Inspired by the sad realities of South America's revolutionary past.
|Alejandro's consciousness emerged like a submerged log from the depths of slumber. He slowly opened his eyes, trying to shield them for as long as he could from the glaring stabs of the sun. It was going to be a sunny day, a sweaty day; perfect for toiling the land.
"Simon? Get up, Simon. We are going to be late." He stretched a hand towards his brother's pallet. His fingers met the rough sensation of the straw. "So that lazy bones's already up. I must really be late."
Alejandro stood up and put on his shirt, probing with a finger the depth of his beard. It felt like two days old, maybe more. "That won't do," he murmured. He skipped to the piece of glass he and his brother insisted on calling a mirror, tore out a shard and began to clip the bush on his chin. He blinked at his reflection. That day, Juanita was going to serve the men during the midday break at the Hacienda. He was resolved to make the best of his sweaty impressions on her. "This time I'm going to get you, mi vida" said, removing a leftover of bread from his front teeth. With a whistle, he pried open the door of the shack.
"Simon? Are you here?" Alejandro scanned the yard for any sign of his brother. A chicken turned around and clucked a reply. "That's strange. It's easier to convince a donkey to pray like a good Christian than Simon to go working for Don Batista. Maybe—maybe he's finally decided to grow up." he muttered, picking up his plow from the wall of the shack.
"Simon? Simon? Stop fooling around! We're going to be late!"
"I'm here, brother."
His brother appeared from around a corner, kicking clouds of reddish dust at each step. He stopped right in front of him, clicking his heels together. Alejandro threw a glance at the piece of wood and metal clutched in his brother's hands and shook his head. "A rifle. That's no instrument of toil, Simon. I thought we've been over this."
Simon's gaze pierced him with the sharpness of a rapier. "That's an instrument of freedom, brother. And you can't never be over freedom."
Alejandro leaned on the plow; an invisible force weighing down on his shoulders. "So you have decided to follow that road, then. I knew teaching you to read was a mistake. You've filled your head with all that revolution manure."
"It's sure better than to shovel manure for that Don Batista bastard for the rest of my bloody life."
"Don Batista may be a bastard. But he's our bastard. Our family has served him and his family for generations. And you know why? Because our masters never left us to starve. They have always rewarded us for our work. They're good masters, and we should be thankful."
Simon tightened his grip on the weapon. "Right—because you can really thrive on the crumbs that fall from his table while he's stuffing himself like a damn pig with the fruits of our sweat! It's high time we put him to the slaughter and feed our families with his flesh!"
Alejandro giggled. "Bold words, boy. But I know these aren't your words. That's the rubbish those men of law in the big city write when they're bored, or when their masters don't pay them enough. They make big talk of history and revolution. But It's we, the peons, the poor who have to dirty their hands. The men who read books just dip their pen in our blood to write the next chapter of their great history."
"It's you the one who doesn't understand, Alejandro. You only listen to what Don Batista tells you. Or what the ploughing priests tell you. And what you've got to show, in the end, for all that hard work? This arsehole of a shack and your loser's pride!"
Alejandro's heart thundered."You insolent brat! This shack is what our parents left us!"
Simon looked at him, smirking in defiance."A worthy reward for years of breaking their backs. They've lived kissing the sand, and now they're buried in it!. And you? You're going to rust like your plow! But not for me. No more masters for me. I'm going to join the revolution. And one day, I'm going to tear apart Don Batista limb by limb. And you, and all those who lick his boots like they're coated in honey and not in donkey's shit, are going to thank us for that!"
Alejandro heaved himself up, clutching the handle of the plow as if it was his last hold above the chasm of that insanity. "You don't even know what you're talking about, boy. There'll always be a master, as there's a Lord in heaven. Now, enough with this nonsense. You're just young and naive. I understand boys like heroes. And that hero Raul Miguel De Alvado, or whatever his name is, just deluded you into thinking you can be more than a farmer. Well, you're not, and will never be. Throw that—thing away, and get your plow, or we will be late."
"Is that a request? Or an order?"
Alejandro stared back at his brother, hissing the next words like a rattlesnake. "I am your older brother. You have to obey me for as long as you live. So, yes, that's an order!" A metallic sound reverberated in his ears. Alejandro lowered his eyes and met the gaze dark gaze of a muzzle.
"Didn't you hear me? I don't have masters anymore. Not even you. I'm dead to you. Don't you get it? I'm dead for you, Don Batista, god or whatever else greedy leeches are sucking the soul out of the people in the name of authority. I'm going to get my freedom, right now, with a bayonet, while you slave away tied to your plow."
Alejandro closed his eyes, trying to lose himself in the respite of darkness. Then, he opened them to a new resolve. "So be it," he said, raising the plow over his head.
"What are you—I'll shoot! I'm warning you!"
"Don't be silly. Dead men don't shoot the living." Alejandro put the plow on his shoulder, and strut towards Simon. As he passed by him, he caught a glimpse of the quivering barrel of the gun and looked at the weapon with the same indifference he would've reserved to a rotting branch.
"Hey! Where are you going?"
