Of all his fascinations with Argentina, Norton was indifferent if not resentful to all that tango was.
An English ex-pat and native of Leeds, he always seemed aloof when watching the dancers step in their melancholic embrace. Strange too ‘cause he himself exported another of that land’s better known cultural achievements. No not maté or steaks or soybeans instead, Norton had occupied himself with the former Stravinsky Vineyard, a failing wine, which he had purchased in 1989 with a relative’s inheritance. Relabeled and re-marketed to the upper class palates of Europe, the new Bodega Norton showed promise, or at least thought the European judges of Wine and Country magazine. As for Mr. Stravinsky, today he owns Zen Coffee; a booming chain of alcohol and caffeine providing fusions that run late into the night and serve as hot spots for the new rich and reformed capitalists of the metropolises of Russia.
Mendoza, capital of the western province, bountiful and relatively unoccupied, offered everything that was not Leeds. Strange looming winds of cold sun beat daily on his dusty vineyard. Gusts from the Andes blended with what he thought were a scarlet sky and a perfectly timid earth. He had picked up the hopscotch tradition of sharing mate as he walked and monitored over his vineyard. A silver plated gourd always accompanied him in his days and today sipping through that straw of silver, he watched Don Aguirre and his nephew check once again the plumpness of the barely ripening malbec.
Bent like canes of amber ghosts, Norton wondered of the pragmatics of the Curupí birds that gawked playfully at Don Aguirre, shirking off all efforts to be flogged by a hat. Perched on the barren vines, the Curupí waited for the grapes and spring to arrive - to commence their pilfering and trouble the staff for yet another year. But Norton was already acquainted with their visits, and returned from his floating reverie to concern himself again instead with the progress of the night’s festivities. Tonight, they were to celebrate five years as a new vineyard and set off the week’s coming vacation and a Semana Santa.
The band was made up of Ulrike, Aznar, and a fat little man whose name always escaped him. It was either Diego or David; one of the two, but as hard as Norton wanted, the name never stuck. They owned their own old guitars as well as a bass and liked to play for their co-workers – a group of mainly traditional folk who enjoyed dancing to sevillanas and watching one attempt a tango with bitter-less Gloria.
The food: heaps of bread, tomato and onion salads a la Chilena, empanadas de pino, Coca Cola, wine and sparkling water were all being arranged and prepared by Beatrice and her younger sister Gloria in the central kitchen. Some alfaores and a tort of lucuma would serve as desert and baked in the clay oven outside. The dough sifted dry flour into the air, mixing with the earth as Gloria brushed beaten egg whites onto empanadas, checked the tort, and put in new loaves of bread to bake. Everything was nearly set. Aside from the Coca Cola and the sparkling water, which were traded for table wine, all of the raw ingredients from the wheat grained to flour, to the tomatoes, to the lucuma; came from the lands near his vineyard.
In Leeds, he had lived in a tiny flat with a small garden and like many in England toyed with the difficult practice of growing small vegetables and forest fruits. But there all that grew for Norton were some berries, and poisonous ones at that; whose seeds must have passed through the black crows that ate concrete and flew over churches making nests and keeping their young in stacks of abandoned chimney sweeps. But here in Mendoza in the flat seemingly indifferent earth, where the Guarani had once clamped their rods, life appeared to come with the ease. Seeing things spurt as it did, Norton understood why the flowers were zealous; he too wanted to be like the Andes and make contact with the sky.
Norton commended Gloria and Beatrice for their fine culinary skills and decided to check on Ulrike and Aznar and the status of the parrilla. He opened the barn door and at the sight of the draining blood and the skinning of the bull, he stood for a second, his hand held firm on the door and remembered why he had come and why he had left his country.
In 89, five years after finishing university, working as a photo-editor at the Leeds Post he had gone to Paris specifically to report on the Luxembourg gardens and share their splendor. And while he had only stayed for three days, out of chance and cliché he had fallen in love.
