“Define,” says our dauntless tour guide, “vaporized.”
“You know,” I tell him. “As in, there one minute, gone the next. As in, I turn to where she was and there’s no she there anymore, there’s just blue flowers, blowing. Vaporized. Or flowerized, I guess the term would be. And there wasn’t even really any wind at—”
He’s cute, but you’d think the emptyheadedness’d got its hooks into him early, the way he makes me say things twice. Next it’ll be one of those antique hearing trumpet things they used to use, like some old lily-mouthed Victrola sprouting straight out the side of his skull. I squint right back at him, thinking what I’d have to crank to make the records play.
Then I compose myself. My diplomatic face. No giggles, no, I squeeze them in.
If looks could kill, this one’d be flaying me alive.
“You’ve not read much by way of mythology, I’d guess. Folktales? Fables? No?” Heave of big world-weary sigh. “I thought as much. If you had“—schoolmarmish now, mimed spectacles and all, his puzzlement’s delicious—”you’d know that mysterious natural phenomena, albeit enigmatic, are not so rare as you or I or any layman might be given to assume: in short,”—one finger pointing sagely at the emergency exit above my head—”the inexplicable is not unavoidably the improbable.”
Oh, they’re all looking at me now, the brace of blue-haired old ladies, the college kids, the pinstriped suits and skirts, the wannabe adventurers with their backpacks and their drool-stained pillows, the pencil-tapping researcher down in front, the scrawny blonde who dresses like she thinks she’s Frida Kahlo; even the brats dragged by their parents the way a kite will drag its tail, crinkling snack wrappers, kicking at the seats, looking fit to perish of ennui. (A piece of mercy to us all.)
To a one they’re watching me like they’d much prefer me in a box of bars, where they can hang a big brass plaque over my head engraved with words like droll and quaint and do not feed, and poke at me with sticks.
I do my best Queen’s Progress smile, and I give a little wave.
There’s one of those brats in the seat right here beside me, by the way, yammering at his beleaguered magazine-thumbing mom across the aisle, launching rather brilliant paper planes at the sandcastly coiffures of our ancients, cackling at his own kindergarten jokes. Chain-smoking is the nearest miss I know for how he’s putting candy bars away. “Cantaloupe,” he shrills around a faceful of caramelly goo. “Can’t-elope! Get it? Get it?”
And dissolves. Sprays of sugar slop ensue.
Clandestinely I jab him in the ribs. “Good comedians don’t laugh at their own jokes,” I say. “Rule One.”
But I think I’ve jabbed him just a bit too hard, delicate little angel as he is, and he starts to squall just exactly with like laser-aimed precision in my ear. Our dauntless tour guide shoots a look at him, then the monster’s mom shoots the same look back at him, and what can I say? He wilts, the pecking order sets back in, he glares at me instead. That’s fine by me. Like I said, he’s cute.
Ah. Almost forgot to date this. Again. Never was a girl to keep a diary; I guess that habit stuck with all the rest. Let’s see—May 1. (I’m pretty sure.)
May Day. Mayday. M’aidez.
They say the revolution was started by a wedding cake. I wasn’t there to witness it myself, I’m sorry to admit, but when I say I’ve seen all the most famous photos of this instrument of insurrection, the ones that made the rounds of every major newspaper worldwide, you know the ones I mean, and from them, you know enough to make an educated guess that what they say about the revolution is all true, or at least mostly.
The panning shots of gathered crowd in party dress, some of them flinching from the flashbulbs but still bent on getting an eyeful of the Event of the Year?
The dictator’s child bride led up the steps made out of kneeling peasants’ backs the whole way to the grandstand, trailing orange blossoms on their downcast heads, lisping apologies in the direction of her satined feet, flanked by retainers who look to be treading somewhat heavier than they must?
The child bride readying the cake knife like a headman’s axe, while the dictator stands behind her, laboring to look uncleish, his brow beaded with sweat, his knuckles white from gripping at her bony shoulders?
Or my favorite: the one that made all the front pages, the covers of the glossy magazines? The one that has the child bride subtracting the first dainty slice from that monstrous cake the height of her, and the swarm of what in the blurred photo looked like a rain of bullets flying out?
