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.
* * *
Now Adelaida worried about Don Horacio. He could not tell if she loved him out of habit or saw in him the sole sustainer of her livelihood and so had a crass if understandable ulterior motive in seeking to deter or defer his suicide. In any event, she harassed him with her attentions, irked him with her blandishments, angered him with her prayers.
Tonight Adelaida came to him in his study as he listened to Mahler on a Fifties-era record player while perusing in English the sprung-rhythm sonnets of G. M. Hopkins, whose world view he found admirably complex in its expression but annoyingly naïve on an intellectual level.
In front of his wing chair, Adelaida held up the spherical gold locket that hung from the chain about her neck.
“Do you see this, Señor?” she asked, as if he were blind or simple.
He replied, “Of course, I see it: I’ve beheld it thousands of times over the course of your employment here.” She rotated the delicate ball in her fingers and declared that the locket was precious because it had belonged to her late husband’s mother, herself the wife of a fisherman, and that Alejo had presented it to her on their seventh anniversary. In addition, it had a peculiar but meaningful keepsake pent within it.
“Have you any idea what slumbers inside my locket, Don Horacio?” the woman impertinently quizzed him.
“A strand of Alejo’s hair?” he replied without curiosity.
“No, no, no,” Adelaida said, laughing. “Guess again.”
“A cameo-style silhouette of Alejo,” he dully ventured, “his face in profile?”
“Ah, no, Señor. You’ll never guess. No one ever guesses.”
“A luxury yacht with six lifeboats, a swimming pool, and a ball room big enough for a jazz band and fifty dancers.”
Adelaida tilted her head in astonishment and respect. “No, but you’re closer . . . at least in a way.”
Don Horacio grimaced. “Then please simply tell me, Adelaida, for your sake, if not for mine.”
Disregarding the implicit insult, she told him that Alejo had immured in the sphere, by means of a pescador’s ocean-earned savvy and the beast’s own elasticity, a giant squid that in the open sea had attained a length of well over fifteen meters. Adelaida wore the locket containing the creature as a reminder of the grand fecundity and the unceasing adaptability of life on earth as well as a memento of her drowned husband’s love of his joyful fifty-two years on earth and of her in particular.
Don Horacio rebuked Adelaida, gently, for believing that an adult giant squid could fit into her locket ball.
“But it’s true, Señor.” She insisted that sometimes she could feel the beast inside it, and that in any case Alejo would never have lied to her about so sacred a gift. Implying otherwise was tantamount to calling him faithless in myriad unlikely ways. And didn’t she have the witness of the locket—she rotated it before his eyes—to refute his heartless, even sacrilegious, assertion?
“Of course,” Don Horacio said, acquiescing in her piety. Then, to change the subject, he asked her to fetch him some chilled roast beef and a small bowl of garbanzos.
“You are melancholy,” Adelaida said. “The music, the poems you read: they do nothing to quell your sadness. Take my hands and pray aloud with me for Christ Jesus to bring you joy.”
He vehemently rejected this proposal. She would do him a greater favor if she found some arsenic somewhere and seasoned his chickpeas with it. That would end his sadness more quickly than a silly petition or novena.
“You would die. The police would arrest me. I would go to prison for the very thing I mean my labor and my steadfastness to prevent.”
This speech touched and annoyed Don Horacio. “I’ll write you a victim’s excuse, absolving you of evil intent and so of any wrongdoing.”
“You have no power to absolve me of sin, and you would put my soul in mortal peril if I obeyed you.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue wad and stared at him as if he wished to dispatch her to everlasting perdition.
“Then just bring the goddamned beef and garbanzos,” he said, reaching over and turning up the gramophone.
“Sí, Don Horacio, as you wish.”
If nothing else, he thought, the strains of Mahler’s Ninth would override the maddening ululations of the stars.
* * *
Frightened, Adelaida scurried away and called Doctor Ezequiel Vega to report that Señor Gorrión had asked her to poison him. Clearly, he needed a visit and an examination. The sooner the physician came to talk to him the better, for who could say what Don Horacio now might do?
