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Un Amor

The house in La Escapa is a squat structure, single-storey, with windows practically level with the ground and one bedroom with two single beds. Nat wanted the landlord to take away one of the beds – she won’t need it – so she could set up a desk instead. She’d be fine with a plain board with four legs. She considers calling him but keeps putting it off. When she does see him – she’ll have to see him sooner or later – she will ask. Or hint. For the time being, she’ll work without a desk, making do with the only table, which she moves against the wall because the house is gloomy and damp, even during the day. The kitchen – little more than a countertop and hob – is so grim that she has to turn on the overhead light just to make a cup of coffee. Outside is different. Starting at daybreak, the sun beats down on the land, and working in the yard, even first thing in the morning, is exhausting. She tries hoeing rows to plant peppers, tomatoes, carrots, whatever grows fast and easily. She read about doing it. She’s even seen a few videos that explain the process step by step, but once she’s in the dirt, she’s incapable of putting any of it into practice. She’ll have to get over her embarrassment and ask somebody.

She sits down in the evening to translate for an hour or two. She can never quite concentrate. Maybe she requires an adaptation period, she tells herself, no need to obsess yet. To clear her head, she takes walks around the surrounding area. No matter how much she calls him, Sieso, the stray dog that has been scratching around in the dirt, refuses to accompany her, and so she goes alone, listening to music on her earphones. When she sees someone else approaching, she speeds up, even jogs a bit. She prefers to go unnoticed, not be forced to introduce herself or chat, even if that means pretending to exercise.

Cork oaks, holm oaks, and olive trees stud the drought-ridden terrain. The rockrose, sticky and unassuming, is the only flower to dot the land. The monotony of the fields is broken up only by the mass of El Glauco, a low mountain of bush and shrub that looks like it’s been sketched in charcoal on a naked sky. On El Glauco, it is said, there are still foxes and wild boar, though the hunters who go up only come back with strings of quail and rabbit on their belts. It’s a spooky mountain, Nat thinks, quickly dismissing the thought. Why spooky? Glauco is an ugly name, for sure; she supposes it must come from its pale, wan colour. The word glauco reminds her of a diseased eye, with conjunctivitis, or elderly eyes, glassy and red, almost tarnished. She realises she’s letting herself be influenced by the meaning of glaucoma. Coincidentally, the word glauco has appeared in the book she is attempting to translate, as an adjective attributed to the main character, the fearsome father who at a certain point unleashes an injurious imprecation at one of his sons, while he, according to the text, fixes him with a glaucous gaze. At first, Nat thought of an eye infection, but later understood that a glaucous gaze is simply an empty, inexpressive look, the kind in which the pupil appears dead, almost opaque. What, then, is the correct meaning? Light green, blueish green, sickly, dim, distant? She will have to orient the rest of the paragraph around the term she chooses. Opting for a literal translation without understanding the genuine spirit of the sentence would be like cheating.

No matter how much she cleans, everything is dirty. She sweeps and sweeps but the dust comes in through the cracks and accumulates in the corners. If she at least had a fan for sleeping, she thinks, she could close the windows and everything would be more comfortable. She would wake up rested and with more energy to clean, translate, and work in the garden – or, plan for the garden, more like it. Asking the landlord for a fan doesn’t even cross her mind.

She decides to go to Petacas to buy one. While she’s at it, she thinks, she might as well get some tools. A hoe, buckets, a shovel, pruning shears, sieve, and a few other things. She can always figure out the exact names of what she needs.

She knows nothing about tools.

She is surprised by the activity in Petacas. It takes her a while to find parking; the layout of the roads is so chaotic and the signage so contradictory that once you enter the town, an unexpected detour can easily take you right out of it again. The houses are modest, façades worse for wear and mostly plain, but there are brick buildings too, up to six storeys tall, distributed arbitrarily here and there. The businesses are clustered around the main square; the town hall – an ostentatious building with large eaves and stained-glass windows – is surrounded by small bars and Chinese-owned bazaars. Nat buys a fan at one of them. Then she wanders in search of a hardware store, reluctant to ask for directions. She is struck by the neglected appearance of the women, who go around with dishevelled hair wearing sandals. Lots of the men – even the old ones – are wearing singlets. There are just a few children, and they’re unsupervised, licking popsicles, scampering, rolling on the ground. The people – men, women, kids – all loud and sloppy, look strangely alike. Inbreeding, Nat thinks. Her landlord fits in perfectly.

She is worried about running into him, but it’s Píter, the one they call ‘the hippie’, not the landlord, whom she meets in the hardware store. She is happy to see him: someone friendly, someone finally smiling at her, coming over, what are you doing here, he asks. Nat shows him the box with the fan and he scowls. Why didn’t she ask the landlord? It’s his responsibility to keep the property in habitable condition. Not air conditioning, of course, but a fan at least.

‘Or you could have asked me. That’s what neighbours are for.’

Nat looks for an excuse. She’s happy to buy one, she says. When she leaves La Escapa, she’ll take it with her. He looks at her sideways, pretending not to believe her.

‘And what did you come here to buy? Tools to fix everything he left broken?’ Nat shakes her head.

‘No. Stuff for the garden.’ ‘You’re going to plant a garden?’

‘Well, just something basic… Peppers and eggplants, I guess they’re easy. I at least want to try.’

Píter takes her by the arm, steps in closer. ‘Don’t buy anything,’ he whispers.

He tells her that he can lend her all the tools she needs. He says, too, that she might as well forget the idea of a garden. Nothing’s grown on her land in years; the soil is totally depleted; it would take days and days of hard work to get it into shape. If she insists – Nat hangs on that word, insists – he could lend her a hand, but he absolutely advises against it. Although he speaks smoothly, Píter’s voice contains indisputable certainty, an expert’s confidence. Nat nods, waits for him to finish his shopping. Cables, adaptors, screws, a pair of pliers: all very professional, very specific, nothing at all like the cloudiness she moves in.

