By Tess Almendarez Lojacono —
He crammed his hands deep in his blue jean pockets, leaving only smooth, brown forearms exposed for the mosquitoes to feast upon. Then, lying in the dark, eyes and lips pressed tight, he willed himself not to cry.
I am a man now. Eleven next month. Papa said—no.
No. He wouldn’t think of Papa or the ranch, his mare, her foal.
A perfect pair, Papa had said. Now gone. All gone.
He forced his sob into a cough to fool the other men.
Tomorrow I will find a hat, an old beat up thing with a brim wide enough to hide the trails these tears leave.
He rubbed his cheek against a dirty shoulder, stiffened, welded himself into a tool as strong as the steel bed of the truck on which he lay.
I am a man. I am tough. I am determined.
This is better, he told himself. Better to be on his own, with no Paco to elbow him in their shared bed, no little sisters, up and down all night with their bad dreams, pleas for water or for his hand, the closest thing they had to Papa now.
His stomach growled.
At least Mama will have food for them in the morning.
He’d left his supper uneaten again, cold beans in the pot, a few tortillas.
They called him Mosquito for his size and his quickness, wiry but not particularly strong. The next crop was oranges. He’d have to pick those when the cotton was done, climbing with a bag slung across his blistered back, reaching farther and farther, moving the ladder again and again, his load growing heavier with each hard won fruit.
How will I do it? I hardly keep up now…
The children wouldn’t go to school this year. Mosquito frowned.
They must have shoes.
There was no dress code, just one rule: the rule of shoes. And this year they had none at all, no hand-me-downs or cast-off flip-flops, no trash barrel sneakers, only the old boots Mosquito must wear to protect his aching feet.
The girls will not show their disappointment and Paco won’t care, but it will break poor Mama’s heart.
He squirmed a little, rubbed his shoulder blades against the rough truck bed. It was a worry, but nothing to be done about it. He couldn’t earn more money if he didn’t grow bigger, and to do this he must both eat and sleep. But when Mosquito ate, he knew Paco went without and this worry was what kept sleep away…
He smiled at the thought of his little brother. They used to play together on the old mule, until they were bucked off and Paco broke his arm. Mama made Papa sell the mule the very next day! And then, when they were old enough to ride the horse they had the brilliant idea to go hunting with Papa’s rifle…
What a spanking! Papa said to Mama, must I sell the rifle now? And they’d laughed. When Mama and Papa laughed together it was like all the angels in heaven were smiling—no.
No. He wouldn’t think of that either. He would not cry again.
Mosquito pulled a hand from his jean pocket, quickly wiped it across his face and thrust it back in again. If he didn’t sleep—Mama said to pray.
Pray always, Paco. Pray for family, friends, enemies–everyone.
And our ranch? My horse?
Ah, si, she’d smiled.
Mosquito had prayed hard that he’d get his own horse, a swift horse with a star upon her head. He prayed quietly, he prayed aloud. He prayed even in his sleep. And it worked! Papa said the mare was to be his. He named her Star.
Papa promised we would ride together, survey the ranch from end to end. And then we found out Star would foal! Papa showed me how to care for her and when the time came, we delivered her a strong, upright foal. Even Mr. White said she was perfect. And the next day his foreman with the glittering tooth, saw something suspicious on the windmill—he claimed it was an accident; Mr. White called it a shame—and in the next breath he said we must leave…and Mama’s eyes were stormy, when she answered, first Papa must be properly buried in the garden, next to the child.
And when I looked at her, she told me to pray.
I said, for Papa?
Mama shook her head. You know.
For that villain who shot Papa? Not him. Never him!
Especially for him, Mosquito. Papa is in heaven, but what of that man’s soul?
Mosquito frowned. He could not pray for such a man! Hot tears of anger stung his eyelids now…
Mama asks so little—but this…he swallowed one more time.
When Mama couldn’t sleep she’d start a rosary. He dislodged his hand again, furtively crossed himself. “For my father’s soul,” he murmured, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…”
Finally sleep came, underneath a Texas sky. The other migrant workers, sweaty, heaped men, had long been chortling and puffing in their slumbering way. Mosquito didn’t hear them anymore. He had left them far behind…
In his dream the sun was shinning brightly. Mosquito reached for his father’s hand, smiled into the granite face that returned his look with one of anticipation. They were walking on a familiar road, sharp stones and dried earth pricking their bare feet. He squinted into the distance. There was a house, a ranch, far away, resting on the horizon. Gentle heat waves made the vista shimmer, as if a mirage. Neither spoke, but Mosquito could hear his father thinking.
All this time, so many years and now I’m nearly home. It seems as if I left only yesterday.
They walked, Mosquito wondering but not speaking.
What will Papa say when he sees me? And Mama? Have I made them proud?
They frowned without looking at one another.
Did they see me when I roped that bull? They said nobody could do it, but I did.
But if they saw that…did they also see the time I hurt Maria? My foolish anger and my pride?
Their eyes filled and still they walked.
Were they watching when I placed my hand on my children’s heads, blessed them every night and every morning?
Mosquito stumbled and his father steadied him. His father’s hand was softer now, his wrist smooth as a boy’s.
And when we buried little Marta, did they cry with us?
Papa ran his hand through thick black hair, no longer grizzled and gray. His eyes were on the ranch, still a small dot in the distance.
I vowed I’d never sin again, I’d never gamble, never swear. I’d always praise my wife and children, if only she would live.
Mosquito heard a sound now, one he’d never thought to hear. It was like a husky sob—or was it a cough? When he blinked away his tears, looked hard again, the ranch was no closer and yet they’d been on this road for hours, maybe days.
And then there was the final debt, a different kind of gamble. That day I thought to pay if off—to surprise Maria. We’d only a little left on the ranch, the new land I’d added two years before. And Mr. White was willing to pay so much to fix the windmill—as if he knew the exact amount! Stupido, stupido! What gringo pays so much? But it wasn’t greed that blinded me—I thought to please my wife. Forgive me, Papa for stupidity. For leaving my family with nothing, and now my boy, a man—
Mosquito stumbled again and fell. He shook his head. What did Papa mean—what happened?
He choked on the dust and when he rose—he pressed his hands, a man’s hands now, against his knees and pushed up, and up to a full six feet. In the distance he saw a boy running, racing against the heat. A mother and father were hurrying toward him, arms outstretched, pleading him home.
Mosquito raised his hand to shade his eyes. When the boy reached his family, a little girl came skipping all around him. He grabbed her hands and danced with her. It looked like he was laughing. Then his parents gathered him up. Such a happy reunion! Mosquito smiled. Far away, the boy turned and waved. Mosquito raised his long man’s arm and waved back with all his might.
A few hours later Mosquito pulled his hands from his jean pockets. He rubbed his eyes. The sun was close to rising, the men stirring around him, eager to begin work before the day grew hot.
“Eh, boy!” a worker grunted, squinting at the sky. “You ready for another day of play?”
Mosquito sat up. He leaned over the truck and spat, ran a hand through his hair, then nodded gravely. “Si.”
The man grinned, showing chipped and blackened teeth. He pushed himself from the truck bed and reached up to jump the boy down too. He considered Mosquito’s sunburned nose and slapped at his own back pockets. “Where did I—? Ah, here!” Then he pulled an old baseball cap from his back pocket and shook it at the boy.
Mosquito took the cap, eyes wide. He pulled it on, speechless.
His fellow worker cocked his head. “You’re all right, hombrecito, you know?” He laughed at Mosquito. “You’re a tough one—I bet you make your papa proud.”