Job

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Prologue

Job was observing a crack in the wall. Retreating to his small mountain home, he would sit in front of a wall and scrutinize every detail, as a collector does with his stamps. That thin slit had captured his attention from the first light of dawn, and even after several hours, it continued to exert the same fascination.

It began a few inches from a doorframe and moved in a straight line for small stretches, curving abruptly, turning back, widening and narrowing like a small river, until it was lost in a wide whitish area, where the holes left by three large nails were still visible.

He did not feel tired despite his extended stay in the same position. Still, as the sun declined on the horizon, slowly lowering the shadow line that split the room into two parts, he sensed a state of calm that increased, spiraling like the effect of a slowly injected anesthetic. Whether it was the end of a day or his own life, the end no longer frightened him, contrary to what he had always been inclined to believe. It could now give him the sense of security that reality had suddenly denied him.

When he awoke in the morning, all around him, he saw nothing but projections of his figure. The lined and graying curtain, the shoddy wooden desk, the stained linoleum on the floor: objects that had been new and now continued to remain in place only out of a deep and absurd sense of modesty. As soon as man’s hands had thrown them away, their spirits would be buried under a pile of trash, and no one would ever remember them again. This was what Job thought as he got to his feet, feeling his bones creaking: why did oblivion not spare him that heartbreak?

Job: a suffering man struggling against those who destined him for that fate

Just as he had done with the old discarded clothes, nature should have done with him. After all, it was only a matter of showing mercy, of ending what had already passed, but which a perverse demon wished to continue seeing alive and animated, almost like a stuffed animal moved by electrical stimuli.

Before he found himself alone, his wife had repeatedly urged him to take his own life. Without preamble or turn of phrase, she had simply told him, “Kill yourself. It seems the right thing to me,” and then she had disappeared without waiting for his reaction.

He certainly did not lack courage, and he knew well that by slitting the veins in his wrists lengthwise, the blood would come out so fast that he would not have time to realize what was about to happen. By now, he was so clear-headed that he understood that it would not even be challenging to perform that act materially: his arms were skeletal, and two large purplish channels sprouted under the skin going up to his shoulder. A moment of pain as the razor blade lacerated flesh and then silence. The night that cares to let its children sleep — the forced compassion of men and nature.

But all of this, comforting as it was, went against her logic and could only be wished for, never carried out. Death, an incomparable lover whom Job now courted with his every gesture but whom he was careful not to call by name, would sooner or later pick him up like a rain-soaked rag. All that remained for him, therefore, was to wait.

“Not even today,” he repeated every morning after opening his eyes. Then, resignedly, he would sigh, shake his head, and get out of bed, feeling the pain run down his back.

The object of his desire was now a dreamlike being who tormented him, bringing him to the line of pleasure but abruptly interrupting the intercourse a moment before consummating it. He had even happened to dream of her, and the sensation had awakened dormant memories in him. Still, it had always stopped a few moments later, dissolving into a jumble of images and sounds before finally capitulating in the return of consciousness.

Nevertheless, he did everything he could to see her and tried to peer into the shadows, but his manner was too timid and awkward. When he thought he was finally facing her, he turned his gaze away for fear of being humiliated by her rejection. It was no longer a matter of lack of courage but of a love that could too easily be disregarded, like the love he had harbored toward life. A love that resided in an unreachable place, infinitely far away, but whose threads reached him, changing color and appearance inch by inch.

The crack on the wall was confirmation of this: it meandered until it was almost lost, but as he brought his face closer to the wall, he could still make out its natural motion, made almost indistinguishable by the cracks in the plaster, but always ready to reappear beyond a small picture or the dark trace of an electric wire. Life, and perhaps even death, were only illusions, false states of his being that, exploiting distraction, had chained him and dragged him by force along avenues, into squares, between church pews, and even into the bed of a prostitute. Convinced that he was free, he had used every moment of his time to pick up the bricks of the prison where he was imprisoning himself. Only when he could open his eyes, finally wishing to die, did Job begin to live.

During his youth, he had been enthusiastic, self-confident, dutiful, and accustomed more to recognition than to criticism. He had always done his duty without seeking exceptionality and had never demanded anything that was not spontaneously granted to him. He had the same disposition of mind and accepted the advance of decline.

