It Might be Better Not to Hurry
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
He fit well enough beneath the barbed wire. He kept up with los grandes, los adultos, as well as he could. He didn’t know them, any of them, but that didn’t matter. He had one thing in his mind and that kept him going. It wasn’t wondering how many steps of his it took to match a man’s, any more than it was wondering how many years of his were yet to come, or not to come. He did, in fact, wonder if some of those up there, ahead, might be wondering just that, the strong and the not so strong, the ones he could hear slipping when the way was up, or down, slipping on stones just waiting to roll out from under their feet as they grabbed for a thorn bush or a cactus, ones who if, maybe a little old for this, didn’t have to worry about being too young.
He thought, though, it might be worse for them, knowing they might not make it, that if they did, they might not have what it took to start again, to start all over. He’d never had the chance, even once, to get started, but he knew he had what it took for, no matter how small he was, his heart was large.
What kept him going were the words he’d been sent off with, words he kept even from himself, as if mumbled, or only hanging there in the air, might be just the distraction required to precede the twisted ankle, the fall, the hand out in front, to the side, and then the fangs, the stinger, on your palm, your wrist, as you grabbed for something, anything, there in the dark.
The young woman, though young, was no child, nor did she have one. Her story was different from the boy’s, though she kept it as much to herself as he did, being as alone in hers as he was in his. There were no words she carried, given by another, for she’d taken herself off and, consequently, knew she had what she needed, deep within. But in the dark, no matter how well along she might think her story was, there might be another chapter, one she didn’t even like to think of, one she had to be ready for, which was probably why, from time to time, she felt for the knife she’d forgot to bring.
Though young enough, with her skills, to start all over, the young woman had, nevertheless, known for a year, more than a year that, even if she could go on, she wouldn’t, not forever, and forever had been just around the corner. She’d been working long into the night, tying in the hair she bought from girls who had to sell it, tying it into the hair of women who thought it might make a difference, tinting, highlighting, folding her handful of pesos away even as she counted with her fingers. She’d walked home after midnight, across the plaza, when Pueblo Viejo was dead, deader than usual, when even the man whose leg on one side had, perhaps in a misguided effort to make up for his club foot, somehow grown longer than the other, was gone, gone wherever he went when he had to go somewhere. She’d climbed the stairs to the little room built for her, over the rest, its walls on top of the old, very old, walls, passing their weight deep into earth, earth that would still be there when the adobe had crumbled into it.
A room intended to keep her right there where, some must have figured, or hoped, she’d always be, in that single room with its outside stairs, perched upon the house so she would have a little distance, first from younger sisters, destined to find their way into other houses, other beds, not that far from the first, then, finally, from the silence of a house that had once preceded the first cry of the first born, herself. A room from which, with her earning capacity, she’d be of use to the family, not just another mouth, until, of course, it, the family, was gone.
That was where, in that upper room, set higher than the houses crowded around, she’d known that, even if she could go on, she wouldn’t, even as she’d watched the stars turn over Pueblo Viejo, circling, encircling, dangers so slight, so slow moving, compared to those in wait beneath this sky, hardly turning at all, over the border between one life and another, the night she set out to cross it.
She kept up with the others. No problem. She’d climbed the stairs to her single room, she’d stood behind her softly moaning clients more days, more nights, than she could count and it had left her with a certain strength, surely, she knew in her bones, the strength she needed now.
The last night the young woman can remember, perched on her rooftop, was the one in which, perhaps for the last time, she had thought it over. The compensation of her trade was good enough: women, in her experience, will pay whatever they have to in order to enhance that first, or last, chance, for chances, in the pueblo she shared with them, were few. She had thought it over, there, in that night and, in the morning, she had left. And now, in the very night of that day, she was here, stumbling with the others, but not moaning, no.
The boy had handed over his pesos up front, just like the others, as night closed overhead. Their guide, el coyote, had taken them without looking at anyone in particular and he spoke to them all, as if, all together, they amounted to some slow witted creature, one on its last legs, though each must have felt his words were meant especially for him, or her.
“Keep close, so close you can touch the one in front of you. Keep quiet so you can hear their feet. Stop when I tell you to. Get down. Don’t breathe when I tell you not to. Then get up. Get going. If you fall behind… Don’t worry. They’ll find you. Think of a tortilla, a couple of days old, a week. Crack your teeth on that one,” the man had concluded, turning away with a smirk he must have thought was invisible and, already, it seemed, in a hurry. But what kind of a hurry was it: one for the safety, the survival of all, or one he knew, easy enough for him, wasn’t easy for anyone else, one that had him chuckling deep within?
