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The Regal Lemon Tree

The Regal Lemon Tree

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The Regal Lemon Tree

288 pagine
4 ore
Oct 13, 2020


•AN ARGENTINE CLASSIC: Saer is considered by many to be one of the greatest stylists of the twentieth century. (Alain Robbe-Grillet credited him with helping create the New Novel movement in France.) A recent focus on mid-century Latin American authors (Juan Carlos Onetti, Silvina Ocampo), the time is right to rediscover this modernist master.

•EXPLORATION OF GRIEF: Despite its intricate plotting and imagery, The Regal Lemon Tree is a novel focused on the difficulty of overcoming a great loss, a universal, always timely topic.
Oct 13, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

Juan José Saer was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including Scars and La Grande), Saer was awarded Spain's prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event. Six of his novels are available from Open Letter Books.

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The Regal Lemon Tree - Juan José Saer




He doesn’t seem to hear the barking of the dogs, or the long, piercing crowing of the roosters, or the singing of the birds gathered on the Chinaberry tree out front, ringing out endless and rich; nor does he seem to hear the dogs, el Negro and el Chiquito, pacing restlessly back and forth out in the yard, wagging their tails, excited by dawn, responding to the distant and intermittent, sharp and isolated barks of other dogs on the other side of the river. The crowing of the roosters comes from multiple directions. His eyes open, lying on his back, his hands folded loosely across his gut, Wenceslao doesn’t hear anything but the dark turmoil of the dream retreating from his mind like a black cloud gliding across the sky, revealing the bright orb of the moon. He doesn’t hear anything because after thirty years of hearing the sounds of the roosters and the dogs and the birds and the horses at the break of dawn, he is unable to hear now, in the present, anything but silence.

As he bends his right leg and rests the bottom of his foot on the mattress, the sheet rises and drags the edge down, uncovering a bit of his bare chest and of her shoulder. Lying face down next to him, also awake, but with her eyes closed. She moans, almost inaudibly. As soon as he opens his eyes, Wenceslao knows she is awake—apparently, for those thirty years, she has always awoken a fraction of a second before him—although she does not say anything, or move, or make any sound at all. She sighs later, when he sits up and gets out of bed. But while he is lying down, moving an arm or a leg, starting to wake up, she either pretends to be asleep, or wants to believe she is still asleep. Perhaps she believes that she is in fact still asleep, and that she has not woken up yet, and that she will not wake up until he gets out of bed.

When he bends his leg, the springs of the old iron and bronze bed screech, and the iron slots where the springs connect to the headboard creak. From this angle, only the largest objects are visible in the small house: the dresser and its oval mirror, tall and frail, and the large chest next to the bed, against the adobe wall, just below the small, wooden window full of vertical cracks through which the first gray light of dawn enters the room. The rest fades into a gray semi-darkness, denser and darker toward the corners and above, in the ridge of the pitched, straw roof. It is there, in that darkness, where Wenceslao looks every morning at daybreak when he opens his eyes: the darkness from outside confirming that the darkness inside has retreated, and that he is in fact awake.

