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The Red Countess

Hermynia Zur Mühlen

4. Feuilletons and Fairy Tales: A Sampling

The Señora

Hermynia Zur Mühlen
Traduction de Lionel Gossman

Texte intégral

1From time to time, some old, long forgotten image suddenly emerges, unsolicited and for no apparent reason, from the picture gallery of a memory stretching back over many, many years, and springs to life. A ray of sunlight shines on it, colours we thought were faded revive, and the subject of the image — a person or a landscape — pushes its way into the forefront of our mind, obscuring everything else.

2That is what is happening to me these days with the Señora. The frame of the image is springtime in Switzerland, blossoming fruit-trees, the blue waters of a lake, and a large, bright hall. In the hall, always in the same corner, a slight, gaunt woman, whose thin tapered fingers work on netting, day in, day out, restlessly, almost without a moment’s pause.

3No one could have told how old the Señora was. Her dark, shining eyes suggested a woman of twenty; the hard, embittered lines around the mouth a woman of sixty. Her husband, plump and bald, seemed to be a man in his fifties. As girls in South American countries were usually married to older men at the time, the Señora could well have been about thirty.

4To the children playing in the hotel garden the two of them were romantic figures: refugees! In one of the many revolutions, the party of Señor Geraldo had been overthrown and his enemies in that unhappy land on the other side of the ocean were able to wield their power with unspeakable harshness and cruelty. That had happened five years before. And for five years the Señora and her husband had been living in Switzerland and waiting. Waiting for the day when they could return to their liberated homeland and when that homeland would once again live and breathe freely.

5Señor Geraldo had settled down in Weggis. The Señora, in contrast, seemed to have no idea where she was living. Her dark eyes looked right through the people who passed by her and though she spoke English and French fluently, if anyone spoke to her, she understood not a word of what was said.

6Señor Geraldo would probably have been happy to mix more with the other residents of the hotel; he would have enjoyed a game of cards from time to time, and he would have very much liked to make an occasional trip to the casino in Lucerne. But his wife would not let him leave her side. He had to sit with her and read to her from the many newspapers piled up on the table before him. The Señora had no interest in European politics. What did Europe matter to her? She could think only of her enslaved homeland, of the terrible things that were happening there. She did not notice the scent of the purple lilac blossoms; her nostrils were filled with the choking smell of homes set on fire; their leaping flames drew a red curtain between her and the blue, spring sky.

7The Señor read to her, reported on the South American republic through lead articles and items of daily news. Now and again the Señora would smile, pull the knots of her netting tighter as if she wanted to draw the noose tighter around someone’s neck, and ask the Señor to read a particular paragraph again.

8Every disaster, every epidemic reported in the newspapers made her happy. She would pull her knots tighter, say “muerto,” and smile. Every now and then she would point with her gleaming netting needle at an obituary notice and repeat it out loud. At such moments her face became beautiful, transfigured, like that of a blessed spirit that has seen the heavens.

9She would put her netting aside, reach for a little diary, and write in, under the appropriate date, the name of the deceased enemy. She would laugh on days when she was able to write in more than one name and would show the little green leatherbound book to her husband: “Muerto, muerto, muerto.”

10For the Señora there was no more beautiful word in the whole wonderful language of her native land. One enemy had died. Or his son — a youngster who, if he had grown to manhood, would also have tortured their homeland and reduced it to slavery — had been killed in a serious riding accident. Now he could no longer do that. He lay stiff and dead. Muerto, muerto, muerto. And she smiled when she read the obituaries of the enemies’ wives: they would bear no more children for the hated regime. Muerta, muerta, muerta. A house had collapsed, burying thirty workers under the rubble — renegades who had cheered as the enemy made his grand entry. Now they would cheer no more; now their dead mouths, which had betrayed the homeland, were stopped up with dust and plaster. Muerto, muerto, muerto. A ship had gone down; from its stern the new flag of the old homeland had fluttered. The Señora tapped the table impatiently with her needle. She could not wait to hear how many had perished in the disaster. The captain — good; and the first officer — good; and twenty sailors — only twenty sailors? And the second officer had been saved along with the rest of the crew? The Señora wrinkled her brow: “Poor show,” she muttered to her husband. “What was God thinking of, allowing all of those to be saved?”

11She reached for her netting again and pulled the knots tighter and tighter, as though she was tying a noose around the neck of one of those who had been saved and drawing it ever tighter.

12“Yes,” Señor Geraldo said to an acquaintance one day. “She has been like that for five years now. At night she gets up, turns on the light, and re-reads the old newspapers from the first to the last page. She is afraid that I may not have reported all the deaths to her. And then she comes back to bed and whispers the names of the dead to herself. No she doesn’t need sleep. One or two hours are enough for her. At the crack of dawn, she wakes up and shakes me to awaken me also. She asks how long it will be before the newspaper comes. Every day she again believes that the front page will carry the news of the fall of the regime. And in the meantime, she contents herself with deaths and catastrophes; she collects them and reads them out to herself from her diary. As if to pray. Then she knots her netting. I have no idea how many pieces of netting she has stored in her trunks or how large they are. Yes, in her trunks. In the five years we have been here she has never unpacked her trunks. “What for?” she would ask. “Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow we could be going home. And it would be a shame to have to waste time packing.”

13In a frame of springtime in Switzerland, blossoming fruit-trees, the blue waters of a lake, and a large, bright hall, I see before me the long forgotten image of the dark-eyed woman whose fingers work restlessly on her netting and on whose thin pale lips a smile forms from time to time as she whispers to herself “Muerto, muerto, muerto!”


“Die Senora,” Die Zeitung (London), 1 April 1941; Zeitspiegel (London), 8 June 1946; Arbeiter-Zeitung (Vienna), 18 February 1949.


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