Oscar by Amparo Dávila

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We are deeply saddened by the news that the great Mexican writer Amparo Dávila has passed away at the age of 92.

Called “extraordinary” by Julio Cortazár and revered by Spanish readers, Dávila made her English debut at 90 with her story collection The Houseguest translated by Audrey Harris and Matt Gleeson.

To honor her memory, we make available here her story “Oscar” published in The Houseguest in 2018.


Amparo Dávila (February 28, 1928 – April 18, 2020)

OSCAR

The young woman handed her ticket to the attendant and waited patiently for him to return with her luggage. She sat on a bench and lit a cigarette, perhaps the last she would smoke for a while, during her stay with her family. Her eyes studied the premises, trying to discern whether anything had changed in the years she’d been gone. But everything was the same. Only she had changed — ​and considerably. She remembered how she’d been dressed when she left for the capital: her long, loose dress, her face scrubbed and her hair in a ponytail, low shoes and cotton tights … Now she wore a smart black sweater, a well-tailored pencil skirt that hugged her figure, black heels, and a beige trench coat; discreetly made up and with her hair stylishly arranged, she was attractive, even beautiful, and she knew it — ​that is, she had discovered it as she learned to dress and make herself up …

The attendant brought her the two suitcases and said: “If you want, the mail car can take you into town, it only costs two pesos — ​the bus won’t come for a while.”

The young woman took her seat next to the fat driver and gave him the address.

“Don Carlos Román’s house?” the driver asked, smiling. “I play in the municipal band with him on Sunday afternoons, and take him home afterward. If you don’t mind, I’m going to stop at the post office to drop off my mailbag, I’ll be no time at all.”

The man went into the post office with the almost empty mailbag. From where she was sitting she could see the old town church with its slender towers, the Plaza de Armas with its kiosk and wrought-iron benches and, next to the church, her father’s notary office. No doubt he was bent over a sheet of paper right now, writing with a fountain pen in his fine, uniform script.

The young woman paid the driver his two pesos, and she stood there a moment at the door before making up her mind to knock, contemplating the notary’s house — ​her own house. After her time in the capital it seemed so small and modest, but here it was considered grand with its two floors and its cellar, rare features in the town. The paint was chipping, the windows and door were faded; it’d clearly been some time since anyone had looked after the place. Finally she knocked on the door, her heart racing as she waited.

“Monica!” Cristina cried when she saw her, hugging her affectionately. The sound of more footsteps pulled them apart, and Monica ran to throw her arms around her mother, that lean little woman with her ashen face and dull, sunken eyes. Embracing her, she noticed how extremely thin her mother was, how withered and worn-out her face, and she clasped her more tightly, feeling tenderness and sorrow.

“It’s so good to see you back, dear!” said her mother, wiping away a tear.

“And Papá? And Carlos?”

“Papá is at the office, and Carlos is still at school. He’s teaching the fifth grade now.”

“And … Oscar? …”

“Same as ever,” her mother said laconically, sighing. In that moment her face seemed more ashen and her eyes more sunken.

When she went into the bedroom she’d shared with Cristina for so many years, Monica felt a pang of remorse at not having brought her sister along when she left for the capital, and instead leaving her behind to languish, to waste away in this confinement. The room was the same: the two brass beds with their white knitted bedspreads, crisp and tightly stretched, as if they had just been tucked over the mattresses; the old bird’s-eye maple wardrobe they had inherited from their grandmother; the marble-topped dresser with its porcelain washbasin and water jug; the bureau with its gold-plated candlestick and its candle ready to be lit, and the vase filled with jasmine blossoms that Cristina had cut to welcome her, knowing how much she loved their scent.

“Cristina, sister, you don’t know how much I missed you!” Monica said with sincerity. In that moment she saw clearly that she’d missed Cristina more than anyone else. Her family, her house, the town, it was all Cristina: slim, pale, always silent, industrious, long-suffering, resigned.

“Me too, you can’t imagine how much!” And Cristina’s eyes grew misty. “The only thing that cheered me up was thinking you’d come back — ​but are you going to stay? You’re not going to leave again?”

“We’ll talk later, Cristina.”

“You’re right. I’m going to help Mamá finish cooking. Rest a little; you look tired.”

Monica looked at herself in the mirror over the dresser. Cristina was right: she looked tired, and she was. Her fear of facing the rest of the family had made her extremely tense and nervous. But it was something she had to do because she very much needed the closeness and affection of her loved ones. She began to unpack her bags and hang her dresses in the old wardrobe, next to Cristina’s. Hanging there side by side, those garments spoke volumes about the two young women who wore them and the circles in which they moved.

