Laughing, singing, splashing, Regina runs and then slides on the wet tiles. Retrieving the stiff-bristled scrub brush, she thinks how lucky she is to be a girl. Washing the patio at daybreak is her favorite chore, on a beautiful summer morning like today, when the world seems newly hatched and she does not suffer from chilblains. The sky is the gentlest blue: a few whip-shaped yellow wisps chasing away, over and beyond the shard-topped wall, the little dark that's left. In palm, fig, and avocado tree, birds celebrate the light. But Regina can hear above the liquid whisper of the finches and the song of the thrush, the horrid scream of the carancho: "ya-te-co-mo, ya-te-co-mo!" How terrible to be a little bird, always trembling in your nest, always afraid of that crested butcher screaming "I will eat you!" from his filthy lair up in the tuft of the palm tree. Regina thinks how lucky she is to be a girl. She sits on the upended pail, turns the faucet on all the way and surrenders her feet to the jet. Her toes wriggle like little animals, like chicks being fed. Such incredible abundance of water is what amazed her most when she arrived, last winter, from her native Santiago. Up there, water is unpredictable; devastating floods one month, then dryness and dust. Up there, she had to walk two miles for a bucketful. But here, faucets, faucets all around! Two—no, three right here in the patio (she always forgets the one half-hidden by the roses); two up in the terrace; then the kitchen, the bathrooms... Regina loses count. And most amazing: even she has her own sink, her own shower, her own toilet. One or two pulls from that chain, and—who knows what goes on up there— water comes rushing down, sweeping everything away—who knows where. It scares her.
Tonight is her night out. Not just another weekly excursion to the gentlemen-one-peso-ladies-free dance, but a special one, the most awaited night of her life. A week ago, last Sunday, she danced with Basilio, the butcher boy. How he danced the chamamé, how masterfully he guided her in the tango, his big strong hand grappling her haunch, his bull-hot breath blowing down her neck, fanning the fire he had kindled inside her! All the girls were ogling them, especially la Magdalena, with her black skirt and her long red nails: how she was boiling with envy! Basilio, it is true, danced a tango with Magdalena too (what can he possibly have seen in her?), and he danced with other girls as well. Still...
Two days ago, while she was washing the patio like now, el Bachi stopped there at the grille, with his blood-stained white apron, his white cap and a skinned lamb on his shoulders. "Going to the dance, this Sunday?" he asked, eyeing her up and down, as if he was about to carry her away too, together with the lamb. Then, after her hesitant "yes", he asked: "Can I walk you back home, afterwards?"
And Regina, looking at her toes, leaning on the squeegee, answered: "maybe..."
Regina is fourteen. Her nose is rather flat, her eyelids have Indian folds, and when she is excited or angry, the black of her iris has a purple gleam. A stray, "hija de nadie", the Sisters of Charity brought her up, and taught her to wash, iron, say the Hail Mary and the Our Father, wring a chicken's neck and pluck it, but they never showed her the alphabet. Most such girls are placed, by the time they are twelve, with upright and respectable Catholic families, to serve as housemaids. But Regina grew a bit slowly, developed a little late. Nevertheless, one cold morning last August, on the eve of her fourteenth birthday, she was put in the train for Buenos Aires. The nun kissed her, said, "Adiós, m'hija", and gave her a gilt-edged holy card of St Stephen, adding: "keep it always with you, and he'll keep you from trouble."
Two days later—she had no idea that the world was so large and crowded—Regina arrived at the Retiro train station in Buenos Aires, where Mrs. Iglesias, the Señora, was waiting for her. And the very first thing that happened to Regina, as soon as they arrived at the house with many faucets, she was deloused. The Señora sprayed her with DDT, rubbed her scalp with kerosene, and searched for nits with a fine-toothed comb. But all this seems to have happened long ago. By now the little maid from Santiago is well established in her new routine, and merrily wriggles her toes under the amazing faucets.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help occupies the place of honor in the Iglesias' patio: a marble-lined niche surrounded by roses. The Señora wants that marble immaculate, so Regina scrubs it with the stiff brush and plenty of soap. As for Our Lady Herself, She gets a softer, soapy sponging. The red climbing roses are still wet with dewdrops. Regina sticks her tongue out and licks a petal. Perhaps this will help make her lips look redder to-night, and her tongue taste sweeter. "Bachi, Bachi," she whispers (that's how she calls Basilio, the butcher boy.) "Bachi, Bachi." And she licks some more.
