The Insufferable Gaucho | Chapter 8 of 15 - Part: 1 of 3

Author: Roberto Bolano | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2508 Views | Add a Review

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Police Rat

for Robert Amutio and Chris Andrews

My name is José, though people call me Pepe, and some, usually those who don’t know me well, or with whom I’m not on familiar terms, call me Pepe the Cop. Pepe is a benign, well-meaning, genial diminutive, neither scornful nor flattering, and yet the appellation does imply, if I can put it this way, a certain affection, something more than detached respect. Then there’s the other name, the alias, the tail or the hump that I lug around cheerfully, without taking offense, partly because it’s never or almost never used in my presence. Pepe the Cop: it’s like tossing affection and fear, desire and abuse into the same dark bag. Where does the word cop come from? It comes from copper, he who cops or caps, that is captures, takes hold of, nabs, in other words, he who has the authority to arrest and hold, who doesn’t have to answer to anyone, who has impunity. And they call me Pepe the Cop because that’s exactly what I am; it’s a job like any other, but few people are prepared to take it on. If I’d known what I know now when I joined the force, I wouldn’t have been prepared to take it on either. What made me join the police force? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself, especially lately, and I can’t come up with a convincing answer.

I was probably dimmer than most in my youth. Maybe I was disappointed in love (though I can’t actually recall being in love at the time), or maybe it was fate; maybe I realized I was different, and looked for a solitary job, a job that would allow me to spend hour after hour in the most absolute solitude, but would, at the same time, be of some practical use, so I wouldn’t be a burden on anyone.

In any case, there was a vacancy for a police officer and I applied and the bosses took a look at me, and in less than half a minute the job was mine. One of them at least, and maybe the others as well, already knew that I was one of Josephine the Singer’s nephews, although they were careful not to go spreading it around. My brothers and cousins—the other nephews—were normal in every way, and happy. I was happy too in my way, but it was obvious that I was related to Josephine, that I belonged to her line. Maybe that influenced the bosses’ decision to give me the job. Or not—maybe I was just the first to apply. Maybe they thought no one else would, and if they made me wait, I’d change my mind. I really can’t say. All I know for sure is that I joined the force and from the very first day I spent my time wandering through the sewers, sometimes the main ones, where the water flows, sometimes the branch sewers, where we are constantly digging tunnels to gain access to new food sources or provide escape routes or link up with labyrinths that seem, at first glance, to serve no purpose, and yet all those byways go to make up the network in which our people circulate and survive.

Sometimes, partly because it was one of my duties and partly because I was bored, I’d leave the main sewers and the branch ones too and go into the dead sewers, conduits frequented only by our explorers and traders, usually on their own, but occasionally accompanied by their spouses and obedient offspring. There was nothing in there, as a rule, just terrifying noises, but sometimes, as I made my way cautiously through that hostile territory, I would come across the body of an explorer or the bodies of a trader and his young children. In the early days, when I was still raw, those discoveries terrified me; I would be so disturbed it was as if I became someone else. What I would do was carry the body out from the dead sewer to the police outpost, which was always deserted, and there I’d try to determine there the cause of death as well as I could with the means at my disposal. Then I would go to fetch the coroner and, if he was in the mood, he’d get dressed or change his clothes, grab his bag and accompany me to the outpost. Once we were there, I’d leave him alone with the corpse or the corpses and go out again. When our police officers discover a body, instead of returning to the scene of the crime, they generally make a vain effort to mix with civilians, working alongside them and participating in their conversations, but I’m different, I don’t mind going back to inspect the crime scene and look for details that might have escaped my notice, and retrace the poor victims’ steps or sniff my way, cautiously of course, back up the tunnel from which the attack had been launched.

After a few hours I’d return to the outpost and find the coroner’s note tacked to the wall. Causes of death: slit throats, loss of blood, broken necks; and there were often lacerations to the paws—our kind never give in without a fight, we struggle to the last. The killer was usually some carnivore that had strayed into the sewers, a snake, sometimes even a blind alligator. There was no point pursuing them; most died of hunger before long anyway.

