Readings — From the November 2015 issue

The Hanged Man

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From War, So Much War, by Mercè Rodoreda, published this month by Open Letter. Rodoreda, who died in 1983, was the author of several other novels, including The Time of the Doves. Translated from the Catalan by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent.

A large sack suspended from a tree was swinging back and forth, and from it emerged the head of a man with a straight, taut rope behind it. His face was white, his tongue black, his lips purple. By the tree, just beneath the hanged man’s feet, was a rock; I climbed on it and cut the rope. The hanged man crashed to the ground and hit his head, frightening me so much that I was sure I had killed him instead of saving him. He was young, with black hair and bushy eyebrows. Just as I was thinking that he had surrendered his soul to God, he opened one eye and immediately closed it again. He hadn’t the strength to hold my gaze. After a while he sat up halfway, and I helped him as he struggled to climb out of the sack. He snapped at me angrily, in a husky voice that seemed to come from beyond the grave: Why did you cut the rope?

For a long time, who’s to say how long, he struggled to breathe. Give me some water. . . . I’m suffocating. I rushed down to the river and, using a jar I found in his haversack, brought him some. I held his head with one hand and poured it down his throat with the other. He coughed with every attempt; the effort was wearing him out, and finally his head dropped to the side. All of a sudden he revived. If I climbed into the sack to hang myself it’s because I wanted a shroud covering me when I died, to keep the vultures from picking the flesh off my bones if my body wasn’t found in time to be buried. And what about your head? I asked. My head, he said, they can have it. For all the good it’s done me. He grasped his neck with both hands and tightened his grip. Maybe this way it won’t hurt so much. Pour some more water down me. You look hungry. There’s some bread in my bag. I can’t even swallow my own saliva. My tongue is swollen. Keep me company. He had me lie down beside him and we covered ourselves with the sack. As I lay there, half-asleep, surrounded by sylvan scents, I could hear the dull sound of a faraway conversation. I would travel the world, I would help others, I would save lives. The stars above us seemed to be ushering away the night, and yet it would be a long time before morning dawned.

I made this sack out of four sacks I stole from the mill. Lying with his face to the sky, the hanged man spoke as if in a dream. From time to time he turned his head and looked at me. One whole day it took me to undo the seams and resew them in a different shape, using a sack needle, pushing the string through the holes. I made one sack out of the four. I left two sections unsewed so I could stick my arms through, tie the sack to my neck, and slip on the rope collar with the slipknot. The hanged man began to weep with sadness. I gave him a good slap on the back to stop his crying and stood up. Don’t leave me, don’t leave me. Just when I was resolved to snatch Ernestina away from her scoundrel of a husband, she left me. Went back to him! Her husband came looking for me one day and he broke down. He knelt and confessed to me that he was lost without Ernestina. Promise me you won’t take her from me. Give me some water. I told him Ernestina and I had parted ways some time before. And her husband said, She must have someone else then. We embraced and walked out into the street. When I met her she was wearing a red dress and had a daisy in her hair. We went from tavern to tavern; in every tavern, a swig. And then, surprise: at Papagai’s, I met Faustina. He coughed, his voice growing hoarser as he spoke. And it was as though Ernestina had never existed. He lay there a while without opening his mouth, and when he said, I curse the day she let me enter her house, I thought his strength had given out, but he went on. The same day Faustina let me in her house and allowed me to kiss her behind the ear. She coiled around me like a snake. Straightaway I explained it all to Ernestina’s husband, and he told his wife. To Faustina I confessed that I had loved Ernestina and that her husband and I were like brothers . . . and I still don’t know what happened, but shortly thereafter the four of us took to frequenting the taverns together: Ernestina friends with Faustina, Faustina friends with Ernestina’s husband, and all three of them latching on to me. Not an hour went by that I didn’t feel watched, spied on, my steps shadowed. It was me against the three of them. . . . Them against me. Ernestina was defending Paulina one night when the four of us were walking down a street whose name I don’t recall. I asked the hanged man who Paulina was, and, after giving it some thought, he said he had misspoken, he had never known any Paulina and he meant to say “Faustina,” not “Paulina.” I just couldn’t take that kind of life anymore, he continued. None of us made love, we had only reproaches for one another. I hated that dependency and yet I couldn’t live without it. Until finally the war came and I enlisted right away in hopes of saving my soul. But the war has finished me. Emptied me of everything, surrounded me with death and blood. I died some time ago; why should I wish to breathe and possess a body that I despise and that persistently demands sleep, food, and sorrow? I mean joy, it asks for joy, even if just a little, but finds only sorrow. Why, why did you unhang me? He leaned in to punch me and fell backward as if I had punched him instead. I wrapped him in the sack and dragged him behind the rock, near the tree where he had hanged himself. Little by little I covered him with stones. I couldn’t dig a hole to put him in because I didn’t have a hoe, or a pick, or a mattock.

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