A NECKLACE OF EMERALD GREEN
Cesária Escobar was sixteen when she walked down the aisle, arm in arm with a man she had only met once. Her seven brothers and sisters watched in dismay, but her widowed mother wished her well. The man, Apolinário Barandirán García, made no conditions to her family—he accepted her lack of fortune, her average looks, her mixed blood.
“I only want a child or two,” he told Cesária after the wedding. “A boy and a girl, perhaps.”
Apolinário was twenty-four years her senior, but her mother needed her daughters to wed, and Cesária, now Señora Barandirán García, was taken from Piratini to Estancia de los Espinos, in a piece of land between Brazil and Uruguay.
It was the year 1873 when two trolleys arrived at the large colonial farm, following a path of espinillos that led to the main entrance. The trees surrounded the entire territory, looking brown and green in the winter, pointing thorns toward Cesária, still wearing her white dress. She held the only thing she possessed besides herself: a necklace with a teardrop pendant of pure emerald dangling from a rose gold chain, a gift her father gave to her mother for their own wedding before he lost everything.
“You're not used to it yet,” Apolinário told her after a group of maids hurried to open the iron gates. “But this will be your home until your dying day. You will get used to it in time.”
Cesária didn't argue. Apolinário wasn't handsome, or interesting, or kind; he had sturdy hands, a monotonous voice, a thick brown mustache, a balding head. His skin was reddish white, lighter than hers, and his paternal heritage could be traced up to two centuries in the Platine Region, and then back to Spain.
On her wedding night, she did what any woman would have done—she counted the minutes under his body, admired the ornaments of the bed, and swallowed the stabbing pain.
“I thought you wouldn't bleed,” was the last thing Apolinário said before lying down.
Cesária did not sleep that night, consumed by her own outrage. For three days after this, she woke up alone, washed herself, and had to let the Barandirán family's German maids dress her up and brush her hair. They complained in broken Portuguese about the thickness of the strands; Cesária didn't understand the rest.
“Out!” she yelled when she couldn't take it anymore. “I'll do my own hair!”
Cesária tied it up in a simple bun, covered the emerald pendant with a scarlet poncho, left the room, and descended the stairway.
Estancia de los Espinos was a large stone ranch painted white, with blue tiles decorating the lower part of most walls. The gates, pillars, windows and lanterns were all made of wrought iron, and layers of vines cascaded from the roof. She passed wooden armchairs, braided hammocks and vases of plants, until she reached an open door.
Outside, cool wind made shivers run down her spine, and a dapple gray Crioulo horse ate hay.
“Che, you can't eat the whole day.” A young man her age tried to pull the horse away. His appearance caught Cesária's attention—in a way, he was a lot like her, with straight black hair tied in a ponytail, a long nose and a skin of russet brown, darker than hers, but much like her mother's, and her sisters, and her brothers. “C'mon.”
“You're atrocious at this.” Cesária stepped forward, trying not to look at him, with those gaucho clothes like he was from Piratini himself.
The hostler turned to see her, furling his dark brows together.
“Then why don't you help me, eh?”
Cesária felt herself flush, but didn't answer the offense. Instead, she pulled the horse's reins.
“There's no use, he'll be back eating at any moment, see?” He patted the horse's gray neck, and turned to her. “Good to see Mr. Apolinário listened to me and hired a young girl for the kitchen. Anja's hands are too shaky as of late,” he said. “I'm just surprised they didn't tell me it was a caboclinha like you.”
Cesária listened to him in astounded, furious silence. The word cabocla rang in her head: part European, part Indigenous, a cook, a maid. I'm not like you, she wanted to say, squeezing the jewelry hidden under the poncho.
“But Assis here will tell you, since you're new here… Mr. Apolinário's bringing his wife soon, and you know how snob those rich misses are—so take care.”
“I'm Spanish!” Cesária interrupted, and opened her poncho to show her necklace. “And I'm not a snob!”
Assis stepped back, and fell to his knees, trying to cover his face with the leather hat.
“Sinhá, I'm… I'm sorry, I'm deeply sorry, I'll… Please ignore what this silly boy said…”
“I'll forgive you this time. Stand.” Cesária grabbed him by the collar of his shirt; he wasn't much taller than her. “I won't tell Apolinário, but don't make yourself too comfortable—I don't want to see the likes of you again.”
Cesária lied that time, like she lied many times during her life, and would keep lying until the end came. She not only saw Assis again—she searched for him everyday, and, soon, they became more than friends. If Apolinário noticed, he didn't seem to care, so she took this chance to talk, to ride, to look at Assis' beautiful face.
In November, after her seventeenth birthday, they promised to meet in a safer place. Cesária waited for her husband to sleep, then walked carefully downstairs. Wearing only her linen nightgown, she hurried outside, stepping barefoot on the chilly earth. Under the moonlight, she could see the path to the barn, where Assis slept, and went there with only one thought in her head.
“If you want me to be honest, sinhá Cesária,” Assis whispered, barely visible in the dark. “I didn't think you'd come.”
“First of all—I keep my word. Second—don't call me sinhá, I don't want to be your mistress, I want to…”
No kiss ever felt so sweet; smelling of salt and hay, Assis' body fit hers. He wasn't tall enough to make her feel little, nor short enough to make her feel large. Instead, he was all she wanted and never had.
She was only able to see the form of him, and the ghosts of leaves dancing over his bare skin.
“Aren't you scared?” Assis asked between her legs.
“Why would you think that?” Cesária wanted to fight, and prove that fear never ran through her veins. “I have never been scared in my life.”
Assis laughed, and caressed her face.
“There's a legend that says a boy conceived out of wedlock under the full moon will be born an aguará.” His black eyes focused on hers, and his fingers ran through her coarse hair. “A creature half wolf, half man. But you're right; a fearless woman such as yourself must not believe in stories like that.”
Cesária would remember his words forever—a creature half beast, half man, an aguará, conceived through betrayal under the watchful eyes of the full moon. She would remember it not when Assis disappeared, but with the headaches, vomiting and shortness of breath. She would remember, again, when Anja held her legs and knelt in front of the bed, telling her to push, push, as a little monster came out of her.
But that didn't happen that night, that happened nine months later. At dawn, she went back upstairs, feeling the oppressive weight of the hanging portraits looking down on her, washed herself, brushed her hair, and slept by Apolinário's side, still unaware.
