A la deriva / Adrift

 “A La Deriva”

Adrift

The man stepped on something faintly soft and white, and immediately he felt the bite on his foot. He jumped forward cursing and turned around to see the yaracacusú coiled around itself, ready for another attack.

The man cast a quick glance at his foot, where two droplets of blood were swelling arduously, and drew his machete from his belt. The viper saw the threat and hid his head in the middle of his coiled spiral but the machete fell with the dull spine of the blade, separating the snake’s vertebrae.

The man knelt down to examine the bite, rubbed off the drops of blood and thought for a moment. A dull pain spread from the two violet punctures and began to invade his whole foot. Hurriedly, he tied his bandana around his ankle and hobbled along the trail towards his ranch.

The pain in his foot spread with a sensation of flesh bulging out from his taunt skin, and suddenly—like thunder—pain irradiated out from the wound to the middle of his calf. He had difficulty moving his foot; a metallic dryness seized his throat, followed by a burning thirst, he let out another curse.

He finally arrived at his ranch and threw himself atop the wheel of his trepiche. The two violet dots now vanished in the monstrous swelling of his entire foot. His skin appeared to grow thin and tense to the point of bursting.  He wanted to call to his woman but his voice broke in a coarse cry and was pulled back into his dry throat. The thirst devoured his voice

“Dorotea!” He managed to throw out in a powerful cry. “Give me brandy!”

She ran over with a full glass that the man slurped up in three gulps. But he tasted nothing.

“I asked for brandy, not water.” He bellowed again.  “Give me brandy.”

“But that is brandy, Paulino.” She protested, frightened.

“No, you gave me water!  I want brandy!”

The woman ran back, returning with the demijohn bottle. The man drank glass after glass but felt nothing in his throat.

“Well, this is bad.” He murmured to himself looking at his foot, already bruised in a gangrenous luster. Over the bandana-knotted limb, flesh flowed like a monstrous blood sausage.

The blinding pain continued expanding in flashes of pain that reached his groin.  The atrocious thirst in his throat seemed to grow warm as he breathed.  When he attempted to sit up, he was seized by a fulminant urge to vomit; for half a minute he vomited with his head rested against the wooden wheel.

But the man did not want to die, and made his way down to the coast where he climbed into his canoe. He sat in the stern and began to paddle towards the center of the Paraná.  There, the current of the river, which runs six miles an hour in the vicinity of the Iguazu, would take him to Tacurú-Pucú in less than five hours.

The man, with somber energy, managed to arrive exactly in the middle of the river; but once there his sleeping hands dropped the paddle back into the canoe, and after vomiting again—with blood this time—he crooked his head to look at the sun that had already began to set behind the high hills.

His whole leg, until the middle of his thigh, had already become a deformed and hard block bursting the stitching of his pants. The man cut the bandage and opened his pants with his knife; the underside of his leg overflowed in large swollen lurid blotches that throbbed in pain. The man thought that he could no longer reach Tacurú-Pucú by himself, and decided to ask for help from his friend Alves, even though it had been a long while since they could be called friends.

The current of the river now rushed over to the Brazilian coast, and the man easily docked his canoe. He dragged himself up the trail that ran up the slope; but after twenty meters, exhausted, he stayed there flat on his stomach.

“Alves!”  He yelled with as much force as he could, and he listened in vain. “Compadre Alves!  Don’t deny me this favor.” He exclaimed again, lifting his head from the ground. In the silence of the jungle not even a whisper was heard. The man found the courage and strength to climb back into his canoe, and the current, scooping him up again, took him rapidly adrift.

The Paraná ran down into the depths of an immense canyon whose walls, more than a hundred meters high, mournfully boxed in the river. From the river banks, lined with black spires of basalt, rose the forest, black as well. In front of him, behind the banks of the river, the eternal melancholy wall of the forest went on forever; in those depths the swirling river rushed in violent, incessant waves of muddy water. The landscape is unforgiving, yet in him reigned the silence of death.  As dusk approached, without fail, the calm and somber beauty of the forest formed a unique majesty.

The sun had already gone down when the man, laying half conscious in the back of his canoe, came down with a violent chill. Suddenly, and with astonishment, he slowly raised his heavy head—he felt better. His leg barely hurt, his thirst diminished, and his chest, feeling freed, opened in a slow breath.

The venom began to leave him; he had no doubt. He felt fairly well and even though he did not have the energy to move his hand, he counted on the dewfall to recuperate him completely. He calculated that in less than three hours he would be in Tacurú-Pucú.

His condition improved, and with it came a somnolence full of memories. He felt nothing in his thigh nor in his belly. Does his compadre Goana still live in Tacurú-Pucú? Perhaps he might also see his ex-employer, and the buyer of all the men’s production, Mr. Dougald.

