TIME OF THE HERO (Chapter 1)
“Four,” the Jaguar said.
Their faces relaxed in the uncertain glow which the light bulb cast through the few clean pieces of glass. There was no danger for anyone now except Porfirio Cava. The dice had stopped rolling. A three and a one. Their whiteness stood out against the dirty tiles.
“Four,” the Jaguar repeated. “Who is it?”
“Me,” Cava muttered. “I said four.”
“Get going, then. You know which one, the second on the left.”
Cava felt cold. The windowless latrine was at the far end of the barracks, behind a thin wooden door. In other years the wind had only got into the barracks of the cadets, poking through the broken panes and the cracks in the walls, but this year it was stronger and hardly any place in the academy was free from it. At night it even got into the latrines, driving out the stink that accumulated during the day, and also the warmth. But Cava had been born and brought up in the mountains, cold weather was nothing new to him: it was fear that was giving him goose pimples.
“Is it over?” the Boa asked. “Can I go to bed?” He had a huge body, a deep voice, a shock of greasy hair over a narrow face. His eyes were sunken from lack of sleep, and a shred of tobacco dangled from his jutting lower lip. The Jaguar turned and looked at him.
“I have to go on guard at one,” the Boa said. “I want to grab a little sleep.”
“Go ahead, both of you,” the Jaguar said. “I’ll wake you up at five to.”
Curly and the Boa went out. One of them tripped on the threshold and swore.
“Wake me up as soon as you get back,” the Jaguar said to Cava. “And don’t take too long. It’s almost midnight.”
“I know it.” Usually Cava’s face was expressionless, but now it looked exhausted. “I’m going to get dressed.”
They left the latrine. The barracks was dark, but Cava could find his way along the two rows of double bunks without a light: he knew that long, tall room by heart. It was silent except for a few snores and murmurs. His bunk was the second on the right, about a yard from the outside door. As he groped in his locker for his trousers and his khaki shirt and his boots, he could smell the tobacco-sour breath of Vallano, who slept in the upper bunk. Even in the darkness he could make out the double row of the Negro’s big white teeth, and they reminded him of a rat. Slowly, quietly, he took off his blue flannel pajamas and got dressed. He put on his wool jacket and went down to the Jaguar’s bunk at the other end of the barracks, next to the latrine, walking carefully because his boots squeaked.
“Okay. Here, take them.”
Cava’s hand reached out and touched two hard, cold objects, one of them rough. He kept the flashlight in his hand and slipped the file into his pocket.
“Who’s on guard?” Cava asked.
“Me and the Poet.”
“The Slave’s taking my place.”
“What about the ones from the other sections?”
“Are you scared?”
Cava did not answer. He tiptoed to the outside door and opened it as carefully as he could, but it still creaked on its hinges.
“A crook!” somebody shouted in the darkness. “Kill him, sentry!”
Cava could not recognize the voice. He looked out into the patio. It was completely empty in the dim light from the lamps around the parade ground, which lay between the barracks and a weed-grown field. The drifting fog obscured the outlines of the three cement hulks where the Fifth Year cadets were quartered, making them look unreal. He went outside and stood for a few moments with his back against the barracks wall. He could not count on anyone now: even the Jaguar was safe. He envied the sleeping cadets, the noncoms, the soldiers in their barracks at the other side of the stadium. He knew he would be paralyzed by fear unless he kept going. He calculated the distance: he had to cross the patio and the parade ground; then, protected by the shadows in the field, he had to skirt the mess hall, the offices and the officers’ quarters; and finally he had to cross another patio—this one small and paved with cement—that faced the classroom building. The danger would end there, because the patrol never went that far. Then, the trip back to his barracks. In a confused way he wanted to lose his will and imagination and just carry out the plan like a blind machine. Sometimes he could go for several days following a routine that made all the decisions for him, gently nudging him into actions he hardly noted. This was different. What was happening tonight had been forced on him. He felt unusually clearheaded and he knew perfectly well what he was doing.
