by Michael Sarabia
El Coyote appears before my shack, silhouette illuminated and clear. He removes his fedora and taps it against the wall, dust and sand in my eyes.
“Señora, are you there?”
I approach the patchwork of rags serving as my door. El Coyote, close as breath, asks if he may enter. I apologize and whisper no. He clears his throat, stomps at the dirt with a polished boot.
“We leave tomorrow. I trust you will be ready.”
“And the storm?” I reply. “This river may be too difficult.”
El Coyote coughs into his sleeve.
“True,” he answers. “But what may be difficult for us will be impossible for immigration. There is, I’m afraid, no better time.”
El Coyote is right. Rain covers movement, mutes odor, erases sound. Rain is money. All Coyotes pray for rain.
“Tomorrow,” he says, turning away. “We leave tomorrow night.”
I walk outside, hold myself against the cold. Bruised clouds scar the horizon, signaling the birth of a new siege. Throughout the Colonias and in every direction, a certain calm has risen into full bloom. The Colonistas know that water saturates the heart of the canyons. They know the looming red hills will soon shift, will melt into one. Then the old, the children, and the possessions will wash apart, will blend to form new tributaries to the greater rivers.
Bones will salt the waters, flesh will color the stones. The fortunate will die first. I hate the Colonias. Fever is everywhere and babies always die. Night hovers in ice and smoke to incubate the sickness, spreading it deeper each day. Everyone lives in tarred paper shacks that leak even in dry weather, collapsing at the slightest provocation. Roofs are plastic or tin, and the dirt floors — which will soon turn to mud — attract hoards of scorpions and rats that quarrel over the right to consume the old and the young as they sleep or lay ill.
I want to leave. I want American music, television, and magazines thick with scandal, brimming with new colors. My country, like all fathers, professes love through fear, is frightening when drunk. Suffocating, narrow, and backward. It was a lie — this existence — is a lie, and lies intolerable for myself are unacceptable for Love. Love is the child within me, a child I’ve named Amori — Love. I will bring Love into this world, but never into the Colonias. I carry Love every day, carry her seed with me as she grows richer with each passing hour. Mi Amori will not be of el Sur — the south — for as Jesus, Guadalupe, and God the Father knows, Love will be born in the glorious other side — Por otro lado gloriosa — because the North cradles hope and endless rebirth. In the North, dreams live. In el Norte, children never cry.
Every word from the mouth of La Amarilla is a lie. La Amarilla — The Yellow — functions for the Unseen. Unseen rules the Colonias. Bearing the same hemp robe, wide-brimmed hat, and angry expression every day, La Amarilla’s skin is shadowed past rot, her elongated fingers stiffly powerful, scents of poison surrounding her every move.
La Amarilla is everywhere doing everything, and always at a profit. She sanctioned the acquisition of my first shack and doubled the price when she realized I was alone. La Amarilla can light any dark, provide television, water, and weapons — anything — and always at a price. Once a week, La Amarilla appears everywhere demanding payment for this or that, and every third morning, she oversees the rationing of water, allotting receptacles only to those deemed worthy. La Amarilla comments on everything, insulting everyone, listening to no one.
La Amarillo said recently, “Tomorrow the Pope will die,” and since La Amarilla speaks only lies, we blessed God’s Trinity for another day of life for the Holy Father.
“Today the water is exceptional,” La Amarilla declared last Friday, prompting all of us to promptly boil our water under lit statues of the Virgin.
El Coyote came to me a week ago, three days after I notified La Amarilla of my intentions.
“You know who I am,” he declared softly, his voice tinged with the scent of ash and dried food. “And you know why I’m here.”
Everyone knew of this man, of his stealth and honor, his expeditions through lands few cared to imagine. He stood passively before me, well-scarred, lanky, and watchful. El Coyote deciphered every fragrance, every wisp of air — everything unseen and unheard. He was dressed in dark pants and a brown jacket, his thick boots caked with mud. And there was his hat, a black fedora with a silk band embracing a cardinal’s feather, his only nod to color.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I’m to be paid only in American paper: three hundred today, three hundred when we leave. I won’t take anyone sick, and there will be one day’s warning before we leave. If you’re not ready, you will lose your money. I apologize for this, but there are rules.”
“And your guarantee,” I asked, “is that we arrive here” — I pushed a map into his hand — “at this very spot?”
El Coyote studied the map, nodded, and handed it back. “This, I can do.”
I crossed my arms. “You’ll receive half the money on the night, the very minute we leave these Colonias. The rest when we arrive.”
