“Doña Faustina” — Paul Bowles

“Doña Faustina”


Paul Bowles

NO ONE COULD UNDERSTAND why Doña Faustina had bought the inn. It stood on one of the hairpin curves in the old highway leading up from the river valley to the

town, but the route had been made useless by the building of the new paved road. Now it was impossible to reach the inn except by climbing up a stony path over the embankment and walking several hundred feet down the old road which, no longer kept in repair, already was being washed away by the rains and strangled by the shiny vegetation of that lowland region.

On Sundays the people used to walk out from the town, the women carrying parasols and the men guitars (for this was before the days of the radio, when almost everyone knew how to make a little music); they would get as far as the great breadfruit tree and look up the road at the faded façade of the building, more than half hidden by young bamboo and banana plants, stare a few seconds, and turn around to go back. “Why does she leave the sign up?” they would say. “Does she think anyone would ever spend the night there now?” And they were quite right: no one went near the inn anymore. Only the people of the town knew that it existed, and they had no need of it.

There remained the mystery of why she had bought it. As usual when there is something townspeople cannot understand, they invented a whole series of unpleasant explanations for Doña Faustina’s behavior. The earliest and most common one, which was that she had decided to transform the place into a house of ill-repute, soon fell to pieces, for there was absolutely nothing to substantiate such a theory. No one had been seen to go near the inn for weeks, except Doña Faustina’s younger sister Carlota who arrived from Jalapa, and the old servants José and Elena, who went to market each morning and minded their business strictly enough to satisfy even the most vicious gossips. As for Carlota, she appeared occasionally at Mass, dressed in black. It was said that she had taken their father’s death very much to heart, and would probably not remove the mourning, ever.

The other suppositions evolved by the people of the town in their effort to bring light to the mystery proved as unlikely as the first. It was rumored that Doña Faustina was giving asylum to Chato Morales, a bandit whom the police of the region had been trying for months to capture, but he was caught soon afterward in a distant part of the province. Then it was said that the inn was a depository for a drug ring; this also proved to be false. The leaders of the ring, having been arrested, divulged their secrets, and the cache proved to be in a room above the Farmácia Ideal. There were darker hints to the effect that Carlota might be luring lone voyagers to the inn, where they met the fate that traditionally befalls such solitary visitors to lonely inns. But people did not take such suggestions seriously. The opinion grew that Doña Faustina had merely gone a little mad, and that her madness, having taken an antisocial turn, had induced her to retire to the outskirts of town where she could live without ever seeing anyone. To be sure, this theory was contested by certain younger members of the community who claimed that she was no more crazy than they, that on the contrary she was extremely crafty. They said that having a great deal of money she had bought the inn because of the ample lands which surrounded it, and that there in the privacy of the plant-smothered gardens and orchards she had devised all kinds of clever ways of hiding her riches. The older citizens of the town took no stock in this, however, since they clearly remembered both her husband and her father, neither of whom had evinced any unusual prowess in collecting money. And she had bought the inn for practically nothing. “Where would she have got the pesos?” they said sceptically. “Out of the trees, perhaps?”


ONCE WHEN A CHILD disappeared from the town (small children were often stolen in those days and taken off to distant places where they were made to work), the parents insisted that the police search the inn. Doña Faustina, who was a large woman in the prime of life, met the little policeman at the door and refused to let him in. Indeed, she was so brusque with him and glared at him with such malignity that he felt obliged to go back to the comisaría and get reinforcements. When he and the three extra men returned to the inn, they made a complete but unrewarding search of the place, followed at every step by Doña Faustina, who did not cease to shower them with insults until they had left the premises. But they returned to town with a story. The rooms were a shambles, they said, the furniture was broken, there was rubbish and garbage everywhere in the corridors, the railing of the second-story balcony had given way and been replaced by a single strand of barbed wire, and the place looked generally as though innumerable picnic parties had been held there over a period of years. This report helped to fortify people in their belief that Doña Faustina had more or less lost her mind, and for a time the town ceased thinking about her.

