Author’s Note: Around 1969, encouraged by the examples of Cuba and Vietnam and with the pretext of combating the military government that had assumed power three years earlier, the first guerilla groups became active in Argentina. In 1973, when the dictatorship handed over power to a democratic government formed through free elections, the most important groups withdrew their opposition. But this would prove to be only a pause in their activity. Before long the attacks on military bases and the indiscriminate assassinations of police and military officers were renewed. Now they were fighting not just against a military regime but for political power itself. The government drew on the full capacities of the armed forces to fight the insurgents. The results, however, were insignificant. The military, from its perspective, came to understand that a fully backed and sanctioned repression, given the impediments posed by a democratic system, could not be carried out successfully. For them, a coup d’état, would provide the solution. This was a move that the country, weary of economic problems, of strikes and the lack of an effective governing presence, seemed to be hoping for, perhaps even expecting. The leading politicians called urgent meetings, followed by last-minute plans and troop movements of a type that announce the imminence of a storm. But it was too late. On March 24, 1976, a military junta overthrew the government and installed a regime called the Process of National Reorganization (1976–83). Thus began for Argentina a long dark night marked by widespread violence and unrestrained barbarism.
“The Key” is set in a military installation located in a rural area of the northern province of Tucumán, where operations were carried out by the Companía de Monte of the E.R.P., a Marxist-Leninist group.
As soon as the patrol vehicle passed through the entrance to the barracks courtyard, the lieutenant in charge leaped from the vehicle before it had stopped, ran over to the officer who was waiting for him with a group of other soldiers, and, coming to attention and saluting, reported on his mission.
“One of our soldiers wounded, Colonel. Two guerillas dead and four captured,” he said hurriedly, as the two trucks at the head of the patrol drew up before the building.
The colonel, a tall, heavy-set man with his face freshly shaved, ordered the lieutenant to stand at ease and went over to one of the trucks. Covered with blood and dust, the bodies of the two guerillas were lying on their backs, already attracting a swarm of green flies.
“Unload the bodies,” he said to the soldiers of the patrol who were standing over the corpses, and moved to the other truck where, alongside the cuffed prisoners, were the wounded soldier and several of his companions.
“Get that garbage out of here immediately,” he said to the soldiers, nodding in the direction of the prisoners, and then stood aside, waiting for his order to be carried out.
When they jumped from the vehicle, he climbed up onto the truck bed and stood over the wounded soldier, who was unconscious. A bloody bandage was wrapped around his head. The colonel ran his hand over the bandage, bit his lip and fixed his gaze on some distant point. He continued staring for a few moments and then with a slight nod of his head issued a command. He moved to one side to make room for the medic and the soldiers who had brought a stretcher. He looked down at the wounded man for a moment and got down from the truck.
The dead men had been laid on the ground, alongside one of the buildings. The prisoners were kneeling in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by soldiers and sub-officials whose bodies were trembling involuntarily, like so many beasts waiting only for their master’s voice before throwing themselves on the captured prey. The colonel, who was well aware of their urgent desire, nonetheless moved over to where the dead bodies lay, looked down at their contorted faces, and then squatted alongside the one closest to him. The dead man wore only pants and was shoeless; two bullets had entered his abdomen; a third shot had struck him in the throat. The colonel punched the abdomen with his fist and then inserted a finger into the two holes. His finger slipped in easily. He made a whistling sound and stood up.
“There’s no weapon like the Fal, eh?” he noted with satisfaction, glancing at the weapon that one of the soldiers was holding. He walked over to the center of the patio.
The prisoners still remained on their knees, hands tied behind their backs. As if forced down by the stares of those men surrounding them, their torsos were bent over almost to the ground. Not one of them was over thirty years old, even though their beards, the dirt on their bodies, and the signs of having lived in the wilderness made them look much older. They stared straight ahead at the ground, appearing more impatient than fearful. One of them wore a cap on his head with a blue star and initials sewed into it.
The colonel stood before them, regarding them with contempt.
“So, this one is the leader?” he asked scornfully, pointing at the man with the cap.
“Yes, Colonel,” replied the lieutenant who had captured him, stepping forward.
