Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Woman Like Me

Felisberto Hernández
(trans. Kathryn A. Kopple)

A few summers ago the idea I had been a horse occurred to me. As night arrived the thought came to me like a tarp over a house. As soon as I would lay myself down in my man's body my memory of being a horse started its walk.

On one of the nights I walked a dirt road and stepped on the smudges made by the shadows of the trees. On one side the moon followed me; on the opposite side my shadow dragged along; at the same time clods that were lifted and dropped were covered in darkness. In the opposite direction the trees came at me with great force, and my shadow grew longer as I got closer to them.

I was wrapped in my tired flesh and my joints hurt from the harness. Sometimes I forgot how to coordinate my hands with my hind legs, stumbled and nearly fell.

Suddenly I smelled water but it was a putrid water from a nearby lagoon. My eyes were also like lagoons, and on their tearful, sloping surfaces, large and small things, near and far, were simultaneously reflected. My only task was to distinguish bad shadows and threats from animals and men; and when lowering my head to the ground to eat the grass sheltered near the trees also avoid bad weeds. If thorns stuck me I had to move my lips until they came off.

In the early hours of night and despite hunger I never stopped. I had discovered in the horse something very similar to what had recently been lost to man: a great laziness; in it memories could work at ease. Besides, I had discovered that for memories to proceed, I had to wind them up by walking. With that illusion I could still be happy.  A bag covered my eyes. I was attached to a swing attached to a rod that moved a handle like those used for the big wheels, but which he used for the kneading machine. I would go around for hours moving the handle, which rotated like a minute hand. And so, without stumbling, and to noise of my steps and the gears, my memories went round.

We worked late into the night; then he fed me, and to the noise made by the corn between my teeth my thoughts slid along.

(At this moment, being a horse, I am thinking about what happened to me a short time ago when I was still a man. One night when I couldn't sleep because I felt hungry, I remembered that I had a packet of mints in the cupboard, and that they made a noise similar to corn.)

Now, suddenly, reality makes me present to my current state as a horse. My steps have a deep echo. I'm making a big wooden bridge boom.

Along paths that went in different directions I have always had the same memories. Day and night they are like the rivers of a country. Sometimes I contemplate them, and other times they overflow.

In my adolescence I had a great hatred for the stable boy that took care of me. He was also a teenager. The sun had just come out when that wretch hit me on the snout. Fire quickly ran through my blood and I went mad with fury. I stood up and knocked down the stable boy while I bit his head.  Then I crushed a thigh and someone saw how my mane flew when I turned and finished him with my hind legs.

The next day many people left the funeral in order to see me when the men came to avenge that death. They killed the colt and left me as a horse. Shortly after that I had a very long night. I still had some "tricks" from my previous life, and that night I used them to jump over a fence along a road. I could barely manage it and I got hurt. I started living a sad freedom. My body had not only become heavy but all its parts wanted to live an independent life and not make any effort. They acted like servants who resisted their owner and did everything reluctantly. When I was lying down and wanted to get up, I had to convince each of the parties. And at the last moment there were always protests and unforeseen complaints. Hunger was very clever in bringing them together, but what brought all to agreement most quickly was the fear of persecution. When a bad owner beat one of the parties, they all became supportive and tried to avoid greater evils to the unfortunates; besides, none was safe. I tried to choose owners of low fences, and after the first beating I left, and the hunger and persecution began.

Once I had a very cruel master. At first he only hit me when I was carrying him and we passed in front of his fiance's house. Then he began to place the cargo load too far back; I was stuck and couldn't find the strength, and he, furious, hit me in the belly, in the legs and in the head. I left one afternoon but I had to run a lot before I could hide in the night. I crossed the edge of a town and stopped for a moment near a hut; there was fire burning and through the smoke and from a small inconstant flame I could see inside a man with his hat on. It was night then but I continued.

As soon as I started walking again I felt lighter. I had the impression that some parts of my body would stay or be lost in the night. Then, I tried to hurry my steps.

There were distant trees that had moving lights between the branches. Suddenly, I realized that on the road in the distance there was a light. I was hungry, but I decided not to eat until I reached the shore of that glow. It turned out to be a town. I was going along the road more and more slowly and never reached the glow in the distance. Little by little I began to realize that none of my parties had deserted. They were arriving one by one; the one who was not hungry was tired, but those who had pains had arrived first. I didn't know anymore how to manipulate them. I showed them the memory of the owner that time he undid the saddle; his short, flat shadow moved slowly around my entire body. It was that man who I should have killed when I was a colt, when my parts were not divided, when I, my fury and my will, were one.

