“There’s been another attack.”
Martha’s voice trembled, and in her eyes I could read the effort she was making to contain her tears. It took me a moment to absorb the news, and when I finally did I could only stand there, impassive, while I looked at the newspaper shaking in my wife’s hand. I approached the window. Now I needed the cold air, precisely what I’d been trying to escape on leaving the university, and I contemplated the dark smudge of the night as it breathed on, serene as ever. Ten floors below me the city gave itself over to the pyrotechnics of its neon lights, to the uneasy intoxication of its nocturnal games, and to the pleasant warmth of the cafés and restaurants still serving at this late hour; a city, anyway, with a life that tried not to come completely unmoored from normality.
“You’re shaking,” I heard Martha’s faint voice behind me.
Yes, I was shaking. And it was not the thick air, or the August cold that rustled the drapes; it was the certainty that That Presence—long feared—was once again in our midst: encircling our days, cluttering our nights with its thick steps, lying in wait for each of our acts, ready to exploit the most minor slip-up, and seeking above all those who, like me, had openly confronted it the first time. The city below ignored the danger that had returned to haunt it after years of absence.
“Are you sure?” I asked, still dumbfounded, while I accepted a coffee.
“Martin called to confirm it: it was in San Marcos.”
“A professor of . . . sociology?” I inquired.
Martha nodded silently and showed me the newspaper. As I expected, the article was small, apparently written so that it would go unnoticed at the bottom of the fourth page, buried among ambiguous photos and other headlines. A small photo showed a faded image of the professor from San Marcos, identifying him with one of those circles so often used in newspaper photos that tend to hang, disrespectfully, over those meant to be singled out. In the photo were colleagues and smiling students: no doubt another time. The professor was survived by his wife and children; there would be a wake scheduled for tomorrow morning, etcetera. That was all. There were no major details, and I imagined the work of the journalist who wrote those lines, destined not to be read, maybe to be used as wrapping for fish, or to end up on the sidewalk somewhere in the city, the title smeared by a wad of gum.
“Does Martin know more?”
I collapsed onto the sofa, dejected because my suspicions were certain to bear out; first they would be sociologists—and the country didn’t have many of them; that is, sociologists whose ideas went against the grain. I thought of Santibañez: we’d have to look out for him, to draw him out of his stubborn skepticism that had immunized him the first time, when Martin and I had barely started teaching and back when we admired his conviction, his unshakeable faith in his ideas, his solemn aplomb on receiving the insults and acid criticisms of his intellectual opponents. We’d have to remind him of the gray hairs, the small losses that were gnawing away at our lives and making us more vulnerable to a new attack.
“—the newspaper basically says the same thing.” Martha’s voice returned me to reality; “Martin was really worried and was trying to get in touch with you all afternoon.”
I walked over to the phone.
“He’s not at home. He said to call him early tomorrow.”
“Where did he go?” I was alarmed at what might befall my friend, as That Presence was loose on the streets, the night ripe for another attack. Martin would be an ideal victim.
“I don’t know, all he said was that he’d be careful,” Martha explained to me as she rescued the porcelain cup from between my hands. “Martin knows as well as you do where an attack is most likely; he’ll avoid the university. Anyway, it’s not likely that it will resurface for another week or two—remember how it was the first time . . . ”
The voice of my wife did not sound very sure; she probably thought what I did, that this time was different, that if it had returned it was precisely because it was no longer afraid, and—impossible not to think this—that it had grown, was bigger, more dangerous than before.
That night we avoided saying anything more about the matter. During dinner we exchanged some words about needing to buy our boy Fernando some new clothes—you had to see how fast he was growing—about the terrible weather, yes, you’re right and so take care of that cough, for three nights I’ve heard you wheezing, something with your chest; today Señora Otilia came to wash the clothes, what a nuisance, the woman is so meddlesome. With all our trivial remarks, we tried to keep our horror at bay, and yet it advanced just the same, strangling that blue and deceptively still night. We tried, but it was in vain. We both felt too tense to keep up that absurd complicity of “pass me the bread please” and “is there is any sugar left on the shelf.” Every noise from outside frightened us, froze us where we were and halted the metallic rustle of our forks brushing up against our plates. Then we looked at each other in silence and tried to calm ourselves down, together: Señor García is always losing his keys; again the Gómez’s dog, poor thing, got locked outside. Again in vain. The threat, still undiminished, returned to spoil our poorly-acted nonchalance, and each noise sparked fear in Martha’s eyes and, I’m sure, in mine as well.
