Killing the Man
by D. Y. Béchard
On a Sunday afternoon, armed riders arrived at the orphanage and lined the older boys up outside the wall. A stout man with an oiled mustache selected the fittest of them, picking León last. The nuns prayed as the boys were led away, along a dusty path.
The revolution had begun three years before, and hanging about in the street, León had heard men discuss the battles throughout the country whose size and shape and location he could not fathom. Porfirio Diaz had lost power and gone into exile, and Francisco Madero had assumed the presidency but his general, Victoriano Huerta, had him killed. Despite such talk, León’s sense of war remained childish–-a dim figure in bloody garments shot down in the red dust a thousand times.
Now it seemed he was to play a part in it. The stout man explained that their job was to run cans of dynamite to the windows of barracks or to any group of Federales.
“Don’t throw until you are at the window,” he told them, “or until you see this. The white stuff.” He lowered his face and pointed at the blood-shot jelly of his eye.
On their first attack, running barefoot over hot earth as Federales fired and were fired upon by Zapata’s men, bullets hissing past from all directions, boys perished. Shot, they collapsed and went up in flame and smoke, or they threw too late and had their faces blasted off. But León persisted, weaving like a jackrabbit, running in can after can.
Though he outlasted the other boys, he resented the men who’d turned him into living artillery. They went about in boots and with hats to shade their faces, and after battles, they looted, gathering weapons and food. Though thirteen, he appeared ten, his ribs those of a sick dog, his spine curved. But his eyes, large and dark, studied his surroundings, searching up into faces, discerning the workings of power and respect.
The Dynamite Boys became a regular crew. Zapata had raided mining camps to overcome his lack of artillery. Other commanders employed a similar technique, the máquina loca, a train engine loaded with dynamite and sent chugging into towns. But the dinamiteros were more versatile. When the enemy were dug in or gathered behind wagons and walls, the boys were greased and sent out like dark elves holding lethal sparklers. Or, to initiate surprise attacks, they wandered into town with piñatas and toys stuffed with dynamite and tossed them through barrack windows while Zapata’s men remained hidden, waiting to see roof tiles rise into the sky like a deck of cards.
But in battle, the Federales kept watch, taking aim. As León sprinted and dodged, bullets ticked past, measuring every second.
Then a horse bowled him over. The can fell and rolled beyond his grasp, into a stand of cacti, its fuse burning wildly.
The world went dark as if someone had slammed a door on the sky.
# # #
He came to in a field of dead men, blood in his eyes and ears, his skin raw. Everything was silent: the wind against his wounds, the crows swaggering above the dead, his battering, grateful heart–-all of it, mute.
Crouched next to him was a very old man with black eyebrows and a grizzled beard. From León’s years as an orphan, he could read faces, had known, with a glance, which vendors would curse at him and which ones might give him a slice of papaya. He’d seen indifference in the soldiers who’d made him run dynamite, and kindness now in the face of the man above him, who eased León up and led him from the field.
Not until weeks later, when León began to hear again, did he learn that the old man was from far away. His name was Kyros, and he spoke in an accent that made him sound as if laughing at his own words. He nursed León to health in an abandoned monastery whose prickly pears he cultivated and whose walls he’d freshly decorated with hundreds of varieties of Madonnas. He told stories of traveling the world, painting icons for pay, on ships’ masts and sails, on saddles and gunstocks and hearths, once even on each of the breasts of a teenaged widow who hoped to cross through the Zangezur Mountains back to her childhood village in Armenia without being raped and, if only raped, then not killed.
Arriving in Mexico, he had been transfixed by the image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. He began painting Her as he had done before, on weapons and clothes and homes. His more eclectic customers he invited to the monastery and showed the varieties on the walls, what one man had called a harem of Virgins, a comment Kyros received grimly. But as if at a brothel in a port city, clients chose from Greek, Russian, Italian and local varieties. When these men praised him as a great artist, Kyros showed his few teeth but didn’t nod. Alone with León, he explained his reticence.
“Artists,” he said as if speaking of thieves or liars, “they sign their names on their work as if they have made it or own it. But what does God not make?”
When León was mended, Kyros taught him to read properly, finishing the work that the orphanage nuns had begun. He had only two books in Spanish, the dictionary and the Bible, both with disintegrated bindings.
“Do not mix their pages,” he warned. “We must not confuse the two sorts of truth. If we begin looking to the dictionary for inspiration and the Bible for reality, we will surely go mad.”
The sun-bleached walls of the ruined monastery were just beyond the capital, and the men who hired Kyros discussed how the Americans had blockaded Mexico in order to cut off supplies for the Germans, and how the economy was suffering. They spoke of General Pershing who’d invaded Chihuahua to pursue Villa. As for the war in Europe, they didn’t much care, but they hoped for safety against the factionalism and lawlessness here, and so commissioned murals of the Virgin for protection. Because her symbol had been taken up by so many of the contesting forces who had stolen their banners from the altars of churches, the churches themselves commissioned reproductions.
