Had Eduardo Alfonso Ruíz been afforded the luxury of a grave, those who knew him would have said that he went to it with an unflinching hatred of the English language. But just as they never knew where his body went, perhaps they never really knew him either. In the latter regard, he probably didn’t help them much.
Born into a middle-class family in Puebla in 1932, Eduardo was a closed book from his earliest years. No one knew what he was thinking because he never told them. He just scratched it all down in notebook after notebook in deliberately indecipherable handwriting. Indulged by his mother, barely tolerated by his father, and ignored by his sisters, the only clue he gave to his moods was in the occasional seismic burst of temper which appeared to them unprovoked but which, from his perspective, had been bubbling and brewing for days in response to some or other slight.
It was then, for the majority of those concerned, something of a relief when he finally left the house at the age of 17 to study in the School of Philosophy and Letters at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.
Entering UNAM brought with it a certain prestige. As did graduating. But that was where the prestige ended, in Eduardo’s mind at least. And probably, if we’re to be truthful, in the minds of others as well. He seemed to reach the summit early, both in terms of being appreciated and in matters of personal luck. After that, life was rarely so easy or so smooth again.
He taught. In classrooms to begin with. Then privately. But he never wanted to teach. He only wanted to write. Short stories. Novels maybe. Countless notebooks were filled. Blank paper was attacked by a temperamental Olivetti. Stories were sent off. Ignored. Rejected. Sometimes accepted. Very rarely remunerated. He had a name — but the barest of names — in the literary world.
And then he met Honoria in Toluca.
Despite the name, Honoria was American and could barely speak a word of Spanish. That was why her family had sent her to Mexico: to become acquainted with her roots. But while her roots still seemed tangible to her second-generation parents, they were distant to Honoria. They’d provided her with good skin and an appealingly robust form, but otherwise she wasn’t bothered about them. Her eagle was resolutely of the American variety.
Eduardo, at the beginning of what was to become a recurring pattern of itinerancy, had come to Toluca to assist a classmate from UNAM, Miguel Domínguez, who was setting up a literary magazine. Honoria was staying with her uncle and aunt. The chances of them meeting were statistically slim but they did so three times in one week in three totally different places. If anything was meant to be, and in later years Eduardo firmly turned his back on fate, then this was surely it.
At first, their interactions were comical. Eduardo had some working knowledge of English from his studies, but his accent, if you were being generous, was thick. If you were being critical, you might say it was horrendous. And, despite what the next few years would bring, it never improved much. Nevertheless, Honoria found it cute. She found him cute.
“You have puppy-dog eyes,” she told him. And it was true, he did. Big and round. Sad and innocent.
“Pu-pi dog ass,” he repeated.
She liked him so much that she smiled instead of laughed. “No, no, puppy-dog eyes!”
He tried again. It wasn’t a lot better. But at least he tried. Honoria didn’t bother. Apart from calling him el perrito — which she pronounced perfectly by the way — she thought of herself as being on holiday rather than on a mission of linguistic self-improvement and, consequently, insisted that their courtship be conducted exclusively in English. For that, quickly, was what it turned out to be. A courtship, leading to an engagement, leading to a wedding. Well, it was 1959!
And, unusually in such stories, everyone around them was delighted. Eduardo’s father was glad that his boy might now allow some responsibility into his life and drop his futile quest for literary fame. His mother, while slightly suspicious (and maybe even a little jealous) of Honoria, was pleased to detect the evidence of passion in her son for perhaps the very first time. His sisters, for their part, couldn’t wait to claim a visit to the United States. For that was where Honoria and Eduardo were headed: to San Antonio, Texas, where her father had a car dealership. And yes, just to maintain the symmetry, her parents were delighted too. More than delighted, in fact. They loved Eduardo from the first. As Honoria’s mother said at the Mexican leg of their wedding (there was a ceremony in Texas too): “Why, he’s just the kind of boy I would have ordered for her myself!” And she meant it. Eduardo was tall and slim with thick, slicked-back hair that was more blue than black. He was quiet and courteous, thoughtful and respectful. And he had puppy-dog eyes. With all that going for him, well, so what if you couldn’t understand him sometimes.
There was no question that the newlyweds would settle in the United States. Honoria was happy enough to visit Mexico (at the time), but she would never have given up her life in America. Her standing. The proximity to her friends and family. Her language. Her culture. The only one who stood to improve was Eduardo, and she made that quite clear. Her parents less so. They were still spiritually connected to the old country. This brought Eduardo a degree of comfort.
