There was a time before which very little, almost nothing, had happened, a time decade safter the volcano had spread its ashes over Pueblo Viejo, but years before the trees on el monte began to disappear, replaced with innumerable rows of avocado, and the waters which nourished la presa were considerably reduced, tainted with fertilizantes y pesticidas. Not that that brought work to Pueblo Viejo, for the men who worked the avocados came and went with the trucks that took them in the end. Harvested hard and unripe, they weren’t even eaten here.
So the old ways, of necessity, persisted. Every man got by on his slanted, thin soiled milpa, thanks to the corn bred for generations to the low mountain climate of Pueblo Viejo, and a few cows. One had twenty six which, distinguished him as a man of some standing; at the opposite end, say, of one who came here from la tierra caliente with his short, native wife, looking for work.
This man, the latter, was a good worker and found steady employment, if not with the man with twenty six cows, who did everything he could himself and, when it was too much, kept the work, every deadly bit of it, in the family; which is to say that, when he had to, and only when he had to, he hired second and third cousins. The good worker, getting by and surviving with his solid wife, built himself a shack of discarded boards, flattened tins and plastic, which served well enough, even in the rains until, one night in the cold, dry season, it went up in flames. An incident that gathered many, the many who only show up in such numbers for the occasional fiesta, to watch.
The pueblo donated a scrap of land and built the good worker and his wife a good enough house in which they showed every sign of passing their days, seeing their sons off to the north, as the man with twenty six cows married his daughters off in the church and saw his son off into the priesthood. Then, both men, for time was passing, all but unnoted in Pueblo Viejo, settled down to wait for something else.
A time came, too, when all began to change: in some ways for the better, with a school, electricity and running water and, in some ways, for the worse. A time also came when change itself seemed to settle down, when the economy of Pueblo Viejo, if you could call it that, was what it was; when, for the moment, all the young determined to leave in search of something better had left and the old, who weren’t going anywhere, except uphill to el campo santo, would sit for a day, now and then, in front of the house of the latest to quit this life. This was true whether the man seemed to have been born with twenty six cows or had come up the road one day with little besides the clothes on his back and his solid wife. There were also those who, having left, came back, risking a death on the road in order to die in their own pueblo and be buried in the thin soil they might as well have spent their lives working. Pepe was one of them. He’d had his adventures up there, in the north. A small, hard- muscled man, and tireless, he’d graduated from the thankless work of the fields to shoving trays of dirty dishes into one end of the dishwasher and pulling them out the other. He also, in this new work, at midnight, when the last customer left, rolled the big cans of garbage out and put the chairs upside down on the tables and pulled his bucket and pushed his mop until first light. And somehow he, the invisible man, the one the other workers who—nearly nameless as they came and went—took for granted and the customers never saw, kept at this until…
Until one day, one night really, he was suddenly, perhaps for the first time in his life, tired. Even with the television they always left on for him, it was just too much. The garbage cans, thick with slime in the bottoms, looked too heavy to roll out back; the bucket, when he filled it, even with its wheels, seemed too much too drag over what appeared, that night, to be an endless surface ingrained with the tales of all who came and went; tales hardly worth the telling, including his.
The boss found him, at dawn, all somehow behind him, sitting on the back step.
“What’s wrong, Pepe? If there’s work to be done, do it. If it’s done, go get some sleep, so you’ll be…”
Pepe, without getting up, looked at him a long time, longer than he, in his long years of employment, ever had, and the boss, not an unfeeling man, saw it all.
“The time has come has it, Pepe? After all our years together?” Again, the boss looked at him until he was sure he had read what was written on Pepe’s face, and asked… “Where do you want to go? Back where you came from?”
Pepe, though he knew all the words spoken to him, in English or Spanish, seldom, himself, spoke. This time, though, he knew a nod would not be enough.
“Sí señor, the time has come. I want to go home.”
And so the boss, not a bad man, paid him off, and then some, and bought Pepe his ticket home. He must have figured he owed him that, at least, for a lifetime. Putting him, and the little he had, on the bus, he had a final word for him…
“So long, Pepe. Greetings to whoever’s there, on the other end. And good luck to you.”