“Your name?” the colonel asked the prisoner, nudging him in the leg with his foot.
The prisoner lowered his head even further.
“Your name, goddammit!” he repeated angrily.
A wry smile appeared on the colonel’s face as he looked at the prisoner’s cap. His eyes narrowed.
“Hear that, gentlemen?” he said mockingly to the men standing with him. “We have a real lieutenant with us.”
Then, as if infected by the eagerness of his men, he stepped forward and ripped off the cap. The men reacted with excitement. He shouted angrily:
“Son of a bitch! We’ll lieutenant you, all right!”
Standing in the midst of the prisoners, he began slapping them about the head.
“Sergeant,” he exclaimed in a rage, “These three to the wringer. Right now!”
Then, in a lower voice, insinuating anticipated pleasure:
“The ‘lieutenant’ is mine.”
The sergeant and several other soldiers eagerly seized the prisoners, roughly, forcing them to stumble toward a small shed that stood at one side of the courtyard.
“Come on, let’s go, dirty rebels. Off to the wringer. Let’s see how much juice you have.” They pushed them forward while another soldier followed behind, menacingly slashing at their shirttails with a knife.
The guerilla leader was seized by his hair and his legs and carried off by cursing soldiers to a smaller outbuilding with a blue corrugated metal door.
“No gag in his mouth, dammit! This time we’ll hear a chorus with counterpoint,” the colonel shouted, circling the patio, as if he were addressing a much larger audience.
“Viva la patria!” he exclaimed, carried away by a fervor that he seemed unable to contain and that was communicated to the farthest reaches of the patio.
“Viva!” the soldiers replied, as they gradually dispersed.
A few days later the three prisoners were, according to the expression used among the soldiers, “perfectly squeezed lemons,” and, although they did not know it, their lives would end as soon as their confessions were compared with others obtained in other prisoner camps or detention centers. For the time being, they were taken to an eight-by-eight-foot corrugated metal shed, where their feet were clamped into a rudimentary pillory. The stock, formed with two iron beams joined by a hinge on one end, was secured on the other with a large padlock that, within reach of the prisoners but beyond any possible manipulation, seemed to have been placed there with the sole purpose of tormenting the men.
The stock was perpendicular to the door, close to the wall, and could immobilize up to six men. The shed was damp and oppressive; a rank odor, perhaps a mixture of sweat and dried blood, emanated from the cracked cement floor. The only opening to the outside was the peephole in the door.
“Let’s make sure you don’t make any trouble for me, eh?” said the corporal in charge of the shed, after closing the padlock and waving the key tauntingly at the prisoners. He then went out with his men, leaving the door to the shack, which had no lock, partly open.
The prisoners, seated on the ground, their backs against the wall, did their best to find a tolerable position and stretched toward the stock; but they could not reach much beyond their knees. Moaning, they leaned back against the wall again. The youngest prisoner’s teeth were chattering; the man next to him told him to put his hand in his mouth.
“It’ll pass. It’s because of all the electricity you still have in you,” he explained, resting a hand on his leg.
The memory of the torture they had experienced remained fresh in the minds of both of the other two prisoners, who closed their eyes and let their heads loll back against the wall.
“Che, what about the lieutenant?” asked the prisoner who had last spoken.
His companions opened their eyes but did not reply. On the first day they had heard how Lieutenant Horacio’s cries had echoed their own (the colonel’s “counterpoint”), but since then they had heard nothing more. And even though the next day they had been gagged, they still should have been able to hear something.
“They probably killed him,” said the soldier who had asked the question, reflecting what they all likely thought. He stared at the padlock in silence.
At that moment a soldier entered carrying a large bowl, which he emptied over them, covering them with noodles, meatless bones, scraps of bread and fruit.
“The last supper, my leftist friends,” he said and left, slamming the door.
The three men began picking up from the floor and from their bodies what he had dumped. They ate eagerly, their eyes avoiding each other, and in minutes nothing was left except the bones, from which they tried to extract all possible flavor.