I hear that even the most dedicated journalists forgot to take their pictures after that.
You only heard from word of mouth, at first, that what blasted out of that wedding cake were actually bees, hundreds of bees, and that while the audience looked on in I couldn’t say what, all those bees lit on the dictator and stung him to a rather nasty death.
You only heard in whispers that the child bride had dabbed some kind of pheromone or something into the brim of the dictator’s hat, the knot of the dictator’s tie, the cuffs of the dictator’s silk shirt, something that made those bees go crazy enough to leave the child bride and wedding guests and even that huge cake alone, and go straight for him instead.
You only heard from the horrified retainers, if you were near enough to make out what they sobbed into their sleeves, that the dictator was–had been–violently allergic to bee stings. He’d dropped stone dead of anaphylaxis on the banquet table, and the child bride placed her orange-blossom garland on his brilliantined hair, and the bees gathered up into a thunderhead and flew away northeasterly, and some few retainers went off weeping toward the train tracks, while the new information flew from mouth to mouth, down the staircase made of peasants and then on throughout the crowd, arriving at each port of call a little worse for wear.
The dictator’s allergic to bees.
The dictator prefers it to peas.
The dictator’s unnerved by this breeze.
The dictator’s son served us this cheese.
And you only heard in the official minutes of the deconstruction of the cake (once these had been declassified, only after of years of bribes and threats and lobbying) that the item in question had been baked so light and airy that it was fuller of big holes and tunnels than an underwater cave; that afterwards, the entrances and exits to these holes had been plugged up carefully with gobs of pastel-tinted buttercream icing; and that before the last hole was barricaded off, the baker of that cake must have put the bees inside.
It had been, of course, a fresh cake, baked that very morning—only a baker with a death wish would send a day-old cake to the dictator’s wedding—so while their period of internment would not have put the bees in any mortal danger, it was still plenty of time for them to get good and aggravated. All they had to do was nibble at the tunnel walls and seethe. And wait.
In short, it was a clear case of assassination.
Despite the month-long manhunt, they never did catch that baker, and the last speculated witnesses to the child bride’s existence swore on their grandmothers’ graves they saw a little girl peeling off an outsized bridal gown as she skipped away into the wet plush of the jungle.
It was my mother, who was there, in thought if not in flesh, who told me this.
So when I woke up today there was this lady in the seat beside me, this grimy wanderer type, with a draggled braid of who-knows-what-color hair and this pair of jeans that’s got dirt layered on it like the geologic strata you see in sheared-off cliffsides. Straight back to the late Mesozoic, this muck of hers, as far as my guess goes. She had fiddler’s fingers and gravedigger’s nails, and an ugly scar that went from her hairline to her jawline, the kind unlucky pirates get from cutlasses in films. All she needed to complete the fashion statement was a machete in her belt, maybe sap-stained, maybe blood-stained, maybe both. And there was something not quite right about her shoes.
I thought, at least the kid is gone. That’s good. And if I closed one eye and peeked up along the gap next to the seats, I could just spot our dauntless tour guide, sleeping with his face smushed up against the window, his thumb stuck in his mouth like he was five. Oh, if I’d just had a camera. Blackmail photos, you’ve no idea how far they can get you.
We were out of the scrubland now, back onto some major artery, all of us slowly roasting in the midday sun, and through the haze out my window I could see a cloud that looked exactly like one of those dolphins from medieval maps. You know, the ones with catfish feelers and a cocker spaniel’s head, bigger than the ships they breach beside? It crouched over this dead factory town, looking menacing, probably not realizing that there hadn’t been anyone there for fifty years or more. Ghosts don’t scare easy as that, in any case, as far as I can tell.
But I noticed all this later. The first thing that caught my eye was the thing in the lap of the lady beside me. The thing that was all bundled in a burlap sack, and squirmed, and gave off a distinct citrus smell that cut through all the bus smells, the sweat and feet and smoke and farts and snacks and cheap and not-so-cheap perfume. Whatever this thing was, our wanderer was gripping at that bag so tight I don’t think she could’ve uncurled her fingers if I had a shotgun trained between her eyes and told her to.
