Short Story: Today enjoy Unto the Isthmus, a story by the author Andrew McIntyre
Unto the Isthmus by Andrew McIntyre
We were stuck because they needed to check the engine. We’d been traveling for days, you lose track of time. The weather rotten, 4000 feet above sea level in the clouds, solid mist. Like November in Britain. Of course I didn’t have any proper clothes, so I bought a blanket from two girls. One of them began speaking in Mayan, pointing at the design, the rainbow colors. I shrugged my shoulders, saying No entiendo, no entiendo. An old man approached, She is telling you about the pattern, señor, it represents Gukumatz, the Rainbow Serpent, the Creator, the colors are the earth when everything was new, it is very good you possess this. The girls laughed. I thanked the man, offering him a cigarette. He smiled, All this you see, it is a dream. One day, it will be complete, he added, We will return to the beginning, the blood is washing the land, we will be released, and we will live. Uneasy, I waved, wandering towards a small terrace.
It wasn’t a good idea, but I smoked the remains of a joint. I wanted to get rid of it before we reached the border. The skies cleared briefly, electric blue. I could see for miles across mountain ranges, the valleys fertile and green. A huge turquoise lake glistening, deepening metallic as the sun began to set, the colors nightmarishly garish. Dissociated, I wandered around looking for a bar. I found the town’s cantina, if you could call it a town, a few shacks, a mud street, a taquería. A church. I drank beer and mescal, the alcohol making everything cheerful again, making me brave.
Around midnight, the army searched us at the frontier, the soldiers carrying battered obsolete guns, schmeissers I think they were. We sat in the drizzly mist, soaking, everyone hunched in their blankets. Gunfire in the distance, far away, rolling around the hills, artillery, bursts of machine gun fire. The others grinned and pointed. I thought it was exercises because the war was supposed to be further east, and no-one seemed concerned. Then it was time to go, as the sky began to redden.
We were driving down the slopes, past canyons, the road just wider than a double bed. The wreck of a bus, where it had fallen, then another. I realized how people disappear, like that chap from the faculty. A bit of a lad, he was in the boxing squad. He came here two years ago and nothing, not a trace. People said he must have hitched up with a local girl, seen the absurdity of university, he got a job on a freighter, decided to wander the planet. But a reality was starting to dawn, a queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach. I began to pester myself why I’d come on this trip. Mexico City far away like home, my sunlit room at the Hotel Limón near the Zócalo. But I kept telling myself it would be all right, it was an adventure, I’d have lots of stories. Yet they’d never comprehend. Or believe. If they listened. How could I begin to describe? Would I ever want to see them again? Lulled by the motion of the bus, I dozed, the terrain like a movie, flickering light, clips of Max Ernst geography whenever I opened my eyes.
The bus stopped. I jolted awake, soaking in sweat. The driver laughing. 4.05 p.m. Jungle, everything damp, the metal frame shedding droplets. I had no idea where we were. Two trucks of soldiers, a couple of jeeps. A search, maybe because we were near Honduras or Belize. Everyone relaxed, routine, we milled around while soldiers crawled near the wheels, others rifling through baskets, frisking a couple of men. The soldiers grinning and joking, nothing special. The officer chatting with the driver. They knew one another. The officer commenting about the heat, the rains were late, his brother was having difficulties with the farm.
Then a gun goes off, a long burp of rounds, everybody startled. I glance round, thinking target practice. Four women face down, shot to pieces, gore, bone shards, dripping down the yellow side of the bus. Black rivulets twitching over the fawn dust. A man stumbles falling to his knees moaning. Surrounded by spent cartridges, the soldier looks around shrugging his shoulders, his gun lowered.
The officer’s yelling, Line up, line up and we’re against the hot metal while the soldiers push us. The officer fires into the air, Calm, everyone calm, be calm. Silence, the wind blowing grit, muffled sobbing of the women. I’m thinking, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I cannot fucking believe it, I should never have come. Something on my shoe, I scrape my heal thinking chewing gum, I reach down touching a piece of flesh like fatty pork. Retching, I fling it away, a gun rammed into my spine shoving me against the metal. My bowels move, I feel the turd.
