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COLOMBIA IS BEAUTIFUL

SIETE MINUTOS BY ISMAEL CAMACHO ARANGO

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The backyard looked dark with its muddy floor and shrubs growing by the wall, as the sun careered through the sky in its journey towards infinity.

Shifting on the mud by the edge of a puddle, Homer played with his toys in the water. After enticing ants with a sweet he had put in a paper boat, he made it capsize amidst the mud. After struggling for a few moments, their bodies floated in the water shining under the sun.

“Hurrah,” he said.

Homer danced around the puddle, as a woman appeared at the door wearing a dressing gown and with some of her hair tied in a bun. Avoiding the toys and other things on the floor, she stood by the puddles Homer had made, little dots floating amidst the mud. Mother had waged a battle against the ants for some time. After invading their kitchen, they had gone to the other rooms until the house had been full of the insects. Shivering in the breeze blowing through the garden, she pushed a few strands of hair back.

“It’s time for lunch,” she said.

Those words brought Homer back to reality. He had to eat before conquering the world.

“Wash your hands now,” she said.

Leaving a trail of mud on the floor, he washed himself in the sink, as footsteps echoed in the corridor and father appeared at the door. Middle aged, plump and with a round face, he wore an apron over his big stomach while fiddling with his hands.

“I have a surprise,” he said.

Mother stopped with a plate in her hands, smoke rising to the ceiling like a staircase to heaven. Father didn’t bring surprises very often, apart from a day when he had found a puppy in the street but she had taken it to the dog shelter in spite of Homer’s complaints.

A small man interrupted the silence, his glasses shining under the light of the electric bulb. Homer watched the stranger waiting by the door and with a case in his hands as the clock ticked and silence filled everything.

“Uncle Hugh,” mother said. “We didn’t expect you today.”

After disentangling herself from his arms, mother poured soup on another bowl as Uncle Hugh sat by Homer’s side, before pushing his glasses up his nose. Sipping his soup, he talked of his adventure in the sea, where he had been sick the whole time.

“You should have taken an alka seltzer,” mother said.

“Nothing works for me.”

Lying in bed for most of the time, the man had not enjoyed the fresh air or the Caribbean sun amidst his sickness. Homer imagined his uncle looking at the land in the horizon, full of trees and hope, while his stomach hurt. Then the man put a large hand on his shoulders.

“I remember the day you rescued a dollar bill,” Uncle Hugh said.

“After flying to the branches of a tree, he put it in his wet nappy,” mother said.

Homer knew all the rest. A neighbour who happened to be hanging the washing at that moment dropped her husband’s pants in the mud, and he left her for the barmaid living next door.

School children sang songs of glory as Father Ricardo praised the qualities of the child during Sunday mass. Everyone loved him because he was a star. Then Uncle Hugh found a black and white photograph in the bottom of his bag.

“This is you,” he said. “I took this picture with my first camera.”

A chubby baby with long hair and a toothless smile sat in a chair. Mother had curled his hair to make him look like an angel for the picture.

“I developed it in my studio,” Uncle Hugh said.

Talking of Homer’s childhood, mother served lunch in his plate while the breeze moved the branches of the tree outside the window. Born during a solar eclipse, he had cried for the first time with the retreating shadows, while doctors and nurses looked at the sun from the hospital roof.

An old nurse who didn’t have good eyes had helped with the delivery, and after mother had pushed a few times, Homer had been born. Then the nurse had muttered those famous words.

“You have a girl,” she had said.

Hiding behind the shadow of the moon, the sun had been absent during Homer’s birth. He tried to imagine that moment when mother thought she had the daughter she always wanted as father sulked. Mother had wanted a pretty name for her daughter as the nurse delivered the placenta, but she discovered her mistake a few moments later.

“He had lots of dark hair,” father said.

“He was a darling,” mother said.

After wiping a tear, mother looked at the pictures on the wall, where she held a baby in her arms. Following her gaze, Homer remembered the stories of the time they had sailed under the stars and towards the unknown. Then Uncle Hugh gave him a shiny cent he had found in his pocket.

“Put it in your money box,” he said. “It will bring you good luck.”

“He’s a good boy,” mother said.

Homer admired the coin as the moment stretched into infinity, and the brown marks on the wall turned into monsters, fighting amidst the buildings where the dollar reigned supreme.

“It’s time to go to bed,” mother said.

Homer rushed upstairs after wishing them goodnight. Once in his room, he emptied his bag on the bed and counted all the pesos he had collected over the weeks, but his uncle’s coin was the prettiest. Homer put it in his bag before he went to sleep.

Uncle Hugh slept in the guest room, next to marks on the wall undergoing some kind of transformation. Homer imagined his uncle fighting the spirits of the house when they slept that night.

The man had gone by the time Homer had his breakfast next morning, but he had his coin and the mysteries of his birth had been revealed to him. He thought of the dark sun deserting the moment of his birth, while sailing his boats in the pond. Homer retreated into a world full of fantasy by the time Uncle Hugh visited them a few months later. The man brought him a few toy cars and a tricycle.

“You can go around your tree now,” he said.

Homer played with his cars as Uncle Hugh spoke of his life as a journalist in New York, chasing film stars in their limousines in a place called Broadway. Money filled Homer’s mind when he played with his trucks later. Then he saw a skinny boy hiding behind the tree. At first Homer thought he was a shadow until he noticed his dirty hair and freckles.

“Hello,” he said.

The boy remained quiet as time went past in this new reality where someone had invaded his universe.

“I’m Jose,” the child said at last.

Homer studied the stranger with dirty shoes and stained shirt as he left muddy streaks across his face, after wiping his nose.

“Would you like to play with my cars?” he asked.

Kneeling down on the floor, Jose ran one of the trucks along the track of dirt leading to the fence. Then his truck flew around the yard, pretending to be a plane, but he fell on his face and Homer laughed. After washing his hands in the water tap by the door, he played with the cars again, taking mud around the garden.

“I come from the jungle,” he said.

