El Hijo / The Son

El Hijo

The Son

It’s a rough summer morning in Misiones, with all the sun, heat and tranquility that the season can provide.  Mother Nature, open to the skies, seems proud of herself.

Like the sun, the heat, and the tranquil atmosphere, the father opens his heart to nature.

“Be careful, little one.”  He says to his son, summarizing in one phrase all of the observations of what could go wrong, and his son understanding perfectly.

“Yes, papa.”  Responds the young child, while picking up the shotgun and filling his shirt pockets with cartridges, buttoning them closed carefully.

“Come back at lunchtime.”  The father adds.

“Yes, papa.” The boy repeats.

He balances the shotgun in his hand, smiles at his father, kisses him on the head and leaves.

His father follows him a bit with his eyes and goes back to his daily chores, gleaming with joy over his young one.

He knows that his son, taught from the youngest age proper habit and precaution when dealing in danger, can handle a firearm and hunt whatever he wishes.  Even though he is very tall for his age, he’s only thirteen.  And judging by his pure blue eyes, still sparkling with infantile joy, he looks even younger.

The father doesn’t even have to raise his head from his chores to follow his son’s path: already across the reddened path and walking upright to the forest past the opening in the grass field.

In order to hunt in the forest—a game hunt—one needs more patience than his young son can muster.  After crossing the island of trees, the boy will follow the line of cactuses towards the marshland, looking for doves, toucans, or any kind of heron, like those that his friend Juan had discovered a few days back.

Now alone, the father smirks recalling the passion for hunting that young children share.  At times they would hunt a yacu-toro or—if lucky— a surucua and return triumphant.  Juan to his ranch with his nine millimeter firearm that had been given to him, and his son to the plateau with his huge, sixteen caliber, white powder, four lock Saint-Etienne shotgun.

The father had been the same.  At thirteen he would have given his life for a shotgun.  His son, at the same age, now had one—; and his father smiled.

Nevertheless, it is not easy for a widowed father, who without any other faith or hope in life other than his son, to educate his son like he had been taught, free in his limited range of knowledge, confident in his tiny feet and hands since four years old, conscious of the immensity of certain dangers and the scarcity of his own strengths.

This father had fought hard against what he sees as his own selfishness.  It’s so easy for a child to miscalculate, put a foot in an empty hole and one loses a son.

Danger can always linger for a man despite his age; but the threat diminished since at an early age he learned to count on nothing besides his own abilities.

This is how the father had raised his son.  And to achieve it he had to resist not only his heart, but his moral torments as well; because this father, of weak stomach and poor eyesight, has for some time suffered from hallucinations.

He has seen, in painfully clear visions, memories of a happiness that should have remained in the void where he has locked himself. The image of his own son has not escaped his torment.  He had once seen him rolling, covered in blood, from hammering a parabellum bullet in the vice in his workshop; he had felt this despite that his son was only polishing his belt buckle.

Horrible things…But today, with the burning summer day full of live, the love of which his son seems to have inherited, the father feels happy, calm and sure of the future.

In that moment, not far off, he hears a loud boom.

“The Saint Etienne” the father thinks recognizing the detonation.  Two fewer doves in the forest.

Without paying any more attention to the menial event, the man distracts himself with his work.

The sun, already very high, continues to rise.  Wherever one looks—rocks, earth, trees—, the air, congested like an oven, vibrates with heat.  A deep humming sound fills the entire body and saturates the atmosphere for as far as the eyes can see, a time that harnesses all tropical life.

The father takes a look at his wristwatch: twelve.  And lifts his eyes out over the forest.

His son should already be back.  In the mutual trust that the two give to one another—the father of silvery sideburns and the child of thirteen—there were never any lies.  When his son said, “yes, papa”, he did what he was told.  He said he would be back before twelve, and the father had smiled watching him leave.

But he hasn’t come back.

The father returns to his chores, struggling to concentrate on his work.  It’s so easy, so easy to lose track of time when inside the forest, sitting a bit on the ground while resting motionless.

