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Vol. 3, No. 4

Blood on a Spear
by Javier Marías

I said goodbye forever to my best friend without knowing that I was, because the following night, after far too long a delay, he was found lying on his bed with a spear through his chest and with a strange woman by his side, also dead, but without the murder weapon impaled in her body, because the weapon was one and the same and they must have first stuck it in her, then pulled it out again in order to mingle her blood with that of my best friend. The lights were all on and the television too, and had doubtless remained so for the whole of that day, my friend's first day without life or the world's first day without his worldly presence in it after thirty-nine years, the lightbulbs incongruous in the harsh morning sun and perhaps less so against the stormy afternoon sky, but Dorta would have hated all that waste. I don't quite know who pays the bills for the dead.
    He had a great bulge on his head from an earlier blow, it wasn't just a swelling or, if it was, it encompassed the whole of his forehead, the skin tight over his elephantiasic cranium, as if he had become Frankensteinized in death, a small bald spot on his hairline that hadn't been there before. That blow must have knocked him out, but it would seem that he didn't entirely lose consciousness, because his eyes were open and he had his glasses on, although the man who had then stuck the spear in him might have put them on afterward, as a joke, you don't need glasses when you know for certain that you're never going to see ever again: here you are, four-eyes, maybe these will help you find the road to hell more easily. He was wearing the bathrobe he always used as a dressing gown, he bought a new one every few months and this latest one was yellow, he should have avoided that color, as bullfighters do. He had his slippers on, the rigid, hard-soled variety that Americans wear, a kind of moccasin cut low on the instep, with no embellishments and with a very flat heel, you feel safer if you can hear your own footsteps. His two bare legs emerged from among the folds of his bathrobe, and, although he was a hairy man, I saw that his shins were hairless, some people do lose the hair on their legs there from the constant rubbing of their trousers, or from their socks if they wear long socks, sports socks they call them, and he always wore them, I never once saw a strip of bare skin when he crossed his legs in public. Enough blood had flowed for enough hours--with the lights on and busy witnesses on the TV screen--to soak the bathrobe and the sheets and to ruin the wooden floor. The bed, with no bedspread on it because of the heat, had not been disturbed, the sheets hadn't been turned down. He appeared pale in the photos, as all corpses do, with an unusual expression on his face, because he was a jolly man, always laughing and joking, and his face seemed serious, rather than terrorstruck or stupefied, with a look of bitterness, or perhaps--more surprising still--mere displeasure or annoyance, as if he had been obliged to do something not particularly momentous, but against his inclinations. Since dying always seems momentous to the person if he knows that he's dying, one could not discount the possibility that they had stuck the spear in him while he was still stunned from the previous blow, so he wouldn't have been aware of what was happening, and that might explain why he didn't react when they plunged the weapon into the breast of the unknown woman and pulled it out again. The spear was his, brought back some years ago as a souvenir from a trip to Kenya which he had hated and from which he had returned complaining, as he usually did from trips abroad. I'd often seen it, planted nonchalantly in the umbrella stand, Dorta had always intended to hang it up somewhere, one of those ornaments that catch your fancy when you see it in someone else's hands and which you like rather less when you get it home. Dorta didn't collect such objects, but, from time to time, he gave in to a capricious impulse, especially in countries he knew he would never go back to. Those who disliked him saw a certain irony in the manner of his death, for he was very keen on pointed metal walking sticks, of which he had quite a few. Not very original, rather pedantic.