I was occupied with formulating a polite enquiry when she turned to me and gave me this huge smile of bad teeth. Worse than mine. And I’ve been out here for a while.
“Tangerines,” she said.
I readied my I-beg-your-pardon blink-blink and said, “What?”
She looked meaningfully at the burlap sack, then back at me. Now that I got a good look at her, I could see she had been pretty once, just worn down to a stub from journeying: her face was alligatored as a fresco, and slightly out of focus, like a long-exposure photo that drags phantoms out of people, wisped and blurred.
The bag was all bump and jostle on her lap. She whacked it with a practiced fist. It calmed.
“Tangerines,” I parroted, my face a mask. I know to be chary of the mad. All politesse, I pointed toward her filthy denim knees. “In there?”
She nodded. “What do you know,” she said all of a sudden, “about iron shoes?”
Iron shoes? As in, east of the sun, west of the moon? As in, seven pairs rusted to nothing while you seek what maybe can’t be found at all?
I said: “What, like in the story?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, almost. There’s something in that story they left out.”
She left the pause there, hanging, like the gobs of slime that collect in old tunnels, just waiting for some sucker to come stroll by underneath.
“I’m all ears,” I said.
“You learn nothing just from wandering,” she said, without so much as a token pause for breath. From all indications, this was a harangue she’d settled into many times before, and poor me headed straight into its eye. “I’ve tried,” she continued, “and I can tell you, you go tramping the green earth in iron shoes and all you get is tetanus. You have to aim yourself, like archers aim their arrows, or you’ve missed the whole damn point.”
Another pause, while she waited for me to say, “What’s the point then?”
So I did.
“The point,”—and she punched the bag again for emphasis—”is that often you must earn your answers. You must prepare yourself to find them, to be found by them. You must become virtuous. Until then, you’re not ready.”
So she was one of those. I decided to feign sleep. But she went on:
“I was never all that good at virtue, so I borrowed the old list. Seven virtues, seven pairs of iron shoes. You with me so far?”
While I tried to count off virtues on my fingers, she adjusted the bag, hauled her right foot up onto her left knee, and sure enough, her shoe was solid iron, slightly oxidized in places but still sound. I knocked it with my knuckles to be sure. It felt like tapping on a battleship. On the sole she pointed to a faded word etched in: Charity.
“This is number four,” she declared. “You see, it’s not enough that you get through all seven. It’s not some shopping list you can cross things off of one by one—bread, eggs, butter—till you can go home. You have to become them, the virtues that is, the way a hunter must become his quarry, in his mind, to understand what it’ll do, where it might be run to ground. These tangerines are my invention. Every seed in every fruit contains a sensor that can detect certain qualities of the expired breath that result from malnutrition, then filter out the source from the surrounding air, and not only lock on to the person who produces it, but once the fruit ripens to maturity, home in on that individual’s location. It’s the same technology that gives us guided missiles, but put to useful ends. And it isn’t only tangerines, of course. I’ve got plans for apples, nectarines, peaches, plums, oranges, lemons, limes, melons, certain pears, any fruit that’s either spherical or ovoid in shape. You know, so it can roll. This batch here,” she indicated the wiggling bag, “are being detained from going where they should. They’re locked on, each to its respective homing beacon, and none of them will deviate from that beacon, and none of them will stop knocking my frickin’ thighs black and blue until I let them go. Which I’ll do, of course, right after I give my presentation. I’m applying for a grant to further research and production. Imagine this thing going global. I can’t imagine it myself. It’s too big for me to see. If not an end to hunger, then at least a dent in its damn juggernaut.”
Even I’d been rendered speechless. “Oh,” I said.
There was a piece of silence, while the tangerines did pirouettes, or whatever it is they were doing in there. It may as well have been a sack full of puppies, the way it was carrying on. “You never did tell me what you were looking for,” I pointed out. “Iron shoes and all.”
“Ah,” she said, and winked. She suddenly looked very, very old. “That’s telling.”
