Marta Aponte Alsina


 1955:  Lavender Mist


Marta Aponte Alsina (pictured) is a contemporary Puerto Rican writer. She has written and published nine books (including novels and short story collections), as well as scholarly articles and reviews. Aponte Alsina graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, the University of California, Los Angeles, and New York University. She has been commissioned by the Venezuelan Fundación Ayacucho to be the editor of the historical anthology Narraciones puertorriqueñas (1849-1975). She is the former director and general editor of the University of Puerto Rico Press. Aponte Alsina is a former professor of creative writing at the Sacred Heart University of Puerto Rico.

Jeremy Osner blogs about reading and translation at He has translated short stories by Slavko Zupcic and Fernando Iwasaki for Words Without Borders and for Metamorphoses, and has translated Juan Gabriel Vásquez' opinion columns for The Utopian. He is currently seeking a publisher for his translation of Hernán Rivera Letelier's The Art of Resurrection; the first chapter of the translation was published in Two Lines.

Scott Esposito's writing has appeared in the translation-focused publications Asymptote and Words Without Borders, as well as widely elsewhere. He has translated interviews with Enrique Vila-Matas and Cesar Aira and is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (2013, Zero Books), an editor with Two Lines Press, and the editor-in-chief of The Quarterly Conversation.

He scraped off his shoes on the edge of the curb and walked into the vestibule of the Museum of Modern Art. He shivered. Through the glass door, in the sculpture garden, Rodin's sculpture of Balzac was standing tall in the autumn light. He'd seen it before, in the pages of some magazine; its grandeur prompted him now to stop, take off his hat. Some rude young men steered him toward the coat check.

He got a bit mad at the coat-check boy, a guy with a pork-belly face who insisted on taking his things. Eventually, he gave up his walking stick, hat and overcoat in exchange for a single ticket, deferring to the elderly couple on line behind him. They'd been shooting him the kind of dirty looks you see from a grocer waiting on some customer rummaging through his wallet. The old man was wearing a shirt with a threadbare collar and an expression as gloomy as the cracks in his shoes; and as for her, her eyes looked like two dried-up tears.

He was unusually quick in getting away from those two. He stood in the vestibule, marked off by the revolving doors and four harsh columns; he could see the smoke coming from a chestnut vendor's brazier out on the sidewalk. The young man — long hair, wearing gloves with the fingers cut off — was offering his wares to a girl with a red balloon tied around  her wrist. The pink and blue tones of chestnut smoke are indifferent to time. It's always the same smoke, smoke that has risen to countless other skies, the same smoke that clouded the vista over Florence one evening at the beginning of this century, smoke that bore in its vegetable essence the city's emanations that night — the image was so vivid, so sudden, it was a shock looking down at his arm not to find her little hand resting on it, like a gardenia cut fifty years ago. "You live in the strength of my withered arm," he said out loud, as if to remind himself of who he was. An appropriate phrase for the circumstances — it was one of his memories of a painter he had known, a talent gone unnoticed by the critics; a man who had lived out his life in poisonous, bitter resentment, until death cut it mercifully short.

Off in one corner of the vestibule, an oil painting of two scrawny figures with enormous feet and rumps, sporting African masks. Wilfredo Lam, Cuban, 1902-. His poorly timed toothache was throbbing again. "Mother of mercy!" he thought — "Think what's in store for me if this is what they put out in front."

By the portraits and masks on the ground floor, in between the admission desk and the doorway to the garden, some foolishness from that charlatan Picasso was on display. He walked by, torn between contempt and curiosity. A man with a tiny penis and the head of a minotaur, having congress with enormous Greek maidens. The couples looking at it smelled of tousled bedsheets; they were kissing each other, no shame or embarrassment, in full view of these monstrous images: Picasso admitting, for once, his own puny endowment. A girl smiled at him, seeing his shame before this monument to perversity.

