Out of Dust

By Joanna Michal Hoyt

Originally published in On Loss, June 2019

Translations from the journal of Cristina Fuentes:

April 7, 1954

            My name is Cristina Guadalupe Fuentes Espinosa. I am ten years old. In this book I will write the story of my adventures with my papi in El Norte, where we are going tomorrow. We don’t have money for me to go to school here, and in El Norte they will not let me go to school even if we have money.  But Papi says that is no reason to be ignorant. So I will not be ignorant. I read every day in the Bible, and now I will write every day in this book, and in El Norte… in the United States…  I will learn English too. Papi says I have to keep learning, and I do what he says.

            But when he said to stay here with my Aunt Lancha while he went North, I said no.  I told him he is all the family I have now and I am all the family he has and we have to stay together.

            “All the family we have in this world,” he said.

            “This is the world where I live,” I said. “Anyway Aunt Lancha doesn’t like me.”

            He said she did like me, only it was hard for her having so many children to take care of and not enough money.

             I said I was old enough to take care of myself if I went with him, and in El Norte there would be enough money.

            “It’s not safe, where I’m going,” he said. “You know I don’t want to go.”

            I know that. I know he wants to stay here with me but he has to go. He is very good at fixing things but so are a lot of the other men who can’t find work, and he is very good at making beautiful things from clay, things that are a little bit alive, but nobody pays money for things like that, and we can’t eat them. In El Norte there is work and money for everyone.  There is more money for the people who had enough money here to pay the officials so they could go to El Norte and stay inside the law, but there is some money there even for people who have no money here.  I knew that was why my papi has to go there.  I knew, too, that I had to go with him. “It’s not safe anywhere,” I said. And my papi agreed to take me with him.

            Soon I have to stop writing and finish packing the bag that I will carry across the river and the desert. But there is not very much to pack, just clothes and tortillas and the Bible and this book and the family bowl Papi made with all the hands around the rim. Anyway Papi is happy to see me writing.

April 15

            We are here on a big farm in El Norte. We found an easy place to cross the river, and a short place to cross the desert, and I was hungry and tired but we came to a town where Papi bought food and found people who spoke Spanish. Those people told us which way to go to find work, and Papi found this place before we were all the way out of money.  

            It is a good thing Papi brought me with him, because I can help. Not in the fields: Pedro is doing fieldwork and he’s just thirteen, but Papi says I shouldn’t do that. But I can take care of Doña Lupe and Doña Marcela’s babies, and I can boil the beans for the workers to eat at lunch and at supper, and I can bring good water to them while they’re in the field. There’s a water pump not far from the edge of the big melon field, but if you drink that water straight from the pump you get sick-sick-sick. Doña Dolores drank some that way last month.

            Doña Dolores doesn’t have children who are still alive. She is a little bit crazy. My papi says not to stare at her when she talks funny, or when she stares at me. She has cracks, my papi says, but God has breathed into them.

            Anyway, the water is safe if you boil it, so I do that. We have two great big pots, too big for me to carry, and four little pots that I can carry even when they’re full, and one wagon. I pump water into all the little pots and put them in my wagon and pull them back to the bunkhouse and boil them, and then I put a big pot in the wagon and pour all the boiled water into it, and then I pull that pot out to the field and call for someone to lift it off the wagon; then I take the mostly-empty pot they’ve been drinking from back and I do everything again. Sometimes my papi comes to take the water pot out of my wagon, sometimes somebody else.  When Don Fermin or Doña Lupe come they smile at me and call me Senorita Fuentes the fountain girl.  When Doña Dolores comes she looks at me with her hungry face and doesn’t say anything. And then they go away and I go back to singing to the babies or to reading or to writing in this book.

            I have more books to read now, because of my cousins. Doña Concepcion is my mother’s second cousin, but I call her Aunt Chon because it is easier. Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel came to El Norte with their parents long long ago. They have a casita of their own on the edge of Mr. Martin’s farm a mile up the road. They stay there all year, even in winter, to take care of his animals, and their son David goes to school with other Mexican kids who stay all the time in El Norte.  So instead of sleeping in my the bunkhouse with my papi and the other workers, I go with David every evening and eat supper with my cousins and sleep on a pallet by my aunt’s bed, the way I used to sleep near my mami when I was little and she was alive. And I get to borrow books David takes home from school.

            I won’t have time to read much today because I have done so much writing. That is okay.

May 1

            There is not much to write about today. The things that change from one day to another day are small. Yesterday my papi and the others picked rocks up out of the field and threw them into a big wagon. Everybody was tired and sore and even Don Fermin did not smile at me. Today they are planting, so they will just be sore from bending and not quite so tired. Yesterday they were in the north field. Today they are in the east field, which is a longer way to pull the water wagon. Tonight maybe it will rain, and they are hurrying to plant before the rain comes. I am not hurrying. I am waiting for the water to boil and trying to write so I will not be ignorant.

            Today at the lunch break I told Papi I didn’t know what to write, and he told me to think of three beautiful things every day and write about them. I will do that.

            When Doña Marcela walked back out to the field after eating she sang one of the songs about La Guadalupana that my mami used to sing. Her voice is very beautiful.

            Last night the moon was so small that it was almost gone, and there were no rain clouds, and the sky was full of stars all low and close like fireflies.

            That is two things. My papi didn’t say to write only beautiful things that happened today. So I will write now about the family bowl that Papi made, because that is the most beautiful thing.

            Papa made it after my little brother Santiago—Chago–cut his leg playing in the river and got infected and died. I was seven then, still a child, and I stopped singing and stopped eating and stopped talking.  My papi sat down by me and told me Chago and my mami and all the dead people are still with us, even though we can’t see them, and after we die we will see them again. I said it would be better just to be dead right away and see them. He cried, and he went away, and I was afraid I would not see him again either. But after work—that was in the three months when he had work on the road crew, before the weather turned bad and they sent him away–he came back and told me to come with him, and I went.

            He took me to the raw bank where they had just cut the new roadbed, and I helped him get good clay dirt out of the bank and put it in a big glass jar. After he’d soaked it with water I helped him squish the wet mud and break up all the clumps. While we squished he talked about Chago, about how he went straight from scooting on his stomach to walking without ever learning to crawl, about the time when he carried the king snake home and Mami thought it was a coral snake and was very very afraid, about the time he found the dove’s nest and brought it back to see if we could hatch the eggs.  Then Papi told me to sleep while the mud soaked up water. In the morning he went to work. While he was gone I did what he’d told me to do. I saw the line that separated the clay water from the rocks and other kinds of dirt in the bottom of the jar. I poured off the clay water into a new jar, dumped out the rest. I did that over and over, and while I worked I sang every song I could remember my mami singing.

            After the cleaned clay had dried, hung up in one of Chago’s shirts, Papi took it out and started to shape it. Sometimes he told stories about when he and my mami were young. Sometimes I told what I remembered about Chago and my abuelita and all the other ones who are dead. And while we talked his hands shaped little figures in the clay, and shaped another piece of that same clay into a round bowl.

            The bowl is painted black like a night sky with no stars, and the people pressed all around the outside of it are the reddish color of the clay. There are spaces between their bodies, spaces full of shadows, but at the top their hands are clasped together. Their faces look alive. One of the people has my face, and one has Papi’s, and there are other people who look like Mami and Chago and Abuelita. In between us are five other people with faces that don’t look quite like anyone I know—and I swear their faces change every time I look at them. Papi says those five are for all our people on the other side, the ones whose faces we don’t remember.

            Sometimes I think the people are holding on tight to each other so the wind out of those dark empty places doesn’t blow them apart. Sometimes I think they are dancing.

            The bowl stays under Papi’s bed in the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse is crowded and ugly and smells like sweating people and mold, but people have their home things in it—Lupe’s icon of La Guadalupana, and Don Fermin’s guitar, and Papi’s bowl that holds us all together. Sometimes while I wait for the water to boil I sit and I hold the clay hands of the people on the bowl. Sometimes when I touch my mami’s hand I can hear her singing. Sometimes when I touch Chago’s hand I can hear him laughing. And sometimes when I touch the hands of the other people, the ones with the changing faces I feel something, I understand something…. I don’t have words for that. I have words for everything else, Spanish words and now some English ones, but I don’t have words for that.

            There. That is a lot of writing. Now the little pots are boiling and it is time for me to pour them.

June 10

            Now Papi and the rest of the workers are weeding all day every day. The melons will not be ready to pick for two more months, Don Fermin says. He also says harvesting will be hotter, harder work than weeding. But when I am hot and tired pulling the water wagon I think about eating a whole watermelon and spitting seeds the way I used to do with Chago.

            I think about fruit a lot now. That’s because on Mr. Martin’s farm the plums are ripe, and the plum smell comes in the window of the room where Aunt Chon and I sleep. Sometimes the smell is almost too much because the air is so heavy with heat. And I go to sleep wanting plums and I wake up wanting plums. But if Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel want plums they have to buy them; if the crew boss sees them eating plums or taking them away they could lose their job and their casita too. Still, Aunt Chon says tomorrow morning, Saturday, when Mexicans are allowed to shop where the Anglos are, she will buy me a plum.

