Authors: Marc Pastor
Translated from the Catalan by
Mara Faye Lethem
For Eva, Miriam and my parents,
who are always there.
Let my death be a greater birth!
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.
EDGAR ALLAN POE
The Premature Burial
Sanguinem universae carnis non comedetis, quia anima omnis carnis sanguis eius est: et, quicumque comederit illum, interibit.
“Didn’t hear what the bet was.”
CLINT EAST WOOD
For a Few Dollars More
OW I’M A VOICE INSIDE YOUR SKULL.
Or the recitation of someone you love beside the bed, or a classmate who can’t seem to read in his head, or a memory dredged up by a scent. I’m man, I’m woman, I’m wind and paper; I’m a traveller, a hunter and a gentle nursemaid (oh, the irony); who serves you dinner and pleasures you, who beats you up and who listens to you; I’m the drink that burns your throat, the rain that soaks through to your bones, the reflection of the night in a window and the cry of a baby before suckling.
I am everything and I can be everywhere. I behave more like a man (if
is the appropriate word) than like a woman. And I am referred to across cultures by many different names: The Dark Angel, The Inexorable One (I particularly like that one, it’s from
One Thousand and One Nights
and I find it quite poetic). But all the Romance languages describe me in the feminine. That has a pretty logical explanation though. Women are the essence of the species, the beginning of it all. Women give life. You are the opposite of everything I represent. We are two ends of the rope. I don’t hate you (I have no feelings, merely curiosity), but I am not like you. I’m more of a man: destructive. Men only know how to annihilate, negate, in all possible senses: to dominate and to kill. But without men, there would be no babies, you could argue.
Nonsense. Men don’t give birth. They only possess the female and leave their seed in her, their destructive trace. In a way, he kills her and she sacrifices herself to create a new life. It’s women who give birth and raise the children and make sure everything keeps going. That’s why I wanted to explain Enriqueta Martí’s story to you. Because, despite being a woman, she’s different from the rest.
So, forget about the skulls, the dark robes and the scythes; forget the medieval imagery of gnawed flesh and empty eye sockets, the thick fog and the groans of pain, the chains, the evil laughter and the ghostly apparitions. I’m not the bloke with the cart piled high with corpses, the Supreme Judge or the hooded executioner… even though I can be that. All that is what you are, all of you with your fantasies, fears and nightmares.
I’m not the end of the path: I am the path.
But enough talk about me, which isn’t worth the trouble and doesn’t get us anywhere, and let’s get started, with the story that I’ve come to tell.
And those who know nothing about it say that the first shovelful of dirt is always the worst.
Blackmouth tenses up his body, his ears pricked up like a greyhound’s. He’s surrounded by the scent of damp earth, of One Eye’s sweat, of the salt the breeze pulls off the sea. His hands are frozen on the handle, his eyes bulging, round like the moon whose light splatters the cemetery debris.
The cry of an insomniac seagull frightens them. What was that? Nothin’, nothin’, some bird.
One Eye, tall and lanky, bereft of his right eye from a bullet during the Tragic Week, with a gap-toothed smile and ulcerous skin, digs beside Blackmouth. They hadn’t been to Montjuïc together looking for bodies since the summer. They’d come in
One Eye’s carriage, which in the daytime he uses to drive meat from the slaughterhouses to sell in the city, and they’ve tossed the shovels over the fence before jumping over themselves. A single oil-lamp sun is visible from any point on the peak, so they don’t light it until they’re shielded by the forest of funereal sculptures. Don’t want to get caught by the nightwatchman or the coppers, or I’ll end up with the nickname No Eye.
“What does the doctor want with these bodies anyway?”
“What does it matter?”
“He pays us pretty good for something he could just take from the hospital.”
“What do you know about medicine? So let everybody do their own job. The doctor can do his doctoring, and we’ll stick to carting off crates.”
The hole grows deep. The pair of two-bit thieves dig harder and harder; they’ve almost reached the box.
“But he’ll never go to the clink. He’s a doctor and we’re a couple of lousy crooks.”
“Shut up, Blackmouth, and don’t jinx us. You don’t need to worry about him going to prison. You worry about the cops catching you and sending
to the clink. Come on, pull out that grape juice, I’m dripping with sweat.”
