(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)
The old man Diego Morales leaned his stool against the porch rail; he lifted his hat and with the same hand scratched his head, where very little hair still remained. It was the preamble to a series of very characteristic gestures which he employed whenever he was about to say something delicate, risqué, or extraordinary. Next came the second part: he wrinkled his nose a little, a nose already wrinkled on its own account from having spent 86 years fulfilling its respiratory duties, he raised his two gray eyebrows and then he stretched his lips. Mission accomplished, he would begin the tale, which he would always start by clearing his throat, even though his voice would continue to be a little hoarse.
Listen, -- invariably this was the first word --...that deal with the Musiú was a strange case. Look, I have never believed in spiritualists, and neither, I suppose, do you. But there are things that get one to thinking and however much you try to reason them away, there always remains that doubt as to whether what had just happened was real or was just people talking. I can no longer assure you of what I saw and of what Leyva the carpenter or my Unlce Fico told me, but, God forgive him, I never could trust the latter very much. The thing with Evasio’s son I can assure you of, because I saw it myself. People talked a lot about the other thing, you know how people talk. At night the countryside is very dark and one accepts that one would see strange things, especially if someone walking down the path is frightened... but at most it’s some country cat’s eyes gleaming like a morning star or a dry leaf falling: even a horse rears up and frightens its rider, because when it’s pitch black, a man trusts his animal’s instincts more than his own.
Well, good, coming back to the thing about the Musiú, it was like they say, because when he came to these parts, they said he was French. And, although it has been years, I remember it well. Look, if you told me something today, I might forget it by tomorrow, but the events of those days, however long ago, I can’t forget that easily. Hunger and misery stick in your stomach, but they leave scars of memories here, inside your head, and those never fade away.
Picture this.In the middle of the War of Independence, my father and my big brother having been raised in the mountains, they left me and my mother and my sisters in charge of the ranch we had near the crest of Ternero. It was exactly there, at the summit of that hill where you have been studying with your gizmos, that Musiú built his house.
I saw cart after cart pass by, crammed with boxes and trunks. And they were unloading them all in a shed which Leyva threw together, while 15 or 20 more men from the area opened a road and levelled the crest of the hill until not even a single matojo bush remained. After this activity, the ground remained level, and just as they were finishing, Larx showed up to pay them.
I remember it as if I were watching it now. He came on a sorrel colt and the saddle creaked as if it were chirping that it had just come straight out of the box. I moved out of the way and put my sack of yams on the ground. He looked very intently at the crest of Ternero and I thought he was not going to notice me, but at that very instant he stopped his horse next to me and fixed me with his eyes. Now, listen, I was dumbstruck, looking at his clothes and his white hat with an upcurled brim, pulled down nearly to his eyebrows. The whole image was imposing. But the most affecting thing was his gaze because, even though the brim of the hat shaded all of his smooth face, his eyes shone like two fireflies.
“Hey, kid,” he said to me.
His voice sounded strange to me, I had never heard anything like it. Maybe it was his French accent. I was scared, but he noticed and smiled.
“You’re from around here, right?” and without waiting for an answer he asked, “That’s the crest of Ternero, no?”
“Sí, señor,” I answered a little more confidently, “They flattened it because they say you want to build a house up there.”
He smiled again and nodded with his head. Then he told me, “Well, we’re going to be neighbors, because I am the one who is going to live up there, like you say.”
He set his hat back a bit, as though he were hot, but he didn’t sweat, and he continued, “I am Monsieur Larx.”
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Diego, the son of Morales, at your service Musiú...”
His smile widened a bit more, and he grabbed a centén from his vest and gave it to me. Now notice, he gave it to me, he didn’t throw it like when someone throws a beggar some money, but he had to lean over a lot in order to reach me.
“Take this and buy some shoes. It’s not good to be walking around barefoot in these parts.”
I grabbed the centén a little frightened. There was something overpowering about this man. Then, he kicked his spurs and went away, while I followed him with my gaze, half stupid, until he turned around the corner and disappeared behind the guásima tree. The coin shone like a sun between the storm clouds of my dirty hand. Imagine now, a whole centén -- 100 reals. I ran like a shot for home and threw the sack of yams I was carrying to the side of the road. That was the first time I saw him up close.
Within a few days, Leyva the carpenter came in the evening and told us that all of Musiú’s boxes had been taken up the hill. They had had to use two teams of mules because, although the hill wasn’t very tall, the side was steep enough and that made the work on the new path particularly difficult. Furthermore, Musiú supervised all the work personally and took a lot of care to ensure that things were done right so that not a single box fell: that was his principal concern. The hauling took almost a week, from very early in the morning until night fell. Then, he commanded the work to cease, mounted his colt and left; nobody knew where, but when the men arrived the next day to continue moving things, he was already there.
When everything was moved uphill, he paid for the work without haggling over a single real.
“I’ll take care of the rest now,” he said.
He walked up the hill and his colt followed him as if it were a puppy.
From that time on, people couldn’t stop talking and swapping opinions about the goings on. And everybody asked a thousand questions. What is such an obviously clever man looking for in such an out of the way and impoverished place? And however eager he might be, how is he going to build a house all by himself? And, having such a flat and fallow plot of land, how did he ever get it into his head to live at the summit of the hill of Ternero? In fact, there was a lot to talk about in the village for a while.
The first thing he did was to pitch a fence around all of the space they had leveled, in the center of which he piled the boxes. Yes, I am sure of this, becuase I saw it from the backyard of my house, which being a little higher than the others, was the ideal place from which to watch, even though it was 400 cords away in a straight line. Listen: he fixed it all in a single day! You know that the campesino wakes up early; well, when I woke up, I did nothing more than jump out of the hammock and go to the backyard; the sun had already begun to light up the crest when I saw him leaning over the ground like he was digging a hole. Then he hammered a post into it, straight as a candle. Then he walked five or six paces and repeated the same action. I wondered where he had cut such straight posts as black as coal, until I realized that he had pulled them from one of the boxes and that it wasn’t one of the largest, even though the posts came to three palms above his head and he was more than six feet tall.
At about midmorning, all of the posts were already placed. You had to see it: they formed a perfect circle, all of the same height, all the same distance from each other. Uncle Fico, who had spent nearly half his life building fences, turned very serious that afternoon in my house: a perfect post fence, with ten wires, each a span above the other. The summit has one side that is tilted a bit, which the road is on, as you’ve noticed, but the other three are cut almost to a sharp point, so that even the chameleons can’t climb; then, why would Musiú put a fence around those ravines? People said it was so that no animals would fall off the edges, but the Devil take it! What was going to be the pasture wasn’t even half big enough for the sun to rise or set on it, and furthermore they seemed to be made of silver, so that they dazzled one’s eyes… and there was one side that was distinctly shiny, more than the one which the road gave access to. This space had remained open and Uncle Fico thought that he was going to put a watchtower there. But the fact is he never put one in.
Look, speak for yourself, why take great pains to make such a nice enclosure if you don’t put a lookout and you leave it open for any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enter or leave?
Well, it wasn’t as easy as people thought. The first ones to try it were Juana Lolo’s boys, bandits who roamed the outskirts stealing the few small animals that the poor campesinos could raise, selling them to the Spaniards for a couple of reals, drinking with impunity in Pepe Yeras’ store. About a week, more or less, after Musiú started working on his house, he came down to the store for provisions. Almost all the caserío of Biajacas peeked out their doorways to watch him pass by. When he entered the store, people say, even the flies stopped buzzing. There was one of the Lolo boys who kept his eyes on him. Musiú addressed Pepe as if he already knew him, pulled a paper from his pocket and handed it to him:
“Take care of these and throw them in here,” he said, placing a saddlebag on the counter.
Pepe read the list and, just as he was about to say that the bag of barley wouldn’t fit in the saddlebag, Musiú cut him short:
“Send it to me with the horse that I’ll leave here; when you change the horseshoes, cross the bag over the saddle and fasten it so that it doesn’t fall. Do the same with the saddlebags. Then, untie the horse, so that it can travel on its own. I still have a lot to do and I can’t wait.”
He pulled 10 centéns from his vest and gave them to Pepe.
“Will this do?” he asked.
“And then some, Musiú....” Everyone had trouble pronouncing his name.
“....Larx,” he finished.
He said no more, but turning around he locked eyes with Tite, one of Juana Lolo’s sons, who had heard the clinking of the coins from the other end of the counter; for this one had ears finer than a deer’s, the beast.
Having left the shop, some of his presence still hung in the air; until finally he was far enough away for the air to move again and the flies to continue their mad back and forth.
