and it never ends.
and it never ends.
"the truth is that life in my family had little to recommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation."
MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES are not exactly pleasant. My father’s name was Esteban Duarte Diniz. He was Portuguese, in his forties when I was a child, and tall and huge as a hill. His skin was tanned by the sun and he wore a great black mustache which turned down. They said that when he was younger this splendid handlebar mustache had turned up. But after a stretch in prison, he lost his jaunty air, the force went out of his mustache, and hewore it fallen down forever into the tomb. I had great respect for him, but even more fear, and whenever I could, I ducked out and tried not to run into him. He was curt and guff in speech, and brooked no contradiction, a mania I also respected because it was to my advantage to do so. When he got into a rage, which he did more often than need be, he set upon my mother and me and gave us a good drubbing for the least little thing. My mother would do her best to pay him back in kind, to see if she could break his habit, but at my age there was nothing for me but resignation. A child’s flesh is such a tender thing!
I never ventured to ask either him or my mother about the time he was locked up, for it seemed to me that it was the better part of prudence to let sleeping dogs lie, especially since they woke up of their own accord more often than was desirable. The truth is that I didn’t really need to ask any questions because there are always charitable souls about, even more than average in such a small town, people who couldn’t wait to tell everything. He had been put away for running contraband. Apparently this had been his work for many years, but just as the jug that goes to the fountain too often gets broken at last, and since there is no work without drawbacks, nor shortcut without strain, one fine day, doubtless when he was least expecting it-for self-confidence betrays the brave-the border guards followed him, uncovered the booty, and locked him up. All this must have happened a long time before, for I remembered none of it. Perhaps I was not yet born.
My mother was quite different from my father. She was not at all heavy, though quite tall. In fact, she was long and gaunt, and never looked as if she were well. She had a sallow complexion, sunken cheeks, and looked consumptive, or not far from it. She was also violent-tempered and surly, and grew furious at anything at all. Her mouth was filled with language that only God could forgive, for she used the worst blasphemy every other moment. She was always dressed in the black of mourning, and she was no friend of water. In fact she cared for it so little that if truth be told, in all the years of her life I saw her wash herself only once, when my father called her a drunkard and she tried to prove to him that water didn’t frighten her any more than wine. In point of fact, wine did not half displease her, and whenever she got together a few coins, or found some in her husband’s vest pockets, she would send me to the tavern to fetch a jug, which she would slip under the bed to keep it out of my father’s reach. There was a bit of gray mustache at the corners of her mouth, and she wore thethin and wiry nest of her tangled hair in a small bun on top of her head. Also in the vicinity of her mouth were, some visible scars or marks, small rosy holes like buckshot wounds, which were, it seems, the leftovers of some youthful buboes. Sometimes, in the summer, a bit of life stirred in the scars. Their color deepened and they would form festering pinpricks of pus. The fall would wipe them out, and winter would bury them again.
My father and mother didn’t get along at all. They had been badly brought up, were endowed with no special virtues, and could not resign themselves to their lot. And their defects, all of them, I inherited, to my misfortune. They were little disposed to think in terms of principles or to put reins on their instincts. So that any circumstance, anything whatever, however small, brought on a storm, which would rage for days, with no end ever in sight. In general I never took either one’s side. The truth was that it was all the same to me whether one or the other got thrashed. Sometimes I was glad to see my mother get it, sometimes my father, but I was never asked for my vote either way.
My mother could neither read nor write. My father could, and he made an issue of it and never missed a chance to rub it in at every turn, and often, though it might have nothing to do with the matter in hand, he would call her an ignoramus, a word which cut my mother to the quick, sent her into a towering rage, and made her hiss like a basilisk. Sometimes of an evening my father would come home with a newspaper in his hand and, whether we liked it or not, he would sit us both down in the kitchen and would read us out the news. Next would come the commentaries, and the moment they began I would begin to tremble, for they were always the beginning of a brawl. My mother, by way of starting ‘him off, would say that there was nothing in the paper resembling what he had read out, and that everything he’d said had come out of his head. This view of things would send my father off his rocker. He’d yell like a madman, call her an ignorant witch, and always end up by shouting that if he really did know how to invent such things as were in the paper he would scarcely have thought of marrying he likes of her. Now the battle was joined. She’d call him a hairy ape, and denounce him for a starving Portuguee. He seemed to have been waiting for this very word to begin pounding her, and when the word came he’d rip off his belt and chase her around the kitchen until he was exhausted. At first I used to come in for a few chance swipes, but after a bit of experience I learned that the only way not to get wet is to get in out of the rain and so as soon as I saw things getting bad, I left them to themselves and took off. It was their funeral!
