By Tununa Mercado

Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan

from Issue 20: Landmarks


Listening to love is like hearing the sound of the sea in a shell. Eyes do not see, the nose does not smell, hands do not touch, but that sea crashes its wild waves against the cliffs or sends them like a gentle caress to the shore. Although divinity can be “touched,” that is to say, it can be felt in a sublime state, the voice of God is heard, always as a call that rises out of the shadows, or rather, from silence. To listen is to know and to understand. One listens behind doors, or through walls, but even more intently to what goes on in the bed in the next room. Secrets are usually revealed through walls and reach the ears. “Listening” to love is hearing two people make love, or only one, absorbed in a private and devout reverie.

A large door with polished hardwood panels and oiled hinges joins two bedrooms and allows tender drafts to slip between its jambs on winter nights. Two separate territories united by the couple who will perform the act in one room, and by the third party, male or female, who will listen from the other. A female, in this case, is present, not because she chose to be the third party in question, nor because she preferred not to be an active participant. She could have been the one that is now evaluating the smoothness of the sheets, or the quality of the mattress, or the lightness of the down comforter, in the next room. Indeed, she could still venture over to the door, knock softly without being too obvious, and simply say that she does not wish to be excluded from the affair, that perhaps the three of them could make arrangements to share that same large bed. But intimacy is not for beggars and the share that has been awarded to her will surely have virtues and compensations as well. She would be doing a disservice to herself if she suffered over a fortuitous hand whose cards were dealt by chance, creating a situation that no one pursued with much tenacity, one that just turned out that way because of the luck of the draw. It is best, then, to accept what comes along.

She is grateful for the opportunity to listen to an encounter between women that therefore will not have any element of struggle, of relentless persistence, of a climax in which no one will know who finished first, or if simultaneity was attempted and its failure mutually concealed in the final panting breaths.

She is excluded without actually being so because the voices and sighs heard on the other side of the door are provocative, without uttering off-color words, or sparing her attentive ear the rambling discourse of amorous pursuit. That laughter has been projected so that it falls on her ears in her bedroom, those moments of silence produced to confer upon her that insurmountable uncertainty over the unknown that takes hold of her, leaving her breathless. She is not there with them, that is true, but her presence on the other side plays a part in the movements of the others who, while they do not include her, neither do they exclude her completely, as if keeping her on reserve, commissioning her with the highly qualified rank of the one who listens.

Everything is closed, the windows are closed, the curtains have been drawn so that nothing may penetrate those chambers of love designated for confinement, as if the participants understood that intimate acts demand strict compartmentalization. That encapsulation of love in the bedroom creates its own reality, felt from the eyelids inward—as when falling asleep—from the skin to the very space of desire that no physiological study has ever located with precision and whose reactions, though entirely individual are often universalized.

What she hears has not yet resulted in pleasure, but makes her heart race. The interludes in the dialogue unravel her, while the two of them must surely be touching each other, untangling strands of hair with their fingers, their lips pursuing necks or mouths searching for mouths. Not long ago, when the three were together, she noticed them exchanging glances, without realizing at the time that she was going to be the silent but active partner who would overhear their amorous advances. She had become especially aroused by the extent to which one of them let the corners of her mouth turn into a smile, with a spontaneous restraint made all the more sensual by the slow manner in which the hint of a smile unveiled her teeth, eliciting a reciprocal expression in her half-closed eyes, a beguiling look of hesitation.

She could be gazing into those eyes right now, into her eyes, extracting fervently the secret message that she had begun to decipher hours earlier, when locking arms was merely a friendly gesture between women and not that embrace which, little by little, caught them off guard and enticed them to undress and touch each other with reckless abandon. One of the two (or was it she herself, with her ear glued to the door so as not to miss the slightest sigh?), most likely one of the two women, on tiptoes to not make a sound, approached the door and cracked it open. The eavesdropper barely managed to slip out of sight; her bedroom was dark, but a sliver of light entered through the crack, forcing her to climb into bed.

The others had detected her presence by the door, but preferred not to expose her, and without a doubt, had ended up including her as part of the triangle. Her ears hear the caresses, her imagination separates them into infinite drops of pleasure that spill onto her skin; she perceives their agitated breathing, as if one of them had their mouth by her ear; laughter thrust into the night slides between her legs and quivers between her breasts, and the words that barely reach her ears, when repeated by her lips, are transformed into echoes of the lovers’ admonishments: softer, like that, more softly, slow, slow, not yet, not yet, me first and then you, let me show you an ancient move, ancient, invented by Amazon women, that’s right, you’ll see, you can, yes you can, it’s the ultimate test of love, one that only a few chosen women are able to consummate, I excel at the art of tribadism and will teach you, and then we can teach her, the one who, alone, listens to us now.

Tununa Mercado was born in Córdoba, Argentina, in 1939, and is one of the most important women writers in contemporary Argentine literature. Her first collection of short stories, Celebrar a la mujer como a una pascua received an Honorable Mention from the Casa de las Americas prize. Other significant works include En estado de memoria, translated to English, French and Portuguese, La letra de lo mínimo, and La madriguera. In 1998 Mercado received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her novel Yo nunca te prometí la eternidad, which received the Sor Juana Inés Prize at the 2007 International Book Fair in Guadalajara.

Rhonda Dahl Buchanan is a professor of Spanish and the director of the department of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Louisville. She is the author of numerous critical studies on contemporary Latin American writers, and her translations have appeared in many journals and books. In 2004 she won an award to participate in a residency program at the International Banff Centre for Literary Translation, and in 2006 she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship to translate Alberto Ruy-Sánchez’s novel Los jardines secretos de Mogador.

Original text: Tununa Mercado, Canon de alcoba. Buenos Aires: Ada Korn Editora, 1988.

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