            It is very different from home. Aunt Lancha had two pear trees in her back yard, and when the pears were ripe enough so we could smell them we could eat all the pears we wanted and it did not cost anything.

             Fruit is the easiest thing I miss. I miss the way the sky looked and the ground smelled back home. I miss Aunt Lancha even though she didn’t like me. I miss fiestas in town.

            But I don’t miss worrying about money. Here we always have enough to eat, and on Sunday special things like spicy sausages or plums, and still my papi is saving money to take home this winter. He keeps half of the saving money in his shoe. I keep the other half in this book because that is what he said to do. I have almost stopped worrying but my papi has not.

            Uncle Miguel is worrying too. He bought a newspaper yesterday and talked about it with Aunt Chon last night when David and I were all supposed to be asleep. I was hot and thinking about plums, and I heard him talking about the President. First I didn’t listen much. Complaining about the President is just what grown-ups do, in Mexico or here. But then he read a piece out of the newspaper—the English paper—and I listened hard because that helps me learn English and not be ignorant.  Some of the words were too hard for me to understand, but I heard some words I knew from David’s books or from other newspapers. Criminals. Invasion. Stealing jobs.  Invasion again.

            Invasion… I knew I had seen that in David’s history book. That is when soldiers attack. That is a very bad thing. Like when my abuelita’s abuelita was a girl and the norteamericanos invaded Mexico and took a big piece of it away to be part of their country, and they burned the house where my abuelita’s abuelita lived, and she screamed at night after that, and later she had a boy with blond hair and blue eyes who had the same last names as her because she wasn’t married—not then, but she was married later, when she had my abuelita’s mama.  It was bad, too, when my papi was a boy and the soldiers burned their house down, but that was the civil war not an invasion, which means it was all our people fighting, which means it is not quite as bad, maybe, I don’t know.

            I got up and pulled my serape around me and ran out into the kitchen where Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel were. “Where is the invasion?” I said. “How close are they? Can I get to my papi before we have to run?”

            “You’re supposed to be sleeping, not eavesdropping,” my uncle Miguel said.

            “But if there are soldiers coming…”

            My aunt sighed. “Come with me,” she said, and she walked me out through the dewy grass toward the plum trees. And she explained.

            It wasn’t soldiers coming. It was us. Mexicans. The paper writers said people like my papi were invaders coming to steal jobs from the real Americans, and maybe to steal other things

            “My papi does not steal,” I told her. “I do not steal.” I meant to say it strong and angry, but I cried instead.

            These are my three beautiful things from last night:

            The smell of the plums.

            The noise the crickets made all around us.

            Aunt Chon holding me like her very own and only daughter until I had finished crying.

June 18

            I am too tired for a long write, but these are four beautiful things from today:

            Tomasito chasing butterflies on the edge of the squash field. He is four and he has a big laugh like his mama Doña Lupe and he doesn’t seem to mind that he never catches the butterflies.

            Doña Marcela’s twins José and Rosita curled up together all sweaty and asleep and smiling and not pushing each other for a while

            The star that fell down the sky while I walked to Aunt Chon’s house.

            My papi giving me an extra kiss before I went, and sitting with me for a few minutes with the family bowl between us, not saying anything, remembering. He looked sad. I hope that was just from remembering.

June 19

            I am writing because my papi told me to and because when Aunt Chon comes to check on me if she sees me writing she does not fuss around and try to cheer me up. I am not cheered up and I do not want to have to act like I am cheered up when my papi is gone.

            She wants to make sure I do not run away after my papi. I am old enough to know I cannot run fast enough to catch up with the truck they took him away on, even if I knew the right way to go. Anyway Doña Dolores says Papi told me to stay with Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel, and even though she is crazy I think that part is true.

            This is what happened:

            I left Aunt Chon’s house at six-thirty this morning.  We walked down the road with the light still new around us, and I sang a morning song my mami used to sing. But before we got down to the fields we heard trucks coming up the road, and David told me to get down in the ditch right away. He said it in a voice like my papi uses when there’s no time to ask questions. I didn’t ask questions. I hid, and he hid with me, and we heard the trucks going by.  Even when they were gone he didn’t stand up for what felt like a very long time, and when I asked why we had been hiding he didn’t answer.

            We got up and started walking again. The hem of my skirt was all wet and sticking to my legs and I kept pulling on it. And then Doña Dolores came running up the road toward us, and she didn’t look a little crazy any more. She looked very very crazy, like all the cracks in her were getting wider and wider and maybe it wasn’t just God breathing through them. She waved her hands at us like she was scaring chickens and said go back, go back, go back. And I said where’s my papi, and she said he was gone where I couldn’t go, which is what Jesus said to the disciples when he knew he was going to be dead.

            I thought she said that just because she was crazy. I ran toward her, ducked when she grabbed at me, ran past her. There was nobody in the melon field. Nobody in the squash field. No pot under the pump. The wagon was tipped up on its side. I ran to the bunkhouse. There was nobody there. The blankets were gone from the beds, and the boxes and bags with clothes in them were gone, and Don Fermin’s guitar, and La Guadalupana. There were gouges in the wall that hadn’t been there before, and one window was broken. My papi’s bowl was gone too.

            I thought Aunt Chon and Uncle Miguel had lied to me. There had been a real invasion after all.

            I looked for the bowl. I kept thinking if I could find it I could find my papi. But all that I found was a shoe with the heel ripped out—a shoe that had been Don Fermin’s—and a dirty diaper that must have been José’s or Rosita’s, and a crumble of clay-colored dust on the floor.

            David and Doña Dolores found me sitting on the floor with those clay crumbs in my hand. I wasn’t crying. My eyes felt hot and hard and dead.

            Doña Dolores held out a wadded-up bandanna, and I thought it was for me to cry in, and I shook my head. Then she unwadded the bandanna and pulled out what was inside. A piece of the bowl. The piece had me in it except for my left arm, and one of the people-who-went-before, whole, and another left arm that I knew had been my papi’s because he was on the right side of the before person who was on the right side of me. I held onto his clay hand while Doña Dolores told us what had happened.

            The men with guns came at sunrise, when Doña Marcela was nursing the twins and everyone else was pulling their shoes on to head out to the fields.  The trucks came loud, loud, and pulled up all around the house, and somebody shouted in English, which most people didn’t understand, and then they said it again in bad Spanish: come out in ones with your hands up, don’t make any jokes (she thinks that wasn’t the word they meant) or we’ll shoot. 

            Don Fermin was the first one out that door, going very slowly and holding his hands over his head and not saying anything because he didn’t know what they might think was a joke, and the people inside waited to see if the men would shoot him anyway, but they didn’t; so another man went after him, and the gun men didn’t shoot him either, but they shouted for everyone else to come on out, hurry up. My papi didn’t come right out, he was putting things into his bag, and then he took out the bowl and looked at it like he didn’t know what to do with it, and then two of the gun men came in and grabbed him. They dropped the bowl on the floor and it broke. They stuffed most of the pieces into his bag, but they missed the piece that went under the bed. Doña Dolores saw that before they made her come out too.

            By the time Doña Dolores went our people were standing with their hands held up behind their heads, and the men with guns were feeling them all over to make sure they didn’t have guns or knives or anything—they took away Don Pedro’s whittling knife and my papi’s pocketknife and everybody’s razors. They were going to feel Doña Dolores too, but when they went to touch her she was afraid and she screamed and fell down. That was for real, but when they backed away she did more screaming and rolling around and acting crazy so they’d stay away. They didn’t touch her, though one man kept a gun pointed at her.  And then they made all the people pile into the backs of their trucks, shoved in tight like steers going to market; but when they tried to make Doña Dolores go she acted crazy again and they left her. 

            My papi told Doña Dolores to give me the piece of our bowl that was left, and to tell me to stay with my aunt and uncle. He said it in very fast Spanish and she thought the gun men didn’t understand. Then they put things like cages over the backs of the trucks where the people were and they drove away. Doña Dolores couldn’t ask where they were going because she had to keep acting crazy. Don Fermin did ask. She said they didn’t answer. Maybe she said this so I wouldn’t go after him. She wouldn’t even point which way they went.  David made me stop shouting at her to show me, and he walked me back to his house.

            Aunt Chon went back to look for Doña Dolores and see if she needed help, but Doña Dolores was gone, I don’t know where.  I hope she is safe. But if it was a choice between her and my papi, I would want him to be the safe one.

            June 20

            There are stories in the newspaper today about wetbacks getting arrested.  Aunt Chon explained that means us, because of crossing the river—though I was not wet when I crossed, because I sat high up on my papi’s shoulders. One story says that the President had to send out the gun men to push back the engulfing tide of illegal aliens. I am learning a lot of English and I do not want to, I do not want anything about this country any more, I just want to be safe away from it with my papi. But I can’t do that.

