Halfway down the long hotel vestibule, he thought that probably hewas going to be late, and hurried on into the street to get out hismotorcycle from the corner where the next-door superintendent let himkeep it. On the jewelry store at the corner he read that it was ten to nine;he had time to spare. The sun filtered through the tall downtown buildings,and he–because for himself, for just going along thinking, he did not havea name-he swung onto the machine, savoring the idea of the ride. Themotor whirred between his legs, and a cool wind whipped his pantslegs.
He let the ministries zip past (the pink, the white), and a series of stores on the main street, their windows flash ing. Now he was beginning the most pleasant part of the run, the real ride: a long street bordered withtrees, very little traffic, with spacious villas whose gardens rambled all theway down to the sidewalks, which were barely indi cated by low hedges. Abit inattentive perhaps, but tooling along on the right side of the street, heallowed himself to be carried away by the freshness, by the weightlesscontraction of this hardly begun day. This involuntary relaxa tion, possibly,kept him from preventing the accident.
When he saw that the womanstanding on the corner had rushed into the crosswalk while he still had thegreen light, it was already somewhat too late for a simple solu tion. Hebraked hard with foot and hand, wrenching him self to the left; he heard thewoman scream, and at the collision his vision went. It was like falling asleep all at once. He came to abruptly. Four or five young men were get ting him out from under the cycle. He felt the taste of salt and blood, oneknee hurt, and when they hoisted him up he yelped, he couldn’t bear the presssure on his right arm.
Voices which did not seem to belong to thefaces hanging above him encouraged him cheerfully with jokes and assurances. His single solace was to hear someone else confirm that thelights indeed had been in his favor. He asked about the woman, trying tokeep down the nausea which was edging up into his throat. While they carried him face up to a nearby pharmacy, he learned that the cause of theaccident had gotten only a few scrapes on the legs. “Nah, you barely got her at all, but when ya hit, the impact made the machine jump and flop on its side . . . Opinions, recollections of other smashups, take it easy, work him in shoulders first, there, that’s fine, and someone in a dust coat giving him a swallow of something soothing in the shadowy interior of the small local pharmacy. Within five minutes the police ambulance arrived, and they lifted himonto a cushioned stretcher. It was a relief for him to be able to lie out flat. Completely lucid, but real izing that he was suffering the effects of aterrible shock, he gave his information to the officer riding in the ambulance with him. The arm almost didn’t hurt; blood dripped down from acut over the eyebrow all over his face.
He licked his lips once or twice todrink it. He felt pretty good, it had been an accident, tough luck; stay quiet a few weeks, nothing worse. The guard said that the motorcycle didn’t seem badly racked up. “Why should it,” he replied. “It all landed on top of me. ” They both laughed, and when they got to the hospital, the guard shook his hand and wished him luck. Now the nausea was coming back little by little; meanwhile they were pushing him on a wheeled stretcher toward a pavilion further back, rolling along under trees full of birds, heshut his eyes and wished he were asleep or chloroformed.
But they kept him for a good while in a room with that hospital smell, filling out a form,getting his clothes off, and dressing him in a stiff, greyish smock. They moved his arm carefully, it didn’t hurt him. The nurses were constantly making wise cracks, and if it hadn’t been for the stomach contractions hewould have felt fine, almost happy. They got him over to X-ray, and twenty minutes later, with the still-damp negative lying on his chest like a black tombstone, they pushed himinto surgery. Someone tall and thin in white came over and began to look at the X rays.
A woman’s hands were arranging his head, he felt that they were moving him from one stretcher to another. The man in white cameover to him again, smiling, some thing gleamed in his right hand. He patted his cheek and made a sign to someone stationed behind. It was unusual as a dream because it was full of smells, and henever dreamt smells. First a marshy smell, there to the left of the trail theswamps began already, the quaking bogs from which no one ever returned. But the reek lifted, and instead there came a dark, freshcomposite fragrance, like the night under which he moved, in flight fromthe Aztecs.
