The sculptor returned the clipping to me; we didn't say much because we were practically keeling over with sleep. I felt that he was happy that I had accepted to work with him on his book and only then did I realize that up until the end he had doubted my reputation of being very busy, perhaps of being selfish, of being, in any case, a writer deeply involved in her own matters. I asked him whether there was a taxi stand nearby and walked out onto a deserted, cold and, for my tastes, far too narrow street in Paris. A gust of wind obliged me to turn up my coat collar and I heard my steps stomping dryly in the silence, marking a rhythm in which fatigue and obsession inserted time and time again a melody, or a line from a poem, the only thing I was offered to see were her hands severed from her body and placed in a jar that bore the number 24, the only thing I was offered to see were her hands severed from her body. I reacted brusquely, repelling the oncoming wave that came back again and again, forcing myself to breathe deeply, to think about the work of the following day. I never knew why I had crossed over to the other sidewalk; there was no need for it since the street disembogued into the square at La Chapelle, where perhaps I would find a taxi. It made no difference to me whether I walked on one pavement or the other, but I crossed because I no longer had the strength to ask myself why I was crossing.
The girl was sitting on a step in a doorway almost lost among the other doorways of the tall and narrow houses which could hardly be differentiated from one another on this particularly dark block. What a girl could be doing at this hour of the night and in such loneliness on the edge of a step did not surprise me as much as her posture, a whitish stain with her legs open and hands covering her face, something that could have just as easily been a dog or a crate of trash abandoned at the entrance to a building. I looked around vaguely: a truck was moving away with its stupid yellow lights; on the opposing sidewalk, a man was walking hunched over, his head deep in his raised collar and his hands in his pockets. I stopped and looked around again: the girl had thin braids, a white skirt, and a pink knit sweater on. And when her hands parted I saw her eyes and her cheeks and not even the partial darkness could erase her tears, their sheen dripping down towards her mouth.
"What's wrong? What are you doing out here?"
I heard her breathe in sharply, swallowing her tears and snot, a hiccup or a pout; I saw her full, chubby face reach towards me, her tiny red nose, the curve of a trembling mouth. I repeated my questions, saying God knows what as I bent down until I felt her very close.
"My mom," said the girl panting in-between her words. "My dad’s doing things to my mom."
Perhaps she was about to say more but her arms relaxed and I felt her cling to me, crying desperately on my neck; she smelled dirty, like wet underwear. I wanted to take her in my arms as I got up, but she moved away, looking in the darkness of the corridor. Her finger was pointing out something to me; she began to walk and I followed her, barely making out a stone arch and, behind that, the darkness, the beginning of a garden. She walked out silently into the open air, which surrounded not a garden but an orchard with low fences which gave sown fields boundaries. There was enough light to see the rachitic mastic trees, the reeds which supported climbing plants, rags like scarecrows. Towards the center a pavilion was divided in patches with sheets of zinc and cans, a small window from which a green light emanated. There were no lights on in the windows of the buildings which encircled the orchard, and the black walls rose five floors high until they flowed into a low and cloudy sky.
The girl had walked in small, measured steps directly between the two stonemasons who guarded the gate to the pavilion. She hardly turned around to make sure that I was following her and entered the building. I know that I should have held up here, turned around, told myself that this girl had had a bad dream and returned to bed. All the reasons of rational thinking at this very moment showed me the absurdity and perhaps even the risk of entering someone else’s house at this hour of the night; maybe I was still telling myself that when I passed through the half-open door and saw the girl waiting for me in a vague hallway full of tools and assorted junk. A ray of light slipped out from under the last door at the back, and the girl motioned to me with her hand and, almost running, stepped across the rest of the hallway. Then she began opening the door imperceptibly. Close to her, getting the full yellow rays of the crevice which was expanding little by little, I smelled something burnt, heard something like a drowned scream again and again, stopping then repeating. My hand gave the door a push and I entered the infected apartment with broken stools and a table full of glasses and bottles of beer and wine, and a mat stacked with old newspapers; past all this was a bed and on it a body tied up and gagged with a wet towel, her hands and feet bound in iron bars.
