The walk through the forest to the Deaf Man’s House is not a short one and feels considerably longer to leg bones that are old and bowed. A malignant fluid collects in the joints of the old man’s feet and knees. Through the deafness, he can hear the faint creaking of his right ankle – the vibration ripples through his frame and he knows that the transmission of the sound is the body’s awareness of itself.
It is early morning and a lethargy washes over the old man. He does not care for the peasant boy who thinks him senile and plans to rob him at the first opportunity. The peasant boy has gone on ahead as agreed. He can wait all day in the depths of the forest for all the old man cares, being eaten by mosquitoes and easy prey to vagabonds. The old man no longer cares for his own time, nor for history, and the lives and desires of men no longer matter to him. So, the boy’s time, his future and the future of Spain are matters of no consequence to him. The old man desires only one thing: to be alone in the forest with his paints, in the cottage he has purchased from the Deaf Man.
The old man sits uncomfortably on a fallen, termite-eaten tree. There is a sausage, some hard cheese and a heel of bread in his mochila. He fishes a short blade from his coat pocket, then slices through the cheese and into his thumb.
The French language: as ever, he spits it out like a protest. It is a language perfectly suited to expressions of anger, grief and disgust. Some would disagree, but some have not lived through an invasion.
The old man has seen too much not to be superstitious; he takes three pious swallows of red wine directly from the wineskin. To replace the blood that he has shed.
Soon, some strength returns to him. He stands. Sparrows peck at the crumbs of his meal. From the seat of his pants, the old man brushes lichen and the crushed corpse of a snail.
The cabin is close and soon he sees the peasant boy sitting idly at the step to the house. Seeing the old man approach, the boy stands and lifts his arm obnoxiously. Palm upwards, soliciting payment.
The youth’s original plan was to rob the old man. Yes – oh yes, most certainly sir! – he had agreed to stretcher the frail old man’s meagre and odious possessions through the forest and to the shanty known in town as the ‘Deaf Man’s House.’ Knowing the old man would be slow, the boy had raced ahead between the trees. Briefly, the youth considered depositing the old man’s belongings into a stream, but he was too clever for that – the old man would certainly pass the stream and learn too soon that he had been fleeced. No, he would deliver the geriatric’s possessions to the cottage as agreed. He would unlock the door and ransack all those shrewd hiding places where only a dying miser would think to hide treasure. Along the walk, the boy had laughed aloud at the image repeating in his mind’s eye: the old man’s horror upon discovering the boy’s treachery; the miserable old cabrón finding naught but the four bare walls of his shanty and an upturned cot.
In the early morning, alone in the cottage, the boy had run the point of his blade along the grooves of the skirting boards. He had pared apart the mean bedding. He had climbed up into the rafters, scratching his hands in the roof thatching as he searched. He had knocked his fist against the wooden walls listening for the echo of hidden cavities. But the boy had not discovered a miser’s horde of secreted jewels and gold.
I should murder the old cabrón – he thinks now, looking at the exhausted old man. Now, right here at the door of his hovel. The old beggar should be killed for promoting the false rumours of ancient wealth and fame; the rumours that he was a once renowned court painter who had fallen from the King’s grace. He should murder the old man for his cruel trick; for beating the youth at his own game.
But for all his braggadocio, the youth has not the violence of his heroes – the banditos and vagabonds who rule the street at night. And so now, he extends his arm obsequiously to receive his payment: a monument to his own shame.
‘I thought maybe you’d had a heart attack, Old Man. Out there, in the forest.’
The old man fumbles in his purse. He extracts a coin and holds it to the sunlight. Light refracts off the face of the coin and pierces the milky veil of the old man’s cataracts. The old man judges that the coin is the right colour. He runs his bloody thumb around the coin’s circumference and determines that it is not a peso. Likely a real. More than the boy deserves.
Receiving the coin, the youth mutters to himself:
‘Miser. Beggar. Royal court painter indeed!’
The youth turns his back to the old man and the old man rests his cane against the side of the cottage.
‘Deaf, yes,’ he sings out to the retreating youth. ‘Deaf, going blind. Going mad too – as they say. But there is nothing wrong with my heart.’
The youth faces the old man, who withdraws into the cottage. As he closes the door, the old man casts an enormous shadow which stabs towards the boy across the carpet of brown leaves. After a moment’s silence, the boy departs; back the way he came in the morning.
It is noon now and the old man’s morning lethargy has transformed into a crippling fatigue. He has not even the energy to erect his easel. He rolls his small frame onto the sweat-stained cot.
