Estimated reading time — 22 minutes
I missed the scorching wind of Andalusia. How 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. I see white chapels tucked into grape orchards like pawns scattered on a chess board. I can see patches of asphalt on El Jardinito Road hailing from the old town through dappled rocks, then waning behind the horizon with erratic headlights of beat-up trucks cruising along.
One of the pit stops along Ed Jardinito, where truck drivers stop to relieve themselves, marks the starting point to this wavy trail. All covered in blotches of spindly grass stalks and flaxen sand, the trail is barely noticeable at first. Truth is, no one even cares to notice it. Why would truckers taking a blitz-leak care to check on a mucky trail leading to God knows where? But I do. This is how I got up here, to the top of this hill, where I am standing now. I’ve climbed all the way up here, so I can finally end it all – all these years of vagrancy and fugue, exile and fear. This is where it’s all going to come to an end.
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.
He will show up soon. He always does. Like a shadow, he’s been following me right on my footsteps, always there, behind me. And there he is!
His limping figure appears behind the sharp bend off El Jardinito. He looks up and he sees me, then stops for a moment to catch his breath and leans on his cane, as if assessing the remaining trajectory for this final stretch, then resumes his walk. Or should I say, “resumes his agonizing trudging”. Years of endless chase took a toll on his body. No wonder. How long has he been chasing me? Ten, twenty, thirty years?
He is slow. Methodically slow. But for once, I will not run. I will wait. Right here, behind this rock. I will finally come face to face with him. This sharp Swiss knife blade I am holding in my hand will soon lance right through his neck bone. Yes, that’s what I am going to do.
This ends here, at the dead end of this sandy trail atop the hill overlooking the valley with its white chapels and Muscat orchards.
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, listen. I will kill you.
* * * * * *
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 an 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 a lecture followed by an open 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. The auditorium was packed with drooling chins of young self-proclaimed prodigies, awaiting the arrival of the great one.
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.
Then he began. The lecture was dedicated to Spanish writers, I cannot distinctly recall if it was Cervantes or De Vega. It truly made no difference. Somehow, I managed to sit through his entire lecture, which lasted over three hours, and remember nothing. He talked slowly and methodically, pouring honey into our ears like Segovia’s guitar, with his absent eyesight affixed on the ceiling.
And then it happened. Something that 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 hundreds of other students. One of Borges’ assistants whispered something into his ear, which made him smile.
“It is an honor for me to be in front of an audience of young people, but our time is not infinite,” he said with blind eyes still pinned on the far corner of the hall. “For that reason, I will randomly pick questions from five of you.”
I have never won any prizes or lotteries in my life. When I played poker or blackjack, 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 with little ambition – 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. 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 before, young man?” he asked.
“No, senor Borges. I never had the honor.”
“But you will. We will meet again, Senor Navaro. You and I will meet again. But for right now, what is your question?”
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.
The greatest writer in the history of mankind called me by name and then that bizarre unreal thing he said about us meeting again. When?
* * * * * *
Nine years later. In 1970.
And there I was – a somewhat-promising journalist in one of London’s somewhat-scandalous tabloid newspapers. Every week my name was featured on the second page alongside with celebrity chronicles and vile rumors. My paycheck was decent enough for a small studio flat by Manchester Square. After years of having been pent-up by directionless studies, you could say I became something more than an average. Or at least that is what I believed.
That day (it was early October, arguably the best season in London) began 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 for a pleasant walk to the office. It was shortly after 8 am, and I was in no hurry.
My route was the same as it was every day: pass the square, right turn on George Street, left turn on Thayer, another right on Marylebone. 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 did to anybody else who idled at the square that morning. Hippy rascals with soiled hair playing guitar on every corner was a common theme in those days, and London town was certainly no exception. 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 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 through me. 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, run run run!
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.
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 with one punch.
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 ran. I ran faster than my feet could move. As I turned the corner on Thayer, I paused and looked back, fearing to see him right behind. Scrambled eggs, toast, and dark roast coffee were about to make their way back up through my esophagus.
Wiping the sweat off my palms onto my pants, I bent forward in a protective position and looked around. Empty windows of George Street were checking me out like a toddler witnessing parent in a cowardly act.
