This is what he tells me. He was married before but the soldiers shot his first wife, and only later did he marry our Mamá. At least half my life gone and only today I am hearing this, from a professional liar. The old dilemma: how can I be sure if it’s honesty or only spite because of what I saw? Unbelievable. I could kill him.
‘There’s more than one kind of colonel with a gun, Cristina…’
Above that grin his steely hair slicks back but there’s no perspiration. He coughs, curse-edged, the old bones chilled despite another heatwave. Papá bends closer, as though stooped over fire tongues, quoting his poet. He’ll cheer for a football team half a world away. He’ll spit venom at any government but he reserves his biggest sneer for the centre-right coalición. Maybe my freeway incident has stirred interest in his old stories; or does he dislike the tale because he wishes he’d written it and perhaps wonders whether he did? It can’t be a coincidence that he picks now to divulge this first wife, recasting the verity of Mamá.
In a cab, on my return from the airport, I’d been flicking conference notes. Sun danced on surfaces of dusk: side-mirrors, roof racks, oncoming windshields, and the glare from my page. My eyelids felt sticky. Sweat banded my blouse. It was then that I saw a man stroking a guitar: black curls, a minstrel in an embroidered shirt, singing on the grass, in the middle of a freeway. I called out. Pylons blinded my view. The sundown smeared bloody. I had to tell Papá.
He’s losing his appetite and his eyesight. As I related my incident, I hoped to remind him of stories he would tell us as girls: dust-throated ballads of horse thieves, riflemen and losbandidos; word-painted heroes in headscarves and wide hats, swords, bandoliers and swagger. The old man’s forehead shone. I poured him a drink against medical orders, and watched it light the ruin of that complexion. Papá likes to read by a swan-necked lamp. Throwing down his verse book, he pointed to precious items that he’s always said he tucked into his pocket so many years ago, when fleeing with us at the height of a massacre. Or so the story goes.
Now he sought to wreck it. He pointed at the small painting he had saved: a woman with milk pail; her bosom powerful, her lips chilli-red, eyes dark as bullets, hair woolly like mine. That was his signature at her feet: one of his peasant subjects. In the background, older women bent for crops.
‘My first wife,’ he said.
His what? We were back to playing tricks: the story man, the song man. Mamá’s illness was no tale, I said. But I lacked photos and he knew it. My sister and I have no language certainty, no aunts or grandmothers for confirmation. They disappeared, like Papá’s forefinger. All this time, could he have been lying for our protection, or for the sake of his songs, to keep them alive, adjusting each one in the telling?
This is what he said. Retaining only Mamá’s rosary beads in my pocket, I ran with Bernardita and my father. A boat took us, then a jet, to a dry land of kangaroos and huge skies, where girls did not speak our tongue. I never saw Mamá’s body. Growing up an ocean removed, I have needed only faith. Yesterday the old man snapped that bridge, smiling from his bed, under the mother-of-pearl crucifix I gave him as a schoolgirl, when my forehead was smudged in ash.
‘Didn’t you know about her, niña?’ he said, cheeks crinkling. ‘Oh, Cristina was beautiful. The devil took our women: nosdesaparacidas. So we must sing them…’
She could not have been called that. He’s losing his senses, unstuck in time.
This is what I’ve known. I am named after his baby sister, the one who died. I used to promise Papá that, upon reaching womanhood, I’d storm home to fight the generals. Bernardita and I have placed faith in an icon Mamá dying of heart disease. His new game messes with my mind. The old man’s voice has been growing weaker. His songs depend on a key note or word and if one goes awry, the song falls apart.
There is only one wife, I kept saying. But as I circled more roundabouts, my logic and stupidity changed lanes. Of course, soldiers could have taken Mamá. Perhaps he didn’t tell because we belong to his songs: the whole cycle a greater truth. Is his every interpretation another betrayal? He hides behind each one, pretending to repatriate but stumbling down a frontier of conspiracy and despair.
No more. I will not accept new versions. I will not be his little girl in white lace making her First Communion. Papá has cut a hole where my mother should be. I refuse to insert a cartoon version of her, a motion trick for the eye.
Often my sister and I have quarrelled over what steps to take when he becomes too frail. We rotate visiting duties but I suspect the burden will fall to me: as the younger, and unattached. Bernardita toils at a workplace of spin, selling socialism to business and privatisation to anarchists. She sells us all: a multicultural tableau; with its package deal of her, Papá and me. Without a twitch of irony, she explains how caring for him will ease my loneliness. And Papá plays us against each other: one last barricade as his orange-peel cheeks crinkle. Once firm as a cigar, his moustache droops. Creases on that neck grow pale.
‘Tell me about your musician…’ he said again.
