El Cabellero de Bories sat, as he always had, in front of the electronics store on Avenida Bories. He was of course, older than the store. Before it had been a peddler of televisions and cell phones it was a used clothing shop, and before that a locally owned bakery. El Cabellero de Bories remembered all those different uses of the old building, but they didn’t matter to him. After all, his spot was still there. It had been there for the past thirty years, and would still be for the next thirty. No matter what the little shop behind him sold, his little ledge, slightly worn in the place he liked to sit, would always remain.
No-one could say that he was lazy; in fact, El Cabellero de Bories worked all day long – through rain, snow, sleet and hail. The haunting, slightly sad notes of his accordion reverberated daily throughout the grandiose streets of Punta Arenas; every so often the sound of coins clinking into his worn wooden case would join his symphony of melancholy tones, followed by a gruff Gracias from the Caballero.
Sometimes his music was slow and rhythmic – almost mourning. It crooned of something forever gone, swallowed up by the rolling sands of time and space, embodied now only in the form of resonating sound. Now and then it would pick up pace, the gentleman pumping out a blissful, contented tune that made one think of dancing under a full summer moon with a beautiful girl by the sea. The bass notes sung a nostalgic, steady beat, while the Caballero’s fingers danced nimbly around the ivory treble keys. Yet his mind was far away; there in the depths of his brain, he drank red wine in the hills of Valparaíso and laughed in a mild spring breeze that smelled of moist earth and budding grapevines.
As he played El Caballero de Bories stared off into space, rocking steadily back and forth with the rhythm of his music and occasionally singing gravelly, unintelligible lyrics to himself. At first glance it would seem the Caballero was able to see something fascinating on the blank stone wall of the post office across the street, something no-one else noticed. Further investigation would reveal his eyes to be glazed over with thick, milky cataracts. El Caballero de Boris stared, as he always had, into darkness.
He had not missed a day on the streets in thirty years. El Cabellero de Bories had played this very same accordion in this very same spot every day since 1981. Before that, no-one knew for sure what he did. Most agree he had owned a vineyard in the north, before being forced to abandon his beloved homeland and relocate south to flee the oppression of the new central government. Other more wild theories state the Caballero was actually a spy for the military regime, blinded by the secret police after disobeying orders. Whatever his mysterious origins were, no-one would ever know the real story. When asked a question or spoken to, El Caballero de Bories said nothing. The notes went on, and the gentleman continued rocking back and forth, staring sightlessly at the post office and pumping his accordion in that same, rhythmic way that he always had.
His age was also a source of gossip. Some say he is more than ninety; others guess around sixty-five. His wrinkly skin and white hair suggest a man of advanced age – and yet, every once and awhile, you might notice a glimmer of youth in a flourish at the end of a song, or a private smile that would reveal two perfect rows of white, healthy teeth.
If one gets up very early in the morning and waits by the post office, he will witness the daily arrival of El Caballero de Bories. At six AM on the dot, corresponding exactly with the bells of the distant cathedral, he rounds the corner of José Menendez and Boris. A wizened wooden case is slung over his bony shoulder, the tap-tapping sound of his cane searching for obstacles in his path echoing throughout the deathly silent early morning boulevards. He knows where to stop by instinct; forty-seven and a half steps from the corner to his spot. The Caballero sits gingerly down in his place on the ledge in front of the electronics store, shifting a few times to get comfortable on the cold concrete.
After a moment or two of silent meditation concerning secret matters, El Cabellero de Bories unslings his case and sets it gently onto the sidewalk in front of him. Carefully, tenderly, he unfastens the latches that hold the case shut. As if opening a treasure chest he’s spent his entire life searching for, the old man lifts the wooden lid, a lid worn and smooth and glossy from years of use. Though his eyes see nothing, El Cabellero de Bories relaxes noticeably; one might even glimpse a shadow of a smile on his wizened lips.
The accordion lies softly in the velvety red interior, wrapped in oilcloth like a swaddled infant. Craggy, calloused hands lift the instrument, caressing it like a thing that needs tender nurturing and care to survive – and indeed it does. The unwrapping reveals the accordion to be very old, perhaps even older than the Caballero himself. Peeling gold letters spell out the word Morelli on the deep mahogany wood near the smooth, black and white ivory keys.
The old gentleman sets the oilcloth on his knee, followed soon by the old accordion. Now the blind eyes come to rest on their usual spot on the post office wall. The fingers easily find their accustomed places on the worn keys.
El Caballero de Bories begins to play.
