tatiana de la tierra
El Libano, Tolima, Colombia, 1954. I was watching the flickering flame of the candle my grandmother always set on the wooden base of the sewing machine. “The light to guide you to your dreams,” she called it. I was wide awake, though, waiting quietly for sleep to come and get me.
Many blocks away and growing ever closer was the sound of an engine nearing our house. A chain dragged behind the vehicle, scraping and clanking on the pavement. My grandmother rustled out of bed like she did each night. She had been waiting for that sound. I watched her through the veil of lace on the doorway that separated our rooms. “They’re coming,” she said as she crossed into my room and reached for my candle. I got out of bed and followed her into the room that faced the street. The floorboards creaked beneath our feet as la volqueta’s engine whined and hummed in its voyage towards us.
I pressed my face into a crack in the wood to witness the passing of the dump truck that held mounds of bodies freshly dead. Tomorrow we would hear snippets of who they were, how they had died. But tonight we simply honored the passing of their souls. The truck chugged shamelessly as it neared us, roaring into the fragile stillness of the night. I held my breath as the headlights appeared through my peephole. The mammoth truck crawled, casting an eerie shadow on the pavement. My grandmother recited the prayer that I was sure was being mouthed by everyone in town at that very moment. “Give them eternal peace, Lord. Let the perpetual light shine for them.” I whispered a heartfelt “Amen” as she made the sign of the cross.
We shuffled back to bed and the flickering flame was mine again. But no longer was the night a setting for my dreams.
I imagined the bodies limp, still soft, sticky with coagulating blood. It trickled on skin, seeped into clothes and traveled onto other bodies. All the blood became one. I imagined feeble moans that echoed from those who weren’t completely dead. I heard the bellowing screams and groans that had marked last breaths. I heard their final prayers. I imagined the gashes, the bodies that had no head, the heads that had no ears. The eyes.
I closed my eyes and saw theirs open in eternal fright. Then I watched as la volqueta stopped on the banks of el Rio Magdalena. The driver loosened the chain and the policemen heaved body after body, head after head, into the river that gushed across the length of Colombia. The eyes of the dead looked right at them as they floated down the river and the living would be haunted by those open eyes for the rest of their years.
I watched the water turning pink in the night, the heads tumbling onto river rocks, the hair snagging on twigs. The river roaring as the dead rested in their watery tombs.
And then I slept, safely in bed, and gave myself to the night.
At daybreak the rooster crackled at the sky with his loud and long “¡kikiriki!” Cows murmured in “moos” as they walked to their milking. Women rose to mill the morning’s corn and men to round up and milk the cows. Normally I stayed in a boarding school in town, but this was Holy Week and I got to be at home with my aunts and grandmother. I stayed in bed, drifting in and out of sleep, as horses snapped their hoofs on the cobblestone street near my room. By the strands of light that seeped through the cracks I knew that the morning had lifted the shroud of the night.
The light of the day protected us from harm, or so it seemed. Our lives were marked with caution, with whisperings, with nightly stories of the bloodbaths. But in the daytime we could openly visit friends, stroll down the street hand in hand, attend midday Mass. We could walk to la plaza and lick cones of hand-cranked ice cream, bite into freshly fried buñuelos. By six o’clock we would all descend into our homes and stay behind closed doors until the morning light visited us once again. I wiggled in the warmth of my white-sheeted bed one last time before emerging into the day.
Down the wooden corridor and into the back yard, I walked to collect the eggs. Chickens clucked around me with greetings, following me into their home. I took the eggs from the straw nests and held each one in my palm, fingering the smooth, oval surface before placing them in the basket. In the corner of the little house was a sitting hen that shifted, cacarreando, as I neared her nest. “You can keep your baby,” I assured her as I gathered an egg from the nest beside her and the life she protected beneath her warmth. One day, a tiny feathery chick would nudge the light brown shell with newly-formed wings and emerge to sing a faint “pio pio pio.” But as I held the eggs in my hands it was hard to imagine the possibility of life within. They seemed hard like pebbles. Miraculously, they were part of our breakfast. Mamá Rosita, my grandmother, cracked them each morning and fried them for us. I took the basket of eggs with me and walked out into the garden.
Just then, I saw my uncle Benjamín at the other end of the yard, walking towards me with a bucket of fresh milk. “Buenos dias, tio ‘Jamin,” I yelled to him.
“Hola mi pollita,” he yelled back. His black felt hat bobbed in the fresh air as he neared me. As far as I could remember, Benjamín always looked the same: muddied alpargatas on his feet, white drill work pants and a white long-sleeved cotton shirt, with a red rabo de gallo bandanna tied around his neck. A white pin-striped poncho hung in the crook of his arm, a machete in a leather sheath swung from his waist, and the carriel was strung across his trunk. Me, I was still in my pajamas.
