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The Man Who Buried Himself

It was extraordinary, the change that came over my friend. The jovial, witty, and carefree youth had become a melancholic, taciturn, and cautious man. His moments of abstraction were frequent, and in them it seemed as if his spirit were wandering the paths of another world. One of our friends, a diligent reader and decipherer of Browning, remembering the strange piece in which the poet tells us of the life of Lazarus after he was resurrected, would often say that poor Emilio had visited death. And all of the inquiries that we made to discover the cause of that mysterious change in character were fruitless.

But so much did I press him and each time with such insistence, that finally one day, revealing the effort it takes to make a very difficult and draining decision, all of a sudden he said to me: “OK, I’m going to let you know what has happened to me, but I beg you, in the name of whatever you consider most holy, not to tell anyone before I have died once more.” I promised him in all seriousness, and he took me into his study.

I had not been in his study since before his transformation. It had not been modified in any way, but now it seemed to me more in harmony with its owner. I thought for a moment that it was his favorite and most frequented room that had changed him in such a surprising way. His antique chair, that wide, leather friar’s chair with huge arms, seemed to take on a new sentiment. I was examining it when Emilio, after having carefully closed the door, said to me, pointing to it:

“That’s where it happened.”

I looked at him without comprehending.

He had me sit facing him, in a chair that was on the other side of his desk. He settled back in his chair and began to tremble. I didn’t know what to do.

Two or three times he tried to begin, and each time he had to give up. I was about to beg him to make his confession, but curiosity was stronger than pity, and they say that curiosity is one of the things most likely to make a man cruel. He sat still for a moment with his head in his hands and his eyes lowered. Then he shook himself like he had made a sudden resolution, fixed his eyes on me with a look that I had never seen in him before, and began:

“All right, you’re not going to believe a word of what I’m going to tell you, but that doesn’t matter. By telling it to you I will free myself of a grave burden, and that is enough for me.”

I don’t remember what I answered, but he went on:

“About a year and a half ago, months before the mysterious happening, I fell ill with terror. The illness showed no symptoms, so nobody knew that I was sick, but it made me suffer horribly. Everything filled me with fear, and I seemed to be enveloped by an atmosphere of panic. I sensed intangible dangers. All the time I felt the invisible presence of death, but I mean real death, annihilation. While I was awake, I anxiously awaited the hour when I would lie down to sleep, and once in bed I was overcome by the fear that sleep would claim me forever. It was an insufferable life, terribly insufferable. And I could not even resolve myself to commit suicide, which I was thinking at the time would be a remedy. I began to fear for my sanity.”

“Why didn’t you consult a doctor?” I said, to say something.

“I was afraid, as I was afraid of everything. And the fear was increasing so much that I came to spend entire days in this room and in this very chair in which I am now sitting, with the door closed, glancing over my shoulder every moment. I was sure that it could not last much longer and that the catastrophe, or whatever it was, was getting nearer. And sure enough, it came.”

Here he paused for a moment and seemed to waver.

“Don’t be surprised that I hesitate,” he went on, “because what you are going to hear I have not yet said even to myself. The fear was already something that afflicted every part of me, that slipped a noose around my neck and threatened to explode my heart and my head. One day, September 7, I woke up in a paroxysm of terror; my body and spirit hung flaccid and limp. I prepared myself to die of fear. I shut myself in here like I did every day, I sat down where I am sitting now, and I began to call upon death. And, naturally, it came.” Noticing the look on my face, he added mournfully:

“Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but it doesn’t matter.”

And he went on:

“While I was sitting here, with my head in my hands and with my eyes fixed on an indefinite spot beyond the surface of this table, I heard the door opening and a man entering cautiously. I dared not lift my eyes. I heard my heart pounding and I could hardly breathe. The man stopped and stood there, behind that chair that you’re in, and I’m sure he was looking at me. After a little while I decided to lift my eyes and look at him. What happened next is indescribable; there are no words to express it in the language of men who die only once. The man who was standing there, in front of me, was me, myself, at least in appearance. Imagine that you’re standing in front of a mirror and the image of you that is reflected in the glass detaches from it, takes on a body, and comes over to you . . .”

“Yes, a hallucination . . .” I said.

“We’ll talk about that later,” he said, and continued:

“But the mirror-image holds the same posture that you do, and follows your movements, whereas the I that was outside me was standing, and I, the I inside me, was sitting. At last the other sat down too—he sat where you are sitting now. He put his elbows on the table as you have yours, he held his head in his hands, as you have yours, and he sat there looking at me as you are looking at me now.”

I trembled when I heard this; I couldn’t help it. He said to me, sadly:

“No, don’t you be afraid now; I’m OK, see?”

And he continued:

“We stayed like that for a moment, looking each other in the eye—that is to say, I was, for a while, looking myself in the eye. The terror had been transformed into something else, something very strange and which I am not capable of defining for you; it was the height of resigned desperation. After a little while I felt the ground going out from under my feet, the armchair vanishing, the air getting thinner, everything that I could see, including my other me, disappearing, and when I heard the other murmur very softly and through closed lips: Emilio!, I felt death. And I died.”

