Winner of 2017 Giller Prize

Winner of 2017 Giller Prize
Michael Redhill for his novel Bellevue Square

Thursday, October 31, 2013

An award winning story by Jane Crossman


 
The Border Crossing
By Jane Crossman

 Luis Alvarez crouched behind brush on an embankment outside a railway yard, seven miles north of the Mexican/American border.

 With his two companions, he had been hiding in hundred-degree heat for almost two hours waiting for a train to begin its northward journey. As the sun began to set, a locomotive started its engine. The train’s steel wheels screeched and the train lurched forward. Luis watched many cars pass, getting the timing right. He looked at Martine and Valentina, who were waiting for his command.

             “I will count to three. After that, follow me as fast as you can.”

            Valentina took a last sip from her water bottle. Her mouth was still so dry that she could barely swallow. She knew her chance at freedom for her and her unborn child depended upon her ability to follow her boyfriend, Luis’ commands. She also knew she was exhausted and not a fast runner at the best of times. She stroked her belly and trusted that Luis and his friend, Martine, would help her.

            Luis spotted an empty boxcar approaching and started his timing ritual using his hand to count. “Uno, dos, tres, dirigido!”


            Martine, strong from years of farm labour, dashed up the hill and raced for the boxcar. Valentina clawed at the desert’s earth and stones, cascading them behind her. Luis scrabbled up the embankment beside Valentina, boosting her forward, his hand on her back. As she made the last grab to reach the top of the bank, her palm landed on a jumping cholla cactus. She ignored the sharp sting, focusing on reaching the moving car Martine had already boarded.

            “Apresúrese, apresurar!” Luis shouted, encouraging her to hurry.

            Martine crouched and leaned out the open boxcar door. He stretched his arm as far as he could, inches from grabbing Valentina’s hand. She had to run faster to keep up to the accelerating train. She put her hands under her belly to stop the baby moving from side-to-side. But without her arms to help combined with her tiring legs, Valentina found it impossible to speed up.

“Más rápido!” Martine shouted over the sound of the wind rushing into the door of the boxcar.

Our freedom, our chance, she thought. Desperate to be able to feed her infant and send money home, Valentina lunged for Martine’s hand and connected. But he let go, shaking his hands from the stinging thorns. Luis, running behind his girlfriend, tried to hoist her up into the boxcar. But his palms were sweaty and he lost his grip.

She fell sideways and her left foot slid under the train. The boxcar’s wheel crushed it, twisting it away from her leg. Valentina screamed as she felt the bones in her foot snap and the muscles rip. She crumpled away from the train. Luis ran to her side as Martine, in the boxcar continued his escape into the Arizona desert.

            Luis glanced down at Valentina’s bloody, mangled foot. He shouted and waved his arms. “Ayuda, ayuda!”

A Union Pacific police officer patrolling the area for illegal immigrants jumping the rails, heard Valentina’s screams. In fifteen years, he’d witnessed several failed attempts at jumping onto moving boxcars, some fatal. He radioed the local rescue team, little more than two miles away and called the border patrol.

Valentina was drifting in and out of consciousness when a paramedic arrived. She shook her head: that foot’s crushed beyond saving. The paramedic wrapped it in a gauze bandage to prevent infection while a firefighter called for a helicopter. The police officer allowed Luis to hold one of Valentina’s trembling hand while the paramedic started an IV drip in the other of pain medication and a saline solution to rehydrate her.

“We’ll helicopter her to the hospital in Nogales,” the paramedic told the other rescue team members.

“Mi bebé, mi bebé!” Valentina wailed when she came to, her hand brushing away the tears. She felt her belly. “Perdón, perdón, Luis.” She knew she’d ruined their chance to escape their dreadful life of poverty.

Luis touched her cheek with the back of his hand. “Próxima vez,” he said, smiling. But he wasn’t sure there would be a next time.

When the border patrol arrived, one of the officers grabbed Luis by the back of his filthy, sweat-stained shirt and slammed him against what the patrollers called their “war wagon.” He ordered Luis to raise his hands as high as he could. But fatigue overwhelmed him and when his hands slid down to his shoulders, the officer kneed him in the small of his back. Luis collapsed on the desert floor.

“Get up,” the officer instructed, handcuffing him when he staggered to his feet.

Luis looked over at Valentina.

“Te amo,” she sobbed.

He loved her too but before he could respond, two officers shoved him into the war wagon. It sped off as Valentina’s ambulance rushed her to a waiting helicopter which flew her to the trauma unit at Nogales, Arizona.

The paramedic thought the doctors would have to amputate Valentina’s foot. She radioed in that Valentina had a serious foot injury with crushed soft tissue and smashed bones.

When an orthopedic surgeon saw Valentina’s foot, his first instinct was also amputation, but when his team of surgeons inspected the foot, they were hopeful it could be saved.