The truth is that life in my family had little to recommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation. When I was very young, which is the age when one’s mind is most manageable, they sent me to school for a short spell. My father said the struggle for life was very grim, and that it was necessary to prepare to face up to it with the only arms useful in the battle, the weapons of the intellect. He reeled off this advice as if he had learned it by heart. At such times his voice seemed less gruff, almost veiled, and it would take on intonations completely new to me . . . Afterwards, as if repenting of what he had just said, he would burst into a loud laugh. He always ended up by telling me, almost affectionately:
"Don’t pay me any heed, boy … I’m getting old!"
And he’d stay lost in thought for a bit, repeating under his breath, "I’m getting old! … I’m getting old!"
My schooling was of short duration. My father, who had violent and bullying temper in some things, as I’ve shown, was weak-minded in others. It was plain to see that he exercised his will only in trifling matters, and that, whether from fear or from some other reason, he rarely took a film stand in matters of larger importance. My mother did not want me in school, and whenever she had the opportunity, and often even when she had to force the issue, would tell me that it was no use learning anything if I was never to rise out of poverty anyway. She sowed in a fertile field, for I wasn’t a bit amused by the idea of attending classes. Between the two of us, and with the help of a little time, we finally convinced my father, who cast the deciding vote in favor ofmy giving up my studies. I had already learned how to read and write, and how to add and subtract, so that in reality I had enough knowledge to take care of myself. I was twelve when I quit school. But I’d better not go so fast in my story, for all things want their order, and no matter how early one gets up, dawn doesn’t come any sooner.
I was still very young when my sister Rosario was . born. My memory of that time is confused and vague, and so I don’t know how faithfully my recollection will be but I will try to relate what happened, nevertheless, for even if my narrative comes out rather uncertainly, it will still be closer to reality than anything your imagination or your guesswork could produce for itself. I remember that it was hot the afternoon Rosario was born. A day in midsummer. The fields were parched and still and the crickets seemed bent on cutting the earth’s bones with their rasping saws. Men and beasts were in out of the heat, and the sun, up there in the sky, lord and master of everything was throwing light on everything, burning everything … My mother’s childbed labor was always very difficult and painful. She was half barren and a bit withered and the pain in her was superior to her strength. Since the poor woman had never been a model of virtue or of dignity, and had not learned to suffer in silence, even as I had, she resolved all questions by screaming. She had been howling for several hours when Rosario was born. To make matters worse, she always had a slow delivery. As the proverb has it: A mustached woman who’s slow to bear … (I don’t give the second part, out of respect for the high person to whom these pages are addressed.) My mother was attended by a midwife from the village, Señora Engracia, from the Hill, who specialized in births and burials. She was something of a witch, full of mystery, and she had brought along some concoctions which she applied to my mother’s belly to ease the pain. But since my mother, with or without concoctions on her belly, went on howling her lungs out, Señora Engracia could think of nothing better than to call her an unbeliever and a bad Christian. Just then my mother’s howls rose to the proportions of a tempest, and I began to wonder if she really wasn’t bedeviled after all. But I was not left wondering long, for it soon became apparent that the gale of screams had been caused by the coming forth of my new sister.
My father had been pacing about the kitchen in great, strides for some time. As soon as Rosario was born, he came up to my mother’s bed and, without the least regard for her situation, began to call her a hussy and a slut and to slash at her with the buckle-end of his belt with such violence that to this day I am surprised he did not finish her off thenand there. Then he marched out and was gone for two days. When he did come home, he was drunk as a skunk. He staggered to my mother’s bed and kissed her. She let him kiss her. Then he made for the stable to sleep it off.