Though León’s hand was not as steady with the brush as it was with dynamite, he learned to sketch outlines that Kyros filled in and brought to life, all the while mumbling the rules of painting–most importantly that one must never inscribe his personality on a holy image. His Virgins exuded compassion the depth of which León had not seen even in the orphanage nuns. Customers stared at their walls in awe and reverence. In this way, with León’s help, Kyros earned more and they lived well, buying blankets and staples and the eucalyptus that Kyros rubbed on his joints and inhaled to clear his lungs.
# # #
Early one morning, a young woman arrived at the monastery. Her right hand held a long, dusty pistol, and her left pressed just below her right breast, as if to steady herself to shoot. She made them feed her at gunpoint but refused to let the old man treat her wound. She lay down and asked for water and, with the gun trained on them, fell asleep.
“Do not take the gun away,” Kyros said. “She will awake seeing us as enemies. She must know that we are not enemies.”
When she came to with a start, he pointed out that she’d slept. She wanted to know whose side they were on. Kyros said, “God,” and León said he did not believe in sides.
“Perhaps someday God,” the old man said.
“Perhaps,” León replied.
“Painting the image of the Holy Mother might convert you. That is its purpose.”
“Perhaps,” he mumbled.
This exchange and their lack of sides bothered the woman and she later explained that she’d followed her husband into battle to cook and care for him, and after he was shot down, she took his gun and became a soldadera. Her group had been decimated and she’d tried to return home but she and the few survivors had been attacked in the night. Her face, gaunt and creased and bronzed from the sun, suggested Indian blood and a woman much older, though she was only seventeen. She’d married three years before and had lost two children in childbirth and now even her husband. Her name was Anna.
Though she kept the gun with her at all times, she agreed to let Kyros treat her wound, a bullet having entered and exited the flesh of her side without striking her lung, though it had shattered a rib.
Once mended, Anna was a better painter than León, but over the next two years, when Kyros encouraged her to read, she said, “I cannot waste my time on words when there is a war to be fought.”
Though she didn’t leave, on occasion she spoke of land redistribution, words she was clearly repeating, for she said them in the same way each time. She accepted Kyros’ lack of political alignment because he was Greek, but León’s absence of passion angered her. When she caught him looking, she sneered.
“You ugly mongrel, there is nothing I like about you. If you get any ideas about my hole, I will shoot a hole in you so that you can enjoy yourself.”
The creases had begun to fade from her face and with nourishment, her expression had lost its skeletal aspect. She looked more and more like a girl.
Late that April, she and León were preparing a mural on the wall of a man’s house. Kyros remained at the monastery to rest his arthritis and would join them each afternoon to add the finishing touches. With just an hour, he could make their day of work into something beautiful. But he didn’t arrive. They returned to the monastery and found him on the bed, the shine gone from his dark eyes, a bullet hole in his chest.
Without words or tears, they buried him beneath white stone from a fallen wall.
They fasted that night, in the cold, their food and money and blankets all stolen.
The next day they attempted to finish the mural, but the man who had hired Kyros would not pay for their shoddy work and the lack of love in the Virgin’s eyes. No matter how many lines he and Anna painted over and redrew, they could not create the impression of forgiveness that the old man had so easily achieved.
# # #
Once, while Kyros had been painting, he had said, “You two children must take care of each other. You are all that you have in this world.”
Anna had not responded, and León had been confused as to whom Kyros was speaking, as if there might be children nearby.
Then he understood. He was tempted to announce how many men he’d killed with dynamite. For as long as he recalled, he’d had to fight for respect–-as a Dynamite Boy and before that, an orphan. When the nuns had told him that he’d been left on the granite step on March 2nd, 1900, the pope’s first birthday in the new century–-and had been named in his honor–-he’d been proud, as if he might also be respected. Since living with Kyros, he’d grown out of his stunted figure, not tall, but learning to carry himself like a man.
His gaze, though, was still that of a child, his dark eyes too open, too clear in their assessment of the world. Sleepless, he remained unsure of carnal relations. His only knowledge of the union between men and women was that soldiers rode into villages, dismounted and dragged shrieking women from houses and tossed them on the ground and got on top of them, kicking their legs apart while pushing down their own pants. It looked like an easy enough thing to do and the men left with great satisfaction and laughter, usually taking with them a few hens or a goat, but the women did not seem to enjoy it so much and, as the men were leaving, some of the women remained lying in the dust, arms and legs splayed, as if they had fallen from a great height.
He knew that if he were to try such a thing with Anna, she would shoot him. And with Kyros dead, she declared that she would return to the war. But she did nothing. The next morning she said she would return to her village, but she remained.
The capital was an hour’s walk and each day he looked for work. The streets bustled with merchants and mercenaries, European faces scowling down from horses, and Indian ones clustered on street corners, squinting up with distrust. While loitering at the dog fights, he learned that the civil war and general lawlessness had created a thriving market in assassinations and vendettas, and he wished he could ask Anna for her gun.
Nonetheless, when there were arguments, he approached the angry party and suggested that the other man should suffer.
