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It started with those speeches. You thought he didn’t believe any of it: the words, the threats, the fears just his way of keeping people interested, eager; primed. You didn’t want to write for him, but the call came one day and within an hour there was the black sedan outside the faculty window, waiting to pluck you from the university; a crow catching its snake. It set you down without a word outside the presidential palace.
In a wide, sun-filled room smelling of beeswax and, faintly, of sweat, you sat before his desk while he lectured you in his high, wheedling voice, his face as familiar as your own dead father’s, that face that fills the pages of the newspapers and hangs on the walls of post offices and bus stations and greengrocers in every town of this now-happy land. He flattered you that day, but you knew even then what his flattery meant. Only a fool mistakes the flaring of a match for sunshine.
In that first week you accompanied him on his afternoon walks around La Capital, along with the rest of his retinue. The President was the impresario of his own play, a play in which he had all the best lines and changed the plot every few minutes so that none of the other actors were sure what their next move should be. The streets closed before he walked along them and opened moments after he had passed, so that his passage was like a quotidian eclipse, both predictable and beyond ordinary understanding. He walked a little ahead of his retinue, making the more corpulent senators, ministers, flunkies, toadies and sycophants breathless, uneasy; unnerved. Trujillo had a habit of greeting those who least expected a greeting. He would, for instance, shout up to a woman hanging out her washing ‘And your son, Señora – José – is he well? Did you find the American shirts you stocked last month sold quickly? Your daughter – Isabel – when is her baby due?’ And these greetings, this knowledge he salted away about his citizens and flourished when it suited him, reminded each and every one of us, the loyal and the secretly disloyal alike, that he knew everything about everyone. Trujillo might as well have been in bed with us at night, inside our dreams and nightmares. He often was. That he wanted our love not our fear did not occur to us.
When the disturbances began, staged to make it seem as if it was the Haitians to blame, he didn’t ask you to get involved. There was a bad smell to them, a smell you couldn’t get out from under your nose: houses burned down, shootings, riots. But it wasn’t your business. All you had to do was write some more articles for the newspapers in the President’s name with loud headlines like ‘It’s time to secure the border!’ and ‘Why Haitians can never be good neighbours’. It wasn’t pretty, but when were you ever given a choice?
You got the sense something bigger was brewing when the President went off-grid for a couple of days. He popped up in Dajabon and made a speech to army officers you didn’t know anything about and couldn’t even find a transcript for afterwards. It’s then the rumours started swirling. You asked a few people in the office, but if they knew, they weren’t saying.
You get a telephone call at three in the morning. Trujillo tells you curtly, though no more curtly than usual, that he requires a short report. There’s been an ‘incident’ on the border. That’s what he calls it – an incident. He wants you to tell him exactly what has happened. You must see everything for yourself. Everything, he repeats.
‘Why me?’ you want to ask him. Why should you go out into the darkness and travel all that way to see something you had no hand in? Does he doubt your loyalty? Is this a test? That you’ve been called in the middle of the night is not so unusual. Trujillo rarely sleeps and issues his instructions when he pleases. You’re ready inside of twenty minutes, shaved and suited and standing outside the door so that you can walk quietly down to the waiting car and leave Alicia undisturbed. But she comes to you, God knows why, unsteadied by the night, her mouth forming and swallowing whatever it is she wants to say. She hasn’t grown accustomed to the black sedans, the denunciations, the sudden disappearances. As the car pulls away you look back and see her outline in the hall window, and know she’ll pass what remains of the night staring at the underside of her mosquito net.
Close to the border is a village of sorts, tin roof huts with packing case walls, the kind of place where cane cutters live. In the slim light of early morning you pick your way between the shacks, shouting out, waiting for someone to appear. You wonder where everyone has gone. Hearing movement, a cry, you step over to where a wooden pallet lies alongside a flimsy wall. You kick a dented saucepan and the sound of it, empty and mirthless, startles you. The pink-grey rope of a rat’s tail slips through a gap. “Hello?” you shout. You step into the hut, which smells of old food and dirty blankets. It takes a moment for you to see what lies before you: a child’s face, a girl’s. Her eyes and mouth are open and you think she must be the one you’d heard. “It’s alright now,” you say, “don’t be afraid.” Only then do you see your mistake. You even marvel at the cleanness of the cut, the decapitation making the little girl’s unmoving head as neat as an orchid flower snapped from its stem.
You stagger from the hut and vomit into a bush. Looking up you see a woman’s dress, stained and floral, stretched across two spindly branches of a jacaranda tree. From another branch a pair of torn blue dungarees dangle. Each of the few twisted trees growing between the shanties bears the clothes of the people who lived there, flapping in the treacly breeze, their sound like the slow beat of vultures’ wings.
