In our first three weeks in Miramar, in a small house within twenty yards of the sea, we were served a white sky every morning. This halcyon weather continued until the day a black storm arose. It appeared off to the south, its blackness running fluidly through the ivory sky. We watched it from the pier near our house and then stood astonished as the lightning flashed again and again along the line of the horizon within the swelling darkness, as if telling of a far-off naval battle. A sensation of apprehension and delight came over us as the chilled air, the outrider of the storm, swept around us. The two fishermen on the pier with us reeled in their lines, picked up empty sacks, and peddled off with a display of annoyance. I thought it a bravely cavalier response before such august power.
Susana wanted to take Andrea, the baby, back home; I urged her to stay. It seemed the rain would hold off for a while; the child, I thought, might be stimulated in some benign way by all this natural excitement. But, as infants will, my daughter made her own decisions: She began to cry, so they went back, and I promised to join them soon.
Alone in the gathering silence of that moment, I thought Miramar the most beautiful place in the world, a perfect town of rust-red roofs sharply defined against a low line of billowing, cloud-like trees, and set out as if on a shelf before the sea where the green waters rush out into the blue. I was living through a moment of singular pause, when everything, all the mighty forces, held still: the wind stopped like sucked-in breath; the sea was seized in a slack-water calm, though the waves, unaccepting of this stasis, continued to caress the shore with the lethal tenderness of one who nuzzles a beloved animal about to be put down. The Costanera Hotel at the end of the beach, the towers behind it, rigid and straight, all fixed their blank eyes on the horizon; only the stoic seawall seemed not at all lulled by this inaction.
Storms move the mind; they excite it with apocalyptic transfigurations of air and water, by the turmoil they bring to the land—the [End Page 593] wildly churning trees and tall grasses above the beach throwing off their seed-like dust. Eccentric thoughts arrive: Death nudges my elbow ever so faintly, tempts me to plunge in; briefly the mind is liberated of all human responsibilities and a nihilistic sense of freedom is born within me; it advances, encouraged by the storm, until more pedestrian considerations fight their way back to my rescue.
I am newly arrived and am having coffee in the town plaza near a strange tree, the like of which I have never seen. It is oddly fat at the bottom; its grayish green bark is covered with spikes; it has muscular branches and the trunk narrows near its crown of floppy leaves. Not only is it disproportionate, but it leans about ten degrees off the perpendicular. For all these reasons it is called the "drunkard tree," palo borracho. I am in its shadow and am contemplating the long chain of circumstance that brought me here: My marriage two years before in a Maryland town to a foreign student I met at the university, my wife's pregnancy and return to Argentina, as obliged by the terms of her Fulbright scholarship, our long separation, Andrea's birth, my journey here, three weeks on an Argentine freighter. All of these events I line up in their sequence and find myself full of wonder at their improbable conjunction, that which has put me here, in this chair, in this small town facing out on the South Atlantic, a frequently turbulent sea at rest.
Then I hear the voice of the 1940s crooner, Vaughn Monroe, falling thin and tinny from a speaker wired up on the drunkard tree for the entertainment of the public in the town's common space. Of "Ghost Riders In The Sky," he drones. I find myself humming...