The Wardrobe, Old people and Death by Julio Ribeyro

This is the seventh and the last in a series of short stories I have translated from Spanish. Read the introductory post on Julio Ribeyro and this series.

The wardrobe in my father’s room was not just another piece of furniture; it was undoubtedly a house within the house. Inherited from his grandparents, it had followed us from place to place, gigantic, embarrassing, until it found a permanent place in my parent’s bedroom. 

It occupied almost half of the room and arrived practically touching the ceiling. When my father was not there, I and my siblings entered it. It was indeed a baroque palace, full of doorknobs, molds, cornices, medallions and columns, carved into the deepest crevices by a demented 19th-century carpenter. It had three sections, each one with its own distinctive appearance. On the left was a heavy door, like in an entrance hall where an enormous key hung from its lock. The key itself was like a protective toy that we could use without distinction as a pistol, machete or a club. My father kept his three-piece and English suits that he never wore there. One had to go through it to enter the universe that smelled of cedar and naphthalene. The central section, which we loved the most because of its variety, had four large drawers below. When my father died, each one of us inherited one of the drawers and established our rights as possessively as he had over the clothes.   Above the drawers was an arched niche with some thirty selected books. The central section ended in a tall and rectangular door, always with the key. We never knew what it contained; maybe some papers and photographs held on from younger days and not destroyed because of the fear of losing a part of one’s life that in reality was already lost. Finally, on the section on the right was another door, covered with an inclined mirror. Inside, it had drawers below for shorts and white clothes and above, a space without shelves, where a standing person could fit. 

The section on the left was connected with the one on the right through a tall passage, situated inside the arch. One of our favorite games was to penetrate the wardrobe by the wooden door and appear a while later by the glass door. The tall passage was an ideal refuge for playing hide and seek. When we selected it, none of our friends could find us. They knew we were inside the wardrobe but they could not imagine that we had scaled the height and  lay extending above the middle section, like in a coffin. 

My father’s bed was situated just in front of the section on the right, so when he straightened out on his pillows to read a magazine, he could see  the mirror. So he looked at it, but more than looking at his own reflection, he saw those who were looking at him. Then he would say, “There was seen Don Juan Antonio Ribeyro and Estrada and he tying the knot of his tie before going to the Council of Ministers,” or, “There one saw Don Ramon Ribeyro and Alvarez of Villar, getting ready to go to a lecture at the University of San Marcos,” or, “Many times I see looking there at my father, Don Julio Ribeyro and Benites, there, in front of the mirror, when they were preparing to go to the Congress to make a speech.” His ancestors were captive, there, in front of the mirror. He saw them and he saw his own image superimposed on them in this unreal space, as if once again, together, they lived together by some miracle at the same time. My father penetrated through that mirror the world of the dead, but his grandparents also made it to the world of the living.     

We admired the intelligence he expressed that summer; his days always clear and open to enjoyment, play and the happiness. My father, since he had married, gave up smoking, drinking and going out with friends. He looked very complacent and, like the fruits of his little vegetable garden, had doubts about his best gifts, inviting admiration. He finally succeeded in acquiring a decent service set and decided to receive, from time to time, some of his old married friends. 

The first of these friends was Alberto Rikets. He was a version of my father, but in a much condensed form. Nature had put in the work to edit this copy, by way of precaution. He had the same paleness, the same skinniness, the same mannerisms and even the same expressions. All of it came from the same school they studied in; they had read the same books, spent the same bad nights and suffered the same painful and long sickness. In the ten or twelve years that they did not see each other, Rikets had made a fortune working tenaciously in his pharmacy that was already his, in contrast to my father, who had only managed to buy a house in Miraflores with great effort. 

As the children of friends rarely get to be friends among themselves, we received Albertito with trepidation. We found him stunted, slow-witted and at times, frankly, an idiot. Meanwhile, my father took Albertito to the vegetable garden, showing him the orange and fig trees, the apple trees and vines. We took Albertito to our playroom. As Albertito did not have siblings, he was very ignorant of our home and collective games; he looked clumsy by playing the role of an Indian and allowing himself be stitched by a series of bullets by the sheriff. He had a form convenient to falling dead on the ground and was unable to understand that an umbrella could also be a machine gun. Because of this, we stopped sharing our favorite game with him, of the wardrobe, and rather concentrated on smaller and mechanical ones that left everyone to their own luck, like making roll carts on the floor or building castles with wooden cubes. 

While we played, waiting for lunch, we saw by the window my father and his friend going around the garden. Perhaps they had arrived at the turn to admire the magnolia, the cardinal, the dahlias, the carnations and the wallflowers. It had been years since my father had discovered the joys of gardening and the profound truth that arrived in the form of a sunflower or in the bloom of a rose. His free time, far from being spent, as before, in tiring lectures that saw him meditate about the meaning of our existence, was now occupied in simple tasks like watering the plants, pruning, grafting or weeding, but in all of that, he put a true intellectual passion. His love for books had gravitated towards plants and flowers. The entire garden was his work and like a character from Voltaire, he had arrived at the conclusion that true happiness resided in cultivation. 

