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Steven Utley

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Fiction and Excerpts [1]

The City Quiet as Death

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Hurricanes did not perturb Horacio Gorrión, nor did rumors of an impending government assault on a barbarous drug cartel in the island’s interior rain forest. Riots in Ciudad del Infante Sagrado, the capital, whether for food or work, or in protest of obscene taxes or other repressive policies, cost Don Horacio not one instant of sleep. Nor did he quail before falling equity values in the Caribbean or anywhere else worldwide.

Not even thoughts of his own mortality, including premonitions of the incapacitating tremors that afflicted almost every male Gorrión in his años de oro, discomfited Don Horacio. His malaise did not spring from an inherited disease, the collapse of the plantain crop, or the summary execution of a vocal opposition leader; instead, it stemmed from a pathological obsession with the unbearable nightly clamor of the stars.

Don Horacio, a recluse for many years now, fretted the basic ontological nature of the cosmos and the meaning, or lack of same, implicit in it. He also suffered from agoraphobia so severe that he confined himself not merely to his hereditary manse, but to its downstairs rooms. The Gorrión house graced the high slope of a ridge behind Infante Sagrado, the jewel of Isla Arca. From a widow’s walk that Don Horacio’s grandfather had single-handedly added to this structure, a person could gaze over tiers of red-tiled rooftops to a cobblestone pavement reaching toward the waterfront, from which the blue Caribbean Sea stretched away to the blue Caribbean sky. For his part, though, Don Horacio would have blanched at any thought of taking this view: he felt vertigo at the mere contemplation of the vastness of the universe, the immensity of geologic time, and the natural processes of birth, growth, death, and decay at work all about him every passing second.

In his self-imposed confinement, he cultivated no real friendships and only a few relationships. For daily company he had recourse to a library that his father and his father’s father had assembled and expanded over the better part of a century. Here, shelved side by side, resided leather-bound editions of Lucretius, St. Augustine, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swift, Voltaire, Thackery, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Mann, García Lorca, Camus, and a host of others. Here he found and took to heart this passage by John Keats, a poet dead much too young:

I was at home
And should have been most happy—but I saw
Too far into the sea, where every man
The greater on the less feeds evermore.
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal destruction,
And so from happiness was far gone.

Elsewhere Don Horacio, in a work by a fine nineteenth-century British novelist who styled herself “George Eliot,” read, reread, and internalized this unsettling speculation:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies the other side of silence.

In his youth, Señor Gorrión had fared poorly in school, but a succession of tutors, along with his omnivorous reading, had inculcated in him sufficient knowledge to shape his nightmares for life. The void surrounding the fragile earth, the turbulent interior of the planet, and the mercurial sea that either lapped or battered Isla Arca: these phenomena obsessed and unnerved the boy who, over time, metamorphosed into the pale hunch-shouldered recluse in the oddly constructed house atop the harbor ridge.

The notion that he represented the pinnacle of evolution attained by the offspring of some anonymous sea-dwelling creature particularly distressed Don Horacio. He could not, as many do, take comfort in a religious-fundamentalist dismissal of Darwin’s theories, for he lacked both the taste and the patience for the tortuous rationalizations that a creationist mindset requires. He did not deny the physical world or its random beauties, but only hated the former and saw through the latter to the dust on which Impersonal Undirected Process had built them all.

“I can’t bear it,” he would mutter aloud.

What can’t you bear? an umbrella stand might reply.

 

“The endless din of the stars,” said Don Horacio. “The ghosts of all the eons past: they oppress, no, they recurrently murder me.” And so he candidly assessed the advantages and disadvantages of killing himself, most likely with his grandfather’s antique shotgun.

Yes, he would slide its barrel into his mouth, squeeze its trigger with his thumbs, and blow the top of his skull to bloody fragments, as Papá Hemingway had done decades ago in the clean cold air of distant Idaho. No, he would not. He could never leave such an undignified mess for Adelaida, his superstitious housekeeper, to clean up, following, of course, the requisite police inspection, photographs, and memory-raping interviews.

Adelaida had also attended the last living person whom Don Horacio had unequivocally loved, his elder sister Sabiduría, who had died two years ago of a mysterious degenerative disease akin to that which gave so many aged Gorrión males their tremors and tics.

Sabiduría, though, had taken her last breath in a state of near paralysis. Don Horacio had held her hand while Doctor Vega fussed about, Father Casares administered extreme unction, and Adelaida huddled nearby mumbling pious nonsense and worrying a cheap lacquered rosary that a younger Don Horacio had bought her in Juárez, Mexico. As his sister’s hand grew cold, the tiled walls winked in the fading light, and small ghostly figures emerged and performed slow-motion calisthenics in the tiles’ dull cracked ceramic. Don Horacio had the bizarre impression that they were beckoning him to join Sabiduría in death. But two years ago he had not been ready for that transition, and his grief had given him such powerful melancholy purpose that he had worked as far through its anomalous energy surge as he could before yanking up abruptly at the full extension of its tether.

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