I started eating some grass around the nearest houses. I was an easy thing to find because my skin had large black and white spots, but now it was late at night and there was no one about. My constant snorting stirred up the dust. I didn't see it, but it got into my eyes. I entered a paved street where there was a large gate. As soon as I went through the gate I saw white spots moving in the darkness. They were children's smocks. They scared me and I climbed a ladder that had only a few rungs. Then I was frightened by others who were upstairs. I threw my harness down on the wooden floor and suddenly I found myself in an illuminated area that opened up on an audience. There was an explosion of screams and laughter. Children dressed in evening clothes came running out, and from the deafening public, where there were also many children, there were voices that said: "A horse, a horse ..." And a boy whose ears looked as if they were folded in the shape of a hat, shouted: "It's Mendez's tobiano. " At last the teacher appeared on the stage. She also laughed, but asked for silence. She said that it was not long before the end of the piece and began to explain how it ended. But she was interrupted again. I was very tired. I lied down on the carpet and the audience again applauded and with such enthusiasm. The show was finished and some took the stage. A girl about three years old escaped her mother, came towards me and put her hand, open like a star, on my back wet with sweat. When the mother took her away, she raised her little open hand and said: "Mamita, the horse is wet".

A gentleman, pointing his index finger in the teacher's direction as if he were going to ring a bell, said to her with suspicion: "You won't deny that you had planned the horse as a surprise and it entered earlier than you thought. Horses are very difficult to teach. I had one…".

The boy whose ears were folded back felt around my upper belly and looked at my teeth. He said, "This horse is old."

The teacher let them believe that she had planned the horse as a surprise. A childhood friend came to greet her. The friend remembered a quarrel they had had when they went to school, and the teacher reminded her that, at that time, she told her that she had the face of a horse. I was surprised, because the teacher looked like me. But, in any case,  there it was: a lack of respect for humble beings. The teacher should not have said that in my presence.

When the congratulations and the ovations faded away, a young man appeared in the hallway to the orchestra, interrupted the teacher, who was speaking to the childhood friend and the man who motioned with his index finger as if pressing a bell and yelled, "Tomasa, don Santiago says that it would be more convenient for us to talk at the bakery, that a lot of light is being wasted here.

"And the horse?"

"But, my dear, you're not going to stay there with him all night."

"Alejandro is coming now with a rope and we will take him home."

The young man got up on stage, continued talking to all three and working against me. "It seems to me that Tomasa exposes herself too much by taking that horse to her house.  And some of the Zubirías were saying that a woman alone in her house with a horse she doesn't intend to use at all makes no sense; and mama also said that horse is going to bring her many difficulties."

But Tomasa said, "First of all, I'm not alone in my house because Candelaria helps me. And secondly, I could buy a carriage if those spinsters let me."

 Afterwards Alejandro showed up with the rope. He was the little boy with the folded ears. He tied the rope around my neck, and when they wanted me to get up I couldn't move.

 The man with the index finger said, 'This animal has its legs stuck; they're going to have to do a bloodletting."

I was very scared. I made a great effort and I managed to move. I walked as if I were a wooden horse. They made me leave by the backstairs, and when we were in the yard, Alejandro made me a rope halter. He climbed on top of me and started hitting me with his heels and with the end of the rope. I went around the theater suffering intensely, but as soon as she saw us the teacher got Alejandro off me.

While we were crossing the town and despite the fatigue and the monotony of my steps, I could not sleep. I was forced, like a broken and out of tune organ, to repeat the same repertoire of my ailments. The pain made me pay attention to each part of the body, as they went into the movement of the steps. Every once in a while, and out of this rhythm, I would get a chill on my back, but other times I felt passing by, like a happy breeze, ​​the idea of what would happen next, when I was resting. I would have a new supply of things to remember.

The bakery was more like a bar; it had billiards on one side and a room for families on the other. These two divisions were separated by a railing of wide wooden columns. Above the railing were two pots lined with yellow crepe paper; one of them had an almost dry plant and the other had no plant. In the middle of the two there was a large fish tank with only one fish. The teacher's boyfriend was still arguing almost certainly because of me. By the time we had arrived, the people in the bar and in the family room--many of them had been at the theater--laughed and my success was restored some. After a while the waiter came with a bucket of water; the bucket had a smell of soap and grease, but the water was clean. I drank savagely and the smell of the bucket brought back memories of a familiar house where I had been happy. Alejandro had not wanted to tie me up or go inside with the others. While I was drinking water, he had me on the rope and tapped his feet if he were tapping to the beat of music. Then they brought me dry grass.

The boy said, "I know this tobiano."

