San Juan de Marcona
The engineers used to say that before the establishment of the San Juan de Marcona mining camp, the locals and the outsiders from the high country – as opposed to the indentured labor brought in from the mines of the central Andean region – had no training in the processing of metals. The technicians complained that the ‘Indians’ had neglected the hilly plains for centuries, out of both spite and ignorance. They passed through without exploiting either the minerals or the marine species that lived in the cold currents, until the Peruvian government placed wise Raimondi in charge of measuring and mapping out the rivers and plains where the ore was hiding. After establishing the breadth and extent of the golden hills of San Juan de Marcona and their iron deposits, the Italian contemplated the waters of the bay, judged them deep enough for ships to carry the ore out of the country, and thereby deemed the hills profitable.
Juan Bautista arrived in Marcona with three coins in his pocket, intimidated by its reputation as a ghost town founded in the desert. He had been unable to descend the ancestral route used by his father, Mario Bautista, to reach the bay where he would harvest cochayuyo, those thin strips of dark vegetable that saved his village when it was suffering from drought. They had blocked the route with fences that impeded access to the coast, and on the hillsides they were erecting steel towers and a myriad of wooden piles, heaps of rocks and clay, adjacent quarries no man could pass between without heavy machinery. By that time, word of the wealth of the coastal mine had spread: Marcona was no longer a humble campsite built by the first foreigners but rather a city being constructed out of sticks and reed mats.
Bautista was greeted by workers who had their own share of worries, though their ever-increasing hopes for a house and a savings account had, over the years, been drowning out the talking points of a union that had its martyrs, talking points that circulated through the alleyways of the camp at birthday parties, in cantinas and at meetings. They claimed that the new owners were worse, that they ran the camp as if it were their own little hacienda, that wages were the same as when they bought the place in 1995. He had witnessed lost battles fought during assemblies, which he stopped attending. ‘Quit. This job kills, so let others kill themselves; not us,’ he heard in a goodbye speech given by a fellow miner. It was his first meeting, and the solution seemed reasonable. They were upset that all the other miners were earning well. In San Juan de Marcona he could earn more soles than he’d ever seen in the countryside, Juan Bautista kept repeating, while the rest of his fellows wrote lists of grievances and signed declarations that gathered mildew and dust in the local offices.
The day of the explosion, Bautista made his way through the camp as he had the previous days, months and years. Upon waking, he saw the same cracks in the walls of his bedroom, the same damp patches on the ceiling tiles. Through his window appeared the same hints of morning light. In the washrooms, he nodded sleepily to Vélez and Calderón, who were working the morning shift with him; Janet, awake and still in her nightgown, was sitting and waiting for him in a white chair; his daughter was still asleep in her darkened room; the oatmeal had dissolved into the recently boiled water. When he stepped out onto the second-floor walkway on his way to the plant, everything seemed to be proceeding in unison with the rhythm of the sea and the slow advance of the cold fog, whose movements he had learned to decipher so that he could find his way blindly during the winter months. There was no indication that this day would be any different, not until hours later, when he acknowledged being part of a catastrophe. That day Janet said goodbye listlessly. ‘I don’t smell anything, just metal,’ she answered when, before leaving, he had asked if she didn’t smell something strange.
The plant was shimmering in the distance in the dawn light; the quarry scars had revealed the shimmer of the metals of the earth. That day was no different from any other; Bautista had dreamed nothing strange like that day in his childhood when he was almost swallowed up by the raging river and he’d dreamed about muddy waters. Calderón, he and other men in blue overalls gathered in front of the plant gates to clock in. A half hour passed while he and Calderón carried out their routine. Together they were working the pressure pump that extracted the ore. But when they turned it on, it exploded. Calderón was killed at once, his chest torn open. Bautista was saved by the distance of a few steps. He remembered being aware of the disaster for a few seconds before passing out, knocked down by the blast and pierced by iron rods. The following days went by as if he were deep in those muddy waters of his childhood dream. He woke up in an ambulance, where a paramedic told him that his only chance for survival was to be taken to a hospital in Lima.
