Territorio Libre

Silvito faced the spray from the turquoise water and let his face, his hands, his shirt be soaked as the ferry plowed into the swells. He had never en toda su vida been on the ferry, gone to the City. He had heard los grandes say they were only going there so that they would have left Coral, dramatically, visibly, heading to the City, so that everyone in Coral would know where they were (or think they knew.)
Ine and Elba Luz habian hecho buenas migas, Mami Ines had said. They were sitting in the first row of plastic chairs bolted to the ferry's deck, their faces close together, talking and laughing de cosas de ninas. Que come mierdas! He didn't need them. Federico clung to Silvito's leg. He was a boy, but he was a baby. What did Silvito care? Already he could see the big skyscrapers sticking out from the distant shore like the teeth of his purple toy dinosaur.
Mami Rocio led them down the wide plank to where a dark skinned young woman stood waving at them. When the Mamis waved back she approached them. She said she was Rita, la prima de Abi. Everybody kissed everybody. Silvito wiped the kiss off his cheek. Besuqueos de mujeres. He breathed deep and pictured what was coming next, because they iban a donde los Papis. How they were going and where exactly they were going he hadn't been able to decipher by eavesdropping on the Mamis' talks with Abi and Don Limon. All he knew is that Dona Zoila was going to keep Casa Rocio going with Dona Erotida's help, with Don Rudy for cover. Yes, that's the word Abi had used, cover. The donas were to take on new guests if anybody showed up like a stray tourist looking for a bargain stay. Como si nada. As if la familia had gone to the City on a visit for a few days.
Elba Luz waved Silvito over. She studied her friend. He shrugged and fell back from where las tres mujeres were piling their duffel bags into the trunk of a beat up pale blue car. The driver jumped out to help them. He wore a baseball cap and had a long pony tail and a pointy short beard on his chin.
Elbita studied the couple. Abi had warned the Mamis when he walked them to the Ferry early that morning al amanecer that Rita and her novio Danielito lived together. It was the costumbre in the City, he said, marinovios, and probably, very soon, would become the costumbre in Coral as well. Elbi could hardly believe it. She had been told so many times by Dona Zoila that she should think twice about even kissing a novio. She watched Rita and Danielito in the front seat. Was this what a puta looked like? Danielito chatted on and on pointing out the big bridge between barrios norte and sur, the tall skyscraper, the prison where the incarcerated uprose each time there was an uprising in a prison in Karaya. He led them into a tall building in the middle of a block. Where the street dead ended several boys played soccer. They entered the building surrounded by other buildings just like it. Rita led them down a narrow hallway with lots of doorways, up a narrow staircase (three, whole flights), unlocked a door, moved a long pole that went from the door into a slot in the floor, waved her arm and got them all inside,
"Nuestra casa es su casa." Rita was grinning.
Inesita whispered into Elbi's ear. "Mira, una banadera." She pointed to a long narrow bathtub, right in the kitchen, alongside a small table. Rita removed newspapers and bags from the chairs and sat the Mamis down. Danielito put coffee into a flannel coffee sock and put water on to boil. The grandes sat around the table. The ninos walked into the adjoining room with a small couch in it, to the window looked and looked through the iron diamonds of a padlocked window gate. Through the slats of an iron ladder that hung from the outside of the building they watched the soccer game. How they wanted to ask for permiso to go play. They looked at each other. Not even Elbi dared.
When it was time to sleep los ninos shared the sofa bed. The Mamis put them down although they were not sleepy. They strained to overhear los grandes talking in the kitchen until at last sleep took them.

