"If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him."
"This man knows something
about healing. That the heart
must be torn open again
in front of compassionate witnesses.
That the accused must also step up
and reveal themself.
That no matter how high-pitched
the shrieks, how barren
the voice, everything must be
heard, everything must be
held, in the same room."
--Ronna Bloom, "Truth and Reconciliation," from PERSONAL EFFECTS, Pedlar Press, 2000.
A small train, an ancient rattling steaming thing, it barely held to a looping mountain track. The mountain dwarfed the toyish train till it became in Rodolfo's eyes a pink caterpillar inching over an elephant's hide. Rodolfo squinted, followed the movement, and felt throughout himself a sweating terror that the creature would peel away from the mountain and curl into space, a caterpillar shrugged free by a leviathan. Then the scene was Ximena. The prisoner, Ajacopi, lay naked on the floor, his body a brown stain on gray cement. He lay stinking in his sweat and Rodolfo sat atop him making the little man bear his weight, Rodolfo's butt over Ajacopi's mouth stealing his breath, Rodolfo's hands pinching the Indian's manhood, all the while the heat of the day thief to his own breath.
Rodolfo woke rubbing his mouth across the orange sofa's back cushion hearing the rattle and bang of the front door flapping three meters from where he lay. "Oh, the wind," he thought--his mind itself the weakest puff of air--and wiped the bloom of sweat from his forehead. The day was too hot for any comfort. The heat must have confined him in his sleep and bullied him into that dream. His head pounded and his mouth was sour from a paste of growing things that lay across his tongue. He sat and untucked his shirt which was badly twisted and soaked with perspiration and tore it off, angrily freeing himself as if from a winding sheet.
The dream had him working his last full day at Ximena Prison. In reality, a year had passed since that final week and a year plus three days had passed since the date that lived in his memory as the one the President died, murdered by thugs, changing everything. He heard Berta's footfall across the ceiling and cawed at her, "Where is my paper?" because he wanted to look at the reports on the dog fights and the cocks. His father had checked the fights every day at the same hour until the day he passed. His father was a man of great habits, Mateo his name. Mateo Hector was a man of military mind and he was Rodolfo's guide, his Southern Cross.
"Don't holler at me," the woman yelled back from above, hollering herself.
Her voice was sharp as if she were giving orders. That burned his ass, since up until one year before, giving orders was his job, and decent money came his way for it, as well as the honor of keeping his country as God intended. The Indians liked to ask his people, How do you know what God intended? But he and his kind did know, they knew down to the marrow of their bones and the Indians angered him with their insolent questions. When he went to church--going at times alone because his wife and son were shallow-minded and so they were restless sitting long hours in the pews--he prayed to be reminded and instructed about His order and not influenced or led astray by the arrogant ideas the Indians broadcast.
Still she was yammering. "We are lucky still to have a newspaper," she shouted down. Since the revolution, with everything turned on its head, every other sentence from her mouth was how they were lucky still to have this thing or that, whether a stove to burn wood or a three-legged stool or a simple newspaper. He did not feel lucky, especially when he saw the Indians greedy as infants as they snatched up everything, which was just what he'd predicted would come to pass if they got the control they wanted. They were the termites that gnaw apart a great tree, each one easy to swat or stomp, their strength in an army's numbers.
For him, that was a despicable image. He hated bugs and lived in a land overrun with them. He'd heard places exist where a man can recline on a bed of grass and nothing traipses over him but an ant or a spider no bigger than a thumbnail. But here, he needed to patrol the house nightly and flatten whatever insects he found. Now that his son, Daniel, was ten, he had him join in the campaign. The boy was squeamish still about crushing what he found, so Rodolfo took that job, laughing at the boy's frailty. Once they found a tarantula big as the boy's hand.
Berta tromped down the stairs and tossed the paper onto the floor beside the sofa, so he had to sit up and bend down to retrieve it.
"Thank you," he said. Only in his private thoughts did he say "female dog."
The headline was printed boldly today and read GOVERNMENT OFFERS AMNESTY. The large letters shouted, but he did not grasp their importance. Sleep and anger fogged his brain with a sense of confusion about what "government" this was. And what amnesty? Who was to be exonerated? For what offense? His eye went to the column, to the article there. The new "government of the people"--that was what they called themselves, the sons of bitches--was offering to review petitions for amnesty from all those officials of the criminal government involved in "crimes against the indigenous people." “All failing to come forward by October 10, sundown, will be subject to prosecution to the full extent and power of the law and to penalties up to and including a sentence of death by hanging. Amnesty is offered for the sole purpose of determining and publishing a truthful record of events, which is essential to the healing and reconciliation of the nation.”
