The Thimble Thieves of Villa Dolores
by Doug Tierney
It was in the third term of Major Farozo, a hero of the Malvinas, as mayor of Villa Dolores when young Jan Niklas Rey decided to steal the thimble from his ancient and hook-nosed Uncle Klaus. In those days, the only policeman in the town, Teodor Guzman, was so fat and corrupt, a rich man could steal an apple from the mouth of a starving child, and Teodor would throw the child in jail for leaving his spit on the rich man’s apple. All this is to say, the story could have taken place any time in the last 200 years, for things are slow to change in lands where people make a living by tilling the earth and tending their crops.
As it happens, the story took place some sixty years after los soldados came to Argentina fleeing their defeat by the Yanquis in the great war. They came on the packet ships and cattle boats that carried good South American beef to the markets in Europe and brought back quiet, grim men hiding from their darker selves. They steamed up the Rio de la Plata past the half-sunk wreck of their scuttled warship to disappear in the shadowy dockyards of Buenos Aires. They settled in the warm fields of the pampas and the fertile lands of the Punilla Valley where they grew wheat and apples. They brought with them their foreign tales and Protestant religion and pagan magics. Some of the men came with money and family, and they bought farmland and shut themselves up in the high walls of their haciendas to raise their blond-haired children who refused to learn Spanish.
Sometimes, these soldados brought with them widowed sisters and daughters, so many they could not find husbands among the men of their country. Instead, they married Argentines and raised happy brown children who spoke Spanish and were not welcome at the tables of their pale, embittered uncles. So it was with Jan Niklas, whose mother had named him after the style of her mother's country, though with Argentine father and grandfather, he looked like any other farm boy in the province of Cordoba.
Only Jan Niklas’s eyes set him apart from the other boys, for they were a light gray, and seemed to covet everything upon which they fell. He was often quarrelsome, and would curse at the other boys in the strange language of his abuela, which sounds like a dog growling before it barks. When he did this, the other boys would laugh and throw stones at him, because they didn’t know what he was calling their mothers.
It was the late fall of the year, April or May in the upside-down seasons south of the Equator, that Jan Niklas told his only friend, Alfonso Pereyra, of his plan to take the thimble from his uncle, as they were picking the old man’s apples. Picking apples is hard work which quickly turns strong boys into hunchbacks, or lames them when they fall from the high and flimsy ladders where they climb to reach the topmost fruit on the tree. Picking apples in his uncle’s orchard, which he considered to be his by right if not in fact, only made the work harder for Jan Niklas.
“Alfonso, you should help me to get my mama’s birthright from Tio Klaus,” he said as he stuffed apples into his sack one hand after the other. “It is not right that he should deny my mama what she was left by her abuela.”
In fact, Tio Klaus was Jan Niklas’s great-uncle Klaus, the brother of his grandmother. He treated Mama like any other tenant farmer who lived on his ranchero, only a little better because he invited her to come to the hacienda in the summer when the farm took a break for Christmas. It was there Jan Niklas had seen the thimble, sitting on a wooden base under a small glass dome. It looked like nothing special to be displayed so in the parlor of the great house, on a polished mahogany table with a picture of his abuela’s abuela in a floral silver frame.
“Why should I do such a thing for you?” Alfonso asked. He did not look at Jan Niklas nor stop his work. They had a whole row of fruit to pick, and he knew if he stopped to indulge every whim and scheme, he would be picking the apples alone late into the evening. "I will not steal from the man who feeds my family."
“It is not stealing,” Jan Niklas shot back. “It is my mama’s. It has been passed down in our family for many generations, from abuela to nieta. But when Mama’s abuela passed on, Tio Klaus took it and would not give it back. She says when she gets her birthright, our fortunes will be made, and I will not have to work in other people’s fields for pay.”
“Life is hard, mano,” Alfonso said. Mano was a versatile word, and Alfonso liked it greatly. It could mean the hand at the end of your arm, or a hand who works a farm, or a buddy who is your close friend, or a buddy you just met and don’t care to see again. It also meant “monkey” in the del norte slang of the workers who came to Cordoba during the harvest and then followed the crops to the next province or the next country. It was this meaning that Alfonso chiefly ascribed to Jan Niklas. “Life is hard, but I will not steal for you.”
Jan Niklas threw an apple and hit Alfonso in the head so hard the boy saw stars and heard angels sing.
“Do not mock me, Alfonso,” Jan Niklas said. "This thing, it is nothing. It is a thimble, a dedal de costura, but it is my mother’s and she should have it. All we have to do is go into the hacienda in the night, and slip away with it. I think Tio Klaus will not even know it is gone.”
