Urban Waite is a brilliant new talent about to publish his debut novel The Terror of Living (Little, Brown, February 2011) which Stephen King has called, “A hell of a good novel, relentlessly paced and beautifully narrated. There’s just no let-up. An auspicious debut.” This is the second of two short stories that are appearing on MulhollandBooks.com. Visit the Original Fiction tab above to read “Don’t Look Away.”
It was snowing again in Santiago. On the news the boats were out in Valparaíso Bay, the divers in the water. I sat on the couch watching the flakes fall into the Pacific. The gunwales all but covered, and the simple blue of the boat turning white. And when I close my eyes the television disappears and I see bodies falling from airplanes, helicopters circling in the night. The snow taps gently against my window. It has been thirty years, and now they wanted to rush.
Here is where it all started to fall apart. The wind coming up off the ocean, the grass moving on the low tableland, and the rocks in front of me like charcoal in the darkening air. My son, Andres, rode the small brown pony, wearing the rifle on his back, the woven leather strap across his chest. He called to the dogs, and the dogs were barking and leading the sheep down the mountain. The snow came then, riding in on the wind, until the flakes seemed to make their own paths, blowing down in streams like animals on a game trail.
The sheep moved as they usually did, oblivious to the storm. “Keep them together,” I yelled, my words lost to the wind. My son was ten years old, eleven in a few months when he would be old enough to work in town with his mother. But for now he could only help me with the herd. He could stand on the saddle and ride flat out for a kilometer or more. He did tricks like they do at the rodeos: riding backwards, hanging sideways, shooting cans off fence posts. He said he’d like to be a gaucho one day. He’d like to wear bombachas and feel the wind cling to the wool and press the material along his legs. He’d like to be in shows and ride trick ponies. “You won’t have to work the estancia, and Mom can come back from the factory,” Andres said during late nights, the smoke from the wood stove clinging to the walls, bitterly cold air blowing in under the door.
We came to the bottom of the mountain, the land flat in front of us. Already the snow was clinging to the blades, and when I got down off the horse and looked back at where we’d been, the grass cracked like brittle twigs beneath my boots.
It was easy to blame the death of my parents on the disappearances. We all did, lying in the boy’s ward of St. Ignacio’s. Some of us were the sons of teachers, some of lawyers, but most of us were farm boys, without grandparents to take us. Those of us that stayed, that didn’t find homes and blamed our state mostly on the disappearances. We were first generation boys from Portugal, Italy, and Wales. Somewhere on the other side of the world we knew there was a family for us, but how to get there, or even know where they were?
We took pleasure in calling to each other in the soft darkness of the church, my newfound brothers and I. The lights from the marina all but out and only the roll of waves, distant and smooth on the jetty, could be heard through the windows. We compared stories. Pablo had lost his parents when a government mine exploded under their car, George was the son of a Welsh prince, who smuggled freedom fighters over the Andes. My own parents became Italian spies. Every one of us the son of the socialist left. Every one of us an enemy of the state, orphaned into hiding.
I remember looking up into the clear blue sky, the drone of a small plane overhead, the feel of the snow up to my knees, and the horse whinnying impatiently. My mother said there was some mistake, his disappearance. I have seen her in the streets with the others, their signs in the air. She holds a black-and-white picture of my father, one of the only pictures we have of him.
There are other women like her—mothers, wives—all of them looking for their men. Outside on the street the snow is still falling, and in the black sky, it drifts like a ghost out of the night. I walk down the esplanade, the wine bars and restaurants beginning to fill, the lights suspended in long strings between trees. Everywhere the posters of the victims are plastered. The city is saturated with them and with the gutter smell of wood pulp and paper. The snow is now sticking in the crags of the street and on the tops of the dirt planters. The phone in my pocket rings,
“Yes,” I say, without thinking. She has called every night this week. The boats float in the bay, and the divers plunge through the water.
“Did you see the news?”
“They think they’ve found evidence,” my mother says. “A shirt button stuck to one of the rails.”
“It could be anyone’s button,” I say.
“Do you remember what your father was wearing?”
“Thirty years, I don’t remember.”
“You should remember a thing like that.”
“I don’t Mom. I’m sorry.”
“He never did a thing. Thirty years and I still don’t understand.”