Once again the door opened, and three soldiers entered, carrying Lieutenant Horacio between them. The corporal who carried the key opened the padlock and then the stock and laid him out at the far end, next to the back wall. When all four went out, the prisoner nearest to the guerilla leader leaned toward him in an apparent attempt to embrace him; but the latter ducked his head as if to protect himself and began dully repeating:
“Lieutenant Horacio, Company Monte Ramón Rosa Jiménez. Lieutenant. . . ”
The other prisoners stared at each other, appalled by his appearance. His pants were on backward and his bare torso was covered with reddish and purple marks that appeared to be from burns. His face was swollen and his chin seemed marked with punctures, since they had pulled out the hairs of his beard to form a cross.
“Lieutenant, Lieutenant Horacio. It’s me, Marcelo,” the youngest of the three whispered softly.
But their leader paid no attention and continued repeating the same litany.
“He’s out of his mind,” said one of them under his breath.
The three of them regarded him with pity.
“It sounds like this was all the bastards could get out of him,” commented another of his companions, shaking his head over the condition of his body.
“Lieutenant Horacio, Company Monte Ramón Rosa Jiménez. . . ” the voice continued, weaker and weaker until the falling night brought silence.
The sound of the motors wakened them the next day; it was the first light of dawn. They looked toward the door and then back to the far end of the stock. There, Lieutenant Horacio lay sleeping. At times, when his chin would drop to his chest, he raised his head with a start, but without awakening. They signaled each other not to disturb him and tried to listen to what was happening outside. Someone shouted an order and the sound of the motors intensified. A moan from their companion startled them; but he was only dreaming. They returned their attention to the door. A bugle sounded.
“Uh-oh, the soldier died,” said the prisoner closest to the door, after listening for a brief moment.
The others stiffened.
“Now we’re all in for it,” said the youngest of the prisoners, his voice shaking. He began pulling with his legs against the grasp of the stock.
“Easy does it, Marce. We’re soldiers, not crybabies,” responded the first who had spoken.
But the other strained even harder against his being immobilized.
At this point, Lieutenant Horacio shook his head, opened his eyes, and gazed blankly at his companions.
“Lieutenant,” said the prisoner next to him, sitting up a bit.
But the officer shrank back defensively. Then, hearing the sound of the bugle, he looked toward the door. His men now regarded him closely. His face had lost some of its puffiness, but his gaze was empty and his lower lip, which drooped and trembled, lent an imbecilic cast to his face.
“My God, my God, just look what they’ve done to him,” said one of the men under his breath.
The youngest prisoner reacted physically. He pushed his hands down on his trembling legs and spoke to his leader.
“Lieutenant, Lieutenant, they going to kill us all,” he said, looking into his eyes.
“Shut up, asshole,” said the prisoner who had said the most. “Can’t you see that he’s not all there?”
The lieutenant looked away from the door; his body leaned forward toward the stock. He passed his fingers over the section of stock that lay before him, and then tried to do the same with the sections that lay before his men. Unable to do this, he pointed at he holes through which their feet were secured and then indicated the padlock. He drew his hands back and, bobbing his head up and down, directed a smile of complicity at his companions.
“Yes, Lieutenant Horacio. That’s right. We have to open the stock,” one of them said, seeing what he was suggesting, but seeing too that the idea was hopeless.
“We might be better off if we were in his shape,” another man said bitterly and continued looking toward the peephole
Outside, in the meantime, the bugle call had ended, and all that could be heard was the sound of the idling trucks.
Then a voice called out: “We’ll be back after the burial.” At the same time, jogging footsteps could be heard passing by.
The sound of a jeep starting up joined that of the trucks, and then the prisoners heard the noise of the caravan that, passing very close to the shed, was withdrawing from the camp. None of them took his eyes from the door. Lieutenant Horacio’s smile had disappeared and he was staring at the padlock. His expression was one of extreme concentration, as if he were confronting a particularly complex problem.
Suddenly, the youngest of the prisoners cupped his hands and yelled toward the door:
At first the others looked alarmed, but quickly they joined in with their own voices.
They called out four or five times, until they heard the sound of steps approaching. It was the corporal and a soldier armed with a rifle. When they stepped into the shed, their expressions led the prisoners to believe that they were going to be shot on the spot. The corporal, however, spoke in a level tone.
