El Desaparecido

Dan Young (dany@kuci.org)

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

   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.

(C) Copyright 1995 Dan Young.
All rights reserved by the author.