mariposa // pt. i, 'milagro'
'Narcos' meets magical realism? Yes, please.
The battered pickup is the only car for miles. On either side of the dirt road, the brown scrubland stretches over rolling hills that haven’t been touched since God molded them out of barro.
A conejo bolts across the road, and the driver jerks his wheel. The squat barrel cactus growing at the edge of the road isn’t as lucky. Prickles and pulpy cactus meat splatter across the rust-spotted chrome bumper.
He cuts a sharp turn onto another road that carves through the hills to the north. The rosario hanging from his rearview swings like a pendulum. He avoids the anguished, accusing stare of Jesucristo.
He catches a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror. He’s nineteen, but he could be thirty — his forehead is creased with worry lines, and his eyes are underscored with deep circles. He hasn’t shaved, and his teeth are clenched like a vice.
He reminds himself that he’s got nothing to worry about — everything is taken care of. He’s done a dozen runs across la frontera. He’ll be back in time to eat cena with abuelita.
This won’t be like last time.
Still, he can’t shake the taste of warm canela flooding his mouth that he always gets when there’s trouble coming. (It’s kept him out of trouble more than once.)
Maybe it’s just because of the righteous tongue-lashing he knows he’d get if abuelita found out he was back at it. Even eighty-one and so worn down by the cancer that her arms are like brown palitos, he knows he can’t stand up to her admonition.
This morning he brought her warm avena and chocolate, and he sat at her bedside while she prayed. He told her she was going to get better — he promised it. She looked at him with those big dark eyes and told him, “Si Dios quiere.” If God wills.
It isn’t fair. As far back as he can remember, people from all over Nuevo Leon would travel as far as a hundred miles on foot to his pueblo. Abuelita, it was said, could heal the worst diseases with just a touch from her hand.
Except now. Except her own.
Abuelita’s faith never wavered; she was always praying, always asking God for a milagro. Téo isn’t waiting around. If God won’t do it, he’ll make his own miracle.
The pickup’s engine wheezes over the hill. The worn-out shocks hardly do anything, and he feels every jolt as the pickup bounces down the rugged dirt road. The air inside the cab is sour and stuffy — the air conditioner hasn’t worked in years.
He notes how heavily she’s handling; even once he’s over the hill, every mile gained is a monumental effort for the mud-and-cactus-splattered relic. He’s never hauled a load this big before — thirty kilos in each of the tires, and a hundred more stashed in a suitcase hidden in a special compartment under the truck bed.
On the other side of la frontera, it will sell for just a hair under five million American.
If he can make it there. It’s an hour along the winding dirt roads before he sees civilization, and another hour to the border crossing. His cracked hands leave sweaty prints on the steering wheel. The whole way there, he’s whispering half-remembered prayers between his teeth.
He counts it a small milagro in itself when he pulls in behind the long line of cars waiting for inspection. He kills the engine while he waits to give the pickup a chance to recover.
His own radio doesn’t work, but corrido music pours from the open windows of the other cars as they inch toward la frontera. He scolds himself for being nervous. The Patrulla agents in the cartel’s pocket know better than to slow him down.
There’s one, a gabacho he always recognizes by the big brass buckle on his belt, who manipulates the other agents like the wooden títeres puppets they sell on the roadside. He’s never spoken to him. Téo is glad he hasn’t.
They wave him through the checkpoint with a cursory glance into the cab and at the pickup’s bed. The only thing back there is the spare tire. Téo bites down on a smirk as one of the agents runs his fingers around the inside rim of the tire — that’s the only one the narcos didn’t stuff with coca.
The gabacho has his thumbs tucked into his belt, and he gives Téo a nod from behind his mirrored aviators as the ancient pickup pulls through.
His heart hammers as he taps the brakes. In his grimy side-view, he watches as one of the agents jogs up. His hand twitches toward the pistol tucked under his seat.
