Volume 30, Number 1

The Owl and the Border

Amy Reed-Sandoval

I. The Owl

In this village, unlike the three neighboring villages that speak similar dialects of our language, owls are considered to be good luck. While someone from San Ignacio would automatically shut and luck his doors and windows upon spotting one—all the while sending up a frantic prayer to La Virgen, la morenita (something like “virgencita, morenita, ofréceme tu protección, límpiame de mis pecados, cuida esta casa cristiana, devota santa de los pobres”)—here, in Santa Inés del Llano, we believe that the presence of an owl signifies the end, rather than the beginning, of a dark spell. Yes, in San Ignacio, which is a mile’s walk from my home, they believe that owls represent witches inclined to attack newborn babies. But here, in Santa Inés del Llano, a new mother generally considers a visit from an owl to be a blessing to her progeny.

I am not a new mother or an old mother. I have never given birth, and I have experienced several losses. But at nearly three o’clock this morning, I saw an owl, and I hoped it meant that I was blessed. We usually don’t rise until five or six, but we—that is, my mother, my aunts, my madrina and I—needed to start making tortillas earlier than usual for my grandpa’s funeral later today. Today I actually woke up before mother, as a gentle breeze was sneaking its way through the cracks in the windows and the space under the door. I sleep right by the foot of the door, on my old petate, and that breeze tickled my skin such that I laughed in my sleep. With mother and father still snoring together in bed on the other side of the room, I quietly opened the front door and crept outside.

I immediately saw the owl. He was perched on the short, gaunt tree outside of the thatched cabin where my brother and his wife live, just ten steps away from where I stood. At least, I felt it was an owl because I could see his pervasive yellow eyes flashing down at me in the delicate blackness. Still, I needed to be sure that my blessing was truly here, so I pulled my cell phone out of my pajama pants pocket and shined its light up at him. Unflapped, he stared back at me.

In the tepid light of my phone I could now make out his luscious feathers, brown and white with spots of black. Then I let my gaze trail the downward slope of his beak, and I admired the generous curvature of his blondish legs. He was small, muscular, compact. His beauty made me shiver, and suddenly I noticed how thoroughly the damp night air had enveloped my face, neck and arms.

Though I could barely do so, I made myself turn away from him. In Santa Inés del Llano, we believe that if you stare at your blessing for too long, it turns into a curse. But turning my face away was tough, as an unexpected magnetism was drawing me back to the owl. Just then, my mother called out to me—

Lupe! ¿Dónde andas mija? Regresa, que hace frío afuera!” But she said it in our language, so I will not write her exact words here.

I went back inside to prepare for the funeral.

II. The Officer

Fred—who, I need to make clear from the outset of all this, irritates me to no end—takes the final bite of his soggy Big Mac. Now, chewing with his mouth open (and making a revolting smacking sort of sound in the process!), he crumples the wrapper with one hand and tosses it onto my car floor. That wrapper, now a yellow blot on my upholstered burgundy carpeting, stares up at me. It’s just begging to be rescued from its litter-den and sent to a good trash-can home.

Sickened, I pretend I’m not watching out of the corner of my eye as he wipes the mustard, ketchup and hamburger grease from his rather pointless beard-stubble with a clenched fist. It’s so damned hot. And the grease on his mouth, the crumple of his Big Mac wrapper and the general way that our garbage air conditioning pathetically coughs out lukewarm air are all joining forces to make me feel sick.

And, just when I think things can’t get any worse, Fred belches loudly. He emits a rancid smell that now has me thinking that I might actually puke. I really, really, really want to step out of the car for some fresh gulps of air. But we’ve been ordered to sit here together and keep our eyes peeled the entire time, as we haven’t been meeting our quotas.

“Hey, I thought you said there’s lots of traffic at this intersection!” Fred says, removing his broad-brimmed hat to wipe his forehead with a napkin. It’s the same napkin he’d previously used on his nose and mouth while chomping his way through a Big Mac. “At this rate, we’re not gonna catch a single illegal all day—and then Jackson’s gonna be on our asses again!”

I choose to ignore him for the twentieth time today. Instead, I roll down my window to improve the atmosphere—smell-wise, that is. But that just makes a ton of hot air gush in against my face.

“Dude, are you trying to kill me? Roll that shit back up, man—I’m dying of heat in here!”

I glare at Fred, then roll up the window and push my seat back. I want to get some distance between my face and his. Fred, that asshole, just continues to badger me.

“Now don’t go falling asleep on me, Tom, we gotta keep our eyes peeled for them illegals!”

Let me tell you that Fred thinks he’s a big-city guy. Just three months ago he was transferred to us from El Paso, where he used to work the border, checking passports and such. He’s since made it very clear to all of us that he finds this is a dumpy, not-so-quaint little shithole of a border town. So even though he’s the new guy, he’s been telling us all how to do our jobs. All the other guys hate him, too. But of course, I got stuck with him because the boss thinks I have to “man up.” Jackson says I’m too soft on the illegals.