Outside, Píter walks next to her at a sportive pace, straight but flexible. His way of moving is so elegant, so different from the people around them, that Nat is proud to be walking alongside him, the kind of pride associated with legitimacy. When he points out the windows at the town hall, the spell is broken.

‘Pretty, aren’t they? I made them myself.’

The windows clash terribly with the building’s exposed brick, but she is all praise: they suit it perfectly, she says. Píter looks at her appreciatively. Precisely, he says, that’s what he seeks, that his work be appropriate to its context.

‘Petacas isn’t the prettiest place in the world, but, to the extent they can, people should work to make their surroundings more beautiful, don’t you think?’

‘So, you’re a…’ Nat doesn’t know what you call a person who makes stained-glass windows. ‘A glazier? Yes. Well, more than a glazier. You could say I’m a glass and colour artisan. Like, I don’t just cover windows.’

‘Of course.’ Nat smiles.

They have a beer in one of the bars on the square. The beer is ice-cold and goes down easy. Píter observes her closely – too closely, she thinks – but his eyes are sweet and that softens her discomfort. The conversation returns to the landlord – that cheeky bastard, he repeats – the tools and her barren plot. He insists on lending her what she needs. Just a matter of tidying the yard, clearing it for a table and some lawn chairs, then planting a few oleander and yucca, or some succulents suitable for the harsh climate. There’s a huge nursery near Petacas, very cheap. If she wants, they can go together someday. Her plans for a vegetable garden appear to be scrapped. She doesn’t even mention them again.

She devotes the next few days to the exterior part of the house. She rises early to avoid the heat, but even so, she sweats nonstop, and a grubby feeling stays with her all day. She scrubs the porch, scrapes, sands, and stains the pergola’s wood floor and beams, prunes the withered branches that run rampant, pulls weeds, removes bag after bag of rubbish – papers, dry leaves, metal, plastic, empty cans, more broken branches. The final result is basically a wide expanse of cracked dirt. If the house were hers, she thinks, she would put in a lawn, and maybe the oleanders Píter recommended, they would make a natural fence to shelter her from prying eyes, but that’s dumb, the house isn’t hers, she’s not going through all that effort for nothing.

One morning, the gypsy woman from the village outskirts pokes her head in the gate and asks if Nat wants any flowerpots.

‘I got tons,’ she says.

She sells Nat a whole bunch for cheap. They’re all old, but Nat isn’t bothered by the chips on the ceramic pots or the mildew on the clay ones. There are two huge urns as well, and once they’re scrubbed clean, they strike her as lovely. Since they’re quite heavy, the gypsy’s husband helps her carry them home, accompanied by two of their three sons. Nat likes that family. They’re rowdy and good-natured. The kids pet Sieso and, for the first time, she sees the dog wag his tail and turn in a circle with an instinct to play.

‘Just pick some sprouts when you’re out and about and you’ll have the garden ready in no time,’ the gypsy husband says as he’s leaving. ‘You don’t need the nursery or nothing.’

It’s true. Nat picks plants from nearby houses, many of them empty, branches that poke through the fences around the properties and whose loss doesn’t pose any problem to the owners. Nevertheless, Píter is annoyed when he finds out. Was that really necessary? Didn’t he tell her there was a nursery nearby, a super cheap one? He could have given her a bunch of cuttings himself, whole plants even. In fact, he gives her a hardy cactus already budding with fuchsia flowers. Nat reluctantly places it by the door. It’s a marvellous specimen and its mere presence soaks up all the attention.

The change to the yard is undeniable. The sprouts take root and grow by the day. Roberta, the old woman in the small yellow cottage, comes over and offers her enthusiastic congratulations. Right away, Nat feels drawn to her. She must have been quite beautiful when young. Something of that beauty can be appreciated in the slender lines of her nose and mouth. Her eyes, though, are the most striking: dark, penetrating, warm. Her hair, fine and very white, spreads over her head like a light mist. The woman heaps praise on Nat’s work. She tells her that since she arrived, it’s all very different, and change – all change – is always good.

‘Bad thing, stagnant water,’ she winks.

Nat realises the woman thinks she’s bought the house. No one in their right mind would go to all this trouble for a rented hovel.

Even a crazy old lady can see that.

The words another person wrote before her, words chosen with care, words selected from all the myriad possibilities and arranged in a singular fashion among the infinity of discarded combinations, these words impose themselves on her. If she wants to do her job well – and she does – she must take every one of those choices into account. But that line of thinking leads to exhaustion and paralysis. By dissecting the language so conscientiously, she strips it of meaning. Each word becomes an enemy and translation the closest thing to duelling with a version of her text that both predates hers, and is better. She’s exasperated by her slow progress. Is it the heat, the solitude, the lack of confidence, the fear? Or is it simply – and maybe she should just admit it – her ineptitude, her clumsiness?

She puts the dog bowl in the kitchen so Sieso gets used to coming inside. Sometimes she manages to get him to stay a little longer, lying down beside her. It’s never for long, he never seems entirely relaxed, but for Nat it’s an accomplishment: having him there, close enough to touch. When she runs her palm over his back, she senses, under the fur, the agitation that dominates him still, a continuous pulsing flow. He jumps at the slightest noise or movement she makes and is off like a shot. Then she has to earn his trust all over again.

