OVERTURE OF THE BOOK THE EDGE OF THE STORM (AL FILO DEL AGUA)VILLAGE OF BLACK-ROBED WOMEN. At night, at the first stir of dawn, throughout the long course of the morning, in the heat of the noonday sun, in the evening light, they may be seen-strong, radiant, colorless, long-suffering-old women, matrons, maidens in the bloom of youth, young girls; they may be seen on the church steps, in the deserted streets, inside the shops, and glimpsed through a few, the very few, furtively open doors. People and streets absorbed in their own thoughts. The smooth, straight walls present a blank surface, broken only by doors and windows. Doors and windows, set in plain stonework, and fastened with the heavy beams of good seasoned timber; there is no varnish or glass and all have the appearance of having been fashioned by the same craftsman, primitive and exact. Time, the sun, the rain, the daily touch of hands have given a patina to the panels of the doors, to the lintels and thresholds. From these houses no sounds of voices, no laughter, no shouts, no cries escape; but above them hovers the fragrance of fine wood, burned in ovens and kitchens, wrapped like a gift from heaven in clouds of blue smoke. Inside and out, the same secrecy. In the houses on the banks of the river, on the slopes of the hills, on the outskirts of the village, the noble stonework gives a certain dignity to the adobe walls. And the lowliest house has its cross on top, and there are wreaths of colored paper flowers at the corners and on the walls stretching endlessly into the distance; crosses made of stone, of stone and mortar, of wood, of straw... wide, tall, small, and fragile crosses, some crudely fashioned, others perfect in form. There are no fiestas in the village; only the daily dance of myriads of sunbeams; the only music is the sound of the bells that toll the passing of the dead, or the tuneless, plaintive melodies of religious chants that express the latent sense of oppression. Never any parties. Dancing is held in horror ... Not even to be thought of... never, never. Families visit each other only at times of bereavement or illness, or possibly to welcome home a long-absent member. It is a barren village; there are no trees or orchards; no trees even at the entrance or in the Cemetery. In the Square, only watered plants. For most of the year the river is dry; river of large, smooth stones, shining in the sunlight. A landscape of barren ridges stretching tier behind tier to the horizon ... Barren ridge on barren ridge. There is no alameda in the village. The streets lie parched under the blazing sun. Worn pillars of stone and mortar stand in the squares and at the corners of the houses. Village of black-robed women, hermetic and solemn. Only the general cleanliness of everything reveals the hidden life. The streets are well swept, the houses whitewashed. Not a single one, not even among those by the river, is unkempt. The men are clean-shaven; old men with lean faces, young men with ruddy cheeks, pale adolescents, all wearing clean shirts, clean trousers. Cleanliness pervades the village: clean young men, clean horsemen, clean white trousers worn by the workers in the fields. Clean are the pale-faced, black robed women, the pale women clad in black, who are the life of the church precincts, the sun swept streets, the furtively open doors. Well-swept streets bring a note of freshness at noonday, at eventide, and in the long hours of the night. Black-robed women, rising early, sprinkle cleanliness form secret wells. Each house has its well, hidden from the curious gaze of the outsider, like the pots of flowering plants in the hidden patios and inner passageways, smelling of freshness and peace. The center of family life is the kitchen; there meals are cooked and eaten; there are women, black-robed and bare headed, their hair combed smoothly back from their faces. Then, the bedrooms. Pictures everywhere. Lamps, a small locked chest, an occasional wardrobe. Clothes hang on hooks, like the ghosts of hanged men. Baskets of grain and few chairs are pushed up against the wall. The beds are in the corners, with baskets of white clothes underneath them. And in the middle of the rooms, large, empty spaces. The parlors are distinguished by their many chairs and the presence of a sofa. There is even a bed, the masterÕs bed. On the shelves of the corner cupboards are photographs of special events in the life of the family and the village, artificial flowers, colored glass balls and china jars, a Hand of Providence, a statue of Christ, a Miraculous Cross, which had appeared at some remote time to some legendary ancestor. From the houses emanates a certain mysterious air of reserve which darkens the streets and the village. The bells ring from the towers at definite times, tolling, pealing, issuing the orders which rule the life of the village. It is a monastic village. The disgraceful taverns lie out of sight in their shameful district of rocks and brambles, where the ground slopes down to the dry