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Today the weather didn't fool me. The afternoon is perfectly still. The air scorches, as if it were a waft of fire and not just the air we breathe, as if the afternoon refused to die and the hottest hour had begun. There are no clouds, just wispy white streaks unraveled from clouds. And the sky, from down here, looks cool, like the clear water of a dammed stream. I think: perhaps the sky is a huge sea of fresh water and we, instead of walking under it, walk on top of it; perhaps we see everything upside down and the earth is a kind of sky, so that when we die, when we die, we fall and sink into the sky. This sky that's a bottomless stream without fish. The clouds just hazy threads. And the air an inwardly burning fire. Hot, invisible flames that make our skin swelter. Air that, like a tired man, doesn't even stir.
A time will come when not a sparrow can be seen, when nothing can be heard but the silence of everything watching us. The time will come. I'll see it on the horizon. As surely as I realize this now, I realized it yesterday when I entered Judas's general store and ordered my first and my second and my third glass. I realized that all across the plain the cicadas and crickets will fall silent. The slenderest twigs of the olive and cork trees will stop climbing into the sky; from one moment to the next they'll turn to stone.
It was night when Jose entered Judas's general store. He still wore sun-bleached clothes on his body, the earth's ochre light on his skin, and a reverent smile on his face. He was preceded by the blunt, dirty tip of his shepherd's staff. His tired sheepdog, a new mother whose swollen teats and bloated belly almost touched the ground, followed him. He set down the sack that was slung over his shoulder by a rope and leaned against the counter. A glass of red wine. The few men who greeted him muttered languishing, indecipherable syllables. The others, without interrupting their talking and drinking and card playing, merely turned their heads to look at him. The dog rested her ribs on the ground, curved her spine in an arch of vertebrae showing through her fur, and lowered her eyelids over her passive brown eyes.
In the moment that Jose raised his glass and downed the wine in one fell swoop, the men in Judas's general store as seen from the other side of the square, as seen from the night and from silence, were the open space of a doorway; they were a tenuous path of light trying to advance across the vacant square and the black, black night; they were a place of indistinct words trying to enter the vacant square and the black, black silence. Jose set his empty glass on the counter, and next to him, under the dim light and the racket of words, the devil's idle smile instantly took shape. The devil smiling. He was the only one who didn't have sun-darkened skin, whose shirt was ironed, trousers creased, hair combed between his cap and his slightly protruding horns. He was the only one who smiled. Two glasses of red wine, he ordered with a smile. Jose didn't need to look at him. In silence he waited for the two glasses that were filled to the absolute brim. While they drank, the devil didn't take his eyes off Jose, and he seemed, even while drinking, to smile a faint smile that divided and multiplied into a thousand smiles, a thousand faint smiles. The men continued, or seemed to continue, their unending conversations and unending card games, stopping only to glance at the changes in Jose's face and at the tempter's taunting grin, or to spit out the damp remains of their hand-rolled cigarettes. And Jose's face changed. Successive glasses gradually filled him with an irrational happiness, the happiness of carnival and masqueraders. The devil smiling. With a smile he asked how are you, I haven't seen your wife around, where is she? Jose's eyes flared, and he stopped tittering to answer she's where she should be, where she always is. The men's crisscrossing voices were now an ocean of words rolling in waves over their heads, waves that began with a drone and swelled in a far-reaching din before retreating, leaving behind vestiges of words in the air, worthless and jumbled-up syllables like old things in a compost pile. Always? asked the devil, smiling and laughing. Jose fell silent, and the men fell silent to hear the answer he didn't utter. Two more glasses of red wine, the devil insisted. You know, he went on, still smiling, the giant told me that he knows her better than you do, that he knows better than you where she is, where she spends her time. From the white distance of his alcoholic aura Jose stopped to grasp the words. Under the hovering dust the men opened their tiny eyes like moles and tried to laugh but didn't know how, they just grunted. I'm sick of that giant's lies, Jose answered; my wife is where I know she is, where she always is; the next time you see him, tell the giant to show his face, tell him to show me his face. And he raised his fist high, striking it long and loudly on the counter. The dog got up and slowly walked out. Tell him to show me his face, Jose repeated, and I'll smash it in. The men's expressions froze for a moment, and then, as if on cue, they all started to dance in unison, whirling in a circle around Jose. And Jose, who could barely make out their blurred outlines and colors, once more radiated happiness in his face, and he whirled and danced, fell and fell, and stood up to dance again. In a corner the devil smiled, finally satisfied in his smiling.
