Cane Stalks

— Cassandra Passarelli

There was a time when Kap would have resisted a wild goose-chase into the boonies. But since his wife had left, the several hours’ drive to La Libertad to research cane-cutting was a welcome distraction. When he’d put to bed circular projections over his failed marriage, his thoughts turned to his countrymen, born with AK47s in their hands and Hail Marys on their lips. Three decades of Civil War had segued into the Drug War. To the trinity of emblems every pre-primaria child learned (the national bird a quetzal, the national flower a monja blanca and the national tree a ceiba) they should have added a national motto: ‘Shoot first, pray after.’

Kap spent the afternoon with the nervy Los Cocos foreman who explained his boss, Don Otto Salguero, was at a funeral. He took him on a tour of the offices and plantation, but Kap sensed he was unwelcome. The foreman didn’t even nod at the graneleros as they toiled, clothes stiff with sweat and syrup. An inexhaustible resource, they were small men who earned two dollars for every metric ton of cane they cut and spoke little Spanish.

As Kap’s head hit the pillow that night he realised he’d left his i-Pod somewhere. So shortly after dawn he showered and headed back to the finca. There was no guard at the gates. Desperate to piss he parked and made toward a long shed across a field of cut cane. He tripped on something, too soft to be a stone, amongst the dried stalks. Rubbing grazed palms, he looked back. A face, caked in blood, stared past him. Staggering to the pick-up, gaze trained on the ground now, Kap glimpsed a decapitated body and two more heads.

Hunched over, hands resting on knees, he steadied himself against the horizon’s sway. Throwing his face toward the sky, he collapsed over the steering wheel. He looked up at the sound of grunting, a bloody campesino was hobbling toward him, waving. When he reached the bonnet, he threw his hands across it like a drowning man clutching at a passing log.

Qué pasó aquí?’ Kap demanded. What happened?

Qué horror! Qué horror!’ came the answer.

Pero quién hizo esto, muchacho?’ demanded Kap. Who did this?

Saber… saber,’ cried the fellow. Who knows?

Passe,’ ordered Kap. Get in.

The campesino swung himself into the wagon. Kap drove to Salguero’s house but the maid didn’t know where he was. He went to the refinery, then the police station. A pick-up filled with policemen followed them back to the cane fields. Officers from La Libertad and the rest of Peten arrived. Kap watched as they dragged the bodies into one heap. Twenty-eight. Two women and three children. Nameless maleteros, called after their scythes, hired for the season.

The little man, in his black Wellingtons and soiled clothes, told the police he was from El Quiché. The others were from the mountains, peripatetic labourers, hitching from cane to coffee harvests to their subsistence milpas and back. None had finished third grade, paid taxes, nor knew a thing about the man who hired the man who hired them. They couldn’t read the papers; of course they hadn’t heard Salguero’s wife and father had been killed a week before or that the note, written in blood, pinned to the bodies read: ‘Otto Salguero I am coming for you, Z200’.

When the gangsters showed up the campesinos told them: ‘We know nothing.’ But the Zetas started hacking at them anyway. They fell like cane stalks, their blood soaking into the dry soil they’d just cleared. The survivor said; ‘They came, took our maletas and killed us, one by one. Except me.’ Knifed in the gut, he’d passed for dead. When he came round he was so terrified he didn’t move for hours. As the last moans subsided and he was sure the Zetas were gone, he crawled to the hut to take refuge. By dawn’s first light he saw the carnage. And not long after Kap. There was a piece of card, pinned with a rusty nail to a corpse, which the police read to him. It said: ‘What’s up, Mister Otto Salguero? I’m going to find you and kill you.’

By the time the paperwork was done it was dark. Kap wanted to drive home but his head was throbbing so badly he checked in to the hotel once more. After a night of depleting nightmares, he bolted a breakfast of black beans and eggs, reading Siglo Veintiuno’s lead story; Salguero, the trafficker, had escaped the Zetas, disappearing without a trace. The President placed Coban in a state of emergency and was sending in the army.

On the drive back to the City, Kap stopped to buy a green coconut at the roadside from a woman with a transcendent smile. Taking long draughts of milk through the plastic straw, he examined the dirt at the tarmac’s side. Lifting his gaze, the lush tangle of vegetation and sumptuous unfurled sky reminded him that utopia would survive all hells. While he might not.

 


 

An unrepentant nomad, Cassandra’s wandered between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. She’s published dozens of stories, most recently in The Carolina Quarterly, Ambit and Chicago Quarterly Review. She won the Traverse Theater’s Debut Author Prize and was short-listed for Cinnamon, Wells Festival, Cadenza, R Rofihe and Aesthetica prizes. Greybill won the Books for Borges Competition. She ran a bakery, managed a charity, sub-edited and set up a library foundation for children in Guatemala. She studied literature at the University of London; did a creative writing masters at Edinburgh and starts a PhD on the sacred and mundane in the short story at the University of Exeter this autumn. She currently lives in Devon, England with her daughter.