THE CHILEAN FOREST
Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest … My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe … The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb enter my nostrils and flood my whole being … The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way … This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves … I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab … A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning … Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time … A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it … Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows … They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways … A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper … A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight … Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting … High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries … The red copihue is the blood flower, the white copihue is the snow flower … A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom … The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off … The piercing interruption of a hidden bird … The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm churns up all the music of the earth.
Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.
I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.
CHILDHOOD AND POETRY
I’ll start out by saying this about the days and the years of my childhood: the rain was the one unforgettable presence for me then. The great southern rain, coming down like a waterfall from the Pole, from the skies of Cape Horn to the frontier. On this frontier, my country’s Wild West, I first opened my eyes to life, the land, poetry, and the rain.
I have traveled a lot, and it seems to me that the art of raining, practiced with a terrible but subtle power in my native Araucanía, has now been lost. Sometimes it rained for a whole month, for a whole year. Threads of rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs or coming up against the windows in transparent waves, and each house was a ship struggling to make port in the ocean of winter.
This cold rain from the south of the Americas is not the sudden squall of hot rain that comes down like a whip and goes on, leaving a blue sky in its wake. The southern rain is patient and keeps falling endlessly from the gray sky.
The street in front of my house has turned into a huge sea of mud. Out the window, through the rain, I watch a cart stuck in the middle of the street. A peasant wearing a heavy black woolen cloak beats his oxen; the rain and the mud are too much for them.
We used to walk to school, along the unpaved sidewalks, stepping from stone to stone, despite the cold and the rain. The wind carried off our umbrellas. Raincoats were expensive, I didn’t like gloves, my shoes got soaked through. I’ll always remember the wet socks hanging next to the brazier, and lots of shoes, steaming like toy locomotives. Then the floods would come and wash away the settlements along the river, where the poor lived. The earth shook and trembled. At other times, a crest of terrifying light appeared on the sierras: Mt. Llaima, the volcano, was stirring.
Temuco was the farthest outpost of Chilean life in the southern territories, and therefore it had a long bloody history behind it.
When the Spanish conquistadors pushed them back, after three hundred years of fighting, the Araucanian Indians retreated to those cold regions. But the Chileans continued what they called “the pacification of Araucanía,” their war of blood and fire to turn our countrymen out of their own lands. Every kind of weapon was used against the Indians, unsparingly: carbine blasts, the burning of villages, and later, a more fatherly method, alcohol and the law. The lawyer became a specialist at stripping them of their fields, the judge sentenced them when they protested, the priest threatened them with eternal fire. And hard spirits finally consummated the annihilation of a superb race whose deeds, valor, and beauty Don Alonso de Ercilla carved in stanzas of jade and iron in his Araucana.
My parents had come from Parral, where I was born. There, in central Chile, vineyards thrive and wine is plentiful. My mother, Doña Rosa Basoalto, died before I could have a memory of her, before I knew it was she my eyes gazed upon. I was born on July 12, 1904, and a month later, in August, wasted away by tuberculosis, my mother was gone.
Life was difficult for small farmers in the central part of the country. My grandfather Don José Angel Reyes had little land and many children. To me, my uncles’ names were like the names of princes from far-off kingdoms. Amós, Oseas, Joel, Abadías. My father’s name was simply José del Carmen. He left his father’s farm while he was still very young and worked as a laborer at the dry docks in the port of Talcahuano, eventually becoming a railroad man in Temuco.
He was a conductor on a ballast train. Few people know what a ballast train is. In the southern region, with its violent gales, the rains would wash away the rails if gravel wasn’t poured in between the ties. The ballast had to be taken out of the quarries in hods and this coarse gravel dumped onto flatcars. Forty years ago, the crew on this type of train had to be made of iron. They came from the fields, from the suburbs, from jails, and were huge, muscular laborers. The company paid miserable wages and no references were asked of those looking for work on these trains. My father, the conductor, had grown used to giving and taking orders. Sometimes he took me along. We quarried rocks in Boroa, savage heart of the frontier, scene of the terrible battles between the Spaniards and the Araucanians.