After that call, Adelaida telephoned Father Reinaldo Casares, because her employer also required spiritual counsel, perhaps even more than he did a thorough physical checkup; and although she suspected that Don Horacio had abandoned the religious teachings of his sainted mother, he liked to match wits with Father Casares and especially to badger him about the utter unprovability of the alleged love of God for the beneficiaries—or pawns—of God’s material creation.
As it happened, after being summoned, the doctor and the padre arrived that same evening within a minute of each other.
The rotund Doctor Vega drove up in his late-model luxury car from his beachfront villa on la Bahía de Piratas, while the younger, more athletic Father Casares climbed on foot from his iglesia on the steep cobblestone pavement debouching on the harbor.
Adelaida announced the men, who entered the study bumping shoulders like actors in a regrettable Hollywood farce.
Don Horacio Gorrión was appalled. He knew and pleasantly abided the doctor and the priest, but could not imagine talking with them together, as Adelaida should have known. Obviously, she had determined to avenge herself on him for insulting Alejo Guzman’s memory when he pooh-poohed the legend of the locket-pent squid.
Therefore, with a quaver in his voice, he told his visitors that he must receive them one at a time, or else his existential nervousness would militate against his speaking productively to either.
Father Casares, as Don Horacio knew he would, deferred to Doctor Vega, who had sashayed into the book-lined study in a lightweight double-breasted suit and silky blue cravat. Alone with his host, the doctor carefully lifted the record player’s ruby-tipped stylus from the Mahler symphony, an act that filled Don Horacio’s ears, the study, the house, the town, the island, and indeed the entire universe with the incessant, deafening static of quasars and residual Big Bang noise.
“Adelaida says you asked her to poison you; that your melancholy has worsened; and that, sans intervention, you plan to kill yourself.”
Don Horacio cupped his hands to his ears and made a face like that of a small boy who has had his first taste of cod-liver oil. Adelaida and Father Casares—Padre Reinaldo, as he liked parishioners to call him—were talking in the kitchen about his intransigent sadness and his bent for self-annihilation, but, try as he might to penetrate to the gist of their colloquy, the star static whelmed and buried it.
“Put your hands down,” Doctor Vega said.
Don Horacio obeyed, but his monkey-faced grimace remained.
“Now answer my questions: Have you taken the antidepressants I’ve prescribed? . . . No? Why not? . . . Do you eat correctly? . . . No, I don’t mean ‘with your mouth.’ I mean, Do you eat fruits and vegetables that lead to long-term good health? . . . No? Why not? . . . Do you still have trouble sleeping? . . . No, every person of sense is not an insomniac, Horacio. Most people do not fret in the same way that you do; most people consider the lilies and recognize that ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ You must reorder priorities and exile your worries.
“Thanks to the foresightedness of your family, you have the wherewithal to live many years—far beyond your natural span—without fear of exhausting your resources. Can you not appreciate how unusual a provision this is, in these perilous times, here on Isla Arca? . . . No? Why not? . . . Do you suppose all our citizens as fortunate as you?”
Don Horacio put his hands to his head and screamed.
The scream ricocheted through the house. It nearly caused the doctor to piss himself. Adelaida manifested at the study door, with Father Casares close behind her.
Bugging out his eyes, Don Horacio waved them away.
Doctor Vega, shaken and irritated, lowered his broad frame into a wide leather chair atop an indigo and burgundy Persian rug. He twisted the diamond-studded silver ring on his little finger, took a cellophane-wrapped Cuban cigar from one pocket, unwrapped it, struggled to remove an engraved silver lighter from another pocket, and lit the cigar. Then he alternately shifted the cigar between his scissoring fingers and puffed away at it. As he twiddled or smoked, his good humor returned.
“You are as fortunate as I,” Don Horacio said dryly.
“Oh, I concur. But I worked to assure that outcome and all the amenities that ease our travails here.”
“Touché.” Don Horacio had taught for a time and also done some long-distance freelance editorial work, but in neither case because he had to, and both occupations had jaded and disillusioned him. Despite what the world undoubtedly perceived as his idleness, he still felt superior to Doctor Vega, and in a sour way relished his philosophical aloofness from the mayhemic bustle of most worldly professions.
“How much money do you have?” Doctor Vega asked of a sudden.
“Why? Do you intend to diagnose me with a disease that will bankrupt me? Or do you wish me to write you into the Gorrión family will?”
