Paraguay turned inland after the triple alliance war. Away from the Pilcomayo river. 70% of the male population died following it to the sea. Into the Gran Chaco. The Enlhet, Ayoreo and Nivaklé people lived there. Isolated for nearly 300 years after the Spanish conquest. Canadian Mennonites bought and ‘populated’ the ‘green hell.’ They built Menno in 1927 and Fernheim in 1930, now Filadelfia. Russian Mennonites fleeing Soviet persecution founded Frauendorf, in 1947, now Neuland. All 147 of the women’s village’s first adult inhabitants were female.
I was born in the Gran Chaco in 1990. I don’t remember the bush Käethe Waldbrunner planted when I was conceived or the peach tinged roses I received the day I was born. I remember Dolores Ayerza’s ‘Reserva Campo Alegre.’ The baby in the forefront and the words scrawled at the bottom. He is limp but rigid in his mother’s arms. Her lips and nose are swollen but severe. In the background there is a man with mouth agape, a squalid dog and a wooden chair. When I was older I was told the baby was dead. In July 2016, my mother and I lived in Käethe’s unoccupied home for a month.
2-hours by plane from Buenos Aires to Asunción. Through the small oval window see a green kidney shaped stain delineated in red in a sea of brown. Paraguay is a landlocked island. Menno, Filadelfia, and Neuland are an archipelago. The Enlhet, Ayoreo and Nivaklé inhabit the peripheries. See the line? It demarcates the indigenous settlements—Uj´he Lavos, Cayim ô Clim and Yalve Sanga. 8 by bus from Asunción to Filadelfia. The headrest cocoons mother’s deaf ear. With deafness came sound. It is the heavy object vestibular nerves were tethered to, like braided fibers grown worn and unraveled, falling into a vacuum. The drone of the engine fills the cavity and subsumes the tinnitus. An hour by car to Neuland. Käethe’s silent house empties it and subsumes her within. While she sleeps, I dream.
“Cayim ô Clim”
Loose sand seals the holes in the hard dirt road. Pale flesh colored grains float like particles of air grown tangible. They hit a barrier and accumulate in mounds at the foot. Each grain, separate. They move in unison.
Angel watches them seep in under the heavy wooden front door to his home. In the hollow space between those four walls it grows into a cloud. Fills the space within or between his possessions. This room is not empty.
A grey film coats his bed, television and desk. Dust unlike sand is a nearly invisible lining. Run the fleshy underside of your finger across a tile to trace a line. Rubbing index against thumb feel the once dry substance turn sticky like the grease on your stove.
He sits on the floor before his low desk. A long ply-wood bench. Two piles of paper on either end. Scribbled on both are things he cannot forget. Those to his left are reminders, tasks. To his right, memories. What he does fills his days. What he remembers, his nights.
The slip in his hand flickers on a memory as vivid as the scene playing on the lit television behind him. A portable set like those in a highway toll attendant’s booth. In the dark, the sun starting to burn through drawn curtains is still too dim, the screen floods the room with steel fluorescent light.
Past midnight the national TV station streams, La Burrerita de Ypacaraí. A large breasted woman sits atop a donkey. Her lips and dress are the same shade of crimson and the sky is a phosphorescent blue. The film must have been black and white, then colored by hand.
“The day Belen died,” is the mnemonic sentence inscribed on that slip. Smudges of led where the pencil indented with intent. He remembers the facts but not her body or face. She remains fifteen years old and five foot four inches tall.
He watched the girl wait. She stood by the bus stop before the only wall enclosed home in Cayim ô Clim. It cast a shadow on the lawn within, rather than on her. The sun shined on her forehead like a bird fluttering in place. She did not seem to notice it because it did not shine in her eyes.
There was a bang. She turned to face incoming traffic. The noise came from within the brick structure she leaned on. Behind it stood a wide one-story home, a fountain that was the stature of a girl, and a parked red car. The man in the front seat has just reversed into the wall.
Like thunder precedes lightning the sound foreshadowed the fall. First the wall trembled and regained stillness. Then it collapsed. The bricks fell forth, separating from each other, struck the sidewalk or something hard. They disintegrated.
Only the base remained. A barrier tall enough to bar the entrance of rodents and cockroaches. Mice can make themselves small enough to enter through a window slightly ajar, a pipe with one end in a ditch and the other in a tub, a crack in a wall.
The cloud of crumbled bricks and the cement between them settled. The home behind the inch-high barrier was exposed. As fragile as a house of popsicle sticks. The bars on the windows remained strong. They stripped the floral drapes of their joy.
The fountain ridiculed the pile of rubble. It endured. The statue’s puckered mouth seeped water. Her thick arms still held the folding cloth that both covered and revealed her form. A moth stood on her big hairless stone toe.
Water sprinkled on its opaque but nearly translucent wings. She neither fluttered them dry nor allowed them to droop by her sides. Anything could pierce the moistened frail material. Nothing did. Particles of cement clung to the wings, making them hard.
The debris coated car concealed its occupant. Everything was still. He remained within.
