Nothing foretold it that afternoon.
Commercial activities unfolded normally in the city. Waves of humanity swarmed in the crystal doorways of vast commercial establishments, or they paused in front of windows that occupied the length of dark streets, splashed in the smells of oilcloths, flowers or victuals.
The clerks, behind their crystal sentry boxes, and the rigid staff supervisors in the carpeted vertices of shopping centers, observed with careful eyes the conduct of their inferiors.
Contracts were signed and debts were cancelled.
In various parts of the city, at various hours, numerous couples of young men and girls swore eternal love to one another, forgetting that their bodies were perishable; some vehicles incapacitated careless strollers; and the sky, beyond the tall metal crosses painted green which held up high-voltage cables, was turning an ashen gray, as always happens when filled with watery vapors.
Nothing foretold it.
At night the skyscrapers were illuminated.
The majesty of their phosphorescent facades, incised in three dimensions over the foggy backdrop, intimidated simple men. Many developed an unreasonable idea with respect to the possible treasures concealed behind walls of steel and cement. Lusty watchmen, in accord with the received rules, in passing frequently before these buildings, carefully observed the wainscoting of windows and doors, lest there be abandoned there some infernal machine. In other places could be spotted the shadowy silhouettes of the mounted police, holding the reins of their horses and armed with holstered rifles and guns which fired tear gas.
Fearful men thought, “How well defended we are!”, and gratefully looked upon the sheathed mortal weapons; on the other hand, those tourists which cruised along made their chauffeurs stop, and with the tips of their canes pointed out to their companions the luminous names of faraway corporations. These gleamed in interminable staggered facades, and some delighted and prided themselves upon thinking of the might of their faraway homeland, whose economic expansion represented filial joys whose name was of necessity spelled out among the clouds. So high were they.
From elevated terraces, so high it appeared that one could touch the stars with one’s hand, the wind broke off snatches of blues music obliquely cut up by the gusts of air. Porcelain Bulbs lit up aerial gardens. Confused among the foliage of expensive vegetation, controlled by the responses and vigilant gaze of the wait staff, danced the elegant idlers of the city, young men and women, flexible from the practice of sports and indifferent from familiarity with pleasures. Some resembled butchers encased in smoking jackets smiled insolently, and all, when they spoke of those below, appeared to mock something which with a blow from their fists they could destroy.
The old men, arranged on chairs of Japanese straw, watched the blue smoke of their cigars or let pass across their lips an astute frown, at the same time that their hard and authoritarian gazes reflected an implacable sense of security and solidarity. Even among the buzz of the party it was impossible to imagine them less than presiding over the round table of a directorate, in order to approve a leonine loan to a nation of Arabs and mulattos, below whose trees ran veins of petroleum.
From inferior heights, in streets deeper and cloudier than canals, circulated the roofs of cars and streetcars, and in excessively illuminated places, a microscopic multitude caught the scent of cheap pleasure, going in and out of the gangways of cheap dancehalls, which vomited incandescent atmospheres like the mouths of tall ovens.
Up above, in oblique directions, the structure of skyscrapers detached itself from the greenish or yellowish skies, cubic reliefs, superimposed major over minor. These cement pyramids disappeared upon the extinguishing of the splendor of invisible luminous billboards, later they would newly appear as super dreadnoughts, creating a perpendicular and tumultuous threat of maritime warfare upon lividly lighting up among the mists. It was then that the strange event occurred.
The first violin of the Jardín Aéreo Imperius orchestra was about to place upon his music stand the score for the “Blue Danube,” when a waiter handed him an envelope. The musician rapidly tore it open and read the note within; then, glancing over his lenses at his comrades, he deposited his instrument on the piano, handed the letter to the clarinetist, and descended swiftly down the stairs that gave access to the stage, searching with his gaze for the exit to the garden, and disappeared via the service stairway, after trying futilely to call the elevator.
Upon observing the unusual and disrespectful conduct of that man, the hands of various dancers and their companions ceased as they brought glasses to their lips to drink. But, before the bystanders could overcome their surprise, the man’s example was followed by his companions, for it was seen that one after another abandoned the box, looking serious and somewhat pallid.
