Authors: Ben Mikaelsen
This book is dedicated
to all the children of the world
who have seen a red sky at night
Soldiers in the Night
Learning to Sail
Coconuts in Los Santos
Pigs in the MaÃz
Mud in the Gas Tank
The Home of Uncle Ramos
My Little Squirrel
The Last Butterfly
Pigs in the Cayuco
River of Garbage
I Am Stupid
Notch Number Six
The Last Land
Broken Like the Doll
I Can Catch a Fish
Stars on the Water
May 18, 1981
Dos VÃas, Guatemala
I TRY TO FORGET
the night they burned my village. Those memories are like clouds in my mind. But sometimes the clouds lift, and again I hear screams and soldiers shouting and guns exploding. A dog barks. Another shot echoes, and the dog is quiet. Then there is more shouting and killing.
I remember my mother waking me that night. Fear makes her voice shake as she pushes my little sister into my arms. “Santiago, wake up!” she whispers loudly. “Run! Take Angelina with you. They have come to kill us. Run!”
And my mother is right. As I stumble barefoot toward the trees holding Angelina's hand, soldiers appear behind me. They carry torches that show their laughing faces as they run through our small village burning every home.
Our homes are very simple, with dirt floors, thatch roofs, and walls made of dried cane stalks that burn easily. When families run from the flames, the soldiers kill them. Their guns sound like machetes hitting coconuts.
In the dark, I run hard, pulling Angelina by the hand. But I trip. When I fall, I drag my sister under bushes at the edge of our village. I look back and see the flames, and I see what the soldiers do to my family and to my neighbors.
I have two younger brothers, Arturo and Rolando, and two sisters, Anita and Angelina. I am the oldest, twelve years old. This night, all of my family dies except Angelina. They are all killed as I watch. I see rape and I see torture. I see things happen this night that I can never speak of.
The night is filled with screams of fear and pain. Tears fill my eyes when I see my grandfather, Adolfo, try to run. He is old. I look up at the sky because I cannot watch when they shoot him. Above me the sky is cloudy. A thin moon shines through the clouds like a ghost, and I know that tonight the soldiers do not aim their bullets at the moon.
Angelina clings to me in the dark, and I cover her mouth so she cannot scream. I try to cover her eyes, too, but she will not let me. She knows that something very bad is happening.
Something moves in the bushes near me, and I hold my breath. I think it is a soldier, but a voice that I
know whispers very loud, “Santiago, keep running!” It is the voice of my uncle Ramos. He lies near me on the ground. His deep breaths sound like a sick horse when it breathes.
“You must come with us,” I say.
“No, I am shot.”
“I will help you.”
“No,” he says. “I am already dead. But you are still alive. Go!”
I nod, but I do not know where a twelve-year-old boy can go with his four-year-old sister. There is no place to run in a country like Guatemala, where everyone is afraid. “Where do we go?” I ask.
“Leave Guatemala. Go as far away as you can and tell what has happened this night.”
“But, Uncle, nobody will listen to me. I am only a boy.”
Pain makes Uncle Ramos bite his lip until it bleeds. “What you have seen tonight makes you a man,” he says, his voice weak. He rolls his body over until he can look into my eyes. “There is a wind that blows and tries to help this country,” he says. “Go now! Be part of this wind. You are the only person who can tell of this evil.”
“But where can I go?” I ask. “To Mexico?”
Uncle Ramos shakes his head. “There are many soldiers north of here. Go south to Lake Izabal. Take the
and sail to the United States of America.” Uncle Ramos lifts his chin. “In my pocket, there is my compass.
I have shown you how to use it. Now take it.”
I do not argue. The cayuco is a sailing kayak, something Uncle Ramos is very proud of. I reach into his pocket and find the compass. It feels like a large watch.
Uncle Ramos coughs blood from his mouth. “Remember, the red end of the needle always points to the north. Remember that. Now go!”
I let go of Angelina's mouth and stand. As I turn to run, a soldier sees me. The burning flames from the village let him see my face well, and he raises his rifle. I run once more with Angelina into the forest. Behind me the rifle fires again and again. Bullets hit the trees around me like rocks.
I do not stop or look back. Death is as close as my next breath tonight. I run fast into the black night because I know this trail very well. Many times I have carried heavy loads of
along this trail, from the fields to my village.
“We will find you!” the soldier screams behind me. “Then we will kill you!”
Angelina cannot run anymore and so I carry her. I run even when I cannot breathe, because I am so scared. I do not stop until only the sounds of frogs and crickets fill the night behind me. Then, for the first time, I look back.
