It was December 1975. Liliana was barely a year old and it was the peak of Argentina’s summer. It was a night she dreamed of often, though it had been just the beginning. The heat had triggered something. The atmosphere, thick and tingling, had shrouded the country, trapping everyone in a giant gas chamber. The sun suddenly became the flaming end of a match and when the heat struck Buenos Aires the entire country began to ignite.
In Liliana’s dreams only the silhouettes were lucid—the silhouettes of the flames, of the bodies as if they were uniting in some communal dance. The images would often come in flashes and the only thing tangible, the only thing she could sense, could feel with every inch of herself was the heat. She often found herself trapped by it but always unable to find its source until one night she saw that there were torches and she began to remember. It was a dramatic scare tactic by the Montoneros who, drunk off of the public fear, accidentally brought the flames down on a clothesline, the fire spreading the length of the entire city block.
Liliana and her parents were visiting some friends who lived close to the plaza and whose son had just enlisted in the military. Liliana had been restless—writhing in her mother Isabella’s arms the entire evening and only heightening her own discomfort. But soon the warble of Isabella’s crying infant was replaced by the sound of glass being smashed against the street and heavy boots scraping across the gravel.
Over the next three years, after the death of President Juan Perón, and the period of political unrest during his wife’s attempt at leading the country, the Montoneros and other leftists wreaked havoc on the Argentine people who every day were finding themselves caught in the crossfire of a battle between the guerrillas who wished to violently usher in socialism and the right-wing military whose initial aim had been to wipe out left-wing terrorism.
The list of casualties piled up and a chaotically structured government only acted as a stimulant to the extreme violence. Finally in 1976, two years before Liliana’s sister Nita was born, the military seized power. Initially, the change was welcome. It wasn’t the first time the military had had to step in and put things right and the people were ready for some stability. But then something happened, something changed and the military’s true intentions became muddled with the public’s hope for restoration. It wasn’t just the Montoneros or the Peronists that the military wanted eradicated, but also the Gypsies, the Jews, artists, musicians, psychologists, journalists, students and anyone and everyone who they considered to be too liberal, too subversive, and a possible threat.
A mass extermination took place for almost a decade and once the military seized control it suddenly had the means to get rid of “left-wing terrorists” openly and with lawful justification. That’s when the disappearances started. Children of former political leaders snatched from their beds, innocent men and women dragged from their homes and into the backs of green ford falcons before being taken to secret concentration camps where the means of interrogation was torture and rape. Thousands gone; turned into ghosts. Lost forever.
Liliana was four years old and Nita still just an infant when their family found refuge in the states, just before the height of the war when they were still allowing people to leave the country. On the plane ride back to Buenos Aires Liliana had leaned over Nita who was curled into a ball and leaning against the small oval window.
She’d looked out over the rolling landscape at the clay valleys that spilled into one another like streams of blood. The bare hills, bright red like the valleys below, lay in giant folds over the terrain. Her eyes scanned every inch of land they passed over but the only things she found familiar were the colors—all different shades of red. The Argentine landscape, curving and sensuous like human flesh, was covered in trails of scars. Some were darker than others and beginning to mend but others were still bright, still open like a wound.
Liliana carefully reached over her sister and slid down the plastic blind over the window before settling back into her seat. But even slid shut a tiny stream of light still managed to poke through and Liliana pulled up the hood of her jacket before folding over into her lap.
Diego slung his guitar over his back, pulled on his hat and walked through the vineyard finding a secluded spot—far enough away that the wind flying off the waves would swallow up the sound of his strumming before it reached his father’s ears. Diego’s father had given up playing which meant Diego had to give up playing too, at home at least. Diego gripped the frets and felt the familiar ridges against his fingertips before plucking a few strings and adjusting the pitch. Then he closed his eyes and pulled on them one by one before letting his hand fall over every steel hair.
Most people would have thought that his father had given up playing for the same reason all of the other musicians had during the war. It was dangerous. Musicians and other artists were just one of the many groups being targeted by the military. They were wild, the military had said, too liberal, too free. They accused them of witchcraft, of seducing the weak and encouraging them to listen to subversive music, read subversive books, and watch subversive movies. To the military, they weren’t instruments the musicians were carrying but weapons and the only way to stop them was to make them disappear.
One day when Diego was ten he missed the bus and had to walk through the outskirts of the city to get home. As he passed a narrow alleyway he heard a soft moan, not the kind that passed through the lips of a woman, but the kind that swelled from the belly of a guitar. Playing music, especially out in the open, had been forbidden and Diego was drawn to the sound he hadn’t heard in so long. He followed it, skipping over the chalk stones beneath his feet with his arms spread out, fingers tracing the walls on either side of him until he came upon a clump of a man resting between the dumpster and the wall. His skin was dark and leathered by the sun and he sat there with his eyes closed for a long time before he noticed Diego standing there. Diego was afraid that when he saw him he would stop playing, but he didn’t. His fingers kept on strumming, knuckles scraping the wooden face of the guitar. It was missing two strings and tiny cracks splintered across the wood beneath the man’s right arm but neither had stifled the sound.
He sat down next to the man and watched him play—eyes fixed on the way his finger’s trembled over every note, wrangling the sound as if it were some wild beast.
