A Journalist on Vacation Becomes Part of the Story

"Woman on the Riverbank" by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, recommended by Colm Tóibín

colombian jungle

Introduction by Colm Tóibín

A house close to a river where many people come; a gap of twenty years; a photographer who notices the smallest detail as though her eyes are a sort of lens. A war that once raged; a war that is over, but whose remnants remain, whose uncovered stories haunt. The narrative is filled with atmosphere, especially night sounds and things growing and moving in the landscape. 

cover of songs for the flamesIn “Woman by the Riverbank” by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, certain images are fixed in the memory, like photographs that have been developed and printed. Jay, the photographer, notices that Yolanda, the visitor, moves her plate and cutlery just a small bit away from those of Don Gilberto. He is the man with whom she has come to the house. It is a small gesture, but painstaking and telling, the sort of detail one might find in a story by Henry James in which one act, a tiny thing, suggests much more, an entire relationship or a set of hidden motives.  

There is a hint that after twenty years what really happened will emerge. Yolanda survives the accident she had early in the story; her reappearance makes us feel that something—even the actual cause of the accident or some reasons for it—will finally be made clear, will be part of a process that brings clarity, or reconciliation even.

But Vásquez is too subtle a writer for easy endings. What matters is the texture of the memory rather than the clarity of the closure. And the memory itself is riveting because the moment of noticing is captured in “Woman on the Riverbank” with an extraordinary zeal and an indelible sharpness. The moment occurs when Jay decides to break bad news to Don Gilberto and then watches for his response. 

His face gives everything away. As a photographer, Jay has learned to look, but what she does now, in this late-night confrontation, is much more than look—she sees everything, nothing escapes her now. Watching brings knowledge. In the same way, Vásquez, in these evocative, highly-wrought sentences describing Jay watching Don Gilberto, sees everything too, as do we, his readers. 

Twenty years later, this memory remains, but time has passed and with it the urgency of these events so skillfully related in the story. It is not as though time solves or heals; instead, it obscures and conceals. The power of “Woman on the Riverbank” comes from the author’s refusal to create easy drama, his insistence on loose ends taking on a power of their own, his belief that mystery holds a truth that lives beyond fact or beyond simple explanation. This mystery is at its most powerful toward the end of the story when there is a possibility that some other figure has been seen close to the river, some apparition perhaps imagined, someone who comes to haunt the narrative so that nothing at all is settled.

Colm Tóibín
Author of The Magician

A Journalist on Vacation Becomes Part of the Story

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Woman on the Riverbank by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I

I have always wanted to write the story the photographer told me, but I could not have done so without her permission or her collusion: other people’s stories are inviolable territory, or that’s how it’s always seemed to me, because often there is something in them that informs or defines a life, and stealing them in order to write them is much worse than revealing a secret. Now, for reasons that don’t matter, she has allowed me this usurpation, and in return has only asked that I tell the story just as she told it to me that night: without tweaks, embellishments, or pyrotechnics, but also without muting anything. “Begin where I begin,” she said. “Begin with my arrival at the ranch, when I saw the woman.” And that’s what I intend to do here, and I’ll do so fully aware that I am the way she has found to see her story told by someone else and thus to understand, or try to understand, something that has always escaped her.

The photographer had a long name and two long surnames, but everyone always called her Jay. She had become something of a legend over the years, one of those people who others knew things about: that she always dressed in black, that she wouldn’t have a sip of aguardiente even to save her life. Everyone knew she talked unhurriedly with people before taking her camera out of her bag, and more than once journalists wrote their articles based on material she remembered, rather than what they had managed to find out; it was known that other photographers followed her or spied on her, thinking she didn’t notice, and tended to stand behind her in a futile attempt to see what she saw. She had photographed Colombian violence more assiduously (and also with more empathy) than any other photojournalist, and the most heartrending images of our war were hers: the one of an old lady weeping in the roofless ruins of a church that guerrillas had blown up with a gas cylinder; the one of a young woman’s arm with the initials, carved with a knife and already scarring, of the paramilitary group that had murdered her son in front of her. Now things were different in certain fortunate places: violence was retreating and people were getting to know something like tranquility again. Jay liked visiting those places when she could to relax, to escape her routine or simply to witness first hand those transformations that would once have seemed illusory.

