Cape Verde Fiction Series:
We decided to launch a Cape Verde fiction series to share the tales of Cape Verde life and history. Jeronimo’s Story is the series debut.
Jeronimo was weary from his day’s work at the farm and his feet ached from the five-mile walk home. Despite this, he could not stop thinking about the dance at his neighbor’s house tomorrow night. He would need three escudos to get in. It was a lot but if it meant he could find himself a nice girl and dance with her all night, it would be worth it. He didn’t need much more, perhaps another escudo to cover drinks. As always there’d be plenty of grogue for sale, but Jeronimo would stick to water. He had seen firsthand how Cape Verde’s native rum had ruined his father’s life over the years. Not only his father’s but his poor mother’s too. Any little money his father did manage to earn through fishing was spent on grogue and other women. This was why the family remained heavily in debt and every day was a struggle to survive. Jeronimo was determined not to be like his father. He avoided the strong grogue, and only drank water and goat’s milk.
Jeronimo stared out of the unshuttered window at the gray, desolate landscape of Fogo Island. The sun was low in the sky, the approaching dusk settling on the rocks and plains, carving deep shadows. Cape Verde’s ten islands were all of volcanic origin, but only Fogo had an active volcano. It hadn’t erupted since 1951, over five years ago.
Now at nearly twenty years of age, Jeronimo the view no longer fascinated him. He dreamed of migrating to America, the land of opportunity. He had heard of California, the sunshine state with its warm Pacific waters and orange groves. One day he would live out there he had promised himself.
Coughing softly, his mother entered the shack, a small bundle of wood in her arms. “Jeronimo, you back already?” she said. “Are the others coming?”
“Ma, let me help you with that.”
She shooed him away. “Don’t fuss. I can do it.”
“You should be resting.”
“There’s supper to cook for eight hungry sons first.”
She started to make a small fire in the corner of the shack. She was a small, frail woman in drab clothes wearing a small, wooden rosary. “I bet you was dreaming about that dance.”
“Not the dance, Ma, no.” He went over and gave her a hug. She was growing frailer by the day, her bronchitis getting worse. “I’d rather stay and look after you than go to some stupid dance.”
His mother smiled. “Well, son, if its money you need I may have an extra day’s cleaning this week.”
“We need that for food.”
“We have plenty to eat. Not too much and not too little either. Between your brothers’ work and what the good Lord provides, we always get along fine.”
In truth, Stephan and Valdo, his elder brothers, brought home a few escudos each day working on the lobster boats. Evandro and Ravi were still in school, but the middle brothers, Zico, Jack and Jeronimo together earned five escudos a day by helping out at a local farm. There was no money for luxuries. All money earned went towards feeding the family. It was never enough, they were always hungry.
“Ma, it’s hard enough keeping what food we have from the rats.”
As if picking up on Jeronimo’s words, a rat skittered across the damp earth lining the shack’s reed walls. The rats came and went as they pleased, bringing fleas with them. The fleas were so hardy they could bite through the hard skin of bare feet. They even snuck inside the rough canvas sleeping sacks. Sleeping on the earth floor was not only a damp but an itchy affair.
“Well,” she said, “if you’re interested, I heard your cousin, Tuveno, has borrowed a fiber machine from his boss.”
Jeronimo was interested. He wondered now if he might get to go dancing after all.
“Well look what we have here. If it’s not young Jeronimo looking like a palm tree stripped by a hurricane.”
In the open doorway, Jeronimo’s neighbor, Viktor, grinned showing gappy teeth. Over one arm was draped a tipsy woman, looking about half his age. Inside, a few guttering candles provided some light against the encroaching dusk. The funaná band was playing a feverish dance number, all strumming guitars and wailing sax.
“Three escudos, sonny.”
Jeronimo dug into his back pocket and retrieved three bronze coins.
Viktor looked surprised, but took the money. “Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, “he said, giving the boy a quick onceover.
Jeronimo said nothing. Last night he had worked with Tuveno until midnight shaving fiber from agave plants to make belts to sell in the morning. As soon as the sun had come up, they had set out their stall. Together they had sold eight belts at one escudo each and shared the proceeds between them. Then Jeronimo had gone to work at the farm.
There was a small group of young girls dancing in front of the band. In the flickering shadows, young men were drinking beer and grogue, weighing their next moves.
