Translated by Stephanie Lawyer
Wet earth. Fifteen years in the desert lands of Baja California Sur and it never fails to amaze him. All you do is open the pump, and there, the water gushes up. He thinks back to Michoacán, where his little ones were born and later watched him as he struggled to put beans and tortillas on the table. He’d done it, as a farm hand, a mule driver, a trader—whatever God sent his way—and his children never went without food. He was bull-headed. He never stopped planting, even if it only brought in a few cents. It wasn’t easy. After his first son Bartolo was born, it became as clear as day that the soil in Michoacán wouldn’t yield what it had before. It was like an old woman—cracked, dried up, barren. So different from when he was a kid helping his dad grow cantaloupe and watermelon by the riverside. All they needed to do then was make sure no one stole from them.
No surprise, he thinks. During the revolution, as they went around killing each other off, they watered the soil with blood, guts, and flesh. What way was that to look after the land? Land is sacred. It bears fruit to nourish the living and cradles the dead in its womb-like depths. What did you expect if you didn’t treat it right? He’d never forgive his country for forcing him to kill his brothers. When he was much younger, before he settled down, he was part of an uprising that supposedly defended his country but ended up killing mindlessly for it—and then one morning he woke up at dawn, and instead of saddling the colonel’s horse, he took off, leaving the revolution behind. He and a few others hid in the hills so the colonel could not find and slaughter them. They only came down at night to steal food. They were skin and bones, and ragged, and they stank. But folks were good to them, he thinks. They’d left them food on their porches more than once. How sad it was to look down on the clouds of smoke, knowing the colonel was setting fire to the plots of beans and corn below. His own belly growled, but how were the people to blame? No wonder the earth stopped bearing fruit and there was no trace of water at all. As far as he could tell, even the rain was mad.
He’d never forget the commotion his neighbors made when the rain fell uninterrupted. Then, sometime later, the land responded by turning green. Bartolo would have been five or six years old when he helped him to turn over the soil in the furrows, ripping up even the purslane. A shame he’d given him such a bad time. The thing is, when you don’t have much, a little is a lot, and the poor kid paid for his mistake. But as the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining: Bartolo became strong, a real fighter. And when he got married and found himself with a growing family of his own, he even went to the North to test his luck. He broke his back up there. Here, in Baja California Sur, he made the land his own, digging up the cholla trees in the heat of the day. How hard he worked! And look at him now, his own son, every inch the farmer, the owner of acres and acres. All he has to do to water his crops is open the pump, and that’s it. To think that in Michoacán people turn to gaze up at the sky, and women even offer Novena prayers to the Virgin for the lightest shower. Here the water comes from deep in the earth, from some groundwater reserves. Who needs rain? The thorniness of these desert lands is misleading: the fact is, they are noble, innocent—they know nothing of blood, or flames, or revolution. They gladly accept the water and become fertile.
About the translator: Stephanie Lawyer grew up in Mexico and has lived and worked in the US, the UK, and Asia. She edited in-house for Secker & Warburg in London and later for Little, Brown in Boston, and worked for more than a decade in London and Hong Kong as an independent editor and literary agent. She recently relocated to Albuquerque, NM, where she continues to work as an editor, both in print and online. Stephanie is the founder of per-e-gren.org.