I saw him from far off that morning, when he returned toward the hill. He traveled alone down the passageway between the guásimas. He walked with a fast gait, despite having his hands in his pockets. I recognized him by his white hat and his suit, the same one he wore when he gave me that centén, but now he carried the open bag, and how the sun shining in front of him made his watch chain shine. He returned on foot to the hill and looked all around him, as if checking that no one could see him. I hid behind a ceiba tree, inside the tall grass, watching his every movement.
I thought he was going to start to climb, and already I thought I saw him going up, when an ant bit my toe and I had to take my eyes away. Although it was only a second, when I returned to look, he was no longer there nor anywhere on the road. I thought I just saw, out of the corner of my eye, the top of his hat before he disappeared there in the height of the hill. Look, I swear it was not the dream or the imaginings of a child. That man had arrived at the top of that hill in the time it took me to lower my eyes and scratch my ankle. Not even a hare fleeing a dog could have climbed the hill that fast. I told nobody in the village, not even in my own house, because I knew they’d call me a liar, and my mother, may she rest in peace, would never forgive me for lying. But yes, that very day the three sons of Juana Lolo all vanished: Tite, Cano and Remigio. Nobody missed them, and everyone assumed that they’d return again to get drunk in the store. And they returned, sure, but quite differently than was their custom...
They say that two days later, old Juana heard her dogs barking a little after midnight, but when they heard the voice of Remigio, they stopped... She lit a candle and got up to stop the racket at the door. She nearly died of fright: Remigio and Cano were carrying Tite by the waist and arms; his head hung down to his chest and his feet were tracing grooves in the dust; from his ears were running little threads of blood which collected under his nose. The eyes of the other two seemed to want to jump out of their faces.
It turns out that it had been Tite’s idea to rob Musiú, because he had seen him pull out a fistful of centéns in the store that morning. Remigio said that he had opposed the plan; he had heard people talk about how mysterious that man was, but his two brothers had managed to convince him. It all looked like it was going to be so simple: Musiú lived alone, had no dogs, and they could easily surprise him in the darkness of the night. All they needed to know was where he slept and they could discover this by following his movements.
That’s what they did. Before it got dark, they headed for the hill. By the only path they could climb, the new path which zigzagged along the side to the entrance. They went there and when they reached the final turn they went off to one side, where an old thick oak grew. From that hiding place near the clearing next to the fence, they waited at the base of the tree for daybreak.
Remigio said that, when the sun broke over the horizon, they saw him behind a pile of boxes. He already had planted six supports for the house, straight and black like the fenceposts. What trick he had used to plant those supports himself, he not only did not know, he could not even imagine. Musiú spent the day staring at large sheets of paper which seemed to be the plan for the house and transporting boxes from here to there, seeming to try to keep them orderly... Not once did he glance toward the oak; the man was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t even stop for lunch. Later, at dusk, they saw Musiú assemble a bed between two grand and large boxes, then he extended some canvas from one to the other, as if to serve as a blanket. Here came the burglars´ first obstacle: He went to bed some seven or eight cords from the entrance, so that they could not pass there without the danger of being seen; they had to skirt around the fence a little, as much as they could and scale the wires of the fence on a side that would be hidden by the boxes. This side was precisely the one on which the oak grew. They waited until night fell more completely and, once they were quite sure Musiú was sleeping, they crept very stealthily to the fence. It seemed odd to them that the wires were so thick and did not have barbs. “Good,” they thought, “this will make it easier.” Cano was the first to attempt to scale it, and I say attempt because that’s as far as it got. According to Remigio, when his brother grabbed the first wire, he jumped like he’d been kicked by a hunchbacked mule.
“It’s hot!” he said when he could talk, “it’s hot and it shook me from my head to my toes.Don’t touch it: there’s something in this fence and I don’t know what it is.”
The brothers looked at one another and the same idea sprouted in their three heads: Is Musiú some kind of witch? No, witches are not like this, they knew the healer of Biajacas and he was very different. That must be some invention which Musiú brought from his homeland. With these and similar arguments they chased away their own fear. They grew emboldened once more, but this time there was nothing left to do but to enter through where they assumed Musiú would put his lookout. They decided to get as close as possible to the entrance, run the seven or eight cords and, even if he woke up, there would be no problem: three against one -- one who was surely unarmed -- would be like a “fight between a lion and a stingy monkey”, as the saying goes. But the fact is that the lions could not reach the monkey. This time it was Tite on the front line. Crouching in the path beside the road, he shot off like a cat and ran like crazy. Remigio and Cano followed further behind. When Tite arrived about a couple of yards from the entrance, he did a somersault in the air and fell backwards, taking the other two with him. He writhed on the ground holding his hands to his face. Remigio said that he croaked like a bullfrog. They lifted him off the ground and this is how they arrived at old Juana’s.
