Authors: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“We do not go to town often. If you have business there, you must ask me, and I’ll have Charles drive you.”
“Who is he?”
“One of our staff members. It’s a rather small staff these days: three people. They’ve served the family for many years.”
They went down a carpeted hallway, oval and oblong oil portraits on the walls serving as decoration. The faces of long-dead Doyles stared at Noemí from across time, women in bonnets and heavy dresses, men in top hats wearing gloves and dour expressions. The kind of people who might lay claim to a family crest. Pale, fair-haired, like Francis and his mother. One face blended into another. She would not have been able to tell them apart even if she’d looked closely.
“This will be your room,” said Florence once they reached a door with a decorative crystal knob. “I should warn you there is no smoking in this house, in case you partake in that particular vice,” she added, eyeing Noemí’s chic handbag, as if she could see through it and into her pack of cigarettes.
, Noemí thought and was reminded of the nuns who had overseen her education. She’d learned rebellion while muttering the rosary.
Noemí stepped inside the bedroom and regarded the ancient four-poster bed, which looked like something out of a Gothic tale; it even had curtains you could close around it, cocooning yourself from the world. Francis set the suitcases by a narrow window—this window was colorless; the extravagant stained-glass panes did not extend to the private quarters—while Florence pointed out the armoire with its stash of extra blankets.
“We are high up the mountain. It gets very cold here,” she said. “I hope you brought a sweater.”
“I have a rebozo.”
The woman opened a chest at the foot of the bed and took out a few candles and one of the ugliest candelabra Noemí had ever seen, all silver, a cherub holding up the base. Then she closed the chest, leaving these findings on top of it.
“Electrical lighting was installed in 1909. Right before the revolution. But there have been few improvements in the four decades since then. We have a generator, and it can produce enough power for the refrigerator or to light a few bulbs. But it’s far from suitable lighting for this whole house. Accordingly, we rely on candles and oil lamps.”
“I wouldn’t even know how you use an oil lamp,” Noemí said with a chuckle. “I’ve never even been camping properly.”
“Even a simpleton can understand the basic principles,” Florence said, and then continued talking, giving Noemí no chance to reply. “The boiler is finicky at times and at any rate young people shouldn’t have very hot showers; a mild bath will do for you. There is no fireplace in this room, but a great large one downstairs. Have I forgotten anything, Francis? No, very well.”
The woman looked at her son, but did not give him any time to reply either. Noemí doubted many people got a chance to utter a word with her around.
“I’d like to speak to Catalina,” Noemí said.
Florence, who must have thought this was the end of their conversation, already had a hand on the doorknob.
“Today?” the woman asked.
“It’s almost time for her medication. She won’t stay awake after she takes it.”
“I want a few minutes with her.”
“Mother, she’s come so far,” Francis said.
His interjection seemed to have caught the woman off guard. Florence raised an eyebrow at the young man and clasped her hands together.
“Well, I suppose in the city you have a different sense of time, running to and fro,” she said. “If you must meet her forthwith, then you better come with me. Francis, why don’t you go see if Uncle Howard will be joining us for dinner tonight? I don’t want surprises.”
Florence guided Noemí down another long hallway and into a room with another four-poster bed, an ornate dressing table with a three-winged mirror, and an armoire large enough to hold a small army. The wallpaper in here was a diluted blue with a floral pattern. Little landscape paintings decorated the walls, coastal images of great cliffs and lonely beaches, but these were not local views. This was England, most likely, preserved in oils and silver frames.
A chair had been set by a window. Catalina sat in it. She was looking outside and did not stir when the women walked into the room. Her auburn hair was gathered at her nape. Noemí had steeled herself to greet a stranger ravaged by disease, but Catalina did not seem much different from when she’d lived in Mexico City. Her dreamy quality was perhaps amplified by the décor, but this was the sum of the change.
“She is supposed to have her medication in five minutes,” Florence said, consulting her wristwatch.
