The Shape of the Sword [compare to this]

by Jorge Luis Borges


A spiteful scar crossed his face: an ash-colored and nearly perfect arc that creased his temple at one tip and his cheek at the other. His real name is of no importance, everyone in Tacuarembó called him the Englishman from La Colorada.” Cardoso, the owner of those fields refused to sell them: I understand that the Englishman resorted to an unexpected argument: he confided to Cardoso the secret of the scar. The Englishman came from the border, from Rio Grande del Sur; there are many who say that in Brazil he had been a smuggler. The fields were overgrown with grass, the waterholes brackish; the Englishman, in order to correct those deficiencies, worked fully as hard as his laborers. They say that he was severe to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously just. They say also that he drank: a few times a year he locked himself into an upper room, not to emerge until two or three days later as if from a battle or from vertigo, pale, trembling, confused and as authoritarian as ever. I remember the glacial eyes, the energetic leanness, the gray mustache. He had no dealings with anyone; it is a fact that his Spanish was rudimentary and cluttered with Brazilian. Aside from a business letter or some pamphlet he received no mail.

The last time I passed through the northern provinces, a sudden overflowing of the Caraguatá stream compelled me to spend the night at La Colorada. Within a few moments, I seemed to sense that my appearance was inopportune, I tried to ingratiate myself with the Englishman; I resorted to the least discerning of passions: patriotism. I claimed as invincible a country with such spirit as England’s. My companion agreed. but added with a smile that he was not English. He was Irish from Hungarian. Having said this, he stopped short, as if he had revealed a secret.

After dinner we went outside to look at the sky. It had cleared up, but beyond the low hills the southern sky, streaked and gashed by lightning was conceiving another storm. Into the cleared up dining room the boy who had served dinner brought a bottle of rum. We drank for some time, in silence.

I don’t know what time it must have been when I observed that I was drunk; I don’t know what inspiration or what exultation or tedium made me mention the scar.

The Englishman’s face changed its expression; for a few seconds I thought he was going to throw me out of the house. At length he said in his normal voice:

“I’ll tell you the history of my scar under one condition that of not mitigating one bit of the opprobrium, of the infamous circumstances.”

I agreed. This is the story that he told me, mixing his English with Spanish, and even with Portuguese: “Around 1922, in one of the cities of Connaught, I was one of the many who were conspiring for the independence of Ireland. Of my comrades, some are sell living, dedicated to peaceful pursuits; others, paradoxically, are fighting on desert and sea under the English flag; another, the most worthy, died in the courtyard of a barracks, at dawn, shot by men filled with sleep; still others (not the most unfortunate) met their destiny in the anonymous and almost secret battles of the civil war. We were Republicans, Catholics; we were, I suspect, Romantics. Ireland was for us not only the utopian future and the intolerable present; it was a bitter and cherished mythology, it was the circular towed and the red marshes, it was the repudiation of Parnell and the enormous epic poems which sang of the robbing of bulls which in another incarnation were heroes and in others fish and mountains . . . One afternoon I will never forget, an affiliate from Munster joined us: one John Vincent Moon.

“He was scarcely twenty years old. He was slender and flaccid at the same time; he gave the uncomfortable impression of being invertebrate. He had studied with fervor and with vanity nearly every page of Lord knows what Communist manual; he made use of dialectical materialism to put an end to any discussion whatever. The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite: Moon reduced the history of the universe to a sordid economic conflict He affirmed that the revolution was predestined to succeed. I told him that for a gentleman only lost causes should be attractive . . . Night had already fallen; we continued our disagreement in the hall, on the stilts, then along the vague streets. The judgments Moon emitted impressed me less than his irrefutable, apodictic note. The new comrade did not discuss: he dictated opinions with scorn and with a certain anger.

“As we were arriving at the outlying houses, a sudden burst of gunfire stunned us. (Either before or afterwards we skirted the blank wall of a factory or barracks.) We moved into an unpaved street; a soldier, huge in the firelight, came out of a burning hut. Crying out, he ordered us to stop. I quickened my pace; my companion did not follow. I turned around: John Vincent Moon was motionless, fascinated, as if energized by fear. I then ran back and knocked the soldier to the ground with one blow, shook Vincent Moon, insulted him and ordered him to follow. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had rendered him helpless. We fled into the night pierced by flames. A rifle volley reached out for us, and a bullet nicked Moon’s right shoulder; as we were fleeing amid pines, he broke out in weak sobbing.

