This story has three characters. Three important ones, that is; three worth mentioning. Others may pop in here and there, but they don't mean anything. There is the police officer, pointing his gun at me. Manolo Carrión, or so he told me from the barrel of his gun; he had a small mouth touched with a wisp of a moustache and dark eyes hidden beneath a heavy brow. He frightened me. I can admit that now. There is me, Pintor, brandishing a knife I kept clean throughout, wiping the blade back and forth against my thigh like an obsessive. I was younger then, 25 years old, but looked much the same: in a word, ugly. Without pride I can tell you that my eyes are too far apart, my nose not right. I'm told I have always possessed an uninviting smile. Family pictures bear this out. And then there is the dog, with thick black fur and enormous yellow eyes, bleeding red into a Lima gutter. He died, whimpering, but not without a struggle.
It was foggy, Lima asleep in haze.
I'll start with the dog.
There were ten of us, maybe eleven. Names? We shared one: compañero. All of us, except me, whom they sometimes called Pintor for my erstwhile talents with the brush. We formed an uncertain circle around a dead dog, under the dim lights just off the plaza. July 28, 1979. Our first revolutionary act, announcing ourselves to the nation. We strung up dogs from all the street lamps, covered them with terse and angry slogans, Die Capitalist Dogs and such; leaving the beasts there for the people to see how fanatical we could be. It is clear now that we didn't scare anyone so much as we disturbed them and convinced them of our peculiar mania, our worship of frivolous violence. Fear would come later. Killing street dogs in the bleak gray hours before sunrise, the morning of Independence Day, July 28. Decent people slept. We made war, fashioned it with our hands, our knives, and our sweat.
Everything was going well until we ran out of black dogs.
Earlier, one of the compañeros directed that all the dogs were to be black, and we were in no position to question these things. An aesthetic decision, not a practical one. Lima has an infinite supply of mutts, but not all of them are black. By two o'clock, we were slopping black paint on beige, brown, and white mutts, all squirming away the last of their breath, fur tinged with red.
Given my talents, I was charged with painting the not-quite-black ones. We had one there: it was dead, split open, its viscera slipping onto the pavement. We were a tired group, trying to decide if this mutt's particular shade of brown was dark enough to pass for black. I don't recall many strong opinions on the matter. Perhaps a few compañeros muttered yes's and no's, but mostly there were disinterested blank faces. The narcotic effects of action were drifting away, leaving us with a bleeding animal, dead, a shade too light. A year or two before, I would have sketched it, charcoal on newsprint; now I was exhausted. I didn't care what color the dog was.
But this is not the dog I mentioned.
The important one I saw from the corner of my eye, darting down an alleyway, just as we were coming to a consensus that we would paint the dead mutt we had at our feet. But the him that I saw in the alley was spectacularly black, completely black, and before I knew it, I found myself racing down the cobblestones after him. I dropped the paintbrush one of my compañeros had handed me. They called after me, "Pintor!" but I was gone.
Enraged, I chased after the black animal, hoping to kill it, bring it back, string it up. That night, the way things were going, I wanted, more than anything, for my actions to make sense. I was tired of painting.
This is the dog.
You should know the vagabond homeless dogs of Lima inhabit a higher plane of ruthlessness. They own the alleys; they are thieves of the colonial city, undressing trash heaps, urinating in cobblestone corners, always with an eye open. They're witnesses to crimes of all sorts, murders, robberies, and shakedowns; they hustle through the streets with self-assurance, with a confidence that comes from knowing they don't have to eat every day to live. We ran all over the plaza that night, butchering them, in awe of their treachery and their survival instinct, raw and golden.
I knew all this and still I pursued the mutt. I knew how many cigarettes I smoked each day, and I knew how little I ran except when chasing a soccer ball now and then if a game came up, and I knew that there was little chance of catching the animal, and—I'll admit—it angered me to know that a beast might outdo me, and so I resolved that it would not. We ran. It surged ahead. I followed along the narrows of central Lima, beneath her ragged decaying balconies, past her boarded buildings, her cloistered doorways, her shadows. And I wanted the mutt dead, already dead; war in my hands, death around me, and the hatred for this poor canine consumed and surprised me. I ran with cruelty in my chest; cruelty like a drug pushing me faster, closer, even with the animal almost, before it raced away, my leg buckled, and I sputtered to a stop. I realized I was blocks away from the plaza, in the grassy median of a broad, silent avenue lined with anemic palm trees, dizzy, lungs gasping for air. The poor dog slowed on the far sidewalk and turned to look at me, standing only a few feet away, panting, its head turned quizzically to one side, a look I've seen before, from family, from friends, or even from women unfortunate enough to love me, the look of those who wonder at me, who expect things and are eventually disappointed.
