Everybody Knows Borges!
by Grove Koger
They called the village Borges and themselves—its few inhabitants—Borges as well. This was not at all confusing, as when you mentioned what Borges had done or was doing or was about to do, everyone knew whom you meant. The slightest gesture—a sly wink, a reference to her rolling gait or his withered arm—that was all it took, and so habituated were the inhabitants to each other that the gestures or references came unconsciously. But they were sufficient. After all, they were fond of saying to each other, “Everybody knows Borges!” When the women gathered after the evening meal to spin their yarn, there was talk of infant Borges and aging Borges—Borges had done this, Borges had done that, did you see what Borges was doing behind his shack? Meanwhile the men gathered in a kind of rude cantina a little way off, where the talk was of hunting and fishing and cerveza and what that pretty young Borges had been up to now.
In truth the village lay about equidistant from the capital and the sea, both of which its inhabitants regarded as the merest of abstractions, empty words, fantasmas. For how could there be places other than this place? How could there be water with only one bank to contain it? No, there was only Borges. This was the world, and there was nothing else.
Yet one day a strangely dressed person who was not Borges appeared in the middle of the village. He claimed to be from the capital, which they were certain did not really exist, and he produced bottles and sharp little sticks and pale little sheets of something-or-other from his pack. He was, he said, to carry out a thing he called una censo for another thing called el gobierno. He would need a room and a bed and an assistant—he pointed his finger at an unfortunate soul who stood at the front of the gathering crowed—to bring the people one by one to him to be counted.
The stranger’s very appearance, not to mention his announcement, which undoubtedly hid some sinister meaning, provoked consternation. The spinning stopped and the yams smoldered in the fire. The women comforted their infants, who wailed uncontrollably at the sight of the stranger. Meanwhile the men called off the day’s hunt to gather in the undergrowth beyond the latrine behind the cantina, where they drank cerveza and muttered among themselves. What was the significance of the stranger? Should they slay him? (Here they fingered their daggers thoughtfully.) Would there be repercussions? Years ago a man dressed in a black robe and calling himself a padre had arrived at the village, talking of many abstruse and clearly impossible things, and him they had simply ignored until he took himself away. Was this perhaps another kind of padre, one in a different uniform? The men muttered on and on and drank more and more, but when the poor assistant, who was half-crazed with fear, came to get the first of them, he went meekly.
Now it was the stranger’s turn to be perplexed, then befuddled. The first man was named Borges, that he understood, but was that a first or a last name? It was his only name? The stranger sighed, told the villager to stand a short distance off, and told the assistant to fetch the next man. This man too gave his name as Borges, at which the stranger slapped him and sent the assistant back for another subject, this time a woman. But the woman claimed that her name, too, was Borges. And on and on. Everyone in the village, it seemed, was Borges, they were all Borges. Even the assistant, who was obviously a cretin (it should have been obvious from the slope of his forehead) insisted that his name was Borges.
This was, concluded the stranger, who had studied a little while at the university in the capital, una crisis epistemological. Having delivered himself of this formulation—and how splendidly it rolled off the tongue!—he called for a plate of meat and dos cervezas and retired to his room to rest.
The stranger awoke the next morning refreshed and invigorated. He asked his host and hostess whether he might have coffee, and a few minutes later was brought a bowl of frothy liquid that, if it was not coffee, was certainly better than nothing. He asked if he might have breakfast, and after some time was brought a plate of some kind of grain that had been crushed and then boiled. His bowl was refilled. It was the plainest meal he had eaten since he was a child, but he felt satisfied.
During the night he had reached a conclusion. After all, he had his orders—orders!—and he would carry them out. He was to make a count by recording names, and since he clearly could not record six—seven?—dozen individuals all named Borges, then, therefore, he would record six or seven dozen names that were not Borges. It was an elegantly simple solution.
Calling forth his half-witted assistant again—the poor man did not appear to have slept a wink—the stranger asked him to bring the villagers to him again, but this time family by family. Just as unnerved today by the stranger’s kind manner as he had been yesterday by his angry one, the assistant quickly produced a frightened couple and their two squirming sons.
