Balzac y la Casa de las Abandonadas
Xochi had come to like life at the bottom. She liked the light filtered from above and her shape shaded beneath her—arms, waist, hips, legs—proof that she was still here, still her inviting feminine self.
True, more often than not, it was cold and dark and, well, damp, and at times there were some nasty currents near the concrete colossus that held the waters in. But there were benign backwaters, sunny pools where she could suspend herself just beneath the surface, no longer prey to antediluvian memories of being spurned by slightly younger pros or slapped around by her fancy man and warned that there was, so to speak, no lying down on the job.
Now and again, in perfect stillness, Xochi would surface to look up at the blue sky floating overhead and remember one or two of the last news bulletins she heard before she made the decision to reverse thousands of years of evolution, dodge evacuation from the unnamed refuge for wayward women, now—gracias a Dios—retired and, under cover of darkness, crawl back into the depths…
Voices proudly declaring the beds of Puerto Vallarta 69% full, those of Acapulco 100%. Bodies on the beach, bodies in el campo santo; bodies in beds put to vigorous use for three minutes to be followed, a long half hour later, by—si Dios quiere—another fleeting frenzy.
Like was like, thought Xochi… as the heavy, perhaps unbroken, waters of the future joined those of the past to rise around her… and horizontal was horizontal.
Abajo itself was always meant to be flooded.
It had, in its four and more centuries of settlement, experienced several inundations but, until now, the church, and even el campo santo littered with crosses and headstones, had endured. This time was different.
Cities beyond the horizon needed water. In immeasurable quantities. They needed it now. Already they were fighting over it. And the government had been digging for years. Right here. Upstream and down from the pueblo. And building. Now they had closed el río. The waters were rising. If the villagers of Abajo did not take the offered row houses—up over the rim and not that far away—they themselves would be swallowed up, placards of protest at their undeserved fate, holy crosses in appeal to a higher power, et al.
But the government knew better than they what mattered. The historic church had been dismantled and trucked away over the rim to be hurriedly—if somewhat lopsidedly— reassembled. The long dead of Abajo as well as the recently deceased had been disinterred and reinterred up above, behind the leaning Casa de Dios and—God willing—under the correct headstones.
Xochi’s stillness was not dependent upon location. After an eternity of click-click-clicking on sidewalks and corners and curbs… wiggling and waggling upstairs and down; pumping, bumping and grinding upon a sheet that beggared description… stillness was sacred to her. Mental as well as physical, it was a blessed state.
The villagers had only their own inertia to deal with. They could not protest that the pile of stones they were married within or those their ancestors lay under would be sunken beneath the waters. In fact, they had no excuses at all.
Inertia, however, in Abajo, as in backwaters everywhere, is sacred.
Holy Week must be celebrated this year exactly as it was last year. And the year before. However, if they tried the usual route to their mock Calvary on a certain Sunday, they would only drown a few weeks sooner than if they waited for the waters to enter their doors and windows as they watched wide-eyed from their roofs. And Holy Week had begun. The faithful had denied and tormented themselves through forty days for the sins of the year—sins for which the flooding of their village ought to have been perceived as sufficient retribution—and were on to the fourteen Stations of the Cross which had been set up around the pueblo like so many taco stands.
The truly credulous were also in a fright because this night—the night after 400 years of, with the exception a drawer full of church documents (death certificates & etc.), unrecorded history, when Xochi’s story begins, and ends—was also the night of a total lunar eclipse, la luna sangre, and at about two in the morning a bloodred moon did in truth lean over all, by the looks of it about as inundated as Abajo soon would be.
La luna sangre, understandably—for no one sleeps well in a pueblo in the throes of being flooded—added to the unrest, along with the possibility of hysterics and hair tearing, but the incident not without its ripple effect would be the strange disappearance of one of the ladies of the night (now retired) from the shelter known to the locals (unofficially) as la Casa de las Abandonadas.
Should it be any wonder if, with so much coming to pass—happenings which had happened again and again and those which had never happened before—that one of the inhabitants of Abajo, if a fairly recent arrival, was to be, in an inevitable, if hurried exit, not missed until the last, or next to last, minute?
Xochi, the one due to disappear and not to be found no matter how hard her sisters in sins long past, and even the senior administrator, la Señora, looked for her, was one of the fallen but, like the other girls who could still look up the sheer walls at the longsuffering strip of blue sky over the canyon in which Abajo found itself, she had fallen so long ago, and so often, she hardly bothered to think of it.
