The Edge of the Abyss

By Fernando Vallejo
Translated by Laia García Sánchez & Robert Jackson

When they opened the door for him, he entered without saying hello, went upstairs, crossed the second floor, got to the room in the back, collapsed on the bed and fell into a coma. Like that, free of himself, at the edge of the abyss of death that he would fall over not long afterwards, he spent what I believe were his only days in peace since his long-ago youth. It was Christmas week, the happiest week for the children of Antioquia. And it’s been so long since we were children! The days, years, and life had been passing us by, as tumultuously as that river in Medellín that they converted into a sewer so that instead of the sabaletas it used to carry, the little shiny fish of days gone by, it would drag along, in its dirty water, shit, shit, and more shit towards the sea in its eddies of rage.

By the New Year, he was back to reality: to the inescapable condition, to his illness, to the dusty madhouse of his house, of my house, that was crumbling in ruins. But did I say my house? Idiot! It hadn’t been my house for such a long time, ever since Dad died, and so the dust wasn’t mine either, because since he’s been gone, nobody’s swept it up. The Madwoman had lost more than a husband when he died; she lost a servant, the only one that lasted for her. He lasted a half-century for her. How about that! They were the mirror of love, the sun of happiness, and the perfect marriage. They made nine children in the first twenty years while the machine was working for them, for the greater glory of God and the homeland. Which God, which homeland? Idiots! God doesn’t exist and if he does he is a pig and Colombia is a slaughterhouse. And me, who swore not to come back! Never say, “I’ll never drink this water,” because at the rate we’re going and with how many of us there are, on the day we least expect it, we’ll all be drinking that river’s shit-water. May it all be for the greater glory of he who I said and she who I said. Amen.

I came back when they told me that Darío, my brother, the first of the infinite number of siblings that I had, was dying, and they didn’t know what from. From that illness, man, the fag’s illness that is in style, from the little model that is in fashion today and makes them walk around the streets like corpses, like translucent ghosts propelled by the light that moves the butterflies. And what’s the disease called? Ah, I don’t know. With this weakness that I’ve always had for women, I don’t know anything about fags, except that there are more than enough in this world including presidents and popes. Without going any further than this country of assassins, didn’t we end up having a head of state here who acted like he was the first lady? And the evil tongues gossiped (and they know more about this than the Holy Ghost’s fiery tongue) about the apostolic weakness that overcame Pope Paul for the attractive boys or marchette from Rome. The same one that overcame me when I was there and I met him, or rather, I saw him from far away, one Sunday morning in Saint Peter’s Square, giving blessings from his window. How could I forget it! Him up above blessing, and us down below, the flock, following along like sheep in the foggy square. In my opinion, in my humble opinion, he blessed too much, too nonspecifically and too freely, as if his hand was broken, loose, making crosses in the air that we had to make out. Like a notary whose signature is weakened by signing too much, His Holiness had weakened his blessings by blessing too much. He was blessing clumsily over here, over there, to the North, to the South, to the East, to the West, to whoever and whomever it may fall upon, to his right and to his left, carelessly. What a downpour of blessings he rained down on us! That morning His Holiness’ little hand was looser than a doctor’s hand is when he’s prescribing antibiotics.

I knocked and the Big Dumbass, the freak who was the Madwoman’s last child (who she had at a bad age, at an untimely age when her ovaries, her genes, were harmed because of mutations) opened the door for me. He opened the door and didn’t even greet me; he turned around and went back to his computers, to the internet. He had taken over the house, that house that Dad left us when he left us and left the world. First he took over the living room, then the garden, the dining room, the patio, the piano room, the library, the kitchen, and the entire second floor, including the rooms, the roof, and on the roof, the TV antenna. Suffice it to say that it was his up to and including the creeper vine that covered the large window of the façade from outside and the humble mice that at night would come to my house to eat poorly, a bad habit we had only just done away with definitively when Dad died.

“And why didn’t this freak greet me, not even a hello?”

He hadn’t talked to me in years, ever since the chestnut tree was in bloom. A hate for me, for this love, his own brother, he of the word, he who here says “I,” the owner of this dump, had been fermenting in his belly. Anyway, what can you do, as long as Darío wasn’t dead we were condemned to continue seeing each other under the same roof, in the same hell. The little hell that the Madwoman built, step by step, day by day, lovingly, over fifty years. Like the long established businesses that don’t improvise, it was a little hell of tradition.

