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from “The True Story of the Labyrinth”

One

"Early in the morning, when the sun begins to reveal the objects around us, for me it will be late: another day to fill me with fear," Clara confessed to herself as she looked at her reflection out of the corner of her eye. She considered her almond-shaped eyes, pale face, and squalid body, lost in the folds of man's clothes she had put on before running away from home. It was Saturday. She could not leave the room where she had taken refuge. She had not spoken to anyone in a long time; the neighbors changed frequently and the concierge didn't ask questions. Since her arrival she had only eaten small bits of bread, sardines, and coffee, brought to her by the little man who came to her room in the afternoons. Among other things, she had lost her appetite. "The nausea is worse. It must be the fear," she said to herself. Her thoughts crowded together behind her broad, flat forehead which descended to an even flatter nose and a tightly set mouth that refused to reveal what was going on inside. These days, the only dialogue she had was with her own image. It kept her company day and night: a twin sister, hermetic and hard, inseparable from her reflection. Sometimes she assailed it with questions and memories, and compelled it to turn toward the window where she spent hours, losing herself in her daydreams.

Here, in this hotel room with yellowish, scratched walls, Clara found an incomplete solitude. She was there and so were the others, the everyday neighborhood pedestrians she watched as she hid behind one of the slightly open, dirty blinds. "People walk in the streets in order to disappear. But they don't go away completely; I know their hiding places. I see them go out, come back and change their clothes to go out again at night, among the shadows, and disappear, continually, again and again, again and again . . . " These comings and goings persisted, trapped in her tremulous memory.

Other times, curled up in the cold bedcovers, she could concentrate and direct her memories homeward. It was a past without luminosity, which was lost day after day in the currents of her imagination. Her memories faded away, lodging themselves in a time where nothing had ever happened.

Clara sprawled out lazily in that time without days and closed her eyes. Her thick blood made her sleepy and healed the old wounds. When she got married she decided to stop feeling things, but she was not completely successful. She became a chameleon. Since she had been a child, there had been a dryness inside of her that did not allow for deep roots. Recently, she had left behind the only roots she had: the old country house-her home-with the smell of animals mixed with the fumes of the city, the grayish-green in which one could distinguish old tires, metal scraps, and all kinds of garbage. Her grandparents-whose age was measured in epochs-still lived there, surviving on the sale of useless objects: scraps of metal, glass, and paper that arrived at their door. Amid the odor of dry earth, they moved haltingly, quietly, carrying the years and the family secrets with them; they were the guardians of the doors of time. Even though they spoke a language Clara could not understand, they had shown her a map of China, a great red island amidst a yellow sea of other countries. They were from Manchuria and when they had left they knew they would not be returning. The ship they took to come to their new home never made it home; it sank in the middle of the ocean, or so one of her grandmother's friends from that far-off land had told her in a letter.

The old folks did not speak much, and like Clara, they sat quietly in their chairs, staring for hours out of the window, as if something were going on outside which was not visible to the naked eye. The quiet sounds of the garbage truck and the topsoil had made them immune to the affectations of the outside world. They did not have much but they did not need anything more; anxiety and fear dissolved amidst a calm that flooded the air and rose up to the clouds, perched high above the piles of scraps. For this Chinese girl these days had only been a peaceful prelude before a dark parenthesis: one day, without any great to-do, the doors to that world had closed.

***

At five in the morning the city was criss-crossed by the continuous noise from the avenues; the newspaper kiosks opened and trucks made deliveries to the grocery stores. On the walls, ripped posters announced freestyle wrestling and wild all-night dancing parties. The first workers and the last revelers walked the streets, languidly slipping away from their points of departure. It was the time of day when transfigurations happen. In the Hotel Paris, these dawns, with their trucks and early-morning shouting, woke Clara from her sleep. Far from home, Pancho was there to testify to the new reality; he was her husband, the provisional owner of her time and space. Every morning he officiated at the same ritual: his arm emerged over the surface of the sheets, and from the depths of his slumber, bring forth the results of his spasmodic nocturnal life. The light on the nightstand would suddenly come on, suffusing the air with a dim light appropriate for the transformation from dreams into waking matter. In the mirror, a semi-dressed figure would appear, wearing an undershirt, with a sparse beard growing irregularly on his chin, a heavy odor of eau-de-vie, and showing total indifference to Clara.

"Get up. I need my coffee and the water for my bath. Lay out my nice suit. I'm not coming home tonight," he grumbled without turning to look at her, as he sat up heavily in the bed. Then he remained motionless for several moments, without blinking, his breathing labored, until suddenly he was awake and the mechanism of his body went into gear.

On this occasion, Clara did not obey immediately, and looked at herself in the same mirror that obscurely reflected the whitish image of her husband. She didn't answer. "I didn't say anything. I don't need to move my lips in order to speak; I hear voices deep inside of me that tell me what to do. I respond to them with my mouth closed because the lock keeps me from opening it, even if I wanted to. The lock became apparent to me one time. He hit me for asking him where he was going. He went out almost immediately and my mouth was stiff for days. I didn't feel anything. My mouth was closed and I couldn't open it; there was a space like a church inside. Sometimes I could hear birds inside. But after a while they died."

