Excerpt

Slash and Burn

Claudia Hernandez, translated by Julia Sanches

January 4, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Claudia Hernández's novel, Slash and Burn, translated by Julia Sanches. Hernández is the highly acclaimed author of five short story collections. Her work has appeared in various anthologies in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Israel and the USA. She was the winner of the 2004 Anna Seghers Foundation award and the 1998 Juan Rulfo Prize. Sanches (translator) is a founding member of the Cedilla & Co. translators' collective, and currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Traveling to that other country isn’t her life’s dream or a flight of fancy. She only insists on going, and on finding the means to do so, because she wants to see her daughter. She’s spent years searching for her. She’s never given up. She doesn’t see how a mother could do anything but set off to find her, like her own mother had not, back when they were living on the farm named after a horse, where her maternal grandparents had also been tenant farmers. She was nine years old. Her mother had sent her to grind corn for tamales which, from that day on, she would never enjoy again eating again. She made her daughter leave before seven in the morning so the girl wouldn’t mess up her plans if she got lost or distracted on the way. She told her which paths to walk and that the first thing she should do on getting there was say good morning and call politely for the mill owner. Then she should say that her mother had asked if they could please grind those kernels and that she’d pay for them with proceeds from the sale. It was a holiday. And holidays were an opportunity to earn a few extra cents. She didn’t want to pass it up. She knew she wasn’t the greatest cook in the area, so she only stood a chance if she set up shop before everybody else. She could save time by having someone else grind the corn. Meanwhile, she’d prepare the other ingredients.

There’d be no need to explain who her mother was: the girl was the spitting image of her. She also shouldn’t beg. If he said no, she had directions to another mill, which was farther away, but where they’d grind the corn on credit because they’d known them a long time and because her dad had helped them when they’d needed it. They owed them. She only hadn’t sent her there from the get-go because she’d make it home more quickly from the first mill. She’d accounted for everything, except for the fact that, when the girl passed by the white-sand beach, she’d start monkeying about in the waves and lose all sense of time before those enchanting waters.

*

By the time she finally made it home, it was four thirty in the afternoon. Her mother was angry. She wanted to smack her, or at least give her a good telling-off, but instead she just took the container from her and hurried to prepare the tamales. Even if she wasn’t first, she thought, she could still make some money off the people who arrived toward the end of the fiesta and were forced to make do with whatever was left. But she was so downhearted and blinded by her anger that instead of pouring water into the mixture she poured in gas, which was kept in an identical canister.

Thinking back on that episode, what saddened her wasn’t the licking she’d gotten or all the things her mother had yelled, but the fact that she hadn’t come to fetch her, even though she knew that the sea, despite being enormous and beautiful, was dangerous, too, and could have swallowed her up. She’s always wondered why she didn’t come for her. She’s tried to convince herself it was because she had so many children, but she doesn’t buy it: she could’ve had thirty or forty children, and still she’d have dropped everything to go after the one that was missing, even if she were lost in the jungle.

*

From then on, to keep her from dillydallying, her mother sent her to a mill at the other end of the bay. At low tide, you could cross it with the water below your calves. After a certain point, you had to pay for a boat back. And she never gave her the money for that. The girl always came home at the same time, so her mother thought she was keeping her in check with the water-clock and her empty pockets. But in fact, it was her brother who saw to it that they made it home. He was the one who could read the water and the angle of the sun and who alerted her when it was time to stop playing and head home. His dad had taught him all this when he’d taken him to the fields to sow. Though her mother sent the boy with his sister so that she could help look after him, in the end he was the one who looked after her: he knew where to walk to avoid snakes and where to fetch the best fruit to eat while they waited at the mill.

After a year of going to that mill, she trusted that her daughter had learned her lesson and sent her with one of her little sisters: she needed the boy to lend her a hand with something at home. She needed a man’s strength, even if the man was only a nine-year-old boy.

The episode with the white-sand beach happened all over again because her little sister was as absentminded and playful as she was. This time it was two girls who were riveted by the water and the seashells, lost all sense of time, and found themselves having to cross the bay with the water rising and spilling over everything.

There’d be no need to explain who her mother was: the girl was the spitting image of her.

