Fiction: Dariel Suarez

Dariel Suarez was born in Cuba and earned his M.F.A. in fiction at Boston University. His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie SchoonerNorth American Review, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhereDariel recently completed a novel and story collection, both set in his native country. More about him can be found at www.darielsuarez.com.

 

A KIND OF SOLITUDE

The sun was still attached to the horizon when Eladio began his trip to the stable. He was facing westward, placing little strain on his failing eyesight. He wore the collar of his long-sleeved shirt up and his straw hat tilted, purposely covering his neck and the back of his head. After sixty years in the Cuban countryside the toughness of his skin had finally relented. A doctor in Güira de Melena, on a routine visit a year ago, had advised him skin cancer was a possibility. Eladio deemed cancer no honorable way to go out. His two older brothers and sister had died of heart attacks—all sudden deaths. He wasn’t about to be the first in the family to need someone else’s care, so he’d made the choice to trim his stubbornness and give nature its respect.

The path was muddy from an overnight rain. The bottom of Eladio’s boots grew uneven as he walked. He stopped after a few yards, unstrapped the rifle hanging from his shoulder, and whacked clumps of mud off his boots before carrying on. He gave a passing glance to the dew-soaked bushes and citrus groves bordering the trail to the left. He ignored the brimming canal to his right, which on any other day would’ve pleased him, considering all the effort he’d put into fixing the turbine in the water pump. His dog, Puma, a white-spotted mutt, trotted alongside the path on a narrow strip of land where wet grime ended and grass began, keeping his paws light and clean.

Eladio wanted to get through his routine unscathed. His friend Domingo was coming later for a cup of coffee and the usual banter. He would then clean the house and leave it ready for Domingo’s cousin to move in. He’d feed the chickens and his two pigs around sundown, and following a short sleep he’d be on his way to catch the bus in town, headed permanently for Havana. He had no family out here in the fields, no close neighbors except for Domingo, so in his mind only his friend’s goodbye was in order. The rest of the town would find out by word of mouth, as they did most things.

Eladio was a quiet and physical man, known for having carried two fifty-pound sacks of rice for over two kilometers in the scorching sun. There was a definite sense of pride in his gait, in the march-like precision of his steps. He walked with his chest puffed out, semi-fisted hands, a stiff jaw. He knew the townsfolk were wary of him, of his solemn aloofness, even old Contreras, whose mouth had involved him in a few brawls, including one occasion when he’d swung a machete at policemen. Eladio preferred to plow the land, yank beets out of the ground, conduct small talk with the cows, or listen to the croaks of his wooden walls than to mingle with other peasants in their homes. Casual acquaintances were enough for him. It had been this way his whole life. Aside from Domingo, he’d only been outwardly caring with two people: his late wife, Alicia, and Griselda, his lover of fifteen years.

He had shared things with both women he’d otherwise taken to the grave. He had told them childhood stories: how he missed the smell of his father’s favorite cologne, no longer available, not even in the city; how his mother perched him on her knees while she sat in her rocking chair and hummed Pérez Prado and Benny Moré classics; how his uncle José Antonio, while smoking a chewed-up cigar, spoke fervently about buying new land, years before Fidel and the Revolution destroyed his plans and his mental health gave in. He’d now and again wondered whether he’d shared these stories because he wanted the women to know him better, or because he wanted to hear himself remember out loud, explore his own memories in ways silent contemplation didn’t allow. In any case, they’d listened attentively. He would then tell them—when they’d least expect it—that he loved them. He’d used a soft voice, as if he were talking to a child or a small bird. Alicia and Griselda, in the privacy of their respective bedrooms, often had the same reaction: a smile, a short giggle, followed by the wrapping of their arms around his neck. Occasionally, Alicia would practically lunge at him, tipping him back on the bed. Griselda would seldom contain herself, but when she did she’d run her slim fingers from his ears to his cheeks and bite her bottom lip. He hadn’t seen a woman bite her lip that way, certainly not Alicia.

