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Wasps. It feels like my brain morphed into a teeming nest overnight. Hundreds of wasps, plunging miniscule daggers into my skull. A wasp regiment arranges in vertical formation along the back of my head, strikes in unison. A second unit assembles parallel to the first, attacks. I shake my head in a futile attempt to dislodge the stingers and ease the torment. Two additional battalions form horizontal lines that connect with the first two at either end. A rectangle of sadistic wasps, spearing me mercilessly.
Another sound, not inside my head. Grunting, sputtering. A sound I’ve heard before, perhaps last night, perhaps in a past life I’d rather forget. Grunting and sputtering, punctuated by a loud mechanical whir. A sound like a chainsaw.
Buzzing, grunting, sputtering, whirring. A torturous amalgam of sensation I don’t quite comprehend yet somehow recognize. I open my mouth to scream and feel my bottom lip sore, swollen. Another bar brawl. Drank too much pulque (where did I find money for pulque?) and got in another fight. That explains the pounding headache and distended lip, explains why I’ve woken up outdoors on a mound of dirt. I sit up slowly, shielding my eyes from the unabating desert sun that scorches me all day and leaves my skin feeling charred long after it sets.
Who uses a chainsaw this early? Is it early? I consider using the sun’s position to determine the time, but the incessant buzzing-stinging makes it too painful to glance up. I squint to see past the barrage of fire-tipped arrows the sun shoots all around me. A squat adobe church sits like a crumbling sandcastle a hundred yards away. Leading up to the church, a dirt lot filled with uneven rows of tombstones too deteriorated to read. A cemetery. I woke up in a cemetery next to a partially dug-out grave. Puto pulque.
Mejor acá que allá. I mentally recite the sardonic aphorism that became my mantra after crossing. The coyotes who sneak me across steal my money and leave me for dead, mejor acá que allá; I wake up in a cemetery with a fat lip and blistering headache, mejor acá que allá; I can’t find work and take meals wherever paisanos show pity on the forlorn skeleton that shuffles up to their door fidgeting with an antique pocket watch, mejor acá que allá. Better here than back home.
The watch! I reach into my pockets. Empty. My boots, empty. The watch is my last memento of my father, of my family. I anxiously pat the dirt in front of me, behind me, on either side. My left hand grazes a thin metallic tube. I pull it out of the dirt. It’s roughly four feet long and has a thick wire coiled along its entire length. The wire connects a metal disc at one end of the tube that resembles a stove burner to a small oval box at the opposite end. I’ve seen a contraption like this before, in a movie maybe, or at the beach (did I ever take my daughter to the beach?). A metal detector. I raise the oval box to my face. Two small knobs bookend a square display screen. I turn one, the screen lights up. I close my eyes and probe for a memory I suspect I won’t uncover. Where did I find a metal detector in this wasteland (and why am I wondering if I ever took my daughter to the beach)? I likely stole it and got into a fight before passing out in the cemetery. Puto pulque.
I switch off the device and stand up. I shake the dirt off my body and the buzzing-roaring out of my head. No one is milling about the church, so it’s not Sunday. I’m bruised and possibly hungover, which could make today…da igual. I have other things to worry about, like remembering where I left the pocket watch and figuring out why I’m walking in a direction I swore to never travel again. Why am I wandering south with no food, no water, no protection from the sun?
Every foot I travel toward the border summons another recollection of the misery I’ve endured the past three months (three years? three decades?). I wade through the oil spill of memories polluting my mind—the sound of bullets whizzing by my ears when the narcos shot at my convoy; the sight of the pocket watch swinging before my eyes the insomniac nights I tried to hypnotize myself to sleep; the stinging inside my head when I woke up in a cemetery. The memories don’t come in a linear chain but as a mass of disparate instants. Maybe it’s the unrelenting heat that makes morning indistinguishable from afternoon, or the monotony of never having anything to do or anyone to see. Whatever the cause, the film reel of my life spliced into its component frames at some point in the past and my brain can’t reassemble the images into a coherent narrative.
