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The City Quiet as Death
By Steven Utley, Michael Bishop, Jon Foster
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Steven Utley and Michael Bishop
All rights reserved.
Hurricanes did not perturb Horacio Gorrión, nor did rumors of an impending government assault on a barbarous drug cartel in the island's interior rain forest. Riots in Ciudad del Infante Sagrado, the capital, whether for food or work, or in protest of obscene taxes or other repressive policies, cost Don Horacio not one instant of sleep. Nor did he quail before falling equity values in the Caribbean or anywhere else worldwide.
Not even thoughts of his own mortality, including premonitions of the incapacitating tremors that afflicted almost every male Gorrión in his años de oro, discomfited Don Horacio. His malaise did not spring from an inherited disease, the collapse of the plantain crop, or the summary execution of a vocal opposition leader; instead, it stemmed from a pathological obsession with the unbearable nightly clamor of the stars.
Don Horacio, a recluse for many years now, fretted the basic ontological nature of the cosmos and the meaning, or lack of same, implicit in it. He also suffered from agoraphobia so severe that he confined himself not merely to his hereditary manse, but to its downstairs rooms. The Gorrión house graced the high slope of a ridge behind Infante Sagrado, the jewel of Isla Arca. From a widow's walk that Don Horacio's grandfather had single-handedly added to this structure, a person could gaze over tiers of red-tiled rooftops to a cobblestone pavement reaching toward the waterfront, from which the blue Caribbean Sea stretched away to the blue Caribbean sky. For his part, though, Don Horacio would have blanched at any thought of taking this view: he felt vertigo at the mere contemplation of the vastness of the universe, the immensity of geologic time, and the natural processes of birth, growth, death, and decay at work all about him every passing second.
In his self-imposed confinement, he cultivated no real friendships and only a few relationships. For daily company he had recourse to a library that his father and his father's father had assembled and expanded over the better part of a century. Here, shelved side by side, resided leather-bound editions of Lucretius, St. Augustine, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Swift, Voltaire, Thackery, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Mann, García Lorca, Camus, and a host of others. Here he found and took to heart this passage by John Keats, a poet dead much too young:
I was at home
And should have been most happy — but I saw
Too far into the sea, where every man
The greater on the less feeds evermore.
But I saw too distinct into the core
Of an eternal destruction,
And so from happiness was far gone.
Elsewhere Don Horacio, in a work by a fine nineteenth-century British novelist who styled herself "George Eliot," read, reread, and internalized this unsettling speculation:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies the other side of silence.
In his youth, Señor Gorrión had fared poorly in school, but a succession of tutors, along with his omnivorous reading, had inculcated in him sufficient knowledge to shape his nightmares for life. The void surrounding the fragile earth, the turbulent interior of the planet, and the mercurial sea that either lapped or battered Isla Arca: these phenomena obsessed and unnerved the boy who, over time, metamorphosed into the pale hunch-shouldered recluse in the oddly constructed house atop the harbor ridge.
The notion that he represented the pinnacle of evolution attained by the offspring of some anonymous sea-dwelling creature particularly distressed Don Horacio. He could not, as many do, take comfort in a religious-fundamentalist dismissal of Darwin's theories, for he lacked both the taste and the patience for the tortuous rationalizations that a creationist mindset requires. He did not deny the physical world or its random beauties, but only hated the former and saw through the latter to the dust on which Impersonal Undirected Process had built them all.
"I can't bear it," he would mutter aloud.
What can't you bear? an umbrella stand might reply.
"The endless din of the stars," said Don Horacio. "The ghosts of all the eons past: they oppress, no, they recurrently murder me." And so he candidly assessed the advantages and disadvantages of killing himself, most likely with his grandfather's antique shotgun.
Yes, he would slide its barrel into his mouth, squeeze its trigger with his thumbs, and blow the top of his skull to bloody fragments, as Papá Hemingway had done decades ago in the clean cold air of distant Idaho. No, he would not. He could never leave such an undignified mess for Adelaida, his superstitious housekeeper, to clean up, following, of course, the requisite police inspection, photographs, and memory-raping interviews.
Adelaida had also attended the last living person whom Don Horacio had unequivocally loved, his elder sister Sabiduría, who had died two years ago of a mysterious degenerative disease akin to that which gave so many aged Gorrión males their tremors and tics.