At the opposite end of the patio, under the master bedroom windows, there is a wattle shed and under it, a large pile of firewood. As Regina gets around washing the floor on that side, she notices a black cat crouching in the space between the woodpile and some kerosene cans. Regina does not like black cats. To scare it away, she calls "scat!", then "mish!", then, stamping, "phooey!" But the cat just looks at her and doesn't budge. Regina comes closer: it's a scraggy stray, much of its body hairless, as if consumed by the mange. She touches it, tentatively, with the end of the squeegee's long handle: nothing. She pokes the stick deep into the animal's swollen side, but this only elicits a weak, whimpering mewl; and when she next stirs a reddish patch, out oozes a slow, transparent pus.
"It's got to die elsewhere." Having a cat, a black one to boot, die right here in the patio would bring her awful bad luck. But that is not the only thing. The animal's passive resistance provokes her to an irrational fury: she thrusts the stick at the cat's face. The cat shuts its eyes tight, bares its teeth and growls, but doesn't leave.
Regina retreats and reconsiders. The cat is breathing hard and with a rasping sound, its honey-colored eyes fixed on the girl, as if aware that soon something else, most likely no good, is sure to come from her. Having come this far, the cat cannot be allowed to stay in the house. The sick animal is now her enemy, and if left there, one way or another, alive or dead, she is convinced it will strike back at her. She screws the hose to the faucet, turns the water on, adjusts the nozzle and aims the strong, spear-sharp jet at the cat, who with a piercing howl gets up and, persecuted by the liquid scourge, limps toward the grille, jumps out to the street and disappears.
By the time she starts washing the terrace (next, after the patio, in the arrangements of the Iglesias household) the sun is wholly visible above the walls of the neighboring houses. Her rival, Magdalena, la Macacha, is sweeping the patio in the house next door, raising a dust storm; farther down an old woman is feeding her chicken, and from farther still comes the sound of someone hammering, giving a kind of patriarchal depth to the morning. When the terrace floor is all washed, Regina kneels before a big tin tub full of clothes which she has left to soak; she picks up one of the Señora's blouses and rubs it against the washboard. Suddenly she feels that her own skirt is being pulled up, and something touches her thigh. "The cat!" she shrinks in terror, "the cat's back to get me!" But, turning around, she sees that it is a human hand which is touching her, and that it belongs to the Niño.
"You scared me!" Regina exclaims. "What are you doing, prowling about at dawn, like a ghost?"
The Niño, only son of the Iglesias, future staff of their age, is wearing only his pajama pants. On his adolescent chest there are only two or three delicate hairs. His vocabulary isn’t more abundant: "I'll fuck you! Oh boy, how I'll fuck you!"
"Oh, leave me alone, go back to bed," Regina rejoins, resuming the rubbing of the blouse.
But the Niño is not so easily put off. Tremulously, feverishly, he explores Regina's most tender parts. Her rubbing of the blouse becomes erratic. She closes her eyes, thinks of Basilio's big, strong, butcher-boy arms. Furiously sputtering "fuck, fuck," the Niño seeks an entrance. Regina drops the blouse, bends her head, raises her behind, and with a guiding hand tries to help the young master carry out what he preaches. But she soon notices that the Niño stops trying. Something warm trickles down her thighs. Niño Marcelo has spent his lust too soon. He is standing now, silently tidying up his pajama pants.
"Come, do it!" Regina pleads, beckoning him back.
"Slut!" the Niño snorts, and spits on the floor just washed. Then, without another look at her, he walks back into his room.