river bed. There are no billiard rooms, no gramophones, no pianos, only black-robed women. Desire, the very breath of desire, is hidden deep in the Herat of the village. To hear even the flutter of its wings, one must pause for a moment and listen outside the barred doors, follow in the wake of the black-robed women, of the solemn men, of the rosy-cheeked boys or the pale children. One eras it in the prayers and hymns in which it takes refuge: a deep, pulsing vibration, feverish breathing, controlled only with great effort. Sometimes the streets echo with the shouts of children. They are not old enough to hide their natural feelings. But do the women sing? Never, except in church, the old hymns handed down from generation to generation. When the village priest and his curates pass along the streets in their cassocks, the men remove their hats, the men, the black-robed women, and the children kiss the consecrated hands. When, clad in vestments, they carry the Holy Sacrament, in acolyte, wearing a surplice, rings the bell and the people kneel in the streets, in the village Square. When the church bell announces the Elevation of the Host and the Blessing, the people kneel, in the street and Square. At the ringing of the bells at midday, at three oÕclock, and in the evening, the men take off their hats. In the early dawn when the slow, heavy tones of the church bell summon the faithful to first mass, there is the sound of coughing in dark rooms-the coughs of old men and those who smoke too much; feeble coughs, virile coughs, long prayers, fervent prayers, sonorous chords whose vibrations are muted. Wrinkled old men and women, early-rising farmers, kneel beside dark beds, dress by the light of hastily struck matches, yawning sometimes in the midst of their prayers, while the clanging bell rings in the dawn, with slow, solemn tones. Weddings take place at first mass, while it is still dark, or when the first uncertain light streaks across the sky, as though there were something shameful about them, something mysterious. Weddings never have the solemnity of funerals, when all the bells pour their long lament out into the air, like smoke rising from a chimney; when the three priests and four acolytes, clad in rich black robes, pass through the Atrium, through the streets to the Cemetery, lighted by a hundred candles, accompanied by chants and the sound of the tolling. When a villager draws near to death, the peal for the dying is rung, to ask the prayers of all the people. The villagers say the prayer of the Holy Shroud and join in the petition: Depart, O Christian Soul, from this world. When life is extinct, the bells change their rhythm and neighbors know that a soul is standing before the Judgment Seat. All share the feeling of awe which runs through streets, shops, and houses. Those who have gone to help the dying neighbor, return home; others, closer friends of the family, remain to help dress the body waiting respectfully while Judgment is being given, but beginning their task before the body grows cold. The bells ring out on Sundays, Thursday, and feast days. They are cheerful only when they ring while the sun is shining. The sun is the joy of the village, an almost unconscious joy, a secret joy, like love, desires, instincts. Like love, desires, and instincts, fears appear and wave their invisible ghostly hands at windows, behind tightly closed doors; they can be seen in the eyes of the black-robed women, sensed in their hurried steps through the streets and in their tightly compressed lips, in the serious mien of the men and the silence of the children. Desire, pale, consuming desires, and fear, constricting fears, lurk in the keyholes, in the squeaking hinges of the windows; and there is a peculiar, unmistakable odor, sweaty and salty, in the corners of the confessionals, the dark Chapels, the Baptismal Font, and in the stoups of Holy Water. In the evenings, in the deep stillness of midday, in the streets, throughout the whole village, this damp, salty tan, earthy and penetrating, pervades the atmosphere, and like an unseen presence, without ever coming into the open, or committing an overt act of destruction, oppresses the stranger while it may perhaps bring pleasure to the natives, a kind of penitential pleasure. On moonlight nights, the spirits of desire and fear escape in a mad race; one can hear their turbulent flight, along the street, over the walls, above the rooftops. Strait jackets fling about in the air, fists are clenched fingers twist skirts; they beat against the silence of the houses, blindly, like big black birds in flight: birds with the wings of vampires, owls, or hawks; of doves, too, stupid doves, who, having just escaped, will son come back submissively to the cage. On moonlight nights, it is the spirits of desire which always lead; the fears run behind, threatening, urging them to wait, screaming harsh imprecations, borne along, with shrill, incomprehensible cries, on the wings of the wind. The spirits of desire dart to and fro, from