The clouds slid lazily down behind the mountain on the other side of the valley. The slender, bone-white streaks of mist that crept through the pass in the east, often during the late afternoon or early evening, ran together and formed white veils, sometimes intensely silver-colored, that were illuminated by the sun sinking behind the mountain peaks. The trees along the ridge stood out like soldiers in a shiny column that stretched farther than Manuel Alavez could imagine.
The clouds had been out in the world, down to the coast of Oaxaca to gather nourishment and moisture. Sometimes, for a change, they went north, to taste the zsaltiness of the Caribbean.
When they returned, the sides of the mountains were still damp and steaming, a hot breath exuding from the thick vegetation. The people and the mules that were only marginally larger than their loads inched their way down the paths toward the village, where the dogs greeted them with tired barks and the smoke rose from the brick-shingled rooftops burnished by the sun, shimmering in warm red tones.
The clouds shifted indolently closer to the mountain. Manuel imagined that they and the mountain exchanged fluids and then told each other what had happened during the day. Not that the mountains had more to report than some idle gossip from the village, but the clouds let themselves be satisfied with that. They craved a little everyday chatter after having sailed forth across a restless continent, marked by despair and hard work.
La vida es un ratito, life is a brief moment, his mother would say and display an almost toothless mouth in a little grin that both underscored and diminished her words.
Later he reformulated her expression to La vida es una ratita, life is a little rat, a little rodent.
Manuel, his mother, and his two brothers would look at the mountains from the terrace where they dried the coffee beans. From this vantage point they could look out over the sixty houses in the village.
A village among many, remote from everyone except themselves, about an hour away from the nearest larger road that would bring them to Talea and from there, after a five-hour bus trip, to Oaxaca.
The coffee was packed in some harbor, no one knew which one, and shipped to el norte or Europe. When the buyers loaded the sacks and shipped them away, the villagers lost control. They knew their coffee tasted good, and that the price would increase tenfold, perhaps twentyfold, before they found their consumer.
Manuel leaned against the cool airplane window, staring out into the crystal-clear Atlantic night, exhausted by the long trip from the mountains to Oaxaca and another seven-hour bus trip to the capital and then a half-day of waiting at the airport. It was the first time he was flying. The worry that he had felt had transformed into an amazement that he was now at eleven thousand meters.
A cabin attendant came by and offered coffee, but he said no. The coffee he had received earlier did not taste good. He watched the attendant as she served the passengers on the other side of the aisle. She reminded him of Gabriella, the woman he was going to marry. It was high time, his mother said. In her eyes he was old. It felt as if he had to marry her now. They had met several years ago, during his time in California, and they had kept in touch through letters. He had called a couple of times. She had waited for him, and this now felt to Manuel like a millstone. He did not have the heart to deny her what she had expected and been waiting for for so long: marriage. He loved her of course, at least he told himself he did, but he felt a growing anxiety about binding himself forever.
He fell asleep between two continents and immediately Angel appeared to him. They were out on a milpa where they were growing corn, beans, and squash. It was just before the corn harvest. His brother had stretched himself out in the shadow of a tree. He was in good spirits and laughing in that way that only he could, a clucking sound that appeared to come from his rounded belly. Angel was chubby and had been called el Gordito in his childhood.
Angel was telling him about Alfreda from Santa Maria de Yaviche, the neighboring village. They had met in February, during the fiesta, and Angel was describing her face and hair in great detail. He always took great care with the details.
Manuel stood up, unsettled by Angel’s frivolous tone. The young woman was only seventeen.
“Make sure you don’t lead her astray,” Manuel said.
“She’s the one leading me astray,” Angel chuckled. “She is the one who makes me tremble.”
“We have to get back,” Manuel said.
“Soon,” Angel said. “I’m not done yet.”
Manuel couldn’t help but smile. Angel could be a writer, he is so good at storytelling, he thought, and sat down again.
A couple of wild rabbits were tumbling about on the other side of the field. They jumped around carefree, curious, and playful, unaware of the hawk sailing in the sky.
