Before going to sleep Holanda and I discussed the matter. It wasn't so much Ariel's note that was bothersome; after all, from a train things look the way they look. But it seemed that Leticia was exploiting her advantages over us. She knew that we weren't going to say anything to her. She also knew that in a home where someone has a physical defect and a lot of pride everyone, beginning with the afflicted, pretends to ignore the shortcoming. Or rather, the best off are those who pretend that they don't know that the afflicted knows. And yet much exaggeration had accompanied Leticia to the dinner table, and her willfulness in keeping the paper was simply too much. That evening my train nightmares recurred, and as dawn spread its rosy fingers I found myself wandering on enormous railroad beaches covered with tracks full of junctions. From a distance I could make out the red lights of the oncoming locomotives. I calculated with no small angst what would happen if the train passed to my left, all the while worried about the possible arrival of an express train into my back or – what was even worse – that at the last second one of the trains would be shunted and run me over. By the morning, however, I had forgotten my adventures since Leticia had woken up very sad and we had to help her get dressed. She seemed somewhat contrite about what had happened yesterday and we were very good to her, telling her that such things occurred when she walked too much and that perhaps it would be better if she just stayed in her room reading. She said nothing but came to the table for lunch. She answered Mom's questions by saying that she was very well and that her back hardly hurt any more. She said this to her and looked at us.
That afternoon I won, but then God knows what came over me and I told Leticia that I would let her take my place – without, of course, telling her why. Because he preferred her and never tired of gazing at her. As the game indicated statue, we selected simple things for her so as not to complicate her life, and she invented a type of Chinese princess filled with shame, her eyes cast down upon the floor and her hands together as was the habit of Chinese princesses. When the train passed, Holanda lay down on her back below the willows. But I watched and saw that Ariel only had eyes for Leticia. He kept looking at her until the train had compassed the curve, and Leticia stayed still not knowing that he was no longer looking at her. Yet once she came to relax beneath the willows we saw that she did indeed know and that she would have liked to keep the ornaments on the whole afternoon, the whole evening, the whole night.
That Wednesday Holanda and I drew lots since Leticia told us that it was fair for her to step down. Holanda won with her confounded luck, but Ariel's paper fell on my side. When I picked it up I had the impulse of giving it to Leticia, who said nothing. But then I thought that this was not a good time to indulge her, and I opened the letter slowly. Ariel claimed that the next day he would get off at the neighboring station and come to the embankment to chat for a while. Everything was horribly written, but the last sentence was beautiful: "My best regards to the three statues." His signature resembled a doodle although his personality shone through.
While we were stripping Holanda of her ornaments, Leticia looked at me once or twice. I had already read them the message and no one had commented, which was kind of annoying since Ariel was finally coming and one had to ponder this novelty and make a decision. If anyone in the house found out or if by sheer misfortune one of the Lozas, those envious dwarves, were to spy on us, there was going to be a brouhaha of the first order. Moreover, it was very strange for us to remain quiet about such a matter and almost ignore one another while we gathered the ornaments and made for the white door.
Aunt Ruth asked Holanda and me to wash José as Leticia had to undergo treatment, so at long last we were able to let off some steam quietly. It seemed wonderful that Ariel was going to come; we had never had such a friend. We couldn't count our cousin Tito, a crybaby who assembled figurines and believed in the first communion. We were nervous in expectation and it showed in our care of José, poor angel. I didn't know what to think; on the one hand, it seemed awful that Ariel had become privy to the game, although it was also fair that such matters would be clarified since no one needed to be harmed because of someone else. What I would have wanted was not to have Leticia suffer. She bore a large enough cross as it was with her new treatment and all those other things.
That night Mom was puzzled to find us so quiet. She said it was a miracle and asked whether mice hadn't eaten our tongues; then she looked at Aunt Ruth and both of them certainly thought that we had been up to no good and were now silent out of remorse. Leticia ate very little, said she was in pain, and asked that she be allowed to go to her room and read Rocambole. Holanda held out her arm although she really didn't want to do so, whereas I began to scheme – which is what I do when I'm nervous. On two separate occasions I entertained the notion of going to see Leticia in her room, and no one told me what the two of were doing in there by themselves. But then Holanda returned with an air of great importance and remained at my side without saying so much as a word until Mom and Aunt Ruth had cleared the table. "She won't be going tomorrow. She wrote a letter and said that if he asks too many questions, we should give it to him." In the half-open pocket of her blouse she flashed a purple envelope. We then were asked to dry the dishes and that night, from all the emotions and the fatigue incurred from bathing José, we fell asleep almost immediately.
