Summer of Salamanders

A story from rural Texas


I remember everything about that summer. It was as if a gauze had been lifted off of each of my eyes. Everything became clear. From the time I lay on the mat at night to sleep on the floor beside all of you children to the time I woke up, both the beauty and the suffering of the world became so concisely clear as to be painful. Your father and brothers say that was the summer I began talking in my sleep, making mumbled observations about what happened throughout the day and years before. During the day, if I commented on something aloud, the new families around us would tell your father I had gotten the Eye of the Poet. It scared them a little and some of them, though not all, stayed their distance, though we were in the same labor camps. Your father, who had always laughed and made others laugh, never questioned me about the sudden clarity of my observations, but that was the summer he became melancholy. I was thirty-two. I have told you about this before, one time when you were sick with fever and had dreamt that a boy had come into the bedroom and asked you to go outside to play. He was right beside the head of the bed outside the screen door, beckoning to you and asking you to join him. We had arranged the bed so that you could be touched by the coolness of the distant coastal breeze because of your fever. You started talking to the boy while you were lying on your side; then you sat up to continue the conversation. I had stayed up all night to take care of you while everyone slept, and I could see you in the dark, sitting on the bed. You were talking aloud, mumbling in your sleep, and so I couldn’t make out every word, but I could tell you were trying to decide whether to go with him or not. I couldn’t interfere; that is a very personal decision. When you lay back down, and when I could see that you were looking outside and waving goodbye to the little boy and shaking your head no, I remember lying down beside you and crying myself to sleep, glad you had stayed. It was about two or three in the morning. I could hear your brothers gently snoring in the other room. Your father got up after a little while, disturbed in his sleep, and went outside. I have always thought that your father had heard everything and went outside to chase the little boy away, but I don’t know that. He never said anything to me about that night, and until tonight, I have never mentioned it to anyone. The summer when the salamanders appeared we were not living near the healing coastal breeze. Perhaps that was a mistake we made, going too far inland, to land where sometimes there is no wind and the oppressive air can sit still and stagnant for days. I guess I will die never knowing what I did wrong, never knowing whether I could have done anything different to change the outcome of your life. Even many years later those who were there, and even just passers-by who worked in the labor camp for only a few days for their own reasons, referred to that time as the Summer of the Salamanders. When the salamanders appeared some of the workers referred to them as water dogs, but your brother, who already liked books, found out what they were called and came to the small rooms in the barn to announce it to us while your sisters ate. We had to take turns eating. The two rooms were small. They were to the back of the inside of the barn and to the right side. Right outside the door, to the left before you went in, were tall stacks of wired bales of hay, damp and stale in the late summer. Alongside all the barn walls were old tools, some of which had belonged to the farmer’s grandfather and which had old, dry leather still attached to wood. If you stood outside the door of the rooms before going in, toward the back of the large barn by the front of the tractor, you could hear the chickens along the outside the barn. Mack Beville, the owner of the farm, had built a chicken coop there at eye level. With its own low roof, it ran the whole length on the outside of the barn. We would sleep, all of us in the two rooms, with the sounds of chickens on the other side of the barn. Even the sound seemed clearer to me then. The salamanders were damp and disgusting creatures. On the morning we saw them, we had tried to come out of our two rooms in the back of the barn. They were blocking the door. I had been the first to push the door to let the breath of the sickness you had leave the rooms and to replace it for you with fresh air, but I couldn’t open it. Your brothers, two of them together, finally pushed it open. That was our only exit from the two aligned rooms, the door that led into the rest of the barn itself. The tractor was still there when we’d opened the door. There had been a steady drizzle and it was still early in the morning. We were uncertain if anyone was going to work. The salamanders, what seemed like a hundred of them crawling over each other, had crowded into and over each other against our door. I never understood why. I don’t even know if they had anything to do with the illness. We could tell by looking at them that their skin was thin, as if they could be crushed very easily. We didn’t want blood all over the door. Your older brothers and your father took flat shovels and slowly