            The other story talked about aliens being kept in big dirt yards near the cities that have bus and train stations. One is almost an hour west of us even for people in trucks, and the other is about that far east, and the papers didn’t say which people went where. It said some of the men that were arrested acted like animals and threw rocks at the newspaper people. If I had a rock I would throw it at the men with the guns instead. Only then maybe they would shoot people, so maybe I would not.

            My papi, I think, would not throw rocks at anyone. But they should not keep him out in the dirt like that. They should not make him go back to Aunt Lancha’s house without me, and without his pay for the week (they were supposed to pay him on the day when they took him away instead).

            And what if somebody else throws rocks and my papi gets shot?

            Aunt Chon says to pray instead of worrying. Padre Vincentio said the same thing during the Mass, and again after to me when Aunt Chon took me to see him. But Padre Vincentio’s father is not standing in the dirt somewhere with gun men around him so it is easy for him not to worry.  Padre Vincentio has a telephone, so he called some places and tried to ask about my papi, but they said they didn’t have a list of names, and they wouldn’t take a message, even if we could have thought of a safe message to leave.

            Aunt Chon hugged me and I pushed her away. She gave me a plum and I tried to eat it but I cried and choked instead. She tried to talk to me but I ran to my alone place under the juniper and I held onto my papi’s clay hand, and when I came back I started writing right away so that she would leave me alone.

            June 21

            I am not going to tell Aunt Chon what I saw, because she would maybe think I am getting crazy like Doña Dolores. But I think what I saw was real and not crazy. I do not want it to be real, but I think it is.

            Yesterday when everybody else was gone to work or to school and I had swept the floor and washed the dishes and put the beans on to soak I sat down and held my papi’s clay hand again and I tried to pray. I am not good at praying. But I could feel my papi’s hand getting warmer, and then I felt like I fell into a hole in the ground, like the time I was eight and fell in the cistern where the boards on top were rotten and I thought I would die there but instead my papi found me. Only this time when I fell through I found him.

            I must have been hanging in the air like an angel—no, not really like an angel; angels talk to people and tell them not to be afraid and give them good news and keep them safe, and I did not have any good news and I was afraid and I shouted for my papi but he could not hear me at all. I could hear him, though, and see him.

            He was still in one of those cage trucks, in a long line of cage trucks bumping down a dusty road. There was dirt on his face and his hands and his clothes. There wasn’t dirt in his hair because he didn’t have any hair. His head was all bald and sunburned. One of the newspapers said they were shaving people’s heads so they couldn’t come back to El Norte without being recognized. My papi looked older and uglier and sadder being bald like that. His head drooped down and his shoulders drooped down and he held something in his hands. I looked all around the truck and all I could see was tan sand with bits of dead grass growing on it like fur on a mangy animal.  Somebody in the truck was cursing, and somebody was praying the rosary out loud, and my papi wasn’t saying anything at all. I thought it was maybe a rosary he had in his hands, but when I looked closer I saw it was a piece of the bowl. He was holding my clay hand.

            Then the truck stopped. My papi put the piece with my clay hand in his pocket, and he kept his hand on it there. Three of the gun men got out. They unlocked the cage and unlatched the back of the truck and said to jump down.

            “Here?” said the man who’d been swearing. “But we left Mexicali more than an hour ago, and out here…”

            “You won’t be back over the river in a hurry, will you?” one of the gun men said.

            One of the other gun men reached up to help a woman get down out of the truck, and he looked like he wanted to cry, though maybe that was just from being hot and dirty. “What about water?” the woman asked him. He gave her a big bottle and then he walked away looking even sadder and climbed into the front of the truck. A man asked the other gun men for water, but they didn’t give him any. Another man tried to climb back into the truck, but they hit him and he stopped.

            When my papi and all the people with him had gotten down out of the trucks, the gun men got back in the trucks and drove away. The dust shone in the sun like stars falling.  I could just see and hear, not feel or smell, but I knew how hot it must be from the shine in the air and the way the people breathed. They stood there, looking all around for shade, but there wasn’t any, and for water, but there wasn’t any.

            Someone said it would take too long to get back to Mexicali, and someone else said it would take longer to get anywhere else, and my papi didn’t say anything, but he took José on his shoulders, with his extra shirt spread out over José’s head to keep the sun from beating on it. That was Dona Marcela just had Rosita to carry, and she tied her in a sling in front of her. Then they all started walking back up the road. I wanted to be there with him and have José back in El Norte with people who would try to talk to him and feed him plums. I would not sit on my papi and make him tired. I would walk beside him. I would help him.

            They walked and walked for a long time, and they went slower and slower. Rosita started to cry, and instead of singing to her or taking her in her arms Doña Marcela put her hands over her ears.

            I remembered something then. I opened my eyes, so I could see the casita as well as the desert, but I kept my hand tight on my papi’s clay hand, and even with my eyes open I could still see the desert light. I found my Bible and looked in the very first book for the part where they send Hagar and her baby out in the desert without enough food or water or anywhere safe to go.  There was sort of a light around the words, the way that sometimes there’s sort of a light around the clay things my papi makes. I can’t put life into things with my hands the way he can, but sometimes I can with my voice. So I read the words out loud. I read this:

            “When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there, shebegan to sob.”
            I was starting to sob then too, but it was not time for sobbing, it was time for reading. I read the good part too: “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.”
            I shut my eyes and saw the desert again, and Doña Marcela with her hands over her ears. I waited for clouds to come over the sky, or for someone to see green trees in the distance and know there was water, or for a truck full of kind people with water jugs to come down the road. I said the good words again and again, but none of those things happened.  The people kept walking, and the baby kept crying, and the sun kept getting higher in the sky, and the clay hand in my hand felt dry as dust and I thought it was going to crumble apart.

            After a long time, with me saying the words dry-mouthed and gasping, and them gasping and not talking, the land started to twist around them: a big slope of sand went up on the left of the road, a big slope of sand went down on the right. The sun was coming from the right, so there wasn’t any shade for them. My papi’s eyes looked wrong, like he wasn’t really seeing the things in front of him. Do something! I said to God again. But all that happened was that my papi stumbled.  Someone took José off his shoulders. He straightened up and took a few more steps, but then he stumbled again and fell on the edge of the road.  He flailed out with his arms to catch himself, and I saw the bowl shard in his right hand fly up and away, and then down, down into the sand that sloped away. And then I couldn’t see anything at all. I had fallen back through the hole and my papi was gone.

July 1

            Every day I cry. Every night I want to dream about my papi and I do not. Instead I dream about water that disappears when I try to touch my hand or my lips to it.

            Every day I read something in the Bible or in David’s books and I write something in this book because that is what my papi told me to do. When I can’t think of anything beautiful I write that I can’t think of anything beautiful.

            Every day Aunt Chon makes me get up, and makes me eat, and because I have eaten and because I have to do something with the day I work a little in the house although she would not make me do that.

            Every morning and every night I put my hand on my papi’s clay hand, but I do not feel any warmth. I do not see anything. I do not keep it in my pocket any more because it was flaking into dust there. Now I keep it by my pallet but it is flaking into dust there too.

Translation of a letter  from Angel Felipe Fuentes Ortiz to Cristina Guadalupe Fuentes Espinosa, care of Concepcion Soledad Navarro Reyes

July 15, 1954

To my dear daughter:

            This is to tell you that I am all right. Your Aunt Lancha gave me the message that Padre Vincentio called in to the town hall here saying that you were safe at your aunt and uncle’s house, thanks be to God. But she didn’t have a number to call the priest back, so I am writing you this letter instead. Write back to the town hall, not to your aunt’s house—by the time the letter gets here it may not be your aunt’s house any more; I am looking for work, so is she, but I do not know if we can pay the rent next month.  Write, but stay where you are. I am sorry, but there is not money to buy you a ticket, and there is not money to keep you here. You know your cousins Raul and Felipe were working in El Norte and sending money home to your aunt Lancha. Well, Felipe came back with his head shaved, and Raul has not come home at all.  Felipe was lucky: the train he was on left people right in Nogales, so he could call from the church there and tell his mami he was all right.  Raul… We hope Raul is all right.

            I did not want to tell you anything about the danger there is for people who are sent back, but Lancha tells me the papers have stories about the people who died from being left in the desert in the heat, so you will already know and be worried. Don’t worry. Raul wrote his mother a letter the day those people died in the desert, so we know he wasn’t on those buses. And I am safe, I am all right. They put us in the desert too, but not so far in, and we found water. How we found it is a strange story, but I think you will believe me when I tell it, Cris.

            I hope you still have the piece of the bowl I gave Doña Dolores to give to you. I kept the other pieces, and I held your clay hand and asked God to keep you safe. I was still holding that when they put us out in the desert and we started walking back. But I fell, and it flew out of my hand and off the road in a place where the slope dropped off steeply. I felt as though I was losing you again, and I ran after the piece, and then my feet slid and the sand slid under me and I went down, down, and I didn’t know if I was strong enough to climb back up. When I stopped sliding I kept my eyes closed for a little while because I was afraid to look up and see how far I would have to climb. But they were shouting to me from the road, and I had to sit up and open my eyes. And I saw an opening in front of me, going back into the sand bank. Just a little opening, one I could go through on my hands and knees. But it was dark inside that opening, and I thought how cool it would be, and I crawled in. And just a little way inside the rock lifted above me and I could stand. It was cool there, blessedly cool, and I smelled water.

