Friday, August 10, 2018

Divine Guidance by Gary Ives

When Mexican teenager Tomás is struck blind, he must find a new way to help support his family; by Gary Ives.

My blindness came rapidly. Our house, like all the houses in our village, lays under a high conical roof of reed thatch and tessellated palm fronds. Tree rats nest between the thatch and the palm. Other than occasional nighttime squeals the rats are not a bother. The year I turned fifteen, a strange kind of insect moved into the thatch. Tiny black specks fell from these little bugs in the night. Only later did we learn that the little black specks from these thatch bugs could cause blindness should they fall into the eyes.

Each spring my family travelled north in big stake trucks with several other families to work the fields of the gringos, picking lettuce in Arizona, then to California for tomatoes, moving north to the peach, apricot, and prune orchards. Since I can remember, with my family I had worked these fields and orchards, proud to contribute to my family's security. Sometimes families continued further north to harvest apples in September and October, returning late in the year to our little village tired but rich. I loved those summers working in the north. Sure, the work was very hard, but evenings and Sundays in our encampments were so enjoyable. The children played games while the adults smoked and told stories. Too there was gringo television in some of the camps. By the time I was twelve years old I could speak English which I had learned largely from the gringo television and road signs. I am very strong, and my father was proud of my work. Somedays I earned more than three, even four days' wages for a man in Mexico. This all for my family. Our jefe was Don Francisco. It was in his trucks we traveled, and it was he who negotiated the contracts with the gringo rancheros. Don Francisco, a very large jolly man, was much respected for his fairness. Other jefes cheated their workers. When my father reported to him that I had suffered this blindness Don Francisco said I would not be permitted to accompany the rest of my family. My father argued that even though blind I could pick tomatoes by feel and use of a tether. But Don Francisco was firm in his denial. My father told me to trust in God and stay strong. "You will be in our prayers every day, my son. You must realize that even though this blindness has come, God will show you a way if you trust in Him."

In the village I was to pass the spring and summer with my old Tia Elena whom everyone called Sapo because of the many bumps on her face. Sapo was my grandmother's sister, very old, hard of hearing and mean. Liked by no one, some even said she was bruja. She lived in a tiny shack behind the market in the nearby larger town of Completa where she sold herbs and charms on market days. She was only too pleased to move from her tiny hovel into our spacious house in our village. Oh, how I dreaded the dark lonely days ahead; I cried the morning I listened to and smelled the diesel fumes of Don Francisco's trucks pulling away from the village. Already villagers were making jokes about the blind leading the blind as Sapo's vision, even with her thick spectacles, was very poor. Without them she was nearly as blind as I. In those first weeks as we accustomed ourselves to each other, she seldom spoke without criticizing me or the world around us. Constantly her words put fear into my heart. "So, what is to become of you, Tomás? I will tell you; you will sell brooms or chicles or cigarettes at the market where the people will cheat you because you cannot tell the difference between ten or twenty pesos. Or worse, a filthy street beggar. What a shameful thing you must have done for God to punish you so. Huh? Tell me what was the sin? Did I tell you there was a blind man who lived in this village long ago, Tomás? One morning stepping out to go to the privy he stepped upon a sleeping culebra! Because he could not see the snake even in daylight, he died. Yes! Such a thing could happen to you Tomás, think about it. Another blind person, a woman of more than sixty ears, was run down in the middle of the road by truck backing up to unload crates of beer. Her poor body lay in the street, Tomás; so horrible, mangled and drenched in the blood, mud and horseshit." To these ugly tales I said nothing. She was not a person to converse with, I had learned that the less said the better. Still she tried daily to bait me into an argument, to frighten me. If I did something to displease her, as the time broke a clay bowl, she would twist my ears and shout into my face, sometimes thrashing my face and hands with a switch. And when I bathed from the large pan in the evening I could feel her staring at my nakedness.

