The Hill of the Comadres

JUAN RULFO, one of Mexico’s most gifted writers of fiction, has won international recognition through translation of his work into English,French, Italian,German,Czech, and Swedish. His novel PEDRO PÁRAMO has been published in an American edition by Grove Press, and his collection of short stories EL LLANO EN LLAMAS, from which we have selected the story that follows,is considered a contemporary classic in Mexico. Mr. Rulfo was born in Sayula in the slate of Jalisco in 1918.

by Juan Rulfo

THE Torricos, the ones that died, were always good friends of mine. Perhaps they weren’t liked in Zapotlán. but speaking for myself they were always good friends, up till just before their death. Besides, it doesn’t mean a thing if they weren’t liked in Zapotián, because I wasn’t liked there either, and none of us who lived at the Hill of the Comadres ever had any use for the people of Zapotián. That’s how it’s been from way back.

It’s also true that the Torricos never got along with anybody at the Hill of the Comadres. There was always some kind of quarrel. The Torricos owned the land and the houses on the land and everything, even though the biggest part of the Hill of the Comadres was divided up equally among the sixty of us who lived there. The Torricos just had a piece of the hill and a maguey held, that’s all, but since most of the houses were on their land, the Hill of the Comadres belonged to the Torricos. The field I worked belonged to them too, it belonged to Odilón and Remigio Torrico, and also the fields down below, a dozen and a half of them. There wasn’t any need to investigate all this. Everybody knew it was so.

But little by little the people started leaving the Hill of the Comadres. Somebody would just go away; he’d just cross the stone wall near the tall tree there and walk straight ahead into the scrub oaks and then wouldn’t come back. The people just went away.

I wanted to find out what was keeping them there on the other side of the hills and wouldn’t let them come back, but I liked the Hill, and I was a good friend of the Torricos.

The field where I grew my corn and beans was high up on the Hill, up where it slopes into the biggully they call the Bull’s Head.

It wasn’t such a bad field, but when the rains started it got muddy, and it was full of hard, sharpedged rocks like tree stumps, and every year it seemed as if they got bigger. Even so, I could grow good corn there, and the ears I got were as sweet as you’d want. The Torricos always had to have salt from the salt flats on everything they ate, but they didn’t need it on my corn. They didn’t even mention using salt on the corn I grew at the Bull’s Head.

In spite of all this, in spite of the fact that the fields down below were even better, the people kept on leaving. They didn’t go toward Zapotián, they went in the other direction, where the wind keeps bringing the smell of the scrub oaks and the sounds of the mountain. They went away with their mouths shut, without saying anything and without any fighting. It’s certain they wanted to fight with the Torricos, on account of all the bad things they’d done to them, but they didn’t have the heart for it. I know that that’s what happened.

Even after the Torricos died, nobody ever came back. I was waiting for them, but none of them ever came back. At first I looked after their houses: I mended the roofs and put branches in the holes in the walls. But when I saw they weren’t coming back I didn’t bother anymore. The only things that kept coming back were the rainstorms in the middle of the year and those winds that always blow in February, the ones that almost tear your sarape off your back. Now and then the crows would come here too. flying close to the ground and cawing in loud voices, as if they thought the place was deserted.

So that’s how things went on even after the death of the Torricos.

Before, when you sat where I’m sitting now, you could see Zapotlán as clear as anything. Day or night you could see the big white spot that Zapotlan used to make off there in the distance. But now the jarillas have grown up so thick that even if the wind moves them back and forth, you still can’t see anything at all.

[ remember how it used to be, when the Torricos came up here too and would squat for hours and hours until it got dark, looking down without getting tired, as if this place gave them ideas or made them want to visit Zapotlán. I didn’t know till later that they weren’t thinking about that. All they did was look at the road, the wide sandy lane you could follow with your eyes from where it started to where it disappeared in the ocote trees, over there on the hill they call the Half-moon.

I never knew anybody who could see as far as Remigio Torrico. He had only one eye, and it was dark and half shut, but it seemed to bring things so close that he almost had them right in his hands. It didn’t matter what was going along on the road, he always knew what it was. So when his good eye lit up, when it had something good to look at, the two Torricos ran down from their lookout and stayed away from the Hill of the Comadres for a while.

