‘I’m sorry,’ says the girl. ‘You’re mistaken.’
I listen to her without batting an eyelid, nodding my head as if being mistaken were the most natural thing in the world. Because there’s no other explanation. I’ve made a mistake. And I do a quick mental run through all the other times I might have made a little mistake and I can’t think of anything that comes close. But I shouldn’t blame myself. I’m tired, bogged down with work and, to cap it all, I’m not sleeping properly. This morning, in fact, I almost called my landlord. Why on earth did he rent out the apartment upstairs to such a noisy family? But what’s uppermost in my mind now has nothing to do with the neighbours or the landlord or my tiredness, it’s all to do with the weird experience I seem to have had just half an hour ago. A mixture of unease and conviction that made me rush out of a shoe shop and run down the street after a woman who I insisted on calling Dina. And the woman ignored me and walked on without paying any attention to me. Because it wasn’t Dina. Or at least, that’s what the real Dina Dachs says, sitting opposite me at her tidy desk, wearing the same innocent smile as she had when she received the offer of a permanent position with the firm just a week ago. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I’ve haven’t left my desk since nine o’clock this morning.’ And then, shaking her head sympathetically, she adds, ‘I’m sorry. You’re mistaken.’
Yes. Now I understand that it must have been a mistake. Because, although I’m still astonished by the likeness, the girl in front of me is just an ordinary girl, well mannered, polite, an efficient secretary. And the woman, the unknown woman I’ve just run after down in the street, had a face that bore the scars of a lifetime of suffering, with a cold, enigmatic stare that never wavered, in spite of me shouting and the crowds shoving past me in a busy shopping street the day before a holiday. And that must have been what caught my attention, what made me think that the woman (who I thought was Dina) was having a turn, a momentary loss of identity and wasn’t quite all there. But now I know that I was only half-mistaken. Because the unknown woman, whoever she was, did need help. And I look at Dina once more, at her angora jumper and her winter coat that’s hanging up on the coat stand and I think of the woman again. She was wearing a green silk dress in the middle of December. A thin party dress with a plunging neckline and she had a violet necklace around her neck. Indifferent to the cold, the traffic, the crowds. I leave it at that. The fact that I’ve mistaken a mad woman for this girl makes me smile. And I shut myself away in my office, leave the shopping on a chair and start to go through my correspondence. It will be a busy month, but it’s only one month. And then I’ll be in Rome, with Eduardo. I’m happy. I have every reason in the world to be happy.
Neither of the two pairs of shoes fits me properly. One pair is too narrow, they pinch my feet and I have to scrunch my toes up. The problem with the others is the complete opposite. I have to scrunch up my toes as well but the end result is very different. The shoes are like barges refusing to be steered and won’t do as they’re told, my feet slipping and sliding inside them. It’s too late to go back home now so I decide that I’ll just have to choose between the two forms of torture. I opt for the second one, but I don’t do it lightly. Half an hour from now I have to go to a work dinner. That’s why I came to the office all dressed up and that’s also why I went to the shoe shop earlier. It was silly of me to buy them. I was in too much of a hurry. I’ll return the ones that are too narrow tomorrow. Because now I realise that I’m not in the least bit hungry and in a half hour’s time I’ll have to sit down and eat. I’ve had to suffer this form of torture ever since I became a successful executive, although it’s nothing like the mirror opposite (starving with hunger and having nothing to eat) and that often makes me feel ashamed. That’s why I choose the slidey gondola shoes (I can’t explain why but they seem better suited for what’s in store for me) and that’s how I turn up at the restaurant, right on the dot, dragging my feet and not in the least bit hungry. I feel sick when I look at the menu. It’s a ridiculous feeling. Boorish. Just as the ten dinner guests seem boorish too, talking about their secretaries in a conspiratorial tone and about their wives with a certain respectful admiration. Just as the shoes, which I slipped off a while ago and left on the carpet, seem ridiculous as well. All I can do is wait for the dinner to be over and done with and hope that at some point someone will mention Eduardo, the last time they saw Eduardo, how well everything’s turning out for Eduardo. Luckily it doesn’t take long for someone to oblige. They ask me about the branch we’ve just opened in Rome and (even though when I mention Eduardo I call him “the boss”) I feel a slight sense of relief at being able to think about him out loud, despite the fact that what I’m saying doesn’t actually have anything to do with what I’m really thinking. But they don’t know that. Nobody, not even our work colleagues, could have the faintest suspicion about my relationship with Eduardo. No one in the office and of course no one at home (I mean his home). And sometimes I like to think that even Eduardo himself isn’t too clear about our relationship. I don’t care what his wife would say if she knew about it, but I do care what Eduardo might think, and that’s my strongest weapon. Eduardo doesn’t think. He doesn’t think of me as his lover, even though that’s the word that would best describe our situation, and I’d rather he didn’t think of me as his lover. Eduardo is scared of words. Words and his wife. That’s why, for once in his life, he’s found the courage to cheat on her, without even managing to say to himself, ‘I’m cheating on her’. As far as the dinner guests are concerned I just went to the same college as my boss. I’m his right-hand woman. That’s what his wife thinks, too. And that’s what I want them to carry on thinking. What’s more, I can play the part to perfection. When anyone asks me who’ll be in charge of the office in Rome I shrug my shoulders. Eduardo’s over there, hiring a team. Eduardo will oversee the work for the first year, commuting between here and there. Then, when he finds the right person, he’ll leave it all in their hands. Most likely it will be an Italian. And I think about an apartment in Trastevere. A life of freedom with no schedules, no family, his wife thousands of kilometres away. Someone tells me that I seem to not be eating, I’ve hardly had a mouthful, and he trots out the line that “a woman who doesn’t enjoy her food…”, and I take the opportunity all of a sudden to remember an important call. A business call, naturally. My feet search out my abandoned shoes, I scrunch up my toes and leave the table. But instead of going to the telephone I go to the toilet. I splash some water on my face and dry myself off with a paper towel. Then, when I’m about to touch up my make-up, I see her again.
I’m sure I did. I’ve hardly eaten anything but then again I’ve had a lot to drink. But she was there for a moment, a few seconds. I saw her quite clearly. Her green dress, her violet necklace, her cold, enigmatic stare. I don’t know whether she opened the door and then left the minute she saw me. I don’t know if she was already there when I came in. It all happened so quickly. I was drying my face with the paper towel, trying out the three-way mirror, checking my hair, my face and she passed by the mirror in a green flash, like a cloud of breath evaporating in the cold air. I readjust the mirrors, opening and closing the wings and, still in a state of shock, I manage to capture her for a few seconds. The woman is there. Behind me, beside me, I’m not too sure. I turn around quickly but only to see the door closing. ‘She ran away when she saw me,’ I think. And I can’t help remembering those eyes. A cold stare – enigmatic – but also, I now realise, full of hatred.
Dina Dachs is just like any other girl. That’s what I tell myself in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the evening I take the file with all the details of the new employees home with me. There are five of them altogether. They all have similar CVs, they’re all the same age and they all have the same prospects for promotion in the firm. Dina has a slight advantage. She speaks three languages fluently, has excellent references and was remarkably adept at filling in our application form. That’s why she was the first candidate I chose. That’s why, I realise now, I remembered her name so clearly that day I ran down the street after the woman in green. But then Dina Dachs is a difficult name to forget, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a real name. It makes me think of a pseudonym, a stage name, DINA DACHS emblazoned across the front of a variety theatre in gigantic letters, cabaret stars. I’m not sure what to think any more. With the constant din from the neighbours upstairs I can’t get my thoughts in order. I’ll complain about them tomorrow, I’ll have a word with the landlord or I’ll move. And tomorrow I’ll speak to Dina as well. Tactfully.
I’ve spent the whole day watching her, studying her, monitoring her phone calls. I haven’t come across anything out of the ordinary so far, nothing to make me suspect a double life, to explain her strange appearances, first in the street and then in the restaurant. Dina tells me she doesn’t go out in the evenings. She says so very calmly, not knowing that it’s a trap question. She doesn’t mind staying on at the office, doing overtime, getting everything up to date. She hardly knows anyone here in the city. She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters or even parents. No brothers or sisters? No, none. Then I ask her to make a reservation for this evening in a particular restaurant the name of which, for some strange reason, has slipped my mind. I tell her the street, the exact location, the revealing detail that it has carpeted walls and the toilets have three-way mirrors. Dina doesn’t usually eat out but it suddenly occurs to her that she could ask one of her work colleagues. I leave her to it and, discreetly, listen at the door. She doesn’t seem to be pretending. Then I dictate a letter to her, then a second one and a third. They’re made-up letters that won’t be going out to anyone. Their only purpose is to let me observe Dina, trap her in a corner, catch her out in some way. She knows that what I’m dictating to her is completely absurd. She also knows that I’m watching her all the time. At one point, flustered, she instinctively smoothes her skirt down and uncrosses her legs. I make an excuse that the room is full of smoke and open the window. It’s cold outside. It’s a biting cold, almost as icy as the silence that has just come down between the two of us. It’s all getting embarrassing. I’m going to turn around, tell her to go home, she’s done enough for today, she should go home. But I can’t find the words. For the first time in my life I get vertigo, looking down from the fifth floor. Because she’s there. I can’t believe my eyes, but the woman is standing there, on the street corner opposite. I can see her green dress, the violet necklace, her hesitant figure standing out amid the bustle of the street. She looks like a beggar. Her dress strap has slipped off one of her shoulders. Her hair’s in a mess, she’s all dishevelled, she looks like she’s going to freeze to death at any moment. And her arm’s raised, stock still. But from the way she’s standing she doesn’t look like she’s begging. Unless she’s mad. Or drunk. Or unless her arm is pointing at nobody else but me. Here, on the fifth floor, looking out of my office window.
‘Anything else?’ asks a tired voice behind me.
I ask Dina to come over to the window. I make room for her and point to the exact place where she should look. ‘The beggar woman,’ I say. ‘That beggar woman over there.’ A bus stops right in front of the woman in green. I wait for it to move off. The woman appears now and again behind the cars. ‘Have a good look. There she is. No, she’s gone now. Wait…’ Without realising it I’ve clutched her shoulder. She gets annoyed and moves away from the window.
‘I can’t see a thing,’ she says.
She’s angry, cross. As she leaves she does something that no other secretary would have dared to do. She snaps the door shut behind her, almost slams it.
I can’t discuss what’s worrying me with anyone. Eduardo’s still in Rome, with his wife. I know it’s a consolation prize, a non-event, a clever tactic to enable him to engage in his forthcoming project without a guilty conscience. But I also know I mustn’t call him. His wife will be with him. She’ll be in the hotel, in the office, everywhere. I can’t confide in anyone else either because I’m not sure how to go about it. I briefly think about talking to Cesca, the firm’s longest-serving employee. Cesca likes and respects me. But Cesca likes to snoop around, poke her nose into other people’s business, pass around comments, spread gossip. Even so, if the woman in green appears again tomorrow, why would it seem strange if I asked Cesca to look out of the window? ‘Look at that woman. She’s been loitering around here for days now. It’s as if something strange is happening to her.’ And then Cesca, putting on her glasses, would tell me that she’s just a beggar woman, there’s so many tramps on the streets around this time of the year, maybe she’s mad, or a lush, or a prostitute. Maybe all three. And then, looking more closely, Cesca would realise that she reminds her of someone. She can’t quite put her finger on who, but she does remind her of someone. Or she’d call the concierge. And the concierge would go out to investigate. Or perhaps there’s no need. ‘She’s mentally disturbed,’ she might say. ‘Either that or she’s faking it. She always turns up around here at Christmas. People give her money because they’re scared of her.’ But I haven’t seen anyone stop to give her any money. In fact, from up here on the fifth floor, all I’ve seen is her down there in her green dress and her arm raised, pointing towards me, asking me for something, telling me something. And I’ve also seen Dina. Next to me, leaning on the window sill while I pointed towards the beggar woman. I say this to myself several times. The beggar woman down there, in the street. Dina next to me. This should be enough to reassure me and to put it all down to pure chance, a coincidence, a striking resemblance, to realise that it’s impossible for the same woman to be in two places at once. But then there’s that look in her eyes. Brushing my arm off her shoulder, flushing with anger, snapping the door shut. It’s all a question of degree, I reflect. Because Dina Dachs’ look of irritation could so easily become the woman in green’s angry stare. A cold, enigmatic stare. Full of hatred.
But I can’t blame her. For the past few days all I’ve done is shower her with work, telling her to do one thing and then the opposite, calling her into my office or bursting into hers and making sure she’s still there, buried under a mountain of paperwork, grappling with accounts, documents, reports. It reassures me to know she’s busy and that it will still take her ages to finish the day’s tasks, that she’ll probably be the last one to leave the office at night. And meanwhile I think about the woman in green. I wait at the window for the woman in green to appear, holding the telephone in my hand, ready to call Cesca or the concierge. But not Dina. Dina’s not like the other girls. I’ve realised that after spending so much time watching her. Dina’s proud and dignified, and God only knows how long she’s going to endure the pressure I’m putting her under without facing me out. I know that I’m beginning to seriously annoy her and I also now know that Dina’s much more charming than she comes off as at first. She’s one of those calm, reserved women who win you over with time. So I confine Dina to her office and wait. Staring out of the office window, I wait.
She doesn’t make the appearance I was expecting the next day nor the one after that. All the work that I can’t manage I delegate to Dina. From my place at the window I can hear her typing frenetically in her office next door, but I’m not thinking about her anymore and I don’t care what she thinks about my behaviour either. All my senses are attuned to the prospective appearance of the woman in green. Maybe, I think, the poor amnesiac has got her memory back. Or she’s frozen to death. Or the local police have taken her away. I sit in my armchair and decide to call Cesca. ‘I don’t feel well,’ I’m going to say. ‘You’re in charge until tomorrow.’ But I don’t even get to dial her number. Suddenly I feel cold. It’s a damp, biting coldness behind me and it makes me react, realise that I really do feel ill and that it’s sheer madness to keep the window open in the middle of December. A gust of wind makes the pile of papers flutter around the room. I haven’t given that pile of papers the slightest thought for days and I’m not going to be distracted from my mission now. I turn around suddenly, although I already suspect that the sudden rush of cold has little to do with the bad weather at this time of the year or with the state of my nerves. The woman is down there. Across the road, on the corner. She seems resolute, determined, about to cross the road towards me. She dodges between the cars as if by a miracle. With her arm raised, always pointing towards me. The way she’s gone downhill is pathetic. Her green dress is in tatters, leaving her breasts on show and, suddenly, she’s not so much walking as staggering, unsteady and grotesque. What could have made me think that this monstrosity looked like Dina? I try to get a better look and leaning even further over the windowsill I notice something green on one of her feet, only one of them, and then I understand why she’s started to hobble. She’s lost the other shoe by the side of the road. But nobody picks it up, nobody kicks it away, nobody trips over it. Nobody, in short, takes pity on this poor woman and takes her to a place of safety. City life is inhumane, cruel, pitiless. Frozen stiff, I close the window and dial Cesca’s number. ‘I’m exhausted. Could you take over until tomorrow, please?’ And I go home, take a sleeping pill and, for once, not even the neighbours upstairs can stop me falling asleep.