“I have a business proposition. If that sounds exploitive of your wealth or your depression, let me stress that a small initial investment could significantly add to the former and gradually ameliorate the latter.”
“Wealth is no surefire medicine for melancholy, Ezequiel.”
“True, but unless you too much fret its growth and disposition, it seldom hurts.”
Don Horacio raised an eyebrow.
“And when it comes, you can disperse it as you like, thus increasing your status as a living organ of Christ’s Body—as a patron to the arts, the sciences, and the poor, who persist among us always.”
“In what folly do you wish me to invest?”
“Isla Arca Petroleum, a subsidiary of Austin-Antilles Corporation. My corporate partners and I suspect that huge reservoirs of oil lie out beyond the Bay of Pirates. I can’t be more specific about their location, but tapping these would make us all, and make us for life.”
“Life? A poor reward: the mere blink of an eye. In any case, Ezequiel, it’s a discouragingly banal proposal, a yesterday sort of project. I would rather be unmade . . . not financially as a business partner but, more satisfyingly, as an existential creature.”
Doctor Vega laughed. “Then consider a more adventurous investment.”
“Well, at the Academy of Science and Technology in Boca de Yesca, I have a friend working with bubbles of ‘false vacuum’ to create baby universes. These will inflate as ours once did, but cut their ties to ours via the closing of microscopic black holes and then float away on other-dimensional tangents. Then we will lack any vantage from which to see or understand how these baby universes grow, although we anticipate that they will develop by never-ending expansion.” The doctor paused and puffed away smugly at his cigar. “Therefore I ask, Horacio: Would you rather invest in research of this pioneering, if highly unorthodox, kind?”
“How would such a project’s investors make any money?” Don Horacio asked. “If your friend’s so-called baby universes detach irrevocably from ours, what practical application could they possibly have for anyone trapped in this space-time anomaly?”
Doctor Vega laughed again. “God only knows. God only knows.” Then he added, “Maybe we could sell these ‘babies’ to people—give them a deed, let them name their universes, let them play god.”
“Wait. Could a person transfer into such a universe and watch it expand from within? Could it have a temporal quirk investing a time-bound mortal with the perspective and even the life span of the alleged Deity?”
The smile on Doctor Vega’s face burned out in stages. “I have no idea, but my friend Carlos contends that the scientific laws governing these created universes could be different from those governing ours. After all, once split off, they become both inaccessible and autonomous.”
“I’d never invest in such a project,” Don Horacio said, “unless I could set foot in a bubble universe, find it to my liking, and then live in it with the aloof insouciance of a god.”
Doctor Vega looked uncomfortable. “Horacio, I can’t promise you that. I mean, rather, that my friend Carlos can’t.”
“I didn’t think so.”
“And what do you mean, ‘find it to my liking’?”
“It would have to be a bubble in which all the blasted stars didn’t make such a continuous insupportable din.”
“They don’t make that sort of din in this one, Horacio.”
“You aren’t attuned to it.”
Doctor Vega stood up. “See me tomorrow for a complete checkup. Call in the morning. We’ll clear you a slot. Will you do that?”
“Of course: Why not?”
Don Horacio walked the doctor to the door and let him out, repeating his readiness to submit to an examination and even to a series of medical tests. It amused him that Doctor Vega thought his business proposals would prove in any way tempting. Clearly, as an outright materialist he did not care to look too deeply at the world, or else the fool would not expect to make money from either offshore oil or the sci-fi scenarios of an astrophysical researcher at Boca de Yesca.
* * *
Don Horacio veered toward the kitchen and found Adelaida and Father Casares standing at the butcher block with plates of roast beef and bowls of cold garbanzos. They held glasses of Chilean shiraz with which to wash down this impromptu repast.
Adelaida handed Don Horacio her glass and nodded at the plate before her on the block. “These are yours, Señor. We . . . I didn’t know the doctor had left.” She bowed her head.
“Reinaldo and I will eat in here. You may go.”
“Yes, Señor.” She curtseyed and withdrew.
Reinaldo sipped his wine sans embarrassment and laid the housekeeper’s locket, the sphere only, on the butcher block beside his bowl of chickpeas. “A charming woman, Adelaida, and very devoted to you.”
