When I was little, my mother told me the same anecdote several times. It was from when she’d just married my father. They married very young, at sixteen and eighteen, because my mum was pregnant – a pregnancy she lost at six months. They hadn’t been dating long, so they didn’t know each other all that well. Soon after moving in together, while they were eating lunch, they had an argument, some silly teenage spat that ended up getting heated. My father raised one hand as if to slap her. And my mother, not messing around, plunged a fork into his other hand, which was resting on the table. My father never tried to play the big man again.
Every time she told me the story, I found myself wondering which of those forks – and I loved that cutlery set with acrylic yellow handles they’d been given as a wedding gift – had tasted my father’s flesh.
I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there. It was there when we talked about Marta, the neighbour whose husband used to beat her, and who in turn knocked her own kids about, especially Ale, a little boy who only ever drew spiders. Sometimes we lay in the grass to look at the sky, and if we saw those long, thin, lumpy clouds, bunched together, like waves, he’d say: Look, my dad’s been ploughing the sky. His dad was a farmer. Ale died in a motorbike accident when he was sixteen.
It was there when we talked about Bety, the lady from the corner shop who hanged herself in her garden shed. The whole neighbourhood said her husband used
to hit her, and that he knew how to do it so you never saw the marks. No one reported it. After her death, word got around that he’d killed her and covered it up, making it look like a suicide. It was possible. It was also possible that she’d hanged herself, sick of the life she was leading.
And it was there when we talked about the wife of López the butcher. Her daughters went to my school. She reported him for rape. For some time, as well as beating her up, he’d been sexually abusing her. I was twelve years old, and this news made a big impression on me. How could her husband have raped her? Rapists were always unknown men who grabbed hold of a woman and dragged her off to some patch of wasteland, or who broke into her house by forcing a door. From a very young age, we girls were told not to speak to strangers, and to watch out for the Satyr. The Satyr, in those early childhood years, was a figure as magical as the child- snatching Solapa or the Sack Man. It was the Satyr who could rape you if you went out alone at the wrong time or strayed into desolate places. Who could appear out of nowhere and carry you off to some building site. They never told us you could be raped by your husband, your dad, your brother, your cousin, your neighbour, your granddad, your teacher. A man you trusted completely.
And it was there when Cachito García would disturb the whole neighbourhood’s siestas by yelling at his girlfriend. Cachito was a petty thief and he was dating the eldest daughter of our neighbours the Bonnots. Don Bonnot worked building roads and was away from home most of the year. His wife and numerous female offspring, all very pretty girls, lived by themselves. Cachito, a jealous guy, was forever having a go at his girlfriend because she wore make-up or tight clothes or he saw her talking to another guy. One time he went a bit further. The Bonnot house was a wooden prefab and Cachito sprinkled the sides with kerosene and threatened to set it alight. The neighbours stopped him before everything went up in flames.
Alongside these situations sat other, more minor examples. My friend’s mum, who never wore make-up because her husband wouldn’t let her. My mother’s colleague, who handed her whole salary over to her husband each month to take care of. The woman who couldn’t see her family because her husband looked down on them. The woman who wasn’t allowed to wear high heels because they were for whores.
I grew up hearing grown women discussing situations like these in whispers, as if they were embarrassed by the poor woman’s plight, or as if they too were afraid of the man who hit her.
My mother discussed these stories loudly, indignantly, and it was always her fellow gossiper who signalled for her to lower her voice, or who gestured at us children, murmuring in the usual code: Careful, there’s laundry hanging up… as if saying those things were like saying dirty words, or worse, as if they were a source of unimaginable shame.
Mirta, Sarita Mundín’s sister, suspects that Dady Olivero used to hit her. Sarita never told her outright, but she was scared of him. In private, the two of them used to call Olivero the Randy Pig. Towards the end, whenever she knew he was coming over, Sarita would fill the house with her friends, guys and girls her age, so she didn’t have to be alone with him. Olivero would hang around for a bit, hiding his annoyance, drink a few mates and then leave in a huff.
The last day she spent with her sister, as if Sarita knew it was the last and wanted to teach her something that would stay with her, they had a conversation that Mirta will never forget.
Her sister told her: Don’t let anyone push you around. You have to make people respect you. Never let a guy lay a finger on you. If they hit you once, they’ll hit you forever.
Sarita was pregnant when she got married at fifteen. Mirta was following in her footsteps, single and expecting a baby at fourteen. Soon after Germán was born, Sarita’s husband started demanding she bring in some cash. Sarita turned to prostitution. She was picked up by Olivero, who would be first her customer, then her lover and protector, and the last person she was ever seen with.
From hustling by the roadside, she went on to build up a client list among the local branch of the Radical party. She and her friend Miriam García were party activists, two pretty young girls who soon caught the eye of the elderly men, distinguished members of society with the hypocrisy to match. Perhaps because of her fresh, girlish appearance, she was a hit with the old guys. But although things were going pretty well with the Radicals, and she had Olivero’s protection, too, there was one customer Sarita didn’t stop visiting. Another elderly, single man who lived in Oncativo, a city forty miles from Villa María, and who, according to Miriam García, helped her out with money.
José Bertoni, a bachelor uncle of my mother’s, also had a woman, La Chola, who visited him at home. José owned a dumper truck and transported sand and stones short distances from a nearby quarry. He lived in a very nice house that he’d built himself. My cousin and I always went there to play because he had a huge garden with swings and because he let us do whatever we liked. Some afternoons, we’d see La Chola turn up with three or four kids around our age. She went inside with my uncle and we carried on playing. We knew that on no account were we to go inside or call them while they were in there. After a while they came out and had some mate, and La Chola fixed us a snack.
One of her children was a girl not much older than me. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember she was pretty and turned into a little woman overnight, with large breasts and wide hips that stretched the child’s dresses she still wore. And that on one of those afternoons she was the one who went inside with José Bertoni, while La Chola stayed on the patio drinking mate and we carried on playing as if nothing was going on.
Visiting a single man who slips you some cash in return is a kind of prostitution that’s normalised in provincial towns. Like the maid who meets her employer’s husband out of hours to add a few pesos to her salary. I saw it with girls in my family, when I was little. In the night, from the street, you hear a car horn. She’s been waiting, she grabs her purse and hurries out. No one asks any questions.
After Sarita’s disappearance, Olivero went on visiting the family. He took them cash, and packets of meat from his processing plant. Although the mother suspected he’d been mixed up in what happened, that he’d done something to her daughter, she accepted the gifts, swallowing her fury and pride. They were so poor that sometimes they had nothing to eat. Mirta was pregnant and they were raising Sarita’s son. The mouths needed feeding somehow.
It was Mirta who put a stop to Olivero’s charity visits. That last conversation with her sister was what gave her the courage to call time, on the afternoon when the Randy Pig showed up with the packets of meat and asked her to step into Sarita’s shoes.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott) is published by Charco Press.
Selva Almada is an Argentine writer of poetry, short stories, and novels. Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish. Dead Girls is her first book to appear in English (being published in collaboration with Graywolf Press, US).
Annie McDermott translates fiction and poetry from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared in publications including Granta, World Literature Today, Two Lines, Asymptote and Alba.