By: Juan Miguel Martinez
A yunta is a two wheeled wooden wagon, about ten feet in length and six feet wide. used to haul equipment, generally pulled by two strong oxen. The animals are more typically used also pull an harado, which is a type of horizontal laying drill used to loosen dirt in an effort to plant seeds easily.
It is still dark out, 5:33 AM. There is a boy loading ropes, gloves, hitches and other equipment onto a large wooden wagon. It should be cold but he is already working up a sweat. Eusebio Cienega. He is the 4th youngest in a family of 15. He hears his mother call to him from their cement adobe home. He stops loading the supplies for the work day on to the yunta and sprints over huisaches, kicking up dust on his way to the door. He has been working for 2 hours and needs nourishment. Before entering his home, he approaches a cement sink with a bucket of water set up. He washes up his hands, face and arms. He walks past the bathroom, which has one faucet, a metal bucket, a toilet and a drain in the floor. Across from the bathroom, to his right is an old cracked staircase, the first step sunken into an earthen floor, leading up to the roof. The rest of the floor, a combination of dirt and rock tile runs throughout the home, no ceiling to mirror it. The bedrooms are pushed back to the left and right, a living room with aluminum doors leading to two different habitations. The biggest room, the kitchen, sits at the end of a slight incline in the floor, giving the home its frame. He enters the kitchen and sits at the table joining his two younger brothers, Joaquin, and Octavio. Their father, patriarch of the Cienega family, Porfirio, sits at the head of the table. His manner is stoic, silent and focused. He has deep eye sockets, skin olive and smooth from years of working under the sun. Creases are beginning to form around his lips, and will eventually reach his chin. There are 3 young women and an older woman moving with efficacy around the kitchen. Making tortillas a mano, cooking canela in ollas de peltre, and frying eggs sunny side up next to hoyas de barro full of beans. These are the boy’s sisters, Carmen,, Beatriz, Luz. The older woman is Maria Guadalupe, mother of all the children.. Porfirio sits with purpose, sipping canela from a cantarito, steam rising when he sets it on the table. The boys sit in silence at the chairs while Eusebio takes his place next to Octavio, making a contorted face at him. He smiles in response kicking his legs happily. Octavio is the youngest male in the family, and Eusebio looks after him, sharing a very close rapport.
The boy speaks to Porfirio. “Pop, One of the wheels on the yunta is loose. I think it has rot anyway. It needs to be replaced.”
Porfirio clears his throat and peers over at him. “You will be working on Chago’s ranch today, there isn’t much to do around here today. He needs help volteando la tierra.”
Breakfast is finished, Eusebio kisses his mom goodbye and leaves.
Eusebio is crouched, tying up his shoes outside of the home, next to the faucet where he washed up earlier. Porfirio steps out of the doorway, holding a Machete, rope hanging loose around his elbow. “Alright, make sure you listen to Chago. He’s very particular about his equipment and animals.”
Eusebio nods and looks off in the direction of Chago’s ranch. He puts on his sombrero and starts walking towards his day’s work. As he is about to part and step through the dull barb wire fence that prevents the goats and chickens from wandering away, his father calls out.
“HECHALE GANAS, HIJO!”
He doesn’t look back. He keeps walking, trying to remember the last time he worked on Chago’s ranch. No, he had never worked for Chago. He only sees him at Sunday mass in town, but knows his sons well, or well enough. He will be working with them today and they are nice enough boys with a nice enough father. The sun is rising over the vast landscape, Lush green in some areas, dirt brown in most others. A mile and a half outside of his destination sits a twisted old willow tree, a decaying hole in the middle of its dying trunk. He crouches next to the tree, checking his surroundings first. Except for the geckos wiggling their gray and green shapeless forms behind warm flat rocks upon sensing a human presence, the coast is clear. Hot, sweet, sticky and pungent plant fumes rise off the thick shrubbery, stinging the nostrils. He slides a flat rock off the ground and finds what he is looking for. A soft pack with three filterless ALA cigarettes and 2 matches. He strikes the match on the rock that was covering his treasure and lights the paper tube filled with dried leaves. He is still crouching and closes his eyes, inhaling the moist tobacco smoke. Eusebio had two more hiding spots for his cigarettes, one behind the house, in a box hidden 10 steps west of the chicken coop entrance. Another was his uncle Rafael’s horse stable, behind the saltlick hidden under the hay. This was where he spent most what some people would consider an inordinate amount of free time, training horses. Training horses was all he wanted to do, this being what he is most passionate about in life. That , and women, specifically women that are older than he is. If his father ever found out he was smoking cigarettes, he would beat his ass. Not that Porfirio had ever laid a hand on him, but he imagined he would under this circumstance. His mother, being the physical hand of discipline in their home, most definitely would. The unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake catches his attention. He stops smoking, listens closely. It sounded like it could be 5 or 50 feet away. The pitch of the sound of a rattlesnake was tricky and the sound travels well . He tosses the butt into the hole in the middle of the tree. He stands upright, brushes himself off and shuffles towards the ranch, kicking tin cans and pebbles along the way. Upon arriving to the ranch, there is no one working yet, and the yuntas are not tied to the oxen. He makes his way over to the home, knocking on the steel door, a hollow noise reverberating, causing the dogs behind the home in the field to bark uncontrollably. Silence now, except for footsteps toward the door and a rooster crowing, signaling the beginning of the work day. The door opens, revealing an older man about mid-40’s. Santiago Gonzalez Magana, better known as Chago.
