Two Orphans

Patricio Pron

Translated by: Rob Twiss

Original text: "Dos huérfanos "

Artwork by Tom Thompson**

Das werlet dir die unsehbare Beute

Das wertet dir solches Wild und solche Jagd.

Franz von Kobell, Jagd- und Weinlieder (1889)



He did not miss the dark woods inhabited by wild boars he had gotten to know in his youth on Sunday excursions, where the greatest joy and the greatest daring came from grazing the knees of one of the girls in his class with the excuse that the car was very small, but for the desolate countryside that, now that his country was content to forget everything with a guilty shrug of the shoulders that had always seemed to him like a gob of spit in the face, his own and that of his father and of all those who had died during the bombings, belonged only to him, enriching a personal topography that corresponded in no way to the maps you could find in Germany, given that, for him, the country called Germany had ended, had disappeared from the face of the earth like an umbrella torn from the hands during a storm that spins and flips a few times in the air before disappearing into the dense, solid, uninterrupted wall of water that momentarily unites the sky and the earth on the day the war had ended, or, better still, the day the Nazis rose to power and what had been Germany for his father and for his father’s father, the idea that justified the existence of a country between the distant borders traversing the Russian plains and cutting off the valleys of France, had been converted into something else, into a country where only stupidity and hate prospered. That personal countryside, although profoundly desolate and also modest when compared to that of others he had known who had survived the war, bleeding from their feet on the lines of the eastern front or rummaging through the pockets of the dead on the French front, was, in a way, a trifle not even worth mentioning, but it was nevertheless the scene of the one event of the war that really mattered to him, so many years later and so far away. It was, like the memory of old men, he told me, a whim, but a whim that justified everything.

          The one scene in this personal topography was a street in Dresden. In the middle of a bombing, during the interminable hours of explosions and crying and screaming, hours that the Germans would later completely forget, as if the rubble they used to rebuild their houses and the tobacco they put in their cigarettes belonged to a remote past, came from a time before they arrived at that world they intended to repair, he peeked out of the basement window, where he found himself only to witness this: a dog was howling in the middle of the street and a soldier approached until he was nearly by its side and then, as if in a different scene, a scene superimposed by a lazy editor, emptied the clip of his pistol into the dog. And yet the dog did not die. It continued to moan and shake, lying in the puddle that was forming of its own blood, alone in the middle of the street where rubble from the buildings was falling without touching it, and he, who, even though he was a child, wanted to end the animal’s suffering, wanted to approach it, but a neighbour stopped him by grabbing him by the belt so he would not go out into the street and become another victim of that senseless war, so he had to stand there watching it, attending the agony of the animal, which had stopped moaning but was still shaking, his bulging eyes dancing around in their white sockets, until the bombing was over and the dog  stopped moving.

          Much later he asked himself, as had so many others, why Dresden? He tried to explain it to himself to no avail why it had been his city that had been hit hardest by the bombs, an unimportant commercial city the Nazis had left months earlier or, although this was an idea he could rarely admit to himself, one where everyone was a Nazi, in which case the thing to do would not be to bomb the city, but to exterminate its residents one after the other, without allowing chance to save a single one.     Given that what they called a vocation is often a resignation to a familiar mandate, he liked to say, he told me under the brutal sun, almost as if in defiance of circumstances, that he had not had a vocation, other than his ironclad determination to leave Dresden to study veterinary medicine in Munich—in Munich, because it represented everything that Germany had been for his father and his father’s father, everything it now could never be, although he did not have this conviction during his carefree days as a student, when the excursions to see the wild boars and the grazing of a classmate’s knees in the car were palliative enough for what he seemed to have left behind, for the years of the war.

          Although the story could be told in other ways, in its entirety, for example, he preferred the conclusion. He had worked for years in the Munich zoo, performing the stupid bureaucratic tasks he was assigned with a resignation similar to that with which he had accepted everything that had happened previously, the successive governments, the problems on the other side of the wall, the political alliances in that country that was neither his nor his father’s nor his father’s father’s or anyone’s, until someone had told him about the Foundation’s lots in Argentina, and he got the impression, though he would never admit it, that it seemed as good a place as any to protect his personal topography of some street in a ruined German city.

          He did not take many precautions; lazily, as if it were not very important, he took a few Spanish classes, said goodbye to his colleagues, and left on a ship that left from Hamburg, from a place that in his opinion was no longer Germany, but the monotonous land of the despots.

