The Incense Tree Roof / Translation of the Horacio Quiroga story ‘El Techo De Incienso’

In the vicinity of and within the ruins of San Ignacio, sub-capital of the Jesuit Empire, there lies in Misiones the actual village of the same name. It is constituted of a series of ranches hidden one from the other by the forest. At the edge of the ruins, upon a treeless hillock, rise some houses used for the storage of equipment, whitewashed to a blinding degree by the lime and the sun, but with a magnificent view at sunset toward the Yabebirí Valley. In the estate there are stores, many more than anyone could wish for, to the extent that no sooner has one seen an open country road than a German, a Spaniard, or a Syrian sets himself up at the crossing in a small grocery store. All the public offices, police station, justice of the peace, municipal commission, and a coeducational school, are located within the space of two blocks. On a colourful note, a bar exists in the same ruins – overrun by the forest, as is already known – a bar dating from the days of the yerba-mate craze, when the foremen who came down from the High Paraná toward Posadas paused in San Ignacio to gaze tender-eyed at bottles of whisky. One time I related the character of that bar and we will not return to it today.
But at the time to which we are referring not all the public offices were installed in the village itself. Between the ruins and the new port, at a distance of half a league to both, on a plateau whose magnificence was of particular enjoyment to its inhabitant, lived Orgaz, the civil registrar, within whose house lay the public office.
The civil servant’s cottage was made of wood, the roof of small boards of incense arrayed like slate. The device is excellent if the small boards are dry and drilled beforehand. But when Orgaz erected the roof the wood was recently split. The clean nails he used to strengthen the incense tiles opened them out in such a way that they bent upward in unlimited freedom, giving the bungalow roof the appearance of a hedgehog. When it rained, Orgaz had to change the position of his bed anywhere from eight to ten times and white trails of water ran down his furniture.
We have insisted in going into detail about this characteristic of Orgaz’s house because for a period of four years the bristly roof absorbed all the strength of the civil registrar, scarcely leaving him time on his days off either to raise a sweat laying out the wire fence at the siesta hour or to lose himself for two days in the mountain, reappearing finally with fallen leaves in his hair.
Orgaz was a man on very good terms with nature, someone who spoke very little during his bad moments but who, on the other hand, listened with a deep attention that was at the same time somewhat insolent. In the village he commanded not love but respect. In spite of his democratic sentiments, and his feeling of brotherhood and the fact that he could even joke with the charming people and the authorities (all of them in standard breeches), there was always a degree of iciness between them. It was not possible to find the least trace of pride in any of Orgaz’s actions. But it was this precisely – pride – that they attributed to him.
Something had given rise to that impression.
Shortly after his arrival in San Ignacio, when Orgaz was not yet a civil servant and lived alone on his plateau building his bristly roof, the school director invited him to visit the establishment. The director, naturally, felt flattered than an individual of Orgaz’s culture agreed to do him the honour.
Orgaz walked there the next day, dressed in his blue pants, his boots and his habitual linen shirt. But he came by way of the mountain, where he found a very big lizard that he wanted to conserve alive, for which purpose he tied a vine around its belly. He left the mountain finally and made his entry into the school, by the gate of which the director and the teachers awaited him, with his sleeve undone and dragging his lizard by the tail.
Also at this time Bouix’s donkeys helped foment the opinion that arose about Orgaz.
Bouix is a Frenchman who has lived thirty years in the country, considering it his, and whose animals roam free, devastating the residents’ miserable plantations. The less capable calf among Bouix’s hordes was yet astute enough to spend entire hours tossing its head among the fence wires, to the point that they became loose. For a time barbed wire fences were not heard of there. But even when they were, Bouix’s donkeys remained. They lay down beneath the bottom wire and danced on their sides until they passed through to the other side. No one complained; Bouix was San Ignacio’s justice of peace.
When Orgaz arrived in town, Bouix was the justice no longer. But his donkeys ignored the fact and continued trotting along the paths at sunset, in search of a ripe plantation that they examined above the fences with trembling lips and upright ears.
