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The Summer the War Came to Town

She stayed quiet as a mouse, hidden behind the ice cream parlor by the railroad tracks that cut her little village in half.  These tracks were the lifeline of this town. People either worked for the railroad, or the salt mines that needed the trains to move the salt out into the wide world, or worked in the few stores, food stands and bars that supplied the salt mine and railroad workers with their physical needs and desires. The sprinkling of churches fulfilled their spiritual needs. The cemeteries cradled their sorrows.

Today she was staying hidden until the noon train came through carrying Army troops from the induction base in Niagara Falls to the docks in New York City where these brave men would ship out overseas to the Great War happening in Europe and Asia. She had it all planned out. When the train stopped to drop off the mail bag she would jump out waving the little American flag she had ‘borrowed’ from one of the graves in the village cemetery. Not from the Catholic section where her family’s dead reside. That would be sacrilegious at the very least. She would put the flag back into the ‘dearly departed son’ Methodist plot when the train pulled away.

Around 11:50 a.m. the villagers start to line the tracks on either side even though the Station Master has yet to ring the bell announcing the troop train’s imminent arrival. Over the past months when the train depot’s bell has rung, all the kids run alongside the slow-moving cars filled with smartly uniformed young men, throwing them candy and cigarettes and yelling ‘kill a Kraut for me – or two!’, or ‘Good luck over there’ or ‘Hurray for the USA’ and other foolish things. She stays hidden until the last possible moment because she is supposed to be at her Grandpa’s Bar and Grill helping her Grandma serve the lunchtime crowd. She sneaked away when everyone was otherwise occupied. Not a great plan, but she never liked missing a troop train going by.  It was the only excitement in an otherwise dull as dishwater weekend.

But today is different. No bell is rung even though she can hear the train rumbling along the tracks, see the black smoke as it rises into the still noonday air. Now, as she peeks around the corner of the ice cream parlor she sees the engine is not pulling passenger cars, but cars used to transport cattle. As the cars roll slowly by, there are eyes peering through the slats and uniformed arms hanging out with  strange-looking marks on the sleeves. The crowd is stone silent. No one throws cigarettes or candy. No one waves an American flag. She hears a man’s voice – the Post Master’s? – say ‘These aren’t our boys. They’re Nazi devils. May they rot in Hell!’

And, in the blink of an eye, she understands what has been going on in the valley a few miles from her village, not far from where she lives with her Grandparents. But why here, in the middle of nowhere? Or is that the point? Who would ever guess there were German POWs near little Silver Springs, New York? Her curiosity pulls her from her hiding place. The villagers who are lining the tracks stand as still as cemetery statues. No one is looking around, so she walks up to the curb in front of the ice cream parlor and, she too, stands stock still while the cattle cars roll slowly by. She is fascinated by the pairs of eyes staring at her and, against her patriotic will, she waves a small wave to one young face partially showing through a fair-sized hole in the side of one of the cars. She sees his blond hair, blue eyes – one eye really – and a chin with very few whiskers on it. Why, he can’t be more than 17! She wiggles her fingers again and he flashes a brief smile, then a look of despair clouds his face once more as his car moves on down the track.

After the last car exits Silver Springs and the train picks up speed again, the few villagers still standing around shake their fists at the receding caboose. A few yell swear words, but most just turn away and go back about their business. She feels she is the only one who wants to follow the train and get a closer look at ‘the enemy.’ She knows about the terrible war in Europe and in the far off Pacific Ocean. Aren’t her two favorite uncles, Rudy and Jimmy, over there fighting the Nazi and Japanese devils? Doesn’t she hear her Grandma crying at night while cradling pictures of her beloved sons? And yet…something gnaws at the edges of her mind as she walks slowly back to her Grandpa’s bar, the American flag belonging to ‘dearly departed son’ left behind at the curb. The young Nazi man she got a glimpse of. Isn’t his mama crying at night for him, not knowing he is alive and right here in Wyoming County scared and missing his home?

