There was space for six. One was left outside, in the waiting room. She walked in circles about the space. It took her a moment to realize she’d have to stifle her eagerness until the next day, or the next, or until they called her again. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. The ones who entered climbed the white stairs to the first floor. None of them knew the others particularly well. They stepped into the changing room in silence. They hung up their purses, they took off their coats. They took turns washing their hands, and took turns as well fixing their hair before the mirror, tying it back in a ponytail, or with a headband. All friendliness and silence; grateful smiles and gestures. They’ve thought of this all week. While they worked, while they looked after their children, while they ate, and now they are there. Almost inside, almost about to begin.
One of the Institute’s assistants opens the door and invites them in. Inside, everything is white. The walls, the shelves, the towels rolled into tubes lying one on top of the other. The gurney, in the centre. The six chairs surrounding it. There’s also a fan above, whirling smoothly, six silver tweezers lined up on a towel atop a wooden stool, and a woman lying on the gurney, face down. The six women settle into the chairs, three on each side, arranging themselves around the woman’s legs. They wait, observing the body, impatient, not quite knowing what to do with their hands, as if before a table, with dinner set, but unable to begin. The assistant hovers about, helping them push their seats even closer. Then she gives out the hand towels and, one by one, the six tweezers from the stool. The woman on the gurney remains still, with her face down. She is nude. A white towel covers her from the waist to the middle of the legs. She has her head buried in her crossed arms, because it is appropriate that no one should see her face. She has blonde hair, a thin body. The assistant turns on the fluorescent light, a few metres above the bed, which brightens the room and the woman even more. When the light flickers a bit, the woman on the gurney shifts her arms almost imperceptibly, readjusting herself, and two of the women observe this slight movement with reproach. When the assistant gives the signal to begin, the women fold their hand towels in four and place the small cloth square before them, on the gurney. Then some of them push their chairs even further forward, or rest their elbows, or fix their hair one last time. And they get to work. They raise the tweezers above the woman’s body, quickly choosing a strand of hair, and then bring them down open, with purpose. They tweeze, they close, they toss. Each dark follicle emerges perfect and clean. They study it for a second before leaving it on the towel, and they go for the next one. Six seagull beaks pulling fish from the sea. The hair on the tweezers fills them with pleasure. Some do the work to perfection. The full hair hangs from the tweezers, orphaned and useless. Others struggle a bit with the task, making more than one attempt before they manage it. But nothing deprives them of the pleasure. The assistant circles the table. She takes care that they’re all comfortable, that all have what they need. Every now and then, a pull, a pinch, provokes a slight trembling of the legs. And so the assistant halts and turns her gaze to the woman on the gurney. She curses the fact that the rules of the Institute require that they be face down; with their faces hidden, it’s impossible to scold them with a glare. But she has her notebook, which she removes from her apron pocket, jotting down all excesses. The woman on the gurney hears the screech of the rubber sandals when they stop abruptly. She knows what that means. A point deducted, a demerit. Sooner or later they’ll add up and be docked from her pay. Her legs are filling with little pink dots. By now they barely tremble, because the tweezers have numbed her irritated skin, now only vaguely aware of a light burning.
When the woman on the gurney was ten years old, she lived with her mother near the river. It was an area which sometimes flooded, forcing them to move to her aunt’s, who lived a few metres higher, in a house on stilts. Once, when the woman on the gurney was doing her homework in her aunt’s dining room, she saw through the window a fisherman skulking around her house, her mother’s house. He had come on a boat, which he tied to some trees. A pair of high boots protected him from the water, which rose almost to his knees. She saw him disappear along one side of the house and reappear on the other. He peeked through the windows. But at no point did he knock on the door or the glass. When the mother saw him, she gestured for him to come in. The woman on the gurney could see them as long as they stayed near the window. Her mother offered him hot tea and they sat at the table. Then they moved away. When the woman on the gurney returned from her aunt’s house, they spoke of the trips he took, of his work as a fisherman, of the river. He offered to take her out fishing the next day. Because it was the season of floods and there was no school, her mother said it was all right. He took the woman on the gurney to where the river opened into the lake. At that point the boat hardly moved, advancing smoothly along the mirrored water, and she was less and less afraid. It was then she realized she was a little cold, and a little hungry. Day was just beginning to dawn. The fisherman prepared his rod, hooked his bait and began to work. She asked if her mother had prepared them something for breakfast, but the fisherman hushed her and gestured for quiet. Then she asked if he had an extra jacket in the boat. The fisherman hushed her again.