But after she’d gazed down at my sneakers for a minute, she added: “I’ll give you this advice, though, because I can see you’re also seeking something, just like me. If you ever find you’re ready to commit to iron shoes, look out for the jagged patches when they start to rust, take plenty of potassium for cramps, and whatever you do, stay the hell out of the bayou. It’s true that iron’s great protection against all kinds of feys and sprites and whatnot, but you need a silver knife to stick a loup-garou, and they don’t wait around twiddling their thumbs while you try to poke them with your earring posts. Okay?”
While she said this, she traced a finger down the whole length of that awful scar, eyeing me sidewise, one eyebrow raised. I got the picture.
“Okay,” I said.
After that I must have dozed off, cause the next thing I knew she was gone, I’ve no idea where. It’s not like this bus is doing much by way of stopping. All I know is sometime in the afternoon I woke myself up saying, My mother was an activist. She would’ve been a big fan of your invention, but I wasn’t talking to a damn thing save an empty seat, a few crumbs of mud, and an orangepeely smell so faint I almost didn’t notice it before it dissipated into nothing.
Things I remember about my mother.
- Coffee breath and bloodshot eyes when she’d kiss me goodnight at 4 a.m.
- A big blue pickup truck, covered with bumper stickers, blaring loud angry music out the windows.
- Her signature, like a handful of fishhooks.
- Her combing out my tangly hair and singing.
- The smell of her, like fresh-turned earth and wild greenery. (When I was nine, I found the jar she kept this smell in, and I almost cried.)
- Her stories. Including, but not limited to:
- The one where she took tear gas in Seattle. She’d tell this like a war story, but she never seemed to remember it that well. She was in a crowd, that crowd got gassed, they broke and ran and some got trampled and some stood their ground with masks and were arrested. I don’t know which she did. I do know she posed no threat of violence. All she’d left with was her sign. I know because I saw her leave.
- The one where the riot cops in Chicago cracked two of her ribs but broke the skull of the girl standing next to her, so that my mother had to drag her away by her jacket in a near coma to the medics, limping and holding her breath from the pain, just because some idiot way on the other side of the otherwise peaceful demonstration had decided it would be a good idea to start smashing high-end storefront vitrines with a baseball bat.
- The one where her zine was accused of sedition. She’d tell this one laughing.
- The one where she and two dozen other volunteers were building schools on a hilltop on the tasseled edge of the jungle not quite thirty miles from the dictator’s wedding to the child bride, so that when they put down their hammers at midday to eat their tortillas, they could sit in the shade of the walls they’d just put up and watch the fireworks bursting like late dandelions out over the trees. She wished on every one of them, the same wish every time, she told me, but never told me what it was. And then the fireworks stopped abruptly, there was a stillness of some minutes, and then a tiny clot of blackish cloud rose up from the valley, just where the fireworks had launched from, and drifted off, against the wind, in a northeasterly direction. From her vantage point, some while later, still sneaking glances at the place where the fireworks had stopped coming up and the strange cloud had long since disappeared, my mother saw, or thought she saw, moving quickly along the ground in the far distance, a speck of white that turned into a speck of brown that threw a speck of white away before the jungle gulped it whole.
- The one where she became a mom. Where the leathery old lady in bright skirts sidled up to her, pushed a basket into her arms, and hauled my mother down to her height by a handful of her hair. “Please take her,” the woman whispered in her ear. “Take who?” my mother said, still too startled to be annoyed at being accosted in this manner. “In there,” the woman said, and she pulled away a little so my mother could see that her eyes were big as plates with fear, and darted back and forth to pick the shadows clean. (This while the revolution guttered to slow ash off in the middle distance, and all the foreigners were homeward bound. You either left peacefully or were shown the door not so peacefully, and anyone accused of giving shelter or support to “meddling interlopers” was not exactly granted the benefit of the doubt. This old lady’d be a fool not to exercise some caution, seen in public in broad daylight with a blonde American and all, and one who looked so likely to make trouble as my mother likely did.) “It’s the Raccoon’s daughter,” the woman hissed into my mother’s hair, and at that my mother gasped like someone’d set a match to her and almost dropped the basket on the streetstones, which would have been a spectacle for the onlookers and a squishy end of me. But she didn’t, and it wasn’t, as you’ll, I trust, have noticed by this point.
