Read an Excerpt
TIME OF THE HERO (Chapter 1)
“Four,” the Jaguar said.
Their faces relaxed in the uncertain glow which the light bulb cast through the few clean pieces of glass. There was no danger for anyone now except Porfirio Cava. The dice had stopped rolling. A three and a one. Their whiteness stood out against the dirty tiles.
“Four,” the Jaguar repeated. “Who is it?”
“Me,” Cava muttered. “I said four.”
“Get going, then. You know which one, the second on the left.”
Cava felt cold. The windowless latrine was at the far end of the barracks, behind a thin wooden door. In other years the wind had only got into the barracks of the cadets, poking through the broken panes and the cracks in the walls, but this year it was stronger and hardly any place in the academy was free from it. At night it even got into the latrines, driving out the stink that accumulated during the day, and also the warmth. But Cava had been born and brought up in the mountains, cold weather was nothing new to him: it was fear that was giving him goose pimples.
“Is it over?” the Boa asked. “Can I go to bed?” He had a huge body, a deep voice, a shock of greasy hair over a narrow face. His eyes were sunken from lack of sleep, and a shred of tobacco dangled from his jutting lower lip. The Jaguar turned and looked at him.
“I have to go on guard at one,” the Boa said. “I want to grab a little sleep.”
“Go ahead, both of you,” the Jaguar said. “I’ll wake you up at five to.”
Curly and the Boa went out. One of them tripped on the threshold and swore.
“Wake me up as soon as you get back,” the Jaguar said to Cava. “And don’t take too long. It’s almost midnight.”
“I know it.” Usually Cava’s face was expressionless, but now it looked exhausted. “I’m going to get dressed.”
They left the latrine. The barracks was dark, but Cava could find his way along the two rows of double bunks without a light: he knew that long, tall room by heart. It was silent except for a few snores and murmurs. His bunk was the second on the right, about a yard from the outside door. As he groped in his locker for his trousers and his khaki shirt and his boots, he could smell the tobacco-sour breath of Vallano, who slept in the upper bunk. Even in the darkness he could make out the double row of the Negro’s big white teeth, and they reminded him of a rat. Slowly, quietly, he took off his blue flannel pajamas and got dressed. He put on his wool jacket and went down to the Jaguar’s bunk at the other end of the barracks, next to the latrine, walking carefully because his boots squeaked.
“Okay. Here, take them.”
Cava’s hand reached out and touched two hard, cold objects, one of them rough. He kept the flashlight in his hand and slipped the file into his pocket.
“Who’s on guard?” Cava asked.
“Me and the Poet.”
“The Slave’s taking my place.”
“What about the ones from the other sections?”
“Are you scared?”
Cava did not answer. He tiptoed to the outside door and opened it as carefully as he could, but it still creaked on its hinges.
“A crook!” somebody shouted in the darkness. “Kill him, sentry!”
Cava could not recognize the voice. He looked out into the patio. It was completely empty in the dim light from the lamps around the parade ground, which lay between the barracks and a weed-grown field. The drifting fog obscured the outlines of the three cement hulks where the Fifth Year cadets were quartered, making them look unreal. He went outside and stood for a few moments with his back against the barracks wall. He could not count on anyone now: even the Jaguar was safe. He envied the sleeping cadets, the noncoms, the soldiers in their barracks at the other side of the stadium. He knew he would be paralyzed by fear unless he kept going. He calculated the distance: he had to cross the patio and the parade ground; then, protected by the shadows in the field, he had to skirt the mess hall, the offices and the officers’ quarters; and finally he had to cross another patio—this one small and paved with cement—that faced the classroom building. The danger would end there, because the patrol never went that far. Then, the trip back to his barracks. In a confused way he wanted to lose his will and imagination and just carry out the plan like a blind machine. Sometimes he could go for several days following a routine that made all the decisions for him, gently nudging him into actions he hardly noted. This was different. What was happening tonight had been forced on him. He felt unusually clearheaded and he knew perfectly well what he was doing.
He began to walk, keeping close up to the wall. Instead of crossing the patio he went around it, following the curved wall of the Fifth’s barracks. When he came to the end of it he looked around anxiously: the parade ground seemed vast and mysterious, outlined by the symmetrically-placed lamps around which the fog was gathering. He could picture the shadowy field beyond the lamps. The sentries liked to stretch out there, either to sleep or to talk in whispers, when it was not too cold. But he was sure that tonight they were all gambling in one of the latrines. He began to walk quickly in the shadows of the buildings on his left, avoiding the splotches of light. The squeaking of his boots was drowned by the crash of the surf against the cliffs bordering one side of the Academy grounds. When he reached the officers’ quarters he shivered and walked even faster. Then he cut across the parade ground and plunged into the shadows of the field. A sudden movement near him, as startling as a blow, brought back all the fears he had begun to overcome. He hesitated for a moment; then he could make out the eyes of the vicuña, as bright as glowworms, regarding him with a wide, gentle stare. “Get out of here!” he said to it angrily. The animal remained motionless. That damned thing never sleeps, Cava thought. It doesn’t even eat. What keeps it alive? He moved on. Two and a half years ago, when he came to Lima to finish school, he was amazed to find that creature from the mountains wandering calmly among the gray, weather-beaten walls of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy. Who had brought the vicuña to the Academy? From what part of the Andes? The cadets used him as a target, but the vicuña hardly paid any attention when the stones hit him. He simply walked away from the boys with a look of utter indifference. It looks like an Indian, Cava thought. He went up the stairs to the classrooms. He was not worried now about the sound of his boots: the building was empty except for the desks and the benches, the wind and the shadows. He crossed the upper lobby with long quick strides. Then he stopped. The faint beam of the flashlight showed him the window. The second on the left, the Jaguar had said. And yes, he was right, it was loose. Cava started gouging out the putty with the pointed end of the file, collecting it in his other hand. It felt damp and decayed. Then he carefully removed the pane of glass and laid it on the tile floor. He groped until he found the lock, and swung the window wide open. Inside, he turned his flashlight in every direction. On one of the tables, next to the mimeograph machine, there were three stacks of paper. He read: Bimonthly Examination in Chemistry, Fifth Year. Examination Time, 40 Minutes. The sheets had been mimeographed that afternoon and the ink was still somewhat moist. He copied the questions hurriedly into a notebook without understanding what they meant. He turned off the flashlight, went back to the window, climbed up and jumped. The pane of glass exploded into hundreds of strident splinters. “Shit!” he grunted. He remained crouching, listening, trembling with terror. But he could not hear the wild tumult he expected, the pistol-shot voices of the officers: only his own panting. He waited for a few more seconds. Then, forgetting to use the flashlight, he picked up the broken glass as well as he could and put it into his pockets. He walked back to his barracks without taking the slightest precaution. He wanted to get there as soon as he could, he wanted to climb into his bunk and shut his eyes. As he crossed the field he took the broken glass out of his pockets and threw it away, cutting his hands as he did so. He stopped for a moment in the doorway to his barracks, catching his breath. A dark shape loomed up in front of him.
