In advance of the publication of The Horns on July 20, here is a short excerpt:
In the year 1625 of Our Lord, in Cartagena, that magnificent and redoubtable coastal fort in the Viceroyalty of Peru, Don Santiago Alvarez de Armias awoke one day to discover horns upon his head. They were long and narrow, curving slightly upward from his forehead, not unlike an goat’s. Or a demon’s, as his servants and slaves whispered to each other upon seeing it. Most of them fled his house in the days that followed, for they had a premonition of the trials that awaited him.
These began, if there is such a thing as beginnings and endings, the day prior, when Don Santiago met some acquaintances on the streets beyond the Plaza de los Coches, where he had come from looking at some slaves on offer at the market. The full heat of the day was upon them and they elected to retire to a nearby tavern to take some sustenance there. One of the men, a notorious cocksman named Armando Gonzago, told the other men a salacious tale of his latest conquest, who he had been with that very morning while Don Santiago was at the slave market. So tempestuous was their lovemaking, Armando claimed, that they broke the baluster on the bed. All three men laughed at the thought of the poor cuckold who would return home to a broken bed and his wife’s poor excuses. Which he would no doubt believe, for Armando noted he had been so oblivious to this point that he did not suspect anything was amiss.
The three men finished their oruja and said their goodbyes. Don Santiago went about the rest of his day, giving little thought to Armando’s tale. It was evening by the time he returned home. As he let one of his servants wash his face with a damp towel, his wife called out to him that he would need to see to the repair of their marriage bed, whose baluster had somehow become broken.
Don Santiago went still at her words. “How did it become broken?” he said.
“I only noticed it this afternoon,” she said, as though that were an explanation.
As if in a dream, Don Santiago recalled other instances of her evasions from his questions, other times when she had offered no explanation for strange incidents and absences. An incredible anger began to build inside him. His whole body seemed to tremble, as though assailed by a tempest. Words failed him.
When he recovered himself somewhat he strode into the bedroom to investigate and saw that, indeed, the baluster had been snapped in half. He strove to peer through the dim mists of his memory to that very morning when he had risen from bed. How had the baluster appeared then? Solid and whole, just as the frame itself. Now here it lay upon the floor, as broken as his trust in everything his wife told him.
Don Santiago called her into the room, demanding that she explain herself.
“I don’t know. It was fine this morning, but when I came in this afternoon I found it so. Perhaps,” and here she lowered her voice, so that only he could hear, “the servants were about where they should not have been.”
Don Santiago stared at her, numb and cold, all emotion having fled. He turned to look at the mestizo boy who attended him when he was at home, but the boy would not meet his gaze. A terrible shudder overcame him, as though a spirit had passed across his grave. He bent down to seize the offending piece of wood and turned back to his wife, who studied him with a bemused expression on her face.
His rage returned to him, overwhelming, coursing through his veins like a torrential river. He struck his wife with what remained of the baluster, knocking her stunned to the floor. A trickle of blood ran from her head down between her eyes. Blow after blow he rained down upon her, until she lay upon the floor in an ever-growing pool of blood.
Servants were screaming, footsteps sounding throughout the rest of the house. Don Santiago could not hear them over the thunder of the pulse in his ears. His head ached and he felt exhilarated beyond belief. He looked from his wife to the mestizo boy who remained standing, his lips quivering wordlessly, too afraid to move lest he draw his master’s ire.
The baluster was still in his hand and he tossed it to the floor beside his wife, gesturing to the boy. He would not come, still staring in mute horror.
“Here boy,” Don Santiago said, “listen. Go summon the Alcalde quick.”
The servant would still not move and Don Santiago had to drag him from the room to send him on his way. When the boy was on gone, he turned back into the bedroom trying to gather what remained of his thoughts. The Alcalde would need clear evidence that his had been a righteous fury, justified by his wife making him a fool and a cuckold. As he pondered this, he looked upon the broken form of his wife and saw her mouth opening and closing oddly, as though she had lost all command of it. Her body writhed on the floor, as if she were in the throes of an awful ecstasy.
One of the other servants tried to come tend to her, but Don Santiago chased her away with the baluster, forbidding anyone else coming near in a voice that sounded tinged with madness. He sealed the door to their chambers and crouched beside his wife. As he stared into her dying eyes, he tried to think of something to say, a fitting closure to their lives together and her utter betrayal of his honor. But his wife surprised him by speaking before he could.
“I curse you, Don Santiago Alvarez de Armias, a feckless lover and inattentive husband, for all time. You will never rest easy again.”
With those words she died, before Don Santiago could summon a response. He remained crouched at her side, her curse reverberating in his ears. Though she had perished, he could have sworn he felt her hand upon his head and he leapt back from her in horror, falling to the floor at the edge of the bed. It was in this position that the Alcalde discovered him.
After, as he prepared for bed, Don Santiago would think that the strange moment—the seeming possession of his wife by an enraged spirit—had been fortuitous in the end. The Alcalde had arrived and witnessed the whole bizarre scene, with Don Santiago’s expression one of fear and madness. It was all of a piece with his claim, that he had been seized by an inordinate anger, a rage beyond all meaning, at his realization his wife had so utterly betrayed him.
He had answered the Alcalde’s questions, the notary scrawling his answers, as someone saw to the removal of the body. His servants cleaned the room as best they could and, when the Alcalde was done with his interview, everyone left him alone in the bedroom. Don Santiago stared at the bloodstained floor and his bloody clothes for a time, before snuffing out the candles and going to bed. The darkness seemed to swim around him, alive and sinister, before he at last drifted off to sleep.