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The Last Day on Earth

There seemed to be no one left in the barrio now and the windows were bare and the wind stirred through gates and the rats crossed noiseless rooms and the smell of the honeysuckle was fading. At night there were neither the cries of a sleepless child nor the clatter of dishes deep in the kitchens. In the gardens, it was not the sound of fountains but those of a dry, broken-off branch, a well's pulley creaking in the wind, an orphaned cat whispering an astonished meow and the acacias and jasmines, the lilacs and geraniums were hushed and gave their green light, indifferent to their forthcoming ruin. The detached houses that had once been their owners' every hope were now covered in dust; there was dust on the blue tiled staircases, dust on the moldings of the elegant façades, dust on the windowpanes and in the stairwells.

Those who had lived there and found happiness in the agreeable little gardens and those who had celebrated birthdays and watched their children grow old, all of them, one way or another, had left, giving in to the pressures of this new age and the barrio began to have no voices, was given over to gusts of wind, to the impacts of falling cornices, to the leaves eddying in corners with bits of paper that may have once been letters.

The murmuring on the far side of the barrio was neverending as the heavy machinery demolished homes, flattening and covering the soil with stone for the sidewalks and asphalt for the Gran Avenida designed for victory parades.

The barrio, once an agglomeration of family life, of modest comforts, of years of hard work and goals achieved, on finding itself in the path of the steamrollers and concrete mixers was irrevocably condemned. First, they would cut down the trees and shrubs, then the drains would be ripped out, the wrought-iron railings, the wooden beams and the demolition would quickly be underway, witnessed by no one.

A man and a woman were strolling along the acacia-lined streets. They were the last ones living there and they'd decided not to leave, not to abandon the place they'd lived together all these years. They decided not to accept moving to the apartment blocks where the noise and the improprieties would disturb their needed repose and intimacy. When the steamrollers did arrive, it would be more agreeable to die along with the barrio and all it represented.

Everything was ready for this last day and its imminence conferred a greater effusiveness on their words, their exchanges of opinion, their caresses and laughs; the days they were being deprived of would be taken in a trusting peace, full of beautiful reminiscences of all that had matured them, and a tacit forgetting of a civil war that had put paid to convictions and aspirations.

They strolled through the places they knew, remarking on the trivialities of solitude as well as the greenness of the gardens, which reached over the top of the railings without obscuring the view of the interior. Only one thing was unfamiliar to them, a noise; it could have been footsteps through dry branches and, coming closer to the house from which the noises were coming, they happened on a man in front of a tall bonfire with a mountain of papers crackling between barely visible flames turning into smoke. Books; from the gate they could see that it was books. The man was slowly opening them and tearing out the pages and throwing them on the fire.

The couple pushed on the gate, which creaked, and the man looked their way, holding their gaze for a moment and taking a few steps in their direction. As the mutual surprise lasted the couple contemplated the man: he was in his thirties or early forties, serious-looking and with an uncomprehending frown, and he was graying at the temples. As for his two observers, they were perhaps about the same age, a little older perhaps, and they had similarly attentive, watchful expressions, used to having to judge, and there was a touch of disappointment in their eyes.

No one said anything at first, but when they spoke their thoughts—their surprise at having found someone there, and making a fire—he explained that this was his house and these were his books. He was a little aloof and unsure but when the couple replied that they lived there too though they'd never encountered him, he came closer and asked how could this be if the barrio had been left empty and everyone had gone away, and seeing the two of them shrug, he smiled and said that that gesture was his as well because he'd been prepared to disobey the orders, and that he'd come back to the place he'd lived in years ago and would oversee the final days of the house in which he'd been born. They moved closer to the bonfire and picked up a few of the books and saw some of their favorite authors and said it was a shame for them to be destroyed. He didn't know what to do with them; he thought no one was interested in such texts, and he felt the same about the old furniture and other mementos that were still in there and he motioned to the house. And so it was; when the three came inside, everything that might have been considered the comfort and adornment of a home had been placed in piles in the room. The couple became more and more curious with every object in this chaos: pictures, clothes, glass lamps, high mirrors, old chests… and passing through the spaces between these heaps prompted comments, meaning that they found out about one another's opinions and tastes. When they came back out into the garden where the bonfire had died down, the couple suggested the man come and eat with them.