When I took a break I’d seek out the company of other police officers. I met one who was very old and withered by age and work; he had known my aunt and liked to talk about her. Nobody understood Josephine, he said, but everyone loved her or pretended to, and she was happy—or pretended to be. Those words were Chinese to me, like a lot of what that old officer said. I’ve never understood music; it’s not an art that we practice, except on rare occasions. In fact, we don’t practice (and therefore don’t understand) any of the arts, really. Every now and then a rat who paints, for example, will appear in our midst, or a rat who writes poems and takes it into his head to recite them. As a general rule, we don’t make fun of those individuals. On the contrary, we pity them, because we know that they’re condemned to solitude. Why? Well, because creating works of art and contemplating them are activities in which our people as a rule are unable to take part, and the exceptions, the mavericks, are very few, so if, for example, a poet or even just a reciter of poetry comes along, it’s most unlikely that another poet or reciter will be born in the same generation, which means that the poet may never encounter the only individual capable of appreciating his efforts. Which is not to say that we won’t interrupt our daily occupations to listen to the poet or applaud him, or even move that the reciter be granted a pension. On the contrary, we do everything in our power—or rather what little we can—to provide the maverick with a simulation of understanding and affection, since we know that, fundamentally, affection is what he or she requires. Any simulation, however, collapses eventually, like a house of cards. We live in a collective, and what the collective depends on is, above all, the daily labor, the ceaseless activity of each of its members, working toward a goal that transcends our individual aspirations but is nevertheless the only guarantee of our existence as individuals.

Of all the artists we have known, or at least of those who remain in our memories like skeletal question marks, the greatest was, without a doubt, my aunt Josephine. Great in the sense that she made exceptional demands on us; incommensurably great in the sense that our community acquiesced or pretended to acquiesce to her whims.

The old police officer liked to talk about her, but his memories, I soon realized, were as flimsy as a cigarette paper. Sometimes he said that Josephine was fat and tyrannical, and that dealing with her required enormous patience or an enormous sense of sacrifice, two not unrelated virtues, both quite common among us. Sometimes, however, by contrast, he said that all he had glimpsed of Josephine—he’d have been an adolescent, just starting out in the force—was a shadow, a tremulous shadow, trailing a range of odd squeaking noises, which constituted, at the time, the entirety of her repertoire, yet could, if not transport her listeners, certainly plunge some of those in the front row into a state of extreme sadness. Those rats and mice, of whom we have no record now, are perhaps the only ones to have glimpsed something in my aunt’s musical art. But what? They probably didn’t know themselves. Something indefinite, a lake of emptiness. Something resembling the desire to eat, perhaps, or the need to fuck, or the longing for sleep that sometimes overtakes us, since those who work without respite must at least sleep from time to time, especially in winter, when the temperature falls, as they say the leaves fall from the trees in the outside world, and our chilled bodies yearn for a warm corner to share with our kind, a burrow full of hot fur and the familiar movements and sounds—such as they are, neither coarse nor gracious—of our everyday nocturnal life, or the life that we call nocturnal for the sake of convenience.

The difficulty of finding warm places to sleep is one of the main disadvantages of being a police officer. We generally sleep alone, in makeshift holes, sometimes in unfamiliar territory, although of course, whenever possible, we try to find an alternative. Sometimes, but not very often, we curl up in holes that we share with other police, all eyes shut, ears and noses on alert. And sometimes we go to the sleeping quarters of those who, for one reason or another, live along the perimeter. As you would expect, they are quite unperturbed by our presence. Sometimes we say goodnight before falling exhausted into a warm and restorative sleep. Sometimes we simply mumble our names; our hosts know who we are and know they have nothing to fear from us. They treat us well. They don’t make a fuss or show any sign of joy, but they don’t throw us out of their burrows. Occasionally someone will say, in a voice still thick with sleep, Pepe the Cop, and I will reply, Yes, yes, good night. After a few hours, however, while all the others are still sleeping, I get up and start again, because police work is never done, and our hours of sleep have to be fitted in around the incessant demands of the job. Patrolling the sewers is a task that requires the utmost concentration. Generally we don’t see or meet with anyone; we can do the rounds of the main and branch sewers, and go into the disused tunnels originally dug by our people, all without coming across a single living being.

We do, however, glimpse shadows, and hear noises—objects falling into the water, distant squeaking. At the begining, when you’re new to the job, you’re hypersensitive to those noises and you live in a state of perpetual fright. As time goes by, however, you grow accustomed to them, and although you try to stay alert, you lose the fear, or build it into the daily routine, which is the same as losing it, in the end. There are even police officers who have slept in the dead sewers. I have never met one personally, but the old guys often tell stories in which an officer, back in the old days, of course, overtaken by fatigue, would curl up and go to sleep in a dead sewer. How seriously should we take those stories? I don’t know. No police officer today would dare to do such a thing. The dead sewers are places that have been forgotten for one reason or another. When the tunnel-diggers reach a dead sewer, they block the tunnel. The water in them barely flows at all, so the putrefaction is almost unbearable. It is safe to say that our people only use the dead sewers to flee from one zone to another. The quickest way to get into them is by swimming, but swimming in such places involves greater risks than we are usually prepared to take.