Whoever that man was that incensed me into this uncontrollable panic, he was now gone. 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, acting calm and self-composed. I sang without knowing words only to convert my mind to something else. I sang so others wouldn’t notice me shaking.
I climbed the stairs of my office building. Three at a time. Third floor. The familiar smell of typography oils calmed me down. Safe heaven. Shame on you, Fernandez Augustin Navaro.
* * * * * *
Even now I question myself whether my journey to madness began on that day or was it underway for many years. Madness that creeps in and recedes in tidal waves. 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. He’d give me a comfortable medical diagnosis like a panic attack and prescribe some white pills, I thought.
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, Navaro you are not going to see Doctor Patel in Camden Town who will make a judgment call on your insanity. Instead, you are going to do an article on Jorge Luis Borges’ new book. He is making his presentation today at London Public Library and blah, blah, blah.
I forgot about the panic attack. The thrill of seeing Master Borges again, nine years later, was surreal. Moments later I was sitting in a cab on my way to the London Public Library, scribbling all possible questions I should be asking him. El Informe de Brodie? Other books? Forget it! I knew very well what I would ask.
I paid the cab and galloped up the marble stairs leading to the hallway, where the Master was about to hold his new book presentation. I elbowed myself through the crowd of journalists to occupy the coveted front-row spot. Quick inventory check: wallet, j-sack along with the omnipresent Swiss knife. Seconds ticked leisurely on my wristwatch. Four more minutes.
Forget this morning’s sickness. Forget Dr. Patel. Collect yourself, Fernandez Augustin
* * * * * *
“Navaro! That’s your last name, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, Senor Borges. But how do you..?”
“Nine years ago, in Cordoba. I told you we would meet again. Do you remember?”
I nodded rapidly completely forgetting he couldn’t see me. Stupid.
“Perhaps,” continued Borges, “it would be more prudent for us to speak privately after the conference. I invite you to have coffee with me. You like Colombian coffee, Mr. Navaro? 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 critics and arduous followers of his divine writing. The attention was now all on me, as revealed by hundreds of photo flashes from behind. 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?
Back then I did not know.
Answers came later.
* * * * * *
Memory is a tricky animal. As I gaze over the valley and satiate my lungs with familiar smells, I cannot think of anything specific. Vague and elusive memories of my childhood home. And these orchards, these white chapels and the old town itself – nothing but an incomprehensible sensation somewhere down there, below the chest cage.
I close my eyes and let the sun twirl around with tinted specks of mosaic light. I am trying to focus without looking. Alas, nothing comes to mind. I’ve been robbed of my memory. You!
I cast my eyes at the trail again. He is closing in. It’s hard for him to walk upward, and yet I see that determination in his eyes, in his tight grip of that wobbly walking stick, in the way he periodically stops to catch his breath and eyeball the remaining distance. I am not going anywhere. Five? Ten more minutes? 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 he could find them easily.
In another article, dated 1966, I read that when Borges travels, and those travels were quite extensive, he carries a whole rack of books along, some of which may not even be read.
When I entered his hotel room, that very bookrack was the first thing that caught my eye. I stood perplexed at the multitude of titles, most unknown to me, when I heard the door swing wide open, and there he was entering through the doorway with a leisurely swinging cane.
“Ah, Senor Navaro, how kind of you to visit this old man!”
I took a step 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.”
Borges sat down and leaned slightly backwards, without releasing his cane.
“Do you know the biggest advantage of being blind?” he asked and answered immediately. “Blind don’t need light, so my utility bills are way lower.”
He laughed 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.
As I was readying to go on a pre-scripted monologue of expressing my gratitude and honor, Borges jumped right into the action.
“I will get right to it, Senor Navaro. About you being here and about me remembering you. I know you have many questions. I will attempt to answer some. Some, but not all. When you leave this hotel, there will still be some questions that you 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. Yes, I had questions. So many that my brain membranes were buzzing in bewilderment and disbelief. Here I was, sitting in the room with one of the greatest writers, who happened to mysteriously know my name and
“Have you by any chance read my ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings?’” asked Borges.
I have. 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 Navaro, 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 subconsciousness, 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, Senor Borges.”
