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I missed the scorching wind of Andalusia. The way it pours sunlight onto your face, toying with eyelashes, flattening dry sand against cheeks and milling around hair. I missed the smell of the valley and that ripening softness of Muscat fluff glistening in the afternoon breeze.
From up here I can see the house where I grew up, the grape orchards with white chapel and the old town spreading on canvas behind it. I can see patches of asphalts on El Jardinito Road hailing from the Southern edge of the town through dappled rocks, then waning behind the horizon with erratic headlights of beat up trucks cruising along. One of the pit stops along El Jardinito, where truckers or drunk students stop to relieve themselves, marks the beginning of this narrow wavy path. All covered in blotches of yellow grass and dusty sands, like an old forgotten wrinkle, the path is first barely noticeable. Truth is, no one even cares to notice it. Why would truckers taking a blitz-leak care to check some old path leading to God knows where? But to me this path is how I got up here, to the top of this hill. This is the path that will end it all… all the years of running away, of vagrancy and hiding in fear. All of that will soon be over.
But for now, I am enjoying the view of the valley unfolding below. I am sipping the air of what could be my final memories. I am waiting. Waiting for him.
There he is.
His limping figure just appeared behind the bend. I can see him slowly making his way up towards me, holding the cane with his trembling hands. He looks like a crooked tree stump drifting on water, barely able to walk.
All these years of endless chase took a toll on his body. No wonder. How long has been chasing me? Ten, twenty, thirty, hundred years? How long have I been evading him?
He is slow. But I am patient. I will wait.
Right here, behind this boulder. Soon I will finally come face to face with my chaser. I will look in his eyes. I will not run away like I always have.
Right hand in pocket is caressing the edge of the Swiss knife that will soon spear through his neck bone. Yes, that’s what I am going to do. This ends now.
This ends here, at the dead end of this sandy path atop the hill overlooking the valley with its white chapel and Muscat orchards… In fifteen minutes, it will be over. For one of us.
Funny. After all these years, I still don’t know the real name of my chaser. I always called him what master Borges called him… “He who wanders”.
He who wanders – I will kill him.
Borges. The Borges. I idolized him when I was in college. Many did, but I was different. It was 1961. I was an average lazy learner at the Universidad Laboral de Córdoba, floating around from one semester to another with barely passable grades. I had very few friends and almost no interests. One can say that I had an early form of identity crisis.
Besides chugging Anisado, my only other passion was Literature. Latin American Literature. Borges and Neruda were at the forefront. One could only imagine my excitement, when I saw a pamphlet hanging on the wall of the Literature faculty.
Spaces were limited. But who cared? It was the man himself, Jorge Luis Borges, coming to give us one short lecture followed by a panel of questions. Like a maniac I rushed to the auditorium hours before the lecture. I was the first in line and when the doors opened, I got the front row seat.
And there he was, the blind Lord of Literature, walking upright onto the stage with a cane and his loyal assistant right by his side. Standing ovation. He nodded and made a “thank you, please be seated” gesture.
The auditorium was stuffed with young self-proclaimed geniuses, listening to his every word with drops of sweat hanging from hundreds of drooling chins. The lecture was dedicated to some of the Spanish writers, I cannot distinctly recall if it was Cervantes or De Vega. It made no difference. Somehow, I managed to sit through his entire lecture, which lasted over 3 hours, and remember nothing. He talked slowly and methodically, pouring honey into our ears like Segovia’s guitar, eyes affixed on the ceiling. I listened without hearing anything.
But then something happened, which caught me completely off guard.
Before closing the day, Borges was about to take questions from the audience. Of course, I raised my hand and so did about hundred other students. One of Borges’ assistants whispered something on his ear, which made him smile.
“It is an honor for me to be in front of such audience of young people, but our time is not infinite. For that reason, I will randomly pick five of you and answer their questions”, he said with blind eyes still affixed on something unseen to us plain mortals.
