We’re pleased to present three excerpts from Jorge Armenteros’s new novel The Roar of the River, out tomorrow on Spuyten Duyvil. It’s the followup to his earlier novel The Book of I, which garnered praise from the likes of Brian Evenson and Laird Hunt. In The Roar of the River, Armenteros uses the literary structure of the fugue to tell the story of a figure on a mysterious and occasionally violent journey through the Alps.
The striped tunic
Not one, but one hundred swallows crisscrossing the sky.
They have their reasons.
My wings do not arch that far.
Coming here was not like crossing the sky, but more like crossing over myself, or crossing over from a past that must have died by now. For the people in this village I have no history. They never heard the sound of my steps over the river rocks. But when I walk through the village, I hear my steps over rocks that came from the same river and now clad the narrow paths.
Most people turn their faces away from me. No one speaks to me. A child kicking a ball against the side of a church kicks it harder when I walk by. A hand closes a wooden shutter. At the entrance of an épicerie, right in the center of the village, a few men sit at a bench drinking beer. They greet me with indifference, as if they were bored or obligated to do the gesture. Their eyes seem scattered, tracking an unmentionable disaster, maybe tracking misery in the name of a common day. Among them I recognize the bearded man, I remember him clearly, now talking to the man next to him, now drinking out of a beer bottle,
now looking at me,
like a disconnected animal.
Inside the épicerie, rows of food propose experiences I have not had in some time. How long that time? Long enough. The attendant, a poisonous looking man with a pointed goatee, seems perplexed to see me here, eating with my eyes, salivating through my fingers. He does not ask what I want; instead, he looks at me as if I were some revolting creature,
the tunic, perhaps,
The bearded man comes into the épicerie and grabs another bottle of beer. I feel his presence, the idiotic smile still hanging from his lips. He does not recognize me, or pretends not to. I wait for him to step outside and join his drinking partners. Then I turn towards the attendant and open my mouth to ask how much is a piece of cheese. No answer.
Stepping outside with the cavern of my mouth empty, I find the row of men still sitting on the hard wood, their eyes lifting, slightly, catching the truth of my thoughts as it drapes over my face,
the commonality of idiocy,
the sense of repudiation for their condition as marginaux.
I quicken my step hoping to dodge their gazes and move past them when the heavy hand of a young man sitting at the edge of the bench lands on my shoulder and makes me turn. His face is broken: unequal eyes, an off-center nose, a mouth turned upside down, like the monsters children draw. He seems to smile. And with impetus, he pushes me in front of the other men sitting at the bench.
–Want a beer?
–Let him be.
–Sit here, come.
–What’s with the tunic?
–Let him be.
–Money, got any money?
–Let him be.
–Here, here, drink.
–Where you come from?
–Go get a beer.
–No money, right?
–Are you alone?
I stand in front of the mocking row, on the edge of this abyss. All the faces, the face. All the fears, the fear. Exposed, penetrated by their gazes, I feel the urge to talk, use words as swords. And I do.
–Which of you wants to wear my tunic?
–What? No, no.
–Which of you wants me to disrobe and don my tunic on you?
–So many of you. I know at least one of you is eager.
–Here, have a beer.
–You need the beer. You also need your friend to hold my shoulder and turn me around. You thought his face would scare me, his nose, his lips. Why do you exploit him? Because he looks deformed?
–You don’t like the way I look?
–You look fine to me, but not to your friends, and they seem happy to use you.
–What are you saying?
–I’m saying that your friends take advantage of you.
–Who do you think you are?
–I’m just the reflection of your fear.
–I’m not afraid of you.
–No, you’re afraid of yourself.
And with fluid movements, like a night-blooming flower, I grab the bottom edge of my striped tunic and pull it completely over my head. Without a shell I stand,
My bones seem to poke from inside, holding the transparent skin in place. My body speaks of hunger, of a tortured past, the dead one. Then silence descends on the row of men in front of my flesh.
