This is the third installment in a three-part fiction serial of Peruvian writer Carlos Yushimito’s short story “Lessons for a Boy Who Arrived Late,” translated by Valerie Miles. You can read the first installment here and the second installment here.
The day the farming truck crushed Papá’s car the hunting had been bountiful; the marmalade jar had struck and stirred up the tight body of an earthworm colony. We trapped at least fifty of them but I had to quit despite our early luck because my mother made me stay home for two days to help her clean out my father’s room. I struggled with boxes full of clothes and documents that smelled of my family’s already old story. We’d had no time to arrange things with him and neither had he, but within the natural order of our still life together he seemed to have gone in peace, and us along with him. He had been so taciturn and detached over the past few years, that for a while we hardly noticed he wasn’t there anymore, maybe because he had already died a long time ago.
The following day I accompanied my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother in the procession, all three of them dressed in black like me, until the weight of the coffin sapped the strength of the six Indians who were carrying it on their shoulders in front of us. I watched the men wipe the sweat from their brows with stiff, faded rags that were quickly and carelessly stuffed back into their pants, the edges left dangling from their pockets like tongues voicing the fatigue the men hardly allowed of themselves. The cemetery soil had been exhumed and piled into a mound at the end of the street; a humid alcove was there waiting for my father, and near it stood the priest, smoking his last cigarette of the afternoon, impatient to be on his way. He was a friend of my grandmother’s, or at least that’s what she said. We watched him raise his hand and flick the butt to the ground, murmuring a few worn-out words of condolence, as if he were throwing them into the hole too, just a few more ashes to step on. He took out a purple stole and kissed it before hanging it around his neck. Once his ceremonial dress was complete, he improvised a few quick words and skipped the habitual complacent obituaries and fervent remembrances. My mother didn’t even bother to take out a handkerchief and wet her eyes, as was the custom among young widows who planned on rebuilding their lives, finding it the moment to get started. The grandmothers moved their heads as if the warning had arrived late and it seemed as though the few friends of my father’s in attendance had trouble recognizing him in the biographical sketch given the weight of his fleeting passage through this world.
“And Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die . . .’”
It was my place to throw the first handful of earth into the open pit, into whose darkness the casket had just passed. I clutched the clump of damp earth in my fist and for some reason, perhaps it was the coarse, inert feel of the dirt that softened me, I couldn’t stop the tears from overcoming the resistance that my swollen face had promised not to surrender. While I wept, that little piece of the world began to scatter in the direction it was meant to, sinking down the way it was meant to, because we all fall down”], and when I heard the muffled sound it made striking the wooden lid, as if my father were there drumming the top of the table with his fingertips, I sobbed; because Lazarus had been four days dead and rose to his feet when Jesus Christ called out to him, his hands and feet bound together with bandages, and He said, heedless of the commotion his miracle had caused, “loose him and let him go.”
“And raising his eyes to the heavens, Jesus said, ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.’”
The rest of those gathered together enacted the same ritual: they wept a little too, and scattered a bit of earth over the wooden lid.
I considered how exhausted my father’s hands must have been from drumming his fingers on the table for such a long time, how his age-old, long familiar gesture of impatience had nearly been absolved by the distance that softens memory, because now there was nothing left for him to play, now all that was there was silence, except for the priest’s voice using up the last of the gospel, and the crisp sound of the six Indians’ shovels digging into the earth, filling the hole to the brim, to the level of our feet.
In the distance I saw my grandmother tug a handkerchief from her cleavage, revealing a few bills and several coins hidden in its folds, whose austere shine seemed to express gratitude at having been set free. She placed them in the palms of the six Indians’ hands, who acknowledged her mutely before returning to their places on a bench.
By the time the hole was properly filled everyone had gone except for Miss Chevalier, who may have arrived late, and who approached us wishing to speak to my mother and me.
“It will be difficult for him to continue his lessons,” my mother said at some point, without looking at me.
“I understand,” the old woman answered.
“Now that his father is gone, it will be a little difficult, you know?”
Miss Chevalier understood again.
“It’s a lot of money,” my mother emphasized, and I saw how she felt more comfortable by being insistent.“And I may be forced to heed my mother and return with her to San Miguel at the end of the summer.
The old woman reassured her:
“Summer is nearly over.”
“Yes,” my mother said, relieved to find another justification that wasn’t due to her condition of being a young widow.
And yet, the bones of her hand clutched mine beneath the soft black wool, and I couldn’t say whether she was squeezing me to protect me or to hurt me. I pulled my hand away and she overcame her anxiety quickly, embarrassed; and I watched her go over to where my grandmother was still whispering something to the priest.
“I’m so sorry,” Miss Chevalier said addressing me now.”How are you feeling?”
I didn’t know what to feel.
“That’s normal; at your age you don’t even know what life is yet. Let alone death.”
But I did know plenty about death, yessir. I knew that it was like a snail squashed against the ground. Or an earthworm stuck to the sole of a shoe. Or a cricket cut into little pieces, or a cochineal wrinkling itself up into a ball. What I didn’t know was how to live stuck inside the crude, roughhewn wood of a boy who was trying to become a man.
Mamá gestured to me furtively from over by my grandmother, and I asked the old woman if I could call on Margarita, knowing that it was unlikely that I would see her again that afternoon.
“Of course,” she said. “Come whenever you’d like.”
So I extended my hand, and she shook it with interest, as if she were picking a leaf up off the ground.