A dense cloud can stop and stand atop a mountain peak. It holds its position and gives passage neither to air nor light. His mind settled upon these lines like such a mass. He knew there was good reason he should attend to the words but he did not. Nothing moved within him until he turned to checking the competitions and saw that his dog and his fighting bird both were losers in yesterday's events. His favorite bird was a muscular brown-speckled cock, Razorclaws. How many times had he won with that bird? Piss on it, PISS ON IT. His mind exploded and he threw the paper onto the round, peg-legged dining table and paced the room, then retrieved the pages and read again the words detailing the amnesty requirements.
Mary, mother of Christ. He should not have to think about this. He should be a hero to his country and a guardian of its future, but instead he was one of those they dubbed criminal. He could not believe the struggle had turned so far against him that they expected him with his own lips to betray his people by coming forward at the initiation of Indians, to an Indian tribunal. Who were they to hold a goddamned tribunal? They act as if they are Roman generals, great men of history, but they are the ones who kidnapped the young President and his wife--took them from their house, gagged and blindfolded, put them into the trunks of cars, then drove them up onto the altiplano and slit their throats, letting them bleed to death.
Only three days passed from that grizzly event to the fall of the government. His blood boiled sunrise to sunset through those three days. He was not himself at that time. It was the wrong time for Estefan, his Captain, to pressure him.
Estefan had called him into his office; it was a large room at the north end of the barrack, beyond the string of six tiny cells that the prisoners occupied. A second larger room at the opposite end of the barrack served for interrogations. Rodolfo looked at the Captain's small square window wishing the interrogation rooms where he spent his hours were open to the fields and sky like this, but only this room and the one at the other end of the structure had the luxury of a window where a man could look out onto some color, maybe lift his head and see a hawk sitting on the wind. Two bottles of North American whisky on the cabinet sparked his envy, but he consoled himself with the thought that another year at the job and he, too, might afford such indulgences.
"Look here," Estefan said and pointed to a vase on his government-issue metal desk. "Look at these dahlias, from my own garden, Hector. Perfection, aren't they? Look at the scarlet color and the rolled silk of each petal. Look. Come, look." He made Rodolfo lean closer so that Estefan could convince himself his detective was absorbing the full beauty of the scentless flowers. "That's what you can do with a little horse shit and highlands sunlight. And a gardener's heart of course." He prodded his chest with his thumb in self-acclaim.
"Magnificent," Rodolfo said.
"Look at that color," Estefan murmured, then shook his head. "Words can't describe it--the hue of the blood of kings." Then Estefan winced and Rodolfo assumed the Captain had heard his own words and thought of the blood of their President, shed three days before in that murderous attack.
Estefan lifted a hammered silver frame from his top desk drawer. "This is my wife," he said of the plump woman with orbs of rouge decorating her dark cheeks and a bush of black hair springing from her scalp like an obscenity. "Have I shown you before? My Sarita. She is a flower, too, the most beautiful of women, and a woman of culture as well."
A hundred times Rodolfo had seen that photo pulled from the drawer. He kept his mouth shut.
"I have a family a man can be proud of, Hector. I'm a man others envy--there's no reason to deny it. My beautiful wife, my home and gardens, my son who is a first rank soccer player. I am a luckier man than most, smiled upon by fortune."
"Yes," Rodolfo said, impatient to leave. "Who wouldn't envy you...your fine wife, the garden so beautiful, dahlias such as these--like silk?"
"All right. Enough," Estefan said, turning all business and leaving Rodolfo to wonder had he overstated his praise, giving it the ring of falsity, but no, these abrupt turns had always characterized the Captain's mental locomotion.
"What is your report today? What have you gotten from the sons of bitches this bloody week that you didn't have last week?"
Rodolfo rattled his throat. "Not as much as I had hoped for."
"We never get as much as we hope for," Estefan said, still buoyant. "We'd like to open them like zippered pouches wouldn't we and dump their guts onto the floor. That way we could sort through the innards like a man inspects for gold in his pan." He guffawed so hard he drooled and Rodolfo pretended not to see. Rodolfo thought of the time a prisoner spat at him--hitting him right in the eye--and he flushed at the recollection. That man had paid; that man had been a fool.
The Captain said, "You have something for me don't you, from at least one of them? You have something for your Captain, I presume, one shiny nugget, one gem at least?"
