[This is a Garling Files short story – Click here for the PDF if web-form doesn’t suit your fancy]
It had been such a long time since I’d had a real beer. Ed and I cheersed one another with a satisfying clink, triggering a quick Pavlovian recall of bars past, and took a sip, looking out over the greens and grey swaths of fog in the jungle. A couple round peaks away, though as if only a short walk, the Poas volcano smoked and simmered quietly, enjoying the evening with us, a gentle sigh of fog laying a sash on the northern slope.
The cool carbonation swelled and cascaded down my throat. “I’m glad we saved this,” I said involuntarily pursing my lips and looking at the label on the bottle, though there was nothing new for me to learn from it.
“Me too,” Ed said and took his second sip. “You had quite the willpower to hold out until now. I thought you were going to tear my bag apart when I got off the plane.”
“No. I wanted you to be in real-beer withdrawal with me, make you appreciate it with me.” I laughed, still staring at the label. “Though I guess in twenty four hours, you’ll be able to amble down the street and order another, while I’ll still be drinking flat Costa Rican bathwater.” I shook my head but felt a little guilty for saying that. Costa Rican beer was bad, but in an endearing way. The effort is heartfelt but something, some thing, the je ne sais quoi, of a good beer is just missing, like a child copying a picture from the newspaper.
“Well,” Ed said with a chuckle and second raise of the misty dark bottle, “I’ll be thinking of you, man. We all will. We’ll raise a glass in your honor during graduation…” I could tell he was weighing whether I’d find his joke funny. “Dropout.”
I laughed to ease the moment. “Thanks. I guess that makes me feel better.” We cheersed again and I grunted, looking at the little backpack of beers. “I forgot how quickly a six pack disappears.”
“Yeah,” Ed said, absently taking in the jungle’s breath one last time and looking around in thought. “I’m glad I came down here. Even though everyone was bummed to see you go, Mark, I hope you know that we’re quietly rooting for you. Maybe on some level, we’re a little jealous.” His tone tightened but he smiled. “I’ll give you my clinical opinion if I choose psychiatry.”
“Well let me know. You all may be the jealous ones, but I still feel like the crazy one.”
Ed smiled but didn’t make much of an effort to disagree. He tipped his beer and pointed down my fence line. “Sorry, we didn’t finish sinking that fence post,” he said absently.
“Forget it. I’ll get it eventually.” I shook my head unconsciously. “There’s always something to be done around this farm.”
I squinted down my field and along the forest line. Just down, only as far-off purple and yellow bowties over slender green necks, a few orchids wrapped the base of a large tree, of which I hadn’t learned the name. They wavered in the evening, their intricate agape mouths and petaled cheeks bouncing in an undetectable rhythm—not the wind’s. I’d never noticed them before, and for some reason, that bothered me. I promised myself that I’d examine them tomorrow after Ed was gone, whenever I took a break—if I took a break. I looked past them. A few of my dairy cows grazed near the fence, unaware of the bright curling faces that watched them from the jungle.
I had spent the better part of my afternoon swearing and trying to resink that fence post when I heard Miguel’s voice.
“Doctor Marcos, please come. Please come, Doctor Marcos.”
I looked up from the piles of gleaming soil, rocks and overturned emerald grass around me. Miguel came jogging down the field in his jeans and dusty cowboy hat, a slight tremor in his voice, almost imperceptible if you didn’t look for it. I had learned that when you grow up in the mountains, like my right-hand man, among blades and incisors and long bumpy car rides to medical help, it is ingrained in your fiber to remain calm in survival situations. Precious energy is wasted on theatrics.
“Que? Como?” I said, my heart starting to race, making me unsure of which word applied best in the situation.
He pointed up the hill, towards my old barn, and switched to simple Spanish, telling me that his daughter, Paula, had tripped and dropped a machete onto her foot. A child’s foot, awash in dirty blood, rust and the film of chicken feed ambushed my imagination. Paula had been the first face that greeted me when I looked at this plot, inheritance money burning a hole in my now empty pockets, and her ten year old smile was still seared on my heart—now pounding as we ran up the pasture. Esteban, her brother, heard us approaching and came outside to jog the remaining paces along side, past my battered ’63 Land Rover and into the barn.
