“This is what he paints at school.” A pair of teachers walked all the way from town to show the boy’s mother.
“He says they are drawings of his father’s body, being eaten by its soul.”
“He says your husband is deceased. Our sympathies are with you, madam.”
My body? the father asked her. Yes. And does it look like me? Yes, it looks very much like you.
“I’m sorry,” she told them. “I will talk to the boy about it.”
The boy was 12 years old when he started painting his visions on the bedroom wall, and on the drawing paper they provided for him at the schoolroom in town. For the rest of his life, whatever he drew, or did, or felt, he explained it the same way: “This is the body of my father, being eaten by its soul.”
The painting they brought to the house to show his mother looked very much like a grown man would look, in shock, when he’s cut his own hand off working in the field but he believes he’ll survive. Hustling into the house for help, his mouth a little o. “I need to drive into town” was the title the boy wrote across the bottom of the painting, in small black letters. In the background lay a dark hand, severed, with long green blades of grass growing up around it, tall and wild and unmowed.
The blades of grass represent your soul, his mother explained to the father.
At 14, the boy started sleeping outside in the family garden on summer nights. His long legs curled up around the vegetables. His black hair reflected the moonlight. His arms, newly-muscled and dark, arranged themselves under his head like river rocks covered in fine moss, combed in one direction by the current. He claimed he could hear the snails moving through the lettuce rows, and the fruit stretching into its skin. He claimed he could hear the hum of the universe speaking inside his head.
“How do you sleep, hearing all of that?” his mother asked him. She still had a young woman’s body, or, better to say, she had one again, having thinned out with hunger after the death of her husband.
“If I fall asleep at night, while the universe is speaking to me, I miss so much of what is true in the world,” the boy told his mother.
He napped instead for long periods in the afternoon heat on a hammock strung between two old mango trees. Waking slowly from his dreams, he started to draw what he remembered of them. Once he remembered his father pulling green fruit from the trees. Once he remembered his father burying his own hands in the soil to seed them again.
“It’s time to bring in the berry crop,” his mother told him.
Then the bean crop. The tomatoes. The corn. The flowers for drying into tea and selling in town.
When his mother looked at the drawings he had done, she saw the butterflies of her own heart, waiting under eaves in the rain.
“How is this about your summer nights in the garden?” she asked him.
“The rain is desire,” he said, “and the butterfly represents my father’s body being eaten by its soul.”
It was then he caught the eye of the girl, his own age, who lived on the larger property uphill from theirs. Her family bred horses and he watched her working arm-deep in desire every morning. She walked over to the fence to talk to him, a colt-ish kick to her step, her long-lashed eyes rimmed with clouds reflected through the trees.
“Boys don’t impress me much,” she told him straight out, pushing her sleeves up her arms to the elbow, still glistening with mare.
“I don’t suppose they do,” he said.
She pushed her sleeves higher still.
“Your hair is pretty, like the horses,” he told her. He knew she loved her horses more than anything else, or anyone.
She smiled a pretty smile then. “I see what you are, behind that face,” she said.
“I’m a painter, or sometimes I am. Since my father died.” He nodded toward his mother’s house.
“Could you do a painting of me?” she asked.
“Yes. It will be about my father, though.”
She knew all about his father, and what had happened. “It’s a good place to start,” she said.
Is the girl beautiful? the boy’s father asked. Yes, like I was, at her age. I don’t suppose—at fourteen—he asked. No, but love is important even then.
“Where do you see me in the painting?” the girl asked.
“In these two trees,” he said, pointing to the space between them, “and here, in the water collecting on the backs of the stones.” He directed her hand to the water, where bright clouds swam under the trees.
“Yes, I see,” her eyes answered.
“In this one,” he explained later, “you are the stone arch, waiting for the rain.”
She laid her elbows on his shoulders then and interlaced her fingers behind his head. “It’s time,” she said, pressing her warm lips like a spring rain against his, “to do a painting of us together,” she kissed him again, “that looks exactly,” kissing him, “as we look in real life.” She drew his body into hers and thought of stallions, an embarrassment for the boy, and he didn’t speak to her for a long time afterward, until foaling season was over, and then he started work on the painting that looked exactly the way they looked in real life.
His first attempt was a poor result and he wouldn’t show her the canvas. “My hands were shaking badly,” he told her.
“We share our bad attempts,” she said, thinking again of her horses.