Our dauntless tour guide doesn’t seem to be getting paid for much apart from sulking and warming his seat and being pretty. I mean, I know the tour guide thing’s a front, but he could at least try to seem convincing. I bet he doesn’t even know where we are. He looks like a hen on a slightly spiky egg. When he’s not asleep, that is, or staring at the seat in front of him like he’s scrying tea leaves for the manner of his death. Not much help to us in any case if we get stopped. He shouldn’t need to ask the tea leaves then.
Well, when you want something done right. . . right?
I slip in next to him. “Salutations,” I say.
He looks at me sidewise, like you’d look at a basilisk that’s blind in one eye and you aren’t quite sure which. “Hello?” he says.
I take a deep breath, and then I open fire.
“Look,” I tell him. “Maybe they didn’t tell you this when they hired you, but you’ve got a fair number of people’s lives in your hands here. If the army or the paramilitaries decide to stop this bus, they don’t really need a reason to, it’s up to you and the driver to make them believe this is not just some bunch of people trying to trespass in a prohibited area, you and the driver but mostly you. They set up gunners at roadblocks, you know, in some spots, and in some spots they just mine the roads at checkpoints, then tell some people the right way through, some people not. Tourists they let in. Since the revolution, it’s only tourists they let in. You know, to buoy up their faltering industry. To prove a point, though, too. We can quash our peasants’ tantrums any day. Can you? I don’t know how much was spelled out for you when you took this job. Do you know all this already? For instance, do you know what will happen to us if you can’t convince them? Or should I draw a little picture? You think the paramilitaries’ll direct us to the nearest embassy?”
He’s silent for some time. Okay, maybe I was a little harsh, a little longwinded, I think I got the tendency for ranting from my mother—but this could escalate into a serious problem if it’s not handled like right now. Maybe I should’ve just stuck with my initial plan, the one where I knock him out, strip him, take his uniform, hide my hair under his hat, lock him in the toilet, and guide this endless tour of ours myself. I’ve got some vague idea where we are, and I’d make up the rest. Somewhere in my head I’ve got this whole piece of countryside mapped out in my mother’s stories, with little mental pushpins, little flags, little doodles in the margins.
To your right you’ll see the schoolyard where the army once hanged fifty captive revolutionaries, strung them up on a swing-set one by one, with neither the mercies of a long drop nor a hood, in front of the assembled villages, which to their dismay did not quite crush the spirits of the people.
To your left you’ll find the gap between the trees through which the child bride allegedly disappeared, through which the Raccoon, the hero of the revolution, allegedly appeared.
Just ahead you’ll notice the arroyo the revolutionaries held for a week against no less than three encroaching regiments of the paramilitary, armed with nothing but an antique cannon, which fired ordnance shaped like wedding cakes to mock at the official statewide mourning, during which all cakes of any kind were banned except when they were thrown in bonfires on the plaza by crowds in funereal attire that tore their hair and clawed their eyes in somewhat exaggerated grief.
We’re about to go over the train tracks on which the dictator’s retainers took their lives the afternoon of his assassination, and which to this day are still considered a choice location for the suicides of patriots.
That yellow on the horizon is the cornfield where the Raccoon fell, owing to a miscommunication concerning an aborted ambush; in his scarecrow disguise they bore him away, riddled and dripping, nobody knows quite where. The jungle keeps his secrets.
I might not have what it takes to keep the rifles off us, but damned if I’d not try.
Finally our dauntless tour guide looks at me, and his eyes are all pink and wet like a puppy’s nose. For a second I see puppy noses where his eyes should be, and then I shake my head and they turn back to eyes.
Ah, I must be serious. This is serious business, what I’m mired to the ears in here. Think of the gunners in the chaparral. Think of the villages buried breathing in the mudslide last July. Think of the mass graves of revolutionaries, dug with children’s hands, laid with roadside weeds and pebbles spelling words like Freedom, Defiance, Avenged. Think of my mother, scattered into azure whirligigs and blown away.