We learned all these details a couple of years after the war ended. Cano died of an eruption that ate away his hand, the one that touched the fence wire, which little by little ran through all his arm and for which no remedies worked. Tite recovered, but he could never speak again, and he remained half stunned for the rest of his life. Finally, Musiú finished his construction without further mishap. Listen, you had to see it. Well, it is true that it looked like the other houses in the village, but it was much larger, forming a single unit. The walls, if you could see them from up close, seemed to be perfectly planed boards. The roof, also of wood, had two slopes but not at the same angles: the right one was nearly horizontal, the left one was steeply sloped and came within a few yards of touching the ground, so that that side had no windows. Neither did the roof of the porch, which comprised the entire width of the side of the house facing the fence entrance, the slope of its roof did not match that of the other two. Leyva the carpenter noticed one curious detail: the wing of the roof which almost touched the ground faced exactly in the direction of the sunrise, while the other one faced due West.
One evening my Uncle Fico had to stay and sleep in my house because a thunderstorm and downpour had come and would not let him leave; it was dangerous to walk through those roads in a dark night: one, because of the bandits; two because of the Spaniards, who if they came across you might take you for a rebel, and then who knows what might happen. Well, like I was saying, Uncle Fico stayed at our house and, in order to sleep pleasantly, after it cleared up, he pitched a hammock between two posts of the porch. He said that in the twilight he felt a buzzing, like a beehive. He opened his eyes, opened his ears and noticed that the noise came from far off, in the direction of the crest of Ternero. He jumped out of the hammock, circled the house and went to the back yard and, indeed, the breeze carried the buzzing from there. But the thing that amazed him was not the noise, but to see how the porch roof of Musiú’s house was glowing green. Sí señor, I said it gave off a green light. The moon had already come out, it was like a big ball and, as my Uncle figured it, that was precisely the moment at which the position of the Moon coincided exactly with the plane of the roof. I do not know if it was because my Uncle was a little fearful, or if it was the truth, but when he told us the next day, he said it seemed for a moment that the Moon had appeared half green and had even tinted everything with that color. But it was so quick that when he rubbed his eyes, everything was normal: the house of Musiú was shaded again and the Moon had returned to its silvery color.
Between one thing and another, Musiú finished his house in the summer of 1895. I remember the year because that December was the Battle of Mal Tiempo in the zone of Cienfuegos, and a few days later, Ramoncito, Evasio’s son, left home to join the invading forces. His father didn’t want him to take to the hills because he was afraid he would suffer more attacks, even though Musiú assured him he wouldn’t... But, ¡caramba!, I don’t think I got around to telling you about the other matter, the thing for which Musiú became famous as a spiritualist.
It turns out that Ramoncito was having seizures that left him half dead. The boy was tall and strong as an oak, but suddenly he fell twisting and vomiting froth from his mouth. The only thing Evasio and his wife could do was throw water on his face and head until the convulsions passed. Then they put him to bed and little by little he lost his stiffness. Then he slept. Listen, with such an attack, his teeth were coming loose in his gums, even his fingernails were falling out. Evasio did all that one could do when one was unlucky enough to have an illness in those days: he gave him some remedies and potions, because he had no medicines. One time he took him to the quack in Biajacas who told him there was a “being” that was causing the harm, and who knows what other nonsense he told him; the thing was he needed a goat, a black hen and other things. Poor Evasio sacrificed to scrape together the few reals he had to buy a goat, because a father does what he can to avoid having to watch his son suffer. Well, not to drag it out, but not even a month had passed after the witch doctor when Romancito started to have his attacks again.
Well, August 5, I remember the day well because that was when I turned 12, the morning was already well underway when we saw old Evasio running as fast as he could through the road. Almost crying he asked Uncle Fico to help him carry Ramoncito to Biajacas because there was a threat of an attack and he had no way of stopping it. The two left and soon we saw them pass down the road to the caserío, carrying the sick boy in a stretcher improvised from two sticks and a hammock. I couldn’t stand it, and as much as my mother threatened to beat me, I ran after the others and caught up with them.
