I live alone 40 miles from Tucson and work at home translating movie scripts from German into English. Before this, for ten years, I worked at Farrar, Strauss in New York, handling German novels and film rights, which I parlayed into freelance. Agents send me scripts from Zurich, Berlin, Los Angeles. A translator might have any name, but let me call myself Ruth.
Señora Astacio, the weaver, lives across the street. We’re neighbors only by proximity in what is not a neighborhood, but rather two small adobe houses built years ago on a dirt lane that deadends north into the arroyo. It’s a bleak landscape—to the east, the rocky ridges of the Galiuro Mountains and the dry bajada that fans down from the canyon, to the west, pale blue distance. Sporadic birds and mammals, along with snakes and lizards, survive on next to nothing in the saguaros, mesquite, and palo verde.
This noon in April the mountains are hot, and wind shakes the ocotillo in my yard. Señora Astacio sits by her window where the sun illuminates her gray hair and weathered face. The mailman’s told me she’s a weaver, that her cloth bags are in museums, but I’ve never been in her house, nor seen anyone carrying anything away. Maybe she weaves at night, a secret sharer, a counterfeiter, Rumpelstiltskin weaving straw into gold.
When I first moved in last fall, I tried to befriend her. I offered peaches and plums from the slight trees in my backyard, firewood a friend gave me, cookies I baked. Once I took over an article I cut from the newspaper about rabies in raccoons and foxes I thought she might not have seen, but each time, though my Spanish is sufficient, I was met with silence.
Movie scripts are not books. Each word bears an intolerable weight because there are so few of them. Take this slugline from the Jakob Becker script:
EXT. HAUS — MITTAG
Ein Viertel der Arbeiterklasse. Eine Frau, etwa 25, gräbtihren Rasen anf. in Ihre
EXT. HOUSE — NOON
A working-class area. A woman, 25, digs in her lawn.
Imagine what appears on the screen: it’s cloudy, autumn by the colors in the poplars nearby. A busy street runs in front of the clapboard duplex. There’s ratty porch furniture on one side, and a metal chair beside a refrigerator on the other. Children are coming home from school carrying their book bags and knapsacks. An old rusty red Fiat is parked in the drive. A blond, pretty in a frowsy way, is dressed in a white blouse and frayed jeans. Her face troubled, she’s digging ferociously with a shovel in her lawn.
All of that you’d see in a split second.
Something about darkness focuses close work: the outer landscape is cut off, and pages and words are more visible, more comprehensible, more luminous in the goosenecked lamp that bends over my desk. I’d been working at night for several months, from after supper until three in the morning, and in a burst of speed, I’d finished one project and started on the Becker script. Then in the midst of it, about a month ago, at 8 A.M., I was wakened from a sound sleep by bulldozers. In a single day they carved a road across the bajada above Señora Astacio’s house. A day later, at the end of the road, a backhoe dug a big hole. Each succeeding day someone new appeared—a cement truck poured basement walls and footings, an architect inspected the site, a landscaper came out and took measurements. I identified the men by their trucks.
When I lived in New York, people complained about the end of daylight savings time, of not having a view, of the cold, but for me it was the noise—car horns, screeching subways, jackhammers, airplanes, voices. People yelled for taxis, scalped tickets, preached the gospel. There was never a single moment without noise, even at night. There was always an elevator humming or a car passing in the street or a siren.
Silence, I think, is Señora Astacio’s native language. I asked the mailman whether she ever spoke, and he said yes, but she’d never been a talker. She wasn’t deaf, though. She was shy and ornery. She used to live where I do now, in my house. Her parents built it when she and her husband got married, and when her parents died, Señora Astacio moved to the bigger house, thinking the son would want the smaller one. But the son moved to San Diego to build boats.
As a girl, my mother had lived in Arizona outside of Willcox. She said the desert made her feel clean, and I remember her talking about it, her voice dreamlike, as if she were tasting the air or smelling the cactus blooms. Her memory spawned my wistfulness for distance. I bought my house the modern way, over the Internet. I saw a photo of it—a low-slung adobe with the two fruit trees the buyer had to promise to water, the interior of the rough kitchen with the wood stove in the corner. I knew it was on a quiet street 40 miles from Tucson; I knew the yard was desert. I suppose I had the vague idea of reliving what my mother knew. But the expanse around the house was unexpected. It never occurred to me to ask how far it was to a grocery store, whether there was fire and police protection, who, in an emergency, would call the ambulance.