“Okay?” the Jaguar asked.
“Let’s go in the latrine.”
The Jaguar went first, pushing at the double door with both hands. In the yellow light Cava could see that the Jaguar was barefoot, could see and smell his big pale feet with their long dirty toenails.
“I broke the glass,” he said in a low voice.
The Jaguar’s hands came at him like two white claws and fastened on the lapels of his jacket. Cava swayed backward but kept his eyes on those of the Jaguar, who was glaring at him from below his curled-up lashes.
“You peasant,” the Jaguar muttered. “You’re just a peasant. If they catch us, by God I’ll…”
He was still holding on to the lapels, so Cava put his hands on the Jaguar’s, timidly trying to loosen them.
“Keep your hands off!” the Jaguar said. “You’re just a peasant!” Cava could feel the spit spraying his face. He lowered his hands.
“There wasn’t anyone in the patio,” he said. “They didn’t see me.”
The Jaguar released him and stood nibbling the back of his hand.
“You know I’m not a squealer, Jaguar. If they find out, I’ll take the whole blame. So just forget it.”
The Jaguar looked him up and down. Then he laughed. “You gutless peasant,” he said. “You’re so scared, you’ve pissed your pants. Look at them.”
He had forgotten about the house on Salaverry Avenue, out in Magdalena Nueva, where he had lived until the night he arrived in Lima for the first time, and the eighteen-hour trip by car, the procession of ruined villages, dead fields, tiny valleys, occasionally the ocean, cotton fields, villages, dead fields. He sat there with his face pressed to the window, feeling a tremendous excitement: I’m going to see Lima. Sometimes his mother pulled him toward her, murmuring: “Richi, my Ricardito.” Why is she crying? he wondered. The other passengers were asleep or reading, and the driver was cheerfully humming the same song over and over again. Ricardo fought off sleep all during the morning, the afternoon, the early evening, without turning his eyes from the horizon, waiting to see the lights of the city appear unexpectedly in the distance like a torchlight parade. But little by little his body grew tired, his senses dulled; he told himself, in a haze of fatigue, I won’t fall asleep. And suddenly someone was gently shaking him. “Wake up, Richi, we’re here.” He was on his mother’s lap with his head resting on her shoulder. He felt cold. Familiar lips brushed against his mouth and he had the impression that in his sleep he had been changed into a kitten. The car was moving slowly now. He saw vague houses, lights, trees, on an avenue longer than the main street in Chiclayo. It was a few moments before he realized that the other passengers had got out. The driver was still humming, but without any enthusiasm. What will it be like? he asked himself. And he felt the same fierce anxiety he had felt three days ago when his mother, calling him aside so that his Aunt Adelina would not overhear, had told him, “Your father isn’t dead, that was a lie. He’s just got back from a very long trip and he’s waiting for us in Lima.” Now his mother repeated, “We’re here.” “Salaverry Avenue, right?” the driver asked. “Yes, number thirty-eight,” his mother said. He closed his eyes and pretended he was asleep. His mother kissed him. Why does she kiss me on the mouth? Ricardo wondered. His right hand clutched at the seat. The car finally stopped after making a number of turns. He kept his eyes closed, curling up against his mother. Suddenly his mother’s body stiffened. “Beatriz,” a voice said. Someone opened the door. He felt himself being lifted out and set down without any support. He opened his eyes: his mother and a man were embracing and kissing each other on the mouth. The driver had stopped humming. The street was silent and empty. He looked at them fixedly, his lips counting the moments. At last his mother stepped back from the man, came over to him, and said, “It’s your father, Richi. Kiss him.” Once again, two unknown masculine arms lifted him up. A face drew close to his, a voice murmured his name, dry lips pressed against his cheek. He remained rigid.
He had also forgotten the rest of that night, the chill of the sheets on that hostile bed, the loneliness he tried to overcome by forcing his eyes to make out some object, some glimmer, in the darkness of the room, and the anxiety that troubled his thoughts. His Aunt Adelina had told him once, “The foxes in the Sechura Desert always howl like demons at nightfall. Do you know why? To break the silence that terrifies them.” He wanted to cry out, so that there would be some life in that room where everything seemed to be dead. He got up, barefoot, half-dressed, trembling at the thought of the shame and confusion he would feel if they suddenly came in and found him up. He went over to the door and put his ear against it, but he could not hear a sound. He went back to bed and started crying, with both hands over his mouth. When the daylight came into the bedroom and the street was alive with noises, his eyes were still open and his ears were still listening. A long time later, he heard them. They were speaking in low voices and it was only an incomprehensible murmur. Then he heard laughter and movements. Still later he sensed the door opening, footsteps, a presence, known hands that drew the sheets up to his chin, a warm breath on his cheeks. He opened his eyes: his mother was smiling at him. “Good morning,” she said tenderly. “Won’t you give your mother a kiss?” “No,” he said.
