El Catire threw his weary body into a hammock, Victoriano lay down in another, and I rested in mine, amused by a parrot that was winking at me from one of the beams of the open-air hut. And what am I doing now but recalling, with great uncertainty, my brief stay in these godforsaken mountains to the south, where water flows abundantly, where loneliness strips away the soul, where time opens cracks in igneous rocks, and where flat-topped hills emerge from the dense jungle like primordial monoliths jealously guarding the cosmic egg inhabited by those who have not yet died or been born? A world lost and found in God’s eye by the beloved children of the mority palm and the tapara tree who pray in their language that their lands be not taken away, their water not poisoned, their houses not demolished. My mood swung between an inexplicable anguish and joy as I deciphered my here and now, lulled by this ageless land into a false sense of belonging as I watched the sun’s rays sparkle on the leaves and add a golden luster to the grassy fields. Outside, laughter and voices in the distance. Midday. It was Fat Tuesday, but it seemed like any other day. The wind raced through the clearing, sounding like an oboe as it passed through the branches of the trees at the edge of the nearby stream. Clouds moved at the bidding of the wind, and toward the west you could see the horrible wasteland on the hills where a fire once burned. They say that afterwards the grass and scrub never came back, nothing ever grew again. That morning El Catire and I stooped over these barren hillsides, sweeping away piles of sand and charred grass until traces came to the surface, remnants from another time, illegible maps, deeply guarded secrets, scars on the rock-face, the language of the other, of ourselves who pass above, oblivious to what lies in these subterranean depths.
“Whoever comes here to work is looking for diamonds.” The voice of Victoriano thundered from the half-moon of his hammock. “You have to get good money for them, or else you’re wasting your time … but it’ll slip right through your fingers because there’s a lot of women, from all over, all kinds of women … you can lose it just like that.”
I sat up to see and hear him better even though he was talking to El Catire. I couldn’t see his face and I brushed against the worn soles of his shoes.
“You can find women all over the mines,” Victoriano continued. “They’re from Colombia, from the Andes, from Puerto Ordaz, from Caracas, and plenty from Brazil. And there are some who speak languages you can’t understand … they’re quiet, but dangerous.”
“I’m not here to look for women,” El Catire raised his voice to defend himself against the old wolf’s mischief. I felt like the flea the parrot was biting under its wing.
“Boy, don’t interrupt me. I know you have a woman somewhere already, but let me give you some advice—don’t work in the mine for more than a month or you’ll get skinned. I know you need to make some money but … be careful! The mine is full of traps—believe me!”
“Why did you leave Santa Inés?” I dared to ask him.
Victoriano pondered my question in silence. He stuck his head out from the hammock and launched a gob of spit to the ground, then leaned back to answer.
“You’re asking me why I left Santa Inés to come to Tunacas? Ay! but I wasn’t living there any more. My wife and I left after my compadre Remigio died. One day Remigio came to settle a problem with me. First I told him not to be stupid, because it wasn’t worth it for two men to kill each other over a woman. He was screaming obscenities, couldn’t let it go. He took out his machete and lunged at me, slashing me in the arm. The man was out to kill me, and he fell to the ground in front of me. That’s why I left Santa Inés for the mines. I was running away. I left my home and family to get lost in these hills where there’s nothing that reminds me of what happened …” and his voice broke off.
I stopped rocking back and forth. El Catire fell silent. The hum of a bumble-bee flying near the hut began to divide the afternoon in two.
“Santa Inés! Just thinking about it makes me sad! It’s been 18 years since we left, yes, sir. Since I came to Tunacas I’ve been to the mines four times. Once I made 200,000 bolivares. That money’s all been spent—it’s walking around on four legs. I bought cattle and they multiplied. They’re still there, between Tunacas and Caiçara. The mine with the most diamonds is the Guaniamo mine. I lived in the town. It had two movie theaters. Each town has a movie theater. El Milagro has one, Caracolitos has one, El Candao has one, but Guaniamo has two.”
