Tuesday, November 03, 2009

BARBARIA installment 4


Two men from Jorge’s group waded through a large tide pool, gathering mussels, sea snails and abalone. Jorge and some of the others were fishing and relaxing on the beach. Since crossing the border into the U.S., south of San Diego, the band had been traveling on foot with four pack animals, following the coastline, but staying off the wagon trails to avoid hostile encounters. Rogelio Diaz and Esteban Castillo had been to California before as railroad workers, and were acting as guides. They advised camping near the beach for a few days while Jorge rode into Los Angeles to arrange for rail transport to San Francisco. The group had found a good campsite in a grove of willow by a fresh water stream about a half-mile inland. It had been raining all morning, but now the skies were clear, and the sun was a welcome sight. Two men had stayed back to watch the camp, while the rest of the travelers came downstream to the sea.

“This should be a good place to stay for a few days,” Jorge said to Angelita Torres, who was introducing herself and her naked baby boy to the Pacific Ocean.

“Yes,” she was a big woman who laughed frequently, and loved to talk. “I don’t know which is worse, walking or riding in a bumpy wagon. What will the train be like? At least the tracks don’t have all those bumps, do they?” A tiny wave splashed the baby in the face, and he squealed. Several other children were running about at the water’s edge.

“No, no. The tracks don’t have bumps,” Jorge grinned at the baby. “I’m going to try to get us onto a comfortable car, but I don’t know. These gringos have strange ideas about Mexicans riding their trains.”

“But we have papers, no?” Angelita said. A hint of anxiety in her voice was evident.

“Oh, yes. There shouldn’t be any problems with the authorities. I just hope they don’t put us in a cattle car,” Jorge said, only half joking.

“You know, my oldest brother, Francisco…He was killed over here. The friendly smile left Angelita’s lips for just a moment, then returned.”

“I’m sorry,” Jorge said. “What happened?”

“I don’t want to stay here … in the camp, I mean… too long.” Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper, and she leaned toward Jorge, as though telling a secret. “We shouldn’t stay here too long.”

“What is it? What happened to your brother?”

“Ah,” she waved her hand before her face, brushing away the question like an irritating insect. “It was one of those terrible things, you know? I can’t really talk about it. But I admit, I’m afraid to be here, in El Norte.”

“But you didn’t have to come, Angelita,” Jorge protested, “Your husband will be back in a year, and he’ll be able to send you money in the meantime.”

The woman shook her head. “You are an educated man, Senor, but there is a lot you don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry,” Jorge said, “I just meant…”

“I believe you mean well,” she said. “Your brother, Lazaro, is said to be a man of conscience. Someone to be trusted. He knows that we have lost everything. That we are doing what is necessary.”

“Lost everything? What do you mean?” Jorge hadn’t been briefed on the life circumstances of his recruited laborers. He only knew that they were reputable people who needed work.

“Our village used to hold a thousand hectares in communal land,” Angelita said. “For many generations we raised our crops, cared for our children. Until ten years ago, we had no need to leave home to make a living.”

At Cambridge, Jorge’s studies had not included the history and politics of his homeland. He said nothing.

“Now we starve,” the woman said. The child began to fuss. His mother gathered him into her arms and walked out of the water.

Her abrupt departure struck Jorge as ominous, causing him to shudder. He wanted to run behind her and tell her not to worry, that she and her family would be safe with him, with his government document; safe from politicians and bandits and Sheriffs and vigilantes and soldiers; safe from people and forces that he knew nothing about; with which he had no experience; over which he had no power. He suddenly felt like a small boy, just pretending to be a man. He wished that this woman, who was depending on him, could instead comfort him. Wished that she had not walked away, but taken him in her arms like a baby. Held him naked above the waves to hear him giggle.

There was a shout from the tide pool. One of the men was waving his arms wildly and calling for assistance. The women at once gathered the children and herded them toward the blankets on the beach, and Jorge sprinted through the shallows toward the man. He turned and ran behind a huge rock that rose from the water’s edge, where his companion was sitting on the sand, holding an unconscious child in his arms.

“Get water to drink!” he shouted, “Run. Get water. She’s dying.”

The two men had stumbled by chance upon a tangle of arms and legs heaped upon the sand, attracting the attention of hungry shore birds. The girl, who appeared to be eleven or twelve years of age, was breathing, and when fresh water finally touched her lips, she began to gulp and cough. The men carried her back to camp, and everyone gathered around to watch with some amazement as Angelita took charge of the effort to nurse the starving, dehydrated white child back to health.

