In memory of Darío Morales
Miranda Castro was, in her day, one of the most sought-after models in the United States. Despite her Latino surname, she had the look of a Scandinavian girl with that blonde hair, shimmering like wheat in the summer sunlight, and those eyes, bluer than the Caribbean Sea. She was featured several times on the cover of Vogue. Whenever she walked into a restaurant, people immediately fell silent, their eyes following her in starstruck awe. Her mere presence could cause a traffic jam along Park Avenue because drivers, spellbound by her beauty and the quiet arrogance of her stride, would slow to a halt. Up close, however, there was a distinctly steely glint in her pupils that scared men. There wasn’t the slightest hint of affection there; only contempt. Miranda loved no one. Out of spite, she had married an American millionaire who was something of an art buff, and for whom she was just another piece in his collection.
There had only been two men who had counted in Miranda’s life: Lucio Castro, her adoptive father, and Peter, a maths professor at the University of Massachusetts who had seen something in her that went beyond the fashion mannequin. Both men had given her true affection and helped her to forget the past. Both had given her the warm feeling of support when her heart was overcome with sadness. Miranda wasn’t sure if she had loved them, but her memories of them became more intense as the years went by and the first signs of age appeared around her eyes. Her father’s death was foreseeable, but Peter’s abandonment was a mystery to her, even then. It sometimes seemed that his love for her had waned when she told him about her trip to Germany, but she never understood the reasons for his rejection, silent and irreparable.
Miranda was ten years old when she arrived in Caracas from her native Augsburg, summoned at the whim of Lucio Castro. Advanced in years and with no children of his own, neither by his wife nor any of his numerous mistresses, he decided, one fine day, to adopt a girl, with the sole condition that she be blonde and blue-eyed. Lucio Castro was an incredibly wealthy man who was used to getting his own way. The branches of his business extended to many countries, and it was easy for him to find an influential lawyer in Germany to satisfy his desire. And so it was that little Greta became Miranda, leaving the squalid orphanage she had lived in since her birth for the luxury cabin of an ocean liner destined for Venezuela. It felt to her like a dream; like she was in a fairy tale. She had fine clothes, patent leather shoes, and mountains of toys. The waiters bowed when she walked past, the captain invited her to dine at his table, and the governess, who Lucio Castro had sent to chaperone her and teach her Spanish, treated her like a princess. Everything amazed Miranda: the sea, the dolphins, and the colour of the sky as the ship cruised into tropical waters. Feeling unrefined, she tried to mimic the gestures and mannerisms of the people around her and went to great lengths to control her voracious appetite. She had always gone hungry, and as she watched all those delicious plates of food go by, she got the sense that they might be replaced with the bland old soup from the orphanage at any minute. One night, after dessert, she snuck one of the sweets from the table into her pocket, and the next day, the captain sent a huge box of chocolates to her cabin. That was when Miranda knew for certain that she had left the old days behind her for good, and that she was entering a world where her wishes came true as soon as she made them known.
The pleasure of feeling important was confirmed when she arrived in Maracaibo and met her adoptive father. Lucio Castro was captivated by her, fascinated by this beautiful little blonde girl who looked up at him full of devotion, but not without arrogance. After leaving the orphanage, Miranda discovered that she possessed something rare and valuable: beauty. It gave her great self-confidence and re-shaped her view of the world. Although she couldn’t express it in words, she began to think that her being an orphan was an error in the natural order of things, one which Lucio Castro had fixed by adopting her. Never again would she return to the overcrowded dormitories, the long winters without heating. Never again would she experience the nightmare of the bombardments, with the sirens and the suffocating smell of smoke and burnt things seeping into the basement. She would, however, have to live up to the expectations of her adoptive father, who wanted her to be intelligent and full of character. Seen by the teachers in the orphanage as mentally retarded, she learned to read and write Spanish in less than six months. With every lesson she grasped, a weight was lifted from her heart. In the same way, overcoming her fear of horses – that she would soil her trousers-, she became quite the amazon, riding out with Lucio Castro whenever when he felt like taking a tour of his estates. The fear never left her, but nobody could tell. Before mounting, she would usually shield her trousers with a handkerchief and wash it in secret later on. In Germany, she had known grief; in Venezuela, she discovered anxiety. Everything was challenging to her. Jumping off the diving board into the swimming pool gave her a feeling of vertigo and her ears rang painfully when she dived into the sea. Spiders and lizards made her queasy. She was afraid of getting lost in the crowd when she went shopping with her mother, and was even more afraid of being alone with this woman who looked at her without the faintest glimmer of trust. Fortunately, Lucio Castro protected her. He may have failed to notice her difficulty adapting to her new life, but he was quite aware that she had spent her childhood in an orphanage. And so he decided that Miranda would never set foot in a school again.
