The Daily

First Person

The Road to Toluca

March 3, 2016 | by

“As I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me...”

From the cover of The Child Poet

An excerpt from The Child Poet.

One Saturday toward noon in January 1951, three friends and I made our way home after playing soccer. The milky rays of a nearly white sun ploughed the damp earth, and our shadows moved neatly beneath our soles each time we lifted a foot to take a step. When we reached my house I waved goodbye to my friends. Without replying they continued on their way.

My solitary steps echoed along the sunlit corridor; my parents were at the store. And then I went into my brother’s room, although I hadn’t meant to go in … A shotgun someone had lent him was propped against the wall. As if moving by their own accord, my hands reached for it. I walked to the backyard and climbed onto a pile of bricks that were being used to build the new kitchen. There was no one around; the bricklayer and the peon were having lunch in the old dining room.

Standing on the bricks, I saw some birds alight on the sapodilla tree next door, to be momentarily covered by the branches … Until they returned to the air, over my head, high in the blue above … And without wanting to, I aimed the shotgun at them and fired, not intending to kill a single one.

I watched with relief as they all flew on until they were lost in the distance. But as I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me. Such was the blow I felt from the shots that I thought infinity had entered my belly. 

Invaded by ammunition, engulfed in the smell of gunpowder, my blood hot and my right hand bleeding, I wasn’t aware of my state until I tried to take a step and a feeling of being torn apart kept me from moving.

Perhaps I had screamed, for the bricklayer and the peon were now below me telling me to hang on, that they were going to bring me down from the bricks. But a maid arrived and opened her arms to me and I jumped, nearly throwing her to the ground with the suddenness of my jump and the weight of my body.

She lifted me and carried me to a bed. My parents came into the room, intense suffering on their faces for what had happened to me and the condition I was in. My brother, who’d been summoned from the bathroom in a hurry, looked wet and sad, wrapped in a large towel, crying and trembling.

After examining me the doctor said the wound was superficial, but that it would still be necessary to take me to the city since he didn’t have the necessary instruments to operate.

Then the maid came to tell my mother that the taxi they’d ordered was waiting outside. My father took me in his arms and laid me down on the back seat.

Before we set off, a Texan rancher named Elías drove by in his jeep, and my father asked him to accompany us on our journey in case the car broke down, and he accepted.

With my head resting in my mother’s lap, I stared at the shabby roof of the car as I listened to a song blasting from a cantina, and I wondered which friends might be watching the car drive off and, thinking of God and my fate, I said yes to my accident, as if it were an adverse gift from God.

*

The taxi indeed broke down on a steep slope as we drove up a mountain between Contepec and El Oro. They put me in the jeep.

I was extremely thirsty and unable to move when at around four in the afternoon we finally reached El Oro. My father got out of the jeep to hunt for the doctor who knew how to operate; waiting for his return, we parked near the main square, where a few curious onlookers came over to inspect me.

After a while my father returned and said the doctor was out of town and wouldn’t be back till Wednesday.

And so we pressed on to Toluca, not arriving until nine at night because the jeep had to go very slowly; my father took me into the first hospital he saw, at the entrance to the city.

It was the General Hospital.

And there, they operated on me.

*

When I opened my eyes again, night had passed and it was Sunday morning. Seated in a chair next to my mother was a lady from Contepec who lived in Toluca and had come to visit me.

Listening to them, I learned that my father had witnessed my operation and that there had been a moment when the doctors, giving me up as a lost cause, had no longer wanted to continue, but that my father had insisted they persevere till the end.

According to what I heard them say, which was incongruous with the calm I was feeling, the state of my wound was extremely serious; one doctor had said that if they didn’t operate again within the next twenty-four hours I would die from the complications that might arise. But the main doctor who had operated on me disagreed, and they left me to my fate, to see whether I would live or whether I would die.

*

My mother had phoned Father Felipe to come. In a waking moment I heard he was coming, and that he’d been very shaken by the news of my accident.

My mother told the nurses that he was a saint, and could perform the miracle of saving me. They and the nuns awaited his arrival. And the fate of my health remained on hold until then.

