This fragment of the novel is set in Uruguay in 1976. At the time, the country was under a military dictatorship, with the largest number of political prisoners per capita in the world.
Winter in Montevideo was hard as the cement of the school yard. Off the concrete, everything else was mud. After a week of trudging through the rain and biting cold, Odile would drag herself and Héctor out of bed at the crack of dawn, brew a mate in one of Bruno’s old gourds, and set off in the old Citroën to pick up Estela and the kids. As they pulled up to the building, Estela would be standing by the door, bleary eyed but ready, Mateo and Lucía by her side. The two mothers in front, three sleepy children under wool blankets in back; this is how they drove out of the city. In his semi-conscious state, Héctor always felt something essential had been left behind. Fathers were missing: his own, detained four years ago, and Mateo and Lucia’s, arrested a year later. As much as he strained to hear what the mothers discussed, he could never catch more than a few words. Even then, they always spoke in code if they thought the children were within earshot. Asking questions never led anywhere; adults were hardly to be trusted anyway. There was no soft, alternate world, except in bed at night, wrapped up and hugging a pillow. And then there was Villa Serrana, the little house where they spent most weekends. They had started traveling there together once the fathers were taken, when Héctor was five and Mateo four. At first the boys fought constantly and Lucía sulked, too old for the boys’ games and too young to share in the complicity of the two women. Estela sometimes lost her patience and yelled so desperately at her kids that Héctor got scared. Then Odile would lay a hand on Estela’s arm and lead her away from the children, who would also move away from one another, into their individual worlds. In those moments, the missing fathers became evident like a hole in a seam, gaping underneath a raised arm, or a rip that spreads on jeans when a knee bends. That’s how Héctor thought of them all, and especially of himself: as worn out clothing that no one could patch. In spite of the conflicts, the mothers insisted on reassembling the group over a meal, or for a walk by the shore. Then they would travel to the country again, each one of them trying to find safety, to build a sense of equilibrium in the topsy-turvy world they’d been given. Over time they got better at it; each one learned to shift, to expand toward the other, to stretch over the missing parts. Estela, when calm, would play the guitar for them and tell folk tales that made even Lucía laugh. Odile took them on long hikes, taught them to identify mushrooms, tiny flowers, insects, and the strange world of the forest. On these weekends away, reality released its hold on them, and even the despair over the fathers’ absences receded far enough to allow them to enjoy their provisional family. Cheek leaning against the cool, vibrating window, Héctor watches the sky throw its grays and blues over the rough waters of the estuary. Then he sees everything transform as the road turns northward from the coast and up into the hills, where the faded, silky landscape rolls like a gentler, slower ocean, the car navigating its swells with ease. Unless they break down along the way, which often happens, they will be ensconced in Villa Serrana by mid-morning, opening up Estela’s little house, releasing the humidity accumulated over the past week into the limpid air. Uneasiness always dominates the arrival for Héctor. He resists having to emerge from the blankets in the back seat until Odile patiently coaxes him out. This time he has forgotten to pull on his shoes and steps in socks onto the dewy, overgrown grass. Regardless of its familiarity, the house, especially fatherless, poses certain dangers: wasps behind the curtains, spiders presiding in every nook. Outside is just as risky: the poisonous aruera bush in the front yard, snakes in the ravine, wild boar, plus the endless array of menacing creatures that lurk in his imagination. So he stands, paralyzed, watching the mothers flurry about. They light the wood stove, set the mondongo stew on the range to warm up for lunch, and shake out the bed linens in the sunny meadow next to the house. “Where’s Mateo? Why don’t you go find him?” Estela points Héctor out the door. He knows Mateo is by the cliff side, luring feral cats from their miniature caves. His mother brings him a broom. “Here Héctor, if you’re going to stay inside, then don’t stand there like a potted plant.” Sweeping warms him up but soon he loses his focus and wanders about, broom still in hand. He takes his father’s binoculars from the mantle and hangs them around his