Sabiduría, though, had taken her last breath in a state of near paralysis. Don Horacio had held her hand while Doctor Vega fussed about, Father Casares administered extreme unction, and Adelaida huddled nearby mumbling pious nonsense and worrying a cheap lacquered rosary that a younger Don Horacio had bought her in Juárez, Mexico. As his sister's hand grew cold, the tiled walls winked in the fading light, and small ghostly figures emerged and performed slow-motion calisthenics in the tiles' dull cracked ceramic. Don Horacio had the bizarre impression that they were beckoning him to join Sabiduría in death. But two years ago he had not been ready for that transition, and his grief had given him such powerful melancholy purpose that he had worked as far through its anomalous energy surge as he could before yanking up abruptly at the full extension of its tether.
* * *
Now Adelaida worried about Don Horacio. He could not tell if she loved him out of habit or saw in him the sole sustainer of her livelihood and so had a crass if understandable ulterior motive in seeking to deter or defer his suicide. In any event, she harassed him with her attentions, irked him with her blandishments, angered him with her prayers.
Tonight Adelaida came to him in his study as he listened to Mahler on a Fifties-era record player while perusing in English the sprung-rhythm sonnets of G. M. Hopkins, whose world view he found admirably complex in its expression but annoyingly naïve on an intellectual level.
In front of his wing chair, Adelaida held up the spherical gold locket that hung from the chain about her neck.
"Do you see this, Señor?" she asked, as if he were blind or simple.
He replied, "Of course, I see it: I've beheld it thousands of times over the course of your employment here." She rotated the delicate ball in her fingers and declared that the locket was precious because it had belonged to her late husband's mother, herself the wife of a fisherman, and that Alejo had presented it to her on their seventh anniversary. In addition, it had a peculiar but meaningful keepsake pent within it.
"Have you any idea what slumbers inside my locket, Don Horacio?" the woman impertinently quizzed him.
"A strand of Alejo's hair?" he replied without curiosity.
"No, no, no," Adelaida said, laughing. "Guess again."
"A cameo-style silhouette of Alejo," he dully ventured, "his face in profile?"
"Ah, no, Señor. You'll never guess. No one ever guesses."
"A luxury yacht with six lifeboats, a swimming pool, and a ball room big enough for a jazz band and fifty dancers."
Adelaida tilted her head in astonishment and respect. "No, but you're closer ... at least in a way."
Don Horacio grimaced. "Then please simply tell me, Adelaida, for your sake, if not for mine."
Disregarding the implicit insult, she told him that Alejo had immured in the sphere, by means of a piscador's ocean-earned savvy and the beast's own elasticity, a giant squid that in the open sea had attained a length of well over fifteen meters. Adelaida wore the locket containing the creature as a reminder of the grand fecundity and the unceasing adaptability of life on earth as well as a memento of her drowned husband's love of his joyful fifty-two years on earth and of her in particular.
Don Horacio rebuked Adelaida, gently, for believing that an adult giant squid could fit into her locket ball.
"But it's true, Señor." She insisted that sometimes she could feel the beast inside it, and that in any case Alejo would never have lied to her about so sacred a gift. Implying otherwise was tantamount to calling him faithless in myriad unlikely ways. And didn't she have the witness of the locket — she rotated it before his eyes — to refute his heartless, even sacrilegious, assertion?
"Of course," Don Horacio said, acquiescing in her piety. Then, to change the subject, he asked her to fetch him some chilled roast beef and a small bowl of garbanzos.
"You are melancholy," Adelaida said. "The music, the poems you read: they do nothing to quell your sadness. Take my hands and pray aloud with me for Christ Jesus to bring you joy."
He vehemently rejected this proposal. She would do him a greater favor if she found some arsenic somewhere and seasoned his chickpeas with it. That would end his sadness more quickly than a silly petition or novena.
"You would die. The police would arrest me. I would go to prison for the very thing I mean my labor and my steadfastness to prevent."
This speech touched and annoyed Don Horacio. "I'll write you a victim's excuse, absolving you of evil intent and so of any wrongdoing."
"You have no power to absolve me of sin, and you would put my soul in mortal peril if I obeyed you." She wiped her eyes with a tissue wad and stared at him as if he wished to dispatch her to everlasting perdition.
"Then just bring the goddamned beef and garbanzos," he said, reaching over and turning up the gramophone.
"Sí, Don Horacio, as you wish."
If nothing else, he thought, the strains of Mahler's Ninth would override the maddening ululations of the stars.
* * *
Frightened, Adelaida scurried away and called Doctor Ezequiel Vega to report that Señor Gorrión had asked her to poison him. Clearly, he needed a visit and an examination. The sooner the physician came to talk to him the better, for who could say what Don Horacio now might do?
After that call, Adelaida telephoned Father Reinaldo Casares, because her employer also required spiritual counsel, perhaps even more than he did a thorough physical checkup; and although she suspected that Don Horacio had abandoned the religious teachings of his sainted mother, he liked to match wits with Father Casares and especially to badger him about the utter unprovability of the alleged love of God for the beneficiaries — or pawns — of God's material creation.
