The Rooftop by Julio Ribeyro

This is the fourth in a series of short stories I have translated from Spanish. Read the introductory post on Julio Ribeyro and this series.

At the age of ten, I was the monarch of the rooftops and peacefully governed my kingdom of destroyed objects. 

The rooftops were airy enclosures where a number of people sent things that were no longer of any use – one could find chairs with missing legs, crushed mattresses, cracked flowerpots, coal stoves, and more such items that had arrived at this life of purgatory, midway between posthumous use and oblivion. Among these junk objects, I was omnipotent, exercising an authority that was denied to me in the house downstairs. I could now paint a moustache on a portrait of the grandfather, wear old paternal boots, or brandish a broom that had lost its straws, like a javelin. Nothing was outside my private preserve – I could build and destroy and with the same freedom of the insufferable life of a punctured ball, presided over the capital execution of the mannequins. 

My kingdom, at first was limited to the rooftop of my house, but little by little, thanks to my valorous conquests, was extending its frontiers to the neighborhood rooftops. On these long campaigns, which were not without danger, I had to cross fences or jump over abysmal corridors always returning with some object to add to my treasure or some scratch that added to my heroism. The sporadic presence of a servant hanging out the laundry or someone repairing the chimney didn’t cause me any trouble; I was firmly entrenched as the sovereign of a land in which all others were either nomads or temporary migrants. 

On the borders of my kingdom, no doubt, there was an unexplored zone that awakened my greed.  Many a time I approached its vicinity, but a fence with pointed wooden planks stopped me from crossing over. I could not resign myself to this natural impediment that limited my expansion plans. 

At the start of summer, I decided to launch an assault on this unconquered land. Dragging an unhinged nightstand and an old coat rack from roof to roof, I arrived at the fence and constructed a tall tower next to it. Perched atop my tower, I managed to raise my head above the fence. At first, I could only distinguish a quadrangular rooftop with a lamppost in the middle. Just as I was about to jump over to this new territory, I noticed a man seated on an armchair. The man appeared to be asleep. His head lay fallen on his shoulder and his eyes, shaded by a large straw hat, were closed. His face had a neglected beard, grown almost to distraction, like the beard of a shipwrecked man. 

I must have made some sound as the man straightened his head and gave a perplexed look. Interpreting the gesture he made with his hand as a command to evict, I scampered back. 

Over the next few days, I passed the time on my rooftop, fortifying my defenses and keeping my treasures in a safe place, preparing for what I imagined would be a bloody battle. I could already see an invasion by the barbaric man, plundering and expelling me to an underworld, where obedience was everything, white tablecloths, scrutinizing aunts hidden by heartless curtains that prevented one from looking at the outside world. But on the rooftops reigned a calm silence, and entrenched in my fortifications, I kept vigil, like the slow trot of the cats, on the occasional paper kite that fell on the rooftops. 

I decided to go back to size up the enemy I was up against, to see if he really was a usurper or a mere fugitive asking for the right to an asylum. Armed to my teeth, I ventured outside my fort, and little by little, advanced towards the fence. Instead of climbing over the tower, I lurked around the wooden fence, searching for an opening. I looked through the gap between two planks and observed – the man was still in the armchair, contemplating his long transparent hands, or occasionally casting a gaze at the sky, as if to follow the journey of the passing clouds. 

I would have passed the entire morning there, engaged in the delights of espionage, had not that man, with his head turned, not been staring intently at the viewing hole. 

“Stop,” he said, making a signal with his hand, “I already know you are here. We need to talk.” 

This invitation, if not the same as  an unconditional surrender, revealed at least a willingness to negotiate. Assured that I was well armed, I climbed the clothes rack and jumped over to the other side. The man looked at me smilingly. He took out a white handkerchief. Was that a sign of peace? He wiped his forehead. 

“It’s been a while since you were here,” he said, “I have a fine ear. Nothing escapes me…it’s hot!” 

“Who are you?” he asked me. 

“I am the ruler of the rooftops,” I replied. 

“You can’t be!” he responded, “I am the ruler of the rooftops. All these belong to me. Since my vacations started, I spend all my time here. If you haven’t seen me here before, that’s because I was busy at my other site.” 

“Don’t worry,” he continued, “You will be the ruler during the day and I during the night.” 

“No,” I replied, “I will also rule during the night. I have a lantern. When everyone falls asleep, I will walk around the rooftops.” 

“That’s fine,” he said, “You will also rule during the night! I gift you these rooftops, but let me at least be the king of the cats.” 

His proposal seemed to be acceptable. Mentally, I had already converted him into a shepherd or a tamer of my wild flock. 

“Well, I’ll let you have the cats. And the hens of the house next door, if you want. But all the rest is mine.” 

