Hermalinda was the only young woman in all the land – a female they could see and count on, one with a heady mixture of blood in her veins and a hearty taste for a good time. She was in the business of solace out of pure and simple vocation, she liked almost all men in general, and many in particular. She reigned among them like a queen bee. She loved their smell of work and desire, their harsh voices, their unshaven cheeks, their bodies, so vigorous and at the same time so pliable in her hands, their pugnacious natures and naïve hearts. She knew the illusory strength and extreme vulnerability of her clients, but she never took advantage of those weaknesses, on the contrary, she was moved by both. Her rambunctious nature was tempered by traces of maternal tenderness, and night often found her sewing patches on a shirt, stewing a chicken for some sick drover, or writing love letters for distant sweethearts. She made her fortune on a mattress stuffed with raw wool under a leaky zinc roof that moaned like lute and oboes when the wind blew. Hermalinda’s flesh was firm and her skin unblemished, she laughed with gusto and had grit to spare. In every embrace, however brief, she proved herself an enthusiastic and playful friend. Word of her firm horsewoman’s legs and breasts without a trace of wear had spread across the six hundred kilometers of that wild province, and lovers traveled many miles to spend a while in her company.
Hermalinda had conceived a plan to turn a sure profit without cheating anyone. In addition to cards and dice, the men could try their hand at a number of games in which the prize was her person. The losers handed over their money to her, as did those who won, but the winners gained the right to dally briefly in her company, without pretext or preliminary – not because she was unwilling but because she lacked time to give each man special attention.
A man could lose a month’s pay in fifteen minutes playing the game of Toad’s Mouth. Hermalinda would draw a chalk line on the floor and four steps away draw a large circle in which she lay down on her back, knees spread wide, legs golden in the light of the spirit lamps. The dark center of her body would be revealed as open as a fruit, as a merry toad’s mouth, while the air in the room grew heavy and hot. The players took a position behind the chalk line and tossed their coins toward the target. Some were expert marksmen, with a hand so steady they could stop a panicked animal running at full speed by slinging two stone bolas between its legs, but Hermalina had an evasive way of sliding her body, shifting it so that at the last instant the coin missed its mark. Those that landed inside the chalk circle belonged to her. If one chanced to enter the gate of heaven, it won for its owner a sultan’s treasure: two hours alone with her behind the curtain in absolute ecstasy, seeking consolation for all past wants and dreams of the pleasures of paradise. They told, the men who had lived those two precious hours, that Hermalinda knew ancient love secrets and could lead a man to the threshold of death and bring him back transformed into a wise man.
Until the day that an Asturian named Pablo appeared, very few had won that pair of wondrous hours, although several had enjoyed similar pleasure – but for half their salary, not a few coins. By then, Hermalinda had accumulated a small fortune, but the idea of retiring to a more conventional life had never occurred to her; in fact, she took great pleasure in her work and was proud of the sparks of pleasure she afforded the drovers. This Pablo was known to be a surly, pugnacious loner who ridiculed the weather, the sheep and the English. He had no fixed home and he admitted to no loves or obligations, but he was not getting any younger and solitude was seeping into his bones. Sometimes when he awoke at dawn on the icy ground, wrapped in his black Castilian cape and with his saddle for a pillow, every inch of his body ached. The pain was not the pain of stiff muscles but an accumulation of sorrow and neglect. He was tired of living like a lone wolf, but neither was he cut out for domestication. He had come south because he had heard the rumor that at the end of the world there was a woman who could change the way the wind blew, and he wanted to see her with his own eyes. The vast distance and the risks of the road had not dampened his determination, and when finally he found Hermalinda’s saloon and had her in arm’s reach, he could see she was forged of the same hard metal as he, and he decided that after such a long journey life would not be worth living without her. He settled into a corner of the room to study her and calculate his possibilities.
El Asturiano had guts of steel, even after several glasses of Hermalinda’s liquor his eyes were still clear. He refused to remove his clothes for the other contests he frankly found infantile, but toward the end of the evening, when it was time for the crowning moment – The Toad – he shook off the fumes of the alcohol and joined the chorus of men around the chalk circle. To him, Hermalinda was as beautiful and wild as a puma. He felt the stirrings of his hunter’s instinct, and the undefined pain of the alienation that had tormented hin during his journey turning to tingling anticipation. He saw the feet shod in low boots, the woven stockings rolled below the knee, the long bones and tense muscles of those legs of gold in the froth of full petticoats, and he knew that he would have but one opportunity to win. He took his position, planting his feet on the floor and rocking back and forth until he found the true axis of his being, he transfixed Hermalinda with a knifelike gaze, forcing her to abandon her contortionist’s tricks. Or that may not have been how it was, it may be that she chose him from among the others to honor with her company. Pablo squinted, exhaled a deep breath, and tossed his coin. Everyone watched as it formed a perfect arc and entered cleanly in the slot. A salvo of applause and envious whistles celebrated the feat. Nonchalantly, the smuggler hitched up his pants, took three steps forward, seized Hermalinda’s hand and pulled her to her feet, prepared to prove in two hours that she could not do without him. He almost dragged her from the room, the men stood around drinking and checking their watches until the period of the reward had passed, but neither Hermalinda nor the foreigner appeared. Three hours went by, four, the whole night; morning dawned and the bells rang for work, and still the door did not open.
At noon the lovers emerged. Pablo, without a glance for anyone, went outside to saddle his horse, a horse for Hermalinda, and a mule to carry their belongings. Hermalinda was wearing riding pants and jacket, and a canvas bag filled with coins was tied to her waist. There was a new expression in her eyes and a satisfied swish to her memorable rump. Solemnly, they strapped their gold onto the mule, mounted their horses, and set off. Hermalinda made a vague wave of farewell to her desolate admirers, and followed El Asturiano across the barren plains without a backward glance. She never returned.
** The Toad's Mouth is from Isabelle Allende's collection, The Stories of Eva Luna. I first read the book about 15 years ago, and this story is the only one I've ever been able to remember.