Duelo criollo in Cold War nights
had not yet read anything about duels at all when I heard the tango “Duelo criollo” at the Bar Florida, an old cheap barroom on a corner in a neighborhood of Bello. At the beginning, it was some sort of an unintelligible story, of which I had only paid attention to some lines, while Gardel’s voice, which I identified because Dad and Mom used to talk about the singer who had burnt to death in Medellín and they sang some of his songs, with fairly good intonation. And the voice was giving us the song: «Mientras la luna serena / baña con su luz de plata / como un sollozo de pena / se oye cantar su canción…» (While the serene moon bathes the town with its silver light, his song is heard like a painful sob…)
Words like silver, moon and sorrow kept ringing in my ear, but later, with the guys who used to sit on the sidewalk close to the barroom, we talked about the things we would like to be when we grew up. And then, right there, there was one who wanted to be an astronaut, something that by that time the Cold War (as I knew later) had made fashionable, and that included the dog named Laika and Mr. Gagarin. Some other wished to follow the steps of his father, who was a policeman. But his yearning made me crazy because, in those days, the cops came, on their squad cars or patrol cars, to seize our balls and interrupted our soccer games on the street. There were others who wanted to become doctors or firemen (and on the block, one of them lived and had a daughter who walked as if stepping on flowers), or singer of the New Wave.
Now I do not remember what I wanted to be. Maybe the best 100-metres athlete, or a soccer player of the Deportivo Independiente Medellín, right wing. The tango, in any case, was played again, maybe because there was some customer who put nickels in the jukebox and he only liked that song. Suddenly, like an unconscious attraction, I again listened to some of its stanzas: «La canción dulce y sentida / que todo el barrio escuchaba / cuando el silencio reinaba / en el viejo caserón». (The sweet, heartfelt song that the whole neighborhood heard when there was silence in the old big house). For me, at that time, those words meant nothing to me.
Those were the times when dogs (or it would be better to say, bitches) in the neighborhood were called Laika. There was a yellow criolla which strolled before us, when Gardel was performing. Someone shooed her away, or told her ¡usssh!, to make her angry, or threw a stone at her. There were also dogs named Trotski, Nero, Gypsy, Jupiter, Captain and now I don’t know what other names. In any case, no one was called either Gagarin, or Apollo, or Satellite. Or Rockett.
The story is that nearly every sunset, when a mauve colored light washed the esplanade, which as well was a sports field for us, the criollo duel was scattered on the incipient asphalt. Ah, yes, of course, those were times of knife-wielding men, but I never saw two fighting in a cheap cafe or in the street. Maybe they wore knives to discourage others. Or, what was not strange either, to attack and rob some unlucky fellow. We heard stories about Atehortúa, a tough guy in a neighboring quarter, who knew defenses with his dagger, a fencer, some sort of juggler who made his weapon dance on his fingers, with which, he also peeled mangos and oranges and cleaned his fingernails. There were tales about other dangerous knife-wielding men of Pacelli, Prado, Niquía, the Talego Street and other quarters. But I insist: I saw no duel. Furthermore, as I said above, the duel was not among the words I spoke. For soccer challenges with the ones of other neighborhoods, streets and alleys, we never talked about a duel, but about a ‘selección’. «Hey, let’s go to play a selección!» And then we went to the Manga Elena, to the waste grounds near the La García gully, or to the Niquía fields, where the northern wind never stopped. We played for the neighborhood’s honor.
And the singer’s phases came back again: «Cuentan que fue la piba de arrabal / la flor del barrio aquel que amaba un payador». (They say it was the girl of the outskirts, the beauty of that neighborhood who was loved by an itinerant singer). And there I understood less: neither piba nor payador. «Solo para ella cantó el amor / al pie de su ventanal» (He only sang for her about love under her window), and, all of a sudden, I connected this part of the story with the serenatas, which by that time were never absent on an evening in the outskirts. «Pero otro amor por aquella mujer / nació en el corazón del taura más mentao / que un farol en duelo criollo vio / bajo su débil luz, morir los dos». (But the most notorious tough guy fell for that woman too, so a streetlamp with its weak light saw them both die in a duel) Hell! That of the taura hammered on my head but I was unaware of its meaning.
Time went by. No more cheap barrooms. The guys of that time were gone. And years later, I found a tale by Manuel Mejía Vallejo, in which two men, confined in a room, stabbed themselves to death; and thereafter, with the Borges’s cuchilleros. One day, my brother sang “Duelo criollo” inspired by his drunkenness, and the old words came back like a straight punch to my jaw. Clear. With meaning. In all its tragic dimension: «Por eso gime en las noches / de tan silenciosa calma / esa canción que es el broche / de aquel amor que pasó… / De pena la linda piba / abrió bien anchas sus alas / y con su virtud y sus alas / hasta el cielo se voló». (Because of that, that song, which is the summation of that love that was gone, moans in the nights of silent calm… The beautiful girl, in deep sorrow, opened her wings and, with her virtue and her wings, flew to Heaven).