by Stu Gillam
This is part three of my novella. Get a chance to meet Pico.
Producers of the Grijalva Leaf
In the early evening hours, when shadows have reached their peak and begin slowly to recede under the onslaught of darkness, one is treated to an orchestral symphony of sound. It's the chorus of nature, who’s players take the form of the various nocturnal creatures filling the jungle.
One is soothed by the scraping together of untold numbers of cricket limbs; the sing-song, alto chirp of the smallest of chitin legs providing treble, together in concert with the low, guttural bassoon produced by the larger species, that steady, constant hum which provides bottom for the movement. Their combined harmonic melody establishes the dominant tonic of the piece—that familiar racket so synonymous with the night. Additional virtuosos add their voicing to the composition: The rustling, staccato movements on the jungle floor produced by predators seeking prey, and the frantic, scurrying counter synch of prey seeking refuge; a myriad of dogs spread across the valley barking hard and loud, their shrill notes cutting through the air like a high gain Marshall amplifier turned to eleven—a percussive rhythm providing accents to the piece; the wind currents gently sweeping across the terrain and massaging the canopy of trees high above, providing a steady chordal accompaniment with which to woo whatever heavenly angels may be about on their missions of mercy.
All these various sections come together to create a continuous volume of tropical background noise.
That night, this music filled the ether in the region surrounding the village of Manillo. It filled the ears of Miguel’s only child, Pico, as he carried his axe to the far corner of the yard—though that sonic serenity barely registered in his mind, so common and familiar was it to him.
He knelt down before the trunk of a tree which had been cut down some years before, only its gnarled stump left above ground. Its tenacious network of roots, which still held it firmly to the earth, was his focus. He'd been tasked by Maria to, once and for all, remove it from the yard—or rather, to at least unlock it from the ground by taking his axe to the root system. It was in the way of her vegetable garden’s expansion, and soon, with its removal, that ground would be seeded with pepper and tomato plants.
As far as Pico was concerned, this was a fine and noble task. Certainly that night, there was no whining or procrastinating, for this wasn't any old clean up chore, or housekeeping drudgery, but rather a manly job, one requiring a strong hand and a sharp blade. The kind of task a kid could sink his teeth into, or his axe. At least that's how he felt about it when his mother had issued her orders. He'd stuck his chest out proudly, feeling excited to have this responsibility stowed upon him—not to mention how much FUN it was going to be wielding his axe like a wild man. Oh, yeah, baby, this is gonna be so friggin’ cool!
As for Maria, well, the woman had many talents, many besides her incredible skill in cooking; and that of motherhood and child rearing were not lost on her. She could instill pride and confidence in her son better than any, and indeed, a fine man he would become in later years, thanks, in part, to her skill and love.
She left him then to his task, a knowing smile on her face as she went to search for her pepper and tomato seeds.
At ten, Pico was a stout young lad, his muscles well toned for his age. He was not a stranger to hard work, for his parents had instilled in him a strong work ethic early on. He’d come to tolerate the insufferable chores put upon him. It could even be said that through the accomplishment of this work, ponderous though much of it may be, he began to gain self respect, confidence, that which comes naturally from doing a job well done. He accepted his work load stoically, and in time, became comfortable with the daily routine of his chores, if not overly enthusiastic.
Such as it were, he could feel his body developing rapidly. With all his work related physical activity, along with the intake of hardy nutrients from his mother’s kitchen—which he scarfed down like a starving pack wolf emerging unto the spring thaw ravenous —he would manage to grow strong and healthy, despite how poor they were.
He’d been blessed with charming good looks, looks which would insure him in the coming years a rewarding magnetism felt by many a young village girl, not to mention a few of their mothers as well. In later years he would put these virtues to good use. After sowing a goodly amount of oats, he'd come to marry a good woman and start a family of his own. And he would smoke many fine cigars, cigars produced from all around the world and of the most exotic blends to be found.
Although, he would never smoke a Grijalva! But we get ahead of ourselves.
