Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The first of his sobs was powerful and easily pierced the four walls covered with pallid garlands. After all, being born has always been important, even though the newborn would only be able to realize that importance much later. For the moment, the obstetrician didn’t seem to realize it either, as her professional display of supporting that little, delicate beet of a body with one hand didn’t correspond to the important metaphysics of the moment. On the bed, the mother was divesting herself of the final stages of suffering in order to be able to relax in her incipient happiness. He gave her the second of his looks (the first had found the white ceiling), but still ignored that that was his mother, the dark cave from which he had emerged. They placed him in the tub with infinite precautions and he felt the water on his diminutive hands. He was sinking, sinking, but in the end, he subdued the cramp and remained afloat. The shore was close by, but he couldn’t stand and that tourniquet could return at any moment. Consequently, he began to swim slowly, without allowing himself to be controlled by nerves and trying to breathe in the proper rhythm. He had swallowed a tremendous amount of water, but above all he had swallowed panic. The pace of his strokes was now unhurried and his heart was beating less rapidly. When he went by Beba, who was floating with the abandon of someone who sleeps their siesta on a cot, he even had enough energy to tickle her, tolerate her loud reproaches, and think that his wife wasn’t bad looking with her two-piece bathing suit, and that at night, without it, would look even better. When he had gained a firm footing, he felt his legs weaken, and even thought he was becoming dizzy. In reality, only at that moment was he able to appraise the tremendous injustice which her death, occurring in the middle of their honeymoon, had represented. Then, Agustín threw the ball violently at him from the sand, and he had to leap to catch it. Not only did his dizziness subside, but he also had the strength to throw the ball against the almanac that was there, near the small bed. The ball rebounded and returned to him, who hit it with sudden enthusiasm. The mother, fresh, elegant, wearing a cream-colored dressing gown, appeared at the door of the bathroom, and he calmed down. He abandoned the ball to extend his arms and smile, among other reasons, for the perspective nutritional value it would uncover. “Are you hungry, my treasure?” she asked, and he violently expressed his impatience. The mother picked him up out of bed, opened her dressing gown, and breastfed him. The nipple was sweet; it still tasted like pine soap. The first gulps were quick, reckless. His poor throat couldn’t handle it. Nevertheless, after the initial urgency, his voraciousness diminished and he had time to devote himself to an additional enjoyment: the rubbing of his lips against the chest’s skin. He closed his eyes for two reasons: to concentrate on such complete joy, and to stop looking at certain hypnotizing pores. When he opened them, Celeste’s breast filled his hand. He examined those little blue veins which were always disturbing to him, but in passing, he also looked at the alarm clock. “Get dressed,” he said, “I have to go.” Celeste moved smoothly, like a cat, but she didn’t sit up. “I, on the other hand, can stay,” she said. He thought she was provoking him. Just imagining this was ridiculous, but he didn’t like to go and leave her there, naked, even though she would be alone, and her nudity would be, at most, for the oval and effeminate mirror. Perhaps she only wanted to retain him for another half an hour, but it wasn’t possible. Beba was waiting for him at the door of the movie theatre. She must be waiting for him at this very moment, and he didn’t want any more unpleasantness, jealousies, crying. “Stay, if you want,” he said, “but get dressed.” He raised his fist to accompany his order, but still had it in midair when he realized that the sound of the blow on the dressing table mirror would be occurring at an inopportune moment. And that’s what happened. With a guilty tone, he murmured: “Forgive me, uncle,” he said, but the old man’s silence was quite eloquent. He was clearly not going to forgive. “These angry outbursts could cost you dearly,” said the old man. “Right now it doesn’t really matter that you smash the mirror of the bureau. But maybe you’re also smashing your future.” What a pitiful comparison, he thought. “I’ve already asked for forgiveness,” he insisted. “Asking for forgiveness is humiliating and doesn’t fix anything,” said the old man. “The answer is not