To my father, now asleep in the seat beside me, all this is of carriages and old Fords and a summer when the locusts were so thick cars slid from the road for having risked driving over them. All I've ever known is what he tells me and what I could see out the window. I suppose it would be impossible for him to tell all owing to the impossible ratio worked by the division of words per memory. But how I want him to tell all. The best I can do is stay awake and write down what I see in the failing light.
What I know: Borges wrote a poem about how Buenos Aires dreams itself into being every morning there is someone to raise its flags and also that it was my great grandfather, Antonio Durando, who founded the town of San Jorge, where nothing is raised save cattle, fences, and wind. In Argentina, outside of Buenos Aires, there is damn little to hang one's thoughts upon other than fences. But do go northwest out of the dream city. Adopt the hard direction Antonio Durando did. Go a long way by bus. The branch roads and stops and fence posts provoke, then specify, a peculiar stupor in which daydreams come unsettled within the parentheses of branch roads and fenceposts to trouble the terse, dozing faces of those obliged to take the bus. True, these shunt roads, fences, and faces might be parsing out a similar trajectory across Texas. The low towns cowering to the prairie might be any of those that apologize to the wide plains on which they have been erected by being quickly passed through, coughed at, and then forgotten. One already has seen their like in Abilene, Corsicana, Dalhart, Midland, and Weatherford, all precincts that leave no aftertaste except maybe for whichever brand of breath mint, or cough drop, or cigarette the traveler is partial to at the moment.
The lights go down in the bus. The driver begins the movies. It is as if the transport company would like to apologize for any memories of the land before they take root in your dreams. Perhaps my father dreams of locusts, of his grandfather sitting on the back of an oxcart traveling up this same road. Cinema is profoundly unfair every imagination it touches, so I hope my father is dreaming deeply enough that he is undisturbed by the soundtrack. Anything might come riding out of that silly little screen floating in the dark. (But it is Pargamino, Carcaña, and Tres Cruces out in the dark on the other side of the glass). From whichever window everything will seem to be another vague film about Hollywood horses shrieking in a crossfire followed by a few hours of requisite grimacing over gun sights. There is just no escaping the noise. Odds are better than even you've seen it all before. Whose idea was it, I wonder, to install a video screen on cross-country bus lines? I would write down what I see on the screen if everybody hadn't already seen the movie a thousand times.
The road before the bus is also movie. An oxcart comes together in the gloom. Which movie was that from? The window behind the toilet blackens on the litter that blows into the golden dust rising in our wake. The only proof against Hollywood, lacking a map or an open window, is history. To me everything between Buenos Aires and San Jorge reduces to distance. I divide distance by speed with difficulty. The instinct is an adult version of repeatedly asking my father when we will arrive. The only cure for this situation is speed. Texans and Argentines alike know this medicine and its prescription seems to be liberally sanctioned by the transport company. We are always pouring it on like hell in this bus, going faster than a fire truck, driving as if we were in a disaster movie. It is so dark that there is no way to judge our speed. I have nothing of my own to fill the darkness. What it is to ride the nose of a bullet. You will be where you hit. We're driving into a fiction.
Outside it could be any year that would allow for power lines to pace the bus and for unlit aces roads to rush over to meet your progress. After electricity then, the year when the movie you are watching on the bus to begin as a story first told in the roadhouses, sans son, sans lumière. But the movies are so loud and, after all, they tell themselves. Nothing to do but drink Fanta in the dark.
A friend is someone you sit beside at the movies even if he is also your father and asleep. I wonder what pass-time stories did my great grandfather overhear bored men in transit telling each other on the Giulio Cesare. The afterdecks of the Italian liner that brought him to Buenos Aires must have run with revolution in 1875. Perhaps they recounted some fable of Gambetta's escape from Paris in a hot air balloon or Garibaldi's surprise appearance in the chambers of the senate. Or perhaps the older men among them admitted some Roman nostalgia founded on roads and public works. Perhaps it was listening to these two possible ways in the world when Antonio made up his mind, if there was such a moment (thirty-six years of watching American movies tells me that minds are always made up in one moment). Antonio arrived in a land only recently ravaged by men named Rosas and Quiroga. Everything that was not yet built was newly ruined. This does not at all seem remote to me.
