Two Sketches

JUAN JOSÉ ARREOLA, born in Zapotlán in the state of Jalisco in 1918, is the author of two collections of short stories,a play, and a novel. He is a versatile writer who handles themes of tragedy and comedy in a style that a Mexican literary critic has called “as precise as a game of chess ”


THERE’S a plaza in Zapotlán that’s called the Ameca Plaza, no one knows why. A broad, stone-paved street leads into it and then divides into two. It’s the same street that leads out in the other direction to the cornfields.

That’s the Ameca Plaza, with its eight corners and its houses with their great wooden doors. On a certain afternoon, many years ago, two rivals met there. But there was a girl between them.

The wagons rumble through the plaza all day long, and their wheels grind the dust in the ruts till it’s finer than flour. The dust stings your eyes whenever the wind blows. There used to be a water trough in the plaza, with bronze faucets and a stone basin.

The girl arrived first, coming down the street that divides into two, with her red pottery water jar on her shoulder. The rivals came up the two streets on either side, without suspecting they’d meet each other at the juncture. It was as if all three were ioilowing the map of fate, each on his own street.

The girl turned on one of the faucets. At the same moment the two men saw each other and knew that they were rivals. The streets joined there, and neither man wanted to come forward. They stood glaring at each other, and neither one would lower his eyes.

“What are you looking at, my friend?”

“There’s nothing wrong in looking.”

Perhaps they said this without speaking. Perhaps their looks said it instead. The plaza was empty at that moment except for the two men and the girl. It was as if the neighbors had kept away on purpose.

The stream of water was tilling the water jar, and at the same time it was filling the two rivals with the desire to fight. It was the only sound that disturbed the silence. The girl turned oil’ the faucet when she saw the jar was overflowing. She lifted the jar onto her shoulder and turned away, so frightened that she almost ran.

The rivals were on the verge of attacking each other, like gamecocks just before they’re loosed, and their eyes were fierce black points. The girl hurried toward the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Suddenly she stumbled, and the water jar shattered on the pavement.

That was the signal. One oi the rivals had a dagger, but it was this long, and the other had a machete. They stabbed and slashed at each other, shielding themselves a little with their sarapes. There wasn’t any sign of the girl except that puddle of spilled water, and the two men fought over the broken bits of the jar.

Both of them were brave and skillful, like good gamecocks. When it was all over they both lay face up, one with his throat slashed, the other with his head cut open. One of them was still breathing.

A little later the plaza was crowded with people, and the women began to pray. One of the rivals was still able to murmur something; he asked, “Did I get him too?”

The word got around afterward that they’d fought over a girl. The girl with the water jar was blamed for the fight. They say she never married. Even if she’d gone to Jilotlán de los Dolores to live, her bad name as a flirt would have got there before she did.


JUAN TEPANO, first Elder, is working in the fields with all his people. With all his people who are owners of the land and work it day in, day out for others. They’re full of hope right now, as if they were going to plant it next year for their own use.

Juan Tepano, first Elder, is contented. He recites a few verses and old sayings. Bits of a Christmas play. Then he dances a few steps of the Dance of the Rattles. And when he sees Layo aiming his shotgun at a crow, he speaks to him about it.

The crows go flying through the cornfields, cawing over the furrows. They stop and peck at the ground as if they were hunting for something.

“Don’t shoot at the crows, Layo. Just scare them away. They’re Christians like us, and they don’t do any harm to the fields. They just keep hunting and hunting among the furrows. They’re hunting for kernels of corn. As if they remembered where they buried them and then forgot again.”

It’s time to eat, and the workers are gathered around the fire, heating up their food. They put some jerked beef and some tripe over the fire to eat with their tortillas. They eat slowly, in the shadow of a tree, while the oxen walk down to the spring and then rest.

“Just scare them, don’t shoot them. The crows arc like you and me. They’re sorry about what they did, so now they keep hunting and hunting for what they ate on the way, the time they came flying back at night, each one with a kernel in his bill. Poor things, it isn’t their fault they couldn’t resist the temptation. None of you remember it, but the crows brought the corn back to Zapotlan after the people of Sayula, Autlan, Amula, and Tamazula took it away from us. They all came here and took our corn away. Out of sheer jealousy, because ours was better than theirs. It grows better here than anywhere else, and that’s why our land was called Tlayolan, which means that corn is our way of life. But all our neighbors started attacking us. First they took our salt away; then they took our corn away, all of it, without leaving us even a single kernel we could plant. And they built a wall around their fields and guarded all the gates so no one could get in. That’s why Tlayolan was called Zapotlan, because we didn’t eat corn anymore; we ate zapotes and cherimoyas, calabazas and inesquites. We grew so weak that we couldn’t fight. But we had a king and his totem was a crow. He could turn himself into a crow anytime he wanted to, because of the ancient powers of Topiltzin and Ometecutli. Our king turned himself into a crow and went flying over the other people’s fields, along with the crows of Sayula, Autlán, Amula, and Tamazula. And he saw they were all planted with the corn that was taken away from us. And since his totem was a crow, he knew that crows hunt for things and then hide them. So he used the ancient powers of Topiltzin and Ometecutli and taught all of us how to turn ourselves into crows. And one year we cleared our fields because they were full of weeds and scrub. We cleared and plowed them as if we had corn to plant in them. And when the rains began we turned ourselves into crows at sunset and went flying away to hunt for the corn that the people of Sayula, Autlan, Amula, and Tamazula had planted in their fields. Every one of us came back with a kernel of corn in his bill, to hide it in the fields in Zapotlán. But since it was hard work to find the kernels and we were all anxious to eat corn again, our Crow King said that anyone who swallowed his kernel would have to be a crow forever, flying over the fields and cawing, always hunting for the hidden kernels. And a lot of them couldn’t resist, so they swallowed their kernel instead of planting it in our fields. So they never again became human beings like us.

“Don’t shoot at the crows with your shotgun, Layo. They brought the corn back to Zapotlan. And the ones that couldn’t resist the temptation, they weren’t to blame. They wanted to cat something else because they were sick of eating zapotes and cherimoyas, calabazas and inesquites. That’s why they’re still flying over the fields.

“The people of Sayula, Autlán, Amula, and Tamazula found out we were harvesting corn without planting any, because we didn’t have any to plant, and the corn they planted themselves didn’t come up, so they made peace with us, and let us go to the salt flats in Zacoalco to get our salt.”

Juan Tepano, first Elder, is as contented this year as if the fields had been given back to him and all his people. He sings bits of a hymn and recites verses and old sayings. He dances a few dance steps. At mealtimes he tells a story. And when he sees a crow fly over the ashes of the fire, cawing, he laughs and shades his eyes with his hand and says, “Look, Layo, there’s another Christian flying by.”

Translated by Lysander Kemp.