Our Lives Are the Rivers by Jaime Manrique

BOMB 95 Spring 2006
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It was the dry season in the Cordillera. At this time of year the Falls of Tequendama broke into mere threads of water, but rain had fallen over the savanna late in the afternoon the day before, a sudden, violent pelting of heavy raindrops, and today the Bogotá River was swollen, furious. The clamor of the falls filled the spaces between the mountains, producing an endless echo that sounded like a crowd cheering a victorious general entering a liberated city.

Our party, two Indian porters to lead the mules loaded with my trunks, eight soldiers assigned by the Colombian government to escort me out of Bogotá, and Jonotás, had stopped for the night in a clearing near Tequendama.

Jonotás dismounted first. Tonight, the expression on her face was severe, her features rigid as if carved in stone. She was dressed in a dark green hussar’s uniform, complete with saber.

I wore my colonel’s uniform: a three-cornered hat, a royal blue jacket—now without the medals I had been forced to sell one by one—and red velvet pants. It had been years since I had donned my military uniform, and I no longer felt comfortable in it, as if it were a skin I had shed long ago. The night before, after the trunks were packed, the only question remaining was what clothes to leave out for the journey.

“There’s no question what I’ll wear,” Jonotás said, “I’m leaving dressed as a soldier.”

Until that moment, I had not given any thought to my attire. “That settles it,” I said. “Let’s dust off my colonel’s costume.” We decided to depart Bogotá; dressed this way in order to affront one last time a society and a people the two of us despised.

After securing the horses for the night and posting two soldiers as sentries, our party descended the narrow path that led to the clearing that jutted out over the chasm at the top of the falls. At dawn, the convoy would take the road leading to Honda, 25 miles away on the shore of the Magdalena River. The government decree specified that from Honda I must travel downriver to the town of Arjona on the Atlantic Coast. From there I would be taken to Cartagena as a prisoner and held till a ship bound for Jamaica would remove me from Colombian soil.

We divided into three groups for the night. The soldiers camped by the road. In the clearing, the Indian porters huddled around a fire where they roasted yellow potatoes and ears of corn still wrapped in their green husks. Jonotás and I were ordered to set up camp closest to the falls. She chose a mossy spot at the edge of the wood, where a knot of oaks provided shelter from the mist that the falls created as it hurled its waters into the temperate zone.

While Jonotás gathered twigs and dry logs for a fire, I wandered off to be by myself. Below me, thick fog hugged the rock at the top of the falls on which stood the Virgin’s shrine. At the wooden railing built at the edge of the precipice, I picked up a small stone, cast it into the open space and tried to follow its course, though the shifting body of the mist quickly swallowed it. My eyes traveled over the huge gap of the gorge. I wanted to memorize this moment, this place. I leaned on the railing and caught a glimpse of the river hundreds of feet below, propelling itself over rocks and boulders before it disappeared in the twilight. Tequendama’s icy drizzle sprayed my face, yet I felt as if I were burning.

Tonight, the roar of the waterfall produced an urge to become part of its mystery. In pre-Columbian times, the Chibcha Indians of the savanna used Tequendama as a sacred entrance to the world of the ancestors. My Indian servants in Bogotá claimed that the ground around Tequendama was haunted by the souls of the hundreds who sighed in the pool at the foot of the waterfall. The Indians insisted that on halcyon nights they could hear the cries of the dead as far away as the city. On sunny, clear afternoons, when I hiked in the mountains with my girls to gather herbs and wildflowers, the hazy plume of the falls rising in the sky was visible in the background. And with it rainbows, often double rainbows, which made perfect arcs over Tequendama just before sunset. At those moments, I forgot I lived in Bogotá—I dwelt in a magical land.

A part of me wanted to leap into the void before me. Four agonizing years had passed since Bolívar’s death. Only his memory anchored me to life, and I was, as always, steadfast in my determination to defend his name against those who vilified it. If for nothing else, I must live long enough to see the day when the general’s name would be restored to its full glory. If I did this, then my existence would be vindicated.

Half a decade earlier, at one of my nightly tertulias in the house I had taken across from the Presidential Palace, in view of the fine summer weather we were having in the savanna, I had proposed to my guests a picnic the following morning at the Falls of Tequendama. The exclusively male company members of the British Legion, officers in Bolívar’s army, Irishmen and Frenchmen who had come to South America to fight for the cause of liberation accepted my invitation with alacrity. As a young woman in Quito, I had dreamed of visiting the waterfall that Alexander von Humboldt had made famous in his book Personal Narrative. “Let’s go easy on the drinking tonight, gentlemen,” I said to my guests, “so we don’t oversleep and wake up hung over.” Despite my appeals, the tertulia, as usual, went on until well past midnight.

The following morning we gathered in front of Captain Illingworth’s home. The sun bathed the mountains surrounding Bogotá in a bright white light. Although we had agreed the night before to dress as civilians to avoid curiosity upon leaving the city, at the last minute I had changed my mind and dressed in my colonel’s uniform. To further amuse myself, I had put on a moustache made of the hair of Spanish soldiers killed in the Battle of Pichincha.

