I started working for the Bishop of San Julián in 1939, not long after the death of my husband. He and his business partner were killed in an airplane accident over Tierra del Fuego, leaving me alone in Argentina – a country whose language I barely spoke and where I knew no one. Because I had no savings, I had to find work. I presented myself to the bishop, having heard he was looking for people. Being close to a man of God, I told myself, would soothe my soul and help bring me out of my misery.
I was assigned to the kitchens. The wages were modest, but came with room and board; I lodged with Teresa, a Chilean cook from whom I never heard more than three words in a row. After a few weeks, one of the maids got sick and I took over from her. Every morning I would clean the bishop’s room, a duty that I thought of as a great honour. The chief steward, Morel, was particularly insistent on the hours of my work, and told me I had to respect them with the greatest exactitude; in no case should I disturb His Excellency, in no case should he notice my work. ‘You’ll be invisible to him, and will take only as much time as is absolutely necessary to accomplish your task. Not a minute more.’ He explained that no one other than me was to enter the room, and that everything that I moved during my work must be left in exactly the same position as before. ‘Ideally,’ he concluded, ‘he should get the impression that the room is being cleaned magically.’ He smiled, ‘Or, better, miraculously.’
And so I began spending every morning in His Excellency’s bedroom. It was a large room with white walls, soberly furnished. There was a cylindrical desk, a commode, an armoire and two twin beds separated by a bedside table with a finely wrought lamp. I’m astonished now that the bizarre nature of this arrangement didn’t strike me at once: one of the two beds was clearly unnecessary. But I was too absorbed in my duties to question it – if I had found a bar or a juke-box in the room I wouldn’t have been especially surprised, either. The strangeness of the arrangement finally dawned on me after a couple of days: why would a servant of God need two beds? I soon noticed that His Excellency would alternate between them, sometimes sleeping in one, sometimes in the other. Occasionally, though rarely, both were unmade. Should I assume that he woke up in the middle of the night and changed beds? I didn’t know what to think. Maybe he suffered from a bad back and alternating mattresses helped; or maybe he was an insomniac, and rather than returning time and again to a bed where he couldn’t sleep he preferred trying something different.
The mystery of His Excellency’s two beds, insignificant as it was, became, for me, a subject of amusement and a distraction from the monotony of the bishop’s estate. One day, while I was talking with Morel, I couldn’t resist the impulse to ask about it. The look he gave me made me regret my curiosity: it was as if I had questioned the dogma of the Trinity. He sent me away with an annoyed gesture. Ashamed, I ran off and attempted to atone for my insolence by working furiously for the rest of the day. My interest in His Excellency’s two beds, as you might imagine, didn’t diminish. Was I to believe that my employer didn’t spend his nights alone with God? The idea was so scandalous I forced myself to forget it. But my curiosity only grew stronger. I eventually decided to wander the halls at night in the hopes of stumbling upon movements that might confirm my suspicions. My first roamings were timid: I contented myself with patrolling the halls of the domestic wing where I could see into the yard and watch for visitors; if someone stumbled on me, I would explain that I had woken up thirsty and was on my way to get a drink from the kitchens.
Days passed. I steeled myself and extended my movements from the domestic wing to His Excellency’s quarters as well. I tiptoed closer to his room every night, very conscious of the risk I was taking. Once, I was audacious enough to put my ear to his door. I felt guilty, but the attraction the room had for me was irresistible. Unfortunately I heard nothing and, after a couple of minutes, fear outweighed my desire to divine the secret of my master’s nights – in as much as there was a secret to divine, and all this wasn’t just the poor fruit of my imagination. I went back to my room and spent an hour listening to my heart beating under the sheets, hoping that Teresa, who was breathing calmly beside me, hadn’t noticed my little game.
I supplemented these nocturnal patrols with investigations made each morning during my time in His Excellency’s room. While I made the bed (sometimes the beds) or swept, I looked for clues. Disregarding the explicit instructions of the chief steward I’d take indiscreet looks at the papers scattered around the little study (we called it the ‘little study’ to distinguish it from the ‘large study’, an expression reserved for his office and the gigantic bureau within it), read the titles of novels and flicked through them, stopping at the dog-eared pages. I felt like a spy infiltrating an enemy’s home. There was a playfulness to what I was doing, but also the kind of curiosity I normally associated with old, gossipy women, which embarrassed me much more than anything else I was doing. In any case, my findings during the day were as pitiful as during my surveillance in the evenings: there was nothing in the bishop’s room other than pious texts and boring documents – the two twin beds were the only novelty, and I began to believe that I would never discover the explanation for them.
Several strange events followed, which confirmed my suspicion that all was not right in the estate.
