© by Manuel Mujica Lainez (1000 words)
Manuel Mujica Lainez is a well-known author in Argentina and Spanish-speaking countries.
Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno is both a widow and a lady of great importance. In this vast city inhabited by so many important widows, there is none so important as Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno. As befits her importance, she lives in a large mansion full of servants and important furniture and presides over important charities that require important parties. Through a curious twist of fate the only thing that lacks importance within this splendid setting is her family: the lady is of doubtful pedigree - a fact of which no one has the slightest doubt, least of all the important ladies. Witness to these origins (which not even the splendour of her wedding has been able to improve) are certain obscure relatives of unshakeable modesty, whom Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno hardly ever sees. If she is forced to introduce them - something she cleverly avoids - she manages to wrap up their names and kinship in a half smile and an aloof glance, while her vanity spits and snarls inside her like a crouching tiger.
Mrs Hermosilla Fresno believes in God and in Hell. She believes (as her administrators and charity helpers have often assured her) that she has amply earned a place in Paradise. She would have preferred, quite naturally, to remain in the world which after all suited her perfectly - with the single absurd exception of the relatives in question - but one morning, suddenly, after waking (or not waking) in her important bed, Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno realizes, because of the wails and cries of her important servants, that she is dead. She is a little frightened and very astonished, for deep down inside her, though she has never admitted as much, she believed herself to be immortal. The hours go by and Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno waits in vain for the arrival of the celestial hosts who are supposed to set her up somewhere in the chosen rooms of the Divine Mansions. Instead, her cousins and nephews appear ( and that abominable half-sister) and their existence is finally made clear to the many important ladies who now surround her with rosaries.
Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno wants to speak but cannot utter a single word. She wants to explain that these relatives are of no importance, that they are really not relatives, that they exaggerate, that there is no need to shake hands with them, or embrace them or give them heartfelt condolences or make such a fuss about them or ask so many stupid questions which, because they concern these relatives, are of no importance whatsoever . . . And in the meantime no one comes to fetch her. Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno, accustomed as she is to the fast and haughty rhythm of giving orders, begins to feel impatient.
Six disagreeable days go by and in the end Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno realizes, with helpless horror and fury, that the solicitor to whom she has entrusted her precious will (in which she left her whole fortune to colossal charities that would have spread and perpetrated her important name) has said that there is no such will, that Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno refused up to the very last moment - God knows why! Shyness perhaps or superstition, or her strength of character - to dictate and sign one. 'Who would have thought it!' is the only comment of the charities' administrators. And in the absence of a legal document it must be assumed that her fortune goes to her melancholy relatives. Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno wants to speak out, raise her voice against this outrage, but now she is a prisoner of a new ghostly space in which her voice deserts her. She wants to lift her arms toward Heaven, toward that Heaven so curiously postponed, and let everyone know that her generous intentions have been betrayed by the solicitor, probably in league with her miserable, despised relatives. And she cannot. She cannot do anything at all.
Week after week she lies there, witness to the moving of her nephews and cousins (and the abominable half-sister) into her magnificent home. She see them opening her drawers, reading her letters, trying on her jewellery, her furs, giving orders to her servants, emptying her wine cellar, playing host to the city's important widows who try desperately to persuade them to join the boards of her most important charities. She hears the widows begging, she hears her relatives finally accepting; she sees them signing cheques. She notices now how they have learned to smile the way she used to smile, and how, when her name is mentioned, they assume an aloof, almost indifferent look.
And still no one comes to fetch her. She remains motionless, invisible in her bed slept in by other people, people who perform on that very bed, upon her illustrious ghostly body, detailed acts of sensuality, people who sully her memory with coarse, rude jokes, who speak freely of her vanity, as if she, of all people, had ever been guilty of that sin. Only those who are unhappy are vain; surely she was never unhappy - she was simply important, very important.
Until, gradually, Mrs Hermosilla del Fresno (who cannot even escape into the haven of madness) understands, with surprise and despair, the she will never be taken away, not even to be guided to an unexpected Hell. Because this, however strange, absurd, unconventional and antitheological it might seem, this is Hell.
Translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel.
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