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The Country Boy
THE CHILEAN FOREST
Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest … My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe … The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb enter my nostrils and flood my whole being … The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way … This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves … I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab … A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning … Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time … A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it … Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows … They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways … A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper … A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight … Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting … High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries … The red copihue is the blood flower, the white copihue is the snow flower … A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom … The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off … The piercing interruption of a hidden bird … The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm churns up all the music of the earth.
Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.
I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.
CHILDHOOD AND POETRY
I’ll start out by saying this about the days and the years of my childhood: the rain was the one unforgettable presence for me then. The great southern rain, coming down like a waterfall from the Pole, from the skies of Cape Horn to the frontier. On this frontier, my country’s Wild West, I first opened my eyes to life, the land, poetry, and the rain.
I have traveled a lot, and it seems to me that the art of raining, practiced with a terrible but subtle power in my native Araucanía, has now been lost. Sometimes it rained for a whole month, for a whole year. Threads of rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs or coming up against the windows in transparent waves, and each house was a ship struggling to make port in the ocean of winter.
This cold rain from the south of the Americas is not the sudden squall of hot rain that comes down like a whip and goes on, leaving a blue sky in its wake. The southern rain is patient and keeps falling endlessly from the gray sky.
The street in front of my house has turned into a huge sea of mud. Out the window, through the rain, I watch a cart stuck in the middle of the street. A peasant wearing a heavy black woolen cloak beats his oxen; the rain and the mud are too much for them.
We used to walk to school, along the unpaved sidewalks, stepping from stone to stone, despite the cold and the rain. The wind carried off our umbrellas. Raincoats were expensive, I didn’t like gloves, my shoes got soaked through. I’ll always remember the wet socks hanging next to the brazier, and lots of shoes, steaming like toy locomotives. Then the floods would come and wash away the settlements along the river, where the poor lived. The earth shook and trembled. At other times, a crest of terrifying light appeared on the sierras: Mt. Llaima, the volcano, was stirring.
Temuco was the farthest outpost of Chilean life in the southern territories, and therefore it had a long bloody history behind it.
When the Spanish conquistadors pushed them back, after three hundred years of fighting, the Araucanian Indians retreated to those cold regions. But the Chileans continued what they called “the pacification of Araucanía,” their war of blood and fire to turn our countrymen out of their own lands. Every kind of weapon was used against the Indians, unsparingly: carbine blasts, the burning of villages, and later, a more fatherly method, alcohol and the law. The lawyer became a specialist at stripping them of their fields, the judge sentenced them when they protested, the priest threatened them with eternal fire. And hard spirits finally consummated the annihilation of a superb race whose deeds, valor, and beauty Don Alonso de Ercilla carved in stanzas of jade and iron in his Araucana.
My parents had come from Parral, where I was born. There, in central Chile, vineyards thrive and wine is plentiful. My mother, Doña Rosa Basoalto, died before I could have a memory of her, before I knew it was she my eyes gazed upon. I was born on July 12, 1904, and a month later, in August, wasted away by tuberculosis, my mother was gone.
Life was difficult for small farmers in the central part of the country. My grandfather Don José Angel Reyes had little land and many children. To me, my uncles’ names were like the names of princes from far-off kingdoms. Amós, Oseas, Joel, Abadías. My father’s name was simply José del Carmen. He left his father’s farm while he was still very young and worked as a laborer at the dry docks in the port of Talcahuano, eventually becoming a railroad man in Temuco.
He was a conductor on a ballast train. Few people know what a ballast train is. In the southern region, with its violent gales, the rains would wash away the rails if gravel wasn’t poured in between the ties. The ballast had to be taken out of the quarries in hods and this coarse gravel dumped onto flatcars. Forty years ago, the crew on this type of train had to be made of iron. They came from the fields, from the suburbs, from jails, and were huge, muscular laborers. The company paid miserable wages and no references were asked of those looking for work on these trains. My father, the conductor, had grown used to giving and taking orders. Sometimes he took me along. We quarried rocks in Boroa, savage heart of the frontier, scene of the terrible battles between the Spaniards and the Araucanians.
There, nature made me euphoric. Birds, beetles, partridge eggs fascinated me. What a miracle it was, finding them in the ravines, blue, dark, and shiny, the color of a shotgun barrel. I marveled at the perfection of the insects. I collected “snake mothers.” This was the grotesque name given to the largest beetle, black, glistening, and tough, the titan of insects in Chile. He gives you quite a turn when you come upon him suddenly, on the trunk of a ginger, wild-apple, or coihue tree, and I knew he was so strong that I could stand on him and he wouldn’t even crack. With his mighty shield to protect him, he had no need of venomous pincers.
