There is a road from Quebradas to Bolson. It is an old road and buried beneath the layered sand and soil is a cobbled trail that served the ox cart caravans from the Central Valley. The road goes down the mountain to the big river and then up the mountain to Bolson. Or perhaps the opposite, depending on your purpose. In the dry season the road is white and dusty and that is the way it is today. The big birds, zopilotes and gavilanes patrol the road; the one looking for the dead and dying; the other for the fresh and living, caught in the road’s bright nakedness. A young girl, who is perhaps 13 or 14 years, makes her way down the road barefooted. She wears a worn dress of plain white cotton and she carries a package in her right hand. It too is wrapped in white cotton. One’s sensibility is that of a youth, young in all the ways one thinks of young people. Perhaps it is the whiteness that offers this sense, or perhaps it is the manner in which she progresses. She stares at the road. She has no staff but her left arm thrashes outward with each step offering a tare to remain upright. The toes of her right foot grasp the road as though they were fingers; the heel and side of that foot press into the road with the tenacity of a fence post. Her progress is a rocking motion as her left foot is turned inward like angle iron, so that she must offer the calloused side and top of it to the road. Movement is hard work and she walks in this manner without rest for the better part of an hour.
The old man studies her approach as though he has never before seen the lame. His right hand plays with the tips of his untrimmed beard. It is as white as his hair, which curls from underneath his lona, framing his ears and covering his neck. He also is dressed in white cotton and his shirt has a button only at the top to allow his head to enter and it hangs out and over white cotton pants. He wears homemade sandals made from rubber tire tread. He is resting against a large rock in the sparse shade; his staff leans against him, his left arm loosely wrapping it.
“A very good morning to you, abuelo,” the girl says.
The man hesitates as though assessing her greeting, “Good morning girl. From where do you come, and where might you be going?” he says this in the manner that old people speak to those who know less of the world.
“I used to live in Quebradas but I am going to my aunt in San Pablo. I am going to live with her.”
“San Pablo is very far and the day is hot.”
“Yes. It is. But I have the day, and food for tomorrow if I need it.”
“Why do you not stay with your mother?”
The girl studies his face, “She has a new husband and a baby and she cannot take care of me.” She says this with neither dare nor poverty of spirit.
The man thinks on this news for a moment. “People do the best they can.”
“Yes, she does.”
“Near the bridge it is very steep and uneven.”
“Is it?” she says.
“Perhaps it is risky, can you make this passage?”
“Thank you for your concern, abuelo, but I do not know yet. I have never been to San Pablo. May I share your rock with you?”
“Of course, señorita.” and he moved to his right to make room for her. He speaks now as a man who has detected something other than youth in this girl. His speech is thoughtful in the manner of the educated, education or no.
“I have learned the hard lessons of risk. I wish I had learned them at your age,” he said.
“Yes, abuelo. You seem very wise.”
“Yes, I think so. I am going to Bolson, perhaps we could travel together. I may be of help to you.”
“I would be very grateful, abuelo.”
“You must take the left fork at Bolson.”
“Thank you, abuelo, you are already a big help to me. Were you a strong boy when you were my age?”
“Yes,” he answered promptly then paused, “I was the strongest boy in Escobal.” His free hand wiped across his mouth as though there were crumbs there. The little smile that emerged was gone. “I had a girlfriend in those days, the prettiest one, she looked a lot like you. In time we married and had a baby and were happy. Then she became pregnant again and we were so happy. But she and this baby died of the bleeding.” He paused and looked at the girl as if trying to decide if she might understand his story. “After a few weeks I gave over my hopes and became a risky person and joined the coffee caravans from Atenas and left my little boy with my younger sister who had no children of her own.”
“Oh abuelo, that was a mistake, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, …you see my story already. I was risky, as I said. ” He paused, “We were away over two weeks. Several of us stayed in Puntarenas for a few extra days and drank whiskey with the women there.” He looked at her, “Forgive me for saying so señorita, but it is the truth.” He paused, “I was gone for nearly three weeks. When I returned the baby, his name was Pablo, Pablo was burning up, he could hardly breathe and when he would cough a bloody mess would come out.” He paused, staring at the road as though the story were written there. A squirrel began to chitter at the pair of them. A swirl of dust levitated in the breeze.
