Editorial notes from John: (1) Please don't read the final paragraph of this story until you reach it as you would normally, as your final act of reading a story. (2) Then, and only then, read that last paragraph one more time to be sure it is in your mind. I have added a third and fourth note to this paragraph, but shall reserve them to the end, as a suggestion for contemplating Borges's intentions. 


The Gospel According to Mark - a short story by Jorge Luiz Borges (1971)


The incident took place on the Los Alamos ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín, during the last days of March,1928. The protagonist was a medical student named Baltasar Espinosa. We may describe him, for now, as one of the common run of young men from Buenos Aires, with nothing more noteworthy about him than an almost unlimited kindness and a capacity for public speaking that had earned him several prizes at the English school in Ramos Mejía. He did not like arguing, and preferred having his listener rather than himself in the right. Although he was fascinated by the probabilities of chance in any game he played, he was a bad player because it gave him no pleasure to win. His wide intelligence was undirected; at the age of thirty-three, he still lacked credit for graduation by one course—the course to which he was most drawn. His father, who was a freethinker (like all the gentlemen of his day), had introduced him to the lessons of Herbert Spencer, but his mother, before leaving on a trip to Montevideo, once asked him to say the Lord’s Prayer and make the sign of the cross every night. Through the years, he had never gone back on that promise.

Espinosa was not lacking in spirit; one day, with more indifference than anger, he had exchanged two or three punches with a group of fellow-students who were trying to force him to take part in a university demonstration. Owing to an acquiescent nature, he was full of opinions, or habits of mind, that were questionable: Argentina mattered less to him than a fear that in other parts of the world people might think of us as Indians; he worshipped France but despised the French; he thought little of Americans but approved the fact that there were tall buildings, like theirs, in Buenos Aires; he believed the gauchos of the plains to be better riders than those of hill or mountain country. When his cousin Daniel invited him to spend the summer months out at Los Alamos, he said yes at once—not because he liked the country but out of a natural desire to please, and because he could find no good reason for saying no.

The ranch’s main house was big and slightly run down; the quarters of the foreman, a man named Gutre, stood by. There were three members of the Gutre family: the father, the son (who was singularly rough and unpolished), and a girl of uncertain paternity. They were tall, strong, and bony, with reddish hair and Indian features. They rarely spoke. The foreman’s wife had died years before.

In the country, Espinosa came to learn things he hadn't known, had never even suspected—for example, that you do not gallop a horse when approaching settlements, and that you never go out riding except for some special purpose. In time, he was to come to tell the birds apart by their call.

After a few days, Daniel had to leave for Buenos Aires to close a deal on some cattle. At most, this bit of business might take him a week. Espinosa, who was already somewhat weary of hearing about his cousin’s incessant luck with women and his tireless interest in the minute details of men’s fashion, preferred staying on at the ranch with his textbooks. But the heat was unbearable, and even the night brought no relief. One morning at daybreak, thunder woke him. Outside, the wind was rocking the Australian pines. Listening to the first heavy drops of rain, Espinosa thanked God. All at once, cold air rolled in. That afternoon, the Salado overflowed its banks.

The next morning, looking out over the flooded fields from the gallery of the main house, Baltasar Espinosa thought that the stock metaphor comparing the pampa to the sea was not altogether false—at least, not that morning—though Hudson had remarked that the sea seems wider because we view it from a ship’s deck and not from a horse or from eye level.

The rain did not let up. The Gutres, helped or hindered by Espinosa, the town dweller, rescued a good part of the livestock, but many animals were drowned. There were four roads leading to the ranch; all of them were under water. On the third day, when a leak threatened the foreman’s house, Espinosa gave the Gutres a room near the tool shed, at the back of the main house. This drew them all closer; and they ate together in the big dining room. Conversation was not easy. The Gutres, who knew so much about country things, did not know how to explain them. One night, Espinosa asked them if people still remembered the Indian raids from back when the frontier command was located there in Junín. They told him yes, but they would have given the same answer to a question about the beheading of Charles I. Espinosa recalled his father’s saying that almost every case of longevity that was cited in the country was really a case of bad memory or of a dim notion of dates. Gauchos are apt to be ignorant of the year of their birth or of the name of the man who begot them.