He ought to have hidden his embarrassment behind one of the African masks: this was hostile territory. In the heat of the moment his toothache had disappeared, but now it came roaring back, like a wounded beast. He was sitting on one of the plastic-covered benches, mulling over his next steps. Along with the single coat, the three shirts and a couple of paintings, plus his walking stick and underthings, Mina had tucked away in his trunk a  little bundle of moriviví roots, for their medicinal properties. He pulled it resignedly from his pocket now; with a melancholy air he began to chew, trying not to think of his wife, her dusky voice, her sparrow's form that had lain with him in the bed for all these years, weaving who knows what celestial webs to entangle him — in the end, thirty years after their civil marriage, she had worn him down. Their church ceremony was at the altar of the town parish, before the very priest with whom he'd spent such long hours rehashing theological inanities. It was for her that his heart had fallen sick in Florence (after he drank that soda); for her that he had returned, never again to forsake the island. The island whose sustenance, intellectual as well as material, had to be shipped in with the mail: his native land, built up as it were from letters, postcards, correspondence courses . . . It was she, devotee of the Byzantine icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help — that image he had painted so many times, at her request — who cast her protective shadow over him, here in the heartless confines of this museum.

He reached into the pocket inside his jacket and felt the card there — it had come the previous month. It was an honor to be invited to the opening of an exhibit: new work by a Mr. Jackson Pollock. An honor and a surprise. Outside of his own town, "Mr. Suarez" was a relative unknown with few connections, despite having once spent a few months in Italy.

Outside, the chestnut smoke was thickening, the space seeming to gain in scope what it lost in sharpness. It gave the impression of a canvas that you've covered with a layer of gray paint, in hopes that from the stillness of this interior, from the depths of this lake will burst forth some new, some unexpected creation. Something fashioned from the shards of memory, which darken and fade but are never lost; which will take you by surprise as they now took him by surprise, looking down at his orphan hands, blue and knotty. He might have fallen useless at the feet of these barbaric columns, had he not suddenly overheard someone saying the name — it was like a change of scenery coming in from the wings — of Pollock; had he not seen the two women walking, with the assurance of sturdy windmills, toward the elevator.

"I'll follow them — so I don't die," he thought; and again he shivered. His head down, slipping away like time in an hourglass, lost behind his fogged-up spectacles — they'd been needing new lenses for some time now — he followed them. He couldn't shake the scent of chestnuts.

The elevator doors opened. Stepping out, he found himself face to face with an enormous oil canvas, on which he could make out the supple contours of a human form. "Gracious!" he exclaimed, looking at the placard: The Bather. Cézanne. Cézanne, who had paid no attention to the technical (and moral) guidance offered by his friend and teacher, Don Frasquito Oller. And it made sense — unlike the older artist (to his way of thinking, the greatest Puerto Rican or Latin American painter of all time), Cézanne had no eye for outline. It was plain to see: the subject's arms were a mess, the head not even roughly accurate. Small wonder then, that he should hold a special place of honor in this cabinet of monsters — these painters not worthy even of a word of scorn from the Teacher.

He felt indignant as he regained his composure. In truth, he said to himself, modern art's unforgivable sin was its insufferable rudeness: it claimed for itself unlimited freedom, but it was determined to curtail the freedoms of those outside it. He was walking along, stewing in anger, when he stumbled on Picasso's portrait of Dora Maar. If only some gentlemen had been by her side, he said to himself; that one of them might have challenged the shameless dwarf to a duel over this infamous likeness! Modern art arose from the very darkest misogynistic tendencies. He was no lover of mankind to be sure; but he remained firm in his belief that the human form was a thing of beauty — particularly the female form. So he thought, and he raised a hand to his chest. His heart beat in reply, and it was like an iceberg melting, a fanfare for his humiliation. He squeezed his fist, and once again the scent of chestnuts came to him, and the cold memory of that little hand on the sleeve of his worn-out jacket, worn so thin it was practically sheer. It was a poor man's jacket, for a student with so little, not even the mice found his larder worth raiding.

It had happened in Florence — September 10th, 1909; he remembered the date because he held onto the page, kept it in a secret place in his den, where he painted on Sundays. He held on to that exact moment, the memory of his fingers tearing the leaf from the calendar; and before they had enclosed it forever between the pages of his notebook, of caressing her petite form. Of looking into her deep, honey-colored eyes. The night before, she had delivered herself to him, in flesh and spirit; not only with the approval of the angel who watches over little flowers but also with the ancestral ghosts, with ghosts as ancient as Etruscan seers divining the future from gauzy clouds. He had awoken in the frigid room to feel a swallow's sweet talons resting against his ribs; and that voice, that voice so thin you had to double over to understand her words when you were walking arm in arm: Annunciation. Nunzia, my Nunzia.

