Higher Ground

My Papa madly bushwhacked, certain we could out chase death. He bent over like a crooked stick, beating the vegetated earth into a submission of passage. Mama carried her two prized chickens, one under each arm. The sound of the clucking echoed strangely within such dense jungle growth. I feared the bad men would hear their squawking, but I kept my fears under my shoes. With each step, I smashed panic into the ground, grinding it into dark, murky dust lost in the sea of roots. Still, I was relieved when Mama hung those noisy birds upside down. Then, they grew muted and fell into the deep slumber of the innocent.

The waters of our poisoned streams had come along us. Thick, humid air covered our skin, seeping through the damp clothing. I was afraid to breathe and took in hesitant, shallow breaths. Some more unblemished children might worry that they might become pregnant after swallowing a watermelon seed. But me? I suspected that with just one wrong inhale, the spirits of the slaughtered would enter, reducing my body to the same dissolved corruption as the many bodies we had witnessed floating in polluted streams and riverbeds.

Suddenly, so unexpectedly, Papa had sat down hard. He mewled, having finally found the small trickle of a pathway. Mama waved her numbed arms in joy, which woke the birds. They recovered their own voices, joining within the sounds of us three. Soon, we had found the small hidden hut, covered, as it was, in a thousand vines. My great-grandfather had built it in a different time of trouble. The shelter had stood steady in waiting despite the pulsing life that squeezed around it like many green snakes. It was a good thing to be so disguised.

Within a short while, we had our routine. But why was Papa dawdling? Mama went outside after giving me a salted tortilla and offered what her last smile. She found her mate lying so still in the early morning, with light falling softly through the heart-shaped leaves of a balsa tree. She tiptoed quietly, thinking he was fast asleep.

Instead, my Papa had been shot through his head. A crimson O wept from under his widow’s peak. I peeked around from the half-open doorway as Mama tried to shake him awake, but it did no good. He had entered the land of the dead from which no one returns opaque with life.

An urraca, a type of magpie, called out in a scoffing laugh that joined with the crack of the rifle as Mama fell hard in a swoon, so much red blood pouring through her chest. I did not cry out but to my shame hid tight against a grayed shadow. There was no way for my sadness to escape hidden as it was under a twisted canopy that obscured the sky.



The evil men crept through the shadows and discovered me crunched into the corner of my bed. Wrapped tightly under the blanket my grandmother had woven, I had hoped she would be my secret talisman. Such a foolish child, my feeble wish was useless. There was no one left to protect me. My bed shirt lay aside as limp as my will as greedy hands tore through cloth and then ripped through my soft child flesh. One at a time, all ten of them feasted. Although it was so sweltering, I shook as if it were freezing. The sound of their laughter cascaded like rancid ice, filling me with cold. Then, tossing me onto the floor, those same clenched fingers began to beat upon my bruised body, plummeting me into a small, broken thing. I tried to murmur for mercy, but my words were stuck behind my swollen lips and cracked teeth. Finally, when there was so little left of me, and they had grown bored and weary, one of the men, a big brawny one who smelled of sour sweat and rifle oil, picked me up and threw me through the upstairs opening. He thought to destroy me. To remove yet another witness to horror unbridled.


But he had failed as the merciless always do. Although my body lay crumpled and discarded as if it were mere cloth, my essence had flown above, far from the wrenching tragedy. From on high, there was peace. I soared upwards on newly grown wings. Far off, past mountains, gardens, and the largest of the houses, there was the open pasture of a peaceful kingdom. With newly grown wings, I stretched towards it. This was better than a land of the free, a place of spirit unbounded. I headed home.