La ForestalRita Sturam Wirkala
Everything lasted as long as the blood lasted,
the back, the heart, the arm hacking
in the red hell of the quebracho.
I received the sad news of my mother’s death while I was in East Timor, in the midst of the celebrations—and chaos—over Indonesian independence. I had to fly from one hemisphere to the other and was late for the funeral in Argentina, but I applied myself to selecting some of her belongings for myself and deciding what to do with others. In the process, I came across a journal from my youth. I leafed through it eagerly finding a lot of nonsense and a single treasure: my account of an event that I had certainly never forgotten, although the details had become fuzzy. I had typed it on my old Olivetti (I was always aware of my sloppy handwriting) and folded and glued the sheets to a notebook. I kept it for another two decades and have recently taken to transcribing it.
Although I have had to edit the language, the narrative is true to the events that occurred over two turbulent days in Tartagal during that leap year of 1972.
The mayor’s young wife met me at the bus station. Her husband was away traveling but she would take me to speak with the president of the cultural committee, who was aware of my visit.
Her name was Lucía. When I asked her to direct me to a hotel, she responded, “I won’t hear of it, you’re staying with us!” I didn’t wait for her to ask again. Since hers was the home of a town official, there would surely be hot water.
“Felicia, take the lady’s suitcase!” she said. Only then did I notice a girl who had been keeping her distance. She was slim, with golden-brown skin, and she gazed at me through long, dark bangs.
“No, I’m fine. It’s light,” I said.
“I won’t hear of it!” Lucía protested.
I had no choice but to accept her forceful offer.
On the way to their house, I made out a tall, reddish tower in the distance that seemed to be built of brick.
“What’s that?” I asked Lucía.
“Oh, it’s a chimney. It’s no longer in use.”
I realized later that, although the tall smokestack towered over the flat terrain could be seen from any point or angle, it had blended with the urban landscape, and the inhabitants had stopped seeing it—much like people no longer notice light poles. With a little imagination, we could have been gazing at a minaret in the Middle East. Or standing in front of the Torre Rossa in Italy.
We walked about five blocks and arrived at the house—it was not at all impressive, but it had an ornate garden.
As soon as we went in, they offered me a mate.
“Thank you, Lucía. I can’t—it’s hard on my liver.” Certainly, mate is one of my country’s few gaucho customs that I have never acquired.
“Oh, then I’ll make you some mint tea.”
That wasn’t a favorite of mine either—my body was clamoring for coffee—but I politely accepted it. Then Felicia appeared with a tray of sugary quince cupcakes that tasted like grandmothers and childhood. Those I devoured.
Lucía asked me many questions about my family, if I had a boyfriend, if I’d ever had one, if I wanted to get married. I didn’t want to tell her that for years an assortment of unlikely characters had paraded through my life; that I had changed boyfriends as often as I changed rented rooms, and that none of these transitory loves—much like those impersonal lodgings—felt like “mine.” I wanted an intelligent man, someone intellectually curious, sensitive, maybe a poet… Apparently, I only attracted idiots. I made up some stories for her. My world was as distant from Lucía’s as my musical career was from Hollywood’s tinsel town.
To change the subject, I told her about my “mission” in Tartagal. I explained the town was the beneficiary of a national program for cultural development in the Chaco area, and the orchestra from the neighboring province of Corrientes, where I worked as an oboist, had sent me as its first emissary.
“Tomorrow I’m taking you to meet the chair of the committee,” Lucía said, happy to have a role in the project. “Would you like to take a bath?” she asked.
“I would love to!” I replied. I needed a hot bath but didn’t know what to expect. I was still wary of the heating device, with its grim electric cables exposed, at my boarding house in Corrientes. I had once heard of someone being electrocuted while taking a shower.
“Felicia, prepare the bath for the señorita.”
Carrying a metal cruet, the girl walked me to the bathroom She poured the bottle’s contents into a circular receptacle that was located under the small water tank above the showerhead. Then she turned on the faucet, lit a cotton swab with a match, inserted it into the vessel, and boom! A circle of fire surrounded the tank. I drew back.
“Ready, Miss. The water will be hot in no time. Do you need me to scrub your back?
“No, no, Felicia, I’m fine. Thank you,” I said and closed the door, thinking of Brunhilda and the magic circle of fire of the Nibelungen in Wagner’s opera.
In the end, what I surmised was an alcohol heater, turned out to be more manageable than the hideous electric one with its ominous wires. By the time the fuel had burned off and the flames were out, I was rid of the grime from my long journey.
Since there were no men in the house, I didn’t mind leaving the bathroom wrapped in a towel.
“I put your suitcase in Doña Lucía’s bedroom,” Felicia announced. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask where my room was, but now it became obvious there wasn’t a guestroom, and I was going to share sleeping quarters with Lucía. Only when I entered the room did I notice there
was just one bed: a double one.
I got dressed, plucked up my courage and went to the kitchen to ask, “Lucía, where will I sleep? On the couch in the living room?”
“I won’t hear of it! I already told you my husband is traveling, so we can both sleep in the big bed.”
I just nodded, speechless. No, I wasn’t dreaming. It seemed I would sleep next to my hostess, who I had only just met. I knew there was nothing suspicious in her proposal; it was just her naïve, country way of being hospitable.
Then Lucía noticed my shoes, the same ones I’d been wearing when I got off the bus.
“Felicia! Clean Miss Rita’s shoes!”
“That’s not necessary, Lucía. I’ll wipe them with a rag right now.”
“I won’t hear of it!”
I couldn’t refuse. I was about to take off my footwear when Felicia appeared with a box, the kind shoeshine boys use, and gestured for me to put my right foot up. My heart froze. Here was a girl my age, kneeling on the floor with her body bent towards me, cleaning my shoes! A visceral rejection filled my mouth with protests, but I held them back.
