The Derailment

(in Olaziregi, M.J. (comp.) An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies, 2004)

(Translated by Amaia Gabantxo)

By the time the accident happened my friend Cioran had sent me to the depths of despair. He'd behaved like a heartless pig, despicably. The carriage crumpled like an accordion, and the two flies on the window stopped copulating. Distant alarm bells could be heard then, their whine a touch military, or a touch inappropriate, I couldn't decide. I opened my eyes, disoriented, probably as a consequence of the sweat that was breaking profusely from my head, and I saw, with gray-blue eyes, the book that had fallen from my hands covered in blood, and the truth is that I was even happy. But that happiness didn't last long; my traveling companion – an elderly man with white combed-back hair and limpid, shining eyes – lay dead on the gray floor two rows away from me. He was dead, with a frozen smile on his face. He held a pair of expensive glasses with his right hand, because he was missing the left one, as he himself had told me a few minutes earlier as we crossed a squalid field. I was pointing out, at the time, the spots on the horizon where taciturn specimens applied themselves to some unhurried ploughing, composing as they moved truly haunting human shapes. Just as I was describing the scene, he told me to shut up, that he was missing his left arm, and that his disability often ruined his mood. Because I have a tendency to look not just at the positive, but even at the comic side of things, I asked him, giggling slightly but with all due respect, which mood he was referring to, a metaphysical mood or some other one, that I was but a poor provincial writer and could he please explain it to me more slowly. He got all teary and sad, and started parting his hair with laudable dexterity. Afterwards, he started laughing uncontrollably and I remember that for a few moments the whole carriage laughed at his laughter. Could it be that his cruel and spasmodic laughter was the reason for the accident?

The old man, of course, didn't answer my question. After we'd laughed and passed the field we became friends. The train was swerving violently, like a gigantic, broken lizard, and the old man – who, whether out of shame or for some other reason that I could not begin to guess at, had not told me his name – had to hold his dentures in place quite a few times in a very short space of time. Despite the disagreeableness of the situation, we became friends. Our relationship was courteous, given that we were facing each other, and he told me that he was a teacher, and a libertine widower. It was midday and unbearably hot, and we informed the ticket collector that the air-conditioning was not working, and trying to hint at the same time, ever so discreetly, that they probably hadn't switched it on. The ticket collector punched our tickets for the fifth time, and disappeared like some scary ghost. We dwelled very briefly on his astounding disappearance; both of us, I'm sure, thought the same, even if we didn't say anything. The train had stopped swerving a little, but the heat was still intense, and the old man was overtaken by a heavy stupor. He fell asleep with a smile, with impeccable trousers, with his outsized hand, and I took Cioran's book out of my satchel again, with a slight disgust and sticky hands. Half an hour sufficed to send me to the depths of despair. Fear had taken hold of me. I saw two flies copulating against the glass, rakishly, lovelessly. I looked out of the window for the last time and chose to see – even if I can't remember them anymore – birds in flames, paper flowers and perhaps an angel in the shade of the earthly lime trees. And just then, the accident. An explosion disrupted the calm afternoon, and the intense heat, and the little nap, and the reading. A collision, a derailment perhaps, a complication we would never understand. This precisely, I swear, is what came to my mind first. But no; it was none of those things: neither collision, nor derailment, nor complication, even if I didn't completely grasp this until later. At the beginning it seemed to me that it was an accident, a vile, despicable accident. The reasons for it were unknown, but any of the three I have mentioned would do. In any case, this wasn't the first puzzle I faced after the accident. The first one was to worry about our friend the old man; the one I'd found dead two rows away from me, with a frozen smile on his silver mouth. I brought him towards me forcefully, with all my strength, thinking that he was only asleep, and realized, to my astonishment, that the body lying on the gray floor was not the body of a man, but a rag doll. Incredibly well made, that's for sure, but not an ounce of blood in its veins. It was nothing but rags and sawdust, a bundle of lies; I was offended, and my soul hurt.

This disagreeable surprise dramatically altered my perception of the events. Suddenly, I felt a bleak emptiness in my stomach, a fat, secret pain, and I vomited a revolting greenish water all over the insentient body. I stood up. With a certain aloofness, as slowly as I could, I looked at the rest of the travellers. They were all seated in their places, as if what had just happened had nothing to do with them; obstinately ignoring the facts. I lit a cigarette and a blind man said: "What's happening? What's happening?" No one answered and the atmosphere turned very uncomfortable. I smoked my cigarette amidst coughs and grotesque facial expressions. I thought that if all those travellers remained so calmly seated, totally turned in on themselves and moving their heads one way and the other, smiling without showing their teeth, it must be because they really believed there hadn't been an accident; and, even if something had really happened, it didn't quite qualify as an accident, even less as something vile and despicable, as I had initially assumed, clearly – I realize now – fuelled by my reading and my natural tendency toward hyperbole and exaggeration. In the event, I decided to remember things coolly, with the certainty of distance, and after a while I realized I had gone too far in my conclusions, and that all the chaos and obscenity had not really taken place. Yes, of course, the carriage had crumpled like an accordion, but precisely because it was like an accordion, it had returned to its usual shape, as if a gigantic pump had blown air into it, and, for that reason, apart from the odd cranial collision or minor lesion, everything stayed the same, as if nothing had happened.

But it was obvious that something had happened: nothing vile or despicable, but something that, although insignificant in appearance, was in truth of great importance and in fact irrevocable. It looked as though everything was the same, but everything had changed. Like the river's flow, which is always one but never the same. I went through many hypotheses, commonsensical ones, measured ones, and the result of my ruminations was a word that left a bitter taste in the mouth: conspiracy. The word left my mouth, gained substance, and swelled like a mother's breast. I pronounced it in order to never again be able to fathom it: it had become a green dove with a voice like the moon. A conspiracy, I repeated, pondering each letter. But why? I asked myself: why us? I didn't know the answer, I couldn't even begin to comprehend what the purpose of it was or who was pulling the strings behind the scenes (an indiv individual? a sect?). I would have been grateful for answers to all these questions, it goes without saying, for it is important to know one's enemy in order be as ready for him as possible, but I realized immediately that I would never find out the answers. Not ever. Without a shadow of a doubt I also knew, instantly, that the conspiracy was part of a plot, a sabotage plan, one that had irreversible consequences. What drove me to these conclusions? What solid evidence did I have to back up such extraordinary utterances?

Š An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies