The Last Word

By ARIEL DORFMAN

“Only he who attempts the absurd is

capable of achieving the impossible.”

                                                     —miguel de unamuno

Monday, april 17.

When you finish reading the last of these seven letters, you will be dead.

Oh, not right away, my enemy, my friend. There are still many pages to be turned, many words to be devoured. You will receive one letter every day, just like today, by courier with no return address, drip by drip, each morning’s venom, just in time, always just before you shut yourself tight and cozy inside your study to work on your most recent review, your daily dose of toxic excess.

Why should you keep reading a death threat like this one, an attack that— as you will soon find out—is so vile, so deserved? Why continue with a warning that from the very start wants you dead, nay, that does more than want—that will kill you just as you have murdered innumerable books, all those authors eviscerated with your infamous sarcasm and mordant, mortifying wit, your bite of death that is to be answered by mine? Why not simply turn away and caustically go back to your next victim, dispatch in two hours of scribbling what it took some defenseless novelist ten years to compose?

Because I have researched the life you prefer to hide, I know things about you, Thad, my Thad, my Casapino, that you may have forgotten, that you may wish to forget, that you perhaps managed to forget and yet, like a thug who keeps being reeled back to the scene of his crime, cannot really forget. Don’t you recognize this description? Since the age of twelve, according to the one interview he ever deigned to endure, Thaddeus Casapino was beset by terrible headaches and stumbled upon the cure all too quickly. What other way to be rid of the rush of that migraine than to be cruel to someone else, utter a spiteful interpolation, slash a schoolmate with an adroitly phrased barb, reduce a girl at a dance to tears, probe his father’s daily routine and one night at dinner casually drop the name of the secret mistress, cut them all down to size?—each time, the throb in your lobes would recede, the agony would, instantaneously evaporate. Giving pain to others, the remedy for your own
pain, the formula you unearthed like a vulture pecking at flesh, laid bare by the bone of puberty and serving you well ever since. That discovery helped you to zero in early on your vocation, paved the path that would lead you to become the pre-eminent critic of your generation, make an unpretty penny through the annihilation of every living author you have read. Only a few of the classics were exalted—only a few, I say, as you also abhor most of them, my enemy, my friend, somebody has to be dead in order for you to consider offering him (never her) the sanctuary of your literary Parnassus.

And popular! Were you ever popular!

Readers flocked to your column, to your paper, lately to your blog, drawn by your hypnotic prose, eager to lap up who would be pilloried next, always ready to be stunned into amazement at how far you might go in heaping scorn, perversely hoping that you would go further, always willing, you and they, to stretch the bounds of decency.

Your one strategic mistake: you went too far.

With my wife, you went much too far.

Are you hooked yet?

Are you as fascinated by my words as you are by the characters who have not been done justice by their authors, the fictitious men and women you obsessively identify with and believe to be defending against mediocrity?

How will you react when your spinster sister—the only one who, for absolutely mercenary reasons, is willing to care for you as you grow old—brings up a letter much like the first one with your morning coffee. The second installment of this story that will eventually kill you.

I have written enough, I am sure, to whet your appetite, tantalize you, challenge you so that tomorrow—oh you are so arrogant, feel so invincible—you’ll open the letter that arrives, open it and read it.

I promise that it contains no anthrax, no chemical particles, nothing more lethal than words, your preferred instrument of torture, words that, I admit, you wield well, often with more elegance than the writers you hold to the high standard of your ravenous imagination.

I am not concerned that you will be scared. You have many defects. Cowardice is not one of them.

We’ll see if I’m right tomorrow morning, won’t we?

 

Tuesday, April 18.

Good.

Though I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had chucked today’s package in the wastepaper bin, unopened.

Because you have had fair warning. Certainly more courtesy than you ever had with my darling.

Her name? For now, I don’t want this traced back to me, no matter how much the police will disbelieve that these threats had anything to do with your sudden and unexpected decease. I’m talking, of course, of the police that will investigate your murder—the most classic of unsolved mysteries, a man found dead in a room that is completely sealed off from the outside world. If you do happen to call them today or tomorrow or before the last letter arrives five days from now, well, then you risk not finding out how this ends. And I will say this for you: you invariably read to the breathless, bitter end every story that you then defile, one of your specialties is giving away the last lines of a book, ruining a reader’s potential gratification, revealing the name of the assassin or whether the child is saved or if the husband and wife reconcile, rendering it unnecessary for anyone to acquire the book or even examine it, another way of making sure the novel ends up forsaken, left to oblivion. Except for you, you remember each character, you have assured that he, that she, no matter how poorly executed, will be yours and yours alone.