“An uneducated, sentimental peasant with a streak of illogical religiosity about her.”
“And what do you say about me in my absence?” The young priest’s eyes scintillated with amused mischief.
“‘An educated, sentimental divine with a streak of well-hid rationality to recommend him . . . if only occasionally.’” Don Horacio nodded at the block. “What are you doing with her locket, Reinaldo?”
“She says it contains a giant squid. She asked me to bless it and give it to you as a talisman: a charm to prevent your suicide.”
“Then you see exactly what I mean: nonsense, sentimentality, and impertinence.”
“All rather more touching than otherwise.”
Don Horacio took a sip of Shiraz, then picked up a fork and speared a piece of the cold rare beef. He felt neither sociable nor hungry, but the only visitor he would have preferred to Father Casares was . . . well, the ghost of his own father. And so he prepared to be grilled like a teenage thief at a barrio police station:
“Adelaida says you asked her to poison you.”
Don Horacio chewed, swallowed, and stabbed another beef cube. What a travesty of a catechism. After all, this muscular young religious already knew that he, Horacio Gorrión, had no earnest commitment to this life and no belief at all in a subsequent one.
“If she speaks true, Don Horacio, you’ve tempted her to sin out of your own surrender to despair, which some theologians suppose the unforgivable sin because it indicts God as faithless to his Creation.”
Continuing to chew, Don Horacio stared Reinaldo in the eyes . . . which, however, caused the priest no visible consternation; he candidly returned Don Horacio’s gaze.
“My friend,” Reinaldo said, “why do you wish to die?”
“Have you blessed the locket yet?” Don Horacio countered.
The priest shook his head and scooped up the gold ball as if playing a children’s street game: jacks, perhaps.
“Then do so,” Don Horacio told him. “Bless it for Adelaida. She deserves that priestly boon, as meaningless as it no doubt is.”
“‘I bless this locket in the name of the tripartite God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Reinaldo said in his everyday baritone. “‘May it protect Horacio Gorrión from his bent to sin, whether it manifests as a sin ordinary and venial or as one dreadful and mortal. Amen.’” He reached out and dropped the locket into the breast pocket on Don Horacio’s grey knit jersey.
This blessing agitated Don Horacio, who tossed chickpeas into his mouth like candy and then stalked away from the butcher block and back again.
“Who forgives God’s sins, many of which are more ‘dreadful and mortal’ than any merely human mind can devise? Answer me that.”
“Then give me an example of a sin of God’s,” the priest retorted.
“Wars and rumors of war. The Holocaust. Genocide. The sufferings of innocents in the midst of horrendous upheavals.”
“These cruelties spring from the freewill activities of human beings, Don Horacio. You can’t really attribute them to God.”
“He permits them.”
“He doesn’t initiate them. They aren’t his.”
“Oh, you love your freewill argument. What about floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, meteor strikes? No human being ever initiated a coast-crushing tsunami, or even a tiny whirlwind that destroys a poor family praying for mercy in its mountainside hovel. Justify that to me, Reinaldo.”
“Physical occurrences determined by earth movements, tides, and the astronomical position of the planet. God does not will such things. He beholds them all with sadness, rue, and redemptive love.”
“In your system, there’s no accountability for anyone but fallible human beings. God takes no responsibility for the heinous things that occur, only for the good. So how can I help but dismiss the extravagant claims you make for his omnipotence and the excuses you make for his failures to prevent or at least to ease our suffering?”
“He does ease our suffering, Don Horacio. Listen: I believe that God is a creative force, an artist, and when catastrophes such as massacres, tsunamis, and meteor strikes occur, well, they stand for moments when God’s continuous essaying of creative risk passes briefly out of his control and therefore seems to us ignorant mortals as ‘disasters.’ God doesn’t will these moments, though, he wills something altogether else.”
“And botches it, Reinaldo?”
“No, no, he only briefly loses his grip or focus, with forces so grand that even the slightest misstep leads to catastrophe for the creation that he brought into being with painstaking love. It’s not easy to create, Don Horacio. Nor is it always possible to succeed on one’s first attempt. But God equals God precisely because he doesn’t back away from wreckage in disgust or defeat. He sets in motion webs of artistic redemption that overcome the unforeseen problem and infuse the situation with a fresh and unexpected richness, so that good comes out of evil, beauty out of ruin, love out of despair. And almost always God uses those among us who have survived these rare moments of creative disaster to construct the richness and the redemption that inevitably ensue. You see, Don Horacio, God never abandons any problem.”
