In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day . . .
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.—"Big Rock Candy Mountains"
I never knew the dark to be filled with so much light.
But as we moved silently and in sequence through the underbrush of the basin, the nighttime sky concealed by the reaching branches that took the form of a camouflaged canopy, the twilight gloom began to percolate and bleed into phantom phosphorescent streaks.
The visibility spectrum was exploding, disassembled into crimson and sapphire shadows that crested across my field of vision, forcing me to stumble.
And as the darkness deconstructed itself, I knew I wasn't going to make it.
I hadn't even crossed the border yet and already I was going crazy, made lame by so small an annoyance as too little light.
I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping for a renewal of vision, and dropped down to the earth—moist and dewy—hydrated by an early predawn mist. I felt confused legs carefully s¡eeking out each step bump into me from behind, followed by distraught falling yells offered in a cascading descending Spanish as the two Mexicans behind me reached out hopefully for branches to keep their footing. Their fall sent the leaves about them flapping in snapping wobbling ricochets. The coyote leading us, disguised under a black ski mask, turned and offered a forced hushed whisper of admonishment.
Shut the fuck up!
But in Spanish.
Which, of course, was a language I didn't speak.
I winced in the darkness; I hated being admonished by human smuggling coyotes.
I moved to the side of the passing line on weary wobbly ankles as I heard the rustling of corduroy pants, soggy sneakers, and the gentle parting of leaves peeling off pants. I crouched in silence, counting their number as they passed before I moved into the last position.
There were twenty of us in all. Twenty individuals whose names I didn't know. Twenty individuals whom I didn't know anything about except that we were linked by this shared covert journey that made me feel a desperate kinship born out of necessity and circumstance. We were a caravan of migrants, men and women, children and adults, strangers and family, and our temporary cooperation seemed a testament to something profound and invigorating about the potential of civilization. If we could cooperate, entrusting our lives with one other, then it seemed too as if there was potential for the rest of the world to get along, for nation-states and divisive religious sects and warring ethnic enclaves.
The silhouette figure ahead of me suddenly disappeared, merging with the shadows, and I felt the subtle push of panic at my heart, fearing that they had all suddenly disappeared, leaving me alone in the wilderness.
I dropped to my heels on a small vertical muddy incline as I peered into the darkness, my eyeballs hurting as I strained them against their sockets—everyone was still there, just resting quietly, sitting off to the side of the trail, silent save for the panting breaths that came in ragged random bursts. I sighed with relief realizing I wasn't alone and collapsed on my butt, participating in the shared stillness. And it was then, for the first time, that I noticed the cacophony of noise all about us: the screaming crickets, the hum of a light wind rattling the leaves above the basin's rim, and somewhere, the distant sound of water.
It was the sound of the river that made my heart heave heavily in my chest, careening against the side of my rib cage. It was the sound of the river that surged the blood in my circulatory system, forcing it to sprint throughout my body, causing a warm friction of movement within my veins that warded off the stinging chill of the evening. It was the sound of the river that gave rise to the onset of distant panic as my fingers tingled and I flexed them in an attempt to maintain control, taking in low deep methodical breaths.
The river, of course, was the border—our reason for being.
The true test of one's mettle wasn't how you behaved when the panic was a low murmur, but how you behaved when it was a roaring throbbing scream in your temple. How you behaved at that moment was how you defined your character and I was determined to come out glistening and heroic.
I was an American after all.
And I felt I had something to prove to the Mexicans who were wondering why I was here, who stared at me and whispered quietly about me when they believed me to be out of earshot. They were quite sure that no American had ever done this before.
I heard a distant scratch of noise, echoed and repeated, a message being passed down the line, the sound only taking the form of language when it was two people up from my own position. The man in front of me received the message and turned; an imposing shadow within layers of clothed darkness. There was the hot bad-breath blast of chicken and tortillas on my ear and then a precious hastily conveyed whisper of important information.
Spanish, of course.
The man in front of me paused in his backward retreat to his position under a bush to make sure I got it, that I understood. This was important information. We were only crossing the border, for God's sake.
I nodded. I got it.
Except, I didn't get it.
Not at all.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do because I didn't speak Spanish.
And then, one by one, the line in front of me started to rise. I moved to a ready crouch as everyone started to move forward. I followed as we left the impromptu trail, a thin snaking path of broken branches and battered grass created by so many who had come before, and we began moving straight through the brush. The sounds of the river moved closer and I was able to make out the gurgles of the current and volume of the water. My hands were out in front, hanging limply in the darkness to protect my eyes as I pushed through thick foliage. I felt the barbed tears of the bush's thorns rip at my body and clothes. Somewhere down by my hip, I felt the warm flow of fresh blood.
And suddenly—I was falling.
I slid out of the bush and into a pile of Mexicans at the bottom of a five-foot drop, a soggy slope of moss and mud. A boot caught me sideways in the face as its owner started to right himself. There was a break in the overhead branches and a single stream of weak moonlight flashed down onto us where I could see the reflection of racing water just a few meters away.
One by one, we moved across the shallow frigid river, carefully stepping over slippery rocks, our hands balancing on one another's shoulders to weigh against the current. And then, on the other side, we climbed a steep muddy embankment. My heels farted with each step, blasting water as mud shrank and compressed through my toes.
And it was at this moment that I realized my innate and wholesale stupidity: I hadn't brought a clean, dry pair of socks. I should've brought a second pair of socks. It was the sort of thing any semirational thinking person of even marginal intelligence would consider when knowing they were going to be crossing a river.
Who didn't bring a spare pair of socks?