I could go and tell him I’ve got to have twenty soles, but I know what’d happen, he’d get all weepy and he’d give me forty or fifty, but that’d be just like telling him I forgive you for what you’ve done to my mother and you can keep on whoring around all you want as long as you give me good bribes. Alberto’s lips were moving silently under the wool muffler his mother had given him a few months before. His jacket and his military cap, which he had pulled down to his ears, protected him against the cold. He was so used to the weight of the rifle that he hardly felt it. I could go and tell him there’s no half way, not even if he sends us a check every month, until he repents of his sins and comes back home, but then he’d just start crying and say that everyone has to bear his cross like Our Lord, and even if he agreed, they’d take a long time to get things settled and I wouldn’t get my twenty soles tomorrow. The regulations said that the cadet guards had to patrol the patios in front of their own barracks and also the parade ground, but he spent his tour of duty strolling along the tall rusty fence that protected the front of the military academy. As he looked out through the bars, which reminded him of the flanks of zebras, he could see the paved road that snaked along the fence and the edge of the cliffs. He could hear the sound of the sea, and when the fog thinned for a minute he could glimpse, far off, what looked like a shining lance—it was the jetty of the bathing resort, La Punta—thrust out into the sea like a breakwater, and in the other direction the fanlike glow of Miraflores, the district where he lived. The captain of the guard checked the sentries every two hours, and at one o’clock he would find him at his post. Meanwhile, Alberto planned what he was going to do on Saturday. Maybe even ten of the guys are dreaming about that movie, and after seeing all those women in panties, all those legs and bellies and all, maybe they’ll want me to write them some little stories, but they won’t pay in advance and how can I write them if the chemistry exam is tomorrow, I’ll have to pay the Jaguar for the questions unless Vallano whispers the answers to me if I promise to write some letters for him but who can trust a Negro. Maybe they’ll want some letters but who can pay right off at this time of the week because it’s only Wednesday and everybody’s spent his last centavo in “La Perlita” or the poker games. I could get twenty soles to spend if the guys who’re confined to the grounds ask me to buy cigarettes for them and I could pay them back with letters or stories, or it’d be even better if I could find twenty soles in a wallet somebody lost in the mess hall or the classrooms or the latrine, or right now I could sneak into the barracks where the Dogs are and go through the lockers until I found twenty soles but it would be better to take fifty centavos from each one so it wouldn’t be so obvious and I’d only have to open forty lockers without waking anybody up but I’d have to find fifty centavos in each one, or I could go to one of the noncoms or a lieutenant and say, lend me twenty soles, I’m a man now and I want to go see Golden Toes, and who’s that shit that’s yelling like that…
It took Alberto a moment or two to identify the voice and to remember he was away from his post. Then louder: “Where the hell is that cadet?” This time his whole being reacted. He raised his head and could see the walls of the guardhouse, the soldiers sitting on a bench, the statue of the hero defying the fog with his drawn sword, all of them spinning around him as if in a whirlwind, and he could picture his name written out on the punishment list, and his heart was beating wildly, he was in a panic, his tongue and his lips were moving imperceptibly, Lt. Remigio Huarina was standing less than five yards away from the bronze hero, looking over at him with his hands on his hips.
“What are you doing here?”
The lieutenant came up to Alberto, who gazed over the officer’s shoulder at the splotches of moss on the stone base that held up the hero’s statue, or rather he saw them in his mind because the lights of the guardhouse were dim and far away, or else he invented them, it was possible that on that same day the soldiers on duty had scraped and scrubbed the pedestal.
“Well?” the lieutenant asked. “What’s going on?”
Alberto stood motionless, his right hand held rigid to his cap, all of his senses alert as he faced that short dark figure. The officer also stood motionless, his hands still on his hips.
“I’d like to ask you for some advice, Sir,” Alberto said. I could tell him I’m dying of a bellyache, I’ve got to have an aspirin or something, my mother is seriously ill, somebody killed the vicuña, I could even ask him to…“What I mean is, personal advice.”
“What the hell are you mumbling about?”
“I’ve got a problem,” Alberto said, still standing at attention. I could tell him my father is a general, a rear admiral, a marshal, and for every point I’m docked he’ll lose a year of promotion, and I could… It’s…it’s personal.” He stopped, hesitated a moment, then lied: “The colonel told us once we could ask advice from our officers. I mean, about personal problems.”
“Name and year,” the lieutenant said. He had dropped his hands from his hips and now he looked even smaller, even more fragile. He took a step forward and Alberto could look down at him more closely. At his pouting lips. At his scowling, froglike eyes, though without the life of a frog’s. At his round face, contracted in an expression that was meant to be implacable and was only pathetic, the same expression he put on when he ordered the punishment lottery, which was his own invention (“Brigadiers, give six points to all the number threes and multiples of three!”).
“Alberto Fernández, Sir, Fifth Year, first section.”
“All right, now get to the point.”
“I think I’m sick, Lieutenant. I mean mentally, not physically. I have nightmares every night.” Alberto had lowered his eyes, feigning humility, and he spoke very slowly, his mind a blank, letting his lips and tongue talk on by themselves, letting them weave a spider web, a labyrinth. “They’re awful, Lieutenant. Sometimes I dream I’m a killer, or sometimes these animals with human faces are chasing me. I wake up sweating and shaking. It’s horrible, Lieutenant, honest.”
The officer studied the cadet’s face. Alberto discovered that the frog’s eyes had come to life: surprise and suspicion peered out of them like two faint stars. I could laugh, I could cry or scream, I could run away. Huarina finished his scrutiny. He took a sudden step backward, and said, “I’m not a priest, goddamn it! Go take your personal problems to your father or mother!”
“I didn’t mean to bother you, Lieutenant,” Alberto mumbled.
“Wait a minute, what’s that arm band?” The officer pushed his snout closer, his eyes widening. “Are you on guard duty?”
“Don’t you know you should never leave your post except when you’re dead?”
“Personal problems! You’re a fuck-up.”
Alberto held his breath. The scowl had vanished from the officer’s face, his mouth was open, his eyes were squinting, there were wrinkles on his forehead: he was laughing. “You’re just a fuck-up, goddamn it. Get back to your post. And you should be grateful I’m not reporting you.”
