Tuesday, April 26, 2011

La Noche Boca Arriba

La Noche Boca Arriba
Julio Cortazar

And in certain epochs they would go to hunt enemies;
They called this the war of flowers.

It had to be late, he thought in the middle of the hotel’s long corridor, and hurried onto the street to the motorcycle in the corner where the concierge next door had allowed him to park.  In the corner jeweler’s he saw that it was 8:50; he’d arrive where he was going in more than enough time.  The sun filtered through the tall buildings downtown and, because he needed no name to think, he got on the machine savoring the excursion.  The bike purred between his legs and his pants succumbed to the whips of fresh wind.
The ministries in pink and white went by, then a series of stores on Central street with brilliant shop windows.  Now he entered the most pleasurable part of the commute, the true journey: a long street lined with trees with little traffic and huge villas which let their gardens come up to the pavements, hardly marked by low hedges. Somewhat distracted by perhaps, but keeping to the right side as was proper, he let himself go to the smoothness, to the light tension of that day hardly begun.  Perhaps his involuntary relaxation prevented him from avoiding the accident.  When he saw that the woman standing at the corner was rushing onto the road despite the green lights, it was already too late for simple solutions.  Straying to the left, he braked with his foot and hand; he heard the woman’s shouts, and with the collision lost his vision.  It was as if he had suddenly fallen asleep.
Having fainted, he woke violently.  Four or five young men were pulling out him from beneath his cycle.  He felt the taste of salt, the taste of blood, his knee hurt, and he shouted once they lifted him out because the pressure on his right arm was unbearable.  Voices that didn’t seem to belong to the faces suspended above him tried to encourage him with jokes and assurances.  His only consolation was hearing someone confirm that he had had the right of way crossing that corner.  Trying to control the nausea stirring in his throat, he asked about the woman.  While they were taking him face up to a nearby pharmacy, he learned that the reason for the accident didn’t have anything more than scratches on her legs.  “You hardly grazed her, but the collision made your bike jump sideways.”  Opinions, memories: lay him down slowly; yes, like that; and someone in a workcoat gave him a drink which relieved him in the shade of a small neighborhood pharmacy.
The police ambulance arrived within five minutes.  They put him onto a white stretcher where he could lie comfortably.  In all lucidity, but knowing that he was still under the effects of a terrible collision, he gave his address to the policeman accompanying him.  His arm, he said, almost didn’t hurt him any more.  Blood was pouring out onto his whole face from a cut in his brow.  He licked his lips once or twice to drink some.  He felt good: it was an accident; bad luck.  A few weeks not moving and that’d be that.  The guard told him that his motorcycle didn’t seem to be too damaged.  “Naturally,” he said, “since the whole thing landed on top of me.”   They both laughed.  Then the guard shook his hand as they arrived at the hospital and wished him good luck. His nausea was already coming back bit by bit.  They took him by gurney to the back building, passing under trees full of birds.  He closed his eyes and wished he were asleep or chloroformed.  But they kept him for a long time in a room with that hospital smell filling out a form, taking off his clothes and putting on a grayish, stiff shirt.  They moved his arm carefully without causing him any pain.  All the while, the nurses were telling jokes.   And if it hadn’t been for the contractions in his stomach, he would have felt very well indeed.  Almost happy.
They took him to radiography.  Twenty minutes later, with his wet sheets still clinging to his breast like a black gravestone, he went on to the operation room.  Someone tall, slim and dressed in white came up to him and began examining the charts.  A woman’s hands made his head more comfortable, and he felt that he was moving from one gurney to another.  Smiling, the man in white approached him again with something shiny in his right hand.  He placed his hand on his cheek and signaled to someone standing behind him.
A strange dream, this, because it was full of smells and he had never dreamt of smells.  First, there was the smell of a swamp, there on the left side of the road where the marshes began, those moving bogs from which no one ever came back.  But this smell ceased.  It was exchanged for a fragrance both composite and dark like the night in which he moved, fleeing the Aztecs.  And all of this was so natural: he had to flee the Aztecs because they were hunting man, and his only chance was to hide in the thickest part of the jungle and to try not to budge from that narrow road of which only they, the Motecas, knew.
But nothing tortured him more than the smell.  It was as if, in absolute acceptance of the dream, something unusual had been revealed that contradicted that dream that then later had not been part of the game.  “Smells like war,“ he thought, instinctively touching the stone dagger across his sash of woven wool.  An unexpected sound made him duck and keep still, apart from a slight shiver.  There was nothing odd about being afraid: his nightscapes teemed with fear. He waited, covered by the branches of a shrub and the night without stars.  Very far off, probably on the other side of the great lake, there seemed to be campfires; a resplendent reddish tint filled that part of the sky.  The sound did not occur again.  Something like a snapped branch.  Perhaps an animal who, like he, was escaping the smell of war.  Smelling the air around him, he straightened slowly.  He didn’t hear a thing.  But fear persisted there like a smell, that sickly sweet incense that belonged to the war of flowers.  He had to keep on; he had to reach the heart of the jungle while evading the marshes.  Feeling his way forward, crouching at every opportunity to touch the hard ground of the road, he took some steps.  He would have liked to take off running, but quivering sensations beat at his side.  In the path in darkness, he found the course.  And then he got a whiff of the smell he feared most.  And desperate, he leapt forward.
