Miguel Rodewald and I were good friends. We knew each other because his family, who lived in Temuco, used to spend their summers in Coquimbo. When they were kids his father used to rent a house a few blocks from ours, in El Llano. We’d meet, five of us in total, behind the church, in a clearing where every afternoon we’d partake in our favorite holiday activity: setting fire to stuff. Full schoolbooks, old clothes, bits of junk, footballs that were coming apart at the seams. Then we’d run inside and steal some water. If later on we didn’t feel like burning junk anymore, we’d let the air out of car tires to kill the time. Or we’d use our sneakers to make marks on the white doors of the nice houses. One of these houses was Rodewald’s, or at least it was his for the first three weeks of every February, over a period of four years.
We saw him sitting at the doorway, watching the cars go by from left to right, and I don’t know why but instead of waiting for him to go back into the house, I asked him if we could kick the door, because it wasn’t theirs anyway, so what did it matter. Not his, and not his father’s. Maybe I wanted to start a fight. Maybe I just did it to mess with this boy who spent the whole day just looking out onto the street and who, far from getting angry or running off, asked us if he could kick the door first.
That was Rodewald; he and I were good friends.
We met again when we were much older. I say “again” because one year February came around again and they weren’t there. They didn’t come back. I never asked for his telephone number, why would I, we didn’t have one, not everyone did back then. Anyway, why would I have thought to call him? Exactly. We, the beach kids, had always lived with this precarious fate of making friends who then disappeared.
I’d been living in Santiago for a year when I saw him again. We bumped into each other because we’d both chosen the same options in college. I was starting a doctorate I’d later end up quitting halfway through, like everything else in my life at the time, while he was finishing off the last credits he needed for a master’s he was meant to be defending that year. I struggled to recognize him: he was thin, tall and a little bald, and the image of him as a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy was stamped on my memory. But he didn’t even hesitate: shouting my name from halfway across the cafeteria in Gómez Millas, he approached me with an enormous smile on his face, gripping me with his powerful arms. “Dude, it’s me, Miguel!” That afternoon we skipped classes to go and drink beer over by the gas station.
Rodewald had married Beatriz. He showed me a few photos on his mobile: a tall, tall blonde, pale and smiling, embracing him on a beach in Rio. A tall, tall blonde holding her birthday cake up. A tall, tall blonde, posing next to him at a family meal.
In addition, Rodewald had also become a sociologist.
He’d gone back to Coquimbo a couple of times, but not as a boy: the year we’d last seen each other his mom had died of a heart attack, which completely crushed his dad, and in an attempt to flee from his memories he took refuge in a life dedicated exclusively to work. Rodewald only went back in his twenties. One time he took Beatriz with him, and they walked the same streets the two of us had once walked.
After this initial meeting, we once again started seeing each other every day. That first night we ended up at his flat with his wife, talking and laughing until, to our surprise, we opened the curtains to see the morning light poking through. We talked about our own pasts as if they belonged to other people. Mere witnesses to those boys, we were men, as far away from the stories we told as we were from our homes.
Three weeks later, Rodewald left again.
Beatriz became a widow at the age of twenty-five. She was also from Temuco. They moved because Miguel was offered a good position and she had decided she would support him in the decision. They had no one in Santiago apart from Bea’s father, who lived between Vitacura and Algarrobo.
After Miguel’s accident, she chose to stay in the capital. A return to Temuco would surely have been the end of her. Santiago gave her the tranquility of anonymity: every day she could discover a new neighborhood, a festival, a square. She walked a lot. When she’d walked enough to be familiar with everything within a fifteen-block radius, she decided it was time to buy a car. Another car, that is. She lost the first one when she lost him.
I began accompanying her on her trips, initially because I wanted to know more about Rodewald. It was impossible to talk to a dead man, so I talked to her instead. Neither one of us felt like sitting down to memorialize him, which is what happened when Beatriz visited home and had to endure all those conversations, always patiently and politely: how are you doing, I still can’t believe it, twenty-nine years old, how can someone die at twenty-nine, I don’t know how you can keep going. That wasn’t our style.
We tried to find a way of keeping him in our presence without mourning him. She helped me explore the world of the guy she was embracing in those photos. The guy who’d become my friend before death had showed up out of nowhere, right before our eyes. We who would never die, our lives barely having begun, we were so aware of the limits of others’ lives and so oblivious of our own.
