Eventide

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rating: +11+x

It is growing dark.

He needs to find a place to sleep. Food, as well.

The sky above the Jeep is lilac, fading to straw-yellow in the West. The sun has dipped below the mountains. The grassland is already shadowed. Soon, the vault above will be shrouded in indigo.

James Bradshaw thinks about death.

It has been on his mind for most of the day. The men in the parking lot. They were dead so quickly that they don't seem like people. It is hard to remember that they had their own lives, their own minds. Extinguished now.

James has seen bodies before - he thinks of his father's pallid face - but this was different. He has never watched a man die.

Except once, perhaps.

It was not the same. One moment the D-Class was there, the next not. If the men today did not feel human, they were at least real. Their bodies had substance. Heft. James tastes bile at the back of his throat.

Even the thought of the D-Class is insubstantial. James cannot remember his name or what he looked like. A prisoner in a plain jumpsuit. Nondescript. There, then not.

And now he must recover that very anomaly. James wonders how many people the junta has used it on. How many by the CIA before that?

It is almost dark.

James sees the outlines of a village ahead. A few small houses, one or two lights. He slows the Jeep. No sign of a hostel.

He hears a voice over the Jeep's low growl. A greeting? Unsure, James cuts the engine. The voice calls again, in Spanish.

"Good evening, friend. Are you looking for something?"

James' eyes adjust slowly to the shadows. Under the porch of a rough shack, a man sits.

James opens the driver's door, landing in the dust on stiff legs. He walks cautiously over. "Good evening. Please, where is the nearest inn?"

The man smiles, white teeth catching the last of the light. It is hard to tell his age. A spry eighty, or a hard-worn sixty.

"I'm sorry, sir. There is no inn here. We are a small village." Perhaps he sees James' shoulders slump; he continues, "You must stay in my house tonight."

"You are very kind, sir," says James, "but I do not wish to impose on you." He tries not to look past the man, at the shabby hut.

The man stands.

"It is nothing," he says, still smiling. "You cannot keep driving tonight. My hospitality is humble, but it is yours to share."

James feels embarrassment, and gratitude, and trepidation. But tiredness most of all. He capitulates.

"I could not do justice to your hospitality. Thank you for your kindness, but I must travel on." The protest is a formality only. Both men know it.

"I insist." The old man holds out his hand.

James takes it. It is warm and hard-worn, bones and sinew. There is strength still in the grip.

"I am very grateful," says James, hearing his own sincerity. "My name is David Bradley."

"Miguel Lopez," the man replies. "You are an American?"

James hesitates. Better to admit it than to make the man suspicious.

"Yes, just here as a tourist," James says, but Miguel is not listening.

"I have something you will like." Miguel's eyes glint in the half-darkness. He waves towards the side of his cottage. "Take your Jeep around."

James drives carefully around the building, headlights off. There is another, smaller shack behind the first. Miguel reappears, carrying a paraffin lamp. Light flickers on the bare yard as he beckons James to the doors of the shed.

Inside is dark, but the lamplight catches on metal. A motorbike.

"Harley-Davidson UL 1947. Made in Milwaukee, USA. 74 inch flathead engine. Best American quality. Do you ride?" Miguel is proud, expectant.

"Yes, I used to. It's a great bike - great condition too." This is genuine; James is impressed. Upkeep can't be easy. "How did you get it?"

"It belongs to - to a young man I knew." Miguel trails off. "No, to my son - my younger son." Absently, he polishes the dark-red fender. "He was - a student, in the capital. He must have left the bike with me, for safety. I keep it running, so it is ready."

The old man drifts into silent thought. James waits. He dreads his suspicion about Miguel's vagueness. He does not ask the son's name.

Miguel catches himself. His next words carry an extra energy that rings false. "I think he loved this machine. America has the best quality, everything the best."

"And yet Americans come to see the beauty of Argentina." James indicates himself.

Miguel laughs. It is a good way to turn the conversation. As he locks the shed, he asks why James is here. James tells him half-practiced lies about architecture.

Inside the shack is a woman, maybe thirty-five, frowning in the lamplight. She begins scolding Miguel in rapid Spanish: who is this stranger? what were you thinking? have you no consideration for my safety? who do you think will have to deal with all of this?

The tirade is good-natured, without a sting. Miguel returns faux-affronted arguments about the duty of hospitality and biblical charity. This is how father and daughter speak their love, James realises; her care and his gratitude. She has brought her father a pot of stew large enough for two.