Every day from our windows Señora Astacio and I watch the new house take shape. The carpenters arrive in the early morning—two pickups with the four or five Anglos, and a pickup and two vans with the dozen or so Hispanics. They swarm through the shell of the house, hauling, lifting, POP POP POPPING their nail guns. Often a generator hammers all day long so that the saws can whine like car engines. The house has risen by degrees—the ground floor, the second, the third—see-through studs shaping the sky at angles. It’s not a house, it’s a palace. I’ve seen manors on the Hudson, glitzy ranchhouses in the hills above L.A., the gem castles of France and Germany, and this house is a synonym. I’ve asked the mailman who’s building it, who will live there, and he says he’s heard it’s a dentist from Oregon, or a high-tech baron from Boston, maybe a movie star. Since I can’t sleep in the daytime, I work. I don’t know whether my translations suffer from their being done in that ubiquitous light, but they’re different—long-winded (I can cut later), florid, tentative. I want to be precise the first time, to trust my intuition, but working in the daylight opens up the world. I’ve taken to getting up at four A.M. to utilize the few hours of darkness and quiet, but I’m aware of dawn’s coming. This is new to me: the emergent shapes of the hills, the gathering pinks and yellows, the songs of wrens and towhees and the calls of doves.
Because of her son, I think more about Señora Astacio than I might otherwise. He appeared one afternoon just before the construction started. I happened to be just awake after a night’s work, and I was out getting the mail when I saw dust rising from the road a long way off. I heard a motorcycle coming, and finally a rider materialized through the heat waves and pulled up at Señora Astacio’s broken down wall. I assumed it was her son, a man about 35, with long black hair in a ponytail. We’re so far out from other houses, I didn’t remember I was still in my nightgown, a white one with lace at the collar and sleeves. The man stared at me directly and without subterfuge in the same way as I was regarding him. He was well-built and wore, not biker’s leather, but a white shirt and tie.
He stayed two hours in his mother’s house, and when he came out I was working in my rock garden. My mother had grown various kinds of cactus in a solarium in her house in Connecticut where I grew up—barrel cactus, agave, prickly pear, cholla. Until she died, and I moved out here, I had never considered them more than oddities, but now I admired them. They were efficient plants, storing up what water comes to them and protecting their resources with spines. I liked arranging and rearranging them, and the stones, into different patterns. The man put something into his saddlebag and then came across the road.
In a movie, what happens must not only be possible or plausible, but inevitable. Events lead one to the next, not by coincidence (though coincidence may start a sequence), but by what must be perceived as logical extension. If a good-looking man were to fall for a beautiful woman, that’s to be expected, but if he falls for one not so pretty, there has to be a convincing reason—she’s rich, she’s smart, she’s principled and courageous. Or, if he were unusual, he would understand more than the representation of a woman in her physical appearance.
There’s no fence in front of my house, no separation from the gravel road. He walked into my yard. Up close he was less beautiful and more serious. His eyes were dark, his nose a little squashed, his chin stubbled with black. “I see you changed your clothes,” he said.
His voice was serene. That’s what I liked about him.
“I’m a late worker and a late sleeper.”
“I wonder if I could ask you a favor.”
“Why don’t you tell me first who you are?”
“Benito,” he said. “I grew up in your house. I’d ask someone else, but. . . .” He scanned the empty road and the dry arroyo beside the house.
“There isn’t anyone else to ask,” I said.
“Watch my mother. See that she’s up and around every day, that she gets her mail. No more than that. She’s 75, and her health isn’t good. If you notice anything unusual, call me. Would that be too much of a burden?”
“Call you where?”
“I’ll give you my number in San Diego.”
Neither of us had a pen or paper, though he might have written the number in the dirt with a stick. Instead, I led him around to the back terrace where the door was open to the kitchen. The house was cool inside, shadowy from window light and absolutely still. No birds or insects at midday, no breeze, no airplanes. Benito waited in the doorway, but his presence followed me to the desk by the telephone. That’s how it felt. The feeling was so unexpected I was overwhelmed. I forgot what I was doing. I stood at the desk and stared at the telephone, at a ruler, a piece of blank paper.
After a few moments, Benito came up behind me. “Are you all right?” he asked.
He was genuinely concerned. I heard that in his voice. I thought I’d simply ask him what I was looking for, but when I turned, there was only the light from behind him, the cool air, no other language but his. He held me; I held him.
Translating is an attempt to render meaning similar to the original, to straddle two cultures and mediate between what the author intended and what the reader will understand—to take a little here, give a little there, as priests are wont to do when they’re interpreting symbols for the laity. But as soon as words are attached to ideas, havoc breaks loose. Ideas change, relationships among things, even objects. If I were to transcribe “Jahre” as “year,” would you understand the word? We’d agree a year is the duration of the earth’s rotation around the sun, or the number of days in the Gregorian calendar, dismissing the days lost in conversion from the Julian Calendar. We say winter’s cold and summer’s hot, but in other hemispheres, January is summer and July winter. Does a year feel the same to a Chilean as to us? Or the same to a six-year-old girl as to a man in prison or to a woman in a bad marriage? You see the difficulty. Multiply that by every noun and verb, every adverb and adjective. “Slow” is relative. “Clouds” are thick or thin or threatening. What about words like “admiration” or “love” or “waiting”?
