The day the Berlin Wall fell.
Everything began that November 9, 1989, with the fall of the Wall. Who could have imagined how much more would come down with it?
Which was what I told Violeta Dasinski that day.
I ought to have been a witness; if only I'd paid more attention.
In the photograph there is a forlornness in her expression I hadn't noticed until now. As if her consciousness were dissolving in her eyes.
The date of the beginning of Violeta Dasinski's public life was the day her name appeared on the front page of the Santiago newspapers: November 15, 1991.
I was awakened. Suddenly came the end of dreams and beginning of recall. Abruptly I went back, picking up the memory that preceded the long stroll through my unconscious. Andres was bringing my breakfast, and there on the tray was the morning paper. Then I saw her.
I studied that face in the photograph. But it is a different Violeta who pursues me: fuchsia glitter on her harlequin mask--clown or Pierrot?--and the hands of the makeup artist transforming her into a sad Venetian with gold and red confetti on her neck.
There was something I had to do.
I got the car keys and left.
"Every reporter in town will be there, Josefa. Don't go!" Andres could not hide his concern.
"I have no choice."
"Then I'm coming."
"No, this is something between Violeta and me."
As I came closer to the Nunoa neighborhood a shiver ran down my spine. When I turned into Calle Gerona to park in front of Violeta's house, I saw two policemen guarding the front door. In fact, all the press was there, lying in ambush. Recognizing me seemed to give them new vigor, and they rolled toward me like an avalanche. The policemen came to my defense. One took my arm.
"It is you! What are you doing here?"
"I need to go in, I have to talk to her daughter."
"No one's in the house. They took the girl away."
"Please, let me go in. I'm a friend of the family. I have to get something." The cop looked puzzled. "There are things of mine I left here a couple of days ago, things I don't want to fall into just anyone's hands." As I lowered my voice the confusion in his eyes deepened. "Please . . ."
I had no doubt that he wanted to let me go in, but it wouldn't go well with him if he did. He looked at his partner. He was holding back the journalists, who hadn't given up and were trying--at the top of their lungs--to ask me questions.
"You come with me," I proposed. "That way you can see that I'm not up to anything."
"It isn't that, senora. Well, since it's you . . . I'll come with you."
I went inside, hearing the cop's footsteps behind me and sensing his curiosity: I could almost have touched him. Once in that long, dark--all the shutters were closed--typically Nunoa corridor, I went straight to the back, to the sunroom. Unhampered, the morning light was pouring in through thousands of tiny panes. Beyond them, the deserted, nostalgic patio. I felt a shock, as if Violeta were waiting for me, sitting in the flowered linen armchair. On the air was a hint of her incense, her perfumed candles. Violeta and that sunroom were one and the same, one passed its feelings to the other, absorbing, fusing. But of course she wasn't there.
To the right, sitting against the thick green wall, was the trunk. A rectangle of yellowish-brown varnished wicker facing the thousand little panes of glass, waiting for me. "My grandmother Carlota saved it from the Chillean earthquake," Violeta had told me many times, as if I didn't know. I hurried to open it--the key never worked--and dug into the disorderly order: books, notebooks, stationery, clippings, drawings. My mind raced: where are they? I can't hunt through everything, they're supposed to be mine, I should know . . . I saw them. Several notebooks of assorted sizes tied together with a simple cord. And on top of them, a large notebook bound in dark brown leather. If I hadn't given it to her myself, I would have had a hard time recognizing it. I took it out confidently and the policeman seemed relieved.
"Is that everything?"
I hesitated. And the others, the ones tied together? The single notebook in my hands seemed innocent enough, credible, something I might have forgotten. But the others? I didn't have the heart to leave them there. You owe it to Violeta, my conscience dictated, stiffening my spine. I took them.
"This is everything." I looked at him, radiating assurance, as I tried to stuff the whole bundle in my purse.
"S-S-Se-ora," the poor man stammered, his dark eyes moving from the handbag to my eyes, from my eyes to the handbag. Then I did something out of character: I offered him an autograph. That wavering gaze lighted up.
I went to Violeta's desk. She always had paper on hand. Beside the clean stack was a book opened to page ninety. I asked the policeman's first name and wrote a long and affectionate inscription.
My exit was triumphal. (Poor Andres, how could I explain to him that he couldn't have pulled it off?) I'd been so focused on my task that I had forgotten the press. I was furious when as soon as I stepped out the door I felt the heat of their spotlights in my face: the TV crew had arrived. Without missing a beat, I asked the policeman--who had his autograph in his pocket--to escort me to the car: I had nothing to say.
Three blocks away my facade of assurance collapsed. When I had gone to Violeta's desk I had seen page ninety of the open book. I couldn't help it. I suppose it was the last thing Violeta read. Those two verses, falteringly underlined in brown ink, swept over me.
The page was Adrienne Rich's "Poem of Women." Oh, Violeta, I wasn't eager for us to go our separate ways. No, believe me, I didn't mean to be a heedless witness to what you were going through.
I can reproduce the underlined words, I know them by heart:
And all the limbs of a woman plead for the ache of birth.
And women come down to lie like sick sheep
by the wells--to heal their bodies,
their faces blackened with year-long thirst for a child's cry . . .
and pregnant women approach the white tables of the hospital
with quiet steps
and smile at the unborn child
and perhaps at death.
Violeta, tell me that your smile was for the unborn child, but don't tell me if it was for death.
A forgotten image had come back to me during the night. That image, in the difficult moment of waking, established a relationship between the present and the previous evening. Andres brought in the newspaper. I began to be aware of this new reality only after I felt the stab of pain in my temple, not before.
An image from childhood.
Violeta coming to my house with a cardboard box in her hands. It was fairly large and her slight trembling betrayed the effort it had cost her to carry it so carefully on the bus from her house to mine.
