Excerpt

“The Houseguest”

Amparo Dávila, trans. Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson

November 19, 2018 
The following is from Amparo Dávila's collection, The Houseguest and Other Stories. Drawing comparisons to Kafka, Poe, Leonora Carrington, and Shirley Jackson, the stories in the collection follow characters to the limits of desire, paranoia, insomnia, and fear. Amparo Dávila was born in Mexico in 1928. She has been hailed as one of Mexico's masters of the short story. Her honors include the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize in 1977 and the Medalla Bellas Artes in 2015.

I’ll never forget the day he came to live with us. My husband brought him home from a trip.

At the time we had been married for almost three years, we had two children, and I wasn’t happy. To my husband I represented something like a piece of furniture, which you’re used to seeing in a particular spot but which doesn’t make the slightest impression. We lived in a small, isolated town, far from the city. A town that was almost dead, or about to disappear.

I couldn’t suppress a cry of horror the first time I saw him. He was grim, sinister. With large yellowish eyes, unblinking and almost circular, that seemed to pierce through things and people.

My miserable life became a hell. The very night he arrived, I begged my husband not to condemn me to the torture of his company. I couldn’t help it; he filled me with mistrust and horror. “He’s completely inoffensive,” my husband said, looking at me with marked indifference. “You’ll get used to having him around, and if you don’t. . .” It was impossible to convince him to take him away. He stayed in our house.

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I wasn’t the only one who suffered because of his presence. Everyone in the house—my children, the woman who helped me with the chores, her little son—dreaded him. Only my husband enjoyed having him there.

From the first day, my husband assigned him the corner room. It was a large room, but dark and damp. Because of these drawbacks, I never used it. He, however, seemed content with it. Being quite dark, it suited his needs. He would sleep until night fell, and I never discovered what time he went to bed.

I couldn’t suppress a cry of horror the first time I saw him. He was grim, sinister. With large yellowish eyes, unblinking and almost circular, that seemed to pierce through things and people.

I lost what little peace I had enjoyed in that big house. During the day, everything proceeded with apparent normality. I always rose very early, dressed the children—who would already be awake—gave them breakfast, and entertained them while Guadalupe fixed up the house and went out to do the shopping.

The house was very large, with a garden in the middle and the rooms laid out around it. Between the rooms and the garden were corridors that protected the rooms from the harshness of the frequent rains and wind. To keep such a large house in order and its garden cared for—my morning activity each day—was hard work. But I loved my garden. The passageways were covered with climbing plants that flowered almost all year round. I remember how much I enjoyed sitting in one of those corridors during the afternoon and sewing the children’s clothes, amidst the perfume of the honeysuckle and the bougainvillea.

In the garden I grew chrysanthemums, pansies, Alpine violets, begonias, and heliotropes. While I watered the plants, the children entertained themselves looking for caterpillars among the leaves. Sometimes they spent hours, silent and very intent, trying to catch the drops of water that leaked from the old garden hose.

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I couldn’t keep myself from glancing now and then towards the corner room. Although he spent all day sleeping, I couldn’t be sure. There were times when, as I was cooking the afternoon meal, I suddenly saw his shadow cast upon the wood stove. I would feel him behind me. . . I’d throw down whatever I had in my hands and run from the kitchen screaming like a madwoman. He would go back to his room, as if nothing had happened.

I think he was completely unaware of Guadalupe; he never approached her or chased after her. Not so with me and the children. He hated them, and he stalked me constantly.

When he left his room, there began the most terrible nightmare a person could endure. He always stationed himself under a small arbor in front of my bedroom door. I stopped leaving my room. Several times, thinking he was still asleep, I would head toward the kitchen to make the children a snack, then suddenly discover him in some dark corner of the walkway, beneath the flowering vines. “He’s there already, Guadalupe!” I would shout desperately.

Guadalupe and I never referred to him by name. It seemed to us that doing so would lend greater reality to that shadowy being. We always said, “There he is, he’s come out, he’s sleeping, he, he, he. . .”

He only took two meals, one when he woke up at dusk and the other, perhaps, in the early morning before he went to sleep. Guadalupe was responsible for bringing him the tray; I can assure you that she flung it into the room, for the poor woman was just as terrified as I was. His nourishment was limited entirely to meat; he wouldn’t touch anything else.

When he left his room, there began the most terrible nightmare a person could endure. He always stationed himself under a small arbor in front of my bedroom door. I stopped leaving my room.

