At night the soldiers slept, the prisoners prayed and the jungle shrieked with life.
Tomas retrieved his small burlap sack from its hastily dug hole and crept from the matted grass where he and the other boys slept. Worried one of them would awaken, trail him and horn in on his loot, he warily surveyed the faces he passed. The score of sleeping boys alternately cringed from their nightmares or lay comatose from exhaustion. Tomas hid behind a tree encircled by barbed wire and listened for boots and grunts. If the soldiers caught him, they’d kill him. Boys in rags stole; men in uniforms confiscated. Though he disobeyed the soldiers, “Tomas the Troublemaker” (as the orphanage’s mean nuns called him) understood why they did what they did. Birthing a new nation where no one was poor required everyone doing their duty. Those who did lived; those who didn’t died. Okay. Anyway, these dangerous forays into the jungle were training for that glorious day he’d be a soldier not a scavenger. But he was poor now.
Hearing nothing, he slipped through the barbed wire. Adrenaline coursed through limbs thinner than the diet of cold gruel the soldiers fed him and the foraged fruit the kind captain snuck him; and, too soon, sweat stung his sunken eyes, which had seen too much in his 13 years of what passed for life in this war-ravaged land. He slipped past a drunken sentry and trudged barefooted down the dirt and stone road leading from the camp through the jungle. Guttural howls pierced his ears then wafted off on the torpid wind. Tomas froze, reached into his burlap sack and covered his face with a threadbare red handkerchief to block the stench that rose with every step nearer the pit.
The smell made him queasy and he cursed himself. Would he ever be tough enough to be a real soldier in the Grand Army of the People that had stuck a gun in his back, a cause in his head and liberated him from exploitation? The army’s “Liberation Raid” was the most exciting thing that had happened in Tomas’ wretched river village since the cholera epidemic 10 years ago that killed the parents and sister he never knew. At first, he was frightened when the captain commanded the troops to burn his rickety orphanage and arrest the nuns who rapped his knuckles until they bled and he learned. Now, thanks to the captain, he’d learned what must be done to re-create a people despite themselves. Hadn’t the revolution already almost changed him from “nobody” to “somebody”? The revolution must move forward! … And he must, too.
He set his chin to the wind, plodded the final yards to the clearing, checked to see if another boy had followed him and slumped beneath a tree by the rim of the pit. Certain he’d uncover more valuable items than what already filled it, Tomas used a jagged stone for a table and emptied his burlap sack — two coins, a medal’s tattered ribbon, an empty pen, a broken belt buckle and a mismatched pair of socks. He envied how the disciplined soldiers like the captain could afford to ignore such riches. He’d share their virtue and their booty once the revolution’s “Popular Equality” raised him higher than the gates of the rich bastards’ mansions — temples to inequality built on the backs and blood of people like him! The manifesto the captain recited to them every morning was deathly accurate: in the face of the people’s suffering, the rich never looked anywhere but away. Tomas glared through the pit’s steamy mists.
Its rim brimmed with the criminal elite’s corpses — monopolists, intellectuals, artists, priests and other irredeemable deviants blind to the nation’s “New Dawn.” From the mangled, tangled bodies’ blackened, bloated faces, bulging eyes glassily stared back at Tomas as he sidled on his empty stomach over the edge. On his first trip to the pit, he’d rushed forward too fast, slipped into the pit, scrambled out of cadavers and scurried back to camp trying not to vomit and get caught. Undaunted, he’d grown stronger and smarter: surveying new prisoners’ possessions and noting what the state didn’t confiscate. Some nights, there’d be nothing worth scavenging from the pit and he’d sleep; tonight, there’d be something, if it wasn’t buried too deep to retrieve.
He sifted a curtain of black flies from his face. “Yes!” he wheezed through his red handkerchief’s worn, moist cotton. He jockeyed to the left, stretched over the dead and easily captured one of his trophies. It was a serviceable shoe of thin, coarse leather with the remnant of a sole. He put it on. Even if worn with his mismatched socks, the shoe was too big, but he’d grow into it. Leaning back over the pit, he pulled at the second shoe. It was stuck. He drew a deep, moldy breath, clutched the corpse’s slick leg, cursed and tugged and twisted …
The ankle cracked and snapped. Tomas flew backwards. Bone smacked stone, and a tart mix of blood and sweat trickled under his red handkerchief onto his parted lips. He swallowed, yanked off his red handkerchief and pressed it against his sticky, dripping wound at the back of his head. A numb fatigue descended over him like the stars cluttering his eyes. Vainly scouring the pit for the second shoe, he spotted something shiny in the unshod body’s mouth. Despite the lightning pain scraping his tired brain, he pried three damp scraps of paper from the thick purple lips.
