This is how it happened.
It was early in the evening. William was home, practicing his piano, when his older brother Rhodias and his squadron comrades, seven of them, arrived. The moment he heard the door and recognized voices, he shut off, afraid, and hurried to the sofa.
“Did I stop on time?” he asked himself.
William saw them entering the living room, Rhodias first, not knowing what to expect. They were not in uniform. “Where is she?” Rhodias asked about his mother, drawing the curtain a little, just enough to look out. Tight against the armrest, long forearms sunk together between his legs, William answered with an empty voice. Feeling watched, he held his eyes on Rhodias’ black, turbulent hair.
“Is that you, Rhodias?” asked Mrs. Gigssen as she came down the stairs. Rhodias was part of the Army’s reserve, in charge of patrolling the city at night, and she thought he was working.
“We’re going to Stahl’s,” Rhodias said, his hands planted high on either side of the window frame. “I’m taking William with me.”
William’s pupils dilated when he heard this. He was a person of books and music, and was very attached to his mother.
“I don’t know, dear!” Mrs. Gigssen said, already at the foot of the stairs.
“Let’s go,” Rhodias said.
On the way out, as William was trying to stay afloat, memories assaulted him: Rhodias, accompanied by his friend Jan, had taken him to the prostitute district. He discovered this when, as Rhodias drove slow down an empty street, a pregnant hooker came out of an old, low building and walked fast towards them. “She’s coming this way. She is,” William thought. Rhodias gave her money, then told William to get out. William felt he was before something unknown and perpetual. He looked slantwise at Rhodias, held the door handle tight; Rhodias just waited with the engine running, his right hand high on the wheel. William longed to be exculpated. Then Jan said, “That’s enough, Rhodias,” so Rhodias set off.
“Where are they taking me?” William asked himself as soon as this memory let go of him. First they went to a bar. Rhodias drove full speed, followed closely by Jan’s car. Set in frenetic motion by the headlights, the metal of the parked cars became etched on William’s eyes. The engines’ roar broke the silence between the lines of houses on either side.
Eleven minutes later, in a two-lane street, Jan descended and knocked on a metal curtain. The noise of the shaken curtain and the bottom of voices could be heard. When Jan went in, William figured it was a brothel. I will ask her to please lie. Will she tell him I had sex? In the distance, an army patrol went by.
William was relieved when he discovered it wasn’t a brothel. A dim light shone in the mist of nothing but darkness. Rhodias and others drank by the bar; William stood small among men and women, and his brother did not make him drink. Rhodias sat in silence and in thought, drinking deep, and William watched him. They spent two hours in that place.
Then they drove farther into the east side. When Rhodias didn’t turn left but, slowly, continued straight, William felt somewhat confused, then abased and frail, and hope left him. He saw broken light signs for bars, brothels, and hotels. Farther ahead he began to throw glances at Rhodias. They had entered a neighborhood of large dwelling units¾old, two and three story buildings divided by narrow courtyards. Outside one or two of these, he had seen groups of men drinking, silent but alert.
William didn’t understand, but then he remembered times when Rhodias’ friends talked about their street fights. They are planning an attack, William thought, and anguish overtook him. He had never been in a fight and was mortified of violence and blood. William asked himself: Do they want me to take part? As they moved slow and fear engulfed him, William kept saying to himself: They all do, oh. “They all do,” he said out loud, but nobody responded. Distorted by anguish, he found a tear in the seat with his left hand, and thrust his fingers into it. Soon his whole hand was buried in the entrails of the seat, ruminating.
“Them,” Rhodias said. They had turned into a poorly lit street. Twentieth Street was the name. Up ahead, towards the middle of the block, there was a group of seven, maybe eight, men, speaking loud and drinking, and Rhodias had stopped the car. The men had noticed this and turned their attention to the strangers. Then Rhodias had said “Them,” and all at once they were out of the cars and running, fast but calculatedly, like long-jumpers, towards the group of men.
William held onto the top of the front seat and pulled himself forward, watching through the twilight of the lampposts. He saw how two of the men had run away, into the courtyard, and how Jan and someone else had gone after them. He saw how Rhodias, with all the impulse of his speed, charged at someone who was trying to escape as well, and how the guy collided with a wall and fell, inert. In an instant, Rhodias absorbed the impact, turned around, and¾the inertia of his spin collected in his right arm¾hit someone else’s head, anyone’s. The guy, solid and compact, resisted, and Rhodias had to hit him more before knocking him down. Then the man shriveled on the ground, trying to protect his head, his abdomen, and his genitals, but Rhodias kicked him till he spread out.