It’s the same story every year on 23rd December. ‘I’m feeling exhausted, Cesca. I shan’t come in tomorrow.’ And every Christmas Eve I do the same running around, the same searching, the same wandering around the shops and department stores clutching a list of all the employees’ names. It’s one of the firm’s traditions. A childish ritual that starts with Cesca pretending to be worried about me supposedly not feeling very well and the wink I can imagine at the other end of the telephone line, then the “what will I get this year?” that I detect from everyone I come across as I leave my office, put on my coat and let the concierge open the door for me. On 27th December they will all find a gift on their desk. Something personal, that hits the spot, an inspired choice that was all down to me, but everyone without exception will thank Eduardo for it, as if they knew that he’s the one who always takes the most delight in this childish game, even though, like now, he happens to be thousands of kilometres away and, as usual, doesn’t have a clue about what they like, what they might need or what they might be interested in. I remember Cesca’s spectacles. She’s always losing them and they turn up hidden in some corner or in the most unlikely places, and I buy her a silver chain. After her, there’s the caretaker, the concierge, the cleaning lady, the messenger boy, the personnel manager, the new secretaries. I suddenly realise that I scarcely know anything about the secretaries, having focussed on just one of them. And I think about Dina. I wonder if perhaps she deserves a bigger present. Something extra to apologise for unfairly taking advantage of her, bullying her, bossing her around.
But wouldn’t that make her even more confused? I decide that all five girls in the office have very similar jobs and all of them will receive a similar gift. I go into department stores, perfumeries, record shops. I’ve got all the cards in my bag, signed by Eduardo and with the employees’ names already written out. That way I can put them together with the presents as I go along, so there’s no risk of any mix ups and in two days’ time everyone can show their surprise and admiration and gratitude for Eduardo’s attention to detail, as if it were the first time ever. The same as every year.
It’s bitterly cold on this December afternoon but I’ve always liked cold December afternoons. Despite the time of year and in spite of the shops’ bright lights, the Christmas carols and the profusion of Christmas trees with all their decorations, there aren’t too many people on the streets. So I can amble along and peruse the shop windows quite calmly, in the same good mood as when I woke up this morning. Sleeping pills. That’s the solution. An artificial sleep has let me recover from all those hectic, tiring days. Now I can begin to see things in a different light. Eduardo was expecting too much, leaving me in charge of the office for three weeks. I’m not up to it. I don’t have the right temperament. My nerves were shot. Who knows what blunders I could have made? But I’m happy now. For the first time in days I feel happy and all of a sudden I realise I’m singing along to a Christmas carol that’s being spat out by some loudspeaker in a nearby shop. People must think I’m mad. I burst out laughing. And that’s when, like a recurring nightmare, I see her again.
I’m not scared anymore and I don’t feel tired. I’ve just had enough. I’ve had it up to here. I’m going to follow her, get a good look at her, reassure myself that she’s just a tramp, ask her if she needs any help. Now she’s leaving the well-lit avenue and turning down a dark passageway. I run and almost catch up with her, then I hold back, keeping a safe distance, watching her walk. She’s barefoot, gliding across the cobbles like a cat. Her hair is a tangled mess. Her dress is in tatters. I don’t call her by her name anymore because I don’t know her name. Suddenly she stops dead, as if she were waiting for me. In spite of the dark I realise that we aren’t in a passageway, as I’d thought, it’s a dead end. But it’s too late to turn back now. My inertia has made me bump into her. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Just a moment, please. Listen.’ And then I’m mystified to find a piece of green silk in my hand, a bit of moth-eaten material that disintegrates between my fingers, and she turns and smiles at me. But it’s not a smile, it’s a grimace. An awful rictus grin. And her breath! I’m enveloped in a fetid stench. I feel sick, my senses cloud over. When I come to I’m alone, leaning against a wall, with the shopping bags scattered across the ground. I’m not surprised to find them still there. I pick them up one by one. Carefully, almost fondly. Now I know who the woman is. And I think of Dina again. Poor Dina Dachs. Shut away in her office, going back to her apartment, walking along the street. Because Dina, wherever she happens to be at the moment, still doesn’t know that she’s been dead for a very long time.
Or maybe I can still stop it. I forget all about the dictates of reason, which have turned out to be useless, and for the first time in my life I listen to a voice that comes from somewhere deep inside myself. Dina, even though she may not have died yet, is dead. The woman in green is the dead Dina. I’ve seen her decomposing, her impossible appearances in busy streets, in three-way mirrors, in dead end streets. I think of mirages on a hot beach. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to happen. And it’s fallen to me, by some inexplicable chance of fate, to bear witness to these strange events. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to conclude that I’m the only one who can do something about it. And I don’t feel frightened. It’s strange, but I don’t feel frightened, just resolute. So I do what I always do on every Christmas Eve. I leave the employees’ presents in the caretaker’s office, I check that none of the cards have come unstuck, remind him of exactly what needs to be done in two days’ time. The caretaker, as ever, tells me not to worry and sends me off, pretending he doesn’t know that one of the parcels is for him, then he locks up his office and goes home. But I don’t go home. I go outside and I walk a short way down the street, but there’s a light on up on the fifth floor and I know who’s there, typing away, sorting out files, working overtime again as a result of my ignorance and confusion. I open the street door with my key and call the lift. When I get to the fifth floor landing I hesitate for a moment. But I don’t ring the bell. All the lights are out except in one office. I go in quietly, cautiously, because the last thing I want to do is give her a shock. So I knock on her office door and wait.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ says Dina. But she’s really thinking, ‘Not you, again.’
Dina has her coat on and there are piles of papers, letters and files on her desk. ‘I was just about to leave,’ she adds. She opens her handbag and puts in a couple of letters, snaps it shut and then, since I haven’t moved away from the doorway, she says, ‘I needn’t remind you it’s Christmas Eve.’
I draw on all my strength and ask her to stay on for a moment. To sit down. To allow me a few minutes to tell her something. Dina obeys me resentfully. With a sigh of annoyance, weariness, disgust. She drums her fingers on the desk top.
‘I’m meeting friends on the other side of town in fifteen minutes. Please be quick.’
I’m not put out by her arrogance. Nothing that poor Dina does or says could upset me now. But I can’t find the words. How can I explain that it’s not worth rushing? How can I make her understand that, sometimes, time doesn’t follow the usual rules? Maybe it’s all an illusion. We see things as we’ve been taught to see them. Her desk, for example. Can we be sure that it’s a desk with four legs and a desk top? Who can be sure that in fifteen minutes’ time she’ll be on the other side of town? A quarter of an hour. It’s just a convention, isn’t it? A way of measuring, pigeon-holing, tying down or controlling things that are beyond us, things we don’t understand. An artifice to reassure us, so we don’t ask too many questions.
‘I’d appreciate it,’ she says, noticeably irritated, ‘if you would try to be more specific.’
But I can’t. I tell her that I’ve just seen her in the street. ‘Again?’ she says, with a sarcastic sneer. ‘Don’t you think you’re becoming totally obsessed?’ Any moment now she’s going to explode, force me to leave the office, threaten to call the police. That’s why I need to be quick. Yes, I saw her. Today and yesterday too, and the other day in the restaurant, and that first time in the busy street. At first I thought that she had something against me, was following me, searching me out. Later, I thought that it wasn’t her, but someone who looked strikingly like her.
Dina looks at me. She’s running out of patience. I insist that she stays a little while longer. I take off a glove and put it back on. I’m lost for words again. I don’t know how to tell her. I don’t how to let her know that the process is irreversible. That less than an hour ago, in the dead end alleyway, I saw the grimace of death on her mouth with no lips, her fetid stench, her decomposing flesh. All I can manage is to stutter out, ‘Be very careful, please. Maybe we can still stop it. Or delay it, delay it for as long as possible.’
Dina has got to her feet.
‘I’m sorry. Everything you’ve just told me is very interesting. But I have to go. Maybe you don’t have any plans for tonight, but I do.’
Dina hates me. She loathes me or thinks I’m mad. All I can do is let things run their course. I get up too, convinced that any explanation, any warning, is pointless. I feel small, insignificant but at the same time presumptuous and arrogant. I wanted to change the pages of destiny, but this poor girl’s destiny has already been written.
‘Why are you looking at me like that, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Dina’s indignant, standing in front of me, with her handbag over her shoulder and the office keys jangling in her hand. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. But when she slung her handbag over her shoulder so brusquely, her coat gaped open for a second or two and I caught sight of something that for all the world I would rather not have seen.
‘You’re wearing a green dress. A green silk dress.’ Dina Dachs’ eyes are spitting fire. ‘For the record, your position in the firm doesn’t give you the right to…’
I’ve no idea what she’s saying anymore. There’s something in her voice, in her tone, that defies any response.
‘And you can stop spying on me, following me around all the time. You give me the creeps. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Now her words are coming out in a torrent, compulsively.
‘Whatever it is you want from me you’re not going to get it. And if you’re interested in my clothes, well here you are. A green silk dress. Brand new. I hope you like it.’
Dina has taken off her coat, brusquely. Now she looks like the same woman I’ve been seeing again and again over the past few days. There’s only one detail missing: a small accessory that she must have hidden away somewhere. I can picture her in the lift, putting on the necklace in front of the mirror. Or in the taxi. Or the bathroom in the office.
‘Your handbag,’ I say, ‘let me look in your handbag.’
Now, for the first time, she seems frightened. I try to do the impossible: persuade her that she shouldn’t go out into the street dressed like that. That everything I’m doing is for her own good. But words are not enough. Now, more than ever, I know they’re not enough. I don’t know whether I’m going mad or obeying the voice of destiny. Because I grab her and shake her. And she fights back. She clings to her handbag and fights back and tries to open a penknife. She’s frightened and won’t listen to reason. So now, resolute, I have no choice but to stop her, to reveal the awful truth, to shout at her, ‘You’re dead. Do you still not get it? You’re dead!’ But Dina’s not fighting back anymore. Her eyes are staring at me wide with shock and her body slips from my grasp down to the floor, powerless, terrified. There’s no time to waste and I snatch her handbag. I search desperately for a case or a box containing the necklace; maybe without the necklace none of what’s been predicted will come to pass. All I find are sheets of paper. Sheets of paper that are of no interest to me, that I ignore, throw away. Sheets of paper the exact contents of which I’ll discover in two days’ time, together with everyone else in the office.
And then Cesca will shake her head sadly. And I’ll hear rumours, footsteps, I’ll feel cold. The electricity bill, a note pad, a letter… Dear Eduardo… words that I remember well because they’re Dina’s. She’s always spying on me, following me around all the time. She gives me the creeps… And others I recognise even more clearly because they’re mine, even though the letter is signed Dina Dachs and I myself have not yet dared to write them down on paper. I think about Trastevere. Our apartment in Trastevere, counting the days until we meet in Rome… Memories that I don’t remember. I shall never forget our first night, in the hotel on the seafront… Absurd, ridiculous, obscene sentences. Promises of love intermingled with the sound of footsteps, keys, doors opening and closing, the neighbours in the apartment upstairs moving furniture, a man in a white coat telling me, ‘You’re exhausted. Relax.’ And, above all, Cesca. Cesca looking at me, full of compassion.
But that won’t happen for another two days. Right now I’m kneeling down, determined to prevent the inevitable, holding the empty handbag, surrounded by sheets of paper that I’ve not the slightest interest in reading, that I sweep aside angrily with my hand. I remember, ‘In fifteen minutes’ time, on the other side of town.’ And then a light comes on. It’s as if she were there, at a party, a gathering, at midnight and people are exchanging presents. But Dina will never receive the fateful gift. I’ve managed to frighten her, warn her. ‘I’ve stopped it happening,’ I say. I look at my hands. Still in their gloves. Still shaky, still possessed by a strength that I never knew I had. And then I look at Dina, on the floor, with her eyes still bulging in terror, in shock, at what she must have thought was the vision of a madwoman. But Dina doesn’t move. She’s wearing a green dress. Green dress, green shoes . . . And only now, as I get up slowly, do I notice the bruising around her throat and I understand the cold truth that nothing is missing. ‘It’s too soon yet,’ I say out loud, even though no one can hear me. ‘But by tomorrow, or the day after, it will have become a violet necklace.’
Sometime in June, my back started to itch. I thought I’d been bitten by a mosquito or some other insect. That’s how it felt. It was always worst when I’d been out running and worked up a sweat. The thing was, the itch was in such an awkward place – right in the middle of my back and quite high up – that I couldn’t reach it properly with my fingers. I had a go with a pencil and a toothbrush, but that didn’t seem to help much.
I’d headed off to my holiday cottage in the countryside to chill out and find myself. Things were starting to get me down rather. I was forty-something, and many aspects of life had got much trickier since my thirties. Just drifting around wasn’t as pleasant as it had been. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to stop the things I wasn’t doing. What was the point?
I felt I needed some peace and quiet to work out who I really was and what my goals were. So I decided to go to the cottage all on my own, for the whole summer break – just me, my notepad and my running shoes.
For the first few days, everything was just as usual, except that I was on my own. I was used to having lots of people around all the time. Having plenty of company had become like curling up under a cosy blanket. I just liked people and didn’t mind leaving decisions to others. It was fine by me to go with the flow, taking it easy. I was happy to go along with any decision or opinion, no matter what the subject – football, politics, art or whatever. I liked just being in the midst of things, not having to make too much effort. The solitary life has never been my thing. I get restless and anxious, can’t be doing with that stuff they talk about, sitting alone with a book over a cup of tea, meditation, relaxation. I start to get the twitches. I want to go out and meet people, ask them round to my place, or just sit and chew the fat with someone or other. I’ve never been that particular about who I talk to. I used to plunge into random discussions pretty often. If there was a subject and someone had a definite opinion, I’d generally go along with them – or keep quiet. That worked out fine to begin with. We’d agree, and avoid rubbing each other up the wrong way, and most people found me likeable. Thought I was a nice guy, easy to get on with. But after a while I realised that people felt let down if they discovered I’d taken quite a different view when talking to others.
It wasn’t that big a deal as far as I was concerned. After all, what mattered most to me was having a chat for its own sake. But it ended up becoming hard to socialise except two by two. Then I found out that people were even avoiding talking to me one to one. They’d demand my opinion on something first. Things got so bad that some people thought I was unreliable, undependable, two-faced, that sort of thing.
So I decided to take some time out, head over to the cottage and think the whole thing through. Who was I? What did I stand for, what opinions did I have, and did I have any goals? I thought I’d take off and hang out with the wolves, as it were, work stuff out for myself. I did exactly what was recommended – wherever I’d got the idea from, probably some magazine or TV programme – I left my laptop and mobile at home and went off to the cottage without telling anyone. Just did whatever I felt like, went out for the odd run, quarrelled off and on with the gas stove, which stopped working at regular intervals. After that I’d sit there with my notepad, just staring into space.
It was mostly rather dull. I’d spend most of the day browsing through back numbers of ‘The Phantom’ comic and gazing out of the window, and no matter how I racked my brain, I never came up with any particular thoughts or feelings. Not beyond thinking that coffee tastes good, rain is wet, and that sort of stuff. I found my old guitar, which was short of an E string, and sat around for a while trying to tune it, but it wasn’t that easy, so I just let it be.
After only a few days I was already starting to regret the whole project. I’d pictured myself coming up with new insights into myself, one after the other, yet I didn’t seem to be discovering anything at all. I began to wonder whether all that stuff about finding yourself was just so much pretentious bullshit. Was it something people invented because they didn’t have much of a social life? It was then that my back started to itch.
When it had been itching for over three days and nights, I went and had a look in the bathroom mirror to see if I could spot anything. It felt as though the itching was coming from a small patch quite high up on my back, just to the right of my spine.
I stood for a long time with my back to the bathroom mirror, looking at the patch and thinking that it seemed somehow familiar. I thought I recognised it, like a birthmark or an old acne scar. Surely I’d glimpsed it before when I’d chanced to see my back in a mirror? That’s not something you do all the time, after all. Presumably, it had always been there, without my giving it a thought. Now it had started itching it was hard to think of anything else.
