Unshackle the buried: A Short Story
First Published: 14/09/2020
Author: Greg F.
The flight had been delayed. Delayed so many times that the price for the ticket seemed an even greater waste than before. But arrive it did in El Dorado Airport. He dragged himself through customs and found a taxi. Barely conscious enough to engage in conversation with a taxi driver, he spent a few moments thinking of ways to answer that would move the driver, his inquisitor, to acknowledge this customer would prefer to be left alone. And yet his inquisitor spoke.
‘What brings you to Bogotá?’
‘My mother died.’
Silence. After the silence became too much, the newly arrived man added some more information.
‘So I’ve come to help my sister sort out the will, the funeral.’
Not another word was said till they arrived at the destination. By now, the evening dark had settled over the city and unease replaced the passenger’s fatigue. He’d left this house, the house he was born into, where he was made. And although his self-imposed exile was an abandonment of this, the early years of his life, he knew it could only seem like an abandonment, and that he could never really desert this place.
Both the driver and the man left the taxi. The driver hurried towards the back of the taxi, with a posture that conveyed his being ashamed. The passenger got out, meeting the driver at the boot. The driver handed him his luggage, then looked up at his customer.
‘God bless you and your family’
The passenger wasn't surprised at hearing this. ‘God bless you’ is a phrase that is so generic, it has an air of insincerity, a sort of phrase that tries to convey interest even when the speaker couldn’t care less. Yet he knows, and anyone who has been born in South America knows, it conveys, at the same time, a profound sincerity, a humbled pity and sympathy. It is a sort of recognition of a horror that is uniquely painful yet universally experienced, like that of the passing of a mother.
After money passed hands, both men left the other, each trying to forget the awkwardness of the last 20 minutes.
Now the house was in full view. His unease became nausea. The dispossessed memories possessed all of his attention. He could tell the house had aged, eroded some bit. The simple façade still had its bright colours. The vines were still growing over it. Yet for him, though the house had entered its twilight years, he felt not at home, because home implies some sense of belonging, but rather a repulsive sense of nostalgia. Repulsive because he didn't want to be back, to have had to return.
He brought himself up to the door, and knocked. His sister answered it.
The same awkwardness that entertained the brother on his journey to the house entertained the siblings here, in the stale night air, but at least it was expected. They had never been close. Whose fault that was seems unclear. The brother had left at 18, rejecting his motherland. The sister had not. Neither made great effort to keep in contact and it showed.
‘What happened with your flight? Why did it get delayed?’
‘It took about two hours for the staff to realise that the missing passenger had died in the toilets.’
‘Juepucha. Did they tell you what happened to him?’
‘No, just that he died. We were told and then they took off. You’d think people on the flight would be, I don’t know, spooked or at least a bit different. They’d look around, see an empty chair and knew why that chair was empty, that some guy died. But no, no, it was a normal flight.’
‘Well anyway, come in. You have your old room. Also one of Mum’s old friends is here. He’s in the kitchen if you want to say hi.’
‘Yeah, of course, but let me just organise my things and myself and I’ll be down right after.’
‘Remember where it is?’ She smirked.
‘Yeah, yeah. Thank you though.’ An almost melodramatic tone of sarcasm.
The brother dragged himself up the stairs and with every step his childhood life returned in ever clearer representations. He opened his bedroom door, and saw within it the years that shaped him, yet the room was stripped of the personality he imposed onto it. He saw his mother, for the first time in decades, though she died the day before. He laid down his suitcase, unzipped it and moved its contents into the closets and cupboards that seemed to be awaiting his inevitable return. They mocked him, mocked the futility of his leaving, the dried-up vitality of his self-imposed exile. They welcomed him back, but from a position of victory, of power.
When he arrived downstairs and walked down the hallway, he found his sister sitting down, slouched back, listening to the old gentleman, the friend of his mother. Their conversation was not intense or profound nor even particularly interesting. The topic that connected them, this woman, the mother, neither of them wanted to talk about. For the sister, her passing had left a wound still too fresh to be talked of. For the older man, his age robbed him of many of the stories about this woman and him that would make for pleasant conversation.
As the brother neared the table, he heard the topic of conservation. It was about the fact that Uribe has had a street in Florida named after him. Though the subject is controversial, a subject that would elicit a call to ideological arms, necessitating the drawing up of battle lines, the sister was too tired and the older man too uninterested to be decisive and seriously committed to the issue. Every claim and counterclaim mouthed seemed to be made so as to continue the conversation out of courtesy, not out of any genuine wanting to make a point.
The older man noticed the brother approaching and stopped his sentence midway. He turned to him, faced him and mustered the little energy he had.
‘The honorary European returns.’
As did the brother’s nausea.
‘Hello sir. Sorry but I don't know you, although I have a sense I should.’
The older man stood, grinned and laid his hand on the brother’s shoulder.