“You should give me something now,” he said, “so there’s no misunderstanding of what we are to do. Besides, I’ve preparations to make, people to see. You understand.”
He was right, of course, and I knew from his tone that if I refused there would be no crossing, ever. I also knew that if we didn’t leave soon, God — through the breath of His storms — would claim in His most vengeful of ways, our very lives.
“Be at the sands at dusk,” I said. “I’ll give you the bulk at that time, the balance when we exit the Colonias.”
I turned away from him — dangerous, no doubt — but I wanted a small semblance of dignity even here in the dirt and at the mercy of this saint-predator everyone called El Coyote.
A new breeze came and he was gone. I lay down and quickly fell asleep, storm clouds brewing outside my shack.
A few days before we were to leave, believing evil would track us, would redirect our road to the north, I chose to forsake the obvious — the priests, the money doctors, the curing women — and instead called upon Luisa, the Mayan who lives at the base of the highest plateau.
Her house, the largest in the Colonias, has concrete floors, a pitched roof, and a fire that never dies. Luisa, the Grandmother, retains a servant, has many blankets, and stores canned milk and liquor that she sells every morning before the soldiers arrive. Luisa can change form, walk time, or force days to flash by on streams of gilded and ravenous waters. Confessor of witches, first enemy of light, the Grandmother is my best hope for protection.
“A black presence hovers,” she says, my money evaporating into the crease of her hand, “and to eradicate this and all darkness, you must follow every instruction, however distasteful it may be to your Christian guilt. You must awaken graveyards of your future-past; where the blood of ancients has returned, where the crucified Panther-God still prowls.”
“But there’s little time,” I answer. “El Coyote may leave soon.”
The Grandmother lights a white candle. Funnels of limed smoke sprout and burst, scent dissipating throughout. She removes a rope of ebony beads from her throat, kissing its tattered idol before pressing it into my hands.
“El Coyote may leave or he may not,” she says in a voice no longer hers. “To free you, to prepare Amori for a new life, we’ve no other concern.”
The Grandmother opens her arms and pitches her head, and my hands slip within hers. She calls me once, then once again, and I descend into the radiance of her cold embrace. I watch from above. I can do nothing.
I awaken within a bouquet of soft white stones. I’ve dreamt of silent thunderstorms, of unstable lands, and of talking, razor-toothed scorpions vowing to stand sentinel over our travels. But mostly, I’ve dreamt of falling teeth, the sign of death. I return to my shack and confess all sins. I sing a penance as softly as I can.
El Coyote appears, cold morning embossed upon his face. He hums my name, fedora at his chest. I leave my shack empty-handed and stand before him. I follow in silence. We approach the edge of the camp, where peasant soldiers hold black rifles against families, allowing only a few out of the boundaries, and only after a proper homage is paid. El Coyote quickens his pace, lifting the brim of his fedora as he comes to the gate. A knot of soldiers cringe in recognition and bow away, allowing us to pass.
We come to a car, a swollen animal worn and asleep with tires anchored stiffly into the mud. El Coyote opens the car’s door, nodding sadly as I get inside. The car’s interior, crushed red velvet and phony gold, smells of Coyote heaven — perfume, smoke, money, liquor, and flesh. The car fills quickly with more Coyotes, large burnt men stuffed into obscenely colorful shirts. Grizzled faces speak at once, scarred hands finger delicate cigarettes; the Coyotes ignore me completely. The engine heats and slowly we leave the Colonistas, smoke following close behind.
We drive in the direction of the lights, the landscape growing worse with every breath. We turn off the paved road onto one constructed first of brick, then wood, then finally mud. The car skids over a rock-infested hill, stopping close to a river. The Coyotes exit all at once, the car bouncing with the sudden loss of weight. The men scatter to relieve themselves, and they hoist green bottles against their faces, eyes loosely shut. El Coyote takes my arm, leads me away.
“These can be a harsh bunch,” he says. “Follow this trail up river to a small house. Lock yourself in and try to sleep. I’ll call you when it’s time.”
El Coyote detects my fear and with great effort, manages a smile.
“Soon, you’ll be an American,” he says with a nod. “And this,” he turns, “will only be remembered when the nightmares come.”
The chill increases, but the cold does not penetrate the house. I lie down on a pearl sofa and remove my clothes, placing my hands on my stomach. Love’s life music — rhythmic machinations, trumpet beats, and soft inner storms — revolve and brighten. They synchronize within my own. Our heartbeats match; we breathe as one. Sleep is with us again.
Night gathers outside the door. There’s a sound. El Coyote calls me for the last time. I sit up, stand, and bless myself as quickly as I can. I enter the dark.
