The Eucalyptus Trees by Julio Ribeyro

This is the fifth in a series of short stories I have translated from Spanish. Read the introductory post on Julio Ribeyro and this series.

Between my house and the sea, there was an open land twenty years ago. One just had to follow the aqueduct along the Dos de Mayo Street, cross the pasture area and the vacant piece of land, to arrive at the ravine’s border. A concrete tunnel through the hills led to the La Pampilla, a mostly deserted beach, frequented only by the fishermen. 

We went there on Saturdays, accompanied by the housemaid and the dogs. The beach was narrow and rocky – there was barely a thin band between the ravine and the sea. We spent long hours exhuming dead ducks, picking up sea shells and snails. The dogs ran around the beach, happily barking at the sea. Moss and wild weeds climbed over the side of the cliff, and we drank the fine water that fell down in the cove of our palms. 

Matilde, our maid, always led our group. Despite her young age, she knew many strange things as folks who grow up in the countryside do. She prepared traps for the sparrows, distinguished between the nettle bush and the brushwood, or the wasp combs between the crevices of a wall. On the way, she picked up watercress flowers to gift to Benito, the fisherman. Together they retired by the narrow mountain side into a filthy area where they buried themselves in the sand. Sometimes, we followed to spy on them or prowled around them, throwing stones into the abyss. 

Much later, when we knew the huaca Juliana, we forgot about the sea. The huaca was for us, full of mystery. It was a dead city, a city for the dead.  We never dared to stay there after dusk. It was warm under the light of the sun and we knew the memories of its slopes and the smell of its earth, where pieces of pottery had been found. At twilight, indeed, it was covered with sadness, for it appeared sick and we ran away, terrified by the mountain slope. It was said that there was a hidden treasure, a ball that lit up the moon. There were, moreover, somber legends of dead men whose mouths were full of froth. 

The townspeople called our neighborhood Matagente. Back then, it did not have street lights. At night, the streets were gloomy and we went around with lanterns. Sometimes we went as far as the Mar del Plata, an old abandoned house, just above the Avenida Pardo. Through the wooden gate, we observed the garden where the wild growth invaded the streets and the stone steps. Lost among the foliage, one could see plaster statues with lost arms, without noses, dirty with dust and the excrements gathered from the street. Some of the statues had fallen from their pedestal and lay semi-buried among the dead leaves. We never knew who the house belonged to and what happened inside. Its blinds were always closed. Pigeons nested around the building. 

Besides the rubber trees on the Avenida Pardo, the laurels of Costanera, the mulberries on the intersecting streets of our neighborhood were the eucalyptus trees. The house of the millionaire, Gutierrez, was encircled by around fifty of these enormous trees that had grown for over a century before, maybe since the war with Chile. Not even the old residents of Santa Cruz knew who had planted them. Their strong roots were outgrown and lined up streets, cracking up the ground. Their branches rustled with the wind, and occasionally, they gave off and fell on the street with a cataclysmic sound. In less than ten minutes, they disappeared. People from all the timber yards came with axes, machetes, knives and attacked the fallen branches to extract firewood with the vengeance of cutting meat. 

Those trees were like the guardian genies of the place. They gave our neighborhood a peaceful appearance in a corner of the countryside. Their thick leaves protected us from the sun in the summer; they guarded us from the dust when the winds blew. We climbed up their trunks like monkeys. We knew its thick bark from which a fragrant gum gushed out. Their leaves were replenished throughout the year and they fell down – red , yellow and silvery, in the garden.  From its tops, the cuculis doves sang and one could see them from the huaca, from the sea, because our trees stood out more arrogantly than the entire seaside resort. Only in the park there was a magnificent pine of which we were jealous. 

Under the eucalyptus trees, the all-colorful people of Santa Cruz used to parade. When we saw the mad Saavedra with his sickle in hand and a sack of grass on his back, we climbed its trunk, and from that height, immune to his anger, we made fun of his condition.  He would speak to himself, singing, and the moment he spotted us, he threatened us with his sickle and attacked us by throwing lumps of mud that got dispersed in the air. Then he rang the doorbells of the houses, asking for food. Sometimes the dogs barked, at other times, neighbours gave him copper coins that he bought alcohol with. 

The mad Saavedra provided one service to the community. With his sickle, he cleaned the aqueducts, unscrewed the locks and allowed the water from the aqueduct to circulate. Noone ever figured out if he did that work out of selfishness or obligation. He was always without his shoes, wet, dirty with mud till his knees. His only elegance was by way of his hats. Each week, he brought a different one, the broad-rimmed soft chambergos  hats, sailor’s caps, schoolboy berets.  Finally, he went around without a shirt but always with a beautiful top hat. 

Sometimes weeks passed before we saw him appear. The water overflowed and invaded the private gardens. They said he was dead. But when least expected, he reappeared, paler, dirtier, more deranged than ever. His resurrection filled us with dread because we always believed his presence was cast by his spirit. With time, we saw less and less of him. Matilde said that he was where the Japanese Maria drank strong rum in beer glasses. Finally, he disappeared for good. One afternoon, we saw a truck carrying a coffin and a bouquet of flowers, followed by a troop of barking dogs.  They carried the mad man to the cemetery of Surquillio. 