Would he arrive soon? The western sky opened into a golden screen, and the river took on the same color. Onto the darkened Paraguayan coast, the mountain dropped over the river a faint freshness in penetrating aura of orange blossoms and wild honey. A pair of guacamayos flew high over head, gliding silently towards Paraguay.

Down there, on the golden river, the canoe drifted rapidly, twisting itself around at times caught in the bubbling swirling water. The man that went with the river felt better with each passing moment and thought in the meanwhile about how long it had been since he last saw his old partner Dougald. Three years? No, not that long. Two years and nine months? Close. Eight and a half months? That was it, surely.

Suddenly the man felt frozen up to his chest. What could it be?

And his breathing as well…

He had met the man who bought Dougald’s lumber, Lorenzo Cubilla, on a holy Friday. Was it a Friday? Yes. Or maybe a Thursday.

The man slowly stretched his fingers.

“A Thursday…”

And he stopped breathing.

La gallina degollada / The Decapitated Chicken

Illustration

 

The Decapitated Chicken

All day long the four idiot sons of the Mazzini-Ferraz marriage sat on the bench beside the patio.  Their tongues dangled out between their lips, their eyes stared vacantly, and their mouths hung open as they turned their heads.

The mud patio was closed to the west by a wall of bricks.  The bench was parallel to the wall, about five feet away, and there they sat motionless with their eyes fixed on the bricks.  As the sun set and began to hide itself behind the wall, the idiots rejoiced.  The blinding light called their attention at first, little by little their eyes lit up; at last they laughed stupidly, congested with the same anxious hilarity, they looked at the sun with bestial joy as if it were a meal.

Other times, aligned on the bench, they spent whole hours humming in imitation of the electric trolley-line.  The loud noises dried their inertia and they would run around the patio biting their tongues and mooing.  Yet they were almost always stuck in a somber lethargy of idiocy, they spent the whole day seated on the bench with their legs hanging down motionless, their pants soaked in saliva.

The oldest child was twelve and the youngest eight.  In their dirty and disheveled appearance the absolute lack of maternal care could easily be noticed.

The four idiot sons, without a doubt, had once been the joy of their parent’s lives.  After three months of marriage, Mazzini and Berta were beginning to familiarize themselves with the love of a man and woman and husband and wife toward a more vital future: a son.  What speaks more of the love between two young lovers than the honored consecration of love, freed from the vile egoism of a mutual love without end; and what could be worse for that same love than to be without any possible hope of renewal?

At least this is how the Mazzini-Berta household felt, and when their first son arrived after fourteen months of marriage; they believed their happiness was complete. The child grew up beautiful and radiant until he reached a year and a half.  But one night, in the twentieth month he shook with terrible convulsions, the next morning he no longer recognized his parents.  The doctor examined him with professional care that was visibly looking for the cause of such a horrible disease hidden in the lives of the parents.

After a few days the paralyzed limbs of the child recovered their movement; but the intelligence, the soul, even instinct itself had left him entirely.  The child stayed profoundly a bubbling idiot, limp, dead to the world on the knees of his mother.

“Son, my beloved son.”  She sobbed over the frightful ruin of her firstborn child.

The father, destroyed, accompanied the doctor outside.

“I feel I can say this to you:  I believe his is a lost cause.  He could get better.  Educate yourself on all that his idiocy will allow him, but no further.”

“Yes…Yes” Mazzini agreed.  “But tell me, do you think it is hereditary, that…?”

“As far as paternal heredity is concerned, I already told you what I thought when I first saw the boy.  In respect to the mother, there is a lung that cannot breathe well.  I don’t see anything else but it does breathe a bit rough.  Have her examined thoroughly.”

With his heart destroyed with remorse, Mazzini doubled his love for his son, the little idiot child was now paying for the excesses of his grandfather.  Likewise, he had to console, to relentlessly hold Berta, wounded by the most profound failure of a young marriage.

Naturally, the marriage put all of their love into the hope for another child.  And so a son was born, his health and gleaming smile resurrected their extinguished future.  Yet after eighteen months the convulsions that took the firstborn child began to repeat themselves, and the following morning their second child awoke an idiot.

This time the parents fell into complete despair.  It had been their blood, their love that was cursed!  It had been their love above everything else.  He was 28 and she was 22, yet all their passionate tenderness had not succeeded in creating a single atom of an ordinary existence.  They no longer asked for beauty or intelligence, as they had with the first born; “just a son, a son like any other.”

Yet this second disaster sprouted new flames of a dying love, an insane longing to redeem, once and for all, the sanctity of their love. Twins were born, and bit by bit the history of the two older sons began to repeat itself.

