5

A gigantic tree grew in the backyard of the Moreno house, an Araucaria, which stood straight and tall, taller than any of the houses around. Nofrito climbed the tree by stepping up the blocks of wood his father had nailed to its trunk, then, without their help, he found his way up into its branches. He could swing and play on the Araucaria without the danger of falling because it was built like a ladder and a woman, its limbs thrust out, meant for play, but with tenderness, with care, in the way a mother coddles even the most scared of boys. Almost every evening at around seven o’clock Nofrito climbed the tree. From his place up there Nofrito saw far across Miraflores, onto its streets, some of them dirt, some of them paved. He saw the games of fútbol, the boys chasing the girls, the yards of his friends’ houses. He saw mothers in their yards calling to the children or talking to each other, their aprons wrapped around their waists and their hair tied back or curled, their hands always drying, wet with water from somewhere, a sink, the laundry, the hose. He saw El Callejón, the trees which hid the banks of the River’s Toe, underneath which all kinds of mischief was taking place. To the east lay the hills filled with green and brown and yellow, and to the west he could see over top of the slope that led finally downward to the Pacific Ocean, where boats came in and out, up to and away from the River Guayas, filled with food and clothes and cars and tourists and fish. He saw everything, and it caused in him a feeling of wonder, something like fear and hope and hunger, like the moment one stops laughing, and he waited to see his father come around the corner on his motorcycle.

And when finally he came around, in Nofrito grew love and terror both. He appeared quickly, all at once, from around a corner three or four blocks down, his white shirt and tie and dark pants blowing like a flag in the wind. His face was still and quiet, and his hair had not moved since the morning. This was Nofrito’s father, this was strength, and fear, and power—the voice and arms of God. His hands stretched out to grab the handlebars and gears, and his feet rested on their places, legs bending a little at the knee, and his back hunched in concentration. He seemed to lean forward and backward at the same time, as though he was determined, but at ease. He wore no helmet, and dirt rose up behind him in a little cloud, and you could hear the sound of it, like ten thousand bees that were angry. Nofrito loved to see his father on the motorcycle. He came to the tree alone, always, and he climbed it quietly, and in part he believed this place to be a secret, a spot behind the leaves and twigs to watch his father ride. This is how a boy waits for his father, to see something new and beautiful and strong, to see something beyond imagination. There is hope in a boy who waits for his father, and these are the great things that happen to him: as Sr. Moreno came around the corner to the driveway of the house, Nofrito felt something which is hard to explain, like air with wetness, like a gurgle in the throat, which, really, was love. The body of little Nofrito became tense, then it relaxed, and the feeling left over was strange, a tickle, and it was in his throat. He would have told you—these would have been his words—his father could fit in the back of his throat; his Papi was riding around in his throat.

Nofrito flung himself from the tree, two or three branches at a time, until he landed, feet first on the lawn. He ran to the front window of his house, and again he waited, now by the front door. By this time Sr. Moreno had turned into the driveway and parked the motorcycle, had walked to the front walkway, and was now headed inside.

He entered the house, and the boy stood in front of his father. Sr. Moreno sometimes patted the boy’s head, or walked by, or, if he was drunk, which was often enough, he waited for a reason to lift his fists.

___

Sr. Moreno, half-smiling, had once brought a box of crayons in his bag, a big box of them, sixty-four crayons of different colors. My father, Nofrito, as usual, had received him by the front door. They were a new import, Sr. Moreno began telling him, bending down to show him, of the best American company, and this was the test product, an advance set, a gesture on behalf of the Americans, so that Sr. Moreno would know whether to invest in their importation, whether to sell them here in Ecuador. And, he said, who better to find out whether they are a worthy investment than his own children? Motioning for Nofrito to follow him, he asked of Concha—whose belly had only just begun to swell, her body beginning to fill with her unborn baby’s weight and size—to gather the rest of the children, and to bring some coloring paper.

