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By Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Curbstone Press Copyright © 2009 Lyn Miller-Lachmann
All rights reserved.
October 23, 1980
A crash, followed by a scream, jarred him from a deep sleep.
It was his mother's scream. Daniel threw back the covers and sat up straight.
She screamed again. Now fully awake, he heard strange voices. And footsteps that were neither hers nor his father's.
"Where is he?" the stranger demanded.
Where is who?
"He's not here," she said. "Please don't wake the children."
"Liar!" the man shouted. The sound of a slap made Daniel tremble. He didn't know whether to bury himself under the covers or get out of bed to defend his mother. Muffled sobbing rose from the living room. In the apartment on the other side of his bedroom wall, a baby began to wail.
Hugging himself to stop his shaking, he tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack.
The room seemed filled with soldiers, men dressed in khaki uniforms with black ski masks covering their faces. He counted four. Each wore a holster on his belt and carried a machine gun. A real gun, the kind that could kill. The men surrounded his mother, small and scared in her nightgown. Her cheek was bright red.
"Search the place," the tallest one commanded.
A fat soldier came toward Daniel's room. Daniel shrank against the wall behind the door. In an instant the door came apart, and a wood panel smacked his forehead. He yelped in pain.
"I got him!" the soldier shouted.
Rough hands seized Daniel by his pajamas and dragged him into the light.
"Damn! It's his kid!"
Daniel blinked rapidly and tried to cover his eyes with his right hand, but the tall soldier grabbed both his wrists and jerked them behind his back. His feet were kicked out, and he landed on the rug with a dull thud that knocked the breath from him. Wool bristles scraped his cheek. A small, cold, hard object pressed against the side of his head. He smelled grease mixed with garlic.
"You tell us where he is, or we blow the brat away."
For a long moment his mother said nothing.
Mamá, are they really going to kill me?
The baby wasn't crying anymore. In the total silence, Daniel heard a click.
"The ... the window," she stammered.
The soldier removed the pistol from the side of Daniel's head and stood. Daniel lay on the floor, struggling to catch his breath. Without his glasses, he could not read the insignia on the man's shoulder patch, but he guessed CNI, the secret police. The man lifted his walkie-talkie from his belt and gave a rapid-fire command. "Close up all the exits to the courtyard. He climbed out the back window."
Daniel imagined the soldiers running swiftly and silently to their posts, just like in the police shows on TV.
But they were after his father. And his father wasn't a criminal.
His father drove a taxi. That was all Daniel knew about his work. He took Daniel and his sister, Cristina, to school in the beat-up green colectivo every morning and came home every night by suppertime.
Lying on the living room rug, he visualized his father. Tall, with gold wire-rim glasses, wavy red-brown hair, and a mustache and beard. Large gentle hands and strong arms. Even now that Daniel was eleven, almost twelve, his father could still lift him onto his shoulders to watch a fútbol game.
Maybe he can get away from them. If I hadn't made noise ... If I hadn't gotten out of bed ... Tears filled Daniel's eyes, and he squeezed them shut.
The shattered door to the apartment swung open and slammed against the wall.
"He's ours, boss."
Daniel pulled himself up. In the seconds before one of the other soldiers pushed him down again, he saw three men with helmets and no masks drag his father inside. His father wore a rumpled white shirt and black pants. It looked as if he had put them on in a hurry.
"Marcelo!" Daniel's mother screamed.
Daniel heard the thud of a fist against a body, followed by a harsh grunt.
Someone grabbed Daniel by the hair and jerked his head back. He looked up into the covered face of the tall one. The boss. The man's eyes were black and terrifying in the shadow, and his mouth, a little round hole cut out of the mask, moved like the mouth of a robot.
"Boy, you watch this," he snarled. "This is what happens to communists."
The helmeted soldiers left. The tall man crouched and ground his knee into Daniel's shoulder blades. Rough hands in his hair twisted his head back. The other three masked men pounced on Daniel's father, aiming blows at his head and body. His glasses flew off and were crushed beneath a black boot. He fell to his knees. Blood ran down his face into his beard.
Daniel closed his eyes and tried to shut out the sound of his father coughing and choking, horrible gasps. They're beating the life out of Papá. Someone ... make them stop. When Daniel opened his eyes again, his father was on his hands and knees. A soldier's boot struck the side of his head. He flopped onto his back and lay motionless.
"Let's get him out of here."
They had brought a giant canvas sack, like the equipment bag for the fútbol team, only bigger. Two soldiers rolled Daniel's father into a ball, and a third pushed him in.
Their hands bloody, the three soldiers hoisted the bag and carried it through the door. Daniel strained to see if there was any movement in the bag, or if his father was already dead. The leader stood, grabbed Daniel by the front of his pajama shirt, and dragged him to his knees.
"You learn your lesson, boy?"
Daniel said nothing.
The man shook him and shouted, "You answer me, you little bastard!"
Daniel nodded quickly.