I extend my arms and offer the tunic to the man with the deformed face. He steps back and returns to the edge of the bench, sits down, and spits on the ground. I turn toward the other men, my arms still holding my tunic like an offering, a cursed offering that none of them is willing to accept. I present them with their own fears, which they despise. They swallow beer and spit, they chew unintelligible words, and they poke each other with their elbows, while their eyes avoid mine.
Donning my tunic, I return to the unity of man and fear. I start walking back to the ruin in the company of my hunger. I take a different path, rounding the village on the opposite side from where I came. The birds are quiet.
The chirping man
he, he, he again with the tunic, coming here looking for food, didn’t get any, and showing his balls like that, wouldn’t touch that rag of his
stinks, more than me, I think, and gone again in front of my eyes, no money because he didn’t get food, coming and going, coming and going, that’s all he does, maybe the money is up at the ruin where he went with the thingy, oh, where’s she? scared maybe, of him?
the boys are, nobody touched him, all the yes go grab him, yes scare him, but then nobody said a thing when he took off that rag, all scared now, and Fuckface here all bothered, the stench, maybe, no, no, something else
like he knows what we think, standing naked in front of the boys as if nothing, alone like that, he, he, what the fuck, he knows something about the boys, about me, Blood of Christ, no, beer, with the boys, beer
–I’m not touching that civet
–why don’t you go get him?
–I’ve got no reason
no reason, other than getting his money and looking for the thingy, she may still be at the ruin, no, she’s with her sisters, doing the cheese thing, if he can touch her why not me?
look at the boys, drinking as if nothing happened, so fucking scared they don’t want to talk, and Fuckface drinking faster than anyone, they won’t go up to the ruin alone, won’t look for him, no, but he’ll come again, he needs food, my meaty friends, he’ll have them again, I know
–you said you know him?
–don’t know him but drank with him
–got cozy with him?
–had a drink, then I got a fit, fell down
–maybe he jumped you when you were passed out
–don’t think so
–you kind of smell like him
–better stink than have your face
–can make yours like mine
–drink and be brave
–his balls still tasty in your mouth
–drink and be brave
Fuckface gets up and stands in front of me, so drunk, and ugly, seems all brave now, when it doesn’t count, not looking at him, no, better walk away, he’ll get drunker and uglier
motherfucker swings at me, I dodge, he almost falls and turns around for another swing, the boys get off the bench and hold him, his mouth spits words, the fear, that’s the fear
there was no fear before, but he, he, he came and now we are like this, drunker and fighting, Fuckface here more than any of us, he, he, he coming from nowhere and making us feel weird, like we have to peel that tunic off his body, he did, he did it himself and we choked, Blood of Christ
give me some Blood of Christ because the boys are now leaving, embarrassed I think, or just upset for having to blame Fuckface for their own fears, leave the bench, go leave the bench, it will go nowhere, will be here tomorrow, the beer too
motherfuckers go their own way, paths left and right, not up to the ruin, no, no, but to their dirty houses, the night will hunt them, the rag floating in front of their eyes, they fear him, I do, somewhat, Blood of Christ, fuck me
leave the bench and the boys, walk straight to my room, my little meaty friends will be there, open the door and get into the room, putrid smell, he, he, he smells, the air raunchy, the room sours when I enter, fuck me again, why you? why you? he’s here inside my room, leaning against the wall, quiet, no, no, no, keep it to yourself, the tunic
My old sister knows people who still live beyond Bergue, up in the hills. They rarely come down. I will need to hike up there if I really want to talk to them. A long walk, but if I start during the night I am certain to get there in the early morning. Maybe they can give me a ride back to Saorge after I talk to them. They need help with their farm, at least that is what they always say. He could go and live with them in exchange for labor. No one ever goes there, no one will ever see him. Would he like that arrangement? I do not know.
