The Rio Grande was a crepuscular figure in the looming darkness. Its calm brown waters softly sailed through the desert, splitting the land in two, separating hopeful dreams from the brutal bitterness of reality. The cryptic depths moved morbidly along the shallow banks of sandy loam where the watchful eyes of mysterious predators bided patiently behind the gloom. Only the docile light of the moon, which billowed obediently through the sand and ebbed silently between the waters, made the oppressive hostility of the dark more bearable. Perched above the dead bushes that lay sparsely in repose on this side, across the trees and woody shrubs that grew in lush clusters on the other, was a lonely metal signpost that read "El Paso 15 Miles." Scratched, weathered, and worn, the faded green anterior of the sign was scarred with bullet holes. Moonlight peeked through the tiny craters and poked oblong pearls in the dusty sand as if it were littered with bloody gems.
Walking quietly, treading lightly, a trio of dark silhouettes approached the river. A man was on the right, a woman to the left, with slings on their backs. A tiny girl stood in the middle, clutching her mother's hand and gripping the legs of her father's jeans.
"Papi, are we almost to América?" The girl squeaked, her voice no louder than the whispers of the stars and the wind under the hills.
"Si, mi Isabella. América is right across that river." The man bent down, holding her daughter's cheek against his calloused hands. He could see the dreariness drooping from her chin and the panic swimming on the edges of her eyes. Her face was crusted with dirt and salt; her hair was hardened with sand. The journey had taken its toll, and it pained to see her suffer. Nevertheless, from the moment he set off with his family, he knew his spirit was firm and his future was set. Gravity had dragged them down, but destiny pulled them forward. The way people talked about America back in México was like it was a promise of opportunities and guaranteed success. Clear water flowed freely with a turn of the knob; electricity never went out, even during storms; peals of laughter poured from every corner of the street instead of cries of mutilated pain. America was a fresh pasture, a clean slate, a new beginning. Being poor in America was not a lasting shame. You could earn a scholarship, get a degree, and apply for a job that earned you enough to retire before fifty. If your roof collapsed, you didn’t fix it yourself or worry about when the next rain would fall. You could sue your landlord and have other people fix it. If you broke your arm, you didn't worry about being fired. You would be provided with insurance, and your boss would be given paid leave.
" Héctor, are you sure this is safe? Hugo said the undercurrents could sweep you under or you could get your feet stuck in the mud." The woman was frightened. It quivered her words and shook her legs. She eyed the gentle tranquility of the vicious torrent tentatively, like a fretful child dipping her toes into a vast ocean. It was a door of breathtaking beauty and precarious danger, a world of unknown mysteries and proclaimed truths. Both hesitance and desire tightened her chest and beat her heart. Despite her fears, she felt drawn, enchanted, like a doll whose limbs and spirit were pulled by strings. She often heard stories of America passed along in México. She always knew it was where she wanted to raise her daughter. Away from the violence, away from the horror. Isabella would be able to read and write. She would draw pictures, tell stories, and every day she would see her smile gleam in the sun and travel above the trees. Of course, she and Héctor would buy a house, a car, maybe even one of those fancy ones the cartel members drove in. Héctor said they could achieve anything in America as long as they worked hard. Looking down at her filthy T-shirt and Isabella's grimy skirt, she felt as if it were a dream come true. In America, you didn't have to wake up to the sound of the screams and gunfire in the night. You did not have to coax your daughter to sleep until her tears dried and whimpers subsided. America was safe. There were no cartels, drugs, or crimes, only peace, and freedom. That was what Héctor promised. In America, she could finally be a good mother, a mother she always aspired to be. One that bought her daughter good food, new clothes, and new toys. One that could give what she did not have, and one that could protect her children from the dangers of the world. However, none of that mattered as long as Isabella was safe, though it sometimes pained her with jealousy to see her happier with her father.
"Don't worry, Laia. Hugo doesn’t know head from tail. Gustavo has crossed many times. He says it's only waist deep," Héctor stood up, embracing Laia in his arms, "don't worry, cariño, it's going to be ok, everything will be ok once we get to America.
The reassurance in Héctor's voice was firm. It conciliated her apprehension, swelled her heart with hope. She hugged him tighter, feeling that her life would have been a broken compass, always moving in circles but never forward, if not for Héctor.
“Come one, vamos, we still have some ways to go,” he said, tying his sling above his head to protect it from the water and confidently walked towards the river.
"Papi!" Isabella cried, running towards his father, signaling for him to carry her. She was promptly hoisted up and situated on Héctor’s neck, yelling with surprised delight as he splashed into the river, cold water freckling their parched faces. Watching them disappear, fraying the folds of untroubled current, Laia suddenly feared that Héctor would accidentally drop Isabella. She was about to stop them when she stopped herself. It was that same twang of envy that pinched her. Had it not crossed her daughter’s mind to ask her to be carried?
