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End of the game

On hot days, having waited for Mom and Aunt Ruth to begin their naps to sneak out the white
door, I would go play with Leticia and Holanda on the tracks of the Central Argentine
Railroad. Mom and Aunt Ruth were always tired from washing the china. Particularly tired were
they when Holanda and I would dry the dishes because of all the arguments, all the spoons hitting
the floor, all the things said that only we girls understood. Everything was saturated with the smell
of fat, Jos's miaows, and the darkness of the kitchen, resulting in a woeful fight and the subsequent
spillage. Holanda specialized in making these type of messes. For example, letting an already-
washed glass drop in the container of dirty water, or recalling en passant how in the Lozas' house
there were two servants for every task. I, however, employed other means. I preferred insinuating
to Aunt Ruth that she would chafe her hands if she continued to scrub casseroles instead of
concentrating on plates and cups precisely the things, as it were, that Mom liked to wash. This
was the easy way to provoke a silent struggle for an unimportant item.

Once we had gorged ourselves on family counsel and lengthy reminiscences, the heroic alternative
was to pour boiling water onto the cat's back. A tall tale, that old chestnut about the scalded
cat unless one took the reference to cold water literally. Jos never shied away from hot water
and often seemed, the wretched little beast, to offer himself up to a half-cup at a hundred degrees
or a little less (much less most likely, since his hair never fell off). The terrible consequences
notwithstanding, in the confusion crowned by Aunt Ruth's splendid B-flat and Mom's race in
search of the cane of justice, Holanda and I would disappear into the covered gallery and the empty
back rooms where Leticia would be waiting for us, inexplicably reading Ponson du Terrail.
Mom would normally pursue us for a good stretch. But the desire to crack our heads open would
soon fade and in the end we had barred the door and begged, with theatrical emotionality, for
forgiveness she got winded and walked away repeating the same phrase:

"You'll end up on the street, you unfortunate lice."

Where we ended up were the tracks of the Central Argentine Railroad. With the house in silence
and the cat leaning under the lemon tree in preparation for his perfumed and wasp-ridden nap, we
would slowly open the white door. Closing the door behind us felt like the wind, like a freedom
that slipped from our hands and entire bodies and hastened us forward. Then we ran impulsively,
using our momentum to climb the railroad slope. And once we reached the top of the world we
would contemplate our kingdom in silence.

Our kingdom was as such: a great curve in the tracks ending just before the back of our
house. Nothing more than ballast and crossties and the two tracks. Sparse and rather stupid-
looking blades jutted out from between the cobblestones where the crystals, the quartz and the
feldspar the components of granite shone like genuine diamonds against the two o'clock
sun. When we would squat down to touch the tracks (without losing a moment, since staying there
would have been rather dangerous, less so from oncoming trains than from the possibility of
someone from the house spotting us) the heat of the stone would engulf our faces. Standing against
the river's breeze produced a wet sort of warmth on our cheeks and ears. We liked flexing our
legs, down, up, down, entering one now a second zone of heat, admiring the sweat on our faces
which had boiled us all into a soup. And all this time we spoke not a word, gazing at the rear of
the tracks or the river on the other side, that slice of river the color of caf au lait.

After this initial inspection of the kingdom we would descend the slope and take refuge under the
baleful shade of the willows pinned to the fence of our house, onto which opened, as it were, the
white door. This was the capital of the kingdom, the sylvan city, the headquarters of our
game. The first one to start the game was Leticia. She was the happiest and the most
privileged. Leticia didn't have to dry dishes and could spend the day reading or gluing together
figurines. If she asked, she would be allowed to stay up late in the room exclusively for her with
some tasty meat broth and all kinds of other perks. She had gradually taken advantage of these
privileges, and since last summer it was she who had controlled the game I think in reality she
ran the whole kingdom. In the very least it was she who would go ahead and say things while
Holanda and I, something like happy, would accept whatever she said without the slightest
protest. Those long talks with Mom about how we were supposed to behave with Leticia probably
contributed to this state of affairs, or perhaps we just loved her enough not to be bothered by her
being the boss. What a shame that in appearance she had nothing of a boss. She was the shortest
of the three of us and she was so thin. Now Holanda was thin, and I weighed more than a hundred
and ten pounds; but Leticia was the thinnest of us all. To make it worse, her thinness was such
that it could even be detected in her neck and ears. Maybe the hardening of her back made her
appear thinner, as if she almost couldn't move her head to both sides like a stiff ironing board, one
of those expensive white ones found in homes like the Lozas'. An ironing board with the narrow
end up against the wall. And she was the one controlling us.

