds of men since I’ve been working there. You know the way it is, men come in after a hard day’s work and they want to talk. If they’re alone they’ll talk to anyone. Especially they talk to the waitresses. It’s all part of the service.”
       I hear my father laugh. It’s a sad, hollow laugh.
        “It’s expected,” my mother says. “Conversation. We have to talk to the customers. You know that. You must have spoken to waitresses in your time.”
        “Spoken yes,” my father says, “but I never took any of them to bed. Never. It was just talk, just normal talk, passing the time.”
       My mother coughs to clear her throat:
        “Well, that’s the way it was with me,” she says. “Normal, everyday talk, passing the time: How you doing? What’s new? How’s your week been? That sort of thing. To begin with. I never dreamt it would…that things might…but that’s the way it happened. Just talk. And then one thing led to another. He asked me out and I said no. And he asked again and again I turned him down, until in the end he asked me so often I just thought what the hell and I went. I never intended to go any further. Just a meal, just an evening. But then it happened. You can’t fight it. It happens. It drags you along. You lose your senses, whatever. The more you get to know someone. I never planned it.”
        “What does he do?” my father asks.
        “Engineering,” she says, “He’s in construction, roads, bridges, civic buildings, that line of work.”
        “In Montana?”
        “Mostly in Montana; a little out-of-state but mostly here.”
        “And he’s doing all right?”
        “He’s working,” my mother says.
       She sounds tired and deflated. This is the downside that she has to negotiate in order to free herself. She’s tired of the conversation and tired of this part of her life. It’s just something she has to go through, she knows that, but she wants it to be over. Like in the films when the police drag someone in off the streets and throw a bunch of questions at them and the suspect answers slowly and in a bored voice. She’s acting like that. Just like in the movies when they’re accounting for their movements, whatever, talking about their life, about so and so, but it all sounds so passionless because they’re saying these things in order to avoid saying other things and they make it sound as though their life is grey and uneventful. There’s no detail. That’s how my mother comes across now. Acting. Going through the motions as politely as possible. But you can hear it in her voice. She’ll be glad when this is all over and she can get on with the rest of her life. My father, on the other hand, is trawling for evidence. He thinks that the more information he has on this guy, the greater chance he has of nailing him. This talk is his last hope. If this fails, he’s lost her. For good.

Honestly, you think you know someone and you know nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve always trusted my mother, told her things, been open and felt that that was a useful thing in life, to have a mother who could listen, give some advice, open my eyes a little to the world. To me she was always a known quantity, inside out. But after tonight, I know nothing, and it hurts. It hurts and it makes me angry to be deceived like this. By her. Unfaithful. My father uses the word as though it only affected him, as though the only one let down in all this is him. What about me? Don’t I have feelings? Haven’t I got a right to bawl her out. I trusted her and she’s such a hypocrite. You see, I’ve been going with Jed now for nearly six months, and one evening, after he’d dropped me off homewe’d been to a movie or something, I had this big long talk with my mother about school and the future and my life and so on, and eventually we got around to Jed and I told her that Jed was fine, that I was very happy with him, that he treated me properly and that I was just prepared to see how things worked out and wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. That’s good she said, smiling at me. I remember her smiling. I can see her face now. That smile, that false, deceitful smile, Jesus. She was fixing me something as we talked, a hot drink and a sandwich. And that smile of hers, a real mother’s smile. A tell-me-more smile. I wasn’t embarrassed. Why should I be, with my own mother? Yes, I said, he is affectionate, we hold hands and he kisses me. And you kiss him back, she said. Yes, I do, I told her, of course I do. But that’s it. Just kissing. That’s good, she said, placing the supper in front of me, that’s how it should be at your age. There’s plenty of time for other things when you’re older. I knew what other things she meant. Half the girls my age in Montana were up to other things.

        “Do you want anything?” I hear my mother ask him.
       My father doesn’t answer. Perhaps he’s shaking his head. Perhaps he’s thinking he wants her and nothing else, he doesn’t want her to go. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But with a question like that I can imagine. He also wants this night to be over, to be forgotten. He wants everything to slip back into place the way it has always been, but deep down he knows that’s not going to happen. He must know that if I know it. And I do. The tone of voice, the confidence, the sheer energy, the calm in my mother’s voice. The detachment. It all says one thing: I’m heading for better times, I can afford a little generosity.
        “Well I do,” she says. “I’m going to fix myself something. You’re sure? “

