These events took place on the Los Álamos cattle ranch, somewhat south of the town of Junín, during the final days of March, 1928. The protagonist was a medical student, Baltasar Espinosa. We may describe him for now as no different than any of the many young men of Buenos Aires, with no particular traits worthy of note other than an almost unlimited kindness and an oratorical faculty that had earned him several prizes from the English school in Ramos Mejía. He did not like to argue; he preferred it when his interlocutor was right and not himself. Although the vagaries of chance in any game fascinated him, he played them poorly because it did not please him to win. His wide intelligence was undirected; at thirty-three years of age the completion of one last subject stood in the way of his graduation, despite its being his favorite. His father, like all gentlemen of his day, was a freethinker and had instructed him in the doctrines of Herbert Spencer. But his mother, before setting out on a trip to Montevideo, requested of him that every night he say the Lord’s Prayer and make the sign of the cross. Over the years, not once had he broken this promise.
He did not lack in courage.One morning he had traded, more because of indifference rather than anger, two or three blows with a group of fellow students who were trying to force him into taking part in a university demonstration. He abounded in questionable opinions, or habits of mind, from a spirit of acquiescence: his country mattered less to him than the risk that in other parts they might believe that we continue to wear feathers like the Indians. He venerated France but despised the French; he had little respect for Americans, but he approved of there being skyscrapers in Buenos Aires; he thought that the gauchos of the plains were better horsemen than those of the hills or mountain ranges. When his cousin Daniel invited him to summer in Los Álamos he accepted immediately,not so much because he liked the country, but more out of his natural geniality and his not having found a valid reason for saying no.
The ranch’s main house was large and somewhat run-down; the foreman, who was known as Gutre, had his quarters close by. The Gutres were three: the father, the son (who was particularly uncouth) and a girl of uncertain paternity. They were tall, strong and bony, with Indian features about the face and hair that tinged red. They hardly spoke. The foreman’s wife had died years ago.
In the country Espinosa was learning things that he had not known, nor suspected. For example, one need not gallop when approaching a house, and no one goes out riding a horse unless there is a job to be done. In time, he would come to distinguish the birds by their calls.
Early on, Daniel had to absent himself and leave for the capital in order to close a deal involving some livestock. In all the business would take him about a week. Espinosa, who was already a little tired of hearing about his cousin’s good fortune with women and his tireless interest in the variations of men’s fashion, preferred to remain on the ranch with his textbooks. The heat was suffocating and not even the night brought relief. One morning at daybreak thunder woke him. The wind was rocking the casuarina trees. Espinosa heard the first drops of rain and gave thanks to God. Suddenly cold air rolled in. That afternoon the Salado river overflowed.
The next day, as he was looking over the flooded fields from his porch, Baltasar Espinosa thought that the standard metaphor which compared the Pampas with the sea was not, at least that morning, completely false, even though Hudson had noted that the sea appears to us much wider because we see it from a ship’s deck and not from horseback or at eye level. The rain did not let up. The Gutres, helped or hindered by the city dweller, saved a good part of the livestock, though many animals drowned. The paths that led to the station were four: all were covered in water. On the third day a leaking roof threatened the foreman’s house and Espinosa gave them a room out back by the toolshed. The move had brought them closer; they ate together in the large dining room. Conversation was difficult. The Gutres, who knew so much about the country, did not know how to explain any of it. One night Espinosa asked them if people still retained some memory of the Indian raids from when the frontier’s military command was in Junín. They told him that they did, but they would have answered in a similar fashion had the question been about Charles the First’s beheading. Espinosa recalled his father’s saying that almost all the cases of longevity cited from the country are a result of poor memory or a vague notion of dates. The gauchos tended to forget in equal measure the year of their birth and the name of who fathered them.
No reading material was to be found in the entire house other than some issues of the magazine The Farm, a veterinary manual, a deluxe edition of the Uruguayan epic Tabaré, a History of Shorthorn Cattle in Argentina, the odd erotic or detective story and a recent novel, Don Segundo Sombra. In order to liven up in some way the inevitable after-dinner conversation, Espinosa read a couple of the novel’s chapters to the Gutres, who were all illiterate. Unfortunately the foreman, like the book’s hero, had been a cattle drover himself and was not interested in the happenings of another. He said the work was easy, that they took with them a pack mule which carried all that they needed, and that if he had not been a cattle drover he would never have seen Lake Gómez, nor would he have gotten to the town of Bragado, nor would he have visited the Núñez ranch in Chacabuco. In the kitchen was a guitar; before the events I am narrating happened, the labourers would sit in a circle and someone would tune the instrument without ever getting around to playing it. This they called a guitar jam.