He had a few lira that he'd gotten for restoring, with colored pencils, an old photograph of the landlady's grandfather, who fought under Garibaldi. The two of them went out for a soda; then they visited Dante's house and the Convent of San Marco, where they melted away into the clear light of Angélico's frescoes. The angel's message touched them, strange creature which appeared to have not two trembling wings but three; as perplexing as the halo around the Lord's humble servant answering the angel's call, beneath the dreamy arches. Pricked by the childish grace of angel and damsel, he suffered (along with some reflux from the soda) the first pangs of a murky guilt. Later on, since they didn't have cab fare, they walked arm in arm to the Piazza Michelangelo: Nunzia softly humming the Musetta's Waltz and straightening out the pleats of his best Sunday suit, he retracing with infinite care the rays gleaming from her invisible wings, this gauzy, translucent little woman, this ephemeral rival — the only one ever briefly to usurp the spot of the great love of his life, the light of his world: Illumination. Mina, my Mina.

Mina. She'd be cooking now; most likely a stew of summer squash and taro and potatoes — and meat, not a scrap; not even a ghost of animal flesh — in the little tin brazier. They didn't have enough to pay for electricity; and besides, she liked the smell of things cooking on the fire. It brought back memories of campfires from her idyllic forest home before the yankees came — land of milk and honey, of wild horses, of nymphs singing décimas, stroked by the foam of the endless waters. That was how he saw her — a rural  Puerto Rican Amazon, tall, her lips perfection — how beautiful she was, he thought now in the grip of a reverie, of love for his eternal wife. And she too was gauzy, smoky like the walls of her kitchen.

— Sir, are you allright?

English was for him a classical tongue, a language one reads but does not speak. But he found the strength to stand up and show her the card.

— The Pollock exhibit is down the hall — the redhead told him, with the mechanical elegance of a stoplight.

He thanked her with a nod of his head. Buttoned up his vest and reminded himself that it was, after all, an honor to be here. That he mustn't flag: he had an obligation to return to the town, if only so that he could relate his adventures, could repay the grace shown him by those who had financed the trip. Those who had overcome his resistance. It was in the end only for Mina's sake that he had made the trip; she said she did not want to die before the international critical community recognized her husband's talent. Dear, ingenuous Mina. She thought it was an ideal situation: not so much for the chance to gain exposure to foreign art but so that he could leave one of his magnificent landscapes safely behind on display, at one of the New York galleries that advertise in the journals:  that at last, he might be appreciated. The poor dear. She put some of the blame on herself for his failure to travel again to Europe after his return to the postal island — that had been in 1910, the year of Halley's Comet — and in truth, she was not far off.

He did not stop to look at The Starry Night; he feared the work of this Pollock would suffer greatly in comparison to the vast, delirious vision of the Dutch madman. He would have time later to pay homage to these colors mixed with a severed ear, time before he headed back to the apartment on 110th Street — it housed a family of his compatriots, richer in hospitality than in creature comforts.

In the hallway he saw a poster: he was indeed approaching the exhibit. Paul Jackson Pollock, American Painter. He could see it at the end of the corridor, bursting riotously out of the doorway, lashing him with its lunacy — it looked to him like one of Van Gogh's stars had spun out of its orbit and smashed to pieces, cracked against the wall before him like an enormous egg. With a wary step he entered Pollock's kingdom.

Off to one side of the salon that hosted these fever dreams, in a niche that looked like a prehistoric cave, a black table had been decked out with silver platters overflowing with bunches of grapes, blue cheese, bottles bearing castaways' messages. A witches' feast! A crowd was milling around the spread — men unshaven, women hunched over, on their faces arrogant, myopic expressions. The prince among these nightowls was a well-built bald man in a turtleneck sweater. He wasn't talking, just smoking and drinking.

So Pollock — for that was him, no doubt — he must be one of these pretentious, presumptuous artists, the kind who paints huge canvases just to garner attention. For his own part, Señor Suárez inclined more toward miniatures, out of financial necessity as much as from his belief that "less is more." He felt a certain envious sense of outrage: the bald man must be pretty rich, to paint such colossal canvases.

It struck him as amazing, distressing, to find someone even more brazen than that Andalusían dwarf. What was before him — this — this was just elevating ashes to the stars, exalting the trash from a mechanic's shop: old newspapers and rags that soak up the spattered grease on the garage floor. Worst by far, this enigmatic piece bearing the name of a perfume: "Lavender Mist." A monumental, shattered star escaped from Van Gogh's canvas, only to be subjected to an inauspicious rebirth: transmuted from star to grime on a painter's palette, from a goddess to trash.