How could this old man erase the image of death while babbling about the two movie theaters in Guaniamo, about his cattle, about the mines? Why did he take my breath away? I wanted him to get to the heart of the story and asked him several questions, pestered him, interrupted him over and over, but to no avail. The old man kept talking about his world, lost in a tangle of memories, digging through them, picking them apart. So I let him ramble on, unchecked, so that he could trace his labyrinth from outside in, let him talk about the mines, women, movie theaters and other places, the days and years, deaths and loves, everything, I let him spew it all out, throw up his world, his story, his ins and outs, “and so what happens is I come to La Culebra with you, we come here for diamonds, and now someone’s saying that over there in a place called El Desfiladero they found some … damn! Let’s get out of this place and head over there. That’s what they say …” He was saying this to us, without trying to keep it a secret. Was he telling us where … ?
“Take a pickax, a sieve, and 1000 bolívares with you. The lode of diamonds could be anywhere. Ah! I hear thunder! Listen to it—it’s February and it’s thundering to the south. Around here it usually thunders in March, but I just heard thunder. We all heard it. It was thunder. It was just around this time that I heard thunder in Santa Inés, just the same like today, the time Remigio came looking for me. You know how these things go … but … why should I talk about such sad things? It’s not that I’m a ladies’ man or a braggart, but women have something—I don’t know what it is.”
Victoriano paused and cleared his throat. He sank down in his hammock and whispered the woman’s name.
“Amalia! That was some woman! Not because she was good-looking. She wasn’t, really. A little skinny, with dark skin, big eyes and black, shiny hair. She was strong and stubborn. Always quiet. She came from Pascua. She liked to look nice. I used to see her pass through the yard of the house where she and Remigio lived, close to the chapel. I liked watching her. She walked so gracefully. As the years went by it became clear that she couldn’t have any children and that’s why Remigio got a woman in Caiçara pregnant. He had three children with her. Amalia dried up. When my wife had my second child, we thought it would be right and nice for her to be the godmother. ’Don’t you feel sorry for Amalia, Victoriano?’ my wife asked me. And that’s what happened. On the day of the baptism, Amalia looked great. I even told her so but she looked away. The party was great and we danced it up in the corral. Late that afternoon, Amalia told my compadre that she was going home. Remigio refused to go. He was half drunk and feeling happy. She didn’t want to go by herself so I offered to go with her because it was getting dark. She objected at first but then accepted my offer. Damn! I hid my feelings. I knew I couldn’t show them out of respect for Remigio and for her, too. So I walked her home. The day was slipping away and I let myself enjoy watching her walk ahead with that graceful walk she had. She walked nice and straight, taking little steps like she was trying to put off her arrival. Outside her front door I cut off a hibiscus flower and gave it to her. She took it from me and looked at the ground with a smile. Then I saw the clouds gather and two big drops of water rolled from her eyes. ‘What is it, Amalia? Don’t cry,’ I said. ‘I only want to tell you how great you look and how much I want to steal a kiss from you,’ and with the hibiscus in her hand and her eyes looking down, she didn’t say a word. She didn’t seem angry so I moved closer, but she was faster than me and opened the door and ran inside. I stayed there, standing, fighting, looking at the closed door, with Amalia’s face in my mind, her hands, the hibiscus on the ground, and the wind that swept it away. Did I want to go inside? Yes. Why should I lie? But how could I do that to my friend? Still, I’m telling you, I thought that if I persisted she’d let me in. Her eyes told me so and I wasn’t fooling myself. That’s how women are; all of a sudden you see a little spark in their eyes just like when you find a diamond that’s sparkling and flecked like the eyes of a tiger. Something gets inside you and you can’t sleep anymore. But no, I didn’t let it go any further, I swear. I went back the same way. It couldn’t be. I worked hard, real hard to punish myself and to forget that little game.”
Suddenly, Victoriano stopped talking and looked up at the palm-leaf roof, letting his silence flow like the water in one of the nearby rivers. Outside you could hear young men laughing every now and then, and the wind playfully tossed their happy voices through the leaves of the mority trees. We could feel the afternoon slipping away while leaden clouds blew southward. A knot was growing inside me. The story being told by this toothless old man with the devilish eyes put me on edge. El Catire didn’t seem to be there any more. He hadn’t said a word the whole time.