Regarding the tiny group benignly, the stranger said, “I believe that you are Señor”—he cast his mind back to his days at the university—“let us say, Columbus, Christopher Columbus. And your wife”—here his recall failed him, and he dredged his childhood memories for a female name, any name—“Elena!” He stood and bowed to the ashen woman, who, expecting that he was about to strike her, took a step back. “And your lovely sons are Camilo and, yes, José.” He wrote the names out on sheets of paper in his ornate script, blotted both documents carefully, and handed one to the man, who accepted it with great reluctance. The stranger then dismissed them with a nod of his head and asked his assistant to bring another family.
This couple—Señor and Señora Copperfield, as they turned out to be—had three children, a son and two daughters. Next came a young man and his pregnant wife, and next another couple with two sons. Next still were the couple from whom he had commandeered a room—Señor and Señora Capulet—and their buxom daughter, whom he pronounced Juliet. By the time he had christened five more families, large and small, the stranger realized that his task was going to be more taxing than he had at first imagined. He had not, after all, spent that much time at the university. So after bestowing the surname Quixote on one particularly skinny old man and his tiny wife, the stranger called for tres cervezas and retired to his room to rest again. At this rate he would be at least another day at the village, but he saw distinctly where his duty lay.
Odysseus, Holmes, Faust, Cortés. Pedro, Camila, Arturo, Teresa. Elena again. Several Marias—after all, people generally shared a small number of first names, which made the stranger’s job somewhat easier when it finally occurred to him. And so it went. The stranger spent another night and the newly christened villagers muttered among themselves dispiritedly. What should they do? What did the strange symbols on the hateful little sheets mean? (They had handled them no more than absolutely necessary.) Had they all been hexed? (Here the men fingered their private parts gingerly.)
On the fourth morning the stranger arose, consumed his breakfast of ersatz coffee and boiled grain, packed up his few belongings, and strolled for a few moments through the village. He appeared, the villagers noted warily, tired but satisfied. He nodded benignly to them all, glanced once more at the hovel that had been his temporary home, then proceeded back down the path that had brought him there.
After watching the stranger go, the villagers turned to each other. Was it over? What had it meant? What would happen now? Suddenly they exploded in an angry outburst. The men shouted and the women screamed back at them. The children wailed and the dogs slunk off into the undergrowth.
Then the melee ended as suddenly as it had begun. As if with one mind—which was, after all, very nearly the truth—the villagers gathered up the hateful little sheets, threw them into the cooking pit, covered them with a week’s worth of limbs and branches, and set them afire. The men grabbed their spears and raced into the undergrowth, where, with the help of their delighted dogs, they slew two pigs in short order. Gutted them on the spot, carried them back to the village swinging from poles. Called for muchas cervezas while the younger men tended the waning fire and cast in the pigs and covered them with mud.
It would be early morning before the pigs were roasted, but a great weight had been lifted from the villagers’ shoulders and a first-rate carouse was called for. Now the talk was of how—they hesitated, regarded each other warily—how—how that cunning Borges had bamboozled the stranger! How that brave Borges had slain first one pig and then another! What a fine big fire that Borges has built!
It was three weeks later that the buxom young woman whom the stranger had vainly tried to name Juliet began to feel out of sorts, and two months before the cause of her illness became obvious to her distraught mother, who in turn broke the news to her unsuspecting father, who in turn created a terrific scene, cursing and stamping. Hearing the commotion, the other villagers put two and two together and knew right away what that idiot Borges must be yelling about, then went back to sleep. After all, these things happen.
The young woman felt shame and anguish, of course, but pride and a kind of enveloping warmth as well. The stranger had chosen her. And after all, these things happen.
Would it be a boy? A girl? She had no idea, but she knew what she would name it: Borges.
About the Author
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (Scarecrow Press, 2002) and Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. He blogs at worldenoughblog.wordpress.com.