“Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo

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“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s really the way she was. I’m not sure if I’m truly describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.


“Willow Tree at Night” by Marissa Swinghammer.

“She looked like night does in the plazas,” he said suddenly. He said it naturally, giving the impression that he was unabashed about what he had just said. I asked him if she, the girl, looked like the plazas. “Of course,” said the man, stroking his temple with the palm of his hand; a strange gesture, signaling fatigue or disorientation. “But not like the plazas; like night in certain plazas. Or like certain humid nights, when there’s that mist that isn’t mist and the stone benches and the grass shine. There’s poetry that speaks of this, of the splendor of the grass; actually, it doesn’t speak of it, or of anything that has anything to do with it, but who knows. Anyway, that’s not how things were, and if I start off this way, I’ll never get to the point. The truth is I had had enough of her. She bought plants and left them on my desk. She bent back the pages of books. And she whistled. She couldn’t tell Mozart from Bartók, but she whistled anyway, especially in the mornings; she didn’t have an ear for music by any means, but she’d get out of bed whistling, roaming like a Barefoot Carmelite nun among the books and potted plants, and the dishes of my bachelor’s pad. And, not even aware she was doing it, she’d whistle a really odd melody, something impossible, non-existent. A sort of czardas she had invented. She had … How can I put it? … this monstrous joy about her, this thing that really irritated me. And, since I also irritated her, anyone would have guessed that we’d end up together, clinging to each other, and that it would be a disaster. Do you know how I met her? No, you couldn’t imagine how I met her; no one could. Pissing on a tree. I was the one pissing, naturally. Half drunk and leaning up against a sycamore on Virrey Melo Street. It was dawn and she was headed home from somewhere; strange, I never did ask her from where. Once I was on the verge of asking her, the last time I saw her, but I was afraid to. That morning by the tree she came up on me without my even hearing her footsteps. Later I noticed she was barefoot, with her sandals in her hand. She walked past me and, without even looking at me, said that piss was really harmful to plants. Caught off guard, I wet myself. She entered her apartment building and I, soaked with urine and trembling, knew then that that woman was my curse and the love of my life. In the first minute, a man knows everything that is going to happen between him and a woman. But it’s incredible how things then play out, how a man can begin by explaining to a girl that a sycamore tree can hardly be considered a plant, how she can pretend not to remember anything about the incident, referring to me as sir with joyful ferocity, as if to mark with fire the distance between us, how she can pretend to be in a hurry, to have final exams to study for, and then finally accept an invitation to sit at a café and chat over a cup of coffee, how that chat can last for hours and five glasses of gin, and how I end up telling her my life and dreams, and then move on to a nocturnal labyrinth of sidewalks, with repeated no’s, golden leaves, eventual consent and a long stairwell until I finally get her in bed. Or rather, she drags me to bed, she, who arrived there at the end of her own personal labyrinth, comprised of other streets and other memories, I hear her tell me I’m handsome, and I believe it, I tell her she is every woman, hate her and kill her off in my dreams, only to see her reborn, intact and barefoot, entering our home with an abominable flowerpot full of azaleas or eating a sweet quince pie the size of a wagon wheel. And then one day, with hate that is almost real, with indifference that is almost real, I tell her I’m fed up with so much stupidity, so much operetta-like happiness, and I begin treating her like an ordinary whore. Until one night I slam the door to her apartment on Melo Street with all my might, and hear, as if for the first time, the familiar sound of her Charles the Second of Spain reproduction crashing to the floor. See what I mean? A woman who likes Charles the Hexed! I remained outside the door for a moment, waiting. Nothing happened. That time, she didn’t hang the poster back up on the wall; I couldn’t even imagine her, later, tidying up as she whistled her non-existent czardas, that tune that erased all sadness form her heart. And I knew then that I would never return to her apartment; later, back at my own apartment, while I packed a change of clothes and my shaving kit in a handbag, I also knew, I had known for hours, that she wasn’t ever going to call or come back to me again.”