Much later, when a number of new houses were built and more neighbours appeared in our midst, we boys formed a real gang. Since we were big in number, we dared to go beyond the area of the eucalyptus trees and ventured as far as the calle Enrique Palacios, where many families of the town lived. There was another gang there that we called the gang of the cholo Indians. They called us the gang of the gringos and threw stones at us with their slings. Our fights followed. More than once, we returned home with broken heads. Our neighborhood was in reality like a small village where the class rivalries were notorious. There were the people with the large yards, those of the streets, those with a country house, those with a villa and those with little palaces. Each class had its own group, unique customs and manner of dressing. They strictly kept distance from each other, and even during festivals, they never lost their sense of hierarchies. We were furious when the blacks threw balloons filled with colored water and wet our sisters, like the children who wore socks and went to the mass in an automobile; they went pale with anger when we threw balloons with aniline. 

In one of the streets of Enrique Palacios lived Don Santos, an enigmatic man. It was said he was the richest cholo in the neighborhood, the proprietor of shops and plots. No one ever saw him working. He spent the day leaning on Maria’s counter, drinking cheap pisco. As dusk approached, he would reach the eucalyptus trees and urinate his drunkenness on their trunks. When he saw us pass, he called us to his side to tell us the story of his life. He spoke of Paris, of the Latin Quarter. He said he had lived there for twenty years, had his paletot overcoat and styled a Valentino haircut. He spoke of his minister friends, of his current account, of a banquet to to which he was invited that very night. Seeing our skeptical faces, he remained quiet, looked pained and begged us with a pitiful voice to get him a job. 

With time, our barrio was transforming. It was enough that they put up electric lights and  regularized the supply of potable water, so houses started to sprout on the land like seasonal weeds. All over the place, one could see workers digging foundation pits for the cement, putting up walls and reinforcing the frameworks. The timber yards were demolished and cleared of the dirt. The townspeople fled to the outer skirts of the city, carrying beams and adobe bricks to set up their tenements. The grand aqueducts were canalized and we could no longer race our paper boats over their running currents. The Santa Cruz hacienda was ceding its pasture land where they were drawing streets and planting lamp posts. Finally, the huaca Juliana was cut down and reduced to a ridiculous burial ground without grandeur, without mystery. 

Soon, houses surrounded us from all sides.  They were made in a variety of styles – the Limeño imagination doesn’t have any limits. One could see chalets designed like ships with ox eyes and metal railings, Californian houses with enormous roofs to support the timid drizzle, small neo-classical palaces with strong Doric columns and cement friezes representing invented shields; there was never a lack of these strange Baroque constructions that united simultaneously – the medieval warhead, the balcony of the Colonial times, the Arabesque minarets and the romantic cavern, where a virgin chaposa smiled from its plaster at the passersby. To arrive at the alley, we had to cross street after street, go around the plazas, take care of the omnibus and bring our dogs on leashes. A railing separated us from the sea. Earlier, getting there meant a travel through the countryside, an expedition that was only undertaken by adventurers and fishermen. Now the city folk routinely frequented it on Sundays along with their families and cats. 

The colorful people dissolved in the mass of neighbors. All around, one saw the mediocrity, the indifference. Don Santos disappeared, just like Saavedra. Our policeman changed. Our dogs were run over. You could no longer see the man who, with his basket and lantern, proclaimed on winter nights “hot revolution” or the cows of the Santa Cruz hacienda that moaned and sounded their bells. The old man who sold shoes reemployed the donkey on a tricycle. The first cinema house was the symbol of our progress, as was the first church, the price of our devolution. We only lacked a mayor and a cabaret. 

In the middle of these movements, there remained the same aged but without loss of their strength – the eucalyptus trees. Our lookout, running from the roofs and antennas, found repose in its foliage. Its vision restored the peace and solitude we’d been robbed of. We were growing, we were discovering in those trees a new significance, we gave them new uses… we were neither climbing its branches nor playing hide and seek around their trunks, but we had an age of perversity in that we targeted their tops with slingshots to bring down the doves perched there. Much later, we would have our rendezvous with girlfriends under their shadows. We engraved on their barks, our first hearts. 

One morning a truck stopped in front of our house.  Three black men descended from its cabin carrying saws, machetes and ropes. From their looks, it appeared they were there to execute a sinister task. The news that they were pruners from Chincha circulated around the neighborhood. In no time at all, they climbed the eucalyptus trees and started cutting off their branches. Their work was so quick that we had no time to think anything. It took them just a week to cut down all the fifty trees. It was truly a massacre. The traffic had to be suspended. We, who had over fifteen years, grown up under the shade of those trees watched the work sadly. We saw those tree trunks falling one by one; the ones where the spiders wove their webs, others where we hid the paper soldiers, the thick one, the one in the corner, the one that shook its mane when it was windy and filled the air with its heady perfume. When the saws had cut them into equal lengths, we realized something profound had happened, that they had died like trees, to be reborn as things. On the trucks, only a profusion of rigid beams awaiting a gloomy fate remained. 

The town progressed. But our street had lost its shade, its peace, its poetry. Our eyes took a long time to get accustomed to this new piece of bare sky, to the long white wall that skirted the entire street like a cemetery wall. New children came with their toys to the gloomy street. They were happy because they were ignorant of the past. They could not understand why we occasionally stood at the door of the house, burnt a cigarette and remained looking at the air, pensively.

 Read more stories by Julio Ribeyro on this blog

Author: bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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