A Traveling Man | Jay Merill

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For quite some time I thought I would be a travelling man but then it did not seem possible for this to happen.  I would be the one to stay at home while others went away.  And then I was called upon to leave, when I had not expected it.  Here is the story of how this came about.

My name is Uchu and I am fifteen years old.  I live in Cajamarca in the north of Peru.  Now and then, in the morning, birds fly overhead in a great horde.  So many of them that you cannot see the daylight.  They are going to the southern mountains.  Sometimes macaws, sometimes the green parakeets.  When they pass above Cajamarca you hear their squawking.  It makes me wonder what they can be saying.  Because isn’t it true that parrots speak?  Perhaps they know more than we do.  This is an idea that often comes to me.  They seem to know where they are going whereas I have noticed that we humans often go rushing this way and that and get nowhere at all. Perhaps the birds know what has happened to my sister Chaska.  It was the parrot of doña Fernanda Salvatierra Martinez that drove her away.  That’s the way it seems to me. My sister had a live in job as a maid-servant but doña Fernanda kicked my sister out when her precious Pedro went up into the Mango tree.  I do not know why she blamed my sister because the parrot flew away. Doesn’t a parrot have a mind of its own, the same as we do?

And then I think of Chaska as I’d seen her the day of her birthday.  She was twelve years old, three years younger than me and one year older than Wayra, our brother.  For a present we boys took a bracelet with red and blue glass beads but we left the house quickly because the eyes of doña Fernanda were dark with rage.  There wasn’t enough time to talk about anything at all. We saw the parrot sitting silently in the Mango tree outside and I asked him very nicely if he would come down and go back inside the house.  I knew that doña Fernanda would have angry eyes forever if the parrot did not return and I hoped that he would listen to me and heed my words.  But he did not and later on, at the end of one week, a great flock of parrots came and circled about in the air all screeching and calling out to Fernanda’s parrot and entreating him to go with them.  And so he went.  Doña Fernanda did not see him again, her dearest Pedro, as I know she thought of him.  In a day or two she called to tell my mother to take her daughter away, that she would not have Chaska as her maid servant any more.  She said it was the fault of Chaska that the precious parrot flew into the tree, from which at last he disappeared altogether in flight with the other birds. Fernanda said she must have a maid with a gentle spirit. She said Chaska had shaken out the broom in the face of the parrot and frightened him and the girl was too bad to remain any longer in her house. My mother was weak from her illness and did not have the energy to argue and so I was sent round to bring my sister home.

A family conference then took place.  This is what we call it anyway.  But there is no father to join in these talks.  He has gone but I don’t know where.  To Lima, mother has told us but I am sure she does not really know either and she just says this because Lima is bigger, and as she thinks, better, and so naturally the man must now be a part of that place, because he belongs to bigger and better things.  We have not seen our dad for these past two years.  It makes my heart ache realising this and I wish I might never think of him again.  But my mother she misses him.  I feel that and I try to be a strong son for her sake and for all of us.  She has been sick for a little while and she is not strong enough to bear so much sorrow.  This is why I cannot leave.  Chaska is the one destined to go out into the world and she must move to Lima too and learn good Spanish.  Though she is younger than me, and a girl, she must bring herself to do this.  I must stay here to carry mother to the balcony,  and to the bathroom when she is too feeble to walk.  I must be the one to organise the family.  It is a big responsibility.

‘Wayra,’ I say to my brother, ‘Do your school work, please.’  And sometimes he does. He would rather be practising his acrobatics in the yard with the other kids. I know this and I appreciate his goodness when he stays inside poring over the exercises in his school book.  He cares for our mother too and is a good son in spite of all he has to put up with. He works in the fruit market in the afternoons when school is finished and brings in a bit of money to help her out. This is why he has to spend the evenings studying instead of doing handstands and cartwheels with his friends, as of course anyone would prefer. There is nearly enough money now in the savings box to mend the broken tap.  When the tap is fixed I should like to tell this to Chaska as she feared the rats which come to drink the falling drops at night.  I do not know how to find her though and hope she will write home soon.