I hear her stand and so I hurry back to my bed and get in under the covers. The living room door opens. She walks out into the kitchen. I hear the clatter. And I wait. I wait. Wait until she’s finished and all the time I’m thinking how I trusted her, put my life in her hands and now she’s doing this and it’s as though I don’t exist. I’m not in there at all. And it makes me sick. And my father. The way she’s treating him. The way she’s behaved. She doesn’t deserve to be a part of this family. Let her go. But I know that I love her, and have always loved her and cannot picture a life without her. And I want to cry. I want to get up out of bed and shout at her, shake her, pull at her hair, slap her, tell her she has to love us, that she can’t just walk out on us. We need her. Both of us. But I cannot cry. I feel like crying but the tears just won’t come. As though what’s happening is so important there’s no time for tears. I listen and wait and think of the years we’ve had, the years I was growing up, the good times. The times I would say to her: When I’m older I want to be just like you. Lay my head on her lap and look up at her and say: Just like you, and marry a man just like daddy. And see her smile light up, a smile spreading slowly across her face. Just like you, I’d say. Baby talk. But then times change, people change and she has a right to a life of her own, a right to her own happiness. She must be free to do what she feels she must. Because otherwise she cannot be happy. Yet she always used to be happy. She always was happy. I always thought so. She never let on about any misery in her life. I never want you to die, I’d say, never. You understand? Or I want to die before you because I don’t think I could live without you, either of you. And she would smile at me then and think: What a sweet, loving thing to say.

When she’s finished in the kitchen, I creep back out of my bedroom and I can hear them talking again. My father is laughing. I cannot believe it but he is laughing, and she is laughing too. He’s talking now:
        “And the time we were driving down to Reno for Bud’s wedding, when Julie was still a baby, and we got a flat tyre in the middle of the night and when I went to fit the spare that was flat too and we had no pump and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours until a car pulled in and we could get a lift to the nearest town? Do you remember that?”
        And my mother laughs too and I wonder Jesus Christ, what is going on? Next they’ll be taking out the photos and he’ll be saying: Who’s this, Patty, tell me, where was this taken? And she’ll say, as she always says to him: Ray, you have no memory for faces or places and he’ll smile at her and say: Honey, you’re right, goddam it, you’re always right, and laugh as they always laughed in the past. The past. She’s leaving and yet there they are, locked in the past. You can’t go back because there is no back to go to, because the past is always with us. Love, past loves, always with us. And now they are chatting like two old friends about shared days, shared hopes. Shared dreams. The time she burned the turkey on Thanksgiving. The time he went fishing when we were vacationing up by Fort Peck and caught so many fish he couldn’t give them away. Like something miraculous. And I think how happy I would be if Jed could come along with us one vacation and we could all go walking through the forest and have barbecues and lie out in the sun and talk and be with one another and just live, the way we have always lived, as a family. How can he laugh when he knows it’s all over, her mind is made up?
        “Yes,” I hear my mother say, “they were good times. We did have good times. Nothing can take away the good times.”
       And now there is a hint of sadness in her voice.
        “You see,” he says. “You see what we have done we can do again. What we had we can have again.”
        And when he says those words I know just how desperate he is to hold onto her, and I know too that she does not believe him. Her heart is elsewhere. Not denying the past but not tied down by it either. And they are silent. For a long while they are silent and I can picture it from where I stand. That silence. Two worlds. Silence tells you there are two worlds. Silence is separation and the longer it lasts the greater the possibility that the silence will never again be breached. Separate lives. A fork in the road. And I begin to shiver. I want them to speak, to go on speaking, to fill the silence with their memories if nothing else, to fuel the present with words, to keep it alive, the flame glowing. But there is only silence, like the silence of hospitals, just a flicker and then silence. Total silence.