“We’ll make a salesman out of you!” Honoria’s father, Héctor, said as he slapped Eduardo on the back. First he said it in English, then he said it in Spanish.
Eduardo smiled. He liked Héctor. He was wide and strong with white teeth. Nothing was too much trouble for him with his family, his friends, or his customers. He had two sons, Andy and Joe (Andrés and José), and it was fair to say that he placed Eduardo on no less a level than them. Maybe just a little higher, as the boys were spoiled and feckless. They were even, complicated as it sounds, not a little racist. But that wasn’t unusual in San Antonio at the time, or elsewhere in Texas. Eduardo took it as he found it. He was a guest, after all. It wasn’t his country. It never would be. All he could think was that perhaps it wasn’t anyone’s …
But he tried not to be too introspective. That hadn’t worked for him in the past. He loved Honoria. Just seeing her walking toward him gave him a shot of warmth that he’d never had before. His mother was right: she’d transformed his life.
So Chevrolets and Chryslers replaced literature. Writers needed day jobs, right? As a hundred prominent examples would attest. But Eduardo was a lousy salesman. He knew it; Héctor knew it. But they never acknowledged it. Andy and Joe did, though. Often.
Eduardo tried to write. It didn’t work. He needed quiet. He was used to quiet. But the house was never quiet. There was TV. Wagon Train. Perry Mason. There were friends, guests, family. Dogs. What little he did write wasn’t good. Not good enough to send out. He wouldn’t even want Miguel to read it. It was just … well, it wasn’t him. Maybe it was the change of place. He just couldn’t feel it. Or it was the effect of being happy. Or happier than usual. Because “happy” wasn’t usual. Not for him.
Or maybe it was Honoria.
At first Eduardo dismissed the possibility. Then he allowed it to enter into his mind occasionally. Gently. Then sometimes naggingly. Finally, more forcefully. Honoria helped the process.
“What are you doing there?”
“Eduardo, what are you doing there?”
He sneered. She knew what he was doing. She knew that he’d always done it. That was one of the things she liked about him, or so she’d said.
“I’m writing.” Silence. She just looked at him. “Can’t you see that?”
“I can see that.”
“Okay then …”
“I just can’t see why you’re doing that.”
And so on.
Sometimes, when he felt he had to finish something, or start something, Eduardo ignored her. Not deliberately. He was just “in a place,” as he would sometimes call it. Honoria was young. She was fun. She was attractive. And she had different interests. She didn’t need to be neglected like that.
“I’m not neglect you!”
“You are neglecting me!”
And the more intense it got, the more Eduardo’s grammar would go wrong and the rougher his pronunciation would become. And now it wasn’t cute anymore. Honoria would correct him, and not in a friendly way. She’d correct him, because that was what she had over him. He was there. It was her place. And worse than that, she’d imitate him. Sometimes it sent him into some very rudimentary English swearing, at which she just laughed. More often he turned to super-speedy Spanish, which was a surprise even to him. And once, just once, it resulted in violence.
By 1962 it was done, and Eduardo never returned to the U.S.
“I’ll never speak English again!” he wrote to Miguel when he came back. “I’ll never read it. Never write it. Never watch another American film or TV show. Shoot me if I ever do!” And Miguel promised that he would.
So it was strange that, after Eduardo went missing, Miguel found a short story written entirely in English on his desk. Well, except the title. And except the ending, because there wasn’t one.
Sonora, June 1966
It was the hottest day of Eduardo’s life. And this was a man who’d lived, or spent extended periods, in places such as Tabasco, Chihuahua, Acapulco, and Panama City, to name but a few. Oh and, of course, Texas. Don’t forget Texas. (Or, rather, do forget Texas.)
Eduardo had not so much settled in Sonora as found himself there. Just as he’d found himself in all those other places. As his grandfather used to say, in response to everything, and to the point of irritation: “There’s always something …” And, Eduardo thought afterward, the old man didn’t know how right he was. Something, somewhere. A project here, a project there. Most of them came to nothing. In fact, all of them came to nothing eventually. But they were started in hope. In hope of a new advance in literature, critical thinking, or publishing. And also in hope of payment. The importance of that shouldn’t be forgotten.
That’s not to say Eduardo hadn’t cultivated something of a reputation by this juncture. Many of his short stories had appeared in quality magazines. Also, he’d had a couple of novellas published. As a result, everyone involved in the literary scene in Mexico would have been aware of him and at least a portion of his work. Similarly, his name was familiar for critics and readers in many parts of South America.