Though it was, looking back at her acceptance at la Casa, an undeniable good not to have to stand out on the corner at all hours and in all weathers.
To have a roof overhead, a clean sheet underneath. Especially the latter. It seemed to Xochi that she had passed an eternity of nights on something very different and with very little time for sleep. All that before she joined her erring sisters, who had—with a little assistance—in their turn come to cohabit alongside those whose families went back generations, if not centuries, between the stone walls that towered over them like the fresh sides of an open grave seen from beneath.
Xochi slept late these days. And later. She liked lying motionless between clean sheets, as if afloat, limbs limp, face expressionless, no longer required to feign an excitement there was no longer even a hint of, in a body just a little past its prime. Such composure had a primordial feel to it, primeval, as if her remnants were already broken down into their components, becoming more moist before the inevitable drying out, as if the process itself somehow linked her to all creatures, naturally including the mass of mankind that had preceded her, in company with those who would follow.
She was not about to take part in a belated and futile protest and carry a placard through the doomed streets of her adopted pueblo or, perhaps it should be said, of the pueblo that had adopted her, along with her siblings in nearly forgotten peccadilloes. Once or twice she peered from her window at the gathered multitude—34 souls as reported by el Informador, which had sent a reporter out from the city—and, in her heart, agreed that Abajo in its deep winding canyon inhabited a charmed location, a pueblo well suited for one of her background to end the endless nights that had been urban iniquity incarnate, but, even so, Xochi couldn’t get too upset about the rapidly rising waters.
In fact, to a lady who had left only a little of her looks somewhere in her wake—alongside the various futures she had once hoped were hers—they had their appeal. She might, she was thinking, effectively conceal herself, successfully avoid the impending relocation. Xochi, herself, in the flesh, had already been subject to more rapid movement than, in an ideal world, any human ought to be.
Though, for some reason now, with the waters rising visibly around the safe haven rehabilitated to harbor a handful of not-quite-pensioned-off women of the town, she did sometimes recall those first days in the city. It had been painful at first, not to say revolting, although her body had been ready after all and there had been pleasure too. But she didn’t much dwell on the mixed pains and pleasures of the long ago. Although it had been nice, she had to admit, having her body stared at, appreciated… worshipped.
Those were the days that were gone.
But Xochi knew that she had not disappeared from the eyes and memories that had beheld her. For some, days of remembering would be enough: an image of herself pasted on another; a homely wife, for example. But for others, she knew, she was never quite gone. She came to them at night, and not only at night, but on the bus, walking down the street. And her image said to them: look up, look at me, remember. I do not wish to be rescued; that’s a no-go, always was, always would be. There is no rescue. You may, if you like, somehow refashion me for, after a fashion, as some have always known: behind the beauty of the female is the beauty of the world.
And I, said Xochi’s image knowingly, I have been, I am that for you, the latter as well as the former. And what more can you or I ask for? To have seen, to have been, that link? To have had a glimpse of, to have led that life? It should be sufficient. For both of us, for either.
At least, so Xochi hoped, for adoration would never again be witnessed.
To put it bluntly, the men were no longer on their knees and the good inhabitants of Abajo could hardly conceal their disdain at the sight of the more ravaged than ravishing old girls making their way down the equally timeworn and now doomed streets of the pueblo, old girls still flaunting an overbold smear of lipstick, a touch too much eye shadow, and a walk that could never quite be veiled. It was just too much like the end of the world they had been steeped in since childhood and now saw rising around them. It was, they had little doubt, the Flood.
Xochi’s mind was elsewhere.
It was still, in la Casa de las Abandonadas, an all-female cast, even if most of the bodies had gone to hell a little before the immortal spirits they had as good a chance as any of containing. There was still a front desk and, seated in the front office, the power behind it all, la Señora, a civil servant with sufficient education, government paycheck, health insurance and a retirement plan that would shelter her in better conditions than these.
La Señora, whose body would never know the hard ride with which the girls were all too familiar, didn’t have to worry about eviction or resettlement. She would be transferred where her services were required. Her kind always survived. One day she would even be what her ladies weren’t: pensionada.
She was quite a character in her own right though, this funcionaria. Efficiently each day, her paperwork out of the way, she’d sit in the sun reading from the bag of books she’d brought down to the bottom of the canyon when she got the assignment; occasionally, with the binoculars that hung from her neck, watching the bulldozers and dump trucks on the walls of the canyon… as tiny as the miserable menials who’d sweated their lives out stacking stone on stone to raise the pyramids—she’d tell her knowing if less educated wards—Mexican stones as well as Egyptian...