In his sleep he is assailed by disturbing images: demons, gods and men, at war with one another. Distorted, waxen faces jostling for position on a doomed pilgrimage. Gleaming teeth slicing through filial flesh. Faceless soldiers aiming rifles at civilians. Skin like parchment, stretched too tight over bones dry like driftwood.
He wakes to a new day and sets his easel. And then he sits before a fresh canvas. His mind teems with nameless horrors and he knows that the only way to exorcise them is to fling them onto the canvas. But he is unable. Looking at the canvas, all he can conjure are flattering images of statesmen, beautified portraits of ladies, heroic (and untruthful) representations of kings adorned in unearned military honours.
A walk may help.
Reliant on the sturdy cane, the old man journeys deep into the forest. His legs protest but he carries on. He comes to a stream he recognises. From here, he knows the way back to the Deaf Man’s House – the Deaf Man himself showed him the way. The old man passes now beyond the stream.
He comes to a clearing. The yowling of a dog reaches his ears, but the sound is viscous, like heard through a layer of honey. The earth here is jaundiced and yellows to the colour of a corpse at the centre of the clearing. He can see an animal. Perhaps a dog. It is struggling in the yellow earth. The old man approaches and sees that the animal is sinking into the soft, sucking ground. Its four legs have sunk beneath the surface of the bog. Old slaver has crusted on the animal’s lower jaw and has flaked off in places as it works its mouth frantically. Blood vessels have exploded in its greying eyes. The dog wishes to die but is made to suffer. It registers the old man and lifts its muzzle to face him. The old man recognises an expression of doom he has seen before. Many times. There comes an appeal in the dog’s eyes; a small amount of hope. The old man stretches his cane to the dog. He treads forward, careful not to enter the bog. The dog’s teeth graze at the wooden cane until it manages a purchase. The old man backpedals. The muscles at the tops of the dog’s forelegs and neck swell and strain. It sinks deeper into the earth. The old man had at first appeared to the dog as a god. Now, the dog knows that this old god has no help to offer. The hope retreats. The dog snatches away from the staff and the old man is propelled backwards. Exhausted, he slumps against the roots of a beech tree at the edge of the clearing. Motionless, he watches the dog’s mad scrabbling until its dry brown nose disappears beneath the earth.
Having watched the final act in the dog’s pointless death, the old man is returned partially to the present. He is suddenly very cold, tired and hungry and must return to the cabin. But he cannot hear the stream. He can hear nothing. He hazards a guess at the way. He gets the direction wrong. He gets turned-around. Time and history are meaningless to him and it has grown full dark in the blink of an eye. But he is not alone. Something, some foul creature, circles him in the darkness. Cackling. Whispering threatening messages in Spanish and French. Messages that the old man cannot quite make out. And there are others too. Someone he cannot see wails to him: ‘Socorro! Socorro!’ He has heard this cry before. He knows this voice. A terrible flare of light is suddenly thrown into the old man’s face. He tries to shield his eyes from the harsh light and heat. Between his fingers he makes out the enormous white eyes of a god; great pools of mercury, hunger and self-loathing. To look directly at those eyes would be lose what is left of his mind, he knows. The old man turns from them. He falls. He scrambles to his feet and is running now; blind and deaf through the forest.
To the old man, time and history are meaningless.
Impossibly, he finds himself back inside the Deaf Man’s House. An insistent pain gnaws at his side, but he is delirious now and does not feel it. He casts aside his canvas and easel. Using a trowel, he slathers a thick globule of red paint directly onto the wall of the cabin. He drags the trowel over the wall in a triumphant arc. But it is not urgent enough. The trowel clatters to the ground. His hands are in the paint now, mixing white into the red, turning it cream, making it flesh. The walls throb. Forms, figures, bodies emerge. The old man works through the night and into the next day. He does not eat, and he does not drink. His hands bleed from the effort and the blood mixes into the paint. He does not rest. He does not stop. He is ceaseless. He continues to work until the work is done. And when it is done, he collapses onto the small cot and sees no more images. Only blackness.
The youth cannot feel the old man’s breath on the back of his hand.
For two days the thought of the frail old man, alone and foodless in the forest, had tortured the boy. And now, having returned too late, he places a redundant bundle of bread and salted meat on the floor of the cabin.
It is not the first dead person that the boy has seen, and he registers the old man’s death with equanimity.
The youth observes the cabin’s walls and suppresses a scream. The images are grotesque, and his instinct is to set the cabin ablaze. But an inferno would not erase the images from his mind, he knows. He looks again and cannot help but admire the painter’s skill. The rumours were true, he thinks with awe.
The boy steps outside to smoke some of the tobacco which was intended for the dead painter. He sits on the stoop and plans the removal from the cabin of what is to become his fortune.