As the years pass, the winters seem darker and colder, the spring unsettling and fickle, and the rays of the summer sun seem wrapped in a distant, leaden cloud that drains them of energy. As the years pass, the flowers are only flowers by name. Their colours and perfumes largely fade. “Here are some flowers for you,” we say one day to please our aged grandmother. She cautiously holds out her hand, for she can barely see the colours or smell their perfume, but, because we used the word “flowers”, she looks at them as if we had presented her with a bunch of fresh memories and bestows on them a faint smile, slightly sad and distant. Old people notice how the world is growing gradually dimmer and, at the moment of death, what they really think is that someone has turned out the light, what little light they still received. In their long journey through illnesses and ailments, old people often find that they have developed cataracts, and their youngest relatives quite forget how bright those eyes were years ago. It is at this point—at least in the provinces—that older people get on a train and come to the city to walk through its streets and noises, wearing, over one eye, a white bandage that flattens the old ladies’ coquettish coiffures of soft, shiny, white hair. They come to the city to visit a good doctor, a doctor with a fine reputation who offers hope, and they pay as they leave, retrieving bank notes from complicated interiors, from hidden pockets or thick wallets and belts wide enough to contain seeds and tools.
Flora and Martita could have defined old age as a darkening of the world, for that was something they knew all about. They lived in a city and finding a good doctor would have been easy for them, but they wanted to avoid doctors and darkness and so sought their own remedies. Flora and Martita remembered how the life of their mother, may she rest in peace, had come to a virtual halt because of her loss of sight; she couldn’t read or knit or go out alone to visit a friend. Martita and Flora had to speak to their mother in an especially lively, jolly, colourful way, because then she saw things much more clearly. They continued to talk like that, with just as much verve, even though their mother had long since departed this vale of tears. Now—let’s not beat about the bush—they, too, were little old ladies, Flora slightly more so, because she was the eldest.
They lived alone, lit by the beatific light of spinsterhood, which sometimes flickered and sometimes faded. They had a few savings, shares in the state monopolies of explosives and tobacco, some government bonds and a tiny income from the bits of land and small houses they owned. They ate frugally and were skilled at working with ribbons and threads and fabrics; they were very pale-complexioned, well turned out and, in their simple ablutions, used water, soap, cologne, talcum powder and, occasionally, a little rosemary alcohol.
Their one eccentricity was their need for light, a little more each day. They needed light so that their hair would shine and their eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could knit jerseys and sell them to sailors or give them away to children, could read the headlines in the newspapers, scrutinize photographs of the Holy Father in magazines and still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.
It was Flora’s idea. One day, Martita had a final falling-out with her fiancé Nicomedes and all because, once, during their engagement, she had refused to go through a doorway, a very dark, ugly doorway, through which they had to pass, it seemed, to take coffee and biscuits with an aunt of Nicomedes’, who had insisted on meeting her. Nicomedes had made her traipse all the way there for nothing; he was both irresponsible and flighty. Flora—who had long before bidden farewell to any hope of marriage—soothed her sister, saying:
“Marta, don’t cry. You and I will remain for ever young. Your eyes and your hair will shine just as they do today. We will never be relegated to a corner. We will be the loveliest little old ladies in the world. When the men of today are old as well, they will think how wrong they were not to pay us more attention. You’ll see, Martita.”
And Martita watched Flora climb up the ladder to reach the crystal chandelier. This magnificent chandelier, with its engraved pendants and slender, upswept gilt arms, hung in the room where Flora and Martita kept their finest heirlooms, where they could see the umbilical cord of their lineage in the smallest knick-knack, each one silently evoking a memory. Flora did not do very much. She merely added another pendant, securing it to one of the arms with thin wire. Flora wanted to fill the chandelier’s arms with bulbs and crystals. This was her money box, her hoard of light, for when she and her sister were old.
The crystal chandelier, whose centre resembled the segments of a fruit, found its arms transformed into swans’ necks, into S’s, and extended its domain as far down as the carpet and the furniture, like a great jellyfish or an upside-down Christmas tree or a gigantic udder filled with light.
In the evenings, Flora and Martita would install themselves in that room and, sitting opposite each other, very erect in their respective armchairs, they would knit away, never dropping a stitch. The knitting needles were like steel foils engaged in fierce combat, with neither side winning. “Click-click, click-click,” sang that terrible, unending duel. The buckles on their shoes shone, as did the tortoiseshell combs in their hair, the grey pearl earrings set in old gold, the satin chokers slightly eclipsed by their double chins. Everything shone, even the sharp click of the needles.
Flora and Martita had an enthusiastic collaborator in their task: old Matías, who was a neighbour and an electrician, but no ordinary electrician. Matías would go to the house now and then to attach metal hooks to the chandelier so that Flora and Martita could hang more crystals from it, or else he would make new bulbs bloom forth or design and fit still more long gilt arms which, in his spare time, he would endow with their own translucent Spring.
Incredible though it may seem, they had to make some of the furniture in the room smaller. They summoned a carpenter to saw off legs, and a builder was brought in to reduce the height of the marble fireplace. The console table, dining table, chairs, armchairs, the large chest and the cuckoo clock all had to be reduced in height. So vast and intricate was the crystal chandelier that its arms touched the four walls of the room and nearly reached the floor, stopping only half a metre away. In the evening, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light.
But all this meant that they could see perfectly, well enough when they were ninety years old to be able to follow the flight of flies about the room and spot the stains on the dresses of visitors and even the greasy, open pores on certain ladies’ faces. It was both a glory and a second youth.
One day, the next-door neighbours—truculent, unpleasant people—complained to the landlord that light was penetrating through to them from the old ladies’ apartment, and that the affected room was filling up with light.
The landlord didn’t know what to do. Leaving the light on in a room for two or three hours wasn’t the same as leaving a tap running. It was light, it wasn’t a leak. It wasn’t a miracle, it was an unusual, unexpected occurrence for which there was no punishment, no fine, and the generous response would perhaps be gratitude. One cannot speak ill of light; it’s rarely something people complain about, and so the neighbours’ complaint remained unresolved.
Beneath the light, Flora and Martita were gradually becoming small blurred shapes. They went through a phase of knitting with Lurex yarn, and the balls of wool, like creatures in an aquarium, would glint as they shifted proudly and languidly about on the floor with each tug on the thread. Flora and Martita would sometimes place on the table two glasses of liqueur, which they barely touched, just to see the light penetrating the colourful, intoxicating kingdom of alcohol. Their eyes expressed the very slightest movement of their hearts. That room contained their kingdom of light, their great invention, the torch that would allow them to see until the very end of the world. They wanted no shadows. The light filled everything, smoothing out even the most flagrant wrinkle. Thus they achieved what all women most desire—to be for ever young, to erase time.
When the fairy of time switched off Flora’s light for good, Martita was left alone beneath the chandelier, waiting for her inner fuses to blow as well. The crystal chandelier became a great candle lit in remembrance of Flora and occasionally something else glimmered in the room: Martita’s tears.
Underneath the earth, Flora still gave off light. Her body phosphoresced in the darkness like a female glow-worm in the night. This lasted for about three months, then gradually died like an ailing star, like a weary planet or like those astral bodies that collect light in order to transform it into something else.
When they buried Martita, her light lasted longer than Flora’s—twenty-two days longer. And light poured forth from her—pink, yellow and green—as if, in its final moments, Martita’s sleeping body had become a mesmerizing source of illusion.
English translation © Margaret Jull Costa. Published by Pushkin Press in 2014.