Paula tried to greet me with her smile as I entered, but a violent wince wiped her face clean and tightened her eyes. Blood, caked with straw and pebbles, littered the entrance of the barn and she lay against a stall holding her foot, propped on her milking bucket. I told her to let it go so I could have a look. Her fingers peeled away and a two inch opening spread across the top of her foot. She wiggled her toes involuntarily and a pulse of crimson frothed to the surface and leaked and dissipated into the creases of the side of her foot and into the dirt.
I took a deep breath, and without much thinking, placed her left thumb just above her Achilles and her forefinger against the top of her foot, telling her to squeeze. A logical first step seemed to be slowing the flow from her tibial arteries. She followed my instructions and winced again, sweat and tears at the corner of her eyes. I could hear the air rushing through her nose. I tried to recall my most encouraging Spanish words, though in retrospect they seem nonsensical. I nodded to Miguel and motioned to my house. Just two years of medical school made me a doctor in his eyes, but I knew he wanted to carry her inside.
I led them out of the barn, past the old Land Rover to the stone house across the dirt driveway, Esteban running ahead to clear off the kitchen table and find my books. Miguel spoke to Paula in a speed and brand of Spanish I didn’t recognize, only picking out Dios many times. She held her ankle tightly. I could tell she wanted to smile, somewhere under it all. I continued to trot in front of them like a dog about to go for a ride. I wanted to pull them along.
A good brother, Esteban had my books in a stack by my Melina wood table—my first purchase upon arriving in the country. I’d walked the streets of San Jose, dodging pickpockets, bikes and beggars, taking in the capitol of my new home, and finally reached the end of the masses, turned a corner and found an old furniture store just up some stone steps. This table was in the back, like an alter, and I paid cash, the full contents of my wallet that day.
Paula lay back as Esteban, unasked, brought a basin of water and towels, propping up her foot. I began to flush and clean the wound, keeping one eye on the stack of books so I didn’t hesitate when it was time for me to retrieve the correct volume. Miguel would find nothing from the ordinary in consulting a book to do medical work, but I didn’t want to show any hesitation. A fray in his heavy nerves would be too much for Paula. I spoke in my best Spanish.
“Bring me the grey book, red writing,” I said nodding at the stack. Esteban was there again and the book was open next to me.
“Where is my bag?” Oddly the thought hadn’t crossed Esteban’s mind but he knew were it was, cutting through the doorway from the backroom a moment later.
My dad had given the bag to me with a stethoscope when I’d gotten into Stanford. It still had that tinge of new leather. He’d carried one just like it from house call to house call in Dubuque, back when bedside manner was an accurate term, and had kept one on the mantle in his office after he retired. I had used it to hold extra rock climbing equipment until the evening I snuck into one of the teaching hospitals and raided a stock room for supplies. I left school a week later.
“All?” he said holding up the black bag with two fingers.
“Yes,” I said unsure of his tone. “Look for G-L-O-V-E-S.”
He understood and handed me the package. I dried my hands, glanced at Paula, a disconnect on her face colored by calm at the corners, and tore the package open as carefully as I could. I knew there would be a trick to getting them on and keeping my hands sterile, so I read quickly. Miguel moved in the corner and made me jump. I’d forgotten he was there. He watched from a distance and I realized that he was uninvolved—whether by his decision or mine, I was unsure. I nodded for him to take Paula’s other hand. It would make me feel better.
The two halves of the wound were split like a shallow wedge in a hunk of cheese. I did not recognize what looked like tendons or vessels in the opening. There was only a smooth and even fault line of blood. She wiggled all five toes lightly —I hadn’t asked her—and I took a sharp breath. I fought the sudden urge to run out the door—away from the suffocating pressure jumping from the wound and into my chest. I don’t really remember the next twenty minutes or so, but I can vaguely recall fixating on a typo in the book where they skipped from figure 15.3 to 15.5 and a strange, disconnected feeling of anger, or maybe abandonment, that they’d left out 15.4; and I can vaguely recall stepping outside of my body for a moment and shaking my head in disbelief over what I had gotten myself into.
