El Pico

I could barely breathe and still I put one foot in front of another on the ochre soil. I looked a few feet ahead of me and down to the ground and not at the wall of ochre mountain to my right, or the precipice to my left, the valley deep below where I knew I might catch a glimpse of La Morada and of the turquoise sea.
We had been walking for days, stopping at night in the maze of caves that opened from this Eastern side of El Pico, the side nobody but insane City rock climbers and rebels visited. It was said there had been rebels here for centuries and that some of them had perfected kite gliders inside which they could fly. Long ago I had constructed and painted the giant kites I imagined those archaic rebels had flown in. I pictured myself flying into the boundless sky. I looked down the cliff and thought I might vomit. I could not take one more step. The load on my back, bedroll, food, change of clothes, weapon, I pictured hurling it off my back into the bottomless ravine.
There was a call of “Alto.” I dare not stop. I'd never be able to move again. But I must. An order followed to move forward slowly. There was an expanse of a few yards of flatter ground and deeper vegetation. Those ahead of me had gathered around Fuego, the Comandante of this expedition. Fuego faced forward, his arms out from his chest as on a cross. Only when I turned a corner did I hear the percussion of automatic guns. I stood three men deep and swallowed the screams my throat was forming, bent forward and puked. I'll never erase what I was seeing.
We'd reached Cima, one of our destinations. But so had Jerez' army. We'd stumbled onto a massacre. Civilians had been lain on the ground on the narrow dirt street that must be the center of the caserio, and they were killing them as they lay.
My gaze fixed, froze, on the bodies from which blood, guts and life were seeping. Men, Women, Children.
The veterans in our troop were ahead of me and when Fuego gave the signal with his first shot, they opened fire. I did not think. I pointed my automatic rifle the way I'd done on the firing range, and fired.

It was not like in the movies because of the smell. We were downwind from blood and carnage. Why didn't we all just stop? Both sides. Drop the weapons. Insanity gripped our minds, arms, hands.
I saw a soldier take aim at a little girl who looked like my wife's second cousin Lydia who lived with us, like my neighbor Tina. She lay on the ground belly down, just feet from where I stood. Relampago bolted ahead, jumped the soldier from behind, wrestled him down, kicked the gun away. Tina was his sister. But then the remaining soldiers had surrendered to Fuego's fusillade and his command. I knelt beside Tomas, Relampago, and took him in my arms. The little girl he saved sat motionless, staring ahead, past her rescuer. Tremors coursed through her body. Tomas pulled away from me and extended his arms to her. She crawled into them, closed her eyes, held her fists to her ears and shook.
Fuego and his two tenientes Cueva and Amanecer were lining up the soldiers, cupping their hands behind them, stripping them of any weapons they'd retained, knives strapped to their ankles, grenades strung at their waists, guns hidden in their boots.
War was homicide. Homicide was insanity. Exploitation and oppression were war. How did we untangle these threads? Where did we cut the chains? How did we humans manage not to scream in rage and terror all night, all day?
Cueva and Amanecer led the prisoners into one of the thatch roofed houses, close to the cliffside, away from the river. I lay on a hammock watching Relampago bring up their rear. I looked straight up through the branches at the sky. So many stars! Adela would be curled on their bed now, around her belly, cradling Pulgarcito in his private sea. The dog Clotilde would be curled up against her back. I felt the pierce of her aloneness. I remembered our first night together, right in the main house while her uncle Nestor and Aunt Matilde were away, not yet imagining we would one day live together as man and wife in what would have been the maid's quarters of the once grand (now fighting shabbiness) mansion. We made love on the tile floor. First we tried my tiny apartment in Ciudad Vieja. My. roommate was in. We wandered around Ciudad Vieja holding hands, and ended up leaning against the ancient wall of El Castillo on a flat expanse of lawn a few yards from where the cliff fell off toward the sea below, kissing and drinking bootleg rum from El Pico. And then Adela remembered her uncle and aunt and cousins were gone to the campo for a week. Adela knew they never locked the back door. We'd necked on the bus all the way there and ended up on the cool tile floor of their living room reluctant to use any of their beds. Little did we imagine that night that we would one day be living in what would have been their maid's room and that I would have my studio in their shed. Afterwards we lay on the hammock in the back porch holding hands and telling our stories, reconstructing them in the light of our meeting that redeemed each of our previous pains. Those pains had all been leading to this, we'd thought. We were each other's fairy princess and prince.