Morning was a chilly shock. Silvito couldn't believe they'd slept in their clothes and they didn't take a shower. They didn't even get breakfast. The little blue car took them to a different dock where all the grandes, (even Danielito), and the ninos were herded by Rita into one of several botes de recreo anchored there. From his eavesdropping he knew that they were not heading down river to open waters to fish, but rather, downriver to open waters and back to Karaya so that they could by stealth (Danielito's word), sneak back in, straight to the Territorio Libre. Almost straight. They anchored offshore but not on the Coral coast. Silvito shook with excitement as Danielito lowered him into a rubber dingy, and then Elbita, and then Inesita, and at last the Mamis, Fede, and Rita. Although nobody told the ninos they all knew. "Arrecife." Elbi mouthed the word. Not once, not ever in toda sus vidas had they ever gone there.
"Mira, un barrio de barcos." Elbi pointed to row upon row of anchored boats, an entire barrio of boats with narrow docks sticking into it like sidewalks. Beyond it was a seawall instead of a beach. Across from the seawall tall buildings, taller even than Rita's apartment building in the City, with lots of glass and balconies rose straight up. Between the seawall and the dock city clusters of small houses on high stilts were perched on arrecifes that were bone dry now. Danielito pointed to them. "Those corals are completely underwater at high tide and sometimes the seawater goes above the stilts. Suddently rocking chairs and pots and pans are floating out to sea."
Danielito tied the dingy. He climbed onto the dock and pulled the others ashore. Los ninos raced ahead on the narrow dock to the stilt houses. The Mamis let them. They were busy kissing Danielito and Rita goodbye.
They walked abreast, the Mamis by the road, the ninos by the seawall, on the famous Arrecife Seawalk. "Hiding in plain sight," Mami Ines said. Inesita tugged on her hand. She stared at her mother. If she was hiding that explained her disguise. She had never seen her mother wearing a vestido de salir, high heels. She almost never wore lipstick but today her lips were wine red. They walked on the wide sidewalk by the seawall past a block of enormous buildings. Silvito said nothing. He was consumed studying los grandes. Mami Rocio said the buildings with the wide steps and wide glass doors were casinos and when Elbita asked her what that was, she said, "Donde los tontos botan dinero."
Mami Ines pointed to a a big Cafeteria sign that looked like graffiti. The cafeteria with no walls was more like a big kiosko built into a widening of the sidewalk where the seawall made a turn. They all sat along one side of the square counter. They faced a high, rectangular table that held a long metal grill with three burners underneath. Behind where a young man in a white hat grilled half a dozen small whole fish, was the purple blue sea. Where were the turquoise waters of Playa Coral? This was what Silvito wondered and Elba Luz asked. Mami Rocio kissed her head. "It's the same island but a different ocean. Isn't that strange?"
The Mamis ate pescado frito and the ninos ate the skinniest, crispiest patty made of bread crumbs with a bit of who knew what meat, with crunchy fried potatoes on top. "Lo mas rico del mundo. Quiero mas." Inesita wanted more and Mami Ines let them all have seconds.They never ate out and if they did they of course never had seconds. After the best meal they ever ate en todas sus vidas, the the Mamis led the group along the seawall until they reached just the right street. How the Mamis knew exactly where to go Elba Luz couldn't imagine. They'd never been in this odd city before. An escalofrio of fear went up her spine. She took Mami Rocio's hand. With these Mamis it was easy to stop being frightened. They turned inland along a narrow street. Elbi screamed, "Igualita a la Calle Lucero." Inesita laughed. "Por eso se llama Calle Estrella." They walked in twos along the narrow sidewalk barely wide enough for four feet, past houses just like on Calle Lucero, made with thick mud brick walls and double wooden doors flush to the street. Just two blocks inland, close enough to the plaza de Arrecife that they could see the church spire, they were stopped by a young boy, not much older than Silvito.
Much as Elbita watched them, she could not see how it was the Mamis knew this boy, or knew to trust him. The boy's wiry sunburnt arms stuck out of his striped t-shirt and his strong thin legs stuck out. He said his name was Torito. He led them to a bus depot where they waited on a long line and after almost an hour all climbed onto a bus going to las Cuevas Haweye. Silvito stuck to Torito. He made sure to sit beside him on the very back row of the bus where they all squeezed in. The Mamis and Fede on the right, Silvito and Torito in the middle and las ninas, because everything better had to be for them, close to the window.