She kissed Assis furtively during the day, and had a week of bliss, until a pair of green eyes caught them.
“I love you, Cesária,” Assis told her, holding her waist. They were hiding behind the barn, and she rested her face in the curve of his neck. “We could run away. We sell your necklace, and they will never hear of us again.”
The following morning, Cesária woke up, smiling, and sat at her dressing table to put on her emerald necklace, but she found nothing there.
“He left, Cesária,” someone said behind her. A man with green eyes, Apolinário's age, whose height was impressive, close to hers. “He took one of the horses as well.”
Trembling, Cesária pushed the stool away. She looked at Silvestre, the second in the Barandirán García lineage, expecting him to blackmail her.
“That is all I have to say. Be well.”
Silvestre left her bedroom, and she touched the specter of the necklace that would never return to her chest. Alone once more, like she had always been, she stared at her thin hands, at her shaky legs.
“Damn him,” she whispered, weak, boneless, almost dead. “Damn him again, and again.”
Cesária looked at her reflection in the mirror, at the dark circles under her black eyes, at her strong nose, at her long, oval face. She forced the brush from her scalp to the end of her hair, tearing several strands away. She did it another time, to make it thinner, silkier, better, as Anja would say. She would not give anyone the satisfaction of her misery. She would never shed tears for any living man.
“You're Señora Barandirán,” Cesária said out loud, reminding herself. She opened a silver box of pó-de-arroz talc, and grabbed the beige puff, slapping it against her cheeks. “Señora Barandirán Escobar.”
THE KEY TO THE VAULT
Ezequiel was the fourth and last of the Barandirán García siblings, but he took great pride in being a confidant to all of them. Trust, he believed, was a matter of finances—one can only know somebody else when they know how much they spend.
“You must not trouble yourself with such matters, brother,” Ezequiel said whenever Apolinário showed him a document. He massaged the older man's shoulders, and gave a sugary kiss on the top of his bald head. “I'll handle everything, ¿sí?”
He was born six years after his sister Hemétria, eighteen years after his brother Silvestre, and twenty-three years after their elder Apolinário, who inherited Estancia de los Espinos soon after Ezequiel's birth.
Ezequiel was seventeen when he went to France to study Economic Science, fully conscious that, if he wanted to create his own role in the family, he would have to fight for it.
“My dear sister!” Ezequiel kissed the back of Hemétria's hand as soon as he arrived Porto Alegre in the last month of 1873. “What have they done to you?”
Hemétria was the sibling he had most memories of. Unlike Apolinário and Silvestre, she was also a child when he was born, and the two had grown together at Estancia de los Espinos. But the woman with disastrous frizzly hair was not the girl he remembered: that woman was bone-thin, sickly pale, her brown curls speckled with gray.
Ezequiel knew Hemétria had been confined in a sanatorium because his brothers had warned him with a brief note: Hemétria has lost her mind; she has the devil in her body. Our family will be better off without her.
“Don't you know?” Hemétria's husky voice contained a wicked smile. She had been handsome once, but now her aquiline nose seemed out of place, her emaciated body looked meek inside the white dress, and her large brown eyes scared Ezequiel to death. “I've been possessed, they said.”
Ezequiel was a Barandirán, and, as such, he knew too many family secrets to believe either of them.
“Just wait a bit more, dear sister. We'll live together in Porto Alegre, you and I—soon enough, you'll see, neither Apolinário nor Silvestre will have a say.”
It took Ezequiel two years to get to Estancia de los Espinos again. He started to work as an accountant, made a fortune of his own, took Hemétria out of that hideous place, transferred most of the money from the Barandirán vault to Porto Alegre, and send them a letter:
“Dear Brother,” Hemétria read aloud in a tone of mockery. “Forgive my absence—I've been working like a mule, but it is for the sake of the family, I swear! The treatment has done wonders to Hemétria, she has turned into the finest lady!”
Hemétria let out a shrill laugh. Ezequiel covered a chuckle with his hand.
“… We are eager to meet your wife and the child. I am sure the youngest Barandirán must be a lovely little man.” Hemétria wiped tears of joy out of her lackluster eyes, and carefully folded the handwritten letter again. “Ha! As if I wanted to meet that bitch.”
“Don't be so harsh. Just because neither of us will marry, that does not mean we should blame Apolinário's wife. Silvestre told me she's more of a Barandirán than our brother, as of late.”
And she was.
Hours after they arrived, Cesária Barandirán appeared wearing a pitch black maternity gown. The buttons of her dress ended below the chest to reveal the heavy volume of her belly, and a blood-red shawl covered her shoulders and back. She dragged a small child by the hand, a boy no older than three, who looked at them with scared little eyes.
“Good evening,” Cesária said, more like an announcement than a greeting. Her voice echoed in the long dinner room, and the shadow of her and the boy melted together in the wall. “We finally meet.”
Apolinário didn't stand to introduce anyone. He placed a slice of cheese over the bread he was eating, and pointed at his siblings.
“Ezequiel, Hemétria; I told you about them.” Apolinário's mustache had crumbs of bread in it, and he looked only at her when he spoke. “This is my wife, Cesária. And that is our son. Come meet your aunt and uncle, Calisto.”
Ezequiel froze when he saw the boy more closely. There was something wrong about him—something that needed to be said, but he could not find his voice when he needed it the most. He looked at Apolinário, who kept eating and drinking red wine, and then at Silvestre, standing at the other side of the table. His other brother did not seem to find any abnormality, but it could be that he was used to him—used to his…
Ezequiel looked at Hemétria, hoping she would be more vocal than his useless, limp body. His sister stared at the child as well, but she too remained in silence.
As a last resort, Ezequiel glanced at Cesária, who stared back with sharp eyes. I dare you to say it, her face said. I dare you.
Defeated, Ezequiel knelt in front of the boy, and forced a half-hearted smile.
“Calisto—that's a beautiful name! Call me Tío Ezequiel, ¿sí?”
SMELL OF WOLF AND MAN
Hemétria Barandirán was a mad woman, everybody knew. Perhaps she had been insane from the womb, perhaps insanity had been imprinted on her, but whether it was consequence or nature, the fact was she loved to live this way. The black sheep of the family, she liked to say, until she met a boy who was much more of a sore thumb than her.
