By David Golding
The village clung to the side of a mountain, to a slope that turned from dust to mud to dust with the seasons. Through the dry months, the kids rolled tires with sticks and bounced them down the hill to make the dogs chase them. Their mothers and aunts watched while sweeping the dirt in front of the house or hanging up the clothes to dry. Most of their fathers worked the fields. They grew pineapple and sugarcane for export. When the monsoons came, they’d all go down into the valley. The women stayed on the side of the road selling fruits and flatbread. The men crossed over and fished at the river. When things were good, they netted shrimp by the bucket.
From the jungles up the mountain came a radio signal. It swept through the treetops that rustled with monkeys and sagged with fruit. The transmission continued as the leaves caught their first yellow glow at dawn, through dusk when the trees turned black against a faint sky. The signal had been going since the war, or at least that’s what the old men said. Who knows which war they meant. The women said it had been coming down much longer than that. It didn’t matter because all it did was talk garbage, it didn’t make any sense. Sometimes it gave long explanations without a clear topic, maybe read from a script that had been garbled or lost in translation. But then another voice might crackle in, and for a moment the message would seem coherent, until the chatter kept going back and forth. Anyone old enough just clicked their tongue at its static. They knew some of the young ones tuned in, but they’d grow out of it, someday at least.
The only time they gave the signal a second thought was the morning the military came. A vehicle rolled up with ten wheels that looked so solid it probably could’ve tumbled down the mountain sideways and still drove away fine. Eight soldiers climbed out, some of them practically just boys, faces painted the color of the forest, rifles pointed at the ground in front of their boots. They questioned the men at every house. Where’s the signal coming from? Who’s putting it out there? You want to make it long enough to see your kid hold a machete? Who’s responsible for the signal? They asked these questions in a circle fast enough to make anyone nauseous. The soldiers took some of the men inside their own houses and slapped them so hard the baby started to cry. But none of them knew anything. The voices just came out of the air, out of nowhere.
The soldiers snaked uphill into the jungle guns-first. The monsoon clouds glided in to greet them. They put up a tarp and huddled around a radio. It was nonsense, and they couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, so they climbed back into their metal box, drove down the hill, and turned onto the road.
As a boy, Victor listened to the signal on his headphones while he studied. He couldn’t understand much, but the things he could made him get up out of his chair and pace the kitchen, or just stand at the front door looking at the ridges on the horizon. He knew he would amount to much more than any of his three sisters, whose only hope was to find men to marry. Honor awaited Victor, if not soon then sometime when he was old enough to sport a mustache.
The boy grew lanky and his back grew curved. The slump of his shoulders brought him pain along with the ridicule of his classmates, but the focused hunch was suitable for studying or shooting a rifle. He found hope on the radio. One day he would be a soldier, just like the men he had watched take over the village and trek into the wilds. The signal was his beacon to greatness.
Victor’s mother, seeing the boy struggle with the shape of his back, sold her gold necklace and bought him a bicycle. The youngest kid who had anything to ride, Victor pedaled tall up and down the rocky paths of the village. He learned to seal a puncture and fix a broken chain. Soon he had a girlfriend who lasted far longer than the bike did. His sisters teased him every day when he came home from school, asking him where Amanda was, how Amanda was, just to see him tuck his chin against his chest in embarrassment. Amanda loved him, the flicker of determination in his eyes, loved everything about him except his single shortcoming, his dream to become a soldier.
At sixteen he walked down to the road, got on a bus, and took it to the checkpoint a few kilometers away. The recruitment officer laughed at this child with the back of an old man, but when he saw Victor read and do math, he put him on a bus to a training camp in the lowlands. Once per week he was allowed to call home, so he called Amanda, told her they were feeding him well, that he had big muscles now. She said she was imagining his face. He hoped she couldn’t see the wetness in his eyes.
Victor gained recognition from his officers despite his spinal defect. They sent him to extended training. Through sheer willpower he survived the grueling program that wracked his back. Then he was assigned to a reconnaissance unit.
