The Plantain Curtain by Peter Skow

             One day, it started to rain, and it did not stop for a month.  I witnessed a mosaic of rains during the rain-time, some of which remain unknown to modern science.  I will now list the rains: drizzle, sun-dappled showers, rain that passes in waves, mud-rain, rain heavy enough to drown a dog, rain that falls so straightly at night that it traces a path up and up into the bottomless tracts of starry space, warm rain, needly rain, honest thunderstorms, deceitful thunderstorms who fade their thunder so that you think you have escaped only to find yourself in the middle of the lightning, moon-dappled showers, foggy rain, steamy rain, rain that you mistake for a fine mist through your window but confirm as the real deal once you stick your hand through the bars, slimy rain, furious rain that beats the weak back indoors, blinding rain, and finally a hurricane that clean-swept the sky and made me know in my guts why the Spaniards had named the things after a heathen Taino god.

            We were far from the coast and spared from the worst of it.  In the hills where the farmers lived, though, the storm cut deep into the red ground, and the roads were mostly impassable.  The water tore open a small canyon where once only a little stream had rolled, a nuisance to none but the ants.  Now Francisco and I were the ants, able to march onward only by the grace of a fallen tree that bridged the gap.  I looked down to the canyon floor as I crossed and saw the little stream still trickling.  We found the farmers working in groups to collect the wrinkly sheets of iron that littered the road, the bushes, and the treetops and restore them to their roofless homes.  Those that knew us waved and smiled, usually pointing to the sky in some way or another.  One, a kind woman named Cita who ran a hair salon in her home, waved me over and hugged me.

            “The party up there is finally done!” she said.

            “Now it’s our turn,” I said, and we laughed.

            But in truth, I could abide no parties.  Cacao beans must ferment for many days before their flesh can be removed, and for this purpose my company had built a large wooden structure like a grandstand lined with big bean-boxes.  She was simple and elegant, and the air nearby rang with the sickly-sweet smell of unceasing production.  I could see him from my office window, rearing proudly behind the loading dock.  What beauty!  My most astute readers will have guessed her fate.  The storm broke him to pieces and left only a wet, impotent wood-heap, ruined as the temples of Tenochtitlan.

            I learned a lesson on that day: market forces are forces of nature.  With our facility destroyed, the farmers would have to ferment the beans individually in piles or pits, as their forefathers had done, but the old ways dared not even dream of meeting the bottom line.  They were as far from that wooden wonder that by the traitor, wind, was wrecked as the wonderings of a bacterium sucking sulfur in the lightless ocean deep are from Darwin’s Origin, and our best driver couldn’t have snaked a bean-heavy pickup truck through the deathtrap that remained of the roads anyway.  Still, I thought it best to stand tall in the face of doom, so I lugged two pails of nails, or nail-pails, back into the hills on foot.

            I arrived at the first house bucketless, having lost my cargo to a small bog.  This was no matter, since the farmers had repaired the roofs on their own.  Most were lunching or playing dominoes.  It was just past noon.  I offered my hands for the digging of pits and the piling of piles, but these were simple tasks and I worked only for a little while.  On my way back, I stopped to see Cita.  Her house was empty, so I walked out back past the steady mule and the quarrelsome turkey (“She gets it from my mother,” Cita said when she introduced the bird and me.) into the cacao woods and found her laying broad plantain leaves across the mouth of her freshly filled bean-pit.  The leaves overlapped one another as if they were woven into a fabric, their borders hazed away, and then I was transported.

            “¡Dony!”  There came the cry, new and strange.  I swung around in my chair to face the crisp Francisco.  He clapped a hand against my upper arm with unnecessary violence.

            “I see you’ve gotten a haircut,” I said.  His head looked sharp, like a shark’s fin.

            “Oh, yes,” he said.  He palmed the side of his head and smiled.  “Every month like clockwork.  Listen, I’ve got to be going soon and I’ll be out of the office for the rest of the day, but I wanted to say that you’ve been doing some outstanding work.  I don’t think we’ve had this many clients since the Curtain came down.”

            “The what?”

            “Oh, that’s just a little joke about the old days.  Russia had the Iron Curtain and we had the Plantain Curtain.”

            “Ah, I see.  Thank you, sir.”

            Back in the cacao woods, I cried out in the wilderness, “Of course!  Of course!”