And now here I was, swallowing this bitter drink. I did not want to be here. Not in this place not with these people. Not in this moment. In captivity. Captive to my own choices.
And still the beauty of the night sky lulled me. I betrayed my pain, the pain that certified my loyalty. It wasn't possible to sustain pain forever and I surrendered to this now. I rose from the hammock, carefully sat up into its center and lowered my legs and walked to where several of the men sat around a small fire.
I looked at the redlit faces around the fire and I listened. I was not alone. Here was the closeness I had longed for as a little boy, had glimpses of then with our inseparable crew led by Carifeo, but had never found in my groups as an adult. Was it only that after the terror came the bond? Ice cold alienation snaked around my wind pipe. I did not belong. I was an impostor. I longed now to run home to hide. I longed for Adela. For Pulgarcito. After what I'd seen today would I ever reenter that other world. If I lived...
“You've got to be ready to die and I'm not...” Those were the first murmured words of Relampago's Noel heard. Omar leaned toward him. “None of us fully is. We need both to be ready to die and to want to live.” I wanted neither...or the wrong want came to me at the wrong moment. I rose and made my way to my hammock, cocooned myself, gazed at the sky and wanted my life to be other than at war. I made my mind form Adela's face so I wouldn't forget it. Made her face inside my own, eyes to eyes, until I slept.

I woke up with the morning birds and found my way through the brush to the river. I pulled the rope I'd hung from a sturdy branch a few days before, straddled the knot , crossed my thighs, hugged the rope against my chest and I flew. I flew. My body remembered! I floated over the glistening, smooth water. It had been more than two decades since I'd done this, maybe from this very tree, with Carifeo, long before he was Maximo. I could hear our boy yelps and war cries now, in my mind's ear. My body remembered the movement. My mind remembered the elation.
I flew and at the peak of the propulsion I let go, soared for a split second and then felt my feet slice the mountain cold water. I let my body sink, opened my eyes inside water, turtle green from the bottom silt my body displaced. I swam a few strokes underwater, looking at the smooth long stones of the river bed I'd imagined as a boy were petrified crocodiles. I shuddered from my boy terror that they were merely sleeping and might any moment wake and strike. Then I knifed to the surface and gulped air. I swam to the shore and climbed the bank, humming all the way to the camp. I'd have to spend the rest of the day in wet clothes but didn't care.

“Where the fuck were you?”Comandane Omar's voice felt like a punch to the gut. I was five years old. Omar was Abuelo venting wrath, towering, terrifying. “We're striking camp.” I saw the others had rolled their hammocks and cooking tins into their shredded plastic rain tarps. The ashes had been raked into the ground and covered with strewn branches.
“We're not playing war.” Noel saw a flicker of fear in Omar's eyes. The terror of the powerful. Did every action he did not control appear a challenge? I held his gaze. I wanted to go flying, is what I wanted to say. I didn't. Omar stepped toward me. “This is not la Capital, for armpit revolutionaries with a book in your sobaco. Insubordination here means somebody can die.” He looked at the other men, standing at attention, their gazes on the ground. No gazes shared his, validated his outrage. I saw his gaze harden and then give it up. The Comandante spun on his heel and left them all standing. Relampago ran to my hammock, loosed it, quickly packed my gear. “You're wet,” he said after he set the load on my back.
We trudged through the jungle alongside the river along a narrow path being hacked out of the dense wall of foliage by Fuego in the lead. Like walking through matter, a thought only Adela would understand. I wanted to be left alone for months in my studio painting through this wall, and the one I was being pushed through in my mind. I was afraid to be led by a man who felt cornered and was frightened himself. I wished I hadn't seen Omar's terror. It should have made me know he's human, feel closer but instead, it made me afraid. What a time to discover I actually imagined my leaders were better than me, invulnerable. Hadn't I known better given my father who vanished and my battering grandfather? Had I seen Abuelo's terror as a boy? I must have. Here was the origin of my terrible aloneness. Adela once had said, “I had to be my own mother and you had to be your own father.” Now I began to understand what she meant.
