This piece is an excerpt from The Cemetery Boys, a novel in progress.
Sunday had arrived—Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God—and brought with it a strong exhale that breezed over various labor camp sites of the San Joaquin Valley. Resourceful worshipers set up sanctified spaces and stretched borrowed tarps between sun-scorched oaks to contain the cool shade. The ground was covered in the white grime of harvest dust. The traveling priest presided in front of his truck’s flatbed, renovated to serve as an altar for Catholics, but for anyone, really, who had a righteous belief in divine intervention, joyous faith in a higher power.
Under the large, flopping tarpaulin the parishioners had dragged wooden fruit crates to be used as pews, wiped with cloth rags to guard good trousers from getting dirty and to keep a cotton dress clear of splinters. Men’s hats were strictly prohibited beneath the carpas unless you were an apostate with arms skeptically crossed over your heart or unless you proclaimed yourself agnostic, opting to stand outside of the tarp’s shady coolness altogether, in which case sweaty Stetsons and Fats Waller bowlers, Sunday-dinner porkpie hats, even dressy fedoras with white feathers speared elegantly to hatbands were acceptable to wear. It was understood that the slow planetary rotation of the harsh burning sun was sufficient punishment from God for such emboldened and shameless disbelievers.
Canuto’s older sister Rafaelita wore an elaborately embroidered kerchief on her head, her two long black braids tucked under its knot and reaching to her waist. She sat between the shaded tarp and sunshine, rested her straw hat and a thin book on her knees, and listened to the Mexican girl, Popa, singing a hymn that concluded services: Once by the sin of the world I was bound, but Je-sus res-cued me. Rafaelita suppressed a coughing jag as Popa sang the melodious and uplifting ending refrain: Lift-ed me up, put my feet on high ground, glo-ri-ious Cal-va-ry. The words gave Rafaelita a flicker of her former self without the haunting dread. Her brother knelt in fervent prayer, palms up, imploring God, oblivious to the parishioners dispersing, to truck tires driving away, to the three men rolling up the carpas quietly so as not to disturb him.
She folded the scallop-edged Sacramental Confirmation gift kerchief gingerly in triangles, upon which Lola’s dimpled needlework delicately stitched sakramento ng kumpirmasyon. Wide-brim straw hat on her head, she spit out tarnished phlegm and then stomped her work boot on it as she walked unhurried to the Morton family campsite, holding onto the spine of the book that passersby thought was a hymn book. Farmworkers were fully committed to fellowship and relaxation for the rest of the afternoon; whatever foodstuffs families saved they shared on Sunday afternoon. Guisos of chicharrónes in communal cookouts, collective pots of hominy or beans stewing, the last of the oatmeal warmed over for those without teeth, watermelon slices for seed-spitting contests, lukewarm quarts of beer, cold black coffee, and squeezed lemons in fresh water to pass around.
She arrived at the Morton family campsite, where the sparks of suspense were in the air; the Morton family had traveled from Galveston through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, to California and were busy preparing for their final destination, Los Angeles. Her friend Percival Morton had been excited about settling in Los Angeles. Tin tubs bubbled like cauldrons on their firepit, one canvas tent dismantled, another small tent tarp shading stacked crates which were packed with clothes and dishware readied to be loaded on top of the dented, mud-splattered Woodie station wagon come dawn tomorrow. Nanay Morton, as Rafaelita formally addressed her, had changed from her church clothes into her faded flower-print wraparound so swiftly she had forgotten to remove her good under-slip, and as she scrubbed a cotton shirt against the zinc washboard, a trim of gray grosgrain ribbon hem worked its way down to her thin calves.
An assembly line of laundry work was an adult family affair. In their glistening expressions, the twin boys tending the tin tubs showed a simmering dissatisfaction that hadn’t quite reached a boil; sour-faced Purvis Little stirred a sturdy stick reluctantly in a heaping pile of clothes being washed with bluing. Then the garments traveled from Purvis Little’s steamy tub to Nanay Morton’s second tub on a bench where she bent over a washboard, scrubbing until she was satisfied, and then the garments were plopped into a third bubbling tub, tended by Percival, for a good hot rinsing. From there, it was on to Tatay Purvis Prince Morton, Sr., who was charged with wringing the liquid out of the compacted, soppy weight with his large, beefy hands. Although he had enough belly to catch spills whenever he ate, it was without question his hefty solid hands that still possessed the old traces of a brawler’s career. Finally, he passed the choke-clumps to his oldest daughter, Tonette; perspiration beaded from beneath her headscarf as she snapped loose and hung bedsheets, blouses, and bloomers with wooden clothespins. Makeshift laundry lines that resembled a cat’s cradle hung within a cluster of eucalyptus trees, and the rambunctious younger Morton children fashioned a game by darting between flour-sack bloomers pinned there by the dozen, dashing out through patched trousers fluttering like carnival flaggers.
