Translated from the Spanish by Kit Maude

1

 

Señora Marín lived alone with two gnomes. Physically, they looked more like animals than people but intellectually it was hard to conceive of pleasanter company. At night, once all the lights in the house had been turned off, the Señora would lie down on her brass bed with a satisfied sigh and spend hours reclining, her eyes wide open staring at the changing shadows on the ceiling cast by the regular flashing of a far off neon sign, while the gnomes entertained her with their conversation. There was plenty to talk about – and every subject seemed to interest them.

There was one subject, however, that they preferred to leave well alone: the death of Señor Marín. Nevertheless, Güendolina – for that was the Señora’s name – would bring it up whenever she could, much to the irritation of her companions. As far as they were concerned, it was an event of very little interest and moreover had happened years ago, before the younger gnome, Anfio, had even been born and while the elder, Présule, was still living in the house on Calle Lavalle with his current owner’s aunt.

The truth was that Güendolina felt she was to blame for his death. One night, offended by certain remarks her husband had made the day before, about a velvet blouse she had recently purchased, she refused to open the door to him when he came back from an evening game of football. Señor Marín, who had a weak heart and wouldn’t hurt a fly, started to feel unwell, probably because he was upset, and, lacking the strength to go to a hotel, had curled up in the doorway. The next morning, the Señora was surprised by the unpleasant discovery that he had frozen to death beside an empty milk bottle, which the dying man had apparently drunk in his final moments. Despite her efforts to drag him inside, undress him, and tuck him up in bed, the man could not be revived and she was left with the burden on her conscience.

With the exception of this sorry episode, the conversation of the gnomes in the house on Calle Solís was remarkably wide-ranging and original, addressing an extensive array of subjects. They were also very well-mannered, especially when in the presence of their owner. They did however tend to lose their composure when the discussion turned to fish, because of the almost irrational passion they both felt for the food, especially tinned sardines and anchovies.

So exciting were their observations, and indeed all their night-time conversations, that little by little Señora Marín had learned to do almost entirely without the company of friends and instead spent her afternoons reading magazines in perpetual solitude, every now and then noting down new items and observations on current affairs, as well as aphorisms of a more general character, that she would be able to use later to keep the flame of the gnomes’ conversation going through the night.

Anfio was still young and during the day all he thought about was his next meal. However, as soon as his mistress had stretched herself out on her high bed, the gnome, who was covered in blonde curls, would lie down on the carpet next to her with his little golden belly in the air and, gurgling with pleasure, play with the tassels that hung from the bedspread or occasionally stroke Güendolina’s bare foot whenever she tired of lying in the same position and mischievously poked it over one side of the bed. Neither of the gnomes ever left the house except to go out into the little garden at the back whose walls were far too high for them to climb. Sooner or later this state of affairs might have led to unpleasant situations – the masculine urges of little people are no different from those of larger ones – if it weren’t for the happy fact that both Présule and Anfio had been eunuchs from a very early age – as had always been the tradition for gnomes in Güendolina’s family – and were thus entirely free of carnal desire.

During the long, pleasant evenings in the bedroom, Présule simply stretched out on a divan, resting his head on his favourite cushion: red corduroy embroidered in cross-stitch with an image of a glass fish bowl with two golden carp inside. From his reclining position, his curious gaze squinting slightly in the darkness, pupils dilated, the dwarf would stare affectionately at a colourful portrait of a large parrot preening its feathers. The parrot’s name was Camel and it had also died in tragic circumstances: Anfio had eaten him in a moment of confusion.

‘It’s very cold tonight, don’t you think?’ Présule, who was swarthy and a little bald, would say.

‘Terribly cold. Can’t I lie down for a little while under the covers?’ Anfio’s wheedling voice could be heard pleading with his mistress, certain in the knowledge that he would not be indulged.

‘Colder than the night my husband died,’ Güendolina would observe melancholically, sighing and pulling the sheets up to her chin.

Sometimes the Señora, between observations, would nostalgically scratch her belly. Then the two gnomes, spying the hand moving beneath the bedspread and yielding to the fascination certain people and animals have with any hidden movement, would throw themselves on top of her in an effort to catch the tempting, twitching lump. Güendolina would smile beatifically, feeling herself floating upon the calm and security of a quiet life.