You should know that I felt nothing for the animal other than steely blue-black hatred. I was cold and angry. Hurt by too many German philosophers in translation. Wounded by watching my father go blind beneath great swaths of leather, bending and manipulating each until, like magic, a belt, or a saddle, or a soccer ball appeared. Frustrated by an absurd and gutless evening spent painting and killing for revolution. I hated the animal. In the Arequipa of my youth, a street mutt had slept in our doorway once in awhile, and mostly I had ignored it, had not petted it, but had watched it scratch itself or lick its own testicles and had never been stirred. I have loved many things, many people—I have been asked this before, so to avoid confusion I will clarify—I felt nothing for this beast, not a thing. Instead I envisioned there were stages of death, degrees of it, a descending staircase, and I wanted with all my heart to see this mutt, with its matted black fur, resting at the bottom. I felt nothing, not as I called it to me, not as I held my hand out, not as I sucked my teeth and coaxed it to me.
And it came, with a pit-pat of paws on the concrete as it crossed the avenue, as if it were coming home, as if it were somewhere else entirely, not in the midst of war. It was a beautiful beast, yes: walking proudly, shiny black coat, large eyes quaking with energy, overcoming its fear. Stepping towards it, I realized it had been an innocent all along, bizarrely trusting for this place and this moment. Still, I felt anger towards it—for making me run, for each drop of sweat, for the heavy beating of my weak heart. I grasped it roughly by the nape of its neck, plunged the knife through its black fur, and twisted.
At the last moment, the mutt struggled mightily, growling, lunging, but I held on, and it did not bite me but fell to the ground in a heap, blood gathering in a pool beneath its wound.
Now there is the matter of Officer Carrión.
But let's not get things out of their proper order. 3-2-1.
A little about me first wouldn't hurt—although I suppose there are some people who would disagree.
In Arequipa, I chiseled decorations on the saddles my father crafted each year for the parades. I helped him dye the leathers, and then took the hammer and the small wedge and banged and hit and bled until each was beautiful. He taught me the meticulous process as his eyesight abandoned him. By the time I was capable of creating beauty from the taut brown flesh of the leather, he was too blind to see my work. My mother would tell him all about the lovely outcome of my labors. He glowed.
I took school very seriously. I dressed impeccably in my gray and white uniform and always did more than what was expected of me. An outstanding student, I placed first in my class and took the university entrance exam at age 17. I was accepted to the university in Lima. My head was shaved, my father danced happily, and my mother cried, knowing I would soon leave her side and return only rarely. Lima was known then for swallowing lives, for drawing people from their ancestral homes and enveloping each in concrete and noise. My mother was right, my father resigned, and I became one of those people. I saw the city and felt its chaos and its energy; I couldn't bear to go home.
Lima seemed bigger to me then, because I was new to the city, but I have seen and lived through Lima's turbulent adolescence and her unbounded growth. Lima is full grown now, but she is mine. I am not afraid of her, even as I am no longer in love with her. At the university I studied Philosophy for two years and then transferred to Fine Arts to study painting. I created angry canvases of red and black, with terrorized faces hidden beneath swaths of bold color. I painted in Rimac, just across the dirty river from central Lima, in a small room with a window that looked out at the graceful contour of the colonial city. It was often cloudy, and my elderly landlady, Doña Alejandra, liked to let herself into my room to look at my work. I came upon her there, wrapped in my threadbare blanket, asleep in my chair, her chest rising in shallow breaths, on one of the handful of sunny days that I remember. Her own room had no windows.
I caught the eye of some people with a painting I exhibited at the university: a portrait of a man, eyes averted, his mouth squeezed in a tight grimace, gripping a hammer in his right hand, poised to nail a stake square into the flat of his left palm. He was gray and brown geometry against a red background. My father. And people began asking about me. Who I was. Where I lived. What party I belonged to. Such.