“Anger is not violence,” one dog trainer told him. “Go away, you idiot, before I shoot you.” But others were less philosophical. León stabbed a fat tortilla merchant and strangled a thug with a wire.
A week of hunger made killing easier than he’d expected. The ugliness of the world seemed its only certainty, not the hope or trust that Kyros had awakened in him.
If only he’d painted as well as he murdered.
# # #
Brigandage and influenza inflicted more suffering than the war, which had largely died down but for the occasional skirmish. In 1919, President Carranza had Zapata assassinated at Chinameca, the news bringing grief to peasants and celebrations in the capital. Shortly afterwards, Carranza’s general, Obregon, declared his presidential candidacy. Carranza planned to have him killed, but Obregon rebelled, and this time it was Carranza who fled. In May of 1920, the great implacable Carranza was shot dead in a hut in Puebla.
Though the ten-year war appeared to be over, León continued to kill. He could now identify, just from reading men’s expressions, those who were angry enough to have someone murdered. But the competition was fierce, the pay poor, and assassinations were even contracted on the barter system.
One afternoon, having settled a land dispute with a knife, he returned with a pale chunk of fatty looking material he’d received in a sack with rice and beans and tortillas.
“Is this food?” he asked Anna.
She laughed. “It’s soap, you idiot.”
His orphanage had been too poor for such a luxury, and she herself had seen it only on rare occasions. She held it to her nose as she walked down to the stream.
The sun was setting when she returned, rusty pine needles clinging to her feet. There, as she climbed the path between trees, beyond the rough shapes of the ruins, he saw her as a fresco, sketched out against the shadows, the skin of her face bright, her cheekbones wide and her full lashes transforming her eyes into dark suns. Desperately, he wanted to touch her skin–to do something, anything–run to the wall of Madonnas and strip away their cloaks and press his lips to their palpitant breasts.
With this longing came the urge to make more money and be more successful. At the races, in bars, he inquired constantly about work, studying faces.
“I know of a serious job,” a one-eyed man told him, “with serious people who pay serious money. But in order to apply, you have to know how to read.”
# # #
The officer wore a brown suit and a collarless shirt, and he stood at a table on which sat seven books. His thick leather belt propped a Remington pistol at his hip, and his mustache hunched on his lip, his teeth gapped and irregular as a crude horse comb. But his eyes were black and deep as gun barrels, moving in imperceptible increments.
“You pendejos are gathered here today,” he said in a phlegmy voice, “to kill a man. An elusive and intelligent son of a whore. You look like idiots to me, so I suspect that none of you will succeed. And if you have lied and you cannot read, I will send you out this door with the farewell of my boot on your ignorant ass.”
As he explained the contract, the seven hit men stood, a few with military stance, one in a black cowboy suit, the rest ragged and skinny, León himself the leanest.
The man said that their target, a certain Rafael María Estrada, had authored the book whose copies sat on the table.
“This book is said to be his life’s work and mentions all of the places he has lived. I will give each of you a copy. If you can find the hijo de puta without it, then may the Virgin bless you. If not, you must study it to learn where he is hiding. I will give you a small sum for these efforts, but the man who finds him will be well-rewarded.”
Under the scrutiny of the officer in the brown suit, each of the hit men went up, took a copy and read a few lines out loud, like schoolchildren.
Afterwards, they received a pouch of coins as well as a sketch of Estrada’s handsome mug and information concerning his land holdings: a sheet of addresses and a map on which each was marked with an x.
“We will be checking in on you,” the officer said. “We have made a note of where to find you, and if we think that you’re not making an effort, we will visit you. Killing is cheap these days. Cheaper than what I’m paying you now.”
León took the fat tome, as substantial as a Bible, though less weathered. The dirty threadbare cotton of his shirt clung to his damp ribs. He was suddenly sweating with hunger. In the dim room, a constellation of determined eyes hovered about him, and he wanted his own stars to shine with such certain and indifferent light.
# # #
The Angels Write Poetry with Blood was the title of the tome whose pages numbered 783. This was the first book that was neither the Bible, the dictionary or a guide to catechism that León had read. He explained the job to Anna who snorted and said, “That is so stupid. Who reads books to kill men?”
The work was slow going and it took him a day to finish the first three pages, though on the second he read nine and on the third, twenty. He moved his lips over each sentence, then read it aloud once before testing it in his mind. He paused often to check the dictionary, perplexed as to who used words such as adamantine or loquacious. His adamantine refusal to let me speak, the author wrote. My loquacious father.
The father in question was Mexican-born but denied any Indian blood, claiming that his dusky skin resulted from Andalusian taint. What adulteration his lineage had suffered, he remedied by marrying the author’s German mother. Blond, blue-eyed and large-breasted, she knew little Spanish and was forbidden to use her own language, so never spoke. The father was in politics and wanted his son to boast perfect Spanish. He was afraid to encumber the boy’s tongue with guttural tones and had chosen her simply for her unusual pallor, as if she were water with which to rinse his scalded arteries.
“What a monster!” Anna announced.
León had not realized she was listening as he stumbled through each sentence. She joined him on the cot, adjusting her gun belt so that the pistol was not in the way.
“All of that is in this book?” she asked.
“Yes, and much more it would seem.”
He was only on page fifty-three.
“Keep telling the story,” she said.
With this request, his confidence grew. He read, pausing less frequently to check the dictionary and noting references to the Bible that he recalled from his lessons with Kyros. The words that Anna might not know he simply changed.
“My father,” he read, “taught me to use anyone for my goals. He slept with beautiful women, brought them home under my mother’s nose, often dark women, and sent them away with a few coins. If they returned with babies, he denied parentage. From him, I learned that all causes are but to further one’s primacy, to make men fear you and women long for you. But as I came of age, he and I had our own struggle for primacy. I did not agree with his politics and wrote pamphlets under pseudonyms in support of his political enemies. I later denied those books and those names, and denied the women I’d enjoyed when I wrote and lived under those names. Largely by accident, I found my calling as a journalist for American papers and my contacts in the United States obliged me to maintain an identity for longer than a few months. On my first visit, they treated me as a hero who didn’t fear to speak out against tyranny. That was amusing. I loved the women there, so casual in how they threw away their honor.”
León paused as Anna shook her head. “He is as horrible as his father, and yet such a man. So brave. So willing to do what pleases him.” She touched León’s arm and looked into his eyes. “He will change, won’t he?”
“Wait. Listen,” León told her. “Though I befriended whoever could help me further my reputation, I began to nurture the idea of myself as a man who strove to make the world a better place. I was not for the communists because Americans did not approve of such things. I simply wanted what they did: true democracy and all that was supposed to come with it. I felt that I sought a worthy cause, and briefly, writing my tracts, I believed that I was the voice of struggle, that by my words alone I would liberate Mexico of the tyrants who, like my father, had oppressed it. You could say that I became the man who I lied about being. I invented a history and liked it enough to forget the old one. I seduced myself with the character I had created: heroic and driven, passionate yet flawed by his lust for life. I dreamed of being an admired author. I chose only the fights I could win. I mistreated only those women who would not tell and loved tenderly only those who would speak of it. I had a corrupt character, and since character is destiny, true of men as it is of their nations, I expected disaster.
“My trouble came of a pet notion I had. I fancied that by consorting with many women I was creating a superior breed. I sought adulterous unions with the wives of powerful men, imagining that the leaders of our country would be raising my sons. But to be caught in bed, my arms around a woman’s narrow waist, my lips on her breast–to be seen and apprehended in that way–transformed me instantly from a despoiler to a suckling babe soon to be torn from its blind pleasure.
“The General, her husband, had his men tie me up. He split my forehead with the butt of his pistol. He punched my face until his wedding band split and fell off and then he appeared somewhat satisfied. His wife had been taken away by guards and I could hear her shrieking down the hall. Eventually, she fell silent, around the moment the wedding band broke. It was then that I realized I had but one skill. Through the veil of blood on my face, I negotiated for my life.
‘Just as you are transforming me, I can transform you,’ I said.
‘You are threatening me?’ the General asked.
‘No. I can write you. I can make the Americans call you a hero. Your enemies will fear you and the peasants who rally against you will praise you. What does it matter if I die today or tomorrow or next year?’
“The General gave this some thought. We discussed the details, that he would keep me imprisoned and that if my writing defamed him, he would torture and kill me.
“During the months I spent in that cell, I learned a great deal about myself. I was not brave. I had taken no decisive actions and lived hidden by words. Yes, my writings were saving me, but each page of propaganda was the soiled bill with which I purchased another day. The General mocked me. He denigrated the work I had formerly done. And yet, in composing his life, I came to understand him. This is the purpose of art, I saw. We blend with others. We glimpse what else we might become. I saw traces of myself in his laudatory biography, and I knew that he, in reading it, perceived himself differently. I wrote him as hero, and he became more heroic. Gradually, he took up new causes and abandoned old ones. He saw me as a compatriot and freed me from my cell. Not long afterwards his old allies turned on him and had him killed. Even as I fled, I believed that the General had died a better man, and I at last saw the magic of my vocation. This terrified and elated me, and I decided to fight for those who were oppressed and to do so by making men see something better within themselves.”
Anna was excited. “That is my cause he is fighting for. I am certain of it.”
Though León should have been seeking Rafael María Estrada, he preferred telling this story. Each day, Anna sat closer or got up to paint the book’s characters on the walls, naïvely evoking the author’s father and the general on the chalky stone, their faces virginal and beatific.
But sitting in the monastery’s white dust, in the sunlight near the prickly pears, León didn’t know if a man could so completely change. Anna hung close and no longer called him a scrawny mutt, and with each of her smiles, the brutal, indifferent world he’d known crumbled a little, as if it, too, had been painted on a ruined wall.
# # #
In the breeze, beyond the monastery gate, dust turned clockwise, like a dial. A rider was approaching. A harness jangled, hoof beats reverberating between limestone. It was the officer in the brown suit.
“Have you made any progress?” he asked León. Anna stood just inside, her hand on the pistol, but though he glanced at her face, he ignored her.
“Yes,” León said. “I have read much of the book and have been considering the places where he might be hiding.”
“We have people throughout Mexico,” the officer said. “One would think that he has escaped to the United States, but his news dispatches reveal that he is here. It should be easy. He is blond and blue-eyed. There are not so many of those. Unfortunately, one of our men shot a foreign envoy and was hanged. So be careful.”
At that the officer rode back down the path.
In the days that followed, León read as Anna listened and painted. He described Estrada’s encounter with his true love, a poetic woman whom he convinced not only of his goodness but of his cause. Since her parents’ suspicious death when she was thirteen, she had been the ward of her uncle, a rich norteño hacendado despised by the revolutionaries. Far worse, the uncle had promised her hand in marriage to one of his allies in return for military protection. Though the revolutionaries had put a price on the uncle’s head, Estrada fought him in a duel not for money but to free the woman he loved. They shot each other, the uncle killed, Estrada wounded in the chest. He lay in the field and forsook hope, accepting death. But a day later an itinerant madman stumbled upon him and helped him return home. The woman he loved nursed him back to health.
“Being wounded,” he wrote, “I learned the helplessness of love, the way that our weaknesses open us to the world and deliver us to safety.” He married this woman, later claiming the bounty on her uncle as dowry. Nights, as they lay together, she traced the circle of scar on his chest as if it were the ring with which he’d pledged his love.
“It is like me,” Anna said with a dry voice, “when I came here and you took care of me.” She stared into León’s face as if he had been the one to tend her wound.
She swallowed and wet her lips. “And? What happens next?”
“We must go,” he told her. “We are running out of money. We must find him.”
“But where is he?”
León turned away, afraid to read another of the five hundred remaining pages, afraid that Estrada would be corrupted again and ruin this love. He closed his eyes, thinking back through all that he had read.
“I know,” he told her. “Yes, I see it. I am certain. But it is far.”
With his love in his arms, Estrada had convinced her to accompany him to a secluded valley–not near the capital but near the American border. The place wasn’t marked on the map because Estrada did not own the land. During a period of uncertainty after the General’s death, he’d sought refuge from men. In his wanderings, he’d come upon the small valley in the mountains southwest of Nuevo Laredo, a place close to the earth, he wrote, and yet so high above it–Indian trails through forest and ravine, paths that reveal more of the sky than the land. Because it is unnamed, it does not seem fixed in time to the history and struggles of our country. It is closer to the sky’s timeless blue.
“You are so intelligent,” Anna told him as they began packing their few things, the Bible and dictionary and the book. Anna went to the stream to bathe and then returned, her body hung with her damp dress. She took him by the wrist.
“You must also bathe,” she said.
He followed her, drunk with her touch.
The bar of soap sat on a rock, and he stepped into the cold current and faced away, stripping his clothes. He flinched as the soap touched his back. Her palm held his shoulder and turned him towards her and moved down along his chest. Holding his wrist, she led him back to the monastery. She unbuckled her gun belt and gave it to him. Then she pulled off her dress and lay on the cot and reached for his hand.
# # #
To earn extra money for the journey, León hired himself out to a loan shark and strangled a debtor in an alley. He took the man’s horse and, with Anna behind him, rode north. Though in the past, the ugliness of men had blinded him to the task of killing, he felt disturbed. That night and into the next day, as they rode steadily, he thought of the debtor, wondering if within him there had been the possibility of change.
“Someone is following us,” Anna told him late that afternoon.
Figures wavered in and out of sight against the horizon, far back on the road, never gaining. On arid flats, after the sun had fallen past the horizon, the refracted light lifted the figures into mirage-like projections, seven lean riders set against the dimming sky, their horses so elongated as to appear on stilts.
Though León and Anna slept a ways from the road, their followers never passed. The journey took nearly two weeks, the horse struggling over arid, sun-bombed plains, the roadway scattered with broken bits of rock like bullets, and sometimes with bullets. Sweating, they pulled blankets against their backs and over their heads to fend off the sun. Midday, their shadow plumbed the earth, dark as a well, making León think of fresh water. And yet he would have been content had the ride lasted forever, Anna’s arms around his waist, his body swaying in the saddle like that of a man.
They left the road well before Nuevo Laredo and traveled through pine forests. That night, after they had made love on their blankets, he lay and listened to wolves in the mountains, to the fluting of night birds and batwings skittering above treetops.
Kyros had once called reading “a conversation with other men, wiser and more contemplative than those we often meet on this bloodied earth. That is the beauty of a written word. A wise man, even a prisoner condemned to death, can speak beyond his loneliness to the one person who longs to hear him, countries and centuries away.”
He’d spoken of books as living things and even once, in Egypt, had seen a Jewish funeral and inquired who had died only to learn that they were burying a damaged Torah–“but they weren’t crying,” he’d added, “probably because they had other copies.”
