Last Word

Nobody thought to look in the freezer for Anibal’s pants. He owned two pair and needed the spare, the blue ones, to travel. He was heading south, to Itapúa, to find the meaning of the last word in Guaraní.

The dictionary Anibal was writing already contained more words, by far, than any of the other Guaraní dictionaries that had been compiled. At eighty-one, another person would have rested content. Undertaken when he returned from exile in 1990, the monumental rescue project was big enough to serve as the life’s labor of half a dozen people. But Anibal Vera would not go to press without the last word.

Some days I admired his tenacity; others, his single-minded obsession got under my skin. Deliver me from zealots, my brother said once, confronted by a panhandling Hare Krishna in the Denver airport, and his antique turn of phrase stuck with me.

Anibal prowled the house all morning hunting for his pants. At intervals, Nestor and Maria Claudia and I stopped what we were doing to help him look. A mild man of fifty-five who had a face like an unblemished moon and wore nothing but black, Nestor was Anibal’s son. He had spent his formative years in the Soviet Union while his father worked as a broadcaster for Radio Moscow. Two thirds through the filming of a requiem documentary on the Chamacoco Indians, Nestor was right now preoccupied with fixing a camera.

Maria Claudia had her own reasons for not helping much. Distantly related to the Vera family, she had come from the country to work transferring Anibal’s handwritten entries into the Macintosh iBook that a German foundation had donated to the project. But she lacked the temperament for scholarly research, flailing at the keyboard as if it were an enemy whose sole purpose was to keep her away from an exciting life in the city. She wore jeans and tacky T-shirts. Her makeup went on in slabs, and the earrings she bought from a street vendor down at the Recova dangled like hanged men. The eagerness with which she strove to forget everything she knew about life in the country was a source of ongoing pain for Anibal.

As for me, I went to Paraguay to stop the bleeding. Barbara and I tried for seven years to have a child. When Tim came along we crowned him king of the universe. By the time he turned four, we had both accepted that he fell on the extreme end of the autism continuum. By then our brilliantly inscrutable son had already come between us. Nothing I knew about Barbara would have led me to predict her reaction. Trying with fierce fixity to lure Tim into her world, she withdrew from me and mine. Nobody’s fault winds up being the same as everybody’s fault. When Barbara left me, a friend at the college suggested I try for a Fulbright grant. So I was in Paraguay researching legends for a book I thought I might be able to write someday if the bleeding stopped. Anibal knew more about those legends than anyone alive. If I caught him in the right mood, he gave me more in twenty-minute snatches of supercharged recollection than I could get in a month from anyone else.

When the old man stepped outside into the back patio, Nestor told me, “I don’t believe there is any such word.”

Maria Claudia stopped typing. She twisted her long dark hair around a finger. You would have thought she was interested in what Nestor was saying, but I had learned by watching that she was listening to a siren pitched too high for the rest of us to hear. Every time she opened her mouth she spoke less Guaraní, more Spanish. She wanted to own all the things she saw on screens.

The word had come to Anibal while he slept. It was long and full of syllables strange to my ear. I didn’t even try to pronounce it.

“What does it mean?”

“That’s the thing,” Nestor said. “He’s not sure. He just woke up saying it. Over and over. If you ask me, I think it’s pure invention.”

I’m not sure why, but want to say here that I am tired of irony and have lost the capacity to distinguish it from any other cliché, like gangsters with winning ways or holiday shoppers with dulled sensibilities.

When it’s hot, which is most of the time, the Paraguayans drink a cold tea made from the dried leaves of the yerba maté plant. It’s called tereré. At eleven o’clock, Maria Claudia padded in neon flip-flops out back to the kitchen to get ice for the tereré. That was when she found Anibal’s pants, rolled tight like a blue sausage. Nobody seemed surprised that the pants were in the freezer, and nobody admitted to putting them there. But Anibal was greatly relieved.

Although I never saw him there, of course, I like to picture Anibal in the Radio Moscow broadcast studio. He would have believed that the bulletins he was reading in precise, pure Guaraní contained more news than propaganda. He would have believed that communism’s sustaining lie about the brotherhood of men had enough truth in it to justify making whatever compromises the Soviet authorities required of him. In response, they gave him a platform to read his poetry and talk about the language whose vigor and purity were being eroded with the passing of every capitalist year.