‘Don’t worry son, I barely know myself. The last time I met you, I believe, was at your baptism. I knew your mother ever since childhood, and we kept in touch through her literary agent, she was a cousin. I’m so sorry about the passing of your mother. She’s with God now, I’m sure of it. No longer suffering.’
The mother had caught another case of pneumonia the winter before. She decided to not receive treatment. Perhaps out of having a fatigued will to live, perhaps she reconciled herself with the fact that the few years that treatment could give her would not be worth it, or perhaps she was punishing herself, death by inactivity. Whatever the reason, her son had just learnt of this. Her death was a surprise, her suffering now part of his reality.
‘Well, anyway, I’ve come here to collect something from your mother’s things, a small blue box. It contains some notes, letters and scribbles. I have it here in writing from your mother showing that this was pre-arranged and I’d imagine there are some lines about it in her will.’
The old man then passed to the brother the letter from his mother. It was a fairly short letter, written in her unintelligible yet instantly recognisable handwriting. The brother looked at his sister who seemed surprised at hearing the old man’s request.
‘I wanted to bring this up when both of you were here.’
The brother then passed on to the sister, and after the two came to an agreement about its authenticity, she went upstairs to find the will.
‘Here is your blue box. Looks important.’
‘Thank you so much. It means the world to get this. Thank you so much.’
The old man seemed more relieved than grateful. His tepid reaction was feeding into the growing suspicion of the siblings.
‘Do you have a toilet somewhere?’
‘Yeah, upstairs and the first door in front of you.’
The old man now left the siblings. They both sat at the table, and stared at the blue box left there. The sister was the one brave enough to speak aloud their shared curiosity.
‘Do you think they were lovers?’
‘Did he see Mum before she passed?’
‘Well then I doubt this is how former lovers would leave things. It has to be something compromising.’
‘The whole of Mum’s life was pretty scandalous, not sure why she would have hid something from us.’
‘It is a shock that he seems so normal, so... suburban almost. I can’t remember any friends or people around Mum being normal.’
‘The head of People’s Press killed himself the other day’
People’s Press was their mother’s last publisher. Throughout her ten years with the company, they were nearly all killed in one paramilitary attack or another, the government was on the verge of censoring her books but a 10 day riot stopped that and a few of their writers had been arrested for collaboration with left-wing guerilla groups. These are amongst the most notable of cases of her attracting a dangerous sort of attention. And of course People’s Press lives on. It’s continued existence, however precarious, is a reminder of the gracelessness of state repression and or the fanaticism of the radical intelligentsia that the mother was a token of.
Such news left the brother confused. Not sure how to continue, he simply let wordlessness be his response.
The faint flush of a toilet rang to the downstairs and the sounds of footsteps began to louder to siblings as the old man scaled down the stairs. He grabbed the coat hung alone by the hallway wall and fingered his left pocket, stopping at the hearing of a metal jingle.
‘I wish I could stay for longer, to talk more about your mother. She was an incredible woman’
This was the first time in the night the passing of a life-long friend really dawned on him. The first time that he had come to realise what happened, that he had conceptually and emotionally come to terms with her passing. That he will never see her again and felt the consuming grief of that, that felt not like a train striking him with a crushing momentum, but like a knife, slowly piercing the skin, the fat, the muscles, the organs, till the blade came up for air on the other side. And the siblings could see this man’s alienating desperation. After a long pause, he looked up in the siblings direction and the siblings stood up.
‘I have to get going, unfortunately. Good bless you both. Goodbye.’
This had no charm, a sense that the good in his goodbye was not sincere. It felt as if he was running, escaping, deserting this part of his life. Shame-ridden is perhaps the most accurate word, and both brother and sister noticed this.
The old man feigned cordiality as he rushed to the door and then his car. The sister, waiting to hear his hurried shuffle die off, grabbed her brother by his shoulder.
‘We have to follow him’
‘Jesus, think about it. The box can’t just be unimportant scribbles. The man saw this box and looked like death.’
‘He’ll probably go home.’
‘Let’s see then.’
‘Our mother is dead! She’s gone and we've both had barely a day to grieve. We have things to sort out. We don’t have the time, nor any good reason, to prioritise your fantasies about what Mum left this man over the fact that she’s dead!’
As his voice got louder, angered, hate-filled with every word, as his picture went from that of a sleep-deprived man to a tyrant of a man, the sister remained where she was, staring at him. Yet he knew she was terrified, on the verge of a retreat.
When he calmed down, he sat back into the chair, slouching as his regret began to eat at him. She walked to the opposite side of the table, leaned towards her brother and banged her arms down into the table.
‘You don’t get to lecture me about Mum. You can go, leave your family, leave me here with her and then come back but you can’t tell me how to grieve and how to behave. I know she’s dead, saw her dead. I know why you left because I know what sort of mother she was, what it was like to grow up with her in the house and to live with her cause I was her daughter. She hid herself from us her entire life. And this is the only chance we will ever get, the only chance that God could give us to actually know something about the woman who died upstairs, and who we need to bury.’
