Pablo Salinas, first prize winner in the nuestra palabra Short Story Competition in 2009, was born in Lima, Peru in 1973. He has published a diverse range of stories and poems in print and online journals, as well as in the anthologies Retrato de una nube (2008, published in English as Cloudburst by University of Ottawa Press in 2013), Las imposturas de Eros (2009) and Voces con vida (2012). His short stories “El camino de regreso” and “Padre José”, which received honorable mentions in the nuestra palabra contest in 2008, appear in the collection of nuestra palabra award winners titled Cuentos de nuestra palabra en Canadá: Primera hornada (2009). He completed a doctorate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Ottawa and is currently visiting professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio.
He climbed aboard the little bus in a leaping bound and without a cent in his pocket. As he stepped through the door, his callous-plagued hands tossed a roll of paper and three bars of soap onto the dashboard.
“So that’s how they’re paying you now at the dog pound?” joked the driver.
But Diego wasn’t working at the dog pound anymore. He’d stolen the stuff from the hostel where he had a job washing dilapidated taxis.
“Now maybe your conductor can take a bath,” he replied.
Wounded by the remark, the conductor turned his bulging eyes on Diego before splashing his uniform with a dry wad of spit that shot from his mouth behind an insult. An hour later, the bus stopped outside the cemetery and a grey shadow jumped out onto the dirt track by the roadside.
He pulled apart the three little flowers bought with the coins he’d pocketed whenever the hostel guests weren’t looking and he ran as fast as he could. The dirt on the road was suddenly whipped up into a thick cloud that bathed everything in his view in the same colour. If it were summer, he thought, his hair would be a wet mop dancing around his face and the rest of his body would itch wildly, his toes would turn sticky inside his shoes, but there would also be people on the track. If it were summer, someone would surely recognize the brick maker, the dog pound assistant, the one who always marked his goals with a long stream of urine. But it was winter, and the dampness made him shudder from his chest to his scar-covered ankles. Even so, it did nothing to stop him from running until he reached the big gate that he recognized at once. “Down with State Terrorism!” someone had written, tracing a finger in the dirt in one corner. He looked at the sky and saw the sun almost hidden behind the hills. He had to hurry.
To reach the cemetery he had to skirt around a large monastery. A black dog started barking when it found him piling up broken bricks on one side of a long wall that split the track into two halves. Diego recognized his unexpected companion at once: it was Nerón.
“Get out, out dammit!” he shouted with all his might as he lowered his pants to expose his sex, emaciated yet not far from having reached adulthood. The animal, however, had already lost interest entirely, having found a half-dead bird on the edge of the road.
The proximity of the watchman didn’t allow a greater display of affection, to either the dog or the dog catcher, who began climbing quickly over the gate. However, his still immature impulses led him to underestimate the drop, and one of his three roses was irremediably crushed as he fell.
“Motherfugger!” The echo bounced off each of the nearby hills.
He separated the crushed bud from the others and threw it to one side of the road, and watched as it fell on some remnants of excrement. The presence of Nerón was a sign that his family had beaten him there. If he picked up the pace he’d be able to find them, no doubt sitting on top of the graves. In the sky, six or seven vultures swirled in tangled, seemingly aimless circles. Meanwhile, far from their ritual a dying sun shot out reddish rays from behind the most distant hills.
After a few minutes he could no longer hear his steps, as he was treading on dust upon dust. Joyfully, he climbed up a few yards to the side of a small hill and could see the Huachipa Cemetery stretching out before him. “Aunt Lucy!” he cried as far as his hoarse voice would carry, but the wind was blowing in his face and his shout didn’t get much further than the end of his long nose.