“No, from what you’ve just said, he dumps them on us to sort out.” Don Horacio shook his head. “Is this sophistic nonsense your stab at reconciling the existence of evil with that of an all-loving God?”
Reinaldo admitted that his stance on the problem of evil derived in large measure from the work of a British pastor and theologian, W. H. Vanstone. He noted that Vanstone regarded God as an artist—painter, novelist, composer, sculptor, etc.—who met unexpected problems so ingeniously that he poured into every creative act material that “enriched” and “redeemed” each briefly mangled enterprise. Unless the believer accepted this analogy between God and the artist, Reinaldo went on, he or she imputed to each catastrophe, or “outbreak of evil,” to use Vanstone’s terminology, an intent devoid of “all the precariousness and all the poignancy of love.” And Reinaldo could not accede to such a negative formulation of the Deity.
“So you strip him of omnipotence to spare him the charge of cruelty.”
“Sí, Don Horacio, I freely admit it.”
“A diminished Creator? You think that a fair tradeoff?”
“I don’t see him as diminished, but as enlarged by his ability to feel with humanity and so to rescue Creation from a motiveless havoc. Often we are the agents who help him, who must help him, effect that rescue. In response to his gift of love, the Christ who died, we become elements of Christ’s body and act in his name, on his behalf, to redeem the calamities large and small that afflict us all as sojourners here.”
The men faced each other holding a second or third glass of red wine. They had shared a meal of sorts, but had not broken bread, and the mystical nature of this convoluted defense of God roiled in Don Horacio’s mind like an indigestible stew. Although he wanted to turn it to use, to convert it into fuel, it oppressed, even nauseated, him.
Adelaida had long since climbed to her bedchamber on the second floor, where Don Horacio no longer visited, and all Infante Sagrado had grown quiet as the ancient Spanish cemetery on the mesa beyond the arroyo separating the interior from the harbor ridge. A maddening itch radiated upward from beneath Don Horacio’s skin, like heat from a stove eye, until he could hardly disguise it. Hence, to suppress his panic, he set his wine glass down and hugged himself. Reinaldo gazed at him with keen alertness and pity and asked if anything were wrong.
“Surely you hear it?”
“What, Don Horacio? The unwonted silence of the city?”
“The pump in the aquarium in the bedroom of my housekeeper.”
Reinaldo snorted good-humoredly. “Your house is too well built for any creature but an owl to hear such a little noise so far away.”
“Well, it’s a large aquarium, with gar and octopi and flounder swimming about in it.”
“Really? Any giant squid?”
“Of course not.” Don Horacio tightened his self-embrace. “Thank you for coming at Adelaida’s nonsensical bidding.”
“Tell me the truth: May I safely leave you this evening?”
“I’m a melancholic skeptic, but not one to stick my head in a noose or to gulp down cyanide. Go in peace, Reinaldo, free of guilt.”
At length, Father Reinaldo Casares—so young to bear the title padre—withdrew and began the long heel-bruising trek down the cobblestone slope to his church and his quarters nearby.
* * *
As soon as the priest had left, Horacio Gorrión dropped to his knees and rubbed his arms with a punishing vigor, as if to brush from them a host of microscopic vermin. The heat and the itch came from within, but their trigger, the impetus for both, originated in the engine-like crosstalk of the stars and in the impact of this incessant celestial jabber on Señor Gorrión’s aging body. Every synapse in his mortal self had a star broadcasting to it, and every star fired its distinct spectral hum into him with a dissonant twang or buzz audible to Don Horacio and if not to him alone, then to him in a way to which every other suffering mortal was deaf.
“I can’t bear it,” he muttered.
But how could anyone bear it?
This star ruckus jangled, purred, droned, hissed, and screeched at such piercingly keen frequencies that he actually feared his head would explode. It also swam sinuously through the conduits of his bloodstream like infinitesimal minnows with razorblades for fins, conjectural fish that at once amplified the star noise and sliced the veins and arteries netting him together: an unbearable double torment.
