It was hot in the bar but the stranger wore his sombrero.
He sat near the door and signalled the patron for two copas
and grilled armadillo for two, served on its own shell.
When he finished he polished the carapace
with his bandana.
Oh, he was perfect, except for that.
The people stayed back in the smoke and left us by the puerta,
the skin of his face shone dark as the polished wood
of the case he snapped opened to show his charango diablo—
demon eyes in the headstock flashed firestone,
the whole bar yelled ¡Toca!
and Oh! it was almost perfect then.
His fingers closed on the neck of the little charango.
With one foot on his chair, he lifted her onto his lap,
her waist on his knee and her soundbox pressed to his chest
She was made from the hollowed-out shell of an armadillo.
Oh! how the tarsal-bone frets hurt the heart!
It would have been perfect, except for that.
I said his charango was made by a a scavenger—
surely the camel of the musical-instrument world.
He bought me a copita and put down ten bolivianos,
a bargain was sealed for one night as his shadow.
He played some off-key huyaño—
Oh, it was far from perfect, without a flute.
The stranger challenged the patron to a game of stud poker.
I touched the charango’s strings with one gentle finger
and she sang in the midnight voice of the armadillo,
a melody high and thin as springtime snow,
the story she told was a tragedía—
the music was perfect but Oh! the lyrics were sad.
The notes of this song hid themselves like shy Andinas.
I dreamed them on a bus going west through the Anteplano,
leaving forever the snowy peaks and the condors—
better the sparrow of gringos than a snail in La Paz
or the armadillo mestizo’s dumb wife-in-waiting—
whatever happens me now will be better than that.
Last night I slept with a man who had no hair,
the muscles down his back were ridged and hard as shell
and every room in his house rang with his laughter
except for one where he kept his armadillo wife
and his four armadillo daughters—Oh, he was perfect, except for that.
© Breda Wall Ryan
Day of the Armadillo
Breda Wall Ryan has poems in several journals and anthologies. She was shortlisted for the Mslexia Poetry Prize and Fish Poetry Prize 2010.