Homer shrugged. “You’re a liar.”

After Jose jumped on him, they rolled amidst the mud and stones, but as Homer barked, the child stopped his attack.

“Are you a dog?” he asked.

Jose imitated him but Homer shook his head.

“You have to do like this,” he said.

As he pursed his lips, he howled aloud. Jose took a deep breath and barked as Homer clapped his hands.

“Yes,” he said.

They barked while holding their cars and the dog next door howled. Then Homer’s mother appeared at the door.

“That dog is too noisy,” she said. “I’ll complain to the owner.”
She didn’t notice Jose and Homer thought the child lived in another world. He played with his new friend in the garden, where muddy ponds glowed under the sun like sacred lakes lost in time. Then Jose gestured at the stars that had appeared in the sky, as the sun set in the horizon.

“They’re mine,” he said.

Homer saw specks of light shimmering through the darkness while the child ran in circles around the tree, chanting strange words and touching the bark.

“Two and two are seven,” he said.

Homer frowned. “No.”

“I say that whenever I feel worried.”

Shadows spread around them and more stars appeared in the sky, as Homer followed his friend. After a few minutes of chanting and calling, they sat down in the ground to talk of their lives.

"I want revenge for my people,” he said.

Thinking Jose wanted to play another game, Homer ran around the tree shouting and barking but Jose had gone. As he looked for him all over the garden, he found a roll of papers on the floor. They must have fallen out of Jose’s pocket as he ran away.

Words in another language intermingled with drawings of the sun, looked back at him. Homer had never seen the strange symbols full of words in another language. He had to keep them for Jose whenever he decided to visit him again.

Homer spent a boring evening, as his parents counted the little money they had earned during the day and Uncle Hugh told them about his life in the USA. After looking at the window, Homer saw stars peeking behind the clouds, and the Milky Way had to be up there, where suns burned amidst dust and gas like Jose had said. He listened to the sounds of the night while shadows danced by the tree.

“Mum,” he said.

“Do you want to go to bed?” she asked.

Homer nodded. Kissing his parents goodnight, he ran up the stair to his room.

“Don’t have bad dreams tonight,” he said.

Homer saw the tree towering over everything in the backyard, its branches reaching for the sky. Jose had to be real if he had played with his toy cars. He went to sleep, thinking in all the money he would have one day, thanks to his lucky coin.

Pereira-  Risaralda

Maria

Homer danced around the tree of life chanting to the stars, scaring the squirrels and stepping on centipedes. Jose’s last words didn’t make any sense now or ever.

“Where are you?” he asked.

On imagining Jose wrapped in his invisibility cloak, Homer waited under the branches, as the breeze moved his hair and the birds looked for worms in the grass. Jose had to be on the other side of the garden, where the bushes formed a green mass of plants and hedges

“Hi,” someone said.

An electric current ran through his body as the most beautiful girl in the world, wearing a blue dress that moulded itself onto her body had appeared by his side. At first he thought he had imagined her, but then she smiled, showing perfect teeth beneath rosy lips.

“You’re real,” he said.

The girl’s laughter interrupted the silence of his world, while he played with his clothes. Then she tried to look serious.

“I’m Miguel’s daughter,” she said.

The man helping in his parent’s shop had to be Miguel and this wonderful creature his daughter. The sound of the dog next door barking interrupted his reverie.

“I don’t like dogs,” she said.

They ran back into the kitchen where a cluttered table stood by a sink full of saucepans. On tidying away some of the chaos, he found the tricycle Uncle Hugh had given him years before along with the toy cars. As she looked at the pictures in the albums, Homer wanted to impress her.

“My parents came here in a big ship,” he said.

“They must be rich.”

“It had many floors, and windows.”

He explained how travelling in search of a dream, they had bought the shop after borrowing money from Uncle Hugh. They had to pay him back but the business had been slow during the last few months. Father had been sick for most of the journey but mother had looked after the child.

“Dad used to take me to see the seagulls chasing the ship.”

“Seagulls?”

“They catch flying fish.”

Maria saw a few pictures of seagulls Homer had in a magazine. Those birds brought to memory the sea moving the ship while father drunk lots of herbal tea to cure his sea sickness.

“A child without a country,” he said.

“I don’t think it matters.”

Talking about his childhood wouldn’t stop his longing for that country he had never known. As she ate a biscuit, he saw crumbs falling between her breasts, disappearing into infinity.

“Your parents should sell coca,” she said.

“Coca?” he asked.

She nodded. “The Indians will travel long distances to buy it.”

Homer’s eyes rose from her breasts to her face. He wanted to do whatever she said to have her by his side forever.

“Father buys coca from Coconucos in the central cordillera,” she said.

Homer had never heard of it. Rummaging in her bag, she put a few crushed leaves in his hand.

“Put them in your mouth,” she said.

He wanted to kiss her lips, as he heard the story of the plant the Indians chewed on their journey through the mountains. Homer imagined them queuing outside the shop, bringing the spells of the jungle to his business. He followed her dark eyes, as she looked at the palms of his hands, making his hairs stand on end.

“Your life will end with the sun,” she said.

“I don’t believe you.”

She told him how her mother had taught her to read palms on quiet evenings, when her brothers and sisters had gone to sleep. The sun might be at the end of his life as it had been before. Then he showed her the papers Jose had left by the tree.

“He was my invisible friend,” he said. “We went around the tree of life, chanting to the stars and the universe.”

As she studied the papers, Homer looked at her profile under the light of the sun coming through the window. He wanted to do anything for this beautiful girl who had given him coca leaves.

“It looks like Egyptian language,” she said. “I like to read magazines about the pyramids.”

Homer looked at the words made up of strange things. It had to be a magical language if Jose had known it.

“Can you decipher them for me?” Homer asked.

“You can call me Maria.”

“Maria,” he said. “Will you help me to translate the papers?”

“I’m always busy.”

She lived in a small room with a cooker and a cubicle with a shower in the corner. With only three beds, her father slept on the sofa and some of her brothers on the floor. Homer listened to all the problems she had in her life.

