This story was inspired by a bizarre episode in Argentinean history. After the overthrow of Juan Perón in 1955, the embalmed corpse of his wife, the immensely popular “Evita,” was stolen by the military in an attempt to prevent the opposition from using it as a political rallying point. The body was moved from place to place until it was finally buried secretly in Milan. “That Woman” is based on an actual interview the author conducted with the military official who was responsible for the disappearance.
The Colonel compliments me on my punctuality:
“You’re a punctual man, like the Germans,” he says.
“Or the English.”
The Colonel has a German surname.
He is a corpulent, graying man, with a broad, tanned face.
“I’ve read your work,” he advances. “I congratulate you.”
As he serves two generous shots of whisky, he informs me, casually, that he worked in intelligence for twenty years, that he studied humanities, that he takes an interest in art. He doesn’t dwell on anything, he simply establishes the terrain on which we can operate, a vague zone of common ground.
From the picture window of his tenth-floor apartment you can see the twilit city, the pallid lights of the river. From here it is easy, if only for a moment, to love Buenos Aires. But it is not any conceivable form of love that has brought us together.
The Colonel is looking for some names, some papers I might have.
I am looking for a dead woman, a point on the map. It’s not an investigation yet, it’s barely even a fantasy: the kind of twisted fantasy certain people would suspect me of concocting.
The day will come (I think in moments of anger) when I will go in search of her. She means nothing to me, but even so I will pursue the mystery of her death, track down the distant graveyard where her remains lie slowly rotting. If I find her, fresh swells of rage, fear, and thwarted love will surge up; powerful, vengeful waves, and for a moment I will no longer feel alone, I will no longer feel like a wretched, bitter, forgotten shadow.
The Colonel knows where she is.
He moves easily around the ornately furnished flat, adorned with ivories and bronzes, delicate Meissen china and Cantonese porcelain. He smiled before the forged Jongkind, the dubious Figari. I imagine the look on his face if I were to tell him who fabricates the Jongkinds, but I compliment his whisky instead.
He drinks vigorously, robustly, enthusiastically, happily, haughtily, contemptuously. His expression alters from one moment to the next, as he slowly turns the glass in his beefy hands.
“Those papers,” he says.
I look at him.
“That woman, Colonel.”
“Everything is interconnected,” he says philosophically.
A shard is missing from the base of a Viennese porcelain pot. The crystal lamp is cracked. The Colonel, bleary-eyed and smiling, talks about the bomb.
They planted it on the landing in front of my apartment. They think it’s my fault. If that scum only knew what I’ve done for them.
“Was there much damage?” I ask. I couldn’t care less.
“Quite a bit. My daughter. I’m sending her to a psychiatrist. She’s twelve years old,” he says.
The Colonel drinks, with anger, sadness, apprehension, remorse.
His wife comes in, with two small cups of coffee.
“You tell him, dear.”
She leaves without answering; a tall, proud, woman, with a neurotic rictus. Her scorn lingers in the air like a little cloud.
“It took quite a toll on her, poor thing,” explains the Colonel. “But that’s of no concern to you.”
“Of course it is! . . . I heard that Captain N and Major X also had trouble after that business.”
The Colonel laughs.
“People get carried away,” he says. “That’s how rumors get started. But they never really come up with anything new. They only repeat.”
He lights a Marlboro, and leaves the pack on the table within my reach.
“Tell me a joke,” he says.
I think. I draw a blank.
“Tell me a joke about politics, any one you want, and I’ll prove to you they were telling the same joke twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago. After the defeat of Sedan, or about Hindenburg, Dollfuss, or Badoglio.”
“What’s your point?”
“King Tut’s tomb,” says the Colonel. “Lord Carnavon. It’s shit.”
The Colonel wipes off his perspiration with his fat, hairy hand.
“But Major X had an accident, he killed his wife.”
“So what?” he says, clinking the ice in his glass.
“He shot her in the middle of the night.”
“He thought it was a burglar,” the Colonel smiles. “These things happen.”
“But Captain N . . .”
“He had a car accident. It could happen to anyone, especially him—he can’t even see the side of a barn when he’s tanked.”
“What about you, Colonel?”
“My situation is different,” he says. “They’re out to get me.”
He stands up, walks around the table.
“They think it’s my fault. That trash has no idea what I’ve done for them. But someday the story will be written, it will go down in history. Maybe you’ll be the one to write it.”
“I’d like to.”
“And I’ll come out clean, I’m going to look good. I don’t care what the trash thinks of me, but I want to look good in the history books, understand?”
“With any luck, I may have something to do with that, Colonel.”
“They’d been hanging around. One night, one of them got up the nerve. He left the bomb on the landing and ran away.”
He reaches into a glass cabinet, takes out a polychrome porcelain statuette, a shepherdess carrying a basket of flowers.