When it came his turn for devastation, Orgaz bore the fact with patience; he erected a number of fences and some nights rose to run naked through the dew in pursuit of the donkeys who entered as far as his tent. Finally, he complained to Bouix, who called out industriously to all his children, recommending that they take care of the donkeys that went annoying “poor Mr Orgaz.” The donkeys continued roaming free and Orgaz went back a couple of times to see the surly Frenchman, who lamented what had gone on and slapped his children, with the identical result of before.
Orgaz then erected a sign on the highway, which read:
Listen! The fields in this pasture are poisoned.
And he rested for ten days. But the night following he heard again the stealthy little steps of the donkeys ascending the plateau, and a little later he heard the rac-rac of the leaves of his palm trees being pulled out. Orgaz lost patience and rising naked shot the first donkey that he saw in front of him.
The next morning he sent a boy to advise Bouix that he had risen to find a dead donkey at his house. Bouix himself did not come to verify the implausible occurrence, but rather his eldest son, a young man as tall as he was olive-skinned and as olive-skinned as he was gloomy. The sullen boy read the sign in passing the gate and ascended the plateau in a bad humour. Orgaz awaited him with hands in pockets. Barely uttering a greeting, Bouix’s delegate approached the dead donkey. Orgaz did the same. The boy went around the donkey a couple of times, gazing at it from all sides.
“For sure it died last night … ” he murmured, finally. “From what could it have died … ?”
In the middle of the neck, more flagrant than the day itself, the enormous bullet wound cried out to the sun.
“Who knows … ? Poisoned, surely,” replied Orgaz, quietly and without removing his hands from his pockets.
The donkeys disappeared for good from Orgaz’s farm.

During the first year of his work as civil registrar, all San Ignacio protested against Orgaz, who, dispensing with the arrangements in place, installed the office at half a league from the village. There, in the bungalow, in a little room with an earthen floor that received little light because of the gallery and a large mandarin tree that practically cut off the entrance, the clients inevitably waited ten minutes because Orgaz was not in – or was in with tar on his hands. Finally, the civil servant made note of the details on whatever piece of paper he could find and rushed out of the office before his client, to again climb the roof.
In fact, this was Orgaz’s principal undertaking during his first four years in Misiones. In Misiones the rain, believe it or not, is such that it puts to the test two zinc boards placed one atop the other. And Orgaz had constructed his roof with planks soaked by a whole autumn of rain. Orgaz’s signs stretched in the rain, literally, but the planks on the roof, exposed to the sun and the humidity, lifted at their free ends giving it that aspect of a hedgehog already commented on.
Seen from below, from the shady rooms, the dark wood roof seemed like the brightest part of the interior, given that each raised plank acted like a skylight. Besides, it was adorned with infinite circles of red lead, marks that Orgaz made with a reed in the cracks – not where it dripped but to empty out the water above his bed. But most striking were the pieces of rope with which Orgaz caulked his roof and that now, loose and heavy with tar, hung unmoving and reflected threads of light, like vipers.
Orgaz had tried everything to repair his roof. He tested wedges, plaster, portland, bicarbonate glue, sawdust mixed with tar. After two years of trials he had still not managed to discover, like his most remote ancestors, the pleasure of finding himself sheltered at night from the rain. Orgaz turned his attention then to the sackcloth tar. This was a real find and he then replaced all the ignoble patches of portland and ground sawdust with his black glue.
However many people came to the office or passed by in the direction of the new port, they were sure to see the public servant on the roof. After every repair he expected more rain and without many illusions went to check on its effectiveness. The old skylights stood up to it well; but the new cracks had widened in such a way that they dripped – naturally – in the place where Orgaz had placed his bed.
And in this constant battle between scarce resources and a man who wanted at all costs to acquire the oldest ideal of the human species – a roof that provided protection from the rain – Orgaz was again surprised at the thought of where he had erred.

