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One Out of Two

Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical. To say, as people do, ‘They were like two peas in a pod’, the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice, the same hairdo. Moreover, they both must have weighed around one hundred and thirty pounds—let’s move into the present—: that is, from a certain distance: which one of them is which? One is the other, and the other sometimes denies it, though always secretly, of course, because this business of having a double can be vexatious, almost almost leech-like, but it’s their own fault, because with each passing year they try ever harder to emulate each other. Their tics, gestures, and facial expressions, all the same, as if mirror images. Do they ever grow weary of one another? . . . Possibly, though if they did, their souls would be void. The thing is: their sole importance has only ever been this similitude—a double meaning that just might be single.

 

On the other hand: there are differences in the details. Constitución Gamal has a sizable beauty mark just above her right shoulder blade, whereas the other doesn’t: her name is Gloria and she is the more subdued of the two, the observer, so . . . This physical trait is easy to conceal: they wear clothes that cover that particular zone. For their daily attire: in the morning, whoever gets to it first decides for both, chooses the colour and style, and the other simply consents . . . There’s no discussion, no sudden whims.

 

As for their personalities: one is discreet and the other a chatterbox, but this, too, can be managed: neither indulges excessively, as a rule. And their names? They swap them—why shouldn’t they! Their daily activities: they are seamstresses, and such perfectionists . . . Paltry, dullards. What began as an innocuous pastime became the profession that took hold.

 

Many years ago they set up shop here: in Ocampo: where they live without so much as a twinge of longing, confident that their daily and incessant toil will yield wonders, that good fortune is bound to result from great effort, that good fortune is a star unseen by any eye: all of these, safe deductions they have both pondered deeply. Very very deeply! The twins could even be considered prosperous, if by prosperity we mean never aspiring to more than a local outing, and if making do with little is a boon, so—let’s toast! because from time to time they celebrate their glorious life, at night they play records and dance. They get drunk: two, even three glasses each, when the next day is Saturday or Sunday.

 

They sew all their own clothes, empathically, logically, to avoid eccentricities that wouldn’t suit them anyway—their fabrics are all bargain basement—and their Singer pedal sewing machines are the mobile symbols of their inventiveness. The possibility that these machines might articulate delicacy, beauty, and intelligence remains a fantasy: unfounded. The strength of their legs also plays a part, strength that seems to be on the wane, because our twins: well, they don’t feel over the hill, but their faces—let’s just say, if they didn’t apply creams and lotions night and day, they’d look the worse for wear, though, from up close, that is . . . In spite of being forty, they still look exactly alike.

 

‘One little slip, and you could be Gloria, and I, Constitución.’

 

‘So what? Maybe we’d both come out ahead,’ the other says sardonically, not believing a word of it.

 

‘That means that old age might finally free us. We’ll have to learn about very sophisticated diets and ways of applying makeup, otherwise it’ll be really hard to stay the same.’

 

‘But we aren’t old; forty years is nothing when there’s faith.’

 

‘If God made us identical, he’s not going to play some dirty trick on us now that we’re all grown up,’ she who is supposedly the most taciturn persuasively asserts.

 

‘You’re right. People still can’t tell us apart from a distance, or even from up close . . . though not that up close.’

 

‘Exactly, we’ll always be identical, you’ll see. We shouldn’t give up now,’ came next, then: Gloria, with charming malice, lifts her finger as high as it can go, and Constitución imitates her with mirth. They’re both pretty dotty, and they’d love to start jumping around like a pair of rambunctious teens. But, standing there face-to-face, they feel ashamed for having spoken like that, and they return to their machines with their heads bowed.

 

These kinds of exchanges don’t carry much weight because there’s so much history between them, because their identity has been a long and difficult compromise, minute by minute and day by day forging them into one accidental and unambiguous joint spirit. One can almost say that the Gamal sisters are saints: a single pureness.

