Listen to That Deep Ocean, produced by Play for Voices.
"Do you hear anything? Do you see any changes in the water?"
I. Spring awakening
II. Into the fire
III. Abyss I
IV. Into the air
VI. The great flood
VII. Abyss II
VIII. Into the earth
IX. Abyss III
X. Return to Ithaca
Italicized text: male voice
Scenes 0, III, VII, IX should sound similar to each other, and markedly different to the other scenes, which should have an ordinary, everyday quality.
In the Epilogue, the different sounds should converge.
In live performance, the noises and fragments of conversation should be disorientating and whirling, created with surround sound.
[An alarm beeps intermittently.]
It’s time. It’s time now. The animal is choking its prey. A huge white squid, with eyes as deep as the abyss. Above him, the whirlwind. Smashing everything in its path, making little pieces of the world dance in its innards. Rocks, plants, rivers, cities, soldiers, trees, mountains, buildings, managers in suits and ties, mothers clinging to their young, grandfather’s cuckoo clock, the bra on the sofa.
It’s time. It’s time, she thinks. And opens her eyes.
[The beeping stops.]
I. SPRING AWAKENING
Seven thirty-three. Three minutes late. What’s that smell of smoke? The coffee’s not on.
Three minutes and twenty seconds. Three minutes and forty seconds.
The sheets. The sheets smell. Memories of a club. Which club?
Seven thirty-five. Five minutes late. Six, seven.
My hand reaches out to the side. No one there. Not even the residual heat of human or animal.
Seven forty-four. Exactly forty-four minutes and fifty seconds to leave the house.
They need changing, these sheets. Need to remember that. This week.
She gets up.
I get up. The floor is as cold as my boss’s stare. My feet, two lost children, search for their slippers.
She gets up. She really gets up.
How many meters to the fridge? An expedition to the East. Should I wear a hat?
She’d like to put a hat on.
I’d like to put a hat on. But it’s spring.
The light slants into the room, making an unusual pattern on the wall. One, two, three. I count my steps. Ten to the fridge, a hundred to the doorway, twelve thousand four hundred and fifteen to work. Every day.
She likes to count to infinity. When she was young, she used to count to infinity inside her parent’s wardrobe, hiding, until she fell asleep.
I open the window.
She opens the window.
The sun is a diffuse point beyond the tower blocks. I shield my eyes with my hands, so it doesn’t blind me.
Her mother taught her that beauty is harmful. Her mother, with her clever love.
Twelve floors down, a street of busy people. I lean out a little, reveling in this moment of risk, to feel the wind in my face. Cold. I like the cold. I like the cold so much.
She likes to say she likes the cold. But her body doesn’t agree.
I’d like to cry out, I’d like to cry out loud, but.
She crosses the room.
I cross the room. Seven fifty-five. My legs tangled in a complicated zigzag. Pretend something has changed. I need to pretend something has changed.
She pretends to be someone else. Every day, someone new, to infinity. The powerful mathematics of probability.
It’s spring, I think, it’s spring. I’d like to call my father.
If there were a father.
The bathroom is damp. I look in the mirror.
She looks in the mirror. The tiles behind her have strange black crusts. Like the glasses which frame her eyes, eyes of Turkish blue.
Eyes, the only precious gift.
Which she would have gladly given.
Eight o’clock. Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.
She doesn’t have a shower, she decides not to have a shower. She puts on her makeup, she does her hair.
Cut your hair. Lose three kilos. Get your boobs done. Everything, everything.
She hurriedly grabs some clothes, to look most like whichever woman it is that she is.
To open a passage between me and the world. Between the world and the world I want.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time for coffee. No time.
To open a tunnel, a channel, a tiny cycle path. To open something, open.
She hates arriving late. She’s the most punctual of employees. Only once her manager complained about her absentmindedness, and even then he was wrong.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time for coffee. There’s no time.
He found out that there was a stamp missing on her card, but it wasn’t her, it was the girl at reception. Yes, that idiot with the short legs. Because she would never have done something so negligently, so childishly incautious, so grotesquely careless. She is someone who thinks, even if it doesn’t show. She’s someone who is, even if it doesn’t show. She’d someone who counts, even if it doesn’t show. She’s someone who. Even if.
Bag, wallet, keys. There’s no time.
She opens the door.
I open the door. The cold of the door handle makes me shiver.
She opens the door decisively.
Eight o’clock, oh Lord, eight o’clock. I’ll never make it.
She opens the door and leaves.
II. INTO THE FIRE
[City noises. Tap of a woman’s heels.]
Look at her moving ahead with a quick stride. She says hello to the porter, automatically, and crosses the building’s threshold. A gray suburban building, papered with swirling colors, like you might see in a kitsch street artist’s painting.
She moves like a missile, purposefully. She knows every step she has to make, the turns, the rises and falls, the holes in the crumbling pavement, constantly neglected by the council. She knows everything: the universe is under control. In her bag, the tools of every good third-millennium employee: a laptop and an iPhone. Along with this, a pair of Gucci glasses, bought in some out-of-the-way shop (Chinese perhaps, but they do the job), a small packet of crackers for her lunch break (you never know what time you’ll finish when you’re getting to the end of the financial year), a used and refolded tissue, a leather wallet, with a photo of her mother in pride of place, her hair dyed indigo and styled, for want of a better word, by the hospice nurse for her birthday, for the little party she hadn’t been able to go to.
She goes on, undaunted, as determined as a tank.
[The street noises come to the fore: horns, snatches of sentences from passersby in different languages, a beggar, a busker . . .]
The city is like a river: it doesn’t own anything, it goes on and on, gulping down everything its way: fish, plants, objects, mud, carcasses, rocks, and corpses indiscriminately, so perfectly democratic as to be the envy of the greatest parliaments.
They move together, she and the city, arm in arm. No matter whether they’re happy with this symbiotic relationship or not. In these cases the only thing you can do is look at the reality, and the reality is this: you need to work. And work is here, in these traffic-clogged streets, these dirty alleyways, in the smell of piss in the dark corners of the subway; and she embraces it, like a fisherman the water; like him, she casts her hook every morning, in the hope of taking home survival at the end of the day. Survival, yes, because you can’t take anything for granted; since the company canceled long-term contracts, in the dirtiest manner possible, slamming the door in the face of the unions; since the politicians didn’t raise a finger to stop the abuses of the market (although they threw up their hands in glee at the party conferences), since she quietly, and finally, abandoned the dream of living, and, consequently, the will to dream.
To live here or anywhere, to live, in any place, in any language, in any time—people say, every now and then, curled up in a ball in bed, in the depth of one of many sleepless nights—to live is just to breathe stale air; this same air, laden with carbon monoxide, which drenches her lungs, while she crosses the road, on the white lines, those floating pieces of wood which will take her to the other side, where she will go down the stairs—and, indeed, she does go down—into the bowels of the earth, like a badly planted seed, starved of the right nutrients.
[Sounds of underground trains. Fragments of everyday conversation.]
There’s a crowd of people waiting for the train, like puppies waiting to be fed. The little girl in front of her has a short school skirt on and her bra in plain view. Two fat, sweaty men leer to each other, making groping actions. She looks the other way, pretending nothing’s happening, grinding a piece of chewing gum to dust between her teeth. Right next to her, a woman with rich floaty hair and an oval face pretends to rummage through her bag while she counts the proceeds of her last fuck, throwing hostile glances around her. On a seat, farther down, a man in jacket and tie lets the remains of his marriage sparkle on his face like a hundred-carat jewel. On the floor, a gypsy with twisted legs like branches that have grown upside down spits cries of hate because a powdered old woman has given him a fiver instead of a tenner.
And she, she waits like a soldier at attention. Like a snared animal. Like a traffic light on red, waiting for green.
[Noises of the surroundings—a man begging—conversations in different languages.]
Her soul is an empty seashell; inside it rumble noises, smiles, breaths—remnants of the world around her, which grow suddenly and die. This city, this city speaks to her, in so many languages. But she, poor thing, tries hard and still mangles her English. She never finished the course at the British Council, which she’d struggled to pay for in the first place, because it was her turn to work overtime. She has no certificates, and now she can only wait for the train, lost in the crowd, like a crippled Cinderella; the train which doesn’t come, which persists in not coming, maybe because of a breakdown on the line, maybe because of a suicide, or simply because the State is so inefficient.
III. ABYSS I
A squid. A giant squid. Ten meters or more. I can’t see it very well in the dark. Pitch dark. Dark as death. Dark as the womb. Dark as the recesses of the soul.
— What am I doing here, two thousand meters deep?
— You tell me.
— A little walk? A holiday, maybe?
— Or are you lost?
— I don’t remember. How did I get here?
— The whirlpool of the world. The dumping-ground of all the dross.
— I fell here?
— Like a rock.
— And now?
— Where to?
— Up there, the whirlpool; down there, the abyss. You choose.
— What is this, a trick?
— Nature doesn’t play tricks.
— Then I’ll stay here.
— As long as . . .
— As long as?
— As long as I want. As long as I don’t want.
— You’ll eat me?
— How old are you?
— Old enough.
— For what?
— To grow moss?
— You’re putting words in my mouth.
— Don’t try to wake up, it’s no use.
— I was looking for a tissue. I’m going to.
— I feel like I’m wrapped in a cold hug.
— Do you want a coffee, tea?
— No, thanks. I’m fine like this. (Pause). Could you tell me something? How do you live without losing your mind?
— Do you often ask yourself that question?
— Every day, before I go to sleep.
— Put the hook in your mouth.
— I feel like I’m constantly hanging by a thread, but I’m afraid of falling.
— You’re no better than a plant, or a spider.
— Because who knows what’s underneath? Where you go to PARARE.
— It’s easier to cross the whirlpool with one constant thought.
— New shoes, a Caribbean holiday.
— And then it crosses you instead.
— With no way out?
— You can always go deeper.
— What time is it? I have to go.
— But when you crack—when you crack nothing is like it was before.
— I’ve got a budget to get signed off tomorrow morning.
— And you might, I say might, be able to say you’re free.
— I’m calling a taxi. Can I use your mobile?
IV. INTO THE AIR
Ten thousand four hundred and fourteen steps. Fifteen. Sixteen. I catch sight of the angular building above the crowd. The river of people runs toward the concrete mouth with the will of a flood. Twenty-five, thirty. When you’re raised up by ten centimeter heels, life is clearer. Forty, forty-five. Like an uprooted tree, my body dissolves into the urban landscape. A memory, a doubt, a rift. I go into reception. The girl with the twisted legs smiles at me stupidly. I give her a nasty, mirrorlike smile. Fifty, fifty-three. Lift hall. Five people waiting. Six, seven. Ding. I’m there. On solid ground again. A hundred meters high.
I cross the company’s threshold.
A few greetings rebound in the racket of the silence.
Bag on the table, coat on the back of my seat. My colleague at the next desk pretends not to see me. I ask if the boss is here yet—to make myself noticed, more than anything. Yes, but he’s in a meeting. Who with? With the Swedish client. I need to speak to him. It’s urgent. It can’t wait. The colleague dives into a pile of papers without turning a hair.
— Yes. No. Maybe.
— A thousand euros, two thousand, ten thousand.
My head hurts, I take an aspirin. Ten minutes to lunch. Five. Three. One.
I sit at a table at the back of the cafeteria, close to the window. The same one as for the last fifteen years. A bit away, in front of me, will sit Luisa, from Accounts, with her shrill voice and bobbed hair, and Giovanni, the marketing officer, with his shaved head and slight stammer. We’ll talk about the weather—too hot, too cold, too mild—about summer holidays, about his ex-wife, children, bills to pay, cuts at work, the managing director’s new lover, faint hopes of a raise, the latest political scandals, the best TV chat show. After which, I‘ll stand up with studied nonchalance, put my tray in the rack, and go back to work.
But no. Instead, I decide to make a change. I get up suddenly and sit in the third row on the right, in the middle of the room, next to the new customer service guy. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye, and I think I see the corner of a smile. There’s pasta stuck to his teeth, mushy like a mollusk, the result of a careful assessment by the company nutritionist. I look straight at my ceramic plate, with its motto “Mens sana in corpore sano,” pretending to think. Now I’ll introduce myself. Now. Now. I’ll finish this mouthful and.
He gets up. Makes straight for the main entrance, which opens its glass wings as he approaches, as if by magic.
I finish my dessert. The taste of strawberry. The kiss and the promises of marriage. A moth in the big bag of memories. The expectation of a life shared.
A platinum blonde takes the empty place next to me.
I finish the rest of my seafood salad. Then back to work, more calls.
The world is a cordless telephone.
The “Architeuthis Dux,” better known as the giant squid, is a cephalopod mollusk of the invertebrate family. It has a cylindrical mantle over its head, which contains its internal organs. Also in the mantle, you’ll find a horny shell stretched into the shape of a spear, the gladius. The body has two fins that join to form a diamond shape and the head has two lateral eyes. It has ten limbs in total, with suckers: eight shorter ones, and two longer, with club-shaped tips. The animal’s motions are elegant and sinuous, characterized by the rhythmic movement of water entering and exiting the body. Giant squids have been identified at up to eighteen meters long. The biggest examples can reach a ton in weight. Like the cuttlefish, this animal uses an inky substance to hide itself, or to repel potential predators.
The giant squid has inhabited maritime mythology for centuries. It used to be believed that its embrace could drag even the greatest warship down to the abyss.
VI. THE GREAT FLOOD
[Voices, overlapping work conversations, like a busy day in the stock exchange.]
I look out the window. A drop of sweat runs lonely down my left cheek. I let it fall, I let it fall freely, until it reaches the soft cloth of my blouse, making a halo. The heat is so intense, so unusual for an ordinary spring day that it makes me think of a joke. Someone mutters a joke or other, as if it were possible to attribute an autonomous will to nature, in a type of silent film. The sky is decked with clouds, a flourish of images in constant change.
The marketing director crosses the room. Her left shoulder catches my right, but she goes on, her hips swaying, without looking back, without saying sorry. I focus my attention on her tight outfit for a fraction of a second, on her bony but muscular legs, her gym-fresh arms, on her complexion, drenched in fake tan.
Someone calls me. I turn around, almost scared, because I haven’t heard anyone say my name in weeks. Yes, I’m coming. Yes, yes. OK. The mole-like man’s head turns to embed itself in the papery intestines of his budget, his brief duty as a messenger completed. I’m coming, I said I’m coming. Just a few seconds to come up with something distinctive: a fuchsia-colored lipstick, a smell of Caribbean apples, a Marilyn Monroe hairdo. Anything, quickly. I rummage through the bowels of my bag with the careful haste of a field surgeon. A squirt of cologne, the only bulwark of my femininity.
I go into the room. The boss is puffy with worry. He settles his five foot three into a comfortable chair of South American leather, a reward for his thirty years of service. He doesn’t look me in the eyes. He takes out a newly printed wad of papers, concentrating, stopping to scribble on them every now and then. Two. Three. Five minutes. Seven minutes and thirty-four seconds’ wait. He’s seen me. Yes, he’s seen me. Has he seen me? He looked up, but.
Eight minutes. Eight and a. Nine and a.
Sorry? You told me to. No, you’re wrong. I mean, perhaps you mistook me for. No that’s me. The last desk on the right. Next to. Yes, that’s right. Sorry? No, me? Married? Why are you asking me that? No, no children. That’s the. You’re. You’re waiting. Me, no. I just. Of course, whatever you say. Of course, of course. Good-bye. Good-bye. See you later.
A thin veil of nonchalance slips over my head, while I throw a bouquet of relief high into the air.
I sit down without a thought. In my stomach, the seafood salad is turning nauseating cartwheels.
Outside, the sky growls oaths of vengeance against global warming. A second later, thousands of small raindrops gather agitatedly on the windowpane, like a crowd fleeing a disaster.
I open the budget to get back to my sums. Then, the roar.
VII. ABYSS II
The monster is only another way of saying “enough.” The monster is only another side of the coin. The monster is only a swinging keyring on a rearview mirror.
—You came back?
—I like this place.
—You’re home now.
—It’s dark. It’s cold.
—It’s all yours.
—An unapproachable hugeness.
—A whirling core.
—That we’re in the sea.
—You’ve never thought about it: what if we’re in a tank? A tank in a pizza restaurant, which only seems big because we’re so little, or just used to it? And this whirlpool above us is made by some cheap plastic gadget from a Chinese newsstand. And soon we’ll just be sprinkled over pasta.
—What’s so funny?
—Don’t you like knowing that it’s so easy to escape?
—I like your tentacles. I’m not scared of them.
—They’ve sunk many ships.
—And killed many men?
—Millions. Billions, ever since the world was the world and the water was the water.
—You’re a liar.
—Why are you trying to hurt me?
—I want to wake up.
—But you can’t.
—I’ll do it.
—And you’ll be back.
—It’s better to live in the cracks of time.
—Haven’t you seen? While men chatter, we creatures of the abyss have a lot to get on with.
—I don’t have to worry about what clothes to wear.
—You wouldn’t have much use for a wardrobe.
—Or a mirror.
—Or a wage.
—Can I ask you something?
—Are you married?
—Are you coming on to me?
—What a funny creature.
—Doesn’t it scare you to be the only conscious thing around here?
—I’m a tourist.
—You like traveling, then?
—I’m happy enough with Sunday documentaries. Hawaiian dancers, promotional films.
—And you leave the taste of salt to others.
—You’re annoying me. Tell me something: What’s under there?
—Do you want to see?
—It’s still uninhabited. I’m amazed the travel agents haven’t got there yet. They get everywhere else.
—It’s not on the map.
—Great, isn’t it? Forget about Riccione in the summertime.
—Don’t be trivial.
—There’s one thing I don’t understand.
—The lifejacket has sunk too, don’t bother looking for it.
—This vague impression of scattered waves, of uninterrupted thought.
—You can’t beat a swim to clear the mind.
—I can’t swim.
—Who are you trying to kid?
—You’ve got huge eyes.
—You think so?
—They’re the color of emptiness.
—You know, you’re starting to grow on me.
—These things happen.
—And what do you do when your breath runs out?
VIII. INTO THE EARTH
The smell of spring rain filled the room with life.
She was finishing her work with careful diligence. She was sifting through the documents, inputting the figures into the Excel spreadsheet, working out formulas, transcribing results, printing reports. Her face, already pale by nature, seemed even paler stroked by the late afternoon light. The department was beginning to empty. She put away a pen decisively. Her desk mate was talking to his wife on the phone under his breath. Washing powder, ham, olive oil: items for a detailed shopping list. She packed up, an involuntary part of his conversation, and she began to go over her own requirements. Eggs, rice, chicken. A little table for the kitchen, a new shower curtain, a newspaper rack. A holiday. A bigger flat. A car. A husband.
She looked at the time on her computer screen. The beautiful Caribbean beach stared back at her mockingly.
She decided to set off for home. Maybe she would stop by the market. Or her mother’s. Yes, her mother’s: it’s visiting time at the hospital. No, tomorrow, she’ll do it tomorrow because today she’s an empty shell. Because all she wants is to get home, have a shower, and throw herself in front of the TV with a packet of crisps, or an ice cream.
She arranges the pile of papers like a faithful testimony to her own efficiency. Layer upon layer, she erects her life’s totem. Before switching off her computer, she checks her mail one last time: supplier, supplier, financial report, supplier, marketing department, internal memo, supplier, Viagra. Her morning headache reappears at the corner of her forehead. Then, determined as a drill, her middle finger puts an end to her overtime.
Home, home. She wraps herself in her coat, smoothing her hair to check nothing’s left out of place. Universal judgment. Life rides at full gallop, even when you’re stationary. And there it is—marching on again: she slips in to the corridor, a lifeless gray strip like a hospital resuscitation room, she passes a series of identical desks, where human life carries on regardless, she crosses the lobby of coffee machines, that indispensable source of silent moments, to reach at last the lift, the great mother, which takes her into its belly like a suckling steel mother.
Twenty, ten, five, two, ground.
The marble floor receives her footsteps like a parcel with no proof of delivery. In echo of every heel click it gives a sharp shout, which rises to the ceiling, then loses itself in the rafters. She continues, without hesitation, straight to the next day, because all of this is just preparation for the next cycle. Her time is never the present, it’s already the promise of fate, the obvious fate, which she has studied from her desk.
Outside, the city prepares for night. The dark arm-wrestles with the glow of day, creating exquisite tones of gray, mixed with reds and yellows beyond the buildings. She sees nothing; sometimes she looks at her shoes, sometimes at the M of the metro signs; sometimes the surface of the pavement, sometimes at where she’s headed. She slips a hand into the side pocket of her jacket, to check she’s got her essentials: smartphone and house keys; her link with the world, and her link with herself.
She makes a brief stop at the old people’s home, without going out of her way, having a word with the nurse to get her mother to eat enough greens. When she asks “Would you like to speak to her?” she just says “I can’t now, I’ll call when I get home,” and she sets off. She lets the escalator carry her, a break from the hurrying, and closes her eyes. A green expanse, coconut water, the sea. An embarrassment of riches in the supermarket of the mind. How long can this break last? Who will be able to repair the breakdown? She opens her eyes in time to see the end of the escalator. The floor swallows the waves of metal greedily. She takes a bigger step than usual and reaches the solid ground. She crosses the granite expanse, carpeted with trash of various sorts. Crushed coke tins, fliers, lollipops, a used condom, half a sandwich, popular newspapers (“Girl Raped at McDonalds” —-to arrive safely at the platform. A tall, skinny woman in a swimming costume throws her an almost pornographic glance from an advert; some horny kid has drawn a penis in her mouth, for a laugh.
The scrolling electronic noticeboard announces that the train will arrive in five minutes. Waiting, she distances herself from the world, and the world from her.
In a quiet corner, a young man with dreadlocks and glassy eyes waves a beer bottle in the air—a drunk Medusa. Further on, a girl with a bald, unclothed doll—it looks like a rape victim—takes a painful smack from her mother and screams. An old man in a Red Bull T-shirt laughs cheerfully, thinking of his granddaughter; then he sneaks a look at the chest of the eighteen-year-old beside him, who is frenetically tapping out words on her mobile phone keypad.
The day is a boil, a blister, a mole on the immaculate skin of time. And she waits her five long minutes, counting to three hundred, like a Swiss clock.
IX. ABYSS III
—In my belly?
—In my belly.
—So why can’t I feel it?
—Why did you have to wheedle your way into my mind? I was fine on my own.
—I didn’t wheedle my way in. You came to find me.
—I fell into the whirlpool, it was an accident.
—If you prefer to tell yourself that.
—Straight down the middle. I didn’t touch the sides.
—It’s my mother’s fault I can’t swim.
—Still making excuses, at your age?
—Can you hear it now?
—The sound of the abyss
—A bit. Here, under by belly button.
—Can you see it?
—How is that possible? I’m going.
—I’m sick of this.
—Will you come back to me?
—Never again. It’s over.
—I thought you liked it.
—Look at the scenery. Where will you find another place like this?
—I’ve got to spray my plants, feed the cat.
—That’s a lie, you don’t have a cat.
—Why do I always feel like there’s just not enough time? Why does everything move so quickly? The first time I felt love, I was still a worm. I looked at the world from the sticky hole of my semi-childhood, like a happy caterpillar. Then I came into the world, and with every night I spent alone, I lost that feeling, which just made space for fear. And for hate: survival instinct, well taught in my family. Then I grew up, and grown-up love was just a vague memory of that first, blinding spark. I lived stunted, stunted and scarred with instincts which I’ll never understand and which I’ll always cling to totally. That is my destiny. My animal destiny.
—You’re very sweet.
—I’m very dry.
—I love you.
—Will you hold me?
X. RETURN TO ITHACA
[Crack of a woman’s heels.]
Walk, walk, walk. Three hundred and forty-seven paces to get home. Six, five, four.
She leaves the metro behind her. Like a ship out at sea, it becomes smaller and smaller, smaller and smaller.
Walk, walk, walk. I’ll be there soon, I’ll be there.
People are still busying through the streets: the kebab shop full of immigrants, the group of boys on their skateboards, the couple sat on the wall next to the laundrette, a hump of newspapers and rags which probably hides a tramp, the 24-hour phone center lined with international calling card offers in every language, a mother dragging a whining child by the arm, a stray dog on the hunt for food.
Walk, walk, walk. Undress, put my slippers on.
Night slowly takes the tiller.
Eat something quick. Noodles, frozen risotto.
The changing light of televisions flickers through apartment windows.
Throw herself on the sofa, take the remote control.
From above, the city looks like stardust.
A Place in the Sun, Channel 5.
Lower down, the silence melts into the hum of the nightclubs.
Call a friend. What friend?
And she, she continues her ordinary journey down her littered path.
Run a bath, make some tea.
A blot on the divine landscape.
Cross the road. Two hundred, three, two, one.
Even if she wanted to be on the cover.
Get there soon.
Like a stupid girl she doesn’t look where she’s going.
Get there in time.
She crosses the road like a deaf mole.
Get there in a hurry.
Without looking at the red light.
The taxi doesn’t stop in time.
Get there, get there.
In the windscreen, the cuddly toy grins, jigging round in circles.
Get there, still get there.
The body falls to the ground like a gymnast.
Finally get there
[The steps stop.]
Walk, walk, walk. Pace after pace after pace after pace I realize the. I realize the. That no. That I. That the story is.
In the sky there’s a flock of gulls, led astray by the glow of the buildings that line their route home.
It’s not mine. This universe isn’t mine.
She looks around herself, appalled. But deep down, she’s happy with this ending.
How long would I have waited? And for what?
The pain in her muscles turns to breeze and disperses in the night air.
And instead everything is calmer inside, like a holiday.
Her eyes, closed in a tearful smile, float like Ping-Pong balls in the tide.
In the streets, the human stain dissolves itself and the world is set back in motion.
And she, she is just
And she flows
Into the deep dark of the ocean.
For production credits, an interview with the author, and more information about Play for Voices, visit the Play for Voices website.
One of the founding members of the FARC, known as “Sergeant Pascuas,” recalls the origins of the guerrilla movement in the “independent republics,” areas in rural Colombia held by Marxist peasant guerrillas in the 1950s in the aftermath of La Violencia, which lasted from 1948 to 1958. Conservative politicians believed these areas needed to be brought into line with the rest of the country through military force. After an amnesty of 1953, figures such as Juan Cruz Varela, Fermín Charry Rincón ("Charro Negro"), and Manuel Maralunda Vélez ("Tirofijo") led resistance among peasant organizations. While some would later enter mainstream politics, many of these figures were pursued by the military. In this interview with Alfredo Molano, conducted in Havana, Cuba, Pascuas talks about the early days of the war, some fifty years ago.
Military authorities have accused Miguel Pascuas of over six hundred cases of armed assault, fourteen guerrilla takeovers, and five bombings in the Toribío municipality alone. This is in addition to other attacks, also in the Cauca department, which have resulted in the deaths of over eight hundred soldiers, including the attack on the El Tablón property in the town of Corinto on November 9, 2009, which resulted in eight soldiers killed, nine more wounded, and one missing officer. INTERPOL issued a Red Notice requesting to locate and provisionally arrest him, and the U.S. State Department offered a reward of $2.5 million “for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction” of Pascuas. After a bus loaded with fourteen pipe bombs exploded, devastating Toribío for the fifth time, on July 11, 2011, the Colombian government put a price on his head of nearly seven hundred thousand dollars.
“The Old Man has power because he’s a symbol,” says Colonel Maldonado of the Federal Police. “But he’s not part of the high command.”
AMB: Tell me, Miguel, about your childhood.
MP: We were in a town called Órganos, in the department of Huila. That’s where I went to school. When La Violencia came, the police showed up and took over our school as a barracks. We couldn’t study there anymore. Many people died. Once, the police took six prisoners in shackles to the confluence of the Gagual and San Luis rivers and shot them there in a puddle. Padre Monard—parish priest of Órganos and San Luis, though he wasn’t even Colombian—said that those who weren’t aligned with the Conservatives should leave the village immediately. Many people ignored him. He cooperated with the police. I would see him around, dressed like a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder. One day he left for San Luis, and since my mother cooked for him, he invited us to come along. That was when I met the Indian Quintín Lame, in the El Palmar village, which had a large indigenous community. He was proud and talked about fighting to take back the lands for the Indians. When the guerrillas—who were referred to as a mob—took the local police headquarters, the Army intervened and arrested the Indian Quintín along with two other country folks. Since my mother was preparing the food for Padre Monard, she had me deliver a few roasted potatoes to the prisoners, and that’s how I met him. He had long hair and smoked tobacco. The guerrillas took Órganos because of the death of those peasants, with nothing more than bombs and machetes, because they didn’t have any guns other than the ones Charro Negro and Marulanda carried. There was no school that day, and no more barracks. There were some good weapons in the parsonage, including an Italian rifle that belonged to the priest. I think they were the first quality weapons the guerrillas got their hands on. Then the outlaws attacked San Luis,1 but the priest wasn’t there either. If he had been, who knows where things would have ended. There was a lot of talk about what the guerrillas did: that Charro had gotten Martillo out of jail, that Llanero had liberated Piedra Negra, that Joselito had entered San Luis. And it was true: the outlaws organized to defend themselves against the armed Chulavites.2 The Liberals could only see things through that peephole. The only one who brought in new ideas was Major Lister, also known as Isauro Yosa, who said that we shouldn’t just fight for politics but also to change the country, and that we had to start with the land itself. He made contact with Loaiza’s men, who were already well established in Rioblanco. Together they confronted the Conservative Party administrations of Ospina, Laureano, and Urdaneta.
AMB: So as a boy, what did you work on? What did you do?
MP: First I worked on a coffee plantation picking beans, and later I was a mule driver’s assistant because I wasn’t strong enough to load up the mules myself. The actual mule drivers could toss a 150-pound sack of coffee over their shoulder with ease, and I could only manage half of that. But I was getting stronger and already by 1959 the National Front government began work on the road from San Luis to Aleluya and on the one from Carmen to Gaitania.3 The government offered peace, and the liberal guerrillas agreed to surrender their weapons, except for Marulanda and Charro Negro, who kept theirs. The government didn’t ask for them either. Manuel was a civilian guarding the construction sites along the road and carrying staff records. Somewhere between Gaitania and Neiva. I got to know him near Aipecito,4 before he became a road inspector. He was armed. I started working with him building storm drains, which, you know, were something of a luxury on that road, but I was already geared toward self-defense because we were surrounded by armed Conservatives like El Mico and Tres Espaldas. They stopped buses and killed Liberal riders. They would make a tie cut or a T-shirt cut, slice their throats and pull out their tongues, slash open their chests, or chop off their arms so they could never go back to work again. We needed the self-defense squads for our own protection; we held meetings every two months. Some guys worked in the fields and some worked on the roads. We kept watch and worked. We had no weapons. I was assigned to Lister.
Peace didn’t last long. They came after us. The government installed Mariachi in Planadas and Peligro in Herrera.5 Lleras Camargo (president of Colombia from 1958 to 1962) said that the Communists had to be dealt with, and that Mariachi and Peligro were set up against us. Charro stayed in Gaitania to work when Mariachi sent in his people, a couple of guys named Belalcázar and Puñalada. They said they wanted to meet with Charro, but then they killed him. Set his back on fire. We were working when Marulanda came out, armed and angry, and said, “Guys, we’re at war again. They killed Charro; Isaías Pardo, Rogelio, and Lister are next on the list. That’s all there is to it.” So we dropped our tools and picked up our rifles. Marulanda drove up and down the road from Carmen to collect weapons and with them he set up the first platoon of twenty men. In one fight we went up against two hundred soldiers. We came out of it with eighteen mules, some important supplies, and also five bolt-action rifles. Marulanda was given the rank of major. We had officially entered the fight.
AMB: What was your first fight like?
MP: My first fight took place somewhere between Gaitania and Planadas. Marulanda got sick there; it was bad, he looked really bad. The country folks brought him food and he had to wait a while until he was feeling strong enough to fight on the outskirts of Aipe, harassing the Army’s rear guard, waiting for his chance to enter Planadas, which he was finally able to do. Martín Camargo, from the Communist Party, had joined us for this fight, along with Guaraca, Tula, Rogelio, Isaís, and Joselo [all legendary members of the guerilla forces], who had been working on their farms in Marquetalia. There were around sixty of us in all. We slept in the trees because we didn’t have any plastic sheeting for making tents. There were no stores to buy any. At first we wore espadrilles, but before long we switched to fabric tennis shoes. They had to be shored up with wire to make them last a little longer. Same with our clothes. The holsters had to be mended, sometimes with untanned cowhide. The equipment consisted of haversacks woven from pita fibers and the uniforms and hats we used were either green or khaki. Some of us had to work to earn money to buy the clothes. We used the haversacks to carry blankets, bananas, yucca, carrots, salt, cane sugar, stitched cow leather, corn, arepas, beans, avocadoes, pineapples, and oranges. We had to load up on chili peppers to make up for the lack of meat, and we carried mills to grind corn for making arepas or cuchuco soup. There were times when all there was to eat was sugarcane juice. We could last up to eight consecutive days on that alone when no other food was available.
The strike on the army was a boon for us: we got an M1 rifle, a G3 rifle, a San Cristobál carbine, a few other .30 caliber rifles, some 7mm rifles we called perillas, some Austrian and Peruvian rifles, some M1 carbines, and a good amount of ammunition.
AMB: Were these still self-defense squads?
MP: No, by then we were mobilized. Marulanda was with us for a while before he went to Marquetalia. That was when he sent us to Lieutenant Isaías. We were moving this way and that, and then he left. Next came Lieutenant Rogelio, with more of the same. That’s how I met Guaraca, when he was a lieutenant. The commanding officers would change, but we were always mobile. We dealt with a lot of hardships because food was hard to come by, and we didn’t have boots or backpacks. We made friends with people regardless of whether they were Conservative or Liberal, rich or poor. If someone helped us, it was because they were a friend. We were preparing ourselves and accumulating gear, little by little. We were befriending more and more people, including those who were more well-off, who had ways of getting us money, and who had already been contributing so we could buy clothes, boots, and tarps. We were gaining respect. Marulanda was getting quite famous, and had earned the nickname of Tirofijo, "Sureshot."
There were only civilian families in Marquetalia, because we patrolled the outskirts. When the first incursions began in 1962, we attacked the army as it was arriving in San Miguel. The self-defense squads who were in operation grabbed their rifles and started running interference from Gaitania on up. The army was using the same old tactics, marching single file, making them easy to target. It was a shame picking them off like that, innocent as they were. They were forced to return to their barracks. The government lost men and weapons, and we won a moral victory.
AMB: Were you still an independent republic?
MP: That was around the time when then-Senator Álvaro Gómez ordered an end to the independent republics: Marquetalia, Riochiquito, El Pato, Guayabero, Sumapaz. He said that Sumapaz was a great if rather quiet movement, that Guayabero and El Pato were tiny movements, but that Marquetalia was indeed dangerous because we were very active. Then the government organized the invasion of ’64.
Jacobo Arenas and Hernando González arrived in April with the news that they were going to send in airplanes and thousands of soldiers to wipe us out, and that we had to get the families out of Marquetalia. It wasn’t easy but we did it, leaving ourselves with forty-eight men and four women.
On May 27, Guaracas, Rogelio, and Joselo opened fire on the army in La Suiza, along the river Atá. We, in Puerto Tolima, fought two hard battles to stop them. The soldiers couldn’t advance by land because whenever they popped up, they would be shot. Eventually they started flying them in on helicopters and dropped them right in the heart of Marquetalia. We were ready for them, and as soon as their boots hit the ground we mowed them down.
AMB: What happened after that first federal incursion into Marquetalia?
MP: We split up before reconvening near Símbula. Even though we knew the way, it was hard getting through the mountain passes in the cold. We passed Rionegro and went on to Riochiquito, which was under the command of Ciro Trujillo. There were fifty guerrillas there, and many Indians. Including ourselves, we numbered a hundred forty-five men. We knew that the army would enter the area sooner or later. There was a break from October or November of ’64 through March of ’65, when the first Conference of the Southern Bloc6 was held, and which was attended by commanders from Sumapaz, 26 de Septiembre, and El Pato. Ríchard, the man who had driven people from El Davis to Villarrica and from Villarrica to El Pato, had already died. Looking back, it was fairly close to the death of another dear comandante, Isaís Duarte, who was very much loved by Comrade Marulanda. He was in charge of distracting the army while the conference was going on, and it was during that mission that he died.
AMB: Tell me about taking the town of Inzá.
MP: The government ran a campaign on the radio and in the press saying that Marulanda was dead, that they found his body, that we were finished. Then we received orders to prepare for an operation. We spent eight days running drills, building up our strength, and getting ready for whatever the senior officers had in mind. Finally, one afternoon, we set out. And two days later, we were on the road connecting Inzá with Belalcázar. We set up our ambush, we took the town, and then we returned to the mountains.
AMB: What about the nuns?
MP: We didn’t know there was a squad of police officers on the bus, and when we stopped it, they opened fire on us. We returned fire, and the nuns were killed in the crossfire. We lost Hernando González in a different ambush. Such is war.
AMB: What happened after the taking of Riochiquito?
MP: After the bombings, the Army occupied Riochiquito while we split up. Jacobo and Joselo were assigned to the area around Aipe while Ciro and Arrañanales headed for Quindío to establish a front in Valle. We had to move with Marulanda through Bilbao, La Herrera, Planadas, and Chaparral. We almost didn’t make it. Comrade Manuel was wounded in one arm. The Army knew that he’d been wounded and ordered all their troops to follow us, supported by five hundredcops in civilian clothes. There was a 25,000-peso bounty on Marulanda’s head, which was a lot of money at the time, and 15,000 for each guerrilla. The army said, “We kicked them out of Marquetalia, we kicked them out of Riochiquito, and now we’re going to kick them out of those mountains.” And we went out . . . but to fight. We went out to fight, taking as few risks as possible: we changed our tactics, we were more mobile at night than we were during the day, and we hit fewer targets, though we hit them harder. The fighting was constant. That’s how it was, until we reached Natagaima and our friends in the party helped us along the Magdalena River. We crossed near Aipe and from there we went up past Dolores and Alpujarra to reach Galilea. Finally, they took us to Hoya de Palacio, where we arrived just in time for the second Conference of the Southern Bloc, which formally created the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC.
1. A city found in the Antioquia department in central Colombia.↩
2. Conservative police involved in the repression of Liberals during La Violencia. The name derives from Chulavita, the municipality in the department of Boyacá where many were recruited.↩
3. Both of these roads are cross-country routes. El Carmen is located in extreme northern Colombia, while Gaitania is found in the south.↩
4. Aipecito is a town some 370 kilometers to the south of Bogotá.↩
5. Planados and Herrera are towns in extreme southern Colombia.↩
6. During this conference they formally declared themselves a rebel group and took on the name “The Southern Bloc.” They called for land reform, better living conditions for rural Colombians, and vowed to defend rural communities from the federal government.↩
Excerpt from A lomo de mula © Alfredo Molano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
We are silent joy
- the toiling of ants-
- the leaping of rabbits-
We are placid sadness
- the curlew's gaze-
- the bat's dream-
We are life, this way
- the child in the aged-
- the face of the found horizon-
Waya wanee ko’uu müshii sümaa talataa
shi’ataain tü jeyuukoluirua
Waya wanee jimaa maatshii sümaa mojuu aa’in
Waya tü kataakaa o’u, müin yaa
tepichin sünain tü laülawaakaa-
nu’upunaa chi aitu’u antuushikai anain-
On the paths of our mothers' settlement
we hear a voice of distant places
that only the tranquil heart understands . . .
we encounter a gaze
that we will only see in dream . . .
and we feel a presence, of countless ancestors,
that prevents us from straying from the stone and dust
of this our path.
Waraitüshii waya shipialu’umüin tü weikaa
waapüin wanee anüikii wattaje’ewolu,
shia’alakalü ayaawatüin soo’u tia tü mejiwa’alaakalü aa’in..
Je wayaawataka süntapaain wattashaana salii wapüshi sümaiwajatü,
isakalü wachiki akajee wapütüin tü ipakaa je tü süpali’inkaa
© Vito Apushana. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
Piedad Bonnett reads "Kitchen" ("Cocina") in the original Spanish.
Para Ma. Victoria.
Una cocina puede ser el mundo,
un desierto, un lugar para llorar.
Estábamos ahí: dos madres conversando en voz muy baja
como si hubiera niños durmiendo en las alcobas.
Pero no había nadie. Sólo la resonancia del silencio
donde alguna vez hubo música trepando las paredes.
Buscábamos palabras. Bebíamos el té
mirando el pozo amargo del pasado,
dos madres sobre el puente que las une
sosteniendo el vacío con sus manos.
For Ma. Victoria
A kitchen can be the world,
a desert, a place to weep.
We were there: two mothers talking in very low tones
as if there were children sleeping in the bedroom.
But no one was there. Only the resounding silence
where music once filled the room from wall to wall.
We searched for the words. We sipped our tea
looking down the bitter well of the past,
two mothers standing on the bridge that unites them
as they bear their emptiness in their hands.
Piedad Bonnett reads "After the Poetry Recital" ("Despues del recital de poesía") in the original Spanish.
Después del recital de poesía
A Juan Manuel Roca y Antonio Cisneros
Ha terminado el recital
en el descaecido teatro de provincia
vestido de oropeles como una tía anciana.
Salimos los poetas,
con paso lento, orondo, de poetas.
Y el hombre soñoliento de la primera fila,
las dos damas de blanco, perfumadas magnolias,
el maestro de lengua, los alumnos
que tomaban fiel nota, el indigente
que recita a Walt Whitman,
salen también hacia la recia luna.
A lo lejos se oyen
los entusiastas vítores al equipo de rugby
que arrasa a los locales.
Mientras llega el poeta que ha ido al mingitorio,
de las cuerdas de luz donde duermen los tordos
ha caído una gota amenazante.
Entonces, en medio de la noche desierta de metáforas,
un jovencito tímido, mirando hacia su azoro,
nos ofrece su mano.
Esto es raro por aquí. Y dice su dicha.
Movemos la cabeza, agradecemos,
lo miramos partir.
Un chico de provincia. La poesía.
Vamos hacia el hotel con paso lento,
con paso humilde, incierto, de poetas.
After the Poetry Recital
The recital has ended here,
at the languishing country theater
dressed in glitz like an old aunt.
We poets leave,
slowly, poetically, self-satisfied.
And the sleepy man in the front row,
and the two ladies in white, smelling of magnolias,
the professor of literature, the students
faithfully taking notes, and the homeless man
reciting Walt Whitman…
They also emerge in the powerful moonlight.
in the distance you hear
the excited cheers of rugby players
leveling the local team.
Meanwhile, the poet who had gone to the bathroom arrives,
and from the string of lights where the thrushes sleep,
a threatening drop has fallen.
Then, in the midst of a night bereft of metaphors,
a shy young man with a look of astonishment in his eyes
offers us his hand.
This is rare around here. And he expresses his happiness.
We nod our heads appreciatively
and watch him depart.
A country boy. The poetry.
We walk slowly back to the hotel,
humbly, poetically, uncertain.
© Piedad Bonnett. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
These songs to Mother Earth in a major key
are whispers that come from distant forests,
those furtive words that yearn to be a droplet in the human heart.
They're gentle tones, as if they were telling us:
"We come in silence along the moist paths of life,
the grass of hope greets us between night and its shadows,
our footsteps embrace the earth and the hail sings
amid the tree leaves.
We are the fire of stars come unstuck from the celestial sphere
announcing the new era,
here we are weaving the circle of the yellow butterfly,
sowing water in desert places,
in short, we are bird spirit
in wells of reverie."
SAMAY PISCCOK PPONCCOPI MUSCHCOYPA
Takicay pachamamak jatun rimaypi
chihuihuincay ima hamuy sachamanta
shimicay ttillayay ima maskay suttuycaypi sonccoruna
ahihuihuincay ñutu rimaina:
«Jaku nimapi ñanpura jukuna causaypa
quihuacuna suyanak ñoqa rimay tutapurakuna llanturi
ñukanchiyupi ucllanacay pachata takiruntupay
Ñukanchi ninapay coyllurmanta ima urmay ankas ananpachak
caypi muyupi pillpintumantak quellu
tukurita nunacay pisccomanta
HANDFUL OF EARTH
They gave me a handful of earth for me to live in.
"Take this, earthworm," they told me,
"there you'll plow, there you'll raise your children,
there you'll chew your blessed maize."
Then I took that handful of earth,
I surrounded it with stones so that the water
wouldn't wash it away from me,
I kept it in the bowl of my hand, I warmed it,
I caressed it and began to work it . . .
Every day I sang to that handful of earth;
then the ant came, the cricket, the bird of night,
the serpent of the outback,
and they wanted to help themselves to that handful of earth.
I removed the fence and gave to each their part.
I remained once more alone
with the bowl of my empty hand;
I then closed my hand, made a fist, and decided to fight
for that which others take from us.
