BY J. B. POLK
Copyright is held by the author.
DESPITE THE time that had passed since those days and despite the fact he never returned to the place that had seen him grow up, Manuel remembered his childhood as vividly as if he were looking through an album full of sepia-coloured photos or as if a reel of old film were projected on a white screen right in front of him.
He recalled the past, his past, by parts, little by little, filling in empty spaces like pieces in a giant puzzle. He followed the threads of memory to the distant days in a small house on a bank of a river that uncoiled its muddy waters along a rocky bed.
He could still clearly picture the house at the edge of the water — thatched, the windows missing a few panes thrown wide open and inside, summer or winter, fire blazing under an iron pot.
The house held a single room. In one corner stood a double bed made of rough planks piled high with shabby blankets, torn sheets and pillows stuffed with goose down. The down was old and heavy, washed innumerable times and made the pillows clumsy and lumpy as if filled with clotted cream. A wooden table stained by age and frequent use, littered with gluey breakfast dishes, sticky spoon and scraps of food left over from previous night’s dinner, hobbled in the centre of the room. An earthen stove occupied nearly a quarter of the space, the iron slabs on top puckered by heat and the pot, which seemed to be on the boil for ever, placed there by the worn and tired hands of his mother.
And although he could picture every inch of the house and the grounds around it in great details in his mind, he could not remember the face or the figure of his mother very well. Her image remained hazy. He did remember, though, that she was a small woman with a permanent slouch from hard work and worries, her cheeks always flushed, feverish, either from the stifling heat from the stove or from the fires of consumption burning inside her. But the pink glow made her pale face look almost pretty. Or at least that’s what he thought as a child.
He also remembered the cordillera — sparsely wooded, the tops rocky and jagged, looming over the house and the valley. The sun bleached the slopes a luminous white. In summer, the sky was always cloudless, brighter than the few cornflowers that had survived the scorching heat. In winter, it was a dull monochrome grey always topped by white snow.
But most of all he remembered his mother’s voice, calling out to him, bouncing off the mountains, coming back weaker, vibrating, some of its strength sucked up by the flinty walls.
“Manolooo . . . !”
Once again, he was transferred to the past. He was a small boy, barely six, straining his ear to the piercing shout.
“. . . olooo . . .” The giggling echo repeated his mother’s call.
And then he recalled the vise-like clutch, fingers pulling at his ear, fear butterflying in his stomach. A man dressed all in white, from the shiny shoos to the starched shirt, walking fast. He, Manolo, shuffling behind, his face a mask of pain, his mouth curved downwards, fat tears gathering on the lashes, spilling.
Bits of angry sentences surfaced in his memory.
“. . . told you before . . .”
“Please . . .”
“. . . teach you . . .”
The man increased the speed, and his own mincing pace could hardly catch up with him.
His mother tottered down the hill, distress printed on her face.
“The little brat!” the white-clad man shouted.
“The little worthless brat! Next time I catch him, I’ll knock his teeth out!”
She approached them slowly, the distress suddenly wiped off her face or hidden behind a glazing of inbred respect.
“Good morning, patron,” she said politely, inappropriately.
“What good morning! Not for me, and definitely not for this little pig of yours!”
Manuel’s eyes bulged with fear.
“I told you, Paula, I told a million times to keep the kid off my property. You should think yourselves lucky I don’t chase you off my land. Do you understand? This is my land and my house over there,” he pointed to the hut, “and your cows eat my grass.”
He gave one more push making the boy fall woodenly to the ground.
Fishing in his pocket, the man took out a spotless white handkerchief.
“If he were my son, I’d give him a good whipping.”
His mother nodded and the gesture made Manuel shiver with terror.
“Yes, patron, that’s what he’s going to get.”
“I’m warning you, Paula, one more time and . . .” the man broke off and marched away cursing quietly.
Manuel sat up, his dirty face twitching, the lips frozen into a scared O.
“Get up from the ground,” she ordered, her teeth clenched.
“I didn’t mean to . . .”
“Get . . . up . . . from . . . the . . . ground . . .” she sliced the sentence word by word, thick anger marking each pause.
He ran towards the house, his bare feet thumping on the path.
When she caught up with him, he was sitting in a chair.
She looked around the room searching for the wooden spoon she had stirred the soup with. It was among the things scattered on the table. She held it in her right hand smacking a menacing rhythm on the palm of the left one.
“How many times do I have to tell you to stay off the patron’s grounds?”
“I wanted to see the swans,” he said defiantly now that a beating was unavoidable.
“He wanted to see the swans,” she mocked.
“They are just big geese, you fool!”
“No, they’re not,” he challenged her.
The spoon increased its speed.
“What do you care about silly fat birds? I told you to bring wood!” she screamed.
Without warning the spoon landed on his head.
He lifted his arm and the spoon caught him on the elbow.
“No, mama, please, no,” the challenge was gone.
“You’ll get us thrown out of here, you heard him! It’s not our house, he owns everything around here: the mountains, the river, even the grass out there. Where will we go? And all because of two stupid geese!”
She stopped hitting him, her hand hurting from the exertion.
He was crying now and so was she. Red welts ran along his arm and throbbed painfully
She sat down next to him.
“Manolo . . .”
He didn’t look up.
“You must understand. He has the right to drive us away. And there’s nowhere else to go.”
He knew it was true. The man in white owned everything: the mountains, the water in the canyon. But worst of all, he owned those two lovely birds on the fishpond. He knew his mother had hit him because she was scared. Scared of having to leave the hut, scared of her son being killed for trespassing, scared of losing the hills around them and the blue sky.
If only his father had been alive…He’d have known what to do. Manuel looked at the guitar hanging on the wall, covered lovingly with a piece of yellowing fabric. He thought of the warm, summer evenings and the sound of footfalls outside and his father’s cheerful voice. No matter how tired he’d been he would reach for the instrument and play a tune. His mother had been happy too.
A sudden spark kindled in his black eyes. He touched his mother’s arm.
She looked up.
“Does he own the music too?”
A reluctant smile spread on the woman’s lips and a glow of complicity ignited between them.
“No, son, the music is all ours.”
Sitting under the tree now he remembered the smile and his mother’s words. There were few memories of her as vivid as this one. Time had blotted out her features, glazed them with a frosting of oblivion — it was normal, after all, the memories of a child were imperfect, fragmentary – but he’d always remember her words even though she’d never say them to him again.
Polish by birth, J. B. Polk is a citizen of the world by choice. Her first story was short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland in 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women’s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards.
Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then writing textbooks for different Latin American Ministries of Education.
Since she went back to writing fiction last year, 10 of her stories, flash fiction and non-fiction have been accepted for anthologies and magazines in Australia, U.K., Germany, U.S., and Canada.