And Alejandro, laughing, set him straight.  "I also thought it was the Mendez's tobiano."

 "No, not that one," said the boy right away. "I mean the other that is not from here."

The three-year-old girl who had played on stage appeared holding the hand of another older girl; and with her free hand she brought a handful of green grass that she wanted to add to the pile where I sank my teeth, but she threw it on my head and inside an ear.

That night they took me to the teacher's house and locked me in a barn. She went in first.  She shielded the light of the candle with her hand. 

The next day I could not get up. They opened a window that  faced the sky and the gentleman with the index finger did a bloodletting. Then Alejandro came, put a stool near me, sat down and started playing a harmonica. When I could I went to the window facing down in the direction of some trees. Through their trunks, I saw a river that ran without stopping. From there they brought me water, and they also gave me corn and oats. That day I had no desire to remember anything. In the afternoon the teacher's boyfriend came. He was better disposed toward me.  He stroked my neck and I realized from the way he patted me that he was a nice boy. She also caressed me, but she hurt me.  She had no idea how to caress a horse. She ran her hands across me too lightly and it produced unpleasant tickling. On one of the times she touched the front of my head I said to myself: Have you figured out that is where we look alike?" Then the boyfriend went outside and took a picture of her and me at the window. She had put an arm around my neck and rested her head on mine.

That night I had a very big scare. I was leaning out the window, looking at the sky and listening to the river, when I felt dragging slow steps and saw a crouching figure. She was a white-haired woman. After a while she went back in the opposite direction. And so on every night I lived in that house. Seeing her from behind with her square hips, her legs bent and so crouched she looked like a table that had gotten up to walk. The first day I went out I saw her sitting in the yard peeling potatoes with a silver-handled knife. She was black. At first it seemed to me that her white hair, with her head bent over the potatoes, moved in a strange way, but later I realized that, besides the hair, there was smoke from a small pipe sticking out from the side of her mouth.

That morning Alejandro asked her, "Candelaria, do you like the tobiano?

And she answered, "The owner will come looking for it."

I followed along without wanting to remember.

One day Alejandro took me to school. The children made a big fuss. But there was one who stared at me and said nothing. He had big ears, so far apart that they looked like wings at the moment of flight; his glasses were also very large; but the eyes, cross-eyed, were close to his nose. When Alejandro wandered off, squinty eyes gave me a tremendous kick in the belly. Alejandro went running to tell the teacher, When he came back, a girl with a red ink bottle had painted my belly with the stopper in a place where I had a white spot. Alejandro went again to the teacher, saying, "And this girl painted a heart on its belly."

At recess time another girl brought a big doll and said that when they left school they would baptize her. When classes were over, Alejandro and I left immediately, but Alejandro took me down another street and when he reached the church, he made me stop in the sacristy.  He called the priest and asked him, "Father, how much will it cost me to baptize the horse?"

"But, my child!  Horses aren't baptized." And he gave a great big belly laugh.

Alejandro insisted. "Do you remember the little holy card of the Virgin riding the donkey?"


"So, if they baptized the donkey, they can also baptize a horse."

"But the donkey wasn't baptized."

"And the Virgin would go about riding a donkey that wasn't baptized?"

The priest wanted to speak but kept laughing.

Alejandro continued:  "You blessed the holy card and on the holy card is the donkey."

We left there very sad.

A few days later we met a little black man and Alejandro asked him: "What name will we give the horse?

The black man made an effort to remember something. Finally he said, "What did the teacher teach us to say when something was cute?"

"Oh, I know," Alejandro said. "It's an ajective."

In the evening Alejandro was sitting on the bench near me, playing the harmonica, and the teacher came.

"Alejandro, go to your house. They are expecting you."

Señorita, do you know what name we gave the tobiano? Ajective."

"In the first place, it is pronounced 'adjective,' and secondly, adjective is not a name. It's... adjective," said the teacher after a moment of hesitation.

One afternoon when we got home I was pleased because I had heard behind the Venetian blinds, "There goes the teacher and the horse".

Shortly after I found myself in the barn. It was one of the days that Alejandro was not there.  The teacher came, took me out and with an astonishment that I never had before saw that she was taking me to her bedroom. Then she tickled me unpleasantly and said, "Please, don't whinny." I don't know why it just came out. I, alone in that bedroom, kept asking myself, But what does this woman want from me? There were torn clothes on the chairs and on the bed. Suddenly I raised my head and saw myself--with my forgotten head of a miserable horse. The mirror also showed parts of my body; my black and white spots also looked like untidy clothes. But what struck me most was my own head; every time I lifted it more, I was so dazzled that I had to lower my eyelids and take a moment to consider myself, my very own idea of ​​myself as horse ignored by my eyes.