Suddenly, the midday sun, the tropical humming, and the beating of father’s heart stop in rhythm at the thought: his son, motionless…

Time has passed; twelve thirty.  The father leaves his workshop, and resting his hand on the metal bench, the explosion of a parabellum bullet rushes from the depth of his memory, and instantly, for the first time in the last three hours, realizes that he has not heard a sound after the blast if the Saint-Etienne.  He has not heard gravel stirring under familiar steps.  His son hasn’t returned, and nature stands guard at the edge of the forest, awaiting him.

Oh, how the calm character and young confidence of the boy’s education is not enough to scare away the fatal ghost that the hallucinating father sees rising from the edge of the forest.  Distraction, forgetfulness, fortuitous tardiness: none of these minute motives that could have delayed the arrival of his son could fit into the father’s heart.

A shot, he had heard one single shot, and a long time ago at that.  Since then the father has not heard a single noise, has not seen a single bird, not a single person has walked through the opening in the grass field to announce that at the wire fence…a great disaster.

Distracted and without a machete, the father sets out.  He cuts through the grass field, enters into the forest, follows the line of cactus without finding the slightest trace of his son.

Nature continues to stand still.  And when the father had gone over all of the familiar hunting paths and had explored the marshlands in vain, he knew with certainty that each step forward would bring him, relentlessly and brutally, to the body of his son.

He could only blame himself, poor thing.  There was only the cold reality, terrible and consuming: his son had died crossing a…

But where, in what field?  There are so many fences, and the forest is so, so, muddy.  God, so muddy.  If one is not careful crossing the fences with the shotgun in their hand…

The father’s shout is stifled.  He saw something rise into the air, oh, no, no it’s not his son…He turns to one direction, then the other, then the other.

Nothing could be gained by seeing the complexion of the man’s skin and the anguish in his eyes.  The father still hasn’t called out to his son.  Even though his heart yearns to shout, his mouth remains shut.  He knows well that the simple act of pronouncing his name, calling out to him loudly, would be a confession of his death.

Chiquito” he let out quickly.  And if the voice of a principled was capable of crying, we would cover our ears with compassion from the anguish in his voice.

No one nor nothing responded.  Down the sun-reddened paths, the father, who has aged ten years by now, went searching for his newly-dead son.

Hijito mio!”…”Chiquito mio”…he clamored to his son in diminutives that rose from the depths of his soul.

Once before, in the throngs of happiness and peace, this father suffered the hallucination of his son rolling on the ground, his head opened by a chrome nickel bullet.  Now, in every shadowed corner of the forest, he sees sparkling wires, and at the base of a post, with the discharged shotgun as his side, he sees his son.

“Sonny”…”my boy!”

Even the forces that bring a father to hallucinate the most awful of nightmares have their limits.  The father feels his senses leaving him when he quickly sees his son stepping out from a side path.

From fifty meters, it was enough for the boy of thirteen to see his father’s expression, without a machete and in the forest, to make him hurry his steps with his eyes wet.

“Son” the man murmured.  Exhausted, the man drops himself into the bright white sand, his hands clasped around his son’s legs.

The young one, with his legs hugged tightly, stands up, and understanding the pain of his father, caresses his head slowly.

“Poor, papa.

More time has passed.  It’s already close to three.  Now together, father and son undertake the walk back to the house.

“Why didn’t you use the sun to keep track of time?”  The father says first.

“I did, papa…but when I was headed back I saw the garzas that Juan caught and went after them.

“What you put me through, son!”

“pia pia” the boy murmurs back.

After a long silence, the father asks,

“And the garzas, did you kill any?”

“No”.

Considering everything, a minute detail.  Under the red hot sky, passing through the grass field, the man returns to his house with his son, on whose shoulders, almost even with his father’s, he carries the joyful arm of his father.  He returns covered in sweat, and even broken in body and spirit, smiles with joy…..

Yet he smiles a hallucinated happiness…For this father walks alone.  He has encountered no one, his arm supported by nothing but air.  Because behind him, at the foot of a post and with his legs raised, tangled in barbed-wire, his loved son lies face down to the sun, dead since ten that morning.

