Ernesto Cardenal's
With Walker in Nicaragua
 Translated from the Spanish 
by Jonathan Cohen

~ Reading in Spanish by Ernesto Cardenal ~
~ Reading in English by Edward Asner ~

In a lonely cabin on the frontier,
I, Clinton Rollins, attempting no literary style,
pass the time by penning my memories.
And as an old man my thoughts wander back:

The things that happened fifty years ago …

Spanish-Americans I have known
               — whom I have grown to like …
And that warm, sweet, green odor of Central America.
The white houses with red-tiled roofs and with wide sunny eaves,
and a tropical courtyard with a fountain and a woman by the fountain.
And the heat making our beards grow longer.
What scenes return to my memory now!
A grey wave that comes blotting out the hills
and a muffled sound of flood waters rushing through the jungle
and the howls of monkeys on the opposite bank
and then the heavy, metallic beating of raindrops on the tin roofs
and the people running to take in the clothes from the ranch porches
and later the grey wave and the muffled sound moving off
and once again the silence …
And how it smelled of underbrush and the river turned leaf-green,
how the little steamboat looked there, calm as could be,
anchored to the shade of the jungle.
And the sudden flop of an iguana into the water,
the rumble of falling timber,
the distant shot of a rifle,
a Spanish word shouted from afar,
the laughter of the black women washing clothes
and a Caribbean song.

My companions on that expedition with William Walker:
Achilles Kewen, the aristocrat, who fell fighting at Rivas;
Chris Lilly, the boxer,
his throat cut while drunk one night beside a shining lagoon;
William Stoker (Bill), with his pirate's face — and a good man —
who got married there afterwards and lived by Lake Managua
(and I ate once at his house);
and Crocker, the pretty-boy,
who died gasping for breath at Rivas,
with his dirty, blond beard heavy with blood,
and one arm dangling and a half-empty revolver in the other;
Skelter, the braggart, who died of cholera;
and Dixie, the newsboy — the bugler —
who on the night Colonel Jack broke through the lines
was better than the Scottish bagpipes at Lucknow
playing his bugle.
De Brissot, Dolan, Henry, Bob Gray;
the bandit, the doubting Thomas, the bum, the treasure hunter;
the ones who were hanged from trees and left swinging
beneath the stinking black vultures and the moon
or sprawled on the plains with a lone coyote and the moon,
their rifle beside them;
or in the hot, cobbled streets filled with shouts,
or white like shells on the seashore
where the tides are always covering and uncovering them.
The ones who survived all those dangers and are even still alive.
The ones who stayed there afterwards to get married
and to live in peace in that land
and who this afternoon probably sit remembering
(thinking about how one day they might pen their memories),
and their wife who is from that land, and their grandchildren playing …
The ones who deserted with Turley, inland, toward the gold mines
and were surrounded by natives and perished.
The man who while sleeping fell from a boat into the water
— dreaming perhaps of battles —
and not a soul heard his cries in the darkness,
if he did cry out.
The ones who were shot by Walker against a grey church.
               And later, Walker himself, shot …

Hornsby had been in Nicaragua
and he spoke of its blue lakes amid blue mountains under a blue sky,
and how it was the Transit route and the great passageway,
the pier of America,
and how it would teem with merchant ships and with foreigners
speaking all tongues, waiting for the Canal;
and each ship bringing new adventurers,
and the green plantations with their great white houses with verandas;
and the planter's wife instructing the children of the blacks;
and the countryside with sawmills and palm-lined avenues humming
        with sugar mills
and the roads filled with blue stagecoaches
and the logs floating down the rivers.

I saw Walker for the first time in San Francisco:
I remember him as if I were seeing his blond face like a tiger's;
his grey eyes, without pupils, fixed like a blind man's,
but which expanded and flashed like gunpowder in combat,
and his skin faintly freckled, his paleness, his clergyman's ways,
his voice, colorless like his eyes, cold and sharp,
in a mouth without lips.
And a woman's voice was hardly softer than his:
that calm voice of his announcing death sentences …
that swept so many into the jaws of death in combat.
He never drank or smoked and he wore no uniform.
Nobody was his friend.
And I don't remember ever having seen him smile.

We set sail from San Francisco in '55.
Achilles Kewen and Bill and Crocker, Hornsby and the others:
               — on board a filibuster brig!
There were storms in Tehuantepec, and during the nights
volcanos every now and then along the coast like beacons.
In the Gulf of Fonseca, behind blue islands,
crumbling old volcanos like pyramids
seemed to be watching us:
The land where we would go through so many adventures,
where so many of us would die by fever or fighting!
And the jungle with a whistle calling, calling,
with its thick leaves like flesh, rattan palms, rushing water;
and like a constant moan …
No one had done us any harm, and we brought war.

