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lima, peru, july 28, 1979


There were ten of us and we shared a single name: compañero. Except me. They called me Pintor. Together we formed an uncertain circle around a dead dog, under the dim lights just off the plaza. Everything was cloaked in fog. Our first revolutionary act, announcing ourselves to the nation. We strung up dogs from all the street lamps, covered them with terse and angry slogans, Die Capitalist Dogs and such; leaving the beasts there for the people to see how fanatical we could be. It is clear now that we didn't scare anyone so much as we disturbed them and convinced them of our peculiar mania, our worship of frivolous violence. Fear would come later. Killing street dogs in the bleak gray hours before sunrise, the morning of Independence Day, July 28, 1979. Decent people slept, but we made war, fashioned it with our hands, our knives, and our sweat. Everything was going well until we ran out of black dogs.
     One of the compañeros had directed that all the dogs were to be black, and we were in no position to question these things. An aesthetic decision, not a practical one. Lima has a nearly infinite supply of mutts, but not all of them are black. By two o'clock, we were slopping black paint on beige, brown, and white mutts, all squirming away the last of their breaths, fur tinged with red.
     Given my erstwhile talents with the brush, I was charged with painting the not-quite-black ones. We had one there: dead, split open, its viscera slipping onto the pavement. We were tired, trying to decide if this mutt's particular shade of brown was dark enough to pass for black. I don't recall many strong opinions on the matter. The narcotic effects of action were drifting away, leaving us with a bleeding animal, dead, a shade too light.
     I didn't care what color the dog was.
     Just as we were coming to a consensus that we would paint the dead mutt we had at our feet—just then I saw it: from the corner of my eye, darting down an alleyway, a black dog. It was spectacularly black, completely black, and before I knew it, I found myself racing down the cobblestones after it. I dropped the paintbrush one of my compañeros had handed me. They called after me, "Pintor!" but I was gone.
     Enraged, I chased after the black animal, hoping to kill it, bring it back, string it up. That night, the way things were going, I wanted, more than anything, for my actions to make sense. I was tired of painting.
     You should know the homeless dogs of Lima inhabit a higher plane of ruthlessness. They own the alleys, they are thieves of the colonial city, undressing trash heaps, urinating in cobblestone corners, always with an eye open. They're witnesses to murders, robberies, shakedowns; they hustle through the streets with self-assurance, with a confidence that comes from knowing they don't have to eat every day to live. That night we ran all over the plaza, butchering them, in awe of their treachery, raw and golden.
     I knew how many cigarettes I smoked each day, and I knew how little I ran except when chasing a soccer ball now and then if a game came up, and I knew that there was little chance of catching it and—I'll admit—it angered me to know that a dog might outdo me, and so I resolved that it would not. We ran. It surged ahead. I followed along the narrows of central Lima, beneath her ragged and decaying balconies, past her boarded buildings, her cloistered doorways, her shadows. I wanted the mutt dead. I ran with cruelty in my chest, like a drug pushing me faster, and then my leg buckled and I sputtered to a stop. I was blocks away from the plaza, in the grassy median of a broad, silent avenue lined with anemic palm trees, dizzy, lungs gasping for air. The poor dog slowed on the far sidewalk and turned to look at me, standing only a few feet away, panting, its head turned quizzically to one side, a look I've seen before, from family, from friends, or even from women unfortunate enough to love me, the look of those who wonder at me, who expect things and are eventually disappointed.
     You should know that I felt nothing for the dog other than steely blue-black hatred. I was cold and angry. Hurt by too many German philosophers in translation. Wounded by watching my father go blind beneath great swaths of leather, bending and manipulating each until, like magic, a belt, or a saddle, or a soccer ball appeared. Frustrated by an absurd evening spent killing and painting for the revolution. I hated the dog. In the Arequipa of my youth, a street mutt had slept in our doorway once in a while, and mostly I had ignored it, had not petted it, but had watched it scratch itself or lick its own testicles and had never been stirred. I have loved many things, many people, but I felt no warmth toward this beast. Instead I envisioned there were stages of death, degrees of it, a descending staircase, and I wanted with all my heart to see this mutt, with its matted black fur, resting at the bottom. I called it and held my hand out. I sucked my teeth and coaxed it to me.
     And it came. With a pit-pat of paws on the concrete, it crossed the avenue, as if it were coming home, as if it were somewhere else entirely, not in the midst of war. It was a beautiful dog, an innocent dog. It had a shiny black coat. It had been playing a game. Still, I felt anger toward it—for making me run, for each drop of sweat, for the heavy beating of my heart. I petted it for a moment, then grasped it by the nape of its neck, plunged the knife through its black fur, and twisted. At that last moment, the dog struggled mightily, growling, lunging, but I held on and it did not bite me, but fell to the ground in a heap, blood gathering in a pool beneath its wound. It groaned sadly, helplessly. I admired it as it bled: its strong white teeth, its muscular hind legs. It panted and heaved. I might have stayed there all night if not for a flash of light and gruff voice that called out. It was a police officer and he had a gun.

