THE DEVIL AND MISS PRYM
Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor
Harper Collins Ptty/stars
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First published in English by HarperCollinsPwfe/js/ws 2001 This edition published 2002
13579 10 8642
© Paulo Coelho 2000
English translation © Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor
Paulo Coelho asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN 0 00 711605 5
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Omnia Books Limited, Glasgow
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Hail Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who turn to Thee for help. Amen.
ALSO BY PAULO COELHO
By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept
The Fifth Mountain
Veronika Decides to Die
And a certain ruler asked him, saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said unto him, ‘Why callest thou me good? None is good, save one, that is
... million copies and is reigned as the most translated book in ... The book The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho in 1987. To date, it sold 35 ... answer. Lastly, and probably what really stole a good bit of me is the foreign phrase maktub that ... the King of Salem. He tells the boy about good and bad omens and says that it is the ...
Luke 18: 18-19
The first story about division comes from ancient Persia: the god of time, having created the universe, sees harmony all around him, but feels that there is still something very important missing – a companion with whom to share all this beauty.
For a thousand years, he prays for a son. The story does not say to whom he prays, given that he is omnipotent, the sole, supreme lord; nevertheless, he prays and, finally, he becomes pregnant.
When he realises he has achieved his heart’s desire, the god of time is filled with remorse, suddenly conscious of how fragile the balance of things is. But it is too late and the child is already on its way. All he achieves by his lamentations is to cause the son he is carrying in his belly to divide into two.
The legend recounts that just as Good (Ormuzd) is born out of the god of time’s prayers, so Evil (Ahriman) is
born out of his remorse – twin brothers.
confusion. However, Evil – being very intelligent and resourceful – manages to push Ormuzd aside at the moment of their birth, and thus is the first to see the light of the stars.
Distraught, the god of time resolves to forge alliances on Ormuzd’s behalf: he brings into being the human race so that they can fight alongside Ormuzd and stop Ahriman taking control of everything.
In the Persian legend, the human race is born to be the ally of Good, and, according to tradition, Good will triumph in the end. However, many centuries later, another story about division emerges, this time presenting the opposite
view: man as the instrument of Evil.
I imagine that most people will know which story I mean. A man and a woman are in the Garden of Eden, enjoying every imaginable delight. But one thing is forbidden: the couple can never know the meaning of Good and Evil. The Lord God says (Genesis 2: 17: ‘But of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, thou shalt not eat of it…’.
And one fine day the serpent appears, swearing that this knowledge is more important than paradise itself and that they should possess that knowledge. The woman refuses, saying that God has threatened her with death, but the serpent assures her that nothing of the kind will happen but quite the contrary, for on the day when they learn what
... us to examine our understanding of the good, evil and the existence of God. Perry shows a clear position of ... communication to his omniscient God for what God already knows, thereby wasting God's time and his time. In fact, she ... the notion of an afterlife. Miller claims the people who did the bad thing may have a ... to solve her argument and points out his story can include a vice-devil for earthquakes, an ...
paradise is destroyed, and the pair are driven out of paradise and cursed. Yet there remain some enigmatic words spoken by God and which confirm what the serpent said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know Good and Evil…’. Here, too (as with the god of time who prays for something even though he himself is the lord of the universe), the Bible fails to explain to whom the one God is speaking, and
– assuming he is unique – why he should use the expression ‘owe of US’.
Whatever the answer, it is clear that from its very inception
the human race has been condemned to exist within the eter-
nal division, always moving between those two opposing poles. So here we are, afflicted by the same doubts as our ancestors. The aim of this book is to tackle this theme, occasionally interpolating into the plot other legends on the subject drawn from the four corners of the earth.
The Devil and Miss Prym concludes the trilogy And on the Seventh Day. The first two books were: By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept (1994 and Veronika Decides to Die (1998. Each of the three books is concerned with a week in the life of ordinary people, all of who find themselves suddenly confronted by love, death and power. I have always believed that in the lives of individuals, just as in society at
such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready.
The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back. A week is more than enough time for us to decide whether or not to accept our destiny.
Buenos Aires, August 2000
For almost fifteen years, old Berta had spent every day sitting outside her front door. The people of Viscos knew that this was normal behaviour amongst old people: they sit dreaming of the past and of their youth; they look out at a world in which they no longer play a part and try to find something to talk to the neighbours about.
Berta, however, had a reason for being there. And that morning her waiting came to an end when she saw the stranger climbing the steep hill up to the village, heading for its one hotel. He did not look as she had so often imagined he would: his clothes were shabby, he wore his hair unfashionably long, he was unshaven.
... people, actions or conditions exist. Describe time in absolute time, relative time, and dimensions. 2. ) Development of time. The earliest know calendar was 6000 years ... grow and town, villages, and cities to grow also. Having a surplus means that people could have other occupations ... , December 22. 43. ) creationist - The belief a god or goddess named deity controlled the universe and everything. Deity ...
And he was accompanied by the Devil.
‘My husband’s right,’ she said to herself. ‘If I hadn’t been here, no one would have noticed.’
She was hopeless at telling people’s ages and put the man’s somewhere between forty and fifty. ‘A youngster,’ she thought, using a scale of values that only old people under-
stand. She wondered how lone he would be stayine. but
just stay one night before moving on to a fate about which she knew nothing and cared even less.
Even so, all the years she had spent sitting by her front door waiting for his arrival had not been in vain, because they had taught her the beauty of the mountains, something she had never really noticed before, simply because she had been born in that place and had always tended to take the landscape for granted.
As expected, the stranger went into the hotel. Berta wondered if she should go and warn the priest about this undesirable visitor, but she knew he wouldn’t listen to her, dismissing the matter as the kind of thing old people like to worry about.
So now she just had to wait and see what happened. It doesn’t take a devil much time to bring about destruction; they are like storms, hurricanes or avalanches, which, in a few short hours, can destroy trees planted two hundred years before. Suddenly, Berta realised that the mere fact that Evil had just arrived in Viscos did not change anything: devils come and go all the time without necessarily affecting anything by their presence. They are constantly abroad in the world, some times simply to find out what’s going on, at others to put some soul or other to the test. But they are fickle creatures, and there is no logic in their choice of target, being drawn merely by the pleasure of a battle worth
anyone for more than a day, let alone someone as important and busy as a messenger from the dark.
She tried to turn her mind to something else, but she couldn’t get the image of the stranger out of her head. The sky, which had been clear and bright up until then, suddenly clouded over.
... of The Worlds Senses. In the book The Stranger by Albert Camus, Meursault was the main ... physical objects and its orientation, colors, shapes, and time.He was always distracted and very sensitive to the ... want to see his mother for the last time; nevertheless, he would notice little details about ... and sound were mentioned during the encounter. This time, because of the extreme heat and the glare ...
‘That’s normal, it always happens at this time of year,’ she thought. It was simply a coincidence and had nothing to do with the stranger’s arrival.
Then, in the distance, she heard a clap of thunder, followed by another three. On the one hand, this simply meant that rain was on the way; on the other, if the old superstitions of the village were to be believed, the sound could be interpreted as the voice of an angry God, protesting that mankind had grown indifferent to His presence.
‘Perhaps I should do something. After all, what I was waiting for has finally happened.’
She sat for a few minutes, paying close attention to everything going on around her; the clouds had continued to gather above the village, but she heard no other sounds. As a good ex-Catholic, she put no store by traditions and superstitions, especially those of Viscos, which had their roots in the ancient Celtic civilisation that once existed in the place.
‘A thunderclap is an entirely natural phenomenon. If God wanted to talk to man, he wouldn’t use such roundabout methods.’
this time. Berta got to her feet, picked up her chair and went into her house before the rain started; but this time she felt
her heart contract with an indefinable fear.
‘What should I do?’
Again she wished that the stranger would simply leave at once; she was too old to help herself or her village, far less assist Almighty God, who, if He needed any help, would surely have chosen someone younger. This was all just some insane dream; her husband clearly had nothing better to do than to invent ways of helping her pass the time.
But of one thing she was sure, she had seen the Devil.
In the flesh and dressed as a pilgrim.
The hotel was, at one and the same time, a shop selling local products, a restaurant serving food typical of the region, and a bar where the people of Viscos could gather to talk about what they always talked about: how the weather was doing, or how young people had no interest in the village. ‘Nine months of winter, three months of hell,’ they used to say, referring to the fact that each year they had only ninety days to carry out all the work in the fields, fertilising, sowing, waiting, then harvesting the crops, storing the hay and shearing the sheep.
... forces of evil are led by "The Tall Man", "The Ageless Stranger", Randall Flagg. It should be noted that ... evenings and weekends. I imagine this was the time he finished writing the book that would make ... was at the time, and in Stratford, Connecticut. As a child Stephen ... by their mother. In his childhood he spent time Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his father's family ...
Everyone who lived there knew they were clinging to a world whose days were numbered; even so, it was not easy for them to accept that they would be the last generation of the farmers and shepherds who had lived in those mountains for centuries. Sooner or later the machines would arrive, the livestock would be reared far from there on special food, the village itself might well be sold to a big multinational that
would turn it into a ski resort.
That is what had happened to other villages in the region, but Viscos had resisted – because it owed a debt to the past,
The stranger carefully read the form he was given to fill in at the hotel, deciding what he was going to put. From his accent, they would know he came from some South American country, and he decided it should be Argentina, because he really liked their football team. In the space left for his address, he wrote Colombia Street, knowing that South Americans are in the habit of paying homage to each other by naming important places after neighbouring countries. As his name, he chose that of a famous terrorist from
the previous century.
In less than two hours, all the 281 inhabitants of Viscos knew that a stranger named Carlos had arrived in the village, that he had been born in Argentina and now lived in a pleasant street in Buenos Aires. That is the advantage of very small villages: without making the slightest effort, you can learn all there is to know about a person’s life.
Which was precisely what the newcomer wanted.
He went up to his room and unpacked his rucksack: it contained a few clothes, a shaving kit, an extra pair of shoes, vitamins to ward off colds, a thick notebook to write in, and eleven bars of gold, each weighing two kilos. Worn out by tension, by the climb and by the weight he had been carrying, the stranger fell asleep almost at once, though not before placing a chair under the door handle, even though he knew he
could count on each and every one of Viscos’ 281 inhabitants.
The next morning he ate breakfast, left his dirty clothes at reception to be laundered, put the gold bars back in his rucksack, and set off for the mountain to the east of the village. On his way, he saw only one villager, an old woman sitting in front of her house, who was looking at him with great interest.
... exposed to them on a daily basis on the time. The fact that these people live in such poverty ... explore and find out things for themselves. Until that time they are influenced by how the adults around them ... excuse of using Adam as a reason to rid men of their responsibilities is one of the biggest mistakes ... Rauschenbusch: A Man Ahead of His Time "Theology is the esoteric thought of the Church." (WR ...
He plunged into the forest, where he waited until his hearing had become used to the noises made by the insects and birds, and by the wind rattling the leafless branches; he knew that in a place like this someone could easily be observing him without his being aware of it, so he stood there for almost an hour without doing anything.