“I know,” I hear myself say. I have been saying the same thing all this time. Thinking that I knew him. And perhaps I did, talking to him about the rodeos, about the old gauchos, and the way they used to ride long days across the pampa, never stopping for a fence or road. It’s true there had been happy times for the three of us, although in my mind I was thinking Escape, escape. But here my mother is, still talking at me, listing the evidence and trying to put it all together.
I could see the lamb. Andres yelled, “Over there, below the rock,” motioning with his hand. The ground was disappearing beneath my feet, the wind screaming down on us, and the sky boiling grays and blacks.
Already the rocks were coated with snow, the wind blowing it against the stones, crushing it down. There was nothing left to do so I got down on my knees, the cold of the rock on my face, feeling the loose pebbles through my pants. Sand and dirt blew into an eddy under the rock. The lamb was bleating, only its rear legs exposed beneath the outcrop. There was a nice little cave under there, just big enough for hiding a lamb. And a strong reek of pumas, that ammonia smell. Even with the wind blowing, my nostrils constricted and my eyes watered. It was a bad place to be in a storm, a place where not only sheep but large cats came to wait out the weather.
I felt blind in the wind, reaching for the lamb, then pulling hard as I got the animal’s rear hoof in my hand. And the whole time I spoke to the animal like a stubborn child— “You’ll freeze if you don’t come out”—knowing it would move down into the herd once it came loose, and then the twenty-minute ride toward the ranch, and shelter.
The lamb continued to bleat. The sound of the animal made me pull harder. “You want to be a kitty snack?” I said, smiling as the sheep came loose and still smiling when a sudden weight fell across my back and the claws broke through my jacket and penetrated my skin. The world came apart, like a tornado ripping the tin roof from a house: above me thin light glimmering off the rock, then suddenly all light and sky and the wind pouring in with a snarl.
During the night, the radio popped and fizzled. It ran off the jeep battery, at times clicking into range with the sounds of fishermen, truckers, and amateur radio operators. The call from the clinic had come in over the radio about a herder in the high pastures. Thirty minutes by jeep each way, I figured. I was driving the coastal highway, my medical bag on the floor beside me, in the distance the town was a pocket of light.
The snow came down out of the sky, bending up at the last moment to hit the windshield, the wipers moving left to right, then back again, rubber against glass. Cold air slipped in through the jeep’s vents. The lowland bushes of mata and pine broke now into grasslands, the look of everything flat and white in all directions. Fence posts stretched off on either side, thin pegs of wood, holding even thinner barbs of wire. In the cold air my own breath could blind me. I rolled my sweater up and tasted the wool on my lips, the sheep musk, dirt and oil.
Lately during my drives, I had not been thinking about my parents. Instead, I had been preoccupied by thoughts of the English nurse who had come to St. Ignacio’s clinic. The educated were disappearing. People said it was the government. And she was like them, school trained, but foreign and in a way untouchable. She spent her spare time quizzing me about the landscape, the wildlife. “What’s that bird?” she asked, the sound of her accent colliding with the words, stunted and irregular. We watched a flock fly low over the water, the waves swelling to meet them, but the birds somehow rising through the crests, “Black-necked swans,” I said.
This conversation came to mind as I left the ocean behind, glimpsing it in my rearview mirror. The grass started as brown, but as I came up into the tablelands and the snow continued, it went gray, then white, changing over like a yearling seagull. In front, the snow was lit yellow by the jeep’s headlights. Beyond their glare, the wood posts stretched out brown to gray and then finally mere shadows. As I drove, I wiped my hand against the window, clearing the condensation.
Like all days with the wipers going and the headlights on, the radio crackled between life and death. I heard mostly static from the other end, but for a moment a voice broke through, then was gone. My foot pressed the brake and the jeep tires slid to a stop, turning slightly left until the yellow light shined along the length of the fence.
“Hello,” I said, pressing the TALK button, “hello.” I turned off the headlights, and immediately a voice on the radio whispered again. I clutched the receiver. “This is Pio Nitti from Puerto Nogales Medical Clinic.” The snow all around, the wind cutting along the jeep until the siding buckled and bent with its force. I repeated the information. Spreading the map along the dash, I read my location into the radio. Nothing. I turned the volume up. I turned the ignition off, too, trying to give the radio more power. The wiper blades stopped halfway across the window, and I waited.
