I didn’t know what was happening. Adults came and went and the house was always open to guests. Food was constantly on the table and drinks were served whenever anyone entered our abode. I actually liked that because unseen I could crawl under the table and eat to my heart’s content because no one would notice, for the adults were too busy among themselves to perceive what I was doing. Unless they did see me and then it was the pitiful stares and the caresses. Why was I being pitied? Then they would whisper because that is what they seemed to be doing all day long, conversations were whispered and sighs weren’t scarce. If I walked by, everyone would stop talking and smilingly induce me to go to the garden to play. Funny people, adults. But obviously they didn’t need to say it twice before I would be out and enjoying the fresh air outdoors. I liked this, faraway cousins had also come and though I was generally a reserved and shy child I was delighted at this new opportunity of meeting those my age. I was the youngest but they were kind to me. And we played whenever and wherever we wanted. Rules were dropped and I was able to creep downstairs at twelve o’clock without being scolded by anyone. Dad was busy. Mother too. Apparently they had a lot of work to do. At noon they told me the funeral had been arranged for the following morning. I was asked to be on my best behavior and with clean black clothes. I wasn’t sure what a funeral meant but it certainly sounded like something important, and despite my age I felt proud at being allowed to participate. Although it was strange to me why the moment the funeral and mass were mentioned people dropped their heads and some quietly sobbed. I had noticed that from last week the adults were all sad, or at least tried to be. Then there was the room forbidden for me to enter. What they kept in there I had no idea, but when I peeked at the keyhole I saw candles burning and women praying the rosary surrounding something. I was dutifully brought back to the kitchen when the maid found me there.
“Rodrigo, ven conmigo”
She heated a glass of milk for me while I stood there, staring intently at her, silent.
“What’s in that room?” I ventured to ask.
She turned around and winked at me.
“’Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies’”, she replied, giving me the milk, waiting for me to drink every single drop. I desisted from digging for more information, when she gave me that answer it meant she wasn’t saying more, at least not to me. It was her way of keeping me quiet.
I figured out on my own that the room was the source of the family’s sorrow.
And again I wanted to question where Uncle Francisco was because I didn’t see him anywhere, he was usually present in any family event, and why there was a portrait of him on the mantelpiece in our living room. I had been shushed without receiving any explanation. But I knew mi abuelo was going to help me solve the mystery of these strange events. Grandfather was arriving tomorrow, in time for the funeral.
“No one told you, Rodrigo?”
My grandfather took me to his side and enveloped me in a warm and long embrace. At first he didn’t say anything but his eyes were lost looking at the invisible, for when I followed his gaze I found it didn’t rest on what I saw, but traveled far away to a world barred for me.
“Your uncle Francisco has died”, he murmured in my ear, while holding my hand.
Dead. I had heard that word before, after I rescued a wee bird and its wings stopped flapping one day. The gardener had dug a small hole in the earth and there they had placed the baby pigeon, only to cover him again, until he was no longer visible.
“Ha muerto, el pobrecillo”
It was easy for them to say my pigeon had died. Now, Uncle Francisco was dead like the pigeon.
My thoughts were diverted to reality by my grandfather, and I heard things about heaven, and God, and paradise. Images filled my mind which sounded too beautiful to be true but I was asked if I had been a good boy and remembered my prayers, which I did. Grandpa told me to pray for my uncle’s soul so he would go to heaven. Apparently St Peter was especially fond of children's prayers.
“Will I ever see him again?”, I mumbled. I loved my Uncle Francisco with his kind face and amusing ways.
“One day, perhaps one day”, he murmured. I wondered what day he meant.
In the graveyard everyone was gathered together. I was firmly grasping my grandfather’s hand. I felt frightened and terribly small, looking up at all the bowed heads that rose above me. I tried closing my eyes because I didn’t like what I was seeing.
“Grant him, oh Lord, eternal rest...”
My cousin had cruelly told me this place, this graveyard was going to be our future home. It appeared so desolate, so grey. I wanted to cry. I didn’t care if Uncle Francisco had been kind or wicked, if he had ever given me sweets or not, if he was dead or alive. All I knew was that my only wish was to find myself in the comfort of my room.
I was convinced my cousin had lied to me.
When the news of my father’s death reached me, I was overjoyed. Pathetically happy. That evening I even drank champagne, faithful to my promise. I had warned my father this would be how I would welcome the news of his parting. He hadn’t answered. For the first time in a long time I was relieved, I felt free. At forty eight years of age I was, finally, liberated from my father’s dominating presence. Despite being unable to suppress my satisfaction, I continued to maintain the hypocritical facade which had become my armour. I was unperturbed by the letters and condolences that reached me following the announcement of his death. Keeping up appearances and formalities had been the game father and son had unequivocally succeeded in, in life. Perhaps the sole success I owned. The burdensome stage of pretense was over.
“Manuel, tienes que venir”
My cousin wrote to me. I was aware my presence was expected in the funeral, I was aware I was an indispensable pawn in the arrangements. Forasmuch as I was the son, and he was by law and by right, my father.
But what kind of father punishes his heir for crimes he has not committed? What kind of father rejoices in the misery of his offspring?