I hit pause on my exasperated thoughts as a pale-blue 2000 Buick Century passes us on the left, making a typical whooshing sound. In complete unison—almost like synchronized swimmers—Fred and I lean forward, removing our respective sunglasses with our right hands for a better view. The driver appears to be a blonde, white woman with two white little kids in the back seat. I sit back in my seat. Fred, disappointed, almost hurls himself back.

“What the fuck, man. I thought we would catch some illegals here!”

I can’t take the sound of his voice anymore. “You know, if you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for us to want to catch illegals,” I say to him. I don’t say it because I actually care about what I’m saying, but in hopes of shutting him up. “I mean, the point is that there aren’t supposed to be any illegals here, right? So, if we don’t see any, maybe that means that there aren’t any around here. And you should be happy not sad.”

Chuckling, Fred gives his brow another wipe with the nasty Big Mac napkin.

“Tell your beautiful theory to Jackson and see what he thinks, man. What he’s gonna tell you is, yeah, he’ll definitely tell you that—oh wait, wait, wait, wait, what have we here?” He hunches over, carefully scrutinizing the contents of his rearview mirror. “Methinks this party is finally started!”

Glancing at my own rearview mirror, I see a Greyhound bus approaching. Immediately, I pull up my seat back up, and I flip the switch that activates the overhead lights. When the bus doesn’t slow down, I jiggle the horn activator, making the siren squeal three quick times. At that, the bus slows down and then comes to a stop at the roadside.

“It’s fiesta time! Last one there’s a rotten egg!” a visibly elated Fred cries as he jumps out of the car. I am right behind him, though much less elated.

We board the bus, Fred first, me second. The interior is chipped and warn, and it reeks of whatever chemicals they always use in those toilets. Fortunately for my lingering nausea, a warm breeze is blowing through the passenger windows (doesn’t anyone’s air conditioning work in this town?). The driver—a tiny, hunched, middle-aged white man—looks frightened.

“I’m sorry, officers, did I do something wrong? I… I wasn’t speeding, was I?”

“Don’t worry about that, sir, we’re Customs and Border Protection,” I say. “So we’re going to need to see everyone’s papers.”

I make out one stifled groan coming from somewhere in the back of the bus. Other than that, though, the bus is dead silent. It’s nearly full, and almost everyone looks Mexican to me. So this is going to take a while.

Most of the passengers stare at the ground and hold their possessions close to their chests. A young woman, seated and nursing her baby at my right, rolls her eyes at me (she must have papers). A grandma-looking lady seated behind her has started to cry.

Sus papeles, por favor! Your papers, please!” Fred bellows out merrily, zooming up and down the narrow passenger isle like a thoroughly antagonized bull.

Now there is lots of muttering in Spanish. Half of the passengers begin to comply, pulling out an assortment of visas, passports, birth certificates, other documents. Some are asking for explanations of what is going on. But a few haven’t moved in response to Fred’s command, and this obviously bothers Fred. He approaches one of the non-compliers.

“And you, abuelo! ¿Dónde están sus papeles?” he shouts at an elderly man who is seated alone, front-left on the bus.

The man is wearing a plaid shirt—thoroughly worn but clean nevertheless—faded blue jeans, tattered sneakers, and what looks like a new L.A. Dodgers hat. His face is brown, wrinkled, still handsome. He nestles a grey duffle-bag in one hand as if it were a baby, and in the other he clutches a rosary. I note its beads peeking out through his gnarled fingers. The man looks at Fred but does not respond to him. I start to sweat a little bit.

“I said ¿dónde están sus papeles? grandpa!” cries Fred. “You want English o quieres español?

Still, no reply. The man looks Fred in the eye but says nothing. Just as an angry Fred starts going for his ’cuffs, a young man seated behind him stands up unassumingly.

“Excuse me, officer,” says the young man in a demure voice. “I… I come from the village next to this man’s. I don’t know him well, we were just talking here, on the bus. But I think he does no speak Spanish because he is old and never learned.”

“Oh yeah?” Fred inquires. “And where do you come from?”

“My village is San Ignacio. This man from Santa Inés del Llano, right by mine. Please, officer, don’t hurt him. He mean you no disrespect. He just does not understand.”

“One of those Mexican Indians, eh? Ok, well ask him in whatever language you people speak if he has papeles. Tell him that there will be consequences if he doesn’t.”

The young man crouches down to speak near the elderly man’s ear. I watch as he softly articulates words in a musical language I haven’t heard before. Meanwhile, a momentarily-silent Fred puts his hand on his belt, atop his ’cuffs, ready for action. And me? I just stand here, savoring an unexpectedly cool breeze blowing through the open windows.