carried the slimy creatures away into the fields nearby. In the afternoon, we found some of them dead, trying to make it back to the barn. We don’t know what happened to all the others. We were in New Home, Texas, then. Your older brothers always thought there was never much to do there. On Saturdays, we would go to Lubbock or Plainview for groceries and I would watch your brothers take care of you, tightly holding your hand in the city. You were three years old, the darkest of all of my children, and you had walked up to me still at two and asked me for my breast. The doctors had already told me to stop giving you breast milk. They had told me it would weaken you. But you were my son, and perhaps I let it go too long, and somehow I hurt you. We had been in town the weekend before the salamanders appeared. That Saturday, as we had crossed the street, right at the corner there had been a crippled man begging for change. We passed him, all of us walking together, but you let go of my hand, at three years old, and went back to give him all of your money. I scolded you for that. I said you shouldn’t have given him anything. Perhaps that is why God punished me the way he did, to let me know I was wrong. I should have realized. New Home was small. Now that we have traveled more places, I realize your brothers were right. There was nothing really to do there. All they could do was visit the small stores in town. There were only four of them. A road divided the town in half, cutting it right down the middle. Everyone in town, even complete strangers who stopped out of curiosity, had to run to cross the road whenever those going elsewhere, with no local interest, sped through at over fifty miles an hour. We used to call the road el camino blanco, “the white road,” because of the way the pavement had aged, looking like gray hair. El camino blanco ran from town toward the farms, and formed a cross with the small dirt road that turned toward Mack Beville’s farm. That was the year I got my sight. I explained that to you before, when you were little. I don’t mean my ability to read or see small things. I mean the ability to see things that are nearer to the secret heart of life. It was the same way people have told me, now that I have grown old, that poets of the past saw the world. I don’t know anything about the poets. All I know is that one day I was too busy cleaning house, and then the next I began to see the crows eating corn on the edge of the field, the reflections of stars and moon floating in the irrigation ditches, and the way dogs looked lost in the city, as if they had just arrived. I had never really noticed or mentioned such things before. I had always just quietly cleaned the barns and the housing, whatever the farmers let us have, and had scrubbed the floors when there were any with soap and water and wet rags. Then I sat up crying one night, having dreamed of the wailing of large animals at sea. Your brother showed me the pictures of the whales just a few years ago. Now, old and gray, I hear their singing on the television and remember the dream. Back then, though, I knew nothing about the whales. And when I first started noticing little things with no definite meaning and started dreaming of things I had never seen—and started mumbling the dreams out loud at breakfast, as if still in their trance—your father began worrying that I had gotten ill. Even now, at this age, I still remember the stores in New Home. One of them was a service station that sold groceries. There were rows of groceries on greasy, white shelves that always looked like they had been rubbed hurriedly with oily, wet rags. The farmers would do some of their shopping there, for bare essentials, but most of them went to the city once a week like the rest of us. The other store was what you would expect: a feed store full of bags of cotton and other seeds. The tractor companies would park their models along the side of the store: Farmall in red; later, John Deere in green. The other two stores I don’t remember much about. One served the people’s general needs for clothing. The other was full of the unnecessities of life: salt and pepper shakers shaped like little cows wearing painted-on clothes; wooden signs that said “The buck stops here,” which showed a picture of a deer with a hunter standing over it. It’s funny I remember those two things considering everything that happened. I guess, more than anything, it is because of you; you picked up everything when we would go inside the store. I remember each thing you picked up to look at. Those were two of them. The theater in New Home is easy to remember. There was only one. Our boss, Mack Beville, was the owner. He was a good man, Mack Beville. When your father and I took all of you to the movies, we never went in. We would sit in the car quietly and watch the theater from across the street. We never left you there alone. It was a long drive back to the camp and we didn’t like you to come with anyone else, so we would bring you. Then we would wait outside until you came out, watching you cross the street in the light of the theater marquee, and take all of you home. Movies showed only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Sometimes, your father and I would laugh quietly in the