ARCHIVES | Puerto del Pasado — Artifacts from the Archives: John Brandi's "Amada's Place, Carmelo"
For our next post in the archives series, Puerto del Pasado—Artifacts from the Archives, I revisit John Brandi's short story "Amada's Place, Carmelo" from the Summer 1976 issue. This is a story that reflects on the harsh reality so many invisibly live within. We readers become aware of it in this story when we look at the clever juxtaposition between what the narrator sees in the present and what the narrator slowly remembers about life outside Carmelo. John Brandi, reflecting now on writing the story, states:
I wrote this in mid-Sixties, 24 years old, working with Andean peasants involved in the Agrarian Reform movement. I regarded the story as a ventanita, a little window into life on the Ecuadorian haciendas. Amada’s family slaved the land as serfs under feudal conditions, suffering the wrath of church, state, and the rich "superior class." Carmelo was one of many hamlets where the plight of the farmers was about to explode into an all-out march for civil liberties. The result, after many months, was the dismantling of the latifundia system, procurance of land titles, health and education benefits, and long-awaited social, economic, and political openings. Back home, I found most Americans didn’t know their geography. They didn’t know where I’d been or what to ask. I thought "Amada’s Place, Carmelo" might wake them up.
Even after 44 years since publication, Brandi's empathy for remembering the struggles that other people go through—their life conditions and suffering and what we take for granted— is still moving. — Karla Cabrera
Amada's Place, Carmelo
There was the clean drench of rain in the air, yet a silent cough hid deep in my throat. My nostrils welled with phlegm, my cheekbones ached, my arms hung tightly knotted by my sides. At the park entrance a pair of dicemen threw ivory bones in solemn games of this and that. A child whimpered in the nauseous pall of eucalyptus smoke burning from across a warm polluted creek. Clouds broke into scud, the afternoon sun beamed through. Sawyers lifted their teeth, biting into wet cedar. Shavings glistened on a dark sea of chipped stone. Alone, in a small mud-daubed apartment, I farted, and the sound of the fart, with no one there to laugh or scorn, made me even more alone. Dizzily, I walked to the watercloset. A thousand poisoned meals screamed through my system, rank watery liquid in the porcelain bowl. My hands looked pale, veins bulging. With a shredded funny-paper, I wiped myself clean. A temple bell gonged, and there behind the village rose the high jagged mountains. On a cobbled lane towards the marketplace, someone had dropped a tiny bouquet of iris. They lay trembling under the milk-white sky, under the faded miasmic peaks. Everything was shaking. I could hardly keep my stance. Inside the rippled air, beyond the push and pull of the sweating sawyers, gray fumes arched into the sky from the bus depot. Evaporative stench of dead glycerine pools of sperm in the dirty bathrooms. Crushed lilies and dusty entrails under the hooves of pack animals. A kid on wheels was vending berries, using armstubs to move his carriage past a policeman’s high-laced shoes. The fumes drift this way and make me sicker. Twice I’ll vomit and then watch the world spin into night, feel the air clear, wake tomorrow and face my increasing fever from some other angle.