I will ask him to come with me to Bergue and talk to the clan. But I need to find him first. He must be somewhere in the village, he must be learning about the people while trying to stay invisible. But before I go around the village, letting people know that I am not with my sisters and fueling all sort of rumors, I must first go up to the ruin to make sure he is not there. He could be sleeping, or he could be completely invisible to me. After all, I have only seen him in the dark, what would he look like under the sun?
The path to the ruin starts next to the Franciscan monastery. They knew, the Franciscans, where to place their ghosts, on a promontory offering a commanding view of the village and the sinners who live and die here. The path then ascends gradually bordering abandoned terraces where someone grew something at some point. And just before reaching Sainte-Croix, at a bend on the path, the walls of the ruin stand in defiance. Daylight makes the decaying stones shine as golden nuggets. I have never seen it under this light, the brilliance of the reflected light hiding its ruinous reality. I prefer the night, when nothing ever looks better than what anything really is.
As I approach the bend in the path three birds fly above me chirping loudly. They do not know me, the birds, but they want to talk to me. Why else would they chirp in this desolate mountainside? Or maybe they just want to let him know that someone is coming. Can he talk to the birds? He is not Saint Francis.
My first instinct is to call him from outside the walls. But I do not know his name. Instead, I lean against the frame where a door once blocked the access. Trying to find him, I scan the first room and find it completely empty, as if nobody, not even him, had occupied the place in decades. This is not where I sat on the ground the other night; this is not where he held my hand. An abundance of light enters through the collapsed roof and bounces against the interior walls. So much light deforms my memory. An opening on the wall leads to another desecrated room where ivy climbs from the ground to the sky. No sign of his presence, only an old emptiness.
Could I be wrong? Could I have forgotten where we spoke about the night? No, even if these walls look different now, under the sun, I am certain of the path that brought me here. Yes, his hand led me through the dark night, but my steps carried me all the way. The more I look the less I find, forcing me to realize that he possesses nothing, that he has not altered the emptiness of this ruin. But he leaves a trace, a misty aroma that lingers vigilantly. Clearly animalic, earthy and woody, or something akin to the odor of a civet, this aroma fills the space and confirms that I am not mistaken.
The fragrant particles cross from my nose into my brain forming a clear imprint of his image. I follow his scent down the winding path all the way back to the village. The promise of finding him cancels my silent resentment for meandering the village in daylight. Concentrating in the evanescent trace, I turn corners and walk through plazas until I find myself in front of the épicerie. The bench where the young brutes sit and drink is uncommonly empty. They should be here, collapsing over each other, threatening the world for they in turn feel threatened. But they are not here. I sit on the bench and enjoy this rare moment of peace away from the eyes that sometimes hunt me. As I meditate, a strong wind descends from the mountain blowing leaves, making swallows fly with force, and dispersing the odorous trace. I try to find the lead again but all I smell is the aroma of turmeric, rosemary, and baked bread that emanates from the épicerie.
Where did his presence go? Where has his presence being? I do not know who he is or what brought him here. But I want to hold him. I need to feed him. With so little to remember about him, how could I keep him present? The scent, I must follow his scent and find his presence somewhere in the village. The tomcats would help me, if they knew.
I explore each of the paths that lead away from the épicerie in search of his trace. One smells like mildew, another like burnt wood, yet another like danger. I sit and wait, knowing his presence will come to meet me like it did the first night I fed him. Finally, when the swallows seem to fly at ease, a change in the breeze brings back the animal scent I must follow.
With care not to lose the trace again, I walk slowly into the oldest part of the village where buildings hang over each other and paths barely know if it is day or night. I enter a shadowy path, a tunnel of sorts, surrounded by several wooden doors and a few small wooden windows punctuating the stone building walls.
I follow the voice of the bearded creature I detest and come inside a desecrated room where the scent confirms the presence of the hands that held me. Opposites they are, dirty hands of the bearded creature and his holding hands.