He felt he would weep. He would vomit up the chestnuts he had sampled at the museum entrance, when he had passed by there on this staunch march toward death. But rather than collapse, he stood stock still, so still that he could not hear the people around him talking, and they in turn seemed to take no notice of him, as if he had taken on the transparent quality of a dream. All these years of paying homage to a humanity that he did not trust, did not even love     . . . the years of his life were puny candles now, under the blazing sun of these purple stains, these yellow ejaculations, this violent inhumanity dripped out in black, white, mustard. Señor Suárez was able to bear the mindless insularity of his town: the dramatic light of its dusks redeemed it for him. The golden clouds that would get mixed up with the smoke from some hidden still; the smoking embers in some poor man's hearth. The stubborn outrage one felt toward the Deity who would permit such poverty. And this man — he must be a painter but he could hardly be human — he must have memories too, must have wife and mother; but you would not see it in his canvases. They were battlefields for the goddess of chaos, poignant only in the violence of their grease stains. They were a sickness without warning, the kind that ravages your defenseless body. As if this no-man's-land, this sneering dismissal of the sacred office of art,  this complete abandonment of the pathways of form, itself contained the sum of all memorable forms. As if his own feeble body had become the empty, ghostly canvas; harsh gusts of wind spattered him with horrific blues, with violent, jagged gouts of black. The grime of poverty. The lavender smoke from the tin brazier. The essence of chestnuts. An angel's three wings, on a day whose death (like that of every other day) was a tiny leave-taking. Pigeon shit on a defenseless plaza.

He was shaking; his teeth were chattering. With the handkerchief that loving hands had ironed for him, he was mopping his brow, drying up this homage of sweat and tears.

Sir, are you allright?

Words were apparently a scarcity in this woman's vocabulary. So someone had at last noticed his presence, had noticed this fossil blocking the walkway. Turning to respond, he caught the artist's eyes upon him, shining with the voracity of lit coals. He returned the gaze, stared down from the stature afforded him by his work, his landscapes, madonnas, country lasses. A lifetime of work in miniature, done with patience and resignation, and inspired by a love as childish as it was incomprehensible.

And just then there was the voice of Mina, or perhaps of his amiable adversary the priest; or maybe it was the devil, placing in his ear the cruel clarity of understanding: "This man is insatiable. He embraces everything; but without understanding anything."

He let the guide push him to the limits of his tolerance. Once more, like a slap at his ears, came the snarling voice — Don't be disappointed. You don't have to like his work. But without this journey, without this painting, what would remain of you? Already you are more dead than alive. — And without knowing why, with no one to put his trust in, he did something he was never really able to figure out. He burst back into the gloomy room, placed himself before the artist, confronted his target. He was playing many different roles now, but only one was of any importance: "Salvador Suárez, artist, painter." He embraced Mr. Paul Jackson Pollock with a hearty squeeze, did not let go until the other showed a sign of life. Suddenly a brilliant reflected gleam shone from the bald head. The old man, his sincerity apparent, said what was on his mind:

— My friend, you are a barbarian. You paint as if one eye were on the moon and the other on Mars. I don't like your work; but you have made me weep. And tears are the blood of sincerity.

Pollock did not understand a word of the Spanish. All he could do was offer a cup of the sour wine. Señor Suárez gulped it down. His composure intact despite the intimate intensity of the encounter, the older painter took his leave of the inhuman painter. He gave a nod to the batty crowd. He kissed the guide's hand and exited, his stride now sure. Returning to the Van Gogh salon he could feel himself drowning in the delirious sea of The Starry Night. — That one could use light itself, to paint light! That anyone should be capable of such a feat! — And there he stood, until one of the rude young men pushed him along toward the elevator.

He rode down humming the Musetta's Waltz, feeling a cold little hand resting on his left arm; on his right, the eternal weight of his love for his postcard island. The elevator opened onto the vestibule, marked off by its harsh columns. Outside, a brilliant sun punctuated the chestnut smoke.



Lavender Mist (1955)

Raspó en la acera la suela gastada de las botas, entró en el vestibulo del Museum of Modern Art y sintió frío. Tras la puerta vidriera del jardín de esculturas se erguía en la luz otoñal una estatua de Balzac por Rodin que había visto retratada en las páginas de una revista. La grandiosa presencia le impulsó a quitarse el sombrero y detenerse, hasta que unos jóvenes insolentes lo empujaron hacia el guardarropa.

