The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  There were presently three women near me who had lately left the petate: Consuelo, Eufemia and Hilaria. Consuelo is the maid of a young American woman here, Eufemia was my maid, and Hilaria is her aunt. Eufemia is young, almost pure Aztec, combative, acquisitive, secretive, very bold and handsome and full of tricks. Hilaria is a born intriguer, a carrier of gossip and maker of mischief. Until recently she worked for a hot-headed Mexican man who managed his servants in the classical middle-class way: by bullying and heckling. This gentleman would come in for his dinner, and if it was not ready on the instant, he would grab his hat and stamp shouting into the street again. “My señor has an incredibly violent nature,” said Hilaria, melting with pride. But she grew into the habit of sitting in my kitchen most of the time, whispering advice to Eufemia about how best to get around me; until one day the señor stamped around his house shouting he would rather live in the streets than put up with such a cook, so Hilaria has gone back to her native village near Toluca—back, for a time at least, to her petate. She has never really left it in spirit. She wears her reboso, the traditional dark-colored cotton-fringed scarf, in the old style, and her wavy black hair is braided in two short tails tied together in the back. Her niece Eufemia came to me dressed in the same way, but within a week she returned from her first day off with a fashionable haircut, parted on the side, waved and peaked extravagantly at the nape—“In the shape of a heart,” she explained—and a pair of high-heeled patent-leather pumps which she confessed hurt her feet shockingly.

  Hilaria came over for a look, went away, and brought back Eufemia’s godmother, her cousins and a family friend, all old-fashioned women like herself, to exclaim over Eufemia’s haircut. They turned her about and uttered little yips of admiration tempered with rebuke. What a girl! but look at that peak in the back! What do you think your mother will say? But see, the curls on top, my God! Look here over the ears—like a boy, Eufemia, aren’t you ashamed of yourself! and so on. And then the shoes, and then Eufemia’s dark-red crochet scarf which she wore in place of a reboso—well, well. . . .

  They were really very pleased and proud of her. A few days later a very slick pale young man showed up at the house and with all formality explained that he was engaged to marry Eufemia, and would I object if now and then he stopped by to salute her? Naturally I should never object to such a thing. He explained that for years upon years he had been looking for a truly virtuous, honorable girl to make his wife, and now he had found her. Would I be so good as to watch her carefully, never allow her to go on the street after dark, nor receive other visitors? I assured him I would have done this anyhow. He offered me a limp hand, bowed, shook hands with Eufemia, who blushed alarmingly, and disappeared gently as a cat. Eufemia dashed after me to explain that her young man was not an Indian—I could see that—that he was a barber who made good money, and it was he who had given her the haircut. He had also given her a black lace veil to wear in church—lace veils were once the prerogative of the rich—and had told her to put aside her reboso. It was he who had advised her to buy the high-heeled shoes.

  After this announcement of the engagement, Eufemia began saving her money and mine with miserly concentration. She was going to buy a sewing machine. In every department of the household I began to feel the dead weight of Eufemia’s sewing machine. Food doubled in price, and there was less of it. Everything, from soap to a packet of needles, soared appallingly until I began to look about for a national economic crisis. She would not spend one penny of her wages, and whenever I left town for a few days, leaving her the ordinary allowance for food, I always returned to find the kitten gaunt and yelling with famine and Eufemia pallid and inert from a diet of tortillas and coffee. If all of us perished in the effort, she was going to have a sewing machine, and if we held out long enough, a brass bed and a victrola.

  In the meantime, Consuelo came down with a mysterious and stubborn malady. Her young American woman briskly advised her to go to one of the very up-to-date public clinics for treatment. Consuelo at once “went Indian,” as her employer defines that peculiar state of remoteness which is not sullenness nor melancholy, nor even hostility—simply a condition of not-thereness to all approach. So long as it lasts, a mere foreigner might as well save his breath. Consuelo is Totonac, speaks her own tongue with her friends, is puritanically severe, honest and caretaking. Her village is so far away you must travel by train for a day or so, and then by horseback for two days more, and in her sick state she turned with longing to this far-off place where she could get the kind of help she really trusted.

  Somehow she was prevented from going, so she called in a curandera who came from this same village. A curandera is a cross between a witch wife and an herb doctor. She steeped Consuelo in home-made brews and incantations, and what we had feared was a tumor the curandera identified as a rib which had been jarred from its moorings. Whatever it was, Consuelo recovered, more or less. Consuelo has two cousins who left the petate and are now nurses in a famous American homeopathic sanitarium. They send her long lists of dietary rules and hygienic counsels, which her American employer follows with great effect. Consuelo prefers to stick to her own witch doctors, and lets the foreign ones alone.