His first deployment was a special operation to occupy a remote village and scout the perimeter for guerrillas. They infiltrated on an inflatable speedboat, dead of night. With flashlights attached to their guns they cleared each house, blinding the bewildered occupants, searching their meager possessions.
By sunrise, the soldiers struck a more amicable tone and installed themselves in the largest hut in the village. They dug a shooting position on either end of the settlement, sandbags covered with camouflage netting. The men rotated between sentry duty and relaxing while the villagers brought them food. They ate river fish roasted on coals. At night, they lit a candle between themselves to talk about combat and women back home. On the second week of their mission, the soldiers ate a stew of manioc, tomato, and poison mushroom. One by one, they slumped to the ground and were beaten with stones.
Rosa listened to the signal just like her cousin Victor, although they had never told one another. With her earnings from her cleaning job at the school, she bought a single-speaker radio to take around the house while she cooked and did the laundry. Her father was always out working one field or another, and her mother’s arthritis only got worse, so it was up to her to keep everything together. Things were better without her dad around anyway. All he knew was how to hit and make money disappear. Her mother, on the other hand, knew all the plants in anyone’s garden, and she helped in the small ways that her aching joints would allow.
As Rosa scrubbed the dishes with a rag, the signal soothed her. When it spoke of other parts of the world, her hand stopped right where it was, her gaze fixed out the window. Sometimes she even thought that she caught the sounds of other languages, but they might have just been words she didn’t know. She was invigorated by the fact that something so different existed. Something else was possible for her that was so meaningful she’d one day forget all about the schoolhouse and the rest of that tiny village.
In the evening she would climb up the stairs beside her garden. They had an unfinished second story with no walls and a concrete floor, rebar sticking up everywhere that would now only rust. It was a relic of more hopeful times. Way down below, she could see the lights cascade along the road. Someday she would follow those routes to their point of convergence, a big city in another country. She’d work at an office behind a desk. Then she’d go down the elevator like in the movies, climb into her sports car, and speed down a road that looked nothing like the one she grew up watching.
When her cousin Victor died on that doomed mission, they had a funeral in the main clearing of the village. There was no body and no casket. They stacked branches into a square, piled grasses and tree resin in the middle, placed the head of a rooster on top, and inserted a flaming palm frond. Rosa watched the fire from a plastic chair amidst many plastic chairs. Victor’s sisters hid their tears behind squares of cloth. Rosa hadn’t really known him too well, even though he’d lived right next door. But her best friend was devastated because she was in love. Amanda clenched Rosa’s skirt, face buried in the denim, soaking it warm with her tears. Rosa rested her hand on the back of Amanda’s head and vowed to herself that she would not end up here forever, in this field, funeral after funeral.
After seven months and three trips to the city, Rosa obtained a passport. She took the rest of her savings and applied for a visa. Her name was put on a list that only grew longer. Her father screamed at her for wasting what little money she had. Her mother sat him down and convinced him to go to the bank and get a loan against their plot of land. They could pay someone to take Rosa by boat. She was young and would earn so much more over there. It was a good investment.
The last thing Rosa did before leaving home was to look at her brother’s picture on the highest shelf in the house. He had grinned wildly at eleven years old, shortly before the ground dried up with the sky and his body consumed itself. She clutched the frame in her fingers but decided to leave it behind. Then she hauled her luggage down to the road and up the stairs of a bus into the city, into the slums.
For a week she worked her way through a string of contacts, sleeping on a bench in front of the market without lying down. The next week, she was on a boat captained by a light-skinned man. He talked too much, too fast, and went by three names that had nothing in common. She was indebted to him because the money that her parents had borrowed wasn’t enough to cover the fee. She could pay it off in no time once they crossed the border, he assured her.