But she wasn’t French - only an imposter - dressed in a sharp black trench coat and wrapped with a red scarf, he had seen her pass on the other side of the Rue Dauphine. Her lanky arms and her fresh form instantly caught his concentration. Two steps later and he would have been hit, but luck the gods provided and he was able to meet her and take her picture for his collection. Snapping the trigger, she smiled and blushed. Her name was Cielo, and there during their encounter he never made the connection, nor guessed of the infinite blue that she would put forward. She looked Welsh, but wasn’t. He invited her for tea, and while her English was rough yes, and his Spanish close to none (though the Latin he had taken in school was of some use), they communicated. On the sides of a black café table edged they edged seats together and kissed. Her hair was brisk, and seemed to grow darker as he navigated its length and painted her lips with the feather that was his finger. The city of love and of lights offered the perfect backdrop for their sensuous exploitations of a pension’s dimensions.
She was a student of the expected – French literature - everyone was obsessed at the time. He knew nothing neither of its topic nor of her land - other than of course of the Falkland war. She too was not interested in all matters related to the sheep covered island. They fashioned themselves as children of ignorance and continued in their romance, forgetting any complications over breakfasts in bed and walks in neatly maintained parks.
Upon leaving they exchanged information and at the airport where only their jackets separated their longings, they parted and saw of each never again. Calls were expensive then and on return to Argentina about a month later he received a post from her. A card flashing a old colonial cathedral on the front with a scribble of a note in perfect black on the back: “Come.” And he did but first three months of organizing logistics after the death of his widowed father. He was free to leave England after he received a substantial inheritance.
Seeing Ulrike hoist up the carcass onto that hook, it flashed to him again in obsessive detail - he wondered what she had felt. If too had that tango instructor hoisted her soul on to an invisible hook for his carnage? With a small knife Aznar slit more of the animals skin and collected scraps into a small blue bucket. The police report noted that upon the rape she had been strangled and left wrapped in a canvas cloth in the trunk of an abandoned vehicle in the hills near the town. They worked fast equally fast seeing the need to skin the hide and sever the meat from its bone. Prime cuts were made and the animal de-boned too. A translucent ruby red splattered onto the barn’s floor and like his hand that clinched the gate firm, he could still see through the temperate liquid the chilled concrete. Meat was transferred on to a cart, dripping more onto the floor. It would be washed and cleaned by the time they were done and that night it would sparkle with the counted beats of dance steps. He wondered however if his soul would ever be rinsed of that event, for his heart was chilled and hard like that shed’s floor?
“Looks good, but just remember you two, remember to rinse the floor well.” Stepping back and noting the surprised nod that Ulrike and Aznar gave. Norton shut the door and staggered for a second as he made for the worker’s cafeteria.
Norton had learned of her death a week prior to leaving for Argentina, he had decided to still go, in hopes of recognizing how the land had made that flower and to pay his respects. Upon arrival to Buenos Aires, he traveled inland to meet Cielo’s mother in a center corner flat of Cordoba’s market district. The mother had planned for his arrival greeting him with the gourd and crying on his shoulder as they aspirated the bitter liquid. Drinking bitter maté for the first time and understanding how it helped make life bearable, he drank more and held her, trying to comprehend her cries. There was never enough evidence to convict the suspected killer and the last they had heard, the middle aged and perfectly fit instructor had moved to Paraguay and was running a private studio in Asunción. He had some desire for revenge and as the bitter liquid mixed with his blood, his eyes would not tear, but instead become darker, turning amber from green.
As she was Jewish and had been buried quickly after the police had discovered her body, he was unable to attend her funeral. Instead her mother drove him to the cemetery, left him for an afternoon and there alone he laid three stones on her grave; for the three days he been with her in Paris.
Cielo’s mother was an angel too, trusted him to stay in her room as a guest, and kept for him. During the day he would walk through Cordoba imagining schools that she possibly had attended or parks where she had played as a young girl. Cordoba was beautiful, small and he welcomed its narrow streets and colonial feel. And after a few days, and when he was ready to return to England, he haphazardly met Stravinsky in a corner café of the main plaza.
English in a slanted and intimidating propagandist like voice came from his left, “You businessman? You want start business here, Uh?”
