Jorge Luis Borges
translated by Andrew Hurley
The incident occurred in Montevideo in 1897.
Every Saturday the friends took the same table, off to one side, in the Café del Globo, like
the poor honest men they were, knowing they cannot invite their friends home, or perhaps escaping it. They were all from Montevideo; at first it had been hard to make friends with Arredondo, a man from the interior who didn’t allow confidences or ask questions. He was hardly more than twenty, a lean, dark-skinned young man, a bit on the short side, and perhaps a little clumsy. His face would have been anonymous had it not been rescued by his eyes, which were both sleepy and full of energy. He was a clerk in a dry goods store on Calle Buenos Aires, and he studied law in his spare time. When the others condemned the war that was ravaging the country and that the president (so general opinion believed) was waging for reprehensible reasons, Arredondo remained silent. He also remained silent when the others laughed at him and called him a tightwad.
A short time after the Battle of Cerros Blancos, Arredondo told his friends that they wouldn’t be seeing him for a while; he had to go to Mercedes. The news disturbed no one. Someone told him to watch out for Aparicio Saravia’s gang of gauchos; Arredondo smiled
and said he wasn’t afraid of the Whites. His interlocutor, who had joined the party, said nothing.
It was harder to say good-bye to Clara, his sweetheart. He did it with almost the same
words. He told her not to expect a letter, since he was going to be very, very busy. Clara, who was not in the habit of writing, accepted the condition without protest. The two young people loved each other very much.
Arredondo lived on the outskirts. He had a black servant woman with the same last name as his; her forebears had been slaves of the family back in the time of the Great War. She was a woman of absolute trustworthiness; Arredondo instructed her to tell anyone asking for him that he was away in the country.
He had picked up his last wages at the dry goods store.
He moved into a room at the back of the house, the room that opened onto the patio of packed earth.
The step was pointless, but it helped him begin that reclusion that his will imposed on him.
From the narrow iron bed in which he gradually recovered his habit of taking an afternoon siesta, he looked with some sadness upon an empty bookcase. He had sold all his books, even the volumes of the Introduction to Law. All he had kept was a Bible, which he had never read and never managed to finish.
He went through it page by page, sometimes with interest and some-times with boredom,
and he set himself the task of memorizing an occasional chapter of Exodus and the last of Ecclesiastes. He did not try to understand what he was reading. He was a freethinker, but he let not a night go by without repeating the Lord’s Prayer, as he’d promised his mother when he came to Montevideo—breaking that filial promise might bring bad luck.
He knew that his goal was the morning of August 25. He knew exactly how many days he
had to get through. Once he’d reached his goal, time would cease, or rather nothing that happened afterward would matter. He awaited the day like a man waiting for his joy and his liberation. He had stopped his watch so he wouldn’t always be looking at it, but every night, when he heard the dark, far-off sound of the twelve chimes, he would pull a page off the calendar and think One day less.
At first he tried to construct a routine. Drink some mate, smoke the black cigarettes he rolled, read and review a certain number of pages, try to chat a bit with Clementina when she brought his dinner on a tray, repeat and embellish a certain speech before he blew out the lamp. Talking with Clementina, a woman along in years, was not easy, because her memory had halted far from the city, back in the mundane life of the country.
Arredondo also had a chessboard on which he would play chaotic games that never managed to come to any end. A rook was missing; he would use a bullet or a coin in its place.
To pass the time, every morning Arredondo would clean his room with a rag and a big broom, even chasing down spiderwebs. The black woman didn’t like him to lower himself to such chores—not only because they fell within her purview but also because Arredondo didn’t really do them very well.
He would have liked to wake up when the sun was high, but the habit of getting up with
the dawn was stronger than his mere will. He missed his friends terribly, though he knew without bitterness that they didn’t miss him, given his impregnable reserve. One afternoon, one of them came around to ask after him but was met in the vestibule and turned away. The black woman didn’t know him; Arredondo never learned who it had been. An avid reader of the news, Arredondo found it hard to renounce those museums of ephemera. He was not a thinking man, or one much given to meditation.
His days and his nights were the same, but Sundays weighed on him.
