Inside, his room was being swept and dusted. His small bed was made, and his windows fully opened to air out the must. As was customary, Julia passed the old rag over his old suitcase. It was made of leather, and as it had aged, it had grown burnished, shining under a quick polish. Julia was in a hurry today, so a quick dust was enough. She closed the door behind her, leaving the sparse room clean and refreshed.
Lunch would be an array of vegetables pickled in some lime, some rice and leftover stewed beans. It hardly ever changed from day to day, but it was what they had, and it kept them full and healthy. She began the trek to the back garden, passing by the old man as he sat in his very comfortable chair. She patted his hand, stopping to have a small conversation with him. He grew lonely, she knew that, but it was better to have him relaxed, and save his memories for the children.
All those stories of his life - a life that had been fully lived! She remembered years ago, when he had first come to stay with them, his body, even then, already turning on itself.
When she had been courting with his son, Armando, she remembered the not-so-old man being full of life. He had always been busy, sometimes on his horse, sometimes driving an old beat-up car. He hardly ever stayed around, seeming to look for ways to go places far away. Always on the hunt for the next adventure, and always, a new story to share – old man Celestino.
Today, Celestino closed his eyes in rest, always surprised how quickly he grew tired. He did nothing, yet was so tired. Why, he remembered working from when the sun came up till the night grew long and chilly; how much he had worked. He had started doing hard manual labor when he was barely ten. His father had driven him and his younger uncles hard. The sugar cane fields from the north had been hot, the air thick with ashes from a constant burning, and despite the long sleeved shirts and hats, boots and long pants, there was always an itch that permeated any bit of protection. When they were finally allowed to stop the clearing and harvesting or the constant clearing and planting, that one bucket of water he used to bathe hardly felt enough.
His skin became burnt and tough, and soon, the itch went away. He also had rings of soot around his neck and other joints. The calluses that formed on his tender hands became harder, and soon the machete he carried around was being brandished as though it was part of his body. He grew on the fields, drank his first rum drink out there under a purple sky. He woke up to the poking of sugar cane debris under that same sky, stars blinking at him as his head pounded from his first hangover. He got used to the drink quickly, but never could shake the headaches that came with it. He learned to find his way home after he came stumbling from a bar where cunning women waited to dig into his foolish pockets.
Despite his age, and his hard work, his father still managed to control him with a quick belt, so he soon learned to find his way straight home. There, his father dug into his pockets. Money he couldn’t find was being saved in an account.
His days bled into each other, and he lost track of the days, weeks, months, and even years. It was always about the fields where his hands swung back and forth, and his back grew its curve from the bending and squatting. His skin became bronzed, taking on the color of some of the ashes that flew up constantly in the northern air. When the big trucks loaded the sugar cane, heading to the factory, he knew it meant some more money, and maybe a little bit of rum, but the next day, it would begin again.
Until one day, it wasn’t the same. He awoke at the usual hour, brushing his teeth, feeling a loose one and jiggling it till it bled. He boiled water for his coffee, found a pack of bread and so began his breakfast ritual. Usually, his father would come out to join him for a mug too, and maybe he would smoke a cigarette while he sipped the bitter, black drink. That day, he came out of his room with a bag.
The sugar cane fields were to be no more. He didn’t have to swing his machete that day, he only had to clean up as best he could, scrubbing as much of the soot from his skin as possible. He would wear his good clothes, pack a few more, and he would head out west, where his real father waited for him.
Celestino had known that the man who stood before him, and had raised him with an iron fist, was not his father. But he had been the only man around his mama, and he had become his papa. Now, he would be sent away to a new life, one that would be just as hard, but also different: cattle, horses, farming, crops (and less rum).
The bag held some papers, a little bit of money, and a bank book. Papa, for all his fierceness and tyranny, had been putting away enough to make sure that Celestino would survive, if things didn’t work out west. A few words of encouragement, some advice about saving money, and an understanding was worked out. With instructions about where to go and who to look for, his day was mapped out. Mama got out of her bed where she had lain all night worrying. She had not heard from the man who fathered him in years, since he left her with their child, alone to fend for both of them. Suddenly, he had come in contact, and he wanted his son – he offered to care for him, to give him a better life away from the cane fields. It was the rum drinking – which made her husband so cruel – that made her decide. She held him close, said a small prayer over him, and then she let him go.
He was fifteen at the time, hardened from the work in the fields. His skin had become tough, his face hard, a smile barely fleeting across it. He felt a tug when his mother held him, but he was stoic, already thinking about the farm he would be going to, and if it would be the same heat and itch from the north fields.
He walked with his bag to the bus stop, not talking to anyone on the way, only nodding his head to the old ladies who began their slow walk to the church for their morning prayers. He saw more than a few pairs of legs sticking out from park benches and out under trees. Some people never learned to find their way straight home after a night of rum drinking.
He waited a few minutes for the bus, thinking about what he would be up to by now. There was nothing in his mind but the thought of the sugar cane stalks swaying in the hot, sticky breeze. He began thinking about the cooler breeze of the mountains, and the smell of cows and horses instead. The bus pulled up, bringing with it a puff of smoky exhaust. Coughing, he boarded the bus headed west, and holding his bag closely, he found a seat by the window, curled up and began his new adventure.
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