Monday, November 30, 2009

Mark Jacobs, "Singing in a Foreign Land"

Mark Jacobs

Singing in a Foreign Land

In a remote village in Paraguay, John Browne Collins decided he couldn’t take any more. He unscrewed the back off his radio and tossed the batteries into his demonstration latrine. He squatted on the cool cement slab. A wave of pain twisted his gut, and he shat hard. No more war.

Outside, Cow With No Name chomped grass loudly. Inside, intestinal parasites wrought the havoc to which he was accustomed. No more. Basta, they said in Spanish.

His Spanish was good enough by now to follow the bulletins from Iraq on the radio. Coverage of the war sounded more horrific in Spanish than in English; it was like confessing your sins to a stranger. Right up until the invasion John B. had believed it was bluster. Now, American bullets were exploding Iraqi hearts. American bombs were blowing up Iraqi houses. American soldiers were leaving cloven boot prints in Iraqi mosques. Each fresh dispatch corroborated the same bad news: the good guys had launched an unjust war. Listening drove him to such distraction he couldn’t work. His work, protecting people from shit and its ravages, was the opposite of war.

As he cleaned his bloody butt with a dry corn cob, an image of Donald Rumsfeld ascended on the foul vapors from the pit below. There was no mistaking the steel glint of that arrogance. The vision was an anal-ogy: the secretary of indefensible war was an imperious prick, and America -- Lincoln’s America, Martin Luther King’s and Hank Williams’ and Sacagawea’s and the Marx Brothers’ America -- was being fucked up the ass. The Republic was being bullied into empire. John B’s anger already seemed old. The new emotion he felt was so strange he couldn’t name it until he opened the door of the latrine and Cow With No Name shambled in his direction. Shame. He was ashamed.

From his favorite books John B. knew that the honorable response to shame was atonement. From that point forward, all his actions had to do with reparation. All that mattered was making up.

The cow’s dun coat shone yellow in the moonlight. Its affection for the Peace Corps volunteer was a joke in Potrerito. The village was an island of cotton farmers surrounded by woods. People subsisted there on less of everything than had seemed possible to John B. when the assistant director sent him there. Potrerito is poor in the old-fashioned way, Moira had said, and now he understood.

It was midnight. It was harvest time, and Potrerito was sunk in sleep. At four thirty the village would wake to another day of drudgery. Since the harvest began, John B. had been moving from family to family offering his labor for a day. He picked cotton alongside his neighbors in the fields, a burlap sack strapped to his waist with twine, the twine balled around two runty oranges. He worked hard but was inept. Twelve-year-old kids picked more cotton than he did. People laughed at his meager sacks but seemed to appreciate the solidarity.

He lived in a wood shack with a thatched roof. An escaped political prisoner had once hidden out there, according to the villagers. The dictator’s police had trapped the man inside and machine-gunned him into conformity. The faint splatter on two walls was said to be his blood. Nobody else would live there.

Inside the shack, John B. rummaged through his things for vitamins and the alarm clock. When he left for the Estigarribias’, jogging along a sandy path, the sand was cool on his bare feet. I will deliver, he chanted as he went. I will deliver. The only sense it made was analogical. The cow followed at a distance.

They were bewildered but not really angry when he woke the Estigarribias and delivered the vitamins to Mariela, who was nine years old and needed them more than he did. Parasites gnawed relentlessly at the girl’s core, and her old man wasn’t ready to invest time and effort in a latrine like the sanitary model John B. longed to help him construct.

The Palazón Family were not angry, either, when he woke them twenty minutes later.

Yes they were.

All ten of them turned out bleary-eyed and grumpy, and Kai Rubén cursed the American for making a commotion. They thought he was double drunk: on alcohol and love. It was true that John B. loved Rubén’s daughter Nely. Nely had put on jeans and a T-shirt and clean sneakers, and in the moonlight she looked radiant. But he wasn’t drunk on alcohol. The reason he rousted out her family was to present them his alarm clock. Because of the iridescent butterfly on the minute hand, it was the most admired timepiece in Potrerito.

