“Shibboleth” – Fourth Part

November 12, 2008 at 11:02 pm (Ríta)

Before I began to write, I spent a few hours leafing through a book I ordered from a specialist bookstore, about the Mahdist revolution, searching for something that might tell me who I am. Perhaps something new had come up in the last seventy years I spent avoiding my past. I fancied finding my name in this book, but it is, like most history books, interested in movements of power, not the atoms that make it up, and so I found nothing. It does not matter: I would have not known my name had I found it.
Once, on an airplane, I saw a man looking out the window, at nothing. He turned his face to me, and I could not look away. He nodded at me, once. I saw his mouth tighten. When the plane landed, I sought him in the arrivals lounge. He was sitting with his bag, staring passively at the wall, lost in thought. When he saw me, he stood.
He said, “Have you slept?”
“No,” I answered him. “Not since I can remember.”
“Neither have I,” he said.
We stood together, in silence. Then he said, “We shouldn’t seek each other out.”
“No,” I said. “You’re right.”
He touched the side of my face, briefly. “I wish you luck,” he said. “If that means anything anymore.”
We walked in opposite directions. I did not know him, nor he me. But there is something, in the eyes, perhaps in the set of the lips, that we see in each other. Like marionettes, or a badly fitting mask. It is a tell, as certain as a bad poker player. I wonder, how many times has this happened? How many times have the vengeful dead tempted the living? What did Alberto Olmedo Maraña know, and how he did he come about such knowledge? Because he certainly cannot have known his own fate: Maraña went mad.
He was perfectly sane; he was composed and good-tempered and even cheerful our first night on the beach. While the crew slept, we played cards, wagering our personal qualities on scraps of paper. I had Ivan’s acuity for crosswords and Sir Richard’s throwing arm, and was wagering my knitting against Sir Richard’s humour when Maraña joined the game. He suggested we keep our banks constant, but change the game, to faro.
I had never been an avid gambler, and I preferred games with skill, and so demurred, but Ivan and Sir Richard were bored of poker: I was outvoted. I handed my cards back to their rightful owners.
“But you must pay a fine for being allowed to observe,” cried Sir Richard. I obliged; my stack of qualities, written on the back of cigarette cards in my then flowing hand, were evenly distributed.
Chema was the Bank; he would play Ivan, Sir Richard and Alberto Olmedo, and then would pass on his role. Halfway through Sir Richard’s turn he began to laugh. Sir Richard threw down his cards in disgust, exclaiming that he would not be a part of this bloody-mindedness any more, and that Chema was cheating at any rate, to which Ivan gently reminded him that Chema could not cheat, as the game was pure chance. And indeed, when it came Chema’s turn to play, he lost his entire stack of cards.
The Bank could not lose. It was a malevolent entity, embodied by whoever chose to play it. It soon became the Bank, not the game, that was the source of interest. Alberto Olmedo redistributed the cards to their rightful owners. We changed seats every turn. Alberto Olmedo woke his steward, and made the unfortunate man deal cards in his dressing gown. Still the Bank won.
“This,” observed Ivan, “must be a mind-bogglingly unlikely happenstance.”
I had not spoken for quite some time. I watched as bits of paper representing my personality, my self, were traded around like so much currency, and felt cold. I asked the steward to bring me a blanket before he went back to bed. He was very kind, and draped it over my shoulders himself, before wishing us goodnight. When we finally retired, it was because the cold chilled our fingers so that we could not feel the cards in them.

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