In a little while they were all seated around the kitchen table, paper in front of them, to be shown how the box of crayons worked. Sr. Moreno demonstrated, showing them the colors, all the different rows of many colors, taking them out of the box, pouring them onto the table, six different kinds of red, four types of purple, and all the shades of green you could think of. There were gray and black and white and many yellows and oranges, and everything between them. He lifted them up in between his fingers, encouraging their use. Draw, mijos, look at all the colors—he said. What color do you want, mijos? They are all here. Miren, niños, miren. They are here, all of them. Then he turned the box around, and showed them a hole in the back near the bottom, which, he said—peeling back the paper label of a light green crayon and putting it into the hole, turning it around and around—was to sharpen any crayons that had become blunt. He removed the crayon, showing how sharp it had become, and they all were amazed.

Then, to the wonder of them all, Sr. Moreno took the crayon into his mouth, swallowing it whole, and, a few seconds later, after much twisting and fussing, he pulled the crayon out of the back of his neck.

Now of course this was a trick, but a child can never tell. All three of them sitting at the table began to wonder at their father’s talent. Cómo lo hizo?—they said to one another. How did he do that? They begged him to do it again, and again, and he did, over and over, each time showing his face to writhe and squirm with discomfort, as though his body were being poisoned by the presence of the crayon inside, as though at any moment he might choke and die, each time elevating the drama of the crayon’s removal from his neck. Would it come out this time? Would the crayon find its way out of his body? Nobody seemed to know. They were all in shock when he had succeeded. They could not believe what they saw, but they were forced to.

After a few turns of this trick, Sr. Moreno decided to leave the children to their drawing, smiling as he warned them that to try swallowing a crayon without the proper training would lead to disaster. Heading for the kitchen, where Concha prepared the meal, he left the children to their coloring. What do you think?—he asked them. This a beautiful toy, no? Why don’t you all draw something nice for your mother.

In a few minutes, Anita’s paper was covered by scratch marks of all different colors, for she, being only three years old and delighting in the colors themselves rather than in the shapes they made, did not yet know—nor did it seem she wanted to know—how to make forms out of her drawings. She took one crayon after another, sometimes lifting it to her nose in order to smell it, sometimes taking it to her tongue, perhaps tempted to swallow the thing herself. On her paper she made long arcs and circles and loops and, with the look of concentration on her face, she filled her papers with all the colors in the box. Before long there was a short pile of paper next to her, and several scattered before her, all with different colors in many different patterns. She made no noise, she only hummed to herself every now and then, as though her tune made a kind of happy commentary on things, and she did not bother her brothers, who ignored her. She stood up on the dark skinny wooden chair, and she stared at the paper before her. Nofrito, sitting down next to his sister, had been focused on trying to draw the Araucaria in their backyard, but either because a boy does not appreciate the significance of such things or because he is embarrassed by the significance itself, he soon gave up, so he began to draw a game of fútbol in the street, filled with the boys of the neighborhood and their feet without shoes. This was a drawing filled with small details, a black & white ball, and all the houses of Second Street in the background, and some of the trees, and the boys running and kicking and jumping, and the street in front of the house, which was made of dirt. He tried to find colors that looked right, but the color of the road and the color of the skin of the boys were both brown, and to see the distinction between street and person, even with the different shades of brown that were available, became difficult. Finally, he gave up on this, too, and decided to draw a picture of himself, so he traced the outline of a round head.

Then he turned to look at Nelson who was smiling very big, too big, as though he did not know how far the smile had spread across his face, at the pictures he had begun. Nofrito peeked over the shoulder of his brother. On the page before Nelson was a picture of a woman without clothes. The hair on the head of the woman was long and black, and her face was painted with red lipstick and long eyelashes, and the woman’s skin—all of it visible to the eye—was brown. There was a small, inverted triangle, colored black, drawn in for her pubic hair. Nelson laughed quietly as he colored in her nipples, dark red circles at the center of her enormous breasts. Nofrito began to smile, and his skin felt hot and tight. Where had Nelson learned to draw this?—he thought to himself. When had he learned about such things? Had Nelson ever seen a naked woman? Nofrito looked at the picture before his brother, forgetting about his own. And although it was only a drawing—and at that the drawing of a young boy—Nofrito felt wholly mesmerized. Here was nudity, and danger, and pleasure. Here was a strange courage in Nelson. It seemed to be an announcement of some kind, a proud sort of confession, a passing on into manhood, to draw the body of a woman, to color in her nipples, and her hair, and her smiling red lips.

