"The Feather Pillow" by Horacio Quiroga

The Feather Pillow
By Horacio Quiroga
Translated, from the Spanish, by A.Z. Foreman

Their honeymoon was one long shudder. A blonde, angelic and shy young thing, her childhood fantasies of being a bride had been chilled by her husband's stern nature. She loved him very much even so, though sometimes with a slight twinge when, as they returned home through the streets at night together, she would glance up furtively at the impressive stature of her Jordan who had been silent for the past hour. He likewise was in love with her, but never made it known. 

For three months -they had been married in April- they lived in a singular kind of bliss. Doubtless she would have wished less severity in those strict heavens of love, a more expansive and spontaneous tenderness; but her husband's immovable manner would always hold her back. 

The house in which they lived affected her twinges and shuddering in no small fashion. The silent patio's whiteness -friezes, columns, and marble statues- gave the autumnal impression of an enchanted palace. Inside, the glacial brilliance of  stucco and the totally bare walls reenforced the feeling of unpleasant cold. On crossing from one room to the next, the echo of footsteps reverberated all through the house, as if long years of neglect had sensitized their resonance. 

Alicia spent her entire autumn in this strange love-nest. But she had determined to cast a veil over her dreams of old, and still lived in the hostile house, trying not to think of anything until her husband came home. 

It is no surprise that she grew thin. She had a slight bout of the flu which dragged on insidiously for days on end. Alicia would never be healthy again. Eventually she was able to go out one late afternoon into the garden, resting on his arm. Listlessly, she looked around from side to side. Suddenly Jordan ran his hand slowly, with deep tenderness, over her head, and Alicia promptly burst into sobs, throwing her arms round his neck. For a long while she cried all her stifled fears out, wailing louder at Jordan's slightest caress. Then her sobs began to subside, and she stood a long while with her face hidden against his neck, wordless and motionless. 

That was Alicia's final day out of bed. The next morning she felt faint as soon as she awoke. Jordan's doctor examined her with the utmost thoroughness, prescribing complete bed-rest and calm.
"I don't know" he said to Jordan in a lowered voice on his way out to to the street, "she has this great weakness that I can't explain. And there's no vomiting or anything… if she wakes up tomorrow and nothing's changed, call me right away." 

The next day Alicia woke up feeling worse. Doctors were called. They diagnosed it as acute idiopathic anaemia, completely inexplicable. Alicia had no more fainting spells, but was visibly moving toward death. All day long in complete silence the bedroom lights stayed on. Hours went by without the slightest noise. Alicia dozed. Jordan all but lived in the drawing room, its lamps also on. He paced ceaselessly, with tireless persistence, from one end of the room to the other. The carpet swallowed the sound of his steps. At times he would enter the bedroom and continue his wordless paces up and down alongside the bed, pausing for an instant to look at his wife at each end.
Soon Alicia began to hallucinate: vague, indistinct visions, at first floating in the air and then descending to the floor. Her eyes stretched wide open, the girl stared constantly at the carpet on either side of the head of her bed. One night she was suddenly transfixed, staring at one spot. After a while she opened her mouth to scream, her nostrils and lips beaded with sweat. 

"Jordan! Jordan!" She shrieked, rigid with fear, her eyes still fixed on the carpet.

Jordan ran into the bedroom. When she saw him appear, Alicia screamed in horror

"It's me, Alicia! It's me."

Alicia stared blankly at him, at the carpet, and back at him; and after a long pause of stupefied confrontation, she came back to her senses. She smiled, taking her husband's hand in her own, caressing it, trembling, for half an hour.

Amongst her most recurrent hallucinations, there was a hominoid creature, poised on its fingers on the carpet, eyeing her.

The doctors returned to no avail. They had before them a waning life, bleeding away day by day, hour by hour, and they knew not why. During the last consultation, Alicia lay in a stupor while they took her pulse, passing her inert wrist from one to the other. For a long while they observed her in silence, and then went on to the dining room.

"Huh…" the chief physician shrugged in discouragement "This case is serious…there's not much to be done…."

"That's all I needed!" snapped Jordan, staggering suddenly. 

Alicia was ebbing away in an anaemic subfever which grew worse in the afternoon but always let up somewhat after dawn. During the day, her illness did not progress, but every morning she awoke pallid, barely conscious. It seemed only at night that her life drained out of her in ever-new billows of blood. Always when she woke up she had the sensation of lying collapsed in bed with a million-kilo weight on her body. Following the third day of this episode, she never left her bed again. She could hardly move her head; she didn't want her bed to be touched, not even to have the pillow plumped. Her crepuscular terrors made their advance in the form of monsters that dragged themselves to the bed and scrambled up onto the bedspread. 

Then she lost consciousness. The last two days she raved ceaselessly in a feeble voice. The lights stayed on, their vigil illuminating the bedroom and drawing room. In the deathly silence of the house, the only sound was the monotonous delirium from the bedroom and the stifled thud of Jordan's eternal pacing. 