I lived with a German for three years after college and before I took the job in New York. I met him when I was studying in Santander. I should have known living in his hometown of Würzburg wouldn’t be the same as when he was on vacation. I found work in a Verlag interested in bringing out German editions of American novels. We had a tiny apartment. He cooked the meals, showed me off to his friends, brought me presents. He called me roseschätzele, but he refused to see a flower can be killed as easily by watering it too much as too little.
The construction workers are putting on the roof, one crew steering sheets of plywood up three floors with block-and-tackle, while another saws the sheets to size, and a third hammers them into place. The various planes of the roof are so steeply pitched that the men have to rope themselves to the other side of the house to be free to use their nail guns.
At noon they eat in groups, the Hispanics on the steps leading to the entry, and the Anglos in the shade on the north side of the house. This separation is a daily ritual born of history and language, but, though their behavior is not determined, each day they choose the same configuration.
To my knowledge I have not seen the owners of the house, man or woman, or both. They’re nameless, faceless, but rich—I know that much. Maybe they’ve been at the site when I haven’t noticed; maybe someone sends them photographs, though I’ve not witnessed anyone taking pictures. Maybe they fly over the house in a small plane. I see these from time to time and pay no attention.
It’s evening, almost dark. The construction workers are gone, but it’s not quiet. Nighthawks buzz in the air, and coyotes sing back and forth across the arroyo. These noises are different from those I was used to before. They are not noises, but sounds. The light is on in Señora Astacio’s house—gold divided into squares that shine across the road so perfectly I can’t look. I sit on the terrace in the impending night and wait for her to come out. She’s been stirring every evening, sometimes walking out to the steep hillside behind her house or up the empty road gathering twigs and dry husks of ocotillo and saguaro, which she puts in a woven bag she carries over her shoulder.
This evening I go out into the road and call to her, “¿Puedo ayudarle?”
She doesn’t hear, or pretends not to, and for a few minutes I walk alongside her gathering the small twigs as she does. “I met your son,” I tell her. “Su hijo.”
“No me lo diga Usted.”
“Me gustariá verlo otra vez.”
“El no está viniendo,” she says with finality.
I stop and consider why her son wouldn’t come back again. San Diego isn’t that far—a short day’s drive. It’s been more than a month since his last visit to her—and his first to me. In New York I rarely went out with men, and when I did, I was reserved, unwilling to be hurt. I took to heart my mother’s admonition: men can be forgotten. Neither Benito nor I has called the other, but that’s our choice, To make love as we did so suddenly was a revelation, a moment that needs no discussion. It happened for a hundred reasons, and no reasons at all. Possible, plausible, inevitable.
Señora Astacio stands up and rests, looks up at the house above her. Stars have come out, but their pattern is not the same now, the sky broken by the silhouette of the dark house.
“Who would live in such a house?” I ask.
Señora Astacio doesn’t answer. The nighthawks have stopped chirring, and the coyotes are silent.
Over the next weeks, my work slows down. There are nuances in the Becker script I can’t get a hold of. There’s a void, an absence, a space between what the words say and what I feel from them. I know someone in Hollywood has bought the rights to the script for $100,000, but meaning is not a function of money. I see the printed page, the individual words and phrases in German. I conjure the woman digging in her lawn, follow her on buses and trains and through the death of her husband, searching for something that isn’t buried, isn’t in the air, or in the sea. I’m paid to decipher words, but what if the mind is insufficient to understand them? What if words are not enough? I assume I’m at fault and not Becker.
In the midst of this labor, on a morning clouds swirl down over the mountains, Benito visits his mother again. I don’t hear his motorcycle for the generator at the construction site, but when I go out to get the mail the bike is there, leaning against the wall.
The mail has catalogs and a postcard from a girlfriend in France. So little comes to me now except over the Internet. I retreat to my office and wait. Will Benito remember me? Has he any idea how difficult the last time was, how joyful, how perfect? It took no courage at the moment; I was too stunned to think. My body acted, and afterward I reflected. Inevitable or not, it took all my strength to embrace what I’d done.
A mist falls outside, the first precipitation I’ve seen here, what the cactus desire. I open wide the windows. The ocotillo in the yard unfurls its leaves slowly. The distance west is shortened by clouds. What I notice most are the smells wetness engenders—moist blossoms, sage, earth.