“I will not do this thing, Jan Niklas,” Alfonso said. He continued picking his apples, but he cringed, fearing that his friend would throw another apple at his head, and not be so gentle about it this time. “Your uncle, if he catches us, you are his blood, but he will have me whipped. Then my father will whip me, too, when your tio kicks us off this land we have farmed since before the Spanish came to this country.”
Jan Niklas was silent for a long time. The sun was setting toward the distant Andes, turning the valley a brilliant gold over lengthening shadows the color of old bronze. Beyond the fence separating the orchard from the stubble of the wheat field and the river, a squawling flock of starlings swooped in a pulsating, irregular mass, searching for insects rising with the cooling of the air. In the barnyard, two farmhands pitchforked piles of straw onto a small flatbed wagon.
One of the men saw Alfonso watching and shouted at him to get back to work or he would feed his eyes to the crows. The boy went back to picking his apples, but he stole glances as the sputtering tractor pulled the wagon up to the storm cellar doors of the hacienda. The men began to fork the straw into the basement; for what, Alfonso did not know.
As he watched the manos pitching the straw, Jan Niklas came to the same place Alfonso had arrived several minutes before. It only took him a few more turns around the millstone.
“If you do not help me, I will go alone, and when my tio asks, I will tell him I saw you with a silver thimble. He will believe me.”
Alfonso sighed, having known from the beginning that he had no choice but to do as Jan Niklas asked. They were friends not because they liked each other or had even the smallest interest in common, but because they worked the same land, for the same miserly old man who mistreated them equally. Tio viejo would not believe Jan Niklas’s lies, but if he did not do as the boy asked, Alfonso knew he would have no peace.
So that night, after they dropped their apples in the cold shed to be pressed into cider, they talked over the plan. They ate a meal of cheese empanadas and cold moqueca with small bits of some sweet freshwater fish in a fragrant cilantro curry sauce. They ate from tins the cook had left in the shed for when they finished their work. In truth, Jan Niklas had no plan. He thought to enter the house through the cellar door and just walk up to the parlor as if he were the master of the house, giving no thought to what to do if they were discovered. He thought it brilliant in its simplicity. Alfonso was sure they would be whipped with a látigo.
They hid in the shed until after midnight. No one goes looking for boys on a farm if they are out late, only if their work is not done or if they are not up promptly for breakfast.
Jan Niklas waited until the windows of the hacienda and bunkhouse and the small houses of the servants and farmhands were dark, then he led Alfonso to the house by the light of the last sliver of a dying moon and the brilliant stars one only sees high in the mountains and far from the glow of cities. They crept to the cellar doors, which were not kept locked because the house was separated from the road by a high wall, and the yard was patrolled by many vicious dogs who rolled over and showed their bellies to Alfonso because he had been their playmate from the time they were puppies. This was the true reason Jan Niklas insisted that Alfonso help him. Dogs remember cruelty in a boy and do not forgive so easily. They had a long memory for Jan Niklas.
In the basement, the cool darkness felt like a caress after the dry heat of the Punilla day. The air smelled of dry straw, sharp and dusty. Small things with soft paws scuttled in the dark. Jan Niklas stumbled to the door, whispering—too loudly—for Alfonso to follow him, stupidly calling him by name.
“Close your eyes, Alfonso,” he said. “I will turn on the light here, and it will show us our way up the stairs.’
In the glare of the bare bulbs, the boys found the basement piled to the ceiling beams with straw freshly harvested from the fields. A large pigeonhole desk with scales and a ledger book filled the corner by the stairs, and next to it an ancient spinning wheel and carding combs. A small furnace and ingot mold sat on the hearth, well away from the mountains of straw. Everything was covered with a heavy layer of glittering yellow dust. A coal shovel leaned against the desk, its blade the same color as the metallic dust on the floor. Alfonso ran his finger across the door, drawing an arc in the dust. He rubbed it between his fingers, tasted it.
“Mira!” Alfonso breathed. “Is your tio Atahualpa?”
“Why do they store straw in the hacienda?” Jan Niklas asked. “Come, my mother’s birthright is upstairs.”
They moved up the stone steps to a door, which opened onto the central hallway of the hacienda. On a table by the front door, a porcelain lamp glowed with a soft orange light, a light which glimmered from the doorknobs and wall sconces, revealing them to be not mere polished brass but gold. Cold and solid, heavy and smooth to the touch. Such ostentation in the master’s house, while his workers counted grains of rice to make it through the winter! The entry to the parlor lay across from the basement door, and their footfalls were cushioned by handwoven wool carpets in elaborate patterns of glittering gold thread, not the plain geometric designs of the local Indian-made rugs. The parlor was filled with antiques, furniture too delicate to sit upon, pictures in hand-carved frames, polished wood tables, ancient farmstead impedimenta that had been painted to be decorative instead of functional. This was little different from any other old house Alfonso had ever been in, though in the other places, the antiques were for using, not for admiring, because even the great homes could only pretend to wealth in these low, thin days.