She doesn't know what to think. Maybe he doesn't like it doggy-style. She feels, indeed, like barking. But instead, she takes a piece of cloth from the soapy water (it is one of Niña Lucía's panties), wipes herself thoroughly with it, and throws it back into the tub.
Every Sunday, as soon as they come back from eleven o'clock Mass, the four Iglesias sit at table around a heaving mass of vermicelli in whose center lurks, succulent, a stewed eye-round. The four are in their Sunday finery, and on the starched table cloth not the usual, old wicker bread basket, but a silver one with elegant handles. The linen napkins too, come out of their drawer only on Sundays, cinctured by a silver ring, one for each Iglesias; even the plebeian Selzer bottle is made to wear, just for the occasion, a silver-plated cover.
Left alone and while her masters are at Mass, Regina goes back and forth from kitchen to dining room, minding the pot, setting the table. She always misplaces the napkin rings, putting, for example, the one with a florid L next to Marcelo's plate: this drives Niña Lucía almost insane; "How can anybody be so thick-skulled," she asks her parents.
At noon sharp, as announced by the bells of the church, the vermicelli must be thrown into a pan with boiling water; meanwhile, Regina checks the stew, adds a bay leaf or a little broth. A few weeks ago the Señora scolded her because she found a hair in the noodles. But why assume that the hair was hers, and not somebody else's? Regina wistfully wonders, without considering that her hair is a giveaway, thicker, wirier and darker than the hair of her masters. "Cerda de india" the Señora called it, contemptuously. She lifts the cover off the stew pot, waves her hand to dispel the sumptuous vapors, and pricks the meat with a fork: out of the chunk of muscle the juice runs pink. On the kitchen window sill there's a pot of sweet basil: Regina bends over, plucks a leaf, pops it into her mouth and, chewing on it, ponders. Water will take its own sweet time to go from cold to hot (the water for the noodles is not quite boiling yet). Also, after you turn the burner off, boiling water will go on bubbling for some time, and it will be long till you can touch it. Then, how can a man's mood change from hot and eager to rude and cold, so fast? Perhaps Marcelo is bewitched, a victim of the evil eye. Someone must have mixed something in his food, making him at once frantic and impotent, poor boy. Such things are known to happen. In any case, from the early-morning bout with the Niño she should not become pregnant; no, if anybody should, it's the Niña Lucía, when she wears those lacy panties soiled with her brother's milk. And if that happened, it wouldn't surprise Regina at all, for she has seen certain things between those two, at siesta time...
The bells of the Sacred Heart of strike twelve. In they go, the vermicelli, with splashes of water and light, and in they'll stay until they are pliable and soft, and coil around the fork. Everybody knows that when a child is born of brother and sister, like Marcelo and Lucía, either vipers are coiled around the baby, or only vipers come out, having devoured it. Regina takes the slobbered, tiny ball of chewed basil out of her mouth and throws it into the stew pot. Her mind goes back to Basilio. The dancing floor is packed, but she and her Bachi feel alone in the world: they are dancing a waltz, her favorite, with words about a palomita blanca flying to my love's abode. His arm rests on her white pleated skirt, and his mustache tickles her ear. After the dance, when he walks her back home, they go by the oil depot, with the long and dark wall. There, very likely, he'll kiss her. And what if he reaches for more, which is very likely, too? She'll protest, and she'll say: "take me home". But what if he pins her, with those strong arms of his, against the wall...
The heavy clank of the street door interrupts her thoughts. The Iglesias are back from Mass. Regina hears them come, go up the stairs; she hears the water running in the bathroom as they wash their hands. Then the kitchen door opens and in comes Lucía. Without a glance at Regina, she goes to the icebox and helps herself to a glass of Selzer. She wears a white dress, and a lace mantilla covers her auburn curls; in her hand she holds a mass-book bound in mother-of-pearl, and a rosary of rock crystal alternating with agates. Having quaffed her Selzer, the Niña sighs with relief and raises her gloved hand, missal and all, to her mouth, to stop a burp. She leaves the glass on the counter, slowly turns around, and fixing on Regina a haughty stare, calmly says: "You filthy whore."
