My next step will take me as far away from home as I have ever been even though, when I turn my head, I can still see my mud and grass hut and hear the chickens in my yard.
I can hear what is left of my family crying, just like my little sister whose hand I hold tightly, is crying.
‘Shh…little sister, shh….’ I croon. Later my soothing voice will turn harsh and my hand that caresses her little fingers will become a vise over her twisted mouth.
But for now we are merely strolling along the forest path looking for all the world like two sisters on our way to pick some fruit or find scraps of firewood that have become scarcer and scarcer in our village. We live in a forest but the wood from these trees is not good for burning, producing only smoke and ash in our fire pits. There is barely any food to cook anyway and water has become too precious for washing. We take sips throughout the day from the one bucket we have hauled from the muddy river.
The soldiers have passed this way many times in the past months taking all but two scrawny chickens we hid in the forest, our wilting vegetables, most of our buckets for carrying water from the river far away, and our men.
The first soldiers, who wore red arm bands, took my qajaw. No matter how much my chuch(we used the K’iche’ Indian names for father-qajaw and mother-chuch in my village), her chuch, my little sister and I begged and cried and beat at the soldiers with our fists, he was dragged away into the forest and we never saw him again.
Then the soldiers with black arm bands came and gave my brothers, 15 years old and 10 years old, sugar cane sticks and guns and took them away with the other young boys of my village. The last I saw of them, my older brother was marching away proudly cradling his gun. My little brother was crying, dragging the heavy weapon through the dirt and peeking at me over his shoulder while sucking on the sugar cane stick. The old men, like my chuch’s qajaw, were shot and thrown into a shallow ditch.
Two days later my chuch and her chuch had a plan all worked out for sending me and my little sister ‘North’ to a place called America, to safety. It was a grand plan while they were talking about it, but in reality, how could we do this? Two young girls, me 13, my sister 6, walking away from everything and everyone we had ever known to go into the unknown ‘North.’
We would have to walk by night and rest during the heat of the day under cover of trees and tall grasses. My chuch’s chuch told me how to find water and which fruits and plants were safe to eat and how to spot a snake or spider hiding in the fruit ready to bite us. We had to leave the village as if we were taking a walk with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a small sack with nuts, seeds and one bottle of water in it. We had to be very careful to look casual as there were spies everywhere nowadays. With all the men dead or taken away, the women had resorted to watching one another very closely for any indication of collaboration with either the red or black arm-banded soldiers. They wanted their men and boys back and some would do almost anything to achieve this. Spying became commonplace.
I am 13 so I know some things about life. I know I better not be caught by either group of soldiers, whether my brothers are with them or not. They are hungry and exhausted and some have a crazy look in their eyes. My 6 year old sister is not safe from their physical demands, nor is my chuch, nor her chuch. Young or old these soldiers want females to have sex with. We must flee while we can.
So, as the sun gets lower in the sky, my little sister and I walk as casually, but purposefully, as we can away from our hut. We wave goodbye to our chuch and I yell, ‘See you for supper!’ so everyone can hear me and think we will be back soon after gathering fire wood in the forest for cooking our meager supper. My little sister says nothing. She has not spoken since our qajaw was beaten and dragged away, our brothers lured away with sugar cane and guns and our chuch’s qajaw shot in front of our eyes and thrown away like garbage. I don’t know if she will ever speak again. Her thumb, firmly planted in her mouth, looks like a cork stopping up a clay jug used for saving the bones of our dear, dead ancestors. She is sealed and silent as the grave.
I wipe the tears from her cheeks and start to sing a song she liked as a baby and swing her arm as we walk away into the forest.
I used to love to walk here when my older brother was still playing games with me. I would hide in all sorts of crazy places while he ran around shouting my name, all the while knowing exactly where I was. I could not stop myself from giggling. He would creep up behind me as I hid under an elephant grass leaf, tap me on the shoulder, then roll in the dirt laughing while I shrieked.
But today there is no laughter. We are walking off the beaten path so we can hide quickly if anyone comes along, but this is not a game.
