On hot days, having waited for Mom and Aunt Ruth to begin their naps to sneak out the white door, I would go play with Leticia and Holanda on the tracks of the Central Argentine Railroad. Mom and Aunt Ruth were always tired from washing the china. Particularly tired were they when Holanda and I would dry the dishes because of all the arguments, all the spoons hitting the floor, all the things said that only we girls understood. Everything was saturated with the smell of fat, José's miaows, and the darkness of the kitchen, resulting in a woeful fight and the subsequent spillage. Holanda specialized in making these type of messes. For example, letting an already-washed glass drop in the container of dirty water, or recalling en passant how in the Lozas' house there were two servants for every task. I, however, employed other means. I preferred insinuating to Aunt Ruth that she would chafe her hands if she continued to scrub casseroles instead of concentrating on plates and cups – precisely the things, as it were, that Mom liked to wash. This was the easy way to provoke a silent struggle for an unimportant item.
Once we had gorged ourselves on family counsel and lengthy reminiscences, the heroic alternative was to pour boiling water onto the cat's back. A tall tale, that old chestnut about the scalded cat – unless one took the reference to cold water literally. José never shied away from hot water and often seemed, the wretched little beast, to offer himself up to a half-cup at a hundred degrees or a little less (much less most likely, since his hair never fell off). The terrible consequences notwithstanding, in the confusion crowned by Aunt Ruth's splendid B-flat and Mom's race in search of the cane of justice, Holanda and I would disappear into the covered gallery and the empty back rooms where Leticia would be waiting for us, inexplicably reading Ponson du Terrail.
Mom would normally pursue us for a good stretch. But the desire to crack our heads open would soon fade and in the end – we had barred the door and begged, with theatrical emotionality, for forgiveness – she got winded and walked away repeating the same phrase:
"You'll end up on the street, you unfortunate lice."
Where we ended up were the tracks of the Central Argentine Railroad. With the house in silence and the cat leaning under the lemon tree in preparation for his perfumed and wasp-ridden nap, we would slowly open the white door. Closing the door behind us felt like the wind, like a freedom that slipped from our hands and entire bodies and hastened us forward. Then we ran impulsively, using our momentum to climb the railroad slope. And once we reached the top of the world we would contemplate our kingdom in silence.
Our kingdom was as such: a great curve in the tracks ending just before the back of our house. Nothing more than ballast and crossties and the two tracks. Sparse and rather stupid-looking blades jutted out from between the cobblestones where the crystals, the quartz and the feldspar – the components of granite – shone like genuine diamonds against the two o'clock sun. When we would squat down to touch the tracks (without losing a moment, since staying there would have been rather dangerous, less so from oncoming trains than from the possibility of someone from the house spotting us) the heat of the stone would engulf our faces. Standing against the river's breeze produced a wet sort of warmth on our cheeks and ears. We liked flexing our legs, down, up, down, entering one now a second zone of heat, admiring the sweat on our faces which had boiled us all into a soup. And all this time we spoke not a word, gazing at the rear of the tracks or the river on the other side, that slice of river the color of café au lait.
After this initial inspection of the kingdom we would descend the slope and take refuge under the baleful shade of the willows pinned to the fence of our house, onto which opened, as it were, the white door. This was the capital of the kingdom, the sylvan city, the headquarters of our game. The first one to start the game was Leticia. She was the happiest and the most privileged. Leticia didn't have to dry dishes and could spend the day reading or gluing together figurines. If she asked, she would be allowed to stay up late in the room exclusively for her with some tasty meat broth and all kinds of other perks. She had gradually taken advantage of these privileges, and since last summer it was she who had controlled the game – I think in reality she ran the whole kingdom. In the very least it was she who would go ahead and say things while Holanda and I, something like happy, would accept whatever she said without the slightest protest. Those long talks with Mom about how we were supposed to behave with Leticia probably contributed to this state of affairs, or perhaps we just loved her enough not to be bothered by her being the boss. What a shame that in appearance she had nothing of a boss. She was the shortest of the three of us and she was so thin. Now Holanda was thin, and I weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds; but Leticia was the thinnest of us all. To make it worse, her thinness was such that it could even be detected in her neck and ears. Maybe the hardening of her back made her appear thinner, as if she almost couldn't move her head to both sides like a stiff ironing board, one of those expensive white ones found in homes like the Lozas'. An ironing board with the narrow end up against the wall. And she was the one controlling us.
The most profound satisfaction I could ever imagine would be for Mom and Aunt Ruth one day to learn of the game. And if they did find out, the biggest brouhaha possible would ensue. Think of it: the B-minor and the fainting spells, the remonstrances of devotion and sacrifice so poorly compensated, the massive accumulation of invocations of the most infamous punishments – all for the purpose of placing the finishing touches on our wicked fates, in other words, our ending up on the street. This last threat had always left the three of us perplexed because, to us at least, ending up on the street seemed perfectly normal.