Janet showed up in the hospital days later accompanied by lawyers and other men in suits. He barely recognized her, sedated as he was after multiple surgeries that would leave him immobilized for several weeks. In the meantime, his colleagues organized the imminent protests – they would block the highway that connected the camp to the rest of the world. He was not eager for them to see him in this state. With one leg almost healed and the other gone, he continued to assert that he had never saved or earned like that, and yes, accidents do happen. That’s what he said to Alcides Espinoza, from the union, who came to his hospital room to ask him to sign their claim. He asked him to lend his support to their demands. When Janet came in to ask him what his visitors wanted, he shook his head and said:
‘They tried to persuade me with their gift of gab. They sound like preachers.’
The television only ever devoted a few minutes to news from the provinces. One reporter described the incident at a rate of fifty words per minute, and at home nobody wanted to say much. But when Juan Bautista moved, against his wishes, into a dilapidated two-story apartment building near a forlorn hospital in Lima, the work stoppage – as the miners called it – continued strong. One day, while watching the morning news and eating hot oatmeal, he found out what was going on in San Juan de Marcona. Janet was talking to him about other things while she put away the groceries. His attention was focused on the report about the miners and the housewives pouring out of the mines and the camps to take part in the march of sacrifice toward the capital. On the screen he watched them with their flags and their uniforms in spite of the summer heat, their yellow and white helmets, their sunburned faces, their sunglasses, their bottles of water. One reporter spoke briefly about him and Calderón. People were walking along the highway that snaked through the desert. Janet had her back turned, was in high spirits and focused on the sound of her own voice. The buzz of the television and the presenter were left behind. He was overwhelmed by an internal buzzing, like a muffled roar that he hadn’t heard inside himself for many years, and it forced him to remain silent.
A Singular Man
Mario Bautista held his hat in front of his belly and plunged into the crowd that was walking toward the cemetery, accompanying the dead with prayers and sobs. Father Cárdich sprinkled holy water on a row of coffins placed under the high stone arch that framed the funeral of the youths, victims of the cliff at the Laramati Curve.
Other drivers had told him about the accident when he’d stopped in Canta, and he decided to go to the cemetery to say his goodbyes, even though he knew that when he returned to the house of Sebastiana Narváez, reproaches awaited him. How could I not go? he said to his mother while she served him the piping-hot soup. ‘And still you come here to eat? Go straight to the señora,’ she told him. Bautista paid no heed. He had left the truck at the terminal without telling anybody he was leaving, then he joined the long procession that wound through the cobblestone street, the oldest one, where, they say, Cáceres, the Brujo de los Andes, and his montoneras passed for the last time during the war with Chile, and from there disappeared into the cordillera that rose steeply behind the cemetery.
When he finally showed up at Sebastiana Narváez’s house, the double gates were wide open. In the middle of the large courtyard a tall tree with white flowers was in full bloom. Sebastiana, cheeks ablaze, was waiting for him, holding a whip that the men in her family often carried. Adela was also waiting for him, though she preferred to remain unseen, hidden behind one of the pillars in the courtyard. Everyone in the house said, with admiration and bitterness, that Sebastiana ruled over her kingdom without anybody’s help. She had two sons she had sent to study on the coast; her younger brother had been sent to one of the more run-down haciendas in order to make a man out of him. She checked each and every bag of coffee he had brought from the valleys – one of the pillars of her business; this – they said – as well as her knack for hiring the best drivers, whereas the rest of the traders kept hiring novices and muleteers, like the one who drove off the cliff at the Laramati Curve.
‘I have some urgent business to propose to you for tomorrow. Later,’ she said to Mario Bautista, without greeting him, while the peons unloaded the bags and carried them on their shoulders to the storehouse. ‘Let’s talk later, after Mass.’