She resolves in that moment to go to the POW camp and find that young Nazi man.

Well…that was easier said than done. When her Grandma found out she had skipped lunch duty she was stuck working in either the bar washing dishes or in the house doing just every chore her Grandma could think up for her to do. She couldn’t see any of her friends outside of school for a week!

But, finally, the week ends and on a Saturday afternoon after her chores are done she knocks on  her best friend’s kitchen door and the two are off to the ice cream parlor. While savoring every last drip of their vanilla cones she lays out her plans for sneaking close to the POW camp. She doesn’t say she is looking for any one POW in particular, just spying on everyone in there. Her friend is hesitant to go along but they did everything together so she finally says yes.

They get their bikes and start the four mile trek towards Castile. The road is mostly flat so an easy ride until they reach the small hills that border the camp. As they crest the steepest hill, panting with the effort, her mouth drops open and an ‘Oh my goodness gracious’ escapes her lips. The girls look at each other in amazement then back to the scene below.

There are lots and lots of people down there, maybe hundreds, maybe a thousand! Barbed wire fencing surrounds a huge piece of land. There are many low buildings where the prisoners must sleep. There are outhouses scattered around the perimeter. There are American soldiers with rifles walking around the camp and four small towers with armed men guarding the fence lines from above.  After taking this all in, the thought occurs to her: What do they do here all day? It is late June and getting warmer in the afternoons. There are no trees in this valley for shade and nothing to keep hundreds of men occupied day after day. The general atmosphere seems pretty calm from her perch. Maybe these Nazi prisoners don’t mind so much being away from the war at home. Maybe they are even a little glad to be here. It seems like a safe place somehow.

After an hour or so the girls pedal home, each lost in her own thoughts. How am I going to find the young Nazi  I saw for 10 seconds the day the train rolled by? I will find a way to see him again. I will!

The days and weeks go by in a blur of end-of-the-schoolyear activities. She graduates from the eighth grade and soon it is the 4th of July and the summer heat and general lethargy have kicked in. the girls have no opportunity to go back to the POW camp and are itching to do so. They have started their summer jobs making money that both families need, working evenings in the ice cream parlor when it is busy with kids and even grownups lining up for a cold milkshake or ice cream cone. Their arms ache from scooping ice cream from the big tubs behind the front counter but this is good for their muscles when it comes time to harvest the field crops come early August. She also works every morning and afternoon at her Grandpa’s Bar and Grill.

She daydreams about the Nazi soldier, trying to picture what he is doing, which building he lives in, how he spends his long, hot summer days. She gives him a name. Heinrich. The only other German-sounding name she knows is Rudolph, but that is her favorite uncle’s name and he is overseas in Germany fighting the Nazis, so that doesn’t seem right.

It’s August now and the first field crops of tomatoes and green beans and snap peas are ready to be picked. Because so many area men are away to the war, every able-bodied villager has to go out to the farms to help with the harvest. The girls ride off on their bikes at 6:00 a.m. even on a Sunday morning. The village priest has granted a ‘special dispensation’ for his parishioners to miss Mass for the next month of Sundays. Even he is out in the fields in his funny straw hat picking tomatoes and beans alongside his flock of worshipers.

One especially sweltering Sunday morning there’s a thrumming noise along with a long, single cloud of dust as truck after truck move along the one road leading to the fields. The trucks stop alongside the villagers’ bikes and out jump the Nazi POWs still in their army uniforms, now a bit tattered and frayed but, it must be admitted, still smart-looking. The girl looks up from her row of green beans and there before her stands her German soldier – as she has thought of him these many weeks – tall, blond with the clear blue eyes piercing into her very soul. And she is catapulted into a future in which she is an old woman telling this story to her great-granddaughter Liesle who has the piercing blue eyes and white- blond hair of her great-grandfather, long dead now, whose name turned out to be Heinrich. Really……

Spiral of Time

I have always been fascinated by the theory of ‘time-travel.’ Can this happen? And if it does, how does a person cope with the phenomenon of living in two places at once? How would she keep all the people and places straight in her mind?

