On our short flight to Medellín, Nico read the paper while I flipped through the in-flight magazine. He had shaved that morning and ironed his clothes, somehow managing to make himself look like someone who belonged in the front row of a plane. Halfway through the flight, Nico handed me the newspaper pages he’d already consumed. The major headline reported that a group of American soldiers had been arrested for attempting to smuggle a million dollars’ worth of cocaine from Colombia to the United States aboard a military plane. “Such is life in the tropics,” Nico said.
According to Nico, Medellín required a rental car. He claimed it was too dangerous to hail taxis on the street. The airport was in Rionegro, about an hour-long drive from the city. As we descended from the mountains into the valley, Nico lamented the housing developments and shopping malls that lined the highway.
“This used to be green,” he said, “all green. Every other Sunday, your grandfather would drive us through the mountains, just to see them and smell them. Now this.”
Nico had gone mostly quiet about half an hour into the drive. In that time, we drove circles around a city that Nico no longer recognized. When Nico did speak, he only did so in an effort to reassure me that he wasn’t lost. At each intersection, I watched the flower vendors march through traffic.
With the help of a taxi driver at a red light, Nico was able to secure directions to our destination. Originally, I’d figured we would be staying in a hotel similar to the one we’d enjoyed in Cartagena. Instead, we pulled up to a small guardhouse outside of a gated community not too far from downtown. Nico exchanged pleasantries with the guard. A German shepherd stood attentively beside him. The guard asked Nico his name, then asked who he was visiting.
“Rocío,” Nico said. The guard held a phone to his ear and kept his eyes on Nico. I asked Nico who Rocío was. “Violeta’s mother,” he said.
“Violeta?” I asked.
“My girlfriend,” Nico said. “The one who died.”
The shepherd followed our rental car a few hundred feet downhill. When I stepped out, the shepherd looked at me, sniffed my crotch, and then licked my hand. Nico laughed, then ordered me to unload our luggage from the backseat. Rocío’s hunched, frail figure emerged from the front of her yellow home. The shepherd ran to her and burrowed its head between her knees. I was afraid the dog would knock her over, but Rocío smiled as she scratched the shepherd’s ears. Nico and Rocío embraced. I watched as Rocío wiped a tear from her eye with her shaking hand.
“How long,” she said.
“Too long,” Nico said.
Nico referred to her as Doctor. “Doctor,” he said, “this is Gregorio.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” I said. Rocío gripped my hand with both of hers and demanded that I make myself at home.
I asked if the shepherd was hers. “No,” she said, “he belongs to everyone.”
The three of us sat smoking on the back patio, overlooking a small patch of forest that stood between Rocío’s gated community and a set of high-rise apartments. Rocío pointed out that, if one listened closely enough, one could hear the water running through the creek behind the trees. I did my best to listen, but only managed to hear the traffic.
“Can you hear it?” Rocío asked.
“Yes,” I said, lying.
I listened as Rocío and Nico caught up on one another’s lives. Rocío talked about her retirement from the hospital and her position as chair of the university’s medical department. She still attended meetings every now and then to ensure, in her words, that the hospital maintained its decency. At one point, Nico let out an ugly cough. Rocío watched him. “I don’t like the sound of that,” she said.
“Neither do I,” laughed Nico.
I did what I was told and made myself at home by lying in a hammock on the patio. Rocío insisted on providing me with a proper bed for a proper nap. She led me to a small room at the end of a long dark hallway on the first floor. I took position in the small twin bed and let my feet hang over the end of the mattress. On one nightstand, there was a picture of a young woman with shoulder length hair in a cap and gown. On the other nightstand, there was a picture of a young Nico and the same young woman. Violeta. They were both dressed well, he in an oversized suit, and she in a long loose dress. Her face was turned toward his and tilted back in laughter. Nico’s eyes were open slightly as he yawned into the camera. I, too, yawned. I did what I could to settle into the empty room. I closed my eyes and fell into an odd, light sleep from which I could hear Rocío’s and Nico’s voices as clearly as if I were awake. I tried to move and couldn’t. I tried to call out to them, but my mouth wouldn’t open.
“Not much time,” I heard Rocío say.
