Drama Mystery Speculative

Labarca had never been more than a one-lane hamlet with three dozen houses slouching like dozing hens in a coop. The valley cradling the village was surrounded by hills overgrown by ferns, imported Oregon pines, Australian eucalyptuses, and native espinos—low, prickly bushes speckled with duck-yellow flowers that stole threads from trespassers’ clothing. The place smelled of oblivion, and the winding roads leading there were so little used that thistles, nettles, and dandelion sprouted between the ruts.

Labarcans lived on acre plots and their faith in the Lord, valiantly struggling with poverty—the men tilling and toiling, the women cooking, sowing, and bearing children. But, as everyone knows, trying to defeat poverty has always been a losing battle the world over. 

In her striving for perfection, Nature bestowed on the village a fantasy of color: lavender and poppies, daffodils, and clover grew in the shadow of slender poplars and squat hazel bushes. Periodically, the dense vegetation, which at times was almost conquered and at others resembled the invincible General Romel in his African campaign, stepped forward to reclaim the cleared fields, and Labarcans, with a fierceness equal to Nature’s, waged another war with the invading forest, successfully reclaiming a couple of hectares to plant watermelons, string beans, and basil.

Following well-rooted but unwritten rules, Labarcans built a church for the consolation of the soul and an inn where they gathered at dusk to douse sorrows with alcohol and to celebrate small victories with chicken stew and tomato and coriander salad.

"Let’s drink and eat as if there was no tomorrow," gathering around the bar counter, they followed the wise adage to the letter and swallowed two meat empanadas chased by more glasses of wine. 

The villagers knew little about the rest of the country, and national calamities and triumphs affected the immutability of their lives even less. If someone asked them about their hopes and ambitions, they would say they were too busy trying to survive to entertain any hopes, never mind talking about them. They’d say that their lives, just like the lives of millions of poor people in other parts of the world, revolved around changing seasons, the vagaries of weather, the abundance or shortage of grain, and earthquakes that sometimes were gentle shivers but more frequently were deep and prolonged growls of indigestion in the bowels of the Earth. 

Though they were neither wiser nor dumber than the average person, Labarcans were experts regarding one thing: Fate. They could perceive and detect the intricacies of Fate as quickly and with as much precision as other, more intelligent people could decipher the grainy letters in newspapers. They lived in constant harmony with Fate, intertwined with their days and weeks like strands of hemp in a tapestry.

It was only natural that they would become acutely attuned to matters of the spirit, and that was why they detected the prelude to the future drama and saw the signs that branded the Parra family as cursed and doomed to sorrow. They knew that no one ever looked for trouble on purpose but that occasionally trouble looked for people, and that seemed to be the Parras’ case.

And it was Fate that struck Rodolfo and Amparo Parra’s lives with a vengeance during the second drought of the century when things took a turn for the worse not only for the Parras but also for all Labarcans.

The valley's fertile soil had been parched into a grid of cracks by the oppressive heat, and all crops had withered and died. Hens pecked hopelessly among yellowing grass, cows chewed on foul-tasting straw left over from the previous summer, and even omnivorous goats, creatures with a fantastic talent for finding scraps of paper, rags, and cast-offs in the harshest conditions, couldn't quell the gnawing pangs of hunger. Food was limited, even for humans, and the fear of famine loomed larger than the relentless sun.

Joined by other men, Rodolfo Parra was forced to leave the village and head for the nearest city to look for a job—carpentry, service, or simply extracting usable materials from the dumps.

Amparo bade him goodbye with the placidity of someone used to farewells, pressing a linen napkin with bread and boiled eggs into his hands. Dressed in his wedding suit, now quite tight around the waist and shoulders, with the collar of his starched shirt like a bleached bone around the neck, Rodolfo shook hands with his teenage son in a manly manner and patted his wife on the head with an almost unconcealed tenderness. The gesture, although passionless and stolid, expressed the extent of his love for her. It was more than he had ever given her, more than she had ever expected, and even more than he thought he could offer.

Benumbed by the proximity of the parting, a certain vacuity in her gaze as if the same vacuity inhabited her mind, Amparo held on to his arm, her heart thudding with love.

“Pronto. I’ll be back soon...” Rodolfo promised.

She savored the magical word that encompassed today, tomorrow, a week later, or never, but it was a word that could restore ailing hope to health.

Pronto,” she repeated the promise.

For a moment, he was tempted to kiss the vacuity from her eyes but said instead, stretching the words out dramatically: “See you soon...”

He turned on his heel and walked down the road, shaded by a fringe of poplars standing side by side as if in a brotherhood. 

Her heart was heavy as she saw him crane his neck to take one last look at Labarca and at her. He was gone a moment later, leaving behind only the echo of family laughter and combats that neither time nor distance could ever silence.

Days and nights blended into each other, weeks flowed into months, and Amparo waited. It was not an action consciously controlled by her mind. She had no power over it. It was a lawless and wild process, like breathing and digestion. She waited the same way she walked, talked, and ate without giving it a second thought or trying to influence or modify it. She waited a minute at a time, an hour, a day - reconciled with Fate, knowing that no matter what she did or didn’t do, she didn’t have the magic skills that could change anything because nothing and no one can influence Fate.

