Tha-wing, tha-wing, tha-wing…the sound echoed in Coco Morales’s ears as he swung the heavy blade again and again into the endless stand of cane before him. He was groggy from the unaccustomed exertion, from the afternoon heat, from the hypnotic sweep of the steel before his eyes. Tha-wing, tha-wing, the brittle rush of stalks falling one after the other, his feet shuffling forward between the jutting cobs, the steel in his hand so sharp he could hardly hear the pinging at the end of his arm, sugar’s last scream before it died.
“Fock, man.” A voice behind and to the left of him. “Fock this shit.”
“Yeah, we might as well be in Camagüey.” Another voice, also in Spanish, this one on Coco’s right.
Coco stood, wiped sweat from his brow with a swipe of his already soaked shirtsleeve, glowered back at the two who’d spoken. “Shut up,” Coco said. “Someone hears you, then what?”
“I’m no focking cane cutter,” the small one from Camagüey said. Edgar. He was a mulatto, had his head shaved, had what looked like a jailhouse tattoo peeking through the blue stubble up there. He’d stripped his shirt off, tucked it into the waistband of his canvas pants. Wiry arms, shoulders puffed with muscle. He’d sheathed his machete and was rubbing his sore arm.
The other one, Manrique, a hulking creature with tiny eyes in his big, broad face, had also given up the pretense of work. His eyes flickered back and forth between Coco and little Edgar, the hint of a grin on his puffy lips.
Coco nodded thoughtfully. “It’s true, you’re no cutter.” He sighted in on the little one’s tattoo. What was it? A rose? A gnarled heart? Maybe something Edgar had hacked in there himself.
Coco heard a motor somewhere far off, glanced toward the sound. What strange things could happen in this life. Here he was, out in the middle of the Florida nowhere, with two Marielitos, all of them pretending to be cane cutters. Not exactly what he had bargained for the day his employer had taken him on.
The sky was leaden, the underside of a barge. Not even clouds, really. Just a barge full of rain up there, so heavy it could hardly move, a barge full of water steamed up from the Everglades, sliding over toward the coast a few miles, never to make it to the beaches, about to dump itself down on Coco and his men, on all this big sugar land.
Lot of money in sugar, all right, Coco thought. And this was the place to grow it if you couldn’t be in Cuba. All this flat land and rain when you needed it, and big Lake Okeechobee up there to drain onto your land if the clouds forgot to come.
“Edgar, he is tired,” Manrique offered.
Edgar nodded agreement. “How long we going to fock around this way?”
Coco had the tip of his blade at his lips, tasted sweet stickiness on the point with his tongue. Spend enough time with creatures like these, you would understand how a caste system had developed.
He noticed a tiny vein pulsing like a crooked river down Edgar’s scalp. The vein reached the odd tattoo and disappeared. Maybe it wasn’t a tattoo after all. Maybe it was some strange type of birthmark, maybe the little vein fed it. Coco was also wondering if he could accomplish what he had been sent to do with only one helper.
Edgar stared back, barely widening his eyes in question.
Bored. Or was this going to come to something?
The sound of the motor was growing louder. Coco jerked his head toward the sound. “Perhaps it is him. You want to get paid, you start the cutting.”
Edgar looked away, then back at Coco. Coco watched him, watched Manrique from the corner of his eye. He listened to the motor, a sudden whine. That was surely it, the Jeep, making the sudden turn off the main levee road, climbing over the narrow arched bridge…yes, a Jeep in low gear.
Coco knew how much time before the Jeep arrived. Knew how deep was the water in the canal that ran beside them. Knew what he could do to Edgar and Manrique. But couldn’t know for certain who was coming. Just the foreman, riding by to check again on the new crew’s progress? Or maybe el jefe too, the opportunity they had been waiting for. In which case he would need help.
He felt a stiffness growing in his shoulders. He was tired too.
“Perhaps it is him,” Coco repeated. “Let us do the job, okay?” “Fock, man.” Edgar shook his head. “I’m sick of this shit.”