The procession of teachers began in the mornings and finished at sundown. As well as all the usual subjects, Miranda also studied Greek and Latin; by thirteen she already knew Simón Bolívar’s life story by heart, and by fifteen she was speaking good English. Aware that his siblings would take legal action against her in the event of his death, Lucio Castro placed most of the assets he held in the United States in her name. He also started introducing her to his lawyers with the same aim in mind, to bring her up to speed on his business and keep her abreast of his speculative transactions. Miranda discovered she had a special talent for earning money, and by the time Lucio Castro died, she already knew all the finer details of his affairs and was able to wage an all-out war against her father’s relatives when they tried to overturn the will.
With the legal battle won, Miranda left for New York and signed up with a modelling agency. She was twenty years old and knew she was a lesbian, something she had always hidden so as not to shock her father or provide ammunition to the people who criticised him for adopting her. Modelling indulged her narcissistic side and provided her with the perfect hunting ground. She liked women, but never managed to form any kind of emotional bond with them. The essence of the word ‘love’ escaped her, and as soon as one of her lovers acted in the slightest bit possessive, she would drop her in an instant. Miranda found outward displays of affection laughable. It was seduction that excited her; breaking down their defences and overcoming their sense of shame. She wasn’t interested in overly easy women, or those with a personality similar to her own. Finally, she met Joan: an infinitely spiteful journalist who loved to lead lesbians on, only to slip away like an eel at the moment of truth, under the pretext of a new love, or her passion for a man. Miranda was well-versed in harshness and lies, but not perversion. Defences down, she fell right into Joan’s web, emerging with a bruised soul and the melancholy feeling that she knew very little about the mysteries of the human heart. When she began to tire of modelling, she decided to leave New York to study psychology at the University of Massachusetts.
Nothing was easier for her than sheltering beneath Peter’s protection. Like Lucio Castro, he seemed caring, and knew what he wanted. He was a slim, refined man, his hair prematurely grey. The first time they slept together he was surprised to notice that Miranda knocked one foot against the other to help her get to sleep. That was what they had taught her in the orphanage when she was little more than a baby, to combat the cold. Her status as an orphan, as a child adopted for the colour of her eyes, profoundly moved Peter. He had known a happy childhood: his father was a diplomat, which had allowed him to visit the world’s great capitals, and he had a loving mother and four brothers who had always been his best friends. Every Sunday, they would get together and spend the afternoon talking about art, history and current political affairs.
Miranda felt ignorant in their company. Studying Greek and Latin had been pointless, since she couldn’t even tell a Sumerian statue apart from a Roman sculpture. Names like Goya and Tiziano mean nothing to her. She was clueless about the two world wars and had no musical knowledge whatsoever. Determined to tackle this new challenge, Miranda began frequenting the University library and buying all the classical records she could find at the music store. Reading about the history of Nazism, she was astonished to discover that she was not a war orphan as Lucio Castro had led her to believe. She was born in early 1938, which meant her mother had conceived her before the hostilities began. From that moment on, Miranda yearned to know who her mother was. Her desire gradually became an obsession and, choosing to ignore Peter, who urged her to forget the past, she travelled to Germany and contacted the lawyer who had taken her out of the orphanage fourteen years earlier. He seemed reluctant at first, but the money she offered eventually eased any misgivings he may have had. The hardest part was getting inside the orphanage to consult the archives. They hired private detectives whose job it was to pay off anybody who could give them accurate information. Finally, an old nurse was persuaded by the enormous sum of money offered, which was half as much as she had earned in her entire life. Under the pretext of reuniting a daughter with her poor mother, she put the detectives on the trail of Frieda Pfeiffer.
Frieda was barely out of her teens when she had Miranda, and never even had the chance to look at her new-born baby girl, because her parents immediately whisked her off to the orphanage in Augsburg. Mr. Pfeiffer was an affluent merchant who would hear nothing of a bastard child that would cast doubt on the virtue of his sole heiress. One of the family’s former servants, who was now living in a nursing home, said that Miss Frieda had never recovered from losing her child. She cried when she thought about her breasts, heavy with milk, and the little bibs she had sewn in secret while she was pregnant. Right up until the last moment, she believed that her family would back down and abandon their plan to tear her baby away from her. She never told anyone who the father was; he could have been a foreigner she had met in Garmisch during the Easter holidays.
Mr. Pfeiffer insisted on protecting his daughter’s reputation, but his efforts were in vain. Frieda never wanted to get married. She became morose, only ever leaving the house to attend religious services. As the years passed, she dried up like a wilted flower, and by the time her parents faded away, she was a downhearted spinster who derived no pleasure whatsoever from life. Frieda scheduled her days with maniacal precision: winter or summer, she would get up at eleven in the morning and sit in bed drinking a glass of milk with some biscuits. It took her two hours to have a bath and get dressed, after which time she would sit down to watch the television. At sundown she would go to a tearoom near her home, where she would sip several cups of tea while peering at the passers-by through her thick-rimmed glasses. She subscribed to a history magazine, and would stay up late reading memoirs and biographies. Miranda decided to approach Frieda at the tearoom. Knowing that she always sat in the same place, she settled into a seat at the next table. She saw Frieda walk into the room, grey-haired, with a slight stoop and a look of unalterable melancholy on her face. Miranda waited for her to finish her first cup of tea before asking if she could sit down at her table. Frieda blinked in astonishment from behind her glasses. She lit a cigarette, her hands fumbling. She seemed disconcerted. Her lips were trembling slightly, and she tried, in vain, to smile. She had a childlike look about her, as if she had just watched a bird land on her shoulder. Every now and again, as if afraid she would scare the bird off, she looked up and snuck a tentative glance at Miranda.
