2

One Sunday afternoon, Tía Pati had just set down an empty glass of beer and—since she was one of those women who, she liked to say sometimes, could drink like a man—she asked the waitress to bring her some brandy. Sr. Moreno and she were talking of old times while Concha fed shrimp to Anita and watched to ensure the boys behaved, which always seemed an impossible thing to ask of them. Tía Pati and Sr. Moreno had begun to laugh, and this caught the attention of the boys and their mother, who turned to see what the laughter had come from, and so Tía Pati gathered their attention. When she and Sr. Moreno were children—she told them—when she had been a girl just fourteen and Onofre, Sr., had been a boy, in the old days before all the restaurants and ships and people and buildings had come, when there were nothing but sailboats and fishermen all along the coast, their father, the father of Pati and Onofre, bought them a canoe. There were four children in the family, Pati, Onofre, and the twins Tito and Emilio, who were younger than Pati by nine years and younger than Onofre by six years. The canoe was bright yellow and came with two long wooden oars that fit through two metal rings, one on either side of the canoe. It was not a long canoe; it seemed to be made especially for children—for there was just enough space to fit the four of them comfortably.

Tía Pati looked at her brother, who by his face seemed to remember the canoe as though they still owned it, and Nofrito stirred in his seat. One thing to understand is that stories about Sr. Moreno and Tía Pati were not told very often, so Nofrito did not know very many things about them, especially stories from when they were young. Sr. Moreno, when the family was not with her, remained quiet in things concerning Tía Pati, but not in a way that seemed suspicious; he was simply a quiet man. Nofrito, then, quite understandably felt curious and impatient in his listening, for he loved to hear these stories.

And so it happened one day that their father bought them a canoe. He had had it brought to their house, into the front yard, which was at least four kilometers from the ocean, and he presented it to the children in a manner that seemed almost ceremonious. From oldest to youngest their father called them outside, giving each an opportunity to consider its possibilities. When finally all of them had seen their new canoe, their father stood in front of it as though it were sacred—quietly, proudly. Nobody understood why. They were to share it, he told them solemnly, and in time, if they were wise and paid attention, they would learn many wonderful things in and around the gigantic, dangerous, lovely ocean. Then he left them to it, to their canoe, turning and walking inside the house without another word. Immediately the twins jumped into it, calling out commands, pretending to row themselves along the patches of dirt and grass that surrounded it. Pati, almost entirely disinterested, said nothing, but—Tía Pati emphasized—the eyes of Onofre grew wild and large.

___

At this Nofrito looked to see whether his father’s face had changed, and it had. The man seemed to be engrossed in this, his sister’s story, as though he did not know its ending, or as though he were a child who had heard it many many times, every night hoping to hear it again. Tía Pati, now sipping from her glass of brandy, continued. Tito and Emilio, who were still very young, only five years old, could not appreciate the weight and meaning of the canoe. They only saw themselves as pirates or brave men who killed monsters; the world was still in their hearts, in their imaginations. But Onofre, nearing twelve by then, had been growing up lately, and his appreciation for the things of reality, for the things of this world, had been making itself more solid, bigger, full of the dirt of the earth, so that by the end of the next day, Onofre had stolen Pati’s roller skates and found a thin wooden board lying around the neighborhood, then asked his father to buy him some rope, and with these he fashioned together a kind of wheelbarrow or buggy. He placed the skates underneath the wooden board on which he rested the back end of the canoe, and the rope he wrapped around two of the wooden planks that served as seats in the canoe. He strung the rope through the two metal rings on either side of the canoe, and finally he tied the rope around his shoulders. He used the oars as walking sticks, to help pull himself along. On the morning of the third day he filled the canoe with his things, a couple of wire clothes-hangers, three old potato sacks, and a few handfuls of candy, and he began to march, the canoe and buggy sometimes rolling, sometimes dragging, behind him. The twins were to walk with him, to help him replace the canoe whenever it fell from its place on the wooden board, and they were well paid in candy for their efforts. Together, and very slowly, the three of them walked to the ocean. Every now and then the twins returned home with news, updates on Onofre’s progress, to keep their mother from worrying, or on orders to bring back a sandwich for their brother.

___

Tía Pati looked at Sr. Moreno, who sat quietly, listening, waiting. She laughed a little, and finished her glass of brandy, ordering another. She took out a small tin of cigarettes and lit one, offering one to Sr. Moreno, who also took one.