When the children had gone to sleep, Guadalupe would bring dinner to my room. I couldn’t leave them alone, knowing that he had gotten up or was about to. Once her chores were finished, Guadalupe went off to bed with her little boy and I remained alone, watching my children’s slumber. As my bedroom door was always left unlocked, I didn’t dare go to bed, fearing that he could come in and attack us at any moment. And it wasn’t possible to lock it; my husband always came home late, and if he had found it locked, he would have thought. . . And he came home very late. He had a lot of work, he said once. I think other things kept him entertained as well. . .

*

One night I was awake until almost two in the morning, hearing him outside. . . When I woke up, I saw him next to my bed, looking at me with his fixed, piercing gaze. . . I leaped out of bed and threw the gasoline lamp at him, the one I left burning all night. There was no electricity in that town, and I couldn’t have endured being in the dark, knowing that at any moment. . . He dodged the blow and left the room. The lamp shattered on the brick floor and the gasoline quickly burst into flame. If it hadn’t been for Guadalupe, who came running when I screamed, the whole house would have burned down.

My husband had no time to listen to me, nor did he care what happened in the house. We only spoke when absolutely necessary. Between us, affection and words had long since been exhausted.

*

I feel sick all over again when I remember. . . Guadalupe had gone out shopping and left her little Martín sleeping in a drawer where she used to lay him down during the day. I checked on him several times; he was sleeping peacefully. It was close to noon. I was combing my children’s hair when I heard the crying of the little boy mingled with strange shouts. When I reached the room I found him cruelly beating the boy. I still can’t explain how I wrested the little child from his grasp and hurled myself at him with a heavy stick I found at hand, and I attacked him with all the fury I had kept pent up for so long. I don’t know if I managed to do him much harm, because I fell down in a faint. When Guadalupe came back from her shopping, she found me unconscious and her little boy covered with bruises and bloody scratches. Her pain and rage were terrible. Fortunately the boy didn’t die and he soon recovered.

I was afraid that Guadalupe would go away and leave me alone. If she didn’t, it was because she was a brave and noble woman who felt great affection for the children and for me. But that day a hatred was born in her that clamored for vengeance.

When I told my husband what had happened, I demanded that he take him away, pleading that he could kill our children the way he had tried to do with little Martín. “Every day you’re more hysterical, it’s truly painful and depressing to see you like this. . . I’ve explained to you a thousand times that he’s a harmless being.”

I thought then about fleeing from that house, from my husband, from him. . . But I had no money and no easy way to communicate with anyone. Without friends or family members to turn to, I felt as alone as an orphan.

My husband had no time to listen to me, nor did he care what happened in the house. We only spoke when absolutely necessary. Between us, affection and words had long since been exhausted.

My children were terrified; they didn’t want to play in the garden anymore and they wouldn’t leave my side. When Guadalupe went out to the market, I shut myself in my room with them.

“This situation can’t go on,” I said to Guadalupe one day.

“We have to do something, and soon,” she replied.

“But what can the two of us do alone?”

“Alone, true, but with such hatred. . .”

Her eyes held a strange gleam. I felt afraid and overjoyed.

*

The opportunity arrived when we least expected it. My husband left for the city to take care of some business. He would take a while to return, he told me, some twenty days.

I don’t know if he was aware that my husband was gone, but that day he woke up earlier than usual and stationed himself in front of my room. Guadalupe and her son slept in my room, and for the first time I could lock the door.

Guadalupe and I spent almost the entire night making plans. The children slept peacefully. From time to time we heard him come up to the door of the room and pound at it furiously. . .

The next day we gave the three children their breakfast and, so that we might be calm and so they wouldn’t interfere with our plans, we shut them in my room. Guadalupe and I had many things to do and were in such a hurry to complete them that we couldn’t spare time even to eat.

Guadalupe sawed several large, sturdy planks while I looked for a hammer and nails. When everything was ready, we crept noiselessly toward the corner room. The wings of the double door were ajar. Holding our breath, we dropped the bolts, then locked the door and began to nail the planks across it until we had completely sealed it shut. While we worked, thick drops of sweat ran down our foreheads. He didn’t make any noise; he was seemingly fast asleep. When everything was finished, Guadalupe and I hugged each other, crying.

The following days were awful. He lived many days without air, without light, without food. . . At first he pounded at the door, throwing himself against it; he shouted desperately, clawed and scratched. . . Neither Guadalupe nor I could eat or sleep—the screams were terrible! Sometimes we thought my husband would come back before he was dead. If he were to find him that way!. . . His endurance was great; I think he lasted close to two weeks. . .

One day there was no more noise to be heard. Not even a moan. . . Still, we waited two more days before opening the room.

*

When my husband returned, we greeted him with the news of his guest’s sudden and disconcerting death.

__________________________________

From The Houseguest and Other Stories. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing. Copyright © 2009, 2018 by Amparo Dávila. English translation copyright © 2018 by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson.




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