Visions of Childhood

María Flora Yáñez

Artwork by Olaya Barr

The First Fear

I go back to my earliest childhood, toward that place of memories that has remained unchanged in a corner of my mind, delicate and imprecise like a landscape wrapped in a veil of mist.

We are in a room of simple furniture and flowered fabrics. Through the open window comes a broad ray of sunlight that illuminates the carpet. Only the gentle presence of my mother and her small, habitual movements disturb the silence. The folds of her dress, when she moves, graze the edges of the tables or the chairs. Her hands run swiftly over the bright material. Skeins of wool; winding. Winding and then knitting. Life goes by without change, at a rich and measured pace.

Suddenly, the room trembles. The floor shifts. The lamps sway; the walls seem to tilt and narrow. Strange waves electrify the atmosphere. My mother jumps up from her chair, grabs us by the hand and drags us into the street, as an anguished cry rises from her throat: “Earthquake!” More shouts from the servants echo her from the back of the house: “Earthquake!” I don’t know the meaning of that word that always seems to precede a calamity, but my overexcited imagination knows that it is linked to something extraordinary and terrible. Hearing it, I picture with my child’s eye a kind of giant, dark gray ghost with huge open wings that enters houses without warning, shaking everything, and then disappears to some unknown place.

I never had time to decide if its face was that of a man or a bird. Its appearance is so fleeting that I barely manage to glimpse the spectral pallor and thin wings of that hallucinatory figure, disembodied yet enormous.

People emerge from every house. The doorways and the sidewalks hold nervous groups. Choked with emotion, tremulous voices and sharp cries shatter the air. The worst thing is that we instinctively understand that no one can help us—the anguish in my mother’s cry strips us of all hope. In this state of panic, our helplessness is overwhelming. It’s only a few moments—the tremor passes, like a terrible stranger, and we go back into the house. But we can still hear screams: “Mercy, Lord!” “Lord have mercy!” It’s our nurse, Ismaela, kneeling on the patio stones, her arms stretched out and her head bowed—“Lord, mercy!” she babbles hysterically, quieter and weaker each time until it sounds like the muffled sob of a child.

Then all goes quiet. The house and the faces recover their stillness. The sinister gray vision has vanished into the air.

My Childhood Street

Even in the heart of Santiago, our street has the tidy, lazy charm of a provincial town, lined with low, solid mansions that hide their gardens full of orange blossoms, deep patios, and trickling fountains. The traffic is sparse and there aren’t any stores or restaurants yet, especially in the blocks near the park. The white sidewalk stretches bare and wide as a skating rink. And we do skate there during the summer afternoons and evenings, racing from one house to another, the windows reflecting the sun back to us and, later, the yellow light of the glowing lamps.

There are no skyscrapers to block the view, and one’s gaze settles on the snowy peaks of the mountain range above the rooftops of the houses that form a uniform line, suddenly interrupted by the thin spire of a church. Only the streetcars periodically disturb the silence. And at dusk the nearby convent bells ring, filling the air with their shivering silver waves that fly from the bell towers like doves.

For a long time, burials are a part of our vision of childhood, because San Antonio is the street of funerals. Some are humble and others grandiose. Some sad, while others joyful. The news comes with breakfast: “Today there will be a big funeral, with music and soldiers on horseback . . . ” We get dressed excitedly and press our faces to the window grille. The street smiles, filled with crowds waiting impatiently for the cortege. We hear drums, and the parade of horses draped in black, with plumed helmets, begins. Then comes the coffin, followed by the carriages covered in flowers. And thus death, to our childish eyes, is dressed in splendor, with golden braids, attended by rapt crowds.

Almost all the processions go down San Antonio Street, and they enliven the sleepy seclusion of its sidewalks and homes. But these only take place in the morning, and rarely at that. In normal life, the slow rhythm of the street, its peaceful pulse, belongs entirely to us. And from the windows, we imitate the passersby, and when we go for a walk, we ring the bells of the haughty neighbors’ houses for no reason.