In a country full of missing people, disappearing is easy. All the efforts are concentrated on the dead, so those of us who are among the living can fade quickly away. They won’t come looking; they won’t even realize you’re gone. If I’ve seen you before, I don’t remember. You see, everyone down there has bad memories. Either they don’t remember, or they simply don’t want to.
A professor once told me that I was lost. I replied that in order to lose yourself, first you’d have to know where you are.
Then I thought: What if it’s the reverse?
I was erased for fifteen years. I abandoned everything, including myself. There was a quiz I never took. My girlfriend was having a birthday party and I never showed up. I got on a bus bound for Los Vilos. I didn’t have a plan; it just happened. It was what had to happen, and there was no turning back.
At first I felt guilty. Then pursued. Would they be after me? Would they find me? What if I run into someone?
But Ididn’t run into anybody.
They say that the world is a handkerchief. It’s not. People who say that don’t know what the world is like. It’s huge and—above all—strange and foreign. You can roam far and wide and nobody will care.
Now I’m an adult. In some ways. I’ve got hair on my back, and sometimes the zipper doesn’t zip. I’ve been to a lot of places and done things I never thought I’d do. But you survive. You get used to things. Nothing is so bad. Nothing.
I’ve been to a lot of places. Have you been to Tumbes? To the port of Buenaventura? Or San Pedro Sula? What about Memphis?
Like a puppy, I followed a Kmart checkout girl as far as El Centro, California, a town that smelled of fertilizer. The relationship started off better than it ended. Then I went to work in the casinos in Laughlin, Nevada, that lined the Colorado River. I lived in a house cross the way in Bullhead City with a woman named Frances and a guy named Frank, but we never saw each other. We left each other notes. Both of them were bad spellers.
Once, in a diner in Tulsa, a woman told me that I reminded her of her son who’d never come home. “Why do you think he left?” she asked. I said I didn’t know, but maybe I did.
Or maybe not.
Without wanting to, I ended up teaching English to Hispanic children in Galveston. The Texas flag looks a lot like Chile’s. One of the girls died in my arms. She fell off the swing set: I’d pushed too hard and she flew out of her seat. It seemed like she flew for two minutes through the hazy Gulf sky. I didn’t want to hurt her, but nevertheless I did. So . . . what?
What can you do?
Have you been to Mérida, on the Yucatán? In the summer there it hits 108 degrees, and they close off the downtown area on Sundays so the people can dance. Sometimes I find a girl and join in.
Last year I decided to Google my own name. Maybe they were searching for me. But even I couldn’t find myself. Just a guy with the same name as me who lives in “Barquisimeto, Venezuela,” and has a dental practice. He has three children and believes in God.
Sometimes I dream about living in Barquisimeto, having three children, and believing in God. Sometimes I even dream that they have found me.
—from Alberto Fuguet’s Shorts, 2005. Translated by Ezra E. Fitz.
Born in Santiago de Chile, Alberto Fuguet spent his early childhood in California. He is one of the most prominent Latin American authors of his generation and one of the leaders of the literary movement known as McOndo, which proclaims the end of magical realism. He has been a film critic and a police reporter. He lives in Santiago.
Continuing the cinematic obsession which informed his novel The Movies of My Life (2003), in Shorts Fuguet offers eight filmic "shorts"—each of which is prefaced by a black-and-white photograph—which range from the two-page story “Lost” (about a suffering existentialist) to a 100-page novella—stories with a movie-like realism and which are shot through with the authentic feeling of cinéma vérité.
The Family of Pascual Duarte
Camilo José Cela
From the Dalkey Archive:
The Family of Pascual Duarte is the story of Pascual Duarte—a Spanish peasant born into a brutal world of poverty, hatred, and depravity—as told from his prison cell, where he awaits execution for the murders he’s committed throughout his lifetime. Despite his savage and cruel impulses, Pascual retains a childlike sense of the world and a groping desire to understand the blows of fate that led him down his bloody path.
Originally published in the same year as Camus’s The Stranger—to which it has been compared—The Family of Pascual Duarte is closer in tone to the works of Curzio Malaparte and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
I AM NOT, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death. Some men are ordered down a path lined with flowers, others are asked to advance along a road sown with thistles and prickly pears. The first gaze about serenely and in the aroma of their joyfulness they smile the smile of the innocent, while the latter writhe under the violent sun of the plain and knit their brows like varmints at bay. There is a world of difference between adorning one’s flesh with rouge and eau-de-cologne and doing it with tattoos that later will never wear off . . .
