(The following story is part ekphrastic description of a 30 second film I shot in Neuland, a Mennonite colony in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco, and part retelling of events witnessed in Cayim ô Clim, the neighboring indigenous settlement.)
They call him Sombra because he materializes behind you at dusk. The horse substitutes your shadow. A distorted silhouette cast on the patch of soil shielded from the setting sun. An intangible extension, a limb, of a body that remains unnoticed till it disappears.
The outline of the animal protrudes in the dark like a body under a sheet. The Nujaché sisters watch him through their bedroom window. He sleeps standing under a Palo Borracho in their yard. They believe he is awake.
He is not loyal. Follows packs of strays into the matted forest during the day. They disappear. He cannot crawl into the bush. Only the top branches have thorns. He tramples them. Emerges with legs torn. The wet blood stains his white pelt.
The Nujaché sisters sit behind him, not fearing they will be kicked. Pick dry mud and blood that covers or crevices between strands his limbs. Stroke back the blond mane that covers his head and back. Comb his tail with their fingers. Braid the long hair till they grow bored.
Usually, he is still. Nibbles on patches of grass, like a sick dog. Swats flies with his tail or stiffens his legs so his muscles tremble. It reminds me that we eat horse meat. His mane is blonder and longer than the short hairs adhered to his flesh.
He is hard to look at when in the sun’s glare. The warmest color is white. A flame that burns when you caress it with your eyes instead of your hands. He is dyed taupe by a coating of dust and indistinguishable when the North wind blows.
The children imitate him. Whinny and skip. They mount him. He shakes them off. When they throw stones at him he becomes a stallion. Gallops out of sight. They leap onto the bumper of a passing car. Fall into the truck bed. Jump out when he slows down to turn onto Neuland’s main avenue.
When they race back they resemble horses, not a mocking imitation. A group of seven or eight. Faces distorted from the strain. They do not converse while they run but feel closer than when they share intimacies. Hearts pump with such force they cannot stop at the gate but climb over it and into the field. Some tumble onto the grass and cackle wheezily while catching their breath. Others just stop.
The children’s parents trail behind them in a setting cloud of dirt. They are returning from work in Neuland. The Nujaché sisters watch Sombra follow their father through the gate and lawn but halts when he steps over the threshold. They play the game before it is too dark to remain outdoors.
The siblings search for something in the cloudless sky. “That speck is not the sun but an airplane,” Maria Luisa says to Maria. The latter complies. She stares at the sun till the blood vessels below her white cornea dilate. The youngest turns to the eldest weeping. Asks, “Why do you make me cry?” Maria Luisa’s face betrays her. She smiles so slightly.
Maria Luisa thinks she hates her sister because they share the same first name. They do not share the same father. Maria is blond and dark skinned. Mennonite men stare at her. They do not wonder if she is their daughter. It is not hate but fear that she feels. She hurts her sister to make her aware that people don’t mean what they say but mean something too cruel to say. What she forgets is that Maria has a temper and likes the suspense that antecedes violence.
Maria recognizes cruelty and retaliates. She tears through Maria Luisa’s eyelids with her filthy fingernails. Neither remembers how it happened. Maria cries uncontrollably. The boys gather around them. Maria Luisa, though bleeding, gathers her sister up. Cradles her with the force of someone older and whispers in her ear. What she says doesn’t matter. Maria only and always complies to touch.
Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the indigenous narratives of the Paraguayan, Bolivian, and Argentine Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy. Elisa was born in Asunción, raised in La Paz, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Jakarta, and currently lives in Montreal.