The boss shook his hand and Pepe, and his blanket, rode the bus down from the mountains in which he had never felt at home, down to the border which he had only to walk across to catch the bus that would take him most of the rest of the way. There was no trouble crossing. Los gringos watched him go as, he supposed, they’d watch many a worker, old beforehis time and some, like Pepe, simply old, going back where they came from. Los mexicanos knew him for what he was and let him pass without so much as a…
‘Welcome home, Pepe.’
And Pepe, in his own country, waited for the next bus, certainly with a look around, for he knew some of his kind might be shoved up against a wall, have what little they were taking home taken from them. Waiting for the bus to start, maybe not as good a bus as the last one, but good enough, he remembered los braceros of times past, his father and his uncle included, who’d paid a certain percentage into something while they worked the fields up north, only to come home to nothing, everything held back by the bankers who weren’t above taking what little the little men had, if there were enough of them.
The bus jerked into motion and, at the same moment, a man in back began to cough his lungs out. Whatever they put on the crops or mixed in the water headed for the fields, or something worse, must have got him, thought Pepe, for he was sure he could hear the holes in the man’s lungs opening and closing. He glanced back to see a face far further gone than his own, perhaps as far gone as the lungs underneath it and a crowd who would move away if they could, but couldn’t. For all, it appeared, there was nowhere to go but home.
Pepe faced front and tried to take as little into his own lungs as possible, the same as he had with the steam from the dishwasher or the fumes of whatever he’d been told to pour into his bucket. He wondered if that was all he really had in his brain, the stuff he’d tried to keep out and the sights and sounds he’d taken in, the hiss of the washer, the creak of the bucket across the floor; the tales of so many others, half told in a stranger’s land, any one of which, had he not seen his last chance and taken it, might have been his own.
As the scenes of the border passed, Pepe knew his work in the mountains hadn’t been half bad. He’d never been robbed or roughed up. He hadn’t had to pay a percentage to keep the little he’d made. Soon enough, the border was behind him, the distant airport too, scenes of the barren north opened in front and, the fact that the man in back had either died or fallen asleep, gave Pepe a certain peace. For better or worse, this was his country. Quietly making sure his money was secure, here and there, he closed his eyes to wonder if as, certainly, for the man in
back, this was his last trip.
Well, thought Pepe, if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. Better to finish your days at home, if home is where you left it.
Those were his thoughts before, a bus or two later, he stepped down on the highway, only half a kilometer from Pueblo Viejo. Looking around he saw it was all still there, the church in the distance, and el monte, even further, still mostly wooded, not yet swallowed up by the avocados. Pepe set off on the well worn route to el centro, to the plaza which, he could sense from a distance, was also still there. Looking down, he could practically see the feet that had
worn the way, feet like his, hauling a man, at the end of his days, home.
As he neared the plaza, faces of women appeared in doorways, perhaps wondering whose feet were scraping the cobblestones, faces no more familiar to him than his was to them. Still, for one too old to be remembered, even for a stranger, a greeting was in order, one which the passerby generally initiated.
“Buenas tardes, señora.”
Pepe found the plaza, the church where it had always been, and got his bearings. His back to the bandstand in the center, itself nearly a ruin, he started off down the street which had always led to his own, the one he’d left his parents on when they were nearly as far gone as he was now. All was going well and Pepe, in spite of his years or, perhaps, because of them, was relaxing a little, thinking that, after all this time, he might be welcomed home from a day’s effort, from a lifetime’s.
He might put his feet up and be offered a steaming bowl of his mother’s sopa, or caldo, thick with meat. Of course, Pepe knew his mother, like his father, must be no more, but perhaps a daughter of theirs, a sister of his—he thought he remembered a little sister, not much more than an infant when he left—yes, a sister of his might be still there, still in the family house, guarding the family recipes for the dishes his tongue remembered, guarding them as if they were the ticket to eternal life. These thoughts were reassuring, and Pepe slowed down a little, the better to anticipate the reception that must be, providing they recognized him, waiting.
But when he got to his house, the family house—he was sure it was his for, when he arrived, he turned 360 degrees and took his bearings from the church one way and el campo santo the other—there was only a roofless ruin: bricks of adobe worn by wind and rain, bits of straw sticking out, edges rounded as the curves of a young woman, or the back of an old one, and little more than waist high. There were no mother or father, no sister, no table and chairs, no fire and, of course, no steaming sopa or caldo, thick with meat. It was hardly necessary to conceal his disappointment for, in his barrio, the neighboring houses, which had once been wall-to-wall with his own, that of his family, were not in much better shape and there was no one to witness what came next as Pepe, as he had not allowed himself to do since he was a child, sat down on one of his ruined walls, for it was to be assumed
he was, by common law, natural heir of his ruin, and cried.