At around two in the afternoon her father and brother came home. They gave her a polite but frosty reception. Monica hadn’t expected anything different. Immediately after washing their hands they sat down at the table. Her father said a brief prayer, as always, and they began to eat. How good her mother’s cooking tasted to her, and how much meticulous care was put into it! They never spoke a lot during meals — ​it bothered her father and put him in a bad mood. Monica observed him out of the corner of her eye: in truth, he hadn’t changed much, maybe he was a little thicker around the middle and a little more bald, but he was just as silent and methodical as ever, just as correct and orderly; with his napkin tucked into his shirt collar, he still slurped his soup the way he always had. At the other end of the table her mother served the meal in silence. “She hasn’t just changed,” Monica said to herself, “she’s completely done in.” Emaciated in the extreme, with her sharp, ashen face and her dull, sunken eyes, she seemed more like a sorrowful shadow than a human being. Cristina, weighed down by silence, solitude, and despair, was an aged youth, a wilted flower. And Carlos, abstracted, withdrawn, had aged as well and looked older than he was. Monica felt a great tenderness and sorrow for them all, along with pleasure at having returned. A noise like dishes falling to the floor sent a shiver up her spine. The others looked at each other without surprise.

“He must’ve finished eating,” said their mother, rising from the table. She hurried off and disappeared through the door that led to the cellar. In a few minutes she returned carrying a tray with shards of broken plates and glasses on it. She was panting slightly and a bit of color had risen to her face.

“He’s very agitated, I think it’s because …” and her eyes landed on Monica. “You should give him something, Papá.”

Their father finished eating quickly, wiped his mouth with his napkin, poured a little water into a glass, and headed toward the cellar. Her brother got up from the table, grabbed a few books, and left.

The day after she arrived, Monica began to do her share of the housework, just as she had before leaving for the capital. Back to the same routine as always: at six thirty in the morning they got up; their mother fed the birds and cleaned the cages; the two sisters set the dining room table and made breakfast, and at eight everyone sat down to eat. But before that they brought Oscar his breakfast, because he’d spend the day in a terrible mood if he wasn’t waited on first, and from the cellar he had an intricate knowledge of the house’s noises and its schedule: he knew exactly when they woke up, when they went into the kitchen, when they went out, everything. At eight thirty Carlos headed to the school, and shortly afterward their father left to open the office. Then the three women thoroughly cleaned the house. Cristina was in charge of putting the kitchen in order and washing the dishes, their mother dusted the living and dining rooms, and Monica took care of the bedrooms and the bathroom. While their mother went out to buy groceries for the afternoon meal, the young women swept and mopped the patio and the vestibule. Then, when their mother returned with the shopping, Cristina helped with the cooking and set the table, and Monica washed the dirty clothes. In that house there was always something to do: when they finished the afternoon meal, they cleared the table and cleaned the kitchen, mended and ironed the clothes, and only later, after dinner, when everything had been picked up and put away, and their father had taken out his cello and begun to rehearse the pieces for that Sunday’s concert and their brother was correcting homework, would the three women sit down to some knitting or embroidery.

From the cellar, Oscar directed their lives; so it had always been and so it would continue to be. He was the first to eat — ​no one was allowed to taste their food before him. He knew everything, saw everything. He shook the iron door of the cellar with fury, and shouted when something displeased him. At night he indicated, with sounds and signs of objection, when he wanted them to go to bed, and often when he wanted them to get up, too. He ate large amounts, grotesquely devouring everything with his hands, without enjoyment. At the slightest provocation he would dump plates full of food, strike the walls, and rattle the door. He rarely kept silent, always muttering an incomprehensible monologue between his teeth. When everyone had retired to their rooms, Oscar would emerge from the cellar. He would draw water from the well and carefully water the flowers in their pots — ​but if he was angry, he would hurl the flowerpots to the ground, shattering them; the next day all the broken pots had to be replaced, because he couldn’t stand for there to be fewer of them — ​it was very important that there always be the same number of pots. When he finished watering the flowers he would enter the house and climb the stairs that led to the bedrooms. At around midnight you could hear the creaking of the old wooden staircase beneath Oscar’s tremendous weight. Sometimes he would open the door to one of the bedrooms, just to peer in, then shut the door again and return to the cellar. But other times he entered all of the rooms, coming up to the beds and standing there for a while, motionless, watching, only his rough, heavy breathing breaking the silence of the night. Nobody moved then, they all lay rigid and paralyzed in his presence, because with Oscar you never knew what might happen. Then, silently, he would leave the room, plod down the stairs to the cellar, and go to bed. In that house no one ever slept peacefully or normally; they slept lightly, always alert to the slightest noise. But no one ever complained: resigned to what they could not change, they accepted their cruel destiny and suffered in silence. When the moon was full, Oscar howled like a wolf the whole time and refused to eat.

