Sara Jaramillo Klinkert
I don’t know who found the head, Juan, or if there ever was a head. What I can tell you is that no farmers passed through the wetland of the beheaded after ten o’clock at night. However we had to cross the wetland to get to our uncle’s farm. It was only possible on horseback. We left the jeep parked in the town square, where my uncle would visit the canteen, ‘just to say hello’, but as usual the greeting lasted well into the night. The locals were fond of him and the way to show it was having a drink together. Rum was what he liked the most, it made his cheeks red and his voice out of tune. When we managed to get him out of the canteen, we would put him on the horse and he would begin singing. He had done his medical practice in that sanctuary lost in the mountains, where years later he bought the farm. He went there every weekend, supposedly to rest, but I think he didn’t rest at all. The locals kept consulting him about things, you know: it hurts here, it hurts there, even my soul hurts. He treated them all without charging. They thanked him with chickens, homemade dulce de leche, fresh milk and rare birds. Imagine the henhouse filled with chickens and strange birds. The dulce de leche, on the other hand, didn’t last a second. We ate it by the spoonful. We fought among us to let the birds go free. I still remember the feeling of watching them take flight in less than a blink of an eye.
..……..We learned the concept of freedom from Uncle. No, of course he didn’t care that there was no road, no electricity, no aqueduct; on the contrary, he said that was what he liked the most. Riding a horse, lighting our way with a torch, taking a bath in the river. Actually, we all liked going there, especially the children; that’s why we jumped with excitement every time he invited us to spend the weekend with him. You can imagine what it was like for us to walk the bridle path that went from the town to the farm. There were nights when the darkness was so absolute that you couldn’t even see the back of your own hand. The only reason we managed to get there was because the horses knew the way. I remember the dense forest with trees so old and so big that even with our hands joined together we could not reach around them. Uncle bowed to them every time he passed them. He said they were the only things worth respecting.
..……..The foliage housed all kinds of animals, sounds and ghosts: you know how superstitious people in the countryside are, they make up those things that can’t be explained. La Madremonte, el Mohan, la Llorona, the Beheaded. On horseback, you had to cross a river and if you didn’t raise your legs properly, the icy water would bite you. Of course, they built improvised bridges time and again: two stones and a plank that, as soon as it rained, were washed away by the flood, the same one that so often tore off our boots. Nobody else has any idea what a real downpour is, only those who have been there understand the true meaning of the word rain. At night, the bats passed so close that we feared they would crash into our faces. There were so many fireflies that when they got tangled in our hair and clothes we looked like Christmas trees, we twinkled so much. And the sky, I swear, Juan, that never in my life have I seen so many stars together: sometimes we felt them so close that we played at grabbing them to put them in our pockets. On several occasions, back in the city, I found myself digging through my clothes in the hope of stumbling upon some forgotten star. I already told you that everything was magical, even the wetland where they supposedly found that damn head that no one ever saw. People used to whisper that he cut his head off because he wanted to forget a sorrow. Can you imagine the extent of his pain? Poor man, who knows what happened to him? At first, he must have cried a little, before taking such a drastic decision: tears sometimes calm and avert nonsense like that. Cutting your head off, who can think of such thing!
..……..The truth is that the horses stopped for no reason as soon as they reached the wetland: you had to sing to them, caress their necks and turn on the flashlight before they would go on. The problem is that, in the rainy season, the swamp would swallow their legs in less than a minute. ‘Move, move, or we will have to pass the night here and, who knows, maybe the head of the beheaded will appear to us: sing, sing, don’t stop singing!’ my drunken uncle shouted as he cracked the whip against the beasts’ haunches and sang ‘La Donna è Mobile’. He even physically resembled Pavarotti with his towering belly and thick black beard, but of course we never told him how badly he sang. I imagined a thousand times what it would be like to spend the night near that head in pain, half a body trapped in the swamp, a hundred frogs croaking, the cooing of the doves hiding in the branches of some tree, casting their omens. I even lost my voice through fear once. At the age of nine you believe everything that adults tell you is true, but no, we never woke up in the wetland and we never saw the head. Another thing that scared me was the darkness inside the rustic wood and brick house that Uncle had built with his own hands. It was so dark that if you went to bed without a flashlight you wouldn’t be able to find your way to the bathroom later. Sometimes we could hear the horses snorting as their hooves beat furiously on the cobblestones. They woke up with their manes full of braids and when you looked into their eyes you couldn’t tell if what you saw in them was fear or sorrow. The farmer blamed the witches. He would say it was better not to mess with them, that a horse waking up full of braids was the least of our problems. I remember whole mornings undoing them and then combing their thick, shiny hair with castor oil and a metal bristle brush.