Alberto saluted, made a half turn, and glimpsed the soldiers at the guardhouse sitting huddled over on the bench. He heard from behind him, “We aren’t priests, goddamn it.” In front of him, toward the left, there were three cement hulks: the Fifth Year, then the Fourth, and finally the Third, which was the barracks of the Dogs. Beyond that the stadium sprawled out: the soccer field covered with weeds, the track full of hollows and holes, the wooden stands warped by the dampness. On the other side of the stadium, beyond the ruined building that was the soldiers’ quarters, there was a grayish wall where the world of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy ended and the open fields of La Perla began. And if Huarina’d looked down and seen my boots, and if the Jaguar hasn’t got the chemistry exam, or if he’s got it and won’t trust me, and if I go see Golden Toes and tell her I’m from Leoncio Prado and it’s the first time I’ve come, I’ll bring you good luck, and if I go back to the neighborhood and borrow twenty soles from one of my friends and leave him my watch in hock, and if I don’t get hold of that chemistry exam, and if I don’t have laces for my boots for the personal inspection tomorrow I’m screwed and that’s for sure. Alberto walked slowly, dragging his feet a little. He had not had any laces in his boots for a whole week, and his boots threatened to come off at every step. He had covered about half the distance between the Fifth Year and the statue of the hero. Two years ago the assignment of the barracks was different: the cadets of the Fifth were in the barracks next to the stadium, and the Dogs were nearest to the guardhouse. The Fourth had always been in the middle, between their enemies. But when there was a change of directors, the new colonel decided on the present assignment, and explained it in a speech: “The privilege of sleeping near our great hero is one that ought to be earned. From now on the cadets of the Third Year will occupy the barracks farthest away. Then each year they’ll move closer to the statue of Leoncio Prado. And I hope that when they leave the academy they’ll resemble him a little, because he fought for the freedom of a country that wasn’t even Peru. In the army, Cadets, you’ve got to have respect for symbols, damn it.”
And if I steal some laces from Arróspide, I’d be a real shit to steal from a guy from Miraflores when there’s so many peasants in the section that spend the whole year shut in as if they’re afraid of the street, they’ll probably have some laces. And if I steal them from somebody in the Circle, from Curly or that slob of a Boa, but what about the exam, I don’t want to flunk chemistry again. And if I steal them from the Slave, what a joke, that’s what I said to Vallano and it’s true, you’d think you were pretty brave if you hit a dead man, except you’re hopeless. You can tell Vallano’s a coward like all the Negroes, you can tell it from his eyes, what eyes, what fear, what jumping around, I’ll kill the bastard that stole my pajamas, I’ll kill him, the lieutenant’s coming, the noncoms are coming, give me my pajamas back, I’ve got to get a pass this weekend and I’m not saying anything to start a fight, I’m not saying anything about your mother, I’m not insulting you, just asking what’s going on or something, but to let somebody grab your pajamas right during inspection without doing anything, that’s too much. What the Slave needs is for somebody to knock the fear out of him. I’ll steal the laces from Vallano instead.
He had come to the narrow passage that led to the Fifth Year’s patio. In the moist darkness, that was filled with the sound of the sea, Alberto imagined the bodies curled up in their cots behind the cement walls, in the crowded shadows of the barracks. He must be in the barracks, he must be in the latrine, he must be in the field, he must be dead, where have you gone to, little Jaguar? The deserted patio, vaguely lit by the lamps on the parade ground, was like a village plaza. There were no guards in sight. He must be playing a few hands, if I just had a coin, just one fucking coin, I could win those twenty soles, maybe more. He must be gambling and I hope he’ll trust me, I’ll write you some letters and stories, but actually he’s never asked me for anything in three years, oh hell, I’m sure they’re going to flunk me in chemistry. He went through the lobby without running into anyone. He went into the barracks of the first and second sections; the latrines were empty, and one of them smelled foul. He looked into the latrines in the other barracks, deliberately making a lot of noise as he went down the aisles, but there was no change in the calm or feverish breathing of the cadets. He stopped in the fifth section, a little before he got to the door of the latrine. Someone was talking in his sleep, but he could only make out a woman’s name in that babble of words: “Lidia.” Lidia? I think Lidia’s the name of the girl friend of that guy from Arequipa, the one that showed me the letters and photos she sent him and told me all his troubles, write her a good letter for me because I really love her, I’m not a priest, goddamn it, you’re a fuck-up. Lidia? There was a ring of bundle-shaped forms in the seventh section next to the urinals: they all looked like hunchbacks as they squatted in their green jackets. There were eight rifles on the floor and another one leaning against the wall. The latrine door was open and Alberto could make them out from a distance, from the barracks door. As he went toward them a shadow intercepted him.
“What’s up? Who is it?”
“I’m the colonel. Have you got permission to gamble? You should never leave your post except when you’re dead.”
Alberto went into the latrine. The tired faces of a dozen guards looked up at him. Smoke hovered in the room like an awning over their heads. Nobody he knew: identical faces, all dark and rough.
“Have you seen the Jaguar?”
“He hasn’t been here.”
“What’re you playing?”
“Poker. Want in? First you’ve got to be the lookout for a quarter of an hour.”
“I don’t play poker with peasants,” Alberto said. He put his hand to his penis and aimed at the players. “I just mow them down.”
“Get out of here, Poet,” one of them said, “you’re bothering us.”
“I guess I’ll have to tell the captain,” Alberto said, turning away. “Captain, the peasants are playing poker during guard duty.”
He could hear them insulting him. He was out in the patio again. He hesitated for a few moments, then walked toward the open field. And if I’d been sleeping in the grass, and they’d stolen the exam during my tour of duty, that’d be tough to explain, or if I’d jumped the wall, and if… He crossed the field to the back wall of the Academy. That was where they used to jump over, because the ground was level on the other side and there was no danger of breaking your leg. At one time, you could see shadows clearing the wall every night and coming back just before dawn. But the new colonel expelled four cadets from the Fourth who were caught leaving and since then a pair of soldiers patrolled the other side every night. So there were fewer attempts to get out, and never at this spot any more. Alberto turned around. In the distance he saw the patio of the Fifth, dim and empty. Then he glimpsed a small blue flame out in the field. He walked toward it.
There was no answer. Alberto took out his flashlight—besides their rifles, all the guards had flashlights and purple arm bands—and snapped it on. A lax face, with a smooth, beardless skin and timid eyes, was squinting up into the beam of light.
“You? What’re you doing here?”
The Slave raised a hand to shield his eyes from the flashlight. Alberto turned it off.
“I’m on guard duty.”
Was Alberto laughing? The sound shook in the darkness like an attack of belching, stopped for a moment, then broke out again. A sound of sheer contempt, harsh and mirthless.
“You’re taking the Jaguar’s place,” Alberto said. “You make me sick.”
“And you imitate the Jaguar’s laugh,” the Slave said quietly. “That ought to make you even sicker.”