When he felt sure that any possible observer would have lost interest and moved on without anything to report, he dug a hole close to a rocky outcrop in the shape of a Y and hid one of the bars there. Then he climbed a little higher, spent another hour as if in rapt contemplation of nature, spotted another rocky outcrop – this time in the form of an eagle – and dug another hole, in which he placed the remaining ten gold bars.
The first person he saw as he walked back to the village was a young woman sitting beside one of the many temporary rivers that formed when the ice melted high up in the mountains. She looked up from her book, acknowledged his presence, and resumed her reading; doubtless her mother had
know, and so he went over to her.
‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Very hot for the time of year.’
She nodded in agreement.
The stranger went on: ‘I’d like you to come and look at something.’
She politely put down her book, held out her hand, and
‘My name’s Chantal. I work in the evenings at the bar of the hotel where you’re staying, and I was surprised when you didn’t come down to dinner, because a hotel doesn’t make its money just from renting rooms, you know, but from everything the guests consume. You are Carlos from Argentina and you live in Colombia Street; everyone in the village knows that already, because a man arriving here outside of the hunting season is always an object of curiosity. A man in his fifties, with greying hair,
and the look of someone whom has been around a bit.
‘And thank you for your invitation, but I’ve already seen the landscape around Viscos from every possible and imaginable angle; perhaps it would be better if I showed you places you haven’t seen, but I suppose you must be very busy.’
‘I’m 52, my name isn’t Carlos, and everything I wrote on
the form at the hotel is false.’
Chantal didn’t know what to say. The stranger went on:
‘It’s not Viscos I want to show you. It’s something you’ve
never seen before.’
without trace. For a moment she was afraid, but her fear was quickly replaced by a desire for adventure: after all, this man wouldn’t dare do anything to her when she had just told him that everyone in the village knew all about him – even if none of the details were actually true.
‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘If what you say is true, surely you realise I could turn you in to the police for passing yourself off with a false identity?’
‘I promise to answer all your questions, but first you have to come with me, because I really do want to show you something. It’s about five minutes’ walk from here.’
Chantal closed her book, took a deep breath and offered up a silent prayer, while her heart beat in fear and excitement. Then she got up and followed the stranger, convinced that this would prove to be yet another disappointing encounter, one which started out full of promise and turned into yet another dream of impossible love.
The man went over to the Y-shaped rock, indicated the recently dug earth, and suggested she uncover what lay buried there.
‘I’ll get my hands dirty,’ protested Chantal. ‘I’ll get my dress dirty too.’
The man grabbed a branch, broke it and handed it to her to use as a spade. She found such behaviour distinctly odd, but decided to do as he asked.
She did as she was told. The man led her to the next
hiding place. Again she began digging, and this time was astonished at the quantity of gold she saw before her.
‘That’s gold too. And it’s also mine,’ said the stranger.
Chantal was beginning to cover the gold over again with soil, when he asked her to leave the hole as it was. He sat down on one of the rocks, lit a cigarette, and stared at the horizon.
‘Why did you want to show me this?’ she asked.
He didn’t respond.
‘Who are you exactly? And what are you doing here? Why did you show me this, knowing I could go and tell everyone what’s hidden here on the mountain?’
‘So many questions all at once,’ the stranger replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the mountains, as if oblivious to her presence. ‘As for telling the others, that’s precisely what I want you to do.’
‘You promised me that, if I came with you, you would answer any questions I asked you.’
‘In the first place, you shouldn’t believe in promises. The world is full of them: promises of riches, of eternal salvation, of infinite love. Some people think they can promise anything, others accept whatever seems to guarantee better days ahead, as, I suspect, is your case. Those who make promises they don’t keep end up powerless and frustrated, and exactly the same fate awaits those who believe those promises.’
destiny, about the lies he had been obliged to believe because he could not accept reality. He needed, rather, to use the kind of language the young woman would understand.
Chantal, however, had understood just about everything. Like all older men, he was obsessed with the idea of sex with a younger woman. Like all human beings, he thought money could buy whatever he wanted. Like all strangers, he was sure that young women from remote villages were naive enough to accept any proposal, real or imaginary, provided it offered a faint chance of escape.
He was not the first and would not, alas, be the last to try and seduce her in that vulgar way. What confused her was the amount of gold he was offering: she had never imagined she could be worth that much, and the thought both pleased her and filled her with a sense of panic.
‘I’m too old to believe in promises,’ she said, trying to gain time.
‘Even though you’ve always believed in them and still do?’
‘You’re wrong. I know I live in paradise and I’ve read the Bible and I’m not going to make the same mistake as Eve, who wasn’t contented with her lot.’
This was not, of course, true, and she had already begun to worry that the stranger might lose interest and leave. The truth was that she had spun the web, setting up their meeting
which to dream of a possible new love and a one-way ticket out of the valley where she was born. Her heart had already been broken many times over, and yet she still believed she was destined to meet the man of her life. At first, she had let many chances slip by, thinking that the right person had not yet arrived, but now she had a sense that time was passing more quickly than she had thought, and she was prepared to leave Viscos with the first man willing to take her, even if she felt nothing for him. Doubtless, she would learn to love him
– love, too, was just a question of time.
‘That’s precisely what I want to find out: are we living in paradise or in hell?’ the man said, interrupting her thoughts.
Good, he was falling into her trap.
‘In paradise. But if you live somewhere perfect for a long time, you get bored with it in the end.’
She had thrown out the first bait. She had said, though not in so many words: ‘I’m free, I’m available.’ His next question would be: ‘Like you?’
‘Like you?’ the stranger asked.
She had to be careful, she mustn’t seem too eager or she might scare him off.
‘I don’t know. Sometimes I think that and sometimes I
think my destiny is to stay here and that I wouldn’t know
how to live far from Viscos.’
The next step: to feign indifference.
‘Right, then, since you won’t tell me anything about the gold you showed me, I’ll just thank you for the walk and return to my river and my book.’
‘Just a moment!’
The stranger had taken the bait.
‘Of course I’ll explain about the gold; why else would I have brought you here?’
Sex, money, power, promises. But Chantal decided to pretend that she was expecting some amazing revelation; men take the oddest satisfaction in feeling superior, without knowing that most of the time they are being utterly predictable.
‘You’re obviously a man with a great deal of experience,
someone who could teach me a lot.’
That was it. Gently slacken the rope and then lavish a little light praise on your prey so as not to frighten him off. That was an important rule to follow.
‘However, you have a dreadful habit of making long speeches about promises or about how we should behave, instead of replying to a simple question. I’d be delighted to stay if only you’d answer the questions I asked you at the start: who exactly are you? And what are you doing here?’
The stranger turned his gaze from the mountains and looked at the young woman in front of him. He had worked for many years with all kinds of people and he knew – almost for certain what she must be thinking. She probably thought he had shown her the gold in order to impress her with his wealth, just as now she was trying to impress him with her youth and indifference. ‘Who am I? Well, let’s say I’m a man who, for some time now, has been searching for a particular truth. I finally discovered the theory, but I’ve never put it into practice.’
‘What sort of truth?’
‘About the nature of human beings. I discovered that confronted by temptation, we will always fall. Given the right circumstances, every human being on this earth would be willing to commit evil.’
‘It’s not a question of what you or I think, or of what we want to believe, but of finding out if my theory is correct. You want to know who I am. Well, I’m an extremely rich and famous industrialist, who held sway over thousands of employees, was ruthless when necessary and kind when I had to be.
‘I’m a man who has experienced things that most people never even dream of, and who went beyond all the usual limits in his search for both pleasure and knowledge. A man who found paradise when he thought he was a prisoner to the hell of routine and family, and who found hell when he could at last enjoy paradise and total freedom. That’s who I am, a man who has been both good and evil throughout his life, perhaps the person most fitted to reply to my own question about the essence of humanity – and that’s why I’m here. I know what you’re going to ask next.’
Chantal felt she was losing ground. She needed to regain it rapidly.
‘You think I’m going to ask: “Why did you show me the gold?” But what I really want to know is why a rich and
famous industrialist would come to Viscos in search of an
answer he could find in books, universities, or simply by consulting some illustrious philosopher.’
The stranger was pleased at the girl’s intelligence. Good, he had chosen the right person – as ever.
‘I came to Viscos because I had a plan. A long time ago, I went to see a play by a writer called Diirrenmatt, whom I’m sure you know …’
His comment was merely intended to provoke her: obviously a young woman like her would never have heard of Diirrenmatt, and he knew that she would again try to appear indifferent, as if she knew who he was talking about.
‘Go on,’ said Chantal, feigning indifference.
‘I’m glad to see you know his work, but let me just remind you about the particular play I mean.’ He measured his words carefully so that his remarks would not sound too sarcastic, but would also make it clear that he knew she was lying. ‘It’s
about a woman who makes her fortune and then returns to
her home town with the sole intention of humiliating and destroying the man who rejected her in her youth. Her life, her marriage and her financial success have all been motivated by the desire to take revenge on her first love.
‘So then I thought up my own game: I would go to some remote place, where everyone looked on life with joy, peace and compassion, and I would see if I could make the people there break a few of the Ten Commandments.’
Chantal looked away and stared at the mountains. She knew the stranger had realised that she had never heard of the author he was talking about and now she was afraid he would ask her about those ten commandments; she had never been very religious and had not the slightest idea what they were.
‘Everybody in this village is honest, starting with you,’ the stranger went on, ‘I showed you a gold bar, which would give you the necessary financial independence to get out of here, to travel the world, to do whatever it is young women from small, out-of-the-way villages dream of doing. The gold is going to stay there; you know it’s mine, but you could steal it if you wanted. And then you would be breaking one of the
commandments: “Thou shalt not steal”.’
The girl turned to look at the stranger.
‘As for the other ten gold bars,’ he went on, ‘they are worth enough to mean that none of the inhabitants of this village would ever need to work again. I didn’t ask you to re-bury the gold bars because I’m going to move them to a place only I will know about. When you go back to the village, I want you to say that you saw them and that I am willing to
hand them over to the inhabitants of Viscos on condition that
they do something they would never ever dream of doing.’
‘Like what, for example?’
‘It’s not an example, it’s something very concrete. I want
them to break the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.’
Her question came out like a yell.
‘Exactly what I said. I want them to commit a murder.’
The stranger saw the young woman’s body go rigid and realised she might leave at any moment without hearing the rest of the story. He needed to tell her his plan quickly.
‘I’m giving them a week. If, at the end of seven days, someone in the village is found dead – it could be a useless
Id man, or someone with an incurable illness, or a mental defective who requires constant attention, the victim doesn’t matter – then the money will go to the other villagers, and I will conclude that we are all evil. If you steal the one gold bar but the village resists temptation, or vice versa, I will conclude that there are good people and evil people which would put me in a difficult position because it would mean that there’s a spiritual struggle going on that could be won by either side. Don’t you believe in God and the spiritual world, in battles between devils and angels?’