"Good," the man said. "Because we live in a great country. To keep it that way, we have to get rid of subversives. Or they'll take over and create chaos. Or another Cuba." He paused, lips pressed together in the hole cut out of the black mask. His arm dropped to his side. "Oh, what the hell. You're just some commie's stupid kid." He spat onto the carpet, shouldered his rifle, and followed the others out of the apartment.
Daniel thought he would never get up from the floor, but he found himself standing as soon as the soldiers were gone. He picked up the twisted wire frames of his father's glasses. His mother hugged him.
"I'm sorry, Mamá," he mumbled over and over.
"It wasn't you. They would have found him anyway."
"Will they kill him?"
"No, Danielito. They're just taking him to the police station to answer some questions. He'll be home soon."
Daniel knew she was lying. "Did he commit some kind of crime?"
She shook her head and answered, her voice steady, "No, he didn't. He wasn't the one who committed the crimes."
Daniel heard a whimper from his sister's bedroom. His mother went inside and came out clutching seven-year-old Cristina's hand. Tina sucked her other thumb, a ragged doll pressed to her chest.
Salty tears had dried on his mother's cheeks. She held him and his sister tightly. Her hair was rumpled, and her face seemed suddenly older.
Daniel thought as hard as he could. If he thought about it hard enough, maybe he could make the day go away. His father would be back with them as if nothing had happened.
Take this day away, he implored God. His father had told him there was no God, but he couldn't think of anyone else who had the authority to take back a day.CHAPTER 2
Marcelo knew only what the other prisoners told him. In the third year of a nineteen-year sentence, he awakened one day unable to move. Unable even to speak, his tongue a huge cotton plug in his mouth.
The compañeros' version too was sketchy, incomplete. Guards had taken him downstairs to the commander on a Sunday morning. The compañeros recalled it was Sunday, for the doctors, the ones who kept the prisoners alive so they could be tortured another day, were gone to church. He was dragged back to the cell the next day — naked, unconscious, covered in filth, bleeding from his nose and right ear.
Several hours later he had a seizure. Guards took him away again.
* * *
He awoke in a bed, under white sheets in a white room. A uniformed man with a machine gun stood over him.
Where am I? A question perfectly formed in his mind came out as a long, indistinct wail.
"Shut up, you," the armed man snarled.
Who are you?
"Jué, his eyes are open." The man disappeared from Marcelo's field of vision. After a few moments, Marcelo heard the dialing of a telephone, then, "Boss, you won't believe it. I think he's coming to."
"Yeah, I thought we had a vegetable on our hands."
"So what do you want me to do?"
There was a click, like a cigarette lighter flicked open.
"And if he asks questions?"
* * *
"You stupid huevón, you fell down the stairs. Yeah, that's how it happened. Did you want to kill yourself?"
"Screw you," Marcelo mumbled.
"I bet that's it, Aguilar. You talk big, but you're a coward like the rest of them."
Light shone hot in his face. His vision blurred, and at the periphery of his left eye there was only darkness.
"Now tell us who took those letters out."
"I don't remember."
He sensed impact against his face, but on the numb left side. His right jaw started to ache in delayed reaction to the blow.
"Then tell us what you do remember."
* * *
His green taxi carried more than passengers. It carried the truth on slips of paper that he committed to memory, then swallowed. Leaflets blown by the wind through the poblaciones told the victims' stories and named their murderers and torturers. Word spread of the taxi's driver, a former journalist, who wrote the leaflets and dropped them off where the wind would take them to the places they needed to go.
Once in prison Marcelo had a way of seeing through blindfolds. And the last name he remembered before everything went blank was Commander Alberto Estrada.
* * *
"How low can those fascists go? Torturing a crippled man," the compañero named Jaime said.
Pain twisted Marcelo's body. This time, he was sure they'd cracked a couple of ribs. With each breath he almost passed out.
Jaime, who'd been a medical student on the outside, started to work Marcelo's paralyzed left leg. Marcelo's back muscles seized up and he screamed.
"Damn it, you're worse than the guards!" Marcelo could speak by now, but slurred his words as if drunk.
"I have to do this if you want to walk again. That hospital didn't do a thing, just threw you back here."
"Can you wait until tomorrow?"
"You'll be just as sore tomorrow."
* * *
Over time the compañeros brought him back. If it weren't for them moving his paralyzed limbs and teaching him to speak again, he might as well have thrown himself down the stairs like the guards said he'd done in the first place. When he finally began to walk, he swung his left leg out, foot dragging, and he often had to grab the wall, cell bars, or furniture for support. The arm remained weak and clumsy. If he didn't fall asleep holding something in his left hand, he would awaken with the fingers curled and digging into his palm. But from the day he regained consciousness forward, his memory remained intact, and he pledged never to forget those who saved him.
* * *
The interrogators wanted to know about Commander Estrada. The hole in Marcelo's memory cost him cracked ribs, a couple of broken teeth, a half- dozen encounters with the electrified metal bed frame, cigarette burns, and solitary confinement. Solitary was the worst.
After the beating, they dumped him into a box, one and a half meters long and less than a meter wide so he couldn't lie down. There was no one to help him stretch his paralyzed side, which contracted in agonizing spasms. The solitary cell had no windows; it was as if he lived in an endless night. He told time by the length of his matted, filthy hair and beard.
