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The Spy, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  He came to meet me dressed as if he were going to war: in full uniform, with a sword hanging to the left, and his long whiskers coated in pomade, which somewhat hid his ugliness and lack of manners.

  At our first meeting, we talked about trivial matters. I prayed for him to return, and my prayers were answered; a week later he was back, to the envy of my girlfriends and the despair of the school principal, who possibly still dreamed of another day like the one before. I noticed Rudolf smelled like alcohol, but did not pay it much mind. He was likely nervous in my presence, me a young woman who, according to all my friends, was the most beautiful in the class.

  He asked me to marry him on our third and final meeting. Indonesia. Army captain. Voyages to faraway places. What more could a young woman want from life?

  "You're going to marry a man twenty-one years your senior? Does he know you're no longer a virgin?" asked one of the girls who had had the same experience with the school principal.

  I didn't answer. I returned home, he respectfully asked my family for my hand, and they took a loan from the neighbors for the trousseau. We were married on July 11, 1895, three months after reading the ad.

  "Change" and "change for the better" are two very different things. If it weren't for dance and for an officer named Andreas, my years in Indonesia would have been a never-ending nightmare. My worst nightmare now would be to go through it all again. A distant husband who was always surrounded by other women, the impossibility of running away and returning home, the loneliness that came from being forced to spend months indoors because I didn't speak the language, not to mention being constantly kept tabs on by the other officers.

  What should have been a source of joy for any woman--the birth of her children--would become a nightmare for me. After I recovered from the pain of childbirth, my life was filled with meaning the first time I touched my daughter's tiny body. Rudolf improved his behavior for a few months, but soon he returned to what he liked best: his local lovers. According to him, no European woman could compete with an Asian woman, for whom sex was like a dance. He told me this without any shame, perhaps because he was drunk, or perhaps because he deliberately wanted to humiliate me. Later, Andreas shared that, one night when the two of them were on a meaningless expedition from nothingness to nowhere, Rudolf said in a moment of alcoholic candor:

  "I'm afraid of Margaretha. Have you noticed how the other officers look at her? She could leave me at any moment."

  It was this sick logic, one that turns men afraid of losing someone into monsters, that made him grow even worse. He called me a whore because I wasn't a virgin when I met him. He wanted to know the details of every man he imagined I'd once had. Sobbing, I told him the story of the principal in his office. Sometimes he'd beat me, saying I was lying, and other times he masturbated and demanded more details. Given that it had been a nightmare for me, I was forced to invent these, not quite understanding why I was doing it.

  He went so far as to send a servant with me to buy something that looked like the school uniform I'd worn when he met me. Whenever he was possessed by some unknown demon, he'd order me to wear it. He took the most pleasure from reenacting the rape scene; he would lay me down on the desk and penetrate me violently as I cried out, so all the servants could hear and assume that I loved it.

  Sometimes I had to behave like a good little girl, who endured the rape; other times he made me scream for him to be more violent, like I was a whore and liked it.

  Gradually I lost sight of who I was. My days were spent caring for my daughter, shuffling about the house with a vacant look on my face. I concealed the scratches and bruises under extra makeup, but I knew I wasn't fooling anyone.

  I fell pregnant again. I enjoyed a few days of immense happiness caring for my son, but he was soon poisoned by one of his nannies, who never even had the opportunity to explain her actions; the other servants killed her the same day the baby was found dead. In the end, most said it was deserved retaliation, as the nanny had been constantly beaten, raped, and burdened by endless working hours.

  Now I had only my daughter, a house that was always empty, a husband who never took me anywhere for fear of being betrayed, and a city so beautiful it felt oppressive; here I was in paradise, living my own personal hell.

  Then one day, everything changed. The regiment commander invited the officers and their wives to a local dance performance meant to honor one of the island's rulers. Rudolf could never say no to a superior. He asked me to buy something expensive and sensual to wear. I understood the reason for "expensive," which spoke more to his possessions than my own personal endowments. But if--as I learned later--he was so afraid of me, why would he want me to dress sensually?