“I only imitate your mother,” Alberto said. He unslung his rifle, laid it on the grass, turned up the lapels of his jacket, rubbed his hands together and sat down beside the Slave. “Have you got a cigarette?”
A sweaty hand brushed his and drew away, leaving him a limp cigarette without any tobacco in the tips. Alberto lit a match. “Watch out,” the Slave whispered. “The patrol might see you.”
“Shit,” Alberto said, “I burned myself.” The parade ground stretched out in front of him, glowing dimly like a great avenue in the heart of a fog-bound city.
“How do you make your cigarettes last you?” Alberto asked. “I always run out by Wednesday or even sooner.”
“I don’t smoke very much.”
“Why are you so damned timid?” Alberto asked. “Aren’t you ashamed to be taking the Jaguar’s turn?”
“I do what I want,” the Slave said. “What difference does it make to you?”
“They treat you like a slave,” Alberto said. “Hell, they all treat you like a slave. What are you scared of?”
“I’m not scared of you.”
Alberto laughed. Suddenly he cut his laughter short. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m laughing like the Jaguar. Why does everybody imitate him?”
“I don’t imitate him,” the Slave said.
“You’re like his dog,” Alberto said. “He’s got you screwed.”
Alberto tossed the butt away. It glimmered for a few moments in the grass, then went out. The patio of the Fifth was still deserted.
“Yes,” Alberto said, “he’s got you screwed.” He opened his mouth, then closed it. He put his fingers to the tip of his tongue, picked off a shred of tobacco, cut it in two with his nails, put the two bits on his lips and spit them out. “You’ve never had any fights, have you?”
“Just one,” the Slave said.
“That’s why you’re screwed,” Alberto said. “Everybody knows you’re scared. You’ve got to slug somebody once in a while if you want them to respect you. If you don’t, they walk all over you.”
“I’m not going to be a soldier.”
“Neither am I. But you’re a soldier here whether you like it or not. And the big thing in the army is to be real tough, to have guts, see what I mean? Screw them first before they screw you. There isn’t any other way. I don’t like to be screwed.”
“But I don’t like to fight,” the Slave said. “Or the thing is, I don’t know how.”
“It’s something you can’t learn,” Alberto said. “It’s a question of guts.”
“That’s what Lt. Gamboa said one day.”
“And it’s the truth, isn’t it? I don’t want to be a soldier either, but you learn how to be a man here. You learn how to take care of yourself. You find out what life’s all about.”
“But you don’t fight very much,” the Slave said, “and still you don’t get screwed.”
“I make believe I’m crazy. I mean I play stupid. You could do that too, so they wouldn’t walk all over you. If you don’t defend yourself tooth and claw they jump on you. That’s the law of the jungle.”
“Are you going to be a poet?” the Slave asked.
“Are you kidding? I’m going to be an engineer. My father’s going to send me to the United States to study. I just write letters and stories so I can buy my cigarettes. But that doesn’t mean a thing. You, what are you going to be?”
“I wanted to be a sailor,” the Slave said. “But I changed my mind. I don’t like the services. Maybe I’ll be an engineer too.”
The fog had grown thicker, and the lamps along the parade ground looked smaller and their light was dimmer than ever. Alberto fished in his pockets. He had run out of cigarettes two days before but he repeated the action automatically whenever he wanted to smoke.
“Got any cigarettes left?”
There was no answer from the Slave, but a moment later Alberto felt an arm against his stomach. He found a hand, which was holding out an almost full pack of cigarettes. He took one and put it between his lips, running the tip of his tongue over the end of it. He lit a match and brought the flame up close to the Slave’s face. The light flickered gently in the little grotto of his cupped hands.
“What the fuck are you crying for?” Alberto asked. He opened his hands and dropped the match. “Goddamn it, I burned myself again!”
He took out another match and lit the cigarette, dragging the smoke in and exhaling it through his nose and mouth.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Alberto took another drag. The tip glowed and the smoke mingled with the fog, which was very low, almost hugging the ground. The patio of the Fifth had disappeared. The barracks were a huge, motionless blotch.
“What’ve they done to you?” Alberto asked. “You shouldn’t ever cry, man.”
“My jacket,” the Slave said. “They’ve screwed me out of my pass.”
Alberto turned his head. The Slave was wearing a dark brown sleeveless sweater.
“I’ve got to go out on pass tomorrow,” the Slave said. “They’ve got me screwed.”
“Do you know who it was?”
“No. They took it out of my locker.”
“You’ll get docked a hundred soles. Maybe more.”
“It isn’t that. There’s an inspection tomorrow. Gamboa’s going to put me on the shit list. I’ve already been two weeks without a pass.”
“What time have you got?”
“Quarter to one,” the Slave said. “We can go back to the barracks.”
“Wait a while,” Alberto said, getting up. “There’s plenty of time. Let’s swipe a jacket.”
The Slave leaped to his feet but then stood there without taking a step, as if paralyzed.
“Let’s go,” Alberto said.
“But the sentries…”
“The hell with them,” Alberto said. “Can’t you see I’m going to risk my pass to get you a jacket? Yellowbellies make me sick. The sentries are in the latrine in the seventh section. There’s a game going.”
The Slave followed him. They walked through the thickening fog toward the invisible barracks. The nails on their boots scraped through the wet grass, and the beat of the sea, mingling with the whistle of the wind, invaded the rooms of the doorless, windowless building that stood between the classrooms and the officers’ quarters.
“Let’s go to the ninth or the tenth,” the Slave said. “Those midgets sleep like logs.”
“Do you want a jacket or a bib? We’ll go to the third.”
Alberto pushed gently at the door, which opened without a sound. He put his head in like an animal sniffing at a cave. There was a sound of peaceful breathing in the shadowy barracks. They closed the door behind them. “At the back,” Alberto whispered, his lips touching the Slave’s ear. “There’s a locker that isn’t close to the beds.”
“What?” the Slave asked him, without moving.