Are you entranced enough by me, by my challenge?

I wager that you’ll read on.

Your prying, praying, predator mantis of a mind will get the better of you, urging you on until you have been dealt the final smothering blow from a completely improbable source, and the door behind which you lock yourself every morning must be broken down, and the police unearth the body of one Thaddeus Casapino sprawled there, poisoned, stabbed, a bullet in the head, drowned in your own vomit—or will you die in some other way? There are so many ways of dying, Thad, my enemy, my friend, our species has been perfecting extinction, ever more elaborate codas to our mortality, maybe yours will surprise and even delight you with its originality and artistic pedigree, its final tourniquet de force and penultimate plot twist. Though you won’t have much time to enjoy the final flourish of checkmate, you won’t be able to review this series of letters that, taken together, constitute a story that, in other circumstances, might have been published and, my bad luck, submitted to your Highness so you could demolish its every articulation.

You’re already parsing my style, aren’t you? Delving into the syntax, the vocabulary, to see if you can pinpoint the author, your mind racing back through so many reviews spewed out. You once proclaimed, in that one solitary interview, that you were a literary detective, professing to hunt down the criminal authors who polluted the world with their writing, who did not really care, as you do, for their inadequately invented men and women. Now you can prove that this was not so much semantic hot air. Find me out before I kill you, Thad, my enemy, my friend. Ask yourself: is it a man who is writing this or a woman, something cunningly female about the style, maybe the originator of these messages is trying to fool you by referring to his wife, oh you’re accustomed to the lies of writers, how they hide behind pseudonyms and mirrors, your forte is to leave them naked, bereft of cover, that’s what you’re already thinking you’d like to do to me, strip me down to my last piece of skin, almost an act of love.

While another part of your brain begins to sweat, just a driblet, just a vermin of a hint, as you wonder if it would not be prudent to burn these pages, ignore tomorrow’s delivery, if indeed there is one tomorrow, if this is not some sort of sick practical joke that will fizzle as soon as you disregard it.

Of course not. Even you have to admit that there is narrative bravado in my assault, a literary puzzle that your chutzpah cannot pass up—tickling your ego. Someone out there hates Thaddeus Casapino enough, admires him enough, to scribble these notes, plan this incursion. Your only frustration: not being able to answer these messages, force me to read Very well, if that’s the way you want to play the game, let’s see it through to the end. Let’s see, Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Anonymous, if you can kill me here, in the comfort of my fortress-study, let’s see if you can swing it with nothing more than a few pages, as you have boasted, let’s see if you can avenge your purported wife with words. How, pray, do you intend to do it?

So impatient! You’ll find out when it’s too late. Curiosity did, after all, my enemy, my friend, kill the cat, kill the Thad, if you’ll permit me— but you wouldn’t, you’d nail me for it, and rightly so, you’d denounce this sort of bad pun.

In tomorrow’s letter I will spare you no grisly detail, my enemy, my friend.

Till then.

 

Wednesday, April 19.

I will spare you, I said, no grisly detail.

You, after all, spared my wife, not at all, did not give a second thought— or a third or fourth one—to her seven years of labor, her struggle with cancer (you called it sentimental garbage, “save that garbage may have industrial uses, whereas junk that appeals so tastelessly to our raw sympathy should be flushed away rather than recycled”).

I was at her deathbed holding her hand when your review came in. I had hidden the paper where your commentary was printed, I had blocked all access, but some tender unidentified soul found a way to get it to her. Was it you, Thad? It is rumored, though not confirmed, that you make sure your victims cannot escape the torments of your derision, that you ferret out their whereabouts and pursue them—they are, when all is said and done, and you have said much and done even more, they are the only readers who interest you, you write only for them as I write only for you. What matters is that some contemptuous messenger had scrupulously photocopied and sent your review along in a red envelope, just like the one I place my own letter in. I watched as she read the first lines: “The author is going to die? So are we all, sooner or later. But most mortals do not impose their lachrymose mutterings on the rest of humanity, despoil our time. I, for one, refuse to be lobotomized by this lady’s lamentation. No mercy need be offered to someone who finishes her so called novel with this gem of a cliché: ‘I will let love have the last word.’ No, dear reader, mine is the first word and the truly last one: don’t indulge this inexpressive and untalented harridan with half a glance at her exertions. You will only be encouraging others to squander their time as well as ours.”