 

Valentina woke and wondered where she was. The sheets covering her felt crisp, smelled clean and were whiter than any she’d ever seen. A hand on her arm prevented her from leaning forward. She felt her baby kick.

“You’re in the hospital,” a nurse who spoke Spanish said to her.

“Water,” Valentina asked.

“I’m sorry. You’re only allowed ice chips. Your foot has been operated on. It went well,” the nurse said, smiling. “I’ll be back. Now sleep. It’s important.”

Valentina shut her eyes but couldn’t drift off. She thought about the last seconds she’d seen Luis being shoved into the back of the vehicle with its prison bars. Those gringos treated him worse than an animal. She whispered a prayer for his safety.

Shortly after Valentina awoke, the orthopedic surgeon handling her case strode into the four-person ward. He whisked aside the curtains around her bed and lifted the clipboard that hung at its base. The nurse who spoke Spanish translated.

“You’re a very lucky young lady,” he began. “We’ve saved your foot.” He waited for the translation. “But we couldn’t save your toes. In time, you’ll be able to walk. I want you to remain in the hospital here for perhaps a week so we can make sure there’s no infection. After that, you’ll be transferred to the hospital in Hermosillo, Mexico, to begin rehabilitation.”

He could have used the word ‘deported’ but he knew that Homeland Security would do that. His job was to fix the physical damage as he’d done for so many other migrants who risked their lives trying to cross the unforgiving desert. He’d heard too many stories of unsuspecting Mexicans desperate for work, paying unscrupulous ‘Coyotes’ to get them across the border. Once there, the Coyotes dumped them in a remote location with a bottle of water and told them that help was just a few hundred yards ahead. But there was no help. Left to deal with blistering daytime temperatures that often dropped forty degrees at night, their only hope of survival was to be found by a group of Samaritans who combed the desert for migrants in trouble. 

“Do you know when your baby is due?”

Valentina had kept track from the time she thought she and Luis had conceived. She said to the nurse, “Cuatro semanas.”

The nurse turned to the doctor. “Four weeks.” He wrote something on the clipboard.

“How old are you?”

The nurse translated the question adding her name at the end.

“Dieciocho.”

“Eighteen,” the nurse responded.

The doctor nodded and took his stethoscope to listen to the baby’s heart.

“Good,” he said. There was no need for a translation.

“Why did you risk your life and the life of your baby?” he asked.

Valentina’s response was immediate, “To get ahead a little. And for my family.”

The doctor shook his head, abruptly put the clipboard back in place and moved to the woman in the next bed.

 

Luis and Valentina grew up in a Mexican town called Coicoyan de las Flores, 1600 miles south of the American border. There was no high school. She went as far as middle school, which was a distance-learning facility, until her mother died giving birth to Valentina’s youngest sister. Soon after, drug dealers murdered her father when he refused to be part of their operation. She remembered him as a kind man who tried his best to feed and shelter his family. At fifteen, Valentina was left to take care of four younger siblings and her feeble grandfather.  

All the young people in Coicoyan de las Flores talked about migrating to America or Canada to find work. Her cousin succeeded and found a job in Wisconsin. Luis and she decided to try when her younger sister, Gabriela, was fifteen, old enough to take over Valentina’s duties. The money she and Luis earned could be sent home to support their families.

The 1600-mile bus ride to Nogales, Sonora, took three days. No air conditioning and seats as hard as wooden church pews. The only time Valentina slept was in the cool of the evening with her head on Luis’ lap.

Outside of Nogales where the border wall ended, Luis and Valentina joined a group of migrants who had dug a trench under the barbed wire fence and together they sneaked into America. Once across, Luis, Martine and Valentina separated from the others to try their chance at jumping the rails up the line away from the border. They walked through the night when the temperatures were bearable and stopped to gulp water from hoses left outside ranch houses. The uneven ground was littered with cactus that stung like barbed wire. Then they tried to jump the train.

 

For the next two days, a nurse changed the dressings on Valentina’s foot. Three times a day a tray was delivered with heaps of tasteless food on it. The nurse told her to eat as much as she could to regain her strength and for her baby. So she ate, although she balked at some of the bland food swimming on her plate. Boiled potatoes, mystery meat with lumpy gravy and applesauce. None of the spice-laden dishes she was accustomed to. She slept most of the day but at night when the lights were out and the bustling in the corridor had subsided, she thought about Luis and wondered where he was. She hoped the gringos had let him go but then what would he do? She also longed to see her brothers and sisters and hoped that Gabriela was able to take care of them and grandfather. The hometown she’d left less than two weeks ago was the same one she now longed for.