“Well, that’s what I like to see. You’re not willing to get your hotel room dirty,” he said, opening the padlock, but in a way that clearly indicated that the fate that awaited them had merely been postponed.
When the third prisoner was freed, Lieutenant Horacio slowly moved his hand toward the key.
“No, no, not you, my fine Lieutenant, “ the corporal said mockingly, as if he were addressing a child. “In a little while we have something else for you.”
The lieutenant stared at him, his mouth agape.
“The bathroom. . . and then another beard trim,” the corporal indicated, squatting before him.
The soldier forced a grin and pointed to the doorway with the barrel of his rifle. The corporal waited for them to go out as Lieutenant Horacio watched, his eyes never straying from the hand in which he held the key. Then he, too, left the shed.
“My men . . . The key . . .” the lieutenant murmured in a begging tone, and then went back to stroking the stock with his hands.
“If you keep that up, my fine Lieutenant, you’ll wear it out! Take my word!” the corporal exclaimed in a mocking voice when he returned with the prisoners, noticing that Lieutenant Horacio continued rubbing the metal of the stock.
The guerilla leader whimpered and then covered his face with his hands.
“Didn’t I say I’d be right back?” the corporal said after placing the three prisoners into position.
Lieutenant Horacio lowered his hands and meekly followed the instructions of the corporal who freed him and, taking him by the arm, led him toward the door.
“There we are, Lieutenant . . . Easy does it. That’s it,” he said, pushing him forward.
“My men . . . The key,” mumbled Lieutenant Horatio, turning back to the prisoners before passing through the doorway.
“That’s right, Leutenant, your men. Fine fellows, to be sure,” he replied, pushing him ahead roughly.
“My men. They have to come with me, too. I. . . ” His voice died away.
“He’s going to get it this time,” said one of the prisoners as the door closed.
“The sons of bitches! Why don’t they kill us all and get it over?” cried the youngest of the men, breaking into sobs.
His companions paid no attention to him; they covered their ears and closed their eyes.
After a few moments, while the other prisoner continued weeping, they were suddenly alerted by a high-pitched sound.
“Did you hear? What was that? A scream?” one of them asked, sitting up.
“It sounded like it. You’re right. But. . . ”
He was interrupted by shouting voices and then the sound of a shot, followed by two more shots and a clamor of voices that quickly increased. Then another shot, much closer, caused the prisoners to freeze as they stared at the door. On the other side of it they heard someone panting and then, after two more shots, the sound of something falling to the ground outside the shed.
“Watch out! He’s got the pistol,” someone called out, as the shouting voices came nearer.
“He may not be dead! Kick the gun away!” cried another voice, as footsteps approached the shed.
This was followed by silence and then the shuffling of feet.
“He’s dead,” a voice announced. Other footsteps approached
“What happened?” It was the colonel’s voice.
“The guerilla fighter, my colonel. He tried to escape,” was the response. “He attacked the corporal and grabbed his gun. But one of our soldiers tackled him before he could reach the shed where the others are.”
“And the corporal?”
“He’s wounded. Some of the others are looking after him.”
For a moment no one spoke. Then footsteps approached the shed on the run, where the prisoners lay motionless, staring at the peephole in the door. Suddenly, after a pause, the door was kicked open and two soldiers burst in, the barrels of their rifles sweeping the enclosure. One of them then leveled his weapon at the prisoners and the other examined the stock. Confirming that it was solidly locked, they backed out of the shed, their rifles pointed at the men. The second man out closed the door.
“All in order, my Colonel,” a voice outside said.
There was another confused moment of mixed voices and footsteps.
“The key! He stole the key!” cried out a voice of some one who came running up.
In their cell, the prisoners exchanged glances.
“The key to the padlock, my Colonel,” the same voiced added. “The corporal said he took it from him.”
“All right, then,” the colonel responded promptly. “Search the body.”
There was the sound of someone breathing heavily and then a voice said that the dead man had nothing on him.
“Go search the entire path that he ran along. And also the spot where he attacked the corporal,” the colonel said. Then he spoke, some distance away: “How did this happen, soldier?”