You wrote about dying: So are we all, sooner or later.

In your case, Thad, my enemy, my friend, much sooner than later, a mere four days from now.

But enough distractions. I was offering you a preview of your own death, a precise foretelling of the circumstances, what the forensic report will stipulate, much of it clearly visible to your sister, relieved that you have finally kicked the bucket, though she’s not yet aware—at least that is my presumption— that you haven’t left her a cent in your will, that tomorrow she will be wandering the streets, homeless. She’s the one who should be sending you these messages, plotting her revenge. Maybe it is her.

Should I burrow that disturbing idea deeper into you?

No, that might even be a comfort, a rancor you could understand. Better to acquaint you with how I conjured up your homicide.

I had thought to begin with poison. I desired it to be a slow and painful process, the acid seeping into your fingers as you turned page after page, gashing the very digits, the culprits that have typed away at your reviews, each fingertip guilty, each of them punished. Paper cuts hurt so much, so it was a joy to ruminate on what these barbs would do to you, I then followed them into your mouth—because you have the habit of licking your fingers, oh what don’t I know about your habits?, I am the real detective here—sweet strychnine eating away at your acerbic tongue, then being digested, wending its way down to your anus, burning it, making it hard for you to sit and relax. I wanted you to be conscious, every step of the way, including the last one. My poison pal gift to you, Thad: who does not want to be present at one’s own murder, to be an accomplice to one’s own murder, the most important witness for the prosecution that the prosecution can never call, except in a state of rigor mortis.

But that’s not how it will be, my enemy, my friend. Nothing so obvious, nothing so…female.

How will it happen?

How will I gain access?

You hold the murder weapon in your hands at this very moment. I have given the matter some reflection and am now hoping that you do not destroy the letters, that your sister finds them scattered on your desk or tidied into a neat bundle. Even if they contain clues to my identity: all the police need do is trace those words of yours I copied out, what I extracted from your review about my wife, and come knocking on my door. I would like them to do just that, come to me with my murder confession, really the murder weapon, and I will invite them in and insist they have some tea and biscuits, deny everything, agree that I bore a grudge (who didn’t?) against Mr. Casapino, act surprised that someone should have impersonated me in seven anonymous letters.

“It sounds insane to me,” I’ll say, quite blasé.

“Yes, obviously the work of a madman.”

“And you can confirm that Mr. Casapino is indeed dead?”

“Yes. Last time we checked.”

What a delight, to receive from the police themselves ratification that my plan worked.

So please don’t burn these letters, I beg you to leave them there, let the words that will kill you survive your own last breath.

The scene makes me salivate. Your dead, intoxicated, corrupting body. The head detective reading the letters with a perplexed look, handing them over, one page after the other, to his partner: “This is really bizarre,” he says. And she’ll answer, after her own good time taking a look, “Yeah, so we have motive and a possible suspect, and premeditation, but we don’t have means and we don’t have a murder weapon.”

I like to think of them dusting the pages for fingerprints and only yours on them, Thad, my enemy, my friend, which is appropriate because you are the true culprit, the one who has committed this murder, done this to yourself. You could have ceased and desisted, but even you are human: everyone wants to know what it will be like after they are dead, and you can’t resist the temptation. I’m giving you the finale you will never contemplate on your own, merely through the eyes of my imagination seeping into yours, that’s how it’s going to happen. Trapped in your absorption in me as a character that you just can’t abandon.

She says, the police investigator: “Do you think, boss…? I mean, is it even possible that…?”

“That what?” He doesn’t dare to venture such lunacy. He’d rather let her make a fool of herself.

She doesn’t take the bait.

“No, it’s nothing.”

She drops down to examine your throat, your blue face, as if pillows had been piled upon it, but there are no pillows nearby, no signs of strangulation but all the signs of a struggle, the certainty that this man was conscious as he died.

“No, no, say it, come on. You were going to…”

“I was going to suggest…”

“What? Come on, say it.”

“That maybe the letters did it, killed him.”

I want that possibility to be formulated, I want the satisfaction of the police bringing me the news of your disappearance from this world.

And then I want them to leave my house, as baffled as before.

Just like you right now.

You still think this is a joke, Thad?

You still think you can escape the death that awaits you four days from now?

You still ask yourself: Can this be true?

The first line of a story I wrote specially for you.

I will send that story to you tomorrow.

 

Thursday, April 20.

Can this be true?

