Cold rivers from the Ojos del Selado mountains rushed in waterfall as a colourful ribbon of high-bearing villagers traversed its gravelled slopes. By nightfall they would gather on the plateaux below, raise their tents, and rest. Continuing their downward journey at dawn. This annual trek to the salt plains below was unknown ever to have been broken in the collective memory of the villagers. The payment for their work there giving them what they needed to survive the harsh winters. It was not work for the weak, or the unwilling, with pay so low not even the poorest of the dwellers below their high slopes would consider it. Leaving behind the old to take care of the very young, for three back-breaking months of each year they filled damp sacks with coarse salt. Before ascending skywards again once the season was over. It was their way, and forever would be their way.
None of this was of concern to Pablo Mateo Torres, a small-time salt trader in declining years living on those salt plains below them. He had raised four daughters, and the handing over of their dowries had kept him poor. He, like the salt baggers, had never known a surplus. His sparse village, ten miles along the coast, was known for two things, salt and sponges. And nothing else. Because there was nothing else. Some few shacks, ragged sacks hanging in the wind, a rocky barren scrubland, and that was it. Punto del Feugo. Much like the mountain people, the poorest of the village would go out in small boats when seas were calm, and dive deep. Expelling the air in their lungs as they went even deeper, until reaching the bottom. There they pulled at the living sponges, ascending a half peso richer if their grip was firm. No man ever won riches pulling sponges from the seabed off Punto del Feugo. Or selling salt panned from its plains. It was drudge work, endured for survival.
The sponge foragers didn’t concern Pablo either. His was not a mind to dwell on the sorrows of others. To him, life had just been a series of needs to be met. Now, at sixty three with his beard turned white and a mouthful of no teeth, his youngest daughter lately married and her mother buried three years before, it was solely his own fate that concerned him. He had nothing put by. Nothing to hold should he fall. And no one to look after him either, when, sure as winter, old age would come. If he was to survive, he needed to accumulate something. Something. At least something. The lean-to shack he stored his salt in, and now lived, was used by grace of a three hundred peso annual rent paid to the local landowning family. The wealth he possessed, his only wealth, was a string of donkeys. Just five in number, they were used daily to transport sacks of salt from the plains to his shack. If he sold those donkeys, what then. Live easy for a year, then carry the salt on his back? No, those donkeys he could never sell.
It was there, to his shack, with each month’s work stored, that the inland salt merchants would come to kick the sacks, insulting the low-grade salt of the Punto del Feugo plains. Mother donkey and her four offspring, recovering outside in evening shade, would listen mournfully to the one-sided banter, meagre pesos changing hands for their toil. Theirs was a hard life too, but her youngest, so far unscathed, unmarked, still frolicked in the evenings. His time in harness would come soon enough. The string yearly increased in value by one when Pablo brought Mother to be covered by the landlord’s mule. This annual coupling, only two months away, marked time when the donkey born the year before would be brought into harness. A slow train for wealth, but the only one Pablo had. And a sight more than of those who surrounded him. That dry barren place offered nothing but sponges and salt. Sponges and Salt. One cold peso at a time.
It was only the merchants who bought the salt and sponges, transporting them to the regional towns and cities inland, who seemed to get ahead. Arriving in their motor cars for the monthly day’s trade, their laughter over full bellies could be heard in the village’s sole cantina on the evenings of their visits. They ate the kind of meals that only passed Pablo’s lips five times in his life. Which got him to thinking, clock ticking as it was, what if I don’t bargain with the merchants, what if I cross the mountain to the inland myself, sell the salt for their prices. Return. Buy more. Expand, let the others of the village bring the salt to me. I could do the merchant’s job, easily. Do that trip and what would it cost me. Two days of hardship trekking over the mountaintop, with two more to the interior. I could do it.
He calculated that if he were to do the journey just eight times over four months he could earn at least five times as much as he did in a full year. After the first three trips, maybe buy more donkeys, not have to wait to breed Mother. Yes, he might be coming to it late in life, but better than not at all. And perhaps, on those visits to the nearest city, build up a relationship with a few of the better off, more generous merchants. Not be so dependent on the mean pesos of those scoundrels who travelled to him. His sleep was soon disturbed with the possibilities.
Within days his mind was set. On the very evening of the day before he was to embark on the new venture, a behatted Merchant sauntered through his shack door.
“Ah Pablo you old devil, what do you want for this terrible sack of crust?”
His foot got no further than his heel when Pablo barked, “It’s not for sale”
“Well we both know that, of course it isn’t, who’d buy it, only a crazy man. But I will. Now, how much do you want for this filthy bag, and the others?”
“I told you, they’re not for sale”
“You can’t build a house with them Pablo, how much?”
“I’ll do what I want with them, they’re not for sale”
His pride at refusing the merchant brimmed his confidence, steeled him for the journey ahead. That night, eating maize till his stomach ached, he lay down to no sleep, feeling twenty years of age with the possibilities before him. Hope was what he saw in the high moon, hope before him as he willed for sleep. But none came. He lay.
In the cold darkness before dawn Pablo rose, not wasting a moment. This the first day of the new beginning. The donkeys, tied along a line of rope with each neck noosed, waited. He loaded them with salt. Four of them, five sacks each. And for the youngest, not yet seeing a full year. Three. Loaded heavy, each sack hung low to either side, like the bodies of dead men stacked flaccid, fat, one atop the other. The youngest, puzzled now as to why he was struggling to even stand, was the last on the sting. Pablo’s loading completed, he now loaded himself, pulling a large worn leather satchel across his back. The donkeys would feed on scrub as they went, where it could be got. He then reached out, broke off a briared branch from a nearside bush, swished it firm against the rump of mother donkey, and they were off, single file into the dark. Every empire starting with a first step.
The dawn, when it eventually came, broke slowly. It’s warmth, like the plateau above them, would be a long time coming. “We’ll soon be where we need to be Mother, we soon will, come”. Then, more to encourage than to scold, he brushed the briar lightly against her. This was a new passage, inland. Her years spent plying daily along the coast had made her used to the routine of hardship. She knew what she was, what her brood would get, every day they awoke. This, even with the additional weight, and the slipping shale as they inclined, was, in ways, welcome. A change. The mountain scent, the sound of distant rushing water, the cool air. It felt good. But this would change. They were just setting out.
Cobalt blue, the sky broadened. The sun rose but it did not warm. Their altitude prevented it. The sacks, compressing on their backs, began to weep. Saltwater trickled down legs to hoofs cut fresh on the flinty rock. Pain. Maybe the known daily hardship was better. The string, slowly along its line, began to feel the pain of the new. But still they followed Mother upward. Pablo, more firmly now, encouraging her.
By his thinking, if they got up to the plateau by sundown, rested the night as best they could, they’d cross the highest peak reaching above them by afternoon of the next day. Following the other side down to the lower reaches they could, by evening of that next day be off the harshest part of the mountain. With luck and pace, two more days on flat ground trekking through scrub, the city of Pintas de Quinas would be before them. With the salt successfully sold and the string unburdened for the return journey, they could easily make it back in three. It was what they were made for. “Come now, HUP”, he shouted. Heads shook side to side, bearing pain and weight. It was the hardest day of their life. Soon to be the second.
Later than hoped, the moon shone unnoticed above clear over the plateau as Pablo tethered Mother to a bare tree. Each head on the string had two yards of rope between them, enough to allow turning and choosing how they wished to rest. After releasing their burdens, but still leaving them tied in line, he lay himself down. It had been harsh, and with no food carried the sooner sleep would come for the donkeys the better. Beasts of burden, hoofs torn, legs cut, they hunkered down. Licking for the first time the bitter salt from the day’s wounds. In moments, there was no moment. They slept as one.
Morning came it came too soon. Pablo rising slow from the plateau’s hard floor had years put on him too. It was with little grace that he stirred the matriarch. Heaping the five sacks back on her, he went down the line loading. An animal will only go so far, only do so much, without food from its master. They brayed in hunger, and they brayed in vain. There was only rock on the plateau. Better they saved the noise for when they’d really need it. “Hey yo, hey hup, Hup Hup”, he swung the briar branch hard. Slowly she got the message. Getting into the rhythm of the day’s hardship, her brood followed reluctantly behind.
What those donkeys endured on the morning of that day was but little compared to what they would have to endure in the afternoon. The sharp upper ascent. Several times, with thirty stones of weeping salt on her back, Mother cried, brayed for mercy. But none was forthcoming. This was it, get over that summit today, or die. He knew this, she didn’t. There’d be no stopping, no thinking, no allowing weakening to creep in. “Hup, hup, hup. Hup Hup”, he cried into the thinning air.
It was slow coming that summit to traverse. The distance teasing them, looking close but far away. By high increments of sharp cutting shale, they made their way. “Hup on, hup on”, he shouted continually, pulling her, hitting her, sometimes slapping her, keeping her interested. “ON HUP, ON HUP”. So it went, that day of the high hell crossing.
They made it over in time. But at cost. There would be no more honest toil for the master. No. He would be served, not honoured. By neither she nor her brood. Eyes narrowed, innocence gone, death had come close that day, even for the little one. Happiness however, enveloped the master, he had done it. The worst was over. He knew now how hard the hardship would be, the going over the mountain. What had to be done, endured, each time to get his riches. Knowing somehow made it easier, gauged.
Mid-afternoon, halfway down the other side, the sun’s rays still high, a rock in the distance caught Pablo’s eye. Positioned not too far from a stream, wide and dark it absorbed the sun’s rays. It was to him a mermaid on a sea of pain. Beckoning, it sung to him, Siesta, Pablo my darling, Pablo my love, come, come to me. No seducing needed for Pablo. “By Santos Padro Meio I will,” he sung aloud as he quickened the pace. The youngest of the string, hearing the gentle ripple of the stream as they neared, pricked up his ears.
Pablo eyed that rock as a lover. Coming closer, getting faster, not caring for any other. Hastily he tethered Mother to the branch of a nearby bush. Clambering atop the naked rock, his Aphrodite, he sighed at such unexpected pleasure. Turning to his side, he curled slowly into the warm arms of his lover, sating himself with sleep. The beasts, still burdened under the weight of their salt and despair, watched enviously as the master slept. Somehow, they too began to sleep, hunkering down under their burdens, not knowing how they’d rise. But Mother, exhaustion overcoming her into unconsciousness, stayed as she stood.
Perhaps it was his youth, or thirst, but the youngest, the most inquisitive, and the last of the string, opened his eyes from sleep before the others. He looked about. The uphill scrub, the way they had come. Then down. The other way. The way they had still yet to go. A moment of adulthood, a realisation. His pain would be less going downhill. He then eyed the nearby stream. The gentle clear flow beckoned him as the rock did to the master. He wanted it, but the rope, tied as it was to his sleeping brother up along the line, prevented him. It tightened as he went to move closer to his pleasure. By straining at the rope, keeping it a constant strain, then tugging, and tugging more, his brother, too tired to care, but inconvenienced, moved a little. He rolled onto his side, toward Baby. Not much, but enough. Just enough for Baby to get his head to the stream. Instantly the clear ice water ran in pleasure over his mouth, helping balm pain, the hard lesson of how his adult life would be. He gulped. More water sloshed to his mouth. Heaven in the present, he held it. The world abated, came down to this moment. This pleasure. This purity. He was one with it. And there he stayed. For quite some time.
When the feeling passed, he wanted more. He tried to roll to his side, get closer to the river, let the water run cold over his flanks. But no, the rope held against his will. Again he tugged at his brother. And again, his brother moved. Allowing him move away, just a little more. He lay on his side at the shallow edge of the riverbed, facing against the way of the current. Slowly, gently it flowed against, and over him. Poured over his legs, cleansing the wounds, easing the pain. He lay there, stock still in cooling pleasure, taking mouthfuls as the wish took him.
When eventually he rose up from the stream, he felt lighter. Lighter. Much lighter. The reviving pleasure of the water it must be. But no. No. He was lighter. Much lighter. The water miraculously had dissolved him of half his load. The sacks that had lain deadweight on his back were now bearable. Oh, good Lord, how he felt. Not knowing nor caring the properties of salt, or water, ecstatic he kicked out his hind legs in delight. This joyous discovery, unnoticed by sleeping siblings and Mother, was solely his own. He shook his head side to side, then moved back up, toward his still sleeping brother. Laying down to rest once more, childhood revived, hope still in the garden.