A wasp buzzed close by his head as it patrolled close to the stump. Pico swatted at it clumsily with his axe which seemed only to anger it more. It dove and swooped down at his head a few times before it flew off, finally giving up it's territory to the giant invader. Pico lost sight of it, did not see it leave, and feeling suddenly queasy—thinking it had nested in his hair—brushed his hair vigorously with his hands to extract it.
His mane was black and coarse, it’s sheen vibrant when the tropical sunshine was upon him, and it sprouted from his head in thick, youthful abundance, framing his angular, Meso-American features in dark outline. It was cut by his mother because they were poor, and it would not bother her, nor even surprise her, if you were to tell her that she was a terrible barber. Unlike her cooking and Mothering skills, she direly lacked in this particular talent. For the poor boy was obliged to wander the village with hair often clipped unevenly, and sometimes butchered beyond reason. This gave him an unruly and wild appearance, he knew, but he ran with it as best he could. Yet it did little to diminish his handsomeness, and actually added further to his virile, boyish appeal in the hearts of his female peers.
He put his long, sturdy axe on the ground beside the stump. If ever a young boy’s talent in wielding an axe was greater than his, it was not by much. Pico had been swinging that axe since he was four. He knew the proper care and handling of it, knew how to sharpen it to a razors edge; knew how to re-fasten the axe head had it become loose, or replace it completely if need be. His father had taught him well.
It had grown extremely comfortable in his hands over the years. He loved the tactile sensation of the smooth handle as its heavy, steel head bit into wood—or some ill fated play toy belonging to another child. He savored the power he felt when swinging the axe from high above his head. Like a pro, he swung it correctly: his left hand gripping the shaft tightly at the bottom for power and control, his right hand positioned up near the head, then sliding down along its length, guiding its aim as it swished through the air until both hands met at the bottom and drove the blade home. Thwonk! Though he was still but a child, he felt Godlike with his ability to rework, to change the appearance of, or just plain destroy things around his home with it, as young boys are want to do. It was by his own fine work, under the watchful eye of Miguel, that the tree who's very remains he now knelt before had been proudly felled two years earlier.
He worked with his hands in the rich soil. Soon much of the earth surrounding the stump had been removed in a pile to his left, and he continued digging with focused tenacity around the various roots to separate them out and prepare them for hacking. To simply dig the roots out of the ground would mean ripping a hole in the yard that stretched nearly to the house. Such was the hold of that old man stump. No, Pico knew his axe must be put to use, and he would have it no other way.
The cool, damp earth felt good to his touch, it’s clay-like texture making it easy to gather up in clumps and deposit beside the stump. What he didn’t like—in fact, hated—were the numerous worms and grubs and beetles he came across, which slithered grossly against his fingers. Most of the legged insects were merely a nuisance which he flicked away without regard, but the earthworms, and especially the grubs, with their sickly white pallor and fat, bloated bodies, disgusted him beyond words. They seemed like such useless, lowly creatures to him, slothful and worthless.
At ten, he was mindless of the benign nutritional benefits the worms yielded upon the soil, but even had he known, it’s doubtful he would have had any serious change of heart, his disgust for them so complete in manner. To be sure, it was not merely disgust that he felt, but something more keen. It was repulsion, a peculiar hate for them, a total disrespect for the creatures. Yet these feelings weren’t anything he dwelled on obsessively, but rather only entertained when in their presence—like now.
In a strange sense, something he'd never really been able to put a finger on, he characterized them as enemy! He differentiated that status from all other insects and creatures; set it apart as something more of a personal nature, something with a heavier meaning. Yet he didn’t know why that was the case, or even why he distinguished their enemy status over and beyond the repulsion and hate, nor did he really care. But again, to say he dwelled upon such things would be telling a lie. At ten, he was too immature to get his head around any lofty ideas concerning... what? Some inbred hatred rearing its ugly head? An instinct causing him to despise these creatures far more than others? The boy’s mind didn’t work like that. All he knew was that they were vile, and it was pleasurable to stamp them out.
These, he plucked carefully from around the roots as he came across them and placed in a pile to his right. Every so often, he glanced at this growing, squirming pile of worms, basking in the knowledge that soon, a miserable fate would befall them.
