Based on a true story.
By Julie Black © 1999 All Rights Reserved.
Oh, Mexico, he thought to himself, the azure sky that meets the silhouette of red tiled roofs, central patios overflowing with tin-can flowers, the sweet melodic song of canaries busily chirping to the laughter of children’s voices. He could recall the smell of his mother’s kitchen as though it were a part of him. Something was always on the burner; freshly brewed coffee, hand-made tortillas, snapping, popping green chilies roasting over an open flame.
Epifanio looked at his new bride asleep with her head nestled in a pillow and he thought how lucky he was to have her.
Kneeling against the edge of their bed, he nervously rubbed the beads of his rosary.
He had come all the way back for her and their wedding had been the best day of his life. They’d feasted on carnitas, the specialty of his homeland, elaborately prepared pork cooked in its own juice with a hint of orange. Their families, their friends, everyone had been there, from laughing, cooing babies who were passed from hand to loving hand, to Great Uncle Tito who was vicariously enjoying the youth while wobbling over an old cane. All were there, all together, laughing and dancing to the trumpets of the mariachi. Of course everyone knew the words to all the songs. And Gertrudis, she looked like an angel in that glistening beaded dress that the Castillo family had so generously provided. Later everyone danced an indentation into the floor, and people stayed so long that the Señoras dressed in their Sunday best were shifting from side to side in their rented, metal chairs.
Now as Epifanio looked at Gertrudis his eyes filled with water and spilled a gentle tear. He was torn between two worlds; that in which he loved to live, and that which provided him a way to live. Anyway, it was a decision he’d already made. For eight years they’d been apart, only seeing each other at holidays when Epifanio could return. But he couldn’t bear the distance any longer and so he’d come back for her, his life-long sweetheart, now his wife. The beads of his rosary gently rolled between his fingers. Oh blessed Virgin, he thought, save me from danger. Help me protect my wife. Virgin of Guadalupe, I beg you. For the next day they would, the two of them, begin their journey to the north, and cross to the Other Side.
* * *
The bus ride north from Southern Mexico was an arduous and exhausting one, a journey that afforded the least of comforts to the young couple. The heat of the sun parched the desert floor, and the resulting dust clung to their sticky, sweaty skin. Looking out the window at the sand-colored earth, Gertrudis watched an occasional cactus go by. She felt unsure of her life, as though her sense of security had abandoned her and left her wallowing in self-doubt. And on top of it all, although she almost refused to believe it, she knew she was pregnant, if just barely so. She swallowed back her excitement and decided not to tell her husband – not yet. He would only worry. It was enough that he was taking all this on.
They sat in silence on the green vinyl bench seat as the squeaky bus rolled on into the night.
“Wake up, my love, we’re here.” Epifanio quickly heaved the yellow leather suitcase off the overhead luggage rack and led his wife off the bus. Unfamiliar surroundings met their eyes as the cold night air struck across their faces. Gertrudis pulled her Levi jacket close around her shoulders. “Come, this way,” he calmly said.
Not entering the dimly lit room of a bus station, they headed toward the small northern town. Their aching muscles from the twenty-hour bus ride were in no way relieved by the seemingly endless walk to Don Ponciano’s adobe house at the other end of town. But when they arrived, a warm fire, Mexican hot chocolate and freshly baked conchas helped them regain their energy for the next stage of the trip.
After a two-hour ride in the cab of a ‘74 Ford pick-up, they arrived at the end of a dirt road. Don Ponciano stopped the motor and turned off the headlights. The stars were plentiful. There was no moon.
“Over there,” he said, waving over the steering wheel with a bony, old hand, “through that canyon. Stay to the left and keep going down.” He turned to look at the young man.
“Go with God, both of you. And take good care of your woman.” He gave them a plastic bag with a few tamales, fruit and bread.
A stack of pesos was gratefully placed in his hand.
They got out of the cab and the young man retrieved the yellow leather suitcase from the back of the truck. Don Ponciano then turned and drove off out of sight, leaving the young couple standing there alone.
