first appeared in Minerva Rising Literary Journal, Issue 8, www.minervarising.com
We crossed the border after midnight. Now, I am leaning against the window of the train, thirsty, nervous. My eyes sting, like some dust or some smoke is in the air. Abuela would say: Laguna Cristela, your eyes sting because you have been looking at things you should not see. My grandmother, she always knows.
Oh, the things I have seen the past month since she trusted me to the care of my Tío Manuel. This is the truth. It is a long journey from home in Guatemala, to la frontera. I would never believe it if I had not done it. I, Laguna Cristela de Santiago slept the past two nights in a house filled with ladies of the night. I do not mean the flower by that name. I mean flesh and blood women of ill reputation. We had nowhere else to stay, in the town called Tijuana. My uncle told me, “Lagunita, just turn your face. Turn the other cheek. Pretend you do not see what you see.” My uncle claimed that it was the safest place to rest. The policía never bother the red light house, because the patrona of the house has an arrangement with them.
To tell you the truth, I did not officially sleep there. All the night, both nights, music blared from a half-broken boom box. The poison scent of tobacco smoke and the borracho laughter of the men who entered by the front door—all of these elements conspired to keep me from sleep. I wrapped myself snug in a woolen blanket and tried to inhale the scent of home from the threads of the wool. I tried to imagine the soft balo, balo of the sheep, the lyrical whistling of my Papa, the scent of smoke from the fire where my abuela always grills tortillas on the comal. I tried to imagine the taste of the maíz, and also, for good measure, the scent of chocolate stirred into warm milk. None of these imaginings could take me away from the fact that I hid in a house of poor reputation, trembling, surrounded by shreds of nightmares. If Abuela had been there, she would have known what charms to place in each corner of the room to ward off the ill omens, bad luck, and fallen fortunes. She would have known what prayers to chant to protect us. But she had sent me away, on this long journey without her.
But then, we crossed to el norte, during the hour when the new moon was no longer visible. We did not even need to walk, except for a short way, stumbling in the dark, through a rocky arroyo where no bridge remained. The men who arranged our crossing had not wanted to drive the truck across with twenty-five passengers, so we each walked. That short way. Then, back in the truck, sour with the smell of days-stale vomit, and some dark stains that could be spilled chocolate, but were probably somebody’s sangre.
The only person I know in our group is my uncle. He calls me “Lobo” and we pretend that I am his son. I do not speak. Nobody notices the places in my ears that usually hold my mother’s gold earrings. I am no longer wearing my long skirt, the traje, embroidered with one thousand birds and flowers. I have been wearing a boy’s shirt and long pants bought from a market in the city. Nobody sees my long, thick braids, because Abuela cut them off three weeks ago. Desaparecido, just like my father. My earrings were sold to pay for this passage. Tío Manuel has been this route before. Many times. He whispers that it is his easiest crossing, that the gods bless our passage. He reminds me not to speak. Our accent is extranjero—we are of the mountains, Maya. Not Mexicano. Not speaking español with the correct sounds. I do not know all the words to tell about our passage across la frontera. My whole life, my uncle has been teaching me English, words and phrases to help me in the world. He says, “Times are changing, and we have to learn new ways.” But even so, this journey requires words I never knew.
I secretly spied through cracks in the wooden shutters, and watched the women of the red light house, outside in the back yard during daylight, while they scrubbed laundry, while they emptied la basura. So, if you want to know the truth, some of these looked like they might be younger than me. And I am in my fourteenth year. They are merely children. And by night, they sell themselves. By a twist of fate, I might have been locked into that house forever. But my uncle protected me. He knows the ways. He had taken his own sister, my mother, across, three years ago. He had taken his own wife across, when she was five months pregnant. He had taken them across and returned to our village, promising to bring my father, and me as well. My grandmother refused to travel to el norte. “I am born in the shadow of this volcano, and here I shall remain,” she vowed. “If I leave, who will weave the cloth? Who will milk the cows? Who will feed your grandfather, now that he is old?”