No one heard him, except a cock who hopped up onto one of the other walls to see what all the racket was about but, having seen much in his short life for, as everyone knew, the countryside as well as the pueblos in it, was dying, he was soon gone. He had more pressing affairs to deal with, for a cock’s work is never done, and there was, very likely, a chicken invitingly squatted and looking up at him in the neighbor ruin.
“This is mine, all mine!” crowed the cock as he left, and so, perhaps, it was.
And so, the weight of the loss of the life he might have allowed himself to think he would, one day, return to, lifted, at least enough for him to poke around the ruined rooms, rooms he remembered as larger than they were. And there, in the smallest, just where he expected nothing, was something.
A bone, a bone picked up and turned in his hand, that must be human, though very small, perhaps the thigh of a child, a girl, perhaps that of his little sister who, for one reason or another, never grew up. How could this be? Why weren’t her bones in el campo santo? Perhaps, thought Pepe, there had been some event—though very little, he knew, ever happened in Pueblo Viejo—a fire, or perhaps a great wind, and then a flood, yes, one after the other. That would explain why all the houses were roofless and ruined. Only time, and the weather that came and
went, had revealed a bone that must have been too small to notice in the search that must have followed one disaster or the other.
Yes, Pepe must be holding the thigh of the little sister he had not had time to get to know, though, he suddenly remembered, she had cried when he left. Perhaps he had meant more to her than he knew. Surely this was reason to sit down once more, to miss her as she must have missed him, but there was nothing left inside. All that was gone, leaving him as empty as a house it was hard to believe anyone had ever lived in. It would seem at this moment that all was lost, that there was nothing to be done, but maybe, after all, there was.
Pepe decided, on the moment, to trek on to el campo santo, to find the family wall, to place the little thigh bone where it belonged.
And off he went. It would seem his journey was not yet finished. There was no need to
backtrack to the bandstand and start over again. He was beginning to remember his way around, for he must have stored a map just where he thought he had nothing at all. He took a back street, if such was possible in a pueblo with no main street, crossed the rivulet that sometimes ran deep and wild, but more often, as now, was dry as a bone, and began the climb to el campo santo. Somehow the thighbone wasn’t happy in his pocket. It was pressing against his own, hampering his gait, especially uphill. He moved it to another pocket. There it was even worse, cutting, in spite of its rounded corners, into the flesh just above his knee. For the last hundred meters to the iron gates, which hung mournfully ajar, Pepe carried his little sister’s thigh in his hand but, even there, it seemed to bother him. It was warmer than it ought to be for a bone that had been buried for forty years.
“What’s wrong, hermanita?” Here Pepe wished he could remember his little sister’s name. Was it Angelita? That was unlikely but, even so, it was easier to use it than to have none and he continued. “Hold on, Angelita, we’re almost there. You’ll be among your own and I’ll be joining you soon enough.”
This seemed to quiet her bone for, as he switched hands once again, it seemed to cool
and, within minutes, Pepe, and what was left of Angelita, were standing before the back wall where they stacked those who couldn’t afford the sepulchers favored by the better off, little houses really, with fancy pots for fresh flowers and electricity for the days on which it ran.
“Here we are, hermanita. I mean Angelita. There’s papá with mamá right on top. Here’s a little hole I might shove you in, next to our little brother, the one who was never quite born.” It seemed an easy fit. With some wiggling, Pepe got his little sister’s thighbone right in there in the darkness and the damp with the remains of their little brother who, if he remembered correctly, never took a breath. Pepe sat for a while with the remains of his family. It was good to be home. It was good to be unburdened of the bone which hadn’t seemed comfortable, even for a moment, in pocket or in hand. At dusk Pepe found himself something to eat at a stand-up puesto where there had not been one before, one of several leading to the market that would be there, he assumed, at mid-week as it had always been. He ate a taco, hot with innards and stood, perhaps a little longer than he had to, but no one noticed him and he was getting used to being invisible. At nightfall he didn’t bother to use up any of his well-hidden pesos on a bed in what passed for a hotel in Pueblo Viejo, nor did he want to look up any survivors of survivors, who wouldn’t remember him anyway. ‘Buenas noches…’ In the country, Pepe remembered, one says buenas noches before night has half fallen, just as one says buenas tardes as soon as the sun is overhead. ‘Buenas noches, I’m your uncle’s uncle, your father’s long lost friend, the one he asked for just before he died.’ No. Better to just be unknown. No need to prove it.