A few months ago, when things had fallen apart with doña Fernanda my sister went to live with our aunt in Lima.  She was to go to school and get qualifications and also there was work for her so she could help out and not be a burden on Aunt’s family.  But Aunt has written to us and told that Chaska has run off.  Mother cried.  She said, ‘But Chaska is a good girl.  This cannot be.’  It is hard to imagine but still it must be true.  I should like to hear from Chaska herself what has happened.  There must be a reason.  She is someone who does not act haphazardly and has always been careful, a girl of sense for her age.  I am planning to travel to Lima to find my sister.  Mother wishes this and urges me to go.  Now it is January.  Next month it will be Carnival and when this is over I will set off.

Mother cries very often and this makes her weaker than she was. I tell her that everything will be alright but in my heart I am far from certain.  Aunt says Chaska has gone to the bad and joined in with the rateros, kids who live well by plunder, but surely Aunt is mistaken about this.  It is something none of us can believe.  When the sun is high I see Mother staring out into the clear bright blue of the sky as though she’ll find the answer there, as though by some miracle she will see the face of her daughter come drifting by.  But it seems to calm her to look up into the sky even if there is no real answer to be had.  And I too.  I look upwards into the clouds or the smooth unbroken blue, as though to find something written there.

Last year at Carnival Chaska, Wayra and myself  all danced together in the plaza when the last procession had passed by.  I could not then have imagined it possible for this to happen –  that Chaska would be living in some unknown place.  I wait daily for a letter to tell us why and where she went.  Then finally a letter comes.  Mother receives this in private and soon calls me to her.  The letter is from our father and not from Chaska at all.  My feelings do a somersault.  Mother says that Father is wounded and I must go to him.  She and Wayra will manage until I can return.  I am to bring Father back with me, but only when he is able to move without pain. We laugh and cry together at our gain; at our continued loss.

And in two days I must set out.  It is good to do some dancing at Carnival and I will miss this, but it is a greater thing to have a father and I am happy that Dad is to come home to us when I’d never thought to see him ever again.  How surprising life can be. I think maybe we do not know so much as the parrots.  I picture last year’s dancers jangling past, all red, all gold, their tambourines tinkling like tossed coins. Perhaps when I get home again with our father Chaska will be back already and will be waiting for us. Perhaps she will get to go to Carnival and then she can describe to us how it was.  We will sit round the hearth and tell our stories and be a whole family once more.  My heart gives thanks at the very thought of this. For one brief moment I think of the shouting that used to happen sometimes between my mother and father. How they would stand together with sharp jagged mouths and with harsh sounds coming out from between their teeth; how at these angry times they did not seem to see anyone else, even us, though we were all in the same room.  And I remember how we three children tried to hide ourselves beneath the table with the heavy cloth so that we would not hear. But I do not wish to have such thoughts and I quickly tell myself that things will be all different now. They will be so pleased to have one another again.

When evening comes I go out and walk a long way, coming at last to the house of doña Fernanda.  The windows there are all lighted, but dimly, and the glass shimmers with the look of candles flickering.  I understand that doña  Fernanda is in her house at late prayer to La Dolorosa and think that she is asking for the safe return of her parrot.  But the parrot has flown with its own kind and I know he will not come back here.  At the Mango tree I stare upwards towards the branch where the parrot sat before he left for good.  No, that is the last she will have seen of him.  Doña Fernanda should get another house pet.  Maybe a new parrot.  It may have different ways but still they will become used to one another and in time she would care for it.  Sometimes you have to say goodbye in your heart to what has gone forever. No one can expect that there will never be change in the way things are. Nothing is the same for me either since Pedro flew into the Mango tree.  I feel some sympathy for the old woman who clings only to what is past but also, as I look at the tree I sense the start of things that are new.  There is excitement stirring in the leaves for those with eyes to see.

Next day I start to prepare for my journey to Puno. I must take plenty of clothing for it is cold now at La Sierra and on the mountains there will be much snow.  It is a long way and a place far from anywhere that I must go to. There will be many ordeals to pass through before I reach my destination and I do not know how long the journey will take me.  Some of the way may be on foot.  But I would do this and endure a thousand greater hardships for our family to be re-united.  Mother and Wayra tell me goodbye on the following morning.  Mother is fearful yet glad.

