The Devil's Clerk

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IX

Seated in their rocking-chairs, the two men, the old one and the young one, could hear the distant and familiar sounds of the end of the day. The noise of the village. The laughter of children.

The island of Ometepe was already in the shadows, but a ray of sun still lit up the summit of volcano Concepción, where sheets of black, red, and brown rock shimmered under the fraying plume in the sky.

“Here it is, give a look,” said Eugenio, handing a school notebook to his visitor. The title was handwritten with a quill-pen. And the hand was that of master calligraphist. “Contracts for Life or Death”. Ruetcel pointed his index finger at these mystifying words, reading them over and over again, incredulous, trying to persuade himself that they were real. Above the title, in the middle of the cover were the reproductions of six coins with the effigies of discoverers and conquistadores of South America, Colón, Córdoba, Cortés, Balboa, Alvarado, and Pizarro. On the back cover were calculation tables, multiplication tables, weights, and measures.

He sat up in his chair, took a breath, reflected. He was in Central America, on the island of Ometepe, latitude twenty-one degrees north and longitude eighty-six degrees west, on the planet Earth, in the solar system, at the end of the twentieth century after Christ, year IX of the revolution, Saturday, the twenty-fourth of September 1988, and it was six o’clock in the evening…

Determined, he opened the manuscript. He skimmed through, read several pages, then skipped the next part to look farther on, wondering.

January 5th, 1979, José Rodríguez Rivas.

This pilgrim was baptized when he was eight days old in Managua’s cathedral. He is today twenty-six, poorly dressed, but clean and worthy. His nose is narrow, the skin brown. He has some basic education and has polished manners. The step taken by coming here, to the Charco Verde, obviously terrorizes him: he can hardly say a word he is so afraid, and it is difficult to make him speak, to understand what he wants and why he is here. All that it is possible to get out of him, through repeated questions, it is that he would like C$2,000 (two thousand pesos). He accepts damnation forever, and does not care what Chico Largo will transform him into after death. He has no preference as to the animal, is willing to become a pig, a worm, a slug, an insect, and even a lice or any vermin. He does not care about the date of his death either, and thus accepts this be carried out any day. The following day even? No, the following day would be too early. He needs a week. He has unfinished business, a debt. Toward his father, he says. What did he do, and what did they put in his head, poor child? He has prepared this meeting and this bargain for a long time, because he takes from his pocket a sheet of paper which presents a carbon copy of his proposal in . He deposits it on the table, signs it, requests that it is also signed by us, then he runs off without even saying goodbye, nor asking when the money will be ready…

January 10th, 1979, Amanda Tablada Blandino.

Originating in the department of Jinotega, this woman says she is thirty-five, but she must be lying because she could easily be ten years older. She claims that it took her four days to make the trip to Ometepe. She is vulgar and exaggerates all she says. Conversing with her is however rather pleasant. She approaches the transaction as if it were a normal business deal. She came to get firsthand information, nothing more, she says. Her request is as follows: she asks that her husband be punished, because he left her for another woman. The sanction she wishes for them is that they become pigs: a boar in rut, for him, and as for her a sow in heat. She wishes for this misfortune to affect them for the remainder of their lives. The Lord Chico Largo would not have great merit in doing this, says she, because it would simply mean justice was done. She offers C$5,000 (five thousand pesos) for the job. She wants to know if this sum is sufficient for a swift, effective, and visible result. She is told that unfortunately her proposal is not acceptable. Here, in Charco Verde, the only contracts negotiated necessarily engage the life of the people concerned. The kind of job she wants cannot be done, this kind of witchcraft is not practiced. If she is ready to sell her soul to obtain what she wishes, the deal might be considered. This lady opens large astonished eyes. “Perhaps I did not offer enough?” she asks. This time she deposits on the table C$10,000 (double, ten thousand pesos) to have her request honoured. She is told again that her money is not wanted, and that only her spirit is of interest to Chico Largo. She shakes her head then, saying that she had undoubtedly been misinformed. That she regrets having made such a long journey. That by no means can she envisage such a transaction. But then she changes her mind and says that she must think of it. “What is the age limit for such a contract?” she asks. She finds it interesting that she could make it until she is one hundred years old or even more. She asks for some time to make up her mind. She takes leave with great kindness, but wary.

January 12th, 1979, Clovis Lizandro Lassalle.

Young farm laborer, twenty-one years old, from Los Cerros, in the department of Rivas. Cowboy hat, chewing gum, checkered shirt and boots. He came here in the greatest secrecy after having heard a discussion between peons on his farm who were recounting the talents and the powers of a so-called Cristo Coto, who carries golden pendants on his shoulders. He wants to get a little of this gold so as to make a large medal and beautiful chains, which will help him to conquer many women, because at his age, he has known none. He would also like to have special powers so as to be able to produce at will authentic banknotes of C$1,000 and C$5,000, and to bend people with his will. He hopes to be able to enjoy life this way until the age of ninety-five. After that, he would like to become a tiger, but not just any tiger. He wishes to become the pet of a Hollywood movie star, because in this way he would not be threatened and would be very well fed with first class beef. His proposal will be transmitted to the Large Council of Charco Verde. He leaves 200 pesos to be informed about the outcome through a telegram.

