We have been working our way through the forest for most of the day, speaking as little as possible, thinking our separate thoughts. We have been wiping our foreheads with the backs of our hands and drinking sparingly from our canteens, knowing with each step that it is not too late to turn back.
And yet we know also that we will not turn back. We have set our feet on a path that will lead us to one of two places. One is Hell. The other is, if not Heaven, at least something better than what we have.
It is not an easy decision to leave one’s country behind. Not easy at all. And I am not a brave man, not nearly as brave as Carlos.
But I have had enough. One only gets one life to live. To accept what life has become–what allour lives have become–it is giving up esperanza, giving up hope. And there must always be hope.
My grandfather told me that a long time ago. We had gone fishing, and he came out with it unexpectedly. I remember nodding, thinking I would recall his words forever, for I loved the old man.
And see? I still remember them.
My grandfather did not like Carlos. For that matter, he did not like any of the boys who appeared at our door to date my sister. But he had liked Carlos least of all, it seemed to me, as I peered at them that night from the kitchen. A child of nine in his pajamas, I had watched Inez disappear into the night with her new boyfriend.
Carlos had caught a glimpse of me, and winked. It was a promise, it seemed to me, that I would one day have the freedom he had, the freedom to wear a black leather jacket and take girls out in my blue convertible.
And now we are friends, Carlos and I. We are equals. The realization intoxicates me, almost as much as the fact that we are leaving our country. Carlos Velasquez and I are iguales.
“Come on,” he says, his voice a rough whisper, as he makes his way between two boulders. He hooks at the air with his finger, a signal for me to follow.
All right, perhaps not equals. Carlos is still the leader.
I have not seen him smile lately the way he smiled when he took out my sister. Life had ground him down a little. Even him. He had sold his convertible before his twenty-fifth birthday, and his leather jacket as well. He had lost his job, found another, and lost that one too.
The sweetness, the dulzura, had gone out of his life. But he would get it back. We both would. That was what we had resolved, and that was what we do.
Unfortunately, there would be hardship first.
It would be easier if we could use the roads. But they are too easily visible from the air–from the drones. So we are forced to cross the wilderness if we want to find our Promised Land.
A wilderness where the sun is starting to go down, making it a bit more difficult for the drones to spot us. They have infrared, of course, but it is not as reliable as regular surveillance. Everyone who has tried to get over the Wall in the last few years knows that.
There was not always a Wall.
Once there were wire fences, and barriers of corrugated tin, and so on. But those only stood in the more civilized places, the more populated places. Elsewhere, in the deserts and in the mountains, there was nothing at all.
It was harder every day to remember such a time, when one could see all the way from one side of the valley to the other, when animal populations had yet to be cut in half, when communities were whole, when if one did not think too hard about it one could pretend it was all one land. Real hard now.
But there was such a time.
Maybe it would have stayed that way if politics in the United States had swung this way and not that way, if the man with the meticulously tailored suits and the orange hair and the air of power had not bullied his way into the American White House.
He was a strange man, to be sure. In our little part of the world, we had not heard much about him until he became a candidate for the presidency. And even then, we did not know a lot. We knew that he was wealthy, yes, and that he was charismatic in his way, and that some called him a spoiled, overprotected brat–a man more concerned with being on a list of the world’s wealthiest people than with the welfare of his fellow Americans.
But we did not know as much as we might have.
His campaign to become president was attended by protests, tens of thousands picketing the city of Washington, D.C. But this man let nothing stand in his way. Apparently, he had told lies all his life, and no one had held him accountable for them. It was no big deal for him to tell a few more lies–that the media was biased against him, that on his watch the government would be more open, more honest, that he would fight the war on drugs as no president had fought it before.
On Election Day, there were what many would later call “voting irregularities.” This strange and powerful man was accused of buying people’s votes. Yet the courts, perhaps afraid of his power, would not invalidate the election.
It did not take long before he showed what he meant by “open and honest.” In other words, not open or honest at all. Every day he became more secretive, making covert deals as he had done when he was only a businessman and not a public servant–telling people that what he was doing was in their best interest, but refusing to say what it was.
In one area alone, he was reliable and transparent. He had promised that he would make the Mexican government pay for a wall–a twelve-foot-high, impassable barrier–that would keep out the “rapists and criminals” that he claimed routinely snuck over the border. To the surprise of many, he kept that promise.
The woods through which we hike are full of familiar things, things I have all my life taken for granted. The flowers, especially. The little, yellow amantillo blossoms, the white stars on the sandpaper trees, the bursts of pink on the purple sage.
Also, the fat, red berries on the brush holly that we would crush on each other when we were kids. And the sharp spines of the allthorns, on which I had cut myself more than once.
The sweet scents. The sharp scents. The scents that brought memories.
Did they have such shrubs on the other side of the Wall? Such colors? Such scents?