“He's going to fall off the bed,” said the patient in the next bed.  “Don’t hop about so much, buddy.”
He opened his eyes and it was evening.  The sun was already low in the large windows of the long hall.  While he tried smiling at his neighbor, he almost physically peeled himself away from the nightmare’s last vision.  His arm, in a plaster cast, was hanging from a device with weights and pulleys.  He was thirsty, as if he had run for miles, but they didn’t want to give him much water, hardly enough to wet his lips and take a mouthful.  His fever was rising slowly and he could have fallen asleep again, but he savored the pleasure of remaining awake, his eyes half−closed, listening to the conversation of the other patients, responding now and then to a question.  He saw them bring in a small white trolley and place it at the side of his bed.  A blonde nurse then wiped the front part of his thigh with alcohol and stuck him with a thick needle connected to a tube that reached up to a bottle filled with an opaline liquid.  Then a young doctor came over with an apparatus made of metal and leather and adjusted it to his good arm to check on something.  Night fell, and his fever dragged him blandly into a state where things began to assume forms one might find on the other end of opera glasses: they were real and sweet and at the same time slightly repugnant, as if watching a boring film and thinking that it was even worse outside, and then staying put in the theater.
Then came a cup of gold filled with marvelous broth and scents of leeks, celery, and parsley.  A little piece of bread, more beautiful than an entire banquet, was chewed bit by bit.  His arm no longer hurt any more, and only on his brow, where they had sutured his wound, he felt at times a hot and rapid piercing.  When the large windows opposite swerved back to spots of dark blue he thought that it would be rather easy to fall asleep.  A little uncomfortable there on his back, but when he passed his tongue over his dry, hot lips he felt the taste of the broth, and he took happy and carefree breaths.
At first there was some confusion, an attraction for an instant of all the dull and confounded sensations towards him.  He understood that he was running in total darkness, although the sky above, crossed with treetops, was less black than the rest.  “The road,” he thought. “I’ve gone off the road.”  His feet were sinking into a mattress of leaves and mud, and he couldn’t take another step without getting his torso and legs whipped by the shrubbery’s branches.  Panting, he realized that that he was cornered despite the darkness and silence, and he crouched down to listen.  Perhaps the road was nearby; were things different, he would have caught sight of it at daybreak.  But now nothing could help him find it.  The hand which had instinctively clung to the hilt of the dagger now rose like a swamp scorpion up to his neck where it seized his protective amulet.  Hardly moving his lips he mumbled the prayer of the corn which bore the happy moons, and the supplication to the Most High, the dispenser of Moteca goods.  Yet at the same time he sensed that his ankles were sinking slowly into the mud, and the wait in the darkness in the unknown chaparral made it unbearable.  The war of flowers had begun with the moon and had already lasted for three days and three nights.  If he continued to take refuge in the depths of the forest, abandoning the road more in the region of the swamps, perhaps the warriors would not be able to pick up his trail.  He thought about all those prisoners who could have done that.  But it was the sacred time, not quantity that mattered.  The hunt would continue until the priests gave the signal to return.  Everything had its order and its end, and he was in the sacred time on the opposite side of the hunters.
He heard the shouts and stood up straight, his dagger in hand.  Just as if the sky were burning on the horizon, he saw torches moving between the branches very close to him.  The smell of war was unbearable, and when the first enemy leapt upon his neck he almost took pleasure in sinking the stone blade into his chest.  Now lights and happy screams had already surrounded him.  He managed to slice through the air once or twice before a rope caught him from behind.
“It’s fever,” said the man from the bed beside him.  “The same thing happened to me when they operated on my duodenum.  Drink some water and you’ll see that you’ll sleep well.
Compared to the night from which he returned, the lukewarm darkness of the room seemed marvelous.  A violet lamp kept vigil at the top of the wall in the back of a room like a protective eye.  He heard coughing, heavy breathing, at times a dialogue in low voices.  Everything was pleasant and safe, without this harassment, but … He didn’t want to keep thinking about his nightmare.  There were so many things to keep himself occupied.  He began to look at the plaster on his arm, the pulleys which so comfortably held it in the air.  At some point during the night they had placed a bottle of mineral water on the table next to him.  He drank gluttonously from the neck of the bottle.  Now he was able to discern the shapes in the room, the thirty beds, the glass display cabinets.  His fever had to be lower now, and his face felt so fresh.  His brow hardly hurt at all, as if it were just a memory.  He pictured himself exiting the hotel and getting his motorbike.  Who could have thought that things would turn out this way?  He tried to concentrate on the time of the accident, and it really annoyed him to notice that it was like a gap that he couldn’t manage to fill.  Between the collision and the time they lifted him off the ground either his fainting or whatever it was didn’t let him see anything.  And at the same time he had the feeling that this gap, this nothing, had taken an eternity.  And not even time, but more like he had passed through something and traveled across great distances. The collision, the brutal hit against the pavement.  In any case, getting out of that cesspool he had almost felt relief while the men got him off the ground.  Considering the pain of his broken arm, the blood from his brow that was split open, the contusion in his knee, considering all of that, it was certainly a relief to return to daylight and feel taken care of and helped.  And it was strange.  He would have asked any time for the office doctor.  Now sleep began to take him over again and slowly pull him down.  The pillow was so soft, as was the freshness of the mineral water in his feverish throat. Perhaps he really could have rested if it hadn’t been for those damned nightmares.  The violet light of the lamp up high was starting to go out little by little.