It is necessary to observe that despite the haste with which they executed these acts, the actors revealed a certain meticulousness. The one who stood out the most was the cellist, who enclosed his instrument within its case. It produced the impression that they wanted to signal that they were declining some responsibility and were “washing their hands.” Thus it was described later by a witness.
And if it had been them alone.
They were followed by the waiters. The public, mute in its astonishment, without daring to speak a word (the waiters in these places were quite robust) watched them remove their service frocks and toss them contemptuously on the tables. Upon observing that the clerk without bothering to close the register abandoned his tall seat, The service foreman doubted and, quite disturbed, joined the fugitives.
Some wanted to use the elevator. It didn’t work.
Suddenly the lights went off. In the shadows, next to the marble tables, the men and women who until a few moments ago debated between the subtleties of their thoughts and the delights of the senses, understood that they should not wait. Something was happening which paralyzed the expressive capacity of words, and then, with a certain fearful order, in an attempt to minimize the confusion of their escape, they began to descend silently down the marble stairs.
The cement building filled with buzzing. Not of human voices, since no one dared to speak, but of rubbing, rattling, sighing. Once in a while, someone lit a match, and throughout the snail shell of stairs, at different heights along the wall, moved silhouettes of twisted backs and enormous fallen heads; meanwhile in the angles of the walls the shadows fell apart in leaping irregular triangles.
No accident was recorded.
Sometimes, a fatigued old man or a terrified dancer would let themselves fall to the edge of the stairs, and remain seated there, with their head abandoned in their hands, without anyone stepping on them. The multitude, as its diffident presence on the edge of the marble could be guessed, traced a curve next to the immobile shadow.
The watchman of the building, during two seconds, lit up his electric lantern, and the circle of white light allowed him to see men and women, their arms indistinctly clutching each other, descending cautiously. Those who went near the wall had their hands resting on the banister.
Upon arriving at the street, the first fugitives eagerly sucked up long breaths of fresh air. Not a single light was visible in any direction.
Someone scraped a match across a metal grate, and then discovered in the thresholds of certain ancient houses, creatures seated there pensively. These, with a seriousness inappropriate for their age, lifted their eyes to those elders who illuminated them, but they did not ask anything.
Out of the doors of the other skyscrapers poured out a silent multitude.
An older woman wanted to cross the street, and tripped over an abandoned automobile; further on, some drunks, terrified, took refuge in a tram car whose conductors had fled, and so many, temporarily winded, allowed themselves to fall on the granite strips which marked off the street.
The immobile creatures, with their feet raised next to the borders of the thresholds, listened silently to the rapid footsteps of the shadows which passed in stampede.
In a few minutes the inhabitants of the city were in the street.
From one point to another in the distance, the light bulbs of flashlights moved irregularly as fireflies. One curious and resolute individual attempted to light the street with an oil lamp, and behind the pinkish glass screen the flame went out three times. Without humming, a cold wind blew, heavy with electrical charges.
The multitude thickened as time passed.
The shorter shadows, quite numerous, advanced within the other less dense and taller shadows of the night, with a certain automatism which made it understood that many had just left their beds and still maintained the incoherent movement of those half-asleep.
Others, in turn, grew unsettled by the fate of their existence, and silently marched towards the discovery of their destiny, which they guessed as rigid as a terrible sentinel, behind that curtain of smoke and silence.
From frontage to frontage, the width of all the streets that ran east to west was occupied by the multitude. This, in the darkness, created a denser and darker cover which advanced slowly, akin to a monster whose particles are bound to it by the panting of its own respiration.
Suddenly a man felt something tugging insistently at his shirt sleeve. He stammered questions to whoever was doing that, and when no reply came, he lit a match and discovered the flat and shaggy face of a large monkey which with fearful eyes appeared to interrogate him regarding what was happening. The unknown man, with a shove, separated himself from the beast, and many who were near him noticed that the animals were free.
