It was not entirely luck, but perhaps God’s will, or just probability, that Tía Pati, maybe having heard about the fight anyway—for the secrets of children are never entirely kept secret—came around the corner. She saw them standing, fists raised, staggering like drunken men. In a hurry she came at once. She pushed through the crowd of children, and grabbed the wrists of Nofrito and Nelson, a skinny boy’s arm in each of her hands. She brought them away with her, these stupid arrogant bloodied children, mal criados both, dragging them at her sides.

Now they had been caught and humiliated before everybody watching. The head of each boy hung low, and that ugly purple-faced woman pulled on their arms, that woman with the face, that blotch like dried blood, like spilled coffee, their tía, the one who worked in the administrative office. All the children scattered in the way they had arrived, to every direction at once, like a flock of birds.

Tía Pati’s anger came through her fingers, hot, hard, but even so this anger was tempered with compassion, in the way a bitch must use her teeth, but never her fangs, to correct her pups. The three of them walked silently through Miraflores. Nofrito thought of his father, of the rough dry hands that would beat him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his brother, full of defiance. Nelson seemed pleased, as though no evil, no fear, could come near to him. He had restored his honor today, Nelson had, and was this not enough, for a while at least, to carry his thoughts away from their father’s wrath? Nofrito saw him tighten his fists around the corks which were still in his hands.

Tía Pati spoke. What have you done—are you crazy—what but pain can be brought about—what but sorrow—what but rage—you are brothers!—had you thought about that—had you thought this through—no, of course not—no, of course—you are children—children who will one day be men—and children—and men—for all their wonders—they do not think—they only do.


The boys’ father had not, thank God, returned from work. Nofrito considered his luck in this. He would not be home for a few hours yet. Tía Pati yelled for Concha, who, after having put down Anita to nap, had gone to the backyard to pray. But now she came running, her belly full of her unborn child. Dios mio, she said. She knelt down. She touched Nofrito’s chin. She put her hand on Nelson’s cheek. She examined them thoroughly. Already Nelson’s lip had begun to swell, and Nofrito’s right eye felt very tender; he winced when she touched it. He would bruise, he knew.

In an instant, he saw her eyes grow horribly.

She said, Tell me you were not fighting.

The boys said nothing.

She said again, Please. I can hear anything else. Tell me you did not bring your fists against one another.

Nelson slipped his hands in his pockets, hiding the corks.

Mijos! Please! She begged them desperately. Look at me. Your father—

By now Tía Pati had stepped aside and moved into the kitchen, to allow the mother her place as parent of these boys. She had opened a cupboard, then another, then another, in search of a glass. She poured beer for herself, then another. Nofrito heard the sound of the bottles open, of the liquid slide down the glass. Now Pati poked her head into the doorway. Her face appeared, half smiling, half enraged, but no longer was her anger at the boys. She said, What is this about their father? She crossed her arms. Tell me—she said—what does their father think he will do?

Is it such a mystery?—Concha said, panicked. This man—and she paused. He is capable of too—and she paused again.

She had spoken too soon, and foolishly, Nofrito knew. She had betrayed her duty to her husband, and to marriage as a sacrament. A child can learn this much in so many years. But who could blame her—and who could easily solve this puzzle: Here was this woman devoted to her God, to her duties to Him, to piety, to marriage—even to marriage with her cousin—and now, had this woman’s devotion perhaps begun to fail? All these years she had not spoken against her husband, against his brutality. She did not make accusations. This was, after all, the Way. It would have been a violation, for it is written, Wives, submit meekly, and act as unto the Lord. A word of complaint, therefore, is infidelity, is it not?—if not to Sr. Moreno, then to God. Instead, she had only prayed, begged, that He might quell her sufferings. And did it matter that Tía Pati was his own sister, did it matter that she had known all along? Was not this mention of her brother’s brutality, was it not, in the face of vows uttered before God, a betrayal? Under her breath, Concha whispered, calling to him, O God, what has been done? And she said, Discúlpeme, Señor. A moment later she said, Please, Pati. We beg you. Say nothing.


Of course, it would have been easy enough to hide the truth from their father. Lies, stories, excuses—these could have been devised, rehearsed. The family might never have been in danger. The wounds on the face of each boy—these might have been tended to with peroxide and ice. In this way, nothing would be believed but the story they’d invented.

Tía Pati, however, would not give in to Concha’s plea. He will be told just how it happened, she said. And if I must, I will say it.

Concha begged.

She recounted for Tía Pati the entire story—that one from years ago: the slow, painful movements, the orders given by their father, the orders obeyed, the bloody fight between brothers hardly older than babies. Her eyes became big and wet.

She said, He will raise his hands.

She said, He will remove his belt.

But Tía Pati remained steadfast.

You were not here, Concha said. You did not see what I saw.

Nelson sat down on the couch. He crossed his arms, sure of what their father would bring. His fear and hatred had turned into stone. Nofrito stood still, his imagination running away, taking him here and there. He watched the two women argue.

Pointing to her sons, Concha said, He will wait until you have gone to your home.

She said, He will wait until he is drunk.