I could barely raise my legs. I could tell through the dome of branches the sun was overhead, noon. Still we marched. The prisoners in the middle, just behind me. Omar, Volcan, didn't order us to stop. We had no food so there was no purpose in stopping. I sank into myself and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Misunderstood. Omar feels misunderstood like I feel misunderstood. Only nightfall made him at last stop the march. Thank God for night. Relampago helped me set up my hammock and then set up his own a few feet closer to the river bank.
Fuego produced a small jutia he'd killed sometime during the trek. He squatted in a small clearing of the brush, skinned the rodent, gutted it. I watched from where I hung between two trees too tired for hunger. I'd been made to be here and now I was dying. Relampago handed me a small piece of the roasted rodent flesh. I chewed the smoky sweet meat slowly and then the world went black.
I dreamt of deserting. In my dream I wandered off from the rear as the others moved forward, and was able to find my way to El Bajio where Abuelo's thatch house was not razed flat by the Mano Blanca (as it had been in the waking nightmare that was life), but was the way it was in my childhood. I saw it all: the picture of the Sagrado Corazon against the dark brown planks. I used to watch that picture, to catch the heart pulsing, In this dream it pulsed at last. A boy much like myself lay sleeping in a cot along the riverside wall, where he could hear the cooking sounds and smell the cooking smells from the kitchen, coal burners on a table on the other side of the wall. In the dream I thought I would bring Adela and Pulgarcito to this world, which according to the dream, was my real world. My dreaming mind thought this just as Maximo burst into the dream room. They shoot deserters. This dream thought shook me with terror and I woke up to the first paleness of dawn, before the pink. Through the branches I watched the pale sea shell orange tint spread across the sky.
Why was I here? But this was a very old thought that was always with me, had been with me as a boy in El Bajio a,s an adolescent in the Ctty, when I lay beside Adela. God forgive me, the thought never left me for one breath now that I was a conscript of the insurgence.
Adela said it wasn't my fault, “The lot of the colonized, survivors of genocide, wage enslaved....” But I didn't understand. I watched Relampago and Fuego build the morning fire. I couldn't make out their words but heard their laughter. Did they have no doubts? At least for this one moment, they had no doubts.
I lay on my belly. I gasped. How long had I forgotten to breathe? All the making ready had been for this. And I didn't want to die. Maximo said all the training was so that I didn't care whether or not I lived or died. And yet, I cared for life.
There had been a gunshot. Maximo's gun. An ambush we set, a battle we began. I kept my face close to the ground, breathing dirt. I thought of kickball games in the school yard in the City. How I wished the concrete would split like in sci fi movies and swallow me, que me tragara la tierra, before a ball was kicked my way.
My job was to cover Relampago whose job was to run to the wooden shed that was actually an arsenal for the Mano Blanca, guarded by a boy whose face I could clearly see. He wasn't ready to die either. The boy had just now seen Relampago approach. Relampago, my same neighbor Tomas who'd offered me a blunt one late night of insomnia when I had been standing sleepless at my studio door. He'd seen me as he prowled behind our adjoining houses trying to sneak into his home by the kitchen door. I took a toke, the first in years. We'd sat on my rockers which we took out into the patio, rocking and watching dawn slowly begin to pink the blue gray sky.
I could see the boy, the Mano Blanca's dupe, aim at Tomas. I aimed. I fired. I hit just above the Mano Blanca boy's head. I wanted to hit anything, anywhere so as not to kill. The boy dropped his weapon and Relampago reached the shed. We took the cache of weapons and the boy.