The window squeals as he cranks it down for the agent. Behind him, the gabacho approaches cautiously, a crease furrowing his brow above his aviators.
The agent is out of breath. “¿Inglés?” Téo nods; he knows enough to get by. “Your rear passenger-side tire looks pretty flat. You’re gonna want to fix that before it pops.”
He looks back over his shoulder. “I’m about to take my lunch break. I can help you swap it out—”
“No, no,” Téo answers quickly. “I, I go to Laredo.” He hopes he doesn’t sound as frantic as he feels. “Gracias.”
The agent is about to insist, but the gabacho calls him back. “Let’s go, Gutierrez. Gotta keep the line moving.” His belt buckle is a skull with a bullet in its mouth.
Téo thanks him again as the agent turns back to the border crossing. The gabacho gives him a two-finger salute as he crunches off the gravel shoulder and guns it down the road.
He doesn’t go to Laredo. There’s a two-lane highway that snakes between the border ranches into farm country. He doesn’t take his foot off the accelerator until la frontera has shrunk to a speck in the distance.
When he does, he shouts and punches the ceiling until his fist throbs. The rosario dances. The bulls grazing on brown grass on the other side of the barbwire look at him with bemusement. That was way too close.
That sort of thing is exactly what he was worried about — random acts of God that all the cartel plata in the world couldn’t make disappear. It was that sort of thing that killed Umberto, that sort of thing that made Téo swear off of running coca up into Texas, that sort of thing that still woke him in a cold sweat even months later.
His contact in the cartel had been surprised when Téo told him he wanted to come back for another run. “You don’t want this life,” Rafael had reminded him. “Es un milagro que te dejaran salir.” It’s a miracle they let you out.
If he got back in, he knew that it’d be hasta la muerte.
But he didn’t have a choice. Abuelita’s only hope — besides heaven — was in the high-priced American doctors with their high-priced American medicine. So when he and Rafa were loading up the pickup, he’d insisted on doubling the usual haul.
When Rafa raised an eyebrow, Téo just shrugged. “Necesito la plata.” I need the cash.
The narco understood. His real objection came when Téo told him he’d be running it on his own. “Are you sure you can handle it?” Téo lied and told him he was. “The extra plata doesn’t mean anything if you end up with a bullet in your brain.”
It wasn’t about the money — not that part. He and Umberto had made a great team. But now Umberto was dead, and Téo wasn’t willing to risk anyone else running coca through the gauntlet of la Federal, Patrulla agents and American DEA.
It was Rafa who gave him the gun. “The bullets come out of that end,” he joked, pointing at the muzzle. Téo hoped he wouldn’t have to use it. He’d never pointed a gun at something that hadn’t previously held beer — bottles, cans, the occasional empty half-keg.
Rafa noticed his hesitation. “It’s gonna be fine,” he reassured Téo. “What could go wrong?”
He’s eight miles east of Laredo when his tire blows.
He’s gnawing on an ancient strip of jerky he found between the seats, hoping the salt flavor will wash away the canela on his tongue. It doesn’t; it only adds the taste of salty old shoe leather. He flings the rest of the strip out the open window.
The tire pops with a crack like a gunshot, and instantly Téo hunches low to the steering wheel to keep his head out of the line of fire. His mind flashes to that last image of Umberto burned in his mind: Téo’s best friend holding his own belly to keep his guts in, his eyes like glass, blood between his teeth.
He doesn’t hear any more shots, and gingerly he peeks above the steering wheel as he pulls onto the dirt shoulder. When he climbs out to survey the damage, his heart sinks. It’s the rear passenger-side tire, the one the Patrulla agent warned him about. There’s a four-inch rip in the sidewall, and through the hole he can make out one of the lumpy white packages wrapped in plastico.
That isn’t what makes his knees buckle.
Behind the pickup, straight as an arrow, like the trail on a treasure map, there’s a long line of white powder leading away from the blown tire.