My expeditions filled the workers with curiosity. Before long, they started taking an active interest in my discoveries. The moment my father’s back was turned, they slipped off into the jungle, and with more skill, strength, and intelligence than I, they found fantastic treasures for me. There was one fellow called Monge. According to my father, he was a dangerous man with a knife. He had two huge incisions on his swarthy face. One was the vertical scar left by a knife, and the other his white, horizontal grin, full of charm and deviltry. This fellow, Monge, would bring me white copihues, furry spiders, sucking ringdoves, and once he found for me the most dazzling of all, the beetle of the coihue and the luma trees. I don’t know if you have ever seen one. That was the only time I ever did. It was a streak of lightning dressed in the colors of the rainbow. Red and violet and green and yellow glittered on its shell. It escaped from my hands with the speed of lightning and went back into the forest again. Monge wasn’t there to catch it for me. I have never quite recovered from that dazzling apparition. Nor have I forgotten my friend. My father told me about his death. He fell from a train and tumbled down a precipice. The convoy was stopped, but by then, my father told me, he was just a sack of bones.
* * *
It’s difficult to describe a house like ours, a typical frontier house of sixty years ago.
In the first place, these homes intercommunicated. Through the patio of the Reyeses, and the Ortegas, of the Candia and the Mason families, tools and books, birthday cakes, liniments, umbrellas, tables and chairs changed hands. These pioneer homes formed the hub of all the activities of the village.
Don Carlos Mason, a North American with a white mane of hair, who looked like Emerson, was the patriarch of this particular family. The Mason children were true creoles. Don Carlos respected the law and the Bible. He was not an empire builder but one of the original settlers. No one had money, and yet printing presses, hotels, slaughterhouses burgeoned in this family. Some of the sons were newspaper editors and others just worked for them. In time, everything crumbled and everyone was left as poor as before. Only the Germans kept a stubborn hold on their assets, and that singled them out in the hinterlands.
Our houses, then, had something of a settlers’ temporary camp about them. Or of an explorers’ supply base. Anyone who came in saw kegs, tools, saddles, and all kinds of indescribable objects.
There were always rooms that weren’t finished, and half-completed stairways. There was, forever, talk of going on with the building. Parents were already beginning to think of a university education for their children.
In Don Carlos Mason’s home, the most important holidays were observed. For every birthday dinner there was turkey with celery, lamb barbecued on a wooden spit, and floating island for dessert. It has been many years since I last tasted this custard. The white-haired patriarch sat at the head of the interminable table with his wife, Doña Micaela Candia. Behind him, there was a huge Chilean flag with a tiny American one pinned onto it. Those were also the proportions of their blood. Chile’s lone star predominated.
In the Mason house there was also a living room that we children were not allowed to go into. I never knew what color its furniture was, because it was kept under white covers, until a fire swept it away. There was an album in there with photographs of the family, finer and more delicate than the horrid colored blowups that invaded the frontier later on.
There was a picture of my mother. She was a lady dressed in black, slender, with a faraway look. I have been told that she wrote poems, but I have never seen them, only the lovely portrait.
My father had married again; his second wife was Doña Trinidad Candia Marverde, my stepmother. I find it hard to believe that this is what I must call the guardian angel of my childhood. She was devoted and loving, and had a countrywoman’s sense of humor and a diligent, inexhaustible kindness.
As soon as my father came in, she would turn into a quiet shadow, as did all the women there in those days.
I saw mazurkas and quadrilles danced in that living room.
At home we had a trunk filled with fascinating things. A marvelous parrot preened on a calendar at the bottom of the chest. One day, while my mother was going through that sacred ark, I reached for the parrot and fell in, head first. As I got older, I used to open the trunk on the sly. There were some lovely fragile fans in it.
I recall something else in that trunk. The first love story that intrigued me passionately. It consisted of hundreds of postcards sent by someone who signed himself Enrique or Alberto, I don’t remember which, all addressed to María Thielman. These cards were marvelous. They were photographs of the great actresses of the day, embossed with little chips of glass and sometimes with real hair pasted on the heads. There were also castles, cities, and foreign landscapes. For years I found pleasure only in the pictures. But, as I grew older, I read those love notes written in a flawless hand. I always imagined the suitor as a man with a derby, a cane, and a diamond stickpin. His messages, sent from all corners of the globe, were filled with reckless passion expressed in dazzling phrases, with love that threw caution to the winds. I, too, began to fall in love with María Thielman. I imagined her as a haughty actress diademed, covered with pearls. But how did these letters come to be in my mother’s trunk? I never found out.
The year 1910 came to Temuco. That memorable year I started school, in a rambling mansion with sparsely furnished rooms and a gloomy basement. In the spring we could see from the school the graceful Cautín River winding its way down below, its shores bordered with wild-apple trees. We used to sneak out of class to dip our feet in the cold water running over the white stones.
The school opened infinite vistas for this six-year-old. Anything might contain a mystery. The physics lab, which I was not allowed to enter—filled with glistening instruments, retorts, and test tubes. The library, forever closed. The sons of settlers had no love of book learning. Still, the cellar was the most fascinating place of all. There was a deep silence, a deep darkness, but with candles to light it up for us, we used to play war games there. The victors would tie their prisoners to some ancient columns. The odor of dampness, of a hideaway, a tomb, given off by the school basement in Temuco, still haunts my memory.
I grew older. Books began to interest me. Buffalo Bill’s adventures and Salgari’s voyages carried me far into the world of dreams. My first loves, the purest ones, found expression in letters to Blanca Wilson, the blacksmith’s daughter. One of the boys had fallen head over heels in love with her and asked me to write his love letters. I don’t remember what these letters were like exactly, but they may have been my first literary achievement, because one day, when I ran into this schoolgirl, she asked if I was the author of the letters her sweetheart brought her. I couldn’t deny my work and I said yes, very embarrassed. Then she handed me a quince, which of course I would not eat and put away like a treasure. Having thus replaced my friend in the girl’s heart, I went on writing endless love letters to her and receiving quinces.
The boys in school didn’t know I was a poet and wouldn’t have respected me for it. The frontier still had its marvelous quality of a Wild West without prejudices. My companions’ names were Schnake, Schler, Hauser, Smith, Taito, Seranis. All of us, including the Aracenas and the Ramírezes and the Reyeses, were equal. There were no Basque family names. There were Sephardim: Albalas, Francos. And Irish: McGintys. Poles: Yanichewskys. The Araucanian names gave off a mysterious light, an aroma of wood and water: Melivilus, Catrileos.
Sometimes we would fight with acorns in the huge closed-in shed. Anyone who has never been hit by an acorn doesn’t know how much it really hurts. Before reaching school, we would stuff our pockets with ammunition. I had little skill, no strength, and not much cunning. I always got the worst of it. While I was busy examining the marvelous acorn, green and polished, with its gray, wrinkled hood, or while I was still trying clumsily to make one of those pipes they eventually would grab away from me, a downpour of acorns would pelt my head. During my second year, I decided to wear a bright green rain hat. It belonged to my father, like the heavy woolen cape, the red and green signal lanterns, which I found so fascinating and took to school as soon as I got the chance, to strut around with them … This time it was pouring and there was nothing so fantastic as the green oilskin hat that looked like a parrot. The moment I reached the shed, where three hundred roughnecks were chasing around like madmen, my hat flew off like a parrot. I ran after it, and each time I was about to catch it, off it flew, followed by the most deafening howls I have ever heard. I never laid eyes on it again.
Among these memories I can’t see clearly the precise order of time. I confuse insignificant events that were very special to me, and this one coming back to my mind now seems to have been my first erotic adventure, strangely mixed in with natural history. Perhaps love and nature were, very early on, the source of my poems.
Across from my house lived two girls who were always giving me looks that made my face turn red. They were as precocious and diabolical as I was timid and quiet. This time I stood in my doorway trying not to look at them; they were holding something that fascinated me. I went closer, gingerly, and they showed me a wild bird’s nest, woven together with moss and tiny feathers; in it were several marvelous little turquoise-blue eggs. When I reached for it, one of the girls told me that they would have to feel through my clothes first. I was so scared I started to tremble and scurried away, pursued by the young nymphs holding the exciting treasure over their heads. During the chase, I went into an alley leading to a vacant bakery owned by my father. My assailants managed to catch me and had started to strip off my trousers, when we heard my father’s footsteps coming down the passage. That was the end of the nest. The marvelous little eggs were left shattered, while under a counter we, the attacked and the attackers, held our breath.
I also recall that one day, while hunting behind my house for the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I discovered a hole in one of the fence boards. I looked through the opening and saw a patch of land just like ours, untended and wild. I drew back a few steps, because I had a vague feeling that something was about to happen. Suddenly a hand came through. It was the small hand of a boy my own age. When I moved closer, the hand was gone and in its place was a little white sheep.
It was a sheep made of wool that had faded. The wheels on which it had glided were gone. I had never seen such a lovely sheep. I went into my house and came back with a gift, which I left in the same place: a pine cone, partly open, fragrant and resinous, and very precious to me.
I never saw the boy’s hand again. I have never again seen a little sheep like that one. I lost it in a fire. And even today, when I go past a toy shop, I look in the windows furtively. But it’s no use. A sheep like that one was never made again.
Copyright © 1974 by The Estate of Pablo Neruda
Translation copyright © 1976, 1977 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translation of expanded text copyright © 2021 by Adrian Nathan West