by Jay Merill
Señor José Fuentes sits with a folded smile today. You cannot read his eyes. They are not exactly closed not exactly open. He is squinting and all you can see are the many tiny creases that lead inwards to where the eyes are hiding. It is Seven O Clock in the morning. Señor Fuentes waits for the daily newspaper to be brought; he is impatient for his morning tea. There is a gleam inside him as he anticipates the smell of the print, the rustle of the paper, the comfort of the gossip he will find in it, the sharp taste of the tea he will wash it down with. As I shift the bucket to the other side of the bed I sense his hopes.
I wash the floor around all the beds in the ward. Señor Fuentes is in the bed next to the door. When I take the bucket out and pour away the washing water into the drain I think of how he lies in his bed waiting for the arrival of small things. These are what hold his life together now. I imagine him attached to the world by a thin strip of sticky paper. If it comes away he is left in pieces. What will happen if the things he waits for do not come? Will he crumble? When I return to the ward with the antiseptic spray and a soft cloth I see that there has been a development. The face of Señor Fuentes is concealed behind his newspaper. I hear that soft cluck clucking sound he makes with his lips when he is half contented. When the tea appears there will come from his throat a little rasping croak of a noise. This is his sound of full happiness.
Now I begin washing the doors of the six bedside cabinets starting with the one to the left of the door and returning last to Señor Fuentes whose bed is on the right. When I have finished them all I pass out of the ward. Still his tea has not come. He is not clucking any more; he is as quiet as possible, listening for the sound of the trolley in the corridor, his longing now acute. I see the silver gleam of the tea urn coming towards me like an old ship. The trolley groans with its weight. The nurse guides the wheels round the doorpost and into the ward, stops by the bed of Señor Fuentes. I picture the joy he will feel at this moment and I wait at the door for the sound of his delight. It comes, the strange croaking, more froglike than human if you stop and listen. I laugh when I hear it and think about the predictability of things, how necessary this is for him, and maybe for all of us.
Soon I move on to the next ward with the antiseptic cleaner and my cloth. There more patients lie in their beds, some propped on pillows, some concealed in blankets. I suppose they are all waiting; that everyone in the hospital is waiting. Some have passed beyond the small saviours of Señor Fuentes. They are the ones who are only waiting to die.
For two weeks I have worked as a cleaner here at the hospital in Cusco. There are many patients but Señor Fuentes is the one that I notice. Even as I clean the floor on the far side of his ward and with my back to where he lies, I can’t help being aware that he is there. When I walk out again through the door I pass close to his bed and glance across quickly. I sense his thoughts. When his bed has been made, he has had his shower, eaten lunch, they have switched on the tv for him to watch and there are no concerns to trouble him, his forehead is smooth with acceptance. Yet there is not a look of pleasure. I understand that as all these things have taken place there is now nothing more to look forward to. He does not cluck his lips or make the croaking sound low in his throat he simply closes his eyes and sleeps. He will sleep on for most of the afternoon. His snores are a quiet soft purring.
In the evening I work in the paediatric wing and I will not see him again till the morning. I do not know how he passes the late hours of the day. At eight pm after we have cleaned out the fridges in the kitchen we can leave. I am staying with two girls of about my age, which is better than sleeping in the courtyard at the back of the hospital as some of the cleaners do. It is said that it isn’t safe as there are many gangs in the neighbourhood and if they pass by in the night some will rob you as you sleep. Mayssa and Belén are the names of the girls and they live not too far from here. We walk there together. When I started working here Mayssa, who is fifteen, and a little older than me, asked me if I’d like to stop with them as they often have someone to stay as a lodger and their mother would not charge me very much. Mayssa said since their father had left them two years ago, their mother was always in need of a little extra money to help out. I share a small room with them and also a younger sister but it is not so bad as I have my own mattress next to the window and also it is clean. The three sisters sleep together in the double bed.
When we arrive at their place in the evenings we have some supper, usually Jaucha or tacu tacu or sometimes a dish of hot bean stew. As the mother bustles about, preparing places at the table for us to sit down I find that I look forward to this meal very much and then I again think of Señor Fuentes and feel a sympathy for the pattern of his daily need.
