FREE EXCERPT- My Name is Marisol

My Name is Marisol


Prologue


On the road home from Barranquilla, I lost my voice.  Papa tried to revive me.

“Bella sol,” he said. 

He whispered it affectionately to me, calling me the beautiful sun, hoping that a happy response would release from my pursed lips and reassure him that all was alright.  But I could not speak.  My thoughts raged within me like driving bulls.  I did not know how Papa remained so calm.  He was so still, so pensive as he maneuvered our rusty pick-up truck slowly and cautiously along the rough terrain leading back to our tomato farm in Pueblo Bosillo, Colombia. 

I wanted to talk, I did.  I wanted to scream.  I wanted to demand of Papa the true purpose behind these monthly trips to Barranquilla.  I wanted to reveal to him that I was not stupid, that I knew something was not right, that he was not paying taxes to the government as he told me and Mama and his sons.  I wanted to bang my fists on the faded gray dashboard in frustration at the vibrant images that kept replaying in my mind, that had replayed in my mind month after month after month: 

The men in black clothes carrying shiny black guns grabbing Papa and dragging him into a yellow room and yelling green words to Papa and hitting Papa and emptying Papa’s blue pockets and taking everything he had. 

Then I would scream for Papa.  I would cry for him, fearful that his aging body could no longer withstand these monthly blows.  But the men with guns would hold me back.  They would place their sour hands over my mouth and squeeze my neck.  They would warn me that my teen life would be easily taken if I continued to protest.

After minutes of enduring the sounds of Papa’s torture, silence would ensue.  Then the vile men would release me and let me run to Papa in the yellow room.  And there, I would find Papa gasping for breath but miraculously unbroken. 

Papa would stand up and easily dust off his wounds like an immortal, like something not human.  Then Papa would order me back into the truck to begin our journey home as if this was normal, as if this was what his life was supposed to be.

On previous trips to Barranquilla, I had talked.  I asked Papa why.  Why did they do that to you?  Why do we have to go?  Why do you bring me instead of my brothers, Luis or Chū-Cho?  Papa would always respond by avoiding my questions, choosing to recant silly stories of his Colombian boyhood instead.  And then my hot questions would fade from my mind as images from Papa’s boyish tales replaced my serious thoughts.  Then we would finally come home and Mama would hug Papa tightly, then squeeze me against her soft bosom while her eyes moistened with happy tears. 

Every single month this happened.

Yet this time, something was different.  Something.  Indeed, the beatings by the men in Barranquilla were the same.  Their angry faces and heavy guns were the same.  The boiling Colombian sun was the same.  Papa’s soft sighs as he climbed back into our truck was the same.  It was all the same.  Perhaps it is me that was different.  I am a teen Latina, a young woman full of questions and tired of receiving the same answers.  Maybe it is me that was not the same this time.

As we passed by our neighbors’ farms, I felt the warm wind shift slightly.  My brown hair twirled in an odd way as I gazed out of the passenger side window.  For several minutes, I softly listened to the usual late morning cacophony of farm culture:  the melodious tunes of chirping birds, the crunch of wild grass under the paws of wild dogs, the grunts of poor Colombian families pulling and pushing and plucking and cutting and slicing and packing, the grinding sound of roving old farm machines….

In my daze, I suddenly recalled a word that the Barranquilla men had tortured Papa with:  traitor.  I realize that this word had not been used before by the Barranquilla men in our previous trips.  And for some reason, during this trip, they had beaten Papa with it.

I turned to Papa wanting to ask him about this word, about why they tortured him with this word, about what Papa did or did not do to deserve such a demeaning slur.  But when I looked at Papa, I saw his weathered face and I decided against it.  I shifted my gaze back to my window and back to my persistent ruminations. 

“Bella sol,” said Papa.

I could not respond because I did not want to talk about his fake childhood escapades anymore.  I had no desire to laugh at the fantasies my father always created to lighten the mood.  I wanted to ask Papa the truth, but I knew he would never tell me.

And that is when it happened. 

