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The beautiful soul of Don Damian.

DON DAMIAN, with a temperature of almost 104, passed into a coma. His soul felt extremely uncomfortable, almost as if it were being roasted alive; therefore it began to withdraw, gathering itself into his heart. The soul had an infinite number of tentacles, like an octopus with innumerable feet, some of them in the veins and others, very thin, in the smaller blood vessels. Little by little it pulled out those feet, with the result that Don Damian turned cold and pallid. His hands grew cold first, then his arms and legs, while his face became so deathly white that the change was observed by the people who stood around his bed. The nurse, alarmed, said it was time to send for the doctor. The soul heard her, and thought: "I'll have to hurry, or the doctor will make me stay in here till I burn to a crisp."

It was dawn. A faint trickle of light came in through the window to announce the birth of a new day. The soul, peering out of Don Damian's mouth, which was partly open to let in a little air, noticed the light and told itself that if it hoped to escaped it would have to act promptly, because in a few minutes somebody would see it and prevent it from leaving its master's body. The soul of Don Damian was quite ignorant about certain matters: for instance, it had no idea that once free it would be completely invisible.

There was a rustling of skirts around the patient's luxurious bed, and a murmur of voices which the soul had to ignore, occupied as it was in escaping from its prison. The nurse came back into the room with a hypodermic syringe in her hand.

"Dear God, dear God," the old housemaid cried, "don't let it be too late."

It was too late. At the precise moment that the needle punctured Don Damian's forearm, the soul drew its last tentacles out of is mouth, reflecting as it did so that the injection would be a waste of money. An instant later there were cries and running footsteps, and as somebody - no doubt the housemaid, since it could hardly have been Don Damian's wife or mother-in-law - began to wail at the bedside, the soul leaped into the air, straight up to the Bohemian glass lamp that hung in the middle of the ceiling. There it collected its wits and looked down: Don Damian's corpse was now a spoiled yellow, with features almost as hard and transparent as the Bohemian glass; the bones of his face seemed to have grown, and his skin had taken on a ghastly sheen. His wife, his mother-in-law, and the nurse fluttered around him, while the housemaid sobbed with her gray head buried in the covers. The soul knew exactly what each one of them was thinking and feeling, but it did not want to waste time observing them. The light was growing brighter every moment, and it was afraid it would be noticed up there on its perch. Suddenly the mother-in-law took her daughter b the arm and led her out into the hall, to talk to her in a low voice. The soul heard her say, "Don't behave so shamelessly. You've got to to show some grief."

"When people start coming, Mama," the daughter whispered.

"No. Right now. Don't forget the nurse - she'll tell everybody everything that happens."

The new widow ran to the bed as if mad with grief. "Oh Damian, Damian!" she cried. "Damian, my dearest, how can I live without you?"

A different, less worldly soul would have been astounded, but Don Damian's merely admired the way she was playing the part. Don Damian himself had done some skillful acting on occasion, especially when it was necessary to act - as he put it - "in defense of my interests." His wife was now "defending her interests." She was still young and attractive, whereas Don Damian was well past sixty. She had had a lover when he first knew her, and his soul had suffered some very disagreeable moments because of its late master's jealousy. The soul recalled an episode of a few months earlier, when the wife had declared. "You can't stop me from seeing him. You know perfectly well I married you for your money."

To which Don Damian had replied that with his money he had purchased the right not to be made ridiculous. It was a thoroughly unpleasant scene - the mother-in-law had interfered, as usual, and there were threats of a divorce - but it was made even more unpleasant by the fact that the discussion had to be cut short when some important guests arrived. Both husband and wife greeted the company with charming smiles and exquisite manners, which only the soul could appreciate at their true value.

The soul was still up there on the lamp, recalling these events, when the priest arrived almost at a run. Nobody could imagine why he should appear at that hour, because the sun was scarcely up and anyhow he had visited the sick man during the night. He attempted to explain.

"I had a premonition. I was afraid Don Damian would pass away without confessing."

The mother-in-law was suspicious. "But, Father, didn't he confess last night?"

She was referring to the fact that the priest had been alone with Don Damian, behind a closed door, for nearly on hour. Everybody assumed that the sick man had confessed, but that was not what took place. The soul knew it was not, of course; it also knew why the priest had arrived at such a strange time. The theme of that long conference had been rather arid, spiritually: the priest wanted Don Damian to leave a large sum of money toward the new church being built in the city, while Don Damian wanted to leave an even larger sum than that which the priest was seeking - but to a hospital. They could not agree, the priest left, and when he returned to his room he discovered that his watch was missing.

