The crowd hadn’t been quiet all morning. Forty or fifty full-grown men shouting like had all just received a lifetime of wages or witnessed the Ascension. Men standing shaking their fists, sweating sweat, raising their voices in praise of the latest demagogue cajoling their time and attention. Promising promises so they could hope for hope. Like all other gods this one would deliver fields of smut-eared corn and paralyzed children, men bitterly drunk and women murmuring the rosary until the could say the stations by touching the intaglio impressed in their palms.
This crowd driven by this demagogue had kept Jascinto awake in his sweltering bed through the day until the two o’clock sun burrowed into his forehead, driving the water out through his skin, out into his sheets and into the heat of his dark room. The heat became as hot as it ever had been.
The crowd quieted.
Jascinto sunk into the torpor of the heat, the moldiness of his wet sheets and feel asleep.
The crowd started in again in the late afternoon when the sunlight streamed across rooftops and in through the Venetian blinds. Jascinto woke slowly as he had when he was young and reluctant to work in the fields. He rubbed his eyes with one old and scrawny hand, more like the foot of a perching bird, and pulled himself up.
The dresser top in this one room he rented was littered with the outdated tools he had once used with complete belief in their truth and necessity. A comb to make him look good was now filled with gray hairs and a paste of scalp cells and hair oil. Coins to pass among the merchants so they would think him prosperous though they all knew he was not. A rosary, that most intricate and repetitious of jokes. A shrine to the Lord Jesus. The tiny painting in a gilt-edged frame had cost one-fourth his weekly wages for four weeks, required a special trip to the votaries’ store. The oil votive candle half that much again. He had once hoped that this was a small sacrifice for eternal grace. He had heard that God came closer to you when your flesh became thin and your veins throbbing blue ribbons standing away from your bones. But God had receded instead and this candle, this picture, which had reduced his meals to beans and rice for almost two months, were no more than a shrine to the naive of the world, all those who hoped for hope but died and rotted like the rest.
Jascinto gently grasped the image of Christ and placed it face down on the candle, watching the flame gutter and die.
The crowd made more noise than ever before. Jascinto pulled on his socks, remembering the dust and rocks his feet had shuffled through, pulled pants over joints that had straightened and bent day after day, threaded one arm and the other through his yellowing church shirt, worn once like a mantle of sanctity and now like a shroud, tied his tie, too tight, and crept into the old suit coat, now as threadbare as himself.
Off the end of the bed were his wing-tipped shoes, bought when purity had ceased to matter as much as comfort. For half his life, sandals had guarded him against the sharp stones and invisible worms of the countryside. As he had grown old and away from the church, the desire became greater to own a pair of these shiny shoes to hide his knotted and splayed feet. More time was spent polishing them at the end of a day and less time with the rosary until the only rosary voiced was a soft and wordless song as the buffing cloth extracted from the black leather a deep and vitreous glow.
Jascinto closed the door to his room and stood a moment at the top of the stairs. New anger swept through him as the crowd became louder, their one voice no longer deadened by the room’s insulation, slight though it was. Slowly he moved down towards the faint light falling in from the street. At the bottom of the stair, he sat looking into the crowd and across the courtyard at the brightly dressed man smiling and waving at the men, pacing with a pleased expression clipped on his face. The men pumped their clenched fists into the thinning heat of twilight, shouting against the facing courtyard wall, shouting the slogans of the man in the bright clothes.
Jascinto straightened himself up and walked from the rooming house into the crowd, drew the gun he always carried in his left coat pocket, braced, and fired. The politician reeled back against the wall, his arms flailing for balance, his chest showing first a clean hole, then a spreading stain that flecked his coat and the stage upon which he stood. As he fell, he slowly changed shape, first a dog-headed man with wings, then a bull with arms and a lion’s tail, on through a bestiary of awful creatures and hideous men, until Jascinto began to recognize the brutal gods of human history—Borgias, Richelieu, de Medicis, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Cortés, Pizarro—all reared their ugly heads and sunk again into a vortex of other gods from other worlds, some leaders of his own country condemned by history and perspective for their guileful cruelty. Suddenly, the surface of this soup of political faces froze into a many-headed entity, a representation of all that had been inflicted on the poor in their hopes for a better life. As this lost shape, such as it was, a pair of wild and loathsome eyes leered bloodshot and mad out of the fetid stew and became a dark, bloody puddle on the simple stage.
Jascinto dropped his gun to the pavement and walked back to his room.
Jascinto woke in a sweat to the sound of a chanting crowd. Though he didn’t know the figure pictured on his dressed, it burst into flame.
Jascinto awoke in terror. A crowd chanted. the mysterious figure pictured on his dresser stared into him, the wild eyes drawing closer to his barren soul.
Directly inspired by the parable Ragnarok by the Argentinian genius Jorge Luis Borges. No characters in this expansion are intended to represent anything other than an unfortunate dynamic between those who sow hope and those who reap their tears.
©1983, me, all rights reserved