III. The Rock

My beautiful granddaughter, mi nietecita hermosa, it was so comforting to see you today, so early, before the start of dawn. I had flapped my wings to push the wind through the doors and the windows to waken you. And just as I hoped, you came out to find me perched in your brother’s tiny tree. I was so happy that you did not fear me—you looked me in my face! Nietecita, you may never know this, but I am your nahual.

Right now, you are making tortillas with your mother and the other women. Later today, you will watch as they carry my cadaver all through the village. The neighbors will suddenly stand still in the road as we pass. They will shield their eyes from the sun in order to get a glimpse of my long wooden casket. Then a small brass band will play its music loudly as the group of men lowers me into the ground. And your mother, my special one, will cry—so please, nietecita, look after her.

There are things I now need to tell you; I hope that you will be able to hear them. You barely knew me, nietecita, for I was up north, andaba en el norte, for most of your life. Because of my absence, I need you to help you see me with the proper eyes.

For example, I need to tell you the story of how I proposed to your abuelita, who died when you were only a young girl, and what happened after. Your abuelita and I were both in our teens, we were both very shy. I knew of her growing up, but I didn’t really think of her in that way, as a wife, until my father starting hinting that we should marry.

My parents and I went to her home to formally ask her mother for her hand. As is our tradition, we brought beers and cigarettes in offering. My mother even added to the mix of bottle of her homemade mezcal, which she used to sell villagers on the sly for 90 pesos a bottle.

The three of us were invited to sit on a big wooden table covered in thick shade. As we waited for your abuelita, for my future wife, to join us, I took in the sounds of the bleating goats, the ever-buzzing insects. I heard the swish-swish-swishes of machetes in strong men’s arms working the nearby land. I heard laughing little kids playing tag. All the sounds of our village.

I smelled things, too. A nearby neighbor making tortillas made me smell the burning wood beneath her comal and the fresh corn she positioned upon it. I breathed in the black smoke sent from her comal into the cloudless sky. My stomach rumbled as I suddenly craved one of those fresh, warm tortillas coated in salt.

I sneaked a peek at your abuelita when she finally joined us. Her mother had her serve us beer and mezcal in her nicest clay mugs. And at just that moment, I saw her as my beautiful wife. Her thick, long, inky black hair had been carefully fashioned into braids that curled and sloped down her back in dramatic arches. Though she dared not look me in the face, I managed to glimpse at her shimmering eyes and suppressed sonrisa reflected in my mahogany mezcal. She wore the simple dress that most girls her age wore, dark blue, falling below the knee, and covered in a practical pink apron over sandaled feet.

Of course, the marriage proposal was accepted. But, nietecita, I want to tell you what happened one week before the wedding. Though it was considered improper, your abuelita and I sneaked off one evening to talk by ourselves. All our chores were done, and at that hour our parents—and most of the adults in the village—were at the village meeting.

She and I ran to our village’s largest hill, La Colina de Guadalupe. The sun was setting, and the air smelled of imminent rain. It had rained whole the day before, and our sandaled feet sank into mounds of cool mud as we hiked our ways to the top.

After a fifteen-minute climb we reached the rock at the top of the hill. I am sure you have been there. It is a smooth, clean, flat, golden rock atop of which you can see not only our village but all of San Ignacio. We removed our sandals to wipe our feet clean along the rock’s surface. Just then, two skinny, unclaimed dogs that had been napping there darted off as we beat our muddy shoes upon the rock. This made your abuelita chortle, as we certainly hadn’t tried to scare them.

We sat down together on the rock. A painted turtle—your grandmother’s nahual, the sight of which always brought her peace—crawled confidently by us. We took it as a sign that we made the right choice in sneaking off to talk before our wedding.

Your abuelita and I spoke of the upcoming wedding, of our future. Back then, it was getting harder and harder—though not as hard as it is now—to sell our crops in the City. It almost wasn’t worth the day’s journey on horse or donkey to the City to sell our corn, beans, squash, garbanzos, alfalfa and extra-big tortillas. She and I craved a house full of children and, later, grandchildren—like you, nieticita! We decided that I had to go to Los United, al norte, to earn the money we needed for our dream. Back then, every so often, some gringo men would come to our village to recruit young men to work for the big rich farmers up there, so it would be easy to do. I loved your abuelita so much already, but I needed to go.

Know, nietecita, that years ago, before you were born, those of us who worked up north could cross the big frontera—the long border that divides us from the gringos—without any trouble. We could work the U.S. lands during harvest season and come home for weddings, funerals, baptisms, graduations. Then, we would go back again and work for the gringo farmers some more.

But now it is different. Now, if one goes home one may not be able to return again. The frontera is a constant state of war. And so, I was trapped there, en el norte, nietecita. And so, I missed your birth and your baptism and your first communion. And now I shall miss it all.