Since they'd taken the final decision, the couple had been making exquisite meals and they'd amused themselves cooking sumptuous dishes and they'd bought the best wines. And in this first meal with the stranger they made clear the reason for such cares and he was only too happy to take part. And so they found that they could be friends and could share the final happiness that was the couple's proposition to themselves, and on hearing them explain precisely what this would consist of, he admitted that he had also decided to end when everything ended.

Amazed by the meeting and at such consonance—he was also one of the defeated from the civil war—and pleased to have come across a peer who was in such exceptional, identical straits, the couple kept him up into the night with their chatting. But the next day he shouted to them from the street and when he came into the garden they saw he'd brought them a present, an old gramophone that they hurried to turn on, playing record after record; it became clear that they were also equally lovers of music. At points, Caruso's voice or one of Chopin’s waltzes appeared to awaken echoes in the neighboring gardens but if the mechanism ran down they'd hear complete silence and, faraway, the roar of the machines carrying on their ruinous advance.

The stranger suggested they come and live with him, saying they could have the run of the house and could uncover everything in the rooms with all his family memories in them.

The couple convinced him that it would be easier for him to come and live with them and just bring what he needed; they'd live together for as long as it was possible.

And this was how a shared life began, a life of doing only what pleased them, passing the long, hot summer's days in games, conversations, sharing meaningful silences, savoring the minutes that went by indifferent to what would come next, putting their minds to forgetting the calamities of the recent defeat.

They pooled their remaining money; when it ran out, they'd sell anything that was of any value and with the proceeds acquire on the black market whatever was required for their well-being. Halfway through the morning they made a succulent meal; the smell that came from the kitchen and that at midday would be carried on the air through the gardens attracted roving cats which watched at a distance as, in the shade of two leafy acacias, the trio would lay a long table with a white cloth, vases of flowers, dishes, and glasses for a long lunch.

The smiling stranger, whom they'd dubbed Falstaff, brought new and surprising things from his house every day to amuse the couple who, for their part, showed him stamp collections and talked him through the stories behind old family portraits and laughed at the rigid attitudes and the strictures of those past times.

After the meal they'd drink spirits whose high prices they'd had no qualms about paying and they'd read to one another—an author they all admired—and hours went by in commenting on these readings or making Falstaff, who had a lovely voice, recite poems that they all knew by heart.

Come the evening, when the air grew cooler, and by candlelight (the electricity had been cut off long ago) that gave both the rooms and their faces an aspect mysterious and new, they'd make music. Knocking the dust from violins and guitars and a xylophone, they improvised; the impulse of the unplanned rhythms joined with their voices and, out of tune, raspy from so much laughter, they sang in unison songs that they all also knew. The deep shadows cutting across their faces brought to mind the makeup used in  Eastern theater and the next day they painted their faces and began making theater, with no audience, and with no backdrop other than the passing of their last days. New characters crossed between the stands of geranium: an Assyrian king, a medieval page of some sort, a fairy enveloped in gauze and tulle, in accordance with whatever they felt like dramatizing and with whimsical outfits that each chose from the chests in which, sixty or eighty years earlier, women who wanted to be desired had kept their long velvet dresses and opalescent blouses. The steps in the gardens were the preferred stage and there long soliloquies would be heard, interrupted by bursts of laughter and applause.

One afternoon, to the strains of a clarinet, a Salome appeared up on the balcony; she wore a resplendent multicolored robe and a silver mask that hid half her face and she declaimed these disconcerting words:

Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed. Thy body is white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judaea. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as thy body, nor the feet of the dawn when they light on the leaves, nor the breast of the moon when she lies on the sea, there is nothing in the world so white as thy body. 

The arms reached out languid and undulating toward a Jokanaan who wasn't there, and meanwhile Falstaff, wearing breeches, a billowing shirt with damask trim, and a large beret stuck with several green feathers, cried out:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetle o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,|
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
and draw you into madness?

 

The clarinet sharpened its pace and Falstaff, seating himself on the steps, covered his face with his hands and feigned sobs:

To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to bear
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them . . .

Salome came down the steps, opened her robes and exposed her body to him and bent down over Falstaff. He received her kisses and caresses, felt the weight of her legs on his and against the unyielding steps they slowly introduced their bodies to one another.

Long moments later, gusts of a warm wind arrived, the fluctuating music was still accompanying them and the magnificent clothes were being cast off and the beret rolled away and the two of them, for some minutes holding one another tightly and then, slackening and uncoupled, came slipping serenely down to the ground where they continued their play of love and the daylight began to fade. After, they lay still, breathing hard, their muscles soothed; they gazed at the sky through the leafy acacia canopy.