First of all, Leticia made us draw lots. We hid the pieces in our fists, counted until twenty-one, any old thing. With the count-to-twenty-one system we thought up two or three more girls and included them in the count so as to avoid any traps. If one them drew twenty-one, we would pull her out of the group and draw lots again until one of us drew the number. So Holanda and I carried the stone and opened the box of ornaments. Supposing that Holanda had won, Leticia and I would select the ornaments. The game had two forms, by statues and postures. Postures did not require ornaments but did require a lot of expressiveness. For envy we would show our teeth, wring our hands and manage something akin to a jaundiced air. For charity the ideal would involve an angelic countenance, the eyes cast towards the heavens and the hands offering something – a rag, a ball, a willow branch – to a poor invisible orphan. Shame and fear were duck soup; rancor and jealousy, on the other hand, required more extensive preparation. Ornaments adorned almost all the statues with total freedom of placement. Now for a statue one had to consider every detail of its attire. The rules proclaimed that the person chosen could not participate in the selection; the two others would debate the matter and then attach the ornaments as they saw fit; the chosen then had to forge her statue by taking advantage of what had been placed upon her. And here is where the game became much more complicated and exciting since, at times, there were alliances against the chosen, and the victim found herself garbed in ornaments that did not suit her in the least. Thus her livelihood depended on her invention of a statue. In general when the game indicated postures the person chosen came off well, but there were times when the statues were horrible failures.
Who knows when my story truly began, but matters changed the day the first piece of paper glided down from the train. Now we clearly didn't put on our postures and statues for ourselves because we would have become disenchanted right away. Game rules dictated that the person chosen had to place herself on the slope emanating from the shade of the willows and await the 2:08 from Tigre. The trains went by quite quickly at this height in Palermo so statues or postures could not cause us any embarrassment; we saw, in any case, almost nothing of the people in the windows. Yet in time we gained more and more practice and came to realize that there were some passengers expecting to see us. A white-haired gentleman with Carey glasses would stick his head out the window and wave at the statue or posture with a handkerchief; schoolboys on their way home would sit on the running boards yelling things as they went by, although a few more serious lads just stared attentively. Not that, of course, the statue or posture could see anything at all because of the effort of immobilization. So the two others beneath the willows would analyze the resultant indifference or smashing success.
It was a Tuesday when the paper drifted from the second car into our lives. It landed very close to Holanda, who on that day happened to be slander, then slid on towards me. The paper was folded many times over and attached to a nut. In a male and rather ugly hand, it said: "Very pretty statues. I'm in the second car, third window. Ariel B." We thought the note a bit dry considering all the labor necessary to pin it to the nut and throw it out the window, but we were pleased. We drew lots to see who would keep it and it became mine. The next day no one wanted to play because we all wanted to see what Ariel B. looked like. Yet we feared he would misinterpret such an interruption, so we drew lots again and Leticia won. Holanda and I were very happy: Leticia, poor thing, was an excellent statue.
Her paralysis was not noticeable when she was still. She was capable of gestures of enormous nobility, and as postures she always chose generosity, piety, sacrifice and renunciation. As statues she emulated the style of the Venus in the living room that Aunt Ruth called the "Venus de Nile-o." We selected special ornaments for this statue to make the best possible impression on Ariel. A piece of green velvet was wrapped around her like a tunic with a crown of willow in her hair, and since we were all in short sleeves, a powerful Greek flavor obtained. Leticia rehearsed for a while in the shade, and we decided that we would also come out and greet Ariel pleasantly but discreetly.
Leticia was magnificent, not moving a finger once the train arrived. Since she couldn't turn her head she cast it back, her arms clasping her body as if they weren't there, and apart from the green of the tunic, it was very much like looking at the Venus of the Nile. In the third window a boy with blond curls and light eyes smiled widely once he saw that Holanda and I were also there to greet him. The train was gone a second later, but at four-thirty we were still debating whether he was dressed in dark colors, whether he had a red tie on, or whether he was cute or heinous. That Thursday I did a posture of despondency, to which we received another paper: "I like all three of you a lot. Ariel." Now he would put his head and one arm out the window as he greeted us with a smile. We estimated he was eighteen (certain that he was actually no more than sixteen) and decided that he was coming back every day from an English school. The surest thing about it was the English school; we couldn't accept just any old affiliation. And Ariel seemed to us to be very good indeed.
Holanda then happened to have the incredible luck of winning three days in a row. She outdid herself with the postures of disappointment and theft, as well as with the immensely difficult "dancer" statue standing on one leg just as the train entered the curve. The other day it was I who won, and then I won again. When I was doing the posture of horror, one of Ariel's papers fairly hit me in the nose. Admittedly, at first, we didn't quite understand: "The most lovely is the most idle." Leticia was the last of us to grasp the meaning, and we saw how she blushed and went off by herself to the side while Holanda and I exchanged looks of resentment and frustration. The first notion that occurred to us was that Ariel was a fool, but we couldn't very well say that to Leticia, poor little angel, given her sensitivity and the cross that she bore already. She, for her part, said nothing at all. Yet she seemed to understand that the paper was for her and so she kept it. That day we returned home in silence and didn't play together that night. At the table Leticia was cheerful and gay, her eyes sparkled, and Mom even looked over once or twice to Aunt Ruth as if summoning her as a witness to her own happiness. Those were the days of a new experimental treatment to make Leticia stronger, and it appeared to be working wonders.