There were four of them at the entrance to the field. Then another one appeared behind the shed. Five now. The boy saw birds scared up from the bushes. Yet another one, rifle in hand. Six. The boy heard a horse whinnying and a bird flapping off behind a boulder. Then he saw the guardia civil corporal pointing them out to the other five with his cord riding-crop. Slowly the mounted guards surrounded the man and the boy.
“Are you the spitter?”
The man did not reply. He simply spat straight ahead, between the horse’s legs, without lowering his head.
“You have six hours to leave this property and you won’t be warned again.”
The man spat for a second time between the legs of the horse, which sidestepped and reared at its own shadow. The corporal drew his revolver and, trembling, pointed it at the man’s head. The man still did not look down. Then the guard, pulling his horse to the side, took aim at a little black pig that the boy and the man were fattening up for the feast days. The pig’s head exploded from the impact of the shot and its body rolled soundlessly onto its side. Despite the detonation the man’s gaze did not waver and he spat yet again between the horse’s legs. The man had spoken.
“We’ll get you soon, spitter! You’ll end up like that pig and then you can go spit in hell!” said the corporal before disappearing with the other riders in a cloud of dust.
The boy watched an eagle wheeling in the sky. As though harnessed to an invisible noria, the majestic bird drew all the sunshine towards the two of them where they were amidst shadows. The boy would remember this. The man kept silent for a long while, observing the eagle as it turned towards the mountain, perhaps to check its work and draw the sun to another valley. At last the man turned and spoke to the boy.
“Give me your knife.”
The man gutted the piglet and wrapped it in leaves, then dug a hole and lit a fire in it with dry wood. When he had glowing embers he placed the animal’s spread-eagled carcass on them and covered it with soil. The boy and the man had been collecting stones all morning without exchanging a single word when the boy suddenly came upon a snail’s glistening shell under an old tree stump. It was glossy and yellow. A bluish spiral wound around it up to the gaping hole that once contained and protected the creature’s body. The boy picked up the shell and showed it to the man.
“I found a shell.”
“Keep it, kid,” the man replied. “They say that shells bring good luck because they hold the voices of the departed.”
The boy thought to himself that it would soon be midday. And indeed the man pointed out the shortening shadows as they climbed the mountainside and shrank little by little. By the time the pig was ready the sun was casting no shadows.
The boy was crouched by the spring filling their canteen when he saw a flock of birds rise suddenly from a bush. Further off, the noise of a waterfall had abruptly become the only sound. Then he sensed them, up above, with their horses. He heard a man’s voice yelling words he did not understand. Three shots rang out, followed by a fourth. For a brief moment the silence in the boy’s chest was broken and the roar of the waterfall was deafening.
A horseman had asked, “Where’s the kid?”
A rasping voice answered, “Go and see, and take care of him. He must be by the stream. You, set fire to the hut and the chicken coop.”
The boy dragged himself in among an old oak tree’s roots which, as they wound between rocks, had created a niche he had discovered earlier while trailing a fox. This hideaway was exactly the right size for him. He crawled backwards into the burrow and pulled a branch across the entrance to conceal it. Then he let himself slip down to the point where the narrow passageway made a right-angled turn and continued underneath a boulder.
Sweat trickled into the boy’s eyes and for a moment he stopped breathing. The sound of his heart filled the whole den. He felt as though he no longer had any heart and that the whole universe was a vast throbbing.
The guard came down to the spring. The boy knew that he was inspecting the canteen that he had left behind and the wine bottle tinkling like a bell under the stream of water. The horse came close, passed above the rocks, then returned and halted by the branches that concealed his hiding place. The guard knew the boy was in there. He sensed the boy’s presence. He was a hunter, honed like a knife, well used to tracking every kind of game, man or beast. The boy pictured him flaring his nostrils and deeply inhaling the scents of the forest as he scanned the trees without turning his head.
“What are you doing?” came the far-off voice of the corporal. “Did you find him?”