Listen, Ramoncito looked really ugly; his hands were clenched like claws, his face as white as a sheet and a trail of green slime coming out of his crooked mouth; for minutes he would convulse while a croaking sound left his throat.
“He’s dying on us, Fico, he’s dying on us,” said his father, disheartened.
I went two cords ahead, but when I turned the corner at the guásima tree, I stopped in fright: there in the middle of the road, as if he were expecting us, I ran straight into Musiú. He seemed taller than ever; standing, with his legs slightly apart, his arms crossed over his chest and a very serious face. Even Evasio and Fico were stunned to see him. I don’t know how the devil he knew what was up before anyone had told him. We stopped...
“Put him here, on the side of the road and step back to the ceiba tree. Don’t come till I tell you to.”
Evasio and Fico obeyed without a word. Like I told you, Musiú could overpower one’s will with just a look.
From the ceiba, some twenty yards away, we couldn’t see with too much detail, but we more or less saw Musiú bend down and place a knee on the ground. He unbuttoned the boy’s shirt and began to probe his stomach with the fingertips of his right hand, then with the other hand. He held him up by the neck and appeared to rub him. Suddenly, he turned him onto his side and the boy vomited something. Evasio was wringing his hat, and he was about to cry. Seeing this and unable to bear any more, he made an attempt to join him, but at this very moment, Musiú raised his head and looked at him. The old man stopped in his tracks.
This continued for about a quarter hour. Then he turned the boy face up and motioned for us to join him. Musiú got to his feet, shook the dust from his trousers and said, or rather ordered, “Come up to my house; slowly, the danger has passed.”
Then we noticed that we were standing on the crest of Ternero, right at the start of the road. He pulled up ahead while uncle and Evasio loaded up the stretcher again. And... would you believe that the patient had already gotten better? He was no longer rigid and had stopped convulsing, he was no longer vomiting, and the color was returning to his face. I followed the rest of the party, such an opportunity would never come my way again. I was more curious about the interior of the house than I was about Ramoncito, whom I took for cured.
Finally we arrived at the entrance of the fence; I noticed that Musiú, passing through, had touched the left post like someone who didn’t like the thing..., like it was some custom of his.
We climbed the three steps of the porch. The door was closed; he opened it a crack and he told us: “Come, put him on the table.”
I took in that room hungrily with my eyes: it seemed to be living room and dining room in one. It had a table, longer than it was wide, with four chairs. This was all of the furniture. Not a painting on the walls nor anything else; a door in the back and another one in the partition to the left, both closed. One could not see the supports because there was an open sky, or rather, a false ceiling, like those that you see nowadays. I was somewhat disappointed because I had expected to see something fabulous. There may well have been, but it was behind those two doors that remained closed.
“Wait on the porch,” Musiú said... ”Leave the boy here so that he can help me.”
I saw Evasio and Uncle looking at me with newfound respect. They left without a word and the door closed by itself, without a sound.
“Take off his shoes,” he told me, while he lifted Ramoncito’s eyelid with his thumb. Now that I saw him from up close, I noticed the lack of expression in his face: he appeared to be made of wax. Every movement of his hands was precise, exact... I don’t know, just what was necessary and nothing more.
He entered the room on the right, but he was so quick that I couldn’t see the insides. I took off the patient’s boots and as I put them on the ground, I noticed something interesting: the ground appeared to be of wood, but I am certain that it was not. The boards, or what looked like boards, were too well joined. However, the color, the shine, everything seemed to be of wood, but the imitation, I tell you, was just too perfect. The partitions and the walls were of this same material.
He returned with a black apparatus in his hands, about the size of a cigar box, with a few little signs and squares of blue and others of green and red. I couldn’t read, but I can assure you that I knew my letters, because Leyva had shown them to me. All I can tell you is that none of those letters were any of the ones I knew.
Well anyway, two long cables came out of this little box; he gave me one which had a somewhat longish flattened end, much like a coin; the other, which Musiú held, was different: it ended in a little thick black tube the size of a cigar but shorter.
“Fasten this end to his pant leg and press it against the sole of his left foot, but don’t touch the round part.”
“Yes, Musiú, like this?”
“Just like that,” he said, while he raised Ramoncito’s head to rest the cigar end, which he placed behind the boy’s neck.