The little shepherdess is missing an arm.
“Derby,” he says. “Two hundred years old.”
The shepherdess is swallowed up in his suddenly tender fingers. The Colonel clenches his jaw into a grimace on his pained, nocturnal face.
“Why do they think it’s your fault?”
“Because I moved her from where she was, that’s true, and I took her to where she is now, that’s also true. But they don’t know what was in the works, the trash doesn’t know anything, and they don’t know that it was me who stopped it.”
The Colonel drinks: passionately, proudly, fiercely, eloquently, methodically.
“Because I’ve studied history. I can see things in historical perspective. I’ve read Hegel.”
“What did they want to do?”
“Dump her in the river, throw her out of a plane, burn her up and toss her remains down the toilet, dissolve her in acid. How much shit one has to listen to! This country is covered in shit, nobody knows where so much shit comes from but we’re all up to our necks in it.”
“Yes we are, Colonel, all of us. Because when you come right down to it you and I agree, don’t we? It’s time to destroy everything. Tear it all down.”
“And piss on it.”
“But with no regrets, Colonel. Blithely brandishing the bomb and the cattle prod. Cheers!” I say, raising my glass.
He doesn’t answer. We’re sitting by the big window. The lights of the port glow: mercury-vapor blue. From time to time you can hear the honking of automobiles, trailing off into the distance like voices in a dream. The Colonel’s face is little more than a blurry gray face over a blurry white shirt.
“That woman,” I hear him murmur. “She was naked in the coffin and she looked like a virgin. Her skin had turned transparent. You could see the metastases of the cancer, like those little pictures you draw on a fogged-up window.”
The Colonel drinks. He’s tough.
“Naked,” he says. “There were four or five of us and we didn’t want to look at each other. That ship captain was there, and the Spaniard who embalmed her, and I don’t remember who else. And when we took her out of the coffin”—the Colonel wipes his brow—”when we took her out, that filthy Spaniard . . .”
It gets dark by degrees, like in the theater. The Colonel’s face is almost invisible. Only the whiskey glows in his glass, like the embers of a fire. Muffled noises reach us through the open door of the apartment. The elevator has closed on the ground floor, and opened nearer to us. The enormous building whispers, breathes, gurgles with the noise of its pipes, incinerators, kitchens, children, televisions, maids. And then the Colonel is on his feet, clutching a semiautomatic that he seems to have pulled out of nowhere, and he tiptoes toward the landing, turns on the light abruptly, looks at the austere, geometric, ironic emptiness of the landing, the elevator, the stairway, where there is absolutely no one at all, and comes back slowly, dragging the gun.
“I thought I heard something. That scum won’t catch me off guard, like the last time.”
He sits down, closer to the window this time. The gun has disappeared and the Colonel continues his digression about that great scene in his life.
“. . . that filthy Spaniard, he threw himself on top of her. He was in love with her corpse, he touched her, he groped her nipples. I punched him so hard, see that?” the Colonel looks at his knuckles, “that I knocked him into the wall. Everything’s rotten, shot to hell, nobody even respects death anymore. Do you mind the dark?”
“Good. I can see the street from here. And I can think. I think all the time. It’s easier to think in the dark.”
He pours himself another whisky.
“But that woman was naked,” he says, arguing against an invisible foe. “I had to cover her pubis, I wrapped her in a shroud and a Franciscan belt.”
He laughs gruffly.
“I had to pay for the shroud out of my own pocket. Fourteen hundred pesos. That proves it to you, doesn’t it? That proves it.”
He repeats, “That proves it,” several times, like a windup toy, without saying what it is that it’s supposed to prove.
“I needed help to move her to another coffin. There were some workers around, and I called them over. Imagine their reaction. For them she was a goddess, who knows what kind of nonsense they put in the heads of those poor people.”
“Those poor people?”
“Yes, those poor people.” The Colonel struggles against a slippery internal rage. “I’m Argentinean too, after all.”
“So am I, Colonel, so am I. We’re all Argentineans.”
“All right,” he says.
“Did they see her like that?”
“Yes, I already told you, that woman was naked. A goddess, naked, dead. Laid out for all the world to see. With all her, all her . . . ”
The Colonel’s voice is lost in a surrealist perspective, those few words receding further and further into the vanishing point, his voice falling in perfect proportion to whatever. I pour myself another whiskey too.
“For me it’s no big deal,” says the Colonel. “I’m used to seeing naked women. I’ve seen many in my life. Dead men too. A lot in Poland, in ’39. I was a military attaché, you know.”
I want to know. I try to calculate the sum of naked women and dead men, but it just doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up . . . With a single jolt of my muscles I sober up, like a dog shaking off water.
“I’d seen it all before. But they . . . ”
“Were they shocked?”
