In Another Country

A story by Wright Morris

Madrid was so dim and sulfurous with smog that Carolyn wrote letters to five museum directors, urging them to save the paintings in the Prado while there was still time. Paintings were what Carolyn had come to see. but she actually found it hard with her eyes smarting, her sinuses clogged. Ralph had come to Spain to see Ronda, where they had once planned to honeymoon. Ralph had stumbled on it in Hemingway’s bull book as the place a man should go when he bolted with a woman. They had not bolted, but Ralph had always wondered what they had missed, so now they would see. They took a plane to Seville, rented a car, and the same day drove to Arcos de la Frontera, a place hardly on the map but so fabulous Carolyn didn’t want to leave. Wasn’t it a commonplace that people didn’t know when to stop? Carolyn did, and she had the premonition that after Arcos, anything would be a letdown. They might not have gone on, Carolyn feeling the way she did, if there had been a room for them in Arcos, but the small parador was full of English dames from the nineteenth century, one, surely, from the eighteenth century, who received their advice and encouragement through a tubashaped ear horn. A room had been found at a nearby resort, put up in a rush to meet the tourist traffic, the cabins so new the paint seemed sticky, and the sheets on their beds actually proved to be damp.

Carolyn had nearly died, and to keep her from freezing they shared a bed no larger than a cot. Moored at the pier on the artificial lake was a miniature paddle-wheel steamboat, with the word “Mississippi” painted on the prow. It had been too much. Nevertheless, once they were up and had had breakfast, Carolyn had this feeling that Ronda would disappoint them, the view from Arcos being one that nothing could top. Why didn’t they just act smart for once and fly to Barcelona and see the Gaudis? Even Ralph liked the Gaudis, or anything you couldn’t get into a museum. Why didn’t they compromise, Ralph said, and go to Barcelona if Ronda let them down? They might, anyway, if Carolyn’s chill turned out to be a cold, which she would rather come down with in Barcelona where they had the name of an American dentist. Whenever they traveled, she lost fillings and gained weight.

A windless spring day, their drive to Ronda was so fabulous it made them both apprehensive. Birds sang, water rippled, the bells on grazing sheep chimed in the distance every time Ralph stopped the car and somewhat frantically took pictures. Was there no end of it? Each time they stopped Carolyn would cry, “Why don’t we stop here!” It was a good question, and Ralph explained how the Mormons had faced the same dilemma as they traveled west. Carolyn found the parallel farfetched but agreed she might feel differently about it if she had been raised in the Midwest rather than in the East. Ralph was romantic in a way Carolyn wasn’t and took the statements of writers personally, following their suggestions to bolt to Ronda, and what to eat and drink. Of course, she liked that about him, up to a point. Over the winter he had read all the books about Spain and tried to persuade her they should travel with a donkey, Spain being the one place in the world a stranger was safe. If it was so gorgeous, Carolyn asked him, why had his great Mr. Hemingway left it? Ralph thought it had something to do with their civil war. In a gas station on the outskirts of Cordoba the gas attendant had thrown his arms around Ralph, and given him a big hug. He had confused him with some American he had known in the war. It had been difficult for Ralph to persuade him to accept money for the gas. Loyalties of that sort were very touching, and at the same time disturbing. If there had been a war to go to, Ralph would have been tempted to enlist.

This morning the slopes of the mountains were green right up to where the granite shimmered like a sunning lizard. In everything Ralph saw, there was some Hemingway. Admittedly, the bottle of wine he had drunk the most of also helped. Carolyn was more enchanted by the whitewashed villas in the patterned rows of olive trees. But Carolyn was a realist. She knew what they were like inside. While they sat eating lunch, a man with his ox plowed a jagged furrow maybe forty yards long, frequently pausing to glance at the sky, his own shadow, or nothing at all. Waiting for him to reach the end of the row was a strain for Ralph. He was too much of a Peace Corps pilgrim at heart to watch a man kill time like that. If he was going to plow, let him plow and get on with it. One of Ralph’s forebears combined spring plowing with memorizing passages from the Bible, which replenished the stories he would tell his family all winter. The Bible he had carried in his pocket was one of Ralph’s treasured possessions. Here in this earthly paradise the man seemed lower on the scale than the grazing sheep, with their tinkling bells, or the hog, hobbled in the yard, surrounded by grass plucked that morning.