That’s exactly what happens one morning, when she sees him tense, jump up, whine softly, and go outside. A few seconds go by before Nat hears the Jeep come to a stop and footsteps on the gravel. It’s the landlord, here to collect the rent. In cash, like they agreed. Like they agreed? Actually, she thinks angrily, she never agreed to anything. According to him, that’s how they had to do it, if she wanted him to give her a deal, that is. No bank transfers or deposits, he decreed. She didn’t care either way, right? So now, because she’d tried to avoid an argument, she has him here inside the house, having rapped on the door, entering before Nat even has a chance to answer. Before she can even stand to greet him, he’s looking around, evaluating the changes she’s made, a half-smile playing on his lips. Such a skinny man, Nat thinks, so insignificant, yet he has the power to contaminate the house in just a few seconds. She takes out the rent money, hands it over to him in an envelope.

‘You should let me know next time,’ she says. ‘I might not have been here.’ ‘Bah, don’t worry about that. If you’re not here one day, I’ll come the next.’

He’s also brought her the bills. Electricity and gas, which are monthly, and the water, to be paid every three months. The fact that she’s only been there a month is irrelevant. The house was unoccupied before her, he says, so that bill, the water bill, is also her sole responsibility. The amount is outrageous. Just holding it, Nat’s hand shakes.

‘I told you already that the tub faucet leaks. There’s no way I’ve used this much.’ ‘What are you implying, that I should pay it?’

‘I’m just saying that it wasn’t me. It’s the faucet.’

‘Not the faucet’s fault, girl. You’re the one living here, aren’t you? Well, you should have fixed it.’

She should have. Nat knows he is partly right, but she told him about it the first day and he did nothing, or rather, the solution he gave – fixing it himself – hadn’t convinced her. She could have asked someone else for help. Píter, for instance, though he would have criticised her acquiescence. Or she could have simply called a plumber, like everyone else does. In any case, she’d been avoiding it. In the end, she got used to the sound of constant dripping. She turned her attention to other things. And now here she is, literally left holding the problem.

Fine, she says. She’ll pay the bill with next month’s rent, if that’s okay with him. The landlord grunts in the affirmative, not the least grateful for her concession. Without another word, he leaves in a huff.

Nat remembers only later that she never asked him about Sieso’s shots, or the bed she wants him to take away. Doesn’t matter, she tells herself quickly, it’s not that important. The mere risk of prolonging their encounters is so upsetting that she prefers not to bring it up. She’ll deal with it herself.

A plumber in Petacas agrees to come out to La Escapa the next day. That same morning, while still stretching in bed, Nat hears a noise in the bathroom. At first, she thinks Sieso has gotten loose and come in to look for her, but she dresses quickly, heart pounding, because those are human sounds, not animal: footsteps, a bag dropping, a weak clearing of the throat, more footsteps on the tile. Nat shouts who’s there, she looks, terrified, into the bathroom. When she sees the landlord, she cries out again. It’s fear at first, then indignation, and quickly, fear again. What are you doing here, she shouts over and over, on the edge of hysteria.

The landlord laughs, tells her to calm down. ‘Easy, girl, it’s me, it’s fine.’

He says he’s come to fix the faucet. Needed fixing, didn’t it? Hadn’t she said so? He thought she wasn’t home, or that she was asleep, because he didn’t hear anything when he pulled up.

‘But you can’t come in without warning me first! You shouldn’t even have a key! Who told you that you can open the door whenever you want?’

He laughs again.

‘Don’t get lawyerly with me, girl. I already said I thought you weren’t home.’

He explains that the house was on his way, so he decided to come by early, later he has some other errands in La Escapa, and this way he doesn’t waste the morning. He tells her he’ll be done in a few minutes anyway, it’s a simple repair, anyone could have fixed that faucet. Any man, he specifies, because she obviously wasn’t capable of it. Nat can’t stop shouting. She insists, her voice warped by nerves, that he doesn’t have permission to come inside like this, that he must never do it again. The landlord purses his lips, hardens his eyes.

‘What, you think I’m going to rape you or something?’

He looks her up and down with scorn. Then he turns back to the tub, bends down, muttering, fiddling with his tools. He says – under his breath, although Nat hears him perfectly clear – that he’s sick of women. The more you give them, he says, the worse they think it is. They’re all crazy, they’re neurotic. He continues working and complaining. Nat remains frozen in the doorway. Then she goes out onto the porch and waits there for him to finish, still shaking.

‘Done,’ he says a little while later. ‘See? Wasn’t a big deal.’ He leaves without saying goodbye.

Still seated on the porch floor, Nat tries to suppress her anxiety, restrain herself from calling the police, or Píter, or whomever, hugging her knees until the upheaval slowly gives way to a kind of calm. Even so, she forgets to notify the plumber, who turns up a few hours later and, despite not having anything to fix, charges her for the trip nevertheless.

‘I put off another client to come out here. This place is a pain to get to,’ he apologises. Nat doesn’t argue. It’s true. This place is decidedly a pain.

Píter has brought over some vegetables he bought from the German. It’s too much for just him, he explains, but the German, very astute, always sells them like this, in big batches, so they don’t rot. There are radishes, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some bulbs Nat can’t identify. The German? she asks, still wounded by Píter’s comments. She seems to recall a guy, not that tall, with a mustache and glasses, awkward, dark and shy, a guy she’s passed a few times, someone who’s barely mumbled hello, never meeting her eye.

‘Oh, thanks,’ she says flatly. ‘But I don’t know what I’ll do with all of it.’

Ratatouille? Chilled soup? Vegetable lasagne? There are a million recipes, Píter replies. Why doesn’t she stop wasting her time with the dog and make something for the two of them? He can contribute as well, a main course. They could have dinner at his place and he could show her his studio. Tomorrow. How’s that sound?