I suppress the intrusive thoughts and focus on the metal detector. Why did I pick it up and head south with such certainty? Da igual. I’m so intimately acquainted with the town’s lack of provisions it’s obvious why someone would take a metal detector out here. The closer I get to the border, the more objects I’ll locate with the device. Toy cars, wedding bands, coins, silverware; the border is littered with goods left behind by migrants that I can pawn back in town. I could trek out here every day and excavate enough loot to stay reasonably fed.
Before me lies a boundless landscape dotted with cacti that pierce the horizon like arthritic fingers cautioning me to stay away. How far have I walked? Better get started, before it’s too dark to find my way back. I switch on the detector and let the metal disc hover a few inches from the ground. I walk ten minutes (thirty?), waving the device over every inch of sand within reach.
I walk with my head down, fixated on the detector and only vaguely aware that I stopped walking in a straight line ten (thirty?) minutes ago. I search for a recognizable landmark behind me, a cactus or sage bush that could orient me in the right direction. All I see are vermillion buttes jutting from the sand like desiccated remains of mythological monsters. Concéntrate, imbécil! The specter of getting lost without supplies makes me acutely aware of the suffocating heat. I grimace at the swath of sticky humidity spreading across my back. Concéntrate!
A trilling beep snaps me out of my dehydrated stupor. I get down on all fours and scan the sand until I find a flat stone that can serve as a spade. I slam the stone repeatedly into the ground. Heat radiates through my tattered pants and burns my knees. I push on, stabbing, scraping, scooping sand as fast as my emaciated arms allow. Save for the scars of misfortune etched on my face and the aridness of this inferno, I might resemble a kid digging holes in the beach (did I ever take my daughter to the beach?). Stab, scrape, scoop. My malnourished muscles spasm. Scrape … scrape. I feel like I’m caught in a rip current I’m too tired to fight against (who the fuck doesn’t remember taking their daughter to the beach?). I paw softly at the ground, the unyielding ground that lets out a muffled thud when I collapse. And I die. I die next to the hole I started digging without realizing it was my own grave. Mejor acá que allá.
A glimmer, close enough to touch. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? The heavenly (heavenly?) glow illuminating the path to the afterlife? How disappointing. All the suffering, all the heartache, and it ends in a cliché. Qué cursi.
I’m not dead (is that why I’m disappointed?).The sparkle is not at the end of a metaphorical tunnel. It’s a foot away, emanating from the sand. I reach for it. My fingertips brush against small metal links. A gold necklace! For the second time today, a surprise discovery by an unfinished grave infuses me with new life. I slide the links between my thumb and index finger, one at a time. I close my eyes, imagine myself strutting into the town pawn shop. I’ll negotiate the piece’s value with a broker eager to swindle me with a wink and conniving grin. La pieza es fina, no seas pendejo. Each new link becomes another bill unfurled from a wad of cash in the broker’s hand and dropped reluctantly on a glass display case.The last time I saw that much money, I was handing it to a coyote giving me the same wink and conniving grin. I want to laugh in the broker-coyote’s face.
Something’s wrong. All the gold links passed between my fingers. The chain ended at a metal bar, two inches long. A bar thin enough to fit through a buttonhole. My hand trembles as if I were holding a scorpion by the tail. My heart pounds louder and faster than the trilling beep that set the death-nondeath-daydream sequence in motion. The pawnshop fantasy melts away into a childhood memory. The broker-coyote’s wink and grin are replaced by my father’s eyes, dark and hard as coal. The display case becomes the rickety kitchen table I carved my initials into when I was a kid. The wad of bills is now the strong, calloused hand that gave me a fat lip for defiling the family’s dining space. My father’s hand. Es así, mira. My father’s voice, loud and gravelly like a cement mixer. He passes a small metal bar like the one I pulled out of the sand through a buttonhole in his shirt. The bar is attached to a gold chain like the one I mistook for a necklace. At the other end of the chain, cradled inside my small, curious hand, is his most prized possession.