Ñukapi chaskichiy hapttayshuk pachamanta chaypipak causay
Caycca pachak´uikamanta ñukapiñiy:
Chaypi llank´ay, chaypi camay cjullu-huahua,
chaypi cjamuy qan muchhascca sara
Chaypacha pallacuy hapttay chay pachamanta
quinchaykuna rumimanta mana yakuimapak
huaccaychay ppuyñu maki ñukamanta, kcoñichiykuna
huaylluyñukamanta callarinari llank’ayman…
Punchau-punchau takipayman chayta hapttay pachamanta
chaypacha hamuy añankukuna, chillikpay, pisccotutapay
munaypay yanapana hapttay chay pachamanta.
Quechuk quinchapay hucnin-cace ñoqaccoy kquitichayaqqe
Ñoka quepapuy yapamanta runalla
ppuyñu makihuan chusak
ñoka huiskcay makikuna, ruraypuyñukuna sinchicay maccanacuy
ima chay huc ñukanchi qquechuk.
© Fredy Chicangana. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.
Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders in gritty Medellín, forge a bond over salsa music and try to find themselves.
Baldy’s real name was Arcadio and no one ever knew Bubblegum’s. They were of different ages, races, backgrounds, and temperaments, but they were united by salsa: both were true fanatics and their conversations and even their lives revolved around it. I remember the day the song “Juanito Alimaña” was first played on Latina Stereo, a local salsa station, and it was a revelation: Bubblegum heard the lyrics and went into a trance, like he’d been transported to another dimension. He borrowed a cassette to put in the ancient tape player he kept in the bedroom where he’d lived since moving to the neighborhood at age seventeen. Then he tuned in to 100.9 and recorded everything they played to see if, maybe with luck, he could catch the song that had made such an impression. When the tape ran out on one side, he turned it over and continued recording. He spent all day flipping the tape over and recording on top of what he’d already recorded, until almost ten at night when the song he’d been waiting for finally played and he managed to record it in its entirety. From then on he listened to it every day from early in the morning to well into the night, he played it so many times that in fewer than two days all the neighbors knew it by heart. That was Bubblegum’s life, hanging out on the corner, listening to salsa, smoking marijuana, and dragging away the bodies of those killed on the block and the surrounding area, so that the police wouldn’t intrude on the epicenter of the gang’s turf to take them away. He was already older when I met him, as a kid he always looked the same to me, on the corner listening to salsa, never talking to anyone, because even though he was useful to the bosses for specific tasks, I never saw any of them talk to him, he just showed up to play his part as if it had been decided beforehand that that would be his only job. He got by on what the gangsters gave him for moving the bodies, and even though he was older than all of them, he never got involved in their business in any active way, he just did what he had to do to scrape by. Deep down I think the only thing that interested him in life was salsa, because at all other times he was like a shadow: you knew he was there but he never really stood out. In addition to being extremely quiet, he was very sloppy with his hygiene and appearance, and he regularly wore clothes that other people had thrown away. For this reason no one really wanted to be around him, and he didn’t seem to like being around them either. He would even go so far as to move to the opposite corner whenever the one he usually stood on became too crowded with gangsters. He’d watch them from the other side of the street as he listened to his music. That’s how he ended up making friends with Arcadio, who was the only one who shared Bubblegum’s sole obsession. From a young age, Arcadio had been alone in the world. His mother had left him and his older brother Ramiro in the care of their father to try her luck in Venezuela. They never heard from her again, and his father collected cans some days and he drank a good bit, so the boys pretty much raised themselves. They lived in a wooden shack on the outskirts of the neighborhood that fell down every so often, but they stayed on the block because the Riscos had gone to school with Ramiro, the eldest, and their mother, Doña Teresa, felt sorry for the two boys when she heard their story and she gave them food when she could, treating them like part of the family. That’s how Ramiro—who everyone called Baldy because he shaved his head—became one of the founders of the gang along with the Risco brothers, Reinaldo and Amado. But in one of his first big heists, Reinaldo was caught and in his desperation to get away he stabbed an officer to death. He was arrested for grand theft auto and aggravated murder and sentenced to thirty-five years in Valledupar, where it was practically impossible to visit him. After that, Arcadio was left all alone and out on the street and that’s why he became the Riscos’ favorite, because they felt responsible for the boy, and they gave him the same nickname as his imprisoned brother, in the diminutive form at first, Lil’ Baldy, but as he grew he became just Baldy. Despite the fact that he was accepted and loved by the Risco family and spent a lot of time at their house, he never officially lived with them. He was a street kid, and he’d never gone to school at all because no one had ever enrolled him or encouraged him to go, and he soon found himself wandering up and down the block running errands, washing cars, or scrounging up whatever loose change he could find to survive. It was around that time that he became friends with Bubblegum, because he was the only one who was out on the corner at all hours and because he was always listening to music, which Arcadio thought was pretty great; the songs awoke in him a happiness he’d never felt before, and the lyrics told the stories that he witnessed and experienced every day. In those songs he found the companionship that no one had ever been able to give him in real life, not even his brother, who, though he loved Arcadio a lot, was a cold, distant man who never expressed his feelings. This salsa-centered friendship was the union of two lonely souls who relied on song lyrics to convey what they’d never learned to say in their own words.
Salsa was the soundtrack to life in the neighborhood for a few decades straight, and though we all got into it and listened nonstop, what these two friends shared was true devotion. It all began by chance, when Arcadio heard the song “Melancholy” by the Orquestra Zodiac on the ancient radio that Bubblegum had on at all hours. I’m certain he spent more on batteries than on food. Arcadio asked him who was singing that song, which he thought was really cool, and Bubblegum, at first reluctant, just told him the name of the band and continued about his business. But the insistent boy then asked where the band was from, what the singer’s name was, the name of the song, and whether he had a recording of it. Bubblegum took a good look at the boy and saw that his interest was real so he began to tell him everything he knew about Zodiac and about salsa in general, and he felt something he’d never felt before in his life: he felt important. They had a long and easy conversation about songs and singers that even Bubblegum himself didn’t know he knew so much about, the boy’s interest growing and the man happily sharing the information he’d accumulated over years and years of carrying around his radio. From that moment they became fast friends, and they met up every day to listen to music, to share news and discover new tunes and new singers. Their lives were notably improved by this shared passion for music, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them gathering change to buy batteries or cassettes so they could record songs, or asking for packaging paper in the shops to write down lyrics. Soon they’d compiled an extensive catalog and a knowledge of the genre worthy of scholars. They shared stories they’d overheard, they got tangled in arguments that were impossible for neophytes to follow, like who had the best band, La Broadway or La Típica 73 or Johnny Colón. And that’s how they spent their days. Since Baldy had already started smoking marijuana and Bubblegum was a regular smoker, they spent their afternoons surrounded by music and curls of smoke, happily isolated from the increasingly hard life in the neighborhood, which slipped right under their noses without affecting them in the slightest. Lost in their music and marijuana-filled world, they seemed oblivious to the death that reigned over those lands, insulated as they were from the everyday problems and adversity by the melodies and tropical sounds that made them believe life was possible.
But just like the song says, “everything has its end . . .” and Arcadio, just like the rest of the boys on the block, was summoned by the Riscos to begin paying them back for the generosity they’d shown him in the past. This was in a period of regular killings of police and enemies, and much to his dismay Arcadio had to obey their orders because his commitment to the leaders of the gang hinged on more than just a desire for money and the respect of others. He was bound by gratitude, a sentiment as noble as it is inconvenient because it brings with it a debt that can never be fully repaid; the memory of the debt lingers forever and can only be erased by death. That’s why many men prefer isolation, as was later the case with Bubblegum. So Baldy became increasingly involved in crime and the business dealings on the corner and he had very little time for music, although he still listened to it all the time and wherever he was, no matter what he was doing. But fast-paced rhythms as background noise couldn’t compare to the sweet hours he’d sat with Bubblegum, rapt as they listened to songs and discussed the lyrics, hours where they might hear the same melody thirty times in a row until they’d learned it from start to finish, rewinding the tape with a pen so as not to waste batteries, music-filled hours where nothing else mattered. They could spend entire days speaking hardly at all, only to exclaim in the pause between songs things like, Man that Patato is a wiz with the congas! or Ismael Miranda can sing, the son of a bitch! To which the other would respond, Yeah but there’s no one like Maelo! And then they’d return to the mute state of the devoted listener until the audio was drowned out by some intruder who had come to share the latest gossip on the block. This annoyed them, but they didn’t directly run the intruder off, they made use of a secret and foolproof tactic: they’d start talking about salsa, about singers like Santiago Cerón and composers like Pedro Junco or Catalino “el Tite” Curet Alonso, figures who no one had ever heard of, until the intruders got bored and walked away, saying, What a drag, these fags with their boring songs all day and night, don't they ever get tired of that crap? And the two would once again find themselves alone, happy and content to listen to their music free of interruption. Without meaning to, they’d become an island inside the gang, and they liked it, because they were both lonely people who’d found in their friendship and in salsa the closest thing they’d ever had to a home. Later, they became partners in business as well: Arcadio killed on the Riscos’ orders and Bubblegum dragged the dead bodies away. They’d sing as they headed to work, one to kill and the other to move the body, like two coworkers on their way to any normal job, inseparable because fate had paired them together in the life of crime.
But in a life of crime things always go crooked no matter how straight one tries to stay. Bubblegum, who seemed to have no interest in life other than listening to music, soon became hooked on bazuco, and with his new addiction his few priorities shifted radically. Bazuco is probably the worst of all drugs because it requires constant consumption to avoid periods of depression and anxiety, more frequent in the regular user, creating an unrelenting desire for it at all costs so that the addict has to smoke nonstop. Their life becomes bazuco and they want more by any means possible, no matter what they have to do. And if we add to this that Bubblegum had no money or source of income besides moving dead bodies, we have a person in constant struggle, someone sailing against the wind, consumed by an insurmountable desperation, a need that went beyond all known limits. For him this addiction was particularly invasive, it led him to neglect everything in his life, which was already quite neglected, and it even drove him to abandon what he loved most, salsa, pawning his radio for five cosos, which is what they called hits of bazuco. Faced with his friend’s deep addiction to the drug, Arcadio scolded Bubblegum furiously, calling him useless and asking him how he could’ve possibly pawned his radio. But in the middle of the rant, he gave him a little portable radio with headphones that he’d bought for him. Bubblegum listened wearily to Baldy’s words, which seemed to come from very far away, exhausted, but in reality he was the exhausted one, and the bazuco gave him that feeling of calm so essential to survival, which he could no longer achieve any other way, not even through music. His life became one immense yearning, a constant need for drugs that he could only appease by smoking more, and this led him to begin asking for money from anyone he encountered. At first people would give him loose change, especially the gangsters who considered him one of their own, if inferior. But they soon tired of giving him money, it’s hard to put up with someone who’s constantly needy. They tried to get him back on track by offering him jobs and urging him to do what in the eyes of society was correct, to seek help, to go to the hospital, to exercise a little willpower. But advice is dust carried by the wind before it reaches the ears of an addict, who only wants to silence that internal voice that screams for another hit. Baldy was the only one who put up with Bubblegum and whenever he could he sponsored the man’s addiction in spite of himself: he always gave him a lecture, but he always ended up giving him enough to buy a few cosos. He even went without clothes and food for himself just to preserve the image of his friend, so that he wouldn’t have to see him scrounging for change like a beggar. The need for his preferred vice affected all areas of the body dragger’s life, to the point that he was no longer even able to practice his profession. One morning Crazyface was shot. He was a police informant who’d passed as a friend of the Riscos until they discovered who he was and ordered him killed. So Mario Vaca and John Darío pumped him full of bullets as he left the bakery at the end of the block, and there he lay waiting for Bubblegum to do his job, but Bubblegum never showed. He was in the vacant lot on the other side of the neighborhood making the most of some cosos mixed with brick dust, in the midst of the most colossal high. When he showed up on the block well into the night, everyone was glaring at him, and he didn’t understand why until Amado Risco grabbed him by the neck. Hurling punches and curses, Amado told Bubblegum he was a son-of-a-bitch crackhead, that he’d left them hanging with a body out in the open. The block had filled up with cops, Reinaldo was really fucking pissed off because he’d had to hide, and if Bubblegum missed work again he’d better not come back or Amado would kill him himself, even if he had to do it with his bare hands. Bubblegum, bruised and upset, slumped over on the opposite side of the street, where Arcadio went over to talk to him, What the fuck happened, man? Where were you? You really fucked up, just be thankful that crazy bastard didn’t kill you then and there. Don’t you see this fucking addiction has you so fucked you can’t even do what you have to do? Bubblegum’s response was muffled by tears, I was behind the school smoking, how could I know they were going to kill that son of a bitch today—and that fag, why’d he have to hit me, what is he, my dad, he’s not even the boss, that fag, wait till Reinaldo comes and I tell him. Arcadio interrupted, You know what, man? Better just leave it alone and let’s go get a drink. But Bubblegum insisted, No, no drink, no nothing, I’m not even thirsty, I’m mad and I want to smoke a hit. So they waited until the group of gangsters watching from the other side of the street thinned out and they went to buy some bazuco. Walking back to the corner, Arcadio said to him, Why don’t you put on some music? Where’s the radio I gave you? Bubblegum, smoking, said, Baldy, lil’ buddy, I had to sell it to buy myself something to eat. Furious, Baldy responded, Yeah right, something to eat, you son of a bitch, you smoked it up, faggot, that’s why you didn’t show up. Eat shit, you piece of shit fag, you have no self-respect, you don’t even like music anymore, and he took off angrily, leaving Bubblegum alone, shrouded in the toxic fumes and calmer as a result.
Baldy was livid over the disappearance of the radio he’d given Bubblegum and he stopped going to see him for several days. During this time the addict’s cravings reached such unimaginable depths that he was driven to petty theft. Unfortunately, due to his docile nature and total lack of imagination, he didn’t plan the heist very well, stealing no more than some change from Chela’s store. As she was elderly and considered Bubblegum one of the guys from the block, she let the incident pass without much fuss and she didn’t tell the bosses, only commented in passing to the other gangsters. One night when the younger guys were gathered outside her shop, smoking cigarettes and drinking sodas, she said, Oh, boys, at least you buy your things, not like that junkie Bubblegum. Just this week while I was in the kitchen frying up some food, he reached through the bars and he stole that jar I had full of coins and small bills. Then he took off running to go smoke that stuff he smokes. He thought I didn’t know but I saw him from that mirror I have in the dining room. The boys listened to her without saying a thing, most of all because among them was Arcadio, who shot them a look, daring them to open their mouths. But the rumor took to the wind and once gossip makes it out onto the street it can’t be stopped by anyone, true or not. Arcadio played dumb for about fifteen more minutes, said good-bye, and went straight to find his friend at the other end of the block, but he wasn’t in the usual spot. Arcadio waited until after midnight but Bubblegum never showed up, so he went to his shack to sleep, his head full of worry. The next day, when he got to the corner around noon, it was already too late, the news had spread and Bubblegum was still nowhere to be found. But who was there, surrounded by several big dudes, was Amado, who’d had it out for Bubblegum ever since the incident with the body. When he saw the gang leader, Arcadio felt a chill of foreboding, but he greeted Amado respectfully like always and heard him finish up his sentence with, Wait till he shows his face, the son of a bitch smokes everything down to his fingernails, but even that’s not enough, he has to show up all strung out, looking for someone to fuck over. Amado, whose defining trait was his limitless cruelty that required no motive, took Arcadio aside and without any kind of lead-up, handed down the sentence, Son, that son of a bitch friend of yours is a piece of shit, robbing old lady Chela for a bit of bazuco is as low as it goes, there’s no forgiving shit like that, we have to kill that piece of shit before he gets used to doing shit like that and he sends this neighborhood to shit. Arcadio tried to defend his friend, but Amado—who seemed to be enjoying the situation—stopped him, saying, Look, Lil’ Baldy, I’ve always respected you and everything you’ve done, not only because your brother’s my bro, but because you’ve known how to earn your place. But don’t even think about talking to me about that son of a bitch piece of trash, I don’t want there to be two dead bodies thanks to that piece of shit. So son, wait till that rat shows back up, take him on a fake job, and you kill him good and dead yourself, far from here, by those lots behind the school, I hear the dude spends all day there smoking hits. Arcadio felt the weight of the world come down upon his shoulders. Despite the fact that he already counted several dead by his hand, this was his friend, his brother, his only companion in the world. He went quiet then said, But, Don Amado, why do I have to do it? You know you have a ton of dudes who’d do the job for you and they wouldn’t have . . . Amado cut him off with a hate-filled glare, What’s the matter, fag? You can’t do it or what? I’m sending you to do it because I fucking feel like it and also because there’s no one to drag the bodies away anymore, and if I send someone else they’ll have to kill him here, because he’s not going to go anywhere with anyone, but he’ll go with you, and you can feed your questions to your fucking mother, you’re going to do it and that’s it, and if you don’t want to just say so, I can solve that real easy, son. Arcadio walked away with his head down as he thought how shitty this life was and wondering how he could save Bubblegum. He considered going to the lots to find him and tell him to get lost from the neighborhood, but he knew that if Amado found out he’d warned him, he’d be the one dead. Also, where would he get lost to, Bubblegum didn’t have anyone, he didn’t know how to do anything or want to do anything and telling him to leave the neighborhood would be like sending him out to live on the street, like a real beggar. Knowing that he was going to have to kill Bubblegum no matter how much he hated the idea, he went back to his shack early and in the darkness of his room he cried all night. Nothing in life was fair, nothing was worth it, ever since childhood everything had gone wrong for him. As soon as he cared about someone, he’d lose them, without fail; that seemed to be his curse. At three-thirty in the morning he went to his father’s room and searched around until he found a bottle of ethyl alcohol mixed with water that his old man kept hidden. Then he went to look for a cassette he’d recorded with Bubblegum that had the song “They’re Looking for You” by Hector Lavoe. He stuck it into an old tape player of his father’s that sounded terrible, lit a joint, and sat on his father’s bed to listen to the music, smoke, and drink until the sun came up, rewinding and repeating the song until the tape unwound and the whole recording was ruined. He didn’t want to look for another tape, so he tuned in to Latina Stereo and listened to what was on the radio, but in his mind he kept repeating the lyrics dedicated to the pianist Markolino Dimond: “they’re looking for you . . . I told you . . . that you had to watch out . . . I told you, fumanchu . . .”
When the sun came up, Arcadio went to his room, took out the sawed-off .32 his brother had left to him, showered, and went out to the corner. When he got there, he smoked another joint and decided he wouldn’t wait for Bubblegum to show up, he’d go kill him wherever he could find him, probably in the lot where he’d been staying for a while now. He knew that if he didn’t do it right away, just like that, he’d never be able to do it later, much less if he waited for him to show up and then tricked him into going on a job to kill him like a traitor. He thought he owed his friend that at least, to look him in the eye and tell him why he was killing him. He put out the joint and went to look for Bubblegum. He found him where he thought he would, pitiful to look at, lying on the ground, covered in grime and in the middle of a horrible bazuco high. All the junkies in the neighborhood gathered in that vacant lot to get high and kill time, they ate there—very little and badly—and the trash piled up, the place was a stinking dung heap, the air thick with reeking vapors and wisps of smoke to wade through. Baldy approached Bubblegum, who lay in a corner in a hazy trance, and said, What’s up, bro, how long have you been here? Bubblegum raised his head to respond with a gentle and toothless smile, Baldy, son, I don’t know. What sons of bitches sending you to take me to them so they can kill me. No, my friend, said Arcadio, I didn’t come to take you anywhere. So they sent you to kill me? Bubblegum asked. Yeah, buddy, answered Arcadio, and Bubblegum started crying as he said, Man, I don’t give a shit about dying, I’ll be better off, I’m not doing anything here, my life is pure shit, but what makes me so fucking sad is leaving you alone, you’ve been the best thing in this fucking shit life to me and I won’t ever see you again, I hope I can keep looking out for you from heaven, like in Raphy’s song “The White Cradle.” Arcadio, sobbing, answered, Hope so, brother, I loved you more than anyone in my life, more than my real brother, buddy. Bubblegum sat up and said to him, You know I will, I’m going to being looking out for you forever, my Lil’ Baldy, but we can’t let those sons of bitches win, you’re not going to kill me, I’m going to give myself the bullet myself and that’s it. Don’t even think about it, Arcadio told him. Yes, son, that’s the way it’s going to be, you’ll be my partner one last time, he shook his hand and then the two hugged tearfully, Bubblegum pulled away from the embrace and moved his hand to Baldy’s hip where he pulled out the gun. Without hesitating, he put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Arcadio held him after the impact and Arcadio went on hugging him as the life drained out of him, until he was totally dead, and he kept hugging him for a long while still. Then he laid him down, gave him a kiss on his bloody forehead, and left the lot, singing in a low voice.
“I’m an oak, trunk of infernal strength / I stand the lashings of the cruel storm / But I can’t accept that absurd and foolish lie / that there is no feeling that can make a man cry. / Who are we fooling? Let’s abandon those tales / stuck into my heart / I carry the stab of your blade. Why shouldn’t I cry, sirs, if I am hurt.”
Back out on the street, he took a bus downtown and no one in the neighborhood ever heard from him again. He never returned, and to this day no one knows anything about him, or what he did with his life.
© Gilmer Mesa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.
Luck of the draw spares one young man while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in this short story by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
Ernesto Wolf. In the class list our surnames were neighbors, because after mine there don’t tend to be too many surnames in Colombia (unless it’s a foreign one or some curiosity: Yáñez or Zapata, Yammara or Zúñiga). The day of the lottery that would or would not send us into the army, alphabetical order meant that I would pick before he did. In the burgundy-coloured velvet bag there were only two left, one blue and one red, where a little while before there had been almost fifty, the number of students who were eligible for military service that year. Picking the red ball would send me into the army; the other would send my friend. The system was very simple.
This took place in the Teatro Patria, a building attached to the Cavalry School, where now they show bad movies and where there used to be, once in a while, a comedy, the odd concert, a magic act. A magic act, yes, that’s what the lottery was like. All the boys in the final year of high school acted as the audience along with a few more or less supportive teachers; on stage, three actors: a lieutenant with plasterwork hair (maybe he was a lieutenant, but I’m not sure: I don’t really remember his shoulders or his lapel or his breast pocket, and anyway I’ve never been able to recognize ranks), a uniformed assistant and a volunteer who had gone up, unwillingly, to participate in the magic, to pick out the little ball that could deprive him of civilian life for a year. The assistant, smelling of mothballs, held up the bag of lottery balls. I put in my hand, pulled out the blue ball, and before I had time to think that I had condemned my friend, he had invaded the stage to embrace me and provoke the indignation of the officer and the complicity of the assistant, a wink from her blue-shadowed, generously-mascaraed eyelid.
The soldier, lieutenant, or whatever he was, took out his Kilométrico ballpoint and signed an ivory-colored, watermarked, and embossed paper, folded it in three, and handed it to me as if he were handing me a smelly rag, at the same time biting the plastic pen cap: the white, saliva-covered cap, glistening against a background of yellow teeth. Ernesto and the woman, meanwhile, were talking; he didn’t want to draw his red ball, since it was the last one and the procedure seemed superfluous to him, and there was no possible surprise for the audience, the mass of high school grads who shared the same idea of the entertainment: that the guy next to him would be recruited. But the woman and maybe her makeup convinced him to reach his hand in, to take out the ball—and convinced him of other things, too. The next day, at lunchtime, my telephone rang.
“What a body she had, bro,” Ernesto’s boggy voice said to me. “You couldn’t tell from the uniform.”
We saw each other afterward a couple of times and then seeing each other didn’t depend on us. Unscrupulously anxious, offensively meek, Ernesto Wolf joined the Ayacucho Company of the Tenth Brigade, in Tolemaida, at the end of August that same year. Ayacucho: the cacophony meant nothing to him, except a vague echo from primary school. Ernesto, grandson of a foreigner who was once accused of a lack of patriotism in a major newspaper, son of a father who had grown up not quite sure where he was from, although he had been baptized with a name from the calendar of saints, so as not to be out of place, didn’t know much about Ayacucho in particular or the wars of independence in general. I thought that friendship obliged me to give him a hand with his patriotism. I got up early one Sunday; I took a snapshot of the Monument of Heroes and took it to Tolemaida between the pages of the newspaper.
Two cacophonies and a disguised insult, all carved into the semiprecious stone of national independence: this I handed to Cadet Wolf. It was August, as I said, and the wind was already getting up, and on the patches of grass around the monument people had set up improvised lines and were selling kites, geometric tissue paper with bamboo skeletons that could never withstand the onslaught of a single gust of mountain wind. In Tolemaida, which wasn’t in the mountains but down in the tropical lowlands, there was no wind: in Tolemaida, the air didn’t move, didn’t seem to ever move. Lance Corporal Jaramillo would drape an old boa constrictor over their shoulders, and the length of time they had to carry it depended on the extent of their insubordination; Lance Corporal Jaramillo, as threat or dissuasion, told the company the only urban legend there was in that rural region, the dungeon of Cuatro Bolas, where an immense black man had his way with rebellious recruits in an unholy manner. For a year, Ernesto Wolf told more stories about Lance Corporal Jaramillo than he’d ever told about anyone ever. Lance Corporal Jaramillo was responsible for the immobility of the air, for the fevers, for the blisters the rifles gave them on their hands, during firing range exercises. He was responsible for the tears of the youngest cadets (there were some who were just fifteen, precocious high school graduates) hidden behind the storehouse or in the lavatories, and at night muffled by their pillows. Lance Corporal Jaramillo. I never knew his first name; I never saw him, but I came to hate him. On Sundays, on visits to the Escuela de Lanceros or at the Wolfs’ house in Bogotá, Ernesto sat—on the dry grass, if the visit was in Tolemaida; if it was in Bogotá, at the head of the table—and told stories; facing him, his parents and I ate and looked at each other and together we hated Lance Corporal Jaramillo. But now that I think about it, maybe I’m mistaken: Antonio, his father, was only present if the leave day was a Sunday, and he never set foot inside the Escuela de Lanceros, just as he’d never entered the Teatro Patria.
One of those Sundays, while we were waiting for the bus that brought Ernesto from Tolemaida when he got leave, stuck in a car with the windows rolled up tight (the dust, the noise of Puente Aranda), Antonio Wolf, who was growing fond of me by then, said out of the blue: “But you wouldn’t have wanted.” He said it like that, he said that strange seemingly incomplete phrase, gripping the steering wheel with those hands of an old boxer, of a Bavarian peasant, the hands that would never cease to look like those of a recent arrival, although it hadn’t been him but his father who’d been the immigrant. He said it without looking at me, because inside a car people tend not to look at each other. Like a fire or a cinema screen, a car’s windshield attracts the gaze, traps and dominates it.
“What?” I said.
“To go like that,” he said. “To go and waste time. Ernesto did want to go. And what for? To learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot a rifle that he’s never going to use again in his life.”
I was eighteen years old then. I didn’t understand the words: I understood that Antonio Wolf, a man I had come to respect, was talking frankly to me and perhaps also respected me. But I hadn’t earned that respect, because it had been chance, not ideas or principles, that had been responsible for me not having to go into that damned place where they learn to swear stupid allegiances and shoot rifles they’d never use again, but where most of all they wasted time, our own time and our parents’ time as well, where life got snagged.
And there the Wolfs’ life got snagged. Sixteen days before finishing his military service, Ernesto died in the middle of some maneuvers I don’t know the name of. A pulley snapped, the rope Ernesto was suspended from fell into the ninety-foot drop between two mountains, Ernesto’s body smashed into the rocks at fifty miles an hour, and everyone agreed that he must already have been dead when he fell to the bottom of the valley, where there’s a little waterfall the teenagers of the region tend to use as a spot to lose their virginity. I could have gone to the funeral, but I didn’t. I made one call, found the Wolfs’ telephone line busy, and left it at that. I sent flowers and a note explaining that I was in Barranquilla, which was a lie, of course, and I remember the absurd difficulty I had in deciding between Barranquilla and Cali, which city would seem less unlikely or raise fewer doubts. I didn’t find out later if the Wolfs had believed me or if they’d recognized my rude lie: they never answered my note and I never went to see them after the accident. I began to study law, and by the middle of the degree I knew I’d never practice, because I’d written a book of short stories and in the process of doing so I’d realized that I didn’t want to do anything else for the rest of my life. I went to Paris. I lived in Paris for almost three years. I went to Belgium. I spent eleven months in Belgium, ten minutes from an unpronounceable village in the Ardennes. In October 1999, I arrived in Barcelona; in December of the same year, while spending the holidays with my family in Bogotá, I met a German woman who had arrived in Colombia in 1936. I asked her questions about her life, about how her family had escaped from the Nazis, about the things she found in Colombia when she arrived; she answered with a freedom that I’ve never found again and I noted down her answers on the squared pages of a small notepad, the kind that have a picture or a logo on the side (in this case it was a famous phrase in Italian: Guardatti dall’uomo di un solo libro). Years later I used those pages, those answers—in a word, that life—to write a novel.
The novel was published in July 2004. Its plot turned on a German immigrant who, toward the end of the Second World War, was confined in the Hotel Sabaneta, a luxury hotel converted by the Colombian government into a temporary internment camp for enemy citizens (enemies of Roosevelt, sympathizers of Hitler or Mussolini). Researching the novel had been particularly difficult, because some subjects continue to be sensitive or even forbidden in many families of the German community in Bogotá; and that’s why it seemed so ironic to me that after it was published so many people came to ask me to listen to their story now, that now I should tell their story. Months later I was still receiving emails from Germans or children of Germans who had read the book and were correcting one or two details—the color of a wall, for example, or the existence of some plant in some precise place—and scolding me for not having become better informed before offering me their stories for my next book. I replied with evasive courtesy (out of superstitions I can’t explain, I’ve never refused any offer outright). And weeks later another similar email would arrive, or a message from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had been in the Hotel Sabaneta and who could give me information if I needed it. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised to receive, in February 2006, an envelope with a German name on the back. I confess it took me several seconds to recognize it, I confess to having climbed two or three steps of the entrance to my building before the face that belonged to that name appeared in my head. I opened the letter on the stairs, began to read it in the elevator and finished it standing in the kitchen of my apartment, with my briefcase still hanging from my shoulder, with the front door wide open and the keys in the lock.
Isn’t it strange (the letter said to me), in Spanish there’s no word for what I am. If your wife dies you’re a widower, if your father dies you’re an orphan, but what are you if your son dies? It is so grotesque for your child to die that the language has not learned what to call these people, even though children have been dying before their parents forever and parents have been suffering the deaths of their children forever. I’ve followed your trail (the letter said to me), but up till now I’d decided not to do anything about it. Not to look for you, not to write, do you know why? Because I hated you. I don’t hate you anymore, or rather, there are days when I hate you, I wake up hating you and wishing for your death, and sometimes I wake up wishing your children would die, if you have children. But other days I don’t. Forgive me for telling you like this, by letter, one should tell people things like this face to face, live and in person, but on this occasion I cannot, because you’re over there, of course, you live in Barcelona, and I am here, in a little house in Chía that I bought after the divorce. You know about the divorce, I imagine, because it was the most talked about one of the year in Bogotá, all the ugly details came to light. Anyway, I’m not going to get into that, what matters now is confessing that I hated you. I hated you because you weren’t Ernesto, because but for very little you could have been Ernesto and nevertheless you weren’t Ernesto. You went to the same school, knew the same things, played on the same football team, were in the same row that day in the Teatro Patria, but you got to the bag of lottery balls first, you got the ball that should have been Ernesto’s. You sent him to Tolemaida, and I can’t get that out of my head. If you were called Arango or Barrera instead of being called what you are, my son would still be alive, and I would still have my life in my own hands. But my son is dead, he has this fucking surname and he’s dead for having this fucking surname, the name that appears on his tombstone. And maybe what’s going on is that I can’t forgive myself for giving it to him.
But why should I expect you to understand all this? (the letter said to me). When you didn’t even have the guts to show up at the cemetery to say good-bye to your lifelong friend. When you live over there, far away from this country where a person does military service and might not come out of it alive, living a comfortable life, what’s it going to matter to you? When you’ve gone into hiding since the death of your friend out of pure fear of showing your face and seeing that there is a destroyed family, that this family could have been yours and wasn’t simply by chance. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid it’ll be your turn one day? It will (the letter said to me), I swear to you, one day you will face a moment like that, you’ll realize that sometimes a person needs others, and if the others aren’t around at the right moment your life can come crashing down. I don’t know what would have happened to my life if I could have given you a hug the day of the funeral and said thanks for coming, or if you’d kept coming to the house for a meal once a week like you did when Ernesto was doing his service and had leave. We used to talk about Lance Corporal Jaramillo, Ernesto told us about that dungeon and the snake the cadets had to carry on their shoulders. Sometimes I think I would have endured everything better if I could have remembered those things with you sitting at the table. Ernesto loved you; you were going to be like those friends a person has their whole life. And you could have been a comfort to us, we loved you (the letter said to me), we shared Ernesto’s affection for you. But now (the letter said to me) that’s all water under the bridge: you weren’t there, you hid and denied us your comfort, and things started to go badly at home, until it all came tumbling down. It was at Christmas, already ten years ago, how time flies. I don’t really remember what happened, but people told me later that I had chased her around a table, that Pilar had to hide in a bathroom. What I do remember, however, is having taken the car to leave the party, and that I drove without really knowing where I was going, and that only after parking somewhere I realized I was at Puente Aranda, in the same parking lot where the buses from Tolemaida stopped, the same place where you and I used to wait for Ernesto sometimes and where we once had a conversation I’ll never forget.
The letter said all this to me. I remember, first of all, having thought: he’s sick. He’s dying. And I remember the immediate dismay, not sadness or nostalgia or indignation either (although some indignation, provoked by Antonio Wolf’s accusations, would have been legitimate). I did not answer the letter; I looked at the back of the envelope, confirmed that the sender’s address—that little house in Chía—was complete, and I put the envelope and letter on a bookshelf in my study, between two albums of photos of my daughters, those daughters whom Antonio Wolf was threatening. Maybe I chose that place to repudiate the letter, so that the letter would provoke repudiation; and I was successful, without a doubt, because during the year that followed I opened those albums many times and many times I looked at the photos of my daughters, but I never reread the letter. And maybe I would never have reread it if I hadn’t received, in January 2007, news of Antonio Wolf’s death. One very cold Monday morning I got up, checked my email, and there was a newsletter, sent by the alumni association of my school. His passing—a word I’ve always despised—was announced, the date and time of the exequias—likewise that word—and reminded us that the deceased—one more—was the father of a graduate, but didn’t say that his son had died many years before. So three months later, when I had to go back to Bogotá, I stuck the letter in with my papers. I did it because I know myself well, I know my quirks and my manias and knew I’d regret it if I missed the opportunity to see, even if from afar, the house where Antonio Wolf had lived his last years, the years of his decline and death, and where he had written the most hostile and at the same time most intimate letter I’d ever received. I let a few days go by after my arrival, but on the third I took the envelope and, in a borrowed car, drove the twenty or so miles between Bogotá and Chía.
Finding the house was not difficult: Chía is a miniscule town and walking from one side of it to the other takes no more than fifteen minutes. The numeration of the streets led me to a gated estate: ten houses of cheap brick, facing each other in two rows of five and separated by an area paved in the same brick, or bricks the same salmon color that always look new. In the center of the flat space was a soccer ball (a new one: one of those balls with silver and yellow) and a plastic thermos. There were motorcycles parked in front of a few houses; at the end, a shirtless man in sandals disappeared inside the running motor of a Renault 4. And that’s as far as I’d got, standing on the sidewalk in front of a caretaker’s hut with darkened windows, squinting to see if I could make out the numbers on the houses and guess which one had been Antonio Wolf’s, when the super came out and asked me where I was going. I was more surprised than him as I watched him return to his cubicle, call through the intercom and come out again to say: “Go ahead.” And ahead I went. Ten, twenty, thirty steps; people looking out their windows, behind the net curtains, to see the visitor; a door that opens, a woman who comes out. She’s about forty. She’s wearing a Christmas apron, although Christmas was four months ago, and she’s drying her hands; under her arm she’s carrying a plastic corrugated folder, the kind that close and open with a Velcro strip.
“Here’s what Don Antonio left you,” the woman handed me the folder. “He told me you were going to come. He also said not to let you in, not even for a glass of water.”
In her voice was resentment, but also obedience: the obedience of someone carrying out an errand they don’t understand. I took the folder without looking at her; I wanted to say good-bye, but the woman had already turned around and was walking toward her door.
When I got to the car I put the folder on top of the letter: the two missives with which Antonio Wolf remained present in my life sixteen years after we’d seen each other for the last time. I started the engine, not wanting to stay in front of the house and in front of the caretaker (a strange sort of embarrassment), but I was already thinking of going into the center of Chía, with its large free parking lot that had no attendants or gates. And that’s what I did: I drove down to the shopping district, parked in front of Los Tres Elefantes, and began to look through the contents of the file folder. None of what I found surprised me. Or rather: before I opened the folder I already knew what I would find, the way you know certain things from the back of your head, even before you get what we call intuition or a premonition.
The oldest document was a page from the school yearbook. There we are, the two of us, Ernesto and me, in our football kit, lifting the trophy of a Bogotá tournament. Then there was a copy of the April 1997 issue of the magazine Cromos, open at the page that announced, in five short lines, the news of the publication of my first novel. And suddenly I found myself reclining the passenger seat to make more room and organizing all the documents inside the car, using every available surface—the dashboard, the open door of the glove compartment, the back seat, the armrests—to spread out the chronology of my life since Ernesto Wolf’s death. There was the news of my books, every review or interview that had appeared in the Colombian press. Some documents were not originals but yellowing photocopies, as if Antonio had found out about the news item too late and had to photocopy the magazine at a library. Others were underlined, not with a pencil, but with cheap ballpoint pens, and in those passages I appeared making grandiloquent or silly declarations, or spouting clichés, or inanely answering a journalist’s inane questions. In the articles relating to my novel about Germans in Colombia, there were more underlined passages; and under every one of my comments on exile, life elsewhere, the difficulty of adaptation, memory and the past and the way we inherit the errors of our ancestors, Antonio’s lines seemed full of a pride that made me uncomfortable, made me feel dirty, as if it didn’t belong to me.
I never managed to find out who the woman who handed me the plastic folder was. At that moment, of course, various options occurred to me, and on my way back to Bogotá I was playing with ideas, imagining Antonio Wolf’s unknown life while driving distractedly down the highway. That messenger would be a woman from the village, perhaps a campesina; Wolf had hired her as a domestic and then, little by little, he’d come to realize he had no one else in the world. The woman was also on her own and perhaps had a daughter, a young daughter whom Wolf would have taken in. I imagined the change in the relationship between two lonely and confused people, imagined scenes of guilty sex that would have scandalized Bogotá society, imagined Wolf saying that this woman would keep living in the house after his death. But most of all I imagined him dedicated to collecting someone else’s life, feeling that he was replacing with the power of the distant documents the emptiness that the absence of his son caused in his life. I imagined him talking to the woman of that boy who wrote books and lived far away. I imagined him, at night, dreaming that the boy was his son, that his son was living far away and writing books. I imagined him fantasizing about the possibility of lying, of telling that woman that the boy was really his son, and I imagined him feeling, during the brief moments of the lie, the illusion of happiness.
© Juan Gabríel Vasquez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Anne McLean. All rights reserved.
Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins in this tale revolving around Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico.
Where do babies come from? From desire, she wanted to tell him, as they read aloud, like they did every night: he leaning over the illustrations, with his head of black pompoms so close to her arm, and she thinking how she had imagined him differently. She was going to name her Paloma, she thought of that ballerina dress she’d had the urge to buy when she imagined her. As Belén envisioned the girl’s feminine, golden skin, honey-colored eyes, and golden curls, the phrase passed by in a split second, and it startled her as if it had sprung forth like a jack-in-the-box: Daddy and Mommy met one fine day, they liked each other, and decided that they would like to spend a lot of time together. That simple, that easy?
Federico turned the page, as was always the ritual: you turn the page and I’ll read it to you. He glided his finger along the teeny ants, as he had called them the first time they were finally alone, the two of them together in that hotel room, and she had understood in her gut what it was to have a son and what it was to love him. The parents from the story had already stripped down, and Belén had arrived at the page with the technical details: The sperm united with the egg and that little seed began to grow in Mommy’s tummy, she read, watching her son’s head and his finger, which ran over the teeny ants of the words again. Tomorrow she would have to cut his nails, not one more day with those claws, but tomorrow was another day, and each day brought its own madness. She realized, from a nearly imperceptible tremble in his knee, that the boy wasn’t interested in finishing the story.
—Should I keep reading, or are you tired?
—Whatever you want, Mommy.
—And what do you want?
—Either way—he answered, but he turned the page unenthusiastically, and she kept reading until the end, which was an image of a newborn baby in the arms of its parents. A happy ending, at least in storybooks.
—What did you think?
Really good isn’t a response, she wanted to say, but she restrained herself. She would have also liked to clarify that babies come from many different places, but maybe that wasn’t so true. From an egg and a sperm, yes, but she couldn’t explain why those specific ones had joined, nor under what circumstances.
—Tomorrow let’s read The Hotel of Five Cockroaches again, yawned Federico and he stretched his legs in his bed, and she had no choice but to go take refuge in the news. Isolated thunderstorms across the whole peninsula for tomorrow, the twenty-first of October, 1996, announced the anchor, and she remembered that she had to buy Federico winter clothes: next weekend, no matter what, and two sizes smaller than she’d bought him last time. She saw on the screen a lifeboat of refugees, and if someone had asked her what country they had arrived from and when they would be deported, she would have had to resort to the same kind of evasive responses her son used when they reviewed his lessons and he seemed to be in another world. What worlds did he visit? . . . The image remained, turning over and over: two black boys, the baby in the arms of a first responder, and the older boy—or was it a girl?—maybe two or three years old. Acute malnutrition, the Telediario correspondent said, but she only saw the eyes, black like fish eyes: eyes of astonishment, or was it fear? The brilliant eyes in their emaciated little faces. A face may change over time, but eyes like that never do. She thought of Federico’s eyes that first day, like two windows looking out on the sea, and she saw his photo, watching her from the nightstand, with the voices ringing in the television, a thousand miles away.
On the other side of the hallway, she sensed her son get up. She heard his little footsteps toward the kitchen, the sound of the fridge and of drawers and a brush of pajamas gliding across the cardboard box. She had thought it was time to throw it out, because Federico hadn’t used it in over two months, but the psychologist had advised that only he could make that decision. And if he never decided? She heard the little sounds of a mouse eating crackers and realized that her son once again felt the need to live as a mouse in his cardboard cave. The images returned: his eyes fixed, the effort he’d made to bring her to that box that was there in the street, and the way he had slipped into it, almost slithered, in a split second. It was the first tantrum he threw in public. She tried to calm him down, first with sweetness, like any mother who finds herself at a standstill with her son: playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, despite the freezing wind and the foreboding weight of what the box might come to mean. It’s dinnertime and it’s cold out and it’s nighttime, she had told him, the foreboding mixing in with the shadows, but nothing she said worked. She pretended to close the door to the building and left him hiding, but she returned after a minute, which seemed like an eternity, and saw him there lying down, curled into a ball, and discovered that her words couldn’t penetrate the cardboard walls. She folded up his body as best she could and grabbed him by the arm, and he started to scream: bad Mommy, stupid, ugly, I don’t wove you, while the neighbors passed by in their hurries, their shopping bags in hand, turning blind eyes and deaf ears. She knew that the moment had arrived for her to put an end to the childish extortions, according to what her friends and the parenting magazines that she now devoured had said, but he thrashed his feet and hands from inside his box, and yelled; you aren’t my mommy, directly at the center of her pain. She gripped her son’s arm with her five fingernails and saw that it hurt him, but not as much as it hurt her, and he repeated the phrase in a howl: you aren’t my mommy, you aren’t, until an old man in his nineties appeared with his dog and gave her a look as if to say, I’ll take care of this. What’s up? He said to Federico, while the dog circled the box. Do you want to make a pirate fort? . . . But how can I convince your mother and how will you be able to help me, because right now with all the screaming. . . And then Federico stuck his head out through a slit and explained that it was a pirate fort, that it was Bobotá. The old man winked an eye, and Belén had no other choice than to go up the stairs with that washing machine box that was now leaping out from her memories and which, judging by the sounds that arrived from the kitchen, it still wasn’t time to throw out. The images returned: the old man, the boy, and she carrying the little house, with the dog behind them, and then three days of Federico living in Bobotá. He took fruits and crackers and went to eat in his cave, with his teddy bear and the yellow truck he still had from the Day of the First Embrace. Maybe it was a memory from his other life, the psychologist told her and recommended that she not worry about it and just let the boy play so that he could explore it. It had been several months since Federico had needed to eat inside the box, until today. Where do babies come from—she thought of the book—De dónde vienes, amor mi niño? and García Lorca came into her mind, and she felt again the prick of the mysteries of her son and of all that she would never be able to get out of him and all that she would never be able to give him: how to cope with the ghosts. Federico’s footsteps sounded through the hallway and she heard him slide into bed. The idea was to do nothing. To leave him there, without doing anything.