Jan Niklas went first, making little attempt to be stealthy now that the initial thrill of breaking into the house had passed. He found his mother’s birthright on the table under a delicate glass dome, as he had seen it at Christmas. He gingerly lifted the glass and set it aside, then touched almost reverently the simple nickel silver thimble his mother’s people had brought from the old world to the new.
The thimble, sized to fit a woman’s index finger, barely fit onto Jan Niklas’s little finger. The basket weave design showed nicks from needles and wear. A large scratch partially obscured a word which had been engraved on the ribbon pattern at the base of the thimble. It read “R. STILTSKIN.” Jan Niklas knew nothing of sewing or other women’s work, but he gazed at it in wonder.
“So this will make my mother’s fortune,” he whispered. He took a single step back the way he had come before he was frozen in his footsteps by an oily, metallic click-CLICK behind him.
“What do you think you are doing?” came the question in a high, nasally voice in heavily accented Castillian Spanish.
Jan Niklas turned to find his uncle standing at the end of the hall, wearing only a nightshirt and holding a thin, knobby pistol. Tio Klauss, his back hunched, his knees crooked, his hooked nose hanging over his upper lip. And small and bent as he was, the pistol looked enormous in his hands.
“Are you here to steal from me, perro Juan?” he asked with a nasty grin. Jan Niklas bristled at the insult and took a step toward him, but Klaus raised the pistol level with his heart.
“This is my mother's birthright,” the boy said, clenching his fist around the thimble.
“That belongs to me, and your half-breed mother will never have it,” Klaus said. “And you, boy, will find how we deal with thieves in the Schwarzwald.”
He raised the pistol to aim at Jan Niklas’s head, but before he could pull the trigger, Alfonso grabbed his friend’s shoulder and dragged him through the door and down the stairs. They tumbled one over the other to the bottom, Alfonso landing on top as they reached the stone floor. He sprang to his feet and ran for the cellar doors.
“Vamanos, mano!” he shouted over his shoulder.
Jan Niklas pulled himself up on the door frame, but Uncle Klaus fell upon him, the pistol still in his hand. Jan Niklas siezed the barrel of the pistol to keep it away from his head, but the old man, wiry and strong even in his great old age, punched the boy in the kidneys until he fell backward onto the decrepit spinning wheel, smashing it to bits and bashing his head on the leg of the desk.
Klaus tried to force the barrel of the pistol toward the boy’s face, but Jan Niklas pushed the barrel away. Klaus pulled the trigger, and the gun bucked free of the boy’s grasp. Uncle Klaus raised up to aim the gun at Jan Niklas’s forehead. The boy turned away, so he would not see Santa Muerte coming for him. Just then, Alfonso stepped from the shadows and smashed the coal shovel into the back of the old man’s head with both hands. Jan Niklas rolled his uncle off of him and knelt, breathing heavily.
Uncle Klaus, one eye horribly dilated until it was nothing more than black pupil, looked up into Jan Niklas’s face with his remaining ice-blue eye and spat.
“You sheisskopf,” he said. “The thimble is worthless without the wheel. They are a pair.”
He died then, his eyes open and his spittle still wet upon his grandnephew’s face.
Alfonso grabbed Jan Niklas’s shoulder and shouted, “Mira! Fuego!”
The shot from the old man’s pistol had ignited a smoldering, smoking ember among the dry straw and dust on the floor. The boys tried to stomp it out but only succeeded in sending up a swarm of sparks, like glowing locusts that flew to other fields to consume them and fly on. It soon became a wolf, a ravenous thing that stalked the boys among the piles of straw and would consume them if it could. Jan Niklas beat at it with the coal shovel until Alfonso finally yelled for him to run.
They climbed from the storm cellar, singed and spitting smoke. The flames now danced behind the first floor windows. In a corner of the yard, the dogs barked, their ancient fear of fire keeping them from approaching nearer. In a moment, someone began ringing the dinner bell that hung outside the bunkhouse where the manos slept. Far down the Punilla Valley, a church bell sounded. Soon, men would come to fight the flames, but it would be in vain. Days after, fat old Teodor Guzman would find the charred bones of Tio Vieho in the cellar, with a pistol beside his hand, and would deem the death a suicide. But for now, the boys could only stand transfixed as the fire crept out the windowsills and began to climb toward the roof.
“Did you get your mother’s thimble?” Alfonso asked.
“Yes,” Jan Niklas answered. He thrust his hand into his pocket and gripped it tightly. “I have it.”
And that is the story of how Jan Niklas Rey lost his mother’s birthright and stole for her a silver thimble.