But it was getting cold, as it nearly always did in the low mountains that held Pueblo Viejo and, with the change in temperatures, the air began to move. Before he applied himself to deciding the what now, Pepe thought he had better sleep on it and his feet led him, of themselves now, to the family ruin. The adobe was still warm from the day and he found himself a spot out of the wind, one that happened to be in the remains of the room that had once held his little sister and, no doubt, in the long ago, himself.
He would sleep, he supposed, like a baby, or at least a child but, around midnight, he was getting uncomfortable. It wasn’t the cold or the wind which, as usual, had dropped as the temperatures evened. It was something sticking in his back, an object he could feel, even through his blanket, in which he had wrapped himself like one of the dead. Pepe tried to roll away from it onto another patch of crumbled adobe which, in the dry cold, should be free of even the occasional scorpion. He settled down. He closed his eyes. But there it was again, practically stabbing him between the shoulder blades when it had been poking him in the kidneys before. He turned in his blanket, got an arm out to feel around and, there it was… Immediately, he knew what. His little sister’s other thigh. Well, of course, she’d hadtwo but he’d thought, on the discovery of the first, that they must have found the rest of her years, years ago, but… Perhaps not. Pepe freed the other arm to brush the remains of their house from her bone, pulled it under his blanket with him and, as it warmed, he slept. At dawn for, before he’d taken a lifelong position as a night worker, he’d always been up at dawn, and so he was. A madrugador, they’d called him, a morning person, like the bird who got the worm, though he knew the time was nearly upon him when it would be his turn for more than one. He peed behind one of the walls, came back to hide his blanket and there it was…
Angelita’s thighbone, sleeping late in the still warm folds and appearing quite happy where it was.
“Well, all right, sleep on…” He spoke softly, almost whispering, knowing he would not be heard. “I’ll find a cup of coffee and come back.”
Pueblo Viejo was coming to life, for it was mid-week, and the old women who brought their pots and the young men laying out deodorants and make-believe watches, had arrived early for the market. Pepe had no trouble finding a cup of coffee. He even bought himself something that had never been there before, not on any market day he could remember, but it was on this
one: a slice of pizza.
His cup discarded, his hands wiped on his legs, he left the market where not even the oldest of the old had given him a second glance, and returned to his ruin. There it, she, lay, sleeping more soundly than she, it, he supposed, had slept in years. But, even if it wasn’t time to milk the cows or pamper the avocados, there was something to be done.
“Come on, Angelita. Time to go. Our little brother’s waiting. So are mamá and papá and, not that far away—I saw her name—the girl I thought I might, one day, return to marry and only God knows who else.”
Angelita did not object and Pepe hid his blanket and pocketed her. He didn’t want to be seen carrying a little bone, a human bone, in his hand. There was something—even if it was dried out, weightless—a little suspicious about that. As before, he took the shortcut across the rivulet and began the climb to el campo santo.
Once more, her thigh was uncomfortable rubbing against one of his, then the other, and it
seemed hot to the touch, body temperature anyway, in either hand. But he slogged on. He might be running out of time but not, gracias a Dios, of strength enough to climb to el campo santo. It might have, up north…facing the floor that seemed, that last night, to go on forever…failed him, but here, in his own Pueblo, he felt he could still walk all day or, if he had to, all night.
Yet again, he stood before the family wall and worked Angelita’s thighbone into the darkness and the damp where—the name still quite clear—their little brother lay. Standing back, taking it all in, his stacked family, all in niches of their own behind the scratched names of some he didn’t even know or couldn’t remember, he wondered why Angelita’s name was not among them.
Of course, that wasn’t her name. He himself had christened her. But Maria this and Maria that..? Any one of them could have been her. He wasn’t going to find a stone and chip their alcoves open, one after the other, in search of a legless child, even if her bones might be happier there.