Despierta, carajo! I open my eyes and yank the chain out of the sand. Despite the sweat soaking through my clothes, I shiver. A pocket watch identical to my father’s spins slowly on the other end of the chain. Bronze arabesque trim … Me lo prestas, papi? (no more goddamned memories!) … clock face designed to resemble an antique world map … Dónde vivimos nosotros? (it’s not the same watch!) … silver hands that resemble a compass needle … Cuidado, que es del abuelo (how my daughter loved that watch, too!). The hands are stuck at six o’clock, but otherwise there’s nothing to convince me it’s not my father’s pocket watch. Except it can’t be, because I still had the watch yesterday (what the hell happened last night?) and haven’t been this close to the border in three months (three decades?).
It’s getting dark. There’s no time to gawk stupidly at the watch. It’s not my father’s, I’m going to pawn it, y se acabó. I locate the metal detector. I can’t leave it behind. I’ll return to scour for treasure until there’s none left, and that could take forever. I walk hurriedly toward it, stub my foot against a hard surface projecting from the inner rim of the hole I dug. I fall on my face. Concéntrate! I need to get back to town now, but I’m cemented in place, my eyes transfixed on the rock I tripped over. Its round surface is too smooth, its color—eggshell with hints of yellow, like old newspaper—too pale to be a rock. I rise to my knees and toss fistfuls of sand aside until the object rolls into the center of the hole. Qué carajos es esto!
A human skull. No te metas con eso. Don’t mess with death. I can’t pawn a skull, and I have no interest in keeping it as a grotesque beer mug. Déjala. I overheard people in the bar (last night?) talk about anthropologists who comb this area for human remains. They can deal with this. But would I really leave this skull here? Sí, déjala. What if nobody else finds it? No es tu lío. This person was likely a migrant who braved thirst, hunger, physical and emotional anguish, just like me. This person’s fate could have been my own. What if someone left my corpse in this hellscape for vultures to devour?
I grab the skull, hold it up to my face. Contemplating it makes me feel like I’m peeking into a crystal ball at my own cadaver. I can’t bear to look at the empty eye sockets, the lipless smile. Jackhammers pound my temples. A thunderous droning fills my ears. I turn the skull over. The letters O-R-I are carved into the bone in jagged lines.
One of the kids in the neighborhood where I grew up had a santera grandmother. I loved sneaking to their house to marvel at the intricate altars constructed for the orishas whose names and powers fascinated me (is that why my father smacked me in the mouth, because I defiled an orthodox home with talk of santería?). Ori was one of the orishas. The old woman’s booming voice echoes somewhere in the recesses of my memory: destino … rogación de cabeza … encarnación (I can recall obscure details about orishas but don’t remember taking my daughter to the beach?). Did someone perform a santería ritual here? No te metas con eso.
The people at the bar said anthropologists conduct genetic tests on the bodies they find out here and run the results against missing persons lists from countries with large migrant populations. Did someone carve letters into this skull in preparation for some genetic test and accidentally leave it behind? Is Ori a genetic code? An abbreviation? Ori … origen? … oriundo? … orita te crees especialista en genética, imbécil!
Estuvo bueno ya. It doesn’t matter what happened here, the right thing to do is take the skull to town and leave it at the church. The more pressing issue is whether the pocket watch I found belongs to Ori. Am I going to pawn a dead migrant’s property? I knew all along the watch had belonged to someone, but it’s only now that I can put a face (well, skull) and a name (well, Ori) to its former possessor that I feel guilty about using the metal detector. It’s not something to be proud of, not knowing if I’m stealing from the living or the dead. What if Ori treasured this watch as much as I cherish mine? I look up from the skull and see the final rays of light disappear over the horizon. Estuvo bueno ya. This isn’t the place for ethical conundrums. I saw enough of the sun to guide myself north, and that’s where I need to go. I flip the skull upside down, deposit the pocket watch inside, and begin my trek back.
The sound of an angry voice blaring through a megaphone sends adrenaline coursing through my blood. Puta migra. I sprint as fast as my famished legs can carry me. I didn’t endure three months (three years?) of deprivations to be arrested this close to the border. They won’t take me. They won’t take Ori.