Snapshot in El Dorado
When you are of age, you will go where you want and if it’s essential, you can go find out. Essentially, what am I doing here. I thought of the map of the route of Colón de Quinto and I saw the snow, I don’t know why, since there’s hardly ever snow, and when everyone went out to play, I circumnavigated the Mar Incógnito with my finger to Colombia and I sunk my nail into this point with the word Bobotá; they call it Bogotá, precious. In those days I had begun to hate the story of The First Embrace and I hated also the phrases that connected the chapters, the then I saw you, the conjunctions, and you came from the hands of the social worker, and I hated this image that you invented: me, running, happy, slow motion, as if it were easy to call you Mama, Mommy, Mom so suddenly and to give you those hugs from the photos, as if it had been like that, just happy, without this hole in my stomach because that day there were lentils on a white plate with little blue flowers, I always remember this, because I didn’t eat the lentils, no one had ever given me lentils before, and they bathed me with freezing water and they combed my hair with something sticky until it was like wire. I ran my finger over the little wires and they told me that I was going to rumple it, all that work for nothing, and they took me to a room that was all red and we practiced saying Mommy to the woman in the photo; Señora, no, you don’t say that to your Mommy, Señora, no, but rather Mommy, Mama, Mom, let’s practice. And while you told that same story of The First Embrace, different movies passed before my eyes: from the same story, you can make so many different movies, of love and of horror, or of both things at once, and then I didn’t want you to tell me anything again—who would believe in Santa Claus at eleven years old?—looking through the photo albums together didn’t work anymore. It was on summer vacation—fifth grade to sixth?—when the questions began, or when I realized that they began: I left open the drawers to the cupboard to support my feet, like stairs, and one afternoon the platter broke and you were furious, but to me it didn’t matter because those were the days when it didn’t matter to me that you didn’t love me anymore; I only thought of that album, and looked back on the photos from before, the Mowephotos, like you said I called it.
I am wearing red pants, the ones from your photo, as you call it, and you say that with that photo you found out about my existence and your eyes filled with water, they always do, but I zoom in on the black buttons. Black buttons on red cloth: I didn’t know how to undo them, and I feel the wet pants and I see the cloth, and the smell, and I don’t remember if they were short or long, and you continue talking, voice on mute, and it makes me ask, ask myself, if they were long or short—the pants—as if this mattered, and later I ask myself who’s the one focusing the camera and who’s the one ordering the picture-perfect smile, but you continue talking, talking, a radio badly tuned, and you say that it was love at first sight. That was my obsession, to make you fall in love with me, and then later came the opposite obsession, to verify who else, before you, had taken my photo, and I spent hours examining all the evidence to find some detail that would carry me back to those memories that you can’t recall because they are only mine, mine, mine, like those loose photos that give no clue as to what came before and what came after. And from then until we reached BOG, change of voice, change of skin, school years upon school years, writing essays, my house, my city, and my family, memorizing points on the maps, falling behind in math, and you at my back, looking for support: my son doesn’t have a foundation and never went to school, and doesn’t know the letters or the numbers and was malnourished, and I heard this story about myself that you never told me but that you scattered among my teachers without permission, as if I didn’t have ears, as if I were your teddy bear, your kindness quota in this unjust world where you had picked me up. You said that it was cold in Bogotá, how obvious that you haven’t been there in ages, how obvious that you don’t have any idea about Colombia, and I was sweating, and I didn’t know what to do with my coat. Please excuse the inconvenience, we’re working for you: Nuevo Aeropuerto El Dorado 2012, said a sign at the exit and a police officer cross-checked the pink tag against the stub, BOG, and I double-checked the code as if you were watching me, checking that I wouldn’t lose your suitcase. As if you were watching me through that dwarfed door, through that opaque window that opened and then yes: I had arrived in Bobotá.
From Qué raro que me llame Federico © Yolanda Reyes. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Susannah Greenblatt. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Juan Álvarez, a young man, forced to confront his Uncle Javier's violence, recounts its effect on his family.
Who has heard my voices? Is it Clotaldo?
—Life is a Dream, Calderón de la Barca
I never wanted to sock you in the face, Javier, let’s just get that clear. Things happened the way they did because you left me no choice. Two plus two is four, and four plus two is six, simple as that, and if I’m feeling bad about it now, that’s another issue entirely. Grandpa may seem like he’s made of steel, sure, but he’s also old, and aside from that, you and the damn way you lose your head, the way you start snorting like a charging bull—man, you just left me no other option. When I went into the kitchen and saw you two all tangled up and bright red like scorpions fighting, I tried to make my hands into fists, but I couldn’t. “What the fuck is going on here?” I shouted, without looking either of you in the eyes. I was buying time to psyche myself up, because the mere fact you were in that house after we hadn’t seen you in years was enough to tell me something was wrong, that the tide of your sick heart had turned back on us, on the attack, and that my grandparents would again have to pay with their health. I stood there for a few seconds, it’s true, but not because I had doubts. I stood there because I knew that once I took the first step, there would be no turning back between you and me. Why didn’t you let the old man go, dude? Why didn’t you just let go of him when I went into the kitchen? It bugged you when you got there and found out there was a good-bye party for the star grandson, right? And that you—of course—weren’t invited. “What’s for dinner? Who’s here?” I bet you asked, and the old man, cagey as always, probably didn’t give you a straight answer. But he must have invited you in for some food, because seeing a son all skinny and dirty like that can’t be easy. Once you were in the kitchen, you must have threatened to go upstairs and say hi, and he must have forbidden it. You wouldn’t listen, and things got physical. That’s how the fight started, right? Yes, I’m sure that’s what happened, and if you want my opinion, you were right to be annoyed. But still, I’m telling you, I just couldn’t let you work Grandpa over again. When I lunged, and while I was punching you wherever I could land a fist, a bell jar of terror numbed my senses. At that moment, straining even my toes and filled with a drab anxiety that ground away at my teeth, with seventeen years under my belt and closer than ever to your dwindling weight, I had the feeling I could beat you to death. Because I understood that one day, you would be able to kill someone yourself.
I’m willing to accept that living with Pops and his stubbornness wasn’t easy. I know sometimes you wanted to hate him, and that it wasn’t just because he forbade you from playing soccer—there was more to the story. I know it especially pissed you off when they called you a dumbass and came at you with the whole lecture about school. But what do you want, man? I’ve told you before, haven't I? The folks feel weighed down, too, by the roles they have to play. If I really think about it, I’m sure his dream was for you to become a soccer player. He dreamed that soccer would be your life raft. Soccer as the means of placating the devil inside you. Seriously, the more I think back to those afternoons I went with you to practice, the more convinced I am it was only logical he would pin his hopes on that world of kicking and sprinting, on the mud that wrung out your energy and left you docile and content. Him too—when he saw you lunge without a trace of fear to block soccer balls kicked by guys who weighed over two hundred pounds, his eyes teared up and his chest filled with pride. “Son, don’t be an ass,” he’d say to you when you had trouble concentrating and making the grades you needed in school, and I know how furious that made you, but believe me, man, Grandpa only wanted to help you. He’d spend as many hours as necessary working his socks off at whatever absurd business came his way, on deals he always lost because he took people at their word. But still, he always made sure you didn’t lack for anything, not you or my mom or your brothers.
You know, one day Grandma spilled the whole story of those conversations you used to hallucinate—it was never really clear if you were talking to someone you recognized as a blood relative from another era, or if it was Great-Grandma Constanza, who you’d met for a few days when she was on her foul-smelling deathbed. Those mysterious pseudo-dialogues didn’t happen very often, Grandma said, and from the way she went into detail I had the feeling I was the first person in the family she’d dared to tell. Though most likely everyone else knew about it too, and they just didn’t say anything to her so she wouldn’t worry. Who knows. The fact is she told me that those conversations had happened ever since you were a kid, but that over the years they took on an unbearable crudeness. She confessed this to me a few weeks after the whole performance on Little Candles Day—remember?—when they threw you out of the house for good. When she told me, it was like she was trying to give me another kind of explanation; she was always so concerned about keeping people from hating you, from reducing you to some coarse animal. The meetings, she told me, happened in the yard, usually on cloudy days. You’d sit down and wait for hours, your back to the door to make it clear you didn’t want to be interrupted and had no desire to pretend otherwise. When the presence seemed to appear, you’d stand up to greet it and then sit down again. That’s how Grandma described it. She said you talked about all your sadness, the rage you felt when you saw how other people spent so much time and energy watching you carefully and walking on eggshells around you, everywhere from school to the barber’s. You talked about how you understood the need to monitor you, to keep you from getting mad and your head from getting hot, because when you were like that, you said, on top of feeling like you were about to explode, you felt like you couldn’t bear people getting close to you. In general, of course, people didn’t help, they kept coming closer and then you said the heat got so bad you turned red and you got that urge to raise your hand against anyone, whoever was closest. Yeah, man, Grandma heard all of that, but she could never bring herself to interrupt you. She told me every time she thought about it, she couldn’t help starting to cry. You talked about the need to get people away from your hot aura, and you even talked about some kind of bad-smelling aura, although this one, Grandma said, you mentioned less. I guess the hot aura emanated from an inner problem. The smelly one, to be frank, man, and no offense intended, was decidedly exterior. Shit, you could really smell bad. I mean, your room—there were Sundays when it smelled like the offal stall at the market, and Grandma got so embarrassed by it. Always, from my mom’s car window, parking in front of the house before lunch, I could see your open window and imagine the fight it had entailed. Because you’re stubborn, dude, obstinate as the ass they’ve always compared you to, getting you all riled up. Grams could let you keep the room closed up tight for a whole week, because she tolerated that and almost everything else. But when visitors came, things were different. If you want the truth, a thing like that could piss me off too, because it seems hypocritical, but you . . . I get the feeling that wasn’t even what bothered you. Your problem, man, had more to do with breaking that shell of strangeness you seemed tied to as a means of survival.
The image of the first broomstick I had to watch them break over your head, the day the whole truth came crashing down on me and I found out that your issues went back for years—now that’s a thing I’ll never forget. That day, I remember well, it all happened while you were yelling and my mom was trying to get me out of the house so I wouldn’t see the police come in and beat you with their clubs. I was really little then. What was I, maybe eight years old? You probably don’t even remember. That day, Javier, I somehow concluded that you had always been angry at me. Sick with rage. Don’t ask me why, but that’s how it was. As if you’d let yourself be convinced by all that hot air about the star grandson, the promising life with a future . . . I don’t know, Javier, but sometimes I think I’ve been especially cruel to you. To me you were an emblem of other possibilities besides being a winner, besides living up to other people’s expectations. It’s strange, I know, but what can I say. That day, you yelled at me with your eyes crazed, sick. You can’t imagine how devastated I was. “What are you just standing there for, you son of a bitch?” you asked, and something broke inside me. Right then, the toy train ceased to exist. And then came the rage because you were such a numbskull, so crude in your own way, that over-the-top, aggressive way of yours. You were such a brute that you could throw away the opportunity held out to you by soccer, all your tantrums that turned into attacks on the referees. That strength, man, that endless enthusiasm, that way of feeding off the game and giving your heart of hearts to every ball, it made me think, small as I was, that soccer was your thing. I thought, I guess like Grandpa did, that you had a choice because you had a path.
The fact is that on that day, once Mom and I finally got out of my grandparents’ house—and after they’d put you into the patrol car with a gesture that would be repeated many times—she tried to give me explanations. She told me: “Javier isn’t entirely your uncle.” I got furious, man, furious. She saw I was irritated and tried to go on explaining. I got the impression—tell me I wasn’t being a kid then—that out of the blue she was deciding that you wouldn’t be my uncle. As if the whole story she was telling me about the woman who’d worked in my grandparents' café years before, and who’d abandoned you there one afternoon, was something she was inventing to console me. Absurd, I know, but what do you want, buddy, I told you I was really little. Anyway, the thing is that once my mom was done talking, that whole spiel about how you weren’t my grandparents’ natural son was like a stupid caterpillar burrowing into my skull, trying to worm its way in, but there wasn’t any room. It wasn’t an explanation for anything, and my mother, of course, was the first to know it. Then I found out that you’d gone to several doctors, and that my grandparents and my mother had called in favors to get discounts from a specialist. What expert did they take you to? Why didn’t you ever tell me about those visits? I guess you were ashamed. That was before they kicked you out of the house, right? Yeah, it would have had to be before you moved into that rathole, the one where no one says you live but where everyone knows you live. I should clarify that no one calls it a rathole, of course, but that’s how I imagine it. The truth is I don’t know where you live. Not true, I do know. Now that I think about it, after the fight the day of my going-away party, Grandpa told me . . . Damn, I feel like crying when I remember it, because only now do I get the irony. You’re living on that diagonal that connects 63rd and 57th, behind the stadium, right? How shitty is that, stuck there just a few blocks from El Campín, like looking out of a cage and seeing that stadium we’d once dreamed of for you.
What an absurd mess. It’s incredible, man, but remembering you makes me so upset my bones start to rattle. How many times did you and Uncle Iván fight? He was always the one who talked about you least, as if he had you all figured out and he knew you couldn’t be fixed. Like he knew that you simply had to disappear. Maybe that’s why he always wanted to call the police. I realized that on Little Candles Day, when he not only called them immediately, but was also the only one who could keep calm while we were trying to knock down the bathroom door. I feel like I can see him now, man, I feel like I can see and hear him. No more than five minutes have gone by and I’m focused on all my fear and on how to help Pops and my mom with the door. “Never again, you son of a bitch! This bastard will never show his face in this house again!” That’s what he yelled, and he looked as stunned as the rest of us, yes, but there was also a certain pride that bloomed on his inflamed face, a pride that let him yell nonstop, yell those words over and over again, as though announcing that your time had come, as if telling my grandparents, really, that that’s what they got with all their goodwill and Christian charity, that now they had to see you can’t cage an animal. When the door finally broke in and we could get Grandma out, all soaked in sweat and tears, everything became a confused string of events. Restrain you, yell at you, listen to you, endure the presence of the police beating you and the paramedics treating Grandma . . . I don’t know, buddy, but at that moment, and though I was only thirteen, I knew everything had blown up, things had reached the point Uncle Iván had been waiting for, and you really wouldn’t ever return to the house. There are things you don’t come back from. That’s why you fought until you were unconscious, fought like a wild horse. What I remember of that beating is your face, like a sad blotch. You weren’t even clenching your teeth by that point. I remember my mother and my uncle shouting; yeah, I remember that too. Grandma was half-unconscious, and even so my mom and my uncle were scolding her, reprimanding her for trying to protect you when you’re all grown up and such a burden. They told her you were a sick man and that the time for explaining things to you was over, it would take a billy club to teach you, if anything could. Yes, that’s how it went: you were shouting at my mom, at Uncle Iván, and the police, and Mom and Uncle Iván shouted at Grandma, and then my mom yelled at you: “Son-of-a-bitch sick-o life-wrecker”—that’s what she said to you, in a kind of dry chant of pain and exasperation.
Once the police took you away, we found out what had happened. By then Grandma was on a stretcher and saying she didn’t want to go to any hospital (I guess she didn’t want to make your legal problems any worse, or it was just stubbornness, you know she’s got that too). And she told us it was all her fault. Imagine that—what a gal. She was crying while she explained, half-ashamed and seeming to want only Grandpa to hear her. She said she hadn’t wanted to make things worse, she only was only trying to find another way, and she was very anxious, please believe her. It seems she heard you, Javier. She heard you crying in the bathroom while you were showering and cursing God, she heard you swear you’d kill him. She got so nervous and that was why she opened the door and tried to keep listening. Lying on the stretcher, she clutched Grandpa’s hand and told him that when she realized you were talking about your own brother, about killing Uncle Iván, she felt so bad her muscles got all tangled up, and that was when she fell to the floor. I don’t know, buddy, I think a mother can tolerate a lot of things, but not the idea that two of her children want to kill each other. “I was lying on the floor when he opened the shower curtain, and I tried to explain,” said Grandma. Imagine, poor naive old woman—as if your tragedy lay in not understanding. But you know Grandma, always trying to get the better of bad luck. That must be why I get so mad at you. Because we even used to joke sometimes about how dumb you could be, remember? Like when I tried to explain the basics of set theory or how photosynthesis worked, but you didn’t understand anything and we ended up turning photosynthesis and sets into imaginary soccer players we’d take on trips to search for soccer fields we never found . . . Me, I never asked you to understand her, Javier; at most, just to look her in the eyes. Don’t play stupid, buddy, you know very well what I’m talking about. Look her in the eyes and realize she was suffering. You don’t have to be the smartest kid on the block to do that. You don’t have to finish school or understand photosynthesis. So she didn’t give birth to you—so what? She was your mother, man, and you know it.
When was it, buddy? At what point did they fuck us up? When did we let them turn us into the promise fulfilled and the promise failed? I don’t understand what happened. For me you stood for the possibility of something other than the path of intelligence, decency, and things done with care. I feel mean and cruel . . . loading you down with expectations, when I’m sure you’re just suffering from some illness that doctors have some hateful classification for and whose name I’d rather not learn. Although, still, if we went back in time and found out the name of what’s wrong with you, I’m sure we’d laugh. I’d make up where they’d gotten that bit about your angry temperament or tendency toward dissociation, and you’d ask me one question after another from the floor where you were stretched out and rolling with laughter, so overgrown, with a soccer or tennis ball in your hands that you’d bounce from side to side, until they called us to dinner.
How’s your face doing now? How do you spend your days? Only Grandpa knows—I found out that he still brings you leftovers to your rathole, on Sunday afternoons, at the risk of getting chewed out by the family. He told me himself that night after the fight, once we’d restrained you, gotten you out into the street and shut the door behind you. Poor old guy. When the whole thing was over and people went back to the dining room, he and I stayed sitting on the patio. We were exhausted. He started to cry real soft so no one could hear him. I hugged him and was quiet, not sure what to do. “I don’t bet on the horses anymore,” he told me after a while. I thought sadly that the women had won the battle, my mom and Grams and their whole endless lecture about the money you wasted on betting. But no, turned out it was something else. Turned out that he wanted to explain many things to me with that phrase. All of them very confused, like his own soul, because I’m telling you the old man thinks it’s all his fault, the way he educated you, the favors he still thinks he could have called in. He said he had to tell Grandma he was going out to bet and face whatever lecture came, all so he could go out alone and bring you the leftover food. He told me he’d been doing it for several months. That you still got thinner and thinner and your eyes were always grayer, resigned to your fate. Then he told me, as if he’d ordered his thoughts in the silence, that the thing that worried him most was that recently Grandma didn’t fight him when he said he was going out. “It must be because she found out you’re bringing food to Javier,” I told him, smart as can be, and then I even explained to him that it wouldn’t be hard to catch on, since after all, no one went to the ponies with a lunch box. The sadness vanished from his face, he looked up and fired off: “What do you think, son, that I don’t hide it before going out?! No, that’s not it,” he said, and after a pause: “Grandma doesn’t put up a fight because she’s tired, same as me . . . Tired, tired, you understand, son?”
We sat another while in silence. Finally he dried his tears and asked me to help him serve dessert. With two trays full of rice pudding and cottage cheese with syrup we went up and sat at the table. The family was talking about an aunt-in-law of the wife of a certain Enrique who knew the grand dame of the Obregón family. Impossible to follow the story. I looked at Grandpa. He’d chosen rice pudding and had slowly begun eating it. Grandma didn’t want dessert. I was leaving the next day, man, and all I could think about was your bleeding face and how narrow one’s path can be.
© Juan Álvarez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Megan McDowell. All rights reserved.
Photo: Bogotá's Plaza de Bolívar. Credit: Eric M. B. Becker
Last October, boarding a plane in Rio de Janeiro, I set off for Bogotá, eager to meet with writers and editors there to lay the groundwork for this issue. My trip got off to anything but an auspicious start: I had spent much of the week preceding my trip confined to my bed or the couch, burning up with fever. And so, I disembarked at El Dorado International Airport in a medication-induced haze and headed straight to a restaurant where I could find ajiaco, a stew whose primary ingredients include chicken and potatoes, in an attempt to recoup my energy before what promised to be intense days of research for the issue you now have before you.
But even in my drug-induced fog, I was aware of the significant events unfolding in Colombia at that time. A few short days before my arrival, voters had rejected president Juan Manuel Santos’s historic peace deal with the FARC by the narrowest of margins, the “No” camp aided by record abstention of sixty-two percent. (Heavy rains due to hurricane conditions in the Caribbean were one factor in this abstention. The "No" vote was also championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who insisted the conditions of the peace deal were too lenient toward the FARC. Still, those in rural regions—areas most affected by the ongoing conflict—largely supported the deal, as did voters in the country's capital.) As my taxi took me from the airport to Chapinero—Bogotá’s “hipster" neighborhood, as friends have described it—I looked for signs of a response to this apparently crushing blow to the peace process. At the local coffee shop, at the Éxito—a two-tiered store somewhere between a supermarket and a Walmart—and on the street, no one was visibly bothered by anything other than the thin rain that slowly but surely soaked passersby straight through. The next day, as I strode down Carrera Séptima from Chapinero on the way to my first meeting near the Parque Nacional I happened upon a silent procession in support of peace, composed of thousands of indigenous and rural residents, many of them victims of violence throughout the country’s fifty-plus year war. Carrying flowers and arriving in colorful buses, they were there to state their desire for an end to a conflict that had dominated the national narrative for more than half a century.
It is fitting that this issue of Words without Borders comes to readers not quite a year after Colombia’s congress approved a revised peace deal with the FARC. (The peace deal’s passage was not without vociferous protest from Santos’s congressional opposition, not least for bypassing a referendum.) The writers here portray Colombia in all of its complexity, from Bogotá’s class conflicts to the harrowing violence of addiction and the new possibilities that peace now affords writers who have, in one way or another, often felt obligated to address the social ills wrought by war and the drug trade.
Giuseppe Caputo is one of the writers setting the tone for the younger generation of Colombian writers. Caputo’s 2016 Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World) is the author’s stunning debut novel about the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, and also a reflection on violence and homosexuality. Opening in the unfurnished house where the narrator and his father live, the excerpt featured here, in a translation by Sophie Hughes, introduces readers to their hard-luck lifestyle and the father’s curious schemes to bring in some money. Caputo (Barranquilla, 1982) treats this dire subject matter with deft humor before ending with the haunting scene of a hanging that foreshadows one of the novel’s other important themes. Caputo’s complex balancing act reveals a storyteller of great skill.
Melba Escobar (Cali, 1976) approaches Colombia’s social ills from a different angle, likewise employing humor—this time, biting—to the issue of racial and class divisions. Her narrator, Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits “The House of Beauty” in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s wealthiest. She spares nothing and no one from her criticisms before telling us the story of Karen, a beautician from Cartagena who has Claire captivated. Elizabeth Bryer provides the translation.
Luck of the draw in a high school gymnasium spares a young man from military service while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in “The Double,” a short story by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Bogotá, 1973) translated here by Anne McLean. Living abroad years later, the young man receives an angry letter from the father of his childhood friend. As he realizes the extent to which the older man’s life has unraveled, what ensues is a reflection on absence, loss, and guilt.
At this moment when Colombia appears to be turning a page on the violence of the last decades, we publish an interview on the origins of the FARC from Alfredo Molano (Bogotá, 1944). Hailed as the great cronista of the fifty-year-long conflict involving the FARC, the Colombian government, and right-wing paramilitary groups, Molano speaks with “Sergeant Pascuas,” one of the founders of the FARC, about the guerrilla movement’s early days and its origins in Colombia’s “independent republics” of the 1950s. The translation comes from Ezra Fitz.
Yolanda Reyes (Bucaramanga, 1959) looks at fraught relationships of a different kind. An award-winning children’s author and respected researcher of early childhood development, Reyes aims her talents at an adult readership in “Bobotá,” an excerpt from her novel Que raro que me llame Federico. Her moving tale peers into the relationship between Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico. From the mother’s desire to adopt a girl to her adult son’s effort to discover the identity of his biological parents, Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins, in a sensitive translation by Susannah Greenblatt.
Juan Álvarez (Neiva, 1978) takes tales of family strife to new territory in “I Never Wanted to Sock You in the Face, Javier.” Frequent WWB contributor Megan McDowell provides the translation. After years pass without any word from his Uncle Javier, Álvarez’s narrator is forced to confront his uncle’s violence. The event sets off a crisis of conscience in the narrator, whose subsequent address to his distant uncle reveals the dramatic details that led up to their defining confrontation.
Gilmer Mesa’s “Bubblegum and Baldy” (translated by Frances Riddle), from the author’s 2016 award-winning novel La cuadra, is a no less disturbing tale of young men trying to find themselves in a gritty neighborhood in Medellín. Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders, forge a bond over salsa music. But when Bubblegum falls victim to addiction, their relationship grows strained. Later, Bubblegum’s recklessness raises the ire of their gang’s leader and the two friends find themselves faced with an unexpected and horrifying ultimatum.
From Mesa’s tale of forged brotherhood, we move to a tale from Óscar Collazos (Bahía Solano, 1942–Bogotá, 2015), about two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption. “Lost Causes,” translated here by Ezra Fitz, is a story of brotherly trust, youthful rebellion, and unholy acts perpetrated in in sacred places.
Our feature of Colombia poetry throws into relief the distinct styles and concerns of poets working in the country today. Among them is Vito Apushana (Carraipia, 1965), winner of the Prémio Casa de las Américas. Apushana, a member of the Wayuu Nation, an indigenous group in northern Colombia, explores notions of identity and the conflict between tradition and modernity. Here, he is translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Fredy Chicangana (1964), a member of the Yanakuna community, also addresses questions of identity in his poetry, but from a different angle. Chicangana (translated here by Schimel) describes himself as a poet and an oralitor, or one who commits Yanakuna oral tradition to the page. His poetry expresses a strong connection to the region of his birth while also decrying the historical injustices visited upon the Yanakuna.
Piedad Bonnett (Amalfi, 1951) likewise contributes two poems, available here to English-language readers thanks to Ezra Fitz. Winner of several awards, including Colombia’s National Poetry Award in 1994, Bonnett here explores the sense of emptiness shared by two mothers whose children no longer play nearby and explores the possibilities of the moment following a poetry recital in a country town and the poets’ return to their hotel.
Given the breadth of themes, styles, perspectives, genres, and geographies represented here, it is appropriate that Silvana Paternostro (Baranquilla, 1962) takes us back to Colombia on her own trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain, Paternostro suggests, mirror the current moment in Colombian literature. Approaching this new moment from the perspective of a Colombian writer living abroad, the memoirist and journalist ponders over the way s in which "the old story is changing."
This issue would not have been possible without the generous advice of several writers and editors I met during my time in Bogotá. Among those who freely shared their views of the Colombian writing scene were Juan David Correa of the cultural magazine Arcadia, Marcel Ventura of Planeta, Gabriel Iriarte of Penguin Random House, Giuseppe Caputo, and Sandra Pulido of the Cámara Colombiana del Libro, Cristóbal Pera of Vintage Español, translator Ezra Fitz, and Felipe Martinez Cuellar of Colombia’s Ministry of Culture. Words without Borders thanks them for their continued advice throughout the process of editing this issue. Further thanks go to the translators who have brought this literature to life on the page, in English.
In the same way that this writing is now reaching English readers for the very first time, it has served me personally as an introduction to the country. The writers here capture the past and present of a country remaking itself and its history, peering much deeper into their society than I could ever have hoped to during my brief visit to Bogotá. But most importantly, their stories transcend city limits and county lines. In this moment, they speak not just to their fellow countrymen but to us all.
WWB'S Colombia issue in New York: On September 14, September contributor Giuseppe Caputo take part in "Crossing: Conversations across Borders," an Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event co-sponsored by Words without Borders and Guernica Magazine. More information here.
Photo: Celso, a Wiwa Indian who leads tour groups up to Colombia's Lost City, stares out at the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
Memoirist and journalist Silvana Paternostro takes us back to Colombia on her trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain mirror the current moment in Colombian literature, defined by a new reality where Colombian writers will have to grapple with the fact that "the old story is changing."
For the next few days, I will be doing something I’ve never done in the country where I was born. I am going on one of those tours for foreigners when they come here, now that Colombia is a hotspot. I have signed up to go on a four-day hike, and for the record, overnight hiking is also brand new to me. I am on my way to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City, a pre-Columbian site dubbed a sort of unspoiled Machu Picchu by travel guides.
I am a bit weary of it all as I get in the cab that will take me to the meeting place designated on the tour agency flyer. It doesn’t help when the driver asks what country am I from. Unknowingly, he hits at my Achilles’ heel when it comes to my identity, especially when it comes to being a writer. Am I a Colombian writer like Hector Abad or Juan Gabriel Vásquez or Jorge Franco, to name a few writers of my generation whom I admire? For the last two decades, I’ve written about Colombia from abroad and mostly in English, and I’ve always wondered how the stories I tell would change if my point of view was like theirs, from inside the womb, from inside the dense and dangerous forest.
That, however, was a question of the past. Colombia is in flux. For the first time in fifty years, we storytellers will have to take into account that there is no longer the same old, stale war to write about; Colombia has begun to create a new narrative, one without the daily intrusion of two terrifying and horrific rogue armies. As of now Colombian writers will have a new opportunity—like the kind the hike into the Sierra represents. We Colombians can go explore with backpacks and hiking boots territories that were once controlled by men and women with guns and ideology—and a knack for drug trafficking. In this new Colombia, we can leave behind the memoirs about presidential candidates, senators, and soldiers who wasted year after year as hostages in places just like the one I’m about to visit.
In fact, according to the tourism operator’s literature, the only thing to fear is the strong sun and the mosquitoes: Make sure to bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and repellent. They also advise bringing rain gear, but I pay no attention to that advice. I don’t remember much rain from the time I spent weekends in nearby Minca, a mountain hamlet, as a teenager. I remember how going to the Sierra was like going to a theme park that came to life as we swung on vines from one side of a creek to another, where the girls would pick raspberries and orchids while the boys would set out to find tarantulas to frighten us. Then again, memory is selective and stories are made only of those things the storyteller reveals in the perpetual dilemma of choice in words and tone. Not my thing, hiking, but I’m excited to be here looking like I’ve never set foot in these lands, a borrowed blue bag on my back and, on my feet, boots I rescued from the back of my closet that I last used to walk Utah’s red rock arches more than a decade ago.
I am dropped off in a place that looks just like the Colombia of my childhood memories with the music from the tiendas strident and distorted regardless of the time. It reminds me of the same way we would enter the Sierra from Minca, except now it has a lot of backpack-wielding people of all ages that don’t look Colombian struggling to make themselves understood with First World smiles and gadgets—and paltry Spanish. A handful of jeeps start showing up, all with friendly logos announcing Lost City excursions. “From narco to eco,” I joke.
The Lost City sits atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a spectacular snow-capped mountain at the foot of the Caribbean Sea, and part of the Tayrona National Park known for its incredible biodiversity and the pre-Columbian civilization that still inhabits it with their customs pretty much intact. Like Colombia, the Sierra is now being given a new identity, one that has a lot fewer guns in it. Today, it is no longer known as the stronghold of Hernán Giraldo (aka Lord of the Sierra, The Screw, or El Gordo), the last paramilitary leader to gain control of it. He’s been sitting in a US jail since 2009, convicted and sentenced to “198 months”— sixteen-and-a-half years—for his involvement in the drug trade. Today, this former haven for warring drug fiefs is labeled by National Geographic as the “most irreplaceable place on earth.” The four tribes that make up the Tayrona family—the Arahuaco, the Kogi, the Wiwa, and the Kankuamo—now face less violence in the large swath demarked by the government as a resguardo, an Indian reservation: We can go up the mountain because they have given us permission.
A Tayrona descendant shows me a list of names. I find mine. “I am Celso and I will be your guide.” Like all his Sierra kin, he is in full native garb. Celso has straight black hair past his shoulders, he wears a white cotton tunic and pants, and he carries the white or cream-colored mochila, a bag woven only by the women—by wives for their husbands—who believe that when they do so they are weaving thoughts. One way to tell the men from different tribes apart is by their hats: Kogis wear white ones that look like the Sierra’s snowy peak and Wiwas wear cowboy hats. From this, I see that Celso is a Wiwa. I also notice his poporo, the gourd that holds the powdered seashells used to mix with the coca leaves adult men chew. Their leaders, known as mamos, hand them these poporos as an initiation into manhood and as a permission to marry. Celso holds his, proudly, in his right hand.
It is comic, arriving at the meeting place dressed as a tourist to find that I’m the only Colombian going on the tour. I buy an empanada with ease but there is something disjointed about being a tourist in a place I had visited as a child. This was where we came as a family for holidays. Parque Tayrona is where I swam in the ocean for the first time in my yellow swimsuit from Miami and played with my pail and plucked chipichipi clams before they disappeared inside the wet silvery sands.
I play the part as I shake hands with a German couple in their late thirties and their best friend who adds that they always travel as a trio; a younger, super fit, super polite Belgian couple; a funny Frenchie traveling around the world; the finicky Swiss-English lady and the Amazonian woman from Alaska who were staying at the same hostel in Santa Marta and decided to venture out together after seeing the brochure about the Lost City at the front desk.
Celso, wearing his two mochilas across his chest like a bandolero wears his bullets, shoves us all in the back of a dusty 4x4. Packed like sardines, but my hiking compañeros keep smiling, happy as clams. As the door closes behind us, a reflex makes me crawl to the front seat, landing between the driver and the Wiwa now holding the mochilas on his lap. He grabs a handful of coca leaves from one and shoves them into his mouth.
“Yo soy de aquí,” I say almost threateningly.
After almost three hours of a bumpy ride uphill on a dirt road, we are dropped off at Machete Pelao, the last place reachable by car. At lunch, we are presented with heaping individual platters of fried fish and coconut rice. Celso instructs us to eat well. We will be walking about seven miles and we are to arrive at our first campsite, Adán’s Cabin, before dark. There, we can go bathe in a “purifying natural pool.”
The first two hours go by fast as we walk through bucolic pastures with clay-colored paths. Everyone is in a state of euphoria at the passing of blue-winged mariposas the size of birds, at the sounds of nature, all enveloped in mist. A Nordic hiker in another one of the groups sticks her tongue out to receive the first drops of rain. “Nectar,” she says as she exhales in ecstasy. “Each one. Pure nectar.” Once in a while Celso’s compatriots appear out of the bountiful greenery like friendly ghosts. They are very quiet, these men, women, and children dressed in white, but we all are enchanted every time we see them.
We are also delighted when we stop at a wooden stall. As part of the tour package, we are given a rest and some fresh fruit for continued energy and hydration. The pineapple is free; the bottled water is not. The storeowner is friendly and chatty. Next to the house where he lives with his wife and newborn, he has built a well-stocked bodega with all the things this new Sierra clientele might need: bottled water and all sorts of sugary drinks, chips, nachos, nuts, chocolate, cigarettes—“and you can buy only one.” He will start selling fresh orange juice: “The juicer arrives tomorrow.” He has lived here all his life and this is where he wants his newborn to grow up—“especially now that things are different.” A French volunteer is helping him reforest his plot of land and he is building a bench at the edge of the mountain. He points to the valley. “The best vista of all the Sierra.” Everyone rushes over to take pictures. I coyly stay behind.
There is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey.
The raindrops we first welcomed to hydrate us from the sun turn into an unpleasant deluge that soaks our clothes and sends us sliding through rivers of red, soaplike mud. Another group of white-clad children whiz by; their white tunics not so white. The mud sticks to my boots—of course not waterproof; the Belgians were perhaps the only ones with proper footwear; another English member of the group came wearing Timberland moccasins. Celso has tucked his pants inside knee-high rubber rain boots.
The flyer had suggested sunblock, mosquito repellent, and light packing but not a word about the difficulty of the hike—and this, for an inexperienced hiker with a fear of falling, has me fuming. As if it weren’t enough to have my T-shirt wet, submerged-in-the-sea wet, and my mud-covered boots as if they were made of cement, in front of me is a steep path that I clumsily tackle only to see that it is followed by a slope that resembles a black-diamond ski run, great for shooting an Indiana Jones or a James Bond scene but petrifying to me. I am feeling divided from my group. Where they see gorgeousness, I see danger. Where they see Arcadia, I only see rain, rain, damn rain, and then free-falling heights.
I overhear a hiker from Ohio saying, “This would never fly in the United States. But I’m glad it does, here.” For her, like most of the hundreds of people that come here—now that the word is out, the tourists are coming, and tour operators are packing them in—this feels like heaven despite the discomfort and the constant rain. Unlike the woman from Ohio, there is no way in hell I should have embarked on this journey. I wouldn’t have signed up for it if I had known—or would I?
By the time I arrive at this realization, it is way too late to turn around. I kind of had an inkling there would be dicey parts—obviously not like this, especially now that there seems to be a hurricane coming in from the north. I look around me and no one else seems to be so wound up about it.
The second stop—this time for watermelon—is manned by a black man from Barranquilla, the city where I’m from, and just knowing that, I feel recharged. If he can survive the Sierra, so can I. He tells me that he only leaves it to go dance during Carnaval and so he has just returned. I’d like to know how he first got here, but the German lady who is always making jokes says something risqué and he cracks up. I leave them to their flirting and turn my focus to the walking stick that’s resting against the stall. “Ese está bueno,” I hear Celso tell me. “Take it. Better you have one.” Celso is keeping an eye on me. I wonder if it’s because I’m the slowest in the group or because I’m Colombian.
He calls our group together and we huddle around him like a football team around their coach. “The rain is slowing us down,” he says in a Spanish that is devoid of intonations and has somewhat of an accent because it is not, after all, his mother tongue. “And we need to make it to Adán’s before nightfall. We cannot walk in this agua in the dark. We must pick up our pace and get to the river fast because each drop is just making it grow faster. We still have a ways to go. Those of you who want to go ahead, that’s fine, but don’t cross the river on your own. No matter what, you wait for me.”
He takes a box out of one of his mochilas and a handful of coca from the other, which he proceeds to shove in his mouth. Some leaves still hang from his mouth as he continues. “You won’t know where and how to cross it. Buritaca es rio bravo. Only those of us from here understand it.” With that, he produces a black garbage bag from the box and hands one to those of us who didn’t have appropriate rain gear. Of course, the Belgians did. “Make a hole and stick it over your head and over your backpack,” he instructs me.
"I’m now starting to feel like Ingrid Betancourt,” I joke as I feel myself turn into a plastic forest gnome with a hunchback. “I feel like I've been kidnapped by the FARC.” I pick up my walking stick to continue the march, reminded of those endless marches that Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician who spent six years in the hands of the guerrillas, writes about in her memoir. No one gets my joke. But then again, they didn't grow up with FARC fear. I am really trying to be a happy traveler like them, but it has proven a challenge. The story I see is so different from the story they see (or want to see). I noticed—they don't—that the town from where we set out for the hike goes by the telling and terrorizing name of Machete Pelao, or Bare Machete. Now that Colombia is turning a corner, it goes by the name of El Mamey, after a delicious tropical fruit. Someone in the tourism industry must have realized this new name made for better marketing, but to the locals traveling with us—Enrique, the cook, and his four kitchen assistants, who live there—it is still Machete Pelao, an appropriate name that speaks of the horrors committed inside today’s exotic park for foreigners. The cook and his staff wave good-bye. They have to be ready with our dinner when we arrive at the camp. Behind them are four mules laden with all they need to feed us in the upcoming days.
The trek gets harder and harder and the rain keeps falling and falling. My fellow travelers continue to revel in the surroundings, standing on ledges, pointing out into the green valleys and at peaks enveloped in clouds. I fight the vertigo of the precipice, a metaphor, perhaps, of how in my birthplace I’m always feeling like I’m one step from falling into the void. Celso stays by my side, whispering at times, “This is your beautiful Colombia; you can do it.”
We make it to Adán’s Cabin in the nick of time, minutes before the green roller-coaster paradise turns pitch dark. We rush like children at summer camp, exhausted and ravenous to choose the best bunk bed, to get out of our horribly wet clothes, to stand in line for showers—it’s too late to go to the river pool—where for a moment I’m a tenth of myself again as I feel a dribble of hot water and the dry mud starts to leave my body.
I never much liked summer camps as a child and here I am sitting with a bunch of adults in my PJs waiting for my food to arrive. We commiserate about the inclemency of the weather, which has caught us off guard since it is the middle of the dry season. First World-ers are so good at levity that they just joke about how we will be wearing moldy, smelly clothes for the entire trip. “We are going to know each other very intimately,” the German adds in her usual cheeky way. We move into dinner chitchat: The German gentleman works in the IT department of a big bank. The Belgian couple is ready for a big change—he will resign from his corporate job to become an artisanal baker. Being here has made that much clearer. The whiny Englishwoman is in the same boat; the French one just caresses a stray cat; the American is an “adrenaline junkie” and her next stop is bungee jumping in San Gil. She read in Lonely Planet that it's "a mecca for extreme-sports enthusiasts." I notice the lanky Dutch guy from one of the other groups who keeps scribbling in his notebooks in the oddest places. Here he is again after this excruciating day, writing while we eat.
We all have our stories and a reason for telling them.
I left Colombia in 1977 and never went back up to the Sierra Nevada for the make-believe Swiss-style weekends. Until now, that is my old story about this place. The next day, as I wake up deep inside this mountain, I start to make a brief timeline of what I had heard Enrique the Cook say. “Here, we go from bonanza to bonanza and this one, ecotourism, is the latest.”
Spanish conquistadors, of course, barged in and these incursions haven’t stopped since. Outsiders still feel the need to colonize the land of Celso’s ancestors. First, it was the bonanza of the tomb-raiders. In the fifties and sixties, a few daring rogue men from the country’s interior, fleeing the political violence of those days, entered the Sierra looking for huacas, the pre-Columbian artifacts found in Tayrona tombs. It was such hard work finding the treasures in the impenetrable forest that these huaqueros referred to the Sierra as “the green hell.” It was one of these looters who in 1972 bumped into the steps to the Lost City that we are determined to go see. Today, the grave-looters are gone. The government cracked down on them by making it illegal to trade in stolen huacas.
The seventies brought in the marijuana bonanza. American hippies, some claim they were Peace Corps volunteers, discovered the Sierra was ideal for growing a delicious cannabis, and campesinos from the area, like Enrique’s dad, settled in Machete ready to work in whatever the marijuana planters needed. By the early eighties that boom was over, killed off by American provisions of DDT.
By then, guerrilla groups had turned the prefabricated chalets of my childhood, with their fireplaces and tended gardens, into a FARC command fortress. Chasing after them came the armies of the AUC, the paramilitary forces that had vowed to exterminate the guerrilla forces. They also brought cocaine laboratories to the mountain. Again, Machete’s work force was lured by easy money, until another US-sponsored eradication program ended the bonanza de la coca.
All the while, Celso’s community has watched it all play out in their ancestral home. These four tribes believe that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of Mother Earth—Aluna to them. And that they were chosen to protect it. That’s why they are The Elders and everyone who is not a Tayrona is a “Little Brother.” This might sound like a Steven Spielberg screenplay but it’s real: In 1990, the mamos, mostly unknown to the world, summoned a BBC reporter into their territory. They had a message to the world: Mother Earth is unhappy. Little Brother is not treating her right. The snow is melting faster than it should. Little Brother must take better care of our planet. When the BBC aired the documentary, activists and anthropologists around the world embraced the unknown planet-protectors who seemed to have literally fallen from another world.
Still, the FARC and the AUC continued their fighting and their slashing and burning across their magic mountain. By the late nineties, Hernán Giraldo sent the FARC packing, becoming the Lord of the Sierra until the AUC and the government negotiated a demobilization process in 2002 and he was extradited to the United States.
We arrive at the next fruit stand. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe.
The backpackers had discovered Parque Tayrona and had turned Taganga, one of the coastal towns, into a beach bum’s mess when Giraldo was still there. Some would hire a local to venture into the mountain looking for the Lost City on their own and some would pay extra if someone would take them to visit a working cocaine farm. But that was all very underground. “Before, a few a year,” Celso tells me. “Now, a bonanza. Hundreds of foreigners every day.”
Celso is not exaggerating. We are at least sixty altogether at breakfast and they want us to hurry because the next groups are due soon. There is everything one could want: coffee, hot chocolate, tea, fresh fruit, toast, butter, jam and heaps of scrambled eggs. A miracle that the mules delivered all these eggs unbroken.
I set out, all ready in my plastic uniform, my walking stick, and a smile. I’m feeling more upbeat—do I have a choice?—even if I’m wearing the same socks, now soggy and orange, and my boots are so wet they spew water with every step. When my tour-mates complain and agree that it’s a difficult hike, I feel reassured. I see an Argentine woman take off her pair of Converse and go barefoot. A Colombian doctor whose Adidas gave in cries in despair: “Please, please, just tell me, how much more is a little more,” he pleads as he sits on a hill after the sole of his sneaker broke loose.