I still remember how the man wore the scar around his neck like a necklace, the skin braided by rope, then melted and healed. Over the years I have told myself not to think about him. But how can I not tonight, with the snow falling and my mother calling every ten minutes? I turn into a wine bar and order a red from the barman.
The bar is cold with the night coming in from outside, and I move where the wind cannot reach. The barman asks about the weather, and I answer, brushing snow from my collar and watching the kitchen. I breathe in the rich smell of meat on the grill. My chest calms with the alcohol. Above, the television is turned to news of the trial, and reporters stand around with the snow coming down, talking of Pinochet, the large white buildings of the government waiting behind them.
I once did a very bad thing. Under attack by the puma, I was worried about my son. Worried that he might find out, hear about, this bad thing. Perhaps these thoughts came to me because I knew I was going to die. I pulled my arms in like a boxer. I kept thinking, protect the body. I felt the paws come down across my arms, the claws digging in. I tried to move my hands up to cover my face but I couldn’t. The cat kept rolling me, one paw hitting on the left, the other coming on the right.
I thought about how my father liked to say, “Us or them,” when stealing sheep from the large estancias—really, stealing from the small families that lived and ran the properties. My right arm snapped and I felt it go numb. Then teeth sank in along my collarbone. And I heard my own scream as if from deep inside a mountain. I was worried about Andres. Recalling the time my father’s rage got the better of him, a family he murdered, and the part I played.
The jeep battery died around 2:00 AM, the dash lights shivered, blinked, then popped off from the console along the dash to the radio. For a minute I heard only the fizzy sputter of static, like snow on a television at 4:00 AM. Then nothing.
I sat in the cold darkness, rubbing my neck and feeling the scar that ran ear to ear below my jaw line. I had done so since childhood. Something about touching it warmed me, like passing a hand along the glass pane of a family picture. But in my dreams, I was suffocating, feeling the wind draw out of me as the rope went up, my lips making a low hissing sound. My body not heavy enough to pull my windpipe closed.
The sixteen-year-old boy lifted me into the rafters of the shearing barn, the other riders outside, and the rope around the pommel of his saddle and the horse slowly backing up. And there was nothing to do but stare at each other, this boy and me, my father and mother now dropped to the floor without moving, their necks broken into unnatural angles. My head pounded, the riders outside whistled and called for the boy until he cut me loose, and I fell to the floor, gasping for breath.
On the bathroom wall someone has written the phrase, “Not a leaf moves in this country if I’m not moving it–Pinochet, ’81.” Just below the quotation, a list in another hand:
I stand there in the bathroom. Through the door, the sounds of the bar: the barman thanks someone, a server passes in the hallway, pans clatter in the kitchen. I wait in the bathroom, cold, a chill traveling up my spine. I stare at the saying on the wall. More than twenty years later and they still play the clip on television.
In the bathroom mirror, I run my hands through my hair. My own dark eyes look back at me. I take a deep breath. “Where are you?” my mother asked.
When I woke I could feel where the cat’s claws had pierced my skin. My right arm wasn’t working, and when I turned I felt a sharp pain across my shoulder and back that flowed like water out into my body. I waited for my eyes to adjust, to see the familiar objects in our hut all around me. “Andres,” I called, then waited, listening to the wind under the door. There was the smell of stewed potatoes cooked with onion and sheep tallow. The thin line of fire was visible beneath the stove. On the wall opposite, a small candle flickered, and for a while I stared at it as if it were a face, a voice, the candle moving softly orange to red, but no one answered.
The horse’s breath hit the window like smoke. It poured from the animal, pressing itself to the pane. The animal pushed its flank along the length of the vehicle, making the jeep feel dead and flimsy.
The boy leaned down and tapped on the roof once more. “Can you drive?”
“The battery is dead,” I said, then rolled down the window and repeated, “It’s the battery.” I tried the dials on the jeep’s console. Again, nothing.
The snowfields lay cold and white. Snow climbed the fence posts filing down the road.
The boy got down off his horse and came around. “You’re from the clinic?”
I heard the crunch of the boy’s feet in the snow, “Yes.”
“I can take you on the horse,” he said, pulling at the reins a little. “It’s my father.”
