This story was first published in the Fall 1997 Faultline, and won first place in the Winter 1997 UCI undergraduate fiction contest.
El Salvador is a country of many disappearances--los desaparecidos. There isn't a word in English. The ones who have disappeared. I of course have known this, as do all the people in el pueblo de Los Castigados, but we prefer not to think about it, filling our lives instead with the things that keep us occupied and make us happy. I am by trade a shoemaker. I have made many shoes. I have done other things, but mostly I have made shoes. The August days are long, but the sun has never seemed so slow to set as it does today. My son is a soldier. Or a guerrilla--one who makes la guerra, the war. I once knew where he was, but today I know nothing of where he, or anyone, is. He was young and played at war--he used to say, "Papa, the revolution is coming, and you will have a house by the sea." Now he sleeps in the hills, carries a rifle, is thin, dirty, unshaven, and spits on the floor. He talks to me like I am a child, "Papa, keep your shoestore. The hills are not for you." "If you only knew how hard it is to make the war, you would be glad for your life in the city." He has been gone since April this time, and I don't think that I will be seeing him again. I am moving like an old man today, but I am barely fifty. Along the hills, out of the sight of the town, people are moving, erasing one camp and finding others, hiding equipment, setting traps, and watching the horizon. There are arrangements around me that are falling to pieces. The signs in the town are small, but they are there. There are fewer sellers of vegetables at the mercado. The blinds are drawn at the Vasquez house; I know Raul is gone. I have not seen the mail delivered today; the neighbors are wondering what is happening. Rodrigo does not meet my eyes when he weighs my meat, but he silently gives me extra meat for free and I wish him well. He has been a good friend. In my shop there are no new orders waiting for me. The tags on the huaraches, boots, sneakers, and women's heels are all in blue ink, none of the orders are in black, none of the prices are secretly dates or phone numbers. Other than these things, nothing is unusual. The children play in the streets, vendors are replacing bottles of gas for my neighbor's kitchens, Pepito Valencia lies sprawled in the sun on my corner like he always is; his bottle of pulque beside him. The sounds outdoors are loud and strong like they always are. I know these sounds--they are the life of my town, the place where I was born, and where I live. In the center of town is the chapel, La Capilla de San Bartolomeo, where I go. Today I ask the priest to absolve me, but I do not know what his absolution is worth, because I have not confessed all my sins. The federales know that the priests hear many things, so there are some things that it is better the priest does not know. I light candles and pray for the souls of my loved ones. People in the town know that there is fighting, but it is not our war. Sometimes we hear gunfire in the distance, but not often. People know that the hills are dangerous--if you go, you may find the body of a soldier, rotted by the sun, or find one of the trails in the jungles that spread from camps, watched by men in trees with rifles and radios, lined by hand grenades tied to wires across the paths. The signs in the town mean that they are not at these places any longer, and nobody knows where they have gone. Not even the people who live in the hillsides, growing marijuana and coca, know. They only know where they should not go, and they stay away. Usually the guerrillas and the federales spend their time in their own places--eating, drinking, making plans, and sleeping. Sometimes they fight. Then arrests are made, camps are betrayed, and the helicopters come in like thunderstorms, strafing, with napalm and carpet bombs to shake the earth and level the forests. Sometimes the federales find nothing, an abandoned camp, packed earth among false wooden shelters and refuse. Sometimes a helicopter is shot down and litters the hillsides with its wreckage. Other times they find people and kill them in a rain of fire, their bodies left strewn among the twisted and burning trees for others to find, a warning. I am one of those people who might betray the camps. I am left here, alone, because of what I might say, though none of what I know is true anymore. The desaparecidos go out like fireflies, or like pebbles shaken in a sifter--some stay, others fall, and are gone. There is nothing where they once were, and you can hardly tell by looking at the remaining ones that they were ever there. The federales have only two ways. They can come into the town like a dust storm, in cavalcades of loud transport trucks and jeeps carrying machine guns, driving through our stop signs and taking whatever they want. You can hear them