            Cris, you have the gift for words, you could say better than I can how I felt when I heard the water.  But you know from the Bible, At the scent of water he shall revive. And I did. 

            I called, and the others came, and we drank, and we rested in the heat of the day, and then we started walking again, and before we could get badly sick from the cave water we came into the city, hot and filthy and sick and tired and very, very glad to be alive. But I was not as glad as the others, because I did not know what had happened to you, or even to the little piece of you that I had left in clay.

            Well, that was foolishness. You are safe. I love you, Cris. I will tell you how much I love you when I see you again. I do not know when or how, but I will see you again.

***

Author’s Note:

Operation Wetback really did happen in 1954. The Border Patrol rounded up close to one million undocumented immigrants from farms and factories across the country, shaved their heads and shipped them deep into Mexico. 88 people died after being left in the desert on a blistering hot day. Many more survived—but some of them were separated from their families and didn’t get word from their relatives for many years. I made the Fuentes family luckier.

Harrowing

By Joanna Michal Hoyt

Alma assumed Sibyl was joking, so she forced a laugh; new in town and new at church, Alma knew she couldn’t snub someone at coffee hour. Then she saw the outrage on Sibyl’s face.

“Sorry. You really mean – ?”

“Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. It’s just that we’re concerned about you. Grace saw you hanging around there.  Of course you wouldn’t go in,” (her tone implied that was just what Alma would do), “but people who choose to spend time in that area…”

“What’s really down there?”

“I just told you,” Sibyl said.

“I thought you called them stairs to Hell.”

“I did.”

Alma backed away. Was Sibyl crazy?

“It’s true,” David said.

“That’s the name of a nightclub?” Alma asked. “Or an occult bookstore?”

“No, it’s Hell—the real thing.” David looked gravely at her over the top of his glasses.

“You think the Gates of Hell are in that vacant lot?”

A Gate of Hell,” Sibyl said.  “Maybe every town has one. We know where ours is, and we stay away from it.”

“How do you know?”

“Everybody knows,” Gloria said, leaning over Sibyl’s shoulder.

“So people end up in Hell because they wander down the stairs?” Alma tried not to sound as incredulous as she felt. “Otherwise they’d all go to Heaven?”

“I’m sure,” Sibyl said, “that nine times out of ten the appropriate authorities – angels, fallen angels, whoever –  take people there at the…the usual time. For cause. But you do hear about things…”

“Kids daring each other,” David said.

“Drunks,” Sibyl added.

“Not drunks – they’d break their necks before they reached the bottom,” Gloria contradicted. “The stairs are so steep.”

“You’ve seen them?” Alma asked.

There was a nasty little silence.

After coffee hour Alma walked back to the vacant lot and leaned into the open-fronted shed. Stepping inside, she looked down, down the stairs to where the green indoor-outdoor carpeting faded into shadow. Then she turned away.

Early next morning Alma was back, with a discreet cross pinned to her blouse and a flashlight, a penknife, and pepper spray ready in her jeans pocket. She tacked a note to the shed: ALMA FOSTER WENT IN TO EXPLORE AT 5:30 AM ON SEPTEMBER 2.

She had tried writing something longer to explain why she was going. “Because I need to know…” “Because if you’re pulling my leg I’m tired of it…” “Because if Hell is really what you make it out to be and angels or demons or anyone else are hauling people down there against their will I’ll organize a strike against God…” “Because if there are people trapped down there maybe I could help them get out…” They all sounded juvenile. She meant them all, but thought it better to leave them unsaid.

#

The staircase was very long. The irregular pulsations of the fluorescent lights overhead gave Alma a headache after a while. By the time she thought of counting the stairs, she had been descending so long that it seemed pointless.

The stairs ended on a cement landing before a neat exterior door which was windowless and institutional green like the stairs. There was no inscription on the lintel.

Alma tried the knob. It wasn’t locked.

She cracked the door open.

No sulphurous fumes. No tormented wails. Just a low buzz of conversation.

Opening the door a couple of inches, Alma peered in at a strip of green carpet and a white wall.

She opened the door wide and stepped across the threshold. No alarm bell sounded. One of the well-dressed people inside noticed her—a blond man with an insipid face. His gaze met hers, slid away, then dragged itself back before he returned to his conversation. Something flashed in his eyes as he looked at her. Not what she might have expected in the eyes of a man in Hell. Not agony, she thought, or rage, or lust. Fear? Maybe. Or hope?

Alma drew the door to, but not quite shut, behind her as she stepped into the room.

“Shut the door, can’t you?” The woman’s cultured voice was thin and shrill. “Don’t let that air in, you must know what it can do.”

“What can it do?” Alma asked.

The woman’s face tightened. “Just close it!”

Alma shut the door, immediately panicked, and tested the knob. It turned freely. Slightly reassured, she took a step toward the woman.          

“I was just out there, and the air seemed to be fine,” Alma said. “What bothers you about it?”

“I wasn’t complaining.” The woman’s eyes darted around the room.

“Nobody thought you were,” another woman said in tones of exaggerated patience, motioning the first woman away from Alma and the door.

If this was a well-disguised Hell, Alma thought, and people were kept there by the irrational fear of something on the stairs, she could explain and save them all. But first she had to understand.

She walked further into the room. The carpet indoors was the same dead green as the stairs outdoors. The walls were off-white with a hint of green—though the green was just slightly wrong.  So were the people. Women in slacks and fitted tops or in little dresses, men in suits and ties, all with decorous little smiles– what felt wrong about them?

She drifted closer to a pair of women.

“They didn’t do a bad job redecorating the restaurant.”

“Not bad. Well, Management has to accommodate the other Groups too… they wouldn’t appreciate anything really tasteful…”

“Is the new decor tasteless?”

“You haven’t seen it? Weren’t you at breakfast?’

“There didn’t seem to be much point.” The speaker gave a nervous titter. “I mean, I was so busy.”

“Of course.” Was the sweetness of the answering voice exaggerated?

The titterer opened her mouth, closed it, blanched, murmured “Oh dear, I shall be late…” and hurried away, stumbling a little in her high heels. Like the White Rabbit, Alma thought. But what did the other woman say to upset her?

Alma realized she was staring at the other woman just as the other woman caught her eye. Alma looked away from the woman’s face to her necklace.  The pearls made her think of pupilless eyes which, nevertheless, saw her. Alma mentally christened the woman Pearl—it fit the smooth pallor of her face, the sparkle of her teeth.

“What are you doing here?” Pearl asked. “Which Group are you in? You’re not one of us, are you?”

“I’m new here.”

“Nobody’s sorted you? Put you with…” she eyed Alma’s thrift-store jeans and blouse, Alma’s brown arms—“your kind of people?”

“No. Should somebody have met me at the door?” Alma’s voice came out thin and worried.

“I’m sure they’ve done just what they should have,” Pearl said in a similarly nervous voice. “Make yourself at home.” Perhaps the invitation was meant kindly, but it didn’t sit well in Alma’s stomach.

Alma sidled toward another pair: a woman in a business outfit, a black-suited man with gold-rimmed glasses.

“Sorry I missed the committee meeting, Gladys,” Goldman said. “Another appointment.”

“Of course, we all know you’re terribly busy.”

“But your notes are as clear and succinct as Mr. Stone said.”

“He… he mentions me?’

A secretary in love with her boss, Alma thought. But would infatuation make Gladys’ hand hover at her throat like that?

“All the time,” Goldman said.

“He… he’s very kind,” Gladys gasped, turning to look out a nearby window.

A window? Alma thought. So far underground? She hurried toward it.

Not a window, a mirror. Alma’s reflection looked warily back at her.  Behind Alma, Goldman fidgeted with something in his pocket. A tic? No, nothing so pronounced, but something about it made Alma’s stomach seethe.          

Maybe he wasn’t the problem. The really unsettling thing was not looking at Goldman’s reflection, but looking at his and at her own at the same time. Alma squinted into the glass. She didn’t seem to fit with Goldman, or Gladys, or any of them. It wasn’t just her clothes. She looked solid, while Gladys, Goldman, and the rest looked like pictures on faded newsprint.  And Alma was the only one standing still. The others were all moving their hands or shifting their weight in quick arrhythmic gestures. Alma felt her headache tightening.

In the mirror, she caught sight of another pair nearby, strained to separate their words from the buzz of talk around them.

“…doesn’t seem to belong.” The dark-haired man tapped his toes as he spoke. “A sorting mistake?”

