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Issue number eleven


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Macabria by Emilio Martinez



The Ministry of Firing Squads, Subsecretariat of Tortures and Satires, Vice-Ministry of Medieval Chambers...  None of the signs above the doors in that hallway corresponded to the office for which I searched:  the office in charge of attending to foreign visitors.  Next were the Plenipotentiary Ministry and the Secretary of Interrogations (horrible screams were heard from behind that door), and then a small ladder that led to a cellar, with a sign on which could be read:  Office of Necrophiliac Affairs.  Finally I came upon a desk situated at a turn in the hallway where an orderly with dark glasses and a crooked mustache, upon learning of my distant origins, asked: "Have you come to declare war on us?"

"No, no," I replied, confused.

"Have we declared it on you, then?"

"You misunderstand.  The fact is, I am an explorer," I said.

"An explorer..." he responded, and a strange smile appeared on his face.

"Come with me," he mumbled.  A chill ran down my spine.


We went through mahogany double doors, which he pushed open forcefully. He remained on the threshold while indicating that I should enter.  I penetrated into the room's shadows and felt the door close behind me, and for a moment I feared the worst.  The darkness was solid and absolute, but I sensed the presence of someone else.  I managed to distinguish a large silhouette, from which came a rustling of papers and a voice that said: "Come in, Mister..."

"Plumanegra," I responded, "Acutangulo Plumanegra."

"Yes, yes, that's it.  The explorer, I suppose.  Please take a seat, Mister..."

"Plumanegra."

"I imagine that you will ask how it is that I know your name.  Well, I will tell you something:  during your stay in Macabria, many things will remain unexplained.  Suffice to say that my men have examined your bags at the hotel..."

"They have gone through my bags?"

"Yes, but don't worry, Mister..."

"Plumanegra."

"That's it.  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Gregorio Sunday and I am the chief of police of Macabria.  Nothing happens here without my consent.  No-thing.  Especially crimes.  As I told you, my men examined your luggage and nothing was found which would lead us to think that you are not who you say you are.  Do you follow my reasoning?"

"Um...  Yes..."

"Excellent.  Furthermore, the investigators have found among your possessions a book, this book," he said, dropping a volume loudly on the table, "which I am exceedingly interested in.  You see," he went on, his indiscernible face nearing mine from across the table, "we are not accustomed to receiving explorers in Macabria, understand?  Nevertheless, I am disposed to make an exception for you, in exchange for possession of this book, of course.  Not every day does the distinguished theory of Malthus come to us in such a superb edition."


The chief of police rose and indicated that I should follow him.  A side door took us to a spacious room with many desks.  Although a pale light filtered through some small skylights, Sunday only moved through the zones of shadow.  Weak lamps illuminated the desks, where some cadaverous-looking clerks filled out forms and stamped edicts.  We crossed the room in silence.  Beyond extended a library of gigantic proportions, which did not fail to amaze me.  Sunday clapped his hands and moments later from amid a heap of dusty books emerged an old, moldy man, with pupils that were completely white and a cane with an ivory hilt.  The chief of police held out the book and the librarian began to feel it, to smell it, and finally, to lick it with pleasure.  An expression of extreme joy distorted his face and yellowish tears flowed from his eyes as he said: "Essay on the Principle of Population.  Thomas Malthus.  Edition in Spanish from 1899, translated by Alfonso Varela.  Bound in leather. Exquisite, definitively exquisite..."

"As you see, in Macabria we have one of the most expert bibliophiles in the world," noted Sunday.  Then he added in a whisper to me, "For centuries, the labyrinth of books which you see here has been managed by blind librarians.  The idea is that the texts are not profaned by the human eye, thus conserving their virginal purity."

"But that makes no sense..." I argued.

"You see, my dear explorer," he said in a paternal tone, placing a hand on my shoulder, "the fact is that all reading is misunderstanding."

Without further explanation the book remained to be archived and Sunday pushed me toward a staircase.  He saw me out with these words: "May you enjoy your stay in Macabria.  Although I would not advise that you stay for long..."

