In Víctor del Árbol's novel Breathing Through the Wound, translated by Lisa Dillman and out this week with Other Press, an artist accepts an unusual commission that pulls him into Madrid's criminal underworld. In the excerpt below, another character narrowly escapes a murder attempt.
His last few nights in jail, Arthur could hardly sleep. Every minute of every hour was like a reenactment of those other nights—the terrible ones when he thought it would never end. He talked and smoked with Ibrahim, bestowing guilt-ridden affection upon him, tainted by the evidence that Ibrahim’s words were true: Arthur’s money and influence were indeed getting him out of there much sooner than the wheels of justice would ever turn for his cellmate. They never brought up the reasons they were in prison, never tried to proclaim their innocence or guilt. On the inside, certain things were simply not talked about—and when they were released those same things would lose all meaning, so there was no need to express them verbally to begin with.
Dawn often took him by surprise, after lying awake all night. And that particular morning—red clouds in the distance—was going to be stormy. The floodlights on the perimeter wall were trained on the empty prison yard and benches lining the wall. A cat prowled the ledge slowly, knowing it was still his domain for a little while longer. To the right, casting his flashlight back and forth, was the swaying silhouette of the guard on duty. There was one hour left until the siren would blare and the world of artificial serenity would vanish into thin air. Other sounds, the everyday sounds that slowly enveloped him, gave it all an air of normality: the clanging of gates on the cellblock, the orderly’s footsteps, the coughing of prisoners in nearby cells . . . even the sound of a transistor radio filtering under the metal door like a distant murmur.
Arthur sat on the edge of the cot and placed his bare feet on the green cement floor. Someone must have thought that painting it that color would make it seem like a meadow. The ground was cold. Ibrahim’s body was barely visible in the dark, an arm wrapped around his pillow. Arthur heard him sigh before turning over and going back to sleep, and he took advantage of the solitude that afforded him to write a letter.
He’d been contemplating it for days, and the need he felt to write it had intensified when he found out he was going to be freed. Common sense told him that whatever words he might scribble were uncalled for, might even be counterproductive. It makes no sense to stir things up once the dust has settled, unless you want the dust to rise once more. He had no desire to reopen wounds that hadn’t even scarred over. So what was it that he was trying to do? He himself was unsure of his intentions, as he leaned toward the window to capture what little light he could from the weak glow of the searchlights and put pen to paper. He could have done it after he was out of jail—but by then the impulse would have faded. He had to do it there, between those four walls, by the barred window, with the smell of incarceration permeating their sheets, their clothes, their skin; he had to do it before it all faded away, vanishing as if it had never occurred.
He wrote for twenty minutes, hardly even pausing to consider his words, simply transferring them onto paper as they gurgled forth chaotically, like hemorrhaging blood.
When he was done he felt no better. He slipped the paper into an envelope and collapsed onto his cot, eyes open. He could still get an hour’s sleep.
But something made him sit up. He heard the metallic sound of the bolt in the cell door sliding back.
Arthur turned to the small square of light on the floor and suddenly knew that something was wrong. This was not the time for a headcount, and even if that’s what it was, no guard showed up inside a cell without announcing his arrival. Silently, he woke Ibrahim and pointed to the door. In the crack of light coming in, they could see someone’s shadow.
Slowly, cautiously, as though attempting not to be heard, the intruder pushed the metal door ajar. The enormous figure in the doorway, its shadow projected onto the cot, was certainly not a guard: guards aren’t skinheads, guards don’t have spiderweb tattoos on their faces. The man held something in his right hand—an icepick or sharpened piece of glass. He must have been thrown off by seeing his target standing there before him, and that brief moment of hesitation was enough to allow Arthur to dodge the man’s first thrust. After lunging at the air, his attacker froze for a split second.
This fleeting moment of hesitation allowed Arthur to reach the man’s side and, before he had a chance to react, punch him in the kidneys—hard. Like some surreal scene out of a silent movie, the attacker’s hands flew to his side and he opened his mouth wide in a silent howl. A blow like that would have felled a normal man, but the giant wasn’t about to submit. He clenched his teeth and charged Arthur, pinning him to the wall. Arthur was bigger than most of the other inmates in the cellblock but looked a wimp compared to this guy. He pummeled the man’s head, punching his ears and trying to jam his fingers into his eyes, but it did nothing to diminish the strength and impact of this brute, who was grunting like a wounded boar, thrusting his blade at Arthur’s face as Arthur tried desperately to dodge him.