All that was left was the emptiness and the closed mouth. She was sleepy, so she decided to make coffee while Pancho swept away Clara's clothes to lay out his own on the bed: the black suit for special occasions. It was a day like many others, until he stepped into the bath. Usually, his dizzy body would sit in the bath like a mollusk in its shell, and he would close his eyes waiting for the warm water to wake him slowly and allow him to emerge minutes later fully awake and as strong as a workhorse. That Friday was different: "I could hear those sounds in my head again. When I heard him scream, I knew that he was on his way to the world of the dead," Clara remembered as she looked at herself in the mirror. For the first time, her destiny was directed by the will of another being, a superior design that imposed its order on her. Pancho had hit his head against the side of the tub. The tub was covered in red liquid. Clara moved with timid little steps and stood for a few moments in the door. It was dark inside except for the white tub and Pancho's white legs, which protruded over the edges. Clara approached hesitantly and pushed him forcefully downward until the bubbles stopped, and the man lay still. Dead. Her wet arms hung stiff and cold for some time. Pancho stared at her, with a surprised look, from under the turbid water, more at sea than usual. That was when she decided to change: she gathered her things, took the money he kept in the dresser, and flushed all the handwritten notes she could find down the toilet. She put on Pancho's black suit and turned off the light.

Hours after some street musicians had left, Clara emerged from her room and closed the door quickly behind her, carrying her small leather suitcase with her few belongings. She tried to lose herself in the streets until the first cafés began to open. She and her husband had moved to this neighborhood, to the Hotel Paris, only sixty-three days ago, while they looked for a permanent place to live. When they had gotten married, they had uncomfortably shared his mother's rooms; she was a huge woman who monitored Clara's every move. Even though her severe memory loss meant that forgot things almost as soon as they happened, she always remembered her daughter-in-law's errors and reproached her; both she and her son hated her. Finally, after a long period of unemployment, almost by chance Pancho had found a job on the other side of town. He and Clara were forced to leave behind the disconsolate mother, who reacted with a furious asthma attack.

In their new home, the two of them remained strangers; Pancho worked on a construction site until late in the afternoon, and she sewed dresses and other women's clothing in a small shop. At the end of the day, Clara would run off to her room to listen to the radio and enjoy her most precious moments of solitude. On her way home, as she walked through parks and rode streetcars, she imagined stories, fantastical encounters, and secret possibilities. At home she pulled out the magazines she was had taken from the shop and set them out on the table. She turned the pages slowly, in a kind of ritual. She looked at the fashions, at the refined women with their elaborate hairstyles. Then she pulled out her scissors, cut off the heads and carefully placed them in a notebook, believing that she could magically steal a small portion of their existence for herself. This made her happy. "They look so pretty, so perfect. They must have perfect lives," she said to herself simply and forcefully, as her mind sometimes functioned. In the mirror, the thin, almost androgynous figure (which was perhaps the only reason Pancho had chosen her) did not resemble other women, and her face was even less like theirs: regular features, almond-shaped eyes, and extreme pallor. A few months earlier, her older brother, who had looked after her, a younger sister, and their grandparents, had decided to sell her for a bit of money, in order to eliminate some debts. He thought that in any case no one would be interested in such a skinny, small, and, why not say it, ugly girl. In addition, she carried the stigma of her foreign origins on her forehead: she belonged to an unloved race, considered dishonest in business dealings, believed to have a prodigious reproductive capacity, and generally, considered esthetically disagreeable because of how different they were. That had been his experience over the years whenever he was identified with his country of origin, which was just coming out of a period of violence and economic uncertainty. Finally, one winter afternoon, a buyer appeared: Francisco Molina, a neighbor, mature in age, a former policeman, now an out-of-work builder. He took Juan Li's sister to a far-off city. To another world.

***

The Paris Hotel begins to fade into the horizon of her memory as the seven o'clock streetcar leaves it behind. The butcher opens his metal shutter and sets out the meat he has just butchered. "Nothing changes, and neither do I," Clara reflected with her face against the misted-up window of the streetcar (from the outside, her cheek looked like a large white suction cup, like a squid in a jar). To the rhythm of the rails, with her eyes closed, her stomach tightened. "What if Pancho comes back, with his swollen face, and his body bloated with water? A round white globe, like the eyes of the animals in a butcher shop." When Pancho died, he was transformed: his skin stretched like a baby's and he looked like a suckling pig about to be put in the oven. Clara had closely observed the metamorphosis: that thing was no longer Pancho but a piece of empty flesh. Without strength. Of course, by freeing herself of him, she no longer feared the body, but she did fear the spirit, which was perhaps trapped between two worlds. "My brother spoke to me about that; he said that the real danger was in what we can't see. If that is the case, Pancho could follow me everywhere, sit next to me in the streetcar, waiting for the chance to hurt me," Clara reflected, drawing in and turning to look suspiciously at the people around her. "But ghosts are afraid of water. They dissolve, change, become different. If it rains, I'll be safe."

