‘The Adventures of China Iron,’ by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara: An Excerpt

It Was the Brightness of the Light

It was the brightness of the light. The young pup, radiating life, was scampering excitedly between the dusty sore paws of the few dogs left round there. Poverty yields cracked skin. It carves and slowly scrapes away at its young, and leaves them to fend for themselves in all weathers. It makes skin dry, leathery, and scarred, and forces its offspring into unwonted shapes. But not yet the pup: it radiated sheer delight at being alive and gave off a light undimmed by the dingy sadness of a poverty that was, I’m sure, as much a lack of ideas as anything else.

We didn’t often go hungry, but everything was grey and dusty, everything was so drab that when I saw the pup I knew in an instant what I wanted for myself: something radiant. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen a young creature, after all I’d already given birth to two children, and it’s not as if the pampa never shone. It became dazzling with the rains, reawakened even as it was flooded. No longer flat, it heaved with grain, tents, Indians on the move, white women escaping from captivity, horses swimming with their gaucho riders still astride, while all around the dorado fish darted like lightning into the depths, into the middle of the bursting river. And in each fragment of that river that was devouring its own banks, a bit of sky was reflected. It didn’t seem real to witness such a thing, to see the whole world being dragged along, slowly spiralling, muddy and dizzying, a hundred leagues away to the sea.

First men, dogs, horses and calves fought against the choking and gulping river, against the water’s power to kill. Several hours later the struggle was over. The lost herd stretched long and wide, the cattle ran wild like the river, dragged rather than herded, the cows and everything around turning somersaults, hooves up, forwards, down, backwards, like spinning tops, cheek by jowl they hurtled onwards, going in alive and coming out as pounds of rotting flesh. It was a rushing river of cattle falling horizontally; that’s how rivers flow where I’m from, with a momentum inseparable from drowning. And so back to the dust with which I began, the dust that dulls everything, and back to the resplendence of the pup that I saw as though I’d never seen one before and as if I’d never seen cows swimming before, nor their shining hides, nor the whole pampa ablaze like a wet stone in the midday sun.

[ Return to the review of “The Adventures of China Iron.” ]

I saw the dog and from then on all I wanted was to find that kind of brightness for myself. So the first thing I did was keep the pup. I named him Estreya (which means Star), and that’s still his name, even though I’ve changed mine since then. Now I’m called China, Josephine Star Iron and Tararira. From the old days I’ve only kept Iron (the English for Fierro), which was never my name to begin with, and Star which I chose when I chose Estreya. My real name? Well, I didn’t have one; I was born an orphan, if that’s possible, as if the violet-flowered pastures that softened the savagery of the pampa had somehow given birth to me. That’s what I used to think whenever I heard the woman who brought me up saying ‘it’s as if you just sprouted with the weeds’. La Negra: the black woman later widowed by the blade of my brute of a husband’s knife. My husband, Martín Fierro, who was probably blind drunk and killed El Negro just for being black, just because he could. Or maybe (and I like imagining this, even of Fierro) he killed him in order to widow La Negra, because she’d treated me like her slave for most of my childhood.

I was her slave: a black woman’s slave for half my young life and then, very soon after, I was handed over to the gaucho-singer Martín Fierro in holy matrimony. Supposedly El Negro lost me in a drunken game of cards in that dive of a pulpería, and the gaucho-singer wanted me immediately, mere slip of a girl that I was. He wanted to have divine permission, a sacrament so he could throw himself on top of me with God’s blessing. And Fierro did throw himself on top of me, by the time I turned fourteen I’d already given him two boys. When they conscripted him and sent him to the Indian frontier (like they conscripted nearly all the men from that poor outpost without even a church to its name) I was left as alone as I must have been the day I was born. A light-haired baby girl in the hands of a black woman, obviously someone’s bastard child.

When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laughingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain. The red-head, Elizabeth, whose name I learnt later and would never forget, stayed in the settlement with the intention of getting her husband back. She hadn’t been through what I’d been through. I never even considered going after Fierro and certainly not with his two kids in tow. I felt free, as though the ties that bound me were loosening. I left the boys with an old married couple, two farmhands who’d stayed on the estancia. I lied to them and told them I was going to look for Fierro. Back then I didn’t care whether their father ever came back. I couldn’t have been much older than fourteen years old and I’d had the decency to leave my kids in the care of two kindly old folk who would call them by their names, which is much more than I ever got.

I was tethered by my lack of ideas, by my ignorance. I didn’t know I could stand on my own two feet, I didn’t realise until I was on my own, unassisted, and was treated a bit like a widow, as if Fierro had died in a heroic act. Even the foreman on the estancia offered me his condolences at the time, my last days as a ‘china’, as someone’s woman. I spent those days feigning pain and suffering, while inside I was so happy that I would run for miles from the settlement to the banks of the brown river, take my clothes off and shout for joy, splashing in the mud with Estreya. I should probably have suspected, but it wasn’t until much later that I found out that the list of gaucho conscripts had been drawn up by the self-same foreman who had sent it to the landowner, who had sent it to the sheriff. Fierro, my coward of a husband and a prize charlatan, never sang about that bit of the story.

Had I known I would have thanked them. But there wasn’t time. Really just because of her skin colour – because I hadn’t seen many pale-skinned people and I harboured the hope that she’d turn out to be related to me – I climbed up onto Elizabeth’s wagon. She must have had the same idea because she let me approach her, me, someone with less manners than a mule, less manners than the pup at my side. She looked at me doubtfully, passed me a cup of hot liquid and said ‘tea’ in English, assuming, correctly, that I wouldn’t know the word. ‘Tea’ she said to me, and that word – which in Spanish, ‘ti’, sounds like a gift ‘to you’, ‘for you’ – is apparently a daily custom in English, and that’s how I learnt my first word in that language which was possibly my mother tongue. And tea is what I’m drinking now, while the world seems beset by darkness and violence, by a furious noise that is in fact just one of the frequent storms that shake this river.