“The rebel, my Colonel,” a young voice proudly responded, “We were escorting him with the corporal. Then the corporal told me to go on ahead, that he was going to take him to the latrine. They went in and I kept walking. Then I heard a shout and the sound of a gunshot, and I saw the rebel running out of the latrine with the gun in his hand. I yelled at him to stop, but he kept on running. I fired twice at his legs. One of my shots hit him, but he didn’t stop. He didn’t turn to fire at me. When I saw that he was heading for the shed where the other prisoners were, I ran after him, took aim and fired again. That stopped him, he ran a few more steps and fired two shots into the air, and dropped. He didn’t move after that.”
The soldier fell silent. After a pause, someone could be heard approaching the shed.
Inside, the prisoners were motionless, focusing on the sounds that reached them.
The footsteps stopped at the door, and the colonel’s eyes appeared at the peephole. The door was still partially open, but it appeared that he preferred to remain outside. He looked around the interior of the enclosure, scarcely glancing at the prisoners, and then, when other footsteps approached, moved away.
“We can’t find the key anywhere, my colonel,” a voice reported.
The murmur of voices arose.
“He could have tossed it aside along the way,” someone suggested.
After a few seconds of silence, the colonel replied:
“No matter. For now it’s not important.”
He ordered the men to return to their posts. The guerilla leader’s body, for the time being, would stay where it was, with a guard to stand watch.
When the men had left, the youngest of the prisoners began to cry.
“They killed him, they killed him . . .” he repeated, beating the ground with his fists.
“So what do you think they’ve got planned for you?” one of the others replied dully, as if he was fed up with pretending that anything could save their lives.
“They killed him because he tried to save us,” the young prisoner insisted, still pounding at the ground.
“But what about the key? What could he have done with it?” said the third prisoner, with a note of hope in his voice as he looked at the padlock.
His companion turned to him and gestured as if to suggest how useless that prospect was at that moment.
“Need to go to the bathroom again?” he said mockingly and began rubbing his legs.
“Damn! What did he think he could to do with the key?” the other prisoner replied, as if to show that he really hadn’t harbored any illusions.
“The best thing is to die fighting,” the youngest prisoner murmured softly to himself.
His companions looked at him.
“Fighting . . . fighting,” he went on, repeating the word until his voice died out.
Several hours passed during which no one in the shed spoke. The youngest prisoner kept alert, as if feeding on some impossible hope. The other two dozed off at times but otherwise seldom took their eyes off the door. Occasionally, they heard the steps of the guard walking about outside or his voice when he responded to a greeting from a comrade.
Some time in the early afternoon, steps approached. There seemed to be two men. They exchanged words with the guard and walked toward the shed. The prisoners sat up.
“Will it reach this far?” a soldier asked as he opened the door.
“Oh, yeah. More than enough,” was the reply that came from a position near to where the guard was posted.
The soldier entered the shed carrying a portable spotlight. He examined the ceiling and walls and hung the light from a nail that he found at the back wall. He acted as if there were no one else there. Then he stretched out the extension cord so that it lay flat and, without looking at the prisoners, went out, leaving the door ajar.
Outside, other footsteps approached.
“OK, let’s go. Now the fun begins,” a voice said, and the steps quickly moved toward the shed.
The first to enter was a soldier carrying two sawhorses. He set them down against the wall that the prisoners faced and went back to the door to help his companion to carry in two long planks. They laid the planks on top of the two supports, and then went out, without looking at the men in the stock.
“What now?” one of the prisoners said and tried to see what was happening outside, since the door had remained half-open.
The two soldiers returned immediately, carrying the body of Lieutenant Horacio. They deposited it on top of the planks, with the head nearest to the wall with the door. They pulled off his trousers and went out. The body had begun to stiffen. The eyes were open and the expression on his face, exaggerated by the tightly compressed lips, was one of desperate determination. On the side of his neck was the hole made by the bullet that ended his life and that had exited through his throat. In the calf of one leg could be seen the wound caused by the first shot.
After the initial shock, the prisoners bent forward as far as possible to see him more closely. The youngest one could not take his eyes off the ragged wound in the throat. Finally, when one of them was about to say something, they heard steps outside.