I sighed as we approached the fence, a gnarled threadbare tangle of wire that the coyote held up high as we each crawled under it. Afterward, we congregated at the bottom of a tree, at the lip of the basin's opposite side. A thrash of reeds marked the path of what I assumed would be our imminent ascent.
We were almost done!
And bit by bit, the noise discipline that we had been practicing so effectively was lost. There were hushed whispers and quiet snickers of victory.
Why the hell not? We'd earned it.
In the darkness, I smiled fiercely—a lonely private demonstration witnessed by no one—as I congratulated myself for my success.
And as this comfortable congratulatory platitude settled comfortably within my brain, a screaming siren pierced the night; its volume and careening shrieking pitch such a shift from the subtle soft audible tones of the last four hours that it hit us with the force of an errant surprise overhead thunderclap. Bodies froze with faces made immobile in the middle of grotesque contortions of fear. The siren grew louder until it sounded as if it would split the night itself apart . . .
And suddenly, we were all running—wildly crazily running!
It occurred to me that this too seemed a testament to civilization, how order and discipline could fail in single seconds.
It was every man for himself now!
And because it was every man for himself, I shoved past two young women, knocking them to the ground.
Panic dumped into my body as a toxic poison, released from a flood valve as I raced headlong into the darkness, following shadowy forms, unsure of who I was chasing or where I was going. From my peripheral vision it was blurred hyphenated breaking shadows that coiled and restricted and then advanced, leaping over me. I had the strange feeling that I was in that scene in the science fiction movie where the protagonist had just set the self-destruction sequence on the ship and was racing through claustrophobic metal corridors toward the escape pod while the emergency lights flickered and the ship's overhead intercom counted down the final seconds until total and complete destruction.
I felt my legs trip over rocks and felt a single euphoric second of momentary freefall weightlessness before slamming into the ground, my nails digging into the mud. Just beside me two Mexicans hid under a thick leafy bush. I crawled in on my elbows and squirmed my way beside them as we stared out across the basin, our panting gasps coming in abated halts as we struggled for breath.
The overhead canopy of branches changed color in rapid cyclical flashes of red and blue light that sifted eerily among the leaves, spilling like water down the branches.
"THIS IS THE UNITED STATES BORDER PATROL!"
And then, a coned beam of hot light shimmered heavily from the ridge behind us as it searched the ground, just feet in front of me. I marveled at its cylindrical perfection and watched the luminescent dust kicked up by our rapid escape billow lazily in the light's glare; a silent confession to our sudden and rapid evacuation.
A girl behind me under the bush giggled.
There was a fierce tug on my arm.
"What the fuck are you doing?" I yelled in a hushed whisper as I was forcefully slid forward through the mud and brought to my feet.
"Take pictures," the coyote responded.
"I don't want to take pictures, I want to hide under the bush," I exclaimed angrily through wheezing breaths.
The coyote only smiled and dropped down to his haunches as he pointed to the top of the hill behind us. I sighed and took up a position next to him as I reached into my bag for my camera. There was more gunfire and then the sound of bulls racing through the reeds toward our position.
The darkness fractured from the flash of my camera as the first Border Patrol agent emerged from the brush and grimaced and shielded his eyes from the explosion of light. The Border Patrol agents, dressed in U.S. Army uniforms and Border Patrol baseball caps, raced past me to a position a few meters beyond the bush I was hiding under and emerged from the reeds on the adjoining side with two young Mexican boys. They laid them on the ground in front of me as they began to search them; the boys giggling throughout.
I moved between them, taking disinterested photos because, in all honesty, I'd rather have been hiding under the bush.
The Border Patrol agents began to beat the boys mercilessly and the boys laughed.
THE PICKUP BOUNCED and jostled over the acne-scarred backcountry road as my fingers itched the edge of the scratchy blindfold.
One gringo, shaken, not stirred. I snickered at the thought.
I felt a hand on mine, a subtle gesture to leave the blindfold on. I sighed and dropped my hand to my crotch where my fingers nervously interfolded themselves among one another.
"Where are we going?" I asked, my voice shy and contrite.
"We are going to a special place," the coyote answered in broken English.
I could feel the weighty stares from the other seven Mexican Border Patrol agents crammed into the back of the pickup truck. These weren't resort city Mexicans from Cancun, or border city Mexicans, or even middle-class urban Mexicans from Mexico City—these were deeply rural Mexicans—poor and agrarian and indigenous. Otomi Indians, mostly. And I, of course, was an American at the government-funded EcoAlberto nature park, at Migrant Mountain, deep inside Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, several miles outside of Ixmilquilpan, a veritable theme park, or border simulation. I didn't really know which it was, as I didn't speak Spanish.
And I was acutely aware that I was one of the few Americans they'd seen in person and in this self-consciousness I wished I was a more imposing specimen, a more succulent sample of my people instead of the lanky uncouth specimen they saw before them.
The pickup truck came to a stop and I felt a network of hands and arms gently lift me up and carry me off the back of the truck. Warm clammy hands took up my own as we moved off the road and I was led down a hill through the brush, all of this realized through smell and sound. And with my mind held hostage alongside my eyes behind the blindfold, I started to feel panicked; no one back in America had the slightest idea of where I was.
I laughed at the memory of a game I once played at a work retreat while a probation officer, the one where you had to "trust" by closing your eyes and fall willingly into the arms of a co-worker. Well, this was that game on a whole new level where you traveled to a Third World country to investigate an illegal alien training camp, which might have only been a theme park, and after arriving at one of the poorest sections of that country, you willingly allowed yourself to be blindfolded and transported in the back of a truck and then marched through the forest to a fate unknown at the hands of a foreign mob.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Border Crosser by Johnny Rico. Copyright © 2009 by Johnny Rico. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.