Go and Go and Go
In the distance you hear a bark. With the bark a stab in your stomach, the fear you swallow, tell yourself: Don’t think. Don’t think of the dogs they might unleash or already have, la migra, on your trail. Don’t think of Nancy, of your newborn daughter. Are you being followed? Have they found your track? Is this man you follow, your cousin, a fool leading you into their hands? Could you run in the scatter, survive alone? Don’t think about running. No one else seems to have noticed. You tell your feet to move, and they move, without order. You don’t have to think about that. You go on, in this, your first night in what you believe to be America, somewhere in the chaparral outside Hidalgo, across the Rio Grande, in Reynosa.
Your cousin told you when he saw the look on your face, after you’d all just scrambled up the banks, stood almost naked in your sopping underwear, as you put on your clothes, he told you: “No te preocupes, carnal. Ya estamos. ¿Ves las luces? Allí vamos. Tranquilo, carnal. Es un brinco no más.” You wanted to believe him, want to. He tells you if they come, if you have to run, to keep your eye on the postería, watch the power lines to gather your bearings. Watch the lines and go north. You look now and there they run, above the darkness of the snagging brush, the cables blacker still than the blackness of the night.
You can’t help but think, if they catch you, if you get lost, of the stories told. Los rinches who like as not would gun you down, like an animal, a criminal, with every right and yours but to die. Heard told of corpses on the path, men who’d hung themselves on barb wire, or been lynched, a noose hung in a tree, bones below, half buried when come upon, skin leathered to the crispness of fried chicken. The dog’s bark echoes in the distance and everyone ignores the bounding call. There is danger in each sound, the rattle of a leaf, the snap of a branch. You breathe. You do not think. You breathe. You move, compact, clinging to your pack, ready to bolt at the slightest threat, and the dog’s bark recedes and then, disappears.
You shuffle now in the penumbra, cloaked in the presence of shadow, the spectrum of darkness, nothing but yourself, the rasp of la brasada, the muscles ferment, the sweat and the layers of darkness, nothing but yourself lost to yourself You grip the straps of your backpack to ease its weight on your shoulders, the water bottles that dig at the small of your back, the ache long since lodged, a throb, could you lose the pints of water? Will you need it later? Your situation weighs on you—walking, stumbling, mounting—you are already here, you are almost there, but how much longer?
Your cousin pushes, it’s just over that hill, just pass that stand of brush, that wash. “Mire la postería, carnal. Llegamos.” He is not a coyote but a guide, your own flesh and blood, as you, your grandfather’s grandson, your father’s brother’s son. You are always almost there.
A chatter in the distance you mistake for a helicopter. Every sound, the rattle of locust, the grate of branches, a coyote’s howl, threatens, and you mistake them, assign them powers beyond their present danger.
Those that stagger, those that lumber ahead and behind, struggling below their own loads, a formation of ants, they are your family. If you lift your arm, reach out, you will touch your brother-in-law, whom you’ve promised to protect, and beyond him, your cousin who announces every so often, “Venimos llegando, venimos llegando.” The lights off in the distance remain on the horizon, glistening, melting.
You focus on the ground, the feet ahead of you, your own. Bones and muscles and ligaments tighten and bend and stretch. You are pain. You are numbness. You are the forgetting of the pain. The skin that rubs and balloons and bursts and burns and scorches and numbs, for stretches of time, is forgotten in the march and march, the movement, cannot stop—go, go, at your heel, the bony outgrowth bleeds, but you feel only the wetness. Inertia itself spurs you, there is no thought. The mesquites rake at your face, nopals and agaves stab at your legs. For a second you think, I should have worn a jacket, and then you think, it is so hot.
The thought creeps in your mind, as persistent as the hunger, thirst, the throb—death. As persistent as the sun’s scorch, as the silence now fallen over the column of men before and behind. You push it from your mind, but it remains. In each gasp of breath, each trickle of sweat, each heavy footfall, death.. You feel the spasms in your stomach, the retch you swallow. The grit of dust in your teeth. You are alive, but now, in all you feel, death, the closeness of it. How many days? How many more?
