Purple Heron of the Night

Raúl Serrano Sánchez

Claudio was only trying to make up for all the years he’d spent yearning for those legs, the ones he was always telling you about over coffee in the newly restored center of the old city, in one of those bars that’s supposed to promise you spiritual enlightenment. I remember him talking about how if he ever came across the legs that he’d been dreaming about for so many years that his life would surely stop being the pile of shredded letters and endless string of hotels he stayed at in order to prove–once again–that no one should ever trust a woman, I swear, or believe anything they say, and that Witch (the woman who, according to him, owned the pair of legs that made him so happy), would have nothing more to complain about.

Early that morning (as on the following evenings), he said nothing about the leg he had found. He didn’t want to talk about how it came into his possession, and the longer he kept silent, the more the details faded from his memory, swallowed by the silence that was always his biggest flaw. Nor did he wish to speak about his confinement in a dungeon of his own making, pacing around like a cat avoiding the sunlight, or the people who stared at him from all sides, thinking about everything that Claudio had done or was planning to do with women’s legs in this city, or in the whole world, because for him, people with such conventional attitudes were like the crew of a ship that never puts into port.

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photograph by Chris Bava

Early one Saturday morning, Claudio opens his polecat eyes, asking about the leg and about other things you’ve never heard of, questions that you have no idea how to answer. He paces around like a dog on a chain, constantly looking out the window, rubbing his sweaty hands and coughing. Claudio sweats a lot, like that morning he dragged you out of bed to look at his greatest achievement. You try to console him with the usual platitudes, but he’s too agitated to stand around and explain what’s flowing through him, filling him to the depths of his bloodshot eyes (which is what he was showing you), as if the vision of his “lucky break,” those legs, had been carved into his retinas like a chorus line of hatpins or acupuncturist’s needles. Suddenly his joyful mood shatters, crushed underfoot. But no, he pretends that all is well, finds the beat-up sofa and sinks slowly into it, unleashing a string of words that wrap themselves around him, getting so mixed up that everything feels like a tarnished mirror full of looming shadows and images that Claudio suddenly recognizes as a parade of witnesses to a crime, one of those acts of vengeance that he threatened to commit against the Witch, the kind that are committed in the cellars and catacombs of the city, in the wee hours when the fog is like a drug that turns passersby into sleepwalkers. Claudio tells you everything as if he wanted to cover up something or beg forgiveness for doing something that he didn’t want to do, or convince you that he simply couldn’t avoid doing it. You think of this as you watch him from a distance, wanting to scream that as far as you’re concerned, his guilt or his pleasure is nothing but a simple misunderstanding.

Before going to work, Claudio reminds you a thousand times that you have to take care of his so-called “guest.” His instructions must be carried out to the letter, without fail, down to the last detail, understand?–just like he does when he sits down and starts rubbing it with lotions and fragrant oils to combat the foul odors that will eventually ruin it. You have to follow his orders in order to keep him happy and to keep him from going back to the kind of hotels frequented by foreign women whose legs you have taken photos of according to Claudio’s particular instructions and tastes, the only place where words flow out of him in sensuous detail, savoring each of the phrases that he sends aloft as if they were vultures who will return someday to devour his tongue and leave him trapped in the silence of the hotels that he liked to stay in so much because he’s convinced that they are a little piece of heaven, of that Paradise that Claudio tells the women about (he says it’s a miracle, that the words flow out of him like magic), making every effort to convince them to follow his instructions faithfully so he won’t have to leave the night that’s become his whole life, or the city he was once happy in, no doubt (Claudio doesn’t like dwelling on the past), before he met the Witch and later on found the leg, which is nothing to smile about as far as he’s concerned. You agree with him just to avoid trouble, hoping he’ll tell you more about what happened that night, or that morning, it doesn’t matter, when the leg, sick and tired of walking the streets and squares and putting up with foul caresses that stink of tobacco, of rum, of spit, finally found its guardian angel at the entrance of the hotel where Claudio had been working for the past few years drawing up plans and making calculations to counteract the Witch’s evil spells, she who swore to him that nothing would be forgotten, nothing, or trying to find the woman whose legs could give him what the Witch once promised she would give him forever and ever.

