The noon executions had begun, and still his friends teased him about María del Río. He pretended to laugh, but his head ached. They didn’t know the prisoners; they heard the shots, and the cheers, and every Saturday night they drank to celebrate the everlasting strength of the regime. But they had neither seen the faces nor heard the voices of the condemned men. In this respect Antonio differed from his friends, for every day he met with those who were to die.
The general had chosen him because everyone said he had beautiful handwriting: the clearest and yet most ornate in all the three towns. For ten years, he’d written the baptismal and marriage certificates for the church of Santa Teresa; he’d even painted the borders of these documents with a brush made from the hair of an ox. Now he sat behind a desk at the jail, in a room that somehow remained cool despite the summer heat, as one by one the condemned shuffled in and sank on the unyielding chair before him. Those who could not walk were dragged by soldiers, but in all cases their escorts left them alone with Antonio. The guards preferred to stand outside the door and observe the buzz of the large anteroom.
When he first assumed the role of state calligrapher, Antonio mostly gaped at the slumped figures. They were brought to the jail each night, crammed into small trucks. Some soldiers claimed the prisoners were dangerous revolutionaries from the far-off western coast. Others stated, with equal authority, that the prisoners were criminals who had hidden in the mountains. Antonio could, perhaps, have determined the truth, but the list of approved questions for interrogation did not cover place of origin.
For the first three days of the noon executions, Antonio did not ask the prisoners anything at all. He sat behind his desk, fiddling with the sleek black pen that was much smarter than the worn brushes he’d used for church documents. He tried to look everywhere but at whichever man sat before him. The calligrapher watched the clock on the wall swing a copper pendulum back and forth. He tried to appreciate the yellow sunlight that bathed the room and which made it irrelevant that here, as in all the towns, the electricity could not be relied upon. Inevitably, however, he would find himself staring at the prisoners, who themselves mostly gazed at the floor’s wide planks. I am not like them, thought Antonio. They sought trouble, but I live in the same house in which I grew up, and I bother no one. I do not ask: what lies across the sea; or, how may I find the treasures hidden in the tombs of kings. I do not ask: what if.
But because Antonio only stared at the prisoners and admired the clean shape of his pen, he failed to ask the requisite questions. Then at night he had to invent answers in his home, a four-room wooden shack that rested upon high stilts about a mile outside the town that held the jail. He willed his candle not to expire until he had conjured up the names of parents and spouses and children, varieties of occupation, and reasons for betraying the state. He knew no one would discover the falsity of what he wrote: the purpose of his records was not to provide clues for further arrests, which occurred according to a pattern known only to those in charge. Instead, as the general rather impressively explained, the red, leather-bound volume Antonio filled with his beautiful handwriting would one day go on permanent display inside a glass case at the museum. Future generations, said the general, would admire the state’s perfect marriage of discipline and art.
To avoid losing sleep to invention, Antonio resolved to place the burden of revelation on those whom the state had chosen to bear it. Thus, on the fourth day of the noon executions, as the first enemy collapsed onto the empty chair, Antonio picked up his pen and said, firmly, “Name.”
“José Santiago,” was the faint reply.
José Santiago lifted his head and smiled a little through broken teeth. “Cynic.”
Antonio glanced at him, noted the man’s bare feet, and wrote, “Shoemaker.” Then he said, “Parents.”
José Santiago chortled. “None.”
The prisoner wiped his mouth. “None.”
Antonio turned the page. “Reasons for betraying the state.”
José Santiago said nothing.
“Reasons for betraying the state,” said Antonio again, somewhat louder. José Santiago sighed and looked out the window, but it showed only the dusty courtyard where, in a few hours, he and two dozen other men would be shot. “There is no state,” he said.
Antonio wrote, “Prisoner was recruited by an opposition party.” The exchange seemed unsatisfactory. He was allotted twenty minutes per prisoner; scarcely ten minutes had passed, and José Santiago, staring at him, clearly expected something more.
The prisoner spoke and interrupted his thoughts. “What’s your name?” asked José Santiago in a tone of some amusement.
Briefly Antonio worried that he might get in trouble if he answered, but he reassured himself that no harm could derive from altering the script with a man soon dead. “Antonio Sánchez.”
Antonio placed his pen on the desk at a neat right angle to the ledger.
The calligrapher ran a finger along the gold-rimmed edge of the open page. “Dead,” he said.
“Of course,” said the prisoner. “Spouse? Is she dead, too?”