            “¡Jesú!” thundered Cita with a gasp. “Don’t scare me like that, Dony.  What is it--”

            But already I was careening headlong down the hill shouting, “Thank you!  Thank you!”

            I burst into the cooperative’s headquarters, my shirt soaked through with sweat and my trousers caked with mud.  Francisco rushed over and I grabbed his shoulder.

            “Follow me,” I said.  “I know how to save this shipwreck.”  We ran into my office and locked the door.  I told him of my bold plan.  Everything rested on a multinational conglomerate called Rolston & Taylor that had recently lost a huge investment in central Africa.  I called their offices in Boston on the telephone and Henry Rolston’s secretary put me through.

            “Don Carp, you crazy fucker!” said Henry.  “How are you?”

            “I’m perfectly sane, Hank,” I replied.  “I heard the Ntaryamira deal fell through.  A real shame.”

            “You’re telling me?  You can’t get in a big twist about it, though.  I always tell myself, ‘that’s the way it goes over there.’”

            “Absolutely.  I’m going to fax you something now.  I think you’ll like it.  Give it a read and get back to me tomorrow.”

            Henry called on the telephone the next day and gave us the all-clear.  Francisco and I drove into town and parked next to a dirty motorbike outside Teresa’s canteen.  She was fiddling with her electronic speakers, no doubt preparing for the lunchtime rush, but once she heard our plan she shuttered the shop for the day and hopped into the pickup truck.  Next we drove to the service station, where Álvaro was even quicker to jump aboard.  Then we climbed into the hills and got to work.

             With machetes we felled plantain stalks and stripped them of their leaves.  I attacked the first one with a two-fisted swing, like a viking, expecting it to put up a woody fight, but the blade cut through the piglet-thick trunk as if it were so much carrot, and I turned a half-circle before my momentum ran out.  The treelike shape of those plants, I discovered, is only a ruse.  It is for this reason that in Spanish they are not called árboles (trees) but matas, a word that has no English equivalent because the plants of Anglo-America, as a rule, have no art for tricking white people.

             We stuck the beheaded stalks into the ground in a line like gigantic fence-posts and wove the leaves together to form enormous, mithril-tight sheets of green.  Then two of us each took a corner of a sheet in our teeth, shimmied up to the top of two adjacent stalks, and hung the sheet there so that it filled the space between them.  Children came up to us and wondered what we were doing, and we told them and said, “Go, tell the others,” and they did.  They carried the word first through the mazy farmland and then down the long road into the town, and soon everyone got a fire in their bones and stood with us.

             For forty days and forty nights, or something like that, (it’s all a bit foggy) we slaved against the fearsome tropical sun, our hearts never failing.  Whenever we used up a patch of matas, another appeared out of thick, sweaty air until, at last, the wet sound sound of hacking stopped.  Then came the creaking of the last two posts, the rustle of the last green sheet, and two thuds as two pairs of feet hit the ground.  A wall now ran unbroken around the cooperative and down past its headquarters and behind the town, curving slowly with the highway up to the service station where it turned again into the hills and met itself.

             The townsfolk had also flattened out an airstrip next to the headquarters in the meantime, and cavernous airplanes had begun to land and spill the contents of their bellies.  Out crawled pointy, oily, yellowed machines--namely bulldozers, steamrollers, backhoes, and trucks and carts for the mixing and pouring of concrete and tarmacadam--and they swarmed to the hills as if to build a beehive.  The kind of furious construction that followed is rare these days.  Imagine for a moment that a gasoline truck has crashed beneath a highway overpass east of San Francisco.  The fire burns through the spine of the road network.  The next day, commuters are paralyzed.   It is the 30th of April, 2007, and you are Mayor Gavin Newsom.  You call Governor Schwarzenegger to enact emergency shortcuts, but it is not enough.  Think, Gavin!  The city is bleeding out!  A flash of genius: incentive.  Set a deadline for the repairs, and if the workers finish early, they get a bonus for each remaining day until the deadline.  The work is done weeks early, and order returns.  That was how they built up into the hills: with purpose.  The place where the will of the people meets the will of the market is pay dirt, and we had just hit the mother lode.

             Once the infrastructure was complete--including a brand new fermentary, made of lightweight metal and plastic and able to process beans at twice the speed of the original--the final phase of the plan began.  Every day, dozens of airplanes landed at the airstrip and hundreds of frantic workers unloaded them of food and other things that we could no longer get from anywhere but the sky.  Teresa came to inspect the first shipment of rice.

