A teacher discovers the spirit of Chile in the wood carvings of a man named Nico
By Sydney Tammarine
As you read this, there is a man called Nico in a town named Puerto Montt carving life into the richest red wood you’ve ever seen. He sits cross-legged on a dock overlooking the Pacific Ocean: the last stopping point before his country bursts into rainforest, then ice. Deep red flowers of dust bloom in the creases of his hands.
This is the story I tell my sixth graders every year, on their first day in a new and foreign school. I met Nico when I was 21 and a stranger in Chile, away from home for the very first time. A woman called Orietta and her daughter Fabiola had taken me into their home in Valdivia, nestled in the sun- and rain-soaked lakes region of Los Lagos. Valdivia is cradled by mountains to the east, ocean to the west, and cracked right down the middle by a winding river they call Calle Calle. The name is a joke, the way everything Chilean is said with half a smile: it really is the second street. Walking, fishing, swimming, or boating, the Calle Calle is in sight from every corner of town. During the lunchtime break, workers gather on its banks for a rest and a cigarillo. I spent many afternoons on Orietta’s dock, breathing smoke to my mirror’s image on the other side. I would dip my toes in the water and imagine them floating away from me, me floating away from myself, drifting west into the wider Rio Valdivia and following its current until I was swept into the great expanse of the Pacific. From this dock I could see the house’s front windows, could watch the sun drench them, running rivers of orange and pink down the glass at sunset. Inside, Spanish syllables bounced off the walls like music. My name was hard to pronounce, that Greek y, so they added to it: Sydneycita they called me, the vowels tasting like melody off their tongues. Fabiola, Sydneycita, and Orietta, whom I often called mamá.
My own mother and I are not close. She has not told me many things. I learned as early as eight or nine years old to tuck the things she does say away, to fold them carefully to my chest so time won’t sand their edges, so I can bring them out to examine from time to time. I spent much of my travels holding my mother’s words up to the Valdivian sun, some seeing the light for the first time in years.
My mother has been a middle school teacher for nearly my entire life, for 20 years this fall. We work in adjacent districts now, so sometimes we trade students who say that our handwriting looks alike, ask if we share the same blue ballpoint pen. Since so many of my students know her, I leave out this part of the story. It seems wrong because I could not tell this part of the story at all without them: my students and the rocking of a dock over the river Calle Calle four years ago. When I was 19, just finished declaring my major in education at a tiny college close to home in Ohio, my mother held one hand with a Marlboro Gold burning to her temples and begged me: “Syd, you can be whatever you want. Just please don’t be a teacher.”
Out the car window, I watched the sea recede. The landscape hardened into hills, then mountains. The signs read Ruta 5, Chile’s longest expressway: 3,300 kilometers long, the final portion of the great Panamerican Highway. We traveled south until suddenly we couldn’t any longer.
The day I arrived, Orietta took me to Fuerte Niebla. The fort is an old Spanish stronghold, built in the 1600s as part of the famous Valdivian fort system, and it still keeps watch over the meeting of the Río Valdivia and the Pacific Ocean. I might have stood on its cliffs, looked out to the horizon and imagined the exact moment that its capture solidified Chile’s independence. But on this first day I had no interest in the view, the lighthouse, the cannons lined up like aging soldiers. I had only eyes for the world map stretched across one great stone wall, ancient and tanned. I put my hand somewhere in the middle of Chile and asked Orietta: “Dónde estoy?”
I felt drunk and bloated with latitudes and municipalities and the number of miles from home; I had memorized them all but I could not feel them in the ground beneath my feet. The ground here was like any other ground, firm as the earth in Ohio, and instead of feeling comforted I felt rising in my veins a deep and swirling vertigo. Orietta knew a little English, but I clung to the Spanish. That, at least, was different – the hard rr across my tongue was proof, at least, that I was somewhere else, standing on my head halfway around the world. When she didn’t answer, I asked again, “Dónde estamos?”
And finally the answer came: “De dónde eres?”