The most profound satisfaction I could ever imagine would be for Mom and Aunt Ruth one day to
learn of the game. And if they did find out, the biggest brouhaha possible would ensue. Think of
it: the B-minor and the fainting spells, the remonstrances of devotion and sacrifice so poorly
compensated, the massive accumulation of invocations of the most infamous punishments all for
the purpose of placing the finishing touches on our wicked fates, in other words, our ending up on
the street. This last threat had always left the three of us perplexed because, to us at least, ending
up on the street seemed perfectly normal.

First of all, Leticia made us draw lots. We hid the pieces in our fists, counted until twenty-one,
any old thing. With the count-to-twenty-one system we thought up two or three more girls and
included them in the count so as to avoid any traps. If one them drew twenty-one, we would pull
her out of the group and draw lots again until one of us drew the number. So Holanda and I carried
the stone and opened the box of ornaments. Supposing that Holanda had won, Leticia and I would
select the ornaments. The game had two forms, by statues and postures. Postures did not require
ornaments but did require a lot of expressiveness. For envy we would show our teeth, wring our
hands and manage something akin to a jaundiced air. For charity the ideal would involve an
angelic countenance, the eyes cast towards the heavens and the hands offering something a rag,
a ball, a willow branch to a poor invisible orphan. Shame and fear were duck soup; rancor and
jealousy, on the other hand, required more extensive preparation. Ornaments adorned almost all
the statues with total freedom of placement. Now for a statue one had to consider every detail of
its attire. The rules proclaimed that the person chosen could not participate in the selection; the
two others would debate the matter and then attach the ornaments as they saw fit; the chosen then
had to forge her statue by taking advantage of what had been placed upon her. And here is where
the game became much more complicated and exciting since, at times, there were alliances against
the chosen, and the victim found herself garbed in ornaments that did not suit her in the least. Thus
her livelihood depended on her invention of a statue. In general when the game indicated postures
the person chosen came off well, but there were times when the statues were horrible failures.

Who knows when my story truly began, but matters changed the day the first piece of paper glided
down from the train. Now we clearly didn't put on our postures and statues for ourselves because
we would have become disenchanted right away. Game rules dictated that the person chosen had
to place herself on the slope emanating from the shade of the willows and await the 2:08
from Tigre. The trains went by quite quickly at this height in Palermo so statues or postures could
not cause us any embarrassment; we saw, in any case, almost nothing of the people in the
windows. Yet in time we gained more and more practice and came to realize that there were some
passengers expecting to see us. A white-haired gentleman with Carey glasses would stick his head
out the window and wave at the statue or posture with a handkerchief; schoolboys on their way
home would sit on the running boards yelling things as they went by, although a few more serious
lads just stared attentively. Not that, of course, the statue or posture could see anything at all
because of the effort of immobilization. So the two others beneath the willows would analyze the
resultant indifference or smashing success.

It was a Tuesday when the paper drifted from the second car into our lives. It landed very close to
Holanda, who on that day happened to be slander, then slid on towards me. The paper was folded
many times over and attached to a nut. In a male and rather ugly hand, it said: "Very pretty
statues. I'm in the second car, third window. Ariel B." We thought the note a bit dry considering
all the labor necessary to pin it to the nut and throw it out the window, but we were pleased. We
drew lots to see who would keep it and it became mine. The next day no one wanted to play
because we all wanted to see what Ariel B. looked like. Yet we feared he would misinterpret such
an interruption, so we drew lots again and Leticia won. Holanda and I were very happy: Leticia,
poor thing, was an excellent statue.

Her paralysis was not noticeable when she was still. She was capable of gestures of enormous
nobility, and as postures she always chose generosity, piety, sacrifice and renunciation. As statues
she emulated the style of the Venus in the living room that Aunt Ruth called the "Venus de Nile-
o." We selected special ornaments for this statue to make the best possible impression on Ariel. A
piece of green velvet was wrapped around her like a tunic with a crown of willow in her hair, and
since we were all in short sleeves, a powerful Greek flavor obtained. Leticia rehearsed for a while
in the shade, and we decided that we would also come out and greet Ariel pleasantly but discreetly.

