Friday, June 01, 2007

Story Time

Manuel Ramos

I am pleased to add my congratulations to my bloga hermana, Lisa Alvarado, and her writing partners, Ann Hagman Cardinal and Jane Alberdeston Coralin, and their wonderful book, Sister Chicas (2006, Penguin/NAL) for winning second place in the Mariposa Awards for Best First Book in English at the BookExpo in New York City. Way to go, Lisa, you make us proud! I'll take this opportunity to also remind our readers that Lisa will be the featured performer at the June 18 Proyecto Latina: More Than Poetry, at Tianguis, 7:00 PM, 2003 S. Damen, Chicago, call 312.492.8350 for the details. It's way cool to hang out with such a talented person, even if we only get together online.

Here's an unpublished story I wrote several years ago. I never tried to get it published so I must have thought it needed some work. In any event, this story is copyrighted by me, all rights reserved. What do you think?


The mountain air stimulated Corporal Martínez and it dawned on him that every sound, every smell was intense and vibrant. A reflection of the importance of his job, he thought. "Outpost duty is not so bad," he said to himself as he huddled near the campfire. "Except for the pig private."

He stared at the lump on the other side of the fire. The man infuriated him, almost made him physically sick. He was filthy, grotesque, and he smelled. Martínez understood that the private was in the federal army only because these were desperate times. Revolutions erupted in the countryside almost every month, or so the newspapers reported, and the government conscripts were men who had little value except that they could serve as bodies, numbers to swell the ranks, ineffective as soldiers. Private Santos should count for two, Martínez thought to himself, and that made him laugh. He quickly stifled himself, not because of fear that he would waken the private, the man could sleep through an earthquake, but because he was, after all, on outpost duty and bandits were in the area.

His task was to watch for them. He had been selected for duty in the most advanced position the government controlled and he believed that was an honor, an opportunity created by the turbulent times that would not have come his way in peace time. He was a professional soldier, a man who thought to make the army his life's work, if only the private didn't sabotage his efforts. Santos was lazy and obviously a coward. Corporal Martínez believed that only his superior military skills would save them if, indeed, they had to confront the bandits.

Martínez knew exactly what he would do when he faced the enemy. He excelled at planning. Military strategy was his specialty. He mapped out vast maneuvers and campaigns in his head or scratched them in the dirt. His chance would come with the clouds of dust kicked up by the bandits' horses when the historic showdown happened between the federales and the bandits. Martínez would make a wild dash back to the division headquarters where he could give his valuable information to the Colonel and help plan the counterattack. Martínez would impress the Colonel with his well-developed military knowledge. He would be given command of a squad of crack troops, the main thrust of the offensive, and his men would shout his name in glory as he led them to victory, fame and his own promotion to colonel.

Yes, he was blessed with the gift to plan.

The routine had been the same for weeks. Martínez watched and waited for the enemy. He moved his outpost to avoid discovery. The days passed slowly in the worn out countryside. Santos was his first companion since the assignment had been given to him.

The mountains were unchanging, gloomy mounds of earth that reminded him of the graveyard in his home town. Impatience for action played on his concentration and his thoughts wandered to memories of his home and family. When he thought of Antonia, her soft skin and long, thick hair, he felt a loss, a pang of homesickness. He abruptly shook his head, made the unwelcome feelings disappear. He thought again about the importance of his duty.

Where are they? Even I am tired of waiting. Why don't they come? They have to move through this valley. Maybe through one of the other arroyos. Then Hernández or Garcia will see them, report them to headquarters, and here I'll be, stuck in nowhere with this miserable slob. That can't happen. They have to come this way. They have to.

Santos snored, growled in his sleep and then rolled over like a fat bear in the zoo. Gray hairy insects crawled from under his hulk. The fire highlighted his mud-encrusted beard, testimony to his hard riding the past few days to get to the outpost. He had been in the attack at Zacatecas and then ordered to help Martínez. He dreamed of a naked woman, wanton and coarse.

Private Santos hated the army. He was a peón, a poor country boy with no special allegiance to the government or the rebels. He was forced to join the army and he accepted that as his fate, just as his poverty and struggle to survive were all part of life, part of the hand he had been dealt. He was taught in a week how to shoot, how to march and how to take orders and then thrown into battle against Villa's men. He killed to survive, without hatred or patriotic fervor. Now he waited in the desert, asleep and content that he would live another day.

The corporal did not affect him. The man had insane ideas about war. He obviously was ambitious, he talked high and mighty, and Santos knew that they had nothing in common. But that was life. One had to survive, that was one's obligation, one's duty.

Martínez kicked Santos's boot. "Wake up! Your watch. Wake up!" He kicked the sleeping man again.