dark of the car when children would come running out of the theater. It happened when a monster movie was showing, like when Godzilla growled directly from the screen. I know that only because more than once you sat in the car to catch your breath. Mack Beville apparently knew what would happen during what scenes. He would open both of the front theater doors to wait for the rush. He would always allow the children to return to their seats as soon as their hearts and lungs calmed down and would stand there watching all of you, bent forward at the waist, catching your breath. Then he would let you back in. Nobody ever kept ticket stubs and, more than once, he allowed more children in than had run out. It didn’t seem to bother him. He would pat the back of heads of the children sneaking in, letting them know he knew—that it was the nature of things for children to try to sneak into movies free. Your father and I would sometimes watch Mack Beville from across the street. He was older than each of us, but had had a little girl in his later years, red-haired and red-skinned, whom we occasionally saw at the theater and the farm. Your father liked and respected Mack Beville and considered him an honest man. Mack Beville would sit in the brightly lit ticket booth, looking even larger than he was, and collect all of the entrance fees. After the movie had run for some 15 minutes, he would take a break. He would come out of the small booth and stand in the white glow in front of the theater for a few minutes while his young assistant from the local high school ran the projector. Your brothers are the ones who told me who ran the projector; otherwise, I would have never known to tell you. Mr. Beville seemed to enjoy watching the people come and go, the way we did. Some people came to drop off their children and others to walk up late to the ticket box to go in. Most every night movies showed, Mr. Beville would smile to himself and lower his head when he noticed the farm workers and their summer girlfriends kissing against cars halfway down the block. The evenings were clear in New Home. Even in late August and early September, the heat would bring a mist that would rise from the Earth and from local highways, creating distant dream seas. Your brother brought a book home once to show me pictures of a desert and there they were on the page: hazy mirages of distant oases in otherwise dry barren plains. It was the same in New Home. The town was small. It created no dome of light that hovered over the larger cities in the plains. It was easy to see the stars, even from just around the corner of the theater. Mr. Beville, farmer by day throughout his life, seemed to appreciate the openness of the sky at night. He would always go around the corner of the theater into the darkness to light his cigarette. You could see the glow created against Mack Beville’s face even from our distance. He would smoke his cigarette as he looked at the sky, the way I’d seen your father look at the sky many days in distant fields. Then Mack Beville would look at the small town, and at the lovers holding each other closely down the street. He would then dust real or imaginary ashes off his shirt lest Mrs. Beville notice that he was still smoking an occasional cigarette. They had become Baptist, according to your father. Almost all of their neighbors were Baptists. Mr. Beville had joked once to another farmer, in front of the younger boys who spoke English, that Mrs. Beville liked to adhere to a strict interpretation of the church rules, though no one had ever explained to him where the rule not to smoke cigarettes could be found in the Bible. Before becoming Baptists, Mr. and Mrs. Beville had been Methodists. To Mr. Beville, the Methodists had seemed to have a slightly less overbearing approach toward the entrance into the kingdom of God, but Mrs. Beville never had none of it. She wanted to be in front of the line when they entered the Kingdom of God and hence felt that she had to outdo the other Christians. Mr. Beville had told another farmer that. The young migrant boys, who were already attending schools, had heard it and told their mothers. On the Beville farm, the barn about a block back from their home served as our housing. It wasn’t the worst we had ever had. We lived in chicken coops once, but the fleas had been so bad your father had moved us to another farm quickly before any of you children got ill. We had been completely out of money when your father agreed to work, but he sold something so that we could move on. We left untended fields on that farm, something your father was never comfortable with. No one worked them that year when they found out where they would have to stay. The Bevilles kept no animals in the barn. Occasionally, you would see a rat or an occasional rabbit that wandered in from the fields. The chicken coops had always been housed along the outside of the barn in one long row, protected by a lower, added extension to the upper roof. Your father said that it was Mrs. Beville’s idea to put the workers in the barn. There were other apartments, three in a row, but she liked to keep the workers as far away from their house as possible because of Sunday visitors. The apartments were left until there was no room in the