Santuario (Inesita, Silvito, Elbita y Tania)

Los ninos felt all along the wall in the dark. They tried every inch of it that they could reach. First they were anxious, then they were full-blown terrified. They were heading for the monjas' the way the Padre had instructed them. They came inside la casa vieja de la loma and they thought this was it, what the Padre had called their santuario until it was dark enough to walk outside. Instead they were here. The door they came in locked behind them. "Silvito, we're trapped." Inesita's whisper echoed in the huge, pitch black space. What if we never get out?" Silvito grunted. "It's broken." He gave out a loud yelp. "The wall is broken." He said the words again but the second time he whooped. "I can put my arm through. We found an exit."
Silvito wiggled his small dark brown body through the hole. He reached back and took his little sister Ines' hand and eased her out. Her slender body slithered through. She opened her eyes wide. "No, no, no, no." She whispered the words and started to sob. Elbita pushed herself out last. She wiped brick dust off her face and shook it off her braids. After all that darkness the light hurt their eyes. They were in a big courtyard with high red walls. They looked around. There was no gate visible on any of the three high walls of the courtyard. "No, no, no." Inesita screamed the words. "We can't be trapped again."

They'd been running for one whole day, ever since the Guardia had come for Silvito's Papi and Mami Ines sent them out of the kitchen where they'd been eating con calma, a delicious meal of corn fritters and fish Papi Silvio had brought in that morning. She said, "Go to la iglesia, the padre will hide you." Silvito clutched Mami's hand. "Y tu?" She shoved him out the back door. "Don't worry about me, m'hijito."
He took the two girls' hands. In seconds their eyes got used to the dark. They ran down the long patio to the flat ledge that overlooked the Rio Guacabon. Silvito knew the best way to climb down the smooth round rocks of the river bank. He played there every day. He led his little sister Inesita and his best friend Elbita down to the very edge of the water. It was a moonless night and they were lit by the thick blanket of stars over them, myriads and myriads of glittering stars. They trotted in the dark along a path on the bank of the Guacabon that had been worn by many feet over many years.
Silvito pounded on the back door of the Parish house. The worn wooden door shook. Padre Ezequiel looked down at them and stepped aside. "Entren ninos." His voice was raspy and kind. He took them into the kitchen, sat them at the long wooden table, poured them glasses of milk, and gave them chewy molasses cookies.
"Mami dice que nos tiene que esconder. Will you hide us the way Mami said you would?" Inesita's voice trembled. Silvito dragged his chair close and put his arm around his hermanita. "Please hide us. They took Papi. Se volvieron a llevar a mi Papa."
Elbita let out a soft cry. "The Guardias took him and my Mami doesn't know where I am." Padre Ezequiel looked down at the girl. "I will tell your mother I've sent you to the monjas." He strode out of the room in his long black sotana. He'd just finished with the evening mass. He returned with a small green cloth sack, walked over to the blue tiled counter close to the sink, reached into a fruit basket and filled the sack with oranges. There was half a loaf of pan de manteca on a plate. He tossed it into the bag. He reached into a cabinet under the sink and pulled out three olive green cantimploras. The children recognized them from when the Padre took them camping in El Pico. He filled each one with water from the red ceramic filtro by the sink. He squatted beside them and looked each one in the eyes. The Padre had a long, brown face with a little black beard on his chin. He was very skinny and up close his eyes, behind the round lenses of his wire framed glasses, were almost black and very bright. "Tomen." He gave each of them a cantimplora. He gave the sack to Silvito. "You're the oldest." He told them to go back to the Guacabon bank and keep walking until they came to la casa vieja de la loma. By then it should be daylight. They should stay there, inside that casa de espantos, until it was dark again, and then keep going until they got to the Convento del Perpetuo Socorro. "Ese es el santuario. Esas monjas son mis amigas."