It was a pleasant outing. Upon arriving at the falls we spread the linen tablecloth Jonotás had packed, and I laid out cheese, ham, olives, bread, sweetmeats, silver goblets, and bottles of French Champagne. The ride, in such sunny weather, had made me warm, and I imbibed goblet after goblet of Champagne to cool off. Later that afternoon, inebriated, excited by the talk of the men about their travels in Europe and their adventures in South America, the battles they had fought and their romantic conquests (I noticed they talked about the ladies as if I were not present, and this flattered me), I wandered to the top of the falls. The chilly waters rushing right next to me were enticing and I dipped my toes into it, unaware of how close I was to slipping and falling in. Two men from the party saw me, came from behind, and pulled me away from what would have been a certain death.

 

The light was fading fast. I took off my hat, removed the pin holding my hair in a chignon and shook my head to let my hair cascade to my shoulders. I tossed the hat toward where Jonotás was preparing our bed for the night.

I turned to face the torrent and pulled from my pants pocket a copy of the letter the government had sent ahead to the authorities in Cartagena, stating the reasons for my expulsion from Nueva Granada, as Colombia was known once more. I propped my arms on the railing to examine the crumpled piece of paper I had read and reread since I received it.

 

Colombia. Member country of Nueva Granada. Secretary of the Interior and Foreign Relations. Bogotá, 7 January 1834.

To His Excellency the Governor of Cartagena:

The office of the Governor of Bogotá, in accordance with current laws, has ordered the departure from this capital of Señora Manuela Saénz, who has chosen the port of Cartagena to leave Colombian territory. The scandalous history of this woman is well-known, as is her arrogant, restless, and bold character. The political chief of this capital has had to resort to force to remove her from here, because this señora, hiding behind her sex and her haughtiness, gave herself permission to mock the orders given by the authorities, as she has done from 1830 to the present.

The Executive Power has ordered me to inform you of this occurrence so that you can be aware of any breech of conduct on the part of this woman, and be ready to force her, without excuses of any kind, to depart from the territory over which you govern, in accordance with the passport she bears, and prevent any turmoil she could create in political affairs. She boasts of being an enemy of the government and, in 1830, used her powers to contribute to the catastrophic revolution of that year.

Also, His Excellency orders me to warn you that under no circumstances should you allow said señora to remain in Cartagena. If there should be no ship ready to sail with her as passenger, she must then be detained in Arjona, ensuring she is scrupulously watched, and ensuring that not even courtesy visits by any official of the army should be allowed.

May God grant you good health.

 

There followed the signature of Lino de Pombo, a government bureaucrat, an enemy of Bolívar, and a filthy swine. I crushed the letter in my fist and hurled it into the gorge.

The chill of the Andean night crept across my skin. At the horizon the sky glowed scarlet from the smoking volcanoes to the south. Stars throbbed in the sky like fireflies. Directly above me the Southern Cross blazed. Shooting stars, fat with light, ripped the cobalt vastness, but I had no wish to make, not one. From childhood, I had loved the Andean sky after nightfall, even preferred it to daylight. As a young woman, the solitude and quiet of nighttime conferred a sense of freedom. I had often stayed awake watching the firmament until dawn bled its darkness. Tonight all this beauty and promise was lost to my misery.

A tap on my shoulder startled me. It was Jonotás, wanting to drape a baby alpaca shawl over my shoulders. “Come, niña Manuela,” she said, her voice full of concern. “You need to get some nourishment. Tomorrow we have a long way to go.” The last time Jonotás had called me niña was when I was a child in Catahuango. We had cheese, bread, chorizo, and wine, which I drank from my wineskin, and then I lay down on the pallet Jonotás had prepared for us on the cushioning moss. I buried myself under thick ruanas. Though I was not sleepy, I closed my eyes and drifted off. Some time later, I awoke. Jonotás, asleep next to me, was snoring in a purr, her mass of curls brushing my face.

“Tomorrow, tomorrow,” I said under my breath. Tomorrow I would awake and start the voyage down the river, toward the coast, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, where Bolívar had died and was buried. The lines by the Spanish poet Jorge Manrique came to mind: “Our lives are the rivers that flow into the sea of Death.” At sunrise tomorrow, night’s darkness would be dispelled for another day. But not for me. Not for me. Not for as long as I lived and remembered. Ahead of me, in a future full of tomorrows, I saw nothing but an unremitting darkness—no moon, no stars. Yet the oncoming darkness did not frighten me because I knew it would never lift, would never change, would never trick me with a new beginning in which there might blossom again the promise of love, in which happiness would torn to grief. I would float down the river until the day I entered the sea, a dead woman on a raft, en route to eternity. As I closed my eyes, I knew that if I chose to live, I would have to go on and on until I met the pitch blackness beckoning at the end of the long road ahead. In the meantime, tonight, I was relieved and thankful that I could not foretell what was ripening for me in time’s dim, unknowable womb.

Chapter 30, an excerpt from Our Lives Are the Rivers forthcoming from HarperCollins this month, reprinted with permission. 

—Jaime Manrique has written, in English and in Spanish, a voluminous body of work that includes fiction, poetry, memoir, criticism, and translations. He is associate professor in the MFA writing program at Columbia University.

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