“But you were wrong; she did come back,” I heard myself say, surprising us both: me, for having asserted something that hadn’t really been made clear; and him, for having heard my voice, as if he had forgotten he wasn’t alone. The man with the tired face looked, indeed, very tired, as if he had journeyed to this town from some distant place. He was, however, from here. He had left for Buenos Aires as a teenager, but returned every now and again. I had seen him often, always alone, but now I think I did see him once with a woman. “Because you were together again, at least for a day.”

“One day, for an entire afternoon. And part of that night. Till the last train that night.”

The man with the tired face made as if to brush a lock of hair from his brow. A youthful and anachronous gesture, for it must have been years since that lock of hair existed. He looked more or less my age, by which I mean he was an older man, although it was difficult to know how old exactly. As if he was very young and very old at the same time. Like a teenager in his fifties.

“What I don’t see,” I said, “is what the problem is. I mean, I don’t understand what there is to understand.”

“Precisely. There is nothing to understand. She said so herself that final afternoon we spent together. You have to believe. I simply had to believe in what was happening. Accept it as natural; experience it. As if I had been granted, or we both had been granted, a special favor. That day was a gift, and it was real. And what’s real does not require explanation. Take that willow by the riverbank, for instance. Suddenly, it’s there. We see it because the moonlight suddenly fell on it. I don’t know if it has always been there; it is there now. Glittering in the moonlight, it’s very beautiful. I walk over and touch it, feel the humid bark with my hand, and that’s proof that it’s real. But there is no need to touch it, because there is another way to prove it. But let it be clear that this isn’t me saying so; it’s as if she’s saying it. It’s strange that she should say these things. She said them all the time over the course of the years; and it’s strange that I never realized it. She would say that the proof that it exists is that it is beautiful. Everything else is just words. And when the moonlight moves on and spoils the scene, or no longer shines on it and the tree disappears from view … Well, then we should remember the minute of beauty that willow tree had … forever. Real life can be like that. It has to be like that. And whoever doesn’t realize it in time is a poor son of a bitch,” he said, almost with indifference, and I replied that I didn’t quite follow, but that I intended to remedy the situation by ordering another whiskey. When I offered to buy him one, he turned me down again for the third time. I signaled the waiter.

“So I called her up. One night I went over to the telephone company, asked to be put through to Buenos Aires and rang her apartment. It must have been around three in the morning and four or five months had gone by. She might have moved, or might not be home, or might even be with somebody else. These things didn’t occur to me then. It was as if from the moment I slammed the door to the phone call that night, there hadn’t been time for anything else. She picked up. Her voice sounded odd, but it was her voice. A bit distant at first, as if she struggled to fully awaken. As if the insistent ringing of the telephone had summoned her from faraway, from the depths of a dream. I blurted it out all at once: the departure time for the train from Retiro; the time at which I would be waiting for her at the station; how I intended to spend the day with her … God knows what I said. Everything we had never done and were on the verge of never doing. The things people do … stroll together along the river, dance on the dirt floor of a patio, listen to the church bells, visit my childhood school. Do you see? Do you know how many years we were together? How many years had passed since the moment she surprised me by that sycamore tree? Yes, I can see it in your face … I say years and you understand. And in all that time it never occurred to me to show her around the Canaletas neighborhood, or take her down the path to the port, or show her the toy-like crossing of the mini-Dipietri trains, or the San Pedro Cross, or the spot where Marcial Palma was killed. How is it that I never thought of these things before? I don’t know. You see, that is the problem right there. Or maybe the problem is that she picked up the phone. Not only did she pick up and speak to me, she also came to San Pedro. She stepped off the train … ”

And not only did she step off the train; she was also wearing an almost-forgotten dress. It was a code between them, a secret sign only they understood. And it was as if time hadn’t touched her. Not only the time lapsed in those four or five months, but Time itself, as if that barefooted girl that had walked past the sycamore tree years ago was then stepping off the train. Finally, I saw the waiter come towards us.

“Yes, that is exactly the impression I had,” said the man with the tired face. “But how did you know?”