Regina stays openmouthed. After a longish pause in which she straightens the delicate edge of her mantilla, Lucía speaks again in the same quiet voice, as if she were inquiring about a misplaced sewing-box: "You shameless little whore, you think I didn't see what you and my brother were up to in the terrace, this morning."
"But it wasn't me... I didn't..." mumbles Regina, "it was he who..."
"The effrontery!" the word issues from the Niña's mouth like a round of grapeshot. "You must think I'm stupid, or blind, not to notice how you tease and provoke poor Marcelo. Let me disappoint you. You are the blind one. Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror? No decent boy would ever want anything from a stinking coon-head like you."
"I wasn't blind the other day," Regina angrily blurts out, "I sure wasn't blind when I saw you and your brother rolling together on the bed at siesta time."
That day, while looking for a duster she had forgotten upstairs, through the door to the Niña's bedroom, left ajar, Regina saw brother and sister lying on the bed, in their underclothes, hugging like two forlorn creatures frightened by the violence of the fire inside them.
"Liar!" the Niña shouts, her face turned ashen and her mantilla shaking like a spider web holding a just-caught wasp.
Sure that Lucía is about to hit her, Regina recoils, cringing in the space between the sink and the oven. But Lucía turns around, and from the door to the dining room, convulsively clutching the missal and the beads under her jaw, with a whistling sound from deep inside her throat: "I'll have you sent back right away to Santiago, to your filthy boondocks."
For a while Regina stays quietly in her nook; then she returns to the stove, opens the pot and taking a thumb to her nose, hawks and blows a goodly gob of phlegm into the stew. She stirs it thoroughly with the wooden spoon.
Half an hour later the Iglesias family sits at table. One chews on a mouthful of eye-round, another winds noodles in a neat coil around the fork, one sops bread in the gravy: they all watch TV. Regina sits in the kitchen, her plate on the counter, but she isn't hungry. She is terrified at the prospect of being sent back. Back to sleeping on a burlap sack filled with corn husks, on an earthen floor; back to squatting over a fly-haunted hole dug in the ground; back to walking two miles for a bucketful of water.
And then, who would take her in? Not the nuns. They've given her a chance, and with them, she knows, it's only once. She will have to serve some nasty old man who'll beat her black and blue, throw a crust of bread at her once a day, and never let her out. Here, at this house of many faucets, here at least she's paid. In six months she has saved enough to buy a new white skirt: she's counting on it for success tonight.
The boon of tub and shower head, sink and toilet bowl; the miracle of running water, hot and cold: all this was explained to Regina the very day of her arrival. But the name and purpose of that fixture called a "bidet" remain a mystery. The Iglesias have omitted any reference to it, as if it were not there, which of course did not fail to arouse the girl's curiosity. She formed her own conjectures. When she asked about the vases, the crystal bombonnières, the chalices of bronze and onyx and the other articles of gracious living new to her, her masters answered that those have no practical use, but are "decorative" or "ornamental", and particularly valuable. Regina believes that so must be this other thing, the bidet. In confirmation, she has discovered that water flows not only down, from the outlets right under the rim, but also upward, in delicate jets, from the tiny orifices of a brass rose at the center of the bowl: this makes the bathroom fixture similar to the patio fountain, where birds bathe in a flutter of wings and which is ornamental, she has it from the Señora's authority.
No birds fly into the bathroom, though. That is a problem. But on the other hand there are things there which seem clearly ornamental. The decals on the wall tiles: a fruit basket, a beribboned nosegay, plump little angels. But regardless of the mystery of its purpose, Regina applies to the bidet the same meticulous care with which she cleans the other fixtures: a good sprinkling of cleansing powder, a general rubbing with the rag, and scouring with steel wool wherever needed. Then, while she wipes the outside, she turns the water on to rinse the inside. Finally the porcelain looks sparkling white.
