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Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction

Thanathopia

by Rubén Darío

Translation by Peter Robertson

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor


(Buenos Aires, 1893)

"You may already be aware that my father was John Leen, the famous London doctor and much-feted Member of the Royal Society of Psychic Research. My father was highly regarded in scientific circles on account of his research into hypnotism and a learned treatise on senility. He hasn't been dead long, and may he rest in peace."

James Leen quaffed his beer and went on.

"I expect that, when you have got together for your carousing, I have been the object of your mockery. If that makes you feel better, then so be it. But, as you scoff at what you consider to be my manias, don't forget Hamlet's words to Horatio: 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"

"No doubt you are oblivious to the fact that I have suffered, and continue to suffer, when you hold me up to scorn. Indeed, there are moments when I feel that each of my limbs is being pulled in every direction on a rack. How many times do I have to tell you my story in order to convince you? I can only sleep during the day. I quail at the sight of those abandoned, forlorn dwellings. As I walk up my pathway at night, I shudder at the strange sounds emerging from the shrubbery. I feel a marked aversion to bats and other winged creatures. No matter whether I am at home or abroad, I refuse outright to visit any cemetery. And it is more than I can bear to listen to even one of these conversations about the nature of the afterlife. When there is no way out, and I am forced to listen, I long to close my eyes, find refuge in sleep, and wake up in the consoling daylight."

"But the greatest torture to me is that word I can scarcely bring myself to mention: corpse. No matter how you tried, you would never persuade me to stay in a house with a corpse—not even if it were my best friend's. That word--corpse--has to be the most hideous that disfigures our language. Well, maybe I am fighting a losing battle. I could spend the rest of my life trying to convince you, but I suspect you will go on mocking me ad infinitum. But it is at least some consolation that you be apprised of the true facts, which I have not disclosed till now. You should be aware that I arrived in the Argentine Republic on the run, having been kidnapped, then held captive, by my unscrupulous pater. Incidentally, I don't consider that my father's erudition in any way mitigates his criminality. It was he who signed the papers handing me over to the mental institution. And his motive? He lived in constant fear that I would reveal his heinous secret to the world, the secret I am going to tell you now because I can no longer keep it to myself, it has been so much of a burden."

"And, to forestall all malicious accusations, I swear to you that I am not in my cups. My own father ordered my kidnapping. This is how it happened."

Sitting there that evening in the inn, James Leen, surrounded by his fellow wassailers, raised his head from his ale and continued with his story. I couldn't help but notice how disheveled he looked with that unruly mop of blonde hair. Also, as he held forth, he was occasionally afflicted by a nervous tic. James Leen has by now become something of a byword in Buenos Aires. While not exactly perceived to be an eccentric, those around him are confounded by his strange outbursts. We don't know what to think. There are times when we are of one mind that James suffers from strange delusions. But how to square such an appraisal with that luminous intellect which has led him to being held up as a shining example of pedagogy at one of our city's most prestigious schools? Were this evening's revelations a welter of deranged fancies, or the anguished outpourings of a man who genuinely could take no more? Perplexed as all of us still are, we leave it to the reader to adjudge the veracity of his account.

"My mother died when I was still a boy. After her death, my father sent me away to a boarding school in Oxford. My father, who had never really felt any affection towards me, only came to see me once a year at that school, where I served a long apprenticeship in loneliness, bereft of affection and support."

"As I said, it was at that school that I learnt how to be sad. I bore a strong resemblance to my mother, and it must have been for this reason that my father would always avoid looking at me. But I won't harp on about this as I think I'm straying from the main point."

"I know that every time I talk about my years at that school, I become intensely emotional. But please do try to understand the mainsprings of my feelings. I was telling you how lonely I felt as a boy, how I learnt to be sad at that soulless school with its high black walls, images of which still come back to haunt me on moonlit nights. It is on moonlit nights when I am a schoolboy again and see, through my bedroom window, myriad poplar trees. I never knew why there were so many poplar trees scattered throughout the school grounds, unless these rotting monsters served as sanctuaries for owls bred by the deformed, septuagenarian rector. And why did the rector breed owls? In the watches of the night, unable to sleep, I can still hear that noise the owls made as they flew past my window, all the creaking in my room, and I will never forget that voice, disembodied and portentous, that I once heard utter my name. 'James.'"

"On the day of my twentieth birthday, I was informed that my father had come to pay me a visit. Although I now loathed him, I was nonetheless happy that he had come. Let me explain this paradox by informing you that for many months I had had to bottle up my feelings, and I now desperately needed an outlet. Better my father as a confidant than no one at all."

"In the course of this meeting I noticed that my father was more affable with me than he had been in the past, and although he still refused to look me straight in the eye, at least his voice was suffused with paternal affection. I told my father outright that there was no longer anything left for me to learn at the school, and that I wanted to return with him forthwith to London. I was insistent that if forced to spend any longer at that dreary establishment, I would run the risk of dying of melancholy."