"I'm going to work, or I'll be late. I also need to inform the undertaker my brother has just died for his freedom. I'm sure Don Batista will be glad to hear there's a mouth less to feed."
And Juanita a man less to serve, he thought.
"I'm finally—," panted Simon, cringing in pain as his breath filled the lungs like a cast of molten lead ", here." He opened his eyes, trying to penetrate the coat of sweat over his pupils. As his sight cleared, he felt no more doubts. That was the place: the Hacienda of Don Batista. It was just like he remembered it: a strip of green that looked as if it had been sewn by God himself on a patchwork of dust and rocks.
"Twenty years," he gasped. Simon could not bring himself to believe nothing had been touched by the ravages of time. And of war. He made out the shape of the master house, still surrounded by rows of corn like a general surveying a battlefield.
"Still a monument to injustice," he muttered.
Clutching the stock of his rifle, he limped along the dirt road that cut through the fields. Swarms of farmers moved back and forth under the watchful eyes of the foremen. "So much bloodshed— yet, here we go again. Poor bastards shedding sweat and tears for their superiors. So long for equality and fraternity."
Simon turned, catching a glimpse of a man running towards him. As he approached, Simon's eye darted to the weapon holster on his belt. His heart squirmed in his chest. Out of instinct, he reached for a pouch on his belt. Empty. He cursed. He forgot they had allowed him to keep his old rifle, but not the means of loading it.
"What's the matter?" asked Simon, in the hope a careful word could solve more than a gunshot.
"Vagrants and beggars aren't allowed here. Get off this property, now!" barked the guard.
Simon stuck his eyes right into the ones of the man. "You know it was beggars who won the revolution for us? This is supposed to be their country now. Their property."
The guard's gaze wavered as if trying to look for justification. "I fought in the revolution too, you've got no right to—," the man's features melted like wax "Wait—General? General La Higuera?"
The name ricocheted in his ears. "I am. Who asks?"
The guard's lips sprouted in a smile "It's me, general. Angelo Mirada! I was one of your men during the assault at the government's barracks. Do you remember? We took the artillery, and that won the day!"
"Yes—Yes! I remember now. It's been such a long time. What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same, general."
"I used to work here."
"And I work here now."
"You work for Don Batista?"
"Yes, the master of the Hacienda".
The guard scratched his chin. "I work for Don Alejandro, general. I know nothing of a Don Batista."
Simon felt his breath flee the lungs. "What did you say?"
"Here we are, general. Do you wish me to introduce you?"
Simon shook his head and looked at the main door shining under the midday sun like a slab of salt. He tried to stretch a hand towards it but felt his muscles were unable to comply.
"Is something wrong, sir?"
"No, nothing wrong. Rest, soldier. You've still got a long day—," Simon clutched the handle, "and life ahead of you."
With a last salute, the man returned to his duty. "Alejandro the master of this house—" Simon whispered. He mustered his courage and opened the door, trying to brace himself for the impact with that unthinkable reality.
His skin tickled as the dim light of the interior swallowed his body. A string of sounds coming from further inside caressed his eardrums. He followed the trail in the air, taking cover from wall to wall out of a hardened habit. The music became louder until he reached the entrance of what seemed to be a study. He closed his eyes, grabbed the rifle butt and threw himself in the room.
The music stopped. Simon's eyes opened and he found himself before a little girl, sitting in front of a piano. Her fingers froze in mid-air like little icicles. The amazement on her face melted in a mask of terror. He felt a shadow leap out of his blind spot and swirled the gun at it.
"Who are you? Raise just a single finger on her, and I'll gut you like a pig!"
Simon's eyes focused on the features of the woman before him. Under a heavy make-up, her wrinkles made her skin look like a piece of parchment that told him a story of long days spent under the merciless blows of the sun. Simon looked down and caught the glint of a blade pointed at his groin.
"Isabella? Why did you stop? It was a beautiful piece."
Simon's muscles hardened. He turned, as a figure emerged from the shadows of another room. His tongue froze like a dead fish in his mouth. "Alejandro?" The man threw him a glance.
"Juanita, dear. Take the child away. I've got— business with him." She obeyed and took the girl's hand, retreating out of the room.
The memories of his older brother seemed to fit the image before his eyes like the wrong pieces of a puzzle. Alejandro's clothes were a far cry from his rags. His beard, that once had looked like goat's fur, now looked as it had been trimmed to perfection by the best scissors money could buy. The older brother approached a cupboard. Simon heard his instinct screaming danger to every fiber of his body.
"Take a seat. You surely must be tired after walking all those miles from the capital."
Alejandro turned and Simon felt the grip on his gun and heart loosening. "Here. That's Irish Whiskey, you know? Good stuff. Not good like a Tequila, but good stuff. It's good for you. Or, as those fops at the club say, it has the 'most restorative effect'. They have such a way with words, those lawyers with all their books."
His old brother nodded, showing him to a little table where he put down the bottle and two glasses. He filled both up and offered one to Simon. "I think you should put that thing down, first. Or you might spill your whiskey as well as my blood."
Simon looked at the rifle and let it slide down on the floor. Alejandro forced the glass into his fingers and gulped his in one shot.