The boat was packed with people on deck and in the cabin below. Some of the men wore sports jerseys, some of the women wore more traditional clothing. All of them kept their bags and their children very close to their bodies. The captain explained that the only people who were allowed on deck were the ones who looked like they were supposed to be crossing. Rosa doubted it would fool anyone. The crew put her below deck on a wooden bench toward the front. Cold water sloshed in through the windows of the cabin. Between the harsh sprays, she breathed the sea in through her nostrils. It was salty but also strangely alive, like the sustenance for some ancient being. The breeze and everything in it, she wondered, had it blown in from her country or her destination?
The captain paced and paced. Whenever he came down the steps, Rosa found herself reaching into her pocket to make sure her folding knife was still there. Years ago, before Victor left the village, he told her that she shouldn’t carry a knife because they get too slippery in a fight. But she insisted that she might travel someday, maybe alone, so he ended up giving it to her.
The leak came fast. Behind Rosa, people complained that their feet were getting wet. A child went from a scream into a cry. The captain threw down some plastic buckets. Everyone was scooping water, some with their bare hands, but it was no use. The youngest kids were given out the windows to people on the roof. Rosa climbed out into the light and stood atop the cabin, shaking, arms crossed, trying not to slip. Some people on deck slammed a fire extinguisher and an anchor against the wall of the cabin so they could splinter off a piece to use as a raft. One of the crew members shot a flare into the air. It arced red through the low clouds and fell back down into the waves.
On the roof, the women and children huddled in close. They jammed their feet together so they wouldn’t be grabbed by the many hands reaching up to grip the top of the windows. The only man up there with them was the captain. He alternated between shouting to his crew and sobbing to the heavens. Rosa touched the knife in her pocket. It felt as cold as the water and as useless as the boat. Her final vision appeared in the overcast sky, a cluster of phantom skyscrapers, lights glittering through the fog.
Amanda’s cousin also listened to the signal. His friends still called him Bujo even though nobody could remember why. They all used to catch the bus together and go to the discos, but those times were long gone. Now Bujo had work to do in the sugarcane fields behind his house. Tilling and planting took months. It was as hard in the hot sun as in the rain and mud. Bujo strolled the rows of dirt, squinting chip-toothed at the thin little leaves to check for any sign of browning or caterpillars. Each day more shoots would come up, which meant that he and his father had to load heavy plastic containers onto their backs and spray them down with pesticide. Later they did the same with herbicide. Then with pesticide again. When the crop was taller than Bujo, it was time to round up the workers. For weeks they’d all be stooped over, chopping at the base of the stalks with machetes. They stripped the leaves off and heaped the canes into piles. Then the carts came, pulled by donkeys or oxen, to take the load to the factory. They set fire to the fields, the plant litter ablaze. The flames glowed in the glasses of liquor that Bujo and his father thrust toward the stars. Here’s to hard work, good health, and another year, his father would say.
Life had proved to be as predictable and tiresome as the harvest. None of Bujo’s friends became big and powerful like they’d talked about. Looking back, they were so foolish on those nights they strutted down the brighter stretches of the road, half-drunk and not caring if they would find a tuk-tuk or just had to walk back to the village. The world as he used to imagine it was like a woman singing on the stage of some roadside tavern, performing for the audience but looking right at him, only at him, asking him to grab the wheel of the car and take her wherever he wanted. The car never showed up, or maybe it did but he didn’t have the key.
Not everyone had lost hope. His cousin Rebeka did find work that paid alright on the outskirts of the city. And Amanda’s first boyfriend joined the military, became someone who people talked about with respect, only to get killed in the war. Amanda’s best friend came damn close to making it out of the country, but she drowned with the other dreamers. When the news got to Amanda that Rosa was lost at sea, she quit her job cutting hair and didn’t leave her house for a month. But she came around eventually. In fact, Amanda was the only one that Bujo could think of who was getting things figured out. She’d started dating a medicine salesman named Raul who passed through during the monsoon. The first time they met, Raul told Amanda that he’d never held an umbrella because they couldn’t protect you from any rain worth protecting you from. He accepted her gift anyways and later admitted that he used it for a while until he forgot it at a bus stop down the valley. She married him when the weather cleared up. Amanda and Raul walked across the field at the center of the village. A two-man band played guitar and accordion. Amanda’s gown trailed long behind her, picking up the burrs and bugs in her wake. She smiled without showing her teeth all afternoon. Then she rode off in a white sedan down the road, off to somewhere better, and Bujo never saw her again.