“Did you hear what she said to Marguerite?” The fair-haired man pushed back his cuticles over and over. “Asking, ‘Should somebody have met me?’ as if…”

“That shows she doesn’t belong in our Group, doesn’t it? She doesn’t look like a foreigner – well, not all the way, though I guess she’s a little on the brown side – or talk like one, but if she’s one of the layabouts… or one of the eggheads? Some of them don’t bother to dress properly either. Which of us would have asked a thing like that?”

“Oh, she’s not one of us. But what if Management sent her? If she’s with them, and we do anything to displease her…”

The dark-haired man inhaled sharply. “I… I forgot, I have to be at a meeting.”

“You won’t mention anything about what I said if you, er, meet her ?”

The dark-haired man caught Alma’s eyes in the mirror, gulped, and hurried away without answering.

The fair-haired man stared at Alma, his hands moving faster and faster. Other people began to turn toward the pair of them. Began to look at Alma with those frightened, frightening eyes, and to gesture toward her with hands that weren’t quite steady… Alma backed away. There was an interior door in the wall near Gladys. She hurried through it into an empty corridor. It was too tall and narrow for comfort, but at least she had it to herself.

Alma froze, staring. The door at the far end had not opened, but she was no longer alone. The figure before her was hard to see clearly. It wasn’t washed out like the others. This man was bright as a stained-glass window with the sun coming through it, substantial as earth, more real than anything she’d ever seen. There was too much of him to take in. She tried to focus. First the colors came clear: the red-purple of his clothing, the mahogany of his skin. Then the face dimmed enough so she could see it. A wide, kind face, familiar from book covers and newscasts.

“Archbishop Tutu? What are you doing here? You aren’t dead, are you? We needed you back there…”

“You are not dead,” he pointed out. His voice was as much more real than hers as his face was. “I am. I am not dead, and I am not only the good man you named. You see what you are able to see and trust.”

“You don’t belong here.”

“No one does. Come away. Come with me.”

“But I don’t understand yet. I have to understand.”

“Do you need to understand this place before you can work or love in the world you left?”

Alma shook her head. Working, loving, those were always possible, but they went on for such a long time, and she got so tired, and they weren’t talismans against fear, not like knowing.

“Do you understand me?” he asked.

She looked at him, felt the headache fading.

 “No. But I trust you.” Maybe you shouldn’t trust someone you met in Hell, her mind muttered, but she didn’t believe it. Not then.

“Then come.”

“What about the rest of them? Why aren’t you getting them out?”

“I do not force anyone to leave.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Many times.”

“Please, I need to understand. I won’t stay here, but I can’t leave yet.” She remembered the conversation about the restaurant. “After lunch. Let me stay until then, see if I can understand, if I can help. Then I’ll come with you.” She paused. “I’m sorry. You—you must be terribly busy. Maybe you can’t come back then.”

“I can come back.”

“Is it a bad idea for me to eat here? Is it like eating food in the land of the dead? Does it trap you here?”

“There is no danger from the food.”

“But…”

He was gone. Her headache throbbed again.

She opened the door at the end of the corridor and entered the restaurant. The carpet (almost the same beige as the walls) was spotless. There were pictures, maybe framed photos, hanging on the walls, but the light glared off the glass over themso Alma couldn’t see what they depicted. 

About half the blond wood tables were occupied by pairs, trios, or foursomes of well-dressed people.  No one ate or drank. No one was alone. Some people glared at a door in the far end through which a few scruffily dressed people were disappearing, shooed along by a uniformed waiter who hissed, “You know your Group’s lunch is over. Move along.”

The people here eat in shifts, Alma thought, and I’ve arrived in between, so no one’s getting served now.

She listened to the conversation at the nearest table.

“This is the third time they’ve been late with the shift change.”

“You’re not complaining about Management, are you?” The speaker smiled unpleasantly. The listener blanched.

“Of course not!” The speaker swallowed hard.  “No, I… no! Of course those people don’t understand punctuality…. their Group, I mean, not Management, of course. Sorry. Long morning. Let’s start over. What do you think of the new photographs?”

“Not bad. The long exposures, the perspectives…”

“Very distinctive.”

“Mostly original, though after Crantham’s exhibit…”

“Crantham, of course, but isn’t that a deliberate homage?”

A waiter glided toward Alma. “Are you waiting for a party?”

“No.”

“This way.” The waiter beckoned her to an empty table and pulled out a chair. Considered her. “Are you sure you’re in the right Group?”

“I’m new.”

“But you’re in this rotation?” He gestured to the diners. “Do you know anyone in this Group?”

“There’s Gladys, she’s the secretary to…”

“All right.” He passed Alma a menu. “We’ll send her to your table when she arrives. You won’t have to wait long.”

Alma ordered spanakopita, feeling very hungry. The waiter hurried away.

Alma waited.

And waited. Glanced at her watch. Frowned.

Her watch said five-thirty am.

It’s no big deal, she told herself. It doesn’t mean anything, It does not, does not, mean anything at all… Okay, or if it does, it just means…

It means nobody will think I’ve been down here any time, however long I stay. Nobody will come and save me.

Who would have cared enough to do that anyway?

She shook her head, looked around for a clock. There, on the wall at her right hand. It had cherubs around the frame – vacuous puffy pink-and-gold cherubs, not six-winged cherubim. The light glared off the clock face so she couldn’t read it. She got up, went closer, passing one of the photographs on the walls, in which she couldn’t see anything except the fluorescent light’s reflection.

“Rather conventional,” murmured a voice behind her, “but it’s hardly the venue for innovative work.”

“You can see it?” Alma asked, turning toward the svelte red-haired woman who had spoken. “I can’t. It must be the angle.”

“Well, as Mr. Stone said…”

“Can I stand where you’re standing?” Alma asked. “From here I can’t see anything at all.”

The woman moved over. Alma took her place. Frowned. “I still can’t see.”

The woman walked unsteadily away.

Alma looked down at her own feet, realized that her toes were tapping. She willed them to stop. They didn’t. It was like trying to get her fingers to stop tapping that day in the DMV waiting room before her dreaded road test: the more she willed herself to stop, to sit calm and still, the more she saw herself twitching, which meant, she knew, that she looked crazy, and that thought just made her twitch more….

“Your lunch partner has arrived.” The waiter hovered at Alma’s shoulder, gesturing back toward the table where Gladys sat bolt upright and twitching. Alma went with him.

“Gladys? I’m Alma.”

“I…Yes, I… How…?” Gladys’ long nails dug into her handbag.

“I heard… someone… saying how good your work was,” Alma said, remembering in time that Goldman was a name of her own bestowing. “Saying how proud Mr. Stone was of you.”

Gladys’ right hand came up to her throat, clenched and unclenched.

“You know Mr. Stone?” Gladys asked breathlessly.

“I’m new here. I don’t know anybody.”

Gladys flicked a glance around the room, leaned forward. “Don’t go to work for him!” she hissed.

“I won’t, I’m just visiting. What’s wrong with him? What does he do? What does he make you do?” Several revolting possibilities flashed through Alma’s mind.

“I’m not telling you anything!” Gladys gasped. Then she deflated. “But it’s already too late, if you’re an Inspector…”

“What does he make you do?” Alma asked again.

“I update the mailing list, back up data, send out memos… it should be child’s play, but it isn’t; I’m always doing something wrong, something obvious– dates mistyped, words misspelled –”

“He complains? Punishes you?”

“No! No, he tells me, he tells everyone how good I am. How conscientious, how capable, how efficient. And they smile and say yes, yes, and I know they’re all laughing at me. Waiting until he has enough in my personnel file to get me.”

“To get you what?”

Expelled,” Gladys mouthed. “Out of this Group. Forever. Out… out in the dark with… Them.”

“Who are They?” Alma asked at her normal volume. “What would happen to you if you were with them?”

Gladys gulped air in; her face went salt-white. Her right hand clenched and unclenched in front of her throat. Her left hand, trembling slightly, reached across the table toward Alma, who recoiled.

Gladys leaned back abruptly as the waiter appeared at her shoulder with a menu.

“When will my spanakopita be ready?” Alma asked. “Are you waiting so we can eat at the same time?”

Gladys and the waiter stared at Alma. She looked around. No one was eating.

There is no danger from the food, the Archbishop had said.

“Do you ever feed anyone here?”

Gladys and the waiter averted their eyes and tightened their faces as though Alma had passed gas.

“Do you?” Alma insisted.

The waiter walked away. Gladys rose from her seat. “You’re crazy!” she whispered. “And if you say what I said, no one will believe you.”

Alma hurried after the retreating waiter into a room of countertops and clean dishes. No food in sight. A waitress toyed with her hair. A waiter straightened a stack of menus. Alma went through a door in the back wall.

A big room. Cabinets, butcher-blocks, pans, mixing bowls, spoons. Knives – Alma avoided the wall to her left where they hung. No food. No movement. “Is anybody here?” she called.  No answer.

There was a door in the opposite wall, mostly closed. A sign on it said EMPLOYEES ONLY.  That might mean something important happened behind it. Alma edged round the right-hand wall and through the door.

She was in a dim little anteroom with whitish walls and a gray linoleum floor. The whole back wall was made of glass – no, was the glass doors that led into what seemed to be a walk-in cooler.