Somewhere after the passing of our truck under the old tree that marked the last mile home, I lost my voice.  I felt the power of my words, my many, many questions, shift from my mouth and flow through my arms then down into my fingers.  It happened so smoothly, so suddenly.  By the time we reached our farm, I developed an insatiable, irresistible urge to write.


Secrets

My high school teacher, Señora Rosano, never sweats.  Although she was the best teacher in the school and was always busy with many things, her clothes remained uncharacteristically dry and breezy as if she had just ironed them and put them on that very minute.

In a way, Señora Rosano was out of place in my school in Pueblo Bosillo.  Our classrooms were hot and open and sticky with heavy Colombian heat.  Our books were torn in many places with many pages missing.  Our desks, old.  Our chairs, broken.  Our principal, always out of breath and apologetic.

But not Señora Rosano.  She was young and fresh.  Her clothes were clean and pristine, although they revealed her possession of a very limited wardrobe.  She smiled easily and always gave an answer to every question.  And despite the lack of luxurious amenities such as air conditioners and teacher chairs, Señora Rosano’s forehead was always dry.

One late afternoon, she stood in front of us, scanning the room.  Our teacher was looking for a victim, a term she often used when she was about to call on a student.  We shifted nervously in our chairs as we tried to avoid her gaze.  I looked away when she turned in my direction, hoping she would summon the student behind me, but instead, Señora Rosano called on me.  It was the first time this year she called me to the front of the classroom. 

“Marisol Vega, please go to the front of the room,” said Señora Rosano.

I obediently stood up from my rickety wooden chair and walked to the spot she was gesturing to.  There, I remained poised as my classmates quietly drank in my narrow confidence.

“Marisol, I want you to repeat the main lesson for today.  The lesson about La Pelea.  Please tell the class when it began, who was involved, and why.”

I cleared my throat before I spoke.  My voice was not as strong as it used to be.  I did not want my classmates to laugh at me.  I suddenly wished I could just write this impromptu speech instead.

“Go on, Marisol.  We are waiting.  School will be ending soon,” said Señora Rosano.

La Pelea was a period of civil war within Colombia,” I said.

“Very good, Marisol.  Go on.”

“It was a war that started primarily between the government political parties.  Each party had their own armed forces as well as ordinary people who supported them.  The war was very violent, brutal, and painful and it claimed many Colombian lives.”  

The classroom was quiet as they listened.  Señora Rosano was leaning against a paint-chipped wall, smiling at me approvingly.

“The war was ugly.  It was like an octopus, like an intriguing but deadly animal that could kill you with just one touch of its tentacles.  La Pelea produced so many factions, so many sects, so many tentacles of destruction.  Its ugly arms reached into unsuspecting neighborhoods, farms, rural towns, cities and even families.  Many people were stung.  Many people died.”

“Eh,” said Señora Rosano.  “Marisol, just keep to the facts, please.”

I nodded to her and resumed.

“It ended with a so-called peace treaty.  The bandoleros, that’s what some of the armed forces were called, were supposed to lay down their arms, the politicians were supposed to return to their offices, and the priests to their masses.  The octopus’ arms were supposed to be cut off completely, but several still remained, moving and growing in the back woods of Colombia.”

“Eh, okay, Marisol.  Thank you very much.  That was very good.  Please return to your seat.”

“But there is more.”

“Yes, well-”

Before Señora Rosano finished her response, the school bell rang, signaling the end of the school day.  Señora Rosano shrugged her shoulders and smiled.  She called after us, reminding us of our homework as we rushed out of the classroom and began our long treks home to our respective farms.

As always, my brother Chū-Cho waited for me under the old tree.  He was the oldest child and was very good at acting like a little father when Papa was not around.  I waved goodbye to my friends and joined Chū-Cho.  Wordlessly, we began the three mile walk home.  Papa had always refused to let me walk home by myself out of fear of danger finding me.

“How was school?” said Chū-Cho.

“Okay.  Señora Rosano finally called on me.  The first time this year,” I said.

Chū-Cho wrinkled his face. 

“She did?  How did you do?”