        “Do you love him?” my father asks her.
       I want her to say no, to hesitate and then say: No, no I don’t.
       ”Yes,” she says, “I love him.”
        “Would you stay if you didn’t love him?” my father asks.
       And I think how much I love my father for having the courage to ask such a question.
        “No,” she says, “I wouldn’t stay.”
        “Because you’re not happy,” my father says. “You’re not happy, here, with us.”
       And now my mother is crying. Faintly, barely audible, but there are tears. She, the strong one, the one with all the decisions behind her, is buckling under the strain. He is holding her. If I know anything he is holding her and stroking her hair, running fingers through her hair, brushing away her tears, holding her and loving her and waiting for some sort of an answer, for some sort of explanation as to why, suddenly after seventeen years, his life is in crisis. She’s looking up at him, her face stained with mascara, looking up at him I imagine pleading for understanding, not for forgiveness, just understanding. Nothing that is obvious requires understanding, I think. Not at all. Understanding is like faith, a leap in the dark. To see what another person sees without really seeing it: that is understanding. To know how they feel without feeling it or really knowing how they feel at all. He hasn’t asked her why she no longer loves him. He never will ask that question, I know him. You cannot ask that question and hope for an honest answer, because there is no honest answer. Love is not about honesty. It is about love only. Even an impossible love is love and it may be the most important love in your life, the love of your life, and totally impossible and totally obsessive and enthralling, and totally you, and everything else second best, make-do. An impossible love. My father’s love for this woman who now rests in his arms, in tears, for another man. The silence in tears, in sadness. Unreachable love. Reaching out. Stroking her hair, wiping the tears from her face and she’s not even there. All these things I’m learning in the darkness. And she’s still there, in his arms and perhaps even she is surprised that she found the courage to say no, I wouldn’t stay.

John Lyons, 1992


Augusto Monterroso – a fable and a tale

Augusto-Monterroso
Augusto Monterroso (1921-2003)

One of the most delightful writers I met in Latin America was Augusto Monterroso. A Guatemalan, he lived for much of his life in Mexico, where he taught in the UNAM university. Before leaving London, I had been given the telephone number of a Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, and I called him as soon as I got to Mexico City. We agreed to meet one lunchtime at Sanborn’s café, which was where all the artists and writers usually met. At that time Mejía Sánchez was going through a difficult patch in his life, and the conversation was rather strained and dull until Augusto Monterroso turned up. He had with him copies of three of his published works and in each of them he wrote a very individual dedication to me. “I hate to burden you,” he said as he handed them to me. “But you can chuck them into the Atlantic when you fly back to London if you like.” Naturally, I held onto them, still have them today, and they are among my most prized possessions.

mont_dedicAugusto, was extremely warm and jovial and the conversation soon became filled with laughter and great stories and even managed to draw poor Mejía Sánchez out of himself. Monterroso’s writings tend to be short pieces, fables and short stories but always with a humorous and satirical slant. The Colombian Nobel Prize Winner, Gabriel García Márquez said of one of his works: “This book should be read with your hands in the air: its danger is based on its sly wisdom and the deadly beauty of its lack of seriousness”. With a sense of humour very much in tune with that of Julio Cortázar, it was no surprise that when the latter died in 1984, his apartment in Paris was ceded to Augusto Monterroso.

Years after that meeting in Mexico, I was asked by Index on Censorhip to translate a story by Monterroso, entitled “Mister Taylor”. This was a satirical tale about the export of shrunken Guatemalan heads to the American market where they had become fashion accessories. The tone, of course, was very much that of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”. In a subsequent book, Augusto touchingly singled out this publication with these words: “I’ve just received a copy of Index on Censorship from London where I story of mine, “Mister Taylor”, translated by John Lyons, has just appeared. Most surprising!” The circle was thus complete!


The frog who wanted to be a real frog

There was once a frog who wanted to be a real frog, and every day she struggled to be so. First she bought a mirror into which she gazed for hours hoping to see her longed-for authenticity. Sometimes she thought she’d found it and sometimes she did not, depending on the mood of that day or hour, until she grew tired of this and put the mirror away in a trunk.

Finally she thought that the only way to be sure of her own worth was through the opinion of others, and she began to do her hair and to dress up and undress (when she had no other option) to see if others approved of her and recognised that she was a real frog.

One day she noticed that what they most admired about her was her body, especially her legs, so she started to do squats and jumps in order to have to better legs, and she felt that everyone applauded her.

And so she continued to push herself harder and harder, and was willing to go to any length to get others to consider her to be a real frog, she even allowed her thighs to be ripped off for others to eat, and as the others devoured them she was still able to hear bitterly when they said, “Excellent frog. Tastes just like chicken.”


The mirror that could not sleep

There was once a hand mirror which when left alone with no one looking into it, felt absolutely dreadful, as though he didn’t exist, and perhaps he was right; but the other mirrors laughed at him, and when at night they were put away in the drawer of the dresser they slept soundly, oblivious to the neurotic’s worries.

