Like This Afternoon Forever

Jaime Manrique

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Like This Afternoon Forever, Jaime Manrique’s new literary thriller of love and murder, based on Colombia’s shocking history of killing thousands or poor and mentally disabled citizens—who were then presented to superiors as “guerrilla fighters”—in order inflate casualty numbers. When two priests who are already hiding their forbidden love encounter evidence of this atrocious violence, their lives are newly threatened.

The Putumayo


The journey by bus from Facatativá to Palos de la Quebrada took over twenty-four hours, traveling on dusty roads. Ignacio had to change buses twice and noticed that the passengers on each bus eyed one another suspiciously. As the hours passed and the Andes faded behind them, leaving the coolness of the mountains painted with emerald hues to enter the metallic-green jungle with its stupefying heat and humidity, Ignacio became covered in sweat and was stung by pertinacious mosquitoes. On both sides of the road, behind the wall of vegetation, lay an inscrutable world. One-horse towns with names like Mocoa, Puerto Asis, and Puerto Leguízamo appeared on the borders of the jungle, breaking up the monotony. The bus crossed bridges over the waters of the Putumayo, Caquetá, Orito, San Miguel, and Macayá rivers. Ignacio was hearing many of these names for the first time. For the first time, too, he saw the Quichuas, Ingas, Sionas, and Vitotos Indians who lived in protected areas. Ignacio had heard at school that these Indian communities welcomed the evangelical missionaries, who competed with the Catholic church in proselytizing the locals. These religious groups, in the absence of government agencies, helped the displaced people who had been forced to abandon their homes in the jungle.

The bus moved past oil refineries that sent up foul jets of smoke, blackening large areas of the sky. The workers lived in wood shacks inside sprawling compounds that were hemmed in by barbed wire and littered with plastic and glass bottles, metal containers, and heaps of garbage where vultures fought for scraps. On sandy clearings along the muddy rivers, Ignacio observed men digging and panning for gold. Sometimes, when rays of sunlight hit the strainers the miners used to sift the metal from the sand and water, golden flashes fleetingly blinded him. In places where the miners had already finished looking for gold, there were yawning craters, as if meteorites had crashed into the earth. Ignacio saw large fields being burned for cultivation or for raising cattle. The bus traveled for many miles before he saw a wild animal crossing the road, or even a bird flying. The emaciated Indians who sold fruit and water on the roadside looked with glazed eyes at the travelers. Occasionally, in the distant mountains, bright green patches of land were visible where the coca plant was cultivated.

The detritus of war was everywhere: rivers choked with crude oil, spilled from pipelines blown up by the guerrillas. Bloated carcasses of animals coursed along the oil-thick waters. The stench of rotting flesh was overpowering. The passengers who stared straight ahead stoically, Ignacio decided, were the locals; the newcomers to the region, like himself, stuck their heads out of the open windows to retch.

During the excruciatingly long hours on the bus, Ignacio reflected on how his life had turned into an ongoing journey with unknown destinations. Where, and when, would his travels stop? Each new geographic move was another step distancing him farther from the world of his parents.

The detritus of war was everywhere: rivers choked with crude oil, spilled from pipelines blown up by the guerrillas. Bloated carcasses of animals coursed along the oil-thick waters. The stench of rotting flesh was overpowering.

The second day on the bus, as the sun set, the sky for a few minutes turned a bright crimson that made Ignacio think of a ceiling painted with fresh blood. When darkness fell, many passengers took out their rosaries and began to pray. The passengers spoke in whispers; when they talked to someone across the aisle, their voices quavered and their gestures were jumpy. Ignacio wanted to fall asleep and wake up when the bus arrived in Palos de la Quebrada, but his fear of what might happen under the cover of night kept him awake.

As the bus barreled down the road in the darkness, some passengers suddenly cried out and jerked away from their windows, pointing at severed heads hanging from the vegetation that canopied the thoroughfare. Each time the low-hanging heads bumped against the roof of the bus or brushed against the windows, smearing the surface of the glass, the passengers would shriek again.

Despite the terror that gripped him, Ignacio forced himself to keep his eyes closed; eventually, he fell asleep. When he woke up, the sun was rising, and his fellow passengers were quiet, but they looked as if they hadn’t slept all night. To his great relief, the horror of nighttime on the road in the Putumayo had dissipated.

The bus came to a stop in front of a wooden house where people had gathered. Ignacio was the only passenger who got off at Palos de la Quebrada. He had been told before he left Colegio San José that the seminary in the Putumayo had been notified of the day of his arrival. After the conductor handed him his suitcase, Ignacio realized that nobody had come to meet him. The locals stared at him suspiciously, so he made an effort to hide his distress. Ignacio approached a man seated behind a table on the sidewalk. He looked like the person who sold bus tickets. Ignacio smiled and said, “Good morning, sir. Can you point me in the direction of the seminary.” The man’s gaze of hostility abruptly softened and the people around him seemed to accept Ignacio’s presence in the town.