My only lucid memory was the first time I pushed that arched needle, shaped like a clipped, metal finger nail, through the lip of skin, just above the thin veneer of adipose and drawing the heavy thread—not sure of how much tag end to leave and feeling the starchy thread vibrate as it pulled through. From there, it gets hazy again but that memory, in some form, recycles itself like the coil of a spring. I just kept sewing, remembering the times I’d fixed holes in favorite sweatshirts. It was all I could do and soon, something like a set of stitches appeared before me on her foot, and the blood stopped seeping.
Esteban had been by my side the entire time—a perfect nurse. Paula had not uttered a word other than a sharp breath when the needle punctured the first time. I looked from her to her father. I saw a distant look of relief come into Miguel’s face, if only in the creases of his eyes.
A couple days later I was back to work on that half sunk fence post. With the contours of the sloping field, the run off formed a confluence at the edge of the pasture, causing the water to run over and gut the post hole every time it rained—which was often. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much I could do but resink the post with rocks and sand in the soil around it. I didn’t want to drive to San Jose and spend the money on a bag of concrete. I couldn’t afford it anyway. Part of me wanted to just toss the post aside and say forget it, but I knew abandoning the project would be too in line with the predictable parts of my nature. I knew those parts were being mentioned only with people’s eyes as they raised a dedicated glass in my honor in Palo Alto. I dug a little deeper into the rich soil and did my best.
When I got back to the house later that evening, Maria, Paula’s mother, was in my little kitchen. All four thin electric burners were occupied on my box-sized stove. The dull stone mosaics on the wall had a thin shimmer of steam and the skinny stone counters displayed beans, tomatoes, rice, peppers and a couple sections of meat that looked like pork. The smell smothered my olfactory bulbs in spices and the healthy punch of vegetable skin against hot metal.
“Doctor Mark,” she said jumping as I entered, then smiling. She was the only one in the area who hadn’t translated my name. She continued in Spanish as if we’d been talking for a while. “Paula’s foot is healthy. The cut stays closed and there is only a little liquid. I pray every night and He has answered.” She smiled again, a gloss on her eyes, and she hugged me around the waist.
I draped an arm around her feeling a sudden burst of life in my chest as I thought of my work, and smiled too, surprised and a little intimidated by my happiness. “I’ve never seen so much food in this kitchen. What are you making?” I asked trying not to envelope myself too much in the moment.
She pushed me away and waved me towards my room. “Go wash. Miguel and my children will be here soon. We will have a feast in thanks. But you need to find a wife, so I don’t have to do this.” She didn’t coat the comment with a jesting smile. My happiness converted to a strange guilt and longing as I walked outside to shower.
After washing, I reviewed my books quietly in my bedroom until I heard Miguel and the children arrive. Paula was already sitting at the kitchen table like a good patient and I examined her foot. Her mother was right: it looked great. I could tell that I’d cinched a couple sutures too tightly and the scar would be more pronounced, like the skin on the back of an extended finger’s knuckle, but otherwise I was proud of myself. I knew my dad would get a kick out of the quality, but he’d sign off on it. Good enough to get back to work, he’d say.
After our feast—which is the only accurate term for the meal—Maria and the children cleaned while Miguel and I sat outside in two wooden chairs, gingerly sipping guaro—moonshine from sugarcane—he’d brought in a jar. I tried not to think about the smooth beers I’d shared with Ed as the alcohol blazed a path down my throat, nor did I want to acknowledge the irony that this rare bountiful meal was only brought on by a happy ending to a bloody accident.
“I would have only one daughter, were it not for you,” Miguel said after some silence. The night was clear and from the top of the field I felt as if I looked down on the stars. I could just make out Poas’s shoulder in the moonlight, silently smoldering in the distance.
“I did my best,” I said. “The rest was fate.” The line rang hollow to me but I knew it was important to Miguel.
“Yes,” he said. “God guided your hands.”
“I guess he did.” I sipped my guaro and decided it was disgusting. I wanted to throw it in the bushes.