Wenceslao lifts the sheet and gets out of bed. His loose-fitting, white underwear, which comes down to his knees, is held up by his slightly distended gut, just below his navel. Wenceslao dresses quickly. Meanwhile, still in bed, she sighs, snorts softly, and moves, pretending not to have just woken up, but to have been about to do so, as if she did not also know that for thirty years she has been waking up every morning at the break of dawn, a fraction of a second before him. The light sneaking through the vertical cracks in the small window is no longer gray, but has brightened into glinting sunlight. Wenceslao puts on his shirt—a dull, faded shirt that has lost all color—and then his pants: he lifts his left leg first, and then the right, in a playful balancing act, which for a moment forces him to hop forward on one leg, when the pant leg gets stuck for a second on the heel of his other foot. He walks into his sandals, and keeps walking until he is on the other side of the simple, cretonne curtain that separates the bedroom from the adjoining room—constituting, along with the bedroom, the entirety of the small house. They refer to this part of the house as the dining room, although they never eat there, but out in the yard if it is hot, or in the little hut built next to the house, which they call the kitchen. The curtain sways behind Wenceslao as he crosses into the dining room in his sandals. Reddish, glinting sunlight sneaks through the vertical and right-angled crevices in the cracks of the wooden door that leads out to the yard, as uneven as those in the small bedroom window. In the dining room there is a vast rectangular table and four wooden chairs, yellow with wicker seats. Wenceslao coughs, opens the door by lifting the wooden latch, and goes out to the yard, shutting the door behind him. As if emerging from the great reddish splash of the eastern horizon, el Negro and el Chiquito circle around Wenceslao, wagging their tails, without barking. el Negro is so tall that Wenceslao does not need to lean down to pat his back: in addition to his height, also impressive is his black, smooth, glossy fur, and his black, bulging eyes, beaming as his pink tongue hangs long and undulating to one side of his open mouth, revealing his thick, pink gums and white teeth. Wenceslao repeats Good morning two or three times—he says goodish morningish, as if he were talking to a child, using a tone that corresponds to inferior minds, demonstrating that inferior minds have the superiority required to reduce superior minds to their level—and moves forward. El Chiquito cuts him off repeatedly, wagging his tail, trying to jump and lick his face. Okay, okay, get out of here, Wenceslao says, feigning an angry voice, mixed with a short laugh. Finally, he crouches down in the middle of the front yard and pets el Chiquito’s back while the dog stands still, his legs wide and his head raised, looking straight at him. Wenceslao pets el Chiquito’s white fur, speckled with black patches, some of which are small, while others are larger, including the one that cover the dog’s head and blends into its black snout. It looks as if someone had thrown a bucketful of tar on the dog, a bucketful which for the most part only managed to splash parts of it. El Negro has put his front paws on one of Wenceslao’s thighs, and is also looking at him. Wenceslao stays still for a moment, sitting back on his heels, as if held there by the black eyes of one dog and the golden eyes of the other, one hand resting motionless on el Chiquito’s spotted fur, the other on el Negro’s head. He is facing the sun, the top semicircle of which has risen entirely above the horizon, staining the sky around it red. There is no wind. In the middle of the front yard, the Chinaberry tree is full of jumping, singing birds. It casts no shade as of yet, but at its very top a few leaves are haloed by a golden radiance, as if the light sprouted from there instead of the sun. One unexpected ray of light, which also looks as if it were sprouting from the tree itself instead of from the sun, glimmers in the middle of the foliage. Soon the tree will cast a large stretch of shade, shading the table resting against its trunk. The shade will decrease gradually until noon, disappear for a moment, and reappear at once on the opposite side of the table, stretching slowly and gradually away until the sun fades, leaving nothing but shade behind. For Wenceslao and for her, it is, in effect, like this: the table is where they eat lunch and dinner from October to March, unless it is raining or the wind is blowing from the North. At those times they eat at the small table, inside the house, in the room they call the kitchen. They refer to the wooden table surrounded by the yellow chairs as the other table. They have never eaten there, except when he died, and they did so because it was sprinkling, and a lot of people stayed to eat, and they would not all have fit in the kitchen or around the small table.