He has no audience, nor critic, nor praise. His wistful notes echo off the walls of the post office, redounding lightly off the doors and windows of the dark shops and empty benches. Each note has its own tale to tell; this one hums to the plaza, murmuring through the stately pines and iron monuments of a lost love, a shattered dream. That one whispers to the nearby garden, sighing a harmonious tale of warm summer nights across the stones, weaving delicately through the early morning dew like the balmy breezes in the vineyards of their mellifluous narratives. The Caballero’s whole lost history, condensed into one early morning tune – heard only by the narrow streets and vacant walls.
Slowly, reluctantly, the town wakes up. People pass him by without a glance; El Caballero de Bories is as normal as the light post on the street corner or the anarchist graffiti on the sidewalk. In fact, people would probably notice him more if he wasn’t there. Every once in awhile a passerby flips a coin into the wizened old case, not even stopping to listen for the gentleman’s throaty Gracias.
As the sun climbs higher into the sky, the streets begin to fill with people. Still the Caballero plays. His steady, harmonious tune mixes in with the conversations and laughter of the public, the ballad of the notes drowned out by the noise and chatter of 160,000 busy citizens.
Around noon, El Caballero de Bories stops playing for about ten minutes, gently places the accordion back in its wooden case, and eats one ham and cheese sandwich. Though they don’t realize it, people nearby cock their heads slightly, as if their subconscious senses something missing – there’s an empty space in air, a space that is usually filled. And yet, no-one can really tell what’s missing from the atmosphere on Avenida Bories.
The Caballero chews slowly and continues to gaze emptily at the post office wall. Soon he resumes his song, and two hundred subconscious collectively relax.
The night arrives. Loving couples, drunken youth, and patrolling policeman pass the Caballero. A pack of stray dogs sniff around the old man, looking for traces of the ham and cheese sandwich they smell and crave. A few men get into a fistfight across the street, their muffled blows and shouts overpowering the sweet tones of the accordion. El Caballero de Bories notices none of this; his fingers slide easily across the ivory keys, as if this was all they had ever known.
At eleven PM, El Caballero de Bories stops playing. The last of his notes resonate back and forth around Avenida Bories, before fading softly away into the night. With the same care and love he always uses, the gentleman replaces the accordion into its velvet-lined wooden case. The tinny pop of the metal buckles snapping shut end the Caballero’s day of music, and the last sound the old man makes is the tap-tapping of his cane on the sidewalk as he rounds the corner of José Menendez.
And so pass the days of El Caballero de Bories. During summer the winds snatch his sounds from their place on Avenida Bories and fling them high into the sky. They careen wildly about in the gusts, before fading away to nothing over the rocky beach. The freezing winters clutch his notes and strangle the softness from their mellow depths like a ravenous spider sucking the life from its hapless prey. Despite these things, the Caballero always returns. He sits in the same spot and plays the same accordion, just as he has done every day since 1981, when the world was a different place and the electronics store was a bakery.
One autumn afternoon in March, the church bells tolled six AM – yet no tap-tap announcing the arrival of El Caballero de Bories followed in its wake. Six thirty came and went; still, the somber notes were absent from the silent streets. No sad story, full of heart and yearning soul, was whispered to the dew. No tale was hummed to the iron hearts of the statues in the plaza. For the first time in thirty years, Avenida Bories welcomed the rising sun in silence.
Though the notes of El Caballero de Bories no longer serenade the streets of Punta Arenas, the soul and the story remain. One must simply arise early and sit – sit in the spot where the old gentlemen sat for thirty years. Find the mark he has left on his place on the ledge. The presence of the Caballero is indisputably still there – for this spot was his, is his, and always will be his, even after the electronics store goes out of business and turns into a barber’s shop, or a bar, or another bakery.
If one relaxes and closes his eyes, the silence of the early morning streets will envelop him. Then…slowly, sweetly, the lost tales of El Caballero de Bories, drifting melodically off the ramparts of the post office, will sing.
Singing, for the first time…to an audience.
Author’s Note: El Caballero de Bories is a real person who plays the accordian in front of the Samsung store on Avenida Bories in Punta Arenas, Chile. He is well-known amongst the locals by the same name, or occasionally, “El Viejo de Bories.” While I’m sure someone in the city knows his true history, most I’ve talked to can only speculate. Indeed, the most popular theory seems to be he owned a vineyard near Valapraíso before being frightened away by the rising military regime of Augusto Pinochet in 1973.
