Sidetracked

PROLOGUE

Just before dawn, Pedro Santana woke. The kerosene lamp had started to smoke. When he opened his eyes he didn’t know where he was. He had been roused from a dream in which he wandered through a peculiar, rocky landscape where the air was very thin, and he knew that all his memories were about to leave him. The smoking kerosene lamp had penetrated his consciousness like the distant smell of volcanic ash. But suddenly there was something else: a human sound, tormented, panting. And then the dream evaporated and he was forced to return to the dark room where he had now spent six days and six nights without sleeping more than a few minutes at a time.

The kerosene lamp had gone out. He lay completely still. The night was very warm. He smelt of sweat. It had been a long time since he had last managed to wash. He got up cautiously from the earthen floor and groped for the plastic jug of kerosene over by the door. It must have rained while he had slept. The floor was damp under his feet. Off in the distance he heard a rooster crow. Ramirez’s rooster. It was always the first in the village to crow, before dawn. That rooster was like an impatient person. Like someone who lived in the city, someone who always seemed to have too much to do, but never did anything other than attend to his own haste. Life wasn’t like that in the village: here everything moved as slowly as life itself. Why should people hurry when the plants that nourished them grew so slowly?

He found the jug of kerosene and pulled out the piece of cloth stuffed into the opening. The panting that filled the darkness grew more and more uneven. He found the lamp, pulled out the cork, and carefully poured in the kerosene. He struck a match, lifted the glass cover, and watched the wick start to burn.

Then he forced himself to turn around. He couldn’t bear to see what was waiting for him. The woman lying in the bed next to the wall was going to die. He knew this now, even though for a long time he had tried to persuade himself that she would recover. His last attempt to flee had been in his dream. But a person could never escape death. Not his own, nor that of someone he loved.

He squatted down by the bed. The kerosene lamp threw restless shadows across the walls. He looked at her. She was still young. Even though her face was pale and sunken, she was beautiful. The last thing to leave my wife will be her beauty, he thought, as tears came to his eyes. He touched her forehead. The fever had risen again.

He glanced through the broken window patched with a piece of cardboard. Not dawn yet. If only it would come, he thought. Just let her have the strength to keep breathing until dawn. Then she won’t leave me all alone in the night.

Suddenly her eyes flew open. He grasped her hand and tried to smile.

“Where is the child?” she asked in a voice so weak that he could hardly understand her.

“She’s sleeping at my sister’s house,” he replied. “It’s best that way.”

She seemed reassured by his answer.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“For many hours.”

“Have you been sitting here the whole time? You must rest. In a few days I won’t need to lie here any longer.”

“I’ve been sleeping,” he replied. “Soon you’re going to be well again.”

He wondered whether she knew he was lying, whether she knew she