“I can’t be sure some days if you are real,” he said.
Then she showed him, she was real.
Neither of them are doing their work, the mother complained to his father. Our families can’t afford this love. We will starve. No, he agreed, This is where it ends. There is too much work to do for love to grow in this country of ours.
“Let our families die!” the boy and the girl agreed. “We will leave for the city tomorrow.”
Thunderheads gathered over the green mountains every afternoon into a sure rainstorm, and yet they moved off to other valleys before the rain fell. The truth about life is, most of our tomorrows belong somewhere else.
Having no money left, the boy and his mother moved into the city alone.
“To live in the city,” they were told, “you must be people who are known to the State.” They could not prove who they were, in particular. However, the boy was nearing the age when he could be drafted into the military, and so the government moved his application along, issuing identification cards and proof of citizenship to both the boy and his mother. The woman became Isabel Maria Sanchez and her son became Santiago Sebastian Romano Sanchez, with one year added to his age, to expedite the matter. Leaving less than 18 months of boyhood for him to secure his mother’s survival.
That night, he killed a dog in an alley, because they could find no other food, and then he killed the man who came at them with a knife over the loss of his dog. The man was very drunk and could hardly stand up to see who he was attacking, and so it was easy enough to slit his throat with his own weapon. The cooked meat of the dog tasted surprisingly good, as meat goes. The boy found at night he could no longer hear the universe inside his head. He could only hear the city, angry with sirens and pulsing with music from the windows of the dance clubs and the tenements of the neighborhood.
When the police came along asking about the body of the man in the alley, no one could tell them what happened, and they removed the body from the alley as one removes an appliance illegally dumped in a ravine.
Was it necessary to kill the man? the boy’s father asked. Who is to say, his mother thought. Some things you end if you can, or they only get worse. And some things grow worse no matter what you do.
Santiago kept the knife he had used to kill the man and life became easier from then on. They moved into one of the tenements that had an empty room. DeMarco, a local criminal with a gentle side to him and a violent side, ran the floor and kept order up and down the hallway. He had a round face with a history of scars drawn across it, raised like welding joints, like an iron ball mended after a series of bad fractures. He had a chest as wide as a doorway.
His eyes fell quickly on Santiago’s mother and she began spending her nights down the hall in his room, leaving Santiago alone to draw new pictures onto his walls with charcoal, mostly of the life he remembered in the valleys among the green mountains where he grew up with the girl and her horses. As he ran out of room to draw, the grass blades grew thicker and the girl’s hair grew longer until they overwhelmed the scene and it disappeared from his life.
Isabel, too, found she could no longer hear the boy’s father when he came to ask her the questions he loved to ask. It was then that young Santiago received his letter from the government, claiming him for military service.
“Do you think you can kill a man?” DeMarco asked him.
“I’ve killed a man already.”
“He was a drunk. He had nothing to fight for, but what you say is true, you have made a good start for yourself.”
They were sitting alone in DeMarco’s kitchen the night before Santiago was to leave. No matter how great or small the man, Santiago thought, his kitchen has a wooden table and a wooden chair for a guest to sit.
“Also remember, when you are in the army, this building here is of no concern to you,” DeMarco said.
“Yes, of course.”
They stood up and embraced roughly, chest to chest. “Good luck! Our nation is a great nation!”
“Yes. Except for this building. As you have said.”
With a fierce look in their eyes, they parted.
He said goodbye to his mother, knowing he would not see her again. “We are all together in the end,” he told her. After he was gone, she cried to herself in her room for three days and then she moved in with DeMarco to live the rest of her life.
It wasn’t easy at first becoming a soldier, but once Santiago reconciled himself with his fate, he found it as tolerable as any other fate. He learned how to drive a vehicle and how to use a number of automatic weapons. He met boys like himself, even younger, and they took up smoking cigarettes. They were all from the valleys in the green mountains, and they all had a story, it seemed, of a girl who rode horses.
He was assigned to keep peace along the roads leading to the capital city far to the north. Rebels tried to disrupt shipments of drugs and other contraband that the army had first seized from them but then continued to move along to the same destination. Santiago found he had no trouble killing the rebels when they attacked. He imagined they were drunk and attacking his mother, or they owned a good dog worth eating, and his automatic rifle danced its bullets into their lives. They ran, or they died in the road, or they fought back and then they died in the road. He imagined at some point he would die in the road, too, but he would not be alive to see it, in the end, so it wouldn’t really happen. It would be part of someone else’s life, not his own.