He was not mourning the cost of rebuilding the wall. The door was jammed. He was squinting through the grey coating on the rear window.
Figures gathered on the sidewalk opposite his home. The words they uttered were unintelligible. Their faces indiscernible. Perhaps they were speechless, staring.
The first to arrive picked the girl from the rubble. Belen resembled a statue. Her clothes, hair and flesh were covered in fragments of rock. Hers was a dead weight. But nimbler than stone.
One held her by the armpits. The other parted her legs to grasp her knees. Arms and calves dangled. Lower back and bum curved towards the floor. The mangled body swayed as they raced to the Mennonite hospital. More harm done on the way.
She did not grimace or wail with pain. Her eyes were large and her mouth open. She seemed to see more and breathe deeper than before. “The face of a saint or an angel,” her mother said. Not that of a girl who hugged and tugged at those she loved till they struck her still.
Her mother called her la mimosa arisca. Her siblings called her cowardly. She expressed affection persistently and spontaneously but winced when others reciprocated. The desire for touch got her in trouble. Her fear got her out.
She held the hand of the girl sitting beside her in class, combed back the hair of a disheveled neighbor, stroked the back of the hand of a stranger who rested it on the supermarket counter. They all peered back at her. Each time, she pulled away and ran.
Belen filled the cracks in the walls of her home with notes. After she died they started to find them. Tugged on the diminutively folded pages by indenting index and thumbnail into the paper. With it emerged an exhale of dust.
The one for her sister read, “I love you though you are cruel when we are alone.” Her brother’s, “I love you though you ignore me at school and at home.” The one dedicated to her mother was private. It read, “I love you most of all.” She continued expressing affection and disabling reciprocation posthumously.
The crowd continued to gather before the collapsed wall. The corners of the bricks remained whole. The interior disintegrated into an inhalable powder. It stuck to the lining of their lungs. It covered the slim corpse before it was parsed out of its mold.
They gathered to see the depression her body left in the rubble. Legs touching. Hands open by her hips. A tiny head. The wall crumbled upon striking her hard bones. It killed her but took on her shape.
The bricks were old. Particles were compacted but did not adhere to each other. If struck with an axe the blade did not break and the stone did not part in two but crumbled. With the blow of the car’s steel bumper, propelled back by rolling wheels, they came apart.
Crumbled cement and fragments of burgundy bricks atop loose sand and compacted red soil. Those that pass the site of the accident, stare. They match the color to the source. Cement and sand; soil and stone, do not match the brown and grey tones of their elements.
They make a red as deep as the black sea water far offshore. You do not feel the pull to fall when you peer in. As opaque as the ephemeral clouds that float away with sand and cement. You do not imagine shapes in the soil like you would in the sky. The first is tangible.
A child etched a storm onto the surface. Indenting the tip of his finger into the sand which adhered to his wet finger. Revealed the compacted soil below. The rain was red. The air was brown. The air in his drawing was as thick as water the day Belen fell.
No one cleared the sidewalk. The wind swept away the loose cement. A thin new layer lined the now paler soil of Cayim ô Clim. Belen’s mother stares at the ground when she walks and stalls at the site. The burgundy fragments remain. Tiny tombstones.
Angel peers down at the scattered pages. “The handwriting of a madman,” he thinks. Almost forgetting it is his own. He indents the pencil with such force the paper becomes liquid. Run your finger through spilt milk to see the wooden tabletop below.
His straight lines refuse to curve into legible symbols. His “b” is not a line with a half circle on the end. Replace the latter with a triangle. Sides do not meet at an angle. The space between them is charged.
Thick determined markings that never intersect or touch have no outside. They fail to become the boundaries of an object. Occupy their own place in the boundless space of the page. Things that resemble the thing are rendered unintelligible.
His children throw away his letters. He has no option but to try to understand himself. The letters on the note he reads were legible. The message, clear. The event, real. Still, he misremembered the perspective from which he observed the accident occur.
The dust that gathers on each of the four corners of his room gleams. Draws closer where wall meets wall. A translucent web over a matte grey pillow. The spider dangles from a strong thin thread. He cannot see what hangs above him because he is looking ahead.
That thin grey matter lines the shelves that encircle the room. The few possessions propped on them. A tidy pile of worn grey and beige clothes. A cassette. “The innocent prayer of a child,” printed on a paper in the encasing. A photograph of himself when he was younger.
He wears a Paraguayan football jersey. There is a road behind him. The corner is tainted white by light. It is the sun’s rays that flooded into the lens. He is not in Cayim ô Clim but Pozo Colorado. He misses the music, the traffic and the familiarity of Spanish spoken loudly.
He hears a rustle of feet and high-pitched but hushed voices. Approaches the window through which he saw Belen fall under the weight of the wall. He places his hand and forearm on the frame. It feels dry.
Traces the ledge with his index to wipe it clean. The dust adheres. He shakes it off. It does not fall to the ground but floats onto the wall. This film is charged with static. He runs his still unclean hand through his hair and feels the tips rise towards the ceiling.
