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Vol. 3, No. 4

Blood on a Spear
by Javier Marías


He called me Víctor, not by my surname, Francés, as he usually did. He only called me Víctor when he was feeling under the weather or he felt alone. I never called him Eugenio, ever. Dorta still had a lot of Dorta the little boy in him, but also a great deal of his mother and his aunts, whom I had often seen on the way out of school or in their various homes, invited there by their son or nephew. From time to time, he came out with some phrase that doubtless belonged to those innocent, antiquated ladies who had so dominated his world. He just came out with them, he didn't avoid them, indeed, he probably enjoyed perpetuating those ladies like that, verbally, through their lost turns of phrase: "and it happened abroad of all places."
    "What the hell did you want the ring for anyway?" I asked. "You haven't started believing in magic, I hope. Or was there someone you wanted to transform into a giraffe?"
    "No, don't worry. It just took my fancy, it amused me, it was unusual and it had a history behind it, if I'd worn it here lots of people would have asked me about it, it's all for the mill when you're trying to chat someone up in a bar. The only magic I believe in is other people's, not my own, of course; I've never been touched by magic once in my entire life, as you well know."
    Perhaps that was the moment when I started talking during our last supper together, and he listened with interest, but seemed slightly cast down too; if he fell silent for too long, that usually meant he was worried about something or momentarily dissatisfied with himself or with his life, it happens to all of us from time to time, but it doesn't last if there are no serious grounds for it, concern about the uncertain future or about everyday regrets, for which there isn't much time, genuine regret requires both perdurability and time. When a friend dies we want to remember everything about the last occasion we saw them, the supper that we experienced as just another supper, but which suddenly acquires unmerited significance and insists on shining with a light not its own; we try to see meaning where there was none, we try to see signs and indications and perhaps magic. If the friend has died a violent death what we try to see are perhaps clues, without realizing that something might equally well not have happened that night, and then the clues would be false ones. I remember that, after supper, he was happily smoking some Indonesian cigarettes that he'd brought back from London and that tasted and smelled of cloves. He gave me a pack which I still have, it's a brand called Gudang Garam, a slim red pack, 12 KRETEK CIGARETTES, I don't know what kretek means, it must be an Indonesian word. The health warning doesn't beat about the bush, it says bluntly SMOKING KILLS. Of course it didn't kill Dorta, he was killed by an African spear. When I stopped regaling him with my anodyne tales, he again took over the talk with renewed energy, having returned from the bathroom, but he was no longer cheerful. With one forefinger he traced the little relief design on the box, it looked like a stretch of railway track, forming a curve, a railway landscape, to the left there were some childish houses with triangular roofs, perhaps a station, all in black, gold, and red.
    "I don't think I'm going to have a very good time this summer," he said. It was already the end of July, later I thought how odd that he should think he had the whole summer still lying ahead of him that night. "It's going to be difficult for me, I'm a bit crazy at the moment, and the worst thing is that the things I always used to enjoy now bore me. Even writing bores me." He paused and added with a feeble smile, as if he had committed some impropriety: "My last book was a complete flop, much worse than you might imagine. I'm finishing something else as quickly as I can, you mustn't give failures time to stew, because they immediately impregnate and contaminate everything, every aspect of your existence, however remote, however removed it might be from the area where the disaster occurred, like a bloodstain. Although, of course, you then run the risk of having two failures on the trot and end up getting even more besmirched. Some people go under precisely because of that. Tonight I'm meeting the publisher who's signed a contract for my current book, even though I haven't finished it. I've arranged to have a drink with him, he's on a brief visit to Madrid and wants me to entertain him. He's a man entirely without scruples and he talks really slowly, an utter bore. But he doesn't know what I'm like yet and he enjoyed luring me away from the others. Well, the way things are, `luring' is just a manner of speaking. Soon I won't even be a name, what people call `a name that rings a bell,' a known author."
    His nights only really began after supper. After the publisher would come the real fun, open-air cafés and discotheques and wandering around with other people until dawn or thereabouts, it wasn't so very odd that he should still have expected to be regarded as a young man. The truth is he looked older, I suppose, I find it hard to say, but people who knew us both were surprised to find we had been classmates, and it's not that I look particularly young for my age. He seemed worried, pessimistic, insecure, perhaps weighed down by the recent discovery that even something that takes a long time to come about may still not last, relative success in his case, which should have continued but instead came to a halt, all too soon, allowing him only a brief taste of the good life. I prefer not to comment on his novels, two years on no one reads them anymore, the author is no longer in the world to defend them and to continue evolving, although his violent death meant that the posthumous, unfinished work sold wildly at first, he made the non-literary headlines for a few weeks, and the unscrupulous publisher rushed the book out. I had no desire to read it by then.