I have never won any prizes or lotteries in my life. When I played poker, I lost far more than I won. I knew my limitations and that turned me into an average apathetic person, rarely trying to outdo oneself. And so, sitting still – I got used to that.
Until that moment. When I saw Borges pointing his finger in my direction, that came as nothing short of a shock.
“Yes, young man. You. Senor Borges picked you. Step forward and introduce yourself” said his assistant.
I did not know what to ask. So, I quietly mumbled my full name.
“Fernandez Augustin Navaro”
Borges shifted his gray-shaded pupils in my direction as if reacting to a sudden buzzing of a fruit fly.
“Fernandez Augustin Navaro… Navaro… Haven’t I met you once, young man?” he asked.
“No senor. I never had the honor…”
“But you will. We will meet again. I think.”
The rest of the day was foggy. I don’t even remember what question I asked, it must have been about him winning the Prix International, not sure. And maybe not important. No, not important at all.
But didn’t Borges said that we would meet again? He did. Yes. Yes, he did.
And Lord, was he right!
Nine years later.
1970. I was steadily climbing on a steep ladder of moderate career success, after years of having been pent-up by my own lack of direction. I was a young somewhat promising journalist in one of London’s tabloid newspapers. Every week my name was featured on the second page alongside with scandalous celebrity chronicles. My paycheck was decent enough for a small studio flat by the Manchester Square. You could say I became something more than an average. Or at least that is what I kept saying to myself.
That day (it was early October, arguably the best season in London) opened as usual. I ate my chic breakfast consisting of two scrambled eggs, ham, toast and dark roast coffee at Barrymore’s Diner and was ready to stride to the office. It was shortly after 8am, and I was in no hurry. This was going to be a pleasant breezy walk.
My route was the same as it was every day: pass the square, then turn right on George Street and left on Thayer. My thoughts that morning were all preoccupied with the piece I was working on, so I was slowly making my way through the square, when something caught my eye. Or rather, someone.
At first, I did not pay much attention to him, no more than I had to anybody else who idled at the square that morning. London town had more bums than any other town I had visited in my short tedious life with that number multiplying tenfold throughout the hippy love years. Rascals with unwashed hair banging on their guitar and swaying their rainbow nipples in the air was a common theme those days, not even overshadowed by the Charles Manson massacres.
So here was another one of those misunderstood love proclaimers, sitting right behind the gated area of the square. Striped worn out jacket, heavy cap, sandals with clots of woolen socks sticking out. A common hippy bum as anyone may have thought. I thought so too except this one had something that made my intestines churn. I didn’t know what it was, but once I saw him, I felt the irresistible urge to instantly walk away and never see him again.
The way he looked at me, that gloomy frown of his that made me think of a line from Oscar Wilde, “that fellow’s got to swing”. There certainly was something outer worldly about that “fellow”.
His eyes, as if carved from a rock below his forehead were mercilessly drilling thousands of tiny holes throughout my entire body. I did not want to look. But I had to. I added pace. As I turned back one last time, I noticed him slowly walking towards me. Past the gates of the square, onto the street, paying no attention to screeching tires of honking cars. Walking right towards me.
He’s just a bum. No, he is not.
Just another one of those unwashed hippies. No, no.
Is he really after me? No, he’s just walking about minding his own…
Yes, he is.
George Street was empty like in post-war bombed quarters. I could hear my brisk footsteps. Or was it the drubbing of my aorta against the chest? He was catching up.
Just an insane man wanting a sixpence. I walked faster. So did he.
Run? Don’t be silly. Yes, run. First slowly as if you’re trying to not show your chaser that you’re scared. No, not scared, more like in a hurry.
Why am I running? I can take him out, he probably had no food for days.
But it really wasn’t about that. It was my first experience of that feeling, which I can only describe as some sort of primordial sense of fear. Panic. Dread. Unexplained sense of looming doom arching above you like a dark figure with a scythe.
I have not run that fast in a while. I have not run at all in a while. I stopped to catch my breath as I turned the corner on Thayer and looked back, fearing to see him right on my footsteps. Scrambled eggs, toast and coffee were about to make their way back up through my esophagus.