light to shadow, from shadow to light. In vain, the fears try to follow their course. The age-old dance goes on till past midnight. And, in the early hours of the morning, when the bells ring in the dawn but the moon is still in the sky, the stormy struggle of fears and desires begins again. Morning bring victory to the fears, and, all day long, they will be the first to roam round the church precincts, the streets, the Square, while the desires lie concealed in lines etched on faces and brows, hidden under lowered lashed, in compressed lips and tensed hands, as the struggle continues in dark bedrooms and sweat permeates the air of the village. On moonlight nights, in houses on the outskirts of the village sometimes in its very center, hands pluck the meted strings of a guitar, a guitar surcharged with haunting sadness, voicing secret longings. On moonlight nights, lusty songs are heard in the disgraceful taverns, songs of the spirits of fear galloping along astride the horses of desire. Moonlight nights bring a haunting sadness to the lifeless pillars of the Square; the very stones reverberate with the melancholy of never having known the all-embracing love of the Nazarene, or the compassion of the Samaritan. Not even on moonlight nights have these columns ever overheard the whispered exchanges of lovers, only loneliness and unfulfilled desires are confided to them, never has a loving couple sought their shadow to clasp hands feverishly. Gleaming columns, worn smooth by time and weather. When the evening sky is heavy with rain, when torrential down- pours sweep the streets, when the rain brings out the smell of newly washed walls, of wooden doors, of pavements; when an approaching storm charges the air with electricity; on cloudy mornings, on days when the rain falls steadily in monotonous drizzle, when the oppressive heat of dog days overwhelms the village, when the intense cold of winter brings a crystal clearness to the air, then, too, the spirits of desire emerge, and one can hear them moving in a dancing rhythm , in the plaintive chords of a popular song, invisible demons that give a drunken, fantastic twist to the crosses on the houses, on the walls, on the corners of the sentry boxes, even to the huge cross over the gate of the Cemetery. The spirits of fear, officers of the Law, warders of the madhouse, must subdue them in strait jackets, and secure them with chains of iron, at the bidding of the bells, in the shadow of priestly robes. The whole existence of the village is a never-ending Lent. Penitential ashes temper of beauties of spring and summer. Constant reminders of the Day of Judgment are poured like Holy Oil into tall ears, the Holy Water of repentance is sprinkled on all foreheads; the Miserere becomes a constant scourge upon all backs; the precept Remember, O man is kept constantly before all eye; in all minds lies the thought of the Requiem Aeternam. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, like municipal police, ceaselessly patrol street, house, and conscience. De Profundis is on every tongue, signs of strict fasting on every brow and cheek. The chief concern is with the next world. Streets are merely bridges, to lead the people to church, viaducts of the bare necessities of life. Black-robed women, carrying rosary and missal in their hands, traverse them with swift, rhythmical pace. Sometimes their burden is a shopping basket. Their faces are withdrawn, the greetings demanded by courtesy are brief and terse. They may pause for a moment in front of the church, to whisper timidly, as though afraid. (But, if you watch closely and long, you will see how sometimes they reach their doors reluctantly, as though unwilling to open them, and they enter like prisoners, leaving all hope on the pavement outside. If you listen very carefully, you may hear a sigh as the door shuts behind them). Yes, of course, there are men standing on the street corners, in front of the shops, sitting on benches in the Square; they are few and they say very little; they seem to be meditating, and in their eyes there is no gleam of the curiosity that reveals an enjoyment of the street for its own sake. At night one can hear purposeful steps and glimpse muffled shadows under the flickering light of the street lamps; and a midnight, or in the early hours of the morning, one may hear the murmur of voices outside the doors or through the cracks of shutters. The great mystery of life triumphs over the Four Horsemen, and breaks down all barriers, but in the shadowy darkness, with ancient discretion, as the customs of the village require and permitÉ. while the bells sleep. The written proposal is better, however; more advisable, more honorable. Shops keep carefully hidden-as though these were shameful merchandise-written messages which can be made to suit all circumstances, and there are also men and women who can compose special letter s for difficult or complicated cases. But these one must seek out privately. Unseen, but none the less felt, are the blows