Out in the Open

Jesús Carrasco (Trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

July 24, 2017 
The following is from Jesús Carrasco’s novel, Out in the Open. A young boy has fled his home, a drought-stricken country ruled by violence. One night on the road, he meets an old man and from that moment on, their paths intertwine. Jesús Carrasco was born in Spain, and now lives in Scotland. Out in the Open, his debut novel, was a bestseller in Spain and is the winner of many international awards, including the European Union Prize for Literature 2016.

From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of ­fire-​scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped space. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. He had made a roof out of pruned twigs which he had piled on top of two thick branches that served as beams. Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that had forced him to flee. He didn’t hear it, nor did he hear any barking, which was a great relief because he knew that only a well­-trained dog could find him in his ­hiding-place. A gun dog or a truffle hound. Perhaps an English blood-hound, with sturdy legs and floppy ears, like the one he’d seen in a photo in a newspaper brought from the city.

Luckily for him, there were no such exotic breeds where he lived. Only greyhounds. All skin and bone. Mystical creatures that raced after hares at top speed, never stopping to follow a scent because they had been put on earth with only one purpose in life: to pursue and capture. They had red lines emblazoned on their flanks, souvenirs of their masters’ whips. The same whips that were used to beat into submission the children, women and dogs of that arid plain. Greyhounds, of course, could run, whereas he had to lie ­stock-​still in his small clay cave. Lost among the hundreds of smells that the subterranean depths normally reserve for earthworms and the dead. Smells he should not be smelling, but which he himself had sought out. Smells that distanced him from his mother.

Whenever he saw greyhounds or thought of them, he always remembered a man who used to live in his village. A cripple who moved about the streets on a kind of tricycle propelled by a handle that he turned, bending over it like an ­organ-grinder. At dusk, he would leave the houses of the village behind him and travel the beaten paths heading north, the only ones his chariot could manage. The dogs es­ ­corted him, tethered with leads made of frayed string. It was painful to see him trundling along on his ramshackle machine, and the boy had often wondered why he didn’t get the dogs to pull him. His classmates used to say that when the cripple had no further use for one of those dogs, he would hang it from an olive tree. In the boy’s short life, he had seen dozens of dogs hanged by the neck from ­remote trees. Bags full of dislocated bones like giant chrysalises.

He sensed that the men were getting very close now and so he lay utterly still. He heard his name proliferating among the trees like drops of rain falling onto a sheet of water. Curled up in his ­hiding-place, he wondered if that would perhaps be his one reward: hearing his name called out again and again at daybreak among the olive trees. He recognized two voices, one belonging to the landlord of the local bar and the other to one of the muleteers who spent the summer in the village. And although he couldn’t actually identify their voices, he imagined that the post-man and the local basket weaver would be there too. Down in the depths of his hole, he experienced an unexpected warm rush of joy. A kind of silent, childish jubilation that made his skin prickle. He wondered if they would put such effort into finding his brother. Would he have attracted such a large search party? Hearing that chorus of voices, he felt that he had perhaps revived some kind of community spirit, and for a moment, his bitterness withdrew into one small corner of his stomach. He had gathered around him all the men of the village, all the strong, ­weatherworn arms that tilled the fields and sowed the furrows with grain. He had caused an incident. Perhaps the need to come together had forced old enemies to roll up their sleeves and work alongside one another. He wondered if anything would remain of that moment in a few years or even weeks. If it would still be a topic of conversation as people left church or the local bar. Then he thought about his father and imagined him making his excuses to all and sundry. He saw him, as he so often had, feigning helplessness. Probably trying to make everyone believe that his son had fallen down some hidden well while chasing after a young partridge, that the family had once again been the victim of misfortune and that God had just torn from him flesh of his flesh. Even with his head pressed against his knees, the boy managed to shake it gently as if to chase away those thoughts. The image of his fawning, servile father came back to him, this time in the company of the bailiff. A scene which, like no other, provoked all kinds of chaotic feelings in his body. He listened as intently as he could for traces of the bailiff’s voice, and even the absence of that voice frightened him. He imagined him walking along, cigar in mouth, behind the line of men currently combing the olive grove. He would trample the clods of earth or bend indolently down to pick up the odd olive that had escaped the last harvest. His watch­-chain poking out beneath his jacket. His brown felt hat, his bow tie, tight collar, mustache stiff with sugar water.

