There are only two roads out of the country north through the sierra. Most take the three-lane highway from the provincial capital. If you come through our town you must be a hick, with withered crops to sell across the border, or up to no good. Or both.
Sitting here in a corrugated metal shack, smoking cigarillos made of straw, tuned into the police waveband, ants marching over our boots, pants stained with grease from yesterday’s burger, watching cars, trucks, horses, carts and dogs approach the checkpoint, we may be fools but we are not idiots.
“Hey gringo,” I shout, “what you got under those lemons?”
“Nothing Capitán, nothing… Ah, si… si… But Capitán, they are just good luck charms from my mother, to bring me buyers in the market.”
“Smuggling gold is an offence under the Penal Code section 136… But I trust you will bring them back. I suggest you leave five dollars in the collection box for restoring religious buildings, for the good of your soul.”
And so it goes on. They say the revolutionary government won’t last and the New Revolutionary Party will take over, nationalize the banks and stabilize the currency. You don’t know who or what to believe. The collection will soon be large enough for me to buy a car and plot of land and then I’ll take my wife and children to live with her folks in the country of her birth. Meanwhile.
A cart passes through with three candlesticks and the bones of St Eustache under two hundredweight of cassava. No matter. The saints can’t save us now.
They used to call this land paraíso, a mountain garden in paradise. Landlocked, inaccessible, protected from the outside world. The air sang. The oranges were plump and sweet and fell into your arms when you whistled at the trees. You could smell frangipani in the hair of the girl you loved when you walked through the groves to tell your parents of your betrothal. Your great great grandmother, who had never travelled more than fifty miles from home, still fed the goats, soaked the fruit in local brandy and tended the beehive. But that was before the trucks came, before the smelting works started eating their way through the valleys, before the chimneys covered olives in fine dust. Before the bankers arrived, then the soldiers, first in khakis, then bandanas, then in different khakis. Meanwhile the streams started to bleed brown and red, the liquor soured, birds fell from the sky, fish changed sex. We developed a taste for burgers.
Now we walk around in a dream, feeling the essence of our country evaporate. Drawn to the towns for gold, we can’t look our parents in the face when we travel back to the mountains.
I hear, and then see, a truck rumbling on the gravel. It decelerates and grinds to a halt. Shiny wheels, foreign plates. Sharp grin, polished teeth. Boxes. Full of boxes. Hundreds of boxes. I marvel that the weight hardly touches the suspension. The tyres sit sprightly, showing no sign of pressure.
“What have you got there?”
“Nothing, Capitán, just empty boxes.”
“Really… see how light they are…”
He throws me one; it is almost like a balloon, a featherweight in my arms. Nothing rattles.
“We carry empty boxes across the border, Capitán, to bring back medicines for the people…”
I want to look inside, I feel for the edge of the plastic wrapping, seeking a way in.
“No! No! Capitán, please don’t break the seal… they are airtight, disinfected, to prevent contamination.”
As he talks I hold one to my nose. I close my eyes and breathe. I can smell the breeze in my face as a boy in my grandfather’s garden, the bougainvillea leaves enclosed in my sister’s fingers. I taste birdsong in the wind and smoke from barbecued fish.
I can feel the remains of the old country, distilled.
I don’t understand. I could just squeeze him for five dollars but for once I am nervous.
“No worries, Capitán, we’ll pay import duties when we come back. This is a government project. Let me give you ten dollars for your church collection …”
Now I understand. The rumours are true. I visualize trucks climbing mountain roads, seeking out remote villages, keeping peasants out of range with sticks and guns, as sophisticated dials measure air quality. I imagine giant pumps grinding into action, sucking up the atmosphere, condensing it into containers, hermetically sealed in plastic. Leaving large vacuum cubes in their wake.
Now I can picture the country clubs across the border bathed in the essence of mountain villages, spas and health clubs advertising new treatments, film stars getting married in chapels scented by streams and tasting of lemon.
The driver waits patiently. He is more smartly dressed than most. Almost supercilious. I guess he has travelled this route before.
I wonder how many more holes it will take to suffocate my country.
The Penal Code doesn’t cover this, but the Penal Code is confined to the small things in life.
I think of my father, killed in crossfire, and how we carried his body back to the local church.
I know what I have to do. I go into the hut, pick up my rifle, release the safety catch, and take a last deep breath.
Before I come out, I take another breath.
I think of my wife and the calm of her village hundreds of miles down south. In my mind’s eye I am driving a shiny car with our children laughing on the back seat.
I tell myself that I must be imagining things, that I am not paid to save the soul of my country, that there will be other trucks, other guards. That fate is fate.
I put the gun back into the rack.
“Twenty dollars,” I grunt.
He pays willingly and I watch him cross the border and disappear over the horizon.
Nick Bevan devotes most of his writing energies to reports, committee papers and professional journals but published poems in several little magazines in an earlier phase of his life and has recently been experimenting in a number of literary genres.
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