Listen to Chapter One by clicking the link on the left, or read below
Emilia wiggled her toes, digging them into the soft, brown earth; hands, knees, and feet caked with soil. She stood to admire her work, wiped her brow with the back of her hand, darkening her forehead too. Next to the new baby lettuce were several rows of young vegetable seedlings. Behind them stood mango, papaya, and orange trees. She looked up and squinted into the low rising sun, drinking it in and letting it warm her face for a moment. In the quiet, she tilted her head toward a distant low hum, and then it was gone. She turned back again to her garden.
“Now grow up strong and think green!” She mothered them softly, squatting close and brushing the baby leaves from underneath.
She loved the garden. Year after year it moved her through the cycles and seasons of nature. Her efforts produced something yummy, useful, and valuable for herself and her family. If there was extra, she would bring it to market and earn a little money. Her mind lingered on the mystery of springtime and how all it took to produce delicious, nourishing, and colorful food was a seed and the combined forces of sunlight, water, soil, and air. In a way, she too was the result of just those four simple elements.
Gathering up her tools, she put them in a bucket, and put the bucket in the tool shed. “Gaaa!” she yelled, stepping backwards, knocking over the bucket, which knocked more tools and small parts off their hooks and shelves as a pair of birds flew out of the shed. She ducked, but one of them grazed her hair and shouted back “shiiipt!”
Recovering her balance, she stood on her tip toes to see the nest perched on top of the window frame. Inside were three little eggs. “oohhh, hello little ones! Don’t worry, your parents will come right back!” She quickly picked up all the tools and parts and went inside.
“Good morning mama!” she planted a kiss on mama’s cheek.
“Good morning, miel, you’re up early!” Mama brought out three breakfast plates, each full with fresh fruit, eggs, and greens for Emilia, papa, and herself. Anzi, her grandfather, always fixed his own breakfast, since it was never spicy enough for him the way mama made it.
“I really wanted to get the last of my garden planted today. Doesn’t it look sooo good? Almost like I could eat it now!” she swooned at the window then bounced lightly to the table and took a seat on the bench, still looking out the window.
“Yes! It’s beautiful! Eat up now, you don’t want to be late for school.” Mama put the plate down in front of her.
Half way through her eggs, Emilia jumped up when papa came in and tugged at his sleeve, pulling him to the window, “Papa! Look! My garden is all in! Doesn’t it look sooo delicious!?”
“Yes,” he smiled widely at his daughter’s enthusiasm, “very nice!” She looked outside again in admiration, papa rested his hand on her shoulder and soaked up Emilia’s pride in her garden. “Good work!” He smiled, “Now, let’s eat, it’s getting late!” For Ernesto, there seemed to be fewer and fewer moments like this to share with his daughter.
Emilia sat down, papa detoured across the table and pecked Arely on the lips before sitting.
Papa had a mouthful of mango when his phone rang. He looked at the number and sat up straight. “The boss!”
“Maybe about your promotion!” whispered Arely, putting her hand on his.
Papa stood and walked outside to talk.
It didn’t take long for Emilia to clean her plate. Mama brushed her daughter’s long black hair, pulled it back into a pony tail, and clipped her favorite hair tie to hold it. She made it out of a sea shell she picked up off the beach. Mama handed her a bag with lunch and kissed her on the cheek. “Have a good day, miel!”
“You too, mama! Bye!” Emilia walked slowly past her garden, admiring her work again with a smile. “Grow up big and strong!” she said waving her fingers toward her with palms up as if to encourage immediate growth of all her baby greens. “I’ll water you more after school!” Then, not because she was late but because she couldn’t help herself, Emilia broke into a jog down the road.
Arely joined Ernesto outside. He was still on the phone. “Today?! Why today? Yes I understand, but, it’s been so many years, we didn’t think that would still apply… yes, I understand it’s in the contract, but it’s so small, how can it matter?… What? Yes! Of course I want to keep my job! What do you mean by that? You know without our cooperation and our land… yes, yes, your land now… yes, I understand… and there is no other way? Hello?” He folded the silent phone and put it in his pocket.
“What is it?” Arely asked, unnerved by her husband’s unsettled look.
“They’re coming to take it, the last of it.”
“No!” she gasped, and clapped her hands to her cheeks, then to her heart, where they lingered before steeling herself. “When?”
“Today?! Oh no! No, they can’t! After all these years?!” She stomped her feet hard on the ground.
“There’s nothing we can do. This has been the agreement since the beginning, I don’t know why they chose now, but we should feel lucky to have held on this long.”
Arely hugged him, then stepped back and planted her feet firmly, “We will fight this!”
“We have all known that this day was inevitable. Nobody kept any secrets.” Ernesto’s defensive tone served well to cover his concern, and the fact that he was helpless against this fate landing at their feet, here, today.