Blackmouth pulls the wineskin from the sack and passes it to him. When he gets it back he takes a sip. Experience rules, and his partner had certainly had more whippings over the years. In the end, Blackmouth is just a lad, a chick fresh from its shell, abandoned by his father, mother and God. With no money, eking it out in a pigeon loft on Lluna Street, eating when he can or when he robs, which usually amounts to the same thing. The only company he has is an old blind chap in his building, who gives guitar lessons
to children and makes ointments and pomades for adults, which he assures cure all type of ailments, even though he’s been blind and crazy for years. León Domènech is his name, and he never complains when one of the pigeons goes missing. Why do they call you Blackmouth, lad? he’d asked him once, unable to see his teeth stained with dried blood and the dirty feather in his hair.
Hurry up, hurry up, we’re almost done and the sun’s coming up.
Like galley slaves, they focus on their shovels, silent for quite a long while. A thump tells them they’ve hit wood. They wipe the dirt off the surface and search for the nails. Blackmouth pulls two out with his fingernails, bloodying his hands. One Eye works the slit between the lid and the coffin with the shovel blade. Crack, splinters, the door is halfway open. Blackmouth gets excited and lifts it up. He can’t hold back a horrified scream.
“Shit!” mutters One Eye.
“Is this the one we came for?”
“Yeah.” He unfolds a small piece of paper he’d been carrying in his pocket. “Have a look for yourself.”
“I can’t read.”
“It’s a map…”
Standing with the headless corpse between his legs, Blackmouth declares, “Whoever this is, he didn’t die of fevers.”
One Eye comes out of the hole and rests his chin on the shovel handle. He closes his eyes. He’s thinking.
“The doctor’s not going to want that.”
Blackmouth grabs the corpse by the underarms and sits it up.
“Now that’s what I call dead weight.”
One Eye isn’t in the mood for jokes.
“It’s not even fresh. Look at all those worms!” He brings the oil lamp closer to Blackmouth, who discovers that the worms
are crawling up his hands and falling onto his trousers. Some of them are making their way into his shoes. He looks inside the corpse’s neck and finds more life there than he was expecting. He searches through the entire coffin for the head.
“Is it a man or a woman?”
“You’re not thinking about keeping it?”
“If I clean her off good…”
“It’s a man.”
“Oh, forget it then, I’m no poof.”
Silence. The seagull approaches them and looks them up and down. It seems to be saying: if you blokes aren’t interested, I won’t turn my nose up at it.
“Maybe the lady will want it.”
Blackmouth turns around, frightened. From inside the tomb, on his knees, the image of One Eye with the shovel and the oil lamp up there, talking about her, makes his blood run cold.
“Screw up all your courage and let’s get it out of here.”
With the decapitated cadaver inside the sack, they walk to the fence. The hole remains open, with the seagull inside, nibbling on the remains.
“I don’t like the lady,” Blackmouth finally dares to say.
“Don’t start getting daft on me, lad.”
“I don’t like her. You know what they say about her.”
One Eye turns his head to look at him, poor lad. Once they’re in the carriage, he gives him the brass crucifix they took from the corpse’s pocket.
“If you had garlic for supper, then you’ve got nothing to be afraid of.” And he bursts out laughing.
“Giselle, you’re the best French whore of all the French whores born in Sant Boi.”
Moisès Corvo sits to one side of the bed, on the wrinkled sheets marked with other clients’ stains dried onto them weeks ago and giving off a stench of sex that floats around the room. Her body lies naked on the bed, curled into an S, with scratches on her back and two bruises on her inner thighs. Her hair is on the pillow and her attentive gaze on Moisès, without any trace of emotion, but also devoid of the fear she usually has after going to bed with whoever can pay for her supper. Moisès Corvo treats her well, as well as that big hunk of man knows how, almost six and a half feet tall and with a thundering voice, strong as an oak tree and arms long like a circus monkey. Giselle caresses his back while he dresses. He’s already put on his trousers, the braces hang on either side, his shirt like a handkerchief in his gnarled hands. He turns his torso, and his mouth smiles in defiance of his deep blue eyes. His face is like an El Greco painting, with messy hair and eyebrows pointy as a notary’s signature, and an aquiline nose as pronounced as his lower lip. You’re like the king, his wife tells him when he’s home. And he’s never sure if she’s referring to his appearance or to his fondness for the ladies, the more naked and dissolute the better.
“Are you coming tomorrow?”
