Authors: Ben Mikaelsen
WHEN WE RIDE
the horse away from Los Santos, my mind is numb. I tell myself I must be careful. I must be awake when I ride. Even at night there are guerrillas and soldiers on these paths. So I make the horse walk. My ears listen to every sound the night makes.
From here it will take one hour of riding to reach the town of Chollo. That is where I must leave the horse and find a truck that goes to Lake Izabal.
I feel sorry for Angelina. Her young mind does not yet understand what has happened. I know I will need to explain this night to her sometime, but tonight I am not sure I understand myself what has happened.
We ride on narrow paths across many fields, through valleys, and across steep ridges. Angelina taps my shoulder. “I want to go home,” she says.
I think carefully before I tell her, “We are going
home.” This is true, because when you have no home, any place new can be home.
When I think we cannot ride the bony horse another step, I hear the sound of dance music. Ahead is Chollo, a busy town with electricity, cars, much noise, and garbage in the streets. Even in the middle of the night, there is the noise of trucks and music. Before I see the lights, I smell the smoke of motors.
It is too far to ride a horse from here to Lake Izabal, so before I reach Chollo, I get off and help Angelina to the ground. I wrap the halter rope around the horse's neck so it will not tangle, then I slap the horse hard and he gallops into the dark. He will make some lucky person a good horse.
After the horse disappears, I hope I have done what is right. It is too dark to look at the compass in my pocket, but I look up at the sky and find the North Star. That is the star that Uncle Ramos has told me will lead a sailor to the United States of America. Tonight the star must stay behind me if I want to go south and find Lake Izabal.
We do not have any money to ride a bus, and it is very dangerous to travel alone in the middle of the night with a little sister. All that I can do is wait near the
on the edge of Chollo. Here the trucks stop for food. I must find a truck to hide in.
I watch as a truck stops that has wood stacked high. The next truck has many chickens in cages. I let myself
think that maybe Angelina and I can ride with the chickens, but then I think, no, Angelina will cry. Two buses go past. And then a truck stops that is carrying dried cobs of maÃz. A canvas tarp covers the truck's big box.
“Do you want to go ride with some maÃz?” I ask Angelina.
“I want to go home,” she says stubbornly. Her bottom lip sticks out when she speaks like this.
“I think if you ride with me in the maÃz, we will find home,” I tell her.
Slowly Angelina lets me lead her through the shadows of the buildings until we are close to the truck. I kneel beside Angelina. “Listen very carefully,” I tell her. “I need to go make room in the maÃz. You wait here until I am ready. When I wave to you, run to me. Okay?”
“Stay right here until you see me wave,” I say again more strongly.
Again she nods, and I let go of her hand. There is nobody in the street, so I run fast across the dim road until the shadow of the truck hides me. I look back, and Angelina waits patiently. Quickly I crawl up on the truck and pull the tarp to one side. The back is almost filled with dried cobs of maÃz but there is room to ride. I turn and wave for Angelina to come.
She sees me and starts to walk toward the truck. When she is halfway across the street, a man walks around the corner of the building. I whisper very loud to
Angelina, “Hurry!” but she stops and stares at the person. “Come!” I whisper, as loud as I dare.
But Angelina stands and watches the man, who is drunk. He carries a bottle in his hand and stumbles as he walks. He stops and looks at Angelina with glassy eyes. I run to the middle of the street and grab Angelina's hand. She is scared as I pull her across the street. “We must hurry or we cannot ride with the maÃz,” I tell her. Quickly I lift her high into the back of the truck, then crawl up myself and pull the tarp back over us.
We wait quietly in the dark. It is hard to breathe, but Angelina does not complain. “It is like we are hiding,” she says, her voice filled with mischief.
I smile in the dark. “Yes, it is like we are hiding,” I whisper. “So we must be quiet.”
We wait a long time. This is something that is very hard for a little girl. I am almost ready to lift the tarp for some fresh air when I hear the driver open the door and climb in. The motor starts. A loud grinding sound makes the truck jerk forward, and then we pull onto the dirt road. Soon wind blows under the tarp, and the dust from the road and the maÃz makes us close our eyes. Because of the wind and engine noise, I dare talk to Angelina.
“Nobody else is lucky enough to ride with us in this truck of maÃz,” I tell her. My words hold a sad truth.
“I am hungry,” she says.