“Yes, I know, but still…” Arely stared at the ground. “We will have to break the news to Anzi and Emilia.”
Ernesto did not sit down again. He looked out the window at his daughter’s pride and joy, quickly gulped down his remaining breakfast, put on his jacket and picked up his bag. “I must get to work, ahhh, before they take that away too.” Once out the door, he wiped his face with his hands and steeled himself for the coming day. For the coming many days and years.
Emilia’s daily walk to school took her from home on the outskirts of the village where her family farmed for generations. The town was supported in a big way by Calàco, the coffee company that almost everyone around worked for in some way. She soon passed the field where she worked, glancing at the plot where she had spent recent weeks planting seeds, and where she would be again later today, after school. Small signs posted throughout the field identified each plant variety, when the seed was sown, and progress notes. A billboard at the main entrance declared “A new world of opportunity brought to you by your friends at Calàco”. This was only one of many coffee fields throughout the area, and papa was the supervisor of local operations. This field and more, she was told, were once owned by Anzi and his family before him.
Arriving at the edge of the park, she plucked a ripe papaya from one of the many fruit trees scattered throughout the village green. Pulling the small folding knife her mother gave her from a satchel tied at her waist, she sliced it open, scooped out the seeds, and slurped a loud, juicy mouthful of its sweet flesh.
Last year, Caláco donated money to expand the park with tennis courts, expanded game fields, and a pool. They weren’t finished yet, but the sign read “A new world of recreation brought to you by your friends at Calàco”
She took her time walking under the tall, green, shady trees, meandering through the circle of benches around the perimeter. People gathered here on weekends when they weren’t working and sometimes there was music in the evening. She walked toward the white, wooden bandstand in the middle of the grassy green expanse, trying to imagine herself living in the times that her grandfather, spoke about. Sometimes she would come here after work and just lie on the grass or sit on the bandstand daydreaming. Papa said her imagination was sometimes too wild, just like some of Anzi’s stories.
Lingering for a moment to finish her snack, she wiped the papaya juice from her face, jumped off the bandstand and jogged the rest of the way to school with her pack thumping on her back.
It was a small school, the only one in her small village, and she loved learning, especially history. Everyone arrived and left at the same time, every weekday. There was a new addition to the school under construction. The sign in front read “A new world of education brought to you by your friends at Caláco”. She dropped her pack in the hall with the others. There was only one thing she didn’t like about school.
“Hey, Meely,” came the familiar sing-song taunt, “what’s up with that crazy old man’s eyeballs?” From within the safety of his friend group, Toro crossed his eyes and rolled them around with his tongue sticking out through crooked lips. His friends all mimicked him, laughing.
Emilia rolled her own eyes. Again? she thought, trying to ignore them. She scowled quietly, squatting by her pack and pulling a notebook out of it. She loved her grandfather dearly and couldn’t stand it when people made fun of him just because there was something wrong with his eyes, especially when there wasn’t, not really anyway. Mostly though, she hated how powerless she was to defend him, and she seethed inside until the steam blew the lid off her pot.
“Toro, you… you are such a… stupid… taco!” She stamped her foot and stormed into the classroom while his friends snickered and laughed.
“Hey, taco, I got some cheese for you!”
“Yeah, and here’s the sauce!” Toro’s best friend, Pug, squirted water from his bottle onto his hair, for which he received a playful push and all the boys doubled over with laughter.
“Hey, Toro, why make fun of her grandfather?” Miguel challenged the offenders from a distance, surprising even himself. “He’s an old man, he can’t help it!”
“Who asked you, nerd?” The gang pushed Miguel up against the wall, poking and jeering.
“Boys! Enough! Enough! Get to your seats!” The teacher scolded, shaking his head with impatience, muttering “Ay yi yi! Every day!” and ushered the boys ahead into the classroom.
Miguel stepped clumsily over the giggling Toro’s outstretched foot. Dodging the gauntlet of taunts, he sat in his usual seat, just across from Emilia.
“Thanks Miguel. They are such losers!” said Emilia.
“Sure… I think…” he said rubbing his arm.
“Sorry!” she grimaced and smiled awkwardly.
They had known each other since they were babies. Their families’ friendship went back several generations. Seeing Miguel was one of her favorite things about school. Being with him was comfortable, like being with family, only more, and a little different. Other than her grandfather, he was the only one who seemed to understand her.
A loud kissing sound was directed at them, igniting giggles throughout the room.
The teacher clapped his hands and reprimanded with a pointed finger. “Enough, class, enough, settle down.” he took a deep breath. “Now, good morning, let’s get started.”
So far, nothing set this day apart from any other.