The steps ended a short distance from the shed, and there was a brief discussion, which none of the prisoners could understand. Then the colonel entered, followed by a small group comprised of a lieutenant, a sergeant, and the corporal who had carried the key, an arm bandaged up to his shoulder.
The colonel went over to the body and looked down at it scornfully. The corporal bent over the stock to check the padlock. The other two soldiers stood at the back of the enclosure.
“So, gentlemen. We’ve come to this,” said the colonel, standing before the stock. “This party is over. For your ‘lieutenant’ and for you. Have you ever seen a human body decompose before? No? Well, you will now. While you . . . ”
He paused to brush away the botflies that were circling the body. He raised his head and sniffed at the air, as if to see if there were already some promise of the stench to come, and then continued.
“Yes, as I was saying. Now you will be able to see it. Since you’re attending his wake, be sure not to miss a single detail. And at nighttime you’ll have the spotlight. What, you don’t like the idea? You want to leave your leader all by himself?” he asked the prisoners, squatting before the stock in response to the expressions of outrage that they directed at him. “I don’t blame you for your hateful looks,’ he added, standing up and glancing at his men. “Because his determination to carry that key off to heaven, so to speak, was what gave us the idea. Yes I can see why you’d prefer not to accompany him the rest of the way. But there’s nothing to be done.”
He paused again and rubbed his eyes, saying:
“Because you, my good fellows, are already dead. As dead as the soldier that we buried this morning. He just went to sleep, in a sense, just fell asleep. . . But you are going to die wide awake. You’re going to die drawing breath, feeding on the taste of death. Your lieutenant’s rotting flesh will ensure that you are deprived of nothing. Yes,” he exclaimed, clenching his fists. “Death! That’s what you’re going to die of!”
He turned to his men and motioned to them to leave. The corporal, who had been standing at the rear of the shed, paused in the doorway and, with a mocking glance at the prisoners, tossed a key a few times into the air, closed the door and went off.
“They found it at last.” said one of the prisoners, alluding to the key.
No one responded.
“They’re just trying to soften us up, that’s all. They must think they can still
get something out of us,” he continued, glancing at his companions.
“Soften us up? We should be so lucky,” replied the most cynical of the three, staring at the body.
The third man also was regarding the body, wondering how long it would remain a bearable sight, and then looked over at the youngest prisoner who, to judge from his vague expression, seemed not to have comprehended the colonel’s words. He shook his head in disbelief and mumbled:
“I don’t know . . . I don’t know . . .”
“I do,” the first prisoner replied sharply, looking toward the peephole in the door where more gathering flies were finding their way into the shed.
After two days, none of the prisoners had any doubt about the nature of their situation. For the first day and on into the second one they had continued debating (curiously switching from one position to the other) over the possibility that what was happening was just one more form of torture. But in the presence of the cadaver, which, aided by the heat and the humidity, had begun to become bloated and give off an unmistakable nauseating odor, ended up convincing them that death was all that awaited them, that there was no other outcome possible. Every grimace of desperation on their faces, every spasm of fear or even each twinge of hope, was all part of the inevitable outcome. And that corpse, swollen and naked, was the symbol of the dominance of death; that grimly shut mouth a sign of the inescapable fate that they faced.
All of this, which none of them had put into words but that together they somehow had come to believe, instilled in them a sense of resignation that, in a way, had strengthened the feeling of solidarity among them.
The youngest, for example, was consumed with thirst; a companion who still was wearing his tattered shirt, tore off a strip and gave it to him so he could chew on it and absorb a small amount of dampness. Another prisoner, nauseated by the emanation from the cadaver, received the attention of the other two, who leaned over and fanned the air before his face. At times, one of them would protest.
“They don’t have the right to do this. We’re enemy soldiers.”
The most experienced of the three undertook to distract them with technical matters.
“You see, Marce,” he would say to the younger one, “notice how the body swells up. That’s because the intestines are beginning to expand. With time, the contents of the organs form a liquid that emerges from the body’s openings. It’s nothing shocking to see. Nor are the maggots. They come from the eggs that the flies lay, not from inside. Then the maggots themselves become flies. You see that’s how. . . ” and he would go on with his attempt to demystify the body’s decomposition.
The prisoner named Marce was grateful for his companion’s good intentions and in return pretended that all of that didn’t affect him as it might have.