“I have seen rats in the latrine,” she said.

“A latrine?”

“It’s a hole in the backyard.”

He had never heard of such a thing. They had to move over piles of rubbish strewn on the floor to go to the latrine by the shed. Maria looked relaxed, in spite of her ordeal. As she talked, he noticed the crucifix moving between her breasts like a lost angel. Homer wanted to eat her slowly, tasting every bit of her for eternity.

“Won’t you sleep with me tonight?” he asked.

“I’d have to marry you first.”

She wouldn’t accept the offer of his bed, even if she had to sleep with her family.

“I’ll buy you a house when I’m a millionaire,” he said.

“You’ll forget about me.”

“I won’t,” he said.

“It says in your hands.”

Then mother appeared at the door, clutching a handkerchief.

“Your father is sick,” she said.

After running upstairs, Homer found father in bed, the room smelling of incense and herbs, as tufts of hair stuck to his skin. Illness was a luxury father couldn’t afford when they needed money to renovate the shop.

“He had a convulsion a few minutes ago,” mother said.

Father had gone to bed, complaining of pain in his arm that morning as Miguel had seen to the customers in the shop. A bottle of aspirin lay on the bedside table, the best drug in the world according to her, while the clock on the wall marked the passage of time.

“Miguel has gone to call the doctor,” she said.

Lost in their own thoughts, they waited in silence, darkness stretching up to infinity outside the window. Mother held father’s hands, muttering a prayer and wishing for him to get better.

“Everything will be fine,” Maria said.

Then the room turned icy, incense filling everything as mother prayed to her God. Homer didn’t feel any pulse in his father’s wrists. Everybody had to have a pulse or they would die. He heard his own screams of pain as mother fainted.

Colombia, nuestra pasion

Darkness

Struggling against the darkness swallowing his soul, Homer remained by his father’s side, hot tears running down his cheeks. Father had been alive a few minutes before. It had to be a mistake.

“He is asleep,” he said.

Miguel organised everything during the next few hours when people came to the house and Maria brought cups of tea. Heavily sedated, mother rested in bed, while Homer remained aloof, pain washing over him.

After dressing father in his best clothes, the undertaker made him ready for that final trip in this world. They buried father in a shallow grave by a tree at the back of the cemetery. Time had gone past in a blur as the priest talked and people offered their condolences.

Homer reflected on his life since he had been a child, tears rolling down his cheeks. He had to find the reason for his existence and for that journey their parents had made a long time ago in search of paradise. He sat in his room after going back home, where Maria tried to bring him back to reality.

“Life has to go on,” she had said.

Homer had to awaken from the limbo he had fallen into since father’s death, as mother had buried herself in a room full of memories, while Miguel worked in the shop. One morning a few weeks after father’s death, Homer found a large envelope with a nice stamp by the door. As he opened it, a cheque fell on the table. Uncle Hugh had sent them money to board a ship on route to New York. Homer danced around the kitchen, as Maria appeared at the door.

“I’m going to New York,” he said.

He showed her the letter inviting them to a city full of opportunities in spite of the recession. Uncle Hugh’s Pictures showed the Statue of Liberty raising its torch to the sky, calling for them to come to another world. Admiring the Empire Estate Building, Maria imagined all the steps people had to climb.

“They have lifts,” Homer said.

“Lifts?”

“They’re metal boxes inside the buildings.”

As Maria thought of all the wonders in the USA, Homer took the tray up to mother’s bed, where he found her asleep.

“Breakfast is here,” he said.

Putting the tray on her lap, he helped her to sit up on the bed. She looked tired and drained even if she had slept all day.

“Shall I call the doctor?” he asked.

Mother ate the scrambled egg, thin fingers cutting the bacon, before mixing it with the eggs. As she sipped her cup of tea, Homer summoned enough courage to give her the news.

“Uncle Hugh has written to us,” he said.

Mother looked for the glasses on the bedside table before reading the letter with the nice handwriting. Homer watched her reaction to uncle’s invitation while pouring more juice in her glass. After putting the letter on the table, she sipped her tea. Father’s death had left her tired of life.

“We won’t have another chance,” Homer said.

Mother buttered her bread while he tried to convince her of the benefits of New York on her health and well being. A big city might offer more opportunities in their lives.

“New York is cold in winter,” she said.

“We’ll get a heater.”

After brushing the crumbs off the sheets, mother lay back on the bed trying to forget the letter and Uncle Hugh. Homer had to fight against her stubbornness to get what he wanted.

“We have to talk about this,” he said.

Mother shut her eyes, pretending to be asleep but Homer wouldn’t give up. They had come to South America in search of a better life and they could do it again. She looked at the pictures Uncle Hugh had sent them, as he spoke of the doctors looking after her in New York.

“Nobody heals the soul,” she said.

Pushing the pictures away, she covered herself with the blankets, while Homer waited by her side. He had to convince her of the goodness of that other country, where he might earn lots of money. Homer held mother’s hand, muttering silent prayers and wishing for her to come back to reality. He didn’t believe in God but this was an urgent matter.

“I will be a millionaire,” he said.

Miguel appeared at the door, accompanied by a plump priest, wearing a black habit in contrast to his pale face. Three strands of dark hair adorned his head and his ears stuck out of more tufts of hair. He put his bible on the table, as mother opened her eyes.

“Father Ricardo,” she said. “I’m sick.”

The priest sat by her side, hands searching for hers as thunder roared outside and drops of rain battered the window. After crossing himself, he waited for the storm to die out, leaving them in peace.

“In the name of the father, of the son and of the holy spirit,” father Ricardo said, sprinkling holy water on mother’s face.

After anointing her forehead, he wished for her soul to be accepted in the kingdom of God, because of the work Jesus Christ had started on earth, before ascending to heaven.

“She’s not dying,” Homer said.

On throwing the container on the floor, it shattered in many pieces, leaving bits of glass all over the carpet. Maria picked some of the glass with the dustpan and brush she had found in the corner.

