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Entries in Quiroga (2)

Saturday
Nov162013

A la deriva

A short story ("Adrift") by this Uruguayan writer.  You can read the original here.

The man trod on something off-white, immediately felt a bite on his foot, and leapt forward.  Upon turning and swearing, he espied a lancehead – what the locals call a yaracacusú – coiled upon itself in anticipation of another attack.  Taking a quick glance at his foot, where two drops of blood were swelling troublesomely, the man removed the machete from his belt.  The viper saw the threat and sank its head deeper into the center of its coil; but the machete crashed down upon its spine, dislocating its vertebrae.  He bent over closer to the bite marks, wiped away the drops of blood, and thought about matters for a moment.  An acute pain had emerged from those two purple dots and begun to invade his entire foot.  In haste he bound his ankle with a handkerchief and followed the path back to his ranch.  The pain in his foot was increasing, along with a sensation of tense swelling, and suddenly the man spotted two or three shiny stitches irradiating like lightning from the wound to the middle of the calf.  He could move his leg only with difficulty; his throat was afflicted with metallic dryness then insatiable thirst, and he swore anew under his breath.

Having arrived finally at the ranch, he threw himself atop his mill-wheel.  Now the two purple points were vanishing into the monstrous lump the whole foot had become.  There his skin appeared thinner, tenser, and about to crack  He wanted to call out to his wife, and his voice broke into a hoarse scratch.  Thirst was devouring him.   

"Dorothea!" he managed to rattle.  "Bring me a beer!"

His wife came running with a full glass, which the man drank in three gulps.  But he did not taste a thing.

"I asked you for beer, not water!"  he roared again.  "Bring me a beer!"

"But it is beer, Paulino," protested the woman, quite scared.

"No, you brought me water!  I want beer, I tell you!"

The woman ran off one more time and returned with a demijohn.  The man had another glass, then two more, but he felt nothing in his throat.

"Alright, this here is getting very bad," he muttered, looking at his livid foot which already boasted the shine and luster of gangrene.  Atop the handkerchief's heaping ligature, flesh was oozing out like some monstrous pudding. 

Shooting pains were followed by further lightning stitches which now reached his inner thigh.  At the same time, the atrocious dryness in his throat, which breathing only seemed to heat up and exacerbate, was growing.  When he tried to stand up he vomited instantly, forcing him to remain for half a minute with his forehead pressed against the wheel's spoke.  But the man did not want to die, so he went down to the shore and got in his canoe.  He sat down at the stern and began to paddle towards the center of the Paraná river.  Here the river's current, which in the vicinity of the Iguazu river ran for six miles, would take him to Tacurú-Pucú in under five hours.  With somber energy the man was able to reach the middle of the river.  Yet here his benumbed hands dropped the paddle into the canoe, and he vomited yet again – this time, blood – then directed his gaze to the sun disappearing behind the mountain.

His whole leg, halfway to his thigh, was a hardened and deformed block bursting through his clothes.  The man cut off the ligature and opened up the pants with his knife: his lower abdomen was incredibly painful, bloated with large livid marks.  The man now believed he would never make it to Tacurú-Pucú by himself.  So he decided to ask his friend Alves for help, even if a falling out had kept them apart for a long while. 

The river's current now carried him to the Brazilian coast; the man was able to dock the canoe with ease.  He dragged himself up the slope, but after twenty meters he lay there stretched out on his stomach, exhausted.

"Alves!"  he cried with whatever force he could muster; but for a response he listened in vain.

"My dear Alves!  Do not deny me this favor!"  he screamed again, lifting his head from the ground.  In the silence of the forest not a single murmur could be heard.  The man still had the fortitude to return to his canoe, and the current, catching him once more, quickly carried him adrift.

Here the Paraná ran deep into an enormous river basin whose walls, higher than a hundred meters, gloomily canalized the river.  The black woods ascended from the shores lined with blocks of basalt, which were also black.  Behind there, on the sides, lay the eternal lugubrious wall at whose bottom the eddied river hastened into the incessant bubbling of murky waters.  So aggressive was this landscape, where reigned but the silence of death.  Nevertheless at dusk, its somber beauty and calm assumed a unique majesty.