After years of victories, he lost everything in weeks, going from total prosperity to darkest destitution. He was now a miserable man, reduced to living in a hovel without running water, abandoned by everyone, and rejected by his wife without any mercy. The only things left intact were his certainties, carried on like military banners even in the face of the inescapable. Job had accepted everything, mindful of his past, and, from the beginning, had even rejected imprecations, useless in his view, against a fate that, after all, had also been benign.

“You coward!” his wife shouted before finally turning back on him. “I would love you more if you took a gun and went and shot those who reduced you to this state! I would love you more even if you got yourself killed!”

But Job had never owned a gun and did not even know how to use one. He had even been forced to accept the farewell of the beloved woman, the only one in his life, but he had never felt like rebelling against what he considered beyond his power. He had merely taken his few belongings and retreated to a small mountain cottage, a sagging, dirty, damp hovel uninhabited for decades. He had stretched out on a mattress full of holes and begun to think.

The full-length film of his existence unfolded before his eyes seamlessly: work successes, unexpected earnings, the first time he had made love to his wife, the apartment downtown, and then the beach house and a beautiful villa in the hills. Without anyone’s help, Job had seen his prestige grow until the moment of collapse. Like a son who is cared for day and night only to discover that he is about to die suddenly, he had naively ruled out the possibility of deprivation, being speechless when the first unpleasant events began to occur. He had not been pusillanimous, as many were led to believe: he did not know the terms that could express his discomfort to the world.

Since that tragic moment, events have been swirling. Any attempt to oppose them would not be much different from the most submissive stasis: the angry fury with which ill luck had launched its attack had stunned him without killing him, and during his unconsciousness, it had burrowed deep inside him, like a colony of worms inside a carrion. At first, he wished only to die. Then, a desire had crept into him to be the architect of his demise. Later, realizing how absurd that intention was, he returned to the cradle of his initial desire and fell asleep there.

His wife soon began to loathe him, finding herself also reduced to misery. Close friends disappeared, and even acquaintances avoided him for fear of being considered like him. The job was left with nothing but to retreat to the mountains, far from everyone, in the company of his thoughts, insistent as flies, and his body was now reduced to a pile of worn-out bones.

 

The three friends

By this time, Job was convinced that he would never see another soul again, so three of his old friends and colleagues decided to pay him a visit. They left early and arrived at the place he had been shown shortly after noon. They were Elifaz, Zofar, and Bildad, coming from different towns but sharing the same goal: to succeed well in their work and increase the company’s profits.

They parked their car in a clearing, got out, and stood staring in puzzlement at what appeared to be an abandoned barn.

“I think we took a wrong turn,” Elifaz said, shaking his head.

Driving the whole way, Bildad immediately protested, “This is the spot they reported to us. Maybe there is a house behind that shack. Let’s get closer.”

The three of them began to move slowly as if terrified by the idea that they might be infected by a bacteria hidden among those rotten and falling pieces of wood. When they got about ten meters away, they noticed an old man watching them from a corner.

“Let’s ask him,” Zofar proposed, “Maybe he knows Job and can show us the best way to reach him.”

Elifaz nodded and approached with a firmer step, but as soon as he got in front of the man, he froze, bringing his hands to his hair. Zofar and Bildad ran toward him, thinking he was feeling ill, but they, too, looking at the old man’s features, could not utter a word. They stood open-mouthed, frightened, and surprised at the same time.

“Job!” exclaimed Elifaz. “For a moment, I thought I had gone mad! If I hadn’t known you for 30 years, I wouldn’t bet a dime on your identity!”

Indeed, standing before them was not a man but the grotesque caricature of a being worn to exhaustion tortured relentlessly and kept alive with almost maniacal dedication. The arms and legs were skeletal, varying in color between pale pink and gray; the face was not much more than a silken veil stretched over a marble skull, and the eyes, once shining like crystals under the sun, looked like most bottomless pits. In these ghostly recesses, the light would never again reach.

“Elifaz!” said Job, trying to straighten his back. “And you are there too! Zofar and Bildad. What a joy to see you! I was convinced that there were no more people ready to worry about me, and instead, you have come so far!”

Bildad, the oldest and most suspicious of the three, grimaced. Although it was absurd to think otherwise, he was not convinced that this old man was the friend who had fallen into misery.

“It was a duty,” he murmured as he approached slowly, almost as if facing a stray dog ready to jump at his throat, “And I’m even more convinced of that now, seeing how you’ve been reduced.”

Zofar, who had remained silent, interjected before Job could respond, “Bildad is right. We know what people keep saying around here, but we have known you too long to let you block us so easily.”

