Today's Reading

PART I

APRIL 21, 22, AND 23

I

IN THE PORTAL DEL SEÑOR

". . . illuminate, light of aluminum, Light of alighted Stone! Like ears humming, the buzzing of the bells beckoning to prayers persisted, doubletroublestar of light in the shadow, of shadow in the light. ¡Alumbra, lumbre de alumbre, Luzbel de piedralumbre, sobre lapodredumbre! ¡Alumbra, lumbre de alumbre, sobre la podredumbre, Luzbel de piedralumbre! ¡Alumbra, alumbra, lumbre de alumbre . . . , alumbre . . . , alumbra . . . , alumbra, lumbre de alumbre . . . , alumbra, alumbre . . . !"

Hidden in the shadows of the icy Cathedral, the beggars staggered by the Mercado's food stands along streets as wide as oceans on their way to the Plaza de Armas, leaving the empty city behind.

Night brought together the beggars and the stars. United only by misery, soon the beggars would huddle to sleep in the Portal del Señor, cursing and insulting one another through clenched teeth. They elbowed and threw dirt on one another like mortal enemies. Scuffling, biting, and spitting, they picked fights with those brothers-in-filth with neither a pillow nor a friend to trust. Without undressing, they hunkered down to sleep like thieves, heads resting on cloth bags stuffed with their riches—meat scraps, ripped shoes, candle stumps, clumps of boiled rice wrapped in old newspaper, oranges, and rotting bananas.

Then they sat up to count their money on the steps facing the Portal's back wall, biting coins to make sure they were real. They talked among themselves, tallying their food and weapons: soon they would take to the streets with rocks in hand and scapulars around their necks, stopping only to furtively chew on bread crusts. Greedy down to their bones, they would sooner give their leftover scraps to the stray dogs than to other beggars as wretched as themselves.

With their coins secured in handkerchiefs—knotted seven times fast and tied tightly to their waists—they dropped to the ground satiated and fell into tense, miserable sleep. Famished pigs, scrawny women, crippled dogs, carriage wheels passed before their eyes in their nightmares. Phantom priests entered the Cathedral as if going to a grave, preceded by a worm of a moon on a cross made of frozen shinbones. Sometimes, they would be shocked awake by the screams of the Dimwit lost in the Plaza de Armas or the sobs of a blind woman who dreamt she was hanging on a spike like a side of beef, covered with flies. Other times, they would wake up to the crack of a whip as a political prisoner was dragged and beaten by police, while a group of women always followed close behind, wiping the tracks of blood with tear-drenched handkerchiefs. Or it would be the snores of a filthy hypochondriac or the gasps of a pregnant deaf-mute who suspected a baby alive in her womb would wake them. But the Dimwit's never-ending inhuman cries were the saddest of all, almost tearing open the heavens.

On Sundays, a drunk who in his sleep cried like a child for his mother would join this strangest of gatherings. As soon as the Dimwit heard the word "mother" (both curse and lament in the drunk's mouth), he would sit up and scan the Portal from side to side. Once fully awake, his screams would rouse his friends until his cry merged with that of the drunk.

Dogs barked, voices rang out, and the most mulish of the beggars would stand up and join the chorus to silence him: Either you shut up or the police will shut you up. But the police wouldn't dare appear. Not one of them had money to pay a fine. "Long live France," screamed Pegleg. Then the Dimwit jumped and screamed and became the laughingstock of the group because this one-legged, cursing cripple made fun of the drunk all during the week. Pegleg teased both the drunk and Pelele—the Dimwit's nickname—who appeared dead when sleeping, though he came back to life at each shout, not noticing his fellow beggars, piled together on the floor on top of burlap strips, who would then curse and cackle at his crazy antics. Standing far off from his companions' hideous faces, he saw, heard, and felt nothing. Exhausted by so much crying, Pelele would fall into a deep sleep, but as soon as he did, Pegleg would scream:

"Mother!"