The sun had already set when the man, half-prone at the bottom of the boat, experienced violent shivers.  Then all of a sudden, to his astonishment, he sluggishly lifted up his head and straightened it.  And he felt better.  His leg hardly hurt any more; his thirst had diminished; and his breast, now free, opened up in slow inhalation.

The venom was beginning to leave his body, he had no doubts.  He was almost alright, yet he still did not have the strength to move his hand, and reckoned that he would be fully recovered come the morning.  He also calculated that he would be in Tacurú-Pucú in three hours.

His well-being increased and with it a somnolence replete with memories.  He did not feel anything in either his leg or his stomach.  Might his friend Gaona still be living in Tacurú-Pucú?  Perhaps he could also see his former employer, Mr. Dougald, as well as the recipient of his work.  Would he arrive soon?  The sky, to the west, would now open up into a screen of gold, the river likewise having changed color.  From the already-darkened Paraguayan coast the mountain let the twilght's freshness cascade over the river with emanations of orange blossoms and wild honey.  Very high up, a pair of macaws silently crossed the sky in the direction of Paraguay.  

Down here upon the river of gold the canoe was drifting rapidly, at times spinning around before a bubbling whirlpool.  The man in that canoe kept feeling better and better, and in the meantime thought about the exact amount of time that had passed since he had last seen his former employer, Dougald.  Had it been three years?  Perhaps not, not that long.  Two years and nine months?  Perhaps.  Eight and a half months?  That's how long it had been, he was certain. 

Suddenly he felt frozen up to his chest.  What could this be?  And yet his breathing ... He had made the acquaintance of Lorenzo Cubilla, the recipient of those wood products of Mr. Dougald's, in Puerto Esperanza one year on Good Friday.  Was it a Friday?  Yes, or was it a Thursday?  

The man slowly stretched out his fingers.

"It was a Thursday ..."

And he stopped breathing.

Monday
Dec172012

Los buques suicidantes

A work ("The suicide ships") by this Uruguayan man of letters.  You can read the original here.

There are, as it were, few things more terrible than finding an abandoned ship at sea.  If in daytime the danger is minor, during the night the boat cannot be seen, nor can there be any possible forewarning, and the shock affects one vessel just as much as the other.

These boats abandoned by A or by B continue their voyage obstinately with the backing of currents or the wind; that is, if they have their sails open.  In this way, capriciously changing course, they travel the seven seas.

Not a few of the steamships which, one fine day, do not arrive at port, will have stumbled in their paths across one of these silent boats sailing off on their own.  The probability of finding them always exists, at every minute.  As chance would have it, the currents tend to entangle the boats in the Sargasso seas, and here or there, the boats finally stop, forever immobile amidst a desert of seaweed.  And thus they remain until, little by little, they disintegrate.  Others, new boats, arrive every day and take up their places in silence, so that this tranquil and lugubrious port remains ever frequented.

The principle cause of these abandoned vessels is doubtless the storm or fire which leaves in its drift stray black skeletons.  Yet there are other, more singular causes, among which we may count the occurrence involving the María Margarita, which weighed anchor from New York on the 24th of August in the year 1903.  On the 26th it communicated with a corvette without any news.  Four hours later, not receiving an answer, some numskull dispatched a launch which boarded the María Margarita.  There was no one on the boat.  The sailors' shirts were drying on the prow.  The stove was still on.  A sewing machine had its needle suspended above the seam, as if it had been forsaken but a moment ago.  Not even the slightest indication of a struggle or panic could be found; everything was in perfect order.  And yet everyone was gone.  What could have happened?

On the night I learned of this, we were assembled on the bridge.  Europe was our destination, and the captain was regaling us with seaman's tales.  Perfectly true ones, however.

Our female audience, won over by the suggestion of whispering waves, listened with a shudder.  Against their own will, the girls lent an ear to the hoarse cacophony of sailors on the prow.  A very young, recently married woman ventured a comment:

"Could it have been eagles?"

The captain smiled a kind-hearted smile.

"What, ma'am?  A crew carried away by eagles?"

Everyone, including the young woman, laughed, although her laugh was a bit shy.

Luckily enough, one of our passengers knew something about the matter.  We gazed at him with great curiosity.  During the voyage he had been an excellent companion, traveling at his own expense and risk, and speaking little.