I bent and leaned my hands on both knees, trying to control my gasping breath. He was gone. Empty windows of George Street were checking me out like a toddler who just witnessed his parent committing a crime.
Shame on you, Fernandez Augustin, I repeated to myself while making futile attempts to enthrall palpitation to subside.
Shame on you. I mumbled repeating that word. Mumbling turned into whistling that song by “Magic Lanterns”. Shame, shame. I whistled, pretending to control myself. I sang without knowing words only to convert my mind to something else. I sang so others wouldn’t notice my shaking. All the way to the office. What a shame.
Like a kid running from an imaginary monster, I climbed the stairs of my office building. Three at a time. Third floor. Familiar smell of typography oils. Safe heaven. Shame on you, Fernandez Augustin Navaro.
Even now I question myself whether my journey to madness began on that day or whether it was underway for many years, or… I may not be mad at all. Madness slinks and bounces away, is that how it usually happens?
All I know is that an hour later I was laughing at my little moment of weaknesses.
Preposterous and rubbish, my thick Andalusian twang spoke to me.
The idea of being fully checked out by a specialist did cross my mind, and I immediately thought of Doctor Patel in Camden Town, who accepted walk-ins and usually had no waiting list.
Maybe I should leave early and walk over. Could be some form of panic attack.
Little did I know that the day had more surprises in store. The unnerving script development continued in a more eerie fashion when my boss marched to my desk with a pack of printed paper.
“No, Navarro, you are not going to see Doctor Patel in Camden Town who will check your head and determine if you are sane or not. Instead you are going to do an article on Jorge Luis Borges’ new book. He is making his presentation today at blah blah blah…”
I forgot about the panic attack. The unreal charade from the morning disappeared. All the analysis of sending probes into my gray matter went poofff gone! I hurriedly gathered my humble j-sack, which included a notepad, five pencils, badge and a flask of whiskey. Moments later I was sitting in a cab on my way to the London Public Library, thinking of the questions that I needed to ask.
“El informe de Brodie”? Everyone’s going to ask that. Other books? Let’s see, I’ve read everything Borges has ever written. Forget it.
I knew very well what I would ask.
I paid the cab and galloped up the marble stairs leading to the spacious hallway, where the Master was about to hold his new book presentation. Despite the breezy weather of London autumn, the big hall was stuffy, packed with photographers and hungry penny journalists. As always, I occupied the spot in the corner, by the window. Quick inventory check: wallet, j-sack along with the omni-present Swiss knife. Seconds ticked leisurely on my wrist watch. Four more minutes.
Dr. Patel. Forget the press-conference. Camden Town. No waiting list. Collect yourself, Fernandez Augustin Navaro! Collect your…
“I know your name, young man. Navaro is your last name, isn’t it?”
“Yes… yes sir… Senor Borges…”
“You are wondering how I know you. I understand. Perhaps it would be more prudent for you and me to speak privately. After the conference? I invite you to have coffee with me. You like Colombian coffee, Mr. Navaro?”
“Yes… yes Senor… Mr. Borges…”
“I shall see you precisely at 6 o’clock at the address that my assistant will provide.”
His blind eyes were still affixed at the top far corner of the hallway, far above all the congested sharp-penciled press and arduous followers of his divine writing. Far from the mundane poses of flash photographers and zany critics, oblivious to his mockery.
I gulped my first intake of breath and found nothing better than to dumbly nod. The attention was now all on me. I thought of all the explaining that I would have to do tomorrow.
How does Borges know you? Are you friends? You were raised in Cordova, are you his illegitimate son?
Questions. I had no idea. Not back then.
Answers came later.
Memory is a tricky animal. As I look at the valley and inflate my lungs with familiar smells, I cannot think of anything specific. I remember absolutely nothing about the house where I grew up except that it was the house where I grew up. Orchards, white chapel, old town – nothing but a strange tingling sensation somewhere down there, below the chest cage.
