by Jorge Luis Borges
They say (improbably enough) that the story was told by Eduardo, the younger of the Nelsons, at the wake for Cristián, the elder, who died of natural causes around 1890 in the district of Morón. What is certain is that someone heard it from someone else in the course of that long and lost night, amidst numerous matés, and repeated it to Santiago Dabove, from whom I heard it. Years later it was told to me again in Turdera, where it had taken place. The second version, somewhat more lengthy, generally substantiated Santiago’s, with the slight variations and divergences which are to be expected. I am writing it down now because in it, if I am not mistaken, one may discern a brief and tragic mirror of the nature of the orilleros of former times. I shall do this with all honesty, but I already foresee that I shall give in to the literary temptation of stressing or inserting some detail or other.
In Turdera they called them the Nilsens. The parish priest told me that his predecessor, not without some surprise, recalled having seen in the house of these people a worn Bible, bound in black and with Gothic characters; on the pages at the back he glimpsed handwritten names and dates. It was the only book in the house. The meandering chronicle of the Nilsens, lost as everything will be lost. The large house, which no longer stands, was built of unplastered brick; from the entryway could be seen one patio with reddish floor tiles and another of dirt. Few persons, moreover, gained entry there; the Nilsens protected their solitude. In the meagerly furnished rooms they slept on cots; their luxuries were horses, fine riding gear, the short-bladed knife, the ostentatious pomp of Saturday nights, and quarrelsome drink. I know they were tall, with red hair. Denmark or Ireland, which they had perhaps never heard of, flowed in the blood of those two criollos. The neighborhood feared the Redheads; it is not unlikely that each had killed his man. Once, shoulder to shoulder, they fought the police. It is said that the younger one had a run-in with Juan Iberra in which he did not come out second, a feat which, according to informed opinion, is of no mean consequence. They were herders, mounted road patrollers, cattle thieves, and on occasion, gamblers. They had a reputation for being tightfished, except when drinking and gambling made them generous. No one knows anything about their family, not even where they came from. They owned a cart and a yoke of oxen.
Physically they were different from the halfbreeds who gave the Costa Brava its fierce nickname. This, plus other things we are not aware of, helps in understanding how close they were to one another. Cross one of them, and you ended up with two enemies.
The Nilsens were fond of women, but their amorous episodes up until that time had occurred in entryways and brothels. For that reason, there was no end to speculations when Cristián brought Juliana Burgos home with him. It was quite true that in this way he gained a servant, but it is no less true that he lavished on her gaudy trinkets and showed her off at parties - at the shabby tenement-house parties where several of the more daring dance steps were forbidden and where the dancing partners still had to keep a certain amount of daylight between themselves. Juliana was darkskinned and wide-eyed; one need only look at her, and she would smile back. For a poor part of town where work and neglect took their toll on the women, she was not bad-looking.
Eduardo used to go out with them at first. Then he set off on some sort of business trip to Arrecifes; on his return he brought with him a girl he had picked up on the road, and after a few days he threw her out. He turned more sullen; he got drunk alone at the store and had not a word for anyone. He was in love with Cristián’s woman. The neighborhood, which perhaps knew this before he did, foresaw with perfidious joy the latent rivalry of the brothers.
One night, returning from the corner store, Eduardo saw Cristián’s dark horse tied to the hitching post. In the patio the older brother was waiting for him, dressed in his best clothes. The woman was coming and going with the maté in her hand. Cristián said to Eduardo: “I’m going to a brawl at the Farías’ place. Here’s Juliana; if you want her, use her.”
His tone was half-bossy, half-cordial. Eduardo stood looking at him for a moment; he didn’t know what to do. Cristián got up, said good-bye to Eduardo, not to Juliana, who was a thing, mounted his horse, and went ofF at a trot, unhurriedly.
From that night on they shared her. No one will know the details of that sordid union, which outraged the decency of the slums. The arrangement went on for a few weeks, but it could not last. In each other’s presence the brothers did not utter Juliana’s name, not even to call her, and they sought out and found reasons for being at odds. They argued over the sale of some hides, but what they were arguing about was something else. Cristián would raise his voice, and Eduardo would remain silent. Without realizing it, they were watching each other closely. In the rough suburbs a man didn’t say, nor would he admit to himself, that a woman could matter to him, beyond lust and possession, but the two of them were in love with her. This, in some way, humiliated them.
One afternoon, in the square in Lomas, Eduardo ran into Juan Iberra, who congratulated him for the beauty he had latched onto. It was then, I think, that Eduardo insulted him. No one, in his presence, was going to make a joke at Cristián’s expense.
The woman waited on them with an animallike submission, but she could not hide a certain preference, doubtless for the younger brother, who had not refused the sharing of her but who had not proposed it.
One day they ordered Juliana to bring two chairs out to the first patio and then go off because they had something to discuss. She expected a long talk and lay down to have a nap, but soon they wakened her. They had her fill a bag with everything she owned, including the glass rosary and the little cross her mother had left her. Without a word of explanation they set off on a silent and tedious journey. It had rained; the roads were very bad, and it must have been eleven o’clock at night when they arrived in Morón. There they sold her to the proprietress of the brothel. The deal had already been arranged; Cristián collected the sum and then divided it with his brother.
In Turdera the Nilsens, caught up until then in the entanglement (which was also a routine) of that monstrous love, tried to resume their former life of men among men. They went back to cardplaying, to the cockpit, to the casual sprees. Perhaps at some moment they thought they had freed themselves, but they fell into the habit, each one by himself, of unjustified or only too justified absences. Shortly before the end of the year, the younger brother said he had some business in Buenos Aires. Cristián went to Morón; at the hitching post outside the house that we know he recognized Eduardo’s horse. He went in; the other brother was inside, waiting his turn. It appears that Cristián said to him: “If we keep this up, we’ll wear out the horses. It would be better if we kept her near at hand.”
He spoke to the proprietress, removed some coins from his money belt, and they took her away. Juliana went with Cristián; Eduardo spurred on his horse so as not to see them.
They went back to what has been already described. The infamous solution had failed; they both had given in to the temptation to deceive. Cain was lurking about here, but the affection between the Nilsens was very great — who knows what trials and perils they had shared! — and they preferred to give vent to their exasperation elsewhere. With a stranger, with the dogs, with Juliana, who had started the trouble.
The month of March had nearly ended, and the heat was unrelenting. One Sunday (on Sundays people customarily went to bed early) Eduardo on returning from the store saw Cristián yoking the oxen. Cristián said to him: “Come on; we have to drop some hides off at Pardo’s. I’ve got them loaded already; let’s get going while it’s still cool.”
Pardo’s store was located, I think, further to the south; they went by way of the Camino de la Tropa; then they turned down a side road. The plain was growing larger with the night.
They came alongside a field grown over with tall grass. Cristián threw down the cigarette he had lit, and said unhurriedly: “Let’s get to work, brother. The buzzards will help us out later on. I killed her today. Let her stay here with her belongings, she won’t do anyone any more harm.”
They embraced, almost weeping. Now they were bound by one more link: the sadly sacrificed woman and the obligation to forget her.
Translated by Donald A. Yates