León wanted to continue his conversation with the book, though it was too dark now and he didn’t have time during the day. Reading had mended something within him, a wound whose origin he could not trace–perhaps the very moment his mother had left him on the granite step, or his months as a human bomb. But though he saw himself as a man who might command respect, thoughts of the future worried him. Could he kill Estrada, whom he admired, whose story he’d put on like a good suit?
# # #
They found the valley their first morning in the mountains.
“This is the place,” he said upon cresting the rise. The book described a pale jut of stone like a castle’s turret, and León had studied the words castle and turret in the disheveled pages of the dictionary until he could picture such things. The landmark was easily visible from the foot of the mountains, exposed like a white flag.
The climb from the hilly lands below was steeper than it at first appeared. The pine forest pressed in upon the trail, freeing them from the sun, the sky a flashing, jagged path. Insects clouded, darting at their faces, and despite the shade León perspired. His hands trembled. Maybe he needed food or water, or this was simply a mistake.
At the next rise, the small valley opened, a fast-moving stream spread out along its floor, shallow and rippling over its many rocks, the water glittering like sequined cloth. Beneath the pale turret stood a log cabin.
When they reached the stream, León dismounted and cast off the blanket and stumbled into the current, lightheaded, soaked with sweat. He splashed his face.
No puedo,” he said. “I cannot kill him.”
He removed the gun belt and put it on a stone and pulled off his shirt and plunged into the brisk water, gasping.
“Killing should be simple,” he practically sobbed, but when he looked up, Anna was staring past him, to the edge of the forest, her features gaunt, the broad lines of her jaw and cheekbones prominent. Her eyes moved to the gun on the stone.
“Reach for the gun and I will shoot,” a man said from the forest. He was crouched behind a large pine, holding a rifle, his face that of the sketch León had carried for weeks.
Tall, his square head topped with hair the color of sun-blanched sand, Estrada stood and stared. His grey eyes suggested a colder sky, windy and sunless, about to rain. He kept his rifle trained on them.
“You do not seem like killers,” he said. “I heard what you said about not being able to kill me. Why? Why are you not able?”
“Because of your book,” León told him.
“Yes,” Anna interjected, “the story is so beautiful.”
“You’ve read my book?” Estrada asked, raising his pale eyebrows. He cradled his rifle absent-mindedly. “Is the country lawless enough that even critics set out after authors?” Then he laughed, showing his white teeth and exposing the untanned line of his throat, pale like that of a deer.
Anna and León glanced at each other with incomprehension.
“You really read my book?” Estrada asked again. “Really? That’s wonderful. So why then have you come?”
León took a deep breath. “To warn you,” he said and told the story of how he had been hired and of the men following them on the long road from the capital.
“Men following?” Estrada repeated, suddenly ashen. He splashed into the stream and took León’s gun belt and slung it over his shoulder. “I will get my manuscript. Then we must ride for Laredo. We must reach the border before it’s too late.”
# # #
The journey to Nuevo Laredo was swift along the path that Estrada took them. León had gathered courage to ask about the book, and Estrada answered while glancing behind. He kept his horse close to that of León and Anna, perhaps for cover.
He rarely stopped talking. No wonder he had written so many pages, but at least those had been well-considered. He spoke about Anna and León, their oddness: hardened children, killers who read the books of their victims. As they cantered north, it seemed that if he hadn’t shot them, it was because he liked talking so much.
León interrupted him. “What are we going to do?”
Estrada reached into a saddlebag and took out a crushed panama hat and knocked some shape into it, then set it on his head at a rakish angle. He told them that they should escape to America and that he would give them some money to thank them.
The thought of fleeing Mexico had been beyond the reach of León’s mind, but now he grasped the power of change described in Estrada’s book. Reading it, he had seen the shape of Mexico for the first time and understood the nature of the conflict that had not yet finished at the time of writing. Until then, war’s movement over the landscape had been invisible to him, approaching as clouds might, suddenly on the horizon. Through the book, he’d seen the borders of nations and oceans as if observing the planet from the vantage of the moon.
# # #
When Nuevo Laredo came into sight, Estrada unloaded his rifle and threw it into the ditch. They rode through the busy streets to the crossing, where he told the American guards that he was a journalist for a New York paper and that León and Anna were his assistants. Once across, he appeared to relax. He had their horses kept at a stable, and at the train station, he purchased three tickets and bought sweet sodas for León and Anna.
“As fresh as water,” she gasped, “but like honey.”
Nervously, Estrada glanced along the crowded platform. The train arrived and they took their seats in a compartment as, just below, a soda vendor passed. Anna asked if she could buy another. She’d consumed hers in a series of quick sips. Estrada tossed her a coin and told her to hurry.
“She is your wife?” he asked once she had hurried off like a happy child.
León shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Really? That’s interesting. Are you waiting for a priest to tell you?”
Estrada narrowed his eyes.
“You really don’t know, do you? Amazing.”
León had never considered this, so much of his mind empty, as if his thoughts journeyed, like he and Anna had, through deserts.
