UNTAINTED

It was the first time he had seen a real bus from close. Its metal body sat still near the road on the hills, like the carcass of a horse who had suddenly died, its top covered by piles of suitcases. Dense black smoke fumed from the engine, it smelled like gasoline.

A young man with a rope around his neck stood on the stairway helping tying up the packages, calling passengers in. People waved goodbye as they climbed to find a seat pushing through other passengers.

The bus looked like a steel-made beast devouring people, he thought as he held his mother’s hand. His parents, the family servant and him had arrived to the town by horse early in the morning, it was cold and the road was mushy from the morning frost. The horses were left to graze at the grass while his father and servant helped mount the belongings on the bus, as his mother watched.

Holding an old suitcase, a blanket and some food, his father climbed on the bus to help him find a seat.

At twelve years old it wasn’t his first long trip alone away from home. He knew of being alone on the road. He had spent entire days and nights looking for pasture for his father’s horses with his brothers and the family’s servants. The hilly paths, the cliffs, the river carrying muddy water howling at dawn, the nearby pampas. Nothing of that was new to him, except the bus, and his new destination.

“Trujillo”, yelled the boy on the stairway, “Trujillo, departing now!”

He glanced at the bus, holding his mother’s arm, as she caressed his hair. She smelled like corn flour, lamb meat, boiled potatoes, cookies, she smelled like home. He wanted to cough, or cry, or he just felt something chocking on his throat when his father handed him the last package, some money and his mother let go of his hand weeping.

The bus started moving. Standing by the road, his father held his hands behind his back, his mother waved, and the family’s servant held the horses.

He did not know then that this scene would stay with him for the rest of his life. The image of his mother waving goodbye, his father gray woolen jacket and hat standing solemnly by the road, the grazing horses, the pampas, the hills, becoming distant dots as the bus went ahead.

During a week he leaned on the window watching the sun go up, and go down again, listening to birds flying through, sometimes the voice of the passengers speaking, or just the blank silence of the wheels advancing on the road. At night people covered themselves under blankets and slept in the bus. Sometimes the driver managed to get on time to a small town or village and passengers went down to sleep in homes that offered beds.

Too afraid of joining the others he slept always on his bus seat. When the sun set he felt cold, colder than he ever remembered. Under the woolen blanket he curled up and had dreams every night, he dreamt of his mother. He dreamt of her food, the thick soups made of fresh grains and mouton head, the cookies she baked making the entire courtyard smell like a festivity, the sound of her pearls jingling when she kissed him good night. He also dreamt of the prairies during the rainy season, his father sending his brother and him to feed the horses in the spring wild grasslands near the Marañon river. He once dreamt of his brother and him seating in the pampas eating cold roasted chicken and fried dried corn made by his mother, gazing at the horses playing afar….

There is always a moment in life where a page seems to turn and our fates change.

When was that moment for him? Was it when he played with the eucalyptus seeds and wandered the streets looking at the travelers crossing the village carrying their goods on the horses’ back, or was it when he listened to his mother’s tales of ghosts, shamans and the after life under the starred nights? Or maybe it all happened that morning when his father returned from the city bringing gifts wrapped in newspapers, and he discarded the gifts and grabbed the newspapers, mesmerized by the black and white news stories printed on them?

However it happened, it was already too far away, the only thing he could do now is to repeat to himself he had become a grown man, and needed to take care of himself as he was all alone in the city, and perhaps he was all alone in the world, with no one to count on except himself.

It was a small room with a window, a long wooden bed, and a table. At nights he would return from school, stare at the window and write. That day he arrived at school late –he had just celebrated his fourteen birthday, his colleagues at work gave him a few beers; jokingly saying he was “too young to drink but old enough to earn a living”. He had too much to drink, arrived late to classes and he did not like it.

“An education” he remembered his father muttering before he jumped on the bus, “you must get an education, none of us have that, you will be one of the few in the village to have it…..your mother and I are proud of you…don’t disappoint us.”

Whenever he felt nostalgic he wrote to his mother. He had kept all the letters under his pillow; he never sent them. He felt ashamed of being so clingy and melancholic. In the letters he had told her he missed the village, and asked about the horses, and the prairie, he had told her about his dreams of her, he asked her to send the barley cookies, and told her how he cried the first year he arrived to live by himself in the city, where the only familiar person was his older brother who was busy as a big shot lawyer and had no time for him. He wrote to his mother he was lonely and wanted to return home. But, he felt shame —his father had told him — and his father was never wrong: “you need to take care of yourself, and become someone of use. You are a grown man now.”

He remembered his father leaving; his gray woolen suit disappearing slowly in the mist, the family’s old servant nodding at him with a big smile while pulling away the two family horses up to the mountain road. Watching them departing he leaned his head on the frosted window, his fists holding the pack of food mother had prepared for him.

That was his first birthday celebration in the city; he had missed classes and had mixed feelings about it. The workers had “borrowed” a few bottles of red wine from the storage, bought beer and improvised a celebration on the stairway.

He had been working as a hauler in a wine bottling factory for three months now; he had taken the job when he failed obtaining the high-school scholarship and felt guilty to tell his father he had failed.

Working had become a daily ritual that gave him not only some money, but also friends in the city. He attended classes at night, and then went home and sat on his desk staring at the night sky. Writing about his hometown alleviated his nostalgia; he wrote about the landscapes, his father, the horses, the church, he wrote about his friends, but he wrote mostly about the things he could not find in Trujillo. The candid home servants who slept in their home’ kitchen floor every night and seemed content being fed left overs day after day, or his father’s trip to see the President in the capital to ask for their village to be marked on the map, or the ghosts everyone feared would appear at night on the mountain roads: “they will drink your blood and take your body, and live your life…”.

His colleagues often listened to his tales and laughed, “You go poet, go back and carry the cases before the boss fires you.”

After work sometimes he would sit on the sand near the ocean, falling asleep while the waves crashed the shore bringing back the returning fishermen. The morning frost was one of the things he missed from waking up in the prairies, the sound of the shattering ice beneath his shoes in the mornings; he missed that sense of entering untainted territory.

For my father,

Beijing, Wednesday, February 13, 2013

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