- “Tenés que sentir la tierra”. You must feel the earth, he said.
He took my hands in his and scooped up a pile of dirt. It was moist and lumpy from the previous night’s dew, and it slid heavily through our fingers. He pinched the freshly turned soil and turned it in his fingertips, indicating I do the same. It was grainy, like sugar, and it dissolved quickly, leaving my hands black and smelling of minerals.
I remember Don Ruben as an old man with a rough exterior but a tender heart. Years of arduous work had hardened his expression, but he felt life more intensely than anyone else. His house lay some acres away from mine, surrounded by fields which stretched into the horizon. I liked visiting him after school, where he would be waiting to tell me about the crops he was growing and stories of his previous harvests. Few 6-year-olds were interested in farming, but I was fascinated by the patience and promise of the land. I wanted to be a farmer like him, and seemingly everyone else, in the town where I grew up. Nothing compared to the freedom of open fields or the smell of blooming magnolias.
That day he had been particularly nostalgic. His coffee bean eyes held an uncharacteristic sweetness as he pulled something out of his pocket and held it up to me.
- “Esto es una semilla. De acá nace todo.” This is a seed. Everything is born from this.
His voice was as smooth as water. The seed was scarcely bigger than a button.
- “Take the seed and look for a clear square of land that gets a lot of sunlight. Bury it under the soil and water it every day. You will see it grow into something special.” He placed the seed in my palm and closed it.
“No la pierdas”. Don’t lose it. “If you take care of the seed and the earth around it, it will take care of you. Now, run home. Your mother will be wondering where you are”.
I bolted home to do as instructed and found the perfect spot along the dirt road that crossed the soy field that separated Don Ruben’s house and mine. I dug a little hole for my seed, dropped it in and pressed the loose earth down on top of it. I had never felt so hopeful; it was the first time something had been entrusted to me, and my first chance to be a real farmer. I pressed my eyes shut and dug a wish down with the seed, hoping it would make it grow stronger.
I watered my seed every day. I emptied bucket after bucket on top of it, and kept the ground clear of anything that might block the sun, but nothing happened. I began to grow impatient.
- “Don Ruben! I think the seed you gave me is broken! I’ve done exactly as you said and nothing has happened.” I called from my bike as I rode past his house to school one morning.
- “Paciencia hijo”. Patience, son. “Life grows at its own pace. Keep watering it.”
Another week went by which felt like an eternity, especially under the unbearable heat. We were approaching the end of April and summer was supposed to have finished weeks before. Undoubtedly, it had been the hottest and longest summer of my short life. Months had passed since we had last seen a drop of rain and I still recall snippets of conversations between anxious townspeople, wondering what the season’s harvest would bring. If the soy fields did not yield enough crops, everyone would struggle to make ends meet for the rest of the season and to prepare for the next sowing. Against this backdrop of heat, drought, and pessimism, I tended to my seed. By the end of the third week, I was ready to quit.
One day, I rode to my spot for what I told myself would be the last time; a bucket of water in hand and weighed down by defeat. I jumped off my bike and threw the water carelessly onto the soil. But, as the mud stirred, something caught my eye. With a gasp, I dropped to my knees. My palms sunk into the ground and the stench of bare roots shot up my nose. But despite it, I drew my face closer to a thin, caterpillar-looking sprout that was poking out of the brown mush. There was never a child as happy as I was that day, seeing that the seed had finally cracked open. My little heart took a leap in my chest as I inspected it from all angles; its waxy and stiff arch poked timidly out of the ground, as if it was just waking up from a long sleep; its pale green color popped against the dark backdrop. Don Ruben was going to be so impressed. But I was suddenly snapped out of my daze by a chirping voice behind me.
- “Hola”. I turned around with a jolt to find a girl standing in front of the sun. I was startled by her presence, but I did not move.
Something about her felt familiar. Maybe it was her clear cocoa skin and round face that reminded me of my mother. Or maybe it was the way her long black hair trickled over her shoulders in two thick braids that emanated innocence. A daisy was folded into one of them. She appeared to be the same age as me. We had the same chubby knees. Yet, what intrigued me the most about her, the thing that had me frozen in place, was her eyes. They were a beautiful mixture of light green, white and gray, the same as the little caterpillar between my knees. A ghostly ring of color surrounded her irises, which were the most profound black, and twinkled where the light touched them. It was like looking at grass through a raindrop. I continued to sit where I was, speechless.
- “Thanks for the water! It’s hot today. And thank you for being here over the past weeks. It’s been nice to have company.” She continued.
My mind went into a frenzy. De acá nace todo. Don Ruben’s words came rushing back.
- “What is your name?” I asked.
- “I have a lot of names.”
I couldn't conjure a better response than “It’s nice to meet you”.
Every day I returned to water my caterpillar and she was there, the face of innocence and serenity. She quickly became my favorite part of the day. I would find her in the bushes and trees along the fence or singing under the sun around the fields where the seed grew steadily. We played together in the fields; hiding in the labyrinths of wheat and barley; chasing hares and flocks of birds; and climbing the trees that lined the dirt road. As the weeks went by, my little caterpillar continued to grow. Its stem became thicker, greener and stronger as it shot towards the sky. So did her eyes. I would dive into their green as the sun poured itself over the horizon and she told me stories of the earth. She explained how seeds harbor a life force that bursts out of their shell and blossoms to sustain larger life. She explained how our plant used water in the soil and light from the sun to grow, and how it gives us oxygen to breathe. She told me that every flower, every tree, every insect, and every animal has a specific purpose within the delicate cycles of the ecosystem. Complex notions for a child that needed to be explained through pictures on the ground.