Se cabreó un poco con el ujier, un hombrón con cara de tocino que insistía en arrebatarle sus cosas. Abandonó el bastón, la capa y el sombrero a cambio de una contraseña sólo porque lo desarmaron las miradas de dos ancianos que le seguían en la fila, aquellos suspiros impacientes de tenderos que aguardan la morosa decisión de un comprador. El viejo llevaba una camisa de cuello raído y un aire fúnebre como las grietas de los zapatos; ella, por ojos, dos lágrimas congeladas.

Huyó de la pareja con súbita incomodidad. Desde el vestíbulo enmarcado por las puertas giratorias y cuatro brutales columnas, se veía la acera donde humeaba el brasero de un vendedor de castañas. El joven de pelo largo y guantes de dedos cortados ofrecía sus frutos a una niña con un globo rojo atado a la muñeca. El humo de las castañas, de tonos azules y rosados, es indiferente al tiempo; debe ser el mismo que ha subido infinitas veces a otros cielos, el mismo que nublaba la vista panorámica de Florencia una tarde, a comienzos de siglo, prolongando en su entraña vegetal las emanaciones de la ciudad, tan viva la estampa que tuvo que mirarse el brazo para saber con asombro que el peso no era el de una mano pequeña, semejante a una gardenia cortada cincuenta años atrás. "Vives en mi brazo senil", repitió en voz alta, como para recordar quién era. Digna de las circunstancias, la frase provenía de las memorias de un colega pintor que, desatendido por la crítica, vivió envenenado de resentimiento hasta que piadosamente se lo llevó la muerte.

Relegado a un rincón del vestíbulo, un óleo con dos figuras flaquísimas, de pies y culos colosales, que lucían máscaras africanas. Wilfredo Lam, Cuban 1902-. "¡Madre de misericordia!", pensó, sintiendo las punzadas de un inoportuno dolor de muela, "lo que me espera si éste es el botón de muestra".

En el primer nivel, entre las puertas del jardín y la boletería, cerca de los retretes y las máscaras, exhibían unas tonterías del charlatán de Picasso. Se paseó ante ellas, indeciso entre la curiosidad y la sorna. Un hombre de pene minúsculo y cabeza de un minotauro seducía colosales doncellas griegas. Las parejas de espectadores olían de sábanas dominicales, se besaban despreocupados e impúdicos frente a las ocurrencias de quien por una vez había reconocido la pequeñez genital de su propio pergeño monstruoso. Una muchachita le sonrió al ver su turbación frente a una imagen de lascivia desembozada.

Hubiera escondido su vergüenza tras una de las máscaras africanas, pues aquel era terreno hostil. En el estremecimiento había desaparecido el dolor de la muela, que resurgió como una fiera herida en el banco tapizado de plastico donde se recogió a meditar sus próximos pasos. Junto al traje único, tres camisas, varias pintaduras, el bastón y prendas interiores, Mina le había echado al baúl — por lo demás vacío pero no tenían un cofre más pequeño — un sobrecito con raíces de moriviví. Resignado las extrajo del bolsillo y masticó melancólicamente, echando de menos la voz trigueña de su mujer, la delicada figura de espárrago que había yacido por años en la cama, tejiendo quién sabe qué trampas celestiales hasta que él, cansado de resistencias, accedió a casarse por la iglesia treinta años después de la boda civil, en el altar del pueblo chico, ante el cura con quien debatía sin fin sobre naderías teológicas. Por ella había enfermado de amor en Florencia, tras tomar una gaseosa, por ella había vuelto, para no salir jamás, de la isla cuyo sustento intelectual y material llegaba por el correo, como si se tratase de un terruño hecho de cartas, situados y cursos por correspondencia. Era ella —devota de la imagen bizantina de la Virgen del Perpetuo Soccoro, que por cumplir un promesa de ella tuvo que pintar tantas veces— quien vertía su sombra protectora en el espacio descorazonado del museo.

Palpó en el interior de la chaqueta la cartulina que había recibido un mes antes, sorprendiéndole el honor de aquella invitación a la exposición de la obra reciente de un tal Jackson Pollock. Fuera de su pueblo, "Mr. Suárez" era un desconocido con escasas relaciones, pese a que en su juventud vivió unos meses en Italia.