The world is not right. Above the trees, I see flames from my village jumping toward the stars. The night sky glows red as if it is burning.
BEFORE I TELL YOU
about my escape and about the cayuco, I must tell you first about myself. My name is Santiago Cruz. The village where I have lived all of my life is called Dos VÃas, a small village in the low mountains of Guatemala in Central America. My country is a very great country filled with the stone ruins of my forefathers, the ancient Maya. The old people whisper when they speak of the sacred ruins that reach up through the morning mist, because these places are still sacred.
I have not been to these places. The only place I know far away is the great Lake Izabal. I go to Lake Izabal because my uncle Ramos needs help to harvest his maÃz, the corn that we grow to make our tortillas. The mountains where I live are very green and beautiful, with forests so thick that we use machetes to cut our way along the paths. Always we carry machetes, because there are
many things in our country that can hurt us.
There are no roads or cars in Dos VÃas. We carry water from the streams and we use wood fires to cook. The sides of our mountains have green fields of maÃz and forests with many birds, like eagles, parrots, hummingbirds, and owls.
We love this land very much, but because my family is poor, we have only a few chickens and the maÃz that we grow. We are campesinos. That means we are country people. Life is hard for all campesinos, but it is even harder for us because we are also
, the first people. Our ancestors, the great Maya, lived in this country before the ships came with the Spanish. Even now many Spanish think they are better than us. This I do not understand.
Because walking is the only way to reach our village, we carry everything on our backs. Two times each year my uncle Ramos comes to our village to help us harvest our maÃz. That is why my father and I also go to Lake Izabal, where Uncle Ramos lives, to help him with his harvest.
When we go to help Uncle Ramos, we must walk from the mountains for three hours and then ride in the back of a truck for two more hours before we arrive at the
. The finca is the farm where Uncle Ramos lives. Near the finca on Lake Izabal, the cayuco of my uncle Ramos floats beside a small wood dock.
Cayucos are not big white plastic boats like the boats
that tourists use when they visit our country. Those boats are like large buildings that float. No, a cayuco is only a small kayak, a gray dugout boat made from a tree. The cayuco of Uncle Ramos is a sailing kayak as long as a pickup truck, but so narrow that I can reach and hold both sides. The cloth sail looks like the wing of a butterfly and is not very tall. I can reach the top with the paddle.
When I work in the fields with Uncle Ramos picking his maÃz, I stand many times to wipe sweat from my forehead. The sun burns like a great ball of fire in the empty sky, and I often stare down at the cool lake and at the cayuco that floats beside the small dock.
This cayuco is not like others that pass along the shore each day while I work. This one has a tall pole in the middle that lifts the sail, which is wrapped around a bottom pole that swings from side to side. I do not ask Uncle Ramos about the cayuco, because my father tells me there is not time for such questions. But I do not need permission to dream. I close my eyes, and I feel like a butterfly with the wind pushing me across the lake.
“Santiago!” shouts my father when he sees me stare at the cayuco during the day. “Work!”
And so I work hard each day. I do not think of the dirt that fills my nose, or the cuts on my hands, or the heat that makes the air like a giant oven. But I cannot stop myself from looking at the little cayuco that sits
alone beside the shore. It is as if the cayuco is waiting for me. Maybe it is because my family is so poor, maybe that is why I dream so much of sailing this boat. In my dreams, I am free to drift away like a cloud. But I do not think that such dreams can come true for poor people.
Always when I go home to the mountains, I make small toy cayucos with sails, but they do not work. If the wind blows, my cayucos tip over. One time when Uncle Ramos came to Dos VÃas to help us pick maÃz, he saw me trying to sail a toy cayuco in a shallow pool by the mountain stream. “This is why your cayuco tips over in the water,” he tells me. He helps me to move the sail forward, and he makes the sail so it can move from side to side.
“Where have you learned these things?” I ask.
“I once worked as a fisherman and as a sailor on the Pacific Coast,” he explains. “Before the war between the guerrillas and the military began.”
“Why do the guerrillas fight the soldiers?” I ask.
“The guerrillas are fighters who say they come to free our country.” Uncle Ramos shrugs. “We do not know if that is true.”
“Did they make you leave your home?” I ask.
“Not the guerrillas. It is the soldiers who want our land.”
“Can they take it?” I ask.
“Oh, yes. The soldiers work for the rich people,
. They can do anything they want. They tell us we
do not have titles for our landâa piece of paper that proves who is the owner. Well, a title is something many poor campesinos do not know about. The idea of owning land is a strange idea to us, because we do not think that a person can own land. Land belongs to everyone. The earth did not come to us with lines on the ground that said this part is yours and this part is mine. All people are equal. We all help each other and share what we have. This is the only way the indÃgenos can survive. So why do we need titles?
