He had the address written down in his planner but didn’t need to check: the town had only one hotel, facing the plaza.
A big pink woman crammed into a dress covered in enormous flowers came out to receive him.
Mr Bagiardelli, welcome! she said and hugged him.
I’m Elvita, the owner, she said then, and, there in the middle of the pavement, she hugged him again. Soon she had pulled his suitcase out of the truck.
Fidel! Fidel! she shouted into the lobby. Mr Bagiardelli is here!
Fidel was a boy of no more than ten years old. Elvita passed him the suitcase and the boy dragged it across the patio of large red tiles and ferns in pots.
Here you are, said Elvita, showing him his room: two narrow beds with green covers, cream-coloured walls, a chair to put his clothes on, a lamp without its shade and a dark table underneath the window.
I left you three blankets in the wardrobe. It gets pretty cold here at night.
Víctor Bagiardelli gave a nod. He closed the door, took off his shoes and lay down atop a bed. Its elastic crackled. The mattress was too soft.
But right away there came a knocking at the door. The mayor was there. Fidel had run to the town hall to let him know.
Víctor Bagiardelli had never seen the mayor before; based on his voice over the phone he had pictured him as tall and corpulent, with slumped shoulders. As soon as he opened the door he was able to confirm this hypothesis. The mayor was stocky and had a flabby face. Víctor Bagiardelli was surprised by his black hair, pulled back, wavy, without a speck of grey. He couldn’t quite tell if it was a toupee or if the mayor just dyed his hair.
Welcome, said Mayor Giraudo and held out his hand. Do you have a minute? I’d let you rest but it’ll get dark on us before long.
Víctor Bagiardelli gave a nod.
Just give me a second, and I’ll get my notebook.
Of course, answered Giraudo.
Víctor Bagiardelli closed the door to his room, sat down on the edge of the bed and let exactly ten minutes go by. Then he strode out towards reception.
The town was called Colonel Isabeta. It was wedged into the edge of the prairie, at the very end where the sierra began. To the west it faced the mountains, its final dwellings climbing up into their foothills. From the east it was battered by the wind from the plains.The trees of the public spaces were limited to evergreens, pruned so their branches wouldn’t graze the cables of the power lines. Now they were coming to the last of the afternoon. It hadn’t really begun to get dark yet, but the cold already required zipped-up jackets and tightly pulled scarves. Mayor Giraudo hustled along with his fingers inter- locking over the small of his back; Víctor Bagiardelli followed him without a word. They cut across the plaza in a diagonal line and headed up a street that rose towards the mountains. Two blocks along, the mayor came to a stop before a house, gesturing for Víctor Bagiardelli to go inside. The door was unlocked. Inside, sitting at a table covered with an oilcloth, a woman was reading a magazine. Giraudo greeted her with a nod and continued down the hallway.The woman watched them pass her by and went back to her reading.There was no noise inside the house, the shades were all drawn and most of the rooms rested in torpid shadow. The smell of Creolin and just-washed floors rose from the baseboards and overpowered other smells that were slighter, barely penetrating the walls: hints of soup, damp wool, and cat piss. In the hall there were cross-stitched wall hangings and old photographs of smiling babies and first communions. At its end a fluorescent bulb flickered over little bathroom tiles. The white gleam of it slipped into the adjoining bedroom and lit up a rectangle over large tiles and the legs of a hospital bed. Mayor Giraudo plunged into the darkness of the room. For a second, Víctor Bagiardelli lost sight of him; then Giraudo switched on a small lamp, half-covered by a handkerchief.
A very old man was sleeping on his back, barely even weighing down the sheets. He looked more like a bird. His body was small and frail: his shoulders narrow, his head enormous. Without any dental support, his lips sank inwards, creating a deep, dark hollow. He didn’t have any hair left, just a tiny bit of fluff on the sides, framing his calloused and disproportionate ears. His naked head was splattered in age spots that intermingled, ochre and maroon, leaving not a single centimetre of unoccupied skin.
Giraudo went up to the bed, lowered his head and then stayed there, his pupils fixed on the covers draped over the old man. The old man’s breathing was almost imperceptible, a faint and distant rasp, but it was the only thing that could be heard in the whole house. That and the pages of the newspaper the woman turned over and over in the kitchen.
Relative of yours? said Víctor Bagiardelli. Something in the arrangement of the eyebrows, the variety of nose, had suggested this idea.
He’s my dad, said the mayor, without taking his eyes off the covers on the bed.
A hundred and four.
How long has he been here for?
Three weeks, ever since he broke his hip.
