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Tuesday
Feb092010

Casa tomada

The classic story ("House taken") by this Argentine author.  You can read the original here.

1

We liked the house because apart from being spacious and old (today old houses succumb to the most advantageous liquidation of their property) it held the memories of our great-grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our forefathers and all our infancy.

We were accustomed, Irene and I, to living alone in the house, which was madness since eight people could have lived in it without getting in each other’s way.  We would do the cleaning in the morning, getting up at seven, and then from eleven onwards I would let Irene inspect the last few rooms while I made my way to the kitchen.  We would lunch at noon, always punctually; there no longer remained anything more to do than a few dirty dishes.  It was so pleasant to eat lunch and think of the house in its profundity and silence, and how we would do enough to keep it clean.  Sometimes we would come to believe that it was the house that did not allow us to get married.  Irene spurned two suitors without any substantial reason, and Maria Esther died on me before we managed to get engaged.  We entered our forties with the unexpressed idea that our simple and silent marriage of siblings was a necessary closing ceremony to the genealogy carefully placed in this house by our great-grandparents.  One day we would die there, idle and elusive cousins would be left with the house and raze it to batten themselves on the land and the bricks; or, better, we ourselves would knock it down justly and fairly before it was too late.

Irene was a girl born to bother no one.  Apart from her matitudinal activity she spent the rest of the day knitting on the sofa of her bedroom.  I don’t know why she knitted so much; I think that women knit once they have found in this work a grand pretext for not doing anything at all. Irene was not like that, however, she always knitted things we needed: cardigans for the winter, socks for me, shawls and vests for herself.  Sometimes she would knit a vest and then undo it in a quick moment because it wasn’t to her liking.  It was funny to see the mountain of wool curled up in the little basket, resistant to its loss of form for another few hours.  On Saturday I would go to the center of town to buy wool.  Irene trusted my tastes and was happy with the colors I brought back, and I never had to return any wool with hanks.  I took advantage of these outings to poke around some bookstores and ask, in vain, whether there were any new French arrivals.  Since 1939 nothing of any value had arrived in Argentina.

But I’m interested in talking about the house, about the house and about Irene, because I am of no importance.  I ask myself what Irene would have done without her knitting.  One can reread a book, but once a pullover is done you can’t redo it without a huge scandal.  One day I found the bottom drawer of our camphor chest of drawers filled with shawls, white, green and purple shawls.  There they sat surrounded by mothballs, piled up like some haberdashery display.  It wasn’t worth asking Irene what she planned to do with them.  We were not obliged to make a living; every month the silver from the fields came and our funds increased.  But the only thing that kept Irene entertained was her knitting, which was a marvelous way for her to decompress, while for me as the hours passed, her hands seemed like silver hedgehogs, her needles coming and going, and one or two little baskets on the floor where the balls of yarn were in constant agitation.  It was beautiful. 

2

How could I have forgotten the layout of the house?  The dining room, a room with Gobelins, the library and three large bedrooms were located in backmost part of the house, the part which overlooked Rodríguez Peña.  Only a corridor with a solid oak door isolated this part of the front wing in which there was a bathroom, the kitchen, our bedrooms, and the main living room, which communicated to the bedrooms and hallway.  You entered the house through a hallway in majolica, and the interior door gave out to the living room.  This was set up in such a way that entering through the hallway, you would open the interior door and move on into the living room; on the sides were the doors to our bedrooms, and at the front was the hallway which led to the part all the way in the back; advancing through the hallway you would cross the oak door and farther over there would begin the other side of the house, or you could also simply go to the left right up to the door and then follow a narrower passageway which would lead to the kitchen and bathroom.  Whenever the door was open you noticed that the house was large; when it wasn’t open, you had the impression of one of the apartments being built today, hardly any space for moving about.  Irene and I always lived in this part of the house; we almost never went beyond the oak door apart from cleaning, and it is amazing how much earth the furniture takes up.  Buenos Aires might be a clean city but this is owing to its residents and not to anything else.  There was too much earth in the air, a gust of wind hardly blew, and the dust could be felt on the marble of the consoles and between the diamonds in the macramé carpets.  Quite a bit of work to get that off with a feather duster as it flies and stays suspended in air, a moment before it alights again onto the furniture and the pianos. 

3

There is one thing I will always remember with intense clarity because it was simple and happened not within a useless context.  Irene was knitting in her bedroom; it was eight o’clock at night and it suddenly occurred to me to light the fire under the kettle for mate.  I went through the hallway until I came up to the half-open oak door and then was walking to the corner which led to the kitchen when I heard something in the dining room or the library.  The sound was imprecise and muffled as if a chair had been knocked over onto a carpet or a drowned whisper of conversation.  I also heard it, at the same time or a second later, at the back of the hallway which had several rooms up to the door.  I pulled myself against the door before it was too late, closing it as I slammed my body into it.  Luckily the key was on our side of the lock and I lowered the large bolt for additional security.

I went to the kitchen and heated up the kettle.  And when I returned with the tray of mate, I said to Irene:

“I had to close the door to the hallway. They’ve taken the back.”