For a while, I tried to ignore it. I just tried to avoid thinking too much, despite the itching. I had a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts when I was supposed to be concentrating on something else. It was just like me to find something totally irrelevant to focus on when I was supposed to be chilling out and finding myself.
Anyway, a few days later I could feel that it had grown into a little bump. At about the same time, the itching calmed down, and for a short while, I found what was by now an oversized pimple quite amusing if anything. It wasn’t normal, of course, but I was so relieved the itching had finally let up that I wasn’t too bothered about having a little mound on my back. Surely it didn’t matter that much. And it wasn’t as though it was that big – although it was growing.
At any rate, it was easier to concentrate on other things now it had stopped itching so badly. I found I could sit for long periods thinking about myself and my doings. I even noted down the odd idea or two. Things I thought might be important, that I didn’t want to forget. I made a list of pluses and minuses, noting down the good and the bad – mostly individual words I liked the sound of and which somehow summed up who I was. I wrote down ‘roly-poly’, for example, not because I was at all overweight, but simply because the word appealed to me and gave me good vibes. It seemed to me that if only I could get a grip on something, no matter how insignificant, I could keep hold of it, and eventually I’d haul in something weightier and more definite, whatever that might be. I jotted down ‘mini, midi, maxi’, then I hummed the words to myself for half a day. That felt good too. ‘Itching’ went down in the minus column. ‘Mounds’, on the other hand, went into the plus column. ‘Mounds – good’, I wrote. ‘I like mounds. Especially grassy ones.’ Fun – I liked having fun. Being sociable. Company. Pleasant company. Good manners. Nice people. Good looks. Raspberry gums. Suddenly the words were pouring out of me into the two columns on the paper. I could fill half a page just with the TV programmes I liked or disliked, for instance. It was only now and then that I went past the mirror and looked at my own mound, the one on my back.
It grew a little with each day that passed until it was slightly bigger than a five-kronor coin. I was beginning to suspect that some kind of creature might have got under my skin after all – a tick or some other creepy-crawly that had dropped out of a tree on one of my runs. It was probably infected. I seemed to recall some jungle story or other about ants – or was it larvae? – crawling under people’s skin to lay their eggs. That wasn’t pleasant, of course, but somehow it struck me as the most reasonable explanation. Ants and larvae both went into the minus column.
It occurred to me that I should put something on it, but I had no idea what might work on a sore spot like the one I had. I tried splashing it with aftershave, and eventually I managed to lay my hands on an old bottle of acetone in what had once been the broom cupboard, which, over the years, had turned into a glory hole full of paint tins, tubes of glue and turps rags.
I splashed a drop or two onto a cloth and rubbed at the lump. But nothing happened, except that the skin around it got drier and began to sting.
It was rather annoying that I had no-one to talk to. It would have been quite something to show off such an amazing physical change. And maybe it would have changed my detractors’ minds. I wasn’t sure whether ‘detractors’ was quite the right word. But it gave me a warm glow when I thought of it; it was a good word to have in your vocabulary. I wasn’t certain whether it belonged in the plus or the minus column, nor was I one hundred percent sure of the spelling, so I didn’t put down anything at all. But I kind of savoured the word for the rest of the day. ‘Detractors’ – it had a certain style. I’d have to remember to use it once I was back among other people. Maybe I’d even look it up to see what it meant.
One morning the bump was so big and my skin so taut that I realised something was going to happen that day. The bump stood out like a sugar loaf as if someone’s finger was pushing at the skin from the inside. I kept running to the mirror, and in the course of the afternoon, a split started to appear.
A rift opened in the middle of the bulge, and in the middle of the weeping sore and the pus, I glimpsed something that looked like a tiny little … head.
It struck me as quite repulsive, and I stood stock-still for ages, staring into the mirror to see what was going on. I’d never seen such a small head before. Tiny though it was, it had a full set of human features: eyes, nose, mouth, even a wisp of hair. I realised straight away that it wasn’t an insect, but a new body part that had suddenly decided to make an unexpected appearance. It dawned on me that it must have been there the whole time, somehow – like a wisdom tooth. Complete with mouth, jaw, eyes, ears, nose, and forehead.
I took an instant dislike to it. I didn’t want it on my back – I just wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible. I took out my toothbrush again and started scrubbing at the opening from which it had emerged, but neither the head nor the film of skin over it would disappear completely. All that happened was that my skin went red, and after a while it began to hurt a good deal.
That evening I couldn’t get off to sleep. Time and again I got up and stood in front of the mirror. I wandered round and round in the cottage, sat down at the kitchen table and wrote ‘I like heads’ in the plus column. And ‘But not on my back’ in the minus column.
I felt that summed up my views pretty well.
Staying in the cottage got more and more boring, and if it hadn’t been for the Head I’d have left a long time ago. But it was clear to me that I couldn’t show myself in public, disfigured as I was. When I woke up in the morning I hoped it would be gone, but when I checked in the mirror it was there as usual. After a while, I didn’t even have to get up. I could clearly feel its presence between me and the sheet. The Calor gas stove broke down regularly, and sometimes the smell of gas hung over the cylinder. Sometimes I’d thump it and get it to work for a while, but I wondered whether it was leaking a bit. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the raw patch on my back seemed to have got slightly infected, but I didn’t make any particular effort to get it to heal. I thought that might be a natural way to get rid of the intruder.
Gradually the Head grew bigger and bigger, and it generally kept itself hidden under its protective membrane. It would peek out just for an instant, then withdraw again. In early July it got up the nerve to pop out and have a look around for a little longer. Its features looked rather like mine, and I would often stand in front of the mirror waiting for it to peek out. Once or twice our eyes met momentarily in the mirror before it popped back inside the bump.
Sometimes I wondered what the Head thought of me. It must have been pretty striking to see its full-size alter ego, so to speak, towering above it on my neck and shoulders.
Since the Head had ears, eyes and a mouth, I soon started talking to it. I’d say ‘Hello’, ‘Hey’, ‘Hi there’ and so on. I’d threaten and cajole by turns, but mostly I chatted away to it as if I were talking to a plant or to myself. After all, in a way, I’d longed for someone to talk to, and now it turned out there was a head inside my back, I thought it would be a pity if we couldn’t hang out together now and then. I started telling it the names of the things around me. For example, I’d say ‘running shoes’ when I put them on to go jogging. ‘Mug’, I’d say when I took out my coffee cup. Then I’d add ‘cup’, just to be on the safe side. I wasn’t sure myself which word was best. Anyway, I thought it was a good idea to give the Head an opportunity to learn some of the words and phrases people use most, so we could rub along together more easily. But it didn’t reply, and after a while, I stopped talking. I felt daft talking to someone who never said anything back.
It became harder and harder to sleep on my back. Sometimes, when I was lying stretched out, reading damp old Donald Duck comics in bed, the Head would suddenly move slightly behind my back. It was as though it were stretching out, or curling up into a ball. I’d always press a little harder when that happened. I don’t really know why. It just happened. Maybe it was a bit mean of me, but I wanted to make the point somehow that it was my back. After a while, the Head would start to resist, and we’d sometimes engage in a low-key wrestling match, which generally ended with my shifting onto my side.
I noticed I was getting hungrier and hungrier. There were days when I’d suddenly crave things I’d never liked before, such as boiled cod, peas in white sauce, grapefruit, muesli, and wholemeal bread. To my surprise, I also noticed that I was gradually becoming less fond of beer. I could see it was all the fault of the new head. It was taking in nutrients through me, of course, not through its own mouth. Now it was clearly trying to influence my habits, to bring them into line with its own tastes and its own aims.
I was annoyed that the Head was starting to take up more space and that it was kind of getting above itself in the evenings and at night, though it wouldn’t reply when spoken to and didn’t even have the guts to come out properly during the daytime.
I started to think the Head had something of an attitude problem. It would never look me in the eye. It wasn’t willing to learn anything about my habits or to repeat any of the words I tried to teach it. And then there was the way it took what it wanted, expanding more and more in the evenings. On top of that, the few times I caught a glimpse of its mouth, I detected a rather superior expression.
To begin with, I interpreted its behaviour as shyness. I thought it looked diffident, touching. It was, after all, so small, and if anything it came across as rather timid. In time, however, I came to think it was being pretty rude in keeping itself to itself. Just what was it scared of? I felt my approach had been quite respectful. Apart from the episode with the toothbrush and the after-shave, I’d been nothing but friendly and obliging, helpful even. Of course, you have to be careful in relations with other people, but the Head’s avoidance tactics sent a negative message, almost like disdain. As though it had no interest whatsoever in its – what could one call me? – host. Didn’t it like my company? I was quite sure I could detect a certain overbearing look in its eyes. Who did it think it was, this creature, to turn up and make silent demands on me? I was gradually feeling more and more determined to show it who was boss.
‘Listen here, you gutless little pipsqueak,’ I said one evening when I was sitting with a can of lager, staring at the wall. I was getting wasted out of pure defiance, just to show who was boss, though the lager was like vinegar. In fact, it tasted vile, and several times I was on the point of throwing up. The only thing that kept me going was the thought that it must be worse for the little beast on my back. I’d laid in plenty of lager, but I had no TV, stereo or anything else that might have taken my mind off things. In the absence of any entertainment, I’d generally end up on the sofa in front of the big, empty wall. ‘Why don’t you come out and party a little?’ I said.
That wasn’t like me. It wasn’t my style to carry on and throw my weight about, but what I needed now was to find myself and deal with this uninvited guest. After all, I was over forty. I couldn’t carry on pussyfooting around. I was starting to lose my patience. I sat gazing at the damp around the broken electricity cables where the wallpaper had split.
Everything was silent and still behind me. Gulping down the last drop of lager in the can, I squeezed it in the middle and slung it into the corner where the TV should have been. Opening a new can, I wriggled my shoulder blades a little. I thought the creature might have gone to sleep. ‘Hey, you!’ I called again. ‘Come on out and have a beer, will you? Come on, try and be sociable.’
I raised the can over my head, held it carefully at an angle and let the lager run down the back of my neck. A small amount ended up in my hair, but the rest ran down over my skin, over the mound on my back. I’d thought the Head could just hold its mouth open and have a drink. But nothing happened.
‘Don’t fancy it? Well, it’s your loss,’ I said.
Then I sat there, the can in my hand, without a TV, while the lager gradually settled in a sticky mess between my skin and the leather upholstery.
I decided to try cutting my losses. If the Head didn’t want any contact, well, I was damned if I was going to carry on dancing attendance on it. I made it quite clear that I wanted peace and quiet. Staggering into the kitchen, I found a pencil. Each time I felt any movement inside my back, I jabbed at the opening with the pencil. It took several attempts to hit the right spot, but pretty soon I’d got quite accurate. The least sign of activity and I’d be onto it with the pencil, and as soon as the Head felt me jabbing at it, it would freeze. That gave me a power rush that was pretty cool. I’d have preferred to be on friendlier terms, of course, but with things as they were, there was no alternative. After a while, however, I realised the jabs weren’t having the same impact anymore. The Head would keep shifting around inside my back even after I’d jabbed at it several times, and sometimes I jabbed pretty hard.
I went out into the bathroom and sat in front of the mirror for a long while, quite light-headed and a little queasy from the booze. I nagged loudly at the Head to come out so we could agree on how we were to get on together. As usual, however, it refused to put in an appearance. At one point I got up, went out and pressed my back against the stove two or three times. Really hard. I felt the Head shrinking in on itself, seeking protection from each new impact. But there wasn’t the least sign of any willingness to communicate.
When I’d had no response for over an hour, and the Head had done nothing but keep itself to itself, I felt my patience coming to an end. I took the mirror off the wall and carried it over to the bed. Then I fetched a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat down on the edge of the bed with the mirror leaning against the wall behind me, and waited. I breathed slowly, trying to steady my pulse.
Nothing happened for a long while, but then the Head’s curiosity must have got the better of it, for when I was completely still, I could clearly sense it slowly emerging. I stayed where I was, leaning forward, and let it continue for a good while. The longer I sat, the more distinctly I could feel the Head sliding in and out of my back. It was taking the opportunity to move around, thinking I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. Maybe it thought I hadn’t noticed anything, and that was what really got me – the fact that it seemed to want nothing to do with me as if I wasn’t good enough for it. Presumably, it had discovered the mirror; it felt as though the thing was slipping out at regular intervals to look at itself. It was becoming bolder and bolder, taking longer each time. It must have thought I was asleep, as pretty soon it seemed to have stopped paying me any attention.
‘What’s that?’ I said, my tone of voice calm and measured, but with a note of surprise, as though I’d spotted something unexpected and was more or less talking to myself. I thought that would tempt the Head out to have a look. And lo and behold, it finally emerged, prompted by curiosity. I waited and waited, breathing calmly, biding my time.
When I thought enough of the Head was out in the open, I swivelled round as quickly as I could and snapped the scissors shut, just where I thought its neck must be. The Head must have had a terrible shock; its eyes were goggling like ping-pong balls. Somehow it had managed to start withdrawing, so the cut had sliced into its chin more than its neck. It was almost as if I’d cut through its mouth. A tongue slid back and forth over the blade, cutting itself again and again.
And a cry came from its mouth. It was all quite horrible. The blood and the tongue, those goggling eyes, and the cry, rising into a scream.
I tried to snap the scissor blades together and snip the whole thing off, but as I’d caught it at an odd angle, there were jaw muscles and bones in the way. It was a terrible mess.
In the end, I opened the scissors and let the creature take cover again.
Blood continued to flow out of the opening for quite a while, so I had to stand in the bathroom splashing water over it for a long time. The floor got messy, and I had to dig out an old 1950s vacuum cleaner to hoover up the blood and the water. The hoover crackled and sparked, and it had little suction power. I had to go over the floor inch by inch with the metal mouthpiece. The Head didn’t show itself.
The morning after, I woke up lying in an awkward position on my front, with my face pressed into the pillow. I had a headache and a bad conscience about the previous evening’s attack. I called to the Head to come out, but there was no response. I begged and pleaded, but nothing happened.
It stayed inside for several days, and I felt nothing at all beyond a dull pain in my back – unsurprisingly, as the Head was linked to some extent with my own nervous system. Though I looked in the mirror a few times, I could see nothing. I began to wonder whether it might have died from its injuries, but little by little, in the evenings, I once again started to feel tiny movements, a cautious scratching. It was if it was literally licking its wounds.
For a while I was afraid it would try to get its own back somehow, slide out when I was least expecting – who knew how quickly its neck was growing? Or maybe it would start eating me up from the inside?
Once again I cursed the fact that I was all on my own. I dared not turn my back on any knives or scissors that might be lying about, and I constantly tried to be aware of whatever was within reach each time I turned round. I developed such a keen awareness of what was behind me that I sometimes forgot to look out for what was in front. I started walking into things, bumping my head when looking through the kitchen hatches and stubbing my toes on the furniture. I should have brought someone along right from the start, I thought. It’s never a good idea to go off on your own as I’d done. If I’d brought someone else, I’d have had someone to talk to who would have witnessed the whole process and understood my plight.
At the same time, I could see it would be tricky to turn up anywhere with the Head as it was now. People would think it was peculiar, maybe even rather frightening. No-one would want to touch it. They’d think I’d done this to myself, that I’d had some sort of operation.
I’d have to deal with the problem on my own.
I started talking again. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably stuff like:
‘Hallo? Are you there?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Why don’t you answer? I know you can.’
But the Head kept mum. I had the feeling it might have learned its lesson, or at least grasped who was boss. Whenever it moved, its movements were very cautious.
I was gradually beginning to relax a little.