I came in. I dropped the suitcase on the floor and then I saw Death, the whore bitch with her indescribable little smile, settled in on the staircase, on the first step. She had come back. If only it were for me… whatever! Death respects me, your humble servant (your servant, not hers). She sees me and she takes off, like the Haitians did when they ran into Duvalier on the street.

“I’m not going upstairs, Miss, I didn’t come to see you. Like the Madwoman, I try not to go up or down stairs and walk only on flat surfaces. And while I’m gone, take care, and since you’re here, take care of the suitcase, since in this country of thieves, if you let your guard down, they’ll rob you of your underwear and Death of her sickle.”

And I left the toothless lady watching over the place and continued on towards the patio. There he was, in a hammock that he had hung from the mango tree and the plum tree, and under a sheet he had extended on clotheslines to protect him from the sun.

“Darío, man! My God, you’re in the sheik’s tent!”

He sat up, smiling at me as if, in me, he saw life itself, and only his happiness at seeing me, which shone in his eyes, gave his face life: the rest of what was on his bones was wrinkled skin, blotched by Kaposi’s sarcoma.

“What happened, man? Why didn’t you tell me that you were in such bad shape? Me calling you in Bogotá day after day from Mexico and nobody answered me; I thought your phone had broken down again.”

No, the broken-down one was him: the person dying after months of diarrhea, an unstoppable diarrhea that not even The Heavenly Father, with all his power and proven kindness toward humans, could stop. The phone problem was a simple one: it was just two loose cables that Darío had left on the floor because of his idle ignorance to the calls of this world, while a dull cloud of marijuana smoke floated towards the sky, kept in by the roof, feeding on itself. The telephone could be fixed. He couldn’t. With AIDS or without AIDS, he was a lost cause. And look who’s saying that!

“Open the windows, Darío, so that the cloud of smoke that makes it hard for me to think will go out.”

No, he didn’t open them. If he opened them, the cold wind from outside would come in. And he went on cheerfully in the hammock that he had hanging from wall to wall. What a disaster that apartment of his in Bogotá was! It was worse than this house in Medellín where he was dying. I’ll just describe the bathroom to you. To begin, I had to go up a stair.

“What’s this stair here for? Useless engineers!”

Whose bright idea was it to make the bathroom one step higher than the rest of the dump? I would trip over the step going up, and I would fall over the empty space on the way down.

“Fuck the person who built this! And fuck him again! Once for his mom and once more for his grandmother!”

The bathroom didn’t have a light bulb, well, it had one, but it was blown out, and the toilet paper ran out a long time ago. Since the olden days and the faggot Gaviria. And whoever sits on that toilet, watch out: your knees will hit the wall. I’d like to see His Holiness Wojtylta sitting there. Or under the shower, a cold, cold, cold little stream that would fall drop by drop, three centimeters from the angle that was formed by the other two frozen walls. You wouldn’t just hit your knees, but you would also hit your elbows when you were trying to wash with soap. But what soap?

“Darío, damnit, where’s the soap?”

There was no soap. It ran out. It also ran out. Everything in this life runs out. And now he was the one who was running out, and neither God nor anyone else could stop it.

He sat up with difficulty in the hammock in the garden to greet me, and when I hugged him I felt as if I were squeezing a bag of bones against my heart. A bird cut the dry air with a disharmonic, metallic call: “Gruac! Gruac! Gruac!” Or something like that, it was like crushing a can.

“I’ve been trying to see him for days,” Darío commented, “But I don’t know where he is, he hides from me.”

He went squawking from the mango tree to the plum tree, from the plum tree to the creeper vine, from the creeper vine to the roof, without letting Darío see him.

“I know all the birds that come here except for that one.”

At that point I remembered that a year ago I had gone up with Dad to the recently finished building next door, to check out his apartments that he had just put on the market to sell, and I saw my house’s little garden for the first time from up above. A little green square that was alive, alive, that the birds came to. One of the last ones that remained in the Laureles neighborhood, whose houses had been chopped down one by one, bought and torn down by the mafia in order to put mafia buildings in their place.

“And who do they plan to sell so many apartments to?” I asked Dad.

“There’s nobody to sell to,” he responded. “Today, there are only very rich people and very poor people. And the rich don’t sell, because the poor don’t buy.”

