With no clouds left to obstruct the August sun, the flat, polished stones of the plaza reflect an intense heat onto the bodies seated along the short wall that spans the half circle of the plaza’s outer edge. Among the seated is a man in light cotton slacks, short-sleeved polo shirt, baseball cap and sunglasses. He likely arrived later than the others as he is positioned near one end of the wall in a spot well out of reach of the shade provided to most of the wall’s arc by a series of tall, leafy trees that grow just beyond the plaza. A magazine rests in the man’s lap, but he doesn’t seem much interested in it, looking up often to gaze out across the plaza, before bowing his head again to look at the same page as before.
It’s impossible to say what keeps distracting the man from his reading. There is a stone monument at the plaza’s center, situated as the terminus of a stream that feeds into the plaza from the hill above. But there is nothing particularly special about the monument, nothing that would seem to invite such repeated inspection. Perhaps the man is merely bored with his reading and continually looks up in the hope that someone interesting will be passing by. Perhaps he is waiting for someone in particular, someone he has previously arranged to meet. His sunglasses hide the expectation, the terror, the boredom that might otherwise be evident in his eyes.
Once when he looks up, a boy is approaching the monument from the opposite side of the plaza. The man appears to watch the child as he comes up to the monument, stops and draws from his pants’ pocket a plastic toy soldier that, with arm fully extended, he runs up and down the monument’s exterior. After a while the man looks back down at his magazine.
He had covered at least 12 miles before finding a spot to sit down and rest. The stone that served as his seat was located just inside the forest of pines that covered the hill he had just descended. He drew an apple from his coat pocket and took a bite from it as he surveyed the valley before him. A winding dirt road, lined in spots by old rubber tires, cut in half and painted white, snaked over the landscape. The place was also dotted by a handful of wall-less shelters and a couple of small houses that were in various states of disrepair, a few bordering on collapse even, although one, much larger than the rest, constructed mostly of long planks of expertly finished timber, was conspicuous for its newness, appearing to have been just recently completed. The man finished his apple and tossed the core aside into a mound of dried pine needles.
He came out into the sun, supporting his weight with a staff held in his right hand as he descended the grassy slope and then, planting the staff forcefully into the turf before each step, lifted himself up a short but sharp incline that was the last before the landscape slanted away to the main road a mile in the distance. He stopped for a minute or more at the crest of the hill, leaning on his staff and breathing heavily. His face held a look of anguish and his olive-hued tunic, caught by the full light of the sun, revealed an array of earth-toned splotches ranging in color from auburn to almost black. After an especially strong exhalation, he set off again, limping now despite the aid of his staff.
He lies prone at the base of the monument, his arms propping his head and chest up over the metal grating that he presently stares into. At times the boy brings his hands up to his face and cups them around his eyes to shield them from the sun. A groan escapes his lips on occasion, but the sound’s character doesn’t reveal if he’s experiencing some form of physical discomfort, perhaps caused by the way his back is bent upward or by the heat of the stones on his stomach and legs, or if he is nagged, rather, by some emotional torment. His fingers grip the grating now and his face lowers till it is nearly touching the metal bars. He remains silent, peering intently through the slots of the grating.
The water from the stream gurgles as it runs the final stretch of the trough and empties into a large, underground pool. The pool’s surface is black and unmoving, but waves of light play on the curved walls of the vast stone catacombs, reflecting an abstract dance of ghostly wisps driven by a low, rhythmic murmuring. A soldier’s head bobs up from beneath the black sheen of the pool’s surface. The head is covered by a thick metal helmet webbed with camouflage, all of it—the helmet, the camouflage, the strap that wraps beneath the soldier’s chin, the smooth, slick flesh of the soldier’s face—washed of color. He bobs emotionless, his eyes open and unblinking, his lips set together in a tough, plastic line that, with the aid of heavy, slanting shadows, now seems to curl into something of a grin as the soldier’s stiff body buoys up above the surface then falls back by the weight of the pack strapped to his shoulders. He floats like this, face up, eyes seemingly closed now (though perhaps this is but another effect of the shadows) with the bulk of his body beneath the surface. Only his chest, parts of each arm, his knees and the toes of his boots are visible in patches of gray, charcoal and black. His body drifts smoothly through the water, adding nothing new to the suppressed subterranean chorus save, perhaps, an occasional dripping sound that plinks at the higher register. The soldier’s eyes blink open again and he stares as if in terror into the black abyss above. His mouth gapes, and several seconds later the large, stone chamber registers his echoing gasp.