I was born a great many years ago, a good fifty-five at least, in a small village lost in the province of Badajoz. It lay, that village, some two leagues from Almendralejo, squatting athwart a road as empty and endless as a day without bread, as empty and endless — an emptiness and endlessness that you, luckily for you, cannot even imagine — as the days of a man condemned to death.
It was a hot and sunlit village, rich enough in olive trees, and (begging your pardon) hogs, its houses so bright with whitewash that the memory of them still makes me blink, a plaza all paved with cobblestone, and a fine three-spouted fountain in the middle of the plaza. No water had flowed from the three mouths of the fountain for some years before I left the village, and yet it was elegant, and a proud symbol in our eyes; its crest was topped with the figure of a naked boy, and the basin was scalloped around the edges like the shells of the pilgrims from Santiago de Compostela. The town hall stood at one side of the plaza; it was shaped like a cigar box, with a tower in the middle, and a clock in the tower; the face of the clock was as white as the Host raised during Mass, and its hands were stopped forever at nine o’clock, as if the town had no need of its services but only wanted it for decoration.
As was only natural, the village contained good houses and bad, the bad far outnumbering, as is usual, the good. There was one house, two stories high, belonging to Don Jesús, which was a pleasure to see, with its entranceway faced with tile and lined with flowerpots. Don Jesús had always been a strong believer in plants, and I suppose he kept after the housekeeper to watch over the geraniums, the heliotropes, the palms and the mint with the same loving care she might have given children. In any case, the old woman was always walking up and down with a kettle in her hand, watering the pots and pampering them with an attention they must have appreciated, to judge by the look of the shoots, so fresh and green. Don Jesús’ house faced the plaza, and yet it was different from all the other houses, not only in its several points of superiority, but also in one aspect where it seemed less than the rest: though its owner was wealthy and did not stint, its front was completely plain, its color was the natural color of the stone, and it was not whitewashed, as even the poorest houses were. Don Jesús must have had his reasons for leaving it that way. A stone shield was carved and fixed in the wall over the door; the carving was said to be of great value; the top part represented the heads of two ancient warriors wearing headpieces decorated with plumes; one warrior looked to the east and the other toward the west, as if they were keeping watch against any threat from either direction.
Behind the plaza, on the same side as the house of Don Jesús, lay the parish church, with its stone bell tower and the bell which was like a hand bell and sounded in a strange way I could never describe, but which I can hear at this moment as if it were clanging around the corner . . .
The bell tower was the same height as the clock tower, and in the summertime, when the storks came to nest, some went to one tower and some to the other, each of them remembering which of the two towers it had used the year before. One little lame stork, which managed to last through two winters, belonged to the church nest, from which it had fallen while still very young, when pursued by a hawk.
My house lay outside the village, a good two hundred paces from the last cluster of houses. It was a cramped one-story house: narrow quarters, befitting my station in life. I came to feel affection for the place, and there were even times when I was proud of it. In actual fact the kitchen was the only room that was really decent; it was the first room as you entered the house, and it was always clean and kept whitewashed. True enough, the floor was earthen, but it was so well trodden down and the small paving stones were set in such nice patterns and designs that it was in no way inferior to many other floors where the owner had laid down cement in order to be modern. The hearth was roomy and clear; a shelf ran around the chimneypiece, which was in the semicircular shape of a funnel, and on the shelf we had ornamental crockery, jugs with mottoes painted in blue, and plates with blue and orange drawings. Some of the plates were decorated with a face, others with a flower, others with a name, and others with a fish.
