EL SEÑOR DE LOS MILAGROS
by Janet Barrow
Señor Arellano walked slowly along Jiron Junín, his cane tapping nervously against the ground. The streets, a hive of agitated activity less than an hour before, were now vacant. Red and white relics hung over every doorstep. A street dog dug through a pile of garbage, the colors of its country painted into its greasy fur. A block further, a schnauzer lay in the sun, a Peruvian flag tied around its neck. After years of grumbling about the ceaseless racket of car horns, drunken street-fights, and the crazy old Catholic women self-flagellating on the corner outside of his Chinatown apartment, Señor Arellano was surprised to find the silence of today more oppressive than the previous seventy-years spent enduring the sounds of chaos. The streets were too wide without the regular crowds. And with no need for constant vigilance against thieves, nor the careful calculation it takes an old man to weave his way through a swarm without being trampled, his thoughts took up too much space.
Why does she always have to be so stubborn, he wondered.
“I’m just not superstitious like you,” she had said, her words hitting him like a slap in the face.
“It’s not superstition, Erika. It’s logic. These kinds of events attract chaos. And in this country, when chaos breaks loose, people end up dead.”
He’d imagined her eyes rolling at the other end of the line.
“The police don’t have any need to demonstrate their power anymore, papá. The war is over. No one’s trying to show the commies who’s boss.”
“Erika,” he had pleaded, his voice growing soft, “The National Stadium is not safe. You’ve never had a problem listening to me about this before, why are you starting now?”
She paused for a long moment.
“I’ve always listened to you because I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she whispered into the phone, “But Perú is going to make history today. It’s been thirty-six years since-”
“And in 1964,” he cut her off, “It had been twenty-eight.”
“I know, papá. But this is different. The world is watching us, and they don’t want to see any more violence. They’ve seen enough in Venezuela. All they want is to see a clean, respectful game. And that’s what they’re going to get.”
“Oh,” he scoffed, “I’m sure that’s why a couple hundred drunk hooligans spent all last night dancing around outside the New Zealand team’s hotel. Kept them up all night paying their respects, no?”
“Come on, papá. The New Zealanders made up those rumors anyway. They just want some stories about rowdy Latinos to bring back home. Look, I’ve got to go now. Stop worrying. Call up aunt Vanessa and go watch with her in Magdalena. She told me she’s making tequeños and inviting some friends over. I’ll call you at half time. Te quiero, papá.”
“Hijita, I really –“ he insisted, but she had already hung up.
If his daughter was stubborn, she was nonetheless a watered-down version of her viejito. He would not call up his sister. He would not take a cab to Magdalena, nor would he eat tequeños on a crowded couch amongst wrinkled contemporaries. Instead, he would walk the eerie distance between his Chinatown apartment and the Sanctuary of Las Nazarenas. And once inside, he would sit and pray until it was all over.
Silvio Gensollen and Sofia Ortega, who normally sat back to back in the tiny control room at the Geophysical Institute of Peru, stood up and lifted their ancient wood-backed chairs, one over the other, so that they could sit side by side.
“Can’t wait until the new assignment comes in and we can finally get out of this hole in the wall,” Sofia murmured.
She propped her ten-year-old son’s cracked iPad against her input panel and found a website live-broadcasting the game. Somos libres, seámoslo…. The players were singing, hands crossed over their hearts.
“It’s such bullshit that we have to be here, huevón,” she sighed, pushing her feet against the wall and reclining back until her seat balanced in the shape of a ‘V’ over its back legs.
“Even on a national holiday,” she continued, “They need us here making sure the automated system doesn’t screw up.”
“They’re just worried about the problems they’ll be in if this thing ever fails,” said Silvio, “Like that government security app in France, did you see that? Delayed three hours getting a message out during a terrorist attack. Imagine how screwed we’d be if that ever happened here.”
“But it’s not the same, Silvio. If the system detects a tremor, the alert goes out. If it doesn’t detect it, there’s no way for us to see it either. The only plausible failure would be with the detection system, not with internal software connections.”
Silvio let his hand brush against Sofia’s thigh before answering.
“At least this way we get to watch the game together, no?” he asked.
“Luis and the kids are watching at the puto National Stadium,” she said, pulling away from his touch, “They got there early and sold my ticket to some huevón outside.”