             “It’ll be the same rice every time?” she asked.  I confirmed, and she carried off what she needed.  Never one to waste time, she did not visit the airfield again.  I wished that she might have, though, to tell the pilots to stop bringing so much rice.  Evidently someone had miscalculated our needs, and the stuff started to pile up.  It was only one extra bag at a time and of no cost to us, but oversights like that trouble me.  They are the hangnails of business, and ought to be cut away.  I would have manned the scissors, as it were, but handling such an operation as ours demanded all of my time, and to be frank, it got away from me.  It’s a miracle that I remembered to eat three meals a day.  I had to stop running, though.

             Once empty, the workers filled the airplanes with dried cacao beans and sent them off.  I sometimes watched the contrails appear way up high and mark a path to the northwest that drifted with the wind.  The telephone rang without fail when I did this, and sometimes after I hung up, new contrails were being laid out like train tracks by a growing gray dot.

             The good times lasted for about a week, and then it went to the dogs.  Henry called me on the telephone one morning with evil news.  It was a bumper year for the Voltan cacao plantations, and prices had just fallen off a cliff and into the sea, and they did not know how to swim.

             “I’m sorry, pal,” said Henry.  “I really thought this was going to be a good one, I really did.”

             “Don’t worry about it,” I said.  (Say it with me:) “Market forces are forces of nature.”

             Henry chuckled.  “No kidding.  Tell you what--why don’t you hitch a ride up here on one of the planes?  I’ll take you out to the Cape to make up for it.”

             “Thank you, Hank, but I can’t.  They still need me here.”

             Henry muttered something.  “Well, all right.  The offer always stands.  Good luck.”

             Francisco popped his head through my door some minutes later and saw my shaken look.  I told him the news.

             “I should’ve known better,” he said.  “Still, they can’t take the new roads with them, can they?”  He winked.

             I went for a run later, since there wasn’t much to do at the office and I needed to put my head back in order.  In a better state of mind, I might have realized that it was far too hot, but instead I sweated stubbornly.  Teresa’s shop was shuttered, and Álvaro was gone from his spot.  Even the flies had been burned into the shade.  As I passed the service station, a hot, mighty crash raced up behind me and knocked me off my balance.  I turned and saw the green wall torn apart and aflame where it crossed the entrance to the highway, bits of ash snowing down onto the tank that pushed through the gap.  It was time for me to leave.

             I grabbed a motorbike leaning against Álvaro’s column and sped off to my apartment, where I stuffed what I could into a duffel bag and left.  As I rode to the headquarters, I saw another cloud of smoke rising to the South.  They must have breached the wall coming from both directions on the highway. (Henry later told me that a rogue general was behind the destruction, but that second plume makes me think that he was duped.  You see, the president at the time was one of those who rules on and off for the better part of half a century, sometimes overcome by the opposition but nearly always ruling from the shadows when he is not officially in charge.  This was his third official stretch as president, but a close-call re-election raised loud charges of corruption.  Now, Rolston & Taylor had made a friend of him in his early days, but I believe that he betrayed them in order to stand against foreign meddling.  Two simultaneous breaches from either side smacks of a precision strike, not the ravings of some General Ripper.)  I dropped the motorbike by a chain-link fence and found Francisco surrounded by Rambo and his gang of idiots.  One of the fools shouted and pointed at me.  Rambo walked over to me, taking his time and making a show of it, and punched me in the gut.

             “Where’s Álvaro?” he hissed.  “Where’s the money?”  He pushed me to the ground before I could answer.  Francisco ran toward us and called to some workers, whose sheathed machetes slapped against their legs as they ran.  The cretins scattered.  Francisco helped me up by the forearm.

             “It’s the Army,” I said.

             “I know,” he said. “Go.”  He led the workers in pursuit of my attackers.

             A lone airplane idled on the runway, and I clambered through the rear door into its belly.  I strapped in to one of the hard chairs that lined the edges of the cargo bay.  My duffel bag lay at my feet and a pallet of bean-bags slumped in the middle of the floor.  I sat there for a while, listening to a few more far-off explosions.  Occasionally, the wind rustled the loose fabric of my t-shirt.  Then the hydraulic pistons whined and the cargo-bay door closed, and after a few minutes we roared ahead and left the ruddy earth behind.