From the “Hitchcock of the River Plate” (Corriere della Sera) comes Piñeiro’s third novel, a unique tale that interweaves crime fiction with intimate stories of morality and the search for individual freedom.
After Rita is found dead in the bell tower of the church she used to attend, the official investigation into the incident is quickly closed. Her sickly mother is the only person still determined to find the culprit. Chronicling a difficult journey across the suburbs of the city, an old debt, and a revealing conversation, Elena Knows unravels the secrets of its characters and the hidden facets of authoritarianism and hypocrisy in our society.
The following excerpt from the novel is taken from the fourth chapter.
Elena Knows is out now from Charco Press.
Rita was found hanging from the church belfry. Dead. On a rainy afternoon. That, the rain, Elena knows, is an important detail. Even though everyone says it was suicide. Friend or not, everyone says so. But as much as they try to convince her, or remain silent, no one can refute the fact that Rita never went near the church when it even threatened rain. She wouldn’t be caught dead there, her mother would’ve said if anyone had asked her before. But she can’t say that now, because there she was, that lifeless body that was no longer her daughter, hanging from the belfry one rainy day, although no one could explain how she’d got there. Rita had been afraid of lightning, ever since she was a little girl, and she knew that the cross on top of the church attracted it. It’s the town lightning rod, her father had taught her without knowing that this passing comment would keep her from going anywhere near the place in stormy weather. If rain was forecast she kept away from the church and from the Inchauspes’ house too, the only one in the neighbourhood with a pool at that time. Water is an excellent conductor of electricity and pools are magnets for lightning, she’d heard an engineer say on a news report about an accident at a country club when two kids ignored the No Swimming sign during a storm and were killed by a bolt of lightning. And if over the years more pools were built in the neighbourhood, or more lightning rods, she preferred not to know, because every new titbit of information would only further limit her movements. Not stepping on the checkerboard tiles outside the midwife’s, not going to church on rainy days, and not going near the Inchauspes’ house complicated things enough without adding any other detours. Not to mention that Rita patted her right buttock whenever she passed a redhead, as she recited with the solemn tone of the Hail Mary: Ginger, ginger, you’re no danger. Ginger, ginger, I give you the finger. Ginger, ginger, who’s the sinner?, or she touched her right hand to her left breast if anyone mentioned Liberti, a poor old man who was rumoured around the neighbourhood to be cursed because he was always at the wrong place at the wrong time: in front of the Ferraris’ house when the pine tree fell and smashed the roof, queuing at the bank when the widow Gande’s pension was stolen from her, standing on the corner when Dr Benegas hit the bin lorry with his brand new car, and other incidents of the kind. It’s better not to know, said Rita. When she started working at the Catholic school, at age seventeen, a few weeks after her dad’s death and because Father Juan appealed to the board to give the position to the dead man’s daughter, despite her age, Rita learned to make up excuses every time they tried to send her to the chapel in inclement weather. Pressing tasks, stomach pains, a headache, she’d go as far as to fake a fainting fit. Whatever it took to avoid going near that cross on a rainy day. That’s how she’d always been.
And Elena thinks, she knows, that this couldn’t have just changed all of a sudden, even on the day of her death. Even though no one will listen to her, even though no one cares. If her daughter went to the church on a rainy day it was because someone dragged her there, dead or alive. Someone or something, said Inspector Avellaneda, the officer assigned to the case. Why do you say that, Inspector, something like what? Oh, I don’t know, said Avellaneda. If you don’t know, then don’t say anything, she scolded him.
She was found by some boys that Father Juan had assigned to ring the bells announcing the seven o’clock mass. They flew back down the stairs screaming and ran through the nave to the sacristy. Father Juan didn’t believe them, saying, Get out of here, you little devils, but the boys insisted he had to come and see and they dragged him up the belfry. The body was hanging from a rope, and the rope from the same yoke that held the bronze bell. An old rope so worn out no one could explain how it held her weight for long enough to kill her. It had been left lying in the belfry along with some scaffolding boards from the last time they cleaned the dome, according to the report Elena later read. My God, murmured Father Juan and although he recognised her immediately he didn’t say her name, pretended he didn’t know her, just picked up the overturned chair beneath the swinging body and stood on it to take her pulse. She’s dead, he said, which the boys already knew because they’d played at being dead many times, being cops or robbers, shooting to kill or dying, so they knew that the woman hanging from the bell was not playing. Father Juan took them back to the sacristy, but this time he had them make the sign of the cross and bend their knees slightly when they passed the sanctum holding the communion wafers that had already been blessed. You wait here, he said to them, and he phoned the police. He asked the inspector to wait until after the seven o’clock mass since people were already coming into the church and he didn’t want to cancel the service, especially since it was the Thursday after Pentecost, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Day of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ the Lord. And anyway there’s nothing more we can do for the woman now, except pray, Inspector. The inspector agreed it was best not to interrupt the service, A dead man is a dead man, Father, or rather a dead woman, and it’s going to be a heavy blow for the people, terrible, it’s better they go in peace and find out tomorrow, what about the family, do you know the woman, Father? She doesn’t have a family, Inspector, just the mother, who’s sick, I don’t know how she’s going to take it. Don’t worry, Father, we’ll handle it, to Caesar what is of Caesar and to God what is of God. The inspector hung up and started to get things ready, it would take time to recall the car, which was out on patrol, gather a few officers, and notify the coroner. You two wait here and don’t move, don’t even think about going back up there, Father Juan told the boys as he put on his robe for mass, And not a word to anyone, God will be watching you, he added, but it wasn’t necessary, because they’d both gone mute, sunk down in the sacristy couch.
No bells announced mass that evening, but there was a mass. If anyone had paid attention and also had a good memory, they would remember that in the silence of the church all that could be heard was the sound of the rain falling in the courtyard. But no one paid any attention to the rain that evening except Elena. A memory for details, Elena knows, is only for the brave, and being cowardly or brave is not something one can choose.
Translated by Frances Riddle