Meanwhile, Elifaz had sat on top of a step and continued to scan his friend’s face. He seemed obsessively interested in understanding what chemical processes had managed to kill cell after cell in such a short time. Although he did not, his greatest desire remained to grab him by the lapel and ask him what kind of spell had been unleashed against him.

Job seemed to read his mind and answered before any question could be formulated, “There are no mirrors in this house, but I see every part of my body well.” He paused with his head bowed slightly forward. His eyes moistened, but no one noticed.

“I am a monster. That’s what you think, I know. But what can I do about it now? I hope I die soon.”

“This is unworthy for a man of your rank,” Bildad burst out, “Even if you have done wrong, you must still retain your dignity.”

Eliphaz and Zophar nodded their heads; they agreed with him.

Job, on the other hand, abruptly turned his gaze away with a movement similar to a sudden spasm: “I don’t want to die because I did wrong,” he shouted with all the breath in his throat, “I didn’t do wrong at all! So you think that about me?”

The three friends remained silent as Job tried to change his position with a grimace of pain painted on his face.

“We are not here to accuse you,” Zofar replied timidly.

“I don’t care if you are not here to accuse me,” Job exclaimed, pointing his threadbare finger toward his face, “I want to know if you think I am guilty!”

Zofar stared at Bildad, who immediately lowered his eyes. The only one who remained impassive was Elifaz. He knew that this visit would not be limited to exchanging pleasantries, and he had also prepared for the extreme consequences.

“Shouldn’t we?” he asked him, modulating his voice so that his tone would appear simultaneously firm but not too arrogant.

“Who can stop you?” replied Job after squinting his eyes, “And on the other hand, thinking about it, I don’t even care. But I…”

“But you are convinced that you are not guilty,” Bildad intervened, interrupting him, “Of course! That was to be imagined. Pride first!”

Zofar rubbed his forehead as if trying to hide his gaze from others, “Ah, if you were more humble!” he muttered. “Perhaps the president might even change his mind about you.”

“The president!” blurted out Job like a spring-loaded puppet. “The architect of this debacle. A man who went to the stage only to take the applause and who left carte blanche to his lieutenants, pretending not to see the harassment they imposed on the employees! Is it in front of him that I should give up my dignity? Are you saying that?”

The three friends looked at each other repeatedly. They were shocked at that brutality, and although they were convinced that Job had long since lost his mind, they could not immediately find the right words to answer him.

Elifaz broke their bonds: He was aware of his truth, and there was no reason to be intimidated by a madman’s ramblings.

“You speak of the president as if he were the last usher!” he exclaimed, “If before we could have sympathy for you, now we should be happy that society has been purged of a man like you!”

Job did not flinch. His reactions escaped any rational control and swung without predictability from the most artificial calm to a raving fury.

“The president only likes to hide in the shadows,” he replied, repeating a table by heart.

“But do you realize who you are talking about?” burst out Zofar.

Turning his back on the group, Bildad whispered, “How could he realize? He’s crazy!”

But Zofar seemed to take no notice and continued pointing his finger at Job: “The president has been able to build an empire, and yes, it is true, sometimes his strategic choices have been rash, but who could question them after seeing the results? Only you dare to talk like this!”

Job smiled sarcastically, “I have never doubted the president’s intelligence, and if you think that, you are mistaken. I have been honored to work for years in such a brilliant company, but I can only distress myself precisely because he chose me! If he had been a fool, I would have admitted that he might have been mistaken in evaluating me favorably. Still, since we are talking about the President, that possibility is out of the question. So I cannot but think that he wanted to hit me for no specific reason, and therefore, I would like to have him here, in front of me. To at least know the reasons for his decision!”

“Yeah,” Zofar continued, “Him coming to you to explain the reasons for an unassailable act. You’re just ranting!”

“You’d better go to the president, or rather, to one of his emissaries, with your tail between your legs,” asserted Bildad as he approached the small group, “If you would leave your pride aside, perhaps he might even consider rehiring you. Of course, you would have to settle for menial tasks, but at least you could hope for a dignified old age.”

Elifaz snapped, exclaiming, “This is an excellent idea! We will help you write a letter of apology.” Immediately afterward, without asking permission, he entered the hovel, searching for a paper and pen.