I imagine I hear footsteps behind us all the time and am constantly pulling my little sister under a fern or behind a banana tree. I quickly realize we did not wear the proper clothes and shoes for this journey to the mysterious ‘North.’ We have on shorts, white t-shirts and white canvas sneakers. They are our best clothes as far as having no holes in them, but white can be easily spotted amongst the green leaves and grasses. I take off my t-shirt and sneakers and make my little sister do the same. I roll them in the dirt and tell her we are now wearing camouflage outfits like our brothers, the new soldiers.
She smiles a tiny smile around her thumb, the first in weeks. I pick up long sticks to use as our ‘guns’ to frighten off snakes and lizards. I also use mine to knock down a small bunch of green bananas and then whack them to make sure there are no snakes or spiders wrapped up inside. We have food for this evening.
As we walk along I begin to think of our journey in terms of ‘borderlines’ to be crossed. If I think too far ahead I might go crazy wondering where we were going, how far to the next village, where is this path taking us?
The first borderline was the doorway at my mud house. That was the hardest one to step over. The next was the border between my village and the road into the forest. The next is up ahead somewhere. My chuch said to keep following the dirt road until I crossed a river that should be shallow enough this time of year to wade through.
We walk on until the sun begins to rise to our right. At least we had been walking north through the night. Soon I will need to find a place for us to hide during the day.
What’s that noise? A branch snapping? Have the villagers realized we did not come back last night and are looking for us?
I pull my little sister deeper into the forest to our left. When I peek out between the ferns I see men and boys with guns and black arm bands. One of the boys turns his head and looks right at me but doesn’t seem to see me. It is our older brother! His eyes look crazy and are rolling around this way and that, his head whipping back and forth, his finger jiggling on the trigger of his gun. I crouch lower, covering my little sister with my body. She starts making strangling noises in her throat and I know a full-fledged scream is not far behind so I clamp my hand hard over her mouth and whisper harshly into her ear, ‘Shut up!’
My brother stops for a moment, then moves on down the road with the others, crazy-eyes looking all around. My little brother is not with him. I wonder what has become of him and why my older brother is still with these soldiers and not protecting the younger one. I can’t think about this now or it will make me crazy, too.
It takes many hours for my little sister to calm down enough to try to sleep this first full day away from our home. It is difficult to get comfortable with the blazing sun overhead and our bellies growling. The little green bananas have probably made us sick. I tell her over and over how sorry I am for hurting her, but we have to stay absolutely silent. Even our beloved older brother is an enemy to us now. Finally we sleep. Fitfully, but we manage to sleep the day away.
Darkness descends like a blanket as the almost full moon rises in the east. We have enough light to find some dewdrops captured in the leaves of low-hanging branches to quench our thirst. Our bellies are still grumbling, but my little sister does not complain, just corks her mouth up with her thumb after sipping the dewdrops. I am determined to save the things in my bag until we really need them.
How much worse will things get?
We walk all night by the light of the moon and stars. I sing songs and tell stories aloud of things I remember of our life in the village. My little sister stumbles a few times and I know I will have to carry her soon. When she stops dead in her tracks I hoist her onto my right hip. Quite soon I have to switch her to my left hip, then straddle her thin legs across my lower back. She takes her thumb out of her mouth to hold onto my neck but once she finds her balance, corks it back in.
Just before daybreak the river appears before us. I can hear the rushing water and realize we are not going to be able to wade across like my chuch assured us would happen. We might even need a boat.
Along the bank of the river are many other people. Mostly children, like us. Mostly girls, like us. Where have they all come from? We have seen no one the past day and a half. Only the soldiers, our crazy-eyed brother and a few screeching monkeys.
We all stand in a line looking at the rushing water as the sun sets to our left. We are probably all thinking the same thing.
Now what do we do?
One taller girl points across the river and says: ‘Mexico.’
That’s where we were headed? Mexico? My chuch kept saying ‘North’ to America. But Mexico is in the way?’ How big is Mexico?
Some of the girls step into the water and when it does not sweep them away I run in with my little sister and we wash ourselves and our clothes as best we can. Our white t-shirts and sneakers are permanently brown now but they no longer smell so bad. I find a soap plant near the river bank and wash my little sister’s hair and mine so we smell and look a little better also.