The walls were hung with a variety of objects. A very pretty calendar showed a young girl fanning herself in a boat and beneath her there was a line of letters which seemed like silver dust and read MODESTO RODRÍGUEZ. FINE FOODS FROM OVERSEAS. MÉRIDA, BADAJOZ, PROVINCE. Then there was a portrait of the bullfighter Espartero in his bullfighting costume, in full color. There were three or four photographs, some small and some medium-sized, of various unknown faces; I had always seen them there, and so it never occurred to me to ask who they were. An alarm clock hung on the wall, and, though it isn’t much to say for it, the thing always worked perfectly. And there was a scarlet plush pincushion, with a number of pretty little glass-headed pins stuck into it, all the heads of a different color. The furniture in the kitchen was as sparse as it was simple: three chairs, one of which was quite delicate and fine, with curved back and legs and a wicker bottom, and a pinewood table with a drawer of its own, somewhat low for the chairs to slip under, but which served its purpose. It was a nice kitchen: there was plenty of room, and in the summertime, before we had to light the autumn fires, it was cool to sit on the hearthstone at the end of the day with the doors wide open. In the wintertime we were warmed by the fire, and oftentimes, if the embers were well enough tended, they would give off a bit of heat all through the night. We used to watch our shadows on the wall when the small flames were dancing in the grate. They came and went, sometimes slowly and then again in little playful leaps. When I was very young I remember that I was frightened by the shadows; I feel a shiver even now when I think of how afraid I used to be.
The rest of the house scarcely deserves describing, it was so ordinary. We had two other rooms, if they can be called that merely because they were in the form of rooms and were used to live in. And there was a stable, though I wonder, too, why we called it that, since it was in reality empty and deserted and going to rot. One of the rooms eventually served as a bedroom for my wife and me. My father always slept in the other room, until God—or perhaps it was the Devil—wished to carry him off, and then it stayed empty most of the time, first ‘because there was no one who would sleep there, and later, when it could have been used, because the kitchen was always preferred since it was not only lighter but also free from drafts. My sister, for example, always slept there whenever she came to visit us. The truth is that the rooms were not very clean or well built, but neither was there much cause for complaint. They could be lived in, which is the principal thing, and they offered protection from the wet winds of Christmastide, and a refuge—as much as one had a right to expect—from the asphyxiation in the dry days of the August Virgin.* The stable was in the worst state. It was dark and dank, and its walls reeked with the same stench of dead beasts as rose from the ravine in the month of May, when the carcasses down below began to turn’ to carrion while the crows swooped to feed.
It is a strange thing, but if as a child I was taken out of range of that stench I felt the anguish of death. I remember a trip I made to the capital of the province to see about my military service. I spent the whole damn day wandering about as if I had lost my bearings, sniffing the wind like a game dog. When I went to bed back at the inn, I caught a whiff of my corduroy pants, and that brought me back to my senses. My blood began to run again and it warmed the heart of me. I pushed the pillow away and laid my head on the folded pants and slept like a log that night.
We kept a sorry little burro in the stable, skinny and covered with sores, to help us in the work. When we had a run of luck-which to tell the truth was not very often-we also kept a pair of hogs (begging your pardon) or even as many as three. Behind the house there was a kind of corral, not very large but which served its purpose, and a well. Eventually I had to seal off the well because the water became polluted.
Beyond the corral ran a stream, sometimes half dry and never very full, always dirty and stinking like a troop of gypsies. Still, sometimes, when I wanted to kill an afternoon, I’d catch some fine eels there. My wife used to say, and despite everything, what she said was humorous enough, that the eels were so fat because they ate the same as Don Jésus—only a day later. When the mood to fish was on me the hours slipped away like shadows, without my noticing them, so that it was always dark by the time I went to pack up my gear. Far off in the distance, like a fat squat turtle, like a snake hugging the ground and afraid to move, Almendralejo lay in the dusk, its lights begining to flicker.
No one in Almendralejo knew or cared that I had been fishing, that at that moment I was watching the lights in their houses come on, that I was guessing what they said and imagining in my mind the subjects of their conversations. The inhabitants of cities live with their backs to the truth, and oftentimes they are not even aware that only a couple of leagues away, in the middle of the plain, a country man may be thinking about them while he packs up his gear, folds his fishing rod and picks up his little wicker basket with its six or seven eels inside.