I close my eyes and let the old sun twirl around with tinted specks of mosaic light. I am trying to focus without looking. Alas, nothing comes to mind. Why can’t I recall any of this? I am not that old. I am not old at all. Not nearly as old as him. The one who wanders.
I look at him again, hobbling up the path. He pauses. He leans on his wobbly cane and catches his breath. I can see him checking the remaining distance. Ten more minutes? If I only knew what’s going on through his mind right now. “I am so close, closer than ever”, he thinks. Come and take me, old man. If you can.
I almost see his facial expression under the heavily pronounced frontal lobe. It’s a grin. It’s an expression that says, “We shall see.”
Once I read an interview in “The Morning Times”. In it, Borges was portrayed as extremely humble and minimalistic. His house was depicted as a perfectly organized space with easy access to everything. Books on the shelves (judging from the admiration of the columnist, there were lots of them) were organized by theme and by title. Dictionaries and encyclopedias were grouped together on the same rack so Borges could find them easily.
In another article, dated 1966, I read that when he travels, and those travels were quite extensive, he carries a whole rack of books along, some of which he may not even read on his journey.
I saw that rack in his hotel room. I stood perplexed at the multitude of titles, most unknown to me, when I heard the door swing wide open, and there he was coming through the doorway of his own room with a leisurely swinging cane.
“Ahh Senor Navaro, how kind of you to visit an old man!”
I rapidly walked towards him and produced some gibberish like “pleasure is all but mine”. He half-smiled and pointed his hand to the chair.
“I know you will quite enjoy the taste of Colombian dark roast.”
“Yes sir. I will.”
Borges sat and leaned slightly backwards, without releasing his cane.
“Be at ease, young man. There is no reason for you to be tense. I suspect we are both well over twenty one years of age?”
I chuckled. He wrinkled his eyes as a polite reaction to my reaction.
“Mr. Borges… Senor Borges… Sir… Sorry, I am still quite star-struck, but I have to tell you how I enjoy your literature and how much I idolized…”
He made a motion with his left hand, as if telling me to stop.
“Do you know the biggest advantage of being blind?” he asked and answered immediately, “The biggest advantage is that your electrical bills are way lower.”
This time he laughed himself at his own joke only to be interrupted by his assistant carrying a tray of aromatic coffee poured in two small porcelain cups. Amazing how the very idea of drinking coffee instantly changes your mood before you even take your first sip.
I pushed my heavy chair closer to the coffee table and was about to go on a monologue of thanking the man for inviting me over and reiterating the privilege and the honor, then subtly going into the inquiry mode of why I was here to begin with. But he did that first.
“Yes, about you being here. I am sure you are bewildered. I know you have questions. I will attempt to answer some. But not all. When you leave this hotel, there will still be many questions that you yourself will have to find answers to. On your own.”
He gently picked his cup of coffee and with hand somewhat shaking, took an artistic sip. I sat there, my head still buzzing with disbelief from everything that had happened to me that day. And the day, mind you, began like any other. But here I was, sitting in the room of the greatest writer, who mysteriously knew my name and who was about to give me answers to even more mysterious questions.
“Have you by any chance read my ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’?”
I have. Of course. Many times. I read it in Spanish, when it just came out. Very recently I bought the English translation in some shabby bookstore off Oxford Circus. I read that book far too many times, but never in its entirety, mostly starting on a random page. Just as Borges had intended it to be consumed by his readers.
“You see, Senor Navarro, that book was, and perhaps still is, a never-ending work in progress as human imagination has no boundaries. I have included what I had researched over ten years ago, then recently expanded and republished with more figments of collective human imagination. But the book is merely a small subset. In a way, the book writes itself. In some form, it’s a labyrinth, an endless one, a living one, where every corridor and every room is never the same. What I had always wanted is the book to reflect the labyrinth in our collective sub consciousness, the force that drives our minds to craft. For that reason, all the creatures in my book are strictly fictional. Mythical. Am I not boring you?”
“Not at all. I understand, Mr. Borges.”
