by Patty Somlo
Ernesto picked up the first stone on his way back to the house. Wet from a lite afternoon sudden downpour, the stone glowed. Ernesto squatted on his haunches, then dislodged one reluctant corner from the mud. To his surprise, when he held the stone up to the light, a face emerged from the rock.
Holding the stone at arm’s length, the poor farmer propelled himself up the steep, muddy trail to the house. Only once he’d secured the stone under the porch was he willing to believe it was safe enough to stop.
The following week, with the morning air silvered from mist, Ernesto began to hammer pieces of wood together. Before long, the random, oddly shaped planks formed the frame of a crude, small house.
Late the next afternoon, Ernesto nailed the last piece of wood in place. He covered the structure with several scraps of metal for a roof.
Without breathing a word to Elena, his wife, Ernesto slipped out of the house the next morning, before the sun had tempted the horizon into light. He headed down the trail, not to work in his corn and bean fields, as he had done every other day of his life, but to see if he could coax more faces out.
Before long, carved stones began to appear below the front porch of Ernesto and Elena’s house. Ernesto couldn’t explain how or why the faces emerged, with the help of a hammer now and a chiseling tool that looked like a sharp knife. All he could say was that he had become a man spoken to by rock.
As the year wore on, more faces appeared in the muddy yard. And before long, word got out. A man who saw faces in stone, the rumor went, was living a heartbeat away from the border with Guatemala. A reporter from the capitol showed up and it wasn’t long before the tiny town of Teptapa lost its dreamy silence. Visitors who’d read about Ernesto in travel guides arrived. The owner of the little tienda in town, Maria Luz, painted a sign. “Buy a cold drink here,” the sign said. “Before visiting the famous Teptapa carver.”
Ernesto ordered a generator from the capitol, since electricity hadn’t made the journey up the winding mountain road. Nearly every morning, the silence was shattered now by a jagged, whirring sound.
At the end of each day, Ernesto, who was barely a whisper above five feet tall and had hair the color of lake water at midnight, walked up the dirt trail, fingering a wad of American dollars. He dropped the folded-over bills into an empty lard can. Then he slid the can under the bed, making sure to push it close to the wall.
The rain was splashing into puddles of water and mud that afternoon everyone in Teptapa now recalls. Elena stepped outside. She lowered herself into the rocking chair. The baby Jesús was inside.
A silvery curtain of drops fell, as the broken left rocker on the old chair wobbled. Elena dozed off.
A half hour later when she woke up, she remembered the baby left alone inside.
“El niño,” she whispered.
From the small front room, she hurried through the house. Rain hit the window and a gust of wind howled.
Elena got down on all fours and peered into the dark. Unable to see, she slithered under the bed, after flattening her body on the floor.
A moment later, she got a whiff of Jesús’ dirty diaper. She inched forward and brushed his chubby arm.
Now that her eyes had become accustomed to the dark, she could see that the baby was chomping on a wad of money.
Ernesto leaned back in the chair to get a better look. He wasn’t sure why this last piece had spoken to him as it had done.
Raindrops assaulted the studio’s metal roof. What he witnessed made him want to batter the stone against the wall.
A bulging eye here and a wide-open mouth on the other side crowded the rock. The studio grew very dark.
Ernesto flipped the generator on. He lifted the stone and held it to the light, then readied himself for the sound the rock would make shattering against the wall.
But something made him stop.
After Elena discovered the money, people in Teptapa claimed she hiked down the trail and told her oldest sister Ana. Ana, they said, passed the story along to her cousin Magda and word spread after that.
Before long, rumor became fact. Everyone assumed that Ernesto Murghia Lopez had become a rich man.
No one saw the man arrive in town. With visitors coming and going all the time, a person walking up the trail to the Teptapa stone carver’s studio wouldn’t have aroused attention. The man found the old lard can and emptied its contents into his hand.
Elena and Ernesto had left the baby at Ana’s house, before heading up to Rio Negro, where the carnival was in town. When they got home, a trail of clothes and muddy footprints led from the front door.
In the meantime, Elena was pregnant with a second child.
Ernesto thought about Elena and Jesús, and the baby that hadn’t been born on his long, slow, hot, and hard journey up north. After the thief ran off, Ernesto lost all hope of giving his family a better life. The fields Ernesto tended close to the house suddenly dried up. Rain refused to fall, even though Ernesto prayed for it morning and night.