The young woman said nothing, and this time he realised that he had mistimed his question and ran the risk of her simply turning on her heel and not letting him finish. He had better cut the irony and get to the heart of the matter.
‘If I leave the village with my eleven gold bars intact, then everything I wanted to believe in will have proved to be a lie. I will die having received an answer I would rather not have received, because I would find life more acceptable if I was proved right and the world is evil.
‘I would continue to suffer, but knowing that everyone else is suffering too would make the pain more bearable. But if only a few of us are condemned to suffer terrible tragedies, then there is something very wrong with Creation.’
Chantal’s eyes filled with tears, but she managed to fight them back.
‘Why are you doing this? Why did you choose my village?’
‘It’s nothing to do with you or with your village. I’m simply thinking of myself; the story of one man is the story
of all men. I need to know if we are good or evil. If we are good, God is just and will forgive me for all I have done, for the harm I wished on those who tried to destroy me, for the wrong decisions I took at key moments, for the proposition I am putting to you now – for He was the one who drove me
towards the dark.
‘But if we’re evil, then everything is permitted, I never took a wrong decision, we are all condemned from the start, and it doesn’t matter what we do in this life, for redemption lies beyond either human thought or deed.’
Before Chantal could leave, he added:
‘You may decide not to co-operate, in which case, I’ll tell everyone that I gave you the chance to help them, but you refused, and then I’ll put my proposition to them myself. If they do decide to kill someone, you will probably be their chosen victim.’
The inhabitants of Viscos soon grew used to the stranger’s routine: He woke early, ate a hearty breakfast and went off walking in the mountains, despite the rain that had not stopped falling since his second day in the village and which eventually turned into a near continuous snowstorm. He never ate lunch and generally returned to his hotel early in the afternoon, shut himself in his room and, so everyone supposed, went to sleep.
As soon as night fell, he resumed his walks, this time in the immediate surroundings of the village. He was always the first into the restaurant, he ordered the finest dishes and
– never taken in by the prices – always ordered the best wine, which wasn’t necessarily the most expensive; then he would smoke a cigarette and go over to the bar, where he had begun to make friends with the regulars.
He enjoyed listening to stories about the region, about the previous generations who had lived in Viscos (someone told him that once it had been a far bigger village than it was today, as you could see from the ruined houses at the far end or the three surviving streets), and about the customs and superstitions that were part of rural life, and about the new techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry.
When the time came for him to talk about himself, he told various contradictory stories, sometimes saying he had been a sailor, at others mentioning the major arms industries he had been in charge of, or talking of a time when he had abandoned everything to spend time in a monastery in search of God.
When they left the bar, the locals argued over whether or not he was telling the truth. The mayor believed that a man could be many different things in his lifetime, although the people of Viscos always knew their fate from childhood onwards; the priest was of a different opinion and regarded the newcomer as someone lost and confused, who had come there to try and find himself.
The only thing they all knew for certain was that he was only going to be there for seven days; the hotel landlady reported that she had heard him phoning the airport in the capital, confirming his departure – interestingly enough, for Africa not South America. Then, after the phone call, he had pulled out a bundle of notes from his pocket to settle the bill for his room as well as to pay for the meals he had taken and those still to come, even though she assured him that she trusted him. When the stranger insisted, the woman suggested he pay by credit card, as most of her guests usually did; that way, he would have cash available for any emergency that might arise during the remainder of his trip. She thought of adding that ‘in Africa they might not accept credit cards’, but felt it would have been indelicate to reveal that she had listened in on his conversation, or to imply that cer-
tain continents were more advanced than others.
The stranger thanked her for her concern, but refused
On the following three nights, he paid – again in cash –
for a round of drinks for everyone. Viscos had never seen anything like it, and they soon forgot about the contradictory
stories, and the man came to be viewed as friendly, generous
and open-minded, prepared to treat country folk as if they
were the equals of men and women from the big cities.
By now, the subject of the discussions had changed. When it was closing time in the bar, some of the late drinkers took the mayor’s side, saying that the newcomer was a man of the world, capable of understanding the true value of friendship, while others agreed with the priest, with his greater knowledge of the human soul, and said that the stranger was a lonely man in search either of new friends or of a new vision of life. Whatever the truth of the matter, he was an agreeable enough character, and the inhabitants of Viscos were convinced that they would miss him when he left on the following Monday.
Apart from anything else, he was extremely discreet, a quality everyone had noticed because of one particular detail: most travellers, especially those who arrived alone, were always very quick to try and strike up a conversation with the barmaid, Chantal Prym, possibly in hopes of a Meeting romance or whatever. This man, however, only spoke to her when he ordered drinks and never once traded seductive or lecherous looks with the young woman.
Shantel found it virtually impossible to sleep during the three nights of following that meeting by the river. The storm – which came and went – shook the metal blinds, making a frightening noise. She awoke repeatedly, bathed in sweat, even though she always switched off the heating at night, due to the high price of electricity.
On the first night, she found herself in the presence of God. Between nightmares – which she was unable to remember – she prayed to God to help her. It did not once occur to her to tell anyone what she had heard and thus become the messenger of
sin and death.
At one point, it seemed to her that God was much too far away to hear her, and so she began praying instead to her grandmother, who had passed away some time ago, and who had brought her up after her mother died in childbirth. She clung with all her strength to the notion that Evil had already touched their lives once and had gone away for ever.
Despite all her personal problems, Chantal knew that she
lived in a village of decent men and women who honoured
their commitments, people who walked with their heads held
high and were respected throughout the region. But it had
not always been so. For over two centuries, Viscos had been
inhabited by the very dregs of humanity, and everyone took this for granted, saying it was the consequence of a curse put on the village by the Celts when they were vanquished by the Romans.
And so things remained until the silence and courage of a single man – someone who believed not in curses, but in blessings – redeemed its people. Chantal listened to the clattering metal blinds and remembered the voice of her grandmother recounting what had happened.
‘Once, many years ago, a hermit – who later came to be
known as St Savin – lived in one of the caves hereabouts.
At the time, Viscos was little more than a frontier post, populated by bandits fleeing from justice, by smugglers and prostitutes, by confidence tricksters in search of accomplices, even by murderers resting between murders. The wickedest of them all, an Arab called Ahab, controlled the whole village and the surrounding area, imposing extortionate taxes on the local farmers who still insisted on maintaining a dignified way of life.
‘One day, Savin came down from his cave, arrived at Ahab’s house and asked to spend the night there. Ahab laughed: “You do know that I’m a murderer who has already slit a number of throats, and that your life is worth nothing
‘”Yes, I know that,” Savin replied, “but I’m tired of living in a cave and I’d like to spend at least one night here with you.”
‘Ahab knew the saint’s reputation, which was as great as vvn and this made him uneasy, for he did not like
. to share his glory with someone so weak. Thus he a termined to kill him that very night, to prove to everyone that he was the one true master of the place.
‘They chatted for a while. Ahab was impressed by what the aint had to say, but he was a suspicious man who no longer believed in the existence of Good. He showed Savin where he could sleep and then continued menacingly sharpening his knife. After watching him for a few minutes, Savin closed his eyes and went to sleep.
‘Ahab spent all night sharpening his knife. Next day, when Savin awoke, he found Ahab in tears at his side.
‘”You weren’t afraid of me and you didn’t judge me. For the first time ever, someone spent a night by my side trusting that I could be a good man, one ready to offer hospitality to those in need. Because you believed I was capable of behaving decently, I did.”
‘From that moment on, Ahab abandoned his life of crime and set about transforming the region. That was when Viscos ceased being merely a frontier post, inhabited by outcasts, and became an important trading centre on the border between two countries.’
Chantal burst into tears, grateful to her grandmother for having reminded her of that story. Her people were good, and she could trust them. While she attempted to go back to them, she even toyed with the idea of telling them the
stranger’s story, if only to see his shocked face as he was driven out of Viscos by its inhabitants.
The next day, she was surprised to see him emerge from the restaurant at the rear of the hotel, go over to the barcum-reception-cum-souvenir shop and stand around chatting to the people he met there, just like any other tourist, pretending to be interested in utterly pointless things, such as their methods of shearing sheep or of smoke-curing meat. The people of Viscos always believed that every stranger would be fascinated by their natural, healthy way of life, and they would repeat and expand upon the benefits of life away from modern civilisation, even though, deep in their hearts, every single one of them would have loved to live far from there, among cars that pollute the atmosphere and in neighbourhoods where it was too dangerous to walk, for the simple reason that big cities hold an enormous fascination for country people.
Yet every time a visitor appeared, they would demonstrate by their words – and only by their words – the joys of living in a lost paradise, trying to persuade themselves what a miracle it was to have been born there and forgetting that, so far, not one hotel guest had decided to leave it all behind and
come and live in Viscos.
There was a lively atmosphere in the bar that night, until the stranger made one rather unfortunate comment:
‘The children here are so well behaved. There’s not a squeak out of them in the mornings, not like other places I’ve visited.’
it r an awkward silence – for there were no children in
_ someone asked him what he thought of the local
• h he had just eaten, and the conversation resumed its
al rhythm, revolving, as usual, around the wonders of
countryside and the problems of life in the big city.
As time passed, Chantal became increasingly nervous,
afraid that he might ask her to tell everyone about their
meeting in the forest. But the stranger never even glanced at
her and he spoke to her only once, when he ordered – and
paid cash for – a round of drinks for everyone present.
As soon as the customers left and the stranger went up to his room, she took off her apron, lit a cigarette from a packet someone had left behind on the table, and told the hotel landlady she would do the clearing up the next morning, since she was worn out after a sleepless night. The landlady agreed, and Chantal put on her coat and went out into the cold night air.
Her room was only two minutes’ walk away, and as she let the rain pour down her face, she was thinking that perhaps everything that had happened was just some kind of crazy fantasy, the stranger’s macabre way of attracting her attention.
Then she remembered the gold: she had seen it with her own eyes.
Maybe it wasn’t gold. But she was too tired to think and as soon as she got to her room – she took off her clothes and snuggled down under the covers.
On the second night, Chantal found herself in the presence of Good and Evil. She fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, only to wake up less than an hour later. Outside, all was silence; there was no wind banging the metal blinds, not even the sounds made by night creatures; there was nothing, absolutely nothing to indicate that she was still in the world of the living.
She went to the window and looked out at the deserted
street, where a fine rain was falling, the mist barely lit by the feeble light of the hotel sign, all of which only made the village seem even more sinister. She was all too familiar with the silence of this remote place, which signified not peace and tranquillity, but a total absence of new things to say.
She looked at the mountains, which lay hidden by low cloud, but she knew that somewhere up there was buried a gold bar or, rather, a yellow object, shaped like a brick, that the stranger had left behind there. He had shown her its exact location, virtually begging her to dig up the bar and keep it for herself.