The first one happened on a Friday in February. His Excellency had left San Julián two days earlier for Buenos Aires, where he was to spend the week. I helped him pack and saw him off. That Friday, I was in the laundry gathering up some sheets, and as I crossed back over the courtyard I was knocked over by a naked man: it was the bishop. He darted into the main building, leaving me flat on the ground. Hearing me cry, a few members of the staff ran out and helped me up. When I explained that it was the bishop who had knocked me over, they wouldn’t believe me.
‘His Excellency is in Buenos Aires. You’ll have to come up with a better story than that.’
They went back to their work laughing. But I was certain I hadn’t been dreaming – it was the bishop who had knocked me over, he was the man I’d seen. Why wasn’t he in Buenos Aires? Had he crossed the six hundred kilometres between the capital and San Julián without letting anyone know? I didn’t see him again for the rest of the week. He reappeared the following Friday, pretending that he’d just returned from Buenos Aires and acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Two weeks later he cut his right hand with a paperknife. The wound was deep; a doctor from San Julián was called in and bandaged the hand. The next day I ran into His Excellency and asked if the cut was bothering him much; he appeared troubled by my question and contemplated his palm for a long time, as if he wasn’t sure whether the hand was his own. I noticed that it was no longer bandaged and that the wound had healed. He gave me an anxious look, excused himself and went on his way.
The next day I saw him getting into his car – the hand was bandaged again.
There was another incident the following month that was even harder to explain. I wanted to clean the little room that adjoined His Excellency’s chambers. The door was bolted shut, but I knew that the steward kept a set of keys in his desk that opened every lock in the estate. I let myself into his room, took the bunch, went back upstairs, put the key in the lock and opened the door. The scene that greeted me when I flicked on the light froze me in my tracks: there was the bishop, upright and dressed in one of the coarse habits he wore when he was staying in for the day and had no meetings; he was standing stock-still and had his eyes closed, as if he was asleep. Horribly confused, I switched off the light and relocked the door; it took me a few moments to pull myself together. What was he doing there alone in the dark? Was he shutting himself away to meditate? He could have just as easily pulled the curtains shut in his room, or closed himself off in the large study and asked the staff to keep quiet! Did this mean he was hiding? And if so – what was he hiding from?
I ran off quickly down the stairs, but when I got to the ground floor I was sure I would faint: His Excellency was in the foyer speaking with the steward. He wasn’t wearing the habit, but instead a smart grey suit. I had to grab for the banister to keep myself from falling over; he noticed and came over, asking if I was feeling alright. Tears pearled at the corner of my eyes, and I couldn’t say anything but ‘You’re upstairs, Your Excellency – You’re upstairs.’ The steward thought I was delirious; he put his hand to my forehead, declared me feverish and asked for someone to help me to my room. But the bishop seemed disturbed by my words; the friendliness I’d seen on his face just a moment before had been replaced with a kind of annoyed confusion. ‘Ah – Morel, will you take care of this?’ he said with an irritated gesture. And, while the steward put his hand under my arm to help me walk, he turned on his heel and headed for the large study, violently slamming the door after himself.
Morel accompanied me to my room, asked me to lie down and, after laying a blanket over me, advised me to get some sleep. ‘We’ll have the doctor come tomorrow if you’re still feeling weak,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell the kitchen to have something brought up for you at dinner.’ Then he left, leaving the door slightly ajar. I fell asleep immediately.
Night had fallen. Teresa came in with a tureen which she put on the foot of the bed. I thanked her and she responded with a smile – it was, I think, the first time I had ever seen her lips curve upward. More incredible was that she sat down next to me and spoke. ‘There are two bishops,’ she said, ‘but the other is like a corpse.’ When I asked her if she could explain, she repeated, ‘The other is like a corpse.’ Then she got up and left. What was she trying to say? I tried to decipher her words as I drank the soup they’d made for me, then I lay down again and tried to picture His Excellency on his deathbed, hands joined, naked and pale and illuminated by candles; on the twin bed beside him was a replica of his body. Teresa’s words whirled round in my head until they lost all meaning.
That night, a hand caressing my shoulder brought me out of sleep. I started: illuminated by a flashlight, the face of His Excellency shone in the darkness. ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘I must speak with you.’ Wondering if I might still be dreaming, I pushed back the sheets, got up and slipped on my shoes, not bothering to lace them. The bishop was in his bathrobe, so I was not too embarrassed to follow him in my nightgown. I glanced over at Teresa; she had woken up and was watching me calmly, as if the arrival of His Excellency in the dead of night was a natural occurrence. I followed the bishop into deserted corridors; we passed through the domestic wing and into the main building, went upstairs and entered his bedchamber, where all was dark.
