The Stag and the Daughter
Héctor shunted a large cast-iron stag through the doorway. He had walked it in a series of hernia-bulging stages from his villa on the other side of the botanical garden; cutting through the garden had been a mistake – too many winding paths, too few benches – but he hadn’t wanted to be seen by his wife (she’d know about the lover) or the lover (she’d know about the surprise). The lover was Carmen, an idle, yet graceful, woman who passed her days flouncing between the two rooms – bedroom and living room – on the top floor of her house, drifting from one world of cloying pale pink anaglypta to the other. She rarely strayed as far as the kitchen downstairs; she had Amalia, an elderly Paraguayan maid, and her daughter for that. So Héctor could be sure that if he left the dark majestic beast, whose formidable antlers (so the artist had told him) would make a perfect coat stand, just inside the front door she would not see it until she left for her evening game of bridge. She would later find it – his prowess reincarnated in that virile beast – and would breathe a sigh as when you unexpectedly find a possession of the one you love. He closed the door quietly behind him.
“What on earth is the Señora going to do with that?”
It was Amalia. Her nostrils widened and a feather duster slipped silently from her hand.
Héctor raised a stiff finger to his curled lips, removed his hat and placed it on the tip of an antler.
“Shh! She mustn’t find it until I’m gone.”
He shrugged off his blazer and slung it onto another antler. Amalia mimicked zipping her mouth shut and helped Héctor fit the stag snugly into the corner by the front door. She winced, hunch-shouldered, when its solid base screeched on the stone tiles.
“I will let the Señora know you’re here,” she said.
“No, no,” said Héctor, open palms raised, “I often surprise her like this. Why else does she never lock the front door? She loves it when I creep up the stairs and leap out on her, like this,” gently collaring Amalia’s throat, “and surprise her when she’s having her morning bath.”
He released Amalia, who gulped and tried to smile. She watched Héctor mount the steeply rising stairs in dismay. She wanted to warn Señora Carmen, who she hoped would not be “gracing the enamel throne” (to use the Señora’s words), and it irked her that the stairs had been well fitted and never creaked.
At the top Héctor exhaled for one, two, three seconds and ran a finger around the inside of his waistband. He licked the same finger and sent it over each of his eyebrows, which sprung out from his forehead as if seeking a sixth sense and headed towards the living room door. He peered round. Nothing. Just the sunlight slanting through the open French windows and the shadows of swallows darting across the thick carpet, which the billowing lace curtains made ripple like a sea of champagne.
“Oh, Carmencita,” he sang out huskily.
He made for her bedroom. He could have found it without sight, just by following the smell of peace lilies and something fusty that grows in the body’s shadowy regions with the onset of age. He had almost reached the bedroom door, which she’d left enticingly ajar, when he bent down to check himself in an oval mirror on a small table. He saw reflected an old man he scarcely recognised, whose only life resided in his eyes, set in a trellis of furrows and animated hairs midway between his bald, splotched scalp his thin, dry mouth.
“Don’t move a muscle!”
Héctor could see her above and behind his reflected ear, straddling its pointed, fleshy top. She stood with her legs apart, and two hands clasped in front, her fingers pointed into a pistol.
“Move a fucking inch and I’ll shoot.”
He raised his hands with his elbows tucked into his sides.
“Good morning, Mariquita,” he said. “How have you been? Finally been expelled from school?”
“And what was it this time?”
The word shot out like a bullet from her pressed fingers and seemed to slowly squeeze through his tympanic membrane into the nerves spiralling out of his inner ear.
“If it’s my mother you’re after. She’s in bed still drunk on gin.”
And as he straightened with that single syllable creeping through his brain like a clot, the beautiful, barelegged Mariquita vanished. On the wall behind where she’d been standing, a stag, painted delicately in oils, regarded him impertinently with a dark stone-eyed glare. That had marked their first hunting trip to the South.
He knocked twice on the bedroom door. Carmen was lying on her front, waiting for him, naked but for a silver boa. Her eyes were swollen and red.
“I get so lonely when you’re not here,” she began, “lonely as a…” Her voice trailed off and drifted out of the open window. Héctor didn’t try to listen. She was talking about age and its attendant miseries and pointing to a large mauve scar that stretched across her stomach. Héctor was imagining her daughter in just the spot where her mother lay – and just as nude.
Héctor and Carmen made love perfunctorily and after he lay listening to the chittering of the birds in the eaves, trying to fathom how he might ever again have the opportunity to make love to a woman he really desired. He was weary of this indefinable nuisance called love, through with these embarrassing episodes of lovemaking as they tried to fend off death with mock-virility. His thoughts shifted to his brother who sought immortality in a different way; every day he bathed in the cold sea, but Héctor couldn’t stand cold water. He wanted “sex”.