Celso asks the guides coming with the groups on the way down for reports on the terrain, especially the rivers. I hear a loud voice in an American accent: “Don’t look up and don’t look down.” The voice belongs to an exhausted young man with an athletic build wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts covered in wet clay. His words resonate and I follow his tip until we get to the next fruit stall. It’s surrounded by young men in camouflage. Now what? I thought this area was safe. The soldiers keep to themselves as we chomp the refreshing fruit and they don’t.
We climb up side by side for a stretch of the path, but there is no interaction between us. I had found a way to keep moving when the path becomes difficult: I get on all fours and crawl from one stone to the next. As I bend down to do so, a soldier jumps to my side and offers a hand.
“Gracias,” I say.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Alexander.”
With Alexander’s offer of a hand, I open my mental notebook.
Alexander and his tropa are going up to Ciudad Perdida, too. They haven’t paid three hundred dollars to do this. That is about a month’s salary here. The government has a military base nearby and they are on their way to guard it. They look twelve years old but are probably eighteen and fulfilling their military service. I can tell by their accent that they are not from the area. They’ve just arrived by bus and had started walking like us from Machete Pelao—no guide, no mules, no overnight camps with beds and showers and cooks with staff for them. On their backs they carry everything they will need for their three-month stay.
I stop complaining, no matter how much I hurt.
Photo: Colombian troops hiking up to a military base atop the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Courtesy of Silvana Paternostro.
El Paraiso, the camp where we will spend the night before going up to the Lost City (Teyuna to the Tayronas), is as ramshackle and dirty as the last one. The Buritaca roars louder tonight than yesterday. As he did the night before at the end of our meal, Enrique brings over dessert, a Colombian brand of mini-brownies, and Celso, as always chewing on leaves, addresses the group, poporo in hand. “Tomorrow, when we go up to the Lost City,” he begins, “the river is very high and it’s going to be better to leave before it starts to rain again. We’ll wake up at five so we can be ready to start the climb up at six. We have two hours to get there and back. Leave everything packed because we need to leave right away. We are behind schedule. We have to make up for lost time. We have at least eight hours of walking after we come down from Teyuna.”
The English lady tries to change the schedule, but Celso just shrugs his shoulders. Instead, he says, “You all know that to get to Teyuna, there are twelve hundred steps. And we need to do them in less than an hour. The good news is that the mamo is there tomorrow and if we are lucky he will come out to speak to us.”
Twelve hundred steps in my New York City math is forty floors with no guardrails. “Celso,” I say quietly as he is about to leave. “I am not going up tomorrow. I will wait for all of you here.”
“Bien,” he says. "I’ve arranged for a mule to take you down tomorrow.”
The next morning, I have the camp staff all to myself. The adventuring lot has just left, some with nothing more than swim trunks and their walking sticks, to see the Great Place with the Many and Uneven Slippery Steps. I am happy to stay behind and listen to the roaring river. I ask for another cup of coffee and take a head count. In the kitchen, there’s Enrique, who sings while he works. I’m assuming that he has this job because there is no difference between preparing decent-tasting food in the middle of the rainforest for ravenous and exhausted tourists and feeding high-ranking paramilitary holdouts on the mountain. He has a team of four assistants, two men and two women, all in their twenties and good-looking. Up in the sleeping barracks, two more women, one of whom is more beautiful and younger than the other. At the sales stall, a handsome young man stands by in case anyone wants to buy a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a cigarette or two, or a rather hideous Lost City cap or T-shirt.
I ask if I can help them with their daily chores.
I start by making beds. I learn that the younger girl has only been here a week. Her boyfriend, the young man who keeps the store, asked her to come live with him. It was the only way they could be together. She lived in Bogotá and he only has one day off every fifteen. The other woman is her boyfriend’s older sister, and she has already been here a few years. Her husband works with the mamos in the keeping of the camps. I ask them if they have been to the Lost City and they both say no. I asked if they like being here and they both say no. I ask if the pay is good and they both say no. I ask if they wash the sheets every day and they both say no. They have washing and drying machines, but these aren’t very good and they wouldn’t be able to wash all the linens by the time the next group arrives. I ask if they were getting more tourists every day and they both nod yes. More than they could handle, yes. I ask if they would wash and dry my clothes for a tip—also yes.
The kitchen staff isn’t as friendly or as talkative, but I’m allowed to help. The assistant with deep blue eyes and a knife wound on his left cheek teaches me how to dry the plastic dishes and roll the knife and fork in white single-sheet paper napkins. I can’t understand why they roll them so tight that the napkin breaks and becomes useless. I ask but he says that’s just how it has to be. Sounds to me like a paramilitary rule, and I wonder about the cutlery at the infamous paramilitary bacchanals. I recall the story about the paramilitary with Italian blood who liked Brunello di Montalcino so much that he bought the entire vintage one year and how beautiful girls from the surrounding areas were helicoptered in. Perhaps an exaggeration, but I get nowhere trying to confirm it. All the kitchen assistant tells me about himself is that he is the son of a very abusive father. It was clear he preferred watching the just released video of "Despacito" on his smartphone than answering my questions.
I go sit next to one of the female assistants who stood out from day one. I've noticed the good looks of most of the work force, but she is a beauty with almond-shaped green eyes and the haughtiness of an empress, if one who dons cheap athletic leisurewear and a small diamond solitaire ring. She isn’t even pretending to work. She surfs the Internet for reggaeton videos as she tells me a little about herself. She is in her mid-twenties and a single mom of two—different fathers. The most recent one “now works in tourism” and she doesn’t like running into him. They are not on good terms. She likes talking to the father of her eldest, but he lives in the United States. “He’s in jail there,” she says as casually as if she were saying he works for a multinational and adds that he is accused of being a narcotraficante. “But he is a good man. He still takes care of us. He calls us on Skype whenever he can and he tells me how much he loves her. I think he has about seven years left there, but he might get out earlier for good behavior.”
These snippets make it clear that the Sierra has been carrying stories over a very long and complicated pregnancy and is now ready to give birth to them. Unlike Ali Baba, there is no need for magic words to open the treasure-filled trove of the Sierra’s untold stories. Story-raiders, like me, just need to ask.
It is time to return to the bottom of the mountain. My mule is waiting for me at the river crossing. Holding her is a tiny and agile Kogi, I can tell because of his hat. Next to him are two children—dirtier, hatless, and barefooted—and a dog. Celso introduces me. I mount the mule; we cross the Buritaca, and I wave back to my group who regaled me over lunch about the magic of Teyuna. They all came back sporting satisfied grins and mamo-blessed strings around their wrists. I note the size of my own smile as I lean forward and give the mule a few vigorous, circular strokes and a pat. “Muuuuuu-laaaaa,” my muleteer calls out, and I laugh out loud because this is a sound of my childhood. I repeat after him, as if blowing the mule a loud kiss. I’d ridden mules as a child, and like riding a bicycle one never forgets. I enjoy watching the experienced hikers with their fast-dry clothes, their mountain backpacks, and their trekking poles stand aside, eyes wide with fear. Mules scare them as much as precipices without guardrails make me quiver. My body sinks into the beast’s, and for the first time I wonder at the landscape around me. I feel the flutter of the blue butterflies and the immensity of the treetops and the open sky. I see the blue-winged and the scarlet-winged tanager, found nowhere else. My guide skips from rock to rock, while on the mule my body finds its balance as we move along. It’s almost a syncopated dance. I can see how someone would think twice about letting the mule chart its own path, but in my mind they know better than I do. I trust this mule more than my mangled feet.
My Kogi muleteer doesn’t want to strike up a conversation with a Little Brother. He has a small transistor radio wrapped in a plastic bag that he holds close to his ear, listening to scratchy vallenatos. He stops at his hut to drop off the children, and when a tinier woman comes out, I see between them that universal glance of husband and wife. She hands him some coca leaves from their garden and he gives her a handful of candy in silver-colored wrappers, like the ones we’d been given for dessert, and she smiles as if he’d given her precious stones. I am grateful to witness this moment.
I feel less so when he tells me that he will be dropping me off shortly, at the next stall, the one with the jokey compatriot from Barranquilla. I worry because he doesn’t seem to care that I’ve left my walking stick with Celso and that I don’t know when I will be reunited with them. The muleteer points to the sky and tells me that he needs to get home before it gets dark; his job is complete.
I have to figure out something quickly but then I hear, “Have you seen any of the cows around?” I turn to see a young handsome man so buffed up that his abs and biceps bulge through his mountain gear. “You know these gringos, always in search of some magic mushrooms.” Two thoughts cross my mind: How can anyone think about tripping right now, and two, I need to keep this guide on my side.
His name is Relámpago—Lightning—and between his alias and the way he unsheathes his machete when I ask him if he has an extra walking stick for me, I knew he was a Mowgli with a past. He bats away tree branches with the ease of a city brat brushing away shirts in a store rack. “A good one.” In a matter of seconds I have a stick.
“Can I join your group?” I ask. He doesn’t hesitate to help me and he doesn’t hesitate to share his story. He starts with a blanket statement: “My life has been awful.” He knows this mountain like the back of his hand, he says as he grabs a leaf and shows me how to make a white tattoo with its sap. At twelve, he ran away from his family in Machete to become a raspador in a cocaine laboratory around here. They paid him with food. Then he joined the paras.
“And now I have a new chance in life. I am a tourist guide,” he says.
Lightning has four children—“I started way too young”—that live with his mother because he has to spend so many nights away working “for the first time in my life, doing something that is good. The children sometimes don’t understand how good they have it.” They can now go to school, something that was never an option for him. “They even have a bus that picks them up every day.” He tells me he cries sometimes. I tell him that it might help him to write down his story. He says he’d rather tell it to someone else.
He drops me at the camp where his group and my group will spend the night. I go off to choose my bed thinking that Relámpago, like Colombia, has a chance to start again, that Relámpago is lucky that foreigners love skipping around the mountain and that he has had the chance to turn over the page of his “awful” past.
I greet my group as they arrive, aware now that I could never be like them. They have come here in wanderlust. I had tried to do the same but got toes that turned black and blue—and something else. The birds and the butterflies are amazing, but the most striking part of this journey has been seeing the faces that inhabit the stories of this place. How many more stories will I uncover if I keep asking each guide, each cook, each soldier, each Kogi, each Wiwa to tell me a little about themselves?
That night we share one last dinner filled with laughter and conversation. Everyone gulps down plate after plate of Enrique’s pasta special, spaghetti loaded with Colombian cheese, while we share our different stories about the Sierra. Beers in hand, we toast and clap. Trek to the Lost City, check. In the end, we all got what we came looking for.
Now that I’ve found my comfort zone, I’m in no hurry to depart. I’ve decided to stay an extra day, so Celso has arranged for me to continue my descent with Enrique and his fleet of mules. The Europeans and I say good-bye with insincere hugs. I jump up onto one mule and behind are the other three, now laden with garbage bags full of trash. “We recycle,” Enrique tells me and breaks into song.
Keen to get his story as well, I ask him where he learned to cook. “My mother,” he says. Enrique is eager to tell me more, to tell me pretty much anything I will want to know. For him, like for Relámpago, the Sierra has been his livelihood and his home. He ran away from home because his father made a little marijuana money, enough to buy too much alcohol and become an abusive drunk. Enrique has been able to survive thanks to his cooking skills, although sometimes he looks for gold in the river and lately he has started to grow cacao. “That is the next boom,” he tells me. “Marijuana, cocaine, and now cacao, organic. Maybe this one sticks.”
I ask him if he was around during the days of the paramilitary. “Let me show you one of Hernán Giraldo’s fincas,” he says and points to a house across the valley, a tiny white dot surrounded by clouds in a sea of many greens. It is not the outlandish palace one expects from a man in the drug trade. “He was feared but he was quite beloved. He cared for us. In fact, he appreciated good work and he was accessible to us mortals. He was there to listen to our daily challenges and was always willing to put his hand in his pockets and hand out a few bills if he thought you were worthy of his help.”
Enrique goes further. “I can also tell you that I saw many, many girls being brought to him there.” In fact, Giraldo might prefer serving time in jail in the United States in order to avoid a more serious charge in Colombia where he was convicted of raping dozens of under-aged girls. Many gave birth.
“I saw it with my own eyes. But I’m going to tell you one thing. I don’t blame him as much as I blame the girls' mothers. I saw how they would bring their own daughters and present them to Don Hernán. In return they would be taken care of, they would be sent groceries every week. They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.” I put two and two together and ask him if one of his assistants—the beautiful one—is one of those girls. “She was one of his favorites.”
Not wanting to dwell on the devastating details, I ask if he has made new friends in this new iteration for the inhabitants of Machete. He laughs out loud: He liked meeting the gay African-American New Yorkers who own a gym and had a hard time with the climb and the Puerto Rican couple that tried to help him get a passport so that he could go visit them and how he learned from that how difficult it is for Colombians to travel.
They all prayed that he would get them pregnant because then he would really take care of the family.
“We’ve arrived at Adán’s,” he says. It’s the same place where we had camped the first night, where we had arrived late and blinded by exhaustion, where we had not experienced the natural pool known for its shallow depth. Celso had told me the foreigners —especially the very tall ones—don't listen to the warning and get hurt when they jump from the rocks above. I cross the drawbridge with missing wooden slabs, the engorged river growling below. I notice that I feel fine. It stopped raining this morning and it’s already three in the afternoon. A dry trek on a mule is another story, I tell Enrique who walks away and breaks into song.
Adán is a legend on the Sierra. He is one of the original huaqueros who came during that bonanza and has lived here ever since. He looted their ancestors’ tombs and yet he is friends with the mamos. That’s why they have chosen his house as a mountain hostel. The moment I set foot inside the camp installations, I walk over to the pretty teenager behind the stall and ask after him.
“He is not available,” I am told as she turns around to run after a boy pedaling a plastic purple tricycle in the form of a truck.
I ask her for directions to the pool. She says we can find it behind the camp and points to a separate house where we enter an adobe room. It’s like walking into one of the thousands of pages that Gabriel García Márquez wrote about places like this. In the center of the room sits a faded billiard table with a mosquito net. In the center of the table, a small human figure rolled up in a ball is sound asleep. Don Adán, I guess out loud. So many questions, so many thoughts keep blurting out: If he runs this place, why is he asleep in the middle of the day? How does one get a billiard table all the way up here? I use a cliché I always try to avoid. If this isn’t magical realism I don’t know what is. And they say Gabo made up stuff. Gabo just recorded the absurdities that we have to live with; like this fucking tour, his books are like this trek, an adventure for gringos, they love them but once read they can go back to their lives. But we, we live with this.
As we are about to jump in, the sky rumbles. My mood darkens with the sky. The thought of waiting around another night on the bad mattress, the smelly sheets, the acrylic blanket weighs heavily. Immediately, instead of enjoying the “magical purifying water,” I see the spelling mistake on the sign announcing the fee for jumping in.
Back at the cabin, I sit down, like Isabel watching the rain in Macondo for eleven straight days. I watch the rain and I watch the rain, and we eat dinner and I watch the rain, and the boy keeps riding his plastic toy and I watch the rain and everyone sits in front of the plasma television and listens to news and telenovelas and I watch the rain until the little man who was sleeping comes out of his quarters. I jump up.
Don Adán is my height, not very tall; he wears three Tayrona necklaces and his pinky nails filed long. He has an Andean face, angular and weathered. His speech is still a bit slurred, but he, too, is happy to talk. He tells me he has been living in this same place since the day he arrived, several decades ago, and his business has been so prosperous that he was able to send all his children to live in the big cities. His sons were no good; they turned out like all men, they drank and spent his money, which was never enough for them. The “females” married badly, mostly to men who hit them. “It’s what happens,” he says, an undeniable fact of life like the fact that he knows he is getting old.
He explains the logic behind Adán’s Cabin. Because he has been here forever and he has a good relationship with the mamos, the tour companies pay him per bed and also compensate him for the use of his kitchen. It is a growing business, he says, but never as good as the price of a huaca. “I wear them now,” he says holding on to the necklaces made of white and rose-colored quartz, jade and gold. “Or I sell them to the mamos. They are my biggest customers now, they are trying to recuperate what is theirs.”
There is something more about him, something solemn. I learn it is intense grief: His youngest daughter was a determined woman who said she wouldn’t marry before she finished her studies. Don Adán told her that once she finished veterinary school she wouldn’t have to go work at a finca, like veterinarians here usually do. Her father would set her up with her own vet office. “That way the rich ranchers would have to hire her and she wouldn’t have to have a boss. She was the only one who made me proud. But the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
He gestures toward the sales stall, the tiny room where the same young beauty with tight jeans who has been running after the boy in the tricycle hands a bottle of water to the lanky Dutch guy who has lingered behind too, still scribbling away in his black notebook. I think Don Adán is pointing at the pre-Columbian items for sale in the shelf near the stall because he is trying to sell me one. “I sat in that place for four hours that day, waiting for her to arrive. My daughter was coming for the weekend. When she arrived, I told her to take my place because I had to go check the level of the river. That’s when it happened. The grace of God is too much. The snake must have been waiting for her because it got her the very moment she stepped inside. It should have been me.”
That is another surprise about the power of stories: Adán, the pioneer who opened the mountain paths we’ve been walking on, who dug for graves with his bare hands is, ultimately, a grieving father. I see his pain through his eyes and understand his sleeping pattern: What I had belittled as magical realism has turned into the universal story of loss. Nothing strikes at the core of tragedy like the death of a child, no matter where it happens—be it in the City of Lights or deep inside a Colombian mountain.
My heart heavier, I bid good-bye to Adán and later, in Machete, to Celso, who has brought a gift: a lemon-sized ball of pure chocolate from Enrique’s garden. We sit down at the same restaurant where we had started. I ask him what he wants now that Colombia is changing. He has clear plans: he wants to build a center where the tourists can learn more about his culture. He feels that the story of the Tayrona, if not told, will be lost to all the new visitors. I tell him I agree and reinforce this by adding that I am a writer.
“What is that?” he asks.
I try to explain and fail, so I say, “You know, writer, escritor, Gabriel García Márquez.”
“Who?” The stories never cease: I just found a Colombian who has never heard of Gabo.
As Colombian storytellers, we are living in unprecedented times. Just as I have done for four days, we have a chance to listen to stories that have been hidden in mountains and jungles for decades. Incredible stories because they come out of a place so wounded, where the human condition is always at test. Throughout all of Colombia as in the Sierra, stories are flowing out, like the Buritaca to the sea. This is where the latest challenge lies: to embrace that the old story is changing, to move forward in our narratives. Maybe we will start to incorporate bird-watching and bungee jumping, and we will begin telling stories of adventure and romance set in the places where guerrillas and paramilitary forces once pillaged, drug-trafficked, massacred, and raped. May the stories we tell for the next one hundred years not be of the same kind of solitude.
© Silvana Paternostro. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from his novel An Orphan World, Giuseppe Caputo explores the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, as well as questions surrounding violence and homosexuality.
A butterfly flew down to a dark place;
all beautifully colored it seemed;
it was hard to tell.
MAROSA DI GIORGIO
One night, many moons ago, my father gave me a star. We lived on the breadline, as we do now, in a sad house with next to no furniture. And since the house was sad, with its bare white walls, my father decided to decorate it. Inspired by the earliest cave drawings, he began his artistic endeavor drawing a crayon cow on the kitchen wall: two black circles, one on top of the other, and two triangles for the ears. He added a tail, coiled like a spring, and for the face two dots—the eyes—and a smiling curve. “All that’s missing is the nose,” my father said, before drawing one: two dots, like the eyes, only bigger. Once finished, he pointed to the sketch and mumbled: “Cow.”
Afterward, he went to my room and, as if envisioning his next creation, stood contemplating the ceiling. He clambered onto the bed and reached up to touch it but couldn’t. He asked me to bring him a chair: he wanted to put the chair on the bed and then stand on the chair. I asked him to forget whatever it was he was up to: “You could fall, Dad. You could split your head open, or break your hip. The chair might break, and we don’t have furniture to go around breaking.” Clearly a little annoyed by my comment, my father turned his back on me and began drawing on the wall next to the door: another circle this time, and several lines which were meant to be the torso, arms, and legs. Above the stickman he wrote: “Dad,” and then he said: “Love you, little one.”
Our arms around each other we went to his room where he proceeded to draw another tiny body in exactly the spot where the light shone—the light that never went out; Dad was scared of the dark—and with the black crayon he drew a heart around the little man. He said: “You, my heart,” and kissed me on the forehead. It seemed to me the moment had come to make a positive comment and show him a little love, even spur him on in his new creative venture, so I stood there in silence staring at the portrait, mimicking the way he’d stared at the ceiling, and eventually I said: “You know, it makes me just want to cut out this piece of wall, frame it, and hang it right back up again, like a painting.” My father listened to me, half-bemused, half-satisfied, and went on drawing.
Our neighborhood had no streetlamps, so come night it was dark. We lived at one end of Light Street and were fenced in by three immensities: the city on one side, an electric forest; the sea on the other, sullied by the city; and the sky above, the same as it ever was, bursting into rain sometimes, into thunder at others. Just as it always had, transforming into stars, transforming into moon.
Light Street cut right through the city, which is where you got the parks and the huge houses like castles, all lit up. They called it Light Street because of the streetlamps, which appeared regularly enough at the start where the road began, became clustered in the middle, and then were almost nonexistent come the end, having grown gradually farther apart as the street encroached on our neighborhood. One by one the lamps went out, or simply fell behind, as if avoiding the outskirts, or as if the street grew sadder and sadder the closer it came to the parts around our house. But the sea was close by. Eternal. The old, spent sea, which left us the occasional unlikely offering.
One night, as my father and I strolled along the beach, we noticed that the waves had washed a sofa to the shore; and the sofa—bright red, and sort of run aground—was covered in seaweed. “If it’s not rotten,” my father said, “we can take it home. We need a sofa.” I moved in closer to inspect it and the stench knocked me dead: I cried out and retched. “That bad, eh?” he teased, to which I replied, coming back to my senses: “No, not too bad.” Then I took a handful of seaweed, slapped it on my head, and jumped up and down saying: “Look at my hair, so lush and long!” I danced and strutted about. Dad laughed. We both laughed. And then we carried on along the shore.
The sea’s waste was as beautiful as it was baffling. Clocks regularly washed up on the sand, many of them still working; the minute and second hands marking the exact time. And along with the clocks, poles—coconut branches or brooms—which Dad would use to sweep the foam, sending it back to the water. Quite often, the sea also carried lamps on its waves, and since they were never on, each time my father came across one he would say: “Let’s hope one of these nights the light holds out a little longer.” And with that, we’d slowly make our way home, arm in arm, going over the reasons behind our wretched problems.
“We’re really up the creek,” my father said the night he gave me the star. He chuckled as he said it, as if accepting his lot, our lot, and I looked at him, worried: tired, too, of worrying, and annoyed at him for having laughed. As I sat thinking about what to do, how to keep the house afloat, how to keep us afloat, Dad picked up a piece of tin from the floor. He cut around the edges, and carefully wrapped some used tinfoil around it, transforming it into a star. Then he poked a tiny hole in it and threaded a piece of wool through the hole. Finally, he tied the ends and hung the new chain around my neck. He said: “For you to remember, my star, that some things do still shine.”
From the outside, our house looked disheveled, its shingles all out of place. Inside it looked half-finished: lots of the floor tiles—black and white like a checkerboard—had come loose, and wobbled when we stepped on them. You could see pipes and cables poking out here and there.
There was a large window in our living room that faced out onto the street. We hadn’t ever hung curtains; there was no money for that. “Why should we cover the view with curtains,” Dad would ask, “when we’ve got a wall-to-wall work of art right here?” And he would sit by the window, sometimes for hours on end, gazing out onto the street in a state of perpetual marvel, calling out the titles he invented for each of the paintings that formed before his eyes: “Still Life with Trash Cans.” “String of Stars.” “Bird on a Wire.” “Thief with Victim.” “Cat, Run Over.” “Lone Man Picking Up Cigarette.” “Lovers in the Night”. “Moonless Sky.” “Self Portrait in Silence.” “Naked Night.”
And when I walked into the room and he spotted my reflection in the window, my father also named that painting: “Apparition of the Son.”
I would stare out of the window too, and from the other side, neighbors and passersby would look in. Often, on seeing the bare living room, with just a pair of chairs for furnishing, people would knock on the window and ask if the house was for sale. “Beat it, will you?” I’d tell them. “Don’t come around bothering us.” Musicians would pass by too, heading to or back from the bar district, and on seeing the house they’d laugh: “Would you look at that, a window made for serenading.” And they’d play a song and stand there, mocking us until I threw piss at them.
And then, one night, as he gazed out of the window, Dad had one of his epiphanies: “I’ve got it! I’ve had an idea. Come on, you. We’re going to the bar to make us some cash.” I told him we’d only end up spending money if we went to the bar, and that I didn’t want to keep on buying on credit–I was sick of it. To which he replied: “Don’t be such a sourpuss, come on.” I reminded him that fewer and fewer people hung out at The Drooler now, that it would just be the same old crowd, each person with less cash than the next. Tired of listening to me, Dad raised his voice and gave me the same line he always did: “Don’t answer back.” So we left the house—me biting my tongue—and once out on the street Dad began explaining that there were a lot of miserable men in the bar in need of advice.
“And where’s the money to be made in that?” I asked, genuinely intrigued, but also anticipating a bad night.
“It’s simple, see: I’m going to give advice to whoever wants it. The first piece is free, and from then on I charge. Winos tend to value my experience.”
This made me laugh and it occurred to me that, even if his plan turned awfully, it would do me good to be out. We put our arms around each other and walked along like that, all the way to The Drooler. Once there, the bouncer on the door, a newbie, welcomed us calling “Come on in! Congratulations!” and tossing a handful of tiny paper hearts into the air. I looked at him, baffled—my eyes, two questions—and the man added: “It’s Anniversary Night.”
“Excuse me,” my father said impatiently, perhaps a little uncomfortable. When we stepped inside we saw two couples: the first were drinking in complete silence; the second were arguing. At the bar, as if they hadn’t ever moved from their spots, were Ramón-Ramona—serving—and the Three Toupees: Alirio, Simón, and Garbanzos. We called them the Toupees because all three of them, despite clearly showing signs of balding, modeled haircuts veering from outlandish to genuinely frightful. It wasn’t clear if they were trying to emphasize their baldness or to hide it (as far as was humanly possible). Ramón-Ramona was sporting the same look as ever: hat and pants, a waistcoat embroidered in all different colors, and a fake beauty spot just above the mouth.
My father walked over to the fighting couple, pulled up a stool, and wished them good evening, as if they’d invited him to join them.
“Talk it out, that’s right.” The couple gawped at him, but before they could get a word in he added, this time just to her: “Good on you for hearing him out, but you don’t have to be his trash can. You don’t have to take his shit. Don’t ever become an emotional dumpster.”
I edged away from the unfolding scene, rolled my eyes, and sat down at the bar between Simón and Garbanzos. Ramón-Ramona put a glass of water in front of me and told me, in a tone somewhere between severe and affectionate, that we couldn’t keep drinking on credit. I said no problem, thanks, that I understood, and with a wink Ramón-Ramona replied: “But, you know: the door’s always open.” I explained about the bouncer throwing heart-shaped confetti at my father and me.
“Happy anniversary! My favorite couple.”
“Anyway, what happened to your other door guy?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, sweetheart. They knifed him.”
My father was back.
“Nothing?” he said. “You call that nothing? Imagine how alone that poor bouncer would feel if he could hear you, Ramón-Ramona. Take my advice: take care of the people around you. It’s good to know how to look after yourself, to be gentle on yourself and all of that, but other people deserve the same treatment. You think about that.”
“I was telling your son here that I can’t give you drinks on credit anymore,” Ramón-Ramona replied indifferently, wiping down the bar. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“Another piece of advice,” my father went on. “A little exercise I’d recommend: buy yourself an egg and treat it as you would a son. Draw on it, if you like. A little face or whatnot. Put it in a basket, dress it up in some napkins, and take it everywhere with you. The challenge is to not drop it.”
“And you tell me why would I want to carry an egg around with me if I could just eat it?” Ramón-Ramona scoffed. “With the way this food shortage is panning out . . .”
“To learn how to look after others. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge you: the first piece of advice is free, and from then on it’s a hundred a pop.”
“In that case, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get my little debt book out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyebrows raised. “There’s not a single page without your names on.”
“Don’t tell me, Garbanzos is in there too,” Simón chipped in.
“Garbanzos owes less.”
“Well, he’ll soon catch up, what with that belly full of bile,” Alirio said, moving in closer. “He’s already polished off three quarters of the bottle.”
“What’s happened?” I asked Garbanzos.
“Come on, tell me all about it,” Dad said. “The first piece of advice is free, the second will set you back a round hundred.”
“I thought my neighbor was dead,” Garbanzos began, “but it turns out he’s as alive as they come, and he’s eaten my dog Paws.”
“Shocking,” Simón said.
“No, no, no,” Ramón-Ramona interjected, “Tell us properly, from the beginning. What happened?”
“We’re dealing with two separate issues here,” my father recapped. “Death, and the dog.”
“I hadn’t seen my neighbor for weeks,” Garbanzos went on. “We always say hello when we turn on our lights; you know, window to window. Then, one night, I just stopped seeing him.”
“Very important that, cordiality among neighbors,” my father reflected. “And respect, too, of course. But you don’t have to respect everyone. Not everyone deserves respect.”
“Yeah, thanks for that!” the man from the fighting couple shouted over to the bar. “I owe you a hundred, you old fart!”
“Don’t put up with him!” my father shouted to the woman. “Forget him! There’s no shame in being on your own.”
The man went on yelling. The woman, meanwhile, had begun hitting him.
“Are you chasing away my clients?” Ramón-Ramona said. “I’m watching you.”
The couple left the bar in a rage. The bouncer, I noticed, tossed hearts over them as they passed. Garbanzos took another swig of his drink and went on with his story.
“Well, more nights went by and I still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of my neighbor. I snuck looks through his window when I took Paws out and the table was laid but there was no food on it. Just a glass, a plate, and a knife and fork. I didn’t see so much as a slice of bread.”
“It doesn’t sound good,” I said, really just to say something.
“My neighbor thought Paws was—oh, Jesus!—well fed. ‘He’s got plenty of meat on him,’ he shouted at me from his window one night when I took Paws out for his walk. But it was just his fur that made him look chunky.”
“You have to show animals love,” Alirio said, and Dad shot him a furious look, as if he’d just been placed at a disadvantage. As if Alirio were feathering his own nest with his idea.
“Paws would sometimes get out through the door,” Garbanzos went on. “But he’d always comes back after a while like a good boy. Like he missed me. And I’d be waiting for him in the living room, and we’d play fetch.”
“Beautiful,” Simón said, and I noticed that Ramón-Ramona was snickering, staring at the dishwasher, mouth clamped shut.
“I haven’t seen my boy since last night. Then, a few hours ago, on my way here, I looked in through my neighbor’s window and there he was, after all those nights not being there, leaning back at the table, rubbing his belly with the look of a man who’d had his fill of dog.”
“That’s pretty serious,” Alirio said. “Not much to be done there.”
“A word of advice,” my father cut in. “You need some flowers in the house.”
“What for?” Garbanzos asked.
“They might raise your spirits.”
“OK, OK, time out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyes brimming with tears from holding in the laughter so long. “I very much doubt the neighbor’s eaten Paws. I’m sure the little pup will show up.”
“I’m not,” Garbanzos said, and clutching the bottle to his chest, he burst into tears.
My father took a deep breath, but just as he was about to offer another piece of advice, Ramón-Ramona pointed at their glasses and said: “What’ll it be? Drinks are on the house,” and we broke into applause and song.
A drunk stumbled up to the bar.
“I look at you and I get all confused. What exactly are you?”
“Can’t you tell?” Ramón-Ramona asked in return.
“I can’t, no. That’s why I asked. Are you a man or a woman?” the man went on.
“Come here, and I’ll show you,” Ramón-Ramona said. A second later, having got a good eyeful of the underside of Ramón-Ramona’s apron, the man left with his head hanging down.
That night we left the bar well lubricated. As we said our good-byes, the bouncer once again sprinkled us with little hearts. We went to the beach, my father and I: the waves only washed in pebbles and shells. The sofa was still there, beached; not so red now, but the air around it wasn’t fit for breathing. Exhausted, Dad sat down on it. “I promise you,” he said, “we’re going to get out of this fix.” I told him not to think about it anymore, not to worry, that I was going to provide for us both. I said: “Dad, we’ll think of something.”
Later, in silence, the dying waves—spread out like blankets—returned the bodies of three old men to the shore. “Or maybe three young men,” I thought, “who’d been in the water a long time.”
That’s how we lived, my father and I, in this gray neighborhood—sometimes smoke gray, sometimes black, never at peace in that vicious cycle. Each time the food cupboard began to look bare (we ate more eggs than anything), each time the banknotes became coins and the coins, fewer coins, each time we pawned a piece of furniture, clothing, a domestic appliance, my father would stop sleeping, and he would go on like that for several nights until he came up with a plan to reclaim our things, turn the coins into banknotes, and stock up the cupboard.
At one point he wanted to become a tailor, but when he tried to mend his own clothes, he realized he could barely sew a hem. “We’ll learn,” I said. “But that takes time.” And although he did try, my father soon lost his patience: “Not my forte.” His next plan was to sell empanadas, which we would make together. But people showed up at the house without a penny, and he didn’t have the heart to turn them away, or he simply didn’t know how. “Eat up, eat up. You can pay me later,” he’d say, ever industrious, serving them from the window. The empanada business went under before it had even formally opened, mainly because Dad began to get the feeling that the neighbors were taking advantage. “Some of them have the money and they just play dumb,” he decided. And with every unsuccessful venture, the cycle of poverty would start all over again: he’d stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail, stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail . . . Between one failure and the next we would either take out credit or pawn something, until the money ran out again, and the time came to get hold of some more.
One night, as he was frying an egg, my father called for me to come quickly. “See that?” he said. “Tell me you see it.” And I told him: “Yeah, you said we’d be having an egg.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a ticking off: he said all I ever thought about was food. Dad hadn’t slept for several nights and the lack of sleep was making him touchy. I decided it was better not to argue with him.
He told me the egg looked like a lion and that the sound of the stove made it look like it was roaring. “You take over dinner,” he said. “I’ve had an idea.” He turned around and, crayon in hand, began to do some of his sketches on the wall: a circle with arrows—a clock, perhaps—and something like a window or a door. Above it all he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.”
Then he drew a mirror and, next to that, a frying pan. Above them, too, he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.” I pressed the egg with the back of the spoon: the yellow spilt over the white and I told Dad dinner was nearly ready:
“It won’t be a second. The yolk’s just cooking.”
“But I like it runny!” he shouted from the living room.
“Nah. It’s easier to cut in half if it’s cooked through.”
“I like it runny,” Dad repeated, pretending he hadn’t heard me.
I cut the egg—cooked through, in the end—in two, and gave the bigger half to my father, who was gazing at his drawings, seemingly deep in thought.
“It’s harder to cut in two if it’s runny,” I said.
“That’s all right. Mmm, delicious,” and he carried on admiring his drawings.
On the wall he had drawn some swirls like waves around a giant sofa. I guessed it was the sea, our sea, carrying the sofa to the shore. And while, on the whole, I barely understood my father’s scrawls, that night he drew a triangle on top of a square, and straight away I recognized it was a house. He added the door, the windows, and finally, once again, the words “Blah, blah, blah.”
“What I’m thinking,” Dad said, “is to turn this house into an attraction and open it up to the public. That’ll get us out of this mess.”
“What do you mean, an attraction?” I asked as I ate my half of the egg.
“It’ll be called ‘The Talking House,’” he said, as if thinking aloud. “It’ll be the neighborhood’s first real spectacle: the house that talks to the locals and tells them how it’s doing.”
I lost interest in the idea before he’d finished explaining it. My instinct told me it wouldn’t work, and that not only would it not get us out of our current mess, but it would make us even worse off. But my father was now talking about tape recorders and different kinds of voices. He said we didn’t need much, and we could get the cassette player on loan.
“And if they insist on charging us for it,” he went on, “we’ll pay them with the money we got for your bed. Or better still, with what they pay us.”
“With what who pays us?” I asked, sensing my father was about to launch into some optimistic accounting.
“Our clients, who else? They’ll happily pay for entry to The Talking House.”
“Pay to see what exactly?”
“Goodness me, what a question . . .” he chided me before tucking back into his egg. “Wouldn’t you pay to speak to your house? Wouldn’t you pay to know what it thinks, and how the all the objects inside it are: the furniture, the stove? By my calculations, we’ll be hiring staff in a matter of weeks.”
“This is even worse than I’d thought,” I thought to myself, half cynical, half dumbstruck. But I couldn’t help but be moved by my father’s quixotic plans. He was talking now about the possible conversations that the objects might have with one another, that the house might have with its objects, or the objects with the visitors and the visitors with the house. “I think the chair,” he said, “could ask guests to sit down on it. Firmly at first, then flirtatiously, like it really yearned to have a pair of buttocks on its lap.”
I burst out laughing and my father joined in. I said: “I don’t know if you’ve lost your marbles or you’re an undiscovered genius, but let’s give it a go. All hands on deck. Let’s get the house ready.” And together we began to plan how to give life and a voice to the few items we owned.
A few nights before we inaugurated The Talking House, my father wanted to do an inventory of our belongings. Making out as if it were absolutely essential that we count them—as if there were the remotest possibility of a visitor getting lost among the bareness—he said, bossily: “Take notes.” I took the crayon and on a piece of cardstock wrote: One crayon, and one piece of cardstock. My father oversaw the list-making with a sharp eye:
“Very good, but you need to be more specific. Put the color of the crayon.”
So I wrote black next to crayon, and carefully followed his dictation.
“One mirror, oval, no frame. Gift from the ocean.”
“That’s very long,” I said. “I’m just going to put down mirror.”
“No way, sunshine. And you can add Includes wire for hanging to that, too.”
“Fine. What else? The clock . . .”
“One wall clock, no alarm, house-shaped. Red hands with animals at the tips: an owl, a fish, and a kitty.”
“There isn’t room for all of that.”
“Well, write smaller.”
“I can’t, the crayon is too fat.”
“Of course you can. What do you mean you can’t?”
And we went on like that for a good while longer, until the inventory was complete: we added the fan, my father’s bed (with respective mattress), the tape recorder and its accompanying cassette (which my father bought with some of the money they gave him for my bed), the frying pan, the table, two glasses, and two chairs. Everything else had either been sold, pawned, or we’d never owned it.
“Ah, we missed something,” Dad said.
“The soap. Write: Detergent powder for colored clothes. Also useful for washing and cleaning dishes.”
Causes itching and rashes, I added.
To advertise the opening of our house of wonders we wrote on a bit of cardboard: New Attraction, Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood. Next we put the sign in the living room window and rehearsed—as if there were already visitors at the door—the routine that would give life and a voice to the house and all the items in it: the main gist was to play a tape my father had prerecorded, putting on voices for every object, nook and cranny in our home. The trick was to conceal the tape recorder in one of our pockets (preferably the back pant pocket) and to synchronize every action on the tape with the tour of the space we’d give our visitors. So, for instance, in the entranceway, we would hear the door—or rather, my father’s voice on the tape—welcoming everyone to the house. Passing by the living room, we would hear the chairs talking. “Timing,” my father said, “is everything. Remember that.”
But come the opening night, there was not a soul on the block when we opened our doors to the public. We headed to The Drooler on the hunt for our first patrons. “We’re bound to snap up a couple there,” Dad said. And yet, when we arrived we noticed there was no bouncer (neither the one who’d been stabbed nor the heart sprinkler). The only people inside were the Three Toupees.
“Ramón-Ramona?” I asked.
“Restroom,” Garbanzos said. “Won’t be long.”
“So how are you?”
“Devastated,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “Devastated, what with my neighbor.”
“What’s he done now?”
“Oh, the usual, my friend. Just polishing off the dogs on the block, one by one. He won’t stop till he’s had them all.”
“Don’t start this again,” Ramón-Ramona said, now back behind the bar. “I’m beginning to think you’re the one eating all the dogs.”
“How dare you?” Garbanzos said, outraged.
“Oh, Jesus,” Alirio said, “I’ve been thinking the same.”
“I’ll eat you if you don’t stop with this bullshit.”
“Watch it, fellas,” Simón chipped in. “He’s more than capable.”
“You better believe I am.”
Meanwhile, my father scanned the bar. I suppose he was looking at how empty it was, letting the sorry state of the neighborhood sink in, as if that space forced him to grasp just how bad it had got. I watched him and wondered what effect those empty tables would have on him, how much less sleep he’d get now. And I wondered what his reaction would be. If he’d be alarmed or paralyzed or exactly the same. I wondered what we were going to do, what was within our power to do.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ramón-Ramona said, “that it’d be good to give the bar a new name, lure the old clients back. You know, novelty factor.”
“What’ll you call it?” Simón asked.
“The Hair-Puller,” he said. “Or The Tummy-Scrubber.”
“I prefer The Drooler.”
“But the new name will be in neon . . .”
My father gave a hoot and, his spirits clearly raised, he invited everyone over to the house. “A lot of strange things have been going on lately,” he said, trying and failing to wink at me on the sly. “We’ve been hearing voices.”
“Now that is serious,” Alirio said. “Ghosts are no laughing matter.”
“They’re not ghosts,” I explained, and my father dug his elbow into me.
“Let them think what they want,” he whispered. “That way the surprise will be even better.”
“I can’t hear a thing except Paws,” Garbanzos sighed. “How much must that poor dog have yowled his heart out? How much must he have suffered?”
As Ramón-Ramona locked up the bar, we noticed a group of men waiting in line to enter Moon on the corner.
“They’re the only ones who come around here anymore,” someone, perhaps Simón, said.
My father stood staring at the crowd. I could tell he was thinking it was his chance to clinch some clients for The Talking House. But those men hadn’t come all that way to do anything but dance and see Moon. I seriously doubted they’d want to come with us, or pay a penny to come over to listen to those tape recordings.
My father went on watching them. Determined not to let him get into any trouble or make a fool of himself, I proposed that we take Ramón-Ramona to see the house first, as a kind of repayment for all the drinks we’d got on credit.
“There’s quite a few of us with the Three Toupees on board too. We can come back another time for more customers,” I said.
“Fine,” he replied, still not looking at me.
I was surprised by how easy it was to convince him. He usually lost it with me when I talked back.
“You OK?” I asked.
So we walked together to the house, gazing at the electric forest in the distance. I liked looking at it really carefully. Sometimes I could make out the moment someone in the distance turned on a light, and when this happened, it looked like the forest was growing before my eyes. Then a different light would go out, or the same one, and that happened over and over and the forest changed shape for an instant. The forest lighting up the night. The forest buried beneath the night. Starry for an instant, the forest twinkling, twinkling electric, starry for an instant, an instant, an instant.
The night the neighborhood filled up with bodies—a forest of corpses, it seemed to us—was the night we invited Ramón-Ramona and the Three Toupees to experience, in my father’s words, “the virtues and eccentricities of The Talking House.”
“Say hello,” he told us when we reached the house, quickly pressing play on the tape recorder.
Alirio and Simón dutifully greeted the door, and seconds later—quite a few seconds later, it seemed to me—we heard my father’s singsong voice exclaiming: “Good evening, and welcome. I am the door.”
Garbanzos looked at Dad (whose mouth was clamped shut, I suppose to prove to Garbanzos that it wasn’t him speaking), then at me, and then at the keyhole. After that he raised his eyebrows, heaved a sigh, and started snickering.
“The moment you open me,” the recording went on, “you’ll discover the most wondrous of worlds. Come on in and see for yourselves, the one, the only, The Talking House.” Dad took out his keys to open the door, but let them fall on the ground. He made frantic signs at me to pick them up myself, and that’s what I did, but before I could open the door we were already listening to its voice complaining: “Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“But no one’s even touched you,” Ramón-Ramona said, talking to the handle a little too earnestly.
“What are you looking at?” the recording went on (supposedly speaking as the mirror now, in the hallway, although we were still outside). “Are you looking at you or at me?”
“Open it,” Dad hissed at me. The lock wouldn’t give. “Open it, come on.”
“Don’t just stand there all night,” the voice—the mirror—went on. “Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
“I don’t get it,” Simón admitted. “Is it meant to be the house talking?”
“Looks more like his butthole’s doing the talking,” Garbanzos said, staring at the tape recorder ineffectually concealed in my father’s back pocket. “You’ve got yourself another idea there, mate: the talking butthole, ho, ho, ho . . . The blabbering butthole.”
“Give me those,” Dad snapped, snatching the keys from me furiously. “The first thing I tell you to do and you go and mess up. I told you a hundred times: timing is everything.”
“But you’re the one who dropped the keys . . .”
“How hard is it to open a door?”
“Hey, no fighting,” Ramón-Ramona intervened. “If you fight, I’m off.”
“I still don’t get it,” Simón said again. “What is it we’re meant to do?”
“Why don’t you pause the tape?” Garbanzos suggested, stifling his laughter.