“Let’s go.” She said and she tucked the plastic bag of food into her jacket.
Epifanio turned and led his young wife toward the canyon, down and to the left. He thought about many things while they stumbled along in the dark. He thought about his life, about their future together and about their past apart. He was legal. She was not. But he could not live without her, and so he was risking his life, her life, so they could forever be together.
Epifanio and Gertrudis could hear the river even before they reached its rocky bank. At the water’s edge, as dark as the night was, they were able to see the powerful current running downstream. They stood there, anxiously anticipating the crossing.
“What do we do?” she whispered. “I can’t swim. Remember that I can’t swim.” She knew that he’d already taken this into account, but she began to panic.
“There’s a rope. In the side of the suitcase.” He whispered back. “Yes, that’s it.”
She took it out and gave it to him.
He uncoiled it and tied it around her waist, let up some slack, then tied it around his waist, and finally to the suitcase.
“We’ll hang-on to the suitcase. It’ll float. Remember that. Don’t worry.”
And they stepped toward the water’s edge.
Trembling with fright Gertrudis firmly took hold of Epifanio’s arm.
I love you, he communicated with a quick embrace.
They forged into the rushing river, as the freezing hand of the water grabbed their feet and legs. It was then that they realized that they’d come to the point of no return.
As they entered the water, the suitcase began to bob and pull in the current of the stream.
“Gertrudis, grab the suitcase.”
They scrambled to get hold of the suitcase, which was starting to float downstream ahead of them, pull at Epifanio’s waist, and pull them further into the freezing water. Just as they grabbed hold of it, the rapid stream sucked them in and before they knew it, they were bobbing out of control, hanging onto the suitcase and speeding downstream.
“Put your feet out in front of you! You can use ‘em to push against things!” Epifanio never felt more out of control than in this moment.
They traveled a good distance, the chilling water speeding them along.
Gertrudis held tight to the suitcase, using all her strength to guide her course in the water. But slowly the river was beginning to flow over the edge of the mighty yellow mass.
“The suitcase! Epifanio! It’s beginning to sink!”
He glanced down at the suitcase and it was true. You’ve got to do something, he thought to himself. They fought to guide their course in the dark of night in that rushing river. But then, all of a sudden, to their relief, the rapids subsided and the river began to calm. They were now far downstream, slowly floating along.
“I have a plan,” he said, trying to convince himself so, and hoping the suitcase wouldn’t sink.
But just then, the scanning eyes of a patrol truck lit up the river behind them, and turning to see, they could make out a frontage road along the bank to their left. The truck, some ways behind, was steadily rolling toward them, illuminating the canyon walls.
“Border patrol! Gertrudis, swim!”
In their desperate state they struggled to swim forward, the weight of the soaked suitcase now lugging behind.
The border patrol had a giant searchlight that they beamed at the river as they drove along the dirt road. And although the guards were still some distance behind the young couple, the range of light was quickly approaching.
“Epifanio, I can’t do it. I’m so cold. I can’t swim!” By this time Gertrudis was hanging on to her husband who was also pulling the sinking suitcase that lagged behind.
Just at that moment their feet hit the soft, sandy bottom and they saw a mid-stream island filled with reeds right before them.
The searchlight was almost upon them.
“The island! Go to it and hide!” he desperately said.
They fought their way out of the resisting water, groped onto the little island, and dove into the midst of reeds as several birds squawked off in fright.
They hardly dared to breathe.
Looking up through the tall grass they could see the searchlight as it began to cover the little island.
The reeds still rustled from their frantic intrusion.
The searchlight stopped.
Two giant birds flew out of the reeds, and to the newlywed’s great relief, the searchlight continued its course downstream.
Epifanio and Gertrudis began to tremble with fear, realizing the danger they had just evaded.
For several hours they stayed hidden among the reeds on that cold, wet island, huddled and shivering, until just before dawn, at which time they ventured out and finished crossing the river. It was still dark, but a shallow eddy between the mid-stream island and the riverbank made the crossing much easier to finish than it had been to start.
