Those crimes everyone dreams of are seldom the ones committed. Nor do beautiful suicides occur often enough to show up in the statistics. Especially in the south. There aren’t streams with a strong enough current for the woman to slip along in the shade of the weeping willows, the palms of her hands on top of the water and flowers scattered on her dress. The landscapes are sere and yellow, closer to poison than to the knife. Poisons do not make for good corpses. Some end up clawing at the ground, as if there were a language in the toxin and it was ordering them to dig their own grave. There are those who rush to the town square, seeking water where it doesn’t exist, burning up so much inside that hell becomes a reality even before they have actually died. They’re spectacular, though off-putting, the ones who keep on foaming, befouling the cloths with which they’ve been covered. But it just so happens that in the south nobody kills themselves with poison. People hang themselves.
The man in this story is in the south. In his childhood he abused animals, as boys are wont to do. In lands stifled by the summer heat, the animals didn’t react quickly. The impact of stones on their bodies didn’t provoke an energetic response. They accepted their own slaughter with a humble glint in their eye and all their meaningless life came to an end right there and then. Their death throes resounded under the stones, under the dry earth, and disturbed the air. It was a whining that the human ear could not hear. It rose up quite high and caught the child on the knees. This gave him a perhaps remotely sexual pleasure, but not one that he felt in his belly. It was like a numbness that prevented him from moving his legs and forced him to stay until the end. While he was growing up, on some nights his fingers, sticky with sperm, actually seemed to strangle. But this is also a natural thing. It doesn’t explain the birth of a project.
Patricia Odber de Baubeta was Director of Portuguese Studies in the University of Birmingham, lecturing in language, literature and translation until 2015 when she retired from academic life with the title of Honorary Senior Lecturer. Nowadays she reads voraciously, collaborates with colleagues on interesting projects, writes short articles, book reviews and prefaces, and translates short stories and novels from the Portuguese.
The man in this story married early in order to bring a pregnancy to a safe conclusion. This didn’t prevent the couple from being happy, but they were not very fertile. The woman was not cut out for self-sacrifice. With the first birth she found out all there was to know. Never again did she let herself be taken by surprise. Her body, stocky from work, began to take on a will of its own and the main thrust of this will was to avoid the pain of motherhood. That only child produced smells and sounds that clung to the walls and increased unremittingly. They formed a web in which the woman found herself forever entangled. The man didn’t know, or he acted as if he didn’t know that a father is more than just the sound of footsteps in the house. He saw in his son a lump of a nuisance, a face always in danger of exploding. And he only felt emotion when the child began to walk. He took him to the fields, lifted him up when the bright little snakes slid towards him. The child showed such dexterity in handling masculine things that the man’s throat tightened whenever he lent him the pen knife. The child liked to whittle, he made slingshots from an early age. The man convinced himself that crime would settle for small deeds, that it was an impulse mixed up with the ardor of a father who loved his son and watched him get ready to go hunting.
He was, however, deceiving himself. Something left its marks in the room, an existence without a body or duration, something endowed with the talent of waiting. And, as soon as the child outgrew the nightmares and left the nights empty, the man would wake up with a start, hearing something that was not a sound but which made him experience sadness. He would gaze out of the window into the darkness, without understanding. He wanted to blame the son who in his early years had screamed at him, interrupting his sleep. He had functioned like a machine that generated pure evil. But the evil lived on, detached from its infant host.
He tried to find out from his friends whether what was happening to him was normal. And apparently they understood what he daren’t even ask. In all of them was an unborn thought, a defect in the chain of affection that forced them to raise their glass to their lips time and time again, as if the lymph was not flowing properly. Because that thought was born in the same place where thirst was born, the thirst for alcohol and for perdition. We talk about the female instinct but an instinct also exists here. Something that escaped into the night, a tensing of the muscles. They dreamed of great flights, of landscapes where the colors were incomplete. They edged up to their wives and mounted them but in their dreams there was no stopping place.
“We need mistresses like in the old days. You can’t trust whores nowadays”, they said. And they shifted the spittle to the front of their mouths. But spitting wasn’t allowed in the cafés. The censure of their peers took up residence in the space left by God. And they were thrown into the street, like their fathers, when they were poor. They gathered in the shadows to smoke. They spread a kind of sadness, the foundation of sluggishness.