I wanted to close the distance between us and show that I saw her as more than a trained pet, so I asked her some questions while she polished my shoes.
At one point she turned to Lucía and said a few words that were incomprehensible to me, which sounded like Pu’ama pituma ... karú? Her employer replied, Heé ... Ko aga ... I knew they were speaking Guaraní because I had heard it spoken in Corrientes, and I surmised that Felicia came from that province.
“Lucía, where did you learn Guaraní?"
“From my babysitter when I was little.”
Suddenly I was envious of my hostess, who seemed so simple, so convinced of her rights as a white woman in her little fiefdom, so comfortable in her class and so boxed in what I so as her intellectual misery, one that she could not see and yet, she was bilingual! And I, the more educated, a university graduate, only knew my maternal Spanish and a handful of Italian words from the musical lexicon: Fortissimo... Allegro ma non troppo ... Cantabile. And others like that.
Perhaps to show off her language skills, Lucía continued to order Felicia around in the maid’s indigenous language. To my ears it sounded like a cascade of sweet notes pressed from a cluster of intoxicating fruit, reverberating, intimate and ancient, with an occasional swallowing of vowels and a jungle accent on the final syllable of the high-pitched words. But it was beyond my understanding, from beginning to end.
Once finished with her task, Felicia went to the kitchen. With one quick gesture, she gathered up her thick, straight, dark hair—which fell like a heavy cloak down her back—and secured it with a rounded comb. Then she then put on a cap and a white apron. I looked at my shoes: they shone like two black beetles.
We ate locro for dinner, a northern dish of white corn, pork and onion, and drank wine. Felicia served us in the dining room; she ate in the kitchen after she had cleared the table. I was not surprised.
I-won’t-hear-of it! and I went out to walk off our dinner, no small feat after the meal we just had. She told me about a women’s charity group she belonged to. And then, too early for my liking, we went to bed.
There was no reading that night, or much conversation. After quickly reciting the Lord’s Prayer for us both, my bedmate switched off the light, said good night, turned over, and fell asleep. She slept like a baby, within the peace of her well-defined universe, where everything is as it is, and with the sweet certainty that, as it is and was, it would always be. At least that was my perception. My mind, on the other hand, navigated a sea of uncertainties while my bones tried to adjust themselves to the wool mattress.
I remembered then that my grandfather had taught us a game in which each playing card represented a traveler gathering with others at an inn—soldier, nun, merchant, harlequin, blacksmith, and so on. Beds were in limited supply and had to sleep two people each, and bedmates were chosen by dealing cards. (f the soldier’s card was dealt on top of the nun’s, or vice versa, my grandfather laughed joyfully and uttered comments in his Italian dialect that he never translated for us.) I always thought that this game, fun as it was, did not really reflect human behavior. The game was playfully absurd. But later I learned from some nineteenth-century novels that, not long ago, the definition of privacy was more elastic. People of the same sex didn’t mind sharing a bed when necessary, just as today we don’t mind sharing a table with a stranger in a crowded cafeteria. What was unusual was that the custom had survived, up to the end of the twentieth century, in the sophisticated homeland of Borges and Cortazar. I had to rethink my assumptions. People who trust one another sleep together, I concluded, and I should feel honored.
But of course, Lucía and I were cut from the same cloth.
A commotion of birds I could not identify entered my dream, shrieking like an out-of-tune violin, and waking me up before my hostess at seven in the morning.
I asked the Guaraní girl, who was already busy in the kitchen, if there was coffee in the house. She climbed onto a bench and found a jar of Nescafe that had gone stone hard with age. It tasted awful, but the caffein was manna from heaven.
The window was open, and the air felt strange and heavy. The birds were restless. While Felicia prepared fried cakes, I ventured to ask her about her life.
“Where are you from, Felicia?”
“From over there in the woods, as if you were going to Villa Ana.”
“But your family is from Corrientes, right? You speak Guaraní.”
“Yes, Miss. My parents came from there.”
“Did you go to school?”
“I made it to third grade.” She lowered her head.
“What does your dad do?”
“He died,” she said, crossing herself.
“I’m sorry… How did he die, do you know?”
“They say he got a lot of sawdust in his lungs.”
“Sawdust? From what?”
“He worked at the sawmill.”
“Oh, I see. Are there many of those around here?”
“There were, but not anymore. The company closed a few years ago.”
“What company was that?”
“La Forestal. Have you never heard of it?” Felicia looked at me as though I had come from Mars
La Forestal. It sounded vaguely familiar. I asked her to tell me about it. She explained her uncle had been one of the first workers in the English gringos’ factories that squeezed the tannin from the red quebracho. Noticing my inquisitive expression, she added, “If you want, I’ll take you home so you can talk to my uncle. He knows the whole story. Today is Saturday. It’s my day off until midafternoon.”
Her tone was humble, but I detected a hint of determination in her voice. Or her look.
“But please don’t tell Señora Lucía, because she’s against…” she added, lowering her voice.
“What people in the woods say about La Forestal.”
A short while later Lucía appeared in the kitchen and invited me to a meeting of the Acción Católica. I made up an excuse and then saw she was somewhat disappointed. She had been going to introduce me to some ladies in the charity group.
“Maybe this afternoon?” I suggested. The question hung in the air. Then she said that she would try to arrange something for later if it didn’t start raining.
I remembered then that this was the time of year when the Santa Rosa storms broke out in these parts, a few days before or after the celebration of the Latin America’s patron saint.
After Lucía left, Felicia made a couple of sandwiches and wrapped them in a kitchen towel, which she put in her sisal twine bag. Outside, brown clouds were gathering on the horizon.
We walked for ten minutes before leaving the town behind and following a trail that soon narrowed between bushes that overran the path. Felicia was in front, walking fast and pushing the foliage aside with both arms, and moving with a grace that would have been the envy of a willow tree, had there been one.