He closed the door, turned the key and moved the beam of his light towards one of the beds. There he was. Him. The bishop. Laid out with his eyes closed. My incomprehension was so complete that I wasn’t even afraid. The man holding the flashlight was also the one the light made visible: there were two bishops in the room, though only one existed. I instantly thought of identical twins, but had the feeling that this explanation was too simple. It couldn’t explain the strange atmosphere hanging over the estate, an ambience that was bizarre and inescapable and impossible to define. The bishop turned off his flashlight and lit a lamp that cast a feeble glow across the room. He remained silent, contemplating the body on the bed with a kind of disillusioned sadness. A sigh escaped from him and he lay down on the other bed, less than a metre away from himself, his feet dangling in the little space between the bed and the wall.
‘I couldn’t hide it from you any longer,’ he said, finally.
‘Who is he?’ I responded, indicating the inert body.
‘Him? But that’s me! Can’t you tell?’
Faced with my silent consternation, he continued.
‘To punish me or to reward me, I don’t know which, the Lord has granted me two bodies instead of one: the one I’m inhabiting at the moment, the one that’s speaking to you, and the one which you can see laid out on this bed, like a corpse, in which I may well awake tomorrow.’
‘Every night is a crossing. When I go to bed in the evening, I can’t be sure which body I’ll be in when I wake up. Sometimes nothing changes, I open my eyes and feel the same pains I felt the night before. Other times, my soul moves: I find myself in a new body and inhabit it until the next day comes.’
‘So that’s why you have two beds . . . ’
‘That’s right. When my other body appeared, my first instinct was to hide it. I was afraid people would think I was some kind of monster, as I’m sure you can understand. Keeping the bodies apart turned out to be a bad idea: if my soul crossed over I’d wake up wherever I had hidden my uninhabited body, far from my bedroom, in spaces that were often very odd. I didn’t understand the mechanics of these crossings for several weeks. Waking up over and over in places where I hadn’t gone to sleep – at first I thought I was going crazy. Then I started to understand the way this all works. I realised it was essential that I keep my two bodies close to one another, that I needed to sleep in the same room as myself.
He went quiet for a moment and then added, pensively, ‘And to think that my initial idea was to destroy the other body! What would have become of my soul when it left this flesh for his?’
Dumbfounded by what I was seeing and hearing, I didn’t know what to say. The bishop had me sit down and then continued his story, seemingly as much for his own benefit as for mine.
‘Think of the difficulties that come with the slightest trip when you have a condition like mine! I have to bring my body in my suitcase unless I’m willing to risk turning up where I leave myself. Can you imagine finding in your home the inert corpse of the guest who, the night before, was talking and laughing with you, only to learn after having sent his body home by airplane that he was marvellously alive again and back at work in his diocese? Impossible, of course. But all the same I’ve had to take the risk of leaving without my body – my other body. It’s happened three times. The first two times, everything was fine.’
‘And the third?’
‘Buenos Aires, a month ago. You remember? I hadn’t changed bodies in weeks, and I decided that the risk was limited. How naive! You know the result, since you saw me: I woke up in the body that I’d left here and knocked you over while leaving the cellar I’d hidden it in. I rushed to my room and forced myself to go back to sleep. I very luckily succeeded and, by a miracle, woke up an hour later in Buenos Aires, in the right body. Some story, no?’
He barked out a laugh, as if the curse he was a victim of amused him as much as it tortured him.
Fascinated, I let my gaze wander from the living bishop to the unmoving bishop, astonished – and, now that the fear had passed, almost enchanted – to know that tomorrow the dead body might revive and the living die. I couldn’t help myself from probing His Excellency for further details.
‘Is your body-changing –’
‘Call it a “crossing”. That’s what I call it.’
‘Are your crossings always so dangerous, or is there some kind of pattern, or even a benefit, to them?’
‘I’ve often wondered about that myself. I’ve driven myself crazy trying to figure out what causes my soul to change bodies. At first I believed that the Lord had given me a second one to rest the first when it was tired, or sick. I was wrong. You remember the fevers that I had last summer, which took me three weeks to recover from? Each night I’d fall asleep praying to wake up in my other body, healthy and ready for work. Imagine it! My soul stayed cramped up at the back of its feeble and shivering frame, and I woke up each morning suffering more than the night before. As for there being any kind of pattern to it, I’ve thought of everything. Temperature, diet, drink, mood, atmospheric pressure, the practice of this or that activity – nothing explains the crossings. I can only trust to the will of the Lord, and believe that He commands my soul to pass from one body to another in accordance with the vast design which is His.’
He went quiet again. A thousand questions rose to my lips.
‘So you don’t inhabit the two bodies equally?’
‘There’s an overarching equilibrium. At least, I think there is. Maybe it works itself out over the course of the year – or the decade. I’ve given up trying to figure it out.’
‘And do they age at the same rate?’
