She stretched out her hand with the rest of the toast in her palm; her lips were half open and her nostrils flared open; she stayed expectant, immobile. The trusting little sparrows went on approaching the bread until the bravest of them dared to peck at the bread: then her hand snapped shut lightning fast. A trickle of blood began to slip between her fingers; meanwhile she hammered slowly her fingernails in the lukewarm little heap of agony. Her eyes shot out golden flashes. She released the pressure only when the little bird stopped fighting.
"What are you doing, my little daughter?"
She startled lightly. "I was playing with the sparrows, mom. I'm going to wash my hands."
She threw the scraps in the stone flower box and went away with little skips, her face reddened by emotion.
Six peals of the bell in the corner tower of the Cathedral. The corridors and plaza of the University boiled with impatience. It was always the same: the first day of class has a special flavor, a happiness burdened with anguish, a responsibility scarcely suspected that tenses the youthful fibers with a state of restless revelation. In the threshold of one's chosen career, upon seizing the rudder in order to mark the course of one's destiny, for the first time they asked themselves what would become of their lives. Excited voices, with some falsetto, beardless faces tinged with scarlet, jeans adjusted and, perhaps, a button unfastened in the blouse to reaffirm the condition of the woman. Serious consultations. Flirtatious remarks. Jokes.
The crutches banged against the floor tiles in a patio already almost deserted. Philosophy and letters: a new world for that disabled body, agile and strong before polio hit. The thick head crowns the shoulders made muscular by the daily exertion of dragging along those stunted legs, as if they were two distinct figures, torn at the waist and glued together in a grotesque judgment error. Too busy in finding a place, only two or three students raised their heads when they heard the thud of the crutches and their impact against the floor, when the new arrival initiated the laborious process of seating himself.
Two months of classes. Berta felt uncomfortable in class. Her groomed hand pushed aside the dark locks of hair that had fallen over her honey-colored eyes. Better to look for something more cheerful, she thought. It's foolish to stay cooped up here, being that there are so many entertaining things for a girl my age.
She let herself fall down on the bench: it was only then that she realized she had sat on the crutches.
"I'm sorry, don't get up. I'll put them here, at my side."
"Thanks," she made herself comfortable in the seat. "I'm getting tired of this monotony. Are these classes interesting to you?"
"Of course. They're excellent. It fascinates me to discover the intimate secrets of the human being through the professors' lectures -- the beauty of all of what's been created. That's why I love looking at you."
The admiration of the young man enveloped her. It was a tangible thing. She trembled as if he had pressed her with his fingers.
Excitement. That's what I'm looking for, she thought. Something different to break the tedium. How would it feel to be adored by this bag of bones? I have to find out. He's lucid, incisive. He won't be easy to dominate, but I'm used to getting what I set out for.
The bell for class rang.
"May I stay with you? I'll help you with your crutches and you can help me with my lessons. In two months we'll have semester tests and haven't studied at all." The young man flushed with pleasure.
She was quickly invited to Diego's house: he himself drove her in his sportscar, specially modified so he could drive it completely with his hands. The vast mansion, surrounded by walls, had a covered pool where he could do his daily exercises. The house had just one floor, without stairs or uneven levels to negotiate. The house was decorated with elegance, and here and there valuable art objects and pictures stood out.
Seated in a mat chair was a fragile-looking woman. To see them, she inclined her head, narrowing her eyes in a curious and expectant attitude. Her withered hair, perhaps a bit long for her age, fell to her shoulders. Her hands, covered with incredibly blue veins, deliberately placed the magazine over the garden table. The impact of the crutches, muffled by the lawn, sounded unexpectedly rough over the floor tiles in the terrace.
"Mama. This is Berta, a classmate at the university."
"I'm pleased to meet you, ma'am."
They sized each other up without bothering to conceal their actions. Neither lowered her gaze. Diego lips traced a smile.
Diego reflected to himself as he smiled. "It is possible that Mother dislikes Berta the same way she dislikes that I lock myself up studying. She doesn't know how to understand what it means to me. There I am happy, in front of a blank page that is inviting me to an unsuspected adventure. I go on wearing masks, without regretting it, lost in myself, and I discover words to say what was until now unknown. I look at myself from afar, sometimes without recognizing myself: it is someone hidden very deeply who dictates the verses that I, astonished, reread afterwards. I will publish my poems so that the world can judge and I will have my just reward. They are good, that I know. These weakened legs will not oblige me to kneel: some day, others will kneel in front of me. Now I must be cautious: love is, for me, too large a risk. I will not endure being humiliated: I prefer solitude. Berta is beautiful and she seeks my company. Could it be affection or pity? I have to find out. Calm down, heart, don't burst. The only sure love is that of my mother, but she is a woman who is ill and every day a little weaker. After Dad's death, nothing interested her. I'm her only preoccupation, and she's never thought of sharing me. Perhaps she sees Berta as a rival. How ridiculous! I don't intend to be anybody's trophy."