“The poor never buy,” I commented, “they steal. They steal and breed so that more poor people can come to continue stealing and breeding. Thank goodness, Dad, you are going to die and won’t see your house torn down.”

“Whatever! The thing that’s going to die is this century, it’s very old. Not me. I plan on burying the millennium and living to a hundred and fifteen years old, or more.”

“A hundred and fifteen years drinking aguardiente? There’s no liver that can take that.”

“Of course there is! The liver is a very superior organ that regenerates itself.”

Three months later he lay in his bed dead, precisely because his liver didn’t regenerate itself. He thought that it would regenerate itself! Here the only things that regenerate are these sons of bitches in the presidency. Poor Dad, who I loved so much. He lived for eighty-two years, years well-prayed. Which is a long time if you look at it from one side, but a very short time, if you look at it from the other. Eighty-two years isn’t even long enough for a person to learn an encyclopedia.

“Or is it, Darío? We’ll have to wait and see if we end up making it over the hill of this century that’s becoming so difficult. After the year 2000, everything will be easier: we’ll be going down towards eternity. You have to believe in something, even if it’s just in the force of gravity. You can’t live without faith.”

Then, while I was watching him roll a marijuana cigarette he told me how the disaster had accelerated: after a few days of taking a medication that I had sent him from Mexico he started gaining weight and his face started filling up miraculously. Miracle? Yeah right! What had happened was that he had stopped urinating and was retaining fluids: after his face, his feet swelled up and from that moment on the poor thing was definitely fucked, because he couldn’t even walk to go up to that apartment of his in Bogotá which was situated at the top of a slope that reached a mountain that was so, so, so, so high that you confused the clouds from the sky with the clouds of marijuana smoke. I immediately realized what had happened. The Fluoxymesterone, the garbage that I had sent him, was an anabolic androgen that was being tested on AIDS, supposedly to reverse the wasting in the sick people and build up their muscle mass. Instead, it was causing Darío’s prostate to hypertrophy, blocking the urinary channels, which caused the buildup of fluids and the miraculous fullness in his face.

“Man, Darío, the prostate is a stupid organ. Almost all of the cancers that affect men start there, and unless it is used for reproduction, it’s useless. You have to take it out. And the sooner the better; do it when the child is born, before he matures and the little son of a bitch breeds. And while you’re at it, take out the appendix and amygdalas. Like that, without so much hindrance, the little angel can run more agilely and won’t have a chance to do harm.”

And then, while he finished rolling the marijuana cigarette and began to smoke it with the naturalness of the devout person who takes communion every day, I explained my plan to him, which consisted of the following five brilliant points: One, stop the diarrhea with a medicine for cow diarrhea, Sulfaguanidine, which had never been used on humans, but which had occurred to me, given that the difference between humans and cattle wasn’t that great, with the exception that women produce less milk with two tits than a cow does with five or six tits. Two, take out his prostate. Three, get him back on the Fluoxymesterone. Four, publish in Medellín’s newspaper El Colombiano the well-known announcement of “Thank you, Holy Ghost, for the received favors.” And five, we should go celebrate in Côte d’Azur.

“What do you think?”

He said it sounded good. And while he was telling me that he choked on the smoke of that damn plant, which is holy.

“That marijuana is holy, isn’t it, Darío?”

Of course it was, he was alive because of it! AIDS had taken away his appetite, but the marijuana gave it back to him.

“Smoke more, man.”

My words were foolish. I didn’t have to tell him that. My brother had been a devout pothead for at least thirty years, ever since I introduced him to the ineffable substance. Because of my inconstancy for everything, the changeableness that defines me, I stopped it shortly afterwards. Not him; he smoked it along with drinking aguardiente, and they short-circuited him. The unhinging that the combination of the two demons caused in my brother made him act out. He broke windows, crashed cars, and broke televisions. He fought with the police, and one day, in court, when he went before a judge, he threw the judge over the balcony. He went to La Modelo prison for a little while. How he got out of that prison alive, which is a model, but a model for a slaughterhouse, I don’t know. He didn’t talk about that, he forgot about that. He forgot about everything that had to do with his horrors. It was a family problem, he would say, that supposedly our wires were crossed.

“Your wires will cross, brother. Not mine, knock on wood. Tan Tan.”