The question crept into Gabriel’s mind when he saw the silhouette of Victoria behind the glass of the front door, could Victoria really be waiting for him as she used to do when he came home in happier times, her hours always shorter than his, dinner ready in the kitchen, something simmering, and by her side was….

He buried the rest of that memory, tried to push it away to open up a space, slight as it might be, for a worm of hope to slink into his life. This was a daily, recurring obsession: the search for signs that maybe she was mending— not her body, not ever, the doctors had said, but from the depression. Maybe this time it would be different. It had been years since she had greeted him at the door, something that simple, what used to be so ordinary between us, how not to wish for a glimmer of light after so much darkness? But asking, just in case, if it could be true, if he was not dreaming.

No, she was there, peering through the glass part of the door, waiting for him, and backed her body away so as not to obstruct the entrance.

“Look, Gabriel,” she said, now wheeling the chair, without letting him kiss her, not even on the cheek as he did every evening when he returned from work, but offering him a half-smile in compensation, more lips upturned or semi, than she had in a long, long time, another indication that something might be changing for the better. She headed for the living room, where the light was on—so she hadn’t been sitting in shadows. And the eagerness and almost sprightly energy of her fingers on the handle of the spinning wheels, her arms pumping down and then up. She stopped by the lamp—the one they had bought together, see how softly it glows and flows, he remembered those rhyming words, and how it now still glowed and flowed and was soft, objects are indifferent to the suffering that goes on around them, what the lamp witnessed every day, what it had seen back when he and Victoria and Leon, there, he had allowed the name to surface, when the family had been happy. She stopped by the lamp and under it and her hair flowed and glowed with evanescence (my God, she had used conditioner, how long had it been since she had cared enough to?) and said: “I want you to take a look, see for yourself what I’ve been up to.”

“What, Victoria? What have you been up to, my love?”

Reading, that’s what. She’d been reading, she said, for the last few hours.

She showed him the book.

Don Quixote de la Manchaby Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra.

One of her favorites.

One she hadn’t touched in years.

Years since she had read anything at all, for that matter, she who had been insatiable, novels, plays, short stories, book reviews, she loved book reviews almost more than books themselves, she would even read the labels on the cereal in the morning or the warnings on medical supplies or the fine print on the credit card agreements, reading anything and everything. With such compulsion that at times Gabriel had felt jealous—particularly of the fiction she read—yes, he felt excluded from those private worlds she entered and where she remained by herself even after her husband had decided to plunge into the same text in order to accompany her, to surrender to the same enchantment. As if the fictional world were so much more satisfying, more permanent, with a heavier weight of reality, than anything he could advance.

“I’ve been thinking,” Victoria now said. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking, Gabriel?”

“I would love to know what you’ve been thinking.”

She waved the book at him.

She had been thinking, she said, about the second part of the novel, you know, where the mad protagonist is greeted with open arms by a number of people, villagers and dukes and weary travelers on the road, welcomed by them because they had read of his exploits in the book, the first part, written by Cervantes. That’s what she had been thinking: how these characters had read a novel that was real, the same novel she had read many centuries later, the very same words she had enjoyed, except that she could not welcome Don Quixote because she was not inside the second part of the book, she was just a reader and not a character, that’s what she had been thinking, how could it be that this Knight of the Sad Figure was both a character in one book and real in the other one, could that be true?

Gabriel was startled by those words, echoing his own thoughts, one more signal that perhaps their mental and emotional paths were somehow converging after such a protracted period of wandering in opposite and mysterious directions.

“What if we’re characters, as well?” she asked, and now it wasn’t half a smile but a whole heart of a smile, spilling into her face like a constellation, lighting her up from inside, and Gabriel’s own heart skipped a leap of joy and then quickened its beat and he nudged her along, after so many bleak months and years what else could he have done? Better to ignore the possibility that she was getting worse rather than better, veering into a lunacy he should not be encouraging, who knew where this would lead them.

The innocence in her face was unbearable as she spoke again:

“Characters, both of us, Gabriel.”

“We probably are,” he answered, “each and every one of us. And if that’s the case,” he went on, warming to his subject, unable to deter the bitterness that crawled out of his mouth, “then that God or whatever he is, had better watch out. If we catch up with him, that is.”

“Complaints,” she said. “Like Don Quixote, his complaints against Cervantes, for all the drubbings and beatings and broken ribs and teeth knocked out, ask the author why, right?”

“Right!” Gabriel said. “Hold him accountable, eh, love? Find the bastard, make some demands.”

