[The woman of the colored mice]
Outside the carriage the air is hot and stifling, like a summer day walking through the marshes of my childhood, swapping the mosquitoes away. I realize that I will start sweating soon and I tell myself to move slowly, without any unnecessary exertions.
I look up and I’m first surprised by the sky, the darkest I’ve ever seen. I then experience the mirage of foreign stars, even though my brain remembers that is mid afternoon out there, over the saguaros and the extensions of dunes. A few tiny holes, punctured through the roof, allow in an infinitesimal amount of the light outside. Just titillating speckles here and there that resemble stars in a nightly sky but that don’t contribute much to the almost inexistent illumination within Suicidio.
In fact, the candle held by the man with the two eyepatches, standing behind me by the open door, is the main source of light along the street. There are also some weak candlelights delineating windows in some of the two-storied buildings across the street.
With time one gets accustomed to the darkness; with time one gets accustomed to almost anything. And the vague light inside Suicidio enables me to see the form of the carriage and the uneasy horses, and the outlines of the buildings on the other side of the street. The roof of Suicidio seems to be resting on top of the buildings, with the stretch that hangs over the street sagging several feet down, as if the desert outside were pushing in, wanting to squash the anomalous outgrowth under the sand.
I go to the back of the carriage to retrieve my belongings. The ground is bare soil, hard and uneven, each depression filled with a shallow puddle. The darkness, the humidity, the unpleasantness, it all reminds me more of some unsavory back-allies in San Francisco than of the undulating tranquility of the desert. Traveling miles and miles through a wild landscape just to end up where we started.
The cage and my suitcase are as secure as when we departed, the rope still tensely stretched around them. I undo the knots and loosen up the rope. I grab the cage with both hands and slowly place it on the ground, waiting for the man behind me, the one with the two eyepatches, to approach me and offer to help me; I’m ready to tell him that I don’t need his help, I can manage perfectly fine, thank you very much. I get my suitcase down, hold it with one hand and with the other hand I lift the cage, trying to minimize any side movements.
The man with the two eyepatches is still by the door, grasping his candle as if he were a lighthouse. As I walk towards him I can see the other two passengers, the old woman and the failed businessman, finally getting out of the carriage. I don’t pay any more attention to them. They are in an undertaking of their own, with their own rules and their own destination, along their way dancing to a music that I cannot hear.
I put the cage and suitcase down by the man with the eyepatches. “Would you mind shedding some light over here?” I ask while kneeling down and raising one side of the cloth covering the cage.
The man also kneels down and moves his candle closer. “What do you have in there?” he asks.
“Just some mice.”
Six of the eight mice are out and about. They don’t seem to be distressed. The only blue mouse is hanging from the bars that compose the floor of the second level. Squeezing my finger through the side bars, I tap the hiding bowl and the other two mice step out, the yellow mouse and one of the green mice.
“They have colors,” the man says. I then realize that he can see through his eyepatches. Not sure how. I’m more inclined to believe in magic than to be impressed by his adaptation to the gloom.
“Would you want to buy one?” I say, although I know when disinterest is in the house.
“I’m afraid not, you know,” he murmurs. “You should be going in, anyway. The sooner the better, you know.”
“Yes, of course,” I say, more grateful than really understanding what he means.
The inn’s reception is barely illuminated. The youngster is being attended by a receptionist behind a desk. To the left of the desk there are some open doors that seem to lead to an open space, perhaps a courtyard. To the right there is a flight of stairs ascending to the upper floor.
The youngster starts to walk towards the stairs but then he stops and looks back at the receptionist. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to get what he wants. The receptionist waves with his hand towards the stairs. The youngster sighs and heads for the stairs. “Next,” the receptionist says some seconds later.
I approach the desk and I see a second man behind the desk. He is sitting on a stool, with a hood on and his arms crossed in front of his chest. I put my belongings down and as I make my way up again I look at him. He is serious but not angry. Possibly unhappy, which is to be expected. Not necessarily bored, able to entertain himself. If I had to choose a friend in this town, he would be so far the main contender. He opens his mouth but doesn’t talk immediately, as if changing his mind and finding himself trying to decide what to say.
“What does bring you to Suicidio?” he says.
“It just seemed the right place,” I say. An ambiguous answer to cover my back. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s totally inappropriate. Most times it comes out with an instinctual quickness that leaves me surprised for a while.
“I’m very sorry but we don’t have any more rooms available,” the receptionist says with the mechanical voice of a well-crafted automaton. “If someone dies we can offer you their room. In the meantime, there is some space in the cellar. There are rats but they don’t bite too much.”
“A cellar? I cannot believe you don’t have any rooms.”
“We don’t. The cellar will do.”
“Is there any other decent establishment?” I say, trying to insinuate with my intonation that theirs is beyond any decency. The receptionist, however, remains unmoved, dry like a piece of cardboard.
“I’m afraid this is the only hotel,” he says. “You need to go that way and enter into the first room to your right,” he continues, pointing to the open doors submerged in darkness. “You will arrange your will with the people in there and they will let you know how to get to the cellar.”
“I’m not going to spend the night in any cellar. I’m actually not sure I want to be in one of your rooms even if you had one.”
The receptionist glares at me without any sympathy or interest. “Life is not fair,” he says, as if that sentence were supposed to convince anyone into accepting his conditions.
“When does the carriage leave again? I don’t care if it goes back to San Francisco or anywhere else. I prefer to endure ten more hours in that carriage than to spend a night in your stupid cellar.”
“You are just a visitor, then?” the man sitting on the stool asks with some amount of delight in his voice. He even sounds relieved.
“Yes, I was planning on staying one or two nights, three as a maximum. Most likely just the two.”
“We may have something for you,” he says without shifting his position on the stool, without smiling, without unfolding his arms.
“Let me see what we have, again,” the receptionist says straightaway. He opens the register and flips a page back and forth several times, as if trying to remember what’s that he’s looking for. “It seems that we have one available room, after all.”
“One of our best rooms, actually,” the man on the stool adds, even though he cannot see the register from his low viewpoint.