Pelele would jack up his eyes like someone dreaming he was spinning into emptiness; his pupils widened as he drew into himself. Wounded to the core, he felt the pooling of his tears. He would fall back to sleep slowly, totally spent, his body almost pulp, nausea whirling in his broken mind. But someone would startle him by saying "Mother" as he closed his eyes and inched toward sleep.

That someone was the degenerate mulatto Widower, who, laughing from his old man's puckered mouth, said: "God bless you, Mother of Mercy, our hope and salvation. Protect us lowly exiles."

Pelele would wake up laughing, amused by his own grief, hunger, pained heart, and tears splashing his teeth while the beggars snatched la-la-la-laughter from the air, la-la-la-laughter from the air. A fat man with stew sauce on his moustache laughed so hard he lost his breath, and a one-eyed man pissed his pants, butting his head against a wall like a goat. Blind men protested that they couldn't sleep through all the noise, and Mosco, a blind man missing both legs, muttered that only fags could amuse themselves like this.

But the complaints of the blind were ignored, and Mosco's comment not even heard—why should anyone listen to his cackling? "Yes, I spent my childhood in the barracks. Mules and officers kicked me into shape and made a man out of me. I learned to work like a horse, which helped me drag a barrel organ down the streets. Sure, I lost my sight, and then my right leg, in a bar brawl, God knows how, and a car chopped off my left leg, but I was too drunk to remember how or where."

The beggars spread the word that Pelele would go nuts whenever anyone mentioned his mother. The poor wretch ran through the streets, squares, courtyards, and markets, trying to get away from people shouting "Mother!" at him, morning, noon, and night like a curse from

heaven. He sought refuge in houses, but maids and dogs chased him. People drove him out of churches and stores, indifferent to his exhaustion and to his crazed eyes pleading for pity.

The sprawling city, made larger by his own exhaustion, shrank in the face of his despair. Days of persecution followed nights of terror. People weren't content only to scream at him, "You'll marry your Mother this Sunday, you stupid Dimwit"—they had to beat him and tear at his clothes. Children chased him, forcing him to hide out in the poorest neighborhoods where everyone lived hand to mouth. Just teasing him wasn't enough in such places, so they threw stones, dead rats, and tin cans after him as he ran off in panic.

One day, he came to the Portal from one of these poor areas just as the bells were ringing. Forehead slashed, he wore no hat, though a kite tail had been tied around him as a joke. Wall shadows, dogs running by, leaves falling from trees, and even squeaky wheels frightened him. When he reached the Portal, it was nearly dark and the beggars were sitting facing the wall, counting their money. Pegleg argued with Mosco, the deaf-mute caressed her inexplicably swollen belly, and, in a dream, the blind woman hung from a spike like meat at the butcher shop, covered with flies.

Pelele fell onto the ground half dead. He'd gone days without resting, nights without sleeping. Beggars silently scratched their fleabites, unable to sleep. They heard police walking back and forth along the dimly lit square and guards clicking their arms as they stood at attention in the windows of the nearby barracks like ghosts covered in striped blankets, keeping nightly watch over the President. No one knew where he actually was, because he owned several houses outside of the city. No one even knew how he slept— someone said he held a whip in his hand and kept a phone beside him—and some friends claimed he didn't sleep.

A stranger walked toward the Portal. The beggars curled up like worms. The creak of army boots was met by the sinister hoot of a bird in the porous, bottomless night.

Pegleg opened his eyes—it seemed the end of the world was near—and said to the owl:

'Double double toil and trouble; fly into the air, drop down into the muddle'.

Mosco groped with his hands for his face. The air was tense, as if the earth were about to shake. The Widower, seated with the blind men, crossed himself. Only Pelele slept, for once, like a log, snoring.

The stranger stopped. A smile spread over his face. He tiptoed over to Pelele and screamed, "Mother!"

The cry jolted Pelele awake. The Dimwit threw himself at his tormentor, not giving him a chance to pull out his weapon. He gouged his eyes with his fingers, bit into his nose, and kneed him in the balls until the stranger fell to the ground, inert.

