The screams come and go in this place. They drift from every shadowed corner and every tomb-sized cell, and they bounce and deform through metal bars and hallways of concrete and stone. They mingle with the echo of patrolling boots and the clash of tapping batons and they dance amid each imprisoned groan whispered in fractured anguish and muted panic. There is no escape from their guilt-ridden chorus and here behind these walls, I have listened to them erupt from the mouths of sleeping men and I have heard them drown in fading gurgles. I have waited for them to collapse in the disjointed span of a final gasp and I have seen them go on and on at the turn of a knob and the crack of a spark. I have become an expert of their wailing pitch, their shrieking volume and their howling length, and when I am at home in bed, they linger in my ears, blurred and indistinct, and they serenade my dreams in a melody, distant and elusive.
But as the climax of our himno nacional soars throughout the prison, the yelps and cries have all stopped. The extremists and subversives and terrorists are motionless and silent, and like me, every guard is at attention, chins lifted, arms frozen in a proud salute. It is the morning ritual here and while the recorded trumpets blaze from high speakers, I must stand and ignore the throb in my knee and the tremble of my leg. I must clench my jaw and make sure I do not shift, do not give in because this pain is a memento of my service to our gran república. It is how I show the animals and monsters around me that I will fall before I quit, will die before I quit. I will wait until the last note has vanished and I am still at attention when the anthem ends and a whimper makes me turn to the naked ricachón being dragged past the guardhouse door, his limbs twitching, his fat lips mewling, “¡Por favor-por favor-por favor!”
I sneer because from the moment he arrived, I knew he was pampered and soft, and my stomach turned at the mere sight of him. His begging sounded across the exercise yard even before they removed his hood and I could tell instantly he had lived ambivalent and unaffected while patriots have bled and sacrificed for this country. That alone made him guilty and sighing amid the blubbering refrain of his tears, I move to my seat and resume my watch. I trace the catcalls of his fellow prisoners, the greetings of his fellow traitors and I take a deep breath at the clank of shutting doors and the unsettling return of the empty quiet.
“¡A la gran puchica!” Arcelio says, entering the guardhouse. “The rich pisado started crying like a niñita the second we took his clothes and made him stand there with his arms out. We never had to touch him. Can you believe it?”
“So he talked?”
Arcelio fingers his polished leather belt. “Well . . . no. Not yet. For the first hour, he just whined about how we’d made a mistake: how he was a businessman and not a comunista — the usual bullshit. After another hour or two though, he claimed to have no idea where his daughter was. He says he hasn’t spoken to her in months but I could tell he was lying. And if they’d let us take him downstairs we could—”
“We have our orders.”
“Well, those orders are a waste of time if you ask me. I mean, who cares if he has friends in high places or if he knew the last presidente? A traitor is a traitor, v’a’? I say we take his fat ass to the basement and strap him to the chair. One look at our little machine and—”
“Orders,” I repeat. “And believe me, I’m not happy about it either but they were very specific: no extreme measures. We’re to use an informant — namely, the indio from Sayaxché.”
“You’re kidding. Didn’t he confess to . . . What was it? Sabotage?”
“Same thing. Why would—”
“The file says the ricachón’s family had property in Petén,” I interrupt. “Maybe they’ll share a fond memory or two of walking in the mud for hours and sweating their asses off — that’s what I did up there. Personally, I agree with you; it’s a waste of time because you can’t trust indios. All they know is lies and the only thing worse than trusting one is turning your back on one. Mierda, if I learned anything in the army, it was—”
“Ah, but you’re not in the army anymore, vos. Remember? Besides, they gave us twenty-four days so maybe it’ll work out.”
“It won’t. Trust me.”
“You’d know better than I would,” he states, nodding and stroking his moustache. “I just wish I could’ve been there when you turned this indio. How’d you do it, by the way? Was it a threat of castration or did you use the one about violating him with a Coca-Cola bottle?”
“Neither,” I reply. “I merely gave him a choice: help us or lose the bottoms of his feet.”
