BURNING SAND

By Barbara Dutton

The old mule plodded along over the dusty road, kicking up little clouds of dust.  The sun drew close down to the barren hills.  A cool breeze curled around us and whispered that night was coming.

Pedro bounced sleepily up and down on the mule’s back, waking from his daze at the evening song of a bird.  I could see the longing in his eyes for the days when birds always sang.

Trees were few and far between on the desert, and night was welcome after a long march in the ceaseless sun.  This was not our first day nor would it be the last.

Keeanto was our only mule and he was old.  The walking was hard, and often I lay curled in my blanket beneath the stars, sobbing because of the ache in my feet.  And momma

would bring a piece of leather soaked in cactus water and press it to my blistered soles.

Poppa and Emanuel talked often at night of the planes that passed high over our heads, day and night, and of the soldiers who had come to our house that night, dressed in brown uniforms with guns, and made my momma give them all our food.  But my momma was smart and hid some.  The next day we left with our belongings and with the only mule they left us, Keeanto. We often came upon old men and women left on the road to die.  I wanted to stop and give them some of my bread or corn cake, but Momma would not have it.  Once when I offered a piece of bread to a little old woman, she didn’t seem to see me standing silently in the darkness, holding the bread out.  I cleared my throat.  She started up and cried out, “You have come for me at last” then sighed and sank to the ground.  I saw, as she lay on the ground, that one eye was gone and the sockets of her eyes in her mutilated face were empty.

Momma ran to me, scolded me and led me back to the mule.  I started to speak but momma said, “No little one, you must not ask.  You will find out soon enough.”  We came upon many people in the night.  I didn’t sleep.

The great silver planes came over us oftener each day.  I had learned not to ask questions and accepted them as another part of my life.  It was not until one day they came over that I found out. It was bright and cloudless.  The gates of San Juan loomed up before us.  Then drone of planes reached us.  We had grown used to it and did not hurry to get within the gates.  A whistle sounded through the clear air.  Some men rushed out of the town and hurried us in through the gates into a tunnel that led under ground.  Then the bombs fell.

Pedro screamed.  At each blast the shelter shook and sent my heart into my throat.  The static sound of machine guns sputtered.  Shells burst all around us.  I cringed close to Emanuel.. Momma held Pedro clutched close to her and Poppa sat silent and unmoving.  The screech and blast of the bombs seemed to fall deaf on his ears.  “Momma,” I asked after they had gone, “What was it? Why did they come?” Planes and guns, little ones,” she whispered.  “And Nazis.”  She almost spat the last words.

It was then I learned what planes were for, and it was then I learned to hate.

Nights after that became worse and worse, Poppa kept on going.  Our money low finally, we had to barter our goods for food.  We passed from town to town and learned of famine and slaughter of our people, not only by word of mouth. We saw it.

Pedro became suddenly sober and mature; he rarely smiled.  I must have changed myself.  Pedro would sit on Keeanto and not speak for hours.  In his sleep he whimpered and sometimes woke, screaming.

The third week we were ambushed.  Five hungry Nazis jumped us from the bushes.  We were all asleep.  They shot my father before he could stir from his blanket.  I grabbed a pistol from one of the Nazis and shot him in the back before he could do anything.  He dropped his other gun and Emanuel picked it up.  The others had run off with Keanto.  It was too late to run after them.

We buried Poppa and continued on to San Redulo, barefoot, for our huaraches had worn out.

The nights grew colder.

My uncle”s house was large and right in the middle of San Redulo.  He was very rich but not all the money in the world could buy food when there was none.  We lived on plain beans and black bread.  Occasionally Momma would barter with farmers’ wives and get a pepper or pimento to make sauce for the beans.

Pedro grew weak and came down with T.B. from drinking bad water. The main water line from the mountain springs had been cut off by the lighting, and the only water obtainable was river water.

I made friends quickly with the boys in the town.  They told me stories of pilgrimages to the mountains by older boys for water and medicine and to drive out the Nazis.  They told me how they came back, half dead from starvation and torture.  Many never came back at all.

Then one night Emanuel came to me when I was in my bed.  He frightened me at first.  I didn’t know who he was.  He had on old peasant clothes and wore a fake beard.

I knew before he told me where he was going.  He leaned close to me.

“Little brother,” he said,” I must go to the mountains.”  His voice broke, then he continued, “You must—If I don’t come back—you must take care of Momma and Pedro.”

The moon dipped from behind a cloud, round and full.  We were both silent.  The moonlight filled Emanuel’s eyes; the tears shimmered and fell.  He shook my hand gravely and slipped into the night.

Weeks passed and no news of him came to me.  At night I heard Momma crying and in the day she was tight lipped and silent.  Pedro’s fever grew steadily worse.  Others felt sick, too. Momma sat up at night with Pedro.  Three weeks after Emanuel left, Pedro died.  He died and there was peace on his face.  The last words he spoke as his eyes closed were, “Yes, Poppa, I come”

My uncle, my momma, and many of the townspeople buried Pedro the next morning.  After everyone had gone, I kneeled down by his grave. The fresh earth smelled sweet and clean. A small bird sat on the small headstone, cocking his head from side to side.  I swore by every breath Pedro had drawn that I would avenge him.

 

When I got back to my uncle’s house, everyone was crowded around our door.  I squeezed through them.  Lying on the ground before our door was a boy, a young boy of seventeen or eighteen.  Momma held a flask to his lips and he drank.  I saw his face, a long gash slit it from ear to chin.  One eye was shut tight, puffed and black.  Pus oozed from his cracked hands caked with blood and dirt.  His lips were swollen until he couldn’t speak. While my heart was wrenched with pity, my stomach heaved within me; I thought I would be sick and turned my head away quickly!  He motioned to my mother for paper and charcoal (we had no pen or ink.)  When she came, he took it and painfully wrote the following in Spanish: “Nazis cut out my tongue.  Others are dead but two. They not come.” Momma gasped, “Emanuel” and sank to the ground.  We carried her into the house.

The boy that brought the news was from a small village on the outskirts of San Redalo.  I mounted one of my uncle’s mules and rode to the boy’s house.  It was a small hut.  I

knocked on the door and was admitted into a dark room.  A tiny window was the only light.  As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I saw my host or rather hostess. She was small,  to match the house.  She had large wistful eyes, eyes red rimmed from crying.  A little girl came and stood beside her.  We stood in bashful silence.  At last the woman said very calmly, “You’ve come to tell me Juan is dead; I was expecting it. Many weeks I have heard nothing.  He is dead; that’s why you’ve come.” Again there was a long silence. I didn’t know what to tell her.  She might faint.  She might cry all over me.

I said, “He has come.” She looked at me unbelieving.  “He has been through much; he is being brought here now.  He is alive.”

I felt a lump in my throat.  If only someone would say Emanuel is alive.

Riding back along the road, I thought of the little old woman, how she knelt, her eyes raised to heaven, her wrinkled hands clasped on her breast, a silent prayer on her trembling lips, how the afternoon sun had poured through the window on her grayed hair.  Th child by her side had suddenly seemed, in the shadows, to have a wreath of light around her head, like a dark-haired angel.

The mule’s feet fell in rhythm on the sandy road.. E-man-u-el, E-man-uel.  I pulled my sombrero down over my eyes, that the crimson sun might not see my tears.

Emanuel has not yet returned.  But I know he shall.  And when he does, either in  body or in spirit, it shall be when the sword of war has been cut from the enemy’s hand and smelted into the holy bells of freedom.

Posted in: 1943 Stories

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