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A Far Countryby Daniel Mason
In the valley of the village they would one day name Saint Michael in the Cane, the men and women waited, turning the November soil and watching the sky.
Clouds came, following the empty riverbeds on long solitary treks from the coast.
Sometimes it rained. Little green leaves unfurled from the dry branches, and a soft grass bloomed on the floor of the thorn scrub they called the white forest because it was too poor for color. The men and women watched the sky distrustfully then. Sometimes the rain fell so close they could smell it, but if it didn't fall again in that corner of earth, the leaves turned brown and rattled in the wind. That could kill a field, they said: a single rain and then empty skies. It raised your hopes, the land's hopes. They called it green drought and swore at it under their breath. Rain is like a man, said the women, It flatters you with sweet gifts, but it is worse than nothing if it doesn't stay.
When the rains didn't come again, the first plants to die were the grasses. Then the thorn brittled and the cactus grayed. In December, on the eve of Saint Lucy's Day, they set out six fragments of salt to divine for drought, and in the morning they counted how many had melted away and how many remained.
Finally, when the earth grew so hot that any rain would only steam back into the sky, they began to get ready. They called it the retreat, as if to settle the backlands was a foolish and unnatural thing in the first place. Most had seen drought before and knew too well the rituals of flight and uncertain return. In the dry fields, they clanged spades against the stone and combed the earth for fragments of manioc. They made calculations, checking their stores of salted meat and the levels of their wells.
As the days passed, they watched the sky, pinning their hopes on distant clouds that vanished suddenly as if bewitched. They broke fragments of dirt from the ground, caressed and crumbled them between their fingers, rolled the warm silt along the dry calluses of their thumbs, tasted it, talked to it. Coaxed, apologized, pleaded. Once a newspaperman from the coast came and wrote: The sharecroppers know the texture of the land better than they know their own faces. When the story was read aloud in the drought camps, an old man laughed, Of course! I was born there, I'm too poor for a looking glass, and when was there ever enough water for a still pool?
At dusk, they sat outside their homes and listened to the dry creaking of the thorn. They counted the days since they had last seen the orange armadillos, the hawk that nested in the buckthorn, the night mice that made skittering pilgrimages across the bare yard. They drew thick mud from the wells, pressed and twisted it in handkerchiefs, sucked it or threw it to the goats. The goats ate the greenest plants first: the jujubes, then the delicate pinnae of the mimosas, then the palm cactus, crushing the spines with their leathery tongues. When they had stripped the lowest branches clear, the animals stood on their hind legs and walked about like they were men. Flocks of birds blackened the sky, fleeing for the coast.
In town, they met at night and talked about when they would leave. The first to go were usually those who had seen drought before, who knew the horror of retreating at the last hour, with the last-goats and the last-flour and the last-hardtack burning in their mouths. Others wanted to go but waited, remembering the long march, the hunger, the drought camps and the cholera, the barren trails where they buried children with their eyes open so they wouldn't get lost on the way to heaven.
Others held out angrily, said, This is mine, and stamped their feet on the packed earth. They were the last to leave and the first to return. They were also the most likely to survive, as if they had the gift of estivation: drying up, slowing, sleeping for days, rising only to take little sips of what they could steal from the wells. Like the resurrection plants, with stems like rope and black-burnt leaves, blooming again at the first sign of rain.
They watched the sky and pinned their hopes on wisps of clouds stretching languidly across the blue. They shuttered windows and covered the wells. They watched neighbors leave and listened to rumors of where the government had set up way stations, and where there was disease. They killed the bone-thin zebu cows and then the goats, the animals arching weakly away from the dull blades of the knives. The meat of these last-goats was stringy and dry; in silty water, the women made stews from the guts and broth from the hoofs and tendons. They left the healthiest ones for the long march. In the hills, they searched for drinking-trees, held their bird-pecked fruit, ate their withered leaves and chewed their tubers until the sweet alkaline juice numbed their mouths. Slowly, the great trees began to die, their roots torn up, their leaves scratching at the dust as the wind swirled them away.
They watched the sky and pinned their hopes on the empty blue of it. Hadn't they heard stories of rain falling from cloudless skies, last-minute interventions by Saint Joseph or Saint Barbara? What of thorn ghosts who could stream tassels of water from the bean trees or open fountains from the cracks in the empty riverbeds? They began to leave candles at the crossroads and sprinkle cane wine on the lips of their patron saints. They worshipped in tiny chapels filled with carved wooden feet and heads left long ago to pay for wishes granted. While they waited for answers, they rolled their earthen bowls into blankets and tied them with twine. They piled these along with their children onto carts and backs of donkeys with weak knees and dry mouths. The poorer ones carried their blankets on their backs and their children in their arms. Half-empty gourds of water sloshed about their necks.
They watched the sky and finally cursed it, cursed the clouds and the absence of the clouds, the laziness of the clouds, the immoderation of the clouds that refused to leave the coast with its plump women and rich black soil. They rolled their icons of Saint Joseph into the blankets alongside the bowls. They recited invocations and slipped the scripts into twig-thin scapulars around their necks. They chewed their last meals slowly, waiting for each dry lump of manioc to dissolve as if it were the viaticum.
They spent their final nights at home. These were restless nights, and every one of them dreamed of the dust storms. This, they said, meant it was time to go, when the dreams turned dry and the clouds stayed away even in the night. They woke the children before dawn and set out while it was still cool. They calculated how far it was to the coast and how much water remained.
When they spoke of those hours, they said, We passed hunger. As if it were a place, an outpost on a lonely road. Other times, they said, Hunger passed through here. As if something alive, a pale hoofed creature, who tore through on bristling haunches or ambled out of the white forest with a worn suit and a broken face, a monster or a devil.