My mind in the dark. Streetlamps below me that flutter with bleached decor, confetti from fiestas, the heads of saints and green-eyed weeping martyrs, a leaf or flower or two, made of crinkled celluloid. A saxophone man lies crumpled in the gutter. Drunk, unable to work his brass wind, he’s left with only his song, poetic in the blackness, lighter even than the notes of his weighty instrument. My stomach suddenly feels like a thick expensive book. Hard to carry around with me. I feel like cutting it away from my system, leaving cattle and pork undigested, cabbage free to roam, liquids in rivers and seas, unfiltered through my tubes. I lie here and the sad bus depot, half in shambles and cobbed with webs, doesn’t leave my mind. The one-eyed ticket master. The chartreuse ribs of the beggar-lady by the urinal stalls. The circus-colored broken buses that lead one to Tumbargo, Platilla Alta, Chuquillo and Carmelo. I recline here and dream of the saw-file vermilion hills, the damp intaglio of opaque road sinuously ox-bowing up the cliffs to Carmelo. Yes, there is the little caved-in chapel where a quaint but soiled virgin stands in garlands of year-old roses. Quagmires of rising mist eternally surround the chapel. Around it, people are born, and die, sick. They don’t seek refuge in the warm crowded hospitals of the city, like me. Who could afford it? Besides, there is something all-pervasive, something beckoning, something too overpowering about those matted pastures between the high mountain walls of Carmelo. It doesn’t let you leave. People exist there like wet figurines enclosed by a slippery clay bowl. How can you climb forth from those inclined sides? Once in, there is no way out. Somehow the flimsy comic-strip bus rattles up a dangerous entrance, glides miraculously over the cracked lip, and into the rim to take away their produce. Somehow it disappears and is back again, a week or so later, depending on the rains. From the shrewd buyers that purchase the mountain people’s crops, the surplus crops that is, a few bent monies manage to fall into the peasants’ chapped hands. It is a meager existence. Birth, death, and the local scoundrel of a priest, they are all too close at hand. Bleeding out of the womb costs money. Kicking the bucket costs even more. You’ve got to pay for your salvation, no? You want a good place next to the archangels? You give over your lamb, your chicken eggs, your bits of dirty aluminum change to the chasubled man at the high-walled place of worship, yes? A good burial spot, halfway up the bottle-chipped hill, or if you can’t pay, why then, go to hell! Carmelo, I gasp when I ponder it. Now and then I belch up tiny fragments of the small world those people occupy. It comes out sore and stinking on a gorgeous plain of wildflowers. Whenever there is laughter, it is that kind of laughter that comes with drunkenness, ashamed and never-remembered. Whenever there is heartache, it is kept behind locked doors, put into a long traditional song. But one, no, must never be over-involved with emotion, with the subjective, with thoughts and dreams that lie below consciousness. There is too much work to be done. Yes, it is fatalism itself that allows those peasants to proceed with the daily art of task-handling, to go on with it all, to be done, accomplished, in bed on a cold mat at night, through, over with, yes. The negative odds are merely a ‘given.’ If anything out of the ordinary happens, it is clearly an omen. A humble man once broke bread into many loaves to feed a multitude spread over parched land like this. And now that man is gone. A mockery of steel crosses over unfinished temples feigns some kind of honor. The country priest asks a lot of coin for telling the parables of the vanished prophet. And he misinterprets them at that.
Once, on a cliff overlooking a windswept canyon, Amada said to me, “I’d rather die than live on. Who doesn’t wish death once in a while? My father has no more land to divide between my brothers. My suitors have no land, either. Where’s there to go? What’s there to expect? Everything is a question mark. The priest calls us devils. The wrath of him! From his pulpit he talks about laziness. He repeats, as long as we continue to sin no rain shall fall. Give more money to God and his temple, he screams. And if we don’t give it, our animals die. The clouds dry up. The rivers die. Punishment from Taita Dios, that’s what it is. Seeds blow away in the wind and never sprout again. It goes on and on. And what’s today? It’s, oh, just another day, that’s all.”
The insides of my mouth were bleeding. But her eyes were neither wet nor downcast. She even smiled. All the while, her father, down below, struggled like a poor maniac with his oxen. Twice, he tried to teach me the art of plowing with a yoke. But I was dull and failed on both attempts. The huge beasts of burden wouldn’t move for me. I was terrified of the huge clods of earth that their heavy bodies were unable to tramp. I’d heard stories of cattle grazing on hillsides as steep as these, and tumbling to death, in raw gullies already packed full of bones. Under thorn-trees in shadowy ditches, black turkey-vultures waited. Under the same trees, one day, I gave Amada a white rabbit, and her trembling father at last gave up a smile and offered me a dirty half-peeled hardboiled egg, a precious gift, thinking soon I would rid him of another offspring, an extra burden to support. But I could not and did not.
