Charlie Vazquez

Tiempo Muerto (Dead Time)

One pitch black morning, after awaking from a night of horrific dreams, my great-grandfather Juan Serra arrived at his troubled neighbor’s property with his mule, Estrella, to go to market. But Guillermo Sánchez wasn’t there. So Juan Serra pulled Estrella along to go and find him. He was still sleeping, or at worst, ill, my great-grandfather assumed.

They approached the wooden fence that surrounded Guillermo’s property and Estrella measured her steps forward with concentrated suspicion and then stopped—as if afraid of something in the dark. She shot out a jet of loud foul-smelling urine and let out a horrible whine of turmoil.

Estrella brayed and grunted and her eyes filled with bright green fear in the darkness. She refused to move another step forward and pulled herself (and her burdening load) backwards, as if turning back and away from Juan Serra—who pulled her forward with all his strength. He yanked the rope lead so hard that he almost choked her to death!

So he tied her to a post and proceeded alone.

The yawning rays of dawn would soon brighten the sky, but it was still quite dark at that moment. The mountains can be cold at such hours, so Juan Serra shivered and felt his way along the dirt path that led to the house by using the crooked and broken wooden fence as a guide for his hand. He whistled as he did, as if letting the dark know that he was there.

Something dripped on his shoulder. He touched it. A warm liquid. A familiar, metallic odor. He couldn’t see what it was, but he knew not to taste it. He heard an odd sound. Above him. Something hit him in the face. And then again. Juan Serra reached out and it hit his hand.

He grabbed it. A shoe. A man’s shoe. Wet with that same warm liquid. He felt upward. There was a leg attached to the shoe. Two legs and two shoes. Dawn had lit the sky just enough for Juan Serra to see a man hanging above him. The man wheezed and struggled to breathe. He was still alive, but was so high up.

Juan Serra saw that the only thing keeping his neigbor alive were his darkening fingers crushed between his neck and the rope. Had he changed his mind to spare his family the misery of finding him like that? Juan Serra panicked and called out for help.

Guillermo kicked with feverish protest when he heard Juan Serra do this, which made the rope squeeze even tighter. A slaughter animal’s final death wail howled out of him as Juan Serra ran toward Guillermo’s house. 

Guillermo’s eldest sons could climb that tree, Juan Serra thought, so he raced toward the three-room shack the family lived in. He stumbled through the cold blue darkness and agonized over how to tell the already troubled family. About the senseless horror. Their father, her husband.

Guillermo had confessed that there had been nights when his children went to bed hungry, so that he could keep some precious weight on a hog or some hens to sell. That he’d denied them the very sweet fruit that grew on their land, hoping he would sell it to buy better things for them to eat—canned meats and vegetables and livestock animals to produce more slaughters for days ahead.

There had been tough times when the skinny and malnourished kids were kept home from school to work the land, times when only those who worked were allowed to wear shoes—especially during “tiempo muerto”—after sugarcane that had grown to twice the height of a man was chopped down with machetes.

When the countryside was filled with bitter smoke and no other work was to be found. The low wages and labor strikes. How the Yellow Fever—El Vómito Negro, the Black Vomit—killing three of his children had been a painful blessing, despite the horrific vomiting, headaches, jaundice, bleeding, seizures, fevers, and chills. How his wife had come to hate him…

Juan Serra called out as he approached the house, but heard nothing. He reached the front door. It was unlocked and opened. He stepped inside. There were fresh tracks of blood leading toward the front door. From inside. They disappeared outside. Guillermo had slaughtered pigeons or chickens to sell.

Juan Serra followed the trail. Called out to the silence. Perhaps the family had gone away. To see relatives while Guillermo would be gone for the day. The smell of flowers blew in with the breeze and noisy night creatures softened their song. Other than the footprints that spoke of animal slaughter, everything was as it always was.

Juan Serra called out again and looked inside the parents’ sleeping room. Nothing out of the ordinary. The simple bed was made. María’s Holy Bible was on her pillow and her flowery perfume hung on the air. He scrambled over to the children’s room, worrying over the passing seconds that felt like days. The door was closed but he could hear something on the other side.

Juan Serra pushed the door open (they all slept in one room) and was stunned by the loud buzzing of celebrating flies. He gasped and crossed himself. Covered his mouth to mute a terrible cry. Turned to look away. Said a prayer and pinched his nose at the swelling stench.

The children were huddled together on the blood-soaked floor. Some in the center of the room. Some leaned against the walls. In crooked, uncomfortable postures. Their throats slashed and bled. Their horrific final thoughts still lingering in their fly-covered eyes, their last words on their lips. Pleading, disbelieving, deceived.

María was in their midst. Her arms and hands had been chopped apart by his vicious machete strikes—she had tried to save them. The youngest, baby Yolanda, was by her side. Not one of them survived. Blood on the walls, on the ceiling. What had happened?

“¡Carajo!” Juan Serra cried out, and a fly flew into his mouth.

Even the roosters were quiet as Juan Serra and other members of the Nationalist Party took Guillermo down.

My great-grandfather put his carpentry skills to use and helped two men nail coffins together from whatever wood they could find. He learned how to dig his very first grave that day and the authorities ruled the tragedy a murder-suicide when they found a folded note in Guillermo’s pants pocket.

Charlie Vazquez

Charlie Vázquez is a published author, the director of the Bronx Writers Center, and the New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico's Festival de la Palabra, a literary celebration that takes place each October in San Juan and New York. He is the author of the novel Contraband and collaborated with the San Juan-based writer and translator David Caleb Acevedo on the 2013 poetry book Hustler Rave XXX.