Confined [excerpt]

BooksConfined. A Novel


Elena Basigalupo was tired of screaming. So tired, that she no longer had a voice. Not that she needed it: after all, she had no one to talk to. She had cried out for ages without anybody ever coming to her rescue, so why would they now? Rogelio was the only one able to hear her, and she did not want that to happen, of all things. She had learned her lesson. (I have learned it, I have learned it, yes, I have learned the lesson…¿no es cierto mi bebé? ¿No es cierto, Diosito?)

Those times he had heard her yell, in the begin­ning, he had swiftly mounted the stairway of their house, brusquely pulled down the unsteady ladder that led to the attic (his loud footsteps jiggling the entire vicinity of Martínez), before greeting her with his familiar wild and sour ferrety eyes; his dark brown hair (cut short as a Dober­man’s and pulled back with hair spray – which he used even while he slept for his fast growing curls not to betray him in the middle of the night); his stiff and stubborn olive uniform and his taut thin-lipped mouth voicing with fury: “What’s the matter, puta de mierda? Are you looking for this?” as he jumped on top of her, her own husband beating her with angry fists, twisting her arms and legs until there was not a single sob or complaint remaining in her shrunken body. While his feet pushed her around as he would a sack of bones he would mumble over and over: “Dirty, filthy, asquerosa, look what you’ve done to your­self and to the room!”, until sometime later when, perhaps exhausted, he would pull himself up, straighten his clothes and say, before slamming the trapdoor behind him: “Hoy no comés, ¿entendiste? Today no food, hear me?”…As if there ever was any food. (Food, I miss food…)

His ears were sharper than a razor blade. Many times Elena wondered how he managed to hear her from downstairs, past the thick clay walls that engulfed her. She had no answer, as she had no answer for anything that went on around her. All she knew was that everything had be­come gray. Gray as an infinite clouded sky. Gray as the bloodless remains of a fire. Gray as tediousness.

It was impossible for her to tell how much time had gone by since he had confined her to that claustrophobic space. She knew the day had been San Martín de Tours, November 11, because she had just called her great-aunt Martina for her birthday. It had been raining feverishly in Buenos Aires. The year was 1979 (or 1980?), she was not sure. (The wall, where is the wall? The wall with the hole…)

Yet this knowledge did not mean anything. As far as she knew it could be the year 2000, or just as well the first day of her enclosure. Hours and days, weeks and years were all the same. Four words that to her only meant Mad­ness. Endlessness. Gray. (We will leave here Sol, trust me, and you will be born, but before that we must pray to God, I promised to, otherwise we won’t find the hole, the hole in the wall…)

She did not know when was the last time she had seen the sun: the big bright nova star that resembled her image of Divinity and that used to rouse her around seven thirty each morning in the form of white blinding rays sift­ing through the faded curtains of her bedroom, of playful chiaroscuros flirting with the subtle shadows of her bed. (The sun, how I miss it, el sol…) She could not see the moon either, although at times its fluorescent virginity managed to filter itself through the dusk somehow, and she would imagine that she was contemplating it from the cool patio of her parents’ chacra in Coronel Suárez.

What she could not evoke in these fleeting enjoy­able instances, however, no matter how hard she tried, were the stars (behind the wall…). Their vividness had dissipated together with the goose-bumpy feeling of a coastal breeze rubbing her shoulders at sunset. Her recollection of them amounted to thousands of tiny blemishes scattered over a face of cloud-ridden wrinkles. Yet how could she be ex­pected to remember them, if she could not even recall her face? It had been just as long since she had last examined herself under a mirror, lain down on a mattress, brushed her hair or taken a shower. (If only there was a hose here, or a water spring, I could rinse myself of all this dirt…) The same time since she had played with Capitán; ridden Arenoso (Who has Arenoso now…Did you sell it Rogelio? I hope not, please…); held the ivory rosary she had inherited from her great great grandmother; attended Padre Cruz’s Mass in Fátima (He knows, he knows about the wall!), or had pressed a crinkled estampita of Mary and Baby Jesus between her thighs for good luck (They are behind the wall, where is the hole, let’s find it Sol…). The same time since her sweat had pasted a silver cross to her bulbous mole-stained chest like glue (Where is my cross, Sol? I need it! It’s mine!); since she had laughed about a joke or seen someone smile or sing or just be happy; since she had bought a pair of tight leathered guillermina shoes in a fa­vorite store (My shoes…), or beheld consenting fathers as they took their round-faced caramel-sticky children for a ride on the neighborhood’s merry-go-round – their varied features coinciding in Elena’s mind with those of Pablo and Marielita (Marielita, she is behind the wall, isn’t she?). The same time since she had felt two men staring at her back (They are still near me, I can feel them…) or had seen her parents, sisters and grandmother Isabel (you will love my Abuela Bela, Sol…); since she had walked the streets of Martínez and stepped over fallen eucalyptus leaves, their familiar cracking noise proving God’s overreaching exis­tence and his constant companionship and protection; since she had knitted a baby dress or a sweater to give away dur­ing her hospital rounds; since she had bought fresh jaz­mines and placed them in a crystal vase on the dining room table to refresh the house and accompany with their sweet and childlike fragrance the Victorian furnishings and enlarged pictures of herself that covered almost every free inch of wall (Las flores, vamos a comprar flores. We have to buy them Solcito, flowers, remember? The smell is bad here. Now where is the wall?); since she had opened the door for the milkman, the sodero and the strong eloquent sun hounding over their backs (El sol, we must find the sun. It is right there, look, behind the wall, we only have to reach for it, Solcito, and it is there…).

