They were captive there, the apes, just like the rest, male and female; or rather, male and male, the pair of them in their cage, not quite despairing, not yet totally desperate, pacing from one side to the other, detained but in motion, trapped on the zoological scale as if someone, the others, all humanity, had irreverently washed their hands of the matter, this matter of them being apes, which they wanted to forget, apes when all’s said and done, who didn’t or refused to get it, captive whichever way you looked at them, penned in that two-story-high barred cage, in their blue uniforms with shining badges on their heads, in their unregimented to-ing and fro-ing, easy and yet fixed, never managing to take the one step that would allow them to emerge from their interspecies, where they moved, walked, copulated, cruel and lacking all recollection, he-apes and she-apes in Paradise, identical, same hair, same sex, but male and female, imprisoned, fucked. His head carefully and expertly cocked to press his left ear against the horizontal metal sheet that closed the narrow hatch, Polonio squinted down on them from above, his right eye looking along the sharp line of his nose, watching how they paced from one side to the other, the bunch of keys hanging from their blue cloth jackets, jangling against their thighs to the swing of each step. First one then the other, the two apes were sized up, monitored from the second floor by that head with just one eye to observe them, the head on Salome’s platter, poking out of the hatch, the talking fairground head, detached from the torso—like at the fair, the head that tells the future and recites rhymes, John the Baptist’s head, only in this case tilted sideways, resting on its ear—preventing the left eye from seeing anything below, just the surface of the metal sheet that sealed the hatch, while the apes, in the cage, crossed paths as they paced from one end to the other, and that talking head—delivering insults in a long, slow, plangent, cynical drawl, dragging out the vowels on a wave of something like a melody of jarring alternate accents—told them to go fuck their mothers each time either one of them moved into his good eye’s field of vision. “Those fucking ape sons of bitches.” They were captive. More captive than Polonio, more captive than Albino, more captive than the Prick. For a few seconds it was empty, that rectangular cage, the apes disappearing momentarily as they paced back and forth in opposite directions to the far walls of the cage—thirty meters or so, sixty there and back—and that virgin, formless space transformed into inalienable sovereign territory under Polonio’s stubborn right eye, which took in, millimeter by millimeter, each and every detail of that section of the wing. Apes, arch-apes, stupid, vile, and naïve, naïve as a ten-year-old whore. So stupid they didn’t seem to notice that they alone were the captives, they and their mothers and their children and their forefathers. They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides, and that stupid face they wore was nothing but the manifestation of a certain hazy longing for other unattainable aptitudes, a certain stutter of the soul in their simian features, underlaid with grief for an irremediable loss of which they remained ignorant, eyes all over them, a mesh of eyes covering their bodies, a river of pupils rushing over their limbs, napes, necks, arms, chests, balls, all to put food on the table at home, or so they told themselves, where their ape families danced and screeched—the little boys and girls and the wife, hairy on the inside—during their twenty-four long hours with the master ape at home, after his twenty-four-hour shift in the penitentiary, stretched out on the bed, foul and clammy, the grease-smeared banknotes from petty bribes lying on the bedside table, but never leaving the prison, vile and captive in an endless circulation, ape-notes, which the wife repeatedly smoothed and pressed in the palm of her hand, slowly, terribly, not knowing what she was doing. Life was one long not knowing anything at all: not knowing that there they were in their cage, husband and wife, husband and husband, wife and children, father and father, sons and fathers, terrified, universal apes. The Prick begged to watch them from the hatch, too. Polonio could think of nothing but how vile it was to have the Prick there, just as caged, just as holed. “You know you can’t, man . . . !” He spoke in the same long, rolling cadences he used to abuse the guards in their box, one voice and yet indifferent, used by all like a personal trademark, and which, whether blindly or merely in the dark, didn’t much help to tell them apart, except for the fact that it was the kind of voice that oozed smug complacency and a sense of superiority and hierarchy upheld by a certain class, oblivious of what thugs they really were. Of course he couldn’t. Not because of the skill it required to place your head through the hatch and position it there, at an angle, ears catching as it slid across the metal sheet to rest on Salome’s platter, but because the Prick was missing his right eye, and with the left one alone he wouldn’t see a thing apart from the metal surface, close up, coarse, abrasive—and well, that’s why they called him the Prick, for being such a useless prick, blind in one eye, dragging himself around with the shakes and a lame leg, no dignity at all, known throughout the Penitentiary for his habit of carving up his veins each time he was banged up in the hole, his forearms covered in laddered scars like a guitar fretboard, as if he were beyond desperate—but no, he never killed himself—forsaken, sunk, always on edge, not giving a damn about the body that didn’t seem to belong to him, yet a body that he relished, safeguarded, and inside which he hid, appropriating it fiercely with urgent, restless fervor whenever he was able to possess it, climbing inside, all the way down, to lie in its abyss, flooded by a warm, unctuous pleasure, climbing inside his own corporeal cage, the drug like a faceless white angel leading him by the hand through rivers of blood, as if he were coursing through an infinite palace with no rooms and no echoes. The goddamn disgrace of a mother who bore him. “I’m telling you, you can’t, man. Get off my fucking back!” Despite everything, the Prick’s mother was due to visit, she existed, however inconceivable her existence. During visiting hours—in a narrow, irregularly shaped room, filled with benches and hordes of people, inmates and relatives, where it was easy to pick out the lawyers and (easier still) the con men, recognizable by their poise and the excessively cunning airs they assumed as they studied a particular document, affecting a dumb ponderousness as their words slipped into their clients’ ears, and as they shot rapid and deliberately suspicious glances at the door (one of numerous ruses to bolster their clients’ trust and, simultaneously, their sense of bemusement)—during these interviews, the Prick’s mother—amazingly just as ugly as her son, a knife scar running from her eyebrow to the tip of her chin—kept her head down, not looking at him or anything else, only at the floor, her bearing laden with resentment, reproach, and regret, God only knows under what sordid and abject conditions she’d coupled, or with whom, in order to engender him, and perhaps the memory of that distant, grim deed still tormented her each time. Every now and then she’d let out a heavy, rasping sigh. “It’s no-oneses fault, no-oneses but mine for having had you.” The word no-ones had become etched in Polonio’s memory, strange and curious, as if it were the sum of an infinite number of meanings. No-ones, that sad plural. It was no-oneses fault, just fate’s, life’s, damned misfortune’s, no-oneses. For having had you. The rage at having the Prick banged up beside them now in the same cell, right beside Polonio and Albino, and the acute, urgent, craven desire for him to die once and for all, to cease roaming the earth in that debased body of his. His mother desired it too, just as deeply, just as keenly, you could tell. Die die die. He inspired livid, revulsion-fueled compassion. Nothing ever came of his vein cutting, nothing but ranting and raving, despite them hoping, genuinely and devoutly, every time, that he’d finish the job. He would cower by the cell door—any given day, any day he spent banged up in the hole—deliberately against the doorframe, so that the runnel of blood welling up from his vein would flow out as soon as possible into the narrow hallway, on the wing’s upper floor, and from there drip down onto the yard, forming a puddle on the concrete; having worked out how long it would take for all this to happen, the Prick could be sure they would get wise to his suicide and he’d howl like a dog, his breath squeezed through broken bellows, never dying, just enough to cause a scene so they’d take him from the hole to the infirmary where he’d find a way to wangle more drugs, setting off the cycle all over again, a hundred, a thousand times, never reaching the end before he found himself in the next hole.
translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes and Amanda Hopkinson
Used by permission of New Directions. The Hole will be out in bookstores in late October 2018.