In the mix of Morton family activities, Rafaelita thought of the kindly Cabalquinto family that she and Canuto had met while riding the rods, and in spite of herself she pondered whatever became of them after the horrible “hole” incident, if they ever made it to Stockton safely. Thinking back, she remembered that the youngest boy, the toddler who sat on his grandmother’s lap, had captivated her attention, and she missed his sweet precociousness. Her own parents long dead, she thought about the Cabalquinto family as she entered the Morton campsite and asked permission from Nanay Morton to speak with Percival. A bone-thin woman, Nanay Morton straightened her shoulders, wrapped a crimson pair of impressive hands on her apron, and it seemed that it was only a matter of time before Rafaelita’s own would become bark-rough with veins shooting to her fingers like Percival’s mother. Nanay Morton took a deep look at Rafaelita’s skinny form in her baggy overalls.
—You ain’t thinkin’ of taking up too much time? Nanay Morton lifted one eyebrow.
—No ma’am, Rafaelita replied—Wouldn’t think of it.
Nanay Morton massaged the cramped muscles of her neck, glanced at the book Rafaelita was holding. So much more to be done before their family departure tomorrow. Against her better judgement, Mama Morton hollered instructions to Purvis Prince, Sr., and his namesake Purvis Little to scat for a brief, called Percival over but only for five minutes. Percival unfolded his father’s hand-me-down shirtsleeves with methodical precision and swiped his face to a presentable clean, partly pleased, partly flustered at being called out for this spotlight of female attention without his shoes.
It wasn’t easy to distinguish the Morton twins at first, until you had a good opportunity to study them side by side, to see their chins were cast differently, and Purvis Little grew a darker shadow of mustache than his twin. Nor was it Percival’s plentiful black lashes; his larger, glazed, dark eyes; those empurpled lips saying “Hey” that won Rafaelita’s consideration. It was his interest in book reading, and all it took was one conversation under the grapevines for Percival and Rafaelita to agree on meeting in the barn after work and chores, after dinner and before bed, to share book reading.
During those few occasions, they had sat on haystacks, the cool, mellow breeze carrying a scent of silage and manure. Percival held the poetry collection close to the small light of the lantern and read out loud to her slowly, his nostrils flaring after a line break, a finger underlining as he read: He dragged it through the plowed ground at a pace / But faintly reminiscent of the race / Of jostling rock in interstellar space. She hadn’t a clue what certain English words meant, yet his cadence was filled with a seriousness in the way he pronounced words unaccustomed to her ears, and she spent equal time listening to the tone she recognized as scriptural while enjoying his striking inquisitive expressions. His eminent departure caused in her a bundle of confused feelings, because she had cherished those late evenings when he’d read to her: From following walls I never lift my eye / Except at night to places in the sky / Where showers of charted meteors let fly. After each barn visit was over, she’d looked up at the skies and somehow understood that even the darkest thorn-sharp meteors turned into blooming, glittering stars.
Now, it was time to say farewell to Percival, and the two were standing close to the laundry lines and right smack in the middle of the children’s game commotion; dust in their tracks, the youngest, Kizzie, was chasing Cora, bumping into them, tagging an arm, shouting, You it!!
—Nah, you it! Percival said, and fake-kicked Kizzie’s behind. —Get outta here!
He asked Rafaelita directly—How you feelin’?
She had suffered a stubborn, painful, undiagnosed cough, severe allergies most likely, but how would she know? In Bakersfield, the doctor had refused to treat her, simply saying no and referring her to another doctor in Porterville, and the next one did not even wait for her to leave before ordering the nurse to disinfect all Rafaelita had touched.
—But not good.
—Oh, so you’re a doctor now?
—If I were, my innards say you be a real bad patient. Percival looked down at his bare feet, squashed sandy soil between his uglified toes.
