JOSE Rojas Tapia rubbed a dry cloth over the gleaming rear fender of his tractor, then climbed dejectedly down off the back of the machine. As shiny and red as any polished apple, the tractor glinted in the late morning sun. He removed his straw hat and passed the back of his hand across a sweating forehead.
He was a small, tidy man. His dark hair and moustache were kept short and carefully groomed; his faded trousers and shirt were patched and bleached but spotless. He showed the same care for his tractor and attached three-bottomed plow as he did for his personal appearance. It was true, he loved the gleaming machine. He had paid a village artisan to inscribe the words ‘El Condor’ in bold black letters on either side of the motor’s hood, and on the back of each wide fender the same artist had painted a replica of the fierce and free Andean eagle.
José stood near his mud house at the upper edge of a village built on the slope of the Andean foothills. Behind and above him straight rows of soybeans were just beginning to poke their way through the red earth of the hill. Below he could see the skyscrapers of Cali 30 kilometres away rising from the valley’s level floor. He pictured the crowded, dusty barrios which were crowded up against the mountains on the city’s far side.
He, José, has promised himself he would never end up there with Susana and their children. The little ones would go to school here and then get jobs. One or two might even succeed him as farmers. That had been his dream. But only fools dream, he thought as he kicked a clump of soft red mud which had spun off from the tractor.
He was still standing in the yard and staring pensively out over the valley when a car horn sounded. A late-model blue Chevrolet skidded to a stop. A small, fat man wearing brown suit pants, a short-sleeved shirt and striped necktie climbed out. ‘Buenos,’ he said, and raised a pudgy, black-haired arm in greeting. In José’s stomach the butterflies began to flutter.
‘Hola Antonio,’ José said as cheerfully as he could. ‘Como estás?’
‘Bien, bien,’ the fat man said. Jose noticed that droplets of perspiration glistened on his upper lip and on his arms. Antonio walked over to front of the tractor and kicked a tire to remove mud from the soles of his white loafers.
He turned to face José looking directly at him for the first time. ‘You are my cousin Jose, but I love you better than I love my brothers.’ He stopped talking, then began again with difficulty. ‘You know why I am here.’
‘Why you Antonio? Why my own cousin?’
‘I sold the tractor to you, so l am the one they send to take it back.’
‘Cabrón!’ José shouted. ‘It was you who told me to stop living like a peasant with my sheep and my chickens. Plant everything with soybeans for the new mill, you said. It was you who said get rid of those useless oxen, take a loan and buy a tractor. And now the gringo company sends you to take it away.
‘Don’t blame the gringos,’ Antonio shouted back at him. ‘If people like you spent less time drinking aguardientte and more time doing custom work with your machines you could make your payments.
‘Aguardiente! What do you know about that? You who sit in a cool office in the city and come here only when you want to sell. My neighbours can’t pay for custom work because the mill has cut the price it pays for the beans.’
‘It’s the market, José.’ Antonio said in a voice which had suddenly become tired and subdued. ‘The world price has dropped. It’s supply and demand.
‘I’ll tell you about demand, you whore for the gringos’. Jose yelled, taking a menacing step toward Antonio. ‘My children demand meat and milk and clothing, and now I have nothing to feed them but beans. Have you ever eaten soybeans every day for a month?’
‘No, José, I haven’t.’ Antonio had been easing his way toward the blue car. He opened the door and slipped behind the wheel. From the seat he picked up a clipboard holding a white piece of typewritten paper. He shoved it through the open window toward José. ‘I’m sorry you have to sign this. It means that you no longer own the tractor. Tomorrow I’ll have to come with a big truck and get it. Jose felt suddenly out of breath, as he had once when kicked by a mule. ‘Antonio, is there nothing . .
‘No.’ Antonio said curtly. ‘And. José, the driver will be armed. Please don’t do anything foolish. People have been hurt, even killed.’
In a daze, without even reading the page. Jose signed it He had been expecting this day, and dreading it. Antonio took back the clipboard, started the car’s motor and revved it twice until it roared and the automobile shook.’ José. maybe you should sell this little hill and look for work in Cali. There’s always a job for a man who wants one.
‘The tractor, you say, no longer belongs to me?’
