Manuel Rojas was born on January 8, 1896, in Buenos Aires, Argentina and died on March 11, 1973, in his adopted homeland, Chile. He probably settled permanently in Chile in 1924.
In 1927, he published his first collection of short stories, Hombres del Sur, which included the story “El vaso de leche” (“The Glass of Milk”). This story is both moving and realistic, especially given the poverty that existed in many parts of South America at the time. Rojas wrote primarily about the common man, the poor and the downtrodden. He became a member of a an anarchist political movement and wrote articles for the newspapers, La Batalla in Chile and La Protesta, Argentina. For those interested in more detailed information about the author , go to:
(El vaso de leche)
By Manuel Rojas
Fact: in the starboard railing, a sailor seemed to be waiting for someone. In his left hand he had a white paper wrapping, with grease spots on it here and there. In the other hand, he held his pipe.
From between a couple of wagons, a thin young man appeared: he stopped a moment, looked out over the sea and then advanced, walking along the edge of the dock with his hands in the pockets, distracted or thinking.
He was hungry. He had gone three days, three long days without eating. It was more out of shyness and embarrassment than pride that he refused to stop in front of the steamer at meal times, waiting for the generosity of the sailors to give them a package containing remains of stews and pieces of meat. He couldn’t do that, -he could never do that; and when, as in a recent case, one offered him some leftovers, he heroically rejected them, feeling that refusing it, increased his hunger.
A young man who moments before passed by, stopped a short distance away, and looked over the area. When he passed in front of the ship, the sailor shouted in English:
-“I say; look here” (¡Oiga, mire!)
– The young man raised his head, and, without stopping, and spotting the package that the sailor had in his hands, hastily replied in the same language:
-“Yes, sir, I am very much hungry!” (¡Si, señor, tengo harta hambre!)
The sailor smiled. The package flew through the air and fell between the avaricious hands of the hungry fellow. Without even thanking, he opened the still warm package, and sat down on the ground, happily rubbing his hands together, contemplating its content. A drifter from a port may not speak English, but it is unforgivable not knowing enough to ask for food from one that speaks this language.
It was six days ago that he began roaming the streets and docks in the port.
He had been left there by an English steamer that came from the port of Punta Arenas where he had deserted from a steamer in which he had served as a captain’s boy. He was there for one month, helping as a hand on an Austrian spider-crab fishing boat, but on the first ship that headed towards the north he secretly boarded as stowaway
They discovered him the next day and send him to work in the boiler room. In the first large port the steamer arrived at, they put him ashore, and there he was, like bundle without return address or recipient, without knowing anyone, without a penny in his pockets and not having an occupation he could work in.
While the steamer was there, he was able to eat, but after … The huge city, which stood beyond the narrow streets full of sleazy taverns and inns, to which he was not attracted; they looked like places of slavery, without air, dark, lacking the great, wide expanse of the sea, and between the high walls and straight streets, people lived and died, stunned by the stressful traffic.
He was possessed by the obsession he had of the sea, which makes lives more even and defined as a strong arm, a thin rod. Although he was very young, he had made several voyages along the coasts of South America, on various vessels, performing different jobs and stations, tasks and jobs that had almost no application on Earth.
. After the steamer left, he walked and walked, waiting for chance to do something that would allow him to make a living in some way while in familiar surroundings; but it found nothing.;
There was little traffic in the port and in the scarce steamers that arrived, he was not accepted to hire on.
An infinite number of beggars by profession were ambulating around the area; sailors without contract, like him, defectors from ships or escaped criminals;
Good for nothing left on their own, supported by unknown means, begging or stealing, passing days like the beads on a greasy rosary, waiting for who knows what strange events, or not waiting for anything, individuals of races and peoples more exotic and strange, even among those whose way of life they don’t believe ever having seen a living example of.
The next day he was convinced that he couldn’t endure much more, and decided to resort to any means to obtain food.
Walking, he went in front of a steamer that had arrived the previous night and that loading wheat. . A column of men walked with heavy sacks on their back and shoulders, going back and forth from the wagons, crossing a landing stage, up to the hatch in the hold, where the stevedores were receiving the load.