I assumed my position guarding the back of our weapons cache which was dug into the ground and should have looked like I was guarding nothing at all. Somebody died but it wasn't me. Diluvio whom I barely knew. Very young. Someone Relampago, Tomas, brought in. “Not madera de lider,” Fuego was saying. This was later and we were sitting by our small fire. We'd cooked a tiny rodent and were sharing its tiny limbs. I listened as Fuego went on. “He smelled of fear. You didn't want to stand too close to him.” Fuego didn't often talk about the men. Lluvia laughe. “He was too scared to pay attention so he walked into that bullet.” He crunched on the tiny rodent bone. I sighec. “Surae wish I could believe there was something I could do to avoid that bullet with my name on it.” After I spoke there was a long silence and at last Maximo sent us all to bed.

This was the safe place. The spot under the cupola of branches where his hammock was tied between two trunks was that were stronger, it seemed than their width had promised. The trees were narrower than Adela's tiny waist (before Pulgarcito set up camp inside her). I'd notched the bark for each day here wanting to keep track of her pregnancy, not able to fully imagine how her waist would swell. I'd known aunts and cousins who'd been not pregnant, pregnant, then not pregnant again and barely noticed them. I'd cherished Adela pregnancy, our shared pregnancy, feeling the child growing inside me as well as in her. I clenched my fists. This was taken from me, from her, from our child, our Pulgarcito, our boy. I felt burnt by rage. Who did I hate more, Jerez, the City, colonization. Did I hate Carifeo, the fool who held me captive here? There were many forms of captivity. Or in a world held captive by imperialism isomorphism dictated that all states implied a captivity. Or this was the human condition, flesh captive to mind, mind captive to flesh.
Overhead clouds parted and the sliver of moon emerged. I took a deep breath. Adela's friend Marina, half Venturan, half Islander and City bred, had told us once after dinner as we sat in the patiecito in the rockers watching her son Machi and Adela's little cousin Lydia run in circles, that she used to dream perfect words and the words vanished the moment she awoke just as she was about to capture them. The pain of losing the words made her want to not be a poet but a revolutionary instead, she'd said, whatever that had meant. I'd never wanted to be anything other than a painter. I'd been captured into being a revolutionary. So then what was I?
Tomorrow we will bury Diluvio whose birth name I never knew. Would his mother, his sweetheart know he's dead? Would they ever know where his body lay feeding sap to what trees? I breathed deep and my mind found whatever is more real than mind. I sank into that reality for a few breaths. I welcomed its welcome. I felt Adela and Pulgarcito had arrived in the mind free place too, we would all arrive there now and then, and in that place we remained one, united, together. My eyes filled with tears, joy and pain at once.

Pre dawn ambush
Predictably, a ragged troop of Jerez' troops announced its approach. They were predictable because they never strayed from the trodden paths of El Pico or those its bulldozers had broadened to admit yipis and tanks. Their mechanical rumble announced them as did their air cover. Technology gave them away. My job as usual was to cover Relampago who called out, “Alto, Territorio Libre. No hay paso,” as Fuego shot the air from behind. This time the young City Force Sargento dropped his weapon and raised his arms. We joked that battles with no shooting were best but taking prisoners was tiring. Relampago led. Fuego took the rear. And I marched alongside the disarmed caqui clad guardias.
The others commandeered the huge cars, loaded the weapons onto them and maneuvered them in front and behind the rest of us on foot. We walked for hours until we reached Punta Gorda, as close to our camp as vehicles could go. I saw the third guardia on the line bend down, fish a gun strapped to his calf and aim it at Relalmpago. Not thinking I shot it from his hand. I saw the terror in the guardia's eyes but didn't kill him. Let Carifeo decide.
This terror was like the holographic terrors of my civilian life but naked and sharp. All along this had been itssource, war. Here it was exposed, original. But it was all war. That was what life in capitalism was, a kind of invisible shrapnel that rained on everybody all the time. Those unendurable and inexplicable morning terrors of civilian life that I had to believe didn't afflict only me were the pulsing and bleeding from the shrapnel we couldn't see.