She let her knitting drop and looked at me with her sad, tired eyes.

“Are you sure?”

I said I was.

“Then,” she said, retrieving her needles, “we’ll have to live on this side.”

I primed the mate very carefully, but she delayed a while before resuming her work.  I remember that she was knitting a grey vest; I liked that vest. 

4

Those first days seemed awful to both of us.  We had each left many beloved things in the part of the house that was taken.  My French books, for example, were all in the library.  Irene missed some carpets and a pair of slippers which kept her so warm throughout the winter.  I thought of my juniper pipe and I believe that Irene was preoccupied by memories of an old bottle of Hesperidina.  Quite frequently (although this only happened the first few days), we would close some drawer from the chest of drawers and look at one another in utter sadness.

"It's not here."

And there went one more thing lost to the other side of the house.

But we also had some advantages.  Cleaning became much simpler, so that even getting up very late, at nine-thirty for example, we were sitting there idly with our arms crossed before the clock struck eleven.  Irene got accustomed to coming with me to the kitchen and helping me prepare lunch.  I thought it over and then made the decision: while I was preparing lunch Irene would make some cold dishes for us to eat at night.  We were happy because it was always so hard to leave our bedrooms at sundown and get to cooking something.  Now we made do with the table from Irene's bedroom and dishes of cold cuts.

Irene was happy since this left her more time to knit;  I was a little lost because of my books.  But I didn't inflict my hurt on my sister and started to review our father's stamp collection, which helped me kill the time.  We had a lot of fun, each one doing his own thing, almost always reconvening in Irene's bedroom, the more comfortable of the two.  Sometimes Irene would say:

"Look at this point right here, it just occurred to me.  Doesn't it look like a drawing of a clover?"

A while later it was I who showed her a piece of paper so that she could see the value of an Eupen or Malmédy seal.  We were doing alright, and little by little we started not to think about anything.  One can live without thinking. 

5

(When Irene would call out in a loud voice I would wake up immediately.  Nothing could possibly accustom me to this strange voice, like that of a statue or parrot, a voice that came from the world of dreams not her throat.  Irene would say that my dreams consisted of big starts and shakes which would sometimes throw off the cover.  Our bedrooms were separated by the living room, but at night we could hear anything from anywhere in the house.  We could hear breathing, coughing; we sensed in advance the dawn which led to the key on the night stand and our mutual and frequent insomnia.

Apart from this, everything in the house was quiet.   During the day there were domestic murmurs, the metallic friction of the knitting needles, the creaking of the pages of the stamp album.  I believe I mentioned that the oak door was solid.  In the kitchen and bathroom, which were adjacent the taken part, we began to talk very loudly and Irene sang some nursery rhymes.  There was too much noise from the china and glassware in the kitchen for other noises to interrupt them.  Very rarely we permitted silence there, because once we came back  to the bedrooms and the living room the house became silent and half-lit until we stepped more slowly so as not to cause ourselves any difficulty.  I think that this was why whenever Irene would call out in a loud voice I would  wake up immediately.) 

6

Now I'm almost repeating the same thing without mentioning the consequences.  I get thirsty at night, and before going to bed I told this to Irene, who then proceeded to the kitchen to get me a glass of water.  From the door of the bedroom (she was knitting) I heard noise in the kitchen; perhaps in the kitchen or in the bathroom because at the corner of the hallway the sound went out.  My brusque manner of stopping caught Irene's attention and she came to me without saying a word.  We stayed there listening to the noises, clearly perceiving that they were from this side of the oak door, in the kitchen and in the bathroom, or in the same hallway where the corner began, almost on our side.

We didn't even exchange glances.  I pressed Irene's arm and made her run with me up to the interior door without turning back.  The noises behind us could be heard more strongly now but were still muffled.  I slammed the door shut and we stood there in the hallway.  Now nothing could be heard any more.

"They've taken this part," said Irene.  Her knitting had fallen from her hands and the threads went up to the door and got lost underneath.  Once she saw that the balls of yarn were on the other side, she dropped her knitting without so much as looking down.

"Did you take the time to bring something with you?"  was my futile question.

"No, nothing," she said.

We were left with nothing but the clothes we had on.  I remembered the fifteen thousand pesos I had stashed in the wardrobe of my bedroom.  But it was already too late.

Since I still had my wristwatch, I saw that it was eleven at night.  I threw my arm around Irene's waist (I think she was crying) and we walked out to the street.  Before moving away from it all, I felt sorry and closed the front door well, then I threw the key into the sewer.  No need for some poor devil to think of breaking in and staying in the house, at this hour of the night and with the house taken.   

Reader Comments (2)

"mate" means tea

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMariah McDaniel

"Mate" is its own beast (the OED has "A bitter infusion made from maté leaves, drunk as a stimulant for its high caffeine content. Also called Paraguay tea"; cf., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_(beverage)), and has a far more specific cultural connotation than "tea," hence the italics. Thanks for your comments, Mariah.

February 19, 2013 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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