Jovita Cruz was born on a muddy day in the winter of 1948. She emerged screaming and red, with a frown that would not quit, and for this her mother named her in irony. It was an irony that would follow her like a tail, dangling over her head everywhere she went, for she always seemed to frown, even when she was having a good time. There is no peace in your soul, her mother would say. I have peace, Mamá, she would say.
But as the knuckles on her hands become cracked, the shape of her back steadily bends forward, the weight of the world sags on her shoulders like a rotting corpse, the eighteen-year-old feels that there is no peace to be had, that peace can never be had. That life is an endless harvest for someone else’s profit.
Jovita reaches into the ground and pulls up a large yellow bulb—bigger than her fist and coated in a sheen of dirt—and rattles the onion by its stalk, shaking away the dirt from the hairy roots that sprout out of the onion. She takes her sheers, clips off the flaccid green-brown stems and tosses the bulb in a large bin. Onions flower, grow white petals from the tips of their green stems, bristle bright against the brown-black soil, but those are not the onions she pulls from the ground. Today, she harvests onions on the brink of spoiling; a day or two longer and they will be useless for sale. And so she works as fast as she can, tearing root from dirt in pursuit of pay. Crouching low on her haunches, she crab-walks forward and repeats the process and repeats the process while the red-hot sun sinks deep into her skin and scalds her brown flesh.
The thing about laboring all day in the sun, she thinks, is you can either focus on the misery of the task, or on the misery of your life. Sweat drips and collates in the creases on her face. She is machine, without the luxury of being machine. Ay, she thinks, even machines get to break down sometimes.
Jovita continues, longing for the end of the row, for the end of the next row, and the next.
Many of these crops will go to America, she thinks. She imagines taking her son Ignacio and the baby in her belly and escaping from her drunk father whose debt she works to pay off and fleeing her mother’s shadow—a curandera of value unlike herself, which was just as well to Jovita—and the family shame will slough off her back, since no one finds her respectable, this unwed mother of two. Not even the fathers of her children. Jovita rubs her dirt-stained arms across her forehead and leans back to straighten her spine. She meets eyes with the woman nearby with a baby swaddled across her front. Jovita ducks her head and continues her work. All around her, men and women work the fields, slouching and moving like animals, beasts of burden under the blistering façade of heaven.
As she squats low in the dirt, plucking these onions from the ground, Jovita imagines her child falling into the earth, sees herself pulling it from its stalks, to reveal a bulbous baby wriggling with dark, whisker-like hair shaking about. She thinks about shipping the fruits of the earth across the border and how America wants foods from Mexico but not people. But, no matter, her onion isn’t near-ready yet.
* * *
At the end of the day, she walks home in the dust, a shadow pushing against the ruddy sky. The smell of fresh dirt clings to her skin, hides underneath her fingernails, sinks deep into her pores. Some days she feels as if she will always be surrounded by crops, that her life will only be this: onions, and oranges, and potatoes, and things that burrow in the ground or bloom just above it, and every day will just restart, reset, replace itself until she collapses from the labor, dissolves into the earth, disappears from a world unaffected by her existence. But, well, it’s a life, she thinks. It’s a life.
Jovita finds her way home in the numb and waning light. She pushes past travelers, peddlers, children. Children giggle as they run by, followed by a harried mother. Americans stumble with their words, arguing about a piece of paper. Voices rise, objects clatter, feet march on. And as the cacophony of noises reaches a pitch, the sounds fly away, unfettered into the sky. Jovita feels a prickling at the back of her neck, a sense of isolation, and dread. Like a fog has befallen her. She looks around at the world, and she realizes that she isn’t on her street, on any street, but someplace different, someplace crowded with strangers whose faces are obscured. Craning her neck to look at their faces, she stalls when she hears a scream, a scream which sounds much like her son Ignacio’s. Jovita searches the crowd and sees arms dragging her son away. And her son vanishes. And then the world returns to normal.
She runs home.
* * *
When Jovita was twelve, her padrino gave her a caldero, a little black pot with beads and earth, signifying a totem for her patron saint. He told her she had a great gift from God, that she could heal the world and hear the saints. But I’m useless, she said, thinking about her mother’s rebuke, just the day before, about how she could never mix the herbs properly.
“You are not useless, Jovita,” her padrino said. He pinched her cheek and winked.
That same week, Jovita’s grandmother’s ghost visited to her bedside and spoke to her. Jovita knew it was a ghost, because her grandmother’s features were shrouded, shadowed. Her silver hair dripped beneath the moonlight, and she told Jovita not to be scared. But Jovita was not afraid, she was filled with curiosity. She wanted to reach out to touch the apparition, to feel the source of the chill in the room. In spite of this instinct, Jovita did not move; she listened. Her grandmother said that she was waiting for Heaven or that Heaven was waiting for her, and that the order didn’t matter because she was going to a better place. And as Jovita thought of what a better place might be, what it might look like, her grandmother disappeared. Jovita told her mother about this experience the next morning.