It’s a tough place, Carmelo. It is the most beautiful place I have ever been. It is a dirty lie, Carmelo. It makes me want to return with flowers. It is there, hardly a hamlet, perched three miles high, or more, in lacteal clouds that shadow bleeding crevasses with static patchwork. The people there sharecrop or work as serfs on estates of the rich. Their houses are low and square and leak cold dew and hail. Squalls rip off straw roofs. Scarecrows have long ago been replaced by live boys in rags who beat away the birds with sticks. I remember that year, the one in which I presented Amada with the rabbit on her birthday; the corn plants were untoed by the gales. So we dined on barley, in every form imaginable, morning, noon and night. Before dawn, Amada’s father would disappear on a breakfast of slightly warmed water, leftover from the barley we ate the night before. The dogs began to bite each other’s sores, the chickens lost their wings. People were hungry enough to pull invading worms off their shriveling plots of cabbage. Children died inside their mothers' birth canals. The air was fetid with used-up bodies. The priest no longer cried from his sermon mount. All was gone. The temple walls collapsed. Cloud-forms in the air looked like black rats. If death would have come as a bullet, hot and quickly through the brain, it might not have been so feared. But this poison was slow, and tortuous.
One night, after broth, Amada and I were in the hearth-room. Her mother had gone to urinate. The wind knocked along the eaves. I flashed on my own mother, somewhere, hardly believable, on this planet. Was she really out there, in her spotless kitchen, the smell of beef and gravy on the sudsy dishes, sweet coffee-grounds wet and churning down the electric drain? And my father. Was that him in the simulated leather easy chair reading the Herald as the afternoon sun poked down through the green vines around the louvered aluminum windows? Amada’s dad was down by the empty irrigation ditch butchering a bloated goat that would soon kill us all. Amada and I fell back into the musty shadows of the hearth-room. She leaned back into my chest and our cheeks touched, her nipples raised against the rough blue cotton of her blouse. A wind roared between the cracked wattled walls. A mouse ran across the dirt floor. For a minute particle of time there was nothing but the still aftermath of an echoed whisper. Then she sprinkled dirty water upon the room, and swept.
Goatmeat was hung on the rafters and already it smelled rancid. The red hind danced in the greasy lampflame, and then only nighttime lit the carved muscle. Father, with blood on his wrists, slept with a rasping snore, all his clothes on. Mother beside father, in her rags, they looked like two wrapped mummies. A cave, a tomb, and the stars, far above and beyond the deep earth, flashed with prickles of heat. Amada, before going to her corner, warmed her rebozo and covered my shivering legs. I wanted so badly to give her a farm, far away from this place, off the eroded mountains, into the dense and verdant valleys of the jungle. But how? And by what mystical road? Was I sure I wasn’t dreaming this? Could I somehow leave before it was all over? If I ran far enough, would I come to a city, an airport, people wearing neckties in white shirts behind clean glass counters? Would the man take my money, give me a seat?
Gently the 707 lifted, its slanted wings launching with precision into the clouds. It was the kind of preciseness I had forgotten. Then the white rabbit died, yes. And Amada’s sister couldn’t get up one morning. Jagged hills of flame behind the battered chapel of Carmelo. Thin cattle squealing like lame dogs for something to eat. Ravens over white lilies. The beautiful rainless clouds scampering overhead, under the jet engines. A blonde stewardess set a napkin and tray before me. The man two seats away unsnapped a business case. Amada’s mother dirtied the wool as it spun through her thick fingers. In twenty-five minutes we would land. There would be the civic center. In the marketplace, circus-colored buses. Safeway, Piggly Wiggly. The sawyers, taking a break, under my small recovery room. It was all disintegrating now. I could hardly remember. And yet, there it was the entire mountainscape, from above, passed beyond. I began to weep out loud. People would turn, unsympathetically. There was nothing to say. My father would be waiting there in the airport five thousand miles away in his new Chevrolet. Would he be glad to see me? I crumpled up my notes on the paper napkin and threw them wildly into the aisle. The stewardess hurried through the fuselage, her tight butt swaying under the nylon uniform. I thought of Amada’s uneasy body, under her wool skirt, in the shadows. What was the weather like? My father would ask. Did you have a good time? Did they speak any English?
John Brandi has lived in northern New Mexico since 1971. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, he is an ardent traveler, with over 30 books published in the U.S. and abroad. His latest: The Great Unrest (White Pine Press, 2019) and The Way to Thorong La (Empty Bowl, 2020).