During my research I came upon the word ‘fugue’ and looked up its meaning – of which there are a few. They may seem to be very different, but perhaps not. I played a CD of Bach’s Fugues for the Harpsichord while writing and that helped me understand the inter-weavings of time and space through musical notes.

 

Fugue: a musical form consisting of a theme repeated a fifth above or a fourth below the continuing first statement.

Fugue: a dreamlike state in which a person disappears from normal life, travels extensively and loses memory of the previous life. Personality dissociation, a psychotic condition.

Fugue: from Italian/Latin: a running away or flight from

Weaving these various meanings of the word ‘fugue’ together I have written the following short story – the ending of which leaves the window open for my main character’s further travels through time.

 

Spiral of Time

 

She sits at the

pian0-forte

letting the fingers of

her right hand

flicker over the keys

of ebony and ivory.

Occasionally, a few

of the notes

sound like something she

almost

remembers…..

 

The melody is

just beyond

her           reach.

 

Almost has it….

but no,

it is gone again

 

the Cs and Ds and F-sharps

 

f  l  o  a  t  i  n  g   a w  a  y

into

space

 

past the edges of the blank page

that is

her

past.

 

Her gaze lowers to see

herself

seated upon

a velvet cushion

that spins

counter-clockwise when

she pushes on

the carpeted floor with

her satin-slippered foot

to give herself the exact

height she needs to

place her fingers upon

the keys and position her small foot

on the pedal

just          so….

Piano-forte , she thinks,

what a lovely name

for a musical instrument.

soft-loud

or

whisper-shout

or

muted-strong.

Opposites  waiting, breathless,

to make a pleasing collaboration

of sounds……

 

She runs her fingers

over the keys

made from

elephant tusks

and loses herself

in thoughts of

those mighty creatures

hunted down

to make these keys

under her slender hands.

 

While musing thus

on these thoughts

and others

her foot swivels

the velvet stool towards

the floor-to-ceiling window where

her reflection catches her

unaware

she stares

in surprise and not a little fright

at the wavy, muted form and

stands straight up.

 

She feels

dizzy

and

fizzy

puts her hand on  the

window glass

to steady herself.

Thoughts and images

come in

roiling

and

coiling

tripping over

one another

in their haste

to fill her

brain.

She peers closer

at the

reflection

still wavy in

the glass

and sees she is wearing

a dressing gown

of ivory like

the piano-forte keys

and flowing like

the musical notes

she cannot quite

remember….

 

Her waist is

tightly cinched by a corset

the gown’s sleeves of lace

falling away when

she stretches her arms

upward to

pat her hair.

Her hair!

swept up atop her head

and

it looks

red!

She pats her hair once more

re-pinning the

escaping tendrils back

behind her ears with

the ivory combs.

 

More elephants sacrificed for me?

 

She straightens and smooths

the dressing gown and

tries to take a deep breath

nearly impossible in this confining corset.

 

She slows her now rapid

shallow breathing and her racing

pulse

 

Okay

 

She feels a bit

calmer now

dreamy in fact and

curious…

 

Where am I?

which leads to

What is my name?

which, because of the

strange way she is dressed,

inevitably leads to

 

When am I?

 

Just as these

thoughts

race and

tumble

upon

one another

a young man

steps over the threshold of

an open floor-to-ceiling

window

at the opposite end

of the room

and cries

‘There you are!’

 

which outburst answers none

of the questions

posed to her reflection

a few moments before.

 

He rushes towards her

grasps her hands

and declares,

‘Where have you been?’

 

(good question, she thinks)

 

‘I was so worried when

you did not return from

your walk into town.’

 

 

Barely trusting her voice

for she does not know

what it will sound like

to him (or to her)

she whispers instead,

‘I lost track of time’

 

How true!

 

He laughs, then,

‘Of course you did, my dear,

and you look quite tired

come sit on the divan

whilst I get you a glass

of cool lemonade.’

