Suppose the lift had broken down or collapsed while making its ascent and he had suddenly crashed to the bottom like those victims he had heard the man in the tobacconist’s describe?
The civil servant from the DSR decided to return to his apartment. His bones were aching. Feeling peckish, he began to imagine the little feast he would prepare once he arrived home. The very thought made him even hungrier, he could scarcely wait, the saliva welling up in his mouth. Without thinking, he quickened his pace, and the next minute he was running.
Suddenly he felt himself being grabbed and pushed with force against a wall. Four men were asking him in loud voices why he was running, and shaking him, forced his hand open. Then they had to release him. And he took his revenge by demanding that they should show him the palms of their hands. All of them were in a lower category.
In the apartment block where he lived, there appeared to have been no further mishaps. The front door was gone, some steps were missing, but the lift was still working. As he was about to step out on to the landing and confronted the sliding door of the lift, a sudden thought filled him with terror: suppose the lift had broken down or collapsed while making its ascent and he had suddenly crashed to the bottom like those victims he had heard the man in the tobacconist’s describe? There and then, he decided that until the situation was clarified he would not use the lift, but then he remembered there were steps missing and in all probability, it was no longer possible to go down or upstairs. He wavered in the midst of this dilemma, with a concentration that seemed obsessive as he cautiously crossed the landing on tiptoe in the direction of his own front door and realized that the building was plunged into silence except for the odd little creak which was barely audible. Could everyone be out? Were they all down on the street keeping a watchful eye as the Government (G) had requested? Or had they fled? He slowly put one foot on the ground and listened attentively: the sound of coughing on an upper floor put his mind at rest. Opening the door with the utmost care, he went into his apartment. He peered into all the rooms: everything in order. He poked his head inside a kitchen cupboard in the hope that he might miraculously find the jug back in its place. It was not there. He felt quite distressed: this tiny personal loss made the disaster that had befallen the city all the more serious, this collective calamity which he had just witnessed with his own eyes. It occurred to him that just a few minutes ago he had felt the most awful pangs of hunger. Had he suddenly lost his appetite? No, but it had been transformed into a dull pain that caused him to belch as if the walls of his empty stomach were alternately contracting and distending. He made himself a sandwich, which he ate standing in the middle of the kitchen, his eyes slightly glazed, his legs shaking.
The floor was unsteady under his feet. He dragged himself into the bedroom, stretched out fully clothed on the bed without being aware of the fact, and fell into a deep sleep. The rest of the sandwich rolled on to the floor, opening as it fell, his teeth-marks imprinted on one side. Three deafening cracks echoed throughout the room and, as if this were a sign, the room began to twist and sway while retaining all its forms and without any change of features or the relationship between them. The whole building shook from top to bottom. People were shouting on the other floors.
The civil servant slept for four hours without as much as turning. He dreamt that he was standing naked inside an extremely narrow lift that was going up, went through the roof and shot into the air like a rocket, and suddenly vanished leaving him hovering in space for what could have been a tenth of a second, a whole hour, or eternity, and then he began falling down and down, with arms and legs outstretched, observing the city from on high, or its location, for there were no houses or streets in sight, nothing except an empty and totally deserted space. He landed on the ground with a bump and knocked against something with his right hand.
The pain woke him up. The room was already full of shadows as dense as black mist. He sat up in bed. Without looking, he rubbed his right hand with the left, and jumped when he felt something sticky and warm. Even without looking, he could tell it was blood. But how could the tiny wound inflicted by the door at the DSR cause so much bleeding? He switched on the light and examined his hand: the flesh on the back was raw and all the skin covered by the restorative film had disappeared. Still half asleep and shaken by this unexpected setback, he rushed to the bathroom where he kept some first-aid materials in case of emergency. He opened the cupboard and grabbed a bottle. The blood was now dribbling on to the floor and inside the sleeve of his jacket, depending on his movements. This could be a serious hemorrhage. He opened the bottle, dipped in the brush, which was in a separate case, and as he was preparing to brush on the biological fluid, he had the distinct feeling that he was about to do something foolish. And suppose the same thing was to happen again? He put the bottle back in its place, spattering blood over everything. There were no bandages in the apartment. Like compresses and adhesives, they were hardly used nowadays since this biological restorative fluid had come on to the market. He ran to his room, opened the drawer where he kept his shirts and tore off a long strip of material. Using his teeth, he succeeded in wrapping it tightly round his hand. As he was about to close the drawer, he spotted the rest of the sandwich. He bent down to pick it up, gathered the bits together and, seated on the bed, slowly began munching, not that he was hungry any longer but simply out of a sense of duty he had no wish to question.