As to the last question, I didn't join any political party until late in my academic career, but when I did, its searing red logic entranced me, and suddenly the many unavenged tragedies I had seen made sense. I was one of many. The student body was taken with the idea of change. Dramatic, violent, perhaps the only kind that can stir souls in a nation like ours. In the cafeteria, students stood on tables to denounce the dictator and his cronies. Slogans appeared on brick walls and were whitewashed by timid workers, only to appear again. Among the students, there was no question of if, but only when, the struggle would come. It was the same all over the country. Many left school to prepare for the coming war.
As did I.
My father's blindness had hurt me tremendously. I longed to show him what I had accomplished. On a visit home, in our small anteroom, I attempted to repaint the canvases that took up so much of my days—with words, slowly, and only for him. He gazed blankly at the walls, considering my words as they chased the images that chased me. My father was a man fit to be drawn: a broad forehead, graying hair, and a doleful grace in his smile. I talked him through years of my canvases, but never cracked the austere dark of his blindness. He nodded, told me he understood, but I knew I failed him then. A lifetime of work, and it came to this gross brand of impotence: unable to see his son, or know the world as I represented it.
I returned from Arequipa and made my decision. I left the university for the last time, only three months before I was to receive my degree in the Fine Arts. Instead I traveled to the countryside to study explosives with my compañeros.
If I were still a painter, I could show you some truths about this place. The children, cold and hungry, lining up each morning at the well, carrying water back to their families. Five kilometers. Seven kilometers. Nine. Or the endless bus rides across the city, when a young man in an ill-fitting suit steps aboard to recite poetry—César Vallejo—and sell Chiclets. "It's not charity I am asking for," he shouts over the rattle of a back-broken bus, "I am selling a poem to ease your commute!" The passengers look down and away; he is ignored.
In 1970, a town disappeared beneath the Andes. An earthquake. Then a landslide. Not a village, but a town. Yungay. You could even call it a small city. Some did. It was a Sunday afternoon; my father and I listened to the World Cup live from Mexico City, Peru playing Argentina to a respectable draw, when the room shook, vaguely. And then the news came slowly; filtered, like all things in Peru, from the provinces to Lima, and then back out again to all the far-flung corners of our make-believe nation. We were aware that something unspeakable had occurred, but could not name it just yet. The earth had spilled upon itself, an angry sea of mud and rock, drowning thousands. Only the children were spared, orphaned. A traveling circus had set up camp at the higher end of the valley. Clowns in funny hats, children laughing. In Arequipa, to the south, we had scarcely felt the earthquake at all: a vase slipping off a windowsill, a picture hanging askew, a dog barking.
If I were still a painter, I would set up a canvas on that barren spot where that town once stood, select my truest colors, and show you that life can disappear just like that. "And what is this, Pintor?" you might ask, pointing to the brown, ochre, orange, and gray.
Ten thousand graves; can't you see them?
When I was a painter, I would stroll through the city, amazed by the minutiae I found at my feet. Everything was both beautiful and terrible, and my eyes were always open. I came across things, trivial things—a cinder block, resting just so at the edge of an abandoned lot; or the gleaming fender of a car, its dents reflecting and transforming both the city and the sun—and these small, nothing images nearly drove me mad. Sometimes I caught myself focusing on things, not people. The everyday humiliations that men endured—I often turned away, rather than face them. And then, I could not ignore them. And then, they catapulted themselves at me, with all their attendant pain unmasked, and I rushed home, reeling, sketching on napkins, on papers, on my skin, all that I had seen so it would not go unrecorded. Everything meant something, hinted at an as-yet-unasked, un-dreamed-of question. There were no answers that convinced me. I painted towards those questions, sometimes for a day or two or even three, catnapping in the corner of my room just as my landlady Doña Alejandra had once, but otherwise restless. I awoke at two or three in the morning, awash in the metallic, noxious odors of paint and sweat and hunger. At those times, I forgot my body almost completely, becoming the substance I spread so generously on the canvas. That fluid and that malleable.
I have found that sensation a few times since. Once: lost in the tangle of vines, in the jungles of northern Peru, running from an ambush. I must have been a spirit, because the details have disappeared. And again: setting a bomb in the bitter cold of the sierra beneath a concrete bridge, the science, the power. But like a drug, each time the adrenaline rush is less powerful, and each culminating boom means less and less.