He was pointed toward a path that wandered away from the village. Seemingly impenetrable jungle bordered both sides of the sandy path. He crossed a soccer field strewn with pebbles and prickly nettles. In the distance he could see a wooden church among a scattering of buildings with thatched roofs. Though it was still early in the morning, Ignacio’s shirt was already drenched in sweat, so he walked as fast as he could to reach the place where his vocation would be tested for the next five years.

The numbing heat that drained his energy, the asphyxiating humidity, being drenched in sweat during the hottest hours of the day, the nightly torment of the mosquitoes—all these took some time getting used to. The twenty-five brothers in the community were friendly and helpful, but there was so much to learn that everything went by in a blur. Other than his chats with Father Daniel, there was nothing Ignacio missed about Colegio San José. He was eager to see what life in Palos would hold for him.

At irregular intervals during the day, and with regularity at night, single gunshots were interspersed with the rattling cacophony of machine guns. The gunfire sounded like it was coming from nearby. Ignacio noticed he was the only one in the seminary who seemed distracted by the sounds. Was the army doing target practice? One afternoon gunfire suddenly went off as he was walking in the yard with Iván, a tall black seminarian who had befriended him. In two more years, Iván would be graduating and leaving the Putumayo.

Iván chuckled when he saw Ignacio shudder. “That, by the way,” he said, “is the soundtrack in this place. Relax—most of the time those aren’t real shots. The guerrillas play tapes of gunfire through loudspeakers hidden in the jungle lest people forget we’re in a war zone. It’s their way of keeping everyone in a state of constant fear.” He paused, letting Ignacio digest this. “But sometimes the machine-gun fire is from the police or the army shooting at the guerrillas. It’s the government’s way of reminding people that the Colombian armed forces are here in the region. After a while you’ll become immune to those sounds and you’ll begin to think of the gunshots as the equivalent of frantic drums in the background during Tarzan movies.”

Ignacio laughed, though he had never seen a Tarzan movie. Iván’s matter-of-fact explanation unsettled him, but remembering Brother Daniel’s advice to speak with caution, he didn’t ask any questions.

Ignacio followed, to the letter, the strict routines, and soon he found comfort in their numbing mindlessness. He awoke with the first tolling of the bell at four a.m. Sweaty and sticky, he was still half-asleep as he rushed to the communal bathrooms to shower. By five o’clock, refreshed by the cold water, he was dressed and waiting in the chapel for the heavy-eyed dawdlers.

“Relax—most of the time those aren’t real shots. The guerrillas play tapes of gunfire through loudspeakers hidden in the jungle lest people forget we’re in a war zone. It’s their way of keeping everyone in a state of constant fear.”

Afterward, on their knees, the community observed a period of silence for an hour. When they left the chapel the tops of the trees were dabbed in the pink light of the rising sun and a riotous chorus of birdsong greeted them. It was Ignacio’s favorite time of day, because it was still cool and the morning music cheered him.

He marched off to attend to his duties, which included watering the vegetable gardens, helping with the milking of four cows, and removing fresh eggs from the chicken coops. He liked that one week he would help to cook, another week he’d sweep the floors, or keep the chapel spotless, or wash and iron clothes, or make sure that the large earthenware jars standing in the cool shady corners of the buildings were filled with water from the well. Twice a day he would poke a stick into the damp corners beneath the water vessels to make sure no scorpions were hiding there. On his parents’ farm there were scorpions everywhere. Since they liked to crawl into shoes at night, Ignacio and his siblings had slept with their shoes on, or placed them under their pillows. After he arrived in Facatativá, he thought he’d never have to deal with scorpions again. But in Palos, every night before he got into bed, he checked for the venomous pests beneath his pillow and blanket.

By the time he’d arrive at the refectory at seven fifteen, Ignacio was weak with hunger. Father Superior sat at the head of the table, with the novitiates taking their assigned seats. A friar would read aloud for ten minutes about the life of a saint. When Father Superior said, “Enough,” they’d recite a prayer of thanks for the day’s food, and then have one cup of café con leche each, a piece of the coarse dry cassava bread that the Indians ate, and some days, as a special treat, a banana. After they had finished their breakfast, Father Superior would remark, “Thank you, God, for the holy hands that prepared our meal.” Ignacio would laugh like everyone else, but he had to struggle not to roll his eyes.

He succeeded in hiding his boredom during the morning classes in liturgy and ornamentation, where they learned about the various objects used for Mass, which linens were considered sacred, how to pour the sacramental wine, and when a certain prayer was said. He dutifully learned everything involved in the Mass ritual, but he looked forward to the classes in theology, the humanities, and philosophy—subjects which the seminary took pride in teaching from a secular point of view. In the afternoons, the seminarians studied psychology, Spanish literature, and Latin, which Ignacio also enjoyed. He decided to throw himself into his studies. The sameness of the days in the seminary was somewhat relieved by the strict academic routines because they made the hours go faster. He found consolation in reminding himself that in a few years he would be able to go to university, perhaps in Bogotá.