When we saw Lake Nicaragua for the first time,
upon reaching the front at a bend in the road,
we halted, with a single exclamation:
                       — Ometepe!
The smooth blue lake and the Island
with its two twin volcanos like breasts
joined at water level by their bases,
which looked like they were sinking in the water,
and the humble smoke rising from its villages.
And through the air's clearness
                       they seemed close by.
And beneath us that glassy sand, and in the distance
the steeples of the church at Rivas.

So Rivas next and the first shots,
Walker in front on horseback like a flag.
It was noonday, and our sun-drenched clothes felt heavy on us.
Then Kewen and Crocker were wounded.
Fire! shouted Kewen
and we ran through the grey, walled street,
Crocker with his silver-plated revolver shouting.

Rivas was left filled with shouts and blood and fires burning
        in the sun's glare
and we returned to that blue port nestled in hills
with their curved yellow coconut palms swaying
and a small Costa Rican ship in the harbor.
There were high winds that night
with the moon swift among the silvery dark clouds.
— And De Brissot in a hospital bed, angry at Walker …

And in León the nights were cool
with distant guitars below wrought-iron balconies
and the wind swinging the golden lamps in front of the houses.
And as we neared the city
we heard from afar the sentries pacing back and forth
and an "alerta" one after the other running from street to street.
The voices of the people sounded strange to us
and their words ended faintly as in a song.
And the sentry's cry was as musical as a bird's in the evening.
Just the way in snow-covered small towns in the States,
come evening one hears the watchmen's voices
cheery, full and clear.
And the cry of "alerta" resounded once more.
                   The girls in Nicaragua
wore rosaries with gold crosses hanging from them
and strings of pearls around their heads and black tresses.
And we fell in love with the women of that land.

One day we embarked on the Virgen, for Granada,
in front of those two silent volcanos like two blue guards.
The lake was glassy smooth
and all at once herons everywhere flew over the lake
as if great white flowers, toward islands where they sleep,
and flocks of screaming ducks took off in search of shelter.
At night we stopped the trembling engine in front of Granada,
and only the waves against the boat could be heard.

We covered our lanterns with canvas,
dropped anchor stealthily,
attached a cable to a tree on the shore,
and lowering some launches, we disembarked.
No one could see us advancing in the darkness with our black uniforms
               — the darkness full of fireflies and crickets —
hearing every little noise as if a big racket.
And by the time the alarm was sounded in the thick towers it was late,
as the dawn suddenly rose from the waters lighting
the foreign streets, grave and empty
of the captured town:
with filibusters in black uniform on the streetcorners
and our flag with its Red Star at St. Francis.

And then there was peace.
Walker spoke of peace and National Reconciliation
and kneeling with Corral in church he swore to observe the Constitution.

Granada would awake each morning with bells
and cries of vendors in the streets:
               I have oranges, papayas, jocotes,
               watermelons, musk melons, zapotes!
                       — Who wants to buy?

and water vendors with their casks crying out:
               Waaaaaaaater, waaaater, waaaater!
All day long that cry of water would cool the streets
and there were stands with drinks of all colors in the streets
— some stands they call canteens there —
and processions of girls would come from the lake with their jars
and in the lake half-naked washerwomen washed laundry singing,
while men would be watering or bathing their horses.
And you'd hear the Salve Regina being sung through the evenings
and the air was so pure then you could hear
all the conversations of people in their doorways
and the clear serenades from afar;
and at night wet frogs used to sing in the courtyard,
or a young woman's voice behind adobe walls,
and we went to bed listening to the trickle from the clay tiles in the wet
and our thoughts would be getting mixed up
and the long rows of street lamps were put out one after the other,
until the next day with bells again and the cries of water.

Walker in good spirits produced long cavalcades through the streets.
— But, downhearted, Corral never left his house …
And that day on which he was arrested (tried by court-martial,
the prisoner then threw himself on the mercy of Walker,
and Walker: that the prisoner would be shot at noon)
ladies came, with Señora Corral, and her three daughters weeping,
the youngest two embracing Walker's knees;
and he: in between officers and surrounded by his Cuban bodyguards.
And we filibusters outside listened in silence.
And that man who'd had a sweetheart in Nashville,
Helen Martin, a deaf-mute,
                         who died of yellow fever,
— for whom he learned the language of hands
and together they'd make silent signs in the air —
as if a fleeting compassion like the batting of an eyelid
had then crossed his colorless eyes of ice,
lifting his hand he said:
                         — that Corral would not be shot
at noon … but at two in the afternoon.
And outside we, the filibusters,
                         were hung in doubt.
And we saw the town square overshadowed by a cloud,
the still palm trees, the Cathedral, the great stone cross,
and at the end of Main Street, like a wall, the leaden lake.
And a soldier then: "Good God, how generous!"
bursting into a loud guffaw;
and he had to be taken off so he wouldn't be heard.
Corral was shot at two in the afternoon.
               Gilman gave the order:
Walker some distance away, on horseback, not taking part.
There was mourning in many houses. We heard the weeping.
And afterward there was a great calm, like the calm before a storm.

