Baja California, 1979. Viridiana spends her days watching the dead sharks piled beside the seashore, as the fishermen pull their nets. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to watch, under the harsh sun. She’s bored. Terribly bored. Yet her head is filled with dreams of Hollywood films, of romance, of a future beyond the drab town where her only option is to marry and have children.
Three wealthy American tourists arrive for the summer, and Viridiana is magnetized. She immediately becomes entwined in the glamorous foreigners’ lives. They offer excitement, and perhaps an escape from the promise of a humdrum future. When one of them dies, Viridiana lies to protect her friends. Soon enough, someone’s asking questions, and Viridiana has some of her own about the identity of her new acquaintances. Sharks may be dangerous, but there are worse predators nearby, ready to devour a naïve young woman who is quickly being tangled in a web of deceit.
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The beach smelled of death. Half a dozen sharks lay under the sun, waiting to be salted. Whenever Viridiana saw them, glistening belly up in the midday heat, they reminded her of dominoes set upon a table before the game begins.
An angry shark can bite through tin and metal, the locals said; it could cut through the boats they took out to sea. And looking at the jaws hanging from the wooden rack, Viridiana might concur. But she liked the sharks, she even liked the stench of their liver roasting on a fire. It was a bitter, foul smell, but she had pleasant memories of her father cooking it, attempting to extract oil out of the liver. He'd done things like that when she was young, trying to make himself comfortable in Desengaño, to leave his city roots behind. He eventually stopped. It was obvious he was a city boy, with his books and his diploma from the university under his arm, and no amount of shoving a shark's liver across a pan was going to make him a fisherman. Besides, there was no point in trying to master the nets and the boats, anyway, since sharks were almost worthless.
Once upon a time, during World War II, fishermen could make a fortune selling shark livers, and many a fool in search of quick cash had steered his boat towards Baja California. Synthetic vitamins had killed that business. In Desengaño, stubborn fishermen still dragged the sharks out of the water, but many others dedicated themselves to hauling shrimp or an assortment of fish. The ones left chasing sharks sold them to merchants who inevitably passed them off as valuable "cod" fillets. No one would pay more than a pittance for shark meat, but shark meat wrapped in plastic and advertised as "genuine Norwegian cod" was worth the effort. Not that this helped the fishermen, since they sold the meat for a peso while the merchant sold it for fifteen in the city.
But people had to make a living.
The shark's skin was sold to make boots, and the fishermen hung the shark's large jaws from a wooden rack, hoping tourists might purchase one, or else they might sell shark teeth dangling from strings.
There were not many tourists. The highway now brought Americans in their cars, pulling their boats behind them, dollars stuffed in their pockets, but Desengaño was out of the way. There was one hotel with two dozen rooms. The owner had a brother in Mexico City who owned a travel agency, and he convinced foreigners to take a trip to scenic Baja and funnelled them into the hotel.
Desengaño was really nothing at all.
Viridiana stared at the sea, at the sharks. Reynier had asked for her to stop by, but The Dutchman never woke before noon. She should have waited until later to leave home, but her mother had popped out another kid and it wailed day and night — a colicky monster.
Viridiana scratched her leg and looked at the shadows traced by the sun. She wasn't wearing a watch, but there was no need for that here. You could figure the time by observing what the fishermen were doing by the seashore, or paying attention to the noises of the town. The church bell clanged early every morning and every evening to further mark the day. At nine Don Tito opened his tiendita, and everyone else followed suit, doors banging open or metal curtains going up. Around noon the doors banged shut again. They didn't bother lowering the curtains, all the locals knew it was time for a nap. The bar in the hotel didn't open until seven, but the cantina welcomed everyone at four even if the fishermen wouldn't get there until eight. The bar catered to whatever foreigners were passing by and the more moneyed townspeople; the cantina took in fishermen, tradesmen — the local alcoholics who could spare the cash. By eleven, the pharmacy turned its sign off and the drunks stumbled past it, and stumbled home. Desengaño plunged into silence.
The shadows cast by the shark's jaw indicated it was time to get on her way. The few foreigners who had built permanent vacation houses lived outside the town proper. All of them except for Reynier, who was located a few streets from the town square. He had a large yellow house, which distinguished itself from the houses of the wealthier Mexicans in town — the doctor, the pharmacist — by its relative simplicity. It was neither faux-colonial nor boldly modern. Instead, it was made of wood — an oddity in a place where everything was stone, cement, or adobe — and had a gable roof, making it easy to spot. The Dutchman's house, a landmark which you could use to map your steps.
Reynier didn't bother locking the front door, and she let herself in, heading directly to his office. Reynier kept books in three different languages in the office, but they also spilled throughout the house. She had learned to speak English, French and Dutch thanks to these books.
