The River and the Sun
From the northern bank of the river, the farthest thing that you could see to the south was a volcano, a misty blue cone far away in the distance. Between the volcano and the river lay the green sprawl of the Nicaraguan jungle. In the river itself, wide and slow-moving, lay three bodies. Two, dead, one alive. Or so it seemed.
It was hot, and getting hotter. The rebel looked up as a flock of bright green parrots flew hurriedly overhead, shrilling loudly. They hurtled downstream for a few hundred yards, jinked about and then turned back the way they had come, shrilling all the time. The rebel swore at them as they passed noisily back overhead.
'Stupid fucking birds,' he said, returning his gaze to the figures in the river. He was lying in sagebrush on the northern riverbank, his rifle in front of him and a cigarette burning in his hand. As he watched, the flow of the river rolled one of the bodies slowly over, like a log, until after a few feet it fetched up against some unseen obstacle and stopped. The water flowed in a wave around it, so that all you could see was a small patch of green shirt, stained black with wetness. The other corpse was lying face-down on a sandbank in the middle of the river, its clothes baked dry by the hotness of the sun, so you could see how drab and pale they were in the open.
The one who was still alive lay on his back in the river, the top of his head towards the rebel, most of his head and chest and sometimes the tops of his boots visible above the water. You'd have thought he was dead too, except that every now and then he moved his head from side to side, as if he was looking for something. He must have been hurt otherwise he wouldn't have just stayed there getting wet and cold.
The rebel considered this for a while.
'Hey, you,' he yelled. He thought that the head moved in response to his voice, but he couldn't be sure. The noise of the river, though not great, probably smothered his voice from where the man lay. He tried again, louder than before.
'Hey you, motherfucker ... can you hear me?'
This time the rebel thought he definitely saw a movement, a jerk of the head.
He drew breath to shout again, but before he could continue there was a rustle in the brush behind him, a rush, and a hard blow against his thigh.
'Ow, you bastard,' he yelled, rolling over to deal with his attacker but stopping when he saw who it was. 'Oh, Jefe, I'm sorry ... I didn't know it was you,' he said to the man towering over him, dark against the sun.
'You bet your ass you didn't know it was me, you ass-hole. Who the Hell did you think it was, Daniel Ortega? Shit ... he can probably hear you, the way you're hollering.' Jefe dropped to one knee next to the rebel and continued informally.
'Listen, Claudio, you could give our position away, shouting like that. You don't know that all the bastards have gone. O.K., we kicked their asses and they're probably running like Hell for home. But they might still be in there somewhere,' said Jefe, waving his hand casually at the jungle opposite, 'just waiting for us to give our position away.
'Also, we're only a couple of miles inland, maybe not even that. For all we know they might have got hold of some boats and landed up the coast behind us. If they did that, what would they have to do to find us?' Jefe cupped a hand theatrically round his ear - 'Just listen out for Claudio.'
Jefe tapped a finger to his temple. 'Sometimes, Claudio, you've got to use your head. I know its tough, but try it occasionally, you never know what it might lead to. Anyway, who the Hell are you shouting at?' asked Jefe. Claudio stabbed a finger at the man in the water.
'That bastard out there,' he replied.
'What ... him on the sandbank?' asked Jefe.
'No, not him, he's dead. The next one, downstream. He's got his head up out of the water. You can see him move it about sometimes,' said Claudio.
'Are you sure?' asked Jefe.
'Pretty sure. I saw him move it just before you came,' said Claudio.
'How d'you know it's not just the river?' asked Jefe.
'I don't know. It's just the way he moves,' replied Claudio. Jefe shrugged.
'Well, what the Hell ... why don't you just plug the bastard?' he asked. Claudio grinned as a thought came to him.
'I didn't want to give our position away, Jefe,' he said.
'You're an ass-hole,' said Jefe, but Claudio could see he had pleased him with his quickness.
'Still, you might as well save your bullets,' said Jefe, 'the tide comes in round about this time. If the bastard stays where he is he's going to drown anyway. Have you seen any movement on the opposite bank?'
'No, Jefe,' said Claudio.
'Of course not. You've been too busy howling at that bastard in the river. Well, remember what I said and keep your eyes open, eh?' finished Jefe, clapping Claudio on the shoulder as he rose to go.
'Sure, Jefe,' said Claudio as Jefe disappeared into the brush.