Job felt tired, his legs ached, and he was beginning to resent that visit, but his upbringing prevented him from dismissing his friends too abruptly. He merely replied, “I thank you for your interest, but I will not dictate any letter, let alone sign one written in your hand.”

Elifaz, returning to the veranda, spread his arms wide: “But there is nothing in this house! You are reduced to living like a beggar!”

“In the car is my briefcase,” suggested Zofar, “There you will find a pen and paper.”

Elifaz nodded and walked briskly in the direction of the car. From the height of his experience, Bildad turned to Job instead, “In the meantime, you had better find the right words. You were the best of all at public speaking. At least try to put that talent to good use.”

As Eliphaz returned with a pad of paper and two pens, Job tried to reply, “I’m exhausted,” he managed to say before Zofar interrupted him.

“I would start with a formal apology,” he said, “It would serve to put the president in the right frame of mind.”

“Yes, yes,” confirmed Bildad, “Without any strange terms or complicated expressions, you only have to declare your guilt and defer to his benevolence.”

“So Zofar,” Elifaz exclaimed, pen in hand and pad on his knees, “I have written, ‘Your Excellency President, I could end this letter by saying that I am guilty of everything, but I still beg you to read the following so that my apology will not remain useless ramblings.’ How does that sound?”

“The last part is truncated,” decreed Bildad. It is worthy of Job, of course. But since we’re there, too, we can’t allow it. I would say, ‘I am guilty and do not deserve that you read the following, but if in your benevolence you wish to do so, I am sure you will find only words that will accentuate my condition…’ And so on.

“It seems more appropriate to me,” said Zofar, “How’s that, Elifaz?”

The man seemed initially displeased but allowed himself to be convinced. He crossed out his sentences and jotted down the new proposals.

“At this point,” he added after finishing writing, “I think you also agree that it is essential not to waste the president’s time. The faults should be listed neatly, without frills. I would use a bulleted list, emphasizing the items that deserve the most attention.”

“Perfect,” replied Bildad.

“Perfect,” echoed Zofar.

“What about you?” Eliphaz asked Job. Are you going to keep quiet? Are you going to delegate all the work to us? As always, besides…”

For a few moments, all I heard was the sound of the wind in the trees and the distant cry of a raptor seeking food.

“You are leeches,” he muttered through clenched teeth, “If I were dead, you would try to revive me just to force me to sign that letter!”

“Horrible leeches!” he repeated, pounding his fist on the chair’s arm. He tried to stand up but could not. His limbs had stiffened like the rusted gears of an old clock abandoned at the bottom of the sea.

“We have no hope,” Bildad suddenly said, “His brain has gone up in smoke. He is delirious like an unconscious man.”

“Shut up!” blocked him. Job squinted as hard as he could, “I know very well what favors the finance director’s secretary granted you so that you would let her read certain documents. Was that also part of the president’s strategic plans? And you, Zofar, how many budgets have you rigged to reduce taxes and pocket the percentage? Not to mention Elifaz, who was able to bribe a childhood friend to get confidential information about tenders!”

The unperturbed three went back to staring at the toes of their shoes. They had learned to be refractory to accusations and to repel provocations with silence. The company had succeeded in its purpose of turning them from men into employees and then, after years of toil, into beings devoted to complete indifference. Number, cold and aseptic, was to be their God, and he, as Job knew, could neither perish nor fall into despair. Why, then, bother so much about one man? Besides, could that dust-covered derelict who stood before them still call himself a man?

“Would you like to convince me that I was wrong?” he asked, running his finger along an arc that went from right to left. “But even so, do you care more about my error and misfortune or how useful they are to prove your pretended perfection?”

“Come on, answer me! Do not be afraid!” he urged them as the small group arranged themselves along the vertices of a small isosceles triangle.

“Delirium is no excuse,” Elifaz said under his breath, “This man willfully confuses day with night. We have only wasted time.”

Zofar nodded wistfully and added, “We should have listened to Sara.” Then, like a rebuked child, he lowered his eyes again and began to trace a shape on the ground with the toe of his shoe.

“Sara?” thundered Job, leaning forward, “Why? You have…”

“Yes, of course! Do you wonder?” exclaimed Bildad. “Who do you think told us where you were hiding? Your wife! That’s who we went to!”

“But before she gave in to our insistence,” Elifaz continued, “she tried every way to dissuade us. Poor woman—reduced to living like a beggar! Don’t you think about her? Have you forgotten the oath you swore on your wedding day? Pride will lead you to the grave, Job, and there you will be alone in the company of worms. No friend will ever come to revisit you.”

