THE PRICE OF A MOMENT
While Pipi hauled himself back and forth across the yard with his staffs, two men arrived. One was Juvencio (Mencho) Pereda, a weathered man in his early fifties, the closest thing that Jocuixtita and surrounding ranchos have to a doctor.
I first met Mencho two months ago in Ajoya. He had come to ask for a medicine to relieve the pain in his back and legs, the result of mistreatment he received from a band of soldiers six years earlier. The soldiers came from a temporary cuartel in Bordontita, established to track down the notorious bandit Tino Navarez. They had come to Jocuixtita to arrest two young men then visiting at Mencho’s casa. On what charge, they did not say. Mencho had been standing in the doorway when the soldiers arrived. Without warning, the leader jabbed him in the stomach with the muzzle of his rifle. When Mencho staggered and fell, the soldier punched him again with the muzzle in the small of the back. The soldiers entered the casa and carted off the two young men to Bordontita, questioned them, found them innocent, and released them. Yet Mencho still carries two doughnut-shaped scars where the rifle muzzle struck him, and still suffers from spinal and internal injuries from the mistreatment. Since the assault, Mencho has been unable to “trabajar sus milpas en los cerros”. He began buying medicines in the cities and administering them in Jocuixtita and surrounding villages at a small profit. He makes no pretence of having a large knowledge of medicine; and unlike Oseo in Ajoya, has not only a conscience, but a genuine concern for the welfare of his people. He makes a small but reasonable profit in the medicines he administers, does not refuse treatment to those who cannot pay immediately, and will walk 10 or 15 miles, day or night, to meet an emergency. He is, as nearly as I can make out, a good man.
The compañero who arrived with Mencho was Juan Cebreros, a youth of some 20 years. He was obviously suffering from the gripa and had a panuelo bound around his head. But he and Mencho had come on a mission far more serious. Juan’s younger brother Pancho had been knifed in the stomach the night before, in the small village of La Quebrada, about 4 km upstream, on the same arroyo as Verano. Mencho, who had been sleeping in El Pino, a rancho 2 km away and nearly 2000 feet higher than La Quebrada on the mountainside above, had been summoned in the middle of the night; he descended the winding precipitous trail “en las nalgas”, on his backside. Mencho had injected Pancho with penicillin, advised the family to give him neither food nor drink, and beyond this could only leave the youth to his fate. Although the wound was gaping, with part of the entrails pouring out, Mencho lacked the materials to stitch it.
The following morning Mencho and Juan had hiked the 10 AM. to Jocuixtita to ask me to come to the patient’s aid. I explained, as ever, that I was not a doctor, and that if there was serious internal injury, there was little I could do. But at least I did have equipment for stitching, and I did have sedatives.
I agreed to go, but asked if it were possible to obtain a horse or mule, as with my broken rib I found it painful going up or down steep grades on foot. (It never occurred to me before that in merely walking one uses his chest muscles much, but one does!)
Mencho’s son lent me his horse, but first he had to catch it. It was mid-afternoon by the time we set out… Mencho and I alone, for Juan had left before us. I was on horseback, Mencho on foot. We followed the steep winding trail that leads to Verano until we came to the high pass (5000 ft.) or “el puerto” which separates the valley of Jocuixtita from that of Verano. Here we left the trail to Verano, and wound our way along the side of the ridge, northeastward, through small pines and giant-leaved encinos robles. We crossed to the north side of the ridge and began to drop precipitously. Here on the northern slope the pines, of a long-leafed 5-needle variety, extended much further down the mountainside. We passed by the rancho called Llano de Arriba, and after another drop of 500 feet, by Llano de Abajo. Shortly after we crossed the high north pass we could see the village of La Quebrada, as a narrow green patch, about 1500′ below us, to the right, in the steep ravine. To the left, where the ravine divided at the foot of a high mountain, lay the small pueblo La Tahona; and directly across from us, like a tiny dusty thread, we could see the trail which left Arroyo de Verano and crossed the far ridge, to drop again into an arroyo on the other side, where nestled the village El Oso, home of the boy who had been knifed.
Francisco (Pancho) Cebreros was not the kind of youth to get into a knife fight, Mencho explained. He was a quiet young man. Unlike many other youths of the family, he tended to stay clear of gatherings where there would be much drinking and brawling. Mencho described him as “muy pacífico, muy separado”. Eighteen years old, he was married, father of one child, another on the way. The night before, he and his brothers had been visiting friends in La Quebrada. Manuel, his younger brother, smaller, swarthier, and more temperamental, had begun to roughhouse with a cousin, Martín Cebreros, 19. Play turned to anger; and Pancho, who at the time was sitting in the portál eating buñuelos, hurried to the fighting and tried to make peace: But Martín whipped out his daga, his sheath knife, and plunged it into Pancho’s belly. Pancho staggered back to the house, and when his older brother, Juan, asked what had happened he replied “Martín me sacó la tipa.” Juan ran into the house for a pistol, but when he came out again Martín was long gone. Juan hunted him high and low, but to no avail.
This happened around midnight the night before. Pancho was placed on a catre. The younger brother was sent off up the steep mountainside to fetch Mencho.
