By JUAN RULFO
I’m sitting by the sewer waiting for the frogs to come out. Last night, while we were having dinner, they started kicking up a huge ruckus and didn’t stop singing until dawn. That’s what my godmother says, too: that the frogs’ shouting scared her sleep away. And she’d like to sleep now. That’s why she told me to sit here, near the sewer, waiting with a board in my hand so that I can smash to smithereens any frog that hops out … Frogs are green all over, except for their bellies. Toads are black. My godmother’s eyes are black, too. Frogs are good to eat. You shouldn’t eat toads; but I’ve eaten them, too, though you’re not supposed to, and they taste the same as frogs. Felipa is the one who says it’s bad to eat toads. Felipa has green eyes, like a cat’s. She’s the one who feeds me in the kitchen when it’s time for me to eat. She doesn’t like me to hurt frogs. But, for the most part, it’s my godmother who orders me around… I love Felipa more than my godmother. But it’s my godmother who takes money out of her purse so Felipa can buy all the stuff we eat. The only thing Felipa does is stay in the kitchen and fix food for the three of us. Since I’ve known her, she hasn’t done anything else. It’s up to me to wash the dishes. Bringing in wood for the stove is my job, too. Then it’s my godmother who hands out the food. After she eats, she makes two little piles, one for Felipa, the other for me. But sometimes Felipa doesn’t feel like eating, so then the two piles are for me. That’s why I love Felipa, because I’m always hungry and never full, not even after I eat her food. Even if people say you should be full after eating, I know I never get full, even if I eat everything they give me. And Felipa knows this, too… On the street, people say I’m crazy because I’m always hungry. My godmother has heard people saying this. I haven’t heard it. My godmother won’t let me go out alone on the street. When she takes me out for a walk, it’s to go to church to hear Mass. She puts me right next to her and ties my hands together with the fringe of her shawl. I don’t know why she ties my hands; she says it’s because I might do something crazy. One day people came up with the idea that I was choking someone; that I was wringing some lady’s neck just for the heck of it. I don’t remember. But, with all this, it’s my godmother who says I do these things, and she never tells a lie. When she calls me to eat, it’s to give me my part of the food, and not like other people who invite me to eat with them, and then when I get near them, they throw rocks at me until I run away with no food or anything. No, my godmother treats me well. That’s why I’m happy in her house. Besides, Felipa lives here. Felipa is very good to me. That’s why I love her… Felipa’s milk is sweet like hibiscus flowers. I’ve drunk goat’s milk and milk from a sow that had recently given birth; but no, it isn’t as good as Felipa’s milk… It’s been a long time since she let me suck those mounds she has where we just have ribs, and where better milk than what my godmother gives us for lunch on Sundays comes out of her, if you know how to get it out of her… Felipa used to come every night to the room I sleep in, and would snuggle up to me, lying on top of me or a little to the side. Then she would take them out so I could suck that sweet and warm milk that would come out in streams on my tongue… I’ve eaten hibiscus flowers many times in order to take care of the hunger. And Felipa’s milk had the same flavor. I just liked it better because, while she was passing those mouthfuls on to me, Felipa would tickle me all over. Then what happened is that she would always fall asleep next to me, until daybreak. And that helped me a lot; because then I didn’t care about the cold or about any fear of being condemned to Hell if I died alone there on one of those nights… Sometimes I’m not so afraid of Hell. But sometimes I am. Then I like to give myself a good scare with the idea that I’ll go to Hell one of these days, for being such a hard head and for banging it against the first thing that comes my way. But Felipa comes and scares away my fears. She tickles me with her hands like she knows how to and she blocks that fear I have of dying. And for a little while I forget about it… Felipa says, when she feels like being with me, that she will tell the Lord all about my sins. That she’ll go to Heaven very soon and talk to Him, asking Him to forgive me for all the great wickedness that fills my body from top to bottom. She’ll ask him to pardon me, so I don’t have to worry anymore. That’s why she goes to confession every day. Not because she’s bad, but because I’m filled with demons inside me, and she has to drive those little devils out of my body by going to confession for me. Every day. Every afternoon of every day. She’ll do me that favor for life. That’s what Felipa says. That’s why I love her so much… But the thing about having such a hard head is the big thing. I bang it against the pillars in the corridor for hours on end and nothing happens to it, it can stand all that banging without even breaking. And I bang it against the floor; first slowly, then harder and it sounds like a drum. Just like the drum that goes with the chirimía, when the chirimía is brought to the Lord’s church service. And then I’m in church, tied to my godmother, hearing the boom boom of the drum outside… And my godmother says that if there are bedbugs and cockroaches and scorpions in my room it’s because I’m going