An old, limping man made his entry into the small dining room. His unshaven face was furrowed by a sullen gesture. He was not much better dressed than the beggars. One of the hosts, a man with a neat beard and a flawless bald patch on the top of the head, addressed him:
—Vicente, is the food ready?
The old man said yes, everything was ready. The man with the neat beard and flawless bald head asked him to have the dishes brought in. The old man, Vicente, left the room.
The four beggars in whose honor the banquet was to be given hardly dared peek at each other and, even less, ask questions. Something in the attitude of the men who had brought them and the remoteness of the place refrained them from asking questions. While waiting, they nervously fumbled the silverware or unfolded the paper napkins with Christmas motifs.
An old woman entered the room with a stewpot. Judging by her demeanor and age, she could be the wife of the old man who had come out before. She took off the lid of the pot and a foul smell filled the small dining room. The four guests felt a pang of fear. The woman stirred the foul-smelling stew with a ladle and served the guests. Alerted by the stench, they scrutinized the content of their dishes and, in astonished disgust and fear, noticed brown pieces of shit, of human stool, which were responsible for the foul smell of the stew. Some of the beggars tipped the feces with their spoons, moving them aside as if to see what other surprises such a peculiar dish hid. An atmosphere of tragic pathos descended upon the table. As the guests did not dare to eat, one of the hosts, an obese man with thinning hair, a giant with a voice of thunder, roared:
—What’s the matter! Don’t you like the gift you are being offered? Today is Christmas and pious Christian men have invited you to dinner. Stop fussing and start to eat!
Since the fat man's admonitions had no effect on the diners, another host, a man wearing glasses who looked like an accountant, whose downward gaze revealed far-sightedness, approached the black man from behind and shove his head toward the plate while shouting:
—Eat, you bastard! This is the food that you deserve. If you're shit, eat shit.
As the black man resisted, the man with glasses slapped him methodically in anger and, with the violent words of someone who likes to impose his views, repeated:
—I said you all eat, damn it! We don´t have all night. We are busy people and we have more important things to do.
The four beggars remained silent, cowed, fearful, but unwilling to eat the excrement. Then, the man with glasses who looked like an accountant pulled a gun from his coat, cocked it, and pressing the barrel to the black man´s head, threatened:
—If you don’t eat, I'll shoot this nigger bastard. And then I’ll shoot you all.
The beggars stood still, staring at their knees. One pretended to grab the spoon, but stopped and waited. They did not believe that the threat was real; they took it for an attempt to force them to eat and then to laugh at them. The sound of the shot frightened the guests and the other men in the room. The black beggar´s head, shattered by the close-range shot, fell on the plate and splashed stew over the table. The other three beggars realized that the threat was real, grabbed their spoons and started to eat. The first intake made nauseated them, but they rushed to alleviate the sensation with a bottle of white wine that was on the table. But it contained only urine. Faced with the threat of the gun now pointing at them, the beggars, despite their continuous nausea and retching, ate most of their shares. Even though they had not finished everything up, the hosts seemed satisfied and asked the woman to bring out the main course. The old lady came in with a tray with what looked like croquettes, but something strange stuck out of them. Upon close examination, the cautious guests found that it was metal. The mass of the croquettes had been filled with nails and, as they realize when they started to eat it, also with small glass fragments. Each of the three diners, in order not to end like their mate, took a croquette and ate it slowly, with apprehension and effort. They knew that their content would probably tear their guts apart, but that was preferable to a shot in the head. When each had eaten at least two croquettes, the host ordered the servants to bring the dessert. The frightened guests waited anxiously the new ordeal. The old lady brought three glasses on a tray, and she said that they were champagne cocktails. Their appearance was normal, but the beggars did not dare try them because they feared another trick. Then the obese man with a thundering voice spoke:
—You don’t have to worry any longer. As you have gone through the test, this time we have served you a true champagne cocktail flavored with almond liqueur. Drink with confidence. The ordeal has come to an end. When you finish, you will be free to leave.
The three beggars tried the cocktail somehow reluctantly. It indeed tasted like champagne with a hint of bitter almond. Could it be possible that the strong-voiced man was not lying? Convinced that the dessert was free from danger and in hope of getting free, they quickly emptied their glasses. By the end, they noticed that a bitter taste prevailed over the champagne, but remembering the flavors and textures of the food, the bitter almond liqueur was considered a delightful aftertaste. After finishing the dessert, the cowed diners looked at their hosts, waiting for permission to leave. But they were told that, before they could go, they should listen to a Christmas carol. One of the men left the room and returned with a tambourine, two bagpipes, and a ring of bells. The four hosts played the instruments and sang for their guests a carol: “Tonight it´s Christmas Eve / And tomorrow it´s Christmas...”
The voices were trained, perfectly tuned and synchronized, in key with the instruments. It is said that music sooths the savage beast, but the beggars, who had just undergone the most traumatic experience of their lives, showed no signs of controlling their impatience. It became uneasiness when they started to feel discomfort in their stomachs. Pain quickly spread to their whole bodies. A feeling of paralysis seemed to flood their veins. Then nausea and painful vomits that seemed to tear their guts apart followed. The three beggars, clutching their stomachs, fell to the ground in the middle of the room, screaming and groaning in pain. As the three beggars were dying among spasms and convulsions, the four hosts carefully placed the instruments on the table and crossed their arms, waiting for the spectacle to end. When the beggars stopped moving, the man with the neat beard, apparently the owner of the property, called the old servant, who came quickly.
—Vicente, you know what to do with the bodies. Dispose of them like last time. Then erase any traces of the dinner. We have to leave.
The bearded man looked at his watch and turned to his companions:
—We must go now. It was a good idea to bring a set of clothes to change here. If we hurry, we will be on time. Come on.
The four men left the room while the old servant orderly arranged the dead bodies on the tiled floor. They went hastily to their vehicle, took out suit bags, and returned to the house. At the entrance, the four men crossed themselves as they went by a statute of Mary the Virgin in a niche surrounded by shiny votive figurines made of wax. They changed in a room downstairs. When they came up, the four were dressed in tuxedos and donned white shirts and black bow ties. The shoes, black and glittery, shined in the dim hallway. The four men, their street clothes in bags, went to their SUVs and took time to say goodbye to each other. The four powerful vehicles left the property, one after the other.
Half an hour later, the four men entered together the Church of the Good Shepherd. There, they joined other men dressed like them. They all hugged and wished each other peace and happiness. A priest told them to get ready. The men and the other members of the choir went up the stairs to the small balcony that flew over the left side of the altar and the organ. The members of the choir opened the scores and waited while pious men and women thronged into the church, filling pews and aisles. This High Mass was famous in the province and people came to attend from neighboring towns. The signal was given. The choir started to sing the popular lied that begins
The intertwining of voices led to a sudden discharge of aesthetic delight that made those attending the mass cry. Tears filled the eyes of our four men, who were moved by the simple music. They were, the whole parish could attest, four good men.
(1) A snowfall has fallen / And it is not yet time.
Lamberto García del Cid, Spain © 2013
Click here to see this story in Spanish
Translation by Lamberto García del Cid and Lilibeth C. Sum M. © 2013
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