Prospero is dying. I’m not going to visit him in hospital, where doctors are marginally extending his natural lifespan, but I’ll have to go to the funeral. Mrs Morris and the whole tribe of them will be offended if I don’t. The younger ones are giving blood by the bucket. He will pass over to the other side with or without their red or white cells.
Don Prospero was the caretaker of “La Ermita,” my smallholding between Santiago and Valparaiso. I called it The Hermitage because I wanted to live there alone, almost like a monk.
The 15 acres form part of El Venado (“The Deer”), a large farm acquired towards the end of the nineteenth century by the grandfather of Don Prospero’s wife.
Mrs Morris keeps her surname as do all the married women in Chile. I’d better explain about this “Don” nonsense. The “courtesy title” was used by the aristocracy in the past but has been adopted by every adult male rather like the French “Monsieur.” Another polite way of addressing any man is to call him “knight” – a quaint countryside custom. I called Prospero Don because he was older than me and he called me Don because I was his “patron.”
Mr Morris was an Englishman who disembarked at Valparaiso to seek his fortune in Chile. He owned a troop of mules which transported charcoal over the mountains to the mining town of Tiltil. A disciplinarian who kept his saddle room shipshape, he was intolerant of the shoddy habits of his Chilean workers, Mrs Morris showed me a retouched photograph of her ancestor. His moustache was dark blue and his skin a vivid pink.
Occupation by defaulting tenants whose plots were subsequently legalized by land reform reduced the Morris farm to a smaller holding than mine. The family sunk to the level of illiterate peasantry. Understandably, they were staunchly right-wing during the dictatorship of General Pinochet (1973-90) – imposed ostensibly to stem the tide of Cuba-backed Communism.
El Venado, where I have never spotted a stag or even its tiny mouse-like cousin the Puyu, is part of the agricultural community of Quebrada del Alvarado. Quebrada means ravine or gorge, somewhere where the land has been “broken” by the forces of nature. It is fenced in by mountains and criss-crossed by gullies and streams.
Granite stones used for grinding gold known as “moyas” are evidence that the region was occupied by Mapuche Indians (particularly the Pinquinches) who migrated from the south centuries before the Spanish General Alvarado fled to this isolated region after his defeat by the Patriotic forces in the war of independence (1820).
Little is known of the General apart from his procreativity. Alvarado is a common name among the locals, descendants of him and his soldiers who “crossed” with the indigenous women. The resulting mixture is sometimes called the Chilean race, though the entire bourgeoisie are European.
The small indigenous minority, however, have become more active in asserting their own identity. On 12th October, Dia de la Hispanidad, which they view as a glorification of the Spanish conquest, they protest by banging drums and making a dull and tuneless music with bamboo flutes. Most Chileans would never admit to having Indian blood, even though 80% or more do. Thousands have changed their surnames to Spanish ones to avoid racial discrimination.
Chileans I'm afraid to say are generally indirect and wishy-washy but Mrs Morris has inherited the frankness of her English forebears and readily admits, “We are a mixture and a bad one at that.”
Back in the days when I still had a bit of money to my name, Don Prospero – a dignified man whose straight black hair jotted out from his forehead like the brush on a vacuum cleaner - would doff his straw hat with feudal panache as he crossed the stream on the bridge dividing our properties. Not that he was servile. He nurtured a patriarchal pride together with the incongruous wish to be “patronized." I was considerably out of pocket in keeping up my position by installing a bathroom for him, giving presents to his family (for which I was never thanked according to peasant etiquette) and topping up his pension with gaps left his former, dead employers. The likes of Prospero had even at that time died out. He was a throwback to the days of a mild form of serfdom which existed in Chile up to the first half of the twentieth century. He didn’t count his hours of work and thought of La Ermita as an extension of his own land.
The day I took possession of my place Prospero set the style he was to follow for the next seventeen years. Pointing out a peach tree near the house, he declared, “This is called La Purisima because the fruit is always ripe on the 8th December.” The feast day of the Immaculate Conception. “These peaches are exclusively yours. Only you may pick them.” Having worked for absentee owners, he was used to “sharing” the produce as a natural right and I did nothing to end this tradition.
It was autumn when I moved in. Butterflies were weakly settling on the heavily-scented purple buddleia and the tiny red and yellow clusters of the lantana bushes. The stream was low enough after several years of drought to drive over. At the end of a winding drive was a modest house joined onto the white-washed adobe outhouses which had been the original dwelling. Thick twisted vines like ancient olive trees lined the flagstone terrace, their woody pruned shoots pointing upwards like dead fingers. The last owner, a Mr Nettle, had rarely visited his holiday home but never failed to claim his share of the “chicha”, a grape cider Prospero made.
Noting my delight at the swarms of black swallowtails, cabbage whites and tiny Red Admirals, Prospero remarked that they liked the privacy of the place. He meant it was sheltered from the wind.
A grasp of the misuse of Spanish is essential for living in the Chilean countryside. Prospero was a master of malapropism, calling the circumference of the well its conference and substituting “incests” for insects. Once he didn’t turn up for work because he was getting a jab “against the influence,” a measure which would “enforce the third age.”
Not wishing to appear ignorant, I asked some questions about the drainage and sewer. There was no sanitary system, just a “black hole” periodically filled with limestone.
“So near to the house?”
“Don Hugo,” replied Prospero, referring to his former employer with an officious air, “made very little excrement.”
Despite the difficulty of emulating my predecessor, Prospero and I were to warm to each other. He was my only close neighbour, protected me from theft through his standing in the community, taught me how to grow vegetables, fed my pets when I was away and handled the dangerous donkeys which carried timber down from the wood. Without Prospero life would have been impossible though it entailed social obligations I could have done without. But through this friendly contact I got to know a rural culture which the weekenders from Santiago failed to penetrate.
