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from the January 2010 issue

The Platform

As day dawned in the small town, old Ruschel was already at work assembling the platform, with the care of someone preparing a gallows. The event was scheduled for eight p.m. sharp, and no delay would be tolerated. “They’re the owners of time, the city, and everyone here. I’m just a humble laborer, but punctual, impeccable, perfect.” This was more or less what the old German murmured as he sawed and nailed the thick wood and carefully trimmed and sanded laths. “Impeccable, perfect,” he repeated, meticulously measuring the wood. He honed once again the saw’s already razor-sharp teeth, took his carpenter’s pencil from behind his ear, marking a freehand diagonal line along the wide face of the board, and began to saw. Running his fingertip over the pointed end, he examined it with his experienced eye and almost smiled. Impeccable, perfect. He took a chisel from his toolbox, twirled it in the air, and started to chip away various wedges and shavings for his purposes. The carpenter's every action was executed rapidly and without wasted motion. He always considered himself a precise and efficient tool performing an indispensable service, and this task would be beyond any doubt the most important and valuable of all, of his entire life.

Little by little, the town was beginning to wake up, and one by one people were making their way to the square, where the high platform was already in an advanced state of readiness—at least the unsightly inner skeleton that supported the structure had been covered with a painstakingly applied wainscoting, its tongue-and-groove joints perfectly aligned so to leave not the smallest gap for curious spectators to peer inside. If there was one thing in which old Ruschel took pride, it was the accuracy of his work; he brooked no criticism and disdained praise. The crowd watched the platform rise as if under its own power, so methodical was the construction, and the skill of the professional who, unaided, cleaned the area with Germanic obsessiveness. By temperament, he rarely took on helpers, much less for this task of extreme responsibility; he was strong, and that was enough. He couldn’t stand meddlers, so much so that when people arrived and greeted the old master with some comment or other, instead of answering, he respectfully moved away. The sun was climbing in the sky, but the work went fast and was completed earlier than expected, long before nightfall, allowing the organizers to set up the lighting, the decorations, and the necessary preparations ahead of schedule. The methodical carpenter had marked on the platform floor reference points where each element should go, everything in its place: table, loudspeakers, microphones, and even the spot where each of the authorities should be, according to the arrangement suggested by him and accepted by all: it was impeccable, perfect. The “big shots,” as he called them, would be lined up so that the most important was in the middle of the platform and in front of the others, since the front center of the platform formed the vertex of an obtuse angle. In that triangular design, the mayor would be the outstanding figure, flanked by the priest on his right and the colonel on his left, followed by the aldermen, the manager of the local bank, the notary, and the big businessmen, all with their respective wives. Old Ruschel was unbending in that detail and went away only when he was assured that everything would go according to plan.

At eight o’clock sharp, the Military Brigade band, situated in the bandstand beside the platform, began playing the municipal anthem, initiating the ceremony. The bigwigs started arriving, in inverse order of importance: by the time the mayor, who weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, approached, greeted the toadies, and climbed to the platform, it was already past eight-thirty, and in the distance, old Ruschel, sitting on the pedestal of a statue, watched.

The huge mayor, after much applause, began his speech, officially opening the event. A general feeling of satisfaction swept over the square. The entire population of the town was present, happy and proud.

Protocol was followed to the letter, until, at the height of the festivities, as the band attacked a polka to underscore the high point of the chief politician’s address, a few creaks were heard in the framework of the platform, which began to give way under the weight of the authorities. Immediately, a large crater opened in the floor, and everyone was swallowed up into the hole, this time in direct proportion of importance: first to collapse was the near part of the platform, the façade; all this in sight of the astonished crowd. Shouting drowned out the sound of the band, which was slow to realize the gravity of the situation, as not all of the musicians were in a position to witness the scene. It was an uproar, with observers trying to climb onto the platform to save the town’s social and political elite, who had succumbed in sight of the populace.

The first ones to scramble onto the platform and look into the hole instinctively recoiled in horror at the unimaginable sight: long, sharpened vertical spikes covered the entire bottom. All who had fallen into the hole were impaled, several spears piercing their bodies. Lives that till that moment had shone so haughtily, from one instant to the next lay agonizing in a trap at once coarse and sophisticated. Their dying moans slowly faded until all were dead, lying one on top of the other, overlapping and transfixed, a bleeding mass forming a morbid tableau amid the red-tinged stakes that jutted from the macabre geometry. The initial shock grew into panic and collective desperation, making that night the cruelest the community had ever known.

From the pedestal, old Ruschel murmured, “Impeccable, perfect.”

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