  Hilaria is a curandera, and so is Eufemia in a limited way, and both of them remind me very much of the early American housewife who kept her family medicine chest supplied with her own remedies from tried recipes. They have extensive herb knowledge, and Eufemia was always bringing me a steaming glassful of brew for every smallest discomfort imaginable. I swallowed them down, and so ran a gamut of flavors and aromas, from the staggering bitterness of something she called the “prodigious cup” to the apple-flavored freshness of manzanilla flowers. Hilaria pierces ears when the moon is waning, to prevent swelling, and ritually dabs the ear with boiling fat, which should be an excellent antiseptic. To cure headache, a bottle of hot water at the feet draws the pain from the head. This works better if the sign of the cross is made over the head and the bottle. Every benefit is doubled if given with a blessing, and Eufemia, who knows the virtues of rubbing alcohol, always began my alcohol bath with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, may this make you well,” which was so gracious an approach I could hardly refuse to feel better.

  She agrees with Hilaria that a small green chile rubbed on the outer eyelid will cure inflammation of the eye, but you must toss it over your shoulder from you, and walk hastily away without glancing back. During my illness she moistened a cloth with orange-leaf water and put it on my head as a cure for fever. In the morning I found between the folds a little picture of the Holy Face. Eufemia takes up readily with every new thing, and uses iodoform, lysol, patent toothpaste, epsom salts, bicarbonate of soda, rubbing alcohol and mustard plasters very conveniently. Hilaria sticks firmly to her native herbs, and to cure colds puts a plaster of zapote—a soft black fruit—heated red hot, on the chest of her patients. Both remedies are remarkably helpful. But Eufemia is leaving the petate and Hilaria is going back to it.

  I sympathized with Eufemia’s ambitions, even to her fondness for toilet articles of imported German celluloid, her adoration for Japanese cups and saucers in preference to the Mexican pottery which I so love. But I had not reckoned on providing a dowry for a young woman, and the time came for us to part. I set the day two weeks off, and she agreed amiably. Then I gave her her month’s wages and two hours later she had packed up her bed and sent it away. Her young man came in and professed astonishment at the state of affairs. “She is not supposed to go for two weeks,” I told him, “and at least she must stay until tomorrow.” “I will see to that,” said the oily Enrique, “this is very surprising.” “Tomorrow she may go and welcome, in peace,” I assured him.

  “Ah, yes, peace, peace,” said Enrique. “Peace,” I echoed, and we stood there waving our hands at each other in a peculiar horizontal gesture, palms downward, crossing back and forth at our several wrists, about eye level. Between us we wore Eufemia down, and there was peace o
f a sort.

  But in the meantime, she had no bed, so she slept that night on a large petate with two red blankets, and seemed very cheerful about it. After all, it was her last night on a petate. I discovered later that it was Enrique who had suggested to her that she leave at once, so they might be married and go to Vera Cruz. Eufemia will never go back to her village. She is going to have a brass bed, and a sewing machine and a victrola, and there is no reason why a good barber should not buy a Ford. Her children will be added to the next generation of good little conservative right-minded dull people, like Enrique, or, with Eufemia’s fighting spirit, they may become mestizo revolutionaries, and keep up the work of saving the Indian.

  My new cook is Teodora. “Think of Eufemia going away with just a barber,” she says. “My cousin Nicolasa captured a chauffeur. A chauffeur is somebody. But a barber!”

  “Just the same, I am glad she is married,” I say.

  Teodora says, “Oh, not really married, just behind the church, as we say. We marry with everybody, one here, one there, a little while with each one.”

  “I hope Eufemia stays married, because I have plans for her family,” I tell her.

  “Oh, she will have a family, never fear,” says Teodora.


  The Charmed Life

  IN 1921, he was nearly eighty years old, and he had lived in Mexico for about forty years. Every day of those years he had devoted exclusively to his one interest in life: discovering and digging up buried Indian cities all over the country. He had come there, an American, a stranger, with this one idea. I had heard of him as a fabulous, ancient eccentric completely wrapped up in his theory of the origins of the Mexican Indian. “He will talk your arm off,” I was told.

  His shop was on the top floor of a ramshackle old building on a side street in Mexico City, reached by an outside flight of steps, and it had the weathered, open look of a shed rather than a room. The rain came in, and the dust, and the sunlight. A few battered showcases and long rough tables were piled up carelessly with “artifacts,” as the Old Man was careful to call them. There were skulls and whole skeletons, bushels of jade beads and obsidian knives and bronze bells and black clay whistles in the shape of birds.

  I was immensely attracted by the air of authenticity, hard to define, but easy to breathe. He was tough and lean, and his face was burned to a good wrinkled leather. He greeted me with an air of imperfect recollection as if he must have known me somewhere. We struck up an easy acquaintance at once, and he talked with the fluency of true conviction.

  Sure enough, within a quarter of an hour I had his whole theory of the origin of the ancient Mexicans. It was not new or original; it was one of the early theories since rejected by later scientists, but plainly the Old Man believed he had discovered it by himself, and perhaps he had. It was religion with him, a poetic, mystical, romantic concept. About the lost continent, and how the original Mexican tribes all came from China or Mongolia in little skiffs, dodging between hundreds of islands now sunk in the sea. He loved believing it and would listen to nothing that threatened to shake his faith.