“Anyway, one day the soldiers come and tell me I will have a title to the land if I sign my fingerprint on a piece of paper. Because I cannot read, I must trust the soldiers. Later I find out I have signed a paper that says I will give away my land. This is the kind of trick that our government plays on poor people who cannot read.”
“Why do you not have a family now?” I ask.
Uncle Ramos swallows and looks far across the valley. “They are gone,” is all he will say. He takes the toy cayuco from my hands and smiles. “You must learn to read, Santiago. Then you will never do things you do not want to do. Now let me show you how to make your cayuco sail.”
That day, Uncle Ramos teaches me why a sailing cayuco is carved different than a regular one. The sharp front and long keel make it more steady passing through large waves. With thin string Uncle Ramos ties the sail so that my toy cayuco crosses the shallow pond sideways
to the wind. That for me is like magic. “Teach me more,” I beg.
“For that, you must learn to read,” Uncle Ramos says again.
“Can you read?” I ask.
Uncle Ramos nods. “Now I can. Losing everything has taught me that all indÃgena people must learn to read if they want to protect themselves. Our ignorance is our enemy's greatest weapon. Santiago, if you want to learn to read, maybe I can help you.”
That night, Uncle Ramos gives me a Spanish magazine about sailing. I hold my breath as I turn each page and stare at the bright-colored pictures of big and beautiful sailboats. All I can do is look at the pictures because I cannot read. But Uncle Ramos begins to teach me the sounds of the letters. Because I speak
like my family, I know very little Spanish. “This is very hard for me,” I tell Uncle Ramos.
Uncle Ramos smiles. “Then I must teach you more Spanish. Maybe someday you will go to school.” Before I can ask him where, he says, “Do you know that in the United States of America, all children go to school and learn to read and write?”
I shake my head. I do not know these things. It does not seem possible to me.
When Uncle Ramos leaves Dos VÃas, I do not forget the things he tells me. I did not know that my ignorance is a weapon to my enemies. Also I think more about
sailing. The magazine Uncle Ramos gave me becomes very special, and I guard it like a great treasure because it holds my dreams.
In our village of Dos VÃas, there is much work to do. Each day I begin at three in the morning and finish after dark. This does not stop my dreams. After the night's meal is finished, I use my machete to cut myself a strip of
. Ocote is a part of a pine tree that lights easily and burns very slow. With this for light, I sit against a tree and squint at the sailing pictures because the flame is very dim.
I practice saying the words and sentences Uncle Ramos has taught to me. I know words like
. But mostly I look at the pictures in the magazine and dream.
The next time we visit Uncle Ramos to help him harvest his maÃz, I want more than anything to sit in his cayuco. I am afraid to ask for this because there is much work to do, but maybe there is a time when I can go to the cayuco by myself.
One night, when I am very tired from a long day of work, I tell my father I want to sleep outside under the sky. “It is too hot to sleep inside,” I say.
If my father knows that I lie, he does not say anything. That night, after the breathing of my father and Uncle Ramos changes to snoring, and after the neighbor's dogs stop barking, I stand and walk quietly toward
the lake. I follow the fence to where the cattle are kept. The cows shift and moo as they hear me pass in the dark. From there, I follow the road until it reaches the shoreline. Then a rough trail takes me beside the water until I reach the small dock.
In the dark, the sailing cayuco does not look like a butterfly. It looks more like a monster waiting to attack me. I move very slowly now because I am scared. When I step onto the dock, the wood squeaks and it seems loud enough to wake up all the world. I am almost too scared to touch the cayuco, but then I crouch and crawl in. The water splashes against the side as I sit down. I shiver because I am so excited and afraid of what I am doing.
Carefully I lift the paddle and pretend to steer the boat across the waves. I move the paddle out and in, and pretend I am turning. On my right side there is a large board that can be lowered to keep the boat from blowing sideways. I think Uncle Ramos calls this the sideboard. A large pin must be pulled out to let it swing into the water on a big metal bolt. I reach and pull the pin. The board splashes down and I turn in the dark to see if anybody hears me.
Next I follow every rope with my fingers until I know where each one goes and what each one does. For a very long time, I sit in the dark and pretend to sail across the ocean. In my mind I sail over waves as big as hills. I dare to do many things that night, but I do not dare to raise the
sail. It is tied to the swinging sail poles with pieces of rope.
Finally, when I am so tired my head nods, I stand to climb from the cayuco.
“Are you afraid to raise the sail?” a deep voice asks from the dark.