Claudio peered earnestly at the opposite bank for a while, but before long his gaze wandered back to the man in the river. So, the tide was coming in, huh? Claudio hadn't thought of that. He reflected that it took a man like Jefe, a man with brains, to figure out such a thing. He himself would never have thought of it, at least not until the water had got so high that even a fucking donkey could see the reason. But then, thought Claudio, you needed brains like that to be as good a leader as Jefe. Sure, there were other leaders who'd been around, but Jefe left most of them way out back. Take that business of him shouting at the man in the river. Most other leaders would have kicked the shit out of him for doing such a dumb thing, but not Jefe. He knew that if you kicked the shit out of your men they might still follow you, but they'd never really trust you, and in this game you needed trust more than you needed God. If your men didn't trust you they'd be scared to follow you some places, and a leader with men like that isn't worth shit in the long run. As it was, Claudio figured he'd follow Jefe any damn place, and in his eyes that made Jefe a real Hombre.
Claudio took a last drag at his cigarette and then flicked the butt into the river. Remembering Jefe's exhortation, he looked closely into the trees opposite. He didn't think they'd be back again today, not after the way they'd been fucked over. But you never could tell.
Shit, that had been some action. Claudio's group had camped near the river the night before, intending to cross over into the south that very morning. They'd had an early breakfast and then moved up to search for a place to ford the river. Someone mentioned taking a coffee break before going over, then all Hell broke loose. There were shouts, loud bangs, a line of men in green wading across the river towards them. That had been bad enough, but then the helicopters had come in from the south, and they all ran like shit back into the jungle. Claudio had huddled under a tree to hide from the explosions and once, as he peered up through the branches, he even saw one of the helicopters as it clattered overhead, big and black in the bright morning sun. Then, not long after his mind had gone completely blank had come a roar, a roar so great that it seemed to fill the world. It drowned out the helicopters, the explosions, the sound of his own voice as he cried out for someone to tell him what the fuck was going on. It lasted for some time greater than a minute but less than an hour, then died slowly away until all that Claudio could hear was the ringing in his own ears.
For quite some time after that they all felt like ass-holes. Jefe had called them out of the jungle like a man herding cows. "Come on out, my little ninos, all the bears have gone home to sleep. Come on back to daddy" and so on, until they all ended up standing sheepishly in a silent circle around him, unwilling to meet his eye. For a while he scolded them for their panic. Then, with a laugh, he set them all at ease and made them feel like men again. "O.K.," he'd said, "so they caught us with our pants down. So what? For a lot of you it was your first time in action. Next time you'll be better prepared. Just regard it as your baptism of fire and remember - whatever else happened, we're still here, and those bastards have gone. They're brave enough with their helicopters to protect them, but take them away and they're nothing. Which only goes to prove what I've always said, muchachos, that underneath it all they've got no balls. Now beat it, all of you, and get your stuff together. We'll be staying here today, just in case they try it again." Claudio found out later what had happened. Jefe and a few of the men had hung on near the bank when it started. The helicopters can't have seen them because they managed to pick off enough of the men crossing the river to make the rest turn back. Then, a couple of jets had appeared from the north and driven the helicopters away. Just like Jefe had said, thought Claudio, underneath it all they'd got no balls.
Jesus Christ, he thought, they hadn't even stopped to collect their wounded.
Claudio found that his gaze had settled back on the man in the river.
Reminding himself of his proper task, he scanned the trees of the jungle opposite. But after a while he thought Shit, you could go cross-eyed staring into those fucking trees all the time. He told himself that he'd be more likely to spot any movement among thetrees if he just glanced at them quickly, every now and then.
His gaze settled once again over the figures in the river. He looked closely at the level of the water. Yes, Jefe was right again, the tide was definitely coming in. The sandbank with the body had shrunk a little so that one of the body's hands was almost in the water. Claudio looked around for the other body, the one that had rolled downstream like a log, but all he could see was a large, smooth wave, so that he couldn't even be sure he was looking at the right place. He looked at the man lying on his back. Now you couldn't see the tops of his boots at all, and Claudio reckoned you couldn't see so much of his chest anymore. Pretty soon, if he was still alive, he'd have to hold his head up out of the water to breathe. Claudio grinned to himself.
'Bet you didn't figure on drowning, you bastard,' he said quietly, leaning over briefly to extract another cigarette from his breast pocket. As he moved, his shirt stretched tightly across his back so he could feel how hot it had become. Putting a cigarette in his mouth, he pushed his hat farther back on his head and turned his collar up so his neck was protected from the heat of the sun. He fished out a match and stared closely at the man in the river.
I wonder if he smokes?' he thought. After a moment, he struck the match with a flick of his thumbnail, lit his cigarette, and tossed the matchstick away.