Alirio, meanwhile, was biting his nails. He kept staring out onto the street for moments at a time, I’m not sure if distracted or fixated. Then he’d stare at us, one by one. Several times, too, he spun around suddenly, to the house then back to the street. “Did you hear that?” he’d say. But between us we just ignored or talked over him, no one more so than my father, who was now trying to convince Garbanzos that it was the house, and not he, who was speaking.
Finally the lock gave. We filed into the house, I’d say not overly enthused about the tour, and left the door ajar. “I’m tired of being on the move,” the recorder said—it was the clock, my father explained—“I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“This way,” I ushered the visitors in an attempt to synchronize sound with object.
“Yes, come along,” Dad said, backing me up.
We stopped in front of the clock, and with a pensive look on his face my father asked it: “Little clock, little clock who marks the time, who knows and tells the time, tell me something: has it always existed? Time, I mean. Will it just stop one night?”
Garbanzos let out a snigger, which Ramón-Ramona seconded. My father chose to ignore them and stood there looking at the clock, feigning interest in whatever answer it might give.
“I feel like I’m always chasing people,” the clock replied. “As if I were hounding them, or pressuring them all the time, telling them: hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry. I don’t like that feeling.” My father glanced at us, realizing he’d asked the wrong question, and quickly corrected himself: “But tell me, little clock, on behalf of time: have you always existed? Will you simply stop one night . . . ?” The tape interrupted him saying: “I, too, ask myself if I’ve always existed. I can’t say if one night I’ll simply stop existing.”
“Thank you, clock,” Dad replied.
The others all burst out laughing. My father looked at them, perplexed, genuinely curious to know what they were laughing at. “Let’s move on to the kitchen, shall we,” he said, turning a blind eye. Next thing, the tape was back: “Watch your step, mister! Don’t tread on me!”
“I’m sorry,” Dad said, looking down at the floor. “We need a rug.”
“Watch it, watch it!” the tape went on as we walked to the kitchen. “Don’t walk all over me.” When we reached the kitchen, all of the others in hysterics, my father went up to the stove, poured some oil in the pan (a drop), lit the burner, and began frying an egg. “It burns, it burns,” moaned the stove, or the egg. “Does anyone even care if they burn me?” Ramón-Ramona, meanwhile, was inspecting the drawings my father had decorated the walls with.
“If you look closely,” Dad explained, “the egg looks like a lion. The white’s his mane. And if you listen carefully, you can hear him roar. But I ask you now, gentlemen: Does it just happen to look like a lion, or did the oil, the egg and the frying pan agree to recreate the beast together? These are questions we cannot help but ask ourselves in this house of wonders.”
“Interesting,” I said, faced with the others’ silence.
And back came the tape (the pan or the egg): “It burns, it burns. You’re burning me.”
“Well, do something! Don’t just stand there, you lot,” Simón pleaded, and I didn’t know if he was going along with my father, if he merely wanted us to turn off the recording, or if he really did want us to turn off the burner and put the frying pan and egg out of their misery.
“Wonderful drawings,” Ramón-Ramona said to my father, clearly moved. “Did you do them?”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “That one up there is a cow.”
“And this one?”
“Another cow, under the shade of a tree.”
“Well, what do you know,” Garbanzos said. “I thought it was a cow with a wig on.”
“And all this?” Ramón-Ramona went on, ignoring Garbanzo.
“My lovely son,” Dad replied, making me blush. I gave him a hug and we stayed like that, hugging, until the egg said: “I’m ready! You can eat me now.”
“Once I’ve got a bit of spare cash, I’m going to buy you crayons in all different colors,” Ramón-Ramona said.
“Well, thank you. The black is running out,” Dad replied as he switched off the flame.
“How sad, this life of mine,” the egg concluded. “To end so soon.” And my father said: “We’ll eat you later, don’t worry.”
We all moved back into the living room and my father asked us to come over to the window, which we did, Alirio and Simón both distracted, Garbanzos with a little smirk on his face, Ramón-Ramona yawning, and me happy, because my father seemed to have snapped out of his rage. Two, three, four seconds later, the recorder began speaking as the window in my father’s by now hoarse, almost fluey voice: “Outside, the wind is lashing me.”
“Did you hear that?” Alirio asked. “What is that noise?”
“The window,” Dad answered. “It’s telling us that the wind outside . . .”
“No, not that.”
“It sounds like screaming,” I ventured to say, and instantly began to feel anxious. The recording, meanwhile, went on.
“Pause it, for fuck’s sake,” Garbanzos said to Dad. “Let us listen.”
“Pause what?” he answered, playing dumb.
“Be quiet, man. Just for a second,” Alirio asked. But the recording played on. “I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“Pause it, Dad, please,” I said, losing my patience. I was sure now that there were people screaming outside. “We can’t carry on.”
But the tape reran: “Watch it, watch it!” the floor (my father, his voice) cried. “Ouch, you’re treading on me.” Exasperated, I launched myself at him and barked: “Give me that,” snatching the recorder from his back pocket. In my attempt to stop the tape, I ended up rewinding it.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Dad whined. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“Will you let us listen, man!” Garbanzos said, losing his wits.
“Now no one’s going to believe the house can talk.”
“Nobody believed it anyway.”
“You’ve given the trick away.”
“Do you really think anyone believes the house was talking?”
“What would you know?”
“They were laughing, Dad. Or at best playing along.”
The Three Toupees and Ramón-Ramona had left the house. We watched them through the window. They were talking and gesticulating, speculating, maybe, about what was going on. They also talked to several passersby.
“Dad,” I said, trying to calm myself down. “I need to know that you get that nobody here believes the house actually talks. They came because you invited them and because, to get them here, you said you wanted to show them something: weird goings-on. I know you have a plan and that you’d like it, just as I’d like it, if lots of visitors came, but nobody thinks that the house really speaks—not for one second. Do you understand that? It’s a game: you put it out there and the others decide if they’re willing to go along with it or not. The Three Toupees, Ramón-Ramona, they went along with it.”
“I don’t know,” my father said, looking down at his feet. “I just hoped that one of them wouldn’t work it out and that I could show them the tape recorder at the end.”
“They all knew from the start. They went along with it. They were laughing.”
Then Alirio and Ramón-Ramona started waving at us and we went out to join them. We talked. They told us what they’d heard. We set off walking. On the corner some men were crying. One of them was almost choking, saying: “Horrible, horrible,” and “Oh, God. Oh, God,” and my eyes, I thought, began to pop wide open like the man’s. I took Dad’s hand, asking myself, in a daze, what kind of effect it would have on him to witness what we were about to witness. And I walked by his side, slowly, my arm around him, glancing over at the Toupees every now and then, and at Ramón-Ramona, who was also walking slowly, and yet at the same time feverishly, hurriedly.
There, in the bar district, we found men with no heads: four or five bodies floating, from their neck down to their legs, in their own lake. Beyond them a little heap: the pierced red flesh of a man (or several men) who had been dancing. Another body, on the other side of the street, was still in one piece: one gushed liquid that flowed into a puddle, and the puddle made a moat around his nose, and his nose, then, seemed to float in the middle of his face.
The streetlamps, which hadn’t lit the streets for years, now contained severed heads where light should be. Two of them, exhibited there in their vitrines, had their mouths agape and tongues peeping out, as if their teeth were stopping the still wet muscle from fully slipping out. (Looking at these heads I thought, somewhat absurdly, that at some point in the night, light would start coming from their lantern-lips. I also thought, later on, that those lips were burning darkness.)
They’d been playful: we saw a torso propping up two legs, and not the other way around. We saw arms protruding from other arms, stuck to other arms; cocks and balls hanging from a tree like fruit. A man-turned-swing: they’d tied his arms and legs to two posts and, doing the splits, like a kind of arc, he rocked back and forth. They’d propped another body on top of him—a corpse swinging himself.
They’d turned others into mannequins—and those bruised mannequins, gaping in parts, posed in nooks and on corners with no say in the matter. Some were missing their hands and feet; others were merely busts. I recognized several of them, or that’s what I thought, or wanted to believe; others had had their faces branded.
The spectacle—yes, the spectacle—carried on down toward the park: in the sanded area, where no one ever went anymore, lay the body of a man dressed in white; his eyes were in his mouth and his sockets stuffed with dirt. His intestines were flowing out of his rectum, not unlike water spouting from a fountain. A dog was licking them.
Later, in the square, came the hanged men. Those bodies hanging in mid-air seemed to stare impassively at the other corpses before them. And those corpses had been made to look like women: they’d stuck stones down their chests, like breasts; they’d cut off their cocks. Among them hung one with his stomach moving of its own accord. “He’s alive,” someone said. It had been cut open, the stomach, then they’d stitched it back up. Moving in closer we saw a beak appearing and disappearing out of that stomach, stubbornly pecking at the stitches to make its way out. Finally, a chicken broke free from the fissure and the anonymous body fell still.
Last came the gored. In their lifelike lifelessness they looked like sculptures, those bodies on stakes. Some, further down, were on all fours, arranged in a circle, as if each were attached to the next. A little further on, a tree branch—the tree itself—raped a body for all eternity.
“Keep on prancing, fairies,” they’d written in blood. My father leaned against the wall for a moment. I’m not sure if doing this he accidentally pressed the play button, or if it was a conscious decision, but walking among the bodies, we heard that recording again: “Watch it, watch it!” those men-turned-objects seemed to say. “I’m boiling over, I’m burning.”
“What are you looking at?”
“That burns . . . It’s burning me!”
“I run and I run and I run . . . I’m tired . . .”
“Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“Does no one care that I’m burning?”
“Outside, the wind is lashing me . . .”
“Ow! Ow . . .”
“How sad, this life of mine. How sad to end so soon . . .”
“Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
© Giuseppe Caputo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Óscar Collazos, two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption bond over unspeakable acts and their communal rebellion.
Alberto returned home and went to his room without saying a word, evading Mom’s eyes (What are you doing home? I thought you went to Confession?) and avoiding her questions. Then I thought: Something must have happened to him. I chose to continue on with the sports page, distracting myself by focusing on the photos and headlines though without really concentrating, thinking what Mom would be thinking, It’s your fault for setting a bad example. I got up off the couch and went to ask Alberto something, figuring he might be willing to confide in me (I remember that there had always been some sort of confidence between us) but it was all for naught. I remembered the first rule when it came to judging Alberto—He’s a stubborn one—and that was enough for me to give up the attempt. Later I tried again, hoping to draw something out by commenting on the Millonarios game against Cali, on how well the Millos striker played and how bad the defense was in the first half; Sure, but things got better when they subbed out that gimp Flores, Alberto said, and I felt more confident, figuring I had found the way: it would be easier now to earn his confidence because I was still insistent on learning why he came home so soon and why he was stubbornly refusing to talk about it.
Alberto lowered his head again, as if I were Dad and was scolding him, occasionally looking up and biting his nails (When are you going to stop doing that, you filthy little pig?), rolling his eyes back to expose a surprising amount of whiteness, like that of a void. Let him throw a tantrum, Mom shouted from her room. When he’s done, we’ll see what that little nonbeliever has to say, she continued, which I took as a direct shot at myself, as if she were saying, It’s your fault he acts like this, as if that little nonbeliever were an accusation, since she was always saying I set a bad example and therefore was responsible for the behavior of my brothers. Of course! They’re just following your lead, Dad said one night when my brothers started coming home after nine o’clock at night, one of them smelling of beer. If they’re doing this at thirteen, what’s next? Mom said then, piggybacking on Dad’s accusation.
I remembered a dream from months earlier: I was on my own, sitting on one of those stools you only see in comic strips and children’s books where a kid wearing a dunce hat sits while others laugh at him. There were many people all around me, among them, perhaps, Mom and Dad, shouting louder and louder while I remained silent, all of them watching me, approaching me, pointing at me without ever averting their swollen, bulging eyes. It was as if they were making me the target of some blame I could not identify during that moment of sleep, and the sensation it produced was not unlike having an unwanted weight pressing down upon my body. I remember the next day there remained only isolated images of the dream, of the vague accusations I could draw from it, and for several days they were repeated in greater and greater clarity until they became fixed in my memory. Upon remembering this, I associated the idea of guilt, the guilt that seemed to fixate on me day after day, with that of the You’re setting a bad example for those kids.
Something must have happened to him, I said to myself, thinking again of Alberto, for he was the first to recognize his religiosity, to remember the time he stayed with the priests, playing parish soccer and doing other parochial activities, even the Sunday strolls and surprise gifts, and—many years before—the prayer cards and medallions, things that once caught my attention but which later had ceased to interest me. I was indifferent by then, to the point where it created a real clash between my mom and me, she being the one who cared most about our behavior regarding such matters. I pressed forward with Alberto on his team’s scoring, fanning his passion and fueling his excitement, and I managed to draw out a few sentences of acceptance followed by sobs. Yes, what did you expect? he simply said curtly, before finishing his statement with feigned sincerity: Did you want us to lose?
I chose instead to leave him alone and go back into the living room where Mom was still ranting and raving, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these days they take down the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and light it on fire right in front of me, she muttered while cleaning the dining room. I opted for silence. Stretched out in an armchair, I listened instead to the music on the local radio station: exclusive music, lively up-tempo songs that couldn’t be heard on other stations because they had been banned: the latest records produced in Puerto Rico and smuggled here. I sat there for an hour or so until the broadcast was interrupted by the chords of the national anthem. I remember, when I was a child, I would stand up and salute every time I heard it. I smiled, looking at Mom.
Dad’s arrival—What’s going on here?—was what made me get up, go to my room, and pick up a book, pretending to study while making sure the title (Advanced Algebra) was clearly displayed for all to see, occasionally even pretending to take notes on a piece of paper with a serious, concentrated look on my face. I heard his voice first, and then his tone. He was speaking to me: Be careful not to get mixed up with those strikes. They’ve already killed several students; I just heard about it on the way home. It was a warning. Deep down, I rejected such advice: I figured Dad was just a conformist, that he didn’t understand our problems, and that it was best to pretend to be in complete agreement with all of his positions. If you get expelled, you’ll be the one paying for the fucking private school, he added, dramatically as always. Nobody’s getting kicked out, I replied. We often took the time to stop and talk, but the words never seemed to flow, there were long periods of reticence, as if there was nothing to be said. My silence was already a learned behavior; I needed only a handful of words to accept, suggest, or ask for something. I saw his embittered face and sensed the need to not displease him; in part, I even accepted his rationale without making it my own. This is really rotten, he said, before going back to his room, to his silence, to the table, to eat, always without a shirt, the beads of sweat rolling down his chest. His flesh had begun to grow fat and soft.
The sweating was constant: we all remained there, shirtless, in the house until drowsiness crept up on us, followed by sleep. The days blurred together; monotonous, the same events repeated themselves, the same phrases, the same sun, the same fervid perspiration. We took the newspaper and turned it into a fan, snorting as if expelling some air could make us feel a bit cooler.
It won’t be long before he asks about the boys, I thought when Dad first came in. I looked at the table and watched as he sat down heavily. Mom must be thinking that if she says something to Dad, he’ll beat Alberto with a switch, I figured. Things were as tense as ever: I expected Dad to ask about the boys, and yet the atmosphere of nervousness that wouldn’t allow me to concentrate on any one thing only seemed to increase. They’ll get us together at school tomorrow, I thought, looking away. Dad got up from the table; Alberto was still in his room, calculating the exact moment when Dad would be asking for him. After a while, Dad turned up the volume on the radio and listened to the nightly news. What a mess! Rojas Pinilla had been ousted and the station was broadcasting statements from all across the world. Yesterday, when it was being first reported that he had stepped down, that the dictator had been toppled by the people, they canceled classes and bused us to the parade, chanting Long live Democracy in a contagious celebration of flag waving and patriotic songs. This represents the salvation of our country and a return to civil liberties, the broadcaster announced in his nasal, pinched voice.
Dad coughed several times and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I was still thinking about Alberto, but quite unexpectedly an image from the previous day’s parade came to my mind, along with the memory of Beatriz, a somewhat awkward—and guilty—memory, for just a week earlier (and since then I had not seen her) I kissed her madly, put my hand under her dress and felt her nipples, her eyes were closed and she said No, don’t do it, without letting go of me, as we sat there in a secluded corner of the park, and her eyes open before me, the movement of her body, the spreading of her legs, my hand sliding up now that her protests had gone silent, overcome by submission, an overwhelming yet gentle sigh, her body pressing against mine, her thighs tightening, my one hand held captive between them while the other working its way underneath her bra, the firmness of her breast causing me to suddenly imagine it was somehow swelling more than the other thanks to my caresses, something which motivated me to switch to the other side and alter the movement of my hand in her underwear. This memory seduced me for a moment, and I found great delight in fixating on it. I tried to draw out more, but it seemed fleeting, and eventually escaped. What remained was the image of the previous day’s parade. It was only after a while that I was able to return to Alberto’s problem. Hmmm, who does this boy take after? Mom once said to me, and when I remembered this, I again felt I was to blame for Alberto’s situation. I went to his room to talk more about the game, only to find him with angry, reddened eyes: he was sobbing now, and harder than before. Things have been heating up these past few days, Dad said, once the news had ended and before entering the room. There’s a military junta, he said in passing to Mom, who wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I hope this all gets sorted out, she replied with the particular note of patience she often ascribed to her words when it came to talking with Dad. A short while later, the other brothers arrived and began to change out of their school clothes. They would eat and lie down, but later that night they would argue, this time about a fight they had seen two blocks away between a man and a woman: she was venting to him, and he responded with violence. These fights between men and women were not uncommon in the neighborhood, and always attracted quite a crowd when they began. Word spread quickly through the streets, and the spectacle was met with both screams and cheers. What was also not uncommon was for the man to have been slashed with a knife and yet insist on fighting up until the very moment he collapsed. The boys were engrossed in their conversation until Mom poked her head in the room and interrupted them by saying, Your father has gone to bed. Everyone fell silent: there was a sickening fear of Dad. Respect, I now understood, was nothing more than the fear of his reaction.
I couldn’t fall asleep. For a very brief moment I thought about trying to revive the image of Beatriz, but I avoided her by lending greater importance to the idea of talking with Alberto. I went over to his bed, leaving the light on as if I were going to read: because we all slept in the same room, my other brothers turned their backs to the light, perhaps even closing their eyes to evade it. You were right not to go to confession, I said to Alberto, trying to strike up the conversation. He looked at me for a moment before burying his head once again in his pillow. A short while later he got up and went to the bathroom. When he returned, he said as he climbed back under the covers, I was going to go to church, but I turned around. That was when I realized he was open to a conversation. I let him take the initiative. I am what I am, and I’m not going back to the church. I tried to nudge him along, but did not ask why. I’m not going back, even if they beat me, he insisted, clearly restraining his anger.
When he continued on with the course of the conversation, I began to clearly understand his motives, which he more calmly explained, one by one, without any more pausing or hesitations. Alberto was eleven at the time, and for me it was nice to know that I had a brother who would confide in me. I was seventeen, which was old enough to garner me some respect: I was seen as worthy, the brother who studied hard and who, in his final year of high school, read and admired the words of Voltaire, which I made into my own when it came to the conversations (monologues, really) that I had with my brothers. I would come upon political pamphlets, and I read them aloud, distracted, so they could listen. Again: I was respected, and with every passing day I could see how they were undergoing a secret transformation despite the fact that at home they abided by the usual standards of respect. Don’t say anything to Dad, Alberto finally said. He’s a fag, he continued, and went on to describe the incident, kneeling on the prie-dieu, the beginning of confession, the solitude of the church, the voice of the priest sounding hollow in the background, and then his hand resting on Alberto’s thigh. He squeezed it, unexpectedly, for no reason whatsoever, and moved it toward his genitals, his brother told him. Then he said he stood up in the confessional and blurted out the only thing he could think of: Don’t be such a fag!
Then we fell silent. I heard Dad cough in the next room and I imagined a lit cigarette flickering in the dark, him coughing again, his body convulsing as he lay there, always at the edge of the bed. I felt a great sense of relief and decided to drift off and let the memory of Beatriz, which had ceased some minutes ago, catch up to me once again. I felt that remembering her brought back the same sense of joy tinged with guilt, amplified and aggravated by several days of being apart. I’ll apologize, I thought to myself. Then I went back to the memory of the previous day’s vague events: riding the bus, many of us riding buses back and forth across the city, shouting and raising a terrible uproar, adding to the contagious enthusiasm, repeating the same words as the school bell rang incessantly: that cry of The dictator has fallen! lit a fuse in each and every classroom, though I still don’t understand why we joined the rally, why we repeated the cheers of names of people we did not know, swept up in the senseless euphoria that led us or dragged us to a state of exhilaration and madness.
Just as I was about to turn off the light, feeling the switch under my fingers, I thought again of Alberto: I hope he doesn’t go back, I said to myself. I associated his incident with Father Gómez with that of our situation with Don José Francisco Sánchez. And I thought the fact that these things were done by a priest made it a much more serious matter. As I switched off the light, I thought to myself that one of those days I would talk about what happened to my brother Alberto during Father Maldonado’s class, just to see the expression on his face.
The darkness was total at first. A short while later, a gentle glow began to filter in from outside in such a way that it revealed their three bodies spread out on their beds, along with the sheen of a painting of the Guardian Angel that my mom had hung there several years before.
"Causas Perdidas." © Óscar Collazos. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2017 by Ezra Fitz. All rights reserved.
In September 2008, a group of mothers in Soacha, Colombia denounced the disappearance and death of their sons. An investigation revealed that soldiers from the Colombian Army had killed innocent young men and presented their bodies as those of guerrilla fighters to collect financial bonuses offered by the Colombian government for such killings. Since then, more cases of forced disappearance by the military have been discovered. The mothers of Soacha have tirelessly sought justice for the last nine years to preserve the memory of their sons.
Colombian photographer Carlos Saavedra's project "Madres Terra" is based on the interaction between the earth and this group of mothers, focusing on the roles of both mothers and the earth as lifegivers. In this photographic series, a new world is created in which the models, without any physical effort, are suspended in the soil. The burial ritual represents a special moment in which the known physical world is altered, the body changes, symbolizing these mothers's rebirth.
Gloria Astrid Martinez
Mother of Daniel Alexander Martínez
Luz Edilia Palacios
Mother of Javier Andrés Palacios
Mother of Joaquín Castro
Flor Hilda Hernandez
Mother of Elkin Gustavo Verano Hernandez
María Doris Tejada
Mother of Oscar Alexander Morales Tejada
Sister of Jaime Castillo
Ana Cecilia Arenas
Sister of Mario Alexander Arenas Garzón
Mother of Julián Oviedo Monroy
© Carlos Saavedra. By arrangement with the photographer. All rights reserved.
Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits The House of Beauty in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s racial and class divisions.
I hate artificial nails in outlandish colors, fake-blonde hair, cool silk blouses, and diamond earrings at four in the afternoon. Never before have so many women looked like transvestites, or like prostitutes dressing up as good wives.
I hate the perfume they drench themselves in, these woman as powdered as cockroaches in a bakery; what’s worse, it makes me sneeze. And don’t get me started on their accessories—those smartphones swaddled in infantile cases, in colors like fuchsia and covered with sequins, imitation gemstones, and ridiculous designs. I hate everything these waxed-eyebrowed, non-biodegradable women represent. I hate their shrill, affected voices; they’re like four-year-old dolls, little drug-dealer hussies bottled into female bodies as erect as men. It’s very confusing; these macho-girl-women disturb me, overwhelm me, force me to dwell on all that’s broken and ruined in a country like this, where a woman’s worth is determined by how ample her buttocks and breasts are, how slender her waist. I also hate the stunted men, reduced to primitive versions of themselves, always looking for a female to mount, to exhibit like a trophy, to trade in, or show off as a status symbol among fellow Neanderthals. But just as I hate this mafioso world, which for the past twenty years or so has dominated the tastes and behavior of thugs, politicians, businessmen, and almost anyone who has the slightest connection to power in this country, I also hate the ladies of Bogotá, among whom I count myself, though I try my damnedest to stand apart.
I hate their habit of using the term “Indians” to refer to people they consider to be from a low social class. I hate the obsessive need to distinguish between the formal usted and informal tú when addressing someone, leaving usted for the servants. I loathe the servility of waiters in the restaurants when they rush to attend to customers, saying “what would you like, sir,” “as you wish, sir,” “on your orders, sir.” I hate so many things in so many ways—things that seem to me unjust, stupid, arbitrary, and cruel, and most of all I hate myself for playing my own part in the status quo.
Mine’s an ordinary story. It’s not worth the trouble of telling in detail. Maybe I should mention that my father was a French immigrant who came to Colombia thanks to a contract to construct a steel mill. My brother and I were born here. Like others of our social class, we grew up here, behaving as if we were foreigners. Wherever we were—our place in the north of Bogotá, or the apartment in Cartagena’s old quarter—we lived our lives surrounded by walls. There were a few summers in Paris, the Rosario Islands once or twice. My life hasn’t been all that different from that of a rich Italian, French, or Spanish woman. I learned to eat fresh lobster as a little girl, to catch sea urchins; by the age of twenty-one I could tell a Bordeaux wine from a Burgundy, play the piano and speak French with no accent, and I was as familiar with the history of the Old Continent as I was unfamiliar with my own.
Security has been an issue for as far back as I can remember. I’m blonde, blue-eyed and five feet seven inches tall, which is getting less exotic nowadays, but when I was a child it was an ace up my sleeve to win the nuns’ affection or to get preferential treatment from my peers. It also attracted attention, and so it made my father paranoid about kidnappings. As luck would have it, we were never targeted. Our money and my peaches-and-cream complexion contributed to my isolation, though lately I’ve started to wonder if I tell myself that to sidestep blame for being an exile in body and soul. No matter where I’ve traveled, I’ve always been somewhere else.
At my age, melancholy is part of my inner landscape. Last month I turned fifty-nine. I turn my gaze inward and back on my life far more than I look out to the world around me. Mostly because I’m not interested, and don’t like what I find out there. Maybe they’re the same thing. I suppose my neurosis has something to do with my scathing reading of the here and now, but it’s pretty inevitable. As Octavio Paz would say, this is the “house of glances,” my house of glances, I have no other. I accept my classist nature. I accept, no, more than accept, I embrace my hatreds. Maybe that’s the definition of maturity.
When I left Colombia, mothers still made sure their daughters’ knees weren’t showing; now nothing is left to the imagination. That’s another thing that shocked me when I came back: I felt like some women’s breasts were coming after me with an almost aggressive insolence. At any rate, I never managed to adapt to Colombia, and in France I was always a foreigner.
I didn’t go to Paris just to study; I was fleeing. I was comfortable there a long time, I got married, had a daughter, pursued my career. But then the years pressed in on me like thorns and my memories grew hazy, until the day I understood it was time I came back. Divorced, with fifty-seven Aprils under my belt and a twenty-two-year-old daughter studying at the Sorbonne, I packed my life into three old suitcases and made the trip without her. Aline speaks Spanish with an accent and makes mistakes. She’s stunning. Slim and very tall, with a preference for women over men that might be fleeting or here to stay. Not that it bothers me too much. Though I know that if the poor thing lived here she would have to worry about or at least put up with moralizers, even bullying. Things have changed somewhat, it’s true. At least now you see a few foreigners in the streets and there are more people who think differently. Even so, aside from my friend Lucia Estrada, who I’ve rekindled my friendship with after almost two decades, I’m very alone. Not that I need anyone, not really.
“Colombia is Passion,” according to the poster that greeted me at the airport. And the other day the press reported fifteen dead after a massacre in the south. That passion must be what makes me hate some people so fervently. Señora Urrutia, Señora Pombo, and Señora MacAllister, who invite me to take tea and pray for a sick friend or for the eleven children killed in the latest landslide in the city’s south, where they’ve never set foot. The doormen who take such pleasure in denying everyone entry, the security convoys that charge through the rest of the traffic, the desperate down-and-outs who tear off side mirrors at the traffic lights. Only at work do I reconcile with my compassionate side. Bitterness hasn’t caught up with that part of me yet.
At the start of 2013, I purchased a good apartment on Calle 93, near Chicó Park. I dusted off some corporate shares and bought not just the apartment, but also a plot of land in Guasca, where I intend to build a little house in the mountains. In the same apartment, I set up a consulting room, and, thanks to my credentials, I had patients in no time. I confess I find most of them boring. Their fears are so predictable, and so are all of their complexes, inhibitions, and thought processes. Nevertheless, I was short on other hobbies, and fell back on therapy once more. Fortunately the city has very broad cultural offerings, so every now and then I’m in the mood for a concert or exhibition. I set aside two afternoons a week for such things. Psychoanalysts earn plenty and, given my age and circumstances, I needn’t work too much.
In time, I started taking walks on these free afternoons. There’s no way of getting to the city center without spending two hours stuck in traffic, so I keep to my neighborhood and explore it on foot. On one of these outings I discovered a couple of new bookshops, a splendid pastry place, and a few boutiques. Yet I had no desire to try anything on; my body is growing less and less recognizable to me. Often, my own face surprises me in the mirror. My naked legs are an unlikely map, discolored and forgotten.
It was on one of these strolls around the neighborhood that, after browsing along Avenida 82, I ended up having a cappuccino and a chocolate soufflé in Michel’s Patisserie. I felt guilty, and decided to walk as far as Carrera 15 and then head home, again on foot. After a few blocks, on that clear May afternoon, I stopped in front of a white building with glass doors, which I’d never been inside. La Casa de la Belleza was written in silver lettering. I peeped inside out of simple curiosity. I think it was the name that attracted me. House of Beauty. I was running my eye over the expensive products for wrinkles, hydration, slimming, stretch marks, and cellulite, when I saw her by the reception desk. She was wearing white tennis shoes, a light-blue uniform, and had her hair pulled up in a ponytail. A long, black tress fell down her back. The rings under her eyes didn’t matter, nor did her tired expression: her beauty was forceful, almost indecently so. The young woman oozed life. There was something savage and raw in her that made her seem—how to say it?—real. I’m still not sure if it was the result of discipline and vanity, or simply an inherited gift. I’ll never know. Karen is a great mystery. Even more so in a city like this, where everyone’s appearance reflects who they are; where their attire, speech, and the place they live announce how they will act. The codes of behavior are as predictable as they are repetitive. I was captivated by her gazelle-like figure, but above all by a certain serenity in her expression. I’d bet she does absolutely nothing to look like that. If I could say anything simply by looking at her, it would be that tranquility has nested in her soul.
Perhaps because I stood there, stunned, looking at her as if she were an apparition, she came forward to ask:
Do you need help, señora?
She smiled effortlessly, as if expressing her gratitude at being alive. I was surprised no one seemed to perceive her intrinsic beauty. It was as if the finest orchid had fallen at random into a mud puddle. All around her were women in heels sporting fake smiles. The receptionist was a monstrosity of cherry lips and caked-on blush. Not her. She seemed to rise above it all, to be the reason for the name of the edifice.
“Yes, thank you, I’d like a wax,” I said then, as if I haven’t done my own waxing since I’ve had the ability to reason.
“We’re not too busy at the moment, would you like an appointment now?”
“Yes, now’s fine,” I responded, mesmerized.
“Excuse me, your name?”
“Claire. Claire Dalvard,” I said.
“Please follow me,” she responded. And so I followed.
“From a young age, black women straighten their hair with creams, with straighteners, with hairdryers; we chew pills, wrap it up, pin it down, apply hair masks, sleep with stocking caps in place, use a silicone sealer. Having straight hair is as important as wearing a bra; it’s an essential part of femininity. A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do: she has to pluck up her courage, use as many metal clips as it takes. She has to be prepared to endure painful tugging, sometimes for hours on end. It’s wasteful and uncomfortable, but there’s no getting away from it if you want to achieve the silky straight look,” says Karen in her rhythmic cadence.
“And little girls, do they have to do it too?”
“If they’re really little, no, but young ladies—eight, nine—then sure, they all straighten their hair, of course,” she said as she removed the wraps.
Karen told me that when she arrived here, she liked the city. And yes. Many find it beautiful. Many are drawn to the mild sadness that distinguishes it, a sadness that is occasionally interrupted by a bright Sunday morning as radiant as it is unexpected.
She left her four-year-old with her mother in Cartagena and came to Bogotá. A colleague had started up a beauty treatment center in the Quirigua district and offered her a job. She promised her mother she would send money for Emiliano each month, which she has done. Her mother lives in a house in the San Isidro neighborhood with Uncle Juan, a confirmed bachelor who is in poor health. They live mainly on her uncle’s pension, his due for the thirty years he worked in the post office, and on the money Karen sends.
Karen grew up listening to vallenato, bachata and, when she was old enough, champeta. Her mother, barely sixteen years older than Karen, was crowned Miss San Isidro once, which she thought was a sign she would escape poverty, but she ended up pregnant by a blond guy—a sailor, she assumed—who spoke little Spanish. After love paid her mother that furtive visit, the honey-colored girl was born, and she shared not only her mother’s surname, but also her beauty and her poverty.
Doña Yolanda Valdés sold lottery tickets, sold fried fare, was a domestic worker, and bartended in the city. Finally she devoted herself to her grandson, resigned to her arthritis and to the fact that she gave birth to a girl instead of a boy. At forty years of age, she was practically an old lady.
Doña Yolanda’s love affairs resulted in two more pregnancies, boys both times, but such was her luck that one was born dead and the other died after just a few days. Yolanda Valdés said the women in her family were cursed. A sort of evil spell fell over them when they least expected it, and condemned them to inescapable solitude.
Karen remembers seven o’clock Mass on Sundays and waking to the sound of canaries singing. She remembers fish stew at Los Morros beach and taut skin and the dizzying white lights that speckled her field of vision when she floated for a long stretch.
In time, our ritual of shutting ourselves away in that secluded cubicle, sheltered by her youth, the cadence of the sea, and the force of her soft, firm hands, became for me a need as ferocious as hunger.
From the moment I first set eyes on her, I wanted to know who she was. Gently, almost tenderly, I asked questions while she moved her fingertips over my back. That’s how I found out that she arrived in Bogotá in January 2013, the sunny time of year. First she stayed in Suba, in the Corinto neighborhood, where a family rented her a small apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette for three hundred thousand pesos, including utilities. She earned the minimum wage. At the end of the month she didn’t have two pesos to rub together, so she couldn’t send anything home. On top of that, the neighborhood was unsafe and she lived in constant fear. The same morning that a drunk man shot two people for blocking a public road during a family get-together, Karen made up her mind to find another place to live.
She moved to Santa Lucía, to the south, near Avenida Caracas, but now had to cross the entire city to reach the salon where she worked.
When a co-worker mentioned that an exclusive beauty salon in the north was looking for someone, Karen landed an interview. It was the beginning of April. The city was waterlogged from downpours. Karen had been in the new house barely a couple of weeks and took the deluge as a sign of abundance.
The Beauty House is in la Zona Rosa, Bogota’s premier shopping, dining, and entertainment district. From the outside, the white edifice suggests an air of cleanliness and sobriety: part dental clinic, part fashionable boutique. Once through the glass doors, you are transported to a land of women. The receptionist behind the counter greets you with her best smile. Several uniformed employees, polished and smiling, are in the display room offering creams, perfumes, eyeshadow, and masks in the best brands. Magazines are piled on the coffee table in the waiting room.
Karen remembers arriving on the fifth of April at around eleven thirty in the morning. As soon as she crossed the threshold, she breathed deep an aroma of vanilla, almond, rosewater, polish, shampoo, and lavender.
The receptionist, whom she would soon have the chance to get to know better, looked like a porcelain doll. An upturned nose, large eyes, and those full, cherry-colored lips. As she headed past her for the waiting room, Karen wondered what lipstick she used.
At the back, there was a large mirror and two salon chairs, where a couple of women did eyebrow waxing, makeup, and product testing. They were all wearing light-blue pants and short-sleeved blouses in the same color. They looked like nurses, but well-groomed and made up, with impeccably manicured hands and wasp waists. Karen caught sight of the name badge of one who was perfectly bronzed: Susana.
The cleaner also wore a blue uniform, but in a darker hue. She came over to offer Karen an herbal tea. Karen accepted. She saw the tropipop singer known as Rika come in. She was dark and voluptuous with an enviable tan, possibly older than she looked. She was wearing sunglasses like a tiara, had a gold ring on each finger, and lots of bracelets. Like Karen, she announced herself at the reception desk and then took a seat beside her with a magazine.
“Doña Fina is expecting you, you can go in,” said the receptionist.
“Thank you,” said Karen, making sure to pronounce all her consonants to hide her Caribbean accent.
She went up a spiral staircase. She passed by the second floor to reach the third. To her right, three manicure stations, four for eyelashes. In the middle, four cubicles and, at the back, to the left, Doña Josefina de Brigard’s office. Karen approached the half-open door and heard a voice beyond it telling her to come in. In the middle of an inviting room, with skylights that revealed a bright morning, stood a woman of uncertain age. She was dressed in low-heeled shoes, khaki pants, a beige blouse, and pearl necklace, with an impeccable blow-dry and subtle makeup.
“Take a seat,” she said in a low voice.
Doña Josefina watched her walk to the chair on the other side of the only desk in the room. She looked her up and down with her deep green eyes, raising her eyebrows slightly.
Then she looked straight into Karen’s eyes. Karen bowed her head.
“Let me see your hands,” she said.
Karen holds them, a child at primary school all over again. But Doña Josefina didn’t get out a ruler to punish her. She let the young woman’s hand rest on her own a moment, then put on her glasses, examined the hand with curiosity, repeated the operation with the left one, and asked her once more to take a seat.
She, in contrast, paced around the room. If I had that figure at that age, I wouldn’t sit down either, Karen thought.
“Do you know how many years House of Beauty has been running?”
“Forty-five. Back then I had three children. I’m a great-grandmother now.”
Karen looked at her waist, delicately cinched by a snakeskin belt. Her pale pink nails. Her almond-shaped eyes. Her prominent cheekbones have something of opal about them, pale and gleaming. The woman standing before her could have been a movie star.
“House of Beauty and my family are all I have. I’m exacting and I don’t make concessions.”
“I understand,” said Karen.
“Yes, honey, you have an I-understand face. You went from an exclusive salon in Cartagena to a run-of-the-mill one in Bogotá. Why?”
“Because I earn more here than there, or at least that’s what I thought when I left the coast.”
“It’s always about the money . . .”
“I have a four-year-old.”
“So does every other young woman.”
“A four-year-old?” Karen said, not thinking.
“I see you’ve got a sense of humor,” said Doña Josefina, abruptly going back to the formal usted. “This is a place for serious, discreet women who are willing to work twelve-hour days, who take pride in their work, and who understand that beauty requires the highest level of professionalism. With your gracefulness, I’m positive you could go far here. You’ll see: our clients may have money, some of them a lot of money, but much of the time they are tremendously insecure about their femininity. We all have our fears, and as we start aging, those fears grow. So, here at The Beauty House we must be excellent at our jobs, but we must also be warm, understanding, and know how to listen.”
“I understand,” said Karen automatically.
“Of course you don’t, child. You’re not old enough to understand.”
Karen kept quiet.
“So, as I was saying, don’t be too quick to answer; if they want to chat, then you chat; if they want to keep quiet, you should never initiate a conversation. Requesting a tip or favors of any nature warrants dismissal. Answering your phone during work hours warrants dismissal. Leaving the salon without seeking prior permission warrants dismissal. Taking home any of the implements without permission warrants dismissal. Holidays are granted after the first year, pension contributions and healthcare are at your own expense. Same with holidays, which are in fact unpaid leave, and can never exceed two weeks, bank holidays included. The files, creams, oils, spatulas, and other implements are at your own expense, too.”
“Can I ask what the salary is?”
“That depends. For each service, you receive forty per cent. If you’re successful and our clients book a lot of appointments with you, after a few months you could earn one million pesos, including tips.”
Doña Josefina smiled.
“Not so fast, honey. This afternoon I’ve got two more interviews.”
Karen was intrigued that an elegant woman with a well-bred air could switch so smoothly between usted and tú, showing no respect for convention.
“Then I would just like to say that I’m very interested," she said, opting to stick with the formal usted.
“We’ll have an answer for you in a couple of days.”
When Karen was leaving, Doña Josefina stopped her:
“And one more thing. Who doesn’t like a Caribbean accent? Don’t try to hide it. No one, not one single soul in this country or in any other, likes the way we Bogotans speak.”
© Melba Escobar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Elizabeth Bryer. All rights reserved.
Is it ever possible to leave the past behind and restart one’s life? Is there any value to nostalgia? Why do those who are absent sometimes retain the greatest hold on our affections? In this short, fragmentary novel of a family’s displacement and dissolution, Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún explores these questions through a story in which private lives intersect with the convulsions of war, revolution, and political struggle.
Hasbún’s book is a fictional account of the life of Hans Ertl and his family. Ertl was a German cinematographer and mountaineer whose work as a cameraman and photographer made him an important figure in the Nazi propaganda machine. He worked with Leni Riefenstahl in some of her movies, including Olympia, and was well-known for his war photography. After the war ended, however, Ertl was unable to find work because of his reputation as “Hitler’s photographer.” He decided to move and went to La Paz with his family in the 1950s. There, he kept away from politics and dedicated himself to documentaries and photography, later becoming a farmer. He died in 2000 at the age of ninety-two. A Time magazine article from 2008 includes claims by one of his surviving daughters that he was never a Nazi himself, but “did what he could do to survive.”
Hasbún does not portray his fictional Hans as a Nazi, nor does he attempt to redeem (or apologize for) Ertl’s past associations. Instead, the novel employs minimal historical and biographical details in order to imagine how a displaced father’s traits as an obsessive documentarian would ripple and mutate in his children, and to explore the psychological drama underneath the characters’ shifting relationships over time.
Affections is composed of short chapters narrated by different characters. The story takes distinct angles and registers through the voices of each of Hans’s three daughters: Heidi, Monika, and Trixie. Two men from outside the family, both Monika’s lovers, also take part in these narrative variations. The many narrators bring the book a range of emotional weather as they work through the past with shifting tones: reflection, empathy, self-interrogation, and longing.
Hasbún makes frequent use of the language of cinema and photography to show Hans’s impact on those around him. The family is often captured by Hans's cameras, made to participate in staged scenes for his documentary, and Heidi begins to see her family as characters in a dramatic film, while Monika struggles to break away from the family and see herself clearly: “You feel too close to yourself,” she writes in the second person, “and from there everything looks blurred.” The collaborative portrait that emerges of the central character remains somewhat ambiguous, as if he were forever out of reach. Some questions, Hasbún seems to suggest, will always remain unanswered.
The tone is not entirely melancholic, however. The first and longest chapter, narrated by Heidi, launches us on an epic adventure, as Hans decides to film a documentary about the ruins of the lost Inca city of Paititi, said to lie somewhere in the Amazon jungle. Initially, he had counted on involvement from a Brazilian institute and a team of archaeologists, but when they pull out, he decides to pursue the project on his own. He has something of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo: courageous and determined, but also irrational, constantly misled, devoid of support and blind to everything but his desire to fulfill his project.
Heidi tells the story of the ill-fated expedition from a point much later in time, when she is back in Europe and rid of her childhood illusions, but Hasbún succeeds in balancing her bitterness with the breath of youthful life, dramatizing the adventure in a way that is infectious and allows us to recognize Hans’s persuasiveness. Without a team behind him, he accepts help from his two oldest daughters, along with two associates from Germany. As the team’s situation grows more dangerous and uncertain as they descend the Andes into the fog-shrouded rainforest, Heidi’s account takes on a dreamlike quality, rendered beautifully by translator Sophie Hughes: “We looked like lost parachutists. We looked like soldiers searching for a war, or interplanetary beings. Every now and then the fog lifted and we could see the hills rolling out toward the east, covered by a carpet of trees that stretched out endlessly.”
Hans’s search for the lost city is purportedly of “noble” intent, in the sense that he is not out for gold or riches, only to confirm and document the existence of the ruins. Heidi says that she “shivered with excitement at [Hans’s] gallantry” while he haggles with their mule drivers over the terms of the journey. The word also indicates his Quixotic nature as a self-appointed explorer. For all his gallantry, however, Hans seems at times to be oblivious to the world he is exploring. He claims that Machu Picchu sat unknown for hundreds of years until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham, even though it had remained familiar to indigenous people. He is also reckless and destructive when it comes to serving his vision. At one point, he instructs his daughters to douse a valley in combustible oil and set it ablaze, for no other reason than to catch their escape on film. The fire destroys the hired workers’ lodgings and pointlessly kills animals and plants. The Ertls almost lose their own supply tent in the process.
Physical destruction echoes the emotional damage in the family, which Hasbún considers in greater detail. Monika, the oldest daughter, succumbs to a plague of panic attacks following the move to La Paz, a move she heavily protested with the claim that “there’s no such thing as starting over.” When she volunteers to join the expedition, the gesture is ironic and yet fitting. Not only is there no such thing as starting over, there is no giving up. Her father brought her to Bolivia, and she will take the journey as far as possible, even into the jungle to join Che Guevara’s guerrilla fighters.