I imagine they do. After all, it is men who have separated one side of the river from the other. Not nature. Not Dios. It is men who have decided to call one side the United States and the other side Mexico, and to impose different laws in those two places, and to forbid people from one side going to the other.
Whatever grows on one side of the river must grow on the other, no? It makes sense. I just do not know for certain.
In case they do not have purple sage on the other side, I pick a lush, dark-pink flower and put it in my pocket.
“Idiot,” Carlos says, glancing back at me over his shoulder.
He does not say why. He does not have to.
I take the flower out of my pocket and throw it away.
Mexico’s leaders had said they would never accede to the demands of the man with the orange hair. But faced with the loss of half a trillion dollars in American business, they caved in. They builtEl Muro, the Wall, and at Mexico’s expense. It was simple arithmetic. The Wall cost only a tiny fraction of America’s trade deficit with Mexico. In the end, the expense was sold to Mexicans as a reasonable investment.
So the Wall went up–and immigration went down. Just as America’s new president had predicted.
It was one thing to splash across the Rio Grande, racing to get to the other side before immigration officers could beat you to the spot, and another to get over a wall first. You might take a chance on dying in the desert or falling prey to the coyotes who were supposed to be your escort, or perhaps drowning in the river. But scale a twelve-foot wall only to have barbed wire rip the flesh off your bones? That was a different story.
There were tunnels, of course. Long ones, some tall enough for a man to walk upright in them. The older ones had been dug to smuggle drugs into the U.S. The newer ones had been dug after the wall went up, to smuggle people. But most of them–maybe all–were found and filled in, and there was too much in the way of surveillance to dig any new ones.
So one could not go under the Wall. One could only go over it.
At first, people simply stopped trying to do so. Then life in our country got worse. Much worse.
Jobs dried up like raisins. People could not afford to eat. Gasolina prices–which had remained at bay for a long time–soared sky high, despite the fact that nobody had money to pay them. There was no money for schools either–which was to say even less than before. Drugs, always a problem, and gun violence, also a problem, reached epidemic proportions. Protesters rioted in our cities, clashing with police, vandalizing businesses and setting fires.
After another terrorist scare in the capital, the government started looking more closely at everyone–man, woman and child–so what rights we had before were torn from us in one piece of legislation after another. And no one knew what to do about it.
Least of all our presidente, who by then had entered the last year of his term in office. He had had plenty to say when he was asking for our votes, plenty of promises to make, but of late he had gone silent as a corpse.
As the sun goes down, it becomes dark in the forest, hard to move without bumping into something or tripping over something. But it is not dark enough. The moon is only un creciente–a crescent–but I can see it through the branches above me. And before long, stars come out.
Under my breath, I curse the weather people. It was supposed to have been overcast. It was supposed to have been so dark you could not see your hand in front of you.
We can still go back to our bikes and choose another night. I begin to say as much to Carlos. But he shushes me and plows on.
And because he is Carlos Velasquez, I follow.
It was not perfect on the other side of the Wall. Not at all. But it was a lot better than on our side. People were not standing on food lines or getting gunned down in the streets. They were not selling some of their children for the chance to keep the others alive.
Before long, people tried to leave–Muro o no Muro. It did not go well for them. Most were shot before they reached the Wall, much less climbed over it.
Then they became more creative.
I had read about the Berlin Wall in school. Like us, the East Berliners had been desperate to get over a barrier, and sometimes they succeeded. One fellow managed to drive a truck through the wall.
Others sailed over it in a balloon. Still others shot a cable over the wall and zip-lined their way to freedom.
Likewise, our people found ways to get over El Muro.
But each time someone escaped, the border patrols got smarter. They took measures against any strategy that had worked.
What saved us was that the Mexican government was not richer. If it had had more money, it would have been forced to spend it on the Wall. It might have built a second barrier, and perhaps a third, and they would all have been twice as high as the one we had.
But if Mexico had been richer, people crossing the border might not have been such a sensitive subject, and the bully of an American president might not have been so adamant about El Muro in the first place.
Finally, Carlos holds his hand up, signaling for me to stop. I peer past him and see the glitter of distant water under the stars. The Rio Grande. Before we can reach it, we will have to cross a few hundred feet of open land–the length of a playing field. There is no other way.
Once, the banks on both sides of the river were heavily forested, a condition that made it difficult for border patrols to catch anyone here. But even before the Wall went up, the forests were cut back and the land was made bald.
There are lights here on tall poles, illuminating the place. There are drones, who will see us and report our presence as soon as we leave the embrace of the woods.
Of course, there are fewer guards now than when the Wall first went up. Guards require salaries, after all, even if they are only meager ones. Those salaries became a luxury our country could not afford.
But the drones–los aviones no tripulados? There is no shortage of those. Drones do not need salaries. All they need is fuel and maintenance.
