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47. Corners of the mouth

Updated: Dec 18, 2020



The peasants worked in the irrigation ditch, stripped to their shirts, the tropical miasma close to their chests. The men had been digging for four months without a break and, soon, the grand new fields of the estate would be ready. The master planned to plant corn and some watermelons, and he expected a rich return on his investment. He watched his peasants dig from his horse. Flies clustered on the supple wetness of the horse’s eyes; the whites had turned quite red with irritation. Every few minutes, the horse gave a great shake of its head and brayed. The master ignored the horse.

The ditch was for irrigation, but there was little water to be had there and then. The gang leader, a Swede known as Jo, called up to the master for water. The master remained seated in his saddle, flicked a fly away with his riding crop. At last, he gave a short shake of his head. “No water,” he said. The gang leader turned back to his men. “No water, boys.” There was slight shimmer in the air, the shimmer of discontent, but, as with all animals trained to their task, the peasants turned back to their work without voicing a real complaint. Perhaps things would get better; surely, they could not get much worse.

It was twilight by the time an old mule arrived, driven by a fat man from the town and drawing behind it a small wagon laden with bread and jugs of water. “May we?” asked Jo, looking up to the horse. The master had not moved, even when the field began to vibrate in the heat. He had received training in some brutal academy favoured by local elites, and, though he was a hard man to the peasants, he was hard with himself as well. He raised a hand in assent, and the men clambered from the trench and congealed around the back of the wagon. In the fading light they looked as black and furious as the flies that were drawn to the horse’s eyes.

The master spurred his horse with a casual stirrup and rode over to the assembled group. Jo broke away from the men and gave a slight bow to the master, just low enough to be sincere but shallow enough to retain his self-respect. “Where will you be wanting the men tonight?” The master’s lip tightened to a smirk. He was a strange man. Jo had never seen him beat a man, unlike the other masters, but he kept them hard at it. He was always distant, thought Jo, always looking at something very far off. “Take them to the barn over the bridge,” said the master. “Yes, sir,” replied Jo. He gave another bow and retreated back to the wagon, where his subordinate had saved him a jug of water and a hard loaf. The men were in a good mood now they had eaten and all their limbs had relaxed. Jo liked the harshness. He was not a free man, true; but he had found that there are some things in life better than the license that men mistake for liberty. He had a wife and small shop once; now he had the master and the work.

Jo sat in the irrigation ditch and enjoyed the sensation of every aching limb relaxing. What was life worth if you never felt tired? If you never felt thirsty? Over the way, in the darkness, he could see the master on his horse. A fuzzy moon had risen behind him. The men had eaten now and so he chided them to their feet. “There’s a barn for us,” he cried, “and I will be having all the straw and the farmer’s daughter!” His men jeered at him in a good-natured way and the party marched off to the barn. In the early morning hours, Jo crept from the barn, under a clean full moon, and saw, still mounted on his horse, the master.

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