That’s how she reached Las Palmas. The ranch was what was left of the 90,000 hectares that had once belonged to her hosts. The Galáns had never left the province of los Llanos, nor did they have plans to renovate the old house, and they lived there contentedly, walking barefoot on the dirt floor without startling the hens. Jay knew them because she’d visited the same house twenty years before. Back then the Galáns had rented her the room of one of their daughters, who had gone to study agronomy in Bogotá, and from the window Jay could see the mirror of water, which was what they called a river some hundred yards wide and so calm it looked like a lagoon; the capybaras swam across the river without being pushed off course by the current, and in the middle of the water sometimes a bored black caiman surfaced, floating perfectly still.

Other people’s stories are inviolable territory, or that’s how it’s always seemed to me, because often there is something in them that informs or defines a life

Now, on this second visit, Jay would not sleep in that room full of someone else’s things, but in the comfortable neutrality of a guest room with two beds and a nightstand between them. (But she would only use one bed, and even had a hard time deciding which one.) Everything else was the same as before: there were the capybaras and the caimans, and the calm water, the stillness of which had been increased by the drought. Most of all, there were the people: because the Galáns, maybe due to their reluctance to leave the ranch except to buy supplies, had managed to get the world to come to them. Their table, an enormous wooden board next to a coal-burning stove, was invariably full of people from all over, visitors from the neighboring ranches or from Yopal, friends of their daughters with or without them, zoologists or veterinarians or cattle ranchers who came to talk about their problems. That’s how it was this time too. People drove two or three hours to come and see the Galáns; Jay had driven seven, and she’d done so with pleasure, taking time to rest when she stopped for petrol, opening the windows of her old jeep to enjoy the changing smells along the road. Some places have a certain magnetism, perhaps unjustified (that is, made up of our mythologies and our superstitions). For Jay, Las Palmas was one of those places. And that’s what she was looking for: a few days of quiet among spoon-billed birds and iguanas that climbed down from the trees to eat fallen mangos, in a place that in other times had been a territory of violence.

So the night she arrived, there she was sitting under a tube of white light eating meat and chunks of fried green plantain with a dozen strangers who were obviously strangers to each other as well. They were talking about whatever—how the region had been pacified, how there was no longer extortion, and how cattle were rarely stolen anymore—when she heard the greeting of a woman who had just arrived.

Buenas y santas,” she said.

Jay looked up to say hello, as everyone did, and heard her apologize without looking at anyone, and saw her pull up a plastic chair, and felt something akin to recognition. It took a few seconds to remember or discover that she’d met her right there, at Las Palmas, twenty years earlier. She, however, did not remember Jay.

Later, when the conversation had moved over to the hammocks and rocking chairs, Jay thought: better this way.

It’s better that she hadn’t recognized her.

II

Twenty years earlier, Yolanda (that was the woman’s name) had arrived as part of a retinue. Jay had noticed her from the start: the self-restraint of a guarded prisoner, the tense steps, that way of moving as if she were in a hurry or carrying out an errand. She wanted to appear more serious than she actually was, and most of all more serious than the men in the group. During breakfast on the first day, when the table was moved to the shade of a tree from which mangos fell with the dry thud of a bocce ball (and yes, there was the waiting iguana), Jay watched the woman and listened to her speak, and watched the men and listened to them speak, and learned they were coming from Bogotá and that the man with the moustache, to whom the others spoke with meekness and even reverence, was a second-tier politician whose favors the region’s landowners sought.

They called him Don Gilberto, but in the use of his first name, for some reason, Jay detected more respect than if they’d called him by his surname or his position. Don Gilberto was one of those men who spoke without looking at anyone or using anyone’s name, but everyone always knew to whom his words or suggestions or orders were directed. Yolanda had sat beside him with her back straight, as if she were holding a notebook ready to write things down, receive instructions or take dictation. When she settled down on the bench (outside there were no chairs, just a long bench made of planks of wood that all the diners comically had to pick up at once in order to sit down), she had moved her plate and cutlery away from the man’s: two inches, no more, but Jay had noticed the gesture and found it eloquent. In the light that opened between them, in her painstaking wish that they not touch, something was happening.