El Caballero de Bories really does play almost all day long; the numerous times I passed his spot in front of the electronics store, I could always hear his notes drifting through the busy streets of downtown Punta Arenas. Even during the January 2011 natural gas protests, in which the entire region of Magallanes was practically at war with the central government, (it’s citizens setting fire to tires and old cars in the streets and throwing rocks at policemen), El Caballero de Bories played on, his notes drowned out by the sounds of sirens and rally chants.
I spent many hours sitting on the steps of the post office, striving to hear the story his notes were trying to tell. Perhaps I, like most inhabitants of Punta Arenas, will never know the true tale of El Caballero de Bories, and can only join in speculation. Or perhaps I, as an outsider, listened a little bit more closely than the average citizen and heard something never before noticed by the daily passerby.
In any case, I’ll never know; in March 2011, El Caballero de Bories vanished from his spot on Avenida Bories. Some say he died, while others insist he’s finally gone back to his vineyard near Valparaíso. Others claim he is just resting, the cold weather of Punta Arenas finally having gotten into his old bones. Whatever the reason for his departure, thirty years of notes still resound off the walls of the post office and through the mighty pines and monuments of the plaza, forever whispering only to he who listens very hard the tale…of El Caballero de Bories.
10 thoughts on “‘El Caballero de Bories’”
Great job, your ability to observe and describe a scene is amazing. This is the best one of your cha
racters yet and he never said a word to you.
This is a beautiful story. The reader gets a real feel of the Latin American culture in Chile. Sometimes it takes an outsider (a non-Chilean, an American?) to describe in creative detail what it is like to live in that part of Chile. I believe that sometimes when we are on the inside looking out, we tend to take some things for granted. Here, in this story, you are technically an outsider looking in at a certain aspect of Chilean society–but you are looking in very well using English words to describe Spanish-speaking culture.
Joseph Conrad was born and raised in Poland, but wrote in excellent English (he wrote novels); one of his novels was “Heart of Darkness”; Conrad was a very good writer–he was an outsider, so to speak; he borrowed the English language and wrote very well in English.
I like your story the way it is, but maybe it could use a little dialogue: maybe a conversation between two people commenting on the music of El Caballero de Bories–any kind of conversation. But I think this story will stand by itself. I think you should send it to some literary magazine in the United States; I hope it gets published.
Here is an excerpt from James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” that I thought you might like to read:
“She was fast asleep.
“Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.
“Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.
“The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.
“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Great story, Sawman! Thanks for that one! And thanks to Dad and Skywalker as well!
Loved this one. I felt as if I were there, yearning to catch the last strains of a song as it drifted throught the air. I felt sadness and disbelief at the end, although my mind knew it could end no other way. And oh…I like Joseph Conrad, too! (Heart of Darkness, etc) The previous post was a good example and reminded me of how I missed reading good literature. See…yours is right up there with studied pieces of literature.
:) Thanks Mom
And good news, I might have some news:
“Cuando Trujillo recibió el conjunto de fotografías de parte de Ellen, las que más tarde serían parte de Nada queda atrás, sólo pudo reconocer a José Herminio Remolcoy, músico callejero ciego, originario de la isla de Puqueldón. “El músico de la fotografía es la única persona a la que conocí de todas las fotografiadas. Siempre lo veía sentado en la calle Blanco [en Castro], tal como dice el poema, en los mismos sitios que menciono. Pero el tiempo me ha hecho olvidar si siquiera alguna vez supe su nombre. Pero estoy casi completamente seguro que así fue. Cuando Aydé [su esposa] y yo empezamos a mirar las fotografías que nos mandó Ellen Rogovin en busca de algún rostro conocido, ése fue el único que conocimos, puesto que ese señor estuvo diariamente tocando su acordeón en esa calle por muchísimos años. Cuando me puse a investigar su nombre, lo primero que hice fue llamar a mis parientes en Castro y en Punta Arenas. Entonces, una de mis hermanas me contó que posteriormente lo habían visto en Punta Arenas y que se enteraron de que cuando se puso más anciano, un hijo suyo lo había llevado a vivir con él.”
Could be this person he is talking about, don’t you think so?
and if not it is such a big coincidence, blind, playing the accordion, living in Punta Arenas….we will check this out when you are over here.
Bravo por este texto, me encanto!
Vaya! Seguramente tenemos que look into eso!