But he appreciated being asked. He dropped his gaze, went back to the cane.
They were all back to work by the time the Jeep arrived, throwing up a screen of dust from the dirt track along the canal. Coco glanced between his legs, felt his pulse quicken as the dust subsided.
All this he saw upside down: the foreman at the wheel, a beefy Anglo in stiff khaki shirt and pants, mirrored sunglasses in the middle of his fried pink face. A second man in khakis rode the jumpseat in back, a shotgun cradled between his legs. But what excited him was the third one, the white-haired man in the passenger seat.
“El jefe,” Coco said, as if crooning to himself, and stood to turn. He waved and grinned and walked toward the idling Jeep, and Edgar and Manrique followed after.
Coco had his cap off, held it crossed over his chest as if he were a ballplayer waiting for the game to begin. Edgar and Manrique, on his heels, bowing and scraping too. Weren’t they all happy to be out here, slaving for el jefe de azúcar, king of the endless sugar fields?
The foreman leaned to say something in el jefe’s ear as they approached. El jefe nodded and turned to Coco, who had come to a stop near the open-sided Jeep.
“You are recently arrived from our country,” el jefe said. Snowy-white hair, clear blue eyes, a starched white shirt with a tiny horse and rider embroidered on the breast, cotton slacks, and moccasins without socks. You might mistake him for any of the wealthy Anglos treading the sidewalks of West Palm Beach, not thirty miles from where Coco stood. But el jefe spoke flawless Spanish, with a Castilian accent drilled into him by relentless Jesuits in Havana and polished at a university in Madrid.
Coco knew of el jefe, as anyone from his tiny village did. The father of el jefe and his father and his father before had held sugar plantations in Santiago de Cuba, and their bloodline was said to have found its origins in that of Queen Isabella herself. Now he sat in a Jeep in a Florida field and wore a pistol in a capped leather holster at his hip and spoke familiarly to Coco Morales, who traced his own bloodlines back to shit.
“I am.” Coco nodded. He indicated his companions with a sweep of his cap. “We are.”
El jefe regarded them as if what had washed up to Florida from his homeland was a great disappointment. In the mirrored reflection of the foreman’s glasses, Coco saw what el jefe saw: a fat clown and a thin fool led by a cadaver with his cap in his hand. A pathetic trio, no doubt about it.
“I will give you some advice,” el jefe said, using the tone of an impatient schoolmaster. “First, you will have to forget all those stories about the streets of gold.” Coco nodded. He was thinking about his father, who had died drunk and asleep in the middle of a muddy road outside Salazar, his head crushed beneath the wheels of a propane truck.
“You will work hard for the privilege of being here,” el jefe continued, his nostrils flaring. “It is your duty and your privilege.” Coco saw that the guard with the shotgun had noticed his cap, bearing the likeness of a seal-like creature and the name of a professional baseball team. The identical cap was perched atop the head of the guard who stared down at him. The look on the guard’s face did not suggest that they would enjoy baseball games together.
“Save your money, learn English,” el jefe said. “Try to make something of yourselves.”
Coco nodded. El jefe gave him a last admonishing glare, then seemed to remember that he was paying the three of them nearly four dollars an hour to stand in the broiling heat and listen to his advice. He dismissed Coco with a nod and turned to order the foreman away.
Coco gestured to Edgar and Manrique with his chin. “Now,” he said, in case they doubted him.
Edgar had edged toward the front of the Jeep during el jefe’s speech. At Coco’s gesture, he spidered his way back to the opposite door, raised his knife, and swung.
The foreman, who’d been wrestling with the wheel of the Jeep, glanced up in time to see the sky, reflected in a flash of steel, fall upon him. He tried to shield himself with his arm, but he was too late. The blade took him high, his mirrored sunglasses flying off in two pieces.
The guard in the jumpseat was still fumbling for his shotgun when Manrique reached him. Big Manrique braced himself against the frame of the Jeep with one hand and sent his blade at the guard in a backhanded arc. It caught the guard just beneath the chin and sent his head flying backward, lolling across his shoulders on an impossible hinge.
