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from the September 2014 issue

On the Fourth Day

He arrived on a golden-yellow tricycle and offered to tow me. Frail sexagenarian, sickly thin frame, angular face, his craggy skin suggesting an old case of the chickenpox. A lightly broken-in cowboy hat made him look like a worn-out pistolero straight out of a Sixties Western. “Hop on board my taxi!” he said. I declined the offer, suggesting I walk beside him while he rode the tricycle. The man invited me to dine. Difficult to refuse such a priceless invitation given the relentless rain.

Triumphal entrance amid a line of women and teenagers waiting under the awning in front of the property. Impressive: the concrete dwelling, its stairs decked with flowers, that no doubt housed the twenty souls squeezing around me. Apparently, three generations lived together between the impeccably clean, lavender-blue walls. Dinner was frugal: grilled corn soup, a piece of fried chicken, and the inevitable tortilla, this one especially delicious with its hot taste of fresh corn. The conversation, for its part, was lively: a ballet of questions from all sides: a compulsive hunger to know, which I strongly appreciated. As I told of my village, I slowly came to life. Then we segued to our stories of exodus. Words struggled on their way toward our lips. The man didn’t really want to talk, seemed to have turned the page—dog-eared, crumpled from having been consulted so many times, scanned, read, reread, scrutinized, spelled out over stormy and famished nights. I changed my line of attack and pointed out that his house stood out from all the others in the area. And that it was rare to see such a big house, with multiple stories, in a village. He replied, his face serene, that it was a gift from God, who had observed his vagrancy and taken umbrage. He had lived in more than thirty dwellings, each more improbable than the next: nests in tree foliage, wooden huts, adobe houses, straw cabins, tents in plastic or burlap, hutches from barrels or cardboard, shelters of found sheet metal. At last he had a real, well-ventilated concrete house with lots of light that wouldn’t let a single drop of rain pass through ever again. One day perhaps he would leave it; all it would take was another catastrophe in his life, another war on his heels . . . Then he would leave this place. Obviously. But in the meantime, he considered the building a gift, an act of grace.

Guatemala was back on his lips: soldiers thirsty for blood; houses burned to ashes, people hunted, fetuses torn from mothers’ wombs; his mother-in-law’s breasts artistically slashed off by the mass of soldiers. Life was suffering and purgation. He figured, when it came down to it, that the earth was the same everywhere, that men were the same under the equinoxes and solstices, no matter differences in skin color. “Your country is wherever you feel good.” Still, he waited for sleep, snug in his bed, to go to the place where one’s dreams are unbound.

He insisted on accompanying me back on his tricycle. I accepted his offer reluctantly; I would have preferred to save him the trouble of towing more than his own weight. He made it a point of honor. He left me at the door of my house. I collapsed onto my bed, overcome with the blues, a burning melancholy in the pit of my stomach. Exile is a chain of errancies; its nature is not sedentary. And while errancy has been applauded for its enriching virtues, it is also a succession of repeated deaths, a chopping up of life’s fluid time into shards of existence, the gaze torn between the idyllic and the tormented, between one’s childhood country and an impossible resettlement in another land. Exile is a slow death, a life on reprieve, a life spent waiting . . . Splicing oneself onto a strange root successfully is a miracle. Unless one possesses the properties of mistletoe and can grow on a tree whose roots are not one’s own. Slowly but surely, exile erases us from the memory of our land. And the day when we try to go back to our country, to set foot there, by chance, for a sun, a moon, we realize that our land has abandoned us; it has turned its back on us, doesn’t recognize us anymore, has disowned us. And we hem ourselves into the illusion that we abandoned it, left it for fallow, in order to keep loving it, in spite of everything . . . to keep living the convulsions of our death in homeopathic doses. Those who force people to leave against their will know very well that they are committing murder; without appearing to, they manage to execute their plans, because they act legitimate and argue that they haven’t gotten their hands dirty with others’ blood. Involuntary exile is a suicide.

When he left me, the man with the golden-yellow tricycle, owner of the lavender-blue house, gave me a vibrant, brotherly, energetic handshake. As if he saw in me his own condition, a double lost in the maze of the self. As if he’d guessed that I’d understood him, beyond the lie of happiness regained in his giant, gleaming house, a lie that, in front of his vast progeny, he was forced to serve me in abundance. How else could he have been?

From Les racines du yucca. © by Koulsy Lamko. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Alexis Pernsteiner. All rights reserved.

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