The man in this story also took his time. He was afraid to begin running the way a bullet fears being fired. He was at the beginning of a journey and clung on to everything he could so that the movement did not take hold of him. In autumn, he ran away from the hunt, tormented by the barking of the dogs. His son who was growing up would call him to play war games on the screen but he often messed up and, looking at his hands, thought he could see the signs of death, of an old age that was sacrificing him long before his time was due. One day that filled him with fear.
He made up an excuse to spend a whole weekend in the city. He felt himself actually shudder under the harsh glitter of depravity. But he only had enough money for black flesh and those women shone against the darkness like splashes of blood, with their mouths, with their yellow eyes. He returned home as men return after similar bouts of madness. He remembered the risks he had run, walking past gangs of thieves, more than those sexual acts, which were chaste because there was no meeting of souls.
After that trip, he calmed down. He understood there was no guilt. He penetrated his wife and imagined everything he wanted to imagine. Cruelty knew no boundaries and left no trace in the morning. From the crimes came a sweetness that delighted the family. He just had to repress the words that banged against his teeth, ready to come out, harsh words, of rape, because his wife wouldn’t go along with that. In the beginning she had shown a very inappropriate pleasure in sex. With the passing of the years, she demanded greater decorum so their son wouldn’t hear them.
He was already in his middle years when that woman named Death appeared to him. She wasn’t always a woman, in our eyes. Little more than two thousand years ago, her features showed masculine traits. But, down the centuries, she had become more refined, more subtle. She was treacherous. At a certain point in time she took the form of a maiden, her face covered in a veil, and she overturned the laws of nature. She awoke desire, grew a body where the body had ceased to exist. The woman who appeared in the morning at the back of the house, floating above the rubbish that the heat was slowly reducing to a homogenous mass, did not awaken great feelings. The man in this story had begun to get up very early and this meant that he found things out of context, standing out in the half-light.
That woman named Death wore a dress down to her feet and he saw that even before he saw her face. But she began to move, struggling against the air that rose up and moved her away. She flapped her thin arms and her skirt gave out sparks in that clash between the weight of Death and the elements. Finally she landed and her figure began to thicken a little. Perhaps out of respect for human beings, so as not to thwart their expectations, she dressed in black. But her skin, which couldn’t help showing some signs of age, glowed in its Nordic splendor. Her hair was braided and its ash-grey absorbed a lot of light, creating a dark vacuum around her. A metallic sharpness emanating from her little eyes fired a shot, and the man in this story trembled.
“You mustn’t be afraid of me,” said Death. “I’m paying you a friendly visit.”
The man did not feel safe. To tell the truth, he recoiled. He had free will and this astonished him. He imagined that his limbs would be paralyzed. His second impulse was to approach. If there was one thing he found strange, it was the great silence of the landscape. The sounds did not spread as they wanted to. They were trapped in the bushes, like flies. The usual dawn chill condensed close to the ground. The man began to walk along the road, in the company of Death. She made an effort to remain at his side. But her lightness constantly propelled her upwards and a kind of uneasy dance broke out, inviting the man to run. He was no longer in the least afraid. This did not mean trust, but relinquishing the human heart. “Where are you taking me?” he asked. She smiled, but didn’t know how to smile properly. Her very thin lips were drooping. The man was sure that in the meantime, his relatives were weeping at his side and would lay him back down on the bed. Now he was no more than a soul fleeing far from his corpse. He had always heard tell that it was a merciful flight.
Death grasped him by the shoulders, she made him stop. Her touch was far softer than one can imagine. But she was merely guiding him, leading him towards a by-road. The path was already overshadowed by the stunted shadows of the brambles. The man hadn’t even looked up at the sun. There was a great light in front of him. Then Death talked with him. She was tired of anchoring herself to the ground and she spoke rapidly. Her voice was very weak, it sounded like a dove cooing.
“You’ve loved me for a long time and I know it. You’ve always thought about me. Now I’m going to reward you. Although satisfaction can never match desire.”
She pointed to the end of the path.
“You have a good crime there. It’s not pretty. But it’s the one I’ve arranged, to help you.”
“What crime is that?” asked the man.
“It’s the death of an old man. Stealing him.”
The man said:
“That’s got nothing to do with me.”
