Issue 219, Winter 2016
The train arrived at about six o’clock on a cold, wet November morning. The fog was so thick it was almost impossible to see. I was wearing my coat collar up and my hat shoved down around my ears, but still the fog penetrated all the way to my bones. The apartment where Leonidas lived was in a neighborhood far from the center of town, on the sixth floor of a modest building. Everything—the staircase, the hallways, the rooms—was invaded by the fog. As I climbed the stairs, I thought I was approaching eternity, an eternity of mist and silence. Leonidas, my brother, when I reached your door, I thought I would die of grief! I had come to visit you the year before, during my Christmas break. “We’ll have turkey stuffed with olives and chestnuts, an Italian Spumante, and dried fruit,” you said, radiant with happiness. “Moses, Gaspar, let’s celebrate!” Those days were always so festive. We drank a lot and talked about our parents, about the apple pasteles, the evenings by the fire, the old man’s pipe and that absent, downcast gaze of his that we couldn’t forget, the winter sweaters that Mama knitted for us, that aunt on our mother’s side who buried all of her money and died of hunger, the professor of mathematics with his starched collars and bow ties, the girls from the drugstore we took to the movies on Sundays, those films we never watched, the handkerchiefs covered in lipstick that we had to throw away . . . In my grief, I had forgotten to ask the concierge to unlock the apartment. I had to wake her; she climbed the stairs half asleep, dragging her feet. There were Moses and Gaspar, but when they saw me they fled in terror. The woman said she’d been feeding them twice a day; and yet, to me, they looked all skin and bones.
“It was horrible, Señor Kraus. I saw him with my own eyes, here in this chair, slumped over the table. Moses and Gaspar were lying at his feet. At first I thought they were all asleep—they were so quiet! But it was already late and Señor Leonidas would always wake up early and go out to buy food for Moses and Gaspar. He ate downtown, but he always fed them first; I suddenly realized that . . . ”
I made some coffee and tried to pull myself together so I could go to the funeral parlor. Leonidas, Leonidas, how could it be? Leonidas, so full of life, how could you be lying stiff in a cold refrigerator drawer . . . ?
The funeral was at four in the afternoon. It was raining and the cold was intense. Everything was gray, with only black hats and umbrellas interrupting the monotony; raincoats and faces blurred into the fog and drizzle. There were a fair number of people at the funeral: coworkers, perhaps, and a few friends. I navigated within the bitterest of dreams. I wanted this day to be over, to wake up without that knot in my throat, without the mind-numbing sense of being torn apart. An old priest said a prayer and blessed the grave. Afterward, someone I didn’t recognize offered me a cigarette and took me by the arm in a familiar way, offering his condolences. We left the cemetery; Leonidas stayed behind, forever.
I walked alone, aimless, beneath the persistent, monotonous rain. Hopeless, crippled in my soul. My only happiness, the one great affection that tied me to this earth, had died with Leonidas. We had been inseparable since we were children, but for years the war kept us apart. Finding each other again, after the fighting and the solitude, was the greatest joy of our lives. We were the only two left in the family: nevertheless, we soon realized that we ought to live separate lives, and that’s what we did. During those years, each of us had acquired his own customs, habits, and absolute independence. Leonidas found a job as a bank teller; I went to work for an insurance company as an accountant. During the week, each of us dedicated himself to his work or his solitude; but Sundays we always spent together. How happy we were then! I assure you, we both looked forward to that day of the week.
Sometime later they moved Leonidas to another city. He could have quit and looked for another position. His way, though, was always to accept things with exemplary serenity. “It is useless to resist; we could circle around a thousand times, and always end up where we began . . . ” “We’ve been so happy, there had to be a catch; happiness comes at a price . . . ” This was his philosophy and he bore it calmly and without defiance. “There are some things you can’t fight against, my dear José . . . ”
Leonidas went away. For a time, his absence was more than I could bear; then slowly we began to organize our solitary lives. We wrote to each other once or twice a month. I spent my vacations with him and he came to see me during his. And so our lives went by . . .
