by Janaki Challa
The sky was gray but seldom melancholy in Isla Negra. When I was a young girl, I sat in my father’s lap as he read me two poems daily. Once in the morning, so it would linger until sleep drowned my eyes. And one again before I caved into slumber so it would stay with me in my dreams. Pablo became a part of me through his broken verse, he had defined the angles of my mind, given poetry to my language, joy and divinity to my soul. I felt I knew him though we had never spoken. He was the friend I never had, the only companion I ever longed for in my lonely childhood. His pictures were peeling on brick walls around corners, his name was scribbled everywhere. His photographs and speeches were splashed on newspapers. He was Chile’s hero, our only pride during a dark time.
Everyday, this poet rode his bicycle down the hill to my uncle’s bakery to buy a freshly baked loaf of bread. I would hide behind the kitchen door or under a table, just out of sight and listen to their heartfelt and loving conversations.
“Carlos! What spectacular version of bread will you grace my wife and I with today?,” Pablo said.
“Ah, sizzling and golden on the outside, glazed with butter and honey mustard. Soft and fluffy on the inside, with hints of minced meat and garlic cloves,” my uncle would say, “I felt today was a day you’d want to steer away from the usual, eh?”
“Oh it is a delight to do so– indeed, you know me too well–just the divine way in which you serve our lives–godly to say the least.”
“What a compliment coming from the hero of Chile! The most revered poet!”
“You may find my poetry floating around on street corners and dusty pages, but your bread, your bread, Carlos! It keeps me alive! The warmth of my blood, the delicacy on my tongue, the most exquisite delight to satisfy hunger, the essential fuel of my poetry...”
“You’re a good man, Pablo.”
“One day I must write a poem about you. Braid the sunlight like butter into your day today, my friend, it is magnificent outside. See you tomorrow, Carlos.”
After Pablo closed the door, I would hear him whistle as he put the loaf of bread into basket of his bicycle and walk it back uphill. Then, I would read more of his verse, read about him in the paper, and sometimes watch his house from a far away shore. It looked like an enchanted castle, sitting upon rocks, overlooking a deep blue ocean. I wondered what was in it. What he kept and adored. Those were the times when I realized I knew nothing about Pablo, nothing about the man in a house. I knew all about the poet, the companion, the imagination I had built him around. I knew nothing of his reality; what clutters his table, what he likes to drink, to whom he speaks.
And so one day, I went up to his castle and knocked. The house was continuous, and I could not make out a beginning or an end. There were miscellaneous objects everywhere, from a rusted anchor, to a fish trapped in a globe, hoisted in his garden. The sky was cloudy and the sea was just ahead. I could hear the dark green door being unlocked, “Coming, my friend!” said a lively voice.
Those were his last days. Pablo was wrapped in a plaid blanket and had a leather pipe in between his teeth. He looked oddly like my uncle; a round, freckled nose. A wrinkled face with skin heaving downward. And yet his eyes were excited, “Well, hello young lady?” he said.
“Hello,” I said, tugging on my red overcoat and fidgeting with the basket in my hands, “I–I–My uncle said he wanted to give you this.”
“Oh? Ah! Carlos, good, good man. Tell him that for me won’t you?”
“And you remember it too. What is your name?”
“Marina,” I said, somehow feeling as though I’ve heard his voice through all the poems I have ever read. My eyes began to well up with tears and I turned around, biting my lip, “I have to go now.”
“No. No. Come inside. You are my guest today. Tell me, what would you like? Lemonade? Hot chocolate?”
I wiped my tears quickly and turned around, “I..”
Inside, his house was narrow and long, with many flights of stairs. The windows panes were big and square, and sometimes replaced walls, so that when he awoke he could see the rise and fall of waves and lacy drizzle of the tide. His table was small and around, and made of honey-colored wood. In the middle sat a bowl of fruit and salt and pepper shakers shaped like chess pieces. Pablo’s wife smiled at me and brought me some hot chocolate.
“Let me read you a poem,” he said, as I blew on the hot liquid, “I hear you like poetry.”
I nodded. Daily, for a month, I brought Pablo his bread from the bakery and he would read me his poems. He read them slowly, even sleepily; each word seemed to be elongated leisurely into a sigh. He nodded with surprise when I mouthed the words before he finished his stanzas. He was a passionate man. He disliked talking about is own literature and politics but enjoyed fine wines and the sea and tales of his travels. He often placed a checkered blanket on the shore and buttered warm golden bread for us. He spoke to me of cities around the world he’d spent segments of his life in: Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore, Barcelona, and Madrid. Each t ale was studded with a silent enchantment that made the beach seem wider and more expansive, ready to swallow me. Ready to carry me on its waves to all those far away lands. I often closed my eyes and smiled, breathing deeply as the wind pulled my body backwards.