In half an hour we reached the house. It was an adobe hut, with a clay oven in the courtyard, a brick cistern, and a windmill. Under the sparse shade of a budding carob tree, a man sat on the leather seat of a three-legged folding stool. He was sharpening the tip of a stick with a knife. Felicia introduced us and then brought me another triangular stool.
Questions swirled in my brain, stumbling one after another, wanting to get out. I reined them in while Felicia served carob tea, which I gladly accepted.
Don Ramiro and I spoke for a long time in a somewhat disorganized way, but basically his story was this: In his father’s time, the Argentinian government had sold the whole expanse where red quebracho grew, an immense territory that encompassed three provinces, to the British.
“And did they buy Tartagal as well?” I asked.
“Tartagal didn’t exist, Miss,” Felicia’s uncle replied. “The foreigners founded it. They founded Tartagal, La Guillermina, Villa Ana, La Galletera... And those are just the ones remaining today. There were a bunch of towns, more than forty in all, each with its own factory. The British built houses, opened roads, constructed ports on the Paraná River to take away the logs, planks, and tannin to Europe. They also laid four hundred seventy kilometers of railroad track. It was a country within a country, you understand. With its own printed money, police, judges, and everything else.”
“Did they have that much capital?”
“Sure. And they made more money during World War One, because the tannin they extracted from the quebracho was used to dye the soldiers’ leather boots and belts, the saddles, and who knows what else. Have you seen the factory yet?
“It was called Quebracho Argentina. And well, only the ruined machines and the chimney are left. The Tobas Indians lived here. The government took their land from them and sold it to the British, and the new owners used Tobas laborers to chop down the trees.”
“Their own trees!”
“Yes, their own stolen trees. The wood was also used to make ties for the railroad tracks I mentioned, because quebracho is a fine, fine wood. And extremely hard!
Colonialism—and the racism it brings with it—here we go again, I thought.
“But those poor Tobas weren’t enough for them,” Don Ramiro continued. “They went looking for labor in Corrientes. That’s how father came to be here. He was promised the sun and the moon, but later he changed his mind and hung out with the strikers. I was little, but I remember. The thing is, people worked twelve hours a day, and were paid a pittance, not with Argentine money but with money those people printed themselves. You could only exchange that so-called currency for food in the company stores—one bill for sugar, another for a little bit of yerba mate, and so on. Even that wasn’t enough. At the end of the month, either we filled our bellies with mate, just bitter, or we ended up in debt to the grocery store they owned. There were health problems and many accidents. That’s why the workers organized themselves, went on strike, and ended in a massacre.”
“Yes. Their answer was ‘bullets and more bullets.’ They killed six hundred workers.”
“Six hundred! Oh my God! Was it their thugs, their private police, that did this?”
“The company had its own private police force, true, armed with Mauser rifles, but this time they requested reinforcements from Buenos Aires, and from there they sent a group called, if memory serves, the ‘Argentine Patriotic League.’ They were paid police, mercenaries, as they say.
Paramilitaries, I muttered. I was familiar with the slogan patriotic; the kind of jargon far-right reactionaries now lay claim to.
“Those who were caught alive were tortured so they would give up names and implicate others. And those who escaped were chased through the forest and hunted down like birds, like animals. The union leader was dispatched, poor guy … they gunned him down in this town’s main street. And in the end the prisoners were transported by wagon to the capital. They said they were anarchists. It was an open wagon with many stakes to which they bound the accused, who were forced to stand, all the way to Buenos Aires. And take note, Miss—all this approved by the provincial government!”
“Do you know what happened to those prisoners?”
“Nobody knows. Either they rotted in jail, or they were tortured and killed.
Why don’t we know about these events? I asked myself. At school we were taught about the two English invasions of the nineteenth century. But this one? This other piece of British empire established in this country? Or were the hurt and shame too recent?
“So, after that massacre, I suppose there were no more union movements,” I added.
“Who would have dared! They started watching us very closely, right up to the day they packed their things and left.” Don Ramiro sipped his tea and then turned to the door. “Isidoro, come here and explain to this young lady about La Forestal.”
The boy who appeared was slender and taller than the hut’s doorframe, and his gaze was intense. He greeted me shyly and sat down next to Don Ramiro under the carob tree. It was already midmorning by then, and the crisscrossing shadows of the branches formed a latticework over their faces. It made me think of a moving jail with bars that shifted but allowed no one to exit.
Whatever he knew, he had heard from his father, Isidoro told me, because he was only ten years old when the company left Argentina, a year too young to work hacking down trees. He did remember the number of people who were unemployed from one day to the next.
“They loaded their things and their children onto their carts and went to the cities to look for work,” he said.
“But why did the factory close?”
“Why? Because they ran out of trees! They cut down everything in the three provinces. Quebracho takes a hundred years to grow, and no Christian, no Englishman even, can last a hundred years... So they went off to look for other similar trees and found the mimosa, as they call it, in Africa. But before leaving they dismantled all the towns they had built, except for a few of them, like this one, Tartagal.”
“If the gringos no longer occupied the land, why didn’t the unemployed people stay here and use the soil to grow crops like corn, for example, as they do in the south of the province?” I asked.
The old man picked up a clump of dirt and crumbled it in his hands, sprinkling the ground with dry earth.
“Crops? Nothing grows here, my friend. Look at this poor soil, as cracked as my own face. A graveyard of stumps was all that was left on the useless land.”
“The thing is, when there are no trees or grass, the rainwater wipes out all the good layers of soil,” Isidoro explained.