Across the river, a city in blue slowly awakens from its powerful sleep. Crowned lights sharpen, then drift, and their heat feels close enough for me to cup into my palm, to take as my own. On the other side, rain, wind, and fever are of no consequence. The city in blue will never fail nor dim, for its magic is much too special, its heartless angels always nearer to God.
Water spills from a colorless sky, veiled droplets forging into bars of iron and thorn. We move cautiously past the casualties of a hateful spring; past shattered brush and orphaned stumps, around shallow craters born of thunder. We enter a clearing at the foot of the water. The grey river whispers violently to the east, waves arching to devour one another.
A family of travelers crouch by the river. They lock their children into a tight, fragile circle. They tell the children lies. They won’t let them cry. Chanting into a flame, their hooded father reaches for the blue fire he carefully built. He nods at the river and whispers to his wife. He closes his eyes. He drifts and wavers. His barefoot daughter guards his four gaunt sons. The sons shelter a sleeping baby. The baby dreams of water.
The Coyotes stand to one side in false regal pose. They expand their chests and share brown bottles; they pass yellow cigarettes and exhale all fear. El Coyote steps forward and removes his fedora.
“I’ll go first,” he says. “Follow close and don’t stop. And keep quiet. For God may grant your prayers, mis pollitos, but La Migra will steal your dreams.”
The small hand of a young Coyote rests lightly upon my back, navigating me gently into the unseen. We follow the contours of the travelers and their children as they walk in a single line. El Coyote is beyond all sight and setting a vigorous pace. We move on a worn trail dense with the essence of newborn soil, drowned foliage and dying underbrush. The rain slows while the wind continues to echo soft thunder from the granite clouds suspended just above our heads. I can see the particulars of my own reflection in this water, a reflection steeped in fear and in hope. An abrupt draft rises as I drink steeply from this sharp, wintry air.
The caw of a raven surrounds us, but it is brittle and false, surely from the throat of a man. A low whistle follows; the hand guides me to one knee. Eyes shifting upward, the young Coyote whispers that I should not breathe.
The sky tightens and detonates; bolts of ash part the clouds and streak downriver, hunters from above. The beam punctures treetops and slices hard into the brush, lifting shadows into its gale. A tenor of machinery crushes the air, a steeled voice threatens the river first in English, then Spanish, then in a language all its own.
My escort growls at the sky, his eyes closed as the machine races overhead before dissolving into black.
“They missed us!” he exclaims. “Hatred blinds them.” He sings this second line like a child.
“But they’ll be back,” I intone, and the celebration of this Coyote is over.
We huddle at the edge of the water in muted anticipation. El Coyote searches the mud on his knees. He unearths a cable and fastens it around a stumped oak, the cable running tautly to the other side.
El Coyote points at the water.
“Take this line and walk across. Stop for nothing.”
The children look to their father and speak at once in a shrouded language of double rhythms, secret hand signals, and veiled expressions. The father stares vacantly at his daughter, and without speaking, she turns to El Coyote and takes his hand into hers. He and the child share a quiet word, then flow as one into the heart of the black river.
The current settles and then heaven collapses, clouds breaking off into every direction. A mist buries the river, winding plumes lifting into a dense quilt of soft grays. Minute clouds at their knees, the travelers and their Coyotes follow the child in a swaying column of vague blues and tender whites.
I take the line with both hands and enter the water. The river is warm cinder, chemical and salt, bitter to the touch. Dampening my forehead, I am cool and I am strong. God bless all witches, I whisper into the dark. God bless their purity.
It is in this river where I have come to find my tears and to claim my right to live again. I remember my gentle husband, a boy who has lost his name, stolen by death one year ago this night. I hope that his spirit will find me, but I fear that I will no longer hear his voice. I think of my mother and her silence, how she protected me within her fortress of moist hands and crumbling skin — the beautiful ways in which she suffered. I step onto solid ground.
Beyond the river is a desert that all must cross. I can no longer see the travelers or their Coyotes but I trust that they are filling the dark with their many songs. I hope we’ll meet again.
El Coyote, wet below the knees, is waiting on a frozen mound of primeval lava. As his silhouette presses into the turquoise of an immeasurable and untouched northern sky, El Coyote, feigning impatience, shakes his head.
“Please, señora, we must hurry,” he says, and this time his voice is warm. “We’ve many hours yet to travel, many nights before we can sleep.”
Michael Sarabia has taught high school Economics, Government, and History since 1994. Born and raised in East L.A., he is a former U.S. Marine who holds a Master’s Degree In Professional Writing from USC.
Featured image courtesy of Mike Lewinski.