We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us.
Hunger. It can drive you to do things you would be otherwise incapable of. Have you ever been truely hungry?
I have gone certain periods without nourishment, of an edible sort. Sometimes forgetting to eat, distracted by some thought or another. Sustaining myself by other means.
Sometimes by forgetting that I was, in fact hungry altogether, hunger becoming a benign sensation on waking and carrying it like a calloused wound until sunset, that only sleep can remedy.
But hunger itself can be a distraction, no more so than when you can do nothing whatsoever about it. Then it can become an obsession.
Winter was beginning to take hold in the valley, the occasional morning rains were becoming light snowfalls. One morning, not long after I arrived back in Puelo, Gustavo called me earlier than usual. “Kevin, lets go”, “Que pasa?” “We need to move the horses out of the valley today” “Why?” He handed me a cup of coffee. “We’ll talk on the way”
There had been a horse theft in the valley.
We followed the course of the river, down the back roads of Puelo, towards a neighbours farm, which boardered the Azul itself. On the way Gustavo told me that in late may before the onset of the winter snowfalls horses disappeared in Puelo. This happened every year.
We arrived at Enrique’s place as the sun was rising above the mountains. Enrique, a friend of Gustavo’s whose horse it was had been taken.
The gate was already open, unusually for a homestead in Puelo, but it soon became apparent why.
The damage had already been done. That old saying of closing the gate after the horse had bolted became applicable except in this case the horse was still here, so to speak.
Enrique lead us to a grove at the back of the wood store, there it lay, a pale bronze coloured stallion, lying in a stagnant pool of its own congealed blood. Its hind quarteres cut away, butchered! its black eyes open, starring into oblivion, still filled with the horror they had witnessed.
Its foaming mouth agape, distorted like I’ve never seen a horses mouth before. A trickle of blood running from beneath it’s outstretched tongue like an efigy of Geurnica.
Nostrils flared, teeth still gnashing, sweat, reeking of terror from his damp mane.
Frozen in time at the moment of death, like a photograph.
The rest of Enrique’s horses would come no where near him, witnesses to the massacre, afraid to come forward.
Gustavo called Iván to arrange to move the horses to the neighbouring valley.
Six we would take by truck, including the half tame mare and foal of Gustavo’s, which couldn’t be led. the rest we led on horseback through the pass.
Along the way Iván explained to me that every year, with the onset of winter the Mapuche would slaughter horses, abandoned in Patagonia by the Spanish settlers, who retreated back to Buenos Aires when it got too cold.
A tradition which continued to be upheld for its own sake rather than hunger.
There was a delinquent nature to the act these days. Youths, instead of taking horses, would butcher them in situ, and take a cut of meat, more as a trophy than anything else. Always just before winter, so as not to leave tracks in the snow.
We returned to Puelo. Every night thereafter I noticed a police patrol pass by crux in an effort to thwart the horse thieves.
The whole affair had made me think about hunger. About the nature of it. I sympathised with the horse thieves in a way. I’ve seen how they lived on the opposite bank of the river. No toilets or running water, central heating or electricity. They live as they have done for hundreds of years. Taking a horse as natural as us going to the supermarket.
Who could begrudge them.
You cannot reason with hunger, only Ignore it if you have the strength or obey it.
On the road you don’t have much of a choice, if fate throws you a bone, take it.
While hitching down from Santiago, 3 of the 6 guys who had given me a lift had furnished me with sandwiches and the like. One even bought me a bottle of ‘Dulce de Leche’ liquor. “por el camino” el me dicho. For the cold nights.
I awoke in Neuqúen to find the town deserted on holy day. Walking to the south side of town someone called out to me.
“Hey, are you hungry?”
A strangely well dressed homeless vagabond and his dog stood in a side street.
I hadn’t eaten in about 2 days so hunger stirred my curiosity.
“Wait here” he told me. A minute later a door opened and a man dressed in full chefs regalia came out from a restaurant side door carrying a tray of roasted meat. Too overcooked to be served to guests. But we could have it.
My eyes lit up, the dogs tale wagged energetically. My “host” took the tray and thanked the chef.
“Whats your name?” I asked him. “Ángel” he told me. “Ángel Gabriel”
Hunger can play tricks on your mind. Making it not as sharp as it usually is. Kind of a dreamlike state, like your witnessing everything, your movements, your words without any control. A bit like being intoxicated. Or the vague memory of a movie you cant quite remember the title of.
What a beautiful name I thought. Ángel..... Ángel Gabriel.......
Then it dawned on me, as I had a mouth filled with succulent barbequed ribs, he was telling me he was the Archangel Gabriel.......
Two whole days with only water, and now I’m feasting with the angels. We chatted as we ate, he offered me some concoction from a dirty bottle, which I refused as he grinned like an Andean holy man who’d indulged in too much of his own payote.
Though hunger can be sated, thirst cannot be somehow truely slaked. When a stomach is filled you instantly know, a dullness draws across its sharp pangs, you could be lulled to sleep by its comfort. But thirst knows no limits. The skin, the eyes, the tongue know nothing of hunger after a good feed. But a thirsty man can drink enough water to kill himself.
You could drink four gallons and your lips would thirst for more, your nerves would cause your hands to tremble, your parched skin aches from the touch of a light breeze it is so dry, your head hurts like a climber suffering from altitude sickness. This is dangerous territory.
All in all it makes you appreciate food more than most.
The tastiest morsel of food I’ve ever tasted was an abandoned burger I’d swiped from a fancy rive gauche cafe in Paris a few years ago. It was the first time I’d ever procured food in this way. The sensation of the act was so strange. I waded through the crowded terrace to the vacant table and simply wrapped the food in a napkin as well dressed diners looked on in astonishment. It took me 20 minutes to work up the nerve to do it. Afterwards I felt exhilarated and humbled as I ate it by the fountain outside Shakespeare and co bookshop in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral.
I never felt that way again until I saw Enrique’s horse lying there, motionless. The scene was both exhilarating and humbling. Life snuffed out to support life in one audacious act. A staged play. A tragedy and a comedy all rolled into one. Life resembling art, serving portions of mortality for breakfast.