This was no time to be shy. Approaching the prettiest girl, Jeronimo began dancing next to her. But she soon turned her back on him. While dancing, he became aware of the other girls casting dubious glances at his clothes. Jeronimo began to feel awkward. He decided to act before he lost his nerve.
He waited until he caught the eye of one of the girls, which was not until the middle of the next number.
“Hi, I’m Jeronimo.”
She didn’t hold back, just sneered at him. “You think I want to dance with someone who doesn’t wash his clothes?”
“Hey, Rag Boy,” a guy called out. “Get away from my sister.”
Everyone broke into laughter, the girls swaying, the boys carousing.
Dismayed, Jeronimo fled the dance, near tears. He couldn’t understand it. Yes, his clothes were a bit grimy and torn, but he was a gentleman and had been told he was handsome. Why were the girls laughing at him? He’d never felt so ashamed and rejected before.
There was a bolachinhas stall set up across the street from the dance. Jeronimo used his last escudo to buy a small bag of the butter cookies and sat on the ground to eat. It felt good to ease the ache in his belly, but he also had an ache in his heart which needed a love salve.
“Whoa, cousin, how are you?”
Jeronimo looked up. It was his cousin, Danny. He’d lost count how many cousins he had scattered among the islands. Danny was like him: a pure Fogo fire boy.
“I’m ok.” They high-fived.
“No luck with the girls tonight, huh, cousin?” Danny said, grinning.
Jeronimo dropped his head. “You were inside?”
“Hey, cousin, you should forget these Fogo girls. You can do better than that. Come and live with me in Praia, Santiago.”
Jeronimo forgot his gloom. “You’re moving to Praia?”
“I have a deal for a boat ticket from a friend of the captain. I can get you one too.” He sat beside Jeronimo and helped himself to a cookie.
“No worries, I can get you a job over there,” Danny said. “You pay me back later.”
“You can find me work?” Praia was the capital city. Moving there would be a big, first step to leaving CapeVerde.
“Yes, and all the banana you can eat, cousin.” Danny slapped Jeronimo on the back and laughed.
A month later with Danny’s help, Jeronimo migrated to Praia. He loved being in the city. The town center was called the Plateau and overlooked the Atlantic.
The two cousins got a job at a factory called the Bakery Xicote, which made bread and cookies. The wages weren’t great but it paid their expenses and Jeronimo was able to send some money to his mother to help feed the family. His mother had been tearful to see him go, but he soon persuaded her of the economic benefits and promised he would visit as often as he could.
Jeronimo soon found out what Danny had meant about bananas. The only food provided to workers at the Bakery Xicote was banana and hot buttered bread. While it soon became repetitive, the diet afforded good sustenance for the demanding work at the factory.
Still, living conditions were far worse here than in Fogo. Rent was dear, and Danny and Jeronimo could only afford to share a small single room with ten other men. This meant that after a long day’s work, all twelve had to sleep cramped together. The heat and stench was almost unbearable, while fleas and other biting insects left red wheals on their sweat-stained skin.
Despite the hardships, a few months later Jeronimo persuaded his two younger brothers, Jack and Zico, to join them in the same digs. The Bakery Xicote was doing well and was looking for more workers. His brothers were shocked at first at the living conditions, but buckled down and worked hard. Their mother and brothers at home sent them their blessings. Each evening Jeronimo made sure Jack and Zico prayed with him, thanking God for their good fortune.
For the first time, Jeronimo began to believe that the lives of his family were improving. Some of the money he sent back went towards medicine, and before long his mother’s bronchitis cleared up. She had more energy to look after the home, though she had to be careful to hide the money from his father. If he’d got his hands on it, he would have boozed it all away.
There were setbacks too. Four of the men fell feverishly ill in the cramped conditions. While he, Zico and Jack escaped illness, Jeronimo questioned whether it would not be safer to send his two younger brothers home. Danny, his cousin, was one of those who caught the fever. But the men couldn’t afford a proper doctor. Clubbing together a few escudos bought them the services of a witchdoctor, but his superstitious quackery did nothing to help. Eventually two recovered, including Danny; but the other two died from their fevers. It was a low point for Jeronimo. For the first time he was tempted to return home himself. What made him stay was the realization that he would never fulfil his dreams in Fogo. And he didn’t want to return with nothing to show for it. He would have felt a failure in front of his family.