A steady stream of curses issue from between his teeth as he goes to work. There aren’t many cars out on the narrow highway between the ranches, but it only takes one. One buen samaritano to pull onto the shoulder to offer a hand and see the trail of coca he’s left in his wake.
Thankfully, he’s still got the gato under the shotgun seat from when he last changed his oil, and he cranks the pickup off the ruined wheel and goes to work taking off the lug nuts. More coca trickles out of the ripped tire. He’s careful not to let it touch his cracked hands.
He’s sweating by the time gets the wheel off. The Texas sun is bright and relentless, staring in judgement down at the young traficante.
He can’t take it with him, he realizes. If he gets pulled over, a torn tire stuffed with thirty kilos of cocaine is going to invite questions he can’t answer. He scans the featureless flat farmland around him, trying to take a mental picture he can reference later.
Then he sighs and rolls three-quarters of a million dollars off the shoulder and into a ditch behind some weeds. He takes another mental snapshot for when he comes back to retrieve the coca.
He hopes he can find it.
That isn’t the sort of thing you ask God’s help for, finding the drugs you stashed in a ditch on the edge of some Texan’s ranch in the arid no-man’s-land eight miles east of Laredo.
But Téo asks anyway.
A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye catches his attention mid-prayer. It’s an SUV, all black like the kind the devil drives. And it’s coming right toward him.
The cinnamon-taste on his dry tongue is so strong that it makes him cough and spit. Abuelita told him never to ignore it. She calls it his talento. Three times he’s saved his own life by heeding its warning.
If he was heeding it today, he’d never have climbed into the pickup.
The SUV is three miles off. That gives him two-and-a-half minutes if he’s lucky. He scoops up a double-handful of dirt off the shoulder and goes to work obliterating the trail of coca stretching in the pickup’s wake.
When the SUV pulls past, he’s dragging the spare tire off the bed. He doesn’t look up, but he feels it slowing down, feels the hairs on his neck prickle as whoever-it-is watches him through tinted windows.
He prays they won’t stop, and breathes a sigh of relief when the car rolls past. He waits a full minute before he allows himself to glance back at the SUV retreating over the horizon.
His stomach drops.
It’s pulling a U-turn a quarter-mile up the road.
He swallows and wipes his hands on his jeans. With his pickup on the gato, he’s got nowhere to go, not unless he dives through the barbwire and tries not to get shot running through the rancher’s land.
He knows he can’t. If he runs and leaves behind two-hundred kilos of el patron’s coca, a couple of rock salt shells in the ass will be the least of his worries. There won’t be a hole he can hide in where Don Thiago’s sicarios won’t track him down and make him bleed.
All he can do is watch the SUV close in, cinnamon on his tongue, and pray for a milagro.
As the car pulls onto the shoulder behind him, he sees the government license plate. His mouth burns. He thinks again about running, thinks about el patron, thinks about cena with abuelita. Right now, that seems very far away.
The SUV crunches to a halt, and the driver hops out. He’s Latino, wearing plainclothes and sunglasses above a coal-black bigote. He has a pistol on his hip, but it’s Texas. They arm their vacas up here.
No, what gives him away is the hard-eyed look he wears as he climbs out of the SUV, his face chipped from a block of granite that melts into a friendly smile as he throws up a hand and greets Téo in Spanish.
He’s seen that face before. It’s the same as any one of the dozen agents who stared him down over their flashing muzzles the night they sent Umberto to eternity. Umberto, ever the caballero, roared at Téo to run while he held them off.
He got off one shot for the DEA’s fifty.
But he’d bought him enough time to escape. Barely. Téo tripped and broke one of his teeth falling into an irrigation ditch, and he’d squirmed along the channel with mud squelching in his boots while the agents hunted him with dogs and flashlights.
His only memento of the ordeal, besides the nightmares, was his broken tooth. And the jacket. After he made it back to Nuevo Leon, he’d found two bullet holes running through the back and out the front of his mud-stained denim jacket, just below the heart. He still has no idea how they didn’t punch right through him.
