Hipolito the blacksmith is moved by the drama of Tomás’s twelve afflicted horses and goes into tender, lengthy details about how the lice powder should be mixed with warm water, applied topically, allowed to dry, then carefully brushed and combed out, starting at the top of the head and working one’s way back and down across the horse’s body. It’s a task that takes much time, but a horse deserves nothing less than the best treatment.
“Bring your horses and I’ll help you do it,” Hipolito adds in a burst of fellow equine love.
“I’m not from these parts. I only have my automobile here.”
“Then you’ve come a long way searching for the wrong remedy for your horses. I have the powder right here. Twelve horses, you say? Six cans should do you, eight to be safe. And you’ll need this comb-and-brush kit. The highest quality.”
“Thank you. You can’t imagine how relieved I am. Tell me, how long have you been selling moto-naphtha?”
“Oh, about six months.”
“You’re my first customer! I’ve never seen an automobile in my life. But it’s the carriage of the future, I’m told. And I’m a smart businessman, I am. I understand commerce. It’s important to be up to date. No one wants to buy what’s old. You want to be the first to spread the word and show off the product. That’s how you corner the market.”
“How did you get this enormous barrel all the way up here?”
At the word Tomás’s heart skips a beat.
“But you know,” Hipolito adds, “I didn’t tell them it was for automobiles. I told them it was to treat horses with lice. They’re funny about automobiles, those stagecoach drivers.”
“Are they? Any stagecoaches coming soon?”
“Oh, in the next hour or so.”
Not only does Tomás run back to the automobile, he runs forward to it.
When he roars up to the smithy in his uncle’s Renault with the alarm of a bank robber, Hipolito is surprised, stunned, aghast, and delighted at the throbbing, clanging invention Tomás has brought to his shop.
“So this is it? What a big, noisy thing! Quite ugly in a beautiful sort of way, I’d say. Reminds me of my wife,” yells Hipolito.
Tomás turns the machine off. “I completely agree. I mean about the automobile. To be honest with you, I find it ugly in an ugly sort of way.”
“Hmmm, you may be right.” the blacksmith muses, perhaps pondering how the automobile will wreck his commerce and way of life. His forehead wrinkles. “Oh well, business is business. Where does the moto-naphtha go? Show me.”
Tomás points eagerly. “Here, here, here, and here.”
He has Hipolito fill the fuel tank, the barrel, and all the glass bottles of vermin lotion. He eyes the bottles hungrily. He sorely wants to empty one all over his body.
“Come again!” cries Hipolito after Tomás has paid for the fuel, the eight cans of lice powder for horses, and the comb-and-brush kit of the highest quality. “Remember, from back to front, starting at the top of the head and working your way back and down. Poor creatures!”
“Thank you, thank you!” shouts Tomás as he speeds away.
After Arez, he turns off the road onto a well-marked track. He trusts that his map, with its faint markings for secondary roads, will lead him back to the road beyond the larger town of Nisa, which he is hoping to circumvent by this deviation. From that track he turns onto another, then another. The quality of the tracks goes from bad to worse. There are rocks everywhere. He navigates the terrain as best he can. The land, meanwhile, rises and falls like heaving swells so that he can never see very far around him. Is this how Father Ulisses felt sailing to the island, closed in while in the wide open?
In the midst of his oceanic meanderings, the track simply vanishes. The directed smoothness of a pathway is replaced by a rockiness that is uniform and undefined, as if the track were a river that opened onto a delta, casting him adrift. He navigates on, but eventually he hears the voice of prudence and it urgently suggests he reverse his course.
He turns the machine around, but facing one way looks no different from facing another. He becomes confused. Surrounding him in all directions is the same countryside, rocky, dry, silent, with silver-green olive trees as far as the eye can see and bulbous white clouds boiling up high in the sky. He’s lost, a castaway. And night is coming.
Finally it is not this predicament, of being lost, that leads him to dropping anchor for the night. It is another, more personal one: Great armies of tiny vermin are rampaging over his body, and he cannot stand it any longer.
He reaches a rise in the land and halts the vehicle, tapping its front against a tree. The air, fragrant with the fertile labour of trees, is extraordinarily soft. There is not a sound around him, not from insects, not from birds, not from the wind. All that registers upon his ears are the few sounds he himself makes. In the absence of sound, he notices more with his eyes, in particular the delicate flowers that here and there brave the stony ground. Pink, light blue, red, white—he doesn’t know what kind of flowers they are, only that they are beautiful. He breathes in deeply. He can well imagine that this land was once the last outpost of the storied Iberian rhinoceros, roaming free and wild.
