The Name that was Cursed

This story was passed down to me via a Pankararu indio who had survived, just as I had, the destruction of São Paulo in 1960, a full year after the Third World War. While the Walking Trees took the remains of the city apart brick by brick and reseeded the area, many of us fled north- and eastward into the interior, at least for a time. I was able to bring with me the contents of one leather case, which fortunately contained copies of Kipling, Kafka, and Gogol, but unfortunately lacked Poe, The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, and one other book that had been left by my bedside at the hotel in the immediacy of my flight. To lose those particular books at such a time, in such a way affected me more seriously than the loss of many of my acquaintances, and more than a few friends. I am not a man without virtues, but they are generally overwhelmed by my primary vices: sloth and greed (even if it is only greed for words).

I made my way back to my home, where I was subjected to the incivility of a number of inquiries, then the punishment of being put on the council as Chief Librarian, and, as a further insult, and finally the torture of being offered the Presidency. Rather than contribute any good to what society remained, I instead volunteered to become a diplomat of sorts, a wandering collector of tales and an advocate of peace and fraternity, even though it meant leaving behind my beloved library once again. At least I left it in the hands of my friend—and formerly my enemy—the poet Daneri, who, even if he could not be trusted to write verse, at least would take care of the books.

I traveled up the coastline and saw first-hand the ruins of São Paulo. Already the place was little more than a jungle, and already the Witch of São Paulo had taken up residence with her swarms of jaguars. I was able to enter the city for a few hours but was unable to locate either my hotel or the already semi-mythical woman before being driven away by the Walking Trees.

Chastened, I continued my way up the coast, where I was captured by indios and taken to their village. They had renounced or forgotten the use of both Portuguese and Spanish, and used a language amongst themselves that I did not know, but seemed a dialect of Jê.

In the village was the Pankararu from São Paulo, now an adoptee of the tribe. He spoke excellent Spanish as well as his native Portuguese (for he had been brought up in the city), and warned me that if I were to travel any further along the path next to the coast, I should reach a terrible place—a village full of Nazis.

I had been aware of the existence of Germans in Brazil and other South American nations after the Second World War, and I knew of their suspect origins. However, I was surprised that such a number of them had survived the Third World War as to constitute a village.

“Oh, yes,” the Pankararu said. “But you know that they are like cockroaches, the Nazis. They can survive anything—all they have to do is crawl under a rock.”

The Pankararu, who, like the rest of his tribe, would not mention his name, had not been known to me before the destruction of São Paulo, even though there were only a few thousand of us in the city at the time. I was a librarian and he a member of a gang who raided from the homes of the dead, who were generally allowed to sell their looted goods in exchange for burying the remains of those they had found.

(If only I had known of the gang’s existence, what use I should have made of them! For there must have been countless volumes still surviving in the houses of the city, which at the time stood eerily untouched. The bomb had done a great deal of physical damage in Atlanta in the United States from what I understand; however, by the time the annihilation reached the southern continent, it had become destructive—and, it could be argued, creative—only of living things. And so: until the Walking Trees destroyed them, the city was still filled with books, and the Pankararu’s gang could at least have been set to find the one whose loss I regretted most.)

I had with me in the indio village several notebooks of archival paper wrapped in oilcloth, which I filled alternately with journal notes, tales collected on my travels, and what snippets I could recall of Don Quixote, which filled several volumes altogether. The Pankararu, having invited me on behalf of the indios to stay as long as I liked, asked me what I was writing. I explained this to him, and he said, “I know a story, by God. Would you like to hear it?”

I affirmed that I would. He asked me whether I would write it down; I said that I would, but only after I had heard the tale.

“So that you can judge whether or not it is worthy?” he asked.

“So that I can judge whether anything extraneous has been added, or anything essential has been left out.”

He laughed at me and said that he was a perfect teller of stories, and that I would not need to change a word.

It was shortly after end of the Third World War (he said), in 1959. One of the council members of São Paulo was, if you remember, a man who went by the name of Luis Salazar—

I exclaimed that of course I remembered Doutor Salazar; the two of us had been friends while I was in São Paulo, although he disappeared shortly before the attack by the Walking Trees. The Pankararu said that if I was going to interrupt him throughout his story, he would save himself the trouble of telling it; I managed to bite my tongue after that.

Luis Salazar was, at the time, one of the council members of the São Paulo government, in charge of Health. He was a doctor, and had received word that penicillin had been recreated in a village to the north. A sample had been sent with a messenger, but the sample had been lost during the journey, and now the doctor and his wife Maristela were to travel north with the messenger in order to determine whether the so-called penicillin would be of any use.