There are many stages to my journey.  First I must take the bus to Lima and so I go to see Aunt to find out if she has heard from my sister.  She has not and does not know why Chaska left.  Aunt says she just upped and went one day when they were all standing together.  It was the day of the Fiesta.   Chaska was selling festive candy on a tray to the tourists.  One minute she was there with the rest of the family and then in one second she left them and ran into the crowd joining a long line of running kids. These were street children.  Aunt said they swam sharply through the hordes of people like dangerous fish.  Everyone stood back to let them pass.  Pirañas, that would strip the flesh off you and move on to the next victim.  She did not know if Chaska had seen any of these kids before. Aunt said she picked up the discarded sweet tray from the ground and she and my cousins finished off the remaining caramelos.  Later she reported Chaska’s disappearance to the police but they only laughed. I told Aunt I could not believe that my sister would join a gang of really bad kids.    Now I must go to Father but I would be returning when I could, to look for her. I asked my aunt to let me know if she heard from Chaska and she promised she’d do this. The next day I caught the bus to Arequipa.  Aunt gave me some cold cooked food to take with me and a bit of cash, which I was glad of as bus tickets are expensive and I had very little extra money.

I sleep at the bus station in Arequipa till the late night bus is ready to leave.  It is cold and as I sit on my seat I am thankful I brought warm clothing.  The bus is not full and everyone on it seems to know one another.  This makes me feel cut off from the world but then I think of Dad and as we get nearer to Puno I start to wonder how things are with him now as it is already some weeks since his letter was dated.  Is he expecting me to come?  This I do not know, though I am sure he wishes it.  I cannot see anything from the windows but I sense the presence of the mountains.  We will arrive in Puno in the early morning.

Later in my journey, when I am on foot and walking along the dirt roads towards my final destination I picture myself once more as a travelling man.  Some awareness comes to me that this is the way life will be for me from now on.  My present task is to get to my father and wait with him until he is fit enough to travel if he cannot move at once.  Then we are to return to Mother. If my sister Chaska is still missing at this point I’ve prepared my mind to finding her. I see these things as my plan. But a more knowing part of me says that I will go on travelling and may not set foot again in my own town for a good long time. I try to imagine what might happen to bring this about but am able to get no further.

This road is a lonely place and I see no one as I walk along.  Cold air bites into me. The way is rugged, and the earthy track on which I walk has small stones which make my feet ache.  But in spite of all these shortcomings my heart rises up like the sun in a late morning sky and stays there.  I am warm and bright with newly discovered excitements.  Whatever may take place later on it has turned out that at this moment I’m the travelling man I’ve always hoped to be.  I had thought it could not be possible, but now it has become real.  I walk the brittle road with a full heart because I feel that I know myself.  This is unlike any other day.  It is not like any other road.  I want to sing, and so I do, just a little.  I hear my own voice swirling away in the wind.

Now not a road at all, just gritty earth underfoot.  It is dark evening.  I have directions to my father’s house from people in the last small village.  The third house along is what I’m aiming for. The first two I have already passed.  And I see the place. You wouldn’t call it a house really, more a hut. With walls of tin, a roof of tin.  I walk up to the door knowing this is my father’s home, and a great weight falls on me.  Because this is a mean and tiny hut, not what I would have expected of the home of my father.  I knock on the door and the tinny walls tremble.

Dad comes to answer me and I do not know him.  He doesn’t know me either because he just stares at my face with an empty expression.  I wish to speak and tell him that I am his son, Uchu, come to take him home again but find that no words come to my lips.  My throat is weak and full of a terrible dryness that seems to be spreading to the rest of my body.   Before me stands a man who is old, with wispy white hair bunched around the ears, and a wrinkled forehead.  In his eyes there is no look of what I remember from when I was a boy.  Sometimes fire, sometimes a smile for me.