  We arrived at the venue. The women looked at me with envy, the men with desire, and I noticed that that excited Rudolf. It looked like the evening would end badly, with me being forced to describe what I had "imagined doing" with each of the officers as Rudolf penetrated and beat me. By any means possible, I had to protect the only thing I had left: myself. And the only way I was able to do that was by striking up a long conversation with Andreas, whose wife watched me with terror and amazement. I kept my husband's glass full, hoping he would fall over drunk.

  I would like to finish writing about Java here, this instant; when the past dredges up a memory capable of opening old wounds, suddenly other wounds appear and make the soul bleed more deeply, until you have to kneel down and cry. But I cannot stop until I bring up the three things that would change my life: my decision, the dance we watched, and Andreas.

  My decision: I could no longer accumulate problems and live so far beyond the limits of human suffering.

  As I thought about this, the group that was preparing to dance for the local ruler began to take the stage, nine people in total. Instead of the frenetic, joyful, and expressive rhythms I had seen on my few visits to the city's theaters, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. At first I was bored to death, but was then overtaken by a kind of religious trance, as the dancers let themselves get carried away by the music and assumed impossible poses. In one, their bodies bent forward and backward, forming an extremely painful S; they remained there until, suddenly, they'd snap out of their stillness like leopards ready to ambush.

  They were all painted blue and dressed in sarongs, the typical local attire. Across their chests, they wore a silk ribbon meant to emphasize the men's muscles and cover the women's breasts. The women, in turn, wore handcrafted tiaras decorated with precious stones. Moments of tenderness alternated with imitations of battles, where the silk ribbons served as imaginary swords.

  I grew increasingly entranced. For the first time I understood that Rudolf, Holland, my slain son, all of these things were part of a world that had died and was being reborn, like the seeds my mother had given me. I looked to the sky and saw the stars and the palm leaves. I was ready to let myself be swept away to another dimension and another space when Andreas's voice interrupted:

  "Do you understand everything?"

  I thought I must, because my heart had stopped bleeding and was now beholding beauty in its purest form. Men, however, always need to explain something, and he told me this kind of ballet came from an ancient Indian tradition that combined yoga and meditation. He failed to understand that dance is a poem, one where each movement represents a word.

  With my mental yoga and my spontaneous meditation interrupted, I found myself obliged to engage in any kind of conversation so as not to appear impolite.

  Andreas's wife was watching him. Andreas was watching me. Rudolf was watching me, Andreas, and one of the leader's female guests, who returned his courtesy with a smile.

  We talked for a while, despite the dirty looks coming from the Javanese because none of the foreigners were respecting their sacred ritual. Perhaps that is why the show came to a close earlier than expected, with all the dancers filing out in a procession, eyes fixed on their fellow countrymen. None of them looked at the white barbarians with their well-dres
sed wives, their raucous laughter, their Vaseline-coated beards and mustaches, and their terrible manners.

  After I filled his glass once more, Rudolf walked toward the Javanese woman who had smiled, and she looked at him without any fear or intimidation. Andreas's wife came over, grabbed his arm, smiled in a way that said "He's mine," and pretended to be most interested in her husband's pointless commentary about the dance.

  "All these years I have been faithful to you," she said, suddenly interrupting the conversation.

  "You are the one who commands my heart and my actions, and, God is my witness, every night I ask for you to return home safe and sound. If I had to give my life for yours, I would do it without any fear."

  Turning to me, Andreas excused himself and said he had to leave, that the ceremony had been very tiring for everyone. But his wife said she would not budge; she said it with such authority that her husband did not dare make another move.

  "I waited patiently for you to understand that you are the most important thing in my life. I followed you to this place. While beautiful, it must be a nightmare for all the wives, including Margaretha."