Walker proclaimed himself President
and he decreed slavery and the seizure of estates.
Meantime enemy troops we didn't see were mustering around lagoons.

The plague made its entrance with funeral drums that winter.
All was peaceful one day,
when the first volleys began to be heard drawing near
and the loud vivas on the outskirts,
and the noise of weapons and the bullets from rifles
nearer and nearer,
and the enemy moving fast in the direction of the main square.
— They'd left me behind in Granada, so I can tell the story.
Unarmed men in their homes killed in front of their families;
and a little boy murdered while eating his dinner.
Communication with the pier was cut.
— Besieged.
               Patrols downstairs banging on the doors.
And from the enemy boomed laughter and guitars with bonfires during the night.
And at daybreak, there were women grief-stricken in the streets.
And then came that Englishman, C. F. Henningsen,
who'd fought against the Czar and in Spain and for the independence of Hungary.
If only we could have sailed off right then
and left that ruined Granada
               — the White Castle, as we used to call it —
with its bloodstained streets and its stinking wells full of corpses,
and the dead's grimaces lit by fires in the streets!
We protected ourselves from bullets behind piles of corpses.
Day was hot, and the air full of smoke from the fires.
And hour after hour without failing to see them,
               without failing to see enemy troops,
until night finally came
               and the rifles quieted down.
Henningsen dug trenches that night.
And the following day
the sun rose up out of the lake like an island of gold
and the shots and the whistling of bullets and the groans
let us know one more day of horror had arrived.
And we'd come to a foreign land in search of gold
and there black smoke was everywhere
and streets filled with shop goods and corpses.
All that could be heard the rest of the day were shots
and the moans of those hit by cholera,
and the calm voice of Henningsen giving encouragement.
In balconies where before girls might have been sitting
with their governesses,
now riflemen could be seen,
                               with their long rifles,
and instead of polkas and waltzes, gunfire.
By the next day
the last houses on the square were burned down.
From afar the town with shooting and smoke and fireworks
looked the way it does on a holiday!

The rainy season had ended
and the fever was spreading like a fire.
At night we dumped those dead from cholera into the water
and cries could be heard from the sick who were delirious begging for water
                               — Water, water!
We threw the corpses into fires
and the acrid smoke they gave off made our eyes red
and that smoke
and the dust
and the sun on the pavement and the flames from the houses and the gunpowder
dried our mouths more
and soldiers stopped fighting to cough
and were wounded while they coughed
and dropped to the ground still coughing.
New plans were made to reach the lake
which shined at the end of the street like glass,
                                                               white as ice.
We knew that many bodies were being burned.
And many groans rose from the streets during the night.
And from the outskirts, the sweet odor of the dead.
And Walker meanwhile:
               taking dips in the ocean at San Juan del Sur!
Where the blasts from the cannons did not reach
nor perhaps even our messages.

The days went by without receiving any news.
And I still relive those days in my dark nightmares.

Houses that had been familiar were no longer recognizable
and the streets could hardly be distinguished beneath the rubble:
               — a statue of the Virgin hanging by itself on a black wall.
And the ash-colored lake behind the rubble.
                         Water the color of Walker's eyes
behind the rubble
which formed odd silhouettes during the night.
And I remember a church with nothing left standing but the portico
like a triumphal arch.

And those flames spread like wildfire in the street from the lake.
And Henningsen's message was:
"Your order has been obeyed, sir:
                                 Granada is no more."

Help finally arrived,
with Walker himself, who stayed on the boat,
and we could make out the shots in the night from afar.
The water was still and heavy like steel
and the flashes from the rifles reflected like lightning.
And it was then that Colonel Jack, from Kentucky,
broke through the lines,
as Dixie, the newsboy, played his bugle
and in the darkness of midnight from hill to hill
that bugle shined like a glorious light
coming up to us beleaguered souls,
making the 350 who came
act like an immense army in perfect formations advancing
hitting the dirt all as one
and getting up, with their long rifles
It was nearly two in the morning on the 14th
when all were on board.
Henningsen was the last to leave Granada.
He went into the ruined main square
and there saw around him the work that had been done;
he picked up a dead ember
and wrote on a piece of scorched hide the epitaph:

                      HERE WAS GRANADA

then stuck it up on a lance in the middle of the square,
and so it was.

