Excerpt from The Soft Season
THE SOUND OF A FREIGHT TRAIN’S TRUMPETING sounded in the distance, gnawed at the edges of Joaquina Souza’s nerves, like a rodent eating a hole in her composure. Her heart responded, fluttered like a caged sparrow inside her chest. She clutched the door of the chicken coop and waited as though she could steady herself against the ground’s vibration beneath her. And then, the thing she detested most—the iron monster’s low, steady rumble—swelled to a full and suspended climax across the creek behind her house.
She yearned to escape, to vanish before trouble began. But despite her foreboding, Mama would soon welcome the repugnant hoe boys to their home anyway. Hobos, as most liked to call them, hopped The Southern Pacific or The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to eke out a few days’ work wherever they roamed. Their predecessors’ crude exes etched along the tracks and adjacent to their property formed a crude language, known only to their kind and to those who hounded them. The communications offered blatant invitations that the hospitality proved extra fine at the Souza farm and the food warm and plentiful.
The vagrants had arrived without pause the year-long—at the most inconvenient times. She supposed the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the exaggerated handbills only intensified the problem. These lures had encouraged refugees to flee the country’s heartland, trusting that California held the answers to their problems. They were now infiltrating the state by the thousands, adding to the mix of hobos and bums, and no one could tell them apart. It was a mulligan stew of confusion.
Joaquina had no idea about the refugees’ manners or character traits personally. Still, with José and Manny’s stories about the horrendous conditions of a migrant encampment just outside of town, it was safer to lump together the entire lot of them, especially when they showed up expecting the moon. She distrusted every last one of them, and that thought sent a quiver tiptoeing up her spine.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it; her family was waiting for their breakfast, and the cold drizzle of the morning awakened her to the moment, splattering her nose. Tule Fog had settled over the farm during the night, thick and bone-chilling, evidence of the night’s substantial rain. She could barely see in front of her face, much less into the distance. She was forced to feel for the latch of the chicken coup to open it.
The door complained, a grating haunt of joints, but some other sound, an unusual drag and thump, hedged slowly past her and headed for the house. She dared not breathe or make further sound, kept still until the rhythm faded from earshot, for fear she’d announce her location to whoever or whatever invaded their world again.
With each stranger’s arrival, that’s when her work began. She’d keep the children away, avoid the vagabonds’ shifty eyes that watched her when she least expected. She had to admit, for the most part, they minded their own. On occasion, they’d flash their rotten teeth at her, pick at their sausage with dirty fingers poking out the end of their threadbare gloves. Then they’d direct their fairy tales at her like she was the best of friends, as though she hungered for what they had to say. She shook away the thought, pulled her overcoat tighter around her neck, and proceeded into the coup.
She made quick time of her invasion of the hens’ club, ruffling more than just a few feathers. Mamie, their best layer, warbled with excitement and reprimanded Joaquina with a sharp thrust of her beak, drawing blood on the back of her hand.
“Ah,” Joaquina cried, “you, grumpy old lady. See if I’m generous with your feed today.”
Mamie fussed and puffed her chest, settled on her nest again, tilting one great eye at the unwelcomed intrusion. Joaquina took the hint. She escaped the frenzy without further injury, latching the feeble door on her way out, a stash of eggs balancing precariously in the folds of her oversized coat and stashed in the pockets of her dress. She’d have to remind José to repair the rotted wood before the door collapsed completely and some fox stole inside during the night to rumple more than just the hens’ dignity.
Dawn had definitely arrived as she counted her way back to the dwelling and approached the edge of the porch. The nape of her neck tingled, and she stopped to listen. It was quiet, too quiet. By now, the house should be full of the sound of chores and family banter, all individuals preparing for the day.
Joaquina inched up to the porch landing, avoiding the squeaking boards, and tiptoed toward the side door. Slowly, she turned the knob and pushed inward, aware of Maria’s quiet sobs, probably in the folds of Mama’s dress. She skirted the partition and stopped short. An intruder hovered inside the house, holding papa in a death grip. Her muscles went weak. Her load of eggs released and splattered yellow and white across the wooden floor.
The stranger whipped around at the sound and flinched when he saw her. He slid back toward the open front door, his bloodied leg dripping a crimson trail across the floor. He drew papa with him and angled his knife against his throat.
Mama’s panic-edged voice cut through the tension. “There’s plenty of food. You’re welcome to it. Please, take it and be on your way.”
The youth flicked his head from side to side as he eyed each of them. A frantic confusion quivered in his eyes.