Nonetheless, it didn’t add up to much in the material sense. Not that Eduardo wanted much. Rent and tequila were more or less all it came down to. And not good tequila either. In truth, Eduardo had rather let himself go, even though he was barely 34. The post-Honoria years had seen him become a little bloated, a little sallow. Like many, he was on the way to becoming a recluse without ever intending it. He went shopping sometimes. He swam, often for hours, in the Gulf of Santa Clara. But he had few regular visitors other than his housekeeper, Maribel, whose natural indolence was playing its own part in leading him toward squalor.
Mostly, he read and he studied. He spoke to his cat, Guillermo. He spoke to himself. He cursed Maribel in her absence. And, amazingly, he did it all in English. The language of his humiliations.
At first he forced himself. He made himself confront this entity that he’d never been able to master. The one major area that, in spite of himself, he valued, and in which he’d signally and repeatedly failed. And in the whole hellish process, the damnedest thing began to happen: he actually started to like it!
He read Dickens in the original and, by all that was considered holy, did he struggle at first. And if this torture wasn’t bad enough, he read Shakespeare. A bit of comedy (though not too much), some history, and a lot of tragedy. He also read and developed a mild fondness for Graham Greene. Agatha Christie was devoured for dessert.
“Guillermo, old boy,” he would say, “you really should read Hamlet.” And to be honest, if the phrase was short, the pronunciation was quite convincing. Whether he could have replicated it in company would have been another matter altogether. The beast, for his part, only seemed impressed when the subject shifted toward mention of meat or poultry. “Chicken? Would you like chicken?” And therein lay another notable consequence: the existence of a Mexican cat who understood not one word of Spanish.
Eduardo then began to write in English. Had that been the plan all along? Even he didn’t know. He had been a careful stylist in Spanish and he realized he could never hope to attain that level in English. He wouldn’t be able to get close. But it didn’t stop him. He knew better than anyone that what he was writing was junk. He wrote it, then he trashed it, then he started again with something else. It was like being a child again, and for hours he forgot himself. Finally, he got to the point where he kept what he wrote. Then he began to plan new stories, dream up new plots — all in English.
The only time he used Spanish was in correspondence with friends and editors and in conversation with Maribel, and even then he sometimes forgot himself and tried to speak to her in English. Luckily, she barely noticed, so busy was she in describing the latest criminal activities of her father and her two brothers. Eduardo wasn’t sure if he believed her — surely the family members in question couldn’t be so brazen and so thuggish and still be at liberty — but these tales stimulated his imagination and were a large part of why he continued to engage her. Well, he occasionally engaged her in other ways too. But whatever gifts she may have possessed were certainly not of the domestic variety.
So the house was awful, the city was decent enough, the sea was wonderful. As was his habit, Eduardo could quite easily have moved on. But at the moment there was nothing to go to, or to go for, so he stayed. But it was hot. It was really hot. It was, that night, unbearable.
He had a large fan on the ceiling. Sometimes, with the help of the tequila, it mesmerized him. He watched it spin round and round and, somehow, didn’t get bored. Every time he saw something different, or it made him think of something different.
But fascinating though it was, the fan was useless. As was the other one on the floor beside his desk. Were they always this ineffective? Or was it just the abnormal heat? Eduardo didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. His brain function had slowed down to a minimum.
This was inconvenient in several respects, but one in particular. He’d been working on a story — in English, of course — and it was, he felt, the first time he was near to getting it right. The first time what he wanted to say was being matched by how he was trying to say it. He was more than ready to admit that he wasn’t a good judge. Somebody else would need to give him an objective opinion. But he held on to the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be publishable in an English-speaking journal. All he needed was to finish it.
He had the ending. Adding that was just a formality. A matter of one, maybe two pages. But he just couldn’t concentrate. His tongue was like salt. His lips were perpetually dry. He could feel the thickness of the air every time he moved across the room to fetch more tequila or to pet Guillermo (who, incidentally, could have taught him a thing or three about heat management).
After each movement, the same thing occurred. Eduardo sat in the semi-circular wooden chair in front of his overflowing desk. He took up his pen, went back to his inky page, and tried to return his mind to the story. And failed. He couldn’t get there. He couldn’t remember where he’d left off, where he was going, even what had happened before. And the more he tried, the further away he drifted.
Then a bat entered the room.
“In the name of …!” Swept up in disoriented panic, the creature seemed to go for his head. Eduardo did what anybody would have done. He attempted to swat it away. Then he realized it wasn’t a bat.
“Mariposa!” He tried to find the word in English. “Butter-fly. Butterfly.” It was huge, and it was unusually disturbed. It flew around the room and was hampered by the walls. It positioned itself above Eduardo and divebombed his head. Along with the heat, the frustration, and his mild drunkenness, the experience was less than pleasant.
