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The International Writers Magazine
: They Only Come at Night

Candelaria Twilight
William J. Brazill on fear and loathing in Columbia

We wandered the streets and turns of Candelaria at twilight and became self-invited guests in a magical place. The buildings, with their subtle pastels and vibrant colors, seemed to float unanchored, their clay roofs a crowning effect. The cathedral self-suspended from the heavens. Mellowing light from a cobalt blue sky cast the scene in a dreamland of shadows and shades. On the steeple clock the overlapping hands pointed to a time that did not exist.

Often I saw the swift-blurred motion of a figure disappearing around a corner. Had I been just a few seconds earlier, I thought, I would have seen a brown-robed Franciscan padre or an arrogant-booted conquistador or a demure mantilla-draped beauty slipping just out of the reach of her dueña. Squares and balconies pulsed with the transcendent beauty of flowers, billowing torrents of orchids, bougainvillea, flamingo lilies, palms. Shuttered windows closed off secrets. I could smell the nostalgia: dampened clay as the rich scent of history, the lingering spirits of long-dead residents, the sensuous trail of dreams once dreamed. I inhaled its beauty. A place to dream; a place to love.

Barrio la Candelaria is the original center of the city of Bogota, and the now sprawling Colombian city of seven million souls grew from this seed, though the seed miraculously remained whole. It is history, set apart from the present and from the panorama of violence, betrayal, and fear that the city and the nation have become. It is fantasy, set apart from the formless tide of modernity. A refuge, timeless, somehow sacred.

My reveries were sharply shattered by the sound of the growling gears of a heavy truck laboring through the narrow pedestrian-only passageways. Brakes shrieked it to a halt in front of a building we had just passed. Military police troops, camouflage-uniformed, bandoleered, steel-helmeted, clamored clumsily out of the truck. Their boots stomped across the cobbled pavement, kicked in doors, carried them inside the shuttered building. My companion grabbed my arm and hustled me into a dim gallery. They don’t want us to see this, she whispered.

We lunged along the passageway, racing away, somewhere, anywhere, Candelaria suddenly changing from magical to menacing. I looked back as I ran and saw the soldiers dragging hapless souls out of the building and propelling them into the truck in an arm-tangling frenzy of force. A turn in the gallery ended my view, but I heard the truck motor start and grind into movement. Its steadily descending sound told that it was driving away from us and from Candelaria.

At a café table later, my companion told me that we had just seen an action of social cleansing. These are prostitutes, drug addicts, panhandlers, people who won’t work, dissidents maybe, troublemakers, she said, as if consigning them to categories was justification for the action. They will disappear. Disappear? I repeated, questioning. Without a trial? Our government thinks society will be better off without them, she nervously fingered her cup as she spoke. The Colombian Supremo soured in my mouth, and I could drink no more. The next morning I attended a briefing at the US Embassy, a cluster of buildings glowering behind massive walls and surrounded by an endless maze of security checks, as if shouting fear at being where it was. Once inside, I was seated in a room with rows of chairs facing a chair on a raised platform. A man finally entered and went to the platform, saying he was the deputy chief of mission as he sat down on that level above us.

He began to speak without any further introduction. The US government, he intoned, sees the Colombian government as an essential ally in the war against drugs and the war against terrorism, a democratic ally in a threatening global sea of anti-American hatred. We are committed to the victory of this bastion of democracy in its struggle against the foes of freedom, its victory being essential to American security, and we will help in every way. He said something, I do not remember what exactly, about shared values… democracy… the rule of law. He looked over our heads at some imagined focus on the wall as he spoke. His face motionless, his lips pursed to form each word before he sounded it, he spoke with deliberate language that was used to deceiving, to shaping reality to some official version. As he did I heard the monotonous cadence of his voice mutating steadily into the pounding of boots on cobbled pavement, to doors splintering open, to the creak of leather gun belts. I could smell the adrenaline rush of power and the cowering fear of human beings suddenly exposed to the darkness.

© William Brazill April 2005

BIO: William Brazill had a career researching and writing in the social sciences, including two books, until he realized that truth lies in fiction. He now lives and writes fiction on the banks of the Potomac River. His most recent stories have appeared in Electric Acorn, Flashshot, FuzzyNet, Writer's Hood, and Somewhat.

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