Monika’s revolutionary consciousness is partly triggered by an affair with her brother-in-law Reinhard, who encourages her to recognize the failures of the country’s 1960s-era junta and invites her to meetings with strikers, but it isn’t long before Monika embraces more radical measures. Reinhard’s account of their past together is filtered by heartache, as he equates the violence she perpetrates with her ruthlessness as a lover: “Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.”
In the second part of the book we meet another of her lovers, a guerrilla fighter named Inti who escaped capture by crossing enemy lines yet is haunted by dreams of a barrage of bullets, as well as memories of his fallen brother. As he looks around at the surviving men he led to safety, he observes how “the world had gone on, an overwhelming fact to digest . . . dead men no longer afraid of death.”
These passages on the guerrilla war are brief but dense, and Hasbún manages to trace a looping connection between Hans and Guevara’s failed quests, to the point that Monika is driven to complete an audacious solo mission that will brand her as a terrorist in Bolivia and make her father an outcast all over again.
When the book advances in time to show the family’s dissolution and the aftermath of guerrilla warfare, the youngest daughter Trixie wonders if it could be possible for Monika to start a new life—but this way of thinking is of course antithetical to her sister’s. Trixie is desperate to hold onto some evidence of a worthwhile life, something to redeem the past and affirm the present, but the old photographs in their father’s house are just evidence of destruction and dissolution. As time goes on, her nostalgia grows foggier, she loses touch of reality, and her narration nearly veers across the line between natural human contradiction and sheer incoherence. She responds to news of the guerillas with a willful lack of comprehension, though the reason is that she’s worried about her sister. While the ending brings an abrupt resolution to her account of a near-mental breakdown, her desire to break the family’s destructive cycle without losing her past resonates long after the conclusion of this short but powerful novel.
The French-language literary tradition distinguishes between "French" or "hexagonal" literature, written by authors born in France (the hexagon), and "Francophone" literature, written by authors born elsewhere. Based on geography but also echoing the country's colonial history (and, arguably, reflecting the associated tropes of exoticization and condescension), the distinction has often been maintained in both reception and awards; the major French literary prizes went largely to native-born writers, and Francophone writers often found larger audiences abroad. In recent years that imbalance has started to shift; in 2006, four of the six most prestigious prizes went to writers born elsewhere, and when French-Mauritian author J.M.G. Le Clézio—a Francophone advocate—won the 2008 Nobel, his success brought renewed attention to other writers from the marginalized regions.
The trend toward parity continues. In 2016 Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou was named to the Chair of Artistic Creation of the Collège de France in Paris. Mabanckou was not only the first writer to hold the post, he was the first African; which meant that the first French writer in this prominent appointment at this venerable university was Francophone, rather than French. In his inaugural lecture Mabanckou spoke to the vexed relationships between France and its former African territories. In an interview after his lecture, he reinforced the need for French literary culture to embrace a global approach, remarking, "Whether we like it or not, French literature is no longer a hexagonal literature, but a 'world literature.'"
As the definition of French literature expands beyond the traditional binary, the diverse voices outside the hexagon have their counterparts within, as writers from former colonies and elsewhere relocate to France and begin, or continue, to compose in French. These writers have migrated geographically and, in some cases, linguistically. In blending an outsider’s perspective with the local language, they create a new French writing, reframing and expanding the literature of their adopted country. This month we present a selection of these new voices.
Several of the writers here hail from former French colonies and grew up suspended between their mother tongues and the official French of the occupiers. One, Zahia Rahmani, writes from the dual perspective of the doubly exiled. Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). These men were twice rejected: first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families sought refuge but instead faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. In an excerpt from Rahmani's autobiographical novel Muslim, a Harki's daughter is forced to abandon her native Kabyle for French. Ten years later, she recovers both her language and her memories to solve a lingering mystery from her past.
Rwanda's Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse also fled war, in her case the Rwandan genocide. Here she makes her English-language debut with "Motherhood," from her first collection of short stories, Ejo. When a Tutsi widow's Hutu in-laws spread the rumor that she poisoned her husband, her bereft fifteen-year-old son turns against her; and when he reaches adulthood, his vicious uncle exploits his festering resentment to recruit him for the extremist Hutu militia. Caught at the intersection of family quarrels and ethnic conflict, his mother fears he will explode into unthinkable violence. In Mairesse's native language, Kinyarwanda, "ejo" means both "yesterday" and "tomorrow": a fitting description of the inescapable effect of war and the intrusion of the past into the present and future.
Rachid O. was born in Morocco and, unlike Rahmani and Mairesse, came to France by choice. In his "Hot Chocolate," a Moroccan adolescent is entranced by his nanny's tales of her doted-on previous charge, the adorable French boy Noé. The old woman's daily reminiscences over Noé's photo fan the teen's infatuation until, obsessed, he finds a way to shorten the distance between them. Rachid O.'s work addresses the struggle of being gay and Muslim; here, the teen's conflation of his desire for Noé with his yearning for France foreshadows both his adult attraction to men and his eventual departure.
Novelist and playwright Aziz Chouaki's impressionistic take on an Algerian immigrant's arrival in Paris moves through a series of quick images to produce a photographic portrait of disorientation. Bombarded by sensation and lubricated by multiple rounds of drinks, the giddy Jeff caroms from his cousin's claustrophobic apartment to the teeming streets of Pigalle. Chouaki's staccato prose captures Jeff's frenetic first night and telegraphs the chaos ahead.
While the colonial migrants at least come equipped with some knowledge of French culture, those from other countries must find their own tools to navigate the turmoil of arrival. In Négar Djavadi's autobiographical tale, a teenage Iranian immigrant discovers the route to peer acceptance in Paris winds through English-language punk. In the cacophony of the Sex Pistols and their three-chord cohort, she achieves a harmony of wardrobe, language, and worldview. She embraces the music and its culture "because it denounces the hypocrisy of power and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me." (Watch our blog for a playlist.)
Shumona Sinha, born in Calcutta, moved to France and worked for a charity providing interpreting services to asylum seekers. Her experience informs "The Man with the Guava Tree." A brusque immigration officer grills a bewildered Hindu refugee as an interpreter struggles to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide. Caught between the obtuse bureaucrat and the flummoxed young man, the interpreter responds in the only way possible. Sinha has been on both sides of the desk, and her black comedy of rigid bureaucracy exposes the cruel joke on immigrants who flee terror only to endure a second ordeal in their "haven."
These stories represent only a fraction of the richness of topic and language found in this new French literature. As the traditional geographical distinctions recede, the new angles within the hexagon promise a reformulation and remapping of contemporary writing in French.
© 2017 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
New Journalism. Crónica. Creative nonfiction. Whatever you call it, and whatever labels we continue to conjure up to describe a genre that has been around in one form or another for a very long time, the genre occupies an in-between space, with one foot in the world of journalism and another in fiction. Despite its association with the 1960s, some have suggested writers such as Defoe and Twain as progenitors of the form in its Anglophone variety.
On these coasts, the early giants include Gay Talese (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” has become a staple in journalism programs not only in the States, but abroad), and today Jon Lee Anderson is just one of the better-known writers in this august tradition. More recently, longform journalism has evolved to point of being taught in many MFA programs throughout the US. In Latin America, the tradition of the crónica in a form we would recognize stretches back at least to Cuban writer and revolutionary José Marti. During his stint living in New York between 1881 and 1895, he composed more than 175 such texts as part of the series “North American Scenes.” (If, given the season, you’re interested in seeing how the Coney Island of today differs from that of the 1880s, you might start with the Martí crónica that takes its name from the neighborhood, in Esther Allen’s marvelous translation.) At the turn of the twentieth century, there was Paulo Barreto, better known as João do Rio, “the cronista of Rio’s soul.” (“The street,” he wrote in his most famous text, “is the eternal image of innocence”—and the flâneur turned cronista, he continues, the eternal innocent.) More than a half-century later, Gabriel García Márquez’s 1955 text on Hiroshima revisited the bombing of the Japanese city through the eyes of a Spanish priest: “The first encounter Padre Arrupe had with victims of the catastrophe was when he saw three young women clinging to one another, their bodies turned to raw flesh, emerge from the rubble. It was then he understood that this had been no ordinary fire.”
Today, to our great fortune, there are still magazines throughout Latin America dedicated to the form: among them, Etiqueta Negra in Peru and Piauí in Brazil. And, of course, there are the cronistas themselves, nudging the form forward, ensuring its endurance into the twenty-first century.
Among them is Julio Villanueva Chang, founding editor of Peru’s Etiqueta Negra—a magazine often described as the Peruvian New Yorker. Chang has been writing profiles for over two decades, and he has earned an Inter American Press Association prize for his work. Over the years, Chang has garnered his share of admirers: “The profile is the subgenre in which, within the tradition of the crónica, Julio Villanueva Chang is a master,” the great Mexican writer Juan Villoro has said, drawing comparisons between Chang and García Márquez during his days as a cronista in Barranquilla and Cartagena, Colombia. In this issue, Chang takes readers to Tres Cruces, Uruguay’s main bus terminal, located in the country’s capital, Montevideo. There, he plumbs the seemingly innocuous routine of the commuter station, creating a memorable portrait of the people who define and who are defined by Tres Cruces, in a translation by Sophie Hughes.
Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum is no less spectacular in lending voice and visibility to those hiding in plain sight—or, in the case of her piece in this month's magazine, those “hiding” in the midst of the rainforest: midwives who have brought generations of children into the world and into rural Brazil. In two decades of reporting, Brum has won over forty national and international awards, among them the Premio Rey de España and the Inter American Associated Press Award. In 2008, she received the United Nations Special Press Trophy. “The Forest of Midwives,” translated by Julia Sanches, is emblematic of Brum’s knack for immersing readers in the singular atmospheres she conjures.
Our youngest practitioner of the crónica form comes from Guatemala. His name, Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez. A journalist and writer, he has published two novels—Los Jueces and Puente Adentro—and a short story collection. His first novel earned him the XI Mario Monteforte Toledo Prize for Fiction, and his second won the III BAM Letras Prize for Fiction in 2015. Here, in Geoff Bendeck’s translation, Suárez brings us a story of urban Guatemala through its taxi drivers. Rather than trail them on their routes, Suárez is interested in where his subjects don’t go.
Though a modest sample of the possibilities and elasticity of the nueva crónica latinoamericana, New Journalism, or whatever label you choose to apply, the writers in this month’s feature provide assurance that the genre is source of some of today’s most vibrant and compelling stories, fictional or otherwise. If the past is any guide, we have no reason to believe that the future of the form is also assured.
© 2017 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.
A private history of Tres Cruces, Montevideo's main bus terminal
where every day thousands of strangers collide,
converse, grow bored and even, sometimes, get hitched.
Why does Mom always say
we shouldn't talk to strangers?
The woman who serves coffee in Montevideo’s central bus station is good at talking to strangers. “Sometimes it’s easier chatting with someone you don’t know,” says Raquel Quirque, a stranger to me, and one with no less than three Qs to her name. She has just sat down in one of the waiting rooms in Tres Cruces, Uruguay’s national bus terminal, after three straight hours on her feet in Del Andén, a café right in the heart of this transport hub, where she rolls out “Good morning, sugar or sweetener?” with the casualness of an auntie serving up breakfast. Raquel is blond, Sagittarius, and dressed head to toe in black. Her telephone ringtone is the club anthem for Atlético Peñarol, and she wakes up every morning before five. By that time, her husband is already on the road, driving a bus for the Compañía Oriental de Transporte, whose ticket office stands directly opposite the spot where Raquel serves commuters their coffee. Their son works in the dispatch office for the same company. It’s not a coincidence: it’s called family. Having finished her shift in the café, Señora Q now clings to her thermos of yerba maté. Her husband brings her favorite blend from inland Uruguay, the place he drives the same strangers who approach her every day for a chat. Raquel Quirque’s whole life revolves around Tres Cruces. “I go to a supermarket and instead of asking ‘How much is that?’ I’ll say, ‘Anything else?’ The phone rings at home and I pick up, ‘Café del Andén, buenas tardes.’” Her special brand of autopilot politeness reveals a cheerful sense of fatality: she wants to die serving coffee in Tres Cruces.
“I have a saying: ‘From here it’s either to the BPS or El Norte.’”
The BPS is Uruguay’s national retirement registry. El Norte is the country’s largest cemetery.
“I’ll retire here or die here,” she says. “But look for another job . . . no way.”
On the main door of Tres Cruces terminal is a welcome sign: AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF. Welcome posters tend to have a demagogic slant. If a foreigner were to arrive one Sunday to the deserted streets of Montevideo, it’s more than likely he’d ask himself where all the Uruguayans were. If he went that same Sunday at midnight to Tres Cruces, he’d find his answer: they’re all there. The human landscape is largely homogenous, but with a hint of a local flavor: gauchos with smartphones, and executives addicted to maté. People rummaging through their pockets for their tickets, or holding onto children with one hand and suitcases with the other; travelers killing time smoking, or dozing in the waiting room, their mouths wide open; college students with tickets between their teeth, running to make their buses; men with suits swung over their shoulders to avoid them getting creased; travelers lugging backpacks the size of a healthy eleven-year-old; women wrapped up in scarves. A tourist with a travel brochure walking a memorized route; scruffy musicians with guitars in black cases; lost youths looking for someone; commuters eating on the go; moms holding dolls waiting for their little girls by the restroom door. Men who still use watches to tell the time, their hands in their pockets, businesswomen pulling carry-ons with grace and panache. A girl with an eye patch concealing a surgical scar. Skinheads skulking about as if someone were following them. Bald children post-chemo being wheeled in chairs. A black man and a white woman kissing. The man who has put several coins into a public telephone and says “hello-hello” in vain. A solemn fireman in a marine blue uniform; one kid in a Grêmio de Porto Alegre T-shirt and another in a Boca Juniors; plagues of old people in baseball caps; hordes of teenagers wearing headphones; families hugging one another as if for the last time. All of them traveling to one of the nineteen “departments” that make up Uruguay, a terrain you can cross in less than half a day by bus, and which is a hundred times smaller than Russia, a square kilometer bigger than the Republic of Suriname, and whose entire population is equal to its neighboring Brazil’s annual birthrate. It’s a tiny, flat country where airline companies don’t stand a chance. The Promised Land for any bus-travel impresario. Almost half of all Uruguayans live in Montevideo. In 2011, the shopping-mall-cum-bus-terminal received twenty-one million visitors: seven times Uruguay’s population. Tres Cruces, “AN ENTIRE NATION UNDER ONE ROOF,” is not a demagogic sign: it’s a theater for an anthropologist specializing in short-distance travel. A laboratory of conversations between strangers.
“When you have a coffee, you tend to have a chat,” says Señora Q. “Maté is more personal.”
Señora Q is an accidental ethnographer. For almost two decades she has observed travelers and shoppers in Tres Cruces, a station that’s been around for some time. She isn’t one to maintain a courteous distance, and her trusting familiarity is infectious. She talks to strangers because she learns more from others. She looks you in the eye when she talks. Del Andén has two locations: the café on the first floor, which is otherwise dominated by ticket machines and waiting rooms; and the second-floor branch, where they sell pastries and cakes among the other stores. Raquel Quirque arrives at work by sunrise and leaves at lunchtime, injecting her thermos with hot water to top up her maté supply in the meantime. The clients order tortugas, little rolls with ham and cheese. They also ask for medialunas, pastries that don’t really resemble their crescent moon namesake. And yet, Señora Q’s real profession is that of observer: seeing what, due to overexposure, we no longer see. Or what amounts to the same: seeing what we choose not to see. Like matters of life and death; all the people who live inland have to pass through Tres Cruces to be cured. The station is close to several hospitals, including one for children with cancer. And Señora Q sees the sick. She sees their parents’ anguish. She sees how the child gradually gets better. She sees when they stop coming. High coffee consumption might get bad press, but Señora Q says that serving coffee in Tres Cruces has changed her worldview.
“What have I got to complain about if I have my health and my job?” she says. “In this place you see real problems. Compare them with my life, and I look like Alice in Wonderland.”
Alice in Wonderland was born in Minas, a slower, quieter city than Montevideo, which is already slower and quieter than every other capital city in the world. The Uruguayans run on a low voltage, their temperament undergoing an explosive metamorphosis when they turn out at Centenario Stadium. This is a tiny country famed for its happy cows, football fanatics, and melancholy. There’s an old Argentinian joke: “Sad like a happy Uruguayan.” Uruguayans spend their lives correcting people who call them Argentinian, just like Canadians spend theirs being confused for Yanks. Uruguay has one of the highest suicide rates in the Americas, the longest and safest Carnival in the world, and one of the oldest and most Spartan presidents in the universe. “As a country, we love our long weekends as much as we love our freedom,” José Mujica once said. Mujica was born the same year the tango singer Gardel died. Gardel was born in Argentina, but ask anyone around here and he was Uruguayan. The president says that his countrymen value “life” in the lowercase, serenity, and signs of affection. In Tres Cruces, there is certainly a lot more affection than serenity.
“It’s fun working with the public,” Señora Q tells me. “Even if every now and then they’re a little overwhelming.”
“People from inland always say ‘please,’” says Natalie Benavides, who once worked in Customer Services. “The city slickers from the capital don’t ask, they order.”
“Inlanders are warmer and arrive in good time,” Señora Q goes on, “They’ve always got a moment for you. People from Montevideo spend their lives dashing from here to there.”
To make out a single face among the thousands who pass by each day and remember one detail. A biography in the blink of an eye.
“People are more aggressive these days,” she says without blinking. “I don’t know. Someone might have more problems than I do, I don’t dispute that. But I would never take it out on a stranger.”
Señora Q looks at you with maternal eyes, the kind you can’t pull the wool over.
“My colleagues say that when I moan at them I put on my stern eyes. I glare.”
One kid who works in the café likes to give her a monosyllable of advice.
The boss of Tres Cruces’ control tower, a man used to resolving the tangled mess of over a hundred bus drivers, doesn’t own a car. He prefers to travel on foot. “The first time I sat down in front of a wheel,” he tells me, “was on a bus.” One early Friday evening, radio in hand, Osvaldo Torres directs the traffic in the rainy streets surrounding Tres Cruces. It’s rush hour. “The station is an enormous jigsaw puzzle and it’s our job to put the pieces together,” he tells me, standing in his rain boots and a bright yellow raincoat. Umbrellas litter the scene. Passersby walk wrapped up in their own worlds, pensive in the rain. The country spans such a small distance that every day thousands travel back and forth between the capital and the interior. The ant nest swells at the start and end of the week. Some days, three buses enter the station per minute. During these times, fellow countrymen and women come into contact, even bump into one another. “I like being among people like that,” says Torres, Mr. Rush Hour. Every Friday, between six and seven a.m., more than one hundred buses enter and leave the forty-one platforms in just one hour. “It’s the most important moment of the week, and we enjoy it,” he says, with a Friday kind of look on his face. “The adrenaline runs high.” He has come down from his humble two-story tower, from which a team of controllers oversee this chaos-on-wheels. Torres has the authoritative swagger of an army general. He could direct the rain if he wanted to.
“I like people who can command a group, who are willing to put themselves on the front line,” the boss says. “People who command and lead by example.”
Torres always wanted to be in the army, but fate kept foisting on him its own ironies and coincidences. He was a tour guide with the Organización Nacional de Autobuses (National Organization of Buses), a transport company with a greyhound dog for an icon, à la Greyhound. He explained all sorts of things to the tourists, from the history of the city, to the morphology of a waterfall. One day they had to move a bus and he happened to be there. Fate always handed him opportunities: an aunt had married a marine who would end up becoming Commander in Chief of the Navy, and as a child he often visited their house. One night, when he was ten and staying over at his aunt’s, he lay out on the lawn in the yard to watch the night sky, and his uncle, the commander of the seas, pointed out a star; the brightest in the Taurus constellation, and today, the namesake of one of Torres’s daughters: Aldebaran. He will never forget that night. “I’m a frustrated marine,” he admits. At one point, it crossed his mind to join the naval academy. Torres is a frustrated admiral.
“Even today I ask myself why I didn’t do it,” he says.
By six thirty p.m., Torres is moving around like a traffic policeman. He rules the road in the rain, zigzagging his way down a tailback of eleven buses. Behind them, you can make out a couple more. The people staring out the bus windows are the very picture of boredom: faces masked behind their breath on the glass, just-woken-up faces, nothing-but-the-music-playing-on-my-headphones-exists faces, please-god-come-to-pick-me-up faces. The buses appear, one after the other, and completely obscure all other cars from view. Some companies have names fit for spies, like Central Agency. Others would be better suited to the coast, like Turismar. Some are named in capital letters, CITA and COT, or geographically like Paysandú. Some are just friendly, like Bonjour. Their buses are emblazoned with classic slogans—“We love to get you there”— or WI-FI. All of them are obsessed with converting their buses into hotel beds. The Chief of the Control Tower makes no distinctions and has no favorites. One time, a driver left his bus in the station for longer than is permitted without reporting in first.
“I overstepped the line a little,” he says, as if by way of apology, “but I had no choice. I told him that from the moment he was inside the station, if he so much as wanted to take a shit he had to tell me first.”
By six thirty in the evening, there is a crowd of passengers waiting to leave.
Men checking their tickets to make sure they have the right details.
Girls with either very floral or very black luggage.
People opening their umbrellas against the rain.
The Frustrated Admiral looks at photos of burning ships as they scroll across his computer screen. He scans through some photos, of his three daughters and grandchildren, of a few quotes he likes to read aloud, of cities like Rio de Janeiro. Photos of women like Marilyn Monroe and Mother Teresa, boxers like Muhammed Ali, singers like Frank Sinatra, and military figures like General Patton. Another one pops up: the storefront of one of the ticket offices in the station. He plans to write an email of complaint to the manager: “One of my jobs is to make sure the stores are in a decent state.” He has a cat called Maika, which he rescued from the street. He’s a fan of Defensor Sporting Club because he’s not interested in clubs that always win. He is into conspiracy theories and remembers where he was the exact day and hour Kennedy was killed. He smokes less and less, but still gets through a ten-pack a day. He smokes more at night. He has friends, most of who he sees at the bar, but one in particular, by far and away his favorite: a first cousin who was a translator for the United Nations, and with whom he talks on Skype. His ninety-year-old mother is called Valkiria and she lives in a retirement home. His wife is a cashier for one of the transport companies. Torres is about to turn seventy, the legal age of retirement.
“No,” he says. “This is where I belong.”
No one dreams of a fire breaking out in the early hours of Christmas Day. On the Twenty-Fifth of December 2010, Torres, the chief of the Tres Cruces Control Tower, was sleeping a hundred and twenty-five miles from Montevideo when someone sent him word of the incident. “It was the equivalent of a captain being told his ship has sunk," Torres recalls. “You feel completely lost at sea.” The fire had started at three minutes to two a.m., on the mezzanine floor of a shoe store and a sports clothing store. Eduardo Robaina, Director of Operations at Tres Cruces, who had worked every one of the previous twenty-four Christmases, interrupted what was going to be his first holiday off in memory: he was at his mother’s house, in Canelones, thirty miles north of Montevideo. “They called the fire department first, then me.” The flames were making ashes of brand new stores. Señora Q didn’t know about the fire until later that morning. “It was as if my soul had left my body,” she says, and it was two days before she went back to Tres Cruces. “A grim gift from Father Christmas,” says Pablo Cusnir, the Marketing Manager. “We were outside of Montevideo when they woke us up. And my wife was pregnant.” That morning, Osvaldo Torres, who was set to go back to work two days later, returned to his tower and found it transformed into a Situation Room: the president of the board of directors, Carlos Lecueder, the vice-president, Luis Muxi, and the director general, Marcelo Lombardi, were discussing what to do. “These men are either going to have to steer the shipwreck or direct the rescue operation,” Frustrated Admiral told himself. And the director general, who that night had been enjoying a barbeque with over fifty friends, set off toward the station. They never found out what started the fire. The firemen had put it out by seven thirty a.m.
“You get used to situations to which you’re more or less accustomed,” Lombardi says, “But we’d never seen anything like this.”
Fires are common at Christmas, and yet they also belong to the realm of the unexpected. Lombardi believes a firework may have fallen on the roof, or that there was a short circuit in the air conditioning. What the fire didn’t reach was destroyed by the smoke and water. The air was thick with soot and the smell of burning. After the fire, they had to roll up their sleeves. “You woke up knowing it was going to be a rotten day,” Lombardi says. “Every morning, dozens of problems awaiting you.” The working day began at six a.m. and didn’t end until eleven at night. “I went and saw what was left: the wooden benches were still in one piece, but they had become charcoal, and the whole place was flooded,” Señora Q recalls. “The stores had all turned into black holes.” Ana Claudia Casas, who worked at Óptica Lux—one of the new stores that lost everything—recalls from behind her eyeglasses: “It looked like a bomb had hit it. Everything was black. Bent iron girders all over the place.” Lilian Lerena, a local who does her shopping in Tres Cruces, sums it up like this: “I saw a lot of smoke, but even more sadness.” It was a tragedy without any fatalities or injuries, but which clocked up some seven million dollars in losses. “I would keep popping into the shop to find something,” says Casas. “A temple, a lens, I don’t know. I needed to find something just as it had been left.” She had hundreds of glasses there. Sunglasses sold like hotcakes at Christmas.
“And did you speak to your wife on the phone?” I ask Lombardi.
“Yes,” he responds, “But in monosyllables.”
That Christmas, when the Director General of Tres Cruces finally got home, his daughters were already sleeping. So long, vacations. There would be no New Year’s festivities that year. Instead, they would have to come up with some urgent solutions so the bus service didn’t grind to an absolute halt, notify the storekeepers of their losses, and reconstruct the shopping mall. When people get off buses, they just walk away. But to get on, they have to find the right coach; they can’t get it wrong. Departures had to keep running from Tres Cruces. That very Christmas Day they set up an arrivals terminal in a parking lot in front of the Centenario Stadium. They had water dispensers for the passengers, portable toilets, a waiting room on the asphalt, music and loudspeakers, awnings to protect people from the sun, and even a hotdog cart. A station, campground-style. The public was understanding. But back in Tres Cruces, just a few blocks from there, the press had begun demanding an update on the bus services. “An emergency situation demands verticality, and the whole team adapted,” Lombardi tells me. “Decisions were made, not argued over: they were made and followed through.” It called for collective improvisation among locals, authorities, and storekeepers. In one month, by the end of January 2011, the station was back up and running, and in five months the shopping mall had reopened. They had to reconstruct over thirty out of one hundred stores.
“More than nightmarish, it was unforgettable,” Torres says.
Going through a fire certainly helps you to loosen your collar and roll up your sleeves. For Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director, a man of action and sales, going to work with a tie on was a must for any businessman, just like a chef puts on his apron to cook. He had long since buried his past as the shaggy-haired son of a hairdresser with a torso that had never seen a shirt, and feet that would do anything to avoid a pair of shoes. If he wasn’t wearing a tie, Cusnir felt uncomfortable dealing with other businesspeople. In the weeks after the fire, nobody in Tres Cruces worried themselves too much about getting back into their suits. Instead they wore pants fit for tramping around in the fire’s ruins. It was summer in Uruguay, and the fire helped Cusnir grow accustomed to going tieless. Months later, the marketing director changed his cell ringtone. He had begun to detest it. Aside from his wife and mother, he mainly received calls asking him to fix endless issues. From six thirty in the morning to eleven at night his cell would ring with other people’s problems. Now the association between ringtone and interminable glitches had already been ingrained. One day, as he was sitting in a work meeting, the sound of one of his associate’s telephone set his teeth on edge. It was his tune from around the time of the fire. A ghost in the form of a ringtone.
“It was like an abyss,” Cusnir says, “It gave me goose bumps.”
Today his cell rings Rock n’ Roll.
The one man a woman might expect to meet in the event of a fire is a fireman. But there are some exceptions. Two days after that Christmas tragedy, Natalia Benavides, a tall blonde who worked in Customer Services went to the makeshift station in the Centenario stadium to receive the arriving passengers. David Souza, a cashier for the bus company General Artigas, and shorter than Natalia, went along to the same place to welcome his company’s buses as they arrived from Brazil. “I was trying to be nice, so I told him that I spoke other languages, that he could come to me for anything,” she says. “She noticed I had trouble speaking Portuguese,” he says, “and used the opportunity to impress me with the fact that she spoke several languages.” He asked her out; she said no. He asked again; she made excuses. He had never had a serious relationship with anyone; she thought she could never go out with a guy like him. A day before the year came to a close, she offered to give David the number of any of her girlfriends if he agreed to take a friend of hers to buy her cigarettes on his scooter. He said he would take the friend, but that he was only interested in having her number. She never did give him her number; he asked a buddy for it. They went for a maté. They had a child. They met thanks to a fire.
Everybody thinks that Señora Q met her husband in Tres Cruces. Preconceptions dressed up as fantasies: there’s a hint of lyricism and adventure to the idea of meeting someone at a bus stop, and even better if it happens under the rain. But when Raquel Quirque, Señora Q, began working in the Café del Andén, they had already been a couple for nine years and had a little girl together. She had previously worked in a pizzeria in Montevideo Shopping, where she met one of the future owners of the café. In fact, she has worked in all the shopping malls in Montevideo. “A bus station is special,” she tells me. “You get a different kind of person there, a different movement, a different kind of curiosity. I wanted to work in Tres Cruces.” The owner of Café del Andén is a doctor. Back then he was the doctor who visited the houses of the workers of the Compañia Oriental de Transportes (COT) to verify if they were ill. One day he went to her house to examine her husband, who had begun working at COT’s headquarters: he took the buses to the car wash and back to the parking lot. The sick man became a driver when they opened Tres Cruces, and she became Señora Q. To sleep alongside a bus driver is really to ensure they don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
“It’s a huge responsibility, staying awake,” she says, blinking.
Julio Sánchez Padilla is someone who knows his stuff about drivers though she doesn’t sleep next to one: he owns the transport company CITA and is one of the founders of Tres Cruces. There is something patriotic about the way he holds himself, and his biography makes you think he knows a bit too much: basketball referee in the Rome and Tokyo Olympic Games; Guinness World Record holder for hosting the longest-running football television program in the world—Estadio 1, every Monday since 1970, without fail; and heroic survivor of two heart attacks. Sánchez Padilla tells stories full of pregnant pauses, like someone who knows he’s being listened to. Decades of watching televised politics between the good and the bad, decades of living among bus drivers with their cargo and life baggage. Señor Guinness World Record remembers one of his bus drivers above all: a certain Febres. He tells me he was an exceptionally elegant, meticulous, and punctual man. One who has now passed away.
“You don’t get drivers like Febres anymore,” Señor Guinness World Record laments.
“People get down on their knees and beg for a job, then do it with no love.”
Señora Q, who has been sleeping next to the same driver for twenty-five years, believes that there aren’t any drivers like Montiglia, her husband who sits at the wheel of a Scania. She has a son who works just as vigilantly as her husband in the Tres Cruces dispatch office. She has a daughter-in-law who also works in the dispatches department. And she has a daughter who works in a clothes store that’s not in the Tres Cruces mall but who comes to visit her family in Tres Cruces anyway. There are thousands of college students who travel inland almost every weekend, and thousands of them receive parcels from their parents: boxes of food, darned items of clothing, animals. And they go to Tres Cruces to collect these boxes, for the ironed shirt, the casserole their mother made on Friday. They go in desperately searching for that box, to tear off the wrapping. It’s a box connected to the earth: even today, if you send someone a gift or item, you send it in a box. Mom’s favorite dish can’t get there by email. And in Uruguay all the journeys are short-distance. That’s why the casseroles get there okay.
Her son, who works among other people’s casseroles, often sees more animals than people.
“He receives chickens almost every day,’ Senora Q says, “Chickens going back and forth, coming and going in boxes with holes in.”
Her daughter, the only one of the clan who doesn’t work in Tres Cruces, also goes to the station.
“But she comes to see Mom,” Mom tells me.
“What do you talk to your husband about each day?”
“Everything apart from work. He gets all those people from A to B, but I’m the one who talks to them most.”
Some people go home and forget about work.
Others make hard work of forgetting.
Samantha Navarro has a song about Tres Cruces.
It’s not a cumbia. Or a tango. Or a candombe. It’s heartbreak.
The singer’s hair is full and wavy like her songs. Samantha sings:
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/grayyyyy dawn/take your backpack with you/Don’t want to see you no more. ♫
It’s about a summer fling, a good-bye.
♫ Terminal Tres Cruces/fare thee well/I loved you so/but if I love you now I can’t tell. ♫
Desire, disillusion, doubt.
♫ Now now I’m losing eeeeverything I had/And I hate myself. ♫
The song’s chorus goes:
♫ And I’m bleeding myself dry. ♫ Three times.
Three Crucifixions. Three Crosses. Tres Cruces.
According to the singer, she isn’t the subject of the song, although everyone thinks she is. Rather it’s a character made up of different good-bye stories she’s heard. “I wanted to treat the whole station as if it were a single person,” she explains. “The character I invented thinks she’s never going to be able to love again.” What Navarro doesn’t make up is the fact that Tres Cruces has been as much a part of her life as her three hundred or more songs. When she was a little girl, she would take a bus that passed the wasteland where they planned to build the station. She studied guitar, chemistry, and anthropology. She is a trained sommelier, writes science-fiction stories, sings. When she travels inland for concerts, Samantha Navarro takes the bus from Tres Cruces. As a young woman, she would watch from the window of other buses as builders moved an entire plaza to accommodate the station. Back then she worked as a secretary and studied chemistry at college.
“It was like a place of quantum perturbation,” the singer recalls. “A commotion of machines and things that I had never seen before.”
“The station created a new city center,” Señor Guinness World Record says.
“What do you do when you go to the station?” I ask.
“Just say hi,” he says. “That’s all. Because everyone is on the move.”
Señor Guinness World Record had the plans for Tres Cruces in his possession when nothing was even in motion yet. In 1990, years before the station opened, Julio Sánchez Padilla was Mister Transport in Uruguay. “The station was the main event,” he says. “The mall an added bonus.” Two decades later the fire happened. The Ex-President of the National Carriers Association, the one who knows a thing or two about heart attacks, also understands that a tragedy can be turned into something positive. Today, Tres Cruces is free of bulkheads, construction workers, and noise. What the Singer with the Full Hair used to see from the bus window when she was a young woman is today another song. No longer a noisy racket, it’s an orchestral synthesis, a scene of meetings and good-byes, a labyrinth rehearsal. Some people had opposed plans to build a station there. On the day of Tres Cruces’ inauguration, Sánchez Padilla fitted a golden plaque on a wall in the main hall. Inscribed on it was a well-known saying: “Great works are dreamed up by crazy geniuses, accomplished by born fighters, enjoyed by the happy sane, and criticized by chronic wastes of space.” Any phrase framed in inverted commas is destined to create enemies. Señor Guinness World Record is a fanatic Peñarol supporter—“I can admit that to you because you’re foreign”—and an admirer of Carlos Lecueder, the President of the Tres Cruces Board of Directors who travels the world and comes back with ideas for his shopping malls. Today the drivers’ patriarch hardly ever visits the site. Instead, every Wednesday, his company takes hundreds of kids from Uruguay’s inland areas to visit Montevideo.
“Some of them, the ones who come from far, have never seen the sea,” Sánchez Padilla tells me.
Señora Q has a privileged view of a sea of strangers. And she has a gift: Quirque is a people magnet; and those people tell her things. A fat, blonde woman walks past the waiting room toward us and her smile widens with every step as she realizes that Señora Q is looking at her. For three and a half years, Sandra Díaz Reyes cleaned the ladies’ restroom in Tres Cruces. For three and a half years she earned a salary, but above all she lived off the tips the women would leave her. She was originally employed to sweep and mop, until one day the woman responsible for the restroom in front of McDonald’s didn’t show up for work. From that day on, Sandra Díaz Reyes looked after it as if it were an extension of her own home. With her own money, she bought an air freshener that smelled nicer that the official disinfectant, decorated as if it were her living room during the holidays, and politely encouraged her clients to leave it impeccable. There’s nothing like a restroom line to get to know a woman: “I knew who would leave the cubicle clean from one look at them,” recalls Señora Restroom-Cleaner. That afternoon, in the middle of a throng of passengers moving around the station, both women stopped to talk by the waiting room. As if they had radar to locate one another.
“We see more than what you people think,” Señora Q says. “Our tracking gaze picks up everything.”
She couldn’t remember the surname of Señora Restroom-Cleaner. In Tres Cruces, memory for detail is hazy. You remember major episodes, and forget last names. Your memory is emotive, dramatic, anecdotal. Sandra Díaz Reyes stopped attending the ladies' restroom at Tres Cruces when she split up with the father of her five children. The job of keeping a public bathroom impeccable requires even more self-respect than detergent. The classic cinematographic stereotype of ladies' restrooms smells closer to vanity than physiology, to a woman’s perfume than her bodily functions. The Tres Cruces restrooms are not cinematographic: they are defined by urgent need, people in line, impatience. Señora Q remembers a tragic day. It happened the year after Tres Cruces opened. Sandra Díaz had taken a half an hour break and her friend was covering for her. The cleaning woman started to scream and called security: they had found a fetus in the waste bin.
“It was one of my worst days at Tres Cruces,” she says. “The other was the fire.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner knows that a public bathroom is a theater. There are tragedies and comedies.
“I was pretty hysterical about cleanliness,” she says, referring to her own bathroom at home. “I got it from my mother. And my daughters are the same.”
Señora Restroom-Cleaner believes in supreme cleanliness and the Bible. A cheery Capricorn herself, she doesn’t believe in the signs of the zodiac. She believes in the Evangelist’s God, in work, and in her friends from her old job. She believes in having seven children and in a mother who worked with her cleaning bathrooms in the station and in a restaurant at night. She did her shopping in Tres Cruces; celebrated her birthdays with friends in Tres Cruces; moved in two blocks away from Tres Cruces. When she grumbled about not having a job in Tres Cruces, she went to see her friends in Tres Cruces. She sold clothes in Tres Cruces. She worked in a delicatessen. She worked as a security guard. She cleaned houses. She met her second husband. They had two children and opened a bakery together. “I came from inland, from Salto. Tres Cruces changed my life,” Señora Restroom-Cleaner says. “I learned I could get ahead with my kids there.” Back then she had five children. One of them was a future football player. Luis Suárez, number 9 on the Uruguayan squad, wasn’t yet the boy with buckteeth who made a living out of intimidating the world’s goalkeepers. He was less than ten years old when one day he went looking for his mom in Tres Cruces. His siblings had sent him to ask their mother for money to go food shopping and the boy took the stairs from the restroom to the supermarket. Luis Sánchez would go on to play on his nation’s team as well as for the Dutch team Ajax. He then became Liverpool’s golden boy, with a reputation of making goalkeepers regret being the one to guard against him at the door. The mother of one of the most famous footballers in the world was the public restroom cleaner.
“It annoys me sometimes that people hang around you because of who he is today,” his mom says. “I know how to sniff them out. That’s why I have my people from Tres Cruces. Today, some uncle or cousin I’ve never heard of might crawl out of the woodwork, but I know who’s always been here.”
Señora Q remembers one such man.
“I’ve known him since he fixed the plugs,” she says. “Now he fixes everyone’s problems.”
Señor Fix It All is an imposing title. It almost calls for a bow. But Eduardo Robaina is a bald man who has fought for everything, including his Van Dyke beard. The title, Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets, reminds us of his origins. He pulled out of his three-year studies in engineering to slog away in a refinery. He descended from the heights of estimates and projections to dive headfirst into an underworld of fuel and cement. The work of a tough, no-nonsense kind of guy. He studied hydraulics, thermodynamics, chemistry, tanks, pumps, logistics. Working in a refinery is like working in a jungle gym of hazards: it means being capable of producing giant works and studying endless details to avoid a catastrophe. That was his school. Robaina entered Tres Cruces officially as a maintenance person, a man who trafficked in electric plugs and nails. Today he is the Chief of Operations. “That big man is just as kind today as he was when he went around fitting electrical sockets,” Señora Q tells me. “But it’s not the same thing going around fixing sockets as having to manage this many people.” Robaina holds the master keys, and with them, a wealth of opportunities to mess something up.
“Our job is to fix problems,” he says, two hundred-plus pounds of man. “And within the advantages of this, we can be humane.”
Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is a human antenna. To this day there’s a common sight in Tres Cruces: the men, women, and sick children who the Ministry of Public Health funds to make the journey to Montevideo’s hospital. Their getting home is dependent on the spaces limited to the transport companies by law. Sometimes they can stay a whole day in the station waiting to get a ride. Sometimes Señor Plug pays for the food for a mom waiting with her child. Señora Q will catch him rifling through his pockets for money . . . and inside there’s almost always a plug socket, humble and explosive, just like the slots we were prevented from putting our fingers in as children. Señor Who Used to Fix the Sockets is never without a radio transmitter in hand. One gets the feeling the man could even fix problems of the heart.
Even Señora Q, who talks to hordes of strangers as if they were family, needs downtime now and then. There’s one patron who mumbles to himself in a monologue and she just looks at him and smiles. There are women who tell her about their problems with their overbearing husbands. “They get to know you,” she says. “Or you get to know them.” You only have to be aware of how far people want to go. Some pour out their life story and then you never see them again. Others give a courteous wave for years and then, one day, move in together, like Pablo Cusnir, the marketing director who began as a delivery boy and would say hello to the pretty girl working for DHL, who is now his wife. It’s not uncommon for Señora Q to come across people from her city, old school mates, childhood friends. In Tres Cruces, she bumped into the nuns from her high school, Nuestra Señora del Huerto. At school, she only ever saw the nuns’ faces. These days she’s allowed a glimpse of their hair.
“Sister Domitila only remembered me when I explained who I was,” she says.
One of the greatest tributes a teacher can receive is to have an ex-pupil stop her on the street years later to say hello. Some turn the other way. Others run to hug them as if the coincidence were a miracle. One day the manager of Ópica Lux came across her history teacher in Tres Cruces. She only remembered his name: Ángel. She spotted him from behind her 0.5-level myopia lenses. Ana Claudia Casas has worked nine hours a day since the station first opened seeing to people who can’t see well. Sometimes, Glasses Girl has to attend to people with perfect vision; cases fit for Oliver Sacks.
“They’d come in to the opticians to ask us for a haircut,” she says, smiling.
She has been looking after one of her clients since he was a boy. He has suffered two retinal detachments and has -31-level myopia.
“Today he installs fiber optic cables,” she says.
Fate is ironic with special effects.
The director general of Tres Cruces, for example, doesn’t park his car in the station’s parking lot: he pays for a private parking space opposite.
“No one gets special privileges here,” Lombardi tells me.
Lombardi, a public accountant who got bored with accountancy, now has plenty of experience fighting fires.
“One day,” he says, “they detected that a member of Al Qaeda had passed through the station.”
Interpol has an office in Tres Cruces. It’s not just an entire nation awaiting you inside.
You see Bolivian women arriving on their way to work with upper-class families.
You see foreigners climb in and out of the nine thousand taxis that pass through each day.
You see rowdy groups of Argentinian, Brazilian, and Uruguayan football fans.
You see Bolivian women returning from their high-class families, mistreated.
“I once saw someone fall from the second floor,” Señora Q tells me. “He just walked up to the handrail, flung his foot over, and threw himself off. A guard from Café del Andén couldn’t stop him. The man flew over the rail as if he was running from himself and fractured his leg twenty feet below. Nobody down on the ground floor noticed that they’d witness a failed suicide attempt. They just asked if he’d tripped.
“You see so many people that you no longer see anyone,” Señora Q says.
Lilian Lerena, a neighbor who works in the funeral parlor, Previsión S.A., says that her clients are alive. Last year she recognized a childhood friend in the station. She hadn’t seen him in more than thirty years. Today he is the owner of a club where they play cumbias.
“We agreed I’d go one day for a dance,” she says, smiling.
Natalia Benavides, the ex-rep for Customer Services, remembers things going missing.
“A gentleman came to ask us if we had found his false teeth. He couldn’t remember if he’d left them in the restroom.”
Then someone found them.
Tres Cruces has a lost and found.
If some time passes and nobody comes to collect their bike or umbrella, the company doesn’t hold onto them. They donate them to Montevideo’s schoolchildren who, with a little luck, won’t lose them. Natalia Benevides still has faith in the human race.
“More people hand things in than don’t,” she says.
“How does the world look from Customer Services?”
“People look deranged,” she says. “Like they’ve got no time for anything. And it’s not just the odd person; it’s everyone who passes through here.
They return our gaze on their watch faces.”
Señora Q is so punctual she’s not punctual: she arrives half an hour early to work and drinks maté in the entryway of Tres Cruces. Two worlds exist there: the one up above and the one down below. She worked nine years on the first floor and seven on the second. These days she’s back in the epicenter. Those who go upstairs are there to buy, wander around, window shop, browse. Those down below are there to travel, to drink maté, wait, and chat. After five or more hours on a bus, arriving passengers are never in the mood to go shopping in Tres Cruces. Instead, they look for a taxi or a hug. Great big hugs are the most natural gesture for its fifty thousand-plus passengers a day. There are also solitary acts. Desperate ones: a man pulls the trigger against his own head in a restroom cubicle. And absurd ones: a man dies choking on a rib.