And it was all so natural, he had to run from the Aztecs who had set out on their manhunt, and his sole chance was to find a place tohide in the deepest part of the forest, taking care not to lose the narrow trail which only they, the Motecas, knew. What tormented him the most was the odor, as though,notwithstanding the absolute acceptance of the dream, there wassomething which resisted that which was not habitual, which until that point had not participated in the game. “It smells of war,” he thought, his hand going instinctively to the stone knife which was tucked at an angle into hisgirdle of woven wool.
An unexpected sound made him crouch suddenly stock-still and shaking. To be afraid was nothing strange, there was plenty of fear in his dreams. He waited, covered by the branches of a shrub and the starless night. Far off, probably on the other side of the big lake, they’d be lighting the bivouac fires; that part of the sky had a reddish glare. Thesound was not repeated. It had been like a broken limb. Maybe an animal that, like himself, was escaping from the smell of war. He stood erect slowly, sniffing the air.
Not a sound could be heard, but the fear was still following, as was the smell, that cloying incense of the war of the blossom. He had to press forward, to stay out of the bogs and get to the heart of theforest. Groping uncertainly through the dark, stoop ing every other moment to touch the packed earth of the trail, he took a few steps. He would haveliked to have broken into a run, but the gurgling fens lapped on either sideof him. On the path and in darkness, he took his bear ings. Then he caught a horrible blast of that foul smell he was most afraid of, and leaped forward desperately. You’re going to fall off the bed,” said the patient next to him. “Stopbouncing around, old buddy. ” He opened his eyes and it was afternoon,the sun al ready low in the oversized windows of the long ward. Whiletrying to smile at his neighbor, he detached himself almost physically fromthe final scene of the nightmare. His arm, in a plaster cast, hung suspended from an appa ratus with weights and pulleys. He felt thirsty, asthough he’d been running for miles, but they didn’t want to give him muchwater, barely enough to moisten his lips and make a mouthful.
The fever was winning slowly and he would have been able to sleep again, but hewas enjoying the pleasure of keeping awake, eyes half-closed, listening tothe other patients’ conversation, answering a question from time to time. He saw a little white pushcart come up beside the bed, a blond nurserubbed the front of his thigh with alcohol and stuck him with a fat needleconnected to a tube which ran up to a bottle filled with a milky, opales cent liquid. A young intern arrived with some metal and leather apparatus whichhe adjusted to fit onto the good arm to check something or other.
Night fell,and the fever went along dragging him down softly to a state in whichthings seemed embossed as through opera glasses, they were real and soft and, at the same time, vaguely distaste ful; like sitting in a boring movie and thinking that, well, still, it’d be worse out in the street, and staying. A cup of a marvelous golden broth came, smelling of leeks, celery and parsley. A small hunk of bread, more precious than a whole banquet,found itself crumbling lit tle by little. His arm hardly hurt him at all, and only in the eyebrow where they’d taken stitches a quick, hot pain siz zled occasionally.
When the big windows across the way turned to smudges of dark blue, he thought it would not be difficult for him to sleep. Still on hisback so a little un comfortable, running his tongue out over his hot, too-dry lips, he tasted the broth still, and with a sigh of bliss, he let himself drift off. First there was a confusion, as of one drawing all his sensations, for that moment blunted or muddled, into himself. He realized that he wasrunning in pitch dark ness, although, above, the sky criss-crossed withtreetops was less black than the rest. The trail,” he thought, “I’ve gotten off the trail. ” His feet sank into a bed of leaves and mud, and then he couldn’t take a step that the branches of shrubs did not whiplash against his ribsand legs. Out of breath, knowing despite the darkness and silence that hewas surrounded, he crouched down to listen. Maybe the trail was very near, with the first daylight he would be able to see it again. Nothing now could help him to find it. The hand that had unconsciously gripped the haft of the dagger climbed like a fen scorpion up to his neck where the protecting amulet hung.
