Dreamers, by Carol Tarlen

Juan was born in the mountains of Nicaragua on a small cattle ranch. His father was not a poor man but neither was he wealthy. He had almost 100 head of cattle which he grazed on 20 acres of hard, scrubby mountain earth. He employed two campesinos whom he worked very hard.

He worked his three sons equally hard. Whenever he came upon the two older boys sitting under a tree, playing cards before resuming work in the hot sun, he would quietly order them back to the fields as he fingered his wide black belt with the silver buckle in the shape of a snake. The boys had felt that buckle on their skin many times, and so they quickly placed the cards in their pockets and rose.

But Juan would not rise quickly for he spent his lunch with his face in a book. “Let me finish this page, Papa,” he would mutter, knowing that in the evening he would feel that belt slash his back.

In the spring of 1937 Juan turned 16. It became his duty to go to the mountain city 20 miles to the south to pick up the weekly mail, his father having long since decided that Juan was a worthless rancher. Better for the boy to run errands off the ranch where his bookish dreams wouldn’t distract the campesinos and his other sons who seemed incapable of anything but drink, cards and barely adequate work.

In the city, Juan read a week’s worth of newspapers and discussed their contents with anyone who had time to listen. By employing this method, he came into contact with men and women who dreamed of governments that represented the poor, unions for factory workers, and most interesting for Juan, cooperative ranches owned by all the people who worked on them. But in 1938, they mostly talked about the civil war in Spain. Each and every man and woman in that small group of dreamers wanted to go to Spain to defend the Republic against the fascist generals who had risen up, with the help of the Church and the support of the German Nazis, to overthrow the people’s government.

Naturally, Juan wanted to join his friends in Spain, and just as naturally, his father supported the fascist generals and the Church. At Sunday dinner, he would rail against subversives who wanted to destroy the natural order of things, which he defined as originating from the holy trinity of Church, State (not republic, he would add), and the father at the head of the table. Juan would stare at his papa’s baldness shining in the hot sunlight and remain silent. His brothers would nod in unison, their eyes dead to the deluge of clichés drenching their thoughts of that evening’s poker game.

One afternoon Juan did not return from the city. That night his father sent his brothers out to search for him. They did not return until morning.

“He’s gone,” they reported.

Their father detected a stagger in their walk and began to unbuckle his belt.

“What do you mean?” he asked with a slight smile as he slid the black leather off his waist.

“He’s left. We met the man who sells bus tickets in the saloon on Calle de la Sol. He told us. He sold Juan a ticket to Managua,” the oldest of the three brothers replied.

“He had no money to travel,” the father yelled. This was unusual, for he seldom raised his voice, since he enjoyed striking when least expected. He believed that fear was the best method of control, and never knowing when authority would strike was the most effective way to invoke fear.

“I do not know where he found the money,” the younger brother replied.

“You,” the father shouted, “you must have given it to him.”

“Father, you do not give us enough money for ourselves. We have nothing to spare for Juan,” said the oldest. Juan had asked for a loan, promising to pay it back when he got to Mexico and could work awhile before finding passage to Europe, but both brothers had merely shook their heads and said, “Papa would beat us if he found out.”

“I do not believe you,” the father said in a softer voice, then ordered his remaining sons to stand outside by the corral fence. They stood for an hour before he appeared with the two campesinos.

“Tie them to the fence post,” he commanded Carlos, whom the father had hired long before his sons were born.

Carlos shook his head.

“Tie them!” the father hissed.

Again, Carlos refused. He was old, his wife was dead now, and his children who had survived childhood had long since gone to Managua to work in the Victoria beer factory or married men who worked on other ranches.

“Then leave this place, old man,” the father said. Carlos walked away, and when the father turned to his other employee who had a young, pregnant wife, the man also shook his head and ran to catch up with Carlos.

The brothers faced their father, their knees and hands trembling. “You can’t beat us anymore, Papa,” said the younger one. “We are grown men.”