The women had been aware that beyond the bedroom Eladio was a different man: reticent, direct, rugged like the calluses on the palm of his hands. They’d each told him they loved that about him. It made them feel special that only they got to experience his vulnerability. Alicia confessed she lived for those moments, for the exclusivity of truly knowing him. Eladio figured that was why, once she found out about Griselda, it did her in. She discovered a note Griselda had slipped into his pocket, asking him to bring her tomatoes and cucumbers on his next trip. She had signed it, “Love, your tiny bird.”

Alicia demanded an explanation. She became full questions and reproaches. When he refused to answer, she cried like never before. She would begin sobbing in the kitchen without warning, shrouding her mouth and nose with the same damp towel she’d just used to clean the counter. Or she’d stay in the bedroom for hours. He’d occasionally found her gazing out the window, a patch of sunlight splashed across her face, as she mumbled to herself.

He told her many times he was sorry, but nothing more. He couldn’t articulate his love for her without feeling abhorrence for himself. His guilt made his silence like a boulder. He could feel its weight as he moved about the house, checking on Alicia and sensing her gradual disaffection. As he had told Domingo on a night he hadn’t held his liquor, “I can fix anything but a woman in anguish.”

In the end, the silence proved lethal. Alicia killed herself with rat poison.
As Eladio descended a narrow slope toward the stable, Puma already waiting, he wondered if Alicia’s family would forgive him. During the last family gathering, a New Year’s celebration at his sister-in-law’s apartment in Havana—to which he arrived unannounced—everyone had spurned him, called him a selfish son of a bitch, un viejo verde who expressed no regret for killing his wife. He’d left without saying a word, hoping that eventually they would let him explain how he felt and he might then be able to see his nephews and nieces.

Puma’s spirited tail slapped against the entrance gate. Eladio unlocked the padlock and pulled out the chain. He threw it gently over his shoulder and opened the stable door. Inside, the space resembled an oversized shed. Rakes, pickaxes, broken shovels and machete blades were scattered along the left wall and the back. The cows were to the right, separated by partitions. Once he made sure everything was as he’d left it, he laid down the chain and padlock on a corner and checked on the three cows—Las Tres Marías, as he called them—patting each on the side.

He then grabbed a metal bucket and walked toward the first cow. He turned the bucket upside down to use as a stool. Eladio realized he’d forgotten the cloth he needed to wet and warm up to help bring down the milk. He’d left it hanging on the back of a dining room taburete, the one whose cow skin seat was too sunken and needed replacement. He shrugged off his carelessness, blamed it on his old age. He retrieved a pail from the back of the stable and slid it under the first María, the feistiest of the three. “Be good today,” he said, running his hand over her udder. He rested his head on her flank and squeezed the base of her teats. Milk began flowing rhythmically into the bucket. Eladio’s mind drifted. He assured himself all would be fine. Something was telling him the family would understand why, four years after his wife’s death, he had decided to move in with Griselda.

* * *

The river flowed faster than usual. The rain had raised the water level six or seven inches. The strong current, its surface glistening with silver specks, now overtook the rock-strewn drops that curved out of Eladio’s view into a wooded area capped by a Ceiba tree. Eladio kept by the riverbank until he arrived at his favorite spot: a flat, pool-like stretch of water where the current came to an apparent standstill. Here the riverbed was sandy and squashy, the water deep enough to swim. To get in and out easily, Eladio had sunk two boulders, smooth side up, by the base of a tree whose submerged roots protruded from the bank like wiry arms.

He stripped down to his boxer shorts, neatly folded his pants, shirt, and tank top, and held them down with the butt of his rifle. He rested the weapon against the tree trunk and stepped in, letting his body take pleasure in the bracing water. He pushed to the middle of the river and began swimming lengthwise, needing only a few strokes to reach each end of the placid pool. He tried to clear his thoughts, concentrating on the motion of his arms, the light splashes in his ears, the cadence of his breathing.