Finally, Alicia died. The servant, when she came in afterward to strip the now empty bed, stared for a while in puzzlement at the pillow. 

"Sir" she called to Jordan in a low voice. "There are stains in the pillow that look like blood."
Jordan approached the bed quickly and bent over the pillow. There indeed on the pillowcase, on either side of the hollow left by Alicia's head, were two small dark stains. 

"They look like bite-marks" the servant murmured after a moment of unmoving observation. 

"Hold it up to the light" Jordan said.

The servant lifted it, but instantly dropped it and stood staring, pallid and trembling. Without knowing why, Jordan felt his hairs stand on end. 

"What is it?" he murmured hoarsely.

"It's really heavy" the servant stammered, still trembling.

Jordan picked it up. It was extraordinarily heavy. They carried it out of the room and on the dining room table he slashed open the case and ticking. The outer feathers floated away and the servant shrieked with terror, her mouth agape, covering her face with balled fists: At the bottom of the pillowcase, among the feathers, slowly moving its hairy legs, was a monstrous animal, a living, viscous ball. It was so bloated one could barely make out its mouth. 

Night after night, ever since Alicia had taken to bed, it had applied its mouth - one might better say its snout- to her temples, sucking her blood. The bitemark was scarcely perceptible. The daily plumping of the pillow had doubtlessly at first hindered its advance, but once the girl could no longer move, the suction became vertiginous. In five days, five nights, it had drunk Alicia dry. 

These bird-born parasites, usually quite tiny in their natural environment, can grow to enormous proportions under certain conditions. Human blood seems particularly favorable to them, and they are not uncommonly found in feather pillows.

Note:

Beyond the obvious merits as a quasi-gothic horror-story, this is also a gothic human tragedy. On the one hand, it is a tragedy of human psychology. The true cause of Alicia's illness was not caught in time because it was just too simple: it required no M.D. or medication. All it required was the right actions, looking for answers to the right questions, to see what the servant discovers immediately upon looking at Alicia's pillow. On the other hand, ask yourself: how is it that this all escaped her husband's notice? How is it that on their honeymoon, a husband failed to notice the blood on his new bride's pillow- which his servant noticed immediately? Obvious answer: they were never even in the same bed together. It is a romantic, even sexual tragedy as well.

The Original:

Su luna de miel fue un largo escalofrío. Rubia, angelical y tímida, el carácter duro de su marido heló sus soñadas niñerías de novia. Ella lo quería mucho, sin embargo, a veces con un ligero estremecimiento cuando volviendo de noche juntos por la calle, echaba una furtiva mirada a la alta estatura de su Jordán, mudo desde hacía una hora. Él, por su parte, la amaba profundamente, sin darlo a conocer.

Durante tres meses -se habían casado en abril- vivieron una dicha especial.Sin duda hubiera ella deseado menos severidad en ese rígido cielo de amor, más expansiva e incauta ternura; pero el impasible semblante de su marido la contenía siempre.

La casa en que vivían influía un poco en sus estremecimientos. La blancura del patio silencioso -frisos, columnas y estatuas de mármol- producía una otoñal impresión de palacio encantado. Dentro, el brillo glacial del estuco, sin el más leve rasguño en las altas paredes, afirmaba aquella sensación de desapacible frío. Al cruzar de una pieza a otra, los pasos hallaban eco en toda la casa, como si un largo abandono hubiera sensibilizado su resonancia.

En ese extraño nido de amor, Alicia pasó todo el otoño. No obstante, había concluido por echar un velo sobre sus antiguos sueños, y aún vivía dormida en la casa hostil, sin querer pensar en nada hasta que llegaba su marido.

No es raro que adelgazara. Tuvo un ligero ataque de influenza que se arrastró insidiosamente días y días; Alicia no se reponía nunca. Al fin una tarde pudo salir al jardín apoyada en el brazo de él. Miraba indiferente a uno y otro lado. De pronto Jordán, con honda ternura, le pasó la mano por la cabeza, y Alicia rompió en seguida en sollozos, echándole los brazos al cuello. Lloró largamente todo su espanto callado, redoblando el llanto a la menor tentativa de caricia de Jordan. Luego los sollozos fueron retardándose, y aún quedó largo rato escondida en su cuello, sin moverse ni pronunciar una palabra.

Fue ese el último día que Alicia estuvo levantada. Al día siguiente amaneció desvanecida. El médico de Jordán la examinó con suma atención, ordenándole calma y descanso absolutos.

-No sé -le dijo a Jordán en la puerta de calle, con la voz todavía baja-. Tiene una gran debilidad que no me explico, y sin vómitos, nada... Si mañana se despierta como hoy, llámeme enseguida.

