From The Winterlings, by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade
Now they slept like they had as children: snoring with their mouths open in a bedroom with a wet and leaky roof, a window that looked out over the plots, a crucifix, a photo of Clark Gable, and two little iron beds with mattresses filled with corn husks. They slumped over the beds like prehistoric lizards. No one had bothered them since their arrival. Then early one morning, disturbed by a noise, one of them opened an eye suddenly.
“Hey, what was that?” she said to her sister.
And she stayed like that for a while, with one eye open and the other closed, her hands like paws over the turned-down covers, still and cold as a lizard.
The other Winterling, who had finally woken, got up straight away. Sitting on the bed, she strained her ears to listen.
“I can’t hear anything . . . ” she said.
“That’s because you’re still half asleep,” answered the other.
“You make it your business to know everything,” retorted the first one. She stretched out an arm and began to feel her way along the nightstand. “What would you know about my sleep? My sleep is mine, not yours. Where are my teeth? Did you take them?”
“And what would I want with your disgusting teeth?”
The one who had just spoken yawned, and the other one saw right into the roof of her mouth, which was red like the entrails of a pig.
“I don’t know why you have to be so mean,” said the first one. She kept feeling along the nightstand until she found her dentures. She popped them in with a hollow sound: plop. Then she jumped out of bed, pulled out the chamber pot from underneath it, and lifted up her nightdress.
“Nobody in their right mind would put up with you,” she continued, squatting to relieve herself. “You’re lucky you’ve got me.”
When she finished, her sister took her spot atop the chamber pot.
One of them standing, the other squatting, they strained to listen again.
“And what if it’s the Civil Guard coming to get us? They’ll surely come along some day . . . ” said the one who was squatting. She stood up, adjusted her nightdress, and hid the chamber pot back under the bed.
“It’s just Greta,” said the other soothingly. “She’s been driven mad by the horseflies.” She went over to the trapdoor in the floor and pulled it up. Like the revelation of something hidden, the acrid and seeping stench of the gorse used as bedding by the animals in the stable floated up. There was the Galician Red cow, which instead of being called Marela, or Teixa, like all the other cows in Tierra de Chá, was called Greta. Greta Garbo. Once she saw the cow’s rump encrusted with muck, and its tail switching back and forth to swat away the flies, the Winterling sighed calmly.
For a while she stayed like that, crouching, her head hanging down through the trapdoor. She listened to the creaking of her jawbone and whispered maternal words to the cow: “Don’t you worry, Little Greta, here we are . . . ” She would never use sweet little words like those with people, but she was sedated by the penetrating aroma that overcame her—overcame both of them—and went out through the door and spread through the forest, continuing on, on into the north. It was a forest in which you could spend days and days without being found, just as they had that time they got lost. She snapped the trapdoor shut.
“It’s Greta, nothing more than Greta. Greta and the horseflies.”
“Horseflies my foot!” said her sister, standing up. “I’m talking about that sound of dry leaves rustling. Someone’s coming this way.”
The other Winterling’s eyes were shining with fury, ready for battle.
“Shut your trap, scarecrow!”
They stood there listening a while longer. Tenacious, heavy flies buzzed around all over the place: in the kitchen, in the living room, on the floor and in the beds, and even inside the drawers. Greta Garbo had the advantage of having udders as stiff as carrots, always full to the brim with milk. But she had an irritable temperament, much more like a mule than a cow, and nothing infuriated her more than flies. When the flies got to her, she’d kick her hind legs and groan, sometimes biting people. But for now the cow was silent.
There was a knock at the door.
“Winterlings! Open the door, Winterlings!”
Overcome with fear (or maybe excitement) the two sisters clung to each other.
“What did they call us? Chitterlings?” whispered one of them with her nose pressed into the bosom of the other.
“Winterlings,” said the other. “I think that’s what they called us: Winterlings.”
“Winterlings . . . ” repeated the first one, pensive.
“That’s right, Winterlings. And don’t wipe your runny nose all over my jacket, if you please.”
They started running down the staircase. Lagging behind, the first sister threw herself into the other to push her along; the second sister tried to catch her, but she couldn’t. They fell down, rolled along the floor for a bit, and then got back up.
They ended up in front of the door, all over each other, bodies pressed together, without daring to open it.
They were quite different from each other, the Winterlings.
The elder one was dried-out and bony; she had a pointy face and an aquiline nose. The bitterness of time passed had borne away the tenderness and sweetness of her child’s heart, her faith in herself and others, leaving nothing but sheep-like inertia and a rigid routine. Closed off in her personal
universe of magazines, soap operas, and melodrama, she had a single passion: an unhealthy need for security and to be left alone. For this alone she would get up, work, then go to sleep without thinking of anything else at all. And so, day after day, this is what she would call her “beautiful routine.” By the time she was twenty, she looked like she was forty. By thirty-five, she looked like she was outside of time.
The other sister was remarkable for her wavy jet-black hair, her narrow figure, her fleshy lips, and above all her gaze: those green eyes with golden flecks around the iris. Her sister would raise her voice, and she’d stay quiet; she followed and kept up with her sister’s timetable, not because she especially liked routine, but because it was all she had, and it assured her a tranquil life without drama and upheaval. She had always been very patient, that patience being both her best quality and her greatest weakness.
Who were they exactly? They weren’t young girls. Nor were they old women. They had, however, reached the age at which they wished to live in peace. But in peace from what?
“Who’s there?” they said in unison.
The cow mooed again in the stable.