There went one theory. There was food, all right. Heads of lettuce, quarters of lamb, wheels of cheese, pizzas, salmon fillets, lobsters, olives.  Alma stepped closer to look. Then froze, feeling a draft on the back of her neck. She’d closed the door behind her, hadn’t she? She clasped her hands tightly in front of her to stop them twitching, then turned round.

A thin man in a spotless white chef’s uniform stood in the open doorway, arms folded, glaring at Alma and sucking his teeth. His face was hard and sharp-featured, skin drawn tight over the bones: a knife of a face. His name tag said Nick.

Alma stared at the name tag, swallowed bile. Looked back at his face. Unpleasant, but he didn’t look old, and he also didn’t look powerful or evil enough…. Well, names weren’t everything. It also occurred to her that he looked frightened as much as frightening. Not that that necessarily made him safer.  Still, she bit off the apology for entering an employees-only area that had been on the tip of her tongue. If he also took her for an inspector—

“This looks well-stocked,” she said in her most neutral tone.

“Matches the invoice,” Nick said in a tight colorless voice. “My invoice copy’s in the cabinet there.” He motioned to a small file cabinet on the right-hand wall.

“And your records of what you’ve served?” she improvised.

Nick stood absolutely immobile except for his darting eyes.

Alma stepped closer to the glass doors. Squinted. There seemed to be something wrong with the light, something that cast a grayish-blue bloom over the food…

No, it wasn’t the light. Scum floated over the olives; mold laced the salmon fillets.

“Spoiled,” she said, her appetite giving way to nausea. “The unit went bad? You’re waiting for a replacement part?”

“What in hell are you playing at?” Nick snapped. Then he ducked his head and resumed tonelessly, “Unit’s in good order. Best unit made won’t keep the food good forever. It’s all in the reports… you must have seen the reports…”

“Why don’t you try explaining this in your own words?” Alma said. She’d always despised people who bullied kitchen staff, but this was Hell, and she had to know… “Why didn’t you give this to people while it was fresh? Why not clean it out and order new food?’

“I can order, but that doesn’t mean it will come.”

“You tried ordering, and nothing came?”

“You have copies of everything,” he said, tight-lipped. “No back channels.  You’ve seen my personnel file. No inappropriate behavior. No citations.” His voice was rising, pleading almost.

Alma tried to think what a real inspector would say next. Ask next. Well, a real inspector would know what he’d written…

Her doubt must have shown in her face. Nick took a step toward her, unfolded his arms, his empty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. The fear hadn’t left his face, but it had changed. “Where’s your badge, then?”

“What badge?” Alma’s voice shook.

He came a step closer. “You’re no inspector. What do you think you’re doing in here, then? Didn’t you see the sign?”

“I wanted something to eat! Nobody out there’s getting anything…”

“Course they’re not getting anything. Never have, have they? Why’d they expect that to change now?” His eyes stopped darting, bored into hers. “You been agitating them? Getting them together to attack us?”

“No! Nobody’s getting together to do anything! But why didn’t you feed them this stuff while it was good and then order more?”

“Order more. Sure, miss. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But what if they don’t send it?”

“Why wouldn’t they send it?” Alma’s voice was rising.

“Why do they do anything? Don’t you go shouting and getting the others worked up –don’t you get them expecting food!”

“They don’t expect food? They don’t starve? Don’t they have to eat?”

“Who has to do anything, here? But if I started to feed them they’d expect it. Expect food from the kitchen staff. Figure they’d get it out of us, one way or another.” He ran a finger along his forearm like a knife. “One way or another. And there’s more of them than us, and only so much you can do to defend yourself with kitchen knives. And who knows what they’ve got, what they’d do with it, if they’d decided… I’ve told Management a thousand times we need better security, but who’s listening?” His face had gone pale as Gladys’ face, pale as his uniform. He reached an unsteady hand out to Alma. Pleading? Getting ready to grab? Alma swallowed hard, leaned left, and then when he moved that way sprinted to the right around him, out through the door, through the knife room. She was back in the dining hall before she realized that only the echo of her own lurching footsteps was following her.

Understanding that, she stopped to catch her breath. Stopped under the clock. The light still glared off its face, she couldn’t read it from any angle, but she could hear it ticking, ticking, skip and ticking again, then dragging  out  and   out slow, thenjerkingahead…

She hurried away, slowed so as not to bump into the waiter. But he – She stared. He was was walking in, in time, in the no-time of the clock’s ticking. And the diner punching something into his cell phone—his fingers flicked, stuttered in just the same rhythm. Just the just just just the same…

Alma tried not, not to see her fingers twitching in that just just-wrong time, bolted into the corridor where she couldn’t hear couldn’t hear the clock (and if she stopped looking at her hands, her feet, if she, if she ignored the irrhythm of her breaths, maybe she could forget it…)

“Please,” she gasped. “Please, Archbishop…please, whoever you are…please, come back. Get me out of here.”

There had been nobody in the hall, and now there was an old black man in a purple cassock. No radiance now. And was that really, was that what the Archbishop’s face looked like, wasn’t it too long, but hadn’t he said anyway he really wasn’t, what had he said, did she, did she really remember anything?

“Are you ready to leave?’ he asked.

“I…have to,” she said, forcing the relevant words through the syncopated babbling in her brain.  “Can you still get me out?”

“You can get yourself out. I can go with you.” He reached out to her. She didn’t reach back didn’t dare.  You shouldn’t trust anyone you meet in Hell

“Who…who are you, really?”

“I couldn’t tell you anything you’d believe or understand. Come.”

“But how do I know it’s safe?”

“Nothing is safe. But you can leave.”

She was afraid of him more afraid of trying to leave without him most afraid of not leaving at all most totally afraid

“I’ll follow you,” she said.

He opened the door at the end of the corridor.

The room looked like the entrance hall at the high school right before the buses arrived. Girls with brand name T-shirts and hair it never comes blond like that except out of a bottle does it but mostly the roots don’t show oh who cares but look at their fingernails and… Other girls with layers of makeup on their faces, with not much cloth on their bodies I was never that trashy it wasn’t just because I didn’t have much to show off because I it wasn’t really it was it wasn’t…. Other girls hunched under overlarge sweatshirts, looking down, grimacing. I never looked that pathetic I never looked  really I didn’t did I... And boys, strutting or slouching or or curled in on themselves.  And the words  – about members of their own sex (derogatory), about the other sex (speculative), about their parents (disgusted)… I got out of there ten years ago I got out forever I was done it’s done why am I here again what have I done am I done for can I get out why can’t I get out

Alma’s eyes caught on a girl who seemed to feel the same way. Looking at her, Alma felt her own mind unfogging a little. The girl wore earbuds and a big shapeless shirt, stood a little apart from the others. Her toes tapped in the same dragging and jerking time as the clock in the restaurant. Her eyes were unfocused and miserable. But when she looked at Alma and the man who might be the Archbishop, Alma saw the same hope she’d felt when a stranger from the adult world passed through the high school halls: There is another world out there, other possibilities. Alma nodded toward the girl, looked at the door. The girl looked at the door too, and slowly her toes stopped tapping. She took a step toward it… We can get out, we can, see, it’s all right…

“Move it, wide-ride,” a boy said, slapping the earbud girl’s buttocks and pushing past her—not to the door; to one of the blonde girls. Earbuds recoiled, hung her head, started tapping her toes again.

Alma’s stomach lurched. Her brain started chattering again. He touched He touched her Now she’s trapped Now she can’t go If they touch me If It’s not the food It’s the people It’s when  they touch you It’s touch But nobody nobody touched me yet, I pulled away from Gladys I dodged Nick I’m safe safe safe… But how can I get through them all how can I without them touching me if they touch me if they touch

“We have to go out later,” Alma gasped. “When the room’s empty.”

“It is never empty. Come!”

“When there’s a different crowd in there, maybe. Not them! I can’t! If they touch me…”

“You can still leave.” He reached a hand toward her again. “All will be well.”

That’s not how the Archbishop talks, Alma thought. The sentences are too short He’s a devil Hes a demon I I I…

She backed up. Reached for the door into the hallway. Stopped, seeing another girl between herself and the door.  Turned her head away. Caught sight of herself in the mirror. Her hands twitched, and she was pale and insubstantial as a picture on faded newsprint.

Maybe I’m damned already.

She looked away from the mirror. Down at the carpet.  I won’t look I won’t go through them I don’t have to know I can try later if I don’t try I’ll always know I can try I… The rhythm, the irrhythm, seemed to matter more than the sense of the words.  Alma’s brain and her stomach seemed to have turned into a timeless clock beating out its nonsense, sending out that pulse that kept that kept them all in in…

A whimpering noise distracted her. No, she wasn’t making that sound, Earbuds was.  Earbuds was staring at Alma, her eyes glassy with hopelessness. There is no other world. Alma didn’t know if she was hearing her own thoughts or the girl’s.  Nothing is possible.