‘Yes. Time produces its effects on the both of them, whether they’re inhabited or not. I realised that accidentally: I was checking on the state of a body I hadn’t migrated to in some time, only to perceive my own degradation in a manner that was infinitely more distinct than when I had looked in the mirror that morning. Seeing yourself as a two-dimensional image as opposed to seeing your own body, a body which you can touch and manipulate – those are two entirely different experiences, believe me.’
‘Are you cold?’ I asked.
‘When you’re dead.’
‘Ah. Not exactly. It’s . . . well, touch it yourself, you’ll see.’
He invited me to approach the bed and lay my hand on the dead body’s forehead. I refused at first, afraid that touching it might be dangerous – or, to be honest, that it would be unpleasant and unhealthy, like stroking a corpse in a morgue. All the same, curiosity got the better of me and I allowed the pad of my fingers to touch the forehead, cheeks and lips of the inert bishop. The sensation was strange: his skin was tepid, and though his heart wasn’t beating I didn’t get the impression that he was dead. He seemed to be both dead and living at the same time, even though neither word really describes the state he was in. ‘He’s uninhabited, to put it simply,’ affirmed His Excellency when I described the sensation.
We talked long into the night, I questioning and listening, he responding and digressing. Long silences interspersed our conversation, during which our eyes drifted to the immobile body of the other bishop – which I’d begun to think of less with fear or anxiety and more as a source of calm, almost as something soothing: midway between life and death, lost in a non-space which surpassed all understanding, he struck me as being plunged into the most perfect repose possible, the more so for no longer having a soul to trouble him.
I told His Excellency that he reminded me of the infamous Doctor Jekyll. He replied that his case was far simpler than the one imagined by Stevenson. ‘Henry Jekyll had a body for each aspect of his soul,’ he explained, ‘while I only have one soul for my two bodies, two bodies that are entirely identical. And, in the end, that’s just banal, dull – there’s no depth to it! Jekyll had one form, Hyde had another and each reflected the spirit that inhabited it – noble and tormented on the one hand, cryptic and perverse on the other. The two characters formed a whole, which I very precisely do not. Do you understand what I mean? When I look at this mass of bone and flesh in front of me, I see an unfinished monster, a creation the Lord’s left in suspense. It’s not normal, not natural that a portion of myself should be condemned to uselessness; you might even say the universe is missing a soul, and the body that that soul should be inhabiting was assigned to me by some administrative error. There’s either something missing in me, or something extra, I don’t know; either way I’m an imperfect being, neither one nor two, stuck in the middle of a ford with no way of making it to either riverbank. Jekyll and Hyde, now they were one and two. I envy that, because to me it seems to attain a sort of geometrically variable perfection, at once magnificent and mysterious. In my case there’s no mystery at all, and my second body doesn’t help liberate some hidden part of myself. It just dogs me like a useless, supernumerary organ, an organ that a caprice of destiny sets in motion from time to time by allowing my soul to wander over to it.’
I couldn’t sleep when I got back to my room, much later that night. I tossed and turned in my sheets until dawn. Still, as I did every morning, I got up and cleaned His Excellency’s room: he hadn’t bothered to hide the extra body, and he never would again.
We didn’t discuss it again, either. The bishop wanted his second body to become unremarkable, and I made as if the thing was as mundane as rheumatism or a toothache. To mention it would have been somehow inappropriate, impolite. So I imitated Morel the steward and Teresa the cook (how, I later wondered, had she ever learned about it, she who never had any reason to enter His Excellency’s confidence?), and forced myself to act as if nothing was out of the ordinary: we all have our little crosses to bear, and the Bishop of San Julián’s was an extra body.
I left the diocese in 1945, just after the Armistice was signed, and moved to Montevideo. I wrote to the bishop every year, at Christmas and at Easter, because he’d asked me to give him news. In 1952 I broke the silence that I’d observed up to that point by adding a quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphosis to my letter: ‘though it takes diverse shapes, the soul always remains itself.’ I hoped he wouldn’t resent my reference and that he’d take the quote for what it was: a sign of sympathy and, maybe, an attempt at reassurance. He wrote me back saying he hadn’t come across the quote before, and that he appreciated reading it in my hand. ‘You haven’t forgotten me, and you haven’t forgotten my secret either; for that I thank you.’ It wasn’t until the next morning, while rereading his letter, that I thought to turn the page over and discovered a postscript:
‘A third body appeared eight weeks ago, and my life has been made even more complicated. How many more before the Lord grants me peace?’
The above is from Bernard Quiriny’s short-story collection, Contes Carnivores (Flesh-Eating Fictions), first published with a preface by Enrique Vila-Matas by Éditions du Seuil (France) in 2008.
Photography © Lawrence OP