He hit his attacker once with the staff, so the story goes, then struck a few more times for good measure once his opponent had fallen to the earth. The drifter stood over his felled adversary, his legs set firmly in a strong, athletic pose, and repeatedly brought his staff down into the exposed side of the crumpled form at his feet. His enemy contorted less and less beneath the powerful blows until, with the last few, the defeated lay rather still, his body receiving the strokes with no more reaction than was required by physics, his flesh sinking like dough then slowly rising back to form, the way a stuffed sack might.
The man looks up to discover that the boy has a hand down between the bars of the metal grating and is working to shove his entire arm through the slim opening.
It might get stuck, the man offers with good, fatherly humor. He has walked across the plaza and stands now above the boy, who only briefly looks up when he hears the man address him before returning, with increased urgency, to the project of forcing his arm through the slot.
What is it you’re trying to get at? the man asks. You won’t be able to reach the water. All you’ll get is stuck.
The boy grunts his annoyance, but removes his hand from the grating just the same. He takes a last long look into the darkness below, cupping his eyes again, then bangs the grating hard one time with the butt of his right fist. He scowls at the man, jumps to his feet and races out of the plaza, ducking beneath the tarps draped over the exit to the market. The man stands on the grating and watches him go.
He tried the ignition, but heard nothing beyond the initial click from turning the key. He brought the key back to the off position and exited the truck, swinging the door shut behind him. Its rusted hinges wheezed the scratched complaint of a lifelong smoker, but the door still managed to crunch closed. The drifter set the toe of his sandal to a large flake of rusted metal that had been knocked to the dirt. He dialed the shard this way and that, exposing every bit of its surface to light. He kicked the thing under the truck finally, applying so much force—a force he hadn’t intended—that the shard fairly exploded against a brick pillar that stood opposite the truck’s passenger-side door.
He works his way down through the market without hurry. The crowds are thick on the path that, with the vendor stands rising in unbroken lines on either side and the tarps overhead providing a continuous ceiling, feels more like a tunnel, descending in an impressionistic feast of colors, scents and chatter. The boy stops on occasion to inspect some of the wares offered by the merchants, but never lingers long at any one table. After a while he increases his speed and refrains from stopping at tables altogether, at best turning his head to give the merchandise a quick once over as he passes by, snaking his way down through the crowd toward the exit to the main plaza below. Reaching it, he races out into the sun, skipping in spots to dance around the host of people loitering near the plaza’s entrance and darting through the stone gateway. At the plaza’s center the boy stops, tilts his head back and slowly begins to spin counterclockwise, spreading his arms out wide to either side of his body as if forming a propeller. The momentum carries him over to the small, nondescript building at the plaza’s far side.
Sitting on the top step of the stairs outside the station, the soldier looks down at the driverless bus parked there, checks his watch, looks again at the bus and feels the anxiety prickle him. He has cast off his gear—the helmet, the military jacket, his backpack—abandoning most of what might identify him as a soldier behind a clump of bushes near the river he crawled out of. He’d dropped his rifle while still riding the current. He let the weapon go and felt an unexpected lightness lift his body as the river turned him about and carried him with increased ease and velocity. Even now, an hour or more later, as he sits in the sun outside the bus station, his T-shirt, pants, socks and boots (the military-issued boots the only remaining piece of identifiable army equipment evident on his person) are still quite damp. But the mix of direct heat from the sun and the cooling effect of breezes on his wet clothing produce a pleasant clash of sensations. He exhales, leans back on his elbows and shuts his eyes. He tells himself not to worry—the driver will be along very soon.
It is cool inside the building, which the boy has spun into and subsequently lost himself deeply within. He ventures down a tunnel of steps, knowing full well they won’t lead him to an exit and, in fact, will only serve to embed him more deeply within the heart of the structure. But he feels compelled to follow this path just the same, going as if into the very masonry of the building, his flesh morphing with the moist, hulking chalk of the building’s flesh. He goes deeper, hoping not for escape exactly, but only that he might burst through into some open cavity within the building’s confinement, a place where his breathing won’t be labored by swallows of grit, gum and plaster.
The room that he finds, eventually, is small and, like the rest of the building, extremely ornate. There are several statues set on pedestals or placed within niches in the wall. The walls are painted white with gold leaf accents, and dozens of unlit candles sit about the place. The most prominent statue is of a man seated on a stool, bleeding profusely from several wounds about his body. His head is tilted over his left shoulder where it is cradled in his left hand, a pose that gives him a pensive look. His left elbow, which at first appears to be resting on his left knee, proves, upon further inspection, to be situated just above it, a positioning that undoubtedly would increase the strain on the man’s left shoulder were he alive. His right hand loosely supports a wooden staff that rises from the floor near the instep of his bloodied left foot, slants across his body, passes through the light grip of the hand near his waist, and reaches its full height above the man’s right shoulder, where it extends, even with its tilt, several inches beyond the top of the man’s head.
