Outside of Tuzantla, the Tierra Caliente Desert gets comfortable and stretches out. Mountains break the horizon, but they are desert, too. Chayo drives with his eyes closed. As the teacher, he has done this many times. I’m sweating through my open-neck shirt. The truck is not sure about all this and goes slowly. The vultures follow us. Mother told me their eyes are del Diablo. They’re upset at our intrusion, the early hours being theirs. It’s like the movies; the demons want a sacrifice.
The two men in the truck bed, los cautivos, are silent. I pity them because you’ve at least got to make noise. In movies, the captives always make noise. Before sunrise, we broke their doors and shoved past their wives and took them by the wrists. We tied them in the truck bed, and the wives cried but did not touch us. There was a lot of excitement. It was new and fun, like visiting a strange place.
We drove through town with them, past the zócalo and its markets; the early hagglers pinched pesos and maize. Chayo wanted to go through town so the people would see. See and understand, he said. Some people waved at us. I felt the sadness of our cautivos when no one looked at them. A policeman flagged us down on the outskirts. Turn back, I said. Chayo rolled down the window.
My rent is getting bad.
I’ll call Marco.
Thank you. Good day.
The truck rattles over the rat dens and snake holes while our cautivos hope we crash. It is something to drive through a town with two bound men. It is something else to drive through an empty desert with them.
The policeman waved as we started towards the desert. He didn’t look at our cautivos, but he must have known them; the department isn’t big. He must have seen the eyes. I wanted to ask. If they planned to jump, they should’ve done it then, but they didn’t even lean towards him. They’d heard about the rent. The sadness felt like cotton in my mouth but no one else noticed. Now we are in the desert, where only the vultures–con ojos del Diablo–notice us.
The truck rattles over the rat dens and snake holes while our cautivos hope we crash. It is something to drive through a town with two bound men. It is something else to drive through an empty desert with them. The vultures ask us to stop.
Chayo begins on romance movies. I say they don’t have good characters and that the audience only likes them because they’re captive for two hours. No one would care for me like that, my life being a series of inconsequential snippets. But maybe if I were around long enough. Chayo says romances aren’t supposed to have good characters, only distracting ones, and then points ahead.
See the mountain? That is where.
I wonder if the cautivos see the mountain. They are turned around trying to make out the town that betrayed them. They don’t talk about it–they haven’t said a word since we took them. I taste tequila in the folds of my tongue.
Big day, Chayo says. You’re almost family.
I think about the sour tequila and our small mothers warming sausages in the muddy Mexican morning. When I was ten I would not eat, so my mother brought me to Chayo. Chayo said, Leave him here with La Familia. I imagined we were literally relatives. Three or four men stood with Chayo. They held me while he talked about pride and duty with a stick in his hand. He never touched me, but I ate with no complaints afterward. It was a thick stick.
The truck stops and Chayo opens his eyes. We are beneath the mountain. The process seems automatic. Our cautivos do not move. Chayo wipes his forehead with his wrist and rubs his chin. I tighten my belt. The vultures are happy that we have stopped. They ride the thermals and scream at the truck. It looks like a metal skeleton.
Come on, Chayo says to the desert.
It’s too cold.
I’m used to it, Chayo says. He leaves the open door behind him.
The truck bed gate is sleepy and I put my weight on it. With a terrible yell, it snaps open. Our cautivos, unflinching, look beyond us into the horizon where our mothers prepare breakfast. They worry about their wives worrying. Their children are too young and are still happily tucked away, asleep. The men don’t worry about themselves–no point, the vultures have made their decision. They should’ve jumped with the policeman.
They get out without help. Chayo takes the first one under the armpit and goes ahead. I take the second one the same. The men walk quickly, and ahead it seems el cautivo is holding Chayo instead. Chayo keeps up, even with his bag. My man is still warm from his bed. He smells of his wife’s perfumes, fresh from the market. He does not look at me. I let him direct me after Chayo, stepping gingerly around the razorweed. I blink my eyes under the mountain’s shadow and look for remains–I’m not sure how things last out here. Chayo stops and drops the bag at his feet.
Kneel, he says.
They kneel as if in church. They have the dirty colored faces of los Aztecas. Their people sat in the wrinkles of the great mountain ranges: Sierra Anchas, Sierra de la Giganta, Sierra Mixteca. They built Aztec towers and roads here. My people imperialized them with disease. Now these cautivos will be left behind with the others.
Wait, wait, my surprise, Chayo says.
They have the dirty colored faces of los Aztecas. Their people sat in the wrinkles of the great mountain ranges: Sierra Anchas, Sierra de la Giganta, Sierra Mixteca. They built Aztec towers and roads here. My people imperialized them with disease. Now these cautivos will be left behind with the others.