- “You are part of this ecosystem too, you know. Humans tend to believe they are separate from the world around them. That it's only a space for towns and cities to be built. But you do not live separately from the earth. Everything you do affects it, and everything that happens in the world affects you. We live in a relationship, which is why we must care for each other. There you are, see?” She pointed to a stick figure of a person on the ground, mixed into a web with other creatures. My name was written below it. “Everything the earth gives us, we must give back.”
The idea stayed with me for several days after. No one had ever spoken to me like that. I had asked questions about how the world worked - things a farmer needed to know - a million times before. To Don Ruben, my teachers, my parents; but no one’s answers ever made sense to me. Not like hers did. Her stories would always leave me perplexed with a thousand more doubts, which she always promised she would eventually answer.
In the weeks when our friendship grew, the soy harvest had come and gone bringing the disappointing outcome that everyone expected. The town had gone somber with tension. Even those with the highest of spirits now sulked about, carrying the burden of the drought. I would overhear preparations for the next cycle of sowing and share them with my friend in the trees to ask for her guidance.
One day, as I rode to our usual meeting spot, I saw her lying under a fig tree. She was rarely still, so the sight of her belly-up on the ground with her arms pressed to her sides was strange. As I approached her, bucket in hand and a million questions in mind, I picked up a strange smell. The smell of gas stations and cigarettes. When her full body came into sight, my heart jumped and I threw myself on top of her.
Half of her body had been licked by fire. Half of her face was melted, and pink blotches of raw skin throbbed under a cracked layer of black char. Her thick silky hair burnt off completely. Bright red cinders and strings of gray smoke were scattered over her bald head. Her nose was flattened, and half of her mouth was melted shut. I had trouble looking at her. Her eyes, the big green lanterns that held all the world’s secrets, were now faded. They had been blurred completely, with no trace of color anywhere; as if they had been overtaken by a creeping fog.
“What happened?!” I wailed. My own sight became blurred, but with tears. They fell hot and thick down my cheeks.
Someone used fire to clear their land. I feel it often, but this time it was very close.” She whispered, taking deep and slow breaths between each sentence. My heart stung with every crack in her voice. “I’ll heal soon, I just need to rest.”
I looked up from her small, half-living body to the horizon. Towers of smoke emanated from the ground like claws and dissolved into clouds.
I continued to cry for her, hoping my tears would make her feel less alone in her pain. I cried tears of hate for the monsters who would harm a little girl, and I cried for the help that I could not provide. Without saying a word and with my face still wet, I laid down next to her and grabbed the hand that still had skin on it. It was as soft as ever but did not respond to my touch. I pressed my eyes shut like I had done so many months before and pleaded to the wind.
I focused all my energies on her recovery. Nursing her back to her former youth had become my sole purpose. Following her instructions, I would look for roots and leaves to mix with soil and rub on her wounds. I would pick wild fruits to feed her and give her water only from the nearby stream. Amazingly, I watched as her skin gradually stitched itself back together. With every sunrise, she came a little bit back to life.
- “My family is going into town next week. We’re staying until the neighbors finish preparing their land for the sowing. You’ll be able to see the tractors from here!” I told her.
It pained me to give her the news. Her blindness confined her to the fig tree, but the chirping of the birds and the sweetness of the fruit made her smile. She had begun to regain her smell, and she could feel the pine trees that perfumed the air. Slowly, her sensitivity also came back, and she could feel butterflies tickle her toes. Her giggles rang with the music of spring. I was afraid my absence would reverse her progress.
- “That’s alright, when you come back, I’ll race you to the top of the ombu tree at the end of the road.” She looked lovely under that fig tree with a daisy tucked behind her ear, watching the sun setting over a clear land.
Every day that I was away, I insisted we should return home. My parents could not understand my hurry. They would quickly grow tired of my whining and explain that we could not return home until the neighbor had finished clearing his land. Not a moment passed during those three weeks when I did not think of her.
The day finally came when we made our way back home. I slept the whole way back, but a tingle in my nose smacked me into consciousness. The same wretched smell that I had felt the day I found my friend lying on the ground seeped into the car, but a hundred times stronger. Gasoline, burning wood, putrefied soil and ash. I felt a shiver across the back of my neck. Something was terribly wrong. I peeked out of the car window and felt the weight of an anchor drop on my chest.
The yellow plains that had once been my comfort, now made me panic. The car shot through a lingering blanket of gray smoke, and all I could see in all directions was an ocean of scorched earth that extended as far as my eyes could see. The blue sky that had been so familiar to me was now a lifeless, colorless dome compressing the unbearable heat that rose from the ground. The sun was a white light over a desolate land. Everything was quiet as a tomb. The car hadn’t fully stopped on our driveway when I jumped out and ran into the plains as fast as my little legs could carry me to search for my friend.
I remember it hurt to breathe. The heat, the smoke, and the exhaustion dried my throat. Desperation strangled at my throat. Nothing moved except me. Nothing made a sound save for the cracking earth beneath my feet. The stillness terrified me and I had never felt more alone. My body shook as I ran through the wasteland, gasping for air. My heart was broken and it rattled in my chest like a bag of broken glass. The only remnants of the past life of this field were the cinders on the ground.
I couldn’t look for her in her usual hiding spots because they were not there anymore. I came to where our plant stood and there it was. Like a white flag over a battlefield, it lay limp over a charcoal earth. The roots, which had grown about the same length as my leg, poked out from under its stem, bare and broken. My mind went silent, as the air grew thicker. There would be no nursing it back to life this time. It was gone and so was she. That was the first time I felt alone.