She went back to bed, tossed and turned for a while, then got up again and went to the bathroom where she examined her naked body in the mirror, spent a few moments worrying that soon she would lose her looks, then returned to bed. She regretted not having picked up the packet of cigarettes left behind on the table, but she knew that its owner was bound to come back for it, and she did not want to incur people’s mistrust. That was what Viscos was like: a half-empty cigarette packet had its owner, the button lost off a jacket had to
until someone came asking for it, every penny
had to be handed over, there was never any rounding change
bill It was a wretched place, in which everything was
predictable, organised and reliable.
Realising that she wasn’t going to be able to get to sleep,
she again attempted to pray and to think of her grandmother,
her thoughts had become fixed on a single scene: the
hole, the earth-smeared metal, the branch in her hand,
as though it were the staff of a pilgrim about to set off. She
dozed and woke up again several times, but the silence out-
side continued, and the same scene kept endlessly repeating
itself inside her head.
As soon as she noticed the first light of dawn coming in through the window, she dressed and went out.
Although she lived in a place where people normally rose with the sun, it was too early even for that. She walked down the empty street, glancing repeatedly behind her to be sure that the stranger wasn’t following her; the mist was so thick, however, that visibility was down to a few yards. She paused from time to time, listening for footsteps, but all she could hear was her own heart beating wildly.
She plunged into the undergrowth, made for the Y-shaped
rock which had always made her nervous because it looked
as if it might topple over at any moment – She picked up
the same branch she had left there the day before, dug at the
exact spot the stranger had indicated, stuck her hand into
the hole and pulled out the brick-shaped gold bar. She
thought she heard something: a silence reigned in the heart of the forest, as though there was a strange presence abroad, frightening the animals and preventing the leaves from stirring.
She was surprised by the weight of the metal in her hands. She wiped it clean, studied the marks on it: two seals and a series of engraved numbers, which she tried in vain to decipher.
How much would it be worth? She couldn’t tell with any degree of accuracy, but – as the stranger had said – it would be enough for her not to have to worry about earning another penny for the rest of her life. She was holding her dream in her hands, the thing she had always longed for, and which a miracle had set before her. Here was the opportunity to free herself from all those identical days and nights in Viscos and from the endless going back and forth to the hotel where she had worked since she was eighteen, from the yearly visits of all those friends whose families had sent them away to study and make something of themselves, from all the absences she had long since grown used to, from the men who arrived promising her the world and left the next day without even a goodbye, from all the farewells and non-farewells to which she had long become accustomed. That moment there in the forest was the most important moment of her entire life.
Life had always been so unfair to her: she didn’t know who her father was; her mother had died in childbirth, leaving her with a terrible burden of guilt to bear; her grandmother, a countrywoman, had eked out a living as a
baker saving every penny she could so that her
granddaughter could at least learn to read and write.
She had had so many dreams: she thought she could
overcome all obstacles, find a husband, get a job in the big city; overcome
be discovered by a talent scout who happened to be
ting that out-of-the-way place in the hope of finding
she get a career in the theatre, write a best-seller, have
photographers calling out to her to pose for them, walk
along life’s red carpets.
Every day was another day spent waiting. Every night was a night when she might meet someone who would recognise her true worth. Every man she took to her bed was the hope of leaving Viscos the following morning, never again to see those three streets, those stone houses with their slate roofs, the church with its cemetery beside it, the hotel selling
local handicrafts that took months to make and were sold
for the same price as mass-produced goods.
Occasionally it crossed her mind that the Celts, the ancient inhabitants of her region, might have hidden an amazing cache of treasure there, which one day she would find. Of all her dreams, that had been the most absurd, the most unlikely.
Yet here she was now with a gold bar in her hands, the measure she had never believed in, her definitive freedom.
She was seized by panic: the one lucky moment in her life
could vanish that very afternoon. What if the stranger
changed his mind? What if he decided to go in search of
her village where he might find another woman more
willing to help him in his plans? Why not stand up, go back to her room, put her few possessions into a bag and simply leave?
She imagined herself going down the steep hill, trying to hitch a ride out of the village while the stranger set out on his morning walk and found that his gold had been stolen. She would continue on her way to the nearest town and he would go back to the hotel to call the police.
Chantal would thank the driver who had given her a lift, and then head straight for the bus station and buy a ticket to some far-away place; at that moment, two policemen would approach her, asking her politely to open her suitcase. As soon as they saw its contents, their politeness would vanish: she was the woman they were looking for, following a report filed only three hours earlier.
In the police station, Chantal would have two options: to tell the truth, which no one would believe, or to explain that she had noticed the disturbed soil, had decided to investigate and had found the gold. Once, she had shared her bed with a treasure hunter also intent on unearthing something left by
the Celts. He claimed the law of the land was clear: he had the
right to keep whatever he found, although any items of historical interest had to be registered with the relevant government department. But the gold bar had no historical value at all, it was brand new, with all its stamps, seals and numbers.
The police would question the man. He would have no way of proving that she had entered his room and stolen his property. It would be his word against hers, but he might
be more influential, have friends in high places, and it could go his way. Chantal could, of course, always ask
for the police to examine the gold bar; then they would see that the ponce”
was telling the truth, for the metal would still bear traces
By now, the news would have reached Viscos, and its habitants – out of envy or jealousy – would start spreading rumours about the girl, saying that there were numerous reports that she often used to go to bed with the hotel guests; perhaps the robbery had taken place while the man was asleep.
It would all end badly: the gold bar would be confiscated until the courts had resolved the matter, she would get another lift back to Viscos, where she would be humiliated, ruined, the target of gossip that would take more than a generation to die down. Later on, she would discover that lawsuits never got anywhere, that lawyers cost much more than she could possibly afford, and she would end up abandoning the case.
The net result: no gold and no reputation.
There was another possible version: the stranger might be telling the truth. If Chantal stole the gold and simply •ert, wouldn’t she be saving the village from a much deeper disgrace?
However, even before leaving home and setting off for the
fountain, she had known she would be incapable of taking
such a step. Why, at precisely the moment that could change
her life forever, was she so afraid? After all, didn’t she sleep
with whomever she pleased and didn’t she sometimes ingratiate herself with visitors just to get a bigger tip? Didn’t she lie occasionally? Didn’t she envy her former friends who now only came back to the village to visit their families at
She clutched the gold to her, got to her feet, feeling weak and desperate, then crouched down again, replaced it in the hole and covered it with earth. She couldn’t go through with it; this inability, however, had nothing to do with honesty or dishonesty, but with the sheer terror she was feeling. She had just realised there were two things that prevent us from achieving our dreams: believing them to be impossible or seeing those dreams made possible by some sudden turn of the wheel of fortune, when you least expected it. For at that moment, all our fears suddenly surface: the fear of setting off along a road heading who knows where, the fear of a life full of new challenges, the fear of losing for ever everything that
People want to change everything and, at the same time, want it all to remain the same. Chantal did not immediately understand why, but that was what was happening to her. Perhaps she was too bound to Viscos, too accustomed to defeat, and any chance of victory was too heavy a burden
She was convinced that the stranger must now be tired of her silence and that shortly – perhaps that very afternoon –
he would decide to choose someone else. But she was too
cowardly to change her fate.
they were inferior beings, uptight and talentless – and they
believe it too.’
The stranger, however, seemed determined to show that
his culture was worth more than all the labours of the men
and women in the bar. He pointed to a print hanging on the wall:
‘Do you know what that is? It’s one of the most famous paintings in the world: The Last Supper, painted by
Leonardo da Vinci.’
‘It can’t be as famous as all that,’ said the hotel landlady. ‘It was very cheap.’
‘That’s only a reproduction: the original is in a church a long, long way from here. But there’s a story about this picture you might like to hear.’
Everyone nodded, though once again Chantal felt ashamed to be there, listening to a man showing off his pointless knowledge, just to prove that he knew more than anyone else.
‘When he was creating this picture, Leonardo da Vinci encountered a serious problem: he had to depict Good – in the person of Jesus – and Evil – in the figure of Judas, the friend who resolves to betray him during the meal. He stopped work on the painting until he could find his ideal models.
‘One day, when he was listening to a choir, he saw in one of the boys the perfect image of Christ. He invited him to his
studio and made sketches and studies of his face.
‘Three years went by. The Last Supper was almost complete, but Leonardo had still not found the perfect model for
The cardinal responsible for the church started to put
ssure on him to finish the mural.
‘After many days spent vainly searching, the artist came cross a prematurely aged youth, in rags and lying drunk in a gutter. With some difficulty, he persuaded his assistants
to bring the fellow directly to the church, since there was no time left to make preliminary sketches.
‘The beggar was taken there, not quite understanding what was going on. He was propped up by Leonardo’s assistants, while Leonardo copied the lines of impiety, sin and egotism so clearly etched on his features.
‘When he had finished, the beggar, who had sobered up slightly, opened his eyes and saw the picture before him. With a mixture of horror and sadness he said:
‘”I’ve seen that picture before!”
‘”When?” asked an astonished Leonardo.
‘”Three years ago, before I lost everything I had, at a time when I used to sing in a choir and my life was full of dreams. The artist asked me to pose as the model for the face of Jesus.”‘
There was a long pause. The stranger was looking at the priest, who was drinking his beer, but Chantal knew his words were directed at her.
‘So you see, Good and Evil have the same face; it all depends on when they cross the path of each individual human being.’
He got up, made his excuses, saying he was tired, and went up to his room. Everyone paid what they owed and
slowly left the bar, casting a last look at the cheap reproduction of the famous painting, asking themselves at what point in their lives they had been touched by an angel or a devil. Without anyone saying a word to anyone else, each came to the conclusion that this had only happened in Viscos before Ahab brought peace to the region; now, every day was like every other day, each the same as the last.
Exhausted, functioning almost like an automaton, Chantal knew she was the only person to think differently, for she alone had felt the heavy, seductive hand of Evil caressing her cheek. ‘Good and Evil have the same face, it all depends on when they cross the path of each individual human being.’ Beautiful, possibly true words, but all she really needed now was to sleep, nothing more.
She ended up giving the wrong change to one of the customers, something which almost never happened; she apologised, but did not feel overly guilty. She carried on, inscrutable and dignified, until the priest and the local mayor generally the last to leave – had departed. Then she shut up the till, gathered her things together, put on her cheap, heavy jacket and went home, just as she had done for years.
On the third night, then, she found herself in the presence of
Evil. And Evil came to her in the form of extreme tiredness
and a soaring fever, leaving her in a half-conscious state, but
incapable of sleep – while outside in the darkness, a wolf
kePt howling. Sometimes she thought she must be delirious,
for it seemed the wolf had come into her room and was talking to her in a language she couldn’t understand. In a brief
moment of lucidity, she attempted to get up and go to the church, to ask the priest to call a doctor because she was ill, very ill; but when she tried to convert her intentions into actions, her legs gave way beneath her, and she was con-
vinced she would be unable to walk.
Or, if she did manage to walk, she would be unable to
reach the church.