neck, trying to feel his presence. But it’s a mistake, he can’t even imagine his father today, and he bites his bottom lip hard enough to taste the blood under the almost broken skin. Under the bed are his boots, as always, still muddy from the previous weekend. He places them just outside the door, ready to be pulled on as soon as he steps out. He leans the broom against a corner and takes down a box that has caught his eye from a shelf in the hallway. Inside is a collection of stones, all different shapes and colors, which he is laying out one by one on the coffee table when, out of nowhere, a pillow comes down on his head. Oblivious to the insects and cobwebs that perturbed him minutes ago, he is down on the cold flagstones, wrestling with Mateo who, at eight, is smaller and more compact, but the stronger of the two. Lucía, who has been trying to read on the couch, scoffs at the laughing and shouting. “Be quiet, pests!” “Go outside children,” says Estela from the doorway to the kitchen, “that’s what we came for!” Odile is adding fresh leaves to the mate gourd, while Estela clears off the table by the stove, where they’ll sit and talk for as long as the children give them peace. “Go!” Mateo stuffs tangerines into the pockets of his oversized coat and runs out. Héctor pulls on his boots in a hurry, “Wait for me!” Lucía watches, annoyed, her index finger holding her place in the book. “You too Lucía, just because you’re older doesn’t mean you stay inside, go sit in the sun with your book!” As Lucía trudges out, Mateo pulls Héctor over the grass to the edge of the slope, then down onto the ground where they roll down the hill. They come to rest where the incline tapers off, the whole valley spinning out of control. Héctor watches the open sky unfurl over them and shouts out, “Look at the sky, it’s a parachute!” He closes his eyes and feels his body float down in its protection. Rays of sunlight filter through his eyelids as the sky deposits his body gently back on the hill. “What if these hills are monsters we’ve landed on?” “Dinosaurs, sleeping brontosauruses!” says Mateo. “No, something more furry.” Héctor feels the flank of the monster expand as it inhales. He runs his hand over grassy fur, then feels Mateo’s earthy fingers pry at his mouth to open it and drop in a piece of stolen candy. The melting chocolate swirling on his tongue is the dreamy, meditative eye of the beast. He smells a tangerine, opens his eyes, and sees Mateo’s face, impossibly close. “Boo!” he says, and stuffs the fruit down Héctor’s shirt. They both jump up, grab the first sticks they see lying about, and begin to spar. Héctor seizes Mateo’s weapon and runs off into the woods, toward the creek and its waterfall. “Jump in, I dare you!” But it’s too cold for them to tear their clothes off and bound into the water like they did in summer. Even then they gasped for breath as the freezing, crystalline water poured over their heads. Instead they dig up a box that holds Mateo’s hatchet, buried by the willow tree after the mothers threatened to confiscate it, and start cutting branches to build a fort. Splinters lodge in Héctor’s palms, mud seeps through the knees of his jeans, sap sticks to his curly hair. He ignores the discomfort, then forgets it as they start to set branches in place. Mateo loses interest first and resorts to hacking carelessly at the trees higher up the hill while Héctor continues building with dogged determination. When the fort is just about ready, Mateo comes barreling into the structure, completely destroying it. A fight ensues, with the boys yelling and shoving each other until Héctor threatens to go back to the house and Mateo breaks down in tears. Too tired to continue the battle, they reconstruct the fort and crawl inside. Both of them know, though neither will say, that they sit in a prison cell. They make plans for their next building project, a treehouse big enough to spend the night inside. But soon they hear a rustling nearby, and they remember Lucía warning them about jaguars. When they step out with their spears, the first raindrops are filtering through the canopy of leaves, splattering on their heads. Spooked, they run back to the house through a forest darkened and unfamiliar. At night, the house glows with the light of kerosene lamps. The children snuggle under blankets while Estela plays guitar, and they fall asleep as the strumming blends with the murmur of the two women’s voices. When the wind in the chimney whistles them awake in the morning, they don't remember their mothers carrying them to bed, tucking them in. During breakfast, they watch from the window as Odile paces anxiously over the terrain around the house. She calls to Estela as she comes back inside, “You know the history