“One of them fainted. I slapped him awake. I said to him: ‘Faggot, is this how you act when you have to bury your queen? Remember Saint Peter, who abandoned Christ in his agony.’ Later he thanked me.”
I look out at the street. The sign says Coca, silver on red. The sign says Cola, silver on red. The gigantic pupil expands, one red circle after another red, concentric circle, invading the night, the city, the world. Drink.
“Drink,” says the Colonel.
“Are you listening to me?”
“We cut off her finger.”
“Was that necessary?”
The Colonel is silver now. He looks at the tip of his index finger, marks it with his thumbnail and holds it up.
“Just this little bit. To identify her.”
“Didn’t you know who she was?”
He laughs. His hand turns red. Drink.
“Yes, we knew. Things have to be legal. It was a historic act, understand?”
“The fingerprint doesn’t take if the finger is dead. It must be hydrated. We stuck it back on her later.”
“It was her all right. That woman was her.”
“Was it hard to tell?”
“No, no, you don’t get it. She was exactly the same. It seemed like she was going to speak, that she was going to . . . The finger was so that everything would be legal. Professor R. was in charge of everything, he even took X-rays.”
“Yes. It couldn’t be done by just anyone. It had to be somebody with scientific and moral authority.”
Somewhere in the house a bell rings, distant, cut off. I don’t see the Colonel’s wife come in, but suddenly she’s there, her bitter, unyielding voice:
“Should I turn on the light?”
“Tell them I’m not here.”
“They’re trying to break my balls,” explains the Colonel. “They call me at all hours of the night. At three in the morning, at five.”
“They just want to fuck with you,” I say cheerfully.
“I changed my phone number three times. But they always find out.”
“What do they say?”
“That my daughter should get polio. That they’re going to cut off my balls. Shit.”
I hear the ice in the glass, like a distant cowbell.
“I gave them a speech, I stirred them up. I respect your ideas, I told them. That woman did a lot for you. I’m going to give her a Christian burial. But you have to help me.”
The Colonel is standing and he drinks with courage, with exasperation, with great and lofty ideas that crash over him like great and lofty waves against a rocky outcrop, leaving him untouched and dry, silhouetted and black, red and silver.
“We took her out of there in a truck. I kept her on Viamonte St., and then on May 25th St., always taking care of her, protecting her, hiding her. They wanted to take her away from me, do something with her. I covered her with a sheet of canvas, she was in my office, on top of a closet, up high. When they asked me what it was, I would tell them it was the radio transmitter from Cordoba, The Voice of Liberty.”
I don’t know where the Colonel is anymore. The silver reflection searches for him, the red pupil. Maybe he’s gone out. Maybe he’s walking around the furniture. The building has a vague smell of soup in the kitchen, cologne in the bathroom, diapers in the crib, medicine, cigarettes, life, death.
“Rain,” says his strange voice.
I look at the sky: Sirius the dog, Orion the hunter.
“It rains every other day,” says the Colonel. “Every other day in a garden where everything is rotting, the roses, the pine tree, the Franciscan belt.”
Where, I think, where.
“She’s standing on her feet!” shouts the Colonel. “I buried her standing, like Facundo, because she had balls!”
Then I see him, at the other end of the table. And for a moment, when he’s bathed in the iridescent glare, I think that he’s crying, that thick tears roll down his face.
“Don’t pay any attention to me,” he says, and sits down. “I’m drunk.”
And it rains for a long time in his memory.
I stand up, I touch him on the shoulder.
“Huh?” he says. “Huh?” he says.
And he looks at me with suspicion, like a drunk who wakes up on a train he doesn’t remember boarding.
“Was she taken out of the country?”
“Did you take her out?”
“How many people know?”
“Does the Old Man know?”
“He thinks he knows.”
He doesn’t answer.
“This must be written about, it has to be published.”
He seems tired, distant.
“Now!” I’ve lost my patience. “Aren’t you concerned about history? I’ll write the story, and you’ll look good, Colonel, you’ll look good once and for all!”
He keeps his mouth shut, his teeth clenched.
“When the time comes . . . , you’ll be the first . . . ”
“No, now is the time. Think about it. Paris Match. Life. Five thousand dollars. Ten thousand. As much as you want.”
“Where, Colonel, where is she?”
He gets up slowly, he doesn’t know who I am. Maybe he’s going to ask me my name, what I’m doing there.
And as I walk out defeated, thinking that I will have to come back, or that I will never come back. Even as my index finger has already begun to trace that laborious trail across maps, compiling rainfall indices, probabilities, intrigues. Even as I know that it no longer interests me, and that I’ll never lift a finger, not even on a map, the Colonel’s voice strikes me like a revelation:
“She’s mine,” he says simply. “That woman belongs to me.”
From Los oficios terrestres (Editorial Jorge Álvarez, 1967; Ediciones de la Flor, 1986). Published by arrangement with Ediciones de la Flor.