“Ezequiel,” Hemétria called, raising her round eyes from the newspaper and the pince-nez spectacles in front of her. “I would fancy a new dress.”
“Anything for you, dear sister,” Ezequiel answered immediately. She could almost see the light appearing in his square, puffy face.
“Oh, and I'd like to visit Apolinário this weekend, can you arrange that as well?”
Her younger brother had been like this since her first day out of the sanatorium—yes, dear sister, anything you wish, hermanita, tell me when you need something. Almost as if he felt personal satisfaction in being useful, more than in helping her. Not that Hemétria minded, of course, but he was a fool if he thought she did not see through his foolish facade.
Like she asked, they went back to Estancia de los Espinos. Hemétria dreaded every minute of the trip, from the faint smell of tangerines that lingered in their clothes, to the path of espinillos spurting with yellow flowers and bees buzzing around the trees.
“Reminds one of childhood, doesn't it?” Ezequiel asked with a low, affected voice.
Hemétria felt her soul drying up inside of her.
“It does, doesn't it.”
Childhood was a word that, like the ashen thorns of the espinillos, pierced and cut. Hemétria didn't like to think of it, of the hours spent inside her vast bedroom, of the creaking sounds at night, or Silvestre's disgusting silent face.
“Señorita Hemétria and Sr. Ezequiel have arrived,” said one of the maids, whatever her name was.
“You two took too long,” Cesária appeared behind a pillar, slim and elegant. Her black hair had been pulled up into a tall bun, and she wore a matching dress. “Your letter said you'd be here by Friday. You made us waste quite a lot of food.”
If she could, Hemétria would tear that prideful expression out of Cesária's face, but Ezequiel was quicker than her:
“Oh, we are truly sorry, sister!” He kissed the back of Cesária's hand, but she pulled her arm away from him. “Where are the children?”
The other woman pointed to the field in front of them with her small chin. Hemétria squinted. In the distance, she saw two children lying on the glittering grass and laughing, laughing, laughing. Her strongest memory of Calisto was from five years ago, a handsome child in a sailor suit, holding his little sister by the hand. Now, he was bigger, dressed in shirt and pants, and the other kid rested between his arms, giggling with joy.
“Calisto! Violante! Come back!” Apolinário thundered from the veranda. “Your aunt and uncle are here!”
Calisto gave a mischievous smile and pulled his sister by the armpits, holding her in his lap. The girl, now eight, wrapped her arms around her brother's neck, and covered herself with a cherry poncho, feet dangling in the air.
He ran there, sweating, smiling, his raven black hair shining under the sun, his brown skin darker than before.
“Buenas tardes, Uncle Ezequiel, Aunt Hemétria,” Calisto said, mixing Spanish and Portuguese. Apolinário brought Violante to sit on his leg, and took leaves out of the girl's black, curly hair.
“Buenas tardes,” she repeated, bobbing her head. Violante's face was like a doll: light, perfectly made, with a vague expression that did not seem to change.
“You sure have grown, young man!” Ezequiel smiled courteously, but Hemétria knew he could not stop thinking of the boy's complexion. “And little Violante is becoming a beautiful young lady! How are the piano lessons going? Soon enough, we will have to watch out for the suitors!”
“Not soon at all, Ezequiel.” Cesária's answer was sharp, and she gave Apolinário an angry look, like he should have said something as well. “Shall we eat?”
For about half an hour, the lunch was tranquil, as if they were all happy, for once. The maids brought three tables to the grass, and served the food there. The men sat around Apolinário, the women sat on the second table, and the two children ate in the last one, snickering at something Calisto had said. Bored, Hemétria looked at her nephew again, following the line of his straight nose, the wide nostrils, the thick mouth.
“There is something I find fascinating, Cesária,” Hemétria talked under her breath. “Nobody wants to say it, but Calisto is much darker than you!”
Cesária stopped eating. The silver fork trembled a little over the piece of charque.
“I'm aware that your mother is an Indian, but you are not very dark yourself. I would almost not have noticed, had I not known!”
Hemétria took great satisfaction in seeing the other woman like that. She crossed her legs under her long burgundy skirt, and continued:
“And Violante, well, she's becoming quite the perfect españolita, isn't she? How do you people say it? A sinhá, isn't it? And she's so light, just like my brother!” Hemétria looked at Apolinário with fake affection, batting her eyelashes. “If I look hard enough, I may find some Brazilian in her, but not like Calisto, oh no.”
The smell of salted meat combined with Cesária's ghastly expression made Hemétria laugh a little. At the other table, Calisto and Violante got up. The girl held three of his fingers, guiding him to the field again.
“Calisto, let's ride.”
“Actually, he reminds me of someone!” Hemétria clasped her hands together, checking to see if the men were listening. “Some boy who worked here, a caboclo, did you meet him? Probably not, but you two would have had a lot to talk about, wouldn't you?”
When Hemétria looked at the children again, Calisto was gone. He returned from the barn riding a silver horse, and stopped in front of them.
“Look, mamá,” he said. “Aren't I good with father's horses?”
Despite not getting the reaction he wanted out of his mother, Calisto lifted his sister, arranging her between his arms and legs. They had no time to leave; Cesária stormed in their direction, and pulled Violante back to the ground. Silvestre, who was closer, hurried to help, and locked the girl between his strong arms.
“You little animal!” Cesária started to drag Calisto too, forcing him down by the arm. He fell to the grass, yelping, and Cesária slapped him across the face. “Who do you think you are?”
Everyone watched as Cesária hauled the child back to the house, slapping Calisto again each time he tried to complain or ask why. Curious, Hemétria whispered to Ezequiel that she needed to stay another week, please, hermanito, please.
Ezequiel agreed, but he and Silvestre returned to Porto Alegre in the next day. Apolinário let her stay—she was his sister, after all.
“Women know better than men how to raise a child,” he told Hemétria. “If the father interferes, the mother loses her authority.”
The funniest thing was to watch Calisto try to reach Cesária when she wouldn't look his way. Instead, she held Violante's hand, not allowing the girl to leave her side.
Thinking of that, Hemétria waited for a moment when no one was around, and entered the boy's bedroom, locking the door behind her.
“Hello, my dear,” said Hemétria. Her mousy hair was pulled up and bouffant, with a few loose strands. “I noticed you're not yourself, as of late.”