There, nature made me euphoric. Birds, beetles, partridge eggs fascinated me. What a miracle it was, finding them in the ravines, blue, dark, and shiny, the color of a shotgun barrel. I marveled at the perfection of the insects. I collected “snake mothers.” This was the grotesque name given to the largest beetle, black, glistening, and tough, the titan of insects in Chile. He gives you quite a turn when you come upon him suddenly, on the trunk of a ginger, wild-apple, or coihue tree, and I knew he was so strong that I could stand on him and he wouldn’t even crack. With his mighty shield to protect him, he had no need of venomous pincers.
My expeditions filled the workers with curiosity. Before long, they started taking an active interest in my discoveries. The moment my father’s back was turned, they slipped off into the jungle, and with more skill, strength, and intelligence than I, they found fantastic treasures for me. There was one fellow called Monge. According to my father, he was a dangerous man with a knife. He had two huge incisions on his swarthy face. One was the vertical scar left by a knife, and the other his white, horizontal grin, full of charm and deviltry. This fellow, Monge, would bring me white copihues, furry spiders, sucking ringdoves, and once he found for me the most dazzling of all, the beetle of the coihue and the luma trees. I don’t know if you have ever seen one. That was the only time I ever did. It was a streak of lightning dressed in the colors of the rainbow. Red and violet and green and yellow glittered on its shell. It escaped from my hands with the speed of lightning and went back into the forest again. Monge wasn’t there to catch it for me. I have never quite recovered from that dazzling apparition. Nor have I forgotten my friend. My father told me about his death. He fell from a train and tumbled down a precipice. The convoy was stopped, but by then, my father told me, he was just a sack of bones.
* * *
It’s difficult to describe a house like ours, a typical frontier house of sixty years ago.
In the first place, these homes intercommunicated. Through the patio of the Reyeses, and the Ortegas, of the Candia and the Mason families, tools and books, birthday cakes, liniments, umbrellas, tables and chairs changed hands. These pioneer homes formed the hub of all the activities of the village.
Don Carlos Mason, a North American with a white mane of hair, who looked like Emerson, was the patriarch of this particular family. The Mason children were true creoles. Don Carlos respected the law and the Bible. He was not an empire builder but one of the original settlers. No one had money, and yet printing presses, hotels, slaughterhouses burgeoned in this family. Some of the sons were newspaper editors and others just worked for them. In time, everything crumbled and everyone was left as poor as before. Only the Germans kept a stubborn hold on their assets, and that singled them out in the hinterlands.
Our houses, then, had something of a settlers’ temporary camp about them. Or of an explorers’ supply base. Anyone who came in saw kegs, tools, saddles, and all kinds of indescribable objects.
There were always rooms that weren’t finished, and half-completed stairways. There was, forever, talk of going on with the building. Parents were already beginning to think of a university education for their children.
In Don Carlos Mason’s home, the most important holidays were observed. For every birthday dinner there was turkey with celery, lamb barbecued on a wooden spit, and floating island for dessert. It has been many years since I last tasted this custard. The white-haired patriarch sat at the head of the interminable table with his wife, Doña Micaela Candia. Behind him, there was a huge Chilean flag with a tiny American one pinned onto it. Those were also the proportions of their blood. Chile’s lone star predominated.
In the Mason house there was also a living room that we children were not allowed to go into. I never knew what color its furniture was, because it was kept under white covers, until a fire swept it away. There was an album in there with photographs of the family, finer and more delicate than the horrid colored blowups that invaded the frontier later on.
There was a picture of my mother. She was a lady dressed in black, slender, with a faraway look. I have been told that she wrote poems, but I have never seen them, only the lovely portrait.
My father had married again; his second wife was Doña Trinidad Candia Marverde, my stepmother. I find it hard to believe that this is what I must call the guardian angel of my childhood. She was devoted and loving, and had a countrywoman’s sense of humor and a diligent, inexhaustible kindness.
As soon as my father came in, she would turn into a quiet shadow, as did all the women there in those days.
I saw mazurkas and quadrilles danced in that living room.