I have not painted since that night of the dogs. Not a stroke of black or red, not animal or canvas.
And I will not paint again.
Only perhaps the walls of my cell—if they catch me—a shade recalling sky, so my dreary last days can be spent in grace.
There is a point to all this.
The fog was a stew, rain suspended in air, so I must be forgiven if I don't recall all the details of the officer. There was something drunken about the way he swayed, the unsteady manner in which he held his pistol, arm outstretched and wavering. It was disconcerting, and it would have been even if he had not come upon me as he did, just as the whimpering of the wounded animal tugged at me and, feeling pity, I moved quickly to end its suffering. Just then—"Hey, you there! Stop! Police!"—to which I do not usually answer. I looked up, blinded. A police flashlight spread its grainy light across the avenue. He had stumbled upon me, perhaps walking home from a drink with friends.
What I recall of him: the aforementioned moustache (thin, shadowy) and the gun. I am reminded of the diminutive length of the barrel as well—a fist at most—and otherworldly gleam it carried, backlit as it was by his flashlight. A man—imagine this—in this light, just this way, shouting, his gun held as if by a puppeteer, that unsteady, and I looked back towards him and said meekly, drawing on an innocence I could not have possessed, "Yes?"
"What the hell are you doing?" he shouted at me, from behind the blinding light. I scoured my mind for explanations, but found none. Even the truth sounded implausible. The silence was punctuated by the dog's pained cry. Finally, after an awkward pause, I stammered, "This mutt bit my little brother."
He kept the barrel trained on me, skeptical, but stepped closer. "Is he rabid?"
"I'm not sure, Officer."
Bent over the mutt, he examined its dying body. Blood ran in thin streams through the grass, fanning out towards the edge of the street. Somehow it reminded me of the maps I studied in grade school, of the Amazon Basin with its intricate web of crooked streams flowing towards the sea.
"Where is your brother? Has he been seen by a doctor?"
"Yes, Officer, he has. He is with my mother at home, just beyond the next avenue, a few blocks from here."
He nodded. I could see a glint of kindness in him, though I knew he did not yet believe me. I was not as accustomed to lying as you might think. I was afraid that he might see through me.
Yet a moment later, I was telling the officer about a brother I never had. I found myself babbling almost, spewing forth a weightless ramble of words, the officer nodding. I told of my brother, the terrible bite, the awful scream I had heard, the red fleshy face of the wound. His innocence, his shining eyes, his smile, his grace. I gave my brother all the qualities I lacked, made him beautiful and funny, adorable even, as perfect as the blond puppets they use to sell soap on television. I was sweating, my heart racing, recounting the jokes he told, the grades he got. A smart one, my brother! And then I gave him a name: "Manolo, Manolito," I said, and the officer, gun in hand, softened.
"That's my name." I looked up, not quite sure what he meant. "I'm Manolo too," he repeated delicately, almost laughing. I chuckled nervously. The dog whimpered again. We faced each other in the still of the broad avenue and shared a smile.
The officer placed his gun at his side and moved to shake my hand. I wiped the blade of my knife on my thigh and put it down. In a bizarre moment, there in the hazy light, we shook hands firmly, like men. "Manolo Carrión," he said.
"José Carlos," I replied, cursing myself for letting things get to this point. "José Carlos Barrantes."
"But what exactly are you trying to do, Señor Barrantes? Killing this mutt? What will that accomplish?"
"Rabies, sir. I chased him down to see if he was rabid, and the little bitch struggled with me. I guess I got angry. I guess I got carried away."
Carrión nodded and leaned over the canine once again. With his nightstick he poked the animal in its belly, eliciting a muted and pathetic yelp. He peered into its eyes for a particular shade of yellow and into its gaping mouth for the frothy telltale saliva. Finding neither, he pronounced, "No rabies, Señor. I think Manolito is going to be fine."
