The day they would kill her, Elda Rodriguez woke up at 6 am, after a night of hazy dreams. An unresolved dream left a shadow upon the incoming day: what happened seemed temporary and senseless, like a mosaic that will not come back together again, or like an unfinished novel.
A thick darkness had been lingering on those hours for weeks, and we meticulously reconstructed it all afterwards, to the point that we could almost understand the thoughts of its protagonists.
In the early days after it happened, we discussed it a lot with Josè Alvarez, the pharmacist, and Santiago Pulido, the eldest son of Mrs. Solan. In Belmonte’s taverns, we sat until dawn at the gaming tables, surrounded by the smoke of cigars and the feeble light of candles.
Since we witnessed everything without actually seeing anything, we have been nitpicking every instance of that day for months. Did we have to intervene? No man should ever put his nose into someone else’s matters: it is like smelling someone else’s creased sheets. You don’t do that.
Nonetheless, Elda Rodriguez’s memory keeps tormenting us; we can still see her through our mind eyes, even touch her shiny hair, audacious in the morning.
They told us everything, chapter and verse: like how she had woken up and combed her long hair after that night of hazy dreams, before going to work at Mama Béatriz’s. There, the spool runs fast over the loom, and birds of paradise and speckled jaguars form on table cloths and blankets, that make the ladies of the city go half mad with joy.
White teeth flickered as Béatriz Solana de Pulido’ s mulatto girls smiled among songs and jokes, while they were vying with one another to see who wove canvases the fastest.
It had been raining for three months, and Belmonte’s little streets resembled a marsh, it was muggy as hell and wet banana leaves gave off a strong scent. The swarm of life held in a rotten smell, pervading from the forest.
Elda, in her red cloak, set out towards the path behind the houses. Her rubber boots were wallowing in mud, her skirt fluttering over her slim, golden legs.
Like a pagan temple, Belmonte’s church stood, immense on the hill after which the city had been named. The young woman stopped in the soaked clearing staring at the stony façade, with a silent prayer in her mind, oblivious of the rain on her face. She didn’t dare to go in, and soon resumed the path again.
The customary mindless chatter came from the immense building of Mama Béatriz, located on the city’s main square, it was even louder than the racket of the looms. The heavyset Inès was standing on the threshold. She was waiting for workers and secretaries to arrive, waving her fan and panting for the unbearable load of her fifty years and her exaggerated fat.
“A coffee, young ladies?”, she sighed in a broken voice as a good natured smile was showing up on her large, shiny face. Without waiting for a reply she poured the dark steaming liquid and holding the huge thermos, she continued her tour among looms and sewing machines, addressing the ladies one by one.
Elda, raising the cup up to her lips, noticed her friend Maria Mercedes Delgado in a corner, who lowered her gaze and avoided greeting Elda. Soon daily activities took over. Elda and Maria Mercedes went into the office without uttering a word, put on their aprons, and bent their heads over the accounting records.
In the next room, Béatriz Solana de Pulido was preparing herself, fixing her hair and putting on her glasses. That day, she didn’t want to come out of her hole and mingle amongst her employees, in order to motivate them and give them instructions. Usually she encouraged them with such a motherly promptness that everybody always acknowledged her, a lady who had become a respectable merchant.
She had had a sleepless night too. “Never mind”, she told to herself, “I have to face this. I need to assess the situation. It can all be sorted out with an ounce of common sense”. She stood up from the desk, took off her heels, let her swollen feet slip into her slippers, and the day started for her too.
“Please, don’t think I’m mad at you because of my daughter Clara”. Mama Béatriz was thinking that it would be better to get straight to the point with Elda Rodriguez.
Elda was sitting stiff in her boss’ office. Things had been going bad since she confided in Maria Mercedes two days before: girls were vying to suggest to her complaisant doctors, filters and concoctions. Above all, they did agree on a very important point: never confess, always keep your mouth shut.
They were all shrewd priestesses of intrigue and deceit. In the meantime, Elda’s secret was no longer a secret, the word was leaking out everywhere.
