The Return – Intermediate Level
In 1965, I was twenty-three years old and was studying to become a high school language and literature teacher. An early, September spring was in the air, and very, very early one morning, I was studying in my room. My house was the only apartment building in that block, and we lived on the sixth floor.
I was feeling sort of lazy, and every now and then I would look out the window. From there I could see the street and, just across it, the carefully kept garden of old Don Cesareo whose house was on the corner. The garden was in front to the house at the corner. It was separated from the street level by a low iron fence and three stone steps.
Next to Don Cesareo’s stood the beautiful home of the Bernasconi family. They were lovely people who used to do nice, kind things. They had three daughters, and I was in love with the oldest, Adriana. So, every once in a while I would look toward the other side of the street. This was more out of a habit of the heart than because I expected to see her at such an early hour.
As he did early every morning, old Don Cesareo was outside watering and caring for his much loved garden.
Our part of the street was empty, so my attention was immediately drawn to a man who appeared in the next block. He was advancing toward us along the same sidewalk that ran in front of the homes of Don Cesareo and the Bernasconis. Why wouldn’t my attention be attracted by that man, since he was a beggar, and a rainbow of dark-colored rags?
Bearded and thin, his head was covered by a yellowish, misshapen straw hat. Despite the heat, he was wearing a torn, grayish overcoat. In addition, he was carrying a huge, dirty bag. I assumed he kept the remains of food and other things he collected from people in it.
I continued to observe. The beggar stopped in front of Don Cesareo’s house and asked him for something through the iron bars of the fence. Don Cesareo was a mean old man with an unpleasant manner. Without saying anything, he simply made a sign with his hand as if to send the man on his way. But the beggar would not go. He kept on asking in a low voice, and then I heard the old man shout clearly:
“Go on, you, get out of here, and don’t bother me!”
However, the beggar still did not go away. Now he even went up the three stone steps and tried to open the iron gate. Then, losing his limited patience completely, Don Cesareo gave him a strong push. The beggar slipped on the wet stone, tried unsuccessfully to take hold of a bar, and fell violently to the ground. At the same moment, I saw his legs fly up towards the sky, and I heard the sharp crack of his head as it struck the first step.
Don Cesareo ran down to the street, bent over him, and felt his chest. Frightened, the old man immediately took him by the feet and pulled him a few meters away from the steps. He then went into his house and shut the door, in the certainty that no-one had seen his accidental crime.
The only witness was me. Soon a man passed by and he stopped next to the dead man. Then came others and still others, and the police came too. The body was put in an ambulance and taken away.
That’s all there was to it, and the matter was never spoken of again.
For my part, I was very careful not to open my mouth. I probably behaved badly, but there was no reason for me to make trouble for an old man who had never done anything to hurt me? On the other hand, he hadn’t meant to kill the beggar. It didn’t seem right to me that a legal proceeding should take the enjoyment out of the final years of his life. I thought the best thing would be to leave him alone with his conscience.
Little by little, I gradually forgot the event. However, every time I saw Don Cesareo, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like the idea that he didn’t know I was the only person in the world aware of his terrible secret. From then on, I don’t know why, I kept away from him, and I never dared to speak to him again.
* * * * *
In 1969 I was twenty-six years old and had my degree in the teaching of the Spanish language and literature. Adriana Bernasconi hadn’t married me but some other man. Who knows whether he loved or deserved her as much as I did?
Around that time, Adriana was pregnant and very close to delivery. She still lived in the same beautiful house as always, and she herself looked more beautiful every day. Very early that hot, December morning I was giving private lessons to a few young high school boys who had to take an examination. As usual, every now and then I would look sadly at the house across the street.
Suddenly, my heart missed a beat. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Approaching along exactly the same path as four years before was the beggar whom Don Cesareo had killed. He had on the same dark-colored rags, the grayish overcoat, the misshapen straw hat, and was carrying the dirty bag.
Forgetting my students, I walked quickly to the window. The beggar was gradually shortening his steps, as if he were already near his destination.
