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Lilia crouched on the bank of the Rio Grande, waiting in darkness among shapeless trees with Carlos, the twins, and another man and a boy Carlos had met near the river. Lilia could swim, having grown up beside the sea, but she sensed the boy’s fear. His father fastened a rope about the boy's waist and looped the other end around his own wrist. Carlos inflated a large trash bag, and gave it to the child to hold as a floatation device. A full hour yet before daybreak Lilia could barely see the ribbon of murky water stretching before her. Carlos cautioned them. “Don’t take that river lightly. It is far deeper and far stronger than you imagine.” Lilia could make out the boy clutching his father’s hand, but she could see little else and wished she could swim the river in daylight instead of at this moonless pre-dawn hour, when everything about her felt strange and hidden. “Go,” Carlos said. The group scrambled down the muddy bank into the slippery shallows. Weeds brushed Lilia's bare ankles like snakes slithering, parting for her entrance. The river was cool and swift, and when Lilia was chest-deep, she swam, visualizing remnants of Carlos gliding from her body like scales. The others were behind her now. She could barely distinguish the silhouette of a lone tree on the far bank, and it became her focus. She swam toward it, but the current pushed her down the river. Soon she could no longer see the tree but thrust herself toward the bank. She considered the boy, tethered to his father, being dragged over and under and across this river like a fish snagged on some hook.
She crawled up the steep bank, the muck caking her hands and legs. Like a sightless creature emerging into a dark and secretive world, she searched the river for the others, listening. The air smelled and felt the same as on the Mexican side, and she discerned the same discarded cans and man-made debris on this bank as well. How odd that the great land of opportunity existed this mundanely. What had she expected? Trees sagging with ripe fruit? Fountains of cool, fresh drinking water or Coca-Cola? One of the twins clambered out of the river beside her, but neither the man with his son or the other twin had surfaced. The first twin and Lilia watched and listened. Within moments Lilia perceived the splashing struggles of the man and his boy just a few meters away, and she swam out to them. She reached for the boy's flailing hand and helped him to the shore. The terrified boy's grip hurt her fingers, but Lilia held tight until he released her, safe in the tall grass, where they crouched, waiting. At the first hint of dawn Lilia noticed the boy's raw skin oozed red in a ring around his hips, belly and lower back where the rope tether had cut into him. Lilia thought of the fish the men caught at the pier in her village: flopping, eyes bulging, lifeblood oozing where hooks ripped flesh. The boy's face revealed his pain, but he barely whimpered. He understood the expense, the seriousness of this endeavor. They sat in high green-brown grass, scanning the swirling surface in silence, save for their labored breathing. A cool breeze blew, and Lilia hugged her knees to her chest, surveying the distant shoreline where Carlos stood, a small, dark dot on the green edge of her homeland. Carlos waved to them, then slipped beneath foliage and out of her sight. She prayed she would never see him again.
The other twin did not emerge, and his brother paced the bank frantically calling to the river. After ten minutes, Lilia and the man and his boy had to proceed, to meet their contact on the American side. The twin would not leave his brother behind, and he jumped and ran along the shore with grief and confusion, crying and cursing and pleading to God. Lilia and the others left him there beside the river, along with the rope and the trash bag that had carried the boy across the water. They followed the bank to a patch of abandoned cars Carlos had told them to find. The vehicles were strewn about like bones from some forgotten massacre. They were to climb inside, hide, and not show themselves until someone approached and called out the name Juan. Lilia recalled Carlos's instructions: “You may see others hiding like you. You'll have no need to speak to them, no need to answer when someone approaches and calls out Pedro or José or Jesús. You listen for Juan. When you hear this name, you move quickly to him, and he will take you on your way.” Lilia, shivering from wet clothes and exertion, chose a car similar to the others: paint long gone, make and model indiscernible, front seat and steering wheel missing. She curled into the back seat. The interior, sun-bleached and ragged, looked to have once been red, and strips hung from its ceiling like a weathered tapestry. The interior smelled of others who'd come before Lilia, a distinct human essence. This car graveyard seemed unlikely cover for those seeking a better life. Weeds grew through the rusted-out floorboard. Tiny purple blossoms at the tips of long, thin stems reached for the morning sunlight streaming through the broken window. Lilia fingered a determined stem, bending the tiny blossom to her nose, but it released no scent. She'd never seen
this species in her village, and understood her future would be filled with experiences new and strange. “Victor.” She heard the word clearly and froze. Again, “Victor.” The sound was a man's voice, deep, hoarse. Lilia imagined the burly man behind the sound. She imagined she heard the slightest shuffling outside, and she dared not move. Silence resumed. She had heard neither the man's approach nor departure. She had heard nothing save for the calling of the name, but she knew those waiting for Victor had departed. The creaking of the car door centimeters from her face startled Lilia, and she gasped, but did not scream, when a man crawled onto the seat beside her. Their eyes met, and he seemed wary of Lilia, like one who comes upon a snake in the weeds. He was not the twin feared drowned but a dark-eyed stranger wearing gray denim pants and a faded brown t-shirt, both wet, as was his hair. His silent nod said both “I will not hurt you” and “You will not harm me in return.” She acquiesced, made room for him. He folded himself onto the seat beside her, careful not to touch her as he pulled the rusted door closed behind him. They did not speak but remained sequestered, each to a side of the seat like mice caged together for the first time, unsure but aware they were both in new territory. She wondered about his story, his hometown, his family. Did he have children? Was he gentle? Corrupt? She considered all she would endure to get to America, what others such as this man beside her had to endure. She wished to say to the man that this experience made them see each other the way a dog sees a dog in the street or a bird sees another bird in a tree, but she said nothing and stared at her hands. Lilia believed the man beside her would not harm her. How could she know this? Everything now seemed reduced to its base; humanity had been stripped to skin and bone and pounding
hearts, to the rise and fall of breasts praying to get beyond this point, to another place. She understood that she and this man awaited their fates, the completion of journeys begun so that one day they would experience the sweetness of hoping for more than their ancestors could have considered. “Juan.” The word broke the silence, and Lilia looked at the man beside her who had also heard the call. This was not the name he awaited. As she nudged the door open, the man nodded farewell to her. She slipped out, careful not to crush the purple flowers that stretched toward the light.
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