“The Shape of the Sword,” a short story by Jorge Luis Borges

“The Shape of the Sword”

by

Jorge Luis Borges

Translated by Andrew Hurley


His face was traversed by a vengeful scar, an ashen and almost perfect arc that sliced from the temple on one side of his head to his cheek on the other. His true name does not matter; everyone in Tacuarembó called him “the Englishman at La Colorada.” The owner of the land, Cardoso, hadn’t wanted to sell it; I heard that the Englishman plied him with an argument no one could have foreseen—he told him the secret history of the scar. He had come from the border, from Rio Grande do Sul; there were those who said that over in Brazil he had been a smuggler. The fields had gone to grass, the water was bitter; to put things to right, the Englishman worked shoulder to shoulder with his peons. People say he was harsh to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously fair. They also say he liked his drink; once or twice a year he would shut himself up in the room in the belvedere, and two or three days later he would emerge as though from a battle or a spell of dizziness—
pale, shaking, befuddled, and as authoritarian as ever. I recall his glacial eyes, his lean energy, his gray mustache. He was standoffish; the fact is, his Spanish was rudimentary, and tainted with the accents of Brazil. Aside from the occasional business letter or pamphlet, he got no mail.

The last time I made a trip through the northern provinces, high water along the Caraguatá forced me to spend the night at La Colorada. Within a few minutes I thought I sensed that my showing up that way was somehow inopportune. I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman, and to do so I seized upon patriotism, that least discerning of passions. I remarked that a country with England’s spirit was invincible. My interlocutor nodded, but added with a smile that he wasn’t English—he was Irish, from Dungarvan. That said, he stopped, as though he had let slip a secret.

We went outside after dinner to have a look at the sky. The clouds had cleared away, but far off behind the sharp peaks, the southern sky, creviced and split with lightning, threatened another storm. Back in the dilapidated dining room, the peon who’d served dinner brought out a bottle of rum. We drank for a long time, in silence.

I am not sure what time it was when I realized that I was drunk; I don’t know what
inspiration or elation or boredom led me to remark on my host’s scar. His face froze; for several seconds I thought he was going to eject me from the house. But at last, his voice perfectly ordinary, he said to me:

“I will tell you the story of my scar under one condition—that no contempt or condemnation be withheld, no mitigation for any iniquity be pleaded.”

I agreed. This is the story he told, his English interspersed with Spanish, and even with Portuguese: In 1922, in one of the cities of Connaught, I was one of the many young men who were conspiring to win Ireland’s independence. Of my companions there, some are still living, working for peace; others, paradoxically, are fighting under English colours, at sea or in the desert; one, the best of us all, was shot at dawn in the courtyard of a prison, executed by men filled with dreams; others (and not the least fortunate, either) met their fate in the anonymous, virtually secret battles of the civil war. We were Republicans and Catholics; we were, I suspect, romantics. For us, Ireland was not just the Utopian future and the unbearable present; it was a bitter yet loving mythology, it was the circular towers and red bogs, it was the repudiation of Parnell, and it was the grand epics that sing the theft of bulls that were heroes in an earlier incarnation, and in other incarnations fish, and mountains. … One evening I shall never forget, there came to us a man, one of our own, from Munster—a man called John Vincent Moon.

He couldn’t have been more than twenty. He was thin yet slack-muscled, all at once—he gave the uncomfortable impression of being an invertebrate. He had studied, ardently and with some vanity, virtually every page of one of those Communist manuals; he would haul out his dialectical materialism to cut off any argument. There are infinite reasons a man may have for hating or loving another man; Moon reduced the history of the world to one sordid economic conflict. He declared that the Revolution was foreordained to triumph. I replied that only lost causes were of any interest to a gentleman…. Night had fallen; we pursued our crosspurposes in the hallway, down the stairs, then through the vague streets.

The verdicts Moon handed down impressed me considerably less than the sense of unappealable and absolute truth with which he issued them. The new comrade did not argue, he did not debate—he pronounced judgement, contemptuously and, to a degree, wrathfully. As we came to the last houses of the city that night, we were stupefied by the sudden sound of gunfire.

(Before this, or afterward, we skirted the blind wall of a factory or a gaol.) We turned down a dirt street; a soldier, huge in the glare, burst out of a torched cottage. He shouted at us to halt. I started walking faster; my comrade did not follow me. I turned around— John Vincent Moon was standing as motionless as a rabbit caught in one’s headlights eternalized, somehow, by terror. I ran back, floored the soldier with a single blow, shook Vincent Moon, cursed him, and ordered him to come with me. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had stripped him of all will. But then we did run—we fled through the conflagration-riddled night. A burst of rifle fire came our way, and a bullet grazed Moon’s right shoulder; as we fled through the pine trees, a weak sob racked his breast.