I thought about the delicate balance of life. And I began to understand how in recent years the population of the so-called shantytowns had grown so fast on the outskirts of the cities. We knew they came from north of Santa Fé, from the Chaco, from Santiago del Estero, but not why. We were unaware of the overwhelming reality along the so-called ‘tannin route.’ What’s more, deforestation was not a word that really resonated with those of us from the Pampas, a region the hand of God had created naturally devoid of trees but not of pasture or fertile soil.
I returned to town at noon, accompanied by Isidore. Lucía was waiting for me and, delighted that she had accomplished her mission, didn’t bother to ask where I had gone.
“My friends are coming this evening. They want to meet you,” she announced. “I also made an appointment for you after lunch with Mr. Roberto from the cultural committee. He’ll be waiting in his office today at two.”
The sky was overcast. Expecting rain, Lucía lent me an umbrella and shortly before 2 p.m. she accompanied me to the town hall.
A path festooned with a kind of pot-bellied tree, the palo borracho or drunkard tree, led up to the entrance. An early flowering lapacho announced the coming season. Lucía told me that they had celebrated National Tree Day two days earlier, which explained the garlands still hanging from the branches. The doorman opened the door for me and led me to the office. I was expecting a middle-aged man, but this one wasn’t even thirty.
We got right to the point and I told him about the cultural project. The orchestra would give a concert and then invite the children on stage to learn about each instrument. The teachers would be recruited from those musicians in the province who could travel every week.
I was very excited about the program, and even more so because I would have a say in the way music was taught.
“This will be great for our reconstruction plans,” the man said. He told me about several of the town’s ventures, always placing himself at the center of gravity, with the awareness of someone who feels part of a select vintage. He made it clear that he was not just a municipal employee. Then he added some smarmy words about my talent (of which he knew nothing) and my mission. He asked me if the instrument I played was like a saxophone. I explained to him that the oboe was not made of metal but belonged to the “woodwind family.”
“And speaking of wood,” I said, “I understand that it was exceedingly difficult for Tartagal when La Forestal abandoned the area, leaving so many people without jobs. Is that right?”
“Yes. Now we have to apply ourselves to attracting other industries, rebuilding the houses that were left empty, and attracting people from outside, people with an entrepreneurial drive who are more educated, like you. And more grateful too.”
I asked him what he meant.
“Many people here were employed, for decades, and they had every-thing. La Forestal provided housing, electricity, running water, public health... all for free. They didn’t have to pay for a thing! And yet they still complained.”
And I, who have always had a gift—if I can call it that—for saying what’s controversial, took aim. “I heard some of them paid with their lives.”
His face hardened. “You’ve probably been talking to one of those urban anarchists who know nothing about our situation.”
Suddenly the guy began to address me informally, shifting from usted to tú. I wasn’t bothered by the change but rather by his superior tone: What did I know? I told him a few more home truths. Things were going from bad to worse, so I changed the subject. We scheduled some dates for the concert and after a while ended our meeting.
“How long are you staying?” he asked.
“I’m leaving Monday.”
“Well, if you have time, I’ll pick you up at Lucía’s tomorrow, take you to lunch and show you around.”
It seemed like a conciliatory gesture, something I never reject. Nobody is perfect. Besides, it would be an opportunity to get back in his good graces.
“That’s a good idea,” I said, “but first I have to move my things to a hotel because Lucía’s husband gets back tomorrow and there’s no room for me at the house. They told me about a hostel on 31st Street.”
“Sure, it’s the only one in Tartagal! It used to be La Forestal’s railway station, which is no longer in use of course. We remodeled it to serve as a hostel for the business representatives who sometimes visit us.”
“Interesting... They also converted the station in my hometown, but into a museum rather than a hotel. They didn’t make many changes, by the way.”
“We didn’t invest much either, simply built a corridor outside and modernized the bathroom, that’s all.”
“I think it’s the fate of so many of our village train stations to be converted,” I commented. “It’s a pity how the Argentine Railroad Company has gone into such steep decline.”
“Times change and you have to adapt. Well then, tomorrow I’ll take you to the hostel. It’s too far to go on foot with a suitcase.”
I accepted without a moment’s thought.
Felicia was back preparing dinner. Lucía had invited some of the women from Catholic Action, who greeted me with enthusiastic declarations of friendship. They came dressed their best, most expensive clothes, and what’s more with gold dripping from their ears, necks, and arms. It would have put Atahualpa to shame. When I told them I was going to have lunch with Roberto next day, their comments came thick and fast.
“Let’s see if you can hook a husband here... He would be a good catch —the Torrentino family owns half the town.”
“And how did they become owners? Didn’t the town belong to the tannin company?” I asked.
“His grandfather made money off them, and then there were arrangements with the English owners, and in no time they made a fortune.”
Felicia, who apparently had been listening, came up to me and said quietly, “Miss, watch out for coral snakes out there.”
“But Felicia, I’m going to a restaurant not hunting in the bush!”
The women burst out laughing. She lowered her head.
That night, while I-won’t-hear-of-it was sleeping peacefully, I weighed my doubts. On the one hand—and not the best—I was interested in spending some time with this influential guy. On the other hand, I felt I was betraying my principles. I told myself that if I could cultivate a friendlier relationship and manage to bite my tongue, it would benefit the cultural project. Diplomacy is diplomacy! Of course, there are always plenty of arguments that muddy the ethical limits we impose on ourselves.
I slept finally and dreamed of the ancient forests of Chaco, where I wandered lost among the ghosts of trees.