I awoke to the terrible din of music. Probably Tomas, Relampago, accidentally unplugged his earphones from his boombox. I swung my legs from my hammock, landed them on the ground and eased my butt off the hammock. I looked straight ahead and saw a girl step out of Fuego's tent. I caught her eye not meaning to and she averted her gaze. She wore fatigues. I remembered her, the campesina daughter of the peasant who had sheltered us just beyond El Bajio. Had she joined, or been robada? I walked to the river. She was already there, washing herself, washing off the traces of fuego. I could only see her head. She squatted in the shallow water behind a mound of stones. I shrugged. After I'd killed (I didn't know that any of the deaths had been from my bullets so I took responsibility for all of them), I no longer judged. I had tolerance for human flaws.
I squatted where the water spilled over the banks and formed a shallow pool, far enough away that she couldn't see me. I stripped and slid into the waters of the Guacabon. The cold hurt just for a moment but now I had tolerance for pain. Then I sat on a flat stone in a shaft of sunlight until I was dry enough to dress. I faced a narrow path I knew led to El Bajio. It wouldn't be impossible to get from this East Slope of El Pico to the more inhabited slope, El Bajio, where Carifeo and I grew up. I could find my grandfather's old place. From there I might reach the Eco-Preserve, or the ashram. I might take shelter in any one of those places. I might let myself be rescued by City tourists. I pictured myself walking down the narrow sidewalk to my house, turning onto the cracked concrete driveway, walking on the weeds pushing through the cracks. I saw each detail, the bougainvillea arbor Adela's aunt Marcela slaved over, the barren dust patches by the door to our small apartment that would have belonged to a maid or a cook for the wealthy family who once had owned this house. Adela's spindly plants could never bloom there. I saw the turned up red dirt where the stray dog Adela rescued buried goat hooves she found in one of her escapes back to the street. I saw Adela standing at our door. I saw her eyes willing to hold their questions, able to show pure joy that I was home. I saw myself kiss her lips and drop onto my knees to hug her belly. Pulgarcito, his life engulfed by invisible shrapnel but still protected in the sea of her womb. I felt tears on my cheeks.
I heard gunshots. I turned to where the girl now stood, her eyes huge with terror. I wanted to run into the river path. Instead I slowly climbed back to camp. The girl, Zoila she said her name waas, close beside me. Two rebel bodies lay belly down in the small clearing where our campfire had been. I stoped short and held Zoila back with my arm. We had no weapons.
There was another burst of shots from the brush. I jumpled flat onto the ground and brought Zoila down with me.
“Tiren las armas.” Fuego's voice. I'd constructed the story wrong. We'd won. Even ambushed (and without me...I laughed to myself...)we had won. God must be on our side.

The lights of El Bajio, like set diamonds, glowed way below in the break between the dense weave of trees surrounding us since we made the turn at Revuelta and began our descent from the East slope of El Pico toward El Bajio. That way lay La Morada, la carretera, my home. But I was not the free invulnerable deserter of my reverie. We had set off after Fuego decreed we were burnt and ordered us to break camp. His troops and prisoners guessed where we were heading as soon as we sawa the lookout at La Revuelta. As we approached patriotic music reached us broken into bits by cliffs and wind.
The anniversary. The anniversary of El Grito. El Grito del Bajio. For it had been from El Bajio thata the men and one woman, Tomasa Monte, had launched their assault, their attempted assault, on the barracks ata El Presidio almost 120 years ago.
Gritos were the cries of that hidden war, the places where the veil was torn and the war poked through on our terms. Gritos stood stood against the shrapnel, contradicted it., if even for one instant, like the broken sounds now reaching us through the trees.