"Torito no puede ser tu nombre de verdad, verdad?" Silvito could not believe Torito could be anyone's real name. He asked just as the bus went down a steep hill and he and Torito slid out of their seats onto the aisle. They landed laughing. Silvito was dying to ask if Torito was a nombre de guerra like he'd heard the rebeldes had, but he didn't dare. Could a boy be a rebelde? Then why hadn't Papi Silvio taken him with him when he became a fugitivo?
This was the trip for frustrations. Silvito had gone to the City but he'd barely seen it. Gone to Arrecife and barely seen that. Now they entered a big hole in a wall of gray stone into a room as big as his whole house and Just when he was getting a good look at the drawings on the cave walls of spirals and creatures that looked like crocodiles and lizards and strange frogs Torito led them away from the throng of tourists down into a side path, dark and low. Cucarachas scurried under his feet and bats swooped over his head. Las ninas were right behind them, but they didn't scream so Silvito swallowed his own scream. The Mamis came last. Mama Ines carried Fede who began to cry. She gave him a huge lollipop and between licks he whimpered.
Elbita wanted to scream but she was not going to be the nina tonta, the one to give them away. She clutched Ines' hand. The passage got lower, narrower, darker. Was that water she was hearing? SHe'd heard of rios subterraneow and she did not want to be in one, or fall into one. She could barely breathe, not because there wasn't air but because she was afraid there was no air. "Respira lento," Mami Rocio said. "Respira lento. Todo tiene fin." Sometimes Mami knew just what Elbita was feeling. Was she a bruja?
"Mami, me muero, un segundo mas y me voy a morir." Mami spoke and her voice was smiling. Elbita wondered how a voice could smile. "Nina preciosa, sigue respirando. Todo tiene fin." Mami said to count her breaths to 100.
She was at 29 when she saw light. They'd been in the black passage for minutes or hours. Elbi couldn't tell. The light was dim and coming from a point as far from where they stood as their block on Calle Lucero. The narrow passage they'd been on was now a flatledge. The river she'd been hearing widened and Elbita could make out in the dim light the outline of three canoes. Up close she saw they were dug out of long tree trunks. Torito helped them into the biggest one. Silvito made sure to sit beside him. He put Mami Rocio in the front and then Mami Ines with Federico on her lap. Elbita sat with Inesita.
Inesita watched Torito propel the canoe with a single carved oar. He was very strong. In minutes they were in green light. He'd canoed them out of the cave into a narrow stretch of river. Sunlight filtered green through walls of thick jungle on either side. She felt theriver's swift current grip and move them. Torito touched the water with the paddle, lightly steering them. She looked up. Beyond the wall of green was a taller, deeper green and purple wall of mountains. She was inside the mountains at last, the ones she stared at over the patio wall in Casa Rocio. Suddenly, the bank widened, a few feet ahead of them she saw an expanse of turquoise water. Torito bellowed at the top of his lungs. "Territorio Libre."
The canoe entered the turquoise lake and up close Silvito saw several fishing boats anchored.
"En estas aguas no se puede nadar." Torito pointed to the middle of the lake. "Dice la gente que hay un monstruo pero no es verdad. Pero si hay tiburones." Silvito pulled his hand out of the water He waved to Elbi and Ine. "Dice Torito que hay Tiburones." The two girls let out sharp yells and pulled their hands out of the water. "No puede ser." Elbi leaned toward Silvito. "Como puede haber tiburones en un lago?"
After she spoke and nobody answered Elbita's full attention was drawn to the far shore. She could see houses scattered up the slope of a green mountain. As they drew closer she could make out bright rectangles, red, green, purple, turquoise, hot pink. When Silvito tied up the canoe he pointed to the houses. "Para alli vamos." They began their climb up a narrow path. Elbita walked alongside him. "Y esas puertas?"