Nat accepts. He’s invited her by too many times for her to keep putting it off. This time, though, it’s different. This time, it’s a proper invitation: dinner, drinks, chat, all that implies. Nat isn’t naïve, she knows the possible implications of Píter’s invitation and although something inside of her still resists – a subtle but persistent aversion – she needs to surrender. Ever since the landlord invaded her house, her sleep has been restless; she thinks she hears the key turning in the lock, the door opening, footsteps approaching. She hasn’t wanted to say anything to Píter because she knows what he’ll say: she should report him to the police right away. He’ll be unyielding and will condemn her passivity and indolence. She would rather say nothing, keep it all to herself. And yet, being so isolated isn’t easy, it’s good to have a friend, otherwise she’ll go crazy. She wonders if all she wants is friendship, or protection, too, and if she would feel the same relief – or the same unease – if the invitation came from a woman. A female friend would fit the bill, surely, but wouldn’t do much to alleviate her sense of defencelessness. Anyway, she tells herself, Píter is the one expressing his desire to protect her. She just has to let him do it. She isn’t asking anything for anything he isn’t already willing to give her.

Píter’s house is on the west side of La Escapa, some ten minutes from Nat’s. It’s a pretty wooden building with a pitched roof, wide windows, and garden beds. The inside is cool and pleasant, and although the space is cluttered with objects, they all appear to occupy a particular place and have a precise function and purpose. When Nat enters the foyer, Píter’s dog comes over to sniff at the pan in her hands.

‘Stuffed zucchini,’ she announces.

Píter laughs loudly, taking her arm and leading her to the kitchen. A similar pan sits on the counter, the same dish. They laugh, the dog wags her tail and squeezes between them, looking for a pat. ‘My Funny Valentine’ is playing, maybe the Chet Baker version, but Nat doesn’t ask – she never asks those sorts of questions. Píter pours her a glass of wine and brings her down to the basement to show off his workshop. There, too, everything is carefully organised; ready, even, for an exhibit: plans and sketches, glass fragments in baskets and boxes – classified by colour – tools hung on the wall, a broad table with a half-finished windowpane and soldering irons suspended from the ceiling. Nat would prefer to poke around on her own, but she listens politely to Píter’s explanations as he details, step by step, the stained-glass fabrication process. A simple stained-glass window, he says, improves any house, no matter how humble. Of course, if they commission him for something more formal, or even institutional, he doesn’t say no, but he prefers to work on a small scale, for regular people. Nat moves in to examine the windowpane on the table. Lambs and doves dance around a leafy tree. The multiple shades of green used for the leaves creates an impression of disorder, or imbalance. Nat isn’t sure she likes it. Viewed up close, the composition strikes her as conventional and rather unrefined.

‘I was inspired by Chagall for this series. By the windows he made for the University of Hadassah, in Jerusalem. You know them, I suppose, very famous…’

Nat doesn’t have the faintest idea, but she nods anyway. She turns toward the wall, where other windows in the series lean, finished and ready to be installed. They’re for a library, Peter explains, that’s why he’s put verses on them: by Pablo Neruda, Mario Benedetti, and Wisława Szymborska. Nat reads them slowly before asking:

‘And you can make a living with these?’

She immediately regrets the words. It’s the kind of loaded question she hates to be asked. But Píter doesn’t seem to be bothered; quite the opposite, in fact. He answers gladly, with pride.

‘Of course.’

He spends very little on materials, he says. He uses mostly recycled glass. He actually finds the most valuable pieces in the trash. He is committed to austerity as a way of life. His mottos: throw nothing away; reuse everything you can; respect the Earth; minimal consumption, maximum depth.

‘I have the feeling we’re rather alike in that respect,’ he says, while inside Nat, a swift twinge of concern alights.

During dinner, her suspicions abate. Maybe it’s the wine, but it’s also Píter’s affability; he proves to be warm and even witty, making her laugh like she hasn’t laughed in a long time. Nevertheless, she watches him from the corner of her eye as they clear the table and he opens another bottle of wine, finding that there’s something about him she just doesn’t like, something that makes her hang back. It’s not his physical appearance. In fact, his body is solid and attractive. His brawn is undoubtedly erotic. And he undoubtedly goes out of his way to please: he’s charming, a good neighbour, knows about books, music, and movies, everything one supposes is interesting in certain circles – her circle. So? Nat wonders why he lives alone, why he hasn’t mentioned a woman yet, dismisses the possibility that he might be gay. Then she takes the glass he offers her and smiles. She forces herself to brush away her prejudices.

They go out into the yard to look at the stars. The night is clear and the Milky Way looms in the darkness, pure and immense. The tips of the blades of grass gleam, bathed in the nocturnal light, swaying, rocked by the wind. The dog sits off to the side, drooling, beautiful and majestic despite her age. They three observe the sky in silence. So pretty, Nat murmurs as, perplexingly, she simultaneously thinks: my period. When the moment comes, she can tell him she has her period.

He turns toward her, scrutinises her with a different sort of smile. ‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

‘Why did you come to La Escapa?’

Nat stutters. Hadn’t she already answered that? Why does everyone assume she has a hidden motive? She doesn’t reply, but finishes her the last of her wine. Píter apologises. He doesn’t mean to be nosy, he says. She doesn’t have to tell him anything if she doesn’t want to, but, if she does want to talk, he’d be delighted to hear her story.

‘I left my job,’ she says at last. ‘I couldn’t take any more.’ ‘What did you do?’

Nat pulls back. She doesn’t want to go into detail. It was an office job, she says. Commercial translations, correspondence with foreign clients, stuff like that. Not badly paid work, but definitely a far cry from her interests. Píter lights a cigarette, squints with the first drag.

‘Well, you’re brave.’ ‘Why?’

‘Because no one quits their job these days.’

Nat is irritated by the praise. She might have accepted it, under other circumstances, but now she’s flooded with the desire to resist. Coming from Píter, the compliment sounds poisonous. Or maybe, she thinks, it’s her perception, blurred by the alcohol, that makes her take it that way, twisted.

No, she isn’t brave, she retorts. She didn’t go voluntarily. Not entirely. Does he want to know the real story? Píter leans in. Of course.