Orgaz’s office hours were from seven till eleven. We have already seen how he attended to his duties in general. When the civil registrar was in the mountain or in the cassava field, the boy called him with the turbine of the machine that was used to kill ants. Orgaz came up the slope with a hoe at his shoulder or a machete in his hand, hoping with all his heart that it would have passed eleven o’clock at least by a minute. After that hour the public servant would not see anyone in his office.
On one occasion, while Orgaz climbed down from the bungalow roof, the cow bell in the little entrance way sounded. Orgaz threw a glance at his watch; it was five minutes past eleven. Consequently, he went unperturbed to wash his hands at the grindstone, without paying attention to the boy, who said to him:
“Someone’s here, boss.”
“He can come back tomorrow.”
“I told him that but he says he’s the justice inspector … ”
“That’s something else. Tell him to wait a moment,” replied Orgaz. He continued rubbing his tar-blackened forearms with grease, so hard that he frowned ever more with the effort.
In fact, he had good reason.
Orgaz had applied for the job of justice of the peace and civil registrar to make a living. He had no great love for his tasks though he administered justice – seated at a corner of the table and holding an English key – with perfect equity. But the civil register was his nightmare. He had to keep up to date, and in double entries, the books of births, deaths and marriages. Half the time he was snatched away from his farm work by the turbine, and the other half he was interrupted while engrossed in study, upon the roof, of a glue that might at last furnish him with a dry bed when it rained. So, in a rush he noted down the demographic data on the first piece of paper that came to hand and fled from the office.
Later, the interminable task of calling the witnesses to sign the acts because every labourer chose as a witness those rare people who never came down from the mountain. Hence, these worries that Orgaz solved during his first year in the best way possible but that completely tired him out where his job was concerned.
We are elegant, he said to himself while he finished removing the tar. If I get out of this, I’ll be lucky …
He finally went to the darkened office, where the inspector attentively looked over the disorder on the table, the two chairs, the earthen floor, and some socks in the roof underpinnings, carried there by the rats.
The man was not ignorant of Orgaz’s identity and for a moment both chatted about things removed from the business of the office. But when the civil register inspector coldly turned to business the matter was very different.
At that time the books of acts were kept in local offices, where they were inspected every year. That, at least, was what ought to have happened. But in practice years would pass before an inspection was carried out and in the case of Orgaz four years had elapsed. As a result the inspector found twenty-four books in the registry, twelve of which contained acts lacking signatures while the other twelve were completely blank.
Without raising his eyes, the inspector slowly leafed through the books one at a time. Neither did Orgaz, seated in the corner of the table, say anything. The visitor did not miss a single page; one by one, he slowly turned the blank pages. And there was no other sign of life in the room – though it was overloaded with purpose – than the implacable rustle of linen paper being turned, and the tireless to and fro of Orgaz’s boot.
“All right,” the inspector said at last. “And the acts corresponding to these twelve blank books?”
Partly coming back to himself but without saying a word, Orgaz picked up a cookie tin and upended it on the table, which then overflowed with little pieces of paper of all types and appearances – especially brown paper, which conserved traces of Orgaz’s herbarium. Those papers, written with thick pencils used to mark wood in the mountain – yellow, blue and red – made a striking impression that the inspector considered for several seconds. He then considered Orgaz for a moment.
“Very well,” he exclaimed. “It’s the first time I’ve seen books like this. Two whole years of acts without signatures. And the rest in a cookie tin. All right, sir. There’s nothing more for me to do here.”
But faced with Orgaz’s hard-working appearance and his injured hands, he reacted somewhat.
“You’re magnificent!” he said to him. “You haven’t even taken the trouble to change the ages of your two sole witnesses every year. They’re the same for four years and twenty-four books of acts. One of them is always twenty-four, the other thirty-six. And this carnival of papers … You’re a servant of the state. The state pays you to do your job. Right?”
“Yes,” replied Orgaz.
“For the hundredth part of this, you oughtn’t occupy this job for a day longer. But I don’t want to start proceedings. I’ll give you three days,” he added, looking at his watch. “For the next three days I’ll be in Posadas. I go on board to sleep at eleven o’clock. I’ll give you until ten o’clock on Saturday evening to get the books ready. If they’re not, I’ll start proceedings. Understood?”
