The Two Coins

Portitor has horrendus aguas et                                                                      
flumina servat terribili squalore Charon( . . . ).
                 Aeneidos, VI, 298-299)         

On the few occasions when he received a letter he always did the same thing: he would wait to open it until early evening, after he finished dinner. Dinner is perhaps exaggerating; in fact a piece of bread with ham, a glass of red wine, and cheese with a slice of quince jelly was all there usually was to his solitary meal. He considered that for an older man who lived alone that was more than sufficient. Until a short time before, the voice of the radio had accompanied his meals, but that old artifact also had been added to the sizeable list of objects in his life that had ceased to interest him. Every now and then, Paddy, one of his nephews, would pay him a visit to make sure that he was doing all right and would sometimes succeed in persuading him to leave the island.

That morning he had received a package in the mail and despite the fact that this was unusual, he gave not the first thought to opening it before the accustomed moment. He had taken a look at the return address and, as he had suspected, the package came from Ireland.

It was addressed to Timothy O’Connor, that is to say, to him, although he was Timoteo. Sinéad, as had his previous correspondent Oona, always ignored the Argentine version of his name.

Sinéad O’Reilly
Jack White’s Cross Road
Co. Wicklow, IRELAND

Mrs. Sinéad O’Reilly was his last and only link with Ireland and virtually with the entire external reality. And despite their correspondence having lasted for more than forty years, including the exchange of a few photos, he had never met her (nor would he). It was for this reason that in truth he was never quite sure of whom it was that he was corresponding with. He knew, however, that Mrs. O’Reilly was the granddaughter of a first cousin of his mother who had died (God rest her soul), leaving him with the job of preserving that distant connection and, in time, with her descendants, an epistolary relationship that maintained his ties with the Green Isle, the land of his ancestors. And since Timoteo—the youngest of seven brothers—had always been easygoing by nature, the arrangement had continued unbroken. The fact that he was a dutiful son was attested to by his never having been married.

Outside, the wind howled mournfully.

He drank off the last of the wine and glanced over at the shelf where he had left the package. He sat quietly for a moment, seemingly deep in thought. Then his gaze shifted to the yellowing walls surrounding him, invaded by dampness and hung with photographs of persons long dead. He stood up and went over to the package that awaited him. He ran his fingers over the Irish stamps and smiled to himself at the handwriting of his distant and unknown relative, which had gradually become less firm and controlled over the years. Whose death would it be that would put an end to this ridiculous correspondence? Would someone else step in if she were the first to go? On the other hand, if he went first he understood that that would be the end of the ritual.

He picked up the penknife and began to cut the twine that secured the package. As he did so, his eyes glanced about the room and came to rest on the old “Concertola” with its large listening horn. That old record player that had provided him with so many moments of occasional happiness was now condemned to silence as the result of a decision he had taken. On its turntable lay, perhaps forever, the last record he had listened to years before, the one that had “Galway Bay,” a song that he had first heard in a movie from some time back in the Fifties, possibly The Quiet Man . . . a film by John Ford, although the version he had was sung by John McCormack or Bing Crosby . . . He didn’t remember exactly . . . He did recall that he hadn’t gotten up the nerve to invite Dina, the girl who worked with him at the Armour Packing House in Buenos Aires, to see it with him, and for that reason he had gone to the theater alone. What was sure was that he knew the song by heart and some of the lines would drift back to him occasionally, as they did now.

And if there is going to be a life hereafter
And somehow I am sure there's going to be,
I will ask my God to let me make my heaven
In that dear land across the Irish sea