The sun was near to setting when we arrived. The portál of the house was jammed with family and relatives of the wounded boy. The father and mother of the stabber were there, as well as the father, sisters, and brothers of the stabbed. I was ushered into the dark room where Pancho lay. His mother sat on the edge of the bed, her hand pressed against the boy’s stomach. The youth groaned in pain and breathed in short quick breaths… I asked for light, and ocotes (pitchy pine splints) were ignited, as neither cachimba nor lámpara were available. The youth, tossing his head and squinting in pain, begged his mother not to withdraw the pressure of her hand from the wound, and I decided before doing anything else to give him a sedative. I regretted giving anything at all by mouth for the likelihood of damage to the alimentary canal, but as I learned that despite Mencho’s advice he had already been given water and even orange juice, I placed a tablet of Butisol in the boy’s mouth and told him to wash it down with a small swallow of boiled water.
I injected him with a tetracycline-penicillin combination, and we waited for the sedative to act. Pancho, who had begun to grow a thin mustache, was pale to the point of waxiness, and his face was cool, although his body was feverish. His eyes would meet mine, as would those of his mother, with a desperate, pleading look, as if somehow I had a choice as to whether he lived or died. At one point Pancho caught hold of my hand, gripping it weakly, as if attempting to draw strength from me. But the wound was too real.
Slowly the pain minimized. Pancho’s groaning abated, and he complained only feeling sofocado. His mother untied the cloth which bound him, and exposed the wound. The gash was larger than I had hoped: more than two inches across. Spilling from it was what appeared to be the caecum and a portion of the liver. Now that the external pressure had been released, the entrails proceeded to force out more and more through the mouth of the wound, slowly, and with little noises…
I do not know if I did the right thing. Given the situation, there was probably no right thing to be done. If I had known for certain, as I learned afterwards, that the knife had penetrated the stomach (I was told later that pieces of tortilla had come out through the wound) I would not have tried making repairs myself. But I hoped against hope that somehow the blade had missed severing the vital organs (there were no signs of a cut on those which protruded) and with adequate antibiotics peritonitis night be controlled. I weighed the possibilities of trying to transport him to a hospital—30 miles of precipitous trail, and then the rough truck trip—but I doubted he could survive such a trip.
Whatever was to be done, it seemed that further protrusion of his entrails would be for the worse, and the only way to avoid this was to close the opening. Reinserting the protrusion as gently as I could, I tried closing the wound with large butterfly bandages. This proved ineffective; I resorted to sutures. How I cursed the clumsiness of these crippled hands of mine when I needed dexterity most! But the wound was closed, and with little pain to Pancho, thanks to the barbiturate.
Pancho asked for a glass of water, and against my advice it was given to him. A minute later, with a sputtering sound, the water, slightly yellow, seeped out through the wound. A wave of despair went through me. At that moment I knew my efforts, for better or worse, had been in vain.
Yet my heart refused to admit the loss. This boy was still so nuevo, so alive, so nearly perfect. The skin I had forced the needle through was so strong, so pliable; the blood so red; the eyes that reached out to mine, and the hand, so full of soul. One human being still beginning! Could it be blown out like a candle before half burning down?
I went into the darkness and walked down the portál to the cocina to re-boil my instruments. In the corner of the kitchen was a cousin of Pancho, a panuelo bound around his jaw, his face swollen from a postemilla (infected tooth) until his left eye was puffed and shut. He asked if I had any medicine for dolor de muela, and, as I had brought no other medicine with me, I gave him terramycin, and a Mejorál to dissolve in his mouth. I looked in again on Pancho, who lay quietly now; his mother’s hand again pressed gently against the wound and his aging, whiskered father and his brothers standing by. There was little more I could do.
My sleeping bag under my arm, I went into the night and looked up. Never had the sky seemed so close, so rich with stars, so luminous in its darkness. How beautiful, that sky! It took me, as a mother takes a weary child, into its arms, and rocked me gently, though I knew I could not sleep. I lay silently on the rough earth, vaguely aware again of the pain in my broken chest, my mind wandering like a child in a strange garden there between the soil and the stars. I set to dreaming…
For some reason my thoughts fastened on the chopped, vine-like bough of California buckeye that had twined through the fork of the big live oak in whose upreaching arms I had built, with my hands and the hands of those I love, my home. I had built my house high in a tree, as a man builds a dream, and the dream had become real, the tree had become my sanctuary, a place for longing and rejoicing, for remembering and forgetting, for looking at birds and at the change of seasons, a hiding place and outlook on the world. And then, one day, a man whom I did not know, and who did not know me, came and posted my tree and his, and nailed the trap-door shut, and for some reason chopped that vine-like bough where it looped through the crotch of the oak. It was this—this violation of beauty—which hurt most! The sign could be removed, the trapdoor opened, but all the money, the tears, the love in the world could not re-knit that vine. I looked at the slash, and although the house still stood, beautiful in the arms of the oak high over the valley, I knew that the dream was ending, a chapter in my life was closing, that the flower had been picked and was wilting fast, that I must turn elsewhere… between my eyes and the stars, I could see clearly the white sap oozing from the cut vine……
The night grew colder. A group of men and boys came outside and built a fire near the side of the house, around which they sat, at first talking in low voices, finally in silence. The hours wore on.