When they reached the rocky bank, Epifanio turned and looked back at the landscape that lay behind them. How strange, he thought, comparing both banks of the river. This is the same earth as that over there. Even though the names given to each side change, the land continues to stay the same. Borders are just an illusion, he decided.
The young couple began their ascent away from the river, trudging up the mountainside toward the hope that lay beyond. Ground brush and scrubs scratched at their faces and hands, but not at their will. When they reached the top of the gorge, their muscles were aching. Rosy dawn was just beginning to change the colors of the sky. Breathless, they saw before them an immense stretch of unknown land: a vast desert plateau scored by canyons, with great, rugged mountains far beyond.
“I know a man who has a ranch around here. But the river took us so far downstream that it’s really far. It’s that way, through that mountain pass, over there.” The last time he’d been through these parts had been eight years before.
The young couple began their trek through the seemingly endless desert valley. They walked toward the mountains, over the dry, crumbled earth, weaving in and out of tumbleweed and cactuses, passing an occasional juniper or mountain cedar, spotting a lone rabbit here and there. The temperature reached the nineties as the hot sun blazed above them. Meanwhile, they walked and walked, their once bright tennis shoes worn and caked with dirt, and together they lugged their wet suitcase along. They were thirsty, dirty and tired. But still, they walked on. When nighttime came, they slept under the stars, huddled together for comfort and imaginary protection against the wild.
The next morning, as desert birds called into the wild, Epifanio felt an impending sense of doom. Their food was running out, and he began to realize that the only way out of this forsaken place was for him to travel alone and go get help. He looked at Gertrudis who was still asleep. Lines of anguish were drawn into her face. How could he leave her here all alone? He’d done everything so they could be together. He couldn’t abandon her now. But he had no choice. He could travel faster alone. She could stay here with the last of the food and dry out that sopping, yellow burden. He leaned over and kissed her. Her lips were parched and dark circles sagged under her exhausted eyes.
“Gertrudis, I think I should go alone for help. I can go faster by myself. I can get to the ranch in a day and a half and come back for you in a truck.”
They discussed their painful dilemma and made their decision together.
Gertrudis stayed near a juniper tree, together with the suitcase and the dwindling food supply. She watched her beloved husband walk away, leaving her there, out in the middle of nowhere in this desolate land. But she didn’t cry, even though she wasn’t sure if she would ever see him again.
The day passed slowly, and evening came. Eventually the blanket of night began to unfold across the sky. Thousands of stars twinkled above, but Gertrudis couldn’t appreciate their beauty. She was hungry and cold, and sleep evaded her. Little by little she began to hear the terrifying screams of coyotes in the hills nearby. Their howls sent chills through her bones. This is my test, she thought. God is testing my faith. She feared for her very life, not knowing just when the demon canines would lunge upon her from the darkness, and she would die right there, seeing her very flesh torn away from her by thrashing fangs. She passed the night huddled at the base of the tree in aching, lonely terror, clutching her pendant of the Sacred Virgin, rocking back and forth in prayer.
The second day her food ran out. She sat by the tree hour after slow hour, savoring the last can of soda, making it last throughout the endless day. She watched insects trudge along the dry sand, gazed at the wispy clouds in the sky, and hung the moldy clothes out to dry before carefully arranging them in the suitcase once again. That night she began, or thought she began to hallucinate from hunger and exhaustion. The coyote’s screams howled in her ears and rang in her head. She felt they were almost upon her and tried hiding under the suitcase as best she could. Eventually, if only from sheer exhaustion, she fell asleep.
Inevitably, as time never ceases to unfold, early morning came and Gertrudis was awakened by the sound of voices.
“This way. Up here. Hurry!”
Gertrudis, delirious with fatigue, felt Epifanio scoop her up in his arms. Nothing in her life had ever given her greater relief. She collapsed into his strong embrace, reaffirming her love for him, her faith in life, in God, and above all, in herself. She had survived the crossing.
“Epifanio,” she faintly said, looking up at him, “I have something to tell you.”