And he accompanied his visitor to the door. The inspector gave him a surly wave and left in great haste.
Orgaz climbed the volcanic gravel that rolled beneath his feet without hurry. Black, blacker than the tar plates on his warm roof, was the task that awaited him. He mentally calculated, according to how long each certificate would take him, the time he had to save his job – and with it the freedom to go on trying to make his roof damp-proof. Orgaz had no other means of supporting himself than those provided him by the state to maintain the civil register. Realising that his job hung by a fine thread, he knew he needed to win their good hearts.
As a result he finished removing all traces of tar with clay and sat down at the table to fill twelve big civil register books. Alone, he would never have completed the task in the allotted time. But his boy helped him, dictating.
He was a Polish lad, twelve-years-old, red-haired and covered all over with orange-coloured freckles. His eyelashes were so red that it was impossible to see them even in profile and he always wore his cap low over his eyes, which the light hurt. He offered his services to Orgaz and always prepared him the same meal, which his boss and he would eat together beneath the mandarin tree.
But over these three days, Orgaz’s experimental oven, which the Pole used to cook, did not work. Every morning the boy’s mother was entrusted with the task of bringing roast cassava to the table.
Face to face in the dark office, which was as warm as a barbecue, Orgaz and his secretary worked without moving, the boss naked from the waist up and his assistant with the cap near his nose, even there inside. During the space of three days nothing was heard but the schooled singing voice of the little Pole and the bass with which Orgaz confirmed the last words. From time to time they ate biscuits or cassava, without interrupting their work. Thus they continued until nightfall. And when, finally, Orgaz dragged himself alongside the bamboo trees to wash, his two hands at his waist or lifted high spoke clearly of his fatigue.
The north wind blew those days without respite and beside the office roof the air undulated with warmth. However, that plot of earth was the only shady corner on the plateau. From within the writers saw beneath the mandarin tree a shimmering square of sand that vibrated into white and appeared to buzz for the whole siesta.
After Orgaz’s bath the task recommenced by night. They carried the table outside, beneath the still, suffocating atmosphere. Among the plateau palm trees, so stiff and black that they were silhouetted against the darkness, the writers went on filling the pages of the civil register, to the light of a wind lantern, haloed by butterflies of polychrome satin that fell in swarms at the foot of the lantern and radiated in a mad rush toward the blank pages. With that their task became harder. For if these butterflies, as colourful as dancers, are the most beautiful things Misiones has to offer on an asphyxiating night, there is also nothing more tenacious than the advance of these silken maidens on the pencil of a man who is neither able to bear them nor break free of them.
Orgaz slept four hours over the last two days and on the last night he did not sleep, remaining on the plateau with its palm trees, its wind lantern and its butterflies. The sky was so heavy and low that Orgaz felt as if it commenced at his very forehead. At the early hours, however, he believed that he heard through the silence a deep, distant sound, the thundering of rain upon the mountain. That afternoon, in effect, the horizon toward the southeast had appeared to him very black.
As long as the Yabebirí doesn’t run roughshod … he said to himself, looking out at the darkness.
The dawn triumphed at last, the sun rose, and Orgaz returned to the office with his wind lantern, the light of which illuminated the floor in the corner where he left it, forgetting to turn it off. He continued writing, alone. When the little Pole finally awoke from his fatigue at ten o’clock he still had time to help his boss, who at two o’clock in the afternoon, his greasy face the colour of earth, dropped his pencil and literally lay down upon his arms, in which position he remained immobile for a long time without even seeming to breathe.
He had finished. After sixty-three hours, one after the other, before the shimmering square of sand that vibrated into white or on the gloomy plateau, his twenty-four civil register books were ready. But he had missed the launch that left for Posadas at one o’clock and he had no choice now but to go there on horseback.

