A Village in the Fields: a beginning for the beginning

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.
– Anais Nin, French-born novelist and short story writer

I finished my novel in December, but needed to proof it with one last check. This past quiet weekend was the first time I was able to get to it. Now that it’s done, off it goes. The end of the proofing stage means the beginning of its outbound journey.

Agbayani Village in Delano.

Agbayani Village in Delano.

To celebrate the launch of its next journey, I offer the beginning of A Village in the Fields:

Chapter 1: Visitors, Abgayani Village, Delano, California, August 1997

The fever was relentless—like the hundred-degree heat that baked the brick-and-tile buildings of Agbayani Village. Fausto Empleo lay on his bed listening, the window wide open, the curtains still, the table fan unplugged. He didn’t move, though his body pulsed with the chirping of crickets. The groundskeeper’s dog barked, and he imagined jack rabbits springing across the fields, disappearing between the rows of vines. Dusk was spreading across the vineyards like a purple stain, a crushed Emperor grape. With the sun gone, the silver Mylar strips hanging from poles that bordered the vineyard lost their hard glint. The crows—their caws growing in strength—swooped down to snatch the ripe berries as the shadows of the oleander bushes stretched across the grounds.

The heat lingered. Even as the world outside went black.

Fausto clapped his hands. On the third try, the nightstand lamp threw out a circle of light. His nurse, Arturo Esperanza, had given him the lamp weeks ago. Fausto usually laughed when he clapped. The lamp was magical, Arturo had teased him. But this time he drew his arm across his face to hide from the glare. He sucked in his breath, making his ribs ache. Something was seeping into his nostrils—burning wax from a candle, the faint trace of sulfur as if from a lit match. But he had no candles. Again, smoke and musty-smelling wax filled his lungs. When he lowered his arm, his room was studded with hundreds of tall, white tapers anchored in pools of wax—at the edge of his bed, on the dresser, icing a bouquet of plastic flowers, on the windowsill, his desk, the top of the television set—spilling milky lava across the linoleum. The flames merged into a constellation of blazing stars. He turned away, his face prickling from the heat.

He shut his eyes. “Well, God, are you calling me?”

The wind-up clock on his desk ticked like a giant tinny heart.

“Because if you are,” he said, struggling to unbutton his shirt, now cold and damp against his skin, “I’m not ready to go!”

He opened his eyes. The candles vanished as if by the force of his voice. He shook his head. Why did he say that? He was the last of the retired Filipino farm workers at the Village. The rest of his compatriots had passed away. There was nothing for him here. He should be begging God to take him now, but that would mean he’d given up, and he couldn’t admit to such a thing—not yet.

He willed himself to sleep, but sleep came in fits. He woke up in the middle of the night. The lamp had been left on, but its light was weak and it sputtered like a trapped fly. The room was silent; the wind-up clock had stopped at twelve-twenty. Before Fausto could clap, the light went out. A second later the lamp came back on, only to be snuffed out in an instant. It threw out light a third time, but it soon dimmed and then the room darkened for good. Fausto drew the sheets to his chest, afraid that something was going to drag him from his bed.

He listened for a knock on the door. Didn’t his mother tell him, as a child, never to answer a knock at night? It’s an evil spirit come to get you, she had warned. If you say, “I am coming,” the evil spirit will take you and you will die. Though she had counseled him many years ago to be “as silent as Death,” he cried out now, thumping the left side of his chest, “I’m still alive, son-of-a-gun! You go get somebody else!”

Ribier grapes from the Central Valley of California.

Ribier grapes from the Central Valley of California.