Yet behind their immense bitterness Mazzini and Berta maintained a great compassion for their four sons.  They pulled from oblivion their deepest animal instincts, not from their souls, more as instinct itself now abandoned. The twins could not swallow, move about or even sit up.  Finally they learned to walk, yet they crashed against everything, not even realizing the obstacles existed.  When they were bathed they mooed until their faces flushed with blood.  They came alive only to eat or when they saw brilliant colors or heard the clap of thunder.  In these moments they laughed with radiant bestial frenzy, their tongues flying about as rivers of saliva ran from their mouths.  They learned, in time, certain imitative faculties; but could grasp nothing more.

With the twins, the deadly line of descent had seemed to reach its conclusion.  After three years, Mazzini and Berta were seized by a burning desire for a new child, trusting that the time elapsed between births would placate the disease.

Their desires would not be fulfilled.  And in this burning longing, and its lack of fulfillment, the pair grew bitter. Up until this moment each one had taken responsibility for their own part of the misery of their sons; but the hopelessness of redemption for the four idiot sons born to them finally created an imperious necessity to blame the other, which is the specific patrimony of inferior hearts.

It began with the change of pronouns: your sons.  Behind the insult laid an insidious atmosphere of blame and guilt.

“It seems to me…” Mazzini said one night as he entered to wash his hands, “that we should clean the boys more often.”

Berta continued reading as if she had heard nothing.

“It’s the first time…” she replied at once, “that I’ve seen you fret over the state of your sons.”

Mazzini turned his head a bit toward her with a forced smile.

“It was our boys last time I checked.”

“Fine, our boys. Is that what you want to hear?”  She said raising her eyebrows.

This time Mazzini expressed himself clearly.

“You’re not going to say that I’m to blame, are you?”

“Oh, no” Berta said smiling, her skin pale, “But neither am I, I imagine…Well, that’s all I needed.” She murmured.

“What is all you needed?!”

“Well, that if anyone is to blame here it isn’t me, remember that.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

Her husband gazed at her a moment with a raging desire to insult her.

“Let’s drop it.” He articulated at last, drying his hands.

“As you wish, but if you want to say…”

“Berta!”

“As you wish.”

That was the first fight, and many were to follow.  Yet in their inevitable reconciliations their souls united with doubled fury and a yearning for a new child.

From this, a girl was born.  They lived in anguish for two years with a cautious eye of distress over the child, always expecting another disaster.

Yet nothing happened. So naturally, the parents began to place all their love and contentment onto their daughter, who took advantage of their indulgence to grow spoiled and ill-behaved.

Even though in the later years Berta continued to care for her sons, the birth of Bertita made her forget almost completely her four sons.  The mere thought of them horrified her, as if they had been some atrocious act she had been forced to perform.  Even Mazzini treated them in such a way, just to a lesser degree. Even through all of this, peace had not yet reached their hearts. The animosity of the four rotten progeny and a fear of losing their loved Bertita let loose the daughter’s lack of discipline.  The bile had accumulated long enough to the point where the venom in the viscera could spill from the slightest touch.  Since the first poisoned dispute, all respect had been lost between the pair; and if there is one thing which a man feels with cruel intention, once begun, is the complete humiliation of another person.  Before, they had shared a mutual fault for their ill begotten kin; now that success had arrived, each one attributed the success to themselves and felt with more certainty the infamy of having their four idiot sons forced upon them by the other.

With this prevailing attitude, there was no possible cure for the four idiot sons.  The servant dressed them, gave them food, laid them down, all with visible brutality.  They almost never bathed.  They spent the whole day sitting in the patio, void of any motherly love.

Bertita turned four years old and that night, as a result of the sweets that her parents were incapable of denying her, their young child came down with a chill and a fever.  The fear of seeing her die or remain in a state of stupor opened once again that eternal wound.

They did not speak for three hours and the motive was, as usual, the loud, strong steps of Mazzini.

“My God.  Can’t you walk more slowly?  How many times…?”

“Fine, I forgot is all.  I’ll stop.  I don’t do it on purpose.”

She smiled disdainfully,

“No, no, I don’t think that of you.”

“Nor would I ever believed you capable of it…you disease ridden viper!

“What?!  What did you say?”

“Nothing!”

“I heard something.  Look, I don’t know what you said but I promise you that I would prefer to have anything than a father like yours.”

Mazzini turned pale.

“At last!”  He murmured between his clenched teeth.  “At last, you viper, you’ve said what you’ve wanted to all along.”

“Ah, a viper, yes.  But I’m the one who had healthy parents.  Hear that? Healthy!  It wasn’t my father who died of delirium!  I would have had children like the rest of the world.  Those are your sons, all four of them.