The following diary entry, for no apparent reason, was inserted out of order and written in the present tense. I’ve transcribed it here, as follows:
Twisted rust. Tanks of tannin, of tree sap, of the blood of men. On a brick wall, red words framed in a wreath of flowers painted with sap and blood. I walk over and read:
To the fallen brothers
Labor movement 1921
I swear that if I get out of this hell, I’ll quit and go back home. What if things go wrong for me? Or if I cannot get out at all? I have to get to town. Hopefully this road leads to town… Hopefully the gate is open…
Roberto Torrentino came to pick me up rather late, well after lunchtime. I said my goodbyes to Lucía and Felicia and got into the car with my suitcase. He was driving a red Alfa Romeo, a luxury inconceivable in a town just rising from the ashes. Its owner was not very communicative that morning. Or perhaps what he said lacked the ornamental rhetoric he had used on me the day before? Could it be because of my outfit? My jeans and my tennis shoes? Was I dressed too inelegantly to accompany such a distinguished icon of refined taste?
The hostel was about ten minutes away, but given the size of the town, it could be said that it was located on the outskirts. It occupied an abandoned building facing the railroad tracks, which—just as I expected—was rectangular and single storied. It had a sloping roof, a long colonnaded gallery that had been the station platform, and a wide entrance. A bronze bell, once used to announce the arrival or departure of trains, still hung from a beam in the gallery. This station, or hostel, or whatever you wanted to call it, had the same architecture as all the train stations built by the British in Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century—all had been based on a single blueprint. I could have drawn the plan myself, inch by inch. Not for nothing had I spent my childhood playing with friends in an identical train station in my hometown.
The storm was brewing, its dark clouds riding on top of each other. The Santa Rosa squall was barely a day behind schedule. At any moment it would be unleashed, with the usual theatrical lightning and dramatic flashes.
We entered the waiting room and ticket office, now the hotel lobby. The long polished wooden benches for past travelers, were also familiar. I went up to reception and asked for a room, just for the night. Roberto approached the concierge and said, “Double bed.”
“No, I don’t need a double—not for just me!” I replied naively.
“Double bed,” he insisted, in a self-important tone, without looking at me.
“Yes, Mr. Roberto, as you wish,” the concierge said, with the customary
kowtowing of the subordinate.
All my alarm bells went off. A chemical reaction began to burn inside me and a rush of blood shot to my face. Watch out for coral snakes, Felicia had said. Too late I understood her warning, full of omens! It was obvious to me now that Roberto was the hostel’s owner and the concierge his employee. Roberto grabbed my wrist hard. I saw him gesture at the concierge, who closed the lobby’s back and front doors. I was paralyzed.
From the ranks of material progress and moral regression, the man who now had me cornered had acquired not only money and power but immunity. And now the wealth-and-power equation was digging its claws into me.
I knew my situation would be impossible to resolve through physical resistance, screaming, the threat of scandal, or begging. My only option was to figure out how to make the circumstances the least traumatic possible. Part of me wanted to show him my contempt, my revulsion. I should have spat in his face. Another part insisted on denying him the pleasure of seeing me reduced to tears and useless supplications, of believing he controlled me at his whim, that his will would be done. What if I had wished for this encounter? Maybe I could manipulate him into thinking so. It would not be a solution but it might ease the situation.
I decided to test the psychological terrain and began by resting my free hand on his. “You rogue! That double bed is not a bad idea,” I said, putting on a sly front. “But don’t grab so hard—it hurts. Hey, I’m not going to run away!” And going up to his ear, I added, “Could you be a little more romantic? So we can enjoy our time together?” I added this last bit with a seductive smile. Yes, it was a disgusting tactic, but I had to soften him up so he would lower his guard.
As I expected, he shot me a puzzled look. I even laughed at his pathetic expression, which said it all. What! Won’t you resist? You mean I don’t have you under my thumb?
I kept smiling, undaunted. I knew that collaborating with the enemy had its risks. But I would invent something to humiliate him when the time came.
“Marco,” he ordered to another employee, “take the lady’s suitcase”
“No, I’d rather take it myself,” I replied. Of all the absurd ideas that had occurred to me, I had chosen one. Addressing my abductor, I said, “My luggage contains my most precious and only valuable possession. I didn’t have time to put the oboe in its case. Such a fragile instrument. I never part with it for that reason.”
“Don’t worry, Miss, I’ll be very careful,” said Marco.
We followed him down a dim corridor. To the right there were three doors, the same tall, heavy doors at “my” train station, which would have opened directly onto the platform before the addition of the corridor.
The hotel clerk opened the second door for us and carefully deposited my suitcase in a corner. The window was open and heavy, ozone-laden air was blowing in. Beyond a fledgling forest, not far away, I could see the silhouette of the iconic chimney.
I made a show of putting my purse on the bed and asked about the bathroom.
“At the end of the corridor, Miss,” the clerk explained. I already knew this. They had added only the corridor to the original plan; it passed the bathroom and then turned right. At the end, adjacent to the facilities, would be the old pantry.
“Thanks, Marco,” I said, and since the Roberto had already let go of me, I slipped between them.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, heading for the bathroom and forcing myself to walk at a measured pace.
“Is there anything else you need, Mr. Roberto?” asked the clerk.
“No, nothing, Marco,” he answered. The employee left and the “coral snake” stood in front of the door, vigilant. He didn’t have to. The only way out of the building was through the lobby, in the opposite direction, and even if I turned around and went that way, the concierge wasn’t going to take pity on me and unlock the entrance.
I went into the bathroom and locked the door. I saw they had torn down the wall that divided the Ladies and the Gentlemen to make a larger, modern restroom. I climbed on the toilet and then onto the water tank, opening the small window under the ceiling and squeezing through the narrow opening. With half my body hanging out, the truth hit me. I couldn’t slide head down. I would smash my skull on the ground. I thought, better raped than dead, and gave up.
My plan had failed. Hope shattered, I sat on the toilet, heart pounding like a time bomb, and forced my breath to slow down. What other ideas did I have up my sleeve? I turned on the shower and let it run.
Thunder shook the sky, and I saw a flash of lightning through the small window. In an instant, the gale brought with it the first downpour, a heavy, noisy, crashing on the zinc roof. The electric shock triggered my brain circuits and I imagined other scenes, all improbable, at supersonic speed.