“Someday, I am going to buy in Tarma not a plot like this one, but a true farm, and then you will see, Alberto, then you will see what I can do,” we hear my father saying to him.  

“My dear Perico, for Tarma, Chaclacayo,” responded his friend, alluding to the magnificent house he was constructing in the said place, “Almost the same climate and barely forty kilometers from Lima.” 

“Yes, but my grandfather did not live in Chaclacayo but in Tarma.” 

Again, his ancestors! And the friends from his youth who called him Perico. 

Albertito had rolled his cart under the bed; afterwards when he went to look for it, we heard him launch into a victorious scream. He had discovered a football under the bed. Until now we ignored, we who thought to entertain him, that if he had a secret mania, a vice of a deprived and solitary child it was to kick the leather ball. 

He had already lifted the ball and prepared to kick it, but we contained him. To play in the room was crazy, to do so in the garden was expressly forbidden, so the only solution was to go out to the street. 

That street had been the dramatic scene of that we would play out many years before against the Gomez brothers, games that lasted for four to five hours and ended only when it was almost dark, when one could see neither the goalpost nor the rival players. They became games in a spectral contention, in a ferocious and blind battle that fitted all types of traps, abuses and offences. Never had any professional team put, like we did in those infantile encounters, so much hate and so much vanity. So much so that when the Gomez brothers relocated, we abandoned football forever. Nothing could be compared to those brawls, and we had put away the football under the bed. Until Albertito found it. If he wanted a football, we would give it to him in any way we could. 

We made an arc together with the wall of the house so that the ball bounced off it and we placed Albertito as the goalkeeper. 

Our initial kicks were valiantly attacked. But then we bombarded him with a series of low shots to give ourselves the pleasure of seeing him stiffened, thrown completely off balance (with his legs all over the place) and vanquished. 

Then it was his turn to kick, and I went to the arch. For a sickly person, he had the kick of a mule. I managed to stop his first kick, though I had bruised my hands. His second kick, directed at an angle, was a perfect goal, but the third was truly prodigious –the : the ball crossed through my arms, passed above the wall, sneaked through the branches of the climbing jasmine, saved the cypress fence, bounced on the trunk of an acacia and disappeared into the depths of the house. 

While we waited outside on the street for the servant to bring the ball as was usually the case, no one appeared. When we were all set to go looking for it, the side door of the house opened and my father came out with the football under his arm. He was very pale as usual and said nothing, but we saw him resolutely going towards a worker who was whistling on the street. He placed the ball in his hands and returned to the house without even looking at us. The worker took a while to figure out why the ball had ended up with him as a gift and when we noticed him taking to the road, we could not catch up with him. 

By the sad expression on my mama’s face, who waited for us at the door to call us to the table, we knew something very serious had occurred. With an emphatic gesture of her hands, she ordered us to enter the house. 

“How have they done it!” was all she said when we passed by her side. 

But as we noticed that of all the windows of my father’s bedroom, the only one that did have the grills was ajar, we suspected what had happened – Albertito, with a master stroke, which neither he nor anyone could repeat even if they passed the rest of their life rehearsing it, had succeeding in sending the ball on a senseless trajectory, which, disregarding the walls, the trees and the iron grills, had hit the mirror of the wardrobe right in its heart. 

The lunch was painful. My father, unable to reprimand us in front of the guests, gulped his anger in silence that no one dared to interrupt. Only when desserts were served did he look assuredly condescending and recounted a number of funny anecdotes that regaled the audience. Alberto imitated him and the lunch ended amidst loud laughter. But it did not erase the impression that this lunch, this invitation, those good wishes of my father to revive old friendships – something that was never repeated – had been a complete fiasco. 

The Rikets left thereafter, to our terror, since we feared that now our father would castigate us. But the get-together had exhausted him and he retired for a nap without saying anything. 

When he woke up, we congregated in his room. He was relaxed and placid, reclining on his armchair. He had opened the window fully so that the full afternoon light came in. 

“See,” he said, signaling towards the wardrobe. 

It was indeed in a lamentable state. By losing the mirror, the wardrobe seemed to have lost its life. Where there had been the mirror, there remained only a dark wooden rectangle, a shaded space that reflected nothing and said nothing. It was like a radiant lagoon whose water had suddenly evaporated. 

“The mirror where one could see my grandparents!” he sighed and waved at us to leave. 

Since then, we never heard him refer any more to his ancestors. The disappearance of the mirror had made them disappear automatically. His past stopped tormenting him and he was more inclined to be curious about his future. Perhaps it was because he knew that he would die soon and it was not necessary for the mirror to unite him with his grandparents, not in another life, because he was a non- believer, but in this world that had already subjugated him, as before the books and the flowers did: of nothing. 

Read more stories by Julio Ribeyro on this blog

Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: