Fermín and the Flood
This afternoon the orphan boy, Fermín, came from La Tahona. No one had sent him: He did not come for medicines. He did not have much to say. Inclement weather had discouraged most patients from climbing the wet mountainside to the clinic, and when Fermín arrived I was alone at El Zopilote, enjoying fully its homely shelter, the wet garden, and especially the billowing mist which separated me temporarily from the rest of the world. All day the low clouds had blanketed my solitary cabin in a silver drizzling fog-bank, which at times opened enough to unveil the deep valley, tangled and lush at the close of the rainy season, or lifted to allow a glimpse of the jagged cloud-smothered peaks of the high Sierra Madre beyond. I was glad to be alone. But I found I was even gladder to see this fortune-tossed wisp of a boy.
It was evident that Fermín had not hurried up the mountainside; he was not breathing hard when he arrived. Nor was he soaked through. Rather a myriad of tiny mist droplets clung in bright pinpoints to his clothing, cheeks, and long, black lashes. The boy, I knew only too well, had every reason to be distraught, but on his mist-spangled, innocent face I could detect no sign of gloom or bitterness, not even towards God. Yet I knew that inside him was the big hurt. Why else had he come; to me (almost a stranger), alone and in such weather? Still, if he did not bring up last week’s tragic event, I was not about to; (I knew everyone else surely had). So we said little, he and I. There was a chill in the wet mountain air, more than usual for September, and I invited him in to dry off by the fire. From a basket of small, bitter apples brought to me by a patient two days away on mule back, high in the mountains of Durango, I selected the largest and least bruised and handed it to Fermín. As he accepted this rare treat, his face lit up like a rainbow . . . “Bless him!” I ‘thought, “His world is still beautiful, for all that has happened. For all that has ever happened, the world of all of us is still beautiful . . . .”
In his ten years of life, Fermín has suffered more than his share of misfortune. Five years ago his father was killed in a gunfight in La Quebrada. Shortly afterwards, his mother left with another man for parts unknown. As if these unhappy “acts of man” were not enough for the boy to endure, last week’s “act of God” topped them off. But for a quirk of fate —or as the villagers would say, “Gracias a Diós!” —Fermín would have perished along with the rest of what family he still had left. Up until eight days ago, Fermín and his brother, Gil, lived with their grandmother, aunt, uncle and four cousins in an old but solid adobe house beside the stream in the canyon of La Tahona. The night of the fateful disaster, Fermín happened not to be at home. That afternoon he had been sent on an errand to El Llano, an hour’s stiff climb up the mountainside. In El Llano he got to playing, and before he knew it, the afternoon monsoon broke loose.
The storm was more violent than usual, even for the rainy season; the water fell in sheets and streamed off the mountainside. Waiting for a lull in the tempest, Fermín dallied until dusk. Then, more fearful of Evil Spirits that awaited along the dark trail than of the whipping that his grandmother might give him for not returning when due, he begged permission to stay overnight.
Next morning at dawn, Fermín hurried homeward, arming himself with an arsenal of such excuses as only a ten year old can dream up. But on arrival, he found it was not he who needed excuses. He blinked hard, unable to believe his eyes. In the deep canyon beside the stream where “home” had been, there remained not a trace of his grandparent’s house. Not even the, landmarks. A broad, empty bed of boulders and mud spread where only the day before the old adobe house had nestled beside the forested brook. The giant, orchid festooned, wild fig trees, over 200 years old, which last June he and Gil had climbed to pelt each other and fill their bellies with the small gritty fruit, were gone. The citrus orchard, cultivated by the family for three generations, was gone. Irrevocably —at least in one man’s lifetime. Nothing was left. Not even roots.
Dazed and doubtful, Fermín made his way to the closest neighbor’s house. (The other five houses in the canyon —all of them fortunately higher above the stream —had not been touched.) The boy found the house vacant. He went to the next house. Also vacant. He stood outside in the first rays of the morning sun, staring with wonder at the broad expanse of rocks and mud. Slowly and against his will he began to comprehend what had happened. ‘He wondered where his grandmother, his brother and the rest of the family had taken refuge . . . and why the other houses were so empty.