 

That night, Valentina awoke to tightening in her back. This agonizing feeling moved to her front and felt like the worst menstrual cramps ever. She put her hand on her belly and it felt as hard as a turtle shell. Valentina pulled the cord by her bed for help and after several minutes, a nurse arrived. This one didn’t speak Spanish and so Valentina pointed to her belly. The nurse stayed until the next contraction occurred. Despite Valentina’s protests, she left the room and returned two minutes later with a lady wearing a white jacket who took her stethoscope and placed the end on Valentina’s belly.

            The lady said to Valentina in Spanish, “I am Dr. Navarro. You’ve started labour. Try not to worry.” She read Valentina’s chart then turned to the nurse. “Tell maternity that we’ve got a preemie on its way.”

            After twenty-four hours of labour, Valentina gave birth to a girl. Luis and she had agreed that if the baby was a girl, they’d name her Carmelita, after her mother. Dr. Navarro told her that because the baby was born before full term, she would have to be in special care unit until her organs could work on their own.

As the nurse wheeled her daughter away, Valentina’s tears crowded her eyes. If only I had stayed home, my baby would have been born normal.  If only Luis was here to see his daughter, she thought.  

 

The border patrol drove Luis to the Nogales, Arizona station and placed him in a secure holding area with three other men who had been caught short of their destination. They gave him a bottle of water before slamming the door behind him. He was so weak and his hands so sweaty that he couldn’t twist the top open. Afraid to ask one of the others to open the bottle for fear of losing it, he sat down, leaned against the wall and kept it beside him.

            One of his fellow captives, Javiero, asked how far he got. Luis told him his story and how he and his girlfriend got separated. The two men spoke about their longing for a better life working in America. “Filthy gringos spoiled it all,” Javiero shouted, then spat. 

Luis bowed his head. Dear Lord, Please keep watch over Valentina. I pray that Los Americanos will be able to mend her foot. Please let her know that I am forever thinking about her safe return.

The next morning, two officials entered, and in Spanish, instructed all four men to walk down the corridor. They were ushered into a room where they were interviewed individually, photographed and fingerprinted. Before being released, they were told that they weren’t allowed back into the U.S. for five years. Failing to follow this order meant imprisonment.

A fifteen-foot concrete wall with circles of barbed wire at the top separated the two Nogales: Arizona, U.S.A. and Sonora, Mexico. The difference the foot-wide wall made between the two towns was astounding. On one side, McDonalds and Safeway reflected the big-box economy America thrived on; on the other side, street merchants bartered a meager living. Luis knew his release by Homeland Security was on the wrong side of the wall for many reasons – most importantly, because his Valentina was probably in a hospital being treated on the other side. 

When Luis stepped out of the building on the Nogales, Sonora side, a small group of priests, nuns and American volunteers brought him inside a building where juice, plates of sandwiches and bananas were laid out on picnic tables. Luis couldn’t remember when he’d had his last meal and he ate ravenously. After the meal, one of the men took him behind a curtain and provided him with a new shirt and pants. Medics asked him to remove his shoes so they could inspect his feet. Bloody blisters on the bottoms and sides of both feet were tended to and new socks and shoes provided. They gave him a small bottle of aspirin to help him cope with the pain and inflammation. Before he left, the Samaritans put a bus ticket in his hand that would get him close to home. Maybe some of the gringos aren’t all bad, he thought.

“Muchas gracias,” he said, before moving on. 

Luis tucked the ticket in the front pocket of his pants. Javiero, the migrant he’d confided in when they were in captivity caught up to him while he walked aimlessly toward the market area of town. “Mi amigo,” he said. “You want to see your girl and I know how. Come with me.”

Javiero led him down a side street, into The Lust Men’s Club. Javiero bought them both a draft beer and they took a seat near the back. Luis couldn’t remember beer tasting so good and he drained the glass in one chug.

“You want to get back into America now?” Javiero asked.

Luis nodded.

“There’s a freedom tunnel that’s been dug.”

Luis remembered that the official fingerprinting him was firm when he told him he wasn’t allowed back into America for five years. “After that,” he said, “do it legally at the border crossing.” They’ll never let me cross into America again, he thought. But, desperate to see Valentina, he said, “I’m interested. Can I see it?”

Javiero leaned forward. “Not now. I will meet you here once the sun sets and we’ll go there.”

Luis fell asleep on a bench outside The Lust Men’s Club. A rap on the bottom of his shoes woke him. “Move on.” a well-dressed man carrying a cane told him. “No vagabundos allowed outside my club.”

In a groggy state, Luis stumbled down the road and sat on grass to lean against a tree. He ached all over and his feet throbbed. He looked at the bus ticket. If I go home, what will happen to Valentina? With the baby coming soon and her foot torn apart, she needs me. Luis looked at the ticket again and stuffed it back in his pants.

 

Using a wheelchair, Valentina visited Carmelita in the neonatal unit as often as she was allowed. On the first visit, she started crying when she saw how many tubes were attached to her little girl.

