Selections from Nervous Tales

carlos-dc3adaz-dufooCarlos Díaz Dufoo (1861−1941) was a Mexican writer of fiction and nonfiction; he was also a journalist and an academic economist. He founded newspapers in his hometown of Veracruz and edited for major newspapers and journals, among other projects. His notable work of fiction is his collection Nervous Tales [Cuentos Nerviosos], which has been translated in full by American writer Michael Cisco. According to Cisco, “[Dufoo] belongs to the Decadent wing of weird fiction… It is of chief interest to students of weird fiction in that it represents the delirium and the sense of unreality that attended the modernist period.” We strongly recommend those who read the following selections from Nervous Tales to also read Cisco’s full introduction to Dufoo, which can be found elsewhere on this site. – The Editors

***

A Doubt

The sea:  rising, from the depths of a leaden sky, the sun gives off plumes of light, that reflect from the reddened face of a drunk in the mirror of an immensity that vanishes in the indecisive line of the horizon.  Waves toss marine plants, that resemble the floating hair of cadavers submerged in the waters.

The boat drives on ponderously;  apparently oppressed by the somnolence that lies on the ocean;  the whirring of the propeller moans who knows what song of boundless sorrow;  it is a lugubrious and wordless howling that reminds one of the lamentations of a man lying in the agony of his hospital bed.  The machinery snarls fiercely, like a giant crushed beneath an enormous weight.

In the prow, a heterogeneous scene:  half-naked sailors, with gleaming backs and glistening torsos;  stray dogs sniffing at their bowls;  cows, with gaping eyes, chickens, sheep, much coming and going;  a motley of colors;  cries and imprecations, songs and curses.  At the helm, indifferently braving the rays of the sun and the waves’ reflected light, is the captain;  small, nervous, keen-eyed, made to sound out the infinite.

The boat sails on over a lake of fire;  the light slithers over the surface of the water and each advancing wave takes on the appearance of a gush of blood.  The wind whispers in asphixiating gusts, the breath of a furnace that whips up the black vapor of the chimney and takes delight in it.

The cries, the songs, the oaths begin to die out:  a stupid topor overtakes the ship;  it manifests in a settling indisposition to work;  wavering drunkenly, stumbling, trying to straighten up, falling back to gaze out at the water, as if they were looking for freshness there.

Suddenly, an explosion, an alarm, a livid plume of smoke, something like a nervous shock running through a titan organism … A prodigious lurch … a momentary halt in the panting charge of the monster, something like the flailing of a bird wounded in midflight … And cries, and moans, and prayers, and blasphemies, this time thrown up in a paroxysm of impotent and enraged desperation.

The man from between decks rushes down:  clambering over narrow stairways hanging over nothingness, dark passageways, slender railings, and descending, forever descending, falling like the angel of wounded pride before the wrath of Jehovah.  An enormous maw gapes at his feet:  a breath of hell rises from the pit.  The man stops and peers into the gloom:  it is a horrendous sight.

In the depths, in the midst of a formless jumble of objects, there is a thing that groans and shudders:  it is a human body transformed into a palpitating mass:  a thing with neither eyes nor scalp;  the arms and legs torn off, and the trunk, lacerated and covered with wounds, shakes convulsively.  Over this heap of blood and flesh are bent two or three human heads.

The man from between decks drops into the black mouth;  and already there is one more who has just joined the group.  Quickly he acquaints himself with what happened:  it was the flux in the boiler that caused the explosion, and injured the mechanic.

He lowers his gaze, and his eyes meet in the dark with the gaze of the other man kneeling there:  it is the doctor.  He remains like this for a moment, his eyes shining with their own light;  then the kneeling man gets to his feet, and with voices lowered, a couple of paces from the still writhing mass, a brief dialogue occurs, with rapid words:

– He’s done for.

– How long?

– Six hours, at most.

– That’s it?

– That’s it.