The man’s face evidences a sad, thoughtful mood, which, coupled with his many grievous wounds, seems to indicate not only a recent altercation of some sort but the likelihood that he has emerged from the struggle the loser. He is now consumed with reviewing and regretting his missteps, chief among these, no doubt, the one that led him into the fight to begin with. Perhaps he had even initiated the action, wading into his enemies with a misplaced confidence. Or maybe he’d been minding his own business and, for no discernible reason, suddenly been jumped upon. That kind of thing, in fact, happens to him more often than it has any right to. He doesn’t understand it. It has led him into great despair and even to contemplate suicide on occasion.
The drifter sat at the end of a short white wall that bordered a broad dirt lane running from the main road to the dilapidated shelters beyond in the valley. Just off the road the lane passed beneath an arch constructed of cream-colored bricks. Atop the arch the drifter noticed a white sign that read WELCOME TO THE VALLEY OF SILENCE. So it had come to this. He knew it would, of course, but, still, it was dejecting. He sat awhile, his right elbow atop his right knee, weary head supported in palm of right hand. Later, he felt that he may have drifted into a bit of sleep, but he couldn’t say how long he might have dozed or if he had, rather, only closed his eyes for a second or two.
He was a boy, maneuvering his young horse across the grassy field beyond the fence that separated the open place from the rest of the village, galloping hard and fast or pulling the animal up to perform a series of tricks that might catch the eye of Maria or Magdalena as they walked home from the main road in their school uniforms. Each afternoon around three the bus heading east to the city dropped the girls at the top of the lane and they walked the half mile to their one-room house, usually cutting through the field where Manuel made sure to be out riding his pony. Sometimes the girls would do their best to avoid the boy, walking with their heads down, elbow to elbow, clutching their books to their chests, at most glancing up and smiling politely if the boy was overly persistent, circling the girls a few times before racing to the end of the field and then coming back to slow-step his mount next to the pigtailed pair. Other times—rarely—when they were in particularly generous moods, they’d allow the boy to stop them, giggling politely as he ran through his series of equestrian tricks. The performance varied little from one time to the next, the drifter recalled, if maybe there were a few more spins or hops in places, marginal differences that nevertheless tended to increase the errors and produce giggling complaints from the girls. The boy would redouble his efforts, then, setting a comically determined grimace to his lips and springing forward to likely greater failure.
The windows on the bus remain open even though the schoolchildren who opened them—starting roughly from the bus’s midpoint and working their way back, dodging from seat to seat and thrusting each window open with a startling metallic zip and instant gush of wind—have long since departed into their small villages or outposts along the main road. While many of the adults on the bus, including the man with the magazine, seem annoyed by the continual rush of wind, none seems disposed toward getting up to close any of the windows. The man turns and looks out the window at his side, which, like all the others in the front half of the bus, remains closed. The tall, multistory buildings are there now, planted alongside the highway in cluttered, bric-a-brac fashion. All these structures appear empty to the man—built, used for a time and then abandoned (through choice or some other less intimate form of coercion)—left to rot beneath a tangle of unchecked vegetation that rises to ensnarl them. Still, they will no doubt continue to stand, vacant shells, for a stretch of time bordering on the unimaginable.
He collapsed after making the final stroke, you read, having returned to the magazine article that has confounded you since late morning when you first began it, its story failing to hold your attention for long enough in any one spot for you to grasp what it is trying to say overall. The man in the olive-hued tunic, whom you recall vaguely from your earlier reading, though without being able to place him in any telling context, had brought his staff down in a final stroke of victory. All his enemies had been vanquished, yet he had sustained considerable damage himself in the process. You continue reading but can’t recall why the man in the story had been attacked, if he had initiated it or been set upon or was the victim of some complicated history that had made the current battle, the one he seemingly had just ended with a final stroke of his staff, both predictable—inevitable even—and yet largely unexpected. Whatever the case, the man picked himself up after a time and began walking, determined, despite all odds, to keep moving. He progressed slowly, using his staff to pull himself over the bodies of his enemies, one labored step at a time, pressing on, alone.
The bus grinds now into the snarl of late-afternoon traffic—another clogged artery stretching back into the heart of a blackening metropolis. The dangerous work is done. This story, like all others before it and since, is now over.