'What wailing wight
Calls the watchman of the night?'
L'enfer est le regard des autres
Jean Paul Sartre
“If I can sum up the garden in an equation, I will be able to do the same with life, and then when I die I shall return,” Jorge used to repeat daily.
What brought us together was our fascination with the odor of sulfur and the grave that emanated from the pathways of the garden. At dawn we would awaken as though we heard the same clock striking, and we would climb the observation tower, from which we could descry the plumes of the fog, the paths that were emerging from the shadows, and the distant visions of the labyrinth and the fountain.
The garden was in the form of a cross inscribed in a circle, and inside it there were a number of other circling paths that copied the shape of the whole. Each day, mysterious changes transformed their circumferences into ellipses; the paths revolved counterclockwise and so the designs on the gravel, the fountain, and the labyrinth that began at the south would appear in the east, then the north, then the west, until they returned to their original positions.
I never mentioned it, but I was certain that from the ground and hedges of the garden, someone was watching me hour after hour. Sometimes I felt naked and tried to cover myself; other times the gaze flattered me and I made sure that my clothes, my hair and my makeup were perfect for that invisible being.
My friend Jorge had just finished his degree in mathematics with excellent marks, and one of his obsessions that autumn was to convert the strange behavior of the garden into differential equations.
The old gardener was Jorge’s uncle, and in the gleam of the bonfires we lit every night, he repeated the same words before beginning his stories.
“The piece of land where the garden stands was once long ago the cemetery of the region, which they later moved to the south end of town. My father and grandfather worked in it, so I know it like my own hand.” He would raise his peasant’s hand, furrowed with lines, and hold it up to the flickering light of the fire. Then, he told stories, one a night. Some were local yarns and others were the old man’s own inventions. Almost always he described murders for love or greed. The bodies were still buried in the garden, but the police never found them. The old man finished his stories with the same phrase:
“You should know that this garden is alive and hides a terrible secret.”
Afterwards he lit his pipe and smoked, gazing off to the south and not answering any of our questions.
A couple of nights, wrapped in blankets and holding thermoses of coffee, Jorge and I stationed ourselves near the fountain and waited without sleeping for something that could explain the changes. At three o’clock, a strange wind stirred the gravel and the dirt of the flowerbeds. That was all. When morning dawned after the second night, Jorge spoke of a possible magnetic field that could displace the earth and stones, but afterward he abandoned this hypothesis, convinced that the garden was alive and moved of its own accord. This was the belief he maintained until the end.
The designs had been traced in the gravel of the pathways with stones of different colors. The majority were triangles, ellipses or vortices. The most important, located in the center of the garden, was a bird bent over a serpent. The eyes of both were brilliant stones that would shine and vibrate when afternoon fell, as if they were alive.
Jorge, who was in love with me, would alternate his studies of the garden with the observation of my body. Whether I watered the plants, made tea, or played the piano, I felt his eyes following each one of my movements.
“Don’t pay any attention to me, Abdolia. Keep going like I wasn’t here,” he begged me. “I’ll look at you without demanding anything, like I would a distant, unreachable beauty.”
Sometimes he composed poems and read them in a loud voice, and his shrill tone bored into my brain like a drill. At the beginning, with my quinceañera just past, his attention flattered me, but after a while I grew tired of seeing him stare at me all the time with his lamb’s eyes.
Jorge suffered from asthma. During his attacks I had seen him fall on his knees, desperate, while his chest emitted wheezing noises. His uncle, who lived in the cabin in front of the main house, would come at once and call the doctors. The problem was aggravated by a heart murmur which, added to the asthma, used to bring him to the edge of a heart attack.
The only thing unusual that day was that Jorge managed at last to translate the garden into an equation. He showed me the succession of numbers, letters, and symbols.
“Abdolia, this is the life of the garden,” he told me with enthusiasm. “From now on, I know it intimately. It has no secrets from me. This discovery will make me immortal. Look: the movement can be translated into irrational numbers that move away from the golden mean in geometric proportion…”
I looked carefully at the numbers and letters. He continued explaining the formula to me in terms of functions, but I understood nothing.
That afternoon, during siesta, the anxious, almost unbearable tolling of the chapel bells awakened me. I got up covered in sweat and when I looked out the window, I saw the servants of that immense house running back and forth. I dressed and went out.
“The boy Jorge has disappeared,” the oldest servant announced in a dramatic tone.