No, there was no need to worry about la Señora. She’d be alright. She could take care of herself. No one had ever slapped her around, or ever would. She was independent without keeping any more distance than she deemed appropriate.
One day, however, la Señora invited Xochi, the one with least seniority in terms of residence, with a gesture to sit beside her.
“How are you doing, Xochi? How are you adapting to life at the bottom?”
“What do you know about life at the bottom, Señora?”
This must have been a shocker for la Señora, for she waited a moment before answering, a moment during which Xochi sat herself in the chair that had been gestured at.
“Touché,” said la Señora, who could pull up a word or two in French when she had to, but, seeing a blank, if not somewhat suspicious look, on Xochi’s face, she added, “which is to say, got me, you got me, Xochi. I don’t know nada de nada about life at the bottom. Do you want to tell me about it?”
The women exchanged looks that might have seemed overlong for two who had hardly spoken; Xochi, who wasn’t sure of her long term standing, especially in a doomed refugio, and la Señora, who was a relatively recent arrival herself and not one to make any enemies she didn’t have to.
“What do you want to know about it?” asked Xochi, wondering what a woman who’d had far too many men could say to one who’d had—if appearances were any guide—none, not even for those quintessential three minutes.
“Do you have children?” asked la Señora after a moment.
It seemed a sincere question and Xochi answered it sincerely. “I have… I had… one.”
“Maybe he… or she… would like to visit you.”
Xochi wasn’t sure if la Señora, ignoring the “had,” was offering a bus ticket, but it didn’t matter. “I lost track of him long ago.”
Maybe la Señora’s eyes glinted a little. She was no weakling, thought Xochi, this administratora. Maybe you had to be as hard in one life as another.
“I’m sorry,” said la Señora, “I’ve never had children. I just wonder how one could lose track of one. I mean, maybe half a dozen and you could lose track of one or two, but one?”
“It was no life. I couldn’t have cared for him.”
Xochi could see the woman trying to picture a child given away, even sold, but la Señora skipped that question to ask another.
“And the father?”
“What father?” asked Xochi. “I tried to figure it out, but there was no figuring. He didn’t look like anyone… I’d known… ”
“A walking shadow,” said la Señora, seeing what other women had seen before her and would certainly see after.
“The wind under the door,” said Xochi, also from the point of view of the bed.
The women were quiet and in the quiet both could hear the nearly infinitesimal sounds of the nearly immeasurable work on the canyon wall: monster machinery that, up close, you knew would never be denied. Maybe, if they listened, they could even hear the waters of la presa rising, waters destined to engulf the spot they sat in.
“So you do know something about men, Señora. You know they leave.”
“In some cases, Xochi, they never arrive.”
A second or two of silence here, followed by a shared laugh, followed by an awkward silence, followed by a less awkward one in which there was, perhaps, the possibility of future conversation, should these two, as you might say, in the same boat, have time for them. Woman to woman. A silence in which Xochi wondered what it would be like, never to have had a man stay the night; and certainly not, from either her point of view or la Señora’s, share a lifetime.
And so that conversation, long after the last words had passed between two women without men, ended.
There was, however, in la Casa de las Abandonadas—Xochi could not forget him—for a while anyway, one male presence whom la señora, for reasons known only to herself, called Balzac. And so the girls did too.
One year, that first year rescued from the streets and most of the residents grateful: not all, for some—Xochi not among them—seemed to miss the click of the sidewalk beneath their heels, the whistles, the air between the teeth, the mumbled bargaining—cheap bastards—and even the falling into cars, each different or all the same; the climb of the stairs; the poor son-of-a-bitch, the lost soul, downcast or goggle-eyed, dragging his male presence behind.
That year, the year the work on the monumental waterworks began, was the year the swallows came back; the year the bees, perhaps wiser than the swallows, left.
Anyway, Balzac was not among the birds, for he—yes, Balzac was a bird—had yet to be born. In time, Balzac was hatched along with three nest mates, all maturing at about the same rate until Balzac’s growth, in a manner of speaking, took off. There simply wasn’t room for all in the nest that mamá and papá had so carefully pasted together out of mud from the shore of the rising presa. And so, one by one, never one to stand on ceremony, when mamá and papá were not on the scene, Balzac shouldered his siblings out.
The fall was of course fatal, and that was how the girls first noticed them; dead on the flagstones, one by one, half-feathered chicks, and above it all looking down, the biggest swallow they had ever seen, perhaps—he truly was impressive—the biggest ever.