This was how they spent their nights as a family. The Señora would fall asleep a little before dawn and get up when the sun was high in the sky to clean the house and go to the market, where she bought tripe or calves’ heads for the gnomes (never fish, even though they liked it so much, because as careful as they always tried to be, they would always leave a head or tail lying around in a corner somewhere and the house would start to smell), and a little something for herself; not much, because she didn’t eat much. When she got back, she would open the living room window, sweep the floor and dust the furniture and ornaments with a cloth. She loved her dining room suite with its dark walnut panelling imported from France by a former patron of her husband. The chairs were wicker, and elegantly carved with floral designs, while the uneven shelves of the baroque sideboard presented, in silent pomp, an exhibition of beautiful decorative pieces collected by the lady of the house: statuettes, candy dishes, ceramics, cut crystal and, right in the middle, on top of veined Italian marble, stood a large bronze statue of an Indian on horseback being attacked by a puma. Wounded by the slash of a claw, the horse was rearing up and neighing in fright while the unruffled Indian sank his spear into the beast’s throat. The set had been bought many years earlier by Señor Marín during a particularly prosperous period and since then had been the incontestable pride of the dining room.

The gnomes would eat at midday and then go straight to the hall for a nap, each on their own sofa. In the afternoon the sun shone briefly in the back garden and they would go out to bathe in its rays. Güendolina, by contrast, would stay inside, behind the window, reading her magazines and romance novels, until the sun disappeared as suddenly as it had presented itself. The gnomes would come inside, have their dinner in the kitchen and go to sleep in the hall for another hour or so. Given the relaxing daily routine, it wasn’t surprising that everyone was so lively and energetic at night when they assembled in the bedroom.

And yet Présule, who was the more intelligent and learned of the two gnomes, occasionally (only very occasionally, it has to be said) felt a shadow of fear flutter in the depths of his little heart: the fear that one day all this could end. Although his experience of the world was somewhat limited, he knew that the relative calm and happiness that the weeks, months and years bequeathed them so consistently were no more than a temporary hiatus granted by fate, the dragon who lies ever alert, waiting for a moment of distraction before striking with its ferocious talons (just another demonstration of its indifference). He knew that the outside world is full of uncontrollable forces, influences that by their very innocence do not deserve to be called malign but that are nonetheless capable of doing greater harm than a host of demons. Demons, in truth, are just obeying confusing, unintelligent orders, orders that also offer the advantage of being somewhat predictable, not having changed – as even a superficial inspection will show – for the past forty or fifty centuries. Big or small, one need simply to trust in their base animal instincts in order to outwit a demon.

In contrast, the exterior forces that threaten those who have patiently made the sacrifices necessary to find a tolerable – albeit temporary – refuge for themselves, somewhere they can be at peace and forget, are like those stars of the solar system known as comets: nobody knows where they come from, nor when they will next appear, let alone what havoc and annihilation of hitherto indestructible matter and energy they will wreak along the way.

And that was exactly what happened. One morning Güendolina received a letter: it bore news of the death of her sister-in-law, her deceased husband’s sister, who had been crushed by a reversing truck carrying a load of bricks. Señora María had only a vague idea of this woman’s existence: all she knew was that she was a widow who worked as a cook on a remote ranch in Catamarca. Chief among the few things of value that she left behind upon her death was a fourteen-year-old son. As she was the only relative they were aware of, the owners of the ranch had decided to send the orphan to stay with his aunt so she could take charge of feeding, clothing and sheltering him, as necessary.

The news caused profound consternation to the ménage on Calle Solís. Présule was moved to mention a boy he had known when he lived on Calle Lavalle who did many unspeakable things to him. He had once even made Présule wash in a sink with soap and water. Anfio listened in horror, trying in vain to hide underneath the bed because both he and Présule hated water. As a possible solution, to prevent the imminent intrusion that threatened to ruin the tranquil lives of the gnomes, and thus her own, forever, Güendolina (who at times like this did not exactly stand out for her brilliance) suggested that they move somewhere without telling anyone where they were going. That way the boy wouldn’t be able to find his aunt and would have to return to Catamarca.

However, the gnomes, for whom the habitable world was limited to the four or five rooms of the house, wouldn’t even entertain the possibility of moving somewhere else and the notion was dropped. It was a terribly sad night for the three of them, made worse by their inability to come to a decision. The gnomes weren’t quite satisfied with Güendolina’s reaction – deep down she didn’t seem sufficiently perturbed by the prospect of having a strange relative in the house.

Two days later, just as the Señora was dusting the Indian on horseback, singing ‘No volverá el amor, a abrir mi corazon, con sus dedos de mago oriental,’1 the doorbell rang. It was Señor Marín’s nephew, Raúl Castañeda, carrying a small suitcase made of imitation leather. He had a moustache, and wore shorts with a black tie in a scruffy knot. His ears, dirtied by soot from the train, matched the tie.

His aunt gave him a small room next to the kitchen, that would once have been the maid’s quarters, and advised him not to bother the gnomes. Raúl was a serious boy who didn’t say much but what he did say came out in a strong Catamarqueñan accent. He didn’t comment on his new home but just opened his case and took out a rubber ball painted green and white like a watermelon, with a cartoon image of a dog playing with a ball, and placed it carefully on the marble slab on top of the chest of drawers.

