“O Defunto” by Ceará-born writer and diplomat Thomaz Lopes was first published in the anthology “Histórias de Vida e Morte” (“Stories of Life and Death”), in 1907.
When he woke up, stretched out inside a narrow black and gold coffin, his hands were put together in one last prayer. Uncertainly, he cast his eyes about him, and all around there was silence and darkness. He tried to raise his hands towards his eyes, but they were trapped, stuck. Then it occurred to him that he was dead.
The air was so heavy! The darkness surrounding him so deep! Where was he? His bedroom? On his bed? Such a strange bed, so narrow and hard! And why had he fallen asleep with his shoes on? Why was he dressed so formally? Perhaps he’d come back home drunk from a party? And his hands were tied! It was so hard breathe! Ah! What a painful, slow agony.
Once again, he stretched out his arms, the ribbon that bound them together snapped, and his cold hands slammed against the woodboards. He touched his icy fingers to his face then snapped them back, startled. His face felt dead, like that of a corpse. His mind recalled a vague memory of malaise and loss of senses.
He felt the lid above him…the lid of a coffin!
Overwhelmed with a relentless fear of himself, an ineffable feeling of disgust in regards to the ‘corpse’ beside him, he breaks out of the coffin and gets up, decided to flee, but he runs into a wall, a cold and grey marble wall. He’s then assaulted by the immediate, concrete certainty of having been buried alive, a prisoner of death, thrown inside a dungeon. Within the silence and darkness, suspended between madness and death, he takes two steps, then stumbles.
As his feet felt their way in the dark, they found a step which he then climbed, then another one, and another, and others still. Oh, it was such a deep catacomb! Raising his hand towards a sky oh-so-distant from the abyss that engulfed him, all he could find was the cold slab of the ceiling.
He tries to force it open, to no avail. He sucks in deep gulps of air through an open crack on the stone, then makes another attempt to raise it. In vain! It was a marble sepulchre, built as if to protect the body from the worms and the dust. That was only a crack letting in enough air to keep the prisoner alive. The stairs led up and down without leading anywhere but a slab of marble meant to open only to to bury the dead, not to save the living… Oh iIt had to be a church vault!
He continues to struggle to lift the stone, but the pointless effort only leads to is exhaustion, and with exhasution comes dejection, despair. Then, like a madman, or rather a man with excessive sense who upon seeing the livid arms of Death open to him, throws himself into their embrace instead of fleeing, he, resignedly, descends. As he descends, blind and deranged, his body slams against the marble wall, and he screams. His voice rose and fell, muffled like the echo of a distant crack of thunder sealed inside a deep cave. Now, serene and calm, as if carrying an extinguished sun inside his heart and lightless stars in his eyes, he once again climbs the steps of light and death.
The first attempt has all the same calm and serenity with which he climbed the steps, it has intent and strength, but the stone doesn’t move. The anguish of his prolonged suffering shatters the resolve of his actions. With a painful push, veins engorged, muscles tensed under the omnipotence of his own strength, eyes bulging from their sockets, he tries desperately to move a slab of stone that may imprison him forever. Hopeless task! His tears seem to suffocate him, caught in his throat as he feels his nails break and tear away from his flesh, gushing blood.
Overcome with exhaustion and pain, he lets himself fall, and his frail body tumbles down the steps like a sinister burden, stopping at the foot of the cold and grey staircase.
Sleep overtakes him. And with the fog of sleep comes the mad fantasy of dreams.
Vague and tenuous. So vague and so tenuous in fact, so free of suffering it was, that the trickster spirit of dreams cleared his mind, in the same way the first rays of sunlight lift the veil of mist that covers the city on a cold morning.
His dream grows wide and large, but always gray and uncertain.
It was a deep, starlit night. The sky high up above was an immense soft velvet. The sky and the night embraced a city he didn’t quite know, even though it felt familiar. There were old places that he loved, but in these known places — not a single soul! Only shadows. He walked on and, whenever exhaustion and rest opened their inviting arms, stronger hands pushed him forward as a sinister voice yelled: “March! March!” His legs were heavy, numb; the self-protective need of rest flooded his weakened body. As he made his way along different paths, these paths changed: here flowering, fragrant gardens, vast meadows, long prairies, houses that ran away into the shadows, there, thick and parched heaths and alleys exuding rot. He walked by cemeteries, and as he passed the dead would rise, covered in dust and secrets, and followed him for long and painful minutes. The trees took on the haunting form of owls, and the stars, fading in the sky, turned the atmosphere grey and dull like the cold marble of his grave. And yet in the silence, in the night and in the darkness – the dead man walked.
