Inheritance

I inherited this story from my mother who got it from her mother; my grandmother received it from her father, who is the protagonist of the piece. It is set in a small village in the mountainous Spanish province of Extremadura, mere millimetres from the Portuguese border on most maps of Europe. One century is about to displace another in a world that radio, television, and the automobile have yet to colonize. In many places, including this remote town, streetlights, too, are unknown. When night falls, it covers everything. When the moon is absent, you have torchlight and your wits to guide you.

He sifted through his store of knowledge for an explanation for what he was seeing. He’d had a lot to drink – no doubt about that – but no amount of drinking could account for what was plainly a bottle singing a song.

On this particular night, on the lip of a new century, my great-grandfather (let’s call him Antonio, his given name) left the only taberna in the town. The hour was late, the moon weak, and the streets deserted. To keep himself company, he sang what was nothing more than a medley of drinks, things he’d had and things he wished he’d had. In no particular order (then realized it was alphabetical), he recited: absinthe, beer, cider. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t get past “c” and rummaged for something else to sing. Sirve me otro, something his grandfather used to sing, came to him. Sirve me otro que tengo la garganta seca. As he sang, he let his legs direct him home in the dark: they’d done it before, and he trusted them completely.

He remembered only one verse and repeated it until he realized he wasn’t singing alone. Somewhere up ahead, in the dusty plain that separated the town from Antonio’s house, a voice was singing the second verse of the song. Mañana beberemos otra vez el mismo vino, el mismo vino.

“How do you know that song?” Antonio said.

There was no answer, except for the third verse, sung in a gruff voice not unlike his own. Antonio gave chase. And almost immediately stopped. For a long while he just stood there. Stone-like and stunned. He sifted through his store of knowledge for an explanation for what he was seeing. He’d had a lot to drink — no doubt about that — but no amount of drinking could account for what was plainly a bottle singing a song. He waited until it was finished singing before picking it up. It was an ordinary wine bottle, empty, and the cork missing. He had seen swans before, as a child, and was reminded of them by the bottle’s neck. Bottle in hand, he found his way back home; neither uttered another note.

Usually, he finds his wife in bed, asleep. On such occasions, he makes no concession to silence as he moves through the house, knowing nothing will wake Marta.

On this night, though, he found her on the doorstep. He told her he was surprised she was still up. She said she was just thinking the same about him. “I could smell you before I even saw you,” she added. “Just how much did you drink?” Then, spotting the bottle in his hand: “I don’t want that in my house.”

“It’s empty.”

He considered telling her about its unusual ability but her mood didn’t appear to be thawing. Still, she let him into the house with the bottle. He set it down with care on the kitchen table — then staggered to the bedroom. For a moment she considered throwing the bottle out. Some intuition, disguised as fatigue, kept her from doing it. When she got to the bedroom, he was already asleep though not yet snoring.

The following day started, after two cups of Marta’s strong coffee, with more strangeness: the bottle was on the porch. A criminal on the lam, thought Antonio. He picked it up and back into the house he went. Marta was still sitting at the kitchen table, dunking day-old bread in her coffee.

“Did you put the bottle outside?”

She paused long enough to swallow, and shook her head.

“Don’t tell me it left the house on its own.”

“I wasn’t going to,” she said.

He looked skyward. “I’m an idiot. Of course, it must’ve left on its own. If it can sing, it can certainly walk out of the house.”

Maybe he thought he was talking only to himself, but now Marta was demanding an explanation, and she wanted it ahora mismo. He recounted what had happened the night before. Leaving the bar, singing the song, hearing the voice, seeing the bottle — every detail he could remember. Some parts he described; others, he mimed.

“You must’ve been drunker than ever.”

The rest of the day Antonio made several house calls. He set broken limbs, pulled abscessed teeth, shut an old man’s eyes and also an old woman’s eyes for the last time, and made it to the tavern mere minutes after sunset. A tiring day, but his first drink restored him. It was all the encouragement he needed. He drank “b” (“a” and “c” being unavailable in these parts) and played cards with some of the other regulars, the baker, the schoolteacher. Later, the blacksmith. In the early hours he left the bar, feeling more sober than the night before, which didn’t prevent the same nonsense from recurring. He was singing Como me gusta el vino, when a voice up ahead joined in. Como me gusta beber una copita con los amigos. He ran to it, and there it was — the same bottle.

But it wasn’t about to interrupt its performance, which now included hopping around as if it had legs. A dizzying, entrancing dance. For the finale, the bottle performed a pirouette and vaulted into Antonio’s hands.