Isabel was three when she left and four when she came home, and so her memory was only a child's memory, made of smells and light and the uneven surface of the road. What she remembered was this: the hot taste of the charqui her aunt pushed into her cheek with a dirty thumb when she cried; the difference in the warmth of her mother's body and the radiating heat of the ground; her father's hands, pink-burned and black with the grease of the engine.
She remembered the sky, too, and how she hated it with a child's hate. Her father's hands were pink-burned because the engine seized constantly and the men were too anxious to let the radiator cool. They had been lucky to find a ride on a flatbed and wouldn't be as lucky on the journey home.
What she remembered of the drought camps was: the dark shade of a government tent, the chlorinated smell of the water, novenas of soft sad songs, the sting of vaccination needles, a yellow dog that came and nosed her hammock until someone kicked it away.
She couldn't recall the trip home and wondered if it was because she was sick or too tired. They had purchased a spavined horse and a dray from a family that decided to stay on the coast. They rode until a wheel split east of Blackwater. Since there were no nails, they unlatched the horse and loaded it with their bags. The path was filled with families returning to the backlands. Later, she would imagine the camps strung out on the long roads like seeds on a rosary string, but she didn't know if this memory was her own or from someone who held her.
For the next three years in Saint Michael, the rains came, the white forest blossomed in patches of olive green and light maroon. Isabel grew up playing with her brother Isaias and with her cousins. When she was older, it was easy to remember herself as one of the tiny girls with thin legs and swollen bellies. Her aunt once teased, Like little wild animals. She had no birth certificate, and no vaccination card despite the needles she endured in the camps. She was five when she first stood before a mirror, advancing suspiciously toward the new child with dirt-bannered cheeks and translucent lashes. Until she was baptized by a traveling priest, there was no document to say she was alive. On that day, she fought the soft hand that tried to steady her and brushed tears and well water from her eyes with the heel of her palm. The cursive loops of her name were inscribed in the same church ledger that cradled the name of her mother.
Growing up, she played all day in the dusty plaza before the whitewashed houses and the church. There was an empty fountain built during optimistic times, and a statue that had long lost all its features to the wind and dust storms. There was no running water in Saint Michael. Some said the statue was the governor, and others said it was a great bandit. The old men said that it had been salvaged from the road to the coast. At Carnival, it wore a hat.
When she was old enough, she attended a one-room schoolhouse at the edge of town. There were twenty or forty children, depending on the season. In the evenings, she walked home alone, or her brother went to fetch her.
They lived in a small house on the plaza. Four hammocks hung in one of the rooms. In the second was a worn sofa, where a visitor slept if there wasn't space to string another hammock. The walls stopped short of the underbelly of the roof. Flower-print sheets hung in the doorways. Spots of light twinkled in the chinks between the roof tiles and speckled her arms. There was a little wooden table with an altar for the Virgin and a half-dozen photos perched at uneven intervals on the walls. Above the couch someone had written, in charcoal, ROBERT S. + MARIA. It was surrounded by a heart, and had been there for as long as she could remember. She didn't know who they were. Outside, the door was chalk-marked "7" by a census taker. Then the "7" had been crossed out and rewritten "4."
On the other side of the sofa was a kitchen. There was a small raised hearth with an iron trivet and an earthen jar for water. They kept the provisions in a wooden cabinet to hide them from the flies. The table was surrounded by four stools, which her father had carpentered himself. If visitors came and there weren't enough plates, the children waited and watched until the meal was finished before taking their places at the table.
The back door opened into the thorn scrub, where a path zigzagged through the brush and didn't stop until the mountains. Drying clothes flapped on the branches. Goatskin chaps with hair on the outside hung on the wall, but they were brittle and hadn't been worn since a murrain killed most of the cattle. Outside in the center of the main square was a single telephone, installed by the family of the state phone company when one of its sons was running for governor. The token collector never came, so someone pried open the collection box. From then on, calls were free: the line engaged, the coin dropped out into the caller's hand. A single token sat atop the phone.
In the four hammocks slept Isabel, her brother, her mother and her father, in that order toward the door. They slept so close that they bumped one another when they moved.
Her mother tended the house and a small garden of manioc. A spring ran near Saint Michael, and when the earth wasn't so dry that it took all the water before it reached the surface, she tended a mango tree and a copse of banana trees as well. She had studied at a Marist school on the road to the coast and could read, but Isabel's father didn't know the letters. During the season, he cut sugarcane in the fields that grew along the distant stretches of the spring. Isabel would remember him from this time as a quiet unshaven man who rose long before dawn to eat cornmeal and leftover scraps of salted beef, refried until the strands of gristle curled up like pieces of thread.
Watching him, she learned that the natural state of a person is silence, that speaking only stirs up problems where there weren't problems before.
Her father had sunburned skin and pale green eyes. Her mother's skin was dark, and when she wore her oldest skirts, Isabel could lose her on the road at night.
When it wasn't cane season, her father found work with the construction companies, grading roads or laying pipe, at times going as far as the coast for projects in the state capital. In the cluster of houses about the square also lived her mother's mother and father, her mother's sister, the children of her mother's sister, her grandmother's sister and her children and grandchildren, and dozens of other cousins by blood and by marriage.
On the thresholds of the houses they tossed clay marbles and played jacks with goat knuckles, serrying them in little legions. When they grew tired of the knuckles, they played with the shadows of the knuckles, crouching creatures that unfurled themselves as the sun went down. At dusk, they abandoned them and swarmed the square like a wasps' nest disturbed.
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