Her laughter was innocuous and her voice was carefree. Laia’s jealousy was immediately replaced with a pang shameful guilt. She was just a child, barely out of infancy. Thinking that she deliberately chose her father over her was an egregious idea. How could she, as a mother, let her greed and insecurities poison her daughter’s innocence? They were stepping into a new country, a new life, a new beginning. From now on, she would let Isabella make her own choices. What she wanted to eat, how she wanted to dress, where she wanted to go, and who she wanted to carry her. That was what a good mother would do. She was growing up, and Laia could not allow her selfishness jeopardize her growth. One day she'll leave you. That thought tormented her; a gut-wrenching agony. How would she be able to let go?
Suppressing her pain, worries, and self-resentment, Laia tied her sling above her head and followed them into the water.
The Rio Grande was about fifty feet across, spreading in front of them like a road that provided no footing, always pushing them in different directions, capsizing their family, pulling them apart. The quiet tides seemed menacing, like massive waves threatening to bring them under, drag them to the bottom where ruthless monsters slept. Laia could remember Hugo once saying the Rio Grande was overgrown with crocodiles. Now, trapped in the middle of the river, vulnerable, exposed, and defenseless, Laia thought she could feel the slitted eyes boring into the nape of her neck. She felt a sudden lurch in her neck and a chill down her spine, forcing her to turn around. The bushes swayed and the water rippled; Isabella's giggles brought her back. There were no crocodiles. A sigh of relief escaped her, bringing with it her fears and worries. Everything was going to be all right. She was going to be a good mother. They were going to America.
* * *
Their feet squished on the asphalt, leaking muddy water on the ground, leaving dark trails of spots in the sand. A smooth green metal signpost read "El Paso 1 Mile" on the side of the road. Their torpor and lethargy could not hide their eagerness. Héctor picked up his pace, pointing ahead where dawn's rose red fingers were already tickling the edges of the horizon. Laia could see lights twinkling in the distance and the dark outlines of city buildings still deep in slumber.
"El Paso," she muttered, excitement lifting her lips. Isabella was asleep on her father's shoulder, moaning through the drowsiness when her sleep was too bumpy. Laia was about to wake her and show her this sight, but thought better and lowered her hand.
As they neared the city, they began to see the first signs of nightlife roaming in the shadows. Homeless men huddled on rotting cardboard boxes in the back of dark alleys. Broken syringes splintered on the sidewalk; trash littered the streets. The outer parts of the city seemed to be the poorest. The fronts of shops were broken, housing drug addicts and prostitutes. Men leaned outside the dim halo cast by blinking streetlights. They eyed Héctor warily and Laia suspiciously. The few cars that passed hurried along hastily, not wanting to linger. This is America, they wouldn't dare hurt us. Laia thought to herself. Surely, they know that the police would come and get him. But when she raised her head to see the greedy leer of the men, she quickly ducked, urging Héctor to go faster. Feral catcalls saluted their departure as they crossed shakily into the safer parts of the city. Isabella stirred groggily in her sleep, blinking the dreams out of her eyes.
"Yes, yes Mamá is here."
Laia took her from her father's back and held her in her arms. She felt a guilty joy when Isabella called her and not her father, but when she looked at her filthy face and her frail body, Laia could not help but feel pained once again. Isabella felt so tiny and weak in her arms. A child so little should not be taken to flee to another country nor wander through the dark with nothing but a few pesos and the clothes on her back. Laia knew that it would be some time before their faces were clean again. It would be some time before there was food in their bellies, new shirts to wear, and a sturdy roof above their head. Hopefully, it wouldn't be a long time. They were in America. They were in America where opportunities sprang like fresh mushrooms after a summer rain, and where money grew like leaves on a tree that never died. No, it would not be a long time. It would only be a matter of time before they had a house to their name and a car in their possession. Nevertheless, when she looked at Isabella, it was a mix of anger and humiliation. She was a failure who even failed at convincing herself she was a good mother. This was America, yes. But this was also a place where Isabella had no friends, no family, no identity. She couldn't buy her clothes or food, she had no money, no job, no connections. She couldn't send her to school, she forgot to bring her birth certificate and ID when they left, it seemed useless at the time. But what was she thinking? How would she get one here? Who would want to help them? It was a mistake to come here. They should have stayed back in Mexico where everything was familiar. She couldn't keep Isabella safe, not here. When they walked across that street, she knew they would be defenseless if the men wanted to surround them. What would they do? Steal? They had no money. Ransom? They had no friends here and their only family was hundreds of miles away. Rape? Laia shuddered at that thought. It felt ridiculous now that they were here, knowing that they would sleep on the streets tonight because they could not afford a motel, knowing that they would immediately be detained if the police found them as illegal immigrants, knowing that Isabella would be taken into child services, stripped away from them if they were caught. How could she have let themselves be dragged into this, pulled into a danger she thought was safe? Was it her selfishness? Her desire? Her rapacity? Or was it the far-fetched idea that coming to America would remedy all their problems, lift them from privation, and most of all, amend the incompetence of her being an adequate mother? When she saw the children of the rich families back in Mexico, dressed in expensive suits, adorning extravagant dresses, wearing jewelry so valuable that she could not afford even with a lifetime's salary. She watched them holed up in their mansions, feeding on delicacies, protected from the violence, crime, and peril that haunted the common folk. Laia was always jealous and dreamed that it might one day be them who lived up there, that it might be Isabella who wore those dresses and donned those jewels. But of course, reality only gave her disappointment and time made her bitter. She could only hope that Isabella was safe and happy, the very least any mother could do. Héctor always said she worried too much, but the truth was that she wished for what she could not receive. She wanted to be a good mother, she really did. She wanted to give Isabella what she did not have when she grew up: a mother who was always there for her children, and the ability to provide good memories and basic necessities, all of which she failed at. Isabella decided she needed her father more than her, they had traveled tirelessly across a desert only to become criminals, and she couldn't even get her daughter a proper bed to sleep on.