“You are so lucky,” I tell her. I push my hand through the maÃz until I find a cob that is not as dry as the rest.
“Here,” I say, putting it in her hands.
“I want tortillas and frijoles,” she says.
“Let me look,” I say. I pretend to dig into the maÃz again to look. I shake my head. “The last people who rode with the maÃz have eaten all the tortillas and frijoles. They must be pigs not to leave some for my sister, Angelina.”
Angelina giggles. “Pigs in the maÃz,” she says. “We will make up a song called âPigs in the MaÃz.'”
And so we make up a song. Angelina sings as she chews on the cob. Each time the truck slows, I place my fingers gently over her mouth. I do not have to press hard. She has learned now she must be quiet.
“I am thirsty,” she says.
Again I pretend to look through the maÃz. “You know what?” I say, acting surprised.
“I know, I know,” she says. “The pigs drank everything, too.”
I lift the tarp a little to look outside when we go through each town. Some towns I remember and some I do not. I remember Boca del Monte. Later maybe it is La Cumbre and San Pedro Cadenas that we pass. The road is very dusty and I pull my shirt over my mouth. Angelina uses her dirty red dress to cover her mouth.
Late in the night the road to Lake Izabal becomes black tar and there is not so much dust. Angelina falls asleep. I am glad for her. I wish that I, too, could fall asleep this night. I did not know that when the sun went
down yesterday, by morning all of my family would be gone except Angelina. And now I am in a truck of maÃz near Lake Izabal. Our world has changed so much. My father was right when he told me that changes do not always ask our permission.
When we pass the town of Semax, I know that Lake Izabal is close. I watch carefully now because we must jump from the truck before it stops in the big city called Fronteras. From there another road leaves and follows the shore around the lake. In cities there are many lights and I know somebody might see us. I let Angelina sleep more. She will need all the sleep she can find.
Me, I am not so tired, but I feel empty inside and I feel very old. I pull the tarp back and lift my head to look forward. The lights of Fronteras shine ahead. This night scares me. What if somebody sees us when we enter the city? What if they catch Angelina and me? What will they do to us?
I wake Angelina up. “Now is the most exciting part of our ride,” I tell her. “If we get down from the truck of maÃz after it stops, it will be boring. So I think we should jump off when it is still moving, okay?”
She rubs at her sleepy eyes with the back of her tight fists and looks forward into the wind. The city is closer now. I keep looking ahead. We cannot jump going this fast, so I wait. When the truck begins to slow, it shifts gears. The engine growls. As we enter Fronteras I see only two people walking beside the road because it is
very late in the night.
I wait for the truck to slow just a little more, and then I throw back the tarp all the way. I grab Angelina by the waist and lift her over the edge. I hold her under one arm as I crawl down the back of the truck to where I can jump. I hope the truck driver does not see me.
Angelina holds my neck so tight that it is hard to breathe. This is okay because I am all she has to hold on to.
Then I jump.
I try to land on my feet but we are going too fast. We fall hard. Angelina lands on top of me and does not hit the road, but I lose the air in my chest and scrape skin from my arm and shoulder. For a little time I lie still and hope I have not broken a bone. Then Angelina asks, “Can we do that again?”
I stand and hope the driver does not see us in his mirror. “I'm sorry, we can only do that once,” I tell Angelina. Quickly I take her hand and cross the street. My arm and shoulder burn with pain, but after what has happened this night, the pain is nothing.
Angelina turns and waves good-bye to the truck.
“Who did you wave to?” I ask.
“To the pigs in the maÃz,” she answers.
I AM NOT SURE
what time it is as I stand on the street of Fronteras holding Angelina's hand. This night is like a long black cave that has no end. The roosters crow, so it cannot be long before the sun rises. I know we are in great danger if we are still in the city when morning comes. Soldiers hunt down and kill people who have seen what they do.
Quickly I walk three blocks to where the road enters the city from Lake Izabal. No trucks drive the road this early, but this is the road that will take me to the home of Uncle Ramos thirty kilometers away. I see only skinny stray dogs digging through the garbage that is everywhere in this place. This city has smoke and garbage and truck motors. These things hide the sounds and the smells of the forest.