I opened the door a crack and stuck my head out. My nemesis was in the hallway, still stupidly standing guard and staring at the bathroom entryway.
“Hurry, close the window in the room, Roberto! Everything is going to get wet!” I yelled in a bossy tone, playing the part of a domineering wife. Or mother.
The guy was plenty mean but had zero perception or insight. He obeyed like a sheep; no, like a robot. And I took my chance.
I kept the shower running. It took me ten seconds to get out of the bathroom and close the door behind me, to round the corner of the corridor and, following my mental map, find the other door that led to the room behind the two old bathrooms. It was still a working pantry. I opened the window and jumped outside.
I ran, and fear ran with me. I ran like a deer, in the torrential rain, pushed by the wind, leaving behind my purse, my suitcase (I lied, I had not brought the oboe), while the so-called cultural representative of the town of Tartagal waited for me in vain. He would be certain that a musician
would not abandon her instrument, nor a woman her purse, and even
less so during a storm and from behind a locked door.
It was pouring rain, and I ran across a flat field dotted with stumps and bushes that quickly turned into a sparse forest that became denser the more I ran. I zigzagged through the sturdy trees, sometimes tripping over the roots, and sometimes over my own fears.
By now, I dared to imagine the Idiot would have breached the bathroom, checked the reception area, and returned to the dead-end corridor. When he happened to go into the pantry, he would have seen the open window and, as he looked out onto the vacant lot, a deluge of biblical proportions. Beyond that he would hardly envisage a thorny little forest where I could be found only if they sent out a party of hunting dogs. But no dogs were around. Just him, the mad one.
I came to a stream that had been brought back to life by the Santa Rosa, its surface bristled in the downpour. I found a place to ford the creek and continued running, closely avoiding a face-to-face encounter with a rough wall that suddenly loomed in front of me. It was a three-story brick building, with a profusion of windows but no roof, from which rose the omnipresent chimney, a blurry presence in the rain.
I found myself at the ruins of the Quebracho Argentina, which I entered, out of breath, through a small door.
The words I write here can never do justice to the setting. I know that. A mechanical, lifeless, rust-covered world. Aging machinery, wheels, presses, fallen logs, all abandoned like war cannons, mountains of coal, furnaces, circular tanks full of thick rusty liquid, numerous pipes dripping
corrosive water. I walked for a while, sheltered from the storm by roofs that were still intact. Although shivering from cold and overwhelmed by the deafening roar of the rain on the metal sheets, I felt safe among those iron mastodons. Amid all the rust, nature was struggling to triumph over the decrepit monstrosity, crawling with its green fingers over the winches, the straps, the mossy concrete pools where once wood was boiled. Life and death together in a covenant of resurrection. Each corner of corroded metal served as a shelter for birds and their nests, protected from their ominous enemy--the storm of the Peruvian saint.
I could see, framed by an inner wall, a door that led to a staircase, made of iron like everything else. I climbed to the second floor. Cautiously, I leaned out of a window with broken and missing glass and took in the tannin factory, a festering scab in the middle of a plain that was once a noble, ancient forest. I tried another window facing east. Yet despite my advantageous position, the curtain of water blocked my view of the station-turned-hotel, or the cultural representative’s car, or the guy himself. I saw a lightning bolt snaking through the sky and cracking its whip on the open field I had crossed a few minutes ago. And then the thunder, which shook the air and made the already broken glass quiver.
I thanked Santa Rosa de Lima and Nature—her ally and now mine—for a magnificent spectacle. I couldn’t picture that wimp of a man venturing out during a thunderstorm. As my imagination ran wild, I saw him run into the parking lot, slip in the mud, fall on his ass, swear, get in the car, and drive off at a suicidal speed. It was a scene conceived only by wishful thinking.
The cry of a benteveo bird alerted me and broke up the reverie.
From above, I saw what looked like a scrapyard in front of the factory full of abandoned machinery that resembled dinosaur skeletons and then the main gate. I took note of the dinosaurs as reference points so as not to get lost in the labyrinth. I hurried back down.
As I moved among the ruins, raindrops seeped through the holes in the roof and hit the machines with peculiar metallic sounds—some high, some low, some like timpani, others like cymbals in a percussionist ensemble typical of a Shostakovich piece. This could have been the roar of the tannin factory working, I thought, as I visualized the men sweating while grinding the logs to distill the quebracho’s bitter sap.
The rain stopped abruptly. As if it had been my protector, the absence of its commotion seemed threatening to me, and the flapping of each bird was startling. I could not explain why. Silence has sounds that only intuition recognizes and fear magnifies, and its fingers are long reaching.
The sound of footsteps made my blood run cold. They weren’t just footsteps, but a rhythmic clanking of chains, as if someone was dragging their shackled feet. I huddled behind a machine. Dread clasped my throat in its suffocating grip. In my confused mental state, I was besieged by ghostly images transmuted into men of flesh, irrational, violent, prowling around an abandoned factory that became a tomb, the tomb of the dead drowned in tannin, or of the living who fled here and were now trapped in a twilight zone. As I was.
I was paralyzed, and all ears. I heard the clicks, and sometimes double-clicks, occasionally followed by short and long whistles. Whoever they were, whether sent by the devil or by the man I could not bear to think about, they were communicating with one another, taking in my presence, because now they could smell my sweat. I was afraid that an uncontrollable groan would escape my throat and give me away.
A gust of wind brought the sounds came closer, along with a rancid smell. I instinctively turned toward the source. A few steps away, a family of tapirs had lined up. And at the end of the line, I saw the young were emerging one by one from a hole in their dark hiding place, their squat round little bodies brushing against a chain that hung over the entrance to their den inside the metal hulk.