Translations by John Lyons


Beau Visage Belle Vie

Below is another of the stories I wrote in the early nineties. As I have explained before, at that time I was in the thrall of the American short story writers, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. One of the things I discovered from reading their work was that nothing really had to happen in a story in order for it to work as a story: after all, they were not writing action stories but really meditations on life, on what it is to be human, to struggle, to fall in love, sometimes to lose that love, to fail and to come to terms with one’s failures, with the fact that life is not perfect, or at least we as human beings do not lead perfect lives but we can always be honest and try to do our best. The stories of these two writers were subtle and they often contained pearls of worldly wisdom drawn from observation and particularly in the case of Raymond Carver, from experience, some of it quite bitter. The bitterness, however, is always offset by the nobility of the story telling art.

No matter what means of expression we choose, be it drama, poetry, painting or fiction, art always rescues us, it always adds dignity to our lives and to our experiences, and this is because it always separates out something good in our lives, whether it is a bison drawn on a cave wall, or a simple refrain from a song that comes from the heart. Art is always from the heart. And we can fail in our art too, it can fall short of our own expectations, but it is always there, always something upon which we have focused our attention and which therefore has been salvaged from the endless drift of time. We see this in its most innocent form in the work of young children who at the school gate rush to show to a parent a painting or a sketch that they have done in class. Their pride in their production stems from the emotion of having made something of the moment, something true and something beautiful.

No worldly wisdom here below, I’m afraid, but I did my best at the time.


Beau Visage Belle Vie

ChicagoI was completing my final year at college in Chicago when my mother walked out on my father. The news came as no surprise to me, I have to admit. I had heard them quarrel throughout my teens and if anything, the surprising thing was that they managed to last as long as they did. I received a letter from my mother just before my exams started. The letter was posted in Dallas where she was now living with a man named Alvin who owned a string of donut shops. Finally, she said, I’ve met someone who appreciates me for what I am. I was happy for my mother but at the same time I knew that my father would find it difficult to get by on his own. My mother’s letter made no mention of him. It was as though he no longer existed. That part of her life was gone forever. Although she said that she loved me and promised to keep in touch, I suspected that this letter was in reality a fond farewell.

When I returned home to Helena, I found that my father was drinking again. He was still able to control it, but only just. He’d lost weight and looked older and more tired than before I had gone away and he was reluctant to talk about what had happened, about what had finally brought things to a head. These were difficult times for me. I loved my father. I knew he had his faults but that was no reason not to feel sympathy for him.

Having been away more or less for three years, I’d lost touch with almost all of my local friends in college and so most evenings I would stay in and talk with my father. Sometimes we would play chess. My father is a superb player and I have never once managed to beat him but he taught me a great deal. Often though he would not be in the mood for games and we would just sit and talk. Mainly he would talk and I would listen. Life was his theme. Life and its complexities and surprises. I expected him to be morose but in actual fact, despite the drink, he managed to retain a certain amount of optimism. He was still a good-looking man: tall and slim and with the sort of thick grey hair which gave him a certain aura. I felt sure that sooner or later he would find himself a divorcee or a widow if only he would make the effort and get out of the house a bit more often. He just needs time, I told myself. Events like these can damage a man’s confidence. It’s going to take him a while to get back on the road, to find his way again. The fact that he had also lost his job did not help. For as long as I can remember he had worked at the hydroelectric station. But the installation two years ago of new computerized equipment had made his job unnecessary. He was not unduly concerned. The terms of the settlement he’d reached with the electricity company were such that his financial security was more or less guaranteed. But work would have taken his mind off things, mixing with people would have forced him to make an effort to be sociable. I was looking for work myself as a newly qualified engineer, but in Montana there was little on offer. It occurred to me that I might have done better to remain in Chicago. Still, Chicago was always there and it could wait.

As I said, the nights when we didn’t play chess or merely sit in front of the television, my father would talk. He always was a good talker. The more whisky he took the more he opened up, and for the first time in my life I began to get a picture of the man. At first I used to enjoy our conversations, I felt I was learning something that would stand me in good stead. My father spoke with such assurance that everything appeared to have the ring of truth to it. Life, he would say, life is about coming to terms with loss. When you’re young you have so much, you gain so much, you grow so much, in so many ways. And you get to thinking that this is the pattern, that learning and growing and adding to your general stock of things is what it’s all about. Wrong! Dead wrong. That’s only a phase, an immature phase which sure we all have to go through. But it’s only a preparation for what’s to follow. And what follows it loss. I thought when he said this that he was referring to his own life, to the loss of my mother, but he made no mention of her. Life is learning to be a good loser. Life is knowing when you’re beat and not fighting battles you can never win. But after many evenings of him talking in this vein I began to recognise these sentiments for what they really were: an expression of his own helplessness. Even now I distrust any sentence that opens with the word life. The problem with those general statements is that they can give you a false sense of security, they can make you believe that there is somehow, somewhere, a perfect solution and this I simply do not buy. I’d look at my father topping up his glass of whisky or lighting another cigarette and think to myself: He’s just a lonely man, desperately talking to fill the void in his life. The game he’s playing is a game of make-believe.