four or five streets over; people shut up their windows and close their doors. This is not so dangerous; they take what they want and go. It is more dangerous when they come quietly, in the night, like animals crouched low in the bushes. You hear a woman crying on the telephone to her brother--Jorge is gone, dragged to a jeep that drove away into the night, no papers, no place to reach him or visit, no phone calls. They go, and nobody ever sees them again. I am different from many people here; I listen to the radio at night, sometimes to broadcasts in English from Guatemala. I know about the desaparecidos. There are more than many people think. They might be dead, or in prisons, but nobody knows. They are just--disappeared. So I am going there. Maybe I will not die when I go, but how can I know? Some return, though I have never heard where they were taken or what happened to them. Victor Consejo was taken once and six months later, someone found him in Las Cruces, outside of San Salvador, begging. He did not know who he was. His wife cares for him, running his business. I have never seen him come out of his house. They had put the blade of a machete between his fingers, one by one, and cut him to the wrist. He has no hands, just long and useless fingers. He was a cabinetmaker. He made my benches, and the frame around my door. The basement underneath my shop is cool and sweet, smelling of leather and soap. It is where I work in the afternoons when it is too hot to be in the store; I close the front door and go down the stairs. It seems empty to me now, but only because behind the benches, among the piles of leather, canvas, buckles and straps and tire rubber, I know where the guns used to be. They would come in long, heavy boxes, with markings in Russian, English, or sometimes Chinese, names like Galil, Kalashnikov, Ingram, and Makarov, hidden within shipments of huaraches, the popular shoe, from the inexpensive fabrication places in the cities. I would keep them and watch the signs in the town, the helicopters over the hills, until I knew that the way was clear for someone to come for them. I would call the phone number on the repair slip, and the next evening people would come for the boxes, people with worn faces and grimy fingernails, loading them into their trucks. If the "Abierto" or "Cerrado" sign was gone from my window, it meant for them not to come. The guns would come when I got a repair order with an old district code on it, from the old government. If I repaired the shoes, it meant I would take the guns. There are still two boxes under the bench. When the people were here three weeks ago they could only take as many as would fit underneath the boards in their truck. When the federales come, they will certainly find them. All the people have pulled away from me. There were no stamps waiting for me this Sunday on my windowsill. They will be here tonight, and I will be among the ones who are gone. It is good that I do not know where my son is. I have not gone to the mercado to ask people where Raul has gone; I have not called any of the old numbers, asking for explanations, to be hidden or demanding to be taken in. I am certain there would be nobody there. I will confess, I am sure. How can I help it? It is good that I don't know these things. But I still feel the cold in my stomach. I know enough about these things to know that I will confess. Everyone confesses in the end. The stories of people who never tell are all false. When you are under the knife, or you have been there for a month, you will tell everything and wish you had more to tell. You confess the truth, even, though a lie would do just as well, but because you are human and because you cannot help yourself, you tell the truth, and it makes no difference. It does not help you to confess. I must stay away from the truth because soon I will wish with all my heart I could say something to lead them to my son, to the names on the repair slips, or the people on the phone. I will beg for the chance to tell. Even now I want to know. I know I am to go. The signs are evident. I think that the guns I have hidden over the years have killed many people. Perhaps it is fair that I die. How can I know? Wars are like the tides of the ocean, or like the frost that comes early, killing crops, leaving people to die. There is nothing one can do. Maybe it will be good to confess. This afternoon I have made my prayers to Santa Maria Magdalena, intercessor for sinners. I think that if I had been born in a different place, maybe I would be a federal. Maybe I would torture people instead of making shoes and hiding guns. I need to let go of my sin, as I am no longer of this world. The afternoon is waning, and the evening is here. I have lit my last candles. Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, los pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. The day is gone and the night is coming.