Memoirs from the End of the Road
Gualfin is inspiring. One guest composed songs which he later recorded and performed in Brooklyn. Another guest wrote a novel, set in Gualfin. The following is the last chapter:
Jorge backed his pick-up truck towards the porch. On it, he had already set out boxes. Chairs. A small table. Some tools.
The sun was just rising over the mountains to the east. It was near the equinox, so the sun would clear the mountain between 7:45 and 8 am. He watched its advance day by day. The leaves were falling. The air was crisp in the morning. The nights were getting colder.
The guests had all left. Margot and Guillermo had stayed at the house about a week. Luigi had had to go back early; he was working on a theatre project in London. Margot and Guillermo had remained…the two of them…just as they had many years ago, after their father had died.
It was a shame about their mother. Willi had never understood. Neither had Jorge. She didn’t die. She didn’t remarry. She just faded away.
“She had a nervous breakdown,” they were told. “She needed some time to recover.” Or, “she wasn’t herself.”
It was never clear what was the matter with her. But something clearly was. Otherwise, she would have stuck close to her children, her family. And now, after being in and out of hospitals and clinics for many years, she was in India. Why India? Jorge didn’t know. But Margot and Guillermo seemed to have given up on her. They answered questions about her politely, but they did not elaborate. She wasn’t with them, and that was all there was to it.
Jorge couldn’t imagine it. He was retiring now. He was leaving the farm. Willi was gone. He might as well go too. Except he was still alive. And this ranch was all he had ever known.
But his family was alive too. And they lived in the city. And Maria wanted to join them in the city too. And so, he would go…he would join them in the city. He would have a different life. A life of retirement. He would find ways to keep busy, so he could stay close to the family.
A cold wind blew across the yard, whipping sand and dust into Jorge’s face. He scarcely noticed. He was used to it. Sand and dust were a fact of life in the valley. The wind always came up in the autumn. It would blow, off and on, until September. By then, it would be dry as the Sahara…and his eyes would turn, slowly, to the cows…and to the sky.
Already, in dry years, the cows began to lose weight in May. By September, many were in danger. Jorge would go through the pastures looking for the most vulnerable ones. They would be herded into the enclosed fields, where the little water they had left had been used to keep the grass irrigated. Typically, even this trickle of water ran out in September. Then, the tottering cows…weak from hunger…would be let into the stone-fenced field and let to eat the drying grass. It wouldn’t be enough to fatten them up. But it would keep them alive until the rains came again, in December.
The annual cycle was unforgiving. And sometimes punishing. The rains came in December. If they were lucky, the animals gained enough weight to give birth to calves, nurse them until they were ready to be weaned, and then survive until the following December. If it didn’t rain, the cows died.
Jorge remembered that last serious drought – in the 1990s. For two years, back to back, it scarcely rained at all. Out of 3,000 cattle they had going into the drought, only 1,000 were still living when it ended. This year had been dry too. But not as bad as it was back then. And who knows what would happen the following year.
In any case, it wouldn’t be Jorge’s problem. He was 65. He was retiring. He was packing up. His work was done.
Margot and Guillermo had met with the lawyer, who had driven out from Salta to meet with them before they left. He had greeted Jorge warmly, but after the fashion of the professional classes, who knew how to maintain a certain distance from the local people all the while being friendly and courteous.
There really wasn’t that much to talk about anyway. Willi had left them the ranch. He had offered to give Jorge a little farmstead too – near the place where Jorge had grown up. It had everything…an old adobe house that could be easily modernized, an irrigation canal, a little green pasture, a place for a garden and a corral. It was a nice gesture from Willi. But they both knew that Jorge was leaving. The family was all in the city, 5 hours away. There was no reason to stay up at the ranch, except that that was where Jorge wanted to be.
Margot and Guillermo listened to the lawyer’s reading of the will. He had written it, as Willi had told him to. It was a little odd, hearing a lawyer read Willi’s words. They half expected to hear Willi’s own heavily accented Spanish rather than the lawyer’s perfect Castellano. The testament merely told them what they expected, that Willi gave them equal ownership of the ranch and passed along his love, outre tomb.
They knew, too, that the ranch was a very marginal proposition, financially. Without Willi…and Jorge…on the job, it would be hard to keep it in the black. They accepted the lawyer’s opinion and his counsel; he suggested that they should be alert to the cashflow and pay attention to fluctuating beef prices. If prices fell, they might want to hold their animals off the market until they improved.