He went around the Amazonian jungle in a zone completely controlled by the guerillas with a little backpack on his shoulder that was full of aguardiente and marijuana, and didn’t have an ID card. Can you imagine that? Nobody alive in Colombia goes around without an ID card. In Colombia, even the dead have ID cards, and they vote. There, leaving your ID card behind in your house is like leaving your penis behind; who, with two centigrams of a brain, would leave that behind?

“Darío, why the hell don’t you go around with the ID card, why is that so hard?”

“I don’t have it, it was stolen from me.”


Letting somebody rob you of your ID card in Colombia is worse than killing your mother.

“And what if they kill someone with your ID card?”

He said, so what, whatever they did, they weren’t going to kill anybody, that I should stop this fatalism. Fatalism! That word, which is becoming obsolete, we learned from our grandmother. It comes from Latin, from fatum – destiny, which is always for the worse. Dear Raquel, mother/grandmother, it’s a good thing that you aren’t here anymore so you can’t see the destruction of your grandson!

So he walked through the Amazonian jungle without an ID card. How did he manage to get through the army checkpoints without an ID card in order to go smoke marijuana in the heart of the jungle? God only knows, he didn’t talk about that either. He didn’t talk about anything. Glass that he broke, a house that he destroyed, whether his or someone else’s, glasses and houses disappeared from his head ipso facto. The horrors he visited on me were never ending. When the most eminent doctor Barraquer transplanted a cornea of mine, Darío detached my retina by smashing me in the head with a guitar. How many guitars he’s broken in his life! A broken guitar for every song played. The combination of the marijuana and aguardiente unleashed an authentic fury of destruction in Darío. How did his friends put up with him? I don’t know. How did his family put up with him? I don’t know. How did I put up with him? I don’t know. I don’t know how I put up with him for fifty years. And his neighbors, my God, his neighbors! He left the faucet on, triple-locked his apartment so that it wouldn’t be robbed, and left for the Amazonian jungle for fifteen days to meditate. It flooded all the apartments: it flooded his downstairs neighbor’s apartment, it flooded the apartment below that, it flooded the apartment on the ground floor, with running water going in little crystalline streams down the staircase, step by step, going din dan. Din dan, din dan… didn’t his apartment flood? Yes, the sky flooded it when it rained, because of the leaks in the roof, which were leaks in the building and had become like a strainer.

“Darío, get someone to plug up those leaks.”

“Nobody’s going to fix them!” he said.

Supposedly the person who went up to fix the leaks broke their tiles.

“Your head’s a tile, you irresponsible asshole, you are out of your mind.”

The roof of Darío’s apartment, capital of its building, ethereal crown of Bogotá, next to the clouds of Monserrate hill from where Christ our Lord presides, was a strainer. A solemn, unrepentant strainer that birds shit on after it rains.

And that door, my God, that triple-locked door! The afternoon sun would hit it and although it was metal it would swell and there was no way to open it. He then would wait outside for one hour, two hours, and three hours for it to cool down and unswell. Or else he would go to the store two blocks down (he couldn’t depend on his neighbors because they didn’t even talk to him), to ask them to loan him a bucket of water. He would come back the two blocks, go up the five floors with the bucket, and he cooled down the door’s swelling with bucketfuls of water. Then he could open it. Open it? With what keys? He lost his keys when he was going down!

Just like sometimes he couldn’t get in because of the overheating of the door and he would remain outside, sometimes the same overheating of the same door made it so that he couldn’t go out, and he would stay inside. Then he would lose his keys inside and go into a state of desperation.

“Where are the fucking keys?” he would yell, desperate. “That dear mugger who slept here with you last night took them.”

“He wasn’t with me, he was with you, and here they are,” I would reply, and I would point to the key ring on top of a pile of papers and trash.

“Ah!” the unhinged guy exclaimed with a snort of relief.

When I came to Bogotá to visit him, to check out his recovery and progress with my own eyes, I preferred to go sleep under a bridge or in a sewer.

By the end of his life only the echoes of his adventures, his havoc, reached me. People would say, “your brother did this or did that,” and they would laugh so as to not offend me. I simply, since long ago, would get lost when I saw that Darío was starting to go nuts. I already knew that the monster, the tornado, was coming along the path, and they never saw me again! And what if the muggers in the street, in the army, in the guerrillas, or in the police killed him because he was left alone in that state?

“Let them kill him; I’ll pay for the burial.”

I came to that conclusion, we all came to that conclusion, and before everyone, my poor father, who was also his father, lost his patience and stopped talking to him.