At last, in the middle of the night, came the sound I had awaited, and dreaded, and hoped I would not hear… the indescribable cry of a mother whose child dies. All heard and knew at once, and all were reluctant to respond, to admit what their ears now shouted. The men around the fire lifted their heads, listened, then slowly, without speaking, rose, one then another, and entered the dark room. As for myself, I lay where I lay. I did not move until the stars waned with the dawn. Now it was time for the family and I was a stranger, unneeded.
I lay all night and listened. The lamentations of the living rose, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in chorus. The mother remained at the side of her son, wailing her hurt while the dogs howled from the surrounding darkness. Time and again she raised her voice, sobbing “!Ay mi Diós! ¡Ay Diosito!” as if some god would give her back her son. The brother, Juan, came outside and leaned against the house, head in his arms, sobbing loudly and wailing, also “¡Ay, Diós!” The aging father stood in drooped silence by the portál, staring into the night with its stars.
Why does one cry out to God in pain? It seems not a conscious act, but springing from something deeper, some automatic and primeval response in man, almost an instinct. How deeply wedded are our symbols to our lives.
Thurber has said, “Love is what two people have been through together”, and perhaps this is why there is so close a bond, between the members of these families. In a village like El Oso, the family grows and works and plays together. Children are not sent off to school, for there is none. The father tills the hills behind the house, and from the time the children are able to husk a corncob, they go with him to help, to learn from him, and share with him his hardships and his harvests. Nor, for the mother, is the kitchen a place apart. If it is more often a corner of the common sleeping and storage room, it is also the living-room, the place where the family gathers to warm themselves on cold mornings to share in the lengthy preparation of the meals, the feeding of the fire, the conversation of the day. The home here has no barriers isolating each family member in his own quarters. The love is great; therefore, also, the joy… and the suffering.
Shortly after Pancho died, in the light of flaming ocotes, some of the men began to hew with their machetes small crosses from saplings, to place at the body’s head and feet to keep the devil away. At dawn I arose and went to the room. Pancho lay straight and quiet on the catre, dressed in clean, pressed clothes. His bare feet were bound together by a piece of vine, and between them was propped a small wooden cross. In his hands, clasped together over his breast, was another cross, and a larger cross was placed at his head, His eyes were shut and he appeared asleep. His mother knelt by the bedside, his head in her arms.
I stared at Pancho, and could have sworn I saw his chest moving up and down in gentle breathing. I tried to destroy the illusion, but could not, so unwilling was I to accept the death.
When I went outside again, the man whom I had given the terramycin the night before, came up to me and told me that the pain which had tormented him for over a week had stopped during the night. The swelling, in fact, had subsided. A number of the family members asked me if I had medicine for la gripa, tos and catarro which was as rampant there as in all the villages of the Sierra Madre in tiempo de frío.
After a bit, old Juan came up to me and asked, hesitatingly, “¿Cuanto le debemos?”
“Nada”, I replied.
The old man remained silent a moment. Then he said, “Usted comprende que hemos perdido algo que vale más que a cualquier dinero.” (We have lost something more valuable than any money.)
I replied, “Yo comprendo.”
The family proposed to carry Pancho to the small cemetery on the slope above El Oso. They were still preparing the litter—two poles of Guacimillo with seven cross pieces lashed together with rope, and with fresh-cut vines where the rope ran out—when Mencho and I left.
Mencho said that there was a man ill with pulmonía in the rancho of El Pino, on the mountainside some 2000 feet above the quebrada, and we set off on foot, leading the horse (despite my broken rib), for Mencho insisted that the trail was too steep and treacherous to risk on horseback. we was probably right. I did not envy him making the descent in the night,
We arrived at El Pino to find the sick father alone with his small son.
From the doorway of the small hut we looked across the huge valley to where, like colorful insects upon a winding thread of dust, the funeral party was creeping its way up the steep ridge which separated Verano from the Arroyo de los Osos.
“Pobre familia”, said Mencho, after a long silence. “What wouldn’t the murderer give now to not have done what he did?
“Will he ever come back?” I asked.
“No”, replied Mencho, “How can he? They are all relatives here. He has a young wife there in El Oso, and land he has cleared with his own hands, and three cows. He has lost them all.”
“What kind of a person was he, this Martín?” I asked.
“He was all right,” said Mencho. “He drank a good bit.”
“But he wasn’t drunk at the time?”
“Had he ever done anything to harm anyone before?”
“No,” answered Mencho, and then quoting a proverb, added, “No sucede en un año lo que sucede en un momento.” (That which does not happen in a year, happens in a moment.)
“Will the authorities make any attempt to capture and punish Martín?” I asked, vaguely hopeful that they would not.
Mencho shook his head.
“Why not?” I inquired,
“Porque la familia no tiene…..” and he made the sign of money with his fingers. “Aquí en México solamente hay justicia donde hay dinero. ¡Si no hay o dinero, no hay justicia!”
We stood watching the distant funeral file until it passed over the crown of the ridge and disappeared, then started on our way again.