Señor Arellano turned right onto Calle Capón. Though he’d never been to China, he liked to walk beneath the green and red pagoda-style roofs and imagine the pueblo where his great-great-grandfather had grown up, what his life had been like before he ever heard the word guano, before he decided to come to Perú and dedicate his twenties to collecting expensive bird shit on the beaches of Callao with the aim of selling it to rich gringos in Europe. The story had it that he’d landed himself in Perú on account of being a money-grubber, which he was until the day that he died, but that he had his dignity too. Eventually, the crowds of guano-fiends got to be too big, and the day he found himself punching a kid from Xi’an over a pile of bird shit, he decided he’d prefer to spend his days sweating over the stove of a Chifa restaurant in Pueblo Libre instead. Thus, he became the first in a line of Chiferos that stretched over four generations and at least a hundred thousand bowls of steaming fried rice before Erika decided she’d become a teacher.
Lost in the unfamiliar silence, the smell of his father’s old restaurant, Chifa Xi, began to precipitate out of the still air. Señor Arellano fell back through the years, until he was scrambling between the legs of the cooks and waitresses in the kitchen, trying to throw a spoonful of chili powder into an order of Chaufa de pollo on a dare that his older brother had made. And then he could hear the roaring voices of the customer’s out front, screaming at the television during a match between Alianza and la U. But when he looked left, he realized that the screams were coming from down the street. Chifa Wong and Chifa Amigo had stayed open, and they were packed full of all the television-less Peruvians of downtown Lima. The game had already begun.
His heart began to speed up then. He was late to the church. He was always late for everything, but this time, it was unacceptable. Erika needed him. He began to walk faster, but all at once, he tripped forward over a discarded sandal.
“Concha su madre,” he cried out, and he veered left, barely avoiding a steaming pile of brown and coming to land on one of the red tiles that clustered into the shape of a rat, the first year of the twelve-year Zodiac Cycle.
“You have the abundant imagination of the horse,” he remembered his father teasing him as a young boy, “be careful not to let it take advantage of you.”
He felt a pang of resentment.
“If you were here,” he grumbled under his breath, “you’d be just as worried about Erika being there as I am.”
“If I were there,” he imagined his father answering, “I’d have preferred locking her in a closet to letting her go. But she’s an adult now- we don’t get to make the decision for her.”
“I just don’t understand why she has to insist when she knows-“
“That’s because you’ve forgotten how you felt during the first half of that game, before that day became a nightmare that neither of us would ever forget.”
But Señor Arellano hadn’t forgotten. In fact, he remembered it better than the day of his marriage, or even the morning of Erika’s birth. It was fifteen days until his eleventh birthday, and his father had blown three-days wages on tickets to what would be Arellano’s first game at the National Stadium. Perú was to play Argentina in the qualifying round for the Tokyo Olympics.
He remembered how cool his plastic red seat had felt against his legs when he sat down, and that he’d eaten his bag of canchita way too quickly, his whole body a bundle of nervous energy, waiting for the game to begin.
Just like for any other poor kid in Perú, for Arellano, fútbol had represented the shining medallion in the distance, the Peruvian dream. At age ten, he already knew that his future held few options. Chifa was option number one. Option number two involved earning hundreds of thousands a year for soaring a beautiful black and white sphere of hope across the wide field of the National Stadium while fifty-thousand people screamed at him in ecstasy.
And so he’d watched that game like a phantom – his body was in the stands with his father, but his soul was down on the field. The dreams he had for his country jockeyed with those that he had for himself, until he couldn’t decide if victory was more important for the future of Perú or for his own future. Somehow, he’d felt certain that if Perú won, his fate would be sealed. A win at his first game, and a game as important as that one, would have been a sort of taking in, an ecstatic pronunciation that ‘yes,’ that was where he was meant to be.
Twenty minutes into the game, all of Lima was silent. Ten million people held their breath. Twenty million eyes moved across flickering screens streaming live-broadcasts. Perú had not been to the world cup in thirty-six years, meaning there had not been a victory since before the civil war, the death squads, the forced sterilizations, the floods that left seven-hundred thousand people homeless, nor the magnitude eight earthquake that leveled Pisco to the ground. In the first qualifying match against New Zealand, they had tied 0-0. Now, if they won, they would be the final team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“Kuczynski says tomorrow will be a national holiday if we can pull this off,” Silvio whispered, hunched forward so that his head was only a foot from the screen.
“Yeah, I’m sure he’ll be excited about the twenty million dollar check we’ll get for making it through. He can use it to make some accessory to the airport he’s going to trade the Fujimori party for letting Alberto out of prison,” she scoffed.