Things got so bad for Darío because of his flights from orbit that he himself one day, motu proprio, posed the dilemma of which bad habit to give up: if he should give up the aguardiente or the marijuana. And his decision was: neither. And to solidify his firm intentions, he took hold of the bad habit that was in style, the bad habit of the young people; basuco1 or smokeable cocaine, which “even wrecks the dog’s basket,” as my grandmother used to say, but she said it with the verb in plural form, referring to her one hundred and fifty grandchildren.

And with basuco, he discovered the dear basuqueros, the basuco smokers, who formed a depraved kindergarten with him. One of them even offered himself to me on one of my visits, but I refused him, because, supposedly, I don’t sleep with so-called corpses. That’s a lie! I have nothing against dead people, as long as they are fresh. They give me more of a thrill than the living ones, who are so headstrong. I refused them simply to give him an example of fortitude, of willpower.

“Darío, my brother,” I begged him, “a person has to choose what he wants to be in life, whether it’s a pothead or a drunk or a basuquero or a fag or whatever. But you can’t do everything at the same time. Neither your body nor the long-suffering society will tolerate it. So pick one and be done with it.”

He could never decide. He picked up a bad habit, he kept a bad habit. He spent everything he had and left nothing to the worms. Everything, everything, everything, and nothing, nothing, nothing. When Darío died, Death and its worms had to eat shit because all he left them was a wretched bag of bones wrapped in a splotched piece of parchment.

“It makes me so happy to see the two dear brothers together and to see how much they love each other!” said the Madwoman from up above, sticking her head out a window.

It was an indirect greeting to me, her first-born, the newcomer who just ignored her, because when Dad died, he buried her with him, like a faithful Hindu wife. Dear brothers! How much they love each other! It was as if the separating spirit of that saintly woman hadn’t done everything she could for a half century to separate us, Darío from me, me from Darío, one from the other, everybody from everybody else, dirtying up kitchens, misplacing papers, giving birth to children, putting rooms in disarray, messing things up, ordering people around, son-of-a-bitching, according to the law of chaos from her little hell where she reigned like the queen mother, the drone bee, the fertile queen of the beehive, fed by royal jelly.

Dear brothers! Some old pieces of junk is what you mean, you beast! And I looked up, to the top floor, where the beast was. She had appeared at the window of the library that overlooked the garden, watching over the world: for fifteen or twenty years she hadn’t gone down the stairs so that she wouldn’t have to go back up them again. Some months back, from her elevated observation point, she saw how the funeral workers carried away her husband’s body, her servant, who was going to dust infinity. How much life is left for her? I wondered, and took my gaze off of her. But my Lady Death wasn’t up there; she was down below, next to my brother’s hammock.

New paragraph and let’s go on. Or, better said, let’s go back, let’s return to the vices that I’m omitting: the main one, the vice of all vices, the top vice, the continual vice of living, which everyone will be cured of one day, even the Pope himself. Let’s see how many attend your burial, Your Holiness, how many priests, bishops, and cardinals, Swiss guards and vile common people. To my burial, I want that flock of parrots that flew over Santa Anita, the farm of my childhood and my grandparents, to come. I want them to come back, scratching the blue sky with their green, and yelling in a chorus, with a single mocking voice: “long live the great liberal party, down with the fucking godos”! Godos, or rather the conservatives, hypocrites, professional mourners; meanwhile, we the liberals were the rebels and the whores. Wow, how long it’s been since all that ended, since the gunpowder burned up! Of the two parties that divided Colombia in blue and red with a machete blow, only the dead remain, some without heads and others without being counted. Decapitated bodies of conservatives and liberals flowed down through the rivers of the homeland guided by vultures, who, passing the time on their flight down towards hell, to kill time for lack of anything else to kill, pecked out their red and blue guts. And there was nobody alive who dared swim in those rivers, who dared to dive in them to pull out the dead. The rivers of my youth, now those were rivers! What a river, the Cauca! What a river, the Magdalena! Rivers of fury, torrential, which had a clean soul and made you respect them. Not like these little sissy rivers of today that have the souls of a sewer. How long it’s been since the Cauca and the Magdalena rivers dried up, died, they were killed with the felling of trees and they were erased from the map, just like they think they are going to erase me but they’re wrong, because even if the rivers die, the word remains!

