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Fiction

The Egyptian Tomb

By Beatriz Espejo
Translated from Spanish by Cecilia Ross
In this contemporary Mexican story, a woman pays a reluctant visit to her "obstinate," elderly mother.

But she came in only as far as the foyer. She fell back in the hateful, worn velvet armchair. Every time she visited, she felt a crushing weariness, as though her entire life were caving in on her. The air was stifling, stagnant there between the walls like the water in a swimming pool out behind some deserted mansion. There were no open doors or windows. I’ll wait for you down here, she said. What did you say? came the reply. I’ll wait down here, she said again, her eyes wandering over a corner of the drawing room. The walls were peeling from the brackish air in the apartment. The Persian rugs had faded, and the upholstery on her father’s favorite armchair was split at the back. Had anyone felt so inclined, they could have pulled out the goose down with their fingers. The crystals on the chandeliers were cloudy, because it had been ages since anybody had gone at them with vinegar, but all the other furniture was in reasonably good shape, and there were still silver tea and coffee services and valuable decorative objects placed here and there about the tables.

Countless times she had asked her to move to a more modern apartment and hire a proper caretaker. Mother had always been obstinate, like those curved-horned rams the pharaohs had had sculpted for the entrances of their mausoleums as a sign of permanence. But Mother—even then, looking the picture of a movie star, all decked out in her wide-brimmed hats and her dazzling rings—was a mere mortal, and time was ravaging her unsteady movements, her thinning hair, her mournful gaze, her skin mottled over with liver spots. She started down, leaning on an orthopedic cane and the banister for balance. The trip took several minutes, and she stayed put without offering to help her.

They had lunch together every Tuesday. They would go to any restaurant that was cheap, so long as it was clean, because Mother only ever ordered chicken soup, anyway, claiming an upset stomach. Nothing ever happened outside the routine—the endless chitchat about family gossip, which Mother was privy to thanks to the phone calls she continued to receive. Did you know your cousin got back together with her lover? Your nephew took a trip to the Far East. Your aunt argued with the maid. Never What is your husband writing? Is your son doing well? or What are you up to? Something she might have wanted to talk about. They had never been friends, really. There had been a time when she would have welcomed some intimacy between them. Now it hardly mattered.

The soup got cold. A layer of skin had begun to form on the surface, and it was looking less and less appetizing by the second. She said she should eat, her food was getting cold. I eat slowly, and you always rush me because you want to be somewhere else. There, I’m finished. And with the impudence of a petulant child, Mother pushed the bowl away, her trembling chin warning of tears. She asked for the check, and they went back. This time, she helped her out of the car and held her by the arm to take her upstairs.

Don’t lock the garden gate. I can never unlock it, Mother said. She promised she never would and then sat waiting in the car, her body turned to face the balcony where Mother always stood at the window to bid her good-bye with reddened eyes and a blown kiss. She blew one back. Then she started the car, wondering how long, how long that Tuesday custom would last. Not much longer, she thought.

But as she rounded the corner, she realized that if she lived long enough, perhaps she herself, every week, would be bidding her son good-bye from behind a pane of glass, her eyes rimmed with red, her hand held aloft in a sign of farewell.

Read Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

But she came in only as far as the foyer. She fell back in the hateful, worn velvet armchair. Every time she visited, she felt a crushing weariness, as though her entire life were caving in on her. The air was stifling, stagnant there between the walls like the water in a swimming pool out behind some deserted mansion. There were no open doors or windows. I’ll wait for you down here, she said. What did you say? came the reply. I’ll wait down here, she said again, her eyes wandering over a corner of the drawing room. The walls were peeling from the brackish air in the apartment. The Persian rugs had faded, and the upholstery on her father’s favorite armchair was split at the back. Had anyone felt so inclined, they could have pulled out the goose down with their fingers. The crystals on the chandeliers were cloudy, because it had been ages since anybody had gone at them with vinegar, but all the other furniture was in reasonably good shape, and there were still silver tea and coffee services and valuable decorative objects placed here and there about the tables.

Countless times she had asked her to move to a more modern apartment and hire a proper caretaker. Mother had always been obstinate, like those curved-horned rams the pharaohs had had sculpted for the entrances of their mausoleums as a sign of permanence. But Mother—even then, looking the picture of a movie star, all decked out in her wide-brimmed hats and her dazzling rings—was a mere mortal, and time was ravaging her unsteady movements, her thinning hair, her mournful gaze, her skin mottled over with liver spots. She started down, leaning on an orthopedic cane and the banister for balance. The trip took several minutes, and she stayed put without offering to help her.

