"Felipe!" the children called once more.
The islands in the middle of the great Paraná River were being swept over on this Christmas Day by a sudden wind, and the tall grasses seemed to undulate in the breezes, hurried into one another in soft, moving hillocks and vales.
Juan Ramón Jiménez published a book entitled Platero y yo (Platero and I) in 1914. A Spaniard, Jiménez was one of the most influential poets of his time in the entire Hispanic world. Platero and I is by far his best-known work, and I had read it for the first time in an English translation when I was fourteen.
Platero is a small donkey whose master is a kindly, observant, and humorous man who spends a great deal of time contemplating the stars, natural wonders, the humorous foibles of human behavior, and the intricacies of Andalusian village social life. He shares his observations with his friend Platero. The "conversation," if you will, between them makes up the entirety of this book. It's a slight book, easy to read.
I was reading it again when Bea and I were visiting a small town in Argentina a few years ago, named La Paz. It's in Entre Rios province, several hours by road north of Buenos Aires. Entre Rios is, as its name explains, "among rivers," and there are several of them flowing through the province. The greatest is the Paraná, which descends from Brazil to the south through Argentina. It is the second largest river in South America behind the Amazon, and so it is immense.
The Olivera family has lived in La Paz for many generations, and we were visiting Mario and Cristina Olivera as the guests of Mario's sister Nora Dinzelbacher and her husband Ed Neale. As a 17-year-old, Nora left La Paz to move to Buenos Aires, where she eventually became a noted maestra of Argentine tango. She's been living in the United States for many years now, and is generally acknowledged as a seminal figure in the resurgence of tango's popularity in this country.
We were to have Christmas dinner at the Olivera's that evening, but just now, at 1:30 in the afternoon, it was about 95 degrees, and the humidity was simply seeping up from the river, which itself appeared hardly to be moving. The many palm trees on the grounds of the Pension Surubí had little effect on the intensity of the soporific heat. Reminiscent of snails on the march, my fingers left little trails of liquid where they had caressed the pages of Platero and I. I felt like a puddle sitting in a lawn chair. The trails did not dry.
At the river down below, several children were playing in the water with a very large and old Saint Bernard dog. They ran and cavorted in the cool waters while Felipe simply stood in them, allowing the slow passage of the liquid to caress his aged, leonine body. His mouth was open. He appeared too tired to close it, but I could tell he was enjoying himself, a sensuous, cool moment in which the waters cleansed him and his heated mind.
We walked down to the river. Felipe stood in the mud at the riverbank near the dock. With us, he watched the kids. The sound of an old engine came from down river and, as Felipe turned his head slowly to observe the source of the sound, we did too. It was an elderly cattle-boat, a kind of flat-bottomed craft with gunnels and two very large metal cages with a wheelhouse at the rear that extended up above the cages themselves.
La Paz was once a center for the slaughter of cattle, for many years a major industry in Entre Rios. Now, about 20 steers looked out from the cages on the boat, enormous saddened creatures who appeared not to know where they were going, and to be upset about it. They had reason to be.
There were also three gauchos on the boat, all of them dressed in the same kinds of clothing you can see in 19th century paintings of the pampas in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires. Roughly made, double-pocketed shirts; flat-brim cowboy hats, the brims themselves very wide in the Entre Rios fashion; pleated, slightly ballooning pantaloons and Chinese-style, black cloth espadrilles. The men's faces were all much darkened by a life in the sun, and heavily lined. None had more than a few teeth. Little has changed for the gauchos since the late 19th century, and these fellows are free range, rambling men.
"Felipe," I said.
He turned back toward me.
"Che ¿como estás?"
His tail wagged, once. He seemed distracted, and wanted to look back at the cattle boat. When it docked, a large truck backed up to the edge of the wharf, and a metal gangway clanked down between the boat and the truck trailer. Suddenly one of the cages was opened, and a chaos of whistling and shouting broke out from the gauchos. Waved hats. Sticks waving about in the air. Terrified, frozen with dismay, the cattle refused to move. One of the gauchos was perched on part of the cage above, and he had an electric prod. With the help of his friends, he was able to get the cattle onto the gangway and into the trailer.
