“I try to, Papa, but I can’t.”
“Why do you think that is? Are you thinking about exciting things, things you’re going to do tomorrow, perhaps?”
He gently ruffled her blond curls on the pillow. She gets those from her grandmother, on her mother’s side, he thought. He and Julia were both dark-haired.
“No, Papa, it’s not that.”
“Are you sure? You know that niňas need their sleep.”
“And niňos too, Papa.”
“Yes, hija, and boys too.” A painful pride filled his chest. Already standing up for equality!
“So why can’t you go to sleep?”
“I get frightened. I know I shouldn’t …. but I do.”
“Frightened? Of what?”
“Of ….. of monsters.” Her voice dropped on the last word so that he could barely hear her.
“Monsters? Here? What kind of monsters?”
“River monsters. Joaquin says they come out of the river at night, creep around the houses and take children ….. back to the river ….. and …. and drown them. And then eat them.”
“Joaquin shouldn’t be frightening you with stories like that.” A different kind of pain in his chest.
“It’s not true?”
“No. Sometimes the caimánes do come up from the river, looking for rubbish to eat. That’s why we shouldn’t leave the basura out, remember?”
“But they are not looking for people. And they can’t climb up houses, can they?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. You’ve seen them in the river and on the river bank. You ever see one climb a tree?”
“Las iguanas do.”
“Yes, and very well. But they eat plants. You haven’t got any vegetables in here, have you?”
“No,” she giggled.
“Are you sure?” he reached into her armpit.
She wriggled, squealing.
“Or here, perhaps?” reaching under the bedcovers, he tickled her ribs.
More wriggling, squealing.
“Ok, so no hidden vegetables, no iguanas. And alligators can’t climb. And you know what else?”
“What?” twinkle of laughter still in her eyes.
“Rapido. He barks when people or animals come around at night, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, Papa. Always.”
“And if I were asleep, he’d wake me, wouldn’t he?”
“And I have a big machete, don’t I?”
“Yes, Papa. It’s very sharp and I’m not allowed to touch it until I’m big.”
“Yes. You’ve seen how it cuts the cane, haven’t you?”
“Well then, how is a caimán to get here, even if it wanted to, past Rapido, past me and my machete? It’s not going to happen, is it?”
“So now you will sleep, won’t you?”
“Yes, Papa. Hug!” Her arms reached up.
He hugged her, breathing in her little child smell, his chest filled with a sweet kind of pain. He had to be careful not too hug too hard.
She turned over and he walked softly out. He had reached the door when her sleepy voice reached him.
“There aren’t any other kinds of monsters, are there?”
“No, hija, of course not. Now, to sleep. Duerme con los angeles.”
She murmured something he couldn’t catch, already slipping into a delayed slumber.
Walking softly to the kitchen, he took a battered coffee jug off the stove and poured himself a cup. It felt bad, lying to his daughter. But how to tell her about the real monsters that ruled the world, when she was already frightened? Replace imaginary monsters with real ones?
And the real monsters could climb houses. Could find you in the dark with heat-imaging cameras and scopes. Could trace you from satellites. Still, they were not all-powerful. They act as though they were, especially the soldiers and police they send, strutting around, searching houses, slapping men, grabbing women and fondling them …. and sometimes worse, though not here. Not yet. But Paco Perez had been arrested, taken to the barracks a week ago and had not come back. Each day his wife and some vecinos went down to enquire and to hand in food, returning without having seen him. Would he ever come back? There was always hope.
But at night …. ah, at night, it was a different story. At night the soldiers stayed in their barracks or near it. The night belongs to the guerrilleros.
Rapido, lying by the screen door, got up, stiffened and growled.
“Quieto, Rapido! Quieto!”
The dog turned to look at him. Someone comes, he seemed to say. You tell me to be quiet and so I must. But I warn you, someone comes. And I am ready to fight!”
“Good dog”, he said, putting the cup down and getting up. His heart beating fast, he lowered the wick in the lamp and took down the machete from the wall.
Rapido was tense, facing out the doorway.
He went to the dog, touched him on the nose in the signal for “quiet” when hunting. Then tapping his own side, another signal, he opened the screen door and stepped out on to the small veranda, Rapido by his side.
The night was filled with the usual sounds – insects and frogs, aware of them now, what had been an unconscious background earlier. A faint splash from the river two hundred metres away. A caiman’s tail, a fish jumping, a canoe paddle? No, not a paddle — someone coming quietly on the river wouldn’t splash.
Then a screech — an owl that was not an owl.
He moved away from the doorway, to the side, heart thumping. Rapido was quivering with intensity.
“Tranquilo, vecino!” came the whisper from the darkness. A woman’s voice.
She came soundlessly into view along the track below, the dim moonlight shining on her gun, carried in the left hand. Wearing what looked like a loose camouflage-pattern shirt. Beyond her, a man by size and shape, hardly seen. There would be others, he knew.
“Who goes by?” he whispered back.
“Justicia, compa. Justice,” replied the woman, walking past, wearing a bandana across her face.
Did he know her? Maybe. He didn’t want to, though.
Probably heading for the barracks,he thought.
“Vayan con Dios,” he called softly after them as they vanished again. Let them come back safely.
There would be retribution in the morning, he knew. Or the day after. More searching, lots of questions, maybe more arrests. But what was the alternative? To lie down and let them walk over us? Even those who obey are not safe.
And the sugar boss pays barely enough to live on for eleven sweating hours and bleeding hands. Upriver they had struck work in protest, until the soldiers went in and arrested the union leaders.
“Buen perro, amigo.” He stroked Rapido on the head, the dog now relaxing, both turning to go back inside. Work in the morning and six days every week while the season lasted.
But how to keep his niňa safe? From the real monsters of this world?
(All images from Internet)