BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
THE OLD man, lopsided, bandy-legged and stooped, leaned on his cane in the entrance to the dark hall that housed the Customs House. His scrawny body twitched and jerked back and forth as if driven by a faulty clockwork mechanism. He gripped his cane and embarked on his unsteady journey the length of the hall, his cane, and the heels of his scuffed, buckled shoes clicking in a steady rhythm on the polished pine floor.
At the far end of the hall he stopped in front of the Customs clerk and carefully placed his dust-covered and dented tricorne hat on the counter in front of him. He leaned forward, and with dark, watery eyes, peered into the pale face of the young clerk, alone behind the counter.
The clerk, as small and as slight of stature as the old man, nevertheless took a precautionary step back and examined his visitor, from his greasy stock, to the poorly patched shirt beneath his open, threadbare frock coat, and the grubby hose tucked into faded navy blue pantaloons loosely buckled at the knee. The man’s sparse hair lay in tangled threads of fine, grey gossamer over his mottled skull. White bristles sprouted from his unshaven face and chin. Deep channels ran from the corners of his crooked nose, down past his mouth and became lost in the folds of loose skin beneath his jaw.
“May I be of service, sir?” The clerk shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
The old man beckoned with a gnarled finger. The fine dark hairs on his knuckles glistened in the light of the tallow candle beside the clerk’s ledger. He bent from the waist and leaned forward until his face came to rest little more than a hand’s breadth from that of the clerk.
The young man glanced nervously about the empty hall. That afternoon he was the sole guardian of the ledgers, and the custodian of the keys to the sealed, bonded vaults that provided revenue for King George to continue the fight against the American rebels.
“I have business here,” the old man whispered hoarsely.
The clerk found his voice. “Who are you?” he asked. “And what is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Luis Borges,” the old man replied.
The young man ran his tongue over his lips and tried to edge away, but the glass-fronted case behind him prevented escape. His fingers sought and found the pull handle of the drawer beneath the cabinet. In that drawer, he knew, lay a brace of pistols, though he doubted they were primed and loaded, and neither a powder horn nor balls had he ever seen.
Borges cast a furtive glance around him, leaned forward again, and dropped his voice to a confidential level. “I seek one item only,” he said. “It arrived on the Madeira clipper. I am here to claim it.”
“And what is this item that you say is yours?”
“It is a hogshead of Malmsey wine,” he replied. “It bears my secret mark, a crucifix beneath a halo, one which I put on the tun 30 years ago, before it was shipped from Madeira. It lies in your bond. I know it as certainly as I know my own name.”
The young clerk stood his ground. “The Madeira clipper has not yet arrived, sir,” he said. “And we have no such item in our warehouse. A hogshead of Malmsey is not something that I might overlook. In fact, sir, I can state with authority that no such unclaimed item has come into bond since I gained my situation.”
The clerk glanced to his left and right. The two of them were alone in the Customs Hall. “I fear, sir, if I may be so bold as to say it, that you are mistaken.”
Borges stepped back. With both claw-like hands he gripped his cane and leaned on it. A look of surprise followed by anger crossed his face. Then a lopsided grin creased his lips and he cocked his head. He pointed a crooked finger at the young man.
“It is you who is mistaken, young sir,” Borges shouted, pointing in the direction of the bond shed. The Customs clerk jumped back. “The hogshead is here.” A vein at the old man’s temple throbbed. His dark eyes glistened. The clerk edged further away and bumped against the cabinet behind him.
Borges leaned forward. “You think me mad,” he hissed. “I am not mad.” He slammed his fist on the counter top then took a step back. “No, no, and a thousand times no,” he shouted. “I am not mad.” He regained his composure, shuffled a step forward and leaned his cadaverous frame against the polished counter.
The old man glanced about furtively before fixing his gaze once more on the clerk. He dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper. “I admit that some say I am touched. They are also wrong, though it is true that I am not as others. I have gifts that others do not possess, though from whence they came I know not. Perhaps they are gifts from God or from Providence, and I have been chosen to receive them, just as the prophets of old were chosen by God to deliver His message.”
Borges leaned back and glanced about him again. “Truly, I see things that others do not see; visions and strange revelations come to me. And I hear voices that others cannot and should not hear. Yes, faint whispers in dark corners, things of which I dare not speak openly.”
A man entered the Customs Hall but did not approach the counter, gazing about instead as if searching for someone in the gloom.
