He was growing paler and paler. Through the car window, he watched the landscape crumble in the speed.
It doesn’t hurt any more, my brother said.
He took his hand away from his abdomen and inspected the hole, surrounded by dried blood.
It looks nasty, but I don’t think the bullet hit an organ, I said.
We’d stolen the car just over four hours ago, and we were almost out of gas.
You’re going to flood the engine, he said.
There. There’s a commune.
The sign for La Quebrada preceded the adobe houses with their corrugated zinc roofs scattered randomly over no more than twenty hectares of land. On the wall of one of the houses someone had painted the word PULPERÍA to indicate that it was a store. I stopped the car.
I went in and said:
I need a doctor.
Two men were sitting in front of a counter. The walls were covered with knives, hoes, spark plugs, carburettors.
Didn’t you hear me? I said. I need a doctor.
You think this place is a clinic? said one of them, a stocky Colla, with bags under his eyes.
Please, I said. Tell me if I can find a doctor near here.
They looked at each other. The one who had remained silent, an Ayoreo in his fifties, said:
We don’t accept bolivianos. Just euros or dollars.
I can give you a watch, an Eterna-Matic.
The Colla nodded. I pursed my lips, exhausted, and swung the backpack down from my shoulder. I put my hand inside but stopped short because the Ayoreo was pointing a sawn-off shotgun at me.
Slowly, he said. Don’t get any funny ideas.
I don’t have a gun in the backpack, I said.
After feeling around inside it for a few seconds, I pulled out the watch. They inspected it.
Follow me, the Ayoreo said.
We went through a door that opened into a room where there were five girls who were no more than fifteen years old. Their make-up had smeared in the heat. They were half-naked, drugged up. One of them had a tattoo on her stomach: a pink rabbit with bat’s wings that was smoking what at first sight seemed to be a joint. They didn’t even look at me as I walked past. They were lying on a velvet sofa next to an old broken-down jukebox.
If you want some cunt it’ll cost you a bit more than that watch, he said, turning, smiling, trying to create complicity.
They’re healthy, they just arrived.
No, I said. Just the doctor.
We entered a windowless room. He pulled aside a rug, opened a trapdoor in the floor and we climbed down a ladder which led to a compartment with surgical instruments hanging on the walls. There was a bed and lamps emitting a greenish light. And there was also a fat guy, his bulk an obscenity at a time when the majority of those who didn’t die from gunshot wounds died of hunger or dysentery. He was reading a gardening magazine. Its pages were yellowed. He looked at us fearfully, not knowing what to do. He stood up, but relaxed when he realized that the Ayoreo was calm, that I didn’t pose a threat.
We keep him hidden here so the brigades don’t take him, the Ayoreo explained. You know that doctors are worth more than cunt. They leave the cunt, but they take every last one of the doctors.
Are you a doctor? I asked.
Something like that.
What do you mean, something like that?
I was a vet, way back.
My brother took a bullet. He needs help.
The fat guy looked at the Ayoreo, they hesitated.
This is going to cost you, he said. More than a watch.
I checked my backpack again and from the things I’d put there before we fled I took out a gold bracelet that had been my mother’s.
Real gold, he said as he examined it for a few seconds, without showing surprise.
Bring him in. Carlos, go and help.
The fat guy followed me to the car, my brother’s eyes were closed, his forehead resting on the window. His breath had fogged up the glass. When he saw us, he didn’t recognize us, he felt for the gun he kept beneath the seat, but I made the first move and said his name and told him to be calm.
Help me, I said to the fat guy.
He smelt of tobacco. His skin was viscous, pale: the skin of someone who spends most of the hours of the day shut in a cellar. The rays of the sun wreaked havoc on his eyes.
Between the two of us, we got my brother out of the car and into the store, passing through the room with the girls. They didn’t even turn to look at us when we came in with an injured man. We went to the cellar.
He’s lost a load of blood, the fat guy said as he examined the wound, using both hands to press the edges of the tiny hole that was already turning black.
He turned my brother over and checked his back.
There’s no exit wound, he said.
He sterilized the surgical instruments and trickled some alcohol onto the wound. My brother moaned, stifled a cry and closed his eyes again. His face was covered with sweat, his teeth chattering with fever. His skin was as white as the flesh of a yucca.
What should I do? I said. How can I help?
Wait there, he said. Don’t interrupt me or talk to me while I’m working. You can do that. We’ve run out of anaesthesia, so this is going to hurt like hell. If you try to stop the operation you’ll fuck it up. If you can’t stick it, just leave now and I’ll come and find you when it’s over.
After working for hours, the fat guy removed the bullet and cauterized the wound. He administered painkillers and antibiotics. He sat down facing me, wiped away the sweat with a rag, and passed me another strip of drugs for later. The fever hadn’t gone down yet. My brother was asleep but every now and then he shifted on the bed, talking to himself. I couldn’t understand what he was saying because he was mumbling.
Who wounded him? the fat guy said.
Was it one of the brigades or was it a private quarrel?
Does it matter? I said.
You don’t look like an idiot, so I’m not going to explain the difference. You don’t look like a soldier either, so I’m going to assume you got into a fight that I don’t want to hear about.
You can only stay tonight, you have to leave first thing tomorrow.
He’s very weak, I hoped we could stay until he’d recovered. Two or three days at most, I said.
If the brigade that did this catches up with him, it won’t just be the two of you they get rid of, he said. There’s no gold bracelet or watch that pays for that, you get me?
And he’s lost a load of blood and there’s a good chance the infection will spread.
He took a mentholated cigarette from one of his pockets. He placed it between his lips but didn’t light it.
I don’t like to tell you this, but I’d put his chances at thirty percent.
I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and looked at him angrily, but I didn’t do anything, I didn’t speak. The heat in the cellar was unbearable, the drops of sweat ran down my neck, my cheeks and my forehead. I stared at the floor again, hundreds of thoughts running through my head. My hands were trembling, I clenched my fists and looked at the fat guy again, standing there sweating as he washed the instruments he’d used to remove the bullet. When he’d finished, he hung them on one of the walls.
You can sleep here, on the floor, he said. I’ll bring you a blanket but you have to leave first thing tomorrow.
It was already night when I went out to hide the car behind some trees. I heard footsteps, drew the Glock and pointed it at the figure that had appeared.
I just came to see if you needed help. Your brother’s asleep, said the fat guy.
I’m fine, I said, putting away the gun.
Who wounded him? he said.
The general’s brigade.
I couldn’t see his eyes in the dark but I could have sworn the name made him stagger. Something clicked in his brain, something changed in his breathing, in his stance.
You’re both dead, he said. It’s just a matter of time.
I rubbed the back of my neck. The stress had been snapping at me for hours.
I hope you really fucked them up, that way whatever’s coming to you will have been worth it.
You’ve got balls, he said, and smiled, and it was the first time I’d seen him smile.
When was the last time they came this way? I said.
Couple of weeks.
He took a mentholated cigarette from one of his trouser pockets and lit it. They weren’t easy to come by, maybe it was one of the privileges he had as the doctor of the commune, for living like a mole in that filthy cellar. He offered me a draw, but I refused. He took a bottle from his bag and drank.
Culipi, he said. They make it in the fourth house, that one there, on the right. The one they painted blue.
I took the bottle and drank. It burned my throat, it was weeks since I’d had any alcohol. I spat. I drank again even though my stomach was throbbing with nausea.
How long have you been here? I said.
Just in the city, when you could still live there.
He drank and passed me the bottle. I drank and gave it back to him.
No, he said after taking a draw that consumed most of the cigarette.
Keep it, he added.
He turned and disappeared into the darkness.