He stood looking on for a bit, until he dared to speak to the Captain, offering himself for work. He was accepted and exited joined the long line of porters.
During the first part of the day, he worked well; but later he began feeling weary and dizzy spells came over him. Hesitating in the landing stage when he was going with a load on his shoulder, he saw at his feet, the opening formed between the steamer and the wall of the dock, at the bottom of which the sea was stained with oil, and full of discarded debris and garbage.
At lunch time, there was a short break and while some of them went to eat in the nearby cheap eating-houses and others ate what they had brought along, while he preference was to rest on the ground, hiding his hunger.
He finished the day completely exhausted, covered in sweat, reduced to the limit. While the workers retired, he sat on a sack, keeping an eye on the foreman, and when the last one was gone, he approached him, confused and hesitant, but without telling him what was going on, asked if he could pay him immediately or whether it was possible to get an advance on what he had earned.
The foreman replied that it was customary to pay when the job was completed and that it would still be necessary to work the next day to complete loading steamer. One more day! There was no way they would give him an advance – not a dime.
But, he said, I can lend you forty cents, – that’s all I have.
He thanked him for the offer with a distressed smile (but didn’t take the money) and an acute desperation overtook him then.
He was hungry,-hungry,-hungry.
A hunger that gave him a shooting pain; he saw everything through a blue haze and walking, he stumbled as a drunken man. However, he couldn’t really complain or cry, because his suffering was gloomy and arduous; It was not pain, but dull disquieting end; it felt like he was being crushed by a large weight.
He suddenly felt a burning sensation in his bowels, and stopped,
He doubled over, leaning, bending forcibly as an iron bar, and thought that he was going to fall.
At that moment, as if a window had opened before him, saw his house, the landscape that could be seen from it, the face of his mother and his sisters, everything he wanted and loved appeared and disappeared before his eyes closed by fatigue. Then, little by little, the dizziness faded and he began straightening up, while the burning sensation slowly cooled. Finally he stood up, breathing deeply. One more hour and he would have fallen to the ground…. It hastened the passage- fleeing from a new dizziness, and while walking, he resolved to eat anywhere, without paying, willing to become embarrassed, be beaten or sent to jail; of all this, the most important was to eat, eat, eat; a hundred times he repeated the word mentally, eat-eat-eat, until it lost its meaning, leaving an impression of an empty, hot feeling in the head.
Not thinking of escaping; he would say to the owner:”Mister, I’m hungry, hungry hungry and I have no money to pay with.—do as you wish”
He reached the first streets in the town and in one of those, he found a dairy. It was a little business very clean and bright, filled with small marble tables. Behind a counter stood a blond lady wearing a very white apron. He chose that business. There was little traffic in the street. He might have eaten in one of the cheap eating-houses that found along the wharf, but they were full of the people who were playing and drinking.
In the dairy, there was only one customer It was an old geezer wearing glasses, that, with his nose stuck between the leaves of a newspaper, reading, remained motionless, as if glued to the chair. On the table, there was a glass of milk. Half consumed.
He was waiting for him to leave, walking down the sidewalk, feeling little by little the fire relighting in the stomach that had burning earlier and waited five, ten, even fifteen minutes.
He became tired and stood to one side of the door, from where he threw the old man a few stony looks.
Why the heck was he reading with such concentration!? He began to imagine that he was an enemy, who, knowing his intentions could hinder them. He felt like going back and saying something strong that would force him to leave, rudeness or an expression that will tell him he didn’t have the right to remain an hour sitting and reading, with such a small expenditure.
Finally the customer finished, or at least interrupted his reading. He took a sip of the milk that was left in the glass, stood up calmly, paid and headed to the door. He left; he was an old geezer, hunched over, and smelling faintly like a Carpenter or painter.
As soon as he was in the street, he set his glasses, and again put his nose between the pages of the newspaper and went away, walking slowly and stopping every ten steps to read with more meticulousness.