“It does no harm to try. As far as I know, they all give pleasure.”
“All what? Deaths?
“The unnatural ones.”
He bent over and then he felt the sun like a hard nail piercing the nape of his neck. That story had nothing to do with him.
“Listen,” Death said to him, “the old man is going to commit suicide. That’s why I’ve come here.”
In her irritation, she lowered her voice a little more, and spoke huskily. And finally, the man trembled. He was favored by Death and could not refuse, under any circumstances.
The house could be seen on a bend in the road, a house on which the last coats of whitewash had no longer worked. The walls showed their filling, the gables were cracking at the edges. Those attempts to cover up that almost always come before things fall into rack and ruin were long over and done with. The windows, dimmed by the cobwebs, were indifferent to the exterior. No one was peering through them, not even the dweller who had remained behind, because his vision had deteriorated.
Some distance away, the walkers came to a halt, struck by emotion. An ancient happiness still hovered over the rock-rose bushes, like a smell. A young woman had hung her sheets and the children’s nappies over them so they would dry. And at the end of the afternoon, she folded them slowly, close to her face. Scraps of forgotten episodes remained suspended in the foliage, and their mystery had after-effects. Anyone going past them would suddenly feel beset by fever. And so the man in this story and Death almost regretted being there.
The dogs had not rushed out as quickly as usual. Normally they played their part with precision. All their remaining ferocity was focused on that duty. They came down, confronting the visitor with their reddened maws, and hearing them, their owner would begin to get up. Sometimes, he fired his shotgun through the half-open door. The dogs liked that whistling through the air, indeed they took pleasure even before hearing the whistle they knew would sow even greater terror in the enemy.
On that day, however, there was not the celebration of self-defense that united owner and dogs. The dogs came out very late and their warning could scarcely be heard. Something went wrong with the system on which they always relied for information. Their dogs’ eyes, their nostrils, could not read the outline, which contained a human figure and a maelstrom that intimidated them. Unlike the man in this story, they did not take Death for the woman she was not. They could see better, they saw an electrical space that would blast all who entered into it.
They turned back, howling. In their confusion they ran with their legs out of kilter. In any event, the old man suspected an unfamiliar presence. He went outside. He was bound to go outside. It wasn’t a question of going out with a timetable, and even less on an appointed day. It was the departure that the jury had decided, the particular court he had inside himself, with judge, condemned and executioner. All three knew the sentence, and none of them was in a hurry, the condemned man because he was condemned, the judge and the executioner because they wanted to savor that melancholy, that cloud hanging over the face of someone who, capable of so much, could easily fall into the clutches of pity. The three men inside the old man took turns to appreciate the tool they had readied for the execution. One of them, I don’t know which, had asked the son to buy a strong rope.
His son rarely visited him. It was not his father he hated, but abandonment. He was intelligent enough to know how everything would end. He himself saw the great loneliness sketched in the air, waiting for him. By ordering that rope, the old man was arranging to punish him forever. He didn’t know he’d already endowed his son with all the suffering necessary just by making him be born in that place. His soul exuded sadness, his body carried failure in the red blood cells. There wasn’t much more to inherit.
Seeing a light moving under the door gap, the dogs whined. Inside, the old man would certainly try to find a reason to explain this abnormality. No matter who was there, they were transforming the animals’ mechanistic aggression into pure terror. Perplexity summoned up an energy to which he was unaccustomed. To save himself he had no more than well-rehearsed gestures, which, at that moment, escaped him. He was greasing the rope with olive oil in order to soften it. He took care of it just as in past times he had taken care of his sheep, with affection and not forgetting that death was the ultimate goal.
The old man came to the door and put his hand like a visor against his forehead. It was his left hand. In any case he could only see someone already standing very close to him. He remembered the gesture, nothing more. Many years of sun beat down and projected on the wall the shadow of a man studying the horizon. The shadow slid to the corner, as the seasons moved round. Then, little by little, it had diminished. It seemed dried up by salt. It fell on the outline of the ruin in its misery, crumbling to dust.
But on that day, the drooping arm set a new mass against the rays. It was the right arm. His hand shook a little as he held the rope. The shadow was beside the window and the hand seemed to hold up a bird taken still alive from the trap.