“Oh, shit,” Alberto said. “Come on.” They went down the barracks slowly, shuffling their feet, with their hands out to avoid obstacles. If I were a blind man, I’d take out my glass eyes and I’d say to Golden Toes, I’m giving you my eyes, but trust me, my old man’s got enough whores already, it’s enough that you should never leave your post except when you’re dead. They stopped by a locker and Alberto’s fingers slid along the wood. He put his hand in his pocket, took out a skeleton key, tried to find the lock with his other hand, closed his eyes, gritted his teeth. And if I say, I swear, Lieutenant, I just came in here to get a book to study chemistry so I won’t flunk it tomorrow, and I swear I’ll never forgive you for the way my mother’ll cry. Slave, if you ruin me just for a jacket. The skeleton key scraped across the metal, entered, caught, moved back and forth, right and left, entered a little further, stopped, there was a click and the lock was open. Alberto twisted the key out. The door of the locker began to swing open. Somewhere in the barracks an angry voice broke out into incoherent mutterings. The Slave put his hand on Alberto’s arm. “Quiet,” Alberto whispered, “or I’ll kill you.” “What?” the Slave asked. Alberto’s hand carefully explored the inside of the locker, a fraction of an inch away from the woolly surface of the jacket, as if he were stroking the face or the hair of a beloved one and were relishing the pleasure of the imminent contact, still only sensing her. “Get the laces out of a pair of boots,” Alberto said. “I need them.” The Slave took his hand away, bent down, and started crawling. Alberto slipped the jacket off its hanger, put the lock back on the staples, and squeezed it shut with his hand over it to lessen the sound. Then he moved toward the door. When he got there, the Slave put his hand on him again, this time on his shoulder. They went outside.
“Has it got a name on it?”
The Slave turned on his flashlight and examined the jacket minutely. “No.”
“Go to the latrine and see if it’s got any spots on it. And make sure to use different-colored buttons.”
“It’s almost one o’clock,” the Slave said.
Alberto nodded. When they got to the door of the first section, he turned to the other. “And the laces?”
“I only found one,” the Slave said. He hesitated for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
Alberto stared at him, but did not insult him or laugh at him. He merely shrugged his shoulders.
“Thanks,” the Slave said. He put his hand on Alberto’s arm again and looked at him, his timid, cringing face bright with a smile.
“I just did it for the fun of it,” Alberto said. And he added quickly, “Have you got the questions for the exam? I don’t know beans about chemistry.”
“No,” the Slave said. “But the Circle must have them. Cava went out a while back and he was heading for the classrooms. They must be working out the answers.”
“I haven’t got any money. That Jaguar is a crook.”
“Do you want me to lend you some?” the Slave asked.
“You’ve really got money?”
“Can you lend me twenty soles?”
“Twenty soles? Yes.”
“Great, great! I didn’t have a centavo. If you want, I can pay you back with some stories.”
“No,” the Slave said. He lowered his eyes. “I’d rather have letters.”
“Letters? You? Have you got a girl?”
“Not yet,” the Slave said. “But maybe I will have.”
“That’s fine, man. I’ll write you twenty of them. But you’ll have to show me hers, so I can tell what she’s like.”
The barracks was coming alive. In the various sections there were sounds of footsteps, of lockers closing, even a few jokes.
“They’re changing the guard,” Alberto said. “Let’s go.”
They went into the barracks. Alberto went over to Vallano’s bunk, squatted down and took the lace out of one of his boots. Then he began shaking the Negro with both hands.
“Motherfucker, motherfucker!” Vallano shouted.
“Come on, it’s one o’clock,” Alberto said. “You’re on duty.”
“If you woke me up too soon, I’ll murder you.”
At the other end of the barracks, the Boa was shouting at the Slave, who had just awakened him.
“Here’s the rifle and the flashlight,” Alberto said. “Go back to sleep if you want to, but the patrol’s in the second section.”
“No shit?” Vallano said, getting up.
Alberto went over to his own bunk and undressed.
“Everybody’s so sweet around here,” Vallano said. “Very, very sweet.”
“What’s the matter?” Alberto asked.
“Somebody swiped one of my laces.”
“Shut up!” a voice shouted. “Sentry, tell those fairies to shut up!”
Alberto could tell that Vallano was walking on tiptoe. Then he heard a telltale sound. “They’re stealing laces!” he shouted.
“One of these days I’m going to break your jaw, Poet,” Vallano said, yawning.
A few minutes later the Officer of the Guard blew a sharp blast on his whistle. Alberto did not hear it. He was asleep.
Diego Ferré Street was less than three hundred yards long, and a stranger to it would have thought it was an alley with a dead end. In fact, if you looked down it from the corner of Larco Avenue, where it began, you could see a two-story house closing off the other end two blocks away, with a small garden protected by a green railing. At a distance, that house seemed to end Diego Ferré, but actually it stood on a narrow cross street, Porta. Two other parallel streets, Colón and Ocharán, cut across Diego Ferré between Porta and Larco Avenue. After crossing Diego Ferré they ended abruptly two hundred yards to the east at the Malecón de la Reserva, the serpentine that enclosed the Miraflores district with a belt of red brick. It marked the farthest limits of the city, for it was built along the edge of the cliffs, above the clean, gray, noisy waters of the Bay of Lima.
There were half a dozen blocks between Larco Avenue, the Malecón and Porta Street: about a hundred houses, two or three grocery stores, a drugstore, a soft-drink stand, a shoe repair shop half hidden between a garage and a projecting wall, and a walled lot that was used as a private laundry. The cross streets had trees along both sides of the pavement, but not Diego Ferré. The neighborhood lacked a name. When the boys organized a soccer team to compete in the annual tournament held by the Terrazas Club, they named their team “The Happy Neighborhood.” But when the tournament was over, the name was not used any longer. Also, the crime reporters used “The Happy Neighborhood” to describe the long row of houses called Huatica de la Victoria, the street of the whores, which made it somewhat embarrassing. So the boys simply called it the neighborhood, and when somebody asked them which one, they distinguished it from the other neighborhoods in Miraflores, like the 28th of July or Reducto or Francia Street or Alcanfores, by saying: “The Diego Ferré.”