Some time afterward it was noted that she and her sister had taken to making trips to neighboring towns; they had been seen in such widely separated places as Tlacotalpam and Zempoala. But even these peregrinations failed to elicit true interest. Heads were shaken, sympathetically or otherwise, and it was remarked that Doña Faustina was growing less and less sane, but that was all.

When the mistresses of the house were absent they did not return for three or four days, and José and Elena remained alone to guard the property, not even venturing forth to the town for marketing until the two reappeared. On their return the sisters would take an old covered carriage that went each day to the station to await the train. They would pile their numerous bundles and baskets in and drive as far as the curve, where they would get down, the driver helping them up the embankment with their effects and then leaving them to get to the house in whatever way they could. Carlota would go and bring up José to help carry the things, but Doña Faustina always insisted on carrying the heaviest baskets herself. A few trips would be made back and forth through the undergrowth, and then the abandoned road would be quiet again until the old servants went to market the next morning.

In another fortnight or so they would set out once more, always to a new place; necessarily this led them farther and farther afield. Someone even claimed to have seen them once in Vera Cruz, although, given the number of false stories which were circulated about the two women, there was no particular reason to believe this.

Before the house had been made into an inn it had been a prosperous finca, with terraced lands planted with fruit trees, leading downward rather steeply for a mile or so to a high bluff above the river. For fifty years or more the land had been totally neglected, so that now it was hard to find the avocado and mango trees in the tangle of new, eager parasites which had sprung up on every side and often reached above even the tallest of the older trees. Lianas looped down from the branches, climbing plants stretched up to clutch at them, and a person could not stray more than fifty feet down one of the orchard paths from the house without coming face to face with an impenetrable curtain of leaves. And now no one really knew how far it was from the house to the river, because the borders of the property gave on even thicker jungle.


NOT EVEN JOSÉ would have known the tank existed, if he had not strayed a bit farther down than usual one afternoon, to see if he could find some zapotes. In the deep silence of the undergrowth there, far beneath the regions where the sun could reach, he had heard a heavy splash not far distant, as though a boulder had been flung into deep water. He had listened intently, but there had been no other sound. The next afternoon during siesta time he went back to the same spot carrying a machete, and laboriously hacked his way through the stubborn vegetation. It was nearly twilight when he caught sight of the water ahead. Finally he stood near the edge of the tank. The stagnant water gave off a heavy odor, and insects hovered in swarms in the still air above it. And as he watched, it seemed to him that there was a faint movement down in the brown depths; for some reason the water was not completely motionless. For a while he stood there staring downward, lost in contemplation; then, as the light was fading, he turned and started back, resolving without knowing why he did so, to say nothing about the tank to Elena when he returned to the house.

Several times in the course of the following months José returned there, always with the hope of discovering what had made the splash. Even a man diving into the tank could scarcely have caused such a noise. There was a stone-paved ramp at the far end (the tank doubtless had been built to bathe cattle) and on two occasions he found the ramp partially wet, which merely added to his perplexity. The second time he noticed this, he began to cut his way through the vines along the edge, in order to examine the ramp closely. And half-way along he found the path. Someone had cleared a narrow but practicable passage to the tank from some point back near the house. Abandoning his project, he followed the path and came out in a corner of what had once been a rose garden, on a lower terrace between the door to the laundry and the ruined stables. As he stood blinking in the sunlight, Doña Faustina appeared coming down the short flight of steps outside the laundry door. By its handle she carried a basket with a newspaper tucked over the top. Automatically old José walked toward her to take the basket from her. Evidently she had not been expecting to see him, for when she looked up and realized he was near her, her face took on an extraordinary expression. But all she said was: “What are you doing down here? Go to the kitchen.” Then she stepped to a stone bench under an arbor near her and sat down, putting the basket on the bench beside her.

As he went on up towards the house José thought he had never seen his patrona look quite so fierce. She was always severe, and often forbidding, but not to the point of being able to frighten him as she had today. It was as if a demon had peered out at him for a moment from beneath her heavy lids.