How I hated her wicked tongue, but what could I do? I passed my days thinking of my family working northward, sharing stories at night in the worker's camps. Sapo assigned chores to me that kept me busy. I ground the corn and made our tortillas, washed our clothes and hung them on the fence to dry by following a string tied between the house and the fence; there was another string for me between the house and the privy. Though these were the chores of women I did not mind as they took me away from self-pity or bad feelings toward Sapo. I sometimes sang when I fed the shelled corn to the chickens and the one turkey. By early summer my mind submerged itself into a depression fueled by the uncertainty of my darkened life ahead. Whatever will I be able to do? How will I survive? I had always been thankful that God had made me strong, but now this? The blindness made my strength as useless as if I were shackled in chains. Would God, as my father had said, show me a way? This I prayed for diligently.

A friend in our village, Julian, was my age. He lived with just his mother and sisters as his father had failed one summer to return from the north. Julian supported the women in his family by working as a lookout and a runner for drug dealers. Although fat, he was fast, strong, and a very clever thief. His mother prayed that his father was alive in some gringo jail and would be back one day, but most in the village believed he had perished in the desert trying to cross the border. Julian and I had grown up together and he sometimes came to visit, now and then bringing chincharónes or pieces of meat he stole from the place where pigs are butchered. He and I had learned guitars, and playing and singing with Julian was the only pleasure left to me, however he hated Sapo and would only come when she was away collecting herbs or sleeping.

On market days I was made to sit on a little stool behind Sapo in her market stall. "Since you have come, more people buy my herbs and charms because they have pity for one who must care for such an ugly turd of blind boy. Ha!" On those days I was made to wear a foolish straw hat with a pointed crown and a dirty tattered brim, and an old pair of dark glasses she had found in the market garbage pit. How I hated being on display like a carnival freak. But worse was having to smell the delicious aromas from the food stalls at the market. How I longed for meat. As Sapo had no teeth she would buy not a morsel of meat or even chicken. Fish she would buy for herself, but all I ever got were frijoles and rice. I hungered for a piece of chicken in my rice and I dreamed of carne asada, chorizos, and chunks of chanhcón with singed fat, dripping grease. If customers stopped at her stall she pretended to have love for me calling me her little pobrecito or angelito, but when no one was around she cursed me for the awful burden I had imposed on her. My heart filled with hatred for my wicked aunt. Although my father regularly sent money for my care, I can tell you truthfully that never did that old woman spend a single centavo on me. I was at the age that boys often grow rapidly and soon my pant legs were far too short and the strain on the pants top button was too much and the little button was lost. Sapo refused to buy me new pants or even sew a button for me. When my friend Julian brought pants and shoes to me she forbade me to accept them. I knew I looked a fool to all because this was advantageous to Sapo. Is it not plain to see why my heart filled with hatred? I prayed to the blessed Virgin and to Our Lady of Guadalupe to intercede, to restore my vision, and if not that then to punish Sapo, perhaps by viper or beer truck. At night visions appeared in my mind's eye of oxen at market goring her, or wild dogs attacking her, then monster demons carrying her off to hell.

On market days she would load her wares into bags which she slung over my shoulders to tote. One bag contained dozens of herbs and cures: roots, leaves, powders and tonics. Another bag contained larger bottles in which were long tape worms and tumors supposedly coughed up after applying Sapo's herbs and charms. There was even a snake in a bottle. These bottles she arrayed on the front shelf before the herbs and charms for their grotesqueness attracted attention.

One evening as Julian and I were playing guitars, he stopped singing and put down his guitar and said, "Tomás, I think you should kill her. She's a devil who uses you like a monkey. I hate her and if you want to kill her I will help you. Then you come to live with us until your family returns."

Yes, I was repelled by the wickedness of this idea, but it seemed so logical and simple too. I could not make the thought vanish. Next market day after the discussion with Julian, I bumped into the snake bottle which fell upon an iron tent peg, breaking. Sapo became furious and as soon as we returned home, out of sight of others, she began burning me on my backside with the end of a stick pulled from the fire. That night I decided to kill her. I whistled the loud shriek that had long been a signal between Julian and me. I asked him to come back later when Sapo was sure to be asleep. It was easy. Julian held her down as I forced the pillow down hard on her bumpy face. She jerked and struggled but was a weak old woman whose resistance was nothing to Julian who was strong like me. When the twitching stopped a soft rattle sounded from the old woman and we knew she was dead. I chewed half a soft tortilla until it was a ball of thick masa then pried open Sapo's mouth and shoved the ball past her toothless gums deep into her throat. Julian slipped away, and I went to sleep and did not raise the alarm until morning. "Another choking death," the doctor said to the fat police sergeant. As Sapo had no relatives other than me, sisters from the convent in Completa prepared her body and saw to her burial. I chained our door shut and moved in with Julian's family.