I didn’t know what to do when I heard this. I was tempted to flee, but curiosity overcame fear. And he continued:

“When after a little while I came to my senses—that is to say, when after a little while I came to the other’s senses, or rather, I came back to life—I found myself sitting there, where you find yourself sitting now and where the other had been sitting before, elbows on the table and head in hands, contemplating me, who was sitting where I am now. My consciousness, my spirit, had passed from one to the other, from the primitive body to its exact replica. And I saw myself, or I saw my previous body, pale and rigid, that is to say, dead. I had witnessed my own death. And my soul had been cleansed of that strange terror. I felt sad, very sad, abysmally sad, but serene and without any fear of anything. I knew that I had to do something; the corpse of my past could not stay here like that. Calmly and carefully I considered what I should do. I got up from that chair, and, taking my pulse, I mean to say, taking the other’s pulse, I convinced myself that I was no longer living. Leaving him locked up in here, I left the room, went down to the vegetable garden, and with some pretext began digging a large ditch. You know that I have always liked to work in the garden. I dismissed the servants and waited for nighttime. And when the night came I carried my corpse over my shoulder and buried it in the ditch. The poor dog watched me with eyes of terror, but I mean human terror; the look he gave me was, well, a human look. I petted him as I said: ‘We don’t understand anything that happens, my friend, and when you come down to it, this is no more mysterious than anything else . . .’”

“That seems to me a reflection too philosophical to be addressed to a dog,” I said.

“Why?” he replied. “What, do you believe that human philosophy is more profound than canine philosophy?”

“What I believe is that he would not understand you.”

“Neither do you, and you’re not a dog.”

“Of course I understand you . . .”

“Right, and you think I’m crazy!”

And since I remained quiet, he added:

“I appreciate your silence. There is nothing that I hate more than hypocrisy. And as far as hallucinations go, I must tell you that everything that we perceive, and all of our impressions, are nothing but hallucinations. The difference lies in their practicality. If you are walking in a desert dying of thirst and suddenly you hear the murmur of a fountain and you see water, all this is only a hallucination. But if you put your mouth to it and you drink and your thirst is quenched, you call this hallucination reality. Which is to say that the value of our perceptions is measured by their practical effect. And I judge what happened to me here and what I have just told you by its practical effect, an effect that you have been able to observe for yourself. Because you can see that I, being the same, am, however, another.”

“That’s obvious.”

“Ever since then, things continue to be the same for me, but I see them with another sentiment. It’s as if the tone, the timbre of everything, had changed. You all believe that it is I who have changed, and to me it seems that what has changed is everything else.”

“Like a psychology study . . .” I said.

“Psychology? And experimental metaphysics!”

“Experimental?” I asked.

“I believe so. But there’s one more thing. Come with me.”

We left the room and he took me to a corner of the garden. I began to tremble as if from mercury poisoning, and seeing this, he said:

“You see? You see? You too! Be brave, you rationalist!”

I noticed then that he had a pickax with him. He began to dig with it while I remained glued to the ground by a strange feeling, a combination of terror and curiosity. After a while he had uncovered the head and part of the shoulders of a human corpse, already nearly a skeleton. He pointed to it, saying:

“Look at me!”

I didn’t know what to do or even what to say. He covered the hole again. I did not move.

“What’s the matter?” he said, shaking my arm.

I felt like I was waking from a nightmare. I stared at him with a look that must have been the height of panic.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “now you think this is some crime; that’s natural. But have you ever heard of somebody who has disappeared without anyone knowing where he disappeared from? Do you believe a crime like that is possible without it eventually being discovered? Do you believe I’m a criminal?”

“I don’t believe anything,” I answered.

“Now that’s the truth; you don’t believe in anything and because you don’t believe in anything you cannot understand anything, starting with the most simple things. You, all of you who consider yourselves sane, have no instruments at hand besides logic, and that is why you live in the dark—”

“All right, fine,” I interrupted, “so what does all this mean?”

“Oh, that! There you are looking for the resolution or the moral. Poor, crazy fools! You picture the world as a puzzle or a hieroglyph and you have to find the solution. No, my friend, no; this has no solution, this is no riddle nor does it have anything to do with symbolism. It happened just as I have told you, and if you don’t want to believe me, so be it.”

***

After Emilio told me this and until his death, I saw him only a few times, because I tried to avoid his presence. I was afraid of him. He retained his changed character, but led a regular life without showing the least sign of being crazy. The only thing that he did was scoff at logic and reality. He died peacefully, of pneumonia, and with great bravery. Among his papers he left a detailed account of what he had told me, and a treatise on hallucinations. For us it was always a mystery, the existence of that corpse in the corner of the vegetable garden, an existence that could be verified.

In the treatise that I mentioned, according to what they tell me, he maintained that many, many people at some point in their lives experience transcendental, mysterious, inexplicable occurrences, but that they do not dare reveal them for fear that they be thought crazy.

“Logic,” it says, “is a social institution, and that which is called madness is a completely private thing. If we could read into the souls of the people who surround us, we would see that we live enshrouded in a world of murky, yet palpable, mysteries.”

Translation of “El que se enterró.” Published 1908 in La Nación, Buenos Aires; reprinted in De esto y de aquello: escritos no recogidos en libro, vol. 2 (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1950–54), and in  Relatos novelescos (Barcelona: Juventud, 1989). Translation © 2011 by Emily Davis. All rights reserved.