“I am worried about you, don’t you understand that?” Mama Béatriz resumed. “I’ve heard that Martìn found out about it. He might do something stupid. While Antonio…”. Mrs Solana was in trouble, mainly because of Elda’s evident embarrassment and discretion, as she no longer cared about Antonio. She had to find a way to make it clear to that obstinate girl. She had to persuade her that, in her mind, if that conceited man had taken her as his wife, he would have just done his duty. She hoped with all her heart that his promises were more solid than those made to her daughter Clara.
“Antonio is coming tonight. We are leaving. I’m sorry, m’am, I should have written you a resignation letter, but… everything fell apart, you understand?”
“Yes, I do. You should have told me about it earlier. Not for the resignation, but for yourself, for protecting yourself. Don’t you think Martìn may do you harm?”
“It’s in the Lord’s hands now”. She looked broken up, resigned. She closed her eyes and collapsed back into her chair.
“God helps those who help themselves. It’s too late to get rid of the baby, and useless, since Martìn knows everything. Never mind. You have to stay here until Antonio comes to take you away. I will have him tracked down at the station or at the bus stop… or wherever he will arrive. Here Martìn won’t dare to… I’ll have someone guard him well. Don’t have lunch out, it’s not prudent”.
“Alright, I’ll stay here until tonight, if you wish”, concluded Elda standing up. An odd apathy had settled over her.
Mama Béatriz was already picking up the phone.
* * *
“Ite, missa est”. The priest came down from the altar in a flash.
Father Alfonso must have had his pale, prediction-of-doom face, when that wretched day, just after the morning Mass, he rudely addressed Martìn Garcia, pushing him onto a church bench. At least this was my friend Josè Alvarez’s account- he has no faith, like all pharmacists, and can’t stand priests. To me, instead, father Alfonso is just a plucked turkey, whose shrill voice must have sounded odd to Martìn, a great big boy suddenly harangued by this lifeless priest.
“Come on, what are you gonna do now?” said father Alfonso, forcibly clasping his shoulder.
The young man looked at him with spirited, wild eyes, teetering on the edge of the wooden seat while his gun was slipping out of his hand.
“I…must…” his voice got lost in a blurred whisper, and he shriveled up shaking his black curls.
“You’d better go home, that is what you should do”. With a quick glance, the priest tried to guess if they were alone in the aisle, immersed by the gloom. When judicious prayers, penitents or bigots linger around more than usual, they often become part of the shadows, and inappropriate witnesses of secrets and misdeeds. However, that day only the old Mrs. Sanchez was rapturously staring at the statue of the Lady of Sorrow. She didn’t notice anything: neither Martìn lurking on the church threshold, intent in seizing the moment when Elda would have passed, nor the discreet but effective counter of Father Alfonso, who, having predicted the boy’s intentions, was able to stop him on time.
Afterwards, he said that it had been the Lord’s hand to guide him. Why then, did the Almighty not allow him to bring his work to a close, and why did he prevent him from saving a life?
Almost every night, for a long time, we have been repeating the lines of that dialogue amongst the deaf, me with don Josè and Santiago Pulido, Mama Beatrìz’s son.
We know very well, indeed, that Martìn jerked from that bench like a possessed man yelling: “She…with another man…How can I stand it?”
“Things are not always the way they look”, the priest whispered, letting him go all of a sudden and trying to hide the gun under his tunic. “Even though what Elda did upset you, you must recognize that she talked to you honestly. The child she’s expecting is something blessed. This young man of Medellin comes from a good family, he will take care of her. You might feel she has left you out of everything, but she hasn’t, and even if she sinned, she now wants to get this whole thing out in the open”.
Martìn became highly agitated, but he didn’t utter a word, he was like a trapped animal. So all the village knew about it. Everybody knew and was making fun of him. Until that moment, he had been fooling himself that he was the only one, besides Elda to know the truth, but he was realizing the he had been the last to know about the cheating. Restoring his honor publicly was more than essential at this point. He didn’t care about the other one, he was out of his league: a guy from Medellin on holiday, a distinguished guest at Pulido’s, a real catch (one of the many!) of whom Mama Béatriz laid her eyes on for that monster of a daughter Clara, and look how that worked out… disgusting! Why did Elda blurt everything out, why? Why was she forcing him to do something he repulsed, yet he had to do?