The Mass in honor of Justo Narváez, Sebastiana’s father, was held against the protests of Father Cárdich, who suggested postponing it because of the drunkenness that would ensue in the courtyard of the Narváez house, where even outsiders would gather, drawn there by the news. In the priest’s words during the service, Justo Narváez, the departed, was remembered as ‘a singular man’, a dreamer and a cosmopolitan in that backwater that was Santa Lucía. The priest stretched out his arms and invoked the saints embedded in the walls of the church to remember his friend. He was a man of great curiosity, the priest said, who repeatedly asked about the nature of God’s kingdom, about whether the actual number of days till His return had been calculated, about when every promise made by Our Lord Jesus Christ would be fulfilled, and about how at some point the kingdom of the living and the dead would open and the world would become one. He also talked about how Justo had grown more pious after suffering a series of palsies, which did not stop him from asking questions about Our Lord. Sebastiana, alone and dressed in black, sat on the wooden bench in the first row, nodding.
Neither the sermon nor the party could silence the rumors about how strange Justo Narváez’s death had been. As the women filed out of Mass, they whispered – after offering each other signs of peace – that Sebastiana had let him die. The rumor was gaining credibility. They said that shortly before dying, Narváez had shut down his silver mines in Cangallo, claiming the vein was spent. They said he may have asked the mountain itself to conceal its minerals or take them elsewhere, as had happened with the mines of a long-gone relative of the Narváez family, Catalina Astocuri, who on her deathbed told a brujo to ask the Virgin to hide the gold in her mines in order to prevent the sin of greed. It was not a coincidence – they whispered in church – that shortly after Narváez’s death, Sebastiana brought in engineers to look for more silver in Cangallo. She knew about these and other rumors, but she chose to thank people at the door to the church, shaking the hands and the forearms of the attendees, the people who had worked for her or who had once owed something to her father.
Those who did not respect the mourning for the victims of the Laramati Curve went to the Narváez house. It was not the first time Sebastiana ignored the mourning of others for her own needs. While the courtyard was filling with the deep and solemn sounds of the huacrapucos of Acocro – maestros of her father’s favorite cornet – she discussed business with Bautista. He agreed to everything, right there in full view of the curious, who were moving their heads to the rhythm of the music, eating ribs and drinking alcohol. They had heard the promises that Sebastiana had made on other occasions to other drivers, even to Víctor Jaimes, only barely older than Bautista, to whom they had just bid farewell at the cemetery. She told them they were exceptional men, singular, and that they could make good money and marry a good wife. Bautista listened and agreed that at dawn he would take her merchandise to the edge of the jungle, where she traded with Franciscan missionaries, even though it meant driving past the same cliff over which the last truck that had left Santa Lucía had fallen. When the young man left the courtyard to go home to rest, some said that there were only two options: he would return dead or alive.
When the first hints of the morning sun began to find their way into the cobblestone streets, the distant sound of the huacrapuco musicians, departing along with the outsiders, barely pierced the silence. In almost total darkness, Bautista loaded the cattle onto his truck and balanced on the roof the bags he was supposed to take to the mission. Señora Narváez, didn’t see him leave. Nobody, in fact, saw when the heavy truck, too heavy as Bautista feared, crossed the red bridge. He should have taken the shortcut that climbs then descends; but, instead of taking the high road, he continued along the river, which was flowing fiercely. Awaiting him around a curve was Adela, the young woman who visited him secretly at night; rather than tell her boss that she was pregnant with Bautista’s child – she claimed – she preferred to leave that house. Hypnotized by her nocturnal visits, he ignored the promises he had made the night before, and the sound of Sebastiana’s voice, which had almost convinced him to drive along the Laramati Curve, still fresh from the dead. The woman boarded the truck, and together, silently, they disappeared at the base of Cerro Moroqaqa, which was said to spirit travelers away, in the direction of towns where the cattle and the truck would be sold and all trace of them erased.
Outside – a summer’s day – the day goes by slowly; the driver comes to a stop at the yellow light so he can pick up the waiting passengers. Her mother is waiting for her on the corner, uncomfortable in the heat. They walk two blocks, empty except for a few children playing soccer in the street.
