When you’re being pursued through the forest by men with guns and dogs that can smell your confessional whispers, let alone your panting, the forest can be your ally or just another tormenting hurdle in the chase.
If you run into the backhand of a branch full of leaves to your face can stun and blind you with the flash of pain just as easily as the whipped knuckles of some goon when you’re shackled to a chair or crouched in the middle of a fighting cage. You willingly accept that tree’s slap as long as you can maintain your pace and distance from the howls and shouting mob that has yet to feel that arboreal sucker punch.
You’re only a petty criminal from Brownsville, a thief who came upon a dead gangster with a satchel full of money and drugs. What did you know of the reach of La Familia? It’s black hand pulled you all the way into the Yucatan prison keep of its nobility and paramount leader. Your penance for breaking their own third commandment was doled out in beatings sanctioned and unsanctioned by the guards, most of whom were in the pocket of La Familia.
You’ve planned this breakout for months, prepared your body—you thought—for this run from the camp whose name you never knew and probably couldn’t pronounce anyway. But no number of push-ups, crunches and running in place can train you for each obstacle of downed trees, grasping and cutting vines and the slick rock-lined stream beds you must traverse to reach your ultimate means of escape somewhere out in this unmapped green killing ground. It knows the territory because it is the territory.
The howls and curses have shifted to your right now, carried to you on the sunbeams filtering through the canopy. These shadows of sound and cutouts of light reach out for you as you shift southwest toward the river where your beloved Angelina and brother Luca have hidden the scuffed and beaten hull you hope will be your ticket to freedom.
The thump of your heart—you can feel each beat in your neck and temple—and the contusions, nicks and gashes on your face and hands remind you of the entertainment they forced you to perform in the big cage, where kill or be killed took on a weekly literal connotation. You knew you didn’t have another fight left in you besides this one, even though the forest’s record of victories over escaped prisoners dwarfed yours. Even now, you sense you have little left, you know one more blow from nature could put you down in a defeat from which there’d be no rematch.
The river catches you as you fall and you lie in its cold embrace for a ten-count, while it soothes your wounds and refocuses you to your location and strategy. You must get to the other bank before the current swings you into another type of branch. This one the right arm of the watery “Y” lying about 100 yards ahead. You grab at the water, pulling it toward you as if your life depended upon it, because that’s what this life-giving elixir will do…grant you another chance at life.
Your legs can barely kick now, your arms weakening as if you’re in the cage again with that killer Osvaldo, throwing punch after punch with no seeming effect. You’re fighting the current, time and geometry that you can complete the triangle of you, the far shore and a plane across the apex of the split between left and right branch. You know it will be close, as close and lucky as the punch you threw, popping a brain aneurysm, which killed Osvaldo before he could put you under. The gambling inmates and guards, and most especially his patróns did not appreciate your luck. You knew there was time only to test it once more. And you’re failing this final.
Just as your legs swing downstream, the wrong stream, the stream Angelina said would lead to the Caraboo Falls, you grasp at the exposed root extending its lifeline to you. Your fingers stiff in the cold rushing water, you can barely hold on, but the love of Angelina and Luca, who never gave up on getting you out, provide you with the strength to haul yourself up onto the muddy lip of the shore.
The blessed gelatinous goo upon which you now find yourself lying could be your final resting place, though. Across the river, the sound of the searchers grows clearer, closer, louder, above the water’s rush to your deliverance from this place. Crawl, crawl, swim through it if you must. Just move away from the shore and the view of the pursuers.
Just as you pull yourself through the slashing sawgrass, adding to your bloody woes, you turn to see the guards, dogs and the inmate jefe they call El Papa, the Pope, burst through the green curtain and stop at the riverside. The dogs enter the water but merely splash and howl at the olfactory cipher you’ve become. El Papa splashes into the water, as well, looking downstream to see if you’re floating to your demise at the Caraboo.
He turns and screams at the lead guard, slapping him repeatedly, and then gives a long look across the river. You can feel his black eyes upon you. He knows. He must know.
And now they melt back into the forest, dragging their dogs and El Papa’s vengeful spirit away from the river. El Papa will find another meal ticket, another bludgeoning killer who won’t be so susceptible to a lucky rabbit punch.
Now, to find the boat. Angelina said Lucas hid it twenty meters from the shore directly in line with the point where the river splits. You stagger and trip over the clutching roots and vines, as if they’re trying to keep you from escaping, keep you from the boat, keep you from the river and freedom.
But there it is, overturned amid the ferns, blending in with the dull silver tree limbs, another fallen escapee who didn’t quite make it to the river. But now it will, with you at the oars.
You right the boat and drag it step by lurching backward step to the edge of the forest curtain and the shore. Inside the boat you find the collapsible oars, the change of clothes, a flashlight and a hand-drawn map on the back of a note Lucas has printed. In it, he admonishes you to trust no one until you see him again:
“This river, the forest, the entire country is full of snakes, shiny ones that walk on two legs, old ones that will hear your confession and break their vow of silence, gentle ones that will fill you with poison in their kiss. I’ll look for you downriver on the right-hand shore. Good luck, brother.”
The sun has dropped below the trees now. It’s glow paints the world in royal purple and gold. You ease the boat into the water, step in and push off into the current. The darkness comes quickly, but you know you are another step closer to freedom. You put you back into rowing, the oarlocks muffled, the only sounds are frogs, birds, your breath, the gentle slice of the oars in the river.
You sense the current grow faster, and you chance turning on the flashlight, training it on the right shoreline, looking for Luca. There! No, just wishful thinking. The trees, the rocks, the world seems to move past faster in the dark, through the illuminating tube of the flashlight beam.
The night sounds so loud now, amplified by exhaustion, dregs of adrenaline and mounting hope. Luca, Luca, where are you? You wish to call out, but dare not. Not yet. The country is full of snakes.
Up ahead you see a figure, arms outstretched, the face becoming more familiar by the rushing second. But the current has become too strong to stop.
“Luca, Luca,” you finally call, snakes be damned. As you rush by your brother, you see his face white in the flashlight’s glow, his arms lashed between tree limbs, a dark stain beneath his chin covers his chest. And then he’s gone.
The boat now tosses, it races faster and faster. You pull on the oars to make shore, at first to save your brother as much as yourself. But the Caraboo will not be denied. It spits you out over the mouth of the falls like a serpent’s tongue.
You fall as other prey have fallen to snakes called El Papa and the one the jefe and his crew call El Cardenal, but Angelina never called anything but Bartolo, the older brother she feared more than Satan himself. Their sacraments they have administered. You’ve been baptized, confirmed, and given last rites. Your sins against La Familia have been washed clean by the Caraboo.
And for the briefest instant, freedom, this queer salvation, feels like the spray of holy water on your face from Padre Miguel’s aspergillum when you served funeral mass.
This is the super-fast first draft of a short story based on Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines prompt photo above, by Suzanne V. Carey (copyright © 2016). Once again, I’ve fallen into that cock-eyed balance of mine—pretty poems and gritty stories. In this case, I’ve tried a different point of view: my own ham-handed version of second person. Oh, and aspergillum is the proper name for one those holy water wands that priests use in blessings.