Sitting on a bench with his back to me, the girl's dad was doing things to her mom. He was taking his time, slowly lifting his cigarette to his mouth, letting the smoke out little by little through his nose as he placed the lit stub of the cigarette on the mother's breast. Through the towel wrapped around her mouth and face apart from the eyes, the mother's suffocated screams went on and on. Before I had time to understand, to accept being part of this, the father found time to withdraw the cigarette from his mouth and then bring it back again; he found time to revive the ember and savor its excellent French tobacco; he found time to let me see the burned body, burned from the stomach to the neck, the red and bluish stains that went from the thighs and the vagina to her breasts where now he was lifting her arm with studied delicateness to find a spot on her skin without scars. The screams and shaking of her body in the bed which creaked in spasms were mixed with things and acts which I did not choose and will never be able to explain to myself. Between me and the man with his back to me came a decrepit stool; I saw it rise in the air and fall on its side on the dad's head; his body and the stool rolled on the ground in almost the same second. I had to step back so as not to fall down myself, and the movement of raising the stool and discharging its weight had absorbed all of my strength, my strength which abandoned me at that very instant, which left me alone like a tottering old doll. I know that I went to look for help and didn't find it; that I looked vaguely behind me and saw the door locked; the girl was no longer there and the man on the floor was a confused blot, a wrinkled heap of rags. What came afterwards I could have seen in a film or read in a book: I was there without being there, but I was there with such agility and assiduity that, in a short while, if this were happening in time, I came to find a knife on the table, cut the ropes that bound the woman, rip the towel from her face and see her straighten herself out in silence, now perfectly in silence as if it were necessary and almost unavoidable, and watch the body on the floor which was starting to contract unconsciously, although that was not going to be for long, watch her go towards the body without a word, seize it by the arms while I took its legs and with doubled momentum, we tied it to the bed, we bound it with the same ropes hurriedly reconfigured and retied, we tied it up and muzzled it in the same silence in which an ultrasonic sound seemed to be vibrating and trembling.
What happens next I don't know. I still see the naked woman, her hands pulling off pieces of clothes, unbuttoning a pair of pants, and lowering them until they had reached the feet, I see her eyes in my eyes, one pair of eyes doubled and four hands pulling off and tearing off and taking off a cardigan, a shirt, a slip. And now that I have to remember it and write it down, my woeful condition and rough memory bring me another matter, unspeakably vivid but unseen, a passage in a story by Jack London in which a trapper from the north struggles for a clean death while, at his side, a bloodstained matter keeps him conscious, his adventure buddy howls and convulses torturously for the women of the tribe who are to make him live out a horrific prolongation of life between spasms and screams, killing him without killing him, exquisitely refined in every new variant never described here, as we are never described and doing what we were supposed to do, what we had to do. It was useless to ask myself now why I was involved in all this, what right did I have, and what was my part in what happened before my very eyes, what they no doubt saw, what they no doubt remember, just like London's imagination must have seen and remembered what his hand was not capable of writing. I only know that the girl was not with us once I entered the room, and that now her mom was doing things to her dad, but who knows whether it was only her mom or perhaps indeed once again the howls of the night wind, fragments of images returning from a newspaper clipping, hands severed from her body and placed in a jar that bore the number 24, through unofficial sources we learned that he died suddenly at the beginning of the torture, the towel in the mouth, the lit cigarettes, and Victoria, two years and six months old, and Hugo Roberto, one year and six months old, abandoned at the door to the building. How is one to know how long it lasted, how is one, including me, to understand, even me, although I think of myself as one of the good guys; how is one, including me, to accept, even me, because I am on the other side of the severed hands and mass graves, on the other side of girls tortured and shot that Christmas night; the rest is having your back to it, crossing the orchard beating me against the fence and gashing open my knee, going out onto a cold and deserted street and arriving at La Chapelle and almost immediately finding a taxi that brought me glass after glass of vodka and sleep from which I only awoke at midday, lying across my bed and dressed from head to foot, with my knee bloodied and that occasionally providential headache which pure vodka can give you when it goes straight from the bottleneck into your throat.