 

Hence, their repartee has always served to boost their flagging spirits and help them decide together what to do. That’s why the smart-alecky sassiness exhibited moments ago is a sure sign of senile bitterness, even if they do refuse to admit to it . . . And now let’s turn back to the past, a serene past until the following occurred: they were still young, around thirteen years old, and the only children of parents who often traveled, when these perished in a highway accident. On that occasion, the Gamal sisters had been left alone, by parental edict, to reign over their home in Lamadrid—nor was this the first time—with no servants, neighbours, or friends to check in on them; this fact, alone, sheds light on the family’s social problems. Gloria and Constitución dealt with their seclusion by merrily sharing their daily chores. In fact, they never left the house, not even for a breath of fresh air, even though they could: why should they, for heaven’s sake! Moreover, their parents didn’t leave them a single peso, though they had enough provisions to last approximately two weeks.

 

Truth be told, the girls never wondered why their parents didn’t consider taking them along on their extended jaunts, but this solitude both imposed and shared was a lasso of sorts that their Lord or their future, or maybe even the Devil, had tossed to them. Those days spent on their own were grand days of apprenticeship: a flourishing sisterhood coming into its own right: because they invented games till they grew drowsy, cooked up all kinds of dishes, and talked about what they would do when they grew up. On that particular occasion, at least at first, they delighted in their parents’ prolonged absence, but . . . to put it in other words: one week: fine; two weeks: who cares! But by the third: what’s going on here?: their distress was subtly gathering steam. By the fourth week, the twins began to feel pangs from the lack of food, and even worse, the total absence of news.

 

The parents’ punishment for leaving their daughters in the lurch came abruptly: they got totaled! Soledad Guadarrama, their aunt from Nadadores, found the famished girls curled up in bed: cowering under the blankets. Without a second thought, she went straight to the nearest store and returned with pounds of meat and medicinal salves to revive them. A miracle was wrought . . . after which, with a minimum of tact, she told them the naked truth:

 

‘Your parents were killed in a highway accident. Apparently, it was horrible; according to the report, their heads got severed, but they were identified anyway. The only solace I can offer you: your dead parents were given a Christian burial in the Múzquiz cemetery.’

 

‘Why did they bury them there, so far away?’ asked the chatterbox.

 

‘Well, probably because that’s where the accident happened. The highway authorities gave the order to bury all of them in a pile in a huge pit, and on top they planted a cross for each of the dead, their names written in big white letters so if family members want to claim a corpse, men will come with picks and shovels and identify them, then they can take them wherever they want.’

 

‘They buried them without coffins?’ asked the quiet one.

 

‘So it seems . . .’

 

Why ask more questions? A dreadful silence ensued. They all caught a glimpse of the gloomy image of filing such a claim, so the girls, not to mention the aunt, didn’t mention the subject again . . . It would be so irksome . . . The mere thought of seeing their loved ones stiff and decayed and having to bring them all the way to Lamadrid silenced them. They kept under wraps any impulse to act.

 

Though this deliberate repression made sprout within each a seedling of guilt that would with time grow big and become conscious. Let us, however, stay put in the moment:

 

‘What I want to tell you is that I’ve decided what we’re going to do: the two of you will come with me to Nadadores. You’ll live with us until you get married. You’ll have to do some kind of work and find a husband fast, or, if you choose to be spinsters, you’ll have to save enough money so that you can eventually be independent. I won’t ask you for a single peso from your earnings, I’ll leave that up to you, and the reason I’m taking you with me is that it’s a way I can return all the favours your parents did for me. As for the house: we’ll put it up for sale today, so: go pack your things and we’ll lock it up! I promise to give you the money from the sale, minus a small percentage as a fee for carrying out the transaction. So, let’s go!’

 

The Gamal sisters, like two broadtailed doves, listened to their aunt’s reckoning; from them: nary a peep, alive but dumbstruck statues. Resigned and poker-faced: what choice did they have? They understood that despite the tragedy, the news had come to them via their most beloved and indulgent aunt, the only person who thought the two of them extraordinary, the person who had visited them most since they were born. She adored them: she made the for sale sign with ineffable care, and hung it on the door, and . . .