It had been a long time since I’d been on a horse and it felt strange. The medical bag was slung over my shoulder. The boy touched at the horse with his heel and we began to move up the road. Nothing had come down it except the boy, and the horse tracks were the only breaks in the clean surface of snow. Occasionally a sparrow flittered past, but it did not land, and kept going on whatever mission had drawn it out.
Three kilometers passed and the boy turned the horse and went into the deep snow of the fields. The road had been fairly clear, where the wind had swept the snow in the night, but the depth of the fields showed how much had fallen. The horse struggled under our weight, and from time to time, the wind caught the snow spray and brought it to our eyes.
The boy seemed very grave, and for a while we rode in silence, pushing the snow out on either side of us. “My name is Pio,” I said, my breath fogging the air.
“Andres,” the boy said, kicking the horse.
“When did the attack happen?”
“Early afternoon yesterday.”
“Where is the puma now?”
“Dead,” Andres answered, his voice flat, as if he had been killing these animals all his life.
“You killed it?”
“Like this,” Andres said, making a point out of his finger and putting it to his head.
“A good shot.” I watched the horizon, in the distance loomed a barn, a small hut near it where I figured his father must be.
“Someday I’ll ride in the rodeos,” Andres said.
“You do tricks?”
“I can shoot a rabbit at sixty meters.”
“I’d like to see that,” I said. I had seen something like it at a fair once, a man throwing clay pigeons and another man shooting. The snow lifted and fell in waves below the belly of the horse. “Is anyone at home with your father now?” I asked.
“It’s just me and him.”
“Was he conscious when you left?”
“How was the bleeding?”
“Not good,” Andres said.
I didn’t ask any more questions. We rode in silence over the hummocks and into the dips, where the snow was deeper. I felt the powder on my feet, but still Andres did not speak. The hut was closer now, a thin line of smoke escaping from the cooking fire.
Seated again at the bar, with the night outside and my mother tracking me, I think of my father. He was the type of person who just kept going. There was no stopping to wait out the storm. As long as the body kept moving, everything would be fine. I think he showed this belief even in his last moments: everything will be fine, just keep going.
In contrast, my mother was the type to not let anything rest. After we moved to Santiago, after my father disappeared, and we rented a one-bedroom, she would always come back to the facts. Mull over them, reposition them, like cards in a hand. Perhaps one would fit better here, or over there… I drink my wine and check the clock, trying to remember what she said on the phone, whether she told me to wait for her here or meet her at my apartment.
Often I find myself imagining her at the table in the same one-bedroom rental, putting together her placards. My father’s face laminated around a signpost. I see her going down to the memorial with all the other wives. Dropping their flowers, perhaps saying a silent prayer for all those who have disappeared.
I felt where the arm had gone bad, the skin swollen and red. Sweat stood out on my forehead, collected around my neck and in the small of my chest. With his fingertips, the man examined my shoulder, then traced the line of my collarbone. I couldn’t lift my arm or turn it. I had to let him. I could feel the way he moved my forearm from one hand to the other. Gently inspecting the cuts. The whole time I didn’t take my eyes from his face. The slant of his nose, the way his brow creased and worked as he bandaged my arm.
Andres sat next to me. I could feel the weight of his body on the bed. But I did not turn to look at him, or speak. I watched the man. The scar that ran up out of the neck of his sweater, just below the ears. How many years had passed? I remembered the way the rope had gone tight, the groan of the beam overhead, and the look in the boy’s eyes as I’d lifted him from the floor. Blood had appeared along the rope as he’d twisted, the skin pulling, and the boy fighting, making a high-pitched sound like wind through the crack of a rock face.
“You could lose the arm if we wait,” the man said, staring at me. He had given me something for the pain, a pill, and I felt somewhat distanced from my limbs. My toes tingled slightly.
I was thinking of running. I imagined opening the door. How the cold would fill the room and I’d rush out onto the land, muted rises covered in snow to the thin line of the horizon ten kilometers away. Thirty kilometers beyond, the ocean.
I smelled the iodine now drying. My arm had slipped into numbed oblivion. I kept working my toes, just to know they were there, the man staring at me still. Did he recognize me?
Perhaps the puma had done something to my spine. I didn’t know. I imagined the man standing over me. My body paralyzed. I wanted to run. To break through the door and out into the cold white where the past could be settled.
The springs in the bed shifted. Finally I looked at my son. “Can you tell me,” I asked, “if my toes are still working?”