She stole something. She’d stolen, not out of necessity, but impulse. She never did comprehend why she did it. It wasn’t a for the thrill of the challenge, definitely not for greed. The object was just there and she simply took it. It belonged to one of the company’s partners. To one of the partner’s wives, to be precise, something valuable she left behind on a visit. Later, returning it got complicated. Even if she’d wanted to – and of course she had – it became impossible to restore order. She could return the stolen object, but not without consequences. She chose to keep quiet. They caught her in the end. They called her aside, they behaved with discretion. She had always been a good employee, qualified and responsible. They only asked why she had done it, and she couldn’t answer. Well, they said, sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do, right? Such benevolence made her suspicious. She couldn’t believe that a simple warning was all she was going to get. Maybe someone had interceded on her behalf. Someone who, later, would make clear exactly what she owed them. Her absolution now had a price, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to pay it. She didn’t want to stay where, from then on, they would be looking over her shoulder, knowing she had something to hide. Where, if she kept working, it was thanks to her superiors’ compassion and generosity, and under new terms of an unwritten contract.

Píter listens and nods, deeply concentrated on her story, but when Nat is finished, he simply repeats his initial compliment: she’s brave, whatever she might say. She’s been brave enough to break with everything. Someone else in her position would have kept her head down, he’s sure of that. She shouldn’t feel guilty. Sometimes, certain mistakes lead us to the right thing, a change of course or even a revelation. Isn’t it a good thing that she’s here now, starting a new life?

They toast and drink, but a shadow has fallen over them, polluting the air. A new life, Nat thinks, and immediately feels ashamed. Everything she has said is true; and yet, because of the way she told it – her choice of words, cadence, pauses, and circumventions – it’s topped with a halo of falseness that she finds repellent. Her need to justify herself, she thinks, is pathetic.

Seeing her wilt, Píter kindly changes the subject, asks her about her current work, about the translation. It’s her first assignment, she explains. Her first literary translation, she clarifies. She’s never done anything like it before. In fact, you might say she’s being put to the test. The publishing house that offered her the job has faith in her abilities, but it represents a qualitative leap, that’s for sure. Commercial translation is straightforward and this…well, what she’s aiming for is the essence, the very heart of language.

Píter is interested in the book itself, less so in theoretical digressions. What’s it about, he asks. Is it a novel? Essay? What? It’s impossible to explain, Nat says. There’s no unfolding plot that can be summed up in a one or two sentences. They’re theatrical pieces, very short, almost schematic, philosophical in tone. The author didn’t write them in her mother tongue, but in the language of the country where she lived in exile, so the language is very rudimentary, even flat. At first Nat thought this would be advantageous, but it’s revealing itself to be a challenge. Now she finds herself obliged to decipher whether each unexpected or ambiguous word is an error based on a lack of knowledge of the language, or if it’s an intended effect resulting from intense consideration. There’s no way to know.

‘And you can’t ask the author?’

Nat shakes her head, irked. The woman died, which, maybe is for the best. This way, she’s spared the disappointment of witnessing the mess Nat is making of her book.

Píter smiles, looks back up at the sky. Nice profession, he says. Translation. Interesting and useful, he adds. Necessary. He sets aside his glass and, with a napkin, wipes his dog’s mouth. The docile animal lets him do it, and in that placidity – and in Píter’s manner – Nat sees great gentleness, but a kind of gentleness that is artificial, calculated. Sieso would never let anyone clean him like that. Maybe that’s why Píter does it, to highlight the difference between the animals. When he’s done, he fills Nat’s glass again. Fuzzily, Nat thinks: he’s getting me drunk. In the distance, a word takes shape – this – and then a complete sentence: this is how the charades begin.

Why doesn’t Píter tell her anything about himself? Why does he just poke around, attempting to draw her out. Where does he get the authority to give her advice? Time for me to go, she announces, then realises, upon standing, just how dizzy she is. She tries to dissimulate her wobbling as Píter takes her to the bathroom, where she stays a long time, until the alcohol’s effects have somewhat dissipated.

It’s very late when he offers to take her back to her house. He drops her off at her front door and asks her if she’ll be all right. Nat nods and thanks him. Píter brushes her cheek softly, bids her goodnight – get some rest, he says – and that’s it. Nat is surprised, disappointed even. Wasn’t he going to kiss her, or at least try? He wasn’t going to try to take her to bed? Isn’t that the predictable thing, what’s expected from a man? Why the Sam Cooke and the Miles Davis and so much wine, why the Milky Way? She had her excuse all ready for nothing. But then, would she have wanted anything different? No, definitely not, but she doesn’t want this either, not the stumbling around in the entryway, the clumsy steps, the vertigo, and the total solitude of the shut-up house. Nat lurches toward bed and then hears something, a sound approaching from the shadows. She feels her heart dropping to the floor, until she realises that Sieso is licking her trembling hand. It is the first time the dog has shown her any sign of affection, a greeting. Excited, she crouches, cries, talks to him.

‘You scared me!’

She hugs him. His coarse fur gets in her nose and eyes, but still she hugs him, so tight that eventually Sieso wriggles away with a growl.

Her relationship with Píter becomes closer after that night. Having revealed certain things to him, Nat is at a disadvantage, but this asymmetry doesn’t worry her: she hasn’t told him everything – not even close. His attitude hasn’t changed following her confidences. If anything, he is even more affable, more affectionate. They text each other throughout the day and Nat often visits him at home; she no longer needs an invitation, going over when she feels like it or is bored. Following her intuition, she steers clear of information she believes inconvenient to share. She doesn’t tell him, for instance, about Sieso’s gradual progress or her fear of the landlord. What for? Píter’s tendency to get insert himself into everything, his patronising tone – the supposed voice of experience – because he’s a man, because he’s older, because he’s been in La Escapa longer, because he’s friends with all the people whose names Nat barely knows – doesn’t seem serious enough to impede their friendship.