“Your grandma is at home resting, there is no ghost,” her mother said.
But late that afternoon, with the sun sizzling slow against their flesh as they worked the garden for herbs for her mother’s cleansings, her padrino came to the house.
“Josefina, your mamá, she—”
And Josefina looked at Jovita with both fear and anger.
Later that day, Jovita’s padrino and her tíos brought the body to the house. Her grandmother had drowned in a river; her body was swollen and squishy and looking nothing like the woman Jovita knew. But when Jovita touched her icy skin, she could feel the spirit of the woman who was once there, and she wept. “She forgot herself,” her padrino said. There were whispers that her grandmother had been cursed, that someone had put a powerful magic on her and taken her mind from her. Jovita buried away that caldero because she decided she didn’t like magic, this thing that could take your mind and kill you. And she reviled this gift—this curse—to see and hear and do nothing about it.
* * *
Jovita enters the dim hut in a panic. She looks around, asks for her son, asks where Ignacio is. Her mother—sitting in the front room with a customer—scowls, shoos Jovita away.
“What’s with this noise?” Her father enters, smelling like dirt and sour beer, with Ignacio held on his shoulders. Ignacio shouts and claps at the sight of Jovita.
“Give me my son,” she demands.
“What, am I hurting him?” he says, and hands over the boy.
Jovita takes her son in her arms, squeezes him, gives him a kiss on the cheek. His face is smudged with dirt, his long dark hair knotted with bits of dried grass. He laughs, throws his hands around her neck, tight, like he’s afraid he will lose her. Like she’s afraid she will lose him.
“Ay, mijo, my handsome little man, how are you?” she asks, and he babbles a reply.
“Jovita, you got your money today, huh?” her father asks, wiping his hands on a rag. Jovita takes her son to the uneven table and sets him on a chair. Ignacio pounds his palms against the surface and giggles.
“Why do you need more? I just gave you some. We need food. See how small Ignacio is? Angelica’s boy is twice his size.” Jovita regrets not stopping at the market and spending her wages. The money enters her hand and flies away, already dust in the air. But the vision. A small prick, as if from a needle, strikes her heart and spreads like viscous tar through her chest.
“Ay, well you know how Tomas is.” But Jovita doesn’t know how Tomas is, she just knows how her father says he is. Sometimes, she wonders if the spectral man really exists, or if he’s just an invention, a means of taking her money. “We’re lucky he lets us make payments. You know he could have us killed in our sleep? Me, you, your mama, your son.”
Jovita inspects her son closer, looks at the dirt on his face and caked underneath his fingernails. She takes his hands in hers and worries that, soon, he will have the calluses she does. Or that she will never know if he has calluses. “Where were you with him?” She rubs her fingers over his.
“Your boy is a good worker. We were hoeing out back, getting the ground soft for your mama’s plants.”
“He could’ve gotten hurt.”
“Kids don’t get hurt, Jovita. They either live or die. There is no in between.”
“I don’t want him out in the sun working all day.”
“Well, he wouldn’t have to work if his mother knew how to close her legs.”
Jovita wants to curse her father, wants to berate him for constantly shaming her. She remembers Tío Fernando and his tenderness toward his daughters, and she wonders why her father, Fernando’s brother, never inherited such qualities. Some things are given by blood and others are fastened deep within the individual. Kindness is not something your father gives you, she decides.
“I don’t want him working. He’s too young.”
“You’re never too young. I was out in the fields when I was born. Popped out and already knowing how to pick fruit. It’s good.”
“Real good it did you,” Jovita says. Her father hasn’t been able to work since she could remember. He claims his feet swell when he’s on them for too long. His arthritis in his knees and hands weakens him, and he can’t get out of bed most mornings. He threw out his back, and it pains him to toil in the sun, and it causes him to faint and nearly die. The story changes, but makes it convenient for him to never work. It angers her, how he gets to sit around all day while she and her mother earn the money to pay off his debts. Like fire over her eyes, she sees red whenever her father is in the room.
“Your son is a good worker,” he says. “Now, are you going to give me that money, mijita?”
* * *
In the sweltering darkness, Jovita keeps Ignacio close. He burns hot; she can almost see him glowing in the night. If she could flee, she would. But she does not know where to go or how to go or how she’d survive if she went.
And the night burns on, feverish, like a nightmare that slithers into her waking mind. She holds her son close, remembers the sight of him in her vision, the sound of his otherworldly scream cycling through her mind. It was only heat exhaustion, she tells herself. Not a vision, not like seeing her grandmother. Her son is here and breathing and sweating and whole. There is nothing to fear.
If she could flee, she would. But Jovita does not know how to leave.
