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Authors: Irene Beltrán Hernández

Across the Great River

BOOK: Across the Great River
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This volume is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Texas Commission for the Arts.

Piñata Books are full of surprises!

Piñata Books
An Imprint of Arte Público Press
University of Houston
452 Cullen Performance Hall
Houston, Texas 77204-2004

Covert art and design by Mark Piñón

Library of Congress No. 89-289

Hernández, Irene Beltrán, 1945-

Across the great river / by Irene Beltrán Hernández
            p.  cm.
        ISBN 0-934770-96-4
    I. Title



The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials Z39.48-1984.

Copyright © 1989 by Irene Beltrán Hernández
Printed in the United States of America

3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0              13 12 11 10 9 8

Across the Great River

Irene Beltrán Hernández


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter One

I watch Mama tie a leather pouch around her waist. She slips a black skirt over it, then turns to fetch her sandals. She bends to tie them on, then moves to the table. She puts bread and a piece of dried meat in a scarf, then she ties the ends of the scarf together into one tight knot. Now, she waits.

“Where are we going, Mama?” I ask.

“On a trip, Kata. Now, dress quickly.”

“But Mama, it's still dark outside.”

She looks at me sadly. “Kata, I wish we weren't going anywhere, but…”

Papa enters the hut. For a moment they stare at each other, but I cannot tell if they are angry. He moves to his cot and picks up his guitar which he slings carefully over his shoulder. “Have you got the pouch?” he asks.

Mama touches her waist. “Yes, but Carlos, it is such a long walk for the children.” She picks up Pablito, my baby brother, and hugs him tightly. I watch as she dries her tears on the baby's shirt. With red eyes she looks around our hut, then she comes over and touches my shoulder. “M'ija, daughter, is there something you would like to take on this trip?”

“Will we be gone long?” I ask.

Again she sobs, then turns her back to me. I hear her blow her nose as I walk over to my cot. I reach under my serape and pull out my cloth doll. “Can I take Anna?”

“Yes, now come. Papa is waiting for us outside.” She hands me the scarf. I hurry out the door after her.

The night air wakens me as I follow them. This is strange, I think. Why are we going for a walk in the
middle of the night? Papa trudges ahead like a soldier going to battle. He takes such giant steps that it is hard for us to keep up with him. Mama takes two steps for each one of Papa's and I take four and still I fall behind.

Mama runs to catch him. “Carlos, we are leaving the only home we know. In the name of all that is good, please change your mind and let us return to our warm hut.” She clings to his arm, but still he walks onward.

“We cannot return! This is a dream that I shall make come true.” He walks onward removing himself from her grip.

“Carlos! Some dreams are not meant to be! This dream of yours is wild and very dangerous!” she cries.

“Silence! I will hear no more!” he commands as he walks on even faster.

Mama stops walking and stares at Papa's back. I grab onto her skirt. “Mama, don't cry. See, the stars aren't sad.” She hugs me tightly, then takes my bundle. I am glad because the bundle is getting heavy. Besides, I have Anna to carry. I run to catch up with Papa. He is such a tall man, so thin and so brown. I take his free hand and kiss it. He smiles down at me, showing white teeth under a thick mustache.

I glance around. This path is in the middle of nothing but empty land. A tree sprouts up here and there on the desert, and the moonlight is flooding the land as the sun does in the daytime. I keep walking, switching Anna from hand to hand.

“M'ija, daughter, get away from the brush. You might trip on a cactus or uncover a rattler. Stay behind me.”

I obey Papa instantly. “Are we going to the river, Papa?” He does not answer, but moves as if he were
turning the world under his feet. Walking on, I find myself thirsty. “I want a drink, Papa.”

“Soon, daughter, soon,” he says, but he does not stop walking.

I look back at Mama, who seems to have slowed down. Her long skirt hugs her thin legs. She puts the scarf with the food on top of her head and balances it. She is small but strong, and her thick black hair is braided in a massive pigtail which swings back and forth with each step she takes. Her face glows in the moonlight, reflecting a quiet sadness.

“We will stop here to wait.” Papa points to a spot covered with high brush. Mama sits on a nearby rock and I flop down next to her. Papa then hands her Pablito.

As I rest, I notice they seem frightened. Papa's pacing back and forth worries me. Mama is cradling Pablito. How I envy Pablito, sound asleep like a fat lazy cat on a Sunday afternoon.

“Quiet! We must not make a sound!” warns Papa.

Mama sobs, “Carlos, there is still time for us to turn back. Our family is here in Mexico.”

“Woman, I have made up my mind.” Papa takes his hat off and rubs his brow, then paces back and forth a few times. “I will return shortly. Remember, stay here and do not move. Do you understand, Kata?”

“Yes, Papa.” I touch Mama's calloused hand. Her palm is sweaty. A stray lock of her hair falls forward. She nervously pushes it back in place. Then she bends to kiss Pablito and breaks into heavy sobs. She raises her tear-stained face, then pulls me closer to her side.

I look up into her face. She kisses my forehead, then bends her head in prayer. From between her breasts she pulls out her beads. Mama never goes anywhere without them. Fifty-nine beads in all. Each one
represents a prayer.