“Go home and go to bed,” Rubén told him, accepting the clock.

“I’m going,” John B. assured him.

But he didn’t. Luckily he had lost Cow With No Name along the way. It was embarrassing to be stalked by cattle. He had no memory of arriving at the creek on the southern limit of the set-tlement. He sat down. The water burbled, and a verse appeared on the wall of his mind. By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept, when we remembered America. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? An animal like a misshapen fox trotted across the field until it saw him, then raced back to the safety of the woods. The chalky face of the moon was enigmatic but not unkind. John B. threw himself down on the creek’s grassy bank. The tears that came were tears of shame.

* * *

It was Horse who found him in the morning. In a sea of early white light, dew steamed from the pasture grass, and streamers of fog fluttered on the surface of the creek. Mornings in the Para-guayan countryside were like that. Unmoored in the light, you could not help thinking the world was starting over, and you were grateful for a second chance.

“Here,” said Horse, handing over a half-liter bottle of cane whiskey. “A swig of this will make you feel better.”

Hair of the dog, John B. wanted to say but knew it wouldn’t translate. “I’m not hung over.”

“You made an impression on people last night, from what I hear.”

“I wasn’t drunk.”

On principle he wanted to refuse the caña. On grounds of neighborliness, he swigged.

Horse was John B.’s best friend in Potrerito, and his only counselor. Horse knew how to tell him he was screwing up, and how not to screw up any worse. His face had earned him the name. It was long and narrow, and the mouth called out for a bit. His teeth were huge, his brown eyes big, his pointy ears stood out like animal ears. Horse’s wife had left him, gone to Argentina during the boom years. After the crash she wrote that she wanted to come back but needed traveling money. Horse might or might not have had the money to bring his wife back, but when the letter arrived there was another woman sleeping in his bed, taking care of his kids. He didn’t write back.

In Spanish the words came out with grim precision. “La guerra me da verguenza.” The war gives me shame.

“So you gave your alarm clock to Nely?”

John B. didn’t have the vocabulary to explain himself. He shook his head.

“Any other time of the year,” Horse explained, “you wake people up, they laugh. They forgive. It becomes a story. Now...”

He flung up his hands in a gesture of frustration that meant not just harvest but a paltry harvest and a low price-per-kilo and the relentless extermination of small-time cotton farmers by ma-chines and technology and Brazilian agribusiness.

“I made a mistake,” John B. admitted.

“Dario told me he’s thinking about building a latrine. I told him you’d stop by.”

Horse had been the first man in the village to take John B. up on his offer to build a sanitary latrine. The latrine didn’t change the farmer’s life, but he told anyone who asked that his kids were no longer plagued by bugs in their guts. He was a credible advocate for the American’s health projects.

For form’s sake John B. took another swig of the whiskey. “I’ll go talk to Dario.”

Standing in his field, bound to the earth by a sack of cotton strapped to his scrawny waist like some kind of monstrous growth, Dario Coleman told him yes. He wanted a latrine. The farmer took off his narrow-brimmed straw hat, wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of one hand, and squinted in the sun. They shook hands. Deal.

But John B. found no satisfaction in success. He went home and slept through the heat of the day. In the evening there was a volleyball game. There was cane whiskey and folk music on a cassette player, and then a sudden fiery rush toward oblivion. Caña did that to a person. With barfly uncles on both sides of his family, John B. knew better. Usually he knew when to stop. But this time he stumbled through a dark door that opened onto a burning void. There was a fight. Later he found blood on his face, his knuckles, his sandals. All he remembered was a bare-chested, barefoot guy in green gym shorts screaming in his face, and the decision the fight caused him to make.

With complete calm. That was how he remembered making the decision. It happened in a private place, down the well of himself.