I walked to the garden and noticed that certain plants, dried out the day before, now looked fresh and luxuriant. The eyes of the invisible being were watching me with urgency.
I approached a maid who was coming toward me.
“Did they look for him here?” I asked.
“Miss, we looked in every last bit of the greenery; we searched the fountain and even the frost and the dew. Young Mr. Jorge is not in the garden.”
I did not answer. I felt that in spite of the maid’s words, my friend was there. I walked up to the area of the fountain and the eyes returned to watch me, as though they wanted something from me.
The labyrinth was only a symbolic puzzle; there was no way to get lost in it. I remembered an old text of the Middle Ages, where it said that the exit of a labyrinth is always in the middle. There was a small bench there. I sat on it. At once my impression of being observed increased and it seemed that I saw beneath the light of the sun two pairs of eyes floating on the air. One was Jorge’s and the other those of the stranger.
I dozed off. That was the first time I saw the winged youth. The eyes that watched me were his. Little by little I could discern the face, head, and body. The wings were golden, with a thick black edge. In the dream his face was tense and his full lips half-open, but his expression was that of a child. He spoke to me; at that moment I understood him, but later I did not remember his words. There remained only one phrase: “I took Jorge because he had discovered my secret, but your hope will make me return him.”
I slept deeply and woke up almost at dusk. I felt a weight on my legs; lying on the ground, Jorge was clinging to my thighs and looking at me in silence. In his right hand, he held the paper with the equation that supposedly encompassed the totality of the garden.
I do not remember clearly what followed. I know that I delayed a long time in bringing him to the house. My friend’s legs were paralyzed and he had to lean on me in order not to fall.
“I saw him, Abdolia,” he repeated obsessively. “I should go back…”
When I asked whom he had seen, we had a bizarre conversation. I remember our tones of voice, some stray words, but not exactly what we said. Nor can I explain how I could walk with Jorge clinging to my legs. Finally I saw the house and had to cross running water to get to it. I made sure that my friend kept his head above the water of the river, which had never existed in the garden before.
When we got to the park in front of the house, the servants ran out to help us.
“Mr. Jorge and Miss Abdolia are back!” they shouted.
The doctors who examined Jorge concluded that he was exhausted and needed to rest. The danger of an asthma attack with heart complications subsided as the hours passed. The next day, my friend’s uncle asked me what had happened.
“I found him in the garden,” I said. “I was sleeping and he came to me…”
The man asked for details. Although it did not seem important to me, I told him about the labyrinth and how I had gone to sit in the middle, and then I recounted my vision of the boy with wings on his back.
“I think it was a hallucination,” I commented.
“Don’t be so sure,” said the old man in an enigmatic tone while he lighted one of his fat cigars. “I knew a similar case. The spirit of the garden fell in love with a girl; the young man disappeared and was never found.”
When he woke up, Jorge said he did not remember any of it. I asked to speak with him alone and when I looked at him his expression surprised me – like a trapped animal.
“Tell me the truth: where were you during those hours?”
“I don’t remember, Abdolia!”
“When you found me in the garden we spoke; I don’t recall the words, but it was very intense…”
“I told you I don’t remember!” Jorge smacked the table that was between us and brought his furious face close to mine. Confronted with this gesture, I was certain that the the friend who used to gaze at me and write romantic poems was gone.
He kept watching me in the days that followed, but it was not the same look as before. In his eyes there was a gleam like the eyes of a dog when a lantern hits them in the middle of the night. His hands shook and sweat ran down his neck.
His asthma got worse and one day he had two attacks. When he got better, he went back to writing poems. But his voice had changed and as for the verses, though there was the same excessive use of adjectives and obscure words, the content was different. He imagined me dead, described my beauty and everything he would do with my corpse.
Faced with this, I asked him to leave. Then he took to climbing the roof or hiding himself in the trees to watch me. For the first time I tried to avoid him.
The sensation of being spied on by the unknown stranger was accentuated in the afternoons and produced a strong creeping sensation in my hands and feet. One morning I was on my knees, trying to transplant some bushes, when I felt that someone was watching me from behind. When I turned, I saw Jorge. I barely recognized him. Hate and desire had altered his features. He reached out his arms and when he saw that I was rejecting him, he grabbed me by the wrists.
“What’s wrong with you? Let me go!”
His hands moved to my breasts and squeezed them until it hurt me.
“I want you!” he exclaimed in a hoarse and frenzied voice.
