I go on my bicycle, picking a careful path through the debris. Croto runs alongside. We pass the remains of hotels. I remember them packed, the waiters getting fat with tips, the owners, the big men, fatter still. Pancho was one of them. It was Pancho who started it all with the youngster. Said he owed money to everyone, that he was a lazy worker in the kitchens, but everybody knew it was because of Pancho’s daughter. That the youngster had kissed her at the lido, people had seen, but there was more that was muttered about, that the girl was made pregnant and the baby aborted. The youngster hung out with some strange types, undesirables. They came to visit him from Rosario, where he’d once been a student, so it was said. But nobody really knew much about him or why he’d come here to work.
Croto turns at Mitre, he knows the way. We cross into the old park with its rusted seesaws and swings, the lumpy chains hanging from the frame, without seats. The chains must have hung just the same under the water, heavy with memory, each link a burden on the next. The grass is coming back, growing up around the exposed tree roots. I lean the bike against a blanched tree trunk and gather up some of the dead wood for the stove, bundling the branches up with twine, then looping more twine to strap the bundle across my shoulders. The small branches don’t weigh much. The saltwater has sucked the life from the wood, left it brittle. The shoreline is close by and the sun skitters off the waves in little jabs of white light. I shade my eyes. It was out there somewhere. The four of them on my boat, moonlit, the muted protest and the splash, and then just the three of them, the boat still rocking from the struggle, the outboard motor idling.
Croto does his business and we move out of the park. Sometimes the visitor is here. Sometimes I know he has just been or is about to arrive. It is in the wind, in its fall and rise. The way it comes suddenly, like a current coursing over everything. I could have taken the boat, piled it with our belongings and headed over the waters, but the moorings came loose, or were loosened, and it drifted away and sank with everything else. The wind swells and diminishes, trilling through the treetops, a Mapuche rhythm as old as the lake.
We head out to the church and the old cemetery. The dead slept through it all, safe underground, dumb to the waters filling the heavens. We should have known that the giants, those big men, would be punished in some way, that their wickedness wouldn’t go unchecked. In the bible they only had to wait one hundred and fifty days for the waters to fall. For us it took twenty-five years. I couldn’t have stopped them. Don’t lay that at my door. Besides, who was I to turn down good money. They asked me to keep watch, to have the boat ready, and that was that.
“Come on, Croto,” I say, and we approach the black gape of an old doorway.
It was a standing wave that did for the town. Imagine the water in a bathtub, the way it can slop back and forth, get into a rhythm. Then imagine the wind driving it, and fresh waters feeding it. A dam broke, and then the dyke which sheltered our little town gave out. November, and all of us looking forward to the fat season when the tourists would arrive to indulge themselves. My boat was serviced, ready to give tours on the lake. But the waters swallowed everything.
I stop at the threshold and gaze into the dark void. The light of the falling sun enters through windows and doorways, cutting shafts of white across the cold blackness. Croto flashes back and forth across the shafts, appearing and disappearing, nose to the concrete floor. Above him, for a moment I think I see the steel bar with its hooks, the chains and pulleys, glinting in the light and dark. But no, they are rusted, gone, carried away. Croto barks. Once. Twice. A dog is a dog, after all. He runs back to me and cowers in the shadows. I listen, watch. This is where it happened. For a moment I see the visitor silhouetted against the window, his head and shoulders, arms outstretched, contorted, and then the shadows take him. They used the cattle prod. The carcases swung on either side of him as he kicked out. I’d come to the door to check on things. Pancho stood to one side while his lackeys did the work. The boy was gagged, stripped to the waist, each hand chained to a hook, his feet bound together. There was a look of fear and fury in his eyes, in the anxious heaving of his chest. I turned away and went to the car, lit a cigarette and waited.
Croto growls. I look into the shadows. The sound of something, a chain clinking, a stifled struggle, each link of the chain heavy with memory and sin. A shape in the blackness, indistinct. The echo of movement. The rasp of inhaled breath.
“What do you want with me?”
The winds picks up in a sudden gust, whirling and whinnying through the broken shell of the slaughterhouse, rising and falling like a wave. It swallowed everything. He sank with his hands and feet still bound with twine. The boat rocking. That was that.
“It wasn’t my fault, you know.”
The gust builds, buffeting my words, and for a moment I struggle to remain on the threshold, its strong hand is at my back and I have to brace hard against the wall with my shoulder. It subsides and I step back from the doorway. Croto lets out a whimper. I kept the secret along with everyone else. I hold it now, as they do, frozen inside, the heaviest link in the chain. It will be dark soon and it is colder than before. Croto is at my heels as I mount my bicycle. The wind is making flutes from the hollow bones of the trees. As I pedal away, I chance a look back towards the slaughterhouse. The sun has almost set. The trees are black against the light. The lake is turning orange, almost red. For a moment I think I see him, a black figure, wavering between the silhouetted tree trunks, moving towards the water.
Iain Robinson is an academic and writer living in the East of England. He is also a prose editor at Lighthouse Journal. Iain is represented by Litro’s bespoke literary agency, Litro Represents, and is working on a novel set in Buenos Aires. His stories and essays have appeared in Litro Magazine.