He nodded and wiped a coffee grind off his nose.
“That book, as its title implies, is all about imaginary beings. Tales, legends, folklore. But one thing that no one knows is that I had originally intended this book to include one more being. A being that goes by its Latin name Quietus Est. It appeared and disappeared across many cultures, sometimes centuries apart. Very little is known of it, but what I found was indeed astonishing. First, this being is physically no different than an ordinary human. You may say, it is human in many ways. As I studied this 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. Fear.”
“Fear of what, Senor Borges?”
Borges eyesight shifted from the corner of the room straight on me, as if he could perfectly see me.
“Fear of what I had uncovered. That Quietus Est is not a myth at all.”
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 imaginary. Is that why you decided not to include him in your book of imaginary beings?”
“Only in part. Fear came from the realization of what it would mean for mankind to know about its existence. You see
it’s no secret that we are all well aware of 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, 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. Getting closer to you with every second, trying to grab your hand. Running from death is worse than death itself.”
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“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 handwritings 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 coerces us to exist. Sumerians believed in a certain deity (the word “deity” was scratched and replaced with “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 a set of clay tablets, typically buried in corpses, only those that are “luminous” can see the deity (again crossed out twice, replaced with “demon”, then with “entity”). The “luminous” ones are thought to be either people with high spiritual powers or vice versa, the cursed ones, condemned by priests. The reference briefly reappears in some 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 dull shadow from a lamp cut right through his elongated forehead.
“Quietus Est is an eternal wanderer who is always with us, the timekeeper who sits at the edge of the stage with a ticking watch on his wrist. The greatest gift given to mankind is its inability to see him. When I lost sight, I thought blindness was a blessing in disguise. But one does not require eyes to see the wanderer. What eyes cannot see, ears can hear and skin can feel. I hear him. I feel him. You are here, Mr. Navaro because you and I are the luminous ones…”
Borges paused and asked me with a trembling voice: “Mr. Navaro, you saw him too, didn’t you?”
Cold shivers that have been accumulating in my lower back rushed up my spinal cord in millions of explosions. Nausea formed a massive ball of air in my throat, and for a moment I struggled to breathe. Desperately trying to cease the thumping inside, I pushed words out.
“I saw him today.”
* * * * * *
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 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, as Senor Borges called it, is the true blessing. Those who possess the name of the divine being are doomed. Knowledge is madness. Knowledge is inexistence. Knowledge of death is worse than death.
We sat in his hotel room until early morning, the two luminous and doomed souls. Our casual exchange of words was amplified by the ticking of the clock. It was dawn when I noticed Borges nodding in his sleep. His left hand was still resting on the cane and his pupils 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 around, hoping to not see him.
He wasn’t there. But he was. I felt his presence not very far from me.
* * * * * *
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 my nomad memory is lost in endless labyrinths. You took my memories away from me, didn’t you?
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 see how the long uphill walk is wearing him out. But what are pain and tiredness when you’re crossing the finish line?
As Borges warned me, “Do not ever come close to him. Do not look him straight in the eyes. He will always be near. His watch will be ticking. If he attempts to catch on, run. But he will forever follow. In a way, he will be like a shadow of you.”
And I ran. And he wandered. I evaded. He followed.
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 escaping from him would be as easy as moving into a new flat. Or checking into a hotel. So I did just that. It was some shabby hotel minutes from my work where I decided to spend a few nights just to think things through.
That evening, and I remember every minute of it, was my first face to face encounter with him. My room, B6, was on the basement level. As I stumbled through the dark hotel corridor, trying to find the key to my room, I felt his presence, but my ignorant foolishness dismissed all mental warnings and turned the keys. As the door hinge squeaked, I took my first step into the hotel room. A street-level window was casting two thick yellow streaks of light on the floor carpet. I smelled dust and spider webs.
He was in my room. Sitting 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 a stupor like a paralyzed insect. An avalanche of sweat gushed from every pore of my body. With hand twisted behind my back, I was feverishly trying to twist the doorknob. He got up from the bed with a groan. He took a step towards me.
Hand too sweaty to turn the knob. Open it. Open!
He grabbed my wrist.
The stretched corridor of the hotel basement flashed like random shots of a silent movie. Run! B5. B2. B1. Run! Staircase. Up! Exit! Run!