You could say that the Román family was one of the most well-off in town; they had a large house of their own, a notary office, and a son who was a schoolteacher. Nevertheless, the money that father and son earned barely covered their household expenses — ​that is, the many expenses incurred by Oscar. Quite frequently they had to replace five flowerpots, ten, more, not to mention the dishes: they were continually buying plates, saucers, cups. Then there were the clothes and linens he ripped into shreds: shirts, pants, sheets, bedspreads, blankets; he also destroyed chairs and other furniture and, on top of all that, there were the medicines they had to constantly administer to him, which were quite expensive.

Few visitors were received in the notary’s house, just a handful of relatives or very intimate friends whose voices Oscar had known well since he was little, who came on rare occasions to give their regards and to drink a cup of chocolate while chatting for a while in the waning of the afternoon. An unfamiliar person could never have entered that house; Oscar wouldn’t have allowed it. The women only went out when absolutely necessary: for groceries or shopping, Sunday mass and sometimes to recite the rosary during the week, some condolence or funeral, some truly special event, because these things excited him inordinately; he didn’t accept anything that would break the rhythm of his life or alter his routine. When the women went out, either their father or brother stayed at home, because Oscar feared being alone to an incredible and poignant extent and, moreover, there was always the danger that he might escape.

Monica had fallen out of the habit of going to bed early, and she would spend long hours awake, listening to Cristina’s soft breathing and thinking about many, many things, until she heard Oscar’s dull footsteps. Then she would lie very still and close her eyes so that he would think she was asleep. Oscar would stand by her bed for a few minutes, which to Monica seemed endless, eternal. He came to observe her every night, perhaps surprised to see her there again, or wanting to make sure it was really her. The years she’d lived in the city had made her forget this never-ending nightmare.

On that day, the sixth of August, Oscar had been unbearable since sunrise. One of the medicines he took, which calmed him down quite a bit, had run out at the pharmacy, and the doctor had substituted another that had little effect on him. He had been shouting for hours, howling, ranting, breaking everything within reach in the cellar, furiously shaking the padlocked iron door, throwing the furniture against it. He’d knocked over the breakfast tray, and the one they brought at lunch; he neither heard nor responded to anyone. “Oscar’s worse than ever,” their mother said when her husband and son came home to eat. “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she kept repeating, and she wrung her hands, overcome with anguish. “He refuses to eat, he’s broken everything …”

Without another word they sat at the table, amid the unbearable noise — ​the shouts and howls and roars of laughter — ​demolished by that soul-crushing torment. With her fingers Mamá wiped away the tears she couldn’t hold back. Not even the familiar sound of Papá slurping his soup could be heard.

“He won’t touch a bite, he didn’t want breakfast or lunch,” Mamá repeated, as if she hadn’t already reported this when the notary and his son came in.

“He’s smashed everything to pieces,” Cristina remarked.

“I think it would be a good idea to let the doctor know what kind of state he’s in,” said Carlos.

Their anguish had managed to break the silence that their father had always imposed on their meals.

“if it would be smart to increase the dosage ​”

“but … maybe …”

“what should we do, oh God, what should we do?”

“I think it’s the effect of the moon”

“or the heat this time of year ​”

“only God knows, only God knows!”

“this is the worst yet​”

“his eyes are red and bulging​”

“he banged himself up and he’s bleeding​”

“he’s been trying to open the padlock​”

“​I think the medicine’s making him like this​”

“sometimes doctors don’t even know what they’re prescribing​”

“he was so calm, doing so well​”

“yesterday he was singing, the same song all day and all night, but he was singing​”

“​yes, but last night he broke all the flowerpots​”

“oh God, oh God! ​”

“they say there’s an herbalist in Agua Prieta who’s very good”

“sometimes they’re just quacks who steal your time and money,” their father cut in. “I think it’d be best to give him an injection and make him sleep, and let’s hope when he wakes up the crisis will have passed. I’m going to prepare the syringe.” And he rose from the table.

