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“The Witness,” a very short story by Jorge Luis Borges

In a stable that stands almost in the shadow of the new stone church, a man with gray eyes and gray beard, lying amid the odor of the animals, humbly tries to will himself into death, much as a man might will himself to sleep. The day, obedient to vast and secret laws, slowly shifts about and mingles the shadows in the lowly place; outside lie plowed fields, a ditch clogged with dead leaves, and the faint track of a wolf in the black clay where the line of woods begins. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten.

The bells for orisons awaken him. Bells are now one of evening’s customs in the kingdoms of England, but as a boy the man has seen the face of Woden, the sacred horror and the exultation, the clumsy wooden idol laden with Roman coins and ponderous vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn, he will be dead, and with him, the last eyewitness images of pagan rites will perish, never to be seen again. The world will be a little poorer when this Saxon man is dead.

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder—and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man’s or woman’s death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ; the Battle of Junin and the love of Helen died with the death of one man. What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world? The voice of Macedonia Fernandez, the image of a bay horse in a vacant lot on the corner of Sarrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

English translation by Andrew Hurley Via – Biblioklept

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Joe Krill February 10, 2019, 10:24 AM

    Words cannot describe the thoughts, images, histories, hopes hoped for and hopes never realized, friends, though few, who have passed, and the ever present biblical verse from Hosea 4:6 “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.” Vanderleun, Please keep up the thoughtful good work.

  • Joe Krill February 10, 2019, 11:24 AM

    Vanderleun, I accidentally left out a few words from my original post. Words cannot describe the thoughts, images, histories, hopes hoped for and hopes never realized, friends, though few, who have passed that this article brought to mind and the ever present nagging biblical verse from Hosea 4:6 “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.” Vanderleun, Please keep up the thoughtful good work.

  • Casey Klahn February 10, 2019, 4:21 PM

    Yes to all that was written. There is a collective or institutional memory, and then there is the individual memory.

  • Steve C February 10, 2019, 7:47 PM

    “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
    David M. Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

  • Jaynie February 11, 2019, 5:16 AM

    This short story gave rise to oh so many thoughts. One is that I miss with some pain, every single day, three people, and their rich histories, from my life. And another thought was the thought of, along with prayers for, the people GVDL told us about lost to the fire and unknown because they lived way out in the woods and folds of the hills. And I wonder why the gray eyed man wanted to die. What a powerful story. Thank you for posting that.

  • Anon February 11, 2019, 6:12 AM

    Often writers try really hard to make their story impossible to understand. Why? I think it is simply a ploy to fake a deeper meaning where the writer lacks skill or motivation.

  • Dan Patterson February 11, 2019, 7:19 AM

    That the afterlife is nothing but a cold blank void is what terrifies me. There is some comfort in believing, or is it just a hope, that our lives continue past this and there is a great knowing that occupies the innumerable spaces of our new consciousness; there we will remember all we said and saw and knew and did and thought and loved and lost. And we will know those things from the others around us, beginning with immediate family but extending to everyone everywhere.
    Comfort borne of seeing the old men I knew as a young boy tell stories about things I have no experience of and believing the foundations of those things were of a straight line back to me: a horse drawing a carriage in the spring rain and the way the dirt road smelled, relief when a fever from an infected gunshot wound broke, the clatter of tack as the cavalry rode past, broken hearts when the girl you sought to marry was carried away in the ’40 flood, spring thaw and lambing season. No, those things don’t just vanish but the loss of the first person witness is indeed sad.
    Is it too much to hope for, that the instant is not here then gone forever?

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