The Cow by Hernán Ronsino

Roger Caillois 1 Bomb

A polished section of onyx from Roger Caillois’s L’ecriture des pierres, 1970.

Translated by Kit Maude

I hear about it from my old man. He calls Buenos Aires early in the morning and tells me, in a weary voice, that Pajarito Lernú has died. He says that it happened last night. They found the body in a ditch, on the dirt track to the cemetery. Two policemen came in the middle of the night to give him the news and ask him to pick up the body—one of the cops was the boy from Cejas and he seemed drunk. Two idiots, my old man says, at that hour. I threw them out. But when he went back to his bedroom he was hit in the chest by a wave of unbearable anguish. So he stayed there, waiting for the light to filter in through the window so he could call me. Then he says that he needs me. The last thing he tells me is that a few hours before he died Pajarito Lernú gave me a cow. It’s a wounded animal, he says. He stole it from Negro Soto.

Before, the railway ended here. After twelve years away, as the sun sets behind the Munich Building, the bus takes me back to North Terminal. At first I see light and then a shape, bringing a semblance of order to the air. Then, in that light, I quickly walk the two blocks to my old man’s house. The light envelops the squat buildings. And the shape harbours an overwhelming force. It exerts a similar amount of pressure on the body as it does on satellites, for example. The gravitational force of a planet. That’s how it is: the landscape is trapped. Then I ring the bell and wait. I can hear a dog barking. A voice calms the dog down and tells it to go out to the patio. The patio, it says. You can hear my old man’s voice without the intercom. It’s a gentle, pleasant voice. I last saw him two months ago when he came to Buenos Aires. Now he takes a while to open the wooden door because the door is stuck in the frame: he says that it swells. As he hugs me, hurting my bones, he speaks slowly into my ear: My dear son, he says.

We sit out in the patio, in the shade of the walnut tree. My old man is sipping mate. And the dog, Rainer, stares at me nervously. We talk about Helene Bergson and her upcoming exhibition. I say that the thing with the scripts is tricky. These days plot and atmosphere don’t matter, you have to build up personal mythologies, shock for the sake of it, I say. Then, after my silence, I ask: What do you know? My old man solemnly tips the kettle into the mate gourd. As he passes it to me, he says, pursing his lips: Nothing. After that, as though we’d come to an agreement, neither of us openly brings up the subject of Pajarito Lernú. Or rather we tiptoe around it, trying to work out where we stand. My old man taught me not to be explicit. One needs to build silences. It’s a good way of telling, he said once. So then I ask him about Josefina Argüello and his back pain, which keeps him up at night. Fine, he says, bringing both conversations to an end with a single word. You? When are you leaving? he asks, turning the conversation back to me. I’ve just got here, I say, surprised. I know, he says, you know I love it when you’re here. Now he takes two sips of his mate looking at the white wall next to the town’s museum and when the gourd makes a slurping sound he says something about some books that Córdoba has for me. Then he says that it’s time: we have to go. He picks up the kettle and the mate gourd. The dog gets restless, straining at his leash. My old man closes the patio door, switches off the lights and we go out through the wooden door. The dog barks. It’s getting dark now and we start to walk towards the Glaxo area. Where are we going? I ask. To see the animal, he says.

A while ago, on cable, I saw bits of a documentary. What I saw dug up—like a bone in the earth—was a latent perception that had been growing more concentrated over the years but that I had never expressed until then. Over the next few days I waited for the program to be repeated. I wanted to see the whole story. There was something in the tone and the landscape that spoke to me. But I was to be disappointed. Since then, every time I switch on the television I hope to find the story again. I never found out the title of the documentary. It was probably from the late ‘90s. It mentioned a civil war somewhere, like the Balkans, for example. It had a handful of images that showed a man, the person being interviewed, and a camera following him on a car journey through his hometown. The man was in the back seat, next to the window. The night accentuated the deformation of the landscape: buildings sprung up from the ruins, maybe caused by the war they were talking about. It might also have been Russia, some dismembered part of the Soviet Union. For a while I tried to guess the guy’s name and status (a survivor?) and the location. Sometimes I thought of a city in Russia. Then the car stopped at a corner. The camera showed the man trying to light a cigarette. He tried twice. He cupped his hand to protect it from the wind. But he couldn’t get it lit. He only managed it on the third attempt. And before the car started again there was a faint silhouette in the background of a cow standing in the ruins of a building. Then the man, moving now with the memory of that cow in his eyes, blowing out a cloud of smoke, said something that I read in white letters as the subtitles flashed up on the screen. Even though it went by very quickly it stayed with me, as though burned into my memory: Every piece of this city bears the hallmarks of my story like a skin.     

Now we’re walking through the Fonavi neighbourhood. Immediately after it was built, on former railway land, the neighbourhood started to decay silently. It’s covered in layers piled up on top of each other, creating new levels, sedimentary planes that conceal time, former times. That’s what it seems like. A handful of identical, rundown houses filled with kids and dogs on the stairs: children playing or crying or getting themselves into trouble. Children who look at us as though we were strangers. Then my old man asks me for a cigarette. He lights it under a lamp, surrounded by parakeets and mosquitoes. When we get to the mill someone recognizes him and shouts: Hey, Beast. Hey, says my old man, in a firm, decisive voice. Then he points to the sky and says: They’re going to demolish it. He’s talking about the Bunge Mill silos. In front of us, an enormous iron ball dangles from an unmoving crane. Crickets are chirping. The wasteland smells fresh, of recently cut grass. Excited, perhaps by the country air and the tobacco taste in his mouth, my old man says: Look. He points to a shape moving in the wasteland grass.