Rogelio Diaz was worried. A short, stocky man in his forties, he rolled a cigarette and seated himself on a fallen log. “Someone could come looking for that girl,” he said.

Esteban was half Rogelio’s age. He was shirtless, and a wooden cross dangled on a rawhide thong around his neck. He nodded in agreement. “If she were my kid, I’d sure be looking for her.”

“I hope somebody does come along,” said Jorge. “Otherwise, we’ll have to find a doctor somewhere, or take her to a hospital in Los Angeles.”

“That could be dangerous,” said Rogelio. “Maybe somebody attacked her. Her dress is torn. She is bruised and scratched up.”

“Yeah,” said Esteban, “They could say we did it, huh?”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jorge snapped, “why should….”

“It’s not ridiculous,” Rogelio cut him off, “ It’s a real possibility.”

“Christ, Rogelio,” Jorge said, “We’re not kidnappers. What should we have done? Just left her to die?”

“Sometimes Gringos don’t listen,” Rogelio said. “Sometimes they already have their minds made up about certain things. We need to find out who she is and what happened, before we decide what to do.”

“She probably doesn’t speak Spanish,” Esteban said. “You should be here, Jorge, if she gets better and starts talking.”

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Jorge said. “Probably the day after tomorrow. Three days at the most.”

“I think we’ll send Esteban with you,” Rogelio said. “If you learn anything about this kid, he can ride back here and let us know.”

Jorge and Esteban rode out of camp before dawn, heading east and following a trail beside the stream that would eventually put them on a road to Los Angeles. Well before midday, they found themselves in a crowded village. Most of the people on the main street were Mexicans. At a café Esteban asked if they could unsaddle the horses for a while, and water them. When the horses were tended to, the two men ordered something to eat and drink, and settled on a bench in front of the place.

“Should we ask someone about the girl?” asked Esteban, devouring a steaming tortilla as he spoke.

“I don’t know. Rogelio warned us to be careful about what we say when we talk about her. I’ll see if I can get a newspaper,” Jorge said. He went inside and came out with a two page Los Angeles journal that carried yesterday’s date. The girl’s story was on the back page:

The San Fernando Sheriff’s Office says they still have no clues in the disappearance from the Mission of a young American girl last week. Father Sebastian told the news reporters that he believes the child was kidnapped, since she was very happy and well treated at Mission San Fernando, and had no reason to run away. The girl’s parents are both dead, and she is an orphan with no family and nowhere to go. Father Sebastian asked the reporters to tell all the people who read about this girl to pray for her safety and for her immortal soul, and to call the Sheriff if they know where she is.

Jorge decided to return to camp with Esteban. He didn’t want to make transport arrangements until they could decide what to do about the Gringa. They finished their meal and saddled up; On the road back they passed an open pool of crude oil. Esteban dismounted, emptied one of their goatskin water bags, and filled it about half way with oil.

“I think were going to have to make a Mestiso of that girl”, he said, “I think we have to take her with us.”

* * *

Mary Hogan Devine, a U.S. Army Officer’s daughter, should have had a better life. At the age of 33, on a grand day in May 1887, beneath a sky that was a bright blue playground for swallows, Mary was buried in the churchyard of Mission San Fernando. At the edge of her open grave, rising behind a pile of fresh earth like spindly pickets of a broken fence, stood her three orphaned children.

Frances, age ten, was the oldest but not the tallest. Her nine-year-old brother, Frank Jr., already outgrowing his sister, stood at attention to her left. Six-year-old Terrance was at Frances’ right, clutching her hand and sucking his thumb rapidly. She had been telling him all day to stop, because he was too old for that now, but he would not. She needn’t have worried. The Holy Friars of the orphanage would break his habit soon enough, with numerous raps on the head.

Terrance was also quietly weeping, and his nose channeled great droplets of snot and tears over his lips and down his chin. Frances reached across to wipe the chin, and then cleaned her hand in the cotton folds of her gray funeral skirt.

Frank Jr. stood at attention, playing soldier, and would not cry. He was going to be an army colonel like his dead grandfather someday, and during this morning of prayers for his dead mother’s soul, he had been leading a fantasy brigade of Bluecoat cavalry across a distant battlefield, slaughtering Redskins.