Those were the times when everything was different with us here. The people brought their animals out of the caves and tethered them in their yards. Then you knew they owned sheep and turkeys. And it was easy to see how many piles of corn and yellow squashes were sunning in their patios. The wind that came over the hills was colder than usual, but everybody said — I don’t know why — that the weather was fine. You could hear the roosters crowing at dawn, the same as in any other quiet place, and that made it seem as if everything had always been peaceful at the Hill of the Comadres.

Then the Torricos came back. You could tell they were coming long before they got here, because their dogs would go racing out to meet them, barking all the way. Everybody could figure out when they’d get here, and what way they were coming from, just by that barking. Then the people hurried up and hid their belongings again. That was the kind of fear the Torricos brought with them when they came back to the Hill of the Comadres.

But I was never afraid of them myself. I was a good friend of both of them, and sometimes I wished I wasn’t so old so I could take part in what they were doing. But I wasn’t much use anymore. I could tell I wasn’t on the night I went out to help them rob a mule driver. I could tell I was lacking something. It was as if my life had wasted away and couldn’t stand any more strain. I could tell it that night.

It was about the middle of the rainy season, and the Torricos invited me to help them bring back some bundles ol sugar. I was a little surprised. First of all because it was pouring, one of those storms when the rain seems to wash the ground out from under your feet. Also because I didn’t know where we were going. And that’s when I could tell I wasn’t fit to go rambling anymore.

The Torricos said the place wasn’t very far. “We’ll be there in a quarter of an hour,” they said. But when we got to the road to the Half-moon it was already dark, and by the time we got to where the mule driver was the night was well along.

The mule driver didn’t get up to see who was coming. He must have been waiting for the Torricos all along, and it didn’t surprise him to see us get there. That’s what I thought, anyway. But during the whole time we were carting those bundles of sugar back and forth the mule driver didn’t move a finger; he just sprawled there in the weeds. I mentioned this to the Torricos. “That one that’s lying down over there, I think he’s dead or something.”

“No,”they said, “he’s probably just asleep. We left him here to watch, but he must have got tired of waiting and fallen asleep.”

I went over and kicked him in the ribs to wake him up, but he just went on lying there.

“He’s dead, all right,” I told them.

“Don’t you believe it. He may be a little dazed, because Odilón had to hit him on the head with a piece of wood, but he’ll get up later. When the sun comes up and he starts feeling a little warmer, he’ll jump up and go straight home. Look, grab that other bundle and let’s get out of here.” And that’s all they told me.

I gave the dead man a last kick, and it sounded just as if I’d kicked a hollow log. Then I hoisted the bundle onto my shoulders and came back in the lead. The Torricos came back behind me. I could hear them singing for a long while, almost up until daybreak. But then I couldn’t hear them anymore. There’s a wind that always comes up just before daybreak, and it took their song away. I didn’t know they were still following me until I heard their dogs barking all around.

That’s how I know what the Torricos were looking for when they sat by my house on the Hill of the Co mad res.

I killed Remigio Torrico.

By that time most of the people had already gone. At first they left one by one. but toward the end they left in a crowd. They just packed up and lef t, before the cold weather got here. I remember all the years when the cold weather ruined the crops in just one night. It was the same that year, and that’s why they left. They must have thought it was going to be the same all over again, and they didn’t want to go on putting up with the bad weather almost every year and the Torricos almost all the time.

So when I killed Remigio Torrico, the Hill of the Comadres was empty, and so were the lands around it.

This must have happened in October. I remember there was a full moon, because I was sitting outside my house when Torrico arrived. The moon was so bright that I was sewing up the holes in one of my sacks.

He must have been drunk. He stood in front of me and swayed back and forth, blocking and unblocking the light I needed for my work.

“It isn’t right to behave that way,” he told me after a long while. “I like to keep things straight, and if you don’t like to, that’s your bad luck, because I’m here to straighten them out.”

I went on mending my sack. I was giving all my attention to sewing up the holes, and the big long pack needle worked very well whenever the moonlight shone on it. Probably that’s why he thought I wasn’t listening to what he said.

“I’m talking to you!” he shouted at me. He was angry now. “You know damned well why I’m here.”

I felt a little scared when he came up close and almost shouted that in my ear. But I tried to see his face to find out how angry he was, and I kept on looking at him as if I was asking him why he’d come.

That worked all right. He calmed down a little and said that with people like me you had to catch them off their guard.

“My throat gets dry,” he said, “talking to you after what you did. He was as good a friend of mine as he was of yours, and that’s the only reason I’ve come to see you, to find out how you explain how Odilón died.”