Father Felipe arrived on Sunday morning, or at midday. Or on the following Sunday. Or I think he arrived, because I was asleep, and I couldn’t distinguish that well between what was happening around me and what I dreamed, between what I heard and what I thought I was hearing, for often my eyes would close as I lay listening to someone speak. The point is, he arrived. Or perhaps while saying Mass in Temascalcingo he came to Toluca in spirit. And I saw him. Or my parents saw him, and they said he’d been in the hospital chapel, and raising the chalice had asked God to grant me life. And that in the moment of the elevation he had known that I was going to live. And he told my mother, “Your son will live.”

Then he left. He had come to save me. My mother said so. And then he left.

Days later, my mother would tell people he had said I would become a saint, or I was going to do a lot of good for humanity, and that’s why I was going to live.

My mother searched in my eyes and in my actions for signs of saintliness. And I felt like somebody who had been on the brink of death and now received every hour of life as a divine gift.

My parents never left my side. My mother slept in a bed next to mine, and my father would spend the night sitting in a chair or pacing in the corridor when he couldn’t sleep, and most of the time, when he heard me crying for water, he had to leave the room and pretend to fetch some, for with that hope I could make it to morning.

He didn’t seem to sleep, or eat, day and night by my side, always awake when I opened my eyes. I had only to express a wish and he would immediately try to fulfill it, without protesting, without a fuss. Seeing him there, a solitary figure—accompanied by my mother, an equally solitary figure—descending by night, rising by day, behind his love, behind his mortal shadow, I imagined the reality and the mystery of the Father.

*

I suddenly woke up and saw my mother as an apparition, sitting on the bed, silently knitting, for I had dreamed that she was dying from a hemorrhage.

Falling asleep once more, in a new dream I saw two ladies from the village talking about me, about something that had happened to me and affected me greatly. My salvation, according to them, depended on the perfect pronunciation of the word emeret, which I couldn’t pronounce correctly. And so they instructed me in how to relax my body, pace my breathing, curve my tongue and articulate clearly, but my brain, overwhelmed by other words, mixed up the sequence of instructions, and the inflections in my voice didn’t harmonize with the inflections of my being, which was essential for the perfect pronunciation of the word. Different parts of my body were pronouncing the syllables incorrectly and with an awkward cadence … Until, suspended at some point in space, with an “e” and a “t” jammed between my lips, I learned that an “a”, which I didn’t know was in the word, was the key to its pronunciation. But as soon as I discovered this, the dream vanished.

My father was peeling an apple with his pocketknife while a grayish twilight filtered in through the closed curtains.

It was 7:10, or 8:25, or 4 in the morning. The room was dark, or, through the window, the midday heat shimmered.

Or a golden air would enter the room in diagonal columns that fastened themselves to the floor, as if my day would build itself or my night would lay down to rest on them, depending on whether it was dawn or dusk. Or to know what time it was, I would find my parents with my eyes; if they slept, it was daybreak, if they were standing, reading or talking in low voices, night was falling.

*

I was the wounded one, the boy who’d been shot by a shotgun. The news had come out in the Sol de Toluca, stating that Doctor Alvear had saved my life by operating on me when I had thirty-two perforations in my intestine. Meanwhile, I was aflame with thirst. I slept and woke and I was thirsty. Treatment of my hand made me howl. The adhesive tape would stick to the raw flesh of my fingers, and the nurses had to hold me down to change the dressings. By day ten, I’d received over eighty injections, and there was scarcely a part of my body that didn’t ache. A new pain was foretold each time the door opened, every three hours, and a nurse entered.

In the room next door they’d put a boy who had sliced off the fingers of his left hand with the guillotine at a print shop. I could hear his screams all night long, and for days his lamentations were the voice of the invisible patients in the hospital. His hand became infected for lack of penicillin; the nuns asked my father if he could buy some, which he did, and then went to visit the boy.

When the boy recovered, he came to thank me.

*

Each day the curtains were left open a bit longer. The room was lit by natural light. I began sleeping almost only by night. I was able to have chicken broth and drink noncarbonated water; I nearly finished off the bottle the first time my mother put one to my lips, trying to quench weeks of thirst.

