Juan Rulfo (1917–1986), was a highly influential Mexican writer, screenwriter and photographer. He is best known for two literary works, a collection of harshly realistic short stories entitled El Llano en llamas [The Plain in Flames] published in 1953, and the short novel, Pedro Páramo from 1955, which tells the story of a man named Juan Preciado who travels to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, Comala, to find his father, only to discover a literal ghost town populated by spectral figures.
Within a few years of publication Pedro Páramo was recognized as a Latin American masterpiece and it had a tremendous influence on the later generation of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar, to name a few.
“Tell Them Not to Kill Me!” is one of the stories in El Llano en llamas which center on life in rural Mexico around the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920). It is the most popular story in the collection and was written in 1951.
Note: this is a re-posting from October 2015 with a corrected translation of Rulfo’s short story
Tell Them Not to Kill Me!
“Tell them not to kill me, Justino! Go on, tell them that. Please! Tell them. Please tell them.”
“I can’t. There’s a sergeant there who won’t hear a word about you.”
“Make him listen. Use your wits and tell him they’ve scared me enough. Tell him please for the love of God.”
“It wasn’t just to scare you. Seems they really mean to kill you. And I don’t want to go back there.”
“Go once more. Just once, to see what you can do.”
“No. I don’t feel like going. Because if I do they’ll know I’m your son. If I keep pestering them they’ll find out who I am and they’ll decide to shoot me too. Better leave things the way they are now.”
“Go on, Justino. Ask them to take a little pity on me. Just tell them that.”
Justino clenched his teeth and shook his head saying no. And he continued to shake his head for some time.
Justino got up from the pile of stones on which he was sitting and walked to the gate of the corral. Then he turned to say,
“All right, I’ll go. But if they decide to shoot me too, who’ll care for my wife and kids?”
“Providence will take care of them, Justino. Go off now and see what you can do for me. That’s what matters.”
They’d brought him in at dawn. It was well into the morning now and he was still there, tied to a post, waiting. He couldn’t keep still. He’d tried to sleep for a while to calm down, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t hungry either. He wanted nothing. Just to live. Now that he knew they were really going to kill him, all he could feel was his great desire to stay alive, as only a man just brought back to life would feel. Who’d have thought that that affair, so old, so stale, so dead and buried as he thought, would crop up again? That business when he had to kill Don Lupe. Not for no reason either, as the Alimas tried to make out, but because he had his reasons. He remembered: Don Lupe Terreros, the owner of the Puerta de Piedra, and his compadre besides. The one that he, Juvencio Nava, had to kill, because being the owner of the Puerta de Piedra and his compadre too he’d refused to let his animals graze on his land.
At first he’d done nothing because of the relationship. But later, when the drought came, when he saw how his animals were dying off one by one, plagued by hunger, and how his compadre Lupe continued to refuse to let him use his pastures, that was when he began breaking through the fence and driving his herd of skinny animals to the pasture where they could get their fill of grass. And Don Lupe didn’t like it and ordered the fence to be mended, so that he, Juvencio Nava, had to cut open the hole again. So, during the day the hole was repaired and at night it was opened again, while the cattle remained there right next to the fence, always waiting, his cattle that till then could only smell the grass without being able to taste it.
And he and Don Lupe argued time and again without coming to any agreement. Until one day Don Lupe said to him,
“Look here, Juvencio, if you let another animal in my pasture, I’ll kill it.”
And he said to him,
“Look here, Don Lupe, it’s not my fault that the animals fend for themselves. They’re innocent. You’ll have to pay for it, if you kill them.”
And he killed one of my yearlings. This happened thirty-five years ago in March, because in April I was already up in the mountains, on the run from the summons. The ten cows I gave the judge didn’t do me any good, or the mortgage on my house either, to pay for getting me out of jail. Later on they still took all the rest, so they wouldn’t hound me, but they kept after me all the same. That’s why I came to live with my son on this other little plot of land I had which is called Palo de Venado. And my son grew up and married my daughter-in-law Ignacia and had eight children. So it happened a long time ago and ought to be forgotten by now. But I guess it’s not.
I figured then that with about a hundred pesos everything could be sorted. Dead Don Lupe left just a wife and two little kids still crawling. And his widow died soon afterward too, they say from grief. They took the kids away to some relatives. So there was nothing to fear from them. But the rest of the people insisted that I was still wanted and had been found guilty in my absence just to scare me so they could keep on robbing me. Every time someone came to the village they told me, “There are some strangers in town, Juvencio.” And I’d take to the hills and hide in the bushes for days on end with nothing to eat but herbs. Sometimes I had to leave at midnight, as though the dogs were after me. It’s been that way my whole life. Not just a year or two. My whole life.
And now they’d come for him when he no longer expected anyone, confident that people had forgotten all about it, believing that he’d spend at least his last days in peace. “At least,” he thought, “I’ll have some peace in my old age. They’ll leave me alone.”
He’d clung to this hope with all his heart. That’s why it was hard for him to imagine that he’d die like this, suddenly, at this time of life, after having fought so hard to ward off death, after having spent his best years running from one place to another because of the scares, now when his body was all dried up and leathery from the bad days when he’d had to go into hiding from everybody. Hadn’t he even let his wife go off and desert him? The day when he learned his wife had left him, the idea of going out in search of her didn’t even cross his mind. He let her go without trying to find out at all who she went with or where, so he wouldn’t have to go down to the village. He let her go as he’d let everything else go, without putting up a fight. All he had left to take care of was his life, and he’d do that, if nothing else. He couldn’t let them kill him. He couldn’t. Much less now.
But that’s why they brought him from there, from Palo de Venado. They didn’t need to tie him up for him to follow them. He walked alone, tied by his fear. They realized he couldn’t run with his old body, with those skinny legs of his like dry kindling, paralysed with the fear of dying. Because that’s where he was headed. Towards death. They told him so.
