The Promised Land
Moisés Ramírez had not made his decision lightly. He knew very well the risks he ran, to attempt to enter the United States with nothing more than the shirt on his back and his eighteen years. Certainly, without money, without English, and, above all, without permission.
All that, however, would cost him less than that which his family already suffered— his parents, already old in spite of their middle age, and the multitude of younger brothers and sisters who worked like grown-ups for their daily bread. Moisés, the second oldest and the first son, felt heavily his obligation to the family that formed, in Latin America, the nucleus of his life.
He agonized for several weeks. There was the danger of never reaching the U.S., of being captured at the border, or of being discovered to be undocumented while there. He would miss his family and friends, and the majority of his money would go to them. But, in the end, many friends had already left and need impelled him to go.
Moisés, like his namesake Moses of the Bible, began his journey in the desert.
On the other side of the border, Rick Campbell put maps and bottles of water in boxes for those that attempted to cross and found themselves lost. He was a student, of some twenty or twenty-one years. With his summer he had wanted to do something of value, and so decided to help along the border, although he was from elsewhere. He already knew that to cross the desert between Mexico and the U.S. was a dangerous trek, because it was all too easy to become lost and walk in circles, and the temperature could climb to a hundred and thirty. The desert could kill, and did so with considerable frequency.
Those from the area had a respect for the desert, but in Rick, from a state of rain and lakes, it inspired almost fear. He had already discovered one corpse, mummified by the heat and drought, not so far from the border. If only they could have walked a little farther…he thought.
While Rick packed bottles, Moisés was walking. Three days in the desert, and he didn't know how much he had yet to go. It was summer, and the water had already run out. It'll be worth it, he repeated like a prayer. It'll be worth it.
But Moisés was already lost, disoriented by the identical miles of desert and the sun that only told him east or west in the mornings and evenings. Lack of water robbed him of his better judgment, and he didn't think of giving up, only of continuing, step by step by heavy step.
A few hours later, Rick waited in the desert for the pick-up truck that had left him earlier for his turn in setting out the boxes of water and maps. There was little danger in that, because there was a line of posts for the volunteers to follow, and when he finished his job he had only to await his ride.
As he waited, burning a little in the sun, Rick contemplated the enormous plain before him. He appreciated now the advantages that life had given him in the world; that he wasn't forced to enter that vast expanse out of real need.
Normally no one encountered anyone else out there, because the desert was so very large, and it wasn't especially common that a volunteer actually met an immigrant trying to cross. Once in a while, however, it did happen. Today, it was the reflection of the sun off a belt buckle, from far away, that attracted Rick's eyes. At first he didn't know what it was he saw—a mirage, perhaps, but perhaps not.
He thought there was a figure in the distance, that he did not merely imagine that dark form on the horizon. Against the rules, Rick left his post and began to walk towards the figure, the person he could still make out.
The rules existed for a reason: that it was too easy to lose oneself in those miles without sign or direction. The natives knew that the flat earth lied; that one could not accurately judge how much distance lay between one thing and another. Rick, accustomed to hills and trees, knew only that there was someone out there and that he should help.
In a few minutes he had realized he had made a grave mistake, but thought he could still find his way back. The pick-up still wasn't due for a few minutes, he had time— or so he thought.
An hour later, he had problems and had still not reached that ephemeral reflection. What was more, it seemed no closer. He already felt somewhat weak and his skin was beginning to tighten with sunburn; he should try to return, but pride would not let him. How could he abandon that stranger, more lost than he himself?
Moisés was badly burned and badly dehydrated. Vivid dreams swam in his vision, of water and ice, of cool air, of shade. When he saw Rick, he scarcely noticed, so focused was he on placing one foot in front of the other.
"Hey man, are you ok?" A voice broke into his agony. Words in English; a friendly tone.
"It's ok, man, you're almost there, come on, I'll help."
Moisés didn't understand the words, but he understood that the other boy was not one of those who patrolled the border with rifles and prejudice.
"Sp-spanish?" Moisés forced out in his own language. Speaking hurt, but the water that the young man lifted to his mouth felt like a blessing from God Himself.
"Sorry, I don't really know that much…A little? I speak a little?" These last words in a quizzical, badly-accented Spanish.
Moisés motioned that he understood, accustomed to the stereotypical gringo who didn't know any language but his own.
"English? You?" Rick took his arm, and, supporting the other boy, began to walk again, in the direction he guessed to be most accurate.
"English, no." Moisés knew very little, a few nouns and the verb "to be," but not much else.
"That's ok, we'll just keep going, then. What's your name?" Rick tried to talk, although his throat had gone dry and his lips were splitting.
