Reyes’s hands, veiny and brown, would mix flour and water to make tortas fritas with the same gentleness they stuck a knife into a lamb’s throat. From Chiloé he’d brought a way of talking that dropped letters in many words; and memories of his father carving a canoe out of a tree trunk, of a stone mill turning wheat into flour, of circles of women spinning wool and singing: images from a faraway fertile land that, in the dry steppe where he lived now, seemed to him like fantasy. Not for me fishing and canoeing, hooks and nets, he used to say. But if you paid enough attention, you could tell from what he didn’t say that a part of him wanted to go back.
Reyes worked for my grandparents at their sheep station by Lake Cardiel in southern Patagonia. He arrived alone in the 1950s, and died alone some fifty years later. His coffin sits in our family vault in Piedrabuena, next to Grandpa Eladio and Grandma Angelina. He called himself a chilote, and so did everybody else, a euphemism whose meaning I didn’t know back then. He told me of a dinosaur skeleton hidden in a cave. He told me of a cave painting of a one-horned bison on a rock wall as tall as a mountain. He told me of a lady named Margot whom he had fallen in love with in Punta Arenas. Reyes was old enough to be my grandfather. I have no recollection of my mother’s father. I vaguely remember Grandpa Eladio. But
I remember Reyes as if he were still right here, offering me a maté.
My grandparents’ sheep station is one of seven that surround Lake Cardiel. On a map they look like rectangular petals springing out of a blue daisy. In contrast to the Patagonian postcard pictures of snow-capped mountains and lush forests, it sits on the meseta: a tableland of low thorny bushes and grasses with yellow tips and dark roots. It is a desert of sorts, an expansive terrain that entrances the mind and always brings on a calmness in me.
Originally an open territory where the Tehuelche and Mapuche indigenous people roamed freely, hunting guanacos and rheas, moving their tents day after day following the rhythm of a nomadic life, it was subdivided by the Argentinian government in the early 1900s, once the occupation of southern Patagonia was complete. The best land went early on into the hands of the Braun-Menéndez tycoons and other powerful landlords, mostly British. The remaining acreage was subdivided into lots large enough to support a few hundred sheep and a household, and sold at favourable rates or simply assigned to families or men willing to put up fences, build houses and barns, and work hard to reap the fruits of the land: mutton and wool. At about the same time, the roaming lands of the Tehuelche and the Mapuche were reduced to a few small reservations, one of them about fifty kilometres from the Lake Cardiel shore called Reserva Lote 6.
My grandparents Eladio and Angelina purchased the estancia in 1946 from the first white man to hold title there, a Spaniard like my grandfather, a thin guy with bulging eyes who lived alone until he got himself a Tehuelche woman. The woman died on the farm and her grave lies beside the road leading to the house, a rectangular structure of iron bars that looks like a pen for a small animal. At the head of the grave is a cross engraved with her name: teresa barros. As a child, that grave scared me like nothing else on the farm, but it was also alluring, like the bottom of a well can be.
On a gravel road not far from the estancia, my eight-year-old brother Roni, a dark-haired boy, died in a car crash. I was two when it happened. Five years later my father, his eyes as blue as the lake, died in another car crash. By then my mother had separated from him and moved me and my siblings 2,000 kilometres away, so time and distance plotted against our going to the funeral. Six months later Grandpa Eladio passed away, from cancer and sorrow over the death of his eldest son, and the option of going to his funeral was not even on the table. By the age of eight, I was surrounded by death, living at close quarters with the ghosts of the three older men of the family, though I had never seen a coffin or attended a service. The grave of the Tehuelche woman – those iron bars rusted by rain and wind – was my first palpable image of mortality, and I projected all the others onto it, as if the death of Teresa Barros had been the original one, and all the rest had sprung from it. I knew nothing then about the ugly details of the conquest of Patagonia and the genocide of native peoples that opened the way for settlers. Nonetheless, her grave was preparing me to recognise historical truths.
Barrientos was younger than Reyes by more than twenty years. He wore dark shirts with a white kerchief around his neck, and bombacha trousers with a knife in the waistband. His cheeks and nose were reddish, his eyes black and sombre. As a memento of an old fight, one of his front teeth was missing. He liked telling the story of that fight. You could tell he liked it by how he lowered his voice and threw punches in the air. He spoke like an Argentine, but where he came from was never mentioned. Some people called him paisano, another word that hid something I didn’t discover until much later.
As Reyes grew older, Barrientos took over the butchering. His knife had a silver pommel with engraved flowers and traces of blue paint on the petals. I kept him company while he slaughtered. He showed me how to hang the carcass upside down so the blood would drip from the hole in the throat. He taught me to dress the carcass by sliding the knife between the flesh and the inner lining of the skin. Once he asked me to slip the knife in above the belly and work my way down slowly. He helped me haul the guts out – our hands covered in hot blood – and we threw them to the dogs. The lungs were red. The stomach, green. The dogs growled at each other over the feast.
The first day of every summer visit to the farm, Grandma Angelina sent me to the despensa to pick a pair of espadrilles. The despensa was a large room separate from the house where cans of peaches and pineapples with blue and yellow labels were stacked on shelves, next to bags of flour and rice, maté and sugar piled on wooden pallets. There were also tins of condensed milk and motor oil, cans of corned beef and pâté de foie, cartons of matches, jars of tomato sauce and pears in syrup and every other imaginable provision.
Sliding my feet into the espadrilles, feeling the hard hemp soles and the soft denim, transformed me. I turned into a rougher version of myself: a gaucho, a true Patagonian, a real man. At the time I was attending an all-male Salesian school where playing the guitar, reading books and shying away from fights was met with insults and beatings. My stepfather, echoing my classmates, called me maricón as a constant reminder of how little of a man I was. So those espadrilles, in my mind, turned me into an equal of Reyes and Barrientos and the other hands, men tougher than my stepfather and rougher than the roughest of my classmates. And believing I was like the peons for a while let me forget what people back home told me I was.