There were many people in the street, but seemingly unaware of each other and silent. They were walking about aimlessly, without any apparent destination, extending their arms and showing the palms of their right hands.
Just as he was about to swallow the last mouthful, he noticed a dark patch almost hidden from view by the shadow of a piece of furniture. Intrigued, he went closer thinking vaguely to himself that once he could afford to buy a carpet all these imperfections in the flooring would disappear. The red patch had been discovered (he would later swear) in a moment of distraction. Stretching out his foot, the civil servant turned it over with the tip of his shoe. He knew what he would find there: on the other side was the film which had been brushed on to the back of his hand, and the red stain was blood, the blood which had formed a lining for the skin attached there. Then he thought it most likely that he would never be able to afford the carpet. He closed the door and made his way to the sitting room. Outwardly serene and tranquil, he could feel the panic stirring inside him, slowly for the moment, like a heavy armed disc with long spikes capable of tearing him to pieces. He switched on the Television (TV) and, while the set was warming up, he went to the window he had left open since morning. Evening was drawing in. There were many people in the street, but seemingly unaware of each other and silent. They were walking about aimlessly, without any apparent destination, extending their arms and showing the palms of their right hands. Viewed from above, in that silence, the spectacle made him want to laugh: arms going up and down, white hands branded with green letters gave a quick wave and then dropped, only to repeat the movement a few paces further on. They were like mental patients driven by some idée fixe as they paraded the grounds of the asylum.
The civil servant went back to watch Television (TV). Round a semi-circular table were seated five panelists of grave demeanor. Even before he could make out a word of what was being said, he noticed that the picture was constantly interrupted as well as the sound. The announcer was speaking:
—gether here specialists . . . ology, industrial safety regulations, biological surgery, pro . . . volved . . . fety . . .
For half-an-hour, the television screen went on flickering, emitting fractured words, the odd phrase that might be complete, although who could be sure. The civil servant just sat there, not all that interested in knowing what they were debating, but because he was in the habit of sitting in front of the Television (TV) and for the moment there was nothing else he could do, if there had ever been a time when he could have done something. He wished the Government (G) would show its hand, not because such a gesture might have any importance, remedy the city’s evils or prove some kind of innocence, if that was what it was all about, but just to see all those hands in categories A and B together. Then the picture settled for a few more seconds, the sound became clear, and a voice on the Television (TV) said:
—it seems to be the case that nothing disappears during the day. All one experiences during the day are operational faults, irregularities, breakdowns in general. Whatever has disappeared, has always disappeared during the night.
The person chairing the panel asked:
—What measures do you think should be taken at night? A member of the panel:
—In my opinion . . .
The picture disappeared; the sound died away until nothing more could be heard. The Television (TV) was no longer working. The Government (G) would not show its hand to the city.
The civil servant returned to his bedroom. As he expected (without knowing why), the patch of restorative film was no longer lying in the same spot. He touched it once more with the tip of his shoe, almost unaware of what he was doing. Then he heard the announcer’s voice repeat these words inside his head. “What measures do you think should be taken during the night?” There were no crackling sounds this time. The whole building was creaking without interruption, as if it were being pulled by two wills in opposite directions. The civil servant tore another strip from his shirt, tied it neatly and securely round his hand, and retrieved from a drawer all the money he possessed. Although it was warm outside, he put on his overcoat: no doubt, it would get colder at night and he did not intend to return home before dawn. “Everything has disappeared during the night.” He went to the kitchen, made another sandwich, which he stuffed into his pocket, ran his eye over the apartment and left.
