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Voices of Time
A Life in Stories
By Eduardo Galeano, Mark Fried
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2006 Eduardo Galeano
All rights reserved.
We are made of time.
We are its feet and its voice.
The feet of time walk in our shoes.
Sooner or later, we all know, the winds of time will erase the tracks.
Passage of nothing, steps of no one? The voices of time tell of the voyage.
Oriol Vail, who works with newborns at a hospital in Barcelona, says that the first human gesture is the embrace. After coming into the world, at the beginning of their days, babies wave their arms as if seeking someone.
Other doctors, who work with people who have already lived their lives, say that the aged, at the end of their days, die trying to raise their arms.
And that's it, that's all, no matter how hard we strive or how many words we pile on. Everything comes down to this: between two flutterings, with no more explanation, the voyage occurs.
The professor and the journalist walk in the garden.
The professor, Jean-Marie Pelt, stops, points, and says, "Allow me to introduce you to our grandparents."
The journalist, Jacques Girardon, crouches down and finds a ball of foam peeking out from the blades of grass.
The ball is a town of microscopic blue algae. On very humid days, the blue algae allow themselves to be seen. They look like a wad of spit. The French journalist wrinkles his nose; the origin of life isn't what we might call attractive, but from that spittle, from that mess, come all of us who have legs or roots or wings.
Before there was a before, when the world was barely a baby, without color or sound, there was blue algae. Streaming oxygen, they gave color to the sea and the sky. Then one fine day, a day that lasted millions of years, some blue algae decided to turn green. And bit by tiny bit, the green algae begat lichens, mushrooms, mold, medusas, and all the color and sound that came later, as did we, to unsettle the sea and the land.
Other blue algae preferred to carry on as they were.
And still are.
From the distant world that was, they observe the world that is.
What they think of it we do not know.
When the sea became the sea, the land was still nothing but naked rock.
Then lichens, born of the sea, made meadows. They invaded the kingdom of stone, conquered it, turned it green.
That happened in the yesterday of yesterdays, and it is still going on. Lichens live where no one lives: on the frozen steppe, in the burning desert, on the peaks of the highest mountains.
Lichens live only as long as the marriage lasts between an alga and her son, the mushroom. If the marriage breaks up, the lichens break down.
Sometimes, fighting and disagreements lead the alga and mushroom to part. She complains that he keeps her hidden from the light. He says she makes him sick, feeding him sugar day and night.
A couple was walking across the savannah in East Africa at the beginning of the rainy season. The woman and the man still looked a lot like apes, truth be told, although they were standing upright and had no tails.
A nearby volcano, now called Sadiman, was belching ash. The rain of ash preserved the couple's footprints, from that moment through time. Beneath their gray blanket, the tracks remained intact. Those footprints show that this Eve and that Adam had been walking side by side; at a certain point she stopped, turned away, and took a few steps on her own. Then she returned to the path they shared.
The world's oldest human footprints left traces of doubt. A few years have gone by. The doubt remains.
Time Plays Games
It's said that once upon a time two friends were admiring a painting. The work of art, by who knows who, was from China, a field of flowers at harvest time.
One of the friends, who knows why?, fixed his gaze on a figure in the painting, one of many women with baskets gathering poppies. She wore her hair loose, flowing over her shoulders.
At last she returned his gaze, let her basket fall, held out her arms, and, who knows how, carried him off.
He let himself be taken, who knows where, and with that woman he spent nights and days, who knows how many, until a gust of wind picked him up and returned him to the room where his friend remained standing before the painting.
So brief was that eternity that the friend had not noticed his absence. And neither had he noticed that the woman, one of many women in the painting gathering poppies in their baskets, now wore her hair tied at the back of her neck.
Time Takes Its Time
He is one of the phantoms. That's what the people of Sainte Elie call the handful of old men, knee-deep in the mud, grinding stones and scraping sand in the abandoned mine that doesn't have a cemetery because even the dead don't want to stick around.
Half a century ago, a miner from far away arrived at the port of Cayena and set out to find the promised land. In those days, Sainte Elie was a garden ripening with golden fruit, where gold fattened many a starving stranger and sent him on his way back home, if the fates so wished it.
But the fates did not so wish it. The miner from far away is still here, wearing no more than a loincloth, eating nothing, eaten by mosquitoes. In search of nothing he stirs the sand day after day, seated beside his pan, under a tree even skinnier than he that barely offers any defense against the biting sun.
Sebastião Salgado reaches the lost mine, where no one visits, and sits at the miner's side. The gold digger has only one tooth, itself made of gold. When he speaks, the tooth shines in the night of his mouth. "My wife is very pretty," he says.
He digs out a blurry, dog-eared picture.