Calisto looked down, a faint light coming from the open window illuminating his beautiful face. Hemétria stood in front of him: taller, thinner, older.
“Calisto,” she said, her voice higher. She grabbed the boy by the cheeks. “You and I are the same, don't you see?”
“Silvestre did the same to me, dear, haven't you noticed? I don't think I've heard him say a word to me since I was your age!”
Calisto didn't understand, but Hemétria wasn't one to care. She caressed his cheek with one pale finger, and began brushing his long hair.
“He treats me like a ghost, worse, like someone who never existed!” Hemétria's strident laughter made Calisto jump. There was something charming about his terrified face, something she liked a lot. It reminded her of when she was twelve, sitting on the same bed, watching Silvestre enter her room at night. “I never fully understood, but let me tell you—it makes me so very angry… Soon enough, you'll feel the same.”
“I don't know why mamá is so furious at me,” Calisto murmured.
“Cesária is a cruel woman, little Calisto. That is why she is the only person who gets along with Silvestre, because she's bad. Mala. Wicked at heart.”
The boy looked up at her. Hemétria could see the man he would grow into already defining his face.
“What about Tío Silvestre?”
For a moment, the question took her by surprise, but then she cackled again. What would happen next would be an hour to remember—for Hemétria, with great satisfaction, as if she had taken back something that should have always been hers, but Calisto ended up crying, curled into himself.
“Stop weeping, tontito,” she said. “You should worry about Cesária, instead… She will turn you into a mad man, just like Silvestre did to me. Remember, little Calisto—those are her sins, the ones she's trying to wipe clean.”
Hours later, during dinner, Calisto appeared again, fully dressed, his dark hair shadowing his face.
“Mamá, we need to talk, please,” his voice was but a whimper, and Hemétria thought he looked even more adorable then. “It's important, I…”
Cesária hit the table with her fist, and grabbed Calisto by the hair.
“I will teach you how to respect your mother!” she said, and left them alone in the dining room.
In the hall, Cesária hissed until they could no longer hear any other word. Violante ran to the window, and Hemétria went after her. Two shadows walked outside, one belonging to a woman, the other belonging to a tall boy being pulled by the neck. Even at the distance, they could see Cesária push her son into the barn, smacking the door closed.
The moon sparkled in an empty night, and the eerie silence continued for five long minutes. Then, Calisto began to shriek, and his screams were so loud he did not sound human anymore.
“Well, it seems this week was not too kind on Calisto, was it?”
THE BACK OF HER LACE DRESS
Calisto Barandirán Escobar first turned into a wolf in the year 1885, under the silent gleam of the full moonlight. No one in the dining room stopped Cesária when she yanked him by the hair and dragged him to the barn. Father kept eating, Aunt Hemétria offered an awful smile, and Violante stared at them with attentive jabuticaba eyes.
Calisto tried to stand up and walk, but he stumbled, his feet and knees hitting the wet grass.
“Mamá,” Calisto moaned, but as with Hemétria, he couldn't bring himself to use force against her.
Instead, he was paralyzed—his body was part of the ground, of the bed, of the trees, of the tall walls of his own room. His arms would not raise for a punch or a push, his legs would not run for a quick escape, his throat could not bear any other sound. Everything in him was sore, not with bruises—he had none—but he hurt nonetheless.
“Mamá…” He did not want to stop her anymore; it mattered very little what would happen to him. “I need to talk to you about Tía Hemétria, and Tío Silvestre…Violante, he…”
The name stung like a bee. His sister had appeared in his mind over and over when Hemétria climbed over him. I wonder if Silvestre tells your mother the things he likes to do to little girls… She had snickered. And I wonder, too, if she will worry for your lovely little sister, I can already see his eyes on her…
Cesária turned to him before opening the barn.
“You're not even a Barandirán,” she said. “You have no right to say a thing about them, about your sister, about me!”
With a push, Cesária threw him to the floor, over layers of hay. When he looked up, he could see the horses he adored like specters in the night, huffing at the sight of intruders.
“What do you mean?”
Unlike Tía Hemétria, Cesária didn't laugh. Instead, she grabbed him by the shirt, and pointed at the wooden walls.
“Here is where you were conceived, bastardito.” Mother held him by the jaw, her fingerprints over Hemétria's. “Here is where your thief of a father took me, in a bed of dirt and lies!”
Something was happening inside his mind, something he could not control. He wasn't sure where he was—the barn or the bedroom?—and his fingers trembled in the cool breeze. To play this game… A female voice said before slapping him, like mother had done. You've got to undress.
Hemétria's laughter had not sounded like a laugh at all; it had sounded like an animal of some sort, a wild cat, an anteater, a jaguar.
“Why are you being so cruel?” Calisto asked, head lowered, hair covering his face. “She's right, you're a bad woman, mother…”
The boy in front of Cesária was no longer moving, perhaps, not even breathing. Inside, he heard his mother's insults. Inside, he heard the slippery, nauseating noises coming from his underbelly, his own soft cries. Inside, Hemétria held her lifted skirt.
Outside, he turned into a beast.
“Calisto,” Cesária's voiced changed. It was weaker, somehow, it was faltering… “Calisto?”
If you were a girl, I'd pity you, who was that woman talking into his ear? To whom did those claws belong, if not to his hands? When you're older, you'll thank me, when you fuck some pretty little girl. You'll think: Aunt Hemétria taught me everything.
His legs and arms were longer, darker. His hair grew into fur—reddish brown, white, black—and the fur became a mane. His ears were larger, pointier. His face deformed into a snout, into fangs.
Raising his head, Calisto growled.
It was 1889, and the Barandirán family enjoyed the sunlight and listened to music in the veranda—only Hemétria and Silvestre were not present. In the furthermost armchair, Calisto stared at the girl playing the piano, visible through the door leading to the house.
Little Miss Violante. The perfect españolita, piano virtuosa, with her porcelain skin and midnight hair, played whatever prelude she had learned this time.
“Bravo!” Ezequiel clapped when she was done. “I am more and more amazed at her talents each day!”
Violante carefully closed the piano and dusted her white tea gown.
“Come eat,” Cesária called her, tapping the chair near her. Calisto followed the girl with his eyes, elbows over his thighs and legs spread apart, the way his mother would deem rude—“A plebeian!”