He nodded and wiped a coffee grind off his nose.
“The Book of Imaginary Beings is all about imaginary beings, nothing more. Tales, legends, folklore. There was one imaginary being which I had first intended to be part of the book. That creature seemed extraordinarily fascinating due to being so elusive and mystifying. He appeared and disappeared across many cultures, sometimes centuries apart. I wanted to include him in the book with his Latin name: Quietus Est. Very little is known of it, but what I found was indeed astonishing. First, this creature is no different than a human. It’s not a monster like all other imaginary beings are. You may say, it is human in many ways. Its physical characteristics are certainly no different than any Homo sapiens waking at this exact moment down the streets of London. As I studied the creature or should I say, an entity, I became more and more agitated. I could not stop. Like a madman, I was trying to learn more and more, but very soon the excitement turned into another feeling. It was a feeling of horror.”
“Horror of what, sir?”
Borges eyesight shifted from the corner of the room straight on me, as if he could perfectly see me.
“Of the fact that this entity is not a myth. Quietus Est is real.”
He attempted to take another sip, but his hands started shaking, so he had to put the cup down, spilling some of it on the saucer and around the table.
“Pardon me young man, I am trying to maintain composure. But you have not tried the coffee”, he said wiping his mouth and forehead with a knitted handkerchief.
I raised the small cup and took a sip, disregarding the aromatic fumes of Colombian beans drifting down my internal gorges.
“Pardon me sir, but you are saying that the imaginary being called Quietus Est was not an imaginary whatsoever. Is that why you decided not to include that in your book of imaginary beings?”
“Only in part. My horror was caused from realization of what it would mean for mankind to find out about its existence. It’s no secret that we are all well aware about our eventual demise. We all die. But imagine what would happen if we all stared right into the face of death every single day of our lives and knew the time that was left for us in this world. Death not as a vague concept portrayed by middle aged artists. Death not as a folklore tale of a grim reaper. But as a real living entity that stalks you and walks around showing you a ticking clock counting down minutes and seconds. Knowing the day and time of your death is worse than the death itself.”
“I recall reading about that. Isn’t that entity called Shadow Man?”
“Ah no. Shadow Man, or Ma’ah as they referred to it in Ancient Mesopotamia, is in fact a mythical creature or an apparition, depending who you listen to. It is told to slowly follow its victims, then suffocate them. But again, it’s a legend, a myth. But Quietus Est is the death itself in human flesh. But I shall talk no more. Allow me to give you my scribbles from years ago. These are unedited in their raw format, so please pardon the poor language. It’s right there, in the drawer. You will find a folder with a yellow piece of paper. Read it aloud, while my ripe old body attempts to catch a breath.”
I opened the drawer, as he instructed, and found a yellow piece of cursive hand writings carved in Spanish with some Latin phrases. The scribbles were short, less than a page long with marks and scratches, but most of this was very much decipherable. He must have written this himself half-blind, I thought. What caused him to do that and not dictate to his assistant? I unfolded the paper and began reading.
It is said that one shall not know about its own ways and times of demise. The imminent passing is only felt by those that are either terminally ill, and even so they don’t possess the knowledge of when and where, or by death row inmates awaiting the exact day and time of their execution. Lack of such knowledge gives our life full meaning of existence. Sumerians believed in the existence of a certain deity (the word “deity” was scratched and replace with words “demon of death embodied in human flesh and bones”, which again was scratched and replaced with “entity”), whose sole role was to stalk its victims and inform them of how much time they have left to live. Per the ancient “Book of Dead”, which was discovered as set of clay tablets, typically buried in corpses, such deity (crossed out, replaced by “demon”, then crossed out and replaced by “entity”) is visible only to chosen ones. The chosen ones are thought to be either people with high spiritual powers or the cursed ones, condemned by priests.