“¡Madre de Dios, vos! You didn’t really tell him that, did you?”
At my shrug, Arcelio chuckles.
“How these zoquetes can keep fighting with so many gullible fools on their side is beyond me,” he proclaims. “I still remember the look on that one campesino’s face when you said you’d break the bottle in his ass after you finished raping him with it. I swear I’ve never seen anyone so eager to sign a confession . . . But I don’t know about this. An informant will take months, v’a’?”
“If not longer.”
“So what do we do in twenty-four days when he doesn’t talk?”
Again, I shrug.
“Well,” he says, “if we don’t have to put in too many late nights, I suppose I don’t really care — I have a new caspiana, see, and she gets upset when I’m . . .”
I stop listening because he can babble for hours about his romantic conquests, never realizing how annoying it is, never realizing how much it makes me question his commitment. He has only been here a few months and I do not fully trust him yet; he seems ignorant and shallow and more interested in drinking and parties than his job. And yes, I try to remember he is young and those are the things young people do. I try to forgive him for those things, those faults but when I start, I find that I cannot remember what it was like to be young. I cannot remember flirting with girls or bragging over cervezas. I cannot remember going to movies or dancing in cantinas or what it was like to live without the sounds of trumpets and screams.
I can only remember all these years of war, of La Violencia and of this struggle we cannot, must not, lose.
The room smells of fear sweat and urine, and as the indio goes on, I scowl at his ruddy face and try to forget the guerrillero in the Selva Petén who ruined my leg so long ago. He too was dirty, conniving and disloyal, and he too stared at me with dark, inscrutable eyes. He begged for his life with the same puling, illiterate accent and, unable to stand it anymore, I hit the table with my palm and growl, “What makes you think I care about the ricachón’s granddaughter, you shumo aguambado?”
“Nothing, señor,” sputters the indio. “It’s just . . . when he mentioned she was starting primary school, I thought—”
“Did I ask what you thought?”
“No, señor, I—”
“Then why are you doing this? You’ve been with him for almost two weeks. Do you really expect us to believe he hasn’t said anything of value?”
“I’m sorry, señor. I’m doing everything you told me to. He just won’t—”
“Bullshit,” I mutter. “You’re lying. We both know it. And one of these days . . . Ah, enough of this. Arcelio! ¡Vonós! Help me take this pedazo de mierda back to his cell.”
My fellow guard steps from the corner and hauls the traitor to his feet and once again, I mumble how none of these indios can be trusted. Eventually, we will have to find another tactic to get what we want and as I follow them out, I squeeze the handle of my baton and pray we have not wasted too much time on this scheme. I pray my superiors will not regret using this criminal because in the end, it will be the innocent who suffer. It will be their bodies strewn across the calles, their blood drenching the avenidas. I know this because I was there on the fifth of September and I have seen firsthand the pain these terrorists cause and the disorder in which they thrive. I saw the car bombs detonate outside the Palacio Nacional and I watched the smoke plumes of oil and gasoline pour into the sky. I smelled the burning flesh and heard the wails of misery and for hour after endless hour, I stood helpless and impotent.
For most of my life, my nation had been fighting but to me, those years of conflict were nothing but images on a television screen. I was a student and a civilian then and I too was ignorant and ambivalent. My thoughts were the selfish ones of a child but amid the wreckage of that day, amid the blare of sirens and the stench of death, I saw our flag standing above the Plaza de la Constitución. It was covered in soot, its edges were tattered but under the flap of its soiled colors, I saw the truth and understood what had to be done, what sacrifices had to be made.
We advance past checkpoints and down corridors and I find an uneasy sense of disquiet growing within me. The air is thick, the light is dim and, confined by mute echoes, I feel the shadows pacing just beyond the edges of my vision like they once did in the jungle. Within the cells, bodies shamble in the darkness, conversations are mouthed unheard and I move up behind the indio as he attempts to make himself crumpled and small. He is trying to seem injured, to seem harmless. He thinks he is fooling us, thinks we are all naive and when we stop in front of his cell, he turns and looks at me. He nods and tries to smile and I picture him cheering before his television on that day in September. I imagine him dancing and laughing at the remains of shredded women and babies, and I squeeze the baton even tighter.