Anibal’s hair was the kind of opulent silver any old person would love to inherit. He wore it in a long ponytail. The features of his face looked more Indian than most Paraguayans’ mestizo faces, but the skin was as white as the whitest Spaniard’s who ever crossed the Atlantic. He was slight but sturdy, built to endure. The first time he was arrested under the Stroessner regime, he survived working fifteen hours a day in the desert on a cup of cocido tea and a handful of crackers. His thin-lipped smile knew a lot, believed even more.

It was not the right day to get him talking about the legend of Pombero, about which he knew more than he had told me. I wished him a safe trip and took a bus back to the room I was renting in the house of a general’s widow off Mariscal López. The bus was packed with people, many of them migrants from the country, listening to the same inaudible siren that had captivated Maria Claudia.

That night Nestor overcame his repugnance at being on the same planet as the viuda de Muñoz and came to see me. It was one of those amazing evenings that sometimes enfold Asunción in swaddling cloths of absorbent pastel while the sun goes down like it’s not in any hurry. Birds flew in bright cliques from orange trees to lapachos to the thick safety of squatty bushes with spiky leaves and drooping clusters of purple flowers. The traffic on Mariscal López was pleasingly distant. Around the neighborhood, laughter sounded like ice cubes shaken in a tray. My internal bleeding had slowed to a seepage.

I was sitting in the backyard trying to read the local paper. I could get by speaking Spanish, and I understood most of what people said to me, but the vocabulary of journalism baffled me. Nestor and the widow instinctively recognized each other as natural enemies, and she withdrew sniffily after escorting him outside. Although the general had died eleven years ago, doña Alma had not taken off her mourning black.

“Did your father leave?” I asked Nestor.

“Tomorrow morning. That’s why I came, Marcos. You have to go with him.”

The idea of going on a trip with Anibal Vera was nuts. I respected the man. I admired his dedication. There were moments when I kind of liked him. But from the beginning the tension between us had been palpable. Some of it was due to my being a North American and the representative, however unwilling, of a world power he blamed for bigfooting across the garden of Latin American cultures. The rest was what the Paraguayans called a problema de piel: a problem of the skin, meaning we rubbed each other the wrong way.

“Sorry, Nestor. Why don’t you go?”

He shook his head soberly, the moon of his round face rising early to dominate the evening sky. “The only boat I can get to take me up the river to the Pantanal leaves this week. It’s my last chance to shoot footage of the Chamacoco before I run out of money.”

“Anibal won’t mind going alone.”

“Señor Hunter?”

Alma Blanca de Muñoz knew an enemy when she saw one, but she also knew her duty. She appeared in the patio with a tray of snacks and a bottle of White Horse. I told her I would serve our guest, and she escaped with her head held exaggeratedly high. I wondered how many years into the twenty-first century the battles of the twentieth would continue to be refought.

“My father is becoming forgetful,” Nestor confided when I handed him a glass of bad scotch on cracked ice.

“Forgetful is the last thing I would call your father. He has the memory of ten people.”

“He forgets to take his nitroglycerine. Even when the pain hits him.”

“I hadn’t known he had a health problem. He looked as fit as a person of his age could be.

“I’m the last person he would listen to,” I pointed out to Nestor. “He doesn’t like me.”

He persisted, shooting down all the objections I tossed up like so many clay pigeons. Maybe that was how you had to operate if you were going to be a documentary filmmaker in a country as poor as Paraguay, as difficult to work in. In the end, he took my feeble no for a yes, and the next morning I met the dictionary man at the bus station.

“How come you’re here?”

Not only did I have to accompany a man who disliked me on a long trip, I had to convince him I was going because I wanted to. “Nestor said where you’re headed is deep country.”


“I thought I might pick up something for my book.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, heading for the bus to Encarnación.

The bus we took was cheaper than some of the buses that ran south because it had no air conditioning. By the time we got off in Coronel Oviedo, I was like the rest of the passengers, rank with sweat, grumpy, and hungry. Through the hour and a half we waited for a bus headed into the country, Anibal studied the sky, which was being sealed decisively shut with clouds that bunched in steel furrows.

“If it rains, they close the road,” he told me.

“Maybe we’d better go back to Asunción.”

“Can’t,” he said, and I was too proud to ask why not.

The rain did not start until the Knauer Brothers bus dropped us in San Pedro del Paraná, a small town that depended on the traffic of small-time cotton farmers to stay precariously alive. We were headed to a place Nestor had told me was too small to describe as a village, or even a settlement. What is it, then? I wanted to know. Just a place, he told me. A place like no other place. I looked up the name in the dictionary I carried in my pack. Guaraní is a rich and complicated language I’ll never master. As close as I could tell, the name of the place to which we were headed meant Black Hole in the Ground.

