When Bess woke up, she had the sense she was in a coffin. She reached out with her hand and felt a wall next to her. Stretching out her feet, she felt another one. She rolled her eyes back and scooted back a few inches until her head bumped into a third. She reached out for a fourth wall and stopped short when she heard muffled voices.
“No señor, no está aquí. No la visto.”
“Está muerta o aquí. Nada mas es posible.”
“Entonces, está muerta. Es un desierto tranquilo.”
“Por su bien, espero que así sea.”
She heard a door slide across the floor and then latch closed.
She pulled her hand back as footsteps drew closer. The closet door opened and she flinched at the sunlight framing the silhouette of the old man looking down at her.
He crouched down next to her and said, “Muy bien, chica. Eres tranquilo.” He smiled at her as he fretted over her blanket, tucking it around her before picking her up and carrying her back into the relative comfort of the open floor of his shack.
After laying her down on the floor, he helped her to sit up, nodding and smiling as she strained to prop herself up.
He waved his hand, motioning her forward and placed his hand on her back. “Arriba, chica.”
She took a breath and grimaced at the tight knots of pain in her abdomen as she pulled herself the rest of the way up.
Patting her on the back, he gave her a broad grin and said, “Bueno.”
He stood up and shuffled to a wood burning stove against the wall. She squinted, pulling the stove into focus, and felt a primal elation at being able to hold it there and clearly see the steam curling away from a cast iron saucepan. He stirred whatever was in it with a crooked wooden spoon as he pulled a deep clay bowl from a wooden shelf above to the stove.
He picked up the saucepan with a piece of burlap cloth and poured its contents into the bowl. He set the saucepan in a standing sink next to the stove and brought her the bowl with the wooden spoon.
Bess pulled her legs in and crossed them to make space for the bowl as he laid it on the blanket over her lap.
She stared at the concoction – chunks of meat and slices of a vegetable she didn’t recognize floating in a greasy broth.
He picked up the spoon and dipped it into the broth. Putting it to her lips, he said, “Cuidado. Caliente, eh?”
He tipped the spoon against her lips. She squinted against the burn as the broth coated her tongue, then nodded and took the spoon from his hand.
“Poco, chica,” he said as she dipped the spoon into the broth and took another careful sip. He guided her hand to make sure she scooped up a chunk of meat with the next spoonful. The meat had a savory bite as she gnawed on it, ignoring the question in her mind about what kind of meat it was.
He made her pick up a ring of the green vegetable next and made a biting gesture with his front teeth. She gingerly took the vegetable from the spoon and bit down.
A searing burn flooded over her tongue and she spat it out. The man laughed and said, “Otra vez. Como esto.” He guided her hand to dip another piece of vegetable into the spoon and made the biting gesture again. She nodded and sucked in a breath before chomping down. She forced herself to hold it in place this time, letting the burn soak in until it faded as her tongue numbed from the strange pepper’s assault on her taste buds.
She dipped another large spoonful of broth and sucked it down to let it flood over the lingering burn of the pepper. The man made the biting gesture again and she smiled at him. She chomped down again, letting the burn race through her mouth and then subside as it soaked into the grease from the broth.
“Ay, sangre de leche,” he said, chuckling.
Bess froze, holding the spoon against her lips. Leche. The memory of her friend’s vacant green eyes slammed into her mind. The room closed in around her and she felt a shudder run up her spine. This was just more of the same. She was still trapped in a place hidden from the world as a man told her what to do. She eyed the door, and her legs started to quiver as she thought of herself bolting towards it, hauling it open and running… to where?
His smile vanished and his eyes fluttered. “Oh. Leche. Claro. Lo siento, chica. Sólo una palabra.” His hand floated towards her shoulder, but he did not touch her. “No te preocupes.” He put his hand over his mouth and gently shook his head. He pulled his hand away to reveal a sheepish smile and pantomimed a dipping motion. He nodded once and repeated the motion, saying, “Vamos, comer.”
Bess closed her eyes and let out a slow breath, then dipped the spoon back into the broth. She jerked when he lay his hand back on hers and stared at it as he guided the spoon back to a pepper floating in the broth. His touch was gentle, just enough to tell her what he wanted, but not insisting. His touch was patient, waiting for as long as it took until she decided it was time to try again.
She looked into his eyes and a voice whispered inside her mind. He’s helping you. Let him.
Bess picked up the pepper and some broth and brought the spoon to her lips. She poured more of the concoction into her mouth, bit down on the pepper and winced. Then she sucked in a quick breath and smiled.
He pulled his head back and his shoulders sagged as the tension drained from his body. His face stretched into another near-toothless grin. “Ah! Bueno.”
She laid the spoon in the bowl and turned to him. She had lived her entire life in a city where Mexicans were a daily occurrence, but she had never bothered to learn even a word of their language. She had taken Greek, not Spanish. She tried to summon up words that had found their way into her memory only through osmosis.
“Pour Kay … um. I.. Eye…” Her shoulders sagged and she let out a sigh, flustered at her own ignorance.
