“Survivors,” from “The Ears of the Wolf”

I wake up. The bus stops, and a village full of horses appears. Mama and her women meditator friends and her women communist friends and my sister are on the bus, along with the peasants. We get off, we wander among the horses, we eat something, we find someone to guide us. Beyond the village and throughout the following days are only the infinite mountains of Tierra Adentro. Days spent walking up and down mountains. Fat, fatigued meditators. Farms reeking of fermented coffee. Nights spent sleeping on gunny sacks. Trails winding around gigantic rocks. Cliffs. Water rising out of the earth. The impenetrable mountains. Communist friends passing water around. An owl. Gigantic colorful insects. Snakes. Other river canyons. Moving sky.

Freedom, suffocating me with surprise, with joy, taking over my body—no more than three feet tall but already aware of what it is to be a tiger and a paper tiger and a poor little dog; my body, which also longs to be a great bird soaring over these mountains—a falcon or a condor or at least a black vulture circling over my head, a vulture in the company of other vultures. My head that thinks maybe it's not such a good idea, to be a bird, because birds look at the earth from far away and cannot look at the sky without crashing into other birds or up against the dense mountains and raining down in a shower of birds.

My body less than three feet tall is only my body crowned with a red mane, which here I can leave loose and unkempt. My body standing on two legs clad in dirty blue jeans with socks pulled all the way up and as yellow as can be because nobody notices, and when they do, they like them. And my suspenders. I'm not wearing them, but I use them as a slingshot to shoot at the shadows in the dense forest, at imaginary monkeys, at imaginary snakes, to greet the new trees with a knock-knock on their trunks—the trees of Tierra Adentro. Wild, tangled, bursting, powerful: the trees of the hotlands expose the trees of the savannah for what they are: timid cousins, small cousins, rigid cousins, cousins shivering with cold and suspiciously eyeing their surroundings, putting up with all of it.

So it is. I: pressed against the tall black rubber boots of the peasants who lead us through the mountains; I: pressed against Mama's skirts; I: following the fat behind of one of Mama's friends; I: on the heels of my sister, who seems to have been born here and climbs over everything she comes across—stone, path, tree, man, or animal; I: looking at everything and knowing that freedom, the tremendous freedom of the mountains of Tierra Adentro, can make my heavy tiger turn briefly into a bird without ceasing to be the tiger sniffing the procession of hikers, his loins swaying to and fro as he climbs to the peak of the mountain. Breaking me apart from the inside out and leaving me as I am: the fury and strength of the tropical mountains making me something else and the same little redhead, less than three feet tall, a tiger who will not be tamed.

That's all there is. Footsteps along footpaths. Women panting and talking. Peasant houses. Insects. Heat. Another village and yet another one. And finally, before returning to the terrible city of the cold, on the last day, the joy—absolute—coming from nowhere and filling us to the brim. We are walking along another similar path—muddy, rutted, hanging off the side of the mountain, like in the most intense of dreams, much more real than reality. Suddenly the sky darkens to black. I can't stop thinking about the Indian tombs. I've been looking at them all day. Indian tombs from a thousand years ago, scattered all round the open country. Red painted tombs, round subterranean crypts full of bones and clay jars, stairs of red earth leading to the heart of what's secret. Tombs one could live in a lifetime without ever rising to the surface of the grasslands, into the reality of the light. Clouds like black mountains gathering over our path do nothing but darken the red tombs in my head, turning them even redder.

Suddenly something like black stones crashing in the sky are released from those clouds, tumbling down with the full force of their weight, the mightiest downpour of all downpours. We see nothing but our blurred feet and water falling from the sky. The noise silences all other noises, the flood along the path covers our feet. We spend a long time (maybe hours, intense dizzying hours like seconds) dragging our feet through that river that was once a path, in the darkness, full of delicious fear, all of us walking together, looking for a cave. There is a cave: four or five hours earlier, down below, in the valley, under the absolute sun before the downpour, an Indian's toothless mouth promised it to us. A great sculpted cave, the mouth said. We continue on that entire afternoon, which is like a night and like an instant, flooded by the noise of that world of vertical water in front of our eyes, wrapped in water until we can't even see the light that should guide us.