I think of this question often: the first of many times a Chilean insisted that I must name the place my feet used to stand to understand where they are today.
I passed my sophomore education classes with honors, but a dry doubt had worked its way into my bones. At home once or twice that year, I noticed the growing wrinkles around my mother’s eyes. In dreams I watched them encroach on my own, making vague threats to close off my peripheral vision. She never spoke directly to my major again, but would sometimes turn to face the silence between us and ask it, “Are you sure?” Eventually I had to admit the truth —which was, of course, that I wasn’t. I was 21 now and not sure of much of anything at all. It was fear, really, that dropped a term of classes to travel to a country I knew nothing, literally nothing, about. But as I pause to tell my students now: any reason is reason enough. Just go.
“Sydneycita!” Orietta called some weeks after our visit to Fuerte Niebla, when the end of my trip was drawing near: “Ven, venpo, ya llegamos tarde!” It would be half of a joke to say that every Chilean trip starts out this way: we only just found out that we are going, but already we are late. This was the call I heard when it was time to go for a coffee, for cigarettes, for groceries at Lider. I had plans to walk the river with a tea in hand and write, but another old joke goes that you can’t argue with Chileans about plans. Anticipating a short trip – a jaunt, nothing more – I left my phone and keys on the bed. “Adónde vamos?” I asked, as we climbed into the car. “Yapo, llegamos tarde,” replied Orietta: a sort of generic approval of my question that offered no answers.
Out the car window, I watched the sea recede. The landscape hardened into hills, then mountains. The signs read Ruta 5, Chile’s longest expressway: 3,300 kilometers long, the final portion of the great Panamerican Highway. We traveled south until suddenly we couldn’t any longer. We had found the ocean again in a town called Puerto Montt.
Puerto Montt is a port town, as the name suggests: a labyrinth of docks and outdoor markets and shambly houses capped with bright red roofs. It is far enough south for a penguin colony named Puñihuil to make its home. The locals call them jackass penguins, which is not but certainly must be a joke about their grating calls like those of donkeys, riding the Pacific waves to shore.
Orietta led me into a house that fit six people but housed sixteen: her brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces. What little air left to breathe was heavy and saturated with endless chatter. And above us all, the house’s largest occupants loomed: massive, eyeless red statues. A six-foot-tall mermaid stood guard at the front door. A falcon as big as the table was arrested in flight over the dining room. Two galloping horses stretched longer than the living room couches. Half of a saber-tooth tiger and a panda, the circles around its eyeholes burned a deep mahogany, left no room to stand on the porch. The heavy wood of the figures took in our voices and threw them back to us, sounding deeper and richer. The grain was such that I had to touch my fingers to a seven-foot dolphin, standing upright on his flukes, and ask a question that was not one but many: Why?
Federico García Lorca often spoke of the duende in his poems. The dictionary calls it spirit, but Lorca called it a power, a struggle, that which climbs up inside, from the soles of the feet, and makes emotion possible. He said that everything with black sounds – everything weighty and worthwhile – has duende, and that the duende will feed the artist whose body is needed to interpret it.
I studied Lorca and the duende in my senior poetry class, but I had met them both long before. I knew them intimately when I met Nico; I had learned to recognize that which flowed in me when I wrote essays, when I read short stories, when I translated poetry – and so like an old friend I greeted the duende in the dark eyes and the sculptor’s tools and the scarred knuckles coated with dust that led me out to the patio that day in Puerto Montt.
A patio in Ohio is something close to but separate from nature: something sterile and cemented and screened-in. Nico’s patio was nature: a gathering of trees encroaching on a clearing where the heat of the midday sun just barely cleared emerald canopy. Scattered amongst leaves were massive chunks of red wood, all in varying stages of birth: half-carved humans and beasts, some nearly finished and some still cloaked in possibility. Nico gestured for me to sit near an eagle, and when I knelt its wings threw shadow over me. “It is called alerce,” Nico explained, and he kneeled before me to carve a tiny sliver from the eagle’s underbelly, which he placed in my palm like a gift.