And then, suddenly, his attacker opened his eyes wide, his pupils dilating as if something inside him had exploded. He gurgled briefly and spat a sludgy clump of blood onto Arthur’s face before collapsing sideways, lifeless on the floor. From the other side of the cell, Ibrahim watched the slow death rattle wrack the man’s body, an icepick sticking out of his neck. Ibrahim trembled with the exertion of that thrust still coursing through the muscles in his neck. He wiped bloodstained fingers across his face—for a moment making the dry hollow of his scar look like a crimson river—and crouched beside the body to check his vitals.
“Is he dead?” Arthur asked, panting.
Ibrahim nodded, thinking fast.
“The guards will be here any minute, we need to get rid of it somehow, and quick. If they connect you to this, you can forget about walking out through the big door.”
They quickly hatched a plan. Acting in total silence, they lifted the motionless body, put it down on a sheet, and then dragged it outside their cell. The cellblock had three corridors forming a U-shape, and theirs was in the third. Each of them overlooked the same light shaft, into which prisoners threw cans, cigarette butts and other rubbish. So Ibrahim rolled the body out and then pushed it off the third floor, like a sack of potatoes being dropped onto a cart. Then they went back to their cell, taking care to not make any noise.
“That must all have been caught on tape,” Arthur said, devastated. He cared nothing about the man they’d just tossed out like garbage. The only thing he cared about right then was his freedom.
“I doubt it,” Ibrahim said, calming him. “That was one of the Armenian’s henchmen, so the boss probably bribed the nightshift guard, who must have flipped the switch to let our cell be unlocked. He wasn’t from our block, so the guard will be waiting for him to come out before he turns the cameras back on.”
“But what will happen when they discover the body?”
Ibrahim shrugged. He was annoyed by Arthur’s naiveté, his thin skin, too delicate to survive in the prison world on his own.
“Nothing will happen. Nothing ever happens. They’ll fake an investigation for the sake of appearances, maybe find a scapegoat, but more than likely it will all just be forgotten about. Either way, by that time, you’ll be long gone and no one will be able to tie you to anything that went down—so relax.” Ibrahim was at the sink washing the blood off his hands; then he bundled up the sheet he’d used to drag the body out and stuffed it down at the bottom of his mattress. Suddenly he was moving with surprising vigor. He seemed to know just what to do and how to do it.
“You saved my life. When I get out of here I’m going to do everything in my power to return the favor.”
Ibrahim made a face, and his scar deepened.
“Yes, I’m sure you will.”
By that morning everyone knew what had happened, absolutely everyone: from the guard who’d been bribed to open the cell, to the newest inmate, who’d been watching through the slats of a barred window when Ibrahim and Arthur dragged the corpse down the corridor and hurled it into the light shaft. They knew that that bear of a man had been one of the Armenian’s enforcers. But no one would say a word. There would be no whispering, no gossip. But there are always currents flowing beneath the surface. Currents that flow like the truth but are never stated, currents comprised solely of sidelong glances, half-gestures, unspoken understandings. The guards searched each cell top to bottom; Ibrahim was brought in for questioning, brought before the prison warden to make a statement; then came Arthur, and other prisoners. No one said a word. Everyone was playing dumb. And slowly, a superficial sense of normality returned to the cellblock, a tense waiting game in which inmates placed bets on Arthur and Ibrahim’s days, which were surely numbered. Only someone incredibly naive could actually believe that what had happened would have no consequences. And in jail there’s no such thing as naiveté.
On 3 February, a female civil servant led Arthur to the administrative block. The warden wanted to see him. Ordóñez was, at the time, one of the youngest prison wardens in all of Spain. He was seen as a man of few words, a hard worker with little fanfare, discreet and efficient, honest and just, but intransigent—a man with very clear ideas and the determination to bring them to fruition, regardless of whose feathers he might ruffle. In addition to all that, he was an exceedingly elegant man. When Arthur walked into his office, the warden was looking over some papers, leaning against a bookcase. He shot Arthur a quick glance—gauging, sharp—and extended a hand toward a chair as he motioned for the civil servant to take her leave.
“Take a seat.”
From Breathing Through the Wound by Víctor del Árbol, translated by Lisa Dillman. Published July 2020 with Other Press. By arrangement with the publisher.