He held the box, I believe he pressed a button and he stood still watching the squares which began to flicker. He half turned a knob, which caused Ramoncito to begin to stir. I thought he was about to have another attack, but he told me, “Don’t worry, this is normal.”
I continued watching intently as the colors became more intense. Now the boy was shaking like a chicken in the cold. When Musiú thought it appropriate, he pressed a button and the little lights slowly faded away.
“That’s it,” he said to me.
He put his cables and his apparatus away, entered that room again and returned.
“Tell them to come in.”
When the father came in, the boy was already beginning to open his eyes. They helped him sit up, but he was still a bit woozy.
“Now, he needs to walk, don’t be afraid, it won’t happen to him again. Don’t give him food for another two hours; after that, he can eat whatever he likes.”
Evasio, who had remained nearly speechless, looked at his son and at Musiú as though he were watching something incredible.
“You do not need to thank me, man. Take the boy home His mother must be crazy with worry. Come, dry those tears, this is no time to cry.”
And, to tell the truth, Evasio could bear it no longer and he began to sob like a baby, because, however hard the heart of a man, there are moments when it becomes softer than butter in the sun.
Musiú accompanied us to the entrance and there he touched the same post before letting us through. Evasio and Fico helped Ramoncito because he still felt a little weak. Already at the entrance, Evasio stopped and wanted to give Musiú his hand. He acted as if he had never seen this gesture and did not understand it.
“Thank you, Musiú, thank you very much. If you ever need something from me, don’t hesitate to ask, because I’m in your debt.”
Musiú smiled and nodded yes with his head while we began to descend slowly toward home. I can’t tell you how happy the family was on our return. That night Leyva came and visited with Uncle Fico. They called me to the porch and I had to tell them all that I had seen happen. Later, Uncle told Leyva, speaking very quietly, as if it were a secret: “Leyva, Musiú’s house is not made of wood; it is something very similar, but it is not wood. And the fence? I wish you could have seen it. You know that I know something about fences, may the devil spit on my bald spot! That is not a fence: the posts are not wood and the wires are not nailed; I looked closely and the wires cross through from one side to the other. That fence is not a fence. And the lookout? Why do you think he didn’t put one up?
“Good, Fico, now I ask myself and my answer is: if the wood isn’t wood, the fence is not a fence, the house only appears to be a house, and on the other hand, it seems that Musiú revived Ramoncito when he appeared to be on death’s door... then what is Musiú? Who is he? He lives alone up there, hardly speaks, appears to have no interest in anything... I don’t know, Fico, but this is very strange. I have never met a man so strange.
They spent about an hour like that, rambling, without being able to arrive at a conclusion, or better said, they stopped believing that Musiú was a famous spiritualist in his country and that for whatever reason he had fled from there and come here, where it would be difficult to find him.
The story of Ramoncito ran though all the area like a candle in dry straw; little by little the witch doctor of Biajacas lost his clients. Because Musiú did cure well and never charged a thing, other than that he would tell people to bring Mr. So-and-So a chicken or some supplies, because he knew that they needed them.
That year passed and ’96 came. Weyler came in February and in April came the order for the Reconcentration. Everybody had to leave for Mataguá. Men, women and children had to abandon their shacks, forced by the Spanish troops, so that they couldn’t aid the rebels. That was a sad year, many died, including my mother. She caught the epidemic within days of arriving in the village and it caught her unable to take even a home remedy. If Musiú had only been there..., but he had already left... or maybe died, nobody knew.
I remember the day before, early in the morning, I left looking for some wood for the stove, when seven soldiers showed up, of the kind they called “quintos”, and their leader read us the proclamation. It said, among other things, that we should gather all of our belongings and head for Mataguá. If we did not leave by noon, they would shoot everyone. My mother arranged that we gather some things and leave immediately by foot. On the road we met Evasio’s family and joined them. We arrived at the village within a couple of hours and were lucky to be able to stay with a sister-in-law of Uncle Fico, who had also just arrived. There were several people who preferred to head for the hills, but we couldn’t do that; I mean look, my mother, two sisters and me, and I was still a little boy...
But those who couldn’t flee went to Musiú. Listen, they say that over 50 soldiers died that night. All we know is what we heard the next day from one of the quintos who was staying in our house. This one survived because it turns out he was a bit of a coward and he remained behind when they pushed on toward the crest of Ternero.