Or, if she did reach the church, she would have to wait for the priest to wake up, get dressed and open, the door, and meanwhile the cold would cause her fever to rise so rapidly that she would drop dead on the spot, right there outside
the house that some considered to be sacred.
‘At least they wouldn’t have far to take me to the cemetery: I’d be virtually inside it already,’ she thought.
Chantal’s delirium lasted all night, but she noticed that her fever began to diminish as the morning light came filtering into her room. As her strength returned and she was trying to get to sleep, she heard the familiar sound of a car
horn and realised that the baker’s van had arrived in Viscos
and that it must be time for breakfast.
There was no one there to make her go downstairs to buy bread; she was independent, she could stay in bed for as long as she wanted, since she only began work in the evening. But something had changed in her; she needed contact with the world, before she went completely mad. She wanted to be with the people she knew would now be gathering around the little green van, exchanging their coins for bread, happy because a new day was beginning and they had work to do and food to eat.
She went across to the van, greeting them all, and heard one
remarks like: ‘You look tired’ or ‘Is anything wrong?’.
They were kind and supportive, always ready to help, simple
• innocent in their generosity, while her soul was engaged in bitter struggle for dreams and adventures, fear and power. Much as she would have liked to share her secret, she knew that if she revealed it to a single one of them, the rest of the village would be sure to know it before the morning was over. It was better to thank them for their concern and to carry on alone until her ideas had become a little clearer.
‘No, it’s nothing. There was a wolf howling all night and I couldn’t get to sleep.’
‘I didn’t hear any wolf,’ said the hotel landlady, who was also there buying bread.
‘It’s been months since any wolves were heard in the area,’ confirmed another woman who made conserves to be sold in the hotel shop. ‘The hunters must have killed them all, which is bad news for us because the wolves are the main
reason the hunters come up here at all, to see who can kill the most elusive animal in the pack. It’s a pretty pointless exercise, but they love it.’
‘Don’t say anything in front of the baker about there being no more wolves in the region,’ muttered Chantal’s boss. ‘If word gets out, no one will come to Viscos at all.’
‘But I heard a wolf.’
1 Then it must have been the rogue wolf,’ said the mayor’s wife, who didn’t much like Chantal, but who was sufficiently Well-bred to hide her feelings.
The hotel landlady got annoyed. There was no rogue wolf. It was just an ordinary wolf, and it was probably dead by now anyway.
The mayor’s wife, however, would not give up so easily.
‘Regardless of whether or not it exists, we all know that there were no wolves howling last night. You work the poor girl too hard, up until all hours; she’s so exhausted she’s starting to get hallucinations.’
Chantal left the pair of them to their argument, picked up her bread and went on her way.
‘A pointless exercise,’ she repeated to herself, recalling the comment made by the woman who made the conserves. That was how they viewed life, as a pointless exercise. She nearly told them about the stranger’s proposal there and then, just to see if those smug, narrow-minded people would be willing to take part in a genuinely purposeful exercise: ten gold bars in exchange for a simple murder, one that would guarantee the futures of their children and their grandchildren and return Viscos to its former glory, with or without wolves.
But she held back. She decided instead to tell the
story that very night, in front of everyone, in the bar, so
that no one could claim not to have heard or understood.
Perhaps they would fall on the stranger and march him straight to the police, leaving her free to take her gold bar as a reward for services rendered to the community. Perhaps they simply wouldn’t believe her, and the stranger would depart believing that they were all good, which
wasn’t the case at all.
They were so ignorant, so naive, so resigned to their lot.
They refused to believe anything that didn’t fit in with what
they were used to believing. They all lived in fear of God.
They were all – herself included – cowards when the moment
comes to change their fate. But as far as true goodness was
concerned, that didn’t exist – not in the land of cowardly
men, nor in the heaven of Almighty God who sows suffering
everywhere, just so that we can spend our whole lives
begging him to deliver us from Evil.
The temperature had dropped. Chantal hadn’t slept for three nights, but once she was preparing her breakfast, she felt much better. She wasn’t the only coward, though she was possibly the only one aware of her own cowardice, because the rest of them thought of life as a ‘pointless exercise’ and confused fear with generosity.
She remembered a man who used to work in a chemist’s
in a nearby village and who had been dismissed after twenty years’ service. He hadn’t asked for his redundancy money because – so he said – he considered his employers to be his friends and didn’t want to hurt them, because he knew they had had to dismiss him because of financial difficulties. It was all a lie: the reason the man did not go to court was because he was a coward; he wanted at all costs to be liked; he thought his employers would then always think of him as a generous, friendly sort. Some time later, when he went back to tnem to ask for a loan, they slammed the door in his face, but by then it was too late, for he had signed a letter of resignation and could make no further demands of them.
Very clever. Playing the part of a charitable soul was only for those who were afraid of taking a stand in life. It is always far easier to have faith in your own goodness than to confront others and fight for your rights. It is always easier to hear an insult and not retaliate than have the courage to fight back against someone stronger than yourself; we can always say we’re not hurt by the stones others throw at us, and it’s only at night – when we’re alone and our wife or our husband or our school friend is asleep – that we can silently grieve over our own cowardice.
Chantal drank her coffee and hoped the day would pass quickly. She would destroy the village, she would bring Viscos to its knees that very night. The village would die within a generation anyway because it was a village without children young people had their children elsewhere, in places where people went to parties, wore fine clothes, travelled and engaged in ‘pointless exercises’.
The day, however, did not pass quickly. On the contrary, the grey weather and the low cloud made the hours drag. The mountains were obscured by mist, and the village seemed cut off from the world, turned in on itself, as if it were the only inhabited place on Earth. From her window, Chantal saw the stranger leave the hotel and, as usual, head for the mountains. She feared for her gold, but immediately
calmed herself down – he was sure to come back because he
had paid in advance for a week in the hotel, and rich men never waste a penny; only poor people do that.
She tried to read, but couldn’t concentrate. She decided to
go for a walk round Viscos, and the only person she saw was Berta the widow, who spent her days sitting outside her house, watching everything that went on.
‘It looks like it’s finally going to get cold,’ said Berta.
Chantal asked herself why people with nothing else to talk about always think the weather is so important. She nodded her agreement.
Then she went on her way, since she had said all she had to say to Berta in the many years she had lived in that village. There was a time when she had considered Berta an interesting, courageous woman, who had managed to continue her life even after the death of her husband in one of the many hunting accidents that happened each year. She had sold some of her few possessions and invested the money together with the insurance money – in securities, and she
now lived off the income.
Over time, however, the widow had ceased to be of interest to her, and had become instead an example of everything she feared she might become: ending her life sitting in a chair on her own doorstep, all muffled up in winter, staring at the only landscape she had ever known, watching over what didn’t need watching over, since nothing serious, important or valuable ever happened there.
She walked on, unconcerned at the possibility of getting
lost in the misty forest, because she knew every track, tree and
stone by heart. She imagined how exciting things would be
at night and tried out various ways of putting the stranger’s
proposal – in some versions she simply told them what she had seen and heard, in others she spun a tale that might or might not be true, imitating the style of the man who had not let her sleep now for three nights.
‘A highly dangerous man, worse than any hunter I’ve ever met.’
Walking through the woods, Chantal began to realise that she had discovered another person just as dangerous as the stranger: herself. Up until four days ago, she had been imperceptibly becoming used to who she was, to what she could realistically expect from life, to the fact that living in Viscos wasn’t really so bad – after all, the whole area was swamped with tourists in the summer, everyone of whom referred to the place as a ‘paradise’. ;
Now the monsters were emerging from their tombs, darkening her nights, making her feel discontented, put upon, abandoned by God and by fate. Worse than that, they forced her to acknowledge the bitterness she carried around inside her day and night, into the forest and to work, into those rare love affairs and during her many moments of solitude.
‘Damn the man. And damn myself too, since I was the one who made him cross my path.’
As she made her way back to the village, she regretted every single minute of her life; she cursed her mother for dying so young, her grandmother for having taught her to be honest and kind, the friends who had abandoned her and the
fate that was still with her.
Berta was still at her post.
‘You’re in a great hurry,’ she said. ‘Why not sit down beside me and relax a bit?’
Chantal did as she suggested. She would do anything to make the time pass more quickly.
‘The village seems to be changing,’ Berta said. ‘There’s something different in the air, and last night I heard the rogue wolf howling.’
The girl felt relieved. She didn’t know whether it had been the rogue wolf or not, but she had definitely heard a wolf howling that night, and at least one other person apart from her had heard it too.
‘This place never changes,’ she replied. ‘Only the seasons come and go, and now it’s winter’s turn.’
‘No, it’s because the stranger has come.’
Chantal checked herself. Could it be that he had talked to
someone else as well?
‘What has the arrival of the stranger got to do with Viscos?’
‘I spend the whole day looking at nature. Some people think it’s a waste of time, but it was the only way I could find to accept the loss of someone I loved very much. I see the seasons pass, see the trees lose their leaves and then grow new ones. But occasionally something unexpected in nature brings about enormous changes. I’ve been told, for example, that the mountains all around us are the result of an earthquake that happened thousands of years ago.’
Chantal nodded; she had learned the same thing at school.
‘After that, nothing is ever the same. I’m afraid that is precisely what is going to happen now.’
Chantal was tempted to tell her the story of the gold, but, suspecting that the old woman might know something already, she said nothing.
‘I keep thinking about Ahab, our great hero and reformer, the man who was blessed by St Savin.’
‘Because he could see that even the most insignificant of actions, however well intentioned, can destroy everything. They say that after he had brought peace to the village, driven away the remaining outlaws and modernised agriculture and trade in Viscos, he invited his friends to supper and cooked a succulent piece of meat for them. Suddenly he
realised there was no salt.
‘So Ahab called to his son: “Go to the village and buy some salt, but pay a fair price for it: neither too much nor
‘His son was surprised: “I can understand why I shouldn’t pay too much for it, father, but if I can bargain them down, why not pay a bit less?”
‘”That would be the sensible thing to do in a big city, but in a small village like ours it could spell the beginning of the end.”
‘The boy left without asking any further questions. However, Ahab’s guests, who had overheard their conversation, wanted to know why they should not buy the salt more cheaply if they could. Ahab replied:
“‘The only reason anyone would sell salt more cheaply usually would be because he was desperate for money.
anyone who took advantage of that situation would be showing a lack of respect for the sweat and struggle of the man who laboured to produce it.”
‘”But such a small thing couldn’t possibly destroy a village.”
‘”In the beginning, there was only a small amount of injustice abroad in the world, but everyone who came afterwards added their portion, always thinking it was very small and unimportant, and look where we have ended up today.”‘
‘Like the stranger, for example,’ Chantal said, hoping that Berta would confirm that she too had talked to him. But
Berta said nothing.
‘I don’t know why Ahab was so keen to save Viscos,’
Chantal went on. ‘It started out as a den of thieves and now
it’s a village of cowards.’
Chantal was sure the old woman knew something. She only had to find out whether it was the stranger himself who had told her.
‘That’s true. But I’m not sure that it’s cowardice exactly.