In mid-July he surmised he’d been mistaken in parceling out his time, which bears us along one way or another anyway. At that point he allowed his imagination to wander through the wide countryside of his homeland, now bloody, through the rough fields of Santa Irene where he had once flown kites, to a certain stocky little piebald horse, surely dead by now, through the dust raised by the cattle when the drovers herded them in, to the exhausted stagecoach that arrived every month with its load of trinkets from Fray Bentos, through the bay of La Agraciada where the Thirty-three came ashore, to the Hervidero, through ragged mountains, wildernesses, and rivers, through the Cerro he had scaled to the lighthouse, thinking that on the two banks of the River Plate there was not another like it. From the Cerroon the bay he traveled once to the peak on the Uruguayan coat of arms, and he fell asleep.
Each night the sea breeze was cool, and good for sleeping. He never spent a sleepless night. He loved his sweetheart with all his soul, but he’d been told that a man shouldn’t think about women, especially when there were none to be had. Being in the country had accustomed him to chastity. As for the other matter… he tried to think as little as possible of the man he hated. The sound of the rain on the roof was company for him.
For the man in prison, or the blind man, time flows downstream as though down a slight decline. As he reached the midpoint of his reclusión, Arredondo more than once achieved that virtually timeless time. In the first patio there was a wellhead, and at the bottom, a cistern where a toad lived; it never occurred to Arredondo that it was the toad’s time, bordering on eternity, that he sought.
As the day grew near he began to be impatient again. One night he couldn’t bear it anymore, and he went out for a walk.
Everything seemed different, bigger. As he turned a corner, he saw a light and went into
the general store, where there was a bar. In order to justify being there, he called for a shot of cane brandy. Sitting and talking, their elbows on the wooden bar, were some soldiers. One of them said: “All of you know that it’s strictly outlawed to
give out any news about battles—formal orders against it.
Well, yesterday afternoon something happened to us that you boys are going to like.
Some barracks-mates of mine and I were walking along in front of the newspaper over there, La Razón. And we heard a voice inside that was breaking that order. We didn’t waste a second going in there, either.
The city room was as dark as pitch, but we gunned down that loose-lipped traitor that was talking.
When he finally shut up, we hunted around for him to drag him out by the heels, but we saw it was a machine!—a phonograph they call it, and it talks all by itself!”
Arredondo had been listening intently.
“What do you think—pretty disappointing, eh, buddy?”
Arredondo said nothing. The uniformed man put his face very near Arredondo’s.
“I want to hear how loud you can yell Viva the President of our Country, Juan Idiarte
Arredondo did not disobey. Amid jeers and clapping he gained the door; in the street, he was hit by one last insult: “Nobody ever said cowards were stupid—or had much temper, either!” He had behaved like a coward, but he knew he wasn’t one. He returned slowly and deliberately to his house.
On August 25, Avelino Arredondo woke up at a little past nine. He thought first of Clara, and only later of what day it was. Good-bye to all this work of waiting — I’ve made it, he said to himself in relief. He shaved slowly, taking his time, and in the mirror he met the same face as always. He picked out a red tie and his best clothes. He had a late lunch. The gray sky threatened drizzle; he’d always pictured this day as radiant. He felt a touch of bitterness at leaving his damp room forever. In the vestibule he met the black woman, and he gave her the last pesos that were left. On the sign at the hardware store he saw some colored diamond shapes, and he realized it had been more than two months since he’d thought of them. He headed toward Calle Sarandi. It was a holiday, and very few people were about.
It was not yet three o’clock when he reached the Plaza Matriz. The Te Deum had been sung; a group of well-dressed men, military officers, and prelates was coming down the slow steps of the church. At first glance, the top hats (some still in their hands), the uniforms, the gold braid, the weapons, and the tunics might create the illusion that there were many of them; the truth was, there were no more than about thirty. Though Arredondo felt no fear, he did feel a kind of respect. He asked which of the men was the president.
“The one there walking beside the archbishop with the miter and staff,” he was told.
He took out his pistol and fired. Idiarte Borda took a few steps, fell forward to the ground, and said very clearly, “I’ve been killed.”
Arredondo gave himself up to the authorities.
“I am a Red and I’m proud to say so. I have killed the president, who betrayed and sullied our party. I left my friends and my sweetheart so they would not be dragged into this; I didn’t read the newspapers so that no one could say the newspapers incited me to do this. I alone am responsible for this act of justice. Now try me.”
This is how the events might have taken place, though perhaps in a more complex way; this is how I can dream they happened.