WHEN THERE’S A KNOCK ON THE DOOR AT NIGHT

WHEN THERE’S A KNOCK ON THE DOOR AT NIGHT by Xabier P. DoCampo

The four stories in When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night showcase the best of Galician storytelling in which elements of the everyday intersect with elements of the supernatural. Often the scene is a storm in the dark during which the traveller is forced to seek shelter for the night in a house where the story is told to him or he experiences the events himself. In ‘The Traveller’s Mirror’, a man on his way to reclaim his parents’ estate is caught in a storm and attracted by the light of a forge, which he deduces is not a ghost because it remains still. On entering the blacksmith’s house, he is struck by the similarity in their appearance – their faces are identical except for one detail. In ‘The Oven Man’, an old woman in the village constantly plays tricks on or spreads rumours about her neighbours, reprehensible behaviour that leads three men to set out one night to teach her a lesson that goes badly wrong. In ‘The She-Wolf’, a dandy who has never done a proper day’s work in his life and who devotes himself to hunting and the pursuit of pleasure fails to fulfil a promise he has made, thereby provoking the injured party’s fury and bringing down unfortunate consequences for all concerned. And in ‘Happy Death Day’, a man receives cards, letters and other gifts in celebration not of the day he was born, but of the day he will die. He does everything in his power to escape this destiny before seemingly accepting his fate and succumbing to the inevitable. When There’s a Knock on the Door at Night is a modern classic of Galician literature and received the Spanish National Book Award in 1995.

THE TRAVELLER’S MIRROR

It had been a day of constant rain. A cold, thin rain that only ever stopped to give way to hail or snow. A better night could hardly be expected after such a day, rather quite the opposite, and that is how it was. But now there was a blustery wind as well that made walking a laborious and unpleasant task. I had to get off the horse and lead it by the reins because the animal, disoriented by the air and water, wouldn’t let itself be guided through the blackness of that night without the slightest hint of moon. Whereas before it was the horse that kept stumbling, threatening to throw me off, now I was the one that kept staggering this way and that, so that only the horse’s strength and my hands clinging to the reins prevented me from doing worse than falling on my knees in the mud from time to time.

In the morning, when I had set out, I had reckoned it would take me only two days to reach my destination, and not even the absence of seven years traversing those roads had managed to divert me one foot from the correct path. But that was during the daytime, which, though dark and unpleasant, had allowed me to progress with a certain sense of security. Now I was absolutely certain that I was lost and all I wanted was to find some shelter for the night before I strayed a long way from the path.

I attempted to walk with my head next to the horse’s in order to protect myself from the air and water. I wandered like this for a long time, until in the distance it seemed to me I could make out a light. Whether or not it was a light, I headed in that direction. As time went by, I became more and more certain that it wasn’t a product of my imagination because it kept on reappearing whenever the detours I was obliged to take on account of the rough terrain made me lose sight of it. It certainly wasn’t a ghost because it remained motionless all the while.

It wasn’t long before I was sufficiently close to the light to realize it came from inside a house. Once I descended the hill I was on, only a smallish chestnut grove would stand between me and its front door.

Having left behind the last of the chestnut trees, barely twenty feet from the house, I moved towards the enormous front door, the top half of which was open and filled with a blinding light that seemed to me to be emanating from the gates of paradise, however much, as I had been approaching, I had been convinced the glare proceeded from the flames of hell itself.

I peered through the opening and finally discovered what fire it was causing so much light: a blacksmith’s forge.

I tied my beast to a hitching ring and knocked hard on the door with the stick I was carrying, while at the same time shouting out, ‘Laus Deo!

The occupant of the house must have been standing right by the door because in a flash a face appeared that came close to mine and which I couldn’t make out in the darkness of the night.

‘May he always be praised! Come in, draw near to the fire, it’s not a night for wandering outside,’ he said while opening the door.

I entered the room, which was open plan and where, apart from the forge, there was a fireplace with a blackened bench, a good-sized trough surrounded by three or four chairs and a large pantry. On the other side of the forge, behind the bellows, an arched doorway revealed the smithy, which was piled high with single- and double-headed anvils, tongs, pokers and all the paraphernalia you would expect to find in a blacksmith’s house. An open door revealed a staircase that hugged the left wall and led to the upper floor.

Walking in front of the owner of the house, I approached the fireplace, hearing his voice all the while, which encouraged me to sit close to the fire so I could get dry while he himself offered to shelter and unharness my horse. I sat down on the bench in front of the fire and watched as my host left the house.

