With fresh memories of his youth still lingering, he took a wavering breath of that fresh mountain air that changed his life. Ahead, his beloved daughter-in-law Julia came bringing a steaming mug of tea. The woman always seemed to be working, cleaning, chasing after children, tending to her yard, and always, caring for him.
“What were you dreaming of this time Papacito?” she asked as she held out the mug to him.
He chuckled. She knew his dreams kept him going, for he had told her so many of his stories. Countless hours she had sat nursing her children, his grandson, followed by three granddaughters, and finally, the last baby, another boy. While his grandchildren were nourished, she had time to sit still, listening to his stories. He had told her of the rum drinking man who raised him at the beginning, and he told her of the time he got off the bus, unaware of who waited for him.
Now she sat on a tree stump that had been converted into an outdoor stool, leaning her back against the tree that towered and shaded them. She had worked all day, and sitting down to listen to the old man’ stories never got old.
“I got off the bus in Cayo but I couldn’t remember who was waiting for me…”
The buildings were tall, old looking, and the people were different. When he stepped outside, he saw the crowd that awaited the bus, pushing and shoving to get on and catch a seat. Further out from the scrambling crowd, other people walked quickly back and forth, tending to their everyday business. There were fruit vendors, and a most popular one, the shaved ice vendor selling his cold sweet treats. The breeze was cool, but if one didn’t move, the hot sun hit hard. He watched as grown men and women, alongside children, clamored for the icy treat.
Off to the side of the cart where sticky syrups were being pumped onto the glistening ice in plastic cups, there stood a man. He was fat, with the buttons on his blue button down shirt straining where they had been forced to stay put. The sleeves on the shirt had been rolled up, cutting into his flesh, and he bent over a giant slab of ice in a metal tray that sweated and dripped cool droplets onto a puddle at the man’s feet.
He held something sharp and wide in his hands, and he leaned over pushing the metal blade he held, and the air filled with the ‘scrape, scrape’ sound of the ice being shaved. While the pile of shavings grew, the younger man scooped and filled cups for those who lined up waiting for their shaved ice. A quick few pumps from one of the many colorful jugs turned the ice into bright blues, reds, purples, green and for one particular child, an extra dose of condensed milk.
Celestino drew closer watching everything and thinking he would have one. The child smiled as he passed him by, and the sight of the blackened, rotting teeth flashing at him halted his progress. He decided against snacking on the ice, and instead began searching for the man he could hardly remember. He looked around, feeling fear as his eyes scanned around seeking out a man who, from the old picture he had seen, was going bald, his forehead high, and whose other features he could not recall.
He held his small bag tightly, not sure if he could move from where he stood scanning for people. He saw there was an open area beneath one of the tall, three-story buildings. He envisioned having to sleep under that building alone at night if he didn’t find who he was seeking. Across the street from where he stood, a little ways down, buses were parked. Not wanting to stay still much longer, he made up his mind.
He had taken perhaps five steps forward to where the bus was parked when a hand fell on his shoulder, where his bag slung and held. With fear caught in his throat, he whipped around, slipping on his turn. He slammed into a man’s paunchy stomach, and the hand that had been on his shoulder tightened its grip and balanced him.
He looked up properly, and there was the high forehead, three wrinkles running across from temple to temple, the now-white hair forming a funny ring around the bald spot that shone in the afternoon sun. Beneath the wrinkles were the forgotten features: fierce eyebrows, tough eyes, a bulbous nose with its fine network of criss-crossing veins, and a moustache that normally covered a serious mouth. Today, the mouth was open with laughter, the eyes wrinkled from the laughter, and the hard grip loosened. Celestino stumbled just once more as his ankles untangled, and he straightened up.
“Soy tu papa,” said the clear, deep voice. I’m your father. “Vamonos, aqui esta el carro.” Let’s go, here’s the car.
Just like that, his father had arrived to pick him up.
Like Celestino said so many times when he told his story to Julia, I was going to find a bus that said “Corozal”, and I was going to go back that same day.
But he didn’t. Instead, he walked with his stranger father, and jumped into the pan of the white truck he had been driving. He could have sat in the cabin with the man, but somehow, he felt better being out in the open, making himself comfortable with the sacks of corn and other items that were packed on the floor. He leaned back onto one sack as he sat on another, legs splayed out, relaxed and ready to complete the final leg of his journey.
The bridge was crossed again, but from his new vantage point, he looked up at the sky, where the sun now dipped lower, its heat not as fierce. The highway the truck sped on was smooth, but at the junction, gears ground and there was a low hum as the truck began its ascent up the small hill that led into the mountain where Cayo had settled in.
There was an almost vertical climb, and the sacks, though secured, shifted and moved Celestino around too. He gripped the side of the pan where he sat, hoping he would stay inside. As soon as the ascent leveled off, he began to breathe normally, and settled in once more to enjoy the drive. Bumps, dips and rattles began almost immediately, and he peered out from his perch. The road was no longer paved, and the dusty roads were loose and treacherous. He should have sat in the cabin.
Every once in a while, another vehicle would drive by from the opposite direction, and bring with it a cloud of dust. He soon was covered in a fine sheen of dust, almost red in color. At least it wasn’t the ash he had been so used to back home.
When the dust settled, he could see where Cayo and its surrounding villages had carved itself into one large grouping of mountains. On either side of the streets in some areas, solid sheets of stone and rock hugged the side of the road. Trees’ roots dangled hundreds of feet above him, and there was another change in temperature and scent. In his entire trip that day, he had not seen cane fields since he left. There had been no fires either, so the air continued cooling and clearing his lungs. His eyes were wide as he took in the difference in the place he would now call home. He wondered what kind of work he would be doing, and where he would sleep, and if he would be put with the man’s other children.
He spent much of the drive home wondering all sorts of things, and when they flew past a small village he had assumed was his new hometown, he relaxed once again, and began observing again. At the outskirts, he saw cleared fields that ran up the sides of smaller mountains, plants growing in rows, and if he squinted, he could see small dots that had to be people, moving around the fields, working.
He saw horses, and in one place, he saw hundreds of cows and bulls, roaming and eating contentedly. Once again, he wondered what he would be doing now that he was in Cayo.
There were a few twists and turns where mountain took over, and then it became clear and bright - the large trees vanishing. Gears ground once again, and the slow hum of the vehicle as it strained up one final hill meant a new place to see. Once the hill was cleared, the vehicle sped up past fields of corn. Here and there, people in long sleeves and boots, wearing hats against the sun, bent and stood, wielding machetes and tending to the agriculture.
He sat up alert, observing his new surroundings. Ahead, in a huge fenced space there was a large round thatched building, surrounded by a few smaller buildings, some thatched, one roofless, and some sheltered by zinc. There was an unfinished cement building farther south of the other buildings, and even close to the homes, cows grazed contentedly. There were a few horses tied to a post close to the largest building, and a few men stood around talking, and taking sips from mugs they held in their hands.
The car slowed, and one of the men dropped his mug in his haste to open the gate for the vehicle to drive through. When the car stopped, Celestino’s father came out, slamming the driver’s door shut as he made his way to the back where he sat watching all around him.
“Espero que puedes montar caballo.” I hope you can ride a horse.
With that, he held his hand out to the teenaged son he had been waiting for, and helped him out of the truck. He landed on rubbery legs, and winced at the shock from the jump. He never let his bag go, pulling it close to his chest as he followed the man to the large building. Behind him, the other men had joined the first one in unpacking the sacks of corn and seeds that had been in the vehicle. They headed to one of the smaller thatched buildings, watching the young man who had joined them in their village, on their farm.
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