“I pray for God to bless this farm too. He has blessed this ridge and forest and the fields for as long as I’ve lived here, but it is important to keep asking.”
I nodded and let his comments settle. I took a deep breath and held it while I spoke. “Miguel, I will have to sell two of the milk cows soon.” I stared straight ahead and let the rest of the air seep out through my nose. Miguel nodded, knowingly and didn’t say anything.
“I am trying my hardest,” I said and then involuntarily lowered to a defensive mumble. “I won’t give up.” Miguel didn’t seem to have heard the second part and a tension dissipated in my chest, as if his silence canceled my guilt.
We stared at the outline of Poas and the twinkling stars.
Soon, the commotion inside slowed and Maria poked her head outside, carrying a sleeping child. As they departed, Miguel turned to me. “When will we remove the thread?”
“A little less than a week,” I said remembering one of the charts.
“In two days, I would like to go for a walk with you. Two men.”
I nodded quickly at the abrupt two words. “Where?” I asked.
“Near here,” he motioned behind our ridge as he picked up Paula, her soft, beige arm clinging to the base of his neck.
Though I had owned the little farm for almost six months, I had done very little exploration of the surrounding ridgelines. From the moment I’d signed the papers, I had been learning to farm. I had to learn to care for cows and chickens. I had to learn to negotiate prices at the market and how to recognize a man who’d pay more and the Spanish and gestures that would complete the transaction. I had to learn to fix and use and build tools and repair walls in the barn and rebuild fences. The days of those six months had passed by like train cars and still the thought of a missed day nagged at my better judgment. But something in my core told me to go with Miguel and leave the farm for a day. I am not sure if I went because it felt right or relieving, like a thin blue crease of sky in a rain cloud—but it was probably a little of both.
We set off after breakfast, passing the purple and yellow orchids—Dichaea muricata and Lepanthes ophelma—and coming upon a path I’d never noticed. It ducked through the heavy trees and wove into the forest, the shadows scattering on the ground like luminous confetti. We walked a distance apart, without words, and as the farm dissolved behind me, a relief washed through me and I felt my mind clear.
We wrapped around the midsection of our small mountain, finding, crossing and losing the ridgeline and dipping into the next valley and then up again. The trail began to grow over and we took out our machetes. Miguel’s blade became a metronome as he walked, clipping leaves and branches with the same gentle rustles of the breeze that moved through them. I felt as if I were interrupting him when I took a hard whack at a branch I thought he’d missed.
Soon our path brightened again and we came into a road and holstered our blades. The forest was beaten well back here, around the two tire-riddled tracks of pressed gravel and flattened roots. We walked side by side, each in a track, enjoying the silent sounds of the mountain. A truck finally rumbled ahead and Miguel stepped to the trees, motioning me to do the same. An old pickup truck passed, jugs clinking in the back. Two men sat in the front and their eyes passed from Miguel, to me and I felt their stares harden for only an instant, and then shift to the road ahead as the truck descended down the mountain. Miguel motioned me up a small side trail. A few yards off the road, I noticed an old metal drum, rusted and torn in half by time, thrown into the woods. I didn’t recognize its use but it looked burned. The trail led over a hill and we finally came to the back of a house.
“Esteban lives here,” Miguel said. It took me a moment to realize that he did not mean his son—my nurse.
As we walked down the pitch, an old man swung through the backdoor, the steps coming slowly but easily. Under his tattered cowboy hat stretched a broad smile. Miguel and the old man embraced tightly, twice, and spoke in a rapid style and pace that I couldn’t capture. I guess it makes sense, but what emotion the people of these ridgelines forwent in times of stress, they made up in times of happiness.
“This is the doctor,” Miguel said finally slowing to a speed I understood. The old man’s face lit again and he enveloped me in the same embrace he’d given Miguel. I tried to reciprocate but suddenly my hands and arms felt extraneous, confusingly useless.
“The healer who saved my favorite niece. Thank you.”
“The hand of God guided me,” I said, almost without thinking. Esteban looked at me and smiled knowingly and suddenly I felt like I stood alone, balancing on a hallow comment.