“You are also a conéju, but life is not all play,” Manuel said, regretting the words as he said them.
He was the oldest of the three brothers and all too often adopted the role of the responsible one, the one who had to scold and set them straight. Angel and their middle brother, Patricio, were always ready to laugh and dream up childish pranks. They fell in love as often and as quickly as frogs. They feared nothing and Manuel envied their optimism and frivolity.
Angel followed his brother’s gaze, sighted the predatory bird that was slowly plummeting through the layers of air, raised his arms as if he were holding a rifle, aimed, and shot.
“Bang,” he said, and looked laughingly at Manuel.
The latter smiled and lowered his head toward the ground. He knew the hawk would soon drop into a steep dive and he did not want to see if it was successful in its hunt.
“I missed, but the hawk has to live too,” Angel said, as if he had read his brother’s thoughts. “There are plenty of rabbits.”
Manuel was suddenly irritated that Angel was speaking Spanish, but did not have time to correct him before he suddenly awakened, straightened, and glanced at the woman in the seat next to him. She was sleeping. Apparently he had not disturbed her when he startled.
Patricio was down there somewhere. Ever since Manuel had been informed of Patricio’s fate he had alternated between anger, sorrow, and grief. The first letter consisted of three sentences: I live. I have been caught. I have been sentenced to eight years in prison.
The next letter was somewhat more detailed, factual and dry, but behind the words Manuel sensed hopelessness and desperation, feelings that came to dominate the subsequent letters.
Manuel could not imagine Patricio behind bars. He who had loved the open fields and always fixed his gaze as far away in the distance as possible. There was a stamina in Patricio that had always amazed Manuel and Angel. He was always prepared to take several more steps to see what was concealed behind the next curve, hill, or street corner.
Physically, he was the strongest of the brothers, roughly one hundred and eighty centimeters and therefore taller than most of the villagers. His height and posture, coupled with his eyes, had given him the reputation as a sensible man worth listening a little extra to. If Angel was the chatterbox who did not like to expend extra effort, then Patricio could be described as agile and taciturn, thoughtful in his speech, and restrained in his actions. Their laughter was really the only thing they shared.
Manuel had gleaned from his brother’s letter that prisons in Sweden were completely different from those in Mexico, and he tried to make a great deal of the fact that they were allowed TVs in their cells, and that they could study. But what would he study? Patricio had never liked books. He was a person who had lived his life studying others and nature. He went about his work reluctantly, regardless of whether it was sowing, weeding, or harvesting. He wielded the machete as if it were an enemy in his hands. Despite his strength, his blows were often weak and without concentration.
“If you think I am going to remain a pathetic campesino, then you are mistaken,” he repeated when Manuel reminded him that they had a tradition to uphold.
“I do not want to sit in the mountains like a ranchero, eating beans and tortillas, come down to the village once a week and drink myself silly on aguardiente and just get poorer and poorer. Can’t you see that we are being cheated?”
Could he handle eight years of jail? Manuel feared for his brother’s life and health. To Patricio, being locked up was essentially a death sentence. When Manuel wrote to say that he was coming to Sweden, his brother had immediately replied that he did not want any visitors. But Manuel did not care. He had to find out what had happened, how everything had evolved, how and why Angel had died, and how Patricio could have been stupid enough to get involved in something as dirty as drug smuggling.
As the plane descended through the clouds, banked, and went in for the landing, Manuel’s thoughts returned to the mountains, his mother, and the coffee beans. How beautiful the beans were! When they had dried and lay in open, bulging jute sacks, wedged into every nook and cranny in the house, even next to their sleeping quarters, they invited his caress, and Manuel would slip his hand down into the strangely unscented beans and feel pure happiness filter through his fingers.
La vida es una ratita, he mumbled, making the sign of the cross and watching the foreign country spread out below him.
Copyright © 2005 by Kjell Eriksson. Translation © 2008 by Ebba Segerberg. All rights reserved.