No, those must be the girl’s thoughts. Alma briefly caught her own twitching eyes in the mirror, and read the fear in them: fear that something else was possible, something even worse. Something so much worse she couldn’t bear to name it to picture it – couldn’t bear to know it was there…

“Don’t be afraid,” the old man said.

“That’s impossible,” Alma snapped.

“Everything’s impossible,” Earbuds said faintly.

“No,” Alma said.  “You can get out of here.”

“She can, with you,” the old man said. “And you with her. You can help her leave, or you can make it harder. Love drives out fear…”

He’s quoting the Bible wrong It says perfect love It says all fear It says… But she’d heard the real Archbishop talk about how people needed each other in order to be fully human. Had he never been to an American high school?…Well, anyway, Alma couldn’t leave Earbuds stuck there – couldn’t be part of what stuck her there. I won’t be a demon I won’t be a damner If I’m damned Im damned At least I tried
            Her hands kept twitching. She took a step. Two steps. Someone’s shoulder brushed hers. She winced. Kept moving. Passing Earbuds, she reached out her left hand. Their fingers locked. The panic drilled deep, but she took one more step, two, three, the door open ahead of her, the grip on her right hand warm and firm, the one on her left sweaty and cold.

The snick of the door closing behind her. The panic-pulse dying away. The smell, from the stairhead, of cut grass and ripe apples and dog poop. (Smells! There had been none on the other side of the door…) Her right hand empty, and her left hand curled in the hand of the girl who stood beside her, wide-eyed, upright under her shapeless clothes, staring at the warm living light that reached down the stairs to meet them.
                                                                                    ###

Come Again

by Joanna Michal Hoyt

originally published in Metapsychosis, September 2018

The visitor scrapes the dirt off his broken-down shoes, steps into the gleaming entrance hall, returns the usher’s smile. Unlike the usher, he keep his lips shut—understandably, if his teeth differ from the usher’s as much as his clothes do. 

The usher gestures him into the sanctuary. He stops just inside the door, staring at the banks of seats, the spotlighted stage, the screens filled with the rapt faces of singers whose music, prodigiously amplified, pulses in his head, flutters in his empty stomach.  “I will bring praise; no weapon formed against me shall remain…” People in the congregation sing and sway.  The visitor remembers men standing and swaying to the chant of prayer in another time and place; the words were different, the clothes were poorer and cut to a different fashion, but the movement…

Another greeter smiles in his face, gestures him to a seat. For a while he looks down at his hands. Then he takes a deep breath and looks around him again.

The music has stopped. The screens show the preacher’s face.  The preacher’s eyes shine like his teeth and his arms sweep out in a wide gesture of welcome.  “Have you believed the lies of this world?” the preacher asks. “Have you let the Enemy establish a beachhead in your mind? Have you let him tell you that you’re no good, that you’re poor, that you’re sick, that you’ve done terrible things? Have you let Satan tell you that Jesus doesn’t want you? Well, let me tell you the truth. Jesus wants you. Jesus came for you.”

The visitor looks at the screen, which shows the congregation leaning in eagerly toward the promise. The visitor remembers another crowd leaning in as though it were midwinter and the words were fire, their eyes full of the hunger which bites as deep as the hunger for bread.  Leaning toward him.

“And you might be sitting there thinking, ‘That’s easy for him to say. He’s a minister of the Word, he’s a righteous man, he’s got a nice house, a good life—how does he know what my life is like? How does he know Jesus wants me?’” The congregation waits eagerly for the answer.

“I know,” the preacher assures them. “I know, because I wasn’t always the man you see before you now. I was… If you knew the way I grew up… Brothers and sisters, believe me, whatever you’ve been through, it’s no worse than that.”

The visitor rubs his right thumb over the scar on his left hand, focuses on the preacher’s words to keep the memories at bay.

 “I’ve known poverty. I’ve known sin. Drinking, porn…you name it, I tried it. I was lost, friends, I was lost in the darkness. I was destroying my health, I was bankrupt, but worse than that: my soul was dark and hollow, and I was a stranger to God.”

The congregation listens as though this is the first time they have heard his account of how the preacher hit bottom, how he fell to his knees and asked Jesus into his heart. The visitor looks hard at the preacher’s face as though trying to remember something.

“And he came to me. He came to me, and He filled my life, He filled it with blessings, just the way he promised in his precious Word. Do you know what it says there? It says that God has plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to prosper you.  Friends, that word is for you, for every blessing you need in your life. If you open your life to the power of God, if you ask His will for your life, if you surrender to His precious will, He will shower you with blessings. When you let God into your heart, then the blessings come, they come and come until your cup overflows, until you think you can’t take any more blessing—and still they come! When you let God arise, he scatters every enemy. No more sickness, no more poverty, no more sadness, no more pain. When you let God arise, then health comes, then joy comes, then prosperity comes. The path of the righteous gets brighter and brighter. God will give you the victory. God will give you the victory in everything.”

The congregation laughs, claps, shouts out loud. The visitor in the back row clutches his left side with his right hand.  The wound there is old, should be healed, but sometimes the memories bring the pain back. Drops of sweat fall from his forehead to the carpet.

“Are you ready?” the preacher calls. “Are you ready to say yes to the blessing? Are you ready to say yes to God, to put your life in his hands and let him fill your cup with every good thing? Then stand with me and tell our Heavenly Father…”

The congregation rises like a wave. The visitor rocks back and forth like a piece of flotsam battered by the tide. Words tumble from his mouth in fragments: Father…this cup…your will….your hands

 The visitor edges toward the nearest aisle; the people he has to pass by let him through, wrinkling their noses as he passes. He stands in the aisle, looks down toward the stage. His stomach growls, and as the preacher’s voice rises in prayer he makes his way to the exit, head bowed.

When the usher says brightly “We hope you’ll come again,” the visitor answers quietly, “I have.” He looks her in the eye—looks longer and more directly than people usually do. She turns her head away. He leaves.

He stands on the steps for a few minutes, watching two sparrows chasing each other through the branches of the hawthorn tree by the door. Slowly he lifts his hands. One of the sparrows perches on his crooked finger, turns a bright eye on him, flies away singing.

#

Later he sits at a long gray table, one in a crowd of a shabbily dressed people eating macaroni and hot dogs from paper plates.  He looks around at his fellow diners. Some bend over their food. Others look toward the TV screen on the wall.  The woman next to him leans toward the screen, her face intent. He looks where she is looking, listens.

“I thank God for finally sending us a President who truly values and protects Christians,” the man on the screen says. His compelling blue eyes stare directly out at his listeners. “Our Lord Jesus Christ told us that the world would hate us because we bear His name. We see that every day, don’t we? Look at the violent Islamists massacring Christians for their faith. Look at the terrorists who hate America, who hate us just because we’re free, we’re Christian, we’re blessed by God… Now, some of you may be saying, ‘Hold it right there.” I know, not so long ago it was hard to say we were a Christian nation. We had a leader who was swayed by the very same hateful faith that is trying to destroy Christianity around the world. But now we have a leader who champions Christianity, who isn’t afraid to say the name of Jesus, and to stand up for the rights of persecuted Christians.”

“Amen!” says the intent woman. The visitor looks at her snaggled teeth and hair, the cross pinned to her sweatshirt, the hunger in her eyes.

He looks back at the screen as the interviewer asks about the church people who criticize the new President for turning away refugees.

“That simply isn’t a Bible issue,” the interviewee says. “A country has laws, a country has the duty to protect its own.  That means not letting in people who want to kill us.”

The visitor no longer sees the speaker on the screen. The memories are on him again.  Earlier memories, this time. His mother’s hand over his mouth as they creep out of the village in the dead of night, and again every time a patrol might be passing near them. The heat beating down, the hurt in his dry throat and empty gut, the long long journey through the desert.  And when they arrived… His father—at least, the man he always called father–asking directions, first in the language of the country they fled from, then, awkwardly, brokenly, in the language of the new land. People not answering. People laughing, a hard-edged laughter. People answering—he didn’t know their language then, but he understood You are not wanted. That is one of the first messages any child learns to understand, especially a child of refugees.

 He was a small boy then; many people would say he was too young to remember. Nevertheless he remembers. He also remembers what anyone would say he should not, what he was not there to see, what they fled, what happened just after they escaped the village. The soldiers shouting; the women wailing; the children screaming briefly, then silenced; the soft thuds of bodies dropped in the dust; the silence among the living that followed the soldiers’ departure, broken occasionally by a curse, a prayer, a sob, then settling again like dust over the hopeless and the dead…

“Hey, what’s wrong with him?” a voice asks. “What’s he staring at?” He pulls himself out of the memories far enough to see the faces of his fellow diners turned toward him, far enough to see the fear that stirs behind the faces. Some of them are looking at his dark troubled eyes. Some are looking at his brown skin, long beard and hooked nose. “Hey, where are you from, anyway?” the first speaker asks.  He doesn’t answer. “Has anyone heard him say anything?”

“Yeah, I was behind him in line. He said he was hungry. Said he didn’t want a hot dog. Wouldn’t say why, though. He had a funny accent.”