Jeronimo understood that if he was ever to migrate to the USA, he needed an education. Although always tired after his day’s work, he attended an evening course which allowed him to complete his 4th Grade Primary school certification. His mother was very proud of him when he called home to tell her.
Jeronimo continued his education even after being drafted into military service at the age of twenty-two. He was sad to leave Danny, Jack and Zico in Praia, but he had no choice. Based in São Vicente, part of the northern string of islands called The Barlavento, Jeronimo had never felt further from home. Still his service offered him access to a night course where he was able to continue his prep education.
Throughout the years trying to juggle work with education, Jeronimo had never found the time for love. He shrugged off the idea as a diminishing dream, and instead thought longingly of his family back home. He no longer stewed over his failed advances at the Fogo dance; too often these days he was too busy to reflect on the past.
He didn’t know it then, but nearly ten years after the Fogo dance he would meet his future wife. He wouldn’t be wearing rags either, but a smart business suit.
“Jeronimo, as I live and breathe. I saw your name on the door and wondered if it was you.”
Jeronimo rose from his desk and offered the attractive young woman his hand to shake. It was almost ten years since he’d last seen Larissa, and she had scarcely aged in that time. Dressed in polished business clothes, if it wasn’t for the dark shock of long curls set against broad olive-skinned cheekbones, he still might not have recognized her.
“Well look at you, Mr. Loans Advisor in your classy suit. Don’t give me your hand, I want a hug, Jez.”
They embraced and kissed, and her sweet perfume invoked memories when he’d sat in her class and tried to concentrate on the lesson. It was distracting when you were being taught by such a beautiful, vivacious woman.
“I’ve missed you, my star pupil,” she said, drawing away to look at him. “I thought you were still a policeman.”
“Well, with the help of your brilliant tuition, I finished the last three years of my prep education.”
“Yeah, top marks too.”
“I left the police and was lucky to land myself a good finance job in Mindelo. After a couple of years they transferred me out here to Brava as chief commercial loan advisor. I’m closer to my family in Fogo too, which is good.”
“I’m proud of you, Jeronimo,” she said. “I always thought you’d do well for yourself. Your family well?”
“Mother and brothers all in good health, thank the Lord,” he said. “And you? You moved out here too?”
“Yeah, I now teach at a school in Fajã de Agua,” she said. “I also handle a lot of the supplies purchasing.”
“Ah, hence the loan application,” he said, beaming. “Larissa, it’s so great to see you.”
“And you. I thought if I ever bumped into you again it would be in America. You were always talking of moving out there.”
“Still am,” he said. “At least still dreaming about it, if not doing a lot of talking.”
She must have noticed him glancing at the bare ring finger of her left hand, and she drew close again. “Jeronimo, why on earth did you never find the courage to ask me out, you old hustler you?”
“Shyness, I guess. Plus memories of a dance that didn’t work out as I’d expected.”
Larissa took her hand in his. “Well you should have done,” she said softly. “I could tell you fancied me, and I would have said yes.”
“Very nearly. Not only would I have made a fine catch,” she declared, “but why would anyone wanting to move to America pass up on someone whose parents have citizenship there?” She laughed. It was directed inward, but he took the point.
He looked into her large brown-green eyes. “Am I too late?”
They kissed, this time long and tenderly.
“Then perhaps we should continue this business appointment at a good seafood restaurant in town I know, “Jeronimo said.
They didn’t talk about loans at all during lunch. Two separated lovebirds had met again through fate, and this time nothing would stop them from being together.
Two months later, Jeronimo proposed and Larissa accepted. They both shared a common dream of bettering their lives, but they knew they could never as successful as they had dreamed while in Cape Verde.
After five happily married years on Brava Island, Jeronimo finally realized his dream and migrated to California with his new family. This now included a young son, Roberto. It was perfect for Larissa, because she could be close to her parents. Of course Jeronimo was further away now from his mother and brothers. But he didn’t stop dreaming, and working hard. After fifteen years, his men’s accessories business became very successful and he could afford to retire. His luxury men’s belts were no longer made from the fiber of agave plants but instead from the finest leather. He always made sure his family was well cared for; and a few years after settling in California, he could afford to bring his mother and brothers over to live near them.
Jeronimo never forgot his humble origins. He could look back on his life with a quiet pride that through hard work and perseverance he had achieved his goal of providing a good life for his family. None of them would ever be seen wearing rags again, that was for sure.