It is siesta time, and Regina is giving the last touches to the bidet, when Mr. Iglesias appears at the door, urged by some pressing need which has interrupted his slumber. Seeing the maid at work, he hesitates. Regina notices with the corner of her eye her master's big and morose bulk, but she goes on with her work. It's a lesson she has learned in the big city: never acknowledge another person's presence until you have to.
Finally the Señor seems to make up his mind and goes in, latching the door behind him. "I hear," he starts in a strangely high-pitched voice, "I hear that you've got yourself in trouble."
As she doesn't reply, but merely stops wiping the bidet and remains motionless, rag in hand, looking at the wall in front of her, he continues: "I hear you've insulted Lucía."
No reply. Mr. Iglesias repeats what he hears and solemnly adds: "Is that right?"
Kneeling on the tiled floor, crouching between the toilet bowl and the bidet, Regina looks at the Señor with frightened eyes, not knowing what to expect. "She wants you shipped back," he now thrusts, "back to Santiago."
"No! Not back!" Regina whimpers.
Mr. Iglesias smiles, which draws furrows and swells on his unctuous face, the color of mayonnaise. "My poor girl," he says, shuffling toward Regina and laying his hand on her bristly mane; "my poor girl, there are things you just don't do: you just don't go about insulting Señoritas." Shaking his head, twitching his tongue against his mouth's vast vault in a multiple display of negation, Mr. Iglesias caresses Regina's face, her ear, her neck; then, holding up her chin in his cupped hand, he adds in a lower, more confidential tone: "you must show more respect; do you understand?" And joggling the girl's head as if to make sure that the idea has sunk somewhere in there, he repeats: "do you understand?"
Regina smiles faintly.
"But you see," Mr. Iglesias resumes, "I'm the boss in this house. And that means that if I decide you go, you go, but if I want you to stay, you stay. Do you see? Eh? Do you see? As long as you behave, of course, as long as you're nice to me..."
As he is saying this, Mr. Iglesias has let down his pajama pants and now slowly, warily lowers his enormous posterior upon the bidet. "And I may even give you a little present," he continues from a sitting position, "why, I may even raise your salary if I want to..." Mr. Iglesias pushes the girl's head down. "...If you're really, really nice..."
Regina does not have to be told what the Señor wants. She has met fellatio at a very young age. It was a favorite sport with Father Bonifacio, who had her do it exactly like this, kneeling down, while he sprawled on the sacristy's oak settle. Afterwards he'd pull from the chest beneath his seat a precious treat, a bottle of Orange Crush, and he'd offer it to her, saying: "go wash it down, my daughter." The baker too, he'd sit atop a pile of flour sacks in the back of the store, and as Regina, sitting on a shorter pile, brought him to a climax, he'd pant and puff and kick up clouds of flour. But he'd never let her go without some delicious bread or a bag of round cakes capped with burnt brown sugar. Now, finally, Regina has discovered what the bidet is for: it is not ornamental; it's where big-city old men sit when they want to get sucked.
But to find the Señor's instrument is not easy. She has to lift fold after fold of fat, as when she is looking for a sock lying somewhere near the bottom of a drawer full of clothes. When at last it turns up, it turns out to be of the peewee kind, not in the same league as the curate's or the baker's. Anyway, Regina sets to work, while Mr. Iglesias, heavy hand pressing down on her head, whispers encouragement: "Good girl, good girl!"
The unusual, risqué circumstances—the three other members of the family napping in adjoining rooms; Lucía might wake up at any moment, and feeling the Selzer water pressing for an outlet, might come to knock on the bathroom door and keep knocking until it opens—may not these circumstances go quite a long way to stimulate a man? Mr. Iglesias’ member, however, remains shrunk, a tiny spigot at the bottom of a gigantic cask. Instead of "good girl," he now grumbles: "c'mon, wag that tongue!" Then, more and more annoyed: "you flat-nosed poontang." His heavy hand, gripping her hair, shakes her violently. Finally he pushes Regina away. "You're so repulsive, not even an orangutan would get it up!"
