An imagery-rich and character-driven short story set in the Peruvian desert oasis of Huacachina.
The librarian of Huacachina is a rational man. For him truth is to be found in the works of Plato, Camus or even Kierkegaard, noble works that line the shelves of his small library overlooking the olive-green lagoon.
Others of a more fanciful turn hold firmly to the belief that Huacachina is well named, ‘where a young woman cries’, an Inca princess shedding tears for her lost paramour.
‘Tragedy and sadness are drawn to this place’, they say as they watch the young men race up the dunes, and when the bars close, show off their manly prowess by diving into the mysterious green waters.
The librarian moves slowly between the tables towards the small room at the rear of the library. Here is his desk upon which is a white coffee cup and a photograph in a wooden frame of a young man posing shyly in front of the very building in which his father has worked for almost twenty years. He sits down and looks closely at the photograph of his son in the brown frame. He shares his mother’s eyes and the same smile, always so beguiling and mischievous.
There was a time when the rich and the powerful came to Huacachina to take the waters, some even believing that the atmosphere of the oasis was also in some way restorative and life-enhancing. But those times are long gone, the row of dilapidated bathing huts and faded villas across from the library, the only reminder of a more prosperous time when important men and their important wives came to the place to escape from the demands of life in the capital and perhaps to recapture something of their youth. Then he would open the library from early morning until sunset, providing the men with books about philosophy or engineering and their wives with lighter reading that had made its way from Europe or other fashionable places.
Now he works for just three hours in the afternoon serving the occasional tourist tired of sand-buggying with a light novel or if interested – or irrational – with a book about the crying princess and her lost love.
He lives alone now. Since the boy had drowned and Maria had left, ‘I cannot walk past the lagoon, Jorge, knowing he is down there day after day’, she’d said as she’d packed her bags and departed to live with her sister. After she’d gone, he’d established a quiet routine that taken care of the hours and had brought him some peace.
He fastens the shutters and closes the French doors. It’s just after sunset and the lagoon has taken on a dark almost golden appearance. The last rowing boat has been tied securely to its mooring post, the only sound now coming from a disco that offers cheap beer and a barbeque. Shortly after Maria had gone, he’d moved into a small apartment that lay directly opposite the library on the other side of the lagoon.
He walks out of the library and glances towards the lagoon. He casts his mind back to that day. The boy was young and fit, and a good swimmer. How had it happened? Had he been tempted to dive down by the siren call of the lamenting princess? Or more likely drunk on too much beer and enticed by the cool green water.
The librarian walks slowly around the lagoon past the rushes at one end until he reaches the crumbling steps of his apartment. It consists of a small parlour behind which is a kitchen and living room. It’s sparsely furnished consisting of just a few pieces of furniture, their bed, a small desk and a bookcase. He needs very little and he wants even less.
He arrives at his door and turns around, a light breeze adding a chill to the air. Looking back across the water he can see what appears to be a light shining out from the library’s small window to the right of the French doors. Has he forgotten to extinguish the lamp on his desk? He would never leave the building with a light on. He’s a man of routine. The lamps are only lit during the occasional evening when a visiting writer or local worthy asks to make use of the building. And then he’s always present. No, something’s not right.
He decides to return to the library, the same way he left, walking quickly around the eastern side of the lagoon, past the broken cabins and clumps of floating vegetation until he reaches his destination. Perhaps he’ll take an aperitif on the way back once he’s checked all is well.
The air is now decidedly chilly, the sky dark. He walks briskly down the steps and onto the sand. A discarded plastic water bottle crunches beneath his feet. He glances up towards the library. The light is an orange glow, a beacon drawing him on. He’s now reached the shrubbery at one end of the lagoon, the water at this point deep and murky. ‘Jorge, come quickly, we’ve found him!’ they’d shouted, shining their torches into the water where the young man lay face down, as if his gaze was fixed upon its hidden depths.
The old man shrugs off these thoughts and climbs up towards the library where he can still see the orange glow of the lamp.
Forgetful old fool! He unlocks the front door and steps inside. He glances around. Nobody is there and it all seems exactly as he left it. For a moment he wonders if he has left a window open as he can feel a light breeze blowing in from outside. He moves into the room at the back illuminated by the glow of the light. Before he switches off the lamp on his desk, he picks up the photograph of his son in its familiar brown frame. Nothing has changed in the broad smiling face with the olive-green eyes and yet – and yet he’s not sure – he hears the lapping of the water beyond the room – and looks more intently at the photograph of his son.
The photograph glistens in the orange light of the room as the librarian of Huacachina looks into the eyes of his son. He hears the cry of a cormorant lost above the dunes of Huacachina.
And it is then that he sees a single tear falling slowly from those olive-green eyes.
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CULTUREJANUARY 22, 2016