“Cesária wants to send her to study music abroad,” Apolinário said. “She thinks she has a future.”
“If Chiquinha Gonzaga can do it, why can't Violante?” Cesária smiled looking at her fourteen-year-old daughter. She held Violante's single braid and placed it over her chest, as if it was a brooch.
Ezequiel parted his mouth, visibly ill-at-ease.
“What about marriage?” He asked. “She's almost reaching the best age. One of my friends has a son Calisto's age—it would be a perfect match for her!”
“No.” Cesária grunted, her dark dress contrasting with Violante's white cotton lawn and lace. The maids appeared with the food, and Calisto sat in front of his sister. “She will study first.”
“Don't you think you're putting too many barriers in the girl's future, Cesária?” Ezequiel dried the sweat on his forehead with his cream kerchief. “Think of it…”
“No, I don't.” Cesária faked a polite smile, and pointed at her only son. “Why don't you marry him off, then? If you find a bride, that is.”
“Well…” Ezequiel was trying to find a good excuse, he just knew. “Most of my friends have sons, you see, so it makes matters a bit more difficult. Not that Calisto is not handsome, that's not the issue! Also, he must want to live a bit first, ¿no?”
Calisto's laughter reverberated in the veranda.
“Tío Ezequiel, you are most right! Why marry me? Violante is the only true Barandirán of us, anyway.”
Sitting at the edge of the rectangular table, Apolinário rolled his eyes. Calisto drank a mouthful of red wine.
“Father doesn't like it when I jest,” he continued. Then, he turned to Violante, whose face was as still as a bisque doll. Sometimes, Calisto thought she had no feelings at all, and it angered him that everything happened to him, not her. “She doesn't seem to mind. Do you, Violante?”
Cesária slammed her two fists against the table, knocking down a silver knife.
“Go to your room, Calisto.”
Calisto stood up, lifted his glass of wine, and poured the entire content over Violante's head and dress. The shouting that followed came from everyone but his sister, and Calisto did nothing besides turning his back to them.
In 1891, a month before Violante was sixteen, a birthday party was to be held in Estancia de los Espinos. The high society of Porto Alegre was invited to meet a girl who was as beautiful as she was talented at the piano.
“What do you think, papá?” Violante showed Apolinário her new dress. She looked gracious in the pearl white lace, and her thick black curls cascading to her narrow waist.
By her side, Cesária frowned, her heavy eyebrows creating wrinkles in her forehead.
“I'm not sure about this dress. Your figure is too…” She pinched part of the skirt like it was rotten, trying to find appropriate descriptors for what she would say next. “Her hips are just like my mother's, they're—they're too full. Too… wide. You know what kind of woman looks like this, Apolinário, it's—it's too vulgar.”
Calisto yawned. The conversation was getting on his nerves. Violante, of course, had all the attention, all the pampering, and he was there, no different than a chair.
“You really hate her, don't you?” Lips touched his ear, and the whisper made chills run down his spine.
When Hemétria saw his fear, she cackled.
“Go to hell,” Calisto said, taking a deep breath. “Don't even look my way.”
Hemétria sat on the settee, not close enough for their legs to touch, but too close for him to be calm.
“The silent treatment should be a family business, it surely is a fun activity. Silvestre and I… You and me… Cesária and you… You and her…”
Her, Violante, with her pretty dresses, her perfect manners, her scarlet lips. Her, between father and mother, away from Hemétria, never trapped inside a cage.
“I'm not like any of you,” Calisto muttered, and got up. “She might be, but not me.”
He walked away, but stopped when he saw Silvestre standing close to the door. Calisto couldn't help but feel nauseated whenever he saw him, remembering that day when Hemétria was over him, her messy hair looking like a nest of thin brown vipers falling over his face.
When I was your age, Silvestre was twenty-three, and he liked to play fun games with me…
“Excuse me,” Calisto said, and ran upstairs.
“I wonder what your Spanish muñequita would say, if she knew why you bring me here every month,” Calisto said, while his mother chained him to the wall of the barn. “What she would think of you, torturing me for your own curse?”
Cesária shook her head, as cold as ever.
“It was your father who cursed you, who cursed me,” Cesária hissed. “You turning into that thing is a way of torturing me.”
Slowly, moonlight entered through the window, until it covered him from head to toe, and Calisto began to change. Cesária watched with disgust as his body became bigger, hairier, stronger.
When he looked front, the chair was broken, and only anger remained inside of him.
Calisto ignored her, and tried to jump on her neck. The chain kept him an inch from her.
“Behave, you beast! I need to go lock your sister's room.”
The enormous, man-like maned wolf yelped, and crawled to the other corner of the barn.
THE OPEN DOOR
Silvestre Barandirán always arrived at Estancia de los Espinos carrying a large sack on his back. Ever since his father died, he had assumed the most practical aspects of the family's business: traveling, selling, choosing, bargaining. The sack contained his belongings and gifts for his relatives, but the sight of him had terrorized children for two generations.
Cesária didn't like the image either, not only for her own mother's fables of the Sack Man, but for what she knew of Silvestre's perversions.
“Come,” she ordered Violante, who walked after her. The man visited every fortnight, and she wanted her daughter to be as distant from him as humanly possible. “You must not skip any of your lessons.”
Their days usually went like this—she braided Violante's hair, they ate breakfast, Violante played the piano, they read, they had lunch, Violante played the piano, they had dinner, she locked Violante’s room, they slept. Cesária believed Violante could not be alone at any time, especially not with the men of the house.
“Why are you so tense, mother?” The girl whispered. They were alone in the sunroom, but she had the impression of having seen a masculine shadow near the door frame.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” Cesária answered, massaging her own scalp. “It's just that your uncle is staying for longer.”
“Silvestre is a reliable man, I’m sure of it, but he…” Cesária lowered her voice. “He's no saint, Violante. Don't be surprised—all men are rotten to the core. This is why I lock your door every night.”
The girl played with the butias inside the crystal vessel in front of her, squeezing one of the small orange fruits.
“What about father?”
“A good for nothing,” Cesária answered. “Your father would not react, even if it meant losing his life.”
“What about Tío Ezequiel?”
“A selfish pederast who wants to sell you like a cow for his own personal gain.” Cesária was stern, but the girl chewed distractedly. “Money is the only thing that matters for him.”