What became obvious during the dinner – that there is no sexual attraction between them – contributes, paradoxically, to their closeness. And yet, Píter’s disinterest sets off alarm bells for Nat: a sign that she is starting to lose a power that, until now, she had unconsciously possessed. Like money, she says to herself, erotic capital also imperceptibly erodes over time, we only become aware of it when it’s gone, and she scrutinises herself in the mirror with merciless eyes, evaluating the parts of her body or face where the flaw might reside. True, she has let herself go since she arrived in La Escapa. Her hair is messy and coarse, the work clothes do nothing for her, and the hours spent in the sun, instead of bronzing her skin, have left it red and parched. But there must be something else. Something to do with age, or the pressing weight of time, not its passing.

She’d rather not think about it. As with so many other things, she sets the idea aside, quarantined.

Sometimes she has the sense that the landlord has used his key again, to enter the house in her absence. There is no demonstrable proof, nothing out of place, no evidence of his presence, but the mere possibility – a real possibility, as she has seen – is weighty enough to distress her. She forces herself to be rational. She must dispel her suspicions and not obsess. Yet all it takes is closing her eyes and relaxing her consciousness for the landlord’s spectre to waltz in, in the shape of a nightmare.

In a recurring dream, she discovers a window beside her bed, a new window that appears overnight. The exterior blinds are half closed and a pair of white curtains partially obscure the view outside. Through the window, or what little can be seen through it, she perceives an unfamiliar but perfectly realistic landscape. The scene is not always the same: sometimes there are snow-capped mountains under a sooty sky, or a rough sea, or blocks of very tall buildings on the outskirts of a city, all their lights on. When, fascinated, she tries to sit up to get a better look, she realises she is tied to the headboard – or the box frame or legs – with ribbons knotted at her wrists. They don’t seem like much, the ribbons, but she is completely immobilised by them. Nat doesn’t know who has tied her up, nor when. She observes the knots pressing on her veins, the chafing on her skin, her fingers that tingle with the lack of circulation. Fear takes hold. At that moment, she hears the front door opening and a man coming inside with slow, scuffling footsteps he makes no effort to conceal. Nat wonders where Sieso could be, why he hasn’t barked to warn her. Never leaving the bed, she can somehow see the man making his way through every room in the house – a much bigger house than she’d thought, with a multitude of rooms she didn’t know were there: storage closets, attics, small rooms inside other rooms. She sees the man, the man’s back, his bare, staunch neck, watches as it enters every space, contaminating it with his very presence. But she cannot see his face. The man comes to the side of her bed. Something in her throat goes spongy, muffling her scream. Nat is suffocating.

She wakes up sweaty, limbs heavy and gums parched. The night sounds mix with her still-confused senses: a horse’s nervous whinny, the hoot of a brown owl, dense cricket song, and the dogs, always the dogs, their overlapping barks.

But worse are the noises she discovers, even seeks, inside the house. Every day, every night, dreaming or not. Creaks and squeals, air whistling through the shutters, the fan’s hum, Sieso’s toenails click-clacking on the old wooden porch, pacing around the stake. None of the noises are associated with the landlord, but her guard is up. When he comes with the second month’s bills, he knocks on the front door. Nat’s relief is so great that she pays without complaint. This is better, she tells herself. Don’t ask for anything, finish up quickly, then be free of his face until the following month.

She can spend entire days roaming and, except for work crews, meet almost no one: just the gypsy collecting scrap metal or running errands, or Joaquín – Roberta’s husband – or the German, driving his van back and forth to Petacas, presumably to sell vegetables from his garden. If it weren’t for Píter, she might not speak to anyone for days. Now that she’s not a novelty, not even the shopgirl takes an interest in her. She simply rings up Nat’s shopping, her eyes glued to the TV mounted in the corner. Her boredom gives off a whiff of despair. Nat watches her crack her knuckles, lost in thought, humming under her breath. Her still-adolescent face contains the template for how she will be when she’s fifty or sixty, when she’s plagued by the same migraines as her mother. Nat would like to be kind to her, but can’t think of anything to say.

Sometimes she goes with Píter to Gordo’s bar, a warehouse with an asbestos ceiling lit by a single bulb emanating blue-tinged light. They drink bottles of beer with the men who stop in – farmers and bricklayers, mostly – people who discuss matters about which Nat has nothing to add. Píter chats with them easily, though she has the impression that he’s acting, getting down on their level. Sometimes Gordo charges extra, sometimes he doesn’t charge at all, and no one’s allowed to argue.

There’s always a hint of aggression, of provocation, in the way he jokes with his customers but they all laugh it off. Nat does, too. She would never go to that place alone, but with Píter it’s different.

One night, the wind changes direction and the temperature drops. Nat is reading on the porch; at first she gets a cardigan, then goes inside, still too chilly. Hot, fat raindrops promptly begin to fall and within a couple of minutes the downpour begins, raising a new, encouraging scent from the wet earth. Nat is as happy as a child. She feels like she has made it to the end of a phase, the first and most challenging, and that the rain marks the start of a new – and more promising – stage. But her joy is short-lived: just as long as it takes for the leaks and a swiftly widening puddle to appear. Nat runs for some buckets; when she returns, hair and clothes soaked through, mud has already started to form inside the house. Incredible, she thinks. What does one do in these situations? And how hadn’t she noticed before? Hadn’t she seen the yellow stains on the ceiling a thousand times? What did she think they were? She spends half the night emptying buckets and putting them back, until the storm wanes and she can lie down to rest. She sleeps for intervals, afraid the rain will start up again, knowing that, this time, she’ll have no choice but to call the landlord. But the sky is radiant in the morning, not a trace of clouds. Can she put the call off? At least until the next time he comes with the bills? With any luck, it won’t rain again before then; better to wait, not wake the dragon too soon. She knows she’s making excuses to avoid the problem, but, she tells herself, they aren’t really excuses, they’re actual facts: the sky doesn’t threaten more rain, it was just a passing August rainstorm, nothing to worry about for now.