A jazz of fenceposts accompanied by the occasional faded yellow horn of a porch light, punctuated by the blat of some crushed roadside beast, a chorus of rough men gathered to bonfires drinking out a thin red song from what appears to be a skin. Another donkey. Another cart. Some damn robot on the screen. The bus becomes more a thing of science fiction for every indifferently lit hamlet it roars awake, each with its group of sober and sweatered midnight travels gather under single-bulb shelters. Once they stumble on to the shuddering bus, once they begin to warm, the smell of wine that rolls out of them rolled into my dreams and filled me with stories retold in lost boliches I will never see. I thought of the passengers who went out into that cold, who were blown clean of the bus smell. Did they also have the movie blown out of them? Did they carry the movie out with them into the dark? Who knows what confusion will arise in the retelling of these violent robotic spectacles.
Pargamino, Carcaña, Tres Cruces, toward San Jorge. The sun is coming up. The dust has been settled by the dew. San Jorge is the town founded by my great grandfather, but we swerve away, hastening for no reason until Las Varillas.
My cousin meets us outside the firehouse where the bullet, the engine, stops and becomes a bus again. We pile heavily into his warm Chevy and wait for our shoes to relax in the hot jets coming from beneath the dash. A dawn breakfast somewhere. I ate bread. We stopped to look at a triangular plot of land. This is what my cousin does. He verifies. Newly outside this town again whose name, if you translate loosely enough to keep the joke from escaping, means "the sticks," we come to a small crossing. I hop out and open a gate into my cousin's inheritance.
Driving across the cattle guard in the Chevy, that invisible fence that make all cows fear for their feet, the tires rumble the same way they do in North America. San Antonio is why my cousins' father named the place. I have never known why.
My cousin Marcelo led us through the cool rooms of the house my uncle built. We ducked under the oddly low and wide thresholds, caused small showers of mortar wherever our shoulders brushed the walls, found our way to the bedrooms, cranked open reluctant window, and let smells that had been building for years escape from the closets.
It all smelled like hay dust and molasses feed when it you drop it through sunshine to see if it is still worth feeding to the horses. I had been there before, though I remember no story in particular about Argentina save what can be gathered together from bright motes: 1972, my uncle calling cows to the wire, drinking from a stream in the mountains, soldiers at a checkpoint with their Italian submachineguns, insects flying in and out of the light. I still guarded a vague memory of the dimension and plan of the rooms at San Antonio. I knew I would see the machine shed before I opened the shutter in the living room.
"Do you remember your last night here?" Marcelo asked my father. We hadn't spent the night in 1972. It wouldn't have been safe, I imagine, a young family so far out of town in a house with no telephone. We stayed with my uncle's family in Las Varillas proper. He must have been talking about my father's first departure. My cousin Marcelo is my age, so I wondered how he ha know to ask this question. My father, long since a United States citizen, left Argentina in the mid fifties to attend M.I.T. and, not coincidentally, to avoid national service. Throughout the Vietnam War and its aftermath the family would joke that my father was a draft dodger, I think mostly to provoke his colleagues at the defense plant. Shortly after my father emigrated, factions of the Argentine army fought an artillery duel inside the wide limits of Buenos Aires itself; it is not surprising that military service has never been seen as anything but a dead end in our family.
So much had happened, but Marcelo's seemingly idle question pressed all of contemporary Argentine history into whether or not my father remembered one night at one of the family's several ranch houses, sometime in the 1950s. The house itself still stands furnished and livable with a good fireplace and a eucalyptus tree grown up to hide it from the gate, which likes at some long distance--I knew exactly which shutter to open to see the gate. You could live a good, if lonely life here, I though, so long as you weren't obliged to leave, so long as nobody ever arrived at the gate to oblige you.
My father put his hand into a wide crack in the wall and withdrew a bit of plaster.
A Mauser carbine hung above the hearth. I took it down, opened its breach and blew it out, then unlimbered its sights. The chamber was large and strange, unlike any rifle I'd ever handled. It must have been about forty or fifty caliber, as my little finger slipped easily into the bore. Military Rifles of the World informs me that the carbine belongs to that indeterminate period in the history of firearms over which musketry gave way to shorter arms but nevertheless before the invention of smokeless powder. The manufacturer's stamp told me it had been assembled in Liège. I put my business card against the block to keep the firing pin from breaking and tested the stiff action on the trigger. A dry snap echoed through the house at San Antonio. I imagined that the house had served as a hideout for my father, that he had risked being asked for his papers on the roads. Perhaps Marcelo knew about a day, or week, or month of hiding out before leaving, of something beyond an ordinary farewell.