The reference briefly reappears in some of the rare Egyptian manuscripts, but in later writings is replaced by Anubis or – in rare occurrences – by Horus. The writings again depict this unnamed being as an eternal human who never sleeps, but always wanders. What’s strange is that neither Sumerians nor Egyptians ever gave the entity a discrete name, however the latter rare findings during Dark Ages refer to him as Quietus Est. The only depiction of Quietus Est was that of an ordinary human standing next to a sun clock, which was used to measure the time that the chosen one had left to live. From time to time Quietus Est stalks the chosen one and, when cornered, moves hands of the clock forward to shorten the lifetime. If the chosen one cannot escape, then his time eventually runs out.
The very last reference was found in …
“Enough Mr. Navaro. You understand the idea. Now on to the main question. Why are you here?”
He drew closer and a shadow of the dull lamp cut right through his long forehead.
“You are here, Mr. Navaro because you and I are one of those chosen ones who see him. Quietus Est is an eternal wanderer who is always with us, the timekeeper who sits at the end of the stage with a ticking watch on his wrist. He follows you and when you find yourself face to face against him, be it in a dark room or on a crowded street, he winds the watch forward and forward until there is no more time left. When I lost sight, I thought blindness was a blessing in disguise. But one does not require eyes to see death. What eyes cannot see, ears can hear and skin can feel. I still see him despite my blindness.”
He paused and said in a high trembling, almost crying pitch: “Mr. Navaro… You have seen him too, haven’t you?”
The world inside me turned upside down. Cold shivers that have slowly been accumulating in my lower back exploded in megatons of nuclear bombs. Desperately trying to cease the thumping inside, I pushed words out.
“Yes… Yes Senor Borges… I have.”
How do you get used to the notion of being a passerby on this Earth? Ordinary humans do not have to get used to that. We have that built-in protection layer, that safety cork in our brain membranes that separates the realization of being mortal from flooding down upon us. It allows us to breathe the air. It lets us exhibit this extraordinary, yet sacred carelessness. The mental block that denies the laws of life on a primitive emotional level even for the keenest scholars. The indecipherable Tetragrammaton is shown to us in every step we take, in every cup of Colombian coffee we casually sip, in every word of wisdom that we collect from books. Every second we bypass the sinister tick-tock and hear the name of the God being whispered into our ears. And yet we, humans, turn around and whistle “Shame Shame”, deceiving our own self-cognizance. And that is the true blessing. Those who possess the name of the divine being are truly doomed. Knowledge is madness. Knowledge is inexistence. Knowledge of death is worse than death.
We sat in his dim hotel room until early morning, the two doomed souls. Our casual exchange of words only amplified the ticking of the clock. It was dawning, when I noticed my conversation partner nodding in his sleep. His left hand was still resting on the cane and his eyes were shuffling behind shut eyelids.
Borges was dreaming.
So must have I.
As I was exiting the foyer of the hotel, I hid behind the column and looked around the street. It was empty. Bleak light of street lamps drew strange crossbeams on pavements. Early October leaves were gyring in closed circles like witches around the fire.
I was looking for him.
He wasn’t there.
Why can I not remember you, my childhood house?
Muscat orchards – they resonate inside like echoes of a guitar string heard from a deep alcove, but nothing particular comes to mind. I am trying to shift focus from one object to another, but memory is drifting somewhere far, as if lost in endless labyrinths.
What’s wrong with me?
Wait, mortal. Wait five more minutes, and you will know the answer, I hear in my brain. He is talking to me now. I can tell he is tired from the long walk. But what is pain and tiredness when you’re crossing the finish line? Come, old man. Let me tell you the story of how I’ve been running away from you all my life. Come, Quietus Est.
As Borges warned me, “do not ever come close to him. Do not look him straight in the eyes. He will always be near. If he attempts to catch on, run. His watch will be ticking. Do not let him wind the watch. He will be on your footsteps. Where you go, he will go. Where you escape, he will wander.”
And I wandered. And he wandered with me.
He came too close to me in my hotel room on the second day after my long night in Borges’ quarters. The fool in me still thought that I could escape. Disappear. Move out of my Manchester Square studio flat and move somewhere else. Or check into a hotel. I did just that. I checked into a hotel. Fool. Funny. Fool.