The guard guided his horse around the rocks. The boy heard him dismount. The sound of his boots came nearer, then he was pulling aside a few branches just above the hidey-hole. The guard knew that the boy was not far away. Suddenly his voice came, distant: “I know you’re there. You can come out. I won’t kill you.”
The boy knew that the guard had not seen him, because he was speaking from the other side of the rocks. The guard was lying to win his confidence and then shoot him. The boy was behind the guard and very careful not to make the slightest movement for fear of causing stones to topple.
“Come out of your hole. You can’t stay in there all day.”
From the silence that followed the boy realized that the guard had spotted the hole. The guard knew that the boy was down inside, crouched underground. But he could not enter the boy’s hiding-place because the passage was too narrow, so all he could do was fire blindly down the hole in hopes of hitting him. The boy told himself that he had a chance of surviving, for he was at the elbow-bend in the burrow behind another rock. The boy sensed that the guard now had his rifle pointing at the entrance and was about to fire.
“Come on. I’m not going to hurt you.”
A stone tumbled by the boy’s shoulder. It was at that moment that the guard fired wildly into the den. The bullets passed close to the boy without hitting him and grazed the rock against which he was leaning. He remained motionless, burying his face in the earth. Then the voice of the corporal resounded again.
“Come on back. Forget it. You got him. It’s late already.”
The guard waited for a moment. The boy heard him reload his gun and then depart on foot, leading his horse. The boy did not budge.
The boy stayed where he was, underground, for several hours. Nightfall approached. At long last the horses left, hooves resounding dully on the stones on the far side of the hill. The guards had been waiting to see whether he might emerge, because there were to be no witnesses able to identify them. They were certain now that the boy was dead. But the boy stayed in his crevice, perfectly still, until he heard a bird begin singing once more.
It was true that the boy was dead. His hand had swollen up and taken the form of a snail. His fingers had turned into slimy tentacles twisting this way and that. First the boy saw the pig that the man had roasted spread out on the ground. Then it was the dead body of a snail with its eyes open and a stone still clasped in its hands. The man too had turned into a snail. He too had fingers that waved like snail’s tentacles. One by one they separated from his hands and started crawling along the ground like little translucent snakes.
The boy did not weep. He took his knife and began scraping beneath a rock. As he removed earth he found stones that he tossed behind him. When the hole was big enough he pulled over the man’s body, which suddenly began to resemble an enormous glob of spittle. It had neither head nor hands and the torso was all viscous and soft. The boy took the man’s wallet and knife, which were also covered with drool. He removed his leather jacket and belt and rolled him in a blanket. He left him his pack of cigarettes so that he could carry on smoking underground, even though his mouth had disappeared.
The boy gently slid the body into the hole he had made. He thought to himself that in this way the man’s ghost would continue to take care of the field. Using his feet, he heaped up pebbles and arranged a circle of white ones roughly above the man’s heart. Then he heard a yell. It was his own voice.
The morning sun dazzled him as he stood before the open door of the hut. The boy’s mouth was full of phlegm and the snail shell was intact on the wine drum that he used as a table. A shadow raced across the mountainside: in the sky the eagle, with its invisible leash, was now drawing part of the sunlight to the other side of the valley, wrenching trees one by one from the rocks that the storms of the night had scattered across the mountain.
The boy picked up the empty shell and spat into it, several times, as though to bring it to life. He wanted a snail to be born from his saliva. Then he took his knife and made a little hole under a stone to slip the shell into. In the sky the eagle had now drawn away all the sun and the mountain was following it too. The boy cried out to them to wait for him, because he did not want to be alone. The boy told himself that he was with the man on the edge of that abyss, that he was dangling from the line of the horizon like a hanged man who, when the rope broke, would fall back into his own body.
Reprinted with the permission of Archipelago Books, from The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War and Other Tales by Serge Pey, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Forthcoming from Archipelago Books in March 2020.