Mikel by Phil Bennett

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No sounds this morning. I click my fingers a few times, just to check it isn’t me. Things have been… unsettled lately, which makes it hard to stay calm. I’ve been shouting and getting so frantic that nobody knows what to do with me. My sketchbooks are all full, even on the reverse side of the paper, and I hate doing that. I eventually started drawing on the walls, which always gets me into trouble, but I had to.

[private]The curtains let a sliver of light in, but I can’t face the silent city yet, so I stay under the covers where it’s warm and safe. Reasoning that my hands might picture what my eyes dare not, I reach for the nearest sketchbook and let my fingers settle on the cool pencil trapped in the pages. The image that comes terrifies me: they’ve broken the city, shattered the rock it sits on, and we’re all drifting out into the Pacífico, bobbing about on lonely fragments of vulnerable earth.

*

Mama marches into my room. I’m under the bed sheets, shaking. Come on, you’re going to school, she says.

The family is around the table. Papa isn’t reading a newspaper; he looks into space. Josep my brother is kissing Mama and stepping out of the door. An empanada is sitting on my plate, but this is wrong and I start humming. Tranquilo, Mikel, tranquilo, says Mama, pushing me towards my chair. I take a couple of bites of breakfast, but it’s leftovers and the pastry is hard and the filling has congealed.

Soon, Papa leaves for work and Mama begins running a comb through my hair. The knots catch like they always do, and my head is jerked around. But this is normal and it makes me feel better.

Mama says the buses have started running again. I didn’t know they’d stopped. Maybe that’s why I was kept home for a week. We step outside and I feel the quiet again, like no one’s breathing.

The bus arrives, eight minutes late and chugging through the morning haze. There are few people on board, and we manage to sit. I’m in the window seat, nose close enough to feel the chill of the glass. Mama picks through a magazine, but I can see her reflection glancing up at me. A military jeep sits at the corner of Avenida Holanda, with a posse of soldiers hunched together nearby lighting cigarettes and casting dark shadows. Shops are open, and a few people mill about looking for groceries, but there seems little on the shelves. A couple of streets later, a truck blocks the pavement in front of a house with its front door lying in the road. People are walking slowly past, while others lean from windows. Two soldiers here aren’t smoking; they heft guns and push the onlookers away. I’m the only one on the bus looking out of the window.

Around the central plaza, roadblocks have been set up. Sandbags are laid out everywhere like sprouting fungi. More guns. People are shouting. Mama squeezes my shoulder when a soldier boards the bus and stalks the aisle, examining faces and shaking out bags. I can’t meet his eyes, so I look out at La Moneda. The walls are blackened and part of the balustrade has broken away. Mama looks away.

*

Mama gets out at the school with me, kisses my forehead and goes off to catch another bus to her work. The Escuela Para Niños Autistas uses a spare primary school classroom that reeks of disinfectant and the mould that is gradually consuming it. I wait in the playground with the other students; some of the more afflicted ones standing next to a tired parent. From smeary windows all around us, children stare with unchecked curiosity. Finally, the volunteer teachers Marta and Jose arrive and unlock the doors.

I’m the last in, but the lights are still flickering desperately. A scented candle is lit, and an ancient gramophone begins to crackle and pop. The teachers arrange us on the floor, and a man’s voice resonates around the damp walls, accompanied by a folk guitar. Jose looks up at Marta, who makes a face I don’t understand, and they begin to drift around the room in floating movements that match the pace of the song. The other children mimic them or stand and sway, but I dig out a box of pastels and some scrap paper and head for the table near the window – I don’t dance.

I lay out a spectrum of pastels and the first sheet of paper, then look out of the window. I sit and watch the primary school children recite their times tables and before long I notice my hand is sketching outlines. Something has caught like a fish on a line and now I should reel it in to see what it is. I’m blocking out the music, the clump of feet on floorboards and the musty smell and letting my hand lead itself. Reaching for colours, my hands move faster now, gaining a feel for the image, but Marta is speaking. You work so confidently, she says. What is it?

For the first time, I look at the paper. It’s like waking from a dream: I have a sense of what it was, I can almost taste it, but I cannot say what it is. The colours have overrun the paper anyway, leaving bands of red and orange across the table. Paper is never large enough to contain my work.

Marta can see my frustration, and she strokes the back of my hand until I’m breathing normally. She is a gentle person, with a round face and bright threads woven into the thick black hair that falls down her back. On days when Josep brings me here they often talk and laugh.

I expect her to go back to the dance, but she stays. Were you okay last week, Mikel? she asks.

I tell her I ran out of paper. She nods. And your family?

I don’t understand her question, so I ask one of my own. Who is that singing, Marta?