Once I could take small steps they brought me out to the corridor where, accompanied by my mother, they sat me down to take some sun alongside the other convalescing patients, nearly all women.

Saturday evening they took me to the hospital movie theatre where they were showing a film with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

The entrance to the theatre was also the entrance to another spectacle, one of misfortunes portrayed almost allegorically by such pitiful cases that seeing them in succession depressed me. There were old men without legs, armless men, crippled children, women with bandaged chests, and patients who had recently had surgery on many parts of the body, a sampling of the great variety of ills that afflict mankind.

Most of the audience that filled the hall looked so unhealthy you wouldn’t have thought they were there for a screening but rather for a meeting of candidates for the beyond. Some wore awful smiles on their cadaverous faces; one man who was deathly pale, with a greenish cast and trembling hands, stared at me, looking as wretchedly unhappy as if he were being broken; and when the show started he kept on staring fixedly at me, seeming unaware the film had begun.

Otherwise, although the movie was funny no one laughed, or they couldn’t laugh, because of their injuries, responding to the occasional comic moments with a groan or a sigh. In the silvery light projection of the film lent to the hall you could see their mournful faces, as if the everyday world where the film was taking place made them deeply long for their own homes, or made them feel they would never return to them.

On their feet and leaning against the walls, the nurses looked from patients to screen and screen to patients. Sitting next to me, my parents didn’t laugh at what was happening on the screen but they didn’t seem unhappy either. The only people who enjoyed the film somewhat were the patients’ relatives who, obliged to remain in seclusion, found some relief from the continual strain of life at the hospital.

*

The following day in the corridor when my parents asked a passing nurse why they’d opened the side door that was always shut and she replied that a corpse had been removed and this was the door they always used to remove corpses so the sick patients wouldn’t notice and get scared, I was horrified by the possibility that just a few days ago the door could have been opening for me. Other than that, when I saw my body and studied my face in the mirror, I trembled with joy to realize it was me.

*

One Saturday we returned to Contepec. I had many books and my parents were glad to get back to our village and our home. The nurses said they would miss us, as if during our stay at the hospital we’d established a friendly bond. Upon leaving I felt that something of ours would remain forever in the room, and I looked with melancholy at the door about to close on the other person I once was, as if I were abandoning inside the room the body that had carried me from the day of my birth till the day of my accident, to convalesce in this other body that still carries me, whose novelty I felt at the time.

In my eyes a very long time had passed, an interior time not measured by the time on clocks, because of the traces, the waiting, the infinities it leaves in your being.

My parents’ countenances had changed; an expression of alarm would appear on their faces at the slightest injury or the most unthreatening illness; they would be frightened if anyone screamed, assuming something serious had happened, or if a relative began to cry, they would imagine the weeping was over the death of a member of the family; they were convinced that routine mishaps were fated to have terrible consequences.

My eyes also saw my brother and my friends in a different light; and though I felt the same familiarity and affection, something incommunicable now separated me from them. The feeling of having returned from a journey that wasn’t measured by the miles between Contepec and Toluca, but rather by the internal distances traveled, made me want to tell them something important about those days, but when I realized that they knew the external facts of my accident, and that my intimate experience was as impossible to convey as an act of love, I kept quiet.

There are moments in your destiny when years are compressed into days, and days into hours, by the intensity with which events transform your life, events almost able to erase a past, and if not to erase it, then at least to shut it off from yourself, erecting a wall that separates the days of your childhood from the days of your adolescence, as if those days had been lived by two separate people, not by one person at two different ages. To build a bridge between the two, to pass from the adolescent to the traumatized child, to know that they are one and the same, to find that only one who was and who is; that has, to a large extent, been the purpose of this narrative.

Translated from the Spanish by Chloe Aridjis.

This is an excerpt from The Child Poet, available now from Archipelago Books. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © Homero Aridjis 1971, 1972. English language translation © Chloe Aridjis 2016.

Homero Aridjis was born in Contepec, Michoacàn, Mexico. A poet, novelist, environmental activist, diplomat, and journalist, he has twice been the recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and most recently received the Premio Internazionale di Poesia 2013, Premio Letterario Camaiore, Italy. From 1997 to 2003 he served as president of PEN International.