An English adaptation/loose translation of Las rayas
by Horacio Quiroga

“To sum it up, I believe that words are worth as much in themselves as the concepts to which they refer, and are even capable of creating those concepts through the simple mechanism of euphony. This requires special conditions; yet it is possible. But something that I’ve experienced made me reflect on the danger of two different things having the same name.”

You know, one doesn’t often hear such marvellous theories as that. Curiously, the one expounding it was no old and subtle philosopher, steeped in scholasticism, but a man hooked by commerce since his youth; he worked in Laboulaye, dealing in wheat. With his promise to tell us the story, we quickly drank down our coffee and settled ourselves comfortably in our chairs to listen for a while, our eyes fixed on Cordoba’s.

“I will tell you the story,” he began, “because it is the best way to make my point….”

* * *

You all know I have been in Laboulaye for some time. My partner travels through the colonies on behalf of the firm all year; while I, being quite useless at that, attend to the warehouse. As you might imagine, for at least eight months of the year, my duties are nothing but paperwork, and two employees–one working with me on the books and the other at the counter—are more than enough for us. Given the scale of our business, neither the daily transaction records nor the accounts are onerous. We still maintain, however, a morbid vigilance over the books, as if this dismal thing could repeat itself. The books!… Anyway, it’s been four years since this adventure, and our two employees were the protagonists.

The sales clerk was from Corrientes, a mere youth, short with close-cut hair, who always wore yellow boots. The one in charge of the books was a gaunt man of adult age, with a face the color of straw. I don’t think I ever saw him laugh. He was silent and diligent, his accounts an orderly system of ruled lines and red ink. His name was Figueroa; he was from Catamarca.

The pair, having begun to go out after work together, struck up a close friendship. Since neither one had family in Laboulaye, they rented a huge house, one with gloomy, cavernous corridors, built by a notary who had died there, insane.

For the first two years, we hadn’t the least complaint against them. But soon after, each began, in his own way, to change.

The sales clerk–his name was Tomas Aquino–arrived one morning at the warehouse, loquacious and exuberant. He talked and laughed incessantly, searching constantly for who knows what in his pockets. This went on for two days. On the third he collapsed with a powerful attack of the flu; but returned after lunch, unexpectedly cured. That same afternoon, Figueroa had to go home sick, suddenly overcome with desperate sneezes. But it all passed in hours, in spite of the dramatic symptoms. Soon after, the same thing happened again, and again, for a month: Aquino’s delirious chattering, Figueroa’s sneezing, and every two days a sudden and frustrating attack of the flu.

This was curious. I advised them to get carefully examined, because things could not continue this way. Luckily the whole thing passed, returning both of them to their old, tranquil normality, the sales clerk behind the counter, and Figueroa with his gothic pen.

This was in December. On January 14, on leafing through the books that night, I saw to my surprise that the last page of the accounts was mottled with all sorts of dots and speckles, dotty in every sense of the word. As soon as Figueroa arrived the next morning, I asked him what the hell were these dots. He looked at me in surprise, looked at his work, and muttered an apology.

That wasn’t all. The next day, Aquino submitted the daily ledger, and in place of the annotations for new orders, there was nothing but dots, the entire page full of dots everywhere. Things were getting serious; I spoke to them ill-temperedly, begging them seriously not to repeat these stunts. They looked at me attentively, blinking rapidly, but withdrew without saying a word.

From then on, they both grew visibly thinner. They changed the way they wore their hair, combing it back. Their friendship had deteriorated; though they tried to stay together the entire day, not a word passed between them.

So it went for several days, until one afternoon I found Figueroa bent over his desk, stippling the cash book. He had already defaced the accounts, leaf by leaf; all the pages covered in dots, dots on the bookboards, on the leather cover, on the spine, all dots.

We dismissed him immediately; he could continue this stupidity somewhere else. I called Aquino and dismissed him as well. On inspecting the warehouse I saw nothing but dots and spots and small holes everywhere: tables, planks, barrels peppered with them. Even a stippled spot of tar on the floor….

There was no doubt about it; they were completely insane. This terrible obsession with dots, added to the current heavy rains, would drive them into who knew what kind of state.

Indeed, two days later the owner of the cheap Italian restaurant where Aquino and Figueroa dined came to see me. He was extremely worried, and asked me whether I knew what the two were up to; they no longer left their house.

“They’ll be just sitting in that mansion of theirs,” I said.

“The door is shut and they don’t answer,” he answered, watching me.

“Then they’re gone!” I argued nevertheless.

“No,” he replied in a low voice. “Last night, during the storm, shouts were heard coming from inside.”

This time I felt a shiver down my back, and we looked at each other for a moment.

We went out hurriedly and reported our concerns. On the way to the house our group grew larger, and by the time we arrived, splashing through the water, we were more than fifteen. It was already getting dark. When no one responded, we knocked down the door and entered. We searched the house in vain; there was no one. But the floor, the doors, the walls, the furniture, the ceiling itself, everything was pock-marked: a delirious effusion of spots and stipples, dotty in every sense of the word.

Now nothing could be done for them; they had gone into a terrible frenzy of stippling, be-dotting at all costs, as if the most intimate cells of their beings were convulsed by their obsession. Even in the wet patio dots splattered dizzily, crowded together finally like an explosion of lunacy.

The trail ended at the sewers. And leaning over, we saw two large black dots, bobbing up and down heavily in the muddy water.

From the collection Anaconda, 1921.
Adapted/Translated by Nina Zumel

See here for a discussion about translating/adapting this tale.

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