For a Sleepness Night
(Para noche de insomnio)
by Horacio Quiroga
No man, I repeat, has told, with greater magic the exceptions of human life and nature, the ardours of the curiosities of convalescence, the close of seasons charged with enervating splendours, sultry weather, humid and misty, where the south wind softens and distends the nerves, like the chords of an instrument; where the eyes are filled with tears that come not from the heart; hallucination at first giving place to doubt, soon convinced and full of reasons as a book; absurdity installing itself in the intellect, and governing it with a crushing logic; hysteria usurping the place of will, a contradiction established between the nerves and the mind, and men out of all accord expressing grief by laughter.
We were all surprised by the fatal news; and we were left terrified when a servant brought us–flying– details of his death. Although for quite some time we had noticed signs of instability in our friend, we didn’t think that it could ever come to this extreme. He had carried out the most dreadful suicide without leaving a memento for his friends. And, when we had him in our midst, we turned our faces away, prisoners of a horrified compassion.
That wet and cloudy afternoon intensified our feelings. The sky was a dull gray, and a gloomy mist crossed the horizon.
We transported the body in a carriage, crowded together by a growing horror. Night was approaching; and through the badly closed door a river of blood fell, tracing our path in red.
He was lying on our legs, and the last light of that yellowish day fell full on his face, violet with bruise-like patches. His head tossed from one side to the other. At each jolt of the cobblestones, his eyelids opened and he stared at us with his glassy, hard, and misty eyes.
Our clothes were stained with blood; and with every jolt a slimy cold drool dripped from his lips onto the hands that supported his neck.
I don’t know what caused it, but I don’t think I’d ever felt so disturbed in my life. At the mere contact of his stiff limbs, I felt a chill over my whole body. Strange superstitious ideas filled my head. My eyes stared at him with a hypnotic fixity, and in the horror of all my imagination, I thought I saw him open his mouth in a hideous grimace, pin me with his gaze and leap upon me, filling me with cold and curdled blood.
My hair stood on end, and I couldn’t help but give a cry of anguish, convulsive and delirious, and throw myself back.
In that moment the dead man slipped from our knees and fell to the floor of the carriage, where it was as black as night. In the darkness we clutched each others’ hands, trembling from head to toe, without daring to look at each other.
All our old childhood ideas, absurd beliefs, came back to life in us. We lifted our legs onto the seats, unconsciously, full of horror, while on the floor of the carriage the dead man jolted from one side to the other.
Little by little our legs began to chill. It was a cold that arose from the floor, that coursed through our bodies as if death were spreading in us. We didn’t dare move. From time to time we would lean towards the floor, and remain staring for a long time into the dark, with our eyes frightfully open, believing that we saw the dead man sitting up with a delirious grimace, laughing, watching us, sending death into each one of us, laughing, putting his face close to ours, in the night we saw his eyes shine, and he laughed, and we remained frozen, dead, dead, in that carriage that drove us though the wet streets…
We found ourselves again in the parlor, all gathered, seated in a row. The casket had been placed in the middle of the room and they had not changed the dead man’s clothing, because his limbs were already very stiff. His head was slightly elevated, with his mouth and nose stuffed with cotton.
On seeing him again, our bodies trembled and we glanced at each other stealthily. The room was full of people crossing at every moment, and this distracted us somewhat. Only from time to time, we watched the dead man, bloated and greenish, stretched out in the casket.
At the end of half an hour, I felt someone touch me and I turned around. My friends were pale. There, where we were, the dead man watched us. His eyes seemed larger, opaque, terribly fixed. Fate had brought us under their gaze, without us realizing, as if uniting us with death, with the dead man who did not want to leave us. The four of us were left weak and fearful, immobile before the face that from three steps away was turned towards us, always towards us!
It was four in the morning and we were completely alone. Instantly fear overpowered us again.
First a trembling stupor, then a desolate and profound desperation, and finally a cowardice inconceivable at our ages, a precise premonition of something awful that was going to happen.
Outside, the street was full of mists, and the barking of the dogs prolonged itself in a mournful howl. Those who have kept vigil over someone and suddenly realized that they were alone with a corpse, excited, as we were, and have suddenly heard a dog cry, have heard an owl scream in the dawn after a night of death, alone with him, will understand our distress, already affected by fear, and with terrible doubts at times about the horrible death of our friend.
We were alone, as I said; and, after a little while, a muffled noise, like a rapid mumbling, traveled around the room. It came from the casket where the dead man lay. There, three paces away, we saw him clearly, his chest rising with the cotton packing, horribly pale, watching us steadily and sitting up little by little, leaning on the edges of the casket, while our hair stood on end, our brows were covered in sweat, while the muttering became louder every moment, and a strange laugh rang out, extrahuman, like vomiting, stomach-churning and epileptic, and we got up desperately and began to run, horrified, crazy with terror, closely pursued by the laughter and the steps of that dreadful resurrection.
When I arrived home, opened the door of my room and pulled back the sheets, still fleeing, I saw the dead man, stretched out on the bed, turning yellow in the early morning light, dead along with my three frozen friends, all stretched out on the bed, cold and dead.
First published 1899.
Translation by Nina Zumel, except the quote from Baudelaire.
Quote from Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Works translated from the French by H. Curwen, 1873. Full translation here.