Sometimes at the hospital I have to go and clean out the rooms where they store the laundry. Today I must take the piles of bed linen and night clothes out of the cupboards and put fresh paper on the shelves. It takes some time and I am late arriving at the wards. Señor Fuentes has already received his newspaper and his tea. The paper is rolled up and lying on one side of the bed, the tea mug is empty. When I pass near him with the cleaning fluids and the buckets I am almost sure that he winks at me. The creased pouches beneath his eyes quiver. I stop walking and hover near the foot of his bed. Mother has always said it is rude to stare at anyone so I try to look at him discreetly from the side of my eye. No, there is nothing. I believe he is sleeping. I go over and wipe the paint work on the window sills and then I must clean the windows themselves. They are always coated with a brownish dust even though they are washed every day. At last I carry out the buckets and cleaning rags. As I pass Señor Fuentes I see he has the rolled up paper in his hand now as though about to swat a fly. There are no flies to be seen and I can’t help smiling. Then, as I watch him I see him lift up his hand as if bearing the burden of a great weight. I notice how huge his hand is, and how little energy there seems to be in it. After a minute or two I realise he is trying to attract my attention. Surely he can’t be meaning me. I look around. Perhaps he wants to speak to one of the nurses. Now he is waving the paper in a slow arc to left and right above his head like a man might do if he were drowning. So I go across to him.
‘Can I be of assistance Señor?’ I ask him in my most careful Spanish.
‘What name do you have?’ Señor Fuentes asks me back.
‘I am called Chaska, Señor,’ I tell him.
‘Please would you speak a bit louder,’ he says. ‘My hearing is not so good.’
This is the first time a patient has spoken to me and it takes me a little while to feel at ease.
‘I am José Fuentes,’ he then tells me. He lowers the paper now and releases it from his hand. Then he nods to me and I understand he was just introducing himself. I nod back and walk on out through the door.
This is the start of a recognition between myself and Señor Fuentes. Each day when I come into the ward he nods to me and I am watching out for this. We smile in a polite small way like acquaintances at a social function. And I have noticed that we acknowledge no one else like this. Also it is unusual as in general we cleaners are apart and do not mix. The patients in particular, are aloof from us. Now my head is ready to nod as I come through the door into the ward in the mornings and I am never disappointed for Señor Fuentes is always ready too and earnestly looking out for me. I have come to see that my salutation is a thing of importance to Señor Fuentes; an extra thing he waits each day to receive. I am honoured and also made nervous by this. My contract at the hospital is for a three- month period only. Then I must go home to Cajamarca. I am working here for this time so I can save enough to purchase my ticket. My mother will need me then. In January Mother is expecting twins. She has asked for me to come and it is the plan that I will go to her. As I cannot remain here after that time I feel a little sorry. Señor Fuentes has no idea my stay will be so short and yet I do not wish to discourage his friendliness. I see his eyes anticipating me as I enter the ward in the mornings. Before the paper, before the tea arrives, his waits to greet me with a wave of his hand.
There is a morning that he calls me over. It surprises me to hear my own name on his lips although I gave it him myself. As I go to him I have the strangest feeling. As if he is not really there where I can see him and I am not here where I walk across the floor. I have this sense of being in another era, or rather in a dimension where all of this we are going through is occurring after all in a different time and place and is not now happening.
‘Good morning Chaska my dear,’ Señor Fuentes says to me. I wonder if you would do a little something for me today. Just an errand.’
‘Yes,’ I agree.
He then reaches out for a small packet lying next to him on the bed. His hand shakes very much today I see. He then passes this packet to me. It is only a tissue paper wrapping and I open it easily. Inside is a small gold crucifix and I see that the link with the chain has broken.
‘So Chaska would you take this crucifix for me to the menders and ask them to fix the chain where it has come apart. There is a good place very near the hospital. Let me show you.’ He has a map and points out a street on it, which I see is only one block away.
‘I have a break at mid day and I will take it then,’ I tell him.
‘You are a kind girl Chaska,’ Señor Fuentes says.
At the menders they tell me that they can let me have it back tomorrow. I ask if it will be ready by eight o clock tonight because tomorrow I do not think I can come for it. They agree to this. The reason is that tomorrow is the day my brother Uchu is to meet me in Cusco and we are spending the whole day together and are going to all the best places in the city, like tourists. We will have lunch out somewhere not near the hospital. I let Señor Fuentes know about this when I get back and he does not mind.