“How did you get out?” he shouted, half-expecting an answer.

But it wasn’t about to interrupt its performance, which now included hopping around as if it had legs. A dizzying, entrancing dance. For the finale, the bottle performed a pirouette and vaulted into Antonio’s hands. There were beads of moisture on its neck, and on Antonio’s forehead. Walking home, he concocted a number of explanatory theories — different stories, including one with his wife as the prime suspect. None, however, explained how a bottle could sing. It was a drink-induced hallucination, he told himself and the bottle, and that seemed to keep panic at arm’s length.

This time Marta wasn’t waiting by the door; she wasn’t waiting at all. She was asleep in bed and not faking it. He set the bottle down by the bed and got in beside her.

Mornings he usually tells Marta his dreams. This time she was spared. What he told her was worse. Just as he’d done the day before, he reported the strange goings-on with the bottle. He raised his cup of coffee to his mouth and stopped. “By the way, where is it?”

“How should I know?”

“I didn’t notice it by the bed when I got up. That’s where I left it.”

“I haven’t seen it,” she said. “Are you sure you didn’t dream all this?”

“Of course. There’s only one place it can be.”

Yes, there it was on the porch, looking for all the world like an innocent bottle. He picked it up and took it indoors.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t dream up any of it,” he started. He took a deep breath and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” She sat up and smiled. She loved it when he was decisive, even when the enterprise was pointless. “You’ll come to the tavern with me this evening, and on the way back home, you’ll see what happens.” They hadn’t been out together in so long that Marta went along with his plan.

That day, too, he made many house calls. Once again, there were limbs and there were teeth. And only one death; it was making fewer calls than he was. In the evening, he stopped at home long enough to wolf down some bread and porridge and make sure the bottle was in a kitchen cupboard before setting off for the tavern, Marta in tow.

They had a surprisingly good time, mostly made up of reminiscences; she had a good deal to drink, and he had a good deal more. To some hand-clapping and a single guitar strumming, they performed a little dance, their bodies somehow remembering what to do. Throughout the evening, drinking companions came and went. At around midnight, they offered effusive goodbyes and left hand in hand.

They swayed as they walked, slapdash dance steps and languid embraces. The evening had rejuvenated them. A three-quarter moon lit their path. Unlike Marta, Antonio hadn’t forgotten. When he judged the time was right, he began singing: En mi casa siempre hay cerveza. As expected, it immediately became a twosome, but it was Marta singing along. He let her go on, Nunca nos aburrimos en su bodega, and kept mouth shut and ears open. Sure enough, seconds later, another voice joined hers. Marta suddenly fell silent, not the slightest trace of joy lingering on her face. The song went on but she plainly saw that Antonio was not singing. He was smiling. Now he was laughing. Roaring his head off. He took her hand, shouted, “Come,” and pulled her toward the singing. There it was, singing and dancing. An old hand at this now, Antonio scooped the bottle from the ground. Marta was in a state near shock, but (all she ingested helping) quickly recovered.

When the bottle stopped, Marta started. She wanted explanations. What evil medicine did he slip into her drinks? When did he learn to throw his voice? Where was her husband’s accomplice? Above all, what was the point of this rigmarole?

“Finally, a sensible question,” he said. “But I don’t have the answer. I don’t know how this can be happening and I don’t know why.”

When they got home, she took the bottle from him. She wore a look that was equal parts dismay and determination. She raised the bottle, and for a second Antonio was alarmed. But it didn’t come down on his skull: she was holding it up to the light.

“Maybe there’s a spirit in there,” she said.

Before he could respond that superstition was hardly the answer, she turned it upside down. A drop of black liquid spilled out.

The bottle never sang again. What exactly happened? Why did it happen? Was there a lesson to be drawn from this? These are questions Antonio asked himself. They didn’t lead to answers, however; they led — in the end, consolingly — to storytelling. The following evening instead of going to the tavern Antonio sat at the kitchen table with a notebook, a quill, and bottle of ink. He wrote an account of the events: first, in a letter to his youngest sister in Seville; later, a story he tried to sell to a newspaper in Madrid. Neither document has survived. Thanks to the stubborn custom of oral storytelling, it has seeped through three porous generations to me — a gift from one of the many unacknowledged practitioners of magic realism. My mother tells me that he was still recounting this story decades after it happened. He was well past 90 and well-preserved (in alcohol, as my grandmother used to say) when he died, the day before I was born.

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