César Rengifo, forensic pathologist, started to notice the symptoms of a duodenal ulcer at the end of ‘55. He’d become paler and thinner than ever. The three aunts who had brought him up said he was getting ill because he was so disorganized, ate the wrong things, drank too much and hung around with bad women, the poor things. Basically, because he was a bachelor: ‘Get married,’ they told him. He’d started to let his hair and beard grow too long, and had been greying since twenty-seven, so, what with the dark glasses he almost always wore, he was acquiring a look of eccentricity as well as ill health.
His friends advised him to change his job, set up his own clinic somewhere or find a post in a hospital. They were convinced that the constant contact with death over so many years, eight hours a day, seven days a week, was starting to undermine his health. César replied that he couldn’t work in a hospital or clinic: he’d spent so many years working with dead people that he’d forgotten how living ones functioned, and anyway, it would all be over sooner or later.
‘Everything ends sooner or later,’ he concluded.
He said it without thinking, as though uttering a stock phrase, but his friends glimpsed the despair they’d seen in César before. As if he was saying that nothing would ever come to an end.
When one of his friends suggested that they go away to the Pacific coast for a while, to see if it made him feel any better, César admitted that he’d never been to the sea. The latest wave of deaths had started when he was in his second year of medical school; and because he started work before graduating, he’d never had time.
He’d been to biggish rivers, he said, but never to the sea.
César would never know what he’d found most breathtaking: the savage rainstorms along that jungle-covered coast or the swell of the Pacific waves.
He didn’t have time to make up his mind. He went to the sea, came home from the sea, and had just finished unpacking his rucksack, new only ten days ago and now a sodden, salty, decomposing rag, when they called him. They wanted him to help with the task of pulling the bodies of two entire families out of a deep abandoned well. He wasn’t the least bit surprised. He knew that something like this would be waiting for him and wouldn’t let him enjoy how uplifted and purified he felt, right down to his soul.
On the way he tried not to think of what he would soon be doing. He looked out at the yellow-blossomed guayacan trees shading the coffee plantations, the ripe mangoes on the branches, the geraniums planted in biscuit tins that adorned the houses. Who would have guessed they were driving through a land beset with violence? Look at the well-tensioned fences, he thought, the neatly swept verandas, the clear, almost crystalline onion patches.
The house had its own veranda and geraniums, its onion patch, its chickens scratching the dirt. For them, the earth they scratched was paradise, but for the humans, the local campesinos, the policemen smoking near the well with rifles over their shoulders, and especially for César, who would have to go down and pull out body after body, it was hell. They hadn’t called him to oversee the removal of the bodies but, in fact, to remove them.
Of everyone there, only one campesino, strong as a Galilee fisherman, was willing to help César get the bodies out. They tied them under the armpits (those whose arms hadn’t been cut off) so they could be hauled up from above, like rag dolls. There were so many bodies in the well that there was no room to put their feet and they had to stand on some in order to get to others. The smell was overpowering, but after so many years he’d almost got used to it. And who was he to feel disgusted by people who’d been unfortunate enough to die in that way? They put all the loose arms, legs and heads into sacks which, once full, were hooked onto the rope and pulled up. The last body to be hauled out belonged to a girl of about ten, with no head, who wore a frilly, mud-covered dress that puffed out like a balloon as she rose up, while the campesino who was helping illuminated her with the lamp.
Driving back in the police van, under a sky streaked with stone-coloured bands, César remembered the din of the rainstorms in the jungle and felt a stab, like love, in the pit of his stomach. He took a swig of aguardiente from the bottle that was passed to him and stared out of the window at some cows grazing under a tree. He didn’t want to drink any more; he’d have time to get drunk later, if he felt like it.
Before going to the morgue he went home to collect the presents he’d bought for his aunts: two conch shells almost the colour and size of watermelons, an image of the Virgin, framed with white shells, and a biscuit tin full of papaya sweets.
His aunts had never been to the sea or the jungle either, so they asked him lots of questions: How big was it? What did it sound like? Did you see tigers? They were delighted that he’d thought of them and brought them presents; he didn’t often demonstrate his affection. And because he seemed in such a good mood, Livia, the one who ruled the roost, summoned the courage to ask: ‘Listen, why don’t you move back in with us? I don’t know why you want to pay rent on such a big, expensive house just for you.’ ‘Really big and really expensive,’ said Merceditas. ‘Expensive and big,’ said Albita. ‘And what’s more,’ added Livia, who had the habit of scraping her hair back into a bun and always wore a shawl because she felt the cold, ‘you need to eat regular meals.’
‘And when you get married you can go and live with Her,’ added Albita.
Albita got hopelessly lost in the romantic novels she read, so she imbued certain words, like wife, and even simple ones like her or him, with special resonance.
‘Which her?’ César wanted to know.
‘Your Wife, silly. Your Future Wife.’
‘Look what I’ve got myself into,’ thought César. ‘First thing tomorrow I’ll move back in, and in three days I’ll have lost my marbles.’ He told them, however, that he’d think about it, but they shouldn’t make any plans or start getting his room ready or anything because they knew he’d got used to living alone. He accepted the bag of pears they gave him and went to see if any of his friends were at the cafe, thinking they might play a game of pool. No one was there, so César played on his own for a while, had a drink and headed to the morgue.
When he hunched over to work on his corpses he looked like a vulture, that couldn’t be denied, but there was something of an angel about him as well.
It was gone midnight when César arrived back at his empty house, and he sat down to smoke, to remember the sea and to wait for the sound of the birds.
Photograph © Helena Toscano, Dexter’s Dome, 2013