Leticia was magnificent, not moving a finger once the train arrived. Since she couldn't turn her
head she cast it back, her arms clasping her body as if they weren't there, and apart from the green
of the tunic, it was very much like looking at the Venus of the Nile. In the third window a boy
with blond curls and light eyes smiled widely once he saw that Holanda and I were also there to
greet him. The train was gone a second later, but at four-thirty we were still debating whether he
was dressed in dark colors, whether he had a red tie on, or whether he was cute or heinous. That
Thursday I did a posture of despondency, to which we received another paper: "I like all three of
you a lot. Ariel." Now he would put his head and one arm out the window as he greeted us with a
smile. We estimated he was eighteen (certain that he was actually no more than sixteen) and
decided that he was coming back every day from an English school. The surest thing about it was
the English school; we couldn't accept just any old affiliation. And Ariel seemed to us to be very
good indeed.

Holanda then happened to have the incredible luck of winning three days in a row. She outdid
herself with the postures of disappointment and theft, as well as with the immensely difficult
"dancer" statue standing on one leg just as the train entered the curve. The other day it was I who
won, and then I won again. When I was doing the posture of horror, one of Ariel's papers fairly
hit me in the nose. Admittedly, at first, we didn't quite understand: "The most lovely is the most
idle." Leticia was the last of us to grasp the meaning, and we saw how she blushed and went off
by herself to the side while Holanda and I exchanged looks of resentment and frustration. The
first notion that occurred to us was that Ariel was a fool, but we couldn't very well say that to
Leticia, poor little angel, given her sensitivity and the cross that she bore already. She, for her
part, said nothing at all. Yet she seemed to understand that the paper was for her and so she kept
it. That day we returned home in silence and didn't play together that night. At the table Leticia
was cheerful and gay, her eyes sparkled, and Mom even looked over once or twice to Aunt Ruth
as if summoning her as a witness to her own happiness. Those were the days of a new experimental
treatment to make Leticia stronger, and it appeared to be working wonders.

The conclusion to a story ("End of the game") by this Argentine. You can read the original here.

Before going to sleep Holanda and I discussed the matter. It wasn't so much Ariel's note that was
bothersome; after all, from a train things look the way they look. But it seemed that Leticia was
exploiting her advantages over us. She knew that we weren't going to say anything to her. She
also knew that in a home where someone has a physical defect and a lot of pride everyone,
beginning with the afflicted, pretends to ignore the shortcoming. Or rather, the best off are those
who pretend that they don't know that the afflicted knows. And yet much exaggeration had
accompanied Leticia to the dinner table, and her willfulness in keeping the paper was simply too
much. That evening my train nightmares recurred, and as dawn spread its rosy fingers I found
myself wandering on enormous railroad beaches covered with tracks full of junctions. From a
distance I could make out the red lights of the oncoming locomotives. I calculated with no small
angst what would happen if the train passed to my left, all the while worried about the possible
arrival of an express train into my back or what was even worse that at the last second one of
the trains would be shunted and run me over. By the morning, however, I had forgotten my
adventures since Leticia had woken up very sad and we had to help her get dressed. She seemed
somewhat contrite about what had happened yesterday and we were very good to her, telling her
that such things occurred when she walked too much and that perhaps it would be better if she just
stayed in her room reading. She said nothing but came to the table for lunch. She answered
Mom's questions by saying that she was very well and that her back hardly hurt any more. She
said this to her and looked at us.
That afternoon I won, but then God knows what
came over me and I told Leticia that I would let her take my place without, of course, telling her
why. Because he preferred her and never tired of gazing at her. As the game indicated statue, we
selected simple things for her so as not to complicate her life, and she invented a type of Chinese
princess filled with shame, her eyes cast down upon the floor and her hands together as was the
habit of Chinese princesses. When the train passed, Holanda lay down on her back below the
willows. But I watched and saw that Ariel only had eyes for Leticia. He kept looking at her until
the train had compassed the curve, and Leticia stayed still not knowing that he was no longer
looking at her. Yet once she came to relax beneath the willows we saw that she did indeed know
and that she would have liked to keep the ornaments on the whole afternoon, the whole evening,
the whole night.
That Wednesday Holanda and I drew lots since Leticia told us that it was fair for her to step
down. Holanda won with her confounded luck, but Ariel's paper fell on my side. When I picked
it up I had the impulse of giving it to Leticia, who said nothing. But then I thought that this was
not a good time to indulge her, and I opened the letter slowly. Ariel claimed that the next day he
would get off at the neighboring station and come to the embankment to chat for a
while. Everything was horribly written, but the last sentence was beautiful: "My best regards to
the three statues." His signature resembled a doodle although his personality shone through.