This silent waiting unnerves me. The last sheep has lain down next to the curled-up bodies of other sheep, beneath the big old cork tree. I think: men are sheep that don't sleep, sheep that on the inside are wolves. The sun is still sun, its fire persists, in the air's and the earth's slow combustion. In the same shade as me, leaning against the same trunk, my staff resembles a person eyeing me with pity. My dog, in front of me, occasionally lifts her heavy gaze, likewise aware of what's going to happen.
The dog solemnly walked ahead of Jose's uncertain steps, stopping now and then to wait for him. The sky overhead became darker, blacker, once they were outside the town and on the sand-covered road leading to the farmstead, the Mount of Olives. The din of the men's shouting in Judas's general store continued to sound in Jose's dazed head. In the night's scant clarity his silhouette was that of a strange animal with three or four legs, depending on whether he was propped up by his staff or crawling on all fours. Plodding forward in this way, he began to be suspicious of the scrub and underbrush in the ditches. One moment he would attack the brush and its invisible phantoms with his staff, slugging away at himself on the ground; the next moment he would start running and feel his suddenly enormous feet trip over each other.
From the fence that bounded the farmstead he saw the sun rising over the roof of the rich people's house. Like the darkness, the alcohol in Jose had slowly dissipated and given way to light. He regained his clarity of mind and once more felt the weight of sobriety. Looking into the sun, Jose paused to collect his certainties of what lay ahead. He stood there awhile. Then climbed the slope. Once they'd passed through the gate, the dog relaxed, making her way to the washtub and plopping down underneath it. Jose's house, whitewashed and with yellow trim, lay a few yards beyond the rich people's house, at the back of the courtyard, behind the waterwheel and a small garden that the rich woman liked to see kept up. With his eyes fixed on the front door of his house, Jose walked through the yellowed garden, pushed aside the beads, and crossed over the threshold. In the night that still lingered in the bedroom, without breaking the silence generated by the presence of things, Jose made out his wife on the bed and remembered the devil's smile and the devil's words. His wife's head against the pillow, her hair against the pillow, were what he had conquered and were also what eluded him. He turned to the crib, and his gentle movements became even gentler. His son's innocent face glowed in Jose's breast and in his tender gaze. Looking at his own hands, he suddenly felt that they were too rough to touch the baby's soft, smooth skin. Obsessed by the certainty that gnawed at him and gnawed at him, he went back outside.
He whistled and his dog stood up, rejuvenated. He untied the knot of wires that secured the gate and felt the dog pass between his legs. As the sun at the foot of the sky became stronger, the dog made the sheep leave the pen in a steady stream, and the ones in front, who knew the way, dragged an ever-larger cape of slender bodies behind them, an ocean tide of shorn sheep flouncing in the new morning.
The world has come to a standstill, in a picture where I can only keep going, where my staff can only continue, where I can only keep whittling this broken branch with my jackknife, where my staff can only continue to stand watch over the plain like a venerable old man.
The birds have all flown away. The animals of the ground make no sound. The clouds have all halted. The moment is near at hand. I look into the sun and think: if the punishment that's my lot can be contained in me, if I can accept it and somehow hold it inside me, perhaps I'll be spared further judgments, perhaps I can rest. The loud roar of silence surges behind the earth. The fire of the horizon is approaching. And I see him. He walks straight toward me with mechanical steps. His body, larger than a man's, is like that of a walking tree, like that of a man the size of three men. And each of his steps is equal to three human steps. Beneath the cork trees, the sheep have become lifeless, curled-up balls of wool. Closer now, he looks at me without veering his gaze. Still closer, the rage in his eyes grabs me and slowly pulls me toward him. Right in front of me, he stands perfectly still. We look at each other.