“Many years ago,” she said finally, quietly, “I knew someone who looked… well, like you.”
Her remark was met with no response. Miranda had realised that she was talking about her real father and felt relieved. She saw nothing of herself in this woman, so weighed down by life.
“You’re the spitting image of him,” said Frieda cautiously, as if still frightened that the bird might fly away at any moment.
“I look just like my mother,” said Miranda, “and she’s never been to Germany.” “But you speak our language perfectly,” said Frieda.
“My grandfather was born in Berlin and moved to Venezuela when he was very young. His children learned German with tutors, and so did we, his grandchildren.”
The expression on Frieda’s face turned from pleading to despondent once more. The waiter came over to refill their teacups. Frieda stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and slumped down even further, as if old age had suddenly hit her.
“Resemblances are so strange,” she murmured.
“Yes, quite,” said Miranda.
At no point did she consider telling her mother the truth, giving her the pleasure of knowing that she was alive and enjoying a privileged life. Frieda would have been delighted to discover that her daughter had escaped the tragic fate of an abandoned child, and that she was intelligent, beautiful, and wealthy. She had dreamed so often of seeing her in the street, among the girls who walked past the tearoom. Frieda had imagined various scenarios, no doubt: that her daughter had become a prostitute or was working in a factory, and that Frieda would give her the money to help her lead a better life. Or the opposite: that she was well-off and leading a happy life, and that she, Frieda, would tiptoe away so as not to disturb her. She had imagined everything, except meeting her there in the tearoom she frequented, and her standing there, stony-faced, asking permission to sit down at her table so she could practice her German. But the girl sitting across from her, who reminded her so much of her first love, had a family and was born in a different country. The resemblance was pure coincidence, and a tombstone suddenly landed on her hopes.
Miranda guessed what her mother was thinking, but she had little interest in that. She only wondered whether Frieda posed a threat or not. After watching her for a while, Miranda was confident that no, she didn’t, that with such a timid nature, Frieda would never try to impose on her. If she had realised who she was, she would have mumbled some sort of affectionate words, maybe even shed a few tears. That would be all. Perhaps she would’ve wanted to know a little about Miranda’s life, or asked her to send a Christmas card every year with all her news, just to let her know she was doing alright. By giving her these crumbs of information, Miranda could have lightened the load on Frieda’s heart and allowed her to grow old in peace. But she chose not to; she saw no real reason to do so, she told Peter when she returned to Massachusetts, and he asked if she’d told Frieda that she was her daughter.
Peter’s question, and the appalled look on his face, baffled Miranda. She couldn’t understand his reaction to such a banal story. She had travelled to Germany to meet her mother; she had seen her and got the measure of her. That was all there was to it. Yet Peter still gazed at her with a look of inexorable sadness, as if she no longer belonged to this world. He grew more and more evasive and distant. He refused to answer her phone calls, and never again invited her to spend Sundays with his family. Ultimately, Miranda had to accept that Peter had stopped loving her. But neither then, nor later, as the years weathered the smooth skin on her face, did she understand why Peter, like the other men and women who had loved her, turned so strange, so sullen, when she told them about that encounter with her mother in a tearoom in Augsburg.
Paris, 5th April 1988
Translated by Isabel Adey and Charlotte Coombe
Isabel Adey is a literary translator and editor working with Spanish, German and English. She has published translations of works by Giovanna Rivero, Marvel Moreno and Ulrike Draesner, among others. She holds an MSc in Translation (Heriot-Watt University, 2011) and an MA in Modern European Languages (University of Edinburgh, 2009) and has taught translation to postgraduate level. In 2023, she and Charlotte Coombe were shortlisted for the Queen Sofia Translation Prize for their co-translation of Marvel Moreno’s December Breeze.
Charlotte Coombe is a British literary translator working from French and Spanish into English. Her translation of Abnousse Shalmani’s Khomeini Sade and Me won a PEN Translates award in 2015. She has translated The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero (Charco Press, 2017), and The Imagined Land by Eduardo Berti (Deep Vellum, 2018) as well as work by authors such as Marvel Moreno, Orlando Echeverri Benedetti, Lucía Baskaran, Elizabeth Duval, Juan Villoro, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rosa María Roffiel, Santiago Roncagliolo, Edgardo Nuñez Caballero, and Jimena González. Her translations have appeared in publications such as Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, Latin American Literature Today, Project Plume, and Palabras Errantes. She was shortlisted for the Valle Inclán Translation Prize for her translation of Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo and was awarded a PEN Translates award in 2019 for her translation of a novel by the same author, entitled Holiday Heart (Charco Press, 2020). In 2020, she co-founded the YouTube channel Translators Aloud, shining the spotlight on literary translators reading from their work. Visit her website or find her on Twitter and Instagram.