The Artificial Hell
(El infierno artificial)
by Horacio Quiroga
On nights when there is a moon, the gravedigger advances through the tombs with a singularly stiff step. He is nude to the waist and wears a large straw hat. His fixed smile gives the impression of being stuck to his face with glue. If he were barefoot, one would notice that he walks with his big toes turned down.
There is nothing strange about this, because the gravedigger abuses choloroform. The hazards of his trade led him to try the anesthestic, and when choloroform bites a man, it rarely lets go. Our acquaintance waits for night to open his bottle, and as he has great common sense, he chooses the cemetery for the inviolable theater of his binges.
Chloroform dilates the chest on the first whiff; the second fills the mouth with saliva; the extremities tingle at the third; at the fourth one’s lips swell, along with one’s ideas, and then odd things happen.
As if in a dream the gravedigger’s steps have taken him to an open tomb, where that afternoon there had been a disenterment—unfinished for lack of time. A coffin was left open behind the gate, and at its side, on the sand, the skeleton of the man who had been enclosed in it.
Did he hear something? Really? Our acquaintance draws back the bolt, enters, and then after a bewildered turn around the bone man, he kneels and puts his eys to the orbits of the skull.
There, in the back, a little above the base of the cranium, perched as if on a parapet in the roughness of the back of the skull, is huddled a little shivering yellow man, his face crossed with wrinkles. He has a bruised mouth, deeply sunken eyes, and a gaze mad with anguish.
He is all that remains of a cocaine addict.
“Cocaine! Please, a little cocaine!”
The gravedigger, serene, knows well that he himself would dissolve the glass of his bottle with his spit in order to reach the forbidden chloroform. It is, therefore, his duty to help the little shivering man.
He leaves and returns with a full syringe, provided by the cemetery medical kit. But how to give it to the tiny little man?
“Through the cranial fissures! … Quickly!”
Of course! How had that not occurred to him? And the gravedigger, on his knees, injects the fissures with the entire contents of the syringe, which filters and disappears between the cracks.
But surely something has reached the fissure that the little man desperately clings to. After eight years of abstinence, what molecule of cocaine doesn’t ignite a delirium of strength, youth, beauty?
The gravedigger put his eyes to the orbits of the skull, and didn’t recognize the dying little man. There was not the least trace of a wrinkle on his firm smooth skin. His vibrant red lips were intertwined with a lazy voluptousness that would have no manly explanation, if narcotics were not almost all feminine; and above all his eyes, which before were glassy and dull, now shone with such passion that the gravedigger felt an pang of envious surprise.
“And that’s what it’s like … cocaine?” he murmured.
The voice from inside sounded with ineffable charm.
“Ah! You have no idea what eight years of agony are! Eight desperate, freezing years, tied to eternity by the lone hope of a drop! Yes, it’s because of cocaine… And you? I know that smell… chloroform?”
“Yes,” replied the gravedigger, ashamed by the paltriness of his artificial paradise. And he added in a low voice: “Chloroform, too… I would kill myself before I quit.”
The voice sounded a bit mocking.
“Kill yourself! And that would be the end of you, for sure; you would be just like any of these neighbors of mine… You would rot in three hours, you and your desires.”
“True,” thought the gravedigger, “my cravings would perish with me. But his did not surrender. After eight years it still burns, that passion that has resisted the very absence of the cup of delight; that overcame the final death of the organism who created it, sustained it, and could not annihilate it with himself; that survives monstrously on its own, transmuting the causal craving in a supreme final pleasure, maintaining itself before eternity in a crevice of an old skull.”
The voice, warm and slurred with voluptuousness, still sounded mocking.
“You would kill yourself… Nice thing! I killed myself, too… Ah, that interests you, doesn’t it? But we are of different temperaments…. Anyway, bring your chloroform, breathe in a little more and listen to me. Then you will appreciate what goes from your drug to cocaine. Come on, now!”
The gravedigger returned, and lying on the ground chest down, leaning on his elbows with the flask under his nose, he waited.
“Your chloro! It’s not much, let’s say. And even morphine … Are you familiar with the love for perfumes? No? And Jicky, by Guerlain? Listen, then. At thirty I married, and had three children. With a fortune, an adorable wife and three healthy offspring, I was perfectly happy. Nevertheless, our house was too large for us. You’ve seen such places. You have not…to be brief…seen that luxuriously furnished rooms seem more lonely and useless. Above all, lonely. Our whole palace existed like that, in silence, in sterile and gloomy luxury.