La brasada’s spined tentacles draw back. A clearing materializes, beyond the swaying backs of those ahead. Before you now a wash of bleached earth, not white soil, but dirt bleached under the roaring glare of the sun and the waves of nausea, the throbbing cloud on your vision. Still beyond, you make out in the distance, a metal-sheeted barn, its roof glistening on the horizon. It must be midday, the shadows leaning from mesquites, clumps of nopals, and stunted, gnarled yuccas. Your cousin decides to wait out the afternoon, find refuge from the heat. You all shuffle along the receding brush, and then kneel, sit back, sprawl in the shadows of a mesquite. Your cousin warns about standing here, “Esperamos,” he says, and promises, “Es un brinco no más. Casi, casi llegamos.”
The food you have brought—candy bars, crackers—have long since run out. You glance at the hands, watching plastic bags uncrinkle, cellophane wrappers crackle, and chocolate melting on their fingertips. Crumbs lining their lips. The lines of their hands marked with dust, and even so, you would lick their fingers clean. When they hold out their hands, offer a cracker, you shake your head, not meeting their eyes. You would give, but won’t take, and if roles reversed, they would decline in turn—that is, so long as you’re on your feet, so long as you can deny, and you would like to think, if it came to that, like a soldier in a movie, you would urge them on, take one last drink, go, go, you would tell them, and they would remember your sacrifice forever.
That afternoon, there is little talk. Grim smiles meet your own. You remember stories of crossing. They told of desperation—those who went before you, those who returned, first hand or from a cousin, some guy they knew. They saw it on TV. In the throes of fatigue—skin so dry when they pinch themselves it stays pinched, like putty, red eyed, skin paled—immigrants driven by the fear of death to turn themselves over to the migra, or with clawing hunger, sick of heat, hallucinating, alone in the desolation, driven to off themselves. Tales of hemmed-in travelers, of castaways, survivors driven to cannibalism take hold in your mind. You smile at your fellow travelers, your family, because they smile, but think, they think the same. You heard tell of men who resorted to tearing open rodents, jackrabbits and armadillos, eating them alive and drinking the blood. To resort to that. Normal men who had turned to darker instincts. Men like you or your brother-in-law and cousin who rest now, stretched out in the shadow.
You see stone and wish it bread. You sip water, sip for fear it too might be your last. And now as the day wanes and the shadows stretch out toward you from the other side of the clearing, as your mind turns toward these darker thoughts, you see the nopals and consider ripping into the fibrous meat, spines and all, but the others are there and they’d see you, and just then your cousin rouses, stands, and you find yourself doing the same.
The path you follow narrows and there is no avoiding the thorny brasada. The tingle and burn. Your arms stippled with pinpricks of blood, dusted, streaked with sweat. Your jeans torn. You grip the straps of your backpack with a tight fist and brace your chin against your chest and for lengths at a time, walk blindly and bump into your brother-in-law ahead. The branches and thorns close in. You burrow behind the others and el monte takes a hold, strangles, scrapes.
Down this tunnel of thorns, you see your father’s face, his look of jeering disappointment when he’d come home to find you sitting in front of the TV. Vago, vale madre, aún los maricones trabajan. ¿Qué tipo de hombre eres? He sat down and you said nothing. He slapped you on the leg and gripped your knee and told you it was a joke. You could find work, there was work at the mine, and he asked why you bothered with school. You turned over the remote control. He told you to go do your homework and laughed. You stood, but before you stepped out of the room, he told you to stop, and shook his head and smiled. He told you there was work in the mine, and soon you worked there alongside him. The terraced slopes, the earth movers, the conveyor belts, down, the craggy walls, the darkness of the cave, the light that shone from your head, the narrowing walls, the grinding, the dust. You left, went to the city, Parral. You got work there, met Nancy, your daughter came—Erika, the name you decided on, American sounding, looking at her, you knew, you hoped. Still there was nothing, petty day jobs that got pulled out from under you, told the next day there’s no more work, and when you go to claim your pay, they ask what you will do about it—in that moment, when el jefe smiled at you, jeering, you knew. You thought about robbing him, killing him, plotted a kidnapping and ransom, all in the time it took to turn and walk out, and you hated yourself—you will never go back to that, you promised. You knew, looking into your baby’s eyes, there was more for you, and here you are now, whapped in the face by a palo verde limb.