At a restaurant with bleak walls and no other patrons we ate fried eggs and corned beef from a can, waiting for a microbus to take us farther into the country. Up to that point we had scarcely conversed. Anibal busied himself taking notes in a reporter-style notebook he carried, and I fretted about my broken family, the hard-shell mystery of my son’s condition. Barbara had moved from International Falls on the Canadian border down to St. Paul to get better treatment for Tim. When we split she promised me regular reports on him. In the eighteen months we’d been apart, she had sent three brief emails. Was it worth a court battle to gain the right to see a child who would not acknowledge me?

“I suppose Nestor leaned on you to come with me,” Anibal said, scraping the remains of his food with a piece of hard bread. He ate like a man stocking up.

“Nestor told me the word you’re looking for doesn’t exist. He says you invented it.”

“Sons,” he shrugged. “What do they know?”

“I have a son,” I told him. “He doesn’t speak to me.”

He looked at me sharply. “How old is your son?”

Because it felt like a concession, I hesitated a moment. “Timothy is seven. He’s autistic.”

For a moment I thought I had made him angry, but it wasn’t anger. I don’t know what it was, but the expression with which he studied me would fit the face of a distressed cherub. He pushed back his chair and bulled his way out the front door. I paid for our meal and followed him into the muddy street, where truck tires and the hooves of horses were beginning to leave deep, sloppy tracks. I had a feeling the rain wasn’t going to let up.

It didn’t. An hour outside of San Pedro, the microbus went into a hole in the road. All the male passengers got behind the bus and pushed, but the front axle was buried in greasy, red mud, and after a few minutes of futile effort, people gathered their bags and started walking back toward town. Anibal and I watched them go.

“No vehicle is going to get around the bus,” I pointed out. It had bottomed out at a low spot in the road, on both sides of which rainwater pooled in the field. “And they won’t be able to pull the bus out until the road dries up. How many days will that be?”

“You can go back to San Pedro if you want.”

“What about you?”

He shouldered the small leather rucksack he had brought and started walking in the other direction. After a minute, two minutes, I followed him.

The territory we made our way across was flat, green, and as open as the sky wasn’t. On both sides of the road, pastures ran toward a horizon of dark woods. Scattered herds of big-eyed, big-humped Zebu cattle grazed placidly. After the first couple of miles, I admitted to myself I was not in shape to hike the way we were hiking. The warm rain on my face was like being insulted by somebody who really knew you. Staying a few steps ahead of me, Anibal seemed to have no difficulty.

Once, while we were passing a field of sunflowers—there must have been ten acres of them; running in endless rows on both sides of the road, with their expressionless faces, they seemed more like animals than plants—a barefoot farmer in a narrow-brimmed straw hat came trotting toward us on the road. He stopped to speak in urgent Guaraní to Anibal, then took off loping toward the pueblo.

“What’s wrong?”

“His daughter is sick.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“He says a spirit caught her at the creek two days ago when she went for water. Now she has a high fever and is out of her head.”

“Do you believe it was a spirit, Anibal? What about a virus?”

A black and yellow bird I had never seen before lit on a fence post. Anibal spoke to it, and the bird flew off. “You probably never heard the story of Kuehe and Ko’ero.”


“They are the ones who came down after the world was created, when the Guaraní people were already well established here.”


“They weren’t viruses.”

He was right. I hadn’t heard of them. I was eager to learn something new, something no one had ever researched. But Anibal wasn’t ready to tell me their story. Telling me their names was like taunting me for my incurable ignorance. We picked up our packs and started walking again.

My feet blistered. I got shin splints. My head ached. Ahead of me, Anibal whistled the melodies to Paraguayan folk songs as he went. I recognized a couple of them.

We spent the night at a settlement called Yagua Kuá in the house of a schoolteacher who loved geography. He had memorized the capitals of pretty much every country in the world and named them off as we ate, with the air of a man imparting a secret so valuable he scarcely dared entrust us with it. Anibal got the cot; I slept on a pallet on the floor. The teacher snored on a shuck mattress stretched across three desks. In the sodden darkness I thought I had fallen asleep until I heard Anibal ask me, “Your son. Is there any cure for what he has?”

“No cure. There’s treatment, but it doesn’t do much.”