“What will be, will be. Nothing else to do but wait,” she often sank into nostalgic musing as she swept the kitchen, washed and dried the dishes, cooked corn pies and hearty stews, hung up the clothes in the scorching heat of the rainless summer, or baked blancmange cookies to sweeten the bitter taste of waiting.

“Soon,” she whispered, occupying her mind and her hands with another unnecessary chore, aware that idleness bred jealousy and evil thoughts.

“One day, he’ll be back,” she refused to let go of her innate optimism.

She had always been a steadfast and dutiful wife and mother, and there was no place for self-pity in her life. Until Rodolfo’s departure, her existence had been like a swing—the twin pivots on which it turned her husband and son. But now one of the pivots was missing, and the swing swayed lopsidedly, and, feeling incomplete, she languished rather than lived. 

When the rain finally came, she had almost been squeezed dry of hope. It stirred her into wakefulness one night. She sat up in the overheated darkness, listening to the spatter of drops on the windowpanes, straining her ear to the clean country rain and the thunder that sounded like someone had ripped a giant canvas. She was grateful since it meant more than just corn and cabbage and pumpkins poking green fronds from the ground and more than the abundance of grain that could be expected when the earth drank its fill.

“He’ll be back! Soon…” she murmured to the pillow, waiting for the footsteps announcing Rodolfo’s return from the city.

The sky wept for eight days and eight nights. The map of cracks filled with water and then vanished. The soil changed from a crust to a squelchy sponge, and, like the sponge, it could absorb only as much and no more. Where once an arid desert reigned, now there was a marshland with slightly less wet peninsulas. The road disappeared under a river, thick and sluggish as molasses. The water washed away everything the drought had not destroyed, sweeping away humus layers and leaving mire, mud, and ooze behind. And as much as the villagers had prayed for the rain, they now prayed for it to stop.

After eight days and nights, the downpour relented, became a soft drizzle, and then stopped altogether. When the bank of dense fog burned off, mosquitoes began to breed with lightning speed, descending on the village like hordes of Saracens and as hungry. They emerged at night to attack everything that moved and showed a sign of life or a drop of blood.

To fight off the invasion, the folks ingested valerian and burned lavender petals wrapped in verses from the Scriptures. They shrouded their bodies with opium poppy poultices and rubbed them with camphor and eucalyptus oil. Still, the army of insects respected neither the Holy Verses nor the overpowering odors emanating from their victims.

The land was soon taken over by slugs, snails, and frogs. Squatting around the yards, they resembled a slimy carpet, fat and glistening with multi-spherical orbs and hungry proboscises. The slugs and snails slid along walls, leaving meandering silver paths in their wake. The frogs croaked a never-ending symphony as if praising the rain and the marshland. As if asserting their indisputable right to the place.

When all remedies had failed, it was Amparo who suggested consulting Black Celestino, the local wizard and diviner.

“Celestino will know what to do. And if it doesn’t work, we have nothing to lose.”

They set off to his house immediately, keeping an open eye on some unusual but exciting phenomena one could expect near the sorcerer’s hut. They found it surrounded by muddy waters, but strangely, without any of the winged cohorts plaguing the village.

His eyes sparkling in the corrugated face, the beard long and shaggy, Black Celestino came out of the house.

“Butterwort,” he said, preliminaries not being something he cared for. 

“The slugs and snails and frogs feed on the mosquitoes. Eliminate the insects, and you’ll get rid of the other creatures."

Thus said, he returned to the shack.

“Butterwort? What the hell is he talking about? The man has gone completely gaga,” decreed Aurelio Parada, the inn's owner.

But when they pondered the meaning of his words, they remembered a violet flower, the inhabitant of marshlands, that devoured the insects it trapped in its honey-tasting mouth.

They began planting the same day. By the end of the week, row upon row of butterwort had taken over the village, multiplying in gardens, burgeoning along soggy roads, and taking possession of vegetable patches. The plants did not linger, doing their job with zest. Drawn by the sweet smell of honey, the insects perished in the beautiful but deadly jaws by the million. The butterwort thrived and grew to unimaginable heights, but before the month was over, there was not a single mosquito around, and with them, the frogs, slugs, and snails vanished as if by a trick of magic.

Gradually, things got back to normal. The river, choked by floating vegetation and debris, calmed down. The hills, shrouded in greenery, exhaled steamy clouds of evaporating water. A warm breeze shook droplets off trees and bushes. The land absorbed the mud, slime, and ooze. The cracks healed, and, lacking nourishment, the butterwort wilted and died, leaving a layer of natural fertilizer and heavy fungoid odors of decomposition as if dozens of corpses had washed out of recently dug-out graves.

Labarcans sighed with relief, shaking off mildewed feelings of gloom. The ordeal had ended. It was time to plow, plant, and wait for the grain in the sheaves to ripen.

Only Amparo's wait was not over. Rodolfo had failed to return despite the bright sun that had returned to Labarca, despite the time of plenty, and despite his vow to return soon. 

January 13, 2024 19:59

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