First came beauty. Let me tell you what happened. Levert was born one spring day when the sun, king of stars, radiant sphere of spheres, illuminated the verdure of life on Earth, and the world raised its voice in song, and all creatures rejoiced. It was the day of the eclipse. For a moment the sun was dispossessed of its strength and every citizen, I tell you here and now, was mesmerized – they all thought, what a glorious sight! – by the darkness that fell on this side of the planet. Levert left his mother’s womb, where he had spent nine months dreaming peacefully, floating in warm liquid, safe from the world. His cry from out of the darkness was one of helplessness. All eyes awaited the moment when the sun would be revealed so as to contemplate the newborn in all his splendor. A perfect child. A fallen cherub. The very picture of joy. Like the sun, he illuminated the hut in which he had been born and the stunned faces of everyone in the room. The residents of that slum, where no one could remember the last time the electricity had worked, swore that the light on the post over Didiane’s house flickered on that night, and shone brightly, illuminating the rickety shack like a sole candle in the darkness, while inside she was still captivated by the child in her arms. Her seventh son.
They say that, as we all witnessed, the neighbors stood in a weaving line along the length of the dirt alley that led to Didiane’s door. There were babes in arms, eager children holding their parents’ hands, women and old folks. The news had spread that a child so beautiful he must have been heaven-sent was born in the barrio, and everyone wanted to see him. For some it had been weeks, others months or years, since they had spoken with Didiane, but today they would all say, Hello, Didiane, we’ve come to congratulate you on the birth of your son, to wish you all the best. How’s your family? How’s Julien? How’s life? The whole neighborhood made the pilgrimage on foot that night, the sun hidden, their arms laden with gifts: chickens, platters of food, children’s clothing.
At the door of the house, Julien, the proud father, received everyone, saying, Welcome, thanks for coming, and the old ladies, the kids, the men and the women entered, depositing their gifts and crossing the tiny, decrepit room to Didiane’s bed, where in the half-light they regarded the little god in her arms. His brothers stood next to the bed, three on each side, standing erect as if they would have to guard him for the rest of their lives. But as everyone will surely know, that’s not what came to pass.
The family watched over him all night long. And as the small hours of the morning approached, Didiane didn’t tire; she felt strong in a way she hadn’t felt since childhood, when she would go out after the rain to splash in mud puddles in the street for hours on end. Bit by bit the line of people shrank, and the hours passed. The pilgrimage was over, everyone in the neighborhood had seen with their own eyes that it was true, an angel had been born among them. The boy was radiant, he gave off the scent of fresh almonds, he was beautiful, perfect. Levert’s six brothers were nodding off in exhaustion when their mother finally sent them to bed, in the one decent-sized room they had always shared. Her six children before Levert, all boys, born one after the other.
Didiane had spent half her life pregnant, she looked decades older than she was, but all those births hadn’t aged her as much as poverty had . . . Back when she was a girl jumping in puddles, poverty was something that belonged to her parents. Hunger was normal, she didn’t know anything else. Once she was a grown adult, carrying her first child, she came to realize that she was poor, that it was a base condition and that she didn’t know anything. For the first time it pained her to be illiterate, to not understand how her own country worked, to not be able to find it on a map. It was then that Julien became like a piece of driftwood in a shipwreck. A man to care for so that he would never leave her side, so that they could share their poverty, so that the viscid waters of their misfortune would not rise to the height of her mouth and drown her. As far as he was concerned, he had saved that innocent creature whose hips appeared to him like succulent fruits . . . saved her like a guardian angel flapping his wings, holding her by the arms to prevent her from drowning in the tide. They fell deeply in love; night was for merging their bodies on the pallet they shared, unable to separate from one another, trusting that each day fate would provide for them, that they needed nothing more than to love each other to survive. And so, I say to you all and as everyone knows, the poet once said fertility is the curse of the poor, and so it came to pass that the curse fell on Didiane. Over and over again. As had befallen her mother before her, until Didiane herself had been born, the seventh and final birth that had been the cause of her death. So Didiane had no one to tell her about the curse of love, she had six older brothers who muddled through life, each stepping over the bodies of the others. And like her mother, she chose what she thought was love but turned out to be misery and the pain of labor. She became old before her time, with rotten teeth, her mouth fixed in a hard line.
With Julien at her side, she had had to bear the weight of many children in order for this child to arrive. And now the house was brimming with food. In the streets of the barrio people addressed her as if she were royalty, as though they had awoken from a deep stupor and realized that she, Didiane, was a woman who deserved respect. Her graying hair grew darker and her wrinkles disappeared in the light; for the first time in a long while the unchanging rictus of her mouth turned into a smile as she graciously received gifts from her neighbors, who told her for the child, for you, you need strength to raise this gorgeous piece of heaven, so healthy, a little cherub, while they came close to pinch his little cheeks after which they discreetly touched their own, as if with a special balm.
She wanted for nothing.
Now I’m going to tell you exactly what we were told. There were three Ministers, all elderly and nearly blind, though they say they had once been young, back when the Comandante was young, too. Some said they were his brothers, because no one knew anything about the Comandante’s family; he was an institution who had always been there, since before time began. It was said that sometime before recorded Memory they had betrayed him and that later they were pardoned, holding no rancor in their hearts, and that the Comandante bestowed them with glory, making them Ministers. Or so they said; there were no sworn witnesses. Others said that the four were inseparable childhood friends, that they had roamed the streets together, before Time. The country was full of stories like this.
The truth is that they were three dour old men, and it had been a long time since they had attended meetings, assemblies or political parades. They knew they were alive only because their deaths had never been announced.
We knew of their whereabouts up until they accepted the mission to visit Levert, to follow the trail of his light, when they said, Sí mi Comandante, we’ll go and see him and bring him gifts so that everyone throughout the land can see the kindness with which you rule the nation.
Then they left in a convoy of black vehicles, one for each Minister, crossing the city through downtrodden, sleepy barrios, between squat buildings bogged down by age. They spent the night skirting the foul-smelling market on the outskirts of the city, the fortress that poisoned the beach waters, whose stalls the waves barely touched before turning foul. And they did not pass without trepidation; as was known, and as we all know, at night the market was haunted by deformed beings, people with two heads, thirty fingers, fish eyes – beings whose monstrosity offended human sight – poor souls rejected by the city, who sought refuge in those filthy alleys.
They were seen passing through slum after slum. In the north and the south, three shadowy old men. In the east and the west, three dark ghosts.
The Ministers spent days searching for Levert, getting lost and finding their way again, returning to their path and their mission. Eventually they couldn’t afford to waste any more time, and no more time did they waste. Soon thereafter they arrived in the barrio where Didiane emanated joy.
It wasn’t hard for them to identify.