As for the third man, he would join in with stories about his time as cadet in a military academy that lightened the mood in the shed.
“But no. Can you believe it—me a soldier in the army!” he would exclaim after relating one of his anecdotes.
The three agreed that any moment of laughter was a small victory over the enemy outside.
But hunger and above all thirst prevented them from having many such occasions of distraction. In the course of the third day, they were forced to chew on what remained of the torn shirt of one of them and to lick the sweat from their arms and chests. Urination had ceased after the first day of their new torment.
At sunset, someone quietly approached the door and peered through the peephole. They all saw the face outside and one of them grabbed a bone at the foot of the stock and heaved it at the door. They enjoyed a laugh at the expense of the intruder, who immediately ran off.
As soon as darkness fell, the spotlight was lit. A waft of hot air drifted in through the cracks in the door, and the strength of the stench increased. One of the prisoners, the one who could not tolerate the smell, moaned softly and his upper body fell forward. His companions bent over to him.
“He’s fainted,” said the companion on his left and he waved his hand before his face. The other prisoner bent over to help.
“No. Marce,” the other one said. “I told you the less you move the longer you’ll last. Leave him to me.”
After a few moments the unconscious man began to recover. When he managed to sit up, he pushed away the hand that his companion had placed on his shoulder and looked with disgust at the cockroaches that were starting to crawl in under the door. The youngest prisoner tried to wave them away.
“No, no. Don’t bother. There’s nothing you can do about them,” the other one went on, again discouraging his movements. “Besides, look there,” he said, pointing at the peephole.
The outline of a rat appeared in the rectangular opening.
‘He’s hungrier than we are,” he said, closing his eyes.
The rat first poked his head in, and then, pushing its body forward, began to crawl down the inside of the door.
A few hours later, when all three prisoners were sleeping, a screech wakened the calmest of them. Opening his eyes, he looked over at the cadaver. Alongside the head, two rats were disputing the region of the throat, which now appeared more ragged. The dead man’s head had fallen slightly to one side and the now half-open mouth revealed his teeth. One of the rats apparently was the one they had seen crawl in through the door and had not been able to scare off. The other one, which must have come later, was attempting to bite the first one that nonetheless, while defending itself, was managing an occasional bite at the tendons of the throat. From the planks, a greenish liquid was dripping, forming small concentrations on the ground around which a circle of cockroaches had gathered.
The prisoner felt the clutch of nausea at his stomach and had to suppress the urge to cough. His two companions were asleep on their sides, their heads cradled in their arms. The youngest slept with his mouth open and his face was strikingly pale. The first prisoner bent over to observe him. He was breathing, but only shallowly. A shrill screech suddenly awakened him. The encounter between the rats had ended. The challenger had retreated to the wound on the body’s calf and was concentrating there. The first rat continued at Lieutenant Horacio’s throat.
The man closed his eyes and tried to replace that image with something distracting. He forced himself to think of pleasing memories of several years earlier and his head began moving slowly from side to side. When it finally came to rest on a shoulder, he opened his eyes and now saw only the feverish actions of the rats and the spreading concentration of dark insects. He changed his position, shut his eyes and tried to sleep. But the images of what lay before his eyes remained. He desperately sought distraction. But though he managed to doze off now and then, something always wakened him. He would sit up, his mind in a stupor, muddled by the mixture of the images present in the shed and those retrieved by his straining memory. Dazedly, he gazed about and fell back into a state of lethargy.
Some time afterward, immersed in one of his fragile dreams, he was startled by a new shrill sound. He waited a few seconds before opening his eyes, unsure of whether he was awake or not. He lifted his eyelids slowly and, more than anything else, sensed that something had taken place on top of the planks. He blinked his eyes several times before realizing that Lieutenant Horacio’s head had tilted completely toward the stock. But something now shone from his open mouth. He sat up slowly. The mouth had been almost totally destroyed by the rat, which was trying unsuccessfully to climb the door up to the peephole. The other rodent had maintained its position on the leg. The prisoner leaned forward slightly, squinted to see more clearly, and was stunned by what he saw. Protruding at the edge of the dead man’s mouth was the key to the padlock. His heart began to pound. His body stiffened for a moment and then, without taking his eyes off the key, he reached over and shook the leg of the companion nearest to him. The latter scarcely reacted so he spoke in a low, shaken voice:
“Nene, Nene! It’s the key!”