Her forecast is correct: no drops fall over the coming days. She can almost manage to forget the issue, but not quite. Whenever she looks up, she is confronted by the stains, which look like limescale or urine and gross her out. When the month ends and the landlord shows up in his grubby overalls, Nat shows him the stains. He squints to inspect them. She tells him what happened the night of the downpour, about the puddles and buckets. She explains that this is why the wood floor is rotting. This is irrefutable proof, she thinks. He cannot deny the evidence.

‘Well, girl, it doesn’t rain like that every day.’

‘Not every day, no. But it could happen again. I mean, it’ll definitely rain this autumn, right? Maybe not as hard, but the leaks are there and…’ She falters. ‘The floor is getting ruined…’

The landlord looks at her breasts as she speaks. He’s doing it on purpose, Nat thinks. To destabilise her, she thinks. Humiliate her. Lip curling, he says the rotting floor isn’t her problem. Not her house, is it? She’s just a renter, he repeats, a renter who has done nothing but complain ever since she arrived.

‘What do you want me to do? You think the shitty rent you pay is enough for me get bogged down in a bunch of home improvements?’

Nat, furious, is incapable of expressing her anger. She wants to be forceful. Instead, she just sounds hesitant and scared.

‘So the next time it pours, I’m just supposed to put out buckets?’ ‘Exactly!’

He points a finger at her and she weakens. Her throat burns, a scorching sensation that reaches her eyeballs. Is she going to cry? She cannot let that happen. She must contain the urge, no matter what.

‘I think…all of this just isn’t… I don’t think this is normal.’

‘No? Don’t think it’s normal, do you? And just what do you think is normal, girl? To come out to the middle of the country and expect a cushy city life?’

He begins to speak in plural then, throwing his arms about, pacing in circles.

‘You women are all the same. You think this is all starry skies at night and little lambs baaing in the morning. Then you’re on about the mosquitos, the rain, the weeds. Look, I already brought the price way down. Did I bring it down or not? Or don’t you remember now? When you’ve had a problem, haven’t I fixed it? Didn’t I fix the faucet? Oh, you thought that was horrible, too. Can’t understand you women. Look, I got a lot more important things to do. Give me my money and get off my back.’

Nat pays him and he leaves, slamming the door behind him. She cries then, full of rage because she cannot understand what it is about the landlord that so terrifies her. A rude, small-minded man with no actual power over her. Is he not clearly inferior? Uneducated, dirty, and poor, what damage can he do? Why does he have such an effect on her? She cries and, at the same time, tries to convince herself that maybe there won’t be more leaks, maybe putting out a few buckets when it rains is fine, maybe that was an unusual storm, maybe it’s not really that big of a deal, maybe she can hold out for a few months. It isn’t her house, after all, she’ll end up moving out sooner or later. In the meantime, it’s better to be chill, not stress, not let herself get upset. This is how she will defeat him, how she will stay on top.

But the stains continue to speak for themselves. This time, it’s the German who sees them when he comes around, offering her a crate of vegetables. He sets the box down in the entryway and he stops at the ruined floorboards. He looks up and examines the ceiling.

‘You’ve got leaks.’

He has an odd way of speaking, knocking his syllables together, like he’s in a rush or being abrupt. Without meeting her eye, he asks for a chair and climbs up for a closer look. Nat notices his boots – sturdy and worn, the same pair he had on at the meeting – as he explains the cause of the problem.

‘Looks like it’s been like this a long time. There are probably a decent number of broken tiles up there. You’d need to check and see if they can be fixed, but I doubt it. When the leaks are superficial, you can just cover the tiles with bitumen or lime, but I’m afraid this is more complicated. What’d your landlord say?’

‘That it only leaks when there’s heavy rain. That it’s not his problem. And that he’s not going to do anything.’

The German gets down from the chair, shakes his head.

‘As soon as it rains again, even just a sprinkle, this will all flood again. I could fix it for you.’

Nat appreciates that he doesn’t comment on the landlord’s stance. She likes that he doesn’t judge her, that he doesn’t deem the situation as fair or unfair, doesn’t urge her to argue or defend her position. The German sticks to the facts, sees the situation head-on, without his own interpretation. This attitude is precisely what gives her license to vent and complain.

‘It’s ridiculous that I have to fix it. He should do it, right? It’s his house.’

‘Yeah. His house, but your problem. I can help you, seriously. I know how to fix it.’

To prove this, he describes the process in detail: first, they need to evaluate how far the breakage goes; then, look for similar tiles and retile the affected area. Finally, channel the runoff with either grating or gutters so it doesn’t happen again, they’d see about that later. But they’re not friends, Nat thinks. She’ll have to pay him. And how much could something like that cost? She doesn’t have much money, but also won’t accept any favours. She doesn’t distrust him, but she doesn’t want to owe him anything.

‘I don’t know if I can afford it,’ she says.

The German is silent. She suspects he is about to offer to do it for free. But after a few seconds, he says he understands. He can’t estimate how much it will cost before getting started. He doesn’t want to fix one problem and cause another. He shrugs and, for the first time, looks at her. There’s no disappointment in his eyes. Or resignation. Just a trace of timidity and kindness, maybe a bit of embarrassment. It could be that he’s short on cash as well, and saw a chance to earn a little extra income. He seems honest to Nat, but uncouth. All she can do is cross her fingers in hopes that it doesn’t rain and buy bigger buckets just in case. She pays for the vegetables, says thanks, and walks him outside.