And so, they, and Baby, slept for a further hour or so. The lowering rays of the sun drying the evidence of his discovery. As shadow edged across the mountain cooling the air, it roused them from rest. It cooled the rock too, waking the master. In great reluctance he left the arms of his lover. Turning this way, that way, once again turning, continuing his refusal to leave. But it was no use, she had grown cold, her decision made with no court of appeal. He must rise and leave. And this he eventually did, bone sore but rested. Stiffly he walked the short distance to the edge of the stream. Lowering himself, he cupped the clear water to his mouth, imbibing slowly the pleasure. Roughly splashing his face and beard, he creaked to his feet. Making way back to the tethered branch to untie mother, he then led them all to the water to drink in turn. Perhaps being the last on the string, he didn’t notice the youngest one’s lesser load. The sacks had flattened, becoming more even on his back. Neither did he think it strange that Baby did not drink when it was his turn. Perhaps Pablo was just too sore to notice. Either-way, with each it’s fill, they continued their journey.
The move down the other side of the mountain went much the same way as it had on the way up. Weaving carefully across the slope face, ever downwards instead of upwards. By seven o’clock, night’s darkness had come once again. This time, a small village lit below could be seen, raising his spirits. Not that they’d pay any premium for the salt. No, they would be too poor for that. It was the meal that might be raised. A meal for him that is, not the beasts. There was still no fodder this high up.
An hour more and they reached it, a gathering of steep roofed shacks pegged on the lower part of the mountain. The villagers congregated, while the children, seeing Pablo’s white beard, shouted “San Nicolas, San Nicolas,” in hope that Santa was doing his rounds. It was in village generosity that he was fed. The donkeys, breaths crystalline in the moonlight, brayed vainly. Their only pleasure that night was being unburdened by the master before hunkering down to the ground. Coming to unload the last, Pablo was perplexed as to why the sacks were so light. Examining each, he could discern no holes. Perhaps those particular sacks were too loosely woven for the job. Annoyed at the loss of potential profit, he would make sure to check the weave of each sack more closely the next time he burdened them.
Morning came, now the third day of their trek inland. They continued the descent, furthering down. The lessening slopes, easier to traverse, flattened as they neared their way to the mountain’s base. By Noon there was no more need to move sideways along the slope, it was straight down the remaining hillside. The warming air, the ground evening out with no shale flints to further cut, allowed a quickening of pace. By evening, a sight they had never seen was lit orange in the far distance. The city of Pintas de Quinas.
The city seen by night in that orange halo caused wonder to Pablo’s eyes, but it scared him too. It had been many years since he had visited the city, well over forty. Before the electricity had come. As a young man, instructed by the priest, he was ordered there to attain a certificate of his birth before he would allow him marry. Even now, these many years distant, his own village was still without electricity. Halting the donkeys where they were, safely hidden in the scrub, he decided to make his approach at dawn. Unburdening the animals he checked the weight of each sack as he heaved them off. No more losses thankfully. Each animal freed of its load bawled. Bawl they might, and bawl again, but there’d be no food this night. When the realisation came, they stopped as soon as they started. Each lowering themselves to sleep.
Across the clear night a bark sounded as Pablo took from the satchel his wife’s rosary beads. Bowing his head to chest he prayed that tomorrow his quest would be rewarded. Finished, he hunched in beside Mother donkey for warmth, and was soon asleep. He slept that night as sound a sleep as he had in his sixty-three years.
Sheer exhaustion made it that it was well after dawn before they awoke. Hurrying, he gathered the donkeys to their feet and loaded each it’s burden. He pulled Mother forward, continuing in line as they had started. The scrub scratched as they went but was nothing of the pain of the previous days. His mood brightened with the sunlight, a swish of the branch and he firmly encouraged Mother along. “Hup, hup, come my beauties, today we make our fortune, gather up, hup, Hup”.
By noon the raggle taggle line of salt had reached the edge of the Region’s capital, Pintas de Quinas. Population 138,658. And by Pablo’s reckoning, 138,658 people who needed salt. “And I’m your man!” he cried with joy to no one in particular. As he and his string walked loosely along the main road to the city people turned and looked. Children began to run up and down the line shouting gleefully, “San Nicolas aquí, San Nicolas aquí”. Ignoring them he stopped by a roadside stall to ask the stallholder directions to the local market.