“I thought he was nice.”
“I will tell you something about Ezequiel,” she continued. “Your ‘tío’ convinced Apolinário to take all our money to Porto Alegre, and guess where the key to the vault is?”
“Tied around his neck!” Cesária made a pause. “Your aunt might be a cunt, but she once told me that he even has fake papers in his house to pretend to be somebody else.”
“What about my brother?”
Cesária looked into her daughter's eyes—black, like hers, narrow, like hers, with barely visible eyelids, like hers. She considered slapping her, which had proved an efficient way to stop Calisto, but she contained herself.
“I do not want to hear of your brother,” Cesária said. “It's time for my bath, you can read in there.”
Violante stood up, her hand full of butias.
“Mother, can I go practice piano instead?” she asked. “Papá and Tío Silvestre will only be back later, and Calisto is out, with the horses. Please?”
Cesária gave a heavy sigh; she could use some time alone.
“You win—but only today.”
Violante stood on tiptoes to kiss her mother in the cheek, almost one head shorter than her.
Outside, Calisto rode a silver Criolo horse, his long hair swirling in the wind. Tired, he dismounted, and walked back to the ranch. The house was oddly silent—there were no heels creaking the floor, no conversations overheard through the walls, no melody coming from the sunroom.
A sweet smell came from the kitchen, and Calisto wanted to know what Anja and Anelise had prepared this time. He took off his leather boots, and walked slowly to scare the maids.
To his surprise, the only person there was Violante, in front of the long wooden table, with a piece of creamy cake in hands. She blinked at him, lips parted.
Calisto stopped. The two looked like a pair of statues, paralyzed at the sight of each other.
“The cake is still warm,” Violante murmured. “Manioc with coconut…”
She left hers over a napkin, and cut a rectangular piece for him, offering it with both hands.
“Where is mother?”
“Taking a bath,” Violante said. “You can't hear a word in their bedroom.”
It was the first time they had been alone for seven or eight years. Calisto forgot the last time they spoke, or when he was able to look at her so closely, without having to pretend to do something else.
“Do you like it?” Violante asked, the corner of her mouth full of small crumbs of cake.
Calisto nodded, afraid to speak. Instinctively, his hand went straight to her face, as if his body and his mind had split, and he could not control his fingers from touching the skin of her cheek and her inner lip, wiping it clean.
Violante didn't push him away. She watched, in silence, like the porcelain doll he believed her to be. No reactions, no words, no expression. Calisto turned his back to her.
“You shouldn't talk to me,” he said, angrier than he expected to sound. “If mother finds out, she will punish us both.”
Calisto would soon discover that she was no doll—in fact, she was no less human than him. The first proof came after dinner, when he heard her and mother talking in the study. He could not make sense out of the disjointed words, but he found himself surprised at how Violante was answering not yelling, but close.
Unable to listen, Calisto went to his own bedroom, and closed the door.
The second proof came twenty minutes later. Violante's rapid tread was followed by the knocking of their mother's shoes against the floor. Calisto was already used to their nightly routine: Cesária took Violante to her bedroom and locked her door. Then, she went to his, and locked him in too.
This time, though, Cesária only entered his room, fury shining in her eyes. She said nothing before slamming the door, latching it closed. A strange, dreadful uneasiness contaminated him: had Cesária locked him in, but not her?
The third proof was the reason he could simply not force himself to sleep. Ten minutes after Cesária left and all the lights of Estancia de los Espinos were gone, he started to hear a muffled sound.
First, it was low cries, and then, the sobs became words:
“No… No… No…”
A second type of noise came from the room next to his. A large object was being lugged across the carpeted floor, until it hit the wall. The furniture, it seemed, was not big enough to create a barricade, because, at midnight, someone opened her door with apparent ease.
Once Violante's cries stopped, Calisto jumped to his own door, trying to open it, but to no effect. Damn, he thought, thinking of his sister. Damn, damn, damn. Desperate, he had an idea—the window was wide open, the curtains flowed with the night's breeze. Calisto climbed the sill. Looking out, he could see ways to climb toward her window through the vines.
Outside, he could hear her struggling, whimpering, and the unmistakable friction of one body against another. The first quarter moon brightened his path, and he finally reached her window.
What Calisto saw inside her bedroom made his blood boil. Her armchair was misplaced, her bed had not been used, and, as in Hemétria's most evil predictions, Violante was under Silvestre, pinned against the floor.
Out, he wanted to say, but all that came was a growl. His lips curled, showing fangs, and his hands felt like claws covered with thick brown hair.
“Get away from my sister!” Calisto jumped over them and slammed Silvestre against the wardrobe with inhuman strength. Not her, not her, a voice screamed inside his head, but he was still inside the wolf, smelling fear coming from Violante, arousal from Silvestre, dew from the grass, blood from his lower teeth.
Calisto wanted to save her, but only now he saw his hands—man's hands—shaking, instead of the claws he thought to be there.
“Violante…” Her body lay sprawled, the floor was covered with round pearl buttons and fragments of her lace dress, torn by a beast other than himself.
She looked at him, terrified, covering her bare breasts. Calisto turned to Silvestre, who was motionless under one of the fallen drawers of the wardrobe, his fist tight around a piece of white cloth. Another howl, and the maned wolf appeared again.
Calisto pulled his uncle by the collar, and hauled him to the door.
“If you touch her again, I'll make you sure you'll be worse than dead.”
A HEART IN FLAMES
Violante looked at her pale yellow skin, at the slight difference of tone between the back of her hand and the palm, a diluted version of her mother and brother. She had scratches on her chest, where Tío Silvestre had ripped both her dress and undergarment, and her forearms had bruises where his fingertips had been.
Mother didn't like her to wear corsets or petticoats under her clothes because she did not like her figure; it was too full in the wrong places, in her chest and in her hips, not in the way other women liked to imitate, but in a way that reminded Cesária of whores and slaves.
“It's vulgar,” she had said, curling her nose like her daughter was repulsive. She fought to find dresses that would not compliment it, dresses that would make her slender like the French. “You need to cover yourself.”
In a way, Violante wished she had been covered that night in 1891; that the layers of fabric had been harder to tear.
She spent the entire night awake, lying on her bed. Calisto slept there too, on the floor, holding her hand. At dawn, he returned to his bedroom through the window, and Violante pretended to be asleep, waiting for Cesária to appear.