An extra-loud quarrel thundered from the Rodriguez’s next camp over and Percival’s smile had more teeth than gums. A windy swirl sieved through the trees, dusting the leaves awake, along with children’s giddy chirping—Cucurrucucu, paloma, Cucurrucucuuuu—accompanied by a strumming guitar somewhere.
—Just so happens, I want you to have this. Rafaelita held the battered copy of the one book they had shared in the barn. Percival pushed New Hampshire back to her. It was unimaginable for him to accept it.
She had found Frost’s poetry collection beside an oil barrel outside of an abandoned filling pump station. After the “hole” incident, she and Canuto had run away without looking back, the nettle crunch of their steps hammering in her ears until she could go no farther. The roadside station seemed like an ark stranded between miles of empty highway, and she had stopped, a hand on her side, her lungs constricted with gluelike sputum. She was forced to lean on a battered buckshot Signal Oil sign and wiped her nose and looked to see if anyone had been chasing them before she allowed herself to slump down its pole slowly. Then, with her arms across her head, Rafaelita began to sob in convulsive spasms, unstoppable phlegmy heaves that shook her shoulders.
—Shut up! Canuto had yelled, not waiting for her to catch up—Keep runnin’!
Except for a lone crow’s cawing and the rusty hinges of the sign above her, there was nothing but the silent whistling of wind against the lone stretches of tall, desiccated grasses. Across from the pump station, a husk of house stood, its walls pecked over by weather. Rafaelita pulled herself up after a few minutes, and it surprised her to see how blood-splattered her poncho was. She tore off the serape as if the blood drench had burned her skin, disposed of the poncho in an oil barrel filled with castoffs, and in searching for her brother, the book’s fluttering pages called her attention. Could someone have tossed it and missed the barrel? She rubbed her gummy palms on the sides of her trouser pockets before handling her discovery. Could someone have stopped, looking for gasoline, and mistakenly dropped it? The dog-eared pages of the twilight blue volume contained woodcuts of calm hills and forests and pastoral farms, a golden rectangle stamped with the title and author’s name. It was an odd and beautiful book.
She was sure the person who had lost it (for surely it wasn’t meant to be trashed in the barrel) might later think that the someone who found it would be deserving of it, curious enough to wonder what event belonged to the dried, flattened rose used as a bookmark, someone who was capable of telling the difference between water stains and teardrops. In the time since she discovered the book, Rafaelita had memorized the penned inscription for Grace, a good friend of Louis and Esther Mertins, a little New Hampshire in California.
—No ma’am, can’t accept it, Percival insisted.
—Oh, go ahead. Stop it now. Not a big thing, take it. Come on. I know for sure the day after tomorrow yours and Purvis Little’s sixteenth.
The hatbrim partly obscured Rafaelita’s face as she pushed the book closer to him.
—Can’t believe you ‘membered.
She pressed her lips together—You saying no to my birthday gift?
On the final night Rafaelita and Percival had met in the barn, rain-inflamed clouds threatened and a thunderstorm finally broke, the barn vibrating in response, the lightning luminescent across the sky. Monsoon sheets of rain gave her a sense of peaceful nostalgia; it only took minutes before the front of the barn was muddy with deep puckering puddles. To better hear the torrential storm, she climbed the creaky wooden ladder to the hayloft, hand over hand, each footfall rickety. Percival followed right behind, the book tucked against his roped belt. The strenuous climb had pushed her breath, and she clamped a palm over her mouth to suppress a coughing jag, the malady now infecting the chambers of her lungs.
A stubby bark-colored owl, disturbed by their intrusion, turned and gave them a piercing, quizzical glare. Far from the eaves of the barn where wasps had hitched a bulbous hive, the two had sat on a stiff straw pallet, leaned their backs against the barn’s wooden planks. Rafaelita listened to the pleasing, pelting rain chastising the barn’s roof, her face glistening with a feverlike sweat. She was transported back home and nothing else stood between her and the monsoon except for the border of her skin, the storm slipping away to its inevitable destination.
The loft’s humid heat wrapped drowsy around them like a shawl. Rafaelita’s eyelids grew heavy listening to the rain finally trickling to a drizzle, then droplets pinging the tin water troughs near the corral’s gates. It both surprised her and didn’t surprise her when she felt Percival’s warm, dampened fingers nuzzle her elbow, his eyes semi-glazed as if he wasn’t fully awake. She was no longer that faithful child any more, that gullible and naïve girl who had arrived in California eleven months ago, and she looked at him with such sad resignation, he withdrew his hand immediately. They had both left the barn in separate directions and hadn’t seen each other until now.