Since he was sleeping on his back, the position in which he came to didn’t surprise him.  But instead the smell of humidity, of stone oozing with leaks, forced him to close his throat and understand the matter.  It was useless to open his eyes and look all over the place; he was enveloped in total darkness.  He tried to stretch out straight and felt the ropes on his wrists and ankles.  He was tethered to a floor on a cold and humid slab.  The cold had taken over his naked back, his bare legs.  His chin searched awkwardly for contact with his amulet, and then he knew that they had ripped it off him. Now he was lost, no prayer could save him from the end.  From a distance, as if oozing between the stones of the dungeon, he heard the kettle drums of the celebration.  They had brought him to the teocalli.  He was in the dungeons of the temple.  And he was waiting his turn.
He heard screaming.  A hoarse scream that reverberated within the walls.  Another scream ending in a moan.  He was the one screaming in the darkness, screaming because he was alive.  His whole body was defending itself by screaming about what was about to come, the inevitable end.  He thought about his companions who would fill other dungeons, and about those who were already ascending the steps of sacrifice.  Suffocated, he screamed again.  He was almost unable to open his mouth.  His jaws stiffened as if they were made of rubber and opened slowly with incalculable effort.  The squeaking of the bolts shook him like a whip.  Convulsed and writhing, he struggled to free himself from the cords which were sinking into his flesh.  His right arm, the stronger of the two, kept pulling until the pain became intolerable and had to stop.  He saw the double doors open, and the smell of the torches reached him before the light.  With the loincloth of the ceremony barely clinging to their bodies, the acolytes of the priests approached, gazing upon him with disdain.  In their sweaty torsos and black hair full of feathers he saw the lights reflected.  Hot hands, as hard as bronze, replaced the slackened ropes; he felt that he was being lifted, his face still up, and pulled by the four acolytes who carried him through the passage.  The torchbearers were walking ahead, vaguely lighting the corridor of wet walls and a ceiling so low that the acolytes had to bend their heads.  Now they were bringing him, bringing him, it was the end.  His face up, a meter from the ceiling of living rock which at moments was illuminated by the torches.  Once stars emerged instead of the ceiling and he was raised up the burning stairway of screaming and dancing, it would be the end.  The passageway had not ended yet, but was about to end, and suddenly he would smell the free air full of stars; but not yet, they walked carrying him endlessly in the red darkness, pulling on him brutally, but he could not want for the center of life, because they had ripped off the amulet which was his true heart.
He exited with a start into the night of the hospital, into the sky, the high and sweet open air, the soft darkness which surrounded him.  He thought he might have screamed, but his neighbors were sleeping in silence.  On his night table the bottle of water contained something bubbly, a translucent image against the bluish darkness of the large windows.  He panted seeking to relieve his lungs and forget those images which continued to stick to his eyelids.  Each time he closed his eyes he saw them form instantaneously, and terrified, he straightened himself while enjoying the fact that he was now awake, that being awake protected him, that it would soon be dawn, as well as the good deep sleep that one has at this hour, without images, without anything … Now it was hard to keep his eyes open, he was no match for his sleepiness. He made one last effort: with his good hand he sketched a gesture towards the bottle of water.  He couldn't reach it, his fingers were trapped again into a black emptiness, and the passageway continued endlessly, rock after rock, with sudden reddish flashes, and face up he moaned lifelessly because the roof was about to end.  It rose, opening like a mouth of darkness, and the acolytes stood up, and at that altitude he was struck by the light of a receding moon which his eyes did not want to see.  He closed and opened them desperately trying to pass to the other side, to rediscover the open protective sky of the room.  And each time that they opened it was night and there was the moon as they lifted him up the stairway.  Now his head went downwards, and at this height there were bonfires, red columns of perfumed smoke, and suddenly he saw the red rock, shining with dripping blood, and the swinging of the feet of the sacrificial victim whom they were dragging in order to hurl him down the stairways of the north.  With one last hope he squeezed his eyelids together, moaning in desperation.  For a second he thought he’d done it because once again he was in his bed, unmoving apart from the swaying of his head downwards.  But he smelled death, and when he opened them again he saw the bloodied figure of the sacrificer who was coming towards him with a stone knife in his hand.  Once more he closed his eyelids, but now he knew that he wouldn’t wake up, that he was awake, that his marvelous dream had been his other state, absurd like all dreams, a dream in which he had ridden through the strange avenues of a darkened city with green and red lights which burned without flame or smoke, on an enormous metal insect that hummed between his legs.  In this dream's infinite lie they had also raised him from the ground, someone had also approached him with a knife in his hand, and he had remained face up, his face up with his eyes shut between the bonfires.