Jorge Luiz Borges
That a man from the suburbs of Buenos Aires, that a sad friend with no more virtue than the infatuation of courage, goes into the equestrian deserts on the border with Brazil and becomes captain of smugglers, seems impossible beforehand. To those who understand this, I want to tell you the fate of Benjamín Otálora, of whom perhaps there is no memory left in the Balvanera neighborhood and who died, in his own way, from a bludgeon, in the confines of Rio Grande do Sul. I ignore details of his adventure ; when they are revealed to me, I will rectify and enlarge these pages. For now this summary may be useful. Benjamín Otálora is, around 1891, nineteen years old. He is a small boy with a small forehead, with sincere clear eyes, with the vigor of the Basques; a happy stab revealed that he is a brave man; the opponent’s death does not worry him, nor does the immediate need to flee the Republic. The parish leader gives him a letter to one Azevedo Bandeira, from Uruguay. Otálora embarks, the crossing is stormy and creaking; the next day, he wanders the streets of Montevideo, with unconfessed and perhaps ignored sadness. He does not find Azevedo Bandeira; at midnight, in a warehouse in Paso del Molino, he witnesses a discussion between some drovers. A dagger shines; Otálora does not know which side is the reason, but the pure taste of danger attracts him, like others playing cards or music. It holds, in the eye, a low stab that a pawn unleashes against a man in a dark hat and poncho. This later turns out to be Azevedo Bandeira. (Otálora, upon hearing it, tears up the letter, because he prefers to owe everything to himself.) Azevedo Bandeira, although robust, gives the unjustifiable impression of a cripple; on his face, always too close, are the Jew, the Negro and the Indian; in their affectation, the monkey and the tiger; the scar across his face is more of an adornment, as is the black bristly mustache. Projection or error of alcohol, the dispute ceases as quickly as it took place. Otálora drinks with the tropeiros and then accompanies them on a spree and then to a mansion in the Old City, with the sun already high. In the last yard, which is made of dirt, the men extend their harnesses to sleep. Obscurely, Otálora compares that night with the previous one; now he is on solid ground, among friends. Some remorse worries him, that he does not miss Buenos Aires. He sleeps until six, when the paisano awakens him, drunk, who attacked Bandeira. (Otálora remembers that this man participated with the others in the night of turmoil and joy and that Bandeira sat him on his right and forced him to continue drinking.) The man tells him that the boss sends him to fetch him. In a kind of cabinet overlooking the hall (Otálora has never seen a hall with side doors), Azevedo Bandeira is waiting for him, with a clear and contemptuous woman with red hair. Bandeira examines him, offers him a glass of brandy, repeats that he looks like a brave man, proposes that he go to the North with the others to bring a troop. Otálora accepted; at dawn, they are on their way to Tacuarembó.
A different life then begins for Otálora, a life of vast dawns and journeys that smell like a horse. This life is new to him, and at times atrocious, but it is already in his blood, because, just as men from other nations worship and sense the sea, so we (also the man who weaves these symbols) yearn for the endless plain that resonates under the hooves. Otálora grew up in the neighborhoods of carters and quarterers; in less than a year he becomes a gaucho. He learns to ride, to trample cattle, to roam, to handle the snare he subdues and the boleadeiras that fall, to resist sleep, storms, frosts and the sun, to tanger with the whistle and the scream. Only once, during this time of learning, does he see Azevedo Bandeira, but he is very much present, because to be a man of Bandeira is to be considered and feared, and because, in the face of any brave gesture, the gauchos say that Bandeira does it better. Someone thinks that Bandeira was born on the other side of Quaraí, in Rio Grande do Sul; this, which should lower it, obscurely enriches it with populous jungles, mudflats, inextricable and almost infinite distances. Gradually, Otálora understands that Bandeira’s businesses are multiple and that the main thing is smuggling. To be a tropeiro is to be a servant; Otálora proposes to become a smuggler. Two of the companions, one night, will cross the border to return with a few rounds of brandy; Otálora provokes one of them, injures him and takes his place. Ambition and an obscure fidelity moves him. “May the man,” he thinks, “come to understand that I have more value than all his Orientals combined”. Another year passes before Otálora returns to Montevideo. They walk around the surroundings, the city (which Otálora seems very large); they arrive at the boss’s house; the men extend the harness in the last yard. The days go by and Otálora doesn’t see Bandeira. They say, with fear, that he is sick; a dark man usually goes up to his dorm with the kettle and mate. One afternoon, Otálora is entrusted with this task. He feels