—How nice of you, he said, deeply touched by the gift. He flipped the pages of the poetry book, admiring the woodcuts, and then touched the worn cover like an old friend—You so nice. Percival was Canuto’s age, two years younger than her.
—No not really. Rafaelita wanted to change the subject—I hear Hollywoodland is really something. Before you know it, you’ll be a big movie picture star.
—Only if you traveling the road to Perdition, and I’m done traveling no more.
She smiled at his word play—That so? You mean no more hitting the roads after tomorrow, no more of this? And she waved her arm theatrically over the silence of the Rodriguezes’ temporary truce, over the rows of campsites, the fields.
Rafaelita continued: The city’s got dance hall music. Restaurants. Schools, too. You name it!
She recalled a postcard of the Santa Monica wharf she had once glanced at and said—Make sure you wet your feets in the ocean for me, promise? But in her mind Rafaelita wished, When the tide forms over your still bare feet, then rushes back, and you can feel the sensation of sand gusting between your toes as if you were moving, think of me.
—Soons as I get to the ocean, I promise.
—Can’t break a promise, Percival Morton! You swear?
—I swear. He placed his hand on his heart.
—I miss that, the ocean.
—The ocean is the only thing I miss about Galveston: the fishing, the quiet ’tween you and the water. Percival looked up at her—But that about it! I’m looking forward to jobs all around. I’m telling you, big sis is already looking into the Dunbar Hotel, and Pa says brickmaking and shipyard jobs just waitin’ for you to collect some decent pay.
Percival couldn’t suppress his elation, his smile cradling a certain pride at his forward looking.
Rafaelita replied —I think you’ll be busy with other things.
—You’re different from everybody else, I know it. You deserve something else.
—Like what? Whatta you saying?
—Use you head!
—Ha, if you say so. His cheeks flushed again, and he averted his gaze to flipping the folded pages of the book. Rafaelita knew he was trying to figure something out, because he lopsided his lips in thought. Finally, Percival asked— Kin you keep a secret?
—I hate secrets, hate ‘em.
—Yeah or no?
—Just spill it if you want.
—Purvis and me is thinkin’ ‘bout joining the army.
—Only a matter of time before America joins up—you know that, right?
—Ave purisima, don’t be talking crazy!
—What’s crazy about serving your country?
Rafaelita glanced at Percival’s father leaning against the Woodie. His father’s brows were notched by keloid scars, a saddle nose that forced him to breathe through his mouth, those big scarred fists packing a corncob pipe bowl full of tobacco. Beside him, Purvis Little sat on an upside-down bucket, his bored expression the same as if he sat in the outhouse pondering his misfortunes. Percival’s big sis Tonette was erased behind bedsheets; only her hands and bare feet were visible. Percival continued.
—I wana life, not like my daddy, you know? In my life, there ain’t no Bible or Green Book. I’m telling you: Every time we rode over the roads, I felt like we always running away from badness, always scared like something behind our backs ready to get us. Ain’t no way to live, you know? Daddy can’t sleep for the troubles, hollering something awful in the night. All. The. Time. No, ma’am, not for me. I don’t want none of that for my life.
—I know all about looking behind you. Really, I know it real, but you’re thinking it all wrong, Percival. What about jobs? School? You’d be so good at schooling, I know it real.
She could see he was disappointed by her reaction.
—My brother and me just thinkin’ about it, is all.
—Purvis Little thinkin’? You’re not serious?!
They both laughed, because Purvis Little was a jester who caused a ruckus whenever he caught wind of young girls nearby. He’d spar boxing pantomimes, trip over pails like a clown, ventriloquize Percival’s objections to his attention-grabbing theatrics. He annoyed everyone enough to make them smile.
Mama Morton turned around from her washboard to signal time was up. Rafaelita pushed her hat up for a last look at Percival’s obsidian eyes.
—I can’t let Purvis Little go ’alone either—you know that, right?
—Yeah, I know. She sighed audibly—Tell your daddy and mama first, is all I ask, promise?
— Soons we get to Los Angeles.
—Yes, ma’am. You got me swearin’ a lot.
After an awkward pause, she began to recite:
The woods are lovely,
Dark and deep—
But I have promises to keep—
And miles to go—
before I sleep.