Once out on the landing, before making his way to the lift, he shouted up the stairwell:
—Anyone at home?
There was no reply. The entire building seemed to be swaying and creaking. “And suppose the lift isn’t working? How am I going to get out of here?” He could see himself jumping from the window of his second-floor apartment on to the street, and gave a deep sigh of relief when the cage door slid back as normal and the light went on. He nervously pressed the button. The lift wavered as if resisting the electrical impulse it was receiving, and then slowly, with labored jerks, it descended to the ground floor. The door jammed as he tried to open it, leaving barely enough space for him to pass, stretching and squeezing for all he was worth as he edged his way through. The heavy disc of panic was now spinning furiously, turning to vertigo. Suddenly, as if it were giving up the battle or responding to threats, the door surrendered and allowed itself to be opened. The civil servant ran out onto the street. It was already dead of night but the streetlights had still not come on. Shadowy forms passed in silence, fewer people were now raising their hands. But here and there, the odd person still used a cigarette lighter or a pocket torch to see what was happening. The civil servant withdrew into the main entrance of his apartment block. He must get out. He could not bear to feel the building on top of him, but someone was sure to demand that he should show his hand, which was bandaged and bloodstained. People might think the bandage was a ruse, an attempt to conceal the palm of his hand on the pretext that it was injured. He shuddered with fear. But the building was creaking even louder. Something was about to happen.
Forgetting his hand for a second, he dashed out on to the street. He felt an irresistible urge to run then remembered what had happened to him that afternoon and, with his hand in this state (once more he remembered his hand, and this time there was no forgetting), he realized just how dangerous his situation was. He waited in the dark until there were fewer shadowy figures and fewer lighters and torches going in and out, and then, keeping close to the walls, he took himself off. He reached the end of the street where he lived without anyone questioning him. He gathered his courage. To raise an arm had become absurd in a city where there was no street lighting, and the inhabitants, weary of their fruitless vigil, gradually stopped demanding to examine the palms of other people’s hands.
But the civil servant had not reckoned with the Police (P). On turning a corner that led into a large square, he ran into the patrol. He tried to retreat, but was caught in the act by the beam of a lantern. They ordered him to halt. Were he to try to escape, he would be as good as dead. The patrol advanced on him.
—Show us your hand.
The lantern cast its bright beam on the white bandage.
—I grazed the back of my hand and had to bandage it. The three policemen surrounded him.
—A bandage? What kind of tale is that supposed to be? How could he explain that the biological liquid had torn away his skin and, at this very moment, was moving around in the darkness of the bedroom? (Moving where?)
—Why didn’t you put some biological liquid on the wound? If you really have a wound there, muttered one of the policemen.
—Believe me, there is a wound, but if I remove the bandage now, it will start bleeding again.
—That’s enough—we’ll do without the chatter. Show us your hand.
The policeman who was nearest dug his finger under the bandage and started tugging with all his might. At first, there was no sign of bleeding and then, suddenly, under the harsh glare of the lantern the whole area without skin was covered in blood. The policeman turned up the palm of his hand and the letter came into view.
—On your way.
—Please help me to put the bandage back on, the civil servant pleaded.
Muttering under his breath, “We’re not running a hospital here,” one of the policemen obliged. And then warned him:
—My advice to you is to stay indoors.
Fighting back tears of pain and self-commiseration, he murmured:
—But the apartment block . . .
—That’s right, replied the policeman. On your way.