I wonder how Mama remembers all those prayers. She says them nightly.

The night becomes silent. I can no longer hear Papa's footsteps and I can hear Mama's breathing, but not my own. I put my hand to my chest. My heart is pounding away, and I wonder why. Suddenly, a branch breaks. Mama stiffens. I hear him returning, too. Papa is like a big shadow that comes from behind the clouds. “Come,” he says, “they are waiting.” He takes Pablito from Mama's arms.

“Carlos, I am afraid.” Mama mutters.

He turns and faces her, then he gently brushes her hair back. “Do not fear, my love. All is ready and a new life across the border awaits us.” He bends and kisses her forehead, then squeezes her shoulder. “Come, we do this for the children's sake.”

She takes my hand and picks up the bundle. Then, she bites her lips and rushes along as if she wishes to punish me. We walk downhill. Papa stops. From behind a tree appears another shadow.

“Señor,” says the shadow. “We will accept your money, now.” Papa turns back to Mama, who lifts her skirt and unties the pouch. I watch as Papa takes the pouch over to where the man stands and pours the entire contents onto the sand.

The shadow bends on his knees next to Papa. I listen while Papa counts the paper money out loud, then hands it to the man whose arm is eagerly outstretched. The moonlight shines upon a large tattoo that is imprinted on the man's right arm. I walk over to his arm and take a closer look. It is the picture of a woman with some kind of rope around her waist. No, I decide. It is not a rope. The woman holds a snake in her hand. The snake's body is curled around her
waist. I step away from the man at once.

“Ah!” says the shadow. “What is this shiny stone that winks at me from within the sand?”

I look to where he points, and there, within the sand, I see a golden yellow glow that seems to be a stone of some kind. Papa hurriedly takes the stone and some other coins and puts them back into the pouch. Then, he rises and straightens the guitar upon his back. “Let's get on with this, man!” demands Papa sternly.

The shadow rises, too. He has large teeth that sparkle white in the moonlight. “When you hear the call of the doves, proceed downhill to the river bank.” Then, the shadow disappears into the high brush much like a cloud that is hidden within a dark sky.

Papa and I walk back to Mama. She says, “Carlos, I did not like that strange man.”

“Nor did I, but it is too late. The money is gone and we must go on.” He takes Pablito from her. We hear the cry of the doves and Papa moves ahead at a fast pace.

It is downhill all the way. We run, dodging rocks and cactus. In the moonlight, I can see that Pablito is no longer asleep. He bobs up and down on Papa's shoulder, crying in discomfort. Papa hushes Pablito, but the guitar strings play by themselves.

Papa and Pablito are way ahead of us. My legs spin as fast as a weaver's wheel. Without warning my feet go out from under me and I fall, causing Mama to lose her balance. She falls and we both roll and roll as a wheel rolls downhill. Then, she pushes me aside in one big thrust. “Carlos!” she screams. She stops abruptly against a cactus plant and screams as the thorns tear into the soft flesh of her arm. I sit up stunned with the taste of sand caked on my tongue.

Papa reaches us in one giant stride. He stands me up and checks my arms and legs. Then, he hands me the baby. He rushes back to Mama and stares down at the wound. He quickly examines her arm, then looks up to search the path. “Beloved, we shall remove the thorns later. Now, we must hurry because your screams might have alarmed them.”

Mama nods that she understands and shakes the tears from her face. Papa takes Pablito and clutches my arm. We are off, running downhill like the wind.

I glance back at Mama who follows. Her arm must feel like burning fire, but still she is able to keep up with us. I see a visible cloud of dust rising rapidly behind her.

“Where are the clouds!” Papa snaps as if he is angry with them.

Papa's grip is like an iron bracelet choking my wrist. I want to tell him to let go, but I dare not, for I can see that he is very angry. Instead, I hold tightly to Anna.

Again, I hear the cry of the doves as it echoes out from the darkness. We run faster and soon strange voices become louder. The high weeds snap at my face an darms and the mud covers my feet. We approach the river bank where Papa stops. Still carrying Pablito, he wades out waist-deep to a boat where a man sits waiting. Papa hands him Pablito, then dashes back for me.

Papa carries me into the water, which feels cold against my legs. He loses his footing and we go under. The cold water surrounds me and chokes me. I hold tightly to Papa and to Anna and when we finally come up, I gasp. Papa lifts me onto the boat, then he turns to help Mama, who now waits on the river bank.

In the distance, I hear a motor as if a truck is
coming our way full speed. I glance up, and there on top of the hill I see two lights that zig-zag downhill. Then, I hear voices that echo four or five times. They say, “Alto! Stop! We will shoot!”

I hear a loud cracking pop, which seems to come from out of the heavens. Mama screams and I turn to see her fall into the water with a big splash. Mama and Papa go under, leaving nothing but circles of water floating everywhere.

Suddenly, two large lights beam upon the water. The man that sits in the boat moves quickly and shoves us down into the bottom of his raft. Pablito starts crying, and with his hand, the man signals me to quiet him. I hug Pablito, hoping to warm him, but my dress is wet and he pulls away. I hear whizzing sounds all around us. It sounds as though God has sent bolts of lightning to strike us, but soon they stop.

BOOK: Across the Great River
11.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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