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.