Balzac himself, who seemed aware of his comparative stature, made no bones about it. He had a way of sitting on the edge of the nest, puffed to twice his size, as if measuring his shadow or admiring his double on the paving stones way down there. La señora, when the overblown nestling was pointed out to her, her eyes perhaps meeting his as she looked up at the monster looking down at her, immediately—only she, the civil servant with a bag of books, knew why—labeled him Balzac.
And Balzac he remained. That is as long as he lived. Which wasn’t long.
His brothers and sisters unceremoniously disposed of, Balzac would sit on the edge of his nest and accept offerings from his mother; his father, perhaps intimidated by his monster of a son had, by this time, flown. And the ladies of the night—Xochi’s siblings in effect—all expected Balzac to launch himself upon the rising air and clear the walls of the canyon any day now. To make good his own relocation, on his own terms, that is when and where he wanted.
Instead, one morning they looked up to see a much deflated young bird clinging by one foot to his nest.
The girls discussed the situation and decided to render aid. Xochi—she never knew why—was chosen to put two chairs on top of a table and put Balzac back where he belonged. She was lucky to survive. But Balzac, restored to his rightful place, didn’t. Not for long. He lay on the bottom of his nest, not bothering to look up at Xochi. He did appear finished. From the afternoon rise of insects on the shore of la presa his mother returned and took one look at her fallen chick. Balzac must have been still lying there—for he could not be seen—probably not looking up at her either.
In any case, mamá leaned suddenly close to her overgrown chick, her eyes popped, almost audibly, and she was gone never to return.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Though his mother had given up on him, Balzac who must have been flattened by some passing bird who didn’t like his attitude, or his shadow, came to life about midnight. Naturally, he called his mother, called her all night. He was hungry. He needed nourishment, bugs, right away. But, only the girls—Xochi among them and their guardián, the civil servant, the lady who must have had a trace of imagination after all—lay awake listening to his last song (it was almost musical; la Señora would say there was something of Aida in it), his mother never returned and Balzac did not live to see the light of day.
That was the story of Balzac, the swallow who never even attempted that first test flight, and Xochi—she never knew why—never forgot it.
And suddenly, all at once, one bright morning—it must have been doomsday—the trucks arrived.
Everything had been placed on the doomed street in front of the doomed houses. Appliances, beds, tables and chairs, wardrobes of yellowed wedding gowns, outgrown outfits surviving from that first communion, etc. Only the black suits the men were buried in were missing, for the men had already taken their places in the new cemetery up above. Families still alive over generations of patience and persistence stood watch over their gathered goods and useless chattels. And along with them stood the latest addition to the pueblo, a pueblo in which very near to nothing—except this, its rapidly approaching end—ever happened that hadn’t happened before. There they were…
A handful of old whores blinking at the glare.
Xochi, knowing they’d be looking for her—you can’t empty a house of accomplished streetwalkers without counting the behinds—slipped from sight and proceeded to change her hiding place fairly often—con frecuencia—from attic to basement, though there were very few of the former underneath the roof tiles that usually did double duty as ceilings in Abajo, and the latter were already flooded: cold, damp and deadly.
Now Xochi, painfully ensconced in the rising waters beneath the kitchen sink of la Casa de las Abandonadas, heard her old sisters splashing about, calling, calling... “Xochi, Xochi, Xochi..!”
But Xochi was deaf to her sisters’ cries. She had made up her mind to finish her days underwater. The hiding space underneath the dripping sink was mere preparation. A baptism, a second christening. She listened to old street-worn ankles wading their way out, old smokers’ voices floating on the air…
“Where can Xochi have got to, Delia?”
“Kidnapped, Jezebel. That’s what I think, and if they’re down to us old girls now, we’d better call El Informador or, better, Univisión. Post her picture on the nightly news.”
That “old girls” comment nearly had Xochi struggling out from underneath her sink to box a couple of old ears but she remembered her resolution and kept her old mouth shut. It isn’t easy being old, thought Xochi in her hiding place, without home or family, without children; being taken in by do-gooders—God bless ‘em—trying to hold up your end: keep yourself clean, make your bed, to lie in it without falling out of it. Not that different from the cathouse after all. Institutionalization by any name, and institutionalization always had its humiliating side.
What did the faithful citizens of Abajo, having faithfully witnessed the umpteenth resurrection, or its reenactment, know about the mortification of the flesh? There they were, she knew, the first in the trucks, right behind their irreplaceable appliances and waiting, hard-eyed, for the faded hussies to gather one of their own.