I worked the whole afternoon; it seemed inevitable and amazing that I was capable of concentrating to such an extent. At nightfall I phoned the sculptor, who seemed surprised at my early reappearance. I told him what had happened to me, and he respected me enough to let me spit it all out to him at one go, even though at times I heard him cough or try to start a question.
"So that you see," I told him, "you see it didn't take me that much time to deliver what I promised you."
"I don't get it," said the sculptor. "If you mean the text on ..."
"Yes, that's what I mean. What I just read to you is the text. I'll send it to you once I've cleaned it up a bit; I don't want to have it here anymore."
Two or three days later, after a tempest of pills, drinks and thirty-threes – anything that could provide a barrier – I went out onto the street to buy some groceries; the fridge was empty and Mimosa was meowing at the foot of my bed. In my mailbox was a letter with the stout handwriting of the sculptor on the envelope. Inside I found a sheet of paper and a newspaper clipping; I began reading as I walked towards the market and only later realized that I had ripped the envelope when I opened it and lost a part of the clipping. The sculptor thanked me for the text to his album – unusual but, it seemed, very much in my style, outside of all the usual customs in artistic photo albums – although he didn't care much about it just like I hadn't cared. There was a postscript: "In you we lost a great dramatic actress, although luckily an excellent writer was saved. The other evening I thought for a moment that you were telling me something that had actually occurred, after which I just happened to read France-Soir, from which I can tell you I found the source of your notable personal experience. Surely a writer might argue that if his inspiration comes from reality, even from police reports and news, what he might be able to do with it has the potential of another dimension and gives it a different value. In any case, dear Noemí, we are too good friends for it to have been necessary to condition me in advance to your text and deploy your talents on the phone. But let's leave it at that; you already know how much I appreciate your cooperation and I am very happy about ..."
I looked at the clipping and saw that I had ripped it inadvertently, the envelope and the piece stuck within it had been tossed somewhere. The article was worthy of France-Soir and its style: atrocious drama in a suburb of Marseilles; macabre discovery of a sadistic crime; former plumber bound and gagged in a rickety bed; a body, etc.; neighbors furtively on the up-and-up regarding repeated scenes of violence; a small girl missing for days; neighbors suspecting negligence and abandonment; police looking for his mistress; the horrible spectacle which was offered to the – and here was where the clipping ended. At the end of it all, having wet the tongue of the envelope too much, the sculptor had done what Jack London and my memory had done; but the photo of the pavilion was complete and it was the pavilion in the orchard, the fences and the sheets of zinc, the high walls encircling everything with their blind eyes, neighbors furtively aware, neighbors suspecting abandonment, all of this was beating my face into the fragments of the story.
I took a taxi and got off at the rue de Riquet, knowing that this was idiocy and doing it because this was how stupid things were done. In broad daylight this had nothing to do with my memory and, still, I walked looking at every house and crossed over to the other pavement as I remembered having done, and I didn't recognize a single doorway from that night. The light fell over everything like some infinite mask, doorways but not like the doorway, no access to an interior orchard simply because this orchard was in the suburbs of Marseilles. But the girl was indeed there, sitting on the step in an entrance playing with some kind of rag doll. When I spoke to her, she hustled off running up to the first door, a concierge coming out before I could call her. She wanted to know whether I was a social worker; surely I had come for the girl I had found lost in the street; that same morning a few people had been by to identify her and a social worker was coming to look for her. Although I already knew what it was, I asked for her last name before leaving. Then I betook myself to a café and on the back of the sculptor's letter wrote the conclusion to the text, then went to slip it under his door. Just so he would know how it ended, that the text to accompany his sculptures was complete.