The bravery of Nelson became a kind of inspiration to Nofrito. He turned to his own drawing, at the outline of a round head he had intended to become a self-portrait. But now he would not be left out, shown to be so young in the ways of women and sex. So instead of a boy’s body, he drew a woman’s. He began to laugh, and he showed it to Nelson, who approved by raising his eyebrows and whistling. Nofrito drew her with long red hair, wearing high-heel shoes; other than the shoes she was nude, her breasts even bigger than those Nelson had drawn. Nofrito drew her standing naked next to another person, who, after some effort, soon began to look like him. As best he could he drew in his own face, and his own short hair, and a blue pair of short pants he wore most days. Nelson, impressed by this, said, Hiiijole, and laughed until he was almost crying.

___

Now Sr. Moreno returned to see what progress, if any, they had made on their pictures. He entered the room, still smiling, it seemed, from before. A bottle of beer was in his hand, though he did not seem drunk, only happy—but one cannot every time know for sure. When he saw the naked woman before Nofrito, his anger came upon him. He had not seen Nelson’s picture, for the boy had been smart enough to have covered it with other pieces of paper, in order to hide it from view.

Sr. Moreno knelt beside his son. What is the meaning of this?—he said to Nofrito, snatching the picture from before him. Then the man stood up, and for a moment he studied the drawing, his eyes filling up with disappointment and rage, his face as red and swollen as ever it had been. You like this? You like these things?—he said, pointing to the paper. He began to yell—Is this the picture you have drawn for your mother? Nofrito sat quietly in his chair, now assured of what was to come, but feeling the ridiculous hope of his mother.

Sr. Moreno grabbed the boy’s shirt in the front, at the collar, pushing his fist into the boy’s neck with one hand, forcing the crumpled picture into his face with the other. Nofrito shrugged his shoulders and pointed his face up, but his eyes were pointed down, away, not to look into the face of his father. You want to know a woman? You want to be a man? Nofrito, held by his father’s closed fist pushing into his neck, began to cry stiffly, in a way that seemed like crying and holding your breath at the same time. He was lifted up by his shirt. Then flung down, away. Now Sr. Moreno walked, and he stood over his son. He punched him. He punched him again.

The boy was beaten now, made to bleed from his nose and lips, thrown about, pushed down, punched in the face and chest, kicked in the stomach, in the legs and back. Sr. Moreno’s body moved with great power and strength, as though he were fighting a man, his muscles appearing to use all force they were capable of. He cursed at his son, calling him dirty, perverse. He commanded the boy to pray, You will pray now, you pervert, pray to God for His forgiveness, for His mercy, and hope now that He pities you.

Eventually, Sr. Moreno threw the boy onto his bed, and here was Nofrito, quiet now, quivering, breathing through his teeth, left to mend his own wounds.

___

Perhaps you are wondering what happened to the rest of the family. Why did Concha, except for the excuse of her pregnancy, neglect to rescue her own child? What good was there inside of these people that they would let one of their own become Isaac on the altar, that they like Peter had turned their backs, that they would, without a whisper of complaint or rebuke, allow such terror to occur? And perhaps there is no satisfying answer. Perhaps Concha, by moral obligation, should have attacked her husband for the sake of her son—it is possible she should have taken a broom, or a bottle, or a cooking pan, to his head, to his back, to his legs or stomach, and screamed, and scratched, and cried, demanding of her husband the release of their son; perhaps Nelson should not have sat silently at the table, his fingers covering his own drawing, hoping not that Nofrito would be forgiven but that he would not be asked to show the paper beneath his own hands; maybe you expect of Anita, the tiny little girl, to cry, simply out of fear, out of confusion, out of the intuition children have that this should not be, this kind of hatred and anger should not be—but she did not. Nobody cried. Nobody helped. Nobody stopped the man from beating his son. They only listened to the cries of the boy, to his breathing, his grunting, to the sound of one man’s fist upon the body of his son, and they all looked down at the floor, hoping that this was not the truth of the matter, begging God that this was not the truth.

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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