When I was growing up, people would often comment on how much my father and I were alike. And we were very close. He would often take me fishing when I was old enough and he promised also to let me in on one of his hunting trips but this he never got around to. He used to go off for whole weekends with Jim Douglas and Phil Baines, two friends from work. Occasionally I would remind him of his promise: Sure thing, son, he’d say. One of these days, you can bet on it. But then something happened. Jim Baines got blinded in a shooting accident and though my father was not at all responsible for this, he took it very much to heart and the hunting trips stopped. I could see that physically I had a lot in common with my father, but hearing him night after night going on about life, I sure did hope that I would not end up in such a state.

One night the conversation we were having did turn to my mother. I can’t recall now whether it was me or him who brought up the subject of her departure. Whatever the case my father appeared to take it all very much in his stride. The trouble with your mother, he said, was that for years she wanted too little out of life. I know she blames me for that, but it really was none of my doing. I tried to encourage her but she always insisted that she was happy the way she was. The truth is, she allowed herself to be squeezed into a space that was so narrow it left her eventually with no room to breathe. And when this Alvin came along and offered to let her out, she just jumped at the chance. Then he paused and stared into the bottom of his whisky glass and rattled the ice. I just hope she’s happy, he added. That’s all. I don’t miss her. Fact is, I’m glad she’s gone. That may shock you, but then you young people are always so much easier to shock. I’m glad, I tell you. Perhaps now she’s getting what she’s wanted for all these years. What she maintained she was missing out on.

Then I met Glenda. Glenda was working as a beauty therapist at the Beau Visage Belle Vie parlour just off Main Street. She had just turned twenty-two and she was the prettiest thing I ever did get my hands on. About my height and with long brown hair and hazel eyes, I fell for her straightaway. She rented the small apartment above the parlour and I soon began to spend more and more time there with her. She was everything I ever wanted from a woman. She had spirit and a great sense of fun. I’m telling you, from the moment I first slept with her I felt like a man who had just struck gold.

What is this beauty therapy, my father asked me one day when I called in to see how he was doing. Just another term for getting you to look good, I told him. Glenda says that looking good makes you feel good and anything that makes you feel better than you felt before is a kind of therapy. He thought about this for a while and then he said: I’d like to meet her. Bring her over sometime? Introduce her, perhaps a lunch one Sunday. I couldn’t see the harm in that and so I promised him I would put it to her. Naturally she had no objection. Sure, she said, I’d like to see where you came from. But for several weeks I did nothing about it. There were interviews to go to—not that I was successful at any of them. And there were other things. And there was the simple fact that Glenda was so special, so precious to me, I didn’t feel like sharing her, not even with my own father. And Sundays. . . Sundays were for lying in bed all day with Glenda.

Then late one Saturday afternoon things finally came together. Glenda and I picked up some steaks and burgers and a few bottles of wine and drove over to my father’s place without warning. It was a warm summer’s day and the idea of a barbecue on the back patio really appealed to us. I found my father sitting in the living room with a bottle of whisky on the table and a glass in his hand. He was still in his dressing gown and he hadn’t shaved. But he was pleased to see us. While Glenda and I began to set things up on the patio he went off to shower and shave. By the time he appeared again the smell of charcoal and burning grease was thick in the air. I offered my father a glass of wine and we all toasted his health.

The evening turned out better than I had expected. Glenda and my father talked as though they’d known each other for ages. And my father seemed to be enjoying every minute of it. So tell me about this beauty therapy, he was asking her. Glenda immediately launched into a sales pitch. You should try it, she said. She was teasing him but I think that underneath that she did think a little therapy could do no harm. Come into the parlour one day and we’ll see what we can do for you. My father laughed. I hadn’t heard him laugh in ages, but he laughed talking to Glenda. I can’t see myself wearing a mudpack or any of that nonsense, he was saying to Glenda. And she was laughing too. Things have come on a long way since mudpacks, she told him. We have machines that can work wonders. She was playing it up and he was enjoying every moment of it. Or what about a manicure, she said, taking hold of one of his hands and holding it up to examine the cuticles. You’d be surprised what we have to deal with, she said. Farmers’ wives who’ve abused their skin for forty years and who suddenly come into a little money and want to repair the damage. I’m telling you straight, miracles is our business. Again my father laughed at the sales pitch Glenda was adopting. Then, for the first time in ages I thought of my mother. I wondered what she might be doing at that precise moment, whether she was at the rear of some palatial Dallas mansion, enjoying a rare steak with Alvin by her side, and laughing. I hoped she was. Life felt good and I wanted everyone to be happy.