I managed to free myself from his grasp and ran to the back of the garden. He followed me and hurled himself at me, making me fall; his rigid hands lifted my skirt and searched for my sex, while he murmured strange words. I managed to escape again, ran to the palisade near the fountain and picked up the hose. Jorge was having difficulty walking. His legs were stiff and his knees didn’t bend, so I took my time opening the tap, aiming the hose at him and sending the huge jet straight at his face. That held him back and he tried to fight the force of the water, until he fell unconscious. I returned to the house and told his uncle what had happened. The old man called the doctors, who came quickly and tried to revive him. I helped to sit him up, and when I came near him and saw him pale and defenseless, I felt a sudden warmth. I suspected that the mysterious inhabitant of the garden had sent him back to me. The words he murmured close to my ear seemed to confirm it.
“Behind the fountain there is a monster and I changed into it.”
In my lower belly I felt a mixture of fear and attraction.
They hospitalized him, and in the morning the maid of the house, who had known me since I was a child, came to my room and told me that Jorge had died of a heart attack.
They waked him that night. During the burial, there were raw outpourings of grief and I felt relieved when it was all over.
Two weeks passed and day after day I waited in the garden for Jorge to come and take hold of my legs. I ate very little, got thinner and weaker. The servants sent for my godfather, who traveled out from the city and ordered me to eat and sleep. He threatened to tell my parents, who would lock me up in a girls’ boarding school.
One of those afternoons, I discovered the scrap of paper where my friend had written the formula that supposedly contained the totality of the garden. I kept it in the little casing that held the scapular I wore around my neck.
A month after Jorge’s death, I woke at dawn feeling the need to see the garden; I woke up, climbed the observation tower and peered through the telescope. Amid the vapors of humidity that rose from the earth, a figure in a chestnut-brown suit was walking, almost staggering. He turned around as if he knew I was watching him. Pale face, unfocused eyes.
“Jorge,” I murmured.
I came down quickly, entered the garden and arrived at the labyrinth. In the direction of the house, under the first light of morning, I saw the silvery line of flowing water. I remembered the day when I had to cross that ghostly river with Jorge clinging to my legs. I crossed the labyrinth and walked toward some shadows that rose up toward the back of the garden. When I got there, a sudden night surrounded me and I walked among sheer cliffs that rose above a distant sea. Terror gushed down my spine like an icy waterfall. It did not surprise me to meet the youth that I had seen in my dreams. He was naked, with his fiery eyes open and the pair of golden wings on his back. He was the one who had watched me all those months. I tried to stand up straight despite my fear.
“Who are you?” I asked in a tone of authority.
“I am the King of the Dead who are buried in this garden.”
“Where is Jorge? I just saw him; he was heading this way.”
“I will tell you if you follow me,” answered the youth. After a moment’s hesitation, I did follow. In the soft moonlight that illuminated the path, his wings opened and closed and I could not stop watching them. We crossed the place where the bird was bent over the serpent. It wasn’t a figure in the gravel anymore; its neck moved downward while the snake seemed to move away, in a contest that never ceased. When I raised my head, I saw that the boy with wings had disappeared and that a familiar shape replaced him.
He was standing up, with his eyes closed, his face very white and his cheeks hollow.
“Jorge, it’s Abdolia.”
He did not answer. He was wearing the brown suit and green tie in which he had been buried. When I came close, the youth reappeared out of nowhere and stationed himself between my friend and me. He stared at me fixedly with his red, penetrating eyes. I met his gaze.
“You should give me back to Jorge.”
“Of all the ghosts that haunt this garden, the only one who interests me is your friend; he discovered my essence and has translated it into an equation. Tell me, Abdolia, why do you care for him? All he ever did was look at you pathetically, and the one time he actually came near you, he tried to violate you.”
I was both surprised and flattered to hear the jealous tone of a lover. There was desire in his face.
“Maybe I want him to keep looking at me with tenderness, to recite his poems to me,” I answered defiantly. “You don’t know what that is. You don’t know human love.”
The youth didn’t answer. For a few minutes he looked off into the distance, as though thinking.
“You can bring him back,” he said gravely.
I did not answer. The shadows grew over the garden. I felt an inexplicable desire to caress the naked body of the King of the Dead.
“There is a condition, Abdolia. I will tie his body to yours and you will walk, always looking forward. If you turn back even for a moment, he will return to the dead.”
