The Night of Broken Guitars

by Amparo Dávila
translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson

One afternoon, on one of those Saturdays when you go out to buy something or other, or simply wander for hours and hours in the city center and pause before every shop window, carefully scanning each and every one of the objects inside as if you might find an amazing bargain, or something you’ve been looking for forever, my daughters and I were walking through the passage behind the Cathedral on the way to the herbalist. When we passed by a musical instrument shop where there were violins, cellos, bongos, maracas, and especially guitars of all types, sizes, and prices, my little girls stopped, enthralled.

“Look what a beautiful little guitar!” Jaina exclaimed. “Buy it for me, Shábada.”

“I can’t right now, darling.”

“Yeah, Shábada, buy us one,” Loren asked too.

“I don’t have any money on me, girls.”

“Oh yeah? So how are you going to pay for the herbs you buy?” (Jaina knows quite well that one of my great passions is buying every kind of herb, seed, root, or bark that has a strange name or about whose medicinal properties some legend exists. I prepare all kinds of things with them, but especially macerations and teas that I drink, most of the time, driven by curiosity about how they taste and a desire to see for myself whether their curative qualities are real or only alleged. Over the course of my extensive investigations, I must admit that in some cases I’ve tried exotic or little-known brews and ended up suffering anything from mild intoxication to serious poisonings; but this hasn’t diminished the lively interest I’ve always had in researching medicinal plants, or my astonishment when I confirm their powers.)

“The herbs don’t cost very much,” I explained to Jaina.

“But you buy hundreds of them, Shábada … ”

While Jaina and I argued, Loren picked up one of the small guitars that was on a counter with the bongos and maracas, and began to strum its strings, to see if it sounded like a normal-sized guitar or was just a toy.

“Leave that guitar alone, Loren. I promise we’ll buy one next Saturday.”

“What beautiful skin you have … !”

I looked all around, trying to figure out where the so-soft voice had come from.

“You must use very expensive creams, don’t you?”

Then I saw her, sitting behind one of the display tables in the depths of the shop, almost hidden amid that world of instruments, and I couldn’t help feeling utterly fascinated: she genuinely looked like a doll from the 1920s. Her skin had an impressive pallor that brought to mind The Magic Mountain or La dame aux camelias. Drawing nearer, I noticed that this exaggerated pallor partly came from the powder she used, too white for her almond complexion and laid on too thickly. And in that chalky setting her huge black eyes stood out, set within deep violet hollows that lent her a mysterious appeal. Her eyebrows were just a line of black pencil, à la Jean Harlow, and her mouth was painted into a vivid red Cupid’s bow (I thought of the song: “As de corazones rojos, boquita de una mujer … ”). Her dark brown hair was combed very smoothly and pulled back in a kind of loose bun, or one that was about to come undone. Most incredible of all was her outfit: a dress of crimson velvet, so well-worn that in some places it was almost bald, with ruffles of ecru chiffon on the neck and sleeves.

“Don’t believe it,” I answered, once I had managed to recover somewhat from the stupefaction her looks produced in me, and from a strange sensation I’d begun to feel when I saw her, as if time were marching backward and I’d had the same trivial chat with this woman long ago, in the era she was a faithful portrait of.

“What do you use, then?”

“Lotions and creams I make myself.”

“And you drink them too, Shábada,” Jaina added.

“You know, I’m from Guadalajara,” the woman began to tell me, without preamble, “and there I used to use various creams, soaps, lotions, and lots of other things one of my aunts’ friends taught me to make. The woman’s husband was a German who had worked in his youth as a chemist in a cosmetics lab in Berlin. When he came to Mexico, he opened a hardware store in Guadalajara and married my aunts’ friend. You should have seen all the books they had and the marvelous formulas they were full of! But little by little I’ve forgotten the recipes; I trusted in memory and never took care to write them down, and it’s been a long time since I’ve used them. When I saw you,” she added with a trace of melancholy, “I couldn’t help noticing how clean and smooth your skin is. The pores on my nose have started opening … If you could only have seen what a nice complexion I had … ! Well, the years go by, and one starts to … ”

“You don’t use rosemary?”