Just as we were finishing dinner, a sudden racket made us jump up; the sound of aluminum cans clanking loudly outside interrupted our ersatz calm. It was already here, ready to attack, hungering for victims, looking for a way into the kitchen and raising a din just to terrify us, that son of a bitch. I ran to the door and in my desperation grabbed a butter knife, then felt even worse off squeezing at that puny utensil meant for spreading jams and butter. Still, I was ready for confrontation, even if it was only with my bare hands. I thought about Martha and young Fernando, who was sleeping in his room. He was far away from all this, swaddled in the inviolable innocence of his six years. I thought about old Santibañez, about Martin and Cecilia, my silent companions that first time we had to endure the daily fight; I thought about the ruthless mockery of its malevolent face, about how it consumed—without remission—all my time, hours spent avoiding an attack from the first moment I knew such a threat existed; and now it was already here. I opened the kitchen door with an abrupt, almost savage lurch, abandoning all thinking and loosing my instinct. I was met with the tender pink fear of my son, in his pajamas, holding our bewildered cat: Sorry, Dad, I was giving him milk and he tried to escape.
I had to lean against the doorframe and tried to smile. I was drenched in a cold and sticky sweat. Martha, who had run up behind me, gathered up the child, who pressed up against her, perhaps sensing the danger that was beginning to surround the house. Suddenly, it was already outside, and we didn’t even know; fear attracted it—fear and fear’s rancid stench; the hatred it instilled in those of us who know of its existence, and also the peculiar smell of certain books. I turned to the study and without hesitation pulled down from the bookshelves the volumes whose smell might attract it. They neared thirty books in all, mostly material I used to prepare my classes. Books that I grasped with the same respect that might be accorded the antidote to a certain poison, and which Martha looked at with a scowl because we knew that years ago it had begun the same way: an odor only perceptible to that sharp nose—and later, a mortal attack.
Martha returned after she put the child back to bed. We watched the ten o’clock news and then without pause changed the channel to watch the eleven o’clock version, each time with the same unspoken desire to know something more. It was useless. We learned that the transportation stoppage was to continue indefinitely, provisions were growing scarce, and the screen showed us serpentine lines, several blocks long, that began at the rickety doors of the Government Relief Agencies; two ministers had already stepped down this week, and the country continued to sink into a bottomless crisis—all this in spite of the newscaster’s skeptical smile, cleansed of any worry—but not once was there mention of the greater danger we were facing.
“It appears,” Martha sighed in tacit agreement, “that that kind of announcement is not as convenient for the government.”
Before we went to bed, we double-checked the doors and windows.
We slept badly. I felt my wife’s restlessness as she tossed and turned in bed, and I felt for her—for me, for the impotence of knowing that it was better not to rescue her from the nightmare she was having. It would have been worse to wake her up and return her to the daily reality that would begin soon enough, with the slow intrusion of the morning: the sound of running water, the radio and news broadcasts, the coffee and toast, the world just outside, the resignation felt by thousands on walking through the drizzle those ten, fifteen, twenty blocks jammed with those absurd stoppages; the frozen shock that accompanied the sight of the routine passage of tanks glimpsed from behind the rattling glass of office buildings; the desperation that blew through the streets like a malevolent wind, and now That Presence, detecting the scent of a heedless city. Only a few (perhaps Martin, Santibañez, and I—and that was it) had sensed its beastly, unbridled advance toward the reckoning. Not even those who were aware knew with any precision where it might be, when it might strike and under what circumstances, who might be its next victim.
The telephone rang, and with a shrill insistence drove off the vapors of the night that had been trapped in our room where the shades were drawn and Martha’s breathing had begun to ease. I hadn’t slept a wink and I was beginning to feel drowsy, was smoking incessantly and had opened a book which I’d not read past the first page.
It was Martin.
“Have you heard? This time the news ran in the papers. “
He didn’t even utter a word of introduction. Martin, a man who rarely lost his calm and who always carried himself with impeccable poise. His voice was quivering and tense.
“Yeah, Martha told me yesterday. We were worried about you. Where did you go?”
“To burn books,” and then, returning to what I had just said, “Yesterday? I was referring to the news today.”
I sat up and pulled out a cigarette from a crumpled pack. It was the last one.
“What do you mean?”