Barely moving his lips, he mumbled thesupplication of the corn which brings about the beneficent moons, and the prayer to Her Very High ness, to the distributor of all Motecan possessions. At the same time he felt his ankles sinking deeper into the mud, and thewaiting in the darkness of the obscure grove of live oak grew intolerable tohim. The war of the blossom had started at the beginning of the moon and had been going on for three days and three nights now. If he man aged tohide in the depths of the forest, getting off the trail further up past the marsh country, perhaps the warriors wouldn’t follow his track.
He thought of the many prison ers they’d already taken. But the number didn’t count,only the consecrated period. The hunt would continue until the priests gave the sign to return. Everything had its number and its limit, and it was within the sacred period, and he on the other side from the hunters. He heard the cries and leaped up, knife in hand. As if the sky wereaflame on the horizon, he saw torches mov ing among the branches, very near him. The smell of war was unbearable, and when the first enemy jumped him, leaped at his throat, he felt an almost-pleasure in sinking thestone blade flat to the haft into his chest.
The lights were already around him, the happy cries. He managed to cut the air once or twice, then a ropesnared him from behind. “It’s the fever,” the man in the next bed said. “The same thing happened to me when they operated on my duode num. Take some water,you’ll see, you’ll sleep all right. ” Laid next to the night from which he came back, the tepid shadow of the ward seemed delicious to him. A vio let lamp kept watch high on the far wall like a guardian eye. You could hear coughing, deep breathing, once ina while a conversation in whispers.
Everything was pleas ant and secure,without the chase, no . . . But he didn’t want to go on thinking about thenightmare. There were lots of things to amuse himself with. He began tolook at the cast on his arm, and the pulleys that held it so com fortably inthe air. They’d left a bottle of mineral water on the night table beside him. He put the neck of the bottle to his mouth and drank it like a preciousliqueur. He could now make out the different shapes in the ward, the thirty beds, the closets with glass doors. He guessed that his fever was down,his face felt cool.
The cut over the eye brow barely hurt at all, like arecollection. He saw himself leaving the hotel again, wheeling out thecycle. Who’d have thought that it would end like this? He tried to fix themoment of the accident exactly, and it got him very angry to notice that there was a void there, an emptiness he could not manage to fill. Betweenthe impact and the mo ment that they picked him up off the pavement, the pass ing out or what went on, there was nothing he could see. And at thesame time he had the feeling that this void, this nothingness, had lasted aneternity.
No, not even time, more as if, in this void, he had passed acrosssome thing, or had run back immense distances. The shock, the brutal dashing against the pavement. Anyway, he had felt an immense relief incoming out of the black pit while the people were lifting him off the ground. With pain in the broken arm, blood from the split eyebrow, contusion on theknee; with all that, a relief in returning to daylight, to the day, and to feel sustained and attended. That was weird. Someday he’d ask the doctor at the office about that.
Now sleep began to take over again, to pull himslowly down. The pillow was so soft, and the coolness of the mineral water in his fevered throat. The violet light of the lamp up there was beginning toget dimmer and dim mer. As he was sleeping on his back, the position in which he came to did not surprise him, but on the other hand the damp smell, the smell of oozing rock, blocked his throat and forced him to understand. Open the eyes and look in all directions, hopeless. He was surrounded by an absolutedarkness. Tried to get up and felt ropes pinning his wrists and ankles.
Hewas staked to the ground on a floor of dank, icy stone slabs. The cold bit into his naked back, his legs. Dully, he tried to touch the amulet with hischin and found they had stripped him of it. Now he was lost, no prayer could save him from the final . . . From afar off, as though filtering throughthe rock of the dungeon, he heard the great kettledrums of the feast. They had carried him to the temple, he was in the underground cells of Teo calli itself, awaiting his turn. He heard a yell, a hoarse yell that rocked off the walls. Another yell,ending in a moan.
