The General’s Dreams

By Rodrigo Acuña 

UNSWeetened Literary Journal 2007

Runner-up for Open Prose

   The old man woke up gasping for breath. Salty water trickling from his forehead, he was disorientated and his dry mouth yearned for liquid. After several minutes, with a gentle rhythm, he sat up on his bed to look for his slippers so as to go to the toilet. At age ninety his body had withered – become rancid in fact – but if you observed his face he still looked like a pleasant man who could have filled many people’s lives as a caring grandfather.

   “And viejo, are you going to get ready and join me for breakfast or are you just going to sit there like an old fool?” said Lucía several rooms away.

   “Shut up, I’ll be there in a minute!” the General snapped as his anger rose but then quickly subsided once the smell of his maid’s coffee reached his nostrils. They had been through so much together it would be false to state that there was no love between them. Lucía had always plotted with him, simultaneously playing the role of the obedient wife, always showering their guests with compliments so as to further her husband’s opportunities. Her aims in life were simple: to have a ‘happy marriage’, ‘children’ and ‘money’ – lots of it.

   Material wealth was the real measure of a person’s worth in her world. She once had to remind el Tata of that when he had (carelessly) not swindled enough on a deal when privatising (another) sector of the economy. The General and the kitchen table alike had absorbed her rage. In her view, such lack of concern for ‘their interests’, though only momentary, was tantamount to betrayal. But for now, though her hands had rarely been acquainted with a saucepan, it was time to have breakfast and act the good wife.

   Today the General was moody and petulant. Glancing over his paper he saw a picture of some of the current leaders of Latin America at a conference. Humble white, brown and black faces peered out, looking jubilant, a reflection of their supporters from their various lands.

   “Here we go again!” he said aloud, “that monkey from Venezuela and that Indian from Bolivia are signing some new deal while that turd in Havana laughs!”

   The General had never really held deep ideological convictions; the coup d’état was always more about intoxicating himself with power. Keeping up his old rants was a way of reassuring himself that what he had done was right, even noble.

   “If only those bastards in Washington had supported me in staying in power,” he called to Lucía, “those Indians would know their place! … They only need you when you are useful but then, just like a condom, the gringos throw you away once their interests have been protected… Sons of bitches,” he muttered to himself as he retraced in his mind his downfall, step by step, to his current house arrest. A few hours later, after another mundane routine, he returned to these thoughts before going to bed.
* * * 
   The mathematics of the scenario were impossible. Cramped into the two square meters between those bulging and yet inflexible walls, he could see over three thousand bodies, decayed faces, damaged human beings. The copper-haired young schoolteacher, Manuel, who had cast his vote because he could not stand watching his pupils’ talents go to waste, was there. So too was Paola, a mestiza seamstress who had been attracted to ridiculous ideas – something about living with dignity and having a say in how her society ought to be run.

   On an old wooden chair, the General sat motionless. For what seemed like hours, almost complete silence reigned until a storm of screams began – screams which could only have been produced under hours of interrogation, electric shocks and spells into unconsciousness, interrupted by buckets of cold water. In silence, others from that human mass walked up to the General and displayed their wounds. Slowly, one man limped forward and held up the broken hands of a body that had been bashed repeatedly and riddled with bullets. Opening his mouth to sing, the terror that gripped him was unbearable once he realised his voice could no longer express his humble past, his ideas, his defiance. With a violent jolt, the General turned away, only to encounter a shoeless child who spat upon his face.

   The disfigured bodies, the screams, the smells. Then there were the dogs that surrounded those wretched people. They weren’t the elegant thoroughbred German Shepherds that his troops had used to hunt down political enemies and that his intelligence officials had even used to rape women. These were the hungry mutts – sore-covered and flea-ridden – that one finds in every shanty town across Latin America – the type that poor circuses pay local kids to slaughter so they can feed their overgrown cats.

   As if to avenge their own hungry and infected lives, the dogs barked savagely. Those whose masters had been killed at the hands of the General’s thugs launched themselves in rage to tear the flesh from his body. Suffocating with distress, boots, punches, screams, foul water, blood and infected wounds followed, his body pleading for the relief of unconsciousness that was always denied.

   As weeks turned into months, the General’s dreams continued, worsened, until one day, unexpectedly, his victims stopped and walked out of the cell.
* * * 
   Diego Rodríguez was driving his cab and listening to a tawdry Colombian cumbia when suddenly the news was announced. Pausing for only a second, he turned to his passenger and said aloud, “Well there you go! All the commies, greens and faggots will be out on the streets in a matter of minutes to celebrate – but do they really know what he did for this country?” Not waiting for his passenger to respond, Diego continued talking, repeating the arguments he had heard on talkback radio that morning, but that he believed to be truly his. Abruptly switching to discuss football, his incoherent screed continued until his passenger paid the fare.

   A smug, city man, Diego had little to boast about. Working between fourteen and sixteen hours a day on Santiago’s smog-filled roads, he drove almost endlessly to pay the bills on the humble house that he and his wife had built on a cheap plot of land. Once home, Diego was often too tired to caress his wife, let alone make love to her. Work, alcohol and football were his life.

   At home, Valeria, Diego’s wife, had a different perspective on the news. She had herself known one of them – ‘the disappeared’ – but she planned, despite her sadness, to join the many in her street tonight who would celebrate the jackal’s death.

   Catalina, who always enjoyed watching her mother’s wit triumph over her father’s crudity, suddenly asked, “Would you like me to go to the shops mama, to get something for the party?”

   Surprised at first by her perceptiveness, Valeria was quickly reminded of her five-year-old’s unusual intelligence. Even at her young age Catalina had already read most of the books in her run-down, little school, and her teacher often made visits to the house insisting that, together, they must find a way to send Catalina to a school with more opportunities. Maybe the future would be different for her, thought Valeria, whose own education allowed her to read and write at a basic level, but not much else.

   “Sí niña, go to the shop and buy three loaves of bread,” said Valeria.

   Catalina always managed to make an adventure from such trips to the shop. The tasks were always too easy but the fun lay in observing her small corner of the world, its people, their interactions and idiosyncrasies. Thus far, there was much to see and in a moment of play she decided to jump in a puddle. Satisfied with her mischievousness, she then stepped back, only for her gaze to fall upon a wall displaying a poster of the new president. Realising that the president was in fact a niñita, a girly like her, Catalina started to giggle.

   The image seemed odd to her, but also quite right. Why couldn’t the president be a niñita? After all, she thought to herself, I am the smartest in my class and I wear a dress. Pausing for a few seconds, she pondered on her conclusion and brashly assumed that only a fool would question it. Tipping her petite body over, she brushed some mud from her jacket and skipped away with joy.

   If only the scruffy, black mongrel that saw all this could have talked, he would have told Catalina that disappointments come in all genders, but that hope for better days is necessary – essential, in fact, for maintaining one’s sanity. Something about scratching off the fleas and ticks that ride on the backs of others would also have been mentioned.