The clarinet had stopped, as if the musician reclining in his willow armchair was submerged in a like languor but when they got up from the ground and hurried over to the dry fountain and began pumping water on each other, he came down too, took off what little he'd been wearing, and the three of them washed, laughing, aiming the jet of water at one another and its cold silvery strike woke them from the evening torpor.

When they decided to go to sleep at midnight, Falstaff didn't retire to the room he'd been sleeping in before, rather they made the couple's bed wider and the three of them, in the half-light cast by a candle surrounded by dragonflies, gave themselves up to love's wise recourses. And finally slept, intermeshed as one body.

At sunrise the next day and upon lifting themselves out of sleep, they looked at one another with refreshed, affectionate looks, and with the passing of the following hours felt an intimate sense of contentment spread and this allowed them to be even more free in their relations, even more tender. Carried along by a greater vivacity, they embarked on new games in the gardens as well as conversations in which they recounted the best moments of their lives with unguarded sincerity. They'd gathered around themselves the products of intelligence and inventiveness, art, and nature and they partook of it all in an exceptional sphere where, fleetingly, they were able to identify pleasure and happiness and, possibly, also, forgetting; they studied engravings in books, they breathed in the antique smells of little jewelry boxes made of rare woods, they stretched out naked on silks and satin and they adorned themselves with attractive necklaces and flowers. From that night on, their appetite for food intensified, as well as for relating their dreams, and for distancing themselves from the unhappy past, and dressing up in the most audacious and extravagant manner and, at dinner, when the spirits and the wine had dropped fire in the three friends' souls, candlelit masks welled up out of the darkness, enhancing the splendid nudes.

One day they found that there was no longer any running water and realized that the machines were getting closer and that within a couple of days the custodians of the works would appear and that the three of them wouldn't be able to carry on giving themselves over to freedom.

They went out into the street and heard the roar of the demolition in nearby houses and the voices of the workers who were loading the trucks with the useless materials that had once been people's homes.

The end had come and they acknowledged it calmly and agreed that they couldn't put off the decision they'd made. They spent a little while wandering through the gardens and then went into the room they'd been using as a bedroom and where they'd gathered all the things that in their eyes were most beautiful and apt to go with them. Out of the wardrobe they took the dose they'd guarded so closely and they dissolved it equally in three glasses of wine that they drank in unison, without saying a word. They knew it would act quickly and they lay down on the bed; there, as a farewell, they embraced, shuddering with the emotion of the good-bye, and now came the first effects, contractions and a suffocating heat, and then they lost consciousness and the bodies lay inert on sheets that had been their companions.

They never knew that they hadn't been the only ones in the abandoned barrio and that their parties, banquets, and masquerades had been witnessed by three children who, day after day, had spied on them from behind the hedge and railings and, awed and amazed, watched how they enjoyed themselves, how they read to one another, how they played croquet and catch and how their voices intoned songs and laughter.

Two boys and a girl, listless friends who came from nearby streets, they'd wandered through the empty barrio and come across a house where people were doing something that made them feel envious and, hearing and seeing them, they'd felt attracted and whenever they could would hurry to that place and, hidden in the hedges, follow all the amazing things revealed by imagination and spontaneity.

But that day they were surprised to find the people not there and in the afternoon dared to enter the gardens and go up the steps and over the threshold into the house. There were no noises, no music, not a single voice. They tiptoed through the rooms and came to one and halted in the doorway; they saw them there, lying on a large bed, rigid, pale. There was a pile of furniture and pictures, books and bottles, lamps and bronze figurines and the three children saw themselves, horrified visitors, reflected in the large mirror. Their young intelligence grasped the truth of their discovery and without a word they started away but a shared thought stopped them; here, at their fingertips, was treasure.

They took a few cautious steps forward and began to gather the things they liked most. A hat, Salome's robes, some necklaces, stamp collections, an enormous box of sweets . . . and when their arms were full the trio left at a run, crossed the gardens and from the hedge checked to see if anyone was around, but everything was quite deserted.

The children fled to another barrio, one that in later years would perhaps come under the threat of a similar destruction and so they too, in solitude, would preserve a fragment of beauty, of love, of happiness, as they waited for the first day on earth. 

"El último día del mundo" © Juan Eduardo Zúñiga. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Thomas Bunstead. All rights reserved.