The Blue Bouquet

by Octavio Paz (1949), translated by Eliot Weinberger

I WOKE COVERED with sweat. Hot steam rose from the newly sprayed, red-brick pavement. A gray-winged butterfly, dazzled, circled the yellow light. I jumped from my hammock and crossed the room barefoot, careful not to step on some scorpion leaving his hideout for a bit of fresh air. I went to the little window and inhaled the country air. One could hear the breathing of the night, feminine, enormous. I returned to the center of the room, emptied water from a jar into a pewter basin, and wet my towel. I rubbed my chest and legs with the soaked cloth, dried myself a little, and, making sure that no bugs were hidden in the folds of my clothes, got dressed. I ran down the green stairway. At the door of the boardinghouse I bumped into the owner, a one-eyed taciturn fellow. Sitting on a wicker stool, he smoked, his eye half closed. In a hoarse voice, he asked:
       “Where are you going?”
       “To take a walk. It’s too hot.”
       “Hmmm—everything’s closed. And no streetlights around here. You’d better stay put.”
       I shrugged my shoulders, muttered “back soon,” and plunged into the darkness. At first I couldn’t see anything. I fumbled along the cobblestone street. I lit a cigarette. Suddenly the moon appeared from behind a black cloud, lighting a white wall that was crumbled in places. I stopped, blinded by such whiteness. Wind whistled slightly. I breathed the air of the tamarinds. The night hummed, full of leaves and insects. Crickets bivouacked in the tall grass. I raised my head: up there the stars too had set up camp. I thought that the universe was a vast system of signs, a conversation between giant beings. My actions, the cricket’s saw, the star’s blink, were nothing but pauses and syllables, scattered phrases from that dialogue. What word could it be, of which I was only a syllable? Who speaks the word? To whom is it spoken? I threw my cigarette down on the sidewalk. Falling, it drew a shining curve, shooting out brief sparks like a tiny comet.
       I walked a long time, slowly. I felt free, secure between the lips that were at that moment speaking me with such happiness. The night was a garden of eyes. As I crossed the street, I heard someone come out of a doorway. I turned around, but could not distinguish anything. I hurried on. A few moments later I heard the dull shuffle of sandals on the hot stone. I didn’t want to turn around, although I felt the shadow getting closer with every step. I tried to run. I couldn’t. Suddenly I stopped short. Before I could defend myself, I felt the point of a knife in my back, and a sweet voice:
       “Don’t move, mister, or I’ll stick it in.”
       Without turning, I asked:
       “What do you want?”
       “Your eyes, mister,” answered the soft, almost painful voice.
       “My eyes? What do you want with my eyes? Look, I’ve got some money. Not much, but it’s something. I’ll give you everything I have if you let me go. Don’t kill me.”
       “Don’t be afraid, mister. I won’t kill you. I’m only going to take your eyes.”
       “But why do you want my eyes?” I asked again.
       “My girlfriend has this whim. She wants a bouquet of blue eyes. And around here they’re hard to find.”
       “My eyes won’t help you. They’re brown, not blue.”
       “Don’t try to fool me, mister. I know very well that yours are blue.”
       “Don’t take the eyes of a fellow man. I’ll give you something else.”
       “Don’t play saint with me,” he said harshly. “Turn around.”
       I turned. He was small and fragile. His palm sombrero covered half his face. In his right hand he held a country machete that shone in the moonlight.
       “Let me see your face.”
       I struck a match and put it close to my face. The brightness made me squint. He opened my eyelids with a firm hand. He couldn’t see very well. Standing on tiptoe, he stared at me intensely. The flame burned my fingers. I dropped it. A silent moment passed.
       “Are you convinced now? They’re not blue.”
       “Pretty clever, aren’t you?” he answered. “Let’s see. Light another one.”
       I struck another match, and put it near my eyes. Grabbing my sleeve, he ordered:
       “Kneel down.”
       I knelt. With one hand he grabbed me by the hair, pulling my head back. He bent over me, curious and tense, while his matchete slowly dropped until it grazed my eyelids. I closed my eyes.
       “Keep them open,” he ordered.
       I opened my eyes. The flame burned my lashes. All of a sudden he let me go.
       “All right, they’re not blue. Beat it.”
       He vanished. I leaned against the wall, my head in my hands. I pulled myself together. Stumbling, falling, trying to get up again. I ran for an hour through the deserted town. When I got to the plaza, I saw the owner of the boardinghouse, still sitting in the front of the door. I went in without saying a word. The next day I left town.