In every direction he walks, he finds no trace of human presence. He wanted to wait until he reached a private spot to take care of his problem, and now he has found it. The moment has come. He returns to the automobile. No human being—no being of any kind—could stand such itchiness. But before slaying his enemies with his magic potions, he gives in one last time to the gratifying indulgence of scratching an itch.
He raises his ten fingers in the air. His blackened fingernails gleam. With a warlike cry, he throws himself into the fray. He rakes his fingernails over his head—the top, the sides, the nape—and over his bearded cheeks and neck. It is quick, hard, spirited. Why do we make animal sounds in moments of pain or pleasure? He does not know, but he makes animal sounds and he makes animal faces. He goes AAAAHHHHH! and he goes OOOOHHHHH! He throws off his jacket, unbuttons and removes his shirt, tears off his undershirt. He attacks the enemies on his torso and in his armpits. His crotch is a cataclysm of itchiness. He unbuckles his belt and pulls his trousers and his underpants down to his ankles. He scratches his hairy sexual patch vigorously, his fingers like claws. Has he ever felt such relief? He pauses to bask in it. Then he starts over again. He moves down to his legs. There is blood under his fingernails. No matter. But the vandals have regrouped in the crack of his ass. Because there too he is hairy. He is hairy all over. It has always been a source of acute embarrassment to him, the forests of thick black hair that sprout from his pale white skin all over his body. That Dora liked to run her fingers through his chest hair always comforted him, because otherwise he finds his hairiness repulsive. He is an ape. Hence the care with which he has his hair cut, with which he shaves. He is normally a clean and neat man, and modest and reserved. But right now he is unhinged with itchiness. His ankles are constrained by his trousers. He kicks his shoes off, pulls his socks off, tears one pant leg off, then the other. That’s better—now he can lift his legs. He attacks the crack of his ass with both hands. On he battles: His hands fly about and he hops from one foot to the other, he makes animal sounds and he makes animal faces, he goes AAAAHHHHH! and he goes OOOHHHHH!
It’s as he’s working his pubic patch, his hands vibrating like the wings of a hummingbird, his face displaying a particularly simian grin of satisfaction, that he sees the peasant. Just a short way off. Looking at him. Looking at the man hopping about naked, scratching himself madly, and making animal sounds next to the strange horseless cart. Tomás freezes on the spot. How long has the man been watching him?
What is there to do at such a moment? What can he do to salvage his dignity, his very humanity? He removes the animal expression from his face. He stands upright. As solemnly as he can—with quick dips to gather his clothes—he walks to the automobile and disappears inside the cabin. Profound mortification brings on complete immobility.
When the sun has set and the sky is inky black, the darkness and the isolation begin to weigh on him. And full-out, unqualified, comprehensive humiliation is not a remedy against vermin. He is still covered in rioting insect life. He can practically hear them. He cautiously opens the automobile door. He peers out. He looks about. There is no one. The peasant has gone. Tomás lights a candle stub. He has nowhere to place the candle where it will not risk damaging the plush interior, so he unplugs one of the bottles of moto-naphtha and corks it with the lit candle. The effect is attractive. The cabin looks cosy, truly a very small living room.
Still fully naked, he steps out. He takes out the tin of horse lice powder and two bottles of moto-naphtha lotion. He will do better than what Hipolito suggested. He will mix the lice powder with moto-naphtha rather than with water, doubling the lethalness of the concoction. Besides, he has no water left. The water from the barrel in the cabin went into either him or the automobile. He has only a skin of wine left. He mixes moto-naphtha and horse lice powder in a pot until the paste is neither too runny nor too thick. It smells awful. He starts to apply it to his body, working it in with his fingers. He winces. His skin is tender from all the scratching. The paste burns. But he endures it because of the death blow it is striking against the vermin. Apply liberally, says the label on the bottle. He does, he does. After caking his head and face, he applies the mixture to his armpits and over his chest and stomach, on his legs and feet. He covers his pubic mound in a thick layer. Where the paste falls off his body, he applies double the quantity. For his rear, he places a great dollop on the footboard and sits in it. There. His head upright, his arms tight against his body, his hands spread out over his torso, he sits very still. Any movement, even breathing, not only loosens the paste but increases the burning.
This burning is infernal. He tries to get used to it, but he can’t. It’s as if the paste has consumed his skin and now is working through his flesh. He is being roasted alive. But so are the vermin. They and their eggs are dying by the thousands. He needs to endure the agony only a little longer, until they are all dead. After that, he will be well on the road to recovery. He continues to wait, slowly sizzling.
Then it happens: a shattering BOOM!
Excerpted from The High Mountains of Portugal. Copyright © 2016 Yann Martel. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.