In a way, everything had calmed down considerably after the incident. Maybe being a bit rougher had been just the right thing? Maybe I’d held back far too much and given it far too much room for manoeuvre? Cut it too much slack for too long? Perhaps a firmer hand was needed to instil a natural respect for me in the intruder, and to put it in its place.
One day in early August, when I was standing in front of the mirror looking at the igloo-shaped lump on my back, which was growing larger and larger, its forehead and eyes finally emerged, and, for the first time, it looked me straight in the eye for a long while.
‘Are you angry?’ I asked.
It was still for a moment. Then it slowly shook in a way that might well have meant no.
‘How’s your mouth?’ I asked, and the Head’s gaze darkened slightly. It blinked a few times and breathed through its nose as if preparing for something. Finally, it popped out completely, stretching its neck. It gave me quite a fright, as I recall. The Head was already bigger than a fist, and its mouth had healed well. The only visible signs of the scissors’ treatment were a few pink streaks.
It withdrew after showing me its mouth, and neither of us made any further attempt to communicate for the rest of the day. A strange, oppressive atmosphere filled the cottage. Maybe it was angry about the scissors incident, but if that was the case it could have said so, always assuming that it could speak. Of course, my attack might have damaged its powers of speech, but I didn’t think it was that badly injured. After all, it had managed to scream.
Next morning I went straight to the mirror and tapped the bump on my back with a toothbrush. It took a while, but eventually the eyes peeped out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but it seemed to me that the Head had grown slightly bigger overnight.
‘Hi there,’ I said, ‘Shall we be friends, then?’
The eyes looked at me for a long time. We just stared at one another. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but in the end I thought I saw it give a cautious nod.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about that business with the scissors. That was unkind. I won’t do it again.’
Motionless, the eyes continued to stare at me. After a while, the Head decided to come right out, revealing a slightly distant, superior expression.
‘Can you speak?’ I asked.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head.
I was so astounded that I dropped my toothbrush on the floor. True, I’d heard it scream, and I’d suspected that it had a voice. But it felt strange to hear actual words. It changed something. I felt quite unsure of myself. It was as if it suddenly dawned on me that it had actually understood everything I’d said, which doubled the stress I felt. I tried to control my feelings and maintain a semblance of calm before the Head, which was continuing to stare at me as though amused by my confusion, though it didn’t give that away for an instant. It gave away nothing. And its very expressionlessness only reinforced the menacing impression it made on me. Its voice sounded just like mine.
‘Nothing, just wondering,’ I said. ‘You haven’t said anything.’
The Head said nothing now either but continued to scrutinise me with a slightly blasé expression. He was very like me.
‘Er… are you male or female?’ I continued.
That wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out question, but I felt I’d better seize the opportunity to find out as much as possible, now we’d established some kind of contact, so to speak. What did I know? Maybe the Head wasn’t intending to come out again for another few months.
‘What do you think?’ said the Head again.
The voice was calm and steady, like a more stable variant of my own. At the same time, it sounded – how can I put this? – rather reserved and haughty. ‘I think you’re a man,’ I said. ‘And I really don’t like your snarky tone. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a little chat together, without getting on our high horses.’
The Head didn’t reply now either, but it seemed to roll its eyes briefly, exhaling rapidly rather as though it were sighing.
‘Oh, all right then, forget it,’ I said.
The Head said nothing. It just slipped swiftly back into its lair.
The next morning we stared at each other in the bathroom mirror while I was brushing my teeth. He stuck out his whole neck and head and yawned expansively. I could have sworn this was a minor demonstration of power. He’d got even bigger. Soon he’d be the same size as any other head. He was only very slightly smaller than my own.
I said nothing. I’d been feeling a little hurt since the previous day and rather anxious about how all this was going to end. The toothpaste tube slipped out of the washbasin and landed on the floor. My knees creaked when I bent down to pick it up.
A few days later, when I was in front of the bathroom mirror again brushing my teeth, the Head suddenly popped out again, and this time he managed to stretch up over one shoulder. It looked funny to have two heads the same size on the same body, and I couldn’t stop myself asking:
‘How big are you going to get?’
The other head smiled and replied:
‘What do you think?’
For the first time, it felt as though he was actually challenging me in some way, but I just didn’t understand how he was doing it or what it was he wanted. It was as though we were sizing each other up for a while.
Quick I could, I tried to come up with a flash of repartee that would answer that question once and for all. After all, he hadn’t exactly been wonderfully articulate himself. Yet, in just a few brief rejoinders, he’d managed to seize what you might call the rhetorical high ground. And however hard I racked my brains and struggled to think of something, it didn’t really work. Finally, I had to say the first thing that had popped into my head, and I still doubt whether it sounded very smart.
‘Hmmm…,’ said I. ‘What do you think?’
Obviously it was easier for him to inject that edge of ambiguity into what he said. After all, he had the advantage of surprise. Hell, surely anyone would be pretty taken aback if a head on their back suddenly started to talk? He could have said anything at all. Besides, he’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something. I now see I shouldn’t just have recycled what he’d already said; I should have come up with my own unique, quick-fire rejoinder. But that just didn’t work.
He merely smiled, and from that moment on he no longer seemed to pay me much attention. Increasingly, he didn’t bother to crawl back into his lair; instead, he spent more and more time next to my own head.
For several days I went around regretting that unfortunate exchange of words. It felt as though I’d lost something, without really understanding what it was. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all? Whatever I said, things only seemed to get worse.
‘Can’t we go out some time?’ he asked one day.
‘How would that look?’ I said. ‘Surely you understand it’d scare people silly to see such a monstrosity? No, we’ll have to stay in here till…’
I fell silent, not knowing how to continue.
‘Till what?’ he said.
‘Till we sort this out,’ I said, making it clear the conversation was over. I noticed him looking over my shoulder at the notes I’d jotted down, and sometimes he seemed to be scoffing at something I’d written. As his neck grew stronger, he pushed my head down closer and closer to my shoulder. He tried both sides a few times, but soon he’d made his choice, and there wasn’t much I could do when he made himself comfortable in the middle.
We did some things together. Now and then, out of the blue, he’d take control over an arm or a leg, as if for a joke. He’d make me cross out some new words I’d just written in the plus or minus column. He’d spill a glassful of juice just for the hell of it, so I’d have to wipe it all up before it ran over the chairs as well.
He’d take over for short periods without my noticing. If I didn’t watch out, he’d suddenly stow the coffee tin in the cupboard over the coffee machine, rather than the one over the stove where I’d always kept it. He’d throw rubbish straight into the bin instead of the sink, or turn the gas off. I generally took over control again as soon as I noticed what was going on, but sometimes I’d let him do his own thing, just to see what he’d come up with.
At any time, and without any warning at all, I could be struck by a sudden numbness. It was as if my arms had gone to sleep and it was nearly impossible to raise them – as if he’d decided we were going to take a rest. And once, when I was doing my usual twenty press-ups, just as I was relaxing after the last one I felt as though he’d taken over and was forcing me to do another one. My arms ached, and it was incredibly tough, but I had to go through with it, though I was tired and felt I’d done my fair share already. Once we’d got up again, and I’d sat down, I turned my head as far as I could and yelled straight into his ear, ‘Don’t you bloody well do that again!’
I knew full well how much it hurt when someone bellowed into your ear, but all he did was laugh.
‘What’s that?’ he said all of a sudden one day, looking down at the floor with a startled expression. I bent down to see what he was talking about. But before I’d managed to spot anything, I felt him wrapping one of my arms around my neck. I resisted, trying to push my head back up again, but he seemed to have locked it in place with my other hand. I was held in a grip under one arm. And try as I might to wave my arms about and gesticulate, it was his will that mainly commanded my muscles now. ‘When are you going to let go?’ I yelled as loudly as I could, muffled by the body and the clothes around me.
‘What do you think?’ said he.
When I got back up again I was livid with fury. I tried to punch his head, but my arms would only half obey me. They were directionless and weak, like the arms of a puppet. That felt even more humiliating if anything, so I left off pretty quickly and sat down on the sofa.
‘This isn’t working,’ I said.
As usual, he said nothing. We sat that way for a long time, without doing anything in particular. It was as though we were waiting. Waiting for something to happen.
‘Hey, you,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we go out?’
‘No chance,’ said I.
When we had our breakfast, each would have his own bowl of cereal, but we’d use the same two hands. I noticed the spoon went up to his mouth more often than to mine. But since I had little appetite, it didn’t matter much. We hardly ever spoke to each other, just exchanged brief utterances like ‘Mind yourself!’ or ‘Shift!’ and stuff like that.
A few days went by in comparative peace. It was getting easier and easier to synchronise our movements. We generally agreed on what our arms and legs should be doing. We’d go out for a short run, shower, sleep, eat – all the usual things. I noticed I no longer needed to think so much. I generally just went along with whatever he was doing, and that was quite agreeable in its way. I could sense that I no longer had the strength I’d once had.
One afternoon, when we were standing in front of the bathroom mirror cleaning our teeth – first mine, then his – he said, in passing as it were, his mouth full of toothpaste:
‘You can hardly see the scar now.’
Looking up, I realised I couldn’t tell straight away which of the two heads was mine. Each was the spitting image of the other. After a moment, it occurred to me to focus on the eyes. The face that gazed back would be me, of course. The whole thing was made more difficult by the fact that he was looking at me too, with an indulgent, almost contemptuous expression. I yelled at him to stop gawping and looked in the mirror to see which one of us was shouting. The tired, worn-out one – that was me.
The new head took over my body more and more, and began to do things differently. It felt unfamiliar and rather irritating. He forced me to climb on the roof to mend the hole in the roofing-felt. Then he’d be off round the whole building, taping up all the loose contacts, taking out the rugs to air, listening to discussion programmes on the radio – that sort of stuff. He dug out the brush and dustpan and set about cleaning the cottage from top to bottom. He started cooking and setting the table, rather than eating straight out of a tin. He’d pour milk into a glass. Then we’d have to stand around washing up afterwards.
My appetite dwindled. Everything went to the other head. He helped himself eagerly, while the flesh shrank from my cheeks and chin. My temples grew closer together, and my eyes were sunken in their sockets.
He picked up the guitar, gathered up all the comics, and put the lot away in the loft, where he found a book about birds and another about flowers that he dusted off and brought down.
Now and then I’d find the Head writing with my hand. I thought I might still be able to tell his handwriting from mine, so I made no particular effort to stop him.
He would write and write, sometimes for hours at a time, and I thought it all terribly boring. He used such complicated language, with difficult words and long sentences. For a while, I was rather impressed and felt a spark of pride at the thought that it was my handwriting it all down, after all. But all things considered, it was dull and hard to understand.
He never wanted to do anything fun. Just boring stuff.
The summer ended and autumn came. After a while, I realised I was finding it harder and harder to hold up my head. I wanted to kind of lie on one shoulder. It was as if my neck muscles had atrophied, and all of a sudden my neck was so scrawny, desiccated and skinny, shrivelled, withered in the middle, that I wondered how the oxygen could get through. Maybe it couldn’t. Maybe my entire oxygen intake was now coming in through the new head?
I realised that I was gradually getting used to his dull, monotonous routines, and would often just hang to one side. For a while, he would help me by holding me up with his hands from time to time, but he tired of that soon enough. As he took on more and more activities, I would all too often remain hanging at an angle, unable to hold myself up, so that I viewed the world half upside-down. My neck had shrivelled into a thin thread that increasingly resembled a scrap of umbilical cord attached to newborn babies, which gradually dries out and eventually falls off.
One morning after breakfast he went out to the toolbox and fetched a pair of pincers. He clipped me off and laid me in the bed, on the pillow.
‘Want to be on one side, or facing upwards?’ he asked.
‘On my side,’ I said.
He laid me with one cheek on the pillow, so I could lie there and watch him getting undressed and smartening himself up. He disappeared into the bathroom, and I heard him turning on the tap and splashing water around. He came back into the bedroom, freshly showered. He’d put a waterproof plaster, such as you might stick over a shaving nick, on the tiny wound where I’d been attached. He opened the wardrobe and changed into smart clothes right in front of my face.
‘What are you going to do?’ I asked.
‘I saw from the calendar that we’ve got a table booked for lunch at “The Gondola”. Thought I’d go along,’ he said.
Before he went, he tucked me in with the cover over my chin. I took the opportunity to have a nap. It was so pleasant to be on my own again, even though my mobility was now severely limited, but it had happened so gradually that I hadn’t really noticed what was going on. Now that I was over forty, I thought to myself, I no longer placed such high demands on life. There was no need to win or to be a top dog all the time, or to have arms and legs and all that sort of thing. I was quite content with everything just the way it was. I wouldn’t have had the strength to creep around outside anyway.
By the time he got home again, it had been dark for a long time. I awoke when the door closed, and pretty soon I saw him looking into the bedroom. Apart from his wet hair, he looked just like me. He wore my clothes, was a little older, and had a slightly more pronounced widow’s peak. The scar had disappeared completely. No-one would ever think he was anyone but me.
‘Are you awake?’ he whispered.
‘Sure,’ I said.
We were both whispering, although there were only the two of us in the cottage. It was as though we didn’t want to disturb the night. Or maybe what we had to say called for a lower volume. He sat down on the edge of the bed but realised that the rest of it was empty. So he edged up further and leaned against the wall.
‘I’m thinking of taking up smoking,’ I said.
He sighed and looked at me. I rocked back and forth a little. I could feel something like a speck of dust settling on my nose. I grimaced a little, trying to get rid of it. Finally, he stretched out a hand and helped me scratch.
‘What’s it like out there?’ I asked.
He leaned back, sinking down against the wall. Shook his head slowly, as though he couldn’t decide whether it was wonderful, or terrible, or just too hard to explain.
‘It’s a different world,’ he said. ‘Trust me, pal, you’d never cope out there.’
The Imam’s words to me at the entrance to the mosque that night were strange and dramatic. He said that a pack of ferocious black cats had attacked the district and was destroying everything it came across. People had not come to evening prayer because they knew that around here the cats ruled the dark and this had struck terror into the residents. What he said was incredible, but he did not go on for long and ushered me in to pray.
Three of us prayed in reverence and calm: the Imam in his mihrab plus me and my friend Saeed behind him. I stood there firmly with a sense of serenity and confidence as if I had forgotten the frightening words of the Imam. Once we had finished prayers, he asked me to give him a lift home. I agreed, happy at the request, then went further and invited my friend Saeed to spend the night at my house.
The Imam held a large stick, but I did not ask why. I had started to question his sanity. That view changed, however, when we set off in the car and the Iman returned to his topic. I turned to my friend and asked, “What do you think about it, Saeed?” With a serious look on his face, he replied, “Yes, I’ve heard the same thing too. A neighbour told me that a group of cats attacked Mrs Nafisa. She’s pregnant and was on her way home from her parents’ down the road. The cats sprang at her and tore at her long dress. The poor woman froze helpless on the spot. All she could do was scream. She screamed with all her might, which only maddened the cats and they swooped on her. Fortunately, Mr Daniel, the French hunter, came to help her. He had his shotgun with him as well as his three dogs, and they threw themselves at the cats in a gruesome fight. With difficulty, the man rescued Mrs Nafisa from the beasts’ claws. He carried her to his house between life and death, then went back to save his dogs. But he was shocked to see that the cats had savaged them.”
My friend did not finish, for the Imam interrupted him: “Yes, my lad. God Almighty protect us, I heard the same myself and more…” Then he broke off his answer, said, “Here is far enough, thank you,” and got out after making his goodbyes. We continued our way back home, discussing the horrific and dramatic happenings. Suddenly we heard loud noises. Yes, it was them. The meowing was ear-splitting. Then they were running around us. I turned on the headlights and blew the horn. I tried to avoid them, but they crashed like waves towards us. I hit some and the meows mixed with caterwauls. Terror struck our hearts and we felt the night darken, as though the moon had been extinguished or eclipsed. God, O God, how to escape?