They had lunch together every Tuesday. They would go to any restaurant that was cheap, so long as it was clean, because Mother only ever ordered chicken soup, anyway, claiming an upset stomach. Nothing ever happened outside the routine—the endless chitchat about family gossip, which Mother was privy to thanks to the phone calls she continued to receive. Did you know your cousin got back together with her lover? Your nephew took a trip to the Far East. Your aunt argued with the maid. Never What is your husband writing? Is your son doing well? or What are you up to? Something she might have wanted to talk about. They had never been friends, really. There had been a time when she would have welcomed some intimacy between them. Now it hardly mattered.

The soup got cold. A layer of skin had begun to form on the surface, and it was looking less and less appetizing by the second. She said she should eat, her food was getting cold. I eat slowly, and you always rush me because you want to be somewhere else. There, I’m finished. And with the impudence of a petulant child, Mother pushed the bowl away, her trembling chin warning of tears. She asked for the check, and they went back. This time, she helped her out of the car and held her by the arm to take her upstairs.

Don’t lock the garden gate. I can never unlock it, Mother said. She promised she never would and then sat waiting in the car, her body turned to face the balcony where Mother always stood at the window to bid her good-bye with reddened eyes and a blown kiss. She blew one back. Then she started the car, wondering how long, how long that Tuesday custom would last. Not much longer, she thought.

But as she rounded the corner, she realized that if she lived long enough, perhaps she herself, every week, would be bidding her son good-bye from behind a pane of glass, her eyes rimmed with red, her hand held aloft in a sign of farewell.

Beatriz Espejo

Beatriz Espejo was born in Veracruz, Mexico and has written numerous short stories, novels, and essays. She received Mexico’s National Prize for Journalism and Gold Medal for Fine Arts, among other awards. Her works include the novel ¿Dónde estás, corazón? (Where are you, Love?), the essay collection Seis niñas ahogadas en una gota de agua (Six Girls Drowned in One Drop of Water), and the anthology Atrapadas en la madre (Trapped in the Mother.)

Cecilia Ross

Cecilia Ross is an American literary translator and editor currently based in Riga, Latvia. Her published works include the first ever translation of the poetry of Dorothy Parker into Spanish, Los poemas perdidos (Nórdica Libros, 2013, with Guillermo López Gallego). She has worked with Hispabooks Publishing as an editor since 2013, as well as having translated J.A. González Sainz’s None So Blind (2015, with Harold Augenbraum) and Berta Vias-Mahou’s They Were Coming For Him (2016) for the same house. Her translation into English of a nonfiction book by the award-winning Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho, Memoir of a Scandal, is forthcoming. When not working, Cecilia can be found enjoying life, the universe, and everything in the company of her husband and two Spanglish-fluent children.

Meet Beatriz Espejo

Find out how Beatriz Espejo is different from other modern women writers in the encyclopedia entry in Latin American Women Writers.

Watch this Spanish-language interview with Beatriz Espejo.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

More about the Story

Although it takes place in the modern world, this story includes many of the elements you might expect to find in Gothic fiction. Read professor John Bowen’s introduction to the Gothic genre, “a particularly strange and perverse family of texts.” Or, watch a video in which Bowen discusses Gothic literature while wandering through a deserted mansion.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Alternatively, for a brief overview of Gothic themes in popular culture, read the page on Gothic Horror from tvtropes.org.

Representing Mothers

“In art, when you depict a mother, it seems she better be doing her job well.” See depictions of mothers doing their jobs well and not so well from a 4-minute virtual lecture from an art historian the Met: Motherhood.

Look at the painting Portrait of the Artist’s Mother at Age 63, by German artist Albrecht Dürer. His mother, who had given birth to 18 children, was gravely ill at the time of the portrait, in 1514, and would die two months later.

Look at photographer Marilyn Minter’s photo series of her aging mother at home. Minter talks about her mother and the series—and her mixed feelings of shame and surprise at her mother’s appeal—in the beginning of this interview (PDF).

Then, look at other mothers who became artists’ muses. (If this link doesn’t open in Chrome, try another browser.)

More from Beatriz Espejo

Watch Beatriz Espejo give a talk at the National Endowment for the Humanities in Mexico City, in Spanish.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

More from Translator Cecilia Ross

Read another work translated by Cecilia Ross, They Were Coming for Him.

On Aging

What is it like to be old? Read an author and social anthropologist’s thoughts on the issue: “What Old Age is Really Like” from The New Yorker.