Up ahead, a heap of torsos – thirty or forty bodies piled on top of each other, a twisted worm knot – lies beside the river that marks the frontier between Trujillo’s land and Haiti. You draw as close as you can, trying to count, but the tugging reek of human decay hits you hard and pushes you away, right down to the river itself. You throw yourself to your knees and plunge your hands into the churning mud-red waters, splashing and wiping your face until you believe you have washed away some of what you’ve seen. Every one of the bodies has been decapitated. Your round spectacles fall into the water, making you scrabble for them in the mud again and again until, finding them, you place them back on your nose.
Looking up from the river a row of men and women are watching you from the other side, from Haiti. You get unsteadily to your feet and shout over “What happened? What’s happened here?”
They gaze at you in silence. You shout again, this time in Creole “What’s happened here? Who’s responsible?”
Slowly, soundlessly, they turn away – all but one tall old man who remains, swaying and saying something, too quiet at first for you to hear. Even at that distance, even through dirty spectacles, you can see the old man’s eyes are cloudy with cataracts. “Bay kou, bliye. Pote mak, sonje,” the old man shouts across in a powdery voice. The one who gives the blow, forgets. The one who gets hurt, remembers. You know Creole as you know many tongues. It is a conjurer’s gift, or so your mother says. She’s suspicious of knowledge she does not possess herself and since you started working for Trujillo she will not have you in her house, won’t even look at you. It took you too long to understand what it was she did not wish to see. Now you know, it was this.
Downstream, there’s a bend in the river where more bodies are caught like twigs against the bank. Every minute or two, another floats by, bobbing in the flow as if it still has somewhere to go. Occasionally a corpse tips over in the current, revealing a gaping cut in its throat or a missing arm. The current carries the dead downstream and on to the sea. There, the sharks await them, for he is also President, even of the sharks.
You turn and walk heavily back up through the ragged, violated shantytown to where the car is waiting for you. Not far from the road you see a woman squatting in front of her hut, rocking on her heels. “What has happened here?” you ask her.
“Pelegil,” she moans into the dust at her feet. “Pelegil, pelegil….”
“What are you saying? Who did this?” You know you sound officious and you hate yourself for it, but you’re afraid of the likely sound of your sympathy, of what might pour out of you if you allow it to.
“Pelegil, pelegil,” she moans. A trail of spittle hangs from her mouth. She looks up at you without seeing you.
You reach the car where Cáceres, the driver, sits smoking, reading yesterday’s paper. Another vehicle has drawn up beside the black sedan; an army truck. Seeing you approach, a sergeant jumps down from the cab and, pistol drawn, approaches you. “What’s your business here?” he snaps, jittery. You look to Cáceres for reassurance but he juts out his bottom lip, eyes half-closed. Three more soldiers, all as dishevelled as the sergeant, jump out of the back of the truck. Bodies are piled inside, their stench hanging in the air.
Taking a sideways breath you try to compose yourself, yet now it is your officiousness that refuses to flow freely. There are tears at the back of your throat, prickling there, ready to turn you into a mewling infant. “I am secretary to His Excellency the President,” you squeak. “I’m here on his personal instructions.”
The sergeant, unshaven, raw-looking, struggles to focus.
“Would it be helpful if I showed you some identification?” You’re careful not to reach into your pocket without the soldier’s express permission. His pistol is still pointing straight at you. Your bowels are watery and you’re afraid you’re about to shit yourself. You try to think of the last time you did. You can’t remember and you take some slender pride in that; that it’s a while since you’ve shit yourself. ‘Look into the barrel of the gun,’ you tell yourself, ‘look into its steady, enthralling darkness and wonder if there will be anything to see if he pulls the trigger, whether there will be time to see the bullet fly towards you.’
The sergeant nods slowly and it takes a moment for you to remember what it was you’d said you’d do. You take from your pocket a warrant bearing the seal and signature of the President and hold it out to him in the merciful breeze. The sergeant fingers it, mouthing its words slowly and noiselessly, as if reading Braille. He looks up and blinks, unsure what to do next.
“What has happened here?” you ask again in your stricken voice.
“Some trouble,” says the sergeant, already turning away, “just some trouble.” He waves a hand towards the river that marks the frontier.
“What trouble?” you insist. You walk towards the soldier, staring not at him but at the barrel of the gun. It’s almost as if you want him to pull the trigger, to cut you down along with all the others.
The sergeant pushes you aside. “Haitian trouble,” he says, pulling himself wearily into the cab. A moment later the truck revs and bumps across the ground in the direction of the river, where you know enough bodies lie to fill a dozen trucks.