But it’s not just that this leg goes everywhere with him, bringing its pungent trail of strange odors (which are quite noticeable, even though Claudio swears that they’re only temporary), but that he keeps it beside his bed (to make sure it won’t try to escape)

But it’s not just that this leg goes everywhere with him, bringing its pungent trail of strange odors (which are quite noticeable, even though Claudio swears that they’re only temporary), but that he keeps it beside his bed (to make sure it won’t try to escape), and yet somehow I end up being the loser. The nights aren’t like they used to be. I can’t even sit back with a Mexican film & photo magazine, or watch television, nothing, because all of a sudden Claudio returns, shattering the tranquility, his footsteps clattering up and down the stairs like a crazy person, moaning louder and louder as if he were being tortured or if the devil himself were yanking out his entrails or his tongue. Claudio sounds so much like a suffering animal that you wonder if you should break down the door and rescue him, and bring him back to your apartment, back to the things he used to do to keep his mind off his fruitless searches or the shadow of the Witch (whose name will remain her secret forever); the problem is that this makes him feel so damn special you think about dynamiting the leg that he won’t even tell you anything about, not even its pet name, and fleeing before he turns you into an accomplice. Maybe that’s why I opted for silence, so that all the fears of persecution and other threats that come over him like a sudden cloudburst will slip away before I have the time to see him or picture him as what he probably is: a murderer, the kind who leaves no trace, the kind who could fool Philip Marlowe himself.

Claudio was always a good man. We got along well even though we didn’t come from the same womb. And of course he didn’t mind sharing the same floor of the building with me. In fact, I got along better with him than any roommate I’ve ever had. After the Witch abandoned him to his fate, he spent all of his time updating and perfecting his collection of photos of women’s legs (that’s why we got together). You rarely find yourself dealing with absolutes in this world, with genuine people whose souls are more or less unsullied, since it’s so hard to keep your soul from becoming a cesspool. That’s why, when he dared to insult you, you thought that all that giddiness was eating away at him, and the worst part was that you ended up being his enemy, a competitor for that tiny bit of Paradise that belonged to him alone and that leg whose odors, covered up with air fresheners and the incense he bought from the Hare-Krishna girls on Amazonas Avenue, and with aromatic baths, Arabian flower petals, and so many other herbs which, no matter how much he used them, couldn’t conceal the smell that you assumed others noticed as well, a foul odor that started to spread like a plague, like the shadow of the Witch, or the suspicion that Claudio was amusing himself with part of a cadaver. You asked him hesitantly how it came into his hands, because you couldn’t go on the way things were, with him sleeping like a groundhog all day long and spending his nights scurrying around (Claudio swore it was mice) without any regard for his sleeping neighbors, who complained every time the screams and howls came flying out of the windows into the night, and the worst part was that Claudio couldn’t even be bothered to explain what was going on, if he was just fooling around or if it was some kind of game he played to conjure up the faces and legs of the women that he had been endlessly seeking ever since the Witch had faded out of the picture. The problem with being left alone like that, during a time that he would prefer to forget, is that he swore to assemble, come hell or high water, a collection of the most unique and original legs he could find. You don’t know if he ever reached his goal. More likely he only got halfway there, since getting hold of a woman’s leg isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, and Claudio, like that Witch of his, knows it better than anybody.

Maybe the leg belongs to one of those cabaret dancers (Claudio tried to find out by going out with them), maybe that’s why the leg is so happy, and if he decided to give it a place to stay it was because he found it lying naked in the rain, all slimy, and he thought–as he had done with that Witch of his–that perhaps he could share his life with it. On top of that, the leg had come to him after he had dreamed about it, like a gift from on high, which was why he was so blissfully happy. He never stopped to consider that it might have been the result of a crime, of some act of revenge consummated in hotel rooms when husbands find their wives naked and sweating in the clutches of their worst enemy on a glorious Saturday afternoon. He brought it back with him because he thought that it was perfect, just like the ones he’d been waiting for so many years, just like the ones in the huge piles of photos where Claudio’s face looks like it’s wasting away from all the pain he’s kept inside to avoid being sneered at, but at least he no longer looks so alone, so betrayed.

Returning to the hotel where he works (he’s fascinated by the kind of decadent hotels that are far too numerous in the center of the city), he brings back nothing but nightmares that torment him until he finds himself in front of your favorite café or a TV set he can sit in front of and watch movies where the actresses are all legs that Claudio can touch just by closing his eyes and going to that place where his memories of that special time before the Witch leave him purified, like a young phoenix bird who doesn’t want its clumsy first attempt at rebirth interrupted, leaping over the hellish taunting that Claudio wanted to avoid about who it could have possibly belonged to: Most likely a dancer, he said, his words coming out in slow motion, who in one miraculous moment slipped on some red high heels like the dancers in Paris or in those bordellos where he promised to take you because there’s no better place to take disturbing photos than a bordello.