He wished he had more to give away. Compared to the consumer goods that existed in Potrerito households, the possessions he carried that night through the village, drunk, bloody and bewil-dered, added up to wealth. The medical kit he dropped at the house of Ña Marciana, who was something of a nurse. The radio, he could not help leaving at the Palazón household. Nely loved music. He gave away his clothes, his Spanish-English dictionary, his Hohner harmonica, key of C. A pair of binoculars, a star chart, a Palm Pilot, several packs of condoms, a paperback Qui-xote, a Wilson soccer ball still in the package, a case of Trail Mix, a shaving mirror, a Cross pen and pencil set in a leather case from his high school girlfriend. His sleeping bag. There was more, but he lost track. Later, making an inventory struck him as unseemly.

Giving it all away, he was noisy. He was disruptive and obnoxious. He became the object of intricate strings of Guaraní curses. A calm observer inside him was aware of the spectacle he made of himself and did not spare his feelings. When there was nothing left to give, he went home and slept hard. The walls of his dreams were coated with sticky lather. There was no door.

Once again it was Horse who shook him awake in the morning. It looked like the same bottle of whiskey in his friend’s steady hand.

¿Un pelo del perro que me mordió?” John B. tried. A hair of the dog that bit me. It came across as drunk’s babble.

“There’s still a lot of alcohol in your bloodstream, amigo mio.”

“I’m not drunk, I’m sad.” He sat up, then lay back down again on the pallet.

“You know what people are saying?”

“About me?”

“They say you are the new American bomb. Not a smart bomb, a stupid bomb. You’d better leave Potrerito for a while, until things calm down. They’ll forget. Then you can come back and build Dario’s latrine.”

“I don’t have money for the bus.”

But Horse accepted no excuses. He fished a small wad of grimy bills from his pants pocket and peeled off enough for a ticket to Asunción. He dropped the bills on John B.’s thin chest.

“I hate this war, Horse.”

“Marciana is very happy with the medical items you gave her.”

Did cattle register absence? John B. wondered if Cow With No Name would notice he was gone.

* * *

In the capital he felt like a fugitive. He avoided the Peace Corps office, and the cheap restaurants and bars where he was likely to run into other volunteers. For hours he wandered the hot, bright streets. There were more beggars than he remembered. In the infernal heat, cupping their hands at car windows, they seemed narcotized, drugged by hopelessness more than the heat. Mean-time, SUVs with polarized windows cruised like tanks across the city. It was the army of the rich, and John B. wanted to take them out. What was it that brought him to the verge of tears? The streets were dirty, the sidewalks broken. The smell of decay choked his nostrils. Only the political propaganda posters looked fresh. There was going to be an election. No one expected democracy to come of it. Potrerito and its deficient cotton crop seemed a planet away.

Walking by the cathedral, he was drawn to the families camped along the side wall of the massive colonial building. They had been evicted from their land up north. Their clothes were filthy, and the smell of the country was everywhere: wood smoke and sweat and what John B. used to think was dust in his nostrils but turned out to be a kind of rage. Their protest signs were ragged. They let him sit on the steps, gave him paper and red paint to make a sign. His sign read, in Spanish, NOT MY WAR. He hoped he looked like he belonged.

In the evening an oval-faced woman in a blue dress gave him a bowl of greasy soup that made him heave. After he threw up the soup, the woman’s husband, who wore a green cap with a Car-gill logo, asked him if he was a draft dodger.

“There is no draft in North America,” John B. explained. “I just hate the war.”

The man took off his cap and clucked. He chewed a stick of boiled manioc. He hadn’t shaved in a week, and tiny red lines mapped the whites of his eyes.

“Is it true the yánqui air force has robot planes that shoot missiles? They don’t need pilots?”

“It’s true.”

The man nodded again, put his hat back on, took another stick of manioc from the aluminum plate his wife passed him.

“Then there is no hope. They own the air.”

John B. spent the next three days with the protesters. Periodically the police came by and growled but did not cross the sanctuary line. Once, a newspaper reporter in jeans and insecure red heels showed up to cover the protest, photographer in tow. The cathedral fronted a big, green plaza. John B. hid behind a tree in the plaza until the journalists left. The Peace Corps staff read the papers. He did not wish to be found hiding in plain sight.

