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FOLKS FROM HERE AND THERE by Álvaro Cunqueiro
PONTES OF MEIRADO
I met Pontes of Meirado many years ago. He was a grown man already. Since he was seventeen, he’d smoked a pipe and worn a hat. Tall, thin, dark, always sniffling, he wrapped his long neck in a scarf with green and red stripes and had a large Adam’s apple, angular and hairy, which was always moving. When he smoked, he blew smoke constantly out of his mouth and nostrils and, I think, from his ears and eyes. His hat was always perched on his head, swallowed up in the thick smoke. And his raspy voice emerged like from a deep cave when he gave his view on the antipodes, which he didn’t believe in. Pontes’ big argument was about sliding: if an aurora borealis falls down and slides while searching for an aurora australis, there’ll be a point when the soles of their feet touch. These two would be his antipodes. Now then, has anybody heard of someone slipping upward? The ones who talk about antipodes talk as if the earth were perfectly flat, and the world is round. In the barbershops, that was a much discussed topic.
Pontes insisted that he’d go to the lectures given in Buenos Aires by a German on the magnetic center of the earth, which is in the shape of a pear, and if the part about the magnet were true, then there really could be antipodes. The magnet, according to the German, took a while to form and until it was fully solidified, the earth, flying around the sun, went around dripping parts off its lower side, parts that can now be found on other planets: for example, a cherry tree on the moon or some sheep on Mars.
Pontes, whose first name was Manuel, returned from Argentina to see about an inheritance and while he was in bed with a bad cold, he remembered a girlfriend he’d had in Mar del Plata, an Italian lass called Virna Filossi, and sent papers to his brother Adolfo so he could marry her by proxy. But Adolfo liked the girl, threw the papers into the garbage and married the Calabrian girl himself. Pontes never got over that blow, even though Adolfo disappeared and he never had to give his brother his part of the inheritance. He told me about his love life in a tavern in Campo Castillo, in Lugo, while eating partridge. He’d grasp the partridge carefully by the neck and legs and sigh:
“There never was a more lovely traitress!”
After a moment’s pause, he’d sink his long, flat teeth into the bird’s breast.
Nothing more was ever heard about Adolfo or Virna. I told him, as a joke, that maybe, since the earth’s central magnet wasn’t in place, they’d fallen off the planet and were roaming around the moon.
“I’m the only one who’d know how to make that trip.”
And from the inside pocket of his leather jacket he’d take out a handkerchief embroidered with little blue flowers, a gift Virna had given him. He’d rub it over his nose and eyes. Over his nose, so he could recall the scent of his lost lover; over his eyes, so he could dry his big, bitter tears.
RELLO OF PONTEMIL
Rello was a quiet fellow. He would sit in a corner of the tavern, watching the card games people were betting on and sipping his mug of red wine from San Fiz. His dog Listo was as quiet and silent as he was. It would rest its head on its master’s leg and doze, its long ears falling over its eyes. Rello never talked about anything. When a card game was over, he would go and sit down where there was another one. If they asked him why he didn’t play, he said he didn’t know how to bet.
“I always go too high!” he insisted.
At exactly midnight on Saturday night, Rello would retire and his Listo would follow him out, wagging its tail. Rello always took a newspaper from the tavern with him, mostly an old one, other times with pages missing. Rello hardly knew how to read or couldn’t read at all, but the newspaper was his eternal companion. A fellow named Rozas, who liked to argue and was quite curious and explained what they said in Madrid when Joselito the bullfighter died, asked him one night why he took El Debate. Rello turned red and said that it was always a good thing to have a newspaper around the house. Weeks later, from a nephew of his, Rozas heard that at the end of the day Rello would sit on the balcony of his house, which looks out over the river, with the newspaper open in front of him as if he were reading and he’d spend a good hour or so there. Since I got along well with Rello, I asked him why he did that.
“You won’t tell a soul?”
“Why, of course not!”
Rello had run into a certain Xestoso of Montes on the road to Pontemil one night as it was growing dark. The road to Pontemil goes down to the river through an oak grove they call A Adrela and when it reaches the bottom, it runs through a lot, which is usually a mud flat, with a dozen old chestnut trees and a few alders. Xestoso of Montes died some while back, twelve or fifteen years ago. He was very learned in international politics, knew about the loss of Cuba and when the War of 1914 began, he bought La Esfera so he could collect Matania’s drawings of battles, which he used to decorate his house. In the other world he must have continued to be concerned about the matters of this one because what he wanted to find out from Rello, which is why he’d appeared to him and scared him silly, was if the Kaiser had gone back to ruling in Berlin. Rello was afraid to admit to Xestoso that he didn’t know how to read the paper and didn’t know who the Kaiser was when Xestoso offered him two pesos a week if he’d keep an eye on things in the newspapers, in case the Kaiser returned. So Xestoso could see him reading the newspaper, Rello would sit on the sunny balcony.
“Xestoso pays very punctually,” Rello assured me.
And after thinking about it a bit, scratching his head with his right hand while he lifted his old hat with the left and whispering in my ear, he asked me:
“And did the Kaiser return?”
I explained to him who Kaiser Wilhelm II was, with his moustache and shrunken arm, how he’d fled from Germany, gone to live in Holland in a place where the finest apples grew and there was lots of cheese, how he’d got married a second time, to a blond, chubby woman, and set up a farm.
“And is he still alive?”
I didn’t want to tell him a lie and told him the Kaiser had died. I realized this meant posing a moral question for Rello. If the Kaiser were dead, he couldn’t return to Berlin and it was deceptive not to tell Xestoso of Montes the truth. Rello went along the road to A Adrela, thinking. A little while later I ran into him in the tavern at Empalme. He was standing over by the kegs of wine. He was about to leave, followed as always by Listo. On top of the wine barrel was the newspaper. He took it, folded it, made a kind of sign to me by slightly bowing his head and left without even saying good night. I realized that he was still collecting two pesos a week from Xestoso – may he rest in peace – to keep an eye out for the Kaiser, in case he ever returned.
Translated from Galician by Kathleen March
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