He was playing the game she had set up, enjoying the banter, but also the release, the venting of his own resentment, indulging her, not realizing yet that by doing so he was facilitating an even more elaborate psychosis to grow and seethe in her mind.

Though blaming myself, Gabriel would think, the next evening, when she took one step deeper into the swamp of madness, made no sense, I couldn’t help it. I was healthy while the woman I love lay sobbing in bed with twenty broken bones and one large shattered heart, split by the lightning of her sorrow at having let Leon out of her sight for just five seconds while she answered the stupid idiotic imbecilic moronic unnecessary accusation I had leveled at her over the cell phone.

That had been it, enough to change everything forever: the boy running into the street to retrieve the ball, the ball bouncing. It keeps bouncing in my mind, up and down in my mind, up and down in hers, never stopping, always there, never slowing down.

Never forgetting what I heard next: the distress of “Leon, Leon” and then the scrape of her footsteps in the foliage, one, two, three steps swirling the leaves by the curb and then the sound of brakes, metal screeching on metal as if the car itself were warning us, she right there and me through the phone, the grind of scratching terror that awaited us, and then two thuds, almost simultaneous and a scream, hers, and then my voice takes over, calling her name, Victoria, Victoria, Victoria, like that—and thenIs Leon? Victoria, is Leon okay? Is he okay?

And I am already out the door of my office, without bothering to put on my coat—in the days to come I will berate myself for that as well—but how could I think of bundling myself up, protecting myself when the loves of my life, the life of my—I did not yet know that Leon was dead and that Victoria had survived, only the scruff of voices that I did not recognize until someone came on the phone just as I was fumbling with the keys to my Chevy under a merciless wind.

It was our neighbor and he asked if I was there, if it was me on the other side of the line and yes, yes, yes, for God’s sake, man, are they alright? What happened? Tell me, tell me, are they alright?

He didn’t want to deliver the bad news. Maybe it didn’t seem fair or right to him that he should be the messenger and bear that burden for the rest of his life. All he said was: I think you need to come right away.

Not my fault, I kept telling myself during the drive, though maybe it was, who else to blame, I had to blame somebody, who else to fucking blame?

I had been the one who had scolded her over the phone a mere twenty minutes earlier, disputing that I was supposed to collect Leon’s Christmas gift, the bike he would never ride. We never mentioned that argument again because we both must have been sure that it was the other who had promised to pass by the store. Or maybe the opposite was true (Can this be true? Can it?) each of us now sure that he, that she, had agreed to get the bike, each of us imprisoned in the other’s version of events, trying to absolve our soul-mate. Her efforts were useless: I wanted to be responsible, someone, anyone, to be responsible, lash out at someone, anyone, above all my own self. Reinterpreting the past so I could be the parent ultimately responsible for my son’s death. And for my wife’s physical destruction and descent into a bereavement from which she had not emerged, which for the first time, when she was at the door again waiting for me, seemed to be somehow ebbing, her thoughts elsewhere than in shouldering the blame, imitating or anticipating my own self-denunciation, upholstering her memories as I had, seeking a reason to not forgive herself, sinking ever deeper into the morass of reproach and rage at her own culpability.

Both of us endeavoring to alleviate the agony of the other, but doing so in silence, on mental paths that did not intersect, without a common ground upon which to meet now that the common ground and territory, the body of Leon we had forged in a night of love, her egg and my sperm, her labor and my presence by her side, her milk and my cradling, now that Leon was gone and we were each isolated in our shells of pity, our questions about the universe.

And that is why—if a reason must be given—Gabriel welcomed Victoria’s attempt to find something they could share, he saw her loopy fantasy that both of them were characters as an overture, a timid step towards reconstituting a center around which they could commune. And he answered yes, that they should seek redress of some sort.

Something that he wanted to nurse along, no matter how crazy it might seem.

Except that he did not allow himself that word yet, crazy. Only pronounced it to himself the next time they spoke, the next evening, when she was again waiting for him by the door.

Just as you’re waiting for tomorrow’s mail, with one question swarming through your mind: Why have I told you all of this, Thaddeus Casapino, my enemy, my friend, why have I transcribed this tale of regret that is not quite at an end?

Because Gabriel and Victoria are going to kill you, that’s why.

 

friday, april 21.

Of course, you are still there, still reading, still intrigued.

Sympathizing enough with Gabriel and Victoria to listen in.

She says to him, that second evening, pointing to another book, one that he vaguely remembers from his school days.