If I was not so dry tears would come.  But then I say to myself, no.  This cannot be the right house I have come to.  When I realise that is all that’s wrong, my throat becomes normal and I am able to say, ‘Please I am looking for the house of señor Ticona.  Can you help me, Sir,  I do not know these parts.’    But just when I have got to the end of the sentence I see that I’m making a mistake and this man is my father after all.  He leans back to let me in the doorway and we hug one another where we stand.

‘Uchu.’  My father says my name two, three times before moving back into the shadowed room and asking me to come in.  We are able to look at one another warmly but I also see that we will never be as we were ever again.  Not close in the same way.  Between us there is only the memory of closer times.  The memory makes us smile together but the smile is sorrowful because it contains the understanding that what we have lost we can never re-find.

I see that my father walks with a bad limp and his face half crumples as he moves.  On a sofa-bed by the far wall there are blankets disarranged and I understand he was lying there when I knocked at the door.  The tin walls glint grey in the light of a candle which my father now lights.  There is little furniture anywhere and I wonder how he manages here and I also ask myself where I am to sleep.  The sooner we can leave this place the better it will be but my father tells me his leg is not yet healed from an accident he had while working and he will not be able to move sufficiently.  Also there is a car which he owns but there is something wrong with it at the moment and it’s in the garage in the nearby town.  He says he needs to work when his leg is recovered so that he can pay for the car to be fixed.  Only then will it be possible to go. And so now will be a time of waiting for him and I can go and tell this to my mother and say that he wants to return the minute that it can be managed.  But I tell him, no, I will stay here too and I myself will be the one to find work.  I will work while my father recovers and what I earn can pay for the repairs to the car.  This means we can go home sooner. My father then says I am a good son and he does not deserve this happiness.

Now I have work at one of the local small gold mines.  There are many such mines around here and the people all know my father and that he is a good worker.  The job I have is not down in the mineshaft but up above at ground level.  This is better for me as I am not used to being underground and do not think I would like this, but kids who work down there bring the gold ore up from the mines in wheelbarrows.  It is all mixed in with earth and bits of rubbish and I have to sort the ore from the rest of the stuff. I am a mine worker now, my father says.  This work is hard on the back because you have to be bending down the whole time to separate out the ore.  At night I can do nothing more than lie on the sofa bed which I share with my father.  He says he is proud that I do this work because he knows I do it to help him out and it is for the good of the family.  Each morning very early I roll myself off the bed and go to the place where the kids bring the barrows up from the mineshaft. It is a mile away from my father’s place. The days are icy cold and the nearby mountain peaks are capped white with snow.  I see the shadowed forms of the saqueros as they come up into the milky-grey morning light. Now I take a pile from one of the barrows and begin my work of picking out the gold.  Only it doesn’t look gold at all but seems like plain brownish bits of rock. I think of how I should like this job better if I were sifting out bright nuggets of pure gold from the dross but, perhaps like much in life, very much work is needed to be undertaken before the true beauty  can be found.

There is a kid of my age who works on cracking the ore crust with a hammer.  His name is Kuyani and I meet him walking home when work is finished each day.  Kuyani is a fun loving guy.  He says to me to come with him to La Rinconada, the local big town, one Saturday night to have some laughs; he says I am too serious.  I was thinking that I would take my fun at the end of the time of being here as though the time would pass more quickly if I did nothing else but work and sleep.  The reason is that I do not want to give anything of myself to this place, or to take anything from it. I want out.  But on the other hand I do not know how long I will have to be here.   Now I have been working for one week and my back does not hurt as it did those first few days I say to Kuyani that maybe I will come with him to La Rinconada the next Saturday, as perhaps he’s right –   there should be fun as well as work.  It is necessary to have them going side by side together, in order to break the monotony.  But there is still a part of me which cannot settle comfortably with this.

For the truth is that once you have decided you must go travelling you are impatient to see the road stretching ahead of you at every minute, and until I can see this road again I do not wish to raise my head.  But when the way is open to me, I’ll go forward straight and certain. Of this I’m sure.

 —

Jay Merill is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize with her story ‘As Birds Fly’.   Her two recent short story collections God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies (both Salt), were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize.  She is writing a novel assisted by an award from Arts Council England and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.

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