Antônio Xerxenesky
Mouthful of Grit

Translated by Alex Forman


“And the dead will return to life!” exclaimed the shaman at night and the cry echoed and was heard. The sky was purple cast, sparse and wispy clouds sliced the moon. And there was fear. There was fear all around. Today men fear ridiculous things, in the past they feared night and death. It didn’t matter if you had a gun in your holster. The shaman’s statement made hair stand on end, everywhere. It shook spirits. The youth asked the sorcerer for details; was provided vagary and mystery. All of this came to pass a long time ago in a universe that now seems distinct. History is legend. It is myth. Details distort and precision is lost. People like myself fill tomes with a little imagination. We invent facts. We invent thought. From our knowledge of cinema, we mystify. For better or for worse, fooling around gives a certain quality, a lightness. What I am to recount is the story of my ancestors and the tensions that grew little by little, culminating in resurrection. No. I've lied. I'll tell about a city, a town where my ancestors lived, where the Ramirez and the Marlowes existed, and then left off existing. Of the town little remains. Search for it on a map or atlas; you won’t find a thing. Whenever the sun penetrates the curtains, announcing the long-awaited return of the dead, I get up and watch the world put itself in motion. Cars shred avenues, people run late. I imagine my ancestors lived in an era that was far worse. I repeat fragments of their story in my head. Ours is a better world. Death, now, does not arrive in an exhale. Nor in a grain of sand. Believe me. I’m closer to the end than to the beginning. Wrinkles weigh my eyes down, and my graying hair thins. I accompany this process before the mirror. If there is a subject that interests me it is Death. There is no character more suited to the task of telling this story.
Furthermore, carried by emotion, I've begun my narrative at the wrong point, I will rewind about a week, a month, to a time when Martin Ramirez still lived and breathed, long before the shaman yelled anything. I will begin again, in the sand, with Mavrak’s eternal footprint. No. I'll begin at again night, since it occupies every corner of the earth and arrives, inevitably, with the death of day for man.


The night trembled in pronouncement of torment. The large Marlowe house was rigid and impotent, a challenge to the world and to life. Fluid bubbled up in Martin’s stomach as he wandered the streets of Mavrak, ghost-like under his dark poncho. Lit from time to time by distant lighting, his face was a mountainous landscape. He eyes hid any sign of doubt. Fondling the gun in its holster gave him a dose of courage, injected straight to the veins that ran through his entire organism. Martin Ramirez knew what he had to do. He felt a presence in the dark, watching him, conferring that he was really going ahead with his mission. Martin tried to convince himself that his objective was simple and clear. In fact, it could not be “clear,” orders came from a source whose motives were anything but transparent. And, he was a mercenary, contract labor. He wouldn’t receive a gold medal for this. Damn it! Best not to think about it. Just do it. How difficult to penetrate darkness through a window and find a basement? He is certain that Steve and Leon Marlowe are at McCoy’s Saloon, and that whisky has been stocked. Mother Marlowe is in her room on the second floor, the light gives her away. So, why does he tremble? Nervous? What are the chances of being caught red-handed? Only if Mrs. Marlowe hears something and decides to come downstairs, carrying a gun. Martin has nothing to fear. As a little boy he practiced being subtle as a breeze. His father, Miguel Ramirez, was very friendly with the Indians and left his son Martin for months with a small tribe. Tribe lies in the past, skeletons under the sand, decimated by white gunmen. Their legacy exists in Martin’s mind alone. He is trained to be silent. A hand rests on his shoulder. Martin swallows his fear and, turns, but is already fully aware of who the person is—the only one capable of approaching unnoticed. “Dad. Dammit! You want to give me a heart attack?” “You've circled the house enough, son.” “I’m going, Dad.” “There is little time.” His father spits on the ground, and reaches for more tobacco in his pocket. He continues in a dryer tone of voice. “Have you seen your brother, Juan?” “No. Where is he? At home?” “At the Saloon. Listen. Say nothing to him.” “It never crossed my mind.” “Be careful.” “I’m a Ramirez, Dad.” “That doesn’t mean much nowadays, son.” Martin considers arguing, but his lips don’t move. His father walks away, and Martin finds himself alone in the Mavrak night again. As he approaches the house, he studies his own face in the window glass. Usually olive-skinned and striking, he is anemic, and considerable rings circle his dark eyes. The Marlowe house breaths calmly. The metal bar Martin places on the windowsill causes no disturbance. He wriggles inside touching down lightly on the wooden floorboards. Darkness complete; the lightning has past. Martin waits inert, controlling his inhale and exhale as much as possible until his pupils dilate and the living room shadows become slightly less intimidating. Even though he knew the geography of the room from earlier days, it is an arduous task to reach the staircase in the other corner without bumping into furniture. Silhouettes of the objects blur. He advances groping along the floor with care. In one suddenly, he dares light a match cupped in both hands. Intelligent strategy. If it were not for this minimal illumination, he would have knocked over an oil lamp. When the flame reaches the bottom of the matchstick, Martin blows it out with a timid breath, hiding the evidence in his boot. The floorboards groan audible, but only to Martin. In two minutes, he crossed the short distance to the basement door. He tried the cold knob, but the door wouldn't budge. Martin never thought it would be easy. He takes out a small tool to pick the lock working in darkness; his sense of touch and the almost inaudible metal knocks are his allies. He hears the definitive click of the lock. He reaches for the knob. The door opens with a yelp. It is completely dark. All that Martin sees is the top of a staircase. He moves forward a little and lights another match. His deception: at the bottom of the stair there is another door. He curses in his mind and descends. From behind the door, Martin has an impression of a muffled conversation and then silence. He puts his ear against the door. Nothing.
Then, he nearly went deaf. Missing Martin’s head by a matter of centimeters, a shot perforated the door and the silence. Splinters fell in his hair, and Martin forgetting his calm, runs to the window where he came from, his steps heavy and loud. He paused to look back only when he was already in Mavrak sand, leaving footprints. He stops running and walks lightly. Rational thought recovers: must not allow them to follow him. Turns to the right; turns to the left. His trajectory becomes improbable and circular, leaving false and confusing clues. At last, he takes off his shoes and goes home. He sits on the veranda. Lights a cigarette, an insignificant flame in the night.
Our Lord eviscerated the belly of the heavens and a furious storm was deployed above the town. “They didn’t follow me,” he thinks, “the rain will erase my tracks.” The following morning, Martin Ramirez is found dead.

Areia nos Dentes © Antônio Xerxenesky Translation © 2012 Alex Forman