Translated from Spanish by Jerry L. Robinette.
Mr. Andrés Batista did not believe in ghosts. Nor in premonitions, curses or witchcraft. He was interested only in bare facts. For six decades he had served as regional magistrate with fierce devotion to truth, justice and demonstration through tangible evidence. He considered it an insult to human intelligence to believe in tawdry superstitions. He was a self-declared enemy of lies.
His hometown was rife with folk tales of fantastic beings, particularly ghosts. Batista, hardened by his decades in the urban courts of the capital and just recently returned to his home town, scowled with disdain all the age-old legends and traditions. Even December, with its tangled thicket of myths and hauntings, was no exception.
The townsfolk were anticipating the appearance of the ghost of Rufino Solera, whom Batista remembered well. It always happened the same - on beautiful afternoons in December, when the sun caressed the dark waters of the river with its cold rays. The wispy white figure of old Solera could sometimes be seen, gliding cautiously along the shore, looking for another being to save, another soul to snatch from death.
Batista remembered clearly when Solera, a simple man of little note, had suddenly become the hero of the town and a legend throughout the nation. Middle-aged, not very bright, and not at all lucky, one day he had wandered along the riverbank seeking employment. Then he saw a woman and a baby hurtling downstream, both trapped in the fierce currents. Without thinking twice, he leapt their rescue! He was forever after celebrated for that instinctive heroism. He had plunged into mortal danger, risking his life to save two strangers.
But fame was not his only reward. The woman, who had been thrown into the river when her carriage overturned, was from a rich family. She repaid Solera's bravery with a large share of her wealth. Quite unexpectedly Solera found himself the owner of a small fortune, with which he eventually bought a powerful estate.
Unlike most of his neighbors, Batista recalled other events of that strange day: Gonzalo Casas, the perpetual town drunk, had disappeared and was never heard from again. Nobody except Casas' wife was troubled--everybody had expected him to come to a bad end sooner or later. Besides drunkenness, Casas was also known to indulge in furtive hunts and crazy trips. He was assumed lost or dead by some misadventure of his own making.
Batista had been intrigued by the disappearance. For years he investigated the circumstances, apparently as fatal for Casas as they were fortunate for Solera. But Batista was never able to assemble them into a satisfactory conclusion.
That day, with Batista recently back in town after his years in the capital, he found the townspeople abuzz, hoping for another appearance by the apparition. A great many of them sought excuses to visit the riverfront in hopes of seeing it.
Batista preferred domestic relaxation to such vain speculation. So he took his leisure at home with coffee, a good book in hand.
He stood in his kitchen, looking out the window. He thought briefly of the widow of Casas, a poor woman who had never ceased hoping for her husband's return, who had refused Solera's help and died alone decades later.
The afternoon was fading to dusk. It was the time for the dead. Doubtless the ghost was already wandering the muddy banks of the murderous river. Batista smiled disdainfully and picked up a piece of the freshly baked bread he had reserved for that evening moment.
"Good homemade bread," said a man's voice behind him. "I have fond memories of afternoons spent on my ranch enjoying coffee like this, with bread as delicious as that in your hand."
The hair at the base of Batista's neck bristled. He hadn't heard the door open. An icy chill ran down his spine; it had been at least 50 years since he had heard that voice except in memory.
The other man sighed.
"Don't worry, my dear judge," he said. "I really need your help. I never expected you to rise to such a positon when I saw you playing in the fields with the other boys." He giggled eerily.
Batista, struggling with his disbelief and sudden fear, slowly turned.
Don Rufino Solera stood across the table, illuminated by the last rays of sunlight on an aching December afternoon. His form appeared solid, not at all wispy or pale. He wore the rich clothes of his later life. Even his shoes looked lustrous. His white hair was sparse and only his eyes looked dull, as they had been when he died.
"This is ridiculous," Batista chided himself, shaking his head. "I'm imagining things."
"Are you referring to me?" Solera spoke in a normal voice, with no funereal sound or echoes from beyond the grave. "Well, no, your honor. I am as real as the bread in your hand. I know I shouldn't be in your kitchen, but I'm desperate. I think you are the only person who can help me."
Batista sat down slowly in a chair and with studied calm placed the bread back on the dish. He was determined to behave as though nothing unusual was happening.
"Good," he said slowly. "Could you be more ... explicit?"
"Do you know how much eternity costs?" Solera asked as though discussing some routine business matter.
Batista shook his head.
"It costs exactly the truth," Solera said with a grimace.
Batista looked at him without understanding. It was so unreal it almost felt familiar to him.
"Let me clarify," Solera said, slouching into a chair as if he visited every day. "I took advantage of the heroism of another Christian. I never gave him the credit--I didn’t even try to save him from death. So now he rests in his eternal peace, happy forever with his devoted and loyal wife, who never believed my lies. While I am condemned to roam this land until I can make amends for my crime. My eternity is agonizing."
Batista looked at him, dazed. The ghost was explaining why he was wandering around?
"And... why do you tell this to me?"
"You are the arbiter of truth, man," Solera said with a frown that sent a shudder through Batista's body. "Facts, evidence, justice. It's your specialty. You never praised me, never accepted the rumors about Casas' disappearance, never accepted the legends after my death. You alone can grant me the true eternity, the peace for which I yearn. I ask you--no, I demand it of you--let me tell the whole truth.
"I saw Casas save the woman and her son, how he tried to revive them. He ran back to the river to see to the child, stumbled and fell into the water and drowned! The woman remained unconscious and I took advantage of the situation. Casas was the true hero that day."
"You did not try to save him?" Batista asked, suddenly unafraid. His eyes brimmed with censure, accepting the strange confession like any other testimony.
"I needed money and I'd recognized her," he explained. "I knew her family would be grateful. It would bring me fame, I was sure of that. Casas would have just wasted the the money on drink. I never suspected she would give me so much! How could I change my story after such a reward?
"I tried to make amends with Casas' widow, but she looked at me like a criminal. I never told her the truth but she sensed something, made some intuitive connection."
"She was right," Batista said in a righteous tone, rising to render his decision as he had in the days of his magistracy. "You let a good man die, and on a monstrous lie secured a life of fame and fortune. And now you ask for release from suffering?
"Gonzalo Casas won the right to peace, his wife to holiness, and you to your well-deserved eternal penance. I will not lift a finger to help you. Casas does not need me to pass judgment, nor does he care. It is my sentence."
Solera straightened to his full height and cast a long shadow from the reddish glow of the dying sunlight.
"You have earned my anger, Batista, and my eternal, relentless persecution! I warn you!"
The magistrate, secure in his knowledge of the truth and with the justice of his decision, raised his coffee indifferently. He lowered his eyes to the pages of the book, and murmured coldly:
"I do not believe in ghosts."
Solera looked at him for a moment. Then he vanished without a sound.
Night fell on the house. Unperturbed, the old judge enjoyed his reading and his dinner, as well as the satisfaction of having learned the solution to an old mystery.
In the town people whispered that Rufino Solera still haunted the banks of the river year after year, decade after decade, an eternal, infinite walk.