Exile’s Requiem

Written by Kenneth Araya, translated from the Spanish by J.C.Kelly

The monologue of an exile watching the rain fall in Santiago de Chile.

Panorama of Santiago de Chile

I used to come here to the plaza every day. Every day at around ten o’clock I’d come to sit with my book, reading; or, to be more accurate, I would sit and give the appearance of someone who was reading. Book in hand, peering through my brass monocle, I probably looked to passersby like somebody doing just that; in reality though, I wasn’t reading at all. I no longer needed to, for long ago I had learnt the words printed on the yellowed pages of the book she had given me the night before I left. Instead, I waited: still after all those years, more than twenty miserable years spent in exile and four more since my return, I waited; still part of me hoped that one day I’d see her again, that one morning I’d look up from my book and there she’d be, standing over me with the same soft, beautiful smile as always.

The night I had left, we had met here in the plaza, as had been our custom back then. We had watched the young couples around us as they lay on the grass, laughing and frolicking in the warm evening air. Yet neither of us had felt like talking, and we had passed the time in silence. Eventually, when we had stood up to go, she had produced the book from her bag, wrapped in brown paper and tied with white string; and as we had parted, we had promised each other that one day, one day when it was all over and I had came back to settle, that we would meet each other once again, here in the plaza. I can still remember watching her as she turned the corner, disappearing out of my sight for the last time.

The next morning, my family and I slipped unnoticed from the city and passed over the cordillera into Argentina, leaving behind us our home, our friends, our possessions, our livelihoods—in short, our whole lives.

More than twenty years passed before I could return, and I came back to a city that was very different to the one I had left behind. Revisiting the street in which I had grown up, it pained me to see how much the neighbourhood had changed in my absence. What had once been the barrio alto of the city, a fashionable and affluent neighbourhood, had deteriorated into a run-down, decaying shadow of its former self. The buildings, once majestic examples of the colonial style, had been reduced to a series of crumbling wrecks, their façades worn, their walls daubed with political slogans and graffiti. Throughout the streets there had lingered an air of neglect, and while the house in which I had grown up had remained standing, how different it had looked.

At first I tried looking for traces of her, there amongst the wreckage of my former life, but while the buildings and streets remained, the people who had lived there had moved on, many of them vanishing without trace. It was, I was told, during the eighties and nineties when those who hadn’t already fled, like myself, or even worse, ‘disappeared’, had moved out to live in newer, more fashionable neighbourhoods being developed on the north-east of the city. I was subsequently to learn from an old friend that she had been one of the unlucky ones, one of the ‘disappeared’. He told me how one morning she had left for work as normal (at the time she had been working as a primary school teacher) and had failed to return home that night. She was never seen again: gone, vanished, disappeared; just like that. Only when I learnt this did I understand the reason why her letters had stopped, suddenly, with no explanation. But I never lost hope: perhaps, I thought, she had escaped somehow; perhaps she had survived.

And so it was that I began once again to frequent the plaza where we had spent the nights of our youth. It’s hard to explain the sense of emptiness I felt back then: I had no job, few friends and no place to go during the day. What else could I do but wait? And that’s precisely what I did. Yet slowly, the little hope I had preserved throughout the years began to fade, guttering like a flame starved of oxygen; gradually I came to wait less and remember more. Then one day, under a cloud-sodden sky, sat alone in the plaza one morning, waiting for the first of the autumn rain, I gave up. That hope which I had carried within me all those years, which had so often given me strength and carried me through the darkest days of my exile, left me. And as the first drops of rain fell from the sky, a small tear slipped from my eye, trickling down the hewed skin of my cheek and bursting like a grape on the faded, yellow paper. It was then that I knew I had stopped waiting; all that remained now were memories.

I still like to come here from time to time; I still like to sit with the book she gave me and imagine that one day I’ll be able to look up and see her there, standing over me with the same smile, the one I’ve cherished all these years. Mostly though, I sit alone; alone with only my thoughts for company; alone, lost in the milky-grey solitude of my memories.

 

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