Carolyn found such dilemmas boring. Couldn’t he accept things as they were, and not think so much? The blazing light had brought on one of her headaches, not a little aggravated by the sight of him brooding. She sat in the car while he took more pictures. Even as he did, his pleasure in it was diminished by the knowledge that Carolyn would argue with him about the slides. In her opinion he forgot where he had been, she did not. “To hear Ralph,” she would say, “you would think I hadn’t been on the trip!” Actually, it was true in a way she would never admit. Those walks Ralph took while Carolyn napped were often the source of his finest shots. “I’m sure he bought that one somewhere,” she would say, “I never saw such a place.”

These depressing reflections, like Carolyn’s headaches, often occurred on those days that “were out of this world,” and indicated that they both suffered from too much light. In such euphoric situations they helped Ralph keep his feet on the ground. When he came back to the car, it was surrounded by sheep and Carolyn had run her window up for protection. He could see Carolyn speaking to him, but the bleating of the lambs drowned out what she said. Ralph was disturbed, as he was so often, by the meaning of a scene that seemed to escape him, just as her open mouth spoke words to him that he failed to hear. In this instance she would accuse him of thinking more of his silly pictures than of her safety, using as his excuse this talk about how safe it was in Spain. Carolyn didn’t mean these things, she simply found it a relief to talk.

As they climbed toward Ronda, Ralph tried to recall some of the high points of Hemingway’s description, but it seemed to be a large impression made up of very few details. That was the art of it. If the gorge he spoke about was a mile deep, it meant the city itself would be a mile high. There was a possibility that Carolyn, who was sensitive to heights, might feel a bit queasy and not want to eat. The actual approach was not at all exciting, but it freshly prepared them for the view from the window of their hotel. Absolutely dazzling: Carolyn stepped back from it with a gasp. Ralph took a roll of shots right there in the room so she would be able to enjoy the view later, safe at home. The altitude left Carolyn bushed, however, and she settled for a nap while Ralph peered around. Three busloads of German tourists— in buses so huge Ralph marveled how they had ever got up there—crowded the aisles of the small gift shop and gathered in clusters in the patio garden. Many of them, like Carolyn and Ralph, had come to Ronda with a purpose, which was why one saw them huddled in silence before the lifesize statue of Rilke. That in itself surprised Ralph. What had ever brought Rilke to a place like this? He was one of the people Carolyn read and liked so much better than Mr. Hemingway. Rilke would never think of bolting with anybody to such a public spectacle. Ralph’s pleasure at the thought of informing Carolyn that her sensitive poet had his statue in the garden was diminished by the fact that he had come here thirteen years before Ralph had been born, and ahead of Hemingway. Ronda was an old tourist mecca, really, and the English and Germans had been coming here for ages. How had Hemingway convinced him he had more or less discovered it?

When the Germans had departed, Ralph had the garden and the view to himself. More than a mile below, lamplight glowed in the windows of the farmhouses. It was like another country, cut off and remote from the one on the rim. Down there it had been dark for an hour or more; here where Ralph stood, the sun flamed on the windows. Ralph took a picture of the one behind which Carolyn slept. It would be hard for her to refute something like that. Several wide brick paths crisscrossed the garden, and one went along the rim, with bays for viewing. In every direction the prospect seemed staggering. In their first years of marriage Ralph had schemed to get Carolyn, somehow, to Arizona, and by stealth, driving at night, up to Bright Angel Lodge on the rim of the Canyon. In the morning she would wake up to face that awesome sight. Her own feeling was that she had come too late for great spectacles. Fellini movies and travel pictures had spoiled it for her. Ralph couldn’t seem to understand that actually being there, under these circumstances, merely led to a letdown. She would just as soon miss whatever it was as feel something like that.