I pushed the door open to let air in. Outside, the sky was a deep blue. I fingered out a cigarette and watched the boy put the horses together. There were two horses, the smaller brown the boy had been riding and a larger black criollo. The boy came over from the barn, the dogs yipping at the horses and the boy walking them over.
“Do you have a match?” I asked as the boy came and tied the horses up.
I moved to let the boy through the door, the smell coming out of the shack pungent and sweet with infection. I didn’t think the boy’s father would make it. He had told me his name and I rolled it over again in my head.
“Here,” Andres said, giving me the match.
I cupped my hands against the wind. I hadn’t been up here in years, only twice since my parents were killed, and the wind’s power over this place surprised me still. “I think I met your father once before,” I said. “Has he always been in this kind of work?”
Andres stepped out of the hut, “Where did you meet him?”
“Before you were born, I’m sure.”
“He has always done this type of work,” Andres said.
I liked the boy. There was a quickness to him. And I didn’t doubt he could shoot a rabbit at sixty meters, or at a hundred and twenty. And it was perhaps the boy that prevented me from leaving right then, from taking a horse and giving the boy a supply of morphine, and leaving them both in the high prairie.
“Show me one of your rodeo tricks,” I said, sucking the last bits of tobacco, then snubbing it out on the hut.
I watched the boy get his rope down off the horse. He slipped the rope around, made a knot and then a circle.
The land sloped down until it hit the horizon and the small bump there before the Pacific. A good ride, forty kilometers or more, I figured, to the clinic and the English nurse who waited for me there. The snow would slow us. I was thinking of her, how after those first quick months we came to lie in the clinic, the curtains drawn around us, and the patients all but gone.
She moved her hands down along my chest, feeling the skin, her hand resting over my lungs. “Pulmónes,” I said. She held her hand there for a moment, and I could see her working the word over in her head until it stuck. She moved the flat of her hand to my heart, “Corazón,” I said. She moved her hand down my chest to the stomach and grabbed the loose flesh in her hand, “Estómago,” I said.
She laughed. “Estómago grande,” she said playfully.
I held her hand for a moment. The ocean air slipped in under the clinic door. An egret called from the water.
“And this?” She asked, putting her hand to my throat, her eyes probing mine, her fingers moving along the scar.
The boy swung the rope, circled it up and down in front of him. When it got to his feet, he stepped in and before it made another revolution he was out of it again. “Very good,” I said.
The barman approaches me. It is still snowing, and for a while I stare at the flakes coming down.
I saw that sense has left my father. The wild look in his eyes. As if the bite had turned him half cat. And it’s true that the dogs kept barking as we helped him out of his bed and put him up on the horse. With Pio supporting his legs I got him up over the saddle. Then Pio rode off in the direction of town, breaking a path through the untouched snow in front of him.
“The gun,” my father said.
Pio was now a bit ahead of us and kept looking back.
“The gun,” my father said again, and I ran inside to get it. I put the rifle strap over my shoulder and came out through the doorway. Pio had turned the horse, waiting twenty meters away, the flank of the horse exposed and Pio just waiting.
“Sad times,” the barman says. “Some think he’s a saint. But I’d like to see him hang.”
The television is still on, and two men watch the demonstrations on the news. A couple at the far end of the bar laugh.
“I can’t serve you anymore,” the barman says. “I feel for you, but I can’t do it.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’re crying,” he says in a low voice. “It’s bad for business. I wish I could help you, but I can’t.”
“You would never leave your father would you?” I asked.
“No,” Andres said.
For a time we rode, my son behind me in the saddle, holding the reins around me. In front of us, nothing but snowfields. Then the man with the scar came alongside us, saying, “Let your horse rest. I’ll go ahead.” He kicked his horse forward. The air was still cold enough that the snow caught easily in the wind and lifted in clouds beneath the horse’s shoes.
“My father did a bad thing once,” I said. “He did a bad thing and I had to leave him.”
“I would never leave you,” Andres said.
“You’ll ride rodeo and win prizes,” I said.
“Yes,” Andres said, “I’ll be the best rider, and you won’t have to work, and Mama can come back from the factories, and she won’t have to work.”
“You’re a good boy,” I said. I could feel my voice leaving and I knew I was sick. “Don’t forget you’re a good boy,” I said.