The sound of my laughter, my surprise and relief, must have scared them, because they quickly trotted off. I loved them. I wanted to kiss them on their puffy snouts as they sniffed at the air laden with the scents of rain. I joyfully attached myself to the beasts mimicking their double clicks, all of a sudden feeling escorted and safe, unquestionably connected to their tribe through a shared mammalian world. I headed toward the exit with my bodyguards, my mind free of ghosts.
The gate was closed but not locked. It creaked on heavy hinges when I pushed it and stepped out into the open. My tapir friends preferred sneaking out through a hole next to the gate. They went in one direction, following the scent of fresh grass, and I went in another, attracted by the sight of a tall dovecote and, next to it, a humble house.
Smoke from a chimney curled up into the air. In my rush to get there, I paid no attention to where I put my feet. I stepped on a toad, slipped, fell on my back. A cry like a bird’s rose from my throat. A dog came up to me, barking, more out of a sense of duty than anger, I think, because he didn’t attack. A woman and a child rushed out of the house, alarmed.
Somewhat embarrassed, I got to my feet, and told them I was lost. They saw I was scared and soaked through, and they invited me in.
I don’t know how long I remained between those mud walls near the fire trying to recover from the verge of hypothermia, and to quell the adrenaline that had pushed me this far. I shook from head to toe as though there were an engine running under my skin. Uncontrollably trembling, I took off my tennis shoes and put them to dry near the fireplace. The woman offered me a poncho that smelled strongly of smoke. I wrapped myself in it, feeling grateful to those good people from the bottom of my soul.
An older man came out of another room. He was scrawny and looked liverish.
When the chills and chattering had subsided and I was able to speak, my hosts wanted to know how I had gotten there. I told them the truth, including all the details but withholding names.
“Whoever that bastard is, girl, don’t worry about it, because if he shows up, we’ll send Yaraví to bite him!” they consoled me. Hearing its name, the dog pricked up its ears. Still shaking, I patted him.
We talked quietly for hours. The woman served the man mate but gave me “healing tea,” which I assumed was made from the bark of the mighty carob tree. I asked them if they had worked in the mills or as loggers, and my questions unleashed a host of stories and emotions. The man recounted his life and the lives of others, and all the various misfortunes visited on them by La Forestal.
“Yes, I was an axman, Miss. What a miserable life! I have seen more than one buddy broken in two, as if by lightning, when the quebracho fell the wrong way and on top of the people below. Others were bitten by the yarará snake—nothing works against its poison. It’s a horrible death that ... I tell you.”
The man spoke with the forcefulness and truth of a troubled soul still suffering from what he had seen. Imaginary ax in hand, he put his whole body into his stories. He said he could still hear the axes pounding in the bush at night. Sensitive to rhythms, I thought I could make them out as well, and the images of a pounding, violent death made my chest tighten.
The former axman’s wife, who had been occupied with the mates, while keeping the fire alive and me warm, interrupted.
“Some folks in town say that during the time of La Forestal there was luxury. Sure, but the luxury was only for them. We Tobas lived here with snakes, and ticks, and tuberculosis, which took our parents too early, at thirty or thirty-five… Think about it, Miss! We never had those kinds of diseases before. And the kids … they also died on us. We watched them go, one by one, as soon as they were born, or after a year or two. The kids that survived grew up did so by the grace of God, and at eleven they were already felling trees. Those were bad times to be a child.”
Her husband nodded, his head and body hunched over. And he added, “They treated us like animals. We Tobas were never real people for them. ‘Brute Indian!’ I remember them yelling at us. Or ‘Fucking lazy Indian, move your feet!’ Excuse my language, Miss, but that’s what they said. No, we were never people as far as the foremen or their foreign employers were concerned. Only Indians. Our lives didn’t count.”
In spite of the intensity, there was also humility here, as if they wanted to be forgiven for the audacity of staying alive. A deep grief and rage overwhelmed me. And I, who have a hard time controlling my emotions, felt my eyes fill with tears. I would have liked to kneel down and ask their forgiveness in the name of my race—if there is such a thing—my skin color, my history, because my predecessors of pure Italian stock are not exempt from guilt. Racism had crossed the Atlantic in ships sailing under every flag.
“And then, when the company left, Miss (I had told them my name, but he preferred using ‘Miss’), if you want to know, many of our people left and went to the capital. Some came back because they found nothing there. But we stayed because at least here you can hunt and eat an armadillo now and again.”
The younger woman hugged the child, who was looking at me with his huge, still, deep eyes, knowing and not knowing why mine were watery.
I registered the pain—the pain of others also hurts.
The clouds had gathered at the edge of the world, leaving the sky above us clear, and we went out to sit on some logs under a tree. The afternoon saw flocks of birds flying away and pigeons returning home. The shadows stretched themselves out on the damp ground that was grateful for water. And soon, a golden light filtered through torn clouds in a horizon so easily visible in that flat and devastated land, turned our faces the color of the sun. I fully took in the supernatural beauty, so at odds with earthly misery, and that further stirred the sea of emotions that had already overwhelmed me. I wanted to cry.
I had been there for hours, for most of the afternoon. I needed to leave, but I didn’t feel like walking back through the desolate place alone, with no idea how to get to town and the threat of coming across the coral snake. Then I saw a cart and a horse under a shed. I didn’t have any money on me, of course, but the sunset’s golden glow gave me an idea. I removed the gold chain with its medal from around my neck and offered it to the family.
“Would you take me to town? I have no money, but this is worth something.”
“No need, Miss. We’ll take you without pay.”
I appreciated their nobility, but I insisted, and at last we decided that I would keep the medal—a gift from my godmother, who lies peacefully in her grave, as I told them—and the woman of the house would keep the chain. “Women know how to manage money better than men,” I added. And everyone laughingly agreed.
