It’s different on the border. Things happen here that don’t happen anywhere else and, really, since the borderland is neither here nor there, not the U.S.A. but not quite Mexico, the kinds of things that happen here can be said to perhaps not happen at all. How can something happen if it isn’t happening in some place? And, since this isn’t really a place but the place between two other places, how can things really happen if they happen in no place?
Out there in the desert with the big empty watching and waiting near the ruins of what used to be, miles from anything and I can see that if there really is a line dividing two nations, it’s worse than invisible and it’s locked up on a map in a book a thousand miles away from here and that magic invisible line has nothing at all to do with the snakes and the starlight and the tarantulas and the people and the wild dogs and the nobody-really-knows-what-else moving back and forth, across and over, up and down. This is all for the good, believe me.
If I was you, I wouldn’t be out there, but if you was me, you would. You’d be parked in my 1975 Ford F-150 on a dry hill among the brushy gray bushes, the black outline of a new moon hanging among a thousand million million stars to illuminate the landscape enough to see how dark it really was.
Out there, things are moving. Some of them are animals, some of them are people, and some of them have to be classified as “other.” If I’m quiet enough long enough, long enough for the motor to cool down and stop ticking, long enough for all the things I scared away to move on, new things that don’t know I’m here come by. Sometimes it’s an animal, a skunk or a skinny mule deer or even a peccary, and sometimes it’s a person, some skinny brown man or woman or child big eyed in the night or sometimes even La Migra, a broad-shouldered white man with a rifle and a badge. And sometimes, you know, there on the border at night under that black moon, sometimes it’s something else entirely that moves through the brush and close enough to smell until suddenly I don’t even want to know what it is anymore or what it could be and I’m just very very quiet until it goes away.
During the day, out by the vague ruin of a failed ranch melting back into the earth or out on the long dry flats, deep in the termini of steep-cut canyons or high on a windswept promontory, I find all sorts of leftovers. Rubber tire sandals and plastic water bottles, dry bones and fresh feces, the brass casings of spent ammunition and old horseshoes and the charred carcasses of motorcycles, blood soaked altars of haphazardly stacked stones, inverted forged iron crosses draped with garlands of plastic flowers and dried fingers, the skin of a young woman stretched out on a forgotten section of barbed-wire fence dividing ranchland long without cattle or cattleman, sacks and bags and packs filled with the strangest things, all sorts of weird stuff like underwear and drugs and a thousand snapshots of someone’s family and money and dried fish and jewelry and five hand-carved wooden dolls: a mommy, a daddy, a little boy, a little girl, and a baby.
As often as the wind here carries the odor of cactus blossom or the dusty tang of a rainstorm coming up, it carries also the miasma of gunpowder and blood, of sweat and fear, of semen and rotten meat and iron. As often as a coyote howl or an owl hoot breaks this still air, so too will the screams of women and children fly out across the desert to disappear without echo or consequences. Names whispered in the darkness, supplications to deities both conventional and obscure, lost children wailing for their mothers, mothers crying out for their lost children, a full variety and variation of shrieks to convey indignant pain and horror, pleas for mercy, petitions for release from torture, and soft begging for the kindness of swift murder all dissipate in this borderland atmosphere; they spread out unheard over a landscape unconcerned.
I’d been tracking this fellow quite a while and I had a pretty good idea what he was up to. He seemed the type. He kept moving around, setting up an ambush, waiting, waiting some more, moving again, setting up again, waiting. I kept him in my sights, watching with one eye from, oh, I’d say a half-mile away. He had no idea.
But he knew what he was doing. And about the fifth time he set up his little ambush, he caught himself a brown girl. It was slick and it was sweet like he’d done it a hundred times before; he just stepped out of the brush and slipped his big old knife under her chin and that was that. She dropped her pathetic bundle and her plastic water bottle, and she kicked a little bit as he lifted her up with his other arm wrapped around her waist, and she lost one of her rubber tire sandals. I was watching this through the scope, lining up the shot.
He half carried, half dragged her back into the brush where his kit was laid out and ready; he had stakes already in the earth, lengths of rope ready for her ankles and wrists, and duct tape for her mouth. He got her down, tied her spread-eagle, taped her, and kneeled down between her legs to start cutting away her clothes. I got the shot and his head disappeared, all bone and brain and tooth become a variated mist traveling fast and away. The neck stump fountained thick towers of blood until the body crumpled across her right thigh, spastic movements rippling through its limbs. One shot, one kill. The earth disappeared what poured out of the body.
It makes me feel especially…it makes me feel really…it makes me feel full to be able to do that, to look at someone from so far away and to point and to reach out and take his head off from a half-mile away. I doubt if the girl even heard the sound of the shot that killed her attacker. He sure didn’t.
All the way walking over there to where the girl lay draped with that fellow’s corpse, I was not doing much more than enjoying the feeling. By the time I got there, my breathing had mostly calmed down and I kicked the body off that girl there all splayed out in the dirt. I took a few of the fingers so I could add them to one of those upside-down crosses I liked out in the desert. Without the head, though, the body didn’t have much left in the way of trophies—no ears or nose or scalp—and I sure didn’t want anything to do with his pizzle though I know some folk what don’t feel the same. They’ll cut a fellow’s business off and do bad things with it. That girl was all big eyes and little squeaking noises behind the tape.
I stood there above her looking down and still feeling that good full feeling inside me.
“How you doing?” I asked her and she stopped making those noises. I could see all sorts of things going through her head fast. She looked up at me and past me with those big brown eyes; she looked all around as much as she could but there wasn’t nothing else there but me and a lot of blank black sky.
I squatted down where that other fellow had kneeled before and I picked up his big knife. As I started in to cutting off the rest of her clothes, I was talking to her the whole time, talking soft like I would talk to any frightened creature no matter how badly it was suffering, and I kept talking to her like that as I started to cut away much, much more than just her clothes.