An hour later—while his father was at that very moment being acquainted with the magic of Grijalva Leaf at Quoquerdas’ shop—the stump, every last root hacked and unattached, was finally free to be removed and discarded. That would be a job requiring his father’s help, for the stump was no lite thing. For now, his work was finished.
Covered in dirt, Pico backed away from the stump, his trusty axe held dangling over his shoulder. He felt satisfied with himself, a job well done. He stood there a moment, wiped sweat from his brow, and considered what fun lay ahead. He eyed the pile of worms and grubs which had grown quite large, and spit on them. His first thought was to use the axe, to chop and slice and dice like there was no tomorrow. But he’d heard that worms could continue living, even after cut in two. He needed something better, something more potent, something more SPECTACULAR!
Under his breath, he reviled them with words no ten year old boy should know, until finally a scheming smirk came across his face as he settled on a plan; and the thought of it filled him with wanton felicity.
He moved quickly across the yard and headed directly to his father’s small shed. He laid his axe against the wall, then retrieved a gallon container half filled with gasoline, and a box of stick matches. He then returned to the gross, slimy pile of worms. “Damn you... you disgusting fucks! You won’t live long in MY yard!" Pico yelled. “What could God have been thinking when he created you worthless shits?” Righteously, he twisted the cap off the gas can.
Without further hesitation, he doused the slithering worm pile with gasoline. Moonlight, just barely arching over top of the tree line, provided a silvery, milky glow to the night’s character. Diffused though it was, the scant light coalesced on the hides of the slimy, gas drenched worms, and their multitudinous segments reflected the soft light back to Pico’s eyes with enhanced illumination. The squirming pile glistened sickeningly in the soupy moonlight; a thousand tiny stars wiggling upon the ground. The pile was shocked into a dance of agitated torment as the irritation and fumes of the gasoline assaulted them. Pico hissed sadistically to himself.
He watched them writhe in agony, mildly hypnotized by their desperate plight set at his own hands. Soon after, he capped the container and removed it as far away as he could, then returned and struck a match blazing into life. He stood there a second, his shadow dancing across the gathering of worms at his feet, and he cherished the moment more so than was rightly called for.
Was this a fault in his character? Was it the beginning of some sickness within him, some manifestation of evil in his heart which obliged him towards cruelty to animals? Or worse, the beginning of some degenerate psychosis which threatened to slowly reveal itself as he grew older, a malicious, bloody rage shattering and ruining lives around him?
Or was it something entirely different? Something born of instinct? A defense mechanism instilled in the blood of his ancestors, some vestigial heredity set forth long ago in pursuit of suing over some ancient injustice? Was it perhaps a trait carried through the eons upon the very blood which now coursed strong through his veins?
A moment later, he threw the match onto the mound of ill fated annelids. An eruption of flame burst to life, accompanied by the sounds of popping and sizzling; a song uplifting Pico’s soul to heights of joyous celebration, heard only by him. The flames lit the whole corner of the yard with bright red light, contrasting that section greatly from the rest of the yard far enough away to remain in the grip of darkness. Ochre colored shadows raced and tumbled out behind the blazing inferno, all along the fence and skittered on the ground, making the shadows of Maria’s garden, with its tall support poles and large irregular shaped stems, come alive in a tangle of wicked movement. This dance of shadows made Pico feel as if he were not alone, as if various ghouls and demons and ghosts had awaken throughout the yard to share in this viewing of the macabre.
So large and intense became the fire that a few of its fingers leaped out and licked what bark remained on the old stump, singeing it to black charcoal before diminishing enough to let the dead relic be. The worm pile, almost an entity unto itself, churned and slithered violently as fire seared larval flesh with a malevolence matched only by Pico’s hate for his enemy. The earthworms and grubs began curling up into balls, black and charred, agonizing in their death throws. Pico watched this mini conflagration with supreme satisfaction, his spirit both soothed and buoyed by the hiss and crackle of their bodies as the flames consumed them, until, slowly, it died away, fading into a dull red glow of embers.
Pico smiled. His work was done. His enemy was defeated, his soul assuaged. “All done, Mom.” he called out, his voice adding another voicing to the evening’s symphony.