His mother was waiting, her face a patchwork of wrinkles under the smile.
“It’s been a long time, son. We’ve missed you.”
He walked into her embrace and felt at home.
“Father will be glad. He never stops talking about you. He worries, you know.”
At lunch, in the dark little kitchen, they kept asking him questions. Did he eat enough? Was the barracks comfortable? Was he treated well? When would he come again? So he told them. Everything. And they understood.
The jerky movement of the bus and the grinding of gears as it came to a halt threw him out of his slumber. They had reached Colina. He got off dragging the sleep-heavy feet along the dusty track the villagers grandly called a road. The sun floated above the Andes like a yellow kite on a windless sky, and the air, thick as curdled milk, trembled in the heat.
The village was empty, only a few dogs lay under dry trees panting and pedaling their legs in a chase after make-believe cats. He hadn’t seen his parents for nearly six months and even now the day-off had been given grudgingly. Santiago with its illusory calm was like a dormant volcano glazed over with a thin crust of silence. But under, simmered a bubbling lava of discontent and turmoil.
He smelt the smoky pungency of an outdoor oven and knew he’d find his mother making bread - hands sticky with dough, the apron sprinkled with flour, cheeks crimson from the burning wood. The shingle-roofed house was gnarled and bent. It had been painted white years before, but the adobe walls were scabby now, crisscrossed by a map of dampness. The dogs sensed him first and barked thrashing wildly on their chains, the familiar smell of their old master long gone, replaced by city odours; of burnt petrol, of acid sweat, of being locked up with fifty other men.
His mother, alerted by the dogs, raised her head from a tray on which bulged white balls of dough. Her mouth rippled in a tiny smile. She didn’t move to receive him but then he knew emotions were something she had learnt to control.
“So…” He stood in front of her watching the thin line of her mouth twitch, the only indication she was pleased to see him.
“Here I am…” he said kneading his cap.
“You must be parched, get yourself some water,” she turned back to the tray.
“There’ll be chicken for lunch. Father’s behind the shed.”
He was walking towards the shed when she called.
Looking over his shoulder he half-expected to see her open arms.
“You shouldn’t have worn the uniform. Father will be cross. And people will talk. It’s hard enough already.”
He regarded her for a moment then nodded.
His father was sitting on a stump smoking. Deep furrows scythed the face the colour of tanned leather. He lifted his eyes and looked at Pablo calmly, without much interest, as one might scan a blue sky knowing it would not rain.
“I told you not to show up here wearing the uniform,” he said between puffs.
“I have no other clothes.”
“Then you shouldn’t have come at all.”
Pablo sat on the ground next to the stump, the belt biting into his waist as he drew his knees to the chest. “I expected a warmer welcome,” he said.
“You’ve no right to expect anything from me.”
“You’ll never forgive me.” It was not a question.
“Why didn’t you think about it before?” The old man pushed himself up, threw the cigarette butt down and ground it with the heel of his shoe. He moved slowly, his back curved from bending over a hoe, from weeding and chopping up wood. He gazed around searching for something. “Now that you’re here you might as well stay.”
He ambled towards the shed. Pablo followed. He wished he had not come. He should have stayed in Santiago, had a beer or two, got himself a girl maybe. But just like the previous time, the urge to see the two old people had been stronger than any reasoning he could do. And he had never been good at reasoning anyway.
They had not approved of his decision to enlist. It was more than his abandoning the farm, leaving them to cope with the two rheumy-eyed oxen that had to be prodded to pull the plough at all. A soldier in the family was a disgrace. Memories of tanks, bloated bodies floating in the rivers, the chop-chopping buzz of helicopters and the screams of men being dragged away into the night were still fresh in people’s minds.
His father picked up a rusty looking axe and thrust it into his hands.
”You’d better earn your lunch and kill the hen,” he said. “That’s what they teach you there, isn’t it? How to kill.”
Pablo grabbed the wooden handle.
“I’ve never been squeamish.”
The old man grunted.
“No, I suppose you’ve always had what it takes to make a soldier.”
He pointed to a skinny hen pecking at invisible grains among the grass.
“The black one’s stopped laying. Not worth her feed.”
Pablo approached her in three steps and she looked at him with trust. He took her in his arms. The hen resisted for a while clucking, feeling something was not quite right, then settled calmly. He lay her on the stump holding her feet and raised the axe, his heart cantering like a yearling. The hen watched, one beady eye winking, the hairless lid opening and closing. When the axe fell she had already given up, accepted the inevitable. Only the wings fluttered and the severed vocal chords rasped out the last strangled croak.
“Not bad,” his father said.
“Neat, she must have felt nothing at all.” He collected the limp carcass and walked away.
Pablo put down the axe. He shouldn’t have come. He had tried to banish the feeling that, like brooding crows, sat at the edge of his bed when sleep wouldn’t come. And, like crows scared by an abrupt movement, they’d fly away for a while only to return soon after with refreshed impudence.