Another identified various tigers mixed in among the multitude by the yellow stripe which sometimes glowed between the legs of the fugitives, but the beasts were so extraordinarily unsettled that, upon flattening themselves on their stomachs to signal their submission, they blocked the march, and it became necessary to expel them with kicks. The beasts took off at a run, and as if some order had been given, took their place at the front of the multitude.
They moved forward with their tails between their legs and their ears pressed to the skin of their skulls. In their elastic advance, they would turn their heads upon their necks, and their enormous phosphorescent eyes stood out, like spheres of yellow crystal. Despite the slow walk of the tigers, the dogs, in order to maintain position with them, had to move their legs briskly.
Suddenly, above the cement water tank of one of the skyscrapers, the red moon appeared. It looked like a bloody eye coming unstuck from the straight line, and its magnitude increased rapidly. The city, also reddened, grew slowly from the bottom of the darkness, until fixing the balusters of its terraces at the same height that filled the descending curve of the sky.
The perpendicular planes of the building fronts reticulated the tarry sky with scarlet alleys. Upon the staggered walls, the reddening atmosphere settled like a mist of blood. It seemed that above the terraces a terrible god of iron should have appeared, with his bowels cast in flames and his cheeks bulked up with a butcher’s gluttony.
No sound was heard, as if one of the effects of the vermillion light was that the people had been struck deaf.
The shadows fell, huge, heavy, cut tangentially by monstrous guillotines, on the marching humans, so numerous that shoulder to shoulder and chest to chest they filled the streets from beginning to end.
The irons and cornices projected parallel black lines at different heights into the depths of the vermillion atmosphere. The tall windowpanes gleamed like melting sheets of ice behind which fires blazed.
In the terrible and quiet luminosity it was difficult to distinguish the feminine faces from the masculine. All of them appeared equal and shadowed from the anguish of the effort they made, with their jaws clenched and their eyelids shut tight. Many wet their lips with their tongues, for they grew feverish with thirst. Others with the gestures of sleepwalkers placed their mouths on the cold cylinders of mailboxes, or on the rectangular vents of electrical transformers, and the sweat ran in thick drops down their faces.
From the moon, fixed in a sky blacker than tar, came off a bloody and thick slaughterhouse emanation.
The multitude did not in fact walk, but instead advanced in ebbs, dragging their feet, supporting one upon another, many half-asleep and hypnotized by the red light which, shining from shoulder to shoulder, made the dark recesses of eyes and rotten profiles deeper and more astonishing.
In the cross streets children remained quiet in the thresholds.
From the tumult of the beasts, enlarged by the horses, the elephant had broken away, and with its soft bustle raced towards the beach, escorted by two colts. These, with their manes in the wind and their lips turned towards the dazzling ears of the pachyderm, appeared to whisper a secret to him.
By contrast, the hippopotamuses at the head of the vanguard, gulped with fatigue at the air, gathering it with blows in the hollows of their armored snouts. One tiger rubbing its flank against the walls advanced reluctantly.
The silence of the multitude began to become intolerable. One man climbed a balcony and placing his hands in front of his mouth like a megaphone, shouted hysterically:
--Friends, what’s happening, friends! I don’t know how to speak, it's true, I don't know how to speak, but let's come to an agreement.
They filed by without looking at him, and the man, drying the sweat from his face with the shaggy top of his arm became mixed up in the crowd.
Unconsciously each of them brought a finger to their lips, one hand to their ear. There could now be no doubts.
In a distance blocked with fire and darkness, more shifting than an ocean of burning oil, the metal structure of a crane whirled slowly on its axis.
Obliquely, an immense black cannon placed its conical profile between earth and sky, spat flames and receded along its carriage, and a long whistle crossed the atmosphere with a steel cylinder.
Beneath a red moon, blocked by vermillion skyscrapers, the multitude let out a cry of fright:
--We don’t want war! No…, no…, no!...
This time they understood that the fire had broken out across the entire planet, and nobody would be saved.
Donald Hall (1928-2018)
3 weeks ago