Beyond the vegetable garden, past the fruit trees, was the zinc-roofed corral where the calves spent the night. The mother cows slept in a pasture in the nearby mountains; Benjamín rose at four in the morning to herd them across town and into our back yard for the milking. From my bed I could hear the cows trudge through the alley in front of the house, mooing, and into the corral, where the calves cried as they awaited their mother’s teats. Early one morning I went with my uncle beneath the orange tree and watched as he sat on a stool close to the ground while he milked with both hands. The hot, foamy liquid squirted into a metal bucket beneath the cow, splattering me with white. When it was my turn, I discovered that the pale pink teats were hairy and rubbery, and that my nine-year-old hands weren’t suited for the job. But Tio ‘Jamin’s hands were thick and trained for milking.
“Caracol que duerme se lo lleva la corriente,” he said to me that morning, teasing me with drops of milk that he flicked at my face. The snail that sleeps is swept away. I squinted, dodged the drops, and protested.
“But I’m not a snail, Tio ‘Jamin!”
“No, but you’re my featherless pollita, Fabiolita.” We laughed and walked together into the kitchen to give my aunts the milk and eggs. He went back outside to finish putting the remaining milk into metal containers, and I stayed for the arepa-making ritual, my favorite, that was already under way. The hard knobs of corn that had soaked and swelled into soft globules overnight had already been transformed into a mass of white dough. I put my hand into the mill and scooped out the remaining pasty corn, adding it to the mound. My aunt Genoveva sprinkled salt on the masa and kneaded it while I watched and waited for my turn.
“It’s time for your muñequitos,” she said as she put my portion on the corner of the table. I put my fingers and all my body into the dough adding a dash of salt and kneading it for myself. It was mushy and sticky and, soon, it would be crisp and delicious.
I pinched a chunk of la masa, making a ball and rolling it clockwise between my palms, like Genoveva taught me. Then I squished it into the shape of an egg and began to give human form to my imaginary clay. First the head, then the neck and outstretched arms. The little-man-to-be wobbled in the air as I crafted a long trunk and even longer legs. I indented the eyes and a belly button with the tip of my pinkie and patted the edges of his form for a final touch. Genoveva took the figure from my hands and laid it on the grill over the carbon stove, where he slowly baked on one side, then the other.
“That’s Pirolín,” I said, and then I made a horse with a long swishing tail. “And this is Valiente, his stallion.”
Benjamín brought ripened tomatoes and a bunch of scallions dipped with fresh earth from the garden. Mamá Rosita sliced the vegetables and nudged them into the skillet with the edge of the blade in one motion. She cracked the eggs into a bowl while I made more little men and Genoveva tended to the arepas. When the beds were made and the bedrooms were straightened up, my aunt Teñito joined us. We all sat down to breakfast after the steaming chocolate had been whipped into a froth.
I smeared my arepa men in butter, gave one to Benjamín, and we raced to bite their crunchy heads off. He won, taking an arm and most of the trunk in the first bite. Looking at me, he hummed the chorus of victory in the national anthem. “¡Oh gloria inmarcesible! ¡Oh jubilo inmortal! En surcos de dolores, el bien germina ya.” Unfading glory, immortal joy. Goodness germinates in the trenches of pain. I really didn’t understand what pain had to do with arepas, but I knew that it was his way of claiming his prize, Valiente.
“You always win,” I said, resigned, and buttered the arepa. He always ate the most, but then, he was the only man in the family. Papá Gabino, my grandfather, had died when I was five years old. Benjamín was married to Chavita and they lived a few blocks away, but he always had breakfast with us. He had grown up in our house and my bedroom used to be his. He worked from dawn until sunset each day. After breakfast Tio ‘Jamin herded the cows and calves to pastures in the mountains and at nightfall he brought the calves home to spend the night. In the day, he rode on horseback into the countryside to oversee my family’s coffee and sugar cane farm. I always wanted to go with him, but because of La Violencia, he wouldn’t take me. Instead, he took me on horseback to the plaza every few days. And once a month, when the sugar cane was milled, he brought me stretchy strands of sweet mercocha wrapped in plantain leaves. Still, I wanted to go to the farm with him.
“No hay mal que dure cien años,” he would always say about La Violencia. No evil lasts a hundred years. But since La Violencia had been going on for seven years, wasn’t there a lot of time before it reached a hundred?
“Tio ‘Jamin, how old will I be when La Violencia ends?” He was still eating huevos pericos.