 

She sinks, gratefully,

onto the damask-covered sofa

(divan he called it)

and she thinks how

nothing about her surprises him

not her face

nor her dressing gown

nor her voice

nor the fact she was playing

the piano-forte…

All are familiar to him

so names are not needed.

They must know one another

intimately.

 

Unbidden, the melody

overtakes her thoughts

again

the one her fingers were

absent-mindedly

picking out earlier.

The first few notes sing

inside

her head

repeated in higher

tones

then lower

tones,

disjointed, strange,

yet pleasing and

yes, alluring…

 

Her fingers ache

to play the keys once more

but she folds her hands tightly

before her as

Victor steps back into the room

comically balancing two glasses

and a pitcher on a tiny

silver tray.

 

Victor! that is his name….

and she is saved!

    at least for now.

 

‘Here, drink this slowly so

you do not feel faint from

the shock of the cold.”

(only the shock of the cold?)

‘Thank you, Victor, for the drink

and your concern for my

health and well-being.’

He looks at her strangely

perhaps pondering

her formality with him.

Who is he to her?

brother, 

friend,

lover perhaps?

She will have to tread lightly

and ask questions

that are leading

yet

not so as to arouse

his suspicions as to

her current mental state (which is what?)

 

Boldly she asks, ‘Victor, do we have plans for

this evening? I have quite forgotten whether

we are dining in or elsewhere.’

 

‘Oh, my love,

my sweet Emily,

how can you have forgotten?’

 

 

Borderlines

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?’

 

Last borderline:

The crack in my broken heart.

 

Save Me

It is dark. So dark she cannot see her fingers when she wiggles them in front of her face. Her body is pressed in on all sides by other young girls. Girls, like herself, alone and frightened.

The stench in the bottom of this boat is so overwhelming even the scarf she has pressed over her nose and mouth does not keep it away. She tries to breathe slowly and shallowly not letting too much of the stench into her lungs. Sweat, vomit and urine mixed with something denser, deeper – basic animal fear. She could taste it on her lips, inside her mouth.

The girl pressed into her right side sobs aloud and is quickly shushed by the older girl pressed against both their backs.

How long have they been on this boat? She has never been on a boat before, even though her family lives by the water. Only her father and two older brothers go fishing with their small boat. Every day they would go out looking for fish to feed their own family and, hopefully, with enough extra to sell in the market. Every day, that is, until the day her father and brothers did not return at sundown. Other fishermen found their boat, but not her father and brothers.

Her mother cried and cried. How would the rest of the family of 11, now 8, eat? Women were not allowed to work outside of their homes.

The youngest of her brothers were sent to beg in the streets. They weren’t very good at it and came home with only 1 or 2 coins and long, sad faces. They hated begging in the streets where their friends might see them.

The girl could tell the family would not survive much longer with no food and no way to pay the rent for the small, dirty hut away from the water and sun they now had to live in. No yard to grow vegetables in like before, no hope for going to school now – for her brothers, that is. Girls in her fishing village did not go to school. No point to it, since they would be marrying young, having enough children to help with the fishing and gardening while the wives learned to clean fish and pack them to be ready for sale on market day.

Soon, her parents would have chosen a husband for her. It would soon be her 14th birthday, time for her to marry and start having babies. Now, however, without a father and older brothers to negotiate a marriage for her, this would never happen. Sometimes girls without fathers married if she brought enough property and money to the marriage, but she had neither.

What to do? What to do?

Her mother cried all the day long and their stomachs were empty at the end of each day.

One day, about a month after her father and brothers disappeared she found she had wandered to the middle of her village. In the village square was a man, a handsome man wearing a white caftan and white trousers. He had a white straw hat in his left hand and was gesturing with his right hand for her to come to him. When he smiled, his teeth gleamed whitely, blazing in the sunlight. Even his voice sounded white.

He told her he was looking for young, strong girls just like herself to work for rich people farther inland. Could she cook, clean fish, sweep a floor? The girl nodded yes and yes again! She could do all these things!