I think everyone is afraid of change. They want Viscos to be
as it always was: a place where you can till the soil and tend
your livestock, a place that welcomes hunters and tourists,
but where everyone knows exactly what is going to happen
from one day to the next, and where the only unpredictable
things are nature’s storms. Perhaps it’s a way of achieving
Peace’ but I agree with you on one point: they all think they
have everything under control, when, in fact, they control nothing.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Chantal.
‘Not one jot or one tittle shall be added to what is written,’ the old woman said, quoting from the Gospels. ‘But we like to live with that illusion because it makes us feel safe. Well, it’s a choice like any other, even though it’s stupid to believe we can control the world and to allow ourselves to be lulled into a false
sense of security that leaves us totally unprepared for life; because then, when you least expect it, an earthquake throws up a range of mountains, a bolt of lightning kills a tree that was preparing for its summer rebirth, or a hunting accident puts paid to the life of an honest man.’
For the hundredth time, Berta launched into the story of her husband’s death. He had been one of the most respected guides in the region, a man who saw hunting not as a savage sport, but as a way of respecting local traditions. Thanks to him, Viscos had created a special nature reserve, the mayor had drawn up laws protecting certain near-extinct species, there was a tax per head of each animal killed, and the money collected was used for the good of the community.
Berta’s husband tried to see the sport – considered cruel by some and traditional for others – as a way of teaching the hunters something about the art of living. Whenever someone with a lot of money but little hunting experience arrived in Viscos, he would take them out to a piece of waste ground. There, he would place a beer can on top of
Then he would stand about fifty yards from the can and, with a single shot, send it flying.
‘I’m the best shot in the region,’ he would say. ‘And now
you’re going to learn how to become as good as me.’
He replaced the can on the same stone, walked back to
where he had stood before, took a handkerchief out of his
pocket and asked the newcomer to blindfold him. Then he
aimed once more in the direction of the target and fired again.
‘Did I hit it?’ he would ask, removing the blindfold.
‘Of course not,’ the new arrival would say, pleased to see the proud guide humbled. ‘You missed it by a mile. I don’t think there’s anything you can teach me.’
‘I’ve just taught you the most important lesson in life,’ Berta’s husband would reply. ‘Whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want. No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.’
Then, one day, while he was replacing the can on the stone after his first shot, the would-be hunter thought it must be his turn to show how good his aim was. Without waiting for Berta’s husband to rejoin him, he fired. He missed the target, but hit the guide in the neck. He did not have the chance to learn that important lesson in concentration and objectivity.
have to go,’ Chantal said. ‘There are a few things I need to do before I go to work.’
Berta said goodbye and watched her all the way until she disappeared down the alley beside the church. The years
she had spent sitting outside her door, looking up at the mountains and the clouds, and holding conversations in her mind with her dead husband had taught her to ‘see’ people. Her vocabulary was limited, so she could find no other word to describe all the many sensations that other people aroused in her, but that was what happened: she ‘saw through’ other people, and could tell what their feelings were.
It had all started at the funeral for her one great love. She was weeping, and a child next to her – the son of an inhabitant of Viscos, who was now a grown man and lived thousands of miles away – asked her why she was sad.
Berta did not want to frighten the child by mentioning death and final farewells, so all she said was that her husband had gone away and might not come back to Viscos for a long time.
‘I think he was having you on,’ the boy replied. ‘I’ve just seen him hiding behind a grave, all smiles, and with a soup spoon in his hand.’
The boy’s mother heard what he said and scolded him for it. ‘Children are always seeing things,’ she said, apologising to Berta. But Berta immediately stopped crying and looked in the direction the child had indicated; her husband had always had the annoying habit of wanting to eat his soup with a special spoon, however much this irritated her because all spoons are the same and hold the same amount of soup – yet he had always insisted on using his special spoon. Berta had never told anyone this, for fear people would think him crazy.
the boy really had seen her husband; the spoon was the
sign. Children could ‘see’ things. From then on, Berta decided proof-
he was going to learn to ‘see’ as well, because she wanted Ik to her husband, to have him back – if only as a ghost.
At first, she shut herself up at home, rarely going out, wait-
for him to appear to her. Then one day, something told her that she should go to the door of her house and start paying attention to other people, that her husband wanted her to have more joy in her life, for her to participate more in what was going on in the village.
She set up her chair outside her house and sat staring at the mountains; there were not many people out and about in the streets of Viscos, but on the very first day of her vigil, a neighbour returned from the next village, saying that they were selling quality cutlery very cheaply at the market there and, as proof, she produced a spoon from her bag.
Berta realised she would never see her husband again, but he was asking her to stay there, watching the village, and that was what she would do. As time went by, she began to perceive a presence beside her, to her left, and she was certain that he was there with her, keeping her company and protecting her from any danger, as well as teaching her to see things that others could not, such as the patterns made by the clouds, which always spelled out messages. She was rather sad that whenever she tried to look at him full on, the presence disappeared, but then she realised that she could talk to him using her intuition, and so they began having long conversations about all kinds of things.
Three years later, she was able to ‘see’ people’s feelings, as well as receive some very useful practical advice from her husband. That was why she refused to be fobbed off with less compensation than she deserved, and why she withdrew her money from the bank just before it crashed, taking with it many local people’s hard-earned savings.
One morning – and she could no longer remember exactly when this had happened – her husband told her that Viscos might be destroyed. Berta immediately thought of earthquakes creating whole new ranges of mountains, but he reassured her that nothing of that sort would happen there, at least not for the next few thousand years. He was worried about another sort of destruction, even though he himself was not exactly clear what form it would take. All the same, he asked her to be on her guard, because this was his village, the place he loved most in the whole world, even if he had left it
rather sooner than he would have wished.
Berta began to pay more attention to people, to the patterns made by the clouds, to the hunters who came and went, but nothing appeared to indicate that anyone was trying to destroy a village that had never harmed anyone. Yet still her husband insisted that she keep watch, and she had
done as he asked.
Then three days ago, she had seen the stranger arrive with a devil by his side and she knew her wait was over. Today, she had noticed that Chantal was accompanied by both a devil and an angel. She immediately linked the two events and understood that something odd was happening in her village-
smiled to herself, glanced to her left and blew a discreet
She was not a useless old woman; she had something
important to do: to save the place where she had been born,
even though she had no idea as yet what steps she should take.
Chantal left the old woman immersed in her thoughts, and went back to her room. It was whispered among the inhabitants of Viscos that Berta was a witch. It was said she had shut herself up in her house for almost a year and, during that time, had taught herself the magic arts. When Chantal had asked who could have taught them to Berta, some said it was the devil himself who appeared to her at night, while others swore that she invoked the spirit of a Celtic priest, using words her parents had taught her. But no one was overly concerned: Berta was harmless and she always had good stories to tell.
They were right, although they were always the same stories. Suddenly Chantal paused with her hand on the doorknob. Even though she had heard the story of how Berta’s husband had died many times over, it was only now that she realised there was an important lesson in it for her too. She remembered her recent walk in the forest and the pent-up hatred she had felt inside her, a hatred that seemed to fly out all around her, threatening whoever was near, be it herself, the village, the people in it or their children.
But she had only one real target: the stranger. Concentrate, °of and kill your prey. To do that, she needed a plan – it could be foolish to speak out that night and let the situation
run out of control. She decided to put off for another day telling the story of how she had met the stranger, if, that is, she ever did tell the other inhabitants of Viscos.
That night, when she went to collect the money for the round of drinks that the stranger usually bought, Chantal noticed that he had slipped her a note. She put it straight into her pocket, pretending that it was a matter of no importance, even though she was aware of the stranger’s eyes occasionally seeking hers, as if silently questioning her. The roles seemed to have been reversed: it was she who was in control of the situation, she who could choose the battlefield and the hour of the fight. That was how all the most successful hunters behaved: they always arranged things so that the prey would come to them.
It was only when she returned to her room, this time confident that she would sleep soundly, that she looked at the note: the stranger was asking her to meet him in the place where they had first met.
He closed by saying that he would prefer to talk to her alone, but added that, if she wanted, they could also speak with everyone else present too.
The threat did not escape her, but she was, in fact,
contented that he had made it. It was proof that he was losing
control, because truly dangerous men and women never
made threats. Ahab, the man who brought peace to Viscos,
always used to say: ‘There are two kinds of idiots – those who don’t take action because they have received a threat and those who think they are taking action because they have issued a threat.’
She tore the note into shreds and flushed it down the toilet, then she took a scalding hot bath, slipped into bed and smiled. She had got exactly what she wanted: to meet the stranger again for a conversation alone. If she wanted to find out how to defeat him, she needed to get to know him better.
She fell asleep almost at once – a deep, refreshing, peaseful sleep. She had spent one night with Good, one with Good and Evil, and one with Evil. Not one of the three had produced any definite result, but they were all still alive in her soul, and now they were beginning to fight amongst themselves to see who was strongest.
the time the stranger armed, Chantal was drenched – the storm had recommenced.
‘Let’s not talk about the weather,’ she said. ‘As you can see, it’s raining. I know a place where it’ll be easier for us to talk.’
She got to her feet and picked up a long canvas bag.
‘You’ve got a shotgun in there,’ the stranger said.
‘And you want to kill me.’
‘Yes, I do. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but that’s what I’d like to do. I brought the weapon here for another reason, though: I might meet the rogue wolf on the way, and if I could shoot him, I might win some respect in Viscos. No one believes me, but I heard him howling last night.’
‘And what is this rogue wolf?’
At first she doubted whether to share anything more with
this man who was her enemy. But then she remembered a
bo°ok on Japanese martial arts – she always read any books left
behind by hotel guests, no matter what the books were about,
cause she didn’t want to spend her own money buying them.
There was written that the best way to weaken one’s enemy
was to get him to believe that you were on his side.
As they trudged through the wind and the rain, she told him the story. Two years ago, a man from Viscos – the blacksmith, to be precise – was out for a walk when, all of a sudden, he came face to face with a wolf and its young. The man was terrified, but he tore off a branch and made to attack the animal. Normally, the wolf would have run away but as it was with its young, it counter-attacked and bit the man on the leg. The blacksmith, a man whose job requires enormous strength, managed to deal the wolf such a blow that it finally ran back into the forest with its cubs and was never seen again; all anyone knew was that it had a white
mark on its left ear.
‘But why is it called the rogue wolf?’
‘Usually even the fiercest of animals will only attack in exceptional circumstances, in order, for example, to protect its young. However, if an animal does attack and tastes human blood, then it becomes dangerous; it will always want more; it will cease being a wild animal and become a killer. Everyone believes that one day the wolf will attack again.’
‘That’s my story too,’ the stranger thought.
Chantal was walking as fast as she could because she was younger and fitter than him and wanted to gain a psychological advantage over her companion by tiring him out and humiliating him, and yet he managed to keep up with her. He was out of breath, but he never once asked her to slow down.
