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from the September 2015 issue

A Sign

On the first attempt, the trigger jammed. The prisoner wasn’t afraid, and in fact felt a sort of indifference that seemed, in light of the brutality of the instant, to have been there all along, his whole life, quietly lurking behind each of his experiences as though awaiting the ideal moment to surface.

Behind him, the footsteps of the soldier, his executioner, rang out: rapid-fire, ready to finish off the job. Then the cold of the steel touched the back of his head for the second time, and again the mechanism failed.

It occurred to the prisoner that death’s convoluted approach was an omen. That thought, the image of a mocking and indecisive reaper, struck him and led him to believe that he wasn’t meant to die, that in that second during which the world conspired in the name of his salvation, he’d won the right to survive. 

A few seconds later, the soldier returned with another gun, intent on getting the job done.

“Tell me—what’s your name?” asked the prisoner, screaming like a man possessed.

The soldier, a young campesino whom the militias had recruited by force and who, in time, had learned, unwittingly, to enjoy the fear and submission he inspired in his enemies, did not immediately respond. He remained pensive before replying to the question, which to him smacked of an affront.

He said his name, proud, although feeling he shouldn’t.

“Then I’m saved . . .” the prisoner replied.

The young soldier felt mocked and was violently overcome by the merciless urge to fire his gun, but curiosity stopped him. Cautiously, as though fearing his reply, frozen stiff by a situation that seemed to him unreal, he asked the prisoner, “Why do you say that?”

“Because you have the same name as my son . . .” the prisoner said resolutely, almost happy and proud. “And my son has the same name as my father.”

To the soldier it seemed like a bad joke, a stupid trick, the sort of thing to be expected of someone suddenly overcome by insanity, a fit of madness that threatened to envelop him, as well.

Now devoid of fear, practically brazen, though cautious, the prisoner turned his face to his executioner, searching his eyes. He found them tremulous, anxious to cast off his uncertainty. He wouldn’t admit it, but the soldier had been expecting the prisoner to question him with his eyes.

“What’s your name?” the soldier asked, almost unable to believe his own words, now taking up the gun with no conviction, certain that the answer would reveal all.

The prisoner, breathing at this point with a certain serenity, with the breath of a newborn child, said his name. He smiled on seeing the fear and bewilderment in the young soldier’s eyes. The soldier shuddered.

“Like my father, like my son . . .” said the soldier, shocked and fearful.

“That’s a sign of something, don’t you think?” the prisoner asked.

“No, I don’t think  . . .” the soldier replied mechanically. “It doesn’t make any sense . . .”

“Maybe it doesn’t make any sense on its own, but we can make it make sense,” the prisoner replied, smiling timidly. “We’re the ones who make sense of the things that happen and this is something special . . .”

“No! It makes no sense! It’s just a coincidence . . .” the soldier shouted, feeling trapped by the facts.

“Everything makes sense!” the prisoner exclaimed, evidently exalted. “This moment makes sense! We must recognize the signs the world presents us, and this is a sign, because otherwise . . .”

“It is not! It’s not a sign of anything!” the soldier shouted in rage, as though waking violently, and fired his gun into the prisoner’s face.

He gazed at the dead body for a few seconds before kneeling beside it. He attempted to contain himself but something overcame him and he began to cry, bitterly, feeling he’d destroyed a perfect balance, as if he’d taken a step that forever distanced him from himself. He felt, suddenly and with chilling certainty, that that man shouldn’t have died, though he didn’t know why.

"Una Señal" © Julio Durán. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.

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