“What was Remigio like?” I blurted out before his memories would frighten him.
”He was part Indian and strong, the bastard. He and Amalia were among the few who could read—they’d been to a rural school. I learned how to read and write from Remigio. I can’t write much but I can sign my name. Can I count? I sure can! I could’ve been a bookkeeper. I like numbers and making a lot of money. That’s why I worked in the forests at first, cutting down sarrapia trees, and then in the mines, as you can see, to make a little capital. But … why am I telling you all this? There’s nothing I need to get off my chest, but now that my memories have been stirred up, let me tell you, I know these mountains inside and out, and I’ve been in many towns, too, but there’s none as beautiful as Santa Inés. When you saw it from a distance, whether you were coming from El Desfilador or Santa Rosalia or somewhere else, Santa Inés was a paradise. Flowering trees and shrubs grew like magic. There were barberry bushes, flowering vines, hibiscus trees—everything. Remigio had his own plot of land and he wanted to plow it and make a pasture for some cattle. He always thought he’d strike it rich with the cattle he’d buy with the profits of his business in Caiçara, but up to that point it hadn’t been anything but a pipe dream. Amalia kept going with an inner strength, quiet and reserved, but began to fade. She never had any children and never objected to the children he had with the other woman in Caiçara. The days came and went like the apamate flowers that carpeted the patio. Remigio spent four years farming the earth until his hands got blistered and his skin burned red. Then he wanted to change his work. The man was worried all the time. He was sad because Amalia was crying inside. ‘Baby, what’s wrong with you?’ he would ask her, and all she did was talk to him about the animals in the corral, about the trees heavy with fruit, about the mosquitoes, about the rain that got mud all over the patio, about the parrot that flew away, about the flowers she wanted to plant and all those foolish things women talk about. After that was the baptism and the kiss I wanted to steal from her. I know she wasn’t offended by it. You won’t believe how things are in this world—that’s why I say you have to treat women very carefully. No one can understand them. They’re good for work but nothing else. One day I went to their house. When I arrived Amalia was serving food to Remigio. I was furious because he had left to work in the El Majagual mine without telling me. Later on, we’ll go by there before it gets dark. Now the mine is dead. So many hands scraping the earth together—nothing’s left. Anyway, to continue, I had a big plot of land there with Remigio, in Quebrada Negra. Between the two of us we took care of it. But things weren’t going so well, and without saying a word to me, Remigio took off for El Majagual after I had gone off a month earlier to cut down sarrapia trees. He just walked away from the whole thing and I didn’t know anything about it. So the two of us started arguing and his lady got involved in it, saying, ‘Look, Victoriano, my husband does what’s best for him and for me even though we don’t have a family.’ And I told her not to be stupid, that this was something only men could discuss, and she answered, ‘So does that mean I’m a nobody?’ His lady was insulted. Remigio told me in plain words that he didn’t like being a farmer and wanted to go to the mines for a little while to see if he could get some cows out of it. He liked seeing those creatures walk around and feeling as if he was rich. I remember that Amalia went straight into the kitchen and didn’t come out again. Remigio and I made an agreement, and to celebrate we went to have some beers at Agustino’s. I went home happy … who would think that behind this happiness there was such sorrow! The next day at about 10:00 in the morning, I saw Remigio come in through the patio of my house. He looked grim. He was angry, my compadre. ’What’s wrong, Remigio?’ He came close and said, ’I’m here to settle something with you.’ I felt a cold shiver inside. Was it that Amalia told him about the kiss I once wanted to steal from her? I was ashamed to remember. But then he said to me, ‘You insulted my wife.’ I froze. ‘She says you called her stupid and I’m here to settle it with you, man to man.’ Can you believe, Catire, that it was nothing more than that? First I told him not to be stupid, that it wasn’t worth it for two men to kill themselves over a woman, but Remigio was furious, out of control! Ay! What a dark day that was!”