I was relieved. Isn't that ridiculous? Relieved for a brother I didn't have, for a bite that never was, from a dog too trusting to be dangerous? But I was genuinely relieved, so intently had I been projecting myself into this made-up drama, so completely had I embraced my role—brother, protector, citizen—that my heart swelled. I imagined Manolito and his long healthy days, running, playing among friends, his wound healed with not even a scar. In that moment, I loved Manolito. I should note now that he was purposefully excluded from the introductions that began this story. I am ashamed of him. I have spent most of my adult life severing personal ties, steeling my heart for conflict, allowing myself only love in the abstract sense—it is shameful that then, as the struggle began, I was so weak. My situation has not changed so much as I have changed. Manolito is not a character in this story. He is a shadow, a disgraceful and putrid creation.
Carrión, drunk and kind, did not feel such enmity towards him. If things had gone differently that black morning, this episode might have become one of his favorite stories, when asked by a friend or cousin over a drink, "Hey, cholo, what's it like out there?" Compa, Let me tell you about the night I helped a man kill a dog. No, that sounds too banal. Hombre, one time, I came upon a man decapitating a street mutt. . . . Who knows how he would tell the story now? Or if he would tell it at all?
"My little brother must be just like your Manolito, always getting into something. He likes to fight the big guys, but he's small. Always coming home with a broken this or a bruised that." Carrión spoke warmly now. "Are you taking him anywhere? The mutt, I mean."
"I'll take care of it, Officer. The doctor wanted to examine the animal. Just to make sure."
Carrión nodded. "Of course. Good luck." He stood up to leave, unfolding himself, clearing grass from his knees. "You should put it out of its misery, you know. No point in being cruel."
I liked him. How simple and mundane.
It was my turn to nod. I wiped my blade against my thigh again, thanked the officer and assured him I would. And we were pulling away, our good-byes restless on our tongues, when suddenly there was a noise, an abbreviated whimper. Looking up, I saw one of my compañeros, breathless, not thirty meters away, crouching savagely over a dog (white), holding it up by its muzzle, arm raised, knife in hand, poised to enter the fleshy underside of its neck. He had come down a side street. He had not seen us until it was too late. Now he saw us and stopped. Confusion. Panic. Fearful, I reverted to form, abandoned my revolutionary training: I wanted to paint it—not the dog, the scene—because it struck me so, the brutal outline of a man at war with a mutt, caught in the act, frozen arms akimbo. I saw what I had looked like. It is an image I will always hold with me. Carrión looked my way, puzzled, then back at my compañero, and for a moment the three of us were caught in a triangle of wants, questions, and fears—a record skipping, a still life—a mutually agreed-upon pause during which we each considered in silence the intricate and unfortunate relationships that connected us. An instant, nothing more.
Then, life in fast-forward: Carrión drew his gun, just as I grasped my knife. My compañero let the dog drop unceremoniously to the sidewalk and took off running down the avenue away from the plaza. The white dog scampered off, still whimpering. And Carrión faced me, whatever shadow of friendship we had cultivated lost now in fog. My options ticked off before me like the outline of a brutal text. Point A: stab the cop, quickly; Point B: run, run fast, imbecile! Point C: die like a man. And that was all my mind produced. Despairing, only my last choice made any sense. Can it even be called a choice? I held my blade, true, but weakly and without conviction. I made as if to rise, perhaps even run, but there was nothing there. And while I dawdled with thoughts limp and half-formed, Carrión acted: forgave me, spared me, struck me with the butt of his gun, and ran off in pursuit of my comrade—sealing his own fate.
He died that night.
Reeling, I fell towards what I recognized as death. It was only sleep. Into the grass, clutching my jaw, eyes closed, my sight swelled into black. Half-dead dogs howled and whimpered. In the distance, I heard a gunshot.
And then I was awake and alone on the avenue.
Officers, people of all kinds, they die. I could have.
I struggled to stand, my knees weak, my head dizzy. The stench was venom. The poor animal had died while I slept. My insides lurched at the sight. It is neither easy nor pleasant, the telling of this. Of all the places war has taken me, I am conscious now that I have been running from the helplessness of that terrible hour. I wiped my face as clean as I could with my sweater. What could I do?
Of course, I would reconnect with my cell in a day, perhaps two. Tell my compañeros about my getaway, my brush with death. Learn of Carrión's dismal end. Curse myself, fight myself, and eventually, rebuild myself. All that would come. But for the moment, there was nothing. My fight was over. I listened to the heavy in-and-out of my chest and felt for the first time wholly unprepared to live another day. I covered the beast with my sweater. I walked towards home.
It would be morning soon.