On a cold night in 1974, they left their home behind them and made their way north to Bolivia. Before they went, she took apart the gun down to its last screw and hid each part among her rolled up socks, in her travel backpack. The larger pieces she put in her boots, and weathered the blisters that they caused.
“We are going to Canada,” her father told her one morning as they left the house of the people who were sheltering them. “We will be safe there from Pinochet and his men. The men who killed Julia will never find us.”
That made her cry. “How will we find them then?” Then she said the names of her two baby brothers. “How will we find them?”
Father looked away for a long time. “They are gone,” he said. “Forever.”
“No. No,” she screamed at him and ran away over the field of brown grass, falling to her knees just as he caught up to her.
Putting his arms around her, he breathed into her ear. “We can’t find them. You don’t want to die, do you? We will survive.”
She screamed, “I’ll kill him.”
He sighed a long, rattling sigh and said, “We can’t fight him, any more than we can fight the passing of time. And I wouldn’t let you go. At least give me, hmm…” He kissed her head. “My last child’s life. Win against fate. Not by fighting, but by running away. Don’t do what he wants you to. Grow old. Have children of your own.”
But she saw much later, when she had grown into a woman, that he had misunderstood the Vidente’s actions. He had thought that the man was interested only in Julia and the boys and that his gaze had now passed beyond the pair of them. But every word and deed of the Vidente was locked inside a little cold box in Valentina’s brain, and she had many years during which to decode them.
They made their way to Canada and were admitted as refugees as part of the ‘Special Movement Chile’ program, which Canada had specifically created to give new lives to survivors of Pinochet’s rebellion. She had not told her father about the gun and, peculiarly, he had not asked. Maybe he had assumed she would throw such a thing away, or bury it, the evil instrument. But she saw it as more than that. A tool of metal and wood could hold no curse or evil inside it. Instead it was her first step, a reverse engineering of the man she had been confronted with, which she would make into her own device. The farther she walked and travelled with the pieces of the weapon secreted in her bag and on her person, the more she felt that it now belonged to her. When she had taken it apart, it belonged to El Vidente. When she one day reassembled it, she thought, that would make it hers completely.
On the aeroplane to Toronto, she stared down at the sea and the land, asking incessantly when they would be over the United States of America, where the Vidente had come from. When her father told her and she looked down upon the country, she saw that it was no different from any other land. All just brown and tiny. She had expected to feel hatred. Wanted to. But she felt none.
Landing in Toronto she had almost expected they would catch her with the gun, but they did not. They barely paid attention to her, in fact.
They moved to Ottawa. Her father had a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Universidad Técnica del Estado in Santiago. In Canada he got a job as a janitor in a high school and never looked back. She never did understand that. Or the parts of it she did, she chalked up to his cowardice. For her part she started Grade Two at an elementary school there in the capital and began what amounted to an almost normal Canadian life. Almost perfect. She must have seemed like any other immigrant student, and indeed she met others like her who had come from other countries. Even a Chilean boy, though he came from a rich family. One day he made a flippant comment about Allende and she gave him a bloody nose for it.
She looked at the boys and girls who came from other countries, among the white faces that she at first discounted as all the same, and thought that maybe they had come from a place like hers. Was Canada a country for the broken and beleaguered children of war to come and somehow fit in, forget it all and pretend they were like everyone else? But no. She learned quickly she was unique. Or that the others were hiding their secrets well. No one else had a mother who’d been murdered. She was special. Her story was not normal.
She learned that in art class. Drawing with crayons the little stick figures of El Vidente, Julia, her father, brothers, and herself. The gun, just a black L-shape in the scarecrow-like hands of the man. She wore a red crayon down to a nub. The confused looks of the other children and the teacher’s gasp and her own smirk as she looked around at their expressions. Led off to the principal’s office like she’d said a bad word.
But when the principal looked at her drawing, he just sighed in the dark room and took his glasses off. “You didn’t draw expressions. Are the people sad?”
It was true. She’d put little dots for the eyes, then looked around at the other kids to see how they were drawing the faces – all smiles, big, obnoxious, U-shaped smiles. That was certainly not correct. But nobody had been frowning, exactly. She lacked the artistic talent, maybe, to put emotion on the faces of those figures.
“They were,” she said with a shrug. “Kind of.”
The principal looked up at her sharply. Then he said, “Are you going to take it home and show your father?”
Then she did cry.
Not for herself, probably, but for him. Even imagining what he would think hurt her. He was too fragile to see this. This, that she saw every day and saw no harm in drawing for herself. The other children had been drawing scenes from their lives. Houses, mom and dad, cars, toys. This was what her life was about. This was her family scene.