Juan Rulfo is one of those authors famous for only a couple of books – his reputation rests on the short story collection El llano en llamas and the novel Pedro Páramo, both published in a burst of creativity in the 1950s. For an author whose terse style evokes a Mexico where people’s straitened circumstances have made them hard-bitten, taciturn survivors, this seems apt. But the effect of Rulfo’s realism is not to present a world stripped of drama; rather, he uses it to lay bare the incipient violence in everyday life. (He’s an obvious influence on Cormac McCarthy, who describes similar territory on the other side of the US border.) Counterposed to the violence is Rulfo’s lyricism in describing the natural world, and his characters’ passionate involvement with the landscape: the extremes of beauty and violence, corralled into a single vision, sharpen each other. Rulfo has the knack too for finding the detail that both crystallises a situation and makes it strange.

His story “Es que somos muy pobres” (“It’s that we’re very poor”) is narrated by a voluble young man whose town has been flooded. Rulfo reproduces the rhythms of someone speaking quickly, before his thoughts are organised: there are repetitions and dead ends, like the bit about waking up and going back to sleep again. At first the boy is excited at the way the flood has upended the usual order: the woman tossing chickens into the street; the tamarind tree, a town landmark, that has disappeared. But when he realises that the river has also taken the cow with very pretty eyes – a precious resource for his family – the tone of the story begins to darken, and the boy divulges a family desolation that has nothing to do with the rain. My translation of the story is below.

It’s that we’re very poor

Here everything goes from bad to worse. Last week my aunt Jacinta died, and on Saturday, when we had buried her and our sadness had begun to recede, it began to rain like never before. This made my dad furious, because the barley harvest was drying in the yard. And the downpour arrived suddenly, in big waves of water, without giving us time to put away so much as a handful; the only thing we could do, everyone at home, was to huddle under the shed, watching the cold water fall from the sky and rot that yellow barley, so recently cut.

And only yesterday, when my sister Tacha had just turned twelve, we learned that the river had taken the cow that my dad gave her for her saint’s day.

The river began to rise three nights ago, that dawn. I was fast asleep but the noise the river brought as it swept along woke me suddenly and made me leap out of bed with my blanket in my hand, as if the roof of the house was falling. But then I went back to sleep, because I recognised the sound of the river and that sound stayed the same until it brought me back to sleep.

When I got up, the morning was full of clouds and it seemed to have been raining without pause. The noise of the river was louder and it sounded closer. You smelled, like you smell a fire, the stink of muddy water.

By the time I went to look out, the river had already lost its banks. It climbed the main street little by little, and hurried into the house of that woman they call La Tambora. You heard the splash of the water as it entered through the yard and left in big streams through the door. La Tambora walked back and forth along what was already a piece of the river, throwing her hens into the street so they could hide somewhere the current would not reach them.

And on the other side, where it bends, the river must have taken, who knows when, the tamarind tree that was in my aunt Jacinta’s yard, because now you can’t see any tamarind. It was the only one in the town, and by this the people realise that the flood that we’re seeing is the biggest that has come down the river in many years.

My sister and I went back in the afternoon to see that accumulation of water that all the time is getting thicker and darker and now passes well over where the bridge must be. We were there for hours and hours without growing tired of watching it. Then we climbed the gully, because we wanted to hear what the people said, because below, by the river, there’s a lot of noise and you only see their mouths open and close, like they want to say something; but you don’t hear anything. So we climbed up the gully, where there are other people watching the river and counting the losses it has caused. It was there that we knew that river had taken La Serpentina, the cow that was my sister’s because my dad gave it to her for her birthday and it had one white ear and the other one brown and very pretty eyes.

I don’t know why it would occur to La Serpentina to go to the river, when she knew it wasn’t the same river that she knew every day. La Serpentina was never that restless. The most likely thing is that she had to be asleep to let it kill her like that, no more than that. Many times it was my turn to wake her when I opened the corral gate for her because if I didn’t she would have been there all day with her eyes closed, quiet and sighing, like you hear cows sigh when they’re sleeping.        

And here it must have happened that she fell asleep. Perhaps she woke when she felt the heavy water strike her ribs. Perhaps then she was frightened and tried to return; but when she turned she found herself engulfed and trapped in that hard black water, like sliding earth. Perhaps she bellowed asking that they help her.

She bellowed like only God knows how.

I asked a man what he saw when the river took her, if he hadn’t seen the little calf as well that was with her. But the man said that he didn’t know if he’d seen him. He only said that the spotted cow passed with its feet in the air very close to where he was and that she turned over and then he didn’t see her again, not her horns nor her feet nor any sign of her. Many trees rolled down the river, roots and all, and he was very busy gathering wood, so he couldn’t be sure if it swept along animals or logs.

So we don’t know if the calf is alive, or if he went down the river behind his mother. If that’s what happened, may God protect them both.

The worry they have at home is what might happen tomorrow, now that my sister Tacha had nothing. Because my dad worked many jobs to obtain La Serpentina, when she was a heifer, to give her to my sister, with the intention that she would have a little capital and was not going to be a slut like my other two sisters, the older ones.

According to my dad, they had started to get lost because we were very poor at home and they were very rebellious. Even as kids they grumbled. And when they grew they went out with the worst men, who taught them bad things. They learned quickly and understood very well the whistles, when they called them late at night. Later they went out until daylight. They went every so often to the river for water and sometimes, when one least expected it, there they would be in the corral, rolling on the ground, completely naked and each one with a man on top.

Then my dad sent the two of them packing. First he bore all that he could; but later he could not bear them anymore and he put them out on the street. They went to Ayutla or I don’t know where; but they went as whores.

That’s why my dad is mortified, for Tacha now, because he doesn’t want her to turn out like her two sisters, when she feels that she’s very poor with her cow gone, seeing that she won’t have anything to entertain herself with while she grows or to marry a good man with, who could love her forever. And that is going to be difficult now. With the cow it was different, because there would have been someone who wanted to marry her, just to take that beautiful cow as well.

The only hope left to us is that the calf is still alive. I hope he hasn’t gone down the river behind his mother. Because if that’s what happened, my sister Tacha is on the way to becoming a slut. And Mum doesn’t want that.

My mum doesn’t know why God has punished her so in giving her such daughters, when in her family, from her grandmother until now, there have never been bad people. All were raised in the fear of God and were very obedient and were not irreverent to anyone. All were that way. Who knows they came from, that pair of daughters who set such a bad example. She doesn’t remember. She turns over all her memories and can’t see clearly where she went wrong or the sin in giving birth to one daughter after another with the same bad habit. She doesn’t remember. And every time she thinks of them, she cries and says, “May God protect them both.”

But my dad claims there’s no remedy for that. The danger is the daughter who’s still here, Tacha, who grows and grows like a pine and who already has the beginnings of breasts that promise to be like those of her sisters: pointy and high and half uncovered to draw people’s attention.

“Yes,” he says, “she will fill the eyes of whoever, wherever they see her. And it will end badly; I’m seeing that it will end badly.”

That is my dad’s mortification.

And Tacha cries for her cow that will not return because the river has killed her. She is here at my side, with her pink dress, watching the river from the gully without her tears ceasing. Down her face run small streams of dirty water as if the river had gotten inside of her.

I hug her, trying to console her, but she doesn’t understand. She cries even more. From her mouth there comes a noise like the noise that sweeps along the banks of the river, that makes her tremble and shake, and meanwhile, the flood keeps rising. The taste of rot that comes from there splashes Tacha’s wet face and her two small breasts move up and down, without stopping, as if they will suddenly begin to swell and begin to work for her damnation.