Out of the corner of your eye you see three small children, the eldest you think no more than seven or eight years old. They dart from hut to hut, their speed, the fact they’re living at all, as incongruous in this place as a gazelle inside a railway carriage. They are shirtless, wearing only filthy shorts. You intercept the oldest, placing your hand on her shoulder. She does not look up. “Where’s your family?” you ask, first in Spanish, then in Creole. You squat down on your haunches. “Are you hungry?”
Only then does she look at you. She nods.
She’s older than you first thought – twelve or so and you withdraw your hand, embarrassed. “Tell me what happened and I’ll get you something to eat.”
“They came. They came with machetes,” says the girl.
“The soldiers,” she says, flatly.
“The soldiers? The soldiers came with machetes?”
“Yes, sir. The soldiers came and sliced our mama and papa,” each word forming slowly and uncomfortably in her mouth like a stone.
“When did they come and slice your mama and papa?”
“Why? Why did it happen? Do you know why?”
“They said pelegil monsieur.”
“Pelegil,” she repeats, as if the meaningless word explains everything.
“Perejil, you mean…Perejil…parsley?”
“Yes sir, pelegil,” repeats the girl, her voice hoarse, almost a whisper. She, too, expects to die now.
You almost run back towards the car and when you reach it you slump, your hands flat on the hot black metal of its roof. Didn’t you put some line, some jokey sentence or two into a speech last week about the way a Haitian pronounces parsley? Words. They were only words you tell yourself.
You turn, ready to get in beside Cáceres when you see that the three children have followed you. They stand beside the car, their eyes resting emptily on your lips. “Can we have something to eat now…please?” says the girl.
You sense you’re about to do something reckless in the moment before you do it. You open the rear door and signal to the three children to climb in. Wordlessly they do as they are told, their scrawny bottoms sliding on the warm leather as they settle. You take the front seat beside Cáceres, but the driver says nothing. The children hold each other tightly, as if falling through air.
“To the barracks.”
Cáceres looks over his shoulder glaring at the filthy children, who stare back at him. Then he says something which, anywhere else, any other time, would seem absurd. “Are they alive?” he rasps.
At the entrance to the barracks, all over the Republic stands a small, bustling eatery that never closes, noisy with the shouts of off-duty soldiers, sticky with the meandering conversations of families on their way home from Mass, with the mutterings of old men playing chess and the seagull laughs of young men doing nothing at all. The driver brings the Packard to a halt and, reluctantly, leads the three children inside.
You walk to the gates of the army camp and present your papers. You’re allowed to pass with a surly, ironic, salute. A corporal falls in by your side to escort you to the commanding officer. As you walk across the dusty parade ground you pass a towering pile of machetes. Two boys throw buckets of water at it as inadequately as if at a stranded whale. Streams of bloodied liquid trickle away into the dust. “What are they doing here?” you ask, which elicits nothing more than a nervous laugh. “The machetes,” you repeat, “why are they here?”
The corporal moves a little ahead of you to avoid further interrogation.
On the other side of the wide courtyard is a doorway, beyond which you know you will find the commanding officer sitting in his smoky office. You slow down. You have nothing to say to him, no further questions to ask. What more explanation can there be? You know who is responsible and why. You will not have the courage to speak out, and that lack of courage makes you no better than those who did the killing. It was why the President called you in the middle of the night and instructed you to ‘see everything’, binding you to him with your silence. You look at your hands, as if you expect to see something there, blood or some other sign. You stop and stand for a moment before turning and walking back to the gate, leaving the corporal standing at the doorway, who watches your departure without curiosity or surprise.
At the eatery you see no sign of Cáceres or the three children. A fat woman parades behind the counter shouting out orders, taking requests, waving her pendulous arms.
She looks at you suspiciously. On any other day your city suit would mark you out, but today is a Sunday and you might just be a man on his way home from Mass. “Si?”
“Señora. Have you seen a man? My driver. I left him here with three children.”
Her dark face turns darker still, purple and thunderous. “Those stinking little Haitian runts? You left them here? You sent them into my restaurant?” she glances around, checking that she has caught everyone’s attention.
“But señora. They are children.”
She laughs. “Aren’t they the worst? Aren’t children the worst? Don’t they have the hungriest mouths? Don’t they grow and –”
You turn sharply and walk out, the silence which had descended when you’d entered already sheering away, marked first by a few whispers, then a laugh and, moments later, by cacophonous debate, a mudslide of contempt. Across the road you see Cáceres at the wheel of the Packard, the three children in a neat row on the back seat. To his credit the driver has bought them some fried plantain from one of the roadside stalls that are dotted along the dusty main street. “Thank you,” you say.