Even after the terrible night that my father did not come home from the village meeting, even after that night, when they could not deliver even a body to bury, even after ten men from our town went missing—like that! Like jaguars vanished into the forest. Even then, Abuela refused to leave. “I will wait for the return of your papá. But you, Laguna. Now, you must go north.”
And so, we are in California, riding a train. Crowded with many people. Some wear fancy city clothes, on their way to work. Families, and lots of children jumping in the aisles. The children eat sticky candy and whine because they are tired. They speak in other languages. I hear a few words of English. “Sit here. Be quiet. Where are we?” The simple words I learned from school. I hear other words that swirl like butterflies, just out of my reach.
“Northbound, Pacific Starlight train to Los Angeles,” a man in a uniform calls. My tío, who speaks perfect English from his many years at the university and traveling, politely offers two paper tickets to the train conductor. He makes a mark on the tickets then walks down the aisle and on to the next people. I slump against the window. Today I am wearing a brand new tee shirt that says University of California. I wear a baseball cap, backwards, like the pictures of rock musicians in magazines that Abuela forbids. Some other people we crossed with sit in different cars of the train. Some did not take the train, but found other ways after the coyote left us somewhere that is blurred in my memory. My tío told us, “Spread out. Blend in. Pretend like you belong.”
The train slows, then stops. Alongside our train, trucks and cars rush by. The road is wide, wider than a river. Cars flow along this river like many, many boats, so close together they are almost touching. Tío passes me a bottle of warm agua. I am very thirsty, and very tired. He looks at me closely, and whispers, “We are almost there. Una hora más o menos: we will be there. Los Angeles.”
I can hardly believe that I will see my mother. I barely remember what she looks like, only the creased photo that is on the altar, in our house at the edge of the lake. After three years, she will never know me: no braids, wearing boy’s clothes, so tall, no longer a girl. I tell Tío Manuel that I must go to el baño. He walks with me, holding my shoulder to steady my steps, as the train sways, stops, starts, like when I ride a reluctant donkey on the side of the mountain.
“See!” He points out the window. “The ocean. The sea that reaches all the way around the earth.”
Dark shapes float on the ocean’s surface, like large birds. I see palm trees, and many, many houses. Tall towers, so massive that every person from our entire village could live in a single building. My uncle waits in the corridor, while I visit the toilet. I am dizzy, and feel that I will be sick. After I lean over the toilet to vomit, the bad feeling passes, but the bad smells remain. I splash water from the faucet onto my face. When I look in the mirror, the person who stares back is a stranger. Except for the way that her two top teeth cross over, just a touch. From the outside of my skin, and on the inside, I am no longer the person I was. I splash more water on my face. I pretend it is water from our lake. I pretend it is water that my Papa splashes on my face, as his funny joke, while we’re in his boat, fishing in the lake.
Then, our train lurches, so that I fall against the wall of the compartment. Outside the small window, I see a long stretch of desert. No more cars, no more beach. No telephone wires. Only in the far distance, some mountains, and dirty looking clouds. The train has stopped. I hear my uncle outside the compartment. He clears his throat in the way he does when he is nervous. Someone is speaking to him in rapid English. Tío says words I cannot understand. Then, clearly, he says, “You have no right to take me. I have documents. Here, let me get them from my luggage.” And he mumbles, as if he is sending me a secret message, “La migra.” Then, Tío switches to English, clearly, “Oh, what a morning. My sister is waiting for me in Los Angeles. She hates it when I am late.” Then he switches to Spanish, uses his funny theatre voice, the voice when he tells stories to me and my cousins. “Mi hermana me está esperando in Silverwood, Silverwood, Silverwood.” Like he is singing and whistling. But inside my heart, I am crying.
From the small dusty window of the baño, I watch people in uniforms take my uncle and a few of the others who crossed with us last night, and some other people I never saw before in my life. They walk away from the train and climb into a van. The van has special lights on top, and large letters painted on the side. My heart is flip-flopping like a frog trapped in a bucket. I want to run after my uncle, but know this is crazy. So I stay, frozen, staring while my uncle disappears, who-knows-where.
The train lurches forward, onward. For some reason, all I can think of is to say a blessing that this problem happened on the north side of the border. What if I had been abandoned in the brothel?