He left the jacket draped over a headstone without a body on the edge of Umberto’s family farm. He remembers asking God with tears in his eyes why He’d withheld from Umberto the same suerte he’d afforded Téo.
As he eyes the big black pistol swinging on the agent’s hip, he doesn’t trust that his luck will hold.
“¿Entiendes?” He blinks; he hasn’t heard a word the agent said. “Do you need a tow back to town,” he repeats in slow, lightly-accented Spanish.
Behind him, the passenger door on the SUV opens as his partner climbs out. He’s tall and lanky, with a weathered face and a white cowboy hat whose brim extends almost to his shoulders. Téo instantly thinks of the old John Wayne movies his tíos used to smuggle down in between seasons working as campesinos in California.
“No,” he hears himself say. Once he gets the spare on, he should be able to drive in himself.
The agent thumbs his mustache. “Let’s get you back on the road, then.” He lurches forward to help with the spare before Téo can protest. He tries not to look at the bootprints the agent leaves in the dusting of dirt and coca that his own feet have pounded into the asphalt.
As nervous as he is, the job is easier with an extra pair of hands, and in a few seconds they fit the spare wheel onto the axle and go to work fastening the nuts. John Wayne makes no move to assist, and out of the corner of his eye Téo watches him do a slow lap around the pickup, his weathered brown boots clicking deliberately against the asphalt.
He’s looking for something. He peers through the open window at the cramped cab smelling faintly of cigarettes, the rosario twisting lazily on its cord. His hands are on his hips, his jacket tucked behind his arms to expose his pistol.
And the badge. The bronze shield tucked into his belt reads DEA in big block letters.
The other agent catches him looking. “No somos la Migra,” he says gently. We aren’t Immigration.
He tightens the last nut and straightens up, palming Téo the lug wrench. “You’re all set,” he tells him. “But you’re gonna want to get new tires in the next town.” He nudges the spare with the toe of his boot. “These aren’t meant to go forever.”
Téo can hardly believe his suerte. He shakes the agent’s hand heartily and thanks him in broken English for his help.
A long shadow falls across him; the temperature drops by five degrees. It’s John Wayne, his craggy face set in a permanent half-scowl. For the first time, Téo sees under the brim of his white hat. His eyes are mismatched, one blue and one green, like a cat’s. He has one hand curled possessively around the rim of the truck bed.
Standing between them, looking up at both, Téo suddenly feels very trapped.
“Where’s the other tire.”
The cowboy’s voice is hardly more than a whisper. Téo’s heart drops into his stomach. He doesn’t respond. The other agent blinks and repeats the question. “¿Dónde está la otra llanta?”
He thinks of abuelita.
The Latino agent slams him down on the hood of the pickup. The rust flakes and chipped paint bite into his cheek. He kicks Téo’s legs apart and turns out his pockets. Chewing gum, his wallet, a pocket knife and a few pesos clatter onto the asphalt. “Who are you working for?” the agent demands. His face is granite again.
Téo knows better than to tell him anything.
He’s sweating; the hood of the pickup in the bright Texas sun is like pressing his cheek against a hot plate. He knows he only has seconds before they find it. The DEA are like bloodhounds; probably they smelled him skirting past Laredo and raced ahead to cut him off.
Probably this whole run never stood a chance.
He hears that distinct rubbery slap he’s been dreading as John Wayne peels the liner off the back of the truck and throws it down. He imagines him framed there in front of the truck bed, one hand on his gun, his eyes narrowing as he sees the big suitcase tied down with ratchet straps. “Louis,” he grunts, “I’m gonna need help with this.”
Téo feels handcuffs bite into his wrists before the other agent goes. “If you run, it won’t end well for you,” he warns. “I’ve never seen him miss a shot.” He scoops the pocket knife off the asphalt before trudging around to the back of the truck.