[ Return to the review of “The Adventures of China Iron.” ]

The Wagon

It’s difficult to know what you remember, is it what actually happened? Or is it the story that you’ve told and re-told and polished like a gemstone over the course of years, like something that has lustre but is as lifeless as a stone? If it weren’t for my dreams, for the recurring nightmare I have where I’m a grubby barefoot girl again, with nothing to my name but a sweet little puppy and a few ragged clothes; if it weren’t for the thump I feel here in my chest, the tightness in my throat on the rare occasions that I go to the city and see a skinny, bedraggled little creature hardly there at all; basically, if it weren’t for my dreams and the trembling of my body, I wouldn’t know that what I’m telling you is true.

Who knows what storms Elizabeth had weathered. Maybe loneliness. She had two missions in life: to rescue her gringo husband and take charge of the estancia that they were to oversee. It suited her to have someone translate for her, someone not afraid to speak up beside her in the wagon. It was something like that anyway, though I think there was more to it. I remember the look on her face that day; I saw the light in her eyes, she opened the door to the world for me. She was holding the reins and driving without knowing exactly where she was going in that wagon that had in it a bed and sheets and cups and a teapot and cutlery and petticoats and so many things I didn’t know about. I stood looking up at her with the same trust with which Estreya looked at me every so often when we walked along the fields together. Field or fields, it was hard to know whether to use the singular or the plural for that endless plain until a bit later when the fences and landowners arrived, that settled it. But not back then, in those days the estancia was just a wide-open space. We’d walk through the countryside and sometimes Estreya and I would look at each other and he trusted me the way animals do. In me Estreya saw safety, a home, the knowledge that he wouldn’t be abandoned to the elements. That’s how I looked at Liz, like a puppy, with the crazy certainty that if she looked back at me in agreement I would have nothing to fear. And she did. That red-headed woman, that woman who was so pale you could see the blood moving in her veins when something made her happy or made her angry. Later I would see her blood freeze from fear, fizz with desire, and burn with rage.

Estreya leapt up onto the wagon with me, and Elizabeth made room for us on the driver’s seat. Day was dawning, light was filtering through the clouds, a soft rain fell, and when the oxen lumbered off, there was a moment that was pale and golden, and tiny droplets of rain sparkled in the breeze, and the grassland was greener than ever. Then it began to pour and everything shone, even the dark grey of the clouds; it was the beginning of another life. It was a radiant omen. Thus bathed, in that luminous body, we set off. ‘England’, she said. And at that time, for me, that light was called ‘light’ in English and it was England.

We Come from Dust

We were caressed by that golden light during our first hours together. Una very good sign, she said, and I understood. I don’t know how I almost always understood almost everything she said, and I answered her in Spanish saying yes, it has to be a good augury, a buen augurio. And each of us repeated the other’s phrase until we could say it properly. We were a chorus in different languages, languages that were the same and different, just like what we said, the same and yet unfathomable until we said them together. We parroted back and forth in our own way, each repeating what the other said until nothing was left of the words but the sound, good sign, buen augurio, good augurio, buen sign, guen signurio, guen signurio, guen signurio. We always ended up laughing, and then what we said seemed like chanting that would end up who knows where: the pampa is also a world fashioned so that sound can travel in all directions, little more than silence reigns there. The wind, the call of a chimango bird, the insects when they get very close to your face and – almost every night except the rawest winter’s night – the sound of the crickets.

The three of us set off. I didn’t feel as though I was leaving anything behind, just the dust raised by the wagon which that morning wasn’t much; we drove along an old Indian trail, one of those tracks the Indians had made when they were able to come and go freely, leaving the earth so firm underfoot that the ground was still well trodden all those years later. I wasn’t sure how many, just that it was more than I’d been alive for.

Soon enough the sun lost its golden sheen, it stopped caressing us, and it began to stick to our skin. Figures were still casting a shadow almost all the time but the midday sun was starting to burn. It was September and the earth was breaking open with the tender green of new shoots. She put on a hat and put one on me and so it was that I learnt what life outdoors could be like without blistered skin. Then came the dust: the wind carried the dust raised by the wagon, and all the dust from the land around, straight at us; it covered our faces, our clothes, the animals, the whole wagon. I quickly understood that we had to keep the canvas closed and keep the inside free from dust, that this was what mattered most to my friend. This was one of my greatest challenges during the whole journey. We spent entire days wiping everything; we had to fight to save every single object from the dust. Liz lived in fear of being swallowed whole by that savage land. She was scared we’d all be gobbled up, that we’d end up being a part of it like Jonah became part of the whale. I learned that the whale was similar to a fish. A bit like a dorado fish from the river but grey, with a huge head, the size of a wagon train and likewise able to carry things inside itself, that whale of God had transported a prophet and furrowed the sea the way we furrowed the land. The whale sang a song in her deep voice about water and wind, she danced, she leapt and she squirted water through a hole on the top of her head. Up there driving the wagon, free and whale-like between heaven and earth, I swam.

The first price we had to pay for such happiness was the dust. I, having lived wholly inside the dust, having been little more than one of the many forms that dust took there, having been contained in that atmosphere – the earth of the pampa is also sky – started to feel it, to notice it, to hate it when it made my teeth gritty, when it stuck to my sweat, when it weighed down my hat. We declared war on the dust, all the while knowing that we were fighting a losing battle: we come from dust.

But ours was a day-to-day war, it wouldn’t be forever.

[ Return to the review of “The Adventures of China Iron.” ]

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