The three children huddled in the courtyard where they thought nobody who chanced to look over the fence could see them. They sat against one of the walls under the thatched roof that extended from a weathered, wooden shed attached to the building. They squeezed in between one wall of the shed and a huge stack of black wood coal. "Como fuimos a dar aqui?" Inesita shook. "How did we end up here?" Silvito studied the shed's door. If they needed to they could probably find something, a rock, a piece of brick, to break the padlock.
Inesita grabbed Silvito's shoulders and shook him hard. "How did this happen? We were following you." Silvito broke into tears. "This is the house I play in. Only this time the door locked behind us. We're lucky we found that opening, but I've never even seen this patio. Lo siento. I was doing my best. Me van a tener que perdonar." Neither Inesita or Elbita said a word but they nestled closer into Silvito and he let out a deep sigh. "You're going to have to forgive me because now we have to sit here and think. Just how are we going to get out of this patio?"
The shed door creaked. Elbita swallowed a scream. Silvito jumped up. Inesita bellowed. Out stepped a very dirty little girl with short black hair, matted with dirt, and black streaks on her dark brown face. She wore a threadbare t-shirt and baggy jeans tied at her waist with a string. She had a small sack tied to her waist.
"Callense. Shut up. First thing is you learn to not make noise. You learn that good after you see your Papi get shot because you cried. Los mando Padre Ezequiel?"
"Como te llamas?" Inesita came closer to the girl. "Yo soy Inesita, y esta es Elbita, y aquel es Silvito."
"Soy Tania." The new girl was shorter than all of them although she acted like she was older and mandaba mas. "What a bossy girl." Silvito spoke under his breath but they all heard him. Tania turned around and gave him a huge grin that made her features different, warm and friendly. "Tania, if you took a bath you would maybe be pretty." Silvito had never said words like this to a girl. She laughed. "Tengo que mandar. Sino mando me matan. I like to be a bossy girl. You don't know how many times I would have been killed already if I wasn't mandona."
She waved them toward the pile of wood coal and wiggled her tiny body between the coal and the wall. Up close the black mass became a weave of branches. "Siganme." Her voice was muffled. "Follow me, ninos." Silvito sent Inesita in first. She pressed herself against the wall and disappeared into the coals. Elbita was taller and had to bend down, push hard. Some of the coal fell off the pile and Silvito set it along the bottom because it would surely fall again when he pushed in.
Inside the wood pile there was a domed space, nearly pitch black except for one or two slivers of light among the coal branches. It took their eyes awhile to get used to the darkness. They sat and shook, all except Tania. "No sean miedosos. Scaredy cats! A mi ya se me olvido como tener miedo. You have to be like me and forget how to be afraid." They were huddled in the dark in a burrow inside the pile of wood coal. Tania brought her coal smeared face close to Elbita's. "I learned to stop being scared after I saw my Papi die. If you're still scared the rebels won't let you into the Territorio Libre." She brought her lips close to Elbita's ear and hissed out her words in a terrible whisper. "Or if they let you in they make you get injections in your tongue." Tania leaned away. "That will cure you of being scared." She pointed to a small pile of plain sticks, straw, and broken up pieces of wood coal, still with the shapes of the branches they'd once been. "Be careful with that. It's set to blow up if anyone comes in here."
Inesita stood up as straight as she could without hitting her head against the coals. She pointed to Tania's pile of sticks and straw. "That's nothing. It's just a pile of nothing. It will never blow up." Inesita stomped on the twigs. She looked down at Tania. "Are you going to help us or are you going to try to atormentarnos?"
"Mangos!" Elbita lunged. She'd just seen half a dozen mangos half hidden close to where the wall of coal met the dirt floor of their shelter. She grabbed a mango and bit into it. Tania jumped. Her small body landed on Elbita. "No, no, no. Son mios." Tania bit Elbita's arm and shook it until the taller girl dropped the mango on the ground. Silvito jumped on Tania. Inesita grabbed her and pulled her away. Elbita sat on one of Tania's arms. Inesita sat on the other. Silvito sat on her legs. Tania squirmed and screamed. "No, no, no." She fought hard to break out of the grip of the other children but could not. She screamed and contorted her body and shook and screamed more. "No, no, no." Her body went limp. She sobbed. Tears ran down her cheeks and mocos ran down her nose and made pale streaks in the coal on her face. "No, no, no. No maten a mi Papi. Don't kill Papi. Mataron a mi Papi. They killed my Papi por mi culpa. I did it. It was all my fault."
Elbita drew the limp girl onto her lap. The small filthy body sank against Elbita's. Tania spoke in a soft, little girl voice. "We saw the Guardias coming through the front window. They'd closed the street off at both ends with their brown trucks. They were coming down both sides of the street banging the butts of their rifles into every door. All of us, me, Mami, Papi, and I went into our hiding hole. Papi had built a false wall in the middle room where our bed was. The Guardias came inside. They were banging on all the doors on our block but it was Papi they were looking for. He was denunciado. They knew he was clandestino. We were all quiet. All but me. I was scared and I couldn't stop myself from whimpering. I tried. I tried not to cry. But I couldn't stop myself from whimpering."
Tania sobbed and shook. "Mate a mi Papi. Fui yo. I killed my Papi. It's my fault. Soy la mas mala del mundo. Nobody in the whole world is as bad as me."
Inesita came closer and curled her body against Tania's curled body on Elbita's lap. Silvito put his hand on Tania's shoulder. Tania sobbed and shook some more. She whimpered like a perrito.
"Of course they heard me. One Guardia kicked the wall. We cringed as the pieces of thin wood splintered. He yanked my Papi out by the hair and threw him on the ground. The other Guardia unsnapped his holster, reached for his gun, and shot my Papi in the chest. En el corazon.
"That was when my whimpers stopped and Mami's screams began. The loudest screams in the world."
"She was saying, no puede ser. Is he dead? I can't believe you killed him. No, no, no." The Guardia wouldn't let her come near my Papi who was on the floor. Blood was coming out of his chest like the fountain in la Plaza and it was going all over the floor. Papi's brown eyes were like glass marbles looking straight at the ceiling."
Tania sobbed and the children held her, got as close as they could to her. Elbita spoke very softly. "La buena eres tu. Los malos son ellos." She stroked Tania's coal smeared face, smoothed the rivers the tears had made in the soot on her face. "You are the good one. The Guardias are the bad ones. They did the killing. Don't you see they came straight for the wall? They knew the wall was there. Whoever denuncio your papi told the Guardias exacly where to find him."
Tania let out a big, slow sigh. "They knew. The Guardias knew about Papi's fake wall. It didn't matter if I cried or not." Her body sank into Elbita's. "Traenos mangos." Silvito was the closest and he reached the pile of mangos and gave one to Tania, one to Elbita, one to Inesita, and took the last one for himself. They sat together, sucking on their mangos until the pits were smooth, no flesh at all. Tania collected the pits and put them into the sack at her waist. "These pits are good for making doll heads. They even have hair. I'll show you the dolls I keep with the monjas" She pointed to the wall a foot from where they sat. A sliver of light came in between two coal branches. "Por ahi se sale. " Silvito began to get up but Tania grabbed his arm.
"Todavia." She clutched his hand. "Not yet. As soon as there's no light los llevo al convento."