But I want you to know that it was all to provide for you—to provide for all of you. That is why I stayed as long as I did. Now, my prize is to watch over you, as your owl, your nahual.

IV. The Creek

On the rare occasions when it rains here, you can perceive a sweet little creek running past the Medical Examiner’s office. On such days, I stare out the window and imagine the creek meandering to an unfurling, stormy ocean that will grow and grow and wash away this desert and its morbid contents. Today, however, the creek is as dry as the bodies lined up in the Medical Examiner’s office.

The Medical Examiner is in a particular mood today. She makes no friendly chit-chat with me on her arrival, heading instead to her office where she slams the door. I therefore try to be extra-helpful. I bought her an icy, sugary Frappuccino from the Starbucks down the street. I finished all the filing left over from yesterday. And I’m now going to get a head start on identifying the bodies, scrutinizing their belongings for clues as to who they might be.

This is, of course, my job. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, they carry identifying documents like birth certificates, expired visas, passports, drivers’ licenses, voter registration cards from Mexico or a Central American country. Other times, I may find a name scrawled into a pocket Bible or letters from a mother, child or lover. Most of the time, though, the bodies don’t carry any documents at all.

“Thanks for the Frappuccino,” says the Medical Examiner. I’m startled to notice that she’s appeared right behind me. She is wiping her big black hipster glasses with a tiny white cloth. “So how many goddamned bodies do we have today?”

“They brought in five this morning,” I reply, smoothing out a birth certificate damaged by sweat and sun.

“Fuck!” she says. “I can’t think of anything else to say. Fuck. We’re already at 80 for this year.”

I don’t know what to say to reassure her. Ever since she hired me two years ago, this office has been overrun each day with dead migrant bodies. Still, things do feel a bit different now. I self-consciously push the birth certificate, which I now deem illegible, away from me.

“Well, I guess there’s nothing you or I can do,” she sighs, gazing out the window at the creek crevice. “Better show me the first one.”

I open a goldenrod yellow drawer, revealing its contents to the Medical Examiner. Its content—a skeletal body—is almost completely decayed. The bones were bleached to a shocking white in the desert sun. The joints are filthy, jammed up with dirt, and the fingertips have long since faded. Before the sun did its work, the meat, the flesh, the organs, the guts, were all surely devoured by ravenous desert animals. And the lipless mouth gapes open—clear evidence of a final scream of terror prior to death. Still, the body gives us no clues of this person’s identity.

“Anything on ‘em?” asks the Medical Examiner.

“No, nothing.”

She sighs. “OK. I’ll check out the teeth later today. Make a note of it. Show me the next one.”

I open a drawer to show her body number two. It appears to be that of an elderly man. He is dressed in a checkered shirt, blue jeans and an L.A. Dodgers cap. His decomposition has only just begun; they must have found the body quickly. The limbs have just begun to puff up in the sun, and the joints are already cemented in rigor mortis. He smells of rot, dirt and sun.

The Medical Examiner perks up upon seeing this body. She’s thinking that perhaps we can identify this one and send him home for a dignified burial.

“Any identifying documents?” she asks.

“Let me go check in the Property Room.”

“Why are the belongings there?” she snaps.

“Sorry—I haven’t sorted everything yet. We just got so many bodies today.”

Nervous and simmering under the Medical Examiner’s glare, I walk to the Property Room. Its drawers, as always, are replete with plastic bags bearing the property of unidentified migrant bodies. On the small table by the window are the belongings of today’s cadavers.

I find the plastic bag I’d assigned to the body of the elderly man. Its contents: a pocket Bible, an expired U.S. driver’s license, a prayer card, a series of family photos (I think) and what looks to me like a short letter in a sky-blue envelope.

Looking backward over my shoulder, I intuit that the Medical Examiner wants me back there right now. But I cannot help myself—my job makes me a hopeless busybody. I carefully open the blue envelope. As expected, it’s a letter. It’s written in large, girly hand in Spanish and another language I don’t understand. (I have, I’m proud to say, started studying Nahuatl and a Mayan dialect, but I cannot recognize this one.) What I can make out from the letter’s scraps of Spanish is—


How are you?

Soon, I will have my quinceañera. Mother says that you won’t be able to make it because its too hard to cross the border right now.

I know you are working hard picking tomatoes in Nebraska. I know it’s hard to come home. But please, abuelito, won’t you come to my quinceañera?

I miss you on my birthdays, at Christmas, at my first communion.

Won’t you come home for this, abuelito querido?

[I cannot understand the rest]

I put the letter back in the envelope in the bag, letting my gaze return to the chinks and clefts that indicate that a creek once flowed by here, long before the sun dried it all up. The Medical Examiner is calling me impatiently. I return to the bodies.