issue 46: January - February 2005 

 | author bio

Norberto Luis Romero
translated by H.E. Francis

For Asunción Taboada

A couple of nights ago the snipers arrived, aided by the dark, the cold, and the scant curiosity of the neighbourhood. They took positions on the highest roofs, in strategic balconies and windows. From the heights they dominated everything —all the streets, principal avenues, squares and the densest parks.
      About midnight they transmitted a secret signal which meant all was calm and each one aware of the others' positions. At two in the morning, by a signal agreed upon when he arrived, the one who had chosen my roof called down to ask me to bring him something to eat and a blanket because of the damp cold. I excused myself for not having enough food, and he seemed to accept that. I left him wrapped in the blanket, huddled against the chimney with the rifle in his hands.
      Snipers' hands are special. They combine such characteristics that it is easy to recognize them. Their attributes are defined with clarity. In the first place, the most important quality, without which it would not be possible to be a sniper, is the exact measurement of the right hand index finger—with length and calibre enough to squeeze the trigger and withdraw the finger immediately if necessary, or to activate it again with incalculable dispatch, exact force and elasticity, capacity for immediate recuperation, and absolute velocity of action. The palms, square and wide, must be cushioned with smooth skin and somewhat sunken in the centre, fingernails short and opaque so they don't reflect sun (reflections tend to give away and betray snipers). The body and face must bear strict relation with the characteristics of the hands—strength, agility, speed of reflex, flexibility, and power.
      Observing the sniper who had taken position on my roof, I could appreciate the elasticity of all his muscles, the enormous vigour and capacity for reflexes necessary for a rapid displacement and a lightning escape. In short, he could be compared to a gazelle or lynx.
      All too plentiful are the candidates who volunteer as snipers, very few the chosen. I myself was a postulant, and I was rejected because of the incapacity and insufficiency of my right index finger. Now I had a sniper in my own house and could observe him at my ease; by imitating his feline movements, I'd be able to duplicate them meticulously before the mirror and learn his tricks for a next opportunity. I know of some who through severe exercise succeed in modifying their right index fingers, even managing to become snipers, some of them still venerated.
      From now on, when I refer to the one on my roof I’ll call him "my sniper" since they all have secret names, their activity concealed under anonymity, and during the time when they’re not in service they're ordinary citizens, fathers of families, bank employees, teachers, etc.
      It was moving to have a sniper in the house for the first time —something which I had never imagined: my own sniper for days on my roof, there above, only twenty steps distant, day and night within reach, all his movements to be scrutinized and repeated later before my mirror, one by one, deliberately, and so making my entire delicate system of muscles and nerves function, a subtle web of mental orders and muscular responses. Also during moments of inactivity, while he was scouring the streets or mentally firing at imaginary victims, I could observe him in all his beauty, the harmonious form of the sniper.
      The first night he had almost no work, some two or three sporadic shots which resounded at some distance, reverberating along the pavement of the adjacent streets. Meanwhile his extremely quick hands did not cease exercising; practicing supposed shots into the air, his fingers moved with such urgency that they threw figures before my eyes. His gaze never flagged, incising the night and penetrating the most intense darkness. His ears were trained to receive the most delicate frequencies, such as bats' cries, to detect false noises from true, subtle slidings, the furtive brush of a body against a bush. His skin was so disposed that the edges of his pores turned upward toward humidity and breezes which might constitute a sign. His nostrils palpitated at perceiving the slightest alternation in the fragrance of the magnolias on the street and the poplars along the avenue.
      And I, a few steps behind, stared rapt at my sniper.
      Toward dawn, suddenly he grew tense as a tiger awaiting its prey, immutable. His muscles shifted imperceptibly, and with the precision of a panther, he settled, sheltering himself at the parapet. His hands raised his rifle until it fit into the perfect harmony of his body, like an extension of his arms. A straight line which began at his right eye, crossed the penumbra and the street and ended at a hulk crouched on the square. A clear, precise command left his brain and travelled down his neck and arms till it reached his trigger finger, where it was channelled into a perfect, simultaneous contraction into a shot and a slight glow at the tip of his rifle. There was a quick cry— more than a cry, a moan— smothered by the dry blow of a body collapsing. He returned to his position, huddled, immobile and alert.
      When he saw me, up at such an early morning hour, spying on him, he signalled me to leave. I took a step nearer, intending to ask him to let me be beside him, but he prevented that with another gesture, this time harsher.
      Below, in the shadows of my room, I enacted his beautiful movements, I practiced his feline postures before the mirror, I tried to refine my senses to his very precision. I took note of everything I had observed, and I sketched with delicate lines nerves and muscles in different states of tension and ease. I did not sleep. I practiced the art of vigil, which I was learning from him, that essential quality of owls.
      In the morning I went up again. There he was, in the same position in which I'd left him — his huddled, alert figure bathed by the morning sun, an incipient, dark growth on his face and his eyes somewhat gleaming from his wakefulness. He had not seen me come, or was not interested in me—the case being that I could stand all day long looking at him adoring his form and reactions. I imitated him, concentrating all my energy on my senses. In that way I was listening to the dawn, perceiving the sound of the breezes chafing the crowns of the trees, the distant breathing of the pigeons on the square. I distinguished the multitude of songs of the birds which were waking.
