THE TOLL OF THE RAIN
Earth, air, fire, and water are still the basic elements in the barrancas, but the most momentous, most prayed for, most fearful of these is water. Earth can be tilled or molded into homes. Air is forever and is of little threat; the worst wind storm this year was in May, and while it felled trees across the trails, ripped tiles from roofs, and raised a sea of dust which coated the casas inside and out, it caused little irreplaceable damage. Fire is man’s servant, obedient if treated with respect, more readily managed than a mule. Although sometimes it escapes from burning milpas and destroys whole mountainsides, or drops hot coals from cooking fires to sear the surprised feet of children, on the whole it is little hazard.
But water! Water obeys no one in the barrancas. One day it serves, the next it reneges, and the next it masters. While it consents to follow roughly predictable seasons, its hour and extent come as it chooses. It is a sorcerer who can change the face of the landscape or the fate of a village overnight. It can be as fickle or, as faithful as a woman; as tempestuous or as tender as a drunk; as delightful or as cruel as a child. Water, in fact, is as creative and as destructive as man himself.
Man is the victim of the water’s whim. If the summer rains are scant, the harvests fail. If the summer rains are bounteous, the trails wash out and the river and arroyos become impassable. In either case the water takes its toll.
This summer in the barrancas has been as exceptionally wet as last summer was dry. Those weather-prophets who, when it rained more than normally in las cabanuelas, predicted heavy rains during las temporadas, were right. Except for the water logging of some of the more level milpas, and of those higher in the sierra the relentless rains this season give promise of a boon harvest, for the corn has grown fast and fat. Heavy rains mean hard work, a constant battle to suppress the prolific weeds which shoot up even faster than the corn in response to the pounding raindrops. But the people do not mind this extra work, which means at the same time more food to come, except that many are hungry and underfed as a result of the crop failure from last year’s drought. It is not easy for a man and his children to work all day on a mountainside with their stomachs empty.
From the time I arrived in Verano in early July, until now in mid-September, there have been only three days when in the afternoon it did not cloud over and rain. Yet not one day during the whole summer has passed without sunshine. Usually the days dawn clear and fresh, with fluffs of thin mist rising from the crevices of the lush and dripping hills. The temperature rises with the sun until, by noon, the day is hot. Then, sooner or later in the afternoon, usually between three and four o’clock, great billows of black rain-clouds come rolling down from the higher sierra, flashing lightning and grumbling like a convention of giants. With magic speed the clouds radiate out over the heavens, gushing a foreboding wind ahead of them, and the rain, in a grey, sibilant curtain descends from the head of the valley. From mid-August on the rains have tended to come later in the afternoons, some times not beginning until after dark, or holding off into the wee hours, so that the dawn steals in through a misty drizzle. Invariably before noon, however, the sun breaks through, and the cloud banks dissolve within minutes to leave only a few silvery swirls of mist cavorting in slow motion through the steep ravines of the green and rocky mountains.
Sometimes the afternoon rain comes in sprinkles, sometimes in showers, but more often with a force so violent that—like a rainbow, or a lovely face—it demands one’s attention no matter how often one has seen it. How many afternoons, as the sky, like a dam, has exploded under its overload of water and—booming thunder and lightning—has descended in a torrent toward the earth, has a tremor of awe, a mixture of fear and delight, passed through each one of us, young and old, sheltered under the streaming tiles of the stout Casa Vidaca! Dropping our chores of the moment, how often have we hurried to the edge of the portal to stare out at the silver sheets of water pelting the dark leaves of the habas and palos colorados converting the yellow-red soil of the hillside into a cascade of soupy mud, while the stoic burros stand with their ears folded back, streaming water, the chickens poise tall and stiff on rocks and logs on higher ground, their tails bent down in a straight line with their bodies to better shed the water, and the invincible, oblivious hogs root on, as hungry as ever! How often, peering over each other’s shoulders, have we watched the thrashing arroyo rise, inch by leaping inch, sweeping logs and boulders in its surf, or waited to see if today’s flood would exceed the level of yesterday.