As time went on, they pushed the rebels farther into the hills, and tactics changed. The rebels had to resort to atrocity, and they started attacking civilians, especially ranchers with livestock and horses, partly to feed themselves and partly to exact revenge on the rich for being rich.
The army in turn attacked civilians who harbored the rebels, and he watched his own men as they raped the women they found alive in the houses. Nothing he could do made them stop. They were living in a world within a world. They didn’t know anymore why they were there.
One day, Santiago realized he and his men were driving their trucks along the same valley where he had been raised. The ranchers’ homes in the hills were smoldering with fires and the air smelled of cooked meat and rancid bodies floating in pond water. They came to what had been his parents’ house and the garden where he’d slept in the summer. The small white house was still standing but it was ransacked and empty. Windows had been shot out, making it a small fortress for conducting a last stand against a larger enemy.
He stepped inside and found nothing left of the home he knew. Rebels had been living there, and they had burned the furniture little by little for cooking fires. They had used the garden as a mass grave to bury the family that had lived there. In his old bedroom, he could still make out the lines of his drawings on the walls, and hidden in the rafters he found a painting of a stone arch, waiting for the rain.
He took one of the men with him to the house on the uphill property. Rebels had stolen the family’s horses and set the roof of the house on fire. It had collapsed but the walls still stood around it. Inside, they found the family slaughtered. The girl he knew as a child was lying there on the floor, a bruised doll, a young and beautiful woman undressed and raped and twisted into a corner, her hair as pretty as the horses, her eyes wide open and long-lashed, reflecting bright clouds for him where the roof of the house had been.
“Get the other men,” he said. “We’ll bury these people in the yard.”
Left alone, he held her bloodless body in his hands, and then he closed her eyes for good. “All of us have done this to you,” he said.
When the men were finished digging a mass grave in the yard, he told them to place the bodies of the girl’s family in it. When they were finished, he turned his weapon on them and one by one they quickly fell into the hole alongside the family. He placed his proof of identification on one of the dead soldiers, and he threw the man’s correct identification down a well. Then he worked the rest of the afternoon to cover the site with soil and debris. He changed into clothing he found in a bedroom that had belonged to the girl’s father. Dressed as a rich man, he walked away into the green mountains, once again a person unknown to the State.
He thought about his own men, how easily they had fallen into the grave. How much of myself can I lose and still be myself at all? he thought. I must find hope again, somewhere in these hills.
He had buried all hope with his men.
Three days of walking into the green mountains tore his clothes nearly from his back and brought him to a place where no one lived, too rugged for farming or livestock, too remote to service a village. Too much rain. This is where the thunderheads came to release their gift, returning it by swift river to the valleys below.
He decided, if anyone asked him now, he would have no name.
After a long time, a wild pig ambled out of the wet trees and he shot it with his weapon. He roasted it over a small fire, leg by leg, and ate his first food in three days. Through the smoke of the fire, he watched the trees for other signs of life, and then, as if he could conjure a person with his own imagination, a young woman wearing rags and a wary look emerged from the wet branches, like fruit stretching into its own skin at night in the garden of his childhood.
She walked carefully toward him. He was sitting with his weapon across his lap as he ate. He set it on the ground and her shoulders relaxed a degree. She stood in front of him, a simple woman whose face had been beautiful once, but now it wore a bruised look of desperation. One of her eyes no longer tracked straight ahead.
“I will sleep with you, for food,” she said.
He looked at her to understand, but she had fixed her gaze on the ground in front of him.
“Do you have any cigarettes?” he asked.
She looked up for a moment, to read his face. “No,” she said.
“I’ve never slept with a woman,” he told her, “but I would like to.”
“I have a son hiding in the trees and he needs to eat,” she said.
“Let’s all eat, then, and later we can talk about sleeping or not sleeping.”
The boy stepped out from behind a tree when his mother whistled for him. He was six or seven years old and wasting away. His eyes were wild like his mother’s with uncertainty, and he looked straight through the man. Who knew what visions these two refugees had locked inside their heads? The man felt his father’s soul stirring again in his heart. He could see his mother’s face in the smoke of the fire. Later, using the burned end of a branch, cooled by the rain, he drew the boy and his mother on his own chest. He held out his arm for the boy.
“Come and sit here,” he said. “We are all together now.”