A bowl of soup for lunch was followed by an hour-long siesta. At this time of day, the heat was so intense that even the flies dozed off as the jungle fell silent. At five o’clock, when the heat had lessened, classes were over for the day. Then the seminarians were free to play soccer, go for walks, read, and get together to chat and play checkers, Parcheesi, or chess. It was the only time that was all their own. Dinner at five forty-five was invariably rice and red beans, and sometimes fried ripe plantains as well. For dessert they each got a slice of the salty white cheese with guava paste that was made in the seminary. As they ate, the seminarians shared what they had done and learned that day.

Around six thirty villagers would begin arriving to the chapel to say evening prayers, which included reciting the rosary. Afterward, for an hour, the community played tapes of religious music. The music pouring out of the speakers in the bell tower served to momentarily drown out the gunfire echoing in the jungle. Before they went to bed, the seminarians said their prayers, kneeling in front of the altar in the chapel.

Their haunted expressions suggested a desperation to hurry out of the jungle, as if they were fleeing a plague.

Instead of playing games with his classmates during his free hour, Ignacio began to go for short visits to Palos de la Quebrada. It was a dismal place, its inhabitants lethargic, as if crushed by the jungle. The main traffic on the road that crossed the town consisted of mules carrying goods and trucks loaded with timber. A bus stopped in the village every other day in front of the general store to drop off mail and merchandise to be consumed by the locals. Ignacio observed that people used the bus to travel away from Palos; it was a rare occasion when a passenger got off the bus to stay in the village. The townspeople got used to seeing Ignacio wandering about, and he enjoyed the laughter of children playing in the streets. When children called out, “Hello, Brother Ignacio,” he smiled and waved. Sometimes they followed him as he walked around without talking to him. The older men playing dominoes under shady trees tipped their hats when he passed by.

The barefoot, half-naked Indians who traversed the road in both directions, looking as if they were sleepwalking, fascinated him. Their haunted expressions suggested a desperation to hurry out of the jungle, as if they were fleeing a plague. It seemed the only plan they had was to keep walking, until they had left the region behind.

Ignacio was cautious of the fully armed people wearing fatigues that crisscrossed the town’s main street on mules. Whether they were guerrillas or paramilitaries, it was hard to tell. The Paleros regarded them all with fear. The strangers acted as if he were invisible; when they did take notice of him it was with a hostile stare.

In the company of other seminarians and teachers, Ignacio began to venture beyond Palos. He fell under the spell of the exuberance and beauty of the Putumayo region: the purling streams, their currents slowed by deep pools of still water; the roaring waterfalls, at the bottom of which lay ponds of cool transparent water, in which you could see fish as clearly as in an aquarium; the turbulent dark waters of the rivers, which hid treacherous currents; the flesh-eating fish and reptiles. Gigantic mesas (which the locals called tepuis) were the main features of this land: they rose up toward the sky like landing platforms for spacecraft. Everything in the jungle gave the appearance of being under a magnifying glass. The beauty of nature sometimes made him forget the unrelenting bugs, the parasites and worms in the water, and the poisonous vermin.

During the first weeks, the symphony of birdsong and calls—which began at dawn and reached its highest pitch around noon when the jungle seemed to burn silently in invisible flames—kept Ignacio in a daze. Frequently, clouds of confetti-colored birds crossed the sky in eerie silence. But a blue, cloudless sky could turn ominous in seconds. Torrential rains poured down without warning, forcing people and animals to seek refuge, sometimes for hours and sometimes for entire days.

It was harder to get used to the clatter of army helicopters hovering over the rooftops. From them, flyers rained down that said, If you befriend a guerrilla or give them shelter, you’ll be punished. The most common flyers promised the Paleros monetary rewards for any guerrilla they turned in. Other flyers said, Be a patriot. Denounce the guerrillas hiding among you. Join the army.

One night, as Ignacio and the brothers were filing out of the refectory, the sound of barking dogs could be heard coming from Palos; cries of terror followed. The seminarians ran outside. What looked like balloons of fire fell from the helicopters; wherever they landed—on the trees, on a field, on the thatched roofs of homes—a voracious fire was ignited.

Ignacio stood petrified, bewildered by the spectacle of these globes of flame that kept falling from the sky. The frenzied barking of the dogs and the frightened cries of children, and people whose homes had been hit, punctured the silence of the night jungle.


From LIKE THIS AFTERNOON FOREVER. Used with the permission of the publisher, Akashic Books and Kaylie Jones Books. Copyright © 2019 by Jaime Manrique.

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