I stopped the car in front of my building. I steeled myself and decided to get out whatever the consequences. I opened the door and set a foot on the pavement. I tried to put my other foot down and they hurled themselves at me as one: rabid beasts driven by a fierce desire for revenge. I fell to the ground, flailing with my arms and legs. Saeed blew the horn without let up, and the neighbours hit out with sticks and ropes from every direction.
“Water! Water!” I shouted. “Spray the rabid cats with water. It’ll stop their frenzy. Water! Water!” After a few moments, I was drenched with water pouring down from above and the sides. The cats dropped back. I managed to get away and manhandled my friend Saeed and a neighbour to the house. I insisted on going to the balcony. The night was cold and damp, and the cats were jumping around in pain and fury. I felt raindrops falling. The rain gradually grew harder and the shrieks increased. Water and death spread beneath. The bodies piled up. I decided to go down and get my revenge. I rushed down the stairs and was confronted by a horrific field of death. I insisted on walking over them. One step… another… a screech… a convulsion. The black cats writhed beneath my feet.
I screamed and opened my eyes. I was alone in my room.
Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.
At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18–, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisiême, No. 33, Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain. For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber. For myself, however, I was mentally discussing certain topics which had formed matter for conversation between us at an earlier period of the evening; I mean the affair of the Rue Morgue, and the mystery attending the murder of Marie Rogêt. I looked upon it, therefore, as something of a coincidence, when the door of our apartment was thrown open and admitted our old acquaintance, Monsieur G—, the Prefect of the Parisian police.
We gave him a hearty welcome; for there was nearly half as much of the entertaining as of the contemptible about the man, and we had not seen him for several years. We had been sitting in the dark, and Dupin now arose for the purpose of lighting a lamp, but sat down again, without doing so, upon G.‘s saying that he had called to consult us, or rather to ask the opinion of my friend, about some official business which had occasioned a great deal of trouble.
“If it is any point requiring reflection,” observed Dupin, as he forebore to enkindle the wick, “we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark.”
“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”
“Very true,” said Dupin, as he supplied his visiter with a pipe, and rolled towards him a comfortable chair.
“And what is the difficulty now?” I asked. “Nothing more in the assassination way, I hope?”
“Oh no; nothing of that nature. The fact is, the business is very simple indeed, and I make no doubt that we can manage it sufficiently well ourselves; but then I thought Dupin would like to hear the details of it, because it is so excessively odd.”
“Simple and odd,” said Dupin.
“Why, yes; and not exactly that, either. The fact is, we have all been a good deal puzzled because the affair is so simple, and yet baffles us altogether.”
“Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault,” said my friend.
“What nonsense you do talk!” replied the Prefect, laughing heartily.
“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
“Oh, good heavens! who ever heard of such an idea?”
“A little too self-evident.”
“Ha! ha! ha—ha! ha! ha!—ho! ho! ho!” roared our visiter, profoundly amused, “oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!”
“And what, after all, is the matter on hand?” I asked.
“Why, I will tell you,” replied the Prefect, as he gave a long, steady and contemplative puff, and settled himself in his chair. “I will tell you in a few words; but, before I begin, let me caution you that this is an affair demanding the greatest secrecy, and that I should most probably lose the position I now hold, were it known that I confided it to any one.”
“Proceed,” said I.
“Or not,” said Dupin.
“Well, then; I have received personal information, from a very high quarter, that a certain document of the last importance, has been purloined from the royal apartments. The individual who purloined it is known; this beyond a doubt; he was seen to take it. It is known, also, that it still remains in his possession.”
“How is this known?” asked Dupin.
“It is clearly inferred,” replied the Prefect, “from the nature of the document, and from the non-appearance of certain results which would at once arise from its passing out of the robber’s possession; that is to say, from his employing it as he must design in the end to employ it.”
“Be a little more explicit,” I said.
“Well, I may venture so far as to say that the paper gives its holder a certain power in a certain quarter where such power is immensely valuable.” The Prefect was fond of the cant of diplomacy.
“Still I do not quite understand,” said Dupin.
“No? Well; the disclosure of the document to a third person, who shall be nameless, would bring in question the honor of a personage of most exalted station; and this fact gives the holder of the document an ascendancy over the illustrious personage whose honor and peace are so jeopardized.”
“But this ascendancy,” I interposed, “would depend upon the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber. Who would dare—”
“The thief,” said G., “is the Minister D—, who dares all things, those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man. The method of the theft was not less ingenious than bold. The document in question—a letter, to be frank—had been received by the personage robbed while alone in the royal boudoir. During its perusal she was suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the other exalted personage from whom especially it was her wish to conceal it. After a hurried and vain endeavor to thrust it in a drawer, she was forced to place it, open as it was, upon a table. The address, however, was uppermost, and, the contents thus unexposed, the letter escaped notice. At this juncture enters the Minister D—. His lynx eye immediately perceives the paper, recognises the handwriting of the address, observes the confusion of the personage addressed, and fathoms her secret. After some business transactions, hurried through in his ordinary manner, he produces a letter somewhat similar to the one in question, opens it, pretends to read it, and then places it in close juxtaposition to the other. Again he converses, for some fifteen minutes, upon the public affairs. At length, in taking leave, he takes also from the table the letter to which he had no claim. Its rightful owner saw, but, of course, dared not call attention to the act, in the presence of the third personage who stood at her elbow. The minister decamped; leaving his own letter—one of no importance—upon the table.”
“Here, then,” said Dupin to me, “you have precisely what you demand to make the ascendancy complete—the robber’s knowledge of the loser’s knowledge of the robber.”
“Yes,” replied the Prefect; “and the power thus attained has, for some months past, been wielded, for political purposes, to a very dangerous extent. The personage robbed is more thoroughly convinced, every day, of the necessity of reclaiming her letter. But this, of course, cannot be done openly. In fine, driven to despair, she has committed the matter to me.”
“Than whom,” said Dupin, amid a perfect whirlwind of smoke, “no more sagacious agent could, I suppose, be desired, or even imagined.”
“You flatter me,” replied the Prefect; “but it is possible that some such opinion may have been entertained.”
“It is clear,” said I, “as you observe, that the letter is still in possession of the minister; since it is this possession, and not any employment of the letter, which bestows the power. With the employment the power departs.”
“True,” said G.; “and upon this conviction I proceeded. My first care was to make thorough search of the minister’s hotel; and here my chief embarrassment lay in the necessity of searching without his knowledge. Beyond all things, I have been warned of the danger which would result from giving him reason to suspect our design.”
“But,” said I, “you are quite au fait in these investigations. The Parisian police have done this thing often before.”
“O yes; and for this reason I did not despair. The habits of the minister gave me, too, a great advantage. He is frequently absent from home all night. His servants are by no means numerous. They sleep at a distance from their master’s apartment, and, being chiefly Neapolitans, are readily made drunk. I have keys, as you know, with which I can open any chamber or cabinet in Paris. For three months a night has not passed, during the greater part of which I have not been engaged, personally, in ransacking the D— Hotel. My honor is interested, and, to mention a great secret, the reward is enormous. So I did not abandon the search until I had become fully satisfied that the thief is a more astute man than myself. I fancy that I have investigated every nook and corner of the premises in which it is possible that the paper can be concealed.”
“But is it not possible,” I suggested, “that although the letter may be in possession of the minister, as it unquestionably is, he may have concealed it elsewhere than upon his own premises?”
“This is barely possible,” said Dupin. “The present peculiar condition of affairs at court, and especially of those intrigues in which D— is known to be involved, would render the instant availability of the document—its susceptibility of being produced at a moment’s notice—a point of nearly equal importance with its possession.”
“Its susceptibility of being produced?” said I.
“That is to say, of being destroyed,” said Dupin.
“True,” I observed; “the paper is clearly then upon the premises. As for its being upon the person of the minister, we may consider that as out of the question.”
“Entirely,” said the Prefect. “He has been twice waylaid, as if by footpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection.”
“You might have spared yourself this trouble,” said Dupin. “D—, I presume, is not altogether a fool, and, if not, must have anticipated these waylayings, as a matter of course.”
“Not altogether a fool,” said G., “but then he’s a poet, which I take to be only one remove from a fool.”
“True,” said Dupin, after a long and thoughtful whiff from his meerschaum, “although I have been guilty of certain doggrel myself.”
“Suppose you detail,” said I, “the particulars of your search.”
“Why the fact is, we took our time, and we searched every where. I have had long experience in these affairs. I took the entire building, room by room; devoting the nights of a whole week to each. We examined, first, the furniture of each apartment. We opened every possible drawer; and I presume you know that, to a properly trained police agent, such a thing as a secret drawer is impossible. Any man is a dolt who permits a ‘secret’ drawer to escape him in a search of this kind. The thing is so plain. There is a certain amount of bulk—of space—to be accounted for in every cabinet. Then we have accurate rules. The fiftieth part of a line could not escape us. After the cabinets we took the chairs. The cushions we probed with the fine long needles you have seen me employ. From the tables we removed the tops.”
“Sometimes the top of a table, or other similarly arranged piece of furniture, is removed by the person wishing to conceal an article; then the leg is excavated, the article deposited within the cavity, and the top replaced. The bottoms and tops of bedposts are employed in the same way.”
“But could not the cavity be detected by sounding?” I asked.
“By no means, if, when the article is deposited, a sufficient wadding of cotton be placed around it. Besides, in our case, we were obliged to proceed without noise.”
“But you could not have removed—you could not have taken to pieces all articles of furniture in which it would have been possible to make a deposit in the manner you mention. A letter may be compressed into a thin spiral roll, not differing much in shape or bulk from a large knitting-needle, and in this form it might be inserted into the rung of a chair, for example. You did not take to pieces all the chairs?”
“Certainly not; but we did better—we examined the rungs of every chair in the hotel, and, indeed the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly. A single grain of gimlet-dust, for example, would have been as obvious as an apple. Any disorder in the glueing—any unusual gaping in the joints—would have sufficed to insure detection.”
“I presume you looked to the mirrors, between the boards and the plates, and you probed the beds and the bed-clothes, as well as the curtains and carpets.”
“That of course; and when we had absolutely completed every particle of the furniture in this way, then we examined the house itself. We divided its entire surface into compartments, which we numbered, so that none might be missed; then we scrutinized each individual square inch throughout the premises, including the two houses immediately adjoining, with the microscope, as before.”
“The two houses adjoining!” I exclaimed; “you must have had a great deal of trouble.”
“We had; but the reward offered is prodigious!”
“You include the grounds about the houses?”
“All the grounds are paved with brick. They gave us comparatively little trouble. We examined the moss between the bricks, and found it undisturbed.”
“You looked among D—‘s papers, of course, and into the books of the library?”
“Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume, not contenting ourselves with a mere shake, according to the fashion of some of our police officers. We also measured the thickness of every book-cover, with the most accurate admeasurement, and applied to each the most jealous scrutiny of the microscope. Had any of the bindings been recently meddled with, it would have been utterly impossible that the fact should have escaped observation. Some five or six volumes, just from the hands of the binder, we carefully probed, longitudinally, with the needles.”
“You explored the floors beneath the carpets?”
“Beyond doubt. We removed every carpet, and examined the boards with the microscope.”
“And the paper on the walls?”
“You looked into the cellars?”
“Then,” I said, “you have been making a miscalculation, and the letter is not upon the premises, as you suppose.”
“I fear you are right there,” said the Prefect. “And now, Dupin, what would you advise me to do?”
“To make a thorough re-search of the premises.”
“That is absolutely needless,” replied G—. “I am not more sure that I breathe than I am that the letter is not at the Hotel.”
“I have no better advice to give you,” said Dupin. “You have, of course, an accurate description of the letter?”
“Oh yes!”—And here the Prefect, producing a memorandum-book proceeded to read aloud a minute account of the internal, and especially of the external appearance of the missing document. Soon after finishing the perusal of this description, he took his departure, more entirely depressed in spirits than I had ever known the good gentleman before. In about a month afterwards he paid us another visit, and found us occupied very nearly as before. He took a pipe and a chair and entered into some ordinary conversation. At length I said,—
“Well, but G—, what of the purloined letter? I presume you have at last made up your mind that there is no such thing as overreaching the Minister?”
“Confound him, say I—yes; I made the re-examination, however, as Dupin suggested—but it was all labor lost, as I knew it would be.”
“How much was the reward offered, did you say?” asked Dupin.
“Why, a very great deal—a very liberal reward—I don’t like to say how much, precisely; but one thing I will say, that I wouldn’t mind giving my individual check for fifty thousand francs to any one who could obtain me that letter. The fact is, it is becoming of more and more importance every day; and the reward has been lately doubled. If it were trebled, however, I could do no more than I have done.”
“Why, yes,” said Dupin, drawlingly, between the whiffs of his meerschaum, “I really—think, G—, you have not exerted yourself—to the utmost in this matter. You might—do a little more, I think, eh?”
“How?—in what way?’
“Why—puff, puff—you might—puff, puff—employ counsel in the matter, eh?—puff, puff, puff. Do you remember the story they tell of Abernethy?”
“No; hang Abernethy!”
“To be sure! hang him and welcome. But, once upon a time, a certain rich miser conceived the design of spunging upon this Abernethy for a medical opinion. Getting up, for this purpose, an ordinary conversation in a private company, he insinuated his case to the physician, as that of an imaginary individual.
“‘We will suppose,’ said the miser, ‘that his symptoms are such and such; now, doctor, what would you have directed him to take?’
“‘Take!’ said Abernethy, ‘why, take advice, to be sure.’”
“But,” said the Prefect, a little discomposed, “I am perfectly willing to take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty thousand francs to any one who would aid me in the matter.”
“In that case,” replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producing a check-book, “you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letter.”
I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely thunder-stricken. For some minutes he remained speechless and motionless, looking incredulously at my friend with open mouth, and eyes that seemed starting from their sockets; then, apparently recovering himself in some measure, he seized a pen, and after several pauses and vacant stares, finally filled up and signed a check for fifty thousand francs, and handed it across the table to Dupin. The latter examined it carefully and deposited it in his pocket-book; then, unlocking an escritoire, took thence a letter and gave it to the Prefect. This functionary grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check.
When he had gone, my friend entered into some explanations.
“The Parisian police,” he said, “are exceedingly able in their way. They are persevering, ingenious, cunning, and thoroughly versed in the knowledge which their duties seem chiefly to demand. Thus, when G— detailed to us his mode of searching the premises at the Hotel D—, I felt entire confidence in his having made a satisfactory investigation—so far as his labors extended.”
“So far as his labors extended?” said I.
“Yes,” said Dupin. “The measures adopted were not only the best of their kind, but carried out to absolute perfection. Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it.”
I merely laughed—but he seemed quite serious in all that he said.