Somehow, he snuck across the U.S./Mexican border without getting caught. As the months went by, he worked his way north, through cities and towns in Southern and Central California. He left the warm, dry weather behind and headed into the fog. From there, he made his way east and toiled in fields, under the broiling sun.
At one point, he heard they were looking for men to work in the vineyards in Oregon. He hitched a ride with a group of guys in the back of a truck. Not long after, someone told him about a construction job. As soon as the grapes were harvested, he hopped into the back of another truck for the short ride into town.
Doug Golden needed three guys to dig out four feet of mud for a large foundation. It was hard, hot, dirty work. The only people who’d do it for the wage he could offer were Mexicans.
Ernesto was waiting at the site when Doug arrived. That first day and every day after until the job was done, Ernesto worked harder than anyone Doug had ever employed.
“I’ve got someone for your garden,” Doug said to his sister Arlene, the day before the excavating job was done. “Young guy. Ernesto. Sweet. Doesn’t talk much but he works really hard.”
The two-lane road curved and rolled. The green Ford truck Ernesto had borrowed was badly in need of a paint job. There were so many trees; they stained the pavement dark.
Ernesto pulled off the road, as the sun edged above the pine and fir trees. Moments later, a white truck climbed the steep driveway, scattering loose gravel and dust.
Ernesto watched the woman step out of the truck and hop to the ground. He was leaning against the driver’s side of the Ford.
The woman was dressed in tight-fitting jeans, faded nearly to white in the knees and along the side seams. Her short straight hair was dyed a brash reddish-blond. Beneath a pair of blue-tinted oval glasses, lines sneaked out from the corners of her eyes.
She looked over at Ernesto, waved, and smiled.
“Good morning,” she said. “C’mon up to the house. I’ll make us some coffee and we can talk.”
The garden that Arlene hired Ernesto to help plant took shape slowly. The land was hilly and overgrown. Ferns tangled with blackberry bushes. The weeds and leaves were so large they frightened Ernesto.
“It’s because of the rain,” Arlene said, her right hand on her hip, the fingers of her left hand running through her hair, while they surveyed the property. “Rain makes everything get out of control. Plants, weeds. Doesn’t matter.”
“It’ll take some work to clean this up. But it’s going to be marvelous.”
Ernesto didn’t mind the hard work of digging and hauling and turning over the soil. When the site was cleared, Arlene directed him where to put the pathways. Sketches in hand, they began arranging plants. “In little rooms,” as Arlene called the garden’s different areas.
Arlene also had him haul up stones and set them amongst the growth. He avoided looking at the rocks, afraid of what he might find.
One afternoon, he took a break and squatted down. He picked up one large, very smooth pale gray stone.
“Nada,” he said quietly, after several minutes of studying the rock. “There’s nothing there.”
Elena felt the bite as an itchy spot on her upper right arm. She scratched the spot, knowing that Ernesto would have told her to stop. She scolded herself not to cry. It didn’t help that she was sick to her stomach all the time, with the new baby growing inside, and also taking care of Jesús on her own and wrestling with the awful fear that Ernesto would never make it back home. Some days, she thought it would be better to die.
No matter how much she scratched, the itching, burning sensation didn’t subside. A while later, the fever started.
That very afternoon in Oregon, the rain came down hard. Arlene suggested to Ernesto that they walk the path and take one good long look at what they had done.
Arlene led the way and Ernesto followed. At times, she stopped, and they both stood and looked out over the plants and rocks.
The green was immense. That’s what Ernesto decided he would tell Elena the next time they spoke. Their lives – his and Arlene’s, Elena’s and Jesús’ and the baby to come – had been poured into this dirt that turned to mud in seconds when the rain flowed. Now, life shone here like a jewel, bright and throbbing, under the cement-colored skies.
They had created the garden in pieces – a pathway here, a room of plants there, some rocks mixed in with both. The two of them had admired and corrected, appraised and fixed, moved rocks and plants, and sometimes rearranged the same rocks and plants. But now it was done.
After her divorce, Arlene had vowed to create a garden, where she could sit and think, and in those quiet moments, begin to heal. Now that the garden was done, Arlene’s tears mingled with the rain streaming from the dark clouds. Drops collected at the ends of her hair and salt leaked into her mouth.
The whole beautiful thing made Ernesto’s heart throb.
The baby’s wail shot out from the house and bolted down the hill, sweeping past the dry dust. The awful cries died before reaching town. No one knew when little Jesús started to bawl or when his diaper got soggy and brown or his stomach started to contract with hunger.