Sprawling beneath the tree, he gingerly placed his bloody handkerchief between the stone and his wound, and raised the scraps toward the faint moonlight. A light smirk bathed his face, as he recalled how, when the army detained that sadist Sister Theresa, she whispered to him, “Troublemaker, don’t tell them you can read.”
“Damn it,” he spat, the taste of blood lingering on his tongue. It was a note, but it wasn’t money, just another prisoner letter never delivered. What idiot thought it would do anything but incriminate its recipient?
“The Poet.” Tomas recalled the arrogant bastard who refused to be re-educated before he got shot. The soldiers made an example of this “enemy of the people.” After the soldiers’ boots and rifle butts pummeled this prick to the pit, they bound his hands, shoved bullets up his nose and this note down his throat and then tossed him onto the bodies littering the pit. The criminal’s bloodshot eyes bugged as a deepening violet hue swept his suffocating face; his silenced lips quivered, perhaps begging the troops to put him out of his misery. A merciful man, the captain did. It was the camp’s most memorable execution — except for the girl.
Tomas’ eyelids slunk down over his dilated pupils in his losing battle against the sultry sleepiness entwining him. Was this note for her? The stiffening wind rustled the foliage and cooled his skin’s sheen of sweat and grit. He should be heading back now. The captain rose before dawn. But his body ached as badly as his head. He decided to read the scraps as he rested for just a moment …
His memory melded with the message:
Maria, My Wife, My Life,
It’s night. The guns are silent. The troops have grown tired from squeezing the trigger. I’ll never know how they sleep. Sometimes I wonder if you sleep, or if the cool evening breeze carries the ghost of lost love to haunt you with thoughts of what was and what won’t. How my mind races and wastes in the seconds until eternity.
Sleep, My Love, for me.
And in the morning they woke her.
Her arms cramped from holding the child.
Why do I ramble in the stolen moment? I cannot waste it. It came too dear. The guard was needy, and I bribed him with what little left was mine. Only and always for you, My Love —
Even the truth.
They led her past the orchid beds.
Sunlight bathed and caked the titian soil.
Has it been a year since we lived as one breath? One body? One soul! No, My Love, your memory never ebbs, only my dreams for us … and Jorge. In this earthly purgatory, how my dreams dim is how I measure time. Oh, Maria, what would we be if I’d loved a person not a people?
Yes, it’s been a year.
And they mocked the good man’s name,
His legacy dreaming in her arms.
My life commenced the moment we met — that day when in the depths of your brown eyes I only saw my sky circling your earth, hovering above your fertile fields and raining irrelevance from the tip of my pen as I tried to capture the treasure of you in worthless verse. But I was blinded by lesser events.
Oh, to be rooted again!
They leered and pinched and prodded —
She stumbled with the weight of the child.
Still, you loved and indulged and prayed. I’d remember politics is an affliction for poets. Heedless me, I chased myths in the shadows while the truth shone in you.
Damn me. I should have loved you and Jorge enough to bound my dreams by the hearth of home.
Propped against the pock-marked wall,
Her aching back strained and straightened.
Dawn breaks and I tire of the wait.
She clutched the stirring child
To the silence of her breast.
There is no time in Heaven — only love.
In the morning they buried her,
Her arms cradled around the child.
Sweltering in the morning sun, the captain wearily reproached the private with a disgusted sigh.
The private’s bayonet stopped sifting through the trash beside rock. “So much for the spoils of war,” he nervously joked.
The captain ignored him, unlike the heartburn he had from his breakfast. It slipped up his esophagus as he bent near the edge of the pit and touched his cold pistol to the warm corpse’s eye. “At least you take orders better than the camp cook.”
The private smiled.
“Granted, he was unarmed and asleep,” the captain added.
The private’s smile vanished.
The captain holstered his pistol. “Put him in.”
The private kicked the corpse’s shattered skull until the entire body slithered into the pit. He stooped, picked up a red rag and wiped the blood from his boot. “One of ours?” the private casually asked.
“One of those,” he said, nodding toward the pit. His stomach rumbled from his greasy rations and his eyes darted around the ground. “Hand me those.” The private obeyed. The captain judiciously measured the scraps of paper. Suddenly, he flushed, stuffed the scraps in his pocket and hastened back toward camp.
The startled private hustled to keep up. “Find something, Sir?”
Guitarist Thaddeus McCotter is a simple country lawyer from Detroit and a recovering Congressbum.