(Continued from The Colonel Comes Home – 2)
“Fried Christ!” the Colonel grumbled as sweat leaked from his hat band into his eyes. He was glad they had started before sunup but now it didn’t matter. He coaxed his burro over a slight rise then into the darkening cool between two boulders. “Hot!” he called to Diego who was keeping the pace ahead of him.
“It’s good for us, this sun”, he called back over his shoulder. “Wait till you see the crop.”
The Colonel pulled up and lifted his hat to wipe his brow. The poppies weren’t going anywhere-they would wait for him. His foreman went not much farther before realizing he was alone. He turned his burro to find his father drinking from his gourd in the shade. “I’m sorry, Colonel”, he said. “I shouldn’t have…”
“Don’t apologize for doing what every man your age does. Rush forward, run here-run there. It’s your running about-being everywhere at the same time- that makes this estate, and us, rich. Don’t apologize for it. I did it too. Years ago. Now, I sit in the shade when God provides.” Diego took the offered gourd and drank deeply.
Diego had wanted him to see the crop since his return and this trip to the top of the mountain was for him. The boy was proud of his efforts as he should have been. The Colonel liked the flowers, he liked the colors, he liked the clearings hacked, in a single winter, out of the dark jungle-that showed power. But he wasn’t a farmer, this Colonel. None of his people were of the earth. He was a fighter, a soldier, a one-time mercenary, now unquestioned ruler of what once had been the largest regency in the country and owner of the largest estate in the territory. What he liked about this crop was what he liked about everything he touched: the gold that it would eventually yield. His growing fortune. The gold to buy more soldiers. That’s what he cared about. That’s what he had come to see. He sat in the shade until the sweat on his back felt cool then gestured Diego onward.
It was after two when they finally arrived back at the hacienda trudging slowly through the glowing orange trees. He had toured the poppy fields and spent the requisite time with the troops stationed up there. They were always happy to see him and worth the trip but almost nine hours on a burro was plenty for the Colonel and he left his with a groom and turned to Diego. “Join me for lunch? Some wine, perhaps?”
“I would love to Colonel”, he demurred. “But we are slaughtering from the southern herd in the morning. I’m down some caballeros and need to gather stragglers.”
The Colonel smiled and waved him off. “Go to it Diego! We need every cow-it will be a tough winter. I’ll drink enough for both of us.” With a quick, “Adio’” he was off to his cows. The older man walked slowly, straightening a little more each step. Surely, it was his imagination, but he swore he heard his spine groaning like a tree in the wind.
His coming had, of course, been foreseen and the wine, cheese, fruits and bread were at the table. He unbuckled his saber and took off his pistol, thinking about how his hardware grew heavier every year. He was looking directly upward and digging his knuckles into his kidneys when he heard a light tread on the veranda. It was one of the serving girls…Constance, Consuelo…he couldn’t remember. “Yes?” he asked.
“Excellency. The girl…she’s back.” She had nothing else to say.
The Colonel stared blinking then opened his hands to her. “Which girl, daughter? It’s been a busy week.”
“The one whose mother you…whipped.” Her voice dropped at the last word-not wanting to speak it in his presence lest…
“Ah, Laurencia”, he remembered derailing her train of thought. “She’s brought her burro back for a visit. I’ll pet him but not ride him. Enough with burros today. Please, fetch her. Send her to me.” He poured a cup of wine and took it onto his tongue. It was the Rose, served cool from the cellars. He kept it on his tongue before-eyes closed-swallowing slowly and luxuriantly. If the priests served this at Mass he never would have left the Church.
He felt, more than heard the girl cross the patio. He waved to her. “Come here girl.” Laurencia hung back-only for a moment. Her transformation from almost-woman, back to child was stunning enough that the Colonel had to keep looking at her to ensure that this pretty waif was the same sent to him for carnal pleasure just days before. It wasn’t just the plain housedress either. The girl seemed chastened somehow. He saw something in the way she moved-there was a stiffness. His stomach hardened when he saw what might have been a thickness on her lower lip-as from a blow. He registered it, then ignored it.
