She looked up from the scattered chicken feed. Lucio stood in the gloom before her, in his gray shirt and soil-crusted overalls and boots, hefting the weight of the three shovels over one shoulder, then the other, eyeing her.
“Sí?” she exhaled dryly, matching his glare.
His eyes softened and he faltered a bit,wincing under the weight of his load. He turned his gaze north along the road until it vanished over the hill, then turned his body slowly, like a weathervane, the rusted shovel blades seeking the lee of the wind. He continued speaking as he started toward the road. “Preguntale a compay Moncho si me vende una cabra jovencita.” Ask compay Moncho if he’ll sell me one of his younger goats, a female. Lucio stopped and turned a bit, shovels drifting against the sky.
“Digo, si aparece por ahí.” That is, if he happens to come around.
He continued on, putting spring in his step and picking up a trudging momentum to gain the hill. As he appeared on the crest she called out through a cupped hand, “Bueno, sí. Por supuesto.” Well, alright. Of course. She stared a moment at the patch of sky where his black grasshopper form had finally vanished. She thought of Moncho, his thick moustache and purposeful stride. His frayed hat, stained by sweat and sun. Every bit as much a son of a bitch as Lucio, just a different kind. They were like sun and moon. Whenever they happened to appear at the same time they threatened to burn each other up to cinders.
Alba started at the sounds of her waking boys— small creaking whispers, a strangled cry. A thump as one or two tumbled onto the floorboards. She slapped the feed off her hands and tightened the bandana around her curls as she climbed back into the house. She hoped not to see Moncho that day at all. She didn’t want to speak of goats living or dead, or money, or the weather or the American planes or her looks or whatever else Moncho’s moustache cared to flutter on about.
The excited whispers quieted a bit as she stood at the top of the steps and stared into the blackness, looking for the glint of her sons' eyes. Then she leaned back, fists on her hips, gathering her breath to let out a sharp scold when two of the boys darted past her on the far side of the opening and leaped to the ground, a flash of airborne torsos and twisting legs in threadbare pants.
Yodeling and laughing, they scattered into the gloom. Too early, she thought darkly, too early in the day to be hollering. Up before the roosters, it was an utter scandal. “Mira! Savandijas, que se van a matar!” she yelled after them, voice cracking. As she shook her fist at the diverging trails of broken stalks left across the fields by Julio and Tito, the rest of the boys exploded past her and down the steps, nearly pulling her down after them as they practically swept through her skirts. She caught a glimpse of Adán’s little face as he stumbled by, upturned and aghast. He'd been the baby of the family for far too long, and now he was apparently being pulled into the older boys’ schemes and adventures. He was growing up, but that one glance told her he hadn’t yet lost the fear of his mother. Soon, she knew, she had to cede him to his father’s rule, with its awful punishments that Adán could only learn crime by crime. If only Lucio was a book you could open at will and learn by rote.
She sighed as she went about folding bedding, patting down the mattresses, and preparing breakfast for five boys in an empty house, knowing full well that most of them would return long after sun up. Exhausted and hungry, they would find a cold and spoiled meal. It pained her not to provide, but they had to learn somehow. If only Lucio would build the fourth wall of the house, it might give her a chance to corral the little crickets before they could pile out of the doorway, before they could be drawn out into the wide world by the vista that greeted them. It even happened to her at times, usually on Sunday mornings when Lucio was spared a day of digging at the base, and she was spared having to make breakfast before dawn. The roosters would rouse in a haphazard chorus across the island, and she would open her eyes to towering white clouds in a dazzling blue sky, falling through the veil of one dream into another.
But it seemed her children loved the pre-dawn void above all else. To rise when the world was still gray and unformed, to leap out of a warm crowded bed into the chill air was a thrill she could not fathom. From the conquered boughs of a tree, or standing still in a field of silent cows, or from the ruins of the old lighthouse on the headland over the sea— perhaps the only way to fully greet each day’s world was to watch it take form and color around you, free of walls and fences, chicken wire and rutted roads.
Gradually as she moved about the interior of the little three-sided shack, smoothing the previous day’s catastrophes as they came to dawning light, she gave herself to the one joy she allowed herself on these desolate mornings. She would split her gaze in two and turn an eye inward, to search and roam through her dreams. In the quiet and shade, with the creak and shift of wood underfoot and the calming phosphorescence of the great open mouth of the shack, she could see through the layer of rust on an old can of olive oil the faint trace of a picture. An orderly grove of olive trees on a slope in a far-off country, and a beautiful old town with spires and gardens, perhaps Sevilla or some other Spanish city. Certainly it was somewhere across the ocean, for it was even lovelier than Ponce, “La Perla del Sur,” the “Pearl” on the south coast of the island. She brought the can into the pale light of the single window to see the little city more clearly, when a movement by the fence caught her eye.
A man drifted just past the shrubs on the other side of the pickets. There was enough light to see a ruddy complexion set off against a very pale shirt before he was lost to view, moving toward the front of the house. Alba stepped quietly back into the gloom, eyes intent on the scene through the little square window, then on the wider scene through the open side of the house. The end of the fence and the dusty road beyond was neatly framed by the gap, four paces from the house. There was not a sound. Not the crunch of gravel or the creak of a shoe. She glared at the edge of the opening until her eyes watered, tightening her grip on the rusty can. She called out before the man could emerge from behind the fence and see that she was alone.
She was very certain it was not Moncho, who loved to announce his presence from the bend in the road further down the hill. “Madrina,” he would call warmly, although she was nobody’s godmother yet. “Y el Toro, está por ahí?” Is the Bull around? He didn’t really seem to care whether Lucio was around to hear his jibes. Thin-skins seemed to amuse Moncho. He was an incorrigible flirt, but he was not one to sneak around before dawn, light of step, no matter what Lucio thought of him. “Moncho,” she said again firmly. She hoped it sounded more like a summons this time, not a question. As if she were trying to catch the attention of a man across the room. Her voice was flat in the peculiar air. Even the treefrogs were quiet.
She peered at the fence and the road, standing her ground. The silence crept up to her and along her skin to her scalp. She slowly pulled the sleeves of the sweater back down over her forearms and over her hands.
The man appeared at the left of the opening, moving very slowly up the road, never turning his head, seemingly intent on the path. He vanished again momentarily behind some tall shrubs near the edge of the fence, but Alba moved out of the shadows, feeling less apprehensive. He seemed very old and thin, but upright and unbent, with shoulders thrown back, which lent him a vaguely regal air. As she climbed down out of the house and approached him, he came into view beyond the shrubs, and still hadn’t turned his head or stopped in response to her call, or to acknowledge the house. She could see that his shirt was torn and frayed, his hair white and in uneven patches on his skull. He was blind, she thought, and deaf. She smiled as she came to the end of the fence, wiping her hands on her skirt.
“Buenos días, Señor. En que puedo servirle?” Good morning, sir. How may I help you?
He didn’t answer, or flinch. He merely drifted past her with a light breeze that picked up from the south, slack-jawed and hollow-eyed. She looked down. He was barefoot, his gnarled toes pointing stiffly downward.
The old man was floating, a foot above the ground.
Read Parts , Three>