Victoriano’s voice trailed off and he sank into a gloomy silence. He paused long enough for me to imagine how Amalia, offended and insulted, chewed over her anger. I pictured her sullen face, imagined her rebelling against the dryness of her world, plotting her revenge, weaving hatred back and forth, breaking through the blue haze of the evening.
“Remigio told me he found her inside the house, just standing there like a statue,” Victoriano continued, “without even looking at him, very distant. ’What’s wrong, baby?’ and it was like he hadn’t said a thing. Just a vacant stare. Aren’t you going to say something? Did the ants eat your tongue?’ It didn’t matter what he said, Amalia didn’t answer. That woman was strong. Real tough.”
Was that how Amalia actually was? Were her eyes staring with dark foreboding into the creeping dusk because one night, at this same time, Victoriano had given her a flower, and she remembered watching him as he stood behind the door, outlined by shadows, like an animal cut off from its nest and sniffing for its mate? Was it the approaching night that bound her there, always in the same place, in her half of the world, oblivious to the stars, to everything, not hearing the crickets or watching the fireflies glow and darken, not sensing the fragrant jasmine and hollyhock or smelling the sweet waves coming out of the earth that spread their ethereal airs throughout Santa Inés? Did Remigio light a match? Did its feeble light flash against the whitewashed walls of their house? Did Amalia fix her eyes on one of the upright poles supporting the bamboo roof? And did she see a swollen ridge and divine the path of the termites that were burrowing through the house? Did Remigio get closer and closer, his shadow looming, questioning and questioning, until she finally let the secret out?
“After he asked her over and over, Amalia told him it was because of me, not him, and that he had to avenge her because that’s what her father would have done if he were still alive. ’Didn’t you hear him call me stupid when he came this morning? How dare he call a Barradas stupid?’ She had a name and I insulted it. Remigio couldn’t let that go by; a man had to defend his woman and if he didn’t, she would go back to her town and get her brothers to defend her. I’m telling you, Catire, it was a woman’s thing. A woman’s thing!”
And on that morning, did Remigio see his wife standing without moving, rooted to one place, pale and in distress, breathing with difficulty? Did he ask her where she was going with that bundle of clothes? Did Amalia decide to abandon him because her husband wouldn’t avenge her? Did Remigio shout at her “Damn it, woman! I’ll take care of it! Wait here, I’ll be right back”?
“That’s when I saw him take out a machete. He caught me with his first swing. Right here on my arm. I ran to get something to defend myself the best I could. I found my machete. I couldn’t see anything except my blood spurting out. I had to defend myself, Catire, or else he would’ve killed me … and then Remigio fell to the ground. Some men came because my wife was screaming. They picked up his body and carried it to his house. I followed behind with my arm ripped open and another gash on my leg. I didn’t know what to do besides cry. I cried like a little kid. I wanted to die, too. Damn that day! The sky caved in over my head and I couldn’t feel the ground under my feet. When we got there, Amalia stood in the doorway. I screamed that it was because of her, it was her fault, but the lady acted like she didn’t hear a thing. She grabbed the bundle she left outside as if she knew what had happened, and without a word, without even looking at Remigio who was dying at her feet, she began to walk her graceful walk down the road leading away from town. Later they told me she got on the first bus that went by, and nobody, absolutely nobody, knows where she went. Ay, Catire! That’s why I left Santa Inés. There was too much to remember. And that’s why I’m still hopping around these parts like a lost soul. I don’t want to go back there. When I go from one place to the next I let go of those memories, yes sir. Sometimes I feel like crying, crying my insides out. I’m not a coward, boy, but I cry when I’m alone, so deep I could die. I’m 60 years old and I’m still going from here to there. Santa Inés! What a pretty town that was. I’m telling you, a real pretty town. Flowers wherever you looked. All around you! Damn! Well, she’s heard my story now, Catire. Let’s get going before it’s dark or else we won’t be able to look at El Majagual.”