“Only God knows, Fabiolita.”
“Can’t we ask God, then?”
“God lets us know when it’s the right time,” he said. I nudged his carriel and he took it off and let me play with it. Like all the other men that I saw in town, Benjamín wore the carriel like a shield across his chest all day long. It seemed to contain everything there was about him. The bag was made of leather, with three compartments. In one was a fifth of aguardiente and a deck of cards with a pair of dice, for when he visited with his friends. In another was a sharp pocket knife, a leather change purse and wallet, and a neatly folded white handkerchief. And in the smallest space were his lucky charms: the escapulario of Jesus’ sacred heart and a gold medallion of la Virgen del Carmen. The worn charms were tiny in my palms. They stopped bullets, he assured me. And the rough tiger hair that adorned the outer flap kept him fierce in the mountains.
I took the red dice into my hands and rolled them between my palms, asking God when La Violencia would end so that I could go to the farm with Tio ‘Jamin. A four and a five made nine. Nine years? That’s how old I was. Or forty five? “Nueve. That’s how many cows I milked this morning,” said my uncle. And that was how many eggs I had gathered. Nine meant so many things. I put the dice and the saints back into Tio ‘Jamin’s carriel. He lifted his arms over his head as if stretching, placing the straps of the carriel over his chest once again before leaving.
Sixteen cows and calves filed out the front door of the house in a chorus of “moos,” plopping mounds of leafy green feces on the way. “Que la virgen lo acompañe, mi’jo,” said Mamá Rosita, making the sign of the cross as he walked out the door. He kissed her on the cheek.
“Adios, pollita,” he yelled at me. “I’ll come by for you before lunch.” I stood at the doorway and waved as he and his assistant herded the group down the street. “¡Anda Bandoleras!” he bellowed to the cows in a language that they seemed to understand. “¡Anda, vaca, anda!” It was like a song. He walked off all in white, swinging the guayacán perrero against their sides, steering the straggly bunch towards the pasture in the mountains.
After the cows left, it was time to clean their dung and sweep the street in front of the house. I filled buckets with water and Teñito poured them over the cow’s pathway, pushing the dirty water towards the garden. After that, we went to sweep the front of the house. I carried another bucket of water to the front door, where Teñito waited with her broom. Somehow, it seemed like all the women on the block came out to sweep at the same time. Soon after I sprinkled water over the dusty cobblestone, other women emerged through their front doors to do the same. The brooms were wide and made of branches, specially for the street, and the sweeping provided a daily opportunity for small talk.
Doña Emma, the next door neighbor, was the first to join us. “Que hubo, que han hecho,” she began casually. Doña Emma and her husband had a coffee warehouse down the street, and sometimes I played hide-and-seek with her niece among the burlap sacks. The day before, Doña Emma had scolded me when I had accidentally kicked a pile of coffee beans that she had laid out to dry in the sun. She was tall and hefty and it seemed like one day her bust would pop the buttons of her dress. She was so big that the broom looked like a walking stick in her hand. And since she worked closely with the coffee farmers, she always had the freshest gossip and the grisliest details, which she enjoyed sharing.
“It’s another day, gracias a Dios,” replied Teñito. I had already finished sprinkling the water and Teñito had begun to sweep. Then, Doña Emma leaned towards us, opening her eyes wide. Her forehead stretched into her scalp and her tone quickened.
“They killed five families!” she announced. She held the broom out to the side and pressed her right fist into her hip. “The Machados, Mejías, Ospinas, Almirantes and Correas. ¡Qué les parece!”
“¡Ave María!” exclaimed Teñito. I gasped. Five families?
Doña Emma began the story with the semblance of a fairy tale, starting out in a low cadence. “It was still dark and the air was cold at five this morning as the workers at La Abundancia were milking the cows. And then, while the Machados slept, the conservadores chopped off three of the workers’ heads!” She sliced her hand sharply through the air as if mimicking the decapitations. “Then they stormed through house,” she said, marching with her feet in place, “and brought everybody out. All of them in their pajamas, of course.”
“Were there children?” I asked. I tried to imagine a girl like me among them.
“Oh yes, Sandrita and Mariela, the young daughters of Diogenes, and Helenita, Manolo’s baby. And two pregnant woman–Belisa, Don Sergio’s daughter, and Matilde, the cook, whose husband was the first to have his head sliced off.”
“What happened? And what about the little girls?”
“The children and the women were held at gunpoint in the rose garden while the conservadores tied the men to a cedar tree. All the men, that is, except Jose Antonio, the youngest. They pulled him out and held him with the women.”
“Why did they spare him?”
