What Woke Me, Or a Story of the Earthquake in Quechereguas: An Old Peasant’s Account
“It was Guillermina who woke me. She always sleeps more lightly than I do. I jumped out of bed and grabbed Pedro and Rosita who never wake up, ever. You know, the young are like that, great for sleeping. The tremor knocked me over. I got up and managed to open the door. I threw them one by one down the corridor. First Pedro and then Rosita. And I held out my hand to Guillermina. She was trying to get out of the room but it looked as if the room was swallowing her . I could feel windows exploding and dust falling from above. The floor was shaking—it was like being in a boat. The orange trees were smashing into each other, their branches were lashing about like madmen, and we could hear the crashing of the zinc panels on the roof and the tiles hurtling off.
When my grandfather’s grandfather lived here in Quechereguas [a country village in the Maule region of central Chile], the house was almost the same as it is now. Who knows how many earthquakes it has survived. My great grandmother remembered the one of 1906 and another tremendous one before it; and my grandmother always used to tell us about the one of 1918, and also the one in Talca in 1928, and in Chillan in 1939. But the house couldn’t cope with this one. Each tile weighs twenty-five kilos, and tons of tiles were flying about together with adobe bricks, smashing into bits as they hit the ground. One of those adobe bricks weighs thirty kilos, and they were falling from more than 10 metres up. It was very difficult to do anything. We were all holding hands and I was dragging them along so that we could get closer to the middle of the patio. This rain of tiles was a death trap. But while I was dragging them along I fell down and couldn’t get to my feet again.
And the dogs? Not one of them was barking and they got tangled up in our feet. Something happened to the moon that night—there was an odd feeling that night, I’m sure. The moon was full, immense. I have never seen one like it in Quechereguas, I can tell you. Never. And the sky was covered with stars. And the dogs didn’t bark that night. Not a single bark. Earlier afternoon the sun had also been strange, smoother and more yellow than usual, as if it were painted. The birds were flying about harum-scarum. Like they didn’t know where to hide from that painted sun.
I remember the horses in the stalls were whinnying. The colt was snorting and kicking and stamping. But now they weren’t whinnying. Or at least I didn’t hear them, because the only thing you could hear was the noise from the zinc panels, and the glass and the adobe walls collapsing, and the tiles flying off and hitting the ground. And you couldn’t see anything. Anything. Just dust and earth, nothing else. I couldn’t see my children or Guillermina, I was alone and couldn’t get myself up. I was thinking: the earth’s going to open up, shit, the ground’s going to open.
After it was over we looked at each other, and we began touching each other and looking at each other with damp eyes. We moved like ghosts, our faces bloodless, our eyebrows white with dust. We looked at the wreckage, the collapsed walls and we couldn’t bring ourselves to enter the house because some walls were still standing, even some high ones —I don’t know how they stayed upright in spite of so many having collapsed, and of their large cracks. We’d lost the dogs and we crossed ourselves. One other thing happened: the chickens didn’t cluck and they still don’t lay eggs. The colt, every time there’s a tremor, stamps the ground.
But what is all this compared to what happened to others? To Don Osvaldo, who lived very nearby around Sagrada Familia: a beam fell on him and killed him. The man didn’t even manage to leave his bedroom. He was getting on in years. And to my brother, who was in Iloca. The water came right up to the house but he managed to get away. He saw cars going into the tsunami wave with their headlights on. What a wave that must have been. When he arrived here he could hardly breathe. He didn’t want to speak. Maybe it was because of the things he had seen, my poor brother. But he told me about this lawyer who, when that tremendous wave came, in Iloca or Llico—I can’t really remember—grabbed his two older sons and made a run for it; his wife did the same, taking the two youngest kids in her arms. But the black wave got her. They found her afterwards about a block away, exhausted but alive. They still haven’t found the two kids.
A little later, Guillermina smelled wine in the air and I came out to have a look, and, would you believe it, there was wine running through the street like a river. The oak wine casks had burst open and so had the stainless steel ones. At first, the people were frightened that the river would wash away what was left of their houses and their belongings. But later they gained confidence and went out to collect the wine in buckets. It was running like it was never going to stop, you see. It cheered me up. It wasn’t bad, that wine. The gutters and the ditches were full of the stuff and so was the lake. Everyone was walking about with fear in their eyes and wine on their breath. And the fish got drunk. They floated around on the surface and you could throw them a line and they wouldn’t even take the bait. I went into the water and caught myself a couple of really big carp with my hands. I shall never forget the two carp that I got, just like that, bare-handed.”
—Translated by John Bell
Arturo Fontaine is a Chilean writer. His best known works are his novels Oír su voz and Cuando éramos inmortales, both published by Alfaguara.
April 16, 2010, 9:30 a.m.