The two dear brothers were together, then, conversing in the hammock that hung from the mango tree and the plum tree in the garden, under a white sheet that protected them from the sun in the sky, and with Death by their side, from whom there is no protection. Or is there? A condom, perhaps? Put it on your tongue, then, when you take communion, so the holy priest doesn’t give you AIDS with his fingers that are distributing the host, going from mouth to mouth in the flock. Mouths were opening and tongues were coming out in the communion rail of the little Our Lady of Suffrage Church, from my memories, just like zippers were opening and penises were coming out in the whorehouse’s urinal. Stupid tongues and penises that later on would go back in satiated, and the mouths and zippers closed. A drunk driver sent our neighbor, Arturo Morales, a National Insurance salesman, to the other shore when he was leaving from peacefully taking communion at the little church I mentioned (there in the idyllic times of my distant youth when there were only a few of us in this city and this world).

“Do you remember, Darío?”

Of course he remembered. Darío shared everything with me: the boys, the memories. Nobody else had as many shared memories in his head as he did with me.

“Life insurance, man! The only sure thing, Darío, is death. What do you want to eat?”

“I want caviar.”

Caviar in the tropics!

“And you don’t want caviar with a little smoked salmon?”

He said that yes, that he wanted it.

“There isn’t any. There aren’t even any beans in this house.”

By the end of his life, Darío got food cravings like a pregnant woman. He wanted one thing, another thing, and the impossible thing. I think it was because he knew he was about to die. I went to downtown Medellín to see what I could get him: tamales, dumplings. But the tamales and the dumplings exacerbated his diarrhea. Nothing agreed with him. Darío was dying on me. Then without delaying the issue any more, I decided to give him Sulfaguanidine for cows, with holy water. With this, I’ll either kill him or save him, I thought. I neither killed him nor saved him. The Sulfaguanidine worked for a week and then the diarrhea, which God had sent him in his infinite mercy, returned.

I calculated the dose of Sulfaguanidine by weight: if you give a 500 kg cow this much, how much do you give a 30 kg corpse? This much. And that’s what I gave him, two or three times a day. The initial results were stunning: the diarrhea stopped. After months and months of diarrhea that nobody could stop!

“I told you so, I told you so!” Se los dije, se los dije, I told them triumphantly, screwing up the language (you don’t say “los,” but rather, “lo,” because what I said is singular, that’s the way it was said to many in Colombia, a country of grammarians).

They couldn’t believe it. Was this science, or witchcraft? In his grateful shock, my brother Carlos invited a delegation of doctors, who came to my house to witness the miracle.

“Most eminent doctors: as you know (What do they know? These beasts call a fetus “the product,” as if mothers are toy factories), the diarrhea from AIDS is caused by the HIV virus, for which there is no cure, or by the cryptosporidiosis, one of its consequences, for which there is also no cure. Every antibiotic and anti-parasitical drug they have tried to combat cryptosporidium in man has failed. Sulfaguanidine still hasn’t been tested on humans, because it is a medicine for cows, and man is a superior animal. Here is proof that it also works on the human species: three months of unstoppable diarrhea and look at him now.”

“Let’s see, Darío, raise your arm. Now the other one,” as if what he had was Parkinson’s disease. “Stick out your tongue. Put it back in.”

And the five astonished doctors were examining Darío, examining me. Accustomed to not curing, but rather to watching people die, they looked at each other incredulously with their tails between their legs. They asked if I was a doctor.

“As if I were, Doctor. I take out my Persian rug to the street, and I prescribe.”

Well, OK, who knows, we should consider it. That curing of one patient was no more than an “anecdotal case”; that wasn’t science. Science was, to begin with, at least a thousand patients with diarrhea and AIDS taking part in a double blind study.

“Double blind? That’s me, Doctor! Both of my corneas are transplanted and they came from assassins, I see police everywhere, and I hallucinate about killing doctors!”

My deep conviction that Sulfaguanidine worked for the cryptosporidiosis caused by AIDS and my sudden success in my brother’s case crashed into a wall of skepticism and meanness. The multitude of charlatan medical doctors couldn’t accept that I, a sage with no diploma, had come to replace them.

“Aha, so you are one of those people who take a Persian rug out on the street!” one of the five assholes said to me, the very ironic one.

“It’s like that, doctor, you’ve said it, and when your wife needs it, when she gets syphilis or gonorrhea, look for me and I’ll prescribe something for her.”

Doctors hate me, I don’t know why. Perhaps because I make them pass a test and I want them to re-validate their degree.

