At Cantalobos, you learn immediately that madness is white and silent, like an Angora cat. Like cobwebs hanging from the ceiling of an abandoned house, the silence ensnares the new arrivals. Within days, it soundlessly overpowers them, turning them into motionless statues that simply appear, half-hidden behind the door to the chapel or occupying a corner of the patio. I think about this, this idea that madness is white, and how it slithers around us, as Cecilia and I walk toward our bench like sweethearts. She stops trembling and even smiles sometimes when we sit on this false park bench, an indoor bench in the middle of the hallway, somewhat sad and incomplete, surrounded by pots with plants never touched by rain. But today someone else has arrived first. Silently, two patients are pretending to paint the wood, one on each side. They look up at the same time, their invisible brushes suspended in mid-stroke, and they gaze at us, faces twisted, the ugly, cadaverous mien of the insane. “We’ll get paint on ourselves here,” I say to her in a low voice. “We’ll go somewhere else.”  I take Cecilia by her frail hand and suggest we sing to shake off the fright, but she does not respond. In the silence we hear the muted sound of water running from a tap on the floor above, a whooshing trapped behind the wall that follows us to the end of the corridor.

We continue down the north wing until we run into one of the caregivers. She is new and we do not know her name, but they all wear their hair pulled back and are so much taller than the convalescents. This is how we can distinguish them from the patients. Madness is white, silent, and it shrinks people down, like bad news. But this woman has neither withered nor paled, and as she passes us her dark dress rustles. Her eyes are black daggers. Cecilia’s pulse quickens even though the woman does not acknowledge us. She moves down the hall, trailing the black echoes of horseshoes and keys that shatter the silence, and then are swallowed up as she turns the corner. “You will go but you won’t return,” Cecilia whispers, her eyes closed. “The white light will kill me, Tristán.” I squeeze her hand that has gone limp in mine.

“You will go but you won’t return,” she repeats.

My poor Cecilia.

I would like to tell her I do not need to return, that I have gotten used to this place, even though I am not crazy. I only pretended I was so they would not separate us. When the doctor determined there was nothing to be done and I found out they were going to send Cecilia to Cantalobos–“A private hospital with all the amenities,” Dr. Matías assured, as he closed his medical bag, “A very modern clinic”–I burned down the barn and shot father’s favorite bloodhound, screaming it was the Devil. Immediately the news spread through the village: “The children are cursed,” they said. “The children are the ones to pay for the sins of their parents.” They were not terribly surprised; it was what they had prayed for, lighting candles and cursing the abusive landowners and all their progeny on the day one of their own had died in our garden–even though all Cecilia and I knew was that out of nowhere we heard shots and then saw a raggedy shape in a heap next to the hen house. A chicken ran around the corpse, crazed by the noise and the smell of gunpowder, while our parents, still in a state of half-dress, shouted at each other through the open windows, arguing, amidst loud laughter, about whose bullet had landed its mark and got the Commie in the head.

For a time, Cecilia and I, the accursed, remained removed from the war that continued all around us. Sprawled out next to each other on the rug, the faraway sounds of a muffled storm shook the windows of the parlor and, if anything, made us glance up momentarily from our Encyclopedia of Natural Science to look at each other, before returning to our colorful pictures of butterflies and cannibals with painted faces. But I was not next to her the afternoon she suffered her first schizophrenic episode. Since then, I have asked myself so many times why I had never noticed anything strange about Cecilia, if it was possible she was already sick when she used to insist on inventing new names for things, or when she would go on about a time in the past when supposedly I was a French king named Tristán and she was my beautiful wife and we lived at the top of a stone tower and went into the forest every afternoon, looking for white deer. At the time I went along with it, thinking, I suppose, it was because we were so bored during those adolescent years spent as the only children in that forgotten little village in the middle of nowhere. That was why Cecilia was always inventing something new to do, something other than shaking the yellow dust out of our ears that the wind blew in, or looking for fossils among the ruins of the convent where only a few years later the Cantalobos sanatorium would make its home.