“It must be true,” he thought. “Doña Faustina is going mad. What will become of Elena and me?”

This time when he got to the kitchen he took Elena into a corner and whispered to her, telling her his fears, and of how strange the señora had looked in the garden. Elena crossed herself. “Oh, God,” she murmured. But he did not mention the tank to her, either now or later. He did not even want to think about it, because he suspected that in some way it was connected with Doña Faustina’s madness, and being the only one who knew about it gave him a certain feeling of security which he would have lost had he shared the knowledge with Elena.


ONE COLD EVENING OF LLOVIZNA, as the mealy fog slowly turned to water and drenched the countryside, there was a knock at the entrance door. Doña Faustina, who spent much of her time pottering about in the basement where the baths and laundry were, heard it from there, and straightway mounted the stairs, her face dark with fury. Carlota stood in the comedor, undecided as to whether she should answer. The knocking was repeated as Doña Faustina reached her.

“Again the police?” said Carlota a bit fearfully.

“Ya veremos,” muttered Doña Faustina. And she went out and stood behind the door, calling out in a loud voice: “Who?”

There was no answer.

“Don’t open it,” whispered Carlota, who stood behind her.

Doña Faustina made an impatient gesture to silence her sister. They waited several minutes, but the knock did not come again. There was only the irregular dripping of the water from the balcony above onto the ground.

“Stay here,” said Doña Faustina, and she went through the comedor, down the stairs and into the laundry again. Here she gathered up all the refuse that strewed the floor and the washtubs, and packing it into two large baskets, continued out the side door which gave on the grape arbor. From here, descending the steps slowly, she disappeared into the darkness of the rose garden.

Within a half-hour she was back in the entrance hall where Carlota still stood listening by the door.

“Nothing,” said Carlota in answer to Doña Faustina’s questioning gesture. Doña Faustina’s beckoned to her. They went into the comedor and whispered together. One candle flame cowered behind a pitcher on the newpaper-covered sideboard.

“It’s not the police,” said Doña Faustina. “Your room has a key. Go immediately. Lock the door and go to bed.”

“But you…?”

“I’m not afraid.”

Left alone in the comedor, Doña Faustina poured herself a glass of water and drank it. Then she took the candle and went up the long staircase to her room. She closed the door and set the candle down. By her sagging bed, around which Elena had draped the patched mosquito-net, stood a man. Swiftly he stepped over to her, and putting one arm around her neck tightly, stuffed a crumpled cloth into her mouth. She swung her arms about wildly, and managed to hit him once in the face, but almost immediately he had tied her wrists together. There was no further struggle. He propelled her roughly to the bed, yanked aside the netting and pushed her down. She looked at him: he was a tall young man, a mestizo probably, and badly dressed. As he moved about the room looking into the crates and boxes that lay in wild disorder about the floor, he snorted with distaste. Finally he overturned a chair in anger and with a scornful gesture swept all the empty bottles and piles of newspapers off the bureau onto the floor. He approached the bed again and looked at Doña Faustina in the wavering light. Then, to her surprise (although it cannot be said to her annoyance) he lay down and had his way with her quietly, impersonally. A few minutes later he sat up and pulled the cloth out of her mouth. She lay perfectly still and looked up at him. Finally she said: “What do you want here? I have no money.”

“Who knows if you have or not?”

“I tell you there is none.”

“We’ll see.”

He got up. Again he spent a quarter of an hour or so searching the room, scuffing piles of refuse under the tables, kicking the furniture over to examine the under part, emptying drawers of their dust and litter. He lit a small cigar and returned to the bed. His oblique eyes looked almost closed in the light of the candle.

“Where is it?” he said.

“There is none. But I have something more precious.”

“What?” He looked at her with scornful disbelief. What could be more precious than money?

“Untie my hands.”

He gave her the use of one hand, holding the other arm firmly while she fumbled in her clothing. In a moment she drew forth a small parcel done up in newspaper, and handed it to him. He placed it on the bed and bound her hands together. Then in a gingerly fashion he lifted the parcel and smelled of it. It was soft, and slightly wet.

