By Emma Reyes (1919?2003), a painter, from a letter written in 1969 to Germán Arciniegas, a historian and journalist. The Book of Emma Reyes, a memoir, will be published in August by Penguin Classics. Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Alarcón.
The house we lived in consisted of one very small room with no windows and a door that faced the street. This room was located on Carrera Séptima in a working-class neighborhood in Bogotá called San Cristóbal. The tram passed directly in front of our house and stopped a few meters ahead at a beer factory called Leona Pura y Leona Oscura. In the room lived my sister, Helena, another child whose name I didn’t know whom we called Piojo, and a woman I remember only as an enormous tangle of black hair; it covered her completely, and when it was down I’d scream with fright and hide under the bed.
Our life took place in the streets. Every morning I went to the garbage heap behind the beer factory to empty the bedpan we’d all used during the night. The bedpan was enormous and glazed with white enamel, little of which remained. Every day it was full to the very top, the odors that emerged from it so nauseating that I often threw up. The trip to the garbage heap with that bedpan was the worst part of my day. I had to walk, scarcely breathing, eyes fixed on the shit, following its rhythm. Possessed by terror that I might spill it, I gripped the bedpan firmly with both hands, as if I were carrying a precious object. The weight was tremendous. My sister’s task was to go to the spigot to bring the water we needed for the day. As for Piojo, he had to go for coal and take out the ashes. So neither of them could help me.
The best part of my day came once I’d emptied the bedpan on the garbage heap. That’s where all the neighborhood kids hung out, playing, screaming, sliding down a mountain of clay, squabbling with one another, fighting. They rolled around the mud puddles and dug through the garbage looking for what we called treasures: cans of beer to make music, pieces of wire or rubber, sticks, old shoes, old dresses. Everything interested us; the heap was our game room. I couldn’t play much because I was the smallest and the bigger kids didn’t like me. My only friend was a boy we teased for his limp. Even though he was the biggest of the children, we nicknamed him Cojo. He’d lost one foot completely, sliced off by the tram one day when he was arranging Leona bottle tops on the rails so the tram might flatten them like coins. Like the rest of us, Cojo didn’t wear shoes, and he helped himself along with a stick, his only foot executing extraordinary leaps. When he started to run, no one could catch him.
Cojo was always waiting for me at the entrance to the dump. I emptied the bedpan, cleaned it quickly with weeds or old papers, and hid it in a hole, always the same one, behind a eucalyptus tree. One day Cojo didn’t want to play because he had a stomachache, and we sat beneath the slide to watch the others. The clay was wet, and I began to make a tiny figurine from it. Cojo always wore the same pair of pants, his only pair, three times his size, tied with a piece of rope around his waist. He hid all kinds of things in the pockets of those pants: rocks, spinning tops, pieces of glass, a knife blade with its handle missing. When I finished the clay figurine, he took his half?knife and used the tip to make two holes for the eyes and another slightly bigger one for the mouth. When he finished he said, “This doll is very small. Let’s make it bigger.”
And we made it bigger, adding mud to it.
The next day we returned and it was lying where we’d left it. Cojo said, “We’re going to make it bigger.” And the others came and said, “We’re going to make it bigger.”One of them found an old, very large board, and we decided we’d make the figurine grow until he was that size, and then, atop that board, we could carry him around, marching. For many days we added more and more mud to the figurine until he was as big as the board. Then we decided to give him a name: General Rebollo. I don’t know why we chose that name, but it doesn’t matter: General Rebollo became our god. We dressed him in whatever we found in the garbage heap. The races came to an end, the fighting, the leaping. Now everything revolved around General Rebollo, the central character in all our games. For days we lived around his board. Sometimes we made him seem good, sometimes evil; most of the time he was magical, possessed of superpowers.
Finally, after inspiring a thousand and one games, General Rebollo’s heroism began to wane. Our imaginations could find no more joy in his presence, and each day fewer and fewer of us wanted to play with him. General Rebollo began to spend long hours alone, no one taking care of the decorations that adorned him. Until one day, Cojo, who was still the most loyal, climbed atop an old bureau and pounded his improvised cane three times. His sharp voice cracking with emotion, he shouted: “General Rebollo is dead!”
In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean. With our heads bowed and our eyes filled with tears, we slowly gathered around General Rebollo.
Once again, Cojo shouted, “On your knees!”
We all bent a knee, drowning in tears, no one daring to say a word. The son of the coalman was older than we were, and he always sat on a rock reading pages from the newspaper he found in the trash. He came toward us, still holding the newspaper, and said, “Idiot kids, if your general has died, then bury him.”
We stood. Together we lifted the board with the general. We wanted to bury him in the garbage heap, but our efforts were useless: We couldn’t even move the board. So we decided to bury him in pieces. We broke each leg in three parts and did the same with the arms. Cojo said the head had to be buried whole. An old can was found, and we placed the head inside; the four oldest kids carried it first. We all followed behind, crying like orphans. The same ceremony was repeated with each piece of the legs and the arms, until all that was left was his torso, which we broke into many pieces. We made many tiny mud balls from it, and when there was nothing left of General Rebollo’s torso, we used the balls to play war.