Remi’s Sound Siesta
By Julio Cortázar
They were already coming. He had often imagined the steps, distant and soft, then dense and near, delaying somewhat in the last yards like a final vacillation. The door opened without him hearing the familiar squeak of the key in the lock; so intent was he waiting to stand up and confront his executioners.
The phrase constructed itself in his consciousness before the warden’s lips modulated it. How often had he suspected that only one thing could be said in that instant, a simple and clear thing that contained it all. He heard:
“It’s time, Remi.”
The pressure on his arms was firm but not malignantly hard. He felt himself being led like on a stroll along the corridor, he looked without interest at some silhouettes which clung to the bars and suddenly became of immense and terribly useless importance, only the importance of being live silhouettes which would still be moving for a long time. The main chamber, never seen before (but Remi knew it in his imagination and it was exactly as he thought it would be), a staircase without banisters because the guards’ lateral support ascended with him, and up, up…
He felt the round noose, they let him go abruptly, he stood alone for an instant as though free in a great silence full of nothing. Then he wanted to quicken what was about to happen, as always and since a child quicken the deed by reflection. He pondered the sensorial possibilities that would galvanize him a second after the explosive instant when they released the trapdoor. To fall into a huge black pit or only a slow atrocious suffocation or something that did not completely satisfy as a mental construct; something defective, insufficient, something…
Tired of it all, he took the hand from his neck which he had pretended was the soaped noose; another stupid comedy, another siesta lost because of his sick imagination. He sat up in bed looking for his cigarettes only to be doing something; the taste of the last one remained in his mouth. He lighted the match, watched it until it almost burned his fingers; the flame danced in his eyes. Afterwards he studied himself vainly in the washbasin mirror. Time to shower, phone Morella and arrange to meet her at Mrs. Belkis’ house. Another siesta lost; the thought tormented him like a mosquito, he pushed it away by force. Why hasn’t the time passed to sweep away these infantile habits, the tendency to see himself as a heroic personage forging into the sleepy summer adventures where death awaited him at the foot of a walled city or at the top of the gallows. As a child: pirate, Gallic warrior, Sandokan, conceiving of love as an enterprise in which only death constituted a satisfactory trophy. Adolescence, imagining himself wounded and sacrificed – revolutions of the siesta! admirable defeats where the life of a well-loved friend is exchanged for his own!–, always ready to enter into the shadows through the elegant trapdoor of some final phrase that fascinated him to construct, remember, have ready… Outlines already established: a) the revolution where Hilario opposes him from the opposite trench. Stages: the trench is taken, Hilario surrounded, clash in an atmosphere of destruction, sacrifice by giving him his uniform and letting him escape, a suicidal shot to cover appearances. b) Rescuing Morella (almost always imprecise); deathbed –surgical intervention failed –and Morella taking his hands and weeping; a magnificent farewell phrase, Morella’s kiss on his sweating forehead. c) Death in front of the people surrounding the scaffold; illustrious victim, by reason of regicide or high treason, Sir Walter Raleigh, Álvaro de Luna, etc. Last words (the rolling of drums drown out the voice of Louis XVI), the executioner before him, a magnificently scornful smile (Carlos I), the people now dreading what is to come due to admiration for such heroism.
Just returned from such a dream –seated on the edge of the bed he kept looking in the mirror, resentful– as if he wasn’t already thirty-five years old, as if it wasn’t idiotic to preserve these relics of childhood, as if it wasn’t too hot to imagine such predicaments. A variant of that siesta: execution in private, in some London prison where they hang you without many witnesses. A sordid end, but worthy of savoring slowly; he looked at the clock and it was ten after four. Another afternoon lost…
Why not talk to Morella? He dialed her number, feeling the bad taste of the siestas even though he hadn’t slept, only imagined death as so often when a child. When the receiver was lifted at the other end, the “Haló” seemed to Remi not to come from Morella, but a man’s voice and there was a smothered whispering as he answered: “Morella?” and then her voice fresh and high-pitched, with the usual greeting except for something less spontaneous precisely because it hit Remi with an unfamiliar spontaneity.
From Greene Street to Morella’s exactly ten blocks. By car two minutes. But hadn’t he told her: “I’ll see you at eight at Mrs. Belkis’?” When he arrived, almost throwing himself from the taxi it was four-fifteen. He ran through the living room, climbed to the second floor, stopped at the mahogany door (the one on the right coming from the stairs), opened it without knocking. He heard Morella’s scream before seeing her. Morella and Lieutenant Dawson were in the room, but only Morella screamed when she saw the revolver. It seemed to Remi as if the scream were his, a shriek breaking suddenly in his constricted throat.
The body stopped trembling. The executioner felt for the pulse in his ankles. The witnesses were already leaving.
Translation: Frank Thomas Smith
Julio Cortázar is highly regarded as a master of short stories of a fantastic bent, with the collections Bestiario (1951) and Final de Juego (1956) containing many of his best examples in the genre, including the remarkable "Continuidad de los Parques" and "Axolotl." He was born in Brussels of Argentine parents, grew up in Buenos Aires, but lived most of his adult life in France, where he died in 1984.