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Lessons in the corral.

Did El Piche's wife know why she stayed with him? ... She piled up silences like she piled up clothes in the trunk, and the trunk and her silences were her business and nobody else's. Her housework spun out in the fine, whispering web of a harmless household spider. Chores in the hut, around the hut. They were bustling movements that whirled and subsided without managing a semblance of the order, of the neatness, that -- she was sure -- existed somewhere. In the huts of the neighbors or the relatives, perhaps. But here ... what could anyone do with this mess of jumbled hides, dirty burlaps, pots and pieces of wire, and on top of it all, her slob of a husband. a husband she could admire for his feats as a horsebreaker, but could also hate on mornings when he ordered her to unsaddle the horse that had brought him, soaked in gin, back from the bar.

The hut looked like an old ball of tangled thread amid a litter of strewn garbage. Close by was the picket-fence corral, a dismal coliseum. A round enclosure for the wild ponies, which El Piche would corner in order to pick one out ... to tie up, master and tame with firmness and wisdom. In his ways El Piche was neither wise nor firm, much less considerate. As a horsebreaker he needed a partner, and he seized upon whoever was close at hand. His wife was close at hand. She mounted, herded, shouted and rode alongside like a man ... but was a woman. The men in the bar criticized the horsebreaker for disregarding the weaknesses of women, and talked about the temerities of this local version of Old Vizcacha. (*)

Old Vizcacha ... Not because of his age. But because he was slovently and selfish, and took advantage of others. The corral in which he lassoed, hitched and broke his animals was the field of his labors and the window on his indolence. A corral with no gate to close it off! Anyway, there was always someone around to block the gap in the fence and keep the frightened beasts from bolting by waving a piece of hide, or by shouting and flailing the whip in all directions. There was always someone. In a pinch, his wife, even if his crowd carped at him for it.

But she did not learn. She simply did not learn. He had told her a hundred times that she had to hold the whip in her hand and look sharp; stand like a man and block the exit to the wild ponies he had worked so hard to herd into the corral. She did what she could, but faced with the blind jostling and prancing, she gave way, her eyes shut tight, miserably female. Her failure distressed her as the hooves triumphantly receded. It distressed her more than when her bread came out flat and gummy, or when her attempt at gardening came to nothing.

But one day everything changed, though nothing seemed any different. The sun still shone on the same mess, the same disorganized work -- disorganized but never lazy -- of El Piche. The wind, having carefully combed the paja brava grass, plunged playfully into a turmoil of dust, manes and neighing. El Piche had ponies in the corral! And he was getting ready to lasso one for taming into obedient gentleness with skill beyond question.

Today, worse luck, it was her turn to help. And she trembled, whip in hand, facing the entrance to the corral, with orders to strike mercilessly any animal that tried to escape.

Her eyes scanned the distance, searched the horizon, unable to find a sign of the man who might obligingly arrive out of nowhere and get her out of his fix. But her husband was already berating her: "Hey ... now what are you waiting for, eh?"

The lasso flew over the pack. A rocket, held by a point, like the illusion of a married woman? ... A head bucked, and the tamer's touch and dexterity could do nothing. The frightened pack charged toward freedom, snorting in search of the open range, the swamps, the spattered and fraternally wild shade of the tala and nandubay trees.

Once again she let them get away, irretrievably. She wished that El Piche, too, had stormed past in the rush, that he were gone for a long time, forever, or at least till he fot over his anger.

But there he was, still ... His frustration seemed to pulsate through the air and reach her -- her it would! -- like the curve of the lasso, like the noose of the rope, right around her poor head. Inflamed by failure, his voice sounding choked by dried, floating dung, he insulted her.

"Useless! ... Silly bitch! ... It's you're fault they've gotten away! How many times have I told you to cut them off, you dumb idiot?"

The distant galloping pounded an accompaniment to her misery.

And then suddenly, an inspiration, and a glimpse of hope:

"Look -- you've got to learn somehow ..." (Learn ... learn. The cloth stretched across the hoop of the frame, the flower penciled in, the yarns ... all stuffed in the bottom of the trunk.)

"... I, alone, on foot, am going to do just like a pony ..." (the horse grows in the air, lifts its hands, rolls its eyes wildly, and it jumps ... leaps across the railing, rips, drags and tangles ...)

"... you rill up the whip in your hand and gab it tight. and don't let me get past you, I'm telling you!"

The gentle swirl set her down, in the daylight and alive once again, so that the scene could be played out in this now deserted and noiseless place. The scene, exactly as El Piche had written it.

And El Piche? What colt, what wild bronco had gotten into him?

In the middle of the corral she saw him. On two, on three, on four legs. Like a spring. He jumped. Jumped, snorted and bucked wildly for all the escaped ponies. He reared up in rage for all the cut lassoes, in desperation for the floods and droughts, in merriment for the wine of countless benders. He shouted and twisted, and vented irreverent splenetic oaths into the air: his guts, too, were a horse's.

He made straight for the the entrance, where his wife was waiting, and waiting.

She held on tight to the whip, her face serene, her other hand relaxed. At the charge of this centaur, she dodged numbly and fetched him a blow on the nape of the neck that stunned and felled him, and he lay for a while face down on the ground.

A clamor of Amazons raced across the sky as El Piche laboriously stood up, sought with his eyes the watering trough in which to drown the red cloud in his head, looked at his wife, and said:

"That's how you do it."

(*) Character in Jose Hernandez's late-19th century epic gaucho poem Martin Fierro, described in verses 7310738 as half wild, foul-mouthed, thieving and mendacious. Translator

Nedi Narden de Garcia lives in Parana, Argentina.
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Title Annotation:third place in contest; short story
Author:De Garcia, Nedi Narden
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Breeding success.
Next Article:Colca's elusive waters.

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