“Let’s go shooting again, H.”
He hated it when she called him H.
“But let’s actually shoot something this time.”
He had decided that hunting was a loathsome thing. He felt for the majestic creatures whose lungs and hearts were punctured and burst just because a disillusioned couple with a disillusive sex life were bored.
“Sure, some time,” he said, pulling on his socks, socks that he noticed for the first time were a disgusting beige, like fungi, or old toenails.
“Who sleeps with a man in beige golf socks?” he muttered.
“Golf! Yes! And then we could swing through Tandil to eat that exquisite venison stew,” she sent a thick tongue around her lips, “but of course that does means seeing Alfredo.”
God, all this baggage! And look at those hideous veins – wide branching ones that became densely entangled around the thumb-sized nipples. Everything had become so inescapably lucid.
“Hey! Where are you off…”
He jogged through the living room and as he passed the painted stag’s inscrutable gaze, he glimpsed young Maraquita, who peeked at him above a raised laptop lid. With his free hand, the one that was not tucking in the back of his shirt, he gave a coy little wave. He wanted to run, to take the stairs in a single great leap, partly so that Maraquita would regard him as still fun, nimble and non-arthritic.
“Forget your goddam knee trouble. No more popping hips. No more…”
Amalia, the maid, was the first to hear the dull thud. “Oh, madre mia!” she said upon seeing Héctor in a bundled heap at the foot of the metal stag. The hat had fallen from the antler to cover his face.
Maraquita, hearing the thud, tiptoed to the top of the stairs. She clung to the bannister rail to avoid a similar fate and peered down. The only thing that distinguished him from a pile of dirty clothes were his beige golf socks – and somehow Héctor knew that. She glided down the stairs, bent down, plucked off the fallen hat and licked the hem of her t-shirt to absorb a dark droplet of blood that beaded his cheek. She sat him up and drew him into her chest and he felt her small nipples tighten through the thin cotton of her t-shirt. Sunlight spilled down the stairwell, coming, he imagined, through the open living room door, and a bright blue butterfly fluttered dizzily down towards him and stilled itself on the end banister (though he appreciated this may have been an effect of his fall, but loved it nonetheless).
“I’ve never noticed how truly exquisite they really are,” he said. “Come on, Maraquita, let’s disappear, me and you! Let’s discover the steamy jungle valleys of the north, where the butterflies are twice that size, where the orchids grow like pillow cases and the tigrillos dream.”
She sniggered, and said in her characteristically flat, sarcastic way, “First let’s see if you can keep yourself up.”
She led him upstairs – he noticed his knee didn’t click with each step – and instead of taking him into her mother’s room, she sneaked him into her own.
“Now, you lie there, but first, let’s get you out of these awful clothes. Look at your shirt, it’s soaked through with blood!”
He helped her with his belt buckle and lifted his buttocks as she slid off his trousers. He was aware of the blood seeping from the side of his head, soaking into the sheets to wet his neck, but he was so transfixed by the golden motes of dust drifting in the sunlight that slanted through her bedroom window, that he scarcely cared. And it was through this slanting sunlight that she came, her body sculpted and elegant – fresh! – her nipples pink whorls that once again tightened under his touch. She drew her lips across his chin, his chest, and further still. He felt his thighs quiver and something deep in his core reach out towards her nakedness and innocence and the wide blue sky beyond, and his perceptions seemed receptive to a new kind of irreducible beauty.
“My god, Maraquita,” he heard himself say, “I have spent far too many miserable hours with women like… well, to be frank, like your mother. I should have spent more time splashing in streams, scaling mountains, looking at those small wasps that live in figs” (that was something he hadn’t seen since his first year at school and he was stunned to remember it) “and for the first time since childhood I can now perceive the true beauty in life – and regret I couldn’t before.”
He held up a quivering finger.
“Life is, life is…”
Carmen, too, heard the bang. She upset her gin glass as she pulled herself to her feet and knocked back what was left on her way to the stairs.
“Amalia! What in god’s name was that?” She could hear Amalia talking on the phone.
“How dare you use the house phone without asking!”
When Carmen saw Héctor crumpled beneath a life-size sculpted stag she twice pinched the side of her face.
“H? Get up! H? Amalia what… H?”
Blood seeped leisurely from behind his head to pool in the cracks between the stone tiles. His hat covered the top of his face and below it his thin lips mouthed as if trying to find a word. She held his damp head and his hat toppled off, and the only sound to be heard was her muttered, “Oh my God!” One eyeball had been pushed deep into its socket, and deeper still. His fingers (which had two minutes before been kneading her pink-flushed buttocks) clasped the air twice, then stopped. And above, Carmen noticed the tip of an antler glistening with blood.