to burn in Hell if I go on banging my head against the floor. But what I love is to listen to the drum. That’s what she should know. To listen to it, like when I’m in church, waiting to go out to see how you can hear the drum from so far away, to the very far end of the church and over the priest’s condemnations… “The road to good things is filled with light. The road to bad things is dark.” That’s what the priest says… I get up and leave my room while it’s still dark. I sweep the street and get back to my room before daylight catches me. Things happen on the street. Like people can split open your head from throwing stones as soon as they see you. It rains big, sharp stones from everywhere. And then you have to mend your shirt and wait several days for the cuts on your face and knees to heal. And then again put up with having my hands tied, or they’ll right away pull off the scabs and a stream of blood will come out again. Even though blood tastes good, it doesn’t taste like Felipa’s milk… That’s why I always stay in the house, so they don’t throw stones at me. As soon as I’m fed, I lock myself in my room and bar the door so sins don’t find me when they see it’s dark. And I don’t even light the torch to see where the cockroaches are climbing on me. Now I stay still. I lie down on my sacks, and as soon as I feel a cockroach crawling up my neck with its scratchy feet, I smash it to smithereens with my hand. But I don’t light the torch. I’m not going to let my sins catch me off guard with the torch lit up looking for all the cockroaches that get under my blanket… Cockroaches pop like firecrackers when you mash them. I don’t know if crickets pop. I never kill crickets. Felipa says crickets make a sound all the time, without even stopping to breathe, so the screams of souls suffering in Purgatory can’t be heard. The day crickets disappear, the world will be filled with the screams of holy souls and all of us will start running scared out of our wits. Besides, I like to have my ears peeled to listen to the noise of the crickets. There are many in my room. Perhaps there are more crickets than cockroaches in the folds of the sacks where I sleep. There are scorpions, too. They fall from the ceiling every so often and you have to wait, holding your breath while they make their way across you until they reach the ground. Because if your arm moves or your bones start shaking, you feel the burn of the sting right away. That hurts. Once Felipa got stung in her behind by one of them. She started moaning and screaming quiet screams to the Virgen Santísima so her behind wouldn’t be ruined. I rubbed spit on her. I spent the whole night rubbing spit on her and praying with her, and for a while, when I saw my remedy wasn’t making her any better, I used my eyes as much as I could to help her cry… Anyway, I’m more comfortable in my room than outside, where people who like to beat on people can notice me. Nobody does anything to me here. My godmother doesn’t yell at me if she sees me eating her hibiscus flowers, or her myrtles, or her pomegranates. She knows how much I want to eat all the time. She knows my hunger never ends. She knows that no food is enough to fill my gut, even though I go about snitching things here and there all the time. She knows I gobble up the chickpea slop I feed the fat hogs with and the drycorn I feed the skinny pigs with. So she already knows how hungry I am from dawn to dusk. And as long as I find things to eat in this house, I’ll stay here. Because I think the day I stop eating I’m going to die, and then I will surely go straight to Hell. And no one will get me out of there, not even Felipa, even though she’s so good to me, nor the scapular my godmother gave me and I wear hung around my neck… Now I’m next to the sewer waiting for the frogs to come out. And not one has come out in all this time I’ve been talking. If they take any longer to come out, I’ll probably fall asleep, and then there’ll be no way to kill them, and my godmother won’t be able to sleep if she hears them singing, and she’ll get really angry. And she’ll ask one in the row of saints she has in her room to send devils after me, so they can drag me straight to eternal damnation, without even stopping in Purgatory, and I won’t be able to see either my papá or my mamá, which is where they are… I better go on talking… What I want the most is to try a few mouthfuls of Felipa’s milk again, that good and sweet milk like the honey that comes from under the hibiscus flowers…
Juan Rulfo (1918-1986) is Mexico’s most important twentieth-century novelist, the author of the novel Pedro Páramo (1955) as well as the collection of stories The Plain in Flames (1953). A new translation of the latter, by Ilan Stavans and Harold Augenbraum, was published by the University of Texas Press in summer 2012.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and the publisher of Restless Books. His latest books are Borges, the Jew (SUNY), Quixote: The Novel and the World (Norton), and Words in Transit: Stories of Immigrants (Massachusetts). He is the editor of All the Odes of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), due out in October.
Harold Augenbraum is Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. Among his translations are José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo and Cabeza de vaca’s Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition. He is currently editing the Collected Poems of Marcel Proust for Penguin Classics.