Coco had cautioned the others that el jefe was his, his alone, but the foreman had fallen sideways across the seat, spraying blood, blocking Coco’s aim. El jefe clawed at the covered holster on his hip, trying to escape the clutch of the dying man. The foreman’s foot jammed against the accelerator, his arm tangled in the wheel. The Jeep began to slew in a tight circle, its motor screaming, its rear wheels spewing sand.
Then the wheels caught and the vehicle shot forward. It sped fifty feet down the narrow track, slewing back and forth, finally crashed into the framework of an irrigation gate jutting from the canal bank. The impact tossed the bodies of the guard and the foreman out into the murky water. The Jeep teetered at the edge, then plunged in after them with a roar.
Coco stared for a moment, watching the steam rise from the roiling water, trying to collect his thoughts. Jeep, foreman, guard—none of that mattered in the slightest. For what he realized was that el jefe had escaped. The white-haired man was tumbling through the dust—shoulders, knees, shoulders again—now staggering upright, running, disappearing into the waving stalks of cane.
It had happened so quickly that Coco felt as if he were awakening from a dream. He turned and motioned the others forward. “Go!” he shouted, waving his machete toward the crackling cane.
Coco led the way, pushing the rough stalks aside, pausing now and then to listen to the path of el jefe. Edgar moved more quickly, slipping sideways through the tangle like a greyhound bred for thickets, while Manrique crashed along without bothering to clear a path, flattening the cane stalks as if they were grass. A buffalo, Coco thought. A human rhinoceros.
Coco stopped again, held up his arms to halt the others. He listened, but heard nothing. El jefe’s thrashing had stopped. Coco remembered the polished leather holster that hung at the old man’s hip, imagined the soft clasp sliding open, a trembling hand on the pistol’s steel.
Still, what could he do? Run away? Assuming he’d ever get out of these fields, where would he go? Slink back to Miami and explain to his employer that there had been an error, he had lost their prey in a cane thicket? He would prefer the bullet of el jefe’s pistol to what would happen to him then.
Coco’s eyes were fixed on a dense clump of cane and stray pepperbush a few feet ahead. He stared hard at it, willing his eyes to disregard the green patchwork of leaves, to penetrate the tiny lattice-work of shadows. A mosquito whined through the silence near his ear. Was that a fleck of white behind a fluttering leaf? The heat seemed to urge itself up a notch and Coco felt sweat rolling down his brow. He didn’t try to wipe it away.
A vision overlaid itself on Coco’s sight, a boy standing on a crate, peering through the shutters of a shack into a tiny bedroom, a sheet ripping away inside like a sail shorn in a windstorm. Coco watches a man’s glistening buttocks rising and falling, his mother’s bare legs waving skyward. Her sounds sharp, shrill, as if she was being hurt, as if this strange man was hurting her. “Mami,” the boy calls, and the woman lunges up on her elbow, outraged.
“Get away,” she shrieks, though the man is pumping still. “I am working. Get away.” And Coco does.
Coco felt a mosquito pierce the flesh of his cheek, felt another settle on the sweaty nape of his neck—fat, healthy mosquitoes, nourished on the dark blood of cane workers—but he had not moved his gaze from the tangle of brush in front of him. He saw another fluttering movement there, thought he caught a glimpse of dull steel. But it might have been a trick of his eyes. If he could see the past in a tangle of brush, he might see anything.
He turned to Manrique, who was standing nearer the spot, and motioned the big man forward with the slightest motion of his chin. Manrique hesitated, then started forward.
Manrique reached out to part the brush, his machete raised. Coco tightened his grip on his own blade. Manrique took another step…
…and staggered backward as a gunshot blew away the silence. Manrique tottered, gave a spinning little half-step, a black dot sprung up on one of his doughy cheeks, a patch of bone and scarlet red opened up by his opposite ear. His eyes were aimed at Coco, but they were seeing something far away.