“The measures, then,” he continued, “were good in their kind, and well executed; their defect lay in their being inapplicable to the case, and to the man. A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow, for the matter in hand; and many a schoolboy is a better reasoner than he. I knew one about eight years of age, whose success at guessing in the game of ‘even and odd’ attracted universal admiration. This game is simple, and is played with marbles. One player holds in his hand a number of these toys, and demands of another whether that number is even or odd. If the guess is right, the guesser wins one; if wrong, he loses one. The boy to whom I allude won all the marbles of the school. Of course he had some principle of guessing; and this lay in mere observation and admeasurement of the astuteness of his opponents. For example, an arrant simpleton is his opponent, and, holding up his closed hand, asks, ‘are they even or odd?’ Our schoolboy replies, ‘odd,’ and loses; but upon the second trial he wins, for he then says to himself, ‘the simpleton had them even upon the first trial, and his amount of cunning is just sufficient to make him have them odd upon the second; I will therefore guess odd;’—he guesses odd, and wins. Now, with a simpleton a degree above the first, he would have reasoned thus: ‘This fellow finds that in the first instance I guessed odd, and, in the second, he will propose to himself, upon the first impulse, a simple variation from even to odd, as did the first simpleton; but then a second thought will suggest that this is too simple a variation, and finally he will decide upon putting it even as before. I will therefore guess even;’—he guesses even, and wins. Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed ‘lucky,’—what, in its last analysis, is it?”
“It is merely,” I said, “an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.”
“It is,” said Dupin; “and, upon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received answer as follows: ‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.’ This response of the schoolboy lies at the bottom of all the spurious profundity which has been attributed to Rochefoucault, to La Bougive, to Machiavelli, and to Campanella.”
“And the identification,” I said, “of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent, depends, if I understand you aright, upon the accuracy with which the opponent’s intellect is admeasured.”
“For its practical value it depends upon this,” replied Dupin; “and the Prefect and his cohort fail so frequently, first, by default of this identification, and, secondly, by ill-admeasurement, or rather through non-admeasurement, of the intellect with which they are engaged. They consider only their own ideas of ingenuity; and, in searching for anything hidden, advert only to the modes in which they would have hidden it. They are right in this much—that their own ingenuity is a faithful representative of that of the mass; but when the cunning of the individual felon is diverse in character from their own, the felon foils them, of course. This always happens when it is above their own, and very usually when it is below. They have no variation of principle in their investigations; at best, when urged by some unusual emergency—by some extraordinary reward—they extend or exaggerate their old modes of practice, without touching their principles. What, for example, in this case of D—, has been done to vary the principle of action? What is all this boring, and probing, and sounding, and scrutinizing with the microscope and dividing the surface of the building into registered square inches—what is it all but an exaggeration of the application of the one principle or set of principles of search, which are based upon the one set of notions regarding human ingenuity, to which the Prefect, in the long routine of his duty, has been accustomed? Do you not see he has taken it for granted that all men proceed to conceal a letter,—not exactly in a gimlet hole bored in a chair-leg—but, at least, in some out-of-the-way hole or corner suggested by the same tenor of thought which would urge a man to secrete a letter in a gimlet-hole bored in a chair-leg? And do you not see also, that such recherchés nooks for concealment are adapted only for ordinary occasions, and would be adopted only by ordinary intellects; for, in all cases of concealment, a disposal of the article concealed—a disposal of it in this recherché manner,—is, in the very first instance, presumable and presumed; and thus its discovery depends, not at all upon the acumen, but altogether upon the mere care, patience, and determination of the seekers; and where the case is of importance—or, what amounts to the same thing in the policial eyes, when the reward is of magnitude,—the qualities in question have never been known to fail. You will now understand what I meant in suggesting that, had the purloined letter been hidden any where within the limits of the Prefect’s examination—in other words, had the principle of its concealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect—its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyond question. This functionary, however, has been thoroughly mystified; and the remote source of his defeat lies in the supposition that the Minister is a fool, because he has acquired renown as a poet. All fools are poets; this the Prefect feels; and he is merely guilty of a non distributio medii in thence inferring that all poets are fools.”
“But is this really the poet?” I asked. “There are two brothers, I know; and both have attained reputation in letters. The Minister I believe has written learnedly on the Differential Calculus. He is a mathematician, and no poet.”
“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”
“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”
“‘Il y a à parièr,’” replied Dupin, quoting from Chamfort, “‘que toute idée publique, toute convention reçue est une sottise, car elle a convenue au plus grand nombre.’ The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra. The French are the originators of this particular deception; but if a term is of any importance—if words derive any value from applicability—then ‘analysis’ conveys ‘algebra’ about as much as, in Latin, ‘ambitus’ implies ‘ambition,’ ‘religio’ ‘religion,’ or ‘homines honesti,’ a set of honorablemen.”
“You have a quarrel on hand, I see,” said I, “with some of the algebraists of Paris; but proceed.”
“I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra, are abstract or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues, from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be. Bryant, in his very learned ‘Mythology,’ mentions an analogous source of error, when he says that ‘although the Pagan fables are not believed, yet we forget ourselves continually, and make inferences from them as existing realities.’ With the algebraists, however, who are Pagans themselves, the ‘Pagan fables’ are believed, and the inferences are made, not so much through lapse of memory, as through an unaccountable addling of the brains. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who could be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x2+px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x2+px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.
“I mean to say,” continued Dupin, while I merely laughed at his last observations, “that if the Minister had been no more than a mathematician, the Prefect would have been under no necessity of giving me this check. I know him, however, as both mathematician and poet, and my measures were adapted to his capacity, with reference to the circumstances by which he was surrounded. I knew him as a courtier, too, and as a bold intriguant. Such a man, I considered, could not fail to be aware of the ordinary policial modes of action. He could not have failed to anticipate—and events have proved that he did not fail to anticipate—the waylayings to which he was subjected. He must have foreseen, I reflected, the secret investigations of his premises. His frequent absences from home at night, which were hailed by the Prefect as certain aids to his success, I regarded only as ruses, to afford opportunity for thorough search to the police, and thus the sooner to impress them with the conviction to which G—, in fact, did finally arrive—the conviction that the letter was not upon the premises. I felt, also, that the whole train of thought, which I was at some pains in detailing to you just now, concerning the invariable principle of policial action in searches for articles concealed—I felt that this whole train of thought would necessarily pass through the mind of the Minister. It would imperatively lead him to despise all the ordinary nooks of concealment. He could not, I reflected, be so weak as not to see that the most intricate and remote recess of his hotel would be as open as his commonest closets to the eyes, to the probes, to the gimlets, and to the microscopes of the Prefect. I saw, in fine, that he would be driven, as a matter of course, to simplicity, if not deliberately induced to it as a matter of choice. You will remember, perhaps, how desperately the Prefect laughed when I suggested, upon our first interview, that it was just possible this mystery troubled him so much on account of its being so very self-evident.”
“Yes,” said I, “I remember his merriment well. I really thought he would have fallen into convulsions.”
“The material world,” continued Dupin, “abounds with very strict analogies to the immaterial; and thus some color of truth has been given to the rhetorical dogma, that metaphor, or simile, may be made to strengthen an argument, as well as to embellish a description. The principle of the vis inertiæ, for example, seems to be identical in physics and metaphysics. It is not more true in the former, that a large body is with more difficulty set in motion than a smaller one, and that its subsequent momentum is commensurate with this difficulty, than it is, in the latter, that intellects of the vaster capacity, while more forcible, more constant, and more eventful in their movements than those of inferior grade, are yet the less readily moved, and more embarrassed and full of hesitation in the first few steps of their progress. Again: have you ever noticed which of the street signs, over the shop-doors, are the most attractive of attention?”
“I have never given the matter a thought,” I said.
“There is a game of puzzles,” he resumed, “which is played upon a map. One party playing requires another to find a given word—the name of town, river, state or empire—any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other. These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat above or beneath the understanding of the Prefect. He never once thought it probable, or possible, that the Minister had deposited the letter immediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of best preventing any portion of that world from perceiving it.
“But the more I reflected upon the daring, dashing, and discriminating ingenuity of D—; upon the fact that the document must always have been at hand, if he intended to use it to good purpose; and upon the decisive evidence, obtained by the Prefect, that it was not hidden within the limits of that dignitary’s ordinary search—the more satisfied I became that, to conceal this letter, the Minister had resorted to the comprehensive and sagacious expedient of not attempting to conceal it at all.
“Full of these ideas, I prepared myself with a pair of green spectacles, and called one fine morning, quite by accident, at the Ministerial hotel. I found D— at home, yawning, lounging, and dawdling, as usual, and pretending to be in the last extremity of ennui. He is, perhaps, the most really energetic human being now alive—but that is only when nobody sees him.
“To be even with him, I complained of my weak eyes, and lamented the necessity of the spectacles, under cover of which I cautiously and thoroughly surveyed the whole apartment, while seemingly intent only upon the conversation of my host.
“I paid especial attention to a large writing-table near which he sat, and upon which lay confusedly, some miscellaneous letters and other papers, with one or two musical instruments and a few books. Here, however, after a long and very deliberate scrutiny, I saw nothing to excite particular suspicion.
“At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle—as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had a large black seal, bearing the D— cipher very conspicuously, and was addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D—, the minister, himself. It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the uppermost divisions of the rack.
“No sooner had I glanced at this letter, than I concluded it to be that of which I was in search. To be sure, it was, to all appearance, radically different from the one of which the Prefect had read us so minute a description. Here the seal was large and black, with the D— cipher; there it was small and red, with the ducal arms of the S— family. Here, the address, to the Minister, diminutive and feminine; there the superscription, to a certain royal personage, was markedly bold and decided; the size alone formed a point of correspondence. But, then, the radicalness of these differences, which was excessive; the dirt; the soiled and torn condition of the paper, so inconsistent with the true methodical habits of D—, and so suggestive of a design to delude the beholder into an idea of the worthlessness of the document; these things, together with the hyper-obtrusive situation of this document, full in the view of every visiter, and thus exactly in accordance with the conclusions to which I had previously arrived; these things, I say, were strongly corroborative of suspicion, in one who came with the intention to suspect.
“I protracted my visit as long as possible, and, while I maintained a most animated discussion with the Minister upon a topic which I knew well had never failed to interest and excite him, I kept my attention really riveted upon the letter. In this examination, I committed to memory its external appearance and arrangement in the rack; and also fell, at length, upon a discovery which set at rest whatever trivial doubt I might have entertained. In scrutinizing the edges of the paper, I observed them to be more chafed than seemed necessary. They presented the broken appearance which is manifested when a stiff paper, having been once folded and pressed with a folder, is refolded in a reversed direction, in the same creases or edges which had formed the original fold. This discovery was sufficient. It was clear to me that the letter had been turned, as a glove, inside out, re-directed, and re-sealed. I bade the Minister good morning, and took my departure at once, leaving a gold snuff-box upon the table.
“The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we resumed, quite eagerly, the conversation of the preceding day. While thus engaged, however, a loud report, as if of a pistol, was heard immediately beneath the windows of the hotel, and was succeeded by a series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a terrified mob. D— rushed to a casement, threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I stepped to the card-rack, took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I had carefully prepared at my lodgings—imitating the D— cipher, very readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.
“The disturbance in the street had been occasioned by the frantic behavior of a man with a musket. He had fired it among a crowd of women and children. It proved, however, to have been without ball, and the fellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a drunkard. When he had gone, D— came from the window, whither I had followed him immediately upon securing the object in view. Soon afterwards I bade him farewell. The pretended lunatic was a man in my own pay.”
“But what purpose had you,” I asked, “in replacing the letter by a fac-simile? Would it not have been better, at the first visit, to have seized it openly, and departed?”
“D—,” replied Dupin, “is a desperate man, and a man of nerve. His hotel, too, is not without attendants devoted to his interests. Had I made the wild attempt you suggest, I might never have left the Ministerial presence alive. The good people of Paris might have heard of me no more. But I had an object apart from these considerations. You know my political prepossessions. In this matter, I act as a partisan of the lady concerned. For eighteen months the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers—since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his political destruction. His downfall, too, will not be more precipitate than awkward. It is all very well to talk about the facilis descensus Averni; but in all kinds of climbing, as Catalani said of singing, it is far more easy to get up than to come down. In the present instance I have no sympathy—at least no pity—for him who descends. He is that monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius. I confess, however, that I should like very well to know the precise character of his thoughts, when, being defied by her whom the Prefect terms ‘a certain personage’ he is reduced to opening the letter which I left for him in the card-rack.”
“How? did you put any thing particular in it?”
“Why—it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior blank—that would have been insulting. D—, at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it a pity not to give him a clue. He is well acquainted with my MS., and I just copied into the middle of the blank sheet the words—
“‘— — Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atrée, est digne de Thyeste. They are to be found in Crebillon’s ‘Atrée.’”
“In the year 17__, having for some time determined on a journey through countries not hitherto much frequented by travellers, I set out, accompanied by a friend, whom I shall designate by the name of Augustus Darvell. He was a few years my elder, and a man of considerable fortune and ancient family: advantages which an extensive capacity prevented him alike from undervaluing or overrating. Some peculiar circumstances in his private history had rendered him to me an object of attention, of interest, and even of regard, which neither the reserve of his manners, nor occasional indications of an inquietude at times nearly approaching to alienation of mind, could extinguish.
“I was yet young in life, which I had begun early; but my intimacy with him was of a recent date: we had been educated at the same schools and university; but his progress through these had preceded mine, and he had been deeply initiated into what is called the world, while I was yet in my novitiate. While thus engaged, I heard much both of his past and present life; and, although in these accounts there were many and irreconcilable contradictions, I could still gather from the whole that he was a being of no common order, and one who, whatever pains he might take to avoid remark, would still be remarkable. I had cultivated his acquaintance subsequently, and endeavoured to obtain his friendship, but this last appeared to be unattainable; whatever affections he might have possessed seemed now, some to have been extinguished, and others to be concentred: that his feeling were acute, I had sufficient opportunities of observing; for, although he could control, he could not altogether disguise them: still he had a power of giving to one passion the appearance of another, in such a manner that it was difficult to define the nature of what was working within him; and the expressions of his features would vary so rapidly, though slightly, that it was useless to trace them to their sources. It was evident that he was a prey to some cureless disquiet; but whether it arose from ambition, love, remorse, grief, from one or all of these, or merely from a morbid temperament akin to disease, I could not discover: there were circumstances alleged which might have justified the application to each of these causes; but, as I have before said, these were so contradictory and contradicted, that none could be fixed upon with accuracy. Where there is mystery, it is generally supposed that there must also be evil: I know not how this may be, but in him there certainly was the one, though I could not ascertain the extent of the other – and felt loth, as far as regarded himself, to believe in its existence. My advances were received with sufficient coldness: but I was young, and not easily discouraged, and at length succeeded in obtaining, to a certain degree, that common-place intercourse and moderate confidence of common and every-day concerns, created and cemented by similarity of pursuit and frequency of meeting, which is called intimacy, or friendship, according to the ideas of him who uses those words to express them.
“Darvell had already travelled extensively; and to him I had applied for information with regard to the conduct of my intended journey. It was my secret wish that he might be prevailed on to accompany me; it was also a probable hope, founded upon the shadowy restlessness which I observed in him, and to which the animation which he appeared to feel on such subjects, and his apparent indifference to all by which he was more immediately surrounded, gave fresh strength. This which I first hinted, and then expressed: his answer, though I had partly expected it, gave me all the pleasure of surprise – he consented; and, after the requisite arrangement, we commenced our voyages. After journeying through various countries of the south of Europe, our attention was turned towards the East, according to our original destination; and it was in my progress through these regions that the incident occurred upon which will turn what I may have to relate.
“The constitution of Darvell, which must from his appearance have been in early life more than usually robust, had been for some time gradually giving away, without the intervention of any apparent disease: he had neither cough nor hectic, yet he became daily more enfeebled; his habits were temperate, and he neither declined nor complained of fatigue; yet he was evidently wasting away: he became more and more silent and sleepless, and at length so seriously altered, that my alarm grew proportionate to what I conceived to be his danger.