No one says a thing, but grumbles and pants when, the monte too thick, you are forced to double back, your cousin telling you the path he knew had closed. Any urge to recriminate, you swallow. No one here suffers, none who would admit it, their thoughts already beyond this slog. You least of all, though there is pain, there is hope. You march, your foot goes, the other, you must, what other choice do you have? and your body attuned, seems borne of its own force releasing your mind, shutting the sources of pain. You will dream of walking through bushes. You will dream of a tunnel, of a cave, of a narrowing, the walls creeping. Es un brinco no más, you hear. You want to speed up and reach your cousin and take him to the ground and shake him by the shoulders and scream: ¿Llegamos? ¿Llegamos? ¿Llegamos?
Numb and swollen and roving, you rove but even in your wandering you tire, this is enough for a lifetime. You vow to never fight the border, to find yourself somewhere and stay, but you do not know now how much you will miss home.
Your wife begged you not to leave. What would she do alone and with a baby? Many nights she cried, and begged, but you had made up your mind. She had her family. You promised you would be back, and more, promised money, the American Dream.
She too had heard tell of the crossing, the divide between family, what America can do to a man. Women who stay home, humiliated, abandoned by their men, never get word, terrorized with the thought of bones picked over in the desert, buried in a shallow grave of migrating dust. She didn’t fear so much the crossing, but what you might find. America would change you. Make you want what you couldn’t have—even just for a day, long enough to ruin everything. Different laws, different values. The temptation of women and drink. The chance you get blackout drunk and lunge a fist at the wrong man or get behind the wheel and veer into oncoming traffic. The chance of another woman, many, blond- haired, American women who have sex for fun, another family, and her sitting home like a fool.
And she was right. Of this you’re not proud. There were moments you thought you could leave it all behind, family, country, just as she suspected, and start anew. She wasn’t stupid: the hollow promise of a better life. But you promised her. When you asked her, hadn’t you always been good? she cried again.
You had another vision, even so. Fed up living cramped with your in-laws, your wife and daughter and you, nestled in the same bed, and her brother snoring on the other side of a sheet, you thought: basta. You think back at the pang to smother your brother-in-law then, with a pillow—chingados. Cállate el pinche hocico, cabrón. He laughed when, just hours before, you told him and he admitted, that on occasion, his own snoring wakes him. But now he staggers on, two steps ahead of you. He is there, you know, but nothing more than a lurching shadow, decipherable only by its sway, cast before the pitch and shadowed malpaís, the rasping, scouring branches that everywhere grasp you. He is a comfort. Back and forth, the moving darkness.
You had another vision. Thousands, millions find what they look for. Enough for everybody. Why else would so many go? You dreamed of a house and land, your own, like the Americans, what you’d seen. Hot water, a stove, a microwave, a TV and a satellite dish with a thousand channels, a remote control in your hand, your grandchildren grown, speaking English and Spanish, practicing Medicine or Law. You saw your father sitting in a wheel chair, retired to your home in the U.S., he grunts and gestures for the remote, you turn up the volume and smile to yourself.
Ahead your cousin signals to stop. It’s relayed from the others he believes you’ve reached the rendezvous for the pick-up. You hunker down beneath the ragged shadows, shadows cast by the enveloping brasada and the night sky empty and dark, and as you sit now, you do not let on that you are afraid. You watch with the others, the road, a black space beyond, the promised end. A rustle inhabits the night, a sound like running water. Hours now you watch, catalogue your injuries: arms scored black with blood, burning thighs, your aching back, the blister at your heel, swollen, now burst. You tip the last bottle to your lips. A steady silence.
You only want to see her face. When you left she looked at you hard, said nothing, and when you went to kiss her, she turned her cheek. Your eyes water. But you promised her. You promised her. And you believed all you told yourself.