Minutes, hours, days and weeks breathed by her as swift and unseen as a cold draft intruding through an open window, and at the same time as slow and nagging as a worker pulling a trunk-load of bricks across a sun-scorched field. Her sole reference of time passing was the beige cone of light that at a certain time of day escaped from a notch in the grill. As would a spotlight, it highlighted the eastern wall with a downward shifting iridescent streak. It did not last long, however: before she knew it the blonde glow had faded and Elena was left again in the dark. And in the gray. She begged Rogelio not to discover her sole pleasure, oth­erwise her night would be complete.

Those brief instances of luminosity she took the chance to explore her diminutive loft in search of escape (The wall, I must find the hole in the wall. Padre Nuestro que estás en los Cielos …). Anything might have served her purpose: a crack in the wall, a rat hidden in a corner, the faraway sound of the rain, a voice; anything that modi­fied her silence and her loneliness. She sensed, touched, caressed, felt and stared with her unclothed silhouette until the final dot of light left the room (Sol no te vayas …). Other times she stood under the pale flare to absorb some warmth and to pretend she was on-stage. She would imag­ine her audience struggling with tears and stretching its hands to save her while it witnessed her wrapped up in a urine-stained blanket delivering in painful lines the true circumstances of her life. She would gaze at her shadow: bouncing, pleading and screaming at the walls around her. But that was when she had more energy. These days she could barely stand up, let alone dance or speak. Not only that: there were times when finding a comfortable pose in which to rest her bruised figure was as hard and excruciat­ing as performing an entire ballet on two toes. Though it was only a matter of choosing what side of her body to lay on the floor, the bones sticking out from her hips and but­tocks would not let her accommodate into the most natural and predictable positions (and she used to worry about her weight!). But then there were moments when she was not sure what it meant to be standing, sitting or lying down anymore. It all became the same, and that is when the con­fusion started, because she had to bring her hands to her face and think hard about what to do next. (WHERE IS THE WALL?!)

Yet it became worse: every so often, upon lifting her head she would feel the room stirring and the walls coming closer and closer until she felt they were pressing her body and strangling her to death. Those instances she held on to the floor or – if she happened to be standing – to one of the walls. She held on to them as if they were a last loaf of bread, or a mattress being snatched away. She would count imaginary rosary beads and try to bring to mind the calm and virtuous expressions reflected on the estampitas she used to buy from children living in the street or from the newspaper stand on the nearest train station. The ones where la Santa Madre, an impersonation of the Sun Goddess (Mi Sol…) – piety, innocence and serenity blended over the stereotypical features of a candid oval face and lithe body – wore a white headdress and had a thin yellow halo over her maroon head while holding on with sternness to a Baby, el Niño Jesús (El Sol…), who even though young and dainty was depicted with grown up fea­tures and whose angelic head was inclined to the side as a way of conveying the sorrow He felt for the disgraces of this world and His forgiveness to those liable for them. He was every child. He was Elena’s son or daughter (Mi Sol…), the ones she did not have (What about Sol?). Locked up in her cell, she strove to detach herself from the immediacy of her suffering by empathizing with Theirs, but most times even this modest task seemed impossible. Was this how Rogelio’s desaparecidos felt like before they died, the famosos ‘subversivos’? As she wondered she would carry her hand to her belly. (We are not subversives Sol, we will not die, we will find the wall, we pray, God hears us…)

Once in a while she heard noise coming from out­side: a car accelerating, vanishing into the end of the street; people chatting; a dog barking (¿Capitán?); a child crying or fussing… Those instances she would use the little strength she had left to try to stand up and shout at them, tell them she was there (please hear me, I am here!). But she never could. All she could do was lie back and relieve herself with tears.

