Celestino felt the cold in his bones, the damp air around spreading deep into the joints that became stiff as the years of hard work finally caught up with him. His mattress was comfortable most of the time, but when the cold and damp hit, no matter how many sheets and how soft his bed, the pain seeped in and settled for a long time.
He lay in pain, trying not to move and absorbing the warmth from his blankets. The dark night didn’t fully go away with the cloudy morning, so the dark enveloped him. There was nothing left for him but to start his day of remembering. Sleep had left him the moment his eyes opened, like a thief in the night, her pockets full of his dreams. Awake, his still-bright eyes watching the ceiling above him, he thought of his life after the life-changing trip that took him from the hot cane fields to the cool mountain air.
Without a chance to meet everyone, he had been taken to the room where he would be staying. It was a small room in the main house, with space only for a small bed and a bureau to hold his possessions. He had only the few items in his backpack, so he packed it in there, pulling out his rubber chanclas to refresh his tired, hot feet from the day’s travels. He soon made his way outdoors to join the busy people that had met him on his arrival. The fresh smells hit him once again, the sweet green grass, mixed with the pungent smell of cow patties and the cows themselves, some mooing far off in the distance. There were more men standing around now, a few chewing on blades of grass, wearing hats pulled low on their faces, their boots covered in mud and much more.
Their slow talking halted when he tentatively made his way to their crowd, merely a slip of a boy. As he had been taught by his mother, who he hadn’t thought of all day except when he panicked at the thought of being lost, he greeted the men in a courteous manner, giving them the time of day and referring to them as his elders. One of the men clapped a hand on his shoulder, the sudden movement causing him to startle and nearly stumble forward. All the men hooted with laughter, the clapped holding him steady while his shoulders shook with mirth.
“Calmate! Calmate!” Calm down, calm down. “Parece que vas a empezar en la cocina, no tienes fuerza.” You have no strength; looks like you’re starting in the kitchen. More laughter.
“Deja mi hijo en paz hombre!” Leave my son alone, man.
“El vino de cortar caña, a cuidar las vacas igual que ustedes.” He came from cutting cane to caring for the cattle, just like you.
Throats were cleared as his father made his way over. He placed his hands on Celestino’s shoulders, steadying him further. Celestino felt bad, having wanted to make friends with the men he was meant to work with. “Pero si quieren, lavo los trastes primero.” But if they want, I’ll start by washing dishes.
A few chuckles escaped, and even his newfound father laughed a little. The tension eased then, and he was soon being introduced to the men who would be his coworkers for the years ahead. They spent time walking around with him, pointing to the trails where the cows were led into the mountains up ahead. The big bulls were kept at a distance because of their aggression, and only a few trained men were allowed to handle them.
That evening, they all sat at a long, long dining table that held at least twenty men, sharing four benches amongst themselves. While they took their seats, a few women whom he had seen in the kitchen when he was shown around, made their way from the kitchen in a single file, holding steaming plates of foods that smelled wonderful. The sun had barely hit the west, but everyone seemed to eat early. The youngest girl couldn’t have been more than ten, and she brought in her arms stacks of plastic plates that the men would eat in. She went around handing them out, and one man, her father, playfully pulled at her ponytail. He seemed to be in charge of the group that sat to eat, numbering a dozen, plus Celestino, the newcomer.
A big pot of hot, fresh beans brought the incredible scent of onions and coconut, tempered with fresh sprigs of cilantro. That was set at the end of the table, two big spoons ready to ladle out the delicious legumes. Another large plastic bowl carried roasted tomatoes, mashed into a soup and laced with onions and peppers and cilantro as well. Salted and peppered, the tangy tomatoes would be hearty with the beans. In another pot, there were peeled hard-boiled eggs that would go well with the beans and tomatoes, and the last platter brought in by a plump older woman (his father’s wife) contained a mysterious heap of shredded meat – smoked venison – a delicacy that later in his life would mean ‘home’. The young girl had returned to the kitchen to get a fresh pepper sauce, balanced atop a stack of flour tortillas wrapped in dishcloths to keep them warm and soft.
It was the smell of the fresh flour tortillas, something that he hardly ever got to eat back home, that made his mouth water. He was thankful to be in a place where hunger was not going to be at the door, waiting to come in. The meal was in celebration of his arrival; the workers usually headed home to their wives, eating whatever had been prepared. But that night, they stayed on to feast, talking about the work that would be his new life.