And miles to go—
before I sleep.
— Paalam, Rafaelita said. Take care of yourself.
She wanted to postpone her leave-taking with another awkward pause—You’re a real good person. Always ’member that, even if estupidos tell you different.
To the back of her, she heard Percival’s last words:
—Take care of that cough!
—Sure thing! She tossed the reply over her shoulder, didn’t want to turn and see him again. She knew her cough was getting worse, wet and croupy, blood more frequent, and this was the last time she would ever exchange words with him—And don’t you dare lose that book Doctah Morton…..
Immune to the burn of the incremental sun, to the services having ended and the church tarps stored away, Canuto continued to kneel in prayer, retreating deeper in his own endless guilt. No longer seeking grace, she walked past her younger brother to arrive at their firepit, raised her chin to feel a brief, consoling sun-kiss on her cheeks, hardened herself against lágrimas burrowing into her chest. Tomorrow dawn, there would be only an eerie absence, a vague trace of the Morton family left behind, charred wood, a lone bare foot stamped in the dust like a renunciation of body. By tomorrow evening, another family would fill the campsite and discover its afterlife, a bottle opener, one sock severed from a pair, laundry lines still rope-knotted on a eucalyptus tree. Coming or going, Rafaelita wondered, why do we all have to end up like ghosts?
Holes were spots where a train stopped and expansion levers shifted for another train to pass in the opposite direction, and it was one of these holes that gave Canuto and Rafaelita the opportunity to encounter the Cabalquinto family. Rafaelita had pinned up her long braids and stuffed them in the straw hat to protect against being accidently entrapped under a spin of rail wheel or in a boxcar’s sliding door, and she pressed the top of her hat as she dashed to the boxcar alongside the family. She and Canuto had planned to ride the rods to Sacramento, and outside of the Fresno freight yards in lonely Dinuba, a train had stalled for a brief moment, giving them enough time to assist the newly acquainted family. They helped lift Lola and Nanay first, handed the youngsters by their torsos into the grimy freight, rolled bundles and bags next. Lolo’s old leg kicked over the edge awkwardly; then came Rafaelita, Canuto, and lastly Tatay Cabalquinto just in time, before the opposite train raced by with guillotine swiftness. The speed shredded their eardrums with shrieking alarm and slashed the rainbow serape poncho Rafaelita wore. She held her hat tightly with the press of both hands until the cargo train passed and the rust crank of expansive levers shifted to return it to its original tracks. The train collected steady speed, and the boxcar railed northward-bound, the hot whistle disturbing the long, silent stretches of farms and back-alley towns.
Tatay Cabalquinto sat on his hams, opened a burlap sack and shared melokotons with the siblings and offered swigs from Lolo’s large canteen of water in gratitude for their assistance. Two of the Cabalquinto kids looked travel-fatigued, the girl’s expression carrying a veneer of shock. The boy next to her hung his head, picked sadly at a rip on his patched trouser knee, while the youngest boy sat majestically on the throne of his grandmother’s lap. The rolling rail wheelers vibrated under them, and Rafaelita saw the youngest boy touch his lola’s jowls with urgency, pull her face down to make sure he had her full attention. Snuggled against Lola’s bosom, his tufts of hair ruffled, he began to ask questions, his small mouth exulted in constant inquiry almost as if he loved to hear his words forming and escaping his lips.
Rafaelita knew full well children first discovering the grandeur of language and voice and then the irony of a world forcing them into silence. A child’s malleable mind believed in spells, believed words possessed the power to conjure until they experienced otherwise, and her desire to be a teacher of children had kept her hopes up. She liked the toddler right away, precisely because of his eye-opened expressions; when Rafaelita had hoisted him to Lola’s outreached arms, she noticed how the boy took a quick, curious glance at the darkened, rusted boxcar as if he were merely surveying their temporary accommodations, as if the boxcar was nothing more than another escapade, perhaps the dark belly of a slithering berkakang fish like the one in the epic adventures of Lam-ang.
Once upon a time, she had memorized the stanzas of the great Biag ni Lam-ang, about a hero who traveled with his companions, the fantastical rooster and enchanted dog, but she couldn’t resuscitate the stanzas anymore; all she could recall was the rooster, whose powerful wings could resurrect Lam-ang from death, and the dog, whose bark built a home for Lam-ang’s betrothed, Ines; because it was hugely unbelievable, it had to be real. The nuns at church had banned the poem, and the chalky hands of the Normal School teachers had punished her for reciting it; like all things banned and punishable, she had unknowingly swept the stanzas into the crevices of her heart, now darkened year after year by the lack of any warm light. She would be a very different teacher!