“Can I help you?” the clerk called out, praying that the man might stay, but the man shook his head and left without speaking.
“You see?” Borges said in a low voice. “They search for me still, but they do not recognize me. Stand close to me,” he commanded in a voice that defied disobedience, “so that I may speak softly. I do not wish that others overhear what I have to tell when I share with you these secret things that only I know to be true.”
The young man’s knees shook. He looked doubtful and tried to retreat further behind the safety of the counter, but the old man placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Stay,” he ordered, “and listen.”
Borges took a breath. “Many years ago, by the grace of God, I barely escaped with my life, and took passage on a slaver bound for the Carolinas. From thence I journeyed here, to Halifax. I saw and heard these things before I made good my escape, remembering them full clearly to this day. These things shall I relate to you so that you will understand why I seek the hogshead of Malmsey that awaits me.”
“But, sir,” the clerk said, “I cannot take time from my tasks to listen to your tale.”
The old man ignored him. “When I was but a boy of nine, which was in the year 1714, I was bound apprentice to a cooper in my home town of Funchal on the island of Madeira. My master was in charge of the cooperage of the largest and most famous of all the wine makers on the island.”
The Customs clerk tried to edge away, but the old man intensified his grip on the young man’s shoulder.
“When I finished my apprenticeship, I worked for many years for the proprietor in the cellars beneath the wine lodge. I worked and lived, ate and slept in those rock caverns. I came to know every inch of those vaults, every recess and passageway, every barrel, every mark and stave of every barrel.”
The old man drew a deep breath. “Twice a year,” he said, “a Moor came, a black man from Oran with a shaved skull. He possessed but one eye and a hideous scar down his face where the other eye had once been. I hid in the darkness of the cavern, listening to their whispers. They never observed me for I remained as one with the shadows, as dark as the Moor, invisible.
“One day, while the proprietor became occupied and had his back turned, the foreman and the Moor exchanged quiet words which I did not hear. The Moor approached a hogshead waiting to be filled and nodded. The foreman picked up a length of lead pipe and swung it in a great arc, smiting his master over the head.
Borges held his hand to his mouth and dropped his voice. “With a single crack of breaking bone, the proprietor, whose name was Fernando d’Souza Fonseca, a haughty aristocrat and betimes cruel man, dropped to the floor of the cellar as does an ox felled by an axe.”
The old man leaned away, bared the blackened stumps of his teeth, and cackled. He looked around and studied the empty hall. Then he leaned forward, pressed his mouth close to the ear of the terrified clerk, and continued his story.
“Time and again,” he said, “the foreman, whose name I have forgotten, kicked Senhor Fonseca about the ribs, and smashed his leg bones, and beat his head with the pipe until the cellar floor was splattered about with brains and blood and marrow from the splintered bones. And all the while the Moor looked on with a ghoulish grin across his countenance, and spake not a word.”
Borges reached forward and clasped the clerk by the lapels of his coat. The young man cringed, and tried to shrink back, but Borges held tight to his grasp.
“When his rage had run its course,” Borges hissed, his mouth twisted and spattered with spittle, “the foreman turned to the Moor. Mark well, young sir, what the foreman said, for I have never forgotten his words: ‘We have both profited from our work this day,’ he said. And the smile of Satan at the fall of Adam crossed the Moor’s countenance. ‘You know the price of my silence,’ he said.
“I watched while the foreman gathered Fonseca’s body and bundled it into the empty hogshead. He threw the lead pipe in with the corpse. He took a length of hose and filled the hogshead with Malmsey wine from the large pipa of new wine above, sealed the lid with pitch and nails, and with the same hose washed away the blood and gore from the floor. When they left, I marked the hogshead with my secret mark, which I have already described to you.
Borges stared into the frightened eyes of his captive audience, whose coat lapels he still held gripped in his hands “Ever since that day I have not touched a drop of Malmsey wine, for I know it to be cursed.”
He released the clerk’s coat. “Fearing for my life, should I be blamed for this evil deed, I waited until it was safe to slip unseen from the cellar. From there, with no more than the clothes on my back I made my way to the dockyard, and boarded a lighter that carried the Moor’s deal with the Devil to his ship; one dozen hogsheads of Malmsey. As soon as I could after boarding the lighter I examined each hogshead. To my relief, none bore my mark.”