Antonio thought of María del Río, whom he had never even kissed. He remembered the curve of her hips; the solid thighs revealed when she raised her dress as she danced. His friends said she’d asked about him, that she wanted to know why he sat alone with his beer when everyone else danced and sang to celebrate victory. “We told her you don’t know how to dance, that you can’t sing,” his friends had said, “and she claimed she’d teach you!”
“No spouse?” asked José Santiago.
José Santiago swayed; he half-turned and grasped the back of his chair. “Reasons for betraying the state?”
“Next!” called the calligrapher. The door swung open, and two young soldiers dragged José Santiago back to the holding pen to await the next round of executions.
Later, Antonio ate lunch at his desk and, as usual, kept his back to the window as feet scuffled across the courtyard. He waited, flinched at the loud crackle of guns, and then resumed his meal amid the sound of cheers. At precisely one o’clock, he called for the next prisoner.
A single guard hurried in, pushing a middle-aged man before him. The prisoner, not as battered as many of the others, seated himself as the guard closed the door.
“Name,” said Antonio.
“My name is Luís Rivera, Antonio Sánchez.”
Antonio looked up sharply. The prisoner wore a mustard-colored jacket, a dirty white shirt, and olive-green trousers; his face, with its hooded eyes and thick moustache, was unfamiliar.
“Do I know you?” asked Antonio.
“We know you,” said Luís Rivera. “Before he died, José Santiago told the rest of us what he’d learned.”
Silently, Antonio reproached himself for departing from official policy. But he knew of no actual prohibition against telling a prisoner his name or other such insignificant details. And the prisoners couldn’t harm him.
“Age,” said Antonio Sánchez.
“I’m not as talented as you, I’m afraid.” The prisoner leaned forward a little to better view the open volume on Antonio’s desk. “I do find your calligraphy quite impressive.”
Luís Rivera seemed to consider. “Thief,” he said, primly folding his hands.
Antonio hesitated, but then wrote “thief” in his beautiful, looping script. “Parents?”
“Dead,” said the prisoner cheerfully.
“She’s a rather private individual, and I neglected her shamefully. Perhaps just say I’m not married.”
“Ana Rivera,” wrote Antonio, borrowing the first name of one of his many cousins. “Children?” he asked.
“A disappointment. The eldest is secretary to the general. At least he had the good sense to use a false name.”
“None,” wrote Antonio. He’d arrived at the question he hated most. “Reasons for betraying the state?”
“Well,” said Luís Rivera. “Where to begin.”
Antonio waited, but the prisoner seemed to have forgotten him. “Reasons for—”
“Yes, yes,” Luís Rivera said. “Well. Boredom, really. Treason promised a great deal of excitement. Plus,” he sighed, “the general’s wife is quite exquisite.”
Antonio frowned at him; the prisoner gazed complacently back. The calligrapher picked up his pen and wrote, “Denies everything.” The ledger was to reflect the execution only of confessed criminals, but surely no one would ever inspect page forty-seven out of a nine-hundred page book.
“And now I have some questions for you,” said Luís Rivera. “Favorite color?”
Antonio put down his pen. “Orange.”
“I don’t read poetry.”
“Ah, but you should. I particularly recommend the love poetry of the last century.” The prisoner brushed some invisible lint from his sleeve. “And finally, share with me a memory of your boyhood. Tell me something you did when you were ten.”
“I had no boyhood.”
“Now, now. We just want a mere scrap of information. Climb any palm trees? Feed any chickens?”
“It gets very dull down in the holding pen. Why, if you were to tell me about pulling a girl’s pigtails, it would probably entertain us for a clear half hour.”
Antonio pushed back his chair from his desk.
“How about age twelve?” persisted the prisoner.
“I left school at age twelve.”
“Really! But you write so beautifully.”
The calligrapher rose and shouted, “Next!” Instantly, the door opened, and a soldier pulled the prisoner from the room.
“A pleasure!” called Luís Rivera.
For the rest of the afternoon, each of the condemned men asked Antonio about himself. They never repeated a question, leading him to suspect they had agreed among themselves what each would ask. He searched for a purpose in their interrogation, but they never asked anything that could help them. By the end of the day, the prisoners had learned only trivia: that as a boy, he’d been fond of a white goat named Lucy; that his earliest memory was of peering through the gray netting that hung over his bed; that at night he prayed to the Blessed Virgin. He weighed one-hundred-forty pounds. His father had had blue eyes. By evening he felt unsettled, certain the prisoners were draining him of life through imperceptible drops. He stopped at the bar on his way home and drank his beer in a corner. The bar’s electric lights, though flickering, always jolted him into a sullen wakefulness. “Dance, Antonio!” urged his friends. They stomped in a line, one man’s hands upon the shoulders of the next, as María del Río sat on top of the piano and clapped.