Two days went by. That’s all the people of Teptapa knew. Much later, they kept going back to the baby. Left alone. With no one responding to his cries.
Ana heard the baby the moment she stepped onto the narrow dirt trail, leading up to the house. Halfway there, she decided to run.
By the third ring, Arlene woke up. She’d been dreaming but couldn’t remember about what. Her eyes closed, she reached around the nightstand until her fingers landed on the receiver and picked it up.
After she set the phone down, she raised herself and sat on the edge of the bed, resting her feet on the cold wooden floorboards. Without bending over, she slid her right and then her left foot into a worn pair of baby blue slippers. She stood up and padded down the hall.
Sitting on the toilet, she heard the words again. I am Father Gonzalo. We have this number for Ernesto.
They had turned the basement into a comfortable room for him. Ernesto had his own three-quarter bath down there.
Coffee was steaming in two mugs on the kitchen counter. Arlene handed Ernesto a cup, grabbed a second one for herself and led the way outside.
The sun was coming up. Rose-drenched clouds burst across the lightening sky.
Arlene recalled the day she had said to Ernesto, “What would the garden be like if there was no place to sit and enjoy it?” He had put in a fountain that looked like a small, natural waterfall.
That would be the best spot, Arlene thought.
A moment after they’d both sat down, Arlene took in one long labored breath and let it out.
“A call came this morning from Mexico,” Arlene said, her voice barely able to get above a whisper. She laid her warm hand on Ernesto’s arm.
Arlene stood at the floor-to-ceiling window, as the plane taxied out to the runway. Ever since she’d broken the news that Elena had died, Ernesto had barely uttered a sound.
Watching the plane climb and disappear into the clouds, she decided that what she needed was a clean shot of Scotch.
Doug answered his cell phone on the first ring. Arlene was still in her car, idling in the airport garage.
“Go home, Arlene. I’ll bring the Scotch. And a pizza. Meet you there in a half hour.”
It took nearly a year for him to return. He walked down from the cool misty mountains into the hot humid interior. After that, he headed north to the scorching, dry dusty border.
There he found a hole in the fence and crawled through. Since a huge part of him had died in Teptapa, it wasn’t hard to believe that he had become invisible.
Whatever the truth of the circumstances, and no one but Ernesto could be sure since he was alone, he made it past the immigration agents and the vigilantes, the infrared cameras and heat sensors, the police and cocaine dealers, the bandits and even the coyotes, to continue up the coast of California and north to Oregon.
He did not call, because he wasn’t that type. He simply showed up, just after dawn.
Arlene was sitting on the back deck, sipping her coffee. She had the oddest sensation moments before.
A shadow fell across the rocks.
“Buenos dias,” Ernesto said. That was all.
Over dinner, he told her about the stones.
“There was this stone,” he began. “I knew as soon as I was done carving it that the stone was evil.”
Arlene watched Ernesto as he spoke. His straight black hair had grown too long and he kept brushing thick black strands away from his forehead. His face had changed. His skin looked as if it weighed too much.
“I think the stone was telling me something. I had forgotten about Elena and little Jesús. All I thought about was the stones.”
His gaze strayed toward the window. He blinked several times. Arlene saw him swallow twice. The chicken and rice on his plate remained untouched.
Arlene understood that he would need to repeat those words a hundred, maybe even a thousand, more times. Then, he’d be able to move on.
The silence stretched out a long time.
“Maybe you could carve stones here,” Arlene said after a while.
She didn’t wait for, or expect, a response.
The first stone had a woman’s face.
“This is Elena,” Ernesto explained.
They walked the garden that afternoon looking for a spot. The rain came straight down, without wind, making the leaves shine. As they stood in front of the waterfall, a ray of sunlight lit the tumbling water.
“Right here I think,” Arlene said, and Ernesto nodded.
The stones slowly filled the empty spaces. The garden was exactly as Arlene had once hoped.
At night over dinner, Arlene and Ernesto shared stories of their lives. They’d been born nearly thirty years apart. He could have been her son. His English was poor but getting better all the time.
They took each day exactly as it had come. When a plant died in the garden, they mourned. In late spring and summer, they celebrated as new buds popped out and then pink, purple and yellow flowers burst forth. They tended the whole, while new stone carvings showed up all the time. And they made sure some days to sit quietly, so they could admire all of this precious life.