They talked about the upcoming elections; they talked about saving the country from the communist threat. They talked about a dead body that had floated down the river in recent days, and everyone agreed that he must have done something: things like that don’t happen to people with nothing to hide. Jay didn’t mention the house she’d visited that morning, a half hour’s drive away, where a schoolteacher had been accused of indoctrinating the children, found guilty and decapitated as a lesson to his adolescent pupils; nor did she mention the photographs she’d taken of the pupil whose fate it had been to find the head on his teacher’s desk. She did talk, however, of the music of the plains: one of the men at the table turned out to have written several songs: Jay had heard one of them, and surprised the rest (and surprised herself) by reciting the chorus, some lines with galloping riders and an evening sun the color of a pair of lips. She felt she had called attention to herself, perhaps improperly. She also felt that she’d eased things for Yolanda; that the men’s gazes on Yolanda became lighter. She felt her wordless gratitude.

Before the last cup of coffee, Señor Galán said: “This afternoon there are horses for anyone who wants to ride. Mauricio will show you around and you can see the property.”

“And what is there to see?” asked the politician.

“Oh,” Galán said. “You can see everything here.”

Jay let the hours slip by in a green hammock, alternating between beer and sugary aguapanela, taking catnaps and reading a book by Germán Castro Caycedo. At the agreed time, she approached the stables. There they were: four saddled horses looking at the same point on the horizon. The man who was going to guide them was wearing rolled up trousers and a knife on his belt; Jay noticed the skin of his bare feet, cracked and split like desiccated earth, like a dried-up river bed. The man was tightening girths and lengthening reins as the guests mounted their horses, but he never looked anyone in the face, or his gestures gave that impression: hard cheekbones, grooves instead of eyes. He pointed Jay toward a horse, off on its own, that she thought too skinny; once in the saddle, she felt comfortable on the mount and forgot her objections. When they set off, she noticed that the politician had not come. Yolanda and three of her colleagues were there: the one with the pretentious sideburns, the one with the slicked back hair, and the one with the lisp who spoke loudly (and rather aggressively) to cover it up or attenuate his hang-ups.

The sky had opened up: a yellow light shone in their faces as they advanced across arid land, past skulls of cows and capybaras, beneath the flight of attentive vultures. The heat had eased off, but there was no wind, and Jay felt sweat on her lower back. Every once in a while she caught a vague whiff of something decomposing. There was a wool blanket on top of Jay’s saddle, to soften the rigors of the hard leather, but she must have been doing something wrong, since twice she had tried to gallop and twice she’d felt pain in her pelvis. So she stayed at the back, as if she were looking after the group. Up ahead, Mauricio pointed things out wordlessly, or speaking so quietly that Jay didn’t manage to hear. It didn’t matter: she just had to look in the direction of his arm to see the unusually colored bird, the huge wasps’ nest, the armadillo that caused a stir in the group.

At a certain moment, Mauricio stopped. He gestured for silence and pointed toward a cluster of trees that Jay wouldn’t have called a forest. At the heart of the little wood, its head raised as if sniffing the air, was a deer.

“How lovely,” Yolanda whispered.

That was the last thing Jay heard her say before the accident. The horses and their riders set off again, and what happened next happened very quickly. Jay didn’t notice everything, the sequence of things at the moment they happened, but explanations abounded later: that Yolanda had let go of the reins, that her horse had started to gallop, that Yolanda had squeezed her legs (the reflex of someone trying to keep her balance) and the horse had bolted. This Jay did see: the horse whirled around and took off at an explosive speed toward the ranch, and Yolanda could do nothing but hold onto its neck (she didn’t even try to grab the reins, or she reached for them and couldn’t find them in the midst of her efforts not to fall off), and that was when Mauricio also took off in a miraculous maneuver, something Jay had never seen before, and cut off the rebel horse’s route with his horse, and with his horse’s body and his own body crashed into it and toppled it. It was an unbelievably dexterous movement, and would have turned Mauricio briefly into a hero (the one who nips a dangerous situation in the bud and prevents it getting out of hand) if Yolanda had not been thrown forward in a bad way, if her head had not smashed against the ground, against the dry cracks from which dust-covered stones jutted out.