“He’s not going to pardon Fujimori,” Silvio countered, “It would be political suicide.”
“There’s not a politician in the history of this country who isn’t crooked as the Pishtaco’s smile, Silvio. Kuczynski doesn’t care about Alberto’s forced sterilization campaigns, nor all the innocents he had gunned down during the war. If he can get something out of it, I bet you a dime he’ll pardon Alberto. He won’t even bat an eye over it. He can’t. There’s no way for him to understand the terror this country went through under Fujimori. When we were, ay-“ she shouted, jumping to her feet as Perú closed in on the New Zealand goal post. But New Zealand intercepted quickly and sent the ball soaring back to center field.
“When we were living through car bombs and daily assassinations,” she continued, sitting back down and pushing her chair back up onto its hind legs, “Kuczynski had already run back to the US, already decided he’d rather spend those years getting rich managing private equity funds and leave it to Alberto to clean up the mess with the terrorists.”
“You know something crazy?” Silvio said then, “My father’s a Fujimorista. Puts up his fists whenever he hears a word thrown against Keiko. Says the femenistas should have rallied behind her. Says they should’ve been thrilled to see a woman get so far.”
Sofia laughed so hard she started to tear up.
“Now that is one I have not heard before. What level of machist do you have to get to before you think that putting literally any person with a vagina in office would be a win for feminism? Keiko’s not even a woman, for Christs sake! She’s a puppet. If she took office, the first thing she’s do is pardon her father, watch him skip merrily out of his prison cell, and then let him take the reins from behind the scenes, maybe even run a second sterilization campaign, just for kicks. All her puppet strings would be visible, but we wouldn’t be able to touch Alberto. But really, how can any-“
“Vamooooos,” Silvio yelled, jumping to his feet.
“Ay, vamos muchachos,” Sofia echoed.
Christian Cueva was at left of field, close to the New Zealand goal. He passed to Jefferson Farfán, who was closing in at center field.
“Holy shit,” Sofia yelled, jumping into Silvio’s arms.
Farfán had made a clean kick, and the ball soared clear over the goalie’s head, flying into the net with exhilarating grace.
“Concha su madre, we did it,” screamed Silvio.
On the screen, Farfán ran with his arms outstretched. Somebody threw him a jersey from the stands and he draped it over his eyes before falling to the ground in tearful ecstasy.
“I can’t believe it,” Sofia shouted, her body suddenly stiff.
“Me neither, Sof-“
“No, Silvio, look-”
On the right side of her control board, a red light was flickering. The screen beside it showed the location of the imminent earthquake.
“Dios mio,” she whispered, her breath hollow, “It’ll be at the National Stadium in thirty seconds.”
Señor Arellano looked down at his watch. It had been fifteen minutes since the game started, and at last, he was less than a block from the church. Every few steps, he reached into his pocket and took out his phone, punched in Erika’s number, and then hung up before the first ring. She had promised to call at halftime. He would have to wait.
Besides, if something had happened, he reasoned, I would know about it right away. All of Lima had its eyes on the stadium. The persistence of the silence meant that there still hadn’t been any goals, and, more importantly, no disasters either. Or did it? If catastrophe broke loose, would people begin to scream inside their houses? Or would the silence only grow stronger and thicker until it lay over the city like a heavy coat, muffling any sounds that tried to escape?
Suddenly, he felt panicked. How had the people watching at home reacted in 1964? Surely, they’d cried out in indignation over that idiot ref’s disallowance of our goal, the goal that had put us at one to one, with only six minutes to go. Surely, in their rage, they would have all stormed the field, like that kid up front did, like I would have done had I been sitting any closer. But when the strange violence began to drip over their screens in the moments that followed, when our own police put their bats against that kid’s young body, and the whole front section pitched into the field to defend him, did they keep screaming then? Or did they fall silent? And if they were screaming, did their voices become hoarse, as more bats were put against more bodies, as Peruvians and Argentinians began to fight against each other, and the police against everyone? As everything turned into chaos, did they keep screaming the way I did, because even though I was way up high in the stands, I still felt like my soul was down there on the field? Or did their silence bloom outwards, so that even their chests refused to heave when the cameras cut off and the tears began to stream?
“Are you going to come in?” came a sudden voice.
Señor Arellano had stopped short on the threshold of the Sanctuary of las Nazarenas.