“We had determined, on our arrival at Smyrna on an excursion to the ruins of Ephesus and Sardis, from which I endeavoured to dissuade him in his present state of indisposition – but in vain: there appeared to be an oppression on his mind, and a solemnity in his manner, which ill corresponded with his eagerness to proceed on what I regarded as a mere party of pleasure little suited to a valetudinarian; but I opposed him no longer – and in a few days we set off together, accompanied only by a serrugee and a single janizary.
“We had passed halfway towards the remains of Ephesus, leaving behind us the more fertile environs of Smyrna, and were entering upon that wild and tenantless tract through the marshes and defiles which lead to the few huts yet lingering over the broken columns of Diana – the roofless walls of expelled Christianity, and the still more recent but complete desolation of abandoned mosques – when the sudden and rapid illness of my companion obliged us to halt at a Turkish cemetery, the turbaned tombstones of which were the sole indication that human life had ever been a sojourner in the wilderness. The only caravansera we had seen was left some hours behind us, not a vestige of a town or even cottage was within sight or hope, and this ‘city of the dead’ appeared to be the sole refuge of my unfortunate friend, who seemed on the verge of becoming the last of its inhabitants.
“In this situation, I looked round for a place where he might most conveniently repose: – contrary to the usual aspect of Mahometan burial-grounds, the cypresses were in this few in number, and these thinly scattered over its extent; the tombstones were mostly fallen, and worn with age: – upon one of the most considerable of these, and beneath one of the most spreading trees, Darvell supported himself, in a half-reclining posture, with great difficulty. He asked for water. I had some doubts of our being able to find any, and prepared to go in search of it with hesitating despondency: but he desired me to remain; and turning to Suleiman, our janizary, who stood by us smoking with great tranquility, he said, ‘Suleiman, verbana su,’ (i.e. ‘Bring some water,’) and went on describing the spot where it was to be found with great minuteness, at a small well for camels, a few hundred yards to the right: the janizary obeyed. I said to Darvell, ‘How did you know this?’ – He replied, ‘From our situation; you must perceive that this place was once inhabited, and could not have been so without springs: I have also been here before.’
“‘You have been here before! – How came you never to mention this to me? and what could you be doing in a place where no one would remain a moment longer than they could help it?’
“To this question I received no answer. In the mean time Suleiman returned with the water, leaving the serrugee and the horses at the fountain. The quenching of his thirst had the appearance of reviving him for a moment; and I conceived hopes of his being able to proceed, or at least to return, and I urged the attempt. He was silent – and appeared to be collecting his spirits for an effort to speak. He began –
“‘This is the end of my journey, and of my life; – I came here to die; but I have a request to make, a command – for such my last words must be. – You will observe it?’
“‘Most certainly; but I have better hopes.’
“‘I have no hopes, nor wishes, but this – conceal my death from every human being.’
“‘I hope there will be no occasion; that you will recover, and –’
“‘Peace! – it must be so: promise this.’
“‘Swear it, by all that –’ He here dictated an oath of great solemnity.
“‘There is no occasion for this. I will observe your request; and to doubt me is –-‘
“‘It cannot be helped, – you must swear.’
“I took the oath, it appeared to relieve him. He removed a seal ring from his finger, on which were some Arabic characters, and presented it to me. He proceeded –
“‘On the ninth day of the month, at noon precisely (what month you please, but this must be the day), you must fling this ring into the salt springs which run into the Bay of Eleusis; the day after, at the same hour, you must repair to the ruins of the temple of Ceres, and wait one hour.’
“‘You will see.’
“‘The ninth day of the month, you say?’
“As I observed that the present was the ninth day of the month, his countenance changed, and he paused. As he sat, evidently becoming more feeble, a stork, with a snake in her beak, perched upon a tombstone near us; and, without devouring her prey, appeared to be steadfastly regarding us. I know not what impelled me to drive it away, but the attempt was useless; she made a few circles in the air, and returned exactly to the same spot. Darvell pointed to it, and smiled – he spoke – I know not whether to himself or to me – but the words were only, ”Tis well!’
“‘What is well? What do you mean?’
“‘No matter; you must bury me here this evening, and exactly where that bird is now perched. You know the rest of my injunctions.’
“He then proceeded to give me several directions as to the manner in which his death might be best concealed. After these were finished, he exclaimed, ‘You perceive that bird?’
“‘And the serpent writhing in her beak?’
“‘Doubtless: there is nothing uncommon in it; it is her natural prey. But it is odd that she does not devour it.’
“He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly, ‘It is not yet time!’ As he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment – it could hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell’s weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead!
“I was shocked with the sudden certainty which could not be mistaken – his countenance in a few minutes became nearly black. I should have attributed so rapid a change to poison, had I not been aware that he had no opportunity of receiving it unperceived. The day was declining, the body was rapidly altering, and nothing remained but to fulfil his request. With the aid of Suleiman’s ataghan and my own sabre, we scooped a shallow grave upon the spot which Darvell had indicated: the earth easily gave way, having already received some Mahometan tenant. We dug as deeply as the time permitted us, and throwing the dry earth upon all that remained of the singular being so lately departed, we cut a few sods of greener turf from the less withered soil around us, and laid them upon his sepulchre.
“Between astonishment and grief, I was tearless.”
June 17, 1816.
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—“Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—“It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.
It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
There are roosters around here somewhere.
Kneeling, with my head down and covered with a filthy rag, I concentrate on hearing the roosters, how many there are, if they’re in cages or a corral. Papa raised fighting cocks, and, since he didn’t have anyone to leave me with, he took me to the fights. The first few times I cried when I saw the poor rooster torn to bits in the sand and he laughed and called me prissy.
At night, giant vampire roosters devoured my insides, I would scream and he’d come running to my bed and again he’d call me prissy.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cocks, dammit.”
Eventually, I stopped crying when I saw the hot guts of the losing rooster in the dust. I was the one who cleaned up the ball of feathers and viscera and carried it to the trash bin. I would say: bye rooster, be happy in heaven where there are thousands of worms and fields and corn and families that love roosters. On the way, some cock fighter would always give me a piece of candy or a coin to touch me or kiss me or for me to touch him or kiss him. I was afraid that, if I told Papa, he’d call me prissy again.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.”
One night, a rooster’s belly exploded as I was carrying it in my arms like a doll and I discovered that those macho men who shouted and jeered for one rooster to rip open the other were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that nonsense anymore.
They said to my papa:
“Your daughter is a monster.”
And he responded that they were the monsters and they clinked their shot glasses.
“You’re the monster. Salud.”
The smell inside the cockpit was disgusting. Sometimes I fell asleep in a corner, under the stands, and woke up with one of those men looking at my underwear beneath my school uniform. That’s why before falling asleep I stuck a rooster head between my legs. One or several. A belt of rooster heads. Those machos didn’t like lifting up my skirt to find little severed heads.
Sometimes, Papa would wake me up to clear away a gutted rooster. Sometimes, he did it himself and his friends asked him why the hell he brought his daughter if he was such a fag. He would gather the ruined and bloody rooster. From the door he blew them a kiss. His friends laughed.
I know that here, somewhere, there are roosters, because I’d recognize that smell from a thousand kilometers. The smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease. You wouldn’t have to be very intelligent to tell that this is an underground joint, a place hidden away who knows where, and that I’m well and properly fucked.
A man speaks. He must be around forty. I imagine him fat, bald and dirty, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, shorts, and flip-flops; I imagine his pinky and thumbnails are long. He speaks in the plural. There’s someone else here besides me. There are other people on their knees here, with their heads ducked, covered in a disgusting dark cloth.
“Let’s see, let’s all calm down now, the first sonofabitch who makes a single sound I’ll put a bullet in his head. If we all work together, we’ll all make it through the night in one piece.”
I feel his stomach against my head and then the butt of a gun. No, he’s not joking.
A girl cries a few meters to my right. I suppose she couldn’t handle the feeling of the gun at her temple. The sound of a slap.
“Look, princess. No one cries on me, you hear? Or are you in a big hurry to meet sweet baby Jesus?”
Later, the fat man with the gun walks away. He’s gone to talk on the phone. He says a number: six, six motherfuckers. He also says there’s a good selection, very good, the best in months. He says they won’t want to miss it. He makes one call after another. He forgets, for a while, about us.
Beside me, I hear a cough muffled by the hood, a man’s cough.
“I’ve heard about this,” he says, very softly. “I thought it was a lie and urban legend. They’re called auctions. The taxi drivers pick up passengers they think they’ll be able to get good money for and they kidnap them. Then the buyers come and bid for their favorites. And they take them. They keep their things, they force them to steal, to let them into their houses, to give them their credit card numbers. And the women. The women.”
“What?” I ask.
He hears that I’m a woman. He goes quiet.
The first thing I thought when I got in the taxi that night was finally. I rested my head on the seat and closed my eyes. I’d had several drinks and I was depressed. I’d been at the bar with a man I had to pretend to be friends with. With him and his wife. I always pretend. I’m good at pretending. But when I got in the taxi I sighed and I said to myself What a relief: now I can go home and cry my eyes out. I think I fell asleep for a minute, and suddenly, when I opened my eyes, I was in some unfamiliar place. An industrial area. Empty. Darkness. My brain boiled with fear: they just fucked you over for life.
The taxi driver pulled out a gun, he looked me in the eye, he said with ridiculous politeness: “We’ve reached your destination, miss.”
What followed was quick. Someone opened the door before I could lock it, they wrapped the cloth around my head, they tied my hands and shoved me into a kind of garage that smelled like a rotting cockpit and they made me kneel in a corner.
The sound of conversations. The fat man and someone else and then someone else and someone else. People keep coming. The sound of laughter and beers being opened. The smell of marijuana and some other shit with a spicy smell. The man next to me stopped telling me to keep calm. He must be saying it to himself.
He mentioned before that he had an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old son. He must be thinking about them. And about these junkies entering the gated community he lives in. Yes, that’s what he’s thinking about. About waving to the guard like he does whenever his car’s in the shop, while these animals sit in the back, ducking down. He’s going to take them to his house to meet his beautiful wife, his eight-month-old baby, and his three-year-old son. He’s going to take them to his house.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.
Further away, to the right, murmuring, a girl cries, I don’t know if it’s the same one who was crying before. The fat man shoots his gun and we all try to drop to the floor. He hasn’t shot us, he’s just shot. It doesn’t matter, the terror has ripped us in half. The fat man and his friends laugh. They come over to us, they move us into the center of the room.
“All right, gentlemen, ladies, tonight’s auction is officially open. So lovely, so well behaved, stand here for me. Closer, princess. Riiiiight there. Don’t be afraid, little mama, I don’t bite. Just like that. So that these gentlemen can choose which one of you they’re going to take. The rules, gentlemen, same as always: the most money gets the best prize. Put all your guns down over here for me, I’ll keep them safe till the auction’s over. Thank you. Delighted, as always, to have you.”
The fat man introduces us like he’s hosting a TV show. We can’t see them, but we know the men looking at us, sizing us up, are thieves. And rapists. They are definitely rapists. And murderers. They might be murderers. Or something worse.
“Laaaaaaadies and gentlemeeeeeen.”
The fat man doesn’t like the ones who whimper or the ones who say they have kids or the ones who shout desperately you don’t know who you’re messing with. No. He likes even less the ones who say he’s going to rot in jail. All these people, men and women alike, have received a punch to the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the roosters. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and roosters. Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.
“This man, what’s our first participant’s name? What? Speak up, friend. Ricardoooooo, welcoooome, he wears a nice watch and some niiiiiice Adidas shoes. Ricardooooo must have moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Let’s take a look at Ricardo’s wallet. Credit cards, ohhhhhh a Visa Goooooold by Messi.”
The fat man tells bad jokes.
They start to bid for Ricardo. Someone offers three hundred, another person eight hundred. The fat man adds that Ricardo lives in a gated community outside the city: Riverview.
“A view poor folks like us can’t even get a glimpse of. That’s where our friend Richie lives. We can call you Richie, can’t we? Like Richie Rich.”
A terrifying voice says five thousand. The terrifying voice takes Ricardo. The others applaud.
“Sold to the man with the moustache for five thousand!”
The fat man fondles Nancy, a girl who speaks with a thread of a voice. I know this because he says Look at these tits, how delicious, such perky nipples and he sucks up his drool and other things you don’t say without touching, and, also, who’s to stop him from touching her, no one. Nancy sounds young. Early twenties. She could be a nurse or a school teacher. The fat man undresses Nancy. We hear him unbuckle her belt and open her buttons and rip off her underwear, while she says please so many times and with so much terror that we all stain our filthy hoods with tears. Look at this little ass. Oh, what a beaut. The fat man licks Nancy, Nancy’s ass. We hear the sound. The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls.
“Gentlemen, this is just quality control. I give her a ten. You can clean her up real pretty and our friend Nancy will be a delight.”
She must be beautiful because they bid, immediately, two thousand, three, three thousand five hundred. Nancy goes for three thousand five. Sexy is cheaper than wealthy.
“And the lucky man taking this lovely ass home is the gentleman with the gold ring and the cross.”
We’re sold off one by one. The fat man managed to get everything out of the guy who was next to me, the one with the eight-month-old baby and the three-year-old son and now he’s a big fish for the auction: money in different accounts, high-up executive, son of a businessman, artwork, kids, wife. The guy is a winning lottery ticket. They’ll probably ask for ransom for him. The bid starts at five thousand. It goes up to ten, fifteen thousand. It stops at twenty. Someone no one else wants to mess with has offered twenty. A new voice. He’s come just for this. He wasn’t interested in wasting time with anything else.
The fat man doesn’t make any comments.
When it’s my turn I think about the roosters. I close my eyes and open my sphincter. This is the most important thing I will do in my life, so I’ll do it right. I soak my legs, my feet, the floor. I’m in the center of a room, surrounded by criminals, displayed before them like cattle and like cattle I empty my bowels. As best I can, I rub one leg against the other, I assume the position of a gutted doll. I scream like a madwoman. I shake my head, mutter obscenities, made up words, the things I said to the roosters about heaven full of corn and infinite worms. I know the fat man is about to shoot me.
But instead, he busts my lip open with a slap, I bite my tongue. The blood drips onto my chest, down my belly, mixes with the shit and piss. I start to laugh, deranged, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
The fat man doesn’t know what to do.
“How much for this monster?”
No one wants to bid.
The fat man offers up my watch, my cell phone, my purse. It’s all cheap, made in China. He grabs my tits in an attempt to encourage them and I shriek.
But nothing, no one.
They toss me into a patio. They hose me down and then they put me in a car that leaves me wet, barefoot, dazed, on the highway.
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction, came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—”
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic; he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention—but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window; they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall-door, the gravel-drive, and the front gate were dimly-noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid an imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window; “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
The news was brought by Darío, the baker’s son. We knew something had happened as soon as we saw him, standing up on his bike pedals, coming closer under the midday sun. Someone said, “Who could that be? Hey, it’s Darío!” We were sitting on the terrace, exhausted from the hot, still air that had settled in over the last week, and the sea-like hum of the fan was the only thing that could be heard. Across from me, Clara was dozing, her dress rolled up above her bony thighs, and her chest, like a scrawny, embalmed bird, was rising just enough to let a little air in. Next to her sat Mamá, dressed in black despite the sweltering heat wave. Her hair was pulled back with bobby pins and her bun looked like a poorly constructed tower. Farther away sat Gorda Teresa and her husband Jesus. They were both wearing new clothes as they liked to do on national holidays. She is in a sundress and him in a shirt Gorda had sewn for him with leftover fabric. That’s what I was thinking about just before someone, perhaps it was Gorda, spotted the bike on the road. Then Clara said, “Yep, it’s Darío.” We sat up a bit, though not enough to get up from our deck chairs. Mamá crossed herself, and the unease on all our faces was like a bad omen of things to come.
