Amelia and I
Translated by Elwin Wirkala
Before filing into the classroom, we would form a line by order of height. Since she was a bit shorter, Amelia was always right in front of me. Day after day I pinched her neck and she never made a sound. My mother was the town music teacher. That's why, by the age of six, I already had my privileges. Amelia had no mother. What she had was humility.
The memory of my guilt lay dormant in some hidden zone deep inside for five decades, until one day it surfaced when I received an email. Someone had found me on this stage we call Facebook, this vast virtual habitat we use to show off, to praise or insult each other across the globe. Sometimes, though, Facebook allows us to discover, in some twisted digital hallway or other, a friend from the past we have lost touch with. In my case, this friend ended up connecting me with Amelia, fifty years after I left my village.
Soon after, I was exhilarated to find a message from Amelia sharing memories of our childhood—and an unjustified tenderness for me, her victimizer.
I should have begun by saying that our town was really two towns. It was divided by railroad tracks. Over here, the so-called gringos, the Italian settlers who had come to Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century. Over there, the criollos, that long-suffering race of gauchos and mestizos who had lived in these lands since colonial times.
Because let’s not forget: when the Americas were terra incognita, in this part of the continent roamed the Tehuelches, the Ranqueles, and the other aboriginal peoples of the pampas. Following the Conquest came olive-skinned Spanish moriscos who had long lost their Arabic language and their Islamic religion, but not their love of the guitar and of poetry, of horses and of daggers. The union of Spaniard and Indian, together with minstrelsy and knife fights and love affairs, gave birth to the gaucho. Landless and lawless nomads, they declined as progress and mass immigration from Europe got underway. The gauchos became poor peons, without the benefit of either collective memory or prospects on a brutal pampa that no longer belonged to them.
My grandparents and other colonists called them "the blacks" and tolerated them—as long as they stayed on the other side of the railroad tracks, on the side that flooded when the rains came. Only on San Roque’s Day would the criollos cross over to take part in the festivities in honor of the town’s patron saint. They would get up on the dance hall stage and bellow epic octosyllabic gaucho verses full of nostalgia and courage. The rest of the year they remained, tacitly ostracized, on the Other Side. At night we could hear only the toads croaking from the ponds that formed when that side of town was flooded out.
Amelia lived over there with her father, her brothers, the croaking of toads, and poverty.
The rails were not much to look at, just five and a half inches of steel on the flat earth and under our immense pampa sky. Not much to look at! Yet we were over here and they, the creoles, the others, were over there. Crossing over to the other side was said to be dangerous. During the day, because the train would come blindly and implacably, and with utter disrespect for class and race. At night, because La Llorona wandered about wailing her plaintive song of Medea and bent on washing her guilt away with human blood. Children's blood especially.
Like a good creole, Amelia's father played the guitar. He was a gaucho, all right: boots and spurs, baggy pants, coins on his belt, poncho, and a bandanna around his neck. His name was Paez, a converso Moorish surname. He may have been a peon from some ranch, I don't know. My father, by contrast, was a merchant and a descendent on both sides from those people of northern Italy with a good portion of Germanic blood flowing through their veins. My mother? Pure Roman.
For some reason—perhaps the music classes—Amelia's father wanted her to go to our school, not the little school on the Other Side. That is why Amelia crossed over every day. She crossed over fearlessly, rain or shine, to go to the school for the well off. And I, a well-brought-up little girl from a good family, would pinch her neck as we stood in line listening to the chords of our national anthem.
I'm thinking of the human brain divided into two hemispheres: one, dominant, with the arrogance of noisy logic; the other silent, with the light subtlety of intuitive thought. But what is it that divides a little girl's heart down the middle, separating its sweet and its perverse sides?
We grew up. The year of pinching past, Amelia and I became friends. I never ventured over to the Other Side, though. And, then, one summer day she invited me over. I went with other girls from my neighborhood. We saw her house, but only from the outside. It was a little house of raw brick with an old well with a bucket, and an adobe bread oven on a patio of beaten earth. Amelia showed us around the neighborhood. Some houses were like hers. Others reminded me of the round brown nests the pampas bird known as the hornero builds from mud and straw and sticks to the tops of fence posts. On we walked in our patent leather shoes and white stockings, our feet sinking into the mud, until we came to a pond. We threw rocks at the toads, especially at the ones that happened to be mating.
Amelia bridged the two sides of my divided village and guided me to that other world I ignored. What had been for me, until that day, just a mental abstraction—the Other Side—suddenly became concrete reality on a bright summer day.
“How were you able to forgive me?” I asked her, in a moment of courage, when we met once again in the village.
“You were only six years old! Why wouldn’t I forgive you? It was just jealousy.”
True enough, my mother would come to her music class every day, bringing lunch for me and another one for the little motherless Paez girl. And every day Amelia would return to her house on the other side of the tracks with her stomach full and her neck bruised.
I want to believe that it was jealousy. I tremble to think I punished her for being an orphan, for being different, for being a toad from another pond. Or maybe just for being docile. The mind is a world in miniature, just a fractal for human society, in which the Other is detested and must be crushed. And my childish self must have responded forcefully to the outdated, unwritten rules of class, race, and tribalism. Let's sweep them away because they are different. Let's pinch their children's necks because they are poor, because they are outsiders. They must not be allowed to trespass, they must not cross the tracks! Out!
My current self looks back in horror at yesterday’s self, frozen in memory, and wants to strangle her. And yet, each stage of life is guided by a different soul. My mature self understands this and forgives me. Amelia has forgiven me.
I sit at my keyboard. It’s the same whenever soul searching forces a confession; this one clouds my vision, and my eyes tear up. I am overflowing with long-buried emotions fighting to get out, to burst out, from that fold of mind where my Contrite Self lives. I stroke a few keys, I lift my trembling hand, I feel for the glass of white wine beside me. My readers may say, "Such a trifling sin for such outsized reproach!" But the big or the small may not matter: all must be weighed in the balance. I dry my cheeks, ashamed. I console myself that shame comes with a palliative and a saving grace. I think of the bridge Amelia extended between my world and hers, and the way I have crossed it all the rest of my life, this bridge that takes me to the Other. I look for it. I hold out a hand when I can, and I stop to listen to the toads singing in the Other Pond just across from my village.
About the translator: Elwin Wirkala, in the course of Peace Corps service in Brazil and subsequent two decades living in South America, developed a poetry translation hobby that—along with readings in the areas of philosophy, psychology, and laymen-oriented scientific literature, a little fiction and lots of poetry, and, last but not least, his family—constitutes his main source of joy.