The argument begins. The officer’s voice high pitched, Shoot them, shoot them all, we’ve got to shoot them, we’ve got no choice, we’ll say it’s the rebels, the rebels, we’ve got to shoot them all, they’re just Indians. The other voice, older, quieter, the NCO, No, we can’t, no . . . And the other pleading to shoot, It’s us or them, nobody’ll know, we can make it look like it was the rebels who did it, they’re just Indians, we can make it into our victory . . . The NCO insisting, No, we can’t, we can’t, see the American, the American there, the Yankee? We’ll have big trouble. And it goes on and on, minute after minute.
They depart, we hear them in the distance, the whining voice of the officer, the other, lower, calmer, the old NCO, but we can’t hear the words. The only sound except for someone weeping. I’ve never seen things so clearly. Every crack, every nick in the yellow paint. A Harvester. I think of the Merry Pranksters. I’m wondering who built it, who painted it, who’s been in the bus, how many miles it traveled, the wonderful bus, I’ll always appreciate things from now on, I’ll never take anything for granted again, not even the tiniest thing, every moment. I’ll be good. I don’t believe in God, but I find myself praying. It comes back, the chewing gum. The smell rises from my jeans, I sense the weight.
The officer and the NCO return. Turn around, shouts the officer, All of you, now. I shuffle to face the soldiers, head down. A mystery for the rest of my parents’ lives. A year abroad gone appallingly wrong. Listen, continues the officer. I watch the soldiers, guns leveled, their eyes slits beneath American infantry helmets, the uniforms making them identical because they’re all short and muscular. One word, they’ll fire. Everything sharp, I’ve never seen the sky so bright, the land, unnatural rainbow beauty, I’ve never appreciated.
Listen carefully, the officer stared, This did not happen, this did not take place. Nothing happened today, do you understand? Nothing. You hear? Nothing happened. Don’t even discuss it. If we hear about it, we’ll kill you, we’ll find you, your families, we know who you are. He paused, Now get out of here. The hand holding the revolver shaking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the driver walk to the bus, and start the engine. Everyone filing on board, cowering under the seats. The vehicle pulling away down the narrow dusty yellow road. I peeked at the troops. They had not lowered their guns, a clump of khaki in the distance. Four mounds in the ditch. We rounded a corner, the jungle enveloping us again. I removed my jeans, throwing the soiled shorts, the lumpy turd through the window. I put my jeans back on. I stank, but it was better. Animal sounds of someone choking on grief. Shaking, I lit a cigarette, holding the smoke in my lungs. Constant terror of another roadblock, they’d changed their minds, they’d radioed ahead.
We reached the capital forty minutes later, the rush hour traffic normality dreamlike. Smiling, the driver unloaded luggage in the bus station plaza, tears streaming down his face. Some Indians touched my arm, pulling at my clothes, whispering. A young man pushed a pack of cigarettes into my pocket, his eyes bright with shock and exhaustion. I didn’t want to take it, but he insisted, shouting, In laak, amigo, in laak. They knew I was the reason we were alive. I had become a god. I wandered the streets until I found a hotel. I showered, and I slept. The next day, I went to the cathedral and stayed for a long time awaiting emotions that never emerged. I lit four candles.
Weeks later I was by a bus again. I was on the way back to Mexico, and we’d been stopped at a roadblock. I couldn’t believe it, the odds were impossible. The same officer, staring at me, shaking his head. I watched the stone dark faces of the soldiers lined opposite us, seeking a hint of mercy, humanity, seeing only hard black eyes under the helmets, waiting for an order. The muzzles spat fire, the impact of the bullets thumping into my chest, the pounding of my heart. A knock on the door, Señor, señor, are you alright señor? Drenched in sweat, I moistened my lips, trying to swallow, Yes señora, I replied, Thank you, I’m alright. I sat up, reaching for the mescal. I swallowed a mouthful, another. I drank water and lay back, listening to the city outside the Hotel Limón, dazzling sunlight across the blanket’s rainbow valleys.