“Tres Cruces is what the people make it,” Señora Q says. “We spin on its axis.”
Before saying good-bye, Raquel Quirque—three Qs in thirteen letters—blinks. Whenever you have crowds, you can pick out types. One such type is the beggar who tests the limits of our charity: to give or not to give. Sometimes, since she can’t give them anything from the café, she looks for coins in her own purse. Sometimes, when she gives them something to eat, they throw it away. Whenever you have crowds, you also find exceptions to types. Eccentrics. For years, Señora Q had a client who turned up every day to eat breakfast. He was single. He worked in a supermarket and lived in a dark house where he’d gotten into the habit of only putting on one light at a time. For years he searched for the woman who served him coffee just the way he liked it: milky, two sachets of sugar, no foam. He didn’t skip a single morning for years and the one day he did, he called to let them know he wouldn’t be coming. He went to Tres Cruces from the day it opened to the day he retired. She doesn’t wait for him anymore, but the lady who serves the coffee knows just what she’ll say to him when he comes back.
© Julio Villanueva Chang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from a book-length work of the same name, Eliane Brum explores the sacred mystery of life via the remarkable tales and intuitions of the indigenous midwives that usher children into the world in rural Brazil.
They were born in the humid belly of the Amazon, in Amapá, a state forgotten by the news at the northernmost tip of Brazil. The rest of the country won’t listen to them, tone deaf to the sounds of their ancient knowledge and to the beat of their song. Many there don’t know the alphabet, but they read the forest, the water, and the sky. They have come from the bodies of other women who also bear the gift for pulling out children. Theirs is a knowledge that can’t be learned, or taught, or even explained. It simply is. Sculpted from the blood of mothers and the water of children, their hands birth a piece of Brazil.
A wild, female cry echoes out from its perching place at the peak of the map, a reminder that birthing is natural; that it doesn’t require genetic engineering or surgeries, nor the smell of hospitals. For the midwives of the forest, who have kept this tradition alive thanks to the isolation of their birthplace, it’s easier to understand that a dolphin might emerge from the igarapé to impregnate a maiden than to accept that a woman will schedule a date and time for her child to be wrenched out of her. Almost the entire population of Amapá, less than half a million people, were brought into the world by the hands of seven hundred child-pullers. These are women who conjugate in the plural and overuse collective pronouns. In their lives, the I is alien and reserves no privilege.
Perched on a boat, or feeling their way with their feet, the índia Dorica, the cabocla Jovelina, with her copper skin, and the quilombola Rossilda, a descendant of slaves who escaped long ago to set up free lives, are guides in this journey through ancient mysteries. Their paths meet with those of Tereza and with the indigenous midwives of Oiapoque. They are joined by the lines inscribed in the palm of their hands, each representing a different birth. “Pulling children means patience,” explains Maria dos Santos Maciel, or Dorica, a Karipuna, and the eldest of the Amapá midwives. She is ninety-six, and more than two thousand indigenous men and women have arrived in the world through her small, almost child-sized hands. Dorica—grandmother, mother, godmother of hundreds of pulled children—never even wanted this gift. “This is how the gift works. It’s born in you. And you can’t say no,” she explains. “A midwife doesn’t have a choice. She’s called in the dead of night to populate the world.”
A female specter, Dorica navigates the rivers of Oiapoque with no more than a small lamp. She travels with her sister, Alexandrina, who is sixty-six years old, and whose children—nine out of eleven—she has helped birth. “Woman and forest are one,” says Alexandrina. “Mother Earth has everything, and you can find everything else in a woman’s body. Strength, courage, life, and pleasure.”
As the oars slice the silent river, they are stalked by the lamplike eyes of crocodiles. “They’re not dangerous. All they eat is dogs and sandals,” reassured Dorica. “We opened one up a little while ago and that was all there was.” The midwife recalls her own belly’s sixteen miscarriages; she was prevented from having a child by designs she is in no position to question. “I’m tired,” she says. “I’d like to ask God to let me retire from midwifing.”
But God moves more slowly than a government employee. To this day, her request has been left unanswered. So when she reaches her destination, Dorica digs her heels into the earth and crouches between the woman’s thighs while Alexandrina hugs the pregnant woman’s body from behind with her legs. Dorica does not force anything from inside the female body. She simply waits. She pulls at the mother’s belly, positioning the child. She lathers the belly with tapir, stingray, or opossum oil to hasten the cramps, and recites prayers and incantations to consecrate the mystery. She punctures the sac with her nail and cuts the umbilical chord with an arrowhead. “Pulling children means waiting on the birthing time,” she teaches. “City doctors don’t know this, and because they don’t know, they cut women.”
For eight days, Dorica will leave her cassava plantation. It’s the midwife’s calling to cook and to clean, to draw out the uterus every morning and every afternoon, so that the woman is healthy. It is her duty to brush the mother’s breast with a thin comb and with water poured from a white gourd, so that her white milk will rush into her child’s lips. It is her wisdom to suck air out of the baby’s nose with her mouth until it cries. After this, Dorica hands the wife over to her husband: “I’ve done all I can for your wife. Now you have to take care of your family.” The husband responds, in thanks: “I’ll give you whatever you need.” To which Dorica replies: “God pays.” So the dialogue comes to a close. That is how it goes. And how it has gone for over five hundred years.
The woman will only open the door of her house after she has rested with her child for forty days. Before the baby breathes the forest air, she is blessed with water and salt to ward off evil spirits. Over the course of two thousand births, Dorica has lost only three. There isn’t a day that goes by she doesn’t mourn them. “This child is missing from the community,” she declares. For the people of the forest, no one is replaceable. Or expendable. A life that ends before it takes hold cannot be. It will be lamented forever.
The Amazonian midwife waves good-bye as our canoe vanishes upstream. A macaw watches her from a branch as a flock of parrots cuts through the sky cawing and a girl bathes in the igarapé before she gets ready for school. It’s just another day. Dorica places her hand on her old heart and, mouthing quiet words, pulls out a blessing to those who are departing. Then, turning her back, she goes off to puff tobacco, to pass the time until the fifth child of the village’s last big-bellied woman, the índia Ivaneide Iapará, thirty-three years old, pounds at the gateway to the world, requesting entry.
Most of the midwives of the forest are Catholic, some Pentecostal. Others are batuqueiras, Spiritualists. Even when they invoke a male Christian God, the Holy Spirit, or the Orishas, they declare themselves the guardians of mysteries that have been passed on by mothers and grandmothers in a chain that stretches back centuries. In this nameless faith, the great godhead is a woman. It is said she rules over the beginning-middle-end, birth-life-death, and present-past-future.
When they row miles and miles down the river, or walk to help another woman consecrate her miracle, childbirth, it is an act of resistance and subversion, proof that each woman has a bit of the Goddess in her. Many midwives burned during the Inquisition; and those who obey their calling today didn’t learn this history in books. But they still somehow carry the memory of that heat in their bones.
At seventy-seven, Jovelina Costa dos Santos is the most famous midwife of Ponta Grossa do Piriri, a sad, scanty little village of a few dozen scattered houses and plantations a hundred miles from Macapá. “God gave me this standing,” she announces from the door of her shack. Her face has more wrinkles than the sky has stars. Cheerful like no other, when she opens her mouth it is as if a piece of the world might break loose. It’s not that Jovelina is happy, exactly—she laughs because she has chosen not to be sad. That’s Jovelina: complex simplicity. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t even know if she’ll eat before the sun rises again. But to her, she is richer than most. “Children are riches, sister, and so beautiful to look at.”
She continues her philosophizing: “Here, in this faraway place in the depths of this country, we either fill the world with children or disappear.” And this is the only way to understand when Jovelina says, as she hides her teeth, threatening to submerge the world into darkness: “I only had eight.” Only? “Well, yes, only. It’s so good to give birth to them . . .” And then she corrects herself, naughtily: “And even better to make them.”
Jovelina became a midwife when she was still a girl, as if fallen into a trap God laid pointing her to her destiny. When she tells this story, she is joined by so many it might as well have been a ticketed event: “The first one was Isabel, compadre Sevério’s wife, who lived out back by Volta das Cobras. Leave Isabel to us, compadre, my mother told him. That night, Isabel caught a fever and got the chills from the cold, but she didn’t even once cry ow. In the morning, Mom went back to the plantation, and it was just me and Isabel. Jovita, Jovita, go collect water for a bath, she said.” And Jovelina interrupts herself to explain, in a different tone, that she is Jovita in the story. “Here you go, Isabel, I said. Did you know I felt chills from the cold this morning? she asked. Did you, Isabel? I asked. I did, Jovita. I was brushing her hair when the spill came. Jovita, sister, give me a hand. Isabel crawled under the mosquito net, and that’s when I pulled out the boy. He was cold. Dead. When Mom arrived, she asked: How’s it going, Jovita? Fine, mom. Then, she said: good, daughter, from now on you can go instead of me. And I did.”
Simple as that. For help, Jovelina relies only on São Bartolomeu, advocate of midwives, and São Raimundo, Our Lady of Good Birth, and other, more important saints who also support them. But it’s not quite São Bartolomeu, either. To Jovita, he’s “São Bertolamé,” which she says with a touch of a French accent, and much more pizzazz. “At four in the afternoon, Bertolamé rose and his staff arose with him. Along his way, he walked. And that’s when he bumped into Our Lady, who asked Bertolamé where he was going. I’m going to Our Lady’s house, he said. Go on, Bertolamé, for there I will give you great powers, so that women will not die in labor or girls die smothered.” That’s how it goes. Recite this prayer and the baby will slide out and into the forest, right into the midwife’s hands.
Cabocla Jovelina is haunted by only two things in life. When speaking of them, she even allows herself the luxury of sighing. One is her first husband, for whom a deep passion blazes inside her to this day, even though he has passed away. “I was crazy about that man. But I had to let go. There was me, and three other wives. Ugh!” The other is doctors, to whom Jovelina attributes an extraordinary ignorance. “The things these women suffer in the maternity are a blow, my sister,” she says, appalled. “Here, if the baby’s settled in awkwardly, we go on and turn him. I put my hand in and pull and pull until he’s been set right and his head’s in place. That way, you don’t need to cut anything. Doctors, the poor things, they don’t know how to turn children.”
Before she says good-bye, Jovelina calls to her “umbilical children” so that she can show them off to the guests. The only reason the entire village doesn’t show up is because most of them are at a soccer tournament in the next town over, where members of both teams were brought onto the field by Jovelina’s hands. The midwife plants her legs—crooked like Garrincha's, the soccer-playing angel with bent legs—on her doorstep, places her blessed hands on her hips, and belts: “Come on now, you little band of brutes! Oh, if only my mother had sent me to school, I wouldn’t be breaking my neck to get by.” She smiles wide again, lighting up the sky, then warms up and says: “Oh, but they’re a beautiful bunch, aren’t they?”
Giving birth is women’s mystery. Performed by women and between women. It’s their affair. It’s beyond the comprehension of the midwives of the forest that life could come into existence in a hospital, a cradle of death, as if childbirth were an illness. For each midwife, pain is a sign of the ecstasy of birth. Opposites as inseparable as night and day. Giving birth is not suffering. It is celebration. “I’m from a time when you had to be a child’s mother to know the mystery. Virgin girls didn’t speak about sex so they wouldn't feel pleasure in the speaking,” says Rossilda Joaquina da Silva—sixty-three years old, eleven children, twenty grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. “When it’s time for the baby to come, all the women get together and it’s a beauty.”
She is black, as black as the earth of the quilombo of Curiaú, in the outskirts of Macapá. She opens her plump arms, strong and muscular from pulling children, sewing dresses, and blessing the ill: “Inner Curiaú, Outer Curiaú, I helped birth children inside and out. Everything hereabouts was born from my hands.” Rossilda is solemn as she drops her broom to tell her lot, rocking in her rocking chair to the sound of songs that would rush entangled births. “Oh, Lord, glorious São João, who was anchored in the River Jordão. God make me worthy, oh God of mercy, the ropes that hear me will bear me.”
In Rossilda’s Curiaú, they were holding a celebration for São Lázaro, the patron saint of dogs. Yes, explains Rossilda, even dogs have patron saints. As dignified as ever, Rossilda speaks of how lovely the banquet for São Lázaro was. “There was beef, Christian food. We each had our own plate set on the table. There was such respect, such delicacy. It was all very civilized.” In the quilombo’s newspaper, O Sabá, written by the midwife’s eldest son, the headline read: “The sheep Chibé, after many a head-butt, is now this year’s Christmas barbeque.” And on the last page, the following explanation: “Chibé was mischievous, playful, and daring, and never missed an opportunity to run at people and knock playing children to the ground. We all miss the sheep Chibé whose fatal destiny was to become our Christmas barbeque.”
This is Curiaú, a land full of rhymes since the time of slaves who chanted at trees to keep from losing their breath. And like the ground she stands on, Rossilda is a woman soaked in enchantment. For every birth, she is accompanied by another midwife, a conjured spirit, Angelina, who was long ago disembodied. But Rossilda will not speak of the secret of their partnership, one living and one unliving. “Or else,” she says, “it’ll lose its valuableness.”
After nine moons have passed, the men of Curiaú are sent on their way, so that they can’t make a ruckus. Because at times like this, men only know to fuss. Childbirth is a female celebration. Neighbors come from all around, sisters and girlfriends. They fill every corner of the house, brewing coffee, making cassava pap, and telling tales and jokes to distract the big-bellied woman. Laughing a little and praying, Rossilda, dressed from head to toe in white, readjusts the baby and keeps track of the pain. And seeing it, she goes, “Here comes the baby sliding into the world.” Only then is the father called to cock his rifle and shoot into the air—three times for a boy, two for a girl. If it’s a boy, he’ll be another Joaquim or another Raimundo. If it’s a girl, more often than not, Maria.
This is how Rossilda’s children were born: Sebastião, Eraldo, Leonice, Leonilza, Leoneide, Lourença, Leicione, Leodenice, Leodivaldo. . . “Am I missing one? Ah, yes, Lucivaldo.” How her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were born. And how her great-great-grandchildren will be born. Framed by the door and crowned by a wooden acapú cross, which wards off the forces of evil, Rossilda says good-bye with a rhyme. “Clean hands and pure heart, I’m a midwife, bringing children to earth.”
The forest of midwives is a forest of singsong. “Those who say we’re nothing and have nothing are wrong. Look at us, here, well-organized and prepared, with these midwives I’ll stand,” croons Tereza Bordalo—fifty-one years old, five children and five grandchildren, a midwife since the age of sixteen—in the wide-open vowels of the North. As mysterious as the rest of them, she raises her hands to the sky and traces an invisible cross at the woman’s vagina, the crocodile tooth swinging dangerously between her breasts, like a profane Madonna.
Then she prays and fulfills the secret she will never tell a Christian soul. A secret that rose out of the middle of the night in the shape of a woman who wore a trail the color of the sky. In a whisper, the one who was not of this world ordered her to be rid of her husband, the innocent man who snored beside her. She had nights and nights of haunted dreams. She’d barely fall asleep and the lady would appear, all made up in reverie. Tired of arguing with the hereafter, she told João Bordalo to go sleep somewhere else. Only then did the spirit reveal what she was there for, and then vanished forever. But not before she warned Tereza: “Reveal my secret and I will take back your powers . . .” Since then, she’s never been in a tight spot between women’s legs.
Swinging her umbrella—an indispensable tool for an Amazonian winter—Tereza calls the midwives of the forest to participate in a ritual of thanks. She places her foot on the ground, pregnant with the waters of Saint-Georges-de-l’Oyapock, in French Guyana, which is separated from Brazil and from the Oiapoque by no more than a river of the same name. She greets her friends with a “bon soir, ça va bien?” On the other side of the border, the midwives are all madames. Or, more accurately, “madam.” Such as Madam Marie Labonté, an indigenous Karipuna with the poise of a child, who slinks into the bush in search of snakeskin. “If you drink snakeskin tea, the baby will be born without pain, oui?” Oui, merci, who would dare dissent.
From inside the forest, they emerge, shy and silent. Barefooted or wearing rubber sandals. They are poor, they are midwives. Many do not even have teeth. Others only eat tapioca flour. For the task of helping humanity into the world they have never been paid a dime. “What I most want in life is a nice bed,” sighs Cecília Forte, sixty-six years old, who has known no other resting place than a cotton hammock. When hunger strikes, the heart gives in, threatening to stop. Thick-skinned, Cecília resists. She does not even like midwifing much, she confesses. “What I like most is mending old clothing. Why? Well, I think all old people like mending clothes. It’s a bit like mending life. Like mending both, mending one to mend the other.”
Delfina dos Santos, fifty-six years old, raises her hand to trace the path of the children she’s pulled. Her hand is dark, knotted, each palm a tangle of lines leading to the weft of all the lives she has welcomed. “I helped Eremita birth twice, Elvira once, Odete once, Alzemira once, Leliane once, Helena twice, Celina once, Josefina once . . . ” Her trail of sisters is long.
Marie Labonté, now forty-eight, helped her own mother give birth when she was just fifteen. Maria Rosalina dos Santos, fifty-six, was midwife to her daughter. Just like Nazira Narciso, forty-five, who welcomed her granddaughter when the midwife refused to do it, because it was a “strange belly.” “She’s not married,” Nazira translated. Whether the baby was conceived by a porpoise or by immaculate conception, it doesn’t matter, “God was the midwife.” But he did so with a woman’s hand, because childbirth, believes Nazira, “must be done by an equal.” “Indigenous, creole, Brazilian, it’s one pain,” she explains. “It’s the same crying.”
Their hands full of life hold each other, their trail-worn feet planted in a circle in the forest’s uterus. The midwives thank the divinity until dawn. Like all creatures in the world, day rises at a precise hour without anyone or anything having to tear it out of the night’s womb. Day and child follow the same law of nature, each with the same seed. Complementary parts of one single universe.
The midwives raise their candles asking for a light to guide them in their art. They invoke the earth, the river, the forest. This is a conversation between sisters, prose whispered with bated breath. An image that speaks to a society that is deaf and lost to its umbilical cord, with a larger world forged within our world. The voice of Dorica, the oldest midwife in the forest, echoes within each woman when she declares: “It’s time that makes man, and not man that makes time. Childbirth is a mystery. Children are not torn out. They are received.”
The circle is broken and the midwives board the boat on which they will sail the rivers that line the borders of Brazil. To answer a call only they can hear.
© Eliane Brum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.
Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez examines the violence of urban Guatemala through the anecdotes of its taxi drivers, finding that where they've been is less telling than where they are no longer willing to go.
One asks the questions and the taxi driver responds. After many years of taking taxis, I know that although there are some more inclined to chatter than others, no taxi driver can resist talking about his job. And what does his job involve? Does it involve transporting human beings from one place to another in exchange for whatever sum the meter dictates? Absolutely. The taxi as a means of transportation is only the tip of the iceberg.
The whole world knows, yes, but there are truisms worth repeating: If you want to get to know a city, you need to talk with its taxistas. The taxi driver, as Shrader and Scorsese so expertly understood, is the worm that explores the dark tunnels of the rotten apple. He is the restless, harmless amoeba wandering through the guts of the city. He is the witness who lives to tell the tale. The taxi driver recounts the horror of which Kurtz often sang.
Taxi drivers are indiscreet types. There are those who are not only indiscreet, but extremely imaginative. What fascinates this last group is to talk of the dead. But not the dead splayed out along the side of the road—rather, they are fascinated by the well-dressed, and one assumes very pale, elegant dead who get in their vehicles toward midnight and whose faces can’t be seen in the rear-view mirror.
As I have no interest in the supernatural, these aren’t the type of conversations that I prefer. My interests lie elsewhere. For example: if the statistics are correct and in effect Guatemala City is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, how do these numbers look through the big, clear screen that is the windshield of a taxi? What happens when the predictable path of a taxi and the erratic trajectory of violence meet along the asphalt?
The taxis I take aren’t those one hails arbitrarily in the streets. I prefer those arranged for over the phone which later arrive at an agreed-upon address. They belong to a company that, in addition to a fleet of taxis, runs a call center. The reason? To reassure myself of that elusive, nebulous idea that in a country like this, there truly exists such a thing as that most prized of commodities: security. And this is precisely what such a company offers. It preaches of its most virtuous service: “a safe trip.” And we, the trembling and paranoid consumers of security, this century’s most coveted good, believe every word. Without a doubt, the more experienced taxi drivers are less convinced.
An article from Siglo 21, published in May of 2012 and titled “Seventh Taxi Driver Murdered in Eight Days,” mentions that two of the taxi drivers who were killed worked for the same company I call on. Further on in the article, we learn that, when asked about the incidents, a company spokesman denied the murders had anything to do with extortion. However, I’ve heard another version. Various taxi drivers have told it to me over the course of the last two years. The details of their accounts vary very little from one taxi driver to another: according to them, the company was in fact subject to extortion; the extortionists asked them for a sum of money right then and a monthly cut of each taxi’s revenue. The company refused and the first taxi driver was kidnapped in the outskirts of the city. His corpse showed up in a different periphery of the city. The next day they murdered the second driver but, by then, the company had already contracted the services of a foreign security company (Israeli security companies dominate the market in Guatemala) that “foiled” (in the words of a taxi driver who I spoke with a couple weeks ago) the group of extortionists and delivered them to the authorities.
Almost seven years ago I got the urge, for the first time, to write a novel. I knew what I wanted to say, I knew that I wanted to talk about the peripheries of the city, but I lacked a plot, the motive for my narrative. I started asking taxi drivers questions. After a while I had developed a basic questionnaire that, one novel and seven years later, I still use every time I get in a taxi.
“Hey, do you go everywhere in the city?”—Almost all of them think a moment here and ask if I am asking if they go to any site in the country and then respond yes, that they can take me anywhere between the borders.
“No, no,” I tell them, “I mean do you go to Limón, to
Búcaro . . .”
“If I’m dropping off a client, yes. But to pick up a client, never. If someone calls from one of these, let’s say, complicated places, the call center lets them know that the company doesn’t cover those areas.”
“And if a client calls, let’s say from a fancy place like Oakland Mall, and ask that you take them there?”
“If it’s one of those neighborhoods that are really fucked-up, we leave them at the entrance.”
The client grows angry, argues that the taxi driver is obliged to take them where they wish. What fault does a working man have if he lives in the middle of a place populated by criminals, or governed by hooded neighbors, armed with homemade rifles, who charge an entry fee—or if he lives in the middle of a gang battlefield?
“We know, of course, that it’s not the client’s fault, but I’m also not going to risk my life for a seven-buck trip. The plus is that the company lets us decide if we want to go to certain places or not. It’s up to us in the end. There are some drivers who go everywhere."
And so, the taxi drivers build themselves a security system that, effective or not, at least provides some peace of mind. It gives them the illusion that, if they follow certain rules, nothing will happen to them. For example, even before the military presence in the Limón neighborhood, taxi drivers only entered Limón through the main street; entering Gallito (famous in Guatemala for being controlled by drug gangs) you can always enter driving slow with the windows down; other places can only be entered during the day; and in others one can only go as far as the entrance. And so on.
“And are there other places that you definitely don’t go?”
“To Carranza. That place is no joke.”
The story involving Carranza happened some five years ago. At least that was when I first heard it. Let’s do some quick math: let’s assume that in five years of taking at least two taxis a month (this is a conservative guess), we get a total of a hundred and twenty taxis taken in five years. Maintaining a conservative estimate, let’s assume that only half of those taxi drivers told me the story of Carranza. The figure is alarming: I’ve probably heard the story of Carranza some sixty times.
And what happened in Carranza? Nothing extraordinary for a country that has a murder rate of 39.9 per 100,000 residents (per the 2013 Global Study on Homicide, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime): a taxi driver arrived to drop off a client, it was nighttime, he traversed the terraced streets and when he went to leave, a group of armed, masked men, their faces covered with towels and scarfs, stopped him as they fired their guns into the air. Instead of stopping, the taxi driver accelerated. The bumper of the Nissan broke one of the assailant’s knees before his body smashed against the front windshield. And still the taxi driver kept going. The result? Some say the taxi was riddled with fifty—others says a hundred—bullets.
“It was a miracle they didn’t kill him,” one taxi driver told me. “We saw the car, there were holes in the back of the driver’s seat, in the dashboard, in the GPS. But no miracle happens twice. The next time the same thing happens to one of us, we won’t be so lucky.”
The taxi driver survived, his coworkers say. He developed diabetes and lost eighty pounds, but he survived. Meanwhile, Carranza maintains its status as the favorite type of the success stories told by the media.
A badly written page (with lots of grammar mistakes), on Wikipedia, lets us know, nevertheless, that the neighborhood of Carranza, in the town of San Juan Sacatepéquez (on the fringes of Guatemala City), was purchased from the Spanish crown by a group of Cakchiquel Mayans in the colonial era. The property title notes the year as 1752. Until 1955 a little over 300 people were living in the neighborhood. And until 1980 the population was majority indigenous. Nothing of this image survives. What came afterward was overpopulation caused by an internal refugee situation resulting from the civil war and the consequent exacerbation of the neighborhood’s poverty.
Perhaps if we were to ask the surviving taxi driver to imagine hell, he would mention something like Carranza. And who could blame him? But Carranza isn’t hell. Hell doesn’t exist. What exists is extreme poverty—illness, hunger. Overcrowding. The absolute lack of basic services, of opportunities and of hope. What exists is a neighborhood like that found there today, forgotten by the state, a part of the capital city of a country that boasts the largest number of private helicopters per capita in Latin America. What exists are the generous conditions for the incubation of violence.
“Carranza doesn’t scare me,” another taxi driver told me. “It makes me sad. And there is nothing in my life I hate more than to have to tell a client, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t take you to your home because we don’t go there.”
© Arnoldo Gálvez Suárez. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Geoff Bendeck. All rights reserved.
Aziz Chouaki's Algerian immigrant arrives to the sensory assault of Paris in this excerpt from The Eagle.
Marcadet-Poissonniers metro station, 7:30 p.m. An enormous bag on his back, Jeff’s looking for rue des Portes-Blanches. As if in a dream, he crosses rue Ordener, which is buzzing with life. He’s just off the plane, it’s eight years since Jeff’s set foot outside Algeria. First Orly, a slap in the face, the sheer luxury of it—ah, so that’s what it is. Heady perfume aromas, Jeff sweating at border control, visa’s in order, OK, then the bus, the luminous motorway, giant billboards all the way to Denfert. Is this for real?
In his head, raging echoes of Algeria, Hocine and Hassan, who came with him as far as the airport. Tough to tear himself away.
Next, the metro, Jeff’s at a loss—hardly surprising, it’s been eight years. Magnetic walkway marked with arrows, all sliding and smooth. Jeff can’t see straight, everything’s so sharply defined. He checks out what people are wearing, the women walking by, bodies so free, so in your face. Jeff ruminates, takes it all in, it’s crazy, a whole other planet. He’s learning, though, getting the hang of it, two thousand miles an hour.
He goes down rue des Poissonniers, then turns left into the narrow rue des Portes-Blanches. Just praying he’s in . . . Cousin Kamel, who emigrated ten years ago, hasn’t seen him in at least three years, fine to crash there to start with, sort it out later.
Number 7, old building, nicely kept up. Not a kid in sight, believe it or not. Algiers easily averages ten kids per stairwell. Swarms of them, razor-sharp eyes, capable of anything.
No, mobs of ten-year-old adults more like, sucking at every vice, already utterly jaded.
Second floor on the right, Jeff presses the buzzer and waits. Weird, no one in? He rings again, then three times . . . But I gave him a heads up, maybe he went to get something from the shops, whatever happens don’t freak out. Jeff stands outside the building, well, maybe get something to eat, there’s a small Monoprix on the left. The light’s blinding, everything blinks and dances in front of his eyes. Cold cuts, meat at thirty francs a kilo. What? Yep, you read it right, thirty francs. In Algiers it was two hundred and fifty.
Jeff feels dizzy: lucre, the rewards of excess. A hundred and thirty-two billion types of yogurt, cheese, coffee, almond shampoo for cats. Blurry-eyed, he hesitates, seriously nauseated —a physical thing, strictly speaking. Jeff leaves the shop, gasping for air.
He goes back to Kamel’s building and rings, at last the door opens and here’s Kamel, looking well-fed:
“So, the refugee! How’s it going? Come on in, was the flight delayed or what?”
Kamel ushers him in, carpeted studio flat, TV’s on, the news, Saddam Hussein, coalition forces issue an ultimatum, kitchenette, a poster of Platini, Jeff’s spaced out, can’t take it in.
Kamel’s certainly got the gear: video recorder, stereo system, microwave, totally normal here of course, but over there . . . Shh, stop comparing everything to Algeria. Kamel says:
“Sit down, dump the bag, do you want something to drink? Whiskey, beer, port, Ricard?”
Jeff goes for Scotch. Kamel brings a tray, serves the drinks, they clink glasses.
“To your getting here! I always wondered what a brilliant guy like you was doing back there, in that godforsaken place!”
Still in a daze, Jeff caresses his glass:
“Yeah well, what can you do . . . anyway, you’re doing all right, huh?!”
“Oh you know, can’t complain, I bust my nuts, I’ve got my identity papers, it’s going OK. So, have you got yours?”
Staring at the wallpaper, Jeff says:
“One-month visa, till the first of January.”
Kamel’s face clouds over:
“One month? That’ll be tough, they’re being really strict now, especially with that idiot Saddam Hussein. Anyway, we’ll work it out. You need a shower? We can go for a walk after.” Jeff says yes to a shower. Cheap stuff to wash with, ordinary enough, but the difference . . . turns on the tap, a miracle, water comes out. Never seen water gush from a tap in Algiers, water shortages since the beginning of time.
Washing off a hundred and thirty-two years of stress, frothing shower gel, go on treat yourself, Jeff, a brand-new body getting all the shit off, oh but this is untrue?! A working shower, like in the movies. After, he’ll have a good slug of whiskey, just like that.
“The eagle tenses for takeoff, Jeff,” Mr. Zoubir said.
His thoughts are all confused: frail outstretched hands, Algiers, his family, laughter, friends, childhood, dreams, and tears—thin, plaintive voices fading further and further into the distance.
He shaves, splashes on some of Kamel’s Balafre aftershave, inspects his dark brown face, dries his long curly hair. He checks the wad of notes in his socks, five thousand francs, changed on the black market in Algiers, very special rate of one to six. Rubbing his hands together, Jeff joins Kamel, who’s already refilled their glasses.
“So, all nice and clean. Finish up your drink, we’ll go for a walk and you can tell me about the shit going down in Algiers.”
Jeff’s a new man, knocks back his drink without sitting down.
“Let’s go! Just say the word.”
They go out, the air’s cool, lights and cars gleaming, everything sparkles, the women are proud like vixens, they smell delicious. Life! Whereas in Algiers . . .
Kamel shows him round, Jeff registering everything that moves, like in a film, hard to walk properly, well-stocked shops, so clean, so ornate. So this is the world, the real one, the other’s just a . . . what . . . a rough draft, that’s it . . . So where the hell was I living? Shut up Jeff, OK, OK.
A little bistro on rue du Baigneur, Kamel’s a regular here. The owner, a Kabyle, is working the till, a Frenchwoman, no doubt his wife, behind the bar.
Perching on a stool, Kamel:
“Hey Mimiche, hey Nicole, this is my cousin Jeff, from back home. Just arrived.”
They look him over, routine interest, the blonde Nicole:
“Oh yes? And how are things over there? What about the Islamists?”
Jeff, being polite:
“Oh, you know . . .”
Kamel, easy-going, cuts in:
“It’s like Iran over there, totally fucked! Isn’t it, Jeff?”
Jeff nods. Nicole, very blonde, wearing too much make-up, the type to set the ardent North African libido ablaze, and she knows it. Takes their order, two beers.
They know it too.
The boss, man of few words, welded to his till, looks furtively at Jeff:
“It’s a real mess over there. How’s the dinar doing?”
Sipping his beer, Jeff:
“One to six, six and a half.”
Kamel, acting sophisticated:
“Oh, soon it’ll be one to ten, make it an even number, one million to a thousand dirhams, it’ll serve them right.”
Apart from two or three sad sacks, the clientele’s mostly North African, and in the corner, with two black guys, an Asian woman wearing a leather miniskirt that only just covers her tush.
Jeff hones his gaze, taking in reflections, blind spots, tricks of the light, shadows, surveys the scene.
Can this be Paris?
Got to pinch myself to see straight. It’s not going to last long with Kamel, imagine soaring up, up to the highest heights, fast, a long way from this scum and their troughs, yes, as fast as I can.
Leaning her heavy, perfumed breasts toward Jeff, Nicole asks:
“Are you on holiday? How long for?”
Jeff, toothy grin, I’d flip her over and give her one right there, just as she is, against the bar, don’t you move, baby:
“As long as it takes, no idea really.”
More customers come in, friends of Kamel: Mouhouche and Akli.
Introductions all round, Jeff shakes paws, Kamel gets in another round. Mouhouche:
“D’you hear about Arezki? He missed out on the lottery, by just one number.
You should’ve seen him last night, he was drunk as a skunk.”
Jeff’s soul detaches from his body, an animal lying in wait. He’s there and not there, a significant absence. He couldn’t give a shit about the lottery, about Nicole or Kamel. Going to have to get going, quick-time.
Mouhouche, abruptly changing the subject:
“And what about your cousin, what’s the news from home?”
Jeff, rolling his eyes:
“Better off here than there, I reckon. Got to consider ourselves lucky, but most of all, pity the poor bastards over there.”
Akli, in his accountant’s glasses, says:
“I was there last year, the people are completely corrupt, it’s revolting. Everything’s gone down the drain, the black market, the shortages, and on top of all that the Islamists, for God’s sake!”
Kamel’s got a touch more class, and he knows it.
So do Mouhouche and Akli.
Putting down his glass, he goes up to them, his tone all confidential:
“I’ll tell you how it is. The FIS was created by the Russians and the Jews, they had a baby behind Algeria’s back. And our lot, well they’re just morons, they fell for it. Simple as."
The situation in a nutshell. Jeff’s gobsmacked.
Kamel goes on:
“Even Saddam Hussein’s a Russian puppet!”
Akli, picking his nose:
“Still, Gorbachev . . ."
Kamel, on his own little journey to the end of the night:
“Exactly! On the one hand they say no, on the other they’re manipulating him, by remote control. It’s all between them and the Americans.”
Mouhouche looks puzzled.
“And where are the Arabs in all this?”
Kamel’s triumphant, especially since Nicole, who’s sprayed on more perfume, now turns her heavily made-up eye toward him, resting her plump breasts on the bar.
“The Arabs? But the Arabs are sheep! They’ve always been sheep! Isn’t that obvious?”
“Yeah, but if it all kicks off, things’ll get rough for us over here, with the Front National. Everything will change, I’m sure of it.”
Dancing in Jeff’s head: the jasmine in his grandmother’s garden in Birkhaden, Hocine’s potbelly back at the Perroquet, the tender look in his sister’s eyes, the first poem he learned, when he was ten:
On rustic paths the thin grass I shall tread,
And feel its freshness underneath my feet,
And, dreaming, let the wind bathe my bare head . . .*
Jeff savors his beer, the fact that he’s here, on his right a pinball machine and a jukebox, when you think that over there . . . . Stop it, Jeff, there’s no comparison.
Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli discuss racing, the Front National, setting up a laundromat together, the prostitutes on rue Saint-Denis, Saddam Hussein, smuggling foreign currency. Jeff ponders his life, staring into his beer. After the fourth round, they decide to leave the bar, go walk round Pigalle, bye, see you, everyone goes.
Boulevard Barbès, Rochechouart, like a film clip, Arabs, blacks, half-whites. Whores, cops, pimps, dealers: a whole underclass in the free world’s shop window. Got to adapt, right?! Jeff’s got to rewrite the codes, quick, get up to speed.
They’re in Pigalle now, a mind-blowing ballet of lights, it’s imperial Byzantium, sex and gold, frilly panties and deep pockets, offering any variation of the arcane mysteries of fantasy, whatever you want. Jeff’s eyes devour it all, every minute of the spectacle written out in front of his eyes, calligraphic text on display, silky gilt edges, voluptuous arabesques.
The streets are alive, Jeff clocks everything, Kamel, Mouhouche, and Akli hitting on every girl they see, Jeff feels tender toward the plucky little lambs, he watches them, it’s touching really.
When they get to Place Clichy, they go into a McDonalds, it’s Jeff’s first time; heard of it but never been in. Jeff appreciates the very American power of the global image, yeah, the democracy of myth.
They order and sit down, each of them busy with his Big Mac.
Two girls at the next table, sunny blonde hair. The three men eat, drooling at the sight of them.
Jeff bites into his Big Mac, drools at the sight of them drooling at the sight of them.
Emboldened by four beers, Kamel risks it; they’re well out of his league:
The sunny blondes don’t understand.
“Have you got a problem?”
Jeff spots a copy of the Nouvel Observateur on their table. On the tip of his tongue . . . no, shut it, think first, Jeff.
Akli takes over, strong Kabyle accent:
“Are you English? Swedish? German?”
Jeff whispers: they’re French. The three of them sit back, but don’t let up. Ah, they’re French!
“Good evening, ladies, can we offer you a drink?”
“That’s kind of you, but we’ve got people waiting for us.”
The others pile in, charging into the breach, sticking like glue. We’re in there! Fuck, we’re going to get laid!
The other one, the least lively:
“Hey, you want to piss off? Or get a kick in the face?”
The three of them shrink back, Jeff laughs, they all bite into their Big Macs, in silence. They’re out of there, heading for Barbès, to the Bar de la Famille, Ramdane’s place. The bar’s murky, dim lighting, just men, Arabs, Ramdane among them, gold tooth, voice like a scorpion fish:
“Hey there, come on in, it’s my round. I like good boys.”
Jeff goes wide-angle, the bar’s hardcore and druggy, run by the local mob, dodgy little underworld. Arabic music crackling, Oum Kalthoum, supreme mother of all Arabs. Sleazy punters, pathetic in their vapid exile, rock-bottom depression. A lot of youngsters, pickpockets, gold-chain bracelets, back-alley pimps. The music changes, now rai punctuates each round of drinks, the men dancing alone on the spot, urgent tango of sex, knives, and wine.
Kamel orders a whiskey, it’s classier:
“It’s not my scene here, it’s so . . . common.”
Akli, his glasses on crooked:
“It can be good sometimes, like being back at home.”
Kamil, whose eyebrows say the exact opposite:
“No, no, not for me. As soon as I work out how, I’m going to be a French citizen, simple as.”
“But of course, we all want that. Just a matter of finding a Frenchwoman who’ll take us on.”
Kamel rubs his hands together:
“Look at Arezki, he’s no better than us. But he found a Frenchwoman. Now he’s living it up. With a French ID card, you’re a French citizen, untouchable, you get rid of all the shit. Whereas we’re about to get screwed by Saddam Hussein.”
Jeff watches his eyes swimming in his beer. Got to get going, top speed, before . . .
The conversation turns to women, all the romance of rutting pigs: "and I did this to her and I did that . . ." Akli suggests winding up the evening in Clichy, going back to his to watch a porno with Tracy Lords—God, the ass on her—getting fucked by two black guys, whose dicks are this big, I swear, this big!!
Really irritated now, Jeff begs off, saying he’s tired, needs to rest. Sorts it with Kamel, leaves the key behind the meter on the landing, OK, camp bed under the sofa, blanket in the cupboard, all right. They go their separate ways, three of them heading off to watch porn, Jeff to spend a few hours alone, catch his breath, relax.
*"Sensation," by Arthur Rimbaud, translated Jethro Bithell, 1912
© Aziz Chouaki. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lulu Norman. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Négar Djavadi's novel Désorientale, an Iranian teen finds sexual and cultural identity in the Parisian punk rock scene.
The revelation came to me a bit later, through the TV (an old, poorly-functioning set left by previous renters and installed in our room by my sister Leïli), which I watched until late at night. That evening, a concert in a small venue was being shown on Les Enfants du Rock. Because Leïli and Mina were asleep, I’d turned the sound off, so it wasn’t the music that struck me—but rather, the dangerous energy emanating from four young guys dressed in black, barely older than my sisters, strutting across the stage like they owned the world. They were feline, powerful, Dionysian. Their clothes were ripped and their fists raised, rage made the veins in their necks stand out. It was dark and luminous. Secretive. Subversive. In front of them, human waves, dense and insatiable, crashed against the edge of the stage before rising up and shouting in unison. They kept their backs turned to the world, to its values and obligations, to the past; they were drunk with the joy of being there, of living in a different way, of living at all.
I wanted to be there with them.
There, where Iran and France didn’t exist.
Alone and insurgent.
I was so enthralled by the images thumping against my retina that I didn’t hear Sara come into the room. Her hips blocked the screen. Her finger pressed the power button, and a black veil fell over the picture.
“Good lord, Kimiâ, it’s one-thirty in the morning. You need to sleep!”
Don’t count on it, I thought, staring at her.
I am fourteen, but I look older because of my height (almost five foot seven), my large hands, and my eyes, which have lost their innocence. I wear jeans and whatever blouses my mother, Sara, buys me on sale. Despite her efforts she can never find skirts in my size. Maybe in the adult section, but I’m not old enough to wear those yet. I am thin, but strong; a confusing physique.
For the first time ever, I skip afternoon classes and go to the Fnac in Montparnasse, trawling the rock section in search of the group I’d seen on TV. I find it at the very back, under “U.” U2. There are two LPs in the bin, October and War. I can’t afford to buy them, and we don’t have a record player anyway, but I discover that I can read the lyrics on the sleeve. I understand a few words here and there, but the rest remain a mystery. I copy the lyrics to Sunday Bloody Sunday into one of my notebooks.
From that day onward, my life changes. Music bridges the gap between the past and the present; childhood and adolescence; what has been and what will be. A new world has opened up for me, where it is better to be clever and resourceful than to have money.
As a result of the hours spent carefully translating song lyrics so I can understand them, I become a whiz at English. My vocabulary is far more advanced than that of the other students, and I can pronounce the “th,” sliding my tongue easily between my teeth. I spend my Sundays at the movies, watching dubbed and subtitled American films. I buy one ticket and sneak into another theater for a double-feature. One day I go into the wrong one and stumble across Alain Resnais’s Love unto Death. Shaken, I watch it twice in a row. I discover the flea market at Saint-Ouen, where I unearth an old record player, second-hand albums, and previously-worn clothes. Perversely, the outfits I assemble for pennies give me a new style all my own. Velvet jacket, ruffled 1970s blouse, fringed suede trousers, work boots. Horrified by the dirty things I keep lugging home in plastic bags, Sara stuffs it all straight into the washing machine.
I plunge headlong into punk and postpunk. Johnny Rotten, Ari Up, Ian Curtis, Joe Strummer, Peter Murphy, Siouxsie, Martin L. Gore. Their music fills every emotional and intellectual hole in my life. It becomes my daily bread, my life preserver. Because it puts the world back in its right place and tears away the facades. Because it is aware of the rage and the sweat and the strikes, the working-class quarters and the revolts and the gunpowder. Because it denounces the hypocrisy of power, and demolishes the certainties and social and ideological affirmations that claim to explain to us how the world works. Because it is made so that people like you will look at people like me.
I shave my head on the sides with some old clippers and cut it short as a boy’s in back. Sara, appalled, doesn’t speak to me for weeks, and Leïli rebukes me for adding to her suffering. I promise her I will keep up my good grades; as for the rest, I tell her it’s none of her business. Oh, and I begin swimming every day. At noon, instead of going home for lunch, I go to the pool next door to the high school. The official reason: I love sports. The secret reason: I dream of having a body like Peter Murphy, the sexy lead singer of Bauhaus, instead of my hybrid body whose strangeness sometimes makes me ashamed. I think my flat bum and narrow hips are already a good start; the rest—long, slender muscles, straight shoulders, well-defined thighs—depends on my own perseverance. I think of my body as my only country, my only homeland, and I will draw its contours the way I want them.
Now I’m sixteen. My in-depth knowledge of the underground scene enables me to go out in search of people who listen to the same music as I do. I’ve reached my adult height of nearly five foot eight, and I propel my lanky, solid body curiously through the city streets. I stamp Paris with my own footprints. It has become my city, a liberating and insidious place.