“Then I’ll take those five minutes.”
The older woman did not seem happy, but she left. Noemí approached her cousin. The younger woman had not glanced at her; she was oddly still.
“Catalina? It’s me, Noemí.”
She placed a hand gently on her cousin’s shoulder, and only then did Catalina look at Noemí. She smiled slowly.
“Noemí, you’ve come.”
She stood in front of Catalina nodding. “Yes. Father has sent me to check up on you. How are you feeling? What’s wrong?”
“I feel awful. I had a fever, Noemí. I’m sick with tuberculosis, but I’m feeling better.”
“You wrote a letter to us, do you remember? You said odd things in it.”
“I don’t quite remember everything I wrote,” Catalina said. “I had such a high temperature.”
Catalina was five years older than Noemí. Not a great age gap, but enough that when they were children, Catalina had taken on a motherly role. Noemí remembered many an afternoon spent with Catalina making crafts, cutting dresses for paper dolls, going to the movies, listening to her spin fairy tales. It felt strange to see her like this, listless, dependent on others when they had all once depended on her. She did not like it at all.
“It made my father awfully nervous,” Noemí said.
“I’m so sorry, darling. I shouldn’t have written. You probably had many things to do in the city. Your friends, your classes, and now you are here because I scribbled nonsense on a piece of paper.”
“Don’t worry about it. I wanted to come and see you. We haven’t seen each other in ages. I had thought you would have come visit us by now, to be frank.”
“Yes,” Catalina said. “Yes, I thought so too. But it’s impossible to get out of this house.”
Catalina was pensive. Her eyes, hazel pools of stagnant water, grew duller, and her mouth opened, as if she were getting ready to speak, except she did not. She drew her breath in instead, held it there, then turned her head and coughed.
“Time for your medicine,” Florence said, marching into the room, a glass bottle and a spoon in hand. “Come now.”
Catalina obediently had a spoon of the medication, then Florence helped her into bed, pulling the covers up to her chin.
“Let’s go,” Florence said. “She needs her rest. You can talk tomorrow.”
Catalina nodded. Florence walked Noemí back to her room, giving her a brief sketch of the house—the kitchen was in that direction, the library in this other one—and told her they’d fetch her for dinner at seven. Noemí unpacked, placed her clothes in the armoire, and went to the bathroom to freshen up. There was an ancient bathtub there, a bathroom cabinet, and traces of mold on the ceiling. Many tiles around the tub were cracked, but fresh towels had been set atop a three-legged stool, and the robe hanging from a hook looked clean.
She tested the light switch on the wall, but the light fixture in the bathroom did not work. In her room, Noemí could not locate a single lamp with a light bulb, though there was one electrical outlet. She supposed Florence had not been joking about relying on candles and oil lamps.
She opened her purse and riffled through it until she found her cigarettes. A tiny cup decorated with half-naked cupids on the night table served as an impromptu ashtray. After taking a couple of puffs, she wandered to the window, lest Florence complain about the stench. But the window would not budge.
She stood, looking outside at the mist.
Florence came back for her promptly at seven with an oil lamp in her hand to light the way. They went down the stairs to a dining room weighed down by a monstrous chandelier, much like the one in the hallway entrance, which remained unlit. There was a table big enough for a dozen people, with the appropriate tablecloth of white damask. Candelabra had been set on it. The long, white, tapered candles reminded Noemí of church.
The walls were lined with china cabinets crammed with lace, porcelain, and most of all with silver. Cups and plates bearing the proud initial of their owners—the triumphant, stylized D of the Doyles—serving trays and empty vases, which might have once gleamed under the glow of the candles and now looked tarnished and dull.
Florence pointed to a chair, and Noemí sat down. Francis was already seated across from her and Florence took her place at his side. A gray-haired maid walked in and placed bowls filled with a watery soup in front of them. Florence and Francis began to eat.
“Will no one else be joining us?” she asked.