“I had to talk about La Pelea.  That was the lesson for today.”

La Pelea?  They barely talked about it when I was in high school.  I guess things have changed.”  

“It was during Papa’s time.”

“It sparked a lot of family vendettas, Marisol.”  

“What vendetta?”  

“Papa told me about what his own father had to go through and how he died.”

“But Chū-Cho, I thought Grandpa Vega died from a heart attack?”

“Hah! That’s what we told you so you could stop asking questions.  The truth is Grandpa died from a gunshot wound.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.  Papa didn’t explain much.  He only said somebody killed Grandpa Vega because they thought he was a traitor.  

“A traitor?”  

“Papa remembered the man calling Grandpa a traitor before he shot him.”

“Do you think those people are still alive?”

“That was in the past.  No one has ever bothered Papa since he inherited grandpa’s farm.  As long as he pays the monthly taxes, nothing will happen.  That was all in the past.”

I did not respond to Chū-Cho.  It was obvious he did not know Papa was paying much more than taxes every month.  Chū-Cho, recognizing my sudden reclusiveness, abruptly stopped and reached into his pocket to pull out some pesos.

“Here,” he said.  “Señor Gutierrez’s store is just up the way.  Go in there and buy some ice cream.  I’ll wait for you.  Go on.”

I took the money from him.

“Okay,” I said.

I gave Chū-Cho my book bag and ran up the dirt road, taking a sharp right near an old farm house.  Soon, I bounded into Señor Gutierrez’s makeshift convenience store which was housed in a former dilapidated horse stall.

“Señor Pedro!” I said as I came in.

Señor Guiterrez, who had long ago ordered me to call him by his first name, Pedro, appeared older since the last time I saw him.  Although he was Papa’s age, his hair was completely white.  It seemed permanently disheveled with unraveled curls standing on end.  His old clothes hung looser on him then they ever did.  His large calloused hands still bore his wedding ring despite his wife’s passing many years ago.   

Señor Pedro’s kind eyes smiled at me as he talked.

“My daughter!  It’s been a long time!  How’s school, eh?” he said.

“School’s fine.  We have a new tenth grade teacher, Señora Rosano.  She’s really good.”

“Very good, very good.  How about some ice cream for you?”

“Sure.  Here’s the money.”

I placed the coins on the wooden counter.  Señor Pedro looked perturbed. 

“No money.  Just smile, that is enough for me.”

He reached into a small freezer sitting on the counter.  It was hooked up to a gas powered generator, similar to the one we have at home.  Señor Pedro pulled out a fudge icicle pop and handed it to me.

I immediately unwrapped the treat and took a bite before speaking.

“Señor Pedro?”

“Yes, my daughter.”

“Do you know anything about family vendettas?”

Señor Pedro’s eyes widened.  He wrung his hands before responding.

“My daughter, what is this?  What are you asking?”  

“I don’t know.  We were talking about La Pelea in school and when I told Chū-Cho about it, he said there was an old vendetta against Grandpa Vega.”

Señor Pedro looked intently at me.

“Did he say who started the vendetta?”  

“No.  Why?”

“Ah, well then, it is just folklore, Marisol.  Don’t worry about those things.”  

“Tell me what you know about Grandpa Vega.”  

He sighed as he began to speak. 

“My daughter, there are so many things men do without thinking and the consequences are not always good.”

“Is that why Papa suffers?”  

Señor Pedro raised his eyebrows. 

“What do you mean?  How is my friend suffering?”

Just then a customer walked into the little store, a local woman with a baby.  She smiled and waved to Señor Pedro as she walked to a row of shelves.

“Marisol,” said Señor Pedro in a whisper.  “I want you to promise me something.  I want you to promise me that you will protect your father the best way you can.  I want you to tell me the minute any harm comes to him, okay?”

“But Señor Pedro, what about Barranquilla?  Papa hasn’t told you about Barranquilla?”    

“What about Barranquilla?”  

Our conversation swiftly ended.  The woman with the baby had chosen her item and was now standing closely behind me, patiently waiting for her turn to pay.