Unfortunately, the Nazis had moved into the area between the messenger’s first trip and the second. They surrounded the messenger, doctor, and his wife, stepping out of the shadows. The messenger was killed, and, in order to ensure his wife’s escape, Salazar drew off the attackers. They followed him, shooting a few desultory arrows at Maristela before leaving her to her own devices.

After a lengthy chase, Salazar was captured and brought to an isolated hut in the rainforest, where a man lay dying of terrible injuries. With him was an old woman with a sharp, narrow face—a face like an eagle or a hatchet. The woman commanded him to heal the wounded man, or else.

It was then that Salazar learned that he was dealing with Nazis; while investigating the dying man’s wounds, he noticed a Reichsadler, that is, an eagle clutching a wreathed swastika, tattooed upon the man’s arm, and, upon glancing at the rest of his captives, noticed certain signs and symbols about their clothing.

He hesitated.

The old woman said, “You must do this thing or we will take away from you the most precious thing in the world.”

Thinking that the old woman was referring to his life, Salazar laughed—he had already counted it lost when he had been captured. The most precious thing was his wife, and how could they hurt her? They had already let her go. She would be on her way back to São Paulo for help already.

The old woman demanded once again that the doctor perform his duty.

Salazar had always had a soft heart, and agreed to do what he could. Unfortunately, the patient had spent too long in the wet heat of the jungle without treatment. The man had been attacked by some sort of wild beast, whose claws had left long cuts across the abdomen, and who had spread some sort of infection that tortured the man into screams. Salazar, who had the power of resisting all sorts of germs after the War, even tried to give the man a transfusion of blood, in the hopes that it would help clean the man of his wounds; the blood of Salazar was well-known to aid the sick in that way.

(Here I could not help nodding; the curative powers Doutor Salazar’s blood, which he had acquired after the War, as was the case of many of us who possess strange abilities—for example my memory—was indeed well-known.)

After the man’s death, the old woman said, “If you had healed him, we would have let you go unharmed. But now you owe us ten times this man’s life, and so you belong to our village now.”

Salazar denied this, and stated further that they would be better to kill him now, or else he would cause everyone who was brought to him for treatment to become ill, and made to suffer, rather than allow himself to be enslaved by Nazis. (Being really softhearted, he had to have been lying.)

The old woman laughed and said that she would pay Salazar the compliment of believing him; then she ordered him held down. Once he had been well restrained, she put one hand on either side of his head, and his ears began to ring.

“Tell me the name of your wife,” the old woman said.

He tried to resist the command, but could not. “Maristela,” he said.

As soon as he said the word, his stomach lurched, as though he had just jumped off the top of a building.

“Tell me her name again,” the old woman commanded.

Once again he was compelled to reply. This time he felt worse, as though he had been kicked.

Over and over he was forced to repeat the name of his wife. He vomited on the floor of the hut a thousand times, Salazar informed me, although his illness may not have been solely due to the old woman’s spell, but that the dead man’s body had begun to stink, and to acquire flies.

That was all: the name, the hands, the sickness.

And then the Nazis let him go.

Doutor Salazar made his way home, having been found wandering confused through the jungle, surrounded by jaguars who escorted him to the very same tribe with whom I stayed at the time. They led him back to São Paulo. Salazar was, unsurprisingly, in perfect health, and had brought with him samples of roots and herbs collected by the tribe who had found him, which proved to be of some use, although not as much as the rediscovery of penicillin would have been.

Salazar remembered perfectly well that he had been captured by Nazis, and was able to narrow down the area on the map where he thought they were located. Also he recalled that he had been forced to try to heal a man; he remembered that he had failed (and described in detail the look of the claw-marks across the man’s belly; it was agreed that whatever had injured him was too large to have been one of the jaguars); he remembered the bargain that the old woman had tried to force upon him, and his refusal.

How he had been tortured, he could not recall, other than to say he had been forced to repeat a single word, and that his experience had been most unpleasant. The tribal members who had returned Salazar to São Paulo were questioned by one who spoke their language (“By me, that is,” said the Pankararu). One of the tribe members had been similarly caught and tortured by the Nazis, but could recall no more than Salazar had.

It was an oddly gentle sort of torment, from people who were not known for their gentleness.

Salazar was asked, “What was the old woman’s name? Or the patient’s?”

He did not know; only his own name and the one that he had been forced to repeat had ever been used.

“It was a name, then? The word you had to repeat?”

“Oh, yes, I recall that it was.”

“What was it?”

“I apologize, my fellow council members. I cannot recall it, not the least syllable.”