          At that time the Foundation’s lots, forsaken at the outskirts of a miniscule village, were completely wild. First he built a house in the village, deliberately designed to exclude anything that might identify it as the house of a German, in a marvel of emulation that bore no trace of the pride with which many foreigners, Germans in particular, more interested in cultivating fictitious memories of an idealized country, a country that, as it happened, always ended up looking like Bavaria, settled in Argentine villages rather than integrate into the native population. He, on the other hand, tried for months to blend in with them, to be one more of the locals who watched with confusion the eccentricities of a German with an enormous wild field that he did not sow, who spent entire days doing little more than watching birds, writing down every detail in spiral bound notebooks with a tiny pencil that he kept in the left pocket of his blue work shirt.

          First he had rheas, a flock of twelve that grew to fourteen the following spring, but that a group of hunters reduced to three in one night. Despite offers, he did not sell their hide or feathers, but left them where they fell for other birds to scavenge.

          One year later he learned that a pair of pumas had moved onto his land. He spent long, hot days stalking them, hoping that they would come to drink from the pond at the centre of the field, so he could photograph them and eyeball their measurements. Although the pumas prospered while no one knew of their existence, they soon left.

          One day he got a letter from the Foundation saying the project was over and he had to return to Germany. For two nights, summer nights that to him seemed freezing, he thought about giving it up and staying in the village, about a solution that would allow him to continue to roam around the land and care for the animals. One night he wrote a formal letter in a German that was probably antiquated, a German that was undoubtedly better suited to the past than to the present, the language of a country that no longer existed, but he never sent it. The Foundation simply forgot about him. And he, believing himself free for the first time of all ties with Germany, dedicated himself to drinking in celebration of his victory.

          I got the chance to meet him in person when he had been celebrating for almost three years straight. He drank so much wine that I worried I would not be able to get anything I could use out of him. In the village bar, just before meeting him, they told me that the German had treasure stashed away in his house, that Nazi treasure was hidden in his house, but I said nothing. He told me that he had rescued a collared anteater that some of the locals had found when it was no bigger than the palm of his hand, he said, extending his white palm over the table in the bar, and that now it was almost as tall as a man and a little ridiculous, sticking its long snout everywhere and behaving like a three year old child. He wanted to send it to a zoo in Germany, in that country that no longer existed and that for me, and probably for him as well, was little more than a name, but he was having administrative problems, the kind of inconveniences he would have avoided had he had the money to bribe every bureaucrat that got in his way, the way everyone did in Germany. But he did not have the money, or, if he had it, as they had told me earlier, it was hidden away somewhere in his house, and he did not intend to use it. One day I got a letter telling me that finally, somehow, he had solved the problem of the anteater, which was now in a plane on its way to a zoo where it would be able to reproduce. Although this was happy news, it meant also a burden for him because he was again alone. I went to visit him a month later, but the burden had been lifted: a fawn had been left in his care. The fawn was probably the first to be seen in the region in ten years; its species was almost extinct, and he crossed it out in the air with a gesture that was ostentatious but very evocative. He took care of that orphaned fawn as if it were a child—he fed it, he sheltered it, he cared for it as what it was: the last gem from a long-exhausted mine.

          I forgot about him for some time, until I heard his name one afternoon. Thieves had broken into his house one night looking for Nazi treasure and shot him four times in the stomach. Lying in his own blood, he could see the fawn looking at him, stupefied, as if somehow the scene he had told me was the last thing he wanted to remember from Germany was repeating itself, only inverted. With an abrupt act, his last act, he pushed the fawn away; it started running off into the field. A fawn is little more than a child. When it turned back to look at him, to cast a glance at the nationless orphan that had saved it, it did not notice the rifle, and then man and animal, the two orphans, stopped breathing at the same time.  

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**Thompson, Tom. Evening, Canoe Lake, Winter 1915-1916, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. AGO: Art Gallery of Ontario – Musée des beaux-arts de l’Ontrario, Web. 27 March 2015.

Patricio Pron
Patricio Pron is an Argentinian writer and journalist. His work has been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, and Italian. Granta named him one of its best young contemporary Spanish novelists.

Rob Twiss

Rob Twiss translates from French and Spanish into English. He is completing his master’s degree in translation studies from the University of Ottawa.