The flooding of the arroyos is a special problem for those who live on one side and go each day to work their milpas on the other. The Arroyo de Verano is constantly playing games with such villagers, who drop their tlacuaches at the first rain drops and race down the steep mountainside to try to snake it across the arroyo while they still can. Frequently the water rises slowly and they have no difficulty, but if it has been raining hard farther upstream, the arroyo may rise as much as a foot a minute. I have seen it rise six feet in half an hour, covering the deeply-fluted base of the huge higuera on the bank below the casa Vidaca. I watch with suspenseful fascination as Bonifacio and his children, boys and girls alike, run by on their way from the milpa and dash fearlessly into the muddy, surging water.
One day a stout youth named Pablo returned late from his milpa. He came springing down the mountainside like a deer, a small sheet of plastic clutched over his shoulders in a vain attempt to shed the hammering rain, his pants rolled up above his knees. The arroyo was already a dangerously churning wake.
“¡No se puede pasar ahorita!” warned Irineo. (You can’t pass it now!)
“¡Como no!” cried Pablo with a sunny laugh, “¡Lo paso volando!” (I’ll pass it flying!) Which said, he turned and bounded into the avalanching water. A moment later he emerged on the other side, gave a triumphant whoop, and made his way up the muddy trail toward Verano.
“¡Que valiente!” (How brave!) I commented.
“¡Que tonto!” (How foolish!) retorted Irineo. “Hay muchos que han perdido la vida así.” (There are many who have thus lost their lives.)
One day I myself had a close encounter with the arroyo. This was the day I went with Enrique and his son, Chon, over the high ridge and down to the Rio Verde to see them cross the flooded river on a wire cable stretched above the rushing water. On my return trip, welcoming the solitude, I had poked along, pausing here to look out upon the rugged scenery, there to watch the insects and flowers by the side of the trail. The afternoon rains, with brief warning, broke loose as I was descending the steep trail toward the canyon below E1 Rancho del Padre. This trail winds down the side of a steep ravine and enters the canyon about 400 yards downstream from Irineo’s house. The rain was falling in a torrential cloudburst when I reached the canyon. The water had already begun to rise noticeably, and I debated whether I should risk wading upstream out of the steep-walled canyon, or should weather the storm where I was, which might mean spending all night in the wet ravine. Had it not been for my camera, I think I would have stayed, but there is a limit to how much rain the thin leather case can shed, and I decided to take the chance. I splashed into the rising water. Now the rain was falling so hard it blurred vision a few feet away. I hurried up the canyon as fast as I could, stumbling through the deep, rushing water and sinking at times into thick washes of mud. The churning torrent rose steadily until at the deeper points it was waist deep and I had to battle to keep my footing. I arrived at the casa Vidaca drenched and tired. Irineo laughed when he saw me, not so much at my bedraggled appearance as with relief. When it started to rain and I had still not returned he had begun to worry, and with reason.
Beremundo Vidaca and his family had an even narrower escape in the same canyon late in July. In El Tule, near the junction to the Arroyo de Verano with the Rio Verde, Beremundo had built a small hut of poles and thatch so that he and his family could pass las aguas near his milpas on the adjacent slope. The jejenes however, proved unbearable. In the late afternoons the clouds of these tiny insects were as thick as mist, and the skin of his children was peppered with bites. One of the little boys had scratched so much that one ear and the side of his face had become seriously infected, and at last Beremundo decided to bring his family back to E1 Rancho del Padre where the jejenes, if bad, are at least bearable. Unwisely, he decided to take the shortcut through the canyon, for the trail over the ridges is nearly two times as long.