I relive that evening every day of my life. It was dark, when I opened the door to my room. The room, as I clearly remember, was in the basement of some cheap hotel not too far from my flat. Room B6. As the door hinge squeaked, I took my first step into the darkness. Street level window was casting two thick yellow streaks of light on the carpet. I smelled dust and spider webs.
And that’s when I sensed him. His gaze. Quiet one. He was in my room.
He sat on the edge of the bed with a rope in his hand. A thin white blanket was covering his head like a shroud around a statue.
I stood in stupor like a paralyzed insect, unable to breathe and felt a gigantic drop of sweat making its course down my spinal cord.
Door. Hinge. Handle. Goddamn it, turn!
He got up from the bed with a groan. He took a step towards me.
The handle would not turn. Keys. Lock. Open! Open!!
Cold breath my back and a hand on my shoulder. He grabbed my wrist.
I do not recall how I opened the door. Cannot recall how I ran. Or where. Or how fast. The corridor of the basement flashed like random shots of a silent movie. B5. B2. B1. Staircase. Up. Exit.
“Your time is coming, Fernandez Augustin Navaro, your time is coming!” I heard whispers in my brain.
I ran. I ran. Until my legs gave in. I fell down somewhere in the outskirts of the town, passing out in some strange alley until sunup.
My madness has begun.
In the days following my first face-to-face encounter with Quietus Est, I sold my London flat.
The money was enough for several years as I tramped from town to town, continent to continent, doing temp jobs here and there.
He was right behind me.
Sometimes I would go for months without seeing him, other times I’d see him every day, waiting on the opposite corner of the street, sitting in the next car over on the subway, or angrily peeking through shutters of windows in the house across.
My attempts to speak to Borges again were futile. How does the blind master live with this curse, I wondered. How does he manage to evade his sinister follower? And the ticks of the wristwatch in his mind… if he hears them all the time like I do, then what type of self-discipline has he developed to go on?
I had questions. Far more than I had anticipated. But Senor Borges was already on the other side of the globe. Elusive and evasive. I wrote him letters. He never replied. I tried calling hotels where he stayed. In vain.
The books that he wrote, I bought all of them in attempts to find hidden meanings. What if he had secret messages for me inside his writings? The Book of Sand, Dr. Brodie’s Report… I even searched his earlier writings, analyzed every word. Pointless. Futile. Until…
1983. “Shakespeare’s Memory”. His final book, as it turned out to be.
I was somewhere in Eastern Europe, I think when I bought the book. Immediately I began my scrupulous study. Letter by letter, page by page, analyzing every space and every punctuation sign.
And that’s when I found it. The answer.
Obvious as daylight. The answer was the story itself. The story that did not require much study or decryption. All I had to do was read it. I knew I had to come face to face with him like Borges did, but not before having to go through the life of a fugitive exile. That’s what Borges had intended me to do. Such was his final and only message to me embodied within his last story. Story written for public, but intended for my eyes only.
The story was that the protagonist receives memories of Shakespeare. Memories that overwhelm him, overpowering his own. He forgets modern day cars and engines, instead remembering faces and names from some distant past, memories he has never known. Memories that belonged to another man.
Childhood house, orchards, old town, white chapel, why can I not remember you?
The place was this hill.
The time was now. Few more minutes, I say to myself as I look at the watch.
There he is. He is out of breath. Beaten, tired and bent by the weight of his own arid body. One last push, old man, and I will come face to face with you.
I hide behind the boulder and listen.
His footsteps on gravel and sand, I can tell them from any other footsteps in the world.
His breathing, wheezing and crackling. I count to five.
He knows where I am, but he is weak enough to take that last step. I will take that step for you, old man.
I step out of the shade to the sunlight, and we meet.
I stare at his face, wrinkled like leaves of an ancient scroll. I see his eyes, calm and dim.
“Time’s up, old man,” I tell him and take him down.