“Hilda, go fix something for the poor thing,” my mother said, with a nod of her head.
I slipped my feet into my sandals and slowly stood up. My bones creaked. Something inside of me seemed to resist the movement, threatening to snap like a dry branch. As I passed in front of the fan, with its light, warm air, I stopped for a minute to let the breeze hit my face and blow through my hair.
As he got closer, I could hear the sound of his tires on the gravel. I was waiting for him at the door, with a glass of lemonade in my hand. Darío stopped a few meters away from the house. He put one foot on the ground and hopped off the bike, which kicked up dust as it fell sideways. “Hi Señora Hilda,” he said from a distance. He was puffy from the heat and his eyes were sunken deep into his face, like two openings made by a blow. He was clutching a brown paper package. The sun was beating down strongly, and though I had sought refuge in the shaded line made by the eaves, I began to feel the wet hair on the back of my neck again, and the ruthless heat rising from the ground.
“What do you have there?” I asked him.
He took a few steps toward me, indecisive. The poor kid wasn’t sure if he should tell me the news first.
“Didn’t your mother tell you that you can get sick this time of day?”
He didn’t have the nerve to come closer, or maybe he didn’t know what to say, because he stood still in the ray of sunlight, straight and solemn like a soldier as the sweat dripped down his face and soaked his T-shirt.
“It’s sweet Christmas bread,” he said, and offered me the package, lifting it with both hands.
I motioned for him to come onto the porch.
“Here, do you want some lemonade?”
He nodded and moved closer with apprehensive steps. He gave me the package and once his hands were free, he wiped his forehead and eyes with outstretched palms and then took the glass. The package was burning hot and I could feel the flattened, sticky bread through the paper.
“Thank your mother,” I said, but I don’t know if he heard me, because the glass was covering his face up to his eyebrows as he swallowed the lemonade with a gulp.
When he finished, he looked up at me and spoke slowly, still out of breath.
“He’s back.” He looked down into the empty glass as if he were waiting for something. Then he rolled his tongue, which I imagined was cool and damp, and seemed to gather courage: “Señor Augusto told my mamá and she didn’t believe him but he said everyone saw him, and that he’s here, alive and kicking. That’s what Augusto told her, and that he’s on his way here, and that it was best to let Señora Luisa know so she doesn’t fall into a swoon.”
“Yes, a swoon,” he said again, and something in his eyes sparkled, the fleeting illusion that something terrible might happen.
“All right, I’ll tell her. Do you want another glass?”
He wavered, and then refused with his head and looked over at the bicycle lying in the road.
“Thank your mother for the bread. And don’t you worry, I’ll let Señora Luisa know.”
This seemed to calm him down. Maybe he was worried I’d drag him up to the terrace and force him to repeat those same words in front of my mother. And then the swoon, a fainting fit, an unrestrained shriek of happiness. Tears, perhaps. Her hands flung to the sky, her eyes blank, her tongue rolled back, stifling her dry throat. She no longer believed in miracles. And there was Darío, like an angel with his hot and rusty metallic wings.
I wasn’t surprised by the news, just as I hadn’t been surprised by the previous news of his faraway death. Maybe it’s because since I was little I had gotten used to imagining him dead, lying inside a coffin, not pale or cold, but as if he were sleeping, his head surrounded by flowers. It started the year they sent my mother to Misericordia Psychiatric Hospital. My sister and I were left in Fabio’s care. Clara was a baby, she doesn’t remember anything. But I remember the cold, and my body shivering under the stiff white sheet. I had to take a bath before I went to sleep, and thought Fabio would let me wash myself, he always stayed in the bathroom. To this day I shower with the radio on to avoid remembering that silence of the water. Afterwards, he’d wrap me in a big towel and dry me off. Sometimes, as I was trying to fall asleep, I’d imagine Fabio dead, with a crown of roses. Sometimes the coffin was the bathtub. Sometimes I was the only one keeping vigil over him.
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised. But Clara wept for him violently, exaggerating each rattle of her skeletal chest. She’d tell whoever would listen about the day Fabio had saved her from the collapse in the wood cabin. And who knows how many times I’d heard her say, “My brother was everything to me.” Mamá, silent and proud, restricted herself to dressing in mourning. And to this day, twelve years after that semblance of a funeral from afar, the black and worn-out clothing she had imposed on herself was still her way of showing everyone that she had the deepest, most unforgettable grief. But not me. I didn’t join the women’s chorus of lamenters, Gorda included, and deep down I always believed the only thing my brother wanted was to get away from us, from Mamá especially, and that the whole town thought he was some sort of victor or hero. Now he was turning into something more: a resurrected dead man who had come back full of great adventures and tales of how death had almost, unexpectedly, taken him away.
I stood there in the front entryway watching Darío ride away. I was holding the package with the soft, lumpy bread in one hand. In the other, the boy’s glass. The ice cubes had melted and I took advantage of the wet glass to cool off my forehead and neck. This time he set off down the slope and was barely visible, hidden now behind a cloud of dust. If I had been thinking about something, I don’t remember what it was. Sometimes thinking about a lot at the same time feels like not thinking about anything at all. I just know that I waited there for a long time. I waited, that is, even after there was no trace of the bicycle and the ground had started to settle again, now devoid of any mystery.
The sun didn’t reach the dining room, and the candles flickered on the altar in the cool and moldy darkness. The flames had stained the wall with soot and in the middle of the two black columns hung rosaries, photos of the Virgin, crosses, small bleeding hearts crowned with thorns. Below, on the sideboard, there was a collection of photos of Fabio at almost every age, surrounded by plastic flowers, holy cards, and prayers that relatives and friends had left: He was even more handsome dead than alive. Now we could love him even more. What would he be like now? Old. Maybe wounded, legless, fingerless, with a patch over one eye. Or haggard from the years, toothless, ravaged by the elements and all the lies like an abandoned tin can of peas. I thought of the can and saw myself shooting him in the chest. Three perfectly round holes, my aim spot on like before. The rifle was kept in the mahogany cabinet, right beneath the altar. I just had to turn the key and wait for him at the entrance to the property. After all, no one was expecting him. No one would go out looking for him. I could see it: an old and holey tin can, and through the holes, the memories slipping away, together with the last possibility of any return.
I left the glass in the kitchen, passed by the fan without stopping, climbed the steps with the same slowness with which I had come down, and slumped back into the chair. I slipped off a sandal with one foot, dropping it onto the wooden floor with a thud, then the other. Everyone waited in silence as I took them off.
“They sent us this bread,” I said and began to unwrap the package on my lap.
“Hilda,” said my mother.
Despite the brightness, her face was obscured by the shade.
The hot, smashed bread, wrinkled with cracks, now looked like an exposed brain, a terrible and painful flower.
“They sent us this bread,” I repeated, firmly, “and asked me to come over. The oldest daughter and her husband split up and the guy took everything: the furniture, money, everything. She’s devastated.”
“And what do you have to do with it?”
I shrugged my shoulders:
“They don’t have anyone else.”
Gorda drew in a quick breath as if she was going to say something but Jesus gestured to her to keep quiet. I looked up. In the distance, on the southernmost part of the road, a black figure, still imperceptible to the others, was slowly making its way toward us.
The giant is starting to rot and Minerval still has no news from the man that’s dreaming it. The programmer must be sick, she thinks: if he were dead the forest would dissolve and then the rest of the dream would too, like the time that old man’s brain turned off with her inside it. She can tell he’s sick because he’s not printing the objects she saves. As the giant rots, the objects fall apart as if they were living things too.
The programmer defines himself as such: I steal objects from people’s dreams and I print them in 3-D. That’s why he programmed Minerval, his pearl hunter in a sea of brains. She prefers to define herself as a cartographer of dreams: I can’t leave my world but I can broaden the limits of the map. Every night is an exploration as if smoke excreted from the pores of the hot soil allowing her to see only one step ahead of her. First, she expanded to the dreams of his neighbors in his apartment building, then the block down, then out into the neighborhood, but mostly she explores the dreams of the creator himself. Now his brain is failing, and Minerval doesn’t know what to do. She stumbled on the giant two nights ago, by chance, but in the terrain of dreams, chance is arguable. Now she finds her way back to it thanks to the smell. The giant fell on his side, in a clearing in the woods near a town of carpenters. His eye sockets are empty and full of ants. His eyes must’ve been the size of large beehives, all that remains now is a trace of bloody honey. A kid could sleep inside that cavity. Minerval tries to climb up the giant, but his flesh is slippery. It would be great to print the skull in actual size, she thinks. But how do I save it, and what titanic machine would be needed to print it out? Then she remembers: the programmer is sick, maybe dying, and all of this is his fever dream.
She’s frightened when the dream blinks in and out, as if a silent ray of sunlight were momentarily melting all the dream’s participants without their realizing it. The carpenters’ faces fall, the giant’s rotten flesh drips, the blackened trees collapse. For half a second everything blurs: the forest, the town, the animals and the rocks. Then everything goes back to normal without the living or the dead ever noticing, only she notices. These interruptions occur when the dreamer wakes up, and when he goes back to sleep. In the interim, the dreamer and his dream each carry on with their respective lives, and at night the dreamer returns again to the wide uncharted world of his dreams. Due to the frequency of the glitches, Minerval knows that the programmer is being startled from sleep again and again, without fully awakening from his swampy fever.
Ignorant to their precariousness, a handful of carpenters approach Minerval. We called a father from another town, they say, it took him a few days to get here. It’s an old man with no legs, carried along by his companions. He looks at her with curiosity for a second (What do they see when they look at me? Minerval wonders) and then he turns his gaze to the giant. Let me touch him, Father Niebla says. They set him on a tuft of pine needles near the giant’s mouth. With his hand covered in powder he touches the swollen tongue that sticks out from between the giant teeth. We have to bury the giant before it’s too late, Minerval tells him. He’s rotting and he’s going to poison everyone. That’s going to be hard, answers Father Niebla with tears in his eyes, because this giant was the god of this place. Without him there’s nothing and if he dies we’ll all die with him.
Where should I go? Minerval asks. Anywhere they know what we should do, answers Father Niebla. Before they carry him away he takes some knives and pliers from his apron. I’m a carpenter too, he says as he pulls out one of the god’s teeth. So they’ll believe you, he says. The tooth fills Minerval’s entire hand and it has holes in it. An interference in the dream momentarily liquefies the tooth, her arm, and the father, whose cranium melts then solidifies a second later without him noticing: he wishes her luck. So that it won’t be too heavy on the journey, once Minerval is alone she saves the tooth in the file with the objects she’s collected to be printed in 3-D. Father Niebla’s powder stains her hand, and as the hours pass her face and chest are marked with powder too.
She travels from the carpenters to the blacksmiths and from the blacksmiths to the fisherpeople, and then to a place the dreamer has never visited. The forest gives way to a rocky desert and the rocks finally slope down to the sea. Beyond that, a city rises up. In the boat provided by the fisherpeople, she finds a net made of fish bones which she saves. The programmer has instilled in her the joy of finding objects that have never existed before. The thing she likes most is a blanket made from bees that gather and scatter, a warm hive that protects whoever wears it. The bees are golden and they communicate with each other, and with Minerval. When it gets cold she puts it on. Lately, there are more and more holes in it. The climate inside each dream is random and doesn’t obey any rules that a program like Minerval can understand.
Her job is to burglarize dreams. Children’s dreams are the most fruitful, fast currents that pull her into caves full of hidden treasure. From these places come the best trophies: the oddest, most dangerous things, the things she keeps for herself. She has also explored animals, but their dreams are more confusing and they tend to break her code. After these visits, she returns to the main dream mentally muddled and physically exhausted, but the sophisticated pieces she sends to the printer are worth the effort.
The programmer sells the 3-D printed dreams and his clients buy them without really knowing why they find these strange objects so fascinating. They are at once decoration, tool, and art. From time to time, someone buys the product of their own dream and they place it, feeling both satisfied and disturbed, in some privileged spot in their apartment. When this happens Minerval makes a special nighttime visit: without exception, the object reappears in the dreams of its creator, but this time as an artifact from the real world. This is Minerval’s greatest pride, she can say: I made it real, I took it and introduced it into the world, I’m the real creator.
But ever since the programmer got sick she hasn’t been able to visit other people’s worlds: if he dies, like the giant, she will die with him. She’s willingly locked in this world, immense, but limited to only one person, her creator, and the constant contact feels suffocating. It’s an eternal, lethargic present tense, murky, and imbued with the smell of death from the god’s decayed tooth.
Have you ever dreamed again and again about a city on the horizon that only exists in your dreams? The programmer does, and Minerval reaches this city, in the blue hour between night and sunrise. The planks of the port are as hot as if it were midday. The programmer has glimpsed this city so often in dreams that the edges are frayed and gleaming, whereas the unexplored urban depths are a dull gray fog that Minerval illuminates with each step.
The city is walled and there’s no way to enter without being seen. The program makes it difficult to abandon her human form, presumably because the programmer wanted to prioritize the search for objects. The guard on shift opens the gate with a key that resembles an open hand. He’s drowsy from the suffocating heat and Minerval seizes the chance to steal the key from him after he locks the door behind her. The lengths some dreams will go to defend their objects is surprising. They might fire him for this, she thinks, and then: it’s just a dream. It’s hard for her not to feel sorry for these creatures, without knowing whether they’re even as real as she is.
She knows who she’s looking for: a merchant on the shore told her before she sailed to visit, an expert in gods that had once solved a problem involving a failed offering. In exchange for the tip, Minerval gave him one of her most prized objects: a brush with organic bristles that cleans the hair as it untangles it; she hardly used it and the bristles were beginning to fall out.
The glitches in the dream are becoming more and more frequent: as she steps into a doorway she is no longer in the city but in a jungle, and when she gets through the door she’s once again in the city. In the last few minutes before a dreamer awakens, their dream becomes so chaotic that all its elements combine: the wing of an airplane could turn into a bridge, the rain becomes blades of grass, animals may morph into loved ones. But the programmer still isn’t waking up and it’s getting hotter and hotter as if a bonfire were melting the bricks from the walls of the alleyway. She finds the theologian in a lethargic state, nodding off in a leather chair.
Minerval slaps him and a cloud of powder rises from his cheeks. How do I bury a god that died in its creator’s dream, she asks the program. The theologian looks at her, his eyes transparent: each dream has its own god. But this god is dead, Minerval responds, I saw him rotting. Gods don’t die, says the theologian, they are just replaced. You have to harvest the soul of the dead god and transfer it before it’s lost. How do I do that, Minerval asks. The theologian points to a translucent shrine, where a silver spatula sits, indented on one side like a spoon. Minerval saves it with her other objects. The dream blinks and the roof dissolves: I’m not going to make it, she thinks. Does this mean you’re Minerval? The theologian asks with a melted face. The glitch is not corrected and his glass eyes fall from their sockets.
Minerval disposes of herself, breaking out of her human form. The heat helps soften her body and she moves like a spirit over the water and the desert, floating above the sails of the ships and the tops of the trees until she reaches the heart of the forest.
By the time Minerval gets there the giant’s body is a skeleton covered in worms. She brushes them aside (as they intermittently fuse with the bones) and clears the skeleton of spiders and roots. She slides the spatula over the divine bones: the god’s soul is unctuous and pools up in the spoon like cream. The leaves of the trees burst into flames. And now what, she asks herself. The trees fall down, the giant ribcage rises from the soil like fangs. Minerval takes the cream and rubs it on her face that’s no longer there, on her phantom chest, over her arms that are not really arms. Then everything goes still, like the last circular reverberation of a stone falling into water.