Still and all I never thought fishing much of an occupation for men, and I always preferred to devote my spare time to hunting. I had a certain fame in the village for being not altogether a bad hand at it, and, modesty apart, I must say in all sincerity that the man who started the rumor was not mistaken. I had a setter bitch called Chispa, half mongrel and half wild; the two of us got along well together. I used to go with her often of a morning to the pond, a league and a half from the village, toward the Portuguese border. We never came home empty-handed. On the way back, the bitch used to run on ahead and wait for me at the crossroads, There was a round flat rock at that spot, like a low seat, and I remember it as fondly as I remember any person, or really, more fondly than many persons I have known. It was broad and hollowed out, and when I sat down there I could fit my arse (begging your pardon) nicely into the groove, and I felt so comfortable that I hated to leave. I would sit there at the crossroads for a long time, whistling to myself, my gun between my knees, looking at whatever there was to look at and smoking cigarettes. The bitch would sit in front of me, back on her haunches, and gaze at me with her head to one side, from a pair of wide-awake brown eyes. I would talk to her, and she would prick up her ears, as if she were trying to get the full meaning of every word. When I fell silent, she took advantage of the lull to run around chasing grasshoppers, or maybe she would just shift her position a bit. When it was time to leave and I had to start off, for some reason I would always glance back over my shoulder at the stone, as if to bid it goodbye.
One day the stone must have seemed, somehow, so sad at my leaving that I could not fight against the urge to go back and sit down. The bitch trotted back with me and lay there gazing into my face again. I realize now that her eyes were like those of a priest listening to confession, that she had the look of a confessor, coldly scrutinizing, the eyes of a lynx, the look they say a lynx fixes on you . . . Suddenly a shudder ran through my whole body. It was like an electric current that was trying to discharge itself through my arms and ground itself in the earth. My cigarette had gone out. My gun, a single-barreled piece, was between my knees and I was stroking it. The bitch went on peering at me with a fixed stare,’ as if she had never seen me before, as if she were on the point of accusing me of something terrible at any moment, and her scrutiny roused the blood in my veins to such a pitch that I knew the moment was near when I would have to give in. It was hot, the heat was stifling, and my eyes began to close under the animal’s stare, which was sharp as flint.
I picked up my gun and fired. I reloaded, and fired again. The bitch’s blood was dark and sticky and it spread slowly along the dry earth.
*The canicular Virgin: Mary’s Assumption to Heaven, celebrated August 15.
“the thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro”
From Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961):
You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend, nothing else. You have no land to grow food on, no land on which to hunt, not enough time in one place to have a geography or an army or a land-myth. Only you have a little brain in your head and this bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that there is something special about you, even in your poverty. But this little brain, that is the real key. With it you obtain a small piece of cloth—wool, silk, cotton—it doesn’t matter. You take this cloth and you cut it in two and sell the two pieces for a penny or two more than you paid for the one. With this money, then, you buy a slightly larger piece of cloth, which perhaps may he cut into three pieces and sold for three pennies’ profit. You must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread at this point, a luxury like a toy for your child. Immediately you must go out and buy a still-larger cloth, or two large cloths, and repeat the process. And so you continue until there is no longer any temptation to dig in the earth and grow food, no longer any desire to gaze at limitless land which is in your name. You repeat this process over and over for approximately twenty centuries. And then, voilá—you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you. But then it is instinct. Is it not simple? My whole formula for success.
Thus the protagonist Sol Nazerman explains to his Puerto Rican employee the "success story" of the Jewish people (p. 22).
Later, Sol takes upon himself the burden of the sins of the world (p 176; p. 189):
The thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro. . . . And He was a Jew, too, just like the Pawnbroker; there’s a laugh for you. He tried to imagine the pawnbroker in a position like that, nailed upon a cross, the heavy, graceless body broken and naked. . . .
They looked around at the stock of the store and saw it as a tremendous weight on him. And that seemed to awe them, too, for as they added their own small item it was as though they piled on weight to prove his immense power, so that some of them even went out laughing, having left him a piece of their pain.
When I was in the army, many of the soldiers used to play a game in which about twenty or twenty-five men would sit around a table, each of them with a long string tied to his organ. The players were known as the "Knights of the Round Table.” One man,
At intervals King Arthur would select a string and pull it, inch by inch, over the notched markings on the table top. The soldiers scanned each other’s faces, aware that one of them was suffering. The victim would do all he could to conceal his pain and maintain his normal posture. It was said that the few men who were circumcised could not play the game as well as those who were not circumcised, whose shaft was protected by a foreskin. Bets would be made to see how many notches the string would pass over before the torture victim would cry out. Some soldiers ruined themselves for life by sitting out the game just to win the prize money.