"Los integrados las pintan para que todos sepan que son revolucionarios." Almost every house had a brightly painted door. Elbi saw that the doors had intricate designs. Some reminded her of snails of frogs or seashells. They were like the drawings on the Cuevas Haweye walls.
Torito laughed very loud and jumped up. "La historia nos ensena que no hay nada mas importante que la liberacion humana."
Elbita wanted to ask Torito if he had been born in the Territorio Libre or if he had come like they were all coming, with their Mamis to find their Papis.
They arrived at an open space surrounded by small houses and one taller, two story, adobe building with glorious, multicolored robes. Lightbulbs dangled from electric wire strung between trees and light posts formed a circle with a stage at one end. At once all the ninos, even Fede, saw the two men standing in the middle of the stage. They screamed, "Papi, Papi, Papi," and took off running.
Elbita and Silvito bounded up the plank stairs to the stage. Inesita followed with Fede in her arms. She clutched the young boy to her chest. His plump legs dangled below her knees.
Papi Adrian squatted and Elbita flung herself into his arms. "Papi, Papi, Papi." She looked deep into his dark brown eyes. Papi's full lips opened into a big grin. She touched the curly beard that covered his square chin. "Tu barba es mas oscura y rizada que tu pelo."
Silvito jumped and Papi Silvio hefted them into the air, spun him and set him down, then knelt to hug Inesita. He took Fede in his arms and stood. "Como vinieron?"
Mami Rocio and Mami Ines climbed onto the stage and stood watching the Papis and the ninos.
"Nos trajo Torito."
Papi Adrian held ELbita in one arm and wrapped the other around Rocio. "Es un nino prodigio."
Silvito spun in the center of the stage with his arms wide open. "Yo tambien quiero ser nino guerrillero."
Papi Adrian put Silvita down, picked up Silvito and spun the boy in the center of the stage. Elbita's heart flew out of her chest, tears gushed to her eyes. She closed her eyes. Silvito wasn't really Papi's son but he was a boy. Papi would much rather have a boy, a boy who could be a guerrillero. She scrunched her eyes, shut them as tight as she could, clenched her fists. She disappeared into the smallest possible spot way inside her darkness. She imagined that the sky was gone, the stage underneath was gone, She disappeared Papi with Silvito spinning in his arms, Mami, Mami Ines, Inesita holding Fede. What would be left of her? What was she? What was she when Mami didn't notice her and Papi chose Silvito? Was she made of air? She held her breath. What would happen? She fought the urge to breathe. She fell inside her own darkness.
"Despierta, despierta, Elbita, despierta." Mami's voice came from the edge of the blackness. Her mind washed in. Elbita was the shore and she was the flat waves for a few seconds before she was once again Elbita. She opened her eyes and she was cradled in the crook of Mami's folded legs, held in Mami's arms. They were sitting on the floor of the stage. The Papis, Mami Rocio, los ninos and Torito sat around her. Silvito had his face up close to hers. He whispered in her ear. "Te desmayaste de rabia."

The lights tree to tree were lit and among the hundreds of people gathered the cocuyos flitted making tiny sparks. Elbita looked up. There was no moon and there was no end to the stars. Los Papis y las Mamis stood close together at the foot of the stage. In the middle of the stage were some cantantes with guitars. Los ninos ran among the grandes, and along the edges of the gathering, among the trees, playing a los agarrados guerrilleros. Torito threw himself on the wet grass along the perimeter of the plaza and moved like a snake. "Nadie me ve, nadie me ve." Silvito dove down and followed in his path. Elbita and Inesita ran closer to the brook, squatted besideit and dipped their hands and then their arms up to their elbows into the water. Over the loudspeakers the words of the oradora came to her, "No podemos esperar a que la cosa se ponga buena para tener esperanzas." The oradora repeated her words in English, "We can't wait to be hopeful until things are getting better." Elbita was drawn to these words and wanted to see who said them. She took Inesita by the hand and walked to a big, round rock a few feet away. "Quiero ver." She climbed onto the rock and Inesita followed. La oradora was very tall and very black. She had long, black dreadlocks. She wore an olive green long sleeved shirt, and olive green pants. "Es una mujer guerrillera," Inesita said.