 

2

 

Unlike the gnomes, Señora Marín seemed to have resigned herself to the presence of her nephew; Raúl was well behaved, obedient and gave no cause for complaint. He spent his days locked up in his room, reading comics he’d brought with him in his case, which featured drawings of mice, cats and other animals going on space adventures. He ate everything he was served, made his bed and washed his clothes himself. Before going to bed, he brushed his teeth and quickly turned out the light.

But at night, in the main bedroom, he was the only topic of conversation, much to Güendolina’s annoyance. She would have preferred, despite the new arrival, for her evenings to carry on as they always had, laced with meandering observations. She’d never liked talking about the real world, except for interesting snippets about royalty and film stars gleaned from illustrated magazines, people who were in any case so far removed from the reader as to seem unreal. As we have already noted, she also liked to talk about the death of her husband, which she considered the most interesting event of her life. But the gnomes, who now spent their days crouched in the corner or spying through Raúl’s keyhole, were too disturbed by the new development to think of anything else. They felt jealousy, disgust and disdain for this creature, who to them seemed almost supernatural; a dark-skinned Martian come down from the fabled Northern provinces with the clear intention of disrupting the public order of the sedate, illustrious, aristocratic capital.

One afternoon – Raúl had been living in the house on Calle Solís for a week – Anfio and Présule were, as usual, enjoying the final rays of sun on the patio while Güendolina read her women’s magazines behind the window, when, suddenly, the door to the servant’s quarters opened and the boy appeared in the corridor leading to the patio. Présule gave him a haughty look, Anfio a terrified one. They stayed frozen in place, like a pair of garden ornaments, but with all five of their senses intensely alert.

Raúl was holding his ball. He went over to Présule, knelt down and, stretching out his right hand, said: ‘Nice little gnome, would you like to play?’

All the hairs on the gnome’s forehead bristled. Given the humiliation, it was all he could do to flee and take refuge in the hall. Anfio watched the scene in shock. But the boy had already stood back up and without giving the gnome’s flight a second thought, started playing with the ball, bouncing it off the high wall at the back. In that grey, damp setting, dimly lit by the fading light of the last few beams of the setting sun, under the impassive gaze of the permanently closed blinds on the first and second floors, he looked like an ordinary boy in an ordinary house. Señora Marín, who had seen the entire scene through the window, gave the distracted boy a final, indifferent glance and then retired into the interior of the house herself.

That night, just as they’d settled into their respective places, Anfio pounded the cushion with his fists and exclaimed in his shrillest voice:

‘I can’t stand him, I can’t stand him a moment longer!’

Présule sighed deeply and raised his head, which had been resting on the cushion with the goldfish bowl image. Leaning on an elbow but still staring at the portrait of Camel, he carefully enunciated:

‘It’s true. His insolence knows no bounds. He’ll have to go.’

‘I can’t throw him out,’ Güendolina protested weakly. ‘The judge has declared me his legal guardian.’

‘The guardian of an idiot who plays with a ball on the patio!’ Anfio exclaimed.

‘As his guardian,’ Présule mused, ‘it wouldn’t be right to throw him out onto the street. But there’s nothing to stop you from poisoning him little by little, like the French do with their unpleasant relatives. The judge doesn’t go around poking his nose into children’s food.’

‘They’d do an autopsy and find out everything,’ Güendolina said, her eyes darting from left to right like someone unsure what side they should take.

‘Then drown him in a bath full of water,’Présule suggested, unable to repress a shiver as he did so.

‘I can’t, he’s stronger than I am. The other day he moved the wardrobe in his room. I’ve never been able to shift it.’

‘Do what that other boy did to Présule,’ Anfio said with a giggle.

On hearing those words, the elder gnome regretted ever having mentioned the secret, savage garden of his adolescence. He didn’t want to be reminded of the other boy who had so humiliated him, first by obliging him to commit certain indecent acts he was unable to perform and then by mocking him for having agreed to do them in the first place.

He didn’t say anything, however, because Anfio’s words had given him an idea for getting rid of Raúl. The plan was quite simple: Güendolina would invite him into the bedroom and, once there, would persuade him to make love to her as many times as was necessary until he was utterly exhausted. He remembered having read a short treatise by a Jesuit priest, a leading authority on the subject, which claimed that repeated sinfulness caused very serious diseases of the body; everything from cancer to tuberculosis. Once the boy had grown very ill, they’d get rid of him by sending him to a hospital. Señora Marín, on the other hand, was a woman and according to the wise Jesuit she could make love as much as she wanted without suffering a hint of weakness.

