I live in a country which differs vastly from any place I'd like to be in. It's too disheveled, too ignorant, too loud, too hot, too ridiculous, too small, too corrupt, and too frightening, at times. There's an enormous educational gap between the different socioeconomic echelons of society, and, sadly, the most privileged one is also the narrowest one. The true face of this country is permanently in need. Always exposed, always hungry, always lacking. There's crime, death, poverty, and disease wherever you look, you cannot escape. Some of us, who are luckier, make it through relatively unharmed, unexposed. But the true inhabitants of this land are always escaping from danger and going nowhere.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs places safety as the second most immediate need. It comes right after the physiological needs, and it's practically undeniable that every human being needs to have a support of some sort. Everyone's is different: be it routine, three locks on the door, a lover who is too needy to ever leave, a hobby with no logical conclusion; they all represent safety and constance. When you know you have nothing to depend on but your body, and knowing how fragile the human physical structure can be, you inevitably turn to something else for comfort and support. When the average peasant living in the countryside, having attended school until maybe the fifth grade, and depending on their crops to survive, they turn to something else, they turn to the unknown, to the hidden. Call it religion, tradition, myth, or an organized structure of deceit, they all provide something they were never lucky enough to have. They provide strength and hope they can't get for themselves.
My extended family owns a moderately big portion of land in a place about an hour away from the capital, called Cerro León (literally translated, "Lion Hill"). And that is exactly what you see when you pass through the first gate (there are about twenty-seven, all distributed in different checkpoints up until the place where the house is located): a hill and lush forests as far as the eye can see. Not a lot has been done with it; there's an area where there's a house and a pool which is used for tourists, and some stables a little farther away. We call this place an "estancia".
Paraguayan people are characteristically warm, especially the ones who haven't been as corrupted by modern society. This applies most particularly to people living in the countryside, where the towns still behave like big families. This was no different for the people working at the estancia. I have fond memories of stepping down from whatever vehicle took me there to find a robust, brown-skinned woman with a huge smile and hair dark as the night hugging me and calling me by my name, even if she'd seen me only once or twice before. Her name was Saturnina.
Saturnina and her husband Sixto worked at the estancia keeping things in order. They woke up at dawn, every day, and while Saturnina sweeped and cleaned around, Sixto went down to town to pick up groceries, and sometimes clean water, if necessary. They knew the place like the palm of their hand, and they were never unsettled by the sounds coming from deep within the vegetation. Nighttime would come early for the estancia, being pitch black at about six or seven pm. While we were there, they turned on a couple of lights around the house, but merely out of politeness. These people were more comfortable in the dark.
As a child, I wasn't a particularly gutsy girl, so I had no desire to go investigate in the night like most of my cousins did whenever we'd visit. I'd sit around outside with Sixto to wait for them to come back from their treasure hunts, sometimes in silence, sometimes while he hummed, but sometimes Sixto would tell me stories. One of them was about plata yvyguy.
"Plata yvyguy" is a Jopará term, with "plata" in Spanish meaning "silver" (commonly used to mean "cash" or "money") and "yvyguy" in Guaraní meaning "hidden". So, "hidden money", or "hidden treasure". Plata yvyguy is a widely-known element of Paraguayan mythology. It's said that during the Triple Alliance War many of the women hid their jewelry and gold underground, as the invasions from the allied countries progressed, perhaps with the faintest hope of coming back someday to recover them. Of course, the outcome of the war was bleak, so returning never happened. These treasures stayed forgotten underground, and it is said that to whoever approaches an area where there's plata yvyguy, a headless dog will appear as a signal. While the image of a headless dog will cause a knee-jerk reaction of fear in most (possibly me included), these creatures will not harm anyone. They are lucky signs, they are the "x" on a treasure map.
Sixto had always been a curious man. When he first started working at the estancia, he would stay up late at night walking around, trying to memorize how each area looked, smelled, and sounded like. He'd walk up and down the trails leading away from the house and back, as far as his memory would permit. He told me one of the trails, the one leading to a stream was especially difficult to remember because of all of its turns and bifurcations, and he confessed it was also especially frightening. This trail would lead to a stream we called "La Madama".
The Triple Alliance War is recorded in history as the bloodiest South American war. Paraguay started out as the Giant Province of the Indias, with borders touching every corner of South America, and is now a small, landlocked country residing in the heart of the continent. The then president, Francisco Solano López, suffered from delusions of grandeur. He dreamed of Paraguay becoming the monster it once was and he was convinced he was the idol that would lead the nation to a new golden age. A struggle over the dominion of the Plata River, wrong decisions, and a megalomaniac president all led to bloody battles between Paraguay and the allied countries of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and eventually, to Paraguayan defeat. One of Francisco Solano López's last camps was set in Cerro León, on the same grounds I've walked on. Hence, the stream being called "La Madama", after president López's wife Madame Elisa Lynch, who was, coincidentally, probably the woman with the most luxurious and expensive jewelry collection in the country.
Sixto told me what he saw, and what he felt, and that he didn't feel scared, not once. He said he was walking down to La Madama and felt something brush past his leg, under his knee. He didn't want to look down, but he did, and he saw a tail, a small canine body, and nothing where the head was supposed to be. This creature, a dog, walked calmly up the trail and turned a corner, and Sixto followed and found himself at the beginning of La Madama. It was late at night and he only heard the crickets and the clear, cool water gushing down the hill, but he saw the dog nowhere. He knew what it was about. He told me he crouched and touched the ground, the earth, and he knew this is where he was supposed to be, and that he was meant to find whatever it is that was under.
I went back to Cerro León past February after years of absence due to work and studying, and other Real Life complications, only to find an aged Sixto, and a dead Saturnina. I was there for a weekend, but I barely got to see Sixto around the house; he was showing my father some places where a couple of robbers had broken in, and perhaps a few issues with the house. Sixto was old, weary, sad. Where his skin used to be dark and healthy, it was now coriaceous and opaque. Where his eyes used to be focused, they were now glossed and lost somewhere far away, probably with Saturnina. I sat down with him in the afternoon of the last day, and he pat my head in an awkward and brusque way, and told me I had forgotten the little girl I brought with me last time. Just before leaving, I asked him about La Madama. His breath paused, he smiled, turned to me and said: "Vas a ver algún día, che memby. La Madama no es ingrata ité." When my father called me and told me to get in the car, Sixto leaned in and whispered something in my ear.
What I saw in Sixto's smile when he told me about La Madama after all these years was a dimly-lit hope. It was a secret, it was his secret, a quest he needed to finish. It was his very own adventure. He believed in it blindly, he knew it was there whether it actually was, or not. This was Sixto's God, this was Sixto's unfinished business. This was probably the only thing separating him from Saturnina's own fate, and what was keeping him, and his mind, alive all these years up there in that isolated hill. This was Sixto's support and probably where his faith was. I hope, for his sake, that he never finds it.
Before leaving, what Sixto whispered to me was that I shouldn't be surprised if he sends me pearl earrings one day.
This is not fiction; just a recollection of sorts.