When Gerardo arrived at the pier he was stunned at seeing how few boats were berthed there. He had a memory of hundreds of vessels waiting for passengers to Quivolgo and the other far-off villages in the interior. Now the pier looked deserted, and the four boats that were there moved in the water, with slightly creaking beams.. He recognised that plaintive creaking of wood, and the intermittent nodding of the boats tied to the pier.
The man sat on a rock to gaze at the silent movement of the water of that river that looked so huge and unchangeable in terms of course and time. But, in spite of its appearance, it perished some thousand metres away, after facing the never-ending surf of the Pacific Ocean, the invincible eternity which is the deathbed of all the fresh water in this country.
In his time, that specific place was referred to as “La Barra” (The Bar) and it marked the place where hundreds of boats had sunk trying to cross the whirlpool created by the two waters when they met, dragged along by their centrifugal force before managing to cross to the other bank.
He had also been on the verge of death one afternoon, when his boat capsized and the current tried to take him to the murderous Bar. Had he not been a good swimmer, as are all of the men of the Maule, and had it not been for the extraordinary solidarity of the Maule boatmen he would not be here, he thought, while he turned his gaze to Isla Orrego, the island in the middle of the river. But he hadn’t travelled for hundreds of miles to think about the past and its misfortunes. That was all behind him and done with, just as his exile, he went on thinking to himself.
While he looked at the small island, with its stand of eucalyptus trees that held the soil together in the winter floods, a small boat with two youngsters at the oars crossed in front of him. The small craft moved quickly and silently, parting the water and leaving a pencil-straight wake behind it. At that moment, the great mass of water moved calmly, flattened like a motorway, with no potholes, or ruts, a river road that in the past had been used by the Maule boats that sailed upriver loaded with fish and merchandise. His grandfather said that in those days, the river banks were lined with shipyards assembling oak planks to turn them into Maule river crafts.
The canoe soon disappeared from view, but he then saw it going upstream, negotiating the waters, and then it once again passed in front of the increasingly misted pupils of his bright blue eyes with the same caution and silent feline grace as when he had first seen it.
In Canada he had never been able to forget where he came from, he always believed that he would return to his river, and definitely that he would never die away from his homeland. “That’s why I’m going on this journey”, he told his children and his Canadian grandchildren before he boarded his flight back to Chile.
“It’s not that I want to die”, he explained, “but I don’t want to come back to my home town in a coffin.” “All I want,” he went on, “ is to see the pier once again, to see the houses, to walk around the town square, climb the Multrún hill to look down at the beach, at the magic Church Stone, the lovers’ rock where I first kissed Carmina fifty years ago. I want to sit on the pier and look at the boats crossing the Maule, watch the oarsmen’s synchronised rhythm, and the sad faces of their passengers who inhabited the barest cliffs on the planet.
His luggage was a worn out old leather backpack with four pieces of clothing; the same one that he had had thirty years ago when he left for exile and banishment with his wife…. He took nothing with him that time, they didn’t let him; all he could carry in part of his mind were compressed images of his life.
And that slowly began to unreel after his widowhood, making him hasten his voyage back, as he was filled with increasingly vivid memories.
Gerardo, d’you remember, do you remember the first time you crossed the Maule? You travelled with your old grandmother, that old woman with ample black skirts, white hair, round glasses, white hands, sweet, warm hands that stroked your hair at night when you couldn’t sleep.
He crossed in a rowing boat, of course., A red boat, or perhaps a blue boat, or it might have been a yellow boat or a two-coloured boat, but all this is so deep in your memory that you can’t make it out. But you do remember the rhythmic movement of the boatmen, with their sun-tanned faces, their biceps moving like live lizards under their skins, with their legs bending with the thrust of the oars, long pieces of wood with fin-like tips, slightly cracking the surface… and the groan of the boat as she sails up the river.
And so this is how you first sailed to Quivolgo, dreaming the same dreams on the pier as you are dreaming today, where the boats of yesteryear have already left, and perhaps exist no longer. They might have been obliterated by time, or by the bridge that was built a few years ago farther upstream, near the railway viaduct, which you crossed so many times on your way to or from Talca, crossing sleepy villages on the river’s edge where the locomotive thundered by, scaring hens and ducks away from the tracks, and making the mangy dogs break into ferocious barks. Colín, Corinto, Curtiduría, González Bastías, and then Infiernillo, Pichamán, Forel, Maquehua.