A winter storm has crossed the low mountains to the south and it pries into my bones and assaults my knee in dull, throbbing pulses. It came in with charcoal clouds and raking thunder and hammering torrents of rain, and here in the interrogation room, the monotonous dripping of water falls to the rhythm of a ticking clock. It splashes unseen and pervasive over mold-slicked corners and along with the pain, it resurrects memories of patrols and battles and times when we did not play games with our enemies, times when we solved problems with machetes and hammers, a match to a roof or an emptied ammunition clip. The stink of mildew and rot is everywhere and at any moment, I expect to hear the grunts of howler monkeys and the crack of falling branches. I can almost feel the crush of leaves under my boots and relive the dread of stepping in the wrong place or missing the sniper in the trees.
Up in the guardhouse, the thunder vibrated the coffee on my desk but in the basement where I am, a gnawing stillness lingers. It coils around the flesh and it maneuvers and constricts across my aching limbs. The room stinks of cigarettes and nervous perspiration, and Arcelio has been ranting about tying the ricachón’s hands behind his back, lifting him off his feet by the wrists and leaving him there until his shoulders tear from the sockets.
He does not know what he is talking about but things can turn dangerous when the silence becomes heavy and I am thankful we have been told to separate the indio and the ricachón for it gives us something to do. The command is another useless ploy for our nation could be attacked again at any moment and we do not have time to coddle irrelevancies or contemplate lies from traitors. But I cannot disobey. After all, our informant has had three weeks to accomplish his mission and he has failed — as I always knew he would — and at precisely nine o’clock, I gather the other guards to do what our superiors have ordered.
We mount stairs and pass empty rooms and it is difficult to hear anything besides the storm’s distant turmoil. We continue to march though and soon the walls resonate with the tap-tap-tapping of our batons and a frantic hush consumes everything before us. The murmurs that once bounced like ricocheting bullets stall and I picture the inmates scrambling to hide, their bodies trembling, their hearts roaring in panic. This too is a ritual and we want them to cower at the slightest reverberant noise, to pray to the fissure of soiled light streaming beneath their doors and we want them to experience the same terror they relish, the same fear they have caused.
The entire section must pay for the indio’s failure and at the creak of unlocking gates and the thud of our boots, appeals for mercy fill the air. We open their cells one by one and at every turn of a key, the forlorn supplications climb and seep into one another. The inmates squint into the hard glare of the light and attempt to cover their faces. They shrink and huddle under their bunks. They grovel in corners and they howl when they are dragged into the open. Within seconds, I am unable to separate the curt shrieks from the labored wails as they implore and promise in ever-rising desperation. They declare both their innocence and their guilt. They denounce each other and attempt to scamper away like frightened dogs. It does not matter, for none of them will escape and the batons swing until the impact of wood against flesh and the smack of tissue slammed into concrete devour the calls for mercy. It continues from one end of the hall to the other and once there is no one left conscious, no one left to sob, I tap on the indio’s door and whisper his name.
For eight hours, a crescendo of shrieks and groans has sung throughout the prison; and for eight hours, the ricachón has seen and wept and tried to turn away. Bruises cover the indio’s swollen face. His teeth litter the floor and cigarette burns in the pattern of our flag dot his back. I have lost count of the fist strikes and the choking gasps of water vomited from straining lungs but for eight hours, the rich man has stood and witnessed and told us nothing.
The ricachón watched us put the indio in the iron chair and attach wires to his camarada’s ears, his nipples and finally to his cojones. He uttered a soft “No” when our little machine came to life with a hard click. He flinched at the surge and the hiss of the clamps searing into flesh. He winced when his friend’s muscles and tendons contorted, and he gagged on the reek of singeing hair floating from the indio’s lap. With each symphonic click and pulse and screeching roar of anguish, I asked a single question but the ricachón has refused to answer. For eight hours, the only sounds he made were the mewling of his tears and his wasted pleas for us to stop.