They are floating in the night sky even now, unseen perhaps, but unquestionably present. Scanning the landscape below them as only birds scanned it before.
Has one of them caught sight of us already, spying us through the gaps among the trees? We cannot be sure. Maybe in the next few heartbeats a patrol will descend on us and put us in prison. But for now, we can still hope we have gone unnoticed.
I wait for Carlos to throw another signal over his shoulder–the one that will send us pelting across the open land. But he does not give such a signal. He just crouches in front of me, as if waiting.
For what? I wonder.
We know people who have tried to get over the Wall and failed. They have been thrown into prison and will never be let out. They are the cousins and sisters and fathers of our neighbors. Once they laughed and loved life. Now they languish in small, dirty cells, more dead than alive, knowing they had their chance and wasted it.
I do not want to be like them. More than once, I have told myself that
I would rather be shot.
“Carlos,” I breathe.
He turns to look back at me. His face is wet, his shirt dark in patches.
He looks like he has a fever.
“My stomach is in knots,” he says.
I feel the same way. “Of course it is. I would be worried about you if it was not.”
That is what I say. But inside, I am surprised. Carlos is our heart, our courage. If he can be afraid, what chance do we have?
He shakes his head. “I don’t know if I can do it, Jaime.”
“Of course you can,” I say before I have time to think. “We have been over it a thousand times. Just take a deep breath and let your feet do the rest.”
What am I doing? This is Carlos. Who am I to try to pump up the courage of someone like him?
To my surprise, he nods, as if what I have said matters to him in some way. “Of course. Vamos.”
We begin to run.
It is only then that I feel the burden of the loved ones we are leaving behind. The ones who were too old to come with us, or too sick, or too young. Or just too afraid. I feel them on my back, clutching at my ankles.
I know now why Carlos said I was an idiot. Even a purple sage flower can weigh you down. It is necessary to leave everything behind.
I think of those who have gone before us. My uncle and aunt. My sister and my brothers. Some of Carlos’s family as well. Now it is our turn.
As we emerge from the woods, we are bathed in light. We are naked, pinned like insects for all the drones to see–and to report.
But it will take time for the guards to arrive. A couple of minutes, at least. Time enough for us to do what we have come to do.
My feet pound the naked ground. I can feel each strike of my heels through my shoes. Yet I feel as if I am barely moving, as if I am running in water, or in deep sand. And yet, at some point, I go ahead of Carlos.
Just as well. I am the one with the pack on my back.
The Wall looms ahead of us–still far off, it seems. It is grey, metallic looking. Made of steel, thick steel. Thick enough that it will not fall down if a car runs into it. I know because there are cars that have tried.
Is it just twelve feet? It looks higher than that. The thing we have brought with us, the ladder…is it long enough? Will it get us over?
It will, I think. It has to.
The wall is the same height everywhere. It is impossible to underestimate it. Carlos’s friend made the ladder exactly as long as it needs to be.
But what if he didn’t? How big a joke would that be on us?
All of a sudden, we have reached the Wall. It is there, right in front of us. I shrug the pack off my back, open it, slide out the carefully coiled length of translucent plastic.
When I first saw it, first examined it weeks ago, I looked closely enough to see the network of fibers that reinforce it. I ran my fingers over the ridges that would serve as rungs.
I do not have the luxury of doing so now. The ladder is light in my hands but it has a weighted end. I turn it around until the end is in my hand. Then I say a hurried prayer to Dios and hurl the weighted end of the ladder over the Wall.
I have practiced this a thousand times, I think. I have had nightmares about the ladder snagging on the barbed wire on top of the wall and never going over.
But the ladder does not snag. It clears the top of the wall, unfolding as it goes, and leaves us an easy set of ridges to climb. As we agreed the first time we saw the ladder, Carlos goes first. After all, he was a gymnast when he was a teenager.
Whenever we did this at home, he climbed like a cat. But now he moves slowly, uncertainly, as if he does not trust the ladder.
Meanwhile, I hear voices–distant, but not distant enough.
Climb, I think.
I am faster. I should have gone first. But it is too late now. Carlos is ahead of me and that is all there is to it.
It seems to take hours for him to push himself up the ladder. Hours to work his way over the barbed wire. Hours to start down the other side.
The voices are getting closer. I try to ignore the feeling between my shoulder blades that a bullet is on its way.
Finally, it is my turn. I climb the ridges in the length of plastic–one by one, taking care not to miss one, taking care not to slip and wind up on my back in the dirt.
I reach the top, and here I feel more vulnerable than ever. As we hoped, the plastic is thick enough to protect us from the barbed wire. I can see the other side now, beyond the Wall, but I do not think about it. I concentrate on wrestling myself over the barrier.
Once I am over, I do not use the ridges on the other side. I jump.
Carlos is ahead of me, running. He looks ragged, out of breath. I run too, leaving the ladder behind.