After he finished, he tore up the paper and threw it at his feet. Job looked transfixed, lost in a labyrinth of memories. Involuntarily, with his left hand, he felt the air as if the gusts of wind might hide what he had lost forever.

“Here’s your last chance!” shouted Elifaz, pointing his finger at the crumpled letter. “The last move your damn pride has managed to suggest to you!”

Bildad and Zofar added nothing. They donned their coats and started in the direction of the car. After a matter of seconds, Elifaz did likewise, leaving Job just as he had found him: alone, sunk into an old deck chair, intent on observing the strange shape of a climbing plant.

The President

A few days after the three friends’ visit, another passenger car stopped in the clearing in front of the hovel. It was much larger, gleaming black, and had entirely tinted windows. Job watched it without moving, sitting on the porch like a sphinx beside the portal of a temple.

After a few minutes, a man in a gray livery got out of the car, put on his cap, and approached him, looking around repeatedly. He climbed the three worn wooden steps one by one and stopped, grimacing in disgust. He said nothing. He pulled a photograph out of his pocket and placed it next to Job’s face, rhythmically moving his eyes left and right. Having finished this, he placed the paper back in his jacket and returned to the car.

More minutes passed without a single leaf stirring, so the driver got out again, put his cap back on, and opened the back door. A man in a white suit appeared beside the car, and he, too, first looked around, curious about every detail, almost as if it were the first time he had visited this planet.

With a determined gait, he approached Job, stopping just in front of the fence that separated the veranda from the open space, but unlike the driver, he remained impassive.

“I have never given an audience in a drearier place,” he said, removing invisible specks of dust from his jacket sleeve, “Yet here I am.”

The president had thus granted Job’s request. Perhaps informed by Elifaz, Zofar, or Bildad, he had allowed himself to be tempted by doubt and had finally relented, having himself accompanied to that isolated place to admire how cruel the fate of one of his model employees could be.

For several moments, the two men stood staring at each other, like the two plates of the same scale: on the one side, horror and anguish; on the other, the luxury and serenity of one who now prays only to himself.

“Was I wrong?” asked Job in a feeble, resigned tone.

“Do you really care to know?”

The president, to whom Job absolutely wishes to speak

The president nodded slightly, simultaneously squinting his eyes, “Death is not an issue. Elifaz has reported that you are not interested in returning to your old life, so I have already arranged for substantial compensation to be granted to your wife. Of course, it will be paid to her only after the funeral. Unless you have reconsidered…”

Job’s head moved gradually, like a stem moved by the breeze.

“Go back to risk reliving all that?” he asked sarcastically, “I’d rather wait for the end here, in this bug-filled shack.”

“Risking pain is the price you pay for working in our society,” said the president, “Most of your colleagues don’t find anything strange about it.”

“But I have nothing left,” Job replied, opening his shirt slightly and showing his skeletal chest. For me, any price is always too high. The only thing that matters to me now is to know if I have done wrong.”

The man approached him, completely obscuring his view like a rain-laden cloud. “The main thing is not whether you were wrong,” he murmured, emitting a puff similar to the venting of a boiler. But I will always remain the president, and no one will ever be able to accuse me or stand up for me. So, think about it. Does it make sense to take such pains?”

Job made no effort. His mind wandered in a starless sky with no horizons to drown in. He merely replied, “I see,” and lowered his now expressionless gaze to the worn floor.

“I must go now,” said the president, “My driver will return from time to time to check on your condition. He will not speak or bother to ask you if you need anything. His task will be only to inform me when that time comes.”

Immediately afterward, without waiting for any reaction, he returned to the car and disappeared in a few moments. Behind him, he left only a halo of dust and the faded trace of tires on the pavement.

Job seemed to take no notice. Slowly, he got up and went back inside the house. There was a crack on the bedroom wall, and he had not yet managed to follow it from the beginning, in the upper corner of a beam, to the end, next to the blackened edge of an old electrical outlet.

He sat down on the mattress and closed his eyes. The slit began to move, inch by inch, meandering, making small spurts forward and back, thinning and expanding like the bend of a small river. The only one who remained motionless was him, sunk in a mattress full of holes, his clothes frayed, and his bony hands clenched like bolts.

“Did I do wrong?” he whispered to the crack.

He waited for no answer. He let himself slip backward and fell asleep.


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