Reynier sat in his big burgundy chair, dressed in one of his prim charcoal suits. He never succumbed to the desire for casual fashions; the 1970s, with their polyester and flared trousers, had not been acknowledged in his home. Reynier's white beard was neatly trimmed, face tanned and streaked with wrinkles. Since she was a child he had always been old, weathered like a tree trunk, but around the house, black and white photos testified to a blond youth.
She sat on the slim, elegant gray couch opposite him. The shades were drawn and a fan whirled above their heads. It was not quite cool inside his office, but it was as good as it got without air conditioning. Some of the foreigners outside of Desengaño partook in that luxury. Reynier did not. In this, too, he was old fashioned.
"I have a job for you," Reynier said, with that deep, soothing voice. "There are people coming to stay at Milton's house and they don't speak a word of Spanish."
Milton had been a long-time visitor to Desengaño. He came every spring, since before they finished the highway in '72, seven years ago. But Milton passed away over Christmas.
"His kids?" she asked.
"No. They're renting the house to friends. They'll be here in two days. I'll hand them the keys. I already sent Delfina and her daughter to clean the place up and air it out."
All the regular visitors knew each other, and they all knew Reynier. He kept an eye on their houses for most of them: Reynier was the only one who stayed all year long. It wasn't difficult, since the regulars had only half a dozen homes. Although Narciso Ferrer, the hotel owner, was always talking about how tourists would one day flow in plentiful numbers through the town, his prophecy had failed to materialize.
"How long will they be staying?"
"A few months. The man I spoke to, Ambrose, has a notion to write a book while he is here. He needs a personal assistant. So it wouldn't be a weekend touring them through the coves. He wants someone to type notes for him and the like."
This was different. When the tourist season was in full swing, Viridiana made a living as a tourist guide. There was another guide in town, Alejandro, four years older than her and the son-in-law of the hotel owner, which meant all business from there was siphoned to him. Viridiana was left to attract the attention of the young people who were camping on the beaches or the sport fishermen who rattled into town with camper in tow. Reynier tried to direct business her way when he could, and he also paid her to stop by once a week and speak to him in Spanish. To improve his language skills, he said, but they spent more time practicing Dutch or English, for her sake, than speaking any Spanish. He didn't need the practice, anyway, he got by well enough. He did it because Viridiana's father had been a friend and Reynier felt responsible for the girl, even if her dad didn't feel responsible for anyone.
Viridiana frowned. Her father's memory had been pleasant before, when she had been thinking about him frying the shark's liver, but that had been a memory of their time together. Now she recalled his abandonment.
"What is it?" Reynier asked.
"It's just, tourist season is around the corner," she lied. She did not talk with Reynier about her father, nor about any personal matters. They discussed books, music and the vegetation of the region. "There will be people going through town. I'd lose business."
"He has money. They pay would be good, I'm certain. If it's not, you could turn it down."
"I wouldn't have time to see you each week if I'm busy with them. And the house is far," Viridiana mused. Milton's house was nicknamed The End for a reason. There was a big stretch of nothing between the town and that property.
"They're expecting you Friday. You should introduce yourself. If it doesn't suit you, turn it down," Reynier concluded.
"I suppose so," Viridiana said. "The man, then, he's a writer?"
A writer could prove interesting. She'd never met one. He might own a lot of books. She had probably read Reynier's books twice-over. There was no library in town and no bookstore. For fun you could take a dip in the ocean or drive to the lighthouse and contemplate the view. Viridiana did plenty of contemplating.
"I don't know. He has a wife and there is someone else traveling with them, that is all I was told. Get the chess board, please, I'd like to play a round," Reynier said, taking a pair of horn-rimmed glasses from his suit jacket and putting them on.
Viridiana opened the cabinet and took out the chess set, setting it on a circular table. Her father had been so good at chess that he played for money in a park in Mexico City, during his student days. She recalled standing in this very room as a small child, holding onto her father's leg as he spoke with Reynier and moved a chess piece — their conversations also centering on books or music. But there had been something different between those interactions and her gaming sessions with Reynier. Her father exuded a warmth, a joy, which she did not possess. He made many quips. They were not crass jokes, like her stepfather, but witty observations which brightened the room. Her father was charming.
Charming and hopeless and a city man. He withered in the town and when she was six he'd gone off to find employment in Mexico City, promising to send for Viridiana and her mother. He promptly found himself a new family instead.
Viridiana rested her chin against the back of her hand, fixing her eyes on the black and white squares of the board, the beauty of the dark mahogany pieces and the pale figurines carved in bone. The faces of the pawns, the horses' manes, the towers' walls, were exquisitely detailed. Reynier's family had possessed money and although his circumstances had diminished — most of that money had gone to his older brothers — Reynier had bought himself a comfortable life in Mexico.
They played three games and then Viridiana bid Reynier goodbye. On her way home, she ran into Manuel and his mother, Brigida. When Brigida spotted her, she gave Viridiana a venomous look. Manuel had his perpetual, puzzled, slightly lost stare, his mouth trembling. Had Brigida not been there, Viridiana suspected he might have talked to her and the conversation would have awful. More awful than Brigida's contempt.
