The tracks began to curve, and there was a cry in the curve of them, but it was not the sound of brakes. Steel bore down on steel and a call rang out across the arid basin. It was a signal to those who had been hiding. They knew it was time, that there would never be a better one.
Those who could, ran and caught up with the train. They climbed on top of the boxcars and stared. Insects hovered around the streetlamps. Teeming worlds went by.
Once, a comet moved across the face of the water. Ancient hunters followed lichen-browsing herds. A pulse began in the small of the back of a mother-to-be. An army came cloaked in a sirocco.
In the dark, the boxcars rocked like a ship. Those it carried were afraid of going forward. They could no longer stay where they had been.
Who they were before no longer mattered. They knew that, if they perished, no one would come to collect their bones.
The darkness changed. The travelers kept moving. A passing, AM corrido or the plash of tires in a puddle overhead was like a nova via radio telescope. Their eyes had faith in the light but adjusted to the dark.
A tunnel was thick with sludge and stenches that those crawling through it could not have imagined before. They tried to hold their breath. They vomited and wiped their mouths.
All that mattered was the light ahead. All that mattered was that they kept moving forward.
They must live long enough to forget this.
Teodoro Bonilla Nuñoz was gathering money from his guitar case when he noticed something rectangular about the size of a small coin. It cast a green, lapidary shadow. It looked like an emerald.
He had walked with his mother to work that day. Bogotá could be dangerous, but the Emerald District was safer than other parts of the city. The emerald dealers conducted most of their business outside. When examining stones, they trusted only sunlight and their small platoon of bodyguards. Arepas vendors, stilt dancers, musicians, and tourists gathered in the square around them.
After Teo left his mother at the office building, he set up at a nearby café. He wore a black tie and a silk shirt printed with roses. His dark, longish hair had a few strands of silver. He left his guitar case open at his feet and played American blues songs.
Once Teo had hoped to become a math professor. At the bar where his father worked, they said that the old man couldn’t pour a shot of vodka without mentioning that his son was going to a university in Moscow (but Teo’s father didn’t bring it up that often, as he couldn’t always tell the political leanings of his patrons). There were no Ph.D. programs in mathematics in Colombia, and the Soviet university offered to pay for everything but the ticket home. But when Teo returned to Bogotá, he couldn’t find a job. FARC attacks and kidnappings were in the news every night. With a doctorate from Lumumba University, Teo was generally among the first cut from a group of job applicants.
But a childhood friend was the principal of a local high school. Teo could sometimes get a job there as a substitute teacher.
Other days, Teo played songs for tourists. When the train come in the station, I looked her in the eye. Teo thought of Doppler and the sound of distance opening. Pythagoras had measured harmonic intervals by sounding different lengths of lyre strings. Later, those proportions were applied to the distances between planets.
It had all seemed so ordered once.
Before he and Anita were novios, Teo tried to get her attention by playing his guitar. Tell me, tell me, tell me, where did you sleep last night? His mouth strained to get every word right in that strange language. She had auburn hair and dark eyes. He played, and she sketched and read art books. She asked if she could sketch him. And then, despite warnings from their parents (for Teo had no regular job), they fell in love.
In the square near the emerald market, a new group of tourists gathered. Teo played an intro and began. Going down to the freight yard, gonna catch me a freight train. Across the street, the tinted windows of the cambio flickered. Next door, a waiter dragged out giant aloes and placed them in front of the windows of an espresso bar.
One bright afternoon like so many others, men with machine guns strafed the bar where Teo’s father worked. They had heard that a rival drug lord was drinking there.
After her husband’s funeral, Teo’s mother began to work for a cleaning service to support the family. She also sewed and mended other people’s clothing.
Anita never finished at the university. Her family had forgiven her elopement but decided that they should take care of their remaining children now. Andreas—Anita and Teo’s baby—went to the community daycare as soon as he was old enough, and Anita got a job at a bakery and left home early to start the ovens. Her eyes were so listless now.
An emerald that size and color could be worth many months of a regular teacher’s salary. Maybe Teo would be able to buy canvasses for his wife. Maybe he and his family wouldn’t have to worry about every little thing for a while. When Teo’s mother came out for her morning break, he’d show her the green stone someone left in his guitar case. Marta would have it appraised by one of the emerald dealers whose offices she cleaned.
On the edge of the group of emerald dealers in the plaza was a young man in a rumpled, white linen suit. Teo couldn’t remember where he’d seen him, but he recognized his face.