“The baby is fine,” the nurse explained. “As she grows and gains strength, they’d be removed.”

Valentina’s milk came in and she pumped her breasts so she wouldn’t lose it before she got to feed Carmelita herself.

The Hispanic woman in the bed across from her put down her People magazine. “Can’t kick you out now, Hon.”

Valentina raised her eyebrows.

“Any baby born in America is an American citizen. You didn’t know that?”

Valentina shook her head.

“So welcome to America.”

Valentina lay back and considered what the woman had said. For Carmelita it would be good to be an American baby. Better chance to get good schooling and be somebody instead of poor in Mexican. But without Luis, we wouldn’t be a family. Welcome to America. No. The three of us must stay together.

A man from the immigration department visited her a day after the baby was born. He asked her in Spanish what her intentions were.

Valentina said, “I have no idea what the future holds but I don’t plan on crossing into America again.” 

“Then you and your baby will be sent to the hospital about 200 miles south to  Hermosillo as soon as the doctor says it’s safe for you both.”

When he left, the woman across from her asked, “You sure you want to go back there, Hon? There are millions of Mexicans who’d give all their toes to live here. Think it over. You can always tell Mr. Immigration that you’ve changed your mind.”

The thought of living a new life without seeing Luis and her family was unthinkable. But after Hermosillo, she had no idea how she’d make her way back to Coicoyan de las Flores.

 

When Luis and Javiero met later that evening, the two men darted down poorly lit streets until they reached a dilapidated stone building a mile from the centre of town. The building abutted the wall at the border. An older man sat on a bench outside smoking a cigar. He nodded at Javiero as he and Luis entered. Inside, they walked to the back of the building and into a room where three Mexican men were standing, one holding a semi-automatic. A man with a scar on his cheek, chewing tobacco, recognized Javiero.

Javiero said, “Luis needs to use the tunnel to return to his girlfriend who’s in hospital. She crushed her foot, is pregnant and due any time.”

The man frowned and looked at Luis. “How do you know him?”

“We met at the border patrol office while being deported,” Javiero replied.

“One thousand pesos,” he said to Luis, holding out his hand. He spat and tobacco ran down his chin and on to his shirt. 

Luis emptied all the cash from his pants pocket and slapped it on the rustic wooden table. He counted 1,830 pesos and handed over 1,000. The remainder was all he’d have to live on. The man put on a headlamp and waved Luis to follow. He opened a door behind which the top of a wooden ladder appeared.

“Sígame,” the man said.  

Luis followed. Six feet below the surface, Luis stepped off the bottom rung. The guide pointed down the dark tunnel that had been dug towards the American border. It was no more than three by three feet – big enough for a large man to crawl down and no more.

Dear God: Give me the courage to overcome my fear so I can be with my darling, Valentina.

“¿Cuánto de largo es ello?”

The man told him it was fifty yards long and would take him five minutes to get to the other side. He handed Luis his headlamp. Unsure whether he’d be better off seeing the narrow passage in front of him, Luis put it on. 

Luis crossed himself, took a deep breath and crawled into the damp passageway. He started with the lamp on but the light shone faintly so he turned it off in case he really needed it later. Besides, he dared not look down the tunnel. He felt fear rising in his throat, but kept moving forward on his hands and knees as quickly as possible. He couldn’t turn around even if he’d wanted to. There wasn’t room

His breathing became more frequent and shallow. He felt as if he was suffocating, so he concentrated on Valentina’s angelic face and brown hair falling to her waist. All I want to do is hold Valentina and never let go. Back to Mexico, but not hopeless Coicoyan. Somewhere near there. Somewhere I can find work and support my family.

Shards of gravel dug into his palms and kneecaps. When he thought this nightmare wouldn’t end, he saw a beam of light ahead. He crawled faster toward his destination. He felt that God’s hand was guiding him.

The light got larger and his spirit soared. The end of the tunnel was much like the beginning. He climbed a ladder and at the top found himself inside a corrugated tin shed. He got down on his knees and said a prayer of thanks for his safe arrival.

Luis opened the door of the shed. It was dark but he could see the light of Nogales, Arizona. He wasn’t sure where the hospital was but he thought it would be best to follow close to the wall and look for directions as he approached town. Experience had taught him that the desert wasn’t anywhere he’d want to be – day or night.

Not more than five minutes into his journey, a spotlight shone directly on him and someone on a loudspeaker told him in Spanish to lie on the ground, face down. A border patrol wagon sped toward him and stopped just short of his head.

Two officers got out.

“Up,” one ordered.

“Well looky, looky,” said one of the officers who’d been at Luis’ arrest two days before. “Didn’t learn your lesson the first time. Two strikes now. You’ll be paying the crowbar hotel a long visit.”

Luis buried his head in his hands as the back door of the wagon slammed shut.

 

 

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