“Your cousin is asleep. Uncle Howard and Cousin Virgil may come down, perhaps later,” Florence said.
Noemí arranged a napkin on her lap. She had soup, but only a little. She was not used to eating at this hour. Nights were no time for heavy meals; at home they had pastries and coffee with milk. She wondered how she’d fare with a different schedule.
, like their French teacher used to say.
La panure à l’anglaise
, repeat after me. Would they have four o’clock tea, or was it five o’clock?
The plates were taken away in silence, and in silence there came the main dish, chicken in an unappealing creamy white sauce with mushrooms. The wine they’d poured her was very dark and sweet. She didn’t like it.
Noemí pushed the mushrooms around her plate with her fork while trying to see what lay in the gloomy cabinets across from her.
“It’s mostly silver objects in here, isn’t it?” she said. “Did all of these come from your mine?”
Francis nodded. “Yes, back in the day.”
“Why did it close?”
“There were strikes and then—” Francis began to say, but his mother immediately raised her head and stared at Noemí.
“We do not talk during dinner.”
“Not even to say ‘pass the salt’?” Noemí asked lightly, twirling her fork.
“I can see you think yourself terribly amusing. We do not talk during dinner. That is the way it is. We appreciate the silence in this house.”
“Come, Florence, surely we can make a bit of conversation. For the sake of our guest,” said a man in a dark suit as he walked into the room, leaning on Virgil.
would have been an inaccurate word to describe him. He was ancient, his face gouged with wrinkles, a few sparse hairs stubbornly attached to his skull. He was very pale too, like an underground creature. A slug, perhaps. His veins contrasted with his pallor, thin, spidery lines of purple and blue.
Noemí watched him shuffle toward the head of the table and sit down. Virgil sat too, by his father’s right, his chair at such an angle that he remained half enveloped in shadows.
The maid didn’t bring a plate for the old man, only a glass of dark wine. Maybe he’d already eaten and had ventured downstairs for her sake.
“Sir, I’m Noemí Taboada. It’s nice to meet you,” she said.
“And I am Howard Doyle, Virgil’s father. Although you’ve guessed that already.”
The old man wore an old-fashioned cravat, his neck hidden under a mound of fabric, a circular silver pin upon it as a decoration, a large amber ring on his index finger. He fixed his eyes on her. The rest of him was bleached of color, but the eyes were of a startling blue, unimpeded by cataracts and undimmed by age. The eyes burned coldly in that ancient face and commanded her attention, vivisecting the young woman with his gaze.
“You are much darker than your cousin, Miss Taboada,” Howard said after he had completed his examination of her.
“Pardon me?” she asked, thinking she’d heard him wrong.
He pointed at her. “Both your coloration and your hair. They are much darker than Catalina’s. I imagine they reflect your Indian heritage rather than the French. You do have some Indian in you, no? Like most of the mestizos here do.”
“Catalina’s mother was from France. My father is from Veracruz and my mother from Oaxaca. We are Mazatec on her side. What is your point?” she asked flatly.
The old man smiled. A closed smile, no teeth. She could picture his teeth, yellowed and broken.
Virgil had motioned to the maid, and a glass of wine was placed before him. The others had resumed their silent eating. This was to be, then, a conversation between two parties.
“Merely an observation. Now tell me, Miss Taboada, do you believe as Mr. Vasconcelos does that it is the obligation, no, the destiny, of the people of Mexico to forge a new race that encompasses all races? A ‘cosmic’ race? A bronze race? This despite the research of Davenport and Steggerda?”
“You mean their work in Jamaica?”
“Splendid, Catalina was correct. You do have an interest in anthropology.”
“Yes,” she said. She did not wish to share more than that single word.
“What are your thoughts on the intermingling of superior and inferior types?” he asked, ignoring her discomfort.
Noemí felt the eyes of all the family members on her. Her presence was a novelty and an alteration to their patterns. An organism introduced into a sterile environment. They waited to hear what she revealed and to analyze her words. Well, let them see that she could keep her cool.