Railway lines used to cross this field. From the Agua Corriente tank, for example, you could see a tangled web of lines crisscrossing the ground. It was the shunting area for the warehouse. In the middle of the tangle there was a little red hut that housed the switches: some lines led to the main line that ended at North Terminal. The hut contained three enormous levers. At night, when there was a power cut or heavy storm, I liked to sneak inside the little shelter so as to get a better view of the depths of the skies from the open land. Now it’s part of a municipal deposit area. In the darkness it looks like the beginning of the countryside. A black sheet floating through the air. An animal can be seen shuffling around in its folds. My old man gets excited and jumps across the ditch. The hut was on a kind of island, or peninsula, or woman’s crotch, as Gordo Montes used to say, and now that small crotch is surrounded by little rivulets with soapy liquid running through them. Jump, shouts my old man from the other side. I take a run up, worrying that I won’t make it. I jump anyway. I make it. The edge is crumbling, the earth is very dry. Apparently it hasn’t rained in a while. My old man’s body, now that we’re in the crotch, moves in the shadows, treading on the grass, around the animal. The animal is standing still, looking at the ground, but out of the corner of his eye he watches our every move. 

Right where the little red-painted hut was lies the burned out chassis of a bus, once belonging to the Chevallier company, half-buried in the ground. My old man curses as he strokes the animal’s side. He curses because they didn’t even leave it a bucket of water. Poor animal, he says, right in the sun all afternoon. See? Touch it, it’s burning up. The fire, he says later, was started by the passengers. The Chevallier got to the bus station at about ten at night. It had left Retiro in Buenos Aires at eleven in the morning. When it pulled into the North Terminal, the engine broke down. I think it was the diesel, my old man says. The drivers went into the parcel office and didn’t say anything. There were people going to Trenque Lauquen. They were very patient. Fifteen minutes after they’d arrived, a guy saw the drivers getting into a car and driving off. The bus was left stranded. With no one to take responsibility. The ticket office was closed too: the woman who ran it was driving the car carrying the drivers away. Then the fire started in a seat at the back. It grew quietly until it reached the roof, the plastic ceiling, and a black cloud billowed up above the flames. That’s why I think they ran out of diesel, says my old man. If not, it would have exploded. It was twelve, or one in the morning. When the black cloud rose up in the sky people started to arrive, on motorbikes, bicycles. The local news van came. Molina took a photo that later appeared on the cover of La Verdad. This was at the end of December, at night. People went over to the fire and instead of trying to put it out, fed it. It was like it was a bonfire. Or a trapped animal, goaded by the anger of the world. The firemen never came, and neither did the cops. The bus burned until eight in the morning. It was there for about two months, a burned-out husk. No one moved it. It was like a fossil. A few days ago a gang of municipal workers dragged it here. A black ring was burned into the cement at the station, on the bus platform.    

Then I ask my old man who “they” are. Who are who? He asks as he looks for something he can use as a bucket among the burnt and twisted metal of the Chevallier. The people who were supposed to give it water, I explain. The police, he says, plunging his hand into the mangled debris. The cow is tied to one of the bus’s windows. It can only move a few meters, two or three meters to either side. During the day, the bus offers a little shade but it’s not much, a thin strip that must shrink or grow as the sun moves in the sky. I imagine the cow’s short, brusque movements in the afternoon, trying to keep out of the sun. 

Now my old man jumps back across the ditch. As he lands, he slips and falls over. He grunts and swears. I ask him if he’s OK. He answers in a whisper I don’t understand. He’s still holding the can he found in the remains of the bus. He dusts himself down and limps over to the closest source of light. Gordo Montes’s house. Gordo takes a while to open the door. He’s pleased to see my old man and gives him a hug. They’re bathed in the light from the twisted porch lamp. My old man looks uncomfortable, trying to forestall Gordo’s instinctive invitation to come in for a drink. Che, what a wonderful surprise, Beast, he says. My old man, after this outburst of emotion, tells him that he needs water. Water, he says, holding out the bucket he found. So now they go inside while a gentle dog stands in the lamplight, staring out at the night.   

Before, when it rained or there was a power cut, I liked to slip into the red hut and allow myself to be amazed by the immensity of the sky and its storms. Now it’s just wasteland, surrounded by rivulets of water. A vague time of night. So I decide to walk around the cow in the same way that questions are circled by answers. The cow hears my steps and waits, it doesn’t even flick its tail to brush away the flies. It waits. I undo the rope tying it to the bus. And I let it go. The cow that Pajarito Lernú gave me a few hours before he died takes two or three steps, moving away from the bus a little further than it could before. But then it stops. It plunges its head to the ground to pull out patches of grass. And it stands there silently chewing in the darkness.   

Hernán Ronsino’s first story collection, Te vomitaré de mi boca (I Will Vomit You from My Mouth), was presented at the 29th International Book Festival of Buenos Aires and received an honourable mention from the Fondo Nacional de las Artes in 2002. His fiction has been published in various Spanish-language newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and has won numerous awards in Argentina, including the Concurso Haroldo Conti para Jóvenes Narradores in 2001. He has published the novels La descomposición (2007) and Glaxo (2009, now available in German, French, and Italian). Lumbre (Firelight) is his third novel, and this excerpt is his first publication in English. Ronsino is also a sociologist and professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.

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