In Arequipa, I chiseled decorations on the saddles my father crafted each year for the parades. I helped him dye the leathers, and took the hammer and the small wedge and banged and hit and bled until each was beautiful. This is how I was raised: my father and I in the workshop, the intoxicating smell of the cured leather, the tools, each with its purpose and mythology. He taught me the meticulous process as his eyesight abandoned him. By the time I had mastered it, he was too blind to see my work. My mother would tell him, "The boy is learning," and he glowed.
     I dressed impeccably in my gray and white school uniform, and always did more than was expected of me. I placed first in my class, and took the university entrance exam at age seventeen. I was accepted to the university in Lima. My head was shaved, my father danced happily, and my mother cried, knowing I would soon leave her. Lima was known then for swallowing lives, drawing people from their ancestral homes, enveloping us in her concrete and noise. I became one of those people. I saw the city and felt its chaos and its energy; I couldn't go home.
     I have lived through Lima's turbulent adolescence and her unbounded growth. She is mine now. I am not afraid of her, even as I am no longer in love with her. At the university I studied philosophy and then transferred to fine arts to study painting. I made angry canvases of red and black, with terrorized faces hidden beneath swaths of bold color. I painted in Rimae, just across the dirty river, in a small room with a window that looked out at the graceful contour of the colonial city. It was often cloudy, and my elderly landlady, Doña Alejandra, liked to let herself into my room to look at my work. I came upon her there, wrapped in my threadbare blanket, asleep in my chair, her chest rising in shallow breaths, on one of the handful of sunny days that I remember. Her own room had no windows.
     I caught the eye of some people with a painting I exhibited at the university: a portrait of a man, eyes averted, his mouth squeezed in a tight grimace, gripping a hammer in his right hand, poised to nail a stake square into the flat of his left palm. He was blue and brown geometry against a red background. He was my father.
     In the cafeteria, students stood on tables to denounce the dictator and his cronies. Slogans appeared on brick walls and were whitewashed by timid workers, only to appear again. We knew the struggle would come. It was the same all over the country. Many left school to prepare for the coming war.
     My father's blindness had hurt me. I longed to show him what I had accomplished. On my last visit home, in our small anteroom, I repainted my canvases with words, slowly, and only for him. He gazed blankly at the walls. I talked him through years of my canvases but never cracked the austere dark of his blindness. He nodded, told me he understood, but I knew I had failed him.
     I returned from Arequipa and made my decision. I left the university for the last time, only three months before I was to receive my degree in the fine arts. Instead I traveled to the countryside to study explosives with my compañeros.
     If I were still a painter, I could show you some truths about this place: the children, cold and hungry, lining up each morning at the well, carrying water back to their families. Five kilometers. Seven kilometers. Nine. The endless bus rides across the city, when a young man in an ill-fitting suit steps aboard to recite poetry and sell Chiclets. "It's not charity I am asking for," he shouts over the rattle of a dying bus. "I am selling a poem to ease your commute!" The passengers look down and away.
     In 1970, a town disappeared beneath the Andes. An earthquake. Then a landslide. Not a village but a town. Yungay. It was a Sunday afternoon; my father and I listened to the World Cup live from Mexico City, Peru playing Argentina to a respectable draw, when the room shook, vaguely. And then the news came slowly; filtered, like all things in Peru, from the provinces to Lima, and then back out again to all the far-flung corners of our make-believe nation. We were aware that something unspeakable had occurred, but could not name it just yet. The earth had spilled upon itself, an angry sea of mud and rock, drowning thousands. Only some of the children were spared. A traveling circus had set up camp at the higher end of the valley. There were clowns in colorful hats and children laughing as their parents were buried.
     In Arequipa, to the south, we had scarcely felt the earthquake at all: a vase slipping off a windowsill, a picture hanging askew, a dog barking.
     If I were still a painter, I would set up a canvas on that barren spot where that town once stood, select my truest colors, and show you that life can disappear just like that. ''And what is this, Pintor?" you might ask, pointing to the ochre, purple, orange, and gray.
     Ten thousand graves; can't you see them?
     When I was a painter, I would stroll through the city, eyes wide open. On my way home each afternoon, I passed the roadside mechanics standing along the avenue at the end of a day's work. Stained oily black from head to toe, they were the fiercest angels, the city's living dead. Lima was full of those worn down by living. I rushed home, reeling, sketching on napkins, papers, on my skin, all that I had seen so it would not go unrecorded. Everything meant something, hinted at an as-yet-unasked, un-dreamed-of question. There were no answers that convinced me. I painted toward those questions—a cinder block resting in an abandoned parking lot, a dented fender reflecting the streets—sometimes for a day or two or even three, catnapping in the corner of my room just as my landlady Doña Alejandra had once. I awoke well before dawn, awash in the metallic odors of paint and sweat and hunger, and I forgot my body almost completely.
     I have found that sensation a few times since: lost in the tangle of vines, in the jungles of northern Peru, running from an ambush; setting a bomb in the bitter cold of the sierra beneath a concrete bridge. But like a drug, each time the adrenaline rush is less powerful, and each culminating boom means less and less.
     I have not painted since that night of the dogs. Not a stroke of black or red, not animal or canvas.
     And I will not paint again.
     Only the walls of my cell—if they catch me—a shade recalling sky, so my dreary last days can be spent in grace.