He is a folk singer, Mikel.

I like his voice.

Yes, many people say that.

*

The rattling bus climbs back up through Providencia, and I see more people on the streets. Teenagers gather in the shade of a spindly araucaria tree, talking in clusters, and elderly men play chess in the park. The soldiers look on.

I get off a stop early and cut into an alley adjoining the street. A little way along, a wooden gate is set into one wall. The bolts holding one panel in place have rusted through, creating a flap through which I can just about squeeze. A vacated printer’s workshop, a place of shadows slit through with pale light from cracked windows under the eaves. I set a candle down on the floor and light it with matches I shouldn’t have. The bricks glow a vibrant orange in response to the flame, then I take in the azures, the violets, the crimsons, jades, yellows and whites daubed over great swathes of the walls. Bats live up in the roof space, but the walls are mine. I take out the pastels.

This place has been my life, day after day after day. Almost one entire wall is covered now in the vivid shades of the city. Stepping back, I can see how my style has changed as I’ve found the confidence to trust my hands and eyes, and how the subjects and palette, too, have evolved to match the events I live through. I am proud of my wall, and even over the coming weeks as people talk in whispers of the junta and los desaparecidos, I lose myself in recreating the city as I see it.

Then, on a rainy day when I’m standing on tiptoes trying to finish a helicopter buzzing over my mural city, a man squeezes through the gate panel. He’s only a little taller than I am and his dark leather jacket hangs loosely off bony shoulders. Until I see the bristles on his jaw I think he’s a child.

Dropping the pastel, I step away from the wall. He sniffs the air and scratches notes into a pad.

How old are you?

Thirteen.

More scratches in the notebook. He looks over at the wall.

Did you do all of this?

The soles of his shoes crunch closer on the rough concrete floor.

Look at me.

I look, but can’t hold it.

I said, did you do this?

A small nod. I need the bathroom.

He walks again, off into space behind me. Crunch, crunch.

When he speaks again, his voice is everywhere, like a conscience.

We are making a new society here – fixing the country. The crime and corruption is going to be washed away. Do you know what that means? It means Chile will be strong again!

Between the echoes of his voice, I can hear rain pattering the windows. Suddenly, he’s at my ear.

Does this mean anything to you?

Something trickles down my leg, tickling the little hairs. It is warm and wet.

He leans close, and I smell cigarettes and alcohol. He notices the puddle mingling with dried bat droppings at my feet. If I see you here again, you and your family will regret it, he says.

*

I’m running over infinite carpets through endless galleries that ring to the sound of my booming footsteps. The works of masters blur in my peripheral vision. I round another corner, leaning in like a motorcyclist, the soles of my shoes slipping and squeaking on the polished floors, and run into Mama’s outstretched arm. She looks at me for a long time, shakes her head and leads me into Sr. Valdez’s office.

In the first week of January, Marta didn’t arrive at the Escuela. Jose took the classes by himself, but he seemed different: shouting one minute, crying the next. The following week class was cancelled, and it has remained this way. Since then, I have been spending my days at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, where Mama works. I water plants, dust benches, and polish door handles, but there’s lots of time to sit in sunlit halls drawing on the backs of exhibition posters.

Sr. Valdez is the director of the Museo. He is sitting behind a large desk wearing a shiny suit and a furrowed brow. On a stand next to the desk is Montecino’s Santiago Nº 3. Mama gasps.Sr. Valdez offers a minute nod and leaves.

Why? Mama hisses when the door has clicked shut.

It didn’t look right without tanks.

Do you have any idea of what you’ve done? Mama’s face is red.

I feel my lips move, but what sound comes out escapes me. I’m back in the streets and playgrounds, pinned against walls or face down on gravel, fists squeezing my shirt and voices demanding to know why I do what I do. This question is nothing new; I’ll probably face it all my life, but I’m never any better at answering. People confuse me.

*

The face painted on the wall of the abandoned house towers above me, seen in profile with only his forehead, cheekbones and the broad ridge of his nose catching the light. The eye is almost swallowed in shadow. It looks a strong face, ready to take people on. Underneath, the name ‘Victor’ has been stencilled – artist or subject, I’m not sure.

Happy in the thought that others share my passions, I sit in the deep grass of the forgotten garden. When I’ve chosen my subject, I begin dashing the outlines in white chalk at a respectful distance from ‘Victor’. I work much faster now, in bold blocks of suggestive colour. And then it’s done: the uniforms with crossed-rifle shoulder patches and peaked caps come easily now; the blocky, blunt-jawed faces with steel eyes I have seen a thousand times. Here, they are roughing up a street busker, kicking his guitar case away and sending a few pesos tinkling into the gutter. I try to decipher the look in the victim’s eyes, but it’s beyond me.

