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by Augusto Monterroso

Surely not as strange, although without a doubt more exemplary," the other man said, "is the case of Mr. Percy Taylor, a head-hunter in the Amazon jungle." It is known that in 1937 he left Boston, Massachusetts, where he had refined his spirit to the point of not having a penny. In 1944 he turned up for the first time in South America, in the region of the Amazon, living with a tribe of Indians whose name there is no need to mention here. With his sagging eyes and his ravenous appearance, he quickly became known as the "poor gringo," and the schoolchildren even pointed and threw stones at him whenever he walked by with his beard shining in the bright tropical sun. But Mr. Taylor refused to be discouraged by his humble circumstances for he had read in the first volume of the Complete Works of William G. Knight that poverty was no disgrace, so long as one did not envy the wealthy. It was only a matter of weeks before the natives grew accustomed to him and his eccentric attire. Besides, since he had blue eyes and a vague foreign accent, the President and Foreign Minister treated him with singular respect, fearful of provoking international incidents. Still, he was so wretchedly poor that one day he went off into the jungle to search for plants to eat. He had only gone a few yards without daring to turn his head when he happened to notice through the dense tangle of vegetation two native eyes decidedly observing him. A long shiver ran down his tender spine. But Mr. Taylor, intrepid, defied all danger and continued on his way,, whistling as though he had seen nothing. With a leap (that need not be described as cat-like) the Indian was before him, exclaiming: Buy head? Money, money! Although the Indians English could not have been worse, Mr. Taylor, caught a little off guard, gathered that the Indian was offering to sell him an oddly shrunken human head of a man, which he held out in his hand. It is hardly necessary to say that Mr. Taylor was in no position to buy it, but because he gave the impression of not having understood, the Indian felt terribly small for not speaking good English and, begging the gringo's pardon, made him a gift of the head.

It was with great delight that Mr. Taylor returned to his hut. For a long time that night, lying face up on the precarious palm mat which served as his bed, interrupted only by the buzzing and obscene lovemaking of the hot flies that circled above him. Mr. Taylor gazed with pleasure upon his curious acquisition. He derived the greatest aesthetic satisfaction from counting, one by one, the hairs on its face and chin, and from having before him that pair of eyes, almost ironic, which seemed to smile at him as though grateful for his attentions. A man of immense culture, Mr. Taylor was frequently given to contemplation, but on this occasion he soon became bored with his philosophic reflections and decided to send the head to his uncle, Mr. Rolston of New York, who since earliest childhood had shown a keen interest in the cultural manifestations of Latin America. A few days later Mr. Taylor's uncle wrote to ask him, after inquiring about his precious health, if he would be so kind as to send him five more. Mr. Taylor agreed with pleasure to this odd request and - it was not quite known how - by return mail "was happy to carry out your wishes." Deeply grateful, Mr. Rolston requested ten more. Mr. Taylor, in turn, was "delighted to be of service. But when, a month later, he urged that twenty more be sent, Mr. Taylor, a simple bearded man but one possessing a refined artistic sensibility, began to suspect that his mother's brother was making a business out of them. Well, if you want to know the truth, he was. With perfect frankness, Mr. Rolston explained everything to him in an inspired letter whose strictly businesslike terms made the chords of Mr. Taylor's sensitive spirit vibrate as never before. They immediately formed a partnership in which Mr. Taylor undertook to obtain and ship the shrunken heads on a commercial scale, while Mr. Rolston would sell them as best he could in his own country. Right away there were bothersome difficulties with some of the locals. But Mr. Taylor, who back in Boston had earned top honours for his essay on Joseph Henry Silliman, proved to be somewhat of a politician and managed to secure from the authorities not only the permits necessary to export the heads, but a ninety-nine year exclusive concession as well. It was not difficult for him to convince the chief executive warrior and the legislative witch doctors that such a patriotic move would, in a very short time, enrich the community, and that it would not be long before every thirsty native was able to enjoy (whenever there was a lull in the collecting of heads) a nice cold soft drink whose magic formula he himself would supply.

When members of the Council, after a brief but enlightening intellectual effort, took into account these advantages, their patriotic fervour became so inflamed that within three days they issued a decree ordering the people to speed up the production of shrunken heads. A home without a head was a broken home. Soon came the collectors, and with them certain contradictions: to own seventeen heads came to be considered bad taste; but it was distinguished to own eleven. They were becoming so commercialized that the truly elegant people were losing interest and would now consider buying one only if there was some unusual peculiarity distinguished it from the common run of heads. One, particularly strange, with a Prussian moustache, which in life might have belonged to a highly decorated general, was donated to the Danfeller Foundation, whose directors turned right around and contributed three and a half million dollars toward the development of this fascinating manifestation of the Latin American people. Meanwhile, the tribe had made so much progress that they now had a little promenade around the Legislative Palace. Along this charming path the members of Congress spent Sundays and Independence Day, clearing their throats, displaying their feathers, or laughing seriously among themselves, on bicycles given to them by the Company. But -- well, what would you expect? Good times don't last forever. When they least expected it, the first shortage of heads presented itself. That's when the fun really began. Natural deaths were no longer sufficient. The Minister of Public Health was deeply saddened by this unfortunate turn of events, and one night after he had turned out the lights and had fumbled with her breasts awhile, admitted to his wife that he considered himself incapable of raising the mortality rate to a level acceptable to the interests of the Company, to which she replied that he neednt worry, that it would all work out in the end, and that they'd all be better off if he just went to sleep. To compensate for the administrative deficiency, it was necessary to take strong measures and establish the death penalty in a rigorous fashion. The jurists consulted with one another and rose to the category of a crime punishable by hanging or firing squad, depending upon the gravity of the case, even the most trivial of offences. Even simple mistakes came to be regarded as criminal acts. For example: If during the course of an ordinary conversation someone, out of pure