The next day it was my turn to do some shopping at the market. I didn't see Leticia, who had remained in her room that whole morning. Before we were called for lunch, I went in for a moment and found her beside the window with a pile of pillows and the new volume of Rocambole. One could see she was not well; yet she began to laugh and told me about a funny dream that she had had and a bee that couldn't find its way out. I told her it was a pity she wasn't coming to the willows, but it seemed so difficult to tell her that properly. "If you want," I offered her, "we can tell Ariel that you've got the runs." But she said no and then fell silent. I insisted a bit more that she should come and in the end I mustered the courage to tell her that she should have no fear whatsoever. As an example, I mentioned that real love knew no boundaries as well as other lovely ideas we had culled from El Tesoro de la Juventud, yet each time it became more difficult to tell her anything because she kept looking out the window as if she were about to burst into tears. In the end I found myself saying what Mom had asked me to say. Lunch seemed to take days, and Holanda got a slap from Aunt Ruth for splashing the table cloth with tomato sauce. I don't remember how we dried the dishes because suddenly we were by our willows embracing one another full of happiness and without the slightest trace of jealousy. Holanda told me everything we had to say about our studies to make a good impression on Ariel since high school boys looked down upon girls who hadn't finished anything more than elementary school and were only studying dressmaking and embossing. When the 2:08 came by, Ariel stuck out his arms enthusiastically and we welcomed him waving our patterned handkerchiefs. Some twenty minutes later we saw him arrive on the embankment; he was taller than we expected and all in gray.
I don't remember much of what we talked about initially; he was quite shy despite his visit and papers, and said things that were terribly overwrought. Almost right away he praised our statues and postures, asked us our names, and then asked why number three was not present. Holanda told him that she hadn't been able to come, and he said what a pity and that Leticia struck him as such a pretty name. He told us some stories about his high school, which unfortunately was not an English school, then wanted to know whether we would show him our ornaments. Holanda lifted up the stone and we had him take a look at our things. They seemed to interest him greatly, and more than once he grabbed one of the ornaments and said, "Leticia wore this one time," or "This was for the oriental statue," by which he meant the Chinese princess. We sat down in the shade of a willow and he was happy if distracted; it was clear that he was sticking around only out of politeness. Holanda shot me two or three looks when conversation waned, which was so very hard for both of us, making us want to leave or wish that Ariel had never come at all. He asked again whether Leticia was ill and Holanda looked at me so that I thought that she was about to tell him – but then she answered that Leticia had not been able to come. With a twig Ariel drew some geometric figures in the ground, and now and then looked at the white door. We knew what he was thinking, and for that reason Holanda did well in producing the purple envelope and handing it to him. He was surprised to have the thing placed in his hand, and then turned quite red when we told him that it was from Leticia. He placed the letter in the inner pocket of his jacket, apparently not wishing to read it in front of us, then almost immediately he said that it had been a pleasure to come by and meet us. His hand was soft and repulsive to such a degree that it seemed good that the visit was over even though afterwards we did little else but think of his big grey eyes and his sad way of smiling. We also remember how he told us goodbye – "See you always," a form we had never heard before at home and which seemed both divine and poetic. We told Leticia everything; she had been waiting for us beneath the lemon tree by the patio, and I would have liked to ask her what her letter said but then she admitted that she didn't know why she had sealed the envelope before giving it to Holanda. So I said nothing and we only told her what Ariel looked like and how many times he had asked about her. Telling her all this was no easy matter because it was, at once, a nice and an unpleasant subject, and we realized that Leticia seemed happy and on the verge of tears at the same time. Until we ended up telling her what Aunt Ruth had wanted us to say, and then left her watching the wasps around the lemon tree.
When we went to bed that night, Holanda said to me: "You just wait and see: tomorrow the game will be over." She was wrong – but not by much. And the next day Leticia gave us the agreed-upon sign while we were still eating dessert. We trudged off to wash the china, a little annoyed, but this was utter shamelessness on Leticia's part and not acceptable. She waited for us at the door and we almost died of fright when we arrived at the willows only to see Leticia pull from her pocket Mom's pearl necklace and all her rings, even Aunt Ruth's large one with the rubies. If those Lozas, those repulsive dwarves, had been spying on us and seen us with all those jewels, Mom would surely have learned about it right away and would have killed us. But Leticia was not afraid. She said if anything happened, she would take full responsibility. "I would like you to leave today to me," she added, without looking at us. We got out the ornaments, and we suddenly wanted to get along with Leticia, to indulge her every whim and, in our heart of hearts, this caused us a bit of resentment. Since the game indicated statue, we chose some lovely things that went well with the jewels, a host of royal peacock feathers placed in her hair, a fur that from a distance resembled a silver fox, and a rose-colored veil which she wore like a turban. We saw that she was thinking – rehearsing the statue but not moving – and when the train appeared on the curve, she stood up on the slope with all her jewels glittering in the sun. She raised her arms as if she were doing a posture instead of a statue, and with her hands she signalled to the sky as she threw her head back (the only thing she could do, poor child), doubling herself over enough to give us fright. All of this struck us as marvelous, the most splendid statue she had ever done, and then we saw Ariel looking at her. He was halfway out the window looking only at her, turning his head, and looking without seeing us until the train whisked him away suddenly. I still don't know why the two of us ran over at the very same time to brace Leticia, who had her eyes closed and huge teardrops all over her face. She pushed us away without being upset, but then we helped her hide the jewels in her pocket and she went alone into the house while we gathered up the ornaments into their box for the very last time. We almost knew what would occur, but nevertheless the next day both of us went over to the willows after Aunt Ruth ordered us to be absolutely quiet so as not to disturb Leticia, who was in pain and wanted to rest. When the train arrived we saw to no one's surprise that the third window was empty. And as we laughed out of something between relief and anger, we imagined Ariel riding on the other side of the car, silent in his seat, gazing at the river with his gray eyes.