What happens just two hours later will be meticulously remembered by Nat afterwards, with a need to secure the details in place so as not to forget any of it, to prevent memory from perverting, adulterating, or disguising it.

In her recollection, a word – droit – will ring, and a phrase – le droit de sauver – from a dialogue she was translating when it happened. You do not have the right to save whomever you want, one of the characters protests, and the other replies: It is not a right, it is a duty!

Nat is writing those very words when she hears someone call her name. She stands and goes outside and it’s him, the German, waiting outside the gate, even though it has stood open since he left. She notices that he’s changed his clothes: the faded grey pants for a different pair, clean and blue, the black T-shirt advertising a mechanic’s shop for a beige shirt so threadbare it’s almost see-through. He doesn’t smile, but he isn’t serious either. Rather, he gives off the impression that he’s focused on something, something he’s about to do or say and which doesn’t seem directly related to Nat. It occurs to her that he might have forgotten something, or maybe she paid him the wrong amount for the vegetables, or maybe he’s going to offer to fix the leaks for free after all, like she’d suspected. His glance at the roof tiles confirms that it’s the third option. Predictable, she thinks, although she could have never foreseen what came next.

‘I don’t want you to get mad,’ he says.

He stops at that, studying the roof, squinting in the sunlight. Sieso approaches him slowly, sniffs his pant legs.

‘Mad? Why would I get mad?’

It takes him a while to find the words, but this delay doesn’t seem to suggest any discomfort with the message, but rather an uncertainty about the use of language itself. Waiting for him to speak, Nat is intrigued, albeit slightly indifferent, as if what he was about to say – or propose, since it’s obviously a proposal – didn’t concern her.

‘I guess you have the right to get mad. It’s a risk I’ll take.’

It’s not a right, it’s a duty! Nat thinks, but she smiles, encouraging him to speak. ‘Come on, just say it, it’s fine.’

He says it. He says he’s been alone for a long time. A long time without a woman, he specifies. Living in La Escapa doesn’t help. Neither does having a personality like his, cut off and reserved – although he doesn’t use those adjectives: he says, simply, a personality like mine. It’s not like he’s unhappy. He’s not sad or depressed, that isn’t it. But the fact is, men have certain needs. At this his voice cracks a bit, though he steadies it right away. He’s not that young anymore, he continues. Some ten or twelve years older than she is – he looks her over, evaluating her. He doesn’t feel old, but neither does he have the energy to pick women up. He smiles, embarrassed, and Nat senses that it isn’t because of what he means, but the expression pick up – so euphemistic and antiquated, out of place. To meet women, he corrects himself. His smile fades. He doesn’t want to resort to prostitutes; the ones in Petacas are awful, he says, all of that completely turns him off. She nods mechanically.

It’s very simple, really, the German continues. Or it should be. Even though men and women rarely think about it that way. No one dares to speak openly. What’s normal – or common – is to have ulterior motives. He thinks that maybe with her, he can cut right to the chase. It’s just an intuition he has, maybe she’ll misinterpret him and get offended, or she could interpret him correctly and still be offended. He doesn’t know her well enough to anticipate how she will react; the only way to know is to just throw it out there. He waits a few seconds, searches her face.

‘I can fix your roof in exchange for letting me enter you a little while.’

Later, Nat will repeat these words to herself, over and over, until she is afraid that she’s made them up. He doesn’t say in exchange for sleeping with you. He certainly doesn’t use any other expression, more or less offensive, with a similar meaning. He says could she let him enter. Not just enter her but that she let him enter. A strange way to put it, and not the result of a deficient command of the language – he’s not German, after all! Let him enter, she repeats to herself. A little while, he said. A little while. Nat blinks. She needs to hear more, or perhaps hear it more times in order to understand it. But his attitude – the loose arms, legs apart, the humble, evasive eyes – seems to indicate that he has finished speaking and is now, quite simply, awaiting a response.

‘And how would that be, exactly?’

The German looks at her for a moment and tries to smile, but the expression is closer to a wince. Of relief? Of satisfaction, because she isn’t angry? Nat wouldn’t possibly know how interpret it. Just once, he specifies. A little while, he repeats. The minimum, he says next.

‘I won’t pester you. I don’t want to be a bother. You’re not a prostitute, I don’t want you to think that I take you for one. It’s just – ’ He hesitates. ‘I’d like to enter you a little while. Simple as that. You lie down and I’ll be done fast. That’s it. I haven’t been with a woman in a long time. My body needs it. I thought I could ask you.’

Later on, Nat will remember these words, too. The coolness of his statements, so short and direct. His concision. He could have said what people usually say in those situations. He could have said, for example, that he liked Nat, that he was attracted to her, that he was risking such a request because he could hardly resist her pull. But those last words – I thought I could ask you – mean nothing. He isn’t asking Nat because he likes her, but because he thought he could ask her. So, who can he not ask? Who doesn’t he ask because – he believes – he cannot?

Subtle but instinctive, Nat allows herself to operate from irritation, as well as impatience. The reaction lasts only an instant, but it is decisive in her refusal, which springs curt and direct from her mouth, catching her almost by surprise.

‘Thanks, but no.’

Okay, he says, and calmly makes to leave. He doesn’t press, but he doesn’t apologise, either.

Nat says goodbye as though, in effect, nothing strange had occurred.

But back at her desk, she is unable to resume her work. It will be several days before she can.

Translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore.

Katie Whittemore’s translations have appeared in Two Lines, The Los Angeles Review, The Brooklyn Rail, InTranslation and elsewhere. Current projects include novels by Spanish authors Sara Mesa, Javier Serena, Aliocha Coll, Aroa Moreno Durán, Nuria Labari, Katixa Agirre and Juan Gómez Bárcena.