His father sat at the end of the table, and after the chatter had died down when everyone’s plates were full, he spoke of the work he wanted done the next day. Automatically, he included his newly acquired son in the responsibilities. The women had also joined in, and his father’s wife – his new mother, asked after his life in Corozal. Throughout the waning evening light, they had talked about the sugar cane fields, (he kept quiet about the rum drinking) and they told him about the planting, the harvesting, the land clearing, cattle herding and breeding and even hunting.
He felt the cool air creeping up, its cold fingers reaching out around them as they sat in the glow of the kerosene lamps. He could see in the feeble light the weathered faces of the men and women who obviously worked hard all day. There was a lot of responsibility, yet there seemed to be a gentler air around them that meant his life in the cane fields would have been the harsher alternative.
The sun hadn’t had a chance to lighten the skies when he was woken up, quick sharp raps on the doorway to his bedroom. He was startled, and shivering in the crisp morning air, which had gotten frostier as the evening had darkened at dinner, and was intent on staying that way all morning – he got dressed and headed to the dining table from the night before. There was no-one at the table, plates were being cleared, and only a few dregs of coffee stayed in the mug. He poured it into a used cup, not caring that it was dirty, gulping the lukewarm liquid before heading out to where the horses waited.
The men were saddling their horses, and his father stood talking to the main man in charge. He called Celestino over, indicating that he was to listen to the leader. The blades of grass were covered in droplets of dew, and in the fast-lightening morning light, he could see the fog that enveloped most of the land ahead. It was as if clouds had settled in on the property, their ghostly whiteness permeating everywhere.
His clothes felt damp almost immediately, and he knew he had to get used to this morning routine. From the kitchen, his new mother called to him, handing out a plate of food. It was a fry-jack, a raw flour tortilla deep fried in lard, folded with some leftover refried beans and scrambled eggs, still warm enough and perfect for his hungry stomach. He ate in big hungry bites, pleased with the delicious taste.
While he quickly ate, a horse had been saddled for him. He had not ridden a horse in years, and the one that stood before him seemed so much bigger. He swallowed, and did so again, as he took in the sheer height of the beast that was meant to carry him into the hills where work would begin. The animal whinnied, shaking its big head and clicking on the reins hanging from its big, beautiful head. Hanging from the saddle was a bag, perhaps it contained seeds, or food, or both. He looked around him, and decided to try and clamber up the horse. Around him, the other workers were expertly placing their boots into on stirrup, swinging their other leg high over their horse’s rump and settling in comfortably on their saddle. After observing enough of the easy-looking mounts, he tried out his own.
With his left toe in the left stirrup, he held on to the head of the saddle, gripping hard and hoping fervently to make it, he swung his leg high. He grazed the horse’s rump, and the animal shifted slightly more left, giving him room to fit in, and he landed slightly farther right than he wanted, but he was in the saddle. One of the men had watched him closely as he attempted his climb, and when he made it without incident, brought his horse close to Celestino’s to check on him. Celestino held the reins like Pablo did, and he looked gratefully at the other man – who couldn’t have been much older than him – and they both smiled in recognition of a friendship forming.
Pablo moved his horse farther out, and he bent over to loosen the rope that held Celestino’s horse tethered to a post. He had forgotten to loosen the horse! He took the rope and tried not to notice the chuckles from the other men who all seemed ready to move on. The leader started off, and into the fog they began their trek on the trails, heading to the hills. By the time the sun ascended and burned off the fog, they were high up, the houses mere dots when one looked back. They passed the cow pastures, heading to the farming land where they would be clearing and preparing for planting. The horses knew their way, and from the height of his, Celestino stared wide-eyed at the greenery around him, getting used to his new surroundings.
He spent nearly four years riding up that trail, clearing new ones, saddling and climbing on his horse like an expert, racing and herding cattle, planting under the hot sun, harvesting, camping out and living a different life away from the blistering heat of burning cane. His breathing cleared, his skin changed, going from a burnished copper to a faded tan. He felt the sting of the belt not once, there were no flying fists, there was no rum – only a freedom he had never dreamt of. He had a freedom he never knew he needed. He was home.
The rains went away, but the pain never left the old man. It faded for a few brief moments, only to intensify for days. He spent a lot of time in his bed, bearing the pain when he had to be moved and bathed, and he held on to the blissful moments when his dreams took him away from the gnawing pain that threatened to engulf him.
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