His whole family was singing, his sister included, but they stopped when the Fiat stopped. The day had barely made it to noon, the sun in full force, when the girl tapped on the glass with her enormous gun. A gun, not a rifle. She asked them to please step out of the car. She was calm. She was polite. She wore a bandanna over the lower half of her face.
It had looked for all the world like a routine retén, an ordinary traffic stop. The military set them up to look for guerrillas, but the guerrillas set them up just as often to look for likely kidnapping targets. One retén was indistinguishable from another. They used the same prefabricated pieces to build the structure, the same smoothly swinging steel-and-rope arm blocking the road, the same procedure for pulling people out of the car.
They joined the crowd gathering by the shoulder of the road on a lazy curve overlooking a valley. Time refused to settle nicely into the story when he told it to you, and now you’re having the same problem. It all happened all at once, he told it in the wrong order, he got the names wrong. He asked you to remember that he was named after his own father and then forgot to tell you why. He knew that they left early in the morning, that they had been stopped near noon, but by the curve it was already late in the afternoon, the sun already giving up. His sister’s swim meet wouldn’t be till tomorrow. His mother stood in front of him and held his sister’s shoulders. Lucia was ten, old enough to know what was going on. She cried, but when they decided to move closer to the edge she did so calmly. His father too was calm. He whispered, “It’s going to be all right. They do these all the time.”
He wanted to ask his dad if they’d be interested in him, in the family, because he worked for the oil company, but he knew better. Dad worked research and development and had done graduate work in the States, but the family had no money, none whatsoever.
The girl who waved them down to the crowd was not much older than his sister. Thirteen. Maybe fourteen. She could hold the gun, she could point with it, she could presumably shoot it, but it hardly looked possible, she was so tiny.
His parents had spent the bulk of their lives traveling. The family lived in Curacao and spoke some Dutch, spoke some Papiamentu. They lived in Venezuela in the middle of a jungle. A worker’s camp, Dad an engineer for a hydroelectric dam. They spent some time in the States when his dad was finishing up his PhD, and returned to Colombia only at the insistence of Mom’s extended family, and Mom herself: they missed her, they wanted them here, grandchildren included, they’d been gypsies too long. Come home. We don’t belong here, he wanted to tell the girl. We never have. We haven’t spent enough time in this country to be kidnapped.
A guerilla rode the back of a Kawasaki and, through a megaphone, told the crowd to face the field. Another Kawaski followed, lime green, where another guerrilla, an open laptop dangling, checked the license plates of the dead cars.
Alvaro thought, They have a database.
There was some relief in knowing that much. Because his family did not have any money, he knew that much. They could barely afford to get him to college, which they could not have done at all without Ecopetrol’s sizable subsidy, and his parents constantly fretted about affording anything. They went out for dinner, they fretted. His sister or he signed an empanada at the country club, they fretted. They fretted and traveled, never staying wholly fixed to one place, so they had nothing in the way of savings. He’d hear their parents talk about it, argue about it. That they should have stayed put. That they should have saved.
His dad whispered, “If they start shooting just roll down the hill and act dead.”
He nodded and whispered the same thing to his sister, who also nodded and whispered it to their mom. His sister cried the whole time but did not make a sound. They faced the fields. A foot from him a trucker left the crowd and sat on the edge of the highway, and the guerrilla zipped past with his megaphone and told him to get back, which the trucker did, but lazily, slowly, a man having a hard time taking the men with the guns seriously.
The truckers laughed and huddled and moved about and had no problem engaging in conversation. They must have seen the fear on Alvaro’s face, and on the faces of his whole family, because they were trying to reassure them. The truckers told them that this route was stopped all the time, that they hardly ever took anyone in these pescas milagrosas, and that half the time it was what the guerrillas loved to call “information campaigns,” one of the chiefs talking at them for three hours about land redistribution and Marxist ideology. That the men in the Kawasakis handed out booklets on the history of the FARC and encouraged everyone to read and take notes and ask questions. That they were thanked for their time.
The Kawasaki roared past again and the megaphone told the trucker to shut it. The trucker waved him off. Laughed.
The day waned, the air cool and gentle. He shivered. He’d been shivering earlier too, when it was hot and humid. Mom shivered too. So did his sister, his dad. If they shoot, burrow under bodies, act dead. My whole family will do the same. We’ll be fine. The trucker told us we’d be fine.
The trucker would know, he’s been here before. The moon crawled out, too bright, the field overlooking the ravine too clear in the horizon, as was the sky. Choking with stars. The whole world dark-blue and silver blue. And placid. Even the quick rip of gunfire sounded unrushed, brief, distant. Laughter burst in the throng of civilians, so the gunfire didn’t feel serious. Not to him, not to them. Hundreds of their own kind gathered by the side of the road, the kind of people who carried no guns, who did what people with guns told them to do. Nothing to worry about. The trucker told them the only thing they worry about is the military. When they intervened, things got bloody. But he drew their attention to the heartbeat and the murmur of the overhead helicopters. The trucker said, They know what’s going on. They’re not going to endanger us. The landscape stretched flat and placid. There was nothing to worry about. Alvaro could not stop shivering, nor could his sister.