Night had fallen by the time I returned to his apartment. The cold was more intense and it was still raining. I had a bottle of rum under my arm, bought in a store I’d found open. The apartment was utterly dark and freezing. I stumbled my way in, switched on the light, and connected the heater. I uncorked the bottle nervously, with clumsy, trembling hands. There, at the table, in the last spot that Leonidas had occupied, I sat down to drink, to vent my sorrow. At least I was alone and didn’t have to hold back or hide my pain from anyone; I could weep and cry and . . . Suddenly I felt eyes behind me. I jumped out of the chair and spun around: there were Moses and Gaspar. I had forgotten all about them, but there they were, staring at me—with hostility? with mistrust? I couldn’t tell. But their gaze was terrible. In the moment, I couldn’t think what to tell them. I felt hollowed out and absent, as though I were outside myself and had lost the power to think. Besides, I didn’t know how much they understood . . . I went on drinking . . . Then I realized that they were both silently weeping. The tears dripped from their eyes and fell to the floor; they wept with no expression and without a sound. Around midnight, I made coffee and prepared them a bit of food. They wouldn’t touch it, only went on crying disconsolately . . .
Leonidas had arranged all of his affairs. Perhaps he had burned his files, because I didn’t find a single one in the apartment. As far as I knew, he had sold his furniture on the pretext that he was going away; it was all going to be picked up the next day. His clothes and other personal effects were carefully packed in two trunks labeled with my name. His savings and the money from the furniture had been deposited in the bank, also in my name. Everything was in order. The only things he left me in charge of were his burial and the care of Moses and Gaspar.
Around four in the morning we departed for the train station: our train left at five fifteen. Moses and Gaspar had to travel, to their obvious disgust, in the baggage car; they weren’t allowed to ride with the passengers at any price. What a grueling trip! I was physically and morally spent. I had gone four days and four nights without sleeping or resting, ever since the telegram had arrived with the news that Leonidas was dead. I tried to sleep during the trip but only managed to doze. In the stations where the train made longer stops, I went to check on Moses and Gaspar and see if they wanted something to eat. The sight of them wounded me. They seemed to be recriminating me for their situation. “You know it’s not my fault,” I repeated each time, but they couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand. It was going to be very difficult for me to live with them: they had never taken to me, and I felt uncomfortable in their presence, as though I were being watched. How unpleasant it had been to find them in his house that past summer! Leonidas evaded my questions and begged me in the warmest terms to love them and put up with them. “The poor things deserve to be loved,” he told me. That vacation was exhausting and violent, even though the mere fact of seeing Leonidas filled me with happiness. He had stopped coming to visit me, since he couldn’t leave Moses and Gaspar alone. The next year, the last time I saw Leonidas, everything went more normally. I didn’t like Moses and Gaspar and I never would, but they no longer made me so uneasy. I never found out how they came to live with Leonidas . . . Now they were with me, a legacy, an inheritance from my unforgettable brother.
It was after eleven at night when we arrived at my house. The train had been delayed more than four hours. The three of us were completely worn out. All that I had to offer Moses and Gaspar was some fruit and a little bit of cheese. They ate without enthusiasm, watching me suspiciously. I threw some blankets down in the living room so they could sleep, then shut myself in my room and took a sleeping pill.
The next day was Sunday, which meant I was spared from having to go to work. Not that I could have gone. I had planned to sleep late, but I began to hear noises at the first light of dawn. It was Moses and Gaspar: they had already woken up and were pacing from one side of the apartment to the other. They came up to my bedroom and stood there, pressed against the door, as if they were trying to see through the keyhole, or maybe just listening for the sound of my breathing to see whether I was still asleep. Then I remembered that Leonidas fed them every morning at seven. I had to get up and go find them something to eat.
What hard and arduous days those were after Moses and Gaspar came to live in my house! I was used to waking up a little before eight, making coffee, and leaving for the office at eight thirty, since the bus took half an hour and my job started at nine. With Moses and Gaspar there, my whole life was thrown into chaos. I had to wake up at six to buy milk and other groceries, then make the breakfast they ate punctually at seven, according to their habit. If I was late, they grew furious, which frightened me because I didn’t know just how far their anger might go. I had to clean up the apartment every day, because with them there, I always found everything out of place.