barn. To keep Mr. Beville from defying her wishes, she would store some of her things in the extra apartments. Mr. Beville worked directly with your father and the other workers. He would take your father and show him which field he wanted worked. He managed to communicate in broken Spanish, using his hands to gesture what he wanted, and had always been able to communicate with everyone—even the ones who didn’t speak any English at all. They, in turn, always managed to communicate with him in much the same manner. Your father would come home in the evenings and talk of Mr. Beville as being a good man. He liked to work, and your father liked to work with him and for him. I remember your father coming home and telling me that he and Mr. Beville had stopped working in the middle of the field to look at the world around them. On the Texas plains you could occasionally witness the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon at the same moment, and on that day, Mr. Beville and your father had stopped working long enough to see the miracle: the world in the middle of perfect balance. Your father felt a bond to him, though neither of them mentioned it nor openly acknowledged it. But your father came home that evening and described in detail what had happened. While he spoke, both of us watched you play in the fields near the barn. He said that for that moment it hadn’t felt like work: They were tilling the land of God under sun and moon and both saw clearly then that plants would miraculously appear there. I sometimes think your father had the veil lifted from his eyes way before it happened to me. I think that’s why we were married until he died. Your father was one of the irrigators for Mr. Beville. Those were the men he chose to go with him individually to irrigate the fields. That too, your father told me about. Sometimes, late in the afternoons, as they pumped water into the long field rows by themselves in one of the fields far away from the farmhouse, Mr. Beville would stop and take a break. He would let your father or some other farmhand he had with him work while he watched and smoked a cigarette quietly. The farmhand would cover one end of the arched aluminum irrigation pipe while the other end was immersed in the water flowing rapidly through the irrigation ditch at the end of the fields and pump it quickly. Seconds later, the water would flow through the pipe onto the plowed row. Simple as it was, your father said Mr. Beville enjoyed watching the phenomenon take place. Sunset, they would drive back across the fields as the sky darkened and the night sky would begin to appear. He and the farmhand, usually someone from some small South Texas town Mr. Beville had never seen himself, would experience it together: the red pinkness of the sky as the day ended; the appearance of the stars; the out-of-kilter moon; and the gray then dark blue haze. All of this, which your father talked about when he arrived home, I could see from the barn as I fed the chickens. Mr. Beville would turn on the lights of his truck so that they could better see the road, but he never liked to turn them on until it was absolutely necessary. Because of the variations in the Texas plains, there were small rolling hills along one of the roads leading up to his farm. Mr. Beville and your father would look at each other and smile each time they went over a hill too fast. More than once, your father said that they enjoyed being on top of the hill for a second and seeing the lit farmhouse and the lights from the barn in the distance. Mr. Beville would first drive your father right to the barn to drop him off. He would always say good night in Spanish, and then drive the block or so length to his home. He would then get out, take off his work or water boots outside, and then go in and shower near the back entrance before going the rest of the way into the house. They had two showers installed when they built the house years before. Mrs. Beville had thought the house would stay much cleaner if there was a second shower near the back entrance. I learned all of that from the young migrant lady who cleaned their house; she would always talk about everything. She told all of us almost everything I remember about Mrs. Beville. She said Mrs. Beville insisted on calling her Maria, though her name was Marisela. When the maid spoke of Mrs. Beville, she would imitate her ways, making her seem like an arrogant, austere woman. Mrs. Beville never looked at us, the workers, when we came and went. She considered us her husband’s domain and none of her concern. The only concern she had for us, according to the maid, was when she started thinking that we were non-Christians. Mrs. Beville had noticed the crosses and religious icons most of us had in the cars and trucks. More than once, according to Marisela, she had noticed the burnt candles and altars to La Virgen that some of the workers carried from place to place. She considered it a blasphemous affront to Our Lord and Savior. Prayer, she thought, should be directly to God. No icon was going to get you an answer. Mrs. Beville had worked out a plan with her local brethren: They were planning to build a small Mexican Baptist Mission to save the workers from Satan, though Mrs. Beville had never told