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La Insolación / Sunstroke

“La Insolación / Sunstroke”

Old, the puppy, went out through the door and crossed the patio with a slow and upright gait.  He stopped at the edge of the field, stretched out on the hill, his eyes half-closed, wiggled his nose, and laid down calmly.  He looked out at the monotonous plains of Chaco that switched between fields and hills, hills and fields colorless besides the cream white of the grass and the black of the bush.  Some two hundred meters out, the hill cut off the horizon on all three sides by the corn fields.  Towards the west, the fields widened and extended out into the valley, framed by the inescapable shadowed line in the distance.

At this early hour, the boundary, glared over by the midday light took on a calm clarity.  There was not a single cloud or gust of wind.  Under the calm of the golden sky, the fields gave off an invigorating freshness that brought out the hopeful spirit against the certainty of another dry day, melancholy for better paying work.

Milk, the puppy’s father, took his turn crossing the patio and laid down next to him with a lazy moan of comfort.  There they remained without moving, it was still too early to be bothered by flies.

Old, who looked a while at the edge of the hill, observed,

“It’s a cool morning.”

Milk followed the puppy’s eyes and remained with his eyes fixed on the view, blinking with a distracted stare.  After a moment, he said,

“There are two falcons in that tree over there.”

Their eyes turned indifferently towards a passing ox, and continued their customary stare of the land.

Meanwhile, the east began to take on shades of purple and the horizon had already lost its morning clarity.  Milk crossed his front paws and felt a twinge of pain.  He looked at his paws without moving them, deciding finally to sniff them.  He had pulled out a thorn the day before and, remembering what he had suffered, licked his sick digit.

“I couldn’t walk.” He exclaimed, in short.

Old did not know what he was talking about.  Milk added,

“There are so many thorns.”

This time Old understood.  He repeated in agreement after a long pause,

“There are so many thorns.”

They both again fell silent, pleased.

The sun came out and in the first bathe of light the wild roosters filled the pure air with the noisy trumpet of their caw.  The dogs, tanned by the angled sun, drooped their eyelids, softening their lashes with effeminate blinks.  One by one the pack grew with the arrival of the other members: Dick, the quiet favorite; Prince, whose upper lip, split by a badger, exposed his teeth; and Isondu’, a native name.  The five fox-terriers, splayed and dead from comfort, slept.

After an hour, they raised their heads; for on the far side of the odd two-story ranch—the bottom floor was made from mud and the second made from wood, with hallways and cottage railings— they could sense the steps of their master coming down the stairs.  Mister Jones, with a towel around his shoulders stood for a moment at the edge of the ranch and looked toward the sun, already overhead.  He still had a look of death, his lip twitching after his veiled night of whisky was put off longer than usual.

While bathing, the dogs drew closer and sniffed his boots, lazily wagging their tails.  Like trained animals, the dogs recognized the smallest indication of drunkenness in their master.  They slowly spread out again to lie down under the sun.  But the growing heat made them quickly abandon the spot for the shade of the balconies.

The day went along the same as any other that month; dry, limp, with fourteen hours of scorching sun that seemed to melt the sky and that in an instant cracked the damp ground in pale scabs.  Mister Jones went over to the chacra, looked at his work from the day before and went back to the ranch.  The whole morning he did nothing.  He ate lunch and laid down for a siesta.

The peones went back to the plow around two despite the scorching sun, because, well, weeds grow endlessly in the cotton fields.  Behind them came the dogs, who loved farming ever since last winter when they learned to battle falcons for the white worms exposed from freshly-tilled earth.  Each one laid down under a cotton plant, their panting accompanied by the dull thuds of the hoe.

All the meanwhile the heat grew.  In the silent pasture and the blinding sun, the air vibrated on all sides, hurting the eyes.  With the same silence as their house work the peones, wrapped to their ears in loose bandanas, supported the oven hot air expelled from freshly-tilled earth.  The dogs moved plants every once in a while in search of fresh shade.  They laid down for a while but fatigue soon made them sit on their haunches in order to breathe deeper.