Pablo’s house was teeming with things. All sorts of things, a collector’s paradise: sextants, quadrants, wines, paperweights, ships in bottles, French stamps, pens, parchment, broken glass, rusted iron, miscellanea so old and deformed it was impossible to decipher its original form. He liked the traces of hands on things, the traces of lives that had created all these magnificent objects and all the stories teeming from their dysfunctional selves. He like to cut the anonymity of his mysterious objects into fractions and turned each bit into verse, almost all his work is and ode to things that simply exist. He liked pacing in his study, he said, walking back and forth, observing his collections and smiling.
Pablo laughed with all his heart, and made his way through life at this own pace. This is what books won’t tell you unless you venture in between his words, decipher symbols. He has secrets everywhere. They are hidden in his poems and scattered like seeds all through Isla Negra. He loved conversations at the dinner table. He appreciated tables and wrote couplets about how much he valued his desk: a bearer of bread, paper, rants, and weight. He like talking lightly of politics and heavily about love and wine and literature. His cellar was lit by dim, dusty bulbs that cast shadows on his walls studded with bottles of rum and whiskey. He reclined in his large, velvet chair every evening after supper and puffed on his minty pipe, finding great amusement in blowing swirls of smoke that dissolved into the air.
He told me once, while walking on the beach in front of his house, that he looked for a desk for a long time, and unable to find a perfect piece, he came across a plank being washed up on the shore. He took that piece of wood and used it as his table, “There is no money that can buy things that feel right.”
His heart was vast and expansive, like the shores of Chile, gathered what it could, and scattered to others what it could not.
On the last day I sat beside him as he flew a kite. The day was silent and tranquil. He was very sick at the time and coughed periodically. Suddenly, the kite fell to the ground in pieces as the wind and a seagull attacked it in midair. Pablo sighed, and wrote his name on a piece that came swiveling down like a feather, and gave it to me. “It feels very close,” he said, “for a time of change.” I thought he was speaking of the political unrest in the country, the revolution, the murders, the speeches the people of Chile counted on him to give..Politics were corrupt, and Pablo grew weaker with every article he read in the paper. He held his walking stick and waddled back up many flights to stairs to his bed, pausing in each room and admiring every object he possessed, as though for the last time.
“I once went to Peru with my friends,” he told me, “and we were on a sacred trek to Macchu Piccu. We saw ancient skulls on the way and stopped.”
“We sang poems and danced around them,” he said, “it is what the mythical traditions say. And those, you must always obey. Breaking every other rule is fine, if you ask me, because they are redundant and useless.”
“And what did you see when you danced around the skulls?”
“Eagles. Hundreds of them, they came and flew around our heads and brought us bread when we were starving. I’m waiting for the eagles to come here and save Chile.”
“Eagles? But there are no eagles here in Chile.”
“There are. They will come when it is time. And when it is time, you will continue to recite things that we’ve both recited before.”
He coughed, “Chile is becoming corrupt, and I do believe it will be the death of me.”
He closed his eyes and began to snore. I walked out and closed his door shut, weaving him a necklace with shells we’d collected that afternoon. It was the necklace I’d hang around his corpse in the morning, in a tearless yet poignant manner.
It was the day of his death I realized that Pablo Neruda’s real name, his birth name, was Neftal Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. I wondered how long it took for him to become Pablo: the politician and poet, traveler and nomad, weaving through professions and sacred alleys in countries I knew I would never set a foot in.
The first night of his death, eagles swooped into his window and flew away with pieces of the kite lying on his desk. And I walked as far as I could into the ocean with the piece he presented to me, until the water reached my waist. I could not remember even a line of his to recite. Like his home, I did not remember where to begin, or where to end. All I could remember was having the urge to hide under the table in my uncle’s bakery, wondering what Pablo’s face looked like, if I would ever see him again. I could only hear his sleepy, sighing voice mouthing unrecognizable syllables. I wanted only the slight, sweet aftertaste of a poem just read to me before I caved into slumber. The sky was black that night, but it is seldom melancholy in Isla Negra.
Janaki Challa was in the Eleventh grade at The Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, Hartford, Connecticut when she wrote this story. Her instructor was Pit Pinegar.