What persisted in her leaden existence, however, no matter if there was spotlight, hope, bleakness or light­ness, was the freezing molded stink impregnated on the cement of the bare walls and floor (There is a hole in one of the walls, I made it. We should find it Solcito, so you can be born…). An eternity of humidity, confinement and ex­crement converged to cloud her eyesight and obscure her senses (It is there, the hole is there, I can almost see it…). Her faeces became warriors with spades running to attack her (only by eating them would she defeat them); her urine a swamp of moving sands into which her defenseless body was sinking (only by fusing with it would she halt her de­scent); the dampness an undefined green slime sucking her blood marrows (only by licking it would it leave her alone). Sometimes the chase ended when she fell asleep, but not always.

So for the most part Elena remained lying on the cold floor – her bed – unable to sob, breathe or open her eyes. Amazingly enough, those were the instances she felt best: an almost pleasurable sense of relief and restfulness came over her. After all, she was getting what she de­served. The exposed flesh on her arms, legs and cheeks thumped and burned, but the chilling moisture of the stone soothed her. It had the calming effect of running into a fresh water fountain after a long horse-ride in the Club Alemán or in Coronel Suárez; the plenitude of kneeling on a cold wooden Church bench.

Still, she dreamt of escape. She knew God would rescue her once she had gone through her well-deserved path of suffering and remorse (He will, He will, He loves us Solcito, He wants you to be born, He knows I pray…). But for that to happen she first had to show Him Effort. Will­ingness. Persistence; she had to prove to Him that she wanted to live in spite of everything, no matter the circum­stances; only then might He consider a way out for her (He wants us to find the wall, I know…).

She was sorry she did not have the ability of an engineer or an albañil to figure out an exit among the rough concrete (The hole. I know it is here, somewhere…). If she only had her knitting needles or silver cross with her, the story would be different. Much different. But she had nothing of the sort. What’s more, the rectangular vent on the upper-left hand corner – her single source of air – was not even an option: she hadn’t needed to climb the wall to realize that the outlet was sealed: as sealed as a dead woman’s secret.

She regretted also not having made her baby-dress venture into a profitable business. That might have freed her from Rogelio while there still was time (There still is). She would not have had to worry about surviving on her own: her work would have given her enough – at least as much as she needed (which was not much, according to her) – and would have granted her a new lifestyle, wherever she chose it to be (but first we must find the wall, and pray). She was sure God and her family would have for­given her desertion in the long-run – even though she had pledged to Him never to do so on the fateful night of July 23, 1964, the day of Santa Brígida, in la Iglesia de Santo Domingo – since it was not her fault to have been married fifteen years without knowing to el Diablo in person! Dis­guised as a beautiful and honorable archangel, he had pre­sented himself as the most trustful and virtuous husband while in the dark he was killing – murdering! – hundreds of God’s creatures (and probably still was). How could she have known this if fate had not dropped a dirty wrinkled serviette on her way? As far as she could tell, had it not been for this fortuitous discovery, she would still be kneel­ing at his feet feeling wrongful for her actions (Oh no, not that, please!). She did not know what was worse: to be locked up knowing or remain untarnished but unaware (We have to get out of here Sol, find the wall…). Perhaps the first option – the one she had been hurled into – was best, because now she could strive to become both free and wise (free at last…). Now that she knew what it was to know, she had to know everything.

Yes, she would leave her husband once she man­aged to get out of there (we will leave him). Surely enough he would have to pay for his behavior sooner or later (just as she was now paying for hers), regardless of how many saint biographies he read…Too bad she had not eloped with Ricardo Kinnley while she had the chance (Where is he?); if they had only been smarter and more cautiousbut even then, who knows if they would have been able to, with all those eyes lurking everywhere (eyes, yes, this place is full of eyes)…Yet this time she would not let her chance go by: she would escape and start a new life, away from everything (except you, Sol!). She knew she could do it. Perhaps she would register in la Universidad de Buenos Aires, or better still, in a school of another city, so Rogelio and his cronies had no way of tracing her. Mendoza would be nice – her grandmother lived there (you will meet her Solcito…); Córdoba too (she had been there several times); they were both such beautiful cities. She would study fash­ion design or journalism, or perhaps both. Who said she had to decide on one? She had enjoyed going through the newspapers each morning (where did Rogelio put them? I don’t see them anywhere. They used to be here. Are they behind the wall?) – she had felt like a private investigator: researching, sleuthing, discovering the tiny cracks amid the pale white surfaces of events; searching for patterns among the apparently unrelated (I will be a detective!) – though she also enjoyed knitting and designing clothes. Anyway, she had plenty of time to decide. Lots of time. In fact, that was all she had. She still had to pay her dues. Get even with God. (Find the wall…)

Elena Basigalupo was a hamster taken hostage and adopted by a young boy. One day, the rodent made the fatal mistake of trying to flee while its owner opened the cage to feed it: the boy got mad, he could not understand why the hamster did that, how dare it, if it was treated so well, if it was loved and cared for so much. And yet it had escaped, or tried to, and that, to the owner of the hamster, as to Rogelio, was betrayal.