“I’m so sorry,” whispers our dauntless tour guide, soft enough that no one but me hears. I don’t press him. Let the boy preserve some rag-end scrap of dignity, says I. Nobody’s after a confession. “I was diagnosed with narcolepsy when I was ten,” he says. “I fell asleep during the job description. I guess nobody noticed. Then I woke up when the man was saying, Do you want to work for us, and I needed the job, any job, so I said Yes. When they gave me the uniform I put it on. When they told me to get on the bus, I got on the bus. I remember looking into buses on the streets when I was little, seeing people in outfits like this one, standing up and talking, pointing out the windows at something, and all the passengers looking where the finger pointed, like there were strings tied tight between the finger and their eyes so they just had to, but I never knew what the finger pointed at, or why. I’m just trying to stay awake. Sometimes it works. I concentrate really hard on the pattern on the seat in front of me. The little dots. I connect them and make pictures in my mind, like the pictures people pull out of the stars. Then I make up stories, saying what the pictures mean, might mean.”
Suddenly he stops talking and blushes, giving me that look again, like he’s just realized he’s spilled his guts and his secret to that half-blind basilisk who was probably just politely waiting for an opening. You can’t blindside a basilisk, even if their blind side’s pretty big.
“I hope they don’t stop us,” our dauntless tour guide whispers. “But if they do I’ve got a gun. They gave it to me with the uniform. If we have to fight them you’ll help me, won’t you? If it comes to that?”
“It won’t come to that,” I tell him. “And fighting them that way can only come to nothing.”
I try to say this gently, but it’s hard: “Listen. They look at us and don’t see anything but trespassers, nothing but a threat to the state of balance they’ve worked twenty years to hammer out in this little corner of the world. We’ve all of us already been warned, and each for our own reason we came anyway. Maybe we want to try and help. Maybe we’ve lost somebody to the fighting. Maybe there’s something we’re looking for down there. In any case, if they catch us, they don’t need to be diplomatic. They’ll just pitch us down some gully, or else in the river. They may or may not waste the bullets first.”
I’m tempted to add I’ve seen it done, but I resist. He’s just a scared kid, really, already sleeving at his nose. Still, I can feel his mind hefting the pistol, wondering if it might talk sweet enough to haggle for his life, for other lives. He’s hefting his heart too, for nerve.
“You need to know what happened here,” I tell him. “What to point at, what to make us see. What to show them that you’re showing us. And why.”
“Okay,” he says. “If I fall asleep, just slap me. Gently. But tell me everything you know.”
I dreamed of my mother again last night. I was there again, twelve again, standing there beside her in the market. I hugged her and she went to flowers in my arms. They stained my dress blue and I cried a little. Then I started walking.
- From the backwaters of the inbetween, the Raccoon speaks to all who’ll listen: Why is it that people love being beaten in the face with their own history? As if they could thereby cleanly and vicariously atone for all their fathers’ and their fathers’ fathers’ sins, all the killers’ killed, all the deaths of all the dead; as if they could eat the evils of the world like wormy peaches, growing wise in suffering, serene in anguish, exquisitely careworn. But to storytell’s to conjure hindsight’s skinflint phantoms, scarecrows stuffed with words like so much straw: when’s ended, all the gathered bones stay speechless, and the dead are no less dead. We’re yesterday’s spectators and tomorrow’s runaways: in either one direction or the other, once removed. Anachronistic, either way. Either way, displaced.
- That those who listen do so for they must.
“And so my poor shining-eyed mother was doomed straight from the start,” I tell our dauntless tour guide. By now others have gathered, too, hanging on the seat backs, leaning out into the aisle, listening. Me on my soapbox, how amused she’d’ve been. “Or so I’m given to imagine.”
“So she joined the rebels?” someone behind me asks.
I smile. “She was an idealist,” I say. “What else could she do?”
“You say was when you refer to her,” says somebody else. “Not is.”
As he says this, I see her in my mind, that long streamer of petals bannering out above the market and the mud roads toward the dark wet prospect of the trees. The child bride disappeared in there, as did the Raccoon, when his people carried him away out of the corn. How do I know she isn’t in there with them now, swapping stories, dancing, having a good belly laugh at her twice-abandoned foundling daughter who still does double-takes at flowers if they’re blue?