“She is still alive,” Homer said.

As the wind battered the tree, moving its branches against the wall, the world remained in the grip of the storm. Father Ricardo shut his eyes, muttering prayers, shadows covering the world, and thunder exploding around them.

“Make it stop, father,” Maria said.

Father Ricardo raised his arms to the ceiling, eyes full of tears, as the light of the lamp illuminating the room, a strand of hair falling on his face. The priest regained his composure, after blowing his nose. Homer wanted to tell him of his uncle’s invitation but the priest was muttering prayers. Maria strolled across the room, holding a tray with a few cups of tea.

“Uncle Hugh sent us a cheque to go to New York,” Homer said.

After putting his glasses on, Father Ricardo ran his eyes through the pages.

“New York is an evil place,” he said.

He talked of a city full of gangsters, where loose women wandered the streets, looking for young boys like Homer. Evil awaited in every corner ready to lead him away from God’s path.

“We need money, father,” Homer said.

Thinking on the problem while Mother drank her tea, Father Ricardo noticed the bags of coca Miguel had left by the door that morning. On seeing his accusing eyes, Maria tried to explain about the coca.

“The Indians have taken it for centuries,” she said.

Father Ricardo crossed himself, after looking at her with disdain. She might lead Homer along the road of sin with her big breasts.

“I haven’t seen you in the church on Sundays,” he said.

“I’m always busy, father.”

Homer knew a lot about the priest to come to his own conclusions. Father Ricardo didn’t like people turning their backs on Jesus Christ for economic reasons. Parents had to teach their children their religious duties even if they were young or their souls might go to hell. He had to save Homer’s soul before she perverted him.

“If we don’t go to New York, I’ll sell merchandise in the slums” Homer said.

The priest hated Homer’s ideas. That young man would cause the end of the world one day, when God would take revenge for his sins.

“When will you do it?” he asked.

“I don’t know, father.”

Father Ricardo took another bottle of holy water out of his bag= and sprinkled it around the room, vanquishing all the demons forever. As mother coughed, he held her hand, his lips whispering prayers.

“I’ll get the doctor,” Homer said.

Father Ricardo didn’t need a doctor when he could treat mother with his faith. He gave her the last rites against Homer’s wishes as the storm raged outside.

Valle del Cocora

After a night full of pain, mother passed away in the morning amidst Homer’s consternation. As he chewed coca to keep his sanity, people paid their respects, praying by the coffin.

Thinking of his parent’s legacy in this world, Homer didn’t notice the passage of time, as they prayed for mother’s soul, incense drifting through the room.

Having worked in the shop for many years, they had never made any money to live a decent life. Father dreamt of improving their shop to sell better merchandise.

They had bought a few toys for him during the years with the promises of something better, but because of their poor credit history, they could never borrow money to help with their expenses.

Uncle Hugh brought toys for the child, bought in that country of the north, where rich people lived in big houses with swimming pools.

The biggest treat in Homer's infancy had been their outings to the fair to seen the bearded woman, the fattest man and the child that fit in a tiny box. He had tried doing that with the boxes in the cellar, scratching his legs and making mother angry.

“The boy in the fair did it, mum.”

She shrugged. “You'll never learn.”

Those sunny days had taught him so many things. He had learned how to annoy the monkey man by throwing paper balls at his cage while shooting the camel woman with his water pistol.

A voice interrupted his reverie as a large woman with black hair tied in a bun, hugged him, leaving the smell of cologne and fried eggs in his clothes.

“I’ll miss your mother,” she said.

Homer grunted. Everyone claimed to have known mother, even if he had never seen them before. The woman discussed mother’s life and her qualities.

As a good daughter of God, she had spread his world amongst the people of the market. Homer listened to the stories the woman told him of mother looking after her customers.

“She was an angel,” she said.
Not feeling well, Homer hoped the weoman would end the story of life in the market full of excitement.

The men to collected the rubbish on Wednesdays and got drunk on Fridays to celebrate the end of the week.

”We’ll take her to the cemetery now,” someone said.

Several people took the coffin across the room, keeping it away from the walls. The image of the monkey woman beating at the bars, keeping her away from freedom, came back to Homer's mind.

His mother didn’t deserve to be locked in that coffin.

“Give him an aguardiente,” the woman said.

He drank the liquid, they offered him in a small glass,burning his throat and some of the pain. Then he followed Maria to the car, while mother waiting inside the coffin.

“You must sit next to the driver,” the undertaker said.

Mother had paid for her funeral with a life insurance she had purchased before her death.

Homer remembered her putting the money in the bank after she had done her shopping every month.

He wanted to wake her up from her slumber, before she disappeared into the earth, but the moving car brought him back to reality.

He had to bury his mother as a present to the earth, mad and the universe.

On arriving at the cemetery, they followed the coffin down the path, as drops of rain fell on the earth, and the wind ruffled their hair. Father Ricardo waited in a clearing holding a bible in his hands. After hugging Homer, he wiped his tears.

“The world will miss her,” he said.

Homer didn’t say anything, mother’s death taking away his soul and his mind. The priest opened his bible, getting ready to deliver his message of love in a time of pain amidst the rain and the flowers.

“Dear people,” he said. “We have lost an angel of mercy on this earth.”

He spoke of salvation, while Homer found a few coca leaves in his pockets. Brittle and dried, they might help him to forget his ache.

He listened to all the good things his mother had done, and how she had suffered in the hands of life, before shutting her eyes forever. After sprinkling holy water over the coffin, Father Ricardo muttered a few prayers to our lord.

“Ashes to ashes,” he said.

“Amen,” everyone said.

Homer remembered the day he had flown, while the leaves fluttered in the wind. The trees in the cemetery resembled the tree of life in the backyard with its branches searching for the sky.

“The Devil wants to interrupt this service,” Father Ricardo said.

After opening his umbrella, he talked of the work mother had started in this world, helping poor souls.

“She gave me a sum of money every week for poor children begging in the streets,” he said.