any of this to any of the rest of us. I never really saw Mrs. Beville. Maybe I sound a little bitter still, though I never really knew her. She used to drive behind some of the trucks sometimes, though not intentionally. It happened sometimes that she would be coming back from town the same time we were coming back from the fields. I remember being in the back of the truck with your father once. Your sister had stayed home to take care of both you and your brother. We needed as many hands as possible to finish a field before we had to move on. I had gone with your father to work in the fields. On the way back home, Mrs. Beville rode up behind us on the road. She was trying to pass and the dirt being raised from the truck was going back onto her car. All of us were dirty still, coming back from the fields, and we were sitting or standing on the back of a truck. I remember looking at ourselves then through what must have been her eyes: Our hair was windblown, matted and formed by the hats and caps most of us, but mostly the men, had worn that day. We were still caky and white from the sweat and dirt stuck to our faces throughout the day and the dusty ride. I looked at the men, then. They rubbed their faces and their eyes with their sleeves in the back of the truck. Mrs. Beville seemed to notice everything. For a few miles, sitting in the large family Buick, she rode close to the truck, honking and trying to pass it. Señor Hilano though, who didn’t like her, wouldn’t move over and stop. Instead, he kept swerving the truck back and forth along the dirt road, acting as if he hadn’t seen her and was having a hard enough time just keeping the truck on the road. She finally backed away from the truck, and then pulled over to the side of the road to let us go further ahead. I remember the workers laughing at Señor Hilano’s antics. Marisela told us once that Mr. Beville never really let farmworkers get too close to their house. It didn’t matter to us, really: We never had any real reason to, and most of us didn’t approach the house—except maybe for the first day of the season when a great number of workers would come around looking for work. Mr. Beville would walk out quickly then, letting Mrs. Beville sit inside listening to the radio or reading condensed versions of books, and talk to the men approaching. It was rare Mr. Beville let them approach close enough to the porch to actually knock. Though no one ever said it, all of us knew that he was just trying to avoid any embarrassment: Mr. Beville knew that the workers made Mrs. Beville a little uncomfortable. It was in the fall after the Summer of the Salamanders that the fever came. It stayed with you for three days. I watched you wrestle with it on the bed, trying to make it leave, sweating and tired from the invasion. For three days I wiped you down with wet cloths and alcohol to cool you down. I brought you water when you complained of having a sore throat. I watched you tenderly and remembered and worried about the boy who had visited you once in the middle of the night. I stayed up at night to take care of you, the way I had before. It had started with a headache that I thought would go away. I told your father you had the flu. I didn’t know any better then. I didn’t know it was possible, after so simple an illness, that you might never walk again. For three days we let you sleep almost constantly. You would wake up, looking like you might get better, and then we would realize the fever was still in you. We wanted you to get well. I wanted to see you run in the fields to your brothers again, the way you had before. Even at three years old, you could run great distances to take them lunch. I would watch you jump over the rows, two at a time, and then run back to me across the field or empty dirt road. You would raise small clouds of dust with your old tennis shoes. On the third morning I heard your father talking outside at the mouth of the barn. The men seemed to be whispering to themselves. Mr. Beville had left on Tuesday when his little girl had gotten sick. They had seen him touching her hair, red and curly, as she lay her head against his arm when they got into the car. Mr. Beville was dirty, not having taken a shower before he’d left. Mrs. Beville was driving. They had walked up to him, three of the men together, to see what was wrong. In broken Spanish he had told them that it was his daughter. He held her in his arms as he spoke and he looked, according to your father, as if he would cry in front of the men at any moment. The men had held their hats in their hands, then walked back to the barn. In Spanish, he had told them where they were taking her: “el hospital.” The vomiting and diarrhea had started on you on the second day. You became restless, behaving as if you needed to get away from the disease, but had nowhere to go. Then I began to see the full effect of the flu. You had been ill before, but this was different. For three days I had been rubbing you down with alcohol and keeping you cool, and then I noticed your little legs. You were my son, my little son, and I noticed your legs. You were three years old and used to run across the fields on the plains to see and talk to your brothers while the sun and moon hung in the balance. And I noticed, late