Over time her company became revitalizing. On weekends, we’d go out and have lunch. We wanted to find new, different places, that was our project, to traverse the length and breadth of Santiago. Of course, our definition of “the length and breadth of Santiago” only included the space within the outline formed by Los Zapadores to the north, Matucana to the west, Departmental to the south, and Bea’s father’s house to the east. Sometimes, when she felt like driving, we’d go to Mahuida and drive up as high as the car would take us, which wasn’t very high. We’d walk through the reserve for a mile or two, and she’d talk to me about the way her boss exploited her, about the wedding of her older uncle, who’d sworn never to marry again, about the thousand different personalities she had as a teenager: hippie, goth, hip-hop head. I looked at her and tried to imagine her as a goth: blond and milky white, dressed in black and made up for a funeral. A goth at her wedding. A goth panting her way up Mahuida. I told her that ever since I was little I’d been obsessed with the smell of gas. For her it was the smell of the water in the cistern. We both liked the sound of stones as they hit the surface of the water before sinking.
Occasionally she’d turned up unannounced at my flat. “I’m downstairs,”she’d say, the car engine still running. She’d smoke as she waited. She smoked so much! I’d take ten minutes to have a shower and find a T-shirt. I guess she assumed that if she was alone, I’d also be alone. After all, the city was something both of us were merely borrowing. Santiago. And I had gotten used to how new loves and friendships always vanish before long.
Her father, who hated seeing her alone and found himself forced to confide in me, asked me to suggest that we take a trip to the beach together. If I say it, she’ll definitely think I’m doing it to protect her, and Bea has never allowed herself to be protected, he told me. Beatriz is strong, at least on the outside. Inside, it’s hard to know. I’m going on holiday to Panama, and you can stay in my house. Come on, it’ll do her good to get out of that apartment. Contrary to what her father believed, the truth is that Beatriz was never there. She worked all day managing a mid-level department in the Catholic University. In the evenings, after work, she walked home: twelve blocks via Portugal, Diagonal Paraguay, Rancagua, Salvador, and Francisco Bilbao. She’d make coffee, have a shower, drink the coffee when it had cooled down, we’d have a five- or ten-minute text conversation, and then she’d turn on the TV and fall asleep before the commercials.
We were eleven years old, behind the church: me, Rodewald and two other friends, and night was already beginning to fall. We’d agreed to meet to burn Juampa’s plastic pencil case because his grandfather had given him a new one, much bigger and with the logo of El Indio Mining, where he worked, printed on the side. So Juampa donated his old one. We filled it with dry leaves, paper, and pencils we’d brought from our houses.
Before setting it alight, Seba sprayed it with his older brother’s deodorant. We’d already seen his brother transform the can into a flamethrower on the square, in front of all his school friends. That’s how we knew it was flammable. We couldn’t do the same thing, but stealing it to use in our pyromaniac games was daring enough in our eyes.
After bathing the pencil case in deodorant until it reeked of Atkinson English Lavender, Seba lit four matches at once and tossed them on: suddenly the whole thing was transformed into a short-lived but beautiful blue and orange flame. It only lasted a couple of seconds, then the flame began to go out and we had to strike more matches, lighting the old pencil case at its edges. The flames burnt bright, setting on their victim with no remorse. At times the pencil case seemed to be leaping about, twisting with pain.
We were four boys, eyes wide open, watching it all burn.
That night, as we walked back toward his house, Rodewald told me he’d seen a video in which a group of hyenas hunted down a wounded buffalo and ate it while it was still alive. The animal howled like it was really suffering, he said: a hoarse, drawn-out sound. As if, hanging between life and death, it had chosen to become a ghost. He told me the pencil case had reminded him of it, and that he didn’t like it. He didn’t like remembering.
We left late. Beatriz picked me up. We loaded up the car with a box full of food, beer, and tequila, and left for Algarrobo. It was cold and the rain was blowing about in the wind. Neither of us were planning to swim in the sea, so we didn’t really mind if it poured over the weekend. The idea was to bring books and fill up the days with pounds and pounds of backlogged reading, as well as the material for the PhD I’d abandon soon after. We also planned to hunt hares and doves on the outskirts of Casablanca. Actually, that was Beatriz’s idea: I was a total wimp when it came to this kind of thing, and I could barely operate a stapler. Rodewald had also had to endure his wife’s hobby, which she’d learned from her father, who in his turn had inherited it from his father.