When Death and the man in this story came close enough for the old man to see them, the dogs had already fallen silent. In their terror, they grew cold under the intense temperature, they grew cold like stones beneath bushes. If ever they had been bound by a pact of loyalty to their owner, it was dead. The old man and his rope were on their own.
“Take hold of that old man and wring his neck. You’ll get an idea of what it means to murder someone. Afterwards, if you think it’s worth the effort, you can keep on doing it.”
“That’s not what I dream of,” said the man. “Now I don’t even dream. Let me go away.”
“You’ll see how his bones crack under your fingers. Try it.”
“It’s an old man’s body,” said the man.
“I bring you here for an extraordinary act, an act that spares you the consequences. Old men are always doing away with themselves. No one investigates. Hang him by the rope from the tree and it’s over.”
The man in this story looked at Death. The two of them had stopped some meters from where the old man was standing and he took his hand off his forehead to cup it over his ear, forming a shell. The visitors were murmuring and the old man leant forward, his wrinkles very deep in the light. Of course, he would speak, since he hadn’t fired his shotgun. He would behave more politely, since he had not expelled his intruders in time. But he followed the example of his dogs, as far as the silence went. The dogs were quiet and the old man as well. The dogs knew it was Death and the old man didn’t. He was convinced that death would come by the rope and, opening his hand, he let it slip. It snapped like a whiplash against the earth. Only the dryness could make a sound like that.
“You don’t have to do very much”, said Death. Her breath burned. His hesitation clearly offended her. She was treating the man in this story like a son for whom you have sought the very best present. And he was paying her back with qualms that seemed more like disappointment. “You’re just a human being,” she observed. She wanted to pronounce the sentence with contempt but the metaphor of maternity influenced her manner of speaking. There was a gentle complacency, almost pleasure. She saw in him that lack of resignation, the obstinacy proper to the race that prevented children from growing up completely, self-absorbed in their desire. He had never experienced killing, he just had his imagination. His imagination had brought together different topics, sex and crime, crime and woman, and he didn’t know he could separate them, that beauty was not indispensable for the pleasure of sticking in a knife. Also, for the first time something unknown was taking root inside Death. She was growing tender towards the man and she had never felt affection. He breathed anxiously, like young animals abandoned by their protectors, and let her take him closer, into the old man’s frame of vision.
He recognized them, or rather, he regretted what he had wished for. Death was coming in her splendor, with the coldness of a foreigner. And the man accompanying her was bowed, as if the earth were telling its story and this was a story of graves. “Better if they were thieves,” thought the old man. “Better a pack of wild dogs.” Because inside him too was an animal and an outlaw, rooted in his depths, where it hurts. He thought he heard the whisper of a knife being thrust into the pig’s flank, but it was only a memory. The man’s hands came forward, bare. All the old man wanted to do was fight, but he shrank as if to defend himself from an attacking swarm. The fingers found his carotid arteries and took on more and more strength as they squeezed. Unlike the animal’s squeal, what should come out of that old man was something like a moan or a prayer. However, he doubled over without a sound.
“Is this a crime?” asked the man. And he looked round. But there was no one there. Death had entered the old man’s cells and was bursting them with her nails, like bubbles. He swayed, timid, under the impact of the blasts that Death was delivering to his being. He had become incontinent and the fly of his threadbare trousers glistened.
The man in this story was exhausted after preparing the gibbet in the cork oak tree, hanging the corpse and sweeping away the trail he had left. Death, no, Death did not step on anything. There were just the traces of a fight, the dragging of boots in the yard. “Is this a crime?” he repeated. The sky sparked, wasting its dose of energy.
The man set off walking. He felt little. He felt nothing. Death had given him that crime, his perfect crime, without punishment. He had felt a light shudder, his own body rebelling. Even though he wanted to open his hands, soften the pressure, he wouldn’t do it. His hands were beyond obeying him. For a moment his penis had hardened, when the old man’s vertebrae shattered and his head lolled. But Death had leant over him and her dress brushed against him like any woman’s dress.
The man was returning home and imagined he would awaken to the first sounds of morning. However, the road and the surrounding fields were vibrating as only something real can vibrate. He wasn’t dreaming. He carried on slowly, hoping that Death would come back. He whistled quietly. Once again he was a boy in the brothel, a dirty boy carrying his first love inside him.