"I guess this will have to do," Héctor said, finally stopping, motioning to a bench. They were now in the middle of a park, secluded by trees so that they would not be easily spotted. A playground was to their side, a swing swaying idly, the chains creaking, the seat sagging. Morning light seeped through the leaves above, dotting the ground, blinding their eyes.
“Is this where we’ll sleep?” Laia asked, feeling that wave of disappointment wash over her, and her consciousness screaming. We can’t sleep here! What kind of mother makes her daughter sleep on a bench? But her eyes were growing heavy and her limbs weak. She stretched herself onto the bench before Héctor could answer, noticing the frigid chill of the night had still not left the bench as it leeched into her skin.
“Yes,” Héctor replied, setting down his sling. Laia could hear the weariness in his voice, but she was slipping too fast into her own shame and regret to care or make out his words.
“Take care of Isabella, make sure she stays within your sight. I’m going to find some food or maybe a job.”
“Ok,” she said, the heavy languor of the air lulling her to sleep.
“Take care of Isabella alright? I’m going to be right back.”
“Ok . . .”
And then she woke up from her dreamless slumber. The beams of midday sun felt comfortable on her back. It had been a long time since she slept so well. There were no sharp rocks poking in her back nor shots of gunfire to interrupt her. She felt for Isabella, as she always did when she woke up.
Her call sustained no reply. Alarmed, Laia sprang from the bench. She looked around frantically for Isabella. It’s already noon, have I slept this long? By now, the last of the morning joggers had already left. Old men sat feeding pigeons, and retired women walked their dogs. A few mothers were gathered around the playground watching over their children, shouting when one climbed too high or ran too fast. Looking at them made Laia sick to her stomach. Seeing their expressions of motherly affection and hearing the exclamations of praise, only made her feel like they were mocking her irresponsibility.
“Isabella! Isabella!” She cried out again, fear drowning her voice and tears welling in her eyes. The other mothers turned around, looking at her cautiously. This only made Laia cry harder. Their disgust slugged her with lashes of disgraced contrition. She wanted to be a better mother, she did. She would never allow herself lose her own daughter, she would never. But she was too tired, too disappointed, too guilty for not having a bed for Isabella. Was this why she left her? Did she go look for her father? Oh, what would Héctor say if he found out she lost her? Would he leave her? Was he going to look at her with that same disgust as those mothers?
“What are you looking at!” She choked brutally, glaring at the startled mothers as they looked away.
Her voice pushed through her tears like the signal of a lighthouse lighting up the defeated spirit of a hopeless sailor on a foggy sea. Laia embraced her daughter, crying into her shoulder. They were tears of relief and guilt. She did not care about the curious stares of bystanders or her daughter’s struggle against her arms. She only hugged her tighter, to make sure that she was truly there. She was going to be a better mother, she had to. For Isabella, for Héctor, and or herself. It was her responsibility, her duty. She could only take what she had and give what she did. She had to. It was her promise, a promise she would not break.
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On my third read I noticed that this México didn't have an accent. When she saw the children of the rich families back in Mexico, dressed in expensive suits, Maybe you have time to change it? LF6
I see. Actually, it was intentional. A subtle cue that they were leaving their past behind them.
Oh sorry. I get it. Thanks. LF6 :)
Great diction in this story! A lot of vivid detail too. Good read! Thank you Samuel, LF6
Thank you Lily!
Samuel, I just like stories tell in this Way. The Voice is superb. Funny too. Congrats and more welcome from everyone here.
Thank you Philip. This means alot to me
daaaaamn, that was a rough ride. Your descriptions are so vivid! it's like you're there.
Wooooooo, a lot of tears.....