To divert her own attention from the drone of graveside praying and the sucking sounds of Terrance at work on his thumb, Frances focused on the soaring and dipping of swallows. There were also eagles and buzzards gliding by on occasion, and high above the rolling hills to the north, the girl had spotted a wedge of migrating geese.

Mary used to tell her children that geese and swallows were birds of passage, who flew away each year to seek happiness in other places, because the darkness and cold of winter made them feel miserable.

Sometimes Mary would admonish her daughter alone, away from the boys, whispering softly, holding her close. The child cherished such moments of intimate attention, but it was seldom lost on Frances that Mother’s lectures concerning misery and birds of passage were invariably delivered when the woman was suffering greatly. After a drunken rage by Daddy, ordinarily, or when something really terrible had happened.

After the cornfield flooded, Frances recalled, Mary had gone to tiresome lengths to distinguish in the minds of her children between misery and suffering. That had been three years ago. Father had been found dead in Los Angeles, and a week later a flash flood had destroyed their entire corn crop when it was too late to re-plant.

“God has allowed hardship to befall us,” she shouted over the screams of Terrance, who was only three at the time, “but that does not mean He does not love us.”

There was a long porch in front of their single story farmhouse. Mary had arranged her children in a row on the porch, and stood before them, delivering her message on the meaning of the latest disasters to be visited upon the family.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have sent us a burden, that is all. They have allowed your father to die and our crop to be destroyed, and we must suffer for it. But,” she said with emphasis, “We are not to allow this burden of suffering to make us miserable! I’ve taught you about the birds of passage. Neither birds nor people were ever intended to be miserable. You children are never to let anyone persuade you that God wishes misery upon His creatures. Suffering, yes, misery, no.”

The Gospel according to Mary Devine had always been incomprehensible to Frances, until now. On the day of Mary’s death, Frances had discovered misery, and the need to fly away.

Father Sebastian, delivering his graveside message to fourteen souls, including three friars and two nuns from the Orphanage, noticed Frances craning her neck, staring at the swallows overhead. He gathered the skirt of his brown robe and held it above his sandals, lest he trip into the grave, then circled the hole and the pile of dirt to stand directly before the children. Terrance stopped sucking, Frank Jr. saluted, and Frances stared into the pale eyes of the priest, her jaw agape.

Speaking directly to the girl in tones a bit too resonant with compassion, Father said, “ We must all suffer and make sacrifices. That is the meaning of The Holy Cross of Our Savior.” He paused to finger the ivory and silver crucifix at his chest, and to let his words find their way into the children’s inattentive souls.

“Jesus suffered on the cross,” he told them, “but He was a person with joy in his heart, like those swallows in the sky. You have lost your dear mother. Now it is your time to suffer for God as Our Lord has suffered for all of us. But learn from the swallows, my children. Even though your suffering is great, do not let The Devil steal the joy from your heart.”

Father’s reference to the swallows delivered a much more powerful message to young Frances than the priest had intended. The synchronicity of the moment made her feel that her mother, Mary, had spoken directly to her from Heaven, using the voice of the priest. The words did not make her feel good, but they gave her a shred of irrational, sustaining hope. Nonetheless she was to remain cruelly miserable after her mother’s death, and at the orphanage, all traces of joy did in fact disappear from her heart.

In a deal brokered by a local bank and the County Juvenile Court, Frances and her brothers had been traded to the Mission Orphanage in exchange for the deed to the Devine farm. The female orphans worked every day either in the kitchen or the laundry, while the boys did farm work. Through the winter, Frances was assigned to clean up duty in the kitchen. She washed pots and pans, swept floors, and mopped.

All around the Mission Compound, including the orphanage, the eaves of the buildings were encrusted with the mud of swallows’ nests. In early spring, the birds began to fly incessantly back and forth between nests and fields during the day, and each evening at sunset the mission grounds was clouded with birds returning home for the night. After Vespers in the chapel each evening, Frances liked to climb the stairs to her dormitory, to sit on her bed and watch the birds at work on their nests outside her window.

Frances knew that in summer the young would appear, teetering on the edges of their tiny mud doorways in the morning, encouraged by frantic adults to leap into the air and begin to fly. She also knew that in the fall the nests would empty. The swallows would depart for another winter, and would not return until the next spring.