Bujo loosened his tie and helped clean up all the wedding flowers off the dry grass. That evening, his friends met him out by the sugarcane fields. The drums boomed louder with every bottle emptied. As usual, Bujo waited until the night was dark, when he’d had more to drink, and took out his guitar. He strummed chords over the drumbeat. His father staggered out of the house smelling like overripe mango to sing with them. Even the bamboo by the chicken coop would clack a loose rhythm if the wind swept through strong enough. On nights like those, Bujo would lower his chin down to the frets and catch the only gusts of solace that he would ever know.
In the morning, Bujo usually locked his bedroom door so he heard nothing but the strings of his guitar. When the rain started up and hit the tin roof, his melodies became just a trickle in the infinite crashing. If the night before had stretched until dawn, he’d wake up even later and turn on the radio. He lay on his back watching the cobwebs tremble between the rafters. As the years went on, he understood the signal more and more, even noticing some of the subtle patterns in its incongruous logic. In time, he knew exactly what to do.
Bujo’s mother made him lunch wrapped in a banana leaf. His father carried it to his bedroom door. He knocked. Waited. When his father smashed through the wood with a machete and saw Bujo hanging from a crossbeam by his belt, he sprinted away through the sugarcane fields. His mother walked out the front door and screamed and screamed. The whole village came out of their houses to see her on her knees in the middle of the street.
Rebeka could only listen to the signal when she visited home, since she lived and worked at a factory a few hours down the road. About once a month she got on the bus to see her family. Her headphones lulled her to sleep with the pop music broadcast from the city. The bus always stopped at the checkpoint, subject to a routine search. Then the bus would get close enough to the village for her to receive the signal. That was her favorite part, that hour or so when she could listen to the voices as the road wound deeper into the mountains. But mostly she stayed at the factory, feeding three meter sheets of corrugated tin roofing into a machine that cut it into thirds and feeding four meter sheets to be sliced in half. Sometimes, when all the other workers had crawled into their bunks, she went out to the common room and called her brother at home. That was the only time they were both free to talk. She didn’t want to keep the workers or her parents awake, so the calls were short and infrequent. Once in a great while she called her sister, but she never knew what to say. Rebeka would ask about her sister’s husband, who was busy preparing lessons for his classes, or her baby girl, who had grown so big. She’d listen to the silence on the line and realize how little she had to say about herself. She just kept moving in time with the punch clock of the factory. When she got a day off, she read the newspaper or smoked cigarettes on the rooftop, looking out over the lights of the city wedged between the hills.
She was in the dormitory ironing her uniform when her brother called. Bujo killed himself. She asked if he was drunk. No, he was very much alone. She sipped coffee and watched the factory women get ready for bed. Then she climbed the stairs to the roof. A worker sat on the ledge who was twice her age and looking at the moon. The worker explained that she and her husband had an agreement that whenever the moon was full, or almost full, they would both go outside at the same time so they could see it together. Rebeka said her cousin just killed himself. The cars on the road disappeared into the folds of the valley. On her third cigarette, she decided that she was moving back in with her parents.
Her parents were not happy to see her and her bags back in the village. To leave a job like that. What was she going to do now? But her brother enjoyed having more time to talk. He updated her on what all the cousins were doing these days and which distant aunts and uncles had passed away. She told him about life in the factory, laughing more than she had in years. He compared it to his work at the pineapple plantation, the hawkish supervisors, the mid-day heat, the lunchtime banter. But deep down he sensed that Rebeka wanted time to herself, so he started spending his evenings watching television like normal.