The next day, the crows that pecked at unpromising dirt outside of the jail scattered as Antonio approached. Once inside, he found soldiers talking excitedly in the anteroom.
“Did you hear?” asked a stocky guard named Miguel Carrera.
“Hear what?” asked Antonio.
“Six prisoners tunneled out at midnight.”
“They may have had help on the inside.” Miguel beamed, and Antonio thought he knew why: the execution of a few senior guards could easily result in a promotion for the young soldier. “They’re somewhere in the forest,” Miguel continued. “Maybe heading for the coast. We’ll catch them, of course.”
“Of course.” Antonio cupped the cool metal doorknob of his office. “Why only six?”
Miguel shrugged. “Some would rather die here than be shot in the forest and eaten by dogs. And some hoped for clemency by staying.”
“Will they get clemency?”
Miguel laughed heartily and slapped a fellow soldier on the back as an introduction to the story of the naïve calligrapher.
Antonio slipped into his office and sat down. He paused for a moment, as he did every morning, to sniff the air. He smelled wood dust, and something he wished were chalk, as in a schoolroom, but which instead suggested only an indefinite staleness. He fingered his slender pen and imagined that it held him aloft, sleeping upon a cloud.
He turned the ledger’s pages: Luís Rivera, Hector López, Pablo Aguilar, Guillermo Martínez. These men, perhaps, were now crawling through brush, wading through streams, but really they weren’t free at all, because they were running away, and there would always be something to run away from, and that something would never halt the chase. The regime’s reach was wide; everyone knew stories of people knifed on the street, or found dead beneath bridges, even across oceans in far-away cities where they must have thought: here I am safe; here I may rest. Better, thought Antonio, to remain in one place; to scratch ink upon a page; to ask only what is permitted and then not care about the answers.
But he could not resist questioning a prisoner about the previous night’s escape and whether, in particular, Luís Rivera had fled or remained.
“He was the first to climb down the hole,” said the prisoner, a short, bald man who held his broken arm against his chest.
Antonio thought of Luís Rivera and his jaunty air and felt, somehow, fooled.
“He told us you would ask about him,” continued the prisoner. “He left you a message.”
The calligrapher waited, but the man said nothing. “Well?” asked Antonio.
“He said,” the prisoner lowered his voice confidentially, “that a man who loves both the color orange and the Blessed Virgin need not be lost. And he said he hoped to see you again.”
“He’s dead,” said Antonio, picking up his pen.
“No. Luís Rivera has powerful friends. He escaped. He won’t die.”
“Name,” said Antonio.
The days blurred together. The first week of the noon executions passed, and the second began. Antonio, flipping through the ledger, could not match names to faces. In the evenings, as he walked past the wilting mango trees, he sometimes thought he heard in the croaking of frogs a note of rebuke. Once or twice he sensed a purposeful rustle amid the tall grasses, but he sped up at such times, and no one ever appeared. As he lay in bed, he tried to pray to the Mother of God, but he feared she couldn’t hear him. His life seemed filled with the incessant murmur of other men’s voices, and those voices paused only for the awful punctuation of guns.
Toward the end of the second week of the noon executions, as the calligrapher arrived for the day’s interviews, the soldier Miguel called to him.
“Did you hear? The general’s wife has run away.”
“To where?” Already Antonio found it easy to forget the world held more than his home, the bar, and the jail.
“Straight into the arms of another man.”
“Who would dare?”
“They’ll catch him,” said Miguel. “Then it will get interesting around here. That interview, I’ll attend!”
On Saturday evening, Antonio sat in his customary seat in the bar’s darkest corner. The crowd sang of victory and of love. Suddenly the pianist, a quick-witted man, stopped playing. The general and two of his officers entered the bar.
Everyone stood up. The general, reputed to be rather easygoing despite his high rank, made a gesture, and everyone sat down. At a nod from one of the officers, the pianist commenced a lively tune.
The crowd shuddered with a tentative relief. Drinks were poured; laughter bubbled through the room. A man pulled his girlfriend on to the dance floor, and other couples joined them. María del Río stood and chatted with the pianist, occasionally displaying a fine row of white teeth.
Antonio saw the general say something to an officer, who then brought María del Río to the general’s table. She accepted a glass of beer.