The path Ralph followed ended so abruptly that he found himself facing a high cable fence, while still preoccupied with his reflections. The two wings of the gate were locked with a chain, but Ralph could see that the path still continued. Weeds grew over it now, and the wall along the rim had breaks here and there that made it dangerous, but in Hemingway’s time—not to mention Rilke’s—people who came to Ronda did not stop at this fence. They had not come all this way to be fenced in. The tourist walked in those days, he was known as a traveler, and he did not climb from a bus to sit in a bar, or spend a frenzied half hour in the gift shop. He got out and looked around. He wanted his money’s worth. Ralph was not so crass, but he had not come to Ronda to peer through a fence. He had not come with that in mind, but as so often happened, that was what he was doing, his fingers hooked in the wires, his eyes at one of the holes. Otherwise he would never have noticed the figure seated on the wall some fifty yards ahead. It was warm there. The sun, in fact, had moved from his lap to his chest and shoulders. He seemed to sit for the portrait that Ralph would like to take. He wore the wide-wale corduroy, with the comfortably loose jacket, the pockets large, the back belted, that Ralph had seen on men he judged to be grounds keepers, guides, watchmen, or whatever. He gave Ralph a nod and a quick smile—free of all “at your service” intimations. Like Ralph, he was a man enjoying the scene. Ralph also thought him so rustically handsome he would like to have a shot of him for Carolyn. Among other things, it would give the scene scale. On second thought it crossed his mind that just such a picture might be available in the hotel lobby. The fellow held a stick, or a cane, in such a manner one knew it was part of his habit, tapping it idly on the hobnailed sole of his boot.

When Ralph remained at the fence, as if expecting to enter, the man rose and came toward him, flicking the weeds with his stick. He greeted Ralph in Spanish. and as if he had been asked, unlocked the chain that closed the gate. He then gestured—in the manner of a man who works with children, or clusters of tourists—for Ralph to come along with him. Concealed beneath the overgrowth was a hard stone path that he followed out of long habit, his eyes up ahead. Ralph trailed along behind him, rising slowly to an elevation once cleared but now strewn with boulders from collapsed walls. The view from here—at this hour of the day—looked south along the canyon like the sea’s bottom, the upper slopes flaming with a light like the glow from a furnace door. Where had Ralph seen it before? In the inferno paintings of Brueghel and Bosch. At once, that is, indescribable and terrifying. Ralph had no word for it, and apparently none was expected. His companion stood, dyed in the same flaming color, facing what appeared to be left the instant following the act of creation, while the earth still cooled. Swallows nested in the cliffs, and their cries could be heard, changing in pitch as they shifted direction. Their flight on the sky was like fine scratches on film. After a moment of silence the man turned his head and appeared to be surprised that Ralph merely stood there. His eye moved from his face to the camera on his chest.

“No pictures?”

Smilingly, Ralph shrugged. Wasn’t it almost impertinent to think that anything but the eye might catch it? The canyon had darkened even as they stood there, as if filling with an inky fluid, rising on the slopes. At the bottom a sinuous road was the exact metallic color of the sky, like the belly of a snake. No, Ralph was not so foolish as to believe he could catch it on film. His companion, however, was puzzled.

“No feeelm?” he asked.

Oh, yes, Ralph had film. He nodded to indicate the camera was loaded; he was just not taking any pictures. This aroused the man’s interest. He tilted his head in the manner of the querulous, credulous tourist, looking sharply at Ralph. Was he something new? If he had not come to Ronda for pictures, what then? Ralph sensed his question clearly enough, but he could do no more than stand there. His position was not easily explained. He attempted, with some strain, to indicate that he “was taking it all in with his eyes” rather than his lens. Did it help? The man continued to eye him—a good honest man, Ralph thought, but perhaps a little simple in his thinking. People came here to take pictures. Why didn’t Ralph do what was expected of him?