January 17th, 1979, Fabricio Prado Jimenez.

From Melchora, in the district of Rio San Juán. Twenty-eight years old, trade clerk, he wants to have magic powers, or to be able to do magic tricks, more precisely, because he does not really like black magic. He would like to be able whenever he wants to change into an animal such as a dog, a monkey, or even a pig so as to astonish those around him. What he really needs is to be able to attract women by means of his tricks, or even offer them a flower. In short, he wants to be attractive, because he is extremely ugly and unpleasant. He would like to live until he is eighty-five, and wishes, when the hour comes, to be transformed into a splendid circus horse. With feathers on the back, and a couple golden wings, why not? He is told that his case will be submitted to Chico Largo and processed with all the attention which it deserves. He asks for a written response and leaves a stamped, self-addressed envelope for it.

January 21st, 1979, Raúl Arcibalde Carejas.

Fifty-seven, born and baptized in San Carlos, this Gentleman finds himself in the painful situation of having to sell (with his consent) his elder son aged twenty-two for the sum of C$20,000 (twenty thousand pesos). He is told that in order to sell the souls of third persons, certain documentation is necessary. A baptism certificate and their written and signed consent. He agrees to send them so that action pursuant is taken to the business.

January 22nd, 1979, Leandro Martin Garcia Revesa.

Originating in the municipality in Tamalaque, fifty-five years old, illiterate. He is a very black native of strong constitution. Alcoholic. He offers to be sold to the devil. He offers moreover his daughter named Angelica and her newborn, eight- month baby called Alfonso. He addresses this request heatedly, asking for the whole C$25,000 (twenty-five thousand pesos). This sum only, because he is well aware, says he, of the little value of his person and family. He is informed that a birth certificate and certificate of baptism are required. He is told that in addition, for minors, the consent of both parents is necessary, and the child may reconsider the business at the age of eighteen. As for his personal candidature, it cannot be treated at once, as he hoped. Chico Largo and his assistants must deliberate on the night of the next full moon.

January 27th, 1979, Emilio Rodriguez Perez.

Forty-nine years old, this pilgrim was born in El Ostional, jurisdiction of San Juan, in the Western South of the country. He seeks revenge against a lady called Lea Nuñez Paguagua. This woman, says he, stole from him the tenderness of his only son by forcing him to marry one of her daughters. He asks that this woman die at once, because this is the only way he could finally sleep peacefully. He offers the sum of C$800 (eight hundred pesos) for this job. He does not care how she dies. He is told that Charco Verde does not provide the kind of service he requires.

First of February, 1979, Teofilo Abrahanm Hilario Hernández.

This man was born in Masatepe and resides today in San Miguel, in the department of Juigalpa. Twenty-six years old, of dark skin, he has a small mouth and a delicate figure with sharp and malicious eyes. He expresses himself with great ease. He is a hard worker and knows how to cope with tough times. He has varied and impressive work experience: carpenter, mason, repairer of radios, house painter, railway man, and even male nurse at the hospital of Massaya, he says. He is a poet now. He recited and even sang in front of us beautiful verses that were his, so he claimed. He was also able to improvise on request, and without hesitating for a second recited a nicely turned love poem, which he dedicated to the girl of his thoughts. This Hilario wishes to be sold to the devil for the astronomical sum of C$500,000,000 (five hundred million pesos). Highly motivated, he hopes to obtain half of this sum, and would be satisfied even with the quarter. He affirms that he fully understands that it is his soul which he is selling. He states loudly and clearly that what he wants is “to progress.” That with this money he will open a poker and gambling set-up in San Miguel, then another in Jinotega, then another still in Grenada, and finally the last in Bluefields. He will be able from now on to live off of his revenues and to be devoted entirely to his art. He confesses he is fed up with being a “ nobody,” and wants to become a “Don,” an honorable and respected “Mister,” and an internationally recognized writer. He could take a chance in Europe, like Ruben Dario, and enjoy glory for centuries. As a sample of his talent and merits, he hands out a booklet of printed poems that he self-published in three hundred copies. His proposal will be submitted to Chico Largo. The outcome of his candidature will be communicated in six months only, because his file will have to be carefully examined by the reading panel of Charco Verde. This young man set out again sad and disillusioned, because he had come a long way with the hope of being sold without delay. He asks that he is not forgotten and leaves his address as well as a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

February 2nd, 1979, day of the Candlemas.

This same Mr. Hilario, poet, returned the next day. He had spent a bad night at the inn in the harbor. Before embarking for the continent, he wants to reassure all, present in Charco Verde of his determination. He beseeched, with tremors in his voice: “Please, I entreat you, be convincing, and speak well in my favor with Chico Largo, Mama Bucha, Lagarto de Oro, and Cristo Coto. Say to him, the Horned one, that I am broke. It is money I want, yes, money. It is the only thing that will finally give me a little joy in life. You, you know that with gold all is possible. There are even dogs which will dance for a coin! I want to enjoy life, even if after I must dance in the flames of hell!”