The soul overwhelmed by its new power, now it was free, to know things that had taken place in its absence, and to divine what people were thinking or where about to do. It was aware that the priest had said to himself: "I remember I took out my watch at Don Damian's house, to see what time it was. I must have left it there." Hence it was also aware that his return visit had nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.

"No, he didn't confess," the priest said, looking straight at the mother-in-law. "We didn't get around to a confession last night, so we decided I would come back the first thing in the morning to hear confession and perhaps" - his voice grew solemn - "to administer the last rites. Unfortunately I've come too late." He glanced toward the gilt tables on either side of the bed in hopes of seeing his watch on one or the other.

The old housemaid, who had served Don Damian for more than forty years, looked up with streaming eyes.

"It doesn't make any difference," she said< "god forgive me for saying so. He had such a beautiful soul he didn't need to confess." She nodded her head. "Don Damian had a very beautiful soul."

Hell, now, that was something! The soul had never even dreamed that it was beautiful. Its master had done some rather rare things in his day, of course, and since he had always been a fine example of a well-to-do gentleman, perfectly dressed and exceedingly shrewd in his dealings with the bank, his soul had not had time to think about its beauty or its possible ugliness. It remembered, for instance, how its master had commanded it to feel at ease after he and his lawyer found a way to take possession of a debtor's house, although the debtor had nowhere else to live; or when, with the help of jewels and had hard cash (this last for her education or her sick mother), he persuaded a lovely young girl from the poorer sector to visit him in the sumptuous apartment he maintained. But was it beautiful, or was it ugly?

The soul was quite sure that only a few moments had passed since it withdrew from its master's veins; and probably even less time had passed than it imagined, because everything had happened so quickly and in so much confusion. The doctor had said as he left, well before midnight: "The fever is likely to rise toward morning. If it does, watch him carefully, and send for me if anything happens."

Was the soul to let itself be roasted to death? Its vital center, if that is the proper term, had been located close to Don Damian's intestines, which were radiating fire, and if it had stayed in his body it would have perished like a broiled chicken. But actually how much time had passed since it left? Very little, certainly, for it still left hot, in spite of the faint coolness in the dawn air. The soul decided that the change in climate between the innards of its late master and the Bohemian glass of the lamp had been very slight, But change or no change, what about that statement by the old housemaid? "Beautiful," she said . . . and she was a truthful woman who loved her master because she loved him, not because he was rich or generous or important. The soul found rather less sincerity on the remarks that followed.

"Why, of course he had a beautiful soul," the priest said.

" |Beautiful' doesn't begin to describe it," the mother-in-law asserted.

The soul turned to look at her and saw that as she spoke she was signaling to her daughter with her eyes. They contained both a command and a scolding, as if to say: "Start crying again, idiot. Do you wan the priest to say you were happy your husband died?" The daughter understood the signal, and broke out into tearful wailing.

"Nobody ever had such a beautiful soul! Damian, how much I loved you!"

The soul could not stand any more: it wanted to know for certain, without losing another moment, whether or not it was truly beautiful, and it wanted to get away from those hypocrites. It leaped in the direction of the bathroom, where there was a full-length mirror, calculating the distance so as to fall noiselessly on the rug. It did not know it was weightless as well as invisible. It was delighted to find that nobody noticed it, and ran quickly to look at itself in front of the mirror.

But good God, what had happened? In the first place, it had been accustomed, during more than sixty years, to look through the eyes of Don Damian, and those eyes were over five feet from the ground; also, it was accustomed to seeing his lively face, his clear eyes, his shining gray hair, the arrogance that puffed out is chest and lifted his head, the expensive clothes in which he dressed. What it was now was nothing at all like that, but a strange figure hardly a foot tall, pale, cloud-gray, with no definite form. Where it should have had two legs and two feet like the body of Don Damian, it was a hideous cluster of tentacles like those of an octopus, but irregular, some shorter than others, some thinner, and all of them seemingly made of dirty smoke, of some impalpable mud that looked transparent but was not; they were limp and drooping and powerless, and stupendously ugly. The soul of Don Damian felt lost. Nevertheless, it got up the courage to look higher. It had no waist. In fact, it had no body, no neck, nothing: where the tentacles joined there was merely a sort of ear sticking out on one side, looking like a bit of rotten apple peel, and a clump of rough hairs on the other side, some twisted, some straight. But that was not the worst, and neither was the fact that its mouth was a shapeless cavity like a hole poked in a rotten fruit, a horrible and sickening thing . . . and in the depths of this hole an eye shone, its only eye, staring out of the shadows with an expression of terror and treachery! Yet the women and the priest in the next room, around the bed in which Don Damian's corpse lay, had said he had a beautiful soul!