  She turned to me then, her big blue eyes pleading for my agreement, for me to follow in that ancient tradition women had of always being one another's enemy and accomplice. But I didn't have the courage to nod.

  "I fought for our love with all my might, but today it's run out. The stone that weighed on my heart is now a rock that will no longer let it beat. And my heart, with its last breath, told me there are other worlds beyond this one, worlds where I don't have to always beg for the company of a man to fill these empty days and nights."

  Something told me that tragedy was coming. I asked her to calm down; she was very dear to everyone in that group, and her husband was a model officer. She shook her head and smiled, as if she'd already heard it many times. And she continued:

  "My body can keep breathing, but my soul is dead. I cannot leave here, nor can I make you understand I need you by my side."

  Andreas, an officer of the Dutch army with a reputation to preserve, was visibly uncomfortable. I turned and began to walk away, but she dropped her husband's arm and held on to mine.

  "Only love can give meaning to something that, on its own, has none at all. It turns out I don't have that love. So what reason is there to go on living?"

  Her face was right next to mine; I tried to smell for alcohol on her breath, but there was none. I looked in her eyes and also saw no tears. Perhaps they had all dried.

  "Please, I need you to stay, Margaretha. You are a good woman, one who lost a child. Though I've never been pregnant, I know what that means. I'm not doing this for me, but for all those women who are prisoners in their alleged freedom."

  Before any of us had time to stop her, Andreas's wife slid a small pistol from her purse, pointed it to her own heart, and fired. Though much of the noise had been absorbed by her evening gown, people turned our way. At first they must have thought I had committed the crime, as, seconds earlier, she was clinging to me. But soon they saw the look of horror on my face and Andreas kneeling, trying to stanch the blood carrying away his wife's life. She died in his arms, her eyes displaying nothing but peace. Everyone drew near, including Rudolf, the Javanese woman having taken off in the opposite direction, afraid of what might happen with so many armed and drunken men. Before people began to ask what had happened, I asked my husband if we could leave right away; he agreed without saying a word.

  When we got home, I went straight to my bedroom and began to pack my clothes. Rudolf fell onto the sofa, completely drunk. The next morning, after he awoke and ate a hearty breakfast served by the staff, he came to my room and saw the suitcases. It was the first time he broached the subject.

  "Where do you think you're going?"

  "To Holland, on the next ship. Either that or heaven, as soon as I get the same opportunity that Andreas's wife had. You decide."

  He was the only one used to giving orders. But the look in my eyes must have changed, because, after a moment's hesitation, he left the house. When he returned that night, he said we really did need to make use of the leave to which he was entitled. Two weeks later we set off on the first ship to Rotterdam.

  I had been baptized with the blood of Andreas's wife and, through that rite, I was freed forever, though neither of us knew how far this freedom would reach.

  Part of what precious time I have left--though I still have great hopes of being pardoned by the president, as I have many friends among the ministers--was taken today by Sister Laurence, who brought me a list of items that were in my luggage when I was arrested.

  With all the care in the world, she asked what she should do with it, should the worst-case scenario present itself. I asked her to leave me alone, and said that I would return to it later, because at the moment I have no time to waste. But if the worst scenario does indeed become the only one, she can do whatever she wants. In any event, I am copying everything down here, for I believe that everything will turn out for the best.

  Trunk 1

  1 gold watch adorned with blue lacquer and bought in Switzerland; and 1 round box containing 6 hats, 3 pins in pearl and gold, some long feathers, a veil, 2 fur stoles, 3 adornments for a hat, a pear-shaped brooch, and a ball gown.