I walked away without being able to say a word, trying to picture his face and thinking that not even the worst nightmares succeed in being original.

******

Arcadia, the island of Barataria, the lost kingdom of Prester John, Cibola, El Dorado, Hyperborea, Atlantis, Mu, the Civitas Solem, Celestial Jerusalem, the Amazonian Tierra Sin Mal...  Perhaps this enumeration of fantastic geographies is not the best way to continue with my chronicles of Macabria.  Better for us to say that from time immemorial, the longing to be nowhere (the utopian will) has driven man beyond the real or imaginary confines of the world, pushing explorers and travelers to abandon that habit of voices and forms that we call home.

The journey in some cases requires physical movement, in others, spiritual (sometimes both).  In any case, it is always an attempt to go beyond one's self, to transcend our personal boundaries.  For that reason the journey also presupposes the dissolution of the traveler or of his identity in a vortex of centripetal forces, his dislocation in a space where the coordinates are inverted and where all cartography becomes hallucinatory. The journey is, in the end, an initiation, and involves the emergence of a new personality, of an alter ego.

All of this is insufficient, however, to explain what I felt that night with what Macabria offered to me, under the moon and in the alleys, its exultant baptism of blood.

In my desk, a dagger slept a sleep not free of nightmares.  A brief gleam like a tremor passed over it, like the slight shiver of a sleeper.  It preserves, perhaps better than my memory, the terrible circumstances and marvels of that night.

******

My stay in Macabria ended up prolonging itself beyond my predictions. Month after month, in payment I was depositing into the hands of the blind librarian a series of books that were of interest to Chief Sunday:  that dubious history of witchcraft entitled Malleus Maleficarum; Leviathan by Hobbes; On Heroes and Hero Worship by Carlyle; Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos; a biography of Gilles de Rays; The Misfortunes of Virtue by the Marquis de Sade...

******

They say here that in some distant age two theologians were discussing the existence of Hell.  One of them argued vehemently for its impossibility, alleging the insuperable contradiction between a god of goodness and such extreme punishment.  The other, who had come down from the mountain to attend the discussion, listened to his arguments in silence, but a strange spark glinted in his eyes.  His sole response was to turn his back, departing for a neighboring country.  There he armed a military which, over many years of bloody fighting, succeeded in conquering the other land, converting it to a belief in Hell.  While the soldiers celebrated their victory, he left with a small patrol to go through his dominions, until he found his contradictor hidden in the false bottom of a wardrobe in the house of a blacksmith.

At sword-point, he took the man out to a field and ordered that he be mutilated slowly.  And so passed thirty-three days of agony, after which his opponent murmured, horrified, with his last breath:  "I have seen Hell." The prophet of Macabria forgot his empire then and, smiling, returned to the mountain, reminded of how much he enjoyed convincing his enemies.

******

The most recent census of Macabria sheds light upon the occupations of its population and, therefore, upon its particular idiosyncrasies.  The hodge-podge list confirms the existence of 120,000 executioners, 480,000 gravediggers, 90,000 employees of funeral parlors, 70,000 forensic doctors, 300,000 convicts, 900,000 soldiers, 180,000 clerks, 85,000 lawyers, 450,000 advisers, delegates and senators.

******

Macabria sunt.  This maxim can be read on the frontispiece of each of the city's gallows.  The Latin saying alludes to the minimal importance attributed here to the individual's existence--a ragged bouquet of confused illusions--in the face of the unimpeachable majesty conferred on the collective, to the omnipresent national spirit.  "Macabria is conceived of as one organic whole," one of its wise men explained to me, "distinguished, perfect, one and indivisible" (profuse adjectivization is one of the characteristics of the place) "unaltered by time, legacy of the ancients and inheritance of our seed," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  I spare the reader from the ample list of virtues that Macabrians are accustomed to attribute to their kingdom, epithets that don't so much paint a portrait of the country as perhaps reveal something profound about the psychology of its inhabitants.  I do wish to relate, however, the investigations to which this curious cult drove me.  Seized by a nagging suspicion, I prepared an expedition to the outskirts of the city, hiring guides and gathering various victuals and provisions.  Four common Macabrian pack animals (which appeared to me identical to the yaks that Tibetans use and which my guides called 'Burgundians') functioned as our mode of transport.