She said, He will hurt them beyond what you can bear to imagine.

She knelt down to kiss Nofrito, and she said: I will not allow it to happen.

She said, You must not say a word. Please.

But Tía Pati only repeated herself tenderly: He will be told just how it happened. And if I must, I will say it.

Finally, raising her voice, Concha said, This is not your house! This is not your family. Leave me to my business!

And she knelt down to cry.

Still—perhaps knowing that Concha spoke only from her fear— Tía Pati remained. She leaned down to her sister, and she put her hands on the woman’s belly, and she repeated her words, He will be told just how it happened. And if I must…

They held onto one another. Tía Pati touched Concha’s shoulders and back. She kissed her face.

Why, Concha said. How come you are doing this. She cried gently.

These boys live and die, Tía Pati said, and you—you live and die—by luck. You are lucky when Onofre is not stirred to madness. Other times, you are unlucky. Tía Pati swallowed, waiting a few moments to speak again. Quietly, then, she said, I have stood by like you for many years, for too many years—only hoping. But God has never appeared. She looked up now, as though scolding the heavens, and she said, No, no, it is wrong. Fear like this, it is wrong. She pressed her fingers against Concha’s face. She kissed her sister’s forehead. And so he will be told just how it happened. And if I must, I will say it. And you will see how my body, too, and how my voice, how they can become weapons.

Everybody was quiet. In a few moments, Tía Pati moved into the kitchen. She poured herself another glass of beer, then another, then another. She paced around the house. She set down her glass of beer. She rubbed her hands together.

Finally, she sat down on the couch, next to Nelson, and she put an arm around him.

The room grew deeply silent. The burden and weight of their combined fear brought in a kind of darkness, which surrounded them. It grew cold, or seemed to, while everybody waited for him to arrive.

Nofrito came over to the couch, next to his tía. He rested his head against her side. He closed his eyes as though to sleep, and tried to imagine his father wherever he was right now, probably still in the office overlooking the River Guayas. What did his face look like? To whom did he speak? Nofrito almost heard his voice, could see his eyebrows move up and down. The cuffs of his sleeves, of course, had remained buttoned—never rolled up, never unprofessional—since the morning. His tie hung from his collar, perfectly still. He sat at his desk and rolled back and forth in his chair. He picked up the receiver and dialed the phone with an impatient finger, soon greeting a business associate on the other end. They argued, and Sr. Moreno slammed down the phone. Perhaps now he would light a cigarette, or stand from his chair and slide papers into his briefcase. This father of his, this man in the office, became to Nofrito like a problem of logic, an impossible knot to be untied with thought, but these were not the lucid reflections of a man three times his age, when a problem of logic can be laid out before one and solved, where assertions and rebuttals might be examined; no, this was an inward feeling in the heart of the boy—full of that same struggle a logical problem would present, and it produced the same knowledge—lacking only the words to identify and to describe the process. This feeling, then, which was as big as his love, as big as his hatred,  as big as his confusion, as big as his fear, entered his chest not in the way a seed would grow—slowly, beautifully, as a kind of victory, into a sprawling powerful vine—rather it came like a boy at the coast  who digs a hole in the sand near the water, its progress slowed again and again by that very sand which has just been removed, sliding back down into the hole, filling it in once more: How is the son to perceive the father? What is the son to make of him? The father, of course, he is God—this is a natural belief, no matter how false, which is born into every boy. It is inherent knowledge written on the soul, and nurtured, of course, by the father’s voice and his arms and his love and his long, strong fingers. It cannot be helped. The father, too, however, is that Great Liar, the Fallen Light, whose goodness and beauty is only a trick—this was a learned belief, many times beaten into Nofrito, nurtured by drink and rage. But what else is the father but a man?—and merely so, nothing more—an importer and seller of American goods, of crayons and soda and clothing, who sits at his desk, who smokes cigarettes, who looks out the window at the beauty of the River Guayas—with the same wonder of all men who stand before nature. Nofrito, only what, maybe eleven years old, could never have formed these into words, could never have comprehended these things as they would have appeared in thought. Had he been able to form the words, however, probably he would have moved through all these ideas, reflecting on his father, this God, this Devil, this Man, and he would have said Love, and he would have said Hate, and he would have said Fear, and he would have said Hope. The contradictions, the knot, would have been difficult and long, but in his mind these things could have been worked out, perhaps. In the face of such difficulties, he would have understood the impossibility of all these things as true at once; perhaps in time he would have come to comprehend his father the man, the weak one, filled with good and evil, and Nofrito would have calculated a son’s disappointment in the father, a son’s hurt, and a son’s devotion nonetheless, and then, with compassion and hatred moving through him, he would have arrived at this impossible conclusion, saying at last one final word, over and over, then resist it with all the strength in his body: Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. But the feeling, that feeling in his chest—as hopeful and tired and futile as the boy digging his hole in the sand—this feeling which grew in him and grew and grew and grew, this fatigue, this anxiety, this push against impossibility—it had no words to say, it had no thoughts to consider—because it was a feeling. Therefore, this feeling, wanting a voice, was mute.

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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