But what tortured me the most was their hopeless grief. The way they searched for Leonidas and stood waiting for him at the door. Sometimes, when I came home from work, they ran jubilantly to greet me, but as soon as they saw it was me, they put on such disappointed, suffering faces that I broke down and wept along with them. This was the only thing we shared. There were days when they hardly got up; they spent all day lying there, listless, taking no interest in anything. I would have liked to know what they were thinking then. The fact was that I hadn’t explained anything to them when I went to pick them up. I don’t know if Leonidas had said something to them, or if they knew . . .
Moses and Gaspar had lived with me for almost a month when I realized the serious problem they were going to create in my life. For several years I’d had a romantic relationship with the cashier at a restaurant where I often ate. Our friendship began in a straightforward way, because I’ve never been the courting kind. I simply needed a woman, and Susy solved that problem. At first, we only saw each other now and then. Sometimes a month or two would pass in which we did nothing more than greet each other at the restaurant with a nod of the head, like mere acquaintances. I would go on living calmly for a while, without thinking about her, then all at once I’d feel old and familiar symptoms of anxiety, sudden rages, and melancholy. Then I’d look up Susy and everything would return to normal. After a while, almost habitually, Susy came to visit once a week. When I went to pay the check for dinner, I’d say, “Tonight, Susy.” If she was free—since she did have other engagements—she’d answer, “I’ll see you tonight,” otherwise it was, “Not tonight, but tomorrow if you like.” Susy’s other engagements didn’t bother me; we owed each other nothing and didn’t belong to each other. Advanced in years and abundant in flesh, she was far from being a beauty; but she smelled good and always wore silk underwear with lace trim, which had a notable influence on my desire. I’ve never managed to recall even one of her dresses, but her intimate combinations I remember well. We never spoke while making love; instead, the two of us both seemed lost inside ourselves. When we said good-bye, I always gave her some money. “You’re very generous,” she would say in satisfaction; but beyond this customary gift, she never asked me for anything. The death of Leonidas interrupted our routine relations. More than a month passed before I went looking for Susy. I had spent the whole month in the most hopeless grief, which I shared with no one but Moses and Gaspar, who were just as much strangers to me as I was to them. Finally one night I waited for Susy at the corner outside the restaurant, as usual, and we went up to my apartment. Everything happened so quickly that I only pieced it together afterward. When Susy entered the bedroom, she saw Moses and Gaspar there, cornered in fright under the sofa. She turned so pale that I thought she was going to faint, then screamed like a lunatic and dashed down the stairs. I ran after her and had a hard time calming her down. After that unfortunate accident, Susy never came back to my apartment. When I wanted to see her, I had to rent a hotel room, which threw off my budget and annoyed me.
The incident with Susy was only the first in a series of calamities.
“Señor Kraus,” the concierge said to me one day, “all of the tenants have come to complain about the unbearable noise that comes from your apartment as soon as you leave for the office. Please do something about it, because there are people like Señorita X or Señor A who work at night and need to sleep during the day.”
I was taken aback and didn’t know what to think. Overwhelmed as they were by the loss of their owner, Moses and Gaspar lived in silence. At least that’s how they were when I was in the apartment. Seeing them so downcast and diminished, I said nothing; it seemed cruel. Besides, I had no evidence against them . . .
“I’m sorry to bother you again, but this can’t go on,” the concierge told me a few days later. “As soon as you leave, they start dumping all the stuff in the kitchen on the floor, they throw the chairs around, they move the beds and all the furniture. And the screams, the screams, Señor Kraus, are horrible; we can’t take it anymore, and it lasts all day until you come home.”
I decided to investigate. I asked permission at the office to take a few hours off. I came home at noon. The concierge and all the tenants were right. The building seemed about to collapse with the unbearable racket that was coming from my apartment. I opened the door. Moses was on top of the stove, bombarding Gaspar from above with pots and pans, while Gaspar ran around dodging the projectiles, screaming and laughing like a maniac. They were so enthusiastic in their game that they didn’t notice me there. The chairs were overturned, the pillows flung onto the table, onto the floor . . . When they saw me, they froze.
“I can’t believe what I’m seeing!” I shouted in rage. “I’ve gotten complaints from all the neighbors, and I refused to believe them. How ungrateful! This is how you repay my hospitality and honor your master’s memory? His death is ancient history to you, it happened so long ago you don’t even feel it; all you care about are your games. You little demons, you ingrates!”