His skin prickled all over. It verged on erupting. But Señor Gorrión also felt Adelaida’s tiny gold sphere turning in his pocket. The giant squid that his housekeeper fancied shrunken inside it—a notion as whimsically unlikely as the grand unkillable fiction of God—had moved within the thing, had twisted or kinked in response either to the weird rise in the temperature of his blood or to the Big Bang background hiss racketing among his ganglia, if not to these two phenomena at once.
Adelaida’s squid—the largest known invertebrate on the planet, with eyes the size of basketballs—wanted out. It would boil in the drops of sea water in its diminutive amniotic sac, that is, the locket, until it burst from its prison, its eight arms and two tentacles inflating like slender balloons, filling all the space around him with murderous appendages, a Lovecraftian horror in his own house, bereft of the sea and thus instinctually enraged and venomous. Señor Gorrión could not let that happen. He would roll the locket, hard, into the palm of his hand and carry it, willy-nilly, to the Bay of Pirates, to fling its encapsulated, ready-to-materialize fish-beast into waters saltily akin to those that had nurtured it.
Cautiously, like a small boy needing to move his bowels but averse to doing so just yet, he angled toward a window looking out on la Calle de los Piratas. Here his fingers separated the ivory-yellow blinds, and he peeked through this slit at a strip of the world that he had unequivocally renounced. At one of the switchbacks on this slope—near a streetlamp like a pumpkin atop a harpoon—Reinaldo steadied the arm of a black-clad old woman clutching a shopping basket and guided her up some rickety wooden steps perpendicular to the cobblestone ramp. The sight of the descending street, the houses fronting it in tiers, and the basalt-colored waters of the bay heightened Señor Gorrión’s agoraphobia, and like an executioner dropping a guillotine blade, he released the blinds, snapping them shut.
Adelaida’s locket rolled against his chest again. It leapt in his pocket. It said to him, over the clamor of the stars: Don Horacio, run.
He removed his shoes. He peeled off his socks. His feet resembled two pale bony fish. It astonished him that he could walk on them, but he did . . . toward the same door at which he had bid goodbye to Reinaldo but through which he had not stepped since the morning of his sister Sabiduría’s funeral. Barefoot, he gripped the open door on both its sides, leaning toward it like a skydiver in a small aircraft, at once sweating and trembling. His skin crawled with an invisible scroll of fire, as if burning off a lamina of lighter fluid, while the stars’ overlapping arias turned ever more dogged and cacophonous. These, indeed, pitilessly plagued and badgered him:
Run, Don Horacio: run.
As he had done during Doctor Vega’s visit, he screamed. But this time he also launched himself through the doorway and pelted down the switchbacking street at an all-out, precipitous tilt, his mouth open and his scream resounding up and down the harbor ridge without break or any lapse in intensity. As some mentally handicapped children do, he held his hands at shoulder height, where they flopped like thalidomide appendages as his thin legs pumped and his heels and toes bruised, split open, and bled.
Father Casares saw him go plummeting past, but could not intercede without abandoning the widow Elisenda, whereas other appalled witnesses along his descent supposed him a raving drunk—a common enough sight on the harbor at that hour—or a soul shoved from the edge of lunacy into its brightest and ghastliest phase.
Señor Gorrión ran as he screamed: he screamed as he ran . . . past the houses of long-avoided neighbors, past the office of the unlicensed dentist who had perhaps filled his cavities with a quasar-transmitting metal, past a wall on which someone had chalked the mysterious legend ojos de un perro azul (“eyes of a blue dog”), past coconut palms, weird bromeliads, and rampant waterfalls of bougainvillea, and, finally, past a pair of teenage sweethearts who clung to each other even harder at the sight of such a dismaying human projectile, rude testimony to the precariousness of both love and sanity.
In any event, no one attempted to halt him in his plunge or to deflect him from his headlong course. His wired mind—indeed, his entire body—had drained of all awareness but that of the star scourge both above and within him and the lapping salt water ahead. Even so, he extracted Adelaida’s gold sphere from his pocket with one flipper-like hand and prepared to catapult it into the bay. Patience itself, the sea waited to receive both the cargo-laden locket and the hollow Horacio Gorrión.