He leapt down the hills and set out across the old graveyard. After a few yards the path abruptly disappeared and Diego began tripping over graves on top of other graves. His deep black pupils scanned the muddle of bad spelling until they fell on a drywood cross riddled with termite holes, leaning against a rust-filled vase. The inscriptions lent themselves to all manner of confusion, but the imitation of Gothic letters in which the name was written stood out stubbornly against the surrounding landscape. He rested the knee of his hole-filled trousers on what was once cement and read out the letters: “N-é-s-t-o-r N-a-v-i-c-o-l-q-u-i.” The shapes of the letters seemed strange to him, like drawings of whimsical ringlets of hair, of golden scars on the arms, sketches from dogeared notebooks and monsters scribbled on the page, outlines of a mother with arms like hammers, of blood on a school shirt.
Next to Néstor’s grave, he took his second rose and placed it in an old oil bottle that had been broken in half. The moment he turned away, the strong wind knocked the bottle down behind him and the rose rolled down next to a grave where somebody had written “The Peruvian Revolutionary Alliance is the answer”.
When he reached the others, the four figures seemed to take in his midsized frame with complete indifference.
“What’ve you come for?” Uncle Alberto snarled at him.
“I’ve got a return ticket,” he answered.
The others moved away towards one of the neighbouring crosses and Diego approached the grave that they had left behind. His interlocked fingers tried to mimic the solemnity of a “Hail Mary”, but at once he set his eyes on the vase, stuffed full of roses that still shone in spite of the onset of twilight. Swallowing his shame, he examined his last battered rose, and set it down atop the small sea of floral arrangements. His rose lay upon the others like the moustache that some joker had drawn on the face of the virgin painted on the side of the stone. As he shook out his shoes filled with stones from the road, his grandmother rose up and died again in his memory, at least twice.
What would be left in those coffins? he wondered. His grandmother no longer existed, and neither did his friend Néstor or those who had come with him from Pujas. The freezing wind brought a new pain to his lower back and cut short his ruminations. The pain restored his energies. With renewed enthusiasm he picked up the vase again. He pulled out the flowers that his family had brought and tossed the bouquet on top of an old adobe tomb whose name had faded off. He then put the vase back in its place, content to see that his flower was now the only gift for his grandmother.
It was almost seven o’clock and the mourners were leaving the cemetery while a quartet of mildly drunken musicians divvied up their day’s earnings. Before leaving, his aunt dropped a liquid resembling a dark soft drink onto the last mound of earth.
“To your health, Uncle Daniel!” said Uncle Alberto.
In the distance, Nerón ran in the opposite direction from everyone and, knocking over children and drunkards with his massive head, tumbled onwards in search of scraps of food.
By seven o’clock the night had taken over the graveyard. In the distance the fireworks had begun, lighting up the red-coloured skyline of the city for a few seconds. The rows of little lights making their way out of the cemetery began to pick up their pace. Behind one of those lights, Diego’s family moved on nervously, crossing the lane that cut between the hill and a long wall that ended at the monastery gate graffiti-marked with a hammer and sickle. It was a new gate, and much bigger than the last one, which had been blown up in a dynamite blast.
One of the monks began ringing a huge bell, a sign that the place was closed to everyone, but Diego didn’t rush, and soon he was caught up by the same dog that had barked at him earlier and that now was circling around him in joyful pirouettes. “Doggy, doggy-doggy-mother-fahhh”, he shouted, satisfied with the thought that the echo of his voice would be frightening the children who had not yet left the grounds.
When Diego climbed over the wall to get out, he stepped unwittingly on one of the roses that he had crushed on his long journey there. As he dropped down on the other side, a pile of pebbles squeezed in between his toes. While he sat down on a big rock to clean out his shoes he heard the bang of a gunshot and Nerón rolled down, in a cloud of dust, from the side of the hill to the bottom of the brick wall.
“I got him, I got him!” cried the monastery’s watchman from the top of a tower as he reloaded his shotgun, and Diego had to run, leaving his shoes there beside the burnt shards of the old gate. Besieged with fear, he felt as if the path were endless, and it seemed as if nobody had ever walked it before.
Practically under the huge gate, Nerón was still clinging onto life, still chewing, albeit now weakly, a leg and a few feathers of that dying bird it had found earlier on the road.
“Hold your fire!” cried a monk from inside the monastery, but the watchman was already taking aim again.
Translated by Martin Boyd