  Trunk 2

  1 pair of riding boots;

  1 horse brush;

  1 box of shoe polish;

  1 pair of spats;

  1 pair of spurs;

  5 pairs of leather shoes; 3 white shirts to match riding clothes; 1 napkin--I don't know what it is doing taking up space there; perhaps I used it to polish my boots; 1 pair of leather gaiters, protection for the legs; 3 sets of special breast supporters, so they look firm during a gallop; 8 pairs of silk underpants and 2 cotton; 2 belts to match with different riding clothes;

  4 pairs of gloves;

  1 umbrella;

  3 visors to avoid direct sun in the eyes; 3 pairs of wool socks, though one of them is already worn from use; 1 special bag for storing dresses; 15 sanitary towels for menstruation; 1 wool sweater;

  1 full riding costume, with matching jacket and trousers; 1 box with hair barrettes; 1 lock of fake hair extension, with a clip to attach it to my natural hair; 3 fox-fur neck-warmers; and 2 boxes of face powder.

  Trunk 3

  6 pairs of garters;

  1 box of skin moisturizer; 3 pairs of patent-leather high-heel boots; 2 corsets;

  34 dresses;

  1 handmade cloth bag, with what appears to be seeds of unidentified plants;

  8 bodices;

  1 shawl;

  10 pairs of more comfortable underpants; 3 waistcoats;

  2 long-sleeved jackets;

  3 combs;

  16 blouses;

  Another ball gown;

  1 towel and 1 bar of scented soap-I do not use hotel soaps, as they can transmit diseases; 1 pearl necklace;

  1 handbag with mirror inside; 1 ivory comb;

  2 boxes for putting away my jewelry before sleeping; 1 copper case with calling cards, in the name of Vadime de Massloff, Capitaine du premiere Regiment Special Imperial Russe; 1 wooden box containing a porcelain tea service I was given during the trip; 2 nightgowns;

  1 nail file with mother-of-pearl handle; 2 cigarette cases, 1 in silver and 1 in gold, or gold-plated, I'm not sure;

  8 hairnets for bedtime;

  Boxes with necklaces, earrings, an emerald ring, another ring with emeralds and diamonds, and other costume jewelry of little value; Silk bag with 21 scarves and handkerchiefs inside; 3 fans;

  Lipstick and rouge from the best brand France can produce; 1 French dictionary;

  1 wallet with several photos of me; and...

  A great deal of nonsense I intend to get rid of once I am released from here, such as letters from lovers tied with special silk ribbons, used tickets from operas I enjoyed watching, things like that.

  Most of this was confiscated by the Hotel Meurice in Paris, because they thought--wrongly, of course
--that I wouldn't have the money to pay for my stay. How could they think that? After all, Paris was always my preferred destination; I would never leave them to think of me as a swindler.

  I was not asking to be happy; I was asking only to not be as unhappy and miserable as I felt. Perhaps, if I'd had a bit more patience, I would have left for Paris under different circumstances. But I could no longer stand the recrimination of my father's new wife, my husband, a child who cried all the time, or the small town filled with provincial people still prejudiced against me even though now I was a married and respectable woman.

  One day, I took a train to The Hague and went to the French consulate without anyone knowing--something that demands great intuition and skill. The drums of war were not yet beating, and entering the country was still easy; Holland had always remained neutral in the conflicts that ravaged Europe, and I had confidence. I met with the consul, and after two hours in a cafe, during which he attempted to seduce me and I pretended to fall into his trap, I got a one-way ticket to Paris. I promised to wait for him there until he could escape for a few days.

  "I know how to be generous with those who help me," I hinted. He got the message and asked what I could do.

  "I'm a classical dancer to oriental music."

  Oriental music? That piqued his curiosity even more. I asked if he could get me a job. He said he could introduce me to a very powerful man in the city, Monsieur Guimet, who, in addition to being a great art collector, loved everything from the East. When was I ready to depart?

  "This very day, if you can arrange a place for me to stay."

  He realized he was being manipulated. I was just another one of those women who venture to the city of dreams in pursuit of wealthy men and an easy life. I sensed he was starting to pussyfoot. He was listening but, at the same time, observing my every move, word, and gesture. Contrary to what you might think, I--who had been behaving like a femme fatale--was now acting like the most modest person in the world.