And of Clay We Are Created

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And of Clay We Are Created

Isabelle Allende. Chile. 1989. B

They discovered the girl’s head protruding from the mud-pit, eyes

wide open, calling soundlessly. She had a First Communion name,
Azucena. Lily. In that vast cemetery where the odor of death was already

attracting vultures from far away, and where the weeping of orphans and
wails of the injured filled the air, the little girl obstinately clinging to life
became the symbol of the tragedy.

The television cameras transmitted so often the unbearable image

of the head budding like a black squash from the clay that there was no

one who did not recognize her and know her name. And every time we see

her on the screen, right behind her was Rolf Carle, who had gone there on
assignment, never suspecting that he would find a fragment of his past,
lost thirty years before.

First a subterranean sob rocked the cotton fields, curling them like

waves of foam. Geologists had set up their seismographs weeks before
and knew that the mountain had awakened again. For some time they had

predicted that the heat of the eruption could detach the eternal ice from
the slopes of the volcano, but no one heeded their warnings; they sounded
like the tales of frightened old women. The towns in the valley went about
their daily life, deaf to the moaning of the earth, until that fateful

Wednesday night in November when a prolonged roar announced the end
of the world, and walls of snow broke loose, rolling in an avalanche of clay,

stones, and water that descended on the villages and buried them beneath
unfathomable meters of telluric vomit. As soon as the survivors emerged
from the paralysis of that first awful terror, they could see that houses,
plazas, churches, white cotton plantations, dark coffee forests, cattle
pastures—all had disappeared. Much later, after soldiers and volunteers
had arrived to rescue the living and try to assess the magnitude of the
cataclysm, it was calculated that beneath the mud lay more than twenty

thousand human beings and an indefinite number of animals putrefying in
a viscous soup. Forests and rivers had also been swept away, and there
was nothing to be seen but an immense desert of mire.

When the station called before dawn, Rolf Carle and I were

together. I crawled out of bed, dazed with sleep, and went to prepare
coffee while he hurriedly dressed. He stuffed his gear in the green canvas

backpack he always carried, and we said goodbye, as we had so many
times before. I had no presentiments. I sat in the kitchen, sipping my
coffee and planning the long hours without him, sure that he would be
back the next day.

He was one of the first to reach the scene, because while other

reporters were fighting their way to the edges of that morass in Jeeps,

bicycles, or on foot, each getting there however he could, Rolf Carle had
the advantage of the television helicopter, which flew him over the
avalanche. We watched on our screens the footage captured by his

assistant’s camera, in which he was up to his knees in muck, a microphone
in his hand, in the midst of a bedlam of lost children, wounded survivors,
corpses, and devastation. The story came to us in his calm voice. For
years he had been a familiar figure in newscasts, reporting live at the
scene of battles and catastrophes with awesome tenacity. Nothing could
stop him, and I was always amazed at his equanimity in the face of danger

and suffering; it seemed as if nothing could shake his fortitude or deter his

curiosity. Fear seemed never to touch him, although he had confessed to
me that he was not a courageous man, far from it. I believe that the lens
of the camera had a strange effect on him; it was as if it transported him
to a different time from which he could watch events without actually
participating in them. When I knew him better, I came to realize that this
fictive distance seemed to protect him from his own emotions.

Rolf Carle was in on the story of Azucena from the beginning. He
filmed the volunteers who discovered her, and the first persons who tried
to reach her; his camera zoomed in on the girl, her dark face, her large
desolate eyes, the plastered-down tangle of her hair. The mud was like

quicksand around her, and anyone attempting to reach her was in danger
of sinking. They threw a rope to her that she made no effort to grasp until

they shouted to her to catch it; then she pulled a hand from the mire and
tried to move, but immediately sank a little deeper. Rolf threw down his
knapsack and the rest of his equipment and waded into the quagmire,
commenting for his assistant’s microphone that it was cold and that one
could begin to smell the stench of corpses.

“What’s your name?” he asked the girl, and she told him her

flower name. “Don’t move, Azucena,” Rolf Carle directed, and kept talking
to her, without a thought for what he was saying, just to distract her,
while slowly he worked his way forward in mud up to his waist. The air

around him seemed as murky as the mud.

It was impossible to reach her from the approach he was

attempting, so he retreated and circled around where there seemed to be

firmer footing. When finally he was close enough, he took the rope and
tied it beneath her arms, so they could pull her out. He smiled at her with
that smile that crinkles his eyes and makes him look like a little boy; he
told her that everything was fine, that he was here with her now, that
soon they would have her out. He signaled the others to pull, but as soon
as the cord tensed, the girl screamed. They tried again, and her shoulders

and arms appeared, but they could move her no farther; she was trapped.