Téo waits a few seconds before he peels his cheek off the hood. He tries to catch a glimpse of them through the windshield, but the sun glares off the glass. All he can see is the dark outline of the dangling rosario.
He stares at it and tries to shut out everything else. He imagines he can make out the tiny carved features of Jesucristo frozen in agony. He prays.
There’s a faint click as the cuffs fall off his wrists.
It’s a minute before he realizes what’s happened. He stares down at his hands in disbelief, still braceleted by angry red lines. The cuffs gleam like plata in the sunlight.
He hears the agents grunting as they drag the suitcase off the back of the pickup. The slashed ratchet straps flap like yellow ribbons in the breeze.
He has two options left, and he knows he can’t run. If he fails, he hopes that the agent wasn’t lying, that John Wayne puts one between his eyes. It beats whatever the sicarios will do to him.
He slinks over to the driver-side door, leans through the open window, and grasps for the pistol tucked under the seat.
He hears a click behind him. “Sueltalo.” Drop it. He doesn’t move. He’s wondering whether he can swing the gun around before the agent can squeeze the trigger. “Sueltalo,” the agent repeats, more firmly. “I don’t want to kill you.”
Téo’s nerves fail. The pistol clatters out of his grasp. He hardly feels it as the agent throws him down on the asphalt and digs his knee into the small of his back.
This time he uses zip ties to secure Téo’s wrists. And his ankles.
Téo doesn’t try to fight him. It’s over. He watches John Wayne out of the corner of his eye. He’s standing over the suitcase like it’s a bomb, waggling his fingers.
He feels strangely at peace. Almost euphoric. Maybe it’s the coca scattered across the asphalt seeping through his pores. He watches with detached interest as the cowboy crouches down, unzips the case and flips the lid.
He’s definitely high.
Because what happens next, he doesn’t believe.
The first thing he thinks is that Rafael must have put some kind of booby-trap on the case, some small explosive charge set to detonate upon opening. The instant that he flips the lid, John Wayne is hit by a white cloud with enough force to knock him off his feet.
The pressure on Téo’s back eases as the other agent scrambles to help the cowboy up. Meanwhile the white cloud continues to swarm out of the suitcase, climbing high into the sky like the smoke from a magic fogata hidden within its black polyester sides.
He rolls onto his back for a better look.
It’s not smoke. And it’s not coca.
It’s butterflies. Thousands of them. They’re white as bone, and for an instant they blot out of the sun as the swarm catches a thermal and climbs high into the sky. Hundreds land on the pickup, on the barbwire, on the two agents as Louis pulls John Wayne to his feet. Téo shakes his head as one of them tries to alight in his hair.
It’s impossible. He loaded the lumpy white bricks into the suitcase and tied it down on the truck bed himself. He checked it three times last night before bed, and after he couldn’t sleep, three more times before he hit the road.
John Wayne and Louis are staring too, open-mouthed. For a moment they aren’t DEA, and he’s not a traficante.
They’re all skeptics brought to their knees; pilgrims in the presence of the Almighty; witnesses to an unmistakable, unexplainable move of God.
No one says anything. They watch in awe as the swarm climbs into a washed-out sky.
They still arrest him.
He’s not sure how they’re going to hold him. By their muttered conversation in the front seat of the SUV, they’re not sure either. John Wayne is angry. Louis is scraping dead butterflies off his boot with Téo’s pocket knife.
He twists in his seat and looks back at the pickup. It’s still totally white, like it’s been caught in a sudden summer blizzard that’s left everything else untouched.
“No one’s gonna believe this,” Louis murmurs in English.
He’s right. Not the media, not a jury, not their jefe at the DEA.
Not his jefe, either. Don Thiago.
As for his sicarios, it won’t matter what they believe. They’ll shoot first and not ask questions.
He tries to swallow the warm canela on his tongue and almost gags.
Right now, the safest place in the world might be inside a DEA holding cell.