 

Let’s go swiftly to Nadadores, to their new and now bustling life wholly devoid of any thrills or sense of fulfillment; their dear aunt was mother to eleven: mostly brats; her husband: a plump grocer who smoked and always went shirtless, carried an air of uncertainty, and indulged in extravagantly long naps. The quarters assigned to the twins were cramped. They slept in a small room with seven of the other children, who pulled their hair and lifted their dresses. Unbearable. But, because it was a favour, the girls didn’t dare complain.

 

Since they were still adolescents, the image of this period can be described in simple terms: someone is trying to reach for something high up and gets annoyed because she doesn’t think to remove the blindfold that’s preventing her from seeing, moreover: why should she? Still, she stretches, she gropes, she sets her sights on beauty, longs for it. But in this case, no; Gloria and Constitución developed in the opposite direction: cute little girls, though not even that, and unsightly young women. All that’s left from those difficult years they spent in Nadadores is a fairly rotten stigma.

 

Stretching and groping, that’s all.

 

Fantasies destined to develop only so far lest they provoke the most mundane of fears. The time they spent in that town could be summed up in three words: ‘They found work.’ They learned to sew in a small garment factory: yes: there was skill and there was excellence, but never originality, working only from premade patterns, complying only to others’ tastes, without any personal flair; their compensation was a comfortable salary and defective minds. Alas, if only deep down they harboured a few superficial ideas, but not even there. What young women they were! And old ladies, as well!

 

Locked in their daily drudgery and vain alienation, locked in a plausible equilibrium; to bear up because one must and bemoan one’s fate in silence, sullying the soul. But: it had to happen: a door finally opened a crack. Several years later, when they were already legal adults, they decided to escape from that gouged labyrinth; they’d known for a long time that the house in Lamadrid had been sold, but Soledad Guadarrama, maybe a miser and maybe a crook, had held on to their share. One rainy night—at the dinner table while eating scrambled eggs with onion and garlic—between ahems and ahas and a few dodgy turns of phrase, she told them about the transaction:

 

‘Someone else now owns your house; I made a good sale, and here’s my plan: I’ll give you your money when you come of age. Until then, assume you have nothing. It’s my moral duty not to give any of it to you now.’

 

And her excuse stretched on: she plumped it up with opportunistic themes, while, under the table, each counted on her fingers the years and months that had to pass before she’d have her share. Only Constitución had the wherewithal to ask for clarification:

 

‘But you’re definitely going to give it to us, right?’

 

‘Of course. What, do you think I’m a scoundrel? I always go to Mass, and I pray a lot.’

 

‘How much is there?’ Gloria asked.

 

The husband, and uncle, but only by name: a huisache bush, far far away, without a say and never in the way, smoothed down his mustache: here was his chance to make himself scarce. The children scurried off to bed. Alone, the three women turned to the serious matter at hand. The breakthrough scenario: a bare bulb overhead—incubus—in otherwise shadowy surroundings. With sober self-importance, Soledad pulled out a pencil and paper; she could, if she wanted to, fiddle with the numbers, but those few extra bills would be like poisoned darts in her heart.

 

Hence, in the act, the magic of numbers pulsated. Division and subtraction, the rule of threes, and: the phantom sum shimmered when named, turning into an object of longing because it was so wholly unsuspected. Like a tree of possibilities. Dreaming of the future through long and sleepless nights, so long, in fact, that they sometimes nodded off at work; their output as seamstresses decreased, and that’s why they made an enormous effort—the unwholesome athleticism of maintaining a more or less cheerful countenance in the bosom of that large family, especially while also working brutally long hours—and recovered their determination, aware that their imagination had cut them off from the world. For two long years, until they reached adulthood, they were stuck, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. A margin not worth remembering. One day they would flee, but with dignity. The time finally came for the transfer of funds and some decisions.

 

‘We want to leave.’

 

‘But . . .’

 

‘We want to live on our own. Give us our share of the money. . . And, yes, we are grateful to you for everything.’