to ask for forgiveness, but to avoid the outbursts that make excuses necessary.” He felt he was blushing, but didn’t know if it was from his own embarrassment or from the situation. He thought about the bad luck of being an orphan, how his father had betrayed him with his premature death, that an uncle can never be a second father, and that ultimately, his own thoughts were much more pretentious than his uncle’s. “Can I go?” Beba asked, trying to make the sound of her voice remain midway between moderation and pride. “Yes, it would be better if you left,” he replied. “Yes, it would be better if you left,” Beba repeated tearfully, and then he felt that the blackmail was beginning once again, because his wife’s crying, although this time it was interrupted by nervous drags on a cigarette, inevitably awakened commiseration in him and disguised various reductions of love, verified during the course of nine years of matrimonial erosion. He knew that two hours later he would collide with his own disgust, his uncontrollable desires to throw it all away, and his increasing distrust for the routine and mechanics of sex with its recurrent feeling of asphyxia. But now he had to approach her, and did. He placed his hand on Beba’s shoulder and felt how his wife trembled and how at the same time, that trembling signified the end of her crying. The smile amid the tears, that kind of facial rainbow, annoyed him as never before. Nevertheless, he embraced her, kissed her near her ear, and made her believe that desire was starting to invade him, when the truth was that he was imposing desire upon himself. She left the burning cigarette on the edge of the night table, and laid down on the bed. He took off his shirt, and before he continued undressing, he leaned toward her. Suddenly, he jumped backwards: the cigarette had burned his back. He emitted hoarse scream and couldn’t avoid tears coming to his eyes. “Good,” said the man in brown to the man in gray, “for now, don’t burn him anymore.” The voice sounded tired, gloomy, and was accompanied by chewing gum. “You’re certainly stubborn,” said the man in gray, and he didn’t say anything, among other reasons because the pain and humiliation had taken away his courage. “Now look, fatso, we’re not asking you for names. We’re not asking you to betray anyone. We’re asking you for a date, that’s all. Look how nice we are. The date of the next little bombing. Go on, what does it cost you? This way we can all go to sleep, and while you dream about Carlitos Marx, we dream about little angels. Don’t you want to sleep for a while, let’s say, 15 hours? Let’s see, Pepe, show him a pillow. Or are you sleepless? Let’s see, Pepe, turn on the other light. No, not that one, it only has 200 candle power. Turn on the searchlight, it’s better.” The searchlight didn’t make a difference. He could endure not sleeping. These fellows always underestimate the physical resistance of the young. An old man might talk, because he’s worn out and feels terror at the mere possibility of physical suffering, but a young man knows why and for whom he sacrifices. “Well, Pepe,” said the man in brown, “if fatso remains silent, you’re not going to have any other choice but to light the cigarette again.” He heard, without watching, the noise the matchstick made when it was struck against the heel of the shoe. He prepared his entire body for resistance, but he surely must have overlooked some area, because suddenly his mouth opened, on its own, as if it were someone else’s mouth, and with amazing clarity pronounced: “August 18th.” The voice of the man in brown sounded secretly disappointed: “Frankly, I thought you were tougher. Let him go, Pepe, put a little band-aid on the burn, return his belongings, and tell him to get out of here.” He felt sudden pressure in his stomach, but this time the pain wasn’t coming from the outside. He leaned forward a little and was finally able to vomit. When the retching ended, he saw the sea below, pounding against the side of the boat. After the vigorous exertion, his muscles relaxed and he felt better. He turned away from the gunwale and only then realized that José Luis had been looking at him. He tried to move away, but José Luis intercepted him: “Do you feel sick?” “No, it already passed,” he said, feeling hopelessly ridiculous and wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. “Don’t look down,” said José Luis. “You’re better off if we go to the bar and you have a strong drink.” He allowed himself to be persuaded and asked for a whiskey and a vodka. José Luis was right: from the first swallow, the drink tasted good and it finished settling his stomach. “Are you happy to be