“Porque te ayudo?” he asked.
He smiled, looking as if he had been waiting for her since the day she was born.
“Because it is time to go home,” he said. He spoke with a pronounced accent, but he had the discipline to speak each word deliberately, so she could easily understand him.
She blinked at him and narrowed her gaze. “You speak English.”
“Then why -“
“A person does not hide when they think they cannot be heard.”
She eyed him more closely. “And?”
“I wanted to know who you really are. And you have shown me.”
She studied his face as she took another spoonful of broth. “Who were those men earlier? When I was in the closet?”
“They are looking for you.”
She frowned and looked down at the bowl, watching the shadow of her reflection rippling across the surface. She was still inside. She had endured strange men in her bed, suffered the insidious cruelty of a madman, dodged bullets and crawled through the desert to find an old man who seemed to live in a place nobody could find. And still, they had come for her. Walls had become invisible and she didn’t know how far she had to run to go to get away from them. Maybe she would never know.
“Who am I?” she asked.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small photograph, placing it in her palm. The edges were frayed and the picture was faded. A ten-year-old girl stood in a field of green with mountains towering behind her. She wore a gray denim dress with a cotton apron draped over the front and a round straw hat with jet-black hair draped over her shoulders. Her skin was the color of toffee and her round face sparkled with an ivory smile. Round brown eyes glistened as she looked in the distance, as if she were watching an angel descend from the sky.
Bess picked up the picture by its edges and pulled it closer. There was something familiar about the girl she couldn’t quite place.
“Who is she?”
“Her name was Teresita.”
“Jefe’s daughter,” she said.
“Yes.” He tapped the picture and said, “This was taken the day before the cartel took her.”
Bess stared at the girl’s eyes, falling into them as she had fallen into Lago’s. Like her, she had been taken from her home, her family…
“What did they do with her?”
“Probably just made her a house servant. Sometimes working in the fields, I suppose. Nothing like what you’ve been through. It’s not about that.”
Bess took another spoonful of her stew. While she was sailing with her own father, Jefe’s daughter was held in the clutches of strangers who trapped years of her life and let them writhe into thin air. She tried to imagine the part of Jefe that was a father, wringing his hands as her own father would have. Had he stormed the gates at his own peril, as well? She tried to see him more like such a man, now broken, but she couldn’t imagine him becoming all the things she had seen just because the cartel had taken his child away. Her own father had become more of who he was, not less.
“Why did they take her?”
“He took something from them and when they found out, they took something from him.”
“A thief’s ransom,” she said.
“No. A patriot’s ransom. He gave what he had found to the federales as evidence. He thought he had a deal.”
He brushed his finger over the picture, a sad smile fading as he spoke. “They, how do you say… left him hanging.”
He looked at Bess and rubbed his chin. “You asked me who you are. Do you still wish to know?”
Bess stared at the spoon in her hand, wondering how she could possibly replace her own vision of who she had become with something even worse.
“You are a means to an end. He used you – girls like you – to raise money for Teresita’s ransom.”
Bess knit her brow and slowly shook her head. “You know, I get this,” she said, tapping the picture, “but there are better ways to raise money.”
The ember glowed as Bess stared into the eyes of Jefe’s little girl. “That doesn’t give him the right…”
The old man leaned closer and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Of course not. I’m just telling you who you are to him. Why he does these things.”
“Then why girls like me?” She looked up at him. “He doesn’t kidnap Mexican girls. He doesn’t lock up Colombian girls in a cement prison. He doesn’t dress up Navajo girls in cocktail dresses and offer them up to craven dogs. He doesn’t drug Persian girls and let those dogs rape them.” The old man pulled his head back as Bess’s voice rose.
“He just tortures girls like me. He wars by the corruption of blood against the innocent who don’t even know what crime they have been convicted for.”
“What crime do you think that is?” he asked.
Studying the picture more closely, she said, “Drugs, I guess. She wouldn’t have been standing in coca fields if there wasn’t a market.” Bess looked back up at him. “Isn’t that right?”
The old man smiled with a glint in his eyes. “You are willing to see. But where you begin is where he stopped. The world is complicated.” He brushed his fingers over the photograph. “A weak man will kill that which he cannot endure.” His eyes moistened as he tapped the picture and closed her fingers over it. “What is the hardest thing to endure, chica? Do you know?”
“He closed his eyes and nodded. Verdad.”
“What is the truth?” she asked.
He looked into her eyes and said, “The one you already know. Who we are is not defined by what happens to us.”
Bess grunted and mused over the futility of character – something Sophocles had tried to explain, and her own refusal to accept that. She tilted the spoon against her lips and bit down on another slice of pepper. She took in a sharp breath through her nose at the sting, fighting the urge to wince.
“And who is Jefe?” she asked.
“He is a man who has allowed what has happened to him to justify who he really is. He is an executioner, feasting on the blood of young souls.”
Bess gazed into his eyes, mesmerized by the strength it took for him to know who she was almost certain was his own son and embrace the reality of what that meant.