Suddenly my sister's hand grabs my hand and Mama leads us both and our feet get used to walking through the grass on a path the water makes invisible. We walk along like that, along a road of water, clambering through the meadow, until we reach some eaves in the darkness. They are the eaves of a large peasant house, and in the very dim light I can see in front of me all my mother's fat meditator friends as well as the sinewy communists, all like great wet featherless birds. And my mother and my sister. All of them in a row, the women, soaking wet, still holding hands as if they were under the rain, but now under the eaves, lit by the bare bulbs. I approach, I also take their hands, and I stand with them looking at the water falling from the sky on all four sides of that house, as if it were about to uproot the house and send it rolling down the ravine toward the enormous river, which surely exists way down below at the end of all rivers.
A hunchbacked and very old woman, a different one, a stranger, emerges from her house with a calabash full of large green leaves soaking in hot sugary panela water. Mama calls them coca leaves. And we all drink it and suddenly we realize we are wet, but the water begins to evaporate from our bodies, and through the curtain of water, beyond it, far away, we see an enormous cordillera, mountains so green they are almost black, and there it has already stopped raining, and light and lazy white clouds are strolling by, caressing the ravines. We'd already dropped our hands but we take them up again when evening comes and the rain becomes more tenuous, until it turns into the finest of drizzles, and through this tenuous drizzle—full of life—a gigantic sun sets through the warm air, departing between the sweet sadness of red mountains and the lazy clouds.
When night has already come, one of the meditators—who must weigh more than two hundred pounds—approaches Mama and gives her a hug that lasts half an hour or more and that Mama tolerates with friendly patience. Then we sit down, our bottoms on the cement ground and our backs leaning against the wall plastered with white mud (the mountain seems to be breathing, happier and purer than we are, the downpour has stopped, and everything is set to come alive again). Mama says that she and the two of us are going to Neiva. And that from there we'll return to the city of the cold. The meditators remain quiet, then one speaks, but I have the impression that she is only moving her mouth; no sounds are coming out. They and the communists have decided to return to Tierra Adentro. They will stay there for three more days, watching the horses go by. Hoping to recover their youth. Mama gets up. My sister and I get up, too. In the last light of the afternoon she releases a good-bye that spreads over all the surfaces. Then we leave. Mama leading the way: erect, beautiful, perfect, walking into the darkness of the night, into the emptiness. My sister and I following her.

The earth seems to protect us as we make our way down to the road. A very large truck appears around the first curve, the sound of its tires stirring up the mud. A strong breeze begins to blow and another downpour seems to want to say good-bye to us. The truck—a large peasant truck used for hauling, with boards laid horizontally across a metal frame, like all the trucks in the countryside—turns on its headlights and stops a few yards ahead so we can climb onto the metal platform where they put the sacks and the livestock. We've already gotten on, the three of us, when a tenuous rain begins to fall. The truck moans, shakes, starts up heavily. Two or three curves ahead, in the middle of the downpour—persistent like an old dog—we hear the songs of the men we didn't see before. They are in front of us, on the truck bed, in the darkness, holding onto the sides. They are students, Mama says. They seem to be summoning the rain, the real downpour, which has been listening and now begins to wake up as large drops, making the darkness even darker.

I look at Mama. She is also singing, like the students. She is beautiful. I open my mouth to drink in the rain. I hang on to one of Mama's legs. The truck rocks gently.
(Before collapsing from exhaustion, before falling asleep on the metal bed of the truck, at Mama's feet, I understand that we can be happy. In spite of everything that has happened. In spite of Papa's ghost roaming the savannah. Happy. The gang's solid core. The survivors. Mama: dark-skinned, vertical, untouchable, singing into the night, laughing but always ready to do anything for us, her children. My sister: whole, again like a cat, like the cat she was before but now a wild cat, a skinny and electric and wet mountain cat, her claws hidden while she watches the students and doesn't stop laughing. Me: lying on the ground, also laughing, my lungs bigger and my hands completely open to the rain. Like a brand new tiger—alive and happy).

***

From Las Orejas Del Lobo. Copyright Antonio Ungar. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Katherine Silver. All rights reserved. Katherine Silver's translation of Antonio Ungar's Ears of the Wolf was awarded the Colombian Ministry of Culture Translation Award for 2009.