Benito finds me where I am. He knows what distance is, and unlike the workers, knows rituals must be broken. He kisses me slowly, unbuttons my blouse, lets the moment speak. Cool air flows over my skin.
Later, returning to the strangeness words require, I ask him about this place—the materials the house was made of, whether the well ever ran dry, how much rain there was. “What was it like when you were a boy?” I ask.
“It was really far out from anywhere in those days,” he says. “We used to ride horseback down the arroyo to the intersection of roads. There was a wax camp and a couple of trailers and a mercado where the Kwik Mart is now.”
“Who planted the fruit trees?”
“My mother. But we all had to water them. We carried buckets from the well. There were six of us children, and at the time it was a pain in the ass. But I remember it differently now. We all loved the fruit.”
“Where are your brothers and sisters?”
“Gone,” he said. “Somewhere. I don’t know . . . away.”
“I offered your mother some peaches and pears last fall, but she refused to take them.”
“She couldn’t. She had to know you first.”
“How can she know me if she doesn’t talk?”
“She watches what you do. That’s her way of knowing.” Benito smiles. He gets up and pulls on his jeans, wrangles his white shirt over his chest, then turns to me. “Have you been up to that new house?”
“No. Why would I want to?”
“My mother has.”
“She climbed that hill?”
“Maybe not, but that’s what she says.” He goes to the window in bare feet. “Look there.”
I rise from the bed, covering myself with the sheet, to look out. The sun’s broken beneath the mist and clouds, and across the desert is a curtain of pink and yellow rain. Benito pulls the sheet away and puts his arms around me. In his embrace I am released from myself.
After that day, Señora Astacio is different. Benito must have said something, or she’s seen he was at my house. Why wouldn’t she? When I work in the early morning darkness, her light is on, too. I imagine she’s weaving, braiding the intricate strands of wool into a rug or a bag. The yarns fill my imagination with rusts, blues, blacks—the colors I saw before in her shoulder bag. One morning a coyote appears in the early light, lopes down the bajada and along the road, and stops between our houses. I open my door to watch him, and Señora Astacio opens hers. We nod at one another. The coyote moves on.
That afternoon she comes out of her house and stands in the street beside her broken down wall and stares at me on my knees in my rock garden. Her expression is fierce, as if she’s about to yell, but for a long time she says nothing. Then she says, “Me ayudaría.” It’s not a question. You will help me.
“How can I?”
“No dice nada.”
“¿Es eso todo?”
“Si, es todo.”
Later, I risk a call to Benito. “She told me not to say anything,” I tell him.
“That should be easy.”
“But about what? Say nothing about what?”
“You share the same place,” he says. “She likes you. Otherwise she wouldn’t bother.”
“That’s no answer.”
“Keep an eye an her,” he says. “Thank you for calling. Next time it’s my turn.”
Our watching each other like this goes on for many days—a week, two weeks. The palace quiets now that the walls are enclosed, the roof put on. Then comes the beautiful morning of almost June, when I’m wakened by an Elf Owl calling in the arroyo. It’s four o’clock, my work hour, and I go outside in a thin nightgown. The half-moon bathes the terrain in a pale glow, bright enough to see shapes and shadows. The owl is in a thicket of palo verde on the far hillside—I can make out the direction, but the bird is hidden. It chirps and chatters, but what is the meaning of its call? To summon, to protest, to celebrate?
Is it by accident the owl wakens me?
I listen until the bird flies deeper into the arroyo. Light sifts gently from the east, and the moon loses its power. Señora Astacio’s windows fill with the pale blue of dawn, but her doorway is in shadow, the house is dark. Westward there are still stars. Suddenly I imagine the sorrow I’ll feel for her death, the changes her passing will require—a new neighbor, the hours to be filled learning in the ways I realize I have been for months, not in the measuring of words, but in their absence.
I walk along the road watching for snakes, but keeping my eyes open. I am looking for her in her absence, and I know she is there. I smell her, feel her without seeing, sense in our days together our conspiracy. Then on the hill above, I catch a furtive movement. At first I think it’s a coyote; it has that way, but no, of course not—it’s she, a shape leaning on a stick. She descends haltingly along an animal trail. How did she get up there in the dark? I run along the road for a quarter-mile, then veer off through the brush and up the hill, heedless of scratches and cactus spines and snakes. I connect to the animal trail lower than where she is. “Wait for me,” I call to her. “Espéreme ahí!”
She pauses, bracing herself on her stick, her woven bag over her shoulder. Behind her at the top of the hill, dark smoke ascends into the blue dawn. I climb again, faster, and by the time I reach her, flames are tearing through the monstrous house, brightening and brightening above us. She takes my arm and leans into me, and together we go down.