Tatay Cabalquinto spoke in Ilocono and English to explain that they were headed for Stockton, a city so full of Pinoys and Pinays that he believed it was the biggest “little” Manila in all of California. On El Dorado street, the office of the Legionarios del Trabajo would help him find a well-paying job, and the children would receive a good American education. He talked of his children as if they were already stellar students, business owners, and such, and in the dimness of the boxcar, Tatay’s tone carried reassuring authority. Rafaelita could feel the children begin to relax under their father’s story of the future, the weight of their concerns loosening, the kwentos of a new life in Stockton a comforting tale. Tatay then went silent as two long train whistles screeched, considered or recalled or dreamt or listened to the whistles’ end, and then cleared his throat and spoke again. He politely extended an invitation to the siblings to join the family in their journey all the way to Stockton.
Canuto gazed upward, as he often did when confronted with a decision: where to find work, how to get the next meal, when was payday, what direction was west, why was he his sister’s caretaker. The boxcar rocked, and Rafaelita slugged her brother’s arm, urging him to accept Tatay’s gracious offer. Listening to his homeland Ilocano had further lightened Canuto’s mood, and he nodded affirmatively, energetically, and Grandfather Cabalquinto clapped both shoulders as if Lolo knew firsthand how difficult it was not only to make a decision in their circumstances, but to make the right one at that. It was settled, then: they would all travel together. Hours passed in clickety-clack clackety-click, and one by one they drifted off into a well-earned sleep, the young boy close to his grandfather, the girl using her mother’s thigh for a pillow, the youngest toddler cuddled safely in his lola’s arms.
Canuto and Rafaelita had once gathered the courage to dream up bonanzas of employment opportunity shining lucrative on California’s horizon. Also pressing on them were rumors of American immigration restrictions and temperamental visa quotas. They purchased cheap tickets sold by the Dollar Steamship Company and said paalam to all they knew. On the ship, strangers sniffled and cackled in their five-tiered bunks as the blunt lift and thrash of ocean nightly registered on the ship’s belly. Swallowed by the rust and hunger of steel, the crowded compartments were too suffocating, and as the customary stench of misery gagged her sleepless, Rafaelita pulled up her pair of clammy shoes, clomped up the narrow, steep ladder steps slowly to the ship’s main deck, and then hoisted herself to the stern upper deck to gaze at the waters behind her churning and percolating. The chilly winds’ exuberance against the contours of her body, it would have been blasphemy for her to think of knowing God, for God was supreme and thereby unknowable. But beneath her, as the huge steam-liner spliced the ocean’s metallic sheen, as the vastness of her future ruddered powerfully forward, she had sensed a strange euphoria, a blessed holiness that only the presence of God could deliver.
However, coming to the States was not what they had been taught to admire with such devotion in the Normal School textbooks back in Luzon. They were on shaky ground as the gloom of nomadic hunger had consumed the horizon. Rafaelita had dreamt of becoming a teacher and owning two things in America—a library and a radio—but in the eleven months of transitory arbitrariness that followed, all she could exchange for money was the sovereignty of manual labor—so little gain that cost her body too much. Now all she wanted was to stay in one place like the gargantuan humpbacked roots of the balete trees. Frustrated by their distressing situation, living from day to night to day, Canuto had sometimes threatened to leave her behind if she didn’t keep up, and she was thankful they had made it to the hole, thankful they now had a destination, and who knows, perhaps small opportunities awaited them in Stockton, perhaps God had heard her prayers after all. In her increasing hopefulness, she relaxed, comforted by the shadowed configurations of the sleeping family shaped like drifting islands with their own rhythmical shorelines of breathing.
She awakened to chest-tightening coughs and muffled them so as not to wake the others. The compression in her lungs boosted her discomfort, and she recited prayers to the rickety-clack rickety-clack of the train tracks beneath her like rosary beads to lessen her chest pains. She found relief in Canuto’s distinct snores gurgling in the cadaverous boxcar, the toddler’s purr in his slumber, someone passing robust gas. Through the slit of boxcar wheel door held open with a sturdy two-by-four wood board, a gray light from a waxing moon entered, and she crawled on her knees to get to the open door, careful not to disturb the sleep-deprived Nanay.
