6

All throughout the days when my father, Nofrito, and his brother, Nelson, were young, even when they were so young as five or six years old, this was a beautiful thing for them: they were fighters. Their cousins and some of the boys from Cristóbal Colón—the private school, the school of Nofrito and Nelson, where Pati worked as a secretary—had taught them fighting, and together they had formed a kind of small neighborhood gang, one of a few in Miraflores, and they spent their time following one another around, innocently enough, to tell dirty jokes, to laugh too loudly for some of the storekeepers and mothers to tolerate. Sometimes they gathered at El Callejón to raise mischief. Occasionally, one boy found another boy whom he did not like, a boy from another gang or no gang at all, and at these times there were fights, acts of significance in those days. Fighting was not without its order, its principles and rules: each was one of honor, even for someone so small as Nofrito; and every boy, before leaving his house (or upon returning to it in the case of an unexpected encounter), that he may prepare for a fight, whether to watch or to participate, put on his special pair of shoes, fighting shoes, zapátos lucharónes, black with white laces that came up high on the ankle, which served two purposes: to set them apart from the other boys, who wore all kinds of other shoes or no shoes at all, and to provide each one with the proper speed and traction, were any policeman or other adult to come around, that each might avoid trouble with his mother, all of whom never stopped worrying. Every fight was between two boys, one to one, surrounded by friends and enemies: this was a public event, for honor and for humiliation. In addition, the fight ended when one boy began to cry, or when he fell, unable or refusing to stand again—and continued no further. This was the code, followed at all times, without exception.

Fights were held in many places, on sidewalks, in El Callejón, in backyards when no one else was around, and sometimes on the grounds of Cristóbal Colón, behind Building G, between a wire fence and the back wall of the building, on the edge of the campus, far away from the administrative building, where adults were hardly ever found.

Among some of the boys in the neighborhoods were rivalries and bitterness, but as he grew up, Nofrito—or Choco, as they called him when he fought, for he had dark skin, darker than all of them—learned how to be tough against an enemy, and so did his brother, how to fight holding cork taken from bottles of wine, which made the fists stronger than anything you can imagine, how to kick the groin, how to avoid being kicked in the groin. When he found the money and could escape to the theaters without being found out, Choco watched fighting movies, every moment studying the styles of these heroes, practicing the sideways stance or the high pitched sounds of martial arts masters, in order to throw kicks to the face or stomach as he had seen it done on the screen.

By the time the brothers had turned ten, they were among the best fighters around. Nelson had once beaten a twelve-year-old boy, Jaime, who had called him puto. Choco had once upset a teenager as he walked past, by spitting—whether by accident or not nobody could tell—near his feet, and it was known that this teenager had studied karate and was one of the more feared boys around. The fight was planned and everybody showed up, worried in part for the young Choco, because the older boy had been trained in the ancient arts. But when the teenager moved to punch him, Choco, who stood in front of a lamppost on the street, ducked his head and the teenager’s fist hit the metal of the pole, breaking two fingers on his right hand. Choco, taking advantage, punched the boy’s throat, then his groin, and the boy fell to his stomach to cry for a long time.

Fights had to occur after school, or on weekends, away from the adults. Many were planned ahead of time, sometimes days in advance. Still, other times they came more spontaneously, the result of big mouths, the taunts and name calling spurred on by secret ideas of greatness, by hopes to be feared in Miraflores and the other neighborhoods in Guayaquil. When this happened, everyone ran home to get his zapátos lucharónes, or to retrieve some of the boys who had been absent during the initial argument, first knocking on their doors, then lying to the mothers, perhaps telling her of the man with his good-luck monkey, or the man from Cuenca selling ice cream. Choco, of course, understood what this kind of thing meant, and as he listened to his friends spinning lies he was already lacing up his shoes, excitement building in his stomach as he did.

Eventually, everyone gathered at the agreed-upon spot, and predictions were made, the sizes and reputations of both fighters taken into account, the smallest boys sent down the way to be used as lookouts, and the fight played itself out till its end, with all the yelling and entertainment and horror that each was able to provide. It was a time, I am told, of great heroics and honor, and whenever I think of these things I long to have been among them, watching my father with his fists curled over cork, and I hear the chants, Choco, Choco, Choco, and I see him, my father, ready to give the winning blow, and O how my stomach fills with pleasure.