Nothing more.  Then, the man from between decks, cold, calm, takes his revolver from his belt, slowly cocks it, points it at the dying man, and presses the cold mouth of the weapon against the region of the heart …

A few seconds pass … the shadow of a doubt pierces the heart of this man with its claws … He straightens up slowly, uncocks the gun and turns aside, putting it back in his belt.

***

The wounded man died six hours later.

And the captain, between decks, sounding the infinite, in a red and golden sunset, interrogated his conscience whether evil and piety could be confused for one another some time in life.

 

The Death of the “Master”

There was actually displayed, in one of the shop windows of the capital, a suit belonging to Espartero, who died in the Plaza de Madrid last May.  Singular coincidence:  while the people of Madrid took in the last breath of the young bullfight, a Spanish painter of merit — Villegas — was taking the gold medal at the Viennese Exposition for his painting The Death of the ‘Master’.”  I have seen a photograph of this canvas:  a chapel;  to the left an altarpiece, covered with flowers:  in the background, an iron grate, and a scrap of sun-reddened sky:  in the foreground, a stretcher, and a pale head upon the pillow, exactly so, with sunken eyes, sleeping, a firm nose and a clear brow:  on this visage overcast by the deep shadows of the night everlasting, are the pink outlines of a pretty girl’s face:  a white shawl covers a head of black, lustrous hair, her complexion yet flushed up with the excitement of the fight, a prayer on her lips and in her eyes the sinister gleam of the Roman hetaira that cheers on her gladiator:  at his feet, the priest murmurs the prayer for the dead;  and in the middle ground, in the midst of a group of women — tradesmen’s assistants with a cape embroidered in gold, picadors in short yellow trousers, youths in their red blouses — motionless, grounded, somber, some holding sheets, others holding aloft, at the entrance, the wide sombreros with blood red pompoms, in the hand of a banderillero the rehilete torn from the neck of the animal, contemplating the last sad flickerings of a soul that is departing, while there, to someplace far away, divining, sensing, the furious cries of a people drunken with tragedy, calling for more blood.  Such is “The Death of the ‘Master.’ ”

***

The matador tightens the little silk band, encircling his belt like a snake, gives himself the right silhouette, arrogant and flexible as a sword, smiles, kisses the hair of his beloved and betrothed, smokes a cigarillo, coming into his own.

Already the shining landau is here:  it waits at the front door;  he embraces one last time — ah!  perhaps for the last time — the pale little gypsy, who stifles a sob in her throat, and to  the small bed of rosewood, raising the gauze screens and placing a kiss, — a sigh or a tear — upon the little curly brown head sleeping the sleep of the angels, while the priest readies himself to placate with his blood that crowd which has invaded the plaza, which cries aloud, which gesticulates, which rages and blasphemes.  And rising, the sun sheds its light and tosses its golden cape from mountain to mountain.

***

How sad is the mass in the chapel in the plaza!  The priest raises the Santa Forma, even as the multitude shouts and the band lays out the harmonies of the paso-doble:  the men’s suits sparkle and shimmer;  the combinations undulate and are broken down by the sunlight, jumping, skipping, dashing crazily over steely muscles and atheletic torsos.  Already they are raising their brows, already they are rising from their knees, already the vibrant notes of the bugle proclaim the battle, already the enthusiasm overflows, already the blood races! …

***

And later … the stretcher bearing a pale head, the pretty girl with the white shawl and black hair, the priest who recites his last prayer, the group of somber and grounded people, a scrap of sky illuminated by a brushtroke of sun, and there far away, the shouting throng crying for more blood.

***

And so in the rosewood bed the little head of dark curls sleeps the sleep of angels and smiles sweetly at the arrival of an indistinct figure who bends over the forehead and bestows a kiss, a sigh, or a tear.

 

The Sentinel

Night, a clear and fragrant night, of mild star light and a faint breath of roses;  the trees twist like tragic ghosts, the road loops in white coils, seeming like a monstrous reptile;  in the distance, metallic sounds and dull rumblings spread out in waves and disturb the august stillness.  From time to time, a sharp cry;  it is the voice of a sentinel, with the wind billowing in his ample tunic, sounding first like a curse, then like a groan, then again like a sigh, until it is lost in the mystery of the night.  Later, the silence, the calm, this immensity filled with eyes that do not see and with voices no one hears, invisibly making its rounds, slapping the watcher in the face and chuckling mutely to itself, riders on a moonbeam, wrapped in luminous dust, blanketed in the shadows of the bushes, dancing their insane dance in an unknowable point in space.

