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Authors: Héctor Tobar

The Tattooed Soldier (28 page)

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Lopez seemed to find something amusing in what their new captain was saying. Longoria had no idea what could be so funny, since the captain was giving the men a pep talk about the enemy, which had been active in this area.

“Half of these subversives don't even have guns. None of them have uniforms. They carry sticks into battle, or machetes. Sometimes they try to throw little bags of lime into your eyes.”

At this Lopez laughed, a brief chuckle the captain didn't seem to notice.

“They have nothing. We will crush them.”

The captain was a thin man whose fair skin had turned pink in the sun. He was in his early twenties and clean-shaven, with fresh razor cuts on his cheeks and chin. “They're called the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres for a reason,” he continued. “They're all poor, they don't have any guns. Hardly any. They're a bunch of sissies, these guerrillas. We won't have any problems.”

They were to patrol the road north of town. March out ten kilometers and check for subversive activity. Come back, eat, enjoy a good meal. Extra meat this time because they were real soldiers now and they were protecting the fatherland.

Longoria had been told to keep a good five meters between himself and the men in front of him and behind him: “Protection against an ambush, so the whole company isn't wiped out. Don't stay bunched together.”

The road was gravel, a meandering carpet of tiny gray pebbles. Lopez marched the requisite distance ahead, faintly whistling a song, sometimes singing the words softly.
“Mami, el negro está rabioso…”
This was the time of year when the
campesinos
grew bean plants around the cornstalks, the thin green strings coiling around the stiff axis. There were twirling threads of bean plants on either side of the road as the company marched up a slight grade toward the mountains. Longoria had tended to bean plants since before he could remember. It was what he would be doing right now if he weren't in this green uniform, walking gingerly on the gravel with his new boots, the first he'd ever owned in his life. He felt lucky. Marching wasn't so hard; only the city boys couldn't take it. Lopez, he guessed, had some
campesino
in him, because his step was unwavering. This soldier's work was easy compared to working on the land.

Longoria was near the middle of a serpentine line of soldiers that stretched more than one hundred yards down the highway when they came under fire, clap-clap-clap, the forest of sickly pine trees on the ridge above them breaking into a round of applause. The guerrillas were behind those trees somewhere, spitting bullets at Longoria and the men around him. He kissed the ground, becoming intimate with the pine needles and pebbles, wondering what it would feel like if a bullet hit him. Alvaro, his friend since boot camp, was lying on his stomach the regulation five meters away, his cheek pressed to the dirt as it had been pressed to Longoria's during their dance.

Longoria wondered how he would find the courage to stand up and follow the example of their captain, who was advancing up the slope toward the ridge and the bullets. After a minute or so the shooting stopped. Then the trees and branches began to speak.

“The army is a bunch of faggots! Imperialist stooges! You do it with your mothers!”


Your
mother!” the captain shouted back. “Communist pigs! Come out and fight!”

“The gringos give it to you up the ass!” said the voice in the woods. “Faggots!”

“Surrender. Come with us, fight for good!” said another voice, in broken, Indian-accented Spanish. “Fight for the poor!”

Several members of the company began to laugh.

“Learn to speak Spanish, you stupid Indian!”

“How much are the Russians paying you?” one of the soldiers cried out. “You
maricas.
How many Cubans are there with you?”

Longoria heard a whistling over his head, followed seconds later by a rifle report ringing across the treetops.

To his left, Lopez rose to a squat, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Turco! Is that you?” he yelled at the trees. “Turco Gómez, from Gualán! That has to be you!”

“Who's that?” the voice from the ridge called back.

“I knew it was him,” Lopez said to the men next to him. “Turco! It's me! Mauricio! From the Coca-Cola factory!”

A long silence followed. Lopez cupped his hands to speak again, a wide grin on his face, like a child teasing a classmate in the schoolyard. “Hey, Turco, what are you doing over there fighting with those delinquents?”

Another long silence, and then: “I don't know any Mauricio!” Two shots rang out from the trees.