“Don’t you eat pork?”

“Where are you from?”

“I was a stranger…” he begins; bites the rest off. His time has not yet come. The words aren’t there; or maybe they are there, but the life and the power are not in them.

“What kind of accent is that? What kind of stranger are you? What’re you here for, anyway?”

“Are you even legal? This place is to feed Americans.”

That look in their eyes. He remembers that look. He pushes himself back from the table, walks away, leaving his food uneaten. They don’t follow him. Their voices do, and their fear. The servers don’t look at him; they are still busy scooping food onto plates for newer arrivals.

Most of the diners don’t look either; they keep their eyes down, their bodies curled around their own treasures and wounds. A woman with a beaky face and a tangle of grey hair fumbles in her jacket pocket until the pocket tears out. Coins ring and roll. Scraps of paper covered in spiky writing flutter in several directions; her attempts to grab them make eddies in the air that only push them further away.

He kneels beside her, catching the papers as they fall. A girl with dark makeup around her eyes and a dark bruise on her jaw crouches on the woman’s other side, raking coins together. The woman screams, a high tearing sound. “No!” she cries. “Those are mine!”

“I know,” he says. She darts a glance at him. Looks away. Looks back, steadying her eyes on his; takes a deep breath; doesn’t start screaming again.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh. I’m sorry.” And to the well-dressed man hurrying over from the server’s line, “No, it’s all right. He’s helping. They’re both helping. I didn’t know.”

The girl bundles the coins back into the woman’s remaining pocket. The visitor holds the papers up to the woman in his cupped hands. She reaches down to take them. Leaves her hands in his for a moment while her breath comes deeper and slower.  He feels something stirring inside him, something that comes from beyond him. His time has not yet come, but it is coming.

“You’ll be all right,” he says to her, knowing it for the truth.

She nods. “Will you be?”

#

Another Sunday morning, another church, smaller.  Curling papers thumbtacked to the bulletin board in the vestry announce church suppers, promote a gospel concert and a movie series on the End Times, ask volunteers to sign up for the soup kitchen (yes, that soup kitchen) and the pregnancy care center. 

Inside the sanctuary his feet make no sound on the piled carpet. The organ music ebbs and swells. He settles into a back pew. Looks over the congregation, people talking quietly to each other, peope kneeling, their eyes on the altar or on the white curtain behind it in front of which a huge cross hangs. He looks at that, presses his lips together, looks down.

People rise, pull out hymnbooks, sing. “Savior….do not pass me by…” They don’t shout and sway like the people he worshipped with last week, but the hunger in their eyes, in their voices, is the same. He feels its pull. Grips the back of the pew in front of him.

There are two collections taken up, one for the church, one for a charity. He pats his empty pockets. There are prayer requests. “Heal my mother…make my son come back home… give me patience with my daughter…please, I need a job…let there be peace in our neighborhood, peace in our nation…” He listens, bracing his shoulders as under a heavy load.

Then the pastor comes forward. The pastor doesn’t smile; his face is set, intent, as he reminds the congregation that while they have just prayed for peace, there is no peace in the nation. The television screens are full of protestors, rioters, looters; images of Hell, fire and darkness…. “And you look at all this, and you say, ‘This is terrible. What can we do?” Listen to me. There is something you can do. There is something we all can do.”

The visitor, like the rest of the congregation, sits up straight, listens for the call.

“Parents, teach your children obedience. Teachers, teach your students obedience. All of you, practice obedience. You know what it says in Hebrews 13:17: Submit to your leaders and those in authority.  Clear guidance. If people followed this guidance, just think how many lives would be saved. Just think how many riots would be prevented! Tell your kids, remind yourself: If a policeman tells you to do something, you do it. If they say freeze, you freeze. If they say lie down, you lie down. If they say put your hands up, you do that. Obey. Don’t argue, whether or not you think they’re right—OBEY, as God commanded you. And this isn’t only good guidance for dealing with policemen. Remember Romans 13, the opening verses.” (There is a rustle of paper. The visitor does not take the Bible down from its rack in front of him. His scarred hands clasp each other tightly in his lap.) “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except what God has established… He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will not escape judgment.” 

The pastor looks at his flock. “Remember this next time you hear people disrespecting our President, trying to tear down the authority God has established. Remember this next time someone tries to tell you we have to coddle people who break the laws by entering this country illegally. Remember this next time someone won’t stand and show respect for the flag of our Christian nation. Remember this next time someone wants to weaken the power the authorities have to enforce the law. Because the Bible tells us, right here in Romans 13:3, “Authorities hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”

The pastor’s words slide out of focus in the visitor’s mind.  He is remembering his childhood again, the bodies nailed to posts along the roadside as a warning from the authorities, a sign to strike terror into the hearts of would-be rebels.

He shakes his head. That was another country and another time, he tells himself. In this land, in this time, when the authorities kill they may leave the bodies lying in the road for hours, but they don’t stick them up beside the road for days. Well, they hardly need to, now that the images of the bodies can pass from screen to screen in an instant, so that everyone sees and remembers what they can do to you if you, if you…

The memories catch him, drag him forward. He is a man not a boy, back in that other country. He is a man, but the guards treat him like a beast; they have taken his clothes away, they have blindfolded him, they are hitting him again and again, they are laughing.  They are authorities. They say he has rebelled. This is the beginning of the judgment. Later…

He clutches at his side again. Sits curled around the wound and also around that presence like a fire in his bones. A growing fire. His time is coming soon.

After the benediction he leaves along with a crowd of other people. He’s still bent a little from the phantom pain. A woman beside him switches her purse to the other side of her body, angles her walk away from him.  He sees her speaking to another woman, older.

The second woman comes toward him, reaches her hand out. It’s not really fisted, just loosely closed.

He reaches his hand out to take hers, wondering what she needs, wondering if he can…

She drops something into his hand, hurries away.

He opens his hand, unfolds the dollar bill she gave him, looks closely at it. There’s a portrait of a bewigged man. There’s an eagle, a bunch of arrows, the emblems the armies of the occupiers used in his other country. But the inscription says IN GOD WE TRUST. He looks back and forth between the pictures and the words. What does this mean? To whom does it belong? Who does she think he is, that she has rendered it to him?

#

He walks down the street to another church where music spills from an open door. He waits in the foyer until the music stops; goes in quietly and takes a seat in the back as people sit back down and the preacher stands to speak.

By the time he has quieted his memories she is well launched into her message. She wears white robes and gold earrings; she speaks eagerly and warmly.

“Don’t let anyone lay a burden on you,” she says. “Those problems you think you have? God has already taken them away. They’re not yours any more. All good things are yours through the power of Jesus.” She makes a sudden gesture of throwing down. “There is no burden for those who believe!” she says. “Jesus took it all on himself. Jesus took all the evil on himself, so all the good was left for us. Jesus was wounded so we could be healed! Jesus took on our poverty so we could have God’s rich abundance!” (The visitor glances at the nice clothes of the people in the pews around him, at their nodding heads and eager smiles.) “Jesus became a curse so we could have the blessing! Jesus died so we could live!”

It is only in his mind, the visitor knows—or in their minds; the distinction is not absolute—that the people of the congregation answer Yes. Yes, the blessing is for us. Let the foreigners stay in their bloody hungry countries: the richness of this land is for us. Let the rebellious die in the streets: the protection is for us. Let the people who didn’t get the blessing go hungry; we will want for nothing. Let Jesus hang there and suffer and die. We are the living, we are the prosperous, we will inherit the earth.

The visitor unclenches his fist, tears his gaze away from the preacher, looks above her to the crimson curtain and the heavy cross that hangs in front of it. Not an empty cross like the one at the last church, waiting for him to be nailed there next time the word comes to him, next time he steps out of line. No, on this one he is already pinned, twisted, bleeding.  There to suffer for them, now and forever, amen.

But it’s not the nails that hold him there now, shaking in his seat. It is their need.  Their desperation. Their certainty that the curse remains, that if they ever set aside their armor of insistent faith in being blessed, if they ever relax their conviction that they deserve more than the rest, it might lay hold of them.   He remembers that fear as well from the other country and the other time.

Then he called them to turn and face their fear, to pass through that fear to the love and courage on the other side. Woe to you rich… Give to the poor, and then come, follow me… Woe to you when all speak well of  you… Take up your cross and follow me…. My kingdom is not of this world…. Have no fear of those who kill the body… Be not afraid… Perfect love drives out all fear. .. Love your neighbor…Love your enemy… I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Enter into the joy of your Lord… Some of them heard him. Sometimes, at least.

These people in the church with him today have heard all the words he spoke then. They know them by rote, they can’t really hear them any longer. What is left for him to say?

He has wondered that before, too. Has despaired. If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

The Holy Spirit will give you speech. He said that, too. It was true.

It is true. He rises. The wound in his side is still throbbing, but the wind is blowing through him now, the light is shining. His time has come again. As their faces turn toward him, he opens his mouth to speak.

###