24 pages 48 minutes read

Isabel Allende

Two Words

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Two Words”

Content Warning: One of the characters in this story has a name that is a racist slur in English.

“Two Words” is a short story by Chilean author Isabel Allende, published in her sole short story collection, The Stories of Eva Luna. Allende is the internationally acclaimed author of more than 25 best-selling novels and memoirs. Her work has been translated into more than 40 languages and sold approximately 70 million copies. She has won numerous awards, including Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010 and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2018. Allende has lived in the US since the late 1980s, and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

Originally published in 1989, “Two Words” is set in the rugged countryside of an unnamed South American country during a period of civil unrest. It explores themes of destiny, transformation, the role of women, and the Power of Words as it follows the life of Belisa Crepusculario. This guide refers to Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation in the 1991 Atria Paperbacks edition of The Stories of Eva Luna.

“Two Words” is the story of Belisa Crepusculario, who chooses her own name and supports herself by traveling from village to village selling words. Belisa grew up in poverty in a family so poor they could not afford names for their children. She grew up in a remote area, where she endured scorching heat and devastating floods. When four of her siblings die during a drought, Belisa leaves home, setting off on a perilous journey. Her survival is in question, but she is resilient and determined to “trick death” (4). When sports pages from an old newspaper drift into her path, she asks a stranger what the “flies” are; he reads a headline to her, making her aware of the existence of written words. She quickly realizes words are free, and she pays a priest to teach her to read so she can support herself by selling words. She memorizes the dictionary and then throws it into the sea.

Belisa travels from village to village, carrying news and selling words. For a small sum, she recites poetry, enhances dreams, writes love letters, or creates stories. For a larger sum, she gives a gift of a secret word to “to drive away melancholy” (4). After several years pass, she hears a sudden, thunderous sound while sitting in a marketplace selling words. Chaos ensues as horsemen stampede into the marketplace. They capture Belisa, knocking over her stall, and carry her off trussed, tied, and thrown over the back of a horse.

El Mulato, a commander in the Colonel’s rebel army, sent the men to kidnap her. (This character’s name is a racist slur in English used to indicate that a person is biracial.) They take Belisa to their camp; though she tries to stand indignantly, she collapses. Traumatized by this experience, she almost dies. She demands an explanation from her captor, who tells her the Colonel, the leader of the army, needs to buy her words.

The Colonel, whose name is never revealed, leads a revolutionary force in the civil war. He is a formidable man with the eyes of a ferocious puma and is feared throughout the land for conquering villages with violence. Despite his reputation for ferocity, when Belisa is taken to him, she immediately knows he is “the loneliest man in the world” (7).

The Colonel wants to be president. He is weary from the war and the harsh conditions he endures. More importantly, he no longer wants people to flee, terrified, when his men arrive. He wants the war to end, and he wants to win over the people. He longs to be loved, welcomed, and greeted with gifts of fresh food, celebrated as a hero rather than feared. The Colonel wants Belisa to use her knowledge of words to write a speech that will allow him to achieve this goal.

Despite her fear, Belisa wants to help and feels an unexpected attraction to him. She would like to embrace him and hold him close to her. All night, while El Mulato watches over her, she struggles to find the right words, discarding harsh or weak options, as well as those words that suggest false promises or may confuse or mislead. Finally, she finds the words she wants. She waits anxiously for the Colonel’s reaction to the speech and discovers he cannot read. She reads the speech aloud, and his soldiers are mesmerized. It seems inevitable that all who hear it will be moved to vote for the Colonel.

Delighted, the Colonel pays Belisa the one peso she asks for; as a bonus, she gives him two secret words that are exclusively for him to use as he pleases. The Colonel accepts them reluctantly. As Belisa leans forward to give him the words, he is struck by her scent, the sight of her hips, and the whisper of her hair. He finds her alluring and mysterious.

El Mulato accompanies her back to the village. He reaches out to touch her, and he, too, is suddenly struck with “an avalanche of words” (10). He believes these words to be a curse, and “the flame of his desire is extinguished” (10).

For months, the Colonel travels around the country giving Belisa’s speech, leaving people filled with hope for the future. After three months, he has transitioned from a ferocious fighter and rebel to the country’s leading political candidate. However, he seems oblivious to this success. He is obsessed with his two secret words, repeating them endlessly while thinking of Belisa as though he were in a trance, inflamed by the memory of her. When his soldiers see this behavior, they worry he might never be president. Pressured to explain this behavior, the Colonel reveals that he is obsessed with the two secret words. El Mulato asks the Colonel to reveal them, hoping disclosure will destroy their power, but he refuses.

El Mulato seeks out Belisa and orders her to return. She has been awaiting this summons, so she gathers her writing tools and returns. The desire El Mulato once felt for Belisa is now rage, because he fears she might use her power of words against him. After three days, they arrive at camp. El Mulato wants the Colonel to return the two secret words to her to “undo the witchcraft of those accursed words” (13) and return to his former self.

When Belisa and the Colonel meet again, she walks towards him and takes his hand in hers. His “voracious puma eyes soften” (13), and it is obvious to everyone that he succumbs to her magic. The two secret words are never revealed.