the Four Horsemen rain down upon the legions of instincts as darkness falls, and in the late hours of the night. Bones creak; tongues are dry and thirsty. Sometimes, too, late at night, mysterious horsemen of flesh and blood ride along the paths on the outskirts of the village and make love to a village girl. In the morning, there is consternation in the village, as though a coyote or wolf had left bloody tracks on the sidewalks, the walls, the doors and windows; as well as new lives, connived a rape. Vengeance and death, as well as new lives, are the offspring of such a union. There is no suffering in the village to be compared with that caused by a stain on family honor; any anguish is preferable, any degree of poverty or misery. The situation is accepted with great reluctance. A fatherÕs heart has been wounded, and although the marriage is seen as the lesser evil, yet the future grandchildren will always be bitter fruit, the offspring of force. And even this degree of resignation is by no means frequent; more usual is vengeance without mercy, unyielding rejection of the erring daughter and the accursed son-in-law; no one wishing to keep the friendship of the offended family dares mention the foreign grandchildren. Even a formal proposal, when the girl´s hand is sought with all due respect for convention, when the suitor conforms to all the traditional customs, when he makes his proposal through the parish priest and has influential neighbors to speak for him, even then it falls like a live coal on a fatherÕs heart, plunges his household into mourning, and sows discord between brothers and sisters. The young man is cold-shouldered by all, however good a husband he may make, however good a husband he may make, however much the match has been hoped for; the girl is a shaking reed, ill-treated by everyone. How happy her family would be if only she would repent and refuse to go through with it! When she persists, how pale she is as she arrives at the church door at the early hour decreed for weddings, not daring even to look at the man who is giving her the marriage coins and putting the ring on the finger. How ashamed she is in the first days after the church. How great is her embarrassment when she realizes that she is pregnant and finds all eyes staring at her and all tongues gossiping about her! What a martyrdom marriage is in the face of this traditional hostility and collective disapproval! The men, too, in the first months of their marriage, feel a certain isolation; they are conscious of invisible fingers pointing at them, feel eyes watching them furtively; a wall of reserve surrounds them and, with a sense of guilt, they avoid all mention of their happiness, their difficulties, their wives. Young girls blush when they see them coming because they have heard snatches of frightening conversations, vague remarks which arouse dread and fear, although underneath the fear and terror well up eager, formless longings, like those of the young men who would like to talk to the bridegrooms but are held back by a sense of embarrassment. Village of muted voices. No discordant note affronts ear or eye except on Sunday mornings, and then a spreading tide of life, of sounds and colors, floods the roads and streets, and its bubbling warmth invades the precincts of the Parish Church and the Square. It floods the inn, taverns, and shopsÉ.a rosy tide whose waters neither mingle with the gray pond nor tint its waters. High Mass over the supplies for the week bought, stalwart, loud-voiced men and women in bright-colored skirts, orange, pink, puce and purple stiff with starch, make their way back to their farms; the noise of squeaking boots, fretting infants, stamping beasts, recedes into the distance and the village regains its evening calm, is again a village of black-robed women, ruled by the monotonous ringing of church bells. Diligently, quickly, the inhabitants sweep away the trail of rubbish left by the visitors. And all week long the inn and taverns yawn in idleness. The inn and taverns are usually empty. The village is off the beaten track. Occasionally, a commercial traveler, a tax collector, will arrive, or someone bringing a message or doing an errand for an important villager will spend the night. There are no comfortable lodgings or hotels. The idea of comfort is foreign to the village. Life is not for enjoyment. Food is simple. Generally, beef soup, rice or macaroni, stew, and beans at midday; in the morning and evening, chocolate, bread and milk. The bread is very good; the smell of freshly baked loaves scents the evening air. The people make their living farming. Much Indian corn is grown, only one crop a year, for the region is without reservoirs and irrigation. Constant worry about bad seasons leaves its mark on the spirit. Bakers, carpenters, a few blacksmiths and tanners, several stonecutters, four shoemakers, an overseer, three saddlers, two tailors, many herb doctors, a few scribes, and five barbers complete the picture of the village economy. But