Cecilia and her excessive joy: that is what I remember. Both died forever that late August afternoon. The sonata she was practicing was left strangled among the piano keys when she believed she saw a murder of crows enter through the large parlor window and attack her. Those who were there all attest that, without warning, she jumped up from the piano bench, waving and flapping her arms. With eyes full of terror she retreated into a corner of the room where mother was working at her embroidery station, sewing a rather simple face on the Virgin Mary. “Help me,” she pleaded. “Mother, help me!” The servants, Father, Grandmother, everyone heard her scream that the crows had nested in the top of her head and were eating her, they were eating her alive. They could not stop her from running to the garden, as if she thought there she would be safe, ripping off the lace collar of her white dress, shaking out her white petticoats and shoes, howling my name.

It was the sweltering hour of the afternoon siesta and Cecilia’s shouts pierced my dreams like tongues of fire. I leaped from bed; in my underwear I ran barefoot down the stairs and went out to the garden, terrified by the pain I heard in her voice. It was then that I saw her kneeling in the grass, next to the eucalyptus that divided the gardens, half naked and waving her arms like a marionette, trying to cover her face. The red satin ribbon holding her braid had come undone and was hanging over her shoulder like a trail of blood, half-hidden by her tangled hair. And I knew that the empty eyes with which she was searching for me but could not see me, riveted on the sky like those of a dead horse abandoned on the side of the road, was truly the most horrific sight I could imagine.

Afterward, they locked her up, strapped to her bed. All that was left of her was a yellow dress yet to be worn, hanging in the armoire like a lonely bride, her orphaned piano left like a sunken ocean liner, and the maids who crossed themselves as they walked past the screams emanating from the bedroom.

Next to the stained glass window, the Mother smiles faintly, rocking her child, but she stops when she hears us come in, tries to hide him under her coarse, institutional robe as if wanting to place him between her legs, to return him to the womb from which he never came. The Mother opens her mouth with the look of a wounded animal when the child slips from her hands and smashes against the marble floor.  No one hears its cry. It is empty. She is the only one who does not know that her son is a doll with real hair and eyes of polished glass. Its face of cold porcelain is turned grotesquely toward us, accusing us. The Mother lunges toward it. “Don’t look at him,” she screams, her face discolored under the blinding sunlight that streams through the glass.

She remains behind, on the floor, wailing, a silent film of death.

If Cecilia did not tremble so, if she were not so terrified of the white light, of the pallid lunatics, of the caregivers–the black chess queens–I would want to talk to her about my own fears. I would tell her that sometimes I think we are dead, that the lunatics are the only ones able to see us as we walk from gallery to gallery, stopping at the bench she likes so much. I would tell her their madness allows them to see even those who do not know they no longer exist. But Cecilia trembles. Perhaps I have just told her without realizing I have spoken. She looks at me and squeezes my hand. There is a spark of compassion in her eyes when she tells me:

“We are not dead, Tristán. We are crazy.”


Patricia Esteban Erlés

Patricia Esteban Erlés (b. 1972 in Zaragoza, Spain) completed her studies in Hispanic Philology at the University of Zaragoza and specializes in chivalric literature. Her own literary production, in contrast, is firmly rooted in contemporary society, as she represents the age in which she lives, with all the technological innovations and personal uncertainties of our postmodern world. Her work has been described as gothic, with a marked influence from film, featuring a disarming sense of the mysterious as she explores the points of contact between reality and fantasy. The story featured here, "Cantalobos," comes from Manderley en venta (Tropos, 2010), which won the 2007 University of Zaragoza literary award for short fiction and was named one of the top ten books of short stories of 2008.

Esteban Erlés teaches creative writing workshops, maintains a literary blog, and has published four books of short stories for which she has earned literary awards and inclusion in a number of anthologies. Her latest book, Dollhouse (2012), is a collection of flash fiction. She is currently working on her first novel.

Catherine Nelson

Catherine Nelson is an Associate Professor of Spanish at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She recently finished a translation of The Sum and the Remainder by Irene Jiménez (2011) and currently is translating Belén Gopegui's novel Longing to Be Punk (2009). Her translations have appeared in Aldus and here in InTranslation, and are forthcoming in Indiana Review and MAYDAY Magazine.

Cantalobos. Copyright (c) Patricia Esteban Erlés, 2008. English translation copyright (c) Catherine Nelson, 2013.