of this place, right?” “A national park, yes. It was my aunt’s house before she died.” “The native plants were supposed to be protected, did she tell ever tell you that? The residents had an obligation.” “You want to save the aruera?” Estela’s laughter is a soft bell. “Remember what it did to Héctor? Hives all over his body?” “That one we can’t even touch. But let’s get rid of the eucalyptus trees for a start. The kids are old enough to help now. At least within your property, we can give the native plants a hand, they’re struggling for space to grow.” This is not the first time Odile brings up the eucalyptus trees. Estela usually resists, out of a lack of energy and unwillingness to work on the land. But this time she agrees and follows Odile’s lead with the easy, gentle disposition that only settles over her when they’re out of the city. It’s true, these trees that leach the soil of nutrients have invaded the landscape around the house; they can grow two or three meters in just a year. After breakfast, all five set out with hatchets and saws to take down the eucalyptus trees. Layers of clothing unpeel as bodies warm up, cheeks ruddied from the wind and rough labor. The cows that roam freely over the hills watch confused as the women and children hack at the larger saplings or grind through the trunks. By late morning they’ve built an enormous pile of logs, enough to last the wood stove through the winter. The smaller, useless branches they pile in the fire pit. As night falls, Lucía lights the bonfire and they stand around it, exhausted from the work, watching the flames dance up into a sky crisscrossed by swallows. Mateo boasts that he’ll jump over it, and Estela laughs instead of warning him as she normally would. Héctor looks into the crackling, bursting fire, and then through the transparent auras of the orange flames. Everything on the other side wavers like water, including his mother. There she stands, liquid, but the tears streaming from her eyes are not an optical illusion. While everyone else stares into the fire, entranced, he watches his mother right through it, with her defenses down. As soon as she catches his eye she shouts across, impatient, “Stand back from the flames, Torito!” She sighs. “How many times do I have to tell you to be careful with fire?” He takes a few steps back, never letting go of his mother’s eyes, which turn down to the ground before she ducks behind Lucía and walks down the hill, into the meadow. The next day, after lunch, they close up the house. The patchwork family piles into the car to go exploring, as the children call it, before heading back to the city. Soon after Oscar’s arrest, Odile had offered to teach Estela to drive on these country roads. And so the exploring began, with a cautious Estela moving the car at a turtle pace. But she has long since lost her fear, and she takes the wheel now, leading them down the dirt road with intrepid joy. Although they start out slowly, Estela’s foot presses harder and harder on the accelerator until the car reaches an exhilarating speed. Odile clutches the sides of the seat as though it will save her from imminent catastrophe. “Slow down Estela, slow down. You still don’t have your license!” “I’m alright, you’re alright, it’s all good!” she says, excited. The car barrels down the road at breakneck speed, Héctor and Mateo egging her on, until she gasps and brakes abruptly. The kids bump their heads on the seats in front of them and Odile cries, “Merde alors!” as Estela reaches her hand back for her camera, which sits on Lucía’s lap, exclaiming, “That weather vane! Look! Just a perfect silhouette against the sky!” The kids and Odile watch in slight amusement as she jumps out of the car to take a photograph. She comes running back and dives into her seat to continue on. Again, they begin to pick up speed to the tune of Odile’s admonitions. Now the kids point out the window at potential photographs for Estela: a wild horse, smoke rising from a fire in the distance, an abandoned carriage. Estela ignores them until something new strikes her fancy. She breaks less roughly this time, then sets the car in reverse and drives backwards fifty meters. The boys laugh while Lucía rolls her eyes, and Odile shakes her head. “What now Estela?” “Didn’t you see that graffiti?” Spray-painted in blue, on the side of a concrete bus shelter: Hay un país distinto en algún lugar. She jumps out of the car again, muttering something under her breath about needing to capture it before the milicos come and whitewash the wall. As Estela sprints back from the bus shelter, Héctor, who’s been looking out the rear windshield, sees a car approaching in the distance. In the meantime, Odile has moved over to the driver’s seat. When Estela realizes