In the meantime, Doutor Salazar’s wife, Senhora Maristela, had returned to São Paulo in good time and had confronted the first person she encountered, a friend of Salazar’s named Benedito.

“Benedito! Benedito!” she cried. “Your friend Salazar has been captured by Nazis in the jungle and needs our help!”

Benedito glanced toward her, as if his eye had been caught by the movement of a leaf, and then he turned away. No matter how much Maristela tried to attract his attention, he did not seem to notice her.

Finally, enraged at his behavior toward her and her husband, Maristela knocked Benedito down with her fist. He gave a shout of fear and clutched his bleeding and broken nose, running away as fast as he could and crying out that he had been attacked by a ghost.

Very soon Maristela came to understand that something had happened to her out in the jungle: she had vanished. She could not be seen or heard by anyone in São Paulo, not even by the indios in the nearby jungle. Babies could see and hear her; the few dogs that had survived the War would bark at her—but they were too afraid to try to bite—in fact many animals could see her, and the limbs of the Walking Trees would shudder as she passed by, but would not try to catch at her. But to all creatures capable of speech, no matter how rudimentary—she was invisible.

For a long time, Maristela traveled alone, surviving on what she could steal from others—which was anything she liked—until one day she met the woman who would come to be known as the Witch of São Paulo. Back then she was only called the White Witch, after the color of her eyes.

The Witch, who was blind, was able to see Maristela quite easily. After hearing Maristela’s tale, the Witch told her about the old woman of the Nazis, who had the power to make anyone think what she liked, no matter how terrible a lie it was, and that she (the old woman of the Nazis) had similarly cursed others, by removing their names from the minds of the ones who loved them best. How that was done, the Witch could not say.

The Witch told Maristela to change her name and to cover her face with a veil or a mask, or to otherwise change her appearance so that she would be unrecognizable. Then, the Witch said, others would be able to see her. But as soon as the mask was removed, or someone called her by her old name, she would vanish again.

And so it was: when Maristela wore a veil and went by the name of Amaldiçoada—

(Here I could not but help an exclamation of surprise.)

— so that others could see her; if she spoke her own name out loud or took off the veil, she would vanish. For a time she served as a spy against the Nazis, and they were driven deeper into the interior. One day she became sick after taking an injury, and was brought to Salazar to be healed. She begged him not to remove her veil, and he agreed. Then he hypnotized her, putting her into a deep sleep, so that she should not feel the pain of treatment.

Once she began to snore, however, he looked down upon the form of Amaldiçoada, and was tempted to lift her veil. “I will never tell her identity,” he said to himself.

As soon as he lifted it, she vanished, and he could not find her.

Afterwards, the house of Salazar was sealed up and abandoned, for it was widely known to be haunted. At first, screams and moans seemed to come from the rooms used as a surgery; then the smell drove everyone away; and finally the house was filled with a plague of flies and maggots.

Salazar fled the day that the moans and screams began, and was never heard of since. He died without the secret of Amaldiçoada’s identity ever passing his lips.

After the Pankararu finished his story, he said, “Well, what do you think of that?”

I said, “I didn’t know that Salazar was ever married.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You aren’t pulling my leg, are you?”

He shrugged. “That’s the way I heard it.”

“But—” A thousand questions came to mind: it was obvious to me that the story could not be true, even in such days as these, when it seems impossible things happen every day.

“Will you write it down,” the Pankararu said, “just as I have told it to you?”

I considered the question. “No,” I said. “I shall forget it, every word of that nonsense. It could not have happened that way, not at all.”

“If you say so,” he said. “But I dare you to say the name of the one you love the most, over and over, with that old woman’s hands pressed on either side of your head. To forget is a terrible thing.”

“But what about Maristela?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be worse to be forgotten? It seems to me that Salazar was not the least bit troubled—but Maristela, well, she died of being forgotten.”

“But being forgotten also gave her power,” the Pankararu said. “Think of what it would be like, to have forgotten the name of the National Socialists, what they could do to you then.”

And so I wrote down the story—in essence the same way it was told to me—and will bring the notebooks back with me to Buenos Aires. I should like to have it printed in one of the first books that we have done since the War, if Daneri doesn’t raise too much of a stink about it. If nothing else, someday it should make a good fairy tale.

And if, under my breath, I repeat the name of certain enemies over and over in my sleep, don’t judge me too harshly; it wouldn’t make the least bit of difference, no matter what you believe.

But there are certain books whose titles I will not breathe again in this life unless copies of them are found, lest the mere mention of their names should make them vanish. And those I will not risk for anything.

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