They reached a small, well-camouflaged, green plastic tent, used by hunters as a hide. They sat inside, rubbing their frozen hands and blowing on them.
‘What do you want?’ she asked him. ‘Why did you give
me that note?’
‘I’m going to ask you a riddle: of all the days in our life, which is the one that never comes?’
There was no reply.
‘Tomorrow,’ the stranger said. ‘But you seem to believe that tomorrow will come and keep putting off what I asked you to do. We’re getting towards the end of the week, and if you don’t say something, I’ll have to do it myself.’
Chantal left the refuge, stood a safe distance from it, undid the canvas bag, and took out the shotgun. The stranger didn’t seem to attach any importance to this.
‘You dug up the gold again,’ he went on. ‘If you had to write a book about your experiences, how do you think most of your readers would react – given all the difficulties they have to face, the injustices dealt to them by life and other people, the struggle they have in order to pay for their children’s schooling and to put food on the table – don’t you think that those people would be urging you to take the gold and run?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, loading a cartridge into the gun.
‘Nor do I. But that’s the answer I’m looking for.’
She inserted the second cartridge.
‘You’re willing to kill me, despite that reassuring little tale about finding a wolf. But that’s all right, because that too provides me with an answer to my question: human beings are essentially evil, even a young woman from a remote village is capable of committing murder for money. I’m going to leave but now I have my answer, so I can die happy.’
‘Here, take it,’ she said, handing him the gun. ‘No one knows that I know you. All the details you gave in the hotel are false. You can leave when you want and, as I understand it, you can go anywhere you want to in the world. You don’t need to have a good aim: all you have to do is point the shotgun in my direction and squeeze the trigger. Each cartridge is full of tiny bits of lead; as soon as they leave the barrel, they spread out into a cone shape. They can kill birds or human beings. You can even look the other way if you don’t want to see my body being blown apart.’
The man curled his finger round the trigger, and Chantal was surprised to see that he was holding the gun correctly, like a professional. They stood like that for a long while, and she was aware that he had only to slip or be startled by an animal coming on them unexpectedly and his finger could move and the gun go off. She suddenly realised how childish her gesture had been, trying to defy someone merely for the pleasure of provoking him, saying that he was incapable of doing what he was asking others to do.
The stranger was still pointing the gun at her, staring at her unblinking, his hands steady. It was too late now – maybe deep down he thought it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to end the life of this young woman who had dared to challenge him. Chantal was on the point of asking him to forgive her, but the stranger lowered the gun before she could say a word.
‘I can almost touch your fear,’ he said, handing her back the gun. ‘I can smell the sweat pouring off you, despite the rain, and even though the wind is shaking the treetops and
king an infernal racket, I can hear your heart thumping in your throat.’
‘I’m going to do what you asked me to do this evening,’ he said, pretending she hadn’t heard the truths he was lline her. ‘After all, you came to Viscos to learn about your own nature, to find out if you were good or evil. There’s one thing I’ve just shown you: regardless of what I may have felt or stopped feeling just now, you could have pulled the trigger, but you didn’t. Do you know why? Because you’re a coward. You use others to resolve your own conflicts, but you are incapable of taking certain decisions.’
‘A German philosopher once said: “Even God has a hell: his love of mankind”. No, I’m not a coward. I’ve pressed many worse triggers than this one, or, rather, I have made far better guns than this and distributed them around the world. I did it all perfectly legally, got the transactions approved by the government, the export licences, paid all the necessary taxes. I married a woman who loved me, I had two beautiful daughters, I never stole a penny from my company, and always succeeded in recovering any money owed to me.
‘Unlike you, who feel persecuted by destiny, I was always a man of action, someone who struggled with the many difficulties in my way, who lost some battles and won others, but always understood that victories and defeats form part of everyone’s life – everyone, that is, except cowards, as you call them, because they never lose or win.
‘I read a lot. I was a regular churchgoer. I feared God and respected His commandments. I was a highly paid director of
a huge firm. Since I was paid commission on every deal we made, I earned more than enough to support my wife my daughters, and even my grandchildren and my greatgrandchildren; because the arms trade is the most profitable business in the world. I knew the value of every item I sold so I personally checked all our transactions; that way I uncovered several cases of corruption and dismissed those involved and halted the sales. My weapons were made to help defend order, which is the only way to ensure progress and development in this world, or so I thought.’
The stranger came up to Chantal and took her by the shoulders; he wanted her to look him in the eyes and know that he was telling the truth.
‘You may consider arms manufacturers to be the lowest of the low. Perhaps you’re right, but the fact is that man has used weapons ever since he lived in caves – first to kill animals, then to win power over others. The world has existed without agriculture, without domesticated animals, without religion, without music, but never without weapons.’
He picked up a stone from the ground.
‘Here’s the first of them, generously donated by Mother Nature to those who had to confront prehistoric animals. A stone like this doubtless saved the life of a man, and that man, after countless generations, led to you and me being born. If he hadn’t had that stone, the murderous carnivore would have devoured him, and hundreds of millions of people would not have been born.’
The wind was blowing harder, and the rain was battering
but neither of them looked away, them? D
‘4anv people criticise hunters, but Viscos welcomes them h open arms because it lives off them; some people hate
. a hull in a bullring, but go and buy the meat from the , jeer’s claiming that the animal had an “honourable” death a lot of people are critical of arms manufacturers, but they will continue to exist until there’s not a single weapon left on the face of the earth. Because as long as one weapon remains, there will always have to be another, to preserve the fragile balance.’
‘What has all this got to do with my village?’ Chantal demanded. ‘What has it got to do with breaking the commandments, with murder, stealing, with the essence of human nature, with Good and Evil?’
At this, the stranger’s eyes changed, as if overwhelmed by a deep sadness.
‘Remember what I told you at the beginning. I always tried to do my business according to the law; I considered myself what people usually term a “good man”. Then one evening I received a phone call in my office: it was a woman’s voice, soft but devoid of emotion. She said her terrorist group had kidnapped my wife and daughters. They wanted a large quantity of what they knew I could give them – weapons. They told me to keep quiet about it, they told me that nothing would happen to my family if I followed their instructions.
‘The woman rang off saying that she would call again in “alf an hour and told me to wait for her call in a phone box
ciHe to the valley below, and to the mountains on the on one siut.,
‘We would need a hundred men searching for a hundred
years to do that.’
The landowner silently bemoaned the fact that the cemetery had been constructed on that particular spot; it had a lovely view, and the dead had no use for it.
‘On another occasion, I’d like to talk to you about the cemetery,’ he said to the priest. ‘I could offer you a far bigger plot for the dead, just near here, in exchange for this piece of
land next to the church.’
‘Nobody would want to buy that and live on the same spot where the dead used to lie.’
‘Maybe no one from the village would, but there are tourists desperate to buy a summer home; it would just be a matter of asking the villagers to keep their mouths shut. It would mean more income for the village and more taxes for the town hall.’
‘You’re right. We just have to ask the villagers to keep their mouths shut. That wouldn’t be so hard.’
A sudden silence fell. A long silence, which nobody dared
break. The two women admired the view; the priest
” polishing a small bronze statue; the landowner took
another sip of wine; the blacksmith tied and untied the laces
on both boots; and the mayor kept glancing at his watch as if to suggest that he had other pressing engagements.
But nobody said a word; everyone knew that the people of Viscos would never say a word if someone were to express an interest in purchasing what had once been the cemetery. they would keep quiet purely for the pleasure of seeing another person coming to live in that village on the verge of disappearing. Even if they didn’t earn a penny by their silence.
Imagine if they did though.
Imagine if they earned enough money for the rest of their lives.
Imagine if they earned enough money for the rest of their
lives and their children’s lives.
At that precise moment, a hot and wholly unexpected wind blew through the sacristy.
‘What exactly are you proposing?’ asked the priest after a long five minutes.
Everyone turned to look at him.
‘If the inhabitants really can be relied on to say nothing, I think we can proceed with negotiations,’ replied the landowner, choosing his words carefully in case they were misinterpreted – or correctly interpreted, depending on your point of view.
‘They’re good, hardworking, discreet people,’ the hotel landlady said, adopting the same strategy. ‘Today, for example, when the driver of the baker’s van wanted to know what
on nobody said a thing. I think we can trust
there was silence. Only this time it was an unmistakably
ccive silence. Eventually, the game began again, and the oppressive blacksmith said:
‘It isn’t just a question of the villagers’ discretion, the fact that it’s both immoral and unacceptable.’
‘Selling off hallowed ground.’
A sigh of relief ran round the room; now that they had dealt satisfactorily with the practical aspects, they could proceed with the moral debate.
‘What’s immoral is sitting back and watching the demise of our beloved Viscos,’ said the mayor’s wife. ‘Knowing that we are the last people to live here, and that the dream of our grandparents, our ancestors, Ahab and the Celts, will be over in a few years’ time. Soon, we’ll all be leaving the village, either for an old people’s home or to beg our children to take in their strange, ailing parents, who are unable to adapt to life in the big city and spend all their time longing for what they’ve left behind, sad because they could not pass on to the next generation the gift they received from their parents.’
‘You’re right,’ the blacksmith said. ‘The life we lead is an unmoral one. When Viscos does finally fall into ruin, these
houses will be abandoned or else bought up for next to nothing. then machines will arrive and open up bigger and better
ads. The houses will be demolished, steel warehouses will
rePlace what was built with the sweat of our ancestors.
Agriculture will become entirely mechanised, and people will come in to work during the day and return at night to the’ homes, far from here. How shaming for our generation; We let our children leave, we failed to keep them here with us’.
‘One way or another, we have to save this village,’ said the landowner, who was possibly the only one who stood to profit from Viscos’ demise, since he was in a position to buy up everything, then sell it on to a large industrial company. But of course he certainly didn’t want to hand over, for a price below market value, lands that might contain buried treasure.
‘What do you think, Father?’ asked the hotel landlady.
‘The only thing I know well is my religion, in which the sacrifice of one individual saved all humanity.’
Silence descended for a third time, but only for a moment.
‘I need to start preparing for Saturday Mass,’ he went on. ‘Why don’t we meet up later this evening?’
Everyone immediately agreed, setting a time late in the day, as if they were all immensely busy people with impor-
tant matters to deal with.
Only the mayor managed to remain calm.
‘What you’ve just been saying is very interesting, an excellent subject for a sermon. I think we should all attend Mass today.’
I hesitated no longer. She headed straight for the Y-shaped thinking of what she would do with the gold as soon as she t Go home, get the money she kept hidden there, put on some sensible clothes, go down the road to the valley and hitch a lift Home more wagers: those people didn’t deserve the fortune within their grasp. No suitcase: she didn’t want them to know she was leaving Viscos for good – Viscos with its beautiful but pointless stories, its kind but cowardly inhabitants, the bar always crammed with people talking about the same things, the church she never attended. Naturally there was always the chance that she would find the police waiting for her at the bus station, the stranger accusing her of theft etc., etc. But now she was prepared to run any risk.