Relampago brought Zoila with us. She kept up with the march and knew the paths. She walked just ahead of me. I watched her learn to walk with her new boots. We reached the rally and stood together listening to Carifeo whom I recognized even with a red bandanna covering his face. He spoke from the tarima. Fuego had his arm around Zoila's waist.I stared at him. I held back an urge to shake him, punch him. “What are you going to do with her? For her? She thinks you're serious. But are you? She's an inocente. She wanted a mate, a helpmate, a partner.” I addede Fuego to the long list of my enemies, those I'd thrown out of the human circle. In the dim yellow light from the bulbs strung around the plaza of El Bajio I saw Fuego's head bend down as Zoila tilted hers back. I saw them kiss. An innocent, loving kiss. Who was I tu judge their love? For a second I saw through this ancient drone my mind endlessly replayed. Long ago, had it been true? Had I been surrounded by enemies as a boy? My mother had been my original enemy. Or I thought she was because she was the one who left me to my abuelos in El Bajio so she could go Norte, to the City. I remembered sistting by the dry well, leaning against the splintery wood that framed it, hiding from El Abueolo who wanted me to help set out the cafe to dry, sitting there feeling a pierce of longing for Mami and then willing the hatred, making myself hate her, my enemy. Only years later I learned it had been Papi who'd been the villain. My Abuela sat me down in the kitchen and began to rant about all men, worst of all my father who knocked her daughter up then left her to go Norte but never came home. Who had anogther woman and anothe3r family by the time my mother saved up enough to follow him. Another enemy.
I clenched and unclenched my hands. “Revolution needs making. It is a kind of work. Our work,” Carifeo, Comandante Maximo, said from the tarima. Was that just the same drama on a larger stage? Did I truly care for justice? Did I leave my family to fight for justice? Or was I another vanishing man, another abandoner, perpetuating the contagion of abandonment and betrayal as I reenacted my revenges against those who betrayed me?

I pushed through the crowd. A rally. Big enough to get lost in. Like the others, like Maximo, I wore a bandanna over the lower half of my face like movie cowboys. As I went deeper into the crowd I looked at their rapt faces fixed on the tarima and saw I was unseen. I allowed the bandanna to slip down. Maybe ten minutes later I heard my name spoken in a near whisper close to m y left ear. I turned and I saw Sonia and Marina, Adela's coworkers, wearing long dresses and wrapped in striped shawls. “We're at the ashram, at the Spa Manantial.” Marina got right up close to me. “Adela se esta volviendo loca.” Sonia grabbed my hand and hugged me. “Jerez is hanbging by a thread. He's getting pushed out. La cosa esta cambiando. We're getting thousands of calls at InfoDesaparecidos.”
I stood unmoving, taking in these women, their excited, enchanting goodness I'd never seen before.
“We gave her a shower for the baby. We tell her life goes on. You can't fall apart, mujer. Now you're a mother.”
“Tell her I'm alive. I'm well. I think of them night and day. I haven't forgotten them. I didn't go with the rebeldes by choice. I was on a Mano Blanca list.”
“She remembers the blue car.”
I will never understand why I didn't simply join them, hide in the trunk of their car. Why I didn't let them abduct me back to my old life the same way I was abducted away from it.
Marina said, “This peace caravan has been marching its way through the villages of El Pico. We've come three times. El Partido sends delegations. Adela came twice. She never said, but we knew she was hoping for this miracle, that she'd find you. You were either detained or with the rebeldes and we'd heard rumors.” She shoved his shoulder hard. “Hijo de puta no pudiste avisarle a tu mujer encinta?”
I looked down to hide my shame, my tears. “Of course I sent word. What do you think I am? They told me they told her as much as they could tell her of where I was and that I was alive.”
Sonia shoved me from the other side. “No te hagas el inocente. Ahora te vienes con nosotras. No se que excusa tienes.”
I recognized Relampago's hand pulling me away. I looked into his eyes. I could choose to seimpluy leave him, leave them, go with the women. Relampago would let me desert. I didn't move for two long breaths. Relampago shook his head. Or did he. Why didn't I take the chance to escape. I turned to the women one last time but they were gone. Opportunity was bald, my mother always said, and you had to catch it by the hair.

Carifeo didn't tell us we were heading to the Refugee Camp nor why. I'd stopped asking or trying to figure out why he did what he did, took us where he took us. Relampago overheard while standing outside one of the makeshift shelters where he was guarding Maximo, a meetingbetween him and a Clandestino about a new Declaration calling for Jerez to step down, and a combined plan between the clandestinos and the alzados in El Pico to attack Jerez Palacio de Gobernacion.
Cese de Fuego. The Peace Caravan was calling for a complete cease fire. Relampago told me his news where we lay, wound into our hammocks close to the ground over a hollow made by the roots of two facing trees. We said nothing for awhile. A cese would mean we could go home but I wanted to and Relampago did not.
