An excerpt from Starry Night
a novel in progress
by David Theis
Don’t touch that, the girl said. Her name was Josefina, and she was showing Nacho the ropes.
She had seen him looking lost, confused and too-well-dressed at the forlorn edge of the forlorn Lecheria train station, just north of Mexico City. Factories and their smokestacks blacken the Lecheria air which smells like one long toxic fart because of the odors from the tire factories.
The train station swarms with migrants, most of them younger than Josefina. But there’s plenty of state police too, and they’ll hold you down and steal the rings off your fingers. Then there’s the gangsters, like the La Trucha criminals from her own country of El Salvador who ride the trains so they can kill and plunder the poor migrants.
This was Josefina’s third time in Lecheria. (She’d never made it past Nuevo Laredo.) She was 17. Like almost all the other adolescents and even young children that by the thousands pile onto north bound Mexican trains, headed vaguely for the border, she was looking for her mother, who had moved to someplace called North Carolina so she could send home two hundred U.S. dollars a month, along with clothes and electronics.
Thanks to her sacrifice, Josefina was able to stay in school, and to buy new shoes as soon as the old ones broke. But school was over now, the La Trucha gang was killing as many people as the army did back in the civil war, and grandma had her hands full with all the children her three daughters had left her with when they went north. So Josefina took off, looking for Carolina del Norte.
An older girl, Beki, befriended her at the Mexican border, and helped her survive the dangers of Chiapas, where the criminals are thick on the ground and on the trains. Her friend had killed a delinquent who was trying to rape Josefina. Beki had pulled a knife out of her bra and slammed it between his shoulder blades. Every night when she tried to sleep Josefina remembered how he’d writhed, slobbered, defecated and died on top of her. It was a terrible dream and his breath in her face smelled like Lecheria.
The next day his friends killed Beki in revenge, in a camp not far from the train tracks. Josefina managed to hide in the brush, and watched as the Trucha drank while they raped Beki’s corpse. When they finally left she emerged from the brambles and covered Becki with an old shirt, and picked up Beki’s knife which the criminals had drunkenly left behind. She only saw one killer’s face clearly. He was older, 19 or more, and wore a wispy, Indian-style mustache on his pocked, lop-sided face. She thought that one day she would kill him, hopefully with Beki’s knife. The desire for revenge faded with time, but she still carried the knife. Maybe she would use it on herself if she didn’t make it across this time.
Does that make her sound bitter? She wasn’t. She was tired of death, exhausted by death, but open to life.
So when she saw Nacho in his intact but thin jacket and his fresh haircut (now that was a rare sight out here on the rails), standing as if paralyzed with his hands tucked into his jacket pockets outside the train station, her heart warmed and she approached him.
Don’t be afraid, she said when he started to back away.
He retreated another step, then stopped. Is this your first time? she asked.
What do you mean? He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets.
You’re here to jump on a train, aren’t you?
Nacho looked away from her, toward the station. He seemed to be studying a dead dog on the tracks nearby. Then he looked back at her. Yes.
Come with me, she said, and led him past more dead animals and abandoned dolls and broken baby buggies to a field just beyond the station. We can hide in the grass on top of that hill, she said. We’ll see the police or the gangs if they come, and run away. But we also have time to run down to the tracks and mount a train before it goes too fast.
Nacho shrugged with his shoulders and heart, but with his eyes he studied her face. Josefina had a Mayan beauty he’d seen a few times on the streets of el centro. The width and length of her nose, which started up high between her eyes, and the graceful span of her forehead, pierced his psyche, and he was sure that with the proper lighting the copper of her flesh would glow like art.
She found a spot on the hill that she evidently liked, then lay down on her stomach in the grass. He stood like a post until she looked up at him and said, You don’t want anyone to see you.
Nacho lay down near her, but not right beside her, so that the tall grass flattened beneath him, but there was still a soft, permeable wall between them. He was surprised by the texture of the grass. During picnics he’d lain on the well-worn lawn of Chapultepec Park, but this was the first time he’d ever been physically surrounded, embraced almost, by an earthy growth. And despite the hideousness of Lecheria, the ground beneath him seemed somehow pure. He wasn’t lying on top of a syringe or a condom or an abandoned murder weapon. Just dirt and grass, which blocked the view of the smokestacks. The air still smelled of rubber and plastic, but not as powerfully.
What’s your name? he asked. She answered, and then told him where she was from, and how many times she’d tried to cross.
Why are you jumping a train? she asked. You don’t look as poor as the rest of us.
This surprised Nacho, who sometimes walked past the sidewalk cafes in La Condesa to look at the pretty people and felt very poor indeed. And her Spanish sounded strange. She referred to him as “vos” instead of “tu,” and he wondered if this meant she were highly educated. Maybe a preparatoria girl. Better not ask, he told himself. She might laugh.
I’m going to find my older brother, in Houston, he said. He doesn’t know that my twin is dead. That his younger brother is dead. And my mother thinks I should tell him in person.
I’m sorry, she said. But your mother is out of her mind. It’s easy to die on a trip like this, and you’re definitely going to suffer. It’s better to write him a letter.
Nacho buried his face in the grass, and then lifted it to look toward her. He couldn’t see her, because of the grass, but he was aware of her body. For a reason he didn’t understand, not being able to see her made her even more exciting.
He wanted to push the tall grass aside and slide in next to her. But he also wanted to lie still and just feel her presence with his mind. He had just started to move toward her when she jumped to her feet. It’s moving, she said. Let’s go.
The train rocked as it left Lecheria and Nacho shuddered in the cold. Fuck, he said. The thin jacket that was protection against winter in el centro wasn’t enough out here in the January elements, riding in an open freight car in the train’s chugging ascent.
A few other trainhoppers sat at the other end of the car, but Nacho couldn’t see them because of the big metal shipping container that took up most of the car. We’ve got to be alert, Josefina said to him when they sat. If the train brakes suddenly, the metal box will slide toward us and maybe crush us. That’s why those guys took the other side. The box will slide away from them and toward us.
Nacho looked at the bulk of the container, which the moonlight that so