The Vineyard:A Novel

By: Maria Duenas

Part I




What goes through the mind and body of a man accustomed to triumphing over the odds when one September evening his worst fears are confirmed?

Nothing changed in his demeanor. There was no outburst, no telltale gesture. Only a fleeting, imperceptible tremor that coursed through him from head to foot when the disaster he had already anticipated was finally confirmed. Undaunted, with one hand resting on the sturdy walnut desk, he fixed his eyes on the two women who had brought him the news, registering their lined, exhausted faces and desolate mourning attire.

“Please enjoy your hot chocolate, ladies. Forgive me for having put you to this trouble, and thank you for your consideration in coming all this way to inform me in person.”

The moment the interpreter had finished translating, the two North Americans did as they were told, as though obeying an order. Their country’s embassy had provided them with this intermediary so that the women, overwhelmed with fatigue, the bad news they were bringing, and their lack of Spanish, could make themselves understood and thus fulfill the purpose of their journey.

They raised the cups to their lips with little enthusiasm, merely out of a sense of respect, in order not to offend the man. However, they left untouched the biscuits made by San Bernardino nuns, and he did not insist. While the two women were sipping the thick liquid with barely concealed discomfort, a silence that was almost palpable slithered into the room like a reptile amid the polished wooden floor, the European furniture, the paintings of landscapes and still lifes.

The interpreter, a smooth-cheeked young man of no more than twenty, sat there rather uneasily, his clammy hands clasped awkwardly on his lap as he wondered what on earth he was doing in that place. Meanwhile, a thousand sounds floated on the air. From the courtyard came the echo of servants rinsing the tiles with laurel water, and from the street beyond the wrought-iron window bars, the thudding hoofs of mules and horses, the laments of mendicant lepers, and the cries of a street vendor hawking cream empanadas, tortillas stuffed with cheese, guava jelly, and sweet breads.

As the clock struck half past five, the ladies dabbed their lips with the exquisite Dutch napkins. Beyond that, they had no idea what to do.

The owner of the house put an end to the tension.

“Permit me to offer you my hospitality for the night before you undertake your return journey.”

“Thank you kindly, sir,” they replied, almost in unison. “We already have a room booked at an inn that the embassy recommended.”

“Santos!” he cried out in a booming voice.

Even though it wasn’t directed at them, both women flinched.

“Have Laureano accompany these ladies to collect their luggage and transfer them to the Iturbide Hotel. Charge it to my account. Then go and find Andrade. Haul him out of his game of dominoes and tell him to come here at once.”

The young bronze-skinned servant received the orders with a simple “As you wish, sir.” As if he hadn’t already had his ear to the door and learned that the world of Mauro Larrea, until that day a wealthy silver miner, had suddenly been turned upside down.

The two women rose, their skirts rustling ominously like the wings of crows as they followed the servant out of the room and onto the cool veranda. The one who had said she was the sister went first, while the other, the widow, brought up the rear. They left behind the papers they had brought: documents confirming in black-and-white the truth of his premonition.

The interpreter made to follow them, but the owner of the house stopped him, placing his big gnarled hand on the American’s chest with the firmness of someone who knows how to command and is certain he will be obeyed.

“Just a moment, young man, if you please.”

The interpreter barely had time to respond before the older man spoke again.

“Samuelson you said your name was, didn’t you?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“Very well, Samuelson,” said Larrea, lowering his voice. “I hardly need tell you that this conversation has been strictly confidential. One word about it to anyone and I’ll make sure that within a week you’ll not only be deported but conscripted back in your own country. Where are you from, my friend?”

The young man’s throat felt as dry as a desert hut.

“From Hartford, Connecticut, Señor Larrea.”

“Better still. That way you’ll be able to help the Yankees defeat those damned Confederates once and for all.”