“What is it?”

“Open it, hombre. Eat it. You know what it is.”

Suspiciously he removed the outer layer of paper and held the contents close to the candle.

“What is this?” he cried.

“Ya sabes, hombre,” she said calmly. “Cómelo.”

“What is it?” he said again, trying to sound stern; but there was fear in his voice.

“Eat it, son. You don’t have the chance every day.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Ah!” Doña Faustina looked mysterious and wise, and gave no further answer.

“What do I want of it?” said the young man presently, looking down at the little object in his hand.

“Eat it! Eat it and have the power of two,” she said cajolingly.

“Brujerías!” he exclaimed, still without putting the thing down.

A moment later he added, speaking slowly: “I don’t like witchcraft. I don’t like it.”

“Bah!” Doña Faustina snorted. “Don’t be stupid, son. Don’t ask questions. Eat it, and go on your way with the force of two. Who will ever know? Tell me that! Who?”

This argument appeared to weigh with the young man. Suddenly he lifted the thing to his mouth and bit into it as if it had been a plum. While he ate he looked once at Doña Faustina darkly. When he had finished, he walked around the room tentatively for a moment, his head slightly on one side. Doña Faustina watched him closely.

“How do you feel?” she inquired.

“Bien,” he said.

“Two,” she reminded him. “Now you have the power of two.”

As if inspired by the fortifying suggestion, he walked to the bed, threw himself down on it and lay with her again briefly. This time she kissed his forehead. When it was over he rose, and without undoing the rope that bound her hands, without saying a word, he went out of the door and down the stairs. A minute or so later she heard the front door close. At the same time the candle, which had burned down to its base, began to flicker wildly, and soon the room was in darkness.


ALL NIGHT DOÑA FAUSTINA LAY perfectly still on her bed, sleeping now and then, and during the periods of wakefulness listening to the slow dripping of the mist outside her windows. In the morning Carlota, still fearful, opened her door a crack, and apparently finding everything in the corridors in a normal state went to Doña Faustina’s room.

“Ay, Dios!” she cried when she saw Doña Faustina lying with her clothing partially ripped away and her hands lashed together. “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

But Doña Faustina was calm. As Carlota undid the rope, she said: “He did no harm. But I had to give him the heart.”

Carlota looked at her sister with horror.

“You’re mad?” she cried. “The police will be here any minute.”

“No, no,” Doña Faustina reassured her, and she was right: no police arrived to search the house again. Nothing happened. At the end of two weeks they made another trip, and a little while later still another. Two days after they had returned from this one, Doña Faustina called Carlota into her room and said to her: “There will be a child.”

Carlota sat down slowly on the bed.

“How terrible!”

Doña Faustina smiled. “No, no. It’s perfect. Think. It will have the power of thirty-seven.”

But Carlota did not seem convinced. “We don’t know about those things,” she said. “It may be a vengeance.”

“No, no, no,” said Doña Faustina, shaking her head. “But now we must be more careful than ever.”

“No more trips?” said Carlota hopefully.

“I shall think about it.”

A few days later they were both in the rose garden sitting on a bench.

“I have thought,” said Doña Faustina. “And there will be no more trips.”

“Good,” replied Carlota.

Toward the end of the year Doña Faustina was confined to bed, awaiting the birth of the child. She lay back comfortably in the crooked old bed, and had Elena come and sweep out the room for the first time in many months. Even when the floor was clean, the room still reeked of the garbage that had lain there for so long. Carlota had bought a tiny crib in the town; the purchase had awakened interest in their activities on the part of the townspeople.

When the time arrived, Elena and Carlota were both in the room to assist at the birth. Doña Faustina did not scream once. The baby was washed and laid beside her in the bed.

“A boy,” said Elena, smiling down at her.

“Of course,” said Doña Faustina, beginning to nurse him.

Elena went down to the kitchen to tell José the good news. He shook his head gloomily.