“In any case, I appreciate your help,” Estrada said. “With the war over, I didn’t expect those military men to seek vengeance. They won after all.”
The whistle sounded and the train gave a jerk and started to move.
“Where is she anyway?” Estrada asked and they turned towards the window.
On the platform, the black-clad cowboy, one of the hit men from that first meeting with the officer, stood with a group of men, two of whom were pulling Anna’s arms behind her back and cuffing them. She cried out León’s name as the train pulled from the station, gaining speed.
# # #
If León had not run to save Anna, it was because he knew that only by bringing Estrada back would she be released. And Estrada himself confirmed this.
“They want me,” he said. “Wait. Let me think this through. I’ll find a solution.”
León had no doubt that he would. Estrada was the author of The Angels Write Poetry with Blood. He had survived and prevailed in worse circumstances. But as the train labored further from Mexico, León lost certainty, not just in Estrada, but in why he himself had not run to help Anna.
“What will we do?” he asked after a few minutes. Estrada was sitting, his chin on his fist and his hand on the butt of his pistol. He looked up.
“Have you been on a train before?”
“No.”
“But you must know how they work, right?”
“No, I do not.”
“It’s quite simple. Trains travel in large circles. This one will go east, then north, then west and south again. It is a journey of one day. Then we will arrive back in Laredo. The men who have Anna know this and will be waiting. All we can do then is fight.”
León considered the mystery and convenience of circular train routes, wondering if it might make more sense for them to run on a straight line, like roads.
“So you will give me my gun then?” he asked.
“Of course,” Estrada said and took the belt from where he’d stashed it inside a saddlebag. He handed the pistol back, along with a jacket.
“Put this on and keep the gun hidden. The jacket will make you look American.”
León did as he was told, amazed at the courage and intelligence of this author. Estrada also offered him a white silk scarf, and later, to expend his restless energy, León walked through the train, feeling substantial and taller, no different from the well-dressed passengers who glanced up as he paced.
# # #
All day, the train shook north, and the calm that the new garments had endowed began to fade. As panic set in, he held his head. What would the men do to Anna? Estrada appeared calm, staring out the window, the sunset cooling in the blue of his eyes.
Gradually, as night occupied the plains of Texas, a terrible thought took shape. León hadn’t finished the book. Had Estrada truly changed, or did he still use people?
At San Antonio and Austin, the train stopped at stations lit with electric bulbs, and much later, as dawn dimmed the stars, they reached Fort Worth. Estrada had taken a manuscript from his bag and tied it with a string and put it inside his jacket, holding it against his side. He’d pulled his hat low and fallen asleep.
Along the platform, a man led a well-dressed woman like a prize racehorse. Such a woman would never want León, not as Anna had. León lifted the impossibly soft material of the scarf and brushed it against the skin of his cheek.
The east grew light. Exhaustion made his mind clear. Why would a train travel in a big circle? It was certainly a lie, and yet Estrada slept there, easily, as if they were friends. He’d given him the gun and a fine serge jacket and this strange scarf.
Desperation, León’s angel, brought him a thought. A man could lie convincingly about simple things, such as the nature of trains, but he could not lie about his book, and one lie would bring the others tumbling down.
“I must confess something,” he told Estrada, waking him. “I have read only two hundred and fifty-four pages of your book. In them, you changed, but what happens? Did you find a better path and stay in love with the woman for whom you fought the duel?”
Estrada rubbed his cheek where he’d drooled a bit in his sleep.
“Of course,” he said. “The last five hundred pages detail my pursuit of a better life and the many challenges I faced and overcame, and my happy marriage.”
Though León was not skilled at reading books, he could read expressions.
“You are lying,” he said.
Estrada sighed and shook his head. “Men,” he said, “do not always become perfect though they might try.”
“But you are not good at all, are you?” León told him, suddenly enraged.
“Listen.” Estrada shifted his posture to one of readiness. “Does the girl matter?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you love her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then it’s not love,” Estrada said with a satisfied look. “I can tell you this. If you do not feel love for her now, then you never will. It’s futile. I’ve definitely tried, and if the love is not there in the beginning, it never is. You are in America now. Life is breathtaking here. I will help you start over. The possibilities are endless.”
No one had ever spoken to León of love.
“Besides,” Estrada said, “would she risk her life for you? You know–don’t tell me you don’t–that if she found a wealthy man or a better opportunity she would leave you.”
The sun reached the green plains as the train bore down on Tulsa, its proximity announced on large signs. Estrada alternately watched León’s face and eyed the window.
“And I can get you any woman you want,” Estrada told him. “You see the white women on this train. I will pay them to spread their legs for you. They have blond hairs down there, you know, as on their heads.”
Oddly, black smoke was billowing into the sky above Tulsa. The train didn’t stop, and passengers stared out at a conflagration just beyond the downtown. The whistle blew and the engine chugged towards the open lands.
“Life in America is good,” he continued, looking suddenly worried. “You will have a whole house full of clothes better than my own.”