They sent the boy to untie the horse and hitch it to the cart. I lay down in the back and covered myself with a tarp in case we ran into an Alfa Romeo on the road. The old man and the boy climbed onto the box seat, and with a giddyup! we hurried away. Night was approaching.
We went along roads that were by then full of shadows and as night fell we neared Lucía’s house, the only place where they could, and should, receive me. I said goodbye to my benefactors and jumped off the cart at the corner. The toads were copulating under the yellow streetlights. I was gripped by a dizzying nausea.
In a wretched state, I knocked on my hosts’ door.
The mayor had already arrived home. I told the couple what had happened. When I finished, they both appeared as unfazed as the ceramic elves that adorned their garden, as if they didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me. But they ended up accepting my story as true—my outrage was obvious—and Lucía’s husband apologized. After all, the so-called president of the town’s culture committee was a mere subordinate in the municipal hierarchy.
Felicia served me hot soup. She gazed at me with a mixture of
admiration and compassion.
Heraldo was more sophisticated than his wife, although he suffered from the same ideological rigidity. He told me a little about Roberto and his family, the Torrentinos. They had benefited from La Forestal’s presence for decades, true. But it had to be recognized that the company had brought extraordinary wealth to a poor community in the middle of the Santa Fe’s chaco region. He told me about the railroads, the hospitals, the schools. I, having taken in all the hardships I had heard, thought that he was pouring praise on garbage. I pointed out that the railroads had been built to carry the stolen products of the land to the port of Buenos Aires so they could be sent to Europe, and not for the people; that the schools and clinics had been for administrators and foremen, not the Tobas woodcutters, the workers at the wood mills, or their families. Who had all that ancient splendor benefited? And without pausing, I told him about the massacre of the trade unionists. This time I didn’t do it to be provocative: I honestly wanted to get to the truth of the matter and it was my way of finding out. It was my natural inclination to try to resolve ambiguities, and I saw this one as exceptionally corrosive.
“But that skirmish with the strikers was fifty years ago!” he answered. By now he was irritated.
“Fifty-one, to be precise. Well, paleolithic shit might be a fossil, but it’s still shit, right?” I answered.
Lucía put her hand to her lips. Felicia dropped the ladle with which she was stirring the soup. At that point in my life I was foul-mouthed, and I was slow to remember that I was in an environment that wasn’t mine, that provincial folks are always more conservative in their language as in everything else. I apologized and attacked from another flank.
“La Forestal usurped the power of the state, Heraldo. It had its own police force, minted its own coins, passed laws, and acted as judge, court, and prison all at once. You know that.”
“Usurped, no, it supplanted! The central government gave them the go-ahead to do whatever they wanted. They sold the region to them and washed their hands of it.”
“A deal between swindlers,” I retorted.
The mayor didn’t reply. The silence told me that the guy no longer knew how to defend his position, and that the screws in his ideological framework were coming loose.
Or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe I didn’t deserve his answer. At the end of the day, I was their guest, an ungrateful and mouthy one at that, not to mention impertinent. I had sown something ugly in their nest. Not knowing how to back down, I kept quiet.
It was time to leave. I said goodbye to Felicia, offering my hand, which she took, along with the gold medal tucked between my fingers. She clenched her fist and shoved the prize surreptitiously under her armpit, marching to her room with her arm held tight against her body.
Lucía and her husband drove me to the terminal to catch the night bus to Santa Fe, where I would make a connection to Corrientes. It was the only option I could find to get out of town immediately. They bought my ticket and gave me money for the next bus. Promising to pay them back as soon as I reached my destination, I said goodbye to the woman with whom I had shared a bed for two nights, kissing her on the cheek. Her husband extended his hand, happy to see me gone.
The return trip seemed endless. My mind ran through a nonstop dialogue about the events of those two days. By the time I boarded the second bus, at midnight, I was flushed with fever. In the rare lucid moments fever allow for, I understood the meaning of what had happened, or what could have happened. It was not merely punishment inflicted by my stalker for my political or, rather, ethical position. It was also a message. We don’t want you here, not you nor your music nor your orchestra. We do not want anarchists or communists to repopulate this town. Don’t come back. That’s what I understood.
I could justify his monolithic ideology, if I wanted to be caritative, because he had come from the same crass material as his predecessors. But not the sadism of the rapist; that is part of the loathsome material of many men and is unforgivable.
Or is it another of the various faces of a polyhedron? The same multifaceted male desire for power?
I arrived at my rented room early Monday morning. I was extremely ill, with a band of anxieties stretched across my heart.
I called the conductor, resigned from the orchestra, and rescinded the contract “for health reasons.” I told him that my mission had failed, that I had not found much interest, and that being a cultural diplomat was too big a job for me. I made a joke about the musicians in the woodwind row in the orchestra—oboes, bassoons, clarinets—about how they were not fit to go to towns where the woods had been squandered and their best product stolen. I suggested he try his luck sending the percussionists. I don’t know if he understood. Was it worth telling him what had happened? No, it would be a complaint that would go nowhere. Or worse. To report sexual harassment was to bring shame on myself. The woman was invariably blamed.
Before I left that week, I received a big package sent by the mayor of Tartagal. It contained my suitcase, my purse and, inside, my wallet with everything intact. There was also a small gift for me. It was a necklace made from carob seeds and with a note in large, traced letters that said:
This necklace is an amulet against coral snake bites.
Always grateful, Felicia Aricayá-Nhandutí
I still have it today.
Rita Sturam Wirkala is an award-winning Argentine writer and educator living in Seattle. After years of academic writing and teaching at the University of Washington, she now writes novels, short stories, children’s poetry, and literary reviews, and works with emerging writers teaching classes and creative writing workshops. Her work has been published in Spain, Argentina, and the United States and has won praise from major Spanish-language newspapers. She holds a PhD in Spanish Literature.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.