According to this coward, after they took over our house, they set out for the hill in order to do the same with whoever lived there. These troops having been recently arrived knew nothing of the surroundings, so that they climbed the road single-file with the chief out in front; they arrived at the entrance and stopped. There they saw the figure of Musiú: tall, with his arms crossed over his chest, very serious, with his white hat pulled almost to his eyebrows, standing on the porch as if he were expecting them. This quinto said that more than once the sergeant made as if to pass but was held off. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled and he noticed something strange in the air. Finally, the sergeant, raising his voice a little, decided to read the proclamation from where he was standing. When he finished, Musiú stood unmoved. About a minute passed and then he answered almost without moving his lips, but his answer came out clearly.
“I am not leaving till midnight.”
He said nothing more.
“Think long and hard about that, this is an order and you have to obey it or we will shoot you right where you stand,” the sergeant yelled.
“I said I will not leave till midnight.”
The Spaniard did not want to discuss it any more: he ordered his men to form a firing squad, load their tercerolas and aim.
“For the last time, I am telling you to abandon the house immediately or I will give the order to shoot.” He moved a little to the side and seven rifles found Musiú in their crosshairs.
“Do as you wish.”
“Fire!” the European cried.
Look, a closed discharge from five or six cords distance is enough to tear apart an ox. Well, this quinto said that Musiú never batted an eyelash and that nobody knows where the bullets landed because they did not graze the porch, nor was any impact seen on the wall. The sergeant repeated the orders, believing the problem was bad aim by his shooters, but after ten rounds, they still hadn’t hit their target. He grabbed his own rifle and shot till he ran out of bullets. Nothing helped.
Then he returned with his men to headquarters to inform his superior of what had just happened. The captain told him over and over again that he didn’t believe him. Later he spoke with the soldiers, but since they all knew the story, he became as serious as a husk of corn. He addressed the adjutant and told him: “We are going to await the men who are on patrol moving the peasants. At nine in the evening, assemble everyone and give them double rations of munitions: they are going to circle the hilltop. If that man, whoever he is, does not come down at midnight on the dot, then we’ll see if a single man can hold out against two hundred.
The quinto, who already knew about the strange occurrences up on the hill, acted ill in order to be put in the flanks; and in addition, he managed to get himself placed even further back saying that he had diarrhea, and since he was the last one, they left him far behind to guard the troop’s horses.
They approached the hill. The captain, with 50 well-armed men, reached the entrance. From where he stood, the quinto said that he heard him, at around midnight, yell for Musiú to come out, but everything remained silent and the house dark, as though there were not a soul inside.
In Mataguá we already knew about the siege. The garrison remained on standby, prepared for whatever might occur. The people of the village and the campesinos concentrated there were nervous, waiting to see how this would play out; no one slept and all eyes were fixed on the silhouette of the mountain, which was about a half hour’s walk away. Uncle Fico looked at his watch and said:
No sooner had he spoken than a white explosion enveloped the top of the hill; for one moment, it seemed like the sun itself had exploded up there. Immediately the earth shook and a wave of wind like a cyclone shook everything that was in the vicinity. I saw a point shooting out that shone like the morning star, straight up into the sky, becoming smaller and smaller until it was lost among the stars.
Not a trace was ever found of the Spanish captain or his men. Some of the men who were at the foot of the hill were torn apart by the explosion and all those who saw the explosion from up close remained blind for the rest of their lives. Finally, nothing happened to the quinto because, as soon as he saw that light, he threw his head behind a well and nearly dug another well with his fingernails.
All that evening there was commotion in the village with the dead and the injured. So much so that some even died of fright. The top of the hill was reverberating and throwing smoke for three days, like a volcano. People gained much respect for the place and no one dared climb it for many months.
Diego raised his eyebrows, stopped talking and kept watching me with a very serious expression. Then he said:
“I don’t know what you’ll make of all this, but before you dismiss any of it, bear in mind that this old man of 86 years is not going to tell you some tall tale, especially to someone who has been married to my granddaughter for fifteen years and who has studied at the University.
He shook his head. Then he continued:
“You yourself climbed and walked all around up there this morning; there’s nothing left up there of anything I’ve talked about, just the smooth rock, where not even weeds will grow. Now tell me, aside from the pieces of rock that you’re carrying in that sack, did you find anything?
“Yes,” I replied thoughtfully, looking into the tired eyes of old Diego Morales, “I found a very high level of radioactivity.”
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