“Rosemary? I’ve used it, of course, it’s one of the best … ”

“And immortelle, do you know it?”

“I’ve only heard talk of its properties, but I never knew what to do with it. Do you know?”

“Yes, it’s just that there’s various ways to prepare it; it all depends on the particularities of your skin type. I pass by here all the time—I’ll copy down some formulas I have for you, and you can choose the one that seems best for you.”

Just then she took on a pensive look, as if trying to remember something, and drifted very far away; she became so distant that I was getting ready to leave, when abruptly she said:

“Something that’s truly wonderful for puffy eyelids is rose water, because you know, sometimes you cry at night and the next morning you wake up with your eyes a disaster, completely swollen. But with a few dashes of rose water, just barely warm, the inflammation goes right down … ” I saw then, in the darkness of the night, that doll from the twenties weeping silently on a cold, hard pillow, and without meaning to I stared at those deep, prominent hollows around her eyes. I couldn’t help but think how wretched this strange creature must be to weep like that in the middle of the night. “You must not cry very much, you don’t have swollen eyelids”—and she looked me over closely—“but if some day … Look, you put a little pot about this big on the fire”—she indicated the size of the vessel with her hand—“half full of water, and heat it over a low flame, very low, and once it starts to boil you add the rose petals, and then you cover it and let it sit a long while … ”

Neither she nor I had noticed that while we were chatting so enthusiastically, my daughters were trying out one guitar after another, or hitting a bongo with one hand and shaking a maraca with the other, or testing out the violins, drawing dissonant noises from them, when a voice like thunder, a deep roar, cut our dialogue short, so surprisingly and with such violence that I felt as if our interrupted conversation had been consigned to the distant past.

“Leave those alone, girls! Leave those things alone, leave them be, don’t touch them, don’t touch anything! You hear me? You’re putting your paws all over everything, you’re messing it all up, getting everything dirty, breaking things, leaving your grubby fingerprints everywhere—and there she is, watching you as if nothing was happening! Naturally! None of this stuff cost her a single cent, so might as well wear it out, sure, wear everything out, who cares! And look at her sitting there all comfortable, chatting, just enchanted with life, letting these kids touch all my things and cover them with fingerprints and chewing gum and drool—what did I do? What did I do to deserve this? Why my things? My things, that’s right, mine! And the señora chatting there, not caring about a thing, not caring about anything at all. Why? God, why … ?”

My daughters stood frozen, surprised and terrified by that voice and the brutal way it snatched their fun from them; timidly they placed the musical instruments they had in their hands back on the display. I admit that I was quite frightened and disconcerted too by that furious, dehumanized voice bursting in so violently, coming when I’d least expected it. She, the almond-skinned doll, shivered from head to toe, shaking with uncontrolled terror, and went mute.

I think I involuntarily shut my eyes as I listened to all the things that man shouted; perhaps, I now think, the explosion of that horrible voice like a blinding light made me shut my eyes—I had descended into an unexpected reality. When I opened them again, I saw, next to the glass display case I was leaning on, a pair of coarse feet dressed in dirty, beaten-up shoes. And when I raised my eyes I saw a corpulent body convulsed with rage, grotesquely gesticulating and tearing at its hair, and as it shouted it flailed its hands, as if it were about to go into a frenzy: the arms were twisted, the facial features squeezed and distorted, the eyes wild. I couldn’t really make out what his face was like, because, as if attracted by a magnet, my entire attention was drawn to that pair of squinting, narrowed eyes, like those of a serpent that, before it attacks, unleashes an icy gaze that penetrates you to the very bone.

My girls had glued themselves to me, and I felt their damp hands seeking protection.

Without saying a word, we left that place, not without taking a last look at the doll dressed in crimson velvet with the Cupid’s-bow lips. But she was staring without seeing now, she had gone away, lost in the gloomy tunnels of fear and disillusionment, until she reached the depths of the night, where she silently and desperately wept and wept, soaking the pillow; until the light of dawn finally shone through the moth-eaten curtain and found, on the floor of that miserable bedroom, the pieces of some broken guitars and the fragments of that sad doll.

Original text from Cuentos reunidos by Amparo Dávila, pp. 186-190.
D. R. © 2009, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Published on July 7, 2022