Despite what the man had said, the boy had fallen behind. At first he simply meant to keep his distance from those he didn’t know, los grandes, los adultos, for he was the only one so young, then it was because a pace had been set, one that had him scrambling, scrambling all the time. Still, he wasn’t worried, he could hear them slipping and sliding up ahead, an animal with more feet that it knew what to do with.
When he himself slipped, or slid, he said the words, the words he kept tucked away, said them without making a sound, without moving his lips.
That night, the one in which the young woman had reached her conclusions was, it seemed, still with her, as if she had to, now that it was too late to turn around, reach them all over again. Oh well, she said to herself, reach them again if you must, and so she did.
The pesos, well hidden, here, there, in the somewhat newer room on top of the much older house, were little consolation. What was she saving them for? The time for la quinceañera, her fifteenth birthday, had passed, hardly noticed; the time for la boda, her wedding with its priceless dress, had come and gone, along with the belly that might never swell, el bebé she might never hold to her breast. Now was the time to do something for herself, and this was it, el viaje, the one-way trip she had canceled all appointments for.
She thought of them often enough, her clientes, almost, if not quite, with love, even as she, very nearly, hated the fear in their faces, in their voices, as they told their interminable tales. Let them draw the roving eyes to the little they were born with, their dark eyes, their soft cheeks, or, let them touch them up, themselves. They had seen her do it often enough. Her own face expressionless beneath the paint worn, de rigueur, before her clientes, set against the endless lamentation, the concluding accusation, for it was always someone’s fault, she, without any solutions whatsoever, even when some comment was demanded, insisted upon, had only been able to nod or mumble.
Now, scrambling in the dark, touching the butt of the big woman in front of her, letting hers be touched by anxious, worried fingers behind, was what she’d been squirreling it away for, not her fifteenth birthday, not her wedding or her own first born, but el viaje.
She’d pictured the first class bus beneath her, la telenovela playing dreams of love on the little screen, interminable romances targeting, it seemed, ten thousand just like her. Not the wheezing wreck carrying the old women, the chickens, no, the bus of her dreams had been built for young women treating themselves to the trip of a lifetime: the blue sky, the white sand beaches, the sea she had yet to see. In fact, the real bus, the one to the border, had been something in between, no old women, no chickens, just young men, even a boy, and big women who shouldn’t even be thinking of crossing on foot, in the dark, though they might be stronger than they looked. On the real bus, the nightmare bus, no one spoke, no one looked into another’s eyes, for all were as alone with their thoughts as she was.
The boy, too, had gone over things, wishing again he could have saved the brothers he had so loved, more than even they knew, but he couldn’t have, not at that age.
It seemed he’d always had an elder brother, more than one, either one of which had only to stand at his side to make all that, even the threat in a man’s eyes, go away. The eldest had good work, then it went the way work went when it went. Then he’d worked the avocados, then the drought had come. Avocados fetched good pesos, a few of which fell into the hands that picked them. But avocados needed water, and there was less, always less, until there wasn’t any at all. That brother had gone north. The family, if you could call a fatherless family a family, had never heard from him and, though mamá didn’t want to hear it, word was they never would.
The next brother had joined a gang of young men, una pandilla. Then what? Had he done something wrong? Had he killed someone from another territorio, a young man more like himself than he knew? If he had, he’d kept it to himself, for he’d never liked la violencia and had never let anyone touch his kid brother. Then, one night, his body was dumped at the door. Mamá borrowed the money to bury him.
The boy hadn’t been old enough for field work, nor old enough, not yet, to join una pandilla, though he knew that, when he was, he’d have to make the right choice, this gang, that one, though you could die on either side of the street. Meanwhile, he stood by mamá at her stand, her puesto. He was proud of her as she was proud of her tacos. Young men even crossed from the next territorio, just to stand in the street, at midnight, crunching tacos, never mind the danger.
But there was competition. It had been hinted, none too subtly: mamá would have to quit her corner, the one she’d held court on for as long as the boy could remember. She didn’t know why. She’d paid the police. But it was clear, very clear, she’d have to move; if she didn’t, something might happen, to her…or to the boy, her last.