My father continued his explorations of the cracks widening through the walls of the house. He continued to put his hands into them to withdraw loose concrete, bits of brick, and spines of metal. I wondered whether he was trying to tear his brother's house down. Marcelo showed me how the windage arms of the carbine folded out. I noticed that the sights of this weapon rather optimistically suppose that its bearer could hit targets a kilometer away. The fact that it was equipped with windage arms was equally surprising. It would take a gifted marksman indeed to hit a distant target with such a weapon, even on a day when the wind lay too weak to stir any dust. The original gunsmith in Belgium must have elected to economize on hardware by installing surplus rifle sights on this horseman's weapon. It is hard to imagine otherwise--in the whole history of firearms no carbine was ever meant to be effective at such distances.
The serial number stamped on the knoxform was from a year when trenches and rifles were trumping horsemen from the Crimea to Chancellorsville. A year when Gambetta was reforming the French army against the Prussians and when Antonio Durando, my great grandfather, was born. But fortunately for Hollywood, the folly of cavalry charges continued well into the First World War and all the way into the Second when Polish lancers tested their mounts against German tanks.
Armed with carbines such as the one I held any ambushing party's firing position would have been immediately compromised. Employed in a siege, the same smoke would obscure the commanding officer's view of the enemy works such that he would not know when or where to direct his assault. (Unless said commander had been wise enough to order an advance with unloaded weapons, which was not an uncommon practice in the American Civil War for this reason and because it forced the men to trust in their bayonets).
Here is where speed and distance and time conspire in the history of the Mauser. If one managed to carry the little rifle around your enemy's flank, finessed your way around the killing radii set down by his long rifles, managed to keep your horse under control at a flat out run, perhaps while under the fire of skirmishers, you might have been able to prop it on a hillock, or more likely across the saddle of a dead horse and then fire into the enemy's flank. The carbine thus presupposes epic fire discipline and speed of maneuver, therefore an elite and knowing commander.
My father put his hand into the wall again. Against my father's instructions my uncle had filled the roof with too much earth, perhaps hoping to keep the house that much cooler in the summer. These walls, my father said, were not doing very well. I handed him the carbine to distract him fro doing further damage and wondered briefly how it might have been for him had he been inducted into the Argentine army. What weapon would he have been trained to service? "Carbines like this were given out by the government," explained Marcelo, "I think thy came as a gift from the Swiss."
The racket raised by a flock of parrots passing between the eucalyptus windbreaks out on the road only make the land here seem more lonely in the moments after they pass. In that moment when the exterior sounds of the world rearranged themselves into a set of logical clues as to what is going on outdoors, I imagined Indians gathering, for my great grandfather's memoir mentions a massacre not far from San Antonio. But soon I heard the wind and the cows again and remembered that history would tell me that General Rosas's columns, when they weren't suppressing civil unrest in Rosario, Córdoba, and Buenos Aires, had been employed against the tribes to an effect far beyond the genocidal imaginings of his counterpart on the American frontier, General Sherman.
The Mauser owes to an era of intense arms proliferation throughout the world's colonized continents, enabling dozens of savage colonial wars. Many of these carbines doubtlessly remain in working order. Still there is so much open space between the windbreaks and who knows how many households that have an invisible killing radius drawn in around them. I imagine lonely owners looking out at the single road leading in, looking out over Mauser sights from another century. In Argentina, as well as Texas, once you cross that invisible line, once you rumbled over the cattle guard, you do everything you can to make yourself seem polite and unthreatening from a distance. "To hello the house," as we used to say when walking in the country around Fort Worth.
Translate "Las Varillas" exactly, bypass the easy joke, and you arrive at "the fenceposts," the same wooden fenceposts you see in Texas on the very rustic bits of land beside unmaintained highways, fences that are hardly anything more than straightish kindling rudely wired into a barrier and set into the ground only where the land is soft enough to yield. These are the sorts of fences that depend on the idea of a fence to keep people and knowledgeable animals back -- for such fences have little force outside of making one think "I am now crossing into someone's land," or perhaps making one careful of one's clothes. The wind blows through the fenceposts, but then it's supposed to. As do motes of hay, the memory of my uncle calling cows to this rusty wire. It is understood that anything more substantial than a cry or a memory risks a heavy bullet in the teeth. Such is the risk of crossing such a fence.
Once, in Texas, I stood in a hard field far from the highway with a young National Guardsman while he fired an M16 toward distant headlights. Had one! of them blinked out, had we heard the soft pop of a distant crash, this crime would have only seemed like a prank. Distance isolates, makes the consequences of murderous irresponsibility seem something that could be safely run from and laughed about later. Such is the risk in distance.