  At once he invited me to go with him on a Sunday to dig in his latest buried city, outside the capital. He explained his system to me. He had unearthed nearly a half-hundred ancient cities in all parts of Mexico. One by one, in his vague phrase, he “turned them over to the government.” The government thanked him kindly and sent in a staff of expert scientists to take over, and the Old Man moved on, looking for something new.

  Finally by way of reward, they had given him this small and not very important city for his own, to settle down with. He sold in his shop the objects he found in the city, and with the profits he supported the digging operations on Sunday.

  He showed me photographs of himself in the early days, always surrounded by Indian guides and pack-mules against landscapes of cactus or jungle, a fine figure of a man with virile black whiskers and a level, fanatic eye. There were rifles strapped to the bales on the pack-mules, and the guards bristled with firearms. “I never carried a gun,” he told me. “I never needed to. I trusted my guides, and they trusted me.”

  I enjoyed the company of the Old Man, his impassioned singleness of purpose, his fervid opinions on his one topic of conversation, and the curiously appealing unhumanness of his existence. He was the only person I ever saw who really seemed as independent and carefree as a bird on a bough.

  He ate carelessly at odd hours, fried beans and tortillas from a basket left for him by the wife of his head digger, or he would broil a scrawny chicken on a stick, offer me half, and walk about directing his men, waving the other half. He had an outdoors sort of cleanliness and freshness; his clothes were clean, but very old and mended. Who washed and mended them I never knew. My own life was full of foolish and unnecessary complications, and I envied him his wholeness. I enjoyed my own sentimental notion of him as a dear, harmless, sweet old man of an appealing sociability, riding his hobby-horse in triumph to the grave, houseless but at home, completely free of family ties and not missing them, a happy, devoted man who had known his own mind, had got what he wanted in life, and was satisfied with it. Besides he was in perfect health and never bored.

  Crowds of visitors came and bought things, and he dropped the money in a cigar-box behind a showcase. He invited almost everybody to come out and watch him dig on Sundays, and a great many came, week after week, always a new set. He received a good many letters, most of them with foreign postmarks, and after a few rapid glances he dropped them into the drawer of a long table. “I know a lot of people,” he said, shuffling among the heap one day. “I ought to answer these. Big bugs, too, some of them.”

  One day, among a pile of slant-eyed clay faces, I found a dusty, dog-eared photograph of a young girl, which appeared to have been taken about fifty years before. She was elegant, fashionable, and so astonishingly beautiful I thought such perfection could belong only to a world-famous beauty. The Old Man noticed it in my hand. “My wife,” he said in his impersonal, brisk tone. “Just before we were married. She was about eighteen then.”

  “She is unbelievably beautiful,” I said.

  “She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw,” he said, matter-of-factly. “She is beautiful still.” He dropped the photograph in the drawer with the letters and came back talking about something else.

  After that, at odd moments, while he was polishing jade beads or brushing the dust off a clay bird, he dropped little phrases about his wife and children. “She was remarkable,” he said. “She had five boys in eight years. She was just too proud to have anything but boys, I used to tell her.”

  Again, later: “She was a perfect wife, perfect. But she wouldn’t come to Mexico with me. She said it was no place to bring up children.”

  One day, counting his money and laying it out in small heaps, one for each workman, he remarked absently: “She’s well off, you know—she has means.” He poured the heaps into a small sack and left the rest in the cigar-box. “I never wanted more money than I needed from one week to the next,” he said. “I don’t fool with banks. People say I’ll be knocked in the head and robbed some night, but I haven’t been, and I won’t.”

  One day we were talking about a plot to overthrow the Government which had just been frustrated with a good deal of uproar. “I knew about that months ago,” said the Old Man. “One of my politician friends wrote me. . . .” He motioned toward the table drawer containing the letters. “You’re interested in those things,” he said. “Would you like to read some of those letters? They aren’t private.”

  Would I? I spent a long summer afternoon reading the Old Man’s letters from his international big bugs, and I learned then and there that hair can rise and blood can run cold. There was enough political dynamite in those casually written letters to have blown sky-high any number of important diplomatic and financial negotiations then pending between several powerful governments. The writers were of all sorts, from the high-minded and religious to the hearty, horse-tradin
g type to the worldly, the shrewd, the professional adventurer, down to the natural moral imbecile, but they were all written in simple language with almost boyish candor and an indiscretion so complete it seemed a kind of madness.

  I asked him if he had ever shown them to anyone else. “Why, no,” he said, surprised at my excitement.

  I tried to tell him that if these letters fell into certain hands his life would be in danger. “Nonsense,” he said vigorously. “Everybody knows what I think of that stuff. I’ve seen ’em come and go, making history. Bah!”

  “Burn these letters,” I told him. “Get rid of them. Don’t even be caught dead with them.”

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