“Ah, Senior, it is the week before Christmas, and the market it is not until Friday. Today, today is only Monday Senior, you are too early”.
This he did not think of. Bad luck. And with little to tide him over until then.
“Is there perhaps a Plaza nearby, somewhere the merchants might gather between markets?”
“There is Senior, but it is the other side of town”
More bad luck.
“Can I have some water?”
“How much water?”
“Enough for the beasts, and a drink for myself”
The stallholder leaned over his counter looking down the line.
“That’s a lot of water Senior”
“They don’t drink sand”
“Senior, I’m just saying you might be better saved to water them as you walk by the Rio Pilche on your way”.
“Is it far?”
“On the other side of town”
“Is everything on the other side of town”
“Today it is”
“Well, can I at least have some water for myself”
“My pleasure Senior. A pint or a gallon?”
He waited expectantly.
“Three pesos! Are you crazy”
‘No, not crazy Senior, it costs money”
“I know it costs money pendejo, but three pesos, Madre Mai”
“If you want to drink, it’s three pesos to hold it”
Hanging his head, he gathered the three coins from his satchel. He would of course ordinarily drink water from the river, but down here, it would not be so clean. Not clean at all. To a donkey perhaps, but not to him. A risk. With the money safely on the counter, it was quickly gathered up by the stallholder, who then raised up from his side of the counter a large plastic drum of water.
“Your container Senior?”
“I don’t have one”
“One peso for what!”
“A gallon drum of course”
“Of course! Of course! Madre Mia!”
In pain he reached in for another peso. Four gone, three left.
As quick as the others, it was gathered and hidden by the stallholder. In fine ceremony he then filled the gallon container to the neck.
“To the top robber, to the top” shouted Pablo.
With the gallon of gold now his, he lowered himself to sit by the dusty roadside. In leisurely fashion, savouring it, he raised the container to his lips. Five pairs of large dark brown eyes focused intently on each crystalline drop as it rolled down his beard while he drank. Managing half the gallon before stopping, he gulped for air. He closed his eyes in the moment’s pleasure before going again. One more pint down. Staying as he was for several minutes, he thought of nothing only the physical pleasure of the sensation. Water slowly, rhythmically, rehydrating him from within. Eventually, realising he had to keep moving, he screwed the cap on tight, raised up, and shouted, “Hup, hup”. Gathering long on the roadside once again, each went forward one heavy step. With Pablo’s the lightest of all.
It was one street this way, another that way, each one thinner, darker, more shadowed than the last. The houses either side built tall, slim, casting shadow from the hot sun. Each lane as it thinned led them ever closer in maze to the center. He could see it now, there, just there, a few hundred yards more, the end at last! A glimpse of the merchant’s square lit glorious in full sunlight. Rushing the final hundred yards, the string pepped up in half canter as they followed Pablo's excitement right out into the open square. Only to be met by closed shop shutters and empty barrels. Desertion on all four sides. “Dios mio, why! My luck it must turn sometime”, he cried.
Walking store to store. Nothing. He crossed the square to the center. Nothing. Reduced, he sat on the edge of a fountain which sat in its middle. Again, once more that day, he thought purely of nothing. The donkeys seizing their chance, gathered by the water trough below the fountain’s tap and drank. Dwelling there, they gulped in great sounds. Water heaved into bellies broke the surrounding silence. A woman bustling in black hurried across the square toward them.
“Madre de Dios, what now”
But she did not stop.
Her age indeterminate, Pablo calibrated it as she neared.
Hardening to seventy five.
Nearing, then passing him, she contined her hurry.
With relief his eyes followed her.
She might have the answer he needs.
“Senora, Senora, por favour”, he called.
She looked back, but not slowing.
“Might I ask, Senora, what time do these stores open?”
“God cares not for merchants”
Obvious now, she was on her way to pious devotion.
“Indeed, you are right Senora, and struck out rightly, but when might these ones reappear?”
“Sundown, after Siesta, Senior, and God’s blessing” she replied not breaking her stride.
(Continued.... Part II)