“Something bad in all his,” he muttered.

“In all what?” said Elena sharply.

“Who is the father?” said José, looking up.

“That is Doña Faustina’s secret,” Elena replied smugly, rather as if it had been her own.

“Yes. I think so too,” said José meaningfully. ‘I think there is no father, if you want to know. I think she got the child from the Devil.”

Elena was scandalized. “Shameless!” she cried. “How can you say such a thing?”

“I have reasons,” said José darkly. And he would say no more.

Things went smoothly at the inn. Several months passed. The baby had been named Jesus Maria and was in perfect health—“un torito,” said Elena, “a real little bull.”

“Of course,” Doña Faustina had replied on that occasion. “He has the power of thirty-seven…” Exactly then Carlota had been taken with a violent fit of coughing which managed to cover the rest of the sentence. But Elena had noticed nothing.

The rainy season had finished again, and the bright days of sunlight and green leaves had come. José went in search of fruit once more, wandering down through the garden, crouching over most of the time to creep beneath the hanging walls of vines and tendrils. Again one day he cut his way to the tank, and stood on the edge of it looking toward the ramp, and this time he saw the monster just as it slid forward and disappeared beneath the surface of the water. His mouth dropped open. Only one word came out: “Caimán!”

He stood still for several minutes looking down at the dark water. Then he edged along the side of the tank to the place where the path had been the year before. It had completely disappeared. No one had been to the tank in many months; there was no indication that such a corridor had ever existed there in the mass of vegetation. He returned the way he had come.

It was a scandal, thought José, that such a beast should be living on Doña Faustina’s property, and he determined to speak to her about it immediately. He found her in the kitchen talking with Elena. From his face she saw that something was wrong, and fearful perhaps that he was going to say just what he did say a moment later, she tried to get him out of the room.

“Come upstairs. I want you to do something for me,” she said, walking over to him and pulling him by the arm.

But José’s excitement was too great. He did not even notice that she was touching him. “Señora!” he cried. “There is a crocodile in the garden!”

Doña Faustina looked at him with black hatred. “What are you saying?” she said softly and with a certain concern in her voice, as if the old man needed to be treated with gentleness.

“An enormous caimán! I saw it!”

Elena looked at him apprehensively. “He’s ill,” she whispered to Doña Faustina. José heard her. “Ill!” he laughed scornfully. “Come with me and wait a little. I’ll show you who’s ill! Just come!”

“You say in the garden?” repeated Doña Faustina incredulously. “But where?”

“In the great tank, señora.”

“Tank? What tank?”

“The señora doesn’t know about the tank? There’s a tank down below in the orchard. Sí, sí, sí,” he insisted, seeing Elena’s face. “I’ve been there many times. It’s not far. Come.”

Inasmuch as Elena seemed to be on the point of removing her apron and, accepting his invitation, Doña Faustina changed her tactics. “Stop this nonsense!” she shouted. “If you’re ill, José, go to bed. Or are you drunk?” She stepped close to him and sniffed suspiciously. “No? Bueno. Elena, give him some hot coffee and let me know in an hour how he is.”

But in her room Doña Faustina began to worry.


THEY GOT OUT just in time. Carlota was not sure they ought to leave. “Where shall we go?” she said plaintively.

“Don’t think about that,” said Doña Faustina. “Think about the police. We must go. I know. What good does it do me to have the power of thirty-seven if I pay no attention to what they tell me? They say we must leave. Today.”

As they sat in the train, ready to pull out of the station, surrounded by baskets, Doña Faustina held Jesus Maria up to the window and made his tiny arm wave good-by to the town. “The capital is a better place for him in any case,” she whispered.

They went to a small fonda in the capital, where the second day Doña Faustina conceived the idea of applying at the nearest comisaría for employment as police matron. Her physical build, plus the fact that, as she told the lieutenant, she was afraid of no human being, impressed those who interviewed her, and after various examinations, she was accepted into the force.