Alicia had been an avid swimmer. On a good day she was able to keep shoulder to shoulder with him for a few laps. They had made love here, too, their bodies carefully positioned between the sinewy roots, Alicia’s moans echoing downstream. Back then it was as if they owned the fields. They found seclusion in the vastness of the countryside, in the fact that the busy, prying world lay far away. They didn’t need four walls to feel at home. There was privacy in the shade of a riverside tree, the little nooks in the groves, the furrows in a tomato field. They had belonged here, to this tropical weather and country, to these colors of green and brown and red, to the Cuban blackbirds, and the yellow-headed warblers, and the quail-doves, to the thatch-roofed house they’d built, now part of the landscape. They loved climbing avocado trees, harvesting crops, fixing wagons and turbines, protecting the cattle. The Revolution had forced them to live on borrowed land, but it didn’t matter. They had claimed everything theirs, and treated it accordingly.

Today, however, it was just he, a lone swimmer. The fields were too large, the crops and cows too needy, the river too silent. In Havana he’d have Griselda. He could share some kind of seclusion with her. Her simple reasoning made sense. It was, of all her arguments, what had convinced him to shed the cyclical and dependable nature of his everyday life: why should they die alone?

Eladio swam for an hour—picturing his wife next to him, her slim body and short hair perfect for fighting the current—until he heard a rumbling far in the fields. He glided toward the boulders and hoisted himself onto the riverbank. The wind had picked up. He could see dark clouds expanding in the sky, smell the scent of rain. The afternoon showers were on their way. He’d have to postpone his bird hunting and hurry home.

* * *

Domingo arrived at the customary time, one o’clock, aware that Eladio would be done making coffee, the same kind Domingo’s wife bought, though hers tasted better. Eladio added extra ground toasted peas to make the most of whatever little he had, a trick he’d learned from Alicia that made the coffee last longer, but also affected its flavor. Domingo had never dared break his friend’s heart by telling him his coffee was ordinary. Besides, with how bad government supply had gotten since the Special Period had been declared, they were lucky to have it at all.

Domingo was a tall, slender, wrinkle-faced man, well-liked in the region for his ability to haul and sell food without government detection. He knew lots of men like Eladio, in charge of crops and cattle, who could tweak the numbers and give him the unreported surplus. The government-approved quotas most of the peasants were entitled to—some of which came from these very fields—were often not enough to properly feed a family. For longer than could be remembered, Domingo had been the town’s unofficial food purveyor. Even the police bought from him, especially Sergeant Menéndez, who had a diabetic wife, an anemic sister, three daughters and two sons to take care of. Domingo’s wife, a heavyset woman who’d grown up in Camagüey and whose father had fought alongside Fidel before being killed in action, did her part by storing rice, sweet potatoes, beans, and corn in a narrow shack behind their home, which she claimed housed a latrine. Domingo fostered the same discreet hatred his wife felt toward what their country had been turned into. And just like her, he had embraced his role.

He had also been Eladio’s first link to Havana. He’d introduced him to Griselda on one of their trips to the city as state-sanctioned merchants, men who had been licensed to sell independently, helping alleviate the food shortage in the city. Back then Domingo had no idea what would come out of their meeting. Even when he started to suspect that they’d gotten together, that his best friend was cheating on his devoted wife, he never mentioned it to Eladio. They shared a deliberate silence, a trust that strengthened with time. Talking about Griselda would’ve been sacrilege unless Eladio did it first. They cared for each other the only way two hardworking peasants knew how—showing prudence and deference. This meant no meddling in the other’s affairs.

The overcast sky blanketed the fields. Domingo glanced up, then tied his horse to a stake. He adjusted the tarp he’d made out of sewn-together burlap sacks, cloaked his wagon bed, and told his two dogs, Tres Quilos and Tornado, to lie under it. He climbed up the front steps of Eladio’s porch, yelling out the habitual “hey” in a quickly ascending tone.

Moments later Eladio emerged with two aluminum mugs so worn they’d permanently acquired the smell of coffee; dents and scratches had bent and softened the metal. Cradled in their hands, their fingers tied around the slender handles, the mugs put both men at ease. Without saying a word they sat on taburetes. They leaned back against the front wall and breathed in the aroma—a crisp, slightly burnt coffee smell that reminded them of family and quietness. They looked at the windswept wild grass and Royal Palms beyond the rutted path, all the way to what their aging eyes deemed the horizon. They knew every inch of this terrain. If he’d had it in him, Eladio would’ve smiled at the knowledge.