Except in Hollywood westerns, I've never seen cattle being moved around like this. The gauchos laughed and kidded each other. They whistled at the guy with the prod. The cattle hurried along, stumbling on the gangway, lurching into the truck trailer. It was a scene that has been reenacted for hundreds of years here, I'm sure. Indeed I imagine that a hundred years ago, when the cattle industry was enormous in this province, it was something we would have seen writ very much larger on this very dock.
I had wanted to talk with the gauchos, but they were so involved in the work that there wasn't the opportunity. Bea and I set off into town and, after a moment, heard some slow breathing and the padding of large paws behind us. Felipe, now wanting to talk, joined us and led us around.
Everyone in La Paz knows Felipe. We became quickly figures of comedy because the townspeople all knew who we were as well (visitors from some other planet who'd been seen walking around with the Oliveras). Evidently Felipe was very faithful to those he accompanied. There was a lot of laughter about how we'd never be able to get rid of him, about how he was now ours forever.
We walked all over town, and Felipe was with us the whole way. We followed him to the lowland barrio near the river and in between the few canals and streams that lead to the river. It is a poorer neighborhood, and here old wooden fishing boats and skiffs lay rotting by the side of the stream. The houses were made of brick and adobe, and most of them seemed also to be rotting.
There were numerous automobiles and trucks from the 1960's and earlier, few of them in running condition. Felipe led us straight to them, and waited as we admired them. He introduced us to one old man who sat beneath a tree drinking, overlooking the growth of the green rushes by one of the streams. He knew Felipe quite well. Passing by one shack where there were several children, the smallest of them all, in the arms of his mother in a chair beneath a tree, pointed Felipe out with an errant finger and a thrilled, aghast grin.
We continued on, making our way up the slope into the better neighborhoods. Every shopkeeper greeted him. A woman from whom we bought an ice cream had been well acquainted with him for years. Elderly people exhausted in the heat on benches in the town plaza explained to us how they'd met him when he was a puppy, long ago. "Was it when Perón was president?" one of them asked, to laughter from the others. That had been more than 30 years ago, but it wouldn't have surprised me to learn that Juan Domingo Perón indeed had known Felipe. Perhaps they had been billeted in the same barracks. We found out that evening that Nora knew him, and had so for years.
We saw almost the whole town in the company of Felipe, and eventually we made our way back to the river, to the Pensión Surubí. We asked him to go on home at the entry to the pensión driveway, but he refused. Ultimately he ended up on the front porch to our little bungalow. He filled the porch, actually, like a rug with a head on it, and from there he became immediately interested in what was happening at the dock, but there was nothing happening at the dock.
The cattle boat had left. The gauchos were gone. Perhaps, by now, the cattle were dead. The only real movement was taking place on the surface of the river itself, and that was very slow. The Paraná is dotted by greenery that has been dislodged from the banks and islands its entire length. It all floats by so lethargically as to appear not to be moving at all. Nothing moves.
"Felipe," I whispered.
Like me, he was keeping an eye on the passing verdant waste. The sun was going down. The temperature had lowered by a degree or two. It was time to get dressed for dinner.
"What sort of life does that greenery carry?" I asked. "Would this river ever bring me laughter? Would I ever arrive at its mouth?"
He didn't answer.
"Will the Atlantic wait for me?"
He wasn't interested.
I wondered nonetheless what it would be like, to be alone on a raft coming down the river that slowly, so slow that I could view the close detail of both shores forever, before I passed them by forever, each slow clump of flotsam, each tree and town, every clump of brown mud, each year, each century...with Felipe on the shore, in the shade, watching for me.
Causes Terence Clarke Supports