But mother didn't come. She had to dress herself, brush her own hair, and go downstairs. At breakfast, everybody ate in silence, without looking at her.
They know, Violante thought, and a sort of cold hatred spread inside her. There's no way they haven't heard.
“Stop doing that!” Cesária yelled, and Violante looked down. She had destroyed the bread with her hands.
Violante's eyes were frozen, but her insides blazed. Instead of obeying, she threw the contents over the table, kicked the chair, and left.
“You come back here, young lady!”
“Go to hell,” Violante said, quickening her pace. For a moment, she thought she sounded a lot like her Aunt Hemétria, and the thought disgusted her.
Violante took off her boots and left them at the entrance of Estancia de los Espinos. She felt the grass under her feet: sunlit and warm, humid, smooth, in a way that she didn't remember feeling before.
For years, the barn had been out of limits for her. There was a mystery surrounding those walls, and that had been the reason Cesária had left her door open, because she had confronted her about what she did to her brother there.
“Hey,” someone said. She turned around, seeing Calisto, who looked like he had run the whole way.
“I didn't want to cause a scene.”
Calisto grinned. Strands of hair fell out of his ponytail, reaching beneath his shoulders.
“You should have seen their faces,” he said. “It was very amusing.”
Violante smiled back. Then, she lifted her eyes to face him.
“Calisto… What does mother do to you here?”
The barn's walls had claw marks, and some of the beams had been bitten repeatedly. It wasn't only that, or the incessant howling during some nights of the month, but the shadows of the past night twirling, changing.
“Some things are too difficult to explain.”
“I know what I saw. Tío Silvestre saw it too.”
“I just wanted you to confirm it.”
Her brother sighed before he said:
“I will tell you everything you want to know. The only thing I ask is for you to do the same.”
And he did—in the following week, they talked all they had been forbidden to talk about in the past eight years. Calisto told her about the curse, about the father he did not know. He told her of Cesária, of Hemétria, of the hatred whose seeds had grown and flourished inside of him. In return, Violante told him how it was to be watched and ordered at all times. She told him of Silvestre's hungry eyes, how he had tried to open her door ever since she was ten, how he stood close to her, trying to touch her.
At night, Calisto went to her room through the window, and slept on the opposite side of the bed. His feet touched the frame, close to her head, and her socks tickled his arms.
“I missed you so terribly,” Violante told him before sleeping. “There was no day that went by that I did not wish to talk to you again.”
No one interrupted, as no one acknowledged they existed during those days. Mother did not forgive her behavior; Silvestre was terrified of the wolf; and Father simply did not care.
It was only the following Saturday that their peace ended, when Ezequiel and Hemétria appeared in a trolley, talking and laughing loudly.
“Go get dressed.” Cesária appeared in her bedroom, reflected in the mirror of Violante's dressing table. “And braid your hair—you're not a child anymore.”
“Maybe later,” Violante answered, her voice lacking any emotion. Her small hands dived inside her curls, making them cover more of her chest, shoulders and arms.
Cesária's nostrils flared.
“I don't know what's gotten into you! I allowed your unmannerly behavior for a week, hoping you would come to your senses…” She opened every door of her cabinet, and began to pull her dresses out.
Violante ran to stop her, holding her mother's wrists.
“I'm tired of the way you treat me!” Violante spat. “As if I'm part of the furniture, or one of your dresses, or the silverware you can use and clean to use again!”
“How dare you speak to me like this?” Cesária hissed, salivating, her lips curling. Violante felt less scared of Calisto howling over her than of mother like that. “I made you—I fed you—I'm fighting against your father, against everyone, to not let you be like I am—to not have you be like my mother before me—surrounded by endlessly begging children, locked in a house, working to survive!”
Cesária grabbed her face and buried her fingers into her cheeks.
“You're ungrateful because you don't know—you don't know how my life was before I married, how my life has been ever since!” Her face hurt, and the rest of her body kept hurting every day, ever since Tío Silvestre had broken in. “But I will not let your stubbornness ruin you—you will do as I tell you—you will work, instead of being a little breeding cow like they want you to be!”
Violante pushed her mother away as strongly as she could. Not as strongly as Tío Silvestre had wrestled her to the floor, not as strongly as Calisto had slammed him away, not as strongly as the creature whose fangs crushed beams, but strong enough to overbalance Cesária and keep her from scratching her skin.
“I will not live for you, and neither will Calisto,” Violante whispered, her chin trembling. She opened the last drawer of the cabinet, pulled out the ravaged white dress, and threw it in Cesária's face. “If you cared so much, mother, you'd have cared about this too.”
Cesária stared at the dress, at the missing buttons, at the ruined lace.
“What did you do?”
“Ask Uncle Silvestre.” Violante forced a horrible smile. “Check in that sack of his, mother—I don't doubt the rest of my dress is there.”
Violante did not expect Cesária to react so quickly. The woman ran toward Silvestre's room, and Violante ran after her, but it was too late—both of them were already there.
“I will find it,” Cesária thundered. “And if you have a child—I will rid you of it.”
“Mother, no, please…”
But Cesária did not stop. When she found the sack, she threw it over the bed.
What she found inside unsettled them both. Besides Silvestre's things, the sack hid different objects, among them:
One—a curled part of Violante's dress.
Two—a thin golden bracelet with the letters H. B.G.
Three—a necklace of emerald green.
Violante looked at Cesária, who was paralyzed and pale.
“I…” She held the emerald pendant between her hands like an infant, and turned her back to Violante. “I need to…”
Cesária left Silvestre's room, but Violante was not eager to question why. Instead, she ran to find her brother, who hid behind the barn.
“Calisto,” Violante said, panting. He closed the book he was reading, and looked confusedly at her.
“What's that in your face? Did tío…?”
“No—mother—I don't know what happened.” Now that she was no longer under threat, her eyes were filled with tears. “I need to leave this place. Soon—I can't stand living here…”
Calisto stood up, and covered her hands with his.
“Violante, calm down.”
“If I left, would you leave with me? I would wait for you during the full moon—I would—I would let you eat me, if you need.”
Violante cried, her black curls covering the nightgown that fell down to her ankles. Her tears fell like raindrops over Calisto's hands, and he touched her face, her head, her hair.