“I kept my eyes on the clouds on my way here,” Domingo said. He took off his straw hat and dropped it under the chair. “We’re going to get more wind than rain.”

Eladio took a sip from his mug. “The canal’s already flooded.”

“How’s the water pump?”

“Working.”

“Good.” Domingo slurped his coffee. “I don’t think my cousin knows how to fix it. Like a good habanero he will probably ask for a mechanic when it breaks down again.”

“I mended it for good.”

Domingo laughed mockingly.

“I can always come back and repair it,” Eladio said.

“Let my cousin worry about it. He’s got to learn.”

Eladio took one last sip and stared at the bottom of the mug, the aluminum marred with coffee residue. He sighed with satisfaction, feeling a sudden shot of energy. He glanced at Domingo and noticed his cup was empty. He extended his hand, asking for it.

He walked into the house, dumped the mugs in the sink, and rinsed them. He lingered for an instant, thinking of Alicia’s suicide. She’d mixed the rat poison with her coffee. Eladio had found the empty cup on the table, next to a full one, still warm. He’d drunk his coffee, feeling he owed her that much. But nothing happened. She’d left no poison for him. He sat next to her with his legs crossed, cradling her head on his right knee, weeping and stroking her hair. He’d known right then this was the punishment she wanted him to have: to be without the woman who’d loved him from their first encounter at the Ramirez wedding—when she’d worn that inescapable red bow and he his first tuxedo—the woman who’d taken care of him and treasured growing old with him. He had tossed the can of rat poison and the cups, and carried her body into town to the doctor’s office. He wanted everyone to see what he’d done, let them gossip and accuse him. He wanted to wallow in shame, living with the knowledge that he was responsible for his wife’s suicide.

Four years later, Eladio was mostly haunted by the thought that if he’d gotten home twenty minutes earlier, Alicia would still be alive.

On his way back outside, he bumped his leg against the dinner table. He cursed under his breath, shook off the pain, and took careful steps coming out onto the porch.

“Is everything fine?” Domingo asked.

“I’m going blind,” Eladio said, sitting.

“At this age, we all are.”

“You’d figure I’d be able to walk inside my own damn home.”

Domingo chuckled. “The other day I fell flat on my face trying to get on the wagon. Bruised my forehead. Wife told me to be careful, as usual. These things happen. As long as no bones are broken and you can get up, consider it a victory.”

“I’m not used to it, Domingo.”

“If you’re worried, you should see a doctor in Havana.”

Eladio grunted as he slanted forward, resting his forearms on his thighs.

“Griselda says she’s good friends with one.”

“I’m sure she’ll take care of you.”

The breeze kicked up. A flock of birds fled from their nests. Dust-filled wind blew against the men’s faces. Eladio wiped his eyes and said, “Do you think Alicia would’ve liked moving to the city?”

Domingo pulled out two cigars from his breast pocket and gave one to Eladio. He then took out a matchbox and lit both cigars. “I can’t say for sure.”

“I doubt she would’ve left the countryside,” Eladio said. “Stubborn as a mule, that woman.” He looked down and smiled. He could feel the bundling and stretching of dry skin around his mouth and under his eyes.

Domingo said, “That’s what made her so perfect for these fields.”

“She wouldn’t have enjoyed Havana. Her family always had to come to see her. She was the only one who stayed out here when her father passed.”

“It’s a big change, the city.” Domingo chewed on the end of his cigar.

“If I knew how it would end up, I would have never courted Griselda.”

Domingo removed the cigar from his mouth. He walked to the edge of the porch and spit on the ground. “Eladio, don’t do that to yourself. What’s done is done. Look at what’s in your hand now. Take care of Griselda the same way she’s going to take care of you. She’s a good woman, no?”

Eladio looked up and saw lightning in the distance. He was glad he could see it. He waited to hear the rolling thunder, and when he did, he felt thankful for his senses. “Yes, she’s a good woman,” he said.