Prospero and Mrs Morris made me feel at home in this far-away country and I enjoyed a unique relationship of master and retainer while being almost a member of the family. I was no slave-driver, so I was bound to be “mounted” – as Chilean friends put it. On meeting me someone once said, “I know you. You work with Don Prospero.”
Despite his domineering and susceptible ways, I became fond of the old devil, even confusing him with my late father in a dream. Prospero and his wife loved trees, plants (especially weeds) and animals. They called a neighbour to slaughter the goat which used to butt my Labrador Rupert as they couldn't bring themselves to kill it. I inadvertently lunched on it with them.
Prospero disobeyed Señor Nettle’s order to cut down the wisteria after it struck him one dark morning. He hid the roots and brought it back to life after my purchase so that it scatters its violet confetti in celebration of the spring. The whole family saved my house for burning down with the help of an in-law, an off-duty fireman who crawled across the roof with a hose while his obese wife ripped off the roof and flooded the living-room. The furniture was calmly removed in two minutes.
He was indispensable for the flow of water through the orchard in stone canals, turning on the tap, often in the middle of the night, of the communal well hidden beyond a labyrinth of brambles. I had my own gravitational well for the house; the connections were always bursting and he alone knew how to fix them.
We exchanged favours. There was no formal system of barter beyond the traditional “minga” or neighbourly mutual help which has always existed. I brought him gas bottles in my truck and he picked my prickly pears with a beaked pole, rubbing off the invisible thorns with newspaper and taking a bucket of them for himself. He brought onions, which didn’t grow on my land for some reason, and dirty pale green eggs; I supplied avocados and lemons when he had sold all his.
We went “miti-miti” (half and half) with the sweet red wine. He pressed the grapes on a grid of sticks with his dirty finger-nails. But hygiene in wine-making doesn’t matter. Some people drop a dead rat in the barrel to improve the fermentation. My own wine, which fermented with the aid of drowned wasps, had a high reputation, paying off the workers who fenced the farm of my impecunious English friend Simon. The vinegar was even better when used to pickle home-grown onions.
I was too lazy and inexperienced to challenge Prospero’s habit of setting his own tasks and programme. His initiative was convenient for both. He never did what I asked him to do but did much off his own bat. Eventually I had to hire another worker, an affable Bolshie who did everything I told him, slept in a wheel-barrow in his two-hour break and went home on the dot. Between them I got things done.
What I liked best about the relationship with Prospero was crossing the stream on the birthday of one of his children to be received like a prince, no longer a “patron” but the guest of honour among his obedient tribe. The patriarch grilled a steak beneath the corrugated iron shelter of his yard, swishing it with a sprig of rosemary soaked in garlic and lemon juice while I chatted with his socially mobile granddaughters, a glass of pisco sour in my hand.
Sometimes it was a bit of a bore but I told myself noblesse oblige was expected of me. There were long speeches praising his family and me. I replied in equally glowing terms.
Prospero had his dark side like many a paterfamilias. He had been chosen to lead the local “minimum employment” chain-gangs under the military regime, forcing men into under-paid hard labour and informing on political opponents. He proudly showed me a citation for “services to the Fatherland” signed by a colonel with a German name.
Then there was the question of his daughter, but she has long forgiven him. It was Mrs Morris who denounced him but they celebrated their golden jubilee in church as though her husband’s three years’ absence in gaol had never existed.
They were very Catholic. Felling of trees was begun “in the name of God and the Virgin.” One tree fell within inches of my garden study known as “the Cell”. I was standing close by but no harm was done. According to Mrs Morris, my narrow escape was “because Don Nicolas is very Catholic.” As my house was full of icons, the mistake was understandable. When I blessed my wells on the feast of Christ’s Baptism, thrice dunking a cross while chanting the dismissal hymn in Greek, I was asked to repeat the “service” for the well next door, which had been dug after mine and then registered, making mine technically illegal.
“Privacy, Respect and Family” was Mrs Morris’s motto, which came from her upbringing rather than from a reactionary political party. Her father didn’t speak a word of English but he was as strict as the first Mr Morris. “We couldn’t speak until we were spoken to. He wouldn’t let me marry Prospero at first. He wasn’t good enough for us. He had no education and he doesn’t have now. He’s a clever man my husband. He knows how to make cement. If he’d had a bit of schooling he’d be the mayor.”
“Respect” – at least for me - wasn't shown by all of her children. I caught one of them (let us call him B.), a young bachelor rejected by the seminary, urinating in full view of my bow-window. He often took a crap in my outside lavatory as though there wasn’t one in his own house three hundred yards away – in the bathroom the construction of which I had paid for while building my own house. This behaviour enraged me but I held my tongue.
The Morris family suffered from a rare form of haemophilia. The slightest knock could set off an internal haemorrhage. The wannabe Reverend B. was the one of his generation to be stricken. He was rushed to the military hospital in Santiago and treated by specialists from Brazil and Argentina.
B. was in a coma for two months, expected to die or survive with brain damage. For a while I read a prayer for his recovery but after a month or so I switched to another for his painless passing. A chain of intercessions was organized by the Jesuits from one end of Latin America to the other. Prospero spoke of his firm belief in the recovery of his “holy child” who had never smoked, drunk or had anything to do with women.
As I have already implied, medical ethics in Chile prolong life at all costs. There is no opting out of artificial support systems or gruesome operations, even if the state is paying. It’s a Catholic thing though what it has to do with a belief in the afterlife defeats me. Even the devout B. begged not to be operated on again. Yet what had all those doctors come to Chile for if not to experiment? In the disinterested spirit of science they sucked out part of his brain.