March 6th, 1979, Ernesto Dávila Vilas.

Originating in San Carlos, forty-two, this very white Gentleman is extremely well-carried, corpulent, sharp in his gestures and fast in his remarks. He also uses oratorical effects. He demands the sum of C$500,000 (five hundred thousand pesos). This Gentleman would like, on the day of his death, to give in his place to one of his workmen, a peon of confidence, and to thus be able to continue to live his beautiful life, while his peon would purge for him his sorrow in hell.

His request is not acceptable, he is told. He asks nevertheless that this idea be proposed to Chico Largo, because he is certain that it might interest him. He thinks that should this idea be accepted, it would create a precedent for Charco’s business. As for himself, for example, after a first contract of this kind, he might be ready to renew the experiment a second time, and even a third one. And so on. He definitely seems to like this idea. He insists so much that the situation becomes somewhat embarrassing. As he will hear no reason, he is told that the Demon is currently in mourning, and very pained, because of the death of one of his best servants and friends, David Cien Fuegos. Indeed, not long ago, a person was carried off by error, before the date agreed upon. This mourning will last two years and for this period, all the Charco Verde’s transactions will be on standby.

April 5th, 1981, appendix to the preceding file.

The above Jose Rodriguez Rivas came back. He mentions the news of the mourning of David Cien Fuegos, because the two years have passed. He also wants to change the terms of his contract, which are unfavorable for him. With the revolution two years ago, and with the tremendous resulting inflation, it does not make sense anymore to be sold to the devil for so little. He now asks for C$1,000,000 (one million pesos). He is told that his request will be examined carefully. However, for the moment, all transactions are suspended because Chico Largo’s business is now severely threatened by all the new taxes that the revolution is imposing.

Ruetcel raised his head toward Eugenio and asked, “Is that your handwriting?”

“You haven’t seen everything yet.”

“I’d like to read it at my convenience. You know, my name is Ruetcel. Strange enough, it is the perfect anagram of ‘reader’, in French. Just spell it the other way around and you get ‘lecteur’, which means ‘reader’. Now, please, your book, I want to read it, would you lend it to me?”

“That’s not possible. You know that there have been unfortunate precedents. Remember. That writer friend of mine.”

“If I asked you to lend it to me, this book, you wouldn’t lend it to me; if I asked you to sell it to me, you wouldn’t sell it to me. So I’ll have to steal it from you.”

“Oh! You do remember?”

“How could I forget?”

“And he is dead, my friend, dead!” By the way, do you know about that indigenous ritual they call “the Giving Ceremony”? There’s a force that inhabits gifts. The force is evil for whomever receives without giving. He who wants to live happily should not keep quiet! I’m tired, my friend, and I’m old. I don’t want to leave. No, not yet! But I don’t really want to stay anymore. I trust you. Why? I haven’t got the faintest idea. But, keep it, keep this book. I’m giving it to you. May you make good use of it. Each entry is a new story, but it’s always the same one. The fact is, you haven’t seen everything yet. Look at the last page…”

September 9, 1988. Ruetcel.

Thirty-two years old. French, geographer. Arrives on a watermelon truck. Physically attractive. Slight accent but expresses himself with ease. Quick-witted, with a curious mind. Internacionalista, people say. Interested in the history of Ometepe, the Legend of the Charco Verde. Studies deforestation, tobacco drying, and what he calls “energy supply and demand.” Scientifically-minded. Derides superstitions and religions. Considers them as “upper horizons of ignorance,” as he says.

September 10, 1988. Comes back to say that he is very fond of popular culture and oral traditions. More and more interested in the Charco Verde.

September 13, 1988. Comes a third time to La Soledad. Asks everyone he meets if they know the legend of the Chico Largo. Explained to a peasant that he had gone around Ometepe on motorcycle with his help. States he’s looking for the origin of the legend, the “Nahuatl myth that is the source of it.”

September 14, 1988. Visits doña Lucia the healer.

September 15. Jesus and Judas take him to the Isle of Love in their sailing canoe.

September 22, 1988. Comes back with Maria’s children. They asked him: “Weren’t you afraid? Didn’t they frighten you?”

He wasn’t afraid. On the contrary. On the night of the full moon, he met with some nice “visitors” and had a very pleasant talk with them.

September 24, 1988. Last visit. He is advised to say he is here in Ometepe on a mission for Chico Largo with the purpose of inspecting the accounts of the Charco Verde and to put things in order. For his work, a copy of the register has been given to him and is in his hands at this very moment. This is the book that he would have liked to have written. The Great Council of the Charco Verde, meeting in an extraordinary session, has endorsed the deal he wants. He’ll become an aprentice clerk of the mysteries of Good and Evil. As far as his death is concerned: he pulls a book from his bag and hands it to a group of friends, saying, “Here, take this and read it, this is my book, written for you.” He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes halfway. His right hand goes to his heart, a sudden spasm shakes his shoulders and he falls on the ground. He breathes no more. “He is dead,” says somebody. “No, he’s still alive!” cries someone else. He hears their voices. The sounds of the city, the noises of the world.


Translated from the original French by Christine Eade and Nail Chiodo.

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