‘I’m going back to the store from here,’ her mother says, ‘so you bring this package.’ She hands her a pair of pajamas tied with plastic ribbon. ‘Then take the clothes down from the line so they don’t get faded,’ she tells her, as the waves of heat appear on the two o’clock horizon.
Juan Bautista’s house is only half built; on the second floor, with no glass or roof, the windows are bare. The woman is leaving through an iron door and lets them in. He waits for them inside, sitting on a chair in a hallway with unplastered walls. He stretches out the leg, which for a long time they thought was healthy, on a wooden bench. He complains about the intense pain, how he thinks the pins in his hips have come loose, and how they won’t give him an appointment. The scars on the stub of his other leg are covered by a shortened pant leg. She holds the cotton and the hydrogen peroxide while her mother cleans the open wound, which has still not healed since the beginning of the new year. There are gangrened sections on his leg, which seem to be advancing along the entire surface of the muscle. They’ve explained to him that two veins have burst, possibly from the loose pins. They’ve told him that he has to wait for surgery because there are still no beds.
She walks away. For the sake of modesty, she always looks for something to wash or put away in the kitchen so as not to see her uncle unclothed while her mother is giving him his injection. ‘Why does she make me come?’ she wonders when the dishes are done or when she can’t find any, and they are still talking. She doesn’t want to go anywhere else because she might run into the woman who is usually hanging around the courtyard and the living room. Everybody says he is still young, but to her he looks very old, at least she knows that he is the oldest of her uncles. She is curious about what that woman is doing there. She knows that when Aunt Janet arrives from Marcona, she’ll have to leave. She has even heard that the woman who comes to take care of him has a husband and family. They’ve told her the mine sent her and they pay her wages, which, according to the aunts, is a pittance.
‘Next time just give me the packages at the corner,’ she complains to her mother as her mother boards the bus. She suspects that she obliges her to come out of fear or discomfort, so as not to be alone with that woman, whose footsteps can always be heard when she approaches to overhear their conversations – complaints that Janet abandoned him at the worst moment, that kind of thing.
She drops off the packages an hour later. She doesn’t plan on going home until after she loiters around the avenue for a while. It’s summer. She amuses herself looking at the shop windows full of clothing and shoes, the casinos guarded by men wearing suits in that heat. She walks down the avenue bursting with shops, food stands and small storefronts, with people coming and going; she makes her way past chaotic street corners and through traffic and finds herself in a run-down park with broken pathways. She decides to wait on a concrete bench in the shade of a tree. Around her, mothers are strolling by with their children; some ride in plastic wagons. A couple, about her age, talk on the bench facing her. Lima’s opalescent afternoon is unfolding, imposing itself; overhead, the thick leaves of the trees – she notices – offer the best moment, and – she tells herself – all that’s missing is for something to simply happen. She stares at the corner she’ll have to turn to return home. Then she hears the booming of certain afternoons, or, better said, the great booming that has now caught her off guard. Over and above the noise of the traffic that increases as the afternoon wears on, she hears the familiar sounds of trumpets playing from out of the depth of the sky, a sound that comes down from above – she says when she describes what she hears – and that she always hears in the afternoon. People are focused on their own affairs and show no sign of hearing it. The mothers, standing around with their arms crossed, talk to each other while their children run around in circles. The couple are whispering, their faces very close to one another. A few minutes pass before the noise stops and she decides to return home. Whenever it comes – she tells herself – it’s because something is about to happen.
‘How could you not hear it, it’s so loud,’ she tells her mother at dinner.
‘It’s the train crossing the river, and that’s just how it sounds,’ her mother says.
Her brother looks at her. They never bought the explanation usually given on the nightly radio show her aunts used to listen to when they reported noises in the sky. ‘It’s clouds colliding,’ the announcer would always say toward the end, after transmitting for half an hour the so-called sounds of the final judgment, which could be heard in Tel Aviv, Australia, everywhere. That night they look for videos on YouTube, and they learn that the sound can be heard in different places simultaneously, even if in different versions: trumpets, a sustained booming, a crash. A video from Jujuy is most like the noise she heard in the park. Another video says that it’s the sound made by an aurora borealis. A voice solemnly asserts that the aurora borealis splits the earth open, as if it were making an incision: ‘It’s the portal for a universe that’s nearly fifteen billion years old.’ They get frightened hearing this. Their mother takes their phone away; she sends them off to bed.