Hearing distant voices, Fermín looked down the wide swath the arroyo had laid waste the night before. A group of villagers, mostly women and children, were making their way upstream, led by a man carrying a bulky gunnysack. From his bow legs, Fermín recognized him as old Camilo from La Quebrada. The boy ran to meet them. As he approached, the group grew strangely hushed, except for a little girl of five, who pointed toward the gunnysack and. announced importantly, “Es to ‘mano, Gil!,” (“It’s your brother, Gil!"). Fermín’s bright eyes riveted on the bulging sack, then darted amongst the faces of the villagers. Each gave a reluctant nod of confirmation. The boy felt a soft hand on his shoulder and looked up into the tearful face of his Aunt Juana. Fermín said nothing, and fell into march with the group. His head was spinning. What had been a dim recollection of an event that had happened years before, when he was no bigger than the little girl who had pointed to the gunnysack, suddenly burned again in his memory. He recalled how up this same arroyo (was it really the same arroyo?) he had watched these very villagers carry back the bullet riddled body of his father. How good his father had been to him! He hung his head, but his eyes remained dry. After all, such things happen.
A wave of fear swept over Fermín and he burst out, “And Grandma?”
“Still looking,” somebody said, nodding back over his shoulder.
Fermín stopped short, then turned and took off at a run down the bare arroyo, leaping from boulder to boulder with the agility of a goat. His Aunt Juana cried after him, “Fermín! Come back! These things aren’t for you! . . . Fermín’ . . . But the boy kept running.
When the group of villagers reached the first house, a cot was prepared and the remains of the twelve year old child were carefully laid out. Beeswax candles were lit on each corner of the cot. While the womenfolk gathered and arranged wild flowersaround the small battered body, an old man carefully carved two slender sticks and bound them together to form a cross. This was placed upright in the child’s folded hands over his chest.
Meanwhile, and several times over, old Camilo told the story of how, the evening before, they had heard a roar like thunder rapidly approaching from upstream, and how moments later the deluge was upon them: a wall of tumbling water, rocks and trees that reached their doorstep. He told how gaunt Juan Nunez, who was visiting that night, had almost died of fright, had paced the porch as the flood tumbled by, praying to the Virgin of Guadalupe for gentle entry into heaven. Old Camilo also told how shortly before dawn, when the water had receded almost as quickly as it had risen, he and his 13 year old son, Tacho, had set out with pine torches to check the damage to their banana and sugarcane plantings along the streamside alluvials. Like Fermín, they found to their dismay only rocks and mud. Climbing over a tangle of twisted trees and rubble, Tacho had taken hold of what he thought to be a branch, then drawn back in horror at the fleshy texture. Between them, they had extracted the naked, mud-caked and badly torn body from the rubble and carried it to their casa. Old Camilo and his wife —who have suffered enough losses of their own to be compassionate, had. bathed the small body and dressed it in their son’s only good clothing; then they had waited quietly for dawn. Juan Nuñez had refused to go near the body, but had prayed fervently throughout.
Of the eight persons in the house when the flash flood hit, seven of them perished.
The next body to be brought in was that of Fermín’s grandmother, María Nunez. Fermín did not accompany it; he was not seen again until nightfall. The body, missing a leg, had been found near what had been the water hole in Verano, five miles downstream. By noon, four more bodies had been brought in: those of Fermín’s Aunt María and her two children, plus one of two small cousins of Fermín who, like himself and Gil, had been raised by their grandmother. The body of vermin’s other cousin, a six year old girl, turned up only yesterday, when vultures and hungry dogs divulged its whereabouts many miles downstream.
Of the eight persons in the house when the flash flood hit, seven of them perished. The only survivor was María Nuñez’s son, Victor, father of two of the children killed.