    The woman was almost naked, wearing just a pair of underwear, there was no trace in the house of any other items of the clothing she must have arrived in, as if the spear-thrower had scrupulously gathered them up after the murders and taken them away with him, nobody walks down the street or travels in a taxi like that, however hot it is, I mean not naked like that. Perhaps that was a joke too: I'm going to leave you there naked, you whore, that way you can go on being screwed all the way to hell. An unnecessary hassle for a murderer in any case, everything that remains accuses, everything that remains on our hands. The woman was about thirty, judging by her appearance and by the forensic report, and, judging by her appearance alone, she could have been an immigrant, Cuban or Dominican or Guatemalan, for example, she had bronzed skin, full, slightly cracked lips and prominent cheekbones, but there are a lot of Spanish women like that too, in the south and in the center and even in the north, not to mention the islands, people are less easy to classify than we might think. She had her eyes closed and an expression of pain on her face, as if she hadn't died immediately and had had time to make that involuntary gesture, the agony of the iron entering her flesh and having entered her flesh, her teeth instinctively clenching and her vision clouding, her nakedness experienced suddenly as a kind of extra defenselessness, it's different if a sharp weapon first has to penetrate fabric, however thin, than if it pierces the skin directly, although the results are identical. That's what I think anyway, not that I've ever been injured in that way, touch wood, fingers crossed. The woman was wounded beneath her left breast, both of her breasts looked as if they had gone soft, as far as I could make out and given that I was looking at them for the first time in photos, hardly ideal. But you get used to imagining the texture and volume and feel of women the first time you see them, especially in these deceitful times, if she'd been rich she would have had silicone implants, especially at her age, a kind of consubstantial softness impervious to passing time. Her breasts were smeared with dried blood. She had long, tangled, curly hair, and part of her hair covered her right cheek in a rather unnatural fashion, as if she had had time to pull her hair over her face in an attempt to cover it, a final gesture of modesty or shame regarding her anonymous posterity. In a way, I felt sorry for her, I had the feeling that her death was secondary, that it wasn't really to do with her or that she was only part of the decor. She had some semen in her mouth and, according to the report, the semen belonged to Dorta. It also said that some of her teeth were decayed, the teeth of a poor woman, or the victims of sweets. It also said that substances were found in both organisms, that was the word, substances, what exactly it didn't say, though I don't find it particularly hard to imagine.
    Both were in a seated position, or rather they weren't lying down, but reclining, although in the case of my friend I was not spared one particularly unpleasant detail: the rusty spear had penetrated him with such force that the point, never honed or polished or even cleaned since it arrived from Kenya--but extremely sharp--had gone straight through his chest into the wall, leaving him pinned to the plaster like an insect. If someone had told Dorta about this, he would have shuddered to think of the plaster left inside the body when the spear was removed, someone had to take it out, it would undoubtedly have required more force than that used by the person who had impaled it in the two chests, one female, one male. The weapon had not been thrown from any distance, it had been thrust in from below, possibly at a run, possibly not, but if not, the person holding it must have been either very strong or accustomed to bayoneting. It was a large bedroom, there was enough space to take a run-up, the whole of Dorta's apartment was very large, an old apartment that had been renovated, a legacy from his parents, he only bothered about two areas, the living room and the bedroom, the place was too big for him. He had just turned thirty-nine, he bemoaned the fact that his fortieth birthday was just around the corner, he lived alone, but often invited people over, one at a time.
    "The worst thing about ages is that they always seem so alien," he said to me the night of his death, during supper. His birthday had been a week before, but I hadn't been able to celebrate it with him then because he'd been away in London that day. I hadn't been able to make the traditional jokes, I was three months younger than him and, during those three months, I used to call him "Granddad." Now I'm two years older than he will ever be, I've turned the corner. "A few days ago, I read a newspaper article about a man of thirty-seven, and, in fact, the association of that age and the word `man' seemed quite appropriate, at least for that individual. For me, on the other hand, it wouldn't. I still unconsciously expect people to refer to me as `a young man,' and, of course, I expect them to call me `tú,' yet I'm two years older than the man in the article. I think only other people should have birthdays. No, I'd go further, just as in the past the rich would pay a poor person to do their military service or to go to war instead of them, it should be possible to engage someone to have our birthdays for us. Every now and then, we would have one ourselves, this year is mine, I'm bored with being thirty-nine. Don't you think that would be an excellent idea?"
