The Commandment

Puerto Montt quivers
with a deep festering rage;
what I am witnessing
is the End of the World.
In a bellowing voice
I beg of God, Answer me!
Why did You order this punishment?
He answers with eloquence:
He has lost patience with me
and it was time to clean house.

Above the trees bordering the plaza, gulls chattered loudly, while overhead, clouds moved inland off the salt sea bay, carried by a chilly ceaseless breeze. People hurried to and from the market for last-minute shopping. Tomorrow, the twenty-first of May, 1960, would be La Fiesta de la República, a Chilean national holiday commemorating Arturo Prat and the naval victory at Iquique, and all the shops would be closed.

The Post and Telegraph office stayed open later than was customary to accommodate the public before the holiday. Communication to other points in the country could be tenuous in Puerto Montt, a thousand kilometers south of the nation’s capital, Santiago, and the last city of any size on the mainland. In the bay and beyond lie thousands of islands of an archipelago that comprises the southwestern edge of the continent.

Two women entered the telegraph offce, still intent on a conversation begun outdoors as they queued up. While the postal clerk assisted the patrons ahead of them, the older woman wrote something on a slip of paper and showed it to her companion.

“What do you think of this?” Silvia laughed mirthlessly. When her turn came, the older woman handed the same paper to the clerk behind the counter.

“Buenos días. I want to send this cable,” she said sweetly.

The girl straightened and proceeded to transcribe the message, but as she read it, her forehead creased into a startled frown. “Señora,” she said, “this is not possible.”

“Why not? Isn’t this the telegraph offce?”

“Yes it is, but this is an impossible message.” The woman glared at her.

“But señora, a message like this could cost me my job.” The woman drummed her hand on the counter in a percussive rhythm and demanded to speak to the manager.

The girl disappeared into an offce and soon returned, accompanied by a fellow with provincial features and an easy-going air.

He noted that the woman awaiting his attention was in her early forties, small and dressed plainly; her black hair draped the back of her wool shawl. Pockmarks scarred her olive complexion. Her dark eyes darted around the room and came to rest on him now, as he faced her across the counter with her slip of paper in his hands.

“Violeta Parra, I understand you’re singing here later today?” He flashed his friendliest smile.

“Yes, tonight at the Casa del Arte.” She gestured toward Silvia. “A whole group of us are performing. Will you be going?”

“But of course. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve seen the posters everywhere. How long are you staying here in town?”

“Just two or three days. We’ve already performed in Valdivia and Osorno. This is the last stop on our tour; the day after tomorrow we return to Santiago.”

“Cultural tours like yours are a treat for us; this region is so isolated. We get to see artists like you only a couple of times a year. I happen to know that people from all over the province are coming to the concert.”

She smiled appreciatively. “It takes real effort to get here. The halls are small. People prefer to go to the movies. Sometimes these ventures turn out to be a wretched loss of time and money for us.”

There was silence. On guard for a change in tone, the man proceeded cautiously. “What is this about?” he asked, gesturing with the slip of paper.

“The cable? Well, we were walking from the square and when I noticed your offce was still open, I decided to send a cable.” His eyebrows furrowed with incredulity. In fact, the girl had not exaggerated; the woman was serious.

He read aloud.

Listen, God. Won’t you command an earthquake for me?

Violeta Parra

“All right, no problem at all,” he said. “But I need your address. Write it down and I’ll see that it’s delivered.”

Carpa de la Reina,” Violeta mumbled, identifying only the circus tent she occupied on parkland in a suburb of Santiago.

“Name of the street, señora?”

“No. There isn’t any street or number. Just Carpa de la Reina, Santiago de Chile.”

“Perfect,” said the man.

“How much is that?”

“Ah, don’t worry. The addressee will pay for it.”

“Good.” She closed her purse and prepared to leave.

“I hope that everybody will come tonight?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be there with all my friends,” the man promised.

Violeta and Silvia went outside, arranged to meet later, and parted company. Violeta crossed the plaza on a path paved with shards of clamshells. A row of trees shielded her from the wind. A clock sounded 1:00 p.m. She paused to inhale the briny air and listen to a tonada played by a blind organ grinder, who offered to tell her fortune. For a few coins, she watched as his squawking parrot withdrew a picture card from a deck. The man held the card very close to his face, considered it, and then predicted an unexpected visit. Satisfed, Violeta returned to her second-story room in a ramshackle hotel around the corner from the plaza.

The concert tour, commissioned by the University of Chile, consisted of Violeta Parra, her children, Ángel and Isabel Parra; Cuncumén, a seven-member folkloric group with whom Silvia Urbina sang; Ricardo Moller, the sound engineer; and Don Julio Alegría, the group’s coordinator.

The musicians had performed in Temuco on Friday night. Saturday, a mild earthquake signaled the possibility of further seismic activity, yet realizing they were unlikely to return soon to this remote locale, they decided to continue their tour. They gave a concert in Valdivia that night and on Sunday morning few south to Puerto Montt. After registering at their respective hotels, several of them wired their families of their safe arrival.