The migra is close enough for me to separate the diesel engines behind me into two heavy-duty pickups. Corre! I haven’t exerted myself like this since the narcos shot at my convoy (or was I alone that night?). A cramp sinks its venomous fangs into my ribcage. I can’t run this hard much longer.
“Hands up, roach! Mahn-owes ar-EE-buh! Stop, or we will shoot!”
Halogen beams from the approaching trucks pinpoint where my legs will give out, where I’ll be caught. The long-gone sun keeps breathing fire on my exposed neck and arms. Corre! They all killed Ori—the corrupt politicians who make life an impenetrable shit swamp back home; the heartless coyotes; la puta migra. But they can’t kill me.
Loud, intermittent whistles fill the air. Sounds I’ve heard before, the night I fled from the narcos (I wasn’t in a convoy, was I?). A barrage of bullets vanishes into the black void beyond the reach of the headlights. I scarcely have time to process that this is the second (third?) time I narrowly escape being shot to death, when the skull shatters in my hand. Hijos de puta. I drop to my knees. The headlights make a few larger pieces of the skull visible, but the rest are scattered in the darkness. I desperately pat the sand in front of me, behind me, on either side, feeling for anything that resembles bone. Stopping here will cost me my freedom, maybe even my life, but I can’t leave Ori.
The shooting stops. The halogen beams grow brighter, create a wide swath of luminescence that gives a clear view of everything within arm’s reach. I spot more fragments of Ori’s skull but don’t have time to gather them and flee. La migra will open fire as soon as I start running, and the trucks are so close I won’t escape unscathed again.
The man with the megaphone keeps hollering. I can’t heed his snarling commands, not while I’m glaring at the shiny object nestled among the bone shards. The pocket watch. No, otra vez no. I fan out my fingers, run my hands across the sand to rake the skull pieces next to the watch. And I dig. Again. I scrape up sand and throw it onto the watch and pieces of bone, moving in a furious spurt of energy my decrepit body shouldn’t be able to generate. Apúrate. They’ll arrest me. But I’ll break out of the detention center. I’ll cross the border again if they deport me. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. Más rápido! I’ll steal another metal detector. I’ll find Ori and the watch again if it means roaming the desert until the end of time and never asking my daughter if I ever took her to the fucking beach.
Only the metal detector remains visible on the ground when one of the pickups stops on my left. The words Outlander Recon are painted along the side of the truck between imposing images of bald eagles. Outlander Recon. The words seem familiar, yet I can’t recall where I’ve seen them before. I look intently at the truck. It feels like I’m in a dream in which I find a letter whose contents I urgently need to read, but the closer I get to understanding the words in front of me, the more elusive their meaning becomes.
“Stay on the ground, roach!” The man with the megaphone steps out of the truck. The second pickup stops several feet behind me, illuminating the man’s clothing. No es la migra! He’s wearing a black ski mask and camouflage hunting gear, not the monochromatic Border Patrol uniform I expected to see. The coyotes warned me about the militias that maraud the border like two-bit sheriffs from an old Western. These wannabe cops have no legal authority, but their intractable hero complex convinces them they’re above the law.
“Show me ID!” There’s something unsettling about the man’s voice, perhaps its loud and grating tone. Loud and grating like a cement mixer.
The man keeps yelling, but I barely listen … Freeloading illegals! … I’m too distracted by shadowy forms that suddenly appear at the point where the headlight beams end and the inscrutable desert darkness begins … Criminals! Rapists! … Two silhouettes move silently, wave their arms emotively as if pantomiming a scene … Stealing jobs! … A scene I recognize … where they came from! … Two shadows sitting at a rickety kitchen table, holding a long chain. A small, curious hand at one end, and a strong, calloused hand at the other.
“Don’t move, maggot.” A voice calls out behind me. A second man walks over, blocks my view of the shadows. Bits of Ori crack under his boots. The second man leans in and pats me down, reaches into my pockets, my boots. He’s close enough for me to see his eyes, dark and hard as coal. He turns to the other vigilante without noticing the bewildered expression on my face. “Clean, Commander.”