Mazzini exploded as he talked.

You diseased viper! That’s what I called you, what I wanted to tell you.  Ask him, ask the doctor who has more blame for the meningitis of your sons; my father or your rotten lung, you viper.”

They went on like this with each confrontation more violent than the last until a moan from Bertita sealed their lips.  By early in the morning her indigestion had disappeared, and as it inevitably occurs with all young marriages that have felt an intense love at one time or another, their reconciliation arrived, and was all the more effusive from the infamy of their offenses.

A splendid day dawned and as Berta got up she spat out blood.  The emotions from the terrible night before were, without a doubt, responsible for her condition.  Mazzini took her in his arms for a long while as she wept desperately, neither one dared to utter a word.

At ten the decided they would go into town after having lunch.  Time was running short; they ordered their servant to slaughter one of the chickens.

The brilliant day pulled the four idiots onto their bench.  As the servant decapitated and bledthe chicken parsimoniously (Berta had learned from her mother this trick to conserve the freshness of the meat), she thought she felt something breathing behind her.  She turned and saw the four idiots, their shoulders stuck one to the other as they looked stupefied upon the operation.  Red…Red…

“ Señora!  The boys are in the kitchen.”

Berta rushed in.  She never wanted them stepping foot in the kitchen.  Even in these times of full forgiveness, forgetfulness, and reconquered happiness could she avoid such a horrid sight!  Because, naturally, with an intensified rapture of love for her husband and daughter, the more irritated her humor became towards the monsters.

“Well get them out, Maria.  Throw them out!  Throw them out, I tell you.”  The four simple-minded beasts, brutally shoved, returned to their bench.

After lunch everyone left.  Maria, the servant, left for Buenos Aires and the happy couple and Bertita went for a walk around the neighborhood.  As the sun began to set the family returned home; but Berta stayed outside a moment to say hello to the neighbors who lived across the street. Their daughter quickly escaped into the house.

Meanwhile, the four idiots had not moved all day from their bench.  The sun had already begun to move toward the wall, hiding itself from view; and yet they continued to sit, staring at the bricks, more inert than ever.

Suddenly something broke between their gaze and the blank wall.  Their sister, exhausted after five hours of paternal love, wanted to see something on her own account.  She paused and thoughtfully watched the crest of the sun dip behind the wall.  She wanted to climb up, of this there was no doubt.  At last she decided upon a chair missing a seat, but still she could not see over the wall.  She then went back and picked up a kerosene bucket and placed it vertically on the chair, and with this she triumphed.

The four idiots looked at her indifferently.  They watched as their sister succeeded patiently in gaining her equilibrium and how on her tiptoes she was able to support herself with her neck out over the edge of the wall, her hands straining to keep her up.  They watched her search everywhere for a place to rest her toes and climb higher.

The gaze of the idiots became animated; the same insistent look came over all their pupils.  They did not take their eyes off their sister as a growing sensation of bestial gluttony came into every line of their faces.  Slowly they advanced toward the wall.  The little girl had managed to secure her foot onto the wall and was about to straddle the wall, and surely fall to the other side, but felt herself seized by a leg.  Below her, eight eyes pierced into hers and filled her with fear.

“Get off me, let go of me!”  She cried shaking them off her leg.  Yet she was captive.

“Momma! Momma!  Momma, Poppa!” She cried imperiously.

She even tried to jump over the edge of the wall but was pulled back, and fell.

“Momma.  Ay, mom…”  She couldn’t make another sound.  One of the boys squeezed her neck, parting her curls back as if they were feathers and the other three dragged her along by one leg towards the kitchen where this morning the chicken had bled out, the life draining from her second by second.

Mazzini, in the frontyard, thought he heard his daughter’s voice.

“I think she is calling you” he said to Berta.

They tried to listen, quietly, but heard nothing more.  A moment later they said goodbye to their neighbors and as Berta went to hang up her hat, Mazzini headed back to the patio.

“Bertita”

No one responded.

“Bertita!” He said with a raised tone already full of despair.

The silence was a funeral for his already tormented soul, so much so that his spine froze with a feeling of horror.

“Sweetie! Sweetie” He yelled running desperately towards the back of the house.  Walking past the kitchen he saw a sea of blood covering the floor.  Violently, he shoved opened the half-closed door and let out a scream of horror.

Berta, who had run upon hearing the anguished cry of Mazzini responded with a scream of her own.  Rushing into the kitchen, Mazzini, blue as death, held her back saying,

“Don’t go in there.  Don’t go in there”.

Berta managed to see the blood washed floor.  She could only throw her arms atop her head and throwing herself against her husband, she let out a ragged sigh.