“Can we play arithmetic, Dad?” Nicolás said.
“OK,” his father answered. “Do you want to play too, César?
César didn't which game it was, but he said yes, he wanted to play.
“Nico!” said his dad, “nine plus six.”
“Fifteen,” Nicolás said, almost immediately.
“Now César! Three plus three.”
César looked at Nicolás beside him in the back seat of the Ford Falcon, which seemed more like a palace than a car to him. He was just as good as Nicolás in basketball, maybe even a little better, but when it was his turn at arithmetic, it was harder for him.
They were traveling in Nico's father's car on a sandy dirt road in the Province of San Luis in the west of Argentina where César lived with his parents, who were the caretakers of a large farm. The farm was struggling because of drought and the owner's illness, so following the advice of a friend he had begun to rent rooms to tourists from Buenos Aires who wanted to enjoy the peace and beauty which the area possessed in abundance.
Nicolás, who was seven years old like César, was the first to arrive, with his parents of course. The two boys became friends at once. César's father had nailed an old basketball hoop on a tree in the farm and when Nicolás arrived with his blue and yellow ball it was like a stroke of good luck, because César's old basketball had been punctured long before.
“Three plus three,” Nicolas' father repeated.
“Come on!” Nicolás insisted.
With his heart beating so hard he feared the others would hear it, César counted the five fingers of his left hand, added the thumb of his right hand, and announced timidly: “Six.”
“Very good, César!” Nicolás's father said. “Now Nico: nine plus eight.”
So that's how they continued the game. Nico's father gave them increasingly more difficult sums, but César's were always easier than his friend's.
Finally they arrived at their destination, a town were Nico's father, who was an architect, was going to build houses cheaply for the poor people there. He met the constructor and they spoke about the houses, which materials were to be used and the cost.
“Let's play basketball,” César said to Nico, who had brought along his blue and yellow ball.
“But there's no hoop,” Nico said.
“Well, let's play soccer then.”
Nico shook his head. “No, this is a basketball It's not for playing soccer. Get it?”
César wasn't convinced, but it wasn't his ball. He thought for a moment, then said: “We can imagine a hoop then.”
Nico laughed. “How can we play with an imaginary hoop, silly?”
“There!” César pointed to the stained wall of an old abandoned store. “Let's go!”
They ran to the store and César shot the ball against the wall at the height of a hoop. “There's the hoop!” he shouted.
Nico looked at the wall doubtfully. Then he picked up a piece of red brick from the ground and asked César to bend down so he could sit on his shoulders.
“What are you going to do?” César asked him.
“You'll see. Get close to the wall.”
Nico reached up as high as he could and drew a red circle on the wall at the height of the imaginary hoop.
“Now we can play basketball,” he said.
While the two men talked and studied the plans for the houses, Nico and César played basketball as though they were on the world's most perfect court. When they tired of playing, they sat down together on an old fallen tree-trunk.
“I'm going to be an architect like my dad when I grow up,” Nico said.
“How do you get to be an architrect?” César asked, for whom it was a new word.
“Architect,” his new friend corrected him. “Well, you've got to study a lot.”
“And know how to add well, I guess.”
“I'd like to be an architect, too,“ César said, and blushed.
Nico looked at him, surprised. Then he smiled. “That would be great, César. We could build things together.
“I want to build skyscrapers, like in New York. You too?”
“Sure,” said César, who had seen New York on television and knew that the buildings were really tall there.
“Good, we'll build them together then.”
With his future decided, César stood up and bounced the ball around on the ground. Nico stole the ball from him when he didn't expect it. At that moment Nico's father said goodbye to the constructor and called the boys. They all got back in the car and began the trip home.
During the trip they continued the arithmetic game.
“Nine and a half plus three and a half, Nico,” asked his father.
César was shocked. How could you add such hard numbers?
Nico thought for a long while and finally said, “Twelve and a half.”
“Twelve and a half?” his father said with a smile. “Are you sure?”
Nico frowned. “Wait...thirteen””
“Very good, congratulations. Nine plus five, César.”
César was relieved that he hadn't been asked something with half-numbers. He counted to nine on his fingers and there was one left. He had to calculate the rest in his head for the first time. Finally he said, uncertainly: fourteen?
“Bravo, César!” Nico's father exclaimed, and César felt proud.
“César wants to be an architect too when he grows up,” Nico said. “He'll have to study a lot and be able to add well – right Dad?”
“Yes, and subtract and multiply and divide.”
“Of course,” Nicolás agreed.
The boys were silent for a while, thinking of the enormous task that awaited them.
“Look!” Nico's dad suddenly exclaimed and pointed towards the west, where a gigantic sun seemed pinned over the mountain. “Soon it will fall behind the mountain.”
“Yes,” César said, “like a sword.”
“What sword?” Nico asked him.
Suddenly the sun gave a little jump and fell rapidly behind the mountain, leaving traces of red on it.
“You were right, César,” said Nico's father. “It fell like a sword.”
“I didn't see any sword,” Nico insisted.
“I said like a sword,” César explained.
“Oh, yes, sure,” Nico agreed, and looked at his friend with new respect.
“Maybe you'll be a poet when you grow up, César,” Nico's dad said.
“I want to be an architract like Nico, though.”
“Architect! Nico corrected him again.
“Who knows?” Nico's dad said.
Soon the last traces of the sun vanished from the mountain and the two boys, half-asleep, remained shoulder to shoulder for the rest of the trip.
* * *
Neither César nor Nicolás became architects. Nico changed his mind and studied engineering. He built the marvelous bridge over the Rio de la Plate connecting Buenos Aires with Colonia, in Uruguay – the longest bridge in the world.
César discovered that he had a gift for being able to translate into words the beautiful pictures born in his mind – like that day when he was traveling with Nico and his father and saw a sword fall on the mountain. He remembered the father's words: “Maybe you'll be a poet when you grow up, César.”
After studying in Buenos Aires, where he lived in Nico's home, César traveled around Latin America and even went to New York for a while. He wrote a poem about Nico's bridge, called “The Silver Hoop”, which was translated into many languages.
Finally he returned to his province of San Luis, where he was surprised at how popular his poems had become there, although many people could not read them.
Fiestas and recitals were organized in which César's poems were the favorites and even the poorest people came to hear them. It was during that time that he wrote his most famous book of poems: A Sword Fell on the Mountain, dedicated to Nicolás, his friend for life.