The calligrapher strained to listen.
“You’re a beautiful woman,” said the general.
“Thank you. But not everyone thinks so.”
María arched a lovely eyebrow. “Sitting behind you is a man who would rather drink alone than dance with me.”
The general turned; Antonio hastily gulped his beer.
“I’ll have him arrested,” said the general.
Antonio’s stomach tightened. But then the sound of María’s laugh reminded him of pennies landing in a jar, and somehow, inexplicably, he relaxed a little.
“No,” she said. “He’s only stupid. He isn’t,” her eyes traveled over the general’s uniform, “distinguished.”
“For some women,” said the general, “distinction isn’t enough.”
“Mmm,” said María. She gazed adoringly at his large ears, his jowls, his graying hair. “I’m not some women.”
“Let’s dance,” said the general.
Antonio watched the general’s large red hands caress María’s body. They danced closely together, María whispering in his ear.
One of Antonio’s friends, Pedro López, drifted over to him.
“You missed your chance,” Pedro said.
“I had no chance.”
“Just promise me that tonight of all nights, when we close with the song celebrating the regime, you join in. Maybe even look a little enthusiastic.”
“I can’t sing.”
“Mouth the words.”
But Antonio decided not to stay until the end. He left hurriedly, pressing himself against the wall, hoping not to be noticed. Outside a thousand stars filled the sky. As the bar’s door closed, the crowd’s noise converted to a dull murmur, and he again heard the voices of the condemned whispering their names, lying about the existence of wives and children, as though disclosure mattered, as though it could change a thing. He himself continued to answer the prisoners’ frivolous questions quite honestly, for what did it matter if anyone knew that his father had cut sugar cane, or that his mother had salved his bee stings with mud to extract the venom? The details of one person’s life and another person’s life were interchangeable; he would be Antonio Sanchez even if his father had raised pigs instead of swinging a machete. He would be alone even if the general had not danced with Maria.
The third week of the noon executions began. Antonio felt weary; almost two hundred pages of the ledger were covered in his script. He wondered for how long the noon executions would last: surely the regime could not pluck every man from his bed and shoot him? But then something terrible happened.
Antonio was questioning a prisoner when he heard a commotion in the anteroom.
“Idiots!” a man shouted. “Idiots!”
The calligrapher opened his office door a crack and peeped out.
The general was shaking first one guard and then another by the shoulders. “You had him here, and you let him escape! Is this a playground? Are you not soldiers of the regime?” He looked about as soldiers ducked into closets and hid behind one another. “Where are the records?” he demanded. “Who interviewed the man?”
Miguel Carrera stepped forward. “The calligrapher spoke with Luís Rivera.”
“I don’t want to hear the man’s name!” shouted the general. “Where are the records?”
As in a dream, Antonio Sánchez fully opened his door. The general blustered into the office, sat behind the desk, and grabbed the ledger. He turned the pages with a kind of slap.
“Where,” said the general, in quiet, even tones that frightened the calligrapher more than the shouting, “are the records of”—here the general trembled—“the creature who seduced my wife?”
In a hollow voice, Antonio Sánchez said, “Page forty-seven.”
The general read the forty-seventh page of the calligrapher’s clear and beautiful handwriting.
“Did you write this?” said the general, tracing the letters with his beefy fingers.
“All of it?”
The general continued to stroke the page. “‘Denies everything,’” he read aloud. “Why did you not record the man’s reasons for betraying the state?”
Antonio opened his mouth, but no sound came.
“All of our criminals confess. Are you a propagandist?” The general rose and surveyed the calligrapher. His eyes narrowed. “Ah,” he said softly. “The man who won’t sing of victory, who won’t dance. Well,” and his voice hardened, “we’ll see you dance tomorrow. Arrest this man!”
Two guards rushed into the office and seized Antonio by the arms. Miguel Carrera poked his head in to watch.
“You there,” said the general to Miguel. “Interrogate the prisoners.”
Miguel froze. Antonio knew the guard was wondering whether to consider this a promotion. Perhaps it was, for now Miguel would get to sit all day.
“Keep records,” the general said. “Be thorough.”
The guards dragged Antonio across the anteroom, through a small door, and down a flight of winding stairs. They flung him on the dirt floor and climbed back up. The door closed firmly behind them.
Slowly Antonio raised himself. Here and there, in the deepest shadows, sat perhaps two dozen men, ragged and bruised. Some men’s eyes were closed, so that he couldn’t tell if they were sleeping or dead.