“Get away! GET AWAY!”
Of course, like every Mexican, Eduardo was well aware of the legend of la mariposa de la muerte. The Black Witch moth. And while he might have been struck by its mythological resonance in his childhood in Puebla, or maybe even as a student in Mexico City, he certainly wasn’t now, and no quantity of cheap tequila was going to change that.
“What are you doing here?” he shouted. “You should have gone!” And it was true. The moth should have migrated north to the U.S. by now. For some reason, this one had been left behind.
And where was north? Well, to begin with, Texas. So where Eduardo’s mind briefly went to next was not so much of a surprise.
All that he knew about Honoria had been supplied by his sisters who, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, had kept in touch with their erstwhile American relatives. This knowledge amounted to a) she’d remarried, apparently to a butcher from Houston and b) she’d had a fatal accident behind the wheel of one of Héctor’s top-of-the-range models. Eduardo still wasn’t sure how he felt about either of these facts.
His mind back in the room once more, Eduardo looked at the moth, ducked as it came toward him, then watched it again. Somehow it took on a new significance. “Mariposa de la muerte!” He swung at it. “Black witch!” he spat. “BLACK WITCH!” He grabbed the closest book on his desk. It happened to be The End of the Affair. Eduardo hadn’t read it yet, but it was next on the list. For now, though, it was his primal weapon. He rose from his seat so forcefully that it almost toppled over, then he began his chase.
And if Eduardo had been looking for intensive exercise, he’d found it. What followed really did give credence to the theory that when you were fixated on something, all else retreated into the background. Just for a moment, Eduardo forgot the heat. He ignored his relative unfitness. He raced and leapt around, flailed and climbed. All the time bringing out rather outdated curses drawn from Victorian England or the Golden Age of crime fiction. Amazingly, he even said “Drat!”
One time, as the moth coasted round the ceiling, Eduardo managed to slip off the chaise longue, hitting his head in the process. It was a heavy contact, but Eduardo felt no pain, so anaesthetized was he by the tequila and the need to complete the mission.
“Take that!” he exclaimed, as he threw the book at the moth, not once or twice, but repeatedly, each exertion seeming both to rob him of energy and then reinject it at the same time. The moth, traditionally by nature not an aggressive creature, appeared to find something equally objectionable in Eduardo and continued to match him and then try to exceed him in vigor and in violence.
“Come here! COME HERE!” Eduardo howled. And Guillermo, who really should have been on the side of his master, just looked up occasionally from the rug under the table as the whole unedifying spectacle unfolded.
Eduardo, bringing the cunning intelligence of a man to the encounter, knew that eventually the moth would slow down and, albeit briefly, settle in one place. He had to be ready.
Imagine, then, his distress when, ten minutes into the contest, the moth rested next to the drapes. Eduardo raised his book, took an almighty swipe, and missed! His opponent had seen the blow coming and dodged it by a millisecond. By now Eduardo’s vision was obscured by sweat. He must have lost ten pounds already. For the first time, he was starting to feel giddy.
The game of death went on. There were openings on both sides. Eduardo nearly hit the moth a couple of times. The moth got as far as Eduardo’s face a couple of times. And then it was done. Like every story Eduardo had ever written so far, there was an ending. There was always an ending. And, in a more postmodern sense, the ending of the ending.
Foolishly, in the context of the battle, the moth alighted on the TV. Foolishly, in the context of his supposedly advanced mentality, Eduardo brought down the full force of the thick volume upon the insect and the device, leaving one of them utterly destroyed and the other partially so. Then he collapsed. Not unconscious. But panting. Perspiring. And with a crazed smile on his parched lips. “Mariposa … Mariposa … Mal resposo.”
Finally, he rose. He guzzled down the contents of a large jug of water. Then more tequila. He looked at his pen and the paper underneath it. He closed his eyes briefly and, for the first time, felt the burgeoning bump on his head. Then he went to bed.
At first he slept deeply. It seemed like a couple of hours but was more likely just minutes. He awoke, somewhat dizzied. He was wet. The bed was wet. He slept again. Woke again. Slept again. The intervals got shorter. Was Guillermo there, too, or was he still under the desk? To tell the truth, Eduardo didn’t know. He didn’t know anything for sure now. Something seemed to be pursuing him every time he closed his eyes. Was it in his dreams or in the room? It was large and black and seemed to have some kind of marking on it, some kind of insignia, like a comma. It was above him: sometimes small; sometimes the size of the ceiling itself. He heard himself cry out some phrase but he didn’t know what he’d said, or even which language he’d used. At one point, he heard a large crash in the room. But when he tried to open his eyes, he found it was impossible. They seemed to be stuck together, and whatever he was seeing was surely a product of his imagination. Or was it? Sometimes his mind went back to the story, to the ending, before he found himself being attacked again.
