Thursday, April 14, 2011

Life's Three Great Lessons

I heard the following folktale from my son's ex-wife who was born in Michoacan, Mexico. Like many storytellers, she could not remember where she first heard it either. And true to the oral tradition, and being a writer, I have taken some generous liberties embellishing it, though they are true to the story's intent, I think.

Jose Martinez was a hard-working, middle-aged man living in a humble village, Pocacosa, in central Mexico. A man of modest means, he dreamed of someday having a job that paid enough to support his wife Concha, and his 15-yr. old boy, Pedrito.

One day at the local cantina he ran into his old friend Fermin and they had a beer for old times sake. As usual, the pair talked of the corrupt government, rising food prices and the lack of work. As they readied to part, Fermin told his friend, "Amigo, if you are in need of work, I heard of a rich Hacendado who owns a large ranch in the mountains. I am told he pays well, and employs many workers, and perhaps if you were to go to  him and ask for work, he would hire you?"  On a soiled, crumpled piece of paper, Fermin scribbled the Hacendado's name and that of his Hacienda, "La Fregadera". Jose thanked him and headed home.

But before he reached his old  jacal, his shack, Jose had made up his mind. He would do as his friend suggested, work for a year or so and return with plenty of money to finish building his house, feed his family without worry, and perhaps even send his "burro" of a son to school.

Gathering his wife and son in the run-down kitchen, he announced "I have decided to leave you for a time to look for work. Pedrito is almost a grown man and he can get a job at the marketplace, and look after you while I'm gone, vieja", he assured his wife. "But go where?" Asked the woman with grief. He showed her the crumpled note. "It is about two day's journey from here. Pack me some clothes and some beans and tortillas and I will leave in the morning."

The next day, at dawn Jose kissed his wife and son goodbye and headed up the mountain path, confident he was making the right choice. With luck, he would reach the hacienda by dark the following day.

The journey was much longer than Jose imagined and by sunset he was hungry and exhausted. He settled in for the night in a small cave he spotted on the side of the road. That night he dreamed of things he would do with the money he earned.

The next day, the path seemed endless and at sunset, seeing a boy sitting in a field he inquired, "Hey boy, how much further is it to the Haciena Fregadera?" "Not far", just follow the trail and you should be there in about an hour's time", he said pointing.

The Hacienda was gigantic, a colossal spanish colonial structure with red tile roofs. At the huge doors, Jose meekly knocked. The pretty young maid answered. "Que quiere usted, Señor?" She inquired. "May I speak to Don Fernando? I am seeking work." "Un momento", she said and disappeared. Not long after a handsome young man in a Charro suit and fine sombrero appeared. Jose humbly introduced himself. "Ah, you are looking for work, Amigo. Yes, I need workers with strong backs. See my foreman there", pointing to the bunkhouse. We shall talk of wages in the morning."

Jose, said a prayer of thanks to La Virgen of Guadalupe just before he fell to sleep that night. In the morning, Don Fernando approached him. "I will offer you 5 pesos a day. I pay monthly. You shall help tend my cattle, my horses and my sheep." They shook hands, sealing the deal.

Jose took to the work naturally and as he loved tending the animals, the days quickly passed. He was used to hard work. So on the last day of the month, Jose approached Don Fernando for his first month's wages. "Do you plan to stay on with me?" He asked. "Of course!" Jose beamed. "Then, if you want, I can save your wages for you until you decide to leave and give them to you in one large sum." Jose agreed. "What good is having the money now?" He asked himself. "Somebody might even steal it from me."

So it continued month after month. And Jose's pay increased more and more. The months flew by like pigeons to their roost until before he knew it a year had passed! In fact, it had passed so quickly that Jose began to wonder whether he could just stay on for another year. "I will have twice the money". His mind scurried to add up the amount of his wages, but he was never any good at math. "It will be more than enough", he assured himself. A lengthy letter to his wife explained his decision in detail.

When the second year had passed, Jose again approached his boss. "Patron, you have been good to me, but it is time I return home to my wife and boy". He laughed at his reference to Pedrito as  a "boy", "why he must be a young man by now", he mused. "You have been a good worker Jose. I will miss you." Reaching into his safe, he pulled out an envelope stuffed with cash. "Here, you have justly and honestly earned this." But then, he hesitated. "Jose, before I hand you your wages, I have an offer to make to you which may in truth be worth far more than these bills."

"What is he up to now?" Wondered Jose to himself. "Does my patron wish to cheat me?" But Don Fernando continued. "In lieu of your wages, I will give you three life lessons, which if strictly adhered to will bring you life long happiness. They are lasting, not like money you will quickly spend. What do you think?"

Jose was floored. The thought of returning to his family with no money was unthinkable. "They will call me a fool! The whole village will call me a pendejol!" But after deep thought, Jose surprisingly agreed to the Hacendado's deal, blurting out "Tell me what these life lessons are, tell me now!"

"You will never regret this", assured Don Fernando. "The first lesson is never to take shortcuts in life. When you find a secure path, never be tempted to take an easier or shorter one. This mistake can cost you your life. Secondly, always mind your own business. Never, ever meddle in the affairs of others; it too can be costly and dangerous. Last of all, never act upon or make important decisions when you are angry. Always wait until your anger has subsided before you act."