That was when she’d talked to him, talked to him as if he were older than he was. That was when she’d given him the words he carried with him, the ones he’d never share with anyone, maybe not, until he really had to, with himself. Now, the bus behind him, but stuck in a night that was, already, longer than he thought it was going to be, he held those words tight within, maybe in his stomach but, when the stars said it must be two, three in the morning, that the night couldn’t go on much longer, even if he could, he wondered how anyone ever survived without, not his mother’s tacos, but an older brother. Well, he would find out.
But when he thought of years, actual years, stretching in front, it was nearly enough to make him stop where he was, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred, meters behind the hurried centipede, nearly enough to make him sit down where he was, in the dark, and call upon a brother, either one, or maybe as the sounds faded in front of him and he could sense the scorpions, the rattlers, beginning to move again, to call, ever so softly, upon someone else, someone he had no right to call upon, not now, not as he could feel himself, somehow, ageing, ageing with every step.
But then, as if, no matter which way he might think he was going, in low points on the trail just a little deeper, a little darker, than the others, he could feel himself getting younger, as if he was, as maybe every man might be, at one time or another, on a two-way street. It was then that it came to mind, something he’d kept out of it as long he could, the fact that, even before he’d headed north, she, the woman who had reached so deep within him, was gone. He’d waited for her, he’d searched for her puesto. But it was nowhere. There was nothing, not even the smell of her tacos on the air. He’d waited. He’d waited until he couldn’t wait any longer for it was the day he was supposed to leave. It was then he’d heard her voice, perhaps for the last time, as she’d spoken to him as if he was older than he was. He’d heard it and he’d done what he was doing now, that which he, if perhaps not as fast as the others, knew he could do.
It was two, three, in the morning, when it happened. Her mind must have been elsewhere, she might, a little later, conclude but, at the moment, she only knew her foot had twisted, by itself, that she was falling, not in place, but into a gully deep enough as the others, not even thinking of finding their way down to her, closed up and hurried on.
The young woman sat up. She realized she hadn’t broken anything, that she hadn’t been stung or bitten, that she hadn’t grabbed a thorn bush or a cactus. Her ankle hurt, true, but it could have been worse. Feeling sure she could still move, if not as quickly as before, she chose to sit where she was, listening to the last of the line that must have been longer behind her, sensing the little stones of its passage tumbling around her.
The rat in front hadn’t even heard her cry for she’d kept it deep within as told. Now she stood, favoring her good foot and made her way up, back to the track, no more than an animal’s trail, they had been following but, by the time she was on it, again without having been stabbed or stung, and stood, however unevenly, listening to the last of the sounds, such hopeful sounds, fading to the north, the young woman knew there was no hope of catching up.
She wondered why she hadn’t thought of a flashlight, even a little one, a miniature. That would have been something, though the rat, if he’d spotted it in her hand, would have snatched it, dashed it against a rock. No talking, no moaning, no crying out and, of course, no flashing of flashlights. Even he didn’t carry one or, if he did, he never used it, for, of course, he knew the way, even with no moon and, naturally enough on the night he’d chosen, the one the young woman now found herself alone in, there was no moon.
Even with one of those three footed canes they hand the old, she would only have been able to limp slowly after, falling further and further behind. One foot in front of the other, better late than never, and other simplifications slipped through her mind, but never, in this case, she realized, might really mean never. But she did her best, she did what she could, she kept going, she followed what, she hoped, was the track of her compañeros, even if she hadn’t known a single one of them, until three, maybe four, in the morning. She couldn’t see her watch. She couldn’t see a thing and, after a false dawn, it was darker than ever.
Her ankle, not having warmed up or loosened up or whatever she had hoped it might do, was worse, worse with each step. Maybe she wasn’t as up to it as she thought she had been. Maybe her bones, like the club footed man’s in the plaza, had let her down. Maybe it was time, wherever she was, to save what little she had left, time to sit down and maybe, right there in the track, think it over.
Why hadn’t she thought of water? She had. Where was her liter bottle? She’d thrown it away, adding to a trail of plastic for others to follow. Why hadn’t she carried two, two liter bottles? One in each hand, they might have balanced each other. If she’d still had one in her left hand, not yet empty, it might have steadied her, kept her from falling, to her right. She also wondered if thoughts, the ones that crowded her head, were always as useless as they were now, in this night, and so she stopped herself.
It was then, when she stopped thinking, that she heard it, someone coming along behind, perhaps another like herself, perhaps not, but not hurrying and very, very light footed.
Once more the young woman felt for the knife she knew she didn’t have. She would just have to sit where she was, though she could, of course, slip slowly, if not as silently as she might hope, into the shadows, into the night, and let whoever, whatever, it was, pass. But the sounds coming along were so soft, so unhurried, so deliberate. She would wait where she was.