Güendolina would undoubtedly raise some objections. She’d say that she was no longer interested in that kind of thing (which clearly wasn’t true, given the type of novel she typically read: Tutor and Lover, From the Altar to the Bedpost, Midnight Butterflies, etc.) She’d say that her body had lost its youthful elasticity; that now she was just a bag of bones, that the spiritual and contemplative life she had been leading with the gnomes was no preparation for a romantic adventure, that she wasn’t, in fact, a Circe, in spite of Anfio’s oft-repeated flattery: ‘Our Circe in her enchanted grotto.’ None of these objections, however, presented a serious obstacle. She could say what she wanted but in the end Présule had a powerful argument in his favour: the striking resemblance between Raúl and his dead uncle.

He had always instinctively remained silent when someone mentioned the resemblance, which was very obvious. For if the gnomes hated anything more than water it was Señor Marín (though the hatred was retrospective, the way one hates a ghost from the past that one grants a small place in one’s present existence because there is no danger that they will ever be able to claim their dues the way that the living can). But now wasn’t the moment to dwell on likes and dislikes: if he wanted Güendolina to play the role he had assigned her in his plan for their liberation, the best thing would be to invite her to session of spiritualism during which Señor Marín would appear and declare that Raúl was his reincarnation.

The following day, it took almost the entire morning to prepare the séance. At the designated moment, Anfio would hide behind the lush red curtain that covered one of the bedroom walls from floor to ceiling, and play the part of the oracle. That morning, however, he seemed utterly incapable of learning the brief speech that his fellow gnome had given him. He mixed up the words, or, as he imitated the deep voice of the dead man, he would get distracted, completely forget what he was doing and start to squeak incoherently, tell jokes, scratch himself, stop suddenly to smooth down the hair on his shoulders or, without warning, lie down on the floor and go to sleep. But Présule persisted patiently, and finally succeeded in teaching Anfio how to perform his role so he himself could focus on other details just as important to the show.

That night, while Güendolina was in the bathroom washing her feet as she always did before going to bed, Anfio hid behind the curtain trembling with excitement, while Présule lay down on the divan to await his owner. When she came into the bedroom, Présule quickly explained the absence of the other gnome:

‘I told him to stay outside because tonight we’re having a séance.’

Güendolina sighed with pleasure and immediately got into bed: she loved séances. The gnomes very rarely indulged her because the widow always wanted to summon the spirit of her husband and (apart from the fact that Señor Marín never answered the call, or if he did it was only through barely audible scratching or a loud creak) both Présule and Anfio found that kind of summoning infinitely boring. This boredom was mixed, naturally, with a good measure of disgust.

The sessions were very simple. There was no need for three-legged tables or crystal balls: Güendolina and the gnomes (Anfio didn’t always take part; it was almost impossible for him to sit tight and keep his mouth shut) simply had to stay still and stare at the ceiling, waiting for the gloomy silence to offer up all manner of creaks, scraping, tremors, vibrations and mouse-scrabbling for them to interpret as they wished.

That was what they would have done that night too was it not for the fact that at a certain moment when the silence was at its most sepulchral, a deep, trembling voice could be heard, apparently being uttered by the curtain:

‘Güendolina; it’s Marín.’

‘I can hear you,’ the Señora answered, rigid with shock.

‘I must tell you something,’ said the voice.

‘Tell me, I’m listening,’ said Güendolina.

‘Through metempsychosis, my spirit has lodged in the body of Raúl.’

‘You don’t say!’ Güendolina exclaimed.

‘So you must treat him as though he were your husband,’ said the voice.

And nothing more was said that night because Anfio had started to cough, perhaps due to the dampness of the wall he was pressed against, or perhaps from the excitement.

However, Güendolina, who had never received such a clear message from her husband, had already risen from the bed. She climbed onto a chair and started to passionately kiss the portrait of Señor Marín that hung on the wall.

‘Thank you, thank you,’ she said over and over again. ‘I see that death hasn’t changed you, you still think of everything.’

Meanwhile, Anfio crawled out from his hiding place and escaped unnoticed into the hall, trying to contain his coughing.

 

3

 

The following night, after dinner, Raúl was in his room, engrossed in a 1923 edition of Hogar magazine, breathlessly following an account of a motor race from the period, when Güendolina came in and ordered him to come, still dressed in his pyjamas, to her bedroom. In the bedroom, Présule and Anfio had hidden behind another set of curtains, a velvet burgundy tapestry with ochre tassels, to spy on proceedings through the moth holes.

Once she was standing before the bed, Señora Marín, who had assumed for the occasion the haughty demeanour of a priest, dropped to the floor the quilt in which she had wrapped herself, revealing her naked body. Her breasts, like a pair of Christmas stockings, each with its modest little gift on the end, drooped down to her stomach which in turn fell over her sex like a pillow that has lost most of its stuffing. Her legs weren’t quite as flaccid as her arms, but they were bow-shaped.

Then she removed the combs that had held up her sparse, grey hair and lay back in the bed in a Paolina Borghese pose. She switched on the radio and a second later the room was filled with a gravelly voice singing the second verse of ‘Te vi en bote, entre los cisnes, por la primera vez’,’2, the part that goes ‘Like a soldier facing down the enemy’s howitzers’. Raúl stared at his aunt in shock, it was the first time he had ever seen a naked woman.

