Readings — From the August 2014 issue

The Basement

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By Silvina Ocampo, from Thus Were Their Faces, forthcoming in January from New York Review Classics. Ocampo (1903–93) was an Argentine poet and short-story writer. Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Balderston.

This basement, which is extremely cold in winter, is an Eden in the summer. Some people sit by the door upstairs searching for some cool air on the hottest days in January, dirtying the floor. No window lets in the light or the horrible heat of the day. I have a large mirror, a couch or cot given me by a client who was a millionaire, and four mattresses I have acquired over the years from other girls. In the morning I fill pails (lent me by the doorman of the next building) with water to wash my face and hands. I’m very clean. I have a hanger for my clothes behind a drape, and a mantel for the candlesticks. There is no electricity or water. My bedside table is a chair, and my chair is a velvet pillow. One of my clients, the youngest one, brought bits of old curtains from his grandmother’s house, and I use them to decorate the walls, along with pictures I cut from the magazines. The lady upstairs feeds me lunch; for breakfast I have candy or whatever I can stuff in my pockets. I have to live with mice, and at first it seemed to me that was the only defect of this basement, where I don’t have to pay rent. Now I have noticed that these animals are not so terrible; they are quite discreet. When all’s said and done they’re preferable to flies, so abundant in the fanciest houses in Buenos Aires, such as the places where they used to give me leftovers when I was eleven. While the clients are here the mice keep out of sight: they know the difference between one kind of silence and another. As soon as I am alone they come out in an uproar. They go running by, stopping for a moment and looking at me out of a corner of their eyes, as if they guessed what I think of them. Sometimes they eat a bit of cheese or bread from the floor. They’re not afraid of me, nor I of them. The worst of it is that I can’t store any food because they eat it before I have a chance to try anything myself. There are evil-minded people who are pleased at this and call me Fermina, the Mouse Lady. I don’t like humoring them, which is why I refuse to ask them to lend me traps to kill the mice. One of them, the oldest one, is named Charlie Chaplin, another is Gregory Peck, another Marlon Brando, another Duilio Marzio; one that is very playful is named Daniel Gélin, another is Yul Brynner; one female is Gina Lollobrigida and another is Sophia Loren. It is strange how these little animals have taken possession of a basement where they must have lived before I arrived. Even the damp spots on the wall have taken the form of mice; they are dark and rather long, with two little ears and a long pointed tail. When nobody is watching, I gather food for them in one of the saucers the man who lives in the house across the way gave me. I don’t want them to leave me. If some neighbor comes and wants to exterminate them with traps or a cat, I’ll make a fuss he’ll never forget as long as he lives. They have announced that this house will be torn down, but I won’t leave here until I die. Up above they’re packing trunks and baskets and constantly making packages. There are moving vans by the front door, but I walk by them as if I didn’t see them. I never begged for a cent from those people. They spy on me all day long and believe I am with clients because I talk to myself to annoy them. Since they’re angry with me, they lock me in; since I’m angry with them, I don’t ask them to open the door. For the last two days the mice have been acting very strangely: one brought me a ring, another a bracelet, and a third, the smartest one, brought me a necklace. At first I couldn’t believe it, and nobody else will believe it. I’m happy. What does it matter if it’s all a dream? I’m thirsty: I drink my own sweat. I’m hungry: I chew on my fingers and hair. The police won’t come looking for me. They won’t ask me for a health certificate or a certificate of good conduct. The ceiling is falling in, bits of straw are floating down: it must be the beginning of the demolition. I hear cries, none of them calling my name. The mice are afraid. Poor things! They don’t know, don’t understand how the world is. They don’t know the joy of revenge. I look at myself in a little mirror: the times I have looked at myself in the mirror. I have never been so beautiful.

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