"She's waiting for me," he says.
She is twenty.
For half a century she's been twenty, somewhere in the world.
After dark, Avel de Alencar worked away at his forbidden task.
Hiding in an office in Brasilia, night after night, he photocopied the military's secret archive: reports, dossiers, and files that called torture interrogation and murder confrontation.
In the three years of clandestine labor, Avel photocopied a million pages. The documents were a fairly complete confession by the military dictatorship then living out the final days of its absolute power over the lives and miracles of all Brazil.
One night, among the papers pulled from the files, Avel found a letter. The letter had been written ten years earlier, but the woman's kiss that signed off remained intact.
From then on, he came across many letters. Alongside each one was the envelope with the destination that they had never reached.
He did not know what to do. A lot of time had passed. No one was waiting for these letters now, words from the gone and forgotten sent to places and people no longer there. They were dead letters. And yet reading them felt to Avel like trespassing on something very much alive. He could not bring himself to return the words to the prison of the files, nor could he kill them by tearing up the pages.
At the end of each night, Avel put the letters in their envelopes, stuck on fresh stamps, and dropped them in the mailbox.
She said she suffered from tachycardia every time she saw him, even from a distance.
She claimed that her salivary glands would go dry when he would look at her, even just a glance.
She admitted to a hypersecretion of the sweat glands each time he spoke to her, even just to return a greeting.
She acknowledged wild swings in her blood pressure when he would brush against her, even by mistake.
She confessed that because of him she suffered nausea, blurred vision, weak knees. During the day she could not stop from babbling stupidities and at night she could not sleep.
"That was a long time ago, doctor," she said. "I never felt it again."
The physician raised his eyebrows. "You never felt it ever again?"
He made his diagnosis: "Your case is serious."
The Conjugal Institution
Captain Camilo Techera always went about with God on his lips: Good day, God willing. Until tomorrow, God willing.
When he took over the artillery base in Trinidad, he discovered that not a single soldier was married, as God commands, that all were living in sin, rolling in the hay of promiscuity like beasts in the field.
To put an end to this scandalous offense to the Lord, he sent for the priest who said mass in town. In a single day the priest ministered the holy sacrament of matrimony to all the troops, each with his girl, in the name of the captain, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
From that Sunday on, all the soldiers were husbands.
On Monday, one soldier said, "That woman is mine."
And he buried a knife in the belly of a friend who had been looking at her.
On Tuesday, another soldier said, "This'll teach you."
And he wrung the neck of the woman who had vowed to obey him.
On Wednesday ...
Brawls and Squabbles
A derelict old man was selling contraband cigarettes from a little table in an alley in downtown Santiago, Chile. He was sitting on the ground, drinking from a bottle. I stopped to chat and accepted a sip of wine that promised instant cirrhosis.
As I was paying him for the cigarettes, a melee began. All at once the flies scattered, the wine capsized, the table collapsed, and a steamroller of a woman picked up the old man with one fist.
I bent to collect the cigarettes strewn on the ground, while the woman shook the bag of bones in her hand and screamed, You philandering cocksucker you Don Juan asshole who do you think you are you bare-faced swine so you've been screwing Eva and Lucy — and he muttered, I don't even know that one — and Pamela too — and he moaned, She came after me, — but the bombardment continued, You've been fucking Martha that bitch and that whore Charito and Betty and Patty, to the complete indifference of passersby, who showed no interest in this string of platinum blondes in fake eyelashes and reptilian boots.
While the indignant woman had her culprit by the throat and up against the wall, the man was mumbling vows, You are my only love you are my cathedral the others are nothing but little mission halls, until she, squeezing with intent to strangle, tossed him aside. Get out of here, she ordered. Get going, I never want to see you again. If I ever do ..."
Without another word she pronounced her dreadful verdict. Her eyes fixed on his sacred parts, she scissored the air with her fingers.
Bravely, I edged away.
The Seven Deadly Sins
Kneeling in the confessional, a repentant sinner admitted to greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, envy, pride, and anger.
"I've never confessed. I didn't want you priests enjoying my sins more than me, so out of greed I kept them to myself.
"Gluttony? From the moment I saw her, I confess, I wanted to eat her alive.
"Is it lust to enter someone and get lost inside and never find your way out?
"That woman was the only thing in the world that didn't make me slothful.
"I was envious — of myself, I confess.
"And I confess that later on I committed the sin of pride, believing she was me.
"And crazed with anger, I tried to break that mirror when I didn't see myself."
Subsoil of the Night
Because the woman never shut up, because she was always complaining, because there was never a small misunderstanding that she didn't turn into a major problem, because he was tired of working like a mule for her and all her relatives, because he had to plead like a beggar in bed, because she had another and she pretended to be a saint, because she was a gnawing ache like nothing else he had ever felt, because he could not live without her or with her, he had no choice but to wring her neck like a chicken's.
