Still Dust Remains
By Sandrine Collette
Sample translation by Gretchen Schmid
The steppe of Patagonia, Argentina
Since he was the youngest, his brothers had adopted the habit of pursuing him on horseback around the outside of the house, when the mother wasn’t looking. As soon as the twins had enough strength to catch him by the collar and lift him up, galloping on their criollo horses, it became their favorite pastime. They awarded points to whoever could drag him to the corner of the barn, whoever could pass the old gray wooden buildings – then the dead tree, then the gorse bushes – before releasing him in the dust.
Each time, the little one saw them coming. He heard their cries, purposefully loud so as to frighten him, and the sound of their horses’ hooves dashing over the loose stones, which made his stomach tremble, as though the earth was vibrating underneath his feet; surely this amused them, his brothers perched high in their saddles, with their easy laughs that covered the clatter of the horseshoes.
He froze, one arm in the air, the arm that held the stick with which he had been playing, making ripples in the drinking trough. If the water was dirty, too bad. He made himself completely still, just like the field mice on the steppe did when the rustling of the wings of the hawks above them alerted them too late, his eyes too widening in fright, praying that his ears, his brain, his instincts were fooling him; but always, they were upon him in several strides, buzzards swooping towards their prey, leaning forward on their crazy horses. Stuck in the middle of the backyard, the little one didn’t have time to reach the kitchen where their mother was stirring, mashing, butchering: once it had begun, he knew, at least, to run. Once or twice, he had tried to call her, seeing her severe silhouette behind the square windows, chopping meat or cutting vegetables as though she were slaughtering them, concentrated and angry; but she didn’t hear him, didn’t see him, not even the day when he succeeded in tapping on the window before being picked up by Mauro – or perhaps she was just disinterested, which he preferred not to even think about. The only thing that she did, truthfully, was to thrash him afterwards, shouting that she had had enough of his wetting his pants. And his brothers mocked him, watching, yelling: The pisser! The pisser! while she forced him to run behind her ass-naked to go change, throwing his soiled pants in the laundry basket with an exasperated gesture.
Already in his head, he knew that he would never escape these terrifying hunts; but he tried despite everything, up until the last minute, even in vain, up until he felt his brothers’ fingers scratch his skin as they seized the collar of his shirt. He waddled on his too-short legs, desperate just to stay in place when he would have needed to jump and leap in order to escape, and squeaked in fright, which made Mauro and Joaquin cry with laughter. In the beginning, the twins, six years older than him, joined together to hook him from their horses, each one grabbing him by a shoulder. It wasn’t until they reached ten years of age that they were powerful enough to chase him alone; and already Steban, born two years after them, had joined the game too, eager to take his turn.
Half strangled and feet pedaling in the empty air, Rafael saw the landscape unfold at a prodigious speed; he was being jostled like an old sack, his hearing muffled by the frantic gallop of the criollos. Already vanquished, eyes halfway shut in fear, he could barely make out the grass and the shrubs streaming by on his side, the pebbled pathway blurry underneath his legs, which he had lifted up so that they didn’t twist or get stuck underneath the stomach of the horses, and he pleaded in a low voice for them not to drop him. Oftentimes , gravel would strike his cheek and he would return home with a bruise. His mother would shout at him: You were wandering around again.
One day he fell while running away, and his brothers couldn’t reach him, because he was too low for them to grab. So he began doing this every time, stretching himself out on the ground as soon as they launched after him, getting up again in fits and starts to trot, falling over and over again, until he reached the house. The horses stopped on the hilltops, turned round, came back. He fell again. Sometimes a hoof would strike him—accidentally, because the criollos avoided him as much as possible, reluctant to step on the small form stretched out underneath them – and the furious brothers would spur them onwards with their heels, spitting insults, asshole, wuss, little shit, because to be a man you had to be strong and hold yourself up straight.
He was four years old.
The next season, the twins became more agile, and they swiped him from the ground like you pick up a ball, leaning from the stirrups to reach him.
Another year later, they fought over him during the chase. From then on, the twin that had caught him had to defend himself against the attacks of the other, zigzagging on his horse, pulling at the horse’s mouth and kicking it in the stomach with his spurs to make it run faster. And the little one, if he didn’t want to fall, had to hold on tight, grabbing onto a leg or hanging from a strap, because the older ones needed both arms free to fight against each other. And when he heard their heavy breathing as they fended each other off, he would balance himself against the shoulder of the horse, his fingers sliding on the damp mane, caught just in time by whichever one of the brothers was winning the game. And then the dash would continue, whether for two meters or for twenty, and it would begin all over again. Sometimes Steban would end it by outrunning the twins when they didn’t expect it and filching the little one for the last hundred meters, and they were so unused to being taken by surprise by the idiot that it disconcerted them every time.