I heard the wind sighing through the eucalyptus again and I closed the carbine's breach, folded the windage arms, limbered the sights. I remade the carbine into the short, wide, and blind weapon that it really is, and hung it back on the wall. By then I was wondering how long the wall above the hearth would bear its weight. Though the Mauser's length made mounting a horse easier for its bearer, it has nothing of the glory we associate with the saber. It is in all respects, a myopic weapon, one that supposes horsemen. Horsemen in turn suppose a wide variety or implements and expertise and crimes (in that the quantities of fodder necessary to keep the animals from foundering can only be supplied by theft once the squadron has departed its garrison. Cavalrymen themselves presuppose a native population of boys at ease in the stirrup long before the age of induction, future citizens who need no training whatsoever save discipline and, perhaps, a few afternoons learning the workings of the odd German carbine.
Had my father not left Argentina, he might have gone into national service like my cousin's husband Teddy did. By 1972, the cavalry was gone from the country, but the generals still loomed large across its face. Teddy was trained to fire the FAL rifle and then stationed in the guard box before his barracks. One nervous night in Rosario after a series of terrorist bombings, a strange man approached his post.
Teddy recounted the story to me years later in Paris.
"He parked his car at the corner. Not too close, but would you park in front of a barracks? The guy just walked up. I pointed my rifle at him and told him to lie down. The bombings had just begun and all of us were quite nervous. I told the guy to lie down. He held his hands out before him and kept walking. I couldn't figure out why. I put my rifle on him and told him I was going to shoot. He said something about wanting to use the phone. He lay down in the street and I began to count. I still think of this today. One. He put his hands behind his head. Two. He was really quite close. My sergeant knocked the rifle out of my hands before I could continue. Like something from the movies. To this day, I cannot understand why that guy kept walking toward me."
It is impossible to imagine my father bearing the modern FAL, a Belgian rifle based on a Nazi design, or even the Mauser with its history of speed, precision of maneuver, a plodding enemy column poorly led. In Argentina in the era of my great grandfather, such a carbine has civil war built into its indoors ease-of-use; in my father's Argentina the history of the FAL is almost as long and dark as the weapon itself. Such arms were carried openly and accepted as being necessary for domestic security. It is, at least, an eminently accurate rifle. The short-sighted carbine, on the other hand, forced its bearer to believe in the accuracy of the state's aim. One has difficulty choosing which weapon's significance is more sinister, but nobody can blame my father for stepping outside of the weighty military logic of his native country. How heavily the army's demands upon Argentine society must be, given the poor state of the country's finances. It is surprising to me that Argentina continues to support a standing army at all. If it weren't for the occasional, incomprehensible menace of Chile, one would imagine the national gendarmerie would be enough to keep order in the now Indianless territories. Old habits die hard.
Just as all weapons suppose specific targets, every state adventure requires enemies who are most convenient if they are invented by the state itself. This way, incipient revolutions are always depicted as a simple rise of violence. Tales of massacres still resonate in the memoirs written by country people, but say nothing of the conditions that provoked them. "I bought a thousand hectares near a town called Piamonte," wrote my great grandfather, but does not say from whom. The violence that we all come out of is therefore taken as a given, as susceptible to reason as a guard post, inert and heavy as lead.
If we are to accept my cousin Marcelo's explanation, that the carbine found its way to San Antonio thanks to an implausible Swiss concern for Argentine home defense, here we find it in the country, out of ammunition but still prized among the target population, obsolete, and heavy as history itself. There is something perverse in thinking of the Swiss as the agents provocateurs that lends plausibility to my cousin's account, for all Argentine history pivots on perversity. The land and house at San Antonio, since this writing has passed from my family, lost as collateral put up to cover a bad loan.
The house still stands as a refuge in my mind, an extra house I might have cajoled my way into should it have ever become necessary. The loneliness found there is best cured by crossing great distances at all possible speed, by affecting other lives distant from yours, by buses and carbines. In considering ballistics, force equals mass multiplied by acceleration has a lot to say about bullets. Distance equals history divided by bullshit, when it comes to the past. Bullshit equals history multiplied by distance, is the equation the state holds dear. We sit in a stupor of memories, let our bodies go, until we say "enough" and leap across the equator or, in my great grandfather's case, the Atlantic as well. The Mauser could just range the gate to San Antonio if fired from the window defiladed by eucalyptus leaves, assuming you could find ammunition to feed it. The house would fill with smoke and you would go deaf; this is the price of the house's defense. In the end, it will not be the weight of the roof that will bring San Antonio down. Earth returns to earth to the detriment of anything that comes in between.