“Your time is coming, Fernandez Augustin Navaro!” a whisper crawled into my ears. “Coming, coming!” hissed the wind.
I ran until my legs gave in. I fell down somewhere in the outskirts of the town, passing out in an alley amidst rubbish until sunup.
My madness has begun.
In the days following my first face-to-face encounter with Quietus Est, I’ve moved out of my London flat. I had some savings, enough to tramp town to town, continent to continent, doing temp jobs here and there, sometimes sleeping on streets. He was right behind me.
Even if I didn’t see him for a month, I knew he would soon catch on. It would be only a matter of time for him to pop up somewhere
on the opposite side of the street, in the next car over on the subway, or madly prying through shutters of windows in the house across.
My attempts to speak to Borges were futile. How does the blind master live with this curse, I wondered. How does he manage to evade his sinister follower?
I had questions. Far more than I had anticipated. But Senor Borges was already on the other side of the globe. I wrote him letters. He never replied. I tried calling hotels where he stayed. Unavailable.
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 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.
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 Quietus Est like Borges did, but not before having to go through the life of an exile. That’s what Borges had intended me to do. Such was his final and only message to me embodied within his last story. A story written for the 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.
“In a way, he will be like a shadow of you,” Borges told me that night. Slowly but surely, my shadow was becoming me. That’s why I can only vaguely remember you, my childhood home. Him or me, no more running. It ends here.
* * * * * *
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 we will meet.
I am hiding behind the rock. His footsteps on gravel and sand, I can tell them from any other footsteps in the world. His breathing, wheezing and crackling. I am counting to five.
He knows where I am, but he is too tired to take that last step. Let me take that step for you.
I am staring at his face, wrinkled like leaves of an ancient scroll.
“Time’s up, Quietus Est,” I am telling him.
He is not fighting back, and my Swiss blade finds a comfy spot below his Adam’s apple. I am going to finish him now.
Popping sounds are coming out from his flabby throat. What are you trying to tell me, old man? Let me hear your last words. I am easing the pressure to let him talk. But the sounds that come out not words, but laughter.
“You, you are confused,” he says. “You’ve got it all wrong. Let me, let me help you understand.”
I am letting him sit up. He is coughing blood. One wrong move and he’s dead. He wipes the blood off his lips and nods in understanding.
“All my life I have followed you,” he begins slowly. “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 them all. Some helped for a while, and the disease subsided, but then trolled back with a new stronger wave. It’s this disease that nests here” – and he points to his head – “forcing me to look for a way to end my own life. It all began in London, on that morning when I was sitting on the bench in the middle of that square, feeling the disease gnawing on my brain. My first attempt was in that hotel, room B6. I sat on the bed in that dark room for hours with a rope in my hand and a blanket over my head. Death opened the door and stood above me in the darkness of the room. Oh, how I wanted my pain to end! But it was not meant to be. Not then, not there. I had to live on. Ever since that day, it was a cat and a mouse game between us. I chased death, and death would always slip away. Until now.”
He pauses, rubbing his flabby neck, then points his finger down the valley and continues: “I was born in that 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 Sunday clergy in that white chapel. I remember Eastern rugs being washed on the street and the smell of grapes. My name is Fernandez August Navaro. And you, you have no true name, but they call you Quietus Est. The one who wanders.”
Filaments of scorching infernos have been ignited all over me. The fire sets off inside my eyelids, spreading over to all facial pores and trickling down my body.
“Lies! Imbecile lies!” I roar.
“Look at me,” he says, “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 are all you have gained from me. Master Borges knew who you were. He cracked you, and then he tricked you. He made you think you were me. 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 those memories you have – those are my memories. And now that I have told you who you really are, you must finally finish me.”
I have heard enough of his fibs. I am throwing my knife away. I shall not require any blades to finish him. With hands clenched around his thin neck, I am strangling him. I hear him squeal as the grip tightens. I feel the crackling of neck bones between my thumbs. I see him gulping the air in warm convulsions. He looks peaceful.
I sit on his chest and watch his last breath picked up by the wind, carried down the valley to the gardens, 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 hair. He must have 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 trail, 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
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