It was he who was screaming in the darkness, he wasscreaming because he was alive, his whole body with that cry fended off what was coming, the inevitable end. He thought of his friends filling up theother dungeons, and of those already walk ing up the stairs of the sacrifice. He uttered another choked cry, he could barely open his mouth, his jawswere twisted back as if with a rope and a stick, and once in a while they would open slowly with an endless exertion, as if they were made of rubber. The creaking of the wooden latches jolted him like a whip. Rent,writhing, he fought to rid himself of the cords sinking into his flesh.
His right arm, the strongest, strained until the pain became unbear able and he had to give up. He watched the double door open, and the smell of the torchesreached him before the light did. Barely girdled by the ceremonial loincloths, the priests’ acolytes moved in his direction, looking at him withcontempt. Lights reflected off the sweaty torsos and off the black hair dressed with feathers. The cords went slack, and in their place thegrappling of hot hands, hard as bronze; he felt himself lifted, still face up,and jerked along by the four acolytes who carried him down the passageway.
The torchbearers went ahead, indistinctly light ing up the corridor with its dripping walls and a ceiling so low that the acolytes had to duck their heads. Now they were taking him out, taking him out, it was the end. Face up, under a mile of living rock which, for a succession of moments,was lit up by a glimmer of torchlight. When the stars came out up thereinstead of the roof and the great terraced steps rose before him, on firewith cries and dances, it would be the end.
The passage was never going to end, but now it was beginning to end, he would see sud denly the opensky full of stars, but not yet, they trundled him along endlessly in thereddish shadow, hauling him roughly along and he did not want that, but how to stop it if they had torn off the amulet, his real heart, the life center. In a single jump he came out into the hospital night, to the high,gentle, bare ceiling, to the soft shadow wrapping him round. He thought hemust have cried out, but his neighbors were peacefully snoring.
The water in the bottle on the night table was somewhat bubbly, a translucent shapeagainst the dark azure shadow of the windows. He panted, looking for some relief for his lungs, oblivion for those images still glued to his eyelids. Each time he shut his eyes he saw them take shape instantly, and he sat up, completely wrung out, but savoring at the same time the surety that now he was awake, that the night nurse would answer if he rang, that soonit would be daybreak, with the good, deep sleep he usually had at that hour, no im ages, no nothing . . . It was difficult to keep his eyes open, thedrowsiness was more powerful than he.
He made one last effort, hesketched a gesture toward the bottle of water with his good hand and did not manage to reach it, his fingers closed again on a black emptiness, and the passageway went on endlessly, rock after rock, with momentary ruddy flares, and face up he choked out a dull moan because the roof was about to end, it rose, was opening like a mouth of shadow, and the acolytesstraightened up, and from on high a waning moon fell on a face whoseeyes wanted not to see it, were closing and opening desperately, trying to pass to the other side, to find again the bare, protecting ceiling of the ward.
And every time they opened, it was night and the moon, while they climbed the great terraced steps, his head hanging down backward now, and up at he top were the bonfires, red columns of perfumed smoke, and suddenly he saw the red stone, shiny with the blood dripping off it, and the spinning arcs cut by the feet of the victim whom they pulled off to throw him rolling down the north steps.
With a last hope he shut his lids tightly, moaning towake up. For a second he thought he had gotten there, because oncemore he was immobile in the bed, except that his head was hanging downoff it, swinging. But he smelled death, and when he opened his eyes hesaw the blood-soaked fig ure of the executioner-priest coming toward himwith the stone knife in his hand.
He managed to close his eyelids again,although he knew now he was not going to wake up, that he was awake,that the marvelous dream had been the other, absurd as all dreams are-adream in which he was going through the strange avenues of anastonishing city, with green and red lights that burned without fire or smoke, on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs. In the infinite he of the dream, they had also picked him up off the ground,some one had approached him also with a knife in his hand, approached him who was lying face up, face up with his eyes closed between thebonfires on the steps.
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