It was in a dead sewer that my investigation began. A group of our pioneers who, over time, had multiplied and settled just beyond the perimeter came and told me that the daughter of one of the older rats had disappeared. While half the group worked, the other half went looking for this girl, who was called Elisa, and who, according to her relatives and friends, was very beautiful and strong, as well as possessing a lively intelligence. I wasn’t sure exactly what possessing a lively intelligence meant. I associated it vaguely with cheerfulness, but not curiosity. I was tired that day, and after examining the area in the company of one of the missing girl’s relatives, I conjectured that the unfortunate Elisa had been the victim of some predator roaming in the vicinity of the new colony. I looked for traces of the predator. All I found were old tracks, which showed that other creatures had passed that way, before the arrival of our pioneers.

Finally I discovered a trail of fresh blood. I told Elisa’s relative to go back to the burrow and I continued on my own. The trail of blood was curious: it kept stopping at the edge of a canal, but then reappearing a few yards further on (and sometimes many yards further), always on the same side, not the far side, as one might have expected. Whatever had left that trail clearly wasn’t trying to cross the canal, so why had it kept getting into the water? In any case, the trail itself was barely detectable, so the precautions taken by the predator, whatever it was, seemed, at first, to be excessive. After a while I came to a dead sewer.

I got into the water there, and swam toward a bank of accumulated rotting trash, and when I reached it I had to climb up a beach of filth. Beyond the bank, above water level, I could see the thick bars at the top of the sewer’s entrance. For a moment I was afraid I might find the predator huddled in some corner, feasting on the body of the hapless Elisa. But I could hear nothing, so I kept going.

A few minutes later, among cardboard boxes and old food cans, I found the girl’s body left in one of the few relatively dry parts of the sewer.

Elisa’s neck was torn open. Apart from that, I couldn’t see any other wound. In one of the cans I found the remains of a baby rat. I examined them: dead for at least a month. I searched the surroundings but couldn’t detect the slightest trace of the predator. The baby’s corpse was complete. The only wound on poor Elisa’s body was the one that had killed her. I began to think that perhaps it hadn’t been a predator. Then I put the girl on my back and picked up the baby in my mouth, trying not to damage his skin with my sharp teeth. I retreated from the dead sewer and returned to the pioneers’ burrow. Elisa’s mother was large and strong, one of those specimens who can face up to a cat, but when she saw the body of her daughter, she burst into long sobs that made her companions blush. I showed them the body of the baby and asked them if they knew anything about him. No one knew anything, no child had been lost. I said that I had to take both bodies to the station. I asked for help. The mother carried Elisa’s body. I carried the baby. When we left, the pioneers returned to work, digging tunnels, looking for food.

This time I went to fetch the coroner and stayed with him until he finished examining both bodies. Elisa’s mother, asleep beside us, was seized from time to time by dreams, which wrested incomprehensible and incoherent words from her. After three hours the coroner had decided what he was going to tell me; it was what I had been afraid to imagine. The baby had died of hunger; Elisa had died from the wound to her throat. I asked him if that wound could have been inflicted by a snake. I don’t think so, said the coroner, unless it’s a new kind of snake. I asked him if the wound could have been inflicted by a blind alligator. Impossible, said the coroner. Maybe a weasel, he said. Weasels have been seen in the sewers recently. Scared to death, I said. That’s true, replied the coroner. Most of them die of hunger. They get lost, they drown, they’re eaten by alligators. We can forget the weasels, said the coroner. Then I asked him if Elisa had struggled with her killer. The coroner looked at the girl’s corpse for a long time. No, he concluded. That’s what I thought, I said. While we were talking, another police officer appeared. His rounds, as opposed to mine, had been quite uneventful. We woke Elisa’s mother. The coroner said goodbye. Is it all over? asked the mother. It’s all over, I replied. She thanked us and left. I asked my colleague to help me get rid of Elisa’s corpse.

The two of us took it to a canal where the current was strong and threw it in. Why don’t you throw out the baby’s body too? asked my colleague. I don’t know, I said, I want to examine it, maybe we missed something. Then he went back to his beat and I went back to mine. I asked every rat I met the same question: Have you heard anything about a missing baby? I got all sorts of answers, but in general our people look after their young, and what they told me was all second-hand. My rounds took me back to the perimeter. The pioneers were working on a tunnel, all of them, including Elisa’s mother, whose bulky, greasy body could barely squeeze through the crack, but her teeth and claws were still the best for digging.

I decided to go back to the dead sewer and try to see what it was that I had missed. I looked for tracks but couldn’t find any. Signs of violence. Signs of life. The baby hadn’t made its own way into the sewer, that much was obvious. I looked for food scraps, traces of dried shit, a burrow, all in vain.