Afuera el humo de las castañas se condensaba y el espacio ganaba en amplitud lo que perdía en agudeza, semejante a un lienzo cubierto con una capa de gris, en espera de que surgiera de las entrañas inertes, como del fondo de una laguna, una criatura inesperada, hecha de trozos de recuerdos que se opacan pero jamás se pierden, y que de pronto sorprenden, como ahora se sorprendía él, mirándose las manos huérfanas, azules y nudosas. Quizás hubiera caído al pie de las columnas bárbaras de no ser porque de pronto, como en un cambio de escenografía entre bastidores, oyó el nombre de Pollock y vio a dos mujeres con aire de turbinas eficaces, vestidas a la moda hombruna del medio siglo, que se dirigían al ascensor.

"Las sigo para no morirme", musitó con un escalofrío. Cabizbajo, hundiéndose como el tiempo en un reloj de arena, perdido tras los espejuelos empañados que hacía timepo necesitaban nuevos lentes, las siguió sin desprenderse del olor de las castañas.

Al abrirse la puerta del ascensor quedó suspendido ante un óleo de gran tamaño, donde se percibían los contornos abocetados de una figura humana. "Válgame", exclamó mirando el rótulo: El bañista. Cézanne, el que no atendió los consejos técnicos y morales de su amigo del alma y maestro, don Frasquito Oller. Y con razón, a diferencia de quien, en su estima, había sido el más grande pintor puertorriqueño y latinoamericano de todos los tiempos, Cézanne no sabía dibujar, era evidente; daban pena los brazos, la cabeza del modelo no pasaba de un boceto inconcluso. No en balde le habían reservado un sitial de honor en aquel gabinete de monstruos que no hubieran merecido ni un comentario despectivo del Maestro.

En realidad, se dijo recuperando el brío con la indignación, lo que no le perdonaba al arte moderno era su insufrible malacrianza; además de reclamar para sí una libertad sin límites, se obstinaba en destruir las libertades ajenas. Iba rumiando rabias cuando tropezó con el retrato de Dora Maar por Picasso y se dijo que si aquella dama hubiera estado rodeada de varones alguno habría retado a duelo al desvergonzado gnomo andaluz por tamaña infamia. El arte moderno surgía en una pieza de los más turbios instintos misóginos. Aunque él no era un filántropo, sí creía que el cuerpo humano era glorioso, sobre todo el cuerpo de la mujer, pensó llevándose una mano al pecho. De golpe le respondio el corazón como un témpano que se deshiela anunciando su caída con estrépito y se le apretó el brazo y volvieron a turbarle el olor de las castañas y el aleteo de la manita fría en su chaqueta gastada, casi transparente, de estudiante tan pobre que ni siquiera merece el asedio de los ratones.

Sucedió en Florencia, el 10 de septiembre de 1909; lo recuerda porque todavía, en un secreto lugar de la leonera donde pinta los domingos, conserva la hoja y el recuerdo del momento exacto, cuando sus dedos arrancaron el papelito del almanaque y, antes de encerrarlo para siempre entre las páginas de la libreta de apuntes, acariciaron el cuerpo minúsculo. Sus ojos navegaron en los ojos enormes, de color de la miel. La noche anterior ella se le había entregado en carne y espíritu, con la anuencia no sólo del ángel custodio de las floristillas sino de los manes ancestrales, tan antiguos como aquellas miradas etruscas que leían el futuro en el cendal de las nubes. Despertó en el cuartucho helado al sentir en las costillas las garras dulces de una golondrina y aquella voz tan tenue que para entenderla cuando caminaba prendida de su braza tenía que doblarse hasta la cintura: Annunziata, Nunzia, mi Nunzia.

Él había ganado unas liras restaurando con lápices de colores la fotografía del abuelo garibaldino de la dueña de la pensión. Tomaron una gaseosa y después visitaron la casa del Dante, antes de pisar el claustro de San Marco y disolverse en las luces transparentes de los frescos de Angélico, tocados por el mensaje de una criatura que en lugar de dos alas tremolantes parecía tener tres, tan improbables como el aura de la humilde sierva del señor que le respondía bajo arcos soñadores. Herido por la infantil cortesía del ángel y la doncella, sufrió, con el reflujo de la gaseosa, el primer hervor de una culpa turbia. Más tarde caminaron abrazados hasta la Piazzale Michaelangelo porque no tenían con qué pagar un coche. Nunzia canturreaba el vals de Musetta, atildando los pliegues de su mejor traje dominguero, y él dibujaba con trazos finísimos el brillo que despedían las alas invisibles de aquella secreta mujercita de humo, efímera rival, la única que ocupó brevemente el lugar de la gran pasión de su vida, de la mujer de la tierra: Iluminada, Mina, mi Mina.