“You said his name is Timoteo.”

“Yes,” I agreed, though I disliked the gringo habit of converting English names to their Spanish equivalent. “Se llama Timoteo.”

In the morning it was still raining, slow but steady. The ground was chilled. We drank maté and ate breakfast with the teacher, who tried to convince Anibal to stay until the weather improved. I knew there was no way he was sticking around. In his quietly bullheaded way he was driven, and I couldn’t help being pulled along in his wake.

The second day was worse than the first. The accumulated aches of the day before doubled as I picked up my feet and set them down again in the wet grass. The road out of Yagua Kuá was more like a path. To avoid the mud we stayed on the high crown through woods that dripped as though they had never been dry. I was filthy, exhausted, disoriented. I was in no mood to defend American economic policy.

“It’s a funny thing,” Anibal said. Sleep had renewed him, the way sleep is supposed to.

“What’s that?”

“As soon as the Soviet Union went belly-up, everybody decided capitalism was a good thing. It’s good for your country, I can see that. Not so good for mine. We’ll never catch up. That’s what the Muslims, the angry ones, have figured out.”

“How much farther to where we’re going?”

“The thing about capitalism is that some countries have to come out on top. That means other countries must stay on the bottom.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” I said, though I wasn’t sure I believed it. In a surround-sound world, the chirpy cheerleaders of globalization always came off sounding mono to me.

“At one time,” Anibal told me as if it followed, “Guaraní was spoken across the continent. If you look at a map, you’ll see Guaraní names for places as far north as Colombia.”

“What about the two gods, Kuehe and Ko’ero?”

“It’s an unfinished story.”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head reprovingly. “We’ll be where we’re going before nightfall.”

“Is there a person there you think will know the word you’re looking for?”

Not a person, two people. It was dark by the time we stepped out of the rain under the thatch-roofed patio of a house in a place that was no place but went by a name that translated into English as Black Hole in the Ground. There were two hammocks slung under the roof. In each of them rocked a large, fat, very old woman. They were identical twins. Inocencia could see a little; she thought they were ninety-five. Piedad could hear a little; she was sure they were ninety-seven. Unlike most old people, who shed bulk as they aged, the Molina sisters seemed still to be acquiring it. They were massive black mounds, with brown faces like illustrations of a remote geological era. They did not acknowledge my presence. They intimidated me.

Because nobody spoke Spanish, I could not untangle the web of relationships in the people who showed up to wait on the twins. Men and women of all ages came and went, made a fire, cooked a meal, swept the patio, kicked scrawny chickens, disappeared into the dark. To a person, they treated Anibal with a formal reverence that was nothing like the way celebrities were treated in any culture. It was obvious that he occupied a position of respect among them, like a priest, or maybe a poet. I wondered if they had tuned in his shortwave broadcasts from Moscow in the old days.

It was late, maybe close to midnight although I hadn’t brought a watch, when Anibal came over to the low stool I was sitting on. He knelt beside me and held the flat of his hand against my cheek.


Not until he spoke did I realize that the heat in my head, like the unsteady brilliance in my brain, was not supposed to be there.

A third hammock had been hung with strips of braided leather under the patio roof, equidistant from those of the twins. Something sentient, a creature resembling a man named Marcos Hunter, lay inside it. He was listening to water run, but it wasn’t water, it was words, and the hole they ran into was deeper than wherever water went. He wanted to make the hammock swing, like the twins’ hammocks were doing, but he didn’t know how. There was a great distance, at present insurmountable, between thought and movement. The idea of a black and yellow bird lit on the picture of a wooden table. There was a chaste blue plate on the table. The bird dropped something green on the plate and took off, wings vibrating, into the black air. Meantime, rain was filling all the buckets everywhere.

At a certain point, a man with a silver ponytail appeared in a straight-backed chair next to the hammock. On anybody else’s face, the shining would surely be tears. On Anibal’s, they were more like scars, proof of suffering. Until the man in the hammock finally understood, Anibal kept repeating, “Your son, Timoteo. He wants to tell you something. What is it?”

The man in the hammock did not respond if only because something momentous was happening in the patio. Piedad was getting out of her hammock. Because of her size, her fragility, her age, three adults were on hand to help. When her feet hit the ground she tottered, and the earth shook. She fell against her family, who held her up. The remarkable sound coming out of her mouth was laughter. Piedad was laughing like crazy. In the other hammock, so was her sister. Everybody was laughing, including Anibal, who announced clearly in Spanish, “She has to take a piss.”