‘Get undressed and lie down next to me,’ ordered Güendolina, flashing a quick glance at the curtains where the gnomes were hiding, as though to thank them for these second nuptials. Behind the purple velvet, Anfio wriggled with nerves and now and then let escape a little giggle. Présule, however, watched the scene as a theatre director observes his actors on opening night, when the dice are cast and his fate is in their hands.

Raúl was a little shy about taking off his pyjamas, but eventually he submitted to Güendolina’s solemn, imperious gaze, although he retained the triangle of underwear that preserved his modesty even in bed. But as soon as he had slipped in between the sheets, the woman ripped them off, manoeuvring herself on top of the naked boy, on all fours, supported on her hands and knees, in the position that Señor Marín had taught her.

Gently caressed by the long, pendulous breasts and soft stomach, Raúl gave himself up to the natural pleasure of the situation: he felt as though he was floating on air, like in a dream, carried by a host of butterflies lifting him imperceptibly towards his aunt’s body. The dishevelled mummy smiled, mumbling nonsensical words under her breath.

As the union was consummated, Anfio, thoroughly agitated by the inexplicable excitement the extraordinary scene aroused within him, could contain himself no longer and pulled back the curtain, shouting: ‘Hurrah! Bravo! Hurrah!’ He threw himself upon the marital bed and started to jump enthusiastically around the happy couple like a child at the circus or before the unveiling of a birthday cake.

Présule also seemed moved, but the origins of his emotions were more complex. With the back of his hand he wiped away the tears welling in his dark eyes, which he shed in spite of himself, and left the bedroom to curl up in a corner of the hall. A little later something happened that was as significant as it was unexpected: Raúl got up from the bed, grabbed the blonde gnome by the collar of his gabardine shirt and threw him roughly out of the bedroom. Güendolina, lying exhausted on the bed, didn’t say a word.

4

 

Night after night, the scene was repeated, but no longer in the presence of the gnomes. Señora Marín had revealed herself to be like a planet or asteroid that follows the same orbit tirelessly for centuries, unwavering in their trajectory, until one day they are shaken off course by some inscrutable interstellar cataclysm and change direction forever without actually realising it, submitting obediently to Newtonian laws as though trusting to the vastness of space, in the knowledge that one direction is no better or worse than another and that the important thing is to spin cyclically. Especially if the new orbit is the same as a previous one. It hardly matters if they lose a satellite or two during the cataclysm: a celestial body can always do without its satellites, or acquire a new one.

Güendolina was certainly not the same person as before. She no longer spent her mornings cleaning the dining room or dusting her deceased husband’s bookshelves, but preparing complicated, nutritious meals for Raúl, finished off by desserts – the gnomes were permitted only the leftovers which they ate greedily, enviously licking their bowls. Not to mention the magnificent zabagliones and chicken sandwiches that the boy ate at all hours; morning, noon and night: his stomach was bottomless.

During the first few days, Anfio tried to get into the bedroom, but found that the door was locked. When he knocked he was angrily told to go away. He’d cried in front of Güendolina’s door and no one came to console him. He no longer obsessively licked the golden hair on his torso – which had always been his greatest pride – to smooth it down and keep it in good condition. Dirty and tangled, with the locks on his thighs matted with filth and hairballs he didn’t even try to remove, he hid beneath the tables and angrily gnawed on his knuckles while the Señora filled vases with flowers and called out in syrupy tones:

‘Raúlito! Would you like a nice egg and tomato sandwich?’

From his room, lying on a bed now covered with the colourful comics Güendolina bought him from the newspaper stand on the corner, Raúl turned down the radio (the radio had also been moved to his room) and answered:

‘Yes, Aunt. With lots of butter.’

And Señora Marín would run to the kitchen to make him the promised sandwich, singing as she went: ‘I am the melodious bee, flying from flower to flower, busy and hardworking.’ Anfio looked on, starving and envious.

Présule, meanwhile, had begun to doubt the efficacy of his plan. On reflection, not only had it not produced the desired result, it had, in fact, been disastrous. The relationship between the gnomes and their protector was reduced to the mere act of eating the miserable boiled tripe she left on their plate. Goodbye conversations, goodbye brilliant observations, goodbye slowly savoured summer evenings when the moonlight drifted lazily from the wardrobe to the dressing table and the perfume from the white cedars in bloom wafted in from the street through the half-open window, mingling with Güendolina’s familiar cheap perfumes!