My route takes me to the Forum des Halles one Saturday afternoon. It’s a meeting place for teenagers estranged from their families; social services cases, gutter punks, Goths, young homosexuals rejected by their parents, and marginal members of society just passing through. A motley, aimless group that grows and shrinks with the season and the vagaries of chance. My looks are unusual enough that they elbow each other to make room for me. No one asks me where I’m from. No one cares. No one’s waiting for me to let slip a grammatical error. They call me by whatever nickname occurs to them, or just “K,” the initial of a first name most of them don’t know. They’re defensive, unpredictable, disruptive, loudmouthed, brazen. Sometimes in the metro, when they’re sprawled out on the bench seats singing at the top of their lungs, they offend the reserved politeness instilled in me during my upbringing—but they’re not cruel. Some of the girls react to my presence in a way I find comforting. They make sure to stand close to me, ask me to walk them home, play with my hair. One of them, Barbabeau (a nickname given because of her elaborate witch-clown makeup), always sits in my lap, exclaiming: “You’ve got knees like a guy!” I love it when she says that, because she’s acknowledging my bizarre physique while, at the same time, letting me know that it’s no big deal. Every time I see her I wait impatiently for her to come and sit in my lap so I can hear her say those words.
With these people, I learn to exist in an infinite now. To drink beer and cheap wine, smoke, drop acid, and spend wild nights in abandoned buildings and crowded dance clubs and tiny bars with battered stools. I learn to talk to the bouncers, guys who let me slip into concert venues without a ticket. I learn what “hit on” means. And above all, I learn, to my relief, that sexuality has no boundaries except the ones we impose on it. Being homosexual or heterosexual doesn’t mean anything. These considerations, so contentious and polemic in the harsh light of day, are too porous to resist the nights of this restless decade as it winds down. After a certain hour and in a certain light, edges blur. The middle-class wives, taking advantage of their husbands’ absence on work trips, slum it in lesbian nightclubs. They come early and sit in the corner with a glass of wine, patiently watching the girls dance, looking for the right one. Men in business suits ditch their girlfriends and slip into the bathroom to join the young guy who smiled at them before turning away petulantly. Couples arrive together and then, by mutual agreement, split up to go on the prowl. AIDS is still just a distant rumor, a disease too exotic to find its way into these dark basements, thumping with savage urban sounds.
From Désorientale. © Négar Djavadi. Published 2016 by Éditions Liana Levi. Translation © Europa Editions. Forthcoming from Europa Editions as Disoriental. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Rwandan author Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, a mother finds herself caught in the intersection of family battles and ethnic conflict.
Amagara araseseka ntayorwa
Guts spill on the ground but cannot be gathered back up
I stayed kneeling longer than everyone else, pressing all my weight into the wooden slats. My head buried in my hands, I kept whispering, “Don’t betray his name, don’t betray his name, Lord!”
When I got up, my eyes were moist—sweat or bitter tears—and I didn’t notice the little nail that had snagged my pagne, God’s only answer. The children stared at me anxiously. They could tell I was troubled just then, but Félicita alone knew why I was worrying myself sick.
Only twelve, Félicita is my timid shadow, always trailing just behind my pagne, quiet and obedient. Her skin is as dark as mine is light, but we have the same heifer eyes with long, curved lashes. It is she who helps me look after her brothers and sisters, sweeps the courtyard of our rugo early mornings before school, knows where I hide my savings and saw Harerimana—"it is God who raises children"—raise a hand to me last week.
The padiri passes through the congregation, blessing the cut branches we hold out to him. Yohani, my youngest, is wiggling his under his big sister’s nose to tickle her. He’s young still, and he must think this Palm Sunday Mass is taking forever. A mere wrinkle of Félicita’s brow is enough to settle the two children down. I had Yohani and the three other girls between the ages of thirty-one and thirty-seven. My eldest son, Harerimana, and Félicita, the next oldest, are ten years apart. My husband often said, laughing, that he found my way of having children completely incomprehensible.
Harerimana was born a few months after we were married. Then many long years went by before my belly grew round again. Other women on the hill would tease me, implying that my cleaning job at the National Population Office had doubled as birth control. Despite the wicked gossip spread by my mother-in-law, who believed me unable to bear children, I appreciated the years alone with my eldest child. While other mothers my age were drowning in rug rats, I had the luxury of being able to attend Mass without the bitter smell of urine clinging to my clothes.
Kubyara indahekana—that is what we say of a woman who has more babies than she can carry on her back at once. My son had the ingobyi,* that tanned leather carrier, all to himself, and he breastfed till he was two. Less overwhelmed than other mothers, I could devote myself to him, teaching him to speak well, singing him lullabies. I even planted a few feet of strawberries by the banana plantation where he spent his afternoons squatting while I shelled peas or sorted beans in the courtyard. People said, “That boy clings to his mother too much. He’ll never be a real man.”
And then came Félicita, when I was least expecting it. If we make it through this life, she’ll be the staff of my old age. It’s a good thing she’s so clumsy; no man will want to take her from me. Her soul has all the qualities that Harerimana’s lacks, convinced as he is that his size and strength put him above everyone else. Félicita’s birth caused me great pain. I lost my voice from screaming so much during delivery; it was a whole week before I got it back. The wrinkled little mauve creature immediately fell in tune with my silence: she never cried. We stared at each other for a long time; I was weeping, in pain, afraid. That’s why I called her Umuhoza: she who eases tears. Gazing at her, I would often repeat, “You who cause me so much pain, you must be good and obedient, to make me forget the painful way you came into this world.” And yet she wasn’t the one responsible for my fright, the one who sent me into premature labor.
I’m still convinced there’s something odd about that child. A strange power that lets her read people’s thoughts, speak with the dead. A bit like the seers of Kibeho who were gifted with seeing and hearing the Virgin Mary.
I’ve always believed nothing good could come from our lives as women. We are too full of bitterness and stifled sufferings, passed down from generation to generation, an essence mothers unconsciously distill before mixing it in with the butter they smear all over their daughters’ bodies. If only every other generation men could take a turn carrying children around in their bellies and raising them, then the vicious circle would be broken and girls freed from their fate.
The only thing women pass on is suffering. Didn’t the Mother of God Herself, on the day Félicita was born, tell us through the voices of young middle-school girls that the skies would open and rain hell down on our heads?
It was hot that day of Epiphany, and I most definitely shouldn’t have left Butare to visit my sick cousin when my own pregnancy was so advanced. No sooner had I arrived than she asked me to accompany her out on the esplanade of apparitions in Kibeho. There were hundreds of us, clustered together in the sun, spellbound by the singing of the young girl who stood on the platform, eyes bulging and arms outstretched. She sang an ode to Mary, and despite the crackling of static, her voice, borne by the loudspeakers, poured into our ears like a joyous balm. After several canticles, she began to pass on the message of the Lady in White. It was when the Mother of the Word announced that the land would be drowned in a tide of blood that I felt my pagne grow wet, and I lost consciousness.
Men carried me off to the clinic in Kibeho in the ingobyi of a disabled woman who’d come to hear the prophecies in secret hopes of a miraculous cure. Shortly thereafter, they used the same means of transport to take my cousin back to her house. She died not long after.
Despite all these deaths, foretold or unexpected, surrounding Félicita’s birth, her arrival was like an outbreak of life. When I see her so grown-up, so dark, I tell myself she was a stopper of a baby who stayed inside me for years, refusing to come out and confront a world that was too cruel. A ball of clotted blood that dwelled in my uterus while her brother was raised in the exclusivity of my love. After Félicita, I gave birth to four other children, one every two years.
Félicita’s never shown any jealousy over the love I bear Harerimana. She’s always been there, in the shadow of our bond, which even my husband complains about, hiding in a corner of the house just as she once did deep inside me, listening to us sing and laugh.
But the day came when bitter reprimands replaced the murmured nursery rhymes, the riddle games children adore: the “ncira umugani, tell me a story” and “sakwe sakwe—soma.” My son now despises me. He has joined the other bored and aimless boys, and spends his days in training that is both absurd and unsettling. They look like kids with their wooden rifles, but there is nothing childish about their songs. Harerimana doesn’t love me anymore. He is ashamed of me. The only people he cares about are his uncle Arsène, who supervises their training, and his wife, Chantal. Harerimana once told me, “Now she’s a real Rwandan!” Arsène and Chantal are Hutus.
Harerimana was fifteen when his father died. My sister-in-law spread the rumor that I’d poisoned him, that nothing good could come of a serpent born of a family of poisoners. Word reached my boy. Distraught at finding himself the man of the house at too young an age, he believed the rumor. I’d catch him looking at me sideways sometimes, eyes dark, hands shaking. He left school, grew ever more distant. When civil war broke out, his uncle began to fill his head with evil thoughts and it was easy for Arsène to recruit him into the local cell of Interahamwe militiamen—not only Hutus, but extremists—last year. There is no greater shame for a widow than to be renounced by her eldest son. A woman isn’t much of anything without a man to tell everyone, “This is my wife,” “This is my mother,” or “This is my sister.” I’m not much of anything. A bent shadow hugging the hedges of rugos, and hoeing, all by herself, the little patch of land that is all she has left.
Last week, when he came to fetch the last of his father’s things and sell them at market, I clung to his arm, begging him. He freed himself, tossing me violently against the door, where my left breast slammed into the padlock and my head hit the jamb. The sight of blood on my forehead failed to move him. He left without a word. If he could’ve killed me, as he claims I did his father, he’d no doubt have done so. Would he really dare? Of course, by doing so he’d get rid of the Tutsi part of himself he denies among his friends. But I am still his mother. No, he’d never do a thing like that.
I clench my fists till my joints pop and repeat in a whisper, “Keep him from the worst, O Father, do not make his name a lie.” When I come out at last, there’s no one left in front of the church. Félicita has led the little ones to shade beneath the old avocado tree by the presbytery. She has the girls reciting a canticle. Yohani has fallen asleep.
*“Ingobyi” also refers to a kind of stretcher made from a woven mat and two wooden poles, traditionally used to carry sick people, and as the poor man’s ambulance for reaching health clinics.
"Febronie—Maternités." From Ejo. Published 2015 by La Cheminante. By arrangement with the Astier-Pécher Film & Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
Zahia Rahmani portrays the mental and physical manifestations of dual exile from both homeland and language.
Franco-Algerian author Zahia Rahmani is the daughter of an alleged Harki, one of the thousands of Algerians who fought alongside or otherwise supported the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). It was the fate of such men to be twice exiled, first in their homeland after the war, and later in France, where fleeing Harki families seeking refuge faced contempt, discrimination, and exclusion. After her father escaped from an Algerian prison in 1967, Rahmani’s Muslim, Kabyle-speaking family came to France on a Red Cross convoy, and eventually resettled in the rural region of Oise, where they encountered widespread ignorance and racism. Muslim is part of a loose trilogy of novels that blend autofiction and an oral tradition of storytelling, each rendered in Rahmani’s unique lyrical style.
One night, I lost my tongue. My native tongue. I was barely five years old and had been living in France for a few weeks. I could no longer speak a language I once knew, a spoken language, a language of fables, ogre tales, and legends. In one night, a night of dreams or nightmares, I began to speak another language, a European language. I came to it that night. The night when, fast asleep, I encountered an army of elephants . . .
My childhood brought me to this place. I have only a single image of those early years. One photo. I’m in Kabylie. I’m old enough to walk, but I’m wrapped in a shawl on my mother’s back, a bulky scarf around my head. She told me that she had placed potato slices under the fabric to cure my headaches. Did I get headaches a lot, as a child? I didn’t have any medicine, answered my mother. And I got the headaches often? Constantly, she said. In that second, the pain comes back. I remember my brother burning his arm when he was only five years old. His furious cries and squirming when they tore his little green acrylic polo from his body after he spilled boiling milk on himself. I saw his skin come off with the shirt. His cries reverberate inside of me, they echo my own when I took my first steps, moved by hunger, because I wanted to sneak something from my cousin’s, my playmate’s, warm meal. She pushed me to the ground, onto a pan filled with oil, from which my mother had just removed a mouthwatering beignet, an accident that would leave me a burned child for several months. I don’t have many memories of what happened, but I still remember crying. I felt an immense rage against my cousin. Then she became deaf and dumb. Later, her illness was compounded by a mental and physical degeneration. I didn’t want to see or hear her. Her misfortune was too great a reminder of our family’s history. I understood that the bad luck I wished upon her was meant to punish her. To punish everyone for all the shit clinging to me. Nothing religious about it. Easy enough to understand. Every encounter I had with her was painful. I couldn’t help but think about our childhood, our poverty, our fathers destroyed by war who ignored our very existence. She was losing her language. She stopped speaking. One day, I went with her to Paris. She was going to visit a center for children like her. Our fathers came with us. We entered a room with tables and headsets. She and I played together with the devices. We were six years old and had only been in this new country a few months. She was losing her language. They took her away. Her disease was accelerating. They ran some tests on her. The center was run by nuns. There was also a doctor. They were all facing us, we were seated behind her, listening to her pronounce, very slowly, the e, e, they were trying to get her to say. Ee, ee, repeated the nuns. Eh, eh, said my cousin. It was 1968. Paris was in revolt. Its youths were once again swarming the streets. Revolution’s hand was outstretched and it had lovely plans for the world. “Sous les pavés la plage,” read our fathers. Under the cobblestones, the beach… That slogan opened up a path, and in the medicine factory where they had just been hired, people were talking about strikes and insurrection. Our fathers once again feared for the life they had. We were children. Little girls shaken by trauma. My cousin didn’t return home with us. We left her alone in that boarding school for the deaf and dumb. Outside, in the yard, there were other girls. Older. All older. And we left her there, my cousin, who was deaf and dumb, and who knew nothing about this country and its language. We left her there alone. Her parents had no other choice.
No more words. No more melody. Just a few brief sounds. And my cousin became The Child Who Does Not Speak.
As an adult, she came back to live with her parents. People said she was a little better. I went to see her. She had a resigned smile on her face. Concentrating, she made a few sounds with her mouth. Broken-up words. She wasn’t mute anymore. But she could barely stammer. I knew where she came from. What had they done to her?
We would never find comfort for what had happened.
At five years old, I abandoned my family so I could learn, on my own, how to escape a community that didn’t want me the way that I was born: excluded. If I hadn’t succeeded, I would have remained nothing but a block of pain encased in silence.
Ten years later I remember going to my mother to ask her, in her language, why I always had the same nightmare.
I’m being chased by old women. She tells me, Those aren’t old women, they’re children. I show her the scar above my eye and ask her who caused it. She says, The children. And I repeat, No. No, there are only old women. Old women running after me with sticks.
The nightmare ended. It ended after I was able to tell my mother in her language: I’m running, I’m running so fast, I turn around, the old women are chasing me, I’m crying, I insult them, I run, I run so fast, I scream, I tell them they won’t get me and, right when they’re about to catch me, I open the door to the house where we used to live, I go inside, I close it. I wake up exhausted. The old women are behind the door.
It was the children running after you, says my mother. Sometimes you would run into the yard, you wanted to go outside, and you would go see them, just to say that your father would be back soon. They’re the ones who threw stones at you. They’re the ones who hurt your eye. So why the old women? Why do I only see old women? No children. No little girls like me. She doesn’t know. She just tells me, Back then it was only the women and children like you. Women, mothers aged by suffering and death. Grieving their lost ones. And you kept demanding that your father, a Harki but still alive, in prison, come back. But they wanted him dead.
I was the daughter of a tainted man. The unwanted offspring of a new world, born in 1962. In Algeria, there had been deaths, martyrs, and combatants. Nobody wanted the rest, the “survivors,” those caught in the middle. So I had been expelled from a community moving forward, and from its future. I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one to suffer in this story.
I had spoken to my mother in her language. I hadn’t breathed a word in Kabyle in ten years and there I was, talking to her in her language. I wasn’t alone or abandoned anymore. Time had done its job. I stood up straight and reconnected with my family. I never saw the old women in my dreams again.
Why, a few months after leaving Algeria, did I stop speaking my language? Only to find it again ten years later?
I was in France. I learned and spoke a new language. At school. I had a new country, a new language, but above all, there was school. A New World. Leaning toward me, begging me to learn. Leaning toward me, index finger pointing at a word. Say, Little. Say, Little. Little. Little Tom. Say, Little Tom Thumb. I weighed barely anything. In my mother’s country, I had stopped eating. Tom Thumb was the youngest, like me, in a family fallen on hard times. Little Tom Thumb. I was him and my father had come home. Thin, sad, but home. At five years old, I stopped eating. I was waiting for him, waiting for him to return. He came back. No, he came. I was born without knowing him. He was in prison at the time. I hadn’t seen him for five years, and then he was there. He had escaped and we ran away. Left Algeria for this country. My father was finally back, but he didn’t see me. I had been waiting for him, and he had nothing to give me. So I held out my hand to the woman, at school, leaning toward me. And she gave me hers. She held my hand every day that I was beside her. Read. Read little one, and Mrs. Boulanger became my angel at the same moment when Tom Thumb, who so loved his poor brothers, encountered the breadcrumb-eating bird that would make him lose his way. I learned the language of Europe in one day. The day when Tom Thumb got lost on his path, the same night I dreamed of the elephants, the night I lost my native tongue, I spoke in his language. I left my people to join him. A companion in misfortune, betrayed by his own, like me. His story became mine. Together, his brothers and I could form a family. I would never want to leave his forest. During the day, I heard birds singing and at night, when the paths sunk into shadow, I happily kept moving. One more night, just one more night with them. Over and over, I climbed trees, tossing and throwing the words of our future into the sky. I didn’t want our life in this place to ever end. For these new brothers, I collected marvels and created shelters out of wood. Stretched out above those makeshift structures, we gazed at the stars and then looked down to watch the nocturnal activity below. It was through Little Tom Thumb and his language that I learned to negotiate my new world.
I waited ten years. Ten years to return to my family. Like Tom Thumb, who had to save his own, I needed to face the ogres and defeat them. The ones from the childhood fables that I had abandoned on the night of the elephants. I had to recognize them and find the words in Kabyle to vanquish them. Ten years to understand that I also had a home. My native tongue. Tom Thumb returned without me. The language of my childhood, my language from elsewhere, my mother’s language, a fading language welcomed me. A language that I had rejected the night of the elephants was still with me. I knew that all along. So how did I lose my voice?
I remember sitting across from the door to my closed bedroom. The mother who finds me in the hallway, asking me what I’m doing on the ground, is no longer my mother. Leaning down, she’s talking to me, I understand her, but I don’t say anything. I won’t say anything. She asks me what I’m doing, I know what she’s asking, because the sun is rising and it’s early, I know that she got up to do her prayers and that she’s wondering what her sweat-drenched child is doing in this hallway, and I don’t answer. Not a sound comes out of my mouth. I can’t talk to her anymore. And yet I hear her. I understand her. I had been living in a world that only her language could access. So I understood her. And if I kept that language with me, it’s because it had been my guide and companion since infancy. But in France, it represented a universe that could never match what was expected of me, here, in this country. I had to get away from that struggle. I only ever had one angel to watch over me. Only one angel who asked me to read. But there was no one, during this whole time, who could teach me to live in this country. My language was my only recourse. I had to find it again.
I know the solitude of the displaced child. You are ripped from your story and, blindly, you have to keep moving ahead anyway. You are told to keep going, in ignorance.
Your language is dead, said my books. And yet the words of my childhood were just walled away. I learned that a language doesn’t die. Languages don’t die. I was born in a cramped space. I was chased. I’m still being chased. I run, I find the door, I slam it shut, I lock it. I’m safe. I’m still behind a closed door. At fifteen, I brusquely asked my mother, in my rediscovered language, Who are the women chasing after me? She says, They’re children. The other children always ran after you. You would go find them and come back running. And that scar on your left eye? It was the children. Just children? I only see old women, chasing me. I want to know why they’re the ones I see. Why do I only see old women? Tell me, why do I only see old women? They’re always there, behind me, like those toothless faces in Spanish paintings! They were children. Only children. No, they were old women. I know, I saw them!
I ran so far.
I always ran when I was afraid. Ran to escape the army, the soldiers. Ran to escape the sticks, rocks, or hands. Ran to escape someone yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. A soldier yelling at a child in a language she doesn’t understand. Ran until the door. I was always looking for that door. Leave, go, flee. Find a door. Shelter. And every time, I locked it shut.
One day, I swallow an orange seed. My mother isn’t here. I don’t know why, but she isn’t here. Maybe she’s at the hospital. Bringing my brother into the world. My brother who wore her out. She hasn’t been here for days and I don’t go see her. I’m in France, but I’m not allowed to see her. My father refuses. He locks us inside. He says that we can’t trust anybody in this country. But I have an orange seed in my throat. So I run away. I run to my older sister’s house. I run fast. I hold my breath, the seed is stuck deep inside my throat, I have to hold it there otherwise it will start to talk in my stomach. I hold it as I run, I hold it until I get to my sister’s house. Houria, Houria, a seed is going to start talking in my stomach. It’s going to talk, talk and take my place. I’m going to die. I’m suffocating, I can’t breathe. My sister dries my forehead with a washcloth. She tells me, You can swallow. I can swallow the seed? Let it reach my stomach? A tree will grow, I tell her. No, there won’t be a tree. I have a seed in my stomach that won’t talk. And there won’t be a tree?
That’s how I know that I heard and understood my mother’s language. She’s the one who told me the story about the Magic Pit and the Tree of Adversity.
There once was a king’s daughter whose beauty was so rare and gentle that they built a palace around her meant to equal her in every way. They brought her the most beautiful things from all around the world. But you can’t leave this place, said her family, fearful that her purity would be tarnished. Every morning, before they went hunting, her brothers and father brought her to her palace. They left her alone, surrounded by everything that had been given her. Her voice, they say, was as soft as a bird’s breath and she would practice singing their songs. She sang to the animals and they all understood her. Tender and affectionate, they accompanied her wherever she went. Flowers bowed at her passing, some growing even more beautiful. From them, she gathered vibrant colors and poise. The trees and plants weren’t about to be outdone. They shared their power, with complete trust, with their hostess, in a language that only she understood. Nature kept few secrets from her. The zephyr came at night to carry away the ravaged stamens from the flowerbeds, while the rain would arrive a little later, sprinkling this gracious and delicate place with its cool water, as the palace awoke. And thus every morning, men and women came to pay court, in their most becoming clothes, to the princess who had, everything considered, thanks to her grace, beauty, and intelligence, blessed them with virtue and kindness. One day, a man came to her door. She refused to open it. Every day he came back to say, This world you’re living in won’t last. Like every one of us, you will know adversity. The princess didn’t respond. She said nothing to her brothers or father. Never open the door. Never, they had told her. And every night, carried on her silk- and gold-adorned palanquin, the princess was brought back to her parents’ home by those who loved and cherished her. In her absence, the palace was put back in order by bustling servants. They cleaned the mirrors and the aviaries, and then the pathways. They spread scented oils near the benches, chairs, and tables, and, picking up leaves and flower petals, spread gleaming milk over the grass. Perfumed pomades were rubbed over all the furs and hangings, and before leaving, the servants put out small delicacies. The princess was living in an enchanted world. Those around her wanted her to know nothing of suffering or death. But the man came back every day. Would you rather know now or later what you’ll experience? You will know unhappiness. This life you’re living will end one day. Do you want to know? Tell me, do you want to know or not? The man came back every day. Every time, he asked the same question. Do you want to know? The princess gave in. If I have to know unhappiness, then make it so that I’m surrounded by those I love. I wouldn’t be able to stand it as an old woman. The man left. When night fell, none of the princess’s brothers came to get her. She waited all night but didn’t see a single person. At the first hint of daylight, she ran to her family’s palace. What she saw devastated her. Desolation everywhere. She climbed the stairs. She saw her father on his throne, dead, pierced through the heart. She ran to her brothers’ quarters. They were all dead. Her mother, her dear mother, was lying on the ground. The princess began to cry. She couldn’t stop. It’s my fault all those I love are dead, she thought. And yet she had been warned. She wanted to die but her grief was too big. Several days went by. The man reappeared. She couldn’t make out his face. Now that you know, he said, what do you plan to do? She didn’t know how to respond. You must either die or leave this place, he said. Please return to my palace, she told him, and bring me back something. One single thing. Go to the tree of adversity. Pick the most beautiful fruit and bring it to me. She described the tree to the man. He left to carry out her request. In the meantime, she prepared a fire. The man came back. His face covered, he held out his arm and handed her the fruit. Wait for me outside, said the princess. The man quietly stepped out. She took a knife, opened the fruit, and removed the pit. She threw it in the fire and held it over the embers with a stick. Endure what I endure, she said to the pit. But it leaped out of the fire. She started over. Endure what I endure, she said once again. But the pit leaped out of the fire. She started over and put it back in the fire, on the stick. Endure what I endure, she said, but the pit didn’t want to burn. It leaped out of the fire. She repeated her efforts seven times. And the pit leaped out of the fire seven times. Then she picked up the magic pit. She placed it against her heart and made her way to her father’s throne. She saw that he was seated there with his ministers. She climbed the stairs. She heard her brothers and their wives, one of whom was calling for her husband. She kept climbing. Until the last set of rooms, the queen’s. A valet announced her. Her mother was alive. A servant opened the doors and the princess ran towards the window. Far in the distance she saw the ghost of the man who had predicted her loved ones’ deaths. She went to her mother with open arms. What are you doing here? asked her mother. I know that you wanted to raise me in ignorance, replied the princess. The tree of adversity had shared its secret with her: the world that surrounds you as a child is a lie.
An orange seed is nothing, nothing at all. You have to swallow it. Just swallow.
Excerpt from Muslim © Zahia Rahmani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Lara Vergnaud. All rights reserved.
A Moroccan adolescent becomes obsessed with his nanny's previous charge, a French boy, and imagines a life with him.
My Lalla continued telling me stories to keep me calmly at the house, which was how my father liked it. I liked to listen to her, but she simply liked to know that I was close to her. She would come take me away from my friends, and other times when I was with girls, under the pretext that a boy was not supposed to play with girls. What I liked about her stories was that she would tell them again and repeat the parts that made me happy, like her story about the French family she used to work for. I used to accompany her, she told me, when I was really little. It was actually her boss who had insisted that she bring me with her. “You were a perfect little boy, all I had to do was put you on an armchair and you wouldn’t budge,” she would repeat to me while stroking my cheek. I would spend my time immobile on that armchair, watching Noé, the French boy she was governess to, and with whom I would sometimes play. These are her memories, onto which I imposed my own images. Noé was the same age as me. Once in a while, I got the impression that she brought up her time at that family’s home just to speak as much as she liked about Noé, with a lot of love. He was like her second son, she would say each time she had her nose buried in her things and she came upon the photo of him, but I was sure that she cleaned out her closet expressly to unpack all her memories.
I also adopted the habit, to the extent that I became familiar with the odor specific to that photo and those postcards. My Lalla was antsy for me to learn French, she even begged me, so that I could respond to the postcards she received and write long letters to that family. At the time, I said to myself that she would have to wait until I was competent, but that even then the French family would be disappointed in my revolting, illegible handwriting and she would be better off having it typed up by a professional writer. That way the family would spend just two minutes reading it instead of taking two and a half years to decipher each symbol of my hand. But soon after, I realized that I was also antsy to be able to write a real letter in French, and in my own handwriting, which would lend it a more sensual and physical proximity. It made me happy to be able to do that for her, I could tell it made her enormously happy, and it made me happy, too, out of pure egotism, to be able to touch that family indirectly, and like her, it was Noé I was interested in. I liked to see her get emotional, tell me about her life and how good she had felt in that family.
I grew to love sitting near her, and little by little I saw that I could permit myself to touch that photo and those postcards, hold Noé in my hands. Something in me stopped me from bluntly staring while I was opposite her, as she pretended to tidy away her clothes and her few traditional dresses that she never wore because they were too beautiful and made from silk. I was too uncomfortable on my knees, I couldn’t find a comfortable position in which to stare at Noé the way I wanted. I saw her groan, too, and lose herself in her tidying and in her dresses that were so silky they slipped from her hands and fell to her knees. Her demeanor didn’t really help and I was starting to feel something new toward her. All of a sudden I was timid and too polite, I felt like these were her things and I couldn’t access them. I was embarrassed and it was difficult for me because I was starting to care for Noé as much as she did. She could look at him as much as she liked from morning till night and even put his photo under her pillow and sleep with it. I escaped by lying down on the ground, leaving her behind me in her silk, to gaze at Noé in peace. And then one day she imitated me and lay down with all her weight—and that position was the last thing I expected from her, sly and smiling and sweet—to once more comment on the photograph, tear it from my hands to describe Noé, who was only four years old, completely naked in his plastic inflatable pool on the garden lawn. She mentioned, as she did every time, that she was the one who used to spray him with water and play with him.
That posture became a kind of daily reflex for me, but never did my gesture of throwing myself on Noé and staring at him agitate my Lalla. Not at all, on the contrary, it was also an opportunity for her to caress that photo. Little by little, she no longer needed to start with Noé’s parents, pretending to think of them so she could then talk about Noé as she loved and knew to do. The ritual kept me at her side; Noé had become our thing in common. I lost myself in our feelings for Noé, I didn’t know if our love for him was alike, I knew only that I wanted for him to be there at my side, his world and his family, his French way of life enticed me. All the empty space from having lost my little baby brother I projected onto Noé, but no matter the kind of love or how I saw it, the important thing was that it enveloped me in a sweet joy. I learned to love him and I am grateful to my Lalla for that. Once in a while, I was sad that he was no longer there, in Morocco, he had left too young, before I had even had the time to cling to a single memory of him, to bind us together. His family’s life consisted of roaming the world from one French embassy to another. But often I found happiness in the simple fact that he was in the world at the same time as me, far away, but at least we were on the same earth.
The images on the television screens at the Hitachi store as I went back and forth between my house and school only intensified the desire that bound me to Noé. France, that word and that language sounded good in my ear. I transposed my fixation for all of that onto the photo of Noé. I started to miss him so much that it became physical, I wanted more than that photo and my Lalla’s stories, but, as sad as I was, I enjoyed living in the proximity of that lack that grew as I did. It was my whole life, and I learned to grow up alongside it.
I went to look for the photo, cautiously, trying not to upset the neat arrangement of all that silk that could slip so easily. I became selfish, monopolizing those moments for myself alone, without my Lalla. I loved to stare at him, smile at him, his face with the blue, narrow eyes that saw only me, smiled at me too, and that skin, so white. I was afraid that my Lalla would suspect my obsession with that photo; discovering me rifling through her things made her angry.
It took a long time for me to hatch the idea that would make me happier than anything. I was thirteen years old, it was time to steal. But not really steal the photo, I wanted her to have it too. A few streets from my house, there was a professional photographer whose store window was plastered with photos. I liked to look at them, and after pressing my nose to the glass so often he was used to me and my visits, which were pointless in his eyes. I liked to go to the back of the studio while he was busy with customers at the counter. I didn’t turn on the lights, not because I was afraid of getting caught, but because the giant posters of Tahiti at sunset and Paris with its super tall tower sufficiently illuminated my view. I adored the decor, that was where people went to be photographed and they liked it too, evidently, since they seemed so happy to be there. At first, I thought that those people were displayed in the window because they were beautiful and I didn’t understand why there were also ugly people. One day I asked him, and he replied that they were the people who didn’t have the money to pick up their photos, and he thought it was a good punishment, to evoke shame in them and their families, especially the young girls, immediately seizing the opportunity to warn me that the day I found myself in that room, the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t pay. That was when I came up with the idea for Noé and me.
I took the photo of Noé and one of me at the same age. I placed them on the counter. The photographer was appalled by my acute assurance of what I wanted to do with the two photos. All he did was stare at me and listen to my explanations. I neglected to say that the blonder boy wasn’t my brother since we didn’t look much alike. I didn’t know if he figured it out or if he would agree to do the work, he stayed silent for so long. I wanted for him to reproduce the two photos as one, with me next to Noé. I had to go back two days later to pick them up and I took care to save up the money. My fear was that my Lalla would feel the need to look at Noé at some point during the two days. I didn’t let her out of my sight, I did everything possible to keep her busy until I could put the photo back in her closet.
In the finished photo, Noé and I were each in a circle. I could finally have him on me at all times, in my school bag, from morning till night and from night till morning. When I held him in my two hands, lying on my bed, I loved to extend my arms and then bring the photo right up close to my face and stare straight into it until I had tears in my eyes. From then on, I always went to bed happy, no more of that fear of the night, no more need for my door to stay open so that I could see my father’s bedroom on the other side of the patio on the first floor. I used to be scared of the sky that I could see from my bed, crammed with stars. Once my eyes were closed, my father would come to turn out the light and close the door, and he would cover me back up because I would make my covers fall off the bed with all my tossing and turning. Finally he came up with an idea that made him laugh: he put a big heavy carpet on top of my sheet and covers, so that only my head would move. The first night, it kept me from losing my sheets but it also kept me from sleeping; I was used to him coming to my room every night. I was afraid that he was sick of getting up for me, but over time I understood that he was simply worried I would be cold. I was no longer afraid of “jinn,” the demons. I used to torture myself praying to God to chase it all from my imagination but I still didn’t know how to recite the prayers of the Koran, I would just say, “Oh God protect me.” I thought my prayer wasn’t valid, that I couldn’t find the necessary words that could only be found in the Koran. I felt reassured with the photo of Noé because it took my mind off of it, even if I slept impossible hours.
My grandparents’ visits had become less and less frequent ever since my dad had refused to do as they had advised him, which was to kick out my Lalla if he cared about them. My father protected her. He would drive me to the countryside to see my grandparents during school vacations. I had less and less desire to go there, especially for the summer break when it was too hot, but also because I wanted to be a part of Lalla’s clan, she had become like a memento of Noé for me. I told myself that it would be better for me to love my Lalla more, more than my father did. I loved her, and my love for Noé increased. To be able to say to myself simply that I loved Noé without it seeming insane, to hold the photo, kiss it, and tell him: “Good night, Noé,” was already an enormous pleasure, I adored that and I would have adored a thousand other situations if he had really been next to me.
More and more I loved to plunge myself into that atmosphere and travel through all those screens. I could only barely hear the sound through the store window. France and the French were everywhere for me, and none of those boys transfixed like I was in front of the TV screens suspected that I had more reason than them to love that universe that linked me even more to Noé. It was a sensation that I had never imagined could exist. I started to project my relationship with him into the long term: I would carry his photo on me as much as I could, I would love him for a very long time. At least for the near future, a few months, a few years, and as long as I could, I was prepared to love him. I had never thought that the other boys I saw on the TV screens could remind me of Noé, or that their silhouettes could provoke thoughts of him in me, until the day when I absolutely had to enter the Hitachi store, so strong was the image, I was beckoned inside to better hear and see.
A little boy with a bare chest, completely disheveled, was waking up on the screen. I am incapable of saying what it was that stirred me to such an extent, it was simply that I saw him holding a bowl of hot chocolate that a woman had just given to him. It was clearly a movie. The chocolate overflowed his lips. One thing was for sure: nothing I had ever seen before had struck me in this way. I understood in that moment that his morning was not like mine. I thought of my drink, mint tea, with bread drenched in melted butter, and I felt like they summed up my culture; I was sick of mint tea. A few days later, I got up at dawn, before my Lalla prepared my breakfast. I had not planned out the moment when I would find myself face to face with her. How to ask her, explain to her that this morning I wanted hot chocolate? I didn’t think it would be that strange for her, surely she had already prepared that for little Noé, and imagining it made me emotional. Seeing the expression she made, I quickly changed my mind and settled for my mint tea without her having to say a word. She was looking at me like I was a Martian. And I couldn’t get the image of the boy with the hot chocolate out of my head. Everything reminded me of Noé, and the only thing that differentiated him from me was hot chocolate.
From Chocolat Chaud. © Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1998. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
Calcutta native Shumona Sinha describes a communication breakdown when a French immigration officer interviews an immigrant circus performer.
He looked perpetually amazed and stupefied. I recall having to ask him at several moments if he understood what I was saying. At several moments I thought he was simple-minded. He always took a few seconds before opening his mouth, to swallow his saliva, like a fish gasping for air. Only then did he utter a few hesitant, inaudible, frightened words. I knew then that in his mind there ran a slender thread of a tale, upon which he swayed, with faltering step. A trapeze artist, he wasn’t. Rather a village boy whom the traveling circus had found to be sufficiently goofy that he didn’t care how goofy he appeared, and would put on a show. They got him up on the tightrope.
“We hunt down those who cross the border. But what about the ones who make them come? The ones who make them work illicitly? The ones who constructed this slavery machine?” asked the officer with exasperation.
She’s a triumphant forty-something. Hair cut short in a blonde bob. From time to time she sweeps back a few strands with a brisk hand, meaning that she is excited and tense, like a cat that has spotted a far too stupid mouse.
I am polite but I can hardly hide my joy, believing that I am on the point of discovering one of life’s great truths.
“That’s correct. They bring them over as labor. And who profits? You guessed it! By making them pay for the passport, the voyage, and the story, too.”
“You mean they also buy their stories?!”
She shrugs. Raises her eyebrows. It’s obvious. She doesn’t say it but I get the message, loud and clear.
She stubs out her cigarette and I take a final swig from my bottle of orange Oasis. White clouds scud across the soaring gray windows of this complex of buildings, doubling in volume then fragmenting, before merging to form clusters of strange, distant, unexplored planets. They penetrate the simple geometry of the glass panes, progressing like some unknown gas, like smoke from a fire, frightening and invasive.
We continued the interview with the boy from the village circus.
“Right, do you have any brothers and sisters?”
“Two what? Brother? Sister?”
“No, no, three.”
“One brother and one sister.”
“And the third one?”
“OK. Why didn’t you say that from the start?”
“Well, because he’s dead.”
“In what circumstances?”
“The terrorists killed him.”
“Right. Are you married?”
“Do you have any children?”
At this, the circus youth wails like a clown who’s picked the wrong mask. Indignant, he wonders how we can ask him if he has children. Didn’t he just state that he was unmarried? The protection officer tries to understand. Where is the problem? I sidestep the social and moral niceties, and tell her in a nutshell that for him it is quite impossible to conceive children outside of marriage.
“Well it’s not exactly difficult, is it?!” the officer goes.
We let it drop and move on.
“Did you work before coming here?”
“How did you earn your living?”
“My father had a grocery store. I stayed with him at our grocery store.”
“I see! So you worked with your father.”
“I didn’t work, I told you. We had a grocery store. Sold bits of . . . er . . . stuff . . . things to eat.”
“So you did work, in your grocery store!”
“I didn’t work. I sold things.”
“How many days a week? And how many hours a day?”
“Monday to Sunday. Closed on Friday. Eight o’clock to ten at night.”
“You worked a lot in your grocery store.”
“I told you I didn’t work. I had a grocery store.”
Now it’s the officer who looks at me, astonished.
“Is there a problem? Do you understand each other? Does he understand you? Or is there an issue with the language?”
“He understands me perfectly,” I reassure her. “Maybe it’s the word ‘work’ that bothers him. He understands ‘work’ as being employed. He’s the owner of this grocery store. Therefore superior to those who work, who work for other people.”
“OK, well, we’ll leave that there. Otherwise we’ll never get through this,” says the officer, and she hits the Enter key with her forefinger, the nail of which is damaged by dint of typing terrible tales.
“What made you leave your country?”
“The terrorists . . . everywhere . . . they harass us . . . I am Hindu . . . the fundamentalists torture us . . .”
“What was the incident that forced you to leave your country?”
“Well . . . the terrorists . . . the fundamentalists . . .”
“What was the precise reason you left your country? What did they do to you? Be specific.”
“A young woman from my village killed herself. That’s why—”
“How does that relate to you?”
“Well . . . she was Muslim. She was dating a friend of mine.”
“How does that relate to you?”
“Er . . . my friend was Hindu. Like me.”
“But . . . how . . . why was that a problem for you?”
“This girl’s brother was a terrorist in our village. He had beaten up his sister’s boyfriend. He had prohibited him from seeing his sister. And the girl hung herself. And they accused me of murder.”
“But how were you responsible? You weren’t her boyfriend!”
“No . . . but the terrorist and his men had brought the woman’s corpse and had hung it from the guava tree at my place.”
“Why? Wasn’t there a guava tree at the other guy’s place?”
I burst out laughing. Impossible to stop myself and translate the question for him. He stares at me, amazed and stupefied. A fit of giggles before a man in distress. Enough to make you blush with shame, bite your nails, lower your head right down to the table, and slyly laugh even more. I think of the woes of the world. Woes I myself have known. Or that I will know. Get myself knocked down by a car before I can take a bite of my meat and plum sandwich. A flowerpot fallen off a balcony right onto my head. Shattered skull—my cell phone rings right at that moment, but I can’t reply. It’s like the flowers were laid in advance for my funeral. I die. I cry. I cry for the people who would have cried for me. Nothing to be done. My body shakes with laughter as if a host of sparrows were flitting, fluttering, and chattering inside my skeletal cage.
From Assommons les pauvres! © Shumona Sinha. Published 2011 by Éditions de l'Olivier. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Roland Glasser. All rights reserved.
Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is the story of the life of a Congolese orphan named Moses. His full name is Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” in Lingala. His grandly prophetic name leads him to a destiny that’s far less linear than that of the original Moses, but just as gripping and fantastical.
Moses enters his teenage years in an orphanage as a government with a pan-African socialist message assumes power in the Republic of Congo. He escapes from the orphanage to wander along with a gang of fellow orphans, and then by himself, on the streets of the city of Pointe-Noire. Throughout the novel, Moses drifts from parental figure to parental figure, including Papa Moupelo, the priest who gives him his “kilometrically extended” name; the school nurse, Sabine Niangui; and a Zairean madam in Pointe-Noire nicknamed Maman Fiat 500.
Moses does his best to live up to his name. Throughout the novel, Moses harkens back to the life story of his biblical namesake, who provides him with a shining example of taking a principled stance against power. The story from the book of Exodus in which Moses kills an Egyptian overseer mistreating a slave, coupled with an understanding of the fundamental principles of socialism, give Mabanckou’s Moses a strong sense of justice.
But Moses doesn’t gain an understanding of socialism from the government propaganda he learns at school or the presidential speeches he is forced to memorize. In fact, his sense of justice persists despite rather than because of his education—an education dispensed by “bruisers with zero intelligence” turned party cadres, who pepper their speech with gratuitous uses of the word “dialectically” and say things like “the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure” without seeming to understand what this vocabulary means. True to form, Mabanckou serves up his social commentary with a side of humor, satirizing pseudo-Marxist posers who substitute conceptual name-dropping for any type of action that might benefit the people.
As for Moses, he’s the exact opposite of the apparatchiks: he internalizes the spirit rather than the letter of the socialist discourse he is taught. From a young age, he is concerned about people who are more vulnerable than he is and tries to defend them from more powerful people. For example, in the orphanage, he takes revenge on the school bullies who terrorize his friend Kokolo by spiking their food with devastating amounts of chili pepper, which earns him the nickname Little Pepper (the title of the original French-language novel is Petit Piment). Aside from the biblical Moses, Little Pepper’s most important role model is Robin Hood, because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Moses actually does steal things from the market to hand them out to poor people at the mosque or on the street. Our protagonist is like the humble orphan in a fairytale whose good heart guides him to make good decisions and judge people for who they are rather than their position in society.
The society Moses lives in has nothing to do with fairy tales, though. He’s continually mocked for his collectivist spirit. Black Moses paints a picture of a society where socialism is the official ideology even as it’s not actually implemented anywhere. In a country that was actually socialist, there wouldn’t be hundreds of homeless teenagers wandering in the streets of a major city, subsisting on petty theft and scavenging. Driving poor people out of that city wouldn’t be considered a real solution to poverty. The mayor of that city pledging to “clean it up” by expelling undocumented sex workers would be decried as the cruel demagoguery it is. On a smaller level, a young woman’s life wouldn’t be ruined if a rich married man strung her along, made her believe he would support her, and ditched her when she became pregnant (this is what happened to the mother of Moses’ friend Kokolo).
Yes, by my telling Black Moses sounds like it’s all Dickensian tribulations. But in fact, true to Alain Mabanckou’s freewheeling, irreverent style and to real life, this novel is full of hilarious vignettes. To name just a few, there’s a story straight out of Mabanckou’s polyphonic, Rabelaisian Broken Glass, about a mortician who loves corpses a little too much; a lecherous artist named St. Francis of a Titty; and a comical shouting match between the idiotic president and his idiotic henchmen, which could have been a scene from Dr. Strangelove except it’s about whether the president’s favorite sex worker is seeing other clients behind his back.
This unclassifiable novel contains elements of comedy and tragedy, of realism, naturalism, and magical realism, but it is none of these. It most closely resembles the earliest examples of the novelistic form, dating back to the 1600s. One could say the novel was born pre-deconstructed in the sense that the major early works in the form were far more experimental in terms of style and content than most of the novels most of our contemporaries are producing. From Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist, these early novels smashed the Aristotelian unities to bits in an effort to portray life as we experience it: not unified in the least but chaotic, completely disjointed, chronologically nonlinear because we reminisce and forget, a melting pot of every single emotion and every kind of experience. In Black Moses, Mabanckou returns to the very roots of the novel to produce a story that’s too thoroughly modern to concern itself with genre or register. Best of all, he does so effortlessly and without taking pains to point out that he’s being experimental (thus avoiding the pitfall of so much experimental literature that tries to knock the reader over the head with its affected weirdness). This is a novel that’s as entertaining as it is engrossing, and reads as though you were experiencing Moses’s life as your own.