Alberto’s house was the third house on the second block of Diego Ferré, on the left-hand side. The first time he saw it was at night, when almost all the furniture from the previous house, in San Isidro, had already been moved. It seemed to him a lot larger than the other one, and it had two obvious advantages: his bedroom was further away from that of his parents, and since there was an inner garden they would probably let him have a dog. But the new house would also have its disadvantages. Every morning, the father of one of his friends had driven both of them from San Isidro to La Salle Academy. From now on he would have to take the express, get off at Wilson Avenue, then walk at least ten blocks to Arica Avenue, since La Salle, although it was a very respectable school, was located in the heart of the Breña district, with its zombos—half-Indian, half-Chinese—and its swarm of workers. He would have to get up earlier, and leave right after breakfast. And there had been a bookstore across from his house in San Isidro, where the owner had let him read the Penecas and Billiken behind the counter, and had even lent them to him for a day, warning him not to crease them or get them dirty. Also, the moving would deprive him of an exciting pastime: that of going up onto the roof to watch what went on in the Nájar family’s yard. When the weather was good they ate breakfast in the garden under bright-colored umbrellas, and played tennis, and gave dances at night, and when they gave dances he could spy on the couples who sneaked off to the tennis court to neck.
On the day they moved he got up early and went to school in a good mood. When he got out he went straight to the new house. He got off the express at Salazar Park—he still had not learned the name of that grassy esplanade hung out over the sea—and walked along Diego Ferré, which was deserted at that hour. At home he found his mother threatening to fire the maid if she started spending her time with the neighboring cooks and chauffeurs the way she had in San Isidro. After lunch his father said, “I’ve got to leave. It’s very important business.” His mother cried, “You’re lying again! How can you look me in the face?” And then, with the help of the servant and the maid, she began a very careful inspection to make sure that nothing had been lost or damaged by the movers. Alberto went up to his room and stretched out on the bed, aimlessly doodling on the jackets of his books. A little later he heard the voices of boys through the open window. The voices stopped, there was only the sound of a kick and the hum and slap of a ball as it bounced against the door. Then the voices again. He got up from the bed and looked out. One of the boys wore a flaming shirt, red and yellow stripes, and the other wore a white silk shirt with the buttons open. The former was taller, with blond hair, and his voice and looks and gestures were insolent. The other was short and stocky, with curly black hair, and he was extremely quick. The blond boy was playing goalkeeper in the door of a garage. The dark boy kicked the brand-new soccer ball at him, shouting, “Stop this one, Pluto!” Pluto, with a dramatic grimace, wiped his forehead and his nose with the back of his hand and pretended to fling himself at the ball, and if he stopped a goal he laughed uproariously. “You’re an old lady, Tico, I could block your kicks with my little finger.” Tico stopped the ball skillfully with his foot, set it, measured the distance, and kicked, and almost every kick was a goal. “Butterfingers!” he jeered. “Fairy! Look out for this next one. It’s going to the right, and boom!” At first Alberto watched them without much interest, and apparently they had not noticed him. But little by little he began to study their styles, and when Tico kicked a goal or Pluto intercepted the ball, he nodded without smiling, like a veteran fan. Then he began to pay attention to the jokes the two boys were making. He reacted the way they did, and at times the players gave signs that they knew he was watching: they turned their heads toward him as if they had appointed him as their referee. Soon there was a close exchange of looks, smiles and nods. Suddenly Pluto kicked one of Tico’s shots and the ball went sailing down the street. Tico ran after it. Pluto looked up at Alberto.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” Alberto said.
Pluto had his hands in his pockets. He was jumping up and down in the same place, like one of the professionals loosening up before a game.
“Are you going to live here?” Pluto asked him.
“Yes. We moved in today.”
Pluto nodded. Tico had come back. He was holding the ball on his shoulder with one hand. He looked up at Alberto. They smiled. Pluto turned to Tico.
“He just moved in. He’s going to live here.”
“Oh?” Tico said.
“Do you fellows live here?” Alberto asked.
“He lives on Diego Ferré,” Pluto said. “In the first block. I live around the corner, on Ocharán.”
“One more for the neighborhood,” Tico said.
“They call me Pluto. And this here is Tico. He’s an old lady when it comes to soccer.”
“Is your father a good guy?” Tico asked.
“I guess so,” Alberto said. “Why?”
“They keep running us off the street,” Pluto said. “They take our ball away. They won’t let us play here.”
Tico began to bounce the ball up and down as if it were a basketball.
“Come on out,” Pluto said. “We’ll kick some goals till the others come. Then we’ll get up a game.”
“Okay,” Alberto said. “But I’d better tell you I’m not very good.”
Cava told us there’s a chicken coop behind the soldiers’ barracks. You’re a liar, peasant, it isn’t true. I tell you I’ve seen them. So we went there after dinner, going around the long way so as not to go past the barracks. Do you see them, are you coming, the bastard said, look at all those different-colored chickens, what more do you want, do you want anything more? Which one’ll we take, the black one or the yellow one? The yellow one’s bigger. What’re you waiting for, idiot? I’ll grab her and hold her wings. Come on, Boa, grab her beak. As if that was so easy. Don’t run away, little chick, come here, come here. She’s afraid of him, she’s giving him a dirty look, she’s turning her tail on him, just look at that, the bastard said. But it was true that she pecked my fingers. Let’s go to the stadium and tie up her beak for good. And what if Curly buggers the fatboy? The best thing, the Jaguar said, is to tie up their legs and beak. But what about the wings? What’ll they say if she cuts somebody’s balls off when she flaps her wings, what’ll they say then? She doesn’t want anything to do with you, Boa. You sure of that, peasant, you too? No, but I saw it with my own eyes. What’ll I tie her with? What animals, what animals, at least a chicken is small, it’s more like a game, but a Ilama! And what if Curly buggers the fatboy? We were smoking in the latrines in the classroom building, keep your lights down. The Jaguar was on the toilet, straining, and it looked like he was being screwed. How about it, Jaguar, how about it? Shut up, they’re cutting me, I’ve got to concentrate. And the beak? And suppose we buggered the fatboy, Curly said. Who? The one in the ninth, the fatboy. Haven’t you ever pinched