From the Bottom of my Heart
based on a True Story from Bolivia
Reading time: 7 Minutes
the stony path would not end. Lucio trotted along behind his donkey, which trudged with steady steps down the sloping and impassable path. It was bitterly cold. The boy pulled his colourful cap a little deeper into his forehead and rubbed his hands together. He slid over a frozen puddle. He had hardly any feeling left in his feet. They were stuck stockingless in sandals made of car tyres. He had set off early in the morning and left his village of Viloco behind him at sunrise. From a distance he could still hear the familiar „toc-toc, toc-toc“ of the machines. His birthplace, the mining town of Viloco, was 5200 metres above sea level in the Andes north of La Paz.
His father had died in a work accident in the tin mine when he, the eldest son, was just three years old. They had been waiting for the father with the food. A quinua soup had been simmering on the fire for hours and the mother scolded him for not coming. He wasn’t one of those who went out drinking with his mates in the evening and then came home and either cried or got angry at every little thing. No, he wasn’t like that. He was a good man, silent, capable and sincere, from a small highland village, Arumthaya. So the mother waited patiently at first. „He will come soon“ she told the children. But then she became uneasy. Something was not right. And as if to drown out this burgeoning worry, she grumbled. About the soup that was slowly boiling away, about the cold that was in her bones and about the baby who kept asking for her breast. Then came the „Ingeniero“. Anyone who didn’t work underground or on the big machines was called an „ingeniero“ in Viloco, even if he was just a messenger or driver. The ingeniero said he was sorry, patted his mother’s shoulder consolingly and pulled the liquor he had brought from his pocket. The mother alternately cupped her hands to her face and to the sky, „Ay tata“ she cried, „ay tata, que haré, what am I going to do“ and finally poured out the soup. The children, 5 and 3, hid their faces in the steam of the bowls, distraught, slurping their food noisily. The baby in the sling bobbed up and down while sobbing on its mother’s chest. The truck had skidded on the serpentines and crashed down. It was supposed to take the hungry and tired miners, who were sitting in the back of the truck, from the „Pata Mina“ – the entrance and exit to the shafts – back home to the village.
Not the first time. The loose shale. Some die underground, others on the unpaved access roads. And still others from their dust lungs. Dying was omnipresent in Viloco.
If you asked Lucio later about his father, he could only remember his absence, that evening when they were waiting for him with dinner. Otherwise, he quickly grew into the role of the „eldest“ because he was the boy and his older sister was just the girl.
He was now 7 years old and on his way with his donkey to Uma Ruta, a village about 1000 metres lower in altitude than Viloco. There he was supposed to pick up potatoes from his aunt’s own harvest. But Lucio had another mission that was almost more important: it was his mother’s birthday today and he wanted to pick flowers for her. They didn’t grow up in his village. There was only slate, stones and the toc-toc of the machines.
Slowly it became quiet. It was still above the clouds. Further down, they piled up like cotton wool. The child had never seen cotton wool before. But the teacher had said that the clouds were like cotton wool. Actually, it should read: cotton wool is like clouds, Lucio thought. Above them the steel-blue sky. Lucio gleefully blew little cold clouds into the air and let stones slide on frozen puddles. This was the most beautiful part of his walk. It was quiet, the sky blue and the wide view opened his heart. In a moment he would dive into the clouds. Then he had to be careful not to lose sight of Sisko, his donkey.
Around 10, after about 4 hours of walking, Lucio knocked on his aunt’s door in Uma Ruta. So late, she scolded her nephew. She should have been in the field helping his uncle by now. But then she laughed, poured the boy a plate of barley soup and asked about his mother. Yes, yes, said Lucio, walikiskiwa, it’s going well. An Aymara doesn’t complain, he had learned that from an early age. What should he tell the aunt? The mother worked above ground, pounding stones from dawn to dusk, always one toddler in a sling and another at her breast. By now she had five and a good-for-nothing husband who liked to drink and complain. He had lost his job because he was absent too often after a night of drinking. Now he sat in the small dwelling day in and day out, grumbling about the mining company that had fired him. On good days, he took his charango and showed Lucio how to play it. Then he was quite the empathetic stepfather, sometimes demanding, sometimes praising. A real father, which he wanted so much. Sometimes the stepfather would throw him up in the air exuberantly, laughing and saying, „you’re going to be a great artist one day“. On bad days, he yelled at every little thing, slapping here and beating there with the kimsa charani, the little leather whip that always hung threateningly on the wall, ready to hand. The children were distraught, never knowing what would happen next. One moment the stepfather would act warm and loving, and the next he would resemble an angry bear, opening his foul mouth and raising his paws against the children, his resentment putting down every emotion in their hearts. But even worse for the children was when the stepfather pounced on their mother and beat her, knocking her head on the tabletop or throwing her to the floor, cursing and threatening to kill her until she gave him the little money she had earned from selling the silver dust. Then he finally gave in, slammed the door loudly and stomped off to the canteen to calm himself down with cheap booze. The children then gathered around the crying mother, stroked her, squeezed her with their little arms and Nancy the eldest daughter caringly put on water for a coca tea.