The song by Arthur Colahan expressed something obscure that he could not completely grasp but that was rooted deep within him and the truth was that if there were to be another life after this one, he would ask God to let him spend it in far-off Ireland—a symbolical and sentimental desire, although perhaps unjustified because he had never set foot on Irish soil. But this fact was likely the very cause for that yearning. He smiled and coughed briefly to disperse the image and returned his attention to the package. Unwrapped, it contained a letter and beneath it a medium-sized box. The letter described to him trivial events that for Sinéad held great importance. At the end came a greeting on his birthday that explained the reason for the gift enclosed. The last lines were standard sentiments, “Hoping that when this reaches you you’re in good health, write soon, affectionately, Sinead.” Now he really was feeling curious. When he removed the top of the box, he saw that wooden cutouts, encased in straw stuffing, had been placed around the object to protect it from rough handling. He had no idea what the gift was. At first he was confused and it took him a moment or two before he realized that it was an artfully fashioned imitation of an ancient hourglass. He was touched by the movement of the enclosed sand. Itching sensations in his forearms and upper arms interrupted this emotion. It turned out that countless small spiders were spreading out over his skin in a kind of exotic dance. He brushed them off with his hands and as they fell to the floor he stepped on them repeatedly. As he did this, he noticed the straw stuffing that he had tossed on the floor: that was where the aggressive little insects had emerged from. He crushed them all and gathered them up in a dustpan, which he emptied into the garbage bin, thus putting an end to the incident. He turned back to the gift. As he toyed with the shifting sand, his gaze lifted to the large clock that hung on the wall; it was midnight. He realized that time had slipped by as he entertained himself with Sinéad’s present. He also noticed that he was beginning to sweat. He set the hourglass aside. He touched his brow and found it damp; a vein on his temple had become swollen. He felt ill and, now experiencing lightheadedness, decided to stay seated right there, next to the cheese parings and the now empty wine glass. When he placed his hands on the table he saw that the age spots on his skin were surrounded by a trail of red blotches that stretched up his arms and that resembled mosquito bites, but whose size was far larger than is usual with that insect. Suddenly, he remembered the swarm of spiders and that was sufficient. Now he began to feel worse. He didn’t want to think, or he wasn’t able to. In spite of what was happening, he decided that the best thing was to go to bed; in the morning it would all have passed. Because of his increasing weakness, it was hard for him to stand up, much less reach for the hourglass, which for some strange reason he wanted to take with him. But after a few attempts, he was able to get up. He reached the doorway to his room. Before going in, he managed with some difficulty to turn out the lamp in the kitchen. He felt his way to the night table and lit the bedside lamp, setting the anachronistic hourglass down beside it. Seated on the bed, he opened the night table drawer and reached for the two coins that for several years he had kept there, ever since he had started to realize the dizzying passage of time, and at a time when small gratifying daily habits began to replace medications. The routine of the coins was a kind of tradition, a symbolic inheritance that he did not really comprehend and that no one had ever explained to him, one that he had never made an effort to understand. But there they were and he felt now that he should make used of them. Committed as he was to his daily routine, he nevertheless omitted the last trip to the bathroom, dispensed with pajamas and, still fully dressed, lay down. Without knowing the reasons for doing so, he took the two coins and in keeping with the ritual placed them over his weary eyes. The hoped-for darkness was not complete so he decided to turn off the bedside lamp, which he managed to do with some difficulty and not without knocking over the hourglass that Sinéad had sent him from Ireland. In the now full blackness he heard the sound of the glass shattering and also, he thought, the whisper of the sand as it spread out over the floor. “How strange,” he thought. How strange. And it truly was, because after sensing that the coins had disappeared, he opened his eyes and faced a violet-shaded firmament crowded with planets and stars.  That new sky stretched out over an immense desert on which he was lying, not alone but alongside the person who had removed the coins and who now motioned to him to follow his lead. As they began to walk the grains of sand seemed to be caressing their bare feet. He advanced as if some other being were in charge of his movement. He also felt that his arms were reaching out to embrace something and that he was an abstraction, a part of some separate whole. Soon he found himself standing next to the other person on a riverbank where a boat was waiting for him. The guide indicated that he should get into it, and, perhaps because it appeared to be shaped like a coffin, he thought that he should lie down. This he did while his companion, standing at the prow, began to row across the waters. If time actually existed, he was unable to calculate just when his boat began to encounter many others, all of which seemed to have the shape of cradles. He was unable to determine who occupied those small crafts. In spite of the darkness, a murmuring sound let him know that he was approaching the other bank. The ferryman confirmed this by reaching over to help him to stand. When his feet touched the other territory, which similarly consisted of sand, the single land where all civilizations and all cultures merge again and again, his boat and guide disappeared. What he could see were some faces among that murmuring throng. Among them he recognized his farming grandparents, the old lady who had prepared him for First Communion, Miss Caroline Mosca, the teacher who had taught him  to read and write . . . Dina Near, the woman he had secretly loved as a youth during his long-lost years as an office clerk . . . old friends, women he thought he had forgotten forever . . . all these and many more, now lost amid beings of all sorts, were those who directly or indirectly had had some contact with him during his passage through life. Every one of them was there and though they looked at him none spoke. Not sure whether or not they were able to talk, neither did he feel the need to speak. Those who had apparently come forward to receive him now stepped aside for him to continue on his path. Soon the multitudes were left behind and this encouraged him to look toward what lay in the space before him; this led, in turn, to his discovery that it was impossible to define the limits of that new territory and at the same time allowed him to perceive a faint, indistinct glow, far ahead to the left. Without any conscious reason for doing so, he moved in that direction. After a short time (time?) he found he was a short distance (distance?) from the source of light. It was a section of a building that was very familiar to him that had the shape of a box set down on the desert. There were no windows but the door stood half open and it was from the room’s interior that the light that had attracted him was emanating. When he approached the door, he saw a man and a woman who were looking at him. They were obviously his parents. They were watching him silently and their expressions were a mixture of fear and surprise. They moved to one side, allowing him to enter the single room. He stepped in and what he encountered was the body of an elderly man, who looked identical to him, his own exact image. From his bed he was staring inquisitively at him, intently scrutinizing him. He stepped forward. As he approached the body his feet trod on broken glass. He touched the dying man on the forehead and was suddenly overwhelmed by an indescribable sense of finality and union, overpowering and complete.

Accompanied by the police officers who had broken down the door, Paddy saw that, consumed by decay, the body of his uncle that lay on the bed resembled nothing more than an old suit, soiled and abandoned. What stood out were the still intact eyes, wide open as if in surprise over the nature of death.

Translation of “Las dos monedas.” Copyright Juan José Delaney. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Donald A. Yates. All rights reserved.