A man’s voice just yards from the hole startled him from his thoughts. It was the schoolmaster. He was talking to another man some way off. The boy felt his heart beat faster, felt the blood hammering in his veins. After hours of immobility, the cramps in his muscles were urging him to leave his ­hiding-place. He considered bringing the whole situation and his discomfort to an immediate end. After all, he hadn’t killed anyone, he hadn’t stolen, he hadn’t taken the name of God in vain. He was on the point of moving the twigs covering the hole in order to attract the attention of the men nearest to him. One of them would tell the other to be quiet and then turn his head so as to hear where exactly the noise had come from. Their eyes would meet. They would creep toward the pile of twigs, not knowing whether they would find a rabbit or the lost boy. Then they would move the twigs to one side and find him there, curled into a ball. He would pretend to be unconscious, and his unconscious state, along with the mud, wet clothes and dirty hair, would be his masterstroke. He would at least be assured of one moment of glory. Not that it would last, of course, more a case of  feast today and starve tomorrow. Then, summoned by the men’s shouts, the others would come running. His father would arrive, breathing hard, initially thrilled and happy. They would form a whirlpool of people around him that would barely let him breathe, like a newly struck match that struggles at first and shows no sign of becoming the mellifluous flame that will eventually consume the matchstick. They would dis­ inter him amid shouts of joy. Around him, manly embraces would send up little clouds of dust as the searchers clapped one another on the back. Then, to the accompaniment of songs and warm wine, he would be carried to the village on a stretcher with his father’s rough hand resting on his small, brown chest. A joyful exordium to a drama that would propel them all to the village bar and, later, to their respective houses. Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof and kept the rooms cool. A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt. The swift copper­-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air. His earlier feigned state of unconsciousness getting its unjust deserts.

Almost immediately above him, he heard the sound of the schoolmaster blowing his nose. A loud, membranous explosion that used to make the teacher’s clean handker-chief shiver and cause the children to break out in a sweat as they struggled to suppress their laughter. The shadow cast by the teacher’s thin body loomed over the roof. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth while the teacher peed onto the pile of twigs.

He allowed a long time to pass after the last voice had left the olive grove. He wanted to be quite sure that he would find no one there when he did finally lift the lid on his refuge, and he had determined to wait for as long as was necessary. Nothing, not even the hours spent underground or the teacher’s urine still sticky in his hair or the hunger which was, for the first time, pricking him hard, nothing was enough now to weaken his resolve, because the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach. He fell asleep.

When he woke, the sun was already high in the sky. The harsh noonday glare pierced the twig roof, faintly illuminating his knees with dusty needles of light. As soon as he opened his eyes, he was aware of the numbness in his muscles and realized that his own body had woken him from his slumbers. He reckoned he must have spent seven or eight hours in that hole, and resolved to get out as soon as possible. He cautiously raised his head and felt his hair touch the roof. He sat up, pushed aside some of the twigs and peered about him, his neck as stiff as a rusty hinge, to make sure no one was there. He could leave now and head toward the north; he knew of a spring where the muleteers watered their mules, his plan being to hide among the reeds, wait until no one was looking, then smuggle himself aboard the cart of some trader, hide away among the frying pans and knickers, and wait until they were many miles from the village and it was safe to come out. He knew, though, that in order to reach that spring, he would have to walk through open countryside in broad daylight with only a few piles of rocks as shelter. Any local shepherd or hunter would be sure to identify his scrawny body as that of the lost boy, so his only alternative was to remain hidden until evening, when his wiry limbs could pass for a withered bush or some vague, dark shape silhouetted against the setting sun. He carefully replaced the twigs and crouched down again.

During his self­-imposed imprisonment, he became familiar with his various companions in the hole: beetles, ­earwigs and, especially, earthworms. He felt behind him for the hollow he had made for his knapsack. He opened the canvas bag, took out a piece of sausage and chewed it slowly. He drank some warm water from the small wineskin that had grown as swollen as a dead cat after the several days it had remained hidden prior to his escape. It was not long before he felt his bladder fill up and become painfully distended. His hunched position put further pressure on it, and a few drops of urine occasionally leaked out, only increasing his discomfort. When the stabbing pains became unbearable, he tried to pull down his trousers. He struggled with his fly and his belt, but there was so little space, he could barely move. He considered climbing out of the hole for a moment, but was afraid of being spotted from a distance or of leaving some trace, however small, for the search party that was doubtless still searching for him. After a while, he managed to slide his trousers down over his bottom. He tried to push his penis back between his legs, away from his body, but so cramped was his hiding­-place​ that he immediately became aware that his foreskin was touching his ankles, and at that point, he could hold it in no longer, and simply let himself go like a wheel rolling downhill. He had spent so many hours lying in the hole that the compacted clay had become like a bowl in which the urine formed a puddle. The sulfurous atmosphere turned his refuge into a toxic pot. He reached up with his head toward the roof, pressing his mouth against the gaps between the twigs, trying to gulp down some fresh air from outside. He needed to escape, to burst through the roof and out into the olive grove as if his body were a cork suddenly liberated from the depths of a lake. He closed his eyes and clung to the roots reaching down into the hole. He lay for a long time, unaware of the tension in his muscles, and then, when he did become conscious of it, a sudden weariness overwhelmed him and his muscles relaxed, allowing his body to settle back into the shape of the pit. The damp heat in the hole dazed him, and the softened clay beneath the small of his back produced in him a kind of dull discomfort, a drowsiness that led him into sleep.