“One day, in less than eighteen hours, our oldest son left us following a bout of diptheria. The following afternoon the second joined his brother, and my wife threw herself desperately upon the only one we had remaining: our daughter of four months. What did we care about diptheria, contagion and all the rest? In spite of the doctor’s orders, the mother breastfed her child, and after a while the little one was writhing and convulsed, to die eight hours later, poisoned by her mother’s milk.
“Add it up: 18, 24, 9. In 51 hours, a little more than two days, our house was left perfectly silent, and there was nothing we could do. My wife stayed in her room, and I paced nearby. Outside of that nothing, not one noise. And two days before we had three children…
“Well. My wife spent four days clawing at the sheets with a brain fever, and I turned to morphine.
“‘Leave that alone,’ the doctor told me, ‘it’s not for you.’
“‘What, then?’ I replied. And I pointed out the gloomy luxury of my house, which kept on slowly igniting catastrophes, like rubies.
The man took pity.
“‘Try sulfonal, anything… But your nerves will not give way.’
“Sulfonal, brional, datura… bah! Ah, cocaine! So much of the infinite goes from the joy scattered in ashes at the foot of each empty bed, to the radiant recovery of this same burnt happiness, fit in one lone drop of cocaine! The wonder of having suffered an immense pain, moments before; sudden and simple confidence in life, now; an instantaneous resurgence of illusions that brings the future closer to ten centimeters from the open soul, all this rushes through the veins from the platinum needle. And your chloroform!… My wife died. For two years I spent on cocaine so much more than you can imagine. Do you know something of tolerance? Five centigrams of morphine kills a robust individual. Quincey came to take two grams a day for fifteen years; or forty times more than a fatal dose.
“But one pays for it. In me, intoxicated day after day, the dismal truths, suppressed, began to take revenge, and I had barely enough twisted nerves to throw aside the horrible hallucinations that besieged me. Then I made unheard of efforts to rid myself of the demon, with no success. Three times I resisted the cocaine for a month, an entire month. And I fell again. And you don’t know, but you will know one day, what suffering, what anguish, what sweat of agony you feel when you attempt to suppress drugs for a single day!
“At last, poisoned to the depths of my being, fraught with tortures and phantasms, transformed into trembling human spoils, bloodless, lifeless—misery to which ten times a day cocaine lent a radiant disguise, only to sink me immediately into a stupor, deeper each time, in the end a remnant of dignity sent me to a sanatorium, I surrendered myself tied hand and foot for a cure.
“There, under the dominance of another’s will, constantly monitored so that I could not obtain the poison, I would forcibly de-cocaineize myself.
“Do you know what happened? That I, along with the heroism to submit myself to torture, brought a small vial of cocaine, well hidden in a pocket… Now you work out what passion is.
“For an entire year after this failure, I continued to inject myself. Undertaking a long voyage gave me I don’t know what mysterious strength of resistance, and then I fell in love.”
The voice fell silent. The gravedigger, who had been listening with a drooling smile plastered to his face, brought his eye closer and thought he noticed a slightly opaque and glassy veil in the eyes of his interlocutor. His skin, as well, cracked visibly.
“Yes,” the voice continued, “that’s the beginning … I’ll conclude at once. I owe you, a colleague, this whole story.
“Her parents did everything possible to resist: imagine, a morphine fiend! For misfortune —mine, hers, everyone’s—had put in my path a high-strung beauty. Oh, admirably beautiful! She was no more than eighteen. Luxury for her was what cut crystal is for a perfume: her natural environment.
“The first time that, having forgotten to give myself a new injection before she arrived, she saw me suddenly deteriorate in her presence, become an idiot, crumple, she fixed on me her immensely large eyes, beautiful and frightened. So curiously frightened! Pale and unmoving, she saw me giving myself the injection. For the rest of the evening, she never left off watching me for an instant. And behind those dilated eyes that had seen me in that state, I saw in my turn her neurotic defects, her hospitalized uncle, and her younger epileptic brother…
“The next day I found her inhaling Jicky, her favorite perfume; in twenty-four hours she had read how much is possible with narcotics.