“Oh, wait and you’ll see, they had another plan for him. The morning was still dark and they had much more killing to do. Then, Diogenes, the father, got loose and ran, screaming, ‘¡Matenme, hijueputas!’” She swung her arms briskly. “They fired at him, but, so far, no one knows where he ended up. And it was during that commotion that Belisa fled.”
“Don Sergio’s daughter?” asked Teñito. “I thought that she had moved to Ibague.”
“That’s what her family wanted us to think. She’s expecting, and they were hiding her in the farm. Just goes to show, there is no place to hide shame! Those godos looked for her down the mountain, where Diogenes had gone, but she was under one of the worker’s beds in a room in the back. She’s already eight months pregnant!” Doña Emma smoothed her hand over her round stomach as if she was the one who was pregnant. I touched my stomach, too, as I envisioned the children in night clothes with rumpled hair, the women with terror on their faces, the guns to their temples, the workers’ heads lying in pools of blood nearby, the helpless men.
By then, a small group of women armed with brooms had gathered around Doña Emma. She faced her audience. “Those godos were angry! Two of them had escaped! They beat the men, smashed their faces into the trunk of the tree with their fists.” She jabbed her fist at the air without skipping a beat, “busted their livers and kidneys with their boots.” She kicked swiftly at the ground and continued, while thrusting the broom up and down, “and rammed the butts of the rifles into their necks!”
“¡Ay Jesus!” exclaimed Doña Aura. “¡Bendito sea mi Dios!” exclaimed Señora Daisy. They spoke for all of us.
“Those murderers broke their victim’s backs, pulverized their bones. And made the women and children watch all the while! They beat those men to death right in front of their mothers, wives, sons and daughters. And then, this is the worst part,” she said, opening her palm and slicing it through the air. “They cut off their heads and laughed, swinging them at the women.” Doña Emma forced an evil smile across her face and curled the fingers of her right hand into her palm, swinging the imaginary heads at her audience. We stepped back, horrified. “Blood splattered into their eyes!”
I squinted and turned my face, dodging the imaginary blood. “What animals!” said one woman. “Sons of the devil!” said another.
“And then they tied the women to the same tree with their dead husbands and left them there. They made Jose Antonio get dressed and took him, shaking and crying, with them. After they left, Belisa crept out of her hiding place and untied what was left of her family. And then the women spent the day waiting for an official to write the death report, and they had to shoo the flies and pigs and chickens off their men!” She flicked her fingers as if shooing flies.
I saw the bloody mess, the bones in smithereens, the chickens clucking on the crimson ground. And then Doña Emma dealt the final blow. “Nowadays, you know, no one opens the door to strangers. But Jose Antonio, he wasn’t a stranger. So the conservadores made him knock on his neighbors’ doors, and of course, they trusted him. And that’s how they killed the other families.” She rapped her knuckles on the imaginary door. “They opened the door to their own deaths! Los Mejías, Ospinas, Almirantes and Correas. And in the end, they beat Jose Antonio with sticks, stabbed him in the chest, slashed his neck and left him for dead.”
“¡Ay Dios Santo!”
“Ah, but that’s where fate stepped in, yes, and grandly so. Well, with
all the blood already on the machete, and Jose Antonio being the last, they didn’t cut him deep enough to kill him, at least not yet. Marta took off wildly on the horse in search of her husband, found him, placed him like a sack of bloody potatoes on the back of the horse, and brought him to the hospital early this morning. Maybe Jose Antonio will survive, maybe he won’t, only God knows. But even so, that was thirty five killed in one day!”
And then they appeared. Coming down the street was a procession of corpses. Suspended from sheets tied to bamboo poles and carried by four men on each corner, the bodies wrapped in white floated towards us. We stood in stunned silence. All that could be heard was the soft patter of alpargatas upon the street coming at us like a ripple in the river of blood. I looked for a semblance of life beneath those white sheets as they neared us. I could see feet, patches of hair. I wondered if the fists were clenched, if the heads were attached. I wondered where the women and children were.
The women held their brooms in one hand and made the sign of the cross with the other. With the passing of each being they murmured my grandmother’s nightly prayer. “Dále Señor el descanso eterno,” said Doña Emma, leading the chorus. “Que brille para ellos la luz perpetua,” we answered in unison, as if in church. With this blessing in the late morning we greeted another day of violence.
Back inside the house, Mamá Rosita was arranging the Spanish moss that lined the corridor. “Those cows don’t know the damage they cause every day,” she sighed, fluffing up the curly strands and spreading them around the hanging clay pots. She fingered the manes delicately with her soft white hands.