“Unamuno,” Victoria says. “One of his novels. Niebla. Mist. I dug it out from my library, hadn’t really understood it the first time—too young, too full of life to contemplate suicide, to wonder if any of this could be real. But now.”

Now she was ready, she believed she was ready. She had been thinking of what Gabriel had said yesterday, about needing to hold the author accountable, someone has to be responsible, right? and then this morning she had recalled that novel, Niebla, and had read it—it’s brief, Gabriel—in one sitting, and it made sense, a whole lot of sense.

“What’s it about?” Gabriel asks, still hoping that this is a good sign, one more thing they can do together, the tiny bud of a conversation that they promised to continue, a threshold that has opened and that he is afraid of closing, of even questioning.

She tells Gabriel—have you read this novel, Thad?, you don’t care much for Spanish authors do you?—that it’s about a man called Augusto Pérez to whom nothing special has ever happened. However, when he’s jilted by the woman he mistakenly falls in love with, he decides to commit suicide. Before killing himself he goes off to Salamanca to speak to Miguel de Unamuno, the famous author, whose essay on suicide he has read. To Augusto’s consternation, Unamuno tells him he cannot commit suicide, that Unamuno forbids it, that’s not what Unamuno has planned for Augusto. Because it turns out that Augusto is a character. Unamuno invented him, created him. He’s fictional! No more than a dream of God—God, being Unamuno in this case. And Unamuno has decided that Augusto will die, but not by his own hand.

“Interesting,” Gabriel says, because he can think of nothing else to say, wonders where this is going, fears that he knows precisely where this is going.

“You always say ‘Interesting’ when you don’t want to engage, Gabriel. ‘Interesting’ is such a neutral word, so comfortable, actually what cowards use to hide opinions that can get them in trouble. I need something more than ‘Interesting’; I deserve more.”

“So what do you propose?”

“Finding him, like you said.”

“Him?”

“Whoever is writing us, dreaming us, has invented us, created us. Hold him accountable.”

Gabriel decides that he has to be cautious, careful. One thing is nurturing togetherness, quite another is fomenting a madness from which she may be unable to return. “And how do you intend to do this?”

She takes his hand and places it on her cheek.

The cheek is wet.

“Until you’ve really cried, Unamuno says in this novel, only once you’re really and truly cried, do you know if you have a soul.”

Tears come into Gabriel’s eyes. He wants to say that she is his soul, that he missed her, that without her he is lost.

“That’s why we’re going to find him,” Victoria says. “We’re going to find the man or God who made us cry.”

And Gabriel thinks to himself: She’s the only thing I have to live for and she’s crazy, just like me, just like me, I have to be as crazy as she is if I want to save her and save myself, and so he says yes to Victoria, what else could he have done? He will tell himself, later, that he did not hesitate, that his voice did not tremble, that he was sure there was no alternative.

Though at that point he does not know that the price he and his wife will have to pay for their freedom is to become murderers.

How is that to be accomplished?

I promise that tomorrow I will begin to relay the answer.

 

Saturday, April 22.

They came to me.

Do not ask how that is possible. If they can kill you, they certainly could track me down.

They materialized, let’s settle for calling it that. Some would suggest it was a dream, or that I’m in a trance, that I’m hallucinating even now as I write this sixth letter, the last one before the end. Others would add that we are all, all of us, figments of someone’s imagination, that once we die it will be as if we had never lived, that we are already dissolving. Some would argue that at least certain fictional characters—like Don Quixote, for instance, or Odysseus or Juliet and her Romeo or Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, who really did commit suicide—have a more prolonged existence and a more substantial influence on history and human memory than most of the wretched and even the fortunate of this earth have ever had.

But I will not hide behind such subterfuges, not flaunt in your face that they have every right to come to life, that the persistence of this miracle will be proven not by blind belief but by tangible results, namely, your corpse. I will, instead, assert that the parents of poor, sweet, unlucky Leon were able to find their way to me because that is how I had planned it, that is why I had subjected them to such torment, the vindictive, vicious tragedy I visited upon them.

So they would be forced to present themselves.

They did not want revenge, as I do. They wanted something far more impossible: a different ending. Or rather: a different beginning.

They wanted their life back.

They wanted those five seconds to be erased, they wanted Gabriel to not make that phone call or if he had to call to tell Victoria that he’d go and pick up Leon’s bike or for Victoria to tell him she’d already done it, or for Leon’s ball to have bounced towards the house instead of into the street or for that car to have turned the corner one minute earlier or thirty seconds later, was that so much to ask?

