Pajarita squatted at the red-hot cooking pit and heaped the beef into the pot. It was flesh from a cow, not youngman flesh. Late sun lacquered the dirt floor, the table, the sleeping hides; soon it would be time to light the lamp.
"So there they were, El Facón and Esperanza, living in a countryside torn apart by fighting. And then the Saravia brothers came. Aparicio and Gumersindo—he was doomed, that Gumersindo—and grew their army here in Tacuarembó. They were hell-bent on independence from the latest tyrant, they were sure that they would win. Your abuelo, El Facón, he believed everything they said. He followed them out of Uruguay, to Brazil, into the battlefields. There are things he saw there that he never uttered, that he swore he wouldn't say even in hell. The devil couldn't stand it, he said. So we don't know. But we do know he buried Gumersindo with bare hands, then watched the enemy dig him up, cut off his head, and parade it everywhere. Well, after that, three years after, El Facón trembled back to Esperanza. They built this ranchito, this very one we stand in now, and your father was born here, and so was your brother Artigas. And that's how Artigas got his name."
Tía Tita stirred the stew and fell silent. Pajarita teemed inside (with severed heads and long long hair and gems from overseas) as she cleaned the bowls and knives.
Pajarita's brother, Artigas, remembered exactly when Tía Tita moved in: it was 1899, when Pajarita was born the first time, before the tree, before the miracle.
That year, he had turned four and his mother, La Roja, had died in childbirth. She left nothing but a sea of blood and a baby with big black eyes. The birth before that had ended in death also, but it had been the baby who had died, and Mamá who stayed to cook and sing another day. This time she stopped moving. The blood soaked the pile of hides the family used for sleep and they were clearly ruined, so Artigas was afraid when he saw his father, Miguel, rubbing them against his face, weeping, staining his skin red. The baby was crying. Miguel ignored her. There was no sleep that night. In the morning Tía Tita came, and looked around the hut. La Roja's cow-skull stool had been taken from its place at the table. Miguel held it with both hands, sitting still, facing the wall. Behind him, Artigas sat on congealed hides, holding a writhing baby. The cooking pit was cold and empty; Tía Tita filled it with wood. She scoured the bloodstains from the walls, made tortas fritas, hauled out the ruined hides, and cleaned the clothes. She found a young mother four hillocks over to nurse the unnamed baby. Esa bebita, that baby, they called her over the wells of Tacuarembó.
Tía Tita stayed with them, and Artigas was glad; his aunt was like an ombú tree, thick-trunked, alive with silence. He curled into the shade of her. He slept against the warm bark of her body. The seasons churned from cold to heat and back to cold. Miguel grew hard, like beef in smoke. He didn't touch the baby. One night—as the winter wind swept through the cracks in the walls, and outside the treetops arched and swung against clear sky in which the moon looked big enough to spill a calf out of its belly—the baby girl cried in Tita's arms.
"Shut her up, Tita," Miguel said.
"It's the wind. And her teeth are coming in."
"Then kill the little whore!"
Artigas crouched into the shadows. His nameless sister gazed at her father with large eyes.
Tita said, "Miguel."
"Miguel. Calm down."
Excerpted from The Invisible Mountains by Carolina De Robertis Copyright © 2009 by Carolina De Robertis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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