At night the silence is not uniform, at least not until the cars and buses stop driving along the avenue around midnight. Her room is dark; the door is open. Her brother and mother are sleeping, or that’s what she thinks. She hears the cats walking across the roof. She has difficulty sleeping; she changes her position every so often, until she sees a shadow come in through the half-open door of her room. Like other times, she lifts her head to see better, though she knows that she will see nothing more than what she’s seen or believes she’s seen. Afraid, she puts the sheet over her eyes. It’s the spirit of Grandmother Adela again. She knows it and isn’t surprised. She promised her so many times she would return. One could say that she is coming as she has come on other occasions. She doesn’t really know, but she recalls the booming that afternoon, which always foreshadows something. She remembers the words. Surely there’s something her grandmother wants to tell her.
[ The river that spoke]
The adults had taken Grandmother Adela behind the door. One of the girls stood there staring, her eyes wide open, trying to decipher the whispers. A few minutes later they brought her back, and though the girls were afraid, they settled into their chairs to shell the peas and listen to a story often repeated with very few variations. But the old woman did not pick up the story she had been telling before they interrupted her. She pursed her lips.
‘What I’m going to tell you is not a lie, it’s reality,’ she said. ‘I was their age when I arrived at the house of a very good woman, strict but good.’
She looked at them with her blind eyes and added:
‘My mother had seven children and said, “I can’t keep my oldest daughter with me.” My family sometimes went to sell wool that the señora thought highly of, so I met her. “Come Adela,” she said, and promised me she would take me in. I cried when I said goodbye.
‘I stayed there for years. I learned to cook, to iron the clothes of the señora’s father, a very respectable and pleasant man, Señor Justo Narváez, that was his name. The señora’s mother had died of her stomach, they said, many years before. I was at peace. I had my room; the men pestered me, but the señora warned them: “Nobody touches her.” The señora’s sons also loved me like I was family. One day, many years after I arrived at the house, Señor Justo complained that he had a headache here in front and at the back of his neck. The señora sent someone to bring herbs. They gave him some pills for the pain. Then her father said, “Daughter, it hurts a lot . . . call the doctor.” She didn’t. “It will pass, Papá. Don’t make so much of it,” she said. The days passed, we gave him some pills, and one day the señor could no longer get out of bed. I had to support him on my shoulder, otherwise he couldn’t stand. “Oh, señora, let’s call the doctor,” I told her. I was very young, but I realized that the señor was in a very bad way. We didn’t call the doctor, and the señora warned us: “Don’t tell people on the street or in the market that my father is sick. My father doesn’t want people to find out.” Nobody said anything, and there was the señor, with his dry hands, so pale, as if his insides had been sucked out. One night, the señora said to us, “Our Lord took my father.” We sobbed. They came from all over to say goodbye to him and then the rumors started. They said the doctor never came. “He woke up dead,” the señora said, tears running down her face. Who would dare contradict her. In the house we realized little by little that the señora had hoped that her father would die and didn’t call the doctor. That was her hope. Some say they had problems. Because of what she hoped for, her father died. She wanted him to die. That’s when I decided to leave, to go far away.’
The old lady coughed, then added, ‘That woman had a lot of power. They said a lot of things I can’t tell you right now. I left the house with my first intended, Don Mario; we didn’t know where we were going. He – may he rest in peace – told me, “If I stay, I’m going to end up with nothing or die.” That’s what he said when we left.’
The old woman grew quiet and looked toward the door. The adults were walking by in a hurry – lunch was being served.
‘And then what?’ the girl asked.
