Places That Don’t Exist
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away, global publications eulogized the Nobel Prize winning Colombian author. They illustrated his life through anecdotes and accounts, and regarded his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of Marquez’s greatest works. One piece noted that Marquez’s translator, Gregory Rabassa, translated the book from Spanish to English in a small cottage in Hampton Bays.
The story is set in Macondo, a mythical Colombian town, a place that does not exist. It is cut off from the world, its patriarch a man of ambition and fevered dreams. Gypsies visit, and magnetic ingots intended for treasure find only an old suit of armor. There are colored macaws and the casting of spells. There is an alchemist’s laboratory and a duel. Marquez was famous for his use of magic realism, a style where elements of fantasy and the supernatural blend fluidly into the everyday and mundane. It was a term he refuted, arguing that what was necessary for his work was not imagination, but the means to tell the truth and have it remain believable. Reading the article, which noted the book’s translation in Hampton Bays, I began to think of the story of my childhood there, and how in some ways it was a place that didn’t exist.
Here is One Hundred Years of Solitude’s opening line, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
After days in grade school, my sister and I walked down a gravel driveway with its spine of weeds and potholes patched with crushed clamshells to our house, me with my thumbs in the straps of my backpack. We often found our father, a commercial fisherman, repairing a net strung between the telephone poles, his hands crawling like spiders counting lengths of mesh imagining how to outsmart fish. He would pause, take a knife from his back pocket, cut the knots surrounding a rip, and then with a twine-filled mending needle stitch the damage like a surgeon.
Gypsies visited our home, storm weathered fishermen that just seemed to appear. Some of them smelled as if all they had ever caught had been stuffed in their overalls for weeks, and the stench would haunt our house for hours after they left. Sometimes, for my father’s incidental net services, we would be paid in fish. Coming home in the evening to find a bushel basket with a forty-pound striped bass and three lobsters was not unusual.
Our chickens took the place of tropical macaws. My father liked having them roam the yard where they managed bugs and provided personality through clucks and crows and all their beautiful colors. They were free range before that was a thing and my sister and I would collect their eggs for frittatas and friends.
The basement was an alchemist’s laboratory where in early spring our father grew the seedlings for our summer garden beneath the glow of grow lights. Benched along the wall was a machine for reloading shotgun shells, its flasks and tubes filled with lead shot, and gunpowder.
With one of his reloaded shells, there was a duel. My sister, Emily, was maybe nine or ten when she came into the house one day bawling that the rooster had attacked her. I remember that rooster. He was white and gold with a brilliant red comb that rose like a mountain range. If ever a rooster did strut it was this one. He was our neighborhood bully and my sister and I did everything we could to avoid him, even though it seemed he had a way, like bullies do, of always making unwanted eye contact. She hadn’t been in the house a moment with tears streaming down her face before my father passed us both by, the sound of a pump-action shotgun engaging the shell into the chamber. The explosion of the powder was deafening and when I ran out on the deck there were feathers blowing about and the rooster lay on his back with his feet kicking in the air. Ask me and I’ll tell you the recipe for Don’t Mess with Emily Rooster Soup.
We were taught magic. Once standing over a tote full of writhing eels my father had potted in the bay, my godfather, one of the best shots, and best cooks I have ever known, reached into his pocket and took out a pouch of rolling tobacco. Reaching right over my head he sprinkled the eels with the shredded tobacco like an incantation. Within moments they slowed and then lay still. Nicotine is absorbed through an eel’s slime coated skin and neutralizes its nervous system. My father skinned the spellbound eels, their muscles still twitching, then cut them into serving-size lengths and we lay them on the grill and painted them with coats of orange marmalade while the garden behind the house whirred with katydids and the branches of tomatoes bent with the weight of ripe fruit.
There were coats of armor to be discovered in the search for treasure. A few holes piloted into my father’s garden will turn up a fossil record of fish from which I earned my first blisters burying their racks, and offal. The vertebrae of great striped bass, the gill plates of cod, and the eye sockets of porgies, all stained by the tannins of the earth, are layered in that soil. I buried them to the delight of the garden’s summer roots.
In my childhood there was my father, a man of ambition and fevered dreams. We lived off the sea, the sky, and the earth. All those long summers of my father mending nets and filleting fish stretched out like great seines and hauled away our childhood. My sister and I grew up and moved out. She is raising her own family. My mother has moved away. My father has lost neither his ambition, nor his dreams.
One afternoon my father called me up and invited me to make charcoal. He had come across instructions for a charcoal kiln and so standing in the fallow autumn garden we set the oil drum with five holes torched in the bottom on a footing of five bricks and mounded up a cone of topsoil around most of the circumference leaving a small space open to draft air. My father bent at the waist and reached down into the belly of the drum and lit newspaper and kindling, talking all the while. His voice was lost as though it was in a cave, but he expected that I had listened to every word. Wisps of smoke tangled in his graying beard when he pulled his head out and continued on talking with me lost midsentence.
We dumped bushels of dried oak chunks into the drum and the fire crackled.
Smoke and vapor billowed from the mouth of the thing. The air was heavy and damp and so the smoke drifted into the treetops surrounding the house and settled back to the earth. The trees became silhouettes. Our neighbor’s homes disappeared from sight. We blotted out the world around us. My father looked at me, and I at him and he said, I don’t know, which in the literacy of my family meant, we’ve gone too far. The chickens wandering the yard began to look uneasy when all at once with a great thwomph, like a dog barking in a closed-mouth dream, a yellow flame leapt up for the sky and the vapor and gasses burned with the golden color of a celebratory torch.
We slipped on the lid of the oil barrel and did our best to seal it air-tight. We packed earth into the opening left for the draft. In the morning we dumped the barrel. The carbonized wood tinkled like glass as it spilled out onto a tarp and the audience of curious chickens realized this was not an offering of table scraps. My father picked up individual pieces and held them up for awestruck examination as if they were diamonds. I knew then watching him that in some ways I was lucky enough to have grown up in a place that could not possibly exist.
That winter we stood outside in the snow searing the ribs from a bow-hunted yearling doe over the charcoal. We drank ale and ate. There was silence save for the meat on the grill. Snowflakes fell on the fallow garden and the fossils of buried fish. Many years from now I will remember the distant afternoon my father taught me to make charcoal.