But León was considering all that Estrada had shared of himself in the book, how it had infused León, bonded them, just as Kyros had said that two men who read the Bible will speak with greater harmony. And yet could one man’s writing corrupt another? León tried to imagine his future and suddenly, startlingly, he longed for Anna’s touch. Estrada stiffened in his seat as León sat up, vividly recalling Anna bathing his chest.
Their guns were out at the same moment. León raged at his own corruptibility.
Estrada was pale. “You are a paid killer,” he said, “so I will not assume that I can outshoot you. Just tell me what you want.”
The rest of the passengers had stood and gone to the windows on the other side of the train, distracted by Tulsa’s burning buildings.
León realized that Estrada’s astounding fear came of his belief that he was face to face with a skilled hit man. Hoping to take advantage of this, León attempted to sound tough. “How far is it back to Laredo?” he grunted.
“A day on horseback, maybe more,” Estrada said. “But listen, I will go and talk to the train operator and tell him to turn the train around.”
“He can do that?” León asked, trying not to let childish hope into his eyes.
“Of course. For emergencies. There are places up ahead. They do it all the time for the right money.” He rattled his purse with his free hand and slowly reached for the compartment door. He let himself into the corridor. León followed at a distance.
Estrada neared the end of the car and hesitated. Then he dodged from sight. Wind gusted and flung his panama hat back in the corridor. Just as León reached him, the ruthless author leapt from the train and was gone.
# # #
León hit the ground after him, tumbling and crashing through sagebrush. The impact struck the air from his lungs, pain flaring at his side, through his ribs. He clawed at the dust, trying to find his gun as the iron wheels jostled the rails, shaking the earth beneath his knees. The rumble vanished as if a wall of sound had passed over him. The train hurried its plume of smoke north.
Estrada lay, panting, clutching his jacket to protect his manuscript. León found his gun and took aim, but his hand gave such a shudder that he looked down. In his fall, he’d struck a branch that had embedded itself, just below his ribs, like an arrow.
“Put down the gun,” Estrada said and sat up, his hands hanging between his knees. “I will help you. We will get a doctor. I can change your life here.”
But as León readied to shoot, he was gripped with doubt. The book had shown him that a man could change. How could its author be bad? It had even brought him and Anna together. He had ridden the horse like a man while she held onto his waist.
He began to gasp. With his free hand he pulled off the jacket and tore away his shirt. The branch was stuck deep in his side.
“It wasn’t yours,” León cried out, thinking that Kyros was right, that nothing could be authored, that the divine moved the pen to beauty despite the flaws of men.
“What?”
“The book. It wasn’t yours.”
Estrada winced. “No. Just because a man can write something beautiful does not mean that he is good. Don’t confuse the two. Don’t confuse the author and the man.”
“Then I should have kept the book and killed you long ago. Show me the scar.”
“What scar?”
“From the bullet. In the duel,” León said, panting between words.
“Let me explain something,” Estrada told him with a look of pity, seeing his suffering. “The book–it’s not the truth. It’s fiction.”
“I don’t understand.” León was confounded to be discussing this now, confounded as to why Estrada would lie about caring, which seemed a sacred thing, like the love in the Virgin’s face.
Estrada slid his hand into his jacket to rub his ribs or to protect his manuscript.
“Listen,” he told León as he moved his hand further out of sight. “The book is a novel. It’s fiction.”
León shook his head.
“It’s made up,” Estrada said. “I am not that man.”
As soon as he’d spoken, he jerked a gun from his jacket. But hearing his words, León had already pulled the trigger.
# # #
Black wings turned in the darkening sky.
León was on his back. His skin felt burned. He blinked and turned his head.
Estrada lay nearby, a vulture hunched on his chest, moving with jerks as it dug its beak at his face. His hand held the pistol, and manuscript pages fluttered all around him.
After a few attempts, León lifted his head to inspect his chest. He’d been shot. A hole in his breast wept blood.
All this was his failure. He had lacked courage. He closed his eyes, seeing the face of the Virgin, knowing that without her, without Anna, he was nothing.








D. Y. Béchard was born in British Columbia to French Canadian and American parents and grew up throughout Canada and the United States. He has also lived in Morocco, Italy, Mexico, India, Japan and Afghanistan. His first novel, Vandal Love, (2006, Doubleday Canada) has been published in French and Arabic, and won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, both for the best first book in Canada and for the best overall first book in the British Commonwealth. It was also nominated for Le Prix du Grand Public Salon du Livre Montréal / La Presse, 2008, as well as the French version of Canada Reads (Le Combat des Livres, 2009). On four occasions, he has been a recipient of Canada Council and Québec Arts Council Grants, and he has been a fellow at MacDowell, Jentel, the Edward Albee Foundation, Ledig House, the Anderson Center and Vermont Studio Center, among others. His articles, stories and translations have appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers, among them the National Post, Maisonneuve, Le Devoir and Harvard Divinity Bulletin. He has done freelance reporting from Northern Iraq as well as from Afghanistan. He is currently finishing The Opera of War, a collection of stories about war and art.