Raúl Tola

THE CURFEW

Translation by Anna Heath

 

“What’s this?” she asks herself, emerging from a shallow sleep, smelling something besides her own body, the dirty smell of rags, her hair, and thesoot inked on her skin. Hearing a loud grunt that won’t subside, she feels a wet bitterness on her leg. What’s this smell and sound? She raises her head, pushes it through the bags protecting her from the city rain, and can see them: a dumpy, insignificant dog, with a flat nose and ringed tail, raising his paw in an offhand manner, wetting the cardboard walls of her home, and a housekeeper in a navy uniform and rubber sandals who is throwing her a languid look, holding the dog collar, and singing a tropical rhythm. “Get out!” the policeman at the embassy screams with a strange laugh, watching as she jumps from the bench as if possessed, spitting insults and trying to scare the dog, who steps back, afraid, his ears back, tail between his legs. The housekeeper adds her arrogant shouts to those of the policeman and walks away, leading the pet with her, stopping at every bench and every bush, much to his enjoyment. The lady collects herself under the bags and rags, a cough coming from her chest, shaking with cold and fever, and tries again to find that warm dream that has become so elusive. Behind her eyes, her weak eyes blinking, her passed-out conscience, she manages to see a blurry figure, arriving in the plaza with tired steps…

She cleans the street. With a large palm leaf, in her yellow work overall, she sweeps the road all night, thrashing the tins, bags, and dust that always accumulates. At that hour, few people are out with her in that silence like cold tar, with that risk embodied by darkness. Only policemen, a sleepy security guard, and beggars who make their homes on park benches, in the plaza doorways, or between the wheels of a tank are the ones reaching out to touch the hours of that different world that awakens after curfew. See you, she calls to Elvira, a domestic worker who usually walks her employers’ dog very late, take care, and then gets to work: looking over every detail of the little plaza, the lamps turned off, pearled with Coke cans and tinned food, banana and orange peel, apple cores, supermarket bags and empty bottles, the gardens of which have been burned yellow, their rebellious thickets left uncared for. “Where do I start?” she asks, and in reply her feet drag her body towards the corner, opposite the embassy, that old and shadowy colonial house, out of a scary movie. She parks the rubbish bin next to the begging lady, that spectral and half-crazy presence, a mixture of tatters, neglect and abstraction. A lady who would make more night wherever the moon found her. She takes up the dustpan and the palm leaf, starts sweeping, softly, mindfully, obsessively looking for the furthest specks to fling them over, collect them together, and pass them on, until she finds the policeman guarding the embassy, and their eyes eventually meet…

“Good evening!” Fernández leans his head over, hands at his back, making a stiff motion. “Evening, how are you?” replies the street cleaner, pushing a palm leaf with her bin. She crosses in her yellow uniform, picking up litter, and he’s once more totally alone. The street is like an open mouth. He has one hand resting on the revolver butt, counting the seconds left until he’ll finish that awful shift, he thinks. He searches one of his jacket pockets and, finding a cigarette, lights it, and smokes it enthusiastically. How many stories have they told him at the station? He thinks, “Where does the myth end, and where does the truth begin?” How many tragedies, embroidered by the imagination, have I heard from my colleagues? All of them are collectors of anecdotes, an ambush in the light of day, you don’t know what the bullets were like, Fernández, boom boom, this scar was just a scratch, I was saved by a miracle, Fernández, just imagine! I was on patrol at a power plant and three hooded men arrived, covered by the night, to blow up the tower, luckily I saw them, and boom boom boom, three shots at point-blank. “When will it happen to me, when will I have to go?” he asks himself, leaning against the wall, watching the cigarette smoke dance another twirl, alert to every nocturnal cry…

The drive takes him to the city outskirts. The destination has taken Estéban so far away, that he was on the point of turning back, but the idea of money kept him going, and now, a few minutes from the curfew, he speeds away all out from the imposing figure of a hill crowned with a cross, away from houses hanging off the hillside, as if made of cardboard. His wiry left hand, with blackened nails like claws, tightens on the wheel. The other, identical, puts away old notes he’s just received from a drunk who snored for the whole journey. The struggling engine thunders on the wide avenue. The lampposts are no more than whistles. The clock, inflexible, carries on turning its hands. “Come on, come on!” he says, but, first with an unravelling, then with an alarming rush, the car begins to break down. Terrified, I don’t believe this, damn it, he slows down, and takes a right turn. He’s silent, standing on the deserted moorland of the hard shoulder. He gets out quietly, clenching his keys like a useless defence, and opens his hood, whence a white cloud escapes from the overheated engine. There’s nothing to do without any water or tools. He lifts his head and looks for a charitable soul who might appear in that loneliness and help him, but it’s useless. He’s about to give up and lie down on the back seat for the night when two bright flashes rush out of the shadow at full speed. He jumps into its path, waving his arms like a hornet, here, here, shouting loudly, “Stop, stop!” His eyes astonished, his mouth shaking, he watches as, instead of breaking, the ramshackle red Datsun accelerates even more, passes him, and disappears…

