The car had broken down as they were leaving Gato Colorado. Leni was amused by the name, and especially by the two cement cats, painted bright red, sitting on two pillars at the entrance to the town, which was on the border between the provinces of Santa Fe and Chaco.
The bad noises had begun much earlier, as they were coming in to Tostado, where they had spent the night in a small hotel. Leni said they should get it checked before setting off again, but the Reverend paid no attention.
‘The car won’t let us down. The good Lord wouldn’t allow it.’
Leni, who had been driving since she was ten and took turns at the wheel with her father, knew when a noise was just a noise and when it was a warning signal. ‘We’ll get a mechanic to take a look before we leave,’ she insisted as they drank coffee early that morning in a bar. ‘We could ask here if they know someone who’s good and doesn’t charge too much.’
‘If we take it to a garage, they’ll make us wait the whole day. We have to have faith. When has this car ever broken down, eh?’
Leni kept quiet. They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.
When they’d been on the road for two hours, the car gave one last snort and stopped. The Reverend tried to start it again, but it was no use. Leni looked through the insect-spotted windscreen at the road stretching away and said, without turning her head, but in a clear and firm voice:
‘I told you so, Father.’
Pearson got out of the car, took off his jacket, and put it on the back of the seat. He shut the door, rolled up his sleeves, went around to the front, and opened the hood. A jet of smoke made him cough.
All Leni could see now was the hood with its chrome plating and smoke or steam coming out the sides. Then her father walked past; she heard him open the trunk and shift the suitcases. Two big, battered suitcases, secured with leather straps, which held all their belongings. In his: six shirts, three suits, an overcoat, undershirts, socks, underwear, another pair of shoes. In hers: three shirts, three skirts, two dresses, a coat, underwear, another pair of shoes. The Reverend slammed the trunk shut again.
Leni got out. The sun was scorching, and it was only nine in the morning. She undid the top two buttons of her shirt, walked around the car, and found her father putting out the warning triangles. She looked at the triangles and the deserted road. Between and where they were, they hadn’t seen a single car.
‘Any moment now a Good Samaritan will come along,’ said the Reverend, with his hands on his hips and a smile on his face, oozing faith.
She looked at him.
‘The good Lord won’t leave us stranded here,’ he said, rubbing his lower back, ruined by all those years of driving.
Leni thought that if one fine day the good Lord actually came down from the Kingdom of Heaven to attend to the Reverend’s mechanical mishaps, her father would be more stunned than anyone. He’d fall on his backside. And piss himself too.
She took a few steps on the road, which was full of cracks and potholes. Her heels clicked on the concrete.
It was a place that seemed to have been completely forsaken by humans. Her gaze ranged over the stunted, dry, twisted trees and the bristly grass in the fields. From the very first day of Creation, God too had forsaken that place. But she was used to it. She’d spent her whole life in places like that.
‘Don’t go far,’ her father called out.
Leni lifted an arm to indicate that she had heard him. ‘And get off the road; if someone comes, there could be an accident.’
Leni laughed to herself. Yeah, or a hare might run her down. She turned her Walkman on and tried to find a station. Nothing. Only aimless static on the air. Steady white noise.
After a while she came back and leaned on the trunk, beside her father.
‘Get in the car. This sun is fierce,’ said the Reverend.
She glanced across at him. He looked a bit downhearted.
‘Someone will come, Father.’
‘Yes, of course. We must have faith. It’s not a very busy road.’
‘I don’t know. I saw a pair of guinea pigs up there. They went flying over the asphalt so they wouldn’t burn their paws.’ Leni laughed, and so did the Reverend.
‘Ah, my girl. Jesus has blessed me,’ he said, and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it like that, straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them. At another moment, that display of diluted affection would have irritated her; but her father seemed vulnerable now, and she felt a little sorry for him. She knew that although he wouldn’t admit it, he was ashamed of having ignored her advice. He was like a child who has messed up.
‘How did it go again, that little verse about the Devil at siesta time?’
‘What? A Bible verse?’
‘No, just a verse, a little poem. What was it? Wait. It was funny.’
‘Elena, you shouldn’t speak lightly of the Devil.’
‘Shhh. Wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue. Okay, here we go: “Setting his traps / he’s gonna catch you / casting his line / he’s gonna hook you / loading his gun / he’s gonna hunt you / it’s Satan, it’s Satan, it’s Satan”.’
Leni burst out laughing. ‘There’s more, but I forget.’
‘Elena, you turn everything into a joke. But the Devil is no laughing matter.’
‘It’s just a song.’
‘Not one I know.’
‘But I used to sing it all the time when I was little.’
‘That’s enough, Elena. You’ll make up anything to torment me.’