___

In the early days, when these fights had first begun among boys in the neighborhoods, when not even Anita had yet been born, they, Nelson and Nofrito, just something like five or six years old, had once fought against one another—the result of an argument nobody can remember. When in their backyard beneath the Araucaria they were found to be beating each other with fists and kicks, making the boyish noises of such a struggle, sounds that came out like small puffs of smoke, Sr. Moreno, moving with great quickness from the house and across the yard, like a bear or ape who surprises you with its speed and grace, separated them harshly. He removed his belt and slashed at the tree. He had no anger in his face, none, that is, which Nofrito could see, but the sound nonetheless stopped everything, and fear came into Nofrito—the shame of his sin, or at least of being caught, spreading more every second. No brother, their father said, should bring his fists against his own. This was a law, he told them, a law among Morenos, a kind of bond which brothers can never break, and, if it were broken—only the most terrible things could follow. Then Moreno knelt down and showed the boys his belt, warning that if ever they should fight again they would feel the burn of it on their skin.

___

Afterwards, that night, Sr. Moreno was gone for hours at the bars. When he returned he came home heavily, drunk, staggering. He entered the house smelling of the bar and its women, and by the looks of him, by his stagger and breathing, everybody understood that to stay away was wisdom.

But he began to mutter something about his sons, My sons, where are my sons, bring them here. They will learn a thing or two.

He called out. He moaned. Grunts came through his nose. And in his chair in the front room, in the dark, the sounds of words and nonsense coming from him, one might have guessed he was asleep, or awake, or in a trance, or praying perhaps: all of these seemed true of him.

The children, behind their mother, hid in the kitchen.

Nofrito heard his father call out his name—and then he called out to Nelson. Bring them here—he said. They will learn.

They walked quietly into the front room where Sr. Moreno sat waiting, and they watched him. For a moment Nofrito was tempted to hold Nelson’s hand. The father stood up from his chair, grabbing hold of Nelson, pushing him back to one side of the room; now he grabbed hold of the Nofrito, too, and pushed him to the opposite side. They stood facing one other.

In a moment Sr. Moreno said, Let us see this fight.

Nofrito said aloud: But, you already—

—You will fight, Moreno said. Understand now. Feel. Boys who fight. Brothers when they fight. What. Happens. Now. Now damn it. Learn this way once and for all.

Hardly understanding, hardly making sense of their father’s words, the boys, across the room from one another, stood still.

Sr. Moreno continued: Nofrito. Son. Time now. Walk to. Your brother. Walk to him. Strike him. On the face. Nose. With all your power. The younger to get the first shot. It is only fair.

But Nofrito did not move.

In disbelief, this boy of five or six looked at his father—which, if this ever happens, if the son does not believe in the father, what happens next is a feeling like sickness in the stomach, like worms beneath the skin; it is awful, and unnatural, and frightening—so that his father yelled, Move! Damn it!

Then he obeyed, but his muscles too were filled with the same confusion, and he moved very slowly. Is there any other possible response? Now Sr. Moreno seemed to come out of his trance, or sleep, and came to. He removed his belt. He repeated his words again, now more lucidly. You will do it, damn it, just as I said. Or you will feel the burn of this belt all over your body.

Nofrito came across the room. He walked over the rug, dragging his feet. He breathed in. He closed his fist. He raised his arm to strike, then he watched as it came down onto his brother’s face, full of force and strength. The sting of his punch rang all throughout Nelson’s face, Nofrito could see, over the nose and eyes and into the ears. Nofrito saw anger and hatred cover his brother—for who can feel a punch without growing angry—and then the sorrow. And over these Nofrito saw tears, which came naturally, without hesitation, falling out from Nelson’s face gently and smoothly.

There was quiet then for a long time.

And Concha: where was Concha? How did she let this happen?

Fear and fear alone.

___

Now Sr. Moreno said to Nelson, It is your turn. Go to him. Gather your strength.

Nelson approached his brother.

While Nofrito stood unmoving, their father said to him, Don’t move. You had your chance. Not one inch this way or that. But Nofrito was already obeying, and obviously this was not a command to correct the boy, but nonsense said in drunken stupidity. Therefore, Nofrito began to shiver.

Nelson moved closer.