"He said, 'James, on this point we both agree. I had already decided to take you with me back to London, and we are, in fact, leaving today. The rector has told me that your health is delicate--that you suffer from insomnia and are off your food. As is the case with any excess, too much studying is counter-productive. And, that apart, there is another reason why I want to take you back with me. As you will understand, I am not getting any younger, and with each year that passes, my bachelor life becomes more onerous. In other words, you now have a step-mother. She is keen to get to know her step-son well, and as far as I am concerned, the sooner the better. So we will set off for London today.'"

"When my father mentioned to me that I now had a step-mother I remembered my own beloved mother who had radiated such sweetness and beauty. She had doted on my every whim, and my world had always revolved around her. She had been so neglected by my father, toiling in his laboratory, that she had wasted away and died. And now a step-mother! So this was my fate--to return to London to endure the tyranny of some acerbic blue-stocking. Forgive me if I am getting carried away, but sometimes it all gets too much for me and I do not know what I am saying, or perhaps the opposite is true and I know too much."

"But, despite my misgivings, I didn't remonstrate with my father, and later that day we took the train back to our London mansion."

"From the moment we arrived, opening the large wooden door and walking down the dark corridor that led to the drawing-room, I was perturbed to see that not one of the servants who had worked there during my childhood was anywhere to be found."

"As we passed them by, four or five decrepit figures clad in long back robes knelt slowly to the ground. Entering the drawing-room, I noticed that all the furniture I had loved as a boy had been replaced by inferior imitations, graceless and uninspiring. Indeed, all that remained intact, commanding the far end of the room and covered by a crepe curtain, was the portrait of my mother, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti."

"My father led me to my bedroom, located next to his laboratory. As he bade me goodnight, I felt constrained by courtesy to ask him how my step-mother was doing. He replied slowly, intoning each syllable in a voice that hovered between tenderness and apprehension. I could not begin to understand why he was talking to me in such a way."

"'You will meet your step-mother later,' he said. 'Rest assured that you are going to meet each other, and soon. But I see that you are tired after your journey. Why not sleep for a while, and you will meet her when you awake."

"Angels of heaven, why, in my hour of need, did you fail to come to my aid? And you, my dear mother, whom I have always adored, why did you not take me with you when you died? I would rather have been swallowed up by an abyss, pulverized by a rock, or reduced to ashes by a flash of lightning than endure what lay in store for me."

"Overcome with exhaustion and clad in the same clothes I had worn for the journey, I lay down on the bed. I was nodding off when I heard one of the servants enter my room, muttering some kind of incantation. I felt that his mumbo-jumbo and piercing, maleficent eyes must surely induce nightmares. He went up to the candelabra, where he lit three candles, and when I awoke the next morning, the candles were still burning."

"I washed and got dressed. It was then I heard footsteps walking down the corridor, and my father entered my room. For the first time his eyes met mine. There are no words in any language to describe those eyes. You have never seen eyes like these, and you will be blessed if you never do see their like. The retinas were bloody, a rabbit's eyes, and their expression terrifying."

"'Are you ready, James?' he asked. 'Your step-mother is waiting to meet you in the drawing-room.'"

"And indeed, there on a high-backed chair, like a throne, a woman was sitting."

"'Don't be shy James, go up and introduce yourself!'"

"An automaton, I did as I was told. The woman in the chair held out her hand to me. And then I heard, emerging from behind the crepe curtain that covered my mother's portrait, that same voice I had once heard at school, but this time more mournful. 'James.'"

"I held out my hand to my step-mother. But her hand, pure ice and rigid, chilled me to the bone. I stammered out a greeting, but even as I spoke, my step-mother averted her eyes from mine."

"My father said, 'This is our dear James. Look at him, as now he is not only my son but yours.'"

"Compliant with his bidding, my step-mother looked at me. The very sight of her made me gnash my teeth. Her eyes were devoid of any semblance of life. And as I started to perceive the truth, I felt that I might suddenly plummet into madness. As I stood there before her, my hair standing on end, the stench of death--yes, I swear to you that it was that--overcame me with its pungency."

"And, all of a sudden, from these bloodless lips, as if from some subterranean depth, a voice resounded."

"'Our dear son, come closer so I can kiss you on the forehead and then on the lips.'"

"Her request was more than I could bear, and I shrieked, 'Mother, wherever you may be in my hour of need, come to help me. Angels of Mercy, come to my aid. Deliver me from this evil, you powers of heaven.'"

"My father approached me."

"'James,' he said. 'Don't get so agitated. Calm down this instant.'"

"But I shouted even louder, wrestling with the servants."

"'No,' I shouted. 'I will leave this place and tell the world that Doctor Leen, my father, is a murderer and married to a vampire.'"

 

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