He gave me a quick nod and reengaged his wide grin and took my arm, leading me towards his little home. “Like He always does, my friend. Come inside and sit and have a drink.”
We sat around a dark wooden table in his kitchen and he set out three glasses, removing an oblong bottle from the cupboard and pouring. The bottle was dirty and scratched and blurred and the idea that it should be transparent long forgotten, leaving an endless opaqueness in its place. It seemed strange that such a shabby container could produce such a clear liquid.
“Con Dios,” he and Miguel said. We all clinked glasses.
In my broken Spanish, at his request, I tried to tell my story of growing up in the brown flatlands of the Midwest, training to become a doctor and coming to Costa Rica, and how much the country, and the people and the farm meant to me. Esteban would nod in understanding, often before I was done speaking, and Miguel’s eyes would flicker in an echo at each of the old man’s questions, as if he recognized them and I started to feel that our conversation was a mere formality before another discussion. The body’s words never need translation. It was just small talk.
“I spent many years,” Esteban said finally, “most of my life, doing the same with cows, selling their milk at the markets. How is your farm’s success?” Another jump in Miguel’s eye told me Esteban knew the answer already.
“We are trying,” I said. “Very hard. But with the bigger farms in the flat lands lowering their prices and getting to market more, it gets harder. I am still learning too. I try very hard but sometimes it’s not enough. Farming is harder than anything I did in America.” I was surprised that I said all of that so easily and fluidly in Spanish. I was also surprised how the words seemed to lay neatly on the knotted table in front of me, and I could see them very clearly, like that blurry bottle had formed a clear lens over my mind’s eye.
Esteban nodded and drifted into thought with me. I took a sip of the liquor and let the fire blaze down my throat. I could feel it coat my stomach, tearing through the lining. This was stronger and more pungent, almost violently so, than any liquor I’d tasted. Esteban continued to think and I could hear a couple of birds squawking at one another in the trees outside.
“I will help you,” he said refilling his glass. “Doctor Marcos, there are many men who farm and own cows and chickens and pigs, like you. They also must fight the lowland farms.” He turned to me and held up his glass of alcohol, looking through it with a trained eye on a diamond.
He turned to me. “Doctor Marcos, we don’t just make money on milk and eggs. There are better ways to put meat on the table.” He nodded to the unmarked bottle and smiled again. A moment of understanding came between us. “I can show you how to make what really sells at the markets.”
The stone mosaics in my kitchen were covered in steam again but the smell was of bittersweet chemicals this time. Vapor drifted from two pots smothering my burners and my thin counters propped bags of sugar and cornstarch, their contents having spilled and set a white and yellow dust on my floor. I bounced back and forth between the stove and the bags and the yeast and my notes. The pages had started to slacken and take on a shine. This was my third attempt at making a real mash.
The first had settled and reduced to a substance that looked like melted cornbread. I had been quite excited with the fermenting mixture until day three, when I noticed pink lines running through the edges. The lines grew and spread by the hour and started to take on a different smell. For a while I was in denial about the infection, but Miguel came through the house and gave the mixture one look and his face hardened at the cheeks and he shook his head. The lush grasses behind the house where I tossed the ripening mash turned grey by the next morning.
The second mash did not get that far. It didn’t turn any strange colors but presented a smell that shook me from my sleep, causing me to rush into the kitchen with my mouth covered and hurl the pots out the front door, followed shortly by my own retching on four limbs. I slept with the doors and windows open and buried myself in blankets to shield my skin from the opportunistic nighttime bugs that darted in from the trees and grasses.
So there was an extra fervor in the way I approached this third batch, hoping it had the charm. I looked into the first pot and noticed that the meal and sugar were losing their reflection and gaining a little too much contour, so I poured water over it. The second pot looked okay and I stirred gently. I looked back to the first and it seemed okay now and I reduced the heat, backing away like I stared down a wild animal and retreating outside for a breath of fresh air.