    It would never have occurred to either of us that, in his case, thirty-nine would be the fixed number with which he could bore himself until the end of time with absolutely no possibility of changing it. That was the kind of idea Dorta came up with when he was in good spirits and in a good mood, rather silly, mad ideas, a bit daft and invariably puerile, which was quite justified, at least with me, because we'd known each other since we were children and it's hard not to continue to behave with a person the way you would have behaved when you first met: we have a different repertoire for each person, the contents of which we are allowed to vary but not relinquish, if someone laughed once they will always have to laugh, otherwise, they will be rejected. And that is why I always called Dorta "Dorta" and that is how I remember him, at school you were known by your surname until you reached adolescence. With a friend like Dorta very little can be taken absolutely seriously because you're used to everything being pretend, introduced explicitly by those formulas that you later abandon when you go out into the world, "Let's play at . . . ," "Let's pretend that . . . ," "I'm the leader now" (you only abandon them verbally, in reality it all goes on the same). That's why I can talk of his death dispassionately, as if it were something that had not yet happened, but was part of the eternal waiting for all that is unlikely and impossible. "Imagine someone killed me with a spear." A spear, in Madrid. But sometimes passion surfaces--or possibly rage--for just those reasons, because I can imagine the anguish and panic that night of a person I still see as a nervous, resigned child whom I often had to defend in the playground, and who would later apologize and give me a book or a comic because he'd forced me to get into a fight with the heavies when there was no need for me to do so--not that he ever asked for my help, he just let himself be punched or pushed around, that's all. It's unforgivable that he should have died a violent death, even though he never knew what happened. But that's pure rhetoric, who doesn't know when he's dying? I wasn't there to see him and to go into battle for him, although it was a near thing.
    His stay in London had coincided with an auction at Sotheby's of literary and historical items which some diplomatic friends had encouraged him to attend. They were selling all kinds of documents and objects that had belonged to writers and politicians. Letters, postcards, billets-doux, telegrams, whole manuscripts, rough drafts, files, photos, a lock of Byron's hair, the long pipe that Peter Cushing smoked in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Churchill's cigar butts, engraved cigarette cases, overelaborate walking sticks, tried and tested amulets. It wasn't an unusual walking stick that had aroused his capricious buyer's impulse during the bidding, but a ring that had belonged to Crowley, Aleister Crowley, he explained benevolently, a mediocre writer and a self-declared madman who called himself "The Great Beast" and "the wickedest man in the world," all his private possessions had 666 engraved on them, the number of the Beast according to the Apocalypse, nowadays rock groups with demonic pretensions play around with the number, but it's also to be found hidden in many computers, it's the joker's number. Crowley transformed his disciple Victor Neuburg into a zebra for making too many mistakes during an invocation of the Devil in the Sahara, so Dorta told me, and rode on his back all the way to Alexandria, where he sold him to a zoo which looked after the incompetent disciple or, rather, zebra for two years, until Crowley finally allowed him to resume his human form, he was a compassionate man at heart. Neuburg later became a publisher.
    "A magic ring, that's how it was described in the catalogue, with a precious oval emerald set in platinum with the inscription `Iaspar Balthazar Melcior,' I wasn't sure the ring would fit, but even so I bid like a mad thing, way above my limit. The other bidders gradually fell away, apart from one guy with a Germanic face. He was well dressed, but he was wearing crocodile-skin cowboy boots, you can imagine the effect, the mere sight of them was enough to enrage you. I bid higher and he bid higher, steadily and without moving a muscle, anyway, he blocked my way each time, forcing me to make rapid mental conversions from sterling into pesetas only to realize that I was offering a sum of money that I didn't actually possess."
    "Really? The magic ring couldn't have been that expensive, Dorta," I said mockingly. He didn't have much money, but he pretended he did, he behaved like a spendthrift and he rarely deprived himself of anything he fancied, at least not with witnesses present, meanness was a blight. Of course, the things he fancied were never excessive, they didn't require a large outlay, as people used to say, or so I thought, I don't know how much everything cost. Anyway, he had enough to pay for his vital pleasures.
    "Well, yes, I could have gone a bit higher, but that would have meant making small sacrifices later on, which are the kind I hate most, it's the small sacrifices that make you feel really miserable. And it's so much harder to give things up in the summer. Anyway, the other man kept raising his nose again and again, like some malfunctioning crossing gate, until one of my companions grabbed me by the elbow and stopped me putting my hand up. `You can't afford it, Eugenio, you'll regret it,' he whispered, and I really don't know why he whispered, no one there understood Spanish. But he was right and I didn't pull away and I felt wretched, I immediately fell into a great depression, I'm still in it, and I had to put up with seeing that nose lift once more and look at me defiantly, as if saying: `I beat you, what did you expect?' He left at once, clattering out in his crocodile-skin cowboy boots. It was a terrible humiliation, Víctor, and it happened abroad of all places."

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