What’s the prognosis?
Well, they won’t operate on him. He’s got an infection.
What’s his name?
Víctor Bagiardelli knelt so that his head was at pillow level, his mouth very near the old man’s face. He took in his own hands the old man’s fingers, knotted like acacia branches. His nails were thick and grooved, and the way they stuck out they seemed almost ready to come off.
Stay strong, Hipólito, whispered Víctor Bagiardelli in the old man’s furry ear.
Stay strong, Hipólito, he repeated. At least until spring. I’m going to create the most beautiful cemetery you’ve ever laid eyes on. I’m going to build you a perfect cemetery.
From the other side of the bed the mayor nodded. His eyes were filled with tears. When Víctor Bagiardelli stood back up, Giraudo had already dried them, but a faint red line still marred the edges of his eyelids.
Víctor Bagiardelli clapped him on the back.
You can count on me, he said. I’m the best.
Giraudo gulped, then pulled himself together.
That’s why I called you, he said, under his breath.
At this the old man coughed. Once. Twice. Three times. Then he opened his eyes, cleared his throat, sat straight up and spat to one side onto the floor of the bedroom.
Hang on, said Víctor Bagiardelli.
Wasn’t he at death’s door?
Who, Pops? said the mayor.
The old man surveyed them with the hard, mistrustful eyes of a falcon.
Who the hell is this? he said.
Víctor Bagiardelli looked at the mayor. The mayor looked at Víctor Bagiardelli.
He’s an engineer, said the mayor.
What do I want an engineer for?
The mayor looked at Bagiardelli.
It’s for your prosthesis, Pops, said Giraudo. He’s come to town to design your prosthesis.
Out of aluminium?
No, Dad, said the mayor. Only the best, stainless steel.
When’s the operation?
Come on, Pops! Where’s the fire? They’ve got to make it first.
Have you watered the garden yet?
The nurse is in charge of that.
My parsley’ll all dry up. That woman is good for nothing. What about the chickens? Have you fed the chickens?
Yes, Pops, said the mayor.
Open the blinds for me, would you? I’d like a little sunshine.
It’s almost dark, Dad.
And although you had all day you didn’t have a moment to simply water my parsley, now did you?
I really didn’t, Dad.
Stuff and nonsense! said Old Man Giraudo. Stuff and nonsense!
The next day Miss Mahoney, the mayor’s secretary, took him over the land. She was a tall woman, somewhat equine, with wide hips and sizeable teeth shaped like ice lollies. She wore her hair very short, curly, and a brown tailored suit with a necklace of red beads around her neck.
It’s a shame we’ve never had a cemetery, all these years, she said. All those wonderful people we just gave to Deheza when they died. People who did things for our town, who had real attributes, who won awards.
Deheza was the next town over, less than ten kilometres away, along the sierra.
How is it no one ever thought of this before? said Víctor Bagiardelli.
Miss Mahoney shrugged.
Laziness, she said. Or habit. People here are just used to sending their dead to Deheza. It wouldn’t occur to them to make a change. That’s how they are.
They were walking up the hill, towards the end of one of the dirt streets. There weren’t any homes around, just vacant lots and the loose rocks of the sloping road bearing them upward. It was a clear morning, dry, cold but sunlit, the sky transparent.
All this, all the way up, up to the mountain’s edge, is municipal land, said Miss Mahoney. So anywhere that strikes your fancy’s yours.
Low and shaggy vegetation lay over the hillside like a fuzzy, frizzy blanket. It was all espinillos covered in lichen and scrub.
Víctor Bagiardelli turned and looked out over the plain. Colonel Isabeta rolled out beneath his feet, down the hill: the faded roofs, the clumsy trees, the church bell tower. On the other side of the town, the road agleam, two cars that sped by, heading to Deheza. Beyond, the plain, sectioned up into pasture, and at the limit of the desert air the vanishing horizon, dispersing into vapour, an undulating distance.
An oak, said Víctor Bagiardelli. An oak tree up top, and underneath the oak a nice wide bench, for people to sit and take in the community of the living, their dwellings, the landscape. The infinite, where your eyes get lost and everything seems to end – but doesn’t.
In his mind’s eye he could already see the new cemetery. The site could not have been better – he would never encounter its equal. He opened his notebook and drew a quick sketch. He inspected the land while nibbling on the tip of his pencil and listing his ideas aloud. He passed through groups of little chañar trees and paid no mind to their thorns as they scratched him. Wisps of panicles and bracts latched onto the fabric of his shirt without him noticing. Thistle clung to his trouser legs, but he didn’t care. His walking raised a dust cloud that made him sneeze. Víctor Bagiardelli stood at the very top of the hill and there, standing still, his notebook wedged into his armpit, his hands folded behind him, he squinted and tried to focus on the horizon. He resumed his sketching. With his index finger and thumb he made a framing square that contained the landscape. He extended his arms to get the proportions; he took notes; he muttered exclamations. In the air his pupils traced his imagined cemetery.