At home we had a trunk filled with fascinating things. A marvelous parrot preened on a calendar at the bottom of the chest. One day, while my mother was going through that sacred ark, I reached for the parrot and fell in, head first. As I got older, I used to open the trunk on the sly. There were some lovely fragile fans in it.
I recall something else in that trunk. The first love story that intrigued me passionately. It consisted of hundreds of postcards sent by someone who signed himself Enrique or Alberto, I don’t remember which, all addressed to María Thielman. These cards were marvelous. They were photographs of the great actresses of the day, embossed with little chips of glass and sometimes with real hair pasted on the heads. There were also castles, cities, and foreign landscapes. For years I found pleasure only in the pictures. But, as I grew older, I read those love notes written in a flawless hand. I always imagined the suitor as a man with a derby, a cane, and a diamond stickpin. His messages, sent from all corners of the globe, were filled with reckless passion expressed in dazzling phrases, with love that threw caution to the winds. I, too, began to fall in love with María Thielman. I imagined her as a haughty actress diademed, covered with pearls. But how did these letters come to be in my mother’s trunk? I never found out.
The year 1910 came to Temuco. That memorable year I started school, in a rambling mansion with sparsely furnished rooms and a gloomy basement. In the spring we could see from the school the graceful Cautín River winding its way down below, its shores bordered with wild-apple trees. We used to sneak out of class to dip our feet in the cold water running over the white stones.
The school opened infinite vistas for this six-year-old. Anything might contain a mystery. The physics lab, which I was not allowed to enter—filled with glistening instruments, retorts, and test tubes. The library, forever closed. The sons of settlers had no love of book learning. Still, the cellar was the most fascinating place of all. There was a deep silence, a deep darkness, but with candles to light it up for us, we used to play war games there. The victors would tie their prisoners to some ancient columns. The odor of dampness, of a hideaway, a tomb, given off by the school basement in Temuco, still haunts my memory.
I grew older. Books began to interest me. Buffalo Bill’s adventures and Salgari’s voyages carried me far into the world of dreams. My first loves, the purest ones, found expression in letters to Blanca Wilson, the blacksmith’s daughter. One of the boys had fallen head over heels in love with her and asked me to write his love letters. I don’t remember what these letters were like exactly, but they may have been my first literary achievement, because one day, when I ran into this schoolgirl, she asked if I was the author of the letters her sweetheart brought her. I couldn’t deny my work and I said yes, very embarrassed. Then she handed me a quince, which of course I would not eat and put away like a treasure. Having thus replaced my friend in the girl’s heart, I went on writing endless love letters to her and receiving quinces.
The boys in school didn’t know I was a poet and wouldn’t have respected me for it. The frontier still had its marvelous quality of a Wild West without prejudices. My companions’ names were Schnake, Schler, Hauser, Smith, Taito, Seranis. All of us, including the Aracenas and the Ramírezes and the Reyeses, were equal. There were no Basque family names. There were Sephardim: Albalas, Francos. And Irish: McGintys. Poles: Yanichewskys. The Araucanian names gave off a mysterious light, an aroma of wood and water: Melivilus, Catrileos.
Sometimes we would fight with acorns in the huge closed-in shed. Anyone who has never been hit by an acorn doesn’t know how much it really hurts. Before reaching school, we would stuff our pockets with ammunition. I had little skill, no strength, and not much cunning. I always got the worst of it. While I was busy examining the marvelous acorn, green and polished, with its gray, wrinkled hood, or while I was still trying clumsily to make one of those pipes they eventually would grab away from me, a downpour of acorns would pelt my head. During my second year, I decided to wear a bright green rain hat. It belonged to my father, like the heavy woolen cape, the red and green signal lanterns, which I found so fascinating and took to school as soon as I got the chance, to strut around with them … This time it was pouring and there was nothing so fantastic as the green oilskin hat that looked like a parrot. The moment I reached the shed, where three hundred roughnecks were chasing around like madmen, my hat flew off like a parrot. I ran after it, and each time I was about to catch it, off it flew, followed by the most deafening howls I have ever heard. I never laid eyes on it again.