Homer heard a few more things his mother had done, when they never had any money. She had helped the unfortunate live better lives in this world full of pain. Tears of frustration left his eyes, already wet with the rain.

“This woman devoted most of her existence to helping other human beings to live better lives,” the priest said.

Wondering if his father had known about this, Homer imagined all the things they might have bought with the money his mother had spent in charities. He chewed some more coca leaves, their bitter taste leaving his mouth dry.

“She will be remembered by the poor and meek..”

A long line of children appeared along the path singing a hymn. One of them threw a single rose on the grave as the others sang the psalms.

“She gave us everything we needed,” a child said.

Homer didn’t feel very well as Maria squeezed his hand. Then he cried on her shoulders for all the times he had wanted a toy or nice clothes while his mother gave everything to charity. Father Ricardo kept on talking of mother’s good work in the kingdom of God.

“She left a life insurance for a widow’s charity,” he said.

A few women dressed in black appeared by his side praising mother. Homer didn’t want to hear anymore terrible things his mother had done and put more coca leaves in his mouth.

Shutting his bible, Father Ricardo talked to the women while stroking the children’s heads. Retreating to the back of the cemetery, where the bushes met the roses by the walls, Hopmer cried for his mother and himself.

Maria followed him, holding her prayer book.

“She was a good woman,” she said.

“We didn’t have any money.”

“God will thank her.”

Homer didn’t know when he might do that. The crowd dispersed after it had started to rain, water dripping down their clothes. They moved across the cemetery, splashing in the puddles and getting mud on their shoes.

They had reached the entrance to the cemetery, as the wind moved the branches of the trees and a few wreathes adorned the graves. One of the widows stood under a ledge, looking at him with sad eyes. Homer liked her pale face surrounded by dark hair, but then Maria pulled his hand.

“Let’s go,” she said.

They went back home through the same streets the funeral cortege had followed three hours ago, where people went about their business unaware of his pain.

The shop looked sad under the blanket of rain, the sun struggling to appear behind the clouds. As they entered the building, Homer saw the empty space where the coffin had been that morning.

“I’ll make some coffee,” Maria said.

Looking at the pictures on the table, Homer thought he had to start anew. His shop would be the best in town, even if she had thought only of her charities.

He had spent all that money on the funeral even if mother had paid for it with her life insurance. He had to put right all of her love for the poor of the world.

“I’ll call the shop, El Baratillo,” he said.

“El Baratillo?”

“Everything will be cheap.”

Homer wrote down in his diary all his plans. After renting the top part of the house, he would live in shop to save money. He had to sort out his life now.

He would have lots of money by the end of the year by charging hundreds of pesos for his house every week. As Maria put the kettle on, he went in the cellar, full of shadows and cobwebs, his footsteps echoing in the lose boards. Maria appeared behind him, with a cloth in her hands.

“I want to sleep here,” he said.

“You must be mad.”

“Mother’s love of charities had to be crazy,” he said.

He led her to the darkest part of the dark cellar, where moss grew on the walls. Disentangling herself from his arms, she rushed out of that place full of grief, as Homer lingered by the walls. Then the darkness parted and he saw Jose’s face amongst the bags of coca.

He wore a long gown, and his hair went down to his shoulders. Smiling, he stretched his arms towards Homer, but then the image disappeared, leaving him confused. Homer had not touched coca leaves that day, and he rarely saw any mirages. Muttering to himself, he made his way across the piles of rubbish to the door.

Then the darkness parted and he saw Jose’s face amongst the bags of coca.

He wore a long gown, and his hair went down to his shoulders. Smiling, he stretched his arms towards Homer, but then the image disappeared, leaving him confused.

Homer had not touched coca leaves that day, and he rarely saw any mirages.
New business

Muttering to himself, he made his way across the piles of rubbish to the door. He had a last look at the cellar, before stepping back in the kitchen where Maria waited.

El Baratillo became an institution: a neck tie that cost ten pesos, he sold for eight pesos and the same with everything else. People came from all over the city to buy his merchandise and his coca was the best in the region.

Mountains in Colombia

The visitor

One day something happened that changed his life. It started in a simple way like all the great things in the world.

An Indian with high cheek bones, a long black skirt and his hair in a pony tail had come in the shop. Standing by the dirty white walls, he waited while Homer sold to the customers.

The counter and cobwebs stood between him and the stranger looking at him with dark eyes. Customers came and went in the shop, cobwebs adorning the corners full of dust.

Miguel had gone to sort out a consignment of coca leaves and Maria had stayed at home, helping her mother to tidy the house.

Blending with the shadows the Indian stood by a few boxes of merchandise that had arrived that morning. Homer thought the man had gone to sleep, as he didn’t move or blink for some time.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

The Indian offered him something wrapped in a plastic bag, but Homer didn’t like accepting gifts from strangers.

The man pushed it towards him. Homer felt nervous of the conservadores sending him an exploding device with the Indian, as time stopped, the seconds stretching into minutes.

“I want you to go,” Homer said.

Looking at him with dark eyes, the Indian remained by the counter, his hands fiddling with the bag.

He might have hidden a dead animal inside there to scare him for some reason or to steal the merchandise. Homer had to call the policemen patrolling the market. Keeping his cool, he tried to throw him out of the shop.

“I’ll call the police,” he said.

His safe with the money and a gun he had bought some time ago seemed far away, the man remaining still amongst the dust and the cobwebs.

As he opened a bag, a small head surrounded by black hair appeared out of its entrails. It looked like a midget’s head with its eyes shut and sewn mouth. Memories of the fair with all the malformed people shut in cages came back to Homer’s mind.

“Is it real?” he asked.

As the Indian gestured at the bags of coca resting by the wall, Homer understood why he had brought the head. The fame of his coca leaves had spread to the inhabitants of the jungle, eager to find them.

On opening one of the boxes delivered that morning, he put a handful of coca by the man’s face, his lips showing uneven teeth.

“I’ll give you coca if you bring me more heads,” Homer said.

