By Iain Robinson
There were giants in the town in those days. Men who knew they were big. Men who knew where the money was to be had, where the power could be grabbed. Let me speak plain. I wasn’t one of them. I was amongst them, but that doesn’t make me one of them. Don’t lay that at my door. Just remember the place as it was then. When the train came in on the Sarmiento line, bringing those tourists, some of them all the way from Buenos Aires, but many more from all over the province, you could smell the money coming. In the week before Christmas, they would begin to come for their summer vacations, fat ones, bald ones, slim ones, some of them real bathing beauties, and they would come to open their wallets, take in our waters, and enjoy the clean air. Not that they were rich. My town is not Mar del Plata. We could not offer beach and surf. They came to bathe in the saltwater lagoon, to cure their maladies in our little inland sea. When the train came in, the big men knew that their time had arrived.
I’m here and no-one is going to move me. I’m here and the wind is here. It ripples over the lake and off the pampas. It whistles in the dead avenues of trees, makes flutes from their hollow branches. A mournful music. Sometimes I take my old bike and pedal out through the ruins to the old slaughterhouse. It is surrounded by a graveyard of bone-white trees. When the flood came, the concrete letters that spell MATADERO stood clear of the waters as though it were a portent, or a judgement. It was out there, in the shadow of the slaughterhouse’s strong modern tower, that I first caught a glimpse of him, in the tail of my eye, a visitor moving in the trees and then gone.
They gave us sixteen days to clear out. The fire brigade and the army came. The giants loaded trucks and went to their other places. The rest of us took what we could and that was that. The water was already up to my waist when I waded out of town, wardrobes, guitars, plimsolls, and anything else that had found a way to float, bobbing around me like life-rafts. It was as if our town was sinking. Within a week the ground floors were swamped. The lake kept rising, my life and memories sinking deeper and deeper beneath the surface, submerged until it seemed there would be nothing left.
On a day like today it seems impossible that anyone lived here. The wind tugs and worries at the corrugated roof. The salt-dust is blown into little devils, eddying around, giddy in the ruins. On days like this I hunker down by the wood stove and flick through the album. They are all here. The giants and the others, some of the bathing beauties too. They smile at the camera, or keep a straight face. They stand next to lost houses, vanished shops. I look into their frozen eyes. There are clues there, secrets. They hold onto them as I hold onto them, even now.
Croto is sniffing around for a titbit. His tail thumps when I look up from the photos. He eats what I eat, and I eat when I need to. The wind is tugging harder on the roof. I ease up from my chair and gather a handful of old breadcrumbs for the hens. The door is yanked wide open by the wind’s strong hands as soon as it’s unlatched. The hens are sheltering in the ruined room. The wall has crumbled on one side, but three others remain. The floor above collapsed. Where the concrete slab fell it left a triangular space, tall enough for me to stand in at its highest point. This is where the hens roost, amongst old fruit crates that I rescued from here and there. Croto weaves past my legs and sniffs around the hens before padding out again. I scatter the crumbs and then see to the corrugated roof, climbing up the wreck of a staircase that once led to a terrace. The corner of one of the metal sheets has come loose. It will need to be bolted down, but for now I untie some twine from my belt and thread it through the bolthole and around the beam beneath it, pulling them together and tying it fast. I can only just reach and the wind keeps heaving the sheet up and down so that I have to be careful of my knuckles. When I’m happy that it’s secure I clamber back down the steps. Croto has been waiting, his nose on his paws, but then his ears angle and he dashes out into what was once the road. He barks, once, twice, and then runs back and comes close to my legs. He is shivering. I look up at the remains of the flat roofs of the houses opposite, all angles and jagged concrete. It moves, the shadow, and is gone. Him again.
“Come on, Croto,” I say, and we go back to our places by the wood stove.
Croto arrived about a week after I did. Carolina had just died and then came the news that the waters were receding, that the town was revealing itself again. Twenty-five years under water and my town had been decomposing. Toppled house after toppled house. Crumbling walls and decayed plaster. Cars rusted into orange sludge. It seemed right that I should go back. After the flood all I’d been able to get were odd jobs, cash in hand—plastering, tiling, roofing—my back slowly breaking. No more begging for work. It wasn’t my town. My boys are gone to Buenos Aires. They said I should live with them, after Carolina, but they have their own troubles. It was better to go home, to where I was once my own man. I have a pension. Sometimes I go to collect it and stock up on salami and pasta.
I saw at once that Croto was a stray, a little good-for-nothing mongrel coming after scraps. I shooed him, but he stayed, sniffing around as I fixed-up a roof for the room and made shutters for the windows. Then I fed him, and that was that. He must have been the runt of the litter. A nervous little thing, used to being kicked. Still, a dog is a dog, and I knew this one would bark when it was needed. Croto is sitting on my feet. From where I sit I can see over to the ruins opposite, but there is no shadow now, just the bright sunshine glaring off the salt-bleached concrete and crumbling bricks. The wind is rattling the door and window, finding the small ways in. I become restless. I busy about the room, sorting my bundles of twine, my boxes of old nails, screws, and washers, everything in its place but always something missing. Croto is pacing the room, shifting his hindquarters awkwardly. He needs his walk.
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.