The hatred she had felt only half an hour before had been
transformed into a far more agreeable emotion: vengeance.
She was glad to have been the first to reveal to those
people the evil hidden in the depths of their false, ingenuous
souls. They were all dreaming of the chance to commit a
murder – only dreaming, mind you, because they would
never actually do anything. They would spend the rest of
their lives asleep, endlessly telling themselves how noble they
are, how incapable of committing an injustice, ready to
defend the village’s dignity at whatever cost, yet aware that terror alone had prevented them from killing an innocent They would congratulate themselves every morning on keening their integrity, and blame themselves each night for that missed opportunity.
For the next three months, the only topic of conversation in the bar would be the honesty of the generous men and women of the village. Then the hunting season would arrive and the subject wouldn’t be touched upon – there was no need for visitors to know anything about it, they liked to think they were in a remote spot, where everyone was friends, where good always prevailed, where nature was bountiful, and that the local products lined up for sale on a single shelf in the hotel reception – which the hotel landlady called her ‘little shop’ – were steeped in this disinterested love.
But the hunting season would come to an end, and then the villagers would be free to return to the topic. This time around, after many evenings spent dreaming about the riches they had let slip through their fingers, they would start inventing hypotheses to fit the situation: why did nobody have the courage, at dead of night, to kill useless old Berta in return for ten gold bars? Why did no hunting accident befall the shepherd Santiago, who drove his flock up the mountainside each morning? All kinds of hypotheses would be weighed up, first timidly and then angrily.
One year on and they would be consumed with mutual hatred – the village had been given its opportunity and had let it slip. They would ask after Miss Prym, who had
left without trace, perhaps taking with her the gold she vanishes wich
the wretched stranger had hidden. They would say terrible
things about her, the ungrateful orphan, the poor girl whom
had all struggled to help after her grandmother’s death,
had got a job in the bar when she had proved incapable
of getting herself a husband and leaving, who used to sleep
.. with hotel guests, usually men much older than herself,
and who made eyes at all the tourists just to get a bigger tip.
They would spend the rest of their lives caught between
self-pity and loathing; Chantal would be happy, that was her
revenge. She would never forget the looks those people
around the van gave her, imploring her silence regarding a
murder they would never dare to commit, then rounding on
her as if she was to blame for all the cowardice that was
finally rising to the surface.
‘A jacket. My leather trousers. I can wear two tee shirts and strap the gold bar around my waist. A jacket. My leather trousers. A jacket.’
There she was, in front of the Y-shaped rock. Beside her lay the stick she had used two days before to dig up the gold, For a moment she savoured the gesture that would transform her from an honest woman into a thief.
°’that wasn’t right. The stranger had provoked her, and he
also stood to gain from the deal. She wasn’t so much stealing
as claiming her wages for her role as narrator in this tasteless
comedy. She deserved not only the gold but much, much more
for having endured the stares of the victimless murderers
standing round the baker’s van, for having spent her entire life there, for those three sleepless nights, for the soul she had now lost – assuming she had ever had a soul to lose.
She dug down into the soft earth and saw the gold bar When she saw it, she heard a noise.
Someone had followed her. Automatically, she began pushing the earth back into the hole, realising as she did so the futility of the gesture. Then she turned, ready to explain that she was looking for the treasure, that she knew the stranger walked regularly along this path, and that she had happened to notice that the soil had been recently disturbed.
What she saw, however, robbed her of her voice – for it had no interest in treasure, in village crises, justice or injustice, only in blood.
The white mark on its left ear. The rogue wolf.
It was standing between her and the nearest tree; it would be impossible to get past the animal. Chantal stood rooted to the spot, hypnotised by the animal’s blue eyes. Her mind was working frantically, wondering what would be her next step the branch would be far too flimsy to counter the beast’s attack. She could climb onto the Y-shaped rock, but that still wasn’t high enough. She could choose not to believe the legend and scare off the wolf as she would any other lone wolf, but that was too risky, it would be wisest to recognise that all legends contain a hidden truth.
Unfair punishment, just like everything else that had
happened in her life; God seemed to have singled her out
to demonstrate his hatred of the world.
ctively she let the branch fall to the ground and, in a
moment that seemed to her interminably slow, brought her
to her throat: she couldn’t let him sink his teeth in
She regretted not wearing her leather trousers; the next
best vulnerable part were her legs and the vein there, which,
pierced would see you bleed to death in ten minutes once pierced.
At least, that was what the hunters always said, to explain why they wore those high boots.
The wolf opened its mouth and snarled. The dangerous, pent-up growl of an animal who gives no warning, but attacks on the instant. She kept her eyes glued to his, even though her heart was pounding, for now his fangs were bared.
It was all a question of time; he would either attack or run off, but Chantal knew he was going to attack. She glanced down at the ground, looking for any loose stones she might slip on, but found none. She decided to launch herself at the animal; she would be bitten and would have to run towards the tree with the wolf’s teeth sunk into her. She would have to ignore the pain.
She thought about the gold. She would soon be back to look for it. She clung to every shred of hope, anything that might give her the strength to confront the prospect of her es” being ripped by those sharp teeth, of one of her bones Poking through, of possibly stumbling and falling and having her throat torn out.
She Prepared to run.
Just then, as if in a movie, she saw a figure appear behind the wolf, although still a fair distance away.
The beast sensed another presence too, but did not look away, and she continued to fix him with her stare. It seemed to be only the force of that stare that was averting the attack and she didn’t want to run any further risks; if someone else was there, her chances of survival were increased – even if, in the end, it cost her the gold bar.
The presence behind the wolf silently crouched down and moved to the left. Chantal knew there was another tree on that side, easy to climb. At that moment, a stone arched across the sky and landed near the wolf, which turned with phenomenal speed and hurtled off in the direction of this new threat.
‘Run!’ yelled the stranger.
She ran in the direction of her only refuge, while the man likewise clambered lithely up the other tree. By the time the rogue wolf reached him, he was safe.
The wolf began snarling and leaping, occasionally managing to get partway up the trunk, only to slip back down again.
‘Tear off some branches!’ shouted Chantal.
But the stranger seemed to be in a kind of trance. She repeated her instruction twice, then three times, until he registered what she was saying. He began tearing off branches and throwing them down at the wolf.
‘No, don’t do that! Pull off the branches, bundle them up, and set fire to them! I don’t have a lighter, so do as I say!’
Her voice had the desperate edge of someone in real perilThe stranger grabbed some branches and took an eternity to
light it and, a part of
the previous day’s storm had soaked everything them;
like this time of the year, the sun didn’t penetrate into that
part of the forest.
, Chantal waited until the flames of the improvised torch . begun to burn fiercely. She would have been quite happy have him spend the rest of the day in the tree, confronting his fear he wanted to inflict on the rest of the world, but she had to get away and so was obliged to help him.
‘Now show me you’re a man!’ she yelled. ‘Get down from the tree, keep a firm hold on the torch and walk towards the
The stranger could not move.
‘Do it!’ she yelled again and, when he heard her voice, the man understood the force of authority behind her words – an authority derived from terror, from the ability to react quickly, leaving fear and suffering for later.
He climbed down with the burning torch in his hands, ignoring the sparks that occasionally singed his cheeks. When he saw the animal’s foam-flecked teeth close to, his fear increased, but he had to do something – something he should have done when his wife was abducted, his daughters murdered.
‘Remember, keep looking him in the eye!’ he heard the girl say.
did as she said. Things were becoming easier with each passing moment; he was no longer looking at the enemy’s weapons but at the enemy himself. They were equals, both CaPable of provoking fear in each other.
reproductions of famous paintings, all trying to have a good time – and this weekend, of course, they had the best
opportunity to do that since the end of the Second World War.
‘Don’t talk to me.’
‘I didn’t say a word.’
Chantal considered crying, but didn’t want to do so in front of him. She bit back her tears.
‘I saved your life. I deserve the gold.’
‘I saved your life. The wolf was about to attack you.’
It was true.
‘On the other hand, I believe you saved something else deep inside me,’ the stranger went on.
A trick. She would pretend she hadn’t understood; that was like giving her permission to take his fortune, to get out of there for good, end of story.
‘About last night’s wager. I was in so much pain myself that I needed to make everyone suffer as much as I was suffering; that was my one source of consolation. You were right.’
The stranger’s devil didn’t like what he was hearing at all. He asked Chantal’s devil to help him out, but her devil was new and hadn’t yet asserted total control.
‘Does that change anything?’
‘Nothing. The bet’s still on, and I know I’ll win. But I also
know how wretched I am and how I became that way:
because I feel I didn’t deserve what happened to me.’
Chantal asked herself how they were going to get out or there; even though it was still only morning, they couldn’t stay in the forest forever.
think I deserve my gold, and I’m going to take it,
don’t stop me,’ she said. ‘I’d advise you to do something. …
Neither of us needs to go back to Viscos; we can
walk to the valley, hitch a ride, and then each of us head straight on.
Each can follow our own destiny. if you like. But at this very moment the villagers are deciding who should die.’
‘That’s as maybe. They’ll devote a couple of days to it,
till the deadline is up; then they’ll devote a couple of years arguing about who should have been the victim. They are hopelessly indecisive when it comes to doing anything, and implacable when it comes to apportioning blame – I know my village. If you don’t go back, they won’t even trouble themselves to discuss it. They’ll dismiss it as something I
‘Viscos is just like any other village in the world, and whatever happens there happens in every continent, city, camp, convent, wherever. That’s something you don’t understand, just as you don’t understand that this time fate has worked in my favour: I chose exactly the right person to help me. Someone who, behind the mask of a hardworking, honest young woman, also wants revenge. Since We Can never see the enemy – because if we take this tale to
logical conclusion, our real enemy is God for putting us rough everything we’ve suffered – we vent our frustra-
s on everything around us. It’s a desire for vengeance can never be satisfied, because it’s directed against life itself.’
‘What are we doing sitting around here talking?’ ask
Chantal, irritated because this man, whom she hated more
than anyone else in the world, could see so clearly into her soul. ‘Why don’t we just take the money and leave?’
‘Because yesterday I realised that by proposing the very thing that most revolts me – a senseless murder, just like that inflicted on my wife and daughters – the truth is I was trying to save myself. Do you remember the philosopher I mentioned in our second conversation? The one who said that God’s hell is His love for humanity, because human behaviour makes every second of His eternal life a torment?
‘Well, that same philosopher said something else too, he said: Man needs what’s worst in him in order to achieve
what’s best in him.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Until now, I used to think solely in terms of revenge. Like the inhabitants of your village, I used to dream and plan day and night, but never do anything. For a while, I used to scour the newspapers for articles about other people who had lost their loved ones in similar situations, but who had ended up behaving in exactly the opposite way to myself: they formed victim support groups, organisations to denounce injustice, campaigns to demonstrate how the pain of loss can never be replaced by the burden of vengeance.
‘I too tried to look at matters from a more generous perspective: I didn’t succeed. But now I’ve gained courage; I’ve reached the depths and discovered that there is light at