They loved Granada like a woman.
Even today tears well up in their eyes
when they remember the loss of their dear Granada
the town of the Chamorros …
                         Where once there was love.
At last the pure waters,
the clean blue breezes of the early morning
and out of Granada with its red corpses and torches
and groans and death rattles and shouts and explosions
and the smell of the houses, rags, furniture, garbage, bodies burning!
Toward the two brother volcanos
rising out of the waters,
and through the closed-off villages
                                         with the dogs barking …
And the men went back to the States.

I stayed in the country for a while, living in León.
And Bill Deshon, Shipley, Dixie, Bob Gray, Bill Stoker,
and others came to see me
and they told me about the second expedition
                                and Walker's death.

How on the Mississippi one night he silently weighed anchor:
They landed on the coast of Honduras late in the afternoon,
                                August 5,
(and most likely the 5th of August doesn't go by when they don't think back
on that march to Trujillo with a waning moon).
Dawn was coming up through the palms
when they arrived
            to the sharp cry of the sentries
at the fort with stained ramparts and silvery cannons.
And they took the fort.
The houses were made of stone, with one floor, and red-tiled roofs
held up by cane poles on top of big beams,
and many big iguanas on the roofs.

It was there that Henry,
drunk, smoking a cigar near the gunpowder,
was shot by Dolan, the bullet hitting him
right in the mouth,
and Walker came quick to gather him up,
as Dolan was explaining how it happened.
And so Walker sat down at Henry's bedside,
and the sun went down, the moon rose
and he was still there
and the whole night went by
and he was still there,
applying wet cloths to Henry's wounded face,
and in the morning he left, and relieved the guards.
Dolan spoke of reinforcements
                                but they never did come.
And then came the ultimatum from the British.
Walker entered once more and sat down at Henry's bedside.
Henry couldn't speak, so he had a slate on which he wrote.
Walker took the slate and wrote a few words
and handed him the slate.
Henry was thinking hard.
Then he took the slate and wrote a single word.
Walker glanced at the slate.
He sat still a long time thinking,
                                then left.
Worms had eaten away half of his face.
On a table beside his bed was a bottle marked
and part of a glass of green lemonade.
And when Walker left, he sat up,
put a few spoonfuls from the bottle into the glass,
stirred it up a little and drank it,
lay down again,
pulled the thin blanket carefully over himself,
folded his hands on his chest
and went to sleep.
                      And he never woke up.
It was midnight when Dolan came in.
He glanced at Henry and went over,
looked at the slate, read the word,
and said:
                "that explains it."
Then they marched out in ranks,
each with a blanket and rifle,
in search of Cabañas' camp,
because that had been Henry's word: "Cabañas."
They went through a grove of orange trees.
They marched swiftly and in silence all night,
without stopping to bury their dead.
They halted in the evening for the moon to rise
and a guard was posted.
They marched more by night.
They halted at sunrise
at a banana plantation.
Bullets were bursting from the leaves.
They fired back at them when they stopped to drink,
                                behind banana trees.
Walker was wounded slightly on one cheek
(the first bullet to wound him in a battle).
And they finally reached Cabañas' camp
and found the rifle pits but no Cabañas.
What long, hot days those were
in sticky swamps with heavy rifles
from dawn until the blood-red sundowns hot as hell!

Walker with fever, paler than ever.

And they lost all track of the days.
Until one day they saw the British coming up the river.
General Walker was the last to climb aboard.
                      — All that are alive, sir!
It was daylight when they woke up, at anchor at Trujillo,
and it looked like a grimace hung above the black fort.
And they put the wounded under sailcloth awnings.

In the fort they were court-martialing Walker.
They saw him pass by the next morning surrounded by guards,
his face pale as always,
and they could see the scar, paler, on his cheek.
He carried a crucifix in his hand.

When they halted
the officer commanding the guard
read a paper in Spanish,
               surely his orders.
And then Walker, in a calm and dignified voice,
without trembling,
spoke in Spanish.
And the filibusters didn't hear what he said.
They could see from where they stood
a newly made grave in the sand,
and Walker, who kept speaking, calm and dignified,
               beside the grave.
And the man said:
               "The President
the President of Nicaragua, is a Nicaraguan …"
There was a drum roll
and gunfire.
All the bullets hit the mark.
Out of ninety-one men only twelve made it back.
And there, by the sea, with no wreaths or epitaph remained
William Walker of Tennessee.

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