The Colonel sat to get down to her level and spread his spindly legs. “Come,” he said, reaching out his hands, beckoning. “I guess there are no eggs for me this trip”, he joked but she didn’t smile. “I’m sorry”, she mumbled. “Come, come”, she took his hand shyly and slipped into the protectorate of his horseman’s thighs. She noticed, of all things, how clean his white canvas trousers were. She whimpered lightly as he turned her but gave into his gentle push to bend slightly over his left leg steadying herself with one hand on the table. She made no sound as he drew up her rough cotton dress behind.
To preserve her modesty, he only pulled the dun colored cloth up her legs but far enough to reveal thick switch slashes that left angry welts and a few cuts on the back of her thighs. He could imagine, but didn’t want to see, what her bottom looked like. His heart raced, and he thought of his saber.
“Your mother did this?”
“She was angry.”
“Tell me true girl. Did you misbehave in any way to deserve this?”
“No sir. I was asleep. She awoke me with a stick.”
She was young; inexperienced in the ways of men. She didn’t hear his tone of voice change from sweetly cajoling to hardened steel. He lowered her dress and helped her to straighten. “Buenila!” Being deeply experienced, the old woman recognized the Colonel’s tone and materialized at the edge of the veranda like steam from a fissure in the ground.
“Am I in trouble Colonel?” Laurencia asked timidly.
“No, my dear…Not at all.”
“Buenila, take Laurencia inside, bathe her, dress her wounds…”
“You will see them…and feed her. I’m betting she’s hungry, aren’t you daughter?” She answered with a tiny nod. “Go”, he said with a wave of his hand. “Let Buenila care for you. She’s had girls just like you…she’ll know what to do. Go.”
Buenila the crone, barren since birth, never a natural mother, took Laurencia Palacios gently by the hand and led her into the cool darkness of the house. Inside, they moved to the left away from the Colonel’s quarters toward the servants and guest rooms. They passed Buenila’s small cell without comment and came to a room glowing green from sunlight reflected off the leaves through the high window. The bathing room had a handsome teak bathtub, a dressing table, a rattan lounge and small fireplace in the corner.
The girl balked when Buenila tried to undress her, so she left her be and took to filling the tub. The cistern water was warm this time of year but not warm enough so Buenila added from the steaming kettle that was always near to boiling on the fire. The scent of the oils added to the water was as enticing as the old woman’s tuneless humming was calming.
This time, when the old woman pulled at the laces at her neck, Laurencia did not resist and allowed the dress to be pulled up over her head covering her small breasts with crossed arms. Had the Colonel availed himself of what had been so crudely offered he would have found a girl on the cusp of womanhood; her throat long and thin with matted brown hair cascading over almond colored shoulders. Firm as a spring peach, she glowed in the dappled, reflected sunshine.
She pulled back when the old woman tried to pull her arms down. Again, leaving her be, Buenila cupped her hands and reached into the bathtub scooping a deep handful of water into her mouth. Then, cheeks swollen, she looked at the girl, crossed her eyes and pulled her ears spitting a stream of water out of her mouth like a demented swan, splatting Laurencia in the middle of the forehead. The girl froze in amazement then burst into laughter raising her hands to cover her face. Seeing an opening, the crone moved quickly to tickle her under both arms. The girl screeched and, dissolving into giggles, pulled her arms to her sides, her nakedness, at least for the moment, forgotten.
This time, when offered a hand, Laurencia took it and turned stepping gingerly into the tub. The old woman quickly glanced at the crosshatching on the girl’s backside and again raged quietly behind her humming.
“What is that song?” Laurencia asked, wincing as she sat in the tub.
“I don’t know. Mamma sang it. It is the sound of my childhood.”
“That was a long time ago, I bet.”
In my head, thought the old woman, it is still happening. “A very long time”, she said.
The girl allowed her hair to be washed, then to be bathed top and bottom, inside and out. Stepping out of the tub she stood comfortably, shifting from foot to foot as Buenila dried her with thick cotton towels. Then, led by the hand, she followed the old woman to the couch and lay naked across her lap. The unguent that Buenila applied to the girl’s wounds was an old native concoction made of jungle herbs and weeds.
“This is not so bad”, she whispered interrupting her chorale as she rubbed and ministered to every stripe and mark. “You will be fine…” When finished she moved to help the girl up but heard in her breathing, in her regular and rhythmic snotty, snuffling, that she had fallen fast asleep. Buenila smiled and sat back, her arms protectively draped across the girl.
“That’s all right. Sleep Choochie”, she thought using a name her gramma had called her. “The Colonel will do the right thing.”