On the other side of the square, he could see some lights. He paused. Should he go there and run the risk of constantly bumping into people who would force him to show the palm of his hand? He trembled with pain, fear, and anguish. The wound was already bigger. What should he do? Wander through the darkness like so many others, groping his way along, colliding with things? Or return home? The enthusiasm with which he had set out that morning in the role of self-appointed vigilante was fast waning. Whatever he might discover, should he succeed in seeing anything in this darkness, he would not intervene, he would not summon anyone to testify or give assistance. He left the square by a wide road lined with trees on either side where the shadows were deeper. There no one was likely to demand that he should show his hand. People were rushing past but their haste did not imply that they had anywhere to go or knew where they were heading. Walking in haste simply meant, in every sense, to escape.
On both sides of the street, buildings were creaking and crackling. He remembered that at the far end, on a crossing, there was a monument surrounded by benches. He would go and sit there a while, pass the time, perhaps the entire night: he had nowhere to go, what else could he do? No one had anywhere to go. That street, like all the others, was swarming with people. The population seemed to have multiplied. He trembled at the very thought. And it came as no surprise to find that the monument had also disappeared. The benches were still there, some of them occupied. Then the civil servant remembered his wounded hand and hesitated. From the darkness, others were emerging and taking up every available space. He could find nowhere to sit.
He had no desire to sit. He turned left, towards a street that had once been narrow but which now had wide, deep openings on both sides, veritable gaps where buildings had once stood. He had the impression that, were it daytime, all those empty spaces would look like perspectives strung together from north to south, from east to west, as far as the city boundaries, if such a term was any longer meaningful. It occurred to him that he could leave the city, go to the outskirts, into the countryside, where there were no buildings to disappear, cars to vanish in their hundreds, things that changed places, and ceased to be there or anywhere else. In the space they once occupied, there was nothing except a void and the occasional dead body. His spirits revived: at least he would escape the nightmare of spending a night like this, amidst invisible threats, going hither and thither. At first light, perhaps he would find some solution to the problem. The Government (G) was sure to investigate the matter. There had been previous cases, although less serious, and they had always found a solution. There was no cause for alarm. Order would be restored to the city. A crisis, a simple crisis, and nothing more.
All members of the public are warned that by order of the Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces the eastern sector of the city will be bombarded from seven a.m. by means of Ground Artillery and Air Attacks as a preliminary measure of retaliation.
Near the street where he lived some lamps were still lit. This time he did not avoid them: he felt safe, confident, and should anyone question him, he would quietly tell his tale of woe, point out that this was obviously part of the same conspiracy to undermine the security and welfare of the city. It did not prove necessary. No one demanded to see the palm of his hand. The few lit streets were crammed with people. One could only cross the road with the utmost difficulty. And in one street, perched on top of a lorry, a sergeant from the Territorial Army (TA) was reading out a proclamation or warning:
—All members of the public are warned that by order of the Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces the eastern sector of the city will be bombarded from seven a.m. by means of Ground Artillery and Air Attacks as a preliminary measure of retaliation. People who live in the area about to be bombarded have already been evacuated from their homes and are being billeted in government installations with the necessary safe- guards. They will be compensated in full for any material losses and the inevitable privations they have suffered. The Government and the Supreme High Command of the Armed Forces can assure all citizens that the plan drawn up for a counter-attack will be carried out to its ultimate consequences. Given the circumstances, and the order of the day, “On your guard and palms up,” having proved to be ineffective, our new slogan will be: “Look out and attack.”
The civil servant sighed with relief. He would no longer be obliged to show his hand. His self-confidence was restored. The renewed sense of courage he had felt half-an-hour earlier became even stronger. And there and then he made two decisions: he would go back to his apartment, collect his binoculars and take them with him beyond the eastern zone of the city from where he could watch the bombardment. And once the sergeant had finished reading his statement, he joined in the animated conversation that ensued:
—It’s an idea.
—Do you think it will work?
—Of course, the Government knows what it’s doing. And, as a reprisal, can you think of anything better?
—They’ll be taught a lesson this time. Should have happened sooner.
—What have you done to your hand?
—The biological liquid didn’t work and only made matters worse.
—I know of a similar case.
—Me too, they told me that it was a disaster for the hospitals.