While we were stripping Holanda of her ornaments, Leticia looked at me once or twice. I had
already read them the message and no one had commented, which was kind of annoying since
Ariel was finally coming and one had to ponder this novelty and make a decision. If anyone in the
house found out or if by sheer misfortune one of the Lozas, those envious dwarves, were to spy on
us, there was going to be a brouhaha of the first order. Moreover, it was very strange for us to
remain quiet about such a matter and almost ignore one another while we gathered the ornaments
and made for the white door.
Aunt Ruth asked Holanda and me to wash Jos as Leticia had to undergo treatment, so at long last
we were able to let off some steam quietly. It seemed wonderful that Ariel was going to come; we
had never had such a friend. We couldn't count our cousin Tito, a crybaby who assembled
figurines and believed in the first communion. We were nervous in expectation and it showed in
our care of Jos, poor angel. I didn't know what to think; on the one hand, it seemed awful that
Ariel had become privy to the game, although it was also fair that such matters would be clarified
since no one needed to be harmed because of someone else. What I would have wanted was not
to have Leticia suffer. She bore a large enough cross as it was with her new treatment and all those
other things.

That night Mom was puzzled to find us so quiet. She said it was a miracle and asked whether mice
hadn't eaten our tongues; then she looked at Aunt Ruth and both of them certainly thought that we
had been up to no good and were now silent out of remorse. Leticia ate very little, said she was in
pain, and asked that she be allowed to go to her room and read Rocambole. Holanda held out her
arm although she really didn't want to do so, whereas I began to scheme which is what I do when
I'm nervous. On two separate occasions I entertained the notion of going to see Leticia in her
room, and no one told me what the two of were doing in there by themselves. But then Holanda
returned with an air of great importance and remained at my side without saying so much as a
word until Mom and Aunt Ruth had cleared the table. "She won't be going tomorrow. She wrote
a letter and said that if he asks too many questions, we should give it to him." In the half-open
pocket of her blouse she flashed a purple envelope. We then were asked to dry the dishes and that
night, from all the emotions and the fatigue incurred from bathing Jos, we fell asleep almost
immediately.

The next day it was my turn to do some shopping at the market. I didn't see Leticia, who had
remained in her room that whole morning. Before we were called for lunch, I went in for a moment
and found her beside the window with a pile of pillows and the new volume of Rocambole. One
could see she was not well; yet she began to laugh and told me about a funny dream that she had
had and a bee that couldn't find its way out. I told her it was a pity she wasn't coming to the
willows, but it seemed so difficult to tell her that properly. "If you want," I offered her, "we can
tell Ariel that you've got the runs." But she said no and then fell silent. I insisted a bit more that
she should come and in the end I mustered the courage to tell her that she should have no fear
whatsoever. As an example, I mentioned that real love knew no boundaries as well as other lovely
ideas we had culled from El Tesoro de la Juventud, yet each time it became more difficult to tell
her anything because she kept looking out the window as if she were about to burst into tears. In
the end I found myself saying what Mom had asked me to say. Lunch seemed to take days, and
Holanda got a slap from Aunt Ruth for splashing the table cloth with tomato sauce. I don't
remember how we dried the dishes because suddenly we were by our willows embracing one
another full of happiness and without the slightest trace of jealousy. Holanda told me everything
we had to say about our studies to make a good impression on Ariel since high school boys looked
down upon girls who hadn't finished anything more than elementary school and were only studying
dressmaking and embossing. When the 2:08 came by, Ariel stuck out his arms enthusiastically
and we welcomed him waving our patterned handkerchiefs. Some twenty minutes later we saw
him arrive on the embankment; he was taller than we expected and all in gray.