From month to month, the falls became harder. Joaquin had found, on the other side of the stream, a thorny grove that he had dubbed Rafael’s house – he had written it in crooked letters on a plank of wood at the edge, in a place where he was certain their mother would never go, because she would ask about it, force them to invent stories. But so far away, they were in peace, and with his brothers he crossed the river, galloping and screaming:
“Ready to drop the rat into his hole?”
The little one would hold his breath so that he didn’t get a mouthful of water in middle of the river, rolling himself into a ball when they threw him against the tight branches of the bush. He would come out with his nose bloody, one eye halfway shut or his cheeks scratched up by the thorns against which he had been thrown. Sometimes he would walk for an hour before finding the house again, because his brothers would take him further and further away. You have the time, they would bellow at him, you don’t work! So he would sniffle, blood and snot mixed together, willing himself not to cry in front of them, and they would watch him turn and walk away. He would follow the path in reverse and return to the pastures, along the green and orange meadows that shone under the sun, stretching out their dry grass and cracked stones. An immense plain – the steppe, their mother said with arrogance and a sort of resigned respect – with mesetas looming at the edge, outlining rocky plains, trails of loose stones, burned by the wind. On these prairies of gnawed grass, barbed-wire fences separated out the millions of hectares where the herds wandered tirelessly, looking for something to eat, scouring kilometers in order to survive. As far as the eye could see, the moor was arid and flat, so dry that trees had deserted it, replaced somehow by a few sickly groves, whose ability to survive in so little earth no one could understand.
The forests were far to the west behind the plains, where the altitude changed, unlike in the plain. In the little one’s imagination, they were magic places, carpets of grass higher than a horse, vast stretches of inconceivable trees that the eye couldn’t even see, stumbling at every moment on trunks and leaves. One day he would discover them, when he was big. When he had his own horse. So he dried his nose and his eyes on his sleeve, leaving a brown and wet smear on the dirty fabric. He tried to spit like his brothers – but the majority of the time, the saliva ran down his chin and he had to wipe it again with his shirt, angry to not even be capable of that. Joaquin had promised him that it would happen when the first hair appeared on his buttocks; every evening, he studied himself carefully, disappointed to not see anything appear. Often, setting out again on the path, he clasped his hands in front of his overalls, hoping that someone or something would hear his prayers and make him a solid and hairy man, passing two-thirds of his life on a horse and spitting as well as any of them. He gazed down as if from above, like that of a bird, surveying the plain, caressing the world. And then the ordinary world came back, and it looked like the land of his mother.
Eight years later
Every morning the mother contemplates the destitute steppe when she opens the shutters, stopping her motions when she sees the dogs seated behind the door, who whine as they wait for their food. A property of nothing, worth less than its name written on a panel of wood; but it belongs to her, her alone, and the pride of possessing these vast stretches consoles her in part for the desolate vision of land burned by the wind and drought. In her stomach, the mother feels this tired pride swell, because not everyone can say as much here, that they’re an owner, and she forgets that the land came to her from her husband, as much of a scumbag as he was. When, certain evenings, she remembers where she came from—she, from a family of misery, without fortune and without land—and that her destiny was to exhaust herself working for others, she mutters and broods, finding a thousand flaws in the steppe that he had left her; it was the least she could have, given all the misery that had been done to her over the years. There isn’t a place for gratitude in the mother’s life: what she has, she deserves. And without a doubt, she would have deserved better, if only she had stumbled onto someone else; but she had had bad luck with her husband—everyone knew what he was like—and with these lands which are so barren they barely nourish her animals, a mix of cattle, sheep and goats. Each winter, weak from hunger and exhausted from the cold winds, the weakest die. But she never gives them food, in order to preserve the livestock’s resistance, she says—in reality, because the crops don’t allow for it.
The mother sometimes doesn’t know anymore which way to turn at her ranch, between the corn that grows wherever the earth will let it, the hay that doesn’t grow fast enough and the animals that don’t sell well. At San Leon, they’ve been murmuring for years that they have to stop keeping cattle—for those who still have some. They aren’t putting on any more weight. And then what? cries the mother. Considering how long we’ve been keeping our heads down. But she also has in her blood a sort of shameful defeat, with her family of laborers and servants. Even on her husband’s side, the grandfather had to relinquish his place when the grain harvesters and the big breeders invested in the pampa, pushing people like them a little further into the country. With the railroad, they were pushed even further away. Although the markets had never done so well, now that Europe was finally becoming accessible. Ever since the docking of the first refrigerated boat in 1876, Argentine meat has been exported all the way to France—a hundred and ten days in a boat, and upon arrival, the red flesh underneath the layer of fat as though it had been slaughtered the night before, a miracle.