They might have considered passing the time on the shore until the water allowed people to cross on foot again. But her memory of the licking she’d gotten was so strong that, faced with the blue expanse, she thought the only option left was to tell her sister they ought to steel themselves and cross while they still could, difficult as it might be. Their plan was simple: she’d hoist the girl onto her shoulders and hug her legs with all her might while, in exchange, her little sister held the bucket of tamale masa as high as possible and as firmly as she could, especially for the five meters during which she figured the water would cover them completely.

She convinced her sister with a brief account of the beating she’d gotten the year before. There was no time to go into detail. She had to trust her. If they dawdled any longer, the water would carry on rising and turn that opportunity into an impassable stretch. Her little sister was young, but she understood about not having money for the trip back, and about guarding the tamale masa to avoid their mother’s fury. So she shut her eyes and her mouth, just as her older sister told her to, and guarded the bucket more closely than her own life.

*

When they got out, her heart was beating very hard. She turned to face the enormous body of water and said, Thank you, Lord, even though she didn’t know who the Lord she was thanking was, or if there was any Lord to thank. It felt incredible to be on the other side. Her sister, meanwhile, had started crying, not because she’d choked on any water, but because she’d lost a little bit of masa as they crossed. She thought her mother would punish her for it. The girl convinced her sister that nothing would happen. She was certain her mother wouldn’t notice any masa was missing. And if she did, she’d take the blame for it. She swore to her little sister that their mother would believe her, even though she herself wasn’t convinced. She was sure her mother had keen instincts (although what she actually had was a watch) and that they’d be found out one way or another. So instead of telling her, she told her father, who’d come home early that day.

*

Days later, they moved away. The official story was that her father didn’t want to keep living on her maternal grandpa’s land now they had their own parcel in a place named after a plant. But she suspected he was trying to protect her: there were no bodies of water to cross around there. She was his little girl, the first of the daughters who’d survived.

In that region, where her dad’s sister also lived, she came across more people who hit her, such as the girls next door. They picked fights with her because she was new and because she was always the first to arrive to fill her earthen pitchers, and always clean and buttoned-up. They called her vain. Then they pulled on her skirt until it fell to her feet, knocked over her pitchers or stuck their muddied hands in them, spoiling all the work she’d done and making her task harder. She wanted to defend herself, but her mother had warned her never to hit anyone. She didn’t want any trouble. She didn’t want her to respond to their attacks, not even with words. If anyone said or did anything to her, she was to take it in silence. If she didn’t, she’d hit her even harder.

One day when her parents were away at a wedding, she decided to confront her attackers. She gathered some very large, very hard guama fruits from the ground and lashed at the girls with them after they knocked her pitcher over so that her mother would scold her. She hit them on the face, the arms, behind the knees, and in all the places that hurt when her mother hit her. She hit them as hard as she had been hit, until they stopped laughing. Then she filled the vessel again and prepared to face the consequences of bringing the pitcher home with a broken lip. She knew she wouldn’t get away with it. She’d once brought home a cracked pitcher, which she’d dropped when a snake jumped out of it and smacked her in the face, and her mother, deaf to all excuses, hit her for not seeing the snake, for not bringing the water, and for breaking the pitcher. Three separate blows. So she’d learn.

The neighbors’ mother also wanted to teach her a lesson, so she waited for her on the way back, knocked her to the ground with a punch to the eye, and kicked her in the belly till she cried. On top of that, she emptied her pitcher so that, once her pain had let up a little, she’d have to return to the river and refill it so as not to go home empty-handed. 

One day when her parents were away at a wedding, she decided to confront her attackers.

Her mother, had she been home, would have hit her even more. But her dad’s sister was there instead. After hearing her story, her aunt grabbed a machete and went after the woman who’d beaten her. She yelled at her to come out, to stop being a coward, and to pick on someone her own size instead of a little girl. Her aunt was so furious that neither the woman nor her husband dared confront her. They shut themselves up at home with their girls and didn’t come out, not even when she finally left, several days later. The image of her aunt circling the house, belting out threats and whacking her machete against the ground, also sent the other neighbors into hiding and ensured that, from then on, none of the kids bothered her niece when she went out to fetch water. Of course, they never told her mother, who couldn’t understand why, all of a sudden, people were going so far as to help her daughter with her task. She wouldn’t have understood.

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Excerpted from Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernandez, translated by Julia Sanches. Excerpted with the permission of And Other Stories. Copyright © 2020 by AUTHOR.




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