The house was on top of a hill, a few yards away from a small wood. It looked on to the mountains, far from the hubbub of tourists and beaches. We’d hardly arrived before it began to rain and there was a power cut, so we decided to cancel the few activities we’d planned and jumped onto her father’s bed to watch films on my laptop. We opened a 40 of beer. Tell me what you want to watch, I asked. We decided on the new Batman films, all three of them. We opened another beer. We’d managed to start The Dark Knight when the battery ran out and we had to move on to Beatriz’s computer. We put some music on and kept drinking. Is the rain still bad? she asked with a smile a few minutes later, as she moved toward the window. I’ve got a joint in the car. Do you mind getting a bit wet? It’s in the little box we use as an ashtray. There was no dilemma as far as I was concerned: I put my jacket on, tied my shoelaces, and went out through the muddy entrance, circling round until I got to the car and the joint.
The wind was splattering the rain into my eyes, and I’d forgotten to bring a flashlight. It was already pretty dark. When I got back inside, I headed to the room and saw Beatriz sitting totally still before the light of the computer screen, covering part of her face with both hands. Her entire aspect had transformed. I stayed there watching her: she was in the same position for twenty seconds, as if she was praying with her face covered. Suddenly she let her head fall forward by ninety degrees, without taking her hands away, and her breathing quickened. You could see it in her shoulders. At the same time, each bone in my fingers throbbed with cold.
I took a cigarette from my wet jacket pocket and lit it, letting out a mixture of smoke and condensation, and looked into the room at that pale, limestone statue, the way she seemed to fear the storm might shatter her into pieces. I felt that only Miguel could embrace her, enter into the pit of all that hurt. Seconds later she took her hands from her face, wiped her eyes and came out to find me. Hey, did you find it, she said, smiling by the doorway.
It was already evening when we came back with Rodewald, running breathlessly in an attempt to win the race against time and avoid a telling-off from his dad, who wouldn’t let him come out with us after seven. The time on his digital watch said nine forty. When we got back to his house we found his father smoking underneath the lintel. Rodewald came to a sudden halt. Cross the road, he said, pulling me by my T-shirt, get on the pavement, and he pushed me away. I could see from looking at the pores on his face how grave the situation was, and so I took his advice. Rodewald’s dad’s eyes followed me. I think the only thing we could hear was the sound of the earth and pebbles beneath Miguel’s feet as he approached the door to his house, dragging his feet in trepidation. I’m certain his dad could hear it too. Cars floated through the space between us, erecting a wall between one side of the street and the other. I stopped, waiting for what was about to come. When Miguel was sufficiently close, his dad told him to stay still. “Stay still”, he repeated, more firmly this time. “Lift your head up. Look at me.” He noticed the ash stains on his arms and shorts. Show me your hands. Miguel didn’t want to. “Your hands!” he shouted. He showed him the black palms that gave us away. “Now put your hands in your pockets. I said look at me, raise your head, and put your hands in your pockets.” He might as well have asked him to look directly into the sun without blinking. Everything stopped after that. Often we beach kids didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to each other. We’d wake up one morning to find that the houses were empty again, awaiting new guests, perhaps people without children our age. Other times there’d be hugs and farewells. And on other occasions, such as this one, sudden departure was the punishment laid down for disobeying the rules. That’s how it started. The slap went down in history. The sound of his dad’s arm cutting through the air and breaking like a wave upon the cheek of my friend, Miguel Rodewald. There was no going back. “Stand up straight. Move your hands from your face. I told you to put your hands in your pockets. Stand up straight and look at me!” His face had turned a dusky red. He didn’t wait for Miguel to open his eyes before landing the second blow. There was the short, sharp sound of the palm striking the boy’s tear-sodden skin, before this time he let out a yell and fell to the floor. Just as I was starting to think that the man would keep on hitting him until he died, he stopped and entered the house. I couldn’t move, I just wanted Miguel to look at me so I could ask him to forgive me for leaving him alone, at the mercy of the hyenas. But then, suddenly, instead of tidying himself up and going inside, he turned around and ran off. He refused to accept the fate that awaited him in the house. I wanted to shout and tell him not to do it, but instead I followed him. Go back or they’ll kill you, I was thinking. They’ll kill you, they really will.
After one block I saw him stop in a small, dark square with wooden swings. Seba’s older brother’s friends had broken all the streetlamp bulbs and no one ever came to replace them. When I got to him he was hiding behind a bench and crying inconsolably. I sat down with him and begged him to go back home so they’d stop hitting him, believing that this was the only punishment a boy could possibly receive from his dad. Still crying, Miguel Rodewald hugged me tightly and between the sobs he let out a single phrase, faltering and disjointed, like a leaking tap: burn him. Burn him, burn him. I took his miserable face in my hands, wiped away his mucky tears, and gave him a long, suffocating kiss. Don’t worry, we will, we’ll burn him. We’ll burn him, I repeated, and then I burst into tears.
“Hyenas” © Eduardo Plaza. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rahul Bery. All rights reserved.