"I have a few things of value, Sir." Rodolfo injected confidence into his voice. "Cell D told us the north villagers have been using their young girls to set the pit traps the soldiers fall into, which causes them to twist or break their ankles--twice the Indians caught a man still in the traps and stoned him to death. The men dig the pits on and off during the work day and the girls cover them with vegetation when they go into the jungle evenings to collect firewood. We had to push him hard, but he also told us they use an old trick of sending information from town to town by way of strings knotted to tell a story. With the knotting, even the illiterates can get the message so the technique is crucial, it's important, I'm sure you can see that. Certain patterns of knots have known meanings--often marking locations--and come up again and again."
"They've been doing that since Inca times, Hector. There's nothing remotely new in that or crucially important, as you like to say. What else do you have? What about the spying they've done on our post? Which village is doing that?"
He was tempted to lie and pretend to know, saying Santa Margarita or Santa Rosita, but how long would the lie stand up? He had no way of knowing in that moment how shortlived his entire operation would be. He shook his head and kept his eyes subverted.
"Nothing? Shit. Nothing? I told you to pursue that."
"Nothing yet, Sir. D names one town today and a different one yesterday and tomorrow, so we have difficulty knowing what is true and what is garbage."
"Jesus Christ, Hector, you're supposed to know how to tell the difference. That's part of a technique you should know in your sleep. You're just a bullshitter, aren't you? You don't have anything to say. You bring me the same crap every damn report. And that crew you've put together, with that odd bird, Rubén. What is he? A Jew? Or a homosexual I've heard some say."
"No, the knots..."
"The knots are nothing, they're bullshit, I told you. I need something new, something substantial I can put into my week's end report to justify this damn operation. The army spends money to keep this place going, Hector. Do you want to lose your job when they say we're not worth the upkeep because we do squat here? Do you think they're interested in giving charity, in keeping your kids in shoes out of human kindness?"
"No one there is in a lenient mood since our President’s death. If you can't get the information, maybe we need someone else, someone with the balls for his occupation."
"I can do it, Sir," he said, torn between hurt and crackling anger.
"How much patience do you want from me? I've forgiven you enough for your endless mistakes and accidents."
"I'll take care of things, Sir."
"Then go at it again with that Ajacopi," he said, rising from his seat. "Breaking him would be worthwhile--there's information in that small head, I know it. Diamonds of information."
The flip reference to his mistakes, his accidents, stung Rodolfo. He knew what was meant. The Captain was reminding him of the time he'd roped a huge half-breed around the neck, just about hanging him but not to the point of breaking the neck because the man's toes reached the ground and held him up a little. Rodolfo had decided to let him sweat in that position a while so he'd gone out of the cell and told the pale woman, Lindy...Lindea..whatever the name, to leave the room, too--he wanted her in the hall so she wouldn't be looking at the fatboy with pity eyes. She went into the hallway and Rodolfo went outside to have a smoke where a few of the day laborers were wolfing down their lunches. They offered him some chips and a beer and he sat with them all laughing it up like school kids. He forgot about the big halfbreed inside, forgot altogether, intoxicated by the sun and the beer.
An hour or so passed and the others picked themselves up to get back to their work and suddenly, Oh Jesus! it came to him how he'd left the guy. In a blink, he was back to the cell, the woman sitting idly outside the door, and when he walked into the cell he knew it was no good. The guy wasn't dead exactly but might as well have been. He was unconscious and his color was black as an olive. The woman slipped in behind Rodolfo and he shouted at her, "You imbecile, why the hell didn't you call me--all this time goes by and you know he's hanging there--why the hell didn't you call me?" She looked at him oddly but kept her silence. He saw contempt in her eyes and turned from her and called Rafi in for help cutting the huge man down and lowering him to the rock hard floor. They watched over him, Rodolfo pacing for an hour, the door locked against passers-by, but it was no good, there was no return of consciousness and Rodolfo had no alternative but to report the incident as calmly as possible and let the man be trucked out to the infirmary an hour's ride from there. The fatboy didn't die but he didn't regain much function either and there was no question of them making further use of him.
Estefan blew into a rage at Rodolfo for his carelessness, his idiot mistakes, and for putting together such an inadequate squad with a feeble old man and a queer Jew, with only one of the four, the youngest, a half-decent specimen of manhood. After that Rodolfo bought a watch and he used it compulsively to track the time whenever he left an interrogation room with a session unfinished. But the whole thing lived on for him in shame and whenever something recalled him to it, shame crept into his skin; he had wasted a good informant due to stupidity. He recalled how his father raged when his mother burnt the tortillas; he wielded that same brand of fury against himself.
When he saw the seepage from Ajacopi's rotten head trickle onto the hard dirt floor, he knew this mistake dwarfed the other.
© Copyright 2016 SusanBethMiller. All rights reserved.
Book / Literary Fiction
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