Nofrito, sitting across the table from Nelson, saw that he too was listening with great attention. The courtyard of the restaurant was filled with all its regular noises, men talking to women, children playing games, the songs of the performers, and the smell and feel of the afternoon air came cleanly through his nostrils and into his lungs. He heard the boats in the harbor, their cables and pulleys swinging and banging against the metal poles, and he saw birds flying around scavenging for French fries and squid. He tried to imagine the coast in the days of his father the boy, as an empty thing, without the rocks and boats of the harbor, having only sand and water to look at, just a few fishermen’s nets—but this was very difficult, and so he began to pretend this story was a legend, one that took place in a world far away. One cannot picture one’s father the child, for the father is the father, and none other than the father; this story, then, began to unfurl itself in Nofrito’s mind as though he were listening about any one of the great prophets or saints, and with the same reverence.

In a moment Tía Pati began again, saying that by late that afternoon the twins had returned for the final time, having said that once they reached the shore Onofre ordered them to return home with news that everything is fine, todo bien, todo bien.

But—Tía Pati said—everything was not fine. Onofre did not return home that evening, missing dinner. Then the sun came down. Then a couple of hours passed. The whole family waited in silence; there were no other thoughts in any of their minds. These were different times—Tía Pati told the children, looking at their eyes, speaking slowly in order to ensure that the proper emotions would rise up in them. She said, These were safer times, you understand, and a boy could be left alone to wander the neighborhood and shore for hours, even all day, if he liked. Adventure was not to be taken away from a boy, everyone agreed. But, she said, a boy came home in the evening. A boy ate dinner with his family. A boy slept in his home every night.

In the living room, their father sat quietly in his chair while their mother stayed in the dining room, next to Onofre’s plate at the table. Pati and Tito and Emilio went off to their bedrooms, and no one was saying anything. This lasted for a long time, and still Onofre had not returned. Pati, inside her bedroom, wept; she heard her brothers through the wall, speculating, telling each other about different possibilities, wondering about the dangers he might be facing, their story growing larger each time it passed between them. Pati’s feelings grew against them and she was in turns angry, sad, afraid, then angry again.

By morning, the only ones who had slept were the twins, for Onofre still had not returned. Pati had stayed awake the entire night, crying quietly and rolling around on her bed. She had heard her mother and father in their bedroom, her mother praying and her father walking around. It had felt like a long night, and it was. The minutes passed slowly by and all three, Pati and her mother and her father, waited through them in a solitude more painful than prison—for in prison at least you are already caught and there is little more to worry about. By morning, only the twins had any energy, and they demanded breakfast, to be clothed, to be cared for. Their selfishness could not be held against them, of course, for they were so young and knew nothing of real danger, but Pati nonetheless resented them, hated them, and even found herself in moments wishing Onofre harm just so the twins might feel sorry for their lack of concern and blame themselves.

After a while, Pati dressed herself and made for the front door, but her father stopped her. Where are you off to?—he asked, raising his hand as he spoke. I will see where he is, she said, if I can find him. He is lost and I will find him. But her father said, You will not go. He pointed to the chair behind her. Sit down, he said. Do not move. You will go nowhere.

An hour later, after several requests, her mother began to protest. Where is he?—she demanded. Have you no concern for your son? She banged her fists against her husband and begged that he let them go, This is your son, she said, my son, and he might be in great danger. But he refused.

Eventually, even Tito and Emilio had, in their hearts, begun to notice that Onofre was not home yet; this did not make sense to them, this absence, this absurdity, and they began to cry to their mother, who did not know how to console them, for she too seemed inconsolable.

So Pati found it in her heart then to forgive them for their stupidity the night before, and she took them into her bedroom, and told them again the story of how the mark on her face had been made when an army of octopi had covered her in their ink, angry at her for having stolen away the rocks and shells where they lived, staining her face as a reminder that she should never again try to take their precious treasures. It was a story she had told many times over the years, changing and expanding it; as she told it now, it was set wholly underwater and included her being caught and tried by the Octopus King, sentenced, and, in addition to being covered in their ink, forced to leave behind all the shells and rocks she had tried to steal. It was a tragic story with a great many descriptions of each angry octopus—who were the witnesses at her trial—and of each rock and shell, and it kept the twins amazed for a long time, their questions and wonder passing the time for hours that day.

___

The story of the Octopus King was new to Nofrito, and it surprised him to hear his tía tell it—for now she had actually made mention of this, her purple marking, she had acknowledged it, had let everyone see it with her, had allowed herself to be seen as stained and punished, as ugly, to be gazed upon, and though the story was merely a fantasy, it satisfied him a little to hear it.