As it happened, after being summoned, the doctor and the padre arrived that same evening within a minute of each other.
The rotund Doctor Vega drove up in his late-model luxury car from his beachfront villa on la Bahía de Piratas, while the younger, more athletic Father Casares climbed on foot from his iglesia on the steep cobblestone pavement debouching on the harbor.
Adelaida announced the men, who entered the study bumping shoulders like actors in a regrettable Hollywood farce.
Don Horacio Gorrión was appalled. He knew and pleasantly abided the doctor and the priest, but could not imagine talking with them together, as Adelaida should have known. Obviously, she had determined to avenge herself on him for insulting Alejo Guzman's memory when he pooh-poohed the legend of the locket-pent squid.
Therefore, with a quaver in his voice, he told his visitors that he must receive them one at a time, or else his existential nervousness would militate against his speaking productively to either.
Father Casares, as Don Horacio knew he would, deferred to Doctor Vega, who had sashayed into the book-lined study in a lightweight double-breasted suit and silky blue cravat. Alone with his host, the doctor carefully lifted the record player's ruby-tipped stylus from the Mahler symphony, an act that filled Don Horacio's ears, the study, the house, the town, the island, and indeed the entire universe with the incessant, deafening static of quasars and residual Big Bang noise.
"Adelaida says you asked her to poison you; that your melancholy has worsened; and that, sans intervention, you plan to kill yourself."
Don Horacio cupped his hands to his ears and made a face like that of a small boy who has had his first taste of cod-liver oil. Adelaida and Father Casares — Padre Reinaldo, as he liked parishioners to call him — were talking in the kitchen about his intransigent sadness and his bent for self-annihilation, but, try as he might to penetrate to the gist of their colloquy, the star static whelmed and buried it.
"Put your hands down," Doctor Vega said
Don Horacio obeyed, but his monkey-faced grimace remained.
"Now answer my questions: Have you taken the antidepressants I've prescribed? ... No? Why not? ... Do you eat correctly ... No, I don't mean 'with your mouth.' I mean, Do you eat fruits and vegetables that lead to long-term good health ... No? Why not? ... Do you still have trouble sleeping? ... No, every person of sense is not an insomniac, Horacio. Most people do not fret in the same way that you do; most people consider the lilies and recognize that 'Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' You must reorder priorities and exile your worries.
"Thanks to the foresightedness of your family, you have the wherewithal to live many years — far beyond your natural span — without fear of exhausting your resources. Can you not appreciate how unusual a provision this is, in these perilous times, here on Isla Arca? ... No? Why not? ... Do you suppose all our citizens as fortunate as you?"
Don Horacio put his hands to his head and screamed.
The scream ricocheted through the house. It nearly caused the doctor to piss himself. Adelaida manifested at the study door, with Father Casares close behind her.
Bugging out his eyes, Don Horacio waved them away.
Doctor Vega, shaken and irritated, lowered his broad frame into a wide leather chair atop an indigo and burgundy Persian rug. He twisted the diamond-studded silver ring on his little finger, took a cellophane-wrapped Cuban cigar from one pocket, unwrapped it, struggled to remove an engraved silver lighter from another pocket, and lit the cigar. Then he alternately shifted the cigar between his scissoring fingers and puffed away at it. As he twiddled or smoked, his good humor returned.
"You are as fortunate as I," Don Horacio said dryly.
"Oh, I concur. But I worked to assure that outcome and all the amenities that ease our travails here."
"Touché." Don Horacio had taught for a time and also done some long-distance freelance editorial work, but in neither case because he had to, and both occupations had jaded and disillusioned him. Despite what the world undoubtedly perceived as his idleness, he still felt superior to Doctor Vega, and in a sour way relished his philosophical aloofness from the mayhemic bustle of most worldly professions.
"How much money do you have?" Doctor Vega asked of a sudden.
"Why? Do you intend to diagnose me with a disease that will bankrupt me? Or do you wish me to write you into the Gorrión family will?"
"I have a business proposition. If that sounds exploitive of your wealth or your depression, let me stress that a small initial investment could significantly add to the former and gradually ameliorate the latter."
"Wealth is no surefire medicine for melancholy, Ezequiel."
"True, but unless you too much fret its growth and disposition, it seldom hurts." Don Horacio raised an eyebrow.
"And when it comes, you can disperse it as you like, thus increasing your status as a living organ of Christ's Body — as a patron to the arts, the sciences, and the poor, who persist among us always."
Excerpted from The City Quiet as Death by Steven Utley, Michael Bishop, Jon Foster. Copyright © 2009 Steven Utley and Michael Bishop. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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