Eladio had mulled over the possibility that he’d fallen for Griselda exactly for that reason—because, like Alicia, she’d been good to him. So good, in fact, that he’d seen traits of his wife in her. While Griselda’s green eyes, glossy lips and draping brown hair made her attractively foreign to him, a craggy peasant, it was her voice and mannerisms he liked the most—a tenderness she displayed when dealing with him. It reminded him of his modest-looking, kindhearted Alicia. More than fascination with his Griselda’s appearance, he felt comfortable with her. He sometimes had the urge to disclose how her gestures and remarks were just like his wife’s, how he’d considered that they could be sisters. But talking about Alicia was forbidden. That was Griselda’s only rule. Eladio wasn’t sure if she had ever been interested in learning about his wife.

Turning to Domingo, he said, “You know, I never thanked you.”

“For what?”

“For everything.”

“There’s no reason to.”

“You never questioned me.”

“We all make mistakes,” Domingo said. “You’re a good man, and that’s all that matters. My wife says Alicia was lucky to have you. I’m sure Griselda will be too.”

“If only my family thought the same,” Eladio said. Part of him was pleased his friend had used the word “mistakes.”

“In due time,” Domingo said. “Cherish your life with Griselda. Doesn’t she have a family?”

“They live in Villa Clara. She says her life is her neighbors.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy getting acquainted.”

Eladio laughed, then started coughing. Catching his breath, he put out the cigar on the floor.

Domingo said, “I’ll be back in the morning to pick up Alicia’s things and Puma. I’ll give you a ride into town.”

“It’s not much, Alicia’s things. Just what I managed to hide from her family.”

“My wife will appreciate it all the same. I have the hard job. I have to figure out how to make the three dogs get along.”

“I’m going to miss that mutt,” Eladio said. “Loyal as a damn soldier.”

“We’ll feed him well,” Domingo said.

Eladio got up from his chair and shook his friend’s hand. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay until this bad weather’s gone?”

“It’s just a strong breeze,” Domingo said. “And if it rains, then I’ll get wet.” He picked up his hat and walked slowly to his horse. He untied it, hopped onto the front end of his wagon, and commanded the horse to go with a “tsk, tsk, tsk.” Tres Quilos and Tornado strode behind the back wheels.
Eladio considered whether to take a nap, finish packing his belongings, or examine the turbine one last time.

“If it rains, I’ll get wet,” he whispered, and went around to the fenced backyard to get Puma.

* * *

Most of the clouds were gone. The stars and half-moon seemed almost reachable, like a mantle had been thrown over the sky. As a child, Eladio used to count the stars in order to memorize numbers. His father had taught him about constellations, about a group of stars forming a figure. Before his sight had deteriorated, he could see Orion’s Belt on clear nights such as this one. He liked the idea of having a mythical hunter overhead. To him, stars didn’t glimmer from out in space. They were part of the Earth, like the rain, and the soil, and the clouds. Their intermittent glow matched, at times, the chirping of crickets. Not bad company, he often thought, for a man living four kilometers from the closest paved road.

Despite the lack of rain, a pleasant breeze had endured from the afternoon weather. Eladio had opened all his windows and doors, letting the air flow through his home. He’d taken a seat by the front entrance. Puma lay on the floor near him, his head hanging over the top step of the porch. A bright kerosene lamp stood on the windowsill, casting Eladio’s shadow onto the floorboards. He’d already checked the water pump, stashed away his belongings, taken a shower, and eaten. It was a little past ten, yet he didn’t feel like turning in.

A wind gust made his shirt flutter. He inhaled deeply. On the exhale, he decided to pay one last visit to the three Marías. He was too anxious and restless to wait for sleep. He snatched the lamp and went inside. He closed the back door and all the windows and walked to his bedroom. He grabbed the rifle from next to his bed, slung it over his shoulder, then seized a large flashlight from the top drawer of his nightstand. He ran his hand over his thinning hair and threw on his straw hat. Puma was alert and ready by the time he came out and locked the front door.