I remember the occasion when the soldiers discovered that King Arthur had conspired with one of the men by tying the string around his leg. Naturally, this soldier was able to endure more pain than the others, and thus King Arthur and he succeeded in pocketing large sums of money. The cheated knights secretly selected the punishment they thought fitting. The guilty men were grabbed from behind, blindfolded, and taken into the forest There they were stripped and tied to trees. The knights, one after another, slowly crushed each of the victim’s parts between two rocks until the flesh became an unrecognizable pulp.
Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.
They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.
I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our love–making and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.
It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of will—as though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erection, it would reduce the act of making love to something very mechanical and ordinary.
In the first days of the month the regiment started its preparations for the National Day parade, and several hundred of us, chosen for our uniform height and familiarity with parade-ground drill, began our daily rehearsals.
We used to muster at dawn on the packed, sun-baked earth of the parade ground, surrounded by forest. Despite the summer heat the drills lasted all day, and we marched up and down in a single column four abreast, goose-stepping along the whole length of the parade ground, all six units wheeling and turning, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks like so many shunting railroad cars.
After a month of this arduous training we had become a single entity, marching as one man. We breathed in unison and saluted with a single gesture; we swung our rifles that had become an extension of our bones and muscles. All that we could think of during those exhausting days was the pain of our swollen, burning feet, and our warm, coarse uniforms rubbing against our sweaty skins. It seemed we were forever marching toward the motionless forest, but invariably the column would turn about before reaching the shadow of the trees.
On National Day reveille came earlier than usual. The parade was to be held some distance from the camp. It was then I realized that I could miss the entire tedious day. If four of us, the three men who marched abreast of me andI, should quietly disappear and spend the rest of the day in the forest, it would be extremely unlikely that our overanxious officers would detect our absence. In the evening we could easily reenter the camp and lose ourselves among the returning soldiers.
I spoke to my fellow soldiers; they agreed to the plan and we decided to leave the camp before the first muster was called. Instead of going to breakfast in the canteen we marched over to the dumping ground, as though we were the men attached the sanitation detail. Then it was merely a matter of affecting the confidence to stand about at the loading platform and signal the trucks in and out, until a suitable moment would present itself to walk off into the forest. We were not challenged, and as soon as we had burst through the first bushes, we began to run, dragging our rifles. The jays screamed as we plunged ahead, and occasional squirrels leaped from bough to bough ahead of us. We were deep in the forest before stopping. We stripped and lay down.
As the sun climbed higher, the forest floor steamed. A single distant bugle call broke into the myriad sounds of chirping and buzzing that drifted into the clearing. We fell asleep.
When I awoke I felt heavy, my throat burned; I grew more alert and stood up. The sun touched the treetops, the light in the clearing was dim. My fellow absentees were still asleep, their uniforms hanging on the nearby bushes. A sound was approaching from the depths of the forest: it was getting louder and closer every second. Suddenly I realized that it was the band. I peered in the direction of the sound. What I saw shocked me: less than two hundred yards away our regimental band was marching through the trees toward us, the bandleader’s gilded staff flashing as it caught the light, the white leather aprons of the drummers standing out clearly against the green of the foliage.
I sprang to my uniform, for a moment thinking only of making a run for cover. Then I jumped over to my lazily stretched-out companions and shook them from their sleep as they mumbled abuse at me. When they finally grasped what was about to happen, the same panic hit them. They grabbed their uniforms, boots and rifles, and plunged into the tangle of bushes and trees.
Impulsively I threw myself forward, and was instantly gripped by an immobilizing tremor. Within seconds the seizure passed, but I still could not flee. I simply stood in the clearing, naked, my rifle and uniform at my feet, as though I had consciously decided to hold my ground and wait for the column to arrive.
The leading ranks were only yards away. They had now perceived me, for the band stopped playing and several mounted officers detached themselves from the body of the troops and galloped toward the clearing.
There was pandemonium in the column; some men had broken ranks and others were shouting and gesturing at me. The regimentalstandard swung into sight and I was possessed by the reflex to salute. I reached for my cap, drew myself to attention, and raised my hand to my brow. A derisive cry went up from the nearest soldiers, a single bugler raised his instrument and gave a hunting call, breaking the sequence of my movements. I stared down in horror at myself: there was nothing I could do—I was aroused.