A dancer? Nothing to get alarmed about, even though she might interest him, mostly because he’s never really gotten along that well with dancers, or because his shameful condition was caused by one of those women who look so perfect on stage, always just beyond reach, dancers that you see again and again in your dreams, embroiled in such battles that raising the white flag (Claudio says he tried this with the Witch) is like asking an elm tree to grow mangos.

I doubt that Claudio’s dreams hold the key to whatever it is that turned him into a slave all of a sudden. When he’s got that big, stupid look on his face you feel like turning him in to the police, who would jump at the chance to fill the bloody pages of the tabloid newspapers with a story this juicy. You know that he doesn’t deserve to be turned in, for a lot of reasons, plus he trusts you so much that he’d kill himself if you did it. He’ll probably get caught because of his own mistakes, or because his “guest” needs more than his caresses and pampering to forget about its original owner; in the end nobody knows how the hell she treated it, what kind of life she led or what her face looked like, because if the leg didn’t miss her that’s because it felt fulfilled with Claudio, or at least more than just happy. Of course in your friend’s case, it would take more than a leg with a red spike heel and a shape that would bewitch just about anybody to make him happy. You say that because the average dancer’s leg isn’t as fine or as delicate as the one that Claudio (like the Witch’s legs at one time) is capable of inventing all kinds of glorious and blissful stories about, so that nobody learns the truth or finds out about the days when he feels the scorn flowing through his veins like arrows that leave him stupefied, like the morning you found him in that park where, supposedly, he was waiting for a woman (the Witch had suddenly promised to come back) with some strange and impossible name, even though women with such names are only found in the middle of the night, and admitting such an affair is like calling on God without having Him know what you’re doing. Right?

You tell yourself that at some point Claudio will get tired of the leg that urges him on every night like a thing possessed. The poor guy is as thin as a straw. He’s like a ghost who paces around the floor as if he’s incapable of vomiting up the words and telling you what’s bothering him. You think of this because he’s no longer talking about the leg with the same enthusiasm he had back when he shared his theories about the old days when women with such inexplicably perfect legs, like Marlene Dietrich or that Witch of his, who he keeps seeing reflected in the whores on 24th Street or on Mariscal Street, were displayed like original works of art. The poor guy’s lucky break doesn’t matter to him any more (you have to find out if it’s true or not, or if it’s just part of the web of suspicions that you’ve never been able to unravel). Ever since then he takes such bad care of himself that he doesn’t even shave anymore, or wear those suits that made him look like an English lord. You don’t know what he’s hiding from or running from, maybe a limping woman who looks a little bit like the Witch, lurking at the crossroads of his memories, and on every street corner, with a knife in her hand, ready to rip his eyes out one by one and slice off his ears as her way of collecting on the debt he owes for what he did: a woman with an indescribable face, something like the face of that ex-dancer, the one he left behind one fine day in a filthy hotel room with his theories and explanations about the importance of legs when it was time for understandings and caresses; but apparently Claudio couldn’t keep track of all the days he was supposed to bring her flowers, or the tenderness that he was supposed to show in easy daily doses so that this beauty would permit him–from afar, never from up close–to caress her legs with those polecat eyes that made him look like a puny creature that has learned to hide from the taunts and stares of others, sinking into the cobwebs of that night when finding himself with a missing body part seemed like a miraculous revelation, or the signs of a growing suspicion that Claudio can’t deny or refute and thus regain his innocence that the Witch (you hope to meet her some day) swore never to return to him, although at certain hours of the night, on the steps or in the hallway, the sound of a walking stick or some crutches drives Claudio to ask you to get rid of the photos, and the statues, and anything else that bears the slightest resemblance to a pair of legs, but no matter how many of them he curses as he’s throwing them out, no matter how many of them we wrap up in newspapers and blankets, they keep coming back to his room, like that night he came to wake you up, bubbling over with joy and endlessly repeating how heaven had finally answered his prayers.

— Raúl Serrano Sánchez. Translated from the Spanish by Kenneth Wishnia.

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