In that autumn of 1922 I had gone more or less underground, and was living in General Berkeley’s country house. The general (whom I had never seen) was at that time posted to some administrative position or other out in Bengal; the house was less than a hundred years old but it was gloomy and dilapidated and filled with perplexing corridors and pointless antechambers. The museum-cabinet and huge library arrogated to themselves the entire lower floor—there were the controversial and incompatible books that are somehow the history of the nineteenth century; there were scimitars from Nishapur, in whose frozen crescents the wind and violence of battle seemed to be living on. We entered the house (I think I recall) through the rear. Moon, shaking, his mouth dry, mumbled that the events of the night had been “interesting”; I salved and bandaged him, then brought him a cup of tea. The wound was superficial. Suddenly, puzzled, he stammered:

“You took a terrible chance, coming back to save me like that.”

I told him it was nothing. (It was the habit of civil war that impelled me to act as I acted; besides, the imprisonment of a single one of us could imperil the entire cause.)

The next day, Moon had recovered his composure. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a harsh interrogation as to the “financial resources of our revolutionary party.” His questions were quite lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was grave. Deep rumblings of gunfire troubled the peace of the south. I told Moon that our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and revolver were  up in my room; when I returned, I found Moon lying on the sofa, his eyes closed. He thought he had a fever; he pleaded a painful spasm in his shoulder.

It was then that I realized he was a hopeless coward. I clumsily told him to take care of himself, then left.

I was embarrassed by the man and his fear, shamed by him, as though I myself were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatsoever one man does, it is as though all men did it. That is why it is not unfair that a single act of disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; that is why it is not unfair that a single Jew’s crucifixion should be enough to save it. Schopenhauer may have been right—I am other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is somehow the wretched John Vincent Moon.

We spent nine days in the general’s great house. Of the agonies and the rays of light of that dark war I shall say nothing; my purpose is to tell the story of this scar that affronts me. In my memory, those nine days form a single day—except for the next to last, when our men  stormed a barracks and avenged, life for life, our sixteen comrades fallen to the machine guns at Elphin. I would slip out of the house about dawn, in the blurred confusion of first light. I would be back toward nightfall. My comrade would be waiting for me upstairs; his wound would not allow him to come down. When I look back, I see him with some book of strategy in his hand—F. N. Maude, or Clausewitz. “The weapon of preference for me,” he confessed to me one night, “is artillery.” He enquired into our plans; he enjoyed criticizing or re-thinking them. He was also much given to deploring “our woeful financial base”; dogmatically and sombrely he would prophesy the disastrous end. “C’est une affaire flambée,” he would mutter. To show that his physical cowardice was a matter of indifference to him, he made a great display of mental arrogance.

Thus passed, well or not so well, nine days.

On the tenth, the city fell once and forever into the hands of the Black and Tans. Highsitting, silent horsemen patrolled their beats; there was ash and smoke in the wind. I saw a dead body sprawled on one corner—yet that dead body is less vivid in my memory than the dummy that the soldiers endlessly practised their marksmanship on in the middle of the city square…. I had gone out when dawn was just streaking the sky; before noon, I was back. Moon was in the library, talking to someone; I realized from the tone of his voice that he was speaking on the telephone. Then I heard my name; then, that I’d be back at seven, and then, that I’d be arrested as I came across the lawn. My rational friend was rationally selling me out. I heard him demand certain guarantees of his own safety.

Here my story becomes confused and peters out a bit. I know that I chased the snitch through black corridors of nightmare and steep stairwells of vertigo. Moon knew the house well, every bit as well as I.

Once or twice I lost him, but I managed to corner him before the soldiers arrested me.

From one of the general’s suits of armor, I seized a scimitar, and with that steel crescent left a flourish on his face forever—a half-moon of blood. To you alone, Borges—you who are a stranger—I have made this confession.

Your contempt is perhaps not so painful.”

Here the narrator halted. I saw that his hands were trembling.

“And Moon?” I asked. “What became of Moon?”

“He was paid his Judas silver and he ran off to Brazil. That evening, in the city square, I saw a dummy shot by a firing squad of drunks.”

I waited vainly for the rest of the story. Finally, I asked him to go on.

A groan made his entire body shiver; he gestured, feebly, gently, toward the curving whitish scar.

“Do you not believe me?” he stammered. “Do you not see set upon my face the mark of my iniquity? I have told you the story this way so that you would hear it out. It was I who betrayed the man who saved me and gave me shelter—it is I who am Vincent Moon. Now, despise me.”

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