“Not much time at all,” Nico said. After a short silence, they laughed. Nico’s laugh turned into another heavy cough. “This cancer’s going to kill me,” he said.
Calmly, Rocío told Nico of something that happened to her only months before, in December.
“Nico,” she said, “there were four or five of them. All armed, all masked. They woke me up, undressed me, and tied me to the chair. This is no world to live in. They threatened me for hours. One of them, the youngest of the group, was nice enough to feed me cigarettes while the others sorted through the house. They looked everywhere.”
“What did they take?” Nico asked.
“Not much,” Rocío said. “Some jewelry and some art. In the end, the sun came up and our shepherd barked and the four of them left before the guard could catch them, as if he could’ve done anything if he had. And that was that. A week later, I sat around a linen table and led what’s still left of my family in a prayer I couldn’t have believed less in. And I said nothing about what happened, and I ate my dinner, and I laughed when jokes were told, and I smiled at the camera each and every time it was pointed at me.”
I woke up in a sweat and returned to the patio as if I had slept well and overheard nothing. “I want to show you something,” Rocío said. She pointed to a basket beneath the fireplace. Inside were scraps of burned metal. I set the basket down on the coffee table between the three of us. I looked at Nico and he nodded as if to say, Listen. Rocío removed a piece of metal from the basket and held it up to me.
“I assume you know something about this country,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Something.”
She explained to me, with the metal in her hand, that the pieces were from a car that had been bombed a few blocks from her home. “This home,” she said. A tear fell from her eyes and the rest of her face didn’t move.
“These pieces,” she said, “they rained on us. They rained on our roof and they rained on our lawn. The impact from the bomb took the front door down. We had to rebuild part of the house. I don’t know why I kept the pieces. Actually, I do know why. I didn’t know how to throw them away.”
I fished a piece of metal from the pile and held it with both hands. One of its edges caught the side of my left thumb. It was a small cut but the blood came quickly.
The plan for the evening, it turned out, was for Nico and I to watch a bullfight. “Why?” I asked.
“Tradition,” Nico said, shrugging. “It’s something you should see at least once.”
Rocío explained. “They won’t be around much longer. They’re being outlawed around the world, around the country.”
“There are only so many bullfights left,” Nico said.
“Good,” I said.
Nico promised Rocío we’d be back for dinner. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” she asked.
We drove into the city. Nico pointed out a small square building on one of the busiest streets. It stood out, somehow, despite being surrounded by office buildings and malls and hotels and casinos. “I grew up in that house,” Nico said. “Now it’s a bank.”
Together we sat through the mid-afternoon traffic. The sky grayed and the rain came slowly. Nico rolled the windows up and continued smoking. I joined him. At every red light, children and adults marched through the traffic, selling flowers, phone chargers, and umbrellas in the drizzling rain.
We parked in a gravel lot a few blocks away from the bullring, where the three teenagers on duty played cards in the guardhouse. A sign on the window listed the parking rates and the name of the venue nearby: Plaza de Toros La Macarena. Nico asked the teenagers if the rain was strong enough for the bullfight to be canceled. “No, no,” one of the teenagers said, “only if it pours.”
As we entered the bullring, I overheard an older couple talking about a car bombing that had taken place at La Macarena some twenty-five years before, ordered by Pablo Escobar. I asked Nico if it was true. “Of course it’s true. One bombing of many.”
From the highest bleacher, Nico and I could see the entirety of the ring: the bull, the band, the president, the matador, and most importantly, the audience. As we sipped on our first beers, the band began to play the matador into the ring. Nico elbowed me. “Bulls are color blind,” he said. “The cape is red to hide the blood.”
“Who are you rooting for?” I asked.
“The bull. Every time.”
I had grown up believing that bullfights took place between one man and one bull. Why, I don’t exactly know. I imagine my misconception had to do with being, from birth, consistently bombarded by the many mythologies of a man, alone, capable of achieving something great, or more to the general point, defeating something, or someone, categorically evil. The truth, I learned, is that a bullfighter is never alone. I watched as the bullfighter began the fight with two horsemen and ended with two matadors.
