From fruit trees to plastic packaging
Looking into Dylan’s face I see my little brother when he was young. You never had to tell my brother to eat. He’d gobble up his yucca, bananas, and chonta so fast he didn’t breathe until it was gone. But best of all was the fruit. When I was a girl, we ate fruit all day long. We ran from tree to tree gorging ourselves until we groaned with stomachaches. Sometimes our bowls were empty, our cups bare, but the trees were always full, and we were never hungry. Every fruit you could want grew around our house: papaya, lemons, oranges, pineapple, grapes, mangos, and many more varieties.
My grandson doesn’t know what it is like to feel your stomach rumble with too much fruit. He doesn’t know what it is like to feel your face pucker up when you squeeze lemon juice onto your tongue, or to feel your mouth grow fuzzy from the pulp of pineapple. There isn’t fruit for my grandson to eat. The fruit trees we used to feast from have all been chopped down—replaced with cement houses. Now, you have to buy fruit like everything else. And there isn’t money left over after buying the rice, noodles and sugar, and all the other things we didn’t used to need.
Instead, Dylan eats cookies, candy, and other things that come in plastic wrappers. His teeth are yellow and sore, not like mine, so white and strong. Sometimes the city food gets stuck in his gut, and he has to swallow spoonfuls of the pink syrup his mother gives him. When I was a child, the fruit was our medicine.
From silent hunting to the noise of guns
I hear the rumbling of an engine and soon a white pick-up bounces its way to the house.
“Papa!” Dylan scrambles out of his chair and runs to the door as my husband and son jump out of the cab. My husband’s eyes look tired as he lifts the two rifles out of the truck. My son pulls off his faded red T-shirt and uses it to wipe the sweat off his face before giving Dylan a hug. “Nada,” he says. “No luck.”
I’m not surprised. You’re lucky if you can bring home even one animal from a night’s hunt these days. My husband sets the rifles on the table. He and my son collapse into chairs.
When I was young, my father hunted often. He would be gone all night and in the morning would return weighted down with game. My father didn’t hunt with a rifle; he hunted with traps. He would put a bunch of over-ripe bananas at the bottom of a hole. An animal would fall into it attempting to eat the bananas and would be trapped there until my father came back. My father hunted like an animal, silently in the dark. Not like hunters now. The rifles they use are loud. One shot, and all the animals run and hide.
I remember one day when I was about 12. My father had been out all night and was taking longer to return than usual. We had already finished our breakfast of boiled bananas when he trudged in empty-handed. He sat down at the table with a grunt. “El ruido,” he sighed. “The noise from the city is reaching up into the mountains. The animals are afraid. They don’t come out to eat.”
From cows’ milk to canned milk
That day my father bought the cows. Thirty-five of them. We built a fence around a piece of land down by the river. The milk was for us children. Whenever we got thirsty, all we had to do was run down to the cow meadow for a drink. We didn’t need cups; we sprayed the warm, foamy milk right into our mouths. My grandson doesn’t know what real milk tastes like. He drinks milk that comes in a can. It is so thick it has to be mixed with water. The only way he will drink it is warmed up with sugar.
I stand up and go into the kitchen. Smoke from the dying fire makes me squint my eyes. But I’m used to it. I take two cups from the shelf nailed to the board wall and scoop them into the big smoke-blackened chicha pot that always sits full, beside the small gas stove. I carry the mugs brimming with thick, warm chicha back for my husband and son. They both wolf it down eagerly and I head back to the kitchen for more.
I am proud of my son for the way he drinks his chicha. He doesn’t sip it timidly like his wife, but gulps it down the way my father used to. My daughter-in-law drinks chicha only to be polite. She sips it cautiously through her teeth, trying to keep the chunks of yucca from going in her mouth. And the way she swishes it around in her mouth before forcing herself to swallow, I can tell she’s thinking about how I chewed the yucca before putting it into the pot, how the enzymes from saliva make it ferment. She’s thinking about all the germs she imagines in the cup she’s holding.
When their stomachs are full, my husband and son head to work. My husband takes the trail up behind the house to the finca to harvest chonta. My son climbs back into his truck and rattles off down the road to town where he works as a police officer.
View from the hammock
“Time for dessert,” I call to my grandson. He races to the table and snatches up his package of cookies while I pour myself a cupful of chicha. I sit down in the woven hammock in the shade of the house and he climbs into my lap. The wrapper of his cookies crinkles loudly in my ear, drowning out the songs of the birds. Not that they sing much around here anymore without the trees.
We swing gently looking out at the valley below us. My grandson’s eyes see the new black road slicing through the village. He sees the bare telephone poles shooting up beside the road; the satellite dishes, like big mushrooms, sprouting out of brightly painted cement block houses. But I see past the dust and clutter of the new village. My eyes see beyond the tangle of electric wires precariously stringing the town together. I see the hills dark with moist, shady forests, towering trees, their branches heavy with orchids. I see the green meadow down by the river’s edge, speckled with black and white cows. I see the fruit trees heavy with produce, the birds and bees and butterflies swarming over dropped fruit. And I wonder: When my eyes close for the last time, who will see what I see? Who will remember?
Sierra, Naomi and Indira make chicha, drink made from palm fruit. Photo by Jerrell Ross Richer.
Jane Ross Richer and Elena Grefa, one of the women who inspired the story, share a meal and fellowship. Photo by Naomi Ross Richer.