The man with the cement mixer voice motions to his partner to return to the truck, then continues his loud declamation. I listen closely, convinced I’ll understand … Sacred constitutional duty! … But it’s all gibberish … Enemies foreign and domestic! … All I hear is ire and self-righteousness … Government doesn’t protect its citizens! … My eyes seek out the shadows in the distance. I easily comprehend their words and emotions, because they’re my own. Me lo prestas? My shadow-self points to the pocket watch. Dónde vivimos nosotros? I yearn to run to my father’s shadow and implore it to never forget me. But the shadows belong to another world. Allá, no acá. My place is here, in the sandstorm of fury and hatred … First invader brought to justice by the patriots of Outlander Recon!
“Hear that? You’re the first!” The man with the coal eyes returns holding a compact circular saw. He squats down, wags an arthritic finger in my face. “New-mer-oh ooh-no. First illegal to feel the might of Outlander Recon!”
I struggle to make sense of it all—the shouting, the shadows, the saw, the mounting suspicion that I know how this ends. The man with the coal eyes turns on the saw, waves it triumphantly over his head. Truck doors open and slam shut. Voices clamor, boots pound the ground. The man lowers the saw an inch from my nose. I shut my eyes tight, fight back tears of fear and indignation. He moves slowly, cruelly, passes the circular blade just over my right cheek, my ear, my nape.
A sensation I’ve felt before, perhaps last night, perhaps in a past life I don’t want to forget. Wasps. Hundreds of wasps. A wasp regiment forms a vertical line along the back of my head, sinks tiny machetes inside me. I clench my fists. No llores! A second wasp battalion assembles parallel to the first, strikes. I shake my head in a vain attempt to displace the miniature bayonets. No llores! Two more wasp outfits link up with the first two at either end, attack. A rectangle of savage wasps, knifing the rear of my skull.
A letter!I open my eyes wide, look past the vigilantes to the shadows. I was wrong. The smaller of the two shadows isn’t me. Me lo prestas? My father shows my daughter how the metal bar slips easily through a buttonhole in his shirt. Cuidado, que es del abuelo. I watch from another room, on my knees, folding clothes into a suitcase. Packing for a trip to the beach.
A letter!The wasp stings didn’t form a rectangle, but an O. The saw blade is still slicing into my head. Warm, sticky blood spreads down my back. But I’m not afraid. It’s finally clear—the words on the truck; the knobby finger in my face; the déjà vu. You’re the first. Outlander Recon I.
“Ori! Soy Ori!” I yell as loud as I can while the saw-wasp army carves the final vertical line into my head. I don’t scream because of the pain. I want my voice to reach them. My daughter must know why I didn’t take her to the beach, my father must understand how I lost the pocket watch. I need them to know who I am, who I’ve been forced to become. Most of all, I need them to forgive me. “Soy Ori!”
A strong, calloused hand strikes me hard, splits open my lip. The man with the cement mixer voice barks orders at the vigilantes. His words enter my semi-conscious mind in scattered phrases … Take the body… I don’t try to pay attention this time … Nearest town … I know what he’s saying, not the exact words, but their consequence … Leave the head … I know what happens next—to me, to the shadows. It’s happened before … To warn other invaders … It will happen again … Outlander Recon!
A third figure enters the fading shadow scene. I envision its wink and scheming smile. The coyote tells me it’s time to cross. I can’t take my daughter to the beach tomorrow. My concept of tomorrow will be irreparably shattered.
Another sound, not the cement mixer voice. Grunting, sputtering. A sound I’ve heard before, a sound I’ll hear again, when the desert decides the time is right. Grunting, sputtering. A sound that will awaken me into a tomorrow with no beginning or end; a tomorrow that will erode my life, my identity bit by bit, until there’s nothing left; a tomorrow that will trap me here forever. Grunting and sputtering, punctuated by a loud mechanical whir. A sound like a chainsaw.
Bryan Betancur is a Spanish professor in the Bronx. His fiction has been published in Acentos Review, Hispanic Culture Review, Five South, The Rush, and elsewhere.