Commands rang out: the column halted, and though the sergeants ordered the men to hold their ranks, they could not prevent them from laughing. Two soldiers advanced toward me, followed by a mounted officer. A second officer dismounted and bellowed that I was under arrest. Other commands were given: the column re-formed and marched off, continuing on its short cut through the glade to the camp. I dressed and was led away by the guards.
I was charged with absenting myself without leave and with deserting my place of duty. I was called upon to name my companions; but I stated I had acted entirely alone, maintaining they must have arrived in the clearing independently while I was asleep. I insisted that I was guilty only of the minor charge of not signing out of the camp, claiming that 1 had been released from the parade during a drill by one of the officers; and though he no longer chose to recall it, my absence should not be held against me. To the charge that my salute, when naked, was a studied, insult to the flag, I pointed out that there had been many occasions when soldiers who were caught naked by surprise attack had been compelled to fight in such a state.
Are you circumcised? I’ve always wondered. Not that I’m sure I would know the difference anyway.
Why didn’t you ask me before?
It’s really not that it’s important, and I was afraid to ask the question. You might have interpreted it as some sort of expectation on my part, even as disapproval. Aren’t men very sensitive about things like this?
I don’t know; men vary.
Is circumcision really necessary? Like having your appendix out, for instance?
No, it isn’t.
Today it seems so cruel and unnecessary; a part of an infant’s body is removed without his consent! Isn’t it possible that as a result of mutilating him, the man becomes less sensitive and responsive? After all, a delicate organ that nature intended to be covered and kept tender becomes exposed, and almost like one’s knees and elbows, is constantly chafed by the linen, wool, and cotton one wears . . .
I was ordered to camouflage myself in a forest several miles from any settlement. I selected a full-branched tree and prepared a comfortable perch, remaining there for several hours during the maneuvers. Scanning the surroundings with my field glasses, I noticed another camouflaged soldier from my regiment, positioned about half a mile away: Since I had been ordered not to reveal my position, I remained hidden, looking at him occasionally through my binoculars. Suddenly I was alerted by his movement and followed the arc of his rifle barrel: on the border of a distant field, just outside the boundaries of the regiment’s territory, two people were walking slowly. The soldier’s rifle kicked twice and muffled shots cut into the silence. When I looked at the couple again, they lay in the swaying grass like two surfers abruptly swept off their boards by an unpredictable wave.
I watched the sniper closely now. Though I could not see his face, it occurred to me that he might have seen and recognized me, and I felt my heart contract; but his rifle lay across his knees and he lolled peacefully against the boughs that gave with the drowsy sway of the forest. I peered at him cautiously until the bluish air drooped over the scraggly trees, and darkness rose as though born from the dew which covered the ground.
The next day the adjutant announced that two civilians had been killed by stray gunfire. The investigation did not produce any results, since we were all able to account for our allotted ammunition.
Later two truckloads of regimental soccer players took a short cut through a field reserved for artillery practice. The field was supposed to be marked as a danger area, but either the drivers did not see the warning signs or someone in the regiment had removed the signs; in any case, the soccer players never arrived. The trucks must have traveled halfway across the field when the artillery opened fire: all that was left was a pair of surprisingly clean white tennis shoes.
SUPPOSE HE WOULD BECOME my lover? To kill that thought you’d have to destroy him, wouldn’t you?
I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Once, when we were buying a coat for me, the salesman came over to help me try it on. When he put his hand on my neck to adjust the collar, you came up to him and without a word took his hand and removed it—just as though it were an object. You must have squeezed his hand terribly hard: he froze. His face was almost purple and his mouth opened as if he were going to cry out.
I took his hand off your neck because I didn’t want him to touch you.
He certainly didn’t mean to be personal.
I don’t know what he meant and you don’t either. I was thinking about what you might be feeling when he touched you.
To kill your thought you actually had to remove his hand from my neck?
Could you kill a man? I mean: for some important reason?
I don’t know.
whom we called King Arthur, held in his hand all the ends of the strings without knowing who was at the other end of each.