Do not move, Sr. Moreno said again, as though he thought Nofrito would make a run for it. Let your brother have his chance. It is only fair.

And still Nelson moved closer.

This way to learn, the father mumbled. This way to teach you a lesson.

And in the same way Nofrito had first punched him, Nelson struck Nofrito on the nose. The sting spread throughout his face, too, up into the nose and into the eyes and ears. And now Nofrito’s tears, as naturally and immediately as they had been with his brother, forced their way out, and his eyes shut, blinded by liquid and salt. Nofrito covered his face with his hands.

___

And now there is this moment: Nofrito holding his hands over his face and nose. Here is this moment of strategy, a space created by a boy who knows the danger he is in: these hands of his, these hands not much bigger than a baby’s, still with the dimples of a baby’s hand, one above each knuckle; here are these hands yet unable to grasp a grapefruit, these tiny, unmoving hands which hide his face. But why? Do these hands give him strength, do they soothe his pain, do they cover his shame? Let us watch these hands; let us move through them, beneath them, and let us see this young one’s face below, his suffering, his strategy: these tiny hands buy him time, so that his face and body might be moved to cry even more than is necessary. Imagine his desire, his need to weep beyond what is appropriate. See how the muscles loosen in his face, then tighten, then loosen again. Watch his face move beneath those hands, expanding, contracting. He pushes out tears, the skin folding around his eyes and nose and mouth as he breathes in and out, in and out, huffing, expelling air. He needs this time to change his face, to exaggerate the physical pain, to gather his fear and to spread it loosely across his face. This is an effort designed to dismiss himself from the scary game, for if he can cry loudly enough and long, he might buy his father’s pity—or perhaps his mother will rescue him—and possibly he will be sent off to bed, and fall asleep unhurt, in the safety of his bedroom, beneath the covers of his bed, so that tomorrow all will be forgotten. He is just a boy after all, a boy who not long ago was a baby; just look at his tiny hands which prove it. This is his strategy, his hope. Here is this moment when little Nofrito understands his suffering, and tries to escape it.

___

As he began to cry, and as his hope had begun to grow, he felt on his head a short smack—one thump, then another—his father’s hand: two thumps purposed towards distracting him, towards making him forget to cry, to scare him out of crying, and never again to return to it.

Sr. Moreno said, Now wait until you can see. Wait a moment. Wipe the tears. Because it is your turn once more.

___

And how to finish this. How to explain the truth of it, and the sadness, which is that this game continued for more than an hour, long into the night, when time for drunkards does not exist. The father dangled his belt before his sons, promising them, in return for disobedience, more pain than they could imagine. He directed them each time where to strike the other, from the top of the body to the bottom, and back up again: now the nose, now the cheek, now the chest, now the arms and stomach, the back, a kick to the knee, and so on, back and forth, over and over, each boy receiving his turn. And with each strike and gouge and kick the boys came more and more to believe these two things equally, though opposites, which settled into the soil of their bellies, and buried themselves deeply, like coarse ugly stones:

I must not bring pain to my brother, for it only brings pain to me.

I must bring pain to my brother, for I hate him.

The intentions of Sr. Moreno, that to fight one’s brother in return only brings one unnatural pain—this lesson had been learned, yes. But a boy of five or six does not know how to blame his father for anything, even for the most awful of evils, and so eventually each believed that these blows, that these pains, were not the result of evil in the father, but the result of his brother’s own doing. They took their turns, one after the other, and their hatred grew, and sympathy became bitterness, and bitterness turned quickly into those stones in their stomachs.

And where—where was Concha—but weeping in the back of the house, in her bedroom, praying for mercy, yes, but fearing for her own safety, too much a coward to bring it to an end.

So how do I tell you each dreadful moment, each whimper, each intake of dry, hot air? How do I compose each silent wish that it would end, or arrive to the final words of the father, long after these boys were tired and crying and afraid, which were: If again you are to fight one another, and if I hear of it, you will only wish that I allowed this night to happen once more, for what happened here, tonight, will feel like forgiveness compared to the pain you will feel, pain I promise will be long and deep.

It is not enough merely to mention these, I know, but to linger here could take a lifetime, for these are the moments and pains that form the spirit, the moments that create in us all those things we do not understand, and I confess also that I, too, do not—I do not understand.

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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