“You’ll see,” she said to Carlota when she returned that evening in high spirits. “From now on we have nothing to worry about. Nothing can harm us. We have new names. We are new people. Nothing matters but Jesus Maria.”

At that very moment the inn was swarming with police. The news of the caimán, which José in his obstinacy insisted was really there, first to Elena and then to others in the market, had reached them and awakened their curiosity once again. When it was found that there was not one, but a pair of the beasts, in the hidden tank, the police began to look more closely. No one really believed even now that it was Doña Faustina and her sister who were responsible for the disappearance of the dozens of infants who had vanished during the past two or three years, but it was felt that it would do no harm to investigate.

In a dark corner of the laundry, under one of the washtubs, they found a bundle of bloodstained rags which on closer inspection proved beyond a doubt to be the garments of an infant. Then they discovered other such rags stuffed in the windows to fill the spaces left by broken panes. “They must be Jesus Maria’s,” said the loyal Elena. “The señora will be back in a day or so, and she will tell you.” The police leered.

The jefe came and looked around the laundry. “She was not stupid,” he said admiringly. “She did the work here, and they”—he pointed out toward the orchard—“took care of the rest.”

Little by little all the stories from roundabout concurred to make one unified mass of evidence; there was no longer much doubt as to Doña Faustina’s guilt, but finding her was another matter. For a while the papers were full of the affair. Indignant articles were spread across the pages, and always there was the demand that the readers be on the lookout for the two monstrous women. But it turned out that no picture was available of either of them.

Doña Faustina saw the newspapers, read the articles, and shrugged her shoulders. “All that happened long ago,” she said. “It has no importance now. And even if it had, they could not catch me. I have too much power for them.” Soon the papers spoke of other things.

Fifteen years passed quietly. Jesus Maria, who was unusually bright and strong for his age, was offered a position as servant in the home of the Chief of Police. He had seen the boy about with his mother for several years, and liked him. This was a great triumph for Doña Faustina.

“I know you will be a great man,” she told Jesus Maria, “and will never bring dishonor upon us.”

But eventually he did, and Doña Faustina was inconsolable.

After three years he grew bored with his menial work, and went into the army, carrying with him a recommendation from his employer to a close friend, a certain colonel who saw to it that Jesus Maria was pleasantly treated in the barracks. Everything went well for him; he was constantly promoted, so that by the time he was twenty-five he had become a colonel himself. It may be observed that to be a colonel in the Mexican army is not so great an attainment, nor is it necessarily a sign of exceptional merit. However, there is little doubt that Jesus Maria’s military career would have continued its upward course, had he not happened to be in Zacatecas at the time of the raids on the villages thereabout by Fermin Figueroa and his band. As one more privilege in the endless chain of favors granted him by his superiors he was put in charge of the punitive expedition that was sent out in pursuit of Figueroa. Jesus Maria could not have been completely without ability, nonetheless, since on the third day out he succeeded in taking the leader prisoner along with thirty-six of his men.

No one ever really knew what happened in the small mountain village where the capture took place, save that Figueroa and the bandits had all been tied up in a sheep corral, ready to be shot, and when a few hours later a corporal had arrived with six soldiers to carry out the execution, the corral was empty. And it was even said, after Jesus Maria had been stripped of his rank, that a sheepherder had seen him enter the corral in the bright afternoon sunlight when everyone else was asleep, loosen the ropes that bound Figueroa, and then hand him his knife, whereupon he turned his back and walked away. Few believed the sheepherder’s story: colonels do not do such things. Still, it was agreed that he had been inexcusably careless, and that it was entirely his fault that the thirty-seven bandits had escaped and thus lived to continue their depredations.

The evening Jesus Maria arrived back at his barracks in the capital, he stood alone in the latrine looking at himself in the fly-specked mirror. Slowly he began to smile, watching the movements of his facial muscles. “No,” he said, and tried again. He opened his eyes wider and smiled with all his might. The man’s face had looked something like that; he would never be able to get it exactly, but he would go on trying because it made him happy to recall that moment—the only time he had ever known how it feels to have power.

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