This was all a lie. Her mother did all the work in the house.
The girl would learn these things after her fourteenth birthday in 3 weeks. The secrets of womanhood still eluded her, but soon all would be revealed. The girl was desperate to impress this man with the blazing smile, so she answered yes to everything he asked.

He told her he was looking for young, hard-working girls who came from good hard-working families who had fallen upon hard times. He knew of wealthy families in the nearest big city who were in need of maids and cleaning women and nannies for their spoiled children. They paid handsomely for these young workers. Would she like to be one of these chosen girls? She would live in a castle, enjoy the best food, be able to save money from her monthly salary to send home to her mother.

Yes, yes, yes!

The man with the blazing smile said there was only one little task she needed to perform first. He asked for ‘only $900’ to pay for her passage to the big city, uniforms for her new position and government papers to prove who she was and why she was traveling inland. If her mother agreed to this arrangement and paid the $900 she could leave by the beginning of next month, on her 14th birthday.

The girl was thrilled. New shoes, new clothes, a new cloak, food, a room in a castle and wages to send to her family.

She was so excited about this opportunity to save her family from starvation and shame that she ran all the way home, even though a proper young woman, no matter her social status, would never run in the village streets. Because she was so pretty the townspeople indulged her high spirits and forgave her for running through the town. She was a good runner and her braids flew straight out behind her ears in a most comical and charming way, or so she had been told. She was her father’s favorite, even above her brothers, so she could not let them down even after their deaths.

The man with the blazing smile provided a better, richer life she could not refuse. So…she begged and cried and pleaded and stamped her foot until her mother gave in and sold her  wedding sari with the golden threads she was saving for the girl’s wedding. The wedding that now would never take place. The sari plus her mother’s wedding band fetched the $900 needed to travel to the inland city where the girl’s exciting new life was about to begin.

 

In the dark, by the water, 20 of us, mostly girls of 14 years or younger, stood in a circle holding tightly to our bundles of clothing and perhaps a stuffed dolly we just couldn’t part with. We all tried to smile at one another, but soon our heads were bowed and we became lost in our own thoughts.

The man with the blazing smile came striding into our circle with his hands outstretched to collect the money we brought. After collecting the money he also collected our travel papers which had been made out quite properly for each of us. He would stow these items for safe-keeping until we returned to visit our families on our first day off a month from now.

I as yet sensed no harm in the man’s actions. They made sense to a 13 year old girl.

Then he had some men collect our luggage and stuffed dollies claiming they would also be safer in one place until we were assigned to the rich people’s home in which we would be living and serving.

We climbed into the fishing boat and were wondering aloud how such a small boat could carry us and all of our possessions to the bigger town upriver when to my surprise the boat turned around and went down the river into the harbor. There, a large boat strung with little lights and rising higher into the air than any building in my neighborhood, lay waiting for us. I came to know this big boat to be a sailing yacht for rich people to sail across the wide water in front of us.

When we climbed on board there were perhaps 30 girls already there. We were tossed in with them. No money, no bundles of our precious possessions and, more alarmingly no government papers to prove who we are. It slowly dawned on me that we had been kidnapped and would never see our families again. The money my mother had sold her most prize possessions for was lining the clean, white pockets of the man with the blazing smile. Who knew where we were going now? We climbed a rope ladder up onto the deck of the bigger boat and were shoved belowdeck where I found myself in a space so dark I could not see my fingers when I wiggled them in front of my face.

The next morning – I could only guess it was morning by the tiny slices of light blinking through the spaces between the slats of wood overhead, the cries of the birds seeking their morning breakfast, and the muffled sighs of the men as they came awake above us – I found myself in the same dark, dank putrid hole I was in all night. So, this had not been a dream I could awaken from. It was a nightmare that I would never be able to escape.

Soon there was the sound of a motor and laughter both high like a woman’s and low like a man’s. The motor stopped and there was a thud as a smaller boat carrying these people hit against the side of our boat. More laughter. I heard people climbing the rope ladder we had used the night before, but these women were allowed to stay up on the top deck in the warm sun and cool breeze and fresh salty air.