This is what I saw. The same man but the following day, under a sky hot as fever. Moments before, I couldn’t have been angrier: my gut churning and heart racing. How dare Papá conjure up a previous wife! Foot stamping my accelerator, my fist slammed the wheel. Other vessels shoved and hustled down a eucalypt-lined motorway where shrubs and trees clustered into one long smudge, and where traffic shook through tunnel and valley as the mind unravelled. To earn a living, I advise on transport policy for a revolving door of cabinet ministers, who read my reports and then shelve them. This latest worthy keeps changing her position, threatening to dismantle rail networks or bus lines, and then talking of free rides. She tinkers with toll-way contracts and holds community consultation into ticketing systems; yet nothing changes. Costs soar and delays lengthen. It’s the fault of the opposition party or the transport corporation: always someone else.
My car radio was spitting with talkback vitriol. Poking at FM stations, I couldn’t find one to satisfy. Then I saw him: the man in a scarlet cravat, sun glinting on his guitar. Clouds pressed like a broken roof. In a free-fall moment I tumbled, brain-weary: evaluating, positing, scoping and canvassing. What exactly was a median strip? Was it any more than an interstice, a lacuna, a between place? Alice plummeted down a rabbit hole, indexing protocol options and sketching a thumbnail risk analysis of feeder roads, with reference to the role played by bisecting verges. Mad without a hat, I was a rabbit late with my white paper, crazy for pathologies of the contemporary concourse. My ex used to say that my brain took a U-turn at feelings. He was all feeling. We loved but then we cancelled out one another; by the end barely speaking. Silence hardened in our bed like crust. And still I fell, on the way down overhearing a minister’s voice ring through parliament:
‘And so, Mr Speaker, what precisely is this topographical waiting room…?’
Fool. Of course no one could hear a tune above motor racket. Of course it was mere prankery or protest. Couldn’t I let go of foolishness? I wasn’t one of Papá’s ancestors cowering for demons. Decibel levels from ten thousand vehicles would have to smother music. My guitarist could be no more than a busker for the deaf.
‘I believe you, niña,’ he said. ‘In our country, singing was a crime…’
I heard and saw it happening: his story twisting into mine, until he could claim he hadn’t abandoned the vanished. Though members of his family had faced the firing squad or rotted in jail, he sang them Hispanic spirituals: savage and brittle with love for the crushed freedom flower, strange fruit, corpses swinging.
So faltering is his hold on memory, that if I were to cross-examine him on each of his songs, the truth would crumble; especially the tale of a woman who sang in railway sheds or churchyards. No more would I believe, only deduce. Perhaps she was truly wife number one, or even our true Mamá. He always claimed that a police captain shot that singer in the throat, to make an example. Watching her bleed, he said he cried for help with his arms pinned as police dragged him away. In prison he told stories to cellmates under the eye of cradled guns: his first time, soon after the coup. That’s what he’s always said.
‘Pretty,’ he told me, reaching to stroke my chin. ‘Like your mother. No more man friends for you? What happened to that Peter?’
I didn’t respond to his gambit.
‘The guitarist,’ I explained. ‘Just a stunt. A performance artist.’
‘Songs are political, if they’re forbidden.’
He wagged what was left of a forefinger, cut from the man he was. Caressing with steel, a soldier had sliced it, seeking information. Or so the song went. Papá had me doubting all his stories. In the aftermath of a presidential palace bombing he escaped from captors, only to find his sisters turned to air. Can he remember with accuracy? Too many years of hearing his songs. We have only second-hand memory, its colours bleaching.
‘Guitar can be rebellion, niña: standing where you’re not supposed to.’
Fingers clawed at me for a cigarette but I wouldn’t give in. From his mantelpiece a thorn-crowned Jesus, heart bared, watched us; perhaps waiting for a healing word on the edge of speech.
‘It was one man singing, Papá.’
‘He doesn’t have to be heard.’
Could he be suffering from memory loss or just the fear of spies in his own head, as though some sergeant had infiltrated to thumb through papers? Next day I would take him to hospital for more tests.
This is how we went. As the car ate up bitumen, Papá urged more speed, voice twanging like a bowstring. He wanted to take the ring road. Knowing it wouldn’t save time, I humoured him, scything the air of a merge lane, until he indicated one particular rise.
‘Is that the place?’
Yes, he knew about the median strip: concrete most of the way, only turning green in this one section. Opening his window, he lit up, defying orders. His smoke puffed, dragging away in crosswinds. Instead of a road he could’ve been witnessing soccer fields or Victor Jara and Cerro San Cristóbal.
