The River Alcala was a perfect escape route. An isolated tributary off a main branch of the Cortez, its water was calm, glassy. The only commotion was the occasional minnow jumping high to catch a wayward mosquito. It was too far out in the middle of nothing to justify patrols and searchlights. Even the human traffickers had taken a pass on this isolated stretch of nowhere.
Which made it the perfect place for Gabriel Cardenas to slide his primitive dugout canoe into the water.
It glided out, making easy ripples on the surface. When the boat began to slow to a stop, Gabriel reached under a tarp, careful not to disturb his restless wife, Sienna heavy with child, and his two year old son, Roberto, and began a steady paddling motion that quickly brought the boat to the center of the river and well on its way to the other side.
Gabriel’s mind wandered as he moved through the moonlit night.
The decision to take to the waters had been a last resort. No money. No job. A cardboard packing crate their only shelter. He was not too proud a man to ask for charity…if such a thing as charity even existed anymore. Recyclables and the few pesos they might bring had become the occupation of choice for anyone who could not manage even the worst of sub-human wages. But he had already seen enough battles to the death over a few empty beer cans to realize it was time to get out of that life.
If he had been alone, he would have made this attempt a long time ago. But there had been Sienna. And the boy. His worst nightmares were the stories he had heard about the fates of families left behind with a promise that ‘I will send for you.’ Finally, with another child on the way, Gabriel decided that it was time to take his family and make the run for freedom.
The boat dipped slightly into the foam. Gabriel looked out into the night and the shoreline mere yards away. The silence deafening; broken suddenly by the sound of Gabriel’s boat sliding its way through a patch of wet sand and up onto the shore.
He moved to help Sienna to her feet and guided her uneasily to solid ground. Roberto opened his eyes at his father’s touch and stretched as he joined his mother.
Gabriel looked off into the forest of trees that had risen thick and dark. It would not be easy. They had no light. What little water they had would not last the night. They had eaten the last of the food before they reached the river. It was a Last Supper for those who had run out of options. But if the stories had been true, the other side of this forest would reveal a new life, a better life.
With Sienna’s hand in his and Roberto’s hand in the other, Gabriel marched them slowly into the woods. The minutes seemingly turned into hours. Sienna stumbled with regularity and it was not long before Roberto began complaining about how hungry he was. Gabriel knew it would be this way and did his best to encourage them…
To just take one step at a time.
Suddenly a beam of light came shining out of the woods ahead of them. Gabriel tensed and instinctively put himself between his family and whatever was up ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, the tendrils of a monstrous clinging something pushed aside and a flashlight beam burst into the clearing. Followed by a gringo…hot, sweaty and dazed.
The man took one look at Gabriel and pulled a gun.
Gabriel lapsed into complete and utter panic. He knew no English and so his best defense was to jump up and down, wave his arms and point to his cowering , very pregnant wife and child. After a moment’s hesitation, the man sensed no threat and, perhaps, a kindred spirit and slowly lowered his gun. Gabriel heaved an audible sigh of relief.
The man retreated back into the brush and emerged moments later with a woman carrying a bundle that betrayed itself as a baby with whimpers and a soft cry. The two men continued to stare, not knowing what to do or say. The man slowly went to a seated position, his woman immediately joined him, grasping tightly at his arm. Gabriel motioned his family to do likewise.
“American,” choked out the man.
Gabriel instinctively looked over his shoulder, pointed and then looked back at the man. After a moment…
“Mexico?”, asked the man.
Then they sat silent. Looking but not speaking. The man glanced at Sienna and Roberto. He knew what that look meant. He turned to the woman. She looked sad but nodded yes. The man reached into a back pack and pulled out two slices of bread and handed them to Gabriel. Gabriel said “Gracious” and handed the bread to his wife and son. The staring between the two men continued.
“America,” the man finally spit it out. “No jobs. No money. Not a good place.”
Gabriel did not understand what the man was saying. But he nodded in agreement, sensing the man was telling him something important.
The man continued to unburden himself, feeling relief at talking to somebody who did not understand a word he was saying and, most importantly, would not judge him. “Lousy government. Bad schools. God! What I wouldn’t give for a fucking break in this life!”
The woman at his arms broke into soft sobbing. The bundle in her arms sensed her torment and began to wail. The man began to cry uncontrollably. Gabriel could only watch. He sensed the torment and wished there was something he could do or say. The man finally got himself under control. He was now angry, defiant.
“Oh and here’s the clincher. The water’s bad! The food’s bad! The air is bad! The reactor’s leak! And the result is this…”
The man reached for the bundle in his woman’s arms. She instinctively pulled back. “Babe he has to know! He’s coming to America! He has to know!”
The woman sadly relented and handed the baby to the man. He slowly pulled back the blanket and revealed an infant with bright eyes, black curly hair and, for the moment, a bright baby smile. The man smiled back at the child and slowly pulled the blanket all the way down…
To show the webbed feet and the tail.
Gabriel’s face went ashen. Sienna put her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream.
The man understood their reaction. “He’s still our child. He can still have a normal life. If we can only find a place where life is normal.”
The two men and their families rose. The man gave Gabriel a firm handshake and a hug. Gabriel did not know what to do. So he pointed again in the direction they had come from. He pantomimed that there was a boat for them at the shoreline.
“Mexico,” stammered Gabriel. “Mexico.”
“America,” sighed the man. “Good luck.”
© Marc Shapiro