by Jesse Myner
— Argentina —
It was tree-less, grey-green thornscrub for as far as you could see. There was no shade and the wind was relentless. The wind gusts blew the bike out into the road. I had ridden all day into it in my lowest gear. In twelve hours I had ridden eighty kilometers.
There was a shrine to Gauchito Gil and then a sign for “Agro Tourism” and I turned off onto a one-track dirt road that led back to an estancia. In front of a white farmhouse shielded by poplars a man sat at a table drinking mate. I had not seen anyone in three days.
“The wind is strong. The wind has defeated me today,” I said.
“The wind is nothing,” said the man. “In the Land of Fire is the strong wind. La Escoba de Dios. The Broom of God they call it.”
His name was Guido and I asked about food and water and a place to put up my tent. Did I also want to go horseback riding, or to fish at the coast? Did I want to hunt guanaco? I told him I was too fatigued for those activities and we came to an agreement that for 100 pesos I would put up my tent and have an asado of mutton and breakfast in the morning.
Guido showed me a place along the poplars to put the tent and as I started to put it up he whistled and called for “Samantha” and a guanaco came trotting out from the corral. Two sheepdogs barked and nipped at her legs. I had only seen guanaco from a distance on the pampas. It was like a deer with bulging black eyes. As the guanaco neared, Guido quickly turned his back to it. The guanaco sniffed at his hair and his neck and then it rubbed its nose on his back.
“You must not look at the eyes of Samantha,” Guido warned me. “If you look at the eyes she will [something] on you.”
I looked away. But I did not understand the verb. I asked Guido to repeat it, but I still didn’t understand.
Guido tried in English, “You look in the eyes she put a spell on you.”
“A spell. Yes.”
Whether or not I respected the dark power of certain animals to cast spells, I saw the seriousness with which Guido turned his back to the creature and when she came for me I quickly turned away. I felt her on my back and then her breathing upon my neck. I reached behind and touched her fur. I wanted to be friendly. I didn’t want her practicing any witchcraft upon me. She pulled out a mouthful of hair from the back of my head and I jumped forward.
Guido laughed. “Cuidate. If she [something] on you it will take four baths to remove the smell. The saliva is dark and very terrible.”
I realized Guido had been trying to say that Samantha would spit at you if looked directly in the eyes. There was no sorcery involved. He had confused the English words “spell” and “spit.”
I went back to putting up the tent but Samantha continued to harass me. Being unable to turn and face her she would sneak up behind me and pluck out my hair. It was all very funny for Guido.
When the tent was up we went behind the farmhouse where the peon was butchering a sheep for the asado. He stretched the carcass on an iron spit and staked it above the fire. A dog chewed on a purpled bunch of intestines in the dust. Guido and I drank cups of rainwater from a barrel.
“Do you not fear camping?”
“What is to fear?”
“Do you not fear the Mapuche?”
“What is the Mapuche?”
“Indígenas. They come with a knife in the night. Chorros. Thieves. I do not hire Mapuche. No one hires Mapuche.” He nodded at the peon. “That one is Tehuelche. Only a half breed.”
Inside the farmhouse we sat at the dinner table drinking Fernet and cola. It was dark outside and the generator hummed loudly. Samantha looked in through the farmhouse window, her nostrils pressed against the glass. “She looks for you,” said Guido. I thought so too. His wife brought out the heaping plates of mutton chops with mashed potatoes and a salad of greens and tomatoes. The meat was delicious.
“Do you think more gringos will come here?” Guido asked.
“Maybe. But it is far.”
“In Patagonia everything is far. But there are penguins here.”
“There are penguins in other places too.”
The lights flickered and went out. The generator had stopped. It was quiet and his wife lit the candles and we finished eating by candlelight.
“If only they brought us electricity. If only the government brought us running water and telephone lines. More gringos would come then.”
“She destroys Argentina, this Kirchner. This one destroys it worse than the husband. Esos chorros se roban Patagonia. These thieves steal from Patagonia.”
His wife touched his arm.
“They argue always for who has the true Peronismo. But all are chorros. Thieves. What they do not steal for themselves they give to the poor. That is the true Peronismo.”
“He is a little drunk.”
“And what if I am drunk? Are they not chorros? Do they not steal from Patagonia?”
“Yes, Guido,” she said gently.
“These thieves steal from Patagonia because it is where there is money. But soon they take all the money. Soon there is no more money!” Guido slammed his fist on the table, his glass bouncing off and shattering on the floor. “Putos chorros!” He looked about to cry. He stood from the table and left the room. His wife picked up the pieces of broken glass.
“I am tired,” I said finally.
“Yes,” she said. “The wind was strong today.”
I did not see Samantha at the window. I went to the door and opened it carefully and started towards the tent. Then I heard the guanaco behind me in the darkness and I ran. I heard her stumble on something and I quickly unzipped the rain fly and crawled inside. I heard her outside. I heard her nibbling on the tent poles.
In the morning I packed up and loaded the bike. Guido prepared mate for us and he apologized for the night before. After all it has happened before, he said. First the army will remove her. Then the generals will name the towns and streets after themselves. It has happened before many times. Argentina will have more towns and streets named for generals. He was resigned to it
Following a good five year run as a futures trader, Jesse Myner does what he wants and goes where he wants to. He has lived in Paris, Budapest, Croatia, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami. He currently splits his time between Bogotá and Alaska, where he goes for the salmon run and to hunt caribou with his Inupiat Eskimo friends. He is the author of the story collections Home Depot Profiles In Courage and Slime Line: Adventures In Fish Processing.
Foreground photo by ( (( marS )) )