Wenceslao stands up and el Negro goes off, wagging his tail, disappearing behind the house. El Chiquito stays, staring, his head raised, his ears upright and tense, his tail curled upward, as if he were overcome by some sort of memory. There is not a single tuft of grass growing on the ground where Wenceslao is standing. The ground is so hard there his sandals do not even leave any footprints as he walks. Only in a few sections of the front yard does the ground seem a bit softer—in the least traveled stretches—freeing up a thin layer of sand, the shards of which sparkle dryly. Surrounding the whole yard—separated from the rest of the island by a fence—is the growth that no one ever planted, the carobs, the espinos and the ceibas and the willows, the toad’s herb, the wild poppies and the country verbena and the chamomile and the poisonous plants. A narrow, sandy path begins at the door of the wire fence separating the yard from the surrounding land, a small door as short as the fence itself, a little over a meter in height. When someone walks there, they make deep footprints on the path leading to the yellow beach by the riverside. In the yard out front there is only the front of the house, dry and frail like a painted curtain, the Chinaberry tree, and the table. Wenceslao stops walking toward the Chinaberry tree and the table. Scratching the top of his gray-streaked head, he turns and walks toward the area behind the house, passing by the kitchen, through an opening covered by a thin roofing of branches and brushwood they call the gallery. El Chiquito has laid down on the ground and is curled up, dozing, as if the memory he had been trying to recall seemed so worthy of his attention that only by freeing himself of his body, and in large part of his mind, would he be able to fully apprehend it. Before el Chiquito is out of sight, as Wenceslao is passing into and then off down the gallery, he sees el Negro, sniffing and sticking his snout into a large can full of scraps of a rotten-smelling fish. The can is out back, against the corner of the house. Wenceslao kicks gently at the dog, who dodges without actually being startled, moving quickly aside, and then returning to continue rummaging through the can with its snout and one of its front paws, tilting the can without quite knocking it over. Wenceslao is already in the back part of the yard, which they call out back. The front of the yard is out front. There are orange trees out back, and mandarin and lemon trees planted in a staggered pattern, and Chinaberry trees, and a fig tree. Underneath one of the Chinaberry trees, held up by rafters and wooden posts, connected along the entire length of the back wall of the house, there is a taut overhang made with a vine full of leaves and blackish racemes, under which is a small, rickety outhouse. There are so many trees there that the house can barely be seen from the end of the yard out back. For thirty years Wenceslao has worked the land there with his own hands. He has taken care of the trees, trimming them and treating their infestations and diseases. He has patiently guided the vine with supports and cross-beams so each summer it would form that interwoven roof of leaves and racemes. Wenceslao has built their house and what they call the gallery—and yet, six years ago, when he died, for at least two years the land Wenceslao had taken from an army of ceibas and willows and espinos and country verbenas without origin was invaded by spiders and snakes and poisonous plants.



He has gotten up and dressed, and he has played for a moment with the dogs, and now he is urinating in the outhouse, with the door open.

She walks out of the small house. Wenceslao hears her open and close the door, and the shuffling of her slippers on the hard ground coming closer, growing clearer. When he zips up and exits the outhouse, he sees her turn the corner of the house, heading in his direction under the vine. She is wearing the faded, low-cut, black nightgown that comes down below her knees; and she is walking slowly, bearing that peculiar air of drowsiness and absentmindedness that people have when they have slept too long, or not at all.

Good morning, Wenceslao says, heading to the pump.

His voice is quick and somewhat high-pitched. Hers, when she replies Good morning, after a slight delay, is rather deep.

When she enters the outhouse, Wenceslao goes to wash his face. First, he closes the faucet and pumps quickly and energetically; then he leans over the spout of the faucet, opening it again and gathering water from the thick stream in the hollow of his hands. He rubs his face, his hair, and the front and back of his neck. His skin is taut and sunburnt, with a whitish stripe from his straw hat on the top part of his forehead. Wenceslao rinses his face once, and again. Then, with his eyes closed, he reaches out to close the faucet and turns around, his arms out in front of him to avoid touching his clothes with his wet hands—although there is already a large, wet spot on his pants, at the height of his right thigh. Feeling his way forward with his eyes closed, Wenceslao heads to the back wall of the house and grabs a towel hanging from a nail between a round mirror with a red plastic frame and a wooden shelf full of small bottles, jars, and combs. Wenceslao dries off his face and the back of his neck. Then he combs his hair, looking at himself in the mirror: his eyes are small, dark, and bright; his skin is rough and dry, full of small wrinkles, especially around his eyes and on his forehead; two curved and sunken, symmetric lines originating at the base of his nose, loop down to the corner of his lips, and separate his mouth from his shaved cheeks.