The beggars shut their eyes in disgust. The owl flew by once again, and Pelele fled down the darkened street, shaking in panic.

A blind force had put an end to the life of Colonel José Parrales Sonriente, known as the Man with the Tiny Mule.

Dawn was about to break.

II

THE DEATH OF MOSCO

The sun gilded the Second Police Station's projecting roof (some people were walking down the street), the Protestant Chapel (a few doors were open), and a brick building under construction. Groups of barefoot women sat on stone benches in dark corridors, waiting for the prisoners in a courtyard that was, as usual, dripping with rain. They cradled breakfast baskets in the folds of their skirts while bunches of children clustered around them. Babies clung to their pendulous breasts, and the older kids hungrily eyed the loaves in the breadbaskets. The women whispered their troubles to one another, crying as they spoke, drying tears on the ends of their shawls. An old woman, obviously sick with malaria, wept copiously, silently, as if to underscore that her suffering was even more profound. In this dismal place, the ills of life seemed incurable: here, where the waiting women stared out at a couple of barren shrubs, an empty fountain, and a few police officers who cleaned their shirt collars with spit, only God's mercy could save them.

A mestizo police officer walked by, dragging Mosco. He had seized him at the corner of the Colegio de Infante and shook him from side to side as if Mosco were a trained monkey. But the women were far from amused, as they watched the guards bring breakfast to the prisoners and return with scraps of news.

Say what? Don't worry about him; he's doing better.

Say what? Bring him some mercury ointment as soon as the pharmacy opens.

Say what? Don't pay attention to what his cousin says.

Get him a young public defender, 'cause they don't charge as much as a real lawyer.

Don't be jealous, there are no women in here. They brought a fag in the other day.

Give him a laxative. He hasn't been able to take a shit.

Say what? Lazy of her to sell their only chest of drawers.

"Hey, stop!" said Mosco, tired of how the policeman was flinging him about. "I'm not some piece of shit. I may be poor, but I'm honest. Listen to me—I'm not your kid or a stuffed animal—you can't treat me like this. Look at you, going to where we dirtbags hang out so you can stay good with the gringos. Good going. Catching a scorpion without his stinger, a bunch of drunken turkeys. Treating us like dirtbags. When that brownnosing busybody Mister Nosey-poesy came, we'd gone three days without eating, looking out of windows wrapped in muslin like a bunch of weirdos..."

One by one, the beggars were brought to the dark, narrow jail cells known as the Three Marias. Mosco was dragged by his arms and stump legs, like a crab, his voice drowned out by the keys creaking in the locks and the cursing jailers who stank of sweat and stale tobacco.

Now his voice echoed loudly in the underground vault: "Fucking pig. Son of a bitch. 'JesusChristPrice', help me."

His fellow prisoners whimpered like sick, sniveling animals scared of the dark (all they'd ever see again). They were scared shitless, there where dozens had died of hunger and thirst. They suspected they would be boiled down like mongrels and made into pig soap or have their throats slit to feed the police. They saw cannibal faces advancing through shadows lit up like torches, their buttlike cheeks and moustaches drooling chocolate. . . .

A student and a church sexton were in the same cell.

"If I'm not mistaken, sir, you were here first. You came, then I came, no?" The student talked just to say something, to get rid of the knot of tension in his throat.

"I think so," the sexton replied, looking into the dark for the face talking to him.

"I was about to ask why you were jailed."

"Something to do with politics."

The student, shaking from head to toe, stuttered, "Me, too."

The beggars felt around for their bagged possessions, but the prison director had taken everything, even what was in their pockets. The rules were strict. Not even a match was allowed.

"And what's the charge?" the student went on.

"There's no charge. Someone at the top accused me of something." The sexton rubbed his back against the rough wall, trying to scratch off the lice.

"You were—"

"Nope!" the sexton interrupted angrily. "I wasn't anything." Just then, the door hinges creaked as another beggar came in. "Long live France," said Pegleg.