“He’s come back to life,” I thought, “and he’s come to take revenge on Don Cesareo.”
However, now walking on the old man’ s sidewalk, the beggar passed in front of the iron fence and continued on. Then he stopped before Adriana Bernasconi’s door, pushed down on the handle, and entered the house.
“I’ll be right back!” I said to the students. Then, mad with worry, I took the lift down, ran outside and across the street, and went into Adriana’s house.
Her mother was standing by the door, as if ready to leave. “Well, hello there, stranger!” she said. “You … ? Here … ? Will miracles never stop today?!”
She had always liked me. She put her arms around me and kissed me, but I didn’t understand what was going on. I then learned that Adriana had just become a mother, and they were all very pleased and excited. I could do no less than shake her husband’s hand.
I didn’t know how to ask, and debated whether it would be better to remain silent or not. I then reached a decision.
“Actually, I let myself in without ringing the door bell,” I said, acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary. “I thought I saw a beggar with a big, dirty bag come into your house. I was afraid he might be getting in to steal something.”
They looked at me in surprise: “beggar? bag? to steal?” Well, they had been in the living room the whole time and didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Then I must surely be mistaken,” I said.
They then invited me into the room where Adriana and her baby were. In situations like that, I never know what to say. I congratulated her, kissed her, looked at the little baby, and asked what name they were going to give him. They told me Gustavo, like his father; I would have liked the name Fernando better, but said nothing.
Back at home, I thought: “That was the beggar whom old Don Cesareo killed, I’m sure of it. He didn’t return to take revenge, though, but rather to be born again as Adriana’s child.”
However, two or three days later, this idea seemed silly to me, and I gradually forgot it.
* * * * *
And I would have forgotten it completely if it weren’t for the fact that in 1979 something happened which made me remember it.
Further on in years now I seemed to want to do less and less with each passing day. I was reading next to the window, and then I allowed my eyes to look outside.
Adriana’s son, Gustavo, was playing on the flat roof-top sitting area above his house. That was certainly a rather childish game for someone his age. I thought the boy’s low level of intelligence must have come from his father. Had he been my son, he would certainly have found a better way to spend his time.
He had placed a row of empty cans on the dividing wall and was trying to knock them over with stones thrown from three or four meters away. Naturally, almost all the stones were falling into the neighboring garden of Don Cesareo. It occurred to me that the old man, who was not there at the time, was going to be very angry when he discovered a large number of his flowers destroyed.
And just at that moment, Don Cesareo came out of the house into the garden. He truly was very old and had to walk with great care, putting down now one foot and then the other, so as not to fall. With frightful slowness he walked to the garden gate and prepared to come down the three steps that led down to the sidewalk.
At the same time, Gustavo – who didn’t see the old man – finally hit one of the cans. It bounced two or three times on different parts of the houses, and fell with a loud noise into Don Cesareo’s garden. Don Cesareo, who was coming down the short stairway, jumped in fright at hearing the noise. In a sudden short motion he fell wildly out of control, and hit his head on the first step.
I saw all of this, but neither the child had seen the old man, nor the old man the child. For some reason, Gustavo then left the flat roof-top. In a few seconds, a lot of people had already gathered around Don Cesareo’s body. It was obvious to all that an accidental fall had been the cause of his death.
The next day, I got up very early and immediately sat down by the window. Don Cesareo’s wake was being held in the house. There were several persons smoking and talking out on the sidewalk.
A bit later, out of Adriana Bernasconi’s house came the beggar. Once again he was wearing his rags, his overcoat, his straw hat, and carrying his bag. The group of men and women outside Don Cesareo’s house stood to one side with worried looks on their faces as he walked toward them. He walked past them, and very slowly disappeared off into the distance, in the same direction from which he had come two times.
Later that day I learned that sadly, but not to my surprise, Gustavo was not found in his bed that morning. The Bernasconi family carried out a desperate search which, with stubborn hope, has continued to the present day. I never had the heart to tell them to give it up.