in the afternoon, that you wouldn’t stretch out your legs. I kept pulling on them, pulling them down, but your heels would return back up to your little buttocks. Then I would pull again, not wanting to believe you when you said that you couldn’t stretch your legs yourself. I kept asking you to try harder. And then I realized you couldn’t, that you weren’t doing it that way on purpose to worry me or because you were cold. I pushed the door of the rooms open then, expecting the salamanders to still be there, and went looking for your father. Mr. Beville had been gone and, after finishing the work they had been assigned, the men were doing simple things around the farm. Your father was by himself looking across a field. He had been with us in the morning watching me cool you down, but in the afternoon, worried about how long your illness was going to last, he had walked outside. “There is something wrong with him,” I told him. But I think your father knew. I have told you before that I think the gauze was lifted from your father’s eyes way before it happened to me. Still, he kept asking me if I didn’t think you were making it up, holding your legs up the way you were on the mat on the floor, lying on the pillows in the small room, so that we would take more care of you. But he knew the answer. We walked back to the room together. The fever was gone, but you lay there on the pillows folded like paper, with your sister looking over you. She was crying. And she kept asking us why you wouldn’t stretch your legs. She kept telling me that it was the animals, those ugly salamanders, that had gotten you sick. I never knew if the salamanders had anything to do with it. I don’t know if we should have moved then and just left them alone. It was your father who picked you up from the floor. I put clothes on you, cleaning you up quickly from the night and day of sweat. You were already clean. I had bathed you down every few hours the time I was beside you. We took you to the doctor. On the drive, el camino blanco seemed longer than it ever had before. On the road, we noticed the Bevilles were on their way back home. Mr. Beville was still holding his daughter while his wife drove. He was holding on to her tightly as if not wanting to let her go. He was almost clutching her. I had never seen Mr. Beville look sad before, and he looked out the window of his car, away from Mrs. Beville, into the tall fields of corn alongside the road. We found out later that she had gotten the polio around the same time you had. The doctors had said neither of you would walk again. One of them agreed to continue to rub your legs, trying to stretch them out, if I could come to his office every week. I went to the doctor’s office every Thursday hoping to see you walk again. I would watch the way he worked on your legs, standing beside you on the abandoned high bed in his office. Then I would go home and do it to you myself, hours at a time, thinking I could stretch them out once again to see my son walk. Your father had to continue to work in the fields daily along with your brothers. We paid the doctor something, though he said we could pay him what we could. I had to walk from the barn by the Beville’s house then down the dirt road to el camino blanco to wait for the bus. On the side of the dirt road, the corn plants protected us from the wind. The corn had dried on the stalks that year. No one had picked it. The plants looked old and haggard, tired of waiting to be touched. Your father hated to work on Thursdays, but I reassured him that we needed to make money to pay the doctor to get you well. I would take you by myself, walking along the side of the dirt road carrying you to wait for the bus. He bought you a wagon then. A little wagon with black wheels with a handle so that I could pull you to the side of the road. You sat in the wagon, your legs curled up under you, and held on to the sides. On Thursday mornings, when we started the walk to the main road, the dirt road was almost always empty. Everyone in the farm was at work. We would walk, together you and I, the three miles along the dirt road to the main road. El camino blanco would lie there, looking grayer than it ever had to me. The crows would come to edge of the field to eat the drying corn. I would wait for the speck in the distance that would become the bus before I started hiding your wagon along the edge of the field for our return. It was getting colder by then and I would cover you carefully with blankets, afraid you would get another fever. I would tell you stories about the clear things that I had seen since the day of the salamanders. And I would look at you and cry, wondering what I did to bring you the illness. Then I would see Mrs. Beville pass by in her car on the way to town. Her little girl would point at us, trying to get her mother’s attention, as we sat there waiting. They would disappear into el camino blanco on the way to town to see the doctors for the little girl. You and I would sit and talk quietly to each other, waiting for the speck on the road that would become the bus. Ruperto Garcia was an Observer staff writer in the 1980s. He practices law in San Antonio. His story “Looking for My Sister” is anthologized in Fifty Years of the Texas Observer.