“Yesterday it was the sociology professor—San Marcos.” Martin was speaking in a jumble, almost as though sifting through a telegram. “A minor notice in the paper.”
“An opposition paper,” I concluded, urging him on.
“They didn’t say much. Today there were three more; two professors from Pacifico and one from our university.”
“Who was it,” I asked him outright, although I was sure who it was.
The circle was closing. The next one could be either of us, that at least seemed increasingly, alarmingly, likely—hence the agitation muzzling my friend, normally a composed and fastidious critic of literature; the death of Santibañez must have upset him. We hung there for a few seconds without saying a word. Outside the rain struck at the windows and roofs of the buildings with a stubborn tenacity, dripping down and stretching itself out like gray tentacles along the walls, muddying the streets and signs, covering the city with a heavy cloak that zigzagged along the sidewalk and pooled up in the cracks and uneven patches of asphalt. We arranged to meet in our usual spot. Martin said he had a plan and that it was urgent we talk; and before hanging up I tried to put him at ease, although without much conviction. My fears from the night before were confirmed; it had returned after a much needed sleep, it had returned hungry and bigger than before. It had sensed the scant resistance that awaited it, and it started surrounding the universities, choosing its prisoners with patient delight. Later, institutes, cultural centers would fall prey to it—then, intellectual life in its entirety. By the time it began to attack schools and academies it would already be too late (in the hypothetical case that there would even be someone to combat it); in the factories and in the offices, in the businesses and the ministries, there would already be easy captives. I imagined a world bent down on its knees, satisfying its hunger just as the lunatics, who fed and adored it, had demanded.
Martin had told me to meet him in the café by the university where we taught, a café we used to visit often. Putting down the receiver, I looked up to find, gazing back at me, the frightened eyes of Martha as she leaned on the doorframe to the bedroom. Instinctively she had lifted her hand to her chest, as though looking to relieve some tightness there, a breathlessness that caused her face to stiffen. I understood then that she was no longer the young girl I had married ten years before; she looked too pale, her hair held up in a tight bun from which a few graying strands escaped. An infinity of wrinkles aged that face, which, until recently, had carried the confident brushstrokes of youthful beauty. I approached her and wrapped her up in a loving embrace, trying to protect her. While she pressed up against my chest, what I felt from her was protectiveness rather than a desire to be protected herself.
“I’m going to make coffee,” she composed her voice, though I could hear it sounding a sharper tone; she was trying not to break down. My hands could almost grasp that all-too-fleeting memory of her fragility.
I walked to the kitchen and while I followed my wife’s mechanical gestures cleaning the dishes, I related in a few words the conversation I’d just had with Martin. I avoided referring to Santibañez; Martha knew him, and it would have been too much for her to learn what had happened.
“What are you planning to do?” Her voice had resolved on a note of calmness.
I confessed that I still didn’t quite know what we would do. Meanwhile, she and I both knew that sooner or later—though surely sooner, judging from swiftness of the recent attacks—it would reach us, that it would sniff out our aversion and that that would excite it like a beast smelling the fear of captured prey. Even as I spoke, I could feel myself being seized by an irrepressible hatred. The first time it was among us, we only learned of the attacks from the news reports relayed by those returning from abroad, reports that struck us as absolutely unreal because of their distance and the particular conditions of those faraway countries where it attacked; it had claimed many colleagues, among them some friends of mine, Santibañez being the latest one. The next victim could be Martin or, even more likely, me; it made no difference. It saw itself as strong, powerful, unrivaled; the attacks were pointed and yet elastic in their rhythms, without leaving much trace, each time claiming a new victim. Nothing was certain, and everything confusing. Reality became, in its presence, dark and remote. Neither Martin nor I were willing to let ourselves be pulled in without a fight. Blinded, I fell upon the realization that I was resigning myself to fighting a losing battle.
Before setting off for the café where Martin was waiting, I asked Martha to wrap in plastic the books I had set aside the night before and to carry them herself to that same place, far away from any possible discovery, where she could then burn them.
