FEATURE Summer of the Salamanders BY RUPERTO GARCIA 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 Icommented 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 cool ness 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 every one 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 Illustrations by Mike Krone 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 22, 2005
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