It had been over twenty years. I turned in the saddle to watch Andres and his father on the big criollo, the horse tired and lagging behind, the steam breaking from its nostrils in long streams. I had told my bunkmates at St. Ignacio’s about my parents. How they ran a secret spy ring, how they were heroes and fought against the government. I made up stories about them: wagons of guns, clandestine meetings in the back alleys of Puerto Nogales. “Underneath the church there are secret passages known only to the resistance,” I said, my voice a whisper. But even as a boy I knew my parents had slipped away from me, as if disappearing down one of my imagined passageways. And in this place, the snow underfoot and a bleak horizon, I could no longer remember them.
I came alongside the criollo and saw the man’s head bowed, his breath rising up over his shoulders. He clutched his right arm with his left, supporting it against the uneven steps of the horse. The boy held his father up. The snow spread all around us like a new world.
The man startled as I passed, the look in his eyes wild and frightened, as if he were a cornered animal. All of him a shudder in the wind, frail enough that he could fall from the horse. The smell on him like dead meat wasting away in the sun.
Flakes wick against my eyelashes. I pull my jacket close around my neck, my hat down around my ears. I am walking now, the wind and air entering my lungs, cold, and somewhere deep inside it hurts. And after a while I begin to run, the snow falling, the lights passing overhead like streetlights in a car. My feet keep moving.
I come to the square below my hill, the placards out, the mothers and wives, the brothers and uncles, all of them with their signs. News cameras make halos of light around the reporters standing amid the crowd. Faces of los desaparecidos pass me as I run. Donde esta? The signs all read, some pictures grainy, already twenty or thirty years old. A barrel burns in the center and the people hold their signs in the air, all of them chanting, “Donde esta? Donde esta?”
We were almost to the rise. The ocean lay beyond, and from the top of the hill we would be able to see the dusky air surrounding the town. The snow behind us stretched from horizon to horizon, giving the landscape a flattened, otherworldly look. The rocks and bushes shaved off and nothing but land straight and level. I rode now remembering the old times, before the fences went up and the big sheep operations cut the land into parcels. The good years, before the foreigners came and worked for nothing, putting everyone out of business. Though slumped, I watched the rider in front of me, snow parting and sloughing off to the side of his horse.
“Give me the gun,” I said.
I felt Andres shift before asking, “Why?”
“Just give it to me.” I held out my good arm, keeping an eye on the rider. I knew what would happen once we reached the clinic. After Andres went back to the estancia, after everyone was gone and it was just he and I. There would be an accident. An accidental overdose, painkillers, an infection, an amputation with too much blood loss. “Give it to me now,” I said.
Andres took out the rifle and put it in my hand. “Remember,” I said, “you’ll always be a good boy.” I set the rifle across the neck of the horse, checking the cartridge. It was awkward, almost impossible with one hand, and I tried to brace it with my knee.
Andres slowed the horse. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said. “I know this man. He’s going to kill me. It will look like an accident, but it won’t be.”
“But we’re going to the clinic,” Andres said.
I shifted the gun around on my thigh and worked the rifle down until my bad hand held the trigger, and my good the stock.
“You’re acting crazy Papa,” Andres said, reaching for the butt of the gun.
I had to fight to keep the gun in my hands. My shoulder ached terribly, the pain coming back. Andres grabbed for the gun again.
“Quiet,” I commanded. “I’ll be dead this time tomorrow.” I was crying now, scared, and trying to hold the gun straight, on my hip, aim it at the rider in front of us, feeling for the trigger.
The bullet hit to the right of my horse, the snow muffling the sound of the gun. I turned the horse and saw the man slip another bullet into the chamber. He locked the gun and fired, and this time the bullet whizzed past my head, the sound of it singing in the air. I kicked the horse and turned him around.
In my head the English girl said, “Lung,” she said, “Heart.” She laughed and put her hand to my neck and said “Throat, Adam’s apple, scar.” Another bullet hit the snow. I was riding fast now, toward the gun. In the sky above us, a plane crossed, way up high, its propellers droning.
“Take the gun,” my father said urgently. “Take the gun.” He looked back at me. I could see he was crying. He was crying and it scared me. It scared me more than anything. Pio kept riding. I didn’t know what he would do when he got here? I didn’t know. And my father begging me now, “Take the gun, Andres.”