And sorry I couldn’t get on Skype, I found WiFi someplace else, if you’re stll on…
MN: Here are a few links to some literary magazines:
Black Warrior Review:
MN: You have a lot of talent. You don’t need to go to college and study literature or creative writing or advanced hitchhiking theory. Just keep writing stories like “El Caballero de Bories”. I think you would find that university academia would be too constricting, suffocating and may even kill your creativity.
I went to school at Iowa State University in Ames and got a BA in English Literature in 1995–to make a long story short, it was God’s will. Anyway, I enjoyed my literature classes and I took two creative writing (fiction) classes (but I never got around to taking any advanced hitchhiking theory classes).
I agree with the comment above by “T” that “El Caballero de Bories” is a masterpiece. You have found your voice. Use it.
MN: You may want to read this sometime. It is a short story written by Ernest Hemingway probably in the 1920s or 1930s–I am guessing when he was in Spain.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.
“Last week he tried to commit suicide,” one waiter said.
“He was in despair.”
“How do you know it was nothing?”
“He has plenty of money.”
They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tableswere all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.
“The guard will pick him up,” one waiter said.
“What does it matter if he gets what he’s after?”
“He had better get off the street now. The guard will get him. They went by five minutes ago.”
The old man sitting in the shadow rapped on his saucer with his glass. The younger waiter went over to him.
“What do you want?”
The old man looked at him. “Another brandy,” he said.
“You’ll be drunk,” the waiter said. The old man looked at him. The waiter went away.
“He’ll stay all night,” he said to his colleague. “I’m sleepy now.I never get into bed before three o’clock. He should have killed himself last week.”
The waiter took the brandy bottle and another saucer from thecounter inside the cafe and marched out to the old man’s table. Heput down the saucer and poured the glass full of brandy.
“You should have killed yourself last week,” he said to the deafman. The old man motioned with his finger. “A little more,” hesaid. The waiter poured on into the glass so that the brandy slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile.”Thank you,” the old man said. The waiter took the bottle back inside the cafe. He sat down at the table with his colleague again.
“He’s drunk now,” he said.
“He’s drunk every night.”
“What did he want to kill himself for?”
“How should I know.”
“How did he do it?”
“He hung himself with a rope.”
“Who cut him down?”
“Why did they do it?”
“Fear for his soul.”
“How much money has he got?” “He’s got plenty.”
“He must be eighty years old.”
“Anyway I should say he was eighty.”
“I wish he would go home. I never get to bed before three o’clock.What kind of hour is that to go to bed?”
“He stays up because he likes it.”
“He’s lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”
“He had a wife once too.”
“A wife would be no good to him now.”
“You can’t tell. He might be better with a wife.”
“His niece looks after him. You said she cut him down.”
“I know.” “I wouldn’t want to be that old. An old man is a nasty thing.”
“Not always. This old man is clean. He drinks without spilling.Even now, drunk. Look at him.”
“I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. He has no regard for those who must work.”
The old man looked from his glass across the square, then over at the waiters.
“Another brandy,” he said, pointing to his glass. The waiter who was in a hurry came over.
“Finished,” he said, speaking with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken people or foreigners. “Nomore tonight. Close now.”
“Another,” said the old man.
“No. Finished.” The waiter wiped the edge of the table with a towel and shook his head.
The old man stood up, slowly counted the saucers, took a leathercoin purse from his pocket and paid for the drinks, leaving half a peseta tip. The waiter watched him go down the street, a very oldman walking unsteadily but with dignity.
“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting up the shutters. “It is not half-past two.”
“I want to go home to bed.”
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than to him.”
“An hour is the same.”
“You talk like an old man yourself. He can buy a bottle and drinkat home.”
“It’s not the same.”
“No, it is not,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
“And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour?”
“Are you trying to insult me?”
“No, hombre, only to make a joke.”
“No,” the waiter who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. “I have confidence. I am all confidence.”
“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older waiter said.”You have everything.”
“And what do you lack?”
“Everything but work.”
“You have everything I have.”
“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”
“Come on. Stop talking nonsense and lock up.”
“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waitersaid.
“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“I want to go home and into bed.”
“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”
“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”
“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”
“Good night,” said the younger waiter.
“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that isprovided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear ordread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all anothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived init and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y naday pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give usthis nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.
“What’s yours?” asked the barman.
“Otro loco mas,” said the barman and turned away.
“A little cup,” said the waiter.
The barman poured it for him.
“The light is very bright and pleasant but the bar is unpolished,”the waiter said.
The barman looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.
“You want another copita?” the barman asked.
“No, thank you,” said the waiter and went out. He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. Hewould lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.