There was an entire family that joined the crew, with the wife cooking provisions and keeping everyone fed and happy. Even the children joined in when school was out.
The owner of the fields was a cruel man, short, but with a hard face. His mouth was a straight cruel slash on a plain face that only opened to bark orders or hurl insults. Even his wife and daughter bore his wrath. When it came to his farm, everyone was his worker, and it seemed as though everyone respected him. In fact, they feared him as he paraded around the vast plain of land on his black stallion. His whip was ever at the ready, and with machete in the other hand, he appeared dangerous even over his fat paunch and short legs.
Today, he seemed to be in a truly foul mood, as the heat and buzzing flies made him especially irritable. His frown was charcoal black as his piggy eyes squinted under his wide-brimmed straw hat; his yell loud when he saw a worker stop to wipe his face or take a swig from his gallon of water. “Stop wasting time! Apurrense!! Dale, dale!!” He screamed this even as he nudged his horse to move higher up the hills, where it seemed the sun burned fiercer and brighter. The workers in that area were sluggish from heat exhaustion, and as they heard the horse clip clop over, tried to pick up their pace. His wife and daughter worked in this spot, and as they saw his approach, they tried to work as fast as they could, knowing he would pick on them like they were any ordinary laborer.
Imagine their surprise when he stopped near them and got off the horse. “Stop.” It was a silent, but almost deadly command. They both heard it, but as they couldn’t believe it, continued for a moment. “I seh STOP.” Their hands froze mid pull, and their backs stiffened. “Ven. No mas cacahuates.”
Both the woman and the girl, no more than a sturdy 8, hastened to stand straight, cringing as they did so, while their backs groaned and creaked audibly. As they clutched their sides, they hurried to the edge of the plot they were in, and started walking towards the hut, where a thick white smoke poured all day, as the cook always had something going. The little girl gasped as she felt her father grab her from the back of her shirt and swung her onto the horse. She was plopped unceremoniously on the black steed, which whinnied loudly. Her father laughed mirthlessly, taking in the fear on her face. Her mother kept her face down, watching where she went, being careful not to step on anything, snake, frog, spiky green worms or god forbid, a peanut plant.
As they neared the hut, the women saw what they were going to be working on. Brand new thatch was piled on the ground, waiting to be lashed onto the beams. With the hard rain expected, the thatch had to be put up to protect the bags of peanuts before it could be transported several miles into town. They had done this before, and knew that being nimble and smaller helped in making the work go faster.
The cook was kneading dough in a massive pan, making enough for the group of over 20 men and boys, and her baby cooed in a hastily strung hammock, waving his fat little legs as spittle drooled down his double chin to his ever expansive tummy. His one tooth gleamed as his face wreathed in smiles at the new visitors. The hardened face of Don Felipe Garcia softened almost comically. He pulled his own daughter down from the horse in one quick motion, handed her the reins to tie him up, and he walked to the baby. He clucked and pulled a funny face, and the baby was riotous with giggles. Don Felipe took his hat off and the baby instantly snatched it and started munching on the straw. His mother gave a little cry, worried that her boss would be angry, but no-one was more shocked to hear Don Felipe’s roar of laughter than the baby himself. He instantly quieted down and stared at the loud man before him. One beat. Two beats. And he joined in with his own chortle.
The women looked on in wonder, the baby’s mother with relief, the little girl’s mother with shock, and the little girl with sadness. Her father always wanted a boy. It didn’t matter that she worked hard and played and dressed like a boy, she would never be one.
As quickly as he became playful, he dismissed the baby and turned on his women.
He pointed to the thatched roof, and indicated the cleared area where they would start. Leonela Garcia was a little afraid of heights, and hated this part of the peanut season more than the reaping, washing, drying, roasting or even shelling. Having to go up the rickety wooden ladder to navigate on thin beams was like living with her husband: dangerous and frightening.
After knotting her flowing dress at the knees, her modesty winning over practicality, she took off her shoes. She preferred to walk barefoot up the ladder and on the beams, with her toes better able to grip if she felt herself sliding. Her daughter followed, looking like a little boy in her long pants and boy’s shirt. She was nimble, and swift, and seemed to be enjoying herself more here than in the fields. She too was barefoot. They both stood on the middle beam, leaning on the supports that would be the only barrier between them and the ground below.