Jay dismounted from her horse to help (a dancer’s leap) though there was nothing she could have done. Mauricio, however, was already taking a radiotelephone out of a saddlebag and calling the people at the ranch to tell them to send a car, to start looking for a doctor. The fallen horse was back on its feet now. It stood there quietly, looking nowhere in particular: it had forgotten its urgency to return home. Yolanda was also quiet, lying face down, with her eyes closed and her arms under her body, like a little girl sleeping on a cold night.


Later, when Señor Galán took Yolanda to a hospital in the city, there was much debate over the actions of the plainsman. He should not have knocked over the other horse, some said; others argued that he’d done the right thing, because a horse that bolts is more dangerous for its rider the further it’s allowed to run (the speed, the difficulty of keeping one’s balance). They told anecdotes from other times; they talked about invalid children; they said that growing up on the plains a person learned how to fall. Don Gilberto listened to the discussions in silence, with his expression deformed by something that looked less like worry than rage, the anger of the owner of a toy that others have not taken care of. Or maybe Jay was not interpreting correctly. His silence was difficult to read; but during the night, when Galán called from the clinic with the latest news, he looked alarmed. He had begun to drink whiskey from the same glass in which he’d been served aguapanela, lying in a colorful hammock, but not rocking, rather anchored to the tile floor by a foot with dirty toenails. His whole being was a question. The information he’d received did not satisfy him.

Yolanda was in an induced coma. Her left arm was badly bruised, but nothing was broken; her head, though, had received a blow that could have killed her instantly, and which had provoked a hematoma with unpredictable consequences. The doctors had already trepanned her skull to relieve the pressure of the blood, but there was still a risk, or, to be more accurate, it was not yet possible to name all the many risks that might remain. “We’re not through to the other side,” said the man who’d spoken to Galán, perhaps using the same words the doctor had used to tell him. It was one of the members of the retinue, one of the most obsequious and, at the same time, of the least visible, and it was strange to hear him describe the skin broken by the hard earth, the face swollen and darkened. Don Gilberto received the words with a surly grimace and poured himself more whiskey, and Jay thought of the strange form power can take: it is a subordinate—an assistant, an employee—who apprises us of someone else’s fate, someone who matters to us. Maybe that’s what made Jay feel, before the man’s preoccupation, something cold, something distant.

After midnight, now drunk, or talking as if he was drunk, Don Gilberto said goodnight. Jay stayed up a while longer, a while made up of dense silences or prudent whispers, as if the convalescent were in the next room. The man who lisped had also had quite a few drinks and was now trying to get Jay to accept a too-full glass of whiskey. As she pretended to drink it, Jay felt suddenly invisible, for the rest had begun to speak as if she were not there.

“The boss is scared,” one said.

“Of course,” said another.

“She’s not just anyone.”

“It’s Yolanda, and he…”

“Yes. It’s Yolanda.”

“He’ll die if something happens to her.”

“He will. If something happens to her, he’ll die.”

The voices blended together. One voice was all the voices. Jay began to feel weary (that treacherous weariness with which other people’s emotions wear us down). She sank into her hammock and it was as if someone was tucking her in. She didn’t know when she fell asleep.

When she woke up, the rest had all gone to their rooms. They’d turned out the light in the walkway where the hammocks hung, so Jay found herself in a dark place of barely perceptible silhouettes. It smelled of burned oil; the only sound, which filled the night, was the chorus of nameless insects and frogs. A light bulb shining in the distance enabled her to reach the open kitchen, walking with difficulty among sleeping dogs and potted geraniums, and find the fridge: she would pour herself a glass of iced sugar water and go to her room, like everyone else. And the next day she’d ask for news of the other woman, spend the morning around the ranch and take a few photos and after lunch she’d go back to Bogotá. That’s what she decided. But then, as she poured herself a glass of aguapanela at the big wooden table, her gaze sought the quiet river, maybe to see if the caimans came out at night. She didn’t see any caimans, but she did see a silhouette the size of a large capybara sitting upright on the riverbank. Jay walked as far as the wooden fence and from there her eyes, adjusting to the darkness, made out a hat, then a seated man, then that the man was Don Gilberto. Later she would wonder why, instead of going to bed, she had decided to approach the man. Because of what she’d seen at breakfast, perhaps, or perhaps due to the boss’s singular preoccupation?