They had come to the only person in the world who could answer their prayers, listen to their complaints.

I insist, to my eternal shame—because I do not like this person I have become, this person who hates you so much, Thad, someone willing to inflict sorrows on innocent others—I insist that I take full responsibility for deliberately planning it, their devastation, pressing them to break the barriers of reality and fiction in order to beg me, threaten me if necessary, so I might answer yes, I can do that.

“Yes, I can do that,” I said to them. “But there is something that, in exchange, you must do for me.”

They nodded without even asking what it was—that’s how far gone even Gabriel was—they nodded each on his own and yet in unison, like a bell and its tongue, like a bell and its sound, like a sound and its echo.

They said nothing, just waited.

“If you managed,” I said, “to slip in to see me, confront me, I suppose there is no place forbidden to you? You can get in and out of any room, no matter how locked, how protected?”

They explained that no, as far as they knew they were not that ubiquitous, that omnipotent. On the contrary, their resources were extremely limited: their sole means of transportation was the paper upon which their boundless grief was written. From there, from those pages, motivated by special and extreme circumstances such as this one, they had attempted the leap across the chasm of reality in order to meet their maker, so to speak. Who was, after all, the only one who knew of their existence and the only one who, therefore, could change it.

“So,” I said, “if your story is read by someone else, that person would then be as vulnerable as I have been, as open to your presence, let us say.”

“We suppose so,” said Victoria, “but we can’t be sure, as you are the sole proprietor, or maybe the word is ‘perpetrator,’ of our catastrophe.”

“But it’s worth a try,” said Gabriel. “Anything, rather than go back to life without Leon, anything, anything whatsoever.”

“Anything,” I said, “you would do anything whatsoever to get your son back alive?”

“Anything.”

“One life for another life, then,” I said. “I need you to murder someone.”

 

Sunday, April 23: the last day.

Your fate is sealed: they are already dwelling in your room.

I have introduced them into your study and, at this point, even if you were to burn these pages they inhabit, even if I were to countermand my order, it would be useless, too late. You can no longer get rid of them, like any character we have read, imagined, made ours. Once he, once she, starts to exist in our head—as in this very moment is happening to you, Thad, my enemy, my friend, my one and only reader—no banishment will suffice.

Fiction is like poison, writing takes as much care and passion, perseverance and planning, as the worst crime, and its effects far outlive the body of their author.

Victoria and Gabriel are close to you, a time bomb about to go off—when I press the button, or even if I don’t, when I give them the signal, or even if I don’t, whisper in their ear that the moment has arrived.

They will approach you, are doing so now, from either side.

You will sense their shadows, or perhaps it is just the smell of their disgust at what they are being blackmailed into doing, the smell of your death. Shadows, before you see their hands or hear Gabriel’s footsteps, the squeak of Victoria’s wheelchair.

And now, at last, at last, your moment and my moment and their moment, the reason why I conjured their pain up from nothing, our moment has arrived, now you will breathe your last and I will, for the first time in many decades, breathe oxygen no longer contaminated by your lungs. Breathe in and out and know that not one molecule is being shared with you, that the man who inflicted such distress on my loved one has received a taste, and more than just a taste, of his own venom.

All I need to do now is write the final words, the last word you will ever read, and it will be done.

Now I, now I, now I…

Gabriel stops, takes a step back at the very instant that Victoria does the same with her wheelchair, with barely a look of previous agreement between them.

We can’t do it.

Gabriel shakes his head, Victoria moves closer to him and takes his hand, they both look straight into me, call me from the other side of the page I am writing on.

They are staging a rebellion.

They will not soil themselves by participating in a murder.

“It’s your fault,” Gabriel says to me.

“This is how you made us,” Victoria adds. “We just can’t do it.”

Even if you lose your child, the chance to see your child alive again?

“That’s up to you.” Their voices merge with each other, trembling, obstinate.

Suddenly, Thad, suddenly, Casapino, you begin to laugh, you think you have won this battle, this war, this conflagration, you think I am defeated.

You think I have no fallback position, no further resources at my disposal.

That is how you must have laughed as you wrote the book review that would darken my wife’s final hours.

Keep laughing, Thaddeus Casapino. Keep laughing.

The sound drowns out for a few seconds of surcease the shuffle of other footsteps, someone else coming for you, more than someone else, many bodies and many lives heading in your direction.

Victoria and Gabriel did not come alone to demand this reckoning.