In the whole house, the only reading material to be found were several copies of a farming magazine, a manual of veterinary medicine, a de-luxe version of the romantic verse drama “Tabaré,” a copy of The History of the Shorthorn in Argentina, several erotic and detective stories, and a recent novel that Espinosa had not read—Don Segundo Sombra. Espinosa, in order to put some life into the inevitable after-dinner attempt at conversation, read a couple of chapters of this novel to the Gutres, none of whom could read or write. Unfortunately, the foreman had been a cattle drover, and the doings of the hero, another cattle drover, failed to whet his interest. He said that the work was light, that drovers always travelled with a packhorse that carried everything they needed, and that, had he not been a drover, he would never have seen such far-flung places as the Laguna de Gómez, the town of Bragado, and the spread of the Núñez family in Chacabuco. There was a guitar in the kitchen; the ranch hands, before the time of the events I am describing, used to sit around in a circle. Someone would tune the instrument without ever getting around to playing it. This was known as "giving it a strum." Espinosa, who had grown a beard, began dallying in front of the mirror to study his new face, and he smiled to think how, back in Buenos Aires, he would bore his friends by telling them the story of the Salado flood. Strangely enough, he missed places he had never frequented and never would: a corner of Cabrera Street on which there was a mailbox; one of the cement lions of a gateway on Jujuy Street, a few blocks from the Plaza del Once; an old barroom with a tiled floor, whose exact whereabouts he was unsure of. As for his brothers and his father, they would already have learned from Daniel that he was isolated—etymologically, the word was perfect—by the floodwaters.

Exploring the house, still hemmed in by the watery waste, Espinosa came across a Bible printed in English. Among the blank pages at the end, the Guthries—such was their original name—had left a handwritten record of their family history. They were natives of Inverness; had reached the New World, no doubt as common laborers, in the early part of the nineteenth century; and had intermarried with Indians. The chronicle broke off sometime during the eighteen-seventies; they no longer knew how to write. After a few generations, they had forgotten English; even their Spanish, at the time Espinosa knew them, gave them trouble. They lacked any religious faith, but there survived in their blood, like faint tracks, the rigid fanaticism of the Calvinist and the superstitions of the pampa Indian. Espinosa later told them of his find, but they barely took notice. Leafing through the volume, his fingers opened it at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Mark. As an exercise in translation, and maybe to find out whether the Gutres understood any of it, Espinosa decided to begin reading them that text after their evening meal. He was surprised that they listened, first attentively, and then with mute fascination. Maybe the gold letters on the cover lent the book authority. It’s still in their blood, he thought. It also occurred to him that the generations of men, throughout recorded time, have always told and retold two stories—that of a lost ship which searches the Mediterranean seas for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha. Remembering his lessons in elocution from his school days in Ramos Mejía, Espinosa got to his feet when he came to the parables.

Having finished the Gospel according to St. Mark, he wanted to read another of the three Gospels that remained, but the father asked him to repeat the one he had just read, so that they could understand it better. Espinosa felt that they were like children, to whom repetition is more pleasing than variations or novelty. That night—this is not to be wondered at—he dreamed of the Flood; the hammer blows of the building of the Ark woke him up, and he thought that perhaps they were thunder. In fact, the rain, which had let up, started again. The cold was bitter. The Gutres had told him that the storm had damaged the roof of the tool shed, and that they would show it to him when the beams were fixed. No longer a stranger now, he was treated by them with respect, almost to the point of spoiling him. None of them liked coffee, but for him there was always a small cup into which they heaped sugar.

The new storm had broken out on a Tuesday. Thursday night, Espinosa was awakened by a soft knock at his door, which—just in case—he always kept locked. He got out of bed and opened it; there was the girl. In the dark he could hardly make her out, but by her footsteps he could tell she was barefoot, and moments later, in bed, that she must have come all the way from the other end of the house naked. She did not embrace him or speak a single word; she lay beside him, trembling. It was the first time she had known a man. When she left, she did not kiss him; Espinosa realized that he didn’t even know her name. Impelled by some sentiment he did not attempt to understand, he made up his mind that upon returning to Buenos Aires he would tell no one about what had taken place.

The next day began like the previous ones, except that the father spoke to Espinosa and asked him if Christ had let Himself be killed so as to save all mankind. Espinosa, who was a freethinker like his father but felt obliged to defend what he had read to them, answered, “Yes, to save everyone from Hell.”

Gutre then asked, “What is Hell?”

“A place under the ground where souls will burn in fire forever.”

“And those who hammered in the nails—will they also be saved?”

“Yes,” said Espinosa, whose theology was rather dim.

All along, he was afraid that the foreman might ask him about what had gone on the night before with his daughter. After lunch, they asked him to read the last chapters over again.

Espinosa slept a long nap that afternoon. It was a light sleep, disturbed by persistent hammering and by vague premonitions. Toward evening, he got up and went out onto the gallery. He said, as if thinking aloud, “The waters have dropped. It won’t be long now.”

“It won’t be long now,” Gutre repeated, like an echo.

The three of them had followed him. Bowing their knees to the stone pavement, they asked his blessing. Then they mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the back part of the house. The girl was weeping. Espinosa understood what awaited him on the other side of the door. When they opened it, he saw the sky. A bird sang out. It's a goldfinch, Espinosa thought. The shed was without a roof; they had pulled down the beams to build the Cross. ♦

(Translated, from the Spanish, by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in collaboration with the author.)

Published in the print edition of The New Yorker, October 23, 1971.