“And where is Teresita now?” she asked.
The old man stroked his chin and hardened his gaze. Bess blinked at him as he struggled to decide whether to tell her. “What is it?” she asked.
He leaned back and let out along breath. “Her ransom was paid a month ago. And now, she has returned to him.”
Bess’s gaze flashed back to the picture. She studied the eyes, the contours of her face. Bess’s hand started to tremble and the spoon rattled against the bowl as the ember flared.
“Her name is Angela,” she said.
The old man closed his eyes and nodded. Bess tightened her grip on the spoon until her knuckles turned white. She clenched her teeth until her jaw ached and felt her lips curl back as the ember glowed hot and she felt the urge to growl like a wild animal.
The man grabbed her wrist. “Not yet, Teresita Fuego. First, you must find your way home.”
She glared at his hand wrapped around her wrist as her breath came in short seething huffs. She wasn’t safe – not yet. She wanted to tear at Jefe’s eyes, reach into his guts and rip out their insides. She was dimly aware of all this being the symptoms of a rage whose depth she had never felt before. But she knew the old man was right.
His face looked tired now. His quest to help her was almost complete, but she wasn’t home yet and there was nobody else left to help her now. But when she was finally home, they would know he had helped her. They would find him because he had nowhere else to go. She owed him something now and latched onto her debt to him to temper her rage so that he could finish what he had started.
“What about you?” she asked. “What will happen to you?”
He let go of her wrist and leaned back. His eyes softened and for a moment, he had the same look as Teresita Lago had in her final moments. He gazed at her with the same soft surrender to the inevitable and the forgiveness of her bringing it to him.
“As I said, it is time to go home.”
Bess didn’t even realize she had dozed off after her meal and woke to find the room darkening as twilight descended outside. The bowl was gone and she smacked her lips as she tried to clean away the residual taste of the stew. A candle sat burning on the rickety table where the old man sat writing something.
She stretched and stood up, surprised at how much of her strength had returned. Her muscles ached and she felt tired, like she did at the end of a long day sailing. A day after barely being able to pull herself across the desert floor, she now easily walked the few steps to the table and sat down in the creaking wooden chair across from the old man.
She watched as he scribbled on the back of a large white envelope under the light of a candle. He turned it around for her to see and said, “This is how you will go home.”
She looked at the envelope as he ran a stubby pencil along the drawing he had made and said, “From here, I’ll drive you to a meeting place. It will look like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but you will wait there for my friend Ortega.”
Bess nodded, her stomach tightening at the thought of again standing alone in the desert. The old man ran the pencil up to a squiggly line. “He will drive you here, a drop off at the Rio Grande.”
“That is up to you,” he said.
Bess brushed her hand over the lines he had drawn, smudging specks of graphite on the clean white paper of the envelope. It was simple, but raised more questions than it answered. Still, she would be on the other side of the border, where she would finally be free from Jefe’s reach. She winced at the thought of being thrown into the back of a van by border patrol agents or a sheriff or some other law enforcement minion. But they couldn’t do anything to her that came close to what she had endured at the hands of Jefe. Then she would call her mother and finally, find her way home. She frowned as she thought of the dreary days filled with her mother drinking and Bess enduring her condemnation for yet another foolish act – which would be Bess’s fault somehow. She didn’t feel elation at the thought of going home, but there was comfort in the mundane drone of it all. She would breathe. And, in time, more.
The old man reached down to the floor and picked up a leather sheath with the grip of her knife protruding from the opening. He took out the knife and ran the blade along his arm, shaving off a swath of hair down to his bare skin.
“I sharpened this for you.” He put the knife back in the sheath and slid it across the table to her. He reached down again and placed a folded blanket on the table. “It’s a poncho. It will keep you warm, but it will also cover you up.” He reached down again and placed a bulging leather pouch with a narrow corked opening on top of the poncho. “This is a bolsa. It’s usually used to carry wine. This one has water.”
Bess looked down at her nightgown, ripped and streaked with dirt. She had grown used to its translucence and had stopped thinking about how people could see through it in the right light. She ran her hand over the rough wool of the poncho, imagining it covering her body with its thick opacity. “Thank you.”
The last thing he gave her was a straw hat, round and wide-brimmed like the one Angela wore in the picture. Bess stroked her cheek and felt the tender sting of a sunburn glowing in her face. It was a mild inconvenience compared to the rest of her ordeal and something she hadn’t even noticed until that moment.
He slid the envelope to her. “When Ortega arrives, give him this and tell him it is from Viejo.”
“Your freedom.” He arched his brow and she knew not to press him for more.
He clasped his hands and grew quiet. There didn’t seem anything left to say.
She placed her hand on top of his and thought of the last time she had seen her grandfather. She had been five years old and remembered a giddy warmth inside her when she had smiled at him. She tried to look at the old man with the same smile of a little girl who knew nothing of the world except soft eyes and a gentle hand.
The old man nodded and stood up. “It is time.”
©2017 Michael J Lawrence