It is too bad. I wish we could take it rather than leave it for the border guards to examine. But there is no way to pull it off the barbed wire, so we have to leave it there, a sad but necessary casualty.
Faster than I would have imagined, I catch up to Carlos. I do not feel scared any longer. I feel a euphoria, even though I know the most vicious patrols are on this side of the Wall. They guard the better life people enjoy here, the better life the guards themselves enjoy, so they have more skin in the game.
There is also El Rio.
The water is shallow here but it moves quickly. It turns a frothy white as it hugs this rock or that one. As I run into it, I feel how cold it is, especially in contrast to the warmth of the air–the gift of the mountains. Some other warm night, I might have welcomed such cold. Now it is only another obstacle, like the angular rocks beneath my feet.
Beside me, Carlos falters, his arms flailing. I think he will go down.
But he does not. He recovers his balance and goes on.
Then we are past the river, our clothes heavy and clinging. Strangely enough, I do not see any patrols. Carlos and I crash into the line of forest beyond the bald area, undetected and unharmed. Now we must look for our salvation.
It is here, somewhere, under the light of the stars. A road, or so we have been told. And by the side of that road, my brothers in a pickup truck.
They did not dare park too close to the Wall. We will have to thrash our way through the forest for some time before we can find them. And we will have to hope we are going in the right direction.
I take my compass out of my pocket. It is old, some of its paint chipped away, but it will help us stay on the right track. I do not look to see if the flowers here are the same as the flowers back home. Later, perhaps. Together, Carlos and I plunge through the darkness, his breathing more groaning than gasping now.
I do not have to remind myself that we are not safe yet.
Once our country welcomed immigrants with arms flung wide. It was a long time ago, before my grandfather’s grandfather’s time. But if it was that way once, it could be that way again some day.
Those of us who have dared to climb the wall are yet few in number. But there will be more. Many more. The worse things get, the more people will weigh the risk and see it as something worth taking. They will not seep over the wall. They will crash against it like a mighty surf. They will crush it under the sheer weight of their numbers.
Because they have no choice.
That is something governments do not seem to understand. They can stop people who are running to, but they cannot stop those who are running from.
It takes hours, it seems, for us to reach the road. It is easily visible, reflecting the starlight.
I look in either direction. No truck.
“Where are they?” I whisper.
Carlos is doubled over, on the last of his strength. “They’re here. They have to be.”
Then we hear something. But it is not a truck. It is the crack of a twig from somewhere in the forest behind us.
Carlos and I look at each other. His eyes are wide with fear. He does not have to speak for me to know what he is thinking.
They have tracked us on foot. And now they have found us.
My heart sinks. It is not fair. We made it over the Wall. We made it.
Suddenly, I hear something else. The sound of a motor, coming from somewhere down the road to our right.
Shots ring out in the forest. Men shout at us to give ourselves up. I remember the pledge I made.
Come on, I think, desperately searching the road to my right.
Suddenly my brothers’ truck comes around the bend. At least I think it is my brothers’ truck. In the dark, at this distance…
More gunshots. And this time a grunt of pain. I turn to Carlos and I see he has been hit. He clutches at himself, sinks to his knees.
I don’t know how badly he has been hurt. Fatally, for all I know.
I think of Inez. She came here before the Wall went up. She still loves Carlos, and he loves her. It is why he braved the Wall–for Inez.
The truck I have seen screeches to a halt. One of my brothers, Francisco, is at the wheel. “Manuel!” he barks. “Get in!”
I see my other brothers in the back of the pickup. They beckon to me, urging haste, and for good reason. If they are caught, they will share a prison with me.
But I cannot leave Carlos there in the woods. At the very least, I have to know if he is alive or dead. I run to him.
“Manuel,” he moans.
He is clutching his leg. I pull him up by the front of his shirt and sling his arm over my neck. Then I drag him to the truck. I am an easy target but I cannot help it. I came with Carlos. I am not going to leave him behind.
The border guards draw closer. They shout for us to give up. They shoot again. I hear their bullets ripping through the leaves of the forest.
Cursing through clenched teeth, I haul Carlos to my brothers’ truck. Seeing him, my brothers in the back jump out and help me. Together, with the guards bullets hissing about us, we lift Carlos into the back.
Then we jump in with him and Francisco hits the gas.
A moment later, the guards are a memory. We are free.
Carlos is white and clammy, like a frog’s belly. He pulls my head down to his mouth. “We made it,” he gasps into my ear. “We made it.”
“Yes,” I say, my voice thick with emotion, “we made it.”
I turn to my brother Alejandro. “Carlos needs a doctor.”
He pats me on the shoulder. “You are in Mexico now. We have doctors here.”
I am in Mexico, I think, letting the reality sink in. I am in Mexico.
I have left the nightmare behind.
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