And the boy hadn’t lost a single pound. On the contrary, generously fed and fortified by the constant attention of his bedfellow (it was deeply distressing, like wrapping barbed wire around his heart, for the gnome to use this new word to describe the woman who had been the untouchable, protective deity of their lives, the venerated muse of so many exquisite nights that now seemed as distant as an unrealizable dream, the perfect object of their enthusiasm and affection!), Raúl was growing up and filling out: a few days earlier he had had to shave his moustache and sideburns.

To make matters worse, Güendolina didn’t even let them in the bedroom during the day. Lying on the frozen tiles of the hall opposite the door, or, when it was too cold, curled up miserably on the wicker chairs, Présule and Anfio had to make do with hearing the occasional sheet-muffled sigh emerging from the dark bedroom, or sometimes the noise of a heavy object falling to the floor, the impact deadened by the thick carpet but still enough to inspire gloomy thoughts in the gnomes; mysteries with infinite connotations but never a tangible answer. The truth was that neither of them could get to sleep until Raúl left the bedroom in his pyjamas and slippers and locked himself in his room, which he never left until midday.

They had seen what was going on in the Señora’s bedroom that first night through the curtains. But what was he plotting locked in his room all day? He couldn’t just be reading: even the cleverest people get bored of reading comics at some point. Finally, one night, when Raúl left his door unlocked, the gnomes were able to get inside to explore. This was how they discovered that he built model gliders.

Strewn across the floor and the bed were wooden rods, rolls of airplane canvas, pots of thick, liquid glue, pieces of half-sculpted balsa wood and a small bottle of turpentine, not to mention a hunting knife with an inlaid handle that had belonged to Señor Marín, an awl, a lighter and several pieces of fine and coarse-grained sandpaper.

Anfio’s first impulse on seeing these implements, which were entirely new to him, was to take them to the kitchen and burn them. Présule tried to explain to him that such an incendiary gesture would, at best, be a waste of time. Raúl would complain, and Güendolina would take the opportunity to give him a far more comprehensive and costly model-building set. For example, the coveted American ‘Build Your Own Interplanetary Rocket’ kit which was always being advertised on the radio. And to make things worse, she’d be angry with the gnomes for entering the room without permission. The best thing to do would be to spit symbolically on the tools. But Anfio wasn’t satisfied with this modest demonstration of disapproval and before leaving the room he urinated on Raúl’s pillow.

The unexpected revelation about the provincial boy’s secret activities was a tough blow for Présule. As he always did on these occasions, as soon as he had left the forbidden room he locked himself in the servant’s latrine, which by tacit agreement had been reserved for the gnomes’ exclusive use. Once he was sure that no one would bother him, he sat down on the toilet and started to sob inconsolably.

The world seemed determined to follow its own unforeseeable course. The gnome felt as though he was being washed away on a tide of adverse forces that threatened to carry him to God knows what desolate, inhospitable shore. He was alone, like a leaf tossed in a storm. What good was Anfio’s company at a time like this? He was certainly a pretty, curly-haired, at times fun, at times affectionate little gnome, but you couldn’t say much else about him – in every other way he was a worthless lump. Had he ever come up with a single constructive proposal, for example to prevent Raúl from building model gliders? The only thing that had occurred to him was first to burn the tools in the furnace and then to piss on the pillow. It was the reaction of a four year old.

Whatever his situation, Présule couldn’t just sit there and let fate suffocate him without putting up the slightest resistance. He, who had run through the house happily hunting flies, rummaging around in wardrobes and hiding behind the bookcases to jump out in front of Güendolina shouting ‘Cuckoo’. He, the king of the household, advisor to everyone, a respected and beloved gnome, who now hardly dared to leave the latrine for fear of meeting Raúl. It wasn’t possible.

He opened the door a little and peeked outside: the corridor was empty. Puffing out his chest in defiance, Présule left his refuge. He hadn’t been defeated yet; desperation would sharpen his resolve. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, he would get rid of the swarthy satyr. If necessary he’d make him disappear by chemical means, like in the novel Without a Trace.

 

5

 

Although she never used them, Güendolina kept a tube of sleeping pills in the drawer of her nightstand, a memento from the sad period that had followed the death of Señor Marín, when nothing could assuage her widow’s insomnia and the long nights blurred with the days in an uninterrupted stream of ennui. Finally she had settled upon the excellent idea of acquiring the gnomes (one came from her aunt’s house, the other was a bargain she got from a friend who was leaving the country). After that she had never had to take another pill.

The tube was almost full. Présule had stolen it that morning while the Señora was at the market. He had decided to poison Raúl.

To carry out his task he had to wait for Güendolina and the boy to finish dinner. Every night, after the meal, Señora Marín made a cup of hot chocolate, which she said helped the digestion. He just had to dissolve the drug in the hot chocolate. Fortunately Raúl’s mug was larger than Güendolina’s, simplifying the operation significantly and preventing frustrating mix-ups. Then he would leave the tube on the nightstand, and people would think the boy had committed suicide.