That’s when he knew. He began to feel that burning sensation in his stomach that always came on suddenly when he saw death nearby, making his eyes big with fear and his mouth swell up with those mouthfuls of sour water he had no choice but to swallow. And that thing that made his feet heavy while his head felt soft and his heart pounded with all its might against his ribs. No, he couldn’t get used to the idea that they were going to kill him. There had to be some hope. Somewhere there still had to be some hope left. Maybe they’d made a mistake. Perhaps they were looking for another Juvencio Nava and not him.
He walked along in silence between those men, with his arms drooping at his sides. The dawn was dark, starless. The wind blew gently, carrying back and forth the dry earth, that stank of the odour of piss that dusty roads have. His eyes, that had developed a squint over the years, gazed down at the ground, there under his feet, despite the darkness. His whole life was there in the land. Sixty years of living on it, of grasping it tightly in his hands, of tasting it like one tastes the flavour of meat. For a long time he’d been sifting it with his eyes, savouring each piece as if it were the last, almost knowing it would be the last.
Then, as though wishing to say something, he looked at the men who were marching along beside him. He was going to tell them to free him, to let him go; “I haven’t hurt anybody, lads,” he was going to say to them, but he kept silent. “A little further on I’ll tell them,” he thought. And he just looked at them. He could even imagine they were his friends, but he didn’t want to. They weren’t. He didn’t know who they were. He watched them moving at his side and squatting from time to time to see where the road continued.
He’d seen them for the first time as the afternoon turned grey, when everything seemed colourless. They’d crossed the furrows trampling over the tender corn. And that’s why he’d gone out there: to tell them that the corn was just coming through. But they didn’t stop. He’d seen them in time. He’d always been lucky enough to see everything in time. He could’ve hidden, wandered up into the hills for a few hours until they left and then come down again. Already it was time for the rains to come, but the rains hadn’t come and the corn was beginning to wilt. Soon it’d be all dried up.
So it hadn’t even been worth going out there, getting among those men, as in a hole he’d been unable to pull himself out of. And so he walked on beside them, holding back how much he wanted to tell them to let him go. He couldn’t see their faces, only their bodies, which swayed toward him and then away from him. So when he began to talk he didn’t know if they’d heard him. He said: “I’ve never hurt anybody.” That’s what he said. But nothing changed. Not one of the bodies seemed to pay attention. The faces didn’t turn to look at him. They kept right on, as if they were walking in their sleep.
Then he thought that there was nothing else he could say, that he’d have to look for hope somewhere else. He let his arms fall again to his sides and walked through the first houses of the village, among those four men, shrouded by the black color of the night.
“Here’s the man, colonel.”
They’d stopped in front of the narrow doorway. He stood with his hat in his hand, respectfully, waiting to see someone come out. But only the voice came out,
“From Palo de Venado, colonel. The one you ordered us to bring in.”
“Ask him if he ever lived in Alima,” came the voice from inside again.
“Hey, you. Ever lived in Alima?” the sergeant facing him repeated the question.
“Yes. Tell the colonel that’s where I’m from. And that I lived there till not long ago.”
“Ask him if he knew Guadalupe Terreros.”
“He says did you know Guadalupe Terreros?”
“Don Lupe? Yes. Tell him that I knew him. He’s dead.”
Then the voice inside changed tone: “I know he’s dead,” it said.
And the voice continued talking, as if it was conversing with someone there on the other side of the mud wall.
“Guadalupe Terreros was my father. When I grew up and looked for him they told me he was dead. It’s hard to grow up knowing that the thing we have to hang on to to take roots from is dead. That’s what happened to us. Later on I learned that he’d been hacked to death with a machete and then an ox prod stuck in his belly. They told me he lasted more than two days and that when they found him, lying in a ditch, he was still in agony and begging for his family to be looked after. Things seem to be forgotten as time goes by. You try to forget. What you can’t forget is discovering that the one who did it is still alive, feeding his rotten soul with the illusion of eternal life. I couldn’t forgive that man, even though I don’t know him; but the fact that I know where he is makes me want to finish him off. I can’t forgive him for being alive still. He should never have been born.”
Outside you could clearly hear every word he said. Then he shouted:
“Take him away and tie him up for a while, so he suffers a while, and then shoot
“Look at me, colonel!” he said. “I’m worthless now. It won’t be long before I die all by myself, crippled by old age. Don’t kill me!”
“Take him away!” the voice from inside said again.
“I’ve already paid for it, colonel. I’ve paid many times over. They took everything away from me. They punished me in so many ways. I’ve spent almost forty years hiding like a leper, always with the fear they’d kill me at any moment. I don’t deserve to die like this, colonel. At least let the Lord pardon me. Don’t kill me! Tell them not to kill me!”
There he was, as though they’d beaten him, beating his hat on the ground. Crying out.
Immediately the voice from inside said:
“Tie him up and give him something to drink until he gets drunk so the shots won’t hurt him.”
Now at last, he’d found peace. There he was, slumped at the foot of the post. His son Justino had come and his son Justino had gone and he had returned and now was coming again.
He slung him on top of the donkey. He cinched him tightly against the saddle so that he wouldn’t fall off onto the road. He put his head in a sack so that it wouldn’t scare those who saw him. And then he brought the donkey to a canter, and away they went, hurrying to reach Palo de Venado in time to arrange the dead man’s wake.
“Your daughter-in-law and your grandchildren will miss you,” he was saying to him. “They’ll look at your face and won’t believe it’s you. They’ll think a coyote has been chewing on you when they see your face full of holes from all the bullets they fired at you.”
Translation by John Lyons