“Kuehe walks with light feet. His hair makes people think of gold. People consider him their protector. He encourages them, gives them new words when they require them. To the people who know what to do with them, he causes dreams to come into their heads when they sleep. Useful dreams, as useful as new words.”

“What about Ko’ero?”

“Ko’ero is a stomper.”

“What does he make people think of?”

“When they see him coming, they can’t help but think of a bear, although truth be told, very few of them have ever seen a real bear. Ko’ero tears the roofs off houses and breathes fire down into them. In that regard he is more like a dragon. Certainly he is as big as one. If it weren’t for Kuehe…”

A small girl with a radiant unsmiling face, wearing a short purple dress and a necklace of red plastic pearls, held an aluminum basin of water next to the hammock. Anibal dipped a cloth into the basin and mopped my face with it.

“How long was I out?”

“A couple days.”

“Did they tell you what the word means?”

“I haven’t asked them yet. Do you feel the bites?”

“They’re all over me.”

“Lice. Try not to scratch. When we get back to San Pedro, we’ll burn your clothes and buy you some new ones.”

“The story you were telling me, about Kuehe and Ko’ero?”

“What about it?”

“I think I know what it means.”

“Maybe you do.”

“I’d like to get up now.”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

At some point during the two days I was unconscious, the rain had stopped. It was morning, and the rising sun enameled with white light the water that was everywhere: on the grass, in puddles, in the buckets people had put out to collect it. The twins, I noticed, were both talking. Not to each other, and not to anyone else, either. It wasn’t babble; I was sure of that. It was more structured. Not a prayer; more like a recitation. Not a story; maybe a soliloquy of events that would turn into one. From the way Anibal addressed them, I was sure the sisters were anything but senile.

I took a walk in the woods and found a small creek with a plank stretched across it. I took off my clothes and scrubbed my body with sand, then rinsed in the cold water. That didn’t take away the irritation of the lice bites, but it made me feel a little better. The good feeling went away when I had to put my lousy clothes back on.

When I got back to the house, Inocencia had gone to take a piss.

At noon they fed me the best parts of the chicken they killed. I could feel some of my strength returning although the lingering ache in my head was connected by a fine wire to my stomach, and once in a while a wet flash of fever gusted through me. Anibal was nowhere to be seen.

I felt uneasy without him. No one seemed to speak or even understand Spanish. I had been told there was no place left in Paraguay where the population spoke only Guaraní, but no matter how carefully I tried to communicate, I got the same blank nonresponse from everyone as though I were spouting Shakespeare. After a plateful of chicken and boiled manioc, I went looking for Anibal.

The guitar that led me to him had the haunting rhythm, like sound trudging, of some of the classic folk-song laments. Anibal’s singing voice was nothing like his speaking voice. Instead of an old man’s froggy croak it was full and deep. He was sitting on a tree stump in the woods next to the same creek where I had tried to wash the lice off my body. He was wearing his blue pants, and a white shirt with red embroidery on the front. The girl he was singing to could not have been twenty. She sat a few feet away from him with her legs tucked primly underneath her, her hands folded in her lap. She looked like she was on her way to a dance. Her black hair was braided, she wore hoop earrings, and unlike most of the younger women in the country, she wasn’t wearing jeans. The bodice of her dress was covered with the same sort of embroidery that was on Anibal’s shirt.

The whole thing was off. Something was wrong, but not until I sat down next to Anibal did I know what.

“What is it?”

He lay the guitar down and said something to the girl, who disappeared. “Pain.”

“Did you take your nitro?”

“In my pack,” he said, and I ran to the Molinas’ to get it.

When I came back he was lying on his side next to the stump in a fetal position. His body was shaking, his face was cold ash. He appeared not to notice me. I forced the nitro into his mouth and hoped.

It worked. A couple minutes later he was back on the stump, breathing easily, but not yet ready to walk.

“I’m pleased,” he told me.

“They told you what the word means.”

He nodded. “Inocencia did.”

“So what does it mean?”

“Not every word translates into Spanish.”


“Breath of life. Wind with no name. Air after a storm. I can think of half a dozen ways to translate it, but none of them is right.”

“But you’ll put it into your dictionary anyway.”

“Of course.”

“That story—Kuehe and Ko’ero—you made it up, didn’t you?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because the Guaraní always had a creation myth, but they didn’t have a destruction myth.”

“I forgive you, Marcos.”