"Can you keep this for me?"--her little girl's eyes, at once questioning and distrustful.
With the same disinclination you feel handing over booty in your care, she held out her hands to deposit the box in mine.
"Where is the most secret place in your house, the place no one comes but you?"
Her words sounded so serious that I tried to answer at the same pitch of intensity.
"All right. Let's go."
Silently we went up to my room. She took the box from me and pushed it under the bed herself.
She was turning to leave when I asked her to explain.
"Tomorrow is the famous move, and I know no one will look after my things. The grown-ups think my stuff is junk. That's why I want you to keep all my treasures until the danger is over and they have things set up in the new house. That way, no one will throw them out."
As she left she looked hard into my eyes.
"You will look after them, won't you, Josefa?"
The next day she came to me during the first recess.
"Did you sleep over my papers? No one touched them?"
"Papers?" I asked, amazed. She hadn't forbidden me to open the box, but she might as well have, because even though I was curious I hadn't dared. "Didn't you say they were treasures?"
She looked at me, half arrogant, half surprised.
"Yes, they are treasures."
At the end of a week, I reminded her of the box.
"No, I don't want it back now. I'll tell you when."
After a period of time she thought reasonable, she came to get the box. I walked with her to the bus stop. She was deep in thought. As we said good-bye, she said, "You really trusted me. You will be my friend as long as we live."
Violeta always wrote. Diaries? She never called them that. Notes. "To keep my head straight," she said. It was easy to please her. I brought her some pretty notebooks from every trip. Notebooks, but not golden. I remember one with a photograph of Virginia Woolf on the cover. Another with Paul Klee's Senecio on the glossy binding. And the ones bound in bright cloth, those were her favorites. These smooth, virgin pages, Violeta would say as she ran her hands over them, are as inciting as a young girl's body to an aging man.
Pistachios and notebooks; Violeta was easy to get gifts for. I never had to think about it.
They piled up. She had a large, pretty, undisciplined, generous hand. She filled the books quickly, especially if she got them at some moment of crisis. I would venture that during her marriage to Eduardo she filled more notebooks than in all the rest of her life. I had been able to rescue them. I couldn't bear the idea of seeing her private thoughts in the hands of the press or the police--whichever might be the least charitable.
She was so casual that day a couple of months ago. We were in the sunroom--you were never anywhere else with Violeta in her house--and she interrupted the conversation to look toward the wicker trunk, as if remembering something she was afraid she would immediately forget.
"You know, I can't remember anything anymore. I don't know what's happening to my poor head; the day it explodes you'll find thousands of tiny squares of paper with notes on everything I don't want to forget, a thousand stupid things a day. That's all a head is good for, it seems, or at least mine . . . And behind the little squares the black dust that is the measure of the effort I've made to remember each of those things. Believe me, there will be more dust than notes."
"And what is it you don't want to forget about that trunk?"
"Oh, yes. That. If anything happens to me, Josefa, say I die unexpectedly, a heart attack in the middle of the street, whatever, my diaries are in the trunk. Please, do something with them. Keep them safe."
"Then why do you write them?"
"Because I can't help myself, it's my one bit of order. You promise?"
"Yes, I promise."
"Good, that's that. One less thing to worry about. I can't tell you how many times I've said, I have to ask Josefa . . . Then I see you and I forget. What were we talking about? Oh . . . Pamela. Go on."
I didn't have to see the newspapers the next morning: the telephone calls from squads of journalists let me know. It was my photograph this time, going into Violeta's house, and the press speculating about our relationship.
What was I doing there? That was the big question.
No comment. I wouldn't accept a single call. If I can't bear them in normal times, imagine how much less I wanted to talk that day. I closed myself in the studio. I didn't even open the door to the children. I asked Andres to come home early and take over. The whole house is vibrating, in upheaval. We are all equally restless. I try to hide it. I have to get a room ready for Jacinta. It surprises me how she keeps repeating the story of how my mother brought Violeta to our house when we were little girls. Well, the circumstances were different, although I don't suppose that the abandonment Jacinta is struggling with now is any greater than Violeta's was then.
Sooner or later I will have to say something.
What will I talk about? Our childhood? School? The blue pixie eyeglasses with tortoiseshell frames? No, that won't be enough. I'll have to tell about the costume party, about how Violeta was late the night my makeup man turned her into the darling clown with a fuchsia face. And about the gin. And also about her fear. "Josefa, you tell him, I'm running so late. Eduardo is going to be angry."
But that won't be enough, either. It would be impossible not to talk about the Last Forest, the place of refuge, Violeta's dream. And about the mill house. Yes, that's all I should say.
Tell one woman's story.
A woman is the story of her acts and thoughts, her cells and neurons, her wounds and enthusiasms, her loves and hates. A woman is inevitably the story of her womb, the seeds that were fertilized in it, or not, or stopped being, and of that moment, the one time she is a goddess. A woman is the story of little things, the trivial, the everyday, the sum of the unspoken. A woman is always the story of many men. A woman is the story of her people and her race. And she is the story of her roots and her background, of every woman who was nourished by the one before her so she could be born: a woman is the story of her blood.
But she is also the story of a consciousness and of her internal battles. And a woman is also the story of her Utopia.
This wanted to be the story of Violeta, if only mine weren't so interwoven with hers. But our biographies don't allow me the necessary distance. Or the things that marked us both, such as a sense of loss, of exclusion, and of a certain scorn for the opaque.
Probably she would define her life as a story of passion. Even so, if I look far enough, I think not; not just passion. The story of Violeta is a story of longing.
Excerpted from Antigua and My Life Before by Marcela Serrano Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Copyright © 2001 by Marcela Serrano Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.