The light coming in through the roof had faded almost to nothing when he was woken by the sound of rustling leaves. Some small rodent, he thought. He desperately needed to uncurl, to breathe freely, to shake off the mud covering skin and clothes, to dry his trousers, to get out of there. He must first make sure, though, that the noise that had woken him was not some kind of threat. He sat up and, very carefully, with the top of his head, lifted the roof of branches just enough to create a gap through which he could see. Only a few inches from where he was hiding, a field mouse was snuffling around in the curled leaves fallen from the olive trees. Then he painstakingly dismantled his roof, branch by branch, twig by twig, like ­nest-building in reverse. He peeped out, turning his head this way and that like a periscope until he had scanned the whole of the olive grove and found no signs of life apart from that field mouse, now scampering away past the piles of prunings. By the time he emerged from the hole, the light had taken on a dusty, reddish quality. There was no sun on the horizon, but a yellowish glow lit the plain from the west, casting long shadows over the fallow fields. He stretched his body in every possible direction, squatting down, standing up, stamping his feet, and for a moment, he completely forgot he was on the run and didn’t even notice the geometric fragments of mud that detached themselves from the soles of his shoes. His trousers were still wet. He stood with legs apart and unstuck the fabric from his skin. If he had run away in winter, he thought, it would have frozen to him.

He had chosen that place months before because it was the wooded area nearest to the village. At the time, he didn’t know at what hour of the night he would be able to leave his house, nor how much time he would have to reach his hiding­-place. If he fled in any other direction, the men would be able to spot him from hundreds of yards away. At least there he had the protection of the olive trees. Within the grove itself he had chosen the northern edge, because that would afford him the clearest view of the plain he would have to cross.

He took off his clothes and draped them over some low branches so that they would dry in the air. His skin felt swollen and uncomfortable. Wood pigeons were fluttering about in the tops of the trees, hoping to find a roosting place for the night. He rubbed his body with dry earth as if he were an elephant and immediately felt better. He removed his knapsack from the hole and walked the length of the olive grove until he found a suitable tree. He sat down naked on the ground and leaned his back against the knotty trunk. Small stones stuck to his buttocks and the bark pricked his back. Once he had made himself relatively comfortable, he felt in his knapsack and took out a piece of hard cheese and a crust of stale bread. He ate the cheese and watched as the night gradually took possession of the earth. Above him, the pigeons were cooing. He gnawed at the skin of the cheese. When he had eaten it down to the rind, he was about to throw the rind away, but something stopped him: the memory of those men’s voices calling him. He turned and glanced back into the olive grove, imagining the dark figures of the search party, silently shouting his name. He put the cheese rind back in the knapsack. He was still hungry, though, and again rummaged among the contents, knowing full well that, once he had eaten the cheese, all he had left was half a dry sausage. He took it out and held it to his nose. Closing his eyes, he allowed himself to be filled by the scents of pepper and cinnamon. He licked the sausage and was about to bite into it, but again he felt the shadows of those men pursuing him and had no option but to keep the sausage for some time of greater need, which, he was sure, would not be long in coming.

He spent a long while running his tongue over his gums to allay the burning sensation left by the cheese. He bit off a chunk of bread, drank water from the wineskin, then stretched out on the ground, resting his head on a tree root. The sky was a dark, dark blue. Up above, the stars were like jewels encrusted in a transparent sphere. The plain before him gave off a smell of parched earth and dry grass as it slowly recovered from the rigors of the sun. A gray owl flew over his head and disappeared among the trees. This was the first time he had been this far from the village. What lay ahead was, quite simply, unknown territory.


From Out in the OpenUsed with permission of Riverhead Books; Tra edition. Copyright © 2017 by Jesús Carrasco.

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