She stays there, kneeling, leaning backwards on her stiff arm, dreading the moment when her master's lips will pronounce her death sentence: "back to Santiago!" Instead, the master's upper lip goes up, baring old gums, overarching several gold fillings and some remnants of meat sauce; his eyes roll up, blood-shot, and the furrows on his face strain, deepen and bend, portending a gruesome effort.
There’s a spluttering rumble and finally, a smile. Mr. Iglesias gets up, and while he wipes his ample bottom, with a nod of the head he points toward the bidet. "Go ahead, scoop it up," he orders with military concision.
Once more the bidet is sparkling white. The whole bathroom is cleaned, and Regina is alone. She looks at her face in the mirror. Through the open windows, together with welcome fresh air come the frantic shrieks of birds: having finished its own siesta in the inner parts of the palm tree, the carancho has set about the daily massacre of fledglings. "So repulsive, not even an orangutan would get it up." Her own face seems to her not bad at all. Actually quite beautiful. While they were dancing last Sunday and he was holding her tight, Basilio's thing grew to quite a bulk. When they left the floor after the tango, he was walking funny. Now Regina doesn't know what kind of man an orangutan is, but if she is able to get Bachi's thing up, that's all she cares about. She grimaces in front of the mirror, rolls up her eyes, bares her teeth, furrows her brow in imitation of the Señor's excretive efforts. That, she thinks, was repulsive. A glimmer catches her eye. On a corner shelf stands a gilded tube, studded with garnets. Regina picks it up: the Señora's lipstick. She pulls the cover off and turns the base until the creamy, fiery tongue sticks out in its whole length; she puts it to her nose and breathes in deeply. It is as if a long and silky glove, sliding inside her with a velvety rag and some voluptuous powder, cleansed her of all grime and left there but one image: dancing with the butcher boy. She wants to kiss him with this cream on her lips.
Who knows what a fourteen-year old housemaid, half-Indian, a little animal really, might do behind closed doors? The door to Regina's room, which opens out to the terrace, is purposely not well fitted and doesn't shut close. In cold nights she uses the blanket from the ironing table to stop as much of the gap as she can, and sometimes, with a good scat of rain and a westerly wind, things do get wet. But now it's summer and the door is open; colored strips of plastic hanging from a string along the lintel serve as a curtain, letting in some fresh air.
Regina is in her room, ironing her skirt. It’s a new, white, wide-hemmed pleated skirt, the one she will wear to the dance. Almost a whole month's wages, but isn't it well worth it? Swept across the floor, swaying with each swerve and wriggle of the chamamé, swirling along with a waltz's twirls, she imagines herself and her new skirt. In a short while, in only an hour! Her heart lunges forward. She has to force herself to concentrate on the upward, edgewise gliding motion of the iron, its tip insinuating into the overlapping fold. A distraction, she well knows, would be fatal. A crooked pleat, or—god forbid— an indelible brand on the white percale. As a constant reminder of those dangers, there's the hole right before her eyes, a charred wound in the ironing blanket.
One day, when she was ironing, Regina went out for some water to sprinkle on Mr. Iglesias's shirt, and as she was filling the can at the terrace faucet, she noticed that from where she was she could see the interior of Magdalena's room in the house next door. Elbows on the terrace parapet, cheeks propped, Regina watched in fascination how La Macacha first scratched her scalp, then spent a long time scouring between her teeth with the nail of her little finger, and finally stooped down and involved herself in some activity which Regina could not quite make out (she was in fact scraping, with her thumbnail, a corn on her big toe.) Meanwhile Regina completely forgot about the iron, which she had left plugged on until a smell of burnt wool told her that something was wrong. When the next day the Señora saw the hole, she went into a rage. "Do you want to burn the house down?" she kept screaming.