During her short conjugal life, Clara had never felt safe, except when Pancho was not there; he left early and returned late every night, having spent a good portion of his salary not on women, as she had once believed, but on young men offered in bars to quench the desire of many around the neighborhood. She found this out in the first month; one day she saw him pass by the seamstress shop where she worked at exactly five in the afternoon. Clara followed him, trembling, until he stopped in front of a windowless house, arranged his tie, and went in. When, on his way out, he found her standing shyly at the door, he punched her in the face and ordered her to return home. The boys smiled. Pancho never touched her again and did not deny what she had seen. He didn't give a damn what she thought.

The streetcar stopped. Clara was lost. She barely knew the city. Sometimes, her husband sent her to buy coffee and eau-de-vie. With his fine mustache, dirty work suits and his permanent lethargy, he liked to drink an unlimited amount. So she would go out on these expeditions, seeking out the purchases without which she could not return home. The effect on Pancho was complete: his brain would become excited in minutes. His needs were focused in his throat, which could not survive without those two liquids.

On one occasion she had reached an unknown neighborhood with long, illuminated streets and big stores, the kind in which one could find anything one wanted: fashionable clothes, fancy furniture, people showing off their acquisitions through shop windows. In a big store, with a cast-iron elevator, she stole a small silver mirror, which she always carried with her. A shop assistant saw her doing it, but she managed to get out of there so quickly that she was not caught. She could feel the mirror burning through the pocket of her coat. The heat reached from her ankles to her neck. The emotion she felt was so intense, that she realized clearly: "I've done a bad thing. A terrible thing. A real crime." Even so, she began to feel a tinge of pleasure, a distinct, deep sensation. Her life until then had been an obstacle to reaching a place that was good and desirable. Her body was withered because she did not possess the key to her feelings. Everything that had happened until then was outside of her, it was the life of others, of more people who were more fortunate than she was. Until she found the mirror and let herself be guided by it. The object would be her master.

The streetcar stopped suddenly and Clara awoke from her lethargy in an unknown place. The mud made the people and houses indistinct. For the first time, she felt confused about the sequence of events. The death of her husband, so simple and blunt, put her in a strange position: now that she could go out, she had to be watchful until she knew what she was going to do. "I have to watch for bad omens. I'm alone with nothing but a mirror. That is something, I think. But I have to wait for words, the voices that come from the sky." With careful steps, she entered a hotel at the end of a tree-lined street that was actually not too far from the Paris Hotel. The walls were dark and it had small windows. Clara walked in calmly as if she had already been there. An hour later, a small man, a dwarf really, found her sitting on the bed in a room on the third floor.

"Well, hello there. Welcome," said the little man with a strange expression, meant to be a smile. "Welcome, lady, to this house. If you like, this can be your bed- chamber. It is in very good condition. The bathroom is down the hall and the lights are turned out at 11 o'clock. Don't pay attention to strange sounds. I hope you will like it here. But be watchful, the hallways are dark and sometimes strange things go on . . . And we don't care what you do here. No-one knows anything."

Feeling the heat of the mirror in her pocket, Clara put her suitcase in the closet, without a word; the little man was about as tall as her nightstand. He did not go away. He stood there looking at her for a long time, carefully and with a slightly fearful expression. In the end, he exited, walking backward, and closed the door very carefully.

Later, in the spring, it began to get hot. Clara had lost her sense of time since she had been hiding in her den. The wallpaper in her room was peeling, giving off a sweet smell. She hardly noticed it. She was concentrated, listening inward. In the afternoon, Clara could hear a whispering that recounted the little she knew about her family, over and over. Her story mingled with the conversations of her voices. Two months had gone by since her exit. No one had come up to her room, except the dwarf who came up only to stare at her. The little man was the manager of the hotel, and this was how he marked his days and nights. She knew that he listened through the doors, that he knew everything that happened and kept tight control over his world in the Sweden Hotel. He told her about the change of government and the massacre of workmen in the "La Bonita" factory. He told her, as the blood pulled against her temples, about how they had found a man dead in his bath, in a hotel several blocks away. No one had come for the body, so they took him to the morgue wrapped in a sheet, with his arms and legs sticking out.

"The poor devils die anywhere, and who knows where they're from," he said, "I don't feel sorry for them, because they're a nuisance. They have to die. It's written and so it shall be."

"It's true," the Chinese girl answered softly.

"But don't be afraid. You won't die."

After he said this, the dwarf exited with a bow and closed the door silently. She could sense that the manager was right; she couldn't die, she would never die. "That's all right for other people," she thought discreetly. Her destiny, for now, was still hidden from her, at least until she knew what to do. One afternoon, looking in her mirror she tried not to miss any bit of herself, and she thought that she had finally understood: she had to take refuge in an object, penetrate it and shield herself with it, until she managed to erase herself, disappear. She would cease to be who she was (if she was someone) and become a quality, a color, a form with a secret life. And in so doing, she would surely be able to take the next step.