“Welcome, Antonio Sánchez,” said a gaunt figure.
The calligrapher recognized the speaker; he had interviewed the man only an hour earlier. Already he’d forgotten everything about him.
“I’m sorry,” began Antonio by way of asking the prisoner to repeat his name, but the man waved his hand.
“You are to die tomorrow,” the prisoner said.
Antonio wondered if he were expected to agree, but he refused to accept that he was himself condemned. There was the matter of his handwriting, the most beautiful in all the three towns. Miguel would scribble like the footprints of a peacock. The museum needed Antonio’s art. The red-leather volume was unfinished.
“Who will remember you?” asked the gaunt prisoner.
Antonio sank to his knees: suddenly the room felt close and hot. He wiped his brow.
“Your parents are dead,” the prisoner intoned, as though this was a chant he had learned and was reciting now as a requiem. “You have no spouse, no children. Your brothers and sisters are long lost. In a few hours, your friends will deny ever having known you. Who remembers you even at this moment?”
The calligrapher thought of all those baptismal and marriage certificates for the church of Santa Teresa, but he’d penned them in the quiet of his room, and they were all unsigned. Even the nine-hundred-page ledger contained details only of other men’s lives.
“You were kind to us,” said the prisoner.
“Kind?” asked Antonio.
“You didn’t beat us.”
Antonio remembered the general’s instruction to Miguel: “Be thorough.” But it had never occurred to the calligrapher to beat anyone.
“You didn’t force us,” the prisoner continued, “to reveal the names of our families.”
Some of the other men murmured an approval.
“But who will remember you?” asked the prisoner again.
Antonio looked around him. Some of the men he vaguely recognized; others, he’d never met. The gray walls against which they rested glistened with damp. He became aware of a sour stench. No one left here except to confess and to die.
He felt dizzy and reached for the floor to steady himself.
“We knew you’d join us,” said the prisoner a little sadly. “Luis Rivera said so. He said you were too good to stay out of trouble for long.”
“I wasn’t good,” said Antonio. “I was sloppy.”
“Good; sloppy. Does it matter? You left us alone, and yet you listened. A rare gift.”
Antonio lay on the hard dirt and gazed at the brown rafters of the ceiling far above.
“Here is a story,” said the prisoner soothingly. “There once lived a boy named Antonio Sánchez. His mother’s name was Carmen; his father’s name was Ricardo. His father had eyes the color of the summer sky. His mother kept her long hair piled on her head in a brown scarf. Every year, on the night before the Feast of the Three Kings, the boy would put under his bed a handful of grass for the Wise Men’s camels. In the morning, the grass would be gone, and the boy would find an orange candy and three pennies.”
Antonio began to weep.
The gaunt prisoner’s voice droned on, and when it faltered, another prisoner took up the tale, and then another. The calligrapher’s life spun out before him, and a thousand inconsequential details became one whole. He heard the story of a lonely man who prayed but did not believe he could be heard. Yet the condemned assured him that someone had listened and, for a little while, until noon the next day, would remember.
In the morning, two guards hustled him up to his old office. Miguel sat behind the desk and nodded pleasantly.
“Name? I know the answer, but I have to ask. Rules, you know.”
“Antonio Sánchez.” The calligrapher eased himself into a chair and saw that Miguel’s writing was indeed an illegible mess.
“None; children also none.”
Miguel glanced up at him, then scribbled for a moment longer.
“Reasons for betraying the state?”
The infamous question, but Antonio Sanchez had failed to invent an answer for it.
“Reasons for betraying the state?”
The calligrapher thought. “How about—inattention to detail?”
Miguel frowned and wrote something that seemed too long to reflect Antonio’s words. The calligrapher felt emboldened.
“Miguel,” he said gently, “what is your favorite color?”
The soldier stared at him. “Green. Why do you ask?”
Antonio shrugged. “Maybe it will matter someday.”
“I don’t see how. Well, take care. I hear it’s all over very fast. Next!”
At two minutes to noon, guards dragged Antonio and two dozen other men across the courtyard. The calligrapher’s hands were tied behind his back. He declined the offer of a blindfold and glimpsed the office where, only yesterday, he’d been eating his lunch at just this time.
Facing him were twelve guards holding rifles. Who are they, he wondered. Do they know how soon they will be pressed against this wall?
He said a quick prayer to the Blessed Virgin, and it seemed to him that this time she listened, for she answered with a thunderous roar.
Susan M. Gelles’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Belmont Story Review, and other publications. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Columbia University.