A pair of leather gloves, faded nearly white, lay beneath the shade of an avocado tree. They are dirt stained and worn thin from years of use. The fingers curl, trained overtime to naturally wrap around the handle of an ax, a shovel, a rake. They are flecked with dime size patches of hardened sap from the leaking limbs of trimmed trees and hacked vines.
A warm breeze pulls through the leaves of the avocado tree, which rises up from the earth as tall as the nearby house. The tree shades the garden I made for her, where together we’ve planted tomatoes, watermelon, and cucumber. We planted the avocado tree too, from a seed. The young limbs of the tree sag beneath the weight of the fist-sized fruit, which when ripe, have the consistency of butter. The branches intermingle with a nearby mango tree that we planted at the same time as the avocado tree. The branches of the mango tree in turn intermingle with an orange tree. Pomegranate, macadamia, and even a small coffee tree nearby. Dozens more trees in the distance. A hole dug for each in its own time. A place to reside. To grow. To live and die.
Though it's been nearly twenty years, I still experience occasional flashbacks.
The gloves are snug, and though functionally unnecessary, provide a comfort, a separation. The hands are used to the work, the mess of it. I pull them on one at a time, snug against the tips of my fingers, and tighten my hands into fists. These gloves are black and thin for the sake of dexterity. A velcro strap across the top of the wrist latches them in place. Now they are someone else’s hands. Hands I no longer have to identify as my own. Some of the guys cut the trigger finger off of theirs, though it’s rare.
The night air is hot. Stale. There are no trees in or around our compound. But soon, they will wave beneath our feet, the myriad palms lining the Tigris river. The olive trees rooted deep into the cradle of civilization. The dance of date palms below the rotor wash of a blackhawk helicopter, shadows swaying in peaceful midnight harmony. The moon, bone white in a black metallic sky. The heat from the helicopter’s engine, my grandmother’s oven door opens, as she slides in the sheet of chocolate chip cookies.
My daughter runs from the courtyard, a burst of speed across the front porch, down the stone steps into the garden. She has something in her hands. She stops. She stares at me staring at a pair of leather gloves, faded nearly white, and lying beneath the shade of the avocado tree. She stands there for a moment before asking, What is it, Papa? She wants me to look, to see what she is holding in her soft innocent hands. We made them, she says. I helped. She lifts up a cookie, golden and spotted with chunks of chocolate. What are you looking at, Papa? She asks as she hands me the cookie. Something old, I say, something I haven’t figured out how to get rid of. That happens to me sometimes too, she says. I use that kind of stuff to make new stuff, dresses for my dolls, houses for my figurines, sometimes I make jewelry for mommy out of the stuff I just can’t get rid of.
She smiles at me and I see her mother. The time when we sat on a beach in El Salvador, or was it Nicaragua? We watched the sun set and she smiled at me, the only two people alive, and perfectly content to be so. I say thank you and good job and I see how her smile changes and it’s still her mother but now it's the time she finished her masters degree and I said how proud I was of her and I held her and kissed her forehead. A spider moves nearby. My daughter flees, back up the stone steps, her golden hair knotted and wild.
Up the stone steps. A burst of speed across the front porch, we enter the courtyard, a spider to a flea. His gloved hand on the door. Ribbons of sweat roll down the front of the neck. A flash of light. A clamorous succession of popping bangs. Fireworks sent off over the sea of Cortez during a family vacation when I was fifteen. A happy time. The smell of gunpowder thick in the dusty air. His hands wield the tool. His hands steady. He moves like a current, attached to the other men, flowing, a river cutting a trench through time and life.
My bare hands wield the tool. A pickaxe. Chipped orange paint. Slick wood handle worn smooth from years of swinging. It's one thing to chop a tree at the trunk – to cut it down where it stands. It’s another thing to dig down and remove its tentacled roots one by one before falling it. The other thing I’ve learned about these desert plants is their toughness, their resilience. They seem to revel in their own death. They booby trap themselves with barbed spikes. When you cut them down at their base, the root spreads out and they pop up somewhere else. Sometimes they grow back right there, thicker than ever. They shed their seeds with every impact of the ax at their trunk. And in this way they propagate. They rise up, spike covered, infesting the otherwise harmonious garden.
You do not swing a pickaxe, you lift it and let it fall. The handle slides through tempered hands. You lift and drop, lift and drop, with precision, making a circular trench several feet from the base of the invasive thorny monster. Lift and drop. You dig as deep as you must to sever the root. The sun is high in the desert afternoon. Ribbons of sweat roll down the front of the neck. It makes no sense to do this work again and again and again for twenty years. Do it now. Today. Deep and for good. And be done with it. So the torn and bloody hands may heal. So a fruiting tree may be planted in the gaping hole left behind by the digging.
At daybreak we land in the moon dust behind our compound. I remove my gloves. I attach them to the velcro patch on the front of my body armor to dry, still wet with blood and sweat.
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