I’ve been busy lately. The alleys in this neighbourhood are covered with murals of old men playing chess, tanks on street corners, young children buying groceries, and houses with broken doors, but there’s so much still to do I wonder if there’ll be enough walls.

Our house is full of quiet. Josep is reading an article in a newspaper over and over. My parents sit still on chairs next to each other. Mama has been crying and does not look at me. I can smell cigarettes.

Josep leads me into my room and tells me a story about a man who came today; it’s full of names that make my thoughts swim. I grow twitchy and nervous, but he ploughs on, about Allende and Pinochet and the DINA and Nixon and Castro. I stammer that I don’t know these people, but he says some of them are interested in me. Then he asks about my pictures and the man in the leather jacket. It is too much. I scream and try to get out, but Josep pins me to my bed – he never loses his gentle look.

*

A hand shakes me awake in the blackness. It is Josep. Get dressed and meet me downstairs, he says. Bring your pastels.

In the kitchen, I find my brother and a woman sharing a hip flask of coffee. A candle burns on the table.

Hola, Mikel, says Marta.

I don’t know what to say. I want to hug her, but I’m too shocked. Her eyes are hidden in the flickering shadows, and a scar ripples her cheek.

We need your help, says Josep.

The streets are a smoky shade of orange, and the clouds are hanging low like a suffocating pillow. Two bicycles are in front of the house. Marta takes one, and Josep the other. He puts a finger to his lips, and I climb on behind him.

Our ride is slow and punctuated with hushed conversations of which I understand little and am not included. Twice we have to dive off the bicycles and huddle behind walls or under bushes, our faces buried in the dirt of the city, hoping its darkness will protect us against roaming flashlights.

After crossing the Mapocho in a crazed sprint over one of the smaller bridges, we leave the bicycles in some bushes and trek up onto the wooded slopes of Cerro San Cristobal. It is pitch black under the trees, and we move slowly and clumsily. Odours of resin and earth fill the air. Finally, we come to the iron railings of the zoo.

We clamber over and enter this otherworldly place. Utter silence, broken only by occasional squawks and grunts. Smells of urine and straw. Marta leads us over to the lion enclosure, then pulls a large key from a pocket and opens the padlock.

It’s okay. They are sleeping indoors, she whispers.

The gate creaks open, and we move into an arena of dirt and logs with concrete walls. Marta points to a wall, and Josep takes my arm and guides me.

Here is where we need your pastels, he whispers.

What are we doing? I ask.

He digs in a pocket and pulls out a sheet of paper. Can you draw this?

It is a caricature of an army general, standing on a pile of earth from which bones protrude, waving a swastika flag.

I’m uncomfortable and hum softly to myself. The stillness and stench are not part of the city I know, and I hurriedly apply colour to the concrete. Mikel, why do you draw on walls? Josep asks when I’m finished. It seems a strange question, since he brought me here.

I look into my brother’s eyes. More than anyone else, I trust him, and I wish I could put it into better words.

It’s like a scrapbook. I want to keep images so I can go over them again by myself. Things happen too fast in real time, and I can’t keep up with what people mean, but if I draw them, they’re fixed and I think I can understand them more. It makes me happy.

So you’re not an Allende-supporting activist like the papers say?

I don’t know what he means.

Marta is waiting by the gate. She kisses me on the cheek and Josep on the lips, then bids us leave quickly.

Josep and I climb back over the railings and wait under cover of the trees. I am wondering where Marta has gone when I see a car moving slowly through the zoo with its lights off. It stops in front of the lion enclosure, and the driver gets out. The moonlight shines on his leather jacket. He casts a tiny shadow. I duck down, but Josep knows we are safe here. When I raise my head again, I can see the man talking with Marta and entering the enclosure.

Josep’s eyes are fixed on the gate. His skin is blue in the moonlight – a cold, unfeeling statue. I have never felt more confused.

There is a soft noise from the enclosure and a minute later, Marta emerges alone, quickly locking the gate behind her. Only now does Josep move.

You shouldn’t see any more.

He leads me back through the woods. At this hour, the dawn is burning the Andes into a hellish silhouette. Then we hear a roar from the zoo, like some demon venting its rage at the world. The sound whistles through the trees and past us, down the hillside and into the golden air of Santiago. I wonder if anyone hears it and fears for what it means. I wonder if I will ever understand this city and its people.[/private]

Phil Bennett is living in snowbound Hokkaido and writes short stories in his free time, occasionally going back to the amorphous novel that may or may not be getting somewhere.

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