He does not fight, and my Swiss knife finds a comfy spot below Adam’s apple. In a way, I can see relief and happiness in his pupils.
“Time’s up, Quietus Est. Time’s up, Wanderer. You’re finished.”
I can hear him wheezing trying to say something. Popping sounds come out from his flabby throat. I ease the pressure to let him talk. But the popping sounds are not words, but laughter.
“You… you are confused,” he says.
I sit on his chest, knife still pressed against his throat. Why is he laughing?
“I… I am laughing because you seem to have gotten it all wrong. Give me a minute and maybe I can help you.”
I let him sit as he coughs incessantly. I am watching him. One wrong move, and he’s dead. Let’s not make any funny moves, old man. He nods in understanding. When his cough subsides, he talks again.
“All my life I have followed you. It’s a miracle I have come this far and lived this long. Ever since I left Cordoba, I was a ticking time bomb. I was diagnosed as suicidal. Doctor after doctor, therapies, specialists, prescription, yoga – I have tried it all. Some helped for a bit and the disease subsided, but then rolled back. It’s this disease that nested here” – and he pointed to his head – “for many years, forcing me to look for way to end my own life.
It all began in London, on that morning when I was sitting in the square, thinking of ways to end my life. The disease was gnawing on my brain, forcing me to get this over with. My first attempt was in that hotel. I tried to hang myself. I sat on the bed for hours with a blanket on my head, trying to fight it. B6. I remember you stepping into my room and standing by the door, waiting for me. I tried to call you so you can end the pain. But it was not meant to be. Not then, not there. I lived on.
So, I went looking for you. I chased you all my life. There were good days, when the disease subsided, but then there were bad ones, when it came back grabbing be by my throat, and that’s when I almost caught on. Almost. But you would always slip away from me. Somehow, to this day I am still alive. And now I am finally here, on this hill. Face to face with you.”
He pauses, rubbing his flabby neck, then points his finger down the valley and continues: “I was born in that very house. I remember every moment of my childhood. My parents, my toys, my school. I remember playing hide and seek with my cousins in Muscat gardens and dosing off to the boring Sunday clergy in that white chapel. I remember Eastern rugs being washed on the street and the smell of Muscat grapes. All of it, I remember all. My name is Fernandez August Navaro. And you… you have no true name, but they call you Quietus Est. The wandering one.”
The fire began burning within my eyes, spreading over to all facial pores and trickling down my body. Filaments of scorching infernos were igniting all over me. My brain was smothering.
“Lies! Imbecile lies!” I roared.
“Look at me,” he said, “I am an old man. And you? Still young and strong as you will always be. You have not aged. Now think more. What do you remember of your childhood? Shakespearean memories of random sounds and smells is all you have gained from me. Master Borges knew who you were. He cracked you, and then he tricked you. He tricked you by telling you who you not really are. That was his way of evading you – by not revealing you the truth until his final breath, final book, final story. You are the one who wanders. And now that I have finally told you who you really are, you must finish me.”
I have heard enough of his sinister fibs. I am throwing my knife down the hill. I shall not require any blades to finish him. Now. Here. My hands clinch around his thin neck. I hear him squeal as the grip tightens. I hear his familiar wheezing and the crackling of his neck bones between my thumbs. I see him gulping the air in warm convulsions. He is not resisting.
I sit on his chest and watch his final exhale picked up by the wind, carried down the valley to the gardens and the houses, passing by the white chapel and the house where he grew up.
The scorching wind of Andalusia is pouring sunlight onto his face, toying with eyelashes, pounding on cheeks and gyring through his hair. I missed the smell of the valley and the ripening softness of Muscat fluff glistening in the air.
I am rewinding my wristwatch and walking downhill along the wavy path, my thumbs still sore from killing.
I am taking small step sideways. Once I reach El Jardinito Road, I will hop on the first bus, and from there I will travel west. Or north. Destination will never matter.
Anywhere is where the roads take me.
Me, the one who wanders.
Credit: Simon Simonian