Mina. Ahora estaría cocinando en el anafre pobrerón un guiso de calabazas, yautías y papas (de la carne ni el fantasma) porque no tenían con qué pagar electricidad y además a ella le gustaba el olor de las cosas quemadas; le recordaba los fogones del campo donde vivió hasta el 1900, en un bosque encantado de leche abundante, caballos briosos y ninfas que cantaban décimas acariciadas por la espuma de infinítas corrientes de agua. Así la conoció, una amazona jíbara, alta, de labios perfectos, qué hermosa era, se dijo estremecido por su amor imbécil a la eterna esposa. También ella se ahumaba, como las paredes mugrientas de su cocina.

—Sir, are you allright?

El inglés era para él una lengua muerta, de esas que se leen y no se hablan, pero le alcanzó el animo para ponerse de pie y mostrar la cartulina.

—The Pollock exhibition is down the hall— dijo la rubia  con la mecánica elegancia de un semáforo.

Agradeció con un gesto de la cabeza, se abrochó el chaleco y pensó que, después de todo, era un honor estar allí y que no podía morirse porque la obligación de regresar al pueblo, aunque sólo fuera para narrar sus aventuras y reciprocar la gentileza de quienes habían pagado su pasaje imponiéndose a su mejor juicio. Sólo viajó a instancias de Mina, que no quería morirse sin que la crítica internacional reconociera de una vez el talento de su marido. Pensaba, la muy ilusa, que la ocasión era propicia no tanto para acercarse al arte ajeno como para dejar a buen recaudo algún paisaje exquisito que, expuesto en una de esas galerías neoyorquinas que se anunciaban en las revistas de arte, fuera al fin, apreciado. Pobrecita, alguna culpa se atribuiría de que él jamás hubiera regresado a Europa después de su retorno a la isla por correspondencia en 1910, el año del cometa Halley. Y tenía razón.

No se detuvo ante La noche estrellada porque mucho temía que el tal Pollock habría de perder en su estima ante la marea delirante del loco hollandés. Ya tendría tiempo de rendir homenaje a aquellos colores mezclados con orejas molidas, antes de escapar al apartamento de unos paisanos que vivían en la calle 110, más rico en hospitalidad que en comodidades.

Una parcarta le anunció que, en efecto, se acercaba a la dichosa exposición de "Paul Jackson Pollock, American Painter". Al final del pasillo, desbordándose como una tropa de vándalos por el hueco de la puerta, le azotó el húracan de locura; por lo visto uno de los astros de Van Gogh había escapado de su órbita para hacerse pedazos, con el estrépito de un huevo gigantesco, contra la pared del fondo. Cauteloso entró en el reino de Pollock.

A un lado del salón donde colgaban los delirios, en un cuartito con apariencia de cueva prehistórica, habían puesto una mesa negra con palanganas de plata desbordantes de racimos de uvas, quesos azules, botellas náufragas. Hombres de barbas desaliñadas y mujeres jorobadas, con la mirada arrogante de los seres miopes, revoloteaban alrededor de aquellos alimentos dignos de un aquelarre . El príncipe de aquellas criaturas nocturnas, un hombre calvo y musculoso embutido en un suéter de cuello de tortuga, fumaba y bebía en silencio.

Aquel individuo, el tal Pollock sin duda, era uno de esos pintores impúdicos que para no pasar desapercibidos pintan lienzos de gran tamaño. Él, que se inclinaba más a las miniaturas porque pensaba que lo bueno si breve dos veces bueno, pero también por razones económicas, sintió cierta escandalizada envidia. El calvo debe ser un pintor muy rico para poder manchar de aquel modo superficies tan descomunales.

Por lo demás, jamás hubiera pensado que alguien superaría en desfatachez al gnomo andaluz. Aquello no era más que la canonización del detritus de un taller de hojalatería y pintura; la elevación a planos astrales de los periódicos y lonas que se colocan debajo de los automóviles para recoger salpicaduras. Sobre todo aquel enigma bautizado con nombre de perfume, Vapor Lavanda, la monumental estrella rota que se le fugara a Van Gogh y que allí sufría las transformaciones de una reencarnación insospechada, de astro a sucia paleta de pintor; de diosa a basura.