"I'm in prison—" the sexton answered. "Long live France!"

"—for a crime I committed by mistake. Instead of taking down a sign about the Virgin of O from the church door, I took down a poster announcing the birthday anniversary of the President's mother."

"But how did they find out?" the student asked.

The sexton wiped away tears with his fingers. "You got me. My own stupidity. Anyhow, they arrested me and brought me to the Chief of Police. He slapped me around a few times and then gave orders for me to be put in solitary confinement—as a revolutionary."

Crumpled in the dark, the beggars cried out of fear, hunger, and cold. They couldn't even see their own hands. At times, they fell into a stupor. The pregnant deaf-mute's heavy breathing circled about them as if hunting for a way out.

They were released, who knows when, maybe around midnight. A squat man with a wrinkled yellow face—bushy moustache over thick lips, stubby nose, hooded eyes—told them he was investigating a political crime. He asked them all together, and then individually, if they knew who was responsible for the murder of a colonel in the Portal the previous night.

They had been taken to a room lit by a smoking lantern whose weak light seemed filtered through watery glass. What happened? Against what wall? And that rack of weapons fiercer than a tiger's jaw and that police officer's belt full of bullets?

The Judge Advocate leapt from his chair when he heard the surprising responses of the beggars.

"Tell me the truth!" he shouted, banging his fist on the table he used as a desk. His eyes bulged under thick eyeglasses.

One by one, they accused Pelele of carrying out the Portal murder. They described circuitously, but in great detail, the crime their eyes had witnessed.

The Judge Advocate signaled for the police officers who had been listening outside the room to come in and corral the beggars into an empty room and beat them up. A long rope hung from the barely visible central beam.

"Dimwit killed him," said the Widower, hoping to escape torture by spitting out the truth. "Sir, it was Dimwit. I swear to God. It was Dimwit, Dimwit. Pelele! Pelele did it!"

"I don't suffer fools. You were told to say that. I'll kill you if you don't tell me the truth! Understand? Understand?!"

The Judge Advocate's voice was drowned out by the blood roaring in the unfortunate wretch's ears. He was hanging by his thumbs, his feet inches above the ground. He kept shouting: "It was Dimwit, I'm telling you! I swear to God it was him! The Dimwit! Dimwit! Dimwit!"

"You liar," he answered, pausing for a breath. "Liar! I'm going to tell you who killed Coronel José Parrales Sonriente. Let's see if you have the balls to deny it. It was General Eusebio Canales and his lawyer, Abel Carvajal!"

His voice met a frozen silence. Then bit by bit, a whimper, a moan, and finally a yes was heard. When the rope was loosened, the Widower fell to the ground, unconscious. The mulatto's cheeks, dripping with sweat and tears, looked like chunks of wet coal.

His companions, shaking like dogs poisoned by the police and left to die on the street, confirmed one by one what the investigator claimed. Mosco, his face twisted with fear and nausea, was the only one to deny it. They hung him by the thumbs because he claimed, half buried—his legs belowground, like everyone whose legs have been cut off—that his fellow beggars were lying when they accused someone else of a crime for which the Dimwit alone was responsible.

"Responsible!" The Judge Advocate pounced on the word. "How dare you say that a Dimwit was responsible? You're lying! An irresponsible Dimwit, responsible?"

"Let him tell you himself..."

"Whip him!" said a shrill-voiced police officer, while another cop struck him in the face.

"Tell the truth!" demanded the officer as he whipped the old man's cheeks. "The truth, or you'll hang here all night!"

"Can't you see I'm blind?" "Then stop blaming the Dimwit."

"But that's the truth, and I have the balls to say so." Two lashes bloodied his lips.

"Just because you're blind doesn't mean you can't hear and can't tell the truth like the others."

"All right," said Mosco faintly. The investigator smelled victory.

"Okay, you dumb fuck. The Dimwit killed him."

"You fool!"