It wasn’t just Reyes and Barrientos I spent time with. During the shearing, which went on for almost a week, the farm was invaded by a crew of long-haired men with baleful stares who travelled like gypsies from farm to farm turning fleece into wool bales. Many shearers came from northern Argentina, where the shearing season started, and worked their way southwards through the summer. There were more than twenty men who lived on mutton, bread and maté; rolled their cigarettes with one hand; sang folk songs accompanied on a beaten-up guitar; and, when night came, stretched out in the corners of the barn and faded into silence. Their hands and faces were brown, like Reyes’s. I still remember the guttural and whimsical language they spoke among themselves, which sounded like music.
As a young teenager, I sat with them silently at their breaks. I shared their maté, smoked their dark tobacco. One late evening, they passed around a girlie magazine – nude women looking into the camera with a stare that was as arousing as it was frightening. They looked at the photos and whispered to each other. I could hear their quiet laughter, and I laughed too.
Ismael came with the shearing crew the summer I turned eleven. He was an antsy young man with long skinny fingers that moved like a concert pianist’s. He was the oiler, responsible for the smooth running of the motor that, through a mechanism of arms and gears, kept all the clippers swaying in unison, creating a hypnotic beat that gradually regulated the pace of every other movement in the barn – from the shearer to the fleece-sorters, from the bale-presser to me sweeping the floor.
Many years later I saw a photo of the young Kafka that reminded me of Ismael. He spent his short breaks cutting jumping jacks out of used oil tins. He painted smiley faces on them that looked like evil clowns, and put them together with a meticulousness that meant they barely needed a pull of the string to start moving. He gave me one with a crooked smile and a half-closed eye. I kept it for a few days and then I threw it away. It was too frightening to look at.
By the mid-1800s, the original settlers of southern Patagonia – the indigenous nations that had lived there for centuries – were faced with the relentless arrival of new settlers. These were mostly fair-skinned men with long beards; men with no children, no estate and no reputation to look after, social outcasts from every corner of Europe and North America. These were people willing to journey to the other end of the world to make a quick buck hunting whales, wolves or nutrias. Some came looking for gold, after newspapers reported in 1883 that sparkling nuggets had been found on the muddy coastline of Tierra del Fuego. These men considered the world inherently hostile and unfair, and didn’t see much difference between shooting a guanaco and an indigenous person. After the few years it took to exhaust all gold reserves, most of the Selk’nam population lay underground with a deadly bullet from a gold prospector; while the rest were being deported to the Salesian mission on Dawson Island to die a slow death of isolation and sadness.
By the dawn of the twentieth century, the territory taken from the indigenous peoples had been subdivided and was in the hands of assorted landlords. The prospect of work attracted European field hands like my great-grandfather, who crossed an ocean for wages two or three times higher than back home – men looking for a new Jerusalem in which to grow the next branches of their family trees. But most of the hands they’d work alongside were Tehuelche or Mapuche, tough men cheated out of their land and language; scorned men hiding behind words like chilote or paisano; men sentenced to a life without wife or children: the last branches of their family trees.
I visited Grandma Angelina shortly before she died. My aunt Ursula had called me. It can happen any time, she said. So I went. Grandma was eighty-six, and still washed clothes on the cement washboard, gave me jars of sour cherry and calafate jam to take home, and went fishing with me on the lake. She passed away three months later of a weak heart, and I returned for the funeral. Her face in the coffin was unrecognisable. The flowers of the wreath I ordered on the phone were plastic.
After that trip, distance and her absence from the farm discouraged me from going back – until an idea for a novel made it indispensable. The novel would be called Los hombres más altos, the first of a trilogy about southern Patagonia told through the lives of the Tehuelche people, the field hands and my family. Twenty years had passed and there were many memories I needed to reclaim: the redcurrants, round and shiny as pearls, I picked under the Lombardy poplars; the dry smell of corn cracking inside the grinding mill; the wind howling through the willows. I wanted to see again how the cañadones turned yellow and orange at sunset, how the blues of the lake danced to the movement of the clouds. I wanted to lie down on a haystack, bury my nose in the fleece of a fat sheep, see light until midnight in the endless summer days.
By the time I returned to the farm, I was living in Buenos Aires, a city of millions. There I disappeared under clouds of smog coughed up by forty-year-old trucks, tripped on the broken sidewalks and shared the narrow bike lanes with carts of indigent dumpster-divers who were part of my daily routine – features of a so-called ‘peripheral’ country that used to upset me when I was younger, but had begun to comfort me. Through the chaos and the frustrations, I recognised an unruly humanity that I would miss in the orderly subdivisions of Washington, or on the manicured boulevards of European capitals.
As a man of fifty who had lived in the US and Europe for over a decade, I considered myself almost cured of the fascination with the North that most Argentines seem to be born with. A line joining South Africa, Argentina and Australia made more sense as the centre of my world – southern hemisphere countries that share similar colonial histories, vast and mythical inner territories (Patagonia, Outback and Karoo), and the singularity of celebrating New Year covered in sweat and wearing bermudas and short sleeves. Countries with troubled histories of genocide and dispossession, children of colonial parents who need to talk to each other without the mediation of the north.
I was harbouring a southern feeling, a deep connection with the South of this real world, where I was born and will probably die. A unique world – in the words of J.M. Coetzee – with its unique skies and its unique heavenly constellations, where the winds blow in a certain way and the leaves fall in a certain way and the sun beats down in a certain way that is instantly recognisable from one part of the South to another.