Someone suggested that her legs might be caught in the collapsed walls of
her house, but she said it was not just rubble, that she was also held by

the bodies of her brothers and sisters clinging to her legs.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here,” Rolf promised. Despite the
quality of the transmission, I could hear his voice break, and I loved him
more than ever. Azucena looked at him, but said nothing.

During those first hours Rolf Carle exhausted all the resources of

his ingenuity to rescue her. He struggled with poles and ropes, but every
tug was an intolerable torture for the imprisoned girl. It occurred to him to

use one of the poles as a lever but he got no result and had to abandon
the idea. He talked a couple of soldiers into working with him for a while,
but they had to leave because so many other victims were calling for help.

The girl could not move, she barely could breathe, but she did not seem
desperate, as if an ancestral resignation allowed her to accept her fate.
The reporter, on the other hand, was determined to snatch her from

death. Someone brought him a tire, which he placed beneath her arms like
a life buoy, and then laid a plank near the hole to hold his weight and
allow him to stay closer to her. As it was impossible to remove the rubble
blindly, he tried once or twice to dive toward her feet, but emerged
frustrated, covered with mud, and spitting gravel. He concluded that he
would have to have a pump to drain the water, and radioed a request for
one, but received in return a message that there was no available

transport and it could not be sent until the next morning.

“We can’t wait that long!” Rolf Carle shouted, but in the
pandemonium no one stopped to commiserate. Many more hours would go
by before he accepted that time had stagnated and reality had been
irreparably distorted.

A military doctor came to examine the girl, and observed that her
heart was functioning well and that if she did not get too cold she could
survive the night.

“Hang on, Azucena, we’ll have the pump tomorrow,” Rolf Carle

tried to console her.

“Don’t leave me alone,” she begged.

“No, of course I won’t leave you.”

Someone brought him coffee, and he helped the girl drink it, sip by

sip. The warm liquid revived her and she began telling him about her small
life, about her family and her school, about how things were in that little
bit of world before the volcano had erupted. She was thirteen, and she had

never been outside her village. Rolf Carle, buoyed by a premature
optimism, was convinced that everything would end well: the pump would
arrive, they would drain the water, move the rubble, and Azucena would
be transported by helicopter to a hospital where she would recover rapidly
and where he could visit her and bring her gifts. He thought, She’s already

too old for dolls, and I don’t know what would please her; maybe a dress.
I don’t know much about women, he concluded, amused, reflecting that

although he had known many women in his lifetime, none had taught him
these details. To pass the hours he began to tell Azucena about his travels

and adventures as a news hound and when he exhausted his memory, he
called upon imagination, inventing things he thought might entertain her.
From time to time she dozed, but he kept talking in the darkness, to
assure her that he was still there and to overcome the menace of

That was a long night.

Many miles away, I watched Rolf Carle and the girl on a television

screen. I could not bear the wait at home, so I went to National Television,

where I often spent entire nights with Rolf editing programs. There, I was
near his world, and I could at least get feeling of what he lived through
during those three decisive days. I called all the important people in the

city, senators, commanders of the armed forces, the North American
ambassador, and the president of National Petroleum, begging them for a
pump to remove the silt, but obtained only vague promises. I began to ask
for urgent help on radio and television, to see if there wasn’t someone who
could help us. Between calls I would run to the newsroom to monitor the
satellite transmissions that periodically brought new details of the
catastrophe. While reporters elected scenes with most impact for the news

report, I searched for footage that featured Azucena’s mud pit. The screen
reduced the disaster to a single plane and accentuated the tremendous

distance that separated me from Rolf Carle; nonetheless, I was there with
him. The child’s every suffering hurt me as it did him; I felt his frustration,
his impotence. Faced with the impossibility of communicating with him,
the fantastic idea came to me that if I tried, I could reach him by force of
mind and in that way give him encouragement. I concentrated until I was

dizzy – a frenzied and futile activity. At times I would be overcome with
compassion and burst out crying; at other times, I was so drained I felt as
if I were staring through a telescope at the light of a star dead for a million

I watched that hell on the first morning broadcast, cadavers of
people and animals awash in the current of new rivers formed overnight

from the melted snow. Above the mud rose the tops of trees and the bell

towers of a church where several people had taken refuge and were
patiently awaiting rescue teams. Hundreds of soldiers and volunteers from
the Civil Defense were clawing through rubble searching for survivors,
while long rows of ragged specters awaited their turn for a cup of hot
broth. Radio networks announced that their phones were jammed with
calls from families offering shelter to orphaned children. Drinking water

was in scarce supply, along with gasoline and food. Doctors, resigned to
amputating arms and legs without anesthesia, pled that at least they be
sent serum and painkillers and antibiotics; most of the roads, however,
were impassable, and worse were the bureaucratic obstacles that stood in

the way. To top it all, the clay contaminated by decomposing bodies
threatened the living with an outbreak of epidemics.