“I’m scared, Papá,” said their mother, drawing close to her husband and clutching his arm. “Very scared.”

“I’ve given him injections before and it wasn’t a big deal — ​stop worrying, woman, stay calm.”

“The lamp’s ready,” said Carlos. And the two men went down to the cellar. The women stayed there, mute and motionless, like three statues.

Inarticulate screams, sounds of struggle, of blows, of bodies falling, moans, exclamations … Suddenly it all ceased, and there was only the panting of the two men, who, bathed in sweat, emerged from the cellar, exhausted and battered, as if they had wrestled a wild beast.

The tremendous effort was too much for the notary’s weary heart, which stopped abruptly the next day, as he was copying a deed at the office. He was already dead when they carried him back to his house. They kept vigil over him in the parlor all night. Though he was a well-loved and respected man in the town, only those few relatives and friends who frequented the Román house and whose voices Oscar knew were able to attend the wake. The family’s sorrow was enormous; shattered by grief, they spent the entire night by the side of their deceased father, crying in silence. The next day, after the open-casket mass, he was buried; this time, at the church and the cemetery, the whole town attended. His companions from the municipal band bade him farewell by playing his favorite waltzes: “To Die for Your Love” and “Sad Gardens.”

From that day forth, after Don Carlos Román died, life in that household deteriorated: the black crepe over the door and windows, the shutters half-closed, the women in mourning, silent, lost in thought, or absent, especially the mother, who seemed more like a spirit than a living woman, a phantasmal figure or the shadow of some other body; and Carlos, downcast, mute with suffering and anguish, knowing he’d reached a dead end, cornered, hopeless; none of them had any solution for this affliction they’d endured, dragging it arduously behind them through the course of their lives. Calamity imposed itself and they were its victims, its prey. There was no salvation.

A week after the notary died, the mother fell ill; one day, that woman who’d so completely wasted away rose no more. And not even the doctor could enter the house to examine her; Oscar wouldn’t have allowed it. Every day Carlos informed the doctor how his mother was doing and bought the medicines he prescribed. But it was all futile; her life slowly ebbed away, without a single complaint or lament. She spent her days plunged in a deep torpor, not moving, not talking, simply departing.

Their mother lived for only a few days, just a sigh and that was all; no death rattles, no convulsions, no tremors, no cries of pain, nothing — ​she just breathed a sigh and then left to follow the companion with whom she’d shared her life and her misfortune. They mourned her where they had mourned Don Carlos, and buried her next to him. After she was buried, Oscar spent the whole night in the empty bedroom, howling and gnashing his teeth.

The days of that luminous and perfumed summer marched by, long days and endless nights; the three siblings closed themselves off, didn’t dare to talk or communicate, became hollow and self-absorbed, as if their thoughts and words had been misplaced, or carried away by those who had gone. Every Sunday, after attending mass, Cristina and Monica went to the cemetery to bring flowers to their dearly departed. Carlos stayed home to take care of Oscar. In the afternoons, the two sisters sat down together to knit by the parlor window, and from there they watched life go by, like prisoners through the bars of their cell. Carlos pretended to read and rocked in the rattan rocking chair, where his father had taken short naps before going to play in the concerts at the Plaza de Armas.

The full moon was immense that August night. It had been sweltering all day and the heat lingered well into the night; even the weight of a sheet on one’s body was unbearable. Oscar howled like he always did on nights of the full moon, and no one could fall asleep; he howled and broke flowerpots, went up and down the stairs, bellowed, howled, shouted, kept going up and down … Stifled by the heat, they let themselves drift little by little into sleep, a red sleep that burned like a scorching blaze, enveloping them, until they began to cough, a dry and stubborn cough that woke them up. Their eyes popping, they regarded the tongues of fire that had already reached the bedrooms, rising from the bottom floor, and the dense and asphyxiating smoke that made them cough, weep, cough, and Oscar’s howls and roars of laughter — ​jubilant laughter like they had never heard — ​rising from the cellar, and the flames leaping in, almost reaching them. They had no time to lose; the staircase had been devoured by the fire, only the windows were left. Knotting sheets together, Carlos lowered down Cristina, then Monica, and finally himself. When he touched ground the house was completely engulfed in flames that burst from the windows, the door, everywhere. The sound of Oscar’s laughter could still be heard as the three set off walking, hand in hand, toward the road leading out of town. Not one of them turned their head to take one last look at the burning house.

— Translated by Audrey Harris and Matt Gleeson