The sun goes down. Solitude and silence under the streetlamps that suddenly come alive. The drawing rooms are open for evening visits, because a pleasant friendship connects almost all the neighborhood families. Outside, the slow clatter of a passing carriage fades away. Midnight. Now and then our sleep is broken by the sharp whistle, long and sad, of the night watchman, a signal or warning that crosses the air to the watchman on the next street who responds with another long, mournful whistle.

That was San Antonio Street, the street of my childhood . . .

The Boy from the Portrait

Above the headboard of my father’s bed hung a large oil painting of a three-year-old child, dressed in blue velvet. His eyes, bathed in light, seemed to follow people around the room. He was our eldest brother, Lolito, who died just before his third birthday. His face was so radiant and expressive that, even imprisoned in his frame, you felt the need to touch him, to run a hand through his dark hair and over the warm fabric of his suit. At times, after some quarrel with my playmates, my young heart aching, I would lean against the pillar in the courtyard outside my father’s room, and barely holding back the wave of tears behind my eyelids, I’d peer inside. From the shadows of the room, the boy in the portrait would smile at me. And his blue figure would come alive, as if he would step out of the frame and offer me a wordless, fervent protection.

Then with a lighter heart, I wanted to ask him questions, to know something about his brief moments on earth. Or ask my parents details about that happy, now distant, time. But I never had the courage, because just his name, just the mention of the boy from the portrait even after so many years, filled the room with so much pain. We knew pieces of the story, sentences heard in passing: the delightful trip to Quilpué in search of a happy vacation and without a hint of what was to come . . . the scarlet fever, the country doctor unfamiliar with the sickness who slowly kills the child with strong doses of aspirin . . . the journey back to Santiago, their only child in a coffin.

Scattered pieces of that silent tragedy. But of that splendid child dressed in blue velvet who lived on in the great oil painting, we knew nothing.

So we had to resign ourselves to the fact that he could only gaze at us, unreachable and enigmatic, from his dusty altar above my father’s bed.

The Englishwoman

I see her arrive one night at nine o’clock, gaunt, dry as parchment, at that indefinite age when some Englishwomen seem anywhere between twenty-five and sixty. She was carrying an old suitcase and, on her hair, just released from the curlers, she wore an old-fashioned hat, yellowed and withered.

“Miss Hutchinson . . . I’m Emily Hutchinson,” she stammered in English, timidly, when, after she tentatively rang the doorbell, we all rushed to the doorway. She shook my parents’ hands vigorously and, looking at me kindly, asked me my name. I kept silent.

“Answer her,” my father ordered me severely. “This is your English governess who has just arrived from Europe.”

“I’ll never answer her,” I responded timidly. “I don’t like her . . . ”

My parents looked at each other in horror. Today I imagine that my father’s eyes were saying, “I’ve made a great monetary sacrifice. The governess has come here in a fishing boat, inexpensive to be sure, but still a large sum for me. A great sacrifice and this stubborn child . . . ”

“She’s too tired,” my mother explained. “Tomorrow she’ll think differently”.

Days, months, a year passed. I remained fixed in my rebellious attitude. “Don’t you see all the good this will do you? Don’t you know that it’s necessary, indispensable to know English?” Faced with my bent head and sly expression, he would put his head in his hands murmuring, “Some children are asses! Asses!” For my part, I envied my brother who, after school and in the company of two cousins, has lessons with Mr. Bingle, an exuberant Englishman, playful and colorful, who in short order became my teacher too. “Fine,” my father announced one day resolutely. “No dessert until she changes her attitude.”

“If you want me to say ‘yes’ I will, but that’s all,” I allowed, letting out one of those deep sighs that come just before a child’s sob.

That yes was the only connection between me and the Englishwoman who, as the years passed, felt more and more lost in our home, more lonely, with that tremendous loneliness of exile heightened by the isolation of not being able to communicate. She didn’t speak Spanish and no one in our family spoke English. A terrible kind of prison. Until one day, seeing the uselessness of her presence in our home, my father sent her back to her country.