“Good evening,” she said when she was near him.

Don Gilberto barely turned. “How are you, señorita?” he said without any interest.

Jay knew that he had carried on drinking and fleetingly wondered if it was wise to stay near him. But her nebulous curiosity was stronger that those precautions. The man was sitting in the dirt—on the sparse grass that grew unconvincingly on the bank—his arms around his knees and back hunched over. Jay looked for a space free of capybara shit and sat down without asking if he minded, not beside the man, but close enough to carry on a conversation. At night, the waters reflected the misty moon, and Jay tried to remember the name of the trail of light the moon makes on the sea. But she couldn’t remember, and besides, this wasn’t the sea, but a quiet river in the Eastern Plains, and there was no trail here, rather a slight whitish glow.

Jay held out her hand and said her name.

“Yes, I know who you are,” Don Gilberto said, forcing his consonants, which came out slurred in any case. “The photographer, no? From Bogotá.”

“What a memory,” Jay said. “But politicians are like that, you remember everyone.”

Don Gilberto did not respond to the comment. Jay added: “I’m so sorry about your assistant.”

“Yes,” Don Gilberto said. “What do you make of this little problem?”

Little problem? Yolanda could emerge from the coma with serious mental impairment, or with her motor functions damaged; or she might not emerge from it, remain wrapped in that artificial sleep and not come back to life. That was much more than a little problem, Jay thought, and thought her curiosity had not been mistaken.

“Well, I wouldn’t call it that,” Jay said. “It’s a serious matter. Aren’t you concerned…?”

“I know it’s a serious matter,” Don Gilberto cut her off.

“Of course,” Jay said. “I didn’t…”

“Don’t be preaching to me, you don’t know her,” the man said. “I do. I know who she is and what would happen.”

He didn’t finish his sentence. “Sorry,” Jay said. “That came out wrong.”

“If she dies, she dies on me, not on you.”

“Yes,” Jay said. “Sorry.”

Then the man took an aluminum canteen from between his legs, took off the lid that served as a cup and drank a shot. The aluminum cast a timid flash of white light, like the quiet water. Then, Don Gilberto filled the cup again and offered it to Jay.

“No, thank you,” she said. She thought that accepting a drink might send the wrong signal.

The man drank the shot and put the lid back on the flask. “What do you think will happen?” he asked.

“To her?” Jay said stupidly. “I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. They say in cases like this there can be aftereffects.”

“Yes, but what kind of aftereffects? Do people get left as invalids, for example?”

“I don’t know,” Jay said. “I imagine that it’s possible.”

“Or are they left not right in the head? Confused, say, or with amnesia? Do they forget things?”

“Oh, I see,” Jay said. “You’re worried about what she knows.”

Don Gilberto, for the first time, turned his head (his position didn’t allow him to do so easily) and looked at Jay. In spite of the semi-darkness, Jay saw in his half-closed eyes that sort of drowsiness of someone who’s had too much to drink. No, it wasn’t drowsiness: it was like something had got in his eyes and was irritating them.

“Like what?” Don Gilberto said. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing, nothing,” Jay said. “That she works with you and maybe she has important knowledge, important information. Nothing else.”

Don Gilberto turned back to look at the river. “Important knowledge,” he repeated.

“Yes,” Jay said. “I suppose.”

“Well yes, señorita, I think you’re right,” Don Gilberto said. He poured himself another shot of whiskey in the canteen lid, then another, as if struck by a kind of urgency, and continued talking. “But it’s that one doesn’t know, don’t you think, one doesn’t know what goes on in the head of a person like that. A person who’s had an accident like that. Like Yolanda. My assistant. She’s in a coma, she might come out okay or she might not, right now she’s in a coma. And what happens in her head? What will she remember when she wakes up? Will she not forget anything? Important information, yes. Information from all these years she’s been with me: several now, three or four. In years like these, one finds out many things, my friend. Important knowledge. That might be lost, right?