Angelina walks by my side. Her big eyes stare away
into the dark as if she is lost or dazed. Maybe she is both. Her long black hair is matted and tangled. We walk along the road until I see a pickup truck parked in front of a house. There are tall sides on the pickup made of tree branches, like a cage without a top. The motor still runs, so maybe the driver will be back soon. I do not know if he goes to Lake Izabal, but the pickup faces that direction. I walk Angelina across the street near the pickup and we stand in the dark shadows waiting.
We do not stand there long before a truck comes toward us. Good, I think. Maybe we can ride in this truck. But when the truck slows, I see it is filled with soldiers. It is easy to see the soldiers because there is light in the street and they are standing up in the back of the truck like cows. Maybe these are the same soldiers that attacked Dos VÃas. The truck stops very close to us, close enough that I can see their faces. The soldiers begin to climb out.
I do not have time to think. I know only that very soon one of them will see us. Maybe they will know who we are. As fast as I can, I lift Angelina into the back of the pickup and crawl in behind her. “Lie down,” I tell her. There is no time to make up a nice story, so I hold my hand over her mouth.
I do not know what we lie on, only that it is soft and wet. And then I smell horse dung. I know now that the pickup has hauled many horses. There is nothing I can do. The soldiers are walking toward us. Their loud voices
complain about the night and about their long ride. I think I hear one soldier say something about Dos VÃas.
Now they walk beside the pickup. I do not dare breathe. If even one soldier looks through the branches into the pickup, he will see us. I hope that Angelina does not move.
Now I am glad for the darkness. I think something protects us because soon the voices of the soldiers pass. Very soon I hear the driver of the pickup come out from the house and crawl into the front. He drives away from the house fast. He looks many times over his shoulder at the soldiers. I think that maybe he is afraid, too. That is why he does not see us. He keeps driving toward Lake Izabal.
“We are lying in mud,” Angelina whispers to me. “Like pigs.”
“Yes,” I say. “Like pigs.” I do not want Angelina to get up or place her face in the horse dung, so I say, “We will roll over and look up at the stars.”
As we lie on our backs and stare at the sky, I feel something wrong with the pickup. It speeds up, then slows down, and then swerves left and right on the road. I think maybe the driver is drunk.
“Why do we keep turning?” Angelina asks. “It makes me sick.”
“The man is a very nice man,” I say. “He tries to make our ride more fun.”
“You smell like a horse,” she says.
I smile and watch the stars swing back and forth above me in the sky. “Yes,” I say. “I smell like a horse and so do you because we have been riding a horse tonight.” I hope she does not ask about the horse dung under us.
The pickup keeps turning and swaying and soon I, too, feel sick. I sit up to breathe fresh air, then I must crawl to the back to throw up again and again onto the passing road. When I lie down once more, I look to make sure the driver has not seen me, then I look over at Angelina and see that she is falling asleep.
Angelina has a gentle look on her small face, a look that tells me her thoughts are good. I do not know how this can be, after what has happened. I wish that I, too, could fall asleep and forget the bad. But there are many things to wish for. I wish the driver was not drunk. I wish my horse ride down from the mountains with Angelina was only for fun. More than anything I wish that the gunshots from this night were only firecrackers. If these things could be true, then maybe this night would be only a dream.
Until now the night has given me only time to escape and take care of Angelina. There has been no time to think about myself. Now with stars looking down at me, I have time to think of what has happened and it scares me. All of my life my mother has told me, “Santiago, you are very big and very handsome. You are braver than any boy in Dos VÃas.”
I think now that she is wrong. Tonight I feel very
small and I want to hide. Many bad things have happened that should not happen to people. This night has known much fear, and it is not over. Still I must get Angelina off this pickup and into the home of Uncle Ramos before there is light.
I am not sure I remember where Uncle Ramos lived. When I traveled with my father, I was looking around me at everything that was new. I was not thinking, “Okay, here we must turn this way or now we must turn that way.” But now I am scared. Why did I not watch better? Maybe already we have gone too far. What if this drunk driver takes me to a different place I do not know? What if he crashes?
I stare out the side of the pickup into the night to find where I am. Many fields, homes, and buildings pass us. I do not remember any of them, but a dim moonlight shines on the lake. It makes me feel good. If I take the road too far, I know it will go away from the lake.
For many kilometers we travel. The driver keeps turning and changing his speed. Two times we almost go off the road. Maybe he is falling asleep. I decide I must get Angelina out of this pickup even if we do not reach the home of Uncle Ramos. Here in Guatemala many people die in accidents because of bad roads and because of drinking. But how do I make the driver stop? I look around me and try to think. The long night makes my thoughts numb.