—I was probably the first case.
—The Government will recompense everyone.
—Good night. Tomorrow is another day.
—Tomorrow is another day. Good night.
He felt a sense of outrage. No fear, only an overwhelming and salutary wrath. Hatred. Blind rage.
The civil servant went off contented. His street was still dark, but this did not worry him. The delicate, imponderable light coming from the stars was enough to show the way, and in the absence of any trees, the darkness was not too dense. He found the road different: several more buildings were missing. But his apartment block was still there. He walked on, most likely more steps had disappeared. But even if the lift should not be working, he would devise some means of reaching the second floor. He wanted his binoculars, he longed for the satisfaction of watching a whole area of the city being bombarded, the eastern sector, as the sergeant had confirmed. He passed between the posts of the missing door and found himself in an empty space. Unlike the building, he had seen that morning, all that remained of this one was the façade, like a hollow shell. Looking up, he saw the night sky above and the odd star. He felt a sense of outrage. No fear, only an overwhelming and salutary wrath. Hatred. Blind rage.
On the ground, there were white forms, naked bodies. He remembered what he had heard in the tobacconist’s that morning: “Not so much as a ring on their fingers.” He drew closer. Just as he thought, he recognized these corpses: some of them were his neighbors in the same block. They had chosen not to leave the building and now they were dead. Naked. The civil servant placed his hand on a woman’s breast: it was still warm. The building had probably disappeared when he had reached the street. It either went silently, or with all that creaking and cracking, he had heard everywhere when at home. Had he not stopped to listen to the sergeant and then lingered behind to have a chat, there would probably have been one more corpse here: his own. He looked at the space in front of him where the building had once stood and saw another building further on move, suddenly shrink, like a ragged sheet of dark paper which some invisible fire from the sky was scorching and destroying. In less than a minute, the building had disappeared. And since there was an even greater space beyond, a kind of corridor opened up, and went off in a straight line to the east. “Even without binoculars,” muttered the civil servant, trembling with fear and hatred, “I must see this.”
The city was immense. For the rest of the night the civil servant headed east. There was no danger of getting lost. On that side, it took longer for the sky to light up. And at seven, already morning, the bombardment would begin. The civil servant felt exhausted but happy. He clenched his left fist, already savoring the terrible fate that was about to befall a quarter of the buildings in the city, to befall everything to be found there, and the OUMIs. He observed that hundreds, thousands of people were walking in the same direction. The same bright idea had occurred to all of them. By five, he had already arrived in the open countryside. Looking back, he could see the city with its irregular outlines, several buildings that appeared to be taller only because the adjacent buildings had disappeared, just as in a sketch of ancient ruins although, strictly speaking, there were no ruins, only a void. Aimed at the city, scores of cannons formed the curve of a circle. So far, not an airplane in sight. They would arrive at seven o’clock on the dot, and there was no need for them to arrive sooner. Three hundred meters from the cannons, a cordon of soldiers prevented spectators from getting any closer. The civil servant found himself lost in the crowd. How irritating. He had worn himself out getting there, he had no apartment to return to once the bombardment was over, and now he was going to be deprived of watching the spectacle and enjoying his revenge. He looked around him. People were standing on packing cases. An excellent idea that had never occurred to him. But behind, perhaps a kilometer away, there was a row of forested hills. Whatever he might lose in terms of distance, he would gain in height. It seemed an idea worth pursuing.
He made his way through the crowd, which was already thinning out in that direction and crossed the open space separating him from the hills. Very few people were heading there. And towards the hill ahead of him, no one. The ashen sky was almost white but the sun still had not risen. The terrain gradually sloped upwards. Between the artillery and the city boundary a row of heavy machine-guns was now being installed. Heaven help any OUMIs that turned up on this side. The civil servant smiled: they were about to get their just deserts. He regretted not being a soldier. How he would have loved to feel in his wrists, yes, even in his wounded hand, the vibrations of a weapon firing, to feel his whole body tremble, not with fear this time, but with anger and blissful revenge. The physical impact on his senses was so intense that he had to pause. He thought of turning back in order to get closer. But realized that he could never be as close as he wished, that in the middle of that crowd he would see precious little, so he carried on.