It wasn’t guilt. Regret, maybe. But as a soldier, he was exempt from guilt. He had to obey. If someone was guilty at all, it wasn’t he.
* * *
They were exhausted. The protests had dragged on for days. First, gangs of masked teenagers armed with Molotov cocktails congregated around the steel-and-glass government building. After, weary construction workers, hair licked tight to their scalps from showers, joined in. Finally, women with empty pots flooded the streets in a noisy procession - banging, screaming, demanding.
Sergeant Garin had grouped his men into a tidy, compact wall. In heavy combat gear, heads protected by unearthly looking helmets, brandishing shields of transparent Plexiglas, they stood solid like effigies.
Both sides tried to out-wait, out-patience each other. The crowd was growing restless, chanting to the cacophonous beat of aluminium pans and wooden spoons. Their allied voices dangerous because of the monotonous obstinacy.
“And he will fall! And he will fall!”
When day began to tremble on the edge of night and light evaporated from the streets, the crowd moved.
“Get ready,” Garin ordered.
A wave of frantic excitement surged through Pablo and he pulled the shield closer to his chest.
The first petrol-filled bottle fell well off its target, broke and burst into flames, short brassy tongues licking the pavement.
“Get them!” Garin screamed and the soldiers gushed towards the stampeding crowd.
Pablo hoisted the truncheon and with the force of a mad lumberjack chopped his way through the mass of bodies. Blows rained on heads, arms, shoulders. A blow and a scream, a blow and a scream. A hailstorm of blows and a thunderstorm of screams.
And then he saw them. A scrawny looking girl with short black hair holding the hand of a man, his face obscured by a red bandanna. The man was dragging her away and she trotted along in funny coltish steps, her free arm flapping like a plucked chicken wing.
“Don’t let them get away!” Garin had seen them, too.
Pablo darted after the couple accompanied by the sergeant’s tired puffing. They swept past the government building into a small side-street.
“Cul-de-sac!” Garin shouted with glee.
Pablo caught up with them at the end of the lane. The bandanna had fallen off revealing a surprised, childish face. The man was still clutching a Coke bottle full of petrol. The girl was breathing heavily but her eyes were resigned.
Metal rasped as Garin released the safety catch, pointing his gun at the boy.
A rivulet of sweat coursed down his forehead.
“Let her go, let my sister go,” the boy whimpered.
“She didn’t want to come. She never wanted to come.”
“Put the bottle gently on the ground,” Garin ordered.
The boy’s eyes were fixed on Garin’s as he deposited the bottle timidly in front of him. He was half-way up when the sergeant pulled the trigger and the bullet, fired at a close range, wiped the surprise off his face.
Whoops, like the harsh breathing of a sick dog, tore out of the girl’s throat. She knelt by her brother’s body and touched the back of his head.
“Please,” she whispered.
Garin approached, the mouth of the gun in contact with her spine - the gesture intimate, friendly almost. When the blast came she slumped down on top of the boy.
“The bottle,” Garin said.
Pablo picked it up.
The hard steel of panic began to fill his mouth.
“Pour, you fool. Two terrorists died while handling flammable material. No-one will ever know.”
Pablo unplugged the rag stopper. The cooped up smell spilt out. He splashed the blue liquid on the bodies.
Garin handed him a box of matches. “Hurry up, someone might come.”
Pablo’s hand trembled and two burnt out matches fell to the ground.
“Faster, you idiot!”
Just then he saw a shy movement, the girl’s tilted head shifted slightly, her eyelids fluttered.
“She’s alive! My God, she’s alive!” he shouted.
“Throw the match.”
“But she is not dead, she moved!”
“Throw…the…bloody…match…” Garin hissed and aimed the gun at Pablo.
He couldn’t control the tremolo of his fingers. Match after match went off joining the first two by the bodies.
“Give it to me!” Garin lit a match with a steady hand, waited until it was burning well and threw it onto the girl’s back. A snake of greyish smoke spiralled up.
Garin broke into a gallop.
When they reached the turning Pablo span around. The fired wrapped the bodies completely. Apart from the leaping flames nothing else moved.
Garin straightened his uniform. “It has never happened, you hear me? Never.”
“It’s never happened,” Pablo repeated mechanically.
* * *
The hen’s head was still lying by the stump, the beak slightly open, the eyes already shrouded with a milky film. He picked it up and walked past the shed.
His mother was no longer by the oven, only the smell of bread lingered about.
He threw the head to the dogs. They pushed it around with their noses, licked at a few drops of blood on the neck but quickly lost interest and left it alone.
It was a mistake to have come, a weakness. After all, he had only been following orders. Or maybe it had never really happened.
He left the garden without another look and shuffled along the dusty track to the bus stop. He’d go back to Santiago, get himself a beer or two. Or maybe even a girl.
Author Notes: Based on a real story of Carmen Gloria Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas - two students burned by a military squad in Chile.