You said it. Sure, that’s what’s worrying me: that the things she knows will get lost. You think that’s possible? That she might wake up and will have forgotten things, just like that? You think that happens?”

“Yes,” Jay said. “Sadly.”

Don Gilberto made an ambiguous noise in his throat: was it agreement, resignation? She could hear frogs; Jay could hear something that might or might not have been cicadas. She looked at her watch and discovered, in the dim light, that it was already past two in the morning. The night had cooled down and there was an uncomfortable note in the conversation with that man, a dissonance or some kind of hostility. Jay’s curiosity came up against the limit of her weariness. She stood up and spoke down toward his hat:

“Well, we’ll see how everything is tomorrow.”

The hat nodded: “Yes. We’ll see.”

Jay began to walk back to her room. The next day she’d go back to Bogotá. The night was blue and black and refreshed by a soundless breeze. She had to be careful not to step where she shouldn’t, and this was frustrating, because Jay would have liked to look up and walk without worrying, take deep breaths and smell the dense odors of the ranch. She took a detour so as not to arrive too soon at her bedroom, to hold onto the darkness of the world, and the detour took her to a corner where a single hammock hung. It wasn’t a social area: more like a private space where (Jay imagined) Señor Galán would take his siestas. She lay down in the hammock and stayed there, swaying in the darkness, and in the darkness she thought over the day’s events: breakfast, the cutlery that Yolanda moved away from her boss’s, the ride that started off so well and then Yolanda’s mistake (dropping the horse’s reins) and the plainsman’s maneuver, that swift and expert maneuver, which in her memory stretched out to allow her to see Yolanda’s face, the expression of anxious gravity that transforms our features in an emergency, in a moment of terror, in a second that is the threshold of something serious. And in her memory Don Gilberto’s face also appeared, even though he hadn’t been there. Jay had jumped down off her horse to help the fallen woman and there was her boss first, crouched down beside her, stretching out his hand as if he wanted to hold her head, but without actually doing so. When it wants our attention, memory tends to resort to distortion or deceit.

“Shit,” Jay said.

A long time later, talking about that day, Jay would leave a gap at this point in the tale. She would explain it by saying that there, in the hammock, she realized something, but she didn’t know or never would know what she’d realized. “Shit,” she’d said quietly, and she said it the way we say it when we drop a glass and it shatters on the floor, or when we remember something important we’ve forgotten at home (and we smack ourselves on the forehead, or slam the edge of our fist against the steering wheel). She would tell about standing up from the hammock and beginning to walk to her room, but halfway there (as she was passing the corridor where she’d fallen asleep in a hammock hours earlier) she turned and stepped down onto the ground of the garden, what the Galáns called the garden, and kicked a fallen mango and slipped between the rails of the wooden fence to go down to the riverbank, to the space where the riverbank began, and confirmed that Don Gilberto was still there, sitting beside the quiet water.

Jay arrived spectrally by Don Gilberto and tried to make her presence known by dragging her feet as she got near. She didn’t sit beside the man, but almost in front of him, in order to see his face better. And then she said:

“Don Gilberto, I’m so sorry. I just found out.”

“What happened?”

Jay thought silence advisable. Don Gilberto spoke again. “What happened? Did Yolanda die?”

“I’m so sorry,” Jay said.

Later she would think of the miracle of the human face, which could transmit more emotions than we’d learned to name with so few tools.

And then she saw it. Jay saw what happened on Don Gilberto’s face, an encounter of emotions, a movement of muscles, and later she would think of the miracle of the human face, which could transmit more emotions than we’d learned to name with so few tools. The one Jay saw, the one that manifested itself in the slanted eyes and the arch of his brows, was relief. It is not impossible that there had not been sadness there first, or consternation, or a fleeting depression, but the depression or consternation or sadness gave way to relief, and the impression was so strong that Jay, who had come to the riverbank looking for that revelation, had to look away, as if ashamed of what she saw.