“Go, my daughter,” said Señor Pedro, louder.  “Tell your father I just received a shipment of the new work gloves he wanted.”

I reluctantly left, waving at him as I turned to walk out of the store.  I walked slowly before rejoining Chū-Cho, trying to decipher the mystery behind Señor Pedro’s admonition to me.  It was clear he knew much more. 

When I reached Chū-Cho, I found him sitting on the grass, staring at the cloudless sky.

“Feel better?” he asked.

“Yeah.  But I’m not a little kid, Chū-Cho.  I don’t need ice-cream to make me happy.  I’m sixteen years old, you know.”  

Chū-Cho laughed while he stood up, dusting off his pants.

“Little sister, you will always be little to me.  I remember when you used to live for ice-cream.  Every time Papa took you on a trip somewhere, he always had to give you ice-cream just to keep you from acting up.  I bet he still does, eh?”

“Is that why you think Papa takes me to Barranquilla with him?”

“You were always his favorite, Marisol.  You’re his only daughter.  I think he just likes to spoil you.”

“That’s not exactly what happens when we go to Barranquilla, Chū-Cho.”

“What do you mean?”  

I was a little stunned at my big brother’s naiveté.  It just could not be that he never questioned what Papa did on these monthly trips or that Papa never bothered to tell him.

“Chū-Cho, do you think the people who killed Grandpa Vega are after Papa? Like a gang?”

Chū-Cho stopped and turned to me.  He looked at me intently with furrowed brows and clenched jaws.

“Marisol, don’t ever say that!  Papa would never be mixed up in something so dangerous.  That’s not our family.  I know you like to ask questions, but you better keep this one to yourself, okay?”

Shocked by Chū-Cho’s sudden aggressiveness, I merely nodded my head yes. 

“Good.  Let’s get home.  There’s work to do.”


Vega Tomatoes

Night fell softly like black mist.  It gently blanketed the sky until all was dark and quiet.  We laid in our beds, waiting patiently for the next day to wake up and toil again.  I was the only one in the house who slept alone.  My small bedroom, a former pantry, fitted me perfectly.  It sat on the far end of our house, behind the kitchen, next to the back door which led to the fields.

Sometimes I listened to the stillness, the crickets, the fireflies, even the delicate creaking of beetles’ feet on the tomato vines.  Papa grew bananas, too, and often I heard the pitter-patter of raccoons stealing a midnight snack.

On this night, my mind was restless.  I stared at the ceiling wondering about everything, about Papa, about Grandpa, about our farm. After several minutes, I sat up and searched for my book bag.  Remembering I left it in the kitchen, I got out of bed to get it.  Heeding Papa’s constant warnings to conserve electricity powered by our gas generator, I quickly lit a candle and walked around the small kitchen, searching for my book bag.  I found it laying carelessly on the edge of the kitchen table. 

As I reached for it, I suddenly heard a sound, like something falling.  It was coming from outside, from the fields.  Shoving my bare feet into Mama’s sandals that she always left near the back door, I took the candle and walked outside.

I heard the sound again.  And again.  It was a thump.  Then another thump.  Then a deep smack.  I crouched low behind a row of hedges.  Blowing out the candle, I remained still and listened.

“Traitor!”  This is what I heard.  The word was spoken with such venom that I shuddered involuntarily.

 “Traitor!  That is a Vega!  A Vega is just another name for Traitor!”

[Whack!]

“You owe, Vega.  Every month your payments get less and less and your debt grows higher and higher.”

[Thump!]  [Whack!]

“You are spineless, just like your father! “

[Whack!]

I tossed the candle then ran towards the voices.  They were emanating from an old barn on the far corner of our farm.  Papa used to house pigs in it until the last pig died and he converted it into a farm machine warehouse.  I boldly flung the barn gate open and thrust myself into the dangerous scene.

“Hey!” I said. 

I saw Papa tied to a post by his wrists.  He was wearing only pants and his back was bloodied.  I fell to my knees in horror.

“Papa!” I said.

Some masked men grabbed me and threw me on the crude floor.  One kicked me in my side.  Another stepped on my hair.

