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The have nots


The public hospital in the fanciest neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro received a thousand patients every day. Nearly all were poor or very poor.

In the fall of 1993 a doctor on call remembered: ‘Last week, I had to choose between two newborns. We only have one incubator. The babies were born at the same time, each with one foot in the grave, and I had to choose which would live and which would die.’

By saving one, he’d kill the other. By killing one, he’d save the other.

This isn’t up to me, the doctor thought, let God decide. But God paid no heed. The newborns were slipping away, and it was the doctor who had to pick the one who would benefit from the lone machine on hand. He had no time to stop and think. Whatever he did, he was going to commit a crime. If he did nothing, he’d commit two.

The doctor closed his eyes and chose: one baby was condemned to die, the other was condemned to live.

The Birthday

Face of a smiling ant, butt of a frog, legs of a chicken: Sally had her first birthday.

The event was celebrated in a big way. Across the floor her mother, Beatriz Monegal, spread an enormous tablecloth embroidered with flowers, whose origin couldn’t be divulged, and lit the little candle on the crown of the cake she would never pay for at The Sandwich Emporium.

In one amen the cake was gone and the party began. The many guests drank and danced and enjoyed themselves, while the honoree slept deeply, wrapped in clean starched clothes in a shopping basket.

At a quarter to three in the morning, when not a drop was left in the jugs of wine, Beatriz snapped her last photographs, turned off the radio, shooed everyone out and hurriedly picked up her belongings.

At three on the dot, a police siren wailed. Beatriz had moved into that big house a couple of months previous, along with her many children and her most recent love, who was muscular and good at kicking doors open. When the police arrived to serve the eviction notice, Beatriz had already set off on her new pilgrimage.

She was headed down the middle of the street with her man and her older children, hauling the poles of a cart filled with little children and rags, looking for another house to invade, and laughing a laugh that cracked the silence of the Montevideo night.


Tertuliana Queiroz stays, prays and
obeys somewhere in Ceará.
Waiting, she sleeps.
Waiting, she wakes.
She waits, her children wait.
In better times, she talked a blue streak.
But now she stutters.
Fifteen children.
Seven left, she says. No, she says, six.
The others are dead, died or killed.
She looks at the heavens with the eyes
of a sleepwalker.
God called them, she says.
She’s got used to it.

The Map of Buried Treasure

The automobile pulled up in front of the home of Carlos Díaz, the doctor at the Paraguarí base.

Around here no-one had ever seen a car like that, so huge and shiny and such an unusual colour. It came from far away, from a large hacienda on the banks of the Rio das Mortes, in Mato Grosso, but it looked fresh from the factory or from a dream. Not even the dust on the roads had dared place a finger on it.

Two young Brazilians, as unblemished as their car, had with them an old Paraguayan who was falling apart. ‘Have a look at him doctor, he’s not feeling well.’

The doctor listened to his heart which beat out of courtesy.

The Brazilians offered him some money to come along, just in case, on the last leg of their relentless journey.

The invulnerable car cut a swath through the countryside until they reached a mud-and-straw hut, lost in the solitude of empty expanses.

‘I’ll get out by myself,’ said the old man. And limping, he made his way into the hut.

The wait was long. The skinny dogs grew tired of barking. Sleeping in the sun, the car baked.

‘Go on in, doctor, see what’s going on.’

In the dim light of the hut, the doctor found the old man flopped on a cot. Two women were putting moist rags on his forehead. The old man murmured, ‘I’m staying here. Tell them to forgive me, if they can.’

The Brazilians started the car and, swallowing their rage, sped off to take the doctor home.

They told him the old man had worked as a peon on the hacienda for 30 years, and one night he told them about a treasure, a chest filled with gold coins buried by Marshal López when he was fleeing the troops that finally killed him, and no-one else knew where it was. His grandfather, one of López’s soldiers, passed on the secret. In his youth he dug a lot of holes searching, but it would take a metal detector.

They believed him. Not at first, but later on, and they ordered a metal detector from the United States that was technology’s latest cry of victory. And they came all this way with the detector and the old man.

‘Two weeks’ travel, for this,’ groaned the driver. And the other: ‘The old fox. If he’d told us he wanted to die at home, we’d have paid his way. We weren’t going to deny him that favour.’ ‘That favour,’ the doctor repeated – silently.

Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America’s foremost writers. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, and his latest book Upside Down is published by Metropolitan Books, New York.

New Internationalist issue 352 magazine cover This article is from the December 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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