Poor Emily Hutchinson! Today when I think of you, something moves in the bottom of my heart. You left one day on a voyage, very far away, carried by the urgency of your unknown destiny, leaving behind the small things and modest memories that had made your life bearable. The cross-stitched fabric with its needle remained unfinished in the old chest of drawers. And the simple mantel clock, inherited from your grandmother, marked the hours alone in the boarding house. You left for hostile places and your story was woven with that of all of those ruined, anonymous people who drag behind them their insignificance, hidden and dying. They are souls that never realized their great dream. And, as you well know, Emily Hutchinson, between desire and departure, life passes and withers like a tree without water.

Children cause suffering without thinking. Later, as through a magnifying glass, they see the harm they caused unwittingly. And they’d give anything to fix it. But they can’t always touch the ashes of the past.

Today, I don’t know why, I see that wandering Englishwoman with her absurd hat and thin figure emerge out of my childhood. And an immense pity, a desire to say the words that I couldn’t as a child, rises in me with every heartbeat.

Visions in the Darkness

We are drunk with joy because they’re taking us to the circus, at night, to watch the great spectacle of clowns and animals. When you’re only eleven, just going out at night is an occasion. And besides, we know that in that big ring of lights and sand, there are zebras, trained dogs, and elephants, not counting the strange beings dressed in leotards, who pick up outrageous weights with their teeth and perform death-defying leaps in the air. Even before it begins, we are savoring the event. The lights in the house are turned off and we get ready to leave. We are in such a hurry that . . .

“Did you forget anything, child?” my father asks before he closes the door, resting his gaze on the disorder of my curls.

And then I remember: my straw hat, my great Italian straw hat, adorned with sunflowers and ribbons that tie under my chin, lies on the table in the living room. I have to wear it because it matches the blue organdy of my dress and my brand-new patent leather shoes.

“Go back and get it, you can go by yourself,” my father says softly.

I hesitate, fearful, and he adds kindly, “You don’t have to be afraid of the dark.”

I pass through the hall, barely illuminated by the weak light of the street lamps, and I am submerged in the shadows of the dark, empty house. From outside, trapped in a silver ring, come familiar voices. I take a step and I feel like I’m penetrating an enchanted well. The worst part is having to cross the courtyard beneath a starless sky. My feet keep time with the beating of my heart. I enter the living room and am lost among the hostile objects. Thick red fabrics fall heavily like sleeping bodies. Sullen eyes observe me from the mystery of the wall. I don’t dare stretch out my arm because my hand might encounter the softness of another hand. I’m frozen, trembling.

There’s a breath of presence in the room. I am bound by the unknown, the terrifying. I look at the table and there is my hat, as big as a parasol. Its shadow is thrown over the table, forming a pond of leaves and sunflowers. There it is. I can’t hear the friendly voices now and some flowers in their crystal vase sigh on me with the open mouths of their blossoms. Insistent noises cross the air. Around me, empty frames and ashtrays sit like insects. Books, portraits, heavy armchairs, and feather cushions encircle me. Frogs and crickets, the kind that hide in corners in the daylight and come out, arm in arm, in the darkness, breathe quietly. From the room next door comes the sound of bottles clinking together. I’m on the verge of screaming; I cannot take another moment. I fear above all the touch of some cold being, sharp like a knife. Where have I seen beings like that before?

All of a sudden, everything is still. The clock hands, the settling of the cushions, the creaking of the wood all stop. I sink deeply into a black silence. Little drops of sweat pearl on my forehead while I glimpse spiders hurriedly descending from the ceiling on their fragile threads. To hold myself up, I feel for the edge of the table. Swiftly, I pluck up my hat and dash for the patio. If a hand were to grab my braids!

Terrified, I run for the door. I see the zone of light and familiar faces. Just before I get there—to the welcoming brightness that emanates from them—I slow down. And I enter their circle, calmly, with my hat in my hand.

“It only took you a second!” one of the children exclaims.

I stare at him in surprise. I know I’ve been in the empty house for hours. My father looks at me affectionately.

“See how there’s nothing to be afraid of in the dark?” he says as he ties the bow under my chin.

One second, and then I blink and respond calmly:

“No, nothing.”

translated from the Spanish by Alice Edwards