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from the November 2011 issue

Alive or Dead

A metal gate bars his path, and thwarts any hope for the pursued. But then he leaps for it, and easily gains the top. It is his instinct of self-preservation that allows him to accomplish this intricately acrobatic maneuver smoothly. From the other side of the railings he observes with satisfaction the pack of hounds gnawing at the iron bars as if attempting to assuage their sense of impotence.

The man continues on in his flight, now at a regular trot. He smiles and manages to exhale with relief in the midst of panting so hard he almost suffocated. He is searching for a way out of this unfamiliar place. A loud bang revives the symptoms of a few minutes earlier. Its reverberations propel him on with increasing force until they seem to consume his whole body. His skin becomes bathed in layer after layer of perspiration. The report from the shot has knocked out the hearing in his right ear.

From my armchair, I can see a small package tumble onto the wasteland. The object has clearly fallen from inside the man’s shirt. Two of the buttons have come undone, and let a small packet, apparently wrapped in damp cardboard, fall to the ground.

I don’t know what it contains. What grabs my curiosity is the desperation with which the man tries to recover it, and his rush through the hail of bullets that render the order to “halt!” repeated to the point of exhaustion, nearly inaudible.

The shots ring out, disrupting the canopy of trees, opening up holes in the earth with each impact, propelling the man into a situation of utmost panic.

His only option is to return to the gate and jump it, in the hope that by now the dogs will have gone.

Some fifty meters before reaching the metal wall, the man concludes his former persecutors have been scared off by the shots. In truth, it is almost impossible to see anything by the light of the one feeble street lamp, dangling from one of the corners of the imposing row of railings.

It’s clear the pack no longer boasts as many members. Just six remain, shored up on a small hillock covered in weeds. Among them are the two Staffordshire terriers.

His flight is brought to an abrupt halt with a blast that vibrates through the building intended to defend the back of the military zone. The shock erupts into a deafening roar, followed by a final round from the Kalashnikov machine gun.

The hounds at first opt to flee from the cacophony but their instincts tell them that the possibility of a night’s sleep still lies ahead, undisturbed by hunger pangs.

The man’s eyes widen. Fear occludes his pupils, which seem on the point of exploding.

He barely has time to dream up an emergency means of escape. He must jump the railings once more if he is to avoid dying in a hail of bullets, but the fury of the hounds leaves him paralyzed. In his right hand he has hold of the packet. He gives it a look that expresses clearly the depths of his darkest thoughts.

One of the dogs goes for him as if there were nothing between them to block its way. It crashes into the railings. The man backs off, the animal re-gathers its forces, growling and lining itself up with the intention of repeating its action. The rest of the pack end up doing likewise, either because their appetites remain unsated, or because they want to impress the rest of the pack the others.

A show of strength could tip the balance in their favor whenever the prize is won.

Jorge! Jorge! The voice gains in intensity little by little. At first, I couldn’t fathom where it came from. I make a supreme mental effort, with the intention of demolishing the wall of confusion that now runs the length and breadth of the scenes my mind is struggling to process.

I want to learn the fate of the man caught in a dilemma that I presume could only result in a disastrous outcome. I am hampered by a feeling of sadness I cannot control. I am desperate to discover what kind of death will seal the life of this man. The need connects to my despair at my inability to affect the course of events. However much I might want to, I cannot alter the scenario by effecting a rescue. I feel very remote from the course of events. To make matters even worse, the distance seems to be becoming greater and greater.

Jorge! Jorge! At these latest summonses I lose sight of the plot. Now it’s not about the man I hold trapped in my gaze, every iota of fear etched into every inch of his features. It’s my wife who’s tugging at my shoulder. Repeated shaking forces my eyes to open wide, and all at once I catch sight of the fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling, spreading an unreal light all around.

I slowly begin to adapt to the reality around me. It’s not an easy transition to make. I look from side to side, and my gaze finally rests on Nancy’s face.

“Listen you, when are you coming to bed? It’s eleven o’clock at night,” she’s telling me, as she opens the fridge door and takes out a jug of water.

“You looked as if you were having nightmares,” she says, as she finishes drinking the water she has poured into a glass.

I am still unable to speak. I slowly emerge out of my confusion. At long last I stop feeling alien in my own home and begin to comprehend that I’ve merely been the victim of a terrible nightmare.

Nancy sets off toward the bedroom. The next step is for me to get up and follow her there. As I go I think about my as-yet-unfinished reading of a story in an anthology of work by Horacio Quiroga, published by the Cuban Casa de las Americas.

Once in bed, I reread some pages. These include “Para noche de insomnia,El Regreso de anaconda,”and “El Espectro.” I had managed to finish three out of the four stories before the short and intense sequence involving that man driven toward his terrifying end. On the first page of “Almohadon de plumas” (A Large Feather Pillow) was the stepping-off point into that unknown place where persecution and insecurity ended up in a siege of a young white boy, wearing twill trousers, a pale yellow shirt with blue ties and unpolished black leather shoes with laces.

I sleep in snatches. The characters in the stories enter and depart my head ceaselessly. They are not alone. In their forays they are never free of the weight of tragedy. The disturbance intensifies in the darkest part of the night, just before dawn, burning any bridges that might have led to sleep.

At five o’clock, I abandon all hope of seeking sleep’s restorative reprieve. Another hour and I would have to get up anyway to make breakfast and prepare myself for another day at work.

At half past five there’s a ring at the door. At such an unusual sound, a whole percussion concert erupts in my chest. Palpitations start delicately and rapidly attain maximum velocity. Immediately and irretrievably, I lose all control of my emotions.

“Who on earth can it be at this hour?” I stammer.

I haven’t the faintest idea who on earth could be jangling on our doorbell, which now sounds as loud as a church bell tolling at dawn. Nor do I dare to guess what might be the cause of such an untimely visit.

I get up without putting on my shoes. I make it to the door barefoot. I feel churned up, and at the same time anxious to unravel the enigma.

I turn the key in the lock. Nancy waits awake in bed, anxious to learn more.

I open up, driven by a mixture of fear and curiosity. I experience an impulse to let out a cry of jubilation, but astonishment cuts me short.

It is the man from my dream. His clothes show every sign of the effects of his pursuit. His shirt is torn, trousers coated in mud, with rips at the seams.

“Who is it, my love?” Nancy asks me.

Not a single word finds its way to my lips. The man lets the packet fall and crashes down on top of it. His torso lies inside the threshold, and the rest of his body lies stretched out into the corridor. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead.

© Jorge Olivera Castillo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Amanda Hopkinson. All rights reserved.

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