“Forgive me what?”

“It’s not your fault. It’s the end of the Guaraní, isn’t it? But I don’t blame you.”

“Six million people still speak the language.”

But he would accept no false consolation, not from me or anyone else. He saw the end, the extinction of the Guaraní culture, as clearly as he had seen the sun come up that morning on a glistening world.

“I’m worried about your son,” he told me.

“Me too.”

“You should go home and talk to him.”

“He won’t listen.”

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to him.”

He was right, of course; I knew that before he said it. I walked back to the Molinas’ and brought him a plate of food. He ate slowly but with gusto, and watching him enjoy a chicken wing, a chicken foot, two sticks of boiled manioc, I realized I would be going back to Asunción by myself.

It was too late to start today. I figured if I got up early I could walk as far as Yagua Kuá the first day, maybe spend the night at the schoolteacher’s again, then reach San Pedro and hope for a bus after one final day of slogging muddy road. The prospect was exhilarating. When I got back to the widow’s, I would call Barbara. I would ask her to put Tim on the line. I would say something to my son. I didn’t know what, but something.

Dinner that evening was animated. Anibal was in a great mood. Out of their continuous meditation the twins had presented him with a second ancient word, one he had never in his eighty-one years heard spoken. This one was a short word, two syllables, but I knew better than to ask him what it meant. After fried pig meat and more manioc, someone brought out a liter bottle of cane whiskey, and musicians wearing embroidered shirts appeared with their instruments. Once they started playing, neighbors showed up to dance the polka on the hard dirt of the Molina sisters’ patio. Small boys in gym shorts and T-shirts rocked the twins’ hammocks. Their identical great black bulk swung low, swung heavy, swung like nothing else in the world ever swung, north or south, here, now, never.

When I danced, the fever caught up with me, and I was the first one out, stretching exhausted on the lice-ridden hammock I had been sleeping in since we arrived. When I woke, the party was over, people were gone, and a late moon waxed fraternal in the black sky. I pulled on my sneakers and went outside. Moonlight coated everything with a pearl sheen: chickens asleep on a pole fence, the arms of trees, an empty cooking-oil tin on the ground with a hole in one side, a bony yellow dog with pointed ears. I followed the dog out of the patio into a field, where the earth was still spongy from the rain.

Anibal had taken off his embroidered shirt and the blue pants. He was wearing the same old clothes he had traveled in from Asunción. In the spectral light he looked younger. He could have been a hale man of fifty digging a hole in the ground with a shovel. The dog ran over and explored the hole, whining to get his attention, but I hung back and watched him work.

Methodically, with no apparent hurry, he lifted shovelful after shovelful out of the hole and tossed it onto a mound that grew as I watched. I wasn’t close enough to see the expression on his face, but the swing of his shoulders, the arc of his arms, made it clear that he was completely absorbed in his task.

I stood for a few minutes watching him work, the yellow dog sitting on its haunches alongside the hole, tongue out, pointed ears alertly up. Every once in a while there was a scraping sound as the shovel hit stone. The mound of excavated dirt grew higher. I wasn’t sure how he would react, but I walked to the edge of the hole anyway.

When he saw me, he stopped working, straightened up, and lay the shovel on the ground. “I’ve been here before, you know.”

The old truculence was back, but I had the feeling it was a generalized reaction, not a specific antipathy to me, Marcos Hunter. Whatever it was, it didn’t bother me. I asked my bald question. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?”

“It looks like you’re burying something.”

He shook his head, stretching his fingers, which must have ached from the unaccustomed effort. “That’s where you’re wrong.”

“You’re taking something out? What?”

He glared at me. In the moonlight, his face looked like the owl’s on the label of a bottle of Kabure-í, the cheap cane whiskey popular with the poor. “This is where they left it.”

“Left what?”

The high and quiet disdain with which he shook his head made me realize it was time to stop asking questions.

“Give me the shovel,” I told him.

“What for?”

“To dig.”

Because he was curious, he surrendered the shovel and sat down to rest. I started digging. It was hard work but strangely satisfying. Feeling the muscles in my back pull, I tossed the dirt onto Anibal’s pile. The dog lay splayed on the ground in sympathy, and Anibal absently scratched its back.

After a few minutes I could not help asking him, “How will I know when I find what we’re looking for?”

He shook his head. “You tired?”

“I’m not tired.”

“Then dig.”

I understood, finally, that there was nothing to say. I kept digging.