And he turned curiously, putting down his coffee, and not yet realizing the reality that he looked foreign and stood out to the rest. Details were worked out and in three days, after seeing the grounds, meeting the English speaking Don Aguirre, and being convinced, Norton decided to purchase the rights and uproot his life for the near permanency to Mendoza and run a vineyard. It felt like the Wild West; everything was possible. It was a way to connect with Cielo.
It was about 1:30 in the afternoon, and he had no desire to eat but seeing the workers through the greenhouse like windows just finishing up lunch and beginning to share their mate, he walked over to greet them.
“Why don’t you join us Don. Norton? Come sit. The fire is just beginning to spark.”
“Sure, but only for a round.” Whispered Norton as a response, sliding on the end of the bench. He sat across from Don. Aguirre and to the left of the fat man whose name he had again forgotten.
The chatting resumed and he focused on the large gourd be repacked with the loose tea, next it was covered with a hand and shaken before the straw was re-inserted at an angle. Don. Aguirre. poured in water and took the first sip passing it to the right.
Norton took the gourd, sipped, passing while giving the vague opener “Its good to see that you’re resting, it’s going to be a full evening and I want you all to enjoy it. We’ve had a great five years, haven’t we?
“Its great, we can’t wait. Aznar and Ulrike are prepping the parrilla now and we’ve all brought our shoes and dresses to dance.” Answered a voice, but only Don. Aguirre looked at him to continue in any form of conversation.
“You never dance do you? You English are too serious – you know that? I’m twice your age and I still try. But each to their own, right? You like to watch - You’re still learning. Maybe one day you’ll take Beatrice’s hand in a tango or clap with us in sevillanas, maybe tonight, no?”
“Yeah maybe, maybe tonight” and as he imagined himself dancing with Beatrice, he laughed, for she too sort of looked like the tamanduá or that giant anteater that taught these people to dance. And it flashed in his mind that spring afternoon, during that first barbecue when he listened drinking their first vintage and trying to understand Ulrike’s storytelling. Like the young wine that showed promise, the worker’s children sat around Ulrike watching the jumps and performance as the story was told.
“Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua!
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.
To dance you all! To dance you all!
I call you to dance.
I order you to dance.
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.
To dance you all! To dance you all!
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.
To the rhythm.
Dance, dance with or without the music.
I order you to dance.
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.
Tucu Tum Tucu-tum… Tamandua.”
And the children did, holding their hands and recreating the sideways swaggers that the one mythic Indian who had fought with the Tamandua had done. They laughed, some pretending to be the Tamandua and others the Indian recreating what they had just heard.
“With a spear the Indian struck, but the Tamandua dodged and jumped back;
Another strike with the spear - another miss.
A thrust to the left – a jump to the right!
A thrust to the right – a jump to the left!
Tucu, the spear would hit the ground – tum, a dodge
Tucu, again the spear would miss – tum, again he dodged.
And they continued like that until they became tired – until the Tamandua no longer could jump and the Indian no longer could strike his spear.
‘Its been fun and a challenge’ the Indian gasped ‘go back to your home’ and the anteater returned to stand on its four legs and ran back into the thick forest.
And when he returned to the village the Indian told them ‘when I tried to strike him, the Tamandua would jump back. Tucu to the left and tum to the right.
And has he told his story; he jumped and showed his mate.
And soon the entire village all watched and played, until they too grew tired lying down on the ground and thanking the Tamandua with their laughter.”
“Well I take that as a promise then,” held Don Aguirre, “just remember its easy, just to the left and to right – oh and don’t forget to hold a firm embrace.”
“Well, we’ll see what happens.” He answered and saw himself again shoulder on the tree and watching the children laugh and play.
And there they continued sharing mate until the gossips ran thin and the fire sparked no more. Some left to help with the festivities and in the distant you could see Ulrike and Aznar beginning to prep the grill and others taking down table clothes from the outside clothes lines and tossing pins into baskets. And when only Don Aguirre and a few others were left, Norton excused himself for he wanted to take a short nap and a shower before the afternoon was done.
Above the hacienda’s central kitchen Norton kept his private quarters. There out of his window he could see the edging mountains tipped with wisdom and snow as well as long ranges of his vineyard. He took a record from his collection, “The Enchanting Sitar of Shahid Parvez” and set the volume to low. His head soft on the pillow, his eyes became locked liked the beats of the tabla to the plucking of the sitar. And as smoke he distended himself into a welcomed sleep.
