Amparo Dávila, “The Cell”

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When María Camino came down to breakfast, her mother and her sister, Clara, were already sitting in the dining room—but her mother, Señora Camino, never began eating until both her daughters were at the table. María arrived silently. Leaving her bedroom, she had noticed the sound of her own footsteps: it seemed that she made a lot of noise as she walked. And she didn’t want to call attention to herself or be noticed today: no one must suspect what was happening to her. She felt a deep sense of unease upon seeing her mother and sister already in the dining room, waiting for her. Her mother would ask her why she was so late, why she had kept them waiting. She entered the dining room self-consciously. When she bent down to kiss her mother on the cheek she saw her own face reflected in the big Italian mirror: it was very pale, with dark circles under the eyes. Soon her mother and sister would notice too. She felt a chill course down her spine. Señora Camino didn’t ask her anything, but she was sure to at any moment, and María would need to have some excuse ready. She would tell them that her clock had stopped. She peeled an apple, aware that her mother and Clara were watching her—perhaps they were already suspicious. She lowered her gaze, conscious that she was blushing. But fortunately, just then Clara Camino started talking about a fashion show her club was organizing for charity.

“I’d love it if you came with us,” she suddenly said to María.

“Of course she’ll go,” Señora Camino hastened to assure her, before María could say anything.

María smiled weakly at her mother and went on drinking her chocolate. She would have to talk about something too; she would have to make conversation with her mother and sister, but she was afraid that her voice would give her away and that they would realize something was going on. And she could never tell anyone. Her mother would die if she heard such news, and Clara might not believe it.

“Don’t you want some marmalade?” she ventured to ask her mother, timidly passing the orange marmalade she’d made the day before.

“Thank you, dear. Ah, it’s the one you made!” said Señora Camino, and she looked fondly at her daughter.

That had been yesterday, but it seemed like the distant past. She had made jams and baked cakes, knitted by her mother’s side, read for hours, and listened to music. Now she could no longer do those things, or anything at all. She would have no peace or tranquility now. When they finished breakfast, María went up to her room and wept dully.

In the evening, Señora Camino and Clara almost always played cards with Clara’s fiancé, Mario Olaguíbel, and his cousin José Juan. María didn’t like card games—she found it all so boring and pointless. While the others played, María sat by the fireplace and silently knitted. And she only interrupted her work to serve some cream liqueur or spirit that her mother requested. That night María asked if she could play with them. They all seemed very surprised, and Señora Camino was extremely pleased: “Our little María is starting to be more sociable.” She’d thought the game might manage to distract her a little. But her effort was useless. She couldn’t concentrate and played clumsily. She constantly checked the clock over the fireplace, cast glances at the doors, heard footsteps. Every time she played a hand poorly, she grew flustered and blushed. Señora Camino puffed on her long ivory cigarette holder.

“Let’s go, darling, come on, think about your plays,” she said, every now and then, so as not to embarrass her.

José Juan smiled as if wanting to encourage her.

“Next time you’ll play better, don’t worry,” he said when he left.

María slowly climbed the stairs to her room, and when she opened the door she was surprised by that presence …

Señora Camino was clearly pleased to see that María was keeping busy: “That girl, who looked so worn out all the time, with no energy for anything, is now constantly active.” María had succeeded in her aim: her mother and Clara believed that her health had improved and that she was happy and industrious. It was the only way to keep them from suspecting what was going on. She spent hours tidying the attic and the pantry, dusting the library, putting the closets in order. They believed she was keeping herself busy—they were never able to catch that look of distress casting a shadow over her face, or the trembling of her clumsy hands. María couldn’t, even for a second, banish that image from her mind. She knew she was doomed, as long as she remained alive, to suffer this awful torture and keep it silent. The days seemed short, fleeting, as if slipping through her fingers, and the nights were endless. At the mere thought of having to face another night, she trembled and turned pale. He would slowly draw nearer to her bed, and she could do nothing, nothing …

One day, María Camino realized that José Juan Olaguíbel might be a refuge for her—or perhaps her only salvation. She could marry him, travel around, go far away, forget … He had plenty of money and could take her wherever she wanted, where he wouldn’t find her. Fighting her natural timidity, she became friendlier and chatted with him. María’s new behavior was warmly received not only by José Juan Olaguíbel but by the entire family, which made things easier. When they weren’t playing cards, they spent the evening talking. María discovered that he was pleasant to chat with. She began to feel good in his company—it took her mind off her worries. Little by little she came to know tenderness and hope. They started to make plans and think about the future: in a short time an engagement ring shone on María’s finger, and the wedding was set for the next January. She wished the wedding date was sooner, so she could flee the horrible torture she had to suffer night after night; but she didn’t want to awaken suspicions of any kind. Her wedding would have to transpire in a perfectly normal way, as if nothing were wrong, as if she were just an ordinary girl. At night she tried to keep José Juan with her as long as possible. As the hours passed and the time for the Olaguíbels to say good night drew closer, María would begin to feel that boundless terror of being alone—maybe he was already waiting for her up there in her room, and seh would be unable to do anything to avoid it, unable to tell José Juan to take her away that very night and save her from this torment. But right there in front of her were her mother and Clara, who knew nothing and could never know. María watched the Olaguíbels climb into their automobile; then she closed the door and a mute desperation consumed her …

