Jorge Olivera Castillo, trans. by Javi Arango
His cough kept him on the edge of a convulsion. It started with a sneeze and soon he was deep in a whirlwind of shudders, and he lost control of his body’s abrupt movements.
He shivered with a force capable of knocking him over. He fell face down and his features lost their original shape. His right cheekbone sank as it crashed on the bars of the door.
A particle of bone separated itself from his face in the same instant. His eye had lost its attachment. It hung precariously in the cavity like a leaf on the branch of a tree in autumn. It stood in a fragile balance.
From my perspective, I could see its shape, nearly spherical, its viscous texture, and the subtle fluctuations it made, an acrobatic of terrifying complexity.
Bent over the grime, his lungs possessed by the cough, Higinio could not sit up. The ground was his only living space. A place where blood spread to the rhythm of his palpitations. The vital nectar did not sprout only from the gash on his face. Red poured also from his mouth, in mixture with a froth that showed signs of fermentation.
I counted two hundred exhales in six minutes, but my sum was surely far from trustworthy. For my torment came from a fatal virus.
A kind of germ that impeded the normal functions of the senses. A body shaking. The same one whose wicked restlessness had made apparent my short-sightedness. This was the last of my vision. The lenses of both glasses lay on the scarlet puddle exposed to more footsteps.
Higinio’s movement threatened to turn them into rubble. His shudders became more intense each time. I could tell from the roughness of his movements, which planted themselves like roots in my temples.
I felt the splash of phlegm by my feet. Barefoot, I had left my bed as I noticed the condition of my cell-mate.
The warm substance climbed to reach my ankles. A fever purged my body of shivers.
Undoubtedly, there was some effect in the friction of the chest’s air grazing the throat. The throat, whose frailty pushed him closer to death. The crack of thunder carried in each blare, rising from lungs and into his larynx with a resolve that bordered on trance.
Another incident erased from my mind the flooding of saliva, which rose like a tremor onto my skin. I could see my muscles as if they were mere illusions or an accumulation of vapors. I couldn’t feel them. In those five square meters I came to know the nature of a ghost.
The uncertainty swallowed all matter. I, shivering like a soul in reprieve, in absolute paralysis, when I recognized that the call from Higinio rose nearly from the twilight of life.
Along with the call for help, his anguished hand clung to my leg with an unexpected strength.
By the pressure of his grast, I could sense the degree of his despair. This aggravated my clumsiness, but I was able to overcome with a gulp of air as I stepped back like a man fleeing an ambush.
Because of my blindness, brought on by the breaking of my glasses, I could not tell what was happening around me. How was Higinio’s condition? Would I have the chance to save him? But the rhythmic punctuality of his cough, interspersed with his gasping, led me to assume the worst. Nevertheless, I resisted abandoning all optimism. There must be something I could to to stop the expiration of a life.
He had the right to return to his home, to sleep beside his wife, to speak with Abel, his youngest son, and to see, when he wished to, the twilight losing itself amidst the horizon without the looming shadow of iron bars.
The bouts of nostalgia threw him into a depression whose depth was matched only by the cough which was drowning him. The photos, the memories, Mariela’s next birthday, that daughter he pampered with so much passion, and him there, losing his heart without any remedy, insomnia piercing his brain and sadness sculpted eternally into his features.
I grabbed his arm to lift him from the ground, but my effort was in vain. The action was cut short as we slid and both fell to the ground, both laying on the blooded surface: Higinio, doubled over in agony and I, my legs unable to support my body.
A soapy film on the floor impeded my desire to rise from my collapse. The bodily secretions spread over a considerable area. I felt it as I extended the radius of my limbs.
I came to the conclusion that the puddle contained a greater proportion of saliva than of blood. From there, the sliding of my feet smeared the substance across the floor.
Higinio’s thorax was swollen in the back. By chance, I grazed it in my blind motions- blind as I really was without my glasses.
The bulge, located between his waist and shoulder blades, was like a deathbed in itself that further deterred my efforts to help.
Higinio looked as though he were about to burst, and the sounds I heard almost at random promised a terrifying fate. Then, a shattering explosion, pieces of the lungs’ lining stuck to all four walls, the alveoli like splinters determined to cover my clothes and my face. I did not want even to think about it. Miraculously, after struggling on the ground for sixteen minutes, I was able to stand. I was exhausted.
The cough felt distant, in another plane, accompanied by a light snoring like whispers.
I could estimate the distance from Higinio’s body to mine, frail and drowned in fluid. He must have been three meters away, immobile, perhaps under the spell of sleep or in the throes of an absolute death.
This is the last I remember. That eye of his exploded with a step I took in blindness. I fell backward violently.
A plunge in my stomach caused me to heave. I knew it was his eyeball from its roundness and its flaccid structure as reflected on my sole.
That is why I am here, my whole body in a cast and coughing like Higinio. The second to last prisoner taken by tuberculosis.