him? Oomph. It isn’t a bad idea, but does he let you or doesn’t he? They tell me Lañas buggers him when he’s on guard duty. Oomph, at last. How about it, the bastard said. And who goes first, I don’t want to do it now with all the noise she makes. Here’s a piece of string for her beak. Don’t let her go, peasant, or she’ll fly away. Who’s ready? Cava’s got her by the beak, Curly tells her not to move her beak because she’s going to get screwed anyway, and I tied up her feet. Let’s draw lots. Who’s got some matches? Cut the head off one of them and show me the rest, I’m too old to fall for any tricks. Curly’ll probably win. Listen, does it make any difference whether he lets you? It doesn’t to me. That little laugh like a sting. Okay, Curly, but just for the hell of it. And if he doesn’t let you? Shut up, I can smell a non-com, it’s a good thing he didn’t come near, I’m a real he-man. And suppose we screwed the noncom? The Boa screws a dog, the sharper said, why not the fatboy, he’s human at least. I saw him in the mess hall, he’s on the shit list, he was bullying the eight Dogs at his table. No, he probably wouldn’t let you. Who said I’m afraid, did somebody say I’m afraid? I could screw a whole section of fatboys, one after the other, and still be as good as new. We’ve got to have a plan, the Jaguar said, it’ll make things easier. Who got the short match? The chicken was on the ground, gasping. That peasant Cava, can’t they see what he’s doing with his hand? He likes to play with himself, but it’s dead, the Boa’s the one who gets a hard-on even when he’s marching. We’ve drawn lots, everything’s ready, screw her or we’ll screw you like the Ilamas in your village. Don’t you know a story? What if we get the Poet here to tell us one of those stories that make your cock stand up? But that’s horseshit, I can get a hard-on just by thinking about it, it’s all a matter of will power. What if I get a dose? What’s the matter, loverboy, what’s got into you, peasant, don’t you know the Boa is cleaner than your mother ever since he’s been screwing Skimpy? Where did you get those crazy ideas, haven’t they told you chickens are more sanitary than dogs? So we’ll do it even if they catch us red-handed. And the patrol? Huarina’s the Officer of the Guard, he’s a slob, and on Saturday the patrol’s a laugh. And if there’s trouble? A meeting of the Circle: You’re a convicted squealer, Cadet, but would you tell if they beat you up? Let’s go, they’re going to blow taps. And keep your lights down, damn it. Look, the bastard said, she stood up by herself, pass her over. Take her. Me? Yes, you. Are you sure chickens have holes? Maybe this blonde’s a virgin. She’s moving, look, it’s probably a rooster, a queer one. Don’t laugh or talk, please. Please. That shitty little laugh. Can’t you see that peasant’s hand? You’re feeling her up, you bastard. I’m looking for the, don’t rush me, I’ve found it. What’d he say? She’s got a hole, shut up please, for Christ’s sake don’t laugh or the elephant’s trunk’ll go down. What an ape. Those peasants from the mountains, my brother said, they’re bad ones, the worst there is. Traitors and cowards. Rotten to the core. Shut your beak, you dirty bitch! Lieutenant Gamboa, here’s somebody screwing a chicken. It’s almost ten o’clock, Curly said. It’s after quarter past ten. Has anybody seen the guards? I’ll screw one of them too. You’d screw anything, I think, you’re real hot, just promise you won’t screw your own dear mother. There weren’t any others in the barracks confined to the grounds, but there were some in the second section, and we went out barefoot. I’m freezing to death, I’ll probably catch a cold. I can tell you right now, if I hear a whistle I’ll take off. Let’s bend over going up the stairs, they can see us from the guardhouse. No shit? We went into the barracks slowly and the Jaguar said, who’s the bastard who said there was only two of them confined to quarters, there’s about ten of those midgets snoring there. Are you going to clear out? Who? You know which bed he’s in, you go first, we don’t want to screw the wrong one. It’s the third one, can’t you tell how it smells of a nice little fatboy? Look, her feathers are coming out, I think she’s dying. Are you finished? Tell me, do you always come off so fast, or just with chickens? Look at her, the poor little whore, I think the peasant killed her. Me? She’s suffocating, all her holes are blocked up. If she moves any more, she’s just pretending she’s dead. Do you think animals have any feelings? Do you think they’ve got souls? I mean, do they like it, the way women do? Sure, Skimpy does, just like a woman. Boa, you make me puke. The things that go on. Look, the chicken’s getting up. She liked it and she wants more, what about that? Look at her, she’s walking like a drunk. And are we really going to eat her now? Somebody’s going to get pregnant, don’t forget what the peasant left inside her. I don’t even know how to kill a chicken. Shut up, the fire’ll get rid of the germs. Grab her by the neck and swing her around in the air. Keep her quiet, Boa, I’m going to show you, just watch this. Yes, sir, you showed us all right, very nice footwork too. She’s dead now but Jesus, what a mess. Jesus, what a mess, who’s going to eat her the way she’s all dust and dirt? Are you sure the fire’ll get rid of the germs? Let’s go make a fire, but over there behind the wall, it’ll hide it better. Don’t make any noise or I’ll murder you. Come on, climb onto him, idiot, he’s stretched out, he’s ready. Christ how that midget can kick, how he kicked, what are you waiting for, climb onto him, can’t you see he’s naked as a snake? Look out, Boa, don’t stop his mouth like that, he’ll smother. He keeps getting away, he’s worse than the chicken, Curly said, lie still or I’ll kill you, I’m giving it to you, stop kicking, what more do you want. Let’s go, the midgets are getting up, I told you so, damn it, the midgets are all getting up, there’s going to be bloodshed. The one that turned on the lights had guts. The one that shouted, they’re trying to screw us, come on, let’s get them, that one had guts too. They rattled me with that business of the lights. Was that why I let go of his mouth? Save me, fellows! The only time I ever heard a scream like that was when my mother threw a chair at my brother. And you midgets, who told you to get up, who told you to turn on the lights? The brigadier? We’re not going to let you get away with it, you lousy queers! What did you say, did you say what I think you did, you can’t talk like that to cadets, stand at attention. And you, you can stop screaming, can’t you see it was just a joke? Wait and see, I’ll take care of you midgets. And the Jaguar was still laughing, I remember how he laughed while I was beating up the midgets. Okay, we’re going now, but listen to me and don’t forget what I’m telling you: either you keep your traps shut or we’ll screw the whole section, and not the way you like. The trouble with these midgets is, they’re all too nervous, they don’t know a joke when they see it. Should we duck down again on the stairs? Ugh, Curly said, chewing at a bone, it tastes of burnt feathers.
TIME OF THE HERO Copyright © 1966 by Grove Press, Inc