My father ducked his head. I sighted. “You’re a good boy, Andres, a good boy,”
The gun went off and I saw the man buck back in the saddle. For a moment his head lifted, a red mist in the wind, and then all of him fell back out of the saddle and off the rear of the horse. I was still pointing the gun when the horse ran past a second later, tearing off in a wide circle through the snow.
High up a plane passed in the blue sky. Its low drone the only sound I heard as I got down off the horse and went over to Pio. Around his head the snow was absorbing the blood, and for a while I watched him. There was a scar on Pio’s neck. It made my breath catch in my lungs. Then I looked up at the plane, and the way it banked somewhere over the ocean and headed north.
I tell myself this is what happened. I want to tell my mother: Papa did not disappear. He’s still out there, under the snow. I invented the story I told you. Imagined it. Gave it life.
My father had said, “Take the gun, Andres, take it.” He had been crying. And I took it and shot the man. I didn’t know anything about Pio. There was no English girl, no boy’s ward. He had been stranded on the side of the road in a jeep, his battery dead, and a scar around his neck that I couldn’t explain.
What crossed Pio’s mind in that last second? What had my father been thinking? Was he crazy? I want to tell my mother all of this, but I haven’t. Because I want her to believe her husband died for something more relevant. With more honor, like the man we’d always known in the high tablelands.
“You’re here,” my mother says. She holds me by the shoulder. The crowd chants around us. Slogans I have heard since childhood. “I didn’t think you’d come, but you did, and I’m glad.”
She holds her sign with one hand, resting it against her shoulder. I look up and see my father looking down at me. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“Don’t be,” my mother says. Her hair has gone completely gray. “It’s the government we must blame now. A whole generation is gone,” she pauses to chant a slogan. “Two whole generations,” she says, after the slogan has passed and the crowd farther on takes it up.
My father’s face on the signboard has a smile barely visible on his lips. The skin pockmarked from wind, from the prairie he lived on, the wind blasted grass. From the life he’d led. Better in death than he was in life. He looks good on that poster. He looked like someone who would be missed, someone who hadn’t done a bad thing in his life. Someone we lost too soon.
I didn’t know anymore who he was. I sat there in the snowfields, my father fallen from the horse, and I could see the sweat all over him, the way his hair had gone wet, and his clothes stuck to him. The horse whinnied, stamped the snow, then after a time went off and joined the small brown, both waiting for us to get up. In the distance I could see the plane, it tipped its wings for a second, the sun catching on the windows. I imagine what I would tell my mother: my father falling then, out over the ocean, men shoving him out and that fall, a thousand feet with the rail tied to his body, carrying him down.
I held my father five minutes, “You’d never leave me,” he whispered, the voice I knew not there anymore. “No, Papa. I’ll never leave you,” I said. I held him for ten minutes. He shivered in his sweat-soaked clothes, his face changing, and the cold snow below us. “You’ll be a good boy, won’t you? You won’t leave me.” I held him for thirty minutes. I said, “I’ll never leave. I’m a good boy. I’ll take care of you and you won’t have to work and I’ll never leave.” And then he died in the snowfield with no one around but me. “Thank you,” he had repeated. “You’ll be a good boy, won’t you? A good boy.” The plane then only a distant speck, and I imagined I would be a good boy, from a good family, who had lost his father to something beyond his control.
My mother is chanting again. Next to me, she keeps yelling, “Donde esta?” The crowd yells with her. All of us dream of alternate lives where our fathers have come home; husbands, mothers, brothers, sisters, all of us dreamers. I felt my mother looking at me. Everyone in this chanting crowd, searching for los desaparecidos. Everyone has raised a fist to pump the air in time to the slogan. Their signs, their faces, the chant traveling through them, among all of us, until it becomes one voice, one chant, one placard. I feel their voices inside me, “Donde esta?” I yell, “Donde esta?”
First published in The Southern Review.
Urban Waite, 28-years-old, grew up in Seattle and attended the University of Washington on a partial scholarship focused on minority achievement in math and science, preparing him to be the next big Mexican/Italian/Welsh engineer. Instead, he became interested in fiction (where he could make up anything). He went on to study writing at Western Washington U. and Emerson and lives in Seattle with his wife. Little, Brown and Company will publish his first novel, THE TERROR OF LIVING, in February 2011.