The old, thought Xochi, are not on their own, though she had to admit she never had been. From girlhood to womanhood too soon, from bordello to old girls’ refuge nearly as quickly. And nary a dish, a dish towel, she could call her own. It wasn’t hard to understand why she had chosen a watery year or two for herself before floating right to the top of the canyon to be discovered at last—Look! Look! It’s Xochi! She must have been caught by the waters!—and reinstitutionalized, once and for all, in the repositioned cemetery up there over the rim.
Then la Señora made her appearance to speak in a voice Xochi had not heard before, one that seemed to signal secret knowledge of her hiding place.
“Xochi, dear Xochi, please come with us. You will have your own room up above, I promise; maybe, if I can arrange it, two rooms, a sitting room of your own.” That’s what la Señora said but Xochi, twisted beneath the kitchen sink, heard more, heard what la Señora didn’t put into words and now never would. “And maybe, when we’re settled, we’ll find some way to find that son of yours. There are always records, papers, even DNA. Dear, dear Xochi... My friend.”
But la Señora was gone and night fell as it always had, always would, on Abajo, even when it was, really, down there, and all the moons were blood red, inundated lunas de sangre, and Xochi made her way to the depths like an old crocodile.
Alone at last, said Xochi to herself, as if she hadn’t always been.
But the sun rose, as always, and Xochi discovered just how pleasurable it was. She’d certainly made the right decision. Simply wiggling her toes—wiggling the toes of one foot even—she could reverse direction, circle la presa clockwise rather than counterclockwise, get another angle on the rock walls, the blue sky, the occasional soaring zopilote who, eyeing her in his turn, would decide this old girl wasn’t ready to bob belly up, not ready for him to plunge his long neck in, and so, after a hopeful circle or two, would soar on, riding the thermals, choosing flight patterns with wingtip control, the mere angling of a feather.
Ten times the bird Balzac would never be.
No, Xochi was no Balzac and yes, that was who she thought of during these, her last, her underwater days.
Balzac. The bird that wasn’t.
Before she was sold into slavery, Xochi remembered that she, like Balzac, had had a future.
Once upon a time she had thought she might be a doctor. Una doctora. Then, when that vision failed, a teacher. Una maestra. And as that one bit the dust, maybe, at least, a young wife, a young mother, with daughters. With… a son. But this shorebird who would never take flight was becoming more and more at home in the rising waters, well on her way to being that crocodile, a species la Señora had told her was so well designed it had survived for a million years. At least.
And that’s what Xochi, breathing most shallowly in the shallows, determined to be; just what Balzac, finally, hadn’t been: a survivor. For a while anyway and on her own terms.
A bed, even in her own two rooms, in the reconstituted refuge up on the rim, didn’t hold the same appeal for her as the warmed, or chilled, mire of the new lakebed.
Strangely, what Xochi felt in the irresistibly rising and imperceptibly revolving waters of la presa, was not the absence of her erring sisters or even the lost friendship of la Señora, who was human after all, but the undeniable presence of ancient lives slowly leached from the timeless walls of the canyon.
And it struck her: the similarities, the human story: the windy corner, the cars, the cathouse and, mere millennia ago…
The recurring drudgery, the daily grind of the hunter-gatherer. The terrible trip of the women down to the bottom where an unpredictable river once ran, up with clustered gourds of water forever heavier; the discovery of fire, that which distinguished foraging man from foraging beast; and, within an eon or two, the first root crops; the slow, slow progression to the holy trinity itself: corn, squash and beans.
And always: the dirt, the disease. Vermin.
Yes, not all that different. And Xochi, knowing it in her bones, floated and absorbed, in her remaining days, much that was drawn from the walls of the canyon now, under the hand of modern man and perhaps for the first time in 10,000 years, accepting the inundation that would level all; all human hope and love, all loneliness, whether of youth or of age, beneath it.
It was, indeed, the flood come round again. The canyon knew it. Xochi knew it. The villagers must have known it. In their minds it must have been Xochi and her erring sisters, standing in for the whole modern world—together with the time the residents of Abajo were unfortunate enough to have been born into—who brought it on.
So Xochi, afloat, looking and listening, took it all in.
But, only a handful of centuries ago, from Xochi’s new perspective, the story of the canyon became the story of a village, a pueblo, Abajo, where several old girls turned to the last, or next to last, chapter of their lives; where Balzac’s story began and where, for him, it had already ended; and where, for one waterlogged lady of the night, in some strange way, it was just beginning.