It didn’t take him long to reappear with an armful of wood, which he tossed on the fire. He grabbed a stool and sat down opposite me. It was then I could properly examine his features for the first time, and I almost fell backwards in surprise: his face was in all respects almost identical to mine. The only difference was in his left eye. To start with, it seemed much bigger than the other. It then occurred to me this was because he had opened it more than the right one. After a while, I saw it never blinked. And finally I realized it was because his left eye had no eyelid. I gazed in amazement at this face, as if looking at myself in the mirror while making unpleasant gestures with my right eye, it was so similar in all respects to mine: the same pale, sparse hair on the crown, the same pointy, somewhat aquiline nose, the same thin-lipped mouth, the same broad chin… It felt like a nightmare and I did nothing to disguise my amazement as he carried on watching me, apparently unaware of the likeness in our appearance, in our very own identity. He seemed to ignore this fact to such an extent that, when he started talking, I didn’t dare remark on it.

He told me he was a blacksmith and on nights like this he lit a huge fire in the forge so lost travellers like me would have a light to guide them. I told him I was on my way back to my house, which I had left seven years before, and was coming back to take over the small inheritance my parents, now deceased, had left me.

When I was dry, the man produced some food from the pantry, which he placed on the table so I could have supper. He didn’t accompany me, except for the wine, which we drank in such large quantities that the man with the lidless eye often had to leave the house with an empty jug in order to return with a full one.

I gradually lost the awkwardness I had initially felt on noting the remarkable similarity between the two of us.

We talked of all those things one talks about on nights of wine. We repeatedly fell into heated arguments and more than once dealt each other blows and shoves. On one occasion I grabbed my knife and held it towards him. He leaped around and grabbed a poker sticking out of the forge. We both found it tremendously difficult to stand on our own two feet and let out enormous guffaws, facing off, me with the knife and him parading the poker in front of my eyes. I made a lunge with the knife as if to frighten him, but just as I was expecting him to take a step backwards in order to avoid the thrust, he leaped towards me and aimed the red-hot poker at my left eye. I let out the largest, ugliest shout my throat was capable of producing…

I don’t know how long it was before I woke up. I was in bed and could feel no pain. I passed my hand over my face and realized it was bandaged. A cloth went under my left ear all the way around my head, covering the eye on that side. Over the eye, I could feel the bandage was thicker. The bed was obviously upstairs, in one of the corners, the one on the left-hand side as you came up the stairs. In the middle of the room was a large table and, behind it, a sideboard. In the wall opposite the bed was a window with open shutters. Beneath the window, a washbasin on an iron stand. Opposite the sideboard and table, a wooden partition with a closed door in it.

It wasn’t long before the blacksmith arrived. He was carrying a bowl of light broth, which he placed on a stool next to my bed. He started giving me an explanation before I had a chance to ask him for one. He said it had all been an unfortunate consequence of the wine. It seemed he also had been wounded; he showed me a stab wound in his stomach, which had already started to heal. He revealed he himself had treated my eye, although, however much I asked him, he wouldn’t go into details as to the likely consequences for my eye. All he said was that he was particularly skilled at such labours and many neighbours from far and wide sought him out to cure their wounds.

He wouldn’t let me out of bed all that day or the three that followed. He lavished me with attention and hardly left me alone. He stayed at my side, telling me all sorts of things about his life. Whenever I insisted on getting up and continuing my journey, he would say there was no hurry, it was he who had wounded me and he couldn’t let me leave his house until I was completely recovered. So it was I found out he had a wife, who was away at the moment and wouldn’t be back any time soon because she had gone to look after her old, sick father.

I started to feel like a prisoner who is not allowed to move without permission. Whenever I tried to get out of bed, he would appear out of nowhere and stop me. He seemed to have some kind of warning system that enabled him to distinguish the sounds of the mattress when I turned over in bed from those that showed I was trying to get up. I reached the conclusion he could discern my intentions because, whenever I made another attempt to get to my feet, the blacksmith would turn up and convince me to go back to lying down.

Finally, one night, he announced I could get up the very next day.

When I saw the daylight filtering through the cracks in the shutters, I leaped out of bed. I ran towards the window, tearing off the bandages as I went. Behind the shutter, just above the washbasin, I had seen a little mirror, but when I looked for it, it wasn’t there. I went to open the window so I could see myself in the panes of glass against the shutter. I don’t know how or why, but the window no longer had any panes in it.

At that precise moment, the blacksmith came upstairs and, before saying anything, I asked him for a mirror. He replied the devil take him, but there wasn’t one in the whole house. However much I told him I wanted to see what my face looked like and, even if it was bad, I wouldn’t hold it against him, it had obviously been a wine-induced accident, I couldn’t get him to stop coming out with the excuse that it so happened there wasn’t a mirror in the house.

I cupped some water from the basin and searched in its depths, hoping to see my face. All I could make out was the dark silhouette of my head, without being able to see enough to work out what my appearance was like after the accident.

All day, I went about, searching for something that would reflect my face with sufficient clarity to reveal my appearance. The blacksmith and I hardly said a word to each other the whole time. He was almost always busy in the smithy, while I was searching for my image.