He shifted his position a little, “In those days there was a doctor in Atenas and I and my father and my brother took the baby with my sister in a cart. But we had waited too long and he died during the night as I held him.” He paused for a long moment. “That was how I learned that riskiness leads to bitterness. And now, I see that bitterness is just part of life. Closer to the end one can see what needs mending but then….” His free hand resigned open for a moment then dropped to his side. “That is the most bitter part.”
Neither spoke for awhile, then she said, “I am very sorry, abuelo. What happened after Pablo died?”
“In truth, that is the end of the story. That is all there is to say.”
“There must be more, abuelo, tell it to me, please.”
“Later, perhaps. We should start walking; are you rested?”
They began to walk, the old man slowing to stay even with the girl. He put his hand to her elbow but she said, “Thank you, abuelo, it is easier to do it the way I do it.”
“You may have known some bitterness yourself.”
“Yes, for many years…many to me,” she smiled at him. “It is hard to want to play and not be able to keep up. I am so different.” She glanced at him, still smiling, then she looked at the road to mind her step. “I have to be careful of the rocks with my little foot.” He said nothing but began to move a rock here and there with the end of his staff. They walked on in the dust. The sun now shown down directly through the thin tops of the trees,
“The sun is heavy today,” he said.
“Yes.” She said it as though first giving it thought. “On the day of my first reconciliation I confessed that my foot was penance for something I did as a baby and I wept. But the priest told me that God loved me always and he whispered to me that Our Holy Father had said in a scripture that ‘Heaven was all around us but we do not see it.’ And for the rest of that day I thought about that. How could that be so? I thought.”
“Yes, I have had such thoughts myself.”
“But our Lord said it, it must be so.”
“Yes, without doubt señorita, but I have never heard that said before.”
“At first I thought it meant that heaven was all around like all the other kids playing and liking each other. That must be Heaven I thought. But then, I could see that sometimes they did not…for no good reason they put themselves in my Hell. When they did that, the one they kicked out or the one that left for his own reasons, that one would come and play with me. We are both in Hell I thought but I did not say so, I was too grateful.”
“Naturally señorita, one would think just such a thing.”
“And then, one day, I thought, maybe I put myself in Hell like the kids do to each other. Why I thought that, I cannot say. It just came to me. But from that moment, when I was upset or feeling poorly, I would think, ‘My Lord Jesus is not doing this to me, who is this person who puts me in Hell?’
“Perhaps the Virgin was talking to you through your thoughts.”
“Do you think so? It makes me happy to think that.”
“Quien sabe? I would not be the one.”
“I began to look for that person.” She paused for a long moment. They moved to the outside of the road to avoid a deep rut in the curve, the cobble stones clearly exposed. “I looked and looked and looked… for many years,” they glanced and shared a smile. “But guess what, abuelo, there was no one there. There is no one there to put me in Hell.”
“This talk is very strange to me señorita, it is very strange. I must think about this.” They walked in silence until the sound of the river roiling in the narrow channel below, began to reach them. He stopped and turned to look at her, waiting until she looked at him, “Señorita,” he began but hesitated as though searching for the words. “Señorita, thank you for calling me abuelo. The young people these days do not show so much respect.”
“You are someone’s grandpa, Abuelito,” she grinned at him and began to move ahead, but he remained still, searching her face, she paused,
“Are you in Heaven señorita?”
“Abuelito!, who can say such a thing? Only our savior could say such a thing. I am here, with you, am I not?
He nodded, “Certainly.”
But Abuelito, I am not in Hell.”
“Gracias a Dios. I can see that you are not. But how is one to know these things señorita, if one does not ask?”
