By Julio Figueredo; Translated from the Spanish by Simon Bruni.
‘The rain’s coming,’ announced my father, squinting up at the sky. I was around seven years of age, and that day I had accompanied him while my mother visited Grandma in hospital. ‘There’s a smell of damp earth; it’s already raining in the south,’ he continued, clasping my hand and picking up the pace.
I had to trot along beside him to keep up. We were both laughing. Behind us, the wind was roaring, growing louder and louder. As we turned the corner we saw the lights from El Quijote, not far off now. We arrived just as a bolt of lightning struck and the first drops of rain began to fall.
My father, usually a man of few words, revealed secrets that night that transported me beyond the boundaries of my little world. He was on his fifth or sixth caña when the stranger arrived. He wore a sombrero and a white poncho, and it was difficult to tell where his thick mass of dark hair ended and his long beard began. He stood in the doorway for a few seconds and scanned the place with an inquisitive look. A few people turned to observe him in silence. When he saw my father and me, he walked decisively towards us, nimbly avoiding the other tables until he reached ours. He slowly removed his hat by way of a greeting and murmured a few words I did not understand.
With a quick gesture, my father invited him to sit down and drink at our table. The stranger let his body slump into the chair and after a long sigh ordered a beer. The waiter brought it promptly and the man drank it down in one, clicked his tongue, then dried his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Bring him another, nice and cold,’ ordered my father, nodding to the waiter.
The man savoured the second beer calmly while studying his surroundings. El Quijote had already resumed its jamboree. I watched him with fascination. He looked at me curiously, smiled, then placed a dark bag on the table, from which he removed a compass and a worn album of yellowing photographs. He made a brief comment, incomprehensible to me, as he passed each photo to my father, then carefully retrieved them and placed them in an envelope.
Finally, putting everything back in his bag, the stranger finished his beer, rose from his seat, and announced in a low voice: ‘I’m heading to Patagonia. Which way to the port?’
‘Keep going south and you’ll find it,’ said my father.
The man thanked us and winked at me.
I eagerly wiped the bar’s misted-up window so I could see him walk down the street. Then something very odd happened: crossing the road, the stranger leapt forward and while in mid-air performed a flying backward kick! As he wandered away under a sky bristling with lightning flashes, his white poncho flickered a few times, like a firefly. Then the night swallowed him up.
‘Who was that? Who was that?’ I asked my father fervently.
‘Calm down. Just a wanderer,’ he told me.
‘And what’s that?’ I persisted.
My father thought about it for a good while, another glass of caña in his hand. ‘A free spirit … like the grey brocket, that deer I showed you on the sierra a while ago, the one that’s so difficult to hunt.’