El Negro finally knocks over the can full of rotten fish. Startled, he jumps aside. Wenceslao shoes him away, pretending to run toward him, but actually only pounding the ground with his feet. El Negro quickly disappears around the house, out front. She comes out of the outhouse and heads to the pump. Wenceslao goes behind her, and when she opens the faucet and leans down toward the weak flow of water coming from the spout, Wenceslao starts to pump.

The flow of the water becomes white, steady, and thick now. The transparent particles into which it breaks up when it hits her hands sparkle in the first rays of sunlight slashing horizontally across the sky, glimmering in the leaves of the trees and on the drops sliding down the loose skin of her neck.

I’m going to see Rogelio this morning, Wenceslao says, still pumping.

She rubs her eyelids with her wet fingertips, takes a drink of water, and straightens up, looking at Wenceslao as she gargles a mouthful of water. Wenceslao stops pumping and waits, looking at her. She turns around and spits the water out.

Take some lemons for him, she says, walking toward the wall to grab the towel. She dries herself off, slowly.

I was thinking the same thing, Wenceslao says.

And some figs, she says.

If I take figs, Wenceslao says, and they have people over, there won’t be enough for everybody.

Rosa asked me for figs, she says.

After the holidays, Wenceslao says, when they’re on their own again, we’ll bring them some figs, so they can actually have them. "

There won’t be any more figs after the holidays," she says.

Okay, Wenceslao says.

He looks at her round face, her dark skin full of wrinkles. Her eyes have gotten smaller since he died: they are like two wounds now, small and straight across, which have not healed completely. They never seem to glow now other than when she is filled with the certainty, and not just the memory, that he is dead, bringing on a sudden despair, not unlike madness. But at this instance, not only is there no glow to them, they actually seem blind, inexistent.

Nice day, Wenceslao says, looking at her, motionless.

Yes, she says.

She turns around to look at herself in the mirror and comb her rough, black hair that does not have any traces of gray in it. Wenceslao looks at her broad back and her dark hand as it moves up and down with the large, black comb, her hair crackling. Before he walks away, Wenceslao makes an almost imperceptible expression with his dry, wrinkly face.

Wenceslao goes into the kitchen to get a small, black-iron stove, round with three legs. He brings it out front and sets it down near the Chinaberry tree. Then he brings an armful of dry sticks, which he piles up slowly, carefully, inside the small stove, on top of a few sheets of old newspaper. Then he lights a match, and brings the tip of the flame to the edge of the newspaper. Once the paper starts to burn, he drops the match into the flames. They sway and release a thin column of smoke through the opening Wenceslao has left at the top of the pile of sticks. As the flames grow, the thin column of smoke diminishes. Wenceslao turns around. He goes to the pump to fill a dented, soot-stained kettle with water. She is still combing her hair. The bottom of the pillar of bricks on which the pump sits is covered by a layer of moss. Under the spout of the faucet the ground is much darker than in the rest of the yard. A small puddle has formed there, reflecting the sunlight. Later, if neither she or Wenceslao use the pump, the ground will absorb the puddle, leaving a large, indelible spot of dampness under the spout. Wenceslao returns with the kettle and waits, standing next to the small stove. El Negro and el Chiquito circle around the stove without barking, expectant. The dry wood crackles in thick, translucent flames that reach up and become thin threads of black smoke. The Chinaberry tree casts a stationary shadow full of bright holes parallel to the shadow that Wenceslao casts, standing with the kettle in his hand close to the stove. The edges of his shadow have black, swaying borders that widen and thin out, twirling, stretching out or shrinking back and, at times, breaking off, remaining a fraction of a second on the hard ground, separate from his shadow, before disappearing. When the flames diminish, Wenceslao sets the kettle on the two perpendicular, black, iron bars on the round opening at the top of the small stove, and heads to the kitchen to prepare his mate. She goes in, too, having gathered her hair and tied it in a tight bun on top of her head. She is carrying a tin box, and some shirts and socks. When Wenceslao comes out of the kitchen carrying the mate and the metal drinking straw and a partially unstitched wicker chair, which he puts down next to the table, she sets the box and the clothes—next to the mate and the metal drinking straw that Wenceslao has set down on the table before heading back to the kitchen. She sits down, opens the tin box, and takes out a small, cloth-stuffed orange cushion full of pins and needles, a few skeins of string, a thimble, and a bright mate cup that she uses just for her darning. Wenceslao comes back from the kitchen dragging another chair along, its legs leaving a faint, winding, double track on the ground behind him. Wenceslao sets the chair next to her, facing the Chinaberry tree, and goes back to get the kettle, which has started to whistle and spout a grayish steam.