“What a shame,” she said, looking at it, before she let me go. “You have the fingers of a pianist.”
“How lucky,” Margarita wrote.
We could see no sign of movement through the glass of the marmalade jar, and so we figured that the earthworms had died since they’d spent three days and three nights tangled in a ball in our hiding place, unable to breathe. I thought it was better that way, but when she screwed off the lid we caught the smell of wet earth. I watched what looked like a nerve twist and squirm back into the tangle, and in no time it aroused a synchronized chaos of bodies writhing in a thick, muddy sludge.
Margarita pulled out a cluster of worms and let them wriggle in the palm of her left hand. A few of them twisted right around, like they were awakening, and I thought I could distinguish the whimsy of letters in their mindless coils, as if they were trying to tell me something in their own peculiar way. We watched them for a while under the sun.
“What do you mean how lucky?” I said.
“That your dad died,” she wrote again. “You’re so lucky.”
Papá hadn’t always been such a mean type, in fact every once in a while, if he wasn’t beating my mother, he could even seem pleasant. Truth is he was away too much for me to ever hate him properly. Whenever I would fall quiet during dinner, at a loss for words, he would drum his fingers on the table waiting for his meal to be served; it was something that happened a lot, I never really had much to say to him. Regardless, I didn’t think my father deserved to die that way; really nobody deserved to die, I thought.
“Mine did,” Margarita wrote.
That’s when I remembered this:
It happened one afternoon when we caught a scorpion. It was black and threatened us several times pointing the stinger at the tip of its long tail straight at us, though all it really seemed to want was to be left alone. I didn’t dare catch it with the plastic scoop, but she told me it was crucial: if we bagged it, we could slip it into an envelope and send it by mail to her father, who lived far away, on the other side of the ocean.
Her little round face had lit up, but I was very tactful:
“That’s silly,” I said. “It would be long dead by the time they delivered it to his house.”
Margarita looked crestfallen.
“If I could,”she wrote, “I would cut each one of his fingers off with a little pair of scissors and he’d never be able to play the piano again.”
We hadn’t seen each other for over a week.
The afternoon seemed endless now that there were no lessons, and it reminded me of the days spent in San Miguel; a single, lingering, sticky afternoon over which no night ever falls.
“I won’t be coming anymore,” I said, recalling the conversation between my mother and Miss Chevalier in the cemetery, and the knot in my throat caused my voice to break.
“I know,” she had written.
“How did you know?”
“Because everyone leaves,” she wrote again.
Over the next six days, without her aunt controlling her every move, without having to practice the piano as a digression for her fingers, Margarita dug a hole near the almond tree big enough to fit both of us, with nothing more than the plastic scoop. I imagined everything as I viewed the long burrow that could be seen among the underbrush in our little corner of the yard. She showed it to me without grandstanding the patience it took her to complete it. I simply followed her gaze and together we glimpsed her little patent leather shoes without much of a shine now, like a pair of melancholy hedgehogs.
I drew closer to the dark edge; there was a naked shock of almond tree roots springing from the walls. All I could see were the clefts in the hollowed space like parched gums in a hungry mouth. I sensed the faint, delicate fragrance of grass, like after a hard rain when everything in the whole world seems to have come to an end and you bring your nose to the ground and sniff, and realize that in fact everything is just beginning.
“So what are you going to do now?” I asked turning towards her and pointing to the tunnel that already separated my world from hers.
She seemed to have foreseen her answer, because before I turned around she had already written:
“I think you already know.”
She seemed to hesitate then, and so did I; but at last her letters invited me to enter with her. And I didn’t waver; I was thrilled at being included.
“You go first,” she wrote.
She handed me the plastic scoop she’d used to get the work done herself.
“In case you go all the way to the end” she wrote.
I brushed the branches of the almond tree out of the way and got down to crawl for a second, feeling the soft, wet heaviness of earth on my knees. We set her writing board down by the edge. She handed me a flashlight. And I entered as deeply as I could, because surely there were insects here that nobody had ever seen or been able to squish between their fingers before and I wanted to be the first to find them and squish them with my fingers. But this was Margarita’s world more than it was mine and I realized as much: it was silent and aromatic, full of textures and reliefs. And darkness. I knew because my head had already adapted to its confines the minute I had touched the dry outer edge of that burrow, but my body was taken by some natural panic and sought to pull back, for fear that it would never be able to return. My knees pulled me backwards. I screamed her name three or four times, sobbing, until I realized she couldn’t hear me: I may be inside her world now, but nothing had changed on the outside. I understood all of this. I held the flashlight in my hand and it glowed a weary, yellow oval whose shape changed and distorted whenever it was projected against the walls. The only thing I could see in the light was the thirsty throat of the earth, all sediment and roots, like the bearded strings of a broken puppet. I took a breath, made sure that I was still breathing, and realized my only alternative was to push on, so I thrust out my arm that was holding the plastic scoop and began burrowing into the dirt with such ease that I found it surprising that a girl who was actually older than me hadn’t gone any further than this.
There were piles of dirt accumulating along the sides of my tunnel, and I forced myself to pass straight through its center, burrowing my way in, when I heard a voice that sounded like it had just been moistened by soil:
“I told you it would work.”
But I was plunging forward so greedily that I couldn’t be bothered to stop and listen to her new voice. I just scooped earth out from side to side and we sunk.
“Lecciones para un niño que llega tarde” © Carlos Yushimito. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 Valerie Miles. All rights reserved.