What I recall of him: a thin and shadowy mustache and the gun. I remember the diminutive length of the barrel and its other-worldly gleam, backlit as it was by his flashlight. There was something drunken about the way he swayed, the unsteady manner in which he held his pistol, arm outstretched and wavering. I imagine he stumbled upon me after a few drinks with friends. "Hey, you there!" he called. "Stop! Police!" Picture this: a man in this light shouting, gun held unsteadily, as if by a puppeteer. I looked back toward him and said meekly, drawing on an innocence I could not have possessed, "Yes?"
     "The hell are you doing?" he shouted from behind the blinding light.
     I scoured my mind for explanations but found none. The truth sounded implausible; especially the truth. The silence was punctuated by the dog's pained cry. "This mutt bit my little brother," I said.
     He kept the barrel trained on me, skeptical, but stepped closer. "Is he rabid?"
     "I'm not sure, Officer."
     Bent over the dog, he examined its dying body. Blood ran in thin streams through the grass, fanning out toward the edge of the street. It reminded me of the maps I studied in grade school, of the Amazon Basin with its web of crooked tributaries flowing to the sea.
     "Where's your brother? Has he been seen by a doctor?"
     I nodded. "He's with my mother at home," I said and waved my arm to indicate a place not far away in no particular direction. There was a glint of kindness in him, though I knew he didn't exactly believe me. I was not as accustomed to lying as you might think. I was afraid that he might see through me. So I continued. I told of my brother, the terrible bite, the awful scream I had heard, the red, fleshy face of the wound. His innocence, his shining eyes, his smile, his grace. I gave my brother all the qualities I lacked, made him beautiful and funny, as perfect as the blond puppets they use to sell soap on television. I was sweating, my heart racing, telling him of the jokes he told, the grades he got. A smart one, my brother! And then I gave him a name: "Manuel, but we call him Manolo, Manolito," I said, and the officer, gun in hand, softened.
     "That's my name."
     I looked up, not quite sure what he meant.
     "I'm Manolo too," he said delicately, almost laughing. I chuckled nervously. The dog whimpered again. We faced each other in the still of the broad avenue and shared a smile.
     The officer put his gun in the holster and moved to shake my hand. I wiped the blade of my knife on my thigh and put it down. We shook hands firmly, like men. "Manuel Carrión," he said.
     And I said a name as well, though of course not mine and not Pintor. He was a cholo like me, I knew it by the way he spoke. His father worked with his hands, as surely as he had cousins or brothers or friends who worked with their fists. He said he was pleased to meet me. "But what are you doing exactly? Killing this mutt?" he asked. "What will that accomplish?"
     "I chased it down to see if it was rabid. The little bitch struggled with me. I guess I got carried away."
      Carrión nodded and leaned over the dog once again. With his nightstick he poked it in its belly, eliciting a muted, pathetic yelp. He peered into its eyes for a particular shade of yellow and into its gaping mouth for the frothy telltale saliva. "No rabies. I think Manolito is going to be fine."
     I was relieved for a brother I didn't have, for a bite that never was. My heart swelled. I imagined Manolito and his long, healthy days, running, playing among friends, his wound healed with not even a scar. I loved my fictitious brother.
      Carrión was drunk and kind. If things had gone differently that black morning this episode might have become one of his favorite stories, when asked by a friend or cousin over a drink, "Hey, cholo, what's it like out there?" Compa, let me tell you about the night I helped a man kill a dog. No, that sounds too banal. Hombre, one time, I came upon a man decapitating a street mutt. . . . Who knows how he would tell the story now? Or if he would tell it at all?