“Cryptosporidium, Doctor,” I asked them casually, like any double blind Christian accustomed to the act of faith, “it’s a bacteria, right?”

“Of course!”

“No, of course it isn’t: it’s a protozoan. Rather, it is a hundred thousand times larger. It’s so large that a person’s belly could blow up because of it.”

When I was a boy, I also examined Mr. Roberto Pineda Duque, my harmony teacher, who was deaf in his ears like Beethoven, but was also deaf in his soul:

“Let’s see, Mr. Roberto, close your eyes and tell me which note this is.”

And I played him a “re”.

“It’s ‘do.’”

“No, Mr. Roberto, it’s ‘re.’”

“The organ must be out of tune.”

The one who was out of tune was him, his soul. He was the author of ten symphonies, five symphonic poems, formal masses, exotic compositions, concerts for violin and piano, sonatas, toccatas, and “tronatas.” But his biggest work was the cantata “Oedipus Rex,” a paramount work, summa cum laude, one in a million, for a Berliozian orchestra and a one hundred fifty person chorus, to each their own, polyphonically speaking, and in which Oedipus competes in blindness with Mr. Roberto in deafness. When Mr. Roberto died, they made an homage to him in his hometown of Santuario, and do you know what they played? They played Mozart’s “Requiem”! It was as if they had put thieves in the house of the Mexican Ingres José Luis Cuevas, and instead of taking his paintings, they had stolen a Botero from him!

“To me, Darío,” I said (the gang of doctors gone and he and I back alone in the solitude of the hammock), “I think the priests gave you this AIDS of yours. Try to think back and see if you didn’t go in once to a church to pass the time, to take communion.”

He said that no, that he hadn’t stopped by those holy places in an eternity.

“Then have some of this hot shredded chicken soup.”

I pulled a bench over to him where I had put the appetizing soup, steaming, hot enough to revive corpses. He ate two or three spoonfuls that I spoon-fed him like he was a baby, since he was so weak he couldn’t even handle a cup. He ate three spoonfuls at most and that was it, he didn’t want any more. Then I gave him vitamins, hormones, arnica, whatever else, cafiaspirina, nothing worked. Then, giving him over to God, and as a last resort, I started to roll him a marijuana cigarette to see if the smoky grass would give him back his appetite.

“Not like that, you idiot,” he said to me and he took it away from me.

He unrolled the cigarette that I had clumsily rolled for him, and he rolled it again his way, with a skill and speed that were astonishing, like a bank teller counting millions.

“Like that, watch and learn,” he said to me.

Where did he get so much sudden energy, if just a second ago he couldn’t even handle a cup? He sucked on the fat, obscene joint a few times, and he offered it to me.

“No, it darkens my soul, and it was clean this morning.”

Clean like the Bogotá sky when it rains, do you remember, Darío? He would never again return to Bogotá. Soon afterward, he would die in that house in Medellín, in one of the rooms upstairs, above that patio. What I don’t know is which room he died in, doped up with morphine. I wasn’t there then, I had gone from that house, from that city, from this world towards the galaxies, never to come back.



1. Basuco is made from the leftovers of cocaine processing — coca paste, gasoline, and ammonia. It is as addictive as crack, but cheaper.

Fernando Vallejo studied humanities in universities in Colombia and movie direction in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. He has written 20 books and his work has been translated into 15 languages, including La virgen de los sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins, Serpent’s Tail, 2001) into English. He has been awarded the two most important literary awards in Spanish America – the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize from Venezuela for El desbarrancadero (The Edge of the Abyss) and the FIL Literature Award in Romance Languages from the International Book Fair in Guadalajara. He loves animals immensely and his only cause is their defense.

Laia García Sánchez is a translator and interpreter based in San Francisco, CA. Her previous work includes translations of plays such as Black Milk by Vassily Sigarev and The Coast of Utopia by Tom Stoppard, and the book How to Draw Manga. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Barcelona.

Robert Jackson was born in San Francisco, CA and graduated with a BA in Spanish from San Francisco State University in Spring 2011. He has been translating since Spring 2010, when he took a class in practical and literary translation. He read Mr. Vallejo’s work that semester in a class on Latin American literature, and started translating The Edge of the Abyss in Summer 2011. He currently lives in Berkeley, CA and works at a software company in San Francisco where he does telephone and internet customer service and product support in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.