Early the next morning screams awoke us just as the sky was beginning to go pink. We sat up, grabbed our weapons. Relampago held me back. From our hollow we saw the massacre we were powerless to stop. Our only options were to hide or die. The paramilitares had circled the Camp and shot into the structures made from poles and Refugee Administration issued canvas. A woman who ran out of a shelter straight ahead from us locked her gaze with mind and was felled. Her three year old daughter clutched her mother's knees and was felled beside her. I couldn't save them I was too afraid to die myself. Relampago's choice came from wisdom, mine from terror.
We waited until sundown to make sure the paramilitares were gone and then we walked among the dead. Maximo and the Clandestino were not among them. We dragged the bodies to the center of the regugio, a small clearing used for meetings and distributions of supplies. Tears poured from my eyes. I saw the shot out eyes of a little girl, like Lydia. I bent over to vomit. My body moved on without my mind, tenderly laying the bodies. In the end we counted 45.
We had no orders but after other massacres Maximo had ordered mass cremations. There were too many bodies for burials, too much danger of disease felling whomever the bullets had spared. Without speaking we walked the woods, gathered branches, built a pyre. We scavenged the through the warehouse tent and found a red tin with kerosene. Noel stood poised with a lit torch. “Reza.” Relampago bowed his head. He began to chant one of his lyrics.
“Nos quieren para matarnos, nos tienen para matarnos, pero no nos van a vencer, no nos ban a vencer.”
Noel set fire to the pyre and joined Relampago's chant. “They have us so they can kill us. They want so so they can kill us. And we refuse defeat. We refuse defeat.”

Relampago left me standing guard by the smoldering pyre. There were skulls and bones and bits of flesh that the fire had not yet burnt down. Relampago would scavenge for gasoline and round up other survivors who must have hidden in the hills. He had to find Maximo, Carifeo. I sat by the ashes. The skulls. The bones. So much death I could not take it in. I didn't want to. “No somos nada.” I thought of Domingo, the man who had killed, the man little Lydia's mother ran away with. He'd been forever marked by just one killing. How many bodies had my bullets ripped apart from their souls? What was it to be alive? Where did life reside? I'd seen dead body upon dead body, some had a lifelike glint in their eyes, a trick of the light. I could take the life out but not put it back in.
I sat for hours waiting for Relampago. Late afternoon bled into night. The smoke from the pyre created a fierce red sunset. I didn't move. I faded, became porous and coreless. Had I ever been this alone?
My mother had told me the story of my birth. Maybe then, right at birth, I had been this alone. But that had been her aloneness. I'd been born into her aloneness. She'd traveled to the Captial to find my father, her husband. When she arrived at his family's, long, deep house in Old Town she was told by his mother, who should have been her mother-in-law, that Vicente had already gone to the City a buscar ambiente. He'd just left the day before. The old woman Serafina, and my mother Damasa, sat in cane seat rocking chairs, in the dark front room, shuttered against the night. “La oportunidad la pintan calva y hay que agarrarla por el pelo,” Serafina said. She said this with a bit of compassion. It was her explanation for why Vicente hadn't bothered to come to El Bajio before he left. Through a friend of his father Manuel, Vicentico had gotten a free berth on a merchant ship in exchange for labor because at the last minute a crew member had gotten sick. “There wasn't time to say goodbye. He dreams of sending for you.” But Damasa my mother didn't believe her. Vicente didn't dream of sending for them. His dream was to run away. At last he'd gone to the City.
Damasa lay on a folding bed that Serafina opened and pushed against the wall of the room Vicentico had been sleeping in, his brothers' room. The three young men shared one bed. They seldom came in to sleep. They worked nights, or partied in Old Town's many dives. It had been the eldest of the brothers, Manolito, arriving from his night shift with the Old Town police, who heard Damasa moaning by herself, facing the wall, curled around her huge belly and alerted his mother with one of his police officer bellows.”Serafina. Ustedes las mujeres estand dormidas.” Of course they were asleep. His mother rose and at once woke the three sisters from the bed they shared in the room across the hall. Manolito bellowed again. “Mama, Julia, Juana y Josefa, levantense que esta mujer esta al parir.”