They rested on the steep slope above the bridge. The gorge, illumined by the slanting rays, the shadows on its high rock walls drawing them into high relief. The time of day and the breeze of the gorge robbed the sun of its brutishness. After a while the old man spat in the sand and wiped his mouth with the heel of his hand. He looked through the trees at a small waterfall on the other side of the river. “That is the water for the people in San Pablo. We should drink, it will be all there is until the top of the mountain.” On the bridge he paused for another long moment; he leaned to the railing and stared into the turbulence below. “I remained a risky person after my son died, and for about two years, I drank guaro every night. Then I met another woman,” he paused and turned his head to her, she was watching him, and he lowered his gaze to the torrent, “she wanted me to stop and I did for awhile. We did not marry in the church but we lived as man and wife for the span of seven children. I was good to them sometimes, but I made mistakes with each of them. In the end, they stopped loving me and I went to another town.”
“How did you know that they stopped loving you Abuelito?”
“They were angry with me…I could feel that they did not love me anymore…. My oldest son hit me…he cursed me.”
“That is hard indeed.” She placed her hand on his arm but he jerked it, turned and strode across the bridge. He waited for her at the other side. After a moment she joined him.
“Where are they now Abuelito, could you see them if you wanted?”
“I do not know. They live in different places. Some of them on this side of the river others on the other. I think some of them turned out well, others not…. It is a sorrowful thing in truth, but it is the way things are.”
“Are you in Hell Abuelito?”
“I thought not. But now, I do not know…. I think, it is like I said señorita. It is best to accept life as it is.”
“Perhaps so Abuelito, perhaps so. But can you tell me, how is it? Your, life?”
“How is life? Life is how I feel, how we all feel. Is that not obvious, even to a child!”
She started. His head dropped forward. “Forgive me señorita. I do not understand your words. Perhaps I am too old to learn now.”
She took his hand in a manner that he could not easily withdraw it; her eyes locked his. “It is not important Abuelito. Understanding is not important. But, perhaps, perhaps some morning you may wake up and ask yourself, ‘who is it that feels such shame, who is there to put one in it?’ That is all one needs.”
It took over an hour to reach the crossroad where one goes left to San Pablo and right to Bolson. A small school squatted off to the left and two small boys gaped at the girl.
“Is this Bolson?”
“Very close, the village is off to the right. You must take the other fork.”
The old man studied the reddening clouds over the Nicoya, “There will not be another whole hour. You can make it to San Pablo I think…if you hasten.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Señorita, before we say goodbye…thank you again for calling me abuelo…gracias, and may God bless your path.”
“Thank you so much for helping me Abuelito. I have learned so much from you. And I will be safe, my aunt wrote that the people here are good people.”
“I would walk with you if you thought your aunt would let me sleep on the porch or in the shed…perhaps a little dinner.”
“You are so good to me Abuelito, I would love to stay with you a little longer and I’m sure she would permit it. She sent a letter saying she has lots of room, and dinner, of course.”
The sun is buried in the pink and purple heavens over Cerro San Pablo, too weak now to cast shadows. The old man and the girl hesitate in front of the large house as though just arrived on a foreign shore. The house sits in the curve of the road as it turns right into the plaza. Wrapped around the beam that heads the roof is a thick dried vine, snaked as an ornament. The angst of the singer’s broken heart reaches the travelers from a nearby radio. A coconut chooses that moment to drop, bounces into the drainage ditch and comes to rest there. As though emerging from a spell, the girl holds up a scrap of paper and reads it again. “This must be it, that is the vine,” she says, then she looks at him and takes a deep breath and calls out, “Upe!, Upe!,” as loud as she can.
“Isabel?” A woman’s voice calls from inside the house, “Isabel!” and in a moment she appears on the terrace, her eyes already moist, “Oh Isabel mi amor.” She plunges from the porch taking the four steps in two, pulling off her apron as she and Isabel meet in the walkway. They hug, rocking together for many breaths and kisses. The woman strokes Isabel’s hair until her eyes meet those of the old man, leaning on his staff. The stroking and the rocking pause for a long moment, then she begins again, more slowly this time, still holding the girl, her shoulders shaking. “Oh Papi,” she says, “Do you remember me?”
Photo credit: Costa Rica Photos.