I also needed to look at my still again—or the pieces of it which were sprawled out near the door. The vat had been a gift from Esteban after our brief lesson had concluded. But I’d had to buy the copper piping on my last ride to town and it had not been cheap. To make up for it, I had decided I would use a couple of plastic milk jugs as my cooling containers. Now I just needed to put the whole contraption together, correctly. All that would come from the still for my moonshine was a debilitating and deadly poison—ethanol just the most pleasurable and the only product that didn’t skip the characteristic dopiness, before focusing on real harm. I thought about dad’s house calls where he traveled to the shadowy outskirts of town as a haggard drunk stumbled about in the driveway as his wife cried in confusion that he’d gone blind after drinking from a jar he’d bought off a back porch. I would induce the same tragedy if I assembled or operated my still with any mistakes.
I started to rub my neck and shift on my feet and glance around the fields. I looked at the copper pipe and the vat and the jugs on the ground again, and turned back into the house in defeat again, letting the door bounce and slam behind me, again. I tried not to think about the other chores I wasn’t getting done, as I walked back to my steaming pots and leaned over them. They smelled but maintained their shine. I reduced the heat a little more and started to walk away, reading my notes.
But the ground beneath me shifted. Initially I thought I was slipping on the layer of cornstarch and sugar coating the floor but I realized the movement was much deeper than that, deeper than my steps or the foundation of the house. The earth continued to quake and I watched my two pots of mash rattle and bounce against each other and then repel one another like like-charges and clatter to the floor. Water and a dull yellow goop laminated the stone, as the metal cylinders bounced and then came to rest in the sticky muck that rushed around the legs of my Melina wood table.
Stillness settled over the room.
I closed my eyes. I could hear birds squawking in the trees. I felt my fingers crush my notes and hurl them against the wall. I trudged through the yellow swamp on my floor, past the pieces of my still and out into the fresh air around my farm, and sat down in the grass. There were only a few cows in my field now. Poas loomed in the distance, a wisp of smoke at the peak.
I loaded a crate into the back of the Land Rover. It didn’t fit correctly and I unloaded two bags, turned them sideways and then repacked. I walked back to the house, wiping my brow. Paula came out the front door and stood in the grass.
“Is your foot feeling okay?” I asked, unsure why she was looking at me with such wide eyes.
She nodded with an alacrity that could only be a child’s truth. I took a warm pride in her certainty. Then she nodded more slowly and walked away, down the field. I shook my head at the funny child and went inside.
Miguel and Maria sat at my table, the papers spread over the Melina wood. They looked up at me—Maria’s eyes searching, Miguel’s eyes locking, both lined with a standing wonder.
“This has surprised us, Doctor Marcos,” he said. Maria nodded.
I laughed a little and shrugged. I wanted to say that it hadn’t surprised me, but I worried the sarcasm might be lost. I put a hand on his shoulder and walked past them to my room and grabbed a crate of books and took them back out to the Land Rover. When I came back inside the second time, the papers were neatly organized.
I took a few steps through doorway, slowing down and fixating on my signature at the base of the document by Miguel’s elbow with a very official looking seal next to it. My thoughts felt like leaves bouncing down a river. I searched for something to say as they looked back at me. “I am sorry that I had to sell those two cows before I did this,” I said quietly and nodded towards the Land Rover outside. “I needed the money.”
Miguel stood and put up a halting hand and his face came to a point while he shook his head solemnly.
“But, other than that,” I continued, “the farm is yours. I can’t decide if transferring the deed would have been harder or easier to do in America…” I trailed off but knew that joke was lost too. “Either way, those papers say this land is yours.” A strange finality swept through me and my words sounded loud, like I’d said them with my ears pressed shut.
Maria wrapped her arms around Miguel’s waist and leaned into him, tucking her head against the bottom of his chest. A peacefulness came to her eyes as she looked at me and I felt tears spring to mine. I coughed, averted my gaze and nodded towards the door, and turned.
A delicate lilt of feet scraped to a halt from outside. I stopped, looking at little Paula in the doorway. Her palms were covered in wet soil, fragments falling lightly on the floor, and grime coated her fingernails. From the two handfuls of earth sprang a purple orchid and a yellow orchid, their bright agape mouths bobbing and wavering and bouncing to a rhythm—a rhythm I still could not detect.
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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at