The Indian chewed some leaves, his mouth acquiring a dark tinge, while Homer had discovered something never imagined.

Balboa must have felt like that as he set eyes on the Pacific Ocean or Columbus when he shouted “Land” for the first time. In a moment of generosity, he wanted to offer the man his life and everything else in the world.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked.

Busy smelling the coca leaves, the Indian didn’t pay attention to him. They had to be his favourite thing, even if he lived in a jungle full of wild plants. As Homer boiled some water, he marvelled at the similarity between the man and the small head.

Children should play with shrunken men instead of artificial toys, he thought.

“No heads,” Homer said pointing at the bags. “No more coca.”

The Indian smiled, and Homer wondered whether the man had understood anything.

Rummaging in a wardrobe, he tried to find a map of the world his father had kept in there for some time, while papers fell at his feet, and then he saw an atlas.

On opening it on the floor, the map of the country appeared full of greasy spots, the capital and big cities of the cordillera next to the jungle. Homer pointed to a dot.

“This is Florence,” he said. “Where do you live?”
Avoiding the papers strewn on the floor, the Indian stood next to him, as Homer read the names of a few features in the area. The Indian looked at the map, as Homer talked of piranhas and giant snakes eating men alive.

“This is the Guaviare River,” he said.

“River,” the Indian said.

Then the man pointed at a place lost in infinity in the middle of the jungle.

“Is that your home?” Homer asked.

The Indian tried to see something within the complexities of the map. He had to live at the end of the world, far from civilisation, but as Homer pretended to ride on a horse, the man stopped his scrutiny of the paper.

“Do you go there by horse?” Homer asked.

He galloped around the room, repeating the word horse all the time.

Laughing aloud, the Indian pushed his plaits back. Homer had to be a funny man trying to communicate with him.

"I want to know where you live," Homer said.

The man ran the leaves through his fingers, indifferent to the question. Then Homer showed a few pictures he had found by the map, where a puma looked at them from behind some trees, and naked women washed their clothes by a river.

“I still don’t know where you come from,” Homer said.

Chewing coca, the Indian didn’t understand what Homer meant. He had come here for a purpose, and everything else didn’t matter. Pointing at the dot the man had shown him before, Homer looked at him.

“I’ll give you more leaves if you take me there,” he said.

Lost in the pleasure of the leaves, the man smiled, but then he looked at the darkness outside the window. After shutting his box, he got ready to go back home, wherever that was.

“Wait a minute,” Homer said. “When are you coming back?”

Muttering something the Indian moved along the corridor, stopping by the door.

“Remember to bring more heads,” Homer said.

He watched the little man disappearing around the corner, taking the mysteries of the jungle with him. Homer admired the head in the privacy of his room, feeling the rough skin of the face and the black hair around it, as he imagined a place in the jungle full of heads, each one of them worth a few hundred dollars.

He had to do something about it. The president of the republic might not be interested but Uncle Hugh could offer it to rich people in the States.

After writing a short letter to his uncle, Homer found a padded envelope in his desk, to protect the head in its long journey to New York. He had to get the correct number of stamps, when he posted the parcel next day.

Homer went to sleep on the boxes of merchandise that evening, covering himself with rugs and surrounded by his coca. He awoke as the rays of the sun came through the window.

The Indian’s head rested on the table, some of its hair hanging down the sides. On examining it once more, he saw wrinkles around the eyes and little holes in the cheeks. A simple head reduced to its smallest expression might make him the richest man on earth. As Maria appeared at the door, Homer put the head in the bag.

“You should buy a bed,” she said.

Lots of bags lay under the table, dust adorned the sides of the room, while spiders looked at them from a myriad cobwebs. Homer couldn’t wait for the Indian to come back with more heads to send to Uncle Hugh in the USA. Then Maria screamed.

“Something is on the floor,” she said.

The head had fallen amidst the papers and other things, but Homer had left it inside the envelope a few moments before. It had to be magic. Taking the broom left by the door, she got ready to attack the thing looking at her.

“It’s a head,” Homer said. “An Indian gave it to me.”

“A head?”

Keeping a few steps away in case something odd happened, Maria studied the face.

“It doesn’t bite,” Homer said.

“It’s horrible,” she said.

“I know.”

“Why do you keep it then?”

“I like it,” he said.

She wiped the surfaces, ignoring the ugly head on the table.

“Would you come with me to the jungle?” he asked.

She dropped the saucepan she had been washing, the noise spreading through the kitchen. A man seldom asked a girl to the jungle unless he wanted to marry her.

“Is it to find your Indians?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I will have to ask father.”

Maria couldn’t do anything on her own. She had to ask her parent's permission for everything.
Homer thought of ants devouring everything in their way, while they made love amidst the trees.

Fantastic! On finishing with his tea, he found stamps inside the desk. The head had to travel through the sea to get to a land full of opportunities.

“The Indian lives by the Guaviare River,” he said.

“Did he tell you that?”

After opening the map on the table, he showed her the part of the jungle where the heads might be and a tiny dot lay amidst the green savannah. The Indian had to trek a long way in search of coca leaves.

As Homer looked into her dark eyes, he wished she came with him. Holding her hand, he muttered sweet words in her ears, hoping for the impossible.

“The jungle is dangerous,” she said.

“I’ll protect you with my gun.”

Running his fingers along an invisible path, he tried to imagine the shortest way to the Indian village, and the heart of the jungle.

”He wants coca leaves,” he said.

“Who?”

“The Indian.”

Homer had to tell Uncle Hugh of his plans for getting more heads from the jungle, as the shadows watched him...

Mountains in Colombia

Jaramillo

Sitting in the backyard, Homer imagined all the money he might make with the heads, while the tree of life swayed in the breeze, its branches brushing against the windows.

He recalled Uncle Hugh’s visit all those years ago, when he had an invisible friend and danced around the garden.

The death of his parents seemed far away, the noises of the world echoing in the afternoon ether, while the birds sang the joys of life.

