By: Ednodio Quintero
Illustrated by Henry González
Selection and Compilation: Carolina Fonseca
They crossed the wooden bridge, raising a deafening echo from the planks. Keeping pace, they directed their mounts up the street toward a tree-shaded plaza. They had emerged from the dirty summer fog and we had no idea who those hatchet-faced strangers were. Perhaps a young girl burning with fever had spotted them through the haze of her dreams. Faded beards, long brown hair, eyes hidden under broad-brimmed hats. Distant rains and implacable sun had frayed their loose mouse-colored capes and the yellow prairie wind had etched their faces with creased smiles.
No celestial sign announced their arrival: no one was expecting them and no one saw them enter the town and cross the steep main street. Following ancient custom, that day we all gathered in the place of worship to perform an ancestral rite. The thunder of hooves drew our attention to the door: there they were, swaying in the wind, wrapped in gray cloaks that fluttered like the flags of an army of avengers. Astride their dark mounts, they rode in circles in the cobblestone atrium, their whips humming like droning bees. We remained glued to our seats while exchanging fearful glances in the face of the invaders’ imminent attack.
We sheepherders, laborers, and farmers had left our knives gathering dust under our pillows or buried among the relics of our ancestors. More than a century had elapsed since the wars with the lords of the plains. Since then, we attended to other tasks; we slogged through the days. The black soil and the scant rain provided our food.
A fistful of oats, a few vegetables, and a piece of cheese was enough for us. Our fare was augmented with meats, compotes, and strong liquor in honor of a death. The women carried water from the springs, embroidered flowers of gold on their dresses, and wove wool coats and blankets to keep us warm; there was sufficient firewood, coffee, and salt in our stone houses. Sometimes we gathered to sing, to dance to the fiddle, and to get drunk. We lived in peace; we resolved our flashes of hatred through silent machete duels in a solitary location at dusk. To call us cowards would have been a vile insult, since we had expelled the very devil himself from our lands. Nonetheless, the attack by those extraordinary bandits took us by surprise, and like tame oxen enclosed in a fortress we had thought impregnable, we awaited the avengers’ assault.
With a buzzard feather in his drab hat and his hair tied back with a blood-colored ribbon, the first horseman cleaves the parched air and crosses the threshold. The horse slips on the brick floor and drops onto bent forelegs. The horseman savagely pulls the reins and rakes the horse with his spurs. The animal stands up, whimpers, and paws the ground with his hooves, as if testing his grip before venturing on that slippery, traitorous floor. Man and horse stand briefly silhouetted: against the square of light, they seem to blend into the slate blue of the distance, evoking some mythical monster lost in memory and dreams. The vision fades. At a signal from the first horseman, the others spur their mounts and launch the attack. They are intense and determined, as if a strong wind were propelling them into eddies of light that chased away the mist as they advanced.
The beasts bump into each other and scuffle in the center of the nave. Already imagining themselves the victims of the enemy’s devious plot, some of the participants in the disrupted ceremony raise weak, pleading voices. Others mumble despairing prayers under their breaths. The rest remain silent, scouring their minds for the engraved recollection of some similar event, attributing to their minor sins the wrath of the heavens as represented by that horde of bandits who had profaned sacred ground. Voices, sobs, and silence weave an invisible wall flattened by the horsemen’s haughty presence and the animals’ notched hooves. Although they number less than a dozen, their cruel faces, their tattered suits from an earlier era, and the unusual harnesses of their mounts make them a sinister group no less terrifying than an army. Nonetheless, if someone had been able to remove the prism of fear, they would have seen not avenging horsemen, but faint specters of old fishermen or kings.
We had once felt safe inside that enclosure consecrated to an ancient religion, nearly always unintelligible to us, and completely detached from our earthly concerns. Perhaps without even trying, the invaders had revealed our weakness. When they stopped in front of the altar, we enjoyed a brief respite from worry; at least we were able to catch our breaths. We sensed that those strangers had not come to do us harm. We knew with a strange certainty that they had not come to stay. And we didn’t want to know why they were here.
The horseman with the black feather gets off his horse and walks confidently toward the altar. He moves forward, followed by the clanking of spurs and leaving dusty footprints in his wake.
He climbs the steps and stops in front of the altar stone. He dips his knee slightly and moves his lips as if invoking the syllables of a secret name. Then he turns around, and in a powerful voice curtly pronounces a few words in an unknown tongue, making the other horsemen tremble atop their mounts. The horses begin to fidget, and a muffled clamor like the roar of many lions escapes from the throats of the strangers.
The horseman turns his back on us, extends his arms toward the tabernacle, and rests his hands atop the black stone. He opens the little door and deliberately pulls the gold-plated silver monstrance out of the coffer embedded in the wall and carefully wraps it in the folds of his cape. We see how his face glows as he retraces his steps toward his mount.
No longer afraid, we come out into the atrium to watch them leave. Capes and whips flapping in the wind, they cross the bridge and, like black arrows, dart into the realms of light. They quickly return to their domains in the fog or to some cove near the sea. The relief afforded by their departure keeps us from realizing how exhilarated we feel deep down.
Meanwhile, we continue watching the cloud of dust as it shrinks and dissipates with the distance. We can imagine the joy warming the hearts of the strangers, their shining eyes, and their dazzlingly contented smiles; after wandering the confines of centuries, in that remote mountain village they found their Lord.
(In Cuentos completos. El Estilete, Caracas, 2017, pp. 169-172).
Ednodio Quintero (Las Mesitas, Venezuela, 1947) is a university professor, essayist, photographer, “Japanologist,” and one of Venezuela’s best contemporary story-tellers. He has written twelve volumes of stories and his work has been collected in several anthologies, including the outstanding Cabeza de cabra y otros relatos (1993) and Cuentos completos (2017). He has published eleven novels, including: La danza del jaguar (1991), Mariana y los comanches (2004), El hijo de Gengis Khan (2013), and El amor es más frío que la muerte (2017), along with several collections of essays, screenplays, and two biographies of Japanese authors (Junichiro Tanizaki and Ryunosuke Akutagawa). Quintero has also helped translate several Japanese writers into Spanish.