vaguely humiliated, but also satisfied. The dorm is dismantled and dark. There is a balcony to the west, there is a long table with a resplendent clutter of whips, plows, belts, firearms and bladed weapons, there is a remote, fogged crystal mirror. Flag is face up; dreams and regrets; a vehemence of ultimate sun defines it. The huge white bed seems to diminish and obscure it; Otálora observes white hair, fatigue, weakness, wrinkles from years. It is revolting that this old man is sending them. He thinks that a blow would be enough to handle him. In that, he sees in the mirror that someone has entered. It is the woman with red hair; she is half dressed and barefoot, and she is watching him with cold curiosity. Flag compose itself; while talking about campaign stuff and drinking mate after mate, his fingers play with the woman’s braids. Finally, give Otálora permission to leave. Days later, they are told to go north. They stop at a lost resort, located anywhere on the endless plain. Neither trees nor a brook cheers her, the first sun and the last strike it. There are stone pens for cattle, which have large horns and are in need. EI Sigh is the name of this poor establishment. Otálora hears in the pedestrian circle that Bandeira will soon arrive from Montevideo. Question why; someone clarifies that there is a crouching stranger who is wanting to send too much. Otálora understands that it is a joke, but he is pleased that this joke has already
possible. He then verifies that Bandeira has become enemies with one of the political leaders and that he has withdrawn his support. He likes that news. Long weapon coffins arrive; a jar and a silver bowl arrive at the woman’s room; intricate damask curtains arrive; one morning, a dark knight, with a beard and a poncho, arrives from the coxilhas. His name is Ulpiano Suárez and he is Azevedo Bandeira’s henchman or bodyguard. He speaks very little and in a Brazilian way. Otálora does not know whether his reserve is attributed to hostility, disdain or mere barbarism. You do know that for the plan you’re working on, you have to win his friendship. Then comes the destination of Benjamín Otálora, a chestnut with black extremities, which Azevedo Bandeira brings from the south and which bears plated harnesses and rides with tiger skin edges. This liberal horse is a symbol of the boss’s authority and that is why the boy covets him, who also desires, with a grudging desire, the woman with shining hair. The woman, the harness and the sorrel are attributes or adjectives of a man that he aspires to destroy. Here the story gets complicated and sinks. Azevedo Bandeira is skilled in the art of progressive intimidation, in the satanic maneuver of gradually humiliating the interlocutor, combining seriousness and play; Otálora decides to apply this ambiguous method to the hard task that is proposed. He resolves to supplant Azevedo Bandeira slowly. He obtains, in days of common danger, the friendship of Suárez. Trust your plan; Suárez promises his help. Many things are happening later, of which I know a few. Otálora does not obey the Flag; you can forget, correct, reverse your orders. The universe seems to conspire with him and hastens the facts. In a noon, a shootout with people from Rio Grande do Sul takes place in Tacuarembó fields; Otálora usurps the place of Bandeira and commands the Orientals. A bullet goes through his shoulder, but that afternoon he returns to EI Sigh in the chief’s chestnut and that afternoon a few drops of his blood stain the tiger’s skin and that night he sleeps with the woman with the shiny hair. Other versions change the order of these facts and deny that they happened in a single day. Bandeira, however, remains nominally the chief. It gives orders that are not carried out; Benjamín Otálora does not touch him, for a mixture of routine and pity. The last scene in history corresponds to the bustle of the last night of 1894. On that night, the men of EI Suspiro eat freshly-lambed lamb and drink pendant alcohol. Someone infinitely pisses off a laborious milonga. At the head of the table, Otálora, drunk, raises a toast after a toast, in growing joy; this vertigo tower is a symbol of its irresistible destiny. Bandeira, taciturn among those who shout, lets the night flow in a loud voice. When the twelve chimes sound, he stands up as if he remembers an obligation. He gets up and knocks gently on the woman’s door. It opens then, as if waiting for the call. She comes out half dressed and barefoot. In a voice that fades and creeps, the chief orders him: – Since you and the porteño love each other so much, right now you are going to kiss him, in plain sight.
In addition, a brutal circumstance. The woman wants to resist, but two men take her by the arm and throw her over Otálora. Teared down, she kisses him on the face and chest. Ulpiano Suárez wields the revolver. Otálora understands, on the verge of death, that he was betrayed from the beginning, that he was condemned to death, that he was allowed love, command and triumph because he already considered him dead, because for Bandeira he was already dead. Suárez, almost with disdain, opens fire.