I received other surprises. At the foot of the mirror were the two of us, Tomasa and me, leaning out of the window in the photo that the boyfriend took of us. And suddenly my legs buckled; it seemed that they understood, before me, whose voice it was coming from outside. I could not understand what "he" was saying, but I understood Tomasa's voice when she answered: "The same he left home, he also left mine. This morning they brought him his feed and the barn was empty as it is now."

Then the voices drifted away. As soon as I was alone, the thoughts I had moments before came to me and I didn't dare look at myself in the mirror. It seemed a lie! One could be a horse and have those illusions! After a long time the teacher returned. She tickled me unpleasantly, but her innocence did me even greater harm.

A few days later Alejandro was playing the harmonica near me. Suddenly he remembered something. He put away the harmonica, got up from the bench and took from his pocket the photo of Tomasa and me together. At first, he put it up to one eye and seeing nothing happen, pulled it farther back, and then did the same with the other eye and ended up putting it in front of me about a meter away.  My guilty thoughts made me bitter. One night I was absorbed listening to the river, I mistook the steps of Candelaria. I got scared and kicked the bucket of water. When the colored woman went by, she said, "Don't be scared. Your owner will come back".

The next day Alejandro took me to swim in the river. He was on top of me and very happy in his hot boat. My heart began to feel heavy and almost at once I heard a whistle that froze my blood. I  turned my ears as if they were periscopes. And finally came the voice of "him" shouting: "That horse is mine." Alejandro took me to the shore and without saying anything he galloped me to the teacher's house. The owner was running behind and there was no time to hide. I couldn't move my body; it was as if I were stuck in a closet. The teacher offered to buy me. He replied, "When I get sixty pesos, which is what it cost me, come get it." Alejandro took off the rope halter he made. The owner used the one he brought. The teacher went to her bedroom and I caught a glimpse of the square Alejandro made with his mouth before he burst into tears. My legs trembled, but the owner stuck me with the whip and I started walking. I barely had time to remember that I hadn't cost him sixty pesos. He had traded me for a lousy blue bicycle without rubber or a pump. Now he began to vent his rage by hitting me often and with all his might. I was suffocating because I was very fat.  Alejandro!  how well he took care of me. And also, I was invited into that house because of a success I now wanted to remember, and had known happiness until the moment when she brought me guilty thoughts. Now there began to rise from my bowels an unbearably bad sensation. I was very thirsty and remembered that I would cross a stream where a tree stretched a dry branch nearly to the center of the road. That night there was moonlight, and from a distance I saw the stones of the stream shine as if they were scales. Nearly to the stream I began to stop. He understood and he started hitting me again. For a few moments I felt invaded by sensations that were locked in struggle as enemies in the dark that before getting into it quickly sniff one another. And then I threw myself on the side of the stream where the tree's dry branch was. He didn't have time except to grab onto the branch leaving me free, but the dry branch broke and the two fell into the water fighting among the stones. I turned around and ran towards him as he, too, turned and came out from under the branch. I went to stamp on him while he was on his side.  My leg slipped off his back, but with my teeth I bit a part of his throat and another part of his neck. I pressed down with all my fury and decided to wait, without moving. Soon after, and after waving an arm, he also stopped moving. I felt acid flesh in my mouth and his beard was rough against my tongue. I had now begun to have a taste for blood when I saw that the water and stones were stained.

I crossed the stream several times from one place to another without knowing what to do with my freedom. At last I decided to go to the teacher's, but after a few steps I turned and drank water near the dead man.

I proceeded slowly because I was very tired, but I felt free and without fear. How happy Alejandro would be! And she? When Alejandro showed me that portrait I had remorse. But now, how much I wanted to have it!

I arrived at the house going at my slow pace. I was thinking of entering the barn, but I heard an argument coming from Tomasa's bedroom. I heard the boyfriend's voice talking about the sixty pesos. Without a doubt, those that were needed to buy me. I was on the verge of feeling happy thinking that it would not cost them anything when I understood that he was talking about marriage, and finally, already out of his mind and determined to leave, he said, "Or the horse or me".

At first, my head was pressed against the red window to her bedroom. But then, in a couple of instants, I made a momentous decision. I would leave. I had begun to be noble and didn't want to live in an atmosphere that would become dirtier day by day. If I stayed, I would become an undesirable horse. She herself would have moments of hesitation towards me after all.

I don't know how it is that I left. But what I most regretted about not being a man was I didn't have a pocket in which to carry the photo.

Credits:  The original story in Spanish can be found at La mujer parecida a mí by Felisberto Hernández

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