Moisés didn't answer.
"Hey, look, I'm Rick. My name…is Rick." Rick put a hand to his chest and repeated his name. "What's your name?"
"Moisés. I'm Moisés." The boy understood the gesture and responded in kind in his own language.
"Ok then, nice to meet you Moises. Let's see if we can find our way back…"
The two young men walked side by side for hours. When night fell, Rick had to admit that he too, like the poor man he'd discovered that morning, could become a victim of a nature larger and stronger than his own. His companion was in fairly bad shape, and the bottle of water Rick had brought was already gone.
"Let's sleep." Moisés spoke suddenly. He hadn't said much the whole day because Rick couldn't understand him, and it cost him too much energy to force the words past a swollen tongue.
Rick, in turn, talked constantly, a continual flow that distracted Moisés somewhat from his misery. If he were capable of expressing his gratitude, he would have liked to do so. Rick was surprised when Moisés finally spoke.
He repeated the other boy's word, drawing out the syllables, but could not divine their meaning. "Can I get a hand gesture for that? Hope it's not another word for water, cause we're out."
Moisés tripped, and Rick caught his arm for the hundredth time. Exhausted, Moisés tried again to explain.
"Let's sleep. It's already getting dark…let's stop here and sleep." This time, Moisés folded his hands alongside his cheek like a sleeping child, and pointed to the ground.
"Sleep? Is that what it means? Yeah, sleep sounds pretty good, it's getting dark out here."
He helped Moisés to sit.
"Thank you, my friend." Moisés felt a deep kinship for his companion, which diminished slightly the suffering by sharing it.
"You're welcome, my friend." Rick answered in his half-forgotten high school Spanish. "See, that's about all the Spanish I know."
They lay in silence for a moment on the cracked earth. Night had descended, and, without a single city light, the darkness was complete. A few coyotes sang in the distance and Rick was struck with a sudden fear.
"Hey, those coyotes, they dangerous? Moisés—coyotes, bad?"
Moisés understood enough of what the other was asking.
"Coyotes aren't dangerous if they're not hungry. No—not bad." His last sentence was in an English as thick as Rick's Spanish, but sufficient to assuage the anxiety a little.
"How about lizards and stuff? Tarantulas, you got tarantulas out here?"
"Tarantula, yes." Moisés recognized the key word in the sentence. "But they don't bother you as long as you don't bother them."
"All I got from that was 'sí' so I'm just gonna not think about it...G'night Moisés."
"Good night Rick."
The sun woke them, stiff and sore. Rick was now suffering considerably, but tried not to show it. Moisés remained groggy, dizzy, with leaking sores where the sun had destroyed his skin. Rick, with fairer, more delicate skin, already looked nearly as bad, but imagined that he could still find the way home, or, at least, one of those water stations that he himself had helped stock.
While the sun climbed, Moisés fell more and more often. Each time, Rick pulled him to his feet with a few cheerful words, and so that his companion would know how much he appreciated it, Moisés began to talk. He talked about his family, his town, the reason he had wanted to come to the States, about his favorite foods, about whatever little thing he could invent to encourage Rick as Rick encouraged him. By the afternoon of the second day, the two had come to a place beyond language, beyond superficial words; they understood one another on a level of flesh and bone, of red blood, of shared suffering. They were brothers, and when Rick, too, began to fall, it was Moisés that pulled him back up, and when Moisés begged for a rest or just one small drop of water, it was Rick that carried him a few feet until he could walk again.
They entered then a tunnel of existence, in which there was no outside world, only heat and burning skin, thirst and a paper throat, dry dirt and the need to place one foot in front of the other, without beginning or end, for some reason that now neither quite remembered.
Moisés fell and this time pleaded with Rick to leave him be. "A rest, please, my friend, a rest." In reality he thought that he was going to die, but he also though that if he did die, Rick would have a better chance at survival without worrying about him. At the same time, however, he didn't want to leave Rick to face the elements of the desert alone, without the shoulder of a friend or the hand of a brother.
"Ten minutes, Rick, please." He held up ten fingers, crippled from sunburn and dehydration.
Rick almost said no, that they had to keep going, but his friend's eyes begged for this one small mercy. His brain felt clouded, his thoughts moldy. Ten minutes of rest, it was a good idea…
"Ok, buddy, we'll just rest for a little bit..." Rick said, feeling in his knees a spreading weakness. His throat bothered him, his tongue more cotton than muscle. The other boy didn't answer, lying face up with his head lolled to one side. The skin of his face had taken on a tinge of grey beneath the copper, and his breathing had a painful sound.