He runs back to the truck that is very bright outside the mountain’s shadow. I am silent and our cautivos are silent. Their eyes are on the vultures, teasing them. Tourists do not know that vultures can hiss like feral cats. Last week a cat hissed and bit at me in my alleyway and Chayo drowned it. That is La Familia, he said.
The vultures are silent. Chayo is back with two toy cowboy hats. He fits them tightly. The hats, red with brown embroidery, sit atop the men’s heads like thimbles on apples. Not even silence can preserve their dignity. Chayo digs into his pocket and pulls out two shiny pieces. They look like coins.
Sheriff’s badges. Get it?
Plastic badges cannot humiliate prostrated men. I believe they’re thinking about their sons and not their jobs. Chayo pins the badges on and says, You live and die the same pigs. It is silent while we think about that. I expect Chayo to explain, but there are no movie conversations about justice or valor.
Crack, his gun says. It is sudden and his man drops.
I didn’t know we were finished joking about the badges. Finally I see surprise in my man’s face. He expected a movie conversation too.
Now you, Chayo says.
If La Familia will drown my feral cats, then good. I can think nothing else about it. If I consider my man, I am heartbroken. But like his people, he will die in this desert regardless. It is sad that he kneels, pinned with a plastic badge and toy hat. It is sad his boy doesn’t know he’s gone.
Think of the people, Chayo says. Come on.
Chayo means the marijuana and cocoa farmers we protect. But I can’t consider them because they aren’t kneeling in front of me. My man jeopardized their welfare, but he’s a victim of similar forces. This desert isn’t big enough for the sadness. But I realize I can either shoot or not shoot.
Crack, my gun says.
It is meaningless and I don’t understand the force of it, like cursing in a foreign language. These men, dead in La Tierra Caliente, are two beans in a frying pan. It doesn’t matter at all.
Now the shirts, says Chayo.
We take blank shirts from the bag and spread them out on the ground next to our men. Chayo has the magic marker. He is the oldest and does the writing. He writes about the supremacy of La Familia and insults these dead men. The marker bleeds through the shirt. I’m uncomfortably crowded on my insides, like I ate too much.
We squeeze the shirts over our swollen cautivos. The bodies are heavy so we leave the shirts half on, half off. The blood blots out some words. Chayo laughs. I can’t be blamed, coming from this place. I ask if we untie them–I’m worried about the hungry vultures.
No, Chayo says. They won’t eat the shirts. Back to the truck.
The truck is bright and hot in the risen desert sun. Chayo has removed his shirt and tied it around his head. It’s deep over his eyes so he doesn’t look at the mountains or the town. There are mustachioed men on his back, the leaders. I do not have a tattoo. We start off and finally Chayo drives away.
As we drive, I think about my house. I remember our broken well, its insides turned up and watery. The car is sluggish, mad because we took our time back there. The sun is in full swing. The drive back is quick and I look for the outskirt policeman. There are people everywhere on the streets, selling and dancing.
You’re my man now, Chayo says. He speaks as if it’s only safe now that we’re finished. El hombre de La Familia.
I light a cigarette. The townspeople smile and hold out their hands as we pass. Their children run along the streets, barefoot. Chayo says something about the economy. We are the heroes. We keep the business running. The people are paid, and the oppressors are dead. We supply the town with food. When our government betrays us and sends its colluding tyrants to our sleepy muddy town, we defend the town. The town is grateful. It is good to be liked.
My house is first, but the truck resists the stop now that it’s going. I still hear the market behind us.
Good job today, Chayo says. He musses my hair with his fist. See you tonight.
The truck goes off and I see how poor it is. I wonder if it can stand more trips to the desert. I smell smoke and salt from the windows of my house. Inside, the dark walls make my outside eyes blind. I call Mother. She runs and hugs me. She says I smell of cigarettes and liquor but doesn’t ask where I’ve been.
No breakfast, I say.
She calls me a bad child and threatens me with La Familia. It worked last time, she says. She smiles.
It works every time, I say.
She mentions a great discount Chayo’s father gave her this morning at the supermarket. I pretend she’d been standing with us, over the men. The whole town is my mother. Out the window, I see the mountains cutting the deadpan sky. The vultures look on with me.
Christian Harder is a Junior English literature major with interests both in poetry and prose. His inspiration for “The Vultures” came from an article in the New Yorker, which chronicled the violence plaguing much of northern Mexico, strikingly portraying the complex network of drug-motivated gang activity. He hopes “The Vultures,” despite its relative simplicity and brevity, will also speak to the lasting implications of Mexico’s drug-related difficulties. Christian plans to apply to a Master of Fine Arts program and pursue a career as a creative writer.