A small bleak plain of clay shimmered in front of them, where no one had ever attempted to plow.  There, the puppy all of a sudden saw Mister Jones sitting on a log, looking at them fiercely.  Old got up onto his paws wagging his tail.  The others got up also, but with their hackles on high alert.

“It’s the Master!”  The puppy exclaimed, surprised by the attitude of the others.

“No, no that’s not him.” Replied Dick.

The four dogs stood together growling quietly, without taking their eyes off Mister Jones who remained still, staring at them.  The puppy, incredulous, began to walk over when Prince showed him his teeth.

“No, it’s not him.  It’s Death.”

The puppy raised his hackles and slunk back to the group.

“Is the Master dead?”  He asked anxiously.  The others, without responding, began to bark furiously, with a relentless attitude of fearful attack.  Without moving, Mister Jones faded into the shivering air.

Hearing the howls, the peones looked out over the horizon but saw nothing.  They turned their heads to see if any horses had made their way over to the field before returning to their work.

The fox-terriers walked back to the ranch.  The puppy, still frightened, ran ahead and fell back in short nervous trots and learned from the behavior of the others that when something is about to die, Death first let’s itself be seen.

“But how do you know that who we saw wasn’t the Master?”  He asked.

“Because it wasn’t him.”  They told him harshly.

Death will come and with it: a change of owner, misery, beatings, all we’re upon them!  They spent the rest of the evening at their Master’s side, somber and alert.  They growled at the slightest noise without knowing where it came from.  Mister Jones felt safe with his restless guardians.

Finally, the sun sank behind the black line of palms above the riverbed, and in the calm of the silver night, the dogs positioned themselves around the ranch, where in the top floor Mister Jones recommenced his hidden abuse.  At midnight they heard his steps and the thud of his two boots on the floorboards before the light came on.  The dogs could then feel the change of owner closing in on them.  Alone, at the foot of the sleeping house, they began to cry.  They poured out their dry convulsive cries in a chorus of desolate howling behind the sustained cry of Prince while the others began to howl anew.  The puppy barked.  The night went along and the four aged dogs, under the light of the moon, their snouts extended and arched up in howls—well loved and taken care of by their Master they were about to lose— continued crying in their domesticated misery.

The next morning Mister Jones was still himself, tying the mules to the plow and working until nine.  But, nonetheless, he remained unsatisfied.  Besides in his fields, he had never been one to follow the lead.  The blades were dull and with the quick steps of the mule, the plow began to jump.  He brought it back and sharpened the grille, but a bolt that he noticed as flawed when he bought the machine broke when he put it back into place.  He sent a peon over to the nearest sawmill, telling him to take the horse, a good animal, just a bit sun worn.  Mister Jones raised his head to the melting midday sun and insisted that he not gallop the horse for even a moment.  He quickly ate lunch and got on.  The dogs, whom so far that morning had not left their Master’s side for one second, stayed in the corral.

He regretted the siesta, overwhelmed by light and silence.  The boundaries were cloudy from the sun-scorched earth.  Around the ranch the stone-white earth, blinding from the timely sun, seemed to lose form in a trembling boil, that put the fluttering of the fox-terriers to sleep.

“He hasn’t come back.”  Milk said.

Old, hearing “come back”, lifted his ears up over his eyes.  This time, the puppy, incited from the invocation, stood up and barked, searching what for.  He soon gave up and joined the group in their defensive fly hunt.

“He’s not coming back.”  Isondru added.

“There was a lizard under that stump.”  Prince finally remembered.

A chicken, her beak open and winds extended away from her body, crossed the patio incandescently with her heavy trot from the heat. Prince followed her stalkingly with his eyes, and then leapt up

“Here he comes!” He yelled.

To the north of the patio came only the horse who the worker had been riding.  The dogs arched their backs and stood on their toes, barking with restrained fury at the Death that drew closer.  The animal walked with its head down, apparently indecisive about which path to follow.  As soon as she passed the front of the ranch, she took a few steps toward the well, disappearing with each step under the exposed light.