Don Felipe grunted with the effort of picking up one of the bales of palm fronds on his back. He may have been short, but he was not slight, and his upper body strength was phenomenal. One bale of palms strapped to his back and up he went on the rickety ladder to drop it off for the women. Between the two of them, they managed to secure it against the angle of two beams, and they began tamping down the new thatch. They worked quickly, deftly, yet the bales kept coming back up.
Soon they had gone through the bales, and even the sun’s blaze had cooled somewhat. It now shone from the west. It could have been any hour, but the tall and thick trees of the mountain they were on hid the sun earlier than ever. Already, the breeze cooled significantly, and in the forest around them, the sounds of birds picked up in a riotous cacophony of sound. It was time to come down from the roof.
The little girl jumped nimbly off the corner of roof she was on, and like a boy, slid down one of the poles, much to Don Felipe’s amusement. They looked up at Leonela, and watched as she blanched in fear, wondering how to get down as well. She clung to the new thatch, while she tried to balance her footing, and as she aimed for the ladder, in a single act of cruel jest, Don Felipe took the ladder down. “Do it like she!” he said, hooting with laughter. Leonela started crying, fear clutching her heart even as she saw anger and derision cloud her husband’s face. The cook stared, horrified at his cruelty. Men with money were a frightening breed, and she thanked her god that her husband was a poor but happy man.
As Leonela wept openly, Don Felipe charged into the thicket behind the building, machete swinging. She knew what was coming, and she braced herself. Her daughter tried to encourage her, and she struggled to lift the ladder before her father came back. Though it was a sorry looking contraption, it was heavy, and for all she tried, she could barely move it. The cook took pity on her and ran to help her. They placed the ladder directly beneath Leonela’s shaking legs, and as she breathed to calm herself down, her husband came charging out of the bushes, a long skinny pole in his hands. The cook fled under the building, and tried to disappear into the kitchen.
Leonela took a couple of steps down, heartened and trying to make it to land quickly. She was halfway down to the third step when the whistling in the air caught her ear, and she braced. SNAP! The skinny pole landed on the back of her legs, cutting a swath of blood across her calf. She cried out in pain, as she felt the hundreds of tiny prickles gash across her skin, opening it in one fell swoop. The wind whistled again, but she continued to clamber down, and this time the whip landed on her buttocks, and again on her back, and as she finally made it down to the last two steps, on her neck and head. The last one stunned her so much that she lost her footing and she landed flat on her back, weeping. She couldn’t move, and she feared the worst.
The little girl leapt to her side, not knowing what to do, but worrying about her mother, and what her father could do. In the distance, a line of men rushed to the them. The clomping of their feet grew louder as their boots hit the ground in unison. Don Felipe dropped his whip and went to grab his wife to lift her from where she lay, but his daughter found strength to hold him off, bracing herself against him. With one hard crack across her face, she too landed in a heap next to his feet. Leonela struggled to get up, one arm raised against her face as she slipped and tried in vain to sit up. The pain in her back felt like it was on fire. She couldn’t move her legs, and as covered as they were in blood, she knew they weren’t broken. Somehow her back had given out. She saw her baby curled up next to her, and she too heard the roar of stamping feet coming her way.
As her husband’s fist closed in her line of vision, she saw hands reach out and grab him. His scream of indignation and anger frightened her even more, and somehow, the shock wore off and she managed to get to her knees. The horse’s whinny alerted her, and she saw the cook’s young son leading the stallion to where she was; it was time to leave. Two men helped her get up on the horse, and her limp daughter’s body was handed to her. She straddled the horse bareback, one hand on the reins and another holding her baby close to her heart.
She saw where the men had restrained Felipe, and the group’s anger was palpable. She feared the worst, not for him, but for them. With one quick nudge, the horse headed down the path it had grown accustomed to, and they headed into town, away from the spectacle taking place behind them. In the air, all they could hear was the fat baby’s laughter as Don Felipe was no more.
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