Leni shook her head. She wasn’t making it up. That song existed. Of course it did. Then, suddenly, she remembered: she was sitting in the back seat of the car with her mother, in the parking lot of a service station; they were reciting the song and clapping their palms together like playmates, having some fun while the Reverend was in the washroom.
‘Look. There. Praise be to God,’ cried the Reverend and took two strides to the middle of the road, where he stood waving his arms at the bright, glinting point approaching quickly through the heat haze rising off the boiling asphalt.
The truck braked and pulled up sharply beside the Reverend. It was red, with a chrome bumper and tinted windows.
The driver lowered the window on the passenger side and the sound of the cassette player burst out like an explosion; the shock wave of a cumbia forced the Reverend to take a step back. The man leaned out and smiled and said something they couldn’t hear. He disappeared back into the cool cabin, hit a button, and the music stopped. Then he reappeared. He was wearing reflective sunglasses; his skin was tanned, and he hadn’t shaved for a few days.
‘What’s up, bud?’
The Reverend rested his hands on the window, and leaned in to reply, still dazed by the music.
‘Our car broke down.’
The man got out the other side. The work clothes he was wearing contrasted with the sparkling, brand-new vehicle. He approached the car and had a look under the hood, which was still propped open.
‘If you like, I can tow you to the Gringo’s place.’
‘We’re not from around here.’
‘Gringo Brauer has a garage a few miles away. He’ll be able to fix it for sure. I’d take you into town, but on a Saturday, with this heat, it’d be hard to find anyone who could help you. They’ve all gone to Paso de la Patria or the Bermejito to cool off a bit. Me too: I’m going home to get my rod, pick up a few pals, and good luck to anyone who wants me before Monday.’
The man laughed. ‘Well, if you don’t mind.’
‘Of course not, bud. I’m not going to leave you out here in the middle of nowhere, on foot. Not even the spirits are out in this heat.’
He climbed back into his truck and manoeuvred it in front of the car. Then he got out, took a steel cable from the back, and attached the car’s bumper to his tow bar.
‘Let’s go, bud. In you get; it’s nice and cool with the air-con.’
The Reverend sat in the middle; Leni sat next to the door. Everything smelled of leather and those little perfumed pine trees.
‘Passing through?’ asked the driver.
‘We’re going to see an old friend,’ said the Reverend. ‘Well, then, welcome to hell.’
Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car. Leni is inside, kneeling on the seat, with her arms and chin on the top of the backrest. Outside, her father has just slammed the trunk shut, after taking out a suitcase and putting it on the ground beside her mother, who is standing there with her arms crossed, wearing the sort of long skirt that Leni wears now. Behind them, over the dirt road of that anonymous town, a backdrop of dawn sky rises, pink and grey. Leni is sleepy; her mouth feels sticky and tastes of toothpaste – they left the hotel without having breakfast.
Her mother uncrosses her arms and wipes her forehead with one hand. The Reverend is speaking to her, but from the car Leni can’t hear what he’s saying. He’s moving his hands a lot. He raises an index finger, lowers it and points at her mother, shakes his head, and keeps talking softly. The way his mouth is moving, it’s like he’s biting each word before he spits it out.
Her mother starts walking toward the car, but the Reverend blocks her way, and she freezes. Like in statues, thinks Leni, who has played that game so often, in so many different yards, with different children every time, after the Sunday sermon. With one arm extended, palm out, the Reverend, her father, walks backward and opens the driver’s door. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.
The car starts and pulls away, raising a cloud of dust. Her mother runs after it for a few yards, like a dog dumped beside the road at the beginning of the holidays.
This happened almost ten years ago. The details of her mother’s face have faded from Leni’s memory, but not the shape of her body: tall, slim, elegant. When she looks at herself in the mirror, she feels that she has inherited her bearing. At first she believed it was just wishful thinking, a desire to resemble her. But since becoming a woman, she has caught her father, more than once, looking at her with a blend of fascination and contempt, the way you might look at someone who stirs up a mixture of good and bad memories.
The Reverend and Leni have never spoken of that episode. She doesn’t know the name of the town where they left her mother, although if they went back to that street, she’s sure she would recognise it immediately. Places like that don’t change much over the years. The Reverend, of course, must remember the exact point on the map where he left his wife, and must, of course, have struck it off his itinerary for good.
From that morning on, Reverend Pearson has presented himself as a widowed pastor with a young girl in his care. A man in such circumstances elicits instant trust and sympathy. If his wife has been snatched away by God in the prime of life, leaving him alone with a little girl, and he carries on, firm in his faith, burning with the flame of Christ’s love, he must be a good man, a man who deserves to be listened to attentively.
The above is an extract from The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and available now from Charco Press.