Coco was already running forward. He saw the brush moving, glimpsed a hand, then the same flash of dull steel, pointing at him now. He lunged forward and lashed out with his machete, swinging blindly into the labyrinth of green and shadow. His feet tangled in the pepperbush’s roots as he swung and he went down, his ears ringing with the sound of another blast.
He lay with his cheek in the cool muck, his head still ring- ing from the explosion, which must have gone off at his ear. He was vaguely aware of movements through the cane, sensing only that they were moving away from him as he blinked his eyes into focus.
He was trying to push himself up when he realized what was lying on the ground before him. He hesitated, his face inches above the musty-smelling earth. He closed his eyes, thinking that perhaps he was dying and this was another vision. When he opened his eyes, it was still there.
A hand. Or a part of one, its forefinger still curled in the ring of a pistol. A thin trail of smoke rose from the barrel of the weapon. On another finger, a gold ring, twisted in some shape like vines. A thumb, still twitching. And where the rest should be—wrist, arm, elbow—there was nothing, nothing but a spray of red pepper berries and a splash of blood.
Coco pushed himself to his knees, shook his head groggily, listening to the sounds of el jefe crashing through the brush, of Edgar chasing after. He hauled himself up, felt his tender ear, but found no signs of blood. He found the big blade where it had fallen in the crook of a pepper root, took it up, and followed the sounds of the chase.
Coco found el jefe’s spoor soon enough, a fist-sized smear of blood in a sandy patch here, a swipe across a stand of cane there. He could hear harsh breathing, grunts of effort, muffled curses up ahead. He plowed through a marshy spot where the cane seemed stunted, found himself bathed in a stinging black cloud of mosquitoes. He slogged on, fighting the urge to chop at the insects with his blade, then heard a cry up ahead, followed by the splash of something heavy falling into water.
Coco hurried on through a last canebrake, emerged on the bank of a canal. Was it the same one they’d started from or another of the endless network that crisscrossed this steaming land? Impossible to tell. Coco had lost his sense of direction long ago.
What he could be sure of was this: el jefe was down there in the murky water, thrashing with one good hand, one awful stump, trying to drag himself up onto the muddy bank.
“I cannot swim,” el jefe called, but to whom it was not clear. “I cannot swim.”
Edgar stood above el jefe on the bank, his blade poised like a housewife with a broom, daring the mouse to take one step farther. Edgar grinned as Coco emerged from the canebrake.
“I’ll help him out,” Edgar said as el jefe levered his good arm onto the shore. The old man’s face was a mask of effort. He seemed strangely unaware of the spidery little man with the huge knife above him.
“I cannot swim,” he gasped, dragging himself forward on the mud.
“No matter,” Edgar said. He was about to strike when Coco’s blade took him in the back.
Edgar stiffened, gasped, lost his grip on his knife. He staggered at the edge of the bank for a moment, clawing weakly at his back, then fell over, into the water.
Coco watched him sink, did not flinch as Edgar’s sightless gaze passed over him. The last he saw of Edgar was the tiny birthmark, a doomed continent sinking with its stubbled globe.
Strange, Coco thought, how indifferent he was to Manrique’s death, how he’d come to despise Edgar. How for a moment he had regarded el jefe almost as a comrade. It was indeed a very strange world.
He turned back to el jefe then, feeling weary, feeling almost sad. The world turned and turned and sometimes things were upside down. Nevertheless…
He was about to do what had to be done when he realized it was already over. El jefe lay where he had dragged himself, half in, half out of the water. His old man’s eyes were closed as if in sleep, his lips parted, pressed into a shallow puddle of water.
Coco nudged him with the tip of his shoe, then again. El jefe, king of the sugar, Coco thought. You get what you get, but then someone else wants it, hires Coco, and see what happens.
Coco shook his head, made a sound that might have been a sigh. The world turns, he thought, and as luck would have it, he would go on turning with it. Clean this mess up now. Go back to Miami, tell this story. See what job comes next.
Strange. He pushed the old man lightly, almost gently, with his toe, and the body slid down the bank, out of sight.