He ate little, slept poorly. His dreams were devastating. He developed a cough, and his clothes stuck to his skin. He sat holding his sign, helped the women wash dishes after meals. Sometimes he could not help walking through the plaza to eavesdrop on radios carrying war news. His sense of shame was as constant as the flush in his face.

On the afternoon of the fourth day the man in the Cargill hat introduced him to a Spanish priest. John B. knew he was breaking down. The priest’s Castilian accent completely sidetracked him. That was the only reason he went with the man in his Jeep to a parish in Lambaré, a quiet neighborhood far from the city center.

“Here, in this country, your protest is ineffectual,” the priest told John B. after he had showered and put on clean clothes.

They were castoffs donated by parishioners for the poor. The Spaniard had an abrupt pastoral manner, and the air of an aristocrat. He offered John B. tea made with orange leaves and toast with grapefruit jam. He smoked an unfiltered Ducado cigarette and drank a glass of Rioja watching the Peace Corps volunteer eat at a small wooden table in the rectory kitchen.

“So what should I do?” John B. asked him. “Do I stop protesting?”

The priest shook his head severely. “The next time a reporter shows up at the cathedral, you may not be able to hide. Then what happens? You become the story. From the point of view of an editor, a North American angry about the war against Iraq appeals more than the plight of one more group of dispossessed farmers. Their wretchedness is too familiar to sell newspapers.”

“I’m not angry, I’m ashamed.”

The priest nodded, appreciating the distinction. But he only said, “Does that strike you as fair?”

“I won’t go back to the cathedral.”

“Good. You must go home. Your protest will mean more in the United States.”

“You’re right,” John B. agreed. “I’ll go home.”

* * *

But he didn’t. He couldn’t, even though Horse was going to tell him, the moment he stepped off the bus, that it was too soon.

“You look terrible,” his friend observed. “You got sick, didn’t you?”

They walked side by side toward John B.’s house in the wake of fine dust left by the blue and yellow bus that had deposited the American in the village. He felt a comforting detachment, at though his head were on somebody else’s body. He was seeing the place with somebody else’s eyes. When the bus had disappeared around the curve he told himself, That’s it, then. He wasn’t sure what he meant but believed he had no alternative. He had no place else to be.

“I’m going to finish out the harvest,” he told Horse, trying not to let emotion swamp him. “I want to pick cotton.”

“You’re too sick to work.”

“I’m going to pick for Bermúdez.”

“You’re a fool.” Horse stopped walking. He waited for John B. to stop, too, before telling him, “You’re my friend, John. But if you pick cotton for Bermúdez, I wash my hands of you.”

Bermúdez -- nobody called him by his first name -- was the meanest man in Potrerito. He beat his wife, cursed the Polish priest who visited from the pueblo, bullied his neighbors into lending him money he never intended to repay. He drank and cheated at cards and rigged horse races and made fun of anything he didn’t understand, which was almost everything. He had ridiculed John B.’s latrine project from the day he arrived. He made fun of the American’s Spanish, his clothes, even the un-Paraguayan way he walked.

John B. showed up in Bermúdez’s field next morning with a burlap sack and began picking at the far end, away from where the family was working like a quiet, unhappy machine. When Bermúdez saw him, he loped in John B.’s direction with his arms in the air, fists cocked like pistols.

“Hold on there, gringo. You’re not stealing my cotton.”

“No, I’m not. I’m giving you a hand. I helped the others. It’s your turn.”

When Bermúdez frowned, all the leather lines in his face came together in an expression of mistrust. He was a small man, so lean his skeleton showed through the flesh like a wire scaffold. The mustache under his thin nose was big enough for a man twice his size.

“How much do you want per kilo?”

“I pick for free,” John B. explained. “It’s part of my job.”

It took a day’s work to convince Bermúdez he wasn’t cheating him. Every hour or so the farmer sauntered over to check on him, making sure he wasn’t spiriting away his cotton.