As soon as Larrea calculated that the two women had reached the front entrance, he lifted the heavy drape before one of the balconies and observed them as they left the mansion and climbed into his carriage. The coachman, Laureano, geed up the mares, and they set off at a brisk pace, weaving their way past well-dressed passersby, ragged barefoot children, and Indians wrapped in serapes who in a chaotic chorus of voices were peddling tallow and mats from Puebla, salt meat, lard, avocados, flavored ices, and wax effigies of the infant Jesus. After the carriage turned into Calle de las Damas, Larrea pulled back from the balcony. Elias Andrade, his agent, would not be there for at least another half hour, and he knew exactly what to do until then.

Protected from the gaze of others, Mauro Larrea angrily removed his jacket and proceeded to make his way through the rooms as he pulled off his necktie, undid his cuff links, and rolled the sleeves of his linen shirt up past the elbows. Upon reaching his destination, he took a deep breath and spun the billiard cue rack, which was shaped like a roulette wheel.

Holy Mother of God, he muttered to himself.

There was no apparent reason why he chose the cue he did. Others were newer, more sophisticated and valuable, acquired over the years as tangible proof of his spectacular rise. And yet, on the evening that blew his life asunder, as the light quickly faded and his servants lit oil lamps and candles in every corner of the big house, while the streets were still pulsating with energy and Mexico as a whole remained stubbornly ungovernable due to seemingly endless squabbles, Larrea rejected the obvious choice. Opting instead for the rough old cue that connected him to his past, he set about furiously combating his private demons at the billiard table.

As the minutes ticked by, he played his shots with ruthless efficiency, one after the other, with the only sound that of the balls rebounding off the cushions and the sharp smack of ivory on ivory. He remained in control, calculating and decisive as always. Or almost always. Until he heard a voice from the doorway behind him.

“Seeing you grasping that cue makes me suspect bad news.”

Larrea kept on playing as if he had heard nothing: flicking his wrist for an unerring shot, raising his fingers in a solid bridge for the hundredth time, revealing the stumps of two fingers on his left hand, and the dark scar rising from the base of his thumb. War wounds, he used to say ironically. The consequences of his passage through the bowels of the earth.

Of course he had heard the well-modulated voice of his agent, a tall man of exquisitely outmoded elegance, his skull as smooth as a river stone and his brain both shrewd and vibrant. In addition to looking after his finances and his interests, Elias Andrade was his closest friend: the elder brother he had never had, the voice of his conscience when the uproar of tumultuous days robbed him of the serenity required to make wise choices.

Leaning athletically over the green baize, Mauro Larrea struck the last ball firmly, bringing his solitary game to a close. Replacing the cue in its rack, he turned unhurriedly toward the newcomer.

They looked each other in the eye, as they had done so many times before. For good or ill, that was how it had always been between them. Face-to-face. Without mincing words.

“I’m ruined, my friend.”

His trusted friend shut his eyes briefly but made no comment. He simply took a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow, for he had begun to sweat.

While awaiting a reply, the miner raised the lid of a humidor and took out two cigars. They lit them from a silver brazier and the air filled with smoke; only then did the agent respond to the dreadful news he had just heard.

“Farewell to Las Tres Lunas.”

“Farewell to everything. It’s all gone to hell.”

Having lived between two worlds, whenever he spoke Larrea mixed expressions, at times sounding like a peninsular Spaniard, at others more Mexican than Chapultepec Castle. Two and a half decades had passed since his arrival in Mexico, by then already a fledgling republic after a lengthy and painful struggle for independence. He had brought with him a broken heart, two unavoidable responsibilities, and the urgent need to survive. Nothing could have predicted his path would cross that of Elias Andrade, last descendant of an ancient Creole family as aristocratic as it was poor following the collapse of Spain’s colony in Mexico. But, as so often happens in cases where the vagaries of chance intercede, the two men first met at a notorious bar in a mining camp at Real de Catorce when Larrea’s business affairs (he was twelve years younger) were just starting to prosper, and Andrade’s dreams had hit rock bottom. From then on, despite the thousand reversals that both men encountered, despite all the disasters and triumphs, the joys and disappointments, that fortune held in store for them, they had never parted ways.

“Did the gringo cheat you?”

“Worse. He’s dead.”