Dead Men’s Dialogue :: J. L. Borges

He arrived from southern England early one winter morning in 1877. Ruddy, athletic, and obese as he was, almost everyone inevitably thought he was English, and to tell the truth he was remarkably like the archetypal John Bull. He wore a top hat and a strange wool cape with an opening in the middle. A group of men, women, and children anxiously waited for him. Many had their throats marked by a red line; others were headless and moved uncertainly, like a man walking in the dark. Little by little they surrounded the stranger, and out of the crowd someone shouted an ugly word, but an ancient terror stopped them at that. Then a military man with a yellowish skin and eyes like firebrands stepped forward. His disheveled hair and murky beard seemed to gobble up his face. Ten or twelve mortal wounds furrowed his body like the stripes on a tiger’s skin. The stranger, seeing him, changed color suddenly; then he advanced and stretched out his hand.

“How it grieves me to see such an honorable warrior struck down by the arms of treachery!” he said roundly. “But what an intimate satisfaction, to have ordered that the acolytes who attended the sacrifice should purge their deeds on the scaffold in Victoria Square!”

“If you are talking about Santos Perez and Reinafes, I would like you to know I have already thanked them,” said the bloody one with measured gravity.

The other man looked at him as if he suspected him of joking or of making a threat, but Quiroga went on:

“Rosas, you never did understand me. And how could you, when our destinies were so different? Your lot was to command in a city that looks toward Europe and will someday be among the most famous in the world. Mine was to wage war in America’s lonely spots, on poor earth belonging to poor gauchos. My empire was made of lances and shouts and sand pits and almost secret victories in obscure places. What claims are those to fame? I live and will continue to live for many years in the people’s memory because I was murdered in a stagecoach at a place called Barranca Yaco, by horsemen armed with swords. It is you I have to thank for this gift of a bizarre death, which I did not know how to appreciate then, but which subsequent generations have refused to forget. You undoubtedly know of some exquisite lithographs, an interesting book edited by a worthy citizen of San Juan.”

Rosas, who had recovered his aplomb, looked at him disdainfully.

“You are a romantic,” he pronounced. “The flattery of posterity is not worth much more than contemporary flattery, which is worth nothing, and can be had on the strength of a few medals.”

“I know your way of thinking,” answered Quiroga. “In 1852, destiny, either out of generosity or out of a desire to sound you to your depths, offered you a real man’s death in battle. You showed yourself unworthy of that gift: the blood and fighting scared you.”

“Scared?” repeated Rosas. “Me, who busted broncos in the South, and later busted a whole country?”

For the first time Quiroga smiled.

“I know,” he said slowly, “that you have cut more than one fine figure on horseback, according to the impartial testimony of your foremen and hands; but other fine figures were cut in America in those days, adn they were also on horseback — figures called Chacabuco and Junin and Palma Redonda and Caseros.”

Rosas listened without changing expression and replied:

“I did not have to be brave. One ‘fine figure’ of mine, as you call it, was to manage that braver men than I should fight and die for me. Santos Perez, for example, who finished you off. Bravery is a question of holding out; some can hold out more than others, but sooner or later they all give in.”

“That may be true,” said Quiroga, “but I have lived and died and to this day I do not know what fear is. And now I am going to be obliterated, to be given another face and another destiny, for history has had its fill of violent men. Who the other one will be, what they will make of me, I do not know; but I know he will not be afraid.”

“I am satisfied to be who I am,” said Rosas, “and I want to be no one else.”

“The stones want to be stones forever, too,” said Quiroga, “and for centuries they are, until they crumble into dust. I thought as you do when I entered death, but I learned many things here. Just look, we are both changing already.”

But Rosas paid no attention and said, as if thinking aloud:

“It must be that I am not made to be a dead man, but these places and this discussion seem like a dream, and not a dream dreamed by me but by someone else still to be born.”

They spoke no more, for at that moment Someone called them.

[Translated by Mildred Boyer]

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