P. Edronkin

Short Stories about Patagonia: The Grey Snow.

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At 4:32 A.M one autumn night that everyone buried beyond memories ever since, at the turn of the nineteenth century, all souls awoke in Patagonia coughing. Ladies found their fans and tried to give themselves air. Men coughed behind their moustaches and beards and children ran to their mothers as ghosts entered thorough the chimneys and door locks. Cats hid under boxes and ovens, birds looked around, and drunken fellows talking to the moon had to stop kissing their bottles, for they began coughing too, turning red and contracting until the lack of air in their bodies squeezed the last drop of alcohol out of them like a sponge.

Lights went on in all houses, babies cried, dogs howled, and people called one another, able only to see their neighbours' shadows carrying oil lamps in the air thick as soup, and they saw ashes falling from the sky with no clouds and no stars, covering the gardens with the tomatoes they were proud of, the spinachs, the little dog's little houses, the windows, the walls and the roofs of the houses built by themselves years before, working with their hands until they saw them bleeding.

Patagonians of every kind could barely make the contours of the streets as their white underwear began taking the grey colour, and when they realised what nature was throwing upon them, they ran back into their homes and dressed like if a battle was coming round the corner.

"Grey snow! Grey snow!" the policemen began shouting all across towns as church bells began their muffled calls.

Women closed doors and windows.

"Grey snow!"

Children went to roofs and sheds to take the heavy ashes out as elders looked upon or helped with little pieces of cloth, taking the substance out of the furniture in trembling circles.

"Grey snow!"

Men rushed with their horses, covering their noses and eyes as well as they could; they ran to the desert looking for their cattle and their sheep, for no one, no human and no beast could withstand the sordid volcanic ashes for long. Others went along to see if lava or mud born from molten glaciers was sliding fast as the wind to sweep away their towns and everything, but they knew that they could do nothing.

The parties left the towns and the horses marched as fast as their fear let them; soon, only the diffuse lights of settlements could be seen like stars in a nebula, and then only the light bubbles of their own lamps as they found their animals coming around, running to the lights and looking at their masters, asking for help; and so the men began taking the cattle inside shelters and sheds until they found themselves out of space, and as the arks were filled to the top, the rest of the animals had to be left outside among yet more bubbles of light in a vigil of bestial growls as the Lady-in-waiting prepared herself to do her job.

"Grey snow!"

People put lids over their jars of water.

"Grey snow!"

People took their flower-pots and pets inside.

"Grey snow!"

People began packing food, clothes and medicines.

"Grey snow!"

The policemen were seen rushing too to their own homes; some began throwing water to their wooden houses to kill the little embers that might come with the grey snow, and in all their hectic shivering and cursing they did not realise when the sun finally came up and began its way around the horizon, for it was gone along with all echoes, masked by the veil of yet another wound in the crust.

Pathfinders in search for landslides and lava streams reached the plains just under the forests of the Andes and saw them burning as red rivers opened their own impertinent ways after animals big and small as they, in turn, followed their ancient instincts and tried to win the day.

They saw trees blowing up into the air and trees burning as candles; crucified trees, dead trees; trees that wanted to run and trees whose leaves screamed for help; they saw smoke, thick smoke; and yet they saw more ashes coming from the mountains.

They saw animals of all kinds gathering together and crossing boiling rivers in a melange of instinct and surf as the world trembled with their panic.

They saw animals amidst the peace of fear, waiting for destiny to catch them in tight peninsulas surrounded by orange heath and noise, screaming only as the volcano finally robbed them off their little souls, and they sighted.

They saw the burning of feathers and furs that went on for days, and only brittle murmurs of the sun, as the lights of fires laughed over their own little horizons during the nights, coughing as they tried to live as usual but under the lightning, going out to take the grey substance out of everywhere, cleaning their homes as well as they could and putting water over the walls and roofs, just in case.

They saw lightning illuminating the wounded sky in the direction of the crater and sighted once again the day it stopped, but not in peace yet, as no one does when he knows that it is just the beginning of a bad dream, and amidst the symphony of confusion, they saw the devil.

They knew that the grass that fed the cattle and the cows was deeply buried dead under the grey snow, and thought they saw the sun for a day or two again, the winds came taking with them the ashes back into the sky, starting it all over again, and as there was no sun to live on, plants began to suffer and the air became colder with the winter that became colder with the air.

Politicians were too busy trying to keep figures in their balances and sawing off the floor under each other since there was no election in sight, and representatives from a hundred little towns all across the region flowing into the cities to ask for anything were sent back with empty pockets and promises of a better future, once the figures finally settle in and the spending for the next year would became a law with a number, of course, two thousand kilometres to the north in a city that knew nothing about sheep or ashes.

Cattle began dying in vast numbers as snow and the cold wind came too early, finishing off the remaining plants before anyone could do anything, and owners could only just sit to drink their mate and watch their sheep clustering to keep warm and freeze together in the long winter of the ashes.

Next Christmas, snow was still grey and there was still grey snow, and as shivering, thin women breastfed their little babies sitting in front of Spartan wooden tables with scarce bread and certainly no butter, men with their hats on kept looking out of their windows, praying for the summer rains that would free them from the haunted presence, until the next volcano would play the bitter game again with its fire and its smoke, and mostly, with its cursed grey snow. 

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