“I would go anywhere” he said. “I will die if I stay here.”
They exchanged looks, until Violante's voice grew stronger:
“Tonight's the full moon—I can unlock you from the barn. If we can steal the key from Ezequiel's neck and take the horses when they sleep…”
“The key to the vault,” Violante whispered. “Our family's vault. He has fake papers, we could go to another state…”
“If we get new papers, we won't be related.” Calisto pulled her to get away from there, in case someone appeared. “If we married, I could protect you.”
“I wouldn't trust any other man,” she said.
“Nor I another woman,” he answered.
Violante squeezed Calisto's fingers, and nodded. Calisto kissed her forehead.
Calisto packed his most precious things and hid them in a trolley, and Violante did the same. She found some money in Apolinário's office, and hid it in her undergarments. He found a map and the address of Ezequiel's house in Porto Alegre in the study, and drew it in his diary. She stole food in the kitchen to take on the trip.
Calisto went to Cesária's bedroom.
“Mother, I'll go to the barn by myself.”
Cesária didn't answer. Violante kissed his hands before he left.
“It's a promise,” they both said.
Night fell, and the Barandirán family went downstairs to dinner. Apolinário sat at his usual place; Hemétria sat in a corner; Silvestre sat between his brothers, contrary to his sister-in-law. Violante sat at her mother's right.
“Buenas, now that we're all united, I wanted to make an announcement,” Ezequiel said before they started eating. “It's a shame Calisto is not feeling well—c'est la vie! We'll tell him tomorrow.”
Cesária was not looking at anyone, and there was a deadly aura in her glare. Hemétria widened her usual nasty smile, and Violante held her fork in the air.
“Violante, you're engaged!” Ezequiel exclaimed, standing up. “He's a mature, respectable man, and joining families would be great for business! Besides, he knows of your… heritage, and he's not put off in the slightest… On the contrary, have you heard of miscegenation politics? He's a firm believer that we can mix between races to have whiter, better children!”
Violante felt like a crystal glass someone had brushed against, shattered on the floor in millions of pieces. Her head was empty, her face was pale, her hands fell to her sides.
“What?” Cesária had not spoken so far, but, unlike Violante, she seemed to awake after those words.
“Cesária, querida, I intended to tell you sooner…” Ezequiel attempted a smile. “Apolinário agrees it's the perfect choice.”
Calisto, Violante wanted to call, I need Calisto.
“You won't marry my daughter to some decrepit corpse,” Cesária said. “I will not allow it!”
“Ezequiel,” Silvestre intervened, touching his heavy gray mustache. “Don't you think it's too soon to marry the girl off?”
Slowly, Violante raised her head to face him. Her uncle was tall, his Mediterranean skin was rosy underneath, his bulbous nose was large, his green eyes were sunken into his skull. He looked back, but the one to answer was not Violante, but Cesária again:
“You! You sickening thief, who do you think you are to talk about her?” Cesária foamed like a wild dog and took the necklace out of the pocket of her black skirt, showing it to him. “What was this doing among your things?”
“Silvestre?” Ezequiel mumbled.
“My mother's wedding gift!” Cesária screamed. “The gift I thought had been stolen eighteen years ago…! I accepted your perversions for too long, Silvestre, but no more!”
Silvestre raised his full eyebrows.
“What about you, woman, you, who didn't wait one week into your marriage to start fucking the caboclo boy?”
Hemétria's laughter was the only sound they all heard.
“Cesária?” Ezequiel had a lost look in his pudgy face. “Apolinário, did you knew?”
“It was solved a long time ago.” Apolinário shrugged. “Silvestre had to kill the boy.”
“What?” Cesária grasped Apolinário by the collar of his shirt, her eyes widened. “You two killed the father of my son?”
“And the whore admits it!” Hemétria clapped hands.
Violante looked at her. She knew what to do.
“We didn't just find her necklace, Aunt Hemétria,” Violante said. “We also found my dress, and a bracelet of yours. Oh, and Tío Ezequiel, you can call off the marriage. Tell my fiancé I am as good as ruined.”
She turned her back to them, and walked to the front door. Behind her there were screams, but Violante did not stop until she reached the doorknob.
When she opened it, a wolf came in.
A FIELD OF ESPINILLOS
Apolinário Barandirán García should have expected to die this way. In life, he did very little—most of his effort went not to his work, in which he was mediocre, nor to his wife, to whom he seldom talked, but to not worrying more than was necessary. He let Cesária take care of the children, Ezequiel handle the money, Silvestre solve their problems.
So when Violante rushed to the door, and a gigantic animal came in, he just watched.
“What is this?” Ezequiel shrieked, hiding behind a chair. “Silvestre, do something!”
The maned wolf first looked at Violante, in seeming recognition. He smelled her, and she looked at him, touching his long nose. Then, they both turned to the rest of them, and the wolf began to howl.
Pandemonium followed—screams, running, the beast tearing and biting and smashing the chairs. Ezequiel got hold of the candelabra, trying to burn him, but set the table in flames instead. Silvestre tried to stop him, but the damage was already done, and the fire spread to the curtains.
“Calisto, stop!” Cesária ordered, but the wolf didn't listen. He grasped Silvestre's leg, throwing him to the ground. “Calisto!”
“Calisto?!” Hemétria yelled. “What do you mean?”
“Get the key.” Violante pointed to where Ezequiel had run away, and the creature obeyed. “Don't kill the maids.”
Apolinário said nothing, and Violante left without looking at him. He could hear them all, but Cesária's cries were the loudest.
“Assis… Assis… My love, come take me…”
Soon, there was not much to see besides smoke and flames. Apolinário should also have expected to be burned to death, as the house was surrounded by the most flammable trees in South America.
“Assis…” Cesária wept, and the wolf appeared again.
He grabbed the woman by the arm with his fangs, trying to drag her out of the house, but she shook her head.
“No, no, Calisto…. Let him take me to where I should be…”
Calisto insisted, but she slapped him away.
“Don't touch me, you beast,” Cesária sobbed. “Save yourself!”
Outside, the wolf ran on two legs toward his sister, human once more even under the moonlight. The two held hands and, close to the front gate of Estancia de los Espinos, a trolley with two horses awaited them.
Choking, Apolinário sighed and looked down at his silver plate, deciding to finish his dinner instead.