Among these memories I can’t see clearly the precise order of time. I confuse insignificant events that were very special to me, and this one coming back to my mind now seems to have been my first erotic adventure, strangely mixed in with natural history. Perhaps love and nature were, very early on, the source of my poems.
Across from my house lived two girls who were always giving me looks that made my face turn red. They were as precocious and diabolical as I was timid and quiet. This time I stood in my doorway trying not to look at them; they were holding something that fascinated me. I went closer, gingerly, and they showed me a wild bird’s nest, woven together with moss and tiny feathers; in it were several marvelous little turquoise-blue eggs. When I reached for it, one of the girls told me that they would have to feel through my clothes first. I was so scared I started to tremble and scurried away, pursued by the young nymphs holding the exciting treasure over their heads. During the chase, I went into an alley leading to a vacant bakery owned by my father. My assailants managed to catch me and had started to strip off my trousers, when we heard my father’s footsteps coming down the passage. That was the end of the nest. The marvelous little eggs were left shattered, while under a counter we, the attacked and the attackers, held our breath.
I also recall that one day, while hunting behind my house for the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I discovered a hole in one of the fence boards. I looked through the opening and saw a patch of land just like ours, untended and wild. I drew back a few steps, because I had a vague feeling that something was about to happen. Suddenly a hand came through. It was the small hand of a boy my own age. When I moved closer, the hand was gone and in its place was a little white sheep.
It was a sheep made of wool that had faded. The wheels on which it had glided were gone. I had never seen such a lovely sheep. I went into my house and came back with a gift, which I left in the same place: a pine cone, partly open, fragrant and resinous, and very precious to me.
I never saw the boy’s hand again. I have never again seen a little sheep like that one. I lost it in a fire. And even today, when I go past a toy shop, I look in the windows furtively. But it’s no use. A sheep like that one was never made again.
ART AND THE RAIN
Just as the cold, the rain, the mud in the streets—that is, the nagging and crumbling winter of the southern part of America—came down on us, so, too, the yellow, scorching summer visited these regions. We were surrounded by unexplored mountains, but I wanted to know the sea. Providentially, my obliging father was loaned a house by one of his numerous railroad friends. In total darkness, at four o’clock in the night (I have never found out why they say four in the morning), my father woke up the whole house with his conductor’s whistle. From that moment on, there was no rest, or any light either, and surrounded by candles whose tiny flames were battered by the drafts filtering in everywhere, my mother; my brother and sister, Rodolfo and Laura; and the cook ran to and fro, doing up mattresses into enormous balls wrapped in burlap that were hastily rolled out of the way by the women. The beds had to be put aboard the train. The mattresses were still warm when they left for the nearby station. Sickly and weak by nature, and startled out of sleep, I felt nauseated and chilled to the bone. All the while, the fuss around the house went on, never ending. Everything was taken along on that month-long poor man’s vacation. Even the wicker dryers that were laid over the lit braziers to dry the sheets and clothes ever damp in that climate were tagged and bundled into the cart waiting outside for the luggage.
The train’s run was the stretch of that cold province between Temuco and Carahue. It crossed immense, unpopulated, uncultivated terrain, crossed virgin forests, rumbled through tunnels and over bridges, like an earthquake. The way stations were isolated in that wide countryside, among mimosas and flowering apple trees. In their ritual dress and ancestral majesty, Araucanian Indians waited at the stations to sell lambs, chickens, eggs, and textiles to the passengers. My father always bought something, after endless bargaining. His blond goatee was something to watch as he picked up a hen in front of some inscrutable Araucanian woman who would not lower the price of her merchandise by half a cent.
Each station had a lovelier name, almost all of them inherited from the ancient Araucanian. This was the region of the bloodiest battles between the invading Spaniards and the first Chileans, deep-rooted sons of the land.
Labranza was the first station. Boroa and Ranquilco followed. Names with the fragrance of wild plants, the sound of their syllables captivated me. These Araucanian names always signified something delicious: buried honey, lagoons or a river beside a forest, or a woodland with the name of a bird. We passed the hamlet of Imperial, where the poet Don Alonso de Ercilla was nearly executed by the Spanish governor. This was the capital of the conquistadors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During their war of independence the Araucanians invented the tactic of “scorched earth.” They did not leave one building standing in the city described by Ercilla as beautiful and proud.