‘And then we went far away. Don Mario became a miner, and died from his lungs. Then, after many years, I met my new intended in San Damián, and years later we came here to Lima, to a place that was nothing but desert. One day, walking in the city center, I ran into a friend from my town. We greeted each other, then she said, “The señora says that you stole from her. And she also said that somehow or other she’s going to find you, that who knows what you might be telling people.” “Mario died. I have a new intended. And I had a son with Mario,” I told her. “So take good care of him. You know how the señora is, don’t you? She’s looking for you and she’s very spiteful,” she warned me. “Why should I care that she’s looking for me?” I said. And she walked off without saying goodbye. I always remembered this friend who warned me.’
The old woman stared fixedly.
‘Though the señora must be dead by now.’
By then they’d finished shelling the last peas. A woman came in shortly afterward and threw the vegetables in the pot. She offered the old woman her shoulder to help her into the living room, but the old woman rejected her with a brusque movement. The girls shook out the party dresses they had put on for the visit and joined the troop of cousins running through the hallways, in the courtyard, out on the street. They were waiting to eat the lunch they had helped prepare and they left the old woman alone at the table mulling over her memories.
When torrents swell at the mountaintops, they descend the slopes and announce their presence with a loud booming that then subsides. The mountains announce their descent. At first the waters descend in silence, then they gather strength when they join with other waters from neighboring peaks; then the current turns fierce. They were warned so many times about the sound that announced the arrival of the raging river. It could bring mud, stones; it was also said that it unearthed the cadavers of animals, even of musicians and drunkards, and the children knew to get out of the way as soon as they heard a sudden roar that didn’t stop.
They say that Adela often talked about how she saved Juan Bautista from those turbulent waters, as if by miracle. How she pulled him out of the river. The children had not been able to cross safely in time, in spite of being warned by the booming, which came as if from the sky. Nobody knows how, out of the whole group, he was the only one who slipped into the water. They weren’t paying attention, trusting that the water wouldn’t flow through there, even though the earth itself, furrowed like an enormous serpent, was the vestige and proof that a raging river had been there before. She and some others took a shortcut and saw him in the middle of the river. His body was covered in mud, a caul of mud blinded him; the boy was barely able to keep hold of a log that advanced slowly in spite of the strength of the river. She didn’t despair, and she followed him along the bank until the log, pulled by the current, got caught in a spot surrounded by stones just before the vertiginous descent. The child was clinging to the log and it held in place; the water splashed around him. They tied Adela around the chest and waist with strong ropes, and the locals held on as she plunged forward. It was difficult to reach him, so she grabbed him from behind. By the time they reached the bank, they were exhausted. He had difficulty breathing because of the mud; the stones and branches had lacerated his body.
Juan Bautista has difficulty remembering what came next. For a long time, he thought he held inside him the great booming that announced the river’s frenzy that day, which on some nights didn’t let him sleep. He claimed that in the afternoons he’d hear a protracted sound, something similar to the warning of the raging river; at other times he’d hear what sounded like faraway cornets. He’d turn toward the mountains; he’d look for the sound in the sky without finding it. It seemed to exist only in his ears. Whenever he asked, people around him said they heard nothing. Nor could he remember the moments before the incident, and ever since then he figured it’d be better not to invoke the memory or its sounds.
But one day, Juan Bautista is woken by a booming sound that rises out of his dreams, and for a few minutes he feels his absent leg. He thinks he can move it, but he opens his eyes and recognizes his body: the shadows of dawn bring back to him the shapes of his healthy leg and the stub lying next to it. At that threshold where lucidity is fast approaching, he remembers for the first time in a long while that day in his childhood when the river almost swept him away, and it occurs to him that perhaps he should have died then. The memory returns to him sharply like a bolt of lightning on the horizon of his childhood, much brighter than the timid light peaking through his window. He feels a throbbing in his temples and in the diseased veins that are already contaminating his healthy leg and his belly. He is overwhelmed by a sad suspicion that, according to what he heard from rumors and confessions, they had always been looking for him and perhaps now they had finally found him.
Photograph courtesy of the author