“Agreed,” he told me, “Come closer now. I am going to tell you a story. You have the face of a person who likes stories. Isn’t that right? Listen now. Once upon a time there was a man who knew everything. For that reason, he was put on a pulpit. Then he was put inside a jail. Then he was interned in a lunatic asylum. Then he was sent to a hospital. Then he was put on an altar. Then he was hanged on the gallows. Tired, the man said that he knew nothing. Then only he was left alone in peace.” 

After saying this, the man laughed out so loud that he drowned in it. When he found me looking at him blankly,  he became serious. 

“You didn’t like my story,” he said, “I am going to tell you another one, a much easier one. Once upon a time, there was a famous impersonator called Max in a travelling circus. He put on a set of false wings and a cardboard beak, entered the ring and started jumping and chirping. An ostrich! Cried the audience pointing towards him and they laughed till they died. His imitation of the ostrich was famous all over the world. He repeated this act for many years, providing entertainment to both children and grown-ups. But as time went on, he became very sad, and at his deathbed, he called his friends and told them, I am going to reveal a secret to you. I never wanted to imitate an ostrich; I always wanted to imitate a canary.” 

This time the man did not smile but remained thoughtful, looking at me with questioning eyes. 

“Who are you?” I asked back, “Are you trying to trick me? Why are you sitting here all the day? Why are you growing a beard? You don’t work? Are you lazy?” 

“So many questions!” he said, stretching his arms, with the palms facing me, “I will answer you some other day. Now you leave, please go. Why don’t you return tomorrow? Look, the sun, is like an eye. Do you see it? Like an irritated eye. The eye of an inferno.” 

I looked up above and saw a furious disc that that blinded me. I walked away, hesitating, until I was at a safe distance and noticed that the man was now leaning on his knees and had covered his face with his straw hat. 

I returned the next day. 

 “I was waiting for you,” the man said to me, “I was getting bored, I have already read all my books and have no more to read.” 

Instead of me approaching him, he extended his hand in a friendly gesture, casting a greedy eye on the objects that were stacked up on the other side of the lamppost. 

“Ah, I know already,” said the man, “You have returned only for the junk.  You can take whatever you want. Whatever is there on the roof,” he added, “they are of no use.” 

“I haven’t come back for the junk,” I responded, “I have garbage; I have more than the entire world.” 

“Then listen to what I have to tell you, summer is not when the gods like me. I like the cold cities, the ones that have a floodgate up there and let their waters down. But in Lima, it never rains; even the dew is so little that it barely settles the dust. Why don’t we invent something to protect us from the sun?” 

“A sunshade,” he said “a sunshade so enormous that it would cover the entire city.” 

 “That is, a sunshade that has a grand mast, like that of a carp fish at a circus that can unfurl from the ground, with a rope, like the hoisting of a flag. So we’ll always be in shade. And we shall not suffer.” 

When he said this, I realized he was soaking with the sweat that fell on his beard and wet his hands. 

“Do you know why the helpers in offices are so happy? Because they have been given a new uniform with stripes. They believe it has changed their destiny, when they have only turned out in a suit.” 

“Do we make it with fabric or paper,” I asked. 

The man kept staring at me as if he didn’t understand what I meant.  

“Ah, the sunshade!” he exclaimed, “It would be best if we make it with skin. What do you say? With human skin. With everyone donating an ear or finger. And for those who don’t want to give, we’ll pull out with pincers.” 

I started to laugh. The man imitated me. I laughed at his laughter and not so much at what I had imagined – yanking out my teacher’s ear with a pair of pliers – when the man restrained himself. 

“It’s a good laugh,” he said, “but without forgetting some things, for example, that until the mouths of the children fill with larvae and the house of the teacher is converted into a cabaret by his disciples.” 

After this, I started visiting the man on the armchair every morning. Abandoning my reserve, I started to swamp him with all kinds of lies and invented stories. He heard me with attention; he would interrupt me only to give me credit and passionately encouraged all my fantasies. The sunshade no longer worried us, and now we dreamed up a pair of shoes for walking over the sea and skates to lighten the fatigue of the turtles. 

Despite our long conversations, I knew little or nothing about him. Each time I asked him about himself, he gave me nonsensical or obscure answers such as: 

“I have already told you; I am the ruler of the cats. Have you never come up during the night? If you do, you would often see me grow a tail, sharpen my claws and see how my eyes burn and how all the cats around here come in a procession to pay me their respects.” 

Or he said: 

“I am that, simply, that is nothing more, never forget – junk.” 

