"the truth is that life in my family had little to recommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation."
MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES are not exactly pleasant. My father’s name was Esteban Duarte Diniz. He was Portuguese, in his forties when I was a child, and tall and huge as a hill. His skin was tanned by the sun and he wore a great black mustache which turned down. They said that when he was younger this splendid handlebar mustache had turned up. But after a stretch in prison, he lost his jaunty air, the force went out of his mustache, and hewore it fallen down forever into the tomb. I had great respect for him, but even more fear, and whenever I could, I ducked out and tried not to run into him. He was curt and guff in speech, and brooked no contradiction, a mania I also respected because it was to my advantage to do so. When he got into a rage, which he did more often than need be, he set upon my mother and me and gave us a good drubbing for the least little thing. My mother would do her best to pay him back in kind, to see if she could break his habit, but at my age there was nothing for me but resignation. A child’s flesh is such a tender thing!
I never ventured to ask either him or my mother about the time he was locked up, for it seemed to me that it was the better part of prudence to let sleeping dogs lie, especially since they woke up of their own accord more often than was desirable. The truth is that I didn’t really need to ask any questions because there are always charitable souls about, even more than average in such a small town, people who couldn’t wait to tell everything. He had been put away for running contraband. Apparently this had been his work for many years, but just as the jug that goes to the fountain too often gets broken at last, and since there is no work without drawbacks, nor shortcut without strain, one fine day, doubtless when he was least expecting it-for self-confidence betrays the brave-the border guards followed him, uncovered the booty, and locked him up. All this must have happened a long time before, for I remembered none of it. Perhaps I was not yet born.
My mother was quite different from my father. She was not at all heavy, though quite tall. In fact, she was long and gaunt, and never looked as if she were well. She had a sallow complexion, sunken cheeks, and looked consumptive, or not far from it. She was also violent-tempered and surly, and grew furious at anything at all. Her mouth was filled with language that only God could forgive, for she used the worst blasphemy every other moment. She was always dressed in the black of mourning, and she was no friend of water. In fact she cared for it so little that if truth be told, in all the years of her life I saw her wash herself only once, when my father called her a drunkard and she tried to prove to him that water didn’t frighten her any more than wine. In point of fact, wine did not half displease her, and whenever she got together a few coins, or found some in her husband’s vest pockets, she would send me to the tavern to fetch a jug, which she would slip under the bed to keep it out of my father’s reach. There was a bit of gray mustache at the corners of her mouth, and she wore thethin and wiry nest of her tangled hair in a small bun on top of her head. Also in the vicinity of her mouth were, some visible scars or marks, small rosy holes like buckshot wounds, which were, it seems, the leftovers of some youthful buboes. Sometimes, in the summer, a bit of life stirred in the scars. Their color deepened and they would form festering pinpricks of pus. The fall would wipe them out, and winter would bury them again.
My father and mother didn’t get along at all. They had been badly brought up, were endowed with no special virtues, and could not resign themselves to their lot. And their defects, all of them, I inherited, to my misfortune. They were little disposed to think in terms of principles or to put reins on their instincts. So that any circumstance, anything whatever, however small, brought on a storm, which would rage for days, with no end ever in sight. In general I never took either one’s side. The truth was that it was all the same to me whether one or the other got thrashed. Sometimes I was glad to see my mother get it, sometimes my father, but I was never asked for my vote either way.
My mother could neither read nor write. My father could, and he made an issue of it and never missed a chance to rub it in at every turn, and often, though it might have nothing to do with the matter in hand, he would call her an ignoramus, a word which cut my mother to the quick, sent her into a towering rage, and made her hiss like a basilisk. Sometimes of an evening my father would come home with a newspaper in his hand and, whether we liked it or not, he would sit us both down in the kitchen and would read us out the news. Next would come the commentaries, and the moment they began I would begin to tremble, for they were always the beginning of a brawl. My mother, by way of starting ‘him off, would say that there was nothing in the paper resembling what he had read out, and that everything he’d said had come out of his head. This view of things would send my father off his rocker. He’d yell like a madman, call her an ignorant witch, and always end up by shouting that if he really did know how to invent such things as were in the paper he would scarcely have thought of marrying he likes of her. Now the battle was joined. She’d call him a hairy ape, and denounce him for a starving Portuguee. He seemed to have been waiting for this very word to begin pounding her, and when the word came he’d rip off his belt and chase her around the kitchen until he was exhausted. At first I used to come in for a few chance swipes, but after a bit of experience I learned that the only way not to get wet is to get in out of the rain and so as soon as I saw things getting bad, I left them to themselves and took off. It was their funeral!