In the dark we pass a waterfall near the road, and
suddenly I remember. There is a waterfall on the road not far from the home of Uncle Ramos. This I do remember. Now I must stop the pickup fast, but how? If I throw horse dung over the front onto the windshield, maybe the driver will stop, but he will catch us. A flat tire will stop him, but I cannot think how to make a tire lose air. All I have is a pickup full of horse dung and very little time.
Then I think of another idea. I stay low and crawl carefully to the back. I reach my hand out between the branches and feel along the side of the pickup for the cap where gas is added. The driver swerves again. This time he almost leaves the road. This wakes Angelina. She looks around and sees me reaching outside the pickup.
I hold my finger to my mouth, then wave my hand for her to crawl to my side. As she reaches my side, I find the gas cap and twist it off. I hand the cap to Angelina. “Hold this,” I whisper. I pick up a handful of horse dung and push it into the gas hole. As I reach for more, Angelina whispers, “What are you doing?”
“I am putting mud in the gas tank.”
Angelina watches me with big tired eyes. “Why?”
“Because it is time to stop, and I do not think a motor runs very well on mud,” I whisper.
I stuff many handfuls of horse dung in the tank and wait for the motor to stop. Angelina reaches down with her little fingers and gives me more horse dung. I smile. “Thank you,” I say. I do not know very much about
motors, but a motor cannot run very long with horse dung in the gas. Then, like a shadow, the road into the home of Uncle Ramos passes us in the night.
I work faster, and the pickup swerves more. Angelina hands me horse dung so fast she starts to throw it at me and giggle. I point at the driver and put a finger to my lips again.
Suddenly the motor coughs and slows. I stuff one more handful of dung into the tank for good luck, then I grab Angelina's hand and pull her under my arm so I am ready to jump.
“Can we jump again?” Angelina asks.
I nod as the motor coughs harder and the pickup slows. “But be quiet,” I tell Angelina. “If you are very quiet, I will jump out of the back again.”
As the pickup rolls to a stop, I jump, holding Angelina by the waist under one arm. I land on my feet and run fast into the night, away from the pickup and back toward the home of Uncle Ramos. My family is too poor to wear shoes, and so my feet have become very tough. Still the gravel hurts my feet when I run. Behind us the engine coughs one last time and then quits. I lower Angelina to the ground and we run some more.
When we stop to let Angelina rest, I hear the drunk driver behind us swearing very loudly. I wonder what he will do when the sun comes up and he finds what has happened? I think this drunk man will grow very old and still not know how horse dung filled his gas tank. But
maybe what I did this night has saved his life.
The crickets have stopped making their noise, and the stars above me have grown dim when I finally reach the road that leads to where Uncle Ramos once lived. Now it is only one kilometer more. I walk fast because everywhere in this country there are eyes that can see us and tell the soldiers. We do not stop except to go to the bathroom.
At last, in the gray morning darkness, we find the small hut, made with slabs of wood and palm leaves for a roof. There is a door with wire wrapped around a nail to keep out the dogs and chickens. I unwrap the wire. Then we are safely inside, and I close the door. Standing in the dark, it is as if a weight greater than the whole world has lifted from my body.
“We made it, Angelina,” I say with a tired voice.
“I did not have fun when you jumped,” she says.
“Why?” I ask.
She giggles. “Because we did not fall over.”
I hug Angelina, and I laugh, maybe because I have been so scared during the night. “Next time we will fall over,” I promise her.
It is too dark to see around the small room, so I feel with my hands until I find Uncle Ramos's bed. In our village of Dos VÃas always we sleep on the ground on
, woven grass mats. My mother taught me that the earth is our true mother and that we must be close to her. Because of this we do not use chairs. At home we sit and
eat on petates and we sleep on petates. Why should we be far from our mother?
But now I am more tired than I have ever been, and I find no petates. I do not think it will hurt to sleep one night on a soft mattress. Mother Earth will understand. I lead Angelina to the bed. “We will sleep here,” I say.
“Okay,” she says, and crawls onto the bed in the dark.
I lie down, too tired to think.
“Here,” Angelina says, tapping my side.
“What?” I ask, forcing my eyes open.
She holds out her hand. I feel for her hand in the dark. In her small fingers she is still holding the gas cap.