Hours waiting, the darkness pales, a purple haze looming, and now your cousin rises, smiles warily, and says, “Eso no es. Está más allá. Vamos, cabrones.” Ahead the road: the rustle of running water, an irrigation ditch. You kneel and drink.
You do not let on you are afraid. Heads sway before you, backs, bodies. They go on and you go. You sweat, you smell yourself, or the smell that lingers from those ahead, stale onions, and you hold your head up and smell. The rising dust grits your teeth, but you can’t help but breathe with your mouth open. You show no fear, other than sweat and tremble, the wary look in your eyes, you speak no fear. You watch the swaying heads, a procession, a pilgrimage.
You think of San Judas Tadeo, but know no prayer. Sunlight wheels in a flare of white needles, and you find yourself for a moment hoisted on your father’s shoulders cuando fue a pagar las mandas. Just a boy in Parral, you watched the statue of La Santísima Virgen de la Soledad glide upon a river of bobbing heads, meandering, floating it seemed, en route to El Templo de San Juan de Dios. Your father hunched below you, you squinted, watching la Virgen dressed in mourning. Behind the statue, the street erased by a fog of sunlight, and before, light rippled on the heads and shoulders of the advancing crowd. Suited men clutched hats to their chests, white bands wrapped on their arms. Only soldiers or police wore hats. Women wore white dresses, heads swaying, as they neared. Signs jutted out into the street, you read: DENTISTA, CERVEZA Carta Blanca EXQUISITA. On either side of la Virgen, Mexican flags, held by soldiers or police, drooped in the absence of wind. As the statue overtook you, the crowd passed, you noticed men who shouldered poles, bearing the statue onward. Your father lowered you to the street, to the swaying backs of devotees, and you followed, your father’s hand at your back. Your prayers were wishes then, now, a pleading for your life, and you feel you understand just as little. As you think to pray, to pray yourself from this desert, you see la Virgen’s face, pale as if having seen death, her eyes downcast.
You remember not a prayer but a story told of la Virgen’s decapitation, the theft of the statue’s head, and the manhunt that followed the discovery of the headless María. House by house they went till finally they came to that of la Virgen’s most fervent devotee who spent hours daily, kneeling in prayer before the image of la Virgen. They pounded on his door and when he failed to answer, they broke in to find him dead next to a clothes’ trunk. They emptied the trunk and found the head swaddled, the pale face pinched in a wooden grimace. You can’t now understand this story, if you ever did. You are afraid, and only think: help me, help us.
You measure no time. Everything looks the same: la brasada—the low-growing brush, yuccas, nopals, mesquites—the distant barns or ranch houses kept at the same remove—never near, always far, irrigation ditches and troughs from which you drink cloudy water, power lines and dirt roads and barb wire that go and go and go. Your cousin holds his hand to mean stop, and turns and looks down the file and nods his head and almost smiles. If it’s not tears in his eyes, he hides, turning, looking up to a crossing ahead. A road separates brush from brush, lined, on either side, by barb wire fence. Man by man it’s told: Llegamos, and there’s hope in its telling, certainty.
There is something reassuring in everyone’s mood. You’re taken again by the sureness that set you on this path. You have done good. You will make right. You owe your father nothing. You will do what he couldn’t. You will show him a man. You will have a car and a home and a yard with green grass, flowers, a garden. Your wife will be satisfied, your children successful. You will have your own TV and a satellite dish. You will send him money, and he will wait for it at the Western, proud of you and ashamed of your money, but he will thank you. You do not want to just live better. Better. More. A sort of respect. Erase that look in people’s eyes. Without the shuffle and scrape, the wait, uncertainty. Be your own man. You will learn to drywall, learn carpentry. You will have love, a wife, a daughter and son. You will teach them respect. Glory in work. Order. Do unto others. God and His inscrutable law. Whatever befalls you, whatever your given lot, is God’s will. You shall be thankful. You will build for others, for yourself. Your family.
And now a hum nears, nears with a grumble of spitting gravel, the roar of an engine, and a pickup with a camper top comes into sight.