At the high school, most of Teo’s students were respectful, at least—if prone to gaze out the window at clouds and sunangels. There was one boy, though, who made the others laugh. No, man—I didn’t do my math homework. I had too much chemistry to do. Shit, how can you give me an “F”? All the real teachers know I’m an “A” student.
Later, the principal explained that the government wanted to prevent any possibility of trouble. By the morning Teo found the green stone in his guitar case, he had not heard from the principal in almost a year.
Teo’s mother came out of one of the jewelry shops. “At least you didn’t pay for it,” Marta told him. “It’s glass.”
The churches tolled the hour of Midday Prayer. Teo pretended to wind up a pitch. He tossed the bauble into a fountain.
The young man in the white linen suit stood apart from the crowd of older dealers who smoked and haggled with each other. And then Teo was certain—as certain as he could be—that this was his old classroom adversary. The young man was only interested in tourists. The tourists, in turn, were fascinated by what the young man kept in clean, white envelopes. All day, the foreigners held the crystals up to the sky in imitation of the other emerald dealers.
The daylight began to fade, and Marta came out of the office building. The other emerald dealers had gone indoors, but the young man in the white linen suit was still conducting business in the square. “Why do you think the light doesn’t matter to this guy?” Teo asked his mother.
Marta walked up to the group of tourists the young man was talking to. “They’re false. They’re fakes,” she announced. The tourists moved on.
A few days later, Teo went to look for his mother in a different office building. A receptionist asked him to leave his guitar case at the front desk. Teo didn’t notice until the next morning, when he took his guitar out in front of the Museo del Oro, that someone had cut the strings. The knife had gone deep into the fretboard.
Not long after, Anita went down to the community daycare after the bakery closed. Andreas was crying, and the women there seemed to be ignoring him. Then Anita noticed what looked like dried blood on his face. She cleaned it away with spit and tissue. There was a cut on his right cheek.
A rain came down that left a pale scrim on the windows. Anita Farnesio de Bonilla wondered if it was ash from Nevado del Ruiz. She wondered if it was a last trace of smoke from the attack on the Palace of Justice, which had burned for days just a few blocks from them. On the news, they called it Black November. Then, at very dramatic moments, live news feeds were preempted by soccer matches.
Since the attack on the Palace of Justice, Anita hadn’t even left the apartment to get milk—there had been bombings even at supermarkets—but now she went outside for the first time in days. Teo stood with her in the parking lot behind their apartment building. He was holding their son, and Anita was blowing bubbles. A stray orange cat leapt after them. The baby was laughing.
“Maybe it would be better if I stayed home,” Anita said.
“But we need the money,” Teo answered.
“We can’t take him back there.” Anita blew more bubbles and watched the cat play.
“It was just a coincidence. There are other places,” Teo said.
The bubbles swirled in their prismatic oil. Andreas was still laughing. Anita watched to see if the bubbles that got away changed color or gave some other warning before they burst. There seemed to be no pattern.
“They let me go today,” she finally said.
“Maybe people don’t buy bread as much.”
“Maybe you called in sick too much.”
Andreas’ mood changed, and he began to cry. Anita took him from her husband. “I have been feeling sick lately,” she told Teo.
She revealed what she had kept to herself for weeks. “I’m late.”
Teo’s ordinarily placid face tensed up around his jaw. “How could you let this happen?” he said. “We can’t afford a doctor.”
Andreas was howling. Anita bounced him on her hip and attempted to calm him. “What do you want to do?” Anita asked Teo.
Andreas began to tire out and clung to his mother’s shoulder, sobbing.
Teo took a deep breath. “What can we do now?”
They said nothing and listened to the rush of distant highways. Eventually, Marta called them in for dinner. Nobody spoke.
Afterwards, Anita opened a can of tuna and went back outside. The orange cat was waiting under a car.
Teo followed her. “What are you doing?”
“The cat!” she tried to explain, putting the can on the ground. “He’s so skinny—”
“We can barely feed ourselves.”
“But he’s starving.”
“The city is full of rats—or should we give our food to the cat and eat rats instead?” Teo kicked the can of tuna, spilling its contents across the pavement. The cat ran away.
“It was just an old can,” Anita said.
“Every peso matters now.”
Distantly, there was a smattering of firecrackers or gunfire. Anita startled. Teo saw her fear, and it changed him. He put his arms around her.
“Anita Bonita,” he whispered, “let’s go away from here.”