‘At this moment, José, it belongs again to the company. Adios.’ Antonio tramped on the accelerator and the automobile fishtailed in the slippery street. Jose watched until the car skidded around a corner and out of his sight. He turned and looked at the tractor, at the two black condors painted boldly on the rear fenders. A big company from outside of the country had come in to build mills in the valley during the 1960s. They needed soybeans to make feed concentrates for cattle and pigs. The company contracted with farmers to supply the beans. The prices were good. For years he resisted, but finally he made the plunge. Antonio, who had taken a job with one of the North American farm machinery companies after he left the seminary, had convinced him to buy the tractor. Jose then planted every piece of his ground except the floor of his house with soybeans. He began to do custom work with the tractor for other small farmers.
For the first few years things went well. The soybeans which he sold covered the cost of seed, the loan for the tractor, and even the price of fertiliser and chemicals which the mill owners insisted must be used to improve yields. Then suddenly the company cut the prices. They said it was the market. He wanted to stop using the expensive chemicals, even the fertilizer, but the company said if he did he would lose his contract. Last season he had fallen behind on his payments to the farm-machine corporation for the tractor.
A hand clutched his arm. José turned to find his mother, Anna Maria. looking up at him. ‘Madre de Dios,’ she said sadly, ‘Madre de Dios.’ She was a short and rotund woman with a leathery face and few missing teeth. ‘The old way was better,’ she said. ‘What kind of life is it when there is no space for the garden with corn and melons, no room even for sheep and goats?’
José felt the tips of his ears begin to tingle with shame. He had failed her, failed Susana and his children. Once, he thought wistfully, five hectares. even if it was in the foothills, had been enough to scrape out a meagre living. His mother had kept chickens, a few goats and pigs, a garden. His father had used oxen and an old wooden plough to plant corn which Anna Maria sold door-to-door and in the markets of Cali.
The old woman had begun to speak again without his noticing. ‘The owner of the big hacienda in the valley once had us thrown off our land.’ she said. The police came and made us move. Some of the men were shot. We were driven to the poor land higher up on the mountain. With us we took our sheep and goats, our oxen, ducks and chickens.’
‘Mama, no,’ Jose said, putting his hand on her shoulder. ‘This is not the time for your old stories.’
Anna Maria continued as though she had not noticed the interruption. ‘Our animals were just like us. They were just peasant animals. They didn’t know too much. They didn’t know that a stone or a marker said this is not your land or this land belongs to the hacienda. Little by little our sheep and goats ate their way back onto the hacienda. And whenever anyone came to make our sheep and goats change their silly ways, we in the mountains saw those people coming and very suddenly our animals would move. It took many years, but we got back some of our land.’
Jose looked at her fondly. ‘Madrecita, please leave me for a while, I have to think.’ It was not until after dark that he went into the house. A soft tongue of flame in the glass chimney of the lamp threw wavering shadows onto the walls. He could smell the oil with which Susana filled the lamp. She was sitting with the old woman at the table, her lips set in a thin, tight line. Her dark hair was pulled back from her forehead and set into a bun at the back of her head. Her eyes were smoldering.
‘I am going to be away all night,’ José said, dropping onto a chair at the table. ‘If anyone asks you tomorrow, say that I went to the cantina and got drunk. If you hear sounds of men outside of the house tonight, do not get up.’ With that José opened the Bible lying on the table and removed a few of the peso notes which he and Susana kept there. Then he stood up and left.
It was early the next morning when a big truck pulling a flatbed trailer arrived, squeezing its way through the narrow streets. The truck stopped before José’s mud house and Antonio climbed down clumsily. Anna Maria was sweeping small clumps of mud from the hard ground with a broom made from branches. ‘Tiá’ Antonio said, giving her the briefest of embraces, ‘where is José?’
‘I don’t know.’ she said with a shrug. ‘He went to the cantina yesterday and he stayed away all night. Look in the jail.’
‘Tiá, I am here for the tractor. Where is it?’
‘I do not know, unless. . . and she made a motion with her head to a spot further along the street. There, on a black and oily patch of ground lay several scattered pieces of steel, what undeniably had been the engine block of a large motor and a few cogged gear wheels from a transmission. The pile of metal might have been found in any scrapyard in Cali. It could once have been a tractor, a red one judging from the paint on the motor block, but there were no tires, no fenders, no seat, not even a steering wheel.
Antonio’s mouth fell open and he turned on the old woman. ‘Jose did this, and you know that he’s going to be in big trouble.’
‘We know nothing, senor. We are only simple peasants. We do not know what great animal ate your machine.’ Anna Maria picked up a straw mat, and threw it over a piece of rope strung between the hut and tree. As she struck the mat lightly with her broom, chunks of earth fell to the ground. She began to hum an old melody which she had learnt as a girl when her family had been driven into the mountains.
Dennis Grending is a journalist and poet based in Regina, Saakatchewan.