The other man now sat up and followed his companion’s gaze. When he realized what he saw, he said nothing, but his legs began to tremble.
“Be quiet, Nene. Wake up Marcelo,” the other one said, looking anxiously toward the door.
The youngest prisoner resisted with moans, but when his companion indicated what was revealed before them, he sat up quickly and stared unbelievingly at the key. Then, with an expression of horror mixed with pity, he regarded the mutilated face of his chief.
“We have to get it to drop,” said the man who had discovered the key, studying the body. After a moment, he added: “I know how we can do it.”
He inserted a finger into a tear in one of the legs of his trousers and pulled at the material.
“We have to make something that will reach to the key,” he explained, tearing off a long strip of cloth.
The other prisoners followed his direction and soon they were able to knot together a lengthy stretch of torn fabric. To this they affixed another of the bones lying nearby.
“I think this will do it,” said the prisoner who had devised the strategy, and he started to swing the bone, preparing to toss it at the key.
He tried half a dozen times, with no success. The other rat now responded by running to the door where the first one was still looking for a way out. One new attempt, made with more accuracy, managed to hook the bone behind an ear. The prisoner began to pull gently forward. The bone moved across the face, dropped, and struck the key, which first hit the plank and then the floor, coming to rest near the door.
“That’s it! That’s it!” the prisoner exclaimed, now aiming the bone at the key.
The others sat staring at the key and then at the door.
“Easy. Easy does it,” he whispered to himself, as he tried to edge the bone toward the key.
When he thought the moment was right, he gave a tug and the key moved within reach.
“Yes!” his companions cried together, as they reached for the trophy.
“And now . . .” said the prisoner closest to the padlock as he bent forward with the key.
“Free!” the three whispered as one when the lock fell open.
They stretched out their arms now to lift the top metal bar of the stock. Their movements, restricted for so long, made it difficult for them to exert much force.
“We have to lift it with our legs first and then slip out from underneath,” one suggested, leaning back on his elbows to better lift his legs. The other two joined in and the iron bar began to rise.
“Just a little more and we’ll have it,” he added
The bar rose an inch or two higher and they slowly backed out, dropping it afterward into place. They could not immediately get to their feet; their legs were numb. One of them stood, then staggered; the other two caught him before he fell against the planks on which the body lay.
“We’ve got to walk a little to get strength back,” said the oldest of the three and they slowly circled the stock several times.
Raindrops began to sound on the corrugated roof of the shed. The rats scurried off into a corner and the cockroaches dispersed in all directions. After testing his legs for a while, the oldest prisoner moved to the door and looked out the peephole. There was no one outside. The deserted fields stretched beyond, illuminated at moments by flashes of lightning. He turned from the door to look at his companions.
“We’ve got to get out of here now,” he said, noticing a suggestion of hesitancy in their expressions.
The two responded by looking out through the peephole.
“Now that it’s dark. OK, Marce? OK, Nene?” he added, squeezing their arms.
The youngest prisoner went over to the cadaver and looked down.
“We need to turn the light off,” said the oldest, moving past him.
He loosened the bulb and the shed fell dark. The smell of the enclosure seemed to increase; one of the rats screeched.
“The lieutenant did what he had to. Now it’s our turn,” said the prisoner who had extinguished the light, taking the youngest by the arm.
They joined the third prisoner at the door. A bolt of lightning briefly outlined the peephole, beyond which the three knew that the whole camp was lying in wait for them. The prisoner who had fashioned their escape placed his hand on the door latch and the door fell open silently. The rain was falling gently. The three embraced spontaneously.
“Let’s go, my friends,” were their leader’s last words.
Then, with a brief glance back to where their dead lieutenant lay, the prisoners stand in the doorway, listen carefully for a moment, and slip away.
Translation of “La llave.”From Suite Argentina.Copyright Edgar Brau. Translation copyright 2010 by Donald A. Yates. All rights reserved.