My town sat on top of a small hill by the side of a river whose banks held only sand. At noon you had to walk quickly so as not to burn your feet, but when it rained the river would overflow and turn our central street to mud. All us children would go out, slipping and pushing each other, playing in the mud before the sun baked it hard and the wind carried it away as dust.
To talk about this part of my life is to talk about another person, like a person in a story, a boy with a father and mother and three sisters, one pretty, one smart, and one mean. A grandfather who drank too much and beat everyone at dominos. A teacher who thought that boy had talent. A priest who thought he was wicked. Friends and classmates and enemies and girls he watched with increasing wonder, like Jimena, who had thick curly hair and fair skin and who got pregnant with the baby of one of the local guerrilleros. Most people think that a person is whatever you see before you, walking around in bone and meat and blood, but that is an idiocy. Bone and meat and blood just exists, but to exist is not to live, and bone and meat and blood alone is not a person. A person is what happens when there is a family, and a town, a place where you are known. Where every person who knows you holds a small, invisible mirror, and in each mirror, held by family and friends and enemies, is a different reflection. In one mirror, the sweet fat boy I was to my mother. In another, the little imp I was to my father. In another, the irritating brat I was to Gustavo. A person is what happens when you gather all these reflections around a body. So what happens when one by one the people holding those mirrors are taken from you? It's simple. The person dies. And the bone and meat and blood goes on, walking the earth as if the person still existed, when God and the angels know he doesn't.
So let's not talk about this boy as if he and I are the same person and not two strangers, one who walked in this body before the burning, and one who did after. Let's talk about this boy, whose memories and face I share, as the dead child he is. We can call him Abelito.
Abelito was a fat, well-loved child. Every day he would walk to school in another town, a school run by men from America who taught math and reading but also about the personal Jesus and how a group of priests called Jesuits had stolen the Bible and changed the words to make men follow the devil. The Lord would overcome and save us if we had faith, they said, and faith was a moment when the Heavens shined down and we knew we were saved. The mean sister, Mona, said that she had been saved and that it felt very, very good, but that Abelito hadn't had the feeling because he was going to hell. Two weeks later Mother took him two towns down to the church in Cunaviche to get confessed, and when Abelito told Father Eustacio about Mona's salvation, the old priest had scowled and said it was stupidity, that only a cruel God would condemn and save in such a foolish way, and that God was not cruel, but was, in fact, a terrible and frightening love. And he took that little boy out of the confessional to see the skin-and-bones Holy Christ above the altar, a wooden Holy Christ in agony, with muscles straining and a bloody wound in the side like a mouth come to devour. The statue gave Abelito nightmares, but Father Eustacio said to look on the suffering and know the love of God, to do such a thing to His child. God is love, Father Eustacio said, and He does not hand out salvation to be worn like a crown. And Abelito said, My sister, then, she is not saved? And Father Eustacio said, No, which pleased Abelito very much. And after that day Abelito nodded his head when the missionaries talked about the personal Jesus who would come to them and make them born again, but in his secret heart he remained faithful to the terrifying Holy Christ of Cunaviche.
Some days Abelito's grandfather would take him and his smart sister, Maria, and teach them how to carve boats from chachajo, a good hard wood that also makes the best spinning tops, and they would put them in the river and watch them float downstream. Abelito's grandfather said all water flows to the ocean, and that one day he would go there to die, the place where everything goes in the end.
Maria would carve her boats from balsa, which is easier to work, but Abelito carved from harder wood because he wanted his boats to reach the ocean. Abelito's grandfather had been a lot of places, and told Abelito marvelous things about the lands far, far downriver, out of the mountains and into the coastal regions, where the people were lazy and stupid and spoke Spanish that sounded like they had pebbles in their mouths, where there were snakes that could kill a steer with one bite, and men with skin black as coal, and many other marvelous things.
The first time Abelito met death was with Marta, his beautiful sister, who got sick and neither the priest nor the missionaries could save her, because she'd been hexed with the evil eye. After her death, Abelito's father gave the children bracelets with a tiny wooden cross hidden in the weaving. This will protect you, he said. At the time, Abelito didn't understand why anyone would put the evil eye on anyone else, let alone on someone like Marta, who was so beautiful that everybody was always talking about it, what a beautiful child. Abelito would walk through the town looking carefully into the eyes of the old women to see if they were good or evil, but he never could tell the difference, and could never understand what pleasure anyone would get from killing children.
Abelito's father liked to play games with his children. "Bear" was when he would stand by the river and growl and they would run up and try to tickle him and he would grab them and throw them into the water. "Horse" was when they would climb on his back and he would run down the street shouting "Jijiji!" Abelito would also play cinco huecos with some of the other children from Sona. They would use a stick to draw a big square in the street, and then other, smaller squares inside it. Each child would draw a little letter in each square. An A for Abelito. M for Maria, who was terrible at the game. F for Franklin, who was strong and skillful and who liked to boast and taunt the other players before throwing the ball. Then they'd turn, hold a ball in one hand and a little stick in the other, and throw the little stick over their head. If it landed in their square, they'd try to get the others out by hitting them with the ball. I don't remember who came up with that game, but it was Abelito's favorite.
Sometimes men would drive through on motorcycles and ruin the squares with their tires, and none of the children were supposed to say anything or even look mad, because all their parents had told them these men were from the paracos.