He was almost expecting her to react like that and say what she said. Not only did he feel regret, but now guilt as well. She was right, he told himself, when she said he left her. And he knew she won, that the least he could do was give her this. She stood straight.
‘Do you mind driving?’, she said.
‘No. Where are the keys?’
She reached her right trouser pocket.
‘How are we going to follow him? It's been 5 minutes. He’d probably be far gone.’
‘He’s still in his car.’
She pointed through the windows on either side of the door.
The brother could not see his face, whether the old man was crying, thinking or maybe had died in the car seat. It was perturbing, that this man, who had practically ran out of this house, would be in his car, inactive, right outside.
The siblings waited till the old man left to get in their own car. The street was long and straight, almost a mile of middle-class residential space. The old man was slow and cautious in his driving, as if he was continually questioning the point of his driving.
For the siblings, tailing was not a problem. His car was frail and a grass green colour. The growing problem was the length of his journey. The old man dragged his car through the whole city, and was driving in the direction of the Atlantic coast.
The siblings did not speak to each other. The sister had fallen asleep about five hours in, waking up two hours before they saw the old man’s car finally stopped. The brother wanted to be awake, wanted to go through, in his head, the fact that he treated this country, in which he was born and raised in with such a visceral disgust. Why did he leave? Why did he view this place with disdain, with repulsion? His relationship with his mother? It was probably more, he’d tell himself. But however long he thought, he could not find an answer that was enough, an answer that could redeem his actions or even let himself believe he was anything more than the spineless coward that he knew he had been.
After 15 hours, they arrived. It seemed like a miracle. Not because they made, and not because they had followed the old man all the way to Tayrona park, but because for the brother, it seemed shorter. Every turn, every break and every acceleration flowed together like a stream, and not the grinding experience it really was.
When the old man's car finally stopped, it was off a small road inside the national park. The siblings then parked up, and followed the old man.
The sun had surrendered its evening glow, and the healthy green of the plants melted into the obscuring darkness of night. The two found the man, kneeling and softly crying between 2 trees. They could hear him praying, pleading with his God. He had been defeated completely, collapsed. He turned his head, with his ear now in the direction of the approaching two.
Both brother and sister found themselves without any idea what to do next. Their mission had ended here, their curiosity not quelled, but growing exponentially. The brother stepped towards him. He did not know how to begin, how to ask about what was happening. All the questions he had stemmed from a thousand more he could ask. But it seemed to him that the best way to begin was to be general.
‘What are you doing here?’
The old man had options. He knew that if he said nothing or if he simply screamed at them to go, what was buried beneath could be left there, he could keep the secret he once shared with their mother hidden and sheltered from her children, as he knew she would want. But he also knew he could tell them what was buried beneath, how this had happened and why he was left this blue box. He chose the latter, maybe out of wanting to cleanse his soul or wash his blood, or maybe because he wanted to give these two people something of their mother. Whatever the reason might have been, he felt as if he was staring up an endless flight of stairs or staring down an empitless pit. What he would say next was to be for him a task that seemed rewardless.
‘Your mother and I were involved with FARC some 30 years ago, I can’t remember clearly. It was a time of hopelessness and hope. Where some people, like your mother or me, felt with every inch of our body that some things could be improved, that the sort of society we believed in was just about to be born, that the horrors of the state, of the military, of injustice were slipping into non-existence. We felt powerful, free and that we could free the people of this country from their crushing reality. A reality where one saw constant barbarity committed for its own sake.’
He began to cry again, finding it difficult to explain himself.
‘But it was all set in sand, and we decided to blow it away. I tell you I still feel that way, and your mother did up until her death.
‘We found ourselves, your mother and I, here in Tayrona, working towards the revolutionary wind. We worked tirelessly creating propaganda, writing pamphlets and trying to find money. We didn’t kill anyone, we shot no bullets or anything like that. We did what we could, write.’
He then stopped and broke down. The two siblings just stared on, not knowing where this was going, not knowing what they should do. They looked on and found a man shackled to the past, to this horrific memory. A man not consumed by or drowning in but replaced by guilt.
The old man finally found a way to breathe, to speak and so he did.
‘Then we came upon a murdered woman, who most likely lived in this forest. She had been shot. I threw up and your mother had turned away. We stood there for an hour, maybe more. We knew that the FARC had killed her most likely, to keep her silent. We knew that this was expected, that innocent people would die. We knew this was not a necessity, but an inevitability because of how things were, how the society was and how the politics were.
‘We buried that woman here, we hid her here. It was too much. It was because of our writings, our money and time that this woman could be killed. She, your mother, had written down the place where we buried her. I don’t why she did. We were never going to tell anyone. We just left this place. We could not carry on being involved with FARC. We couldn’t make ourselves… we could not rationalise what happened. We acted as revolutionaries, we acted as people fighting for the humanity of our country and we murdered this woman'’