* * *
Jovita considers taking the day off work, staying home with her son. But they need the money. Survival doesn’t depend on feelings and fears; it depends on sacrifice and labor. And so she leaves for the fields, mumbling prayers to a God she’s not sure she believes exists. But how she wishes some god would answer her prayers.
When she settles into her usual position, pulling onions from the ground, Jovita feels as though this day is hotter than the previous, as if it’s the hottest day all summer, as if it’s the hottest she’ll ever work through. And it’s not just her. The workers around her complain, beg for more water and more water and more water. The sun doesn’t yet reach its peak before a worker collapses, a young man. He shakes on the ground and writhes and Jovita sees his eyes roll back.
The sun claims us all, Jovita thinks as his sister tries to help him. They crowd around and look, offering the shade from their bodies. Some other workers, drenched in sweat, help carry the boy away.
Jovita does not want this for her son. She does not want this for herself.
They stand around for a few minutes longer, collecting the dry air, imagining a breeze and liquid to cool their throats, and wander back to their rows. The labor is slow, the sun is hot, and Jovita fears for two children: one who has to live in this world and another who has yet to emerge into this life.
* * *
The sun does not relent, and as Jovita walks home, she can see the misery on everyone’s faces as she passes them. She sees the others, with their dark skin, and she looks at her own flesh, and she thinks of how they have all been born to toil, to sit at the bottom of a hierarchy they did not create. All cheap labor, all bought and sold and traded and held in a pen. Jovita does not want to be here. She wants to leave. And she feels it like a tear in her muscle, like a wound that has grown infected. She wants to take her son and run.
She enters her home. The air is dead, stagnant. Her mother’s head down, fingers moving a needle and thread like a machine through the fabric. The stillness sinks like a stone in her belly. And her father, he sits with his hands folded neatly on the table. He is dressed in nice clothes, garments she knows he does not own. He meets her gaze.
“Where is my son,” she asks.
But Jovita knows and she calls out for her son, calls out Ignacio, Ignacio even though she knows it’s a futile scream.
“I said sit, Jovita.”
“You son of a bitch,” she shouts. Blinding. Blinding hatred. Her fists fly, land hard against his head, like bone meeting stone and the man grabs her, wrestles her, slaps her.
“I had to. You know Tomas. He took the boy for my debt.”
Jovita sits on the ground. Something like palsy enters her body. And she feels that something break, and spill its contents; like a virulent acid it eats at her, cuts her raw, burns her flesh. She could have stayed. She could have taken her son and run and they’d be together. And how she feels so foolish, believing her father would never do such a thing, would never trade her son for debt.
“I told you he’s a good worker.”
“He is my son. Would you just give me up?”
“Children are born and if they’re lucky they make it far in life, but most of them don’t. I had seven brothers before the war and we fought for Pancho Villa. Fernando and I were the only ones to come out of it alive.” It was a story Jovita knew well, but she had trouble believing her father could survive a day of hard labor, let alone a war. Jovita suspected her father wasn’t even alive during the revolution. “And your mamá? All those miscarriages before you? Your dead brother? You think we mourn all of those lost children? No, we don’t, because we have you, just like you will have this baby in your belly. And in the meantime you helped your family through a tough time, and isn’t that more rewarding than raising two leeching children at once?”
“Your son died, but that doesn’t give you the right to take mine.”
“Your children don’t belong to you. They belong to me.”
“You son of a bitch.” The ceiling crawls, moving slowly out of focus.
“Woman like you, you’ll have another and another. All will be well.” He smiles, makes a move to kiss her forehead, but she slaps him. Her father laughs. “Our family is debt free. Thank Saint Ignacio.” He walks off whistling. Jovita sits in the still room. Her mother stitches together fabric, unfazed, eyes fixed only on her work.
* * *
The heat persists. Jovita walks out, hears children screaming outside, playful, laughter, joy. Sweat prickles through her brow. Her son, taken into the hands of strangers. Men who are just ghosts her father always speaks of, men with power and money. The children play. Boys running and playing with a ball in the street and how it strikes her that her son could have been one of those boys. He could have been.
She stands and sees the bitter sunset, as her second child moves through the hill that is her belly. There is a place raw and dripping inside of her.
The children play and laugh and her son is gone, taken by strange hands into a crowd and disappeared and she could have saved him. She could have.
Tomorrow she will return to the onion fields. She thinks of babies as crops and mothers as dirt, forced to surrender their harvest from beneath the feet of men. She thinks of the mechanical way she rips onions from the ground and the way her father ripped hers from her. Hands tearing and cutting and crops sent out to be sold at the markets.
Jessica R. Santillan was born in Bakersfield, CA. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fresno State, where she worked as an editorial assistant for The Normal School. She has had her work published in the San Joaquin Review, Siren’s Call, and Cactus Heart.