by Nacho Valdes
The afternoon is gray and chill. After the heat wave
which, at this time of year, torments the inhabitants of this village (Santiago), the two
torrential downpours have been a refreshment. It isn't the rainy season, but a prank of
Nature. And one thinks with compassion of those who have clearings not yet burned. But,
"God tightens the rope but does not strangle you", so the countryman says,
always optimistic and hopeful for a better day.
This afternoon in March, which does not seem like one, to be sure, the cicadas have been filling the air with their strident songs. We have gone out into the street to breathe the humid atmosphere, to drink in the perfume of the wet earth. We are going to pay a call. When we pay a call we leave the house for hours, sometimes for a whole day.
It is good to talk with these old friends to whom we have not grown up, to whom we are always the little bird-catcher, the tree-climber, the altar-boy, the little chap who played tops, hopscotch, marbles and kites - in those good old days when children knew how to play.
We go from house to house saying, "God be with you" and "Praised be the Lord", with the well-known ritual response, "Forever after, amen. Within your heart, sir."
"Would you care for some chicha?" they ask, if you request water, and after the first gourdful they insist, "Wouldn't you like a little more?" And in this offer there is sincerity, the joy of serving and of giving pleasure, with no hypocrisy or convention.
Today we enter the home of one of our oldest friends, an ancient little lady who witnessed the first steps and baby stammerings of the authors of our being.
"Ah, my son, the fire does not lie," she cried after embracing us and pressing her head, sanctified by time and gray hairs, against us.
And she continues: "For more than a week the charcoal burner has hummed, from the early morning when I built the fire and covered it to make the coffee until sundown. Someone is coming who belongs to the family, I said. And day before yesterday a big fly would not leave my forehead. When did you come, my boy?"
"Yesterday, early in the morning," we answer her.
"You see?" The fly day before yesterday, the fire singing all week long, and it was you who was coming! Just as I've always said, these signals are never wrong."
And we start to talk; of everything under the sun; of Time, first of all. And this is what she tells us:
"But the world must be coming to an end, everything is growing loose and corrupt. Not even Nature can be trusted any long. Who has ever seen rainstorms and cicadas singing in the middle of March? In the olden days as soon as November 25 came around and St.Catherine set out to distribute the winds, everyone knew that summer was here, and they could begin to cut down the brush without fear of water. Once in a while a small sprinkle, to be sure, but that never hurt anything. Nowadays, when you least expect it along comes a heavy downpour to toughen the beans or delay a burning. No, you can't trust Nature any more. Why, this afternoon is not March. This cold, gloomy afternoon is an April day, when the body asks only to eat rice and beans and roasted pork strips, and the fathers are preparing to send their children back to school. Ah, my son, those were good times, when everything took place according to reason!
"Why now they even dance in Lent, yes, son of my soul! Haven't you seen them yourself? Just notice on Saturday at the cantinas, in the very houses, and especially at the rancho of the Nino* (*Literally boy. Used when speaking of a man in a higher social class.) Ernesto which is always full of strangers who come here to tempt the Santiaguenos.
"And it has come to the place that no one dares to scold them or to break up the carrying-on of those who encourage wrong-doing. Ah, if it had happened in my day! If anyone had so much as heard the sound of a drum after Carnival Tuesday! All any Christian had to do was to go to the place of sacrilege and put a cross of blessed palm below the drum, and that was all there was to it! At the first beat, bang, the skin of the drum would break from its case and no one could go on dancing, because the Evil One cannot endure the smell of the blessed palm or so much as look upon the sign of the cross.
"I don't know why it is that missionaries no longer come as they used to. We still need them, perhaps more than before, and now during Lent much more. Do you know Devil's Peak? It's right at the entrance to the village. A Franciscan missionary buried the Evil One right there on day in Lent in which they were dancing without fear of God or Hell. Listen, my son, to the story:
"The missionary arrived with his vessel of holy water and saw the owner of the dance who was no more or less than the Evil One himself. Those who were dancing could not see it but the missionary did and he began to insult him and to strike him with the rope of his girdle. 'Begone, begone from here,' he cried to the Evil One. "This place is not for you, these are good people, and you have come to condemn them to Hell. Begone from here Wild Beast, Cursed Animal!' And he rained blows with his girdle until the Evil One backed away, falling back to that very hill where he disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Then the priest returned, placed his girdle on a cross, threw holy water on the ground and drove away the stench of sulphur and goat. Because of that my son, they call that hill Devil's Peak and every so often someone sees a cloud of smoke break out from it. That's because the Evil One is buried there.
"Also sometimes the Evil One would change himself into a beautiful and seductive woman and would dress in pollera and dance with the men and invite them outside, but when they were in the darkness they would see the eyes that were two live coals and even the tail came out from the ruffles of the pollera skirt, and then the men ran away and the ball broke up and there remained a great stench.
"But all that happens no longer. There is neither faith, nor fear of the Lord nor respect for sacred things, and because of that the world is as it is and Nature itself ahas loosened its hold."
The evening slowly falls. The song of the cicadas is gradually descending into soft diminuendo. The hens are settling themselves on their high perches to dream of the Wandering Jew who sometimes passes below and frightens them.
Then it grows very dark and we say goodbye. Homeward bound, we feel under our skin the thrill of a possible encounter with the brooding hen, or the little widow, or the headless priest, or the bridled mule, or the car of the revolution.
From the book Sancocho printed
by the Panama American Publishing Company, Inc., 1938
November 11, 1999
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