Written by José Miguel Varas, translated from the Spanish by J.C.Kelly
In his novel The Watch, which we would read in the good old days of irrefutable certainties, the Italian author Carlo Levi writes that in Rome, in the midst of the night, he would hear something akin to the roar of a lion wandering restlessly throughout the deserted, cobblestone streets.
At night in Santiago, there is a white horse that draws a cart, passing through the streets of the city centre, accompanied by the soft, slow clatter of its hooves: Ahumada, Bandera, Agustinas, Huérfanos. To see it appear in the early morning haze produces a start, a strange, sensation of archaeology.
We would read Levi’s book in our Latin classes at law school, making little effort to disguise the fact, and from time to time, the sporadic roar of a real lion, nostalgic for raw venison, would reach us from Cerro San Cristóbal.
Occasionally the lion at the zoo would escape from its cage, and after terrorizing some old lady from neighbouring Bellavista—in those days the most respectable and provincial of neighbourhoods—it would be captured and taken back to its prison by heroic volunteer fire fighters who, as is common knowledge, are always willing to help in this and many other types of civic emergency.
The bakeries—with their names such as La Espiga de Oro and Las Rosas Chicas, suitably rustic references to ears of corn and roses—would use high carts to deliver bread throughout the city; with metal-rimmed wooden wheels, painted red, yellow and blue, they were pulled by jaunty sorrels that made sparks fly from the cobbles as they galloped along. The driver would be accompanied by a young lad of circus-esque agility, poised like a falcon on the vehicle’s metal footrest, holding onto a handle with one hand (he’d have the basket in the other), who would jump down before the horse had come to a complete stop to distribute the freshly-baked bread to the customers.
At the entrance to the bakers, the smell of the bread would often mingle with that of the neighbouring stables, inhabited by the cavalry of the grain. Less impetuous, owing partly to a certain awkward skew in their trot, which took the shape of a rhombus, were the horses that pulled the carts used for general transport, which, heads bowed, would cart around vegetables, sacks of potatoes, coal, and the impoverished possessions of the itinerant families from the cités.
In the mornings of the second half of the 1950s, along the insalubrious Avenida Diez de Julio and its tributaries, there could still be seen jacks with their harnesses laden with seaweed, or lactating jennies whose milk would be offered to an established clientele of chesty neighbours.
When did all this disappear? No historian can give a precise date. (For all the difference it would make, more than one will remark, shrugging their shoulders.) What’s certain however, is that animal life disappeared almost entirely from the city, except for the dangerous carnivorous beasts of the households in the Barrio Alto—the neighbourhood of the rich and famous, which, for that matter, is no longer referred to by this name—and the packs of stray dogs in the densely populated suburbs, subjected to a nazi-like campaign of extermination, but indestructible nonetheless. And cats, but they’re another matter altogether.
One day, while out in the city centre, I chance to bump into an old friend from school: Silva, a devout horse racing fan, one of those who would get up early every Sunday morning to head down to the racetrack, and later on, if his luck had been favourable, on to the Racing Club. He doesn’t look on great form, but he has retained his shy, institutionalized smile. We greet in an embrace and I’m instantly engulfed in a tenuous purple cloud, which (and I don’t know why) immediately brings to mind the words “liquor store.” I ask him about the horses, if he still bets, if he goes to see them, just like the good old days.
“Bet? Of course, just to see if I’ll get lucky. But to actually see them…”
“How then? You don’t go to the racetrack anymore, to the races?”
He shakes his head: “I go to the races, but not to the racetrack, nor to the Club. Nowadays we have Teletrak. You can watch the races on a big TV screen and place your bets there and then. All undercover. It’s comfortable, especially in the winter. What’s more, you meet up with other punters, swap information, that sort of thing.”
“In other words, you no longer watch the races directly…”
“Nope! Haven’t seen a real horse for about ten years.”
I look at him in astonishment, disappointed. I open my mouth to tell him about the midnight horse. But I close it instead. I don’t think he’ll be interested.
Then Silva asks me: “you couldn’t spare five thousand pesos for your old classmate, could you?”
At night I fall asleep to the slow clatter of the white horse’s hooves as it goes about its night shift. The white horse of the scavengers.