They looked at each other. Sitting beneath a tall cork tree, Jose held his open knife and a whittled piece of branch. Leaning against the same tree, to his right, was the staff. The giant's unwavering frame blocked the sun and cast a shadow that ended in the round shadow of the tree. Within the silence, as within a dream, the giant began to walk. Jose looked at him as if waiting, as if a great amount of time had passed during those two long strides, and he felt three successive kicks in the gut, and he didn't defend himself. He didn't reach for his staff, he didn't tighten his grip on the jackknife. The giant opened wide his huge hands and flung him to the ground. Jose looked at him and didn't shrink when the giant's toe-plated boots began to maul his flesh and crack against his bones, kicking him in the back, in the hips, in the shins. The moments that passed in silence and that seemed like an entire night to Jose were not a night, they were just a few moments within the silence. The sweating giant turned over Jose's inert body, and despite the blood and dirt that smeared his skin, Jose's gaze was the same. The giant felt like thrashing him some more, thrashing him until that gaze disappeared, but instead he turned around and walked away, without once looking back. Jose's abandoned body was like a bush or stone or some other object that the wind slowly sweeps from the landscape. The singing of the sparrows and crickets and cicadas increased. Jose looked straight at the sun. His hand still held the open jackknife.
Perhaps a slight breeze has kicked up and the leaves of the cork trees are trembling, like the hands of old people. My body feels crumpled, indented by the bumps in the ground where it lies, submerged in the earth's frozen waves. Perhaps the birds and animals have come back, to look at me. I see the sun before me, high above me, like a god embracing me with rays of light or of death. I think.
The three men were leaning against one of the large tanks of olive oil. There were four such tanks, square and very tall, with spigots at the bottom. Under the four spigots were four pails that received, at precise intervals, the tiny shout of dripping oil pierced by a clean, clear light. It was summer in the hot hour of that summer's day, but there, in that dusky room of the oil press, the summer was hot only in the placid imagination of the three old men; beneath the roof tiles and within the cold walls of old bricks thickly coated with lime, their forgetful bodies remembered cool weather. It was summer and little oil remained in the iron tanks, but the smell that had accumulated over the years wafted in the air, wrapping and penetrating and blending with the old men's heavy words. Old Gabriel, seated to the far left, looked down as he spoke, lifting his eyes only during the brief silences. Under the black shirt of a very black mourning, his tanned skin was covered by the thick white of an undershirt. Above the cobwebs of his thick beard's whiskers, his face was marked by a prophetic profusion of wrinkles and by a gaze as large as a pond. He rolled his cap over in his hands.
He looked dead when I found him. Day was breaking in the window when I heard his wife knock on the door. I had a clay mug of milk on the fire and didn't drink it. She said he took the sheep out yesterday and didn't come back, I spent all night worrying, unable to sleep. She doesn't talk much. She chooses her words as if choosing oranges from the lower branches, or the healthiest pups from a litter. She said where could he be? Help me. That morning she talked more than usual. Which is perhaps what made me think she was right to be worried. If Jose hadn't taken out the sheep, I'd suspect that he'd drunk too much and lost his way returning from Judas's general store to the Mount of Olives, but he did take them out, and knowing Jose as I do, from the time he was a boy trailing behind his father, catching crickets and setting traps for the sparrows, I can say, I can guarantee, that only a serious problem would keep him from meeting his obligations. My boots made a dragging sound in the sand. As I walked, I listened and knew that something had happened. He looked dead when I found him. His neck was twisted into a sullen grimace, and his body, stretched out on the ground, was like an inert stone, born there and molded by a strange fortuity into the exact shape of a man. His dog, relieved of the work of keeping all the sheep together throughout the night, ran to me like a child telling me everything. She licked my hands while I petted her on the head. Jose, like a dead man, kept staring at the sun with his glassy, wide-open eyes. I leaned him against the tree with the help of the dog. Unable to carry him, I went to the farmstead to fetch a wheelbarrow. As I walked up the slope, I couldn't avoid his wife, who looked at me hard and read my face. She was no longer interested in him but asked how he was, waited for my answer, and returned to her silence, alone. With his legs and arms hanging out of the wheelbarrow and almost touching the ground, Jose kept his eyes open the whole way. Ahead of us the dog drove the flock. Jose stared at the sun like a dead man, each beat of his heart raising just slightly his shirt.
From the Hardcover edition.