The wait was long and lonely. He had decided not to tell his fellow gnome about his scheme so Anfio wouldn’t give him away. Locked in his bathroom cubicle, staring constantly at the clock, Présule spied on Güendolina as she moved about the kitchen, growing overwhelmed by the nerves that some call ‘assassin’s anguish’ which is in fact nothing more than the anguish anyone feels when they try to force the hand of fate, a game very similar to roulette, unpredictable and often unsatisfactory.

As soon as he saw Güendolina pouring the chocolate into the mugs, he silently slipped over to the back window, opened it and began to shout:

‘Come quick! Come to see the Circus Maximus truck, with the trained monkeys!’

While the Señora ran over to the open window, Présule slipped into the kitchen and dropped all the pills into Raúl’s mug, stirring it with a spoon.

‘I can’t see it,’ Güendolina said, disappointed.

She looked up and down the deserted street a few times, then closed the window and went back into the dining room.

‘They must have gone around the corner,’ said Présule, running to hide underneath the sofa in the hall to calm his nerves.

When Raúl brought the chocolate to his lips he made a face:

‘It tastes strange,’ he said.

Güendolina tried his hot chocolate.

‘I can’t taste anything,’ she said.

But to appease her nephew she switched the mugs, a courtesy which might have killed her had the drug been any stronger.

All the same, as soon as she’d sipped a little of the chocolate she started to feel sleepy and went to bed without washing the dishes. When Raúl came to make love to her, the Señora was snoring so loudly that the boy decided to go back to his room and lie down. As soon as he had switched off the light he too fell asleep, because he was only fifteen.

Présule, who was spying on him through the keyhole, wondered if he had died yet. He didn’t yet dare go inside to place the empty tube on the nightstand as he’d planned. Maybe it was better to leave it clasped in the boy’s hand, although if he waited too long the fingers would become too rigid. Just then Anfio approached and asked him what he was looking at.

‘I’m waiting for him to die,’ Présule answered.

‘What fun!’ Anfio exclaimed. ‘Who told you he was going to die?’

‘They announced it on the radio,’ Présule lied with a nervous smile.

Anfio’s reaction was, as always, unexpected: he ran to the bathroom, uncorked Güendolina’s jar of eau de toilette and started to drink it in great gulps, singing ‘La Violeta, la va, la va3, an Italian song he’d learned from a beggar who used to sit outside the living room window.

At two in the morning, the gnome decided to bring his wait to an end. It was as quiet as a Christian catacomb inside the house, the silence only broken by Anfio’s sporadic cackling as he ran up and down the hall with Güendolina’s silk cloak wrapped around his neck like a royal cape. He was utterly drunk after consuming the entire jar of eau de toilette: over half a litre.

Présule slowly opened Raúl’s door and turned on the light: the boy was asleep with one hand pressed up against his cheek. Waking him up without having taken the necessary precautions would have been too dangerous. Trying not to make a sound, the gnome went to the cabinet in the corridor and brought out a roll of electrical tape that had belonged to Señor Marín. He went back into the bedroom, on tiptoes throughout, and delicately, but as firmly as possible, bound Raúl’s wrists and ankles to the bedposts. When he was done, he poured the dregs of a bottle of milk over Raúl’s face. The boy slowly opened his eyes.

‘What time is it?’ he asked, still half-asleep.

Présule’s hairy face contorted into an expression of curiosity, which couldn’t have been feigned because no one was watching him. After a moment’s uncertainty, the gnome rushed into Güendolina’s bedroom. She had stopped snoring and he tried to wake her too, first by shouting and then shaking her, but Señora Marín didn’t wake up and Présule assumed that she had died.

Completely naked under his cloak embroidered with large red roses, Anfio went to the bedroom door and asked what was going on.

‘The Señora has passed on to a better life,’ Présule answered, biting his lips.

Tears flowed copiously down his dark cheeks.

‘And yet, I’m not sleepy at all,’ Anfio exclaimed.

But Présule wasn’t listening. Pushing Anfio roughly away from the door, he’d run to the kitchen. There he rummaged anxiously in the tool drawer until he found what he was looking for, an electric soldering iron for radio aficionados that no one ever used. Brandishing the iron like a sword, he went into Raúl’s room, plugged it in next to the nightstand and waited for the tool to heat up.

‘Why am I tied up?’ asked Raúl, who had no idea what was happening.

Without bothering to answer, the gnome started to tear off his pyjamas and vest with help of the hunting knife. Then, to test the temperature, he dragged the soldering iron across his chest, from his throat to his belly button. Hearing the boy’s prolonged scream, Anfio came in dragging his red and black train behind him: in his hands he had the large white swan in which Güendolina kept the talcum powder and with which he had just dusted his face and neck. But when he saw the soldering iron he dropped the bird and tried to grab hold of the tool.