“I know that you feel betrayed and your pride’s hurt”, Father Alfonso continued monotonously, “but you must find the strength to forgive her. Our Lord teaches us that revenge is not the answer. Saving her life and the child, you save yourself. Yes, there may be some buzz on you, but it will go away. And then again, coming to church with a gun is sacrilege. I excuse you because I do understand your wrath, nevertheless it’s sacrilege!”.
Martìn shook off his indolence and stood up. The priest recoiled slightly, but the boy just stared at him without moving or talking.
“You have to think, Martìn” continued Father Alfonso, “Intelligence is what distinguishes man from the rest of the animal kingdom. And faith, sure. Please, pray and forgive” he concluded in a hurry. That short conversation drained his strengths. He wanted Martìn to go away. He did his part and now the rest was in God’s hands. He took a look at the gun again with horror. He grabbed it with caution and was about to handle it to Martìn, but he recoiled.
“Keep it, Father, please. Trust me, it’s better. I might get into trouble”.
“No, I don’t keep arms. Go and deliver it to Captain Andreani”.
Martìn livened up and his tone of voice became more excited: he could catch a glimpse of hope. “What does that have to do with the Captain? You stopped me, Father, and now you’re the the guardian of my honor. If I had a gun, I would have to kill Elda. But if you keep the gun, everybody will know that I tried to do my best, I really tried, and my honor will be safe, we’ll all be safe…don’t you understand?”.
“No, Martìn, I don’t. I can’t go around with a revolver to make you happy”.
The boy picked the weapon up and went out. He should have done what had to be done
* * *
This is what we meticulously reconstructed. Only now I realize that it amounted almost to nothing, however, it was enough to keep our minds busy and not let us drown in endless speculations during those long boring nights. The report of that day has been the object of thorough investigations for years, and everything was exposed to public opinion, even its protagonists’ most secret thoughts.
I was a witness, and what I can say is that only around midday Belmonte main square returned back to life. Only then, refraining from the idea of a clear up, Indian servants crowded into the market to buy groceries.
I was sipping a good Port at Café Progreso in the company of Josè Alvarez, the pharmacist, and Santiago Pulido, Mrs. Solana’s eldest son. Some mothers were waiting at the bus stop for their daughters to come out of Mama Béatriz’s building for their break.
They would taste together the delicacies just bought, sheltered by the trees’ large leaves in the park.
Alone in a corner, isolated from everybody, there was Martìn, ashen and with those far-searching eyes.
Who he was waiting for was a mystery to nobody.
Don Josè gestured to him with a nod of his chin. “I really don’t want to be a witness of a murder without being able to intervene”, he said.
“Is it possible that no one is trying to calm him down?” I replied, with a question that must have sounded like pure rhetoric.
“If you don’t do that, I don’t know who…”. The pharmacist interrupted himself, averting his eyes clearly embarrassed. For my part, I shrugged and raised my glass to show him I didn’t mind. I was thinking that Martìn was a grown man, so…
I remember that by then, Santiago who was always an accommodating man, put an end to the conversation, shunning our barbaric customs that forced a man to publicly defend his honor. We were discussing while sipping some Port wine. We were wondering how far this whole thing would go.
Meanwhile Mama Béatriz’s workers were swarming the square, averting their eyes and breaking into a trot in front of Martìn Garcìa. Maria Mercedes Delgado was the last to go out. She was walking fast, holding onto her handbag. Garcìa ran up to her, but she slipped into the crowd and eluded him. He then started walking in circles around the square, feverishly investigating every little nook. He eventually stopped and headed unsteadily for the factory. At that point Captain Andreani, followed by two guards, stepped forth. He was walking unwillingly, tall and gangly, aware of the limits of the human law, that one can intervene only when a murder has already happened, or at least been attempted; also aware of the limits of divine law, on which he actually didn’t rely, being a true positivist.
“Garcia”, the Captain warned, “what are you doing around here? If you don’t want to work today, go home and stay there. There’s no point in hanging around like this. Don’t force me to arrest you for being drunk or for vagrancy”.