I don't remember much of what we talked about initially; he was quite shy despite his visit and
papers, and said things that were terribly overwrought. Almost right away he praised our statues
and postures, asked us our names, and then asked why number three was not present. Holanda
told him that she hadn't been able to come, and he said what a pity and that Leticia struck him as
such a pretty name. He told us some stories about his high school, which unfortunately was not
an English school, then wanted to know whether we would show him our ornaments. Holanda
lifted up the stone and we had him take a look at our things. They seemed to interest him greatly,
and more than once he grabbed one of the ornaments and said, "Leticia wore this one time," or
"This was for the oriental statue," by which he meant the Chinese princess. We sat down in the
shade of a willow and he was happy if distracted; it was clear that he was sticking around only out
of politeness. Holanda shot me two or three looks when conversation waned, which was so very
hard for both of us, making us want to leave or wish that Ariel had never come at all. He asked
again whether Leticia was ill and Holanda looked at me so that I thought that she was about to tell
him but then she answered that Leticia had not been able to come. With a twig Ariel drew some
geometric figures in the ground, and now and then looked at the white door. We knew what he
was thinking, and for that reason Holanda did well in producing the purple envelope and handing
it to him. He was surprised to have the thing placed in his hand, and then turned quite red when
we told him that it was from Leticia. He placed the letter in the inner pocket of his jacket,
apparently not wishing to read it in front of us, then almost immediately he said that it had been a
pleasure to come by and meet us. His hand was soft and repulsive to such a degree that it seemed
good that the visit was over even though afterwards we did little else but think of his big grey eyes
and his sad way of smiling. We also remember how he told us goodbye "See you always," a
form we had never heard before at home and which seemed both divine and poetic. We told Leticia
everything; she had been waiting for us beneath the lemon tree by the patio, and I would have liked
to ask her what her letter said but then she admitted that she didn't know why she had sealed the
envelope before giving it to Holanda. So I said nothing and we only told her what Ariel looked
like and how many times he had asked about her. Telling her all this was no easy matter because
it was, at once, a nice and an unpleasant subject, and we realized that Leticia seemed happy and
on the verge of tears at the same time. Until we ended up telling her what Aunt Ruth had wanted
us to say, and then left her watching the wasps around the lemon tree.

When we went to bed that night, Holanda said to me: "You just wait and see: tomorrow the game
will be over." She was wrong but not by much. And the next day Leticia gave us the agreed-
upon sign while we were still eating dessert. We trudged off to wash the china, a little annoyed,
but this was utter shamelessness on Leticia's part and not acceptable. She waited for us at the door
and we almost died of fright when we arrived at the willows only to see Leticia pull from her
pocket Mom's pearl necklace and all her rings, even Aunt Ruth's large one with the rubies. If those
Lozas, those repulsive dwarves, had been spying on us and seen us with all those jewels, Mom
would surely have learned about it right away and would have killed us. But Leticia was not
afraid. She said if anything happened, she would take full responsibility. "I would like you to
leave today to me," she added, without looking at us. We got out the ornaments, and we suddenly
wanted to get along with Leticia, to indulge her every whim and, in our heart of hearts, this caused
us a bit of resentment. Since the game indicated statue, we chose some lovely things that went
well with the jewels, a host of royal peacock feathers placed in her hair, a fur that from a distance
resembled a silver fox, and a rose-colored veil which she wore like a turban. We saw that she was
thinking rehearsing the statue but not moving and when the train appeared on the curve, she
stood up on the slope with all her jewels glittering in the sun. She raised her arms as if she were
doing a posture instead of a statue, and with her hands she signalled to the sky as she threw her
head back (the only thing she could do, poor child), doubling herself over enough to give us
fright. All of this struck us as marvelous, the most splendid statue she had ever done, and then we
saw Ariel looking at her. He was halfway out the window looking only at her, turning his head,
and looking without seeing us until the train whisked him away suddenly. I still don't know why
the two of us ran over at the very same time to brace Leticia, who had her eyes closed and huge
teardrops all over her face. She pushed us away without being upset, but then we helped her hide
the jewels in her pocket and she went alone into the house while we gathered up the ornaments
into their box for the very last time. We almost knew what would occur, but nevertheless the next
day both of us went over to the willows after Aunt Ruth ordered us to be absolutely quiet so as not
to disturb Leticia, who was in pain and wanted to rest. When the train arrived we saw to no one's
surprise that the third window was empty. And as we laughed out of something between relief
and anger, we imagined Ariel riding on the other side of the car, silent in his seat, gazing at the
river with his gray eyes.