Cáceres nods. “Where to?”
“Back to Santo Domingo.”
The driver smiles.
You have made the mistake of using the capital’s former name. “Back to Ciudad Trujillo. Back there. To La Capital,” you say.
“The children? Shall I take them to the bridge?”
You turn to look at them. Perhaps you should take them to the frontier bridge, send them across, or try to find out more, spend time in Dajabón, ask questions. But you know there will be no answers. “No,” you say, “they’re coming with us.”
“They do smell bad,” says Cáceres.
Opening the glove box, you peer in and pull out a map, studying the thin red lines, the place names, the winding blue course of the river. You’ve always known the frontier river is called the Massacre, named for a battle between the French and Spanish some two hundred years before. But today, you think, today it has truly earned its name. “Is it possible, Cáceres…I mean do you think it possible for something to be named for its destiny?”
Cáceres slows the car, winds down his window and spits. He drives on in silence before saying “Who’s Cáceres? If you mean me, my name’s Asensio.”
It is already dark by the time you reach the outskirts of La Capital. Heavy drops of rain fall on the windscreen and bounce off the roof of the car, making it feel safe. The children have slept most of the way. When awake they stare out of the windows uncomprehendingly, never having seen the world slip by at anything faster than the speed of their own feet. “Take me to my house,” you instruct the man you now know to be called Asensio, “Wait while I send the children in. Then take me to my office. I need to submit my report tonight so it’s ready for His Excellency in the morning.”
“Okay,” says Asensio. “But then I’m going home. Get this. I’m not waiting for you while you type your stinking report. I’m knackered.”
You look at him in surprise before letting out a laugh, which makes Asensio laugh too, so that the two of you are laughing together, surprising yourselves with your need for it, unable to stop. The children sit up and lean forward, afraid and confused, as if laughter is something they’ve never heard before.
The front door opens a fraction as you and the three children walk up the steps to your home. It is a precise, newly-built house in the colonial style in a street of similar houses, each with its own gate and low wall, its diminutive portico and curving stairway, its domestic smells and bickering staff. Alicia stands in the rectangle of yellow light looking wan, worn-down by a day of worrying too much and doing too little. She smiles at you and then catches sight of the three children who trail in your wake. “Berto?”
“They’re,” you lower your voice to a whisper, “Haitians.”
She looks at you questioningly and then clasps a hand to her mouth.
“I thought we could…” you turn to look down at the children, who seem impossibly small lined up in front of your doorway in the faint evening light. “I don’t know what I thought,” you say, suddenly defeated by it all, by the day and the death, by the knowledge you now have, that you didn’t want. “I thought we could clean them up. Let them rest, I don’t know. Then maybe you could find someone to take them.”
It’s hard for you to judge your wife’s reaction with her face half hidden behind her hand until she emits a muffled squeak and you realise she’s laughing. “Yes!” she says, “Yes, of course!” The children look up at her, frightened. “What are their names?”
“Names? I…” You have not asked.
Alicia leans down to the eldest. “Do you speak Spanish?” she asks her, gently.
The girl bites her lip. She shakes. Then she speaks “Pelegil, señora. Pelegil.”
Alicia, puzzled, bends down so that she’s level with the girl and places her right hand softly on her cheek. “You are safe now. Truly….” She winces, as if trying to wipe something from her mind and turns next to the boy but he pulls away from her. Still Alicia gives him a soft caress on his cheek, making him squirm. Before she can reach the smallest, a girl of only four or five, the child has reached into the pocket of her grubby shorts and fished something out. At first her hand makes a tight fist, but slowly she opens her fingers to reveal a tiny peg doll dressed in a shred of cloth, a fragment of floral dress.
Alicia takes the doll, giving the girl a light kiss on her cheek and stands with a sigh, as if she has been holding her breath. Turning to you she places a hand on your cheek, just as she had with the children, leaving her smell of cinnamon and jasmine. She gives you her half vanishing smile. Sometimes you wonder whether she feels anything at all other than regret, but seeing her now, seeing her lift the smallest in her arms and carry her into the house, you begin to feel the world possesses other possibilities, both more and less terrible than the ones you already know.
Sean is a prizewinning short story writer, winner of the 2015 Manchester Fiction Prize for his story ‘Snake Charm’ and the 2017 Fish Short Story Prize for ‘Dead Souls’, inspired by a visit to Gogol’s house in Moscow. His short stories have appeared in The Moth magazine, in Staple and in the Bridport Prize Anthology 2014. His chapbook ‘A Flood in the Yucatan’ was published by The Short Story in 2017. Visit his website www.seanlusk.com and follow him on twitter @seanlusk1