"Ten minutes, man, a'ight? I'll try and keep the sun off your face, then we gotta keep walking..." Rick sat down by his side, trying with his shadow to protect the other boy's head. He passed a hand across his own face, wiping away some of the dust. It burned, and he was vaguely surprised to see that he bled, from the lips and two or three places where the sunburn was worst.
Without realizing very clearly what it was he was doing, Rick lay down on the hard sand as well and it received him like the arms of a lover. It seemed such a comfortable bed that he wondered, as if in a dream, why he hadn't thought of sleeping earlier. With one arm flung across the face of the other young man, Rick, too, slept, and in the middle of the desert, the two boys did not wake in ten minutes, nor ten hours, nor ever again.
The two dead men lay side by side, under the barbarous sun, and in very few days it had made of them something half mummy and half skeleton. When the first person discovered them, they were nearly identical, with skin like paper over bleached white bones. The elements had already made rags of their clothing, and no single characteristic separated one cadaver from the other. That person who found two dead men in the desert could not stop, because they had, like all, their own mission to fulfill, but they searched for wallets or anything to identify the bodies with, so they would not go completely forgotten. With a shoelace, they affixed the ID cards to a short stick and stuck it into the ground by the two skulls.
While the bodies rotted and their Samaritan at last reached the border, the families of the two searched for information or some small clue as to what had happened to their sons.
In the States, Rick's family contacted groups that patrolled the border, other volunteers, the police, and heard nothing. In Mexico, Moisés's family knew that he had never reached the U.S., and contacted friends and cousins, and at last prepared to go themselves to the border to look for him. The father took three of his sons, Moisés's younger brothers. In their family, they did not abandon their blood. The four men—in truth, one man and three boys—searched for a week, and when they discovered nothing, another. They had promised their mother that they would find her son and bring him home to bury properly.
It didn't occur to Rick's family to go to the desert. They did not realize that there were people who, without resources like telephones and money and internet, went to search for their loved ones with nothing more than their own eyes and the hope of finding something. They only hoped for news of their son, and worried.
The third week that the father and brothers spent looking—five weeks after the disappearance—the oldest son, twelve years old, spotted the pathetic little staff where the two ID cards were affixed. He couldn't see the bodies well, because the wind had already covered them with dust, but with some effort he managed to read the name of his brother on one of the tattered cards. He called his father, and his other brothers, and together the three brushed the dust from the dead.
One mummy had one arm stretched over the other, the hand now only bones. Neither had hair and the skulls lacked faces. The sun and wind had shredded any identifiable piece of clothing; everything was now of the same grayish color, where it even still existed. And, since the cards were tacked up one above the other, there was no way to tell which had come from which boy. One was their son and their brother, and the other, a stranger that for some reason had shared his death.
"Reek Cam-bel," read one of the younger boys. They would cry, of course, but later, when they had completed the task of returning with their brother.
"Which is he?"
"I don't know, son, they're practically twins."
"So which do we bury?" A practical question, from a child who had never had the luxury of being impractical.
"I don't know, son. But this other one is someone's son too, we should do something."
So it was with much care and suffering that they returned with both bodies and both cards. With the only resources they had—friends and family already in the U.S.— they looked for the family of the other boy, this Rick Campbell. And, because they were accustomed to accomplishing difficult tasks with scarcely anything, they succeeded.
When Rick's parents arrived in Mexico, there was a strange family reunion between them all, without a common language or culture but with two mothers who had lost sons, two fathers that tried to comfort their wives without giving in to their own grief.
Through a younger daughter who was learning English in school, Moisés's father explained that they didn't know which boy belonged to which family. They could do a DNA test, but there were very few facilities in all of Mexico, and even less money for such expenses. They could do it in the States, but that would cost even more, and would take three or four weeks. Better, he said, to bury the two together somewhere appropriate, somewhere nice, and let them rest in peace.
Rick's parents vacillated at first, but his mother understood what the other asked with her reddened eyes— their sons had already suffered too much to be without a coffin or rest another four weeks for their families' peace of mind. In the last days of their lives, Moisés and Rick had shared something singularly unique, that neither had left the other as they weakened, and even in death one had protected the other. Their families could not dishonor that by separating them now. And so, they cremated both together, and placed the ashes in two urns. They went to the border, this time by truck, each family with an urn.
The two families stood, one on each side of the border itself, and released the ashes. Captured by the wind, they danced with a lithe freedom, a soul without body. Turning somersaults on the breeze, they flew to the Mexican side, to the American side, and to anywhere else they chose, because, at last, it did not matter.