To tie our necks he used a light golden chain. I looked at him as though I was waiting for something.
“Remember that if you look at him, the affection you claim to feel for him will be impure.”
I nodded my head, and for a moment I wanted to tell him that I did not love Jorge, that I wanted to stay by his side in that place, but to do so would expose my feelings and show weakness. I turned my back to him and started to walk.
The garden had grown and moments of dawn and shadow alternated. I passed through some woods that seemed threatening, while in others I heard birds singing. Fair weather and storm followed one another in a strange progression.
Men, women, and even some children dressed in white tunics crossed our path. They were ghosts, focused on their small universes.
Finally I saw the house with its lighted windows, but I could not approach it. The loose string seemed to hold nothing and I returned again and again to the same place, as if I were walking in circles.
After many efforts, I found myself on the bank of the river. The house was on the other shore. It was enough for me to cross the water without looking back, for everything to be as it was before. I imagined the surprise of my friend’s family; maybe that night there would be a party. Then I would have to encounter the silent gaze of Jorge, to hear his poems and his speculations about the garden.
Then I decided to turn back, not from desire to know if he was still behind me, but because of the boredom and disgust his presence caused me. To return Jorge to his death would be to start a life free of his carnivorous gaze and his high-pitched voice intoning verses about my beauty.
Before my eyes, his face trembled softly and dissolved into a murky glow. I took the empty chain from my neck and turned to the river, meaning to cross it. At that moment Jorge’s back rose up before me in his brown suit, his legs submerged in the water, only he was not a ghost; his body moved with decision while my own flesh lost its substance. Without turning around, he waved in his hand the paper with the formula of the garden, which I did not recall giving to him. He crossed the river, came to the opposite bank and lay exhausted in the grass. A moment later his uncle came and helped him sit up. I knew that the old man knew everything. He contented himself with smiling as though he could see me and greeting me with a gesture of his hand. Then he embraced Jorge, who had completely recovered the color of his cheeks and the solidity of his body, and they both went off toward the house.
I raised my hands and through my flesh I could see the light of evening. I knew that everything had been a trick of the youth to make me stay with him. A multitude of dark beings rose from the earth and greeted me with silent reverence; they were the dead of the garden, who recognized their queen. I came to the place with the bird and the serpent; the bird had the snake in its beak and was chewing it with a triumphal air. The labyrinth had changed into a valley of shadows. Further on, near a waterfall, the youth waited, naked, white, beautiful. I stopped in front of him and we looked closely at each other while all around us the ghosts thinned and dissolved into mud. Only our eyes existed, our gazes discovering each other.
The earth, the plants, the flowerbeds collapsed around us. The world as we knew it, ended. The men disappeared and were replaced by gigantic cockroaches, but the King of the Dead and I kept our eyes on each other.
Nature rebelled until it was exhausted. Water joined earth and light, shadow. Diaphanous monsters changed first into dragonflies and then into ashes. Only our eyes hovered in the void.
One morning, the garden slowly took form and we were a gentle curve in the labyrinth. A young man and woman walked around us, searching for the explanation of certain phenomena. Nostalgia ate at my ghost’s flesh when I heard the boy’s words:
“If I can sum up the garden in an equation, I will be able to do the same with life, and then when I die I shall return…”
by Ricardo Iribarren, Argentina, Colombia © 2009
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Ricardo Iribarren (pseudonym Gocho Versolari) is an Argentine writer, born in 1949 in the city of Mar del Plata and currently residing in Cali, Colombia. He has contributed to anthologies of poetry and to story and essay collections. His participation in the anthology Ventanas de Luz y Armonía, edited by the Universidad Nacional de Loja in 2005, deserves special mention. Other publications include El angel y las cucarachas (Mérida, Venezuela, 2006), and La vida está aquí –six essays and seven South American legends. The majority of his work remains unedited.
He has taken part in online forums and numerous websites. The central characteristic of his literature, as much in verse as in prose, is exploration of the perennial questions that obsess human beings.
The author’s comments on the story:
In this story my concern is to show the hidden seams of reality, of the ordinary environment we see around us every day. It is my conviction that this world in large part shows itself according to our desires and fears. Abdolia, the protagonist, is a victim of gazes from the beginning, on the one side from her friend Jorge and on the other from an unknown being who supposedly lives in the garden. This captivity of the sense of sight results in a drama of cosmic scope, charged with suffering and nostalgia.
Translation by Christine Neulieb © 2009
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