Suddenly I heard a faint splashing. I hid. After a while I saw a white snake break the surface of the water. It was thick and must have been a yard long. I saw it dive and resurface a couple of times. Then it emerged cautiously from the water and scaled the bank, making a hissing sound like a leaking gas pipe. For our people, that snake was as lethal as gas. It approached my hiding place. Coming from that direction, it couldn’t attack directly, which meant, in principle, that I had time to escape (but once in the water I would be easy prey) or sink my teeth into its neck. It was only when the snake went away without any sign of having seen me that I realized it was blind, a descendant of those pet snakes that humans flush down the toilet when they get tired of them. For a moment I felt sorry for it. And I celebrated my good luck in an indirect way. I imagined the snake’s parents or great-great-grandparents descending through the infinite network of sewer pipes; I imagined their bewilderment in the darkness of the sewers, not knowing what to do, resigned to death or suffering, and I imagined the few that survived, adapting themselves to an infernal diet, exercising their power, sleeping and dying in that endless winter.

Fear stimulates the imagination, it seems. When the snake was gone, I resumed my methodical search of the dead sewer. I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The next day I talked with the coroner again. I asked him to take another look at the baby’s corpse. At first he looked at me as if I’d gone insane. Haven’t you got rid of it? he asked. No, I said, I want you to check it over one more time. Eventually he promised he would, as long as he didn’t have too much work that day. As I did my rounds, waiting for the coroner’s final report, I kept looking for a family that had lost a baby in the previous month. Unfortunately, the work we do, especially those who live near the perimeter, keeps us constantly on the move, and by then the mother of the dead baby could well have been digging tunnels or searching for food several miles away. Unsurprisingly, my inquiries didn’t yield any promising leads.

When I returned to the station I found a note from the coroner—and another from my commanding officer, asking me why I still hadn’t got rid of the baby’s corpse. The coroner’s note confirmed his earlier conclusion: there were no wounds; the cause of death had been hunger and possibly also exposure to the cold. The little ones are particularly vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions. I thought about it long and hard. The baby must have cried itself hoarse, as any baby would in a situation like that. Surely his cries would have attracted a predator? Why hadn’t they? The killer must have snatched the baby, then used back ways to reach the dead sewer. And there, he had left the baby alone and waited for him to die, of natural causes, as it were. Could it have been the baby-snatcher who later killed Elisa? Yes, that was the most likely scenario.

Then a question occurred to me, something I hadn’t asked the coroner, so I got up and went looking for him. On the way, I saw many rats who seemed carefree or playful or preoccupied with their own problems, scurrying in one direction or the other. Some of them greeted me warmly. Someone said, Look, there goes Pepe the Cop. The only thing I could feel was the sweat beginning to soak all through my fur, as if I’d just crawled out of the stagnant waters of a dead sewer.

I found the coroner sleeping alongside five or six other rats, all of them, to judge from their weariness, doctors or medical students. When I roused him from his sleep he looked at me as if he didn’t know who I was. How many days did he take to die? I asked him. José, is that you? asked the coroner. What do you want? How many days does it take a baby to die of hunger? We left the burrow. Why did I ever become a pathologist? said the coroner. Then he thought for a while. It depends on the baby’s constitution. Two days or less in some cases, but a plump, well-nourished baby could last five days or more. And without drinking? I asked. A bit less, said the coroner. Then he added: I don’t know what you’re trying to get at. Did he die of hunger or thirst? I asked. Hunger. Are you sure? As sure as you can be in a case like this, said the coroner.

Back at the station I got to thinking: the baby had been taken a month ago and probably took three or four days to die. He must have been crying all that time. And yet the noise hadn’t attracted any predators. I returned to the dead sewer once again. This time I knew what I was looking for and it didn’t take me long to find it: a gag. All the time he was dying, the baby had been gagged. No, not all the time. Every now and then the killer had taken off the gag and given the baby a drink, or maybe left it on, but soaked the cloth with water. I picked up what was left of the gag and got out of that dead sewer.

The coroner was waiting for me at the station. What did you find there, Pepe? he asked when he saw me. The gag, I said, handing him the scrap of dirty cloth. The coroner examined it for a few seconds, without touching it. Is the baby’s body still here? he asked me. Get rid of it, he said, people are starting to talk about the way you’re behaving. Talk about or criticize? I asked. It comes to the same thing, said the coroner before he left. I didn’t feel up to working, but I pulled myself together and went out. Apart from the usual accidents, which can be relied upon to blight everything we undertake, it was a routine beat like any other. When I returned to the station, after hours of exhausting work, I got rid of the baby’s body. For days there were no new developments. There were attacks by predators, accidents, old tunnels collapsed, several of our number were killed by a poison before we could find a way to neutralize it. Our history consists of the various ways we find to elude the traps that open endlessly before us. Routine and mettle. Recovering bodies and recording incidents. Identical, calm days. Until I found the bodies of two young rats, a female and a male.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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