Idealizing Mothers

Watch Proctor and Gamble’s 2012 Mother’s Day ad, which features idealized and idolized mothers from countries around the world.

(Watch this and see more commercial moms on YouTube.)

Then, read a critical perspective on the P&G motherhood ads from New Republic: “Honor Your Mother: Don’t Watch that Patronizing Viral Ad.”

More Mothers & Daughters in Lit, Film, and TV

Read a different story about an author and her aging mother: “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” in the Paris Review. Or, check out Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)Writing the Maternal Script for a critical perspective on mothers and maternal relationships in Chicana literature.

Watch August: Osage County for another story of an aging mother and adult daughters returning, and leaving, home.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Finally, read about mother-daughter relationships on the TV shows Gilmore Girls and Jane the Virgin.

Exploring Egyptian Tombs*

Look at photos from inside Egyptian tombs, where photography is normally banned, and see a photo of a “tunnel to nowhere” inside of an ancient pharaoh’s tomb from National Geographic.

For a description of Egyptian tombs in the popular imagination and in literature, students might read the entry on TV Tropes; for an example, they can read Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” or the following stories:

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Gothic Influences in Literature*

*For Teaching Idea 2

More Stories of Enclosure and Escape*

*For Teaching Idea 2

Stories of Troubled Mother-Daughter Relationships*

Adrienne Rich’s feminist classic, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (public library), provides a critical framework for questions around motherhood.

*For Teaching Idea 3

1. Breathing New Life into Musty Tropes
2. Enclosure and Escape—the Maternal Gothic
3. Beneath the Surface
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

But she came in only as far as the foyer. She fell back in the hateful, worn velvet armchair. Every time she visited, she felt a crushing weariness, as though her entire life were caving in on her. The air was stifling, stagnant there between the walls like the water in a swimming pool out behind some deserted mansion. There were no open doors or windows. I’ll wait for you down here, she said. What did you say? came the reply. I’ll wait down here, she said again, her eyes wandering over a corner of the drawing room. The walls were peeling from the brackish air in the apartment. The Persian rugs had faded, and the upholstery on her father’s favorite armchair was split at the back. Had anyone felt so inclined, they could have pulled out the goose down with their fingers. The crystals on the chandeliers were cloudy, because it had been ages since anybody had gone at them with vinegar, but all the other furniture was in reasonably good shape, and there were still silver tea and coffee services and valuable decorative objects placed here and there about the tables.

Countless times she had asked her to move to a more modern apartment and hire a proper caretaker. Mother had always been obstinate, like those curved-horned rams the pharaohs had had sculpted for the entrances of their mausoleums as a sign of permanence. But Mother—even then, looking the picture of a movie star, all decked out in her wide-brimmed hats and her dazzling rings—was a mere mortal, and time was ravaging her unsteady movements, her thinning hair, her mournful gaze, her skin mottled over with liver spots. She started down, leaning on an orthopedic cane and the banister for balance. The trip took several minutes, and she stayed put without offering to help her.

They had lunch together every Tuesday. They would go to any restaurant that was cheap, so long as it was clean, because Mother only ever ordered chicken soup, anyway, claiming an upset stomach. Nothing ever happened outside the routine—the endless chitchat about family gossip, which Mother was privy to thanks to the phone calls she continued to receive. Did you know your cousin got back together with her lover? Your nephew took a trip to the Far East. Your aunt argued with the maid. Never What is your husband writing? Is your son doing well? or What are you up to? Something she might have wanted to talk about. They had never been friends, really. There had been a time when she would have welcomed some intimacy between them. Now it hardly mattered.

The soup got cold. A layer of skin had begun to form on the surface, and it was looking less and less appetizing by the second. She said she should eat, her food was getting cold. I eat slowly, and you always rush me because you want to be somewhere else. There, I’m finished. And with the impudence of a petulant child, Mother pushed the bowl away, her trembling chin warning of tears. She asked for the check, and they went back. This time, she helped her out of the car and held her by the arm to take her upstairs.

Don’t lock the garden gate. I can never unlock it, Mother said. She promised she never would and then sat waiting in the car, her body turned to face the balcony where Mother always stood at the window to bid her good-bye with reddened eyes and a blown kiss. She blew one back. Then she started the car, wondering how long, how long that Tuesday custom would last. Not much longer, she thought.

But as she rounded the corner, she realized that if she lived long enough, perhaps she herself, every week, would be bidding her son good-bye from behind a pane of glass, her eyes rimmed with red, her hand held aloft in a sign of farewell.

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