“Huh? Yes, of course,” he stuttered, rattled by the interruption.
He stepped over the threshold at last and walked slowly through the church, welcoming its familiar musty smell. He took a seat near the front of the pews, and then looked up at the venerated painting, “El Señor de Los Milagros,” whose mysterious survival of two massive earthquakes and a variety of officiated attempts to destroy it were celebrated, each October, by the largest procession of Catholics in the world.
“We both understand what it’s like to survive a catastrophe, Señor,” he began, “how quickly a day that starts off full of hope can transform into a nightmare of agony and disbelief…After it all started, my father grabbed me firmly by the hand and pulled me to face him.
‘Forget it, hijo,’ he said, his eyes filling with tears, ‘we’ve got to get out now.’
I was still shouting at the field, cursing out the ref and the police, calling them all ‘pendejos,’ and ‘concha su madres.’ I hadn’t yet realized that what had just begun wasn’t something that we could win. Even with fifty-thousand of us and just a couple hundred of them, a fist is nothing against a bullet. But then, I hadn’t supposed it would come to bullets. Or that, instead of at a sporting event, we would find ourselves in a battle against the ideology of merciless suppression that had arisen long ago, with the first threat of a communist uprising.
When they started throwing the smoke bombs, I understood that there is no longer a fight at all when one side loses the ability to breathe.
We were in the thirty-ninth row. We ran the same way that everybody around us was running – for the stairs. But as soon as we got in, we realized the mistake we’d made. There was no way out, and we’d just checked ourselves into hell. From the tenth floor, it didn’t make any sense to us that we simply could not get moving. We could never have realized that the police had already locked the doors at the bottom, that for every step we forced ourselves down, for every person who squeezed into the stairwell after sputtering for too long in the poisoned air of the tear-gased arena, we were pushing those at the front harder against the locked doors, until their bodies were pressed so firmly together that children floated between chests and backs, their feet not even touching the ground, and those who fainted from lack of oxygen or the plastering of their organs were held upright by the crowd, which hadn’t even felt them fall limp. We couldn’t have known that our collective desperation to get out eventually began to transform the bodies at the front into corpses.
In the two hours it took for somebody to ply open the doors at the bottom of our stairwell, Señor, nearly three people died every minute. One person every twenty-two seconds, three-hundred and twenty-eight of them in all.
When the doors finally did open, the corpses spilled out like water from a breaking dam, and all the living just flowed right over them. I was looking down, trying to find my father’s hand after somebody shoved between us, when I realized my right heel was pressed against the cheek of a teenage girl. I jerked it away and saw that her face was covered in footprints. Her mouth was open and her teeth had been knocked out.
I thought we would find relief when we finally reached the cool air of the street. Instead, there were shots. The chaos inside had transformed into a skirmish with the police in the streets surrounding the stadium. But they weren’t shooting tear gas canisters anymore; they were shooting bullets. I found my father’s hand and we ran until we couldn’t hear the screams anymore. When we knew we were out of it, he sat down on a stoop and scooped me up like an infant. He rested my back against his legs and we both cried, his tears falling onto my face and into my mouth, coating the back of my dry throat, which ached with confusion and dehydration. And then I fell asleep, as if I were trying to turn the whole thing into a bad dream.
The next morning, I woke up covered in bruises from all the bodies that had marked their insistence to live upon me.”
When he had finished, Señor Arellano looked up into the eyes of the sacred image.
“I hope you understand what it is I’ve come here to ask you for, Señor,” he whispered.
Just then, he heard the screams begin to sound from all around. It was easy to tell a scream of glory, he noted then, from a scream of despair. Perú had scored. Señor Arellano tried, but he couldn’t restrain the grin that began to spread over his lips. And then he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket.
“Disculpe, Señor,” he smiled, “I wouldn’t take it, but it could be Erika.”
But it wasn’t Erika. Instead, it was an automated alert from Sismos Perú, an application that Erika had downloaded onto his phone for him a few months before.
“Tremor of unknown magnitude detected in the northern part of Cercado de Lima. Seek safety immediately.”
“Dios,” Señor Arellano breathed, falling to his knees, “what have you done?”
*This story is based on the events of the qualifying match between Peru and New Zealand for the 2018 World Cup, which took place in Lima in November of 2017. The extreme celebratory commotion following Peru’s first goal was so intense that it triggered a series of magnitude one tremors throughout the city. Ultimately, nobody was injured.