We are shy with the others at first and not everyone speaks the exact same language, but we are together now, a force of 20 girls. We share our horror stories of fathers and grandfathers being beaten and killed, brothers taken away by soldiers, mothers and aunts raped. Some of these girls had been raped by the soldiers too. I pray my older brother has not been a part of that, or the killing either, but remembering his crazy eyes I can no longer be sure he is the same innocent boy I knew and loved. He has crossed over a borderline of his own.
As we sit shivering in the dark a large raft appears in the river, two men pushing it with long poles. They yell to us.
‘We are friends. We will help you cross this river.’
What can we do but nod ‘OK’ and step aboard.
Another borderline is crossed. The river that takes us into Mexico.
What lay ahead for us in this desert land?
I hold my little sister tightly against my chest. I am terrified this boat with no sides will roll over and dump us all into the river. We will drown and our chuch and her chuch will never know what has happened to us. Were we safe in America? Were we in school? Were we living with a nice family who would send for them next year? Or…did we die on the road, no one knowing who we were?
The raft bumps roughly into the opposite bank and presto! we are in another country. The two men do not ask for money which is a good thing since we have none.
Why are they helping us, then?
A big truck is waiting by some trees and we all climb inside. Again, what else can we do? I hand my little sister up to another girl we met on the raft, pull myself up and sprawl on the hot metal floor. The back door slides down with a clang as the sun comes up on day three.
We are encased in darkness once again only with no moon or stars to give some light and guidance. I try to sing a song but my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I hear the word ‘mama’ whispered in the darkness. It is the first word my little sister has said in over a week. I hold her tightly, choke out “Adios, Guatemala” and weep.
I would have said ‘Hola!’ to Mexico but we never saw it. We sat or lay down on the hot metal floor, or leaned against one another for comfort for many, many hours. The air became thick with whispers, sobs, body odor and other smells.
The man who drives the truck pulls to the side of the road once to let us out to relieve ourselves in the dark and stretch a little. But in ten minutes we are shoved back into the truck and told to stay quiet. We don’t need this reminder. More long, hot hours slide by.
Another borderline to cross:
The truck stops and I can hear a gate going up. Someone is knocking a stick or gun against the sides of the truck. Men’s voices argue back and forth. No one opens the back door. The truck starts up again after a few more minutes and we all let our breath out in one big ‘whoosh.’ We stay tense and alert. Anything can happen as we cross this border.
My little sister is feverish. All we have eaten are the seeds and nuts I saved in my bag and sips of hot water from the plastic bottle. She is too weak to cry but her thumb is still securely corked in her mouth. All the girls are sick in some way.
Will we ever make it ‘North’ to America alive?
The truck slows down to a full stop. Has a day gone by? Two? The back door slides up. The bright sun hurts our eyes. I jump down and my little sister is handed to me. She winds her thin legs around my waist as I hoist her onto my sore right hip. The driver of the truck says simply, ‘America.’
We made it! We are alive and in the ‘North.’ In America! I feel sad that the rest of my family cannot share this joyous moment, but so happy to be here! I think of all the things that will be possible for me and my little sister now. We will be free of hunger and the extreme poverty of our village. We will no longer have to fear the soldiers with their red bands or black bands and guns pointed at our heads. We will be free to go to school and get a job at a magical place called ‘Walmarts.’ We will send for our chuch and her chuch next year and have them live with us in a brick house on a street lined with trees. We will find my brothers somehow and bring them over too. Maybe we will have a cat and a dog.
I hear cheering voices and see flags and signs fluttering in the hot breeze. The people of this place are excited to see us, are welcoming us to America. I never expected such a wonderful thing!
I turn to the driver of our truck and ask him to translate these words of welcome. The voices are rising as one now, the banners held higher.
He looks at me with pity.
“They are saying, ‘Go home! Back to Mexico! Go home!’”
I look closer at these people. I see now that their faces are angry. They are shaking their fists at us. One man has a gun pointed at us.
I say to the driver, ‘But we’re from Guatemala. If we go back home we will be killed or worse! We’re Guatemalan, not Mexican, so we can stay, right?’
He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, ‘Who knows?’
The crack in my broken heart.