The First to Disappear by Patty Somlo

typewriter

They vanished. One by one. The first to disappear was Pedro Nogales. Jaime Morales said he couldn’t imagine why his cousin Pedro had taken off like that. Without a word to anyone. Even more puzzling, everything that mattered to Pedro, including his favorite wide-brimmed straw hat, a black leather-look jacket he’d saved months to purchase and a shiny red polyester shirt he wore to birthday parties and dances, had been left behind.

The evidence couldn’t have been clearer, explained Cecelia Clemente, who ran a little shop on the outskirts of town that sold everything people were used to buying back in Mexico and even sent dollars there, miraculously through the air to support children, mothers and wives. Cecelia Clemente was the most devout person around, so when she claimed the Virgin of Guadalupe had lifted Pedro up and taken him for some special purpose, people paid attention. The nature of that purpose Cecelia couldn’t explain.

Hardly a week passed before Elidio Baez and his brother Miguel also vanished.

“They were here yesterday,” a relative who might have been a third or fourth cousin said. Whether related or not, the speaker had come from the same village as the missing guys, close to the border with Guatemala. The village was so small and insignificant that its inhabitants, once gone, assumed they were part of the same family.

One guy who went out for a cerveza with Elidio from time to time thought the young man had run off because he’d gotten that girl with the big breasts, Aurora, pregnant. Aurora couldn’t stop sobbing, and cursed that Elidio with his sweet smile, who had made her think he would marry her.

The strangest thing, and no one could get over this, was that both brothers’ clothes still hung on hooks, tapped into the wall above their beds. Miguel, it was said, read Bible passages every day, having stopped drinking and been born again. That Bible, with his name scratched in the top right-hand corner of the first page, sat on the side of an empty, overturned wooden peach crate, next to his bed.

Soon after Pedro Nogales and Elidio Baez and his brother Miguel vanished, more men, and now a few women, did the same. You must understand that in some ways this place where they lived was a bit like heaven. In Spring, the apple trees covering nearly every square inch of ground exploded in pink and white blossoms so fragile, it was hard to believe they were real. The blossoms sent out a dizzyingly sweet perfume. No matter how many breaths a person might take, it never seemed sufficient.

One day, the blossoms began to drop. Soon, pink snow was falling. Petals drifted down, without fanfare, throughout the day and during the night. The ground softened itself in piles of petals, pale pink and white. Then suddenly, at the end of the winding branches, apples popped out.

An unfamiliar silence descended while apples, which started as mere nubs, filled out and ripened. You could hear the wind sigh, lifting the leaves before dropping them. Silence weighed down the days, as something or someone darted into and out of the valley, taking those now missing men and women away.

Cecelia Clemente, whose nearly thigh-length black hair unexpectedly went gray, figured there must be a potion, combined with certain prayers, that would bring the missing folks back to the valley. She was old enough to remember other times when with pistols and sometimes sticks and, of course, the arm of the law, the people were driven out. However, this time was different. The people weren’t, as in the old days, just hiding out. Biding their time, until it was safe to work, moving quietly under their wide-brimmed straw hats, red bandannas underneath to soak up the sweat. Cecelia, along with the others who had remained, waited. Not a single one of those missing men or women reappeared.

The worst of it, parents were vanishing left and right, leaving their children behind. There was nothing to do, Cecelia said, but take them in. She said this while she mixed up medicines from roots and bark and herbs dried by hanging stems from the ceiling of the store’s back room. Her house was small but as Cecelia liked to say, she would always be able to make room for one more child.

You see, unlike the other women in the valley for whom children blossomed as easily as fruit weighed down the orchards, Cecelia had no luck when it came to babies. She had been married once to a man named Rodolfo, with little patience when life didn’t turn out as he’d planned. What he wanted from Cecelia was a houseful of sons.

The old curandera from Cecelia’s village told her she had a weakness that couldn’t be helped. Those babies stole Cecelia’s strength, while they grew from miniature specks of sticky stuff into cigar-shaped bodies with soft skin and ears resembling dried peaches. Cecelia couldn’t hold on until the babies had each one of their parts ready to slide out. One by one, Cecelia let those children go. After the sixth one spilled out in a small bloody lump, Rodolfo left. He didn’t bother to say goodbye.

Each time another person disappeared – and they continued to do so – Cecelia took one, two or three more children into her house. Boys and girls slept every which-way, mostly on the floor. Cecelia sat up nights comforting the tiniest ones, missing their Mamas and slobbering, while Cecelia sang songs to them that she made up on the spot.

The vanishing went on into the summer. Normally warm June afternoons sizzled. July opened hot. By August, temperatures hovered close to one hundred and five. Rain clouds were nowhere in sight. Those few remaining people wondered how they would survive.

Meanwhile, the apples kept ripening. That sweet, crunchy fruit was not about to wait until the men and women who knew exactly when and how to pick them might decide to show up. No. They went from green to red, from pale to dark, from nubs the size of a thumb to substantial orbs you could use to play baseball. That fruit whose bright skins sheltered the sweet yellow-white interiors did not care what was happening in the country to cause those tough, familiar sun-burned fingers to disappear. The apples had a job to do and nothing and no one would stand in their way, even the heat that made the skin of those apples hot and coated with sweat.

About this time, the first of the apple growers, Alan Richardson, came to see Cecelia.

“Where is everybody?” he asked Cecelia, after he’d stepped into her store, surprised to see that the shelves were practically empty.

Cecelia was sitting in a fat gray chair next to the window. Business had gotten so slow, she no longer bothered to stand up when the front door opened and closed. These days, it was usually one of the children, pestering her for something to eat. She couldn’t bear to walk to the door and get near that stifling heat.

