17 Aug THREE SILVER SUCRES (1932) By Jose de la Cuadra
THREE SILVER SUCRES (1932)
Presentacion Balbuca adjusted the drawstring at the waist of his white, pajama-like Indian’s trousers. He threw his red poncho with its broad lead-colored stripes over one shoulder and remained standing, motionless, in the door of the small-town lawyer’s shabby little office.
“You’ll see, you’ll see, Balbuca,” the lawyer was saying. “The judge has ruled against us so far, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll appeal.”
“Don’t forget the three sucres.”
But the Indian was no longer listening.
He spat on the ground in front of him, the way llamas do, and trotted up the steep, narrow street to the town square. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings, and his face wore a dark frown. But the expression was merely external. In reality, he thought about nothing, nothing at all.
Every now and then, he stopped to rest for a moment.
He scratched the ground with his stubby toes, drew the air thickly into his lungs, and expelled it with a hoarse whistle, a sort of prolonged “hunhhh . . .” of exhaustion. Then he resumed his rhythmic trot up the hill.
When he reached the square, he sat on a stone bench attached to the wall of one of the buildings that faced it. He took a handful of toasted barley from a small cloth bag that hung around his neck under his poncho and tossed it into his mouth.
The starchy sweetness of the barley made him thirsty. He went to the fountain that enlivened the middle of the square with its cheerful sound and shooed away the mules that were drinking there.
“Away! Away,” he cried, with a mule-driver’s voice. “Away!”
The animals moved away, and Balbuca dipped his cupped hand into the dark, murky water and slurped. His thirst slaked, he returned to the stone bench.
There he sat for over three hours without the slightest move ment indicative of boredom, his eyes fixed on his bare feet, over which green-and-black, shiny-winged flies buzzed and occasionally alighted.
Finally, the man for whom he was waiting passed by: Master Orejuela.
“Master Orejuela, can you give me three sucres? My boy Pachito will work for you. Can you?”
Orejuela, who was the administrator of a nearby hacienda, prided himself on knowing how to deal with Indians.
He discussed the matter at length with Balbuca and finally agreed to advance him three sucres in return for three week’s work on the part of Pachito.
“I know your son Pachito. He is still a little boy, eight years old, nine at most. What can he do all by himself? The sheep would get away from him! He can only be a helper.”
Finally it was settled. Pachito would start early in the morning on the following day. But there was still a final difficulty to be resolved.
“Will you give him food to eat, master?”
Orejuela did not like that a bit. Food? Was he going to have to feed the child, too? That was too much! That would just be too expensive! The child would have to bring his own toasted corn and barley rations. The hacienda would provide water . . . .
Balbuca implored him. His hut was very far from the hacienda. If Pachito had to bring his own food he would eat so much on the way that it would last only two days.
Orejuela finally consented to give the boy food every day . . . except for Sundays.
He shouted with laughter.
“Sunday is a day of rest. That’s a holy obligation, right? The owner of the hacienda is a big Conservative, you know, very Catholic. So let the boy fast on Sunday. The hacienda only feeds workers. If you don’t work, you don’t eat-just the way they say it is under Commonism.
Balbuca accepted, and they closed the deal. “Bring the sucres, then.”
Orejuela indicated that they would have to draw up a contract first.
“The hacienda has to protect itself. The kid is a minor and you’ll have to give your permission in writing as his father. The laws are very strict.”
So they went to look for a government official, whose office was in the dim and foul-smelling little back room of an old house, to formalize the contract.
Presentaci6n Balbuca did not know how to read or write, so he signed the document with a shaky, crooked X.
The document incorporated a number of innovations that the official implemented in response to certain silent signals given him by Orejuela. According to what was written and signed, Balbuca declared that he had received not three, but ten sucres, and that he committed his son to provide two full months of personal service.
Orejuela then paid the Indian with three coins that he carefully put into the cloth bag that hung around his neck.
“Don’t forget to send the kid tomorrow bright and early.”
Presentacion promised to do so and went out the door. In the street, he hurried down the hill.
When he got to the lawyer’s shabby little office, he stopped. “Doctor,” he called from outside, “I have brought the three sucres that you said.”
The lawyer appeared at the door and extended his trembling hand, as avid as a beggar’s.
“These three sucres are the rest of the five that I needed to buy the stamps that have to go on your petition to appeal the judgment against you.”
The lawyer squeezed the three coins between thumb and fore finger, and found that he could bend them.
He shook with fury:
“These are made of lead, not silver! They are as false as your mother!”
Indignant, he threw the worthless slugs of metal in the Indian’s face.
“You wanted to fool me, Indian son of mule! M e . . . a lawyer!” Balbuca silently gathered the slugs out of the dirt.
Once again he climbed the hill and looked around the square for Orejuela. He found him sitting at a table drinking chicha with the government official who had drawn up the contract.
“Master Orejuela, they are no good,” he said, putting the worth less coins on the table. “Master doctor said so.”
Orejuela reared up violently.
What! What was this piece of rubbish saying? That he, Felipe Neri Orejuela, had given out counterfeit money? Is that what he was saying? Accusing him of a crime, was he? In the presence of a government official?
He addressed his companion in dismay. Would the authorities allow this? Would they not impose a modicum of respect for a free Ecuadorian citizen publically insulted by a miserable Indian?
An outrage! What on earth had this corrupt country come to? Balbuca listened without expression to Orejuela’s histrionics.
Then he said simply:
“Change the coins, or I won’t send the boy.”
At that point, the authority had heard enough. He turned to a couple of Indian day laborers who were passing by and commanded them:
“Grab hold of this lowlife.” Hesitant but cowed, they obeyed.
Turning to Balbuca, the official added:
“I’m taking you prisoner, and you’ll stay in jail until your boy reports for work. Contracts are sacred and must be obeyed.”
Balbuca struggled weakly in the arms of the men who held him. His eyes were very wide. His pupils were dilated. He bit his lips and said something unintelligible in Quechua under his breath. Then he fell silent and stopped resisting.
Orejuela now intervened sympathetically with the official. He offered to send a man to Balbuca’s hut as soon as possible to collect the boy so that the Indian would not be in jail long. He, Orejuela, was not the sort of man who liked to see others suffer, not even uppity Indians who violated the rules of civilized behavior.
And, in fact, eight-year-old Pachito was brought at dawn the next day, with his sweaty little face and his ruddy cheeks that, chapped by the cold air of the high Andes, gave a misleading impression of robust health …
Presentacion emerged from jail and did not ask to see his son. He left town immediately and headed for his hut on a distant mountainside.
When he passed by the large gate of the hacienda administered by Orejuela, he picked up a small stone, made sure that nobody was looking, and threw it against the heavy wall in anger. The stone knocked a bit of white-washed plaster off the wall with a dull thud.
The Indian smiled expressionlessly, vaguely, stupidly. . . .
Then he looked in all directions, wiped his wild, glistening eyes on his sleeve, and quickly concealed his hand beneath his red poncho with its broad, lead-colored stripes. . . .