Présule didn’t want to give it to him but his fellow gnome begged and tugged so hard that he eventually let him draw a mark on Raúl’s torso as well. With an angelic smile on his lips, Anfio drew a face with eyes, a nose, a mouth and ears on the coarse, dark skin. By the time he had finished, the boy had fainted.

As there was no longer any milk in the bottle, Présule had to revive him by pouring the jar of glue over his face. Then he made him sip from the bottle of turpentine to dissolve the glue that would have eventually found its way down his throat. Tied by his hands and feet, Raúl wriggled spasmodically while the other gnome, armed with an awl, carefully tried to extract the meniscus from Raúl’s right knee. All his efforts in this respect would have been in vain, though, if Présule hadn’t helped him with the hunting knife. Not knowing what to do with the bloody meniscus, they shoved it into Raúl’s mouth to stop him from screaming so much.

As though drunk on the smell of burning hair, Présule moved the iron from the boy’s head to his eyebrows and from his eyebrows to his eyelashes. The bitter smoke from Raúl mingled with the pungent smell rising up from the rubber ball and gliders, which Anfio had set fire to with the lighter. It filled the room, making the air unbreathable. Suddenly, through the acrid haze, Présule saw Anfio bring the boy’s lifeless hand to his mouth and, in one bite, swallow the little finger. The sight made such an impression that he shoved Anfio from the room.

Next he locked himself in so he could continue using the soldering iron, this time under the armpits. He was concentrating so hard that he didn’t realize that the pink tip of his tongue was sticking out from between his teeth. Now Raúl was whimpering instead of screaming. His burned eyes had been reduced to red protuberances; saliva flowed from his mouth and down his neck, mixed with blood and glue. His body contracted ever more violently until Présule found himself forced to cut both his Achilles tendons with the hunting knife.

Strangely excited by the bright tone of the blood, he resumed his poking with the soldering iron, murmuring under his breath: ‘What good is a nose? What good is a nose?’ Out of a last vestige of human empathy, he took special care to slowly widen the passages of the nostrils as the destruction went on, so that the boy would still be able to breathe. The boy’s moans – he had very probably swallowed the meniscus the gnomes had shoved into his mouth to calm him down – grew louder once more until they became piercing screams.

On the other side of the door, Anfio was begging his friend in a monotonous drone to let him back in. Présule ignored him, but after a while, suffocated by the smoke that had gathered in the windowless room where the only ventilation was apparently an insufficient shaft, he found himself obliged to open the door and go out into the hall for a breath of fresh air. Anfio immediately took advantage of the chance to get into the room, this time armed with a can opener with which he created several incisions in Raúl’s thighs. He too found that the sight of blood excited him aesthetically. To make it flow more quickly, he dropped the can opener and chose the coarsest sandpaper, which soon took on a bright red hue. The only area left untouched was that covered by the boy’s underwear, which neither of the gnomes dared to touch, believing it to bring bad luck.

The blonde gnome was absorbed in this task when Présule, having recovered from the smoke inhalation, detected a strong, fishy aroma coming from the corridor. He went over to his companion and sniffed his mouth, which was smeared with an oil-like substance that had mixed with the powder from the swan the gnome had thrown all over himself to create an unpleasant looking white mask.

‘Did you steal fish?’ he asked.

Anfio left the sandpaper on top of Raúl’s belly – the boy wasn’t screaming any more and appeared to have fainted again – and nodded shamefully.

Présule’s eyes shone. He went into the kitchen and saw the can sitting on a chair, empty. In the cupboard, however, was a pile of unopened cans: anchovies, sardines, tuna and one larger one of salted herring.

Greedily, feverishly, under the gluttonous gaze of Anfio, who had followed him, Présule began to open the cans. It was a gift from fate granted to those whose struggles to change its course have persuaded the providential power that they deserve reward for their tenacity and valour. With the tips of their fingers and with delicate grimaces of pleasure, they served themselves a little from each can: a piece of salmon, an anchovy, a salted herring. Their exultant joy raised them above the miseries of the flesh, beyond past and present, into a future that might well be eternal; the fish resolved the contradictions of reality. No one would ever enter the house again, they’d nail the doors shut, pile the furniture into barricades and, when the cans were finished, they would eat the bodies of Raúl and Güendolina. To balance the excessive amount of salt in the herring, they uncorked a bottle of Elba wine. Once that was finished, they drank rum, aniseed, vodka and marsala al huevo. The electric light reflected golden off the open cans and glittered on the glass of the empty bottles, catching the red roses on the silk cloak abandoned in a corner of the kitchen.

 

1 Love will never return / to open my heart / with its oriental magic fingers.
2 ‘The First Time I Saw You, You Were in A Boat, Among the Swans’
3 ‘La Violeta, she goes, she goes . . .’

The Island
Spiders from Jerusalem