You were--- expecting me?"
Alejandro's lips opened in a slice. Simon felt a shiver. The brother's teeth were still rotten as logs to the core, but the way he coated his phony refinement was something he reminded him of the moneyed nobles of the capital.
"We've got a free press now, don't we? There's not one in the country who isn't aware of the fact Simon La Higuera; the great general and hero of the revolution, is now out of jail. But--- I don't read that trash. One of my peons told me. News flies fast these days."
Simon took a sip, gritting his teeth as the alcohol scorched his tongue like gasoline on a field of grass. He was no longer used to that stuff. They had been serving too much water to him in the cell. "Not fast enough. What's this travesty, brother? Where's Don Batista?"
Alejandro poured himself another glass. "Ah! That's a good one! Me and the others have been asking ourselves the same thing for sixty years." His older brother raised his glass and gulped down the amber liquid. "Right after you, 'Revolutionaries' took power Don Batista packed and ran, leaving all his immobile properties behind. How can we blame him? Weren't you the one who told me the revolution was coming to skin him? Now he's probably up north with the Gringos. Or maybe shoveling dirt in Africa. Or perhaps under a bed of dirt. I really don't know, nor I care."
"You didn't answer my question."
Alejandro poured himself another drink. "Well, you know what? You were at least right about one thing: we didn't need him as master. So, after he left, we peons, sharecroppers, manure-shovelers or whoever else was still with us in those days decided to occupy the Hacienda. Oh boy! Those were the days! We stuffed ourselves with his food, sucked his cellar dry, danced drunk from sundown to sunset in his great ball chamber. But, you know how those things work. Don't you, general? Wasn't it what you went fighting for? Giving the workers the fruits of their own labor?"
Simon found himself incapable of forcing out a single word. Alejandro smirked, pouring him a shot of Whiskey, followed by another for himself. Simon felt a nauseous miasma coming up from his stomach and turned the glass away.
Alejandro drank from his glass, then picked up Simon's. "The thing went on for days, weeks, or maybe more. But then—" A sad expression surfaced on his brother's face as he shook the bottle ", by then the food was all eaten. All the wine was drunk. Many left in search of other places to raze. Only me, Juanita, and some others stayed. Then, the news that the land was to be given to the people came. And we took it. And we did exactly the same thing we'd been doing for generations: we worked it. And we found out we were very good at working it, even without orders. And I discovered my talent at selling its products while ripping off the customers. So the news flew fast. Soon people started calling me Don Alejandro. And I liked it. And I thought I deserved it. I deserved all of this."
Alejandro put down the bottle on the table. "You were right. We didn't need no master. But I was even more right. Because there is always going to be a master. And that master, now, it's me. Just like as there are new masters occupying the ministries in the capital. They know that the revolution is just a shovel of manure thrown into the plaza. But in the end from that manure, the same kind of plants grow up. Only you still don't get it. And that's why you ended up in jail."
Alejandro patted his waistcoat and pulled out two cigars. "Because all that it takes to do a revolution is guts. But then, to run a country, or a farm, you need pesos; you need money! And so, the great Raul Miguel De Alvado, your commander in chief and hero of youth, started taking money from the gringos. And with that money, he built casinos to get their green leaves. That is a smart move. But wait! The true stroke of genius was to blame you, and other poor sods like you, for that! What were the accusations? Oh, yes! treason, conspiracy, bribery! You hit the doors of the prison even before you realized what'd hit you in the arse!"
"That son of a bitch—"
"Remember, little brother: you left your home to follow that son of a bitch. I warned you on that day, didn't I? Only yokels like you could truly believe in equality. But not him. Because he reads books, you know? He knows people are not equal. He knows he can't let other people stand shoulder to shoulder now that he's got the power. First, it's rise up, oppressed! Then, after you no longer need them and you're in power, it's duck, you suckers!"
Simon bit his hand, trying to stop it from reaching his weapon. "Then I guess you're smart too, aren't you? Now that you're the master of all this. How many books have you read?"
Alejandro smiled, taking a book from a nearby bookcase. Laughing, he ripped a page and used it to light his cigar. His rotten teeth flashed red as the flame reached the tip. "You see all these books? I haven't read a single one of them. But you can't even imagine how many ploughing lawyers I can afford to hire!"
Simon clenched his fists on his thigs. He felt a silhouette under the fabric. His old knife. Just one second. A quick slit and his brother's derision would drown in a gurgle of blood. The little girl's eyes flashed out of his conscience, stopping his resolve like the tip of a bayonet pointed at his chest.
Alejandro's stared at him."You're dead, brother. You told me. I know it to be true. You died for the revolution. You died for all of this. But, from your carcass, something good grew for my family. And now, I know I'm in your debt for that. For that, I want to give you a second chance of coming back to the fold— if you're willing to pick up the plow again, and finish that work you never started twenty years ago." He chuckled. "You still know how to use a plow, don't you?"
Simon widened his eyes. "What do you mean?"
Alejandro giggled. "How silly of me. Of course, you know how to plow. You've become an expert at it. Because, what was it? Oh, yes! 'Those who served the revolution, have ploughed the sea'"