Since it was still early, a majority opted to go sightseeing: a boat ride to the island of Tenglo for lunch of paila marina, a regional seafood stew; then back to the mainland for a bus ride north to scenic Lake Llanquihue, where they hoped to glimpse the Osorno volcano. Silvia wasn’t feeling well and stayed behind to rest.

Violeta also chose to forego the sightseeing, because she wanted to mingle with the locals. Carrying a portable tape recorder, she joined the sightseers for the trolley ride to the docks at Ángelmo, but remained on the wharf to talk to the fshermen, woodsmen, and their wives, many of whom lived on the islands offshore. Choppy seas that have cut steep fjords, often rendering the islands inaccessible, lap the labyrinthine archipelago. The isolation has made for unique songs and customs.

As she had hoped, Violeta met a loquacious boatsman and recorded thirty minutes of conversation, which she promised to replay for him on a full-sized tape recorder back at her hotel room. She left the wharf at about three that afternoon and returned to her hotel for a late lunch. As she was being served dessert, seismic tremors began.

Violeta ran upstairs, two fights, to her room. In an instant, the tremors magnifed into jolts. "I was thrown onto the bed, which was propelled across the room and against the door. I grabbed the doorknob. The door began to fan open and shut with me. I felt the floor begin to give way as a beam toppled over and a wall collapsed. I began to scream, ‘Dear God, enough already,’ repeating just those words, but increasing in intensity until I was howling. I was sure I was going to die.”

An eternity passed. Everywhere, the hotel ripped apart yet remained upright though tilted. The stairway was pushed up and at a peculiar angle. By the time the quake ended, Violeta had become hollow as a shell. Disoriented, she went downstairs, wimpering.

She stood in the doorway for a long time, taking in the desolate picture of people pouring into the street. Women on their knees praying, men screaming. “Only in that moment did it occur to me to think of my companions. Then I heard a voice calling me from a distance. It was Silvia Urbina, of Cuncumén. We embraced, crying.”

The quake transformed the city into a metropolis of Hell. Iron rails broke free of their spikes and writhed into serpentine tangles. Jagged fissures split open roadbeds. The force of stone against cobbled stone sent debris fying into ominous dustdevils. From the mountains came rumblings of boulders that plummeted and triggered landslides, mercilessly crushing entire villages of people and animals. With the earthquakes came volcanic eruptions. Dormant cindercones coughed tongues of fire heavenward and spewed ashen rock. A deafening Apocalypse encompassed everything.

Then rainfall sent desperate, homeless victims darting around in panic through the streets of Puerto Montt looking for dry shelter. Violeta and Silvia took refuge with scores of others in the framework of a high school under construction. Silvia tried to distract Violeta from obsessing on her fear for her children, Isabel and Ángel.

After lunch, Isabel, Ángel, and their fellow sightseers were just returning from Tenglo Island by rowboat across a narrow channel when the quake hit. Suddenly the placid waters grew treacherous. Taller and taller swells rocked the boat, until it capsized and threw everyone into the water.

Only Julio and Ricardo could swim. Quickly they righted the boat and helped the others grab hold. The currents carried the tiny vessel back to the island. Everyone survived.

It was 11:00 p.m. by the time Ángel, Isabel, Julio, and the others reached the mainland. On seeing the destruction of the hotel where Violeta was staying, they sought out the public shelter, and there located Violeta and Silvia by the sound of guitar music. Silvia spotted the drenched figures first. “Your children are here. They must have fallen overboard.”

Violeta gasped with relief and jumped to her feet to greet them.

Someone made a fire of debris on the cement floor for the newcomers to warm themselves, and everyone gathered around to hear their story. They reported loud whisking sounds made by gigantic needles of water that shot more than sixty feet high into the air. The water, they said, turned yellow and stank of sulfur. Published reports corroborated their account and told of a surging of such energy that in the shallower bays the water parted for instants to reveal enormous dark mounds of mud shaped like whales on the seabed foor. Worse, hours later, tidal waves clear across the Pacifc to Japan leapt upon the most exposed coastal lowlands, snatching houses by their foundations, sinking ships, and drowning untold numbers of victims.

The little boat lists,
so do I weep.
By the whim of the wind,
I take my leave.

There was no concert that night at the Casa del Arte, but at the shelter the musicians sang late into the night. As time wore on, most set down their instruments to get some sleep, but not Violeta. Over the din of despairing sobs, she played her guitar and sang tender songs, as if to appease.

To help her relax, Silvia began to comb her friend’s hair. The touch of the young woman’s gentle stroke brought Violeta’s own fngers to a halt. She reached up, pressed her palm upon Silvia’s wrist, and nuzzled her head against her friend’s hand in a gesture of caress.

“How soft a young person’s hands feel,” she said.

The remark stayed with Silvia all her life —Violeta experiencing that simple affection as something precious. Violeta, so toughened by adversity, never saw herself as deserving of a gentle touch. Yet in that moment she took real pleasure in having her hair combed.