She had experience dealing with irritating men. They did not fluster her. She had learned, by navigating cocktail parties and meals at restaurants, that showing any kind of reaction to their crude remarks emboldened them.
“I once read a paper by Gamio in which he said that harsh natural selection has allowed the indigenous people of this continent to survive, and Europeans would benefit from intermingling with them,” she said, touching her fork and feeling the cold metal under her fingertips. “It turns the whole superior and inferior idea around, doesn’t it?” she asked, the question sounding innocent and yet a little bit mordant.
The elder Doyle seemed pleased with this answer, his face growing animated. “Do not be upset with me, Miss Taboada. I do not mean to insult you. Your countryman, Vasconcelos, he speaks of the mysteries of ‘aesthetic taste’ which will help shape this bronze race, and I think you are a good example of that sort.”
“Of what sort?”
He smiled again, this time his teeth visible, the lips drawn. The teeth were not yellow as she’d imagined, but porcelain-white and whole. But the gums, which she could see clearly, were a noxious shade of purple.
“Of a new beauty, Miss Taboada. Mr. Vasoncelos makes it very clear that the unattractive will not procreate. Beauty attracts beauty and begets beauty. It is a means of selection. You see, I am offering you a compliment.”
“That is a very strange compliment,” she managed to say, swallowing her disgust.
“You should take it, Miss Taboada. I don’t hand them out lightly. Now, I am tired. I will retire, but do not doubt this has been an invigorating conversation. Francis, help me up.”
The younger man assisted the waxwork and they left the room. Florence drank from her wine, the slim stem carefully lifted and pressed against her lips. The oppressive silence had settled upon them again. Noemí thought that if she paid attention, she would be able to hear everyone’s hearts beating.
She wondered how Catalina could bear living in this place. Catalina had always been so sweet, always the nurturer watching over the younger ones, a smile on her lips. Did they really make her sit at this table in utter silence, the curtains drawn, the candles offering their meager light? Did that old man try to engage her in obnoxious conversations? Had Catalina ever been reduced to tears? At their dining room table in Mexico City her father liked to tell riddles and offer prizes to the child who piped up with the correct answer.
The maid came by to take away the dishes. Virgil, who had not properly acknowledged Noemí, finally looked at her, their eyes meeting. “I imagine you have questions for me.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Let’s go to the sitting room.”
He grabbed one of the silver candelabra on the table and walked her down a hallway and into a large chamber with an equally enormous fireplace and a black walnut mantel carved with the shapes of flowers. Above the fireplace hung a still life of fruits, roses, and delicate vines. A couple of kerosene lamps atop twin ebony tables provided further illumination.
Two matching faded green velour settees were arranged at one end of the room, and next to them there were three chairs covered with antimacassars. White vases collected dust, indicating that this space had once been used to receive visitors and supply merriment.
Virgil opened the doors of a sideboard with silver hinges and a marble serving surface. He took out a decanter with a curious stopper shaped like a flower and filled two glasses, handing her one. Then he sat on one of the stately, stiff, gold brocade armchairs set by the fireplace. She followed suit.
Since this room was well illuminated, she was presented with a better picture of the man. They had met during Catalina’s wedding, but it had all been very quick and a year had passed. She had not been able to recall what he looked like. He was fair-haired, blue-eyed like his father, and his coolly sculpted face was burnished with imperiousness. His double-breasted lounge suit was sleek, charcoal gray with a herringbone pattern, very proper, though he’d eschewed a tie, and the top button of his shirt was undone as if he were trying to imitate a casualness it was impossible for him to possess.
She was not sure how she should address him. Boys her age were easy to flatter. But he was older than she was. She must be more serious, temper her natural flirtatiousness lest he think her silly. He had the stamp of authority here, but she also had authority. She was an envoy.