The larger man woke, slowly, and then stretched his cramped legs and arms. He leaned close to the fire in an attempt to warm his chilled bones. He grabbed his rifle and stared off into the night. He asked for coffee. "I feel like I haven't eaten for days. What I wouldn't give for some lamb mole. Ay, anything except beans."

Martínez threw a scrawny piece of dried-up cholla on the fire. "We're lucky to have beans. If we cooked anything other than beans you can bet we'd have every bandit and coyote within ten miles sniffing around. With beans we're like every Indian around here. Anything else would be too suspicious. We have to manage with what we've got."

Santos snorted and moved his fat rear end off a rock. "You really think Villa is coming this way? You've been out here for how long, two, three weeks? Villa is long gone. He packed his men on the train and headed back north. They're probably in Juarez, maybe even the States. Long gone from around here."

"Don't say that. They'll come this way, I know it. They have to. They need to make a show of force to keep the peasants in line. If they retreat now they lose face and what little support they have. No, they'll come this way. They have to engage our troops one more time before they head north. They have to."

"If you say so. I'll let you know if I see anything. You'll be the first to know." Martínez could not see his smirk--the broad, toothy smile--in the darkness. Santos added, "If the enemy is near, this fire may be a mistake."

Martinez pretended not to hear Santos. His mumbled words drifted across the desert. "I've got to relieve myself. I'll be back in a quarter of an hour. Watch for me." Martínez walked into the desert. He was swallowed by the night.

"What an idiot." Santos drew a blanket tight around his shoulders and soon his eyes were heavy. He tried to focus on the horizon but all he saw was darkness, and he fell asleep. He dreamed again of the naked woman.

Mesquite and cactus hid Martínez as he squatted over the earth. Plans for elaborate military exercises filled his head as he waited for his bowels to move. He imagined leading an attack on Villa's camp. He saw himself wrestling the bandit leader to the ground and forcing him to surrender. Mexico's savior. Long live Martínez!

"Look at this boys. A federale, bare-assed out here where the snakes and lizards could bite his balls off!" The laughter of men surrounded Martínez before he knew he was captured. He tried to jump to his feet but he fell backwards, tripped by his pants. His naked legs clawed the air.

Martínez squealed, "What? Who? How did you?"

The men laughed again. One of them stood with a boot on the corporal's quivering belly. "How pretty this one is. It will be a shame to shoot such a handsome soldier." He poked at Martínez with his rifle. "Hey, pretty one. Want to have some fun?" The laughter was rough and strained. The men knew they had a short time to enjoy the game, then it had to end. The war had to be fought.

Martínez tried to make sense out of what had happened. Maybe he should try to make a run for it. But the boot heel dug into his guts and he was forced to squirm in his excrement. He tried to explain. "You can't do this. You have to ride in, I have to tell the Colonel. It can't be this way, my squad, the offensive, don't you see, don't you see?"

The men were silent.

The leader handed his rifle to one of the others. He pulled a handgun from his holster and placed the barrel next to Martínez' ear. "Too bad, pretty one. We can't use crazy prisoners, we can't take any prisoners. God forgive me.”

Santos thought he heard a shot but his dream was too vivid to turn loose. He was deep in sleep thinking that it was one of life's unexplained ironies, and, therefore, regrettable, that dreams did not come true.




Lisa Alvarado said...

It is my privilege, my honor, to have been asked onboard with the folks that keep opening doors in people's minds, shape literary discourse, and were kind enough to find Sister Chicas (Michael) and tell men and women why they should read it...I know that Ann and Jane were thrilled to read the Bloga review because they understood where it came from.

All of you, Michael, Manuel, Daniel, Rudy, Sol, Rene make me ask myself each week -- how can I be better, how can I bring my 'A' game....

It feels good for all 3 of us that we stuck to our guns and wrote about 3 girls 'who are smart, are deep and do not apologize for it.'

I am, blessed.

Lisa Alvarado said...

Manuel --this is disturbing, in a good way. It illustrates a sense of menace, of violence by implication......

msedano said...

the fire, the reluctance to cough at first struck me as contradictory, then you bring in the smell of cooking meat suggesting there might be fires all over the arroyo. ok, you tied up that detail in my ever-questioning mind. i see an "incident at owl creek bridge" growing out of his final moments, where he gets that chance to fight with valor, hand to hand, cussing screaming, bringing in the relief. Oh, maybe that's my fantasy from my outpost days. never mind.

Anonymous said...

I agree it needs work.

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Congratulations to Lisa! You make us proud! And what a powerful, disturbing story, Michael. Well done.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you all for taking the time to comment. It means a lot and I appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

14 June 2007

Of Fly Catchers and hidden lakes.

Of sleeping lizards and morning dew.

It is of birdsong and misty dawns

and fleeced clouds floating in a still pool.

The waters ripple awake in the gathering morn.

The first water birds head out for the far shore.