Azucena was shivering inside the tire that held her above the

surface. Immobility and tension had greatly weakened her, but she was
conscious and could still be heard when a microphone was held out to her.
Her tone was humble, as if apologizing for all the fuss. Rolf Carle had a
growth of beard, and dark circles beneath his eyes; he looked near
exhaustion. Even from that enormous distance I could sense the quality of
his weariness, so different from the fatigue of other adventures. He had
completely forgotten the camera; he could not look at the girl through a

lens any longer. The pictures we were receiving were not his assistant’s
but those of other reporters who had appropriated Azucena, bestowing on
her the pathetic responsibility of embodying the horror of what had

happened in that place. With the first light Rolf tried again to dislodge the
obstacles that held the girl in her tomb, but he had only his hands to work
with; he did not dare use a tool for fear of injuring her. He fed Azucena a

cup of the cornmeal mush and bananas the Army was distributing, but she
immediately vomited it up. A doctor stated that she had a fever, but added
that there was little he could do: antibiotics were being reserved for cases
of gangrene. A priest also passed by and blessed her, hanging a medal or
the Virgin around her neck. By evening a gentle, persistent drizzle began
to fall.

“The sky is weeping,” Azucena murmured, and she, too, began to

“Don’t be afraid,” Rolf begged. “You have to keep your strength up
and be calm. Everything will be fine. I’m with you, and I’ll get you out

Reporters returned to photograph Azucena and ask her the same

questions, which she no longer tried to answer. In the meanwhile, more
television and movie teams arrived with spools of cable, tapes, film,
videos, precision lenses, recorders, sound consoles, lights, reflecting
screens, auxiliary motors, cartons of supplies, electricians, sound
technicians, and cameramen. Azucena’s face was beamed to millions of
screens around the world. And all the while Rolf Carle kept pleading for a

pump. The improved technical facilities bore results, and National

Television began receiving sharper pictures and clearer sound; the
distance seemed suddenly compressed, and I had the horrible sensation
that Azucena and Rolf were by my side, separated from me by
impenetrable glass. I was able to follow events hour by hour; I knew
everything my love did to wrestle the girl from her prison and help her
endure her suffering; I overheard fragments of what they said to one

another and could guess the rest; I was present when she taught Rolf to
pray, and when he distracted her with the stories I had told him in a
thousand and one nights beneath the white mosquito netting of our bed.

When darkness came on the second day, Rolf tried to sing Azucena
to sleep with old Austrian folk songs he had learned from his mother, but

she was far beyond sleep. They spent most of the night talking, each in a
stupor of exhaustion and hunger, and shaking with cold. That night,

imperceptibly, the unyielding floodgates that had contained Rolf Carle’s
past for so many years began to open, and the torrent of all that had lain
hidden in the deepest and most secret layers of memory poured out,
leveling before it the obstacles that had blocked his consciousness for so
long. He could not tell it all to Azucena; she perhaps did not know there
was a world beyond the sea of time previous to her own; she was not
capable of imagining Europe in the years of war. So he could not tell her of

defeat, nor of the afternoon the Russians had led them to the
concentration camp to bury prisoners dead from starvation. Why should he
describe to her how the naked bodies piled like a mountain of firewood

resembled fragile china? How could he tell this dying child about ovens and
gallows? Nor did he mention the night that he had seen his mother naked,
shod in stiletto-heeled red boots, sobbing with humiliation. There was

much he did not tell, but in those hours he relived for the first time all the
things his mind had tried to erase. Azucena had surrendered her fear to
him and so, without wishing it, had obliged Rolf to confront his own.
There, beside that hellhole of mud, it was impossible for Rolf to flee from
himself any longer, and the visceral terror he had lived as a boy suddenly
invaded him. He reverted to the years when he was the age of Azucena,
and younger, and, like her, found himself trapped in a pit without escape,

buried in life, his head barely above ground; he saw before his eyes the
boots and legs of his father, who had removed his belt and was whipping it

in the air with the never-forgotten hiss of a viper coiled to strike. Sorrow
flooded through him, intact and precise, as if it had lain always in his
mind, waiting. He was once again in the armoire where his father locked
him to punish him for imagined misbehavior, there where for eternal hours
he had crouched with his eyes closed, not to see the darkness, with his

hands over his ears, to shut out the beating of his heart, trembling,
huddled like a cornered animal. Wandering in the mist of his memories he
found his sister Katherina, a sweet, retarded child who spent her life
hiding, with the hope that her father would forget the disgrace of her
having been born. With Katherina, Rolf crawled beneath the dining room
table, and with her hid there under the long white tablecloth, two children

forever embraced, alert to footsteps and voices. Katherina’s scent melded

with his own sweat, with aromas of cooking, garlic, soup, freshly baked
bread, and the unexpected odor of putrescent clay. His sister’s hand in his,
her frightened breathing, her silk hair against his cheek, the candid gaze
of her eyes. Katherina…Katherina materialized before him, floating on the
air like a flag, clothed in the white tablecloth, now a winding sheet, and at
last he could weep for her death and for the guilt of having abandoned

her. He understood then that all his exploits as a reporter, the feats that
had won him such recognition and fame, were merely an attempt to keep
his most ancient fears at bay, a stratagem for taking refuge behind a lens
to test whether reality was more tolerable from that perspective. He took
excessive risks as an exercise of courage, training by day to conquer the

monster that tormented him by night. But he had come face to face with
the moment of truth; he could not continue to escape his past. He was

