Portrait in Sepia
I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth. I was born in the early morning, but in Chinatown the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart traffic, the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher's cleaver, were beginning to heat up. I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. My maternal grandparents welcomed me with emotion — even though according to several witnesses I was ugly as sin — and placed me at my mother's breast, where I lay cuddled for a few minutes, the only ones I was to have with her. Afterward my uncle Lucky blew his breath in my face to pass his good luck on to me. His intention was generous and the method infallible, because at least for these first thirty years of my life, things have gone well. But careful! I don't want to get ahead of myself. This is a long story, and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the listening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair, because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on. Since we have to begin at some date, let's make it 1862, and let's say, to choose something at random, that the story begins with a piece of furniture of unlikely proportions.
Paulina del Valle's bed was ordered from Florence the year following the coronation of Victor Emmanuel, when in the new kingdom of Italy the echoes of Garibaldi's cannon shots were still reverberating. It crossed the ocean, dismantled, in a Genoese vessel, was unloaded in New York in the midst of a bloody strike, and was transferred to one of the steamships of the shipping line of my paternal grandparents, the Rodriguez de Santa Cruzes, Chileans residing in the United States. It was the task of Captain John Sommers to receive the crates marked in Italian with a single word: naiads. That robust English seaman, of whom all that remains is a faded portrait and a leather trunk badly scuffed from infinite sea journeys and filled with strange manuscripts, was my great-grandfather, as I found out recently when my past finally began to come clear after many years of mystery. I never met Captain John Sommers, the father of Eliza Sommers, my maternal grandmother, but from him I inherited a certain bent for wandering. To that man of the sea, pure horizon and salt, fell the task of transporting the Florentine bed in the hold of his ship to the other side of the American continent. He had to make his way through the Yankee blockade and Confederate attacks, sail to the southern limits of the Atlantic, pass through the treacherous waters of the Strait of Magellan, sail into the Pacific Ocean, and then, after putting in briefly at several South American ports, point the bow of his ship toward northern California, that venerable land of gold. He had precise orders to open the crates on the pier in San Francisco, supervise the ship's carpenter while he assembled the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, taking care not to nick the carvings, install the mattress and ruby-colored canopy, set the whole construction on a cart, and dispatch it at a leisurely pace to the heart of the city. The coachman was to make two complete turns around Union Square, and another two — while jingling a little bell — before the balcony of my grandfather's concubine, before depositing it at its final destination, the home of Paulina del Valle. This fanfaronade was to be performed in the midst of the Civil War, when Yankee and Confederate armies were massacring each other in the South and no one was in any mood for jokes or little bells. John Sommers fulfilled the instructions cursing, because during months of sailing that bed had come to symbolize what he most detested about his job: the whims of his employer, Paulina del Valle. When he saw the bed displayed on the cart, he sighed and decided that that would be the last thing he would ever do for her. He had spent twelve years following her orders and had reached the limits of his patience. That bed still exists, intact. It is a weighty dinosaur of polychrome wood; the headboard is presided over by the god Neptune surrounded by foaming waves and undersea creatures in bas-relief, and the foot, frolicking dolphins and cavorting sirens. Within a few hours, half of San Francisco had the opportunity to appreciate that Olympian bed. My grandfather's amour, however, the one to whom the spectacle was dedicated, hid as the cart went by, and then went by a second time with its little bell.
"My triumph lasted about a minute," Paulina confessed to me many years later, when I insisted on photographing the bed and knowing all the details. "The joke backfired on me. I thought everyone would make fun of Feliciano, but they turned it on me. I misjudged. Who would have imagined such hypocrisy? In those days San Francisco was a hornet's nest of corrupt politicians, bandits, and loose women."...