The voices grow clearer. Children at play. One gives orders and the others mimic distraction in order to disobey. Their bodies move quickly as they race. He hears their feet hit something wet. The squelching of soles as they disperse water to either side of a puddle.
His window was not opposite the external but internal face of the now absent wall. Through it he saw the red car race in reverse. Halt. Watched the barrier fall forth. He did not see the girl disappear. His was the only enclosed house.
He watched the people gather, carry the body, and remain hesitant to leave. Felt they would enter his home. The car windows were covered in debris. Feared his father would never emerge. He could see his silhouette still in the driver’s seat.
Angel did not move. He was a child then. An adult now. Their home, this house, was filled with people once. Neighbors and parents, siblings. Now he resides here alone. Unemployed but always occupied.
He sits back on the floor before his low desk. Takes a note from the pile to his left—a reminder. This slip of paper is longer than the rest but folded in half. It holds two sets of instructions: turn the fountain on and back off.
Doors of adjacent homes start to knock open and closed. The sweat on the dark red flesh of the men that return for lunch dries and acquires a sheen indoors. There is a switch by the door of his home. It points up to signal something is on. The porch light is off. Water gushes from the statue’s mouth.
It overflows from the basin under her feet onto the lawn. The expanse of white parched soil with patches of green grass has turned into a marsh. On its surface the latter float like lily pads. The yellow blades in the middle are the blossoms.
He flicks the switch down. A last drop falls like drool from her exaggeratedly full stone lips. The muddied water moistens his soles and his black plastic sandals make a soft sucking sound. He steps over the low barrier that was the wall.
Here the ground is as hard as pavement. Still it is not even. Irregular spheres where the land indents slightly. They resemble the water stains on untreated wood. Holes where rodents or lizards bury themselves, not to hide, but to cool themselves.
Angel’s home lies at the intersection where the Mennonite colony becomes the Nivaklé settlement. Right and left men and women the size of grains of sand move on their own. Legs bend and feet alternate landing ahead of each other. Still the wind propels them back or forth.
On the opposite end of his block a group sits around a radio. It streams music but they refuse to stand and sway. They are not listening to the lyrics or to each other, none speak.
This stillness or movement propelled by the breeze renders a cloud as slim as an exhale visible in the clear sky, the exhaust of a car regurgitating fumes from an exhaust pipe audible, you feel the relief of a flea ridden dog when he rubs his pelt against the trunk of a thorn tree.
He tries to regain the calm that noticing things requires. Instead he feels discomfort. Something small and hard under his foot. Fragments of brick remain embedded in the hard soil. He does not kick them along the path. They may be the tips of buried boulders.
The thin hairs on the back of his upper arm stand rooted in protruding follicles. Swift changes become omens when he feels alone. The sky turns dark and the day cool. Still it does not look like rain. A wind storm.
If he remains still the outline of his frame displaces the particles. If he moves it seeps into his eyes and ears but pushes with force against his lifted leg. Space is a curtain. It molds to the body like a garment but the hand never finds the opening.
All the loose soil the wind displaces accumulates where the air is stale. Not a pile as high as the boulders but more frail. An imperceptible layer. Only the refusal of the loose particles to adhere to each other differentiates them from the hard earth or cement below.
What remains where the wind blows is a landscape of holes and protrusions. Next to a crater, a boulder. The height of the land above sea level varies. There is no flat surface, plateau, from which to measure.
He does not stray from his vantage point. Instead imagines climbing up the boulder. His ankles aching where they bend and his thighs burning. Toes pointing towards the sky but eyes anchored to the ground.
Descending into the crater feels like falling. Legs so loose that when he bends his knees they land on the soil. Instead of rolling or sliding down he remains in a crouching position. Open palms below his face impede his fall.
Peering at his hands he realizes that he can only see their outline. The light turned from blazing white to red and now pitch black. It is not an eclipse but the setting sun. The wind has not blown away the sand revealing the hidden shape of the land. It has just grown dark.
The boulders are outlines of homes and the craters are the places where the thorn bushes grow. The latter are too far behind the homes from which light emanates. In the pitch black, what grows in the distance disappears like the base of holes in the ground.
Angel’s nights become days and nights again while he misremembers the past. It disables him from straightening his sheets at dawn, preparing three meals, washing his pot, plate, and fork, and bathing at dusk.
He turns to the recent past instead. The children in the yard. How they disappeared before he stepped outdoors. He sees them around a round table through the window lit from within next door.
A woman that looks like Belen feeds them like chicks in a nest. She encircles them setting a sausage and slice of sopa paraguaya on each Disney themed plate. They prick the meat with their forks, carry it into their own open mouths and ingest the chunk bitten off.
He wonders if instead of misremembering the past he is foreshadowing the future. He knows that Belen is not his neighbor’s daughter but mother. He remembers that she takes the bus to Filadelfia on weekends at midday. There she cleans the Friesen’s home.
Perhaps one day a wall will topple her and after the wind spreads the rubble and ashes it will blow with enough force to lift all the sand and dust that fills the crevices between the real elevations and depressions of the earth’s surface.
As he walks home in the dark he stumbles on the barrier that was once the wall.