There are thousands more, hundreds upon hundreds, surging through, pouring through the hole that my Gabriel and my Victoria have drilled in what you call reality. Do you recognize those ghostlike figures? Do you know who they are?

They were offered the blessing of birth in the books you doomed to extinction and pulp, Casapino, my enemy, my friend, they peopled those pages briefly, in the hope of being born again and again inside the eyes of readers eager for some consolation, some entertainment, some escape, some reprieve, all of it denied to them, to the characters and to the readers, all, all condemned to solitude and stasis with malice aforethought by a petty dictator in his study.

And now they have come for you.

Following the lead of Victoria and Gabriel, waiting for this explosive moment when your mind yawns open to this possibility, the vertigo of fiction stronger than anything real, of flesh and bone. Those myriad others were lying in ambush all these years, forgotten by everyone but you, they’re inside you, Thad, my enemy, my friend, smuggled in through the pages you devoured in order to spit them out, savored in order to defecate them, their phantom aftermath left behind, full of regrets, in some endless empathetic abscess of your mind, the critic who, is it not so, has dedicated his life to the idea that literature matters more than life.

This is how you will die, Thad Casapino, here’s how: of fright.

Suffocated by those you left without a reader to blow some life into. Like a thousand pillows descending onto your mouth, lips, nose, pressing down, pressing in.

Are you seeing their faces now? One after the other, one face and the next one, the men and women, the fat and the thin, the ugly and the beautiful, the high and the low, all of those you murdered, come to exact retribution.

A nightmare from which you will not awake.

Is there no comfort for you at the end? Are you entirely alone?

In this wide, alien world only Victoria and Gabriel may owe you a debt of gratitude and perhaps, just maybe, you will be grateful to them as you die.

True, they were the ones who opened a breach in your defenses, the ones who took the first steps towards you—true, without them this perfect crime could never have been accomplished.

But watch them stand back now and, still refusing to strike a blow, witness the execution, hoping that I will be benevolent with them despite their rebellion, perhaps because of their rebellion, praying that I will not condemn them to a barren existence, that the pity you were unable to muster all your life will find its way into my heart.

She cries out to me on your behalf, my dead wife, she begs me, in the name of love, to let Gabriel and Victoria slowly fade back into their own world, return to the home awaiting them, a different past and a different future awaiting them.

Even if that gives you some solace as you die, Thad, Thad Casapino, my enemy, their friend, something good that comes from your own death.

Think of Gabriel back in his office as he dials his wife’s number, perhaps to tell her he’s picked up Leon’s bike, perhaps to suggest that she take the boy and they collect the gift together, but never, in any case, no matter what he says or she answers, the slightest reproach. And here is Victoria, holding Leon’s hand—in his other hand he carries a big white ball—and she steers him away from the street, nods hello to the genial giant of a neighbor who has come out for a stroll. Here is Victoria, making sure that she doesn’t loosen her grip on her son, not for one instant, definitely not for five, till a car passes—it’s going too fast, she thinks, damn these drivers, someday there’s going to be one hell of an accident.

Let me repeat this, because I also know how to keep my end of the bargain: she will not let go of her son’s hand till a speeding car rushes by. And now she says into the phone: “Hurry home, dear, I can’t wait to tell you about my day,” and Gabriel answers: “And I can’t wait to tell you about mine.”

But maybe by now, Thad, Thaddeus, no longer my enemy, not even my friend or theirs or anyone’s, by now, as Leon throws the ball for his mother to kick back—oh yes, I keep my promises—right now, you no longer can know this, just as my own wife cannot know this, there is nobody I can appeal to for her life, nobody who has created her and is willing to bring her back, and yet her voice is still inside me, whispering to me, whispering that I should allow you a smile as you die.

Should I do that for you, Thad Casapino, let Leon come and thank you as you die?

Fitting that, in the end, you have no one to defend you from the oncoming car, no one to place themselves between you and death, no divinity to appeal to, no parents willing to risk everything, damn themselves forever to resurrect you, not one moment of your own past kindness to redeem you, not one character to speak up on your behalf.

Only that little boy who now greets his father by the door and walks him into the kitchen where a mother is setting the table for three.

Only he owes his life to your death, his beginning to your end.

Yes, I will give you that, give myself some relief from this overwhelming wave of hatred, one last visitation for you, my accomplice.

I will let Leon sing you to your grave, I will let love have the last word.

 

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean-American citizen born in Argentina and has been hailed as one of the most important Latin American authors of his time. 

[Purchase your copy of Issue 07 here]

Julia PikeThe Last Word

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