'Probably not,' he thought, sullenly, 'it's the kind of natural thing these fucking communists never do.' He'd been told in great detail about communists, and what they got up to. 'Shit,' he thought, 'the bastard's probably lying there thinking that it won't matter if he dies because there'll be another ten or a hundred to take his place if he does. Well, there might be,' thought Claudio grimly, 'but even if there's a hundred or even a thousand of them to take his place, we'll carry on fighting and killing the bastards until there's none of them left.'
Claudio's mind clouded with bitterness as he remembered the things he'd been told about them.
"Communism started in Russia," the Gringo had said, "and then it spread round the world like a fever. Mexico is falling ... Cuba has fallen ... your own country, your own beautiful country" said the Gringo, pausing to let them think about their own beautiful country, "has fallen victim of a disease, a plague that not even God can stop on his own. Even now as we speak they are hammering at the gates of Guatemala, of Honduras, of El Salvador and Costa Rica... so far there has been no stopping them. But now," said the Gringo, pausing dramatically to watch the effect of his words, "now they have come up against you. You, and other men like you. Small bands of determined fighters out here in the jungle, struggling for survival in the face of a hostile environment and a ruthless enemy. Try not to forget, when life seems hard and things are at their blackest, that we in the free world are behind you all the way. We look to you men, you Freedom Fighters, to stand four-square together as the last guardians of a free world tottering on the brink of disaster. Remember, God and the free world need you to survive. In His name, and in the name of Freedom, don't let us down."
As Claudio remembered the Gringo's words, he clenched his teeth so that the muscles in his jaw rippled manfully.
'Sure, that's us,' thought Claudio, 'guardians of the free world against the communist threat.' Claudio wasn't too sure what communism actually was - he understood that it involved enslaving the people, burning churches and the Russian Menace - but he did know what the revolution had done to his family, the revolution that had brought communism to his country ...
Before the revolution, things hadn't been too bad. Sure, life was tough up in the mountains and people were poor, but at least they'd had liberty. The revolution changed all that. At first, his mother had said that people like them out in the campo didn't need to worry about the revolution, since it was a matter for the people in the towns and cities. But then things started to get really hard for everyone. Each time his mother went to market she came back saying that the price of beans had doubled, so that pretty soon she couldn't afford to feed everyone and they'd had to start eating next year's maize in order to survive. Then things had started to disappear. Claudio remembered his father standing silently in the yard, tears of rage in his eyes because someone had driven the cow off during the night. And how, down in the market, his mother found out from the other women that a lot of pigs and goats had gone missing too. Nobody knew what the fuck was going on until one day Jefe and some of his men appeared from the jungle and told them.
Claudio had never seen such a macho hombre, with his shiny black moustache and red silk bandana, and he listened closely to what he had to say. Jefe told them about the communists in the cities who were stopping food getting up into the mountains. How they were coming up to steal cattle and burn crops so that hunger would drive people down into the cities, where they'd be made to work without pay, like slaves, so that Russia would become rich and enslave the world. Claudio had never been to school and had no idea where Russia was, but thanks to Jefe he could see now what the revolution was doing to him and his family. So when Jefe asked if anyone wanted to join him and his band of muchachos in the fight against communism, Claudio had stepped forward like a shot.
Since then, a year ago, maybe, they'd spent most of their time training in camp and listening to the Gringo talk about liberty. He also told them about the city he lived in back home, his house, and how many cars he had. Claudio had never seen a city in his own country, let alone one in America, but he'd seen "Starsky and Hutch" on television back in camp, and reckoned he had a pretty shrewd idea of what cities must be like. Claudio figured he was going to live in a city some day, though he didn't yet know which one - he'd wait and see which one he liked best when the war was over. He reckoned he could make it big in any city that had liberty.. The Gringo had said that, with liberty, you only had to work hard to get rich. Claudio had been working hard since the age of six or thereabouts, so making it big shouldn't cause him any trouble. Once he'd made it in his own country, Claudio thought he might try his luck farther north - Los Angeles, maybe, or even New York. O.K., if he was just some bum, some wetback up from the south, then it would be hard, maybe too hard. But for him it wouldn't be like that. You only had to remember what the Gringo said about what the muchachos meant to the free world. He'd be a hero, they'd all be heroes, and a hero can't go wrong. Everybody knew that.
But that was all in the future. First, thought Claudio, he'd have to find himself a wife, because no-one could make it big any place without a woman to wash and cook for him. Sure, there were women to be had back in camp, but they were short, dumpy things with half the teeth missing from their round flat faces. If you wanted to make it big, you had to have class. No-one with any class would marry one of them, and anyway, they reminded Claudio of his mother.