That was when they called his father’s name on the megaphone.
His sister said, No, no, no. His mom sobbed. His father turned and asked him to take care of them both until he returned. He was being asked for his cédula, the men on the Kawasaki already there, and Dad pulled it out of his wallet, the ID a dirty cream and poorly laminated and smudged, the whorls of the Colombian seal stamped in a dead and faded green. Alvaro could not stop shivering. He wanted to intervene but he could not bring himself to say or do anything. What was he? He was just a kid, he had just started college, he had never held a gun or gotten drunk or anything. The family barely had enough to keep going, to pay the maid, to travel, to pay for the country club. It would only be later that he would think, That’s not poor, that’s not poor at all. What was he? What did he know? What was he thinking?
“Dad’s got nothing,” Alvaro said. “We don’t have any money.”
The boy on the back of the motorcycle checked his laptop. He checked his dad’s cédula with its antediluvian photo with muttonchops and big hair and wide lapels. He rechecked the laptop. The boy leaned into the driver and whispered, and the driver whispered to the guerrilla by Dad’s side. Another person roughly Alvaro’s age. Everyone in charge here was too young. They all should have been in school, they should have been somewhere else. The boy said, “Take the whole family.”
They walked for hours by clear moonlight, the underbrush and trees etched in the dead pale blue light. His sister fell twice and scraped her knees, their mother grew quiet, his dad turned and told him to take care of his family. Then said it again. Then again. He nodded and said yes every time, but forgot or he wanted to make sure or else he was so nervous he could only repeat himself. Take care of the family. The smell of spearmint brightened the cool wet air, their shoes brushed the grass, the sound carried far into the night. An army helicopter whirred in the distance, but it did not follow them deeper into the mountainside. Either its pilot never found their trail or did not care or knew better, decided that to follow would endanger civilians, like the trucker said, the trucker who also said that everything would be all right.
They were not alone. In front of them and behind them were other families, a few lone men, a few shivering teenagers, the line of civilians flanked by guerrillas, some older and clearly in charge, but the younger ones were younger than him, men and women both, all wearing rubber boots and armbands, their bandannas no longer obscuring their faces but bunched around their necks now, the faces themselves bored, blank, unperturbed, unalarmed.
They stopped in the middle of the trail, the rut deep with the footsteps of strangers, and one of the men whistled, and someone else laughed, and one of the hostages ran in the blue light and was shot. He heard the shot before the man had fallen, and Alvaro did not know if the man fell by accident, if he tripped just before the shot was fired, but someone leaned in and shot him again two times in the back of his head. The body twitched and lay still. The last thing he remembered his sister saying was “Poor thing.” She looked at the body, she did not turn away, the body twitching still, and she said it softly, holding their mother’s hand.
The guerrillas left, all of them, and his family and the other hostages remained still, in the middle of nowhere. They waited, one of their own already dead, the poor thing. Dead and nameless. They had been told not to move, not to run away.
They did not leave. There was no talk of leaving, no talk at all.
The other men arrived within the hour. Alvaro could have run, the whole family could have, but what if they were watched? They’d been warned. The body lay still not too far from where they huddled. The men and women and boys and girls gathered close, all of them, not talking. They shivered. They cried, but they made an effort and kept quiet. When the other men arrived, the whole group turned in unison. We are a herd, Alvaro thought. We are cattle.
Four men wore black bandannas and military uniforms and gumboots, and the fourth a bright yellow soccer shirt, his right arm missing, his face visible and streaked with scars, one of which bit into his left eye. The other scars were still raw, the skin still held together with thick black thread, but the thread wormed in and out of the puckered skin as though it had fused into the body, as though it should have been removed a long time ago and no one ever got around to it. The other men held guns, but the scarred man carried a machete in his left hand. Most of the right forearm had been chopped off, and the tissue at the stump was puckered and seamed. The men wore no armbands, were much older, and when the one-armed man spoke the others laughed. Their teeth had been removed. Their mouths were blacker than the night. They were moonlit, distinct, but the countryside swallowed their laughter and their words.
The one-armed man called his father by name. The one-armed man said, “I’m Ernesto.” Alvaro thought of Bert and Ernie, of a broken muppet, of this heavily injured, heavily scarred man sharing the same name as a Sesame Street character. This is all a joke, he thought. This is not happening.
Ernesto swung the machete deep into his father’s thigh and his father fell to the ground, the blade still lodged deep inside him. His father did not make a sound. Neither did mom or his sister or him. What was there to say or do that wouldn’t make it worse?
They are going to chop all of us, he thought.
He was remembering it wrong. He had been crying, whimpering, yelling. His mother and sister too. His dad, too. His dad moaned and said Please and No and when he held his arms in supplication Ernesto’s machete sliced off half his father’s fingers, the fingers still intertwined.
The men pointed their guns at the screaming family and did not tell them to be quiet and the eyes of the men were dead and their faces plain and visible in the dead blue moonlight, and the family would not make it, they would not leave this place alive, not his dad and not him and not his sister or his mother, and he could not hear himself scream but he screamed like his dad screamed. Ernesto screamed too, mocking his dad, and when they chopped off Dad’s arms at the elbows and cauterized them with flame and tourniqueted them with twine, the forest lit up with the animal sound of his father and the birds answered back.