© John Lyons, 1991

Bleeding Hearts – a foray into fiction

carverOver twenty years ago I began to write a collection of short stories called Bleeding Hearts. I took my inspiration from the short fiction I was reading at the time, in particular the brilliant stories by Raymond Carver (pictured) and Richard Ford. Written in a spare style, these narratives were about failure and loss, about life and lives falling apart, about dead-ends and dead-beat jobs, and in the case of Carver, hopeless addictions. They were human stories on a par with the best of Chekov and they dealt with the tragedies of everyday life which are every bit as profound as those of Sophocles or Shakespeare, God rest his soul.

I completed thirteen of my own stories, all set in the USA in places like Montana or Oregon. I knew nothing about these states other than what I’d picked up from the stories I was reading, but in a sense it didn’t matter: it was all theatre and the dramas could be staged anywhere, not excluding the moon, anywhere that human dreams and aspirations could come tumbling down, anywhere that love could slip through your fingers like a cool mountain stream, anywhere that heartache could burn through the soul like the royal waters of aqua regia.

I took the stories with me when I went to live in Central America for a couple of years in the early nineties, and I translated all thirteen into Spanish. A number of them were published in the Saturday supplement of the Sandinista newspaper, El Nuevo Diario. Shortly after, I ceased writing prose and concentrated on my poetry, which at the time I was writing and publishing in Spanish.

A dear old friend of mine read a handful of the stories a few months ago and when she’d finished she said: “Yes, all right, but when I get to the end of them I always want to know what happened next.” “Don’t we all,” I replied. She’s going to be even more frustrated if she reads today’s post.

Below is a fragment from a story which I never completed but which will convey some idea of how I was writing in those days. At some point in the future I will post a complete story, but for now this is it. Life is full of fresh beginnings and false starts and wrong trails, and it takes courage to press on to the end, and sometimes we just have to accept that we may never get there. So best sit back and enjoy the journey, one day at a time. . . .


Good Fortune

montanaI wake at dawn. Gayle is still fast asleep. My throat is dry. I reach for the glass of water on the bedside cabinet and drain it. My hands are shaking. I put down the glass. Gayle turns over and for a moment her eyes open. She looks at me and smiles. I lean across and kiss her on the forehead. She mutters something in a sleepy drawl which I cannot understand. I pull the covers up around her shoulders. You go back to sleep, I say. She smiles again and closes her eyes. I run my fingers through her grey hair. The hair is dry and brittle. Her soft skin is marked now with fine deep lines like a spider web of pain.

Years ago I used to think that we would never grow old, that somehow time would pass us by, we were so happy. Time did pass us by, but not in the way I imagined! This much I have learned: that nothing goes the way you think it will. When we were young, just starting out, we both believed that we would make it, that loving each other the way we did would be enough to get us through. We were both wrong. Gayle would say to me: I’ve got you, Luke, what more do I want? And I would say the same thing. We were that happy, and that naive. This is Montana, the Treasure State, and we haven’t a dollar to our name. We still have each other, still love each other. That’s something.

I slide out of bed and walk across to the window. I open the curtains a fraction and peer out. The sky is already a soft cerise. The world outside is silent but for the chorus of birds in the trees across the way. I know what I have to do. There is a sick feeling in my stomach, as though I have swallowed a great quantity of lead in the night. I let the curtain fall back. It’s going to be a fine day, a fine summer’s day, and for me, for me and Gayle, a make or break day. I skirt around the bed but before I leave the room I stop and stare at Gayle once more. In two months’ time she will be sixty. On the cabinet her side of the bed, her reading glasses are lying on top of a open copy of Fortune Magazine. Last night we read the story of a retired plumber in Milwaukee who made a million bucks in one year. After a lifetime attending to burst pipes during the winter months, he hit upon the idea of electrified lagging which would switch on automatically once the temperature dropped.

In the corner by the wardrobe is Gayle’s walking frame. Her hips are getting worse. . .