 

‘Can I at least know where you’re going?’

 

‘Not too far away, but to a different town,’ Gloria replied immediately.

 

‘For heaven’s sake, just tell me where!’

 

‘No, we won’t,’ Constitución cried out. ‘Didn’t you hear that it’s not far away? Somewhere in the desert, yes, where it’s hot.’

 

Sacramento, Castaños, Cuatro Ciénegas, or a bit beyond: Australia and Finisterre, et cetera: which one? The aunt, after shuffling through names and guessing wrong, said, now finally resigned:

 

‘Okay, I understand, but you must never forget that we’re family. I’m here for you, whether you need me or not; come visit us whenever you want. I’ll send you off with one final piece of advice: get married soon and have loads of children! Children are life’s gift to women. Without any more fuss, I ask you one small favour: send me your address so I can write to you!’

 

Soledad went straight to the mattress under which she’d stashed the plastic-wrapped sum of miraculous proportions. She handed them each a wad of bills, trying to act aloof, but then cried and brought her hands to her face with the utmost humility. The twins, indifferent, set about counting the bills. Once tallied: done: a large sum, everything they needed to make a real go of it, especially when combined with their savings, accumulated in dribs and drabs.

 

‘I’m going to say it again: get married.’

 

How could they ever get married when they spent all their time together?

 

Which would he pick? To feed both—now there’s a thought—with luscious bodies, but their faces: better to keep lips sealed: that’s what a possible suitor would most likely think . . . They were, are, good women, singularly talented and well educated, but you couldn’t tell as much by looking at them. This is where desire comes into play: it’s possible that someone someday would win their hearts: one as opposed to the other: interesting because: ‘to each her own . . .’: indeed. Things get more complicated when we remember that because of their rare curse—having been marked before they were born by the hand of God or the Devil—the ingrates looked more and more alike as the years went by: a genuine conjugation, and apparently unavoidable. But, fortunate? Hmm . . . Next, they took the necessary step: pack their suitcases. Two each, neither too heavy. No possession is worth much when there is so much money to spend.

 

Now for their send-off. Hands waving: farewell! in front of the house, like embossing of such deep relief it perforates the page: the aunt, the shirtless smoking husband, and around them: the urchins, holding still: their mischief kept in check: they would have loved to run after the twins and lift up their skirts one last time, so they’d never forget their innocent pranks.

 

But there is restraint and irritability, if you will: ephemeral sorrows: yes: that seem to complement each other: there are: knots in throats that are easy to untangle and eyes staring long and hard in this direction: at the girls, who turn to look back out of a sense of duty, to express their gratitude with subtle effusion. Farewell . . . oh, dear! Then, they turn to face forward and catch a glimpse of a blurry figure that has yet to take shape; but sorrowful departures must not be prolonged or repeated, because saying good-bye more than once, according to a local superstition, is like spilling salt, or even, like returning whence one hailed, because all paths are erased once taken. A curtain is drawn and behind it an improbable space opens up and . . . No. The Gamal twins sped up their steps: identical strands of hair blown in the breeze. To tell the truth: they were not heading anywhere in particular, at least not in spirit.

 

 

 

*

 

 

This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2015 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of The Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


was born in Mexicali, Mexico, in 1953, and died in 2011, in Mexico City. Considered by many as the boldest and most innovative writer in Spanish of his generation, he published eight volumes of short stories, nine novels, and three volumes of poetry. He has been awarded numerous prizes including the Herralde Prize for his novel Almost Never. Just hours before he died, he was awarded Mexico's most prestigious literary award, the National Prize for Arts and Sciences for Literature. One Out of Two, from which the story in the 2015 January Translation Issue is excerpted, will be published by Graywolf Press in November 2015.

Katherine Silver’s most recent translations include works by Martín Adán, Horacio Castellanos Moya, César Aira, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. Her translation of Daniel Sada's Almost Never was published by Graywolf Press in 2012. Her translation of One Out of Two, excerpted here, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in November 2015. She is the director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.