He borrowed a car from a neighbor who used it as an illegal taxi and was glad to have Manolita owe him. Serafina and the eldest Julia each stuck a shoulder under one of Damasa's armpits, let her lean on them almost full weight, pushed her into the car, and piled in on either side of her. Juana and Josefa got into the front seat with Manolita who started the car and drove madly fast while the sisters and Serafina mocked my mother's ignorance of all things female, such as holding on to a man and giving birth.
She gave birth moments after arriving, barely made it to a room. “You tore me open when you were born.” How many times did I hear her say those words? I pictured myself placed into the unloved and loveless arms of Damasa. I'd been born into aloneness, into the brittle air of an unwelcoming world.
Just then I heard the moan. I turned. A man had crawled to where I sat. He was drained of color, probably drained of blood. He clasped my hand and fixed his cloudy gaze on mine. He was about to die. He had not wanted to die alone. I let his cold hand clutch mine, burning now. My whole body burned. Where did the dead go? Did we live in an atmosphere made of expirations, in a sea of ghosts? As soon as he expired the man's face settled into an expression I imagined showed peace. I sat him down, pulled him onto the pyre.
I now knew exactly what I must do. I found enough kerosene to torch the body. I watched it burn, trying to pray, praying as best I could pray. And then I set off in the direction of the Manantial Paraiso.
I don't know how many hours later I walked in on Carifeo and Relampago sitting in the thermal baths. “Hombre, duchate y metete.” Carifeo was happy to see me. I did as I was ordered. I stripped and stood naked oin the cold shower then eaased my body into the hot spring. I sant into the water up to my neck, closed my eyes, and forgot the world for the next few breaths. Raging at these two idiots could wait. Telling them that I was leaving, going awol, deserting, defecting, committing treason...going to my wife before she like Damasa had to give birth by herself...could wait.
I opened my eyes and the huge full moon hung overhead. I'd walked from one night to the next. I'd stopped to sleep for a few hours in the house of a peasant who fed me rice and yuca and beans. But mostly, I'd walked. The charnel ground faded from my memory. Was it possible to be human and hold on to the memory, the knowledge, of death?
I turned to look at Carifeo, Comandante Maximo. He was looking at me, smiling.
“Jerez has been assassinated.”
I couldn't take this in.
“He was assassinated only because the City wants him dead. Wants a change. His successor is David Robles Garrido, his deputy. He was shot as he left his mistress' gated mansion at five in the morning, the same morning of the masacre del refugio del Bajio.
“Robles' first action, and this is how you know the City wanted Jerez dead, was to reestablish las garantias.”
I must have looked bewildered because Relampago shook me. “Do you understand? You can go home.”
I slept. Carifeo and Relampago led me to a clean bed in a small cabin. I could hear the river. I slept. Next morning when Carifeo, Relampago and I sat down to eat I saw Sonia and Marina in the dining room of the Spa Manatial Paraiso having a breakfast of miso broth.
As if I was among the living I let myself be herded into Sonia's car. I said almost nothing on the drive back to El Llano. My eyes devoured the jungle road, reclaimed the familiar, delighted in the pastel houses of La Morada. I shook when cars zoomed past, terrified by their speed.
Not wanting to intrude, Marina dropped me off at the corner of my old street. I walked slowly on the newly paved sidewalk. Despite the war Adela's Tio Nestor had kept on building. How would he do under Robles Garrido? Probably not as well as he'd done under Jerez.
Adela stood at the end of the driveeway, just in front of the door to my old studio, tossing a red frisbee to Lydia. The dog Clotilde leapt straight up and caught it mid-air. Adela's belly was huge. I turned onto the path. For an instant, just before she turned and saw me, I pictured myself in her gaze, gaunt, bearded, tanned, a stranger. I should have thought to shave.
But now Adela was turning to face me. Lydia was screaming. “Noel, Noel, Noel.” Adela's smile was the reason to paint human faces I'd never understood til now. I let myself be held.