These people were not barefoot as we were. I could hear the clacking of metal heels on the floor boards above our heads. Then I heard a sound that froze my blood in this hot, sticky, stifling place.

It was the deep rumbling laughter of the man with the blazing smile. I had wished to never see him again, but here was my captor laughing right above me with his friends.

What other surprises awaited me?

The older girl in charge of us whispers to us to stay silent. Not one sound or we will be discovered and all killed and thrown over the deck as food for the sea monsters. We all believe her.

Just as she finishes giving us this warning something scuttles across my cramping, outstretched legs with claws that dig into my flesh. It must be a rat. A scream forms in my throat and travels up my tongue into my mouth. It sits behind my clenched teeth and lips pressed tightly together. It wants to escape into the fetid, heavy air. If I open my lips even the slightest bit the scream will escape and go on and on and on….spinning and spiraling up and up through the tiny slits in the boat’s boards overhead and up into the clean, cool sea air. Then upward into the sky. Perhaps my scream will travel on the wind back home to my mother who will stop in mid-sweep with her worn broom in one hand gnarled with work and age, the baby strapped to her back crying weakly from hunger. Perhaps she cocks her head slightly thinking she hears my voice but, ‘no’ her eldest daughter is no longer in the hut, no longer in the fishing village, no longer in the bigger town upriver working for a wealthy captain of many fishing boats. No, her sweet eldest daughter, soon to be 14, is no longer even in the same country. I think about being food for the sea monsters and swallow the scream that is knocking against my front teeth and I pull my bare legs in closer to my chest and wait for what, I do not know.

The boat’s motor starts up and we must be heading out to sea now. After a while the motor stops, but we keep moving so the sails must be up and they are moving with the wind. The waves are rough and the ride bumpy and many of the girls are vomiting adding to the stench and fear.

I can hear more laughter and music above my head, the clink of glasses, the booming voice of the man with the blazing smile. How can these people be enjoying themselves with so much misery right beneath their dancing feet? This question will stay with me my whole life. The distance between people like myself from people like those above will remain a mystery to me.

I have eaten nothing, but still manage to vomit as the boat hits wave after wave. Time slows down. The hours, minutes and seconds tick slowly by marked by pain in every part of my being, throbbing in my head and behind my eyes. Hurting my very heart.

I am like my baby sister now. Too weak to even cry properly.

The boat suddenly stops, knocking against wood, a dock somewhere in the world. The chattering people with the noisy, metal heels go down a plank of wood and disappear, their laughter floating back on the sea air. After a while, hours perhaps, a man opens a door in our ceiling – his floor – and sends a ladder down beckoning us to climb up. No one can move at first as our legs are frozen into whatever position we have been sitting in all night and day. Our clothes are soaked with urine and vomit and worse. But, slowly, ever so slowly, we rise and push or partially carry one another up the ladder.

I wait until all the other girls are above deck. I climb up the rough wooden ladder and poke my head out the hole and stop, startled by the harsh sunlight even though the sun is setting now. I am made breathless by the clean salty air filling my ruined lungs. I am amazed by the sight before me. A castle with a high stone wall all around. Sand. Lots and lots of white sand dazzling even in the fading sunlight. I walk down the plank of wood and step one small bare foot onto the sand, spellbound by the sight before me.

 What will become of me now? Someone, please save me!

 

Across the expanse of sand, beyond the castle and its walls of protective stone that will soon become the girl’s prison, an American woman is sitting by her kitchen window, safely inside her gated community of ex-patriots.

A cup of tea is midway between the table and her parted lips. She is wondering why she is in this desert country, so foreign to anything she has ever known. She feels a chill and shivers although it is turning out to be another scorching day. Something, someone has just called out to her: “Save me….”

“Yes,” she whispers to the empty house, to her empty self.

“Yes.  Please God. Save Me.”