The fight must’ve lasted an hour, or more. I don’t know who was most at fault. Maybe the lancers didn’t lance properly. Perhaps the matador missed the mark with his two small flags. It’s possible that the bull was extraordinary, though no one, Nico included, made any comments about the bull’s pedigree. Everything indicated that we were in the presence of a mediocre sacrifice. When it came to the third and last part of the bullfight, the matador repeatedly failed to execute the bull. “He’s supposed to kill the bull quickly,” Nico said. The crowd jeered louder and louder with each stab. The bull bled all over and struggled to run. A trumpet warned the matador to hurry up and finish the job. He continued to disappoint. The trumpeter blew again, then again, and finally the fight was over. The bull, it seemed, had won.
“A happy ending,” I said.
Nico shook his head. “They kill the bull anyway.”
We left the bullring a different way than we’d entered. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“I want you to see something,” Nico said.
Nico walked quickly. He didn’t look at me to see if I was keeping up. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything. His head didn’t turn and his stride didn’t change. We crossed a busy street and reached an open plaza, Parque San Antonio.
He stopped next to what looked like two large, round sculptures. Two fat birds cast in bronze. Once there, I understood that they were not only two birds, but twin doves.
Nico stood in front of the eldest dove. I walked around it. From behind I could see him through its exploded middle. I wiped my eyes and moved closer to the dove. I saw Nico’s mouth moving but did not hear him. I imagined a version of Nico’s life void of war. A life with Violeta and their children. A world in which he could have stayed.
I stood parallel to Nico, in front of the unharmed dove. Water ran down its face, its chest, and off its grounded claws. I felt something move behind me, then a hard something pressed onto the side of my stomach. A voice spoke softly into my ear. “Do not move,” it commanded, “do not speak.” I felt my phone leave my pocket. Then my wallet. I turned to Nico. His eyes were still fixed on the open dove.
“Nico,” I said, “they robbed me, they robbed me.”
Nico didn’t speak until we were halfway to Rocío’s. His words came out slow and labored. “I’ll buy you a new phone,” he said. “And I’ll give you however much money you had.”
“Nico, it wasn’t your fault.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
Rocío prepared arroz flojo, a traditional Antioquian dinner that had become a rarity. She joked that she was the only person left in Medellín who still knew how to make it. The dish consisted of white rice soup, powdered beef, fried eggs, home fried potatoes, morcilla, and avocado. As she loaded her bowl with meat, she explained that her doctor had ordered her to eat more iron. “When people ask me how I’m doing,” she said, “I tell them that I’m perfect from the neck up.”
Nico laughed, then jumped in with a joke of his own. “When people ask me how I’m doing, I tell them I’m doing bad.”
“Just like that?” Rocío asked.
“Like that. One word. Bad. But they rarely ask.”
Over dinner, Rocío caught Nico up on the lives, deaths, successes, and failures of people they had in common. It turned out that one of their mutual friends, a childhood classmate of Nico’s, was a key player in the Colombian peace process being brokered between the government and the FARC. “The longest ongoing civil war in the world,” Rocío said.
Nico nodded. He took a deep breath. “Wars don’t end.”
“This one could, finally,” answered Rocío, her hands held open over the table, as if asking Nico to comply.
“I don’t see it,” he said. “Two hundred thousand dead. Seven million displaced. And what about the False Positives?” Nico turned to me. “The military murdered thousands of innocent people. Entire towns of people. And you know what they did after they killed them? They framed the dead as guerilla combatants. Publicized the killings in the media as victories over the enemy. Totally innocent people killed by the thousands. Five or six thousand, probably more. All for a little propaganda. All to win a war. Peace? What peace?”
“Everything your uncle is saying is true,” Rocío said. “All I’m saying is that progress is possible. Peace, maybe not. But progress, yes, it is possible. Things can be better. Improvement is achievable and optimism is important.”
“You’re right, Rocío. You’re right.” Nico pulled a cigarette from his pocket. His hands shook as he started it. “All I know is this. I was born after this war started, and I will be dead before it ends.”
We were out on the porch, the three of us, smoking our last cigarette of the night. The shepherd slept at our feet. “So,” Rocío said, “how are the doves?”
The Holy Days of Gregorio Pasos can be preordered here.