And the ferry boat, that vessel with a tin hull and train whistle that crossed the river from the railway station to Quivolvo, where it was loaded with lumber trucks, ox driven carts, saddled horses, grain, sacks and a crowd that could not afford their own boat to make a quicker crossing of the winding river. The trip took about two hours remember? And sometimes the engine failed in the middle of the trip and the small boats came to her rescue to tow her before the force of the water sent her to the Bar.
Where is she? You wonder, although you know that she stopped sailing shortly after you left. She was replaced by lighter and swifter rafts that crossed farther up, reducing the trip to a few minutes.
You know about the changes, you always knew what went on in your homeland, all you wanted was to see for yourself a lost world through nostalgic eyes.
But why? That is what you asked yourself so often before setting off on your voyage. Your children and grandchildren in Toronto also asked you why you wanted to go back to that forsaken land. “You’ve got no friends,” they said, reminding you of the doors they had slammed in your face when those friends regained political power. But you never had a definite answer, an answer that would set their minds at ease.
I imagine that you thought that it was just to be alive, there on the wharf. Just to live you said, clenching your hands, just so that you would not shudder when overcome by memories.
“I was dead before this you said,” rising to your feet. “I was dead, even my dreams had been killed.”
Suddenly, Gerardo saw a man in a white shirt, who could only have been a boatman, given his clothes, come towards him. And before he was able to say a word, the man offered him a take him around the island.” I’ll do it for very little,” he said, with a pleading and persuasive smile. “Things aren’t all that good here,” he added sadly.
Once he was sitting on the tatty cushions, he was disappointed when the boatman started up a modern outdoor engine. I would rather you rowed, you complained. But the boatman didn’t hear you, or you were only thinking those words and not saying them out loud. The boat left the pier in reverse, while its propeller blades beat the muddy waters.
The roar of the engine worried him at first, disturbing his thoughts But, after a while, Gerardo accepted what was happening. After all, he was there, crossing the Maule once again, feeling the texture of the water on his hand, which trailed in the water. It was the same as it had been in his childhood, when the water sprinkled your shoulder, while your grandmother warned you in a scared voice, “no, my child.” The boatman also said that it was dangerous. Remember that when you were a child, a passenger frightened you telling you that a shark might bite off your hand.
The boat sailed up river against the current towards the railway viaduct. Gerardo couldn’t resist asking the boatman to take him there, so as to extend his childhood memories. I also want to pass the Pan de Azúcar, that cake shaped hill, where nothing had grown in a hundred years, because, according to his grandmother, this barrenness was caused by the fact that there was cemetery with cold stone graves standing behind it. His parents were buried there, under one of those bare tombstones whitened with the limestone used in village graveyards, marked with the cross of never-ending nostalgia. Nobody would have visited them in the forty years he had been away.
The boat circled the bridge and then started downstream at a much faster pace, helped by the current, lifting shards of water and foam while a thoughtful and silent Gerardo gazed at the bank with bright eyes. He realised that the houses on Echeverría, which ran parallel to the river, were not the same, or even if they were, they looked different.
He asked the boatman to kill the engine when the boat approached the head of the island, where the eucalyptus trees looked like mythical deities with their strong, gnarled branches.
“ I want to sail in silence, I have travelled so far to be here again,” he explained
The boatman smiled at him and killed the engine; he took hold of the oars and started to row very slowly around the island, his oars barely touching the water, with the boat very near to land, which showed how the sinewy roots of the eucalyptus trees crossed the thin topsoil in search of the strong riverbed.
Little by little, Gerardo closed his eyes, letting himself be lulled by the monotonous sound of the oars and the boat’s slow progress in those clear waters, the silence broken only by the mechanical sound of the oars, until he fell into the deepest sleep.
Título original: Muelle solitario, del libro Cuentos del Maule, 2007.
Traducido por Jane Elliott Somerville, 2015.