Adapted from an image © Tramper2
It’s midnight on the desert highway between Matehuala and Saltillo. The U.S. border is still seven hours away. Squat huisache forests in moon glow—the occasional taillights in the distance and the centerline shimmering at his elbow, Ignacio “Coyote” Chavez is falling asleep. He has opened the windows. Wind rushes in, but the heated air lulls him to dream of surf and palm. The truck lurches. Ignacio wakes with a start to the clattering of gravel and the screech of brakes as he skids off the road.
“Ave Maria Purisima!” His shout echoes in the cab.
He has not fallen off the road, or rolled over into the desert to become one of a hundred burnt wrecks that line the highway like dinosaur bones. His heart is pounding, but the truck is whole, its cargo intact. The headlights beam parallel cones of dust into the night. Ignacio swings open the door and steps down. Fear has awakened his bladder. He feels his way around the front bumper so he can pee into the ditch. Fluttering moths spark against his face. Inches away from the front wheel he discovers what must be the shrine of some highway saint, a glass coffin set on cement blocks, at its base a tray of candles and a saucer for coins.
Ignacio staggers toward the back of the truck. He can barely hear the panicked cries of the people inside, the drumming of their fists on the interior panels. He pees into the scrub bushes at the side of the road. The urine hisses, but doesn’t splash, consumed before it touches ground. He zips up, unlatches the heavy lock on the back, and the gate ratchets open. They’ve pushed the boxes aside to make a corridor. A wave of sweat and tears flows over his shoulders. One by one they creep to the open tailgate and help each other down. Seven men and a young woman with a wailing infant huddle near the back of the semi-trailer.
Ignacio always tells them not to bring the babies. Babies will slow them down in the desert, babies will cry and draw the attention of the migra, but the women, especially the ones with newborns, will not leave them. “What would my son do without his mother’s milk?” He could tell them that their breasts will shrivel in the terrible heat; their lips will crack, their babies will become very still, but he never does. He pockets their wrinkled bills, packs boxes of cargo around them and drives north all night then out into the desert to a place he knows along the border. He dispenses plastic bags with water bottles and a map. He tells them to drink sparingly, to sleep during the day and walk at night, to never go near the highway. As he gives them these instructions he doesn’t meet their gaze; instead he stares down at their flimsy shoes and taped suitcases. Their gratitude is awful. When he closes the truck and starts the engine, they scatter like beetles into the brush, and he is careful never to think of them again.
The migrants have found the roadside shrine. Ignacio hears their exclamations, the clink of coins into the saucer and the hiss of a match. In moments all the candles are ablaze. The Virgin of the Desert is illuminated by fire. They use a T-shirt to wipe the grit from her case. She is dressed in rags bleached white. Her hair has baked brittle and fallen away. Her glass eyes are milky blind. Some Huichol has arranged the cast-off skin of a great snake over her clasped hands. It drapes in translucent folds around her bare feet.
Ignacio studies the perfect feet of the Virgin.
The baby stops crying. His mother has adjusted her shawl and put him to nurse. The baby’s legs are plump. Ignacio reaches out to cup one small heel in his palm, and feels a shiver of heat and thirst. The gulping sounds remind the driver that his mouth is dry. He takes down a case of water and they share the bottles among them. When Ignacio cracks open the plastic seal, he pours a little water over the shrine. The others follow his lead and the air fills with the scent of moist earth. Candles hiss and sputter. The Virgin’s shadow nods.
Coyote Chavez surrenders to the Virgin of the Desert. He presses fistfuls of bills into bewildered hands; promises them that buses to take them back to their village will pass at dawn. Ignoring their protests, he steps out of the circle of flickering light. His pockets are empty. He thinks he will not look back, but as he drives north on the highway, he watches the shrine retreat in the rear view mirror, first a flame in the darkness, then a golden bead, then nothing.
Copyright © 2008 by Mary Estrada