Hours to Go
Translated by Stephanie Lawyer
It was the rainy season in Chiapas, and the narrow road made driving slow and cautious. There was always the chance of a landslide just around the corner. I was driving with the window down, the cool air hitting me in the face, which gave me an excuse for having watery eyes. Up to now, I'd held back my tears. My wife and I were alone in the rental car, navigating the curving road between San Cristobal and Palenque, listening to old tunes to avoid speaking about things we’d spoken about so often before. It was our annual pilgrimage to a village with a name I didn’t want to remember, off a country road without a name at all, a little more than 140 kilometers from San Cristobal.
Our son was buried here in this unnamed land, in a village of some five hundred souls, because that’s how he wanted it. He had never made things easy for us. He had always been stubborn when it came to getting his way—even when he was small he didn’t think of us and, now he was dead, he still made us do the all the work. Every year we’d leave our "little bourgeois castle," as he used to call it, take a couple of flights, and then drive for hours to visit a grave without a headstone in a foreign place. From here in Chiapas, our middle-class, suburban house seemed like another world. Back home, the grass was mown, green, kept in check. Here, the greenery took over everything, nature imposed its jumbled order, and people were made to adapt. Back home, we had street signs and traffic lights that worked. Here, the signs were handwritten by the Zapatistas, and the abandoned army trucks were covered in cobwebs. Back home, there were no potholes in the streets, but here even the main road was an obstacle course, if you can imagine the sort of race where a tortoise goes faster than a car.
Despite my sour mood, the beauty of the scenery took my mind off my darkest thoughts, which crouched hidden in the glove compartment. Driving blocked out the accusing voices in my head—they were silenced by the highway noise. I was thinking of my home-based business and not much else, when I rounded a corner and was forced to brake hard.
It was the most basic of traps. You don’t have to be a genius to set up this kind of ambush. Let me set the scene: broad daylight, a blind curve in a ravine and with a sheer drop on one side, no chance of turning around or backing up, and then three figures in balaclavas and a plank full of nails straddling the road. It was a moment I never thought I’d experience. But there we were, my wife and I in the car, waiting to learn our fate, watching a hooded woman approach the car window.
They were Zapatistas. Knowing that I was trapped released all the demons inside me. The first thing I thought was that this bloody road had already killed my son. And now it was going to kill us.
Maybe they were going to steal everything. Maybe they were going to rape my wife.
No, probably not rape her: it was a woman who had come forward, and the other two were so malnourished and puny they could have been girls underneath their fatigues. But something terrible could still happen—maybe there were armed men in hiding, waiting for some prearranged signal.
My stomach turned to stone.
“Put the wallet under the seat,” I said to my wife.
She looked at me, worried. Although it wasn’t clear to me whether she was worried because of what might happen to us or what she thought I might be capable of.
“Please,” she said, “don’t get into a fight. Give them what they want. I don’t want anyone else dying on this road.”
Standing right in front of the car, the Zapatista delivered a speech she knew by heart. Her eyes were piercing, her voice harsh. You could tell she’d repeated it a thousand and one times, like the Lord’s Prayer believers recite every day. It was as real to her as being alive, and as trite as the speeches our son spouted every day when he was at university.
When she had finished, she asked us for a contribution, a kind of toll paid on these forgotten roads, just a few pesos to support the cause. My guess was she even smiled under her balaclava as she asked for a donation.
I was relieved to hear they weren’t going to take everything. But then fear turned to fury.
I wanted to shout that as far as a contribution went—nothing. That it was this blocked road that had prevented my son from getting to the hospital on time. That it was her cause, and political injustice, that had brought him here in the first place. To this no-name shithole, where an infection could put you straight in the grave instead of on a week’s worth of bedrest and antibiotics.
My darkest thoughts were calling me from the glove compartment. But I didn’t listen. Then what was going on in the passenger seat brought me back to the present and dampened the rage gnawing at my guts.
My wife was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“Look at his eyes,” she replied.
Glued to the side window was another Zapatista, close enough for me to see it was child. But the eyes, his eyes, were unmistakable. They were our son’s eyes.
I handed over some money without saying a word and, after removing the plank, the Zapatistas waved us through. They even thanked us for our support.
Then I started the car and didn’t look back. A few kilometers on, where the road widened, I stopped. At long last the tears came, and then the sobs that had been pent up for years. I don’t know how long I wept, but I know it was for a long time.
I hugged my wife and she hugged me back harder.
She said, “Let’s get going, love, we’ve still a long way to go.”
And so, without another word, we resumed our pilgrimage on an abandoned road to a town with a name I want to forget.
About the translator: Stephanie Lawyer grew up in Mexico and has lived and worked in the US, the UK, and Asia. She edited in-house for Secker & Warburg in London and later for Little, Brown in Boston, and worked for more than a decade in London and Hong Kong as an independent editor and literary agent. She recently relocated to Albuquerque, NM, where she continues to work as an editor and translator, both in print and online. Stephanie is the founder of per-e-gren.org.