A boulevard lined with plantain trees that stretches from the entrance gate to a chapel with white walls, he said, and Miss Mahoney nodded.
Paths with S-shaped curves. To the north, a little patchwork of candelabra trees and monkey puzzles that will open out like parasols. Agapanthus, agapanthus, lots of azaleas, but above all agapanthus. And on that gentle hillside there, a covering of green where the graves can go in right at ground level.
Miss Mahoney gazed at him, enraptured.
Down below, in the ravine, a garden of white roses for the departed children, and the unborn. And the ossuary in that corner there, between quaking aspens that will whisper it quiet and frame it. Past that, a row of beech and magnolia trees to orient the eyes. And over here, my masterstroke, a sweeping semicircle of weeping willows, so that its curtain will fall all the way to the ground and on days with a breeze caress the headstones with its tips.
That’ll be so nice, said Miss Mahoney. I knew you were the best, she said. Then she dragged Víctor Bagiardelli off to the town hall.
They went straight to the mayor’s office.
What about my dad? asked Giraudo when the designer had finished detailing his plans. Where will we put my pops?
Underneath the oak tree, next to the bench, responded Víctor Bagiardelli.
Out of the whole place, will that be the absolute best spot? asked the mayor.
I can assure you it will be. It will be the focal point that will capture everyone’s attention. The pinnacle.
Nothing but the best, nodded the mayor and began inquiring into the budgets and fees. In order to oversee the work on the cemetery, Víctor Bagiardelli would be willing to spend the winter in the town, but that would mean paying him an amount four times heftier than what he would have charged for the design alone. On the other hand, the mayor would save money on the execution, because almost everything could be done with city employees, with a little help from local labour. When the time came to buy the trees, Víctor Bagiardelli promised to get them a discount at a couple of the nurseries he always used.
The only issue is the bulldozer to get rid of the hill, said the mayor. Deheza has one, but no way I’ll go to them.
We can rent one, suggested Miss Mahoney.
Which will add to the budget.
You’ll get nothing for free in this life, said Víctor Bagardelli. Although for you, for your town, because I feel this hillside has exceptional potential, I will make a small personal sacrifice and give you a little discount on my fees.
They went back to adding and subtracting and in less than fifteen minutes had arrived at an agreement.
Now we just need to get the town council to approve it. Let’s go and have a talk with Romero, said the mayor and got up from his desk and put on his jacket.
Again they crossed the plaza diagonally. Romero was an auto mechanic, and they found him lying on the floor, face up, underneath a blue truck that was losing oil.
This is Romero, head of the council, said Mayor Giraudo.
I object, said Romero as he scrambled up.
Principle, said Romero.
Where is it you’re planning on putting your loved ones when they’re gone?
It’s just me, I’m on my own. My father – rest in peace – and my mother – rest in peace – are already in Deheza.
But what about the common good? the mayor protested.
Your own good, you mean. It’s your old man that wants a grave, said Romero.
The mayor snorted twice, turned on his heels and stalked off without another word. Víctor Bagiardelli followed him in silence.
You see what I’m up against? said the mayor once they were back in the town hall. A bunch of ignoramuses who care nothing for progress. It’s their fault we’re in the boat we’re in. It was the same with the proposal to divert the stream and create a spa, to develop our tourist industry. They shot it down because they figured it’d just be too much trouble. Do you have any idea how our economy would be flourishing now if we had a spa? The jobs alone. But this time I won’t let them win. I’ll hold a referendum. Miss Mahoney! he shouted. Get me Monetti on the line. He’s the one with the loudspeaker. He and I’ll have a little chat.
That same afternoon, a ramshackle Renault 12 cruised up and down the streets of Colonel Isabeta, methodically. Two speakers attached to the luggage rack proclaimed the referendum, scheduled for the following Sunday, while simultaneously promoting the concept of a cemetery of the town’s very own and urging voters to stop burying their dead in Deheza. They are our deceased, and we want them close to home! screeched the recorded voice of the mayor again and again as dusk descended over the town.
Image © Molly Dilworth
This is an excerpt from the title story of Federico Falco’s collection A Perfect Cemetery translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft, out now with Charco Press.