When I finished, I realized they were lying on the floor in tears. I left them there and returned to the office. I felt bad all the rest of the day. When I came home in the afternoon, the house had been cleaned up and they were hiding in the closet. I felt terrible pangs of remorse; I felt that I’d been too hard on those poor creatures. Maybe, I thought, they don’t know that Leonidas is never coming back, maybe they think he’s only gone on a trip and that one day he’ll return, and the more they hope, the less it hurts. I’ve destroyed the only thing that makes them happy . . . But my remorse ended soon enough; the next day I learned that they had been at it again: the noise, the screams . . .
Not long after this, I was evicted by court order, and so we began moving from place to place. One month here, another there, another there . . . One night, I was feeling worn down and depressed by the series of disasters that had befallen me. We had a small apartment consisting of a tiny living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and one bedroom. I decided to turn in for the night. When I went into the bedroom, I saw that they were asleep on my bed. Then I remembered: the last time I’d visited Leonidas, on the night I arrived, I noticed that my brother was improvising two beds in the living room. “Moses and Gaspar sleep in the bedroom, we’ll have to make ourselves comfortable out here,” he said, rather self-consciously. At the time, I couldn’t understand how Leonidas could possibly bend to the will of those two miserable creatures. Now I understood . . . From that day on, they occupied my bed and there was nothing I could do about it.
I had never been intimate with my neighbors, because I found the idea exhausting. I preferred my solitude, my independence. Still, we greeted each other on the stairs, in the hallways, in the street . . . With the arrival of Moses and Gaspar, all of that changed. In every apartment we stayed in, never for long, the neighbors developed a fierce hatred for me. There always came a point when I became afraid to enter the building or to leave my apartment. Returning home late at night, after having been with Susy, I thought I might be assaulted. I heard doors opening as I went by, or footsteps behind me, furtive, silent, someone’s breath . . . When I finally entered my apartment, I would be bathed in cold sweat and trembling from head to toe.
Soon I had to give up my job; I was afraid that if I left them alone, they might be killed. There was such hatred in everyone’s eyes! It would have been easy to break in through the apartment door; or the concierge might even have opened it himself, because he hated them, too. I left my job, and my only source of income was the bookkeeping I could do at home, small accounts that weren’t enough to live on. I left early in the morning, when it was still dark, to buy the food I cooked myself. I didn’t go out again except to turn in or pick up the ledgers, and I did this as fast as I could, almost running, so that I wouldn’t be out long. I stopped seeing Susy; I no longer had the time or the money. I couldn’t leave them alone, either by day or by night, and she refused ever to come back to my apartment. Bit by bit I began to run through my savings, and then through the money Leonidas had left me. I was earning a pittance, not even enough for food, much less the constant moving from place to place. So I decided to go away.
With the money I had left, I bought a small old farm I found outside the city and a few essential pieces of furniture. It was an isolated house, half in ruins. There the three of us will live, far from everything but safe from ambush and assault, tightly joined by an invisible bond, by a stark, cold hatred and an indecipherable design.
Everything is ready for our departure—everything, or rather, the little there is to bring with us. Moses and Gaspar are also awaiting the moment when we set off. I can tell by their air of anxiety. I think they’re satisfied. Their eyes shine. If only I could know what they’re thinking! But no, I would be afraid to plumb the shadowy mystery of their being. Silently they approach me, as if they want to sniff out my mood or, perhaps, to find out what I’m thinking. But I know they can sense it, they must, for it shows in their joy, in the air of triumph that fills them whenever I feel a longing to destroy them. And they know I can’t, they know I’ll never fulfill my most ardent desire. They enjoy it . . . How many times would I have killed them if it had been up to me! Leonidas, Leonidas, I can’t even judge your decision! You loved me, no doubt, as I loved you, but your death and your legacy have destroyed my life. I don’t want to think or believe that you coldly condemned me or planned my ruin. No, I know it is something stronger than we are. I don’t blame you, Leonidas: even if this is your doing, it was meant to be; “we could have circled around a thousand times, and always ended up where we began.”