The train is rocking gently, and its wheels make a clickety-clack almost as loud as my heart pounding some confusing message to my brain. I have no idea what to do. I wait a good, long while in the privacy of el baño before walking back to my seat. I know that my mother and my aunt do not really live in Los Angeles. They live in a smaller place near Los Angeles. My tío always says that things don’t always turn out the way you plan. The town where my mother lives has an American name, Silverwood. I hope I can find her. The train makes a screeching, whistle sound. It travels on the edge of a cliff. Below is an ocean, and in the sky, a helicopter like the government sent the day the problems started in our village. Many seabirds, skim the surface of the waves while they soar, so sure of themselves. I would like to reach out and touch one, let the birds fly me wherever they are going.
We are no longer in the desert. The train stops at a little station, bustling people with suitcases, shady with flower boxes and palm trees. No men in uniforms. No guns, no vans with police lights. The captain of the train strides through the car. He is tall, with dark skin, almost the color of charcoal, and a deep voice, a voice that might sing prayers if he were in church. “Las Palomas. Las Palomas. Northbound train. Next stop: Oceanside. All out for Las Palomas.”
Most of the families are getting off here. I pull my uncle’s small travel bag from beneath the seat, and climb off the train, surprised at how salty the air smells. Surprised that nobody stops me. I look around, wondering if this is truly a town of las palomas. I remember the soft calling of so many gray doves that my grandfather loves to feed every morning. My uncle’s mobile phone is not in our travel bag. He must have had it in his pocket when they took him. A small paper with my mother’s address and phone number is wrinkled and grimy with dust. I fold it back into my pocket.
At the end of the sidewalk are steps down a steep sandstone cliff. I walk down, away from the station. Then I rest. I lean against the cliff and watch the water grow closer, closer, as the tide rises. Somewhere in the distance, a train whistles and I try to guess whether it is destined north, like the train I was riding. Or whether it is heading south, back toward the border. Maybe I should have stayed on the train, all the way to Los Angeles. But what if the police searched the train again, and put me in the jail somewhere, without even my tío for company? I am in a world of dizzy confusion. The cliff shakes like an earthquake; but it’s only another train.
This is the edge of the earth, where land turns to sand, and then to sea. Seabirds make their noise and song, and the waves pound so loud that I forget the timid thump of my own solitary heart. Soledad. I am truly alone, despite hundreds of people who wander the beach to enjoy the ocean on a summer afternoon.
In the town where I come from, any visitor is obvious. People will not let a stranger walk by without inviting them to the house, or asking hello, or do you need anything. We can tell who is a stranger by the style of clothes they wear. Each village of the highlands has a different design of traje, a different pattern of embroidered design. In this world of California, I think, I must blend in to survive. Like a fish in the middle of so many other fish. Like a child in the middle of so many other children at the beach, playing and laughing and even crying.
I must find a way. To phone my mother. I must avoid la migra. I must keep eyes out for my uncle. It doesn’t hurt to look, even if they put him away in jail. America, land of the free. I am free to head north, or south. To keep going, or to give up, just sit here at the edge of the sea and let God sweep me away. It took five weeks to travel from my village to reach Tijuana. If I start walking along the tracks, how many days will it take to arrive at Los Angeles? Or will I be murdered by a crazy-in-the-head? If only my uncle’s phone was still in our travel bag. All that remains is an extra shirt, a bottle of water, and the wool blanket that Abuela gave me for the journey.
I find a little spot to sit on the sand. I build a design of shells and rocks, and think of my mother, my quiet little village. I pray for the safety of my uncle and, of course, my father, if maybe he will come back from the night that swallowed him. The ocean tumbles onto my shells, carries them away. Desaparecidos. I picture the place where my mamá might be, some big house in Los Angeles, like in the movies. The tide is still rising. Now it touches my feet. The choice is to swim, or to stand and walk. In my mind, I would climb on top of one of the large seabirds and fly away. Somehow, I stand. I begin to walk, north, away from the town. Nobody pays me any attention. While I walk, am listening to a dream that my mamá used to sing.