The Cloud Counter

By Dorelia Barahona Riera
Illustrated by Henry González 
Selection and Compilation: Carolina Fonseca

When the father spotted him lying on the ground with one arm raised and a stiff index finger pointed at the sky, he had no choice but to recognize that the son, like his great-uncle, would be a cloud counter.

Resigned, he silently acknowledged that, despite having tried to educate his son in what he considered the three fundamental pillars of success, recited always in the following order: excellence in mathematics, perfection in writing, and optimal negotiations with humans, the child, simply put, obeyed only the mysterious genetic mandates that drew him down onto the ground at any time of day, his sole mission to order the celestial dome and count every cloud in the sky at that moment. Of course, there were many, so many of them in that vast sky over the pampa, as spotless as a tablecloth ready for a baptismal celebration, with no trees or hills to interrupt the possibility of counting for hours on end, belly-up to the universe. The clouds danced among the gaseous clusters and rain-propelling air streams hanging over the distant plateau.

The father failed to understand what he had done wrong. His son was useless at mathematics, had no desire to read, much less write, and then there were his negotiations with humans, which appeared to be just a step away from autistic.

Despite his 17 years, invitations, and youth camps abroad –he had already attended two– the son’s social life was limited to short dialogues with his parents and a few curt orders and affectionate gestures to the three hunting dogs that he had raised, not for hunting, but to accompany him, lying upside down like him, with their tongues out, waiting for their beloved master to stop playing with his arm aloft, gazing into the clear sky over the immense plain, pieces of which were reflected in the quiet waters of the Bebedero River as it approached the Gulf of Nicoya, where it released its contents, including the clouds carried along on its luminous surface.

Like his great-uncle Julio, a famous plainsman and deer hunter much celebrated around Aranjuez, the first town in Costa Rica founded between Villa Brussels and the village of Chomes, the boy ended up counting clouds atop one of the livestock devices employed by the hacienda, an old tannery dating back to colonial times, where the only noise came from the wind in the branches of the flame tree and people numbered less than those seen by a bull, outside of bullfights.

But the wife had told him and he no longer had any reason to doubt her. The son was paying for the sins of the father’s youth, when he abandoned the hacienda and fled to Hojancha with that Cuban girl –the daughter of an illegitimate son left behind by Martí during his exile from Esparza– who he in turn abandoned, pregnant, to her fate, after cutting her face several times, drunk and jealous as the devil himself.

The hand, which must have been the devil’s and not his for a moment, remained, only because they stopped him from cutting it off but he lost three fingers and the wound in the father’s chest had never healed. And hard as he tried to honor the pillars of a good Christian life, on more than one night when the pearly moon shone over his portion of the plain, the venom in the Cuban’s mouth and eyes caused him to close his fists in fury and, instead of guaro, comb the strings of his guitar as if crying.

“Given the father, who knows what the son would be up to if he wasn’t out counting clouds,” said the wife, who was probably right. So, he decided to stop insisting that his son be someone else: a great lawyer, a pharmacist, or an enterprising agronomist.

If he wanted to herd the cattle and take care of the horses at the end of the day and then lie on his back alongside his dogs to count clouds, so be it. Maybe one day changes would take place in his son’s mind of their own accord.

The river overflowed and flooded the plain. The animals had to be taken out of the corral and onto the nearest hill, over where the Montes de Oro start to peek out, past Miramar.

The mother was worried. The son had never strayed far from the farm.

The swollen rivers crossed the cane fields all the way to the salt flats and drowned most of the pigs and chickens.

Three days passed before they could return with the cattle.

—Mother, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful the sea looks from there! You know, I counted twelve ships and thirteen islets.

The mother was relieved to see that the son had continued counting.

But a few days later the son stopped counting clouds. He now preferred to go riding in the afternoons along the rivers that led into the hills, toward the northern mines.

And the father knew well enough what the mines held other than gold. One day, the son did not return.

– What do you mean “just like his great-uncle?” said the mother, staring him furiously straight in the eye for the first time. He’s turned out just like you, for god’s sake!

The father said nothing. A while later, after taking a bath, he sat barefoot on one of the porch steps. Before him, the savanna took a break from the dust on the roads, scenting the air with manure and curd.

That night, instead of combing the strings of his guitar as if crying, the father unwittingly began to count whatever clouds the endless darkness of the pampas would allow.

The Author

Dorelia Barahona is a Costa Rican writer and philosopher and a professor and researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. Her novels include ¿De qué manera te olvido? (How to Forget You?) (Juan Rulfo Prize in 1989), Retrato de mujer en terraza (Portrait of Woman on Terrace), Los deseos del mundo (The World’s Desires), La ruta de las esferas (The Route of Spheres) (Florida Ice & Farm Award), the collective novel Milagros sueltos (Loose Miracles), Ver Barcelona (See Barcelona), Zona azul (Blue Zone), and, in 2019, Cartografías de la belleza (Cartographies of Beauty). Her short stories include Noche de bodas (Wedding Night) (1991), La señorita Florencia (Miss Florence) (2003), and Hotel Alegría (2011). Her poetry has won awards and she is the author of several plays and essays.