He began to walk, keeping close up to the wall. Instead of crossing the patio he went around it, following the curved wall of the Fifth’s barracks. When he came to the end of it he looked around anxiously: the parade ground seemed vast and mysterious, outlined by the symmetrically-placed lamps around which the fog was gathering. He could picture the shadowy field beyond the lamps. The sentries liked to stretch out there, either to sleep or to talk in whispers, when it was not too cold. But he was sure that tonight they were all gambling in one of the latrines. He began to walk quickly in the shadows of the buildings on his left, avoiding the splotches of light. The squeaking of his boots was drowned by the crash of the surf against the cliffs bordering one side of the Academy grounds. When he reached the officers’ quarters he shivered and walked even faster. Then he cut across the parade ground and plunged into the shadows of the field. A sudden movement near him, as startling as a blow, brought back all the fears he had begun to overcome. He hesitated for a moment; then he could make out the eyes of the vicuña, as bright as glowworms, regarding him with a wide, gentle stare. “Get out of here!” he said to it angrily. The animal remained motionless. That damned thing never sleeps, Cava thought. It doesn’t even eat. What keeps it alive? He moved on. Two and a half years ago, when he came to Lima to finish school, he was amazed to find that creature from the mountains wandering calmly among the gray, weather-beaten walls of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. Who had brought the vicuña to the Academy? From what part of the Andes? The cadets used him as a target, but the vicuña hardly paid any attention when the stones hit him. He simply walked away from the boys with a look of utter indifference. It looks like an Indian, Cava thought. He went up the stairs to the classrooms. He was not worried now about the sound of his boots: the building was empty except for the desks and the benches, the wind and the shadows. He crossed the upper lobby with long quick strides. Then he stopped. The faint beam of the flashlight showed him the window. The second on the left, the Jaguar had said. And yes, he was right, it was loose. Cava started gouging out the putty with the pointed end of the file, collecting it in his other hand. It felt damp and decayed. Then he carefully removed the pane of glass and laid it on the tile floor. He groped until he found the lock, and swung the window wide open. Inside, he turned his flashlight in every direction. On one of the tables, next to the mimeograph machine, there were three stacks of paper. He read: Bimonthly Examination in Chemistry, Fifth Year. Examination Time, 40 Minutes. The sheets had been mimeographed that afternoon and the ink was still somewhat moist. He copied the questions hurriedly into a notebook without understanding what they meant. He turned off the flashlight, went back to the window, climbed up and jumped. The pane of glass exploded into hundreds of strident splinters. “Shit!” he grunted. He remained crouching, listening, trembling with terror. But he could not hear the wild tumult he expected, the pistol-shot voices of the officers: only his own panting. He waited for a few more seconds. Then, forgetting to use the flashlight, he picked up the broken glass as well as he could and put it into his pockets. He walked back to his barracks without taking the slightest precaution. He wanted to get there as soon as he could, he wanted to climb into his bunk and shut his eyes. As he crossed the field he took the broken glass out of his pockets and threw it away, cutting his hands as he did so. He stopped for a moment in the doorway to his barracks, catching his breath. A dark shape loomed up in front of him.
“Okay?” the Jaguar asked.
“Let’s go in the latrine.”
The Jaguar went first, pushing at the double door with both hands. In the yellow light Cava could see that the Jaguar was barefoot, could see and smell his big pale feet with their long dirty toenails.
“I broke the glass,” he said in a low voice.
The Jaguar’s hands came at him like two white claws and fastened on the lapels of his jacket. Cava swayed backward but kept his eyes on those of the Jaguar, who was glaring at him from below his curled-up lashes.
“You peasant,” the Jaguar muttered. “You’re just a peasant. If they catch us, by God I’ll…”
He was still holding on to the lapels, so Cava put his hands on the Jaguar’s, timidly trying to loosen them.
“Keep your hands off!” the Jaguar said. “You’re just a peasant!” Cava could feel the spit spraying his face. He lowered his hands.
“There wasn’t anyone in the patio,” he said. “They didn’t see me.”
The Jaguar released him and stood nibbling the back of his hand.
“You know I’m not a squealer, Ja...