I answered that he himself had told me, various times, and I asked the waiter to bring me some whiskey. “What you still haven’t told me is what’s strange about it. What’s so strange about her coming to this town, wearing that or any other dress? Four or five months isn’t that much time. Hadn’t you called her yourself? Wasn’t she your gal?”

“Of course she was,” he said, and he took a small, metal object from his pants pocket, laid it on the table and gazed at it. It was a coin, although I didn’t recognize it at first; it was totally deformed and twisted. “Of course I had called her myself.” He put the coin back in his pocket as the waiter poured a measure of whiskey into my glass. And then, without regard to the waiter’s presence or anything whatsoever, he added, “But she was dead.”

“Well, that changes things a bit,” I said. “Leave the bottle, please.”

She wasn’t a ghost. The man with the tired face did not believe in ghosts. She was real, and the afternoon they spent together in San Pedro that day, and the night hours that followed, were real. As if they had been granted the opportunity to live in the present a day they should have lived in the past. When the man finished speaking, I realized that he hadn’t told me, and I hadn’t asked him, some key things. Maybe he didn’t know himself. I didn’t know how the girl had died and when. Whatever happened could have happened in any number of ways and at any time in that four or five month period. Perhaps it happened accidentally and in some other part of the world. Why not? Four or five months wasn’t that much time, as I had said, but it was enough to sprout endless possibilities. The fact is she was with him for more than half a day, and many people saw them together, sitting at a metal table at a dance with a dirt floor, walking by the shipyards, in the church plaza … She spoke with some children who were fishing, and he was chased by a dog out of a garden he had trespassed on to pluck her a rose. That night, she took the rose with her. Where? he wondered. Many people saw them and a boy even spoke with her, but how could they be expected to verify her identity if no one in town had seen her before. How could we be sure it was her and not some other woman? There’s the dress, sure, but that’s even less convincing; it evoked memories that only they shared, a certain smile or the sway of her hair. And so I thought of the hotel: both their names should figure there. He looked at me blankly.

“We did go to a hotel, naturally. And if you are asking if I slept with her, the answer is yes. She was real. From the hair on her head to the tips of her toes. Much more real than you or me.” Suddenly, he laughed, letting out an unexpected cackle that was so sincere it seemed ignoble to me. “And in the room next to ours, there was also a couple that was very much of this world.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” I said.

“That’s a mistake on your part, because it is very important. It’s always been important between her and me. That’s how I know she was real. Not an illusion, not a dream, not a ghost; it was her, and only with her would I have spent an hour of my life with my ear glued to a cup, trying to hear what was happening in the room next door.”

“Both of you would have had to sign the hotel registry. That’s what I’m getting at. She would have had to give her name, her ID number.”