“I don’t see any harm in it, Captain. And I didn’t drink”, Martìn answered readily. To men like him, or like us, officers of the law inspire respect and mistrust at the same time. With downcast eyes, back straight, the boy faced the trio.
With a tired wave of his hand, Andreani ordered his men to search him. Nobody could have said that he wasn’t doing his duty, he was doing even more, because to search someone who didn’t commit any crime… it’s an abuse, that’s it, everybody knows that.
Martìn didn’t even argue against them: he lifted his arms and spread his legs, as we were all witnessing that pitiful spectacle.
According to some, in that instant a supernatural phenomenon occurred: a red light in the sky, secure omen of doom. I can declare it was all nonsense, superstition; nothing like that happened, even though a bunch of women started to cross themselves. But I saw the gun, found it on Martìn and handed over to the Captain. “I’m taking this”, Andreani said. “I’m warning you boy, go home or I’ll make sure you’ll end up in jail”. And he motioned to one of his guards to follow him with discretion.
Only later on that night, in front of a nice stiff drink (and he surely needed one!), the other soldier and Mario San Romàn indulged in secret confidences: “Ok about the gun, but if you deprive a man of his knife, what’s left of him? You see, I let him have it”.
* * *
We have been wondering for years how things actually went. We were faced only with bare facts, which alone were not enough to understand why the murder has been committed. For this reason, we were struggling to piece together every single event, without being able to grasp the meaning of it.
The rooster’s crow often shook us awake, as we were discussing in the smoke of a tavern, among playing cards, the smell of wine, women and the night.
Around dawn, the conclusion was invariable: we were all blind and foolish, deceived by Martìn’s ambiguous behavior. We believed he didn’t want to kill her, that he was just acting. This is what we were saying to ourselves. That day on the square, two parties had already formed: those who maintained that it was enough, that his honor was saved anyway, and those who instead maintained that the boy didn’t try hard at all, and in the end he was just a cowardly cuckold.
More than anything, we were missing Elda Rodriguez’s real essence: her character, her thoughts. To us, she was flimsier than a ghost. We couldn’t understand what she must have felt during those long hours waiting either for her death, or her salvation, enabling the prospect of a happy future next to the man she loved.
Facts were mixed up with illusions. For instance, it was impossible to explain why around 6 pm, Inès thought she saw a silhouette from her window, wandering around the desert square. It seemed to her one of Andreani’s guards.
The sun was sinking and the red blood beam hurt the eyes of the ever cheery, plump mulatto. Inès saw a shadow downstairs waving his arm in invitation. “It must be Mario San Romàn”- the guard who was in charge to protect the entry to the building, she thought. That strange light after months of rain, together with birdcalls, deceived the woman’s senses. She heard very clearly these words: “Send me the girl, I’ll be walking her to her groom”.
Inès then called Elda, telling her to leave the factory because she was not in danger anymore. She descended down the stairs ready to elope. Instead, Mario San Romàn was on the threshold. The soldier looked at her confused: he didn’t expect to see her appear in front of him, but he too was confounded by the last ray of light reflecting the shadow of a car plodding along the road from Medellìn. At this point, the man was sure there was no danger. He greeted Elda, and wished her a good life. She went out into the square.
Inès thought it rude not to invite Mario San Romàn into the house, after all the effort they had gone through that day, and initiates the fatal invitation: a drink to recover. This is how the guard entered the building, locking the front door behind him, and climbing the stairs to fulfill Elda Rodriguez’s destiny.
The big mulatto was waiting for him on the catwalk, with a bottle of good wine in her hand. Too late they heard the girl screaming and the stabs nailing her down, helpless, with the front door locked from the inside.
The sun went down suddenly, and black clouds took over again. He was standing in the middle of the square, still in the gentle rain, illuminated under the glow of a lamppost- my brother Martìn. He remained there with the knife, the blood collecting in his right hand. That’s how Captain Andreani found him, who had just come over to arrest him.
Only then, the hired auto sent by Mama Béatriz appeared down the street. Antonio got out of it.
Women went out and silently started to decorate the car with flowers, as if it was a hearse
Translation by Monica Frigerio (edited by Amy Scarlett Holt)