That evening, the sun flattening against a red horizon, John B. trailed Bermúdez home, where the cotton farmer ordered his wife to feed the American. As lean and suspicious as her husband, she could have been his twin sister. Sitting on a three-legged stool in their front patio in the domestic clutter of kids and dogs and pigs and chickens, John B. ate a poor man’s supper in a state of exhaustion. He had picked nineteen kilos, not much by Potrerito standards but the most he had managed to date. His hands trembled, and rods of pain shot up and down his back, his legs, his arms.

“Who you picking for tomorrow?” Bermúdez wanted to know.


“How come?”

John B. shook his head. He was helping Bermúdez because it blunted the force of shame he felt over the American war. But Bermúdez didn’t deserve an honest answer, and John B. needed to protect the sliver of dignity he had left.

A bottle of warm beer on the ground between his feet, Bermúdez settled into a webbed plastic lawn chair and began shooting peas through a straw at a brown monkey with a long black tail. The animal was tethered to a lemon tree. The leash was fastened to a leather collar around its neck. Struck, the monkey balled its fists and faced off against its tormentor, its sense of outrage stronger than the pain of being stung by dried peas in the face.

“You’re torturing him,” John B. told Bermúdez. “That’s against the law.”

The farmer shook his head, spat, then took deliberate aim and nailed the miserable animal in the chest.

“Whose law?”

Instead of trying to hide, the monkey strained against its tether in a fury of indignation, and Bermúdez’s wife and kids clapped in solidarity. This must be how the guy entertained himself every evening. The American refused the glass of beer a barefoot girl in a filthy pink skirt brought him at her father’s command.

“It’s torture,” John B. repeated stubbornly.

His voice sounded loud to him. It was somebody else’s voice.

“You don’t know what torture is,” Bermúdez hollered back.

“Torture is picking on somebody that can’t defend himself.”

“The radio says American soldiers are torturing prisoners up there in Cuba.”

“So that makes it okay to torture a monkey?”

“Nobody wanted you here. The only reason the government lets you stay is they’re afraid the yánquis will stop giving them money if they don’t. That’s politics. That’s torture.”

Fueled by alcohol, Bermúdez would have been happy to rag on him all night long. But John B. was too worn out to take him on. He said something he hoped was cutting, then followed a path home in the dark. The sand prickled his swollen feet as he went. He slept so deep there were no dreams, just a shimmer in the space where his dreams normally happened.

The next day he had picked eighteen kilos by midafternoon when he collapsed in the field. The hot, dry earth of the field mothered him. Other times he left his senses, he had traveled by boat. This time he walked. If there was fire, it was on the river a long way away. Wherever he stepped the ground was green, the air was fresh, the sky was easy on the eye. He was no longer tired. When he stopped, he expected to see Horse. He swallowed his resentment at finding Bermúdez instead. The farmer had unstrapped an enormous sack of cotton from his waist. They’re coming to bomb, he told John B., pointing to the sky where metal dragonflies clustered. I’ll carry you, John B. told him. What about my cotton? John B. looked at the bulging bag. No time to talk. He picked up the cotton first, then Bermúdez. Once he started moving it was easy to outrun the dragonflies.

He woke on a pallet on the floor of Bermúdez’s house. It was dark, and the skin on his face and arms was burnt. He was nauseous, but that wasn’t what was bothering him. It took a moment to sort out the sounds, a not-quite-rhythmic combination of whacks and slaps, bodies moving, bare feet thudding on the dirt. Not until the girl in the pink skirt whimpered did he realize that the farmer was knocking his wife around in the patio.

By the light of a kerosene lantern hung from a tree branch, John B. saw blood on the face of the girl, who stood rigid and tearless, wide black eyes watching the struggle. The wife had gotten into it trying to protect her daughter. Now she was her husband’s target.

“Stop it,” John B. said.

Saying the words made him realize how scared he was. Bermúdez was delighted to have a new adversary.