She sat in a plastic chair at the side of the house, the signal in her headphones. The message was clear as her own thoughts echoed back to her. She learned all the hues that the hills could take on as they dimmed from yellow to blue. Sometimes she imagined smoking a cigarette, but she couldn’t anymore now that she was at her parents’ house. She didn’t really want to anyways. Then she stopped eating the shrimp from the river and the chicken from the neighbors. Her parents thought that she did this to spite them. Her mother marched out the front door, stared at Rebeka in her little plastic chair, and said that she had to find her own dinner, that they weren’t going to feed her anymore. At that moment Rebeka choked on her tea, but it didn’t mean anything. She just started wandering barefoot through the village, walking slow like her feet were on thorns, plucking fruits here and there, or buying crackers and carrots and tomatoes at the little shop made out of scrap wood. She ate under the banana trees that overlooked the field, that patch of grass where the village recognized its most important changes. Some days she ended up in the forest tending to some shrubs in a dry creek bed. Branches and berries tangled the ground next to a lime tree that wasn’t much taller. One bush had pungent leaves that she took back and brewed in the kettle. Her parents watched her at the stove and didn’t say a word. They worried that she was depressed because they didn’t share meals together, so her mother brought flatbread and pickled vegetables out to her in her chair. Rebeka just shook her head without taking off her headphones. She didn’t eat at home anymore or talk to anyone at all. At the village well, the women laughed amongst themselves whenever Rebeka came to drink water, but even then she kept quiet. Before she had completed her third week of silence, her father stormed out the front door enraged and stomped right up to her. Rebeka slowly turned her head toward him, wide-eyed, and jumped to her feet, the chair back hitting the dirt. Her father breathed from his massive shoulders. What the hell is wrong with you? Is your voice broken? What demon is inside of you, you little whore?
Rebeka turned away and walked toward the trees. He pleaded to her, how are you going to find a husband when you don’t even know how to talk? She continued into the jungle. The next day, she came home all sweaty and dirty. Her parents had her uncle there, who was the village doctor, waiting in the kitchen. He assessed her health and found nothing wrong. Rebeka’s parents locked themselves in their bedroom, her mother crying, her father pressing circles into her back with his hand.
Rebeka had finally understood the signal and its implications. She turned off the radio for good. As quiet as she could, she placed her provisions into a woven plastic sack, got the machete from behind the house, and headed uphill into the forest. The sun was already going down, but she kept walking the whole night, pushing aside vines and spider webs with her flashlight. Morning came and she was still going, thirsty and covered in mosquito bites. She stopped to eat sour little fruits from a tree she didn’t recognize. That’s where she set up camp, under that tree clear on the other side of the mountain.
First she collected branches to make a fire. The monsoon came in, so she strung up a tarp to cover the flames. The sagging nylon filled up with water in no time. It had to be reinforced with more branches, more vines, but it was good drinking water. Rebeka slept in the ferns, head on a log that had softened over the rainy season. Soon she set up a shelter with bamboo and another tarp pulled taut. She made the final adjustment to the angle of the roof, looked at the blue plastic, that filthy pathetic thing, and laughed so hard her lungs hurt.
She couldn’t live on bugs and leaves forever, so she planted some manioc stalks from her sack. With the straightest branches she could find, she built herself a hut and sealed it with mud, the kind of structure she used to see alongside the road on her way to the factory. Her old tarp shelter was still good for keeping things out of the rain. The monsoons were getting shorter, the dry season was coming. She walked all the way to the village to buy what she couldn’t find in the forest. On her way back, she stopped at her bushes in that creek bed and filled her sack with berries, roots, limes, and a bunch of herbs. Right at daybreak she got to her hut and slept. She thought she heard rain, but it only lasted a few minutes. Either that or she was dreaming. She dug a hole with her new shovel and lined it with a tarp, figured that it’d hold enough water to get her through the dry season. It only took a week until the sun baked the pool day after day. Algae settled on the surface, which tasted pretty good when dried on a rock or boiled over a fire. If she was lucky, she’d even find a frog in there that was big enough to eat. By that time, she knew where all the fruit trees were on that side of the mountain. She’d visit them and keep the seeds in a bag. Some days she just sat on a rock and watched the monkeys that always came through, the new additions clinging to their mother’s back, the older ones walking the highest branches that stretched into the sun.