“Your turn,” he said, finally looking up at Diego.
The old man slid the guitar into Diego’s lap, nodding at him the way Diego’s father used to do when he was first teaching him how to play. He began to pick at the strings, slowly, quietly, content with just feeling the vibrations against his skin. But then the old man smiled and Diego began to play louder, fingers forging a cante jondo across the strings. Soon the man’s hands were drumming against his thigh, adopting the rhythm. They sat there, playing together until the sun began its descent over the city. But Diego knew that if his father was home and sober he would probably be worried so he thanked the man and gave him back the guitar.
The low drum of a D chord followed him as he made his way back to the street. But it was suddenly cut by another sound—the spray of gravel, boots beating against the pavement. Diego turned to see two men in uniform halfway down the alley. He ducked behind a wall, fingernails cutting into the grooves between the bricks as he watched one of them kneel. A second later he stood, the guitar in one hand and the collar of the old man’s shirt in the other, fabric frayed and tearing between his fingers. He twisted it taught against the man’s throat and something like a gag trembled behind his teeth. Then the other soldier pulled something from the waist of his pants and as it glinted against the old man’s temple, there was a loud fiery ring, and then he slumped to the ground.
Diego ran all the way home, the wind drying his eyes and burning his face. Seeing those soldiers kill that man all because he was playing music, it didn’t frighten Diego like it should have. Instead anger filled him like bile and he fell to his knees on the side of the road. He retched into the grass, burning it yellow, and when he finally stood again he decided that the soldiers, his father, this war—nothing and no one would stop him from playing. They’re right, he thought, they’re right to fear us because this need to create, to make music, is a powerful thing.
Diego’s father had been the one to teach him how to play when he was four, when it was still a part of him, when Diego’s mother was still around. Diego’s father was a Gitano—a full-blooded Gypsy emigrated from Spain when he was still an infant. The Gypsies were a special breed. It wasn’t blood that flowed through their veins but rhythm. All of the women were natural born dancers and the men all played Flamenco. It was a blessing in a way because performing in the streets of Andalusia was how so many of them had made their living. But Diego’s father never saw it that way. He saw Flamenco as a curse. The Gypsies were not performing of their own free will. They were born into the bondage of Flamenco and they had no other choice. As Diego got older he began to feel it, the itch, the need like fire in his veins. He suddenly knew what his father had meant, calling it a curse, a bondage; but Diego didn’t care. There was nothing else on earth that made him feel the way he did when he was playing and if it was some kind of sentence placed on him for being born a Gypsy, he not only welcomed it, but he relished in it.
An ocean away from his origins, in Argentina, Diego’s father believed he had a choice. So he stopped playing and even though he would wake up in the middle of the night with his arms and fingers contorted around the invisible body of a guitar, and even though he was haunted day and night by dreams of sitting under a single spotlight, his face pressed to the cool wood, and the thick red tiers of his dancer’s skirt flying around him, he could never…would never play Flamenco again.
When Diego was a boy his father used to recite the history of the Gypsies to him by heart before putting him to bed and his dreams would be filled with cave dwelling Moors and beautiful women with long dark hair who used their instruments and the seductive power of Flamenco to perform acts of sorcery. The stories of the Gypsies, of his father’s ancestors, his ancestors, were more than just fairytales that lulled Diego to sleep—they were the physical and spiritual foundations of his entire life. When his father suddenly abandoned them, Diego saw him beginning to stumble through life, and it was like watching him, helpless and floating adrift in the middle of the ocean. He was tethered to nothing and Diego was afraid that with nothing to hold him here to this earth, one day he might just let go and let himself float away.
Even though he gave up the guitar, Diego’s father’s hands were never empty. The same moment he lay down the instrument for good he picked up a bottle of whiskey and decided to never let go. When he disappeared during the day Diego could still sense him. He imagined he could see the soles of his father’s feet, numbed by alcohol, scraping the soil, moving each grain of sand carefully as he tried to reveal the indignant footprints of Diego’s mother. He imagined his mind trying to trace an invisible path to her and desperation’s charms leading him far into the night. Then maybe it was the exhaustion or the sun cradling him in its heat that lulled him—his self-induced sleep devouring hour after hour of daylight. But eventually, in the middle if the night, as he always did, he would come to and come back home.
Recently his drunken episodes had been more like sleepwalking. They were quieter than they used to be, less violent. Instead of marching off with the temperament of a wrecking ball he would slip out silently and just wander until the liquor lulled him to sleep. Then he would come back in just as discreetly, though Diego could always tell when he had returned by the smell—the hard liquor his father had been sucking on all day now risen to the surface making his clothes look like they were soaked in oil.
Diego stared out into the trees, dark feathered tips shooting up like arrows around him. The small grove wasn’t dense but being so close to the overhang above the beach allowed him to play without being seen or heard. They were far enough from the city that soldiers never traveled this far out during the war without cause but with his father around, he had picked this place, that day, after watching a man be killed, to take up his own fight.
Diego pulled his hat back, slipped on a steel finger pick, and started to play. Quietly, at first, cautious, then he arched his body over the wooden frame, letting his own flesh absorb the sound, as he strummed with every ounce of his strength.