Unwillingly I traveled, I reached the house where my childhood years were spent, the archway where the bitter and hateful words were once spoken. The house belonged now to my cousin, and my four year old nephew Rodrigo had stepped into the world I had left behind.
The work and organization which followed was tedious. Thankfully, relatives helped to alleviate this burden. For the five days the corpse reposed in his room, for the respective vigil, encircled by candles and neighbors, I only ventured twice to face my deceased father for the last time. I felt nauseous by this cadaver, abhorring the moments I had to observe the closed eyes and the imperceptible smile curling into a cruel sneer. His rigid demeanor and icy forehead. Even when the unresponsive body of my predecessor spoke of death, it was as though, now he was gone, he continued to fight, to cling to his authority. I was repelled, and dismayed. I had a longing to laugh, and laugh. And the silence was broken by this ghastly and psychotic laugh, the howl of a moribund beast. For death is the strongest and most determined of our enemies.
In those moments of a grave and deep ambivalence nurturing in my heart I loathed the visitors that we were obliged to receive, neighbors, friends and acquaintances of my father would make their way to his final abode each day, nonplussed at my appearance, with a clear expression of surprise written over their face, paying their condolences, babbling among them some memory or other, susurrating rural gossip which I knew had me right in the center of the conversations. Did they know, did they guess? Were they too, foolhardy actors in this miserable life?
The burial was the episode of this absurd tragedy I was enthusiastic about, and the one I feared as well. The unbearable waiting was over. This was the closest I would be able to see him being plunged into the depths of the unknown infernal regions. For in his grave I would see the flames of hell anticipating the homecoming of his body, to submerge his spirit to the cruelest of tortures. For he who had made my life a living inferno deserved nothing less. My revenge was going to be the revenge of the Almighty.
And so it happened.
Although when the coffin was lowered beneath my field of visibility, I gathered the consciousness that I would never be able to forget my father. As the casket was covered in earth and the terrain leveled, I attained the bitter conviction that my father was not yet gone, not yet departed from this world. For he was right there, standing where I was standing, beholding existence through my very own eyes, living through my life. Ultimately and in an enduring manner, I was his son.
I knew I should have told my son I was dying. After the doctor confirmed the expected prognosis, I felt inclined to write to him, but I left the letter unfinished because words were scarce, and I didn’t know what to say. I thought of sending a telegram. I thought of making him know, one way or another, that I was dying. I never did. When the strength to write failed me and I perceived the end coming, I could only ponder upon the promise he had once made before permanently leaving my house. Then I thought it was better that way. The news of my death would nevertheless reach him.
I pitied myself as I laid there, bedridden and debilitated, confined in my own room, unable to escape or speak, a laconic spectator to the gradual passing of time, and with each elapsed second my impending death resounded across the empty corridors, a disheartening sound like the toll of bells and the chiming of the ancient clocks. I closed my life to avoid seeing reality. I wanted to succumb to sleep and mitigate the memories that continuously haunted me. But unfortunately for me sleep offered no gentle respite, as when I drowsily found myself the prey of a quiet slumber, I was always awakened by the recurring nightmares that tormented my already fever oppressed brain. It was always the same. My father, Juan Lopez, with his skeletal hands tightly gripping my neck. I cannot breathe and I struggle. I beg for mercy but his diabolical eyes continue to laugh at me, his nails dipping right into my flesh. The grimace on his decomposed face draining the last ounces of my strength. Without exception, the dreams repeated themselves at every moment, and before I had reached their conclusion I was woken up, veiled in sweat, shrieking and howling like a madman.
“Francisco, Francisco, tranquilizate por Dios”
At the regularity of these episodes, the doctor prescribed morphine and it was then I could drift away to numbness. Drift away to the invisible and sacred region of nothingness. Simple. Soothing.
When the end came, it was painless. I didn’t see Death but I knew I was dead. And instead of the purgatory I thought I would find, my soul was trapped within the walls of my former dwelling. I was a ghost, a vagabond of the nameless creatures that haunted our folktales. I was one of them and I was forsaken.
I was there and like a condemned man I was going to remain there. The disbelief was over. Acceptance was my instrument. I was the witness to the careful manoeuvres of the living. The simplistic tragedy of those left behind, of the people who mourned my passing. Among them I saw my son. I saw the son I had cherished in childhood and neglected and wronged in youth. I saw the son I had once held in my hands and blessed. I saw his face distorted, dashing at me was his hatred. The former hatred that had in its time been invigorating and resolute was now feeble, and its sharp fangs injected the most terrible poison into the consciousness that persecuted me. I saw my son tremble and fall under his vision of resentment, this crude alienation between us. He was weak, and had always been weak. His spirit and vigor were easily shattered. And amidst his confusion I was the abominable sight, the monster.
How empty and illusory was the world! And how pitiful were those that gently rested in the sombre atmosphere of the graveyard! I envied their calm and peaceful repose. The repose that would never be granted to me. Embedded in my soul were the last words I had ever spoken to Manuel. My son had arrived too late.
The words of forgiveness would never be given a chance to materialize.
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An excellent story! It provokes thought and is very deep. The way you wrote from the perspectives of the different characters and how their minds/views of the world is very smooth. Great work!