“Hey Chevo, how’s your pops?” Chago asks, looking out over his boys, who are stretching and yawning. “You’re gonna be working with Hugo, Paco, and Miguel today.” He crouches down and looks him in the eye. “See if you can get them to work like you, huh?” The boy smiles and walks over to them.
Eusebio grabs the pick-axe leaning against the wall as the other boys start leading the oxen through the acre long spread of rich black dirt that looks almost like moist bread. Hugo steers two oxen from the yunta, Miguel controls the other two from the front, pulling the rope tied around the base of their mighty horns. Paco and Eusebio follow the heels of the oxen, conversing breathlessly, busting up the dirt the blades from the harado didn’t thoroughly get to. This goes on for 4 hours, it is now noon. Don Chago appears in the doorway of his home, watching the boys and helper work. He starts out of the doorway, walking towards them. There is a groove in the dirt up ahead that is slanted downward, not easily seen by the human eye, and even less to an oxen. This causes the oxen on the right to trip, stopping short. Eusebio, smashing at the dirt tiredly, his vision directed at the ground, doesn’t see them stop and the pick-axe comes down on the back heel of the oxen, complete and terribly. He slices through the furry tendon. Though not much, the weight of the tool and the easily punctured flesh on the back of an oxen’s leg, it begins to gush blood all over, matting down the thick black animal hair. The miserere of the animal causes the boys to stop and Don Chago to pick up his slow walking pace and run over to the boys. It wails in the sun, its eyes like marble, bugging out of its head, teeth like dentures exposed in pain.
“What the fuck happened? Who did this? We just bought this animal last week!” Chago shouts.
The boys all stammer helplessly, and Chago turns to Eusebio.
“YOU..YOU STUPID FUCKIN’ BOY! LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID TO MY BUEY!!!” Chago’s words land harshly on Eusebio, who is miles away in his mind, hurt, blighted by the scalding reprimand he is receiving. This is the moment Eusebio becomes an adult, the first time he is held accountable for his actions by someone other than his parents.
The boy looks at the old man defiantly, says nothing and looks at the ground, then back up at him.
“I JUST BOUGHT THIS ANIMAL LAST WEEK” he screams again. He places his hand on his forehead and shuts his eyes tightly. “Let’s go inside. We’ll deal with this later, come on.”
Don Chago ushers the boys towards the home, but Eusebio stands where he was, immobile. Shock, embarrassment has taken hold. Scolded by someone who is not your parent, a cold bucket of water emptied over your head that causes you to gasp, breathe in sharply and paralyzes you momentarily. He gets on his knees and inspects the ox’s injury, still in shock. The ox is now on his side, murmuring quietly. He has made a decision on what he will do on his lunch break. He snaps out of his reverie when Chago calls from the doorway.
“I SAID COME AND EAT, BOY!”
“I’ll be right back, i just have to go home and feed the chickens” , his voice breaking.
Smash cut and Eusebio is sprinting toward his farm, a 15 minute walk, 10 minute run. He slows to a walk once he passes the tree that hides his cigarettes. The shock of being yelled at catches up with him and he begins to sob uncontrollably. He keeps walking, sobbing, walking, sobbing.
No one is home when he arrives at his house. He is not sobbing as heavily now and beelines for the pigpen. There is an area where general tools are kept, and he begins to look for a can of oil. This is oil used for the wheels on the yunta, A thick, black, oily paste in a metal can. He gathers up as many rags as he can. Sensing movement behind him, he doesn’t turn to see who it is. He keeps trying to clean up, not wanting to whoever is behind him to see his tear stained face. It’s his mother.
“What are you doing home? It’s only 1 o’clock” she says, not moving toward him.