As I reached the door to leave, I heard her voice from the kitchen, uttering words I do not recall ever hearing her say with such worry:
Outside I was received by the sharp morning air. A misty drizzle muddied the streets with a kind of ferocity; for about two days it churned up a muddy swill that splattered up from beneath the weight of car and bus tires and caked in a black muck the shoes of the people cramming into the bus stops; people who waited in vain for the smoke-spewing nose of the bus to appear on the far corner of the avenue. A breathy haze hung over the streets, and from out behind mounds of uncollected trash, accumulated over the three weeks of municipal strikes, emerged the decrepit figures of children, their faces looking aged and unwell. Anything that seemed to be of use they put into a filthy burlap bag, nibbling at dried-out bread and decomposing lettuce. The public buses that ambled through the streets could not transport so many people, who were willing to pay almost anything not to miss work (their absence would have been a convenient excuse for the failing businesses and factories to claim bankruptcy and close). And at each stop those commuters fortunate enough to make it onto the bus faced the wagging fists and insults of those who weren’t as lucky. Army trucks were streaking through the main streets of the city, and it was rumored that this was because the bus drivers’ strike continued without any sign of letting up. As though it were a protest, or a demonstration, against reality, against logic, and against what was normal, desperate throngs of people also walked in the opposite direction—a kind of spell to walk back in time – with the absurd hope of finding an available bus among the initial stops that were already completely overrun. Many resigned themselves to rushing off on foot the various kilometers to the office, the factory, or the store without even trying to hitch a ride with me or any of the others who, traveling by car (a luxury condemned by the president), may have passed for gypsy cabs. Agitated, I tried to take some people in my car, but I could barely slow down before a mob surged toward me—of students, employees, factory workers, and secretaries among whom the constancy of the municipal strikes and work stoppages had bred an air of chummy camaraderie which brought them together and leveled their differences: a young blonde clung to the back handle of the car, and the copper-colored hand of a man grabbed hold of her without even a thought, the two clinging on together. Still, everyone shouted raucously and fought, howling to get aboard. I had no choice but to drive away, and while I did I gazed through the rear view mirror at the insane reality the country had been plunged into, a reality reflected in those flushed faces. The situation had never been like this before, and it slowly tore down all vestiges of personal dignity.
Martin was drinking coffee at a distant table, tucked away in the warm shade of the café, where the odd smell of ham and the aroma of espresso had once eased our worries if only for a passing moment. I knew right away, though, that this place of aromatic lies didn’t exist as it once did. I saw that etched with tension on the ill-shaven face of my friend, in the cigarette that shook loosely in his hand, and in the heaviness of his movements. I had that aching certainty that there were no longer any places for us to go, not as there used to be, when we would gather here for breakfast, sharing news so as not to lose touch with our hopes for a better life; and later we would cross the university campus, Martin to his literature classes and I to try to chip away at the cynicism of my students in the Sociology of Peru. Sometimes we prolonged our conversations for as long as we could, consumed by trying to untangle the technical complexities of the latest novel or simply arguing about soccer (that mundane love that conquered us with such ease).
For years we used to gather in that small café, at first because we preferred it to the academic racket that prevailed at the university, and later because in our shared silences beat the tacit promise of our not allowing ourselves to be taken in by the desolation that blew through the farther reaches of the city. Sometimes Santibañez arrived and the conversations would go on for hours under the playful ease of our jokes and ribbings; all the while, though, a certain consciousness persisted, pristine and constant, of something unnamable and impending.
Once in a while we even invited Martha and Cecilia so that we could all feel young again, to shake out the tension of our days in spite of a foreboding winter that seemed to lurk around the corner, pulsating with omens and frightful news, of price inflations, plunders, demonstrations, stoppages, and endless rumors that together swelled up in our daily conversations, a chain of horror that shook the city through and through. In the café we talked about literature, about film; we spoke of our academic projects (perpetually delayed or put on hold), of Martin’s travels, and a thousand other things of no importance, always trying to avoid falling into the ruts of the present situation; we played this absurd chess game, trying to keep the doors closed on that gloomy and enfeebled future. But at a certain point, someone let his guard down and a comment would escape his lips: something about the most recent textile strike, or the ridiculous price of cigarettes, the last terrorist attack, or the shortage of sugar. It was impossible to keep up two or three hours of conversation without touching one of these threads leading back to the general situation of the country. Then, we’d be pulled back by the unconquerable weight of reality. A brusque silence would follow because That Presence pressed its snout against the windows that gave onto the city; the terror then set in, we feared that the climate was ripe for new attacks, that That Presence would come closer and closer to us with each day that passed, engulfing us in its dark, funereal mood, that it would awaken at any moment.
The moment had arrived.
Translation of “El acoso.” Copyright Jorge Eduardo Benavides. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Jonathan Blitzer. All rights reserved.