Margot and Guillermo didn’t know much about cattle ranching. But they knew enough about Gualfin to know that holding cattle off the market was out of the question. When the grass ran out, the cattle had to go. There was no way to keep them around.
The lawyer stayed the night. Then, when he left the following morning, only Margot and Guillermo remained. Even Maria had gone ahead, to wait for her husband down in the city.
Jorge was putting the furniture and the boxes in the back of the truck. Another gust of wind blew through the porch and across the yard. Jorge moved a mirror, placing it more securely against the back of the cab. Then, he lifted a box onto the truck bed and pushed it against the mirror to hold it in place.
On the porch, the two old dogs – Achilles and El Negro – lay on the stones, half watching, closing their eyes against the dust and opening them again when they heard a noise from the truck. The two younger dogs, La Morena and Dogo, had already been given away. Samuel, up the valley, had taken them. They were good dogs, they would help protect his goats and help him round up his cattle.
Nobody wanted the older ones.
Jorge was almost finished loading. He had been working slowly. Now, he worked even more slowly. Because he dreaded what he would have to do when he finished, the last thing he would do before getting in the truck and driving away.
It still seemed impossible to him. That Willi, who was indestructible, was now dead and in the graveyard, buried next to Jorge’s father. And that he, Jorge, was retiring…leaving the ranch…its people…its mountains and valleys… its sheep, goats, cows, guanaco and mountain lions. Its wind. Its sun. Its water – every drop begrudged by the gods…maybe by Pachamama, who was making a bit of a come-back in the valley…maybe by God himself, the Christian god he had worshipped all his life.
And yet, there it was…loaded on the truck, now. Not everything that was in the house. He had left the bed and some furniture – some of it belonged to him, some to the ranch – for the next capataz. These were the personal things, the things Maria had asked him to carry down to the city, including her collection of stones, rocks, arrow heads and pottery shards. When she was teaching at the school she had encouraged the students to bring in the relics and antiquities they found – bits of pottery, axe heads…even a loom-weight, made of a piece of stone about the size of a dime…with tiny symbols cut into it on both sides. What did the symbols, which might have been hundreds or thousands of years old, mean? Nobody knew.
They have found graves too. When digging a foundation for a house or a barn…or making a road…they would find a large pot. Inside, there were bones. Men were often buried with their weapons, some food and a dog, Maria explained.
Up in the mountains, there were petroglyphs too. Jorge and the other local people took them for granted. No one knew what they meant, if they meant anything at all.
What people had made them? His ancestors, probably. When? How? Why? He didn’t know. What had happened to those people? They must have retired too…gone off…stopped working…and sat in a corner, maybe, until they stopped breathing. And then, their entire civilization stopped breathing.
Murdered and enslaved by the Conquistadors, nobody really knew what happened to them. Some said they died out…or were exterminated. Others said they were sent to work on the big plantations down in the valley, that some survived and eventually came back to live in the mountains. Still others maintain that they were never fully conquered. Some were killed. Some submitted. Others simply bided their time in their mountain fastnesses and adapted, as they needed to.
Nobody knew. Jorge, and all the local people, now carried the names of the conquering Spanish. They spoke their language. They worshipped their God. And now Jorge was going to ‘retire,’ an invention of the Europeans…he was going to live in a little house on the outskirts of a European city – Salta. He would watch TV. He would read the newspaper and go to stores to buy what he needed. Occasionally, he would go to a restaurant.
He would see more of his children and grandchildren too. Besides, it was what Maria wanted.
He looked at Achilles and El Negro. Achilles was stretched out flat on his side. El Negro was curled with his head on his paw.
He had tried to give them away. But who wanted to feed an old dog? What use was he?
Years ago, Jorge suddenly recalled, Willi had made a deal with a guy down in the valley. When the grass dried up at the ranch, they would ship cows down to some well-watered ground down below. The cows would eat the grass down there…and then, Willi and his friend would split the money that he got for them when they were sold. Everybody should have come out ahead, even the cows.
But when Jorge went to check on the cattle, recently removed to the lush fields down below, he was surprised. The young calves adapted well and gained weight quickly. The older cows didn’t gain weight as expected. Some got sick and died. Some just moped around.
“The older cows can’t adapt to the lower altitude and the new kind of grass,” Jorge had reported to Willi.
“I guess they’re like people,” Willi had answered.