"Would you like to join me for tea? I've just brought it, and it's still hot."
Berta took exaggerated care to help the young man take a seat.
They brought teacups and drank tea: Diego's mother did not try either the scones or the marmalades. The two women sustained a conversation splashed with trivialities and questioning silences.
Later, at his desk, Diego constructed an outline of the class lecture for Berta. Upon hearing it, everything seemed easy. Engrossed, she observed his mouth with such aggressively sensual lips while asking herself how she might break into that intimacy so jealously guarded.
"To provoke him would be a mistake," thought Berta. "I'll continue offering my friendship until I see him lower his guard. I'm dying to embrace him and give him a kiss. How would he react? If he only has crippled legs, it could be that the rest of him works fine. After tomorrow I'm going to begin to insinuate myself to him. The mother will die soon, and later I'll manage him however I feel like it. He'll never be able to escape from my side if I don't permit it, by taking away his crutches, he'll be left defenseless, a medium-sized cockroach, not even like Gregor Samsa. I'm beginning to obsess. I want to make him crazy, I want to see how a cripple responds to love; it's strange how excited I am now. I should go on with caution, mothers have special antennas, this old woman doesn't have too many defenses. It's necessary that I clear the playing field, and I'll discover how."
It was time for physical therapy. Diego was in the pool. Berta entered the little dressing room next to the bedroom.
"Good morning, Do-a Mar'a. I brought you some delightful candies I found at the Super. How are you today?"
"Very well, dear, but you already know I can't eat chocolates; it's my diabetes."
"What a shame! I thought a little chocolate every once in a while wouldn't hurt you... and I know you love it. You have to enjoy life: doctors are always exaggerating. Give yourself pleasure and don't tell anyone. I promise to keep your secret. Let's make a pact: you can keep hidden our little naughty prank and I'll bring you more bonbons and pastries. To make you happy makes me happy too. It's what I want so much!"
Diego appeared, freshly bathed. Before he retired to study, his mother served them refreshments with sweetener, kissed her son, and with a pat on the back, wished the young woman goodbye.
"I'm astonished. It's evident that Berta has a positive influence on Mother. She looks happier, and even yesterday she told me that she can now sleep without pills. Berta is cheering us up in the house. She treats me naturally, and I've caught her looking at me as though she'd like to get inside me. I don't know if I'm deluding myself, but I think she's interested in me. Could it be what I've waited so long for? Someone who would love me, without it mattering that I have my defect, someone who will discover I'm deep, tender, and capable of making any woman happy. I have all the intensity of , although I should curb myself -- I detest for people to laugh at me. They treat me like a puppet. With a joke or a smile they settle the debt of friendship. I'm not going to give them the pleasure of seeing me sad, and I will never let them see me as something pathetic. Although I weep inside; although I scream with rage and feel my veins swell and I come alone in my solitary bed. And now Berta treats me with tenderness; to the point that it seems that she has a real passion for me. Could it be true? I tremble when I feel her at my side; beautiful, exciting, good. Dear God! I can't avoid her influence. I'm afraid."
The urgent phone call pulled him out of his class. He found his mother unconscious: a tenuous, fragile figure between rose silk sheets; her papery hands, laced with blue, stood out, withered, over her sunken chest. The doctor was a quite disconcerted over the sudden worsening of the patient. He always considered her illness under control; in spite of her weakness, nothing made him foresee this profound diabetic coma. She said she felt well: avoided the tests with the pretext of not needing them, that she was tired of so many needle sticks. Diego had them bring his cot to his mother's bedroom; the dark fingers resembled the small wings of a wounded crane. Placing herself at his back, Berta caressed the hair of the young man and, upon leaning over, she moistened the nape of his neck with her hot breath. There, before the mother in agony, he knew that he loved her.