“Abuelita, they killed a lot of people,” I told her, pressing my face into her legs. “I saw them.” She put a hand on my shoulder.
“I know,” she said, reaching out to the next basket of hairy moss.
I filled the watering can for Mamá Rosita so that she could drench the plants that were too high for me to reach. Then I scooped corn into a wide metal plate and went to the garden. The chickens pecked at the yellow kernels as I sprinkled them on the ground.
It was just another day in El Libano. The Phillips radio was tuned to the Mountain Serenade channel. Milk boiled and beans simmered. Windows were opened and furniture was dusted. Clothes were soaked and scrubbed by hand on a ridged cement slab by the water tank. Peas were shelled, aracachas were peeled and a vat of tinto was made to last all day. I looked up at the still clouds before turning on the shower in the room in the garden that had no roof. A chicken came inside. She scurried away when the cold mountain waters rushed down, splashing her. The sky blurred through my watery eyes. Soon, I would be dressed and waiting for Benjamín to take me for a ride to the plaza.
Someone was always knocking at the door, and I was the first to dash to the front and answer. The milkman came to collect the containers that Benjamín had filled early in the morning. Chavita brought stewed guayabas in a thick syrup and stayed to visit. Doña Eva, who worked in the hospital and was close friends with Teñito, came with fresh and gruesome details. Jose Antonio’s gashes had been stitched up, she said, but they weren’t sure he would survive, since they couldn’t tell what damage there had been to his insides. Carolina invited me to play with her at Doña Emma’s but Mamá Rosita told me to stay home.
It was almost noon and I waited for Benjamín in front of the house. He would be riding Volcán, his favorite horse. He would pull up and say, “This pollita needs to go to her nest,” and I would climb on the saddle in front of him. He would smell sweaty and his white shirt would have fresh green streaks from the grass and manure on the sleeves. He would say, “¡Vamos, Volcán!” and we would take off so fast that I would gasp and grab the saddle’s leather knob. Then he’d slow down and we would wave to people we knew as we bounced by. And I’d want to go faster and I would pester him until he said, “So this little chick wants to fly today?” And then for a moment we would gallop, clicking with a quick cadence, passing people and houses in a sweet blur. It was only five blocks to la plaza, but even so, going with him was an event.
Once there, we would dismount and leave Volcán waiting in front of a tree while we walked around the town square. Maybe we would go inside a little bakery and get rolls dipped in red sugar or eat crispetas on the benches or walk into church for a minute. It would be quick because my aunts would be waiting for me to have lunch at home and Chavita would be waiting for Benjamín for lunch in their house. On the way back I’d be holding a small paper bag with sweets and it would be greasy by the time I jumped off of Volcán. “Adios, pollita,” he would yell at me as he rode away, and I would wave before running into the house with oily fingers and sugary lips.
But on that day, I waited and waited and Benjamín never came for me. Maybe something happened to the cows, said Mamá Rosita. After lunch I sat in the steps in the back yard, looking at the vines, the chickens, the sky. Fast and loud, someone knocked. We all raced to the front door. It was Benjamín’s assistant, breathless, looking scared. “They got him! They got him!” The boy had scratched up his face and arms from hiding in the brush all morning. The cows had disappeared, he said, and so had Benjamín.
Danger makes every second eternal. It makes the sky stand still. It makes you think the birds sing cryptic songs. It makes you hate the mountains, it makes you damn the sugar cane. It makes you pray and it makes you scorn God. It makes you smaller than you ever were. No one knew where Benjamín was, but we all knew that he was out of our hands. The word spread and neighbors filed in and out all day. My aunts went door to door, looking for clues.
When Doña Emma came with the news that she heard that they had Benjamín at the police station, Mamá Rosita rushed off to plead for her son’s life. By the time he would have brought the calves home to spend the night, Benjamín was back home. His body was placed in the living room, covered by a white sheet, and surrounded by red candles. The ladies in the neighborhood came to pray the rosary all night.
Unlike so many other victims of La Violencia, Benjamín would have a decent burial. When la volqueta passed later that night, his body wouldn’t be inside. The next morning, when the women came out to sweep the street in front of their houses, they would learn that he had been forced to walk barefoot on shredded glass, that his head had been dunked under water and then bashed with the butt of a riffle. That they had broken his breast bone and crumbled his ribs. The women would say, “¡Bendito sea mi Dios!” and “¡Que bestias!” And then they would boil rice, marinate steak, de-husk corn and peel the potatoes for the meal of the day.
22 de abril de 1997, el paso, tejas
de la tierra, tatiana. “La Violencia.” Cimarron Review 125 (1998): 27-37.