And then we came to the city on the river. The train whistled cheerfully, darkening the countryside and the station with giant plumes of coal smoke, bells clanged, and you could now smell the wide, sky-blue, and tranquil Imperial River as it ran to the ocean. Taking down the countless pieces of luggage, getting the small family organized, and going in the oxcart to the boat that would ride down the Imperial River was quite a production, directed, of course, by my father’s blue eyes and his railwayman’s whistle. We squeezed both the luggage and ourselves into the small boat that would take us to the sea. There were no berths. I sat near the bow. The wheels churned the river currents with their paddles, the small vessel’s engines snorted and whined, and the taciturn southerners were spread about on the deck like motionless pieces of furniture.
An accordion broke into its romantic plea, its love call. Nothing can flood a fifteen-year-old’s heart with feeling like a voyage down a strange, wide river, between steep banks, on the way to the mysterious sea.
Bajo Imperial was only a string of houses with red roofs. It was situated on the river’s brow. From the house that had been awaiting us and, even before, from the rickety piers where the little steamer tied up, I heard the ocean thundering in the distance, a commotion far away. The sea swells were coming into my life.
The house belonged to Don Horacio Pacheco, a giant of a farmer who, all during the month we took over his house, went up and down the hills and impassable roads driving his tractor and thresher. With his machine he harvested the wheat of the Indians and those peasants cut off from coastal towns. He was a huge man who would suddenly burst in upon our railwayman’s family with a booming voice, his body covered with cereal dust and straw. Then he would return just as noisily to his work in the mountains. For me he was one more example of the hard life in our southern region.
I found everything mysterious in that house, in the neglected streets, in the unknown lives around me, in the deep roar of the sea far off. The house had what seemed to me a huge, straggly garden and, in the center of this, a summerhouse battered by the rain, a summerhouse of white slats covered with vines. No one except me, a mere nobody, ever penetrated this gray solitude, where the ivy, the honeysuckle, and my poetry thrived. And there was another fascinating thing in that strange garden: a huge lifeboat, orphaned in some great shipwreck and now stranded in this garden without waves or storms, a castaway among the poppies.
The strange thing about this unkempt garden was that, by design or through neglect, only poppies grew there. The other plants had disappeared from this gloomy corner. Some were huge and white like doves, some scarlet like drops of blood, some purple or black, like widows forgotten there. I had never seen such a wilderness of poppies, and I have never seen another like it. And though I had a deep respect for them, and a superstitious dread only they, of all flowers, inspire in me, that did not stop me from snapping one off, now and again, the broken stem leaving sticky milk on my hands and a whiff of unearthly perfume. Then I would stroke its sumptuous petals lovingly and put them into a book to keep. To me they were the wings of huge butterflies that couldn’t fly.
The first time I stood before the sea, I was overwhelmed. The great ocean unleashed its fury there between two big hills, Huilque and Maule. It wasn’t just the immense snow-crested swells, rising many meters above our heads, but the loud pounding of a gigantic heart, the heartbeat of the universe.
The family laid out its table linen and tea things in that spot. The food reached my mouth sprinkled with sand, but I didn’t care. What terrified me was the apocalyptic moment when my father ordered us to take our daily swim. Far back from the giant rollers, my sister, Laura, and I were splashed by the water’s icy lash. And we trembled, believing that some wave’s finger would hook us into the mountains of the sea. When, our teeth chattering and our ribs blue, my sister and I prepared to die, hand in hand, the railwayman’s whistle blew and my father’s voice freed us from martyrdom.
I’ll tell you about other mysteries in that place. One of these was the Percherons, and another the house of the three enchanted sisters.
Several big buildings stood at the end of the small village. They may have been tanneries, owned by French Basques, who almost always ran the leather industry in southern Chile. I don’t really know what they were used for. All I was interested in was watching the huge horses that came out of the front gates toward sundown and crossed the town.