From the time of the old crone's death, the summer became good. Julian's mother and sisters pampered me. Soon Julian began taking me with him when he served as a lookout for the drug dealers. They paid him well and he sometimes shared his pesos with me. You may condemn such activity, but in our village and in Completa too Los Narcos had established a niche which made it easy for most to turn a blind eye to their crime. This was for various reasons. First, la policia had no respect. Everyone knew the police received pay-offs from Los Narcos, just as they accepted bribes from anyone else. The people here have long been accustomed to the fact that the police were just as crooked as Los Narcos. Although the police always asked, they never gave, unlike Los Narcos who were generous like a rich uncle to both my village and Completa. Also, nearly all the drugs were sold for export to the gringos who paid whatever the narcos asked. Gringos are, as everyone knows, the richest people on earth. Most are decent and generous people, but among them are many godless individuals who respect nothing but their own selfish and often destructive pleasures. Because of this the narcos grew wealthy, and here, as everywhere, wealth earns respect. The narco jefe called El Pulpo, the octopus, would personally hand cash to the very poor. He paid for a lovely park especially designed for children in Completa. And in my village El Pulpo paid for two new wells, a community washhouse, and a smart tin roof cover for our market place. At Christmas time every family received a case of Fanta or Coca Cola from El Pulpo. The violence one sees on the television and in the papers happened, to be sure, but not here.

I don't know if the idea came from my friend Julian or from El Pulpo himself, but one afternoon as I sat with Julian at the Completa bus station as he served as lookout, scanning for the Federales or for members of a rival gang, El Pulpo himself came and sat on the bench beside me. He was courteous and asked about my family, my blindness, and my recent status an orphan. "Tomásito, although these very unfortunate things have come upon you, you have behaved as a man, a strong man, Julian tells me. He also tells me you do not cry or complain to others of your situation, but rather take this fate as a test from God. You may think, my young friend, that your life ahead is cursed by this darkness, but I think we may have some little bit of sunshine for one so strong." Instantly I knew deep in my heart that God had delivered to me the blessing my father had spoken of and for which I had earnestly prayed. And so it was that I would make four trips on the bus to Saltillo that summer. Julian would accompany me always sitting several seats away. Taped to my body were plastic bags of cocaine sewed into cotton sacking. El Pulpo's people explained it all to me, including the risks. They fitted me with shirts and pants that Julian said made me look fat, like him. On a string around my neck was tied a message that read, "I am blind. Please help me get to Saltillo. God Bless you and thank you." At Saltillo the cocaine would be handed over to a certain lottery ticket seller at the bus station. This adventure gave meaning to my life. El Pulpo was right, he made the sunshine come to me. And the money I was paid for transporting his narcotics was five times more than I would have made picking vegetables and fruits for the gringos. What had begun as a terrible summer, ended in joy with the return of my family who were amazed to find a television and washing machine in our house, all thanks to God.

Next summer El Pulpo has plans for Julian and me to carry even more narcotics north. He says I am a gift to him from God, a brave young man unlikely to be suspected or searched. This time there will be four trips as before but my destinations will change each time to Laredo, Tijuana, and Mexicali. He has assured my father of my safety and even presented him with beautiful refrigerator. My father says that when God closes one door he always opens another. No I am not happy to be blind, but I am thankful to God for having guided me to El Pulpo.

4 comments:

  1. A very believable story that does an excellent job of getting inside its characters and culture.

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  2. Great story, Gary. I enjoyed "seeing" from Tomas's perspective. Well done! Thanks.

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  3. Thank you for your kind comments.

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  4. I enjoyed this tale. I found Tomas to be very relatable, someone doing his best with the hand he's been dealt.

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