“Where should we go?” Anita pulled away. She looked him in the face then turned towards the alley where the cat had disappeared.
“There’s nothing here,” he said, “but Roberto says there’s plenty of work in Washington.”
“You would go to Washington? Now?”
“We’ll all go. But I’ll go first and make the money to get us there. Then I’ll send for you—before the baby is born.”
A siren wailed and faltered. Then there was only the hiss of distant traffic like a stream of air escaping in the dark.
Teo closed their savings account and bought an airline ticket to Mexico City, but when he was about to board the plane, a security official asked to see his passport. “I’m sorry, but your name is on a list of known subversives,” the uniformed man said. “You’re not permitted to fly.”
“Do I get my money back?” Teo asked. “What about my luggage?”
The official smoothed his mustache and rested his hands on his hip and holster. “I could arrest you right now, you know.”
Teo backed away and returned the way he had come through the terminal. As he passed through the sliding glass doors of El Dorado International Airport, he saw another mustached security official chatting with the women working at a ticket counter. Someone will eventually send the bag back, Teo told himself. Perhaps he could write to the airline for a refund.
Teo let himself back into the apartment. Anita was giving a bottle to Andreas. She had been watching television and looked very pale in its light. Marta had been chopping onions and, with a knife in one hand, looked as if she were expecting a burglar.
“I am so loved, my country refuses to let me go,” Teo explained.
But air travel was not the only way north. Teo went to a bus station to buy a ticket for Turbo, the northernmost town he could get to by road. He would pay cash. No one would ask to see his passport. Teo would find some way to keep going from there.
As he waited for the ticket window to open, he noticed a young woman sitting on the bench across from him.
“Got a light?” she asked.
Teo looked at her face. She had delicate features that were similar to Anita’s—but this woman’s face was darker and her hair was black. Her eyes were a color that the emerald dealers in the square would have prized very highly were they to find it in a stone. She was dressed in a tank top and jeans, and wore a black cross. Her fingernails were painted gold and opalescent pink.
“Sorry. I had to give it up when my son was born,” Teo told her.
“They’re raku,” she said.
“My nails. I painted them like Japanese porcelain. They take it right out of the kiln and throw it into straw. The straw catches fire.”
“Yes, they’re lovely.”
“Listen,” she began. “I’m trying to get back to Sapzurro. Could you help me?”
It occurred to Teo that she would be going the same way he was. They might even take the same bus north. Then Teo remembered how little money he had. He said, “I wish I could. Anyway, you’re probably going to need more than a bus ticket, as the road ends before Sapzurro. Sorry,” he added.
The ticket counter opened. As Teo got up to get in line, the woman said, “May things get better for all of us, Papi.”
Teo and Anita lay together but couldn’t sleep.
“Isn’t there some other way?” Anita asked.
“It’s not Guatemala.”
“But the soldiers.”
“I’ll stay off the roads. I’ll catch a train.”
Anita’s body moved through the lamplight that passed through their blinds. “Couldn’t we go together?”
Teo considered her words. “You need rest now. And Andreas and Mamá—can you see them running across the desert? I’ll send money. We’ll be together soon.”
“Teodoro,” she sighed.
“Nita, do you know how much this will change things for us? I just need to get to Panama City. I can fly to Mexico from there.”
“My love,” Anita said, “sometimes men go away and their families never see them again.”
“You think I’d do that?”
“I told you I was pregnant. You decided to go to America that very night.”
“I can’t believe you think I’d do that,” he said, turning away from her.
This was not what she had expected. She was wearing the same pale blue nightgown that she had worn on their wedding night. She didn’t know when she would see him again.
“My love?” she finally said. He seemed to be asleep at last. Anita turned away from him and towards the window. Through the blinds, the sky was starting to redden. It hurt her eyes.
One bus ran from Bogotá to Medellín, and another from Medellín to Turbo, where the portion of the Pan-American Highway that spanned South America came to an end. No one had yet built a road through the Darién Gap. At Turbo, Teo could hire a boat and go partway up the coast to avoid the swamps, guerrillas, and drug runners for which the area was notorious, but boats only went so far. Part of the Darién would have to be crossed on foot.
Better on foot than on wheels, the locals said. What took hikers the better part of a week had taken two Englishmen 136 days in a Land Rover.
In bus stations, Teo sometimes looked for the girl. He didn’t see her.