Another day, he told me, “I am like that man, who after ten years of his death is revived and returns to his house wrapped in his shroud. Initially, his relatives are scared and run away from him. Then they refused to recognize him. Then they admitted him, but made sure that he was neither seated at the dinner table nor near the bed where he could sleep. Then they expelled him to the garden, then to the street and then to the other side of the town. But as the man would always come back, they decided to kill him.” 

During midsummer, the heat was unbearable. The sun melted the asphalt on the roads, where the grasshoppers were trapped. Everywhere, it breathed brutality and laziness. In the mornings, I went to the beach in the crowded tramcars, I arrived home covered with sand and famished, and after lunch, I climbed up to the rooftops to visit the man in the armchair. 

He had installed an umbrella by the side of his chair and was fanning himself with the page of a magazine. His cheeks were hollow and without. He wasn’t talkative as usual, but silent, throwing angry looks at the sky. 

 “The sun! The sun,” he repeated, “It will stop, or I will. If only we could knock it down with a cork shotgun!” 

One of those afternoons, he received me with a certain disquiet. On one side of his armchair, he had a cardboard box. Barely had he seen me, when he took out a bag full of fruits and a bottle of lemonade from that box. 

“Today is my saint’s day,” he said, “We are going to celebrate it. Do you know that I am thirty-three years old?  It means to know the names of things, of countries on the map. Also, about   insignificant things, so tiny that the nail of my little finger would be a world by their side. 

“But, haven’t you heard a famous author say that the smallest things torment us the most, like, for example, the buttons on a shirt?” 

That day, I spoke until the devilish sun melted the crystals of the streetlights and grew long shadows inside each of the painted church windows.  

When I withdrew, the man said to me, “My vacations are soon coming to an end. From now, you can’t come to see me. But don’t worry, because already the first rains are arriving.” 

In effect, the vacations had ended. We boys passionately lived those final hot days, already feeling a faraway smell of ink, a teacher, new notebooks. I squeezed through the objects on the rooftops, inspecting all the space I had conquered in vain, knowing that my summer and my golden ship of cargoes filled with riches were sinking.  

The man of the armchair appeared worn out. Under his sunshade, I saw his tanned face, observing with anxiety the final assault of the scorching days that made burnt toasts out of the rooftops . 

“It’s still hard!” he said signaling towards the sun, “Does it not appear wicked? Ah, the cold and windy cities. Summer solstice is an ugly word, a word that reminds one of a weapon, of a knife.” 

The following day he gave me a book, saying,  

“You read it when you can’t come up. That way, you’ll remember your friend… this long summer” 

It was a book with blue engravings and had a character called Rogelio. My mother discovered it on the pedestal table. I told her that it was a gift from “the man in the armchair.” She investigated, and lifting the book with paper, was throwing it into the garbage. 

“Why didn’t you tell me that you were speaking with that man? You will see tonight when your papa returns!  Never go up to the rooftop again.” 

That night my father told me,  

“That man is marked. I forbid you from going up to the rooftop.” 

My mother started keeping a vigil on the staircase that led to the rooftop.  I walked scared by the corridors of my house, by the terrible bedrooms, I let myself fall on the chairs, watched with exhaustion the wallpapered dining room – an apple, a banana, repeated to infinity – or leafed through albums full of dead relatives. But my ears were attentive only to the rumors about the rooftop, where the final golden days had awaited me, and my friend who lived there – solitary among the junk. 

The classes started, although the days were still hot. The work at the school distracted me. I spent endless mornings at my desk, learning the numbers of the fourteen Incas and drawing the map of Peru with my wax crayons. The vacations seemed far away and foreign to me already, as if it were old diary. 

One afternoon, a shadow fell on the school playground and a cold breeze swept away the hot air. Soon, the drizzle started to resonate above the palm trees. It was the first rain of the fall. I immediately agreed with my friend; I watched it jubilantly, receiving with my open hands the water falling from the sky that cleansed one’s skin, one’s heart. 

Arriving at the house, I resolved to make a visit. I tricked my mother’s vigil and climbed to the rooftop. At that time, under the grey hours, everything appeared different. On the clothesline, the forgotten clothes swung and breathed in the half light, and against the lamppost, those mannequins appeared like mutilated bodies. Anguished, I crossed my dominions and across the railing and the skylight, I reached the palisade. Raising myself on the coat rack, I looked out to the other side. 

I only saw the wet floor of the quadrilateral. The chair, disassembled, rested against the rusted mattress of a cot. I walked a bit to reduce the cold, trying to find a trace, an indication of his old palpitation. Close to the chair was an earthenware spittoon. For a change, the light went up by the tall lamppost, giving an indication of life. Looking over its crystals, I saw inside my friend’s house, a corridor of floor tiles where people in mourning clothes solemnly moved around. 

It was then that I figured that the rain had arrived a bit too late.

Read more stories by Julio Ribeyro on this blog

Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

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