‘Are you my father?’ she asked finally.
The fisherman stared at her for a moment and it occurred to her to smile. But he said: ‘No.’
And they did not speak again.
The mother of the woman on the gurney always wanted her daughter to study and move to the city. She demanded her daughter get good grades and was sure to warn her that if she didn’t work hard now, then she’d pay for it when she was older – and dearly. The woman on the gurney studied. She did everything her mother told her. The school was two kilometres from the house, and she went by bicycle. When it flooded, they read her the homework by telephone. In high school she learned typing, English, a little computing. One afternoon as she was returning home, her bicycle chain broke. The woman on the gurney fell to the mud, ruining the notebooks she carried in her basket. A young man driving a pickup truck along the road saw her fall, drew level with her and got out to help. He was very kind. He gathered her notebooks, which he cleaned with the sleeves of his coat, and offered to take her home. They carried the bicycle in the back of the pickup. They talked a little along the way. She told him what she was studying, that she was preparing to move to the city. He seemed interested in everything she said. He wore a very thin gold chain with a small cross hanging from his neck. She thought it was lovely. She did not believe in God, nor did her mother, but something about the young man made her think her mother would like him. When they arrived, she asked him to come round later, to eat with them. He seemed delighted by the idea, but said: ‘I leave for work soon. I’m a fisherman.’ He smiled. ‘Can I come tomorrow?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think tomorrow is a good idea. I’m sorry.’
The woman on the gurney was twenty years old when she came to the city. She was pleased to see that the houses were not built on stilts, which ruled out floods and fishermen. The city seemed warm, and it made her woozy during those first days. On Sundays she called her mother and told her a few things about her week. Sometimes she lied. She didn’t do it maliciously; she did it to pass the time. She told her mother that she’d gone out with new friends. Or that she’d gone to the movies. Or that she’d had something very tasty in a neighbourhood restaurant. Her mother loved to hear these stories, and sometimes she could hardly wait to hang up and call her sister, so that she might hear the stories too.
The woman on the gurney had some savings and had signed up for a technical degree. But the cost of food, rent and tuition was very high, and soon she had to interrupt her studies and look for a job. One afternoon when she was buying bread, a woman at the store, with whom she sometimes shared her problems, said she had a job for her. She said she’d earn more money, and have time to study. The woman on the gurney wasn’t dumb. She knew the work might be something unpleasant that no one else wanted to do, or something dangerous. But she said that, as long as there was no obligation, she’d be interested to see what it was all about.
The woman from the store took her by car to a nearby avenue, and stopped in front of a two-storey building with a sign on it that read ‘Institute’. Inside there was a confused gathering of women. One of them, wearing a peach-coloured uniform which also read ‘Institute’, asked the women to reorganize themselves into a line and threatened that anyone out of line would lose her turn. The women quickly queued up. Another woman in a suit recognized the woman from the store and immediately came up to them. She ushered them into an adjoining room and asked the woman on the gurney to fold up the cuffs of her trousers so she could see the downy hair on her legs. The woman on the gurney thought for a moment she’d misunderstood the request. But the woman repeated it. And then she thought it was ridiculous, and that this surely was not a job for her. However, she did not see any danger in showing her hair, so she rolled up her trouser legs and showed them. The woman in the suit put on her glasses and studied the tiny hairs, illuminating them with a small flashlight she kept in her pocket. She scrutinized the ankle where the hairs were not yet strong, and also the calf. Only when she appeared to be convinced it would work did she explain what the job consisted of, the general terms and the pay. The woman on the gurney didn’t know what to say. Because the work was very simple, the schedule acceptable and the pay excellent. Her mother had told her so much about the scams in the city that she forced herself to concentrate on where the danger or the lie might be hidden. But everything still seemed perfect to her. And she accepted.