Orgaz kept an eye on the weather while he saddled his animal. The sky was white and the sun, though veiled by steam, burnt like fire. From the terraced Paraguayan mountain ranges, from the southeast river basin, arrived an impression of humidity, of damp, hot forest. Though from every corner of the horizon the beating of angry rain lined the sky, in San Ignacio the suffocating heat continued.
In such weather Orgaz trotted and galloped when he was able toward Posadas. He descended the new cemetery hill and entered the Yabebirí Valley, before whose river he had his first surprise while he awaited the raft: a border of bubbling sticks adhered to the beach.
“It’s rising,” the man on the raft said to the traveller. “Today there’s been a lot of rain, as well as last night in the new catchments … ”
“And further down?” asked Orgaz.
“A lot of rain also … ”
Orgaz had not been mistaken then the night before when he heard the rain thundering on the distant forest. Worried now about the passage of the Garupá River, whose sudden rises could only be compared with those of the Yabebirí, Orgaz galloped up the mountain sides of Loreto Village, ruining on its basalt stones the hoofs of his horse. From the high plateau overlooking an immense landscape, he saw the whole sky, from the east to the south, swelling with blue water, and the forest, drowning in rain, inundated behind the white cloud of steam. Already the sun had gone and for a few moments an imperceptible breeze infiltrated the asphyxiating calm. One felt the contact of the water, the deluge subsequent to prolonged droughts. Orgaz galloped through Santa Ana and arrived at Candelaria.
There he encountered another surprise, albeit foreseen. The Garupá carried the water from four days of storms and could not be passed. There were neither fords nor rafts, only fermented rubbish undulating among the straw and, in the channel, sticks and water drawn tight and running at great speed.
What to do? It was five in the afternoon. In six more hours the inspector would climb aboard to sleep. Orgaz had no other choice but to make for the Paraná and set foot in the first guabiroba he found at the beach that was headed for land.
That was what he did and when the afternoon began darkening beneath the greatest threat of a storm that any sky had offered, Orgaz descended the Paraná in a canoe cut to two thirds its original size, with a tin plate at the end, through the holes of which the water entered in whisker-thin streams.
For a moment the owner of the canoe rowed lazily down the middle of the river, but as he transported cane that he had acquired with an advance from Orgaz he soon preferred philosophising, making hints about one or another price. As a result Orgaz took possession of the stick just before a sudden gust of fresh wind, almost winter-like, raised on end, like a grater, the entire river. The rain came and it was no longer possible to see the Argentinian coast. And with the first solid drops Orgaz thought of his books, scarcely protected by the skin of the briefcase. He removed his jacket and shirt, covered the books with them and took hold of the oar at the bow. The Indian worked too, uneasy before the storm. And under the deluge that sieved the water, the two individuals maintained the canoe in the channel, rowing vigorously, with the horizon twenty metres away, enclosed in a white circle.
Travelling down the channel helped their progress and Orgaz kept to it as much as he could. But the wind strengthened and the Paraná, which between Candelaria and Posadas widens like a sea, became a rough mass of huge, crazy waves. Orgaz had sat upon the books to save them from the water, which broke against the tin plate and inundated the canoe. However, he was not able to continue any longer and not wishing to arrive late at Posadas went down toward the coast. And if the canoe, full of water and nearly upended by the waves, did not sink in the transit, it owes to the fact that inexplicable things sometimes happened.
The rain continued to enclose everything tightly. The two men left the canoe, dripping with water and as if weakened, and climbing the ravine saw a bright shadow at a short distance. Orgaz’s frown distended and with his heart and mind on the books that he miraculously managed to save he ran to take shelter there.
He found himself in an old room for drying bricks. Orgaz sat upon a rock among the ashes, while at the entrance the Indian, squatting and with his face in his hands, quietly waited for the end of the rain that thundered on the zinc roof and seemed to steadily hasten its rhythm until it became a tremendous roar.