Suddenly, like the white edge of a distant beach appears to the dazed, inquiring eyes of the castaway, a happy idea was born inside his exhausted spirit a: that night of madness and haunting fell right on the date of his fiancée’s birthday, and for such a beautiful occasion there would certainly be an equally beautiful party. He was surely late, and they must still be waiting for him. With renewed energy, an overwhelming desire to see, hear, feel, want, palpitate, to love and to live washed over his soul with a the caressing touch of life. He rushed his step, then ran. However, as he turned around, he thought he saw a shadow slipping away. His hair stood on end, a chill of fear rushed over his body from top to bottom, and he fled, terrified, clumsily running as if something was coming for him. Every time his feet touched the ground, the ground beneath them resounded, as if his feet were made of lead. Then, stunned, he felt as his body grew lighter, with a sigh of pleasure and relief as he floated up in the air and started to fly. Up he went, through the gray layer of the sky, till the sky turned black. As he rose highers, his eyes marveled before the blue, a blue so pure, so clear human eyes couldn’t even dream it. High above, so immensely far away, the stars shone in the glorious splendor of immortal clarity. Far below, near the Earth, the loving moon of poets slowly disappeared. His human eyes almost went blind when he contemplated Sirius. Among the stars, the heavens opened and those same dazzled eyes saw multiple suns and above them stood the gentle Jesus of the humble souls. Near Christ, two shadow appeared and slowly materialized into shapes the Deceased could recognise: himself and his bride! Her! But how could “he” be there, hidden, contemplating the happiness of the another “he”! Jesus smiled. Jesus blessed them. And they flew. Ah! If only e he could follow their flight!… When he tried to fly, his wings fell apart and fell, tumbling down till he touched the Earth, only to resume his run through lonely roads and wilderness. Turning his face again, he saw the same figure that had accompanied him. Overcome with fear, he ran faster until a thick hedge blocked his path on a bend along the way. Scared, he retreated, passing by the figure who opened its arms to him. In the same mad dash, he ran away, through planes, bare steppes, dead roads, cold and gray. He mourned the loss of his happy wings and remembered the shadow that would not leave him. But if he was dead, why were they chasing him? And the more the shadow advanced, the further away he was from his bride! The figure was close to touching him… – But he was a corpse, and as a dead man, he should be the one to frighten the living… He turned, but whoever that figure was, all he did was laugh right at his fearful face. More intense then was the dread of himself and of that shadow that could be no other than his very own soul… It approached, tripping on shadows, following him… All was lost! He had no more strength! Courage! A light shone in the distance; oh! what delight, what joy! It was his bride’s House! One more step! Forward! Someone followed him, almost reaching him; but he was saved! It was her house, the sound of an orchestra, the lights, it was salvation! A little heart, a little courage more! Before his body dashed against the gray, cold marble of his sepulchre, it seemed to him the dark figure opened its arms. And it also seemed that they were the frozen arms of Death…
A ray of sun, thin and frail, poured through the open crack in the stone.
He woke up sweating, burning up with fever. A sluggish worm crawled over his livid face. He tried to scream, but only a cavernous grunt came out of his mouth, terrifying him. He moved his arms to make sure he was alive, and in the darkness his arms slammed against the wall.
He then thought of his dream — and sadly remembered his bride’s birthday was, indeed, coming soon. What was the date of his death? Who knew if it wasn’t on that same festive day exactly! All of his past erupted, tumultuous, from the shadows, and he saw the long hours of contemplation or melancholy when his whole being was a believer, worshipping an idol. And again, suddenly, he contemplated his state of death.
Long hours went by; the sunbeam disappeared; a bell tolled in the distance, funereal and plaintive, probably announcing the Hail Mary. The sound of sad bronze reached his ears speaking of life and freedom. Freedom! The endless delight! Ah! How agonising to die like this, fully conscious, yet lonely, defenseless, abandoned, without even the chance of a fight, without the possibility of salvation! Why did they bury him alive? A thousand times he cursed the criminal stupidity that had delivered him to his death! He broke into tears, sobbing and suffering incessantly, weeping hopelessly till he fell asleep, just waiting for Death.
Upon waking up, in the morning of the next day, he saw the ribbon of sun — the only thing bringing the caress of a visit to his grave.
Surprised to find he was still buried, he tried to get up and felt as if he was about to faint. He felt devouring hunger and burning thirst. Ah! Forty-eight long, endless hours with no food or drink! No drink! His stomach was empty and cold, and his tongue dry, crackling. Again he tried to get up and again he failed. A whole day long as the desert and a whole night hollow as silence he had spent, either in deep drowsiness or awakened by the strangling desire of food and drink.
Again he saw the sun, which should be day; which should have been life!
The buried man heard a tiny squeak at his feet; his eyes glinted with delight and, reaching his stiff hands, he caught a rat, alive and soft. His lips opened in an unhinged smile when, starving and bestial, brought the rat to his mouth as the disgusting animal squealed and squirmed between his teeth. Oh! but the thirst! That repulsive meat had only made it worse! It made him hungrier! Then, in an herculean effort, he got up, stared into the darkness for a moment, in deep, profound, still concentration. Suddenly he howled like a caged beast, he tore his clothes off, ripping them to shreds and, naked and savage, weeping in despair, sunk his teeth into the pale flesh of his arm, taking off bites of it. The blood gushed out in red, foamy waves, and he drank it all, moving his head from one side to the other, cupping the liquid with his hand so he wouldn’t waste a single drop of that thick, warm blood going down his throat and into his starving stomach.
Letting out a growl, he ran twice into the wall, splitting his head open. More blood poured out, covering his face like a scarlet mask. He had gone mad.
Again, and for the last time, he climbed up the stairs. He knelt down, gritting his teeth, and put his hands together for one final, accursed prayer, then finally went still, stiff and naked, bathed in crimson blood, dead and cold as the gray marble of a grave…