At the end of the line in Turbo, Teo discovered that passage on a speedboat would cost most of the money he was carrying with him. The crowds gathered to travel to Capurganá were mostly migrants, but there were a few intrepid tourists among them. They carried expensive backpacks and wore brand new hiking boots.
As he was carried across the water, Teo stared at the receding shore. He thought of his wife.
“Do you know if there’s been any trouble between Capurganá and La Miel?” a European asked.
Teo didn’t know.
The boat’s captain turned to them. “You should be fine.”
“What about narco traffickers?” the European continued. “I’ve heard they’re very active here.”
“Sometimes we are. It depends. It’s hot today.”
The European looked out to sea and said nothing. Water shattered like glass before the boat.
From Capurganá, the crowd walked towards Sapzurro and the Panamanian border. The wings of butterflies reminded Teo of patterns he had seen inside his son’s kaleidoscope. There were mathematical patterns, as well. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21—each quantity the sum of its two predecessors—and so it went: Fibonacci sequences everywhere, but never to infinity. The earth had limits. Still, the rainforest offered up its bounty in bouquets and bunches. He understood, for a moment, why tourists came to walk with migrants.
It had rained the day before, and there were puddles on the path. Plastic bottles and discarded, formerly necessary items like strollers and ice chests were strewn across the floor of the jungle.
Then Teo saw her. Her fingernails were still that polished, molten blend of gold and pink. The colors caught his eye down in the mud. He noticed her arm—then the outline of her body. They had probably buried her just before the rain began.
The others kept walking as if they had not seen. They had to find shelter before nightfall.
In her notebooks, among the drawings of roses and chimeras, women with flowers for faces and passersby as they had been in past lives, were sketches of what Anita remembered of the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, where she used to go on fieldtrips when she was a girl. Today, she would go down into the quiet earth again. The chapel was just an hour outside the city. Everyone knew it was a pilgrimage—although the names of the martyrs had, for the most part, been lost.
Anita’s great-grandfather had been an officer during the civil wars. His men had chewed the leaves to stay awake through days of battle or to ensure that they could carry heavy loads over the mountains. He thought that he should not sleep in a soft bed when they had to stay awake all night. He would not be carried by horse when his men had to cut paths through the jungle. He swore that the leaves were as good as strong coffee.
Anita was weary of sirens, explosions, and gunfights. Everyone went about their business afterward as if nothing had happened, but she knew they must be shaken worse than if it had been an earthquake. She couldn’t stop thinking of how it could have been her—or anyone, really. No part of the city was safe now.
The oldest chambers had been carved before the Spanish arrived. Once, there had only been a small shrine where miners prayed for protection before they went deeper into the mountain. Now hundreds of people came on Sundays. The halite walls were lit up with a blue glow that Anita had only seen in medieval books of hours.
She hoped that she would be forgiven.
There were times when only Andreas’ crying could get her out of bed. Even then, she would take her son back to bed and close her eyes. She preferred the world of her dreams to the streets outside their apartment.
“M’ija, we can’t afford a nervous breakdown,” Marta told her.
Anita walked out of the mine and into the sunlight, then sat in her car. A military convoy was heading up towards Guatavita.
She chewed another leaf and got on the highway.
The coca leaf has been used in rituals, remedies, and teas for thousands of years. In Bolivia, it has long been considered sacred. The Incas had extensive coca plantations and strictly regulated its trade. Encomenderos discovered that the plant allowed the natives to work longer, so the Spanish permitted the chewing of coca leaves to continue—although it was no longer to have any religious significance.
Natives still chew the leaves with sodium bicarbonate to fight fatigue, tooth pain, hunger, and altitude sickness.
Europeans tried to bring the plant back across the Atlantic, but the shrub that thrived on the slopes of the Andes withered at sea. Around the time that vintners began to use dried leaves to brew sodas and wines that would come to be endorsed by popes, astronauts, and rock stars, chemists discovered how to distill the alkaloid within the leaf into a fine, white powder, which, for its blocking of dopamine and the exponential amplification of pleasure caused by the synaptic buildup of that particular neurotransmitter, would come to be worth as much per ounce as the gold dust that once coated the bodies of the zipas of El Dorado.