carelessness, said, "It's very hot," and afterward it was proven, thermometer in hand, that it had not been all that hot, he would be charged a small fine and then be brought up before a firing squad, the head going to the Company and, it's fair to say, the trunk and extremities to the mourners. Legislation regarding the sick gained immediate notoriety and was widely discussed throughout the diplomatic corps and the chancelleries of friendly nations. According to this memorable piece of legislation the gravely ill were given twenty-four hours to put their papers in order and die; however, if during this period of time they managed to infect their family they were granted as many months grace as family members were infected. Victims of minor illnesses and those feeling simply indisposed earned the scorn of the nation, and could be spat upon on the street by anyone. For the first time in history the importance of doctors who cured no one was recognized (several were nominated for the Nobel Prize). To die came to be seen as the most exalted example of patriotism, not only with regard to the nation, but, even more glamorous, to the entire continent. With the boost given to subsidiary industries (primarily the casket industry which flourished with the technical assistance it received from the Company) the country entered, as they say, a period of tremendous economic growth. This prosperity was particularly evident in the new flower-lined promenade along which the congressmen's wives would stroll, wrapped in the melancholy of those golden autumn afternoons, nodding their pretty heads from time to time to answer, Yes, yes, things just couldn't be better, whenever some reporter happened to ask, from across the way, smiling and tipping his hat. A footnote here: You might recall that one of these reporters, who on occasion let go with a rather nasty sneeze he could not justify, was accused of extremism and taken to the firing wall. It was only after his unfortunate demise that the critics recognized that this journalist had been one of the finest minds in the country; but of course, once it was shrunken, his head looked no different from the rest. And what of Mr. Taylor? By this time he had already been named Special Adviser to the Constitutional President. As an example of what individual initiative can accomplish, he was worth millions; still, he was able to sleep peacefully for he had read in the final volume of William G. Knight's Complete Works that to be a millionaire was no disgrace, so long as one did not disparage the poor.

I believe that this will be the second time I have said that good times don't last forever. Given the prosperity of the enterprise there came a time when all that remained of the original community were the officials and their wives, and the journalists and their wives. Consequently, it didn't take Mr. Taylor long to realize that the only recourse available to them was to declare war on the neighbouring tribes. Why not? Progress. With the aid of a few small cannons the first tribe was neatly decapitated within three short months. Mr. Taylor fairly relished the glory of conquest. Then came the second; then the third, the fourth, the fifth. Progress was being made at such a rapid rate that before long, in spite of all the efforts of technicians, it became impossible to find neighbouring tribes to wage war on. It was the beginning of the end. The little promenade fell into disuse. Only occasionally did one see a lady or a poet laureate with a book under his arm strolling the lanes. Along with the heads the bicycles had thinned out, and the cheerful, optimistic greetings had by now completely disappeared. The manufacturer of caskets was sadder and more morose than ever. And everyone felt as though they'd just recalled some sweet dream, like that wonderful dream in which you find a bag filled with gold coins and place it under your pillow, after which you go back to sleep, only to wake the next morning and find it empty. Still, the business was able to maintain itself, however painfully. But now one slept only with the greatest difficulty, afraid of being exported. In Mr. Taylor's country, of course, the demand was greater than ever. New substitutes were being turned out daily, but no one really took them seriously and everyone clamoured for more Latin American heads. It happened during the last crisis. A desperate Mr. Rolston was still asking for more and more heads. In spite of the fact that the Company's stock had suffered a sharp decline, Mr. Rolston was sure his nephew would come through to save the situation. The once daily shipments, dwindled to one a month, and now consisted of whatever was available, heads of children, wives, congressmen. Then, all of a sudden, everything stopped.

One harsh, grey Friday, home from the stock exchange and still shaken by the uproar of his friends and the sad spectacle of panic, Mr. Rolston decided to jump out the window (rather than using a revolver, whose noise would have terrified him). He had opened a package that had arrived in the mail and found there the head of Mr. Taylor smiling at him from afar, from the terrible immensity of the Amazon, with the false smile of a naughty child who seemed to be saying, "Im sorry; I won't do it again."