Still clutching the top of the seat and inadvertently bending it, William couldn’t assimilate any of this. Is Rhodias trying to kill him? Why is he still kicking him? Then he looked down and thought: the flesh is so malleable and so feeble at the same time. It can stand a hundred strokes, but a single one can take a soul away. How contradictory! William felt revolted, yet couldn’t stop watching.
One of Rhodias’ friends, upright but panting, looked for a moment at a body. Isolated cries broke the silence of the street. Another man broke loose and escaped in the direction of the cars. He ran without looking back, and approached with violent progression. Despite the night, William saw his sweating head and heard his frantic steps. He’s been told I am here, William thought, but the man’s dilated eyes were set on the street corner. He was about to pass him by when a suffocated knock and a strong exhalation were heard; a potent impact against the car followed, which began shaking from the force of the man and his attacker. William moved away on the seat, still watching. When, after a sharp crack, the man finally fell, William saw how the other man bent, with his arms against his knees, breathed heavily through his mouth, his attention set on the others, and rushed back.
There wasn’t much more to do, though. Some of the men had made it into the courtyard and some laid on the ground. One laid in a strange posture, arms stretched by the body, the shoulder against a lamppost and the head behind it. “Let’s fucking go!” cried one of Rhodias’ friends, after looking into the courtyard. Other men are on the way, William thought, to take revenge. No, we’re safe now, no, he thought. In a matter of seconds, randomly, they returned to the cars. One of them moved semicontracted and erratically, like an insect, because of pain in his testicles. Another kept turning and walking backwards, ready for a surprise. Rhodias did not hurry. Then they set off.
They still aren’t coming, William thought, as he turned his head to look back. His heartbeats were very pronounced. He was expecting an ambush at any moment, and he could not keep from his mind the image of Rhodias’ corpse. As his nape contracted, William looked through the space where the front seat belt hung. He wished to see an Army patrol, but the streets were lifeless. Speed up you idiot! he wanted to shout at Rhodias, who was driving slowly. Fifteen minutes later they were back on the west side.
One by one, the boys got out of the two cars. Jan’s turn to part came too, the last. After pulling in his car he came out. “Go to sleep,” he said to them, stooping to see William as well. “Go home,” he said afterwards, and William nodded.
They didn’t go home, however. “Why are you going that way?” William asked, the inside of his mouth and his lips turning white. “Why are you taking us back?” Then he said, not caring anymore what his brother would think of him, “Take me home.” For a moment he thought that they were going back to the bar. He knew the bar had closed, but he started to believe it. Then he admitted it could not be possible, and he opened the window completely. He never opened it at night, but he opened it this time: he felt trapped, and a wind cold and sharp as winter struck him. Later he managed to say, “Let me out.” Sunk in fear, he barely heard himself saying it; he wasn’t even sure he had spoken. Rhodias stopped the car and waited for him to get out, but William didn’t.
When they got to Twentieth Street, Rhodias made the left turn and stopped the car. Twenty, maybe twenty-five yards ahead was the unit. William had hoped there would be nobody there, that the ones left standing had attempted a rescue, warned others not to go out, and locked their doors. But no, the night didn’t lie: there were three men right outside the courtyard. Perhaps one of the former had explained how a group of trained youngsters had appeared and beaten them. Perhaps a number of men from the unit were perambulating the empty surrounding streets, in an absurd search for the group. It was true: there were three men down the street. Clearly lit by the car’s headlights, the men seemed to hesitate. How could the attackers have come back? Something was wrong. Yes, they’d gathered a larger group and were going to strike again. They were ready to rush into the courtyard, to get backup. It couldn’t be possible that only one guy was stepping out of the car. That he was heading towards them. They expected more men to appear suddenly, to surprise them from the other end of the street. But the attacker was alone.
Rhodias had turned off the car lights and left the engine running. “Let’s not go,” William had said, grabbing him uselessly. When Rhodias shut the door, William asked for courage, had not received it, disbelieved in God, and felt so disturbed and damaged he had to turn his head away. “Come on girl, watch for yourself! See how they put an end to your brother’s life!” And he looked up. Pushing himself against the back of the seat, he watched.