Wenceslao sits down and prepares his mate. She is stitching a five-centimeter-long, black band on the top edge of the pocket of one of the shirts.

They fade and stain, she says.

I think the water boiled, Wenceslao says, leaning over his mate, without looking at her.

I can’t be sewing these things all day long, she says.

Wenceslao hands her the mate.

So, she says. You have to be more careful with these bands.

Wenceslao starts to drink the mate that she did not take from him.

I’ve told you that the time of mourning is over already. The time of mourning is over. I’ve told you, it’s over already, he says.

She continues to sew the black band on the top edge of the shirt pocket.

Don’t you want to come with me to visit Rogelio and your sister? Wenceslao asks.

Not today, she says.

Aren’t you going to go and see your sister for New Year’s? Wenceslao says.

Not today, she answers calmly, and breaks an extra piece of string off with her teeth from the hem she has just sewed on the top edge of the shirt pocket. She leaves the shirt on the table and puts her mate cup inside a black sock riddled with holes. She starts to thread a needle with black string, wetting the tip of the string with her lips, and trying again and again to thread it through the eye of the needle. She sticks the tip of her tongue out, slightly, biting it softly, as she concentrates.

Wenceslao drags his finger slowly and carefully along the edge of the mate he has just served himself to wipe off where a drop has left a moist trail as it dripped along the yellowish surface of the cup. El Negro and el Chiquito come around from out back, chasing each other, followed by their shadows. One catches the other near the small stove, and they start to roll around, growling playfully, wagging their tails. She finally inserts the string through the eye of the needle and threads it before taking the mate that Wenceslao hands her. Slurping on the metal drinking straw, she uses her forefingers and thumbs to tie together the two ends of the black thread.

Last year you didn’t go either, Wenceslao says. She’s going to think you have something against her.

She knows, she says. I don’t have anything against her.

Are you going to stay here forever and never go anywhere? Wenceslao asks.

I’m in mourning, she says.

I’ve told you that the time of mourning is over already, Wenceslao says.

Not for me, she says.

She hands back the mate, grabs the sock, and starts to mend the holes. Wenceslao bites the edge of his lower lip, just slightly, and knits his brow, his gray-streaked eyebrows coming together above the bridge of his nose.

It’s been six years. How long are you going to not go anywhere? he says after a moment.

She does not respond. Instead, she continues to focus on the needlework in her hands.

Every morning he’d run out of the house and across the yard toward the river, wearing his faded shorts, his skin burnt and burnt again by the January sun; he’d run by the Chinaberry tree, his shadow behind him, and disappear down the narrow, sandy path until you finally could hear, from the yard, the plop of the dive and then the splashing of him swimming in the water. He’d come back half an hour later, dripping wet, his skin burnt and burnt again by the sun, his skinny chest, the stripes of his ribs visible. And he’d stand there, almost in the same place where the small stove is now, laughing, showing a double row of white teeth that beamed and beamed. He cast a shadow three times as long as that of the small stove. He’d get dressed and go out with Wenceslao to check on the fishing lines they’d set the night before. They’d go from one side of the river to the other through mid-morning, rowing slowly in the green canoe, leaving a faint wake on the smooth surface of the river behind them. They’d gather the fish, alive still, shimmering in the sun, and then load the nets and the lines into the canoe to dry them out. But he just had to go and turn twenty and get drafted and become addicted to that rotten city and stay there after his military service. He just

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