      I saw the horizon which burned red and the long streets lost among the grove, the silent houses with their windows still closed, the whitewashed roofs on which dark quiet men, like the one on my roof, were curled up into balls.
      I could hear the light dew evaporating from the flowers in the gardens and the sound of the mist dissolving. It was not long before there came a plethora of stimuli from the houses, sleepy voices and hurried steps, scents of recently bathed, soaped bodies. I had much to learn. For me day was confusing, charged with movements, noises, and vague smells, saturated with sensations which I would have to learn to differentiate in order to transform myself into a sniper. It was not enough to detail the apparent quietude of night.
      I must spend as much time as possible near my sniper and observe him continually without letting a single one of his reactions escape, imagining and interpreting his gestures, the slight movement of his muscles, the least alterations in his skin and gaze.
      I made good hot coffee and took him a cup, which he downed in a swallow. I took advantage of his making no sign for me to leave, so I could stay with him, a few yards off, to be able to gaze at him.
      About midnight I distinguished a noise coming up from the street which, isolated from the other sounds, I interpreted as suspicious. I looked at my sniper and could feel a slight trembling in his pores, his hands deliberately sought his rifle, and his whole body seemed to prepare itself for action. In an instant he was already on his elbows at the parapet with his weapon ready. I silently counted three minutes. My eyes chose a centre in the chest of a victim who was sneaking through the park, and from my head escaped a univocal order, rigorous, as a shot burst. The man fell heavily and people dispersed immediately. I drew a deep breath and closed my eyes. I was learning rapidly despite being weary and sleepy.
      That very afternoon we picked off four victims more —he with his sure rifle, with his rigorous, irrevocable finger; I with my quick, meticulous mind —both synchronized, symmetrical, simultaneous in our shots as if I had given the order and he had executed it.
      When night fell, there was a slight break in that perfect harmony of our bodies. There was a short delay hardly some tenths of a second. With clarity I observed that between my order and its execution there was a tiny fraction of time which seemed eternal and could have been fatal, enough to leave the victim wounded, risking our having been seen and informed against. A tenth of a second more and the bullet might have lodged in a less vulnerable spot. A difference of a few degrees in the angle of aim and the victim might have had time to identify the trajectory of the bullet and its place of origin. That was the first time he looked into my eyes— I couldn't resist his gaze, and lowered my head, confused, feeling guilty for having exposed him. For the first time I saw his forehead lightly damp with sweat and in the sweat a treacherous gleam. I made him a sign to dry his forehead, reminding him what an informer the sun  is when it emits reflections, and he obeyed me.
      I went downstairs, sensing that something had changed. My hands seemed to acquire an unusual smoothness and sensitivity to the temperature and texture of whatever I touched. I had the impression of seeing things farther off than I could formerly perceive; through the window I saw the eternal cupolas of the city as if through a lens which brought them close to me. The faces of the passers-by were so clearly defined that I could see their innocent and suspicious features with extreme sharpness. The mirror also sent back a different image, as if my body had changed size over the past few days. My eyes reminded me of lynx and hawk eyes. My face was beginning to show clearly feline lines which resembled his, my sniper's. My gestures were acquiring a dexterity and agility necessary for a sure shot. I tested my index finger carefully and noted it was stronger, tending toward a perfect trigger finger, ideal for firing.
      I don't know what time I went back up to the roof, but it was already dark. I took him food and something to drink. From the door I saw his dark figure, motionless in the usual place, under cover and shrunken, and immediately I sensed something detached in it. That gazelle outline was not the same as on previous days; something had changed in him, breaking the harmony of his form. I approached slowly. His face was in shadow and I couldn't distinguish the purity of his eyes. When I stood before him, I discovered that his eyes were open but not seeing — he was asleep. Instinctively I snatched the weapon; simultaneously he woke and leaped to his feet We stood face to face, staring into each other’s eyes. There was a brief silence broken by the fluttering of an owl and mentally I began to count —one . . two . . . three—and pressed the trigger. His body fell onto the parapet and oscillated a moment. Its perfect form dissolved, and he looked like a gargoyle etched against the darkness.
      No one saw me kill him. No one heard the execution which began my career as a sniper. I wrapped myself in the blanket and huddled against the chimney, I made a secret sign to my companions, letting them know all was in order, and sat, vigilant, all my senses alive, searching for victims in the park and in the streets.

© Norberto Luis Romero
© H.E. Francis (translation)

This electronic version of  "Snipers" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the author´s collection Last Night of Carnival, Leaping Dogs Press, California, 2004. Book ordering available through amazon.comamazon.co.uk

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author bio

romeroNorberto Luis Romero is an Argentine, now a citizen of Spain. He writes a wide range of fiction – from realistic to extreme fantasy. Romero won the first Noega Award for Short Fiction, from Asturias, for his book of stories Transgressions. Since then, he has published two other collections – Canción de cuna para una mosca doméstica (Candlesong for a Domestic Fly) and El momento del unicornio (Last Night of Carnival), from which "Snipers" is taken. He has also published five novels. His stories have been published in Canada and the United States. Last Night of Carnival is his first book-length collection to appear in English. Romero has worked in advertising, is a specialist in animated cartoons, and has worked in the film industry in Argentina.


issue 46: January - February 2005

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