Playing his role, James apologises as profusely as his Spanish allows. He offers to leave, to compensate them. This being waved away, he is quiet, allowing the performance to conclude. Miguel's daughter sees that he is not a threat; he will give the old man company this evening. With a last affected sigh, she walks back to the larger house adjacent.

Miguel grins. They sit at the table. The stew is rich with lamb, squash and white beans. They talk of history, and religion. Miguel tells James of other fine buildings he should visit.

After dinner, James checks on the Jeep. He returns with a bottle of fernet from the trunk, and a silent prayer of gratitude to Belén. Miguel's grin widens. The lamps sputter and dim.

"So, my friend David," Miguel pronounces it in Spanish, accent on the second syllable, "where do you travel to tomorrow?"

James sips the digestif. How much does he trust this man?

"I am trying to get to the new city. The nameless city?"

Sucking his lip, Miguel nods.

"You go there to see what they are building in the empty country?"

"Yes."

Miguel nods slowly again. "It is a big construction project, one of the biggest in Argentina. Thousands of men working."

He is speaking slowly as well. James waits.

"I worked in Buenos Aires as a young man. I joined the unions. It is difficult for them, now." The old man watches him closely.

James gives a sympathetic nod.

"At the city," Miguel continues, "at the building site, there is a man. Varela. A union organiser."

"Agustin Varela?" James cannot believe it. "What do you know about him?"

"I have not met him, but everyone speaks of him. Varela was a teacher, years ago. Now wherever he works, the unions listen to him. They follow him - people come for miles to hear him speak. They say his words are like a fire in the heart.

"He is very handsome, they say. Not so young, maybe, but still handsome and strong. He works as hard as any man on his site."

James, unthinking, sniffs. Miguel's look is sharp.

"Excuse me," James blurts, shame bubbling up. "I did not mean - please, go on."

The old man waits for a moment, then continues.

"One time, I have heard, a young man was working on construction of an apartment building, up on the ninth floor, putting in rivets. His scaffold collapsed, and the rivet gun went off, pinning the kid's hand to a steel girder. He couldn't get free, and there was no way up to rescue him. All the workers were gathered below, just watching him hang on the side of the building. If his other hand slipped, his weight would tear him loose and he would fall. They say Varela, he hears the shouts and sees the kid, and he just starts climbing. Right up the frame of the building, without scaffold or ladder. He reaches the kid, grabs him with one hand, and pulls the rivet free with the other. Varela saved his life. A miracle."

The scientist in James refuses to yield to civility. "You believe all this?" he says, incredulous.

"Perhaps, perhaps not," replies Miguel. "For a man like this, what is more important: his deeds, or the stories they tell about him? Which is more real?"

By way of answer, James closes his eyes. He needs solid information. "What else do they say about Varela?"

Miguel's face darkens. "The government do not like what he says. They kidnap him, torture him. But he will never recant. He will keep speaking the truth. And they cannot kill him - he is too beloved."

But now they don't need to kill him, James thinks. They can do something worse.

Miguel is watching him again. "They say - they say Varela may have been a guerilla."

James is not shocked by this. Is under-reaction more suspicious?

The old man looks away. He holds the fernet bottle up to the lamplight. "This is good," he says. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." James does not know what to say.

Miguel is still not looking at him. "I can understand, it is a difficult time. A man may need to lie to a stranger. But to share a meal, and good liquor, makes one more than a stranger." His eyes flick back, holding James' gaze. "Will you answer one question for me?"

James is silent.

"You are not an architect, are you?"

"No."

The old man purses his lips. James knows that he must say something more. He feels like he has already failed, without ever knowing the task. Why is he in this country, in this house? What can he offer this man? His tongue is thick in his mouth.

"I am not an architect," James says. "But I am someone who - I question things. I am skeptical. Where others have beliefs, I have doubts. Can a doubter help believers? I hope so. I admire them - people who believe strongly enough to suffer, to sacrifice. People like -"

"Like Varela?" Miguel's tone is cynical.

"Like your son."

This lands with a shock. The silence is stuffed full of thoughts unspoken.

Miguel is still, then nods. A night breeze blows off the pampas through cracks in the wooden walls.

"In the village today," says Miguel, "there were police. They asked if we had seen a man. An American, driving a Jeep. They did not say why they were looking for this man."

James feels the weight of this fact settle on him.

"If I owned a Jeep, I would keep it out of sight," Miguel continues. "At least for a few weeks, until the police find other people to harass."

"But I have to - there isn't -"

"Unfortunately I don't have space to hide a Jeep in my shed. My shed is full. Unless… The police are hunting for a man in a Jeep. They will not look for a man riding a Harley-Davidson UL 1947."

Miguel grins.


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