His father had no feet, no arms. The men propped him against a tree so he could watch while they raped his wife, Alvaro’s mother. No one turned away. He could not turn away because they pressed a gun against the side of his head. It went on for no time at all, it went on for hours, it did not happen, he did not see it happen.
The men were drunk, the men had no teeth, the men were naked from the waist down, their feet still encased in mudboots, the boots and their thighs and their scars and the stump of Ernesto’s elbow all caked in the blood of his family.
His mother made a low and awful sound from her bloodied face. She was bloody everywhere.
There was a gun pressed to Alvaro’s side and he watched it all. Sometimes there is no sound, sometimes it turns out that he did not watch, that he shut his eyes, but he can’t lean in on the memory. Sometimes he wants to tell himself that it happened at a great distance, but the men clustered them in a patch of land.
They sliced his mother’s stomach open and all her dark wet secrets spilled. She moaned like an animal abandoned by the side of the road. She tried to bring the coils and cords back into herself, but her fingers had been broken, a nail had been pulled off, and she could not do it.
They gave his sister a gun. They told his sister to shoot Mom, to put the gun against her mouth and pull the trigger. They said, Right here, and tapped her mother’s cheek, and laughed. His sister cried and held on to the gun with both hands and could not lift it, not until they slapped her and told her they’d rape her if she didn’t do it. His sister crawled to their mother, the men alongside her, and she dragged the gun to their mother’s temple, and she shot her. They told her to shoot again, that her mother was not dead yet, that if she loved her mother she would put her out of her misery, and the men meant it. They were no longer laughing. Whatever pleasure they had taken in what came before was gone, they were all business, and his sister did what she was told, and the body of their mother stopped convulsing.
You shoot your brother, they said.
He heard them say it, he did not hear them say it. He did not hear his sister say yes or no. His father slumped on the tree, his face swollen and blotched, his eyes red and black. If he was crying there was no way to know, no way to tell. If he said anything, if he wanted to say anything, there was no way to tell. His mouth was a mess. His father’s eyes half-blinked, half-opened.
She put the gun to her brother’s mouth, his mouth. The barrel tapped his teeth, and her hands shook, and the metal chipped one of his front teeth, the crack small and unimportant and still unfixed, and she could barely lift the thing, but she did not pull the trigger, her hazel eyes enormous in the moonlight. His sister. He made fun of her. He dressed her up. He told her these awful stories just to make her cry. (Like: she was a fan of the Care Bears, and he told her that they would help her like they helped the kids in the episode, but the bears were popular, they were busy, so there was a waiting list, and they wouldn’t be able to help till she turned eighty, they couldn’t see her until then.) She shot the man holding the gun to her face. She aimed for the chest but hit his leg instead. The man did not shoot back, was presumably too much in pain, too much in disbelief.
Ernesto laughed. The other men laughed. Ernesto brought the machete down on his sister’s hand and the hand fell off still clutching the gun. The other men kept laughing, and one of them pried the gun off the fingers, one of which cracked.
When Alvaro was ten, when he was his sister’s age, he read every issue of Condorito the day it came out. Half the gags involved an amputation, with the bone and muscle as round and as neat as concentric tree rings. His sister’s stump looked like that, like a cross-section, like a cartoon, before it gushed and bloomed and before his sister cried and before they put the bloodied gun in his hands and hold him to shoot.
They shoved him close against her, shoved the gun up against her temple, and said, Shoot. Then they sliced off her feet, still in their sneakers. Then Ernesto jabbed the machete deep into her thigh, jabbed it so deep that he had to prop a gumboot against his sister’s side to pull it out. Then Alvaro shot his own sister.
They pulled him away, pulled the gun from him, left him on the ground. He could have gotten up, he supposed, but he did not try, could not try, and the men around him knew and did not bother. Ernesto crawled by the mess of his father and behind the tree against which his father slumped and found something and dropped it in an envelope lodged between armpit and stump, then dropped something else in there, and he licked the seal shut. They had the same envelopes at home, flimsy, pale blue, edged with blue and red. Aerograms. You used them when writing to friends abroad.
His father had already died, though Alvaro did not know when it happened, or how much his father had seen. Ernesto gave him the envelope. It had a name and an address on it, in Bogotá, and he was told to deliver it in person.
“Your sister was supposed to do it,” Ernesto said.
Two months later, he received a letter from the other Alvaro, the one his father had been mistaken for, and a letter from Ernesto, both men apologetic, both saying that if they could take back what happened they would. That neither was knowingly a bad person. Both used the same phrase. The other Alvaro moved his family to Santiago de Chile that year. Ernesto was still at large, still in the jungle. Alvaro learned that you included the index finger as well as the cédula of whoever you meant to kill to verify identity. That was what he carried back to the highway in the Aerogram envelope: his father’s index finger and his father’s cédula. That’s it, he said. That’s all of it, he said, looking at his hands, and you looking at his hands, counting his fingers.