P. Edronkin

Short Stories about Patagonia: Zoran's Mallin.



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Still sitting on his horse, sighting and mute, Zoran Pacick looked around; playing with his unsuccessful beard and his dark hat as drops of sweat found their way down to the ground, he looked around again, and again.

He had made it to the Southern Andes after weeks of riding, months of planning and years of illusion and effort in Mostar, in the fields of France and in Buenos Aires, always upwards and to the south west, going with the sun until he reached that corner of Patagonia in which his horse was panting.

Peaks with fresh snow were on guard behind the forest canopy. A small stream of icy water let itself be heard in the open humid field covered with lichen and strong grass like a giant gelatinous pond in which he was standing. The soft, flat surfaces that he was seeing for the first time were known as mallines by the local gauchos. They lay in the middle of ancient trees found in ravines and high altitudes, just under the eternal snows of the Southern Andes, truly where the Devil lost his poncho, as the locals say, and where he came to make a fortune. He heard about them in the towns that he visited before, but mallines looked more like inundated gardens rather than swamps to him. They did not bother a man like him.

Created by the accumulation of melted ice and snow over clay, stone and ancient dust, the mallines were ever hardly deadly but quite a nuisance: they remain covered with mud, rocks and weeds in summer and snow during the winter, making them barely passable except by going around or jumping between a few dry islands on them, higher than the rest of the surface. They are insane, for big ones look exactly like small ones, giving this area where vegetation stops climbing for fear of coldness and the lack of air, a garden-like appearance. Anyway, Mr. Pacick got the weeds and the mud in this summer of 1887, but he smiled.

Wind came and go; trees robbed all the light in the surrounding forest giving freshness to the shadows, but in the middle of the mallin horseflies always rule. The sun cut like a knife despite the fact that this one was settled at more than a thousand meters above the sea, where the sun stays near the horizon and near some newly discovered white and blue masses pouring into the lakes and the ocean form the mighty ice fields of southern Patagonia that saw the world coming to be and will see its death, bigger than his Balkan motherland, like cream from a cake falling in pieces up to one hundred meters high.

He could hear the deaf sounds of ice blocks breaking and falling into the lake; the sounds that reminded him of cannons, or perhaps of storms; no, cannons was better. He could see in the distance the emerald colour of the victim lake dotted with white and blue icebergs not quite unlike the clouds in the sky, surrounded by brown and grey rocks and a green forest where the big trees looked just like minute cones of foliage

The peaks and rocks remained silent, as they always do: except for the flies and an occasional gust of wind that twisted in his ears he could almost hear the clouds breaking apart like cotton balls around the peaks.

A couple of condors came and started flying in circles; first, they flew high above in the sky, and then they came lower and lower until he could hear the wind in their feathers. They just kept looking at him one time and another, flying casually, mastering the air with a distinct inactivity. Only their heads moved scanning the ground.

He was finally in the land of eternal shadows, down south in the farthest place of the most distant country, alone, and that reminded Mr. Pacick of his mother: the way she cooked things, the smell of the kitchen, her smiles, her grey hair, her little old dog scratching in her bed all day and all night. Anyway, that was years ago, before he set out for this life instead of his long hours of slow explanations of poetry to an sleepy audience of children back in Mostar.

He left his mother and his town after he heard about the riches of South America, but he needed money for the trip, and so he became a warrior for hire, fighting first in petty tribal wars in the Balkans and then with the Prussians against the French. A dangerous job indeed, but easy: a short trip from home taking some care in order not to get killed, and just a few precautions to be taken, like cleaning your feet and your rifle. He made his plans smiling in sinence, in dark corners of French villages, in the roads and under stone bridges while the rest of the fighters were procuring themselves beer and wine, ladies and fine souvenirs for free with the right that conquer gives. He enjoyed the time as well as he could, and of course, never failed to pray. After the victory of the Germans, he was paid well, and so he financed his long way to the end of the world to look for gold in an alien continent.

He dismounted as the saddle groaned. Down from the horse, he his feet bathed in the soft humidity of the soil thorough the holes in his boots as the delicate lichen and grass puddles adapted to the new presence. The horse stayed in the same place, moving its dark tail and looking absent-mindedly to the soil, as if it were an unknown dish or a book written in a foreign language.

Mr. Pacick approached the forest and walked for an hour or so looking for flat land here and there. A new home needs a flat surface to come alive if it is not to be a freak. He had had thought a lot about the matter, and in his mind he could see it, its crevices, the cracking door, the black salamander that he brought along steaming, a window looking to a forest behind which snow-capped mountains mounted guard, and nearby, a stream of water filled with little golden nuggets.

He would build his small cabin first and then he would go around looking into the streams for the little shining dots; that was his simple plan for a simple matter, but he got a whole universe of equipment with him: acid, streaking stones, a rifle, axes big and small, ropes, tools, a shovel, and many minor things that inhabited his sacks like ants.

He new how to recognise gold from pyrite and similar things: just use the acid or draw a streak over the white stones that he brought with him; a golden streak would mean real gold, a dream, but a black one, a delusion. He learned that back in France, when a Bavarian corporal taught him so.

A bird signalled his arrival to many unseen eyes as he saw fallen old trees, trees standing up like soldiers, broken trees, dancing trees and baby trees: too many of them. Mr. Pacick sat on one just barely under a shadow and looked back to the mallin, into the sky, and back to the mallin. He would become rich there, he was certain about his dream that would make him live forever in glory. He still had to start, true, but despite any critic, he could say to himself that he had arrived after crossing the world. He had no regrets and no nostalgia for what he had left behind, but sitting there as the sun was at its best and the flies and the smell danced around him, he took his hat into his hands and Mr. Pacick realised that the mallin was the only horizontal place where he could build his cabin.

He had thought about the shadows of the forest. 




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