“Names and numbers. I get it. I also collected those sorts of fetishes and held them to be real. But, no. Neither her name nor her ID number. Only mine, with the discrete side note, ‘and guest.’ I could have been with any woman in that hotel, and with any woman they would have noted down the same thing. Try to see things the way she did: that day was possible on the condition that she would leave no trace of her presence in the real world and, moreover, that I would not even try to find one. Listen to me, please. Before, I said that day was a gift, but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s very important that you understand this fully. When do you think I learned that she was dead? The following day? A week later? In that case, I would have been blessed for those hours and this would be a ghost story. Perhaps you imagine that she, or something I think of as her, left that night on the last train, and that I then traveled to Buenos Aires and a concierge or neighbor tried to convince me that that day couldn’t have happened. No. I knew the truth by mid-afternoon because she told me herself. We had already visited the Canaletas neighborhood. We had laughed and even argued. I promised to be open-minded and she more orderly. I was about to buy her astronomy books and star charts as gifts, and she was about to buy a Danish pipe for me, and suddenly I uttered the word ‘bed.’ She became very grave. I might have noticed earlier: her fear when I wanted to show her the old part of the cemetery, where we saw the Irish tombstones, or certain episodes of absentmindedness that resembled an absolute loss of memory, or when I even hinted at any event connected to our last day together in Buenos Aires, or a fleeting sign of sorrow whenever I spoke words like ‘tomorrow.’ I don’t know. What happened is that I said I was too old for all this walking, and if she expected me to go out that night, we ought to find a bed to lie down on first. And she became very serious. She said sure, that she’d go with me wherever I wanted, but that she had to tell me something. She had thought of not telling me. She was permitted to keep it from me if she so chose. But she felt now it was necessary that I know. Otherwise, it would be like an act of betrayal. ‘Don’t forget that this is me,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget that you called me and I came. That I am here with you and that we still have several hours to be together.’ I thought she was talking about another man, and I could have killed her for it. I couldn’t say a word, however, because she put her hand on my lips. She laughed and her eyes shone bright, and it was as if I were seeing her through the rain. She told me that sometimes I was really stupid. She said she knew what I was thinking, that it was very easy to know because the faces of the stupid turn green when they are jealous. She told me there were things that should just be believed without being understood. Trying to understand these things was worse than killing them. She spoke to me of the ephemeral splendor of beauty and its truth. She asked me to forgive her for what she was about to do, and she dug her nails into the palm of my hand, pressing down until she left four distinct lines of blood. Once more she said that it was her, and that’s why she could cause pain, and also feel it; that she was real. And then she told me she was dead. And that if at some moment in what we had left of the evening, if even for a single minute of the night, I felt that this was sad and not, as it should be, something very beautiful, we will have lost forever something we had been given; we will have lost once more the day we never had. Our little flower; ours to cut. And that I shouldn’t forget the promise I had made, to take her to a dance in a patio with garlands and a dirt floor … You know the rest. Or can imagine it. We checked into the hotel, climbed the stairs with a joyful and deliberately furtive air, and made love. We had time to play spy, our ears glued to the wall to listen in on the tumultuous couple next door, stifling our laughter and shushing each other so as not to be heard. It was nighttime when I took her to see my childhood school. Night is the best time to see the building. Its cloisters look as if they are from another century. The trees in the woods seem to multiply and rise higher. The interior patios provoke vertigo. At some point during the night, we got lost. ‘I know how to read the stars to guide us,’ she told me, and said that one must be Aldebaran, the star with the most beautiful name. I didn’t tell her that Aldebaran is not always visible in our night sky; I let her guide me. Later, we heard accordion music in the distance and looked at each other in the darkness. ‘My song!’ she cried out, and began whistling her made-up czardas, now transformed into some type of tarantella. I’d like to tell you what we saw at the dance; it was like happiness itself. A rickety, beat-up car took us bumping along to the station. ‘This is when we should be the least sad,’ she told me. ‘My God, I need a coin,’ she said suddenly. I searched my pockets for one, but she said no, it had to be her coin. She looked through her purse and I feared she wouldn’t find one. But, of course, she did. She told me I should place the coin on the rails and retrieve it once the train had gone. ‘I shouldn’t be doing this,’ she said, ‘but I know how you’ve always liked these sorts of fetishes.’ She also said I had to buy her a ticket. She laughed at me: ‘I’m here,’ she said. ‘This is me. I can’t travel without a ticket.’ She told me not to take my eyes off the train until it disappeared around the bend. She told me that, although I wouldn’t be able to see her in the darkness, she would be able to see me from the rear of the last car, and that I should wave to her.”


Translated by Dario Bard from “Carpe Diem” as printed in Los Mundos Reales IV: Las Maquinarias de la Noche, published by Emecé, 1992, available from Amazon

Abelardo Castillo is an Argentine writer born in the City of Buenos Aires who grew up in San Pedro, Province of Buenos Aires. He has written several short story collections and recently published his definitive collection, Cuentos Completos (2008), availabe from Amazon. He has also authored several novels and a number of plays. His work has earned him a number of international awards. Further, he launched three literary magazines: El Grillo de Papel, El Escarabajo de Oro and El Ornitorrinco. The latter represented an important act of cultural resistance during Argentina’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Additional English translations of Castillo’s short stories are available at the Barcelona Review, where Graham Thomson has masterfully translated “Ernesto’s Mother” and “Girl from Somewhere Else.” 

On the Argentine television program, Obra en Construccion, Abelardo Castillo discusses his life and work (in two parts):