‚Flowers for Mamita‘ Lucio remembered and let his gaze wander. While the aunt fastened two potato sacks on the donkey’s back, he pranced impatiently from one foot to the other. Behind the mud house at the edge of the vegetable garden, his aunt had three daisies. He wondered if he was allowed to pick them. „What for?“ she wanted to know. Did he want to make his fiancée happy, she joked, and did he want to wipe the snot off his nose first? She laughed and slapped him on the back of the head. Embarrassed, the boy wiped his nose with the sleeve of his jumper. He said that it was Mamita’s day and that was why he wanted to make her happy with flowers. „Yes, run along,“ laughed the aunt, „pick the daisies, just take them with you! But don’t you dare give them to your sweetheart,“ she winked at him.
No no, Lucio assured her, triumphantly holding up the little bouquet. He said goodbye to the aunt. She wrapped boiled jacket potatoes and a piece of cheese in a woven tari and packed the provisions in a bundle, which the boy tied around his shoulder. „Jikisinkama, we meet again,“ they both called out, waving to each other one last time before the path lost itself around the bend.
Lucio walked behind the donkey and encouraged it with clicks and shouts when it became too slow. In his right hand he carefully carried his bunch of daisies, with the flowers facing downwards so that they would not bend. He restrained his desire to run and hop for fear that the flowers might suffer. The path went steeply uphill, slowly the colourful quinua fields got lost, the lush green became paler, the vegetation sparser. The boy looked around attentively. A few more flowers would do his sparse birthday bouquet good. Then he discovered Andean gentian on a steep slope. It shone blue between the boulders. Brrrrr, Lucio stopped the donkey. „Wait here Sisko, I’ll be right there“. Carefully he placed foot after foot in the steep terrain until he was so close he thought he could grasp the plant. He stretched forward, switched the dais from his right to his left hand and stretched the free one far out. But it was a good ten centimetres short. He leaned forward a little more, cautiously. But then his right foot slipped and he stumbled. His left arm rowed to keep his balance, the daisies swayed in the wind and for a moment it looked as if the seven-year-old was performing a dance. Because he didn’t want to let go of the flowers, he couldn’t support himself on the left side of the slope and slid down a few metres until he was able to hold on to a warped tree with his right hand. He could hear his heart beating. „Like the machines in the mine: toc-toc–toc-toc“ he thought. He waited until it slowed down, looked upwards at the site of the find, nibbled thoughtfully at his lower lip and then very slowly put his left foot further up. The flowers now moved to his right hand and so he could cling to the slope with his left. Very slowly and carefully he approached the gentian, carefully placed his feet so that they offered a good grip, changed the daisies into his left hand again and grabbed the stems of the flowers with his right hand, this time from below, to pick them gently. Now all that was left was to reach the path again unharmed. Slowly and carefully, he clambered up, one hand looking for a foothold, the other carefully holding the bouquet aloft. Finally he had solid ground under his feet again, knocked the dirt off his trousers and arranged the bouquet according to colour, always alternating between yellow and blue. Beaming, he looked at his work. „A really beautiful birthday bouquet, worth all the trouble,“ he thought contentedly and continued on his way, pushing the donkey in front of him.
By now the sun was high, it must be noon. As cold as the nights were in August, the days were hot. The boy decided to take a break behind the next bend, where a small stream ran. Not too long, because the donkey had to carry a heavy load. Lucio could have unloaded the loads but not reloaded them. So he tied the donkey to a rock and jumped down to the stream to refresh himself and fetch water for the donkey in a calabash. He had put the flowers in the shade of the rock so that they would not wither in the sun. He washed his hands and face, ran water over his head and scrubbed his hair before putting his cap back on. Then he ate his potatoes and cheese, threw pebbles into the stream and built small towers of white stones. Then he filled the calabash with fresh water and carefully balanced it back without losing a drop.
„For you Sisko, drink,“ he encouraged the donkey and set the bowl down on the ground. Then he saw a blue petal on the ground and froze in shock. Even before he turned to the birthday bouquet behind the rock he guessed what had happened. Sisko had mistaken the flowers for a feast; all that was left were the stems. Lucio stared at the remains in horror. Tears welled up in his eyes and ran like two streams down his red cheeks. Carajo, burro que burro eres „what a fucking ass you are“ he sobbed as he packed up the stems as if there was one more bouquet. He held it tightly in his right hand and drove the donkey in front of him again.
When he reached his village in the afternoon, the sun was already low. His mother was preparing soup, his little sister was cooking beans and his big sister was warming her hands at the cooking fire. She had been washing clothes all day in the ice-cold water of the river. Lucio unloaded the potato sacks, fed the donkey and then came into the parlour. There he stood in the middle of the room, his right hand hanging limply down, holding the green stalks. „Mamita feliz cumpleanos“ he said, not quite knowing whether to tell her what had happened. The mother looked up for a moment. Her eyes fell on the stems. „What have you got there,“ she laughed. Lucio looked at the sad remnant of his efforts and could not hold back tears of disappointment. „They were such beautiful flowers“ he cried. „Ay hijito, don’t cry. They are still those beautiful flowers you picked, only they don’t show their faces.“ She took the stems from him, picked out the most beautiful of the drinking glasses and was about to fill it with water from the rain barrel. Then she paused for a moment, picked up the drinking bottle instead, filled the glass and arranged the stems carefully, just as if they were a precious bouquet of flowers.