“In that fall of 1923 I had taken shelter in General Berkeley’s country house. The general (whom I had never seen) was carrying out some administrative assignment or other in Bengal; the house was less than a century old, but it was decayed and shadowy and flourished in puzzling corridors and in pointless antechambers. The museum and the huge library usurped the first floor: controversial and uncongenial books which in some manner are the history of the nineteenth century; scimitars from Nishapur, along whose captured arcs there seemed to persist still the wind and violence of battle. We entered (I seem to recall) through the rear. Moon, trembling, his mouth parched, murmured that the events of the night were interesting   I dressed his wound and brought him a cup of tea; I was able to determine that his ‘wound’ was superficial. Suddenly he stammered in bewilderment:    

‘You know, you ran a terrible risk.’

I told him not to worry about it. (The habit of the civil war had incited me to act is I did; besides, the capture of a single member could endanger our cause.)

“By the following day Moon had recovered his poise. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a severe interrogation on the ‘economic resources of our revolutionary party.’ His questions were very lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was serious. Deep bursts of rifle fire   agitated the south. I told Moon our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and my revolver were in my room; when I returned, I found Moon stretched out on the sofa, his eyes closed. He imagined he had a fever; he invoked a painful spasm in his shoulder.

“At that moment I understood that his cowardice was irreparable. I clumsily entreated him to take care of himself and went out. This frightened man mortified me, as if I were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatever one man does, it is as if all men did it. For that reason it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden   should contaminate all humanity; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew should be sufficient to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer was right. I am all other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.

“Nine days we spent in the general’s enormous house. Of the agonies and the successes of the war I shall not speak: I propose to relate the history of the scar that insults me. In my memory, those nine days   form only a single day , save for the next to the last, when our men broke   into a barracks and we were able to avenge precisely the sixteen comrades who had been machine- gunned in Elphin. I slipped out of the house towards dawn, in the confusion of daybreak. At Highball I was back. My companion was waiting for me upstairs: his wound did not permit him to descend to the ground floor. I recall him having some volume of strategy in his hand, F. N. Maude or Clausewitz ‘The weapon I prefer is the artillery,’ he confessed to me one night.

He inquired into our plans; he liked to censure them or revise them. He also was accustomed to denouncing ‘our deplorable economic basis’; dogmatic and gloomy, he predicted the disastrous end.

C’est une affaire flambée,’ he murmured. In order to show that he was indifferent to being a physical coward, he magnified his mental arrogance. In this way, for good or for bad, nine days elapsed.

“On the tenth day the city fell definitely to the Black and Tans. Tall, silent horsemen patrolled the roads; ashes and smoke rode on the wind; on the corner I saw a corpse thrown to the ground, an Impression less firm in my memory than that of a dummy on which the soldiers endlessly practiced their marksmanship, in the middle of the square . . . I had left when dawn was in the sky, before noon I returned. Moon, in the library, was speaking with someone; the tone of his voice told me he was talking on the telephone. Then I heard my name; then that I would return at seven; then, the suggestion that they should arrest me as I was crossing the garden. My reasonable fiend was reasonably selling me out. I heard him demand guarantees of personal safety.

‘Here my story is confused and becomes lost. I know that I pursued the informer along the black, nightmarish halls and along deep stairways of dizziness. Moon knew the house very well, much better than I. One or two times I lost him. I cornered him before the soldiers stopped me. From one of the general’s collections of arms I tore a cutlass with that half moon I carved into his face forever a half moon of blood. Borges, to you, a stranger I have made this confession. Your contempt does not grieve me so much.’’

Here the narrator stopped. I noticed that his hands were shaking.

“And Moon?” I asked him.

“He collected his Judas money and fled to Brazil. That afternoon, in the square, he saw a dummy shot up by some drunken men. I waited in vain for the rest of the story. Finally I told him to go on. Then a sob went through his body; and with a weak gentleness he pointed to the whitish curved scar.

“You don’t believe me?” he stammered. “Don’t  you see that I carry written on my face the mark of my infamy? I have told you the story thus so that you would hear me to the end. I denounced the man who protected me. I am Vincent Moon. Now despise me.”



To E. H. M                                                                                                     

Translated by D. A. Y.