A sudden mosquito rends the air, but Regina is too busy with a pleat, near the waist band, to interrupt her ironing. Regarding that hole in the blanket, Regina considers the neighbor's housemaid responsible for its burning. Wasn't it La Macacha, after all, with those scratching antics, who took her mind off the iron? Regina wonders what la Macacha will wear to the dance. Most likely the same as last Sunday: that black, tight, clinging skirt of hers, slit in the back, which she believes makes her very appealing, but actually makes her look like a cockroach. Well, let her wear that same skirt, another skirt, or no skirt: Regina doesn't care. But woe to her if tonight she tries her tricks on Basilio! When it comes to nails Regina cannot hope to compete with la Macacha. She has grown them to an impressive length, and is always flaunting them, polished in outrageous reds. But Regina will find an acacia tree somewhere (in Santiago they are all over; here in the city she hasn't seen one yet), cut ten sharp thorns and glue them to her fingers. But why think of that fool. The folds must be perfect, only that matters. Regina turns the skirt a little, and before starting on a new pleat, she smoothes it with the back of her fingers. It is a long and loving caress: in this wide-hemmed skirt the future is wrapped up, the fast-approaching night and her impending happiness. The mosquito stabs Regina in the arm, escapes her slap and makes a stand on the wall. Her patience exhausted, she stands the iron on its heel, goes to the night table (an old apple crate) and rummages until she finds a piece of mosquito coil. One end of the green coil goes into a notch cut out of a tin holder, the tin holder is placed on a cracked saucer, and the saucer is laid on the apple crate. Right under the holy card of St. Stephen taped to the wall. Lastly, Regina strikes a match and lights the free end of the coil: a bluish plume of smoke envelops the image of the Saint, who has been there as the nun recommended, protecting the girl, since her first day in this room.
Before going back to her ironing, Regina bends over and looks at the holy card. Suddenly she is filled with overpowering joy. She sits on the edge of her bed and joins her hands in prayer: not like the nuns have taught her, but tucked between her thighs, fingers down, against her crotch. She prays, her eyes fixed on St. Stephen, not in words, but in a parade of images. A white skirt and a dance floor. Basilio whispering in her ear. An immense starry night. The smell of mandevilla spilling over a dark wall. The softness of a kiss. She prays as she never prayed before. And it seems to her that behind the blue smoke from the coil, from his holy card on whose right side she has tucked a wheat stalk, and on whose left side she has taped a bird feather and a bunch of seeds for good luck—it seems to her that the Saint, holding a big stone in his right hand and in his left a palm leaf, smiles. Yes, he smiles, and he even seems to wink at her a fatherly eye.
The tapping of a slipper on the floor awakes Regina from her reverie. Mrs. Iglesias is standing next to the ironing table. Her robe is buttoned up from toes to neck; this neck leaves the lace-trimmed collar and ascends, thin, fleshless and crooked. A red boil stands in the middle of her forehead, under the bulky mass of rollers.
"Have you done touching yourself?" Mrs. Iglesias asks in an ominously trailing drawl, and reaching out, unplugs the iron. The round, rubber-lined plug dangles over the side of the table. "And where, pray tell me, have you got hold of this?" she continues, producing the gilded tube of lipstick. "Who has authorized you to use my cosmetics?" Mrs. Iglesias's thin lips and her jaw tremble with a righteous quiver. The wings of her nose, too, flap like a sail pointed to an evil wind. Her boil glimmers. But Regina does not see all this, she does not dare look at her mistress in the face. Her stare is fixed on the dangling cord and on the bulbous plug with its two rounded prongs. What can she say? Not only has she forgotten the tube of lipstick there, on the ironing table, but her own lips tell the whole story: she has bedaubed them to a glossy sheen, before she started ironing the skirt.
The Señora stands erect. Regina, hands still between her thighs, cringes away, toward the wall and St. Stephen, frozen in his holy card. The only sound is a click now and then from the cooling iron. At length, in an almost kindly tone tinged with sadness, the Señora says, "I live under no illusions. For charity's sake I shut my eyes to much, and to much more I turn a deaf ear out of the very softness of my heart. Maybe you think I'm a fool. Oh no: on the very first day, at the train station, a single look at you and I knew right away that you are not a Christian but a beast. Still, I hoped. What did I hope for? I'm almost ashamed to confess: I hoped that by living in the fold of a decent, loving family, you might little by little see the light; I hoped that partly by exhortation, partly by example, you might develop a conscience, make yourself deserving of a dignified life; I hoped, naively, that you might become civilized. Alas, to domesticate a viper would be easier. Look at all we've done for you. We picked you up, Holy Christ, from what! For the first time in your life you've had a clean bed and clean bread. We treat you decently. We even pay you. Do you hear that? We even pay you! But of course, you spend it all, up to the last cent, on garbage..."