I don’t. I never have. At this rate I never will.
“Out the window to your left you’ll see. . .”
May 11, later.
Ah, hindsight. There’s so much else I should’ve said. But now they’re all sleeping, so I can’t. And who knows where we’ll be tomorrow?
Here’s what I should have said:
The day the Raccoon’s army came out of the jungle, my mother followed them back in. They were trained to walk the jungle silently, and she must’ve sounded more like a marching detachment of two hundred than they did, but they waited till they were well in beneath the trees before the rearguard turned on her and stuck their semiautomatics in her face. She was wide-eyed and sunburned and jeans-clad and blonde, so they took her for a tourist, and lowered their guns to laugh at her, miming clicking cameras at the overgrowth.
They were not aware my mother was a black belt. Nor were they familiar with her temper. When she had finally been restrained (they wouldn’t risk an international incident by harming her if they could help it) they trussed her up, blindfolded her, dragged her forward through the ranks, and dumped her at the booted feet of the Raccoon himself, who removed her blindfold personally and peered down his nose into her eyes with something like amusement.
“I want to join you,” my mother said, marshaling what dignity her circumstance allowed.
The Raccoon watched her closely. He was gauging what little of her spirit could be guessed at in the bearing of her head, the set of her jaw, the bright fixed comets of her eyes. What he saw was like the tip of a deep-rooted iceberg, and he knew it.
“This isn’t how these things are usually done,” he said, and shrugged, and helped her to her feet. “But it might be how these things are done today.”
I also should have said:
It always struck me, when my mother told these stories, what a stupid name ‘the Raccoon’ was for the leader of a revolution. I told her as much, so she explained. Raccoons are smart as hell, she said. And cunning. Thievish too.
So she told me a story about the Raccoon’s thievery.
We needed boots, she said. Our army needed boots. So someone got wind that the state military had a new shipment of boots coming in, I’m talking like five hundred pairs of boots here, and the Raccoon got it in his head that these boots would be ours. I was part of the group that went to steal them. There were eight or so of us. So we got to where this new shipment was being kept, I guess just prior to its distribution, and to be sure we were stealing the right thing (I hear once they didn’t check and ended up with fifteen dozen fox-fur anoraks. What a military presence needs with anoraks in jungle country I can’t guess. But anyway) we peeked into the crates. And these were combat boots, all right, but bright red combat boots. Who in their right mind would order bright red combat boots? we asked ourselves. When what a sane person might want is black, or maybe camouflage? Anyway, desperate times, you know, so sure, we took them. We could say the color represented the spilt blood of the innocent, which must at all costs be avenged, etc, etc. What we didn’t know was that the whole thing was a trap. Well, the Raccoon took one look at what we’d brought him and immediately thought it was a fishy sort of windfall, so he took a knife to the sole of one red boot and pried it off. And inside he found a computer chip the size of your fingernail, stamped Made in Japan. He took six more boots apart and found the same thing every time. A very fishy sort of windfall, eh? Unfortunately, by this time we’d already sent out a full detachment, thirty strong, men and women both, out into the villages, every one of them wearing these boots, and we had no way to call them back. And the next thing we knew they were dead, all thirty, all but one. We only found out later that those computer chips were remote control devices, and five miles away there was some army official with a control box, you know, just like they have for those annoying little cars kids play with? And those red boots walked our people straight out of the village, up the high road, into the countryside, across fields littered with unexploded ordnance shaped like wedding cakes, around back of a defunct manor house, into the fallen courtyard, and up against a white brick wall, where a firing squad was waiting. We knew this because one young man took his machete to his ankles and dragged himself back by his elbows to report. He heard the gunshots and looked over his shoulder just in time to see a flock of twenty-nine pale birds lifting up into the dawn from the direction of the courtyard, and he knew.
I also should have said:
Even if the Raccoon fell that day out in the corn, even if he bled to death while they bore him away, he’ll never truly die, for he lives on in us all: in all the surviving revolutionaries, gone to earth but still defiant; in all the villagers they fought for, who will always have, if nothing else, their dignity; in every one of us who’s struggling for whatever reason, in whatever way, for a better world than those who came before have left behind. They can’t run him to ground, not so long as any of us are still out here, alive and kicking, here or anywhere at all. You’ll not hunt his ghost in cornfields but in vain.