“Advance, you idiots,” the captain yelled. “Advance. Into the woods.”

Crouching, he began to move up the slope in a duck walk, taking cover against a tree trunk, then moving forward a little more to the next tree. The enlisted men followed in frightened imitation, a flock of ducklings in camouflage trailing behind their mother.

The sporadic shooting from the ridge grew into a steady barrage. It was Longoria's first real piss-your-pants moment. He raised his gun, fired blindly, and started running uphill. The shooting stopped again, and all Longoria could hear was the anxious rush of air through his windpipe and the pounding of his heart.

He reached the top of the slope and stood where the enemy had been. His unit searched the ridge, kicking at the ground and its bed of pine needles, but found only scattered shell casings. The guerrillas appeared to have escaped down a small valley to the west, into a thick cornfield. Or perhaps they had gone east, toward the next hill, and dissolved into another cluster of trees.

“They ran away,” a soldier called out. “We won!”

“Don't be a fool,” his sergeant said. “They always run away. That's how they fight.”

“Hey,
capitán
, we have a casualty down here,” yelled one of the men from the bottom of the slope.

Just a few yards from the embankment where Longoria had first taken cover from the sniper fire, a man lay face down, machine gun at his side. Longoria rushed down the hill, sliding on the loose dirt. The soldier who had called for help turned the wounded man over. It was Alvaro. Blood had seeped over his forehead from a wound that seemed to be behind the ear. A hand reached down to his belly.

“What bad luck,” the soldier said. “No one else was even wounded, and this guy takes two hits.”

“Rare Marxist metal,” Lopez whispered to Longoria. “Somebody better tell the captain that the Communists have a secret weapon. Sticks that shoot bullets!”

Grabbing a tarp, Longoria, Lopez, and two other soldiers carried Alvaro hammock-style down the gravel road to a clearing, where they waited for a helicopter. In all likelihood Alvaro was already dead, though there was no medic in the company and no one felt like taking his pulse. The color had drained from his face, the blood on his forehead was a brown crust. His features looked twisted, as if he had swallowed something bitter. After they set him down, Longoria tried not to look at his friend, tried not to remember that he had been forced to dance with him in the barracks. The rest of the company stood around them, oblivious to their only casualty, talking and waving their arms, reenacting the day's brief battle in elaborate pantomimes, already spinning tall tales.

They lifted Alvaro into the metal craft and climbed inside, airborne in an instant, rising high over the treetops in a quick swoop and bank. It was Longoria's first flight of any kind. Passing over the village where the march had begun, they headed for the base in Huehuetenango. Alvaro lay motionless on the floor, his expression unchanged. Longoria felt sad that he couldn't open his eyes to enjoy the drama and rush of the helicopter ride. Alvaro was a
campesino
too, and he would have enjoyed seeing the fields from this perspective, seeing how small their little plots of land looked when you climbed hundreds of feet in the sky. This helicopter ride made all the humiliation of boot camp worthwhile. Longoria could see the pilot in the glass cocoon of the cockpit, wearing an astronaut's round helmet with wires and microphones attached. They were in a machine in the air, only the spinning wings above them holding all this equipment in the sky.

“I've never flown before,” Lopez shouted over the roar of the engine, beaming as he gestured at the verdant panorama below.

“Me neither.”

Longoria would forever be grateful to the army for allowing him to fly in the air, carried aloft by the pulse of the engine, like a heartbeat, hundreds and hundreds of feet above the fields. In the helicopter he could see who he had been before he joined the army and what he was now. He could see that when you worked a plot of land there were dozens, no, hundreds and thousands more like it all around you. For the first time, he could see where he fit in the world.

The helicopter ride lasted barely twenty minutes. How was it, he wondered, that such narrow spinning blades could keep so much metal afloat, lift so many people into the air? It was over too soon. Longoria and a medic lowered Alvaro onto a gurney, and he was quickly wheeled away.