“Oh i was just looking for some…there they are” he says, lifting the rags and looking back at his mom quickly before stepping back out where she cant see him. Leaning against the wall outside, he bites his quivering lip and squeezes the bridge of his nose in an attempt to quell his still welling emotion. Hearing his mother approach, he starts off back toward the ox who is still moaning.
Guadalupe watches her son run, knowing he had been crying, also knowing Don Chago has a penchant for letting his temper get out of hand, especially with kids who make mistakes during work. She decides to never let him know that she knew what was happening that day.
Eusebio walks past the twisted willow tree for the third time today, intent on healing the ox’s wound. The ox is still on its side, tongue hanging out of his mouth, becoming dry and covered in dirt. It is breathing heavily as he places his hand on its massive heaving body. He moves toward the back of the ox, the leg where the damage was inflicted. There is no one outside except for eusebio, the injured ox and the sound of tallgrass rustling yonder. He looks at the ox’s face, the pink-purple-dirt covered tongue a living thing, then back at the injury. He smears all of the oil into the red blood and pink glistening muscle, instantly turning it a slick jet black. This causes the ox to tighten up and bleat loudly, startling the boy. “Ho there, ho there” he says, a mantra to keep him from losing his grip on the situation, rather than comforting the ox. Holding the muscle tight, he wraps the bandages from under and over, tying a knot with one rag, then a second, third, until the ox has 11 rags holding its wound closed. The ox groans and huffs, shaking flies away from its face.
He moves to the side of the beast, sitting. He leans his back into him and plants his heels in the ground. He starts pushing with all his strength, then rests, panting, the animal is too heavy so he pushes again, this time feeling the beast move, getting up to its feet. He gets up and turns around and sees Paco and Miguel have pulled up the animal by its horns. Don Chago and Hugo are inspecting the bandage. Eusebio looks down at the ground then walks over to get his pick axe.
“Come over here, boy.” Chago calls. He points at the leg of the wounded ox before speaking. “Did you do this? Where did you get the rags and the grease?”
“I went home and got them.” Eusebio says, looking off into the horizon, then back at the old man’s face. Chago beams and pulls Eusebio toward him, hoisting him in the air. “You are a beautiful boy and you saved my ox. I can never begin to thank you. Come with me.” They start off towards the house and go around the back, where a plastic container sits on a retaining wall, surrounded by thick shrubs. He sets the boy on the ground, shouting for his wife. “Woman! bring us two glasses!” Chago’s wife materializes holding two clean glasses with gold etchings. He pours a old colored liquid from the spout on the container and hands it over. Eusebio takes the glass and sniffs it, wincing. “Salud, mijo”. Chago downs the glass, tipping his head back. The boy follows suit. It tastes like fire going down his throat and warms his stomach, and it takes every ounce of strength in him to not throw it up. “Go on home, and don’t tell your dad i gave you mezcal,” he says. An early day. The rest of the day is spent playing marbles with Octavio and cousins in the creek behind their house, walking into town and back. Eusebio does his best to not think about what happened earlier. The memory of the awful taste of the mezcal was also something he tried to forget, but when he thought of it, it made his skin crawl. He shudders one last time as he arrives home.
Eusebio sits in the kitchen by himself, drinking warm cinnamon water from a mug. Porfirio comes in and strides around the table, getting himself a concha. He sits next to his son and looks him over. “Good day today?” Eusebio looks at his father, replaying the events that happened, flashes of the anger and humiliation he went through rearing themselves again in his mind. “Yeah. Pretty good.”
“Hm. Ok.” says Porfirio, biting into the pink bread. He points in the distance as if he is trying to place something, not looking at his son. “You know, when you were a baby, your mother and i went through a really tough spell where you didn’t stop crying for almost a week straight. We tried everything. You bawled and bawled. we handed you off to your sisters, we even went to the priest to have you blessed. You fell asleep crying, woke up crying. We tried feeding you, you would spit the milk out. We tried rocking you and that seemed to make you angrier. One day, your mother went into town to get the doctor because we were sure you had some kind of illness. I looked into your tiny eyes and put you down on the table. You instantly stopped wailing and a look of comfort came across your face. I picked you back up and you started again. I put you back down and there you went, peaceful as ever. From then on, i brought you outside to work with me, and would place you in the yunta or in a wheelbarrow, bringing you everywhere with me, but never actually holding you. I knew everything i needed to know about you in that week.” Porfirio finishes his concha and gets up from the table and stands over his son, ruffling his hair.
“Chulo” he says, a slight smile on his face as he walks out into the night.