Mrs. Iglesias picks an end of Regina's skirt with thumb and forefinger, as if she were picking a dead rat by the tail. "No, I don't have many illusions," she resumes, "nor do I expect much gratitude. But this I did not quite expect." And she extends toward the girl, with dramatic gesture, the gilded tube of lipstick. "Wicked thief."
Undaunted by the coil's bluish smoke, the mosquito buzzes around Regina's head. She keeps it bowed, her eyes still fixed on the plug, thinking that if only she could put it back into the outlet, get the iron going again, everything would be fine. Tapping with her slipper on the floor, Mrs. Iglesias asks: "Do you have anything to say?" And as Regina remains silent, head bent, "Tonight you don't go out."
As if given an electric shock, looking up, Regina tries to say something, but does not manage anything. The last flashes of the sunset project a long shadow of the Señora over the bed, the apple crate, the wall, the ceiling. Regina stands up and, in clumsy supplication, extends her arms toward her mistress. In a tone that admits of no reply, Mrs. Iglesias repeats: "You've heard me. No night-out tonight. No fiesta." As she leaves, pushing aside with the back of her hand the plastic strips, she adds: "Shut up for a Sunday. What lighter penalty for theft, good Lord? I'm too soft... much too soft..."
She has parted her dark hair down the middle, twisted two braids, and tied the ends with ribbons. From the bottom of her drawer, beneath some old rags, she draws a bottle of perfume, unstops it, and looking at herself in the mirror on the back of the wardrobe's door, lets two drops fall on the narrow strip of bare scalp. With her little finger, Regina rubs the perfume in. She shakes her head, and the braids bob and wiggle like a pair of joyful tails. Before leaving, Regina goes to the holy card and touches the sandaled feet of St. Stephen with her perfumed finger. She cuts the lit tip off the mosquito coil; finally she picks the box of matches and throws it into her purse.
The air smells of hidden moisture. From some window, the sound of voices and guitars, and from afar, the huffing efforts of a starting bus. Dressed in her white skirt and a red sweater, Regina starts slowly going down the stairs, but to what purpose she really could not say, since the door is locked and there is no other way to leave the house. The words still resound in her mind, with each step down: "no fiesta...," "much too soft...," "no fiesta..."
Midway down the stairs she stops and breathes deeply. The night is like an immense park, old as the world, but still fresh, intact. How can there be no fiesta? Through the film on her eyes, Regina notices a shadow slithering down the staircase in the house next door. It's Magdalena, with her black clinging skirt and her black sweater, holding in her hand her black shoes, so as to avoid being heard. La Macacha, going to the dance. A single cry, as from a bird just caught, spurts out of Regina's throat.
Walking along the wall, Regina reconnoiters. Too smooth, too high, and of course, the bottle shards on top. Near Our Lady of Perpetual Help, she detects a rhythmic sound. It is the faucet, the one she always forgets about, hidden among the roses, dripping. The street door is secured by chain and padlock. The front grille is lined with sharp spikes. For a while, grabbing the bars, Regina stares at the street. An old woman goes by, stooped, carrying a net bag full of overripe vegetables: Regina has never envied anybody so much. Up and down the patio she walks, touching the wall, in the hope of finding some crawling hole leading outside. A pair of glowing eyes in the dark: it is the sick cat, back in its refuge between the wood pile and the kerosene cans. Regina is drawn in fascination toward those eyes. She bends down until her face touches the cat. Face to face with the dying animal, its wheezing snore is unbearably loud. Regina gets up, and with cool deliberation she pours, one after the other, three cans of kerosene upon the wood pile. Then she strikes the match.
Ricardo Nirenberg is the editor of Offcourse.