Borges again examined the empty Customs shed for eavesdroppers. “Where did it go, that hogshead of Malmsey, you ask?”
Too afraid to speak, the Custom’s clerk shook his head.
“Since the day of my arrival in Halifax I worked in these Customs sheds as you do now. Daily I diligently searched each shed for the hogshead bearing my Judas mark, until I became too old to work and they cast me out. But I have watched the arrival and unloading of every vessel since. My hogshead lies here, lurking, biding its time. It seeks me. It beckons to me. It whispers to me, ‘I am here. Very soon I shall find you.’ I see it in my visions. I hear it. I know it.”
The Customs clerk swallowed. Borges leaned back and stared at him. “A generation must pass before Malmsey wine is ready to bottle and the cask breached. That time draws nigh. When that day dawns, the wine will be well aged. And it will have body. Yes,” he whispered, “it will have the rotted body of Fernando d’Souza Fonseca.”
The old man took a small step back from the clerk. “You look at me with disbelief,” he said in a clear voice, “though I speak only the truth, of what I saw, and what I heard, and what I know, for I was present and witness to this most foul evil.”
The Customs clerk shook his head, but could not find his voice.
“This knowledge I have kept hidden inside me since the day I fled Madeira. You and I alone share this secret. We are, from this time forth, kin, brothers, and guardians of the truth. But you must never repeat what I have told you, not to a living soul, if you are not to suffer the curse of Malmsey. One slip of the tongue, one sip of the wine, and madness and death will dog you to your grave.”
The clerk shifted his body uneasily, his hands resting on the edge of the counter ready to flee from the presence of this madman should the opportunity arise, even if it should cost him his position.
“You still think I am mad?” Borges took another step back and stared into the eyes of the young man, waiting for a reply. The silent, shaking clerk’s head twitched as he desperately sought help, but the hall remained empty and silent. He clasped his hands over his ears to block out the sound of the old man’s words. “Malmsey wine, Malmsey wine” echoed in his head, driving him to the brink of madness.
“I see you doubt me, my friend,” the old man said at last. “That is your right, but as God is my witness, you make a grave error. Mark my words; if you value your sanity as you value your life, you will never touch Malmsey wine.”
The old man’s eyes blazed. A thread of spittle stuck to his upper lip as he opened his mouth to continue. “The hogshead that I marked bears witness to the truth of what I say. It and the secret that it carries are near. I hear its call.”
The clerk looked over his shoulder. At the open end of the shed the shadow cast by the masts and furled sails of the Madeira clipper tying up alongside caught his attention. Borges watched with satisfaction while a boom carrying a cargo net full of hogsheads swung away from the side of the ship and lowered them to the dockside. Men scurried to untie the block and tackle and roll the barrels away to the bond shed.
The old man took a hesitant step forward, and placed his hands on the counter, a puzzled expression clouding his face. He pounded his fist against his rail-thin chest. “The mark,” he gasped. “I see my mark.” He pointed to one of the barrels. “It has come for me. Breach it and witness the truth of what I say.” His laboured breathing rattled in his chest, and the fire in his eyes died. He coughed once and slumped to the floor.
“Forgive me, Father,” he gasped, “for I have grievous sinned.”
The clerk came out from behind the counter and bent over the still body and vacant eyes of the old man. He loosened the greasy stock and felt for a pulse in Borges’ neck. Finding none, he turned pale, rose and grabbed hold of the counter to steady himself.
“Help me,” he called out. “Help me!” Moments later men from the dock ran to his aid.
“A madman,” the clerk gasped, slumping to a stool. “He has succumbed to a fit. I believe it too late to summon a physician. He seems beyond help.”
A short while later a ship’s officer approached the clerk and handed a sheaf of documents to the young man. “The manifest,” he said. “Cargo offloaded. All in bond. Sign here.”
The Customs clerk checked the documents. All but one of the 13 hogsheads in the cargo were destined to Casa Fonseca, Importers of Malmsey Wine, in Halifax.
He examined the 13th hogshead, which bore the mark of a crucifix beneath a halo scratched near the bottom of a stave. On the manifest it showed the consignee as Luis Borges, no address given. A scribbled note on the document stated: FOR COLLECTION BY CONSIGNEE ONLY.
The Customs House clerk dipped his quill in the inkpot. In his best copperplate hand he inscribed in his ledger: CONSIGNEE DECEASED, and dated it: August 31st. 1778.