Jorge looked again at his dogs. There was no other way. He couldn’t take them with him. And he couldn’t leave them behind.
In more civilized places, they had people who took unwanted animals, strays, and nuisance pets. The owners got rid of them and never had to think about what happened to them later.
But here, there was no one to call. And Jorge wouldn’t have called anyone any way. There were some things you had to do yourself. He went into the open shed, where he parked his truck. In the back, there were various cans with gas, oil, water…and some paint cans stacked in the corner. On the walls, were odds and ends of rope, wire, tools. There was an old level, for example, with a broken cylinder. The yellow liquid had leaked out. It was useless as a level, but you didn’t throw things away at the ranch. You never knew when a use for them might arise. Old tires. Old radiator belts. Hoses. Electrical wire. It was all hanging on the walls, from spikes driven into the adobe bricks.
You could hang a punctured inner tube from a hook. It would stay there for years, until, one day, you might need strips of rubber. You could nail them to the bottom of a door, for example, to stop the wind and dust from getting in. Or you could use them in place of leather as makeshift hinges. Or you could fix a saddle with them. It hardly mattered. The tube could hang there indefinitely, at no cost, until it was needed.
But the old dogs… they wouldn’t keep, like old pieces of metal. Someone would have to feed them. Otherwise, they would starve to death.
Jorge found what he was looking for. It was electrical cable. Small gauge. Very flexible. He also picked a long screwdriver out of a tool box that lay against a side wall. Then, he formed a circle, about the size of a small bucket with the wire and tied the two ends to the center shaft of the screw driver. He twisted the wire, turning the screw driver with his right hand while holding the circle more or less immobile.
He turned the corner to the porch. Achilles opened an eye but did not otherwise move. Jorge bent down. He gave the dog a pat on the head. And then a more gentle caress. Achilles’ tail flapped against the stone. Then, encouraging him with petting, Jorge slipped the noose around the dog’s neck as he raised it off the floor. Then, he twisted the screwdriver quickly, tightening the noose until the dog struggled. Achilles rear paws scratched against the stones. His front paws worked to free his neck from the wire noose. But it was hopeless. In less than a minute, the dog was motionless.
For the first time in Jorge’s adult life, a tear formed in the corner of his eye. Was it because of Achilles? Or because it was all over…the life he had known for so long and loved so much?
His mother had died early. His father late. He had been riding with Willi up into the valley when he got word his father had died. Passing one of the adobe houses, suddenly Mariela, wife to one of the farm workers, came out of the door weeping and wailing, holding an apron over her face. She had been listening to the only radio signal available in the valley, which passed along not only the news of the world, but the news that mattered. Jorge’s father had died that morning in Salta city, where he lived with another son.
The funeral had brought together the whole Gualfin tribe. They had brought the body back from Salta, loaded it on the old ox cart, and followed it to the graveyard, just as they had done with Willi. And there, the women had all stood on one side, keening away, as the men through offerings into the grave – a pack of cigarettes, a neatly-pressed work shirt, his boots, and a bottle of whisky.
“Ashes to ashes,” said the priest in his farewell.
Then, Jorge and his brother shoveled dirt onto the coffin.
All had known Jorge’s father, for he had been foreman before Jorge. He had dispensed judgement, food, shelter, jobs, and money over the entire 500,000 acres that made up the ranch. He had been called on to settle disputes, to offer advice, to lend help when it was needed and justice when it was required. As capataz, he answered only to the owner. But the owner came rarely and depended on Jorge’s father to keep everything in order – people, plants, animals, buildings. And he did so with neither sorrow nor joy, neither regretting the burden of responsibility nor shirking it…he was simply relentless, immoveable and unstoppable…just as Jorge had been. When something needed to be done, he got it done.
And there was more to be done…
El Negro had watched. His eyes had a look of grim sadness in them, as did Jorge’s. His head remained on his front paw. Then, he got up. He sniffed at Achilles’ body. Then, he licked his master’s hand as Jorge undid the noose from the dead dog’s neck.
When the noose was free, Jorge turned to El Negro. He patted his head. And then he put the noose around his neck as he had with Achilles. El Negro stood his ground, wagging his tail.
Once in place, Jorge hesitated. He pet the dog, looking out over the orchard to the broad expanse of valley and then to the mountains in the distance. Then, as if a meeting had been called to order, he stiffened his back and twisted the wire. El Negro let out a yelp as the wire bit into his neck. He struggled. And then it was over.