Research Notes · 03/06/2020

Let It Be Our Ruin

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Lee Tyler Williams writes about Let It Be Our Ruin from Arc Pair Press.

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In the few months that I was in the Pampas, I never really felt like I left Envigado. It was my fault for telling people I was coming back. Almost every day I was there, I was messaging back and forth with the chef or Jiye. Even the sadist lawyer wrote me, quoting from Leopardi’s “Alla luna,” translated into Spanish: “Pero me complace el recuerdo, y el repasar las fechas de mi dolor.” Onto the Pampas’ emptiness, it was easy to cast the landscape you had inside you, or the one you carried with you from the place before. The flatness curves up into drenched hillsides and crooked ridges, taking on the north’s bestial topography. All the white buildings darken into pastels and have red tile roofs. The cows are still down South, except you can see their rib cages as if they’re not being primed for slaughter.

What was true was that its grasslands were borderless, but I barely left the room I rented and listened to the music I wanted to write about instead: rock nacional and Chicago blues. The beer was better down there, that was true, but that’s to be expected when you had more German immigrants. The empanadas were thicker. Sweeter, too. But the weather was colder, and I didn’t plan for the start of winter. I bought an old sweater at a flea market for the walks I did take. There the houses and streets were still quiet, except somewhere you could always hear a guard dog barking at the silence. The men still gathered under tv sets and cursed their local clubs. The canals were still sluggish, but the water was bluer, clearer in its reflection. Instead of listening to a parrot squawking about its lost home like I did back in Envigado, I obsessed about the sound made by these shards of colored glass tied together into a wind chime when they clinked against the wall outside my window when I tried to sleep.

The one time I took a bus from where I was staying, it was to a former secret prison that had been turned into a museum with all these exhibits detailing the crimes of the military and police during the last dictatorship. More than a prison, the place looked like an abandoned high school. If you didn’t know what happened there forty years earlier, you could say the place, which was up on a hill and surrounded by tall trees, was almost peaceful.

I thought one of the buildings was a gym, but it turned out it be a dormitory where prisoners would wait before they were dragged across the prison to the torture rooms. Some buildings were full of pictures on the wall of the disappeared. Mostly school photos, or government IDs. On one wall someone had spray-painted next to a photo the words, “Mentiras, hijodeputas!” I asked the guy working at the information desk about it, and he said they decided to leave it up there to remind the museum’s visitors how some people still couldn’t accept the past. The words were written in a child’s scrawl and distracting as hell, but I guess I understood his point. Later, he and one of the guides gave me a ride back to town. They were friendly. They didn’t seem to hold it against me that I was from a country that either ignored or bankrolled the crimes that went on in the place where they worked.

Walking out of an exhibition room, I went down this concrete path to the fenceline and looked out over the hills. Down farther was a lookout tower and much farther than that, past an empty field and through a yellow haze, you could see the sierras with their crooked spines. Silver, etching the whole horizon. I almost thought the landscape was beautiful until I remembered the numbers I’d just read. And all the faces and names. How many of them were out there in those quiet fields? Underfoot of a spotted sow dragging her tits. Or farther away, up on the sierra’s slopes. Or burned and scattered? Or fed to the pigs of a local farmer who had no choice but to comply? Winter had barely started, but suddenly the chill felt subfreezing. The museum was trying to remind people what happened while those grasslands beyond it had covered up everything. The earth forgets, and we keep digging, tilling, trying to remember, but more dirt falls over us, cakes and hardens around our frantic hands, blinds us, smothers us under its waves. A steady and ancient amnesia that looks like this: a pastoral scene of hills and swaying cypresses and birds hopping along some branches and a light haze lifting. Maybe that was the true separation, the fundamental resistance. Not between each of us, friend and enemy, one generation and the next, but between us and the dirt we stand on, the dirt that keeps swallowing all the shit that rains down on it, erasing it like it was never there, while we fight to collect and tally and archive everything as frantically as we can, unable to accept that soon it’ll be nameless and buried under a quiet field at the edge of some continent that’s drifting into fire.

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Lee Tyler Williams is the author of the novel, Leechdom (New Plains Press, 2015). His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, published in numerous magazines, and featured on National Public Radio. He was born in Dallas, Texas.