We crossed the squares of the city in the cold frost of dawn and went forward in a northwesterly direction, following the track of an old, nearly invisible road.  After a short while I began to note unique characteristics of the terrain.  The ground suffered from a doughy lack of firmness, sinking one or two centimeters under the hooves of our mounts.  Here and there drops of a transparent liquid welled up from the ground, forming bubbles that, when they burst, let out a fetid odor.  The vegetation was rather sparse, made up of some tubular, black shrubs without branches, which swayed violently to the rhythm of the wind.  At that stage of the journey, I began to take notice of a certain agitation in my guides, who shared fearful words in an incomprehensible dialect.  A heavy buzz, that perhaps could have been confused with a growl, stopped the Burgundians dead in their tracks.  It was useless to spur them to continue.  With their eyes bugging out our mounts turned and began to run (a thing that did not appear to bother my guides too much, who appeared no less terrified). I managed to jump down from my mount before it could throw me off onto the path.

In a few moments my expedition vanished over the horizon and I prepared to continue the journey on foot.  I advanced up a slope that all the while became steeper, to the point that I ended up scaling it.  During these difficulties, I was surprised once more by the same sound, which now clearly seemed to be the roar of a wild beast.  I was not intimidated and continued scaling until I arrived at the peak, where I found a broad valley opening out before my eyes.  There I contemplated a dome of titanic dimensions, of a yellowish white and pearled with bloodshot lines.  In its center there spread a dark circle, which in its turn contained another, smaller and bright.  I was located in the deepest part of the valley, not very far from a long fissure that crossed the ground from one end of the depression to the other.  I confess that I was fascinated by that vision, but my wonder turned to terror when the circle moved across the dome until it was in front of me (I managed to see my silhouette reflected in it). That movement was followed by another--some sort of folds that had remained unnoticed until that moment covered the dome for a brief instant, and then moved back to reveal it once more.  I understood then, on the verge of insanity, that I was being observed by a gigantic eye.  The fissure opened and from it rose a gust of fetid air and inhuman words that shook the valley.  "La, la, n'gtun ftah, la p'nglui nothep b'nzer!"  I believe that I slid down the slope and then began to run without any definite direction, delirious.  A horrible lucidity united the images of my journey, confirming my fearful hypothesis:  the city was erected in ancient times on some gigantic creature, the demon whose eye I saw (and saw me) in the valley.  The soft ground in which the hooves of our mounts sank is its flesh, the shrubs its hair, the bubbles its monstrous perspiration.  I don't know how long I ran, nor how I arrived back at the city.  Since then I have taken refuge in the highest tower, where I write down these grotesque memories.  Acutangulo Plumanegra or Abdul Alhazred, it little matters now what my real name is.  But I fully understand the meaning of that phrase resounding terribly like a hammer pounding, joined with the voice of the monster that shouts its invocations:  Macabria sunt! Macabria sunt!  Macabria sunt!


(translated by Josh Hockensmith)


Emilio Martinez is a journalist and writer living in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. His books include Noticias de Burgundia (Editorial Nuevo Milenio, 1999) and Macabria y otros cuentos (Nuevo Milenio, 2002). He has received the Premio Municipal from Santa Cruz for both poetry and prose, and this year was awarded the Premio Nacional for his play "El Banquete." Excerpts from News from Burgundia (also translated by Josh Hockensmith) appeared in Issue #8 of The Cafe Irreal, as well as in the Bolivian Studies Journal and in PEN Bolivia's 2003 annual. This is the first appearance of translations from Macabria y otros cuentos.

Josh Hockensmith is a writer, translator, and book artist living in Chapel Hill, NC. His work has appeared in South by Southeast: Haiku & Haiku Arts and Oyster Boy Review, among others. His short story, "Three--Possibly Four--Houses on Main Street," appeared in Issue #10 of The Cafe Irreal.


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translation copyright by translator 2004 all rights reserved