“Papa!” I said again.

Papa looked at me, spitting blood.

“Bella sol,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  Everything is going to be okay.  Go back inside.”

The man stepping on my hair did not move his foot, causing my head to pulsate in pain.  As my heart broke in sorrow, I cried unabashedly. 

“Traitor!” said the masked man.  “You think you can escape your father’s debt?”   

“Just take the farm,” said Papa.

Some of the masked men laughed.  They threw their heads back and laughed like wild Spanish jackals. 

“This farm was supposed to be mine!  You robbed me!  Now it is nothing but spoiled tomatoes and a handful of black bananas!”

“Please, please.  I will pay.”

The man reached for a long wooden stick and raised it high above his head.

“No!” I said.

He ignored me and whipped the stick against Papa’s back.  Papa did not scream, but grunted instead.  The man pinning me down by my hair suddenly bent down and wrapped a black cloth around my mouth.  I tried to fight him, but he was too strong and smelled of malicious anger.

They beat Papa again and again.  When the man holding the stick finally grew tired, he dropped it.  Then he snapped his fingers for someone to bring him something.  I saw another masked man obediently roll a keg of propane gas into the barn.

“No!” I said through the cloth. 

I was trying to sit up while pushing against the man’s foot on my hair.  He finally lifted his foot, then quickly grabbed my arm.  He dragged me out of the barn and through our field.  He dragged me far away from the barn, like a rag doll.  My legs scraped against the worn grass.  I clawed at his death grip on my arm which dislocated my shoulder.  When he stopped, he flung me into a neighbor’s pig trough, triggering dog barks and frantic pig squeals.  I screamed out in pain.  I was distorted and badly bruised, but I did not care.  I pulled the cloth from my mouth and struggled to stand up. 

The masked men, three that I could make out from where I stumbled, worked very quickly.  They opened the keg of propane gas and then ran out of the barn and through our open field, disappearing somewhere on the dusty road leading away from our farm.  In horror, I ran towards the barn.  I ran like the wind or at least I tried.  My spindly legs carried me like a gazelle in Africa.  I was almost there.  Just as I reached out my arm to open the barn gate, it exploded.  The entire barn exploded into a fireball made of hay and wood.

Long ago in the rural south of Colombia, lived a boy.  He was a well-mannered boy who tended his father’s farm with pride and skill.  He was poor, but smart.  Hungry, but full of laughter.  Small, but strong.

One day, when the sun rose to its highest throne in the sky, the boy took a break from his work on the farm.  His mother gave him an apple and he sat down under the old tree to eat it.  His dog, Perro, sat next to him.

The boy looked around.  His father’s farm seemed to go on forever.  He could not see its borders from his view under the old tree.  All he could see was his father working alongside some laborers his father had hired.  He saw his father stopping his work when a man approached him.

The boy watched his father talk to the man for a few minutes.  Then the boy grew tired.  He finished his apple.  He stood up and dusted his pants.  Perro stood up, too. 

The boy decided to do what he loved to do on the farm.  He found a row of tomato vines empty of laborers.  He walked through them slowly, closing his eyes and lifting up his head.  He inhaled the sweet scent of the budding fruit.  He picked one and gently rubbed its delicate skin.  He pressed it to his nose and inhaled again.  Then he sat on the ground and bit into the tomato.  He shared some of it with Perro. 

   The boy heard his father calling him.  So he finished the rest of his tomato, wiped his mouth and ran to his father.  Perro ran ahead.  The boy found his father near the house, sitting on a bench, shading the sun from his eyes.  The boy sat next to his father on the bench.  They looked out at the farm in bloom.  The boy loved to see the endless clusters of tomato vines.  He licked his lips, thinking of the tomato he just enjoyed.  His father seemed to love the view, too.  He sighed and wiped tears from his eyes with his sleeve. 

When Perro ran off to chase a bird, the boy and his father laughed.  They sat, arm in arm, marveling at the beauty of the land.



Copyright 2017. Michelle St. Claire. All Rights Reserved.

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