The boy, instead of hurrying to catch up, had, instead, slowed down. That, though he had to make the decision again with each step, was the way to get where he was going, perhaps, in time, to do what he was going to do. Even before he saw the woman, he was aware of something, someone, there in the track, so close he could almost feel her warmth.
Each tried to see the other, there, in a darkness in which it was not really possible.
“Who are you?” asked the boy.
The young woman, assured by the boy’s voice, spoke easily.
“Someone like you.”
The boy took a step closer.
“I can almost see you. Where are the others?”
“Up ahead. Can’t you hear them?”
“Neither can I.”
“Why are you..?”
“Can you walk?”
“Well enough. You go on.”
The boy stepped past, took a few more steps, then stopped to look back at the light colored shadow that was the woman.
“I’ll wait for you.”
Five minutes later they were on the track, the boy in front, hearing her uncertain sounds behind. As, almost unnoticeably, it lightened, he saw a crushed bottle and, a little later, another, both of which he, without a word, pointed out. He spotted a stick off to the side. He went for it, tested its strength, and handed it to the woman.
The formalities observed, they looked each other over, both taking it in that, for all their differences, they were about the same size.
“You’re alone,” said the woman.
“Same as you,” said the boy.
“Maybe a little younger,” said the woman.
The woman knew her own questions, her own answers, and decided it was better not to ask the ones she had for him.
Standing as still as they were it was as if they could feel the earth tilting toward the sun, maybe even hear a kind of clock ticking. It would be warm in a minute and, in another minute, hot. The boy turned, started too quickly and, unlike before, nearly tripped over his own feet.
“It might be better not to hurry,” said the woman.
The boy slowed, stopped and looked back.
“You’re right,” he said, noticing that her foot did not look right, that she must be doing her best not let the pain reach her face.
The young woman saw his thoughts, one after the other, smiled, nodded she was all right, and pointed with her chin in the direction in which they had been, only a moment ago, hurrying.
The boy signaled his agreement with a single movement of his head, turned and, like the creature of the night before, one being if with fewer legs, say three and a half, they were on their way. The sun was well up, on their right where it was supposed to be, when they came to a rise in the landscape. The boy slowed, and slowed again, so he wouldn’t leave the woman behind. A little later they stood on stop, their breaths coming together, each, though not too obviously, listening to the other’s. The track before them widened, then scattered, as if the animals that made it, running for their lives, knew their chances might be better on their own.
Several tracks, in fact, went off from there, some in the general direction of the distant mountains, now a soft purple, as if the rock itself might be soft, but getting sharper, harder, as they watched. There was no twisting centipede, not in the distance, not somewhat closer, coming out from behind another rise, not curled in some primitive circle, el coyote counting their numbers as all waited, with infinite patience, for the two they left behind.
Their breaths returning to normal, the young woman and the boy took a look at the middle distance, then the ground right up to the point at which they stood. There were no discarded bottles to show the way. Perhaps the others had held onto them, so they’d have something to fill when they came across that clear spring shaded by a couple of cottonwoods and heard the birds singing. Even at their feet, there were no signs of passage, for the ground, still sandy, was harder than it had been. Maybe, if they were the Indians of the border—the boy had heard there were some—they’d be able to see which way the centipede had gone, but they weren’t and they couldn’t.
“We could split up,” said the young woman, “keep in sight of each other, then wave, shout and wave, when one of us comes upon a footprint or a bottle.”
“We’d better stick together,” said the boy.
The young woman nodded. She knew he was right. Apart, they might be moving at different speeds, over different terrain, as they drifted further apart, further, until they wouldn’t even know at which point they’d lost sight of each other or what to do about it.
“Let’s go,” said the boy, knowing they had to, even as he swallowed and heard the woman, whose name he would have to ask, scraping along behind, dragging that foot as if it might never be much good again.And so he placed his own carefully, sliding a little, for they were coming down from the rise from which they’d seen nothing, nothing but the mountains in the distance, sometimes putting his hand back, to take the hand that took his, the one that didn’t hold the stick, so she wouldn’t fall off one foot and ruin the other, even as he knew the time was coming, and coming soon enough, when he would, if without a sound and one at a time, speak the words that had been given him.
Michael McGuire was born and raised and has lived in or near much of his life; he divides his time; his horse is nondescript, his dog is dead. Naturally, McGuire regrets not having passed his life in academia, for the alternative has proven somewhat varied, even unpredictable.