"I hope this old idiot doesn't get better. I spent good money on chocolates and pastries. She should be grateful. To die from eating delicious things. There's nothing better. Once we bury her, I'll be able to do what I want. I've already succeeded in convincing him that I'm in love. I know he has the blood of a bull. It should be fantastic to make love with a marionette, and to feel his legs dancing about. Could he possibly believe I could consider him a man? In whatever way, it will be an unforgettable experience; the problem is what to do with him afterwards: I believe he'll notice my disgust. One time, in order to calm myself down and to test how it is, I suppose will be enough; I'm not going to go on with him, since there are so many real men. A bust with little metal feet can't be useful for anything more than a pastime. It must be incredible! I can already just see him in the floor, grabbing my legs so I won't leave: right there I'll spit on him, with my fingernails, I'll scratch his face for having even thought that I could have able to love him, me ...
She heard the chair fall down, the sobs, and Diego grappling with the bed in order to fall down. Everything had been finished. Golden sparks escaped through Berta's eyelids; she raised her hand to her face to hide her joy. Later, she embraced Diego, wept with him and helped him with the duties of the burial.
"I no longer have any doubts. Berta loves me and I adore her. She's an angel, always at my side, helping with everything. Since the death of Mother, she has been more tender than ever. Yesterday, she searched for my lips and kissed me with true passion. She loves me, thanks to God, she loves me. She is beautiful, she is good, and she accepts me just as I am. I live very much alone in this house, without the company of Mother. I'm going to propose to her that we marry immediately; my name will live on. I should fix up the Mother's bedroom; she never permitted us to change the room; she always slept in her double bed. Poor Mother! I'm going to accommodate her things and search for the diamond ring; I'll give it to Berta; it will be our engagement ring. Mother cared about her very much, surely for the affection she showed her. This room is impregnated with the scent of jasmines; that makes me miss her more than ever. She must have suffered so much with my illness! Nevertheless, she never showed it to me; she overcame it and educated me without inhibitions. Thank you, Mother. At last, I find here, in her dressing gown, the key to her secretary desk. Let's see what's here: her jewelry box, papers, candies .... How is this possible? Good God, we all knew she must not eat those! Perhaps she bought them to share during visits, but, Who brought them here? The employees have been here forever; surely they didn't do it; I'll have to find out. And this? It looks like a diary. I never suspected she kept one. I can't go on -- I'm too caught up in wanting to know what she might have written about Berta; her impressions must be in these notes.
He looked for the date of the first meeting: the account is negative; her distrust doesn't weaken in the subsequent pages. Later on, she starts to accepter her; he kept on reading and arrived at the incident with the bonbons. In Diego's brain a light flashed. He continued the reading: "My dear Berta is completely right. Since I don't go out, I'm dominated and they've taken from me this pleasure that is so innocent. She's proposed a pact: this will be our secret." And further on: "I've gone back to my old vice: eat sweets every chance I get. Luckily, Berta brings them to me, delicious ones and a lot of them. I keep eating them until I'm tired, and then I start up again. She knows that I don't mean to do it: she would deprive me of this satisfaction. Besides, I can't betray her kindness." The face of Diego was a storm cloud.
"Why? It's impossible to doubt; I myself told Berta about the risks due to her illness and the absolute prohibition of eating pastas or sweets. She knew. It is not possible, and I can't believe it. She killed my mother. She did it quietly. I have to discover the reason for this madness. Now, what should I do? It's necessary to get to the bottom of this horror. Berta, my love, Why did you do it? It's shocking -- I trusted you.
The house was silent, the servants had retired to their rooms, and in the almost-dark living room shone two glasses of champagne. The sharp laugh of Berta rose up while she looked at Diego who was lying on the spacious sofa. She let herself fall to her knees on the rug, and she, sinuous, approached him. The moment had arrived to make him crazy for her, and she felt a sensuous little ripple to think of having his shrivelled, deformed legs that she still had not yet been acquainted with; it was her moment of triumph; she would be able to enjoy all the misery of a cripple. She rose quickly, and unfastening her dress, she let it slip. With nervous hands, she opened Diego's shirt, savoring his luxuriousness: the perfect body trembled in the half-light. To see that the young man was loosening his belt, she contained herself. In the silent room, the rasping of two throats perforated the shadows.
The strip of leather slipped out of the belt loops, and the glitter of the metal tip made a semicircle in the air before falling with force over the naked figure. With a shout of rage, Berta doubled in two, but the strap continued punishing her with fury; her flesh opened in bleeding furrows. Crumpled in the floor under the deluge of lashings, incapable of lifting herself up, she bellowed in pain. Almost inaudible, the words hissed through Diego's teeth:
"Disgusting cat. Murderer."
The servants drew close, alerted by the tumult. Before the lacerated body of the young woman dragging itself over the tapestry seeded by broken glass and bloodstains, Diego, steady in his crutches, with a liquid glow in his cheeks, held in his right hand his leather belt.