Lopez asked if he and Longoria could take the helicopter to rejoin their unit, but the medic said they would have to go back in a truck. Alone on a soccer field, they watched the helicopter take off, the blades of grass around them leaning back as if in awe of the swirling machine that rose and disappeared into blue. Longoria was very disappointed.

*   *   *

Longoria pushed past Lopez into the living room. Musty clothes were scattered like fungi across the floor. A tall cabinet stood empty of a set of imitation china that he remembered vaguely. Bright patches of paint on the dusty walls bore witness to missing picture frames. Longoria was stunned; someone had looted Lopez's house, stolen all his property. This had been a room crowded with furniture, the requisite studio portraits of mother, father, and children on the wall. Now there was only a squat coffee table and a rumpled, blanket-covered couch.


Hombre
, what happened? Were you robbed.”

Longoria searched his friend's face for answers. Lopez seemed a little more alert but still not fully himself. Longoria shook him by the shoulder, then grabbed his chin.

“Wake up,
cabrón.
It's four o'clock. What's wrong with you? Are you drunk? Just because they stole your things doesn't mean you should be drinking. Where's your wife, anyway? She probably left because you got drunk, right? Come on, wake up.”

“Get me some water,” Lopez said finally. “My throat is dry.”

Stepping over the clothes in the living room, Longoria went to the kitchen, found a plastic Donald Duck cup in the sink, and filled it with tap water.

Lopez drank the water in one gulp and took a seat on the couch. He said nothing, but his jaw worked steadily, as if he were chewing gum. On the coffee table a small platoon of amber bottles stood at attention. Longoria examined the labels. Milligrams and pharmaceutical commandments. Take with food. Don't operate heavy machinery, Mellaril. Cogentin. Four times a day. Three times a day. May cause drowsiness. Lopez's name on each bottle.

“All these pills,” Longoria said. “What are you taking so many pills for?”

“I've been sick.” Lopez was sitting on the couch awkwardly, trying to hold himself erect, as if he were occupying his body for the first time.

“Sick?”

“The pills help me. They really help me a lot. What's the word the doctor used? I forget the word.
Estabilizar.
They stabilize me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The doctor convinced me. I didn't want to believe at first, but he showed me. I met him in the hospital. He's a really nice doctor.
Un negro.
He told me the pills would make me feel better, and they do. I just have to sleep more now.”

Longoria examined the bottles again, wondering what illness his friend suffered. Maybe he'd had some accident at work; being a mechanic had its risks. The house was deserted, as far as Longoria could tell. The last time he was here, children played in this living room, the smell of home-cooked
plátanos fritos
drifted in from the kitchen.

“I didn't know you were in the hospital,” Longoria said.

“It was after Dahlia left me, after she left with the baby.” Lopez stopped abruptly, as if someone else had spoken and presented him with this information for the first time.

“The baby? What about the other one? What about your boy?”

“Dahlia left me and then I went to the hospital. Or maybe it was before. She took the baby.”

“But where's Mauricio junior?”

“He's dead.”

“What?”

“Didn't you know?”

“No! When? What happened?”

“Dahlia left me,” Lopez repeated. “I don't blame her. She did the right thing. I hit her. Cuts and everything. So she left me.”

“Wait. How did your son die?”

Lopez buried his face in his hands, tears escaping underneath his palms, slipping down his cheeks. Longoria had never seen his friend cry. Lopez was a Jaguar. Longoria vividly remembered marching behind him through jungles and over mountains, marching for miles and miles with his eyes trained on Lopez's boots, which never slowed because the man was either too stubborn or too stupid to admit he was exhausted. Now he was this other person, a man who cried.
I was here just a few months ago and he was fine.

Disgusted, Longoria left him alone and wandered around the house, searching for clues that might explain what had happened. The kitchen smelled of spoiled milk and garbage. The backyard was littered with beer cans, toys, pieces of scrap wood, and an old weightlifting bench whose red plastic seat had faded and cracked in the sun. Back in the house, he discovered women's clothing and more toys scattered in the bedrooms. He went out on the porch and looked around the neighborhood.

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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