They’d spent October and November getting ready for the wedding. José Juan had acquired an old residence that he was renovating in luxurious style. Very pleased, Señora Camino accompanied her daughter everywhere she had to go, and helped her select her purchases. María was tired. Every day, morning and afternoon, there was something to do: pick out fabrics, furniture, dishes, go to the dressmaker, to the embroiderer, discuss the house with the architect, choose rugs, curtains, colors of paint for the rooms … She realized with great sadness and disenchantment that this lovely game of liberation had worn her out, and that she didn’t want to know any more about the wedding, or José Juan, or anything. She began to feel annoyed whenever she heard him coming by the house, which he did various times throughout the day, with the pretext of consulting her about something. His voice began to grate on her nerves, as did the light kiss he gave her when he said good night—his cold, moist lips, his conversation: “the house, the curtains, the rugs, the house, the furniture, the curtains …” She couldn’t go on, she didn’t care whether she escaped or suffered for the rest of her life. She only wanted a break from this tremendous sense of fatigue, from spending all day going from one place to another, speaking with a hundred people, giving her opinion, choosing things, hearing José Juan’s voice … She wanted to stay in her room, alone, without seeing anyone, not even her mother and Clara, to be alone, close her eyes, forget everything, not hear a single word, nothing, “the house, the furniture, the rugs, the white clothing, the curtains, the house, the dressmaker, the furniture, the tableware …”

The December cold crept in, and one evening Clara made ponche. María, entirely distant, sat embroidering by the fireplace. Señora Camino and Clara played Uruguayan canasta with the Olaguiíbels. José Juan talked about a trip he had to make to New York on family business, which was extremely annoying since it was so close to the wedding date, and especially with so many things still to arrange. When María heard this news, seh felt a sudden spark of joy at the mere thought of being free of his presence for a few days. She felt the cage that had begun to close around her suddenly breaking apart. She drank several cups of ponche de naranja, laughed at everything, and gave him a kiss good night.

The next day María awoke feeling light and happy. During breakfast, Clara noticed that her eyes were bright and that she was smiling without realizing it.

“You have the look of a satisfied woman,” she told her.

In that moment, María understood everything. And she knew why she was so happy. She had been claimed forever. Nothing else would matter now. She was like ivy attached to a gigantic tree, submissive and trusting. From that moment, the day became an enormous wait, an endless desire…

But José Juan Olaguíbel didn’t leave for New York. María saw him arrive that night, and such fury seized her that she went completely dumb. She paid no attention to anything he explained to her, tense with wrath. He didn’t notice the hate in her eyes. While José Juan talked and smiled in satisfaction, she wished she could … Without caring about what her mother and her fiancé might think, she ran upstairs to her bedroom. There she wept with rage, with vexation …until he arrived and she forgot everything …

On New Year’s Eve, Señora Camino prepared a splendid dinner. Only their closest family members and the Olaguíbels came. Clara looked beautiful and happy. They had decided, she and Mario, to hold a double wedding and to make the journey around Europe together. Señora Camino couldn’t help shedding tears of joy, “satisfied to have found such magnificent matches for her beloved girls.” María was pale and somber. She wore a clsoe-fitting white garment of Italian brocade, long like a tunic. She hardly spoke all night. Everyone else enjoyed the dinner, but María knew very well where her only happiness was to be found, and the party was long and draining. The hands of the clock didn’t move. Time had stopped …

Now, too, time has stopped … What a cold, dark room! It’s so dark that day merges with night; I no longer know when the days begin or end. I want to cry with the cold—my bones are frozen and they hurt; I’m always on top of the bed, flung aside like a rag doll, hunting flies, spying out the mice that helplessly fall into my hands; the room is filled with the corpses of flies and mice; it smells of damp and of putrefying mice, but I don’t care, let other people bury them, I don’t have the time to; this castle is dark and cold, like all castles; I knew he had a castle … How lovely to be a prisoner in a castle, how lovely! It’s always night and he doesn’t let anyone see me; my house must be very far from here; there was a huge fireplace in Papá’s library and I used to arrange and dust the books; I want a fireplace to warm myself up, but I don’t dare mention it to him, I’m too frightened to bring it up, he could get angry; I don’t want him to be angry with me; I didn’t say a single word to those men who came, he could show up and catch me; I hid in bed and covered my face with the blankets; we’re always together; where are Mamá and Clara? Clara is my older sister—I don’t love them, I’m scared of them, don’t let them come, don’t let them come! … Maybe they’re already dead and their eyes are open and shining like José Juan’s that night; I wanted to close his eyes, it scared me to have them staring at me—his eyes were open very wide, shining brightly … “You’ll be a beautiful bride, all white”— the moon was also white, very white and very cold, and since it’s always night he comes whenever he wants; we’re always together—if it weren’t so cold I would be completely happy, but I’m very cold and my bones hurt; yesterday he beat me cruelly and I screamed and screamed … José Juan got cold, very cold; I didn’t let him fall, but rather let him slip down gently; he was bathed in moonlight and his eyes were staring; the rats’ eyes are staring too; he went to sleep on the grass, beneath the moon; he was very white … I was watching him for a long time … I’d like to lean out of that window and be able to see the other rooms … I can’t reach it, it’s very high and he could come at any moment and catch me, since he comes anytime, as often as he wants … he could get angry and beat me … That noise in the corner: it’s another mouse, I’ll catch it before he arrives, since once he comes I won’t be able to do anything …