What Ralph did do—to distract his gaze, to do something if not take pictures—was remove from his pocket the bar of chocolate he had brought all the way from Madrid. Swiss bitter chocolate, the best; something this sensible fellow would have a taste for. The piece Ralph offered he accepted, with muchas gracias. Chewing up the piece, he was led to comment that he knew Swiss chocolate, and judged it superior. The Swiss made chocolate and watches. He extended toward Ralph a thick, hairy wrist, ornamented with a watch of Swiss manufacture. The one Ralph then exposed to him received his respectful, somewhat awed, admiration. Such an object with dials and levers he had heard about, but not seen. It is a commonplace of travel experience that absolute strangers have these congenial moments—not in spite of but rather because of, their brevity. With the second piece of chocolate, his friend suggested-this was the feeling of the moment—that they take seats on the boulders and enjoy the last of the sunset. Knees high, the leveling sun in their eyes, they finished off the chocolate. Ralph observed how, as his companion peeled off the foil, he put the wad of wrapping in his pocket. Overhead were the swallows. Nearer at hand Ralph was conscious of bats. Fortunately, Carolyn was not present to destroy this moment with hysterical shrieking, believing, as she did, that bats were no more than horribly flying mice.

Four or five minutes? Ten at the most? Now and then they idly glanced at the display before them, as gods might be amused by the northern lights. On the cliffs the remarkable tints seemed to bleed and dry like watercolors. His friend was the first to rise—not without a groan -and extend toward Ralph a helping hand. Why should something so common be so memorable? In his brusque matter-of-factness Ralph sensed that he too felt it. He was not so simple he did not know that this moment was something special. They walked back toward the hotel, the man ahead, Ralph trailing, turning once for a last glance at what vanished as they were looking. In that instant, it seemed, the air turned cold. They continued to the gate, where Ralph, in an involuntary gesture, turned and placed his left hand on the man’s shoulder, and offered him his right. His companion lowered his eyes as if to locate Ralph’s hand in the darkness. Yes, he actually looked. It seemed so droll a thing to dosomething you might expect from a natural comic— that Ralph actually smiled. He also reached for the hand that was partially offered, gripped it firmly, then said Vaya con Dios—only one of many things he would soon enough regret. The man muttered something, but Ralph was so moved by his own feelings, his own generous impulses, he heard nothing but the wind of his own emotion.

Fortunately, the gate had been opened, and he was able to turn and make his escape. Make his escape? Was that the first suspicion that he had misread the situation? He did not look back. The fresh smarting of his face, a warmness all over his body, was not the result of his downhill walking. No, he was blushing. He was overheated with embarrassment. So clear to him now he could only go along with his head down, thankful for the darkness, was that this man had looked to his hand for something Ralph had not offered. A payment for services rendered.

Least of all the things in this world he had expected, or wanted, was a handshake. A handshake! He must be standing there, shaking with laughter. This Americano who offered him a handshake. Was it believable? He would now go home with empty pockets but a story, a tale, that would last forever, be repeated by his children, conceivably become a legend of sorts at Ronda. The big Americano tourist who had gripped his hand, and urged him to go with God.

From a niche behind the statue of Rilke Ralph paused long enough for a quick glance rearward. Had he gone? No, he was still there, but the rising tide of darkness had submerged him. He was all of one color, at this distance, his face the weathered tan of his corduroy, but Ralph had the distinct impression that his teeth were exposed in a smile. That could have been wrong. Maybe he merely stood there stupefied. Ralph might have walked, unseen, into the lobby, where the lights were now on, a fire was burning, and the woman who stood before it, warming her backside, wore a miniskirt. Was it something he could speak about to Carolyn? How would it be phrased? Would she understand his failure to grasp he was in another country? And if not, where he was, how things were? This man had done him a service—could it have been more obvious? He had opened a gate and given him a short tour—and on the return Ralph had offered him his hand. Would it be sensible, would it be believable, that Ralph considered him an equal, such a fleeting but true friend, really, that to have offered him money would have falsified their brief meeting, and reduced something gold to something brass? Carolyn would only make one of those gargle sounds in her throat. The other thing was—a sudden chill brought it home—that what he had been thinking of all the time was the high value of his own sensations, and in this intoxication he felt these sensations would be shared with his companion. As Ralph valued him, surely he would be moved to value Ralph, a fumbling but generous tourist who in a kind of Eucharist offered him chocolate. In this brief wordless drama two illusions had suffered, but was there any doubt whose illusion had been the greater? Both stories were good, but Ralph’s would be one he kept to himself. □