‘The next day then,’ he says. And he is very interested to hear about my brother, what he looks like, what kind of a guy he is, how long a time it is since we saw one another.
I tell Señor Fuentes of my excitement at seeing Uchu and that I do not know how I will go to sleep tonight. He smiles in a sad way and I sense that he feels himself old, suddenly aware that he has lost much enthusiasm for the things of life.
I’m up early on the morning I am to meet my brother. I did not sleep much during the night, as I had expected. But even so, I could not force myself to stay in bed once I saw the flush of dawn at the window. I have already been in Cusco for a few weeks but Uchu was not able to come sooner than this. The first day I arrived I walked round many small hotels and guest houses asking for work and was told that they were looking for cleaners at the local hospital. I went there and they were happy to take me on. So here I am. Cusco is a large city. Since Lima I have not been in such built up busy places. I feel all tremorous about meeting Uchu as I have not seen him for quite a while. Will he be very different? I know one thing about him, the main thing, I should say. Uchu is a serious minded guy and I am sure this cannot have changed. My instinct tells me that I will know him as soon as I see him. He may look a little altered from before. He will be older and with much more experience, which also changes one’s appearance I think. But I am confident that even so I will recognise him the minute he appears in this room. The room is the café adjoining the railway station. It is here that I sit and wait for him. I am far too early. It is in my character to be always at a meeting place some time before the meeting is to take place.
When Uchu arrives in the doorway it is as if we were never apart. He is taller and older but I would know him anywhere. I am happy about this. As I rush towards him across the floor I see him hesitate. Perhaps his hesitation is a good thing. It is what restrains me. After a second or two he does look pleased to see me. I should not feel anything negative about his moment’s circumspection. It is in Uchu’s nature to be cautious, I already knew that and must not be at all dismayed therefore. If he had run to greet me, as I to him, that would have been the remarkable thing, wouldn’t it. I know I am far more immediate in my senses than my brother and I should not feel hurt. He is just himself. After I have given myself a moment’s talking to I feel quite comfortable again and I go across to him, almost as openly as I began. I take his hand in both of mine and smile into his eyes.
‘Do you find me changed?’ he at once wants to know.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘You are exactly the same careful person, only more handsome.’
‘And you dearest Chaska are more beautiful,’ Uchu says.
We laugh together. My forgetful laugh and Uchu’s self-reflecting one.
‘What would you like to do?’ he asks me.
I had told him by letter that I wished to see certain important places in Cusco so he would be prepared. I’ve already planned where I would like us to see. ‘Koricancha,’ I say. So that is where we go.
Earlier in the year I went to Machu Picchu and since then I’ve developed a taste for visiting archaeological sites. I am enchanted with Koricancho, which means Temple of the Sun. We look at the round and perfect wall which still remains. It is said there was a courtyard of gold and the walls were built of golden plaques. The thought of such opulence amazes me. I see that Uchu is looking thoughtful.
‘What is it?’ I ask him.
He does not reply at first then says, ‘And where, little girl, are the Inca now?’
I say nothing. He is entitled to his ways of seeing but I myself do not wish to lose my sense of enchantment.
Uchu continues in this thoughtful mood and doesn’t say very much then he suddenly comes out with, ‘Even a room entirely filled with gold will not save you.’
And I know he is speaking of Atahualpa the last Inca king who it is said had such a room to offer to Pizarro when the conquistadores came.
We then walk round the church of Santo Domingo mostly in silence. This is Our day together and I find him a little on the miserable side. I admit this privately to myself.
Coming later to the main square of Cusco, Uchu cheers up a little. We have some snacks. Rocoto relleno, plus one or two other favourites. I have not tasted empanadas more delicious. It seems a long time since I have eaten any of these. Uchu tells me that he is not himself returning to Cajamarca, not yet at any rate, and I feel surprise as I thought he was planning to go home at last. I ask him if he doesn’t miss being home. He does not speak for quite a few moments and I am just thinking he intends to say nothing when he suddenly takes me by the hand and looks at my face intently.
‘Little sister,’ he says, and remembering how he used to call me that in the old days we both smile.
‘Everything changes,’ he says. ‘We can therefore never go back anywhere.’
I say I do not think things change so much as he is telling me but Uchu says that I am sentimental and it is wishful thinking in order to protect my dream.