They moved carefully on the trail, the flashlight pointed a few feet ahead at Puma. The wind changed directions randomly, forcing Eladio to tighten the chin cord of his hat. He heard the trees swaying to his right, muffling the treading of his boots. The butt of his rifle kept banging on his hip, so he secured it against his body with his free hand. His feet and back were beginning to sweat. Accustomed to being in bed by this hour, the hike now felt twice as strenuous compared to the morning.

After some time, Eladio recognized the bent post of an old barb-wired fence. The stable was just up ahead. Once he reached it, he shone the light on the door, and noticed the padlock and chain were gone. He inspected the ground and saw the chain bundled up by the base of the wall. Puma growled, sniffing the small opening beneath the door.

Eladio shoved his rifle under his armpit, held it up with one hand and the flashlight with the other. He ordered Puma to stand aside. He opened the door and scanned the room. Two Marías were missing. Without them, the stable felt cavernous.

“Who’s there,” Eladio said, looking at the partition behind the remaining cow. “Come out, or I’ll put a bullet in your head.” He listened intently for a response, but heard nothing. “If I see you, I’m shooting.”

He hugged the wall and kept the light aimed at the back of the room. He didn’t want to shoot in vain and scare the cow. As he angled himself to see behind the divider, he sensed movement. A big shadow jolted past the muzzle of his rifle. He felt a heavy blow on his chest and jaw. He fell on his side over a cluster of clattering tools, holding on to his weapon and flashlight. Someone stepped on his foot and tottered back. Eladio raised his rifle and fired. A man dropped to a sitting position, gripping his stomach. The cow mooed and banged her body against the partitions. The man, a shadow to Eladio’s eyes, crawled to the wall, heaved himself up, and stumbled out the door.

Puma yelped. Eladio stood up and hurried outside, his straw hat dangling from his neck. He combed the surroundings with the flashlight and saw a silhouette scurrying erratically across the grazing. It leapt in and out of his vision.

“Párate!” Eladio yelled.

The man toppled forward and slumped on the grass with a thud, like a cumbersome sack falling from a truck.

Puma darted by as Eladio entered the field. He followed the dog’s barking all the way to the body. The man was lying face down, gasping. He was holding a machete in his right hand. Eladio removed the machete and turned him over. His shirt was soaked with blood around the stomach. Eladio shone the flashlight on his face and noticed he was young, probably early twenties. He was skinny and clean-shaven, too. He had to be from the city, trying to make money by selling stolen meat. The young man’s eyes were almost rolled back into his head, as if having a seizure. His cheeks and trembling lips were covered in dust.

Eladio pressed his hand against the wound. Blood flowed between his fingers. The young man groaned, made a choking sound, and clutched the grass. His broken breathing became wheezing. Gradually, it stopped. He lay there, motionless. Eladio checked his vital signs. No pulse. He closed the young man’s eyes and sighed. He felt a sharp pain unsettling his bones. He knew that no matter how loud he screamed or how many times he shot into the air, no one would hear him. He got up, flung the rifle across his back, and looked around to make sure the young man was by himself. It was too dark to tell. If he had accomplices, Eladio surmised, they were probably by the south end of the river, in the ditch where thieves liked to dispose of the carcasses. The walk back home, he realized, would be even harder.

* * *

He left the body behind and returned with a wheelbarrow and a garden shovel. The strain on his back and legs had replaced the pain in his bones. He’d forgotten about the cold breeze, the oscillating trees, the difficult distance. He’d held his stride short and precise, his breathing steady. In order to see, he’d clamped the flashlight between the palm of his hand and the right handle of the wheelbarrow. Puma, as always, led the way.

All the while he’d pondered where to bury the young man. He could take him deep into a grove on the side of the path, where the undergrowth was almost impenetrable. He could hack and slash through it, find the smallest of clearings, and dig a shallow grave. Or he could go farther, past the abandoned mill where as a child he’d helped his father work, reaching the muddy edge of the river where the soil was softer. He could make a bigger hole. No one went by those parts, not even the fishermen. He’d already discarded the machete into the dense ditch by the path, where it would rust and bury under fallen leaves, snapped branches, and muck.