Azucena; he was buried in the clayey mud; his terror was not the distant
emotion of an almost forgotten childhood, it was a claw sunk in his throat.

In the flush of his tears he saw his mother, dressed in black and clutching
her imitation-crocodile pocketbook to her bosom, just as he had last seen
her on the dock when she had come to put him on the boat to South
America. She had not come to dry his tears, but to tell him to pick up a
shovel: the war was over and now they must bury the dead.

“Don’t cry. I don’t hurt anymore. I’m fine,” Azucena said when

dawn came.

“I’m not crying for you,” Rolf Carle smiled. “I’m crying for myself. I

hurt all over.”

The third day in the valley of the cataclysm began with a pale light

filtering through storm clouds. The President of the Republic visited the
area in his tailored safari jacket to confirm that this was the worst
catastrophe of the century; the country was in mourning; sister nations
had offered aid; he had ordered a state of siege; the Armed Forces would
be merciless, anyone caught stealing or committing other offenses would
be shot on sight. He added that it was impossible to remove all the
corpses or count the thousands who had disappeared; the entire valley

would be declared holy ground, and bishops would come to celebrate a
solemn mass for the souls of the victims. He went to the Army field tents

to offer relief in the form of vague promises to crowds of the rescued, then
to the improvised hospital to offer a word of encouragement to doctors
and nurses worn down from so many hours of tribulations. Then he asked
to be taken to see Azucena, the little girl the whole world had seen. He
waved to her with a limp statesman’s hand, and microphones recorded his

emotional voice and paternal tone as he told her that her courage had
served as an example to the nation. Rolf Carle interrupted to ask for a
pump, and the President assured him that he personally would attend to
the matter. I caught a glimpse of Rolf for a few seconds kneeling beside
the mud pit. On the evening news broadcast, he was still in the same
position; and I glued to the screen like a fortuneteller to her crystal ball,

could tell that something fundamental had changed in him. I knew

somehow that during the night his defenses had crumbled and he had
given in to grief; finally he was vulnerable. The girl had touched a part of

him that he himself had no access to, a part he had never shared with me.
Rolf had wanted to console her, but it was Azucena who had given him


I recognized the precise moment at which Rolf gave up the fight
and surrendered to the torture of watching the girl die. I was with them,
three days and two nights, spying on them from the other side of life. I
was there when she told him that in all her thirteen years nobody had ever
loved her and that it was a pity to leave this world without knowing love.
Rolf assured her that he loved her more than he could ever love anyone,
more than he loved his mother, more than his sister, more than all the

women who had slept in his arms, more than he loved me, his life
companion, who would have given anything to be trapped in that well in
her place, who would have exchanged her life for Azucena’s, and I

watched as he leaned down to kiss her poor forehead, consumed by a
sweet, sad emotion he could not name. I felt how in that instant both were
saved from despair, how they were freed from the clay, how they rose

above the vultures and helicopters, how together they flew above the vast
swamp of corruption and laments. How, finally, they were able to accept
death. Rolf Carle prayed in silence that she would die quickly, because
such pain cannot be borne.

By then I had obtained a pump and was in touch with a general

who had agreed to ship it the next morning on a military cargo plane. But

on the night of that third day, beneath the unblinking focus of quartz
lamps and the lens of a hundred cameras, Azucena gave up, her eyes

locked with those of the friend who had sustained her to the end. Rolf
Carle removed the life buoy, closed her eyelids, held her to his chest for a
few moments, and then let her go. She sank slowly, a flower in the mud.

You are back with me, but you are not the same man. I often

accompany you to the station and we watch the videos of Azucena again;
you study them intently, looking for something you could have done to
save her, something you did not think of in time. Or maybe you study
them to see yourself as if in a mirror, naked. Your cameras lie forgotten in
a closet; you do not write or sing; you sit long hours before the window
staring at the mountains. Beside you, I wait for you to complete the

voyage into yourself, for the old wounds to heal. I know that when you

return from your nightmares, we shall again walk hand in hand, as before.

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· Discuss Rolf’s relationship with his sister Katharina, and his girlfriend, the story’s narrator Eva Luna, in “And of Clay we Are Created”, and how they have influenced his current interactions with Azucena

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