But, he’d done what he’d done, and that was it. It was all he could do. At midday, as the market was closing down for the week, he returned to his ruin, sat, and tried to work things out. His money wouldn’t last forever. There was none here. He could go back. Back north. But how would he cross the border? It wasn’t so easy, south to north. He’d have to find some lonely spot and walk. And walk. And if, before he found a road and a gas station, maybe a bus, la migra found him?
‘Hey, old man!’ He could just hear it. ‘Hey, old man! Where do you think you’re going? Got your papers stuffed somewhere, maybe a death certificate? You’re not lookin’ too good. There’s no work in hell, you know. Or maybe there is. Have you thought of that?’
And, if he didn’t make it? If they found him a month or two later and trucked him in for identification? His clothes, a letter maybe, to him or from him, an old address. Or maybe just something in his blood or his bones, however they did that. And perhaps, after all, a lead, a match, somehow, and his remains returned to Pueblo Viejo, so they could shove him in the family wall, a wall not that far from where he was sitting right now.
It didn’t seem, even to a mind as old as Pepe’s, to make much sense. Birds, and even whales he’d heard, came and went, in order to go on living, in order to survive. Men too, he supposed. So Pepe sat and thought. Maybe he’d figure it all out. There must be some way not to die on the road, not to die unknown and put a lot of good people to a lot of trouble. There must be some alternative to that. After all, he’d always found one.
Perhaps he’d just sleep on it, since night was falling, the temperatures on el monte and in the streets of the pueblo differed and the night wind was on its way. Suddenly—he must be slowing down if everything else happened so fast—it was dark. Pepe found his blanket, his corner in the little room, wrapped himself and lay down.
What followed? The sleep of the hardworking, of the long-lived? No, a fitful, restless, undeserved wakefulness. He turned this way, he turned that. No, he could not get comfortable. What was wrong? Was he suddenly too good to sleep on the ground? Was it time for a mattress thrown down in some shelter for the old? The stars rose and moved across the sky, but the questions must have tired of assaulting him and he must have slept, for he opened his eyes to
Irritable after such a bad night, Pepe unwound himself and sat up. A slight difference, perhaps no more than an unevenness in the crumbled adobe he’d slept upon caught his eye. He swept a little with the side of his hand and then the palm of it beneath the still warm surface and, suddenly, there it was, the cause of his unrest. A bone, another bone, and another. Pepe found a sharp edged rock and, more like first man than one of los arqueólogos he’d seen on the television, dug crudely and quickly. Then, for he saw what he had found, he slowed down, he discarded his rock, he dug with his still strong fingers and, bit by bit, the bones shaped
themselves before his eyes.
A tiny skeleton, hers of course, Angelita’s, as complete as she had been forty years ago for, seeing how small she was, he knew she must have died soon after he left. Perhaps the disasters had come then, he’d just never heard about them. His fingers sore, Pepe sat back, looked and saw. There she was, she who had kept him awake, uneasy, restless: a little girl who’d never crossed borders, never seen anything of life beyond her pueblo and, in spite of that, lacked her legs.
He knew where her thighs were—he’d disturbed those, shoved them in where they would never be at rest—her shins and feet must be somewhere in what was left of their house, as if she’d been torn apart by the disasters first, then by time.
What now? It was a question he’d asked himself before. He sat, thinking about it, as the sun rose over his ruined walls, over a tree that hadn’t been there when he left and, nearly overhead, left him feeling even smaller than he was. Survivor of a family that was already lost among the thousands, the hundreds of thousands.
The sun might have said ‘buenas tardes, Pepe, this is what was always waiting for you,’ even if it didn’t.
There he sat, his shadow creeping slowly beneath him until, it too, was gone. He sat near enough to where Angelita’s feet must have been, and figured. Do I take the rest of her, up there, to el campo santo, or do I break open the wall, take her tiny thighs out and bring them back here?
He didn’t really know, didn’t know what would be right. He did know he’d have to be more careful now, finding her shin bones and her feet. He’d have to buy a little brush like los arqueólogos used though, maybe in his case, a dish brush. He’d have to, on hands and knees— carefully, carefully—hunt the rest of her.
One way or another, he knew—that was the what, the what now, that was his answer— one way or another he’d put her back together