“You must know,” Cecelia said, her head turned away from the grower.

“Well, I don’t know,” Richardson said. “That’s why I’m asking.”

He sighed and stepped closer to where Cecelia sat, picking dead skin off her fingertips. His eyes hadn’t adjusted from the brightness outside. He’d needed to find his way by moving toward Cecelia’s voice.

“All I know is I’ve got an orchard full of ripe apples. And there’s nobody around to pick ‘em.”

He waited to see what Cecelia would say. Like the other growers in the valley, he knew the workers thought of Cecelia as some sort of healer and de facto community leader. She delivered babies, that much Richardson knew. Rumor had it she possessed extraordinary powers. Magical powers.

“The people have disappeared,” Cecelia said.

She paused a moment before going on. “You know why this is happening,” she said, but did not turn to look the grower in the eye.

Richardson leaned back on his heels and considered what to do next. It was true there had been problems in the past, when he’d made calls to immigration. That business with the union, trying to organize the orchard workers and convincing them in the process that they needed to demand higher pay. You could fire a whole crew and replace them on the spot then with a fresh new batch of illegals.

But not these last few years. The situation had changed. Hardly any illegals came now. The border fence. All these darned new laws. Heck, they even had the National Guard down there. Every time Richardson turned around, he heard that another of his experienced pickers had gotten picked up. Shipped back to Mexico.

“Well,” Richardson said, once he’d taken an extra few moments and understood he had little choice. “If you see anyone, tell them I’m paying double what I paid last year for every picked crate. And a bonus for faster work.”

Tree branches soon got so weighed down, apples started brushing against the ground. Even then, the workers did not return.

Some of the growers believed that the workers were just hiding out, waiting for wages to be raised even higher. Nevertheless, other growers, including Richardson, kept on raising the pay.

By this time, the apples were practically rotting on the branches. Almost all the seasoned pickers left in the valley had gone. One bright September morning, along the two-lane road that wound up and down the gently sloping hills filled with apple trees, blue-uniformed armed guards were standing around.

Cecelia, driving past at the time, saw bodies moving along the rows and even climbing atop tall ladders. To make sure she wasn’t imagining things, Cecelia slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road.

Under that hot sun, the heads of those mostly dark-skinned men were uncovered. They were dressed in beige, short-sleeved, one-piece jumpsuits.

Cecelia leaned across the front seat toward the open side window. A guard, who hadn’t taken his eyes off her, stepped over to the car.

“What’s going on?” Cecelia asked. “Who are these people?”

“Prisoners,” the guard said, after leaning down and quickly straightening up, shooting his gaze out to the orchard.

The guard turned back around, leaned down and said, “Orders of the governor.”
Those prisoners spent hour after hot dusty hour climbing up and down ladders, complaining about the heat. At the end of the first day, the wooden crates sat empty next to the trees.

Every day afterward, the dark green vans made their way to the orchards and the prisoners filed out. The men tried telling the guards about the apples. But the head guard said, “No excuses.” The message was passed down the line from guard to guard and then to the prisoners, who knew there was something up with those apples but went ahead trying to pry the fruit off those weighted-down branches.

Into the following week and on into the week after, the crates stayed as empty as when they’d first been set down. More branches leaned closer to the ground. A person looking at those orchards wouldn’t have been wrong to think the trees were weeping for what they had lost.

You see, those apples would not be picked by just anyone. As few people are aware, an apple is a sensitive fruit and doesn’t give up its place on the tree without a certain type of tender coaxing.

The people had known this. The knowledge had come to them after many seasons, caressing the fruit at just the right moment, with a mixture of tenderness and strength. There were some who wondered if the songs those workers sang, in Spanish and with the one-two beat of the cumbia that could make an apple want to dance, had an effect.

No one had ever considered growing apples in Mexico. But when Cecelia Clemente became desperate to find a way to support all those children, she decided she must do whatever it might take.

And so she found the missing men and women, back in their villages in Mexico. By way of friends, she sent them seeds. In little packets that no one guarding the border would notice.

Cecelia blessed those seeds before letting them go. Not only did she make sure they would like the dirt and bugs and climate back in Mexico. She also caused those seeds to sprout and grow so rapidly, the people were left to wonder why they hadn’t decided to grow apples at home a long time ago.

Packet after packet traveled south. Down from the rainy parts of Washington and Oregon, through the fog of Northern California, on into the sun and eventually the dust.

The people back in Mexico who had always stayed behind – mostly women, kids and older folks – had grown accustomed to dollars flying in from the border’s other side. They had become used to new houses being built and gadgets showing up. But never in their lives could they have imagined apple orchards springing up.

Some say the manzana apple, which this year is forecast to top sales of all other varieties, has a slightly peppery flavor that lingers on the tongue. After eating the manzana, people have been known to start dancing. The Mexican manzana is also rumored to fuel passion in matters of love.

Patty Somlo

Banner Image:  Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

6 thoughts on “The First to Disappear by Patty Somlo

  1. I think read like a fable or folk tale – it was quite enthralling and a satisfying ending. The character of Cecelia was particularly interesting. Very enjoyable story

    Like

    • Thanks very much, Diane. Yes, I like Cecelia too. In case you’re interested, this is the title story of my new collection, The First to Disappear, just published by Spuyten Duyvil.

      Like

  2. Hi Patty, it is so good to see you back!
    I loved this. It was deep, thoughtful and beautifully written.
    As Diane has said, it had a wonderful folk tale feel to it.
    Please don’t leave it so long to your next submission!!
    Hugh

    Like

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