He was now approaching the trees. No one in sight. He sat on the ground with his back to some bushes whose flowers brushed against his shoulders. From all around the city people continued to arrive. No one wanted to miss the spectacle. How many people could be there? Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps the entire city. The countryside was one black stain that was rapidly spreading and already overflowing in the direction of the hills. The civil servant trembled with excitement. After all, this was going to be a resounding victory. It was about seven o’clock. What could have happened to his watch? He shrugged his shoulders: he would have an even better watch, more accurate, of superior quality. Viewed from where he was standing the city was unrecognizable. But everything would be restored in due course. First, punishment.
He could not make out what they were saying. Perhaps a pair of lovers sexually aroused by the impending bombardment.
At that moment, he heard voices behind him. The voice of a man and the voice of a woman. He could not make out what they were saying. Perhaps a pair of lovers sexually aroused by the impending bombardment. But the voices sounded tranquil. And suddenly the man said in a clear voice:
—Let’s wait a little longer. And the woman:
—Until the very last minute.
The civil servant could feel his hair stand on end. The OUMIs. He looked anxiously towards the plain. Saw that people were still arriving like a swarm of black ants, and he was determined to win that prize, category C. He quietly circled the thick clump of bushes, and then got down, almost crawling behind some trees clustered together. He waited awhile, then got up slowly, and spied: the man and woman were naked. He had seen other naked bodies that night, but these were alive. He refused to believe his eyes, heartily wished it was seven o’clock, that the bombardment would commence. Through the branches, he could see people from the city quickly advancing. Perhaps they were already within hearing distance. He called out:
—Help! There are OUMIs here!
Startled, the man and woman turned round and began running towards him. No one else had heard him and there was no time for a second cry for help. He could feel the man’s hands tighten round his throat and the woman’s hands pressing against his mouth. And before he even had time to look, he already knew that the hands about to strangle him did not bear any letter; they were smooth with nothing except the natural purity of skin. The naked man and woman dragged his body into the woods. More naked men and women appeared and surrounded him. When they moved away, his corpse was lying there stretched out on the ground, naked. Not so much as a ring on his finger, had he ever worn one. Not even a bandage. From the wound on the back of his hand came a tiny trickle of blood that soon dried up.
Between the woods and the city, there was no empty space. The entire population had come to witness the great military operation of reprisal. In the distance the drone of airplanes approaching. Any clocks that might still be working were about to strike seven or silently mark the hour on the dial. The officer in charge of the artillery was clutching a loudspeaker to give the order to fire. Hundreds of thousands of people, a million, held their breath in suspense. But no shots were fired. For just as the officer was about to shout Fire! the loudspeaker slipped from his hand. Inexplicably, the airplanes made a narrow curve then turned back. This was only the opening signal. Total silence spread over the plain. And suddenly the city disappeared. In its place, as far as the eye could see, another multitude of naked men and women emerged from what had once been the city. The cannons disappeared along with all the other weapons, and the soldiers were naked, surrounded by men and women who had earlier worn uniforms and carried weapons. At the center, the great dark mass of the city’s population. But this, too, was almost immediately transformed and multiplied. The plain lit up as the sun rose.
Then from the woods came all the men and women who had been hiding there since the revolution began, since the first OUMI disappeared. And one of them said:
—Now we must rebuild everything. And a woman replied:
—There was no other remedy since we were those things.
Never again will men be treated as things.
Excerpted from José Saramago’s forthcoming collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, to be published in April 2012 by Verso Books.
José Saramago was a Portuguese Nobel Laureate, a novelist, playwright, and journalist. His numerous books, including the best-selling All the Names, Blindness, and The Cave, have been translated into more than forty languages and have established him as one of the world’s most influential writers. He died in June 2010.