Claudio was stung from his reverie by a wisp of smoke as it drifted up his face and directly into his eye. He swore wildly and screwed up his eyes, flicking the butt away and rubbing hard with his thumb until he felt the pain subside. Opening his eyes and blinking rapidly until everything was O.K., he focused once again on the figures in the river.
The one on the sandbank had his arm right in the river now so that the sleeve of his jacket was turning black with wetness. All you could see of the man on his back was the oval of his face, just above the surface of the water. Claudio shook his head ruefully, reflecting that he sure as Hell wouldn't want to swap places with the man in the river even if he wasn't injured. O.K., thought Claudio, it must be nice to have all that water, so cold and dark, flowing round you and keeping you cool in the heat of the day. Claudio dwelt for a moment on how fresh the water must feel and how damn hot and dry he was up here on the bank, with beads of sweat forming on his forehead and in the hair around his temples. The thought of all that clear water flowing by just out of reach made Claudio feel thirsty, and he reached down for the water-bottle on his hip. He unscrewed the top and took a swig, but the water was warm and stale and smelt of rubber. He swallowed what he'd taken, but it made him feel more thirsty, not less. He replaced the top and clipped the bottle back onto his belt. 'Fuck it,' he muttered to himself, 'sometimes nothing's right in this God-damned world.'
For a moment he felt that maybe he wouldn't mind swapping with the man in the river after all, just for a while, so he could cool down a little. But then he thought, even if he were there for only a few minutes he'd get his face burnt real bad. He peered closely at the little island of the man's face. Shit, he thought, the bastard's had his face held up directly to the sky all this time and the sun's been getting hotter and higher every minute. His face must be as hot as a frying pan. Claudio paused for a moment and then, taking his hat off, rolled over in the grass so that his face was held right up to the sun.
He lay still, his eyes shut tight, until he could feel the heat beating right down onto his face. He felt the little beads of sweat drying out on his face and screwed his eyes up as hard as he could manage against the white glare of the sun. But even with his eyes screwed up tight the sun still beat through with a searing orange light. Claudio tried to relax his eyelids as if he was lying on his bunk at night, but the moment he did so the light became white and blinding, and he screwed them right back up again. After a few seconds he rolled back onto his front.
'That's enough of that,' he grunted, waiting for his sight to return to normal. While he did so he put his hat back on, so that this time it shielded part of his burning face as well as the back of his neck. As his sight returned to normal, he looked gravely at the man on his back in the river.
'Sometimes, amigo, it's just not worth being a communist,' he said quietly, then laughed briefly at his own dry humour. Claudio glanced casually at the trees on the opposite bank, but then a movement at the edge of his vision made him look sharply back at the man in the river. He strained up on his elbows and craned his neck forward trying to get a better view. But if there had been any movement, it hadn't lasted more than a moment. He relaxed back down onto his stomach, still watching the man's head but analysing in his mind the movement he thought he might have seen. It seemed to him that the man's head might have flicked quickly to one side. As if, thought Claudio, as if the water was splashing up over his face and getting into his nose and mouth ...
Claudio held his gaze for a while, but nothing more happened. Sunlight was starting to dance on the ripples in the water, and Claudio figured that if he stared any longer he'd start to see things that really weren't there. He sighed, and peered through the scrub at the river downstream of where he lay.
Farther down, the river widened out, then went round a bend and out of sight. The trees on the opposite bank downstream were just a misty blue haze in the glare of the sun, and no detail, nothing to hold the gaze, stood out anywhere.
Claudio let his head droop and he found himself staring at the grass right in front of him. He picked up a twig and began stirring it about in the grass, trying first to entangle one blade with another, and then seeing if he could uproot some of the grass without breaking the twig.
He managed to pull up a couple of tiny roots, but then the twig came up against a real big root and snapped in the middle. He shrugged and tossed the remaining half away, letting his hand lie motionless on the grass.
He toyed with the idea of having another cigarette, but then decided he wouldn't. Sure, they were good American cigarettes, brought in a crate by the Gringo, but you could have too many of them, especially in heat like this. His mouth felt dry and ashy, and he didn't have anything to wash it out with. Only stale warm water, smelling of rubber. 'Shit,' he said eventually, for no particular reason.
It was hot, and getting hotter. A solitary bead of sweat traced its way down the side of Claudio's face. He wiped it away with the back of his wrist, leaving an oily smear around his eye. In front of him, the water finally closed over the head of the man in the river, but Claudio wasn't watching. He was staring downstream, and thinking of Manhattan.