Waking to the silence of the stereo, he rubbed his eyes open and noticed that the sun had set. He showered, cleaning himself with soap and drinking water to rewet his tongue. He pulled out a clean shirt and like a teenager felt a certain excitement as he douched on cologne and slicked his hair back behind his ears. It was long now and he needed to ask Beatrice or another of the girls to cut it. He descended to the kitchen and seeing the girls finishing up, he asked if they needed help. They gave him the tort and he walked out through the door and again onto dirt and stepped into the open barn where three tables had been arranged and silverware was being set.
Norton absorbed some of the excitement of the workers and smiled as he made his way through the crowd. He set down the large tort at the end of the table which was being lined with food. He could hear the squeaks of wrinkling chorizo on the parrilla and see racks of ribs crease from heat in his periphery as he turned. Children to the left and to the right ran through their fathers and aunts who wanted them to stop. Norton moved up to the front, pulling out a bottle of champagne and launched the cork into the ceiling – stopping the chatter and toasting, “To five years, and to fifty more… thank you all” and he hastily emptied the spewing cider of a competitors brew into the glasses of his workers who clapped. And in a sudden rush, the meat came in and the children and wives served themselves first. As customary, the men sat on the first bench, the wives and women on the second and the children fluttered between bites on the third. Nearly burnt meat was stuffed into shreds of bread - dipped in juices of the tomato salad and followed with shrugs of red wine.
Norton sat at the head and smiled. He was proud. He had made it in a business he had once known nothing. And he drank the wine that they made and he floated into conversations of those he sat with. Dinner lasted for nearly two hours, until all were full and crumbs were even over the tables. The tort was eaten and the powder of alfaores made mustaches on the smiles of the children who again ran and sneaked through the barn as the tables were pushed back to the walls.
Ulrike and the band came, setting themselves in the corner and letting the bass walk before the melody marched in – the room filled with heat from the vibrating strings and the prompting quivers of the women who let down their hair. Clapping, tapping, dancing, all in two-step, the floor glittered black to grey, grey to black as they interchanged in lines and spontaneous circles.
“Remember your promise, you’ll dance tonight” pushed Don Aguirre, Norton into the middle. Caught in a comfortable gaze others clapped and called his name. He improvised his steps and kept to the beat. And as the bass paced itself, couples fell into embrace. Gloria grabbed his arms and Norton remembered the Tamanadua; to the left, to the right. Back and forth drawing the box with their feat, he tried to lead while listening to Ulrike sing in tune melodrama:
“Me ha besado el sol de muchos cielos
y he surcado tantos mares
con mis locas ilusiones.
He soñado tanto y he vivido
Sin que el tiempo transcurrido
Pero hoy canto el tango de la ausencia
Se ha nublado mi querencia
De una gris melancolía
Porque el tiempo cruel me ha despertado
Y la realidad golpeó
For a second, he understood, he was free, possibly happy. And while he swayed forward and back, he smiled, she smiled. But in an instant, like in the song, Cielo’s face filtered into his sight and he remembered the grey - the music sped up and their embrace was broken as they resumed dancing and turning in circles. Claps and taps the rhythm organic flowed until the children became tired and begged their parents to go home. Strums of sweat gleamed with the light of the moon and the tawny buzz of the overhead lights while Norton tried not to think.
“Tucu Tum - Tucu tum,”
And as the hours disappeared the workers did too, leaving in their cars to their homes. In a week they would return. He knew their barrios greeted them with festivities and Norton looked over onto the empty vineyard seeing not even a Cucurpí.
But next to the barn, off to the left where clotheslines whisked with the wind, the hide of the cow dried and shrunk into a workable, raw hide.
He shrugged and lied on his bed - staring into the sky he wondered. Cielo.
Charlo wrote the lyrics and music of “The Tango de la Aucencia”.
The Tamanduá is a classic Argentine legend of Guaraní origins. The version that inspired this tale was found in Leyendas Argentinas a collection edited by Neli Garrido de Rodríquez.