Eladio bumped his way to the body with the wheelbarrow. He placed the young man in the tray—head reclined between the handles, arms tucked in, legs sprawled over the front. He pushed the load toward the trail. Puma barked incessantly.

As Eladio shushed the dog, his arms fatigued to the point of numbness. He dropped the cargo. The wheelbarrow’s legs scraped the ground. He collapsed slowly to one side, his knees barely bent, his elbow anchoring the fall. Eladio groaned and cursed. Puma whimpered and licked his face. “I’m fine,” Eladio said, pushing the dog. Luckily the flashlight hadn’t gone out; he could see it casting a halo on his left boot. He looked up at the stars in resignation, and an impulse swelled in him to plead with them.

* * *

A morning fog had settled like a giant cloud across the earth, so close to the ground that it appeared to be stemming upwards, like thick vapor. Eladio, sitting on the front steps of his porch, stared at it in a stupor. The acute lines on his face seemed to be bulging. His mouth was parched, his fingers numb. The bottom of his pant legs was coated in chunks of dry mud, their surface cracked in places. His boots were unrecognizable, much like the mangled flashlight. To his left was the wheelbarrow, the young man’s body scooped in it like a lazy field worker or a drunk. The dirty shovel lay on the ground beside the wheel, Puma’s nose inches from it as he rested under the wheelbarrow’s belly. The air was still, the morning birds quiet. Eladio felt as if he himself were dead.

If asked, he couldn’t say how many steps he had taken toward the river before turning around. He had tried to find the young man’s machete in the tangled vegetation, but only succeeded in lacerating his forearms, scratching his face, and tumbling in mud. He had spent the rest of the night here, watching—listening—for any movement on the path. First he had feared that the boy’s accomplices would come tramping down the road, searching for their friend. He’d locked the rifle in his closet to make sure he wouldn’t use it. Then he worried that they had seen him, that they’d gone to town with a fabricated story to accuse him of murder, and a brief frustration had brewed in him. Then he figured ¿qué más da? He was a bad liar. He couldn’t make up a story. The boy was stealing cows and had charged at him. That was all that mattered. That was all he had to say. He’d given a warning, defended his own life. The town police would understand. They took a peasant’s word to be honest and rarely carried out investigations. In the fields everyone was responsible for themselves; this was an unwritten rule. This boy he had killed should’ve known better. Stealing a cow got you shot, no way around it. It kept shrewd outsiders from taking advantage of hardworking peasants whose land, crops, and livestock weren’t even theirs, who had to deal with the government anytime something went missing. His initial impulse to bury the body had come from the notion that without it there would be no trial. His reunion with Griselda wouldn’t be delayed. He just had to testify that two cows had been stolen and pay whatever penalty the government gave him. The boy wouldn’t be his worst burden, anyway.
But as he had looked at the night sky, as he’d pondered his actions—his age and his cowardice—he had concluded that he’d been gutless enough for one lifetime.

Now, as he waited for Domingo, he envisioned Griselda’s room: the creaky bed with the arched, green headboard, the drawing of a rising sun splattered across it; the sliding closet doors he’d fixed; the round mirror he’d looked into to flatten his hair, to leave no trace of his stay there. Most of all, he remembered the ceiling, high and white, the paint flaking off at the corners. He’d been looking forward to staring at it every night before falling asleep.

Griselda had admitted she’d always wanted to hear someone else’s steps ambling about the house. His snoring in the bedroom would be enough, she had said. It would make up for those years when she’d counted down the days to every other weekend. She’d been patient and undemanding, never asking for more than he’d given her. Eladio had never known nor asked why. Now he wished he’d known. He wished for the opportunity to ask her.

The fog was beginning to dissipate. Puma raised his head and woofed. Eladio turned, saw a solid shadow materializing in the fog and heard a clacking of horseshoes approaching. He looked straight ahead and wondered if Domingo would be willing to sit, wait for the mist to lift so they could contemplate the fields, listen to the birds, watch the sun creep up in the sky. The sound was getting closer: the rolling wheels, the rattling wagon, the trotting of the horse. Eladio remained still, waiting for his friend, thankful that he was not alone.