José caught Joaquina’s attention. He seemed to signal something at her, though she realized too late her brother’s scheme. Without warning, José, with ferocious desperation, leaped across the space at the stranger, all arms and legs and determined heroics.
The stranger drew the knife across papa’s throat, the blade digging deep. He continued his outward thrust, pummeling the knife blade into José’s advancing chest. Papa’s head sagged forward, spurting red, and Louisa screamed when he tumbled hard to the floor. Slo Pokes and Bit o’ Honey spilled from his vest pockets.
The stranger let go of the weapon then, flashed wild eyes at Joaquina, then darted through the open door into the dawn. José still suspended at the end of the knife, turned to her. His pained and surprised expression summed up his regrets a second before his body collapsed like an accordion next to papa.
Mama shoved Maria to Louisa and crumbled next to her husband. She gathered his dead weight into her arms and sobbed, as frantic as her groping and the wailing of the children.
Joaquina dashed to José and rolled him over to cradle his head. He looked up at her with a last spark and mustered breath. “Take care of Mama… keep after Manny. You know how he hates to…”, but his words sputtered and faded to nothing with the release of muscle and spirit.
Joaquina squeezed her eyes shut to keep back the tears, but it was no use. Streams of grief escaped down her cheeks. She gathered her brother closer and buried her neck into his, rocked him with a fury. Her notice drifted to Manuel, Louisa, and Maria in the corner, clutching each other for comfort and understanding.
The sight incited her to her duty. She laid José’s head to the floor as she would a baby in a cradle, pressed Mama’s shoulder as she found energy from her depths to stand on shaky legs. She hurried to the children and enwrapped them in her arms, ushered them out the side door, using her body to block a clear view of the carnage behind her.
Once outside, Joaquina drew breath, frantic thoughts sparking—a wish that they owned a telephone like some of her neighbors. “Manuel, get the shotgun. Take Louisa and Maria to the Cardoza farm for some help. Make sure they are safe, then go fetch the police chief from his bed.”
Her brother, dazed, sat on the porch and stared into the tule fog without response.
“Manuel…Manuel, look at me.”
Her brother turned to her. His dark eyes reflected only the dullness of the gray haze of the morning.
She crossed the porch and squatted beside him, slapped him across the cheek, causing her sisters to recoil. Maria let out fresh wails into Louisa’s dress, and Joaquina cringed. She couldn’t bear to add to their grief, although the tactic seemed to work on her brother. Manuel clasped his cheek and frowned at her. His eyes focused and flashed insult.
“Manny, you’ve got to go for help. Now. I’ve got to see to Mama. Do this for José, for Papa. You’re the man of the house now.”
Manuel sat at attention at her words and nodded his head. He stood and jumped up to the landing and disappeared for a moment inside the side door. When he reappeared, he gripped the shotgun with a vice-like will. Nodding at Joaquina again, he put an arm around Louisa and directed the little brood down the steps into the roiling vapor.
Their images drifted and swirled in the cloud and then vanished as the mist swallowed them completely. Only the crunching of their footfall across the yard let on that anybody was near. There would be no school today, not for any of them, maybe never again.
She grabbed for the porch post and aided herself to stand. Mama’s sobbing had faded now, and fear for her mother hastened her inside. But Mama had vanished. Fear turned to panic and pushed Joaquina further into the room, still cold for the lack of a fire in the stove. She skimmed every chair and nook to no avail, charged for her parent’s bedroom. No one was there. She pushed out to the main room again, frantic in her search. That’s when she spied two worn shoes poking out from just beyond the stove. Joaquina inched around the table and stopped to compose herself when she saw her.
Mama had found her way to the corner somehow. She had slid down the wall, propping her slight frame against the grayed slats. Her head slanted sideways as though she looked for a missing log behind the girth of the potbelly, but instead of life-filled purpose in her eyes, Mama stared blankly, as though she were dead.
Joaquina sidled closer, her chest swelling with compassion for the grieving woman, and slid in to sit beside her. She gathered her mother into her arms and stroked the woman’s thin hair that feathered across her face in unruly white wings. Joaquina said nothing to her, only drew the woman’s shoulders as close as she could manage, gently nudging her mother’s head to rest in the crook of her neck.
She squashed the sound of her own mourning, for although her duty weighed heavy on her, she would have to be strong, take care of things—manage the family until Mama came back to them. All her past wariness surrounding the constant barrage of strangers to the farm, what merely had been disliking, had reared up in front of her, in front of each one of them, like an ugly boil that needed lancing. She’d be the one to nurse them back to health but never had she imagined such a dismal future, such a tragedy in their lives. She sighed, closed her eyes to the pain, and waited for help to arrive.