Three men took turns guarding the cells. He couldn't see them but their voices were distinct. The guards took bets on who would be the first of the solitary prisoners to die. One had his money on Marcelo, and every time Marcelo tried to sleep, the guard woke him and asked, "Aren't you dead yet, Aguilar?"
"Then will you hurry up and die? My daughter's birthday is coming up soon, and I want to collect my pesos so I can buy her a new skirt."
Another guard would warn him of the next interrogation. It took away the shock, but he spent the time until then shaking and sweating, reliving the last ordeal.
"Why don't you just tell Commander Gonzales what he wants? Then you'll be out of here."
"Even if I could I wouldn't."
"He's getting really mad, I tell you. If you don't confess this time, he's going to crack the other side of your head against the wall."
Marcelo ran his good hand along the side of his head, where the hair had once been shaved but was now just as long and tangled as the rest. He felt the part of his skull that had caved in, and the realization came to him that the guard was telling the truth. From his days as a journalist he knew the damage didn't come from a fall down the stairs, which would have left evidence of multiple impacts.
More than a year of confusion cleared. His stomach burned with rage. "Did you see it?"
"No. I heard about it. And I heard he's ready to do it again."
"Then I won't be able to confess, because I won't be able to speak at all."
"You know, Commander Estrada was a friend of mine. He used to invite us guards to his home for a picnic once a year. When my wife got sick and I had her hospital bills, he paid the school fees for my kids. Did it ever occur to any of you communist bastards that he had a wife and three kids and another one on the way?"
"Did it ever occur to you that the thousands of people you murdered had mothers or wives or children who wept for them, too?"
"I hope Commander Gonzales kills you so I don't have to listen to your crap."
It was the second time the guard had mentioned this commander's surname. Marcelo pushed on, as if programmed. "Carlos Gonzales?"He really had no idea, but the name Carlos came to him.
"And why are you telling me his name if you think I had anything to do with whatever happened to Commander Estrada?"
"Because I don't expect you to get out of here alive."
* * *
"We already have a confession from one of the other prisoners that you ordered the killing of Commander Estrada. Your pain will end if you plead guilty."
For a moment Marcelo considered who might have betrayed him. But that was their tactic, to claim that a compañero had betrayed a person to sow discord among the prisoners. And people often broke under torture or under the influence of truth serum.
"My pain will end because you'll execute me for a crime I didn't commit."
"Yes, it's a capital crime. You can choose to die with pain, or without pain."
Marcelo silently repeated the commander's name, so he wouldn't forget it even if the son of a whore bashed in the other side of his head.
"I'll die like a man."
* * *
They didn't torture him to death that day. And the next time a guard came to get him, it was to release him from solitary. When he returned to the cell he shared with the compañeros, a bundle of letters was waiting for him. Two years' worth of letters from Victoria, who after his arrest had taken their children to the United States. How ironic, he thought, that they would end up there, in the home of the CIA that had installed the dictatorship. The postmark read Madison, Wisconsin. She wrote about the children, her graduate studies in sociology, and her meetings with people to secure his release. Commander Gonzales sent down pens, paper, and instructions for him to write her back: "Write that you are in good health and being treated well."
"And if I don't?" he asked the guard.
The guard shrugged. "Just write what he said."
"I'm not going to write a lie."
The guard took the pens and paper away.
* * *
His time in solitary set back his rehabilitation, and when he returned to his cell he could no longer walk unaided. Another compañero, Pablo, rigged up a cane from a broken table leg he'd pilfered from the interrogation room. Even so, Marcelo stumbled often and in one fall broke the wrist of his weak arm. He still wore the plaster cast, which had turned yellowish gray from the filthy cell, the day Commander Gonzales arrived with three guards.
"Aguilar," the commander bellowed.
"Here." Marcelo remained on his back on the cement floor, pressing his feet to the wall, an exercise to strengthen his bad leg.
"Stand and salute."
Jaime and Pablo, who had been playing chess, helped him up. He gave Gonzales a half-assed salute.
Gonzales signaled to one of the guards, who unhooked his keys from his belt and unlocked the door. The guard slid the door open. The sound of metal against metal echoed in the cavernous space.
The commander beckoned Marcelo forward. "Let's go. Your sister has come to pick you up. You have seventy-two hours to leave the country."CHAPTER 3
February 8, 1986
Papá's plane is late. Mamá steps up to the window in front of the empty jetway, her nose almost touching the glass. I run my finger along the edge of the leaflet I've stuffed in my coat pocket and stare beyond the runway to the shimmering snowbanks that cover the fields.
While Mamá's trying to teleport the plane to O'Hare, I slip the leaflet out and unfold it. I pulled it off a kiosk on the UW campus this afternoon so I can recognize Papá when he steps off the plane. "CHILEAN POLITICAL PRISONER," it reads. Below is the picture the way I remember him, with gold-rim glasses, wavy hair, and beard. In the picture, my father is smiling.
Excerpted from Gringolandia by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Copyright © 2009 Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Excerpted by permission of Curbstone Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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