The next day, when I got up, I remembered my horse had been in the stables for a long time and I still hadn’t been to see him, this animal I loved so much, who was such a loyal friend to me. I headed towards the stables and found him clean and well nourished. It was clear the blacksmith had looked after him well all the days I had spent in bed. Over an empty manger was my saddle and the horse’s tackle. A noticeable gleam emanated from the bridle bit. I grabbed it and wiped it on the sleeve of my shirt. Little daylight penetrated the stables, so I went outside. I rubbed the bit vigorously on my shirt and held it in front of my face. The first thing I saw was my mouth. I moved it and succeeded in contemplating my nose. My anxiety made me handle the shining piece of metal a little carelessly, and the next thing I saw were the roots of my hair. A slight movement, and now I could see my eyes, deformed by the curvature of the mouthpiece. Here I could finally discern the results of our struggle and the blacksmith’s surgery: my left eye was lacking an eyelid. Dear God! Now I really was identical in every way to that accursed blacksmith.

I spent a long while sitting on a stone, gazing from time to time at my face on the bit. I kept seeing the blacksmith’s face. My heart slowly filled with rage. This hadn’t been an accident! It had all been prepared beforehand! The wine, the fight, he’d thought it all out so I would be like him. He’d probably wounded himself in the stomach to make that nonsense about an accident sound more plausible. My blood was thumping in my temples, while hate surged forcibly through me.

I went back inside the house and didn’t say a word. In the days that followed, I continued accepting his attention as if nothing was wrong. Meanwhile, I kept an eye on all his movements so I could work out the best time to carry out my revenge. On the few occasions we were face to face, I stared at his eye shamelessly. I had lost the sense of insecurity one has in front of a cripple, when it seems one’s sight is constantly being drawn to the injury and one tries to look the other way. No, now I fixed my gaze on his lidless eye insolently and didn’t take it away until he had turned around.

The blacksmith slept on a bed of straw next to the hearth and continued giving me the bed upstairs. One night, I confirmed how trusting he had become because, even though I got out of bed four times, he never made a sound downstairs to make me think he’d woken up. The following night, I had a go at climbing up and down the stairs without him waking up; I even stood less than a foot away from where he was sleeping, and he didn’t flinch! The rage in my chest advanced at the same rate as my plans for killing him.

That day, I selected a weapon from the smithy that struck me as most appropriate: a heavy, sharp chopping knife. I hid it under my clothes and managed to steal it upstairs. I then placed it under the mattress.

I waited impatiently for night to come. I felt no fear at the idea of committing a crime; actually, I could hardly wait for the moment to arrive. There was no trace of doubt or mercy inside my heart, just an overriding desire to deprive that demoniacal being of life. I was sure that, having done so, I would feel perfectly well, without the slightest hint of remorse.

At nightfall, my idea was to wait for him to lie down next to the hearth so I could go up to bed, but he didn’t stop wandering about. He went in and out of the smithy for no apparent reason. As usual, we barely said a word to each other. So I headed for the stairs and tucked myself into bed. From there, I could hear how he spread some straw on the floor in order to lie down. I waited long enough for the blacksmith to have fallen asleep and then got up. The memory of his light sleep that had made him turn up beside my bed every time I moved encouraged me to stay still for a while, having got out of bed. Nothing. He didn’t budge. I went downstairs, making as little noise as if I was walking on air. The door between the stairs and the kitchen was half closed. I pushed it gently, and it opened without making a sound. I was expecting this since during the day, taking advantage of the blacksmith’s absence, I had been careful to lubricate its hinges.

There he was, lying in front of the hearth. The bulk of his body was illuminated by the embers of the forge. He was facing the hearthstone, with his back to the room. I crept up cautiously. Every step, I paused to see if my breathing was enough to wake him.

After that, I was next to him. He was completely covered by a blanket. All you could see was the form of a man lying down. It was then that my brain was assailed by doubt. What if he suspected my intentions, and this lump was nothing but a handful of straw covered in a blanket? What if he was right behind me at this very moment, watching me approach with a chopper in my hand? Should I look around in case he jumped on me with a sledgehammer and dealt me a death blow instead? Or perhaps I should retreat, put my plans off until the following night? I couldn’t even make out the rise and fall of his breathing! The blood pounded in my temples so much I thought they would burst.

 

(continued)

 

Translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne

Additional Info

  • purchase text:

    WHEN THERE’S A KNOCK ON THE DOOR AT NIGHT by Xabier P. DoCampo, the fifteenth title in the series Small Stations Fiction devoted to the best of contemporary fiction in English, is forthcoming

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    ISBN: 978-954-384-087-8

    Publication Date: 12 July 2018

    Language: English

    Paperback: 86 pages

    Dimensions: 203 x 133 mm