Sintió que lloraría o que vomitaría las castañas que probó a la entrada del museo en su paso hacia la muerte, pero en lugar de morirse quedó inmóvil, al punto de que no oía los comentarios de los demás espectadores, que tampoco reparaban en él, como si hubiera sido suya la transparencia de los fantasmas. Años de rendir homenaje a la humanidad sin confiar en ella, sin amarla siquiera, se rendían como cirios encendidos ante el sol de aquellas manchas violáceas, de aquellas eyaculaciones amarillas, de aquella injuriosa inhumanidad espolvoreada de negro, blanco y mostaza. Él soportaba la imbécil pequeñez de su pueblo por la emotiva luz de los crepúsculos, las nubes doradas que se confundían  con el humo de algún alambique clandestino, leña humeante de los hogares pobrisimos, en un desafío obstinado al Señor que permitía tanta pobreza. Y ese hombre que debía ser pintor pero que ya no era hombre, también tendría recuerdos y madre y mujer, pero eso no se veía en su obra invadida por el dios del desorden, conmovedora en sus lamparones de violencia, una súbita enfermedad de esas que sorprenden al cuerpo indefenso. Era como si aquella tierra de nadie, aquella manera de despreciar el oficio sagrado del arte, perdido el camino de la forma, fuese la suma de todas las formas memorables, y su cuerpo de vejete, en efecto, el fantasma transparente que recibiera, en una bocanada de viento, el tono sobrecogedor de los azules de la sierra, juntamente de negras goteras estelares; la mugre de la pobreza, el humo lavanda de los anafres y la esencia de las castañas; las tres alas del ángel en un día cuya muerte, como la de todos los días, fue una despedida minúscula, caca de golondrina en una plaza desamparada.

Tembló hasta que le crujieron los dientes. Con el pañuelo planchado  por manos amorosas secó su homenaje de sudor y lágrimas.

—Sir, are you allright?

Por lo visto escaseaban las palabras en el vocabulario de aquella mujer. Alguien por fin advertía su condición de estorbo fosilizado. Al volverse para responder vio que lo espiaban los ojos del artista con voracidad de carbones encendidos. Devolvió la mirada desde la estatura que le confería la dignidad de su trabajo: paisajes, madonas y jibaritas, una obra en miniatura, hecha con paciencia y resignación, inspirada por un amor tan infantil como incompresible.

De pronto le habló Mina, o su cordial adversario, el cura; o quizás el demonio, depositándole en la oreja la cruel claridad de la palabra: "Este hombre es tan insaciable que todo lo abraza sin entender nada."

Se dejó arrastrar por la guía hasta los umbrales de la desobediencia. Allí, como un halón de orejas, oyó nuevamente la voz regañona: "No seas malagradecido, no es que te guste su pintura, pero sin este viaje y ese cuadro qué hubiera sido de ti, ya estabas más muerto que vivo". Entonces, sin saber por qué ni encomendarse a nadie, hizo algo que no alcanzaría a penetrar jamás. Irrumpió en el cuartito sombrío, se cuadró frente al pintor y le entregó su tarjeta. Tenía muchos oficios distintos y uno solo importante: "Salvador Suárez, artista-pintor". Abrazó con un apretón viril a Mr. Paul Jackson Pollock y no lo soltó hasta que el otro dio señales de vida: un súbito resplandor en la calva fosforescente. Entonces el viejo, con la sinceridad de las apariciones, dijo lo que le dictó el alma.

—Compadre, usted es un bárbaro, pinta como si tuviera un ojo en la luna y el otro en Marte. Su pintura no me gusta, pero me ha hecho llorar y las lágrimas son la sangre del alma.

Pollock no entendió palabra. Se limitó a ofrecerle una copa de vino agrio que él bebió de un solo trago. Luego, sin perder la compostura a pesar de la emotividad del encuentro, el pintor viejo se despidió del pintor inhumano, saludó con una inclinación de la cabeza a los murciélagos, besó la mano de la guía y salió pisando recio. De vuelta a la sala de Van Gogh se hundió en la marea delirante de La noche estrellada —¡que alguien use la luz misma para pintar la luz, que alguien sea capaz de hacerlo!— y allí quedó hasta que unos jóvenes insolentes lo empujaron hacia el ascensor.

Bajó tarareando el vals de Musetta, sintiendo en el brazo izquierdo una manita fría y en el derecho el peso eterno del amor a su isla por correspondencia. La puerta del ascensor se abrió al vestíbulo enmarcado por columnas brutales. En la calle un sol espléndido aspiraba el humo de las castañas.