Rafaelita looked out; the infinity of dark nights stretched blindly behind the moon’s mighty iridescent light. She leaned her head back to contemplate its beauty, her face bathed in the vacillation of dim and light, another heaving cough smothered. The train sped along and the night air became increasingly cool and she clasped the edges of the wool serape together for warmth as she watched grain silos appear, barns disappear, blurred into fluidity, stared at another water tower recede, another water tower approach, gazed at the white picket fences blurring into keeeeeeep ouuuuut, the whites of her eyes unable to keep out sleep.
The boxcar screeched to a halt in an unfamiliar spot, awakening everyone. Canuto placed a finger to his lips. From the open door they saw that there was a delinquent cluster of scraggly trees in the middle of nowhere, perhaps another “hole,” until the crackle of distant gunfire in the scrub brush made the pressure in Rafaelita’s chest ache. Her brother’s silhouette studied the hats and shoulders of the railroad detectives hunting for stowaways, illuminating each cargo boxcar with their hand-held kerosene lanterns. With a backward glance, Canuto consulted Tatay Cabalquinto—the bobbing lanterns of the bulls had grown smaller and farther away, like pinpoints almost, which meant they were investigating the boxcars in the opposite direction. But in a sudden affliction, Rafaelita heaved into uncontrollable coughing, splattering fluid into her palms, and one flickering lantern light turned about and swung larger and closer and larger and faster, an obstreperous voice echoing taunts hurled inside each hollow boxcar, the clunk of thick steel wheel doors opening, then closing.
Lola’s hand pressed over her grandson’s mouth; another sucked in his breath, old Lolo’s harsh breathing grated, Nanay pushed her daughter in the shadow of the boxcar corner; they all listened to the bull’s goading grow louder and nearer. The vibrating clunk of the boxcar next door compelled them to realize the inevitable, and finally the lantern light blinked inside their boxcar. The bull’s wide chest at the level of the boxcar floor, he raised his lantern above his head to investigate. Seeing Rafaelita’s face emerge from the pool of darkness, he spewed a stream of rapid-fire English vitriol, and she quickly shoved his face with the heels of both palms to allow Canuto to leap over him. The Cabalquintos followed like a flock of startled birds scattering in a vacant field.
Her serape poncho yanked backward, she was lifted airborne as if she were a stack of dry twigs, and she banged into trackside nettles as sharp as barbed wire, was lifted once more, then shaken again, and her braids became undone by the violent jolts. The drunken bull breathed harshly through his nostrils, surprised, Aha! You little monkey girl! She shielded herself, and her guttural screams spurted out in fits and starts. Oh, you wanna play. The detective’s words were liquor-slurred as he yanked her hemp-thick braids and tossed her this time onto a clump of stones. The earth beneath her ruptured, and he lynched the poncho across her face in one practiced move, clamped his palm against her mouth to stifle her screams. She was suffocating under unbearable darkness, his belt unbuckling, her own trousers torn from her hips, his jagged fingernails clawing at her thighs. He wrenched her legs apart, the passing train’s metal wheelers railing and screeching against the rusted tracks, slashing her violently with tremendous winds.
And then the bull’s body slumped forward, jerked with another thud across his humped shoulders, forcing him to release her, to turn his attention elsewhere. Rafaelita scavenged for air. Her lungs unable to course air through her airways, she groped timidly for her ripped underpants, her muddled trousers. From her tear-blurry eyes she saw Canuto’s shoulders rising and falling in terrorized heaves, as he tightly grasped the two-by-four like a baseball bat—the same board which had once been used to keep the boxcar door from shutting completely. The strike only served to fuel the bull’s indignation, and though his movements were hindered by his trousers ankled like manacles, the bull charged with greater intensity, his hands a massive fiery choke around Canuto’s neck.
Stray dogs baying against a mesh of footfalls struggling and gasping, in the desolate muted moonlight, Rafaelita resurrected the great Lam-ang and grasped the two-by-four for balance. She then lifted the board high over her shoulders and swung mightily, the man’s naked skull cracking as naturally as a thunderbolt splitting timber in two.
Helena María Viramontes is the author of The Moths and Other Stories and two novels: Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came with Them. She is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in English at Cornell University. “The Fields of 1936” is an excerpt from The Cemetery Boys, a novel in progress.