The Kublai Khan sent messengers across his realm who carried a stone with his seal, and whoever mistreated a messenger would be put to death. Catalina had told her this story, narrating fables and history for Noemí.
Let Virgil understand, then, that Noemí had an invisible stone in her pocket.
“It was good of you to come on such short notice,” Virgil said, though his tone was flat. Courtesy, but no warmth.
“I had to.”
“Did you really?”
“My father was concerned,” she said. There was her stone, even as his own badge was all around him, in this house and its things. Noemí was a Taboada, sent by Leocadio Taboada himself.
“As I tried to tell him, there is no need for alarm.”
“Catalina said she had tuberculosis. But I don’t think that quite explains her letter.”
“Did you see the letter? What did it say exactly?” he asked, leaning forward. His tone was still flat, but he looked alert.
“I did not consign it to memory. Enough that he asked me to visit you.”
He turned his glass between his hands, the fire making it glint and sparkle. He leaned back against the chair. He was handsome. Like a sculpture. His face, rather than skin and bone, might have been a death mask.
“Catalina was not well. She ran a very high fever. She sent that letter in the midst of her sickness.”
“Who is treating her?”
“Pardon me?” he replied.
“Someone must be treating her. Florence, is she your cousin?”
“Well, your cousin Florence gives her medicine. There must be a doctor.”
He stood up and grabbed a fireplace poker, stirring the burning logs. A spark flew through the air and landed on a tile dirty with age, a crack running down its middle.
“There is a doctor. His name is Arthur Cummins. He has been our physician for many years. We completely trust Dr. Cummins.”
“Doesn’t he think her behavior has been unusual, even with tuberculosis?”
Virgil smirked. “Unusual. You have medical knowledge?”
“No. But my father did not send me here because he thought everything was as
“No, your father wrote about psychiatrists at the first possible opportunity. It’s the thing he writes about, over and over again,” Virgil said scornfully. It irritated her to hear him speaking in such a way about her father, as though he were terrible and unfair.
“I will speak to Catalina’s doctor,” Noemí replied, perhaps more forcefully than she should have, for at once he returned the poker to its stand with a quick and harsh movement of his arm.
“Demanding, are we?”
“I wouldn’t say demanding, exactly. Concerned, more like it,” she replied, taking care to smile, to show him this was really a small matter that might be easily resolved, and it must have worked, for he nodded.
“Arthur comes by every week. He’ll stop by Thursday to see Catalina and my father.”
“Your father is also ill?”
“My father is old. He has the aches that time bestows on all men. If you can wait until then, you may speak to Arthur.”
“I have no intention of leaving yet.”
“Tell me, how long do you expect to remain with us?”
“Not too long, I hope. Enough to figure out if Catalina needs me. I’m sure I could find lodging in town if I’m too much of a nuisance.”
“It’s a very small town. There’s no hotel, not even a guesthouse. No, you can remain here. I’m not trying to run you out. I wish you’d come for another reason, I suppose.”
She had not thought there would be a hotel, although she would have been glad to discover one. The house was dreary, and so was everyone in it. She could believe a woman could sicken quickly in a place like this.
She sipped her wine. It was the same dark vintage she’d had in the dining room, sweet and strong.
“Is your room satisfactory?” Virgil asked, his tone warming, turning a bit more cordial. She was, perhaps, not his enemy.
“It’s fine. Having no electricity is odd, but I don’t think anyone has died from a lack of light bulbs yet.”
“Catalina thinks the candlelight is romantic.”
Noemí supposed she would. It was the kind of thing she could imagine impressing her cousin: an old house atop a hill, with mist and moonlight, like an etching out of a Gothic novel.
, those were Catalina’s sort of books. Moors and spiderwebs. Castles too, and wicked stepmothers who force princesses to eat poisoned apples, dark fairies cursing maidens and wizards who turn handsome lords into beasts. Noemí preferred to jump from party to party on a weekend and drive a convertible.