Just after the first appearance of the swallows, Frances was rotated to laundry duty, and given the job of stirring bubbling tubs of dirty clothing for three hours each day, under the direct supervision of Friar Mark. The work was physically difficult as well as monotonous. Frances asked Friar Mark, after a few days, if there were some other chores that she could perform to alleviate her boredom. He lectured her on the importance of obedience and duty, and then suggested that at some later date he would be willing to make a more suitable arrangement for her.

Frances had been working in the laundry for about a week, when her supervisor appeared at the beginning of her shift one day with a young, hairless bunny procured from a nest in the Mission livestock compound. He showed it to Frances, and she protested that the creature was too young to be removed from the nest.

“Begging your pardon, Friar,” Frances said, “ but you oughtn’t to touch a bunny so young. The mother could kick it from the nest, after this. Or she may even destroy all of the litter. We’ve had them do that at home.”

The holy monk ignored the child’s protests, and proceeded to explain that the soaking vats contained lye, and to instruct the girl, in the interest of her safety, concerning the caustic properties of lye. For that lesson he had devised a special teaching technique.

Friar Mark was a dark, hairy man of forty years, with a huge chest and powerful arms. The son of a Mexican caballero and a Swedish prostitute, he had been delivered to the orphanage shortly after birth, and had seldom been outside its walls since. There was little he did not know about raising rabbits and manipulating children.

“Come with me,” he said, turning and climbing four steps up to a stirring platform alongside of one of the laundry vats. Frances hesitated, and he barked at her, “Get up here now, girl. Do as you’re told.”

Frances climbed the steps and stood beside him. He grinned at the girl, and took a length of twine from his tunic pocket. He tied one end of the string around the bunny’s middle and, as Frances watched in horror, dangled the creature above the vat. For a moment, he held the bunny at the surface of the bubbling liquid, allowing it to squeal with pain before he dipped it in all the way. Frances began to back away from the man, but he gripped her arm with his free hand, and lifted the dead animal out of the laundry water and held it aloft.

“You see, child, how its skin is now bright red and blistered? Do you see what terrible burns you can receive from these tubs?” He swung the grotesque object before her face and chuckled, then moved his hand quickly from her arm to the back of her neck. He began to push her slowly forward, bending her over the guardrail above the liquid.

Friar Mark then warned the girl in a hoarse whisper to be very quiet, and not to scream. He dropped the dead rabbit into the vat, reached under her skirt, and began to massage her crotch. Then he forced her hand under his tunic and instructed her to return the favor.

A few days later, Frances’ brother, Frank, told his sister that he didn’t want to escape. He liked the mission, because the friars let him and young Terry ride horses, and the boys didn’t have to work in the laundry.

The next morning before dawn, Frances climbed over a low wall of the compound and began walking west. Terrified of capture, the girl avoided roads and walked through rocky hills and woodlands, eventually losing all sense of direction. After several days she came at random upon the Pacific Ocean, and lay down to die.

While she was dying, Frances’ mother approached her, walking out of the waves at the edge of the sea.

“Frances,” Mary Hogan said to her daughter, “you have fallen from the sky like an injured bird. You must have broken a wing.”

The girl was filled with joy to see her mother again. “No, Mama,” she said, “I have no wings. Only legs and arms, and I can’t fly at all. I’ve tried, but I can’t fly. Can you lift me up, Mommy? Can you take me with you into the water?”

“Of course, my love,” Mary reached down and touched her child’s swollen face, “But first let my friends take care of your injuries. Can you see them? Over there beyond the rocks. Here, let me hold you so you can see them.” She lifted the child above the rocks and pointed out a group of people down the beach. “See that man, there, standing with the woman in the water? See him? The very dark man?”

Frances had trouble paying attention, because she was so happy to be with her mother again. She wrapped her arms around Mary’s neck and kissed her face and began to cry. “I’ve missed you so much, Mommy,” she said.

Mary comforted her and smiled. Frances relaxed, and her mother asked her again, “Do you see him? The dark man over there with the woman? This time Frances looked very hard and saw clearly. “Yes, Mama, I see him. Who is he?

“He will speak to you soon. The woman will treat your injuries, and the man will speak to you. I have arranged for him to take care of you, so don’t worry. You have some distance yet to fly, but you and I will be together very soon.

“Are you going to leave me again?

Mary didn’t reply. She embraced her child and kissed her, then returned her to the place where she had fallen. Frances watched her mother walk away up the beach, then drifted off to sleep.

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