We walk round the centre of Cusco. There is the sound of much traffic, the calls of street vendors, the chatter of those passing by. ‘Let’s go to drink coffee,’ I say and I feel I’d like to talk some more in a place which is quieter.
‘In a minute,’ Uchu says.
‘It’s just that I want to talk,’ I admit to him.
‘Walking thoughts are not the same thing as sitting thoughts,’ he tells me quickly. ‘I can speak more truthfully while we’re on the move.’
So we walk on and on, moving to a less busy street and finally ending up on the Plaza San Francisco where we stroll along together by the fountains. The sound of the water pleases me.
‘Anyway,’ I say to Uchu, ‘Water is very helpful for speaking and I am sure the best thoughts of all will come to us while we are here.’
He agrees then after a pause says how he feels he has to keep moving. I ask him if he thinks this constant movement is such a good thing. Uchu says he supposes it would be better to have balance but tells me he just can’t seem to stop.
‘Why is that?’ I ask him. My voice must be very serious for he laughs and calls me ‘Little Sister’ again.
‘I think it is because I am afraid,’ he confides suddenly, his voice gone quiet, and I squeeze his hand. For a moment I think he is going to cry but he does not, he just clears his throat and speaks a little bit louder. ‘It is true. I am afraid,’ he repeats, his voice now more clear.
I go through this in my mind, then I say to Uchu, ‘Yes, I understand what you are saying and the thing that makes you frightened.’
He looks at me with surprise I see, as though he does not expect to hear anyone speak in sympathy, least of all his little sister.
‘Change is the thing that you dread.’
‘Yes, you’re right,’ he agrees then goes on to tell me that he is afraid of getting too attached to anything because it will only let you down. ‘And the more you pursue it the less you will find what you are looking for. Nothing is lasting. And you’ll find you have suffered in vain because what you seek is nowhere to be found.’
I notice that now his voice has some excitement in it and I realise that though he has this fear he likes to talk of it and is pleased to share these thoughts with someone.
‘That is why I want to keep travelling,’ Uchu says. ‘To keep on travelling without looking back is the happiest way to be. Believe me, that is the way of least regret.’
I remind him he spoke earlier of having balance and I say I do not think someone would achieve balance if they followed his advice. I become quite angry for a second saying this is the real world where people have real feelings. I can’t finish and end up by crying.
Uchu thinks for a minute and then he tells me he will reflect on this. After a short silence he says he is already sure what I say is right and he well knows that he is in danger of being one sided and rigid in his views.
I know he has always been intense and has struggled to have greater flexibility and lightness but still, no-one can achieve perfection, not even him.
So I tell him that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself and to keep on with the travelling if that helps him.
He looks slightly glad to hear what I say and slightly ashamed at the same time. He squeezes my hand and tells me I am an amazing girl and I cry a little more then and Uchu wipes away my tears with the corner of his tee shirt sleeve.
That evening he comes with me to Mayssa and Belén’s house and their mother makes us a special dish of spicy pork. We all talk pleasantly afterwards and all are interested to learn of Uchu’s plan to travel north to Huancabamba to visit a curandero.
When it is very late Uchu kisses me goodbye and says he enjoyed our talk more than he can say and it has given him fresh things to consider. I make myself say that I hope he will come to Cajamarca to visit; that he will do this for me if not for himself. I stand at the door with him and then he goes away into the night.
Next morning we three girls walk to the hospital at 7am to begin our morning work. I feel the little gold crucifix in the pocket of my overall and am happy to think of how pleased Señor Fuentes will be when I give it to him. I practically run into the ward with the crucifix in my hand and then I stop. His bed is empty, stripped even of the blankets. Also his name plate is absent. The head nurse sees me and comes over and says that Señor Fuentes died early this morning and that he told her he wanted me to have the crucifix. She asks me if I understand what he meant? I explain what had happened and show her the crucifix which is hanging down from my hand by its chain. My hand is trembling, my whole body is shaking. The ward around me is turning dark. And then I am sitting in a chair in the corridor, the nurse telling me I had fainted. She says she is sorry. She says it is not really a good idea to get too emotionally involved with patients but she understands. I am still very young. She admires the crucifix, which is beautiful, delicate. Then puts it on for me and strokes my arm.