"Ah, sir!" said the young eagle theorist.  "If you could tell us all about it!"

"I have no objection," assented the discreet fellow.  "In a word: once upon a time in the seas of the north we, like our captain's María Margarita, came upon a sailing ship.  Its singular air of abandonment, unmistakeable in a ship, caught our attention and we slowed our pace as we observed it more closely.  At length we dispatched a launch.  There was no one to be found on board and everything was in perfect order; yet the last entry in the captain's log was four days old.  Nevertheless, it provided us no better impression of what had happened.  Still, we laughed a bit about those famous sudden disappearances.

"Eight of our men stayed on board to steer and manage the new boat.  We were traveling in convoy.  At nightfall, the newcomer put some distance between our ships.  Come the day, we had caught up to it again but could see no one at all on the bridge.  Another launch was dispatched and those on it scoured the boat in vain: everyone had disappeared.  Not a single object was out of place.  The sea was absolutely smooth to every corner of its horizon.  In the kitchen a pan with potatoes was still aboil.

"As you will surely understand, the superstitious terror of our crew now reached its zenith.  Eventually, six men stepped forth to fill the empty ship and I was with them.  Hardly had we boarded when my new companions decided to drink so as to banish all other preoccupations.  They were seated in a circle and soon enough most of them were singing.

"Noon came and then siesta time; at four o'clock the breeze died down and the sails fell; a sailor approached the edge of the vessel and gazed upon the oily sea.  Everyone was already awake and walking about without, as yet, any desire to make conversation.  One of them sat down on a rolled-up cable coil, removed his shirt, and set to mending it.  He sewed for a while in silence.  Suddenly he got up and gave off a long whistle.  His companions turned around.  He looked at them vaguely, in equal surprise, and then sat down again.  A moment later he left his shirt atop the coil, walked up to the boat's edge, and threw himself in the water.  Upon hearing the noise the others turned their heads, their brows somewhat furrowed.  But almost immediately they seemed to forget the incident and returned to their collective apathy.

"Some time thereafter another of them, rubbing his eyes as he walked, was seized with despair and threw himself in the water.  A half-hour passed; the sun was sinking.  I suddenly felt someone touching my shoulder: 

"'What time is it?'

"'Five o'clock,' I answered.  The old sailor who had asked me the question looked mistrustful, and kept his hands in his pockets.  For a long while he studied, with a distracted air, my trousers.  Finally, he threw himself in the water.

"The three remaining quickly approached one another and looked at the eddy.  They sat down on the edge of the vessel, whistling slowly, their gazes lost in the distance.  One of them descended and, tired, lay down on the bridge.  The others disappeared one by one.  At six o'clock, the last one of them all got up, straightened his clothes, pushed his hair to the side of his forehead, and, still walking sleepily, threw himself in the water.

"And thus I was left alone to gaze like an idiot upon a deserted sea.  All of them, without knowing what they were doing, had hurled themselves into the sea, swaddled in that morose somnambulism that haunted the boat.  When one would throw himself in the water, the others would turn, momentarily preoccupied as if they remembered something, only to forget it all almost immediately.  This is how they had all disappeared, and I suppose that the same thing had happened to those of the day before, and those others on all those other boats.  That is my tale."

Out of justifiable curiosity, our gaze did not quit this strange man.

"And you, you felt nothing?" asked my cabin mate. 

"I did, I did: both a great indifference, and the obstinacy of these same ideas, but nothing more.  I do not know why I did not feel anything more.  I assume that the reason is this: instead of becoming parched in anxious self-defense, and at all costs against what I felt (as everyone ought to have felt; even sailors do not realize it), I simply accepted this hypnotic death as if I had already been destroyed.  Something very similar must undoubtedly have happened to the sentinels of that celebrated guard who hanged themselves night after night."

Because such a statement was sufficiently complicated, no one responded.  After a little while our narrator retired to his cabin.  The captain followed him out of the corner of his eye.

"Charlatan!" he mumbled.

"On the contrary," said a sick passenger, headed to die in his native land.  "If he were a charlatan, he wouldn't have stopped thinking about it, and would likewise have thrown himself into the water."