- from Matalaché*
The Last Soap in the Vat
The manservant waited at attention in the middle of the room like a solid, blackened fencepost with a head of ugly, wrinkled skin. Don Juan had not heard him enter. Don Juan was absorbed in the tumultuous parade of his thoughts, which, for the previous twenty-four hours, hadn't let him sleep or think about anything except his own pain. Nothing around him seemed to alert him. Two deep trenches crossed his brow, imprinting on his face an implacable and cruel hardness. His defeated blue eyes seemed to look over the walls of the room toward a far-off point, reflecting a diabolical fire in his shining pupils.
How he had aged in those twenty-four hours! Of yesterday's fifty-something gentleman with arrestingly youthful traits, there remained only a rigid, robotic shell who seemed to be controlled by springs. The straight nose that pulsed and inhaled with enjoyment and vigor had grown narrow and pinched over his unshaven upper lip in an air of unsympathetic disdain. And his prominent chin, the symbol of his force and his will, was losing itself among the folds of an indiscreetly fat double chin.
He was an actor who befitted his tragedy, the catastrophe of a soul. In that man there was nothing left of the beauty and seduction of other times. Everything in him was gestures and lines: gestures that contradicted themselves, lines that crossed.
He had passed the entire day there, sometimes giving orders, other times, between cigars, gulping down big sips of coffee. He did all of these things with an appearance of tranquility that, instead of calming, provoked an inexplicable fear in the house slaves. In those twenty-four hours the man had dehumanized himself and everything that flowed in him now radiated a pain and abandon that overtook anyone who looked at him.
Even the room seemed to be in unison with him: harshness, silence, heaviness, coldness, darkness, restriction, enigma . . . The dust on the ancient furniture was proof that a diligent hand had not passed that day. From the five-candle candelabra, only one weak and tremulous flame burned, barely enough to keep away the assaults of the shadows, seemingly overwhelmed in its attempt to pitifully resist so much desperation and sadness. Even the portraits that hung from the walls seemed to want to jump down and flee. One of them, the one with the most voluminous beard, with an air of authority and a very Spanish gravity, seemed to have turned all the blue of his eyes into an irresistible, imperative command that had to be obeyed. The portrait was of the paternal grandfather of the gentleman who was steadfastly weaving, in the silence of the night, the fabric of a tragedy, communing with it, possessed by the enormity of the act he was meditating upon and for which he was preparing himself. And that dehumanizing work transformed the man sitting there into a cornered animal, and the room, a cage. [End Page 275]
Finally coming out of his trance, and turning his eyes to the slave who dared not speak in the solemnity of the moment, he murmured,
"Ah, there you are!"
"Yessuh, Master. I come t' tell ya everything's ready."
"Yessuh, Master. Antuco got everything just so. Jes' like you said, suh."
"Give me my cape and hat."
And with both of those items Don Juan Francisco left the room behind the old manservant who, lantern in hand, started to guide him through the labyrinth of the garden and the alleys formed by the wall of bales and stacks of cured animal skins. Not a chirp, not a caw, not a murmur . . . master and slave quietly advanced, two silhouettes, pursued by a pale stain of light, and tried to dissolve into the cold ink of the night.
In the second patio the lantern wasn't necessary. The bloody reflection of the ovens that heated the vats provided enough light. Don Juan Francisco walked to the back of the patio, where a group of three men waited, and, directing his attention to the one in the middle, said with...