“Who knows. I may be dead tomorrow.”
“Don’t say those things.”
“Then don’t ask silly questions.”
“I’m scared, Moisès. I wish you were here more.”
“Scared of what? Not that scoundrel again, the one who…” Moisès can’t remember his name. Just the sound of ribs cracking beneath the vaulted arch of l’Arc del Teatre.
“No. I’m scared of the monster.”
“The monster?” His hand at his fly, without thinking.
“The streets are full of them. Children disappear. I’m worried about my Tonet.”
“No child has disappeared, Giselle. That’s just gossip from the old crones that hang around in doorways, sick of the gangs of youngsters shouting and jumping around.”
“Who?” Moisès, standing up, already dressed, cleans his spats with a cigarette between his lips.
“Dorita. She has, she had, a little girl, just four years old. She hasn’t seen or heard from her in two weeks.”
“I’ve never seen that girl.”
“That’s because she doesn’t show her off. You think us whores hang around on the corners looking pitiful with our little ones?”
Giselle, nervous, has also got up and wrapped herself in an old, moth-eaten robe.
“Don’t shout at me.” Moisès heads for the door. He’s got enough headaches from his wife, he doesn’t need more from a hooker.
“And what am I supposed to do? Stay here all night, waiting for a ghost to show up?”
“I won’t ask you for anything else. Take care of my Tonet.”
“Goodbye.” With a shrug he puts on his jacket and leaves the room.
He’s on the top floor of the La Mina bar, on Caçadors Street. Everyone knows full well what those stairs lead to, but he walks down them with feigned dignity and makes his way to the bar. There’s so much smoke you’d think you were in a railway station. Lolo, short, bald, with the eyes of a sick fish and grease on his shirt, rushes to take his order.
“Wasn’t she enough for you?”
“It’s to wash the taste of you out of my mouth, you fuck Giselle too much.”
“It’s a business relationship,” laughs Lolo, and turns tail when another customer calls for him.
Moisès Corvo drinks his glass down in one gulp. Eight o’clock in the evening, too early to start working and too late to head home. Balmes Street is far away. If he waits a while he’ll surely find a friendly face, because everyone there is familiar, but it’s best not to make eye contact, not start any unwelcome conversations. Five minutes later Giselle comes down the stairs, withdrawn, as if she had gulped down all the brazenness she flaunts up there. After an exchange of coins and glances, Lolo blows her kisses and Giselle runs off. She passes Martínez, who looks her over before ordering a nice warm beer and starting to chat with Ortega, who’s so soused that he doesn’t even care that his wife is at home with “Three-Ball” Juli. He’s celebrating having just robbed a couple of British boats stuck in the port, with the help of Miquel, who is now eating a salami sandwich at the corner table (dry bread, incredibly dry meat). Basically just another day at La Mina.
“Lolo!” shouts Moisès over the murmur of voices. The barman comes over to him.
“Another one?” Lolo is about to spit into the glass, to clean it before refilling it.
“No, no. It’s a question.” Lolo leans his head forward
. “Have you heard anything about a monster that’s spiriting away children?”
Lolo sucks his teeth.
“Giselle already told you about that… didn’t she?”
“Have you heard anything or not?”
Lolo hesitates, looks from one side to the other, and confirms that everyone can hear them. What can ya do?
“Yes. The girls are pretty nervous. They say that it’s eight little ones now that have vanished. But since they’re… well, you know, since they are what they are, they haven’t reported anything.”
“They’re whores, and the police only want whores for one thing.”
“You said it.”
“Do you know any of the…”
“Any other one?”
“Àngels the Hussy?”
“Do you know any other Àngels? Josefina disappeared two weeks ago. Poor thing, only two years old. Àngels hasn’t left the house since.”
“And how did it happen?”
“Who knows. She must have left her with someone when she was drunk, or she lost her at the market, or God knows where.”
A man with a first-rate moustache leans with both arms on the bar, next to Moisès.
“Lolo, bring me one of whatever this bastard’s drinking.”
“Malsano, I knew it wouldn’t be long before you showed up.” Moisès doesn’t even look at him when he speaks.
“Anise or piss and vinegar?” asks Lolo.
“Isn’t that the same thing in this bar?”
Lolo heads towards the other end of the bar, wondering whether the joke didn’t have some truth to it.
“We’ve got work, Sherlock.”