I was listening to him carefully. I put the sack down and sat listening to him without doing anything else. I knew that he blamed me for having killed his brother, but I didn’t do it. I remembered who did do it, and I’d have told him except that he didn’t give me a chance.

“Odilón and I used to fight a lot,” he was saying. “Odilón was kind of thickheaded, and he liked to argue with everybody, but it didn’t go beyond that. You could calm him down by just hitting him a few times. And that’s what I want to know: if he said something to you. or tried to take something away from you, or what really happened. Maybe he wanted to beat you up and you got ahead of him. Something like that must have happened.”

I shook my head to tell him No, I didn’t have anything to do with it.

“Listen,” Torrico said. “Odilon had fourteen pesos in his shirt pocket that day. When I went for him I searched his pockets and I couldn’t find those fourteen pesos. Then yesterday I heard you bought a new blanket.”

That was true, I did buy a blanket. I knew the cold weather was coining, and my overcoat was all lull of holes, so 1 went to Zapotlan to buy a blanket. But I sold two goats to pay for it; I didn’t pay for it with the fourteen pesos. He could have seen that if the sack was full of holes, that was because I had to carry the smaller goat in it, because it was still too young to walk as fast as I wanted it to.

“You might as well know, once and for all. I’m going to pay back what they did to Odilón, no matter who it was that killed him. And I know who killed him.” He was right on top of me when he said that.

“And you think I did it?” I asked him.

“Who else? Odilon and I were good-for-nothings, and I don’t say we didn’t get around to killing people sometimes, but we never did it for so little money. That’s what I want to tell you.”

The big October moon was flooding the yard with light, and it cast Remigio’s shadow against the wall of my house. I saw him move away from me toward the tejocote tree, and I noticed that he grabbed the machete I always had hanging there. Then I saw him coming back with the machete in his hand.

But while he was out of my light the moon glittered on the pack needle I’d stuck in the sack. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden I began to have a lot of faith in that pack needle, so when Remigio Torrico came up to me I pulled it out and just jabbed it into him right next to his navel, without waiting for anything else. I jabbed it in as far as it would go, and left it there.

Remigio bent over as if he had the colic, and started to collapse onto his hams, little by little, until finally he was sitting on the ground. I could see the fear and surprise in his one good eye.

For a moment I thought he was going to get up and hit me with the machete, but he either changed his mind or didn’t know how to do it, because he let go of it and bent over again. That’s all he did.

Then I saw he was beginning to look unhappy, as if he’d been taken sick. I hadn’t seen such a pitiful look in years, and that’s why I felt sorry lor him. I took the pack needle out of his stomach and jabbed it in a little higher up. up there where I thought his heart was. And I was right, it was there, because he just gave two or three kicks like a rooster when you’ve chopped its head off and then lay still.

He must have been dead when I told him: “Look, Remigio, you’ll have to excuse me, but I didn’t kill Odilón. It was the Alcaraces. I was around when he died, but I remember perfectly well that I didn’t kill him. It was the Alcaraces, the whole family. They all jumped on him together, and by the time I knew what happened, Odilon was dying. Do you know why? In the first place, Odilón never should have gone to Zapotlán. You know that yourself. Sooner or later something had to happen to him there, because so many people remembered all about him. The Alcaraces didn’t like him either. You don’t know any better than I do why he got mixed up with them.

“It happened all of a sudden. I’d just finished buying my sarape and I was going to come back when your brother spit a mouthful of tequilla into the face of one of the Alcaraces. He did it as a joke. You could tell it was just a joke because it made everybody laugh. The trouble is, they were all drunk, Odilón and the Alcaraces and everybody. So they jumped on him. They pulled out their knives and jumped on him, and by the time they were finished, Odilón wasn’t worth anything at all. He died a little bit later.

“So you see, I wasn’t the one that killed him. You’ve got to understand very clearly that I didn’t have anything to do with it at all.”

That’s what I said to Remigio after he died.

When I came back to the Hill of the Comadres with my empty harvest basket, the moon was already down behind the scrub oaks. I dipped it in the stream a few times before putting it away, so as to wash off the blood. I had to use it for other things, and I didn’t want to keep seeing Remigio’s bloodstains every little while.

I remember that all this happened in October, during the fiesta in Zapotlán. I say I remember because that was when they were shooting off skyrockets in Zapotlán, and every time one of the rockets exploded, a whole flock of buzzards flew up from the place where I dumped Remigio.

That’s what I remember.

Translated by Lysander Kemp.