     "I used to be just like your Manolito," he was saying, "always getting into something. I liked to fight the big guys, but I was small. Always coming home with a broken this or a bruised that." Carrión spoke warmly now. "Are you taking him anywhere? The mutt, I mean."
     "The doctor wanted to examine it," I said, "just to make sure."
      Carrión nodded. "Of course. Good luck." He stood up to leave, unfolding himself, clearing grass from his knees. "You should put it out of its misery, you know. No point in being cruel."
     I liked him. How simple and mundane.
     I thanked the officer and assured him I would. We were pulling away, our good-byes restless on our tongues, when suddenly there was a noise, an abbreviated yelp. Looking up, I saw one of my compañeros, breathless, not thirty meters away, crouching savagely over a dog (white), holding it up by its muzzle, arm raised, knife in hand, poised to enter the fleshy underside of its neck. He had come down a side street and hadn't seen us until it was too late. Now he saw us and stopped. Confusion. Panic. Fearful, I reverted to form, abandoned my revolutionary training: I wanted to paint it, the brutal outline of a man at war with a mutt, caught in the act, frozen arms akimbo. I saw what I had looked like. Carrión looked my way, puzzled, then back at my compañero, and for a moment the three of us were caught in a triangle of wants, questions, and fears—a record skipping, a still life, a mutually-agreed-upon pause during which we each considered in silence the intricate and unfortunate relationships that connected us. An instant, nothing more.
     Then Carrión drew his gun, just as I grasped my knife. My compañero let the dog drop unceremoniously to the sidewalk and took off running down the avenue away from the plaza. The white dog scampered off, still whimpering. And Carrión faced me, whatever shadow of friendship we had briefly cultivated lost in fog. My options ticked off before me like the outline of a brutal text: (A) stab the cop, quickly; (B) run, run fast, imbecile! (C) die like a man. And that was all my mind produced. Despairing, only my last choice made any sense. Can it even be called a choice? I held my blade, true, but weakly and without conviction. I made as if to rise, perhaps even run, but there was nothing there. And while I dawdled with limp and half-formed thoughts, Carrión acted: forgave me, inexplicably spared me, struck me with the butt of his gun and ran off in pursuit of my comrade—sealing his own fate.
     He died that night.
     Reeling, I fell toward what I recognized as death. It was only sleep. Into the grass, clutching my jaw, eyes closed, my sight swelled into black. Half-dead dogs howled and whimpered. In the distance, I heard a gunshot.

© Daniel Alarcón

This electronic version of “lima, peru, july 28, 1979” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author. It appears in the short-story collection War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón, published by Harper Perennial, 2006.  Book ordering available through and

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Author Bio

DanielPeruvian-American Daniel Alarcón is the author of the story collection War by Candlelight, a finalist for the 2005 PEN-Hemingway Award, and Lost City Radio, named a Best Novel of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. His fiction, journalism and translations have appeared in A Public Space, El País, McSweeney’s, n+1, and Harper’s, and in 2010 The New Yorker named him one of the best 20 Writers Under 40. Alarcón is co-founder of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language storytelling podcast, and currently serves as a Fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. His most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, came out in October. 2013. He lives in San Francisco, California.