Resting against the tree, he shut his eyes to the world as the breeze caressed his face and ruffled his hair.

He must have dozed for a few moments, because the sun had gone behind the clouds when he opened his eyes. Listening to the sounds of the world, Homer didn’t notice a shadow moving through the garden.

At first the red bricks looked grubby but then a little boy with dirty clothes and picking his nose stood against the wall. Homer hoped the child might go away, but after moving along the path the apparition stopped by the tree.

“I must be dreaming,” he muttered to himself.

Homer wondered whether the boy existed outside his imagination.

Ignored by his parents he had played alone in the garden with invisible companions during his childhood, killing all the ants in his way but the child looked real. They looked at each other under the rays of the sun.

“Hi,” Homer said.

That single phrase broke some of the ice, as he ignored the flies flying by his face, and Jose picked his nose.

“Where is your mother?” he asked.

Homer shrugged. “She died.

“Died?”

“Yes.”

Looking at the kitchen window, Homer noticed the bottles he had left there a few days before, and the cloth Maria used to wipe the surfaces. His mother had gone to the kingdom of the sky some time ago, but a mirage like Jose shouldn’t understand that.

Homer had grown into a tall man, but Jose had remained the same. Then he felt the boy’s dark eyes searching his mind.

”I had to leave early yesterday,” he said.

“That was a long time ago.”

“Time doesn’t exist.”

Jose caressed the tree full of brown patches and moss. As Homer barked, Jose imitated him, their voices rising amidst the flowering plants and the mud covering everything.

Reality had mixed with his dreams, the nature of time and life itself going through his mind.

“Do you still want to be invisible?” Jose asked.

“I don’t know.”

Homer didn’t need the invisibility cloak to survive in life, but Jose had not aged at all since the last time he had appeared.

His eyes had that light brown colour while his cheeks kept the same spots of dirt. He must have learned how to conquer time and space.

“Where is your uncle?” the child asked.

“He’s a journalist in New York.”

“Good for him.”

Memories of that day came back to Homer’s mind, as he looked at a toy car rotting amidst the wild flowers, the tricycle Uncle Hugh had given him surviving amidst the mud.

“Can you guess the future?” Homer asked.

“It’s all around you.”

“You keep on repeating sentences.”

“Everything will end one day,” Jose said.

“Everything?”

”I can’t tell you anymore.”

The sounds of the garden intruded in the silence. At first Jose talked of life, but now he mentioned the end of the world, wherever it would be.

Ignoring his invisible friend, Homer touched his nose, and Jose did the same thing.

“Are you a part of me?” Homer asked.

“I don’t understand.”

“You seem to guess my thoughts.”

Jose played with the lower branches of the tree, dislodging a few dried leaves and some of the seeds.

They would bring more life to the garden. As Homer studied his friend, he remembered the invisibility cloak protecting him against the world.

“Shut your eyes,” Jose said.

Homer didn’t know what surprise the child had for him now, but then he heard voices intruding in his reality. On opening his eyes, Maria appeared by his side, accompanied by a tall man.

“He wanted to see you,” she said.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “I’m Jaramillo.”

Wearing smart clothes, he kept away from the wall and the branches of the tree.

”I hope I haven’t disturbed you,” he said.

Brushing away a few cobwebs sticking to his shirt, Jaramillo avoided the dirty patches in the garden, making sure his clothes were all right.

“I’m a friend of your Uncle Hugh,” he said.

“He’s in New York.”

“I met him there.”

After rummaging in his bag, he showed Homer pictures of the shrunken head along with articles of the Amazonian jungle.

“A shop wants some more heads,” he said.

“In New York?”

“Yes.”

Images of all the money he might make went trough Homer’s mind, as he took the journalist back to the kitchen, where he crashed with a bin full of rubbish, boxes of merchandise falling on the floor. Standing amidst all the mess, Jaramillo wiped his clothes.

“I’m sorry,” Homer said.

“Don’t worry.”

On sitting in one of the dusty chairs, he put a few things on the floor, dust rising around him. Homer muttered apologies.

“I never have time to clean anything,” he said.

“When will you go to the jungle?” Jaramillo asked.

“I have to wait for the Indian to come back.”

“The Indian?”

While opening the map amidst all the clutter on the table, Homer pushed more things onto the floor.

Then he studied the map full of greasy spots, his father had kept next to the bottles of oil in the cupboard. Homer looked for the mark the Indian had made amongst the dirt.

“I think he lives by the Guaviare River,” he said.

“Your heads must be there,” Jaramillo said.

“I hope so.”

Homer sipped his coffee, while looking at the spot called Mitu, the capital of the Guaviare. He might have to ride amidst the trees and wild animals to go there, but he didn’t care.

“He wants coca leaves,” he said.

“Can’t they grow them in the jungle?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s incredible.”

Jaramillo wrote the conversation in his notebook, leaving a few greasy spots in the paper. He must have touched something dirty when sitting at the table. Wiping his hands in his handkerchief, he examined them carefully before writing more things about the jungle.

“Do you want a towel?” Homer asked.

“The papers will pay you money,” the journalist said.

“I’ll take civilization to remote parts of the jungle.”

“Well done.”

After writing Homer’s statements for future reference, the journalist spent a few moments wiping his hands in his handkerchief, reeking of cologne.

“You must come to my office next time,” Jaramillo said.

“I will do that.”

Having put his pen and paper in his bag, he got ready to go back to his clean office amidst civilisation.

“Call me if the Indian comes again,” he said.

“Fine,” Homer said.

Making his way through all the boxes, papers and other things, he reached the shop, where Miguel served a customer.

“I’ll contact you again,” the journalist said, before moving down the street full of shoppers.

Cali, desde la montana

The trip

Wearing a gown and with his long hair in a pony tail, the Indian stood next to the tins of soup and bags of rice in the corner, while waiting for Homer to serve his customers.

He resembled one of those statues of San Agustin in the Huila province, as a woman, who bumped into him, stammered excuses before moving away.