When she saw the American coming toward them, the wife backed away, lodging her body between her husband and her daughter. In his fury Bermúdez turned on John B. cursing him in Guaraní. For a moment, John B. tried to sort out the words but gave up when Bermúdez lunged.

Healthy, John B. might have been able to stop him. He was half a foot taller, twenty pounds heavier, and his arms were long. But too much work under too much sun had weakened him. He was set up to be a victim. He had one shot, and he took it. When Bermúdez came barreling within range he hit the man as hard as he could in the face with his fist. The punch connected. The sight of the blood was reassuring. He had done the right thing.

His fist hurt. He felt the pain in each individual knuckle.

He heard the monkey cheering; that must have been his imagination. But he savored his satisfaction a second too long. When the farmer slammed up against him he stumbled, going down in the patio dirt. He covered his face, and Bermúdez hit him in the gut. He dropped a hand to protect his stomach, and Bermúdez smashed him in the face. It wasn’t the monkey, it was Bermúdez’s daughter cheering, or his wife, or all of them. Why did they cheer if he was losing?

This time he woke in Horse’s house. Doña Marciana was talking to Horse in a low voice that sounded like water running over rocks. He waited for the nurse to go away, then sat up on the cot.

“This is your bed. I don’t want to sleep in your bed. I’m going home.”

“Easy. You’re not up to walking.”

“I fought Bermúdez.”

“So I heard.”

“He was beating up his family.”

“He does that.”

“He beat the shit out of me, Horse.”

“That’s not what his wife is going around saying.”

“What does she say?”

“That you saved her and her daughter both. She says you made the bastard suffer. He’s hurting, that’s for sure. There’s a big cut over his left eye, and his face looks like a squash. He won’t be picking any cotton today.”

John B. wanted to make it clear that he had lost but lacked the strength to insist. He drifted. At a certain point he became conscious of Horse sitting next to him in a chair, weaving leather straps onto a wooden bed frame.

“If I die...”

“You won’t die.”

“But if I do.”

“Nely will wear her best dress to the funeral.”

“I have some money in a bank back home. Four thousand dollars. Get me a pencil and paper.”

“Later. Drink some water first, then you can go back to sleep. There’s time for letters later.”

But John B. would not be placated. Eventually Horse hunted up a pencil and paper, and the American wrote a letter willing everything he had to his friend. He had a hard time with the words, which would not stay put on the page. By the time he penciled in the date and signed his name the last of his strength was gone, and he fell asleep again.

When he woke, something was different. At first he thought it was the daylight. It was early, no one home at Horse’s. They must be out picking. He lay in bed for a few minutes. When he got up, his legs bent like springs.

The letter lay on the dirt floor, torn in neat quarters. Horse didn’t want his money.

It wasn’t the daylight that was different, it was the shame. It was gone.

He wandered his friend’s property like a stranger taking it all in for the first time: a lath-strip house of two rooms, laundry drying on a pole fence, the remains of breakfast drawing flies on a wooden table with thin legs. A brown bird with nervous wings on the branch of a grapefruit tree, a red-billed duck with a deformed foot, black bristles on the back of a dusty hog standing up to catch the sunlight. Orange peels in the dirt, and a dented aluminum pitcher in a patch of shade. Outside the fence, a tangle of scrub.

In front of a small brick house across the way, a shrunken old woman in mourning black spat green juice and swept a slab of cement with a stick broom.

He felt ravenous. He hunted up a leftover stick of boiled manioc, drank cool water from an aluminum pitcher. But his system wasn’t ready. Going down, the starchy root and the water burned his insides like feathers of fire. He thought he might heave but resisted, and the food stayed down.

He looked back at the woman, whose name he remembered now was Hipolyta. They said she was ninety three and shrank a little more with every change of season. She was blind, so how come she shaded her eyes from the morning sun and stared intently across the road at him? It was as if she were trying to tell him something, and suddenly he knew what it was.