But of course it was only for the profit of those who could buy immense operations, organize themselves in firms, create industrial farms and transportation networks, yes, the smaller ranchers are going to disappear. The breeding of dozens of millions of heads and the never-ending fields of crops had already eradicated them from the pampa, and in the plains of Patagonia where they had sought refuge, the cattle stay sickly, barely putting any weight on. If you want to get of here, you need to accept your lot: only the sheep are holding up. They’ve settled in. Nothing but sheep, and the ranchers don’t complain, really, because there’s an equal profit to be made with wool, from England who snatches it all up for its industry, by the dozens of millions of tons. The mother spits on the floor. She makes wool, obviously, is obliged to, and this doesn’t go too badly; but she would rather die than give up her Angus and Shorthorn cattle, and even her Charolais bulls acquired for the price of gold—maybe she should have eaten them all, if she doesn’t find a buyer. If they prefer pink and fatty meat from intensive breeders who suffocate them before the second generation. And these machines that everyone talks about that replace the horses in their work, she doesn’t want anything to do with them: they’ll never make it on the steppe. Do they hear what she tells them, for heaven’s sake? It will never come to that.
Stubborn about her wild convictions, she counts the pregnant heifers and prepares the land with her sons, plans, labors, repairs the fences as though nothing would ever change. She doesn’t see why she would act otherwise. Doesn’t know how to do anything else, she who arrived at her father-in-law’s house at the age of sixteen. For her, things never change.
And yet the era moves forward and changes, and she should realize it, if nothing else when watching her sons grow up. Sometimes, interrupting her own task for a minute, she watches them slave away. Mauro has surpassed his twin by a head, carries beams of wood, fixes the barn, abnormally robust although he did reach eighteen years in the spring, it’s as though all the strength went into that boy. Joaquin and Steban maintain the planks, drive in nails and clean up the pastures, clear the trailer out of the muck it’s stuck in. The little one runs around, always waving his arms around and chatting like a magpie. Puts his hands on a pitchfork or a hammer to help, press, push, clean. And if the mother did have to take all the pains in the world to sit them down for long enough on a chair to teach them the rudiments of writing, now they do know how to read and add, so that they don’t get too tangled up when they go to the market or the corner store. Even if it had taken years, the mother never abandoned this task, using threats and slaps to keep them awake in front of their book or their arithmetic – and watched them stream out onto the steppe after every lesson, like birds cooped up for too long in a cage.
Yes, during all the time it took to put something inside their heads, the world changed further, the world and her kids, and even the little one, Rafael, who remains thin but who had grown taller like a bad seed, with his long brown hair and his clear skin. He must have taken that from his father’s side, an extinct lineage, unlike what the harsh tongues that had the audacity to wonder must have said: oh, surely they wondered when they saw the little one on the day of his baptism. But the mother is secure in her own conscience, she knows well, she who pulled herself up in life more often than was her due. And looking at her youngest who is so handsome, she can’t help but feel a sense of pride, all the same, she’s the one who created him: this little one wanted by nobody, born too late, and all the worse, he has her own smile. Back when she still smiled, it had made her feel ill at ease.
Of course, those first years, when he would come back to the house with a ruined face almost every day, it was the elder ones avenging themselves. They wanted to remain as three, like in the time of their father. The fourth brother, they would have left him to be devoured on the plains, if they hadn’t been so afraid of her, the mother, her dirty looks, her ferocious slaps. Of course she could have protected him more; but consolation wasn’t in her nature. You didn’t bring up boys by coddling them after every scratch. They would manage: it was the same for her, she who had two brothers, and, a long time ago, a sister, dead of fever at the age of five. You needed to toughen up in order to live here, because existence is harsh. Brought up by the rod, she was, and her kids would be the same way. So she never said anything, even now that blows had replaced the horse chases and Rafael stayed so often out of the way, like an unwanted sheep in a herd, with dozens of little scars on his cheeks and his arms. So that he didn’t fall in the pathway of the elder ones, who rubbed their horses down in the evenings in the stables, he worked longer and longer out of doors. He joined them at the table without a noise, gliding in like a cat. The shadow of a bruise on his cheekbones. Steban continued to eat without lifting his eyes, mute, far from them all, always. The twins giggled at their plates. Quieting all of a sudden when the mother turns towards them, furious, her hand ready to give them a slap. She hates them when they’re like this.
She hates them all, all of the time. But that too, that’s life, she didn’t have the choice. Now that they’re there. Sometimes she says to herself that she could have drowned them at birth, like you do with cats that you don’t want; but there, you have to do it right away. Afterwards, it’s too late. It’s not that you get attached: it’s no longer the time, is all. Afterwards they look at you. They have open eyes. And really the mother did think about it, but she had missed her chance. So the days where she can’t bear her sons any longer, she takes vengeance by remembering what she could have done. She had them in the palm of her hand. All she had to do was drop them in water. And they would never realize what they owed her, their luck just to be alive. Hearing them chuckling at the table, she remembers the birth of each one, the doubts, the temptations. Bites her tongue in order not to say anything – of course it would relieve her so, but she has to save that for an exceptional day, a true day of hatred, black and profound.