Below, the battalion sleeps in the shade of a small wood;  the journey had been hard:  onwards!  ever onwards!  across a country strewn with poppies and scourged by a fiery sun.  And now, they all rest, all, except Pedro, the sentinel, who has gone to sit at the edge of a pathway and count over the rosary of his memories.  He’s been here thinking for an hour, alone, forgotten, and believing he is in a world apart;  seeming as if he has embarked on a new life, subtle and weird in which the sensations are deeper and more vivid.

What is Pedro thinking about while his companions sleep?

Ah!  He is absorbed by the contemplation of a sad story.  A few nights ago, a comrade, a young man like himself, committed suicide, hung himself from a tree, while keeping watch.  And now in his memory the livid face appears, eyes open, mouth contorted, and hair bristling.  And this boy had been a strapping fellow contented with life, happy and full of chatter.

Only that — he had said it was nothing — he felt as cowardly as a child before the idea that he might some night be compelled to do sentry duty.  No!  he, that had shown shown heroic courage in battle, trembled like a leaf at the thought of performing a service no one thought twice about.

And, finally, one night it was his turn.  At the announcement, he was seen to turn pale, a shadow fell over his features, and later, looking very deflated, he told Pedro, taking a small package from within shirt, “This is for my mother.”  And as the other looked at him in surprise, without understanding:  “Yes, you give it to her;  I won’t be alive tomorrow.”

And with an effort he forced himself to go.

At dawn the next morning, he was found hanging in a tree:  strangled by his own rifle strap.

And Pedro was turning it all over in his mind, while the night continued to unfold around him, clear and fragrant.

Die!  What for?  Why did this idea strike him suddenly?  Life still had it intense happinesses, infinite delights … And he turned his eyes toward one dear little corner of the world, where an old woman had blessed him, and bathed his head in her tears.

And Pedro got to his feet and passed his gaze over the night.

The stars, like white roses, were drifting across the sky, marching, floating along through tissues of light, and seeming to call to him from on high.  He lowered his eyes and turned his attention to the earth.

An oak, old and wrinkled, rose in front of him;  its branches were outspread, forming a green nest, and stirred by the wind they murmured sweet phrases in the sentinel’s ears.

How rare is the melody of this concert!

He seated himself under the tree and listened.

The branches say:  Come!  come!  in an ecstasy of love.  We embrace with everlasting bands, we will weave a diadem for your temples, we will cover your body in shadows.  We will be yours, come, love us.

And the stars:  Follow us, pale brother.  There is no happiness like this down below, rise up, ascend, come join us.  We will bathe your limbs in dew, we will carry you to white spaces where the light scatters into colors and leaps and plays.

And the flowers laugh ironically:  ha! ha! ha! ha!

Then Pedro raised his eyes and saw, swinging from a branch, the body of his dead comrade.  But, oh miracle! those glassy eyes are alive, ablaze with pleasure, and those contorted lips are sweetened by a smile, and the hair forms a resplendent aurora around the head.

And he too laughs, with malice, but with a lugubrious cackling, somber, almost sinister:  hee! hee! hee! hee!

Pedro covers his face with his hands and tries to remember:  mother!  the little village!  the church crowned in glory! …

And the stars keep on whispering in his ears:  Come!  come!

And the branches of the oak murmuringly caress him.

And the flowers laugh.

And the hanged man cackles with his plaintive and dolorous voice.

Then Pedro, detaching the strap from his Remington, fixes one end to a branch and begins wrapping the other around his throat.

***

It was a clear and fragrant night, of mild star light and a faint breath of roses …

One reply to “Selections from Nervous Tales

  1. Pingback: Magpie Monday | Robert E. Stutts