When there’s no more hair left on the legs, they look red and alive. The woman on the gurney is still. The six women seem tired, but satisfied. Finally, they lean back in their chairs, sighing, resting their hands in their laps. The assistant gathers the hand towels, where the women have left the hair. Before taking them, she folds them in half twice, to make certain the hairs don’t get lost, and just like that puts them carefully in a plastic trash bag, which, once full, she ties with a double knot. Only then does she turn to help the women sit up, pulling out their chairs, straightening out the collars or the shoulder pads of their jackets that might have been moved. Then she takes the trash bag, delicately, careful not to tilt it, opens the door and leads the women to the dressing room. When they are all inside, the assistant returns to the hallway, closing the door behind her. Sometimes the women comment on their turn, they laugh, or ask questions about previous times. The assistant hears them talking as she descends the white stairs. She knows she must deliver the bag before going back to the woman on the gurney.
The assistant was born in the countryside, within a family that lived on the harvest and the vineyards. They had a country house surrounded by gardens, and were comfortable without being rich. The assistant liked fish, and the father, who was almost never home, sent her enormous books with full-colour illustrations of fish from all over the world. She learned their names and drew them in her notebook. Of all the fish, the one she liked best was called Olingiris. It had a thin, flat body, with a large tube-shaped snout. Turquoise and yellow. The book said it was a delicate fish, because it only ate coral polyps, and those couldn’t be found in many places. She asked for one, but they explained to her that she couldn’t have fish in the countryside. The assistant showed her mother a book that explained how to install and maintain a fish tank, but the mother said, though they might get the fish tank and the appropriate food, the fish would die of sadness. The assistant thought that perhaps her father might not feel the same way, that she could show him the photos and he would understand. But when he finally came home, she couldn’t find the book about fish tanks anywhere.
The assistant had many brothers, but they were older and worked with her father, so she was alone most of the day. When she turned seven she began to attend the rural school. One of the men who worked for her father came by to get her at seven thirty, left her at school at eight and came back for her at noon. The assistant had a hard time adapting to this new rhythm. Things did not go well at first. Her mother hired a private tutor, and so the assistant studied at school in the mornings and at home in the afternoons. Because the tutor knew of the assistant’s interest in fish, she built her exercises around that topic. Sometimes she read her some poetry, and once, when they were studying punctuation, the tutor proposed writing some verses. The assistant accepted the challenge, and the tutor seemed charmed by the results. She gave her an assignment to write a poem using the names of her favourite fish. The assistant approached the homework with much interest. She cleared her desk, leaving only a few blank sheets of paper, a pencil and an eraser. She wrote a poem about fish, but they were make-believe fish; about what she sometimes felt in the morning, when she’d just woken and didn’t know quite who or where she was. About the things that made her happy, those that did not, and about her father.
One afternoon the tutor told the assistant that she had a surprise for her and took from her bag a large package, about the size of a binder, gift-wrapped. Before she’d let her open it, the tutor made her promise it would be a secret, that she’d never tell anyone about the present. The assistant agreed. She tore the wrapping paper, and when she saw what it was, she thought an entire lifetime wouldn’t be enough to give the tutor something as valuable as what she’d just received. It was the book about fish tanks. It wasn’t the exact same copy, but it was the same book, a new one, identical.
By the age of twelve the assistant’s grades were much improved, and her mother decided a private tutor was no longer necessary. For a time the assistant would include the tutor in her fish drawings. She made a few of her tutor kissing an Olingiris, and another of her tutor pregnant by an Olingiris. She wrote a few poems for her mother to send to the tutor, but received no reply.
When the assistant finished high school, she began to look after her father’s finances and helped take care of things on the farm. She no longer painted or wrote, but she kept a framed photo of the Olingiris on her desk; and sometimes, when she was resting, she’d pick it up, look it over carefully and wonder what her tutor might be doing, and what it would be like to live as an Olingiris.