back?” asked José Luis. He paused for a few seconds, trying to determine whether or not he was actually happy about his return. “I think so,” he said. “You don’t know how reassuring it is,” said José Luis, “that you’ve finally overcome those idiotic scruples.” “Well, not so idiotic,” he said. “Look the worst thing is the vagueness. We both know that this isn’t legal. That’s why it pays so well. But there’s also a rule: Once you decide, you can no longer follow your conscience. Leave your conscience to those who don’t charge, so they can amuse themselves, poor people.” He quickly drank what was left in his glass in a single gulp, and stood up. “I’m going to sleep,” he said. “As you wish,” said José Luis. He went out into the corridor, which at that hour was deserted. A muffled rhythm, and the occasional howl of the saxophone arrived from the saloon in second class. He thought that people in second class always enjoyed themselves more than people in first class. He turned into the corridor on the right. He hadn’t taken five steps when the light went out. He hesitated for a moment, and then continued walking. He thought he heard footsteps behind him. He tried to light a match, but his hand trembled. The footsteps were approaching and he felt that primary fear, elemental; the man who could never defend himself. He walked a little faster, and then, despite the swaying motion of the boat, ended up running. He ran and ran, dodging the trees and jumping over the shadows of the trees. Up ahead was the health spa with its lights. He didn’t want to look back, nor could he. The footsteps were making crackling noises over the blanket of leaves and dried twigs. “If I survive this one, never again,” he thought. The day before had signaled the 12 years he had recently completed so that he would be allowed to go to Anibal’s house alone. The outward trip didn’t matter. But the return trip. Never again. Sometimes his footsteps seem to coincide exactly with those of the pursuer, and then the pursuer’s duplication would camouflage his steps until they were almost eliminated. “If he’s walking at the same pace that I am,” he thought, “he’ll overtake me, because his legs must be much longer.” He ran with great desperation, stumbling over rocks and fallen branches, but without falling down. He didn’t calm down even when he reached the street. He walked across the last few meters that separated him from the chalet, climbed the stairs two steps at a time, turned on the light, turned the double lock, and threw himself backwards onto the bed. The frantic rhythm of his breathing started to dissipate. How beautiful this security, how lucky this electric light bulb, how locked this door. Suddenly he felt the bed was being dragged by someone. That is to say, the couch. The bed sheet came up to his lips. Without knowing why, he quickly resorted to the image of Celeste. How many years. How strange that at this moment he doesn’t remember her breasts or thighs, but her eyes. Nevertheless, he couldn’t detain himself for very long in that distant green light, almost gray. His stomach pain returned with all its knives, its daggers, its handsaws. “Give him another,” said the lab coat that was at his right. “We hope it’s the last one,” said the lab coat that was at his left. He felt the bed sheet being removed; then came the prick. Little by little the knives returned to their sheaths. He closed his eyes to locate himself, and then opened them in appreciation. His eyes remained opened for a long time. A very white silence presented itself. Then, the pendulum stopped swinging to and fro.
Translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales.
Harry Morales’s translations include the work of Mario Benedetti, Ilan Stavans, Eugenio María de Hostos, and Emir Rodríguez Monegal, among many other Latin American writers. His work has appeared in various journals, including Pequod, Quarterly West, Chicago Review, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Agni, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Manoa, and are forthcoming in Puerto del Sol.
—Mario Benedetti, one of Latin America’s most renowned writers, was born on September 14, 1920 in Pasa de los Toros, Tacuarembó Province, Uruguay. As a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, journalist, playwright, songwriter, and screenwriter, Benedetti’s vast body of work encompasses every genre. He is most renowned for his novels La Tregua, Montevideanos: Cuentos and Gracias por El Fuego, and for his anthology Inventario. Since 1985, Benedetti has lived in Montevideo and Madrid, where he devotes himself full time to writing.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.