They had broken up two months before. What would have been an ordinary occurrence in any city took on Hollywoodesque proportions in Desengaño.
The story was both prosaic and expected. Viridiana dated Manuel for two years. They had been pushed together by force of habit and their parents. Viridiana's mother owned a store that sold clothes and makeup. Brigida had a stationery store and was also a money lender. There was a tiny Banamex branch in the town square, but the fishermen would never be able to get credit there, so they all went to Brigida.
Manuel and Viridiana's families thought that if they combined forces, they could both profit handsomely. Brigida believed that if her daughter-in-law manned the counter, she could go to Mexico City with her son to replenish their stock and speak to their suppliers. Normally, Manuel went alone and Brigida thought he couldn't negotiate, that she was better suited for this task. Or else she might take a vacation in Acapulco or Los Angeles, since the running of the store did not allow her any respite. Fanning herself in the noon heat, she had imagined Viridiana breaking the chain which tied her to the counter. She'd said as much to Viridiana's mother, Marta, over coffee.
But Viridiana, rather than marrying Manuel when he proposed, turned him down.
Looking at him Viridiana had read her future in his eyes: the house they would share with his mother, the long hours behind the counter while Manuel went to play dominoes, the three children. She was saving to move to Mexico City and Manuel was talking of tying the knot and settling down. Worst of all, Viridiana was well aware that he was proposing because his mother wanted him to — and because he was plain horny. A man of twenty, he wished to get laid and often. Unfortunately, Desengaño was puritanical. The girls of his age and class kept their legs primly closed. The girls of the lower classes, who readily smiled at tourists or took up with the fishermen, appalled him.
He was a snob. He also dreaded getting one of those women pregnant and then having to pay her off. His mother controlled the purse strings, and if she found out he was frolicking with a hussy, she'd beat him with a frying pan.
Besides, he coveted Viridiana. Years spent staring at her long neck, admiring the blackness of her hair, the eyes which everyone said had a "Moorish" touch, had built up his excitement. He had not seen her naked, small breasts, but he had touched them over her blouse, and the lack of full contact had turned into a sort of frenzy until he told himself he must marry her, sleep with her, possess her.
He thought of this as love.
Viridiana, had she been a bit more like the other girls from "decent" families in Desengaño, might have made the same mistake. But for one reason or another she was suspicious. Of herself, of the world. Viridiana thought Manuel represented more desire than affection, and knew enough about nets and sharks to picture herself tangled in a certain placid mediocrity which terrified her.
Or, like they grumbled in town, she was as stupid as her father.
Brigida walked past Viridiana, rigid as an arrow, her elbow knocking into the girl. Manuel followed his mother, throwing Viridiana one more glance before they turned the corner. Viridiana hurried home. In the living room she found her mother talking with Reina Orozco and was glad. Reina was the town gossip and, with her mother immersed in conversation, Viridiana was able to slip into her room and lock the door, which she was not supposed to do.
She opened the armoire and stood on her tiptoes, bringing down a box and setting it on one of the twin beds. The bedspreads were both pink, unchanged since her childhood. Viridiana's younger sister who shared her room was ten, and perhaps the bedspread was not so outrageous in her case. But Viridiana was a woman. A woman, who if her family had had their way, would have been walking to the altar by year's end. From pink bed to bridal bed, as if maturity were only to be allowed once the priest had officiated a ceremony.
Viridiana lay on the bed and took out the tape recorder and the microphone. Her father sent a card on Christmas, and every two or three years he mailed a birthday present which was both expensive and useless. He never sent alimony.
A few months before he had mailed Viridiana the recorder, with a note saying, "the girls are now keeping audio diaries in these cassette-corders." That was how he wrote it down, "cassette-corder," and included the manual, a leather carrying case, a microphone and a bunch of blank tapes.
Viridiana had not known what to do with the machine. At first, she sat by the seashore and recorded the sound of the waves against the rocks or the cry of the gulls. Then she started speaking into the microphone. It was not an organized diary. She did not record herself every day and sometimes she did not talk for more than a few minutes while others she went on for an hour. Her thoughts were tangled. She spoke about both meaningless and important issues, then carefully noted the date on a sticker or a piece of paper she affixed to each tape. January 1979, February 1979, March 1979. She kept the tapes in order.
She knew not what purpose it achieved, but she found the process oddly comforting.
Viridiana pressed the red button on the recorder. The microphone was much too close to her mouth and there was some popping as she spoke.
"The problem with my technique, Reynier says, is not that I lack talent, but that I persistently deny my blind spots. My technical aptitude is overwhelmed by psychological factors."
Viridiana moved the microphone away a little.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Untamed shore"
Copyright © 2020 Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Excerpted by permission of Polis Books, LLC.
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