The ricachón cringes in the late afternoon sun and squirms in Arcelio’s hands. The sky is cloudless and the day is bright and before he collapsed, the indio has managed to stagger three entire meters without the soles of his feet. He twists, he screams and he tries to halt the spurts of blood from his limbs but every time his broken fingers caress the bare muscles, his body jerks and another scream churns from his throat.
Meandering trails of crimson stain the gravel and sand, and I throw the knife into the ground and slowly walk toward our informant. This squealing cockroach has cost me fifty quetzales and, gazing at his capering form, I think about how this is the way we should deal with all of our enemies. Instead of wasted effort on clever plots, we should have started with this. We should have shown the rich man what happens to traitors and anyone helping them. We should have shown him our mettle the first day, the first hour, the first second he arrived. We should have proven to him that we will never allow these animals to be victorious, will never again let car bombs obliterate innocent children or stand idly by as our country is humiliated.
The ricachón clenches his jaw but does not say anything. He does however, turn to me and glare. The look is almost a fearless one and I am preparing to snap his nose with the barrel of my pistol when a car pulls into the yard. Its license plates have been removed, its windows are dirty and opaque, and when a member of the judiciales opens the back door and nods to me, I chamber a round in my pistol and shoot the worthless, unneeded indio.
First in the legs . . .
Then in the head.
“Did you get that?” I ask.
Arcelio glances up from the floor. “What?”
“Did you get that?”
He hesitates, grimacing and nibbling his lip. “Yes, señor,” he finally sputters. “The Vargas plantation outside Champerico. She’s been there for at least seven weeks.”
I can barely hear him over the sobs and I wave to the body on the bloodstained concrete.
“We’re done,” I say. “Take him to the guardhouse so he can sign the confession.”
Arcelio continues to stand there. He is pale and I sigh and pat his shoulder.
“Don’t let this bother you,” I tell him. “This was his choice. He could’ve talked earlier but he didn’t. How long have we been at this and how many different answers has he given? A dozen? Two dozen? No. This was the only way and you heard him; he admitted his daughter’s a terrorist and he’s a traitor. This had to be done and because of it, we’ve probably saved lives. These animals are relentless and merciless and they are absolutely committed to killing us. Me. You. Your parents. Your caspianas. Trust me; I know them. And up in Champerico, his daughter could be doing anything: planning a kidnaping or another attack, building a bomb or perhaps something worse.”
He nods slowly and, fumbling with the handcuffs, he begins to drag the old man from the room. The ricachón begs to stay however; he shouts and weeps and he tries to crawl to me with useless promises flowing from his lips. It is pathetic and Arcelio curses and strikes the fat, pampered body. He repeatedly swings his baton and he turns the pleas to groans and mingles the blubbering tears with dripping blood. He then hauls the criminal down the corridor and soon the only things left are the scrapes of dragging feet and the occasional grunt of a distant kick.
The noises are almost pleasant ones to me for they mean our young Arcelio is learning. He is learning how every terrorist and subversive must be punished. He is learning that treason and indifference are the same thing and he is learning that every citizen must be a patriot in order for our gran república to survive. There are no half-measures in this war and that is why I stand every day and wait for our himno nacional to ring throughout these halls of concrete and stone. I will always take a deep breath and clench my jaw, and I will always maintain my stance until the very last verse has ended, the very last note has faded into the air. The throbbing in my knee, the tremble of my leg, these are things that must be endured because our nation deserves — indeed, it requires — nothing less. And so I lift my chin and level my shoulders. I ignore the stench of burnt flesh and the blood and tears on my boots. I ignore the monotonous drip of water oozing from the shadowed corners and as our anthem’s proud call swallows her unconscious whimpers, I ignore the ricachón’s granddaughter in the iron chair and raise my hand in a crisp salute.
J. Paul Ross is a Phi Alpha Theta graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver and a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Border Crossing, The MacGuffin and Serving House Journal. Currently, he is working on a novel set along the Pan-American Highway.