..……..Why do I want to go back? I don’t know, Juan, you always want to go back to the places where you were happy. I suppose the line between fear and fascination is very weak. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that I need to see that, after almost thirty years, my fears have changed. Look, now it scares me more that the cat might fall off the balcony, that some plague will invade my orchids or that you will leave me for someone else. Not in that order necessarily. You see, I still braid my hair daily as a way to remind myself how far away my childhood fears are. Look, here’s the money to pay the toll: that’s why the road to the town seems fairly decent. Never in my dreams did I ever imagine that one day they would pave it. You have to see how it was before, you would get dust up to your hair, your insides were all messed up from how much the jeep jumped. I even understand why I suffered so much from my back. Now we’re almost there, stop complaining so much. I understand that now you can get there in two hours: before it took us four, that is if a tyre didn’t explode or the engine overheat, which always happened.
..……..There, park there, Juan, on the side of the plaza, at the foot of all those motorcycles. I bet the bartender knows who can rent us a couple of horses. So strange that I haven’t seen a single one. God knows where they moved the stable. It’s early, we’ll get to the farm before dark for sure. I wonder if the one who bought it after Uncle was killed still keeps it unchanged, with the yellow and terracotta diamond-shaped tiles and the colour-painted fine wood balcony rails.
..……..Uncle was very stubborn. Or very naive. Or very silly. The truth is I do not know. He kept coming every weekend, he thought that just because he was a doctor they were going to respect him, as if the guerrillas respected anything. They wanted to kidnap him. The farmers said that his last words were: ‘Better dead than in captivity’. Nobody understood his decision, but I did because I remembered each of the birds that we set free together. The bullet hit him in the forehead, right between the eyes. They buried him at the foot of a white yarumo; it was his favourite tree.
..……..No, no, no, nothing to worry about, Juan, it is true that the guerrillas took over the town but that was many years ago. They are not here anymore, it even looks modern. The police station has two floors and the church has many more pews. They changed the stone streets for asphalt, they even painted them and put up traffic signs. To think that, for years, Uncle’s jeep was one of the few cars that came all the way here. The local farmers came down from the mountains just to see it. They would stick their noses to the window and then say that it was a good invention, but that it would never replace their mules. Too bad they have destroyed the coloured facades and balconies: they looked beautiful, all full of orchids, pansies, anthuriums and violets. You know? In October they always celebrated the Festival of Balconies. How could I have imagined then that I would never see so many flowers together again. I tell you, it is never possible to know what time is the last time. Wait for me here a moment while I ask where they rent out horses.
..……..The bartender says that we can get to the farm by car: the road, it seems, is in very good condition. Yeah, he said road, so weird, I wonder how the hell they got a road through the woods. What a pity! The trick was to go up on horseback avoiding branches, listening to the birds sing. Look, this is where the trail and the mud began. On this side was the stable, right there where they have made that cement parking lot, so badly patched and with plastic tiles. It doesn’t even smell like dung anymore. So many motorcycles, Juan, if I were you, I would drive carefully, bikers are very reckless. Where did so many come from?
..……..Yes, I know that having a two-wheeler is cheaper than having a horse. Also, it seems that helmets here are banned. Now they even have electricity, see? Where there used to be trees, now there are concrete poles full of cables. I am not liking this at all, we’d better go back, maybe the river is not going to let us pass. Wait! I just saw the riverbed but I’m not sure it’s the same river anymore, what’s more, it doesn’t look like a river but a sewer, so close the window before the smell reaches us
..……..What structure? Ah yes, a bridge, a real one, I can see the badly painted pipes, what an eyesore! How is it possible that we have passed the forest without seeing it? Where are the trees and the wetland? And the horses? And the birds? Stop, stop, Juan, we’d better not continue. If I’m not wrong, the wetland was right here under the asphalt. Let’s stop for now. Let’s sing. I’m going to unbraid my hair and think about the proper way to cut my head off, but first I want to cry for a while.
The Colombian Edition of The London Magazine is out now and available from our online shop. Published in anticipation of next month’s Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias, this issue will be followed by a Spanish language version, out in January 2022, in Colombia and the UK.
Cover image: Ritual (Pescadores), oil on canvas, 100x150cm (Pedro Ruiz, 2010)
Sara Jaramillo Klinkert (Colombia, 1979) studied journalism at the UPB (Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana) and worked in several of Colombia’s most important mass media communication groups. She lived in Spain where she received her Master’s degree in Narrative at Madrid’s School of Writers, winning the scholarship for best academic achievement. In 2019 she published the autobiographical novel How I Killed My Father, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Now being translated into several languages, this earned her an invitation to the International Writers’ Residency at the University of Iowa. In 2021 she released her second novel, Where the Whales Sing. Several of her texts have been published in magazines such as Generación, Vogue España, La Rompedora and Quimera.
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