‘The poet tells us to look. “Juegas todos los días con la luz del universo.” ’
This is what I go through. He has outlived his women and his nation. Eighty thousand died after the president was killed. Papá fled to a new continent, where men drank icy beer and women did not vanish. On a metalworker’s wage, he fed and clothed us, eking out a living.
New-minted, Bernardita and I have mislaid his language and forgotten the chords. Old verses fade and our angel wings moult. We have disappeared to jobs and men, eating our Anglo-Celtic lotus and listening to local bands. Even when travelling Latin America I didn’t visit his village or see the snowy volcanoes he sings about. Neither of us has set foot where my father says battle sadness haunts the streets. He has never left. Notebook in hand, he struggles for the words. Rarely does he sleep all night, dreaming perhaps of bedrooms blood-soaked where soldiers break in without warning. Or maybe he has no dreams at all. Which would be worse?
In my car he was reading aloud from a homegrown newspaper, sneering about economic reform and Christian Democrats. He urged me to speed up, striking the dashboard like a horse’s flank.
‘Shouldn’t I be slowing down and smelling the roses?’
Above a smoker’s cough, Papá wagged the finger stub, speaking through hoarse gulps.
‘Sí. A joke on policia. Joke for your friends, eh? Voice from the wilderness.’
Driving faster, we dipped and swooped like a kite on a beach. In the service road, roadwork men in orange hats and green vests waved us to proceed.
‘You believe this singer is sending me up? A satire?’
‘Those power lines, like sky handwriting. Like poetry, eh?’
Papá rasped a chuckle, as if his Adam’s apple had shrivelled. I’ve heard him trade wit over cards with other expatriates, keening for the dead.
‘Just a prank, Papá. That’s all.’
He smiled under a mended nose, while I felt sorry for the other patients. And presently doctors gave me the bad news: he was fine, for now; smirking at me from a hospital bed, holding up inconclusive test results. Once more, I would have to confer with Bernardita. How long could we allow this independence fiction?
Next day I shambled home at traffic dusk, watching other drivers mime to radio songs, while drifting into my own. And then the man appeared, taunting from a median strip, now part of a duo: collateral troubadours, guitars sunset-burnished.
I braked, swerving to the emergency lane while stabbing at a window button and jumping out. But when I arrived on the grass my singers had gone: just cars and more cars, streaming like a post-game crowd. I had broken a heel in moist ground for nothing. Grass led down to a culvert, darkness inking in green dimple. Had they vanished into a sewer retreat like Harry Lime or Jean Valjean? Back behind the wheel, I forced a wedge in traffic, racing to tell Papá.
But my sister had arrived first.
This is what I have. Bernardita and I were alike as schoolgirls but we’ve taken different roads. With Papá she has little patience, toughened by disposable relationships. Her latest has lasted three years, while I’m alone again.
Papá embraced me, perhaps to annoy Bernardita. A devil at cards, his friends used to say.
‘Your sister wants to put me in a home.’
So, she had broached the subject. Papá once claimed that my sister took after our mother. I no longer knew what that might mean.
‘You won’t live forever,’ I said, resettling the chair blanket.
Papá bristled, mouth whitening like a bit flecked with foam. He said he didn’t want our pity, that he was good for ten more years. I insisted he take some hot milk. He refused to relinquish his hunt for loopholes. In a corner of the sofa, he helped himself to empañadas, and then grabbed my sleeve.
‘How is your musician, Cristina?’
So. Revenge on me for siding with the enemy. She asked, of course.
‘No, it’s a vision,’ Papá explained, ‘a freedom fighter.’
I protested, shaking my head.
‘A prankster on the freeway.’
She asked if the man was dangerous. Our father laughed, saying that danger took many shapes.
‘Quiet, Papá. Let her tell.’
With unwillingness, I recounted my new sighting. Bernadita sounded concerned.
‘Police will catch them.’
‘Why? What have they done?’
‘Papá, consider the risk. It’s a buffer zone, not some playground.’
He shook his fist, raising the finger stub.
‘One day – all billboards, for miles. These men warn you. No más.’
‘Oh God, listen to him. They’re just some idiots. They should be reported.’
He called her an informer. He called her capitán.
‘Cristina says you can’t even hear them.’
He gestured in triumph. He said there was once a king who shouted at the sea.
‘These singers, they fight back…’
She told him he had it all wrong. Tears steamed in her eyes, cheeks reddening. I saw Papá flush too. His neck strained, as if on the point of utterance; a peace offering of love. Nothing came. Bernardita threw up hands, grabbing her bag.
‘That king wasn’t… Oh, forget it. No one cares about your singers.’
When the door slammed, I folded a chair blanket. His shoulders retreated.
‘She doesn’t take your teasing, Papá.’
He shrugged like the grandchild he didn’t have.
‘Make me some coffee, niña?’