Mister Jones came down; he didn’t look tired.  He was getting ready to get back on the plow when he unexpectedly saw the worker atop the horse.  Despite his order, he had to have galloped the horse to return at this hour.  He blamed him with all rational logic, a point at which the worker responded with evasive reasoning.  As soon as he had concluded his mission and was free, the poor horse, whose midsection was covered in lashes, shook her lowered head and fell to her side.  Mister Jones, with the whip still in his hand, sent the peon back to the field, to prevent whipping him if he continued hearing the Jesuit pleadings of the peon.

But the dogs remained content.  Death, looking for the Master, had fused with the horse.  They all felt happy, free from worry, and as a result got up and followed behind the peon to the chacra when they heard Mister Jones yelling at him, still far away, asking for the screw.  There was no screw: the country store was closed, the manager was asleep, and so on.  Mister Jones, without responding, took off his summer hat and left in search of the tool.  He withstood the heat like a laborer, and the stroll was incredibly alleviating his bad mood.

The dogs followed him but stopped in the shade of the first locust tree; it was too hot.  From there, firm in their steps, their brows constrained and attentive, they watched him walk into the distance.  Finally, the fear of loneliness got to them and they trotted sluggishly after him.

Mister Jones got his screw and headed back to the ranch.  To shorten the long distance back, and avoid the dusty curve of the trail, he marched in a straight line to the chacra.  He arrived at the stream and entered the fertile hayfields of Saladito that had grown dry and sprouted out covering the whole horizon in hay, without ever having been burned.  The arched bushels that crested at the height of his chest twisted themselves together into a solid block.  The grave task of crossing them was difficult at this hour even on a cool day.  Mister Jones dared to cross it anyway, swimming between the resilient and pollen-filled straw from flooded clayfields, he was drowned by fatigue and acres of nitrate-filled steam.

At last he emerged and paused at the edge of the field, but it was impossible to stay still under the sun and the exhaustion.  He began to walk again.  The burning heat that had grown incessantly for the last three days added to the suffocating of decomposing time.  The sky was white and he couldn’t feel a single gust of wind.  He needed air, but his distressed heartbeat did not allow him to take a breath.

Mister Jones convinced himself that he had overstepped his limits.  For some time his inner ears throbbed with the beating of his arteries.  He could feel it in the air, as if the inside of his head was pushing his skull outward.  He looked up and down over the grazing field.  He sped up his pace to get it over with once and for all… and then suddenlt came to his senses and found himself on a distant field: unaware, he had walked close to a hundred meters.  He looked behind him again and his head fell into another spell of vertigo.

Meanwhile, the dogs followed behind him, trotting with their tongues hanging out.  At times, unable to breath, they stopped in the shade of an espartillo; they rested while their panting increased before returning to the tormenting sun.  At last, with the house in sight, they sped up their trot.

It was in that moment when Old, who was in front, saw Mister Jones behind the fence of the house, dressed in white, headed towards them.  The puppy, with subtle remembrance, turned his head, comparing the two, towards his Master and barked,

“Death, Death.”

The others had seen him too, and barked with their hackles on end.  They watched him flow through the fence, but immediately believed their eyes deceived them; he stopped a few hundred meters from them, looked over the group with his celestial eyes and continued forward.

“The Master shouldn’t walk so fast.”  Said Prince.

“He’s going to run into him.”  They all howled.

In fact, the other after a brief hesitation advanced, but not directly at them like before, but rather in oblique lines and in utter confusion, yet that would take him directly into an encounter with Mister Jones.  The dogs understood then that everything had already came to its end, because their Master continued walking in his consistent steps without noticing anything.  Mister Jones stopped, turned, and collapsed.

The peones saw him fall and carried him quickly over to the ranch, but all the water proved useless; he died before making it back.  Mister Moore, his half-brother, came from Buenos Aires, stayed an hour at the chacra and without four days sold everything, returning immediately down south.  The Indians shared the dogs who returned immediately to being skinny and mangy dogs, who go out stealthily every night to steal ears of corn from the far off fields.