Shortly before first light, something woke her. A rooster crowed in the distance, maybe on another farm. Jay reached for her watch on the bedside table: she hadn’t been asleep for three hours yet. She felt a draft and noticed then, with her eyes half shut, that the door to her room was open. But she remembered (or thought she remembered) closing it carefully. A dog must have pushed it, she thought, or the wind. She closed it quietly so she wouldn’t wake anyone, and was on her way back to bed when she saw the man.

Don Gilberto was sitting on a plastic chair, his hands on his knees. Jay heard his breathing first and then his words: “Did I frighten you, señorita?”

Jay checked her clothing—full-length pajamas with trousers and shirt—and looked toward the window, toward the door.

“What a shame to frighten you,” Don Gilberto said. Now Jay heard in his voice the drunken consonants. “I wanted to tell you about a snag.”

“Couldn’t you tell me later?” Jay began. “I’m tired, and—”

“No, it has to be now,” the man cut her off. “It’s that I found something out.”

Jay was still standing, a step from the door. She tried to project her voice. “What?”

“That Yolanda hasn’t died,” Don Gilberto said. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

“Ah, yes. I was told.”

“You were told? How strange, eh? Who told you?”

Jay didn’t answer. The rooster, in the distance, crowed again. She could not see Don Gilberto’s face clearly; absurdly, Jay thought of a Francis Bacon painting. Against the white wall, Don Gilberto’s sloping shoulders gave him a melancholy appearance, as if the lie had saddened him, but in his voice (in the alcohol in his voice) there was a willingness to threaten, to cause fear.

“If you knew how little I liked,” he said.

“Look, Don Gilberto, I don’t know what you’ve been told, but I—”

“Being deceived. How little I like being deceived. That’s really nasty, girl.”

Girl, Jay noticed.

“I was told,” she said.

“No, I don’t believe you were. Nobody told you anything. And what a drag, no? What a little problem. What a bitch of a problem we’ve got.”

“It was a mistake,” Jay said.

“You’re fucking right it was a mistake,” the man said. “You just don’t do that kind of thing, honey. Is it going to be up to me to teach you a lesson? Teach you not to do that sort of thing?”

Jay realized she was standing between the man and the door. She moved toward the window to make herself visible, because the first workers would soon be going out, and also because that way she left the way free for the man: like when you open the door and turn on the outside light to lure a moth out of your room.

The man said: “You people just never learn.” And then: “You’re leaving today, aren’t you, girl?” And then: “Yes, you’re leaving today. So I won’t have to run into you again. What a drag.”

He stood up slowly, as if it was hard work carrying the weight of his own shoulders, and walked out into the early morning.

III

“And have you been to Las Palmas before?”

Twenty years later, Jay found herself again facing that woman whose death she had feigned. All day Saturday, crossing paths with her in the walkways and sitting at the same table for breakfast and lunch, she had tried to see in her features some vestige of what had happened. Would that not be carved into her face? Could someone go through an experience like that without her face registering it forever? But what there was in Yolanda’s features (Jay now realized she’d never known her surname) gave nothing away.

She must be approaching fifty, Jay estimated, but there was something infantile in her gaze, something innocent. And now this innocent woman was asking Jay if she had come to Las Palmas before. And Jay didn’t even hesitate.

“Never,” she said. “This is my first time.”

“And do you like the plains?”

“Yes, very much. It’s like another world.”

If Yolanda wanted to play the cliché game, Jay could give as good as she got.

They were on the veranda where the hammocks were, each with a beer in hand, waiting for the cook to tell them dinner was ready. Jay had not sought out this situation, but had planned on sitting beside Yolanda at dinner. It hadn’t been necessary: she found her here, putting insect repellent on her ankles and arms, and asked her for a little; and that’s how they began talking, at first with the fading evening light, then under the white light of a neon tube.

“I come every year,” Yolanda said. “Of course, it’s easy for me, because I live in Yopal. You’re from Bogotá, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

“Oh, I could never live there. It’s so cold.”

“Well, I travel a lot. That helps.”

“For your work, no? You’re a photographer.”

“Exactly.”

“And what kind of photos do you take?”

“Journalism,” Jay said. “I spent many years photographing the conflict.”

“The conflict?”

“The violence, the war. So I’ve been all over the country, from one side to the other.”