More than the games, though, Abelito liked working with his father on their house. Ever since Abelito could remember, they had worked on the house. As a toddler, heÕd watched his father hack out a small patch in the jungle. This is where your mother will cook, heÕd say, pointing to a square of dirt. This is where you and your sisters will sleep.
Then, brick by brick, he built a wall. Whenever he had money, he would buy a cheap block of cement and the children helped him mix it with water to form bricks, and he would lay them around the perimeter. Boys become men by working with their fathers, and girls become women by tending the fire, but in Abelito's family everyone worked with his father on the house, brother and sisters alike. The work went slow at first, but as soon as Abelito's father finished the big room they moved in, all of them, so they could stop paying rent. And as soon as they stopped paying rent, Abelito's father had more money for cement, and the work went faster.
The missionary school opened up around the time they finished the kitchen, and Abelito's parents sent him and his sisters to get an education. Abelito's first year there was the year many dead bodies floated down the river, and the school closed for a month, and Abelito's father stopped playing Bear with his children. Then the bodies stopped, and the children saw fewer and fewer paracos, and the school reopened.
When Abelito was eight, he saw his first guerrilleros. These were the men that the paracos supposedly fought. He was with his father in the boat and saw a group of ten men and four women on the far side. They wore uniforms and carried long guns Abelito had not seen before. They waved Abelito over and asked him to ferry them across and he did. When they left, Abelito's father told him, "When men with guns ask for something, there are no favors. You only obey."
The leader of the guerrilla was called the Carpenter, after Saint Joseph, and people said the name came from the pity he showed to the children he turned into orphans. He never killed children, they said, even though he ran the risk of them seeking revenge. And sometimes he would make a big show of giving children some of the money he had stolen from their parents. There were worse guerrilleros than the Carpenter, people said, and it could be counted as a blessing that he was the curse God had sent to the jungles around the town.
On the Feast of Saint Joseph he came to town with bottles of aguardiente and guerrilleros holding guitars and drums. Abelito's father brought Abelito to see, and though Abelito's father listened carefully to the Carpenter, he didn't let any aguardiente touch his lips.
The Carpenter was a big man with a rough face, pitted like pumice stone, weathered from a life lived moving from place to place, sleeping in guerrilla camps, lacking a true home. It was a serious face, a face Abelito found impressive, admirable. He wondered what it would be like to live a life that would earn such a face.
The Carpenter said he defended the truth. He said the people deserved respect. Every district should have a clinic, every large town a hospital. The people should own their own land, and the children should have an education. Everything should be free and the government should give us work. Then a guerrillera stood up. She was tall and very fair skinned, with black hair tied tight into a bun and an angry look on her face. She said after her father died her mother had taken up with a man who abused her every night. She had taken the abuse until her younger sister had her first bleeding, and then she had no option. She'd stabbed that man in the neck and gone off to join the guerrilla, and the revolution became her mother and father. The revolution, she said, was a true mother and true father. It had given her thousands of brothers and sisters. Then she sang a song in a voice many years sweeter than the look on her face. The people drank and the guerrilleros sang more songs, and Abelito decided he liked the guerrilla much more than the paracos who used to ruin his games of cinco huecos. Later, with his friend Franklin, they would play guerrilla. And Franklin, always brash, would pretend to be the Carpenter, and deliver judgments that were cruel and just.
A month later the guerrilla came back to the village and took Alfredo, who was four years older than Abelito, and Mat’as, who was three years older, to join in the revolution. This is a paraco town, they said, and it must pay a new "vaccine," which is what they called the tax they were imposing on the people. They were much angrier than they'd been before, and no one was sure why. Some people blamed Marcos Ardila, the butcher, who they said still had ties to the paramilitaries. Others blamed Chepe, owner of a bar. Whoever caused it, the price was paid in the children they took. The guerrilla would have taken Abelito, too, but they didn't, they said, because he was too much of a faggot. Here is what happened.
Abelito was playing with his smart sister, Maria, when the guerrilla came down the road. Tall, thin Alfredo, who was always sick, and short, ugly Mat’as, who was kind, were following behind them with big, scared eyes. Maria ran and hid, but Abelito was curious and stayed. The men with guns surrounded him. Do you want to join the revolution? Abelito looked at Alfredo and Mat’as, who were looking down at their feet, trying not to cry.
One of the guerrilla pulled a grenade from his vest and asked Abelito if he knew what it was. Abelito said yes. The guerrillero handed it to Abelito and told him, "Pull the pin and throw it. Prove you are a man."
Abelito started crying, and the man said, "Look, a little faggot." And they laughed, all the guerrilla laughed except for Alfredo and Mat’as. All the guerrilla had eyes like flat stones, except for the leader, whose eyes were like sharp little knives. "Throw it, throw it," the guerrillero shouted. But Abelito just stood and held the grenade and cried, and the leader took the grenade back and said, "Go to your mother, little faggot."
Abelito, weak as he was, ran to his mother. He should have pulled the pin and thrown it like in a game of cinco huecos, carelessly, so it landed close enough to kill him and the guerrilla and all the worthless games of the future.
Of course, he did no such thing, and once the guerrilla had complete control of the towns around Abelito, once the paras became a memory, the guerrilla brought in the paisas, and the next game started.
When the paisas arrived in town, they brought briefcases and seeds and promises of a new business, the coca business, in which the townspeople could not lose. Many people became excited-planting, picking crops, working the land, and making money. The paisas paid what they said, and on time. And both the townspeople and the paisas paid the vaccine to the guerrilla.