The truth is that life in my family had little to recommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation. When I was very young, which is the age when one’s mind is most manageable, they sent me to school for a short spell. My father said the struggle for life was very grim, and that it was necessary to prepare to face up to it with the only arms useful in the battle, the weapons of the intellect. He reeled off this advice as if he had learned it by heart. At such times his voice seemed less gruff, almost veiled, and it would take on intonations completely new to me . . . Afterwards, as if repenting of what he had just said, he would burst into a loud laugh. He always ended up by telling me, almost affectionately:
"Don’t pay me any heed, boy … I’m getting old!"
And he’d stay lost in thought for a bit, repeating under his breath, "I’m getting old! … I’m getting old!"
My schooling was of short duration. My father, who had violent and bullying temper in some things, as I’ve shown, was weak-minded in others. It was plain to see that he exercised his will only in trifling matters, and that, whether from fear or from some other reason, he rarely took a film stand in matters of larger importance. My mother did not want me in school, and whenever she had the opportunity, and often even when she had to force the issue, would tell me that it was no use learning anything if I was never to rise out of poverty anyway. She sowed in a fertile field, for I wasn’t a bit amused by the idea of attending classes. Between the two of us, and with the help of a little time, we finally convinced my father, who cast the deciding vote in favor ofmy giving up my studies. I had already learned how to read and write, and how to add and subtract, so that in reality I had enough knowledge to take care of myself. I was twelve when I quit school. But I’d better not go so fast in my story, for all things want their order, and no matter how early one gets up, dawn doesn’t come any sooner.
I was still very young when my sister Rosario was . born. My memory of that time is confused and vague, and so I don’t know how faithfully my recollection will be but I will try to relate what happened, nevertheless, for even if my narrative comes out rather uncertainly, it will still be closer to reality than anything your imagination or your guesswork could produce for itself. I remember that it was hot the afternoon Rosario was born. A day in midsummer. The fields were parched and still and the crickets seemed bent on cutting the earth’s bones with their rasping saws. Men and beasts were in out of the heat, and the sun, up there in the sky, lord and master of everything was throwing light on everything, burning everything … My mother’s childbed labor was always very difficult and painful. She was half barren and a bit withered and the pain in her was superior to her strength. Since the poor woman had never been a model of virtue or of dignity, and had not learned to suffer in silence, even as I had, she resolved all questions by screaming. She had been howling for several hours when Rosario was born. To make matters worse, she always had a slow delivery. As the proverb has it: A mustached woman who’s slow to bear … (I don’t give the second part, out of respect for the high person to whom these pages are addressed.) My mother was attended by a midwife from the village, Señora Engracia, from the Hill, who specialized in births and burials. She was something of a witch, full of mystery, and she had brought along some concoctions which she applied to my mother’s belly to ease the pain. But since my mother, with or without concoctions on her belly, went on howling her lungs out, Señora Engracia could think of nothing better than to call her an unbeliever and a bad Christian. Just then my mother’s howls rose to the proportions of a tempest, and I began to wonder if she really wasn’t bedeviled after all. But I was not left wondering long, for it soon became apparent that the gale of screams had been caused by the coming forth of my new sister.
My father had been pacing about the kitchen in great, strides for some time. As soon as Rosario was born, he came up to my mother’s bed and, without the least regard for her situation, began to call her a hussy and a slut and to slash at her with the buckle-end of his belt with such violence that to this day I am surprised he did not finish her off thenand there. Then he marched out and was gone for two days. When he did come home, he was drunk as a skunk. He staggered to my mother’s bed and kissed her. She let him kiss her. Then he made for the stable to sleep it off.
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