Traces in the sky
About the book:
Alicia Barberis invites us to travel through the moving story of Lucia, a young Mocovi girl (indigenous tribe from South America) who ends up working in the butcher's shop managed by “Bull” —her aunt's sinister husband—, instead of pursuing her studies, as was her dream. According to the Mocovi cosmovision, Nayic Moqoit (the Milky Way) points at a journey where you set out from what is known to cross strange and dangerous places, thus healing something of your own or in others. Those who do so have the power to make the times come together and can follow the ancient traces left in the sky to guide them. That will be the challenge the protagonist faces in this coming-of-age novel about a journey in search of identity, where she, almost without intending to do so, heals old wounds. The discovery of love, the value of friendship, and her own origins emerge as the central themes in the journey that this young woman undertakes. Huellas en el cielo, written with a poetic, powerful and captivating voice, adds to a quest that Alicia Barberis had already initiated with novels such as Pozo ciego (Cesspool) and Monte de silencios (Mount Silence). All three works share a specific geography and seek to give voice to the oppressed beings that inhabit it; in this case, the focus is on the descendants of native peoples.
It is already after ten o'clock when Lucia sees her father get off the van: he is carrying a side of beef on his back and walks slowly, bent under its weight. The cloth that covers his shoulders has dark drips, and his face reflects the same exhaustion as every morning. It strikes her that, instead of the white boots he always wears, he has muddy espadrilles on.
“What the fuck happened to you,” the Bull rebukes him and, although he lowers his voice, she can still hear him. “Are you sure nobody saw you, stupid Indian?” Her father stares at the tip of his espadrilles and returns no answer.
Lucia hates that he is so submissive. Alejandro Ojeda, the Bull, her aunt's husband, is a tough, heartless guy. His friends, or maybe his enemies, gave him that nickname. It is impossible not to associate it with his thick neck, the rage in his eyes and the black hair that sticks to his forehead, as if smeared with oil. The Bull takes out a large bowl of ground beef that has been in the fridge for days. He pours bleach on it and orders, "Mix it well until it turns pink and stops smelling like that.”
She dips her hands into the disgusting mess: it smells horrible, like rancid grease and rotting blood. She clenches her fists and a viscous liquid trickles down between her fingers. Her fingernails turn dark, and her stomach churns. Lucia's father started working with the Bull when the Salado River flooded their town and they lost everything, down to their family photos. Those were the worst floods in the history of Santa Fe. At that time, they lived in Recreo, and they were left with few choices. They could either huddle in a shelter until the water receded or move to the back of their aunt and uncle's house and live out of their generosity. The offer included a job, so they thought it was the best option.
The Bull is nervous. Lucia notices but she does not say a word. Surely, it's because of her father's delay. She hears them whispering and tries to catch a word or two, while making an effort not to splash her jacket. Blood stains are hard to remove. She stirs and squashes in disgust, as she ruminates on her anger. Each day, the Bull demands more from them and, if they needed another reason to hate him even more, when the country began to crash, he decided to start charging them rent for the little shed where they lived. This forced her to work instead of staying in school. Anyway, she still has one good thing left: Maia convinced her to join a movie workshop. She is crazy about movies. She treasures those afternoons when the girls from Cinema LaCalor organized free screenings in the neighborhood; she had just arrived in the city and never missed one.
The meat is turning into a nauseating paste that smells worse than before. To distract herself, she starts to think about the task given by Ramiro, one of the workshop teachers: they had to choose a topic for the documentary they will shoot at the end of the year and write the script for a scene. They have already watched more movies than she had ever dreamed of watching in her entire life. “I love that," she repeats all the time. “What you love is the teacher,” Maia teases her. She laughs and says nothing.
“Hurry up with that, the tenderizer is waiting for you," interrupts the Bull.
Lucia takes the bowl to the fridge and faces the pile of freshly cut foreshank he has just put on the table. Her father is butchering the beef he brought without opening his mouth.
“You must do it harder because it’s all sinewy, all right?” Instead of answering, she takes a fat cutlet and puts it under the steel skewers. She pretends it is the Bull’s hand and lowers the lever with a sharp blow. The Bull turns on the radio and the voice of the announcer stuns her. A cumbia begins to play, and he starts dancing around while preparing mate. She looks at him with contempt. That place suffocates her, with its greasy tiles, the walls painted in a murky shade of green and that repulsive, never-stopping smell that makes her nauseous.
Under a ton of fly shit, there hangs a rusty ceiling fan that seems to point directly at her head. Lucia tosses the cutlets into the bowl with beaten eggs and her mind wanders. “Let's see if you guys can surprise me,” Ramiro had said in class and looked at her with those eyes of his. Or maybe she was just under the impression that he was looking at her. Maia sometimes tries to annoy her, saying that he is dull, but she defends him: he is the only one who teaches them how to think. She pours a measure of garlic and parsley on the breadcrumbs and Thiago's voice rings out to her: “You need to show real commitment if you want your script to be moving.”
“Are you planning on coming down from the clouds any time soon?” the Bull nags her. “I told you to bread those with a double layer to make them heavier. You better mind your work, kiddo!”
Lucia takes a deep breath and goes back to breading the meat, while she looks sideways at Bull's belly sticking out from under his apron. I hope it explodes, she thinks.
“You have to order the merchandise, too," he says, knocking on the boxes. Lucia looks up and he unexpectedly offers her a mate. She is about to refuse, but changes her mind, wipes her hands, and goes for it. A customer enters and Bull greets her with exaggerated kindness. Her father is putting some newspapers on the floor, under the beef hanging from the hook. Lucia stares at the thick, red drops that are slowly dripping off, leaving dark stains on the black words. She drinks the mate with a slurp and leaves the cup on the counter. She puts away the breaded cutlets and moves the ladder closer to clean the shelves. She arranges bottles, cans, packages, while trying to keep her balance on the flimsy rungs. When the customer leaves, she inadvertently brushes against the ladder and Lucia almost falls. Her back hurts and her arms feel heavy, but she keeps sorting everything until there is nothing left. As soon as the clock strikes twelve, she takes off her jacket and cap. Even though she has to go back at nap time to wash the sidewalk, she feels that the worst is over for the day.
Translated by Ornella Piris Mannucci / Cecilia Della Croce