Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 667
The rocky, desolate terrain of southern Chile provides the setting for this story, which opens on a sheep ranch. The land is silent and ice cold, and has been decimated by the sheep brought by English settlers. The sheep have eaten the vegetation and trampled the remaining artifacts of the...
(The entire section contains 667 words.)
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The rocky, desolate terrain of southern Chile provides the setting for this story, which opens on a sheep ranch. The land is silent and ice cold, and has been decimated by the sheep brought by English settlers. The sheep have eaten the vegetation and trampled the remaining artifacts of the indigenous cultures.
In contrast, the impassive English couple who own Sheepbreeders, Ltd., surround their headquarters with lawns and thorny fences of wild roses. They have not adapted to their surroundings. They stay indoors, observe the formal traditions of the British Empire, and pamper themselves with whatever luxuries their ranch affords.
The South American men who work for Sheepbreeders, Ltd., are underpaid, cold, and lonely, as neglected as the sheep they herd. Their only solace is in knowing Hermelinda, a young woman who lives in a nearby shack, earning her living as a prostitute. She loves them genuinely, and they count on her for a good time. She is known for her playfulness, her enthusiastic sense of humor, and her strong, beautiful body. The only other young woman in the area is from England. The opposite of Hermelinda, the English woman is nervous, fussy, and rarely seen.
On Friday nights, men ride their horses from great distances to spend an evening drinking Hermelinda’s bootleg alcohol and playing a variety of games, which guarantee her a profit without cheating anyone. The games are sexual, and the prize is Hermelinda. Sometimes the party is so wild that the English couple hear laughter as they sip tea before bed. They pretend, however, that they hear only the wind.
Hermelinda’s most successful game is called Toad’s Mouth. She draws a chalk circle on the floor, then lies down on her back inside of it, with her knees spread wide. Thus, she reveals the “dark center of her body” that appears “as open as a fruit, as a merry toad’s mouth.” The men then toss their coins toward the target. Money that falls within the chalk circle is Hermelinda’s to keep. If one of the players happens “to enter the gate of heaven” with his coin, he earns two hours alone with the hostess, an event so prized it is said to transform the winner into a wise man.
One day, an Asturian man named Pablo arrives. He is lean, with the bones of a bird and a child’s hands. He looks like a “peevish banty rooster” but is tenacious, and those that threaten his dignity witness his bad temper and readiness to fight. He is a loner from Spain, traveling without obligation or love, and racked by bitterness and pain. He hates the English.
When Pablo sets eyes on Hermelinda, he sees a woman with his own strength and decides life is not worth living without her. He knows that he has a single chance to win Toad’s Mouth, and then only two hours to convince Hermelinda to live with him. Under his sharp gaze, Hermelinda becomes motionless on the floor and he tosses the coin perfectly. The onlooking men cheer with envy, but Pablo is nonchalant in his victory. Immediately, he pulls Hermelinda into the bedroom and closes the door behind them.
To the astonishment of the sheepherders, the lovers do not emerge until noon the following day. They leave the shack, carrying their packed belongings. Pablo saddles the horses without glancing at anyone. Hermelinda wears riding clothes; strapped to her belt is a canvas bag with her savings. She has a new expression in her eyes and walks with a satisfied swish. She waves a distracted good-bye, then follows Pablo without looking back.
The sheepherders never see Hermelinda again. They are so distraught that the ranch managers install an enormous open-mouthed ceramic toad from London. This is supposed to cheer the men up, but they are unimpressed. Eventually, the toad ends up on the English couple’s terrace. In the evenings, the bored foreigners amuse themselves by tossing coins into its artificial mouth.