Because the man never listened, because he never paid attention, because there was no major problem that he didn't treat like a small misunderstanding, because she was tired of working like a mule for him and all his relatives, because she had to obey like a whore in bed, because he had another and told the whole world, because he was a gnawing ache like nothing else she had ever felt, because she could not live without him or with him, she had no choice but to push him from the tenth floor like a sack of potatoes.
In the morning, they ate their breakfast. The radio was blaring the news like any other day. Nothing they heard caught their attention. Reporters don't cover dreams.
Morals and Good Habits
They shut her up in a room, tied to the bed.
Every day a man entered, always the same one.
After a few months, the prisoner was pregnant.
Then they forced her to marry him.
The prison guards were not policemen or soldiers. They were the father and mother of the girl, practically a child, who had been caught kissing and stroking a classmate, another girl.
In Zimbabwe, at the end of 1994, Bev Clark heard her story.
Mr. or Mrs.? Or both? Or sometimes a he and sometimes a she? In the depths of the sea, you can never tell.
Sea bass and other fish are virtuosos in the art of nonsurgical sex change. The girls become boys and the boys become girls with astonishing ease, with no condemnation or ridicule for betraying nature or God.
The house, made of grass and twigs, is much larger than its inhabitant.
Building it in the thorny brush takes only a couple of weeks. Adorning it, however, demands much more time and effort.
No two houses are alike. Each home is painted to order, with pigment made of crushed berries, and each is decorated in its own way. The surroundings are dressed with treasures from the forest or from the detritus of some nearby town: pebbles, flowers, snail shells, weeds, mosses are laid out to create harmony, and beer-bottle caps and bits of colored glass, preferably blue, depict circles or fans on the ground. These designs are arranged and rearranged a thousand times until they occupy the best spots for catching the light.
Not for nothing are the birds called bowerbirds. They are the most flamboyant art architects in the islands of Oceania.
When the bird finishes building his home and garden, he lingers. He sings and waits for the females to pass by. For one of them to pause in its flight and admire his work. And then to choose him.
Winter gives way and the frozen mist melts in the beechwood forests of Asturias, where witches and owls build their nests.
That's when the woodcocks sing from their high perches. The cocks call to the hens and the hens respond. It's still dark when the song-soaked dance begins. Red faces, white beaks, black beards: the woodcocks and the woodhens sway like tiny carnival masks.
Hunters crouch in the forest, trigger fingers at the ready.
It's not easy to catch woodcocks, tucked away as they are in their hiding places, safe from all danger. But the hunters know that the birds become blind and deaf for the duration of this fiesta, the mating dance.
Step by tiny step, thread by tiny thread, the male spider approaches the female.
He offers her music, playing the web like a harp, and he dances for her while he caresses her bit by bit until her velvet body faints.
Then, before embracing her with all eight arms, the male wraps the female in his web and ties her up tight. Otherwise, she will devour him when the lovemaking is over.
The male spider loves and leaves before the prisoner awakens and insists on breakfast with the bed.
Who can fathom the fellow? He tied her to get astride her, escaped without dying inside her, and now he misses his darling spider.
Logs ablaze, sausages spitting juices; roast meat emitting the most sinful aromas. In front of his big stone house in the Sierra de Minas, deep in the forest, Don Venancio was throwing a barbecue for his friends from the city.
They were about to tuck in when the youngest son, still a boy, announced, "There's a snake in the house."
Raising a stick, he asked, "Shall I kill it?"
He was given the go-ahead.
A little later, Don Venancio went inside to check on the boy's work: it was a job well done. The head, now crushed by blows, still bore the mark of a yellow cross. It was a cross-snake, and a big one, measuring two yards, maybe three.
Don Venancio congratulated his son, served the meat, and sat down. The barbecue went on at length with seconds and thirds and much wine.
At the end, Don Venancio raised his glass to the matador, offering him the skin as a trophy, and he invited all to come and see. "It was enormous, the bitch."
But when they entered the house, the serpent was gone.
Don Venancio gnashed his teeth and said there was nothing to be done. "Her companion must have carried her off to their cave."
It's always that way, he said. Whether male or female, the widow or widower always comes for the dead.
Then everyone went back to the table, to the wine and the chatter and the jokes.
Everyone, except Pinio Ungerfeld, who told me this story. He could not. He remained in the house a long while, staring at the dry black stain on the floor.
Excerpted from Voices of Time by Eduardo Galeano, Mark Fried. Copyright © 2006 Eduardo Galeano. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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