They’ve Given Us the Land
by Juan Rulfo, (México, 1918-1986). Originally published in Pan (de Guadalajara), Nº 2, July, 1945. (El llano en llamas, 1953). Translated by Guillermo Calvo Mahé (Translation © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Ocala, Florida, 2006; all rights reserved)
After hours and hours of walking without finding any shade at all, not from a single tree or a single seedling or even anything’s roots, we hear the sound of dogs barking.
I sometimes think, in the midst of this edgeless road, that it’s going nowhere; that nothing could exist on the other side, at the end of this plain, cracked with crevices and dry streams. But there’s something. There’s a town. You can hear dogs barking, sense the smell of smoke in the air and taste the odor of people as if it were hope.
The town is still very far away. It’s the wind that makes it seem closer.
We’ve been walking since dawn. Right now it’s about four in the afternoon. One of us looks up at the sky, gazing towards the hanging sun, and says:
“It’s about four in the afternoon”.
That someone is Meliton. Faustino, Esteban and I are traveling with him. There are four of us. I count us: two walking in front and two behind them. I gaze further back and see no one and so, I tell myself: “We’re four.” A while ago, at around eleven, we were twenty-something; but, little by little they’ve been scattering until only our small knot is left.
“Maybe it’ll rain”.
We all raise our faces and look at a heavy, black cloud passing overhead and think:
“Maybe it will.”
We don’t share our thoughts. It’s been a long time since we were in the mood to talk. The heat dried it up. We might chat pleasantly somewhere else, but here, — it takes too much work. If we chat here, the words heat up in our mouths and dry out our tongues until our words turn to dried-out grunts. That’s how things are here. That’s why no one’s in the mood to chat.
A large drop of water falls forming a hole in the ground and leaving a spit-like glob. It falls alone. We wait for more but it doesn’t rain. Now, — if you look at the sky, you see a rain-filled cloud rushing away, very far away, and as quickly as it can. Wind from the town approaches the cloud, pushing it against the blue shadows of far-off hills, while the drop that fell (apparently by mistake) is swallowed by the ground, vanishing in its thirst.
Who the hell made this plain so big”? What’s it good for, huh?
We’ve started walking again. We’d stopped to watch the rain but it didn’t rain. Now, we’re walking again and it occurs to me that we’ve been traveling even longer than we’ve been walking. That occurs to me. Had it rained, — maybe other things would’ve occurred to me. Anyway, I know that ever since I was a child, I’ve never seen it rain on the Plain, at least real rain.
Nope, the Plain is useless. It doesn’t even have rabbits or birds. There’s nothing except maybe some scrub trees and a few stains of grass, blades twisted and withered. Except for that there’s nothing.
And we’re traveling through this. The four of us, on foot. Earlier, we rode on horseback and carried slung carbines. Now, we don’t even have the carbines.
I always thought they were right in taking our carbines. It’s dangerous to walk around armed here. They’ll kill you without warning if they see you walking around at all hours of the day or night with a thirty caliber pistol tucked in your belt. But the horses, that’s another matter. If we’d been mounted we’d have already tasted the river’s green waters and our stomachs would’ve already strolled through the town’s streets, walking off our dinner. All that would’ve already happened if we’d still had the horses. But they took them when they took our carbines.
I turn all the way around, gazing at the Plain. So much, such a big land, for nothing. Our eyes slip finding nothing on which to roost. Just a few lizards peeking their heads out of tiny holes, then, sensing the baking sun, rushing to hide in the shade of a rock. But what about us, what’ll we do when we have to work here? How’ll we get a break from the sun’s heat? Because we’ve been given the job of planting this scab of dirt.
They told us:
“From the town to this point is yours.”
“Yes, the whole Big Plain.”
Our expressions made it clear — we didn’t want the Plain. We wanted the area near the river. From the river on, towards the rich, low lying meadows, where the trees they call she-oaks and the grasslands and the good lands lie. Not this hard piece of cow shit they call the Plain.
But they didn’t let us say anything. The government agent hadn’t come to chat with us. He handed us the papers and said:
“Don’t be afraid of having so much land just for yourselves”.
“But, the Plain, sir ….”
“It’s thousands and thousands of acres ”.
“But, there’s no water. There’s not even a mouthful of water”.
“And the rainy season, have you considered that? No one promised you well watered land! When the rains come the corn will sprout as though you were pulling it from the ground.”
“But, sir, the land is rocky, it’s hard. We don’t think a plow can furrow land like the Plain, it’s like a quarry. We’d have to make holes with hoes to plant the seed, and even then, we can’t be sure anything will sprout; no, corn won’t grow, nothing will grow there.”
“Put it in writing. Now, go! It’s the oligarchic estate barons you need to criticize, — not the government which is gifting you with land.”
“But wait, sir. We haven’t said anything against the Land Reform Commission at all. Our complaints all involve the Plain. We can’t fight the inevitable, that’s what we’re saying. Please, — wait, — let us explain. Look, we’re going to start off exactly where we were…”
But he didn’t want to listen to us.
So they’ve given us this land. And they want us to plant some type of seeds on this hot clay griddle, to see if anything sprouts and grows. But nothing will grow here. Not even vultures. You see them every once in a while, flying, racing to leave this pale cloud of hardened dust as soon as possible, where nothing moves and where you walk against the wind as though you were walking backwards.
“This is the land they’ve given us”.
I don’t say a thing. I think: “Meliton’s head must be on crooked. It must be the heat making him talk like this; the heat’s broken through his hat and given him heat stroke. And if not, why does he say what he says? “What land have they given us, Meliton? There isn’t even enough for the wind to make dust devils to play with.”
Meliton speaks again:
“It’ll be good for something; even if only to race mares on.”
“What mares”? Esteban asks him.
I hadn’t been paying much attention to Esteban. Now that he talks, I look at him.
He’s wearing a waist length jacket and, from beneath the jacket, the head of something like a chicken peeks out.
Yep, Esteban has a reddish chicken under his jacket. You can see her eyes are shut, sleeping, and her beak is open, as if she were yawning. I ask him:
“Hey, Teban, where’d you pick up that chicken?”
“It’s mine” he says.
“You didn’t have it before. Where’d you buy it, huh?”
“I didn’t buy it; it’s the chicken from my yard.”
“So, you brought it for food, right?”
“No, I have to care for it. No one was left at home to feed it, that’s why I brought it. I always bring her with me when I take a long trip.”
“She’ll suffocate hidden inside there. Better take her out where she can breathe.”
He places her under his arm and blows the hot air away from her beak. Then he says:
“We’re at the crag.”
I don’t hear what Esteban says next. We’ve lined up to go down the side and he’s just ahead of me. You can see that he’s grabbed the chicken by its legs and jerks her from time to time to avoid hitting her head on the rocks.
Satisfied, we slide down. The land improves. We raise dust as if we were a herd of mules going down that steep trail. We enjoy being covered in dust. We like it. After eleven hours of pounding the hard Plain, we are more than happy to be shrouded in that almost fluid mist that pounces on us tasting like soil.
Over the river, above the she-oak’s green crowns, flocks of green chatterboxes fly. That’s also something we like.
Now the barking of dogs seems to be coming from right next to us. That’s because the wind from the town bounces through the gully and fills it with all the town’s noises.
Esteban hugs his chicken again as we approach the first houses. He unties its legs, letting circulation relieve their numbness, then, he and his chicken disappear behind one of the large cacti.
“I’m renting here! Esteban tells us.
We go on, further into town.
The land we’ve been given is up there, in the heights.
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