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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814

Elena is a nondescript, self-absorbed eleven-year-old who helps her mother run a boardinghouse. No one, including her mother, notices her unless some chore must be done. One of Elena’s responsibilities is to spy on guests to ensure that their behavior conforms to her mother’s standards. Elena and her mother speak to each other infrequently, but when they do, their conversations revolve around Elena’s reports. Her mother, as crafty as Elena, knows when the girl embellishes what she overhears and sees.

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Their routines begin to change when a singer, Juan Jose Bernal, nicknamed “the Nightingale,” comes to board with them. He is different from the usual boarders, civil servants or students who lead quiet lives. Bernal needs special food, quiet hours during the day, long baths, and extra telephone service. Knowing her mother’s concern with her reputation, Elena is surprised when she rents the room to the flamboyant Bernal, but she says nothing, remaining as invisible as ever.

Although dealing with Bernal’s hours and demands means more work, Elena sees her mother begin to change. She wears perfume and buys new underwear, and she sits opposite Bernal in the kitchen, listening to his stories, smiling and laughing. Because Elena is used to spying, nothing her mother buys or does escapes her notice. Elena begins to hate the man who has claimed her mother’s attention, seeing him as a cheap scoundrel and fake artist.

One evening, Bernal appears on the patio with his guitar and begins to sing. Despite his unremarkable voice, his singing sparks a new festive air in the quiet boardinghouse. Suddenly, Elena’s mother grabs her hand and pulls her up to dance. After a moment, Elena sees that her mother is entranced by the music. Elena’s mother pushes her away and sways on the floor alone, absorbed in the mood of the night.

After that, Elena sees Bernal in a new way, as a sexual being who can evoke such response. She watches him even more intensely, going over and over his body in her mind. She becomes obsessed with him, waiting for him to see her, yet almost dying of pleasure if he speaks to her or touches her. At night, she stays awake thinking about him and even goes to his room, touching his possessions and lying naked in his empty bed to absorb every bit of his essence into hers.

One day, Elena sees Bernal touch her mother and senses what the touch means. This realization so disturbs her that she begins to spy even more on her mother. She discovers that instead of singing every night, Bernal spends the night with her mother, making love. One night, she slips quietly into her mother’s room and watches them. Elena notes her mother’s every movement, believing that if she uses these same techniques, she can win Bernal herself.

Absorbed in this fantasy, Elena goes about her work routinely but becomes more and more immersed in the plan she is weaving. She eats little, a fact that her mother attributes to her approaching puberty. One day, she purposely stuffs herself...

(The entire section contains 814 words.)

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