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This story does not appear in the published version of Out of War
One morning, not long ago, a woman ran through our barrio screaming “They have killed my son! They have killed my son!” Later, the rumours spread that they were taking poor children from different parts of Ciudad Bolivar, killing them, and stealing their eyes and hearts to sell to rich families. Everyone was talking about it. I thought that the body thieves must have got that woman’s son and killed him.
On afternoons when my father comes from the city with enough pesos for us to buy bread, he sends me to the shop. He knows all about the body thieves but someone has to get the bread and since I am the oldest child, he sends me.
I step out of our house which has one room that I share with my father, sister and brother. The street is narrow and muddy and all the houses around are made of cement like mine, with small barred windows to keep out thieves. The houses opposite rise up the hillside which gets quite steep in some parts of Ciudad Bolivar. If I stare very hard at the houses high on the mountain, I think I can see them shifting and sliding down on top of us. When the rain is very heavy, people talk about landslides.
It is cold in the street and I start running – not because of the cold but because of the body thieves, and because the rain has made the sky seem darker than usual. It feels dangerous. I don’t know where the body thieves are or what they look like but I think they are out there somewhere. All I can do is to run as fast as I can, faster than the wind, and pray I stay out of their way.
“Don’t let them pick me, dear God, please don’t let them pick me.”
On the way I have to pass the tree of the hanging man and that is when I am most afraid. It is a big, old, ugly tree which even has a signboard calling it “The Tree of the Hanging Man” because once they hanged a man there. As I run past, I think that this tree is also probably the place where the body thieves leave their victims. I think I can see the bodies of the sad children hanging among the branches, maybe as many as eight of them.
I get to the shop, buy the bread and race back home. This time I am careful not to look at the tree because if you look too close you might see something you don’t want to. Also, I am trying to concentrate on the idea that the police must have come to take away the bodies of the children. They must be doing an investigation, mustn’t they? Except the police never find out anything. They never find out who did it, just like they never found out who killed my mother.
Before my mother went away she used to protect us. If we got up to trouble, if we broke the windows, my father would shout at us and threaten us but my mother would say, “No, don’t hit the children.” She used to save us from beatings. Now she has gone he can hit us. He uses his belt. But he doesn’t hit us hard, you understand. I would never say that.
When I feel sad and lonely I talk to Cati and imagine that she is my dog. Really, Cati lives with our neighbor but they don’t understand her the way I do. They cannot talk to her. I tell Cati everything. Sometimes I tell her about my mother and how much I miss her. I say, “Cati, are you sure you love me?” and she wags her tail. I say, “Cati, you are never going to leave me are you?” But she won’t ever leave me. I know that.
When we were younger, I used to spend a lot of time with my sister “Angelica” and our brother “Tomas” hanging around the junction of Calle 20 and Caracas Avenue, where my dad sells lottery tickets. This is a good place to sell tickets because there are a lot of people around – like drug dealers and prostitutes and others who sell stuff on the street. There used to be plenty of homeless people and street kids around too, but most of them have been moved out by the police into Ciudad Bolivar and other places where poor people live.
I was supposed to keep track of Angelica since she was the youngest and I was the oldest, but it was impossible. Once, when she was four years old, she vanished for more than six hours. It turned out that she had been in the park with some friends. Everyone was crying about it.
Three years ago, not long after my mother went away, a guy called Miguel Angel told me about the YMCA. Miguel Angel is short with black hair and blue eyes. He shared a desk with me in second grade even though he was thirteen and I was only eight. Miguel Angel had had a lot of problems in his life and that was why he was so far back in school. None of the kids liked him because he was so much older but he was a real friend to me. He told me that if kids like us went to the YMCA in the mornings instead of hanging out on the street we could get into games and activities, and they would give us snacks as well. I told my dad and he thought it was a good idea since it is hard to sell the lottery and watch three kids at the same time.
The YMCA we went to was right near Caracas Avenue where my dad was working. You go through a tiny door and inside is this huge, high, bright open space with the kids running around, playing and screaming, their voices echoing to the roof. The roof is full of skylights and on sunny days the light comes beaming in, flooding the place with sunshine. On cold days, it is really cold in there.
Like on the street, I wasn’t going to take any bad treatment from anyone at the YMCA. If a kid gave me a funny look or pulled my hair or pushed me even by accident, or if a teacher tried to tell me what to do, I let them have it. I cursed them all. I called the teachers some terrible names. I was always fighting and so were Angelica and Tomas.
There was this boy called Juan Carlos who was about fifteen when I started at the YMCA. Juan Carlos was a youth volunteer who was always talking about peace and how terrible the war was. Juan Carlos is a skinny guy and you wouldn’t think that he had a muscle in his body to fight with. I liked to tease him. Sometimes I would creep up behind him and say,
“Hey, Juan Carlos, aren’t you afraid that I’ll grow up to become a guerrilla one day and that I’ll come after you.”
“Don’t get me fired up now,” he would tell me, “don’t get me all fired up.”
I couldn’t imagine him getting fired up about much. He looked too skinny. He knew I was trouble though so he kept following me around, asking me things, telling me about war and peace and stuff. I never paid any attention but he kept talking and talking and sometimes we had fun with it.
A couple of years ago he started this group inside the YMCA where kids could go and learn about peace. My dad said I should go, that maybe it would help me. I didn’t care but it was something to do and I figured I could still have some fun with Juan Carlos. I liked the way he paid attention to me.
In the peace workshops we read newspapers, cut out stories, and talked about the violence of the war and what was happening in Bogota. We talked about how arguments turned into fights, and how you could find a way of solving an argument without punching someone in the face. It started me thinking, you know, about why I was so aggressive. We talked about how violent kids grow up into violent adults and maybe they start killing and maybe that is how the war keeps going on and on. I didn’t understand exactly why I was always fighting, but I knew I didn’t want to grow up into a killer.
I began to change. I stopped being so rude to the teachers. If I saw a couple of the younger kids fighting, I’d try to break it up. I tried talking to my sister Angelica about it, but it was no good. She is still very angry, very aggressive. No one can control her. She left the YMCA because she didn’t like the rules, and went back to hanging out on the Caracas Avenue. It is dangerous for her out there, she and my father both know it.
There is this one part of the peace workshop that I really like. Juan Carlos makes us lie on the floor and tells us to relax and think about the person we love most in the whole world.
I think of my mother. I can see her face. She is smiling and happy. She has curly hair, dark skin like mine and coffee-colored eyes like mine. She looks just like me. She is always spoiling me and never hits me. She takes me everywhere and buys me ice cream and sweets. I dream about my sixth birthday, the last birthday I had with her. I was so happy that my mother remembered my birthday. She gave me a wonderful party, with a cake and a piñata. We played games all afternoon, until eight o’clock in the evening when she lifted me onto her lap. Everyone had gone away and there was just me and her. I was so tired. I leaned against her while she sang me a lullaby and I fell asleep right there.
My mother was killed in the street. We don’t know who did it. She worked in the street, selling fish, that is what my father told me. She was very good at it and other people were jealous. She traveled to many different places, including Honda, in the hot country.
My father told me, “Don’t worry, she’s not going to abandon you, she’s not going to leave you.”
But she owed money to a man in Honda and I think he was the one who killed her. We never went to the funeral. My aunt and uncle buried her. My father didn’t want to tell us what had happened, but I overheard him talking to a man my mother used to work with. Then I saw a photograph of her and I burst into tears.
I felt very alone. My father was always busy. There was no one to talk to, but in the peace workshops I started dreaming about my mother again. It was like bringing her back into my life and it was like finding a kind of peace.
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