    After a while, there were no more headlines, no more small print, nothing, Dorta was immediately forgotten, his books worthless apart from their curiosity value, his murder unsolved and therefore abandoned, anything that does not advance or continue to evolve is condemned to a very rapid dissolution. The police either closed the file or not, I don't know quite how their bureaucracy works, but, from the very first, they didn't seem to me to have much interest in finding out anything--they're lazy people, the day of judgment is a long way off--once they knew that the strangest and most mysterious element had a simple explanation, the souvenir spear. However, the strangest or most mysterious element was not the spear, but the unknown woman by his side with his semen on her gums, because Dorta was homosexual--how can I put it--unwaveringly homosexual, and, looking back, I suppose he had been from that first day in the playground and in class, although neither he nor I, neither then nor for many years afterwards, knew the word existed nor what it meant. Perhaps the school bullies knew or, rather, guessed, which is why they were so horrible to him. I would go so far as to say that he had never been with a woman in his life, apart from the stray perverse kiss in adolescence, when nonconformity is a very serious matter if you don't want to be isolated, and when everyone is trying so hard both to attract attention and at the same time to be part of the group. His nights were often spent searching, but it wasn't women he was chatting up in those bars where anything was grist for the mill. He wasn't horny enough to make exceptions or to feel flattered if some woman came on to him or made him an offer, which was most unlikely, women can sense desire in a man, however sluggish and lukewarm, and no woman would ever have sensed any desire in him. That was the most peculiar thing about his death, more even than the violence, for he had been a victim of minor violence on a few previous occasions, I suppose going to bed with strange men who are always stronger and younger and poorer than yourself does have its risks. He never told me whether or not he paid for sex and I never asked, perhaps he had to as--much to his bemusement--he became "a man." I know that he gave them presents and indulged their every whim according to his means and his enthusiasm, a less crude way of buying someone than with actual money, rather old-fashioned really, respectable, courteous, and one that would have allowed him to deceive himself for a while. If he had been found lying next to a boy, it would all have seemed much less strange to me, to the extent--a very limited extent--that the death of anyone who has always been a part of our lives can be considered not to be strange. Not even the age of the Dominican/Cuban woman reflected his preferences, even a man of that age would have had little interest for Dorta, too old. I hesitated for a moment about whether I should say anything to the inspector who questioned me and showed me those posthumous photos. Dorta had been careful while his mother was alive, and was still fairly careful as long as his aunts were alive too, not that they ever knew anything about it; nothing was made explicit in his books, there were only hints. I think I hesitated about telling the inspector out of some sort of absurd masculine pride: perhaps it was no bad thing that he should believe that my best friend had spent his last night with a woman out of choice and habit, as if that was somehow more dignified or praiseworthy. I immediately felt ashamed of that temptation, I even thought that the woman might simply be another form of mockery, like the glasses: your cum in a woman's mouth for all eternity, you filthy queer. And so I told the inspector of this remarkable circumstance, about that whole inexplicable scene, Dorta in bed with a woman, the remains of his semen in the interstices of her decaying teeth or in the lines and cracks of her full lips. But the inspector looked at me reproachfully, sarcastically, as if I had suddenly been revealed to him as a bad friend or some kind of loony wanting to muddy Dorta's memory with these wild tales when Dorta was no longer there to defend himself or to say that I was wrong, Inspector Gómez Alday shared my masculine pride, except that he made no attempt to hide his.
    "Really," I insisted when I saw his look, "my friend never once went with a woman in his entire life."
    "Well, he obviously decided to go with one at his death, he nearly left it too late to try," he replied in a bad-tempered, dismissive tone. He lit each cigarette, low in tar and nicotine, with the butt of the previous one. "Just what are you trying to tell me? I find a guy who's been skewered by the husband or pimp of the wife or whore he took home with him to suck him off, and you tell me he was a fairy. Come on," he said.
    "Is that how you explain it? A husband or a pimp? And why the hell would a pimp do that?"
    "You don't know, eh, well, you don't know much, then. Anyone can go a little crazy sometimes. They send their women off and then go mad thinking about what they'll be doing with the client. And then they lash out and kill someone, some of them are very sentimental, I can tell you. It seems like an open-and-shut case to me, so don't come to me with these stories of yours, there wasn't even anything stolen, apart from her clothes, he was obviously a bit of a fetishist, this pimp. The only thing we don't know is who the stupid woman was, and we probably never will. No papers, no clothes, she looks like a Latin American to me, there's probably no record of her anywhere, the only one who'll know anything about her is the one who speared her."
    "I'm telling you that there's no way my friend would have picked up a whore." The police are always intimidating, we end up talking to them the way they talk to us in order to ingratiate ourselves, and they talk like members of the underworld.
    "Do you want to make work for me? Do you want me to have to go into those gay dives where men slow-dance together, and get my bum felt up, when the woman involved is nothing but a whore? Come off it. I'm not going to lose time or sleep over that. If your friend really did only fancy men, then you tell me what happened. And even if he did fancy men, on the night in question he obviously decided to get himself a whore, there can't be much doubt about that, sheer chance, most unfortunate. I couldn't give a damn what he did on every other night of his life, he could have been screwing his own grandfather for all I care." Now it was my turn to took at him reproachfully, but not in the least sarcastically. He might have to deal with things like that every day, but I didn't, and it was my best friend he was talking about. He was a tall, rather burly man with receding hair and somnolent eyes which, from time to time, seemed to wake up as if in the middle of a bad dream, flashing into sudden life before returning to their apparent sleepy state. He understood and added in a more patient, conciliatory tone: "Go on, then, you tell me what you think happened, give me your version of events."
    "I don't know," I said, defeated. "But, as I said, it looks like a setup to me. You should check it out, it's your job."

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