They were Percherons, gigantic colts and mares. Their long manes fell down their very tall backs like human hair. They had enormous legs, also covered with tufts of hair that waved like huge plumes when they galloped off. They were deep red, white, roan, powerful. That’s how volcanoes would have moved, if they had been able to trot and gallop like those colossal horses. They would go down the dusty, rocky streets like the violent shock of an earthquake. They whinnied huskily, producing subterranean sounds that sent a shudder through the quiet air. I have never again in my life seen such arrogant, massive, and statuesque horses, except perhaps for those I saw in China carved in stone for the tombs of the Ming dynasty. But even the most venerable stone cannot provide a sight like those huge animals that seemed, in my childish eyes, to emerge from the darkness of dreams, headed for some other-world of giants.
In fact, that untamed world was filled with horses. Chilean, German, and Araucanian riders, all wearing ponchos of black Castilian wool, mounted and dismounted in the streets. Scrawny or well fed, shabby or sleek, the horses stayed where the riders left them, munching on the grass, with steam coming out of their nostrils. They were accustomed to their masters and to the lonely life of the settlement. Later they would return, loaded down with sacks of food or farm implements, to the labyrinthine highlands, climbing up dreadful roads or endlessly galloping over the sand by the sea. From time to time an Araucanian rider would come out of a pawnshop or a dim tavern, mount his unperturbed horse with difficulty, and take the road back to his home in the hills, swaying from side to side, drunk to the point of unconsciousness. As I watched him start off on his journey, it seemed to me that the tipsy centaur was about to fall every time he lurched dangerously, but I was wrong: he always righted himself, only to double over again, swaying toward the other side and always recovering, glued to the saddle. He covered mile after mile, sitting on his horse like that, until he merged into the wild world of nature like an animal unsure of its way but mysteriously protected.
We returned many other summers, with the same household ceremonies, to that fascinating region. With the passing of time, between the bitter winters in Temuco and the wonder-filled summers on the coast, I was growing up, reading, falling in love, and writing.
I got used to riding on horseback. My world expanded upward and outward along the towering mud trails, over roads with sudden curves. I encountered the tangled vegetation, the silence or the sounds of wild birds, the sudden outburst of a flowering tree dressed in scarlet robes like a gigantic archbishop of the mountains, or snowed under by a riot of blossoms I had never seen before. Or from time to time, when least expected, the copihue bellflower, wild, untamable, indestructible, dangling from the thickets like a drop of fresh blood. Slowly I got used to the horse, the saddle, the stiff, complicated riding gear, the cruel spurs jangling at my heels. Along endless beaches or thicketed hills, a communion was started between my spirit—that is, my poetry—and the loneliest land in the world. This was many years ago, but that communion, that revelation, that pact with the wilderness, is still a part of my life.
MY FIRST POEM
Now I am going to tell you a story about birds. In Lake Budi, swans were brutally hunted. They were stalked quietly in boats and then, rowing faster, faster … Swans, like the albatross, take to the air clumsily, they have to make a run, skimming the water. They lift their huge wings heavily, and so were easily caught, and finished off with sticks.
Someone brought me a swan that was half dead. It was one of those magnificent birds I have not seen again anywhere in the world, a black-necked swan. A snowy vessel with its slender neck looking as if squeezed into a black silk stocking, its beak an orange color and its eyes red.
This happened at the seaside, in Puerto Saavedra, Imperial del Sur.
It was almost dead when they gave it to me. I bathed its wounds and stuffed bits of bread and fish down its throat. It threw up everything. But it recovered from its injuries gradually and began to realize that I was its friend. And I began to realize that homesickness was killing it. So I went down the streets to the river, with the heavy bird in my arms. It swam a little way, close by. I wanted it to fish and showed it the pebbles on the bottom, the sand the silver fish of the south went gliding over. But its sad eyes wandered off into the distance.
I carried it to the river and back to my house every day for more than twenty days. The swan was almost as tall as I. One afternoon it seemed dreamier; it swam near me but wasn’t entertained by my ruses for trying to teach it how to fish again. It was very still and I picked it up in my arms to take it home. But when I held it up to my breast, I felt a ribbon unrolling, and something like a black arm brushed my face. It was the long, sinuous neck falling. That’s how I found out that swans don’t sing when they die.