The hours went on. And then they didn’t. At least, not for Eduardo.
The heatwave drew people’s minds in different directions. They did what they had to do in order to get through it, and what they didn’t have to do, they didn’t. Consequently, it was three days before Maribel returned to Eduardo’s house. At first, she knocked. There was no answer. Then, perhaps thinking he must have gone down to the sea, she used her key. The house was in more of a mess than usual. There was evidence of damage. Breakages. Even the TV! And Guillermo seemed unusually animated. She fed him.
Maribel did think, just for a moment, that she might find Eduardo in a state of drunken slumber in his room. But she saw nothing other than a large indentation in his bed. And some generic stains. Being the slattern that she was, she thought little of it. Little of any of it, to be honest. Instead, she just went about the business of tidying it all up in her rudimentary fashion.
She guessed he would come in before she was finished. He didn’t. But that was by no means unremarkable. When all was done to her satisfaction, she locked up and left.
It was only when she came again, two days later, that some alarm bells began to sound. Where was he? He obviously hadn’t been in since her last visit. Guillermo was awake, and a little on edge, and Maribel guessed that Eduardo wouldn’t suddenly have gone away without informing her. His absence had to be reported.
The questions began. Statements were solicited. Investigations were made. Suspicions were formed. But no concrete proof came to light. Nothing at all.
Naturally enough, different people had different theories, many of which were no less plausible for their predictability. Ultimately, though, no one knew where Eduardo might actually be or what had really happened to him.
In fact, the case remains officially open even today. But nobody expects to find the answer and, perhaps more truthfully, few people want to. Because Eduardo quickly became an industry. His house, rearranged to look exactly as he left it, and complete with the taxidermied presence of Guillermo, is now a museum. Its owner made a fortune. Maribel never worked again. Until her death, she simply produced variations of her story. At first, twice a day for those addicted to tales of mystery, then upwards of ten times a day for literary pilgrims and fans of Eduardo. For, yes, he now had fans. And, furthermore, from around the world and not just Latin America.
For this, Eduardo would have had his old friend Miguel to thank. It was Miguel who, by default, had found himself appointed with the task of sorting out Eduardo’s effects and going through his papers. The police, having got precisely nowhere with their inquiries, had of course been primarily concerned with the last story Eduardo had been working on. It had meant little to them, however, given the facts that it was in English and it was downright peculiar. Even a practiced literary mind like Miguel’s had needed to read it three times before it had started to take on any semblance of sense. But Miguel soon realized that was more the fault of him as a reader, and an English scholar, than any oversight by Eduardo. He brought in some American colleagues who judged it to be brilliant. Surreal, deranged perhaps, but unforgettably brilliant. And the lack of a conclusion, or any inkling of one, somehow made it all the more intriguing. Especially given its parallel with Eduardo’s own ending.
What it didn’t have, though, and what it definitely needed, was a title. To his credit, Miguel even used a magnifying glass in an attempt to discern the handwriting that was by that stage of Eduardo’s life more execrable than when he was a child. And while he was able to piece together a faithful version of the story from the pages Eduardo had left behind, there was no definite evidence of the title Eduardo had intended to use. What he did find, though, on a separate sheet, was the phrase “El reposo de las bestias”, which he translated as The Repose of Beasts and then attached as the title. Maybe it was what Eduardo had wanted all along. Or maybe it had been a totally different idea that he’d just jotted down. In any case, it was as good as anything else. Better perhaps. And it became known throughout the world in many other manifestations besides the actual story. There was Eduardo’s biography, written by Miguel himself. There was the film about Eduardo’s life that accompanied it. Then the more melodramatic miniseries that came after. Not only that, but there was also the vaguely mysterious nature of the phrase itself, which seemed to incline towards horror and comedy in equal measure.
So nowadays, should you possess even the slightest cultural curiosity, you’ll rarely be far from the puppy-dog eyes of Eduardo Alfonso Ruíz in some form or other. You’ll notice them on screens, posters, mugs and aprons. You’ll be aware of his presence in bookshops, libraries, on web pages. You’ll see his name reposing with the other literary beasts on the list of UNAM’s renowned alumni. But of Eduardo himself, you’ll never find a trace. Then again, perhaps you never could.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now