I didn’t say this cause it sounds so tacky.
But it’s true.
May 19 (?).
I should have brought more than this notepad. I’m running out of space. The bus went headlong in a pit maybe a week ago. We didn’t even hit a roadblock. No gunners in the chaparral. No bloodshed over politics. No anything except a stupid accident, and those who could still move have long since scattered far on mud-sloshed spokes of road, and I and our dauntless tour guide and the rain have scratched out graves for such as were in need of them, and now I’m out here walking, somewhere, like I’m still in that dream, but maybe waking. Maybe not.
This last is to my mother.
I know you never questioned what that woman said, when she handed you that basket with the baby inside, told you that I was the Raccoon’s daughter, and begged you to take me home with you, like I was some kitten plucked from drowning, not a dead revolutionary’s orphan.
I know that when you went home you bought five years’ worth of back issues of all the big news magazines and spent months scrapbooking the revolution. I remember you pulling out the albums every time you sat me down to tell me stories, pointing at the photos: the child bride slicing the dictator’s cake, the Raccoon’s army emerging from the wilderness, military helicopters banking hard over the trees, children toting rifles, children stitching wounds, children playing kickball under the gaze of paramilitary sentinels, foreigners hastily packing suitcases, statues dragged off pedestals, murals wrecked by fire, old women sending donkey-carts of bread into the jungle, gunners guarding coffee crops, irrigation ditches full of blood, coffins full of flowers, revolutionaries plowing land with rifles on their backs, village children sitting shoulder to shoulder in the classrooms nailed together in the blistering heat by volunteers like you.
You had no family stories, no family photos, to bring me up on. Only these.
You brought me up on these stories, these photos, because you wanted me to know my history. You wanted me to know where I come from.
But I don’t.
It’s been ten years and more and I still can’t get rid of the image of you shaken into pieces by a breeze that wasn’t there, two thousand miles from the jungle that was nonetheless reclaiming you right there before my eyes, that then left me behind like I was some throwback fish not even worth the keeping.
What I want to know is why.
How do you know that there aren’t a hundred other people called “the Raccoon” whose child it might have been, hidden underneath the garlic bulbs in that old woman’s basket? If it had been “the Raccoon’s” child there at all? I’ve run into one man who got that name because of the black eyes he won himself in brawls, and one who called himself that because he thought he was clever, but he was just a horse-eating crop thief who raided the fields of the poor. And at least a dozen who called themselves or called their sons in honor of the revolutionary whose daughter you’ve always told me that I was.
How do you know that old woman wasn’t just trying to send her own child, her grandchild, any child, out of that war-torn edge of country, off to somewhere safe? I’ve seen this, even now, desperate mothers begging foreigners to take their babies away elsewhere, that they might be fed, clothed, and protected better than they could possibly be here.
With one glance at you she’d’ve known that you were proud. You’d take the revolutionary’s daughter, in a second, for sheer politics, for solidarity. You did. Or thought you did. And when you looked at her you saw the revolution’s emblem, its relic, and its eulogy. A thing to be the keeper of, like soldiers keep their guns long after the wars they shot them in are gone. Like a standard-bearer hoarding some dead battle’s flag, just because it still retains his sweat and fingerprints and fear.
Well, I’m going to keep heading with this notepad as far toward the jungle as I can. To anyone who finds it, if I fail before I get inside: please take it further, if you’re willing; if you’re able, take it in.
My mother is in there somewhere. If you see her, put this directly in her hands. You’ll know her from her blonde hair and the fires in her eyes. She may or she may not wish to receive this. Give it to her anyway.
But if you should find the Raccoon first, if he’s alive in there to find, give it to him instead. I don’t know how you’ll know him, but my guess is that you will. He may or he may not have been my father, but I’m his revolution’s daughter, and there’s a chance he’ll want to know that I’m still out here, somewhere, walking.
Spread the word!