“Of course,” Yolanda said. “And what were you looking for? The sites?”

“The sites, yes, but the people as well. The victims of the war, so many of them.” Pause. “But, how strange, I never came to this part of the plains.” Pause. “Nearby, but never over here.” Pause. “There was a lot of violence around here, wasn’t there?”

“Yes, at one time. Not anymore.”

“And nothing happened to you? Or your family?”

“Things are much better now,” Yolanda said.

“Everywhere,” Jay said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like, travelling to places I went ten or twenty years ago for a massacre or whatever, and seeing that it’s so different today. People’s faces change when they’re not afraid. People’s faces say so much.”

“And they don’t mind you taking their photos?”

From the kitchen, an open patio where a skinny black woman moved like she was a whole team, came cooking smells and the sounds of pots and pans. They were going to eat a chicken that the Galáns had instructed should be killed that afternoon. Jay had gone to see the spectacle of the plucking; she hadn’t wanted to keep watching when the cook held the hen down on a board by its neck, and took out a knife.

“No,” Jay answered. “Well, sometimes. But almost never, because first we’ve talked, we’ve gotten to know each other. I can’t stand it when some photographers go around hunting other people’s sadness. I’ve never taken a photo of anyone who hasn’t first told me a story.” Pause. “You, for example. If I were going to take photos of you, first I’d sit down and talk for a good while, until you told me your stories. What had happened to you. What the war had left you.”

Yolanda let out a tiny laugh. “With me you’d be wasting your time. I was fine.”

“Sure,” Jay said. “But that’s strange. Everybody has something to tell.” Pause.

“I’ve never been in this part of the plains, as I said, but I have been near here. In Arauca, near the Venezuelan border. There was a lot of trouble there twenty years ago.”

I’ve never taken a photo of anyone who hasn’t first told me a story.

“Was there? I don’t remember.”

“I knew a woman back then. She’d lived through the worst years without anything happening to her. When the bodies of murdered people floated down the river, she’d see them and sometimes recognize them, but nothing ever happened to her or her family. Later she began to work for a politician, after two, three years, she came to trust him. They traveled together on his campaigns. She became his right hand and he said to her all the time: ‘What would I do without you? I’d die without you.’ That sort of thing. One day, in a hotel in Bogotá, the boss knocked at her door. She opened the door, of course: what else could she have done? At six in the morning. That’s what that woman told me: that it had been at six in the morning. I don’t know why it mattered so much.”

Yolanda was looking toward the darkness, or toward the river that slipped by in silence beyond the darkness. “I think there’s a woman on the riverbank,” she said.

Jay didn’t say anything.

“A few days ago they found a python nearby. We were sitting here on the patio talking, like you and I are, and one of the workers came and told us. The python was looking for food. They found it on the other side of the river, where the woods are. Can you imagine the fear?”

Jay turned toward the river, but she didn’t see anyone. From the other patio, however, came the black woman. “Dinner’s ready,” she said with a sweet smile. She was missing her two front teeth.


The next day, while she was packing, Jay spent a few minutes cleaning her camera. She had several hours’ drive ahead of her; she had to call the police to check the state of the road, if any landslides or accidents had been reported, or if there was no news. But outside it was sunny and the busiest moment had passed, when the workers come to have breakfast with the guests and the smell of their work clothes mixes for a few seconds with the smell of the coffee and the eggs. The house had entered its brief mid-morning quiet spell: everyone had gone back to work and the visitors had gone to see animals and the Galáns were sitting down going through invoices or settling up with a supplier or a client. Jay left her room, camera in hand, and looked for Yolanda. She found her taking a siesta in a hammock and, without warning, took a photograph of her.

Yolanda opened her eyes. “What happened?”

“Sorry,” Jay said. “You don’t mind?”

“But here?”

“Yes,” Jay said. “Right there, why not.”

Yolanda lay back again. Jay gave her a couple of instructions, moved a tin of beer out of the shot and walked around the hammock to find the best light, the best angle.

Yolanda covered her face with her hands; the shutter sounded once, twice. Yolanda asked: “Doesn’t it matter if I’m crying?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jay said. “Cry as much as you want.”

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