“I have the authority,” he calmly replied, “and I order you to tie your brother to the fence post. When I am finished with him, it will be your turn.”

At that moment the brothers realized that what Juan had been telling them was true, that compliance was needed for their father to beat them. Neither spoke again but turned and began to walk down the path to the city.

“I am going to get my shotgun,” the father shouted after them, but the brothers kept walking. They knew that their father would never find anyone to work for him again if he killed his own sons. Their saloon friends lent them money, and they eventually found work on ranches in the South. Within two weeks the father had found five campesinos to work for him, because, even though everyone knew he was a brutal man, there was great poverty in the area, and rent had to be paid and children fed.

When Juan arrived in Mexico City, he found a group of people who belonged to the Party and who promised to let him join their brigade if he studied with them for awhile so that he would understand the correct reasons for the war in Spain. But Juan was in a hurry to give himself to the struggle, so he found a job on a merchant ship and landed a month later in Marseilles.

Not speaking French, and basically a country boy with no sophistication, he found the city expensive, confusing, and lonely. While there were many immigrants from Spain, he could not understand what they said anymore than he could understand the French dock workers, fish mongers and waiters who served him soup in cheap cafes along the waterfront. He soon ran out of money and was evicted from the room he shared with two stevedores.

He discovered that many people slept under bridges, and although the accommodations were very damp, his roommates were friendly and he even made the acquaintance of a few people from Latin America. Sometimes he couldn’t understand their dialect, but their words were clearer than the words spoken by refugees from Madrid or Seville. The bridge dwellers often talked of the civil war, and Juan would tell them of his dream to go there to defend the people against the cruelty of the Church and generals. Newspaper photographs of Franco reminded him of his father, and he did not hesitate to denounce those who abused their authority. His friends from Peru, Argentina and Mexico would translate this to the Spaniards, which would cause many arguments. Of course, he couldn’t understand what was said.

After a month under the bridge, he caught a cold. It was natural, he thought, since he was from a hot country and not used to the European climate. He waited for the cold to pass and continued to discuss politics with those who could understand him, and even those who couldn’t.

It was now April of 1938, and from the little he could discern, it seemed that the Spanish people were losing the war. Winter was setting in, and he felt a great urgency to do his part for the struggle, but his chest hurt when he coughed and he wheezed loudly when he breathed. He found it difficult to stand, so he lay on cardboard under the bridge. His friends told him that he needed to get out into the sunlight during the day so he could dry off a bit, but he was too weak, even, to beg for fish and bread from the market along the Marseilles dock.
One evening, two Argentineans found him lying on the cardboard, feverish and shivering. They had brought him a hot bowl of fish broth, which they spooned between his cracked lips. He had ceased to speak at all four days ago, and his friends were worried.

“We must get him inside,” one said. They placed him on some canvass and each grabbed one end. Making their way through the streets with this improvised stretcher, they finally found CGT headquarters, and even though they were Anarchists, Isabelle, a young comrade, took pity on the teenager shivering on the floor and had them bring him to her room. There, she nursed him.

One night he turned and spoke, which astonished her, since he had been unable to say anything for almost a week. He told her of the ranch in the mountains north of Managua, and of his father and brothers, whom he worried about but assumed their gambling and drinking would soothe them. He said he hoped his father would die soon, but he was a robust man and that was doubtful. He spoke of his dream of fighting for the Republic, how he had imagined hiding in the mountains in Caledonia and only coming down to plant bombs under bridges used by fascist troops or to climb trees to aim his rifle at bald headed generals. Although he coughed a great deal, he was able to speak with eloquence.

The young woman smiled but shook her head. She spoke both Spanish and Catalan fluently, but she could only understand one or two of Juan’s words. She worried that he was exhausting himself and tried to quiet him, but he continued to speak in a hurried rasp.

He finally fell asleep. He slept for three days. Isabelle called a doctor, who took one look at Juan and shook his head.

“He’s so young,” the woman, who was hardly older than Juan, said.

Juan died two days later. No one knew whom to notify. He was buried with the other poor who have no names.

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