Again the rain came early and suddenly. Quickly the water rose above the capacity of the children, and their parents had to carry them, Eulalia bearing the smallest child, Beremundo the other two, one piggy-back, and one in his arms. They arrived frightened and exhausted, but safe. I could not help but marvel at how they had made it through the rushing water, rolling rocks, and quagmires bearing their children as they did. But the people in the barrancas are as sure-footed as goats. They have
Sometimes, however, the villagers overestimate their capacity to cope with the floodwaters. I have already related how Dimas Lomas narrowly escaped drowning while trying to cross the flooded Rio Verde. Over the years the Rio Verde has taken its toll of lives. One of the fords below La Amargosa, for example, is now called “El Vado del Inocente” because several years ago, a brother of my host, Solomé Macías, in Huachimetas, was drowned at this spot, trying to make a crossing when the river was in high flood. Late this August, word came back up to Verano that the body of a man, hooked on a snag in mid-river, had been spotted by a child. The body was retrieved, but was already too far gone to be recognized. Around the dead man’s neck was an empty bule (gourd) stoppered with a corn cob, which evidently he had contrived as a life-preserver in his attempt to cross the flooded river.
The Rio Elote, north of the Rio Piaxtla, whose tributaries we crossed on our journey into the high sierra, has also taken its toll of lives this summer. A man and his wife were trying to make the crossing to their casa when the woman slipped and was swept downstream. Her husband swam after her to try to save her, but the woman clutched at him and they were both drowned.
A few days ago Florinda Alvarado paid me a visit. She had come to ask for medicines to calm her sister, who, she said, “volvió loca”—had gone out of her mind. Her sister, she explained, lives on a relatively small tributary of the Rio Piaxtla between Tayoltita and Verano. The family’s milpa is on the far side of the arroyo. One afternoon, a little over a week ago, it began to rain unusually hard, the arroyo rose suddenly out of its banks. The worried mother went to the water’s edge to await her husband and 12 year-old daughter who were weeding the milpa. By the time they arrived on the far side, the water had risen dangerously high and the mother shouted to them not to cross. But the father hoisted the little girl onto his shoulders, and despite his wife’s cries of protest, waded into the flooded arroyo. Half-way across, with the water up to his shoulders, he stumbled and the little girl fell into the swirling current and was swept quickly downstream. Neither she nor her father knew how to swim, for during the dry season when the water is quiet enough for swimming, the stream is too small to permit it. The father himself narrowly escaped drowning. Four days have now passed since the drowning, Florinda told me, and still her sister remains hysterical.
Florinda also confided to me that now, after the drowning of her niece, she herself is more worried about the safety of her own children. Their milpa is also on the far side of the arroyo, and ever since her husband died “because he ate guayabas when he had a cold in the chest”, her young sons have had to care for the milpa alone. Each day they must cross the arroyo, which in a normal rainy season rarely rises enough to be dangerous…
“But yesterday it was so deep we had to swim across!” asserted 14 year-old Pancho, a note of pride in his voice.
His mother shuddered visibly. She said she would like to forbid her children crossing the arroyo, “¿Pero si los niños no traspasan el monte, que vamos a comer?” (But if the children don’t go through the weeds, what will we eat?)
And so, in mid-September, the rains continue to fall. How long they will last no one knows for sure. The weather-prophets say that because the new moon entered with water the rain will continue until the moon goes out. Nearly every afternoon the arroyos continue to flood. The river below remains high and—but for the one cable in the barrancas—is impassable except at great risk. The trails connecting the higher country with Ajoya—although re-opened—remain treacherous. The time is overdue for me to send off the third “Report from the Sierra Madre” (this) and to do so I must return to the lowlands. I would have preferred to wait until the arroyo and the river were less flooded, and the trails more easily traveled, but I have other reasons for wanting to return to Ajoya. During the rains, communications have been all but severed between Verano and the world beyond. On September 7th I received two letters which had been mailed from Palo Alto on June 28th! I have also received a hurriedly written note from Old Micaela, in Ajoya, saying, “Tenemos la Sofía muy mala. Favor de venir para curarla.” (Sofía is very ill. Please come and treat her.) But the note did not arrive until two and a half weeks after it was dispatched, and as Micaela did not mention what sort of illness Sofía has, I have no idea whether by this time she is better, worse, well, or otherwise. So I am eager to get back to do what I can, for the Chavarins have treated me like a son. Also I have heard nothing from Goyo’s family, and although I may be unable to cress the river to Las Chicuras, I would like to see if it is possible. And so, although somewhat delayed, this third Report should soon be in your hands, si Diós quiere.