She didn’t marry or have children. She left the countryside when her mother’s first symptoms of illness appeared, the same year the drought ruined the vineyards and the harvest. They decided that the assistant would move to the capital with her mother, and they’d live in an apartment her father had bought some years before. The assistant brought along the book about fish tanks that her tutor had given her. The apartment wasn’t very big, but it was enough for two. It had a window looking out on the street and a lot of light. They bought a table and two pine beds, and the assistant tore a few pages from the book and pasted them to the walls as if they were framed pictures. She learned to cook, make the beds and wash clothes. She found a job in a dry-cleaner’s. Once the clothes were clean, one had to place each piece in the steamer, taking care that no wrinkle was left. Press down the top, wait a few seconds, repeat it all again with the rest of the garment. One also had to fold it and perfume it. Sometimes there were difficult stains; one had to take them to the back, to the sink, give them a special treatment. When this happened, the assistant always chose the first tap, and while she waited those ten seconds which the product required, she would look in the mirror, into her eyes.
When the assistant’s mother died, the assistant quit her job. She found, among her mother’s clothes, the book about fish tanks, the original one, the lost one. She cleared the pine table and opened both books to the first page. She reread them side by side, many times. She thought perhaps she could find some difference; because, though at first glance they appeared to be the same, she remembered the first one somehow altered. It was difficult to explain. She was simply certain there had to be some difference. But she couldn’t find it. She closed the books and felt very sad. She felt they were no longer necessary to her, and she put them both away beneath the bed. She waited at home for many days. When she ran out of food and money, she went out to walk around the neighbourhood and found a ‘help wanted’ ad on a building that read ‘Institute’. The job was simple, and it paid well. She was accepted immediately. The money from the first months was enough to paint the apartment and buy new furniture. She threw away the pages she had hanging from the walls. Mornings, she went out in her uniform from the Institute. She opened doors, filled out forms, led women to the dressing room, opened the main room, prepared the materials, watched each successive woman on the gurney, collected the hair, closed the bag, turned in the bag, said goodbye to the women, paid the woman on the gurney, turned out the lights, locked the door. At home, she put away the groceries, made dinner, ate in front of the television, washed her things, showered, brushed her teeth, straightened the bed and went to sleep. Sometimes she ran out of forms and had to go to the stationer’s for more. Or the women on the gurney moved and she had to deduct points from their pay. Or she didn’t find what she wanted to eat, so she had to go to bed early.
The assistant went to the reception and saw through the window that it was already dark. She put the bag on a shelf, next to three identical bags, beneath the receptionist’s desk. Just then, the door to the street swung open and the woman entered along with the cold. She was small, but stout. She wore a heavy coat and the same high black boots as usual, which to the assistant had always seemed like those a man would wear, a fisherman, though by now she was accustomed to them. The woman mumbled a greeting, and the assistant responded with a timid nod. The woman put both hands on the tabletop. The assistant saw that the usual car was waiting in the street, its engine running. She handed the woman the four bags, one by one. The woman took them firmly, two in each hand, and left without saying goodbye. Her only words were: ‘Don’t forget to turn out the lights before you lock up.’
The assistant said she wouldn’t forget and stayed there a few moments to watch the woman get into the car. The women came down, changed into their clothes, and said their goodbyes before stepping out into the street. Only the woman on the gurney remained, who was likely waiting for her, ready, upstairs. The assistant went up, opened the door to the room and was surprised to see the woman on the gurney was still nude. She was still sitting on the gurney, hugging her knees, her head bent down between her arms. Her back trembled. She was crying. This was the first time something like this had happened, and the assistant didn’t quite know what to do. She thought about leaving the room and coming back a few minutes later, but she took out the notebook instead, reviewing her numbers aloud, and then offered the woman on the gurney a receipt along with her pay. The woman on the gurney looked at her, for the first time. And the assistant felt her stomach tighten just slightly, mechanically; her lungs filled with air, her lips parted, her tongue was suspended in the air, as if waiting, as if she were about to ask something of the woman of the gurney. Something like what? That was what kept her quiet. If she was well? Well in regards to what? It’s not as if she were really going to ask, though the distance between their bodies was appropriate and they were alone in the building; it was only something floating through her head. But it was the woman on the gurney who slowed her breathing and said, ‘Are you all right?’
The assistant waited. She wanted to know what was happening, understand what was happening. She felt something seize her, something strong in her throat, a sharp pain that took her back to the image of those books on the pine table, the pictures of the two Olingiris, one next to the other, and, as if this were a new opportunity, she looked desperately for some difference, in the eyes, in the scales, in the fins, in the colours.