The Feather Pillow
(El almohadón de plumas)
by Horacio Quiroga
Her honeymoon was one long frisson. Blonde, angelic, and timid, her husband’s stern character had chilled her childish girlhood dreams. She loved him very much; yet at times, when returning at night together with him on the street, she would glance furtively and with a light shiver at Jordan’s tall stature, silent for over an hour. He, for his part, loved her profoundly, without realizing it.
For three months—they had married in April—they lived in a special bliss. No doubt she would have preferred less severity in this rigid paradise of love, more expansive and reckless tenderness; but her husband’s impassive countenance remained self-contained.
The house in which they lived contributed to her shivers. The whiteness of the silent patio, its friezes, columns, and marble statues, produced the autumnal impression of an enchanted palace. Inside, the glacial brilliance of the stucco, without the slightest scratch on the high walls, reinforced the sensation of bleak cold. When crossing from one room to another, one’s footsteps echoed throughout the house, as if a long abandonment had made the house more sensitive in its resonance.
In this strange love nest, Alicia passed the entire autumn. By the end, she had cast a veil over her long-ago dreams, yet still lived somnolently in the hostile house, not wanting to think of anything until her husband arrived home.
It’s not strange that she would lose weight. She had a light attack of influenza that dragged on insidiously for days; Alicia never recoverd. Finally one afternoon she was able to go out to the garden, supported on her husband’s arm. She gazed indifferently from one side to the other. Suddenly Jordan, with profound tenderness, stroked her head, upon which Alicia burst into sobs, throwing her arms about his neck. For a long time, she wept out her silent terror, redoubling her tears at the least tentative caress. Later her sobs subsided, and yet she remained for a long time, her face hidden in his neck, without moving or saying a word.
It was the last day that Alicia was able to get up. The following day she awoke, faint. The doctor examined her with great attention, ordering absolute calm and rest.
“I don’t know,” he said to Jordan at the street door, with his voice still lowered. “She’s very weak, and I can’t explain it, no vomiting, nothing…. If tomorrow she wakes like this, call me immediately.”
The next day Alicia was worse. There were consultations. They verified an aggressive, completely inexplicable anemia. Alicia had no more fainting spells, but she was visibly on the verge of death. All day the bedroom stayed fully lit, in complete silence. Hours passed without the least noise. Alicia slept. Jordan almost lived in the front room, also with all the lights burning. He walked ceaselessly from one end to the other, with untiring obstinancy. The carpet muffled his footsteps. At times he went into the bedroom and continued his mute pacing beside the bed, watching her face each time he walked in her direction.
Soon Alicia began to have hallucinations, confused and floating at first, and then descending to the ground. The young woman, her eyes wide open, constantly watched the carpet on either side of the back of the bed.
“Jordan! Jordan!” she cried, rigid with terror, without taking her eyes from the carpet.
Jordan ran to the bedroom, and on seeing him appear Alicia screamed in horror.
“It’s me, Alicia, it’s me!”
Alicia looked at him strangely, looked at the carpet, looked at him, and after a long moment of stupified contemplation, became serene. She smiled and taking his hand between hers, caressed it, trembling.
Among her more stubborn hallucinations was an ape, his fingers brushing the carpet, his eyes fixed on hers.
The doctors returned, but it was useless. In front of them was a life that was fading, bleeding out day by day, hour by hour, without them knowing how. In the last consultation Alicia lay in a stupor while they took her pulse, passing her inert wrist from one to the other. They stood in silence for some time, and then proceeded to the dining room.
“Pst…,” the doctor slumped his shoulder, discouraged. “It’s a serious case… there’s little we can do…”
“There’s something I’m missing!” Jordan sighed heavily, his fingers drumming in agitation on the table.
Alicia was overcome by the delirium of her anemia, which worsened in the afternoon, but always receded in the early hours. During the day her illness did not progress, but each morning she awoke pale, barely conscious. Only at night, it seemed, did her life leave her, on new wings of blood. She had always on awakening the sensation of collapsing into the bed under a great weight. From the third day this sinking sensation never left her. She could barely move her head. She didn’t want others to touch the bed, not even to arrange her pillows. Her twilight terrors advanced in the form of monsters that crawled towards the bed, and climbed with difficulty up the bedspread.
Later, she lost consciousness. The two final days she raved ceaselessly in a low voice. The lights stayed burning funereally in the bedroom and front room.
At last, she died. The maid, entering alone afterwards to unmake the bed, stared with surprise at the pillow for some time.
“Señor,” she called to Jordan in a low voice. “These look like bloodstains on the pillow.”
Jordan approached quickly and bent over the pillow in turn. Sure enough, on the pillowcase, on both sides of the indentation left by Alicia’s head, there were small dark spots.
“They look like bites,” murmured the maid after a moment of intent observation.
“Hold it up to the light,” Jordan said.
The maid picked up the pillow, but immediately let it fall, and remained staring at it, pale and trembling. Without knowing why, Jordan felt his hair stand on end.
“What is it?” he whispered hoarsely.
“It’s heavy,” the maid said, still trembling.
Jordan picked up the pillow; it was extraordinarily heavy. They left the room with it, and on the dining room table Jordan cut away the pillowcase and slit open the pillow. The upper feathers flew in the air, and the maid gave a scream of horror, her mouth wide open, her clenched hands flying to the sides of her face. On the pillow’s cover, between the feathers, slowly moving its hairy legs, was a monstrous animal, a slimy, living ball. It was so swollen that it could hardly move its mouth.
Night after night, while Alicia lay in bed, it had stealthily attached its mouth—or more accurately, its proboscis—to her temple, sucking her blood. The bite was almost imperceptible. The daily arranging of the pillow had no doubt slowed its progress, but when the young woman could no longer move, the bloodsucking accelerated dramatically. In five days, in five nights, it had sucked Alicia dry.
These parasites from birds, so small in their usual environment, under certain conditions reach enormous proportions. Human blood seems especially favorable to them, and it’s not unusual to find them in feather pillows.
From the collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (Stories of love, madness and death), 1917.
Translated by Nina Zumel