He tried to hurry, but his legs wobbled as he went, and he kept forgetting the way. After a half hour’s meandering he reached Bermúdez’s cotton field, sweaty and exhausted as though he’d been picking instead of just walking. The sun had already begun baking the dry earth. Droopy with bolls, the plants wanted to shrivel. The silence bothered him; it didn’t seem normal. Dry puffs of wind came and went, scarcely moving the leaves. A column of ants ran a purposeful line the length of a felled and blackened stump. Butterflies with blue wings clustered and hov-ered, flew off and clustered again. He stood watching them. After a few moments, he heard singing.

He knew before he saw her that it was Bermúdez’s wife. She was picking at the farthest end of the field, where trees shaded the cotton plants and the night’s cool air hung on a little longer. When she saw him, she threw down her sack and smiled like she was glad to see him. Her teeth were terrible; another few years and they’d be gone. Away from her husband, she looked like another person. She looked like someone who might sing as she worked.

“I don’t know your name,” he told her.


“Where is your daughter?”

“I sent her to stay with some friends in Yapepó.”


Paloma shrugged. “You know.”

“You’re afraid of what Bermúdez will do when he recovers.”

Ikatu.” Could be.

“What about you? Aren’t you afraid for yourself?”

“He’s sleeping today. He’ll sleep all day. Nothing will happen until tonight, when he wakes up and it’s cooler.”

“Then he’ll want... venganza,” said John B. Vengeance wasn’t quite the right word, but she knew what he meant.

She was wearing a man’s straw hat. She took it off, fanned her face with it, then turned around and went into the woods. She came back out with a plastic pitcher of water. “Here,” she said. “Drink. It’s cool.”

He drank. The water went down easy. When he handed back the pitcher she told him, “Paulina -- that’s my daughter -- Paulina and I were very happy when you hit the old man.”

She looked younger than John B. had thought, seeing her around Bermúdez’s. She couldn’t be more than thirty. There was something springy about her, as though if you touched her she might bounce.

“I made it worse, didn’t I?” he said. “When he wakes up tonight, he’ll take it out on you.”

This time her smile was conspiratorial. They shared a secret that was worth keeping. John B. wasn’t sure what it was, but he liked having it there between them.

“I’ll go to your house this evening,” he told her. “If he tries to hurt you, I’ll knock him down.”

Still smiling, she shook her head. “And tomorrow?”

“I’ll be there tomorrow, too.”

“And next week? If you come to our house again, he will be twice as angry. He will hit me twice as hard.”

“Then what should I do?”

He should have known better than to ask her that kind of a question. It seemed to embarrass her. She cast around for the burlap sack she had thrown down, found it with the toes of one bare foot. She bent to pick it up, then tied it around her waist and went back to work.

He was a dolt. It took him a long time to figure out what to do. But eventually he noticed the empty sacks in a heap on the ground under a tree. He picked one up, tied it around his waist, then walked until he found a bush rich with bolls. The wind blew softly. Blue butterflies shimmered in the sun. After a while he heard Paloma singing again. He stopped picking, straightened up and listened. The backs of his hands and all his fingers ached in anticipation of the pain they would be feeling by noon. Paloma was singing in Guaraní. He had no idea what the words meant. If he had been able to, he would have sung along. Because he did not, he bent and picked.

Mark Jacobs has published 75 stories in a range of commercial and literary magazines including The Atlantic and The Iowa Review. His fifth book, a novel called Forty Wolves, is forthcoming from Talisman House.


RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture, http://www.reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence


Bob Holden said...

If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools.
~Stephen Crane

Nice work, Mark. As usual.

Dave Hawk said...

The lines starting "by the waters of Babylon..." are taken from Psalms 137:1 - "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion." The weeping willow (salix babylonica) is also named for this verse. A wonderful story. Thanks Mark.

Susan Ely said...

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
-Carl Jung
Thanks Mark. Took me back to my RPCV days, and more.

Unknown said...

Mark, this is a great story. Thanks for sharing it with me. I'm looking forward to Forty Wolves.