"Se llama Yabisi,"Torito pointed to the speaker, who was saying just as she yelled, "La esperanza es un acto politico, un acto de liberacion." "Es nuestra cacica."
After the rally Torito led them to a wooden house where they ate black beans and plantains and slept on narrow cots. He woke them with the dawn, fed them buttered bread and cafe con leche, and walked them to where men, women, and children milled on a line. "El funicular," Torito said. He packed all of them up again into what looked like a small car, without a motor and without wheels. He sat them all on the seats along the edges. "Strap down," he said in English. He helped them buckle themselves to the seat. When the car moved Elbita saw it hungfrom cables. It swung and lurched on the cables into the sky itself, into the space between the pico they had been on and another pico. "Es como el ferry, pero sin agua," Torito said. "Y eso es el fondo del mar." Elbita followed his gaze and looked down, to the far, far bottom of this waterless sea. She could just make out a bright green ribbon of river.
"Mira el paraiso." Inesita grabbed Elbita's hand. Elbita tore her gaze from the river and looked up. There was a wall of mountain coming toward them and on it were casitas and casonas, painted bright red, turquoise, deep yellow, magenta.
The funicular got closer. From where they sat in their swinging airborne car it looked like it might crash right into the wall of gorgeous buildings. Silvito yelled at the top of his lungs, "Mira, mira, es un mundo de ninos" They all saw it. Down below, hundreds of children were playing in a huge, outdoor field. There were dozens of soccer games, and round games, and tag games.
The funicular stopped at a platform built onto a natural ledge in the side of the pico. There was a far climb down many cases along the platform's three sides. Only now did los ninos notice that most of the people climbing down were ninos just like them.
When they reached the ground all the ninos ran toward where some grandes in green fatigue uniforms received them, gave them badges that said in red, turquoise, yellow, and magenta letters, Los Ninos Nacen Para Ser Felices
Elbita and Inesita ran to the biggest rueda rueda they had ever seen and were welcomed by two girls in magenta t-shirts and purple shorts. "Vengan, juegien. " The girls broke their circle and offered their hand. Torito took Silvito by the hand. They ran to the closest of the soccer games and were waved into the field by a boy who hugged Silvito. "Vengan compas."
A girl of eleven approached them, squatted by Fede. "Hola soy Gildita." She offered him her hand, Fede looked at Mami Ines then took Gildita's hand. They walked together toward a playground they had not yet noticed, shaded by an ancient, fat trunked tree.
"I played myself dizzy...hasta que me marie." Elbita spun and singsonged.
Within minutes they were departed again by a young woman in faded green fatigue shorts and t-shirt. Elbita studied her long black braids, two, very thick, all the way to her waist.
"Me llamo Exodo." She led them around the edge of the playground. "Where are the Mamis and the Papis and Fede?" Silvito tugged at her hand. "Donde estan." Exodo grinned. "Estan bien y ustedes tambien."
They were on the edge of a narrow cliff. "Esta es La Faldita." She pointed to the left. "There's el Marcito de los Tiburones.' She pointed straight down. They all held their breath at once. Way down there was a narrow strip of beach, turquoise water, and a sand bar that made a path to another, small island. "La Isla de los Ninos." They followed Exodo to where they only now noticed another funicular.
"It's like a roller coaster of the real world.." Elbita said.
Cars on the funicular passed them, each filled with waving children and one smiling grownup. Exodo led them into the next empty car. It swooped down past an enormous statue of Flor, la Madre de la Patria, covered in butterflies of every color made of paper. "Casi volamos." Silvito said. "Inesita sing-songed and they all joined in. "Volamos, volamos."