Why can’t you sleep, Miguelito? Why are you sailing about in your sheets, sweating in spite of the cold, not able to close your eyes and rest? My boy, it’s already midnight, the curfew is already projected over the city, sedating it, interrupting its life. He hears his father’s snores from the other side of the corridor and feels his nerves get the better of him as he thinks that, without enough sleep, he’ll have to wake up very early and go to school. His nerves feed the wakefulness and he yawns and gets out of bed, back to bed, and drinks a bit of water. Nothing helps him fall asleep. He turns on the TV, resigned, and after adjusting his eyes to the brightness of the screen, he entertains himself by zapping channels, counting over identical news stories with images of mutilated people, red flags, buildings in ruins, and desperate people. He turns it off and yawns again, then gets out of bed. From the twelfth floor, the city no longer makes sense, is just an uneven fabric of twinkling lights and distant car horns. At the foot of the building, the empty street confirms the curfew to have started. That’s why Miguelito is surprised to see the lights of a speeding red Datsun cross by the house with a shriek…

Will I finish on time? Will I dot the “i” on the paper that’s taken up every night in the last week? Estéban rubs his eyes, takes a large sip of coffee, yawns, itches his long university hair, and tries to pick up the thread of the text, but can’t. He can only think about grief, about that infinite sadness growing inside him, he thinks, without any apparent reason, that grief overwhelming his days and nights, distracting me wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, that’s made me thinner, until I’m useless. Where did it come from? Why did it appear like an infection, if until recently, just a few months ago, when I was still thinking of studying at the college, the present and the future seemed promising? I’m not the same any more: my marks have gone down, he’s become taciturn, introverted, and incapable of putting up with other people. He detests the cold and enormous lecture halls, their absent speakers and opaque corridors.

She’s slept in any place, withstood the cold and damp, the needle-like sun, the thick fumes and traffic noise, and as we speak she’s snuggling against a milk carton and covering herself with a curtain, deep in a cataleptic sleep of alcohol and cocaine paste, but the explosion rouses her. It’s so loud that, with her name no longer existent, hardly remembering how to connect words, weather-beaten and destitute, fear reaches out and touches her. Her eyes pulled open, her heart draws in, and paralysis creeps over her as she becomes alert, all senses pinned to the beginning of silence. She smells dust, anfo, and burning bodies. She starts to hear little moans, the pitiful voices of wounded people, shocked cries. Standing up, she walks over, turns a corner, and is into the smoke cloud, thinking, this is new, what’s this? The fragmented plaza after the killing: benches thrown up over the floor, wet cobbles, and an enormous cave-like wound that the explosion opened, where there used to be a wall. The car bomb has cut a ball of iron and burnt glass. Next to it lies the charred stump of what must have been a police officer. Coming closer, she passes another body, stuck to a bench, and notices in the haze a third, dressed in yellow rags, hanging over a rubbish bin. Stepping past the policeman, she curls under the fumes, the smell of burnt flesh, and the image of bubbled-up skin and smouldering hair. Looking to every corner of the still-empty street, she searches the trouser and jacket pockets, and finds a coin purse and wallet…

Gerardo felt the detonations up close. He could swear it was only a few blocks from where, up until recently, he’d been sleeping draped in a thick duvet. They wake him up with a start, and he can hear the heavy beat of his heart, thud thud thud, while he hurriedly puts on a shirt and trousers over his pyjama and picks up a camera, cassette player and radio, and rushes out of his apartment, not stopping until he gets to the plaza with a slam on the breaks. He takes out the camera and recorder and gets to work, recording everything, contemplating that chaotic scene through the camera lens that makes everything seem distant, far away. The red and white lights of the ambulances and patrol cars light up a few people who are appearing: two men covered in blood, women in shock, busy drivers and firemen. They’re not able to carry more of the wounded while they’re looking after those who’re safe and to keep the peace too, or to keep away the curious and the journalists who have arrived after him. He manages to make headway through the crowd of victims, the rescue brigades and police officers, treading on crunchy cobblestones and glass, amazed at the destruction around him, my God what am I seeing, even though he’s been covering similar news stories for the past three months. He’s never felt his world profaned before, his cement bubble, the globe that had kept itself largely on the margin of violence. What’s saved me, my children, or my ex-wife, all nearby, from an attack like this? What chance decided that these corpses in bags lined up on the pavement wouldn’t be of me and mine? Is there any place I’m safe any more? He focuses the camera lens. So much has collapsed that he doesn’t know what to film: the embassy, the broken monument in the plaza centre, the bustle of rescue teams, or the coming and going of ambulances. As he’s wondering what to do, a simple image catches his interest: a topless bald man, maybe a little older than him, whose face is knocked out by the fear that he could’ve lost someone so loved. Very upset, he’s holding onto his face, walking, swaying, standing facing a building, and to Gerardo’s dismay, making a trumpet with his hands, he shouts as if losing his voice, calling Miguelito, where are you Miguelito…

 

Translation of “The Curfew” Copyright Raúl Tola By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2014 by Anna Heath. All rights reserved.

tola

Raúl Tola (Lima, 1974) Studied law and political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. He is one of Peru’s most respected print and television journalists; in addition, he is an accomplished fiction writer. He has published collections of short stories and novels like: Noche de cuervos (1999), Heridas Privadas (2002), Toque de queda (2008) and Flores Amarillas (2013).


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