Espinosa, who had let his beard grow, had begun to pause before the mirror to study his changed face, and he smiled at the thought of boring the boys in Buenos Aires with his tale of the Salado’s overflowing. Curiously, he was missing places to which he had never been and would never go: a street corner on Cabrera Street where a mailbox stood; some cement lions on a porch a few blocks from the Plaza del Once on Jujuy; a barroom with a tiled floor whose exact whereabouts he was not sure of. As for his brothers and his father, through Daniel they would have learnt already that he was isolated — the word, etymologically, was accurate — by the floodwaters.
Looking through the house while still hemmed in by the waters, he came across a Bible in English. In its final pages the Guthries — their original name — had left a record of their family history. They were originally from Inverness, had come to the New World, no doubt as labourers, in the early days of the nineteenth century and had intermarried with Indians. The chronicle broke off sometime during the eighteen-seventies when they no longer knew how to write. Within only a few generations they had forgotten their English; by the time Espinosa met them even Spanish was troubling them. They had no faith, but in their blood there endured, like a dim current, the harsh fanaticism of the Calvinists and the superstitions of the pampas. Espinosa told them of his find and they barely acknowledged it.
Leafing through the volume, his fingers opened it at the start of the Gospel according to Mark. As an exercise in translation and perhaps to see if the Gutres would understand any of it, he decided to read to them the text after dinner. Their attentive listening and their mute interest surprised him. Maybe the gold letters on the the cover lent the book more authority. It’s in their blood, Espinosa thought. It also occurred to him that man has throughout history told and retold two stories: that of a lost ship that searches the seas of the Mediterranean for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who allows himself to be crucified on Golgotha. Remembering his elocution classes in Ramos Mejía, Espinosa rose to his feet to preach the parables.
In the days that followed the Gutres wolfed down the barbecued meat and sardines in order to arrive sooner at the Gospel.
A little pet lamb that the girl had adorned with a sky-blue ribbon had injured itself on some barbed wire. To staunch the bleeding the Gutres were wanting to apply cobwebs; Espinosa treated it with some pills instead. The gratitude that this treatment inspired took him aback. At first he distrusted the Gutres and had hidden in one of his books the two hundred and forty pesos that he had with him. Now, with the owner away, he had taken on Daniel’s role and was giving timid orders that were being followed immediately. The Gutres would trail him through the rooms and along the porch as if they were lost without him. While reading to them he noticed that they would take away with them the crumbs that he had left on the table. One evening he caught them unawares as they were, in few words, speaking of him respectfully.
Upon finishing the Gospel according to Mark, he wanted to read one of the three remaining gospels. The father, though, asked him to repeat the one he had already read to them so that they could understand it better. Espinosa felt that they were like children who prefer repetition over variety or novelty. That night he dreamt, not altogether surprisingly, of the Flood and was awoken by the hammering that went into the Ark’s construction, which he supposed he had confused with the thunder. In fact the rain, after having abated, was getting heavier. The cold was bitter. The Gutres had told him that the storm had damaged the toolshed’s roof and that, once they had repaired the beams, they would show him where. No longer a stranger, they treated him with special attention, almost spoiling him. Not one of them liked coffee, but they always had a little cup for him that they heaped with sugar.
The storm hit on a Tuesday. Thursday night he was awoken by a light knock on the door, which, because of his misgivings, he always kept locked. He got up and opened it: it was the girl. In the darkness he could not make her out, but he could tell from her footsteps that she was barefoot, and later in bed, that she had come naked from the back of the house. She did not embrace him, nor did she speak a single word; she lay beside him and shivered. It was the first time she had lain with a man. When she left she did not kiss him. Espinosa realised he did not even know her name. For some sentimental reason that he did not attempt to understand, he swore never to tell anyone in Buenos Aires about the incident.
The next day began like the others before, except for the father speaking to Espinosa and asking him if Christ had allowed Himself to be killed in order to save all mankind. Espinosa, who was a freethinker but felt obliged to justify what he had read to them, replied, “Yes. To save us all from hell.”
Gutre then asked, “What’s hell?”
“A place underground where souls burn and burn.”
“And those that drove in the nails were also saved?”
“Yes,” replied Espinosa, whose theology was a little shaky.
He had feared that the foreman would demand an account of what had happened the night before with his daughter. After lunch they asked him to read the last chapters again.
Espinosa took a long siesta, though his light sleep was interrupted by persistent hammering and vague premonitions. Toward evening he got up and went out to the porch. He said, as if thinking out loud, “The waters are low. It won’t be long now.”
“It won’t be long now,” repeated Gutre like an echo.
The three Gutres had been following him. Kneeling on the floor, they asked for his blessing. Then they cursed him, spat on him and shoved him to the back of the house. The girl was crying. Espinosa knew what to expect on the other side of the door. When they opened it, he saw the heavens. A bird shrieked. ‘A goldfinch,’ he thought. The shed was without a roof; they had torn out the beams to build the cross.