Last week’s column here snagged some readers’ curiosity. Campesino vocabulary –1950s, ‘60s – changed a lot, courtesy of U.S. war vets. They migrated to Mexico, bringing a fresh Spanish vocabulary to rural Mexico. Example: Lysander Kemp’s essay regarding Jocotepec/Nextipac appeared in Issue Six, 1955, of the much applauded “Discovery” literary magazine. Kemp also was the unparalleled translator of Octavio Paz’s ground-breaking biography of Mexico, “The Labyrinth of Solitude.” Meanwhile …
Ten-year-old Lena Cureil came close to weeping when her adoptive father, Toño Curiel took away her pistol – for safety’s sake, a “reason” she wondered about. Stolidly, silently she turned to her curve-bladed field machete. She bound its metal handle in tight calf leather so it firmly fit her grasp. The hefty, curved blade she sharpened carefully, slowly, until Toño said he could shave with it. But before this, Lena spent hours learning to throw the blade with snappish accuracy that planted it in marked tree trunk targets from various distances. This showed her how the blade of the machete had to be shaped – width and length. And by filing it to fit such a flight, the slimmed blade fit an accurate tumble through the air, so narrowed that it fit the trajectory formed by her ten-year-old arm.
She learned to throw while riding at different speeds and angles. Toño began to feel guilty about taking away her pistol. But they both agreed that she wouldn’t have become so skilled with her machete if she’d kept the pistol.
But Lena didn’t forego the “truth” that at some point – in a life lived in a well-armed society, she said – her family would need the usefulness her pistol presented.
Most believed the machete too awkward for her. Said she was “showing off.” They missed the machete’s crafty lightness. Unsurprisingly, Toño admired its protective cleverness.
Then abruptly, surprisingly life changed. Acquaintances on a distant ranch sent a youngster with a well-sealed message. Chela, Lena’s mother, had accidentally been found. She’d wandered into a nearby pueblo in beaten, fearful condition. She was terrified by anyone who approached her. She was described as hysterical, needing food, yet refusing help from strangers. She would barely take water from strangers – meaning everyone she met. “Help needed. Hurry,” the note said. “Bring doctor.”
The story the Curiel family told was that Lena’s father had an early morning run-in with four men driving off several Curiel horses from the potril. A quick shoot-out errupted. Later the Curiels decided Eladio, Lena’s father, either knew them fairly well, or else never even saw them. His body, found just inside the portril’s gate, still had his pistol inside his belt. It had not been fired, had not been touched. Toño believed he knew the men who shot Eladio.
Lena’s mother, an active young woman, good-naturedly dueled with her husband about Lena’s name. He wanted to name her Severiana – a feminine form of his grandfather’s first name. She wanted to name her daughter after an aunt. It was a family, often humor-tinged duel.
The birth of their daughter was an easy one, attributed to the mother’s active physical habits. She was a good horsewoman, always adept with livestock.
According to the letter, things had grimly changed.
A doctor and a bruja – both family friends – prepared to go with several members of the Curiel clan – all armed – to bring Lena’s abused mother home. When she could travel was unknown. Astonishingly, the letter implied she had grown reluctant to come home.
“Child,” Toño said, employing a word he seldom used with Lena. “Your mother is in very bad shape. We must be very careful with her. Entiendes? Understand?” He put his hand to her cheek. She blinked. “There’s nothing wrong in crying about something like this,” he told her.
“Should I go with the others?”
“No. These people say she is having a hard time deciding to come home. We don’t want to force her to do things that are painful, but unnecessary.”
“Will I be painful for her?”
“We don’t know, child. We have to find how badly she’s been hurt. What they did to her,” he said. “In here.” Toño touched his chest.
Lena turned her face away. Finally, she said. “Are you going?”
“I don’t know. I have to talk to the doctor, the bruja. And these people who have her with them now. I want to go. But it isn’t what I want that is important.”
“What did they do to her?” Lena said. “Can she ...?” Lena didn’t know how to say it.
”Recover?” he said. “Probably not even she knows that right now.”
“What did they do? I need to know what it was? How bad?”
“A female should tell you that. Not me.”
“But I don’t know that any of the others will tell me the truth. They will try to protect me from her ... What? Her pain!? An experience she will hate? Forever? Pain and hate are the right words, no?”
“Those are the right words.”
Lena sighed. Blinked some tears. “They held her, no?”
“Yes. They would have. And beat her when she resisted.”
“Why would they do that? Want to do that to my true mother?”
“They are sick. Doctors say they hate women for some reason. They want to show they are superior. Quien sabe? Who knows for sure? They are people who like evil.”
“How terrible they are. I want to take after them with my machete.” She looked at Toño.
“With my pistol.”
“Would that make you like them?”
“No! My mother was an innocent person. They are not.”
[This is the third of a series]