"How can I go out in the street looking like this?" it asked itself, groping in back tunnel of confusion.

What should it do? The doorbell rang. Then the nurse said: It's the doctor, ma'am. I'll let him in."

Don Damian's wife promptly began to wail again, invoking her dead husband and lamenting the cruel solitude in which he had left her.

The soul, paralyzed in front of its true image, knew it was lost. It had been used to hiding in its refuge in the tall body of Don Damian; it had been used to everything, including the obnoxious smell of the intestines, the heat of the stomach, the annoyance of chills and fevers. Then it heard the doctor's greeting and the mother-in-law's voice crying: "Oh, Doctor, what a tragedy it is!"

"Come, now, let's a grip on ourselves."

The soul peeped into the dead man's room. The women were gathered around the bed, and the priest was praying at its foot. The soul measured the distance and jumped, with a facility it had not known it had, landing on the pillow like a thing of air or like a strange animal that could move noiselessly and invisibly. Don Damian's mouth was still partly open. It was cold as ice, but that was not important. The soul tumbled inside and began to thrust its tentacles into place. It was still settling in when it heard the doctor say to the mother-in-law: "Just one moment, please."

The soul could still see the doctor, though not clearly. He approached the body of Don Damian, took his wrist, seemed to grow excited, put his ear to his chest and left it there a moment. Then he opened his bag and took out a stethoscope. With great deliberation he fitted the knobs into his ears and placed the button on the spot where Don Damian's heart was. He grew even more excited, put away the stethoscope, and took out a hypodermic syringe. He told the nurse to fill it, while he himself fastened a small rubber tube around Don Damian's arm above the elbow, working with the air of a magician who is about to perform a sensational trick. Apparently these preparations alarmed the old housemaid.

"But why are you doing all that if the poor thing is dead?"

The doctor stared at her loftily, and what he said was intended not only for her but for everybody.

"Science is science, and my obligation is to do whatever I can to bring Don Damian back to life. You don't find souls as beautiful as his just anywhere, and I can't let him die until we've tried absolutely everything."

This brief speech, spoken so calmly and grandly, upset the wife. It was not difficult to note a cold glitter in her eyes and a certain quaver in her voice.

"But . . . but isn't he dead?"

The soul was almost back in its body again, and only three tentacles still groped for the old veins they had inhabited for so many years. The attention with which it directed these tentacles into their right places did not prevent it from hearing that worried question.

The doctor did not answer. He took Don Damian's forearm and began to chafe it with his hand. The soul felt the warmth of life surrounding it, penetrating it, filling the veins it had abandoned to escape from burning up. At the same moment, the doctor jabbed the needle into a vain in the arm, untied the ligature above the elbow, and began to push the plunger. Little by little, in soft surges, the warmth of life rose to Don Damian's skin.

"A miracle," the priest murmured. Suddenly he turned pale and let his imagination run wild. The contribution to the new church would now be a sure thing. He would point out to Don Damian, during his convalescence, how he had returned from the dead because of the prayers he had said. for him. He would tell him. "The Lord heard me, Don Damian, and gave you back to us." How could he deny the contribution after that?

The wife, just as suddenly, felt that her brain had gone blank. She looked nervously at her husband's face and turned toward her mother. They were both stunned, mute, almost terrified.

The doctor, however, was smiling. He was thoroughly satisfied with himself, although he attempted not to show it.

"He's saved, he's saved," the old housemaid cried, "thanks to God and you." She was weeping and clutching the doctor's hands. "He's saved, he's alive again. Don Damian can never pay you for what you've done."

The doctor was thinking that Don Damian had more than enough money to pay him, but that is not what he said. What he said was: "I'd have done the same thing even if he didn't have a penny. It was my duty, my duty to society, to save a soul as beautiful as his."

He was speaking to the housemaid, but again his words were intended for the others, in the hope they would repeat them to the sick man as soon as he was well enough to act on them.

The soul of Don Damian, tired of so many lies, decided to sleep. A moment later, Don Damian sighed weakly and moved his head on the pillow.

"He'll sleep for hours now," the doctor said. "He must have absolute quiet."

And to set a good example, he tiptoed out of the room.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Bosch, Julian; Kemp, Lysander
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Fragments of the unseen.
Next Article:I'm your horse in the night.

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