What William saw then was a somber, distant place, with Rhodias and the three men in it. In that place, Rhodias fought hard and resisted, but was eventually knocked down with what seemed to be a bat.
This was all William saw. Two spaced-out shouts were then heard in the empty street. The second one made him tremble. At the foot of the enclosing blocks, the men were dragging someone in one direction, then in a different one. What have I done! William thought. What did I do to him! William got out of the car to run away. As he got out discomposedly, he heard one of the men say, “Look, the boy!” and William ran. Turning right at the corner, he ran east.
William felt that two or three men were very close behind him¾the others, he thought, are still beating Rhodias. He heard the men’s speed, the sound of heavy breathing. They’ll take me back and beat me to death before him. Oh Lord, oh Lord! He ran more. His legs didn’t want to stop. Neither did his arms. But very soon the air was rusting in his throat. Any time now I’ll be running out of breath, my legs will quit responding, they’ll have burned out. He stretched his neck, William did, and raised his mouth. Then he couldn’t carry on. Down on the ground, on hands and knees, he felt suffocated and faint, no matter how much he gasped. Under the curb of his armpit he saw behind the long street.
William kept trying to breathe. It occurred to him to get help, to turn to somebody. He made himself stand up, look for a public telephone. “It’s me,” he said minutes later, still panting. “What’s the matter? What’s going on?” “They’ve got him Jan.” “Where are you?” Jan asked him. “William, listen… I need to know where you are.” William took a step or two back and looked up, but didn’t see any sign. Then he said, “Near the bar, on that street.” “Wait there William, you hear me? Wait for me there.”
William waited there anxiously. He kept walking from one side of the street to the other, in a straight line and diagonally, biting the knuckle of his forefinger and producing at times an internal, piercing sound, as if an animal agonized inside of him. A chill ran down his body and the belief that they were done with Rhodias went through his brain, like a long, thin needle. A car passed at a point, and William jumped from the sidewalk to make it stop, waving his arms, but the driver sped up and escaped.
“Here!” William shouted when the lights of a car appeared a few blocks down the street. The car approached spasmodically, stopping short and accelerating with full power, until Jan became visible. “Here!” William shouted again, although Jan was already pulling over. The car hadn’t come to a full stop when William opened the back door and got in. “Hurry, that way!” William said, his thorax wedged between the two front seats. “Did you go back?” Jan asked, the car barreling down the street. William didn’t answer. “Hurry!” he said instead. The clear image of Rhodias behind the wheel, outside Jan’s home, came to his mind. Then the memory of a sound assailed him for the first time: sock. Sock, the sound of the bat on Rhodias’ chest. “They hit him hard, Jan!” he said.
In no time they were turning left on Twentieth Street. Jan had turned off the headlights and was going very slow. Rhodias could be anywhere, in the middle of the street or on the sidewalk. Besides, men could be waiting for them. “Do you see him?” Jan asked again, but William wasn’t looking. Then they got, still going very slow, to the unit. This time William turned to look. Jan didn’t stop, he wanted to go unnoticed, but William saw the courtyard. Barely lit by the street, it penetrated the shadows with its two tall, geometrical walls. William imagined Rhodias’ body, unreachable in that passageway. His eyes on the window’s dirt, William asked at a point: “What?” “I said,” Jan responded, “we have to call the reserve.” Jan went around the adjacent block, making left turns, and stopped the car when Twentieth Street became wholly visible. “William. . . William. . . listen to me. . . keep an eye on the unit. I’m going to make a phone call. . . Do you hear me?” William nodded. Jan got out of the car and, vigilant, went to the public telephone on the corner opposite. William knew he wasn’t far, but the vision of the empty, cold street, and the opening of the courtyard halfway down made him understand his aloneness, one of hundreds of years, and anguish pierced his chest. William thought of his mother, but he felt unworthy of her, and in his head she became a monster. Not even she could save him. Only his brother could. Then it occurred to him. An idea gradually filled him, and it brought along such a quantity of truth that it inspired him to realize it. He heard Rhodias’ voice, not reproving him anymore but encouraging him, and he received strength from him. There was no time to lose. William got out of the car. Then he ran down Twentieth Street up to the unit and, raising his head above a white wave of fear, entered the shadows of the courtyard.