The Judge Advocate's words were lost in the ears of a half-man who would never hear anything again. When they loosened the rope, Mosco's dead body—or rather his torso, since his legs had already been cut off—fell to the ground like a broken pendulum.

"Stupid old liar! His testimony would've been useless anyway, since he was blind," said the investigator, walking past the corpse.

He hurried into a shabby carriage drawn by two skinny horses, a pair of lanterns hanging off it like the eyes of death, to give the President the results of the investigation. The police threw Mosco's body into a trash cart headed to the cemetery. The roosters were already crowing. The beggars, now free, crowded back into the streets. The deaf-mute woman cried out in fear, feeling a child moving in her womb.

III

PELELE'S ESCAPE

Pelele fled down the narrow maze of streets toward the city's outskirts. His frantic screams disturbed neither the breathing of the sky nor the sleep of its residents, who were as alike in death's mirror as they'd be different once the sun rose and the daily round began. Some lacked the bare necessities and worked for their daily bread, while others—taking advantage of the privileges of the idle rich—had more than enough. The latter were the President's friends: owners of forty to fifty houses; moneylenders at 9, 9.5, even 10 percent a month; and officials holding seven or eight different public posts who cashed in on concession stands, pensions, professional titles, gambling halls, cockfighting, Indians, moonshine distilleries, whorehouses, bars, and bribed newspapers.

The beet-red dawn stained the tips of the mountains cupping the city, like dandruff atop a valley. Common laborers were the first to walk down streets shrouded in darkness, ghosts in a soulless world. Office workers, clerks, and students followed a few hours later. Around eleven, when the sun was already high, the important gentlemen came to walk off their breakfast and build an appetite for lunch or rushed to join an influential friend in buying the debt of starving teachers at half price.

Down streets still engulfed in subterranean shadows, the rustling of starched skirts would break the silence—poor girls tirelessly doing morning chores or supporting families as swineherds, butter churners, traders, or girlfriends. And with the turning of the light from rose to white, like a begonia petal, came the pattering footsteps of some skinny secretary. She was ridiculed by ladies of leisure who waited until the sun was hot before leaving their bedrooms to prance down hallways and recount their dreams to their maids, scoff at passersby, caress the cat, read the newspaper, or preen before a mirror.

Pelele hurried off, in a kind of foggy dream, chased by mutts and spikes of fine rain. He ran every which way, mouth open and tongue lolling, snot nosed, panting, his arms waving in the air. Door after door, window after door after window flew by him. Suddenly, he'd stop short and put his hands over his face to defend himself from telegraph poles, but once he realized they were harmless, he'd burst out laughing and resume running like a man fleeing prison, chasing after walls of mist that disappeared the closer he came to them.

When he reached the outskirts of the city, where town gave way to countryside, he collapsed on a pile of trash. Above webs of dead trees, buzzards and blackbirds circled the garbage dump and gazed at him with bluish eyes. Since he was motionless, they swooped down and hopped around on the ground near him, edging closer in a macabre birds-of-prey dance. Glancing back and forth, ready to fly off at the slightest shift of wind or leaf, they closed in on him until they were just a beak away.

A fierce squawk signaled the attack. Pelele jumped to his feet, ready to defend himself. The most daring buzzard sank its beak like a dart into his upper lip, down to his gums, while the others fought for the right to peck out his eyes or heart.

The buzzard didn't care that the victim was still alive. It was about to rip off his lip when the Dimwit rolled down a trash heap, sending up clouds of dust and clumps of solid garbage.

Darkness descended. Green sky. Green landscape. In the barracks, bugles sounded the six o'clock call, the echoing aftertaste of a tribe on the alert or a besieged medieval town. The suffering of prisoners being killed slowly by the passing of years started again. The horizon gathered up its points of light in the city streets like a snail with a thousand horns. People were coming back from meeting the President, either relieved or even more frightened.

The light from the gambling dens flickered in the darkness.

Pelele continued to struggle with the ghost of the buzzard he felt was still attacking him and with the pain of a leg broken by a fall—an unbearable black pain tearing at his life.


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