the moneylenders must not be forgotten. They are legion and veritable whited sepulchers. The poorest villagers manage fairly well, although they have their bed times. No one in the region has ever died of hunger. The rich, stoical and tight-fisted, and the stoical poor, lead the same humdrum lives. Resignation is the greatest strength of these people, who, usually, have no higher ambition than to go on living until the time comes for a Holy Death. For them, existence is merely a bridge to be crossed and they are glad when they reach the end. This attitude and the dryness of the soil give the village, the houses, and the people an appearance of age. An air of disillusionment, a subtle corroding atmosphere, floats like a part of the landscape over the plain stonework, over the guarded speech. Landscape and people are alike. A luminous haze, as of perpetual twilight, as of smoldering embers, is seen in eyes, mouths, stonework, the wood of doors and windows, and is spread over hard brown earth. It seems to smolder in glances and gestures. The people are slow in their decisions, movements, business dealings, speech... slow, but sure. I´ve been thinking about it all night... We´ll talk about it tomorrow, at leisure... Next year... After the rainy season... In the rainy season, God willing... If we aren´t dead by then... Barren village, without trees or gardens, not even vegetable patches; so parched that weeping produces no tears. There are no mendicants or whining beggars. The poor man speaks to the rich man with such dignity and self-respect that his attitude falls little short of hauteur. The Four Horsemen are no respecters of persons. Each man orders his life as he thinks best, each man feels, not dependent on anyone or under any obligation. So-and-so doesn´t want to be my partner; I´ll get someone else. Juan turned down my offer. That´s all right with me. Let him keep his money, and I´ll keep my independence! Peace of mind is better than money. It is a barren village, but on the great festivals-Maundy Thursday. Corpus Christy Day, the whole month of May, the Feast of the Assumption, Good Shepherd Sunday, December 8, and December 12-flowers emerge from their hiding places in the patios and come out into the streets on their way to church; flowers of high and low degree: magnolias, tuberoses, Madonna lilies, geraniums, calla lilies, daisies, mallows, carnations, violets, secretly tended, and sprinkled with water from the deep wells. On no other days will they appear in public, these hidden household treasures, jewels on which such care and tenderness are secretly lavished. Reserve, and austerity too, melt, in moments of great human suffering. In times of illness, death, sorrow, trouble, hands and arms are moved by compassion, eyes are damp and tongues loosened, houses are thrown open and people visit one another. But once the occasion has passed, hands and feelings are once more withdrawn, in impassive reserve. The pious activities of old and young, of men and women, find expression in many societies. But the two most important are the Association of the Good Death and the Daughters of Mary. The Daughters of Mary, to a great extent, in fact almost exclusively, shape the character of the village, exercising a rigid discipline over the dress, movements, speech, thoughts, and feelings of the young girls, bringing them up in a conventual existence that turns the village itself into a kind of convent. Any girl reaching the age of fifteen without belonging to the Association of the black dress and blue ribbon with its silver medal, the black dress with high neck and long sleeves, its skirt reaching to the ankles, is regarded with grave disapproval. In this Association, all vie with one another in jealous vigilance, and expulsion from it constitutes a scandalous blot on the reputation that follows one through life. There is strict segregation of the sexes. In church, the Gospel side is reserved for men, and the devout female sex occupies the Epistle side. It is not considered proper for men and women, even when related, to stand chatting in the street or doorway, not even for a moment. When a meeting occurs, brief greetings are exchanged, all the briefer if the man or woman is alone; but this rarely happens, especially if the woman is unmarried, since then she is always accompanied by another woman. It is a village of ascetic faces and abstemious hands. The women use no paint or powder; their lips are tightly compressed, their skin pale. But the men are brown, burned by the sun. The womenÕs hands, hands that draw water from the wells, are rough; rough, too, are the hands of the men who till the soil, tend the cattle, sheave the fodder, thresh the corn, quarry stone for the walls, ride the horses, tame the young steers, milk the cows, make bricks, and carry water, fodder, and corn. Among black-robed women they spend their lives. Death comesÉ or love... love, which is the strangest, the most extreme form of death; the most dangerous and dreaded form of living death.