It wasn’t too long before the manioc started to sprout. Beans were coming up too. She took the vines and ran them up sticks she’d twisted into the mud, tying them together with the plastic fibers that were loosening from her sack. The next monsoon that came, she pulled up a manioc root caked in soil and crawling with worms. She ate good for a while after that. It gave her a chance to do nothing but lay back in the ferns and watch the day go by through her eyelids.
She still had to go back to the village every now and then. The children seemed to know she was coming before she even got there. They would peek out from the doorways to watch her amble down the hill, her hair swinging like frayed rope, peeling the leeches off her legs and eating them. She bought supplies and tried to sneak a mango or an avocado from someone’s garden so she could keep the pits. Her visits usually ended up with her mother spotting her from afar and chasing her out of the village, hurling rocks and insults. Broken woman! Look at the rags you wear now! You’re a broken woman, Rebeka! Stones skittered through the bushes. Over Rebeka’s shoulder was slung her disintegrating sack, tools clanging together as she scrambled up the overgrown path.
Eventually, her own trees grew tall enough that she didn’t need to go down to the village anymore. Without much to do she waited, sipping tea from the plants around her and listening to the wind. From the bushes came the first woman, tiny and sun-wrinkled. Rebeka remembered her from grade school. Her name was Natalia. Across her collarbone were two cords of scar tissue. A machete, she explained. A gift from my husband. Natalia settled right in with Rebeka, collecting firewood, cooking soups, and feeding the squirrels.
The second woman stumbled out of the brush a year later. She was dripping water and mud. It’s me, she whispered while Rebeka was scrubbing her off with wet grass. Rebeka looked into her face and it was her, it was Amanda. Her beloved husband Raul had fallen off a truck onto his head. He couldn’t move at all after that. Amanda fed him mashed grain for two years until he surrendered to death. She had come to the forest because she could no longer bear the shame that her parents burdened her with, the shame of being a woman without a man and without a single child. Beneath the sour fruit tree next to the hut, the two cousins hugged. They started up a fire and shook sticks of dry leaves, singing under a low moon. Amanda soon busied herself by digging shallow holes in the dirt. She covered them with bamboo and mud to grow mushrooms, the way her grandfather had done it. On the days with no work to do, she wandered off into the jungle and came back at night or in the morning.
The next two women arrived while Natalia and Rebeka were up in the avocado trees picking beetles off the leaves. Their hair was grey and they were old enough to remember the wars. Amanda knew them as two of Victor’s aunts. She brought them tea in plastic cups. They told her they had met up in a cornfield three nights ago before heading into the forest. Amanda smirked and said, you left just like that? We sure did, and we don’t plan on going back.
There’s no telling how many women lived up there on that mountain, since so many ran away over the years. A rumor was going around that it was also happening in the other villages close by, where someone would run out of her house, screams and shatters behind her, and flee into the jungle. No one could give a number or a list of who was up there living amongst the trees, so the military decided to find out. They sent a helicopter to the peak of the mountain and dropped off a dozen riflemen to search for the missing women, and maybe even find the source of the signal at last. For two days they slashed through vines and aimed at the movements of monkeys. On the third, the rains came in heavy with the mists and washed away their desire to continue that useless search.
DAVID S. GOLDING grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He has worked as a human rights observer in Guatemala and Mexico, and now teaches peace studies and development geography in Sri Lanka. He is a doctoral candidate at the Lancaster University. His stories have appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Mithila Review, Jersey Devil Press, and elsewhere. Read his work at www.dsgolding.com.