“He’s from the jungle,” Homer said.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Homer.”

“I have a few things you would like,” he said.
Homer put boxes on the floor, before holding a nice dress with golden buttons around the waist. It would look beautiful on her slender body with big breasts.

“It came from Paris yesterday,” he said. “I have my contacts there.”

Anything good in Paris had to look well in Homer’s shop. Holding it against her body, she looked at her reflection in the mirror by the counter, the fabric tagging her body.

“You can get it in blue and yellow,” Homer said.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

Fiddling inside a drawer, he found some more clothes in different colours and sizes, their buttons shining under the light of the lamp.

“This red blouse suits you,” he said.

She turned it around, inspecting the front and back, her eyebrows rising in admiration. After twirling in front of the mirror a few times, she seemed satisfied with the garment, but frowned on looking at the price.

“I’ll give you eighty pesos for this one,” she said.

He shrugged. “I’d be losing money.”

“Eighty pesos,” she said.

“One hundred is my last offer.”

“You will lose a customer, Mr. Homer.”

“I don’t mind.”

Everything seemed to stop, as she moved along the shop. He couldn’t let her go without buying anything. He had to sell to his customers every day, without wasting a minute of his time.

“I’ll leave it in ninety pesos,” Homer said.

“Eighty pesos.”

He shrugged. “Ninety.”

He saw her hands running through the fabric, long nails caressing the material.

A satisfied customer will bring more business, Homer thought.

As she looked in her handbag, coins fell on the counter, disturbing the peace with their noise. Then she handed him crisp notes she had withdrawn from the bank that morning, with the water mark and the signature of the vice-president of the country.

“You’ll look like a princess,” he said.

“Thank you, Mr. Homer.”

“And it’s a good price.”

“I hope so.”

She looked at the other dresses in the counter, while waiting for Homer to write a receipt. He hoped she would buy something else to go with the blouse.

“Do you want to see some more things now?” he asked.

“I’ll come some other time.”

“I’ll have nice clothes next week,” he said.

“Fine, Mr. Homer.”

Waves of cheap perfume wafted in the air, as she moved towards the door, her hips waving with each step she took. Homer saw her moving along the street, before disappearing by the coffee shop in the corner. Next time he might even invite her to have a cup of tea or a bit of coca.

Going back to the counter, he saw the Indian in the shadows.
“Here is your coca,” Homer said.

“Ummm,” the Indian said.

“I want my payment.”

“No.”

“I’ll take it away.”

The man didn’t react or he had not understood one word. On opening his draw, Homer found his gun, useful for settling any kind of dispute, but then he remembered the promise the man had made.

“Are we going to the jungle?” Homer asked.

The Indian nodded, as Miguel appeared at the door.

“I don’t like him, Mr. Homer.”

“He’s harmless,” Homer said.

Taking a few tins of food from the cellar, he put them in his bag amidst his clothes, the Indian’s dark eyes following all his actions.

“I’m going away,” Homer said.

“Where?” Miguel asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You have to have some idea, Mr. Homer.”

“I don’t.”

“When are you coming back then?”

“In a few days.”

Straightening the bags of coca by the counter, Homer checked them for any holes or other imperfections. He didn’t want to come back to a nightmare of debts and angry customers.

Leaving his diary on the counter, Homer made sure the cash machine worked properly, before counting the blouses in the shelf and the skirts.

“You must write a receipt every time someone buys something.”

“I know, Mr. Homer.”

Having had a last look at his merchandise, Homer put a few more things in his bag. He had bought a mosquito lotion a few days before, and had a good watch to tell the time in the jungle.

He planned to offer the Indian all the coca he could carry if he could have many heads.

“I thought the journalist might come,” Miguel said.

“I want to go on my own.”

“He might kill you,” Mr. Homer.”

“He won’t.”

“I don’t know, Mr. Homer.”

With the gun in his pocket, Homer thought the Indian might have a rough time if he tried anything funny during their journey.

Jaramillo wouldn’t stand the mud and the dirt, they would encounter in the undergrowth, and he would need his notebooks for writing about their adventure.

Then he saw a shadow standing by the tree, his legs outlined against the grass and the plants. Thinking an intruder had gone in the backyard, Homer opened the door, its handle falling on the floor.

He had to repair it when he had some time. He found the backyard empty, a squirrel looking at him from the wall, as the leaves made shadows on the floor. It had to be his imagination, triggered by the Indian’s arrival and the journey.

He remembered Uncle Hugh visiting them a long time ago, while touching the bark of the tree, a tear running down his cheeks. Lost in his memories, Homer forgot the Indian waiting in the shop amidst the boxes of merchandise.

He had to go to find his heads and make lots of money for his future, and Miguel would keep his customers satisfied while he was away. Touching the tree, Homer promised to do whatever he could to triumph in his new enterprise.

He saw Jose standing by his side. Shutting his eyes, Homer counted up to ten, hoping the child might go away.

Jose had existed in his reality for a long time, even if no one else could see him. On stretching his arm towards the figure, Homer touched the branches of the tree but nothing else. Memories of the past flooded his mind, when a fantasy land had surrounded the shop, mixing with his night terrors.

He had to go to the jungle to find his fortune amidst the trees.

“Will you come with me to the jungle?” Homer asked.

“No,” Jose said.

“Why?”

Wiping his nose with his shirt, the child became transparent until he blended with nature. By using his invisibility cloak, he had gone back to his world.

“Don’t leave me alone,” Homer said.

Looking through the window, he saw Miguel cleaning the kitchen, as the Indian waited in the shadows.

He wouldn’t kill the man selling the best coca in the market and the country. Touching the tree of life, Homer prayed to the God of nature.

“Two and two are seven,” he said.

Enter supporting content here

p6243341.jpg

A piece of painted wood
That’s what you are

Loved by millions
On this earth

Your hands and legs
Are painted pink

While your head has
A crown of needles

Made in Japan
With nails imported from China

Another plank of wood
Covers your waist

As tears of holy water
Run down your cheeks


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