You can’t tell how long, but it’s been a while. You sit with your knees to your chest. They cramp, but there’s no space to move. Somehow you all managed to pack and hunch and cram, fifteen of you, into the bed of a too-small Nissan pickup. With each rut the truck jolts, and a boot digs into your back but you can’t figure whose it might be. You think how the truck must sag and feel the stab of the boot when it bottoms out. The cab bakes. A sweaty head lies on your forearm. Sunlight seeps in through the tinted windows and beyond the heads and shoulders, through the glass jangling against the bed gate, you see only a spray of dust, twisting and ballooning behind the truck. You catch your cousin’s eyes, which light up and he smiles the smile of te lo dije. That’s just what he said when you mounted the truck: “Oye, Carnal, Te lo dije, carnal. Te lo dije.”
You want to spit for the dust in your mouth, but the saliva won’t come, and if it did, you’d have to swallow. You listen to the others. They go on about trucks they plan to buy—Mejor que esa pinche troca culera. One of them takes out a clipping of that truck and passes it around—they all agree, theirs would be better. Some say they’ll have a place, nothing fancy, but a place of their own. Others claim to have it already and if in need, their house is open to all. One holds he’ll own a business—what, he doesn’t say, and insists when they’re settled, they all work for him. For everyone, hopes are high.
Then you all fall silent. You feel the boot digging in your back, the burn of your muscles, and the sting of your blistered feet. You can only guess how long, but the light has softened, and the cab grows dim. Dust hangs in the air. You cough and wish for water.
The truck swerves, the bodies slide and, for a moment, pack to one side. In that moment you float, and the next, crash to the bed floor, your arm tangled in the mass of legs and arms and bodies. You see nothing. An immense weight crushes you to the floor. Your ribs strain, you take shallow breaths. The truck bottoms out, strikes the ground, and throws you up. Some hit the roof of the shell. You scratch and rake, find purchase, pull up through the bodies. The engine strains and roars. The truck jerks you and the others, heaves this way and that, hurtles onward.
All you see through the back window is the dust, and through the dust a truck that cuts and probes, and gains, looming now, sliding back and forth at the bumper. It disappears for a second, passing. You hear a clap and a hiss, the truck appears again, swerving, the back end slides and it pulls to a stop.
The truck pitches, fishtails, throws you and the others against the bed wall. Again you float and fall, hurl toward the cab, bodies crash down. An elbow jabs your throat. There is groaning. Your arm throbs and there is a spike of pain in your back. The back window is thrown open, the bed gate falls. Some lumber toward it, leap, and you see them bolting this way and that. Dogs bark. There’s a scramble. Boots scrape against the bed, hands grasp, arms flail. They empty out, but a few, yourself included, moan and crawl to fresh air.
You sit on the gate swing your legs over. They dangle. It’s five feet to the ground, you push yourself off, drop. Your hand doesn’t work like it should, but there’s no pain. You see them run. The truck is nosed down in a ditch. The back wheel whirls, the tire blown to strips. You think don’t move, remembered when you and your friends got caught trespassing at a construction site. Your friends scattered. You stayed. You walked home. Your friends were detained. Anyway, you can’t run. You feel nauseous and kneel, and heave. Nothing comes. There is nothing to come but dust.
There’s no point. They are too many. An officer comes over and offers you water. He takes a look at your wrist, which you hold to your chest. He frowns and shakes his head. He says to you in Spanish, words of a pocho, they will have it fixed. He pats down your pants, pulls out your wallet. You have nothing but money, nothing to say who you are.
Some get away. They round up eight of you, your cousin among them, your brother-in-law too. They sit you down in a line. They handcuff the others with plastic ties, and leave you to hold your wrist. Dogs sniff at your feet. They will process you, hold you over night, and bus you back in the morning. You will return within a week.
All the while, your cousin gives you the glare of no digas nada, cabrón. He has told you what to do: say nothing. You don’t know him. They can’t do anything if they don’t know your name.
Originally from Denver, Jonathan Nehls lives in El Paso, Texas. He earned an M.F.A. from the University of Texas at El Paso and teaches in El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Stream Literary Magazine and The Rio Grande Rift. “Go and Go and Go” is an excerpt from his novel in progress Dust: Polvo.