He waited for him to leave and then entered. For a while he stood at the entrance, indecisive, not knowing where to sit; He finally chose a table and headed toward it; but halfway to it, regretted, fell and stumbled into a Chair, then settled in a corner.
The lady approached the table, wiped the tabletop with a rag and in a soft voice that hinted slightly of a Spanish accent, she asked.
What would you like?
Without looking, he answered:
“A glass of milk”
“Do you have biscuits?”
“No, vanilla cookies”
“OK, vanilla cookies then”
When the lady turned around, he rubbed the hands on the knees, delighted, as one who is cold is about to drink something warm.
The lady returned and put in front of him a large glass of milk and a plate filled with vanilla cookies, after which she returned to her place behind the counter.
His first impulse was to drink the milk all at once and then eat the vanilla cookies, but he immediately regretted; sensing that the woman looked at him with curiosity. He dared not look at her; it seemed to him that, in doing so, she would figure out his state of mind and shameful purpose and he would have to get up and leave, without tasting what he had ordered.
Intermittently he took a vanilla cookie, dipped it in the milk and took a bite; drank a sip of milk and felt that the fire, which still burned in his stomach, was being put out and extinguished. But immediately, the reality of his desperate situation appeared before him and something hard and hot rose up his throat to his heart; and he realized he was going to sob, to sob and cry and even though he knew that the lady was watching him, He could not end or undo the burning knot that tightened more and more. He resisted, and while still resisting, ate hurriedly, frightened, and fearing that crying would prevent him from eating. After he finished with the milk and the cookies, his eyes clouded over and something warm run down his nose, falling into the glass. A terrible sob shook him to his shoes.
He put his head in his hands and for a long time cried, cried with shame and anger, wanting to cry like he had never cried before.
He was leaning forward and crying, when he sensed a hand caressing his tired head and a woman’s voice with a sweet Spanish accent said:
“Cry son, Cry!”
A new wave of tears swept over his eyes and he cried as hard as the first time, although this time not so agonizingly, but with happiness, sensing that a new serenity penetrating him, extinguishing the fiery heat that had choked his throat. While he cried, he felt that his life and sentiments being cleaned like a glass under a stream of water, recovering the lucidity and steadfastness of other days
When the worst of his crying had passed, he wiped his eyes and face with his handkerchief, again calmed down. He lifted his head and looked at the lady, but she was not looking at him, she was looking toward the street, at a distant point and her face was sad.
On the little table in front of him, there was another glass filled with milk and another plateful of vanilla cookies. He ate slowly, without thinking about anything, ate as if nothing had happened, as if he was in his house and his mother was this woman behind the counter.
When he finished, darkness had arrived and the store was illuminated with a light bulb.
He remained seated a short while, thinking about what he would say to the lady, when leaving, without anything coming to mind.
Finally he stood up and simply said:
“Thank you very much lady: goodbye”
“Goodbye, son, she answered”
He left. The wind coming from the ocean cooled his head, still hot from crying. He walked for a while in no particular direction, and then took a street that headed down toward the docks. The night was extremely beautiful and huge stars appeared in the summer sky.
He thought about the blond lady and how generous she had been, and intended to pay her, to compensate her in a dignified manner, when he had some money; but these thought of gratitude waned along with the burning sensation in his face, until they had disappeared and the recent event slowly went away and became lost in his past, twisted life.
Suddenly he surprised himself by singing something softly. He straightened up and walked cheerfully, treading firmly and decisively.
He arrived at the shore and walked from one side to another, bouncing, feeling like recreating his previous strengths, before they disappeared,- to have them come together and merge firmly.
Tired from work, a slow tingling sensation crept up through his legs and he sat down on a pile of sacks.
He looked at the sea. Lights from the pier and ships were reflected by the water in a reddish and golden, gently shimmering trail. He laid down on his back and looked at the sky for a long time. He didn’t feel like thinking, nor singing or talking. He felt as if he didn’t want to live anymore.
Until he fell asleep with his face turned towards the sea.
Translated by K. Beechmount