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.