by Peter Weverka || Author's Links
I used to go to Mexico for three months each year to write novels and stories. I would find a comfortable little town, settle in, put in two or three months of work, and go home.
One summer I landed in a town on Lake Chapala called Ajijic (about thirty miles south of Guadalajara). The place seemed ideal for writing. It was quiet and slow. I found a house to rent close to the plaza. What a pleasant surprise: the house was furnished with hand-carved 19th Century furniture and many portraits done in oil. I fell into the usual routine. I would sleep late, eat a long breakfast, work five or six hours, catch a movie (carefully reading the subtitles to improve my Spanish), have a drink or two in the cantina, and go to bed.
One afternoon as I purchased cigarettes in the corner store, the man asked if I had seen any fantasmas in my rented house. No, I hadn't seen any ghosts. Then perhaps you've heard them, he asked. I didn't think anything of it. Weeks passed. Late at night in the cantina I met a gray-haired old man who said members of his family had lived in the house I rented. His old aunt had died there. She had been a recluse most of her life. It was all very, very sad, he told me. The poor woman had witnessed terrible violence in her youth. No child should see such things. Did the oil paintings still hang in the house? I answered in the affirmative and the old man shuddered. He made the sign of the cross. I tried to get him to tell me more, but he refused to go into details. It was all too sad to talk about, he said. Besides, it happened so long ago.
Next day, when I should have been writing, I stared at the oil paintings. They were done by the same artist. By modern standards, the portraits looked stiff and rigid, but -- especially around the eyes -- the faces were lively and done with real care. You could tell that the artist knew the people he painted intimately. Was the girl in the painting the old aunt I heard about? A plump little girl, she had white ribbons in her hair. A small dog sat on her lap. Who were the others? There was a handsome youth, a dashing figure in a black cape, and a dignified old gentleman. One figure had a Van Dyke beard and a beret. I decided, correctly as it turned out, that he was the painter himself. When I wasn't working on my novel, I found myself speculating about the people whose portraits hung in the house. Who were they? Did they have something to do with the terrible violence that the old man alluded to?
A few days later, I saw the old man in the cantina and bought him a drink. Yes, he told me, the little girl in the painting was his aunt. The painting was probably made in the 1910s. At that time, his aunt's side of the family had been fairly wealthy. They owned a rancho and the little house in town, the one I rented. But a maldita, a curse, had fallen upon that part of his family. I bought him another drink. The little girl's mother had died giving birth to her. That was the beginning of it all. Her father, heartbroken, started spending all his time on the rancho. The little girl was raised by the family servants. And by a painter, a family friend, the same one who did the portraits in the house. He taught her how to read and write.
Here the old man stubbornly refused to say anything more. I begged him to tell me the rest of the story. I bought another round of tequilas. Finally, as if telling the story was distasteful to him and he wanted to get it over with quickly, he revealed everything. Had I understood his Spanish correctly? I asked after certain details and he explained them. Yes, I agreed, it was truly a tragedy, especially for his aunt. I apologized for pressing him to tell me this dark and sordid portion of his family's history. He waved his hand as if to say it didn't matter, as it all happened so long ago.
That night, as I stumbled home drunk, I saw the house in a new light. Children didn't play in front of my house like they did the other houses on the street. Naively, I believed that children stayed away because they didn't want to disturb me. Now I understood that my house was haunted and everyone, from the lottery-ticket salesman on one end of the street to the man in the store on the other end, knew it. I unlocked the door, half expecting to see the bloody events that the old man related. But all was peaceful inside. I stared at each portrait -- the girl, her fiancé, the painter (a self-portrait), the girl's father -- and played over in my mind the role each person played in the tragedy. Fortunately, I was drunk. I found it easy to go to sleep that night.
Other nights it wasn't easy to sleep. I started going to the cantina late into the night. I didn't like being alone in the little house after dark. When I tried to write my novel, I found it hard to concentrate. I listened for the little noises that every house makes -- the creaks and groans -- for evidence of ghosts. If any house warranted having ghosts, it was my house. Between lack of sleep and the tequila I drank, my nerves were shot. My imagination, instead of devoting itself to my novel, gave itself completely to speculating about the murderous events that had transpired in the house. And I could do nothing about it. When items fell from shelves -- and they seemed to do that more frequently than was necessary -- I jumped out of my chair. Doors in the house seemed to open and close of their own free will. It was the rainy season, and the lightning storms that came in the late afternoon terrified me with their noise and the weird momentary shadows they cast on the walls of the house.
During one of those storms, I came to the conclusion that I might be coming unhinged. I saw it, I swear, the shadow of the murderer's hand on the wall. It carried a knife in its fist, but just as quickly the lightning flash ended, darkness fell, I heard a loud peal of thunder, and the hand was gone. My imagination had played upon the events for so long, I could almost see them. The old man told me that his aunt rarely spoke after the tragedy and never said what happened precisely, but I felt I knew. I knew what happened. I could almost see it happening again in the front room of my house even though one part of my mind, the rational part, knew not to toy with the gory scene.
Here is what happened: Although he was thirty years her senior, the painter fell in love with the girl. He loved her from the beginning. You could see it in the portrait he made of her. He was her instructor, and besides teaching her how to read and write, he instructed her how to be the ideal woman, the one he could love passionately with all his heart. Alas, when she grew up, she fell in love with the youth in the cape. He was handsome. He had all the vigor of youth. The portrait clearly showed it. In spite of being jealous, in spite of his hatred of the youth, the painter could not hide the youth's beauty in the painting he made of him. But every moment he stood in front of the canvas was torture for the painter. He knew the youth would rob him of the only thing he loved, and he plotted how to kill the youth at the same time as he painted him.
One evening, on the pretext of delivering something to the girl's house, he entered, found the youth there, and stabbed him with a long-handled knife. The girl screamed. He took her in his arms and tried to explain why he had to kill the youth. He had done it for her. He had done it for love. And then, to multiply the tragedy, the girl's father arrived. Seeing his daughter being accosted by the painter, he drew his pistol and fired. A double death, made triple when, shortly thereafter, overcome by grief, the father took his own life too.
Who knows if that is really how it happened. Perhaps she really loved the painter and her marriage to the youth was arranged by her father. In any case two murders occurred in the room where I kept my typewriter and writing materials. And the murderous events had inspired a suicide. By now I was obsessed with the people - the girl, the youth, the painter, the girl's father -- whose portraits hung in the house. The events that transpired there occupied my imagination in sleep and wakefulness. My nerves, as I said, were shot.
Finally, a dog came to my rescue -- a little Pomeranian. I found him on my doorstep. He came right in and made himself at home. I fed him scraps of meat and we became friends. He was a nervous dog, but at least his yapping distracted me from the little sounds in the house and my newfound fear of ghosts. I was able to start writing again.
One day, however, a knife fell from the kitchen table, the dog started barking, and he wouldn't stop no matter what. No matter how hard I tried to soothe the dog, he was agitated and wouldn't stop his growling and barking. He stood in front of the painter's portrait and yapped away for five minutes. And then I realized it. This Pomeranian with gray hair, this little dog was the spitting image of the dog in the girl's portrait. He looked exactly like the dog that sat on the girl's lap in the painting. I immediately left Ajijic and have never been back. An old woman, a widow in a black rebozo, found me shivering in the bus station. She offered to pray for me. I told her to please say her prayer and commend my soul to God and the saints who protect us.
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