With that, the two embraced and said their farewells. "Oh, and one last thing, I am giving you this package but I want you to promise you will not open until you are home with your family." Having promised, Jose packed some food for the two-day journey home. He could not wait to see his wife and son.

Later that morning, he began to notice the path seemed unfamiliar, and he wondered whether he might be lost. Still he continued on until he saw some travelers coming towards him. "Amigos", he called when they neared. "I am on my way to the village of Pocacosa. Is this the way?" The men looked at each other puzzled. "Well, yes but it is the long way around. There is a shortcut just ahead which will save you hours of travel." "Gracias", Jose waved as they left and walking on soon came to a fork in the path.

"I will take this shortcut home", he decided, and began to walk it. After about an hour, he thought he heard a man moaning near some bushes. He rushed to his side. His eyes were swollen and he was beaten badly. "Amigo, que pasa aqui?" Que te paso?" "I was just beaten and robbed by bandits. They nearly killed me!" He cried. "Do not continue down this path or the same may happen to you!" At that moment, Don Fernando"s words rang like a loud bell in Jose's ears and his whole body shuddered: "Never take shortcuts in life". Tending to the man, he returned to the road he was on, vowing he would never take a shortcut again no matter what.

That night he came upon a small house not far from the path. It was dark, but he saw a light on inside, and knocked. "Buenas Noches", he greeted a gruff man who answered the door. Jose could hear other voices inside, but could not make out who they were. "I am on my way home to my village of Pocacosa and need a place to sleep tonight." The man nodded to an old shed on the side of the house.

Jose prepared a bed of straw and plastic tarp for a cover, ate and fell fast asleep thinking about the joy he would have seeing his wife and son again the next day. But about midnight, he heard some screams coming from the house. He rose, and began to make his way towards the commotion. Were they fighting? The voices grew louder and more violent and soon he heard a gunshot! "O, Dios Mio, I must go inside to help them. Someone may be hurt!" But again the voice of Don Fernando resounded "Never, ever meddle in the business of others." And he held back.

In moments, a young boy rushed out of the house towards Jose. "Señor, you must leave now! My two brothers got drunk and fought, and now one of them is dead! You are a witness and my brother has vowed he will kill you too! Go, now!!" Jose grabbed his belongings and beat it down the path, thanking God for having saved his life. "If you save me I will never meddle in the business of others", he vowed.

Having walked all night, he arrived early at his village. Jose's heart pounded and his ears began to ring with excitement and as he saw his old jacal in the distance, he began to run. Nearing the shack, he stopped and decided he would sneak up to the kitchen window and look inside first, to see what his family was up to. He slid along the walls until he was next to window, then peered inside and what he saw shocked him to his core.

Inside, stood his wife embracing a man! "So this is what she has done while I, her faithful husband, has worked like a burro to provide for her!" Rage enveloped him. He turned a darker shade of brown. His eyes watered. He pulled a knife from his waistband and began to move towards the door. "I will accost the two in this shameful act. I will kill them both!

Jose forced open the door, and stood defiantly before the two. Consuelo quickly, stepped towards him, with open arms: "Get back, you serpent!" He shouted. Who is this man?" The man slinked behind her. "I saw you both embracing through the window!?"

A smile emerged across her lips. "Jose, mi amor, that is your son Pedrito, or should I say "Pedro", who is now a man!" Pedro shouted "Papa! Papa it is me!" Jose dropped the knife as the the final message of Don Fernando's words knifed his heart: "Never act in anger. Always wait until it has subsided before you make a decision." And Jose embraced his wife and son, swooning in ecstacy.

"Come, sit, tell us all about your work on the Hacienda", she motioned to the kitchen table. "Papa, here let me take your pack, sit, rest." Minutes passed in ceaseless chatter as the trio caught up on the two year's absence. But soon, Consuelo, unable to control her curiosity asked "So, Jose exactly how much did you earn? Show us!" Jose was silent. Embarrassed. "How can I tell my wife and son I have no money?"

"Well, when it came time for my  patron to pay me, he offered an alternative. He gave me three of life's most important lessons in lieu of my wages." Jose looked for some measure of understanding from the two but they sat there with their mouths ajar. "What, no wages!?" Cried Consuelo with despair. "Life lessons??" She smirked bitterly. "We already know plenty of those!"

Jose felt stupid. Maybe he had be cheated by Don Fernando. Suddenly, Pedro noted the package in his father's pack. "Papa, what is in the package, open it?" Jose was surprised. "What package?" He had forgotten all about it. "Do not open it until you have arrived home with your family", his patron had told him.

Placing the package on the table, he cut the string and unwrapped it. Inside was a circular loaf of bread. "Well, at least we have some bread it eat!" Hissed Consuelo sarcastically. With his knife, Jose parted the loaf. "Papa, look there is a letter inside, open it!" Jose slowly opened the envelope and began to read out loud.

"Jose, you have been a faithful and hardworking servant and for that I am eternally grateful. I am a rich man but I was once poor like you and have never forgotten my roots. I know that I led you to believe that you had chosen my life lessons over your wages, but here is all the money you rightfully earned. May God bless you and your family. I also hope the life lessons will serve you well. (Don Fernando de Cascabel)."

And indeed, in the envelope was the entire amount which Jose had earned over the two years. Jose, Consuelo and Pedro thanked God and ate the bread, in a sort of communion ritual. It was the best bread the family had ever eaten.

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