Orgaz also looked outside. What an interminable day! It seemed to him that he had left San Ignacio a month ago. The Yabebirí rising … the roast cassava … the night when he did nothing but write … the square of sand, white for twelve hours …
All of that appeared distant, very distant. He was soaked through and his waist was awfully sore. But that was nothing compared to the dream. If he could have slept, if he could have slept a mere instant! But not even that was possible – though he would have been able to manage it – because the ashes leapt in the air in sharp points. Orgaz emptied the water from his boots and putting them back on again went to inspect the weather.
The rain had stopped all of a sudden. The twilight calm was suffused with humidity and Orgaz would not let himself be deceived in the face of that ephemeral respite; the advancing night might bring a new deluge. He decided to make the most of it and recommenced the journey on foot.
He calculated the distance to Posadas at six or seven kilometres. In normal circumstances that would have been child’s play but, damp clay clinging to his boots, the exhausted man slipped often and advanced slowly. Orgaz covered those seven kilometres in the blackest darkness from his waist down but from there up the brilliance of Posada’s electric lights.
Suffering, the torment of lack of sleep buzzing inside his head, which appeared as if it was splitting open on various sides, extreme tiredness, and much more, overwhelmed Orgaz. But the feeling that dominated was contentment with himself. What hovered above all was the satisfaction of having restored himself, even if only before a justice inspector. Orgaz was not born to be a civil servant, and he almost wasn’t, as we have seen. But he felt in his heart the sweet warmth that comforts a man when he has worked hard to complete a simple duty. He continued advancing block by block, until he saw the arch lights, though they were no longer reflected in the sky but among the coal itself, to such a degree that they blinded him.

The hotel clock pealed ten times when the justice inspector, closing his suitcase, saw enter his room a pale man, covered in mud from head to toe, and showing all the signs of someone who would topple over if he stopped clinging to the door frame.
For a moment the inspector remained mute looking at the individual. But when he advanced and placed the books on the table, the inspector recognised Orgaz, although that in no measure, either small or large, explained his presence in such a state and at such a time.
“And these?” he asked, indicating the books.
“As you asked me,” said Orgaz. “They’re up to date.”
The inspector looked at Orgaz, considered his appearance for a moment, and then recalling the incident in the other man’s office, laughed warmly while he patted Orgaz on the shoulder:
“But I only asked you to bring me them for the sake of saying something! You’ve been silly, friend! You did all that work!”

One blazing midday we were with Orgaz on the roof of his house and while he inserted heavy rolls of cloth mixed with tar between boards of incense he told me this story.
He made no comment at the end of it. During the nine years that have passed since then I remained ignorant of what was in the pages of his civil register and his biscuit tin. But given the satisfaction Orgaz felt that night, not for anything in the world would I have wanted to be the inspector of those books.


About owenlindsayboyd

I am a follower of the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda - author of Autobiography of a Yogi. I begin and end each day with meditation, a spiritual base from which all else proceeds. I am a personal carer, writer and traveller, among other things, originally from just outside Melbourne in Australia. I lived in my hometown until 1984, obtaining a degree in Arts, with majors in sociology and communication studies, in 1980. I have spent a considerable amount of time since the late eighties living and working in a wide range of communities in many different parts of the world. I have lived and worked with homeless people, disabled people and refugees. As a writer, I am principally a novelist though I also write shorter pieces, both fiction and non-fiction and have published and self-published poetry, articles, short stories, memoirs and novels. In addition, I write screenplays and have made a number of low-budget film productions. In recent years I self-published a trilogy of novels dealing, principally, with the themes of healing and reconciliation. 'The Unintentional Healing of Soul' (Changeling / Trafford 2003) was followed by 'Proper Respect for a Wound' (Changeling / Trafford 2005) and 'Thanks Be to the World' (Changeling / Trafford 2009). 'Proper Respect for a Wound' was also published in e-book format by Jaffa Books, Brisbane, Australia in 2013. I self-published a two-book travel memoir, 'The Second of Three' and 'From a Caregiver's Point of View' early in 2014. It is distributed on smashwords. Later in 2014 I plan to publish a book of stories.
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