this, she grimaces, pretending to be angry, and shakes her fist at them as she runs around to the other side of the car. She sinks into the passenger seat laughing, “I guess I failed my driving lesson today.” In that same instant all five jump as a car door slams behind them. They turn to see a policeman walking up to the car. “You’re parked in the middle of the highway ma’am.” “I’m sorry. The car just stopped on its own. I don’t know what’s wrong. We had to…” But Odile’s voice trails off, she can’t come up with a valid excuse. “Documents please.” “I’m sorry, we don’t have anything for you,” by which Héctor knows she means they don’t have enough money for the standard bribe. “Your documents ma’am.” Héctor sees her hand tremble as she reaches into her purse to pull out her identity card. “Come with us.” Estela protests, “But officer, I can’t drive! Can’t you see, sir, that if you take her you’ll leave me stranded here with the car and three children?” Odile gives Estela a warning look that cuts her words short. She steps out of the car and says to her, while looking straight into Héctor’s frightened eyes, “Of course you can drive. Everything will be fine. Meet me back in town.” Then to the officer, “You’re taking me to the station, correct?” “Yes ma’am.” Fear takes a hold of Héctor’s throat, it threatens to strangle him as Estela reaches a hand back to touch his knee. He swallows with difficulty, fighting back the tears. “Everything will be ok, you’ll see.” Héctor feels reality rush away from him, leaving him, abandoned, on a desert. He spirals in the same dizziness he experienced after rolling down the hill. But there’s no sky parachute to slow his fall this time. He sinks and sinks. Estela drives into town, slowly and carefully, with an eerie quiet in the car. She parks along the main square and they file into the bakery where she buys natillas for the children. Then she and Héctor sit on a bench directly facing the police station while Lucía and Mateo play hide and go seek with the local kids. The children make as much noise as the flocks of parrots in the palm trees of the plaza. Héctor listens as all the sounds mix: birds, children, rustling leaves, until he can no longer differentiate between them. If each sound started as a distinct color, the voices, the chirps, the wind in the palm fronds, they have now blended together into an indistinct gray. Even Estela’s voice, when she attempts to talk to him from time to time, means nothing. He only registers the milicos standing at attention in front of the police headquarters, sharply outlined against the sky blue of the building. He narrows his eyes until the building disappears into the actual sky, then the wall no longer exists, and only the officers remain, watching warily, holding their machine guns. He attempts to make them disappear too, to blend them into the trees, but their outlines only become more distinct and deadly. He looks away, beyond the square and the town, to where the hills are turning pink. They burn up in slow motion, orange and red. Can anyone else see, Héctor wonders, the flames rising from the grass, the eyes of the dinosaur smoldering with the setting sun caught inside them? Héctor uncrosses his arms, he wants them to stretch like those of a superhero, much farther than they can go, to reach his mother. “Let her out,” he demands, over the heads of the milicos, beyond the police headquarters, to the dinosaur in the hills. “Let her out,” he repeats over and over in a faltering voice. Estela’s hand wraps around his shoulder, not a protection he can believe in, and his whole body trembles. It is night time when they finally see Odile walk out of the station. Estela crosses the street with the children and the five stand in a clump, Héctor in Odile’s arms, Odile in Estela’s arms, Mateo and Lucía wrapped around them. They turn down the block to where the car is parked and enter carefully, as if any abrupt movement could shatter the miracle of her emergence. Still, the car doors shut too loudly for Héctor, startling the tears from his eyes. By the time they reach the coast, the water is pitch black, lapping invisibly at the sand next to the highway. Estela hums a valsa and Héctor leans his wet cheek on the window where it slides with every bump. Wavering signposts emerge in the beams of the headlights, then disappear. Their rhythm varies, marking the speed of the car. When Héctor finally closes his stinging eyes, he sees the hill country turned into a flat desert land and the herd of dinosaurs receding over it. The cascade is gone and the water from the creek flows directionless, its narrow canyon barely a groove in the land. The water creeps and spreads over the territory as the beasts march north toward their extinction.