Emilia stayed after school to ask the teacher for more information about the history lesson.
“Well, you can find books at the library here. You know Caláco has recently donated money to the school so that we have more resources, and that includes some new books. If you don’t see what you want, let me know and we’ll try to find something for you.”
“Oh, that would be awesome! Thank you. It’s lucky that we have Caláco here, isn’t it?”
The teacher paused in thought. “Yes…, it would seem so.” He shifted and added “You know Emilia, some of our best historical guides are right here in the village. They might even be living with you.” With a wink, the corner of his mouth rose in a smile.
“Well, I think you’re right, but it’s so hard to get him to talk about things sometimes! Maybe he’s forgotten it all.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. No grandfather can resist a curious granddaughter!”
“Thanks,” she smiled at the acknowledgement of her grandfather, “well, I have to get to work now, but I’ll check the library tomorrow!”
“Excellent,” said the teacher, “see you tomorrow.”
Opening the door at the end of the hall, Emilia was immediately distracted by the commotion. Miguel was on the ground holding his nose with both hands. Toro and his cronies stood by mocking him. She ran, but by the time she got to him, the bullies had run off laughing with pride in their successful ambush. Others gathered around him but Emilia was the one who reached for his arm and helped him sit up.
“Are you okay?”
“I will be” he replied in a muffled, nasal tone, bloody hands still covering his nose.
Emilia took a kerchief out of her backpack and put it in place of where his hands were.
“Thankth” he lisped through the blood stained kerchief over his swollen nose.
“They’re all just bullies!” Emilia’s hackles were up, ready for a fight.
“We should tell the teacher!” one girl said.
“Yeah, they can’t just get away with this!” said another, and more voices joined in agreement.
“That’ll juth make it worth,” muttered Miguel, “thankth guyth, I’ll be okay.” He pulled the kerchief away, saw the blood, and put it back over his nose.
His friends helped him stand up, offering encouraging words.
“Good fight, Miguel!”
“Yeah, way to go!” and with pats on the back they all went their separate directions, secretly happy that they weren’t the target, at least for today.
Miguel and Emilia walked together to the park as they often did after school.
“Seriously? He punched you in the nose for speaking up this morning? Who does he think he is?” Emilia leaned in with determination.
“He thinkth heeth thtronger than me and heeth right.”
Emilia smiled and tried not to laugh at his new voice.
“Iths not funny!” he tried to be serious, but his voice put an end to the failed attempt.
Emilia put her hand up to her mouth and lowered her head to cover the grin that was creeping onto her face, and they both laughed.
“Ownch! It hurth when I laugh!”
When they reached the bandstand Emilia said “Lie,” Miguel immediately lay down on the bandstand holding his face with both hands before she could finish, “down”.
She took the kerchief off his face, rinsed it in the fountain, and wiped away the blood.
“Not so bad, a little swollen, I’d give it a couple days rest!” Emilia tried to lighten the mood. “And no sneezing!”
“Juth don’ tell my dad, okay?”
“Okay, but what will you tell him?”
“I dunno, I’ll think of thomething.”
“We can’t just let them get away with it Miguel! Toro and his gang need to know they don’t make the rules around here!”
“Only they do, but I know you’ll think of thomething cleber.”
“I have to get my tools from home and get to work. You okay to get there on your own?”
She pulled him up to his feet.
“K. See you later!” Emilia sprinted off in the opposite direction of Miguel’s shuffle, looking over her shoulder once to be sure he was still moving. When she did, it made her feel a little bubbly inside. She put her hand on her belly to settle her stomach and found herself feeling grateful for having such a good friend.
She walked up the path to her house as usual, heading for the tool shed as if on auto-pilot, when she stopped cold. Her heart stopped. Her breath stopped. The whole world stopped.
Mama ran out of the house to meet her. “Emilia!” she called out.
“My garden – MY GARDEN!!” WHAT HAPPENED??!! WHAT DID YOU DO??!!” Tears burst from her eyes at the vision of utter destruction. All the ground around their house and down the hillside, everything had been plowed under. Everything that was green this morning was now brown.
“Emilia! Please, we tried to stop them, there was nothing we could do! Please Emilia, you know we tried! But we knew this was going to happen one day.”
“You – didn’t – try – HARD – ENOUGH! I HATE YOU! I HATE THIS PLACE!”
There was not enough room in the entire world to contain her fury and not enough distance to be found between where she was now and where she’d rather be. She turned and ran. She couldn’t hear the cries or see the tears in her mother’s eyes. She ran and ran and ran…
End of Chapter One. What would you do if you lost the one thing that was most important to you?
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Emilia has a well. Let’s hope it’s deep! You might like “I Got a Well”, sung by my friend Miriam Bernardo