“Well, now: it’s enough that two people drink in the pleasures of life in an abnormal way, so as to understand them more intimately; how much stranger is the quest for enjoyment. They immediately join together, excluding all other passion, to isolate themselves in the hallucinatory joy of an artificial paradise.
“In twenty days, that enchantress of beauty, youth and elegance hung suspended in the heady fragrance of perfumes. She began to live, as I did with cocaine, in the delirious heaven of her Jicky.
“In the end this mutual somnambulism in her house, however fleeting, seemed dangerous to us, and we decided to create our own paradise. None seemed better than my own house, in which nothing had been touched, and to which I had not returned. Wide, low couches were brought to the living room, and there, in the same silence and the same funereal sumptuousness that had incubated the death of my children; in the profound stillness of the living room, with a lamp burning at one in the afternoon; below the atmosphere heavy with perfumes, we lived for hours and hours our fraternal and taciturn idyll, I sprawled out motionless with open eyes, as pale as death; she flung across a divan, holding the flask of Jicky below her nostrils with her frozen hand.
“For we had in ourselves not the least trace of desire—and how beautiful she was with the deep circles under her eyes, her disarranged hair, and the ardent luxury of her immaculate skirt!
“For three consecutive months she was rarely absent, and never without explaining to me what combinations of visits, weddings, and garden party she had to attend to avoid suspicion. On those rare occasions she would arrive anxious the following day, entering without looking at me, tossing her hat off with a brusque gesture, to stretch out immediately, her head thrown back and her eyes half-closed, to the sonambulism of her Jicky.
“Briefly: one afternoon, and by one of those inexplicable reactions with which poisoned organisms fire off their reserves of defense—morphine addicts know them well!—I felt all the deep pleasure that there was, not in my cocaine, but in that eighteen year old body, admirably made to be desired. That afternoon, as never before, her beauty emerged pale and sensual from the sumptuous stillness of the illuminated living room. So sudden was the jolt, that I found myself sitting on the couch, watching her. Eighteen years old… and with that beauty!
“She saw me approach her without making a movement, and as I bent over her she looked at me with cold surprise.
“‘Yes …’, I murmured.
“‘No, no …’ she said in a high voice, dodging my mouth in heavy movements of her hair.
“At last, at last, she threw back her head and surrendered, closing her eyes.
“Ah! Why be resuscitated for an instant, if my virile potency, if my male pride did not revive as well! It was forever dead, drowned, dissolved in the sea of cocaine! I fell to her side, sitting on the floor, and buried my head in her skirts, remaining so for an hour in deep silence, while she, very pale, also remained motionless, her eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“But the burst of reaction that had ignited an ephemeral lightning bolt of sensory ruin, also brought to the flower of my awareness how much of my masculine honor and virile shame was dying in me. The disaster of one day in the sanitarium, and the daily failure of my own dignity, was nothing in comparison to the failure of this moment, do you understand? Why live, if the artificial hell into which I had flung myself and from which I could not escape, was incapable of absorbing me altogether! And I had broken free for a moment, only to sink back into this final state!
“I stood up and went inside, to the well remembered rooms where my revolver still lay. When I returned, her eyes were closed.
“‘Let’s kill ourselves,’ I said to her.
“She half-opened her eyes, and for a minute she held my gaze. Her limpid brow returned to the same movement of tired ecstasy:
“‘Let’s kill ourselves,’ she murmured.
“Then she looked around the funereal luxury of the living room, in which the lamp burned high, and her brow furrowed slightly.
“‘Not here,’ she added.
“We left together, still heavy with hallucination, and we passed through the echoing house, room by room. At last she leaned against a door and shut her eyes. She fell at the foot of the wall. I then turned the gun on myself, and killed myself.
“Then, when at the explosion my jaw abruptly dropped, and I felt an immense buzzing in my head; when my heart gave two or three jolts, and stopped, paralyzed; when in my brain and in my nerves and in my blood there was not the most remote probability that life would return, I felt that my debt to cocaine was fulfilled. It had killed me, but I had killed it in turn!
“And I was mistaken! Because an instant later I could see, entering hesitantly and on hands and knees, through the door of the living room, our dead bodies, obstinately returning…”
The voice suddenly snapped.
“Cocaine, please! A little cocaine!”
From the collection Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (Stories of love, madness and death), 1917.
Translated by Nina Zumel