And so what was at first heralded as a wonder drug for its applications as a surgical analgesic or treatment for depression changed patients in unexpected ways, as their bodies developed a dependency on the alkaloid and made less and less of their own dopamine. Some users discovered that the first highs could not be reached forever, but continued to imbibe to stave off headaches, lethargy, imaginary bedbugs, etc. The concentrated alkaloid caused some to reevaluate who or what they loved, and the cost drove some to steal china place settings, cubic zirconia, silver dollars, ordinary flatware, the usual cameras and radios, and stacks of vinyl records from their parents’ and neighbors’ houses—or to rob strangers they didn’t know anyway—so that they might, if only for a few minutes or hours, feel beatified again.
The alkaloid made some remember what it was like to fall in love at 13, win at Powerball, or fly in their dreams (even if some of these things had never happened). It made some nostalgic for a time before their memories began. The powder they inhaled in the back rooms of brokerage offices or the bathrooms of restaurants changed them like the glitter groupies painted on the faces of rock stars before they played the BBC, and why shouldn’t they feel good for once? But few who felt that nostalgia seemed to remember how the story ended: with a car running into a sycamore tree in a London suburb, the blood running down into his eyes as he continued to stare into a world nobody else saw, the glitter on his face still catching its starlight.
After the jungle, La Miel seemed like a paradise to Teo. The walls were painted blue and yellow and overgrown in places with vines and flowers. Cumbia was playing on a radio in a bar. But scrawny cats and dogs cased the people coming into town. Two paramilitary soldiers stood in the square, smoking and holding enormous automatic weapons. Teo avoided making eye contact.
The soldiers finished their cigarettes and went into a building that might have once been a school. Teo got change at the bar and called his wife at a payphone.
“Nita, I’m in Panama.”
“Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know if I should talk about it.”
Teo looked around. He put his hand over his mouth and the receiver. “There was a girl in a hole in the ground. The mud that was covering her had washed away.”
“What do you want to do?”
“We should report it to someone. She must have family.”
“What do you want me to do?” Anita asked him. “Call the Panamanian embassy? Call Noriega? Do you know how many holes he’s probably dug in that jungle himself?”
“She shouldn’t be left out there like that.”
Anita exhaled. “My love, nobody can help her now.”
Teo glanced at the building the paramilitaries had gone into. “So maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Well, what do you want to do? You took the money.”
Teo frowned. “I spent most of what was left on the bus and the boat. I wired the rest to my brother to arrange things with the coyote.”
Anita thought for a moment. “We could sell the car.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
“Love, just come home. This morning, Andreas pointed at your guitar case and said Papapapapa…”
Teo sighed. “I can’t do that to you.”
“Let me wire you the money,” she said. “How much will you need?”
“What will you have for the hospital or doctors?” he said. “We can’t risk that. I can’t give up now just because I saw something that scared me.”
“It’s okay, love,” Anita pleaded. “Just come home.”
“Nita, we’ll be together again—believe me. We won’t have to be afraid anymore. And I would never leave you. If you don’t hear my voice again, it wasn’t that.”
Anita said nothing.
“I should have kissed you yesterday,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. So when should I expect to hear your voice again?”
“I don’t know,” Teo answered. “This could be the last working payphone in all of Darién. But any chance I have, I’ll call.”
“I’ll be here,” Anita said.
“Yes,” Teo said, “we’ll be together again, love.”
“Yes,” she said. “In Washington.”
“Give me a day to get out of here,” Teo added, “then call the police from a payphone. She’s close to the border.”
“My love, why do we have to do something about this?” Anita asked. “You’re on the wrong side of the border.”
“She was somebody—like you or me,” Teo said. “Then everyone just looked away as if she were a dead animal in the road.”
“Teodoro,” Anita began, “be careful, my love.”
They said their goodbyes, and Teo looked for somewhere to rest. Under a wide, thatched roof, several hammocks were strung between posts. Many people had hung their shoes up to dry in the rafters. Teo chose a hammock and went to asleep, but later that night he was awakened by something snarling and muttering in the marshes beyond the town.
On the edge of the Darién frontier, the well-dressed foreigners in the crowd said goodbye to the migrants and turned back. Then the traffickers looked for mules.
“Who will carry a few keys to Yaviza? Our friends will give you $50 for every package.”
So they would make us all targets, Teo thought. He would find a way north without their help.
When he went into the rainforest that morning, Teo chose a trail that led him away from the others. Later, he heard the distant thrum of a helicopter. He wondered if they were looking for the girl. He wondered if they were looking for mojados who might be carrying cocaine.
But even on the path he chose, Teo had been expected. Someone—probably a local tribe, judging by the basketry—had left yellow mangoes for travelers to take as they wandered into North America.