Al otro día Alicia seguía peor. Hubo consulta. Constatóse una anemia de marcha agudísima, completamente inexplicable. Alicia no tuvo más desmayos, pero se iba visiblemente a la muerte. Todo el día el dormitorio estaba con las luces prendidas y en pleno silencio. Pasábanse horas sin oír el menor ruido. Alicia dormitaba. Jordán vivía casi en la sala, también con toda la luz encendida. Paseábase sin cesar de un extremo a otro, con incansable obstinación. La alfombra ahogaba sus pasos. A ratos entraba en el dormitorio y proseguía su mudo vaivén a lo largo de la cama, mirando a su mujer cada vez que caminaba en su dirección.

Pronto Alicia comenzó a tener alucinaciones, confusas y flotantes al principio, y que descendieron luego a ras del suelo. La joven, con los ojos desmesuradamente abiertos, no hacía sino mirar la alfombra a uno y otro lado del respaldo de la cama. Una noche se quedó de repente mirando fijamente. Al rato abrió la boca para gritar, y sus narices y labios se perlaron de sudor.

-¡Jordán! ¡Jordán! -clamó, rígida de espanto, sin dejar de mirar la alfombra.

Jordán corrió al dormitorio, y al verlo aparecer Alicia dio un alarido de horror.

-¡Soy yo, Alicia, soy yo!
Alicia lo miró con extravió, miró la alfombra, volvió a mirarlo, y después de largo rato de estupefacta confrontación, volvió en sí. Sonrió y tomó entre las suyas la mano de su marido, acariciándola por media hora temblando.

Entre sus alucinaciones más porfiadas, hubo un antropoide, apoyado en la alfombra sobre los dedos, que tenía fijos en ella los ojos.

Los médicos volvieron inútilmente. Había allí delante de ellos una vida que se acababa, desangrándose día a día, hora a hora, sin saber absolutamente cómo. En la última consulta Alicia yacía en estupor mientras ellos la pulsaban, pasándose de uno a otro la muñeca inerte. La observaron largo rato en silencio y siguieron al comedor.

-Pst... -se encogió de hombros desalentado el médico de cabecera-. Es un caso serio... poco hay que hacer...

-¡Sólo eso me faltaba! -resopló Jordán. Y tamborileó bruscamente.

Alicia fue extinguiéndose en subdelirio de anemia, agravado de tarde, pero que remitía siempre en las primeras horas. Durante el día no avanzaba su enfermedad, pero cada mañana amanecía lívida, en síncope casi. Parecía que únicamente de noche se le fuera la vida en nuevas oleadas de sangre. Tenía siempre al despertar la sensación de estar desplomada en la cama con un millón de kilos encima. Desde el tercer día este hundimiento no la abandonó más. Apenas podía mover la cabeza. No quiso que le tocaran la cama, ni aún que le arreglaran el almohadón. Sus terrores crepusculares avanzaron en forma de monstruos que se arrastraban hasta la cama y trepaban dificultosamente por la colcha.
Perdió luego el conocimiento. Los dos días finales deliró sin cesar a media voz. Las luces continuaban fúnebremente encendidas en el dormitorio y la sala. En el silencio agónico de la casa, no se oía más que el delirio monótono que salía de la cama, y el rumor ahogado de los eternos pasos de Jordán.

Alicia murió, por fin. La sirvienta, que entró después a deshacer la cama, sola ya, miró un rato extrañada el almohadón.

-¡Señor! -llamó a Jordán en voz baja-. En el almohadón hay manchas que parecen de sangre.
Jordán se acercó rápidamente Y se dobló a su vez. Efectivamente, sobre la funda, a ambos lados del hueco que había dejado la cabeza de Alicia, se veían manchitas oscuras.

-Parecen picaduras -murmuró la sirvienta después de un rato de inmóvil observación.

-Levántelo a la luz -le dijo Jordán.

La sirvienta lo levantó, pero enseguida lo dejó caer, y se quedó mirando a aquél, lívida y temblando. Sin saber por qué, Jordán sintió que los cabellos se le erizaban.

-¿Qué hay? -murmuró con la voz ronca.

-Pesa mucho  -articuló la sirvienta, sin dejar de temblar.

Jordán lo levantó; pesaba extraordinariamente. Salieron con él, y sobre la mesa del comedor Jordán cortó funda y envoltura de un tajo. Las plumas superiores volaron, y la sirvienta dio un grito de horror con toda la boca abierta, llevándose las manos crispadas a los bandós. Sobre el fondo, entre las plumas, moviendo lentamente las patas velludas, había un animal monstruoso, una bola viviente y viscosa. Estaba tan hinchado que apenas se le pronunciaba la boca.

Noche a noche, desde que Alicia había caído en cama, había aplicado sigilosamente su boca -su trompa, mejor dicho- a las sienes de aquélla, chupándole la sangre. La picadura era casi imperceptible. La remoción diaria del almohadón había impedido sin duda su desarrollo, pero desde que la joven no pudo moverse, la succión fue vertiginosa. En cinco días, en cinco noches, había vaciado a Alicia.

Estos parásitos de las aves, diminutos en el medio habitual, llegan a adquirir en ciertas condiciones proporciones enormes. La sangre humana parece serles particularmente favorable, y no es raro hallarlos en los almohadones de pluma.

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