Tía Pati said, When nighttime again approached, and when dinner was again being prepared by their mother, who in tears in the kitchen had long been filled with rage and spite and fear, their father spoke. He had gathered them all into the kitchen. He looked old and weak, the result of hours of worry. His hand covered his mouth, and he looked at the ground, his face showing the wrinkles of thought. You misunderstand me, mijos—he told them. Listen to me, for I will say this only once. Onofre will either return, or he will not; he will come back, or he is gone. This is a truth we cannot argue with, something we cannot change. It is one or the other. He looked at his children and at his wife, allowing them time to understand. Then he bent down to one knee, placing one hand on the shoulder of each twin, saying to them all, I gave you that canoe and by it Onofre has decided to go. It is what I wanted for him. He is learning about the world; he is old enough now to try. He paused, looking for his words, clearing his throat, then he said, It is the same with war, don’t you understand—you cannot worry a soldier into safety. So we must stay here, and we must wait, and pray, and hope. But you should understand that we cannot go after him, for if we do, if we allow ourselves that small comfort, and if we were to find him, it would reverse all the things I want to teach you.

Then, turning, he left the kitchen and walked into his bedroom, closing the door behind him. No one saw him for the rest of the night.

___

Now Tía Pati raised her eyes and hands to the children, and she nodded, as if to signify that the story was over, as though the children would not wonder what had happened to their father. Nofrito sat on his hands and rocked in his seat, and so did Nelson. How would it end? How long would it be before their father returned home? How had he fought through enemies, as they were sure he must have, defying certain death, then returning home with great wealth under his arms, and dragging that yellow canoe—now filled with a chest of diamonds and gold and pearls—behind him? It had to end in a great victory, Nofrito was sure, and so he made a noise from his throat, sitting up and leaning forward, saying, But?

Tía Pati ordered another glass of brandy and smiled, allowing their questions to grow and multiply. She smoked another cigarette and looked across the table to her brother, who also smoked and drank from his glass of beer, almost laughing. Shall I tell them what happened to their father?—she said to him. Or is their father so filled with humility, so chivalrous, that he would not allow this lady to brag for him? Sr. Moreno put his face in his hand and laughed, which was perhaps the first time Nofrito ever remembered his father seem embarrassed, and this at once caused him to feel pleasure and worry: pleasure at his father’s vulnerability, for is it not a kind of miracle for a rock to grow soft?—but worry, too, for is it not unnatural and frightening that one might push against a rock as though it were filled with feathers? Nelson, who almost never spoke, practically screamed out, Yes, please, what happened to him? What happened to Papi? How did he make it home?

The truth is, Tía Pati said in a moment, drinking from her glass, I do not know how he made it home, or exactly when. This was the second night he had been away, remember, and though we all were filled to our foreheads with fear, no one can go that long without sleep, and so we slept, all of us, dreaming about nothing, for the heaviest sleep, the sleep of necessity, is always empty, it is for one purpose only, which is rest. Dreams are a part of the sleep of the healthy, and nightmares are only a kind of prophecy.

So, she said, in the morning when I awoke, my bedroom had been filled with all kinds of things, a hundred rocks and shells, some of them strung together with fishing line, as natives form a necklace, and some of them were too big and beautiful to be worn around the neck, sparkling from the sun rays that came through the window, and among these was an enormous conch shell filled with the distant roaring sounds of ocean tides, and then, nearer the door, behind these treasures, there were the captives, three old potato sacks filled with the flesh of dead and dying octopi.

Of course, she said, I knew what this meant and I ran into the bedroom of your father where he lay asleep, dirty, his skin red in cuts and scratches, fresh blood dried up on his left arm, near the shoulder. I walked to him and covered him with kisses, and repeated thank you a thousand times, and he, worn and tired from the long hunt, only said, I killed them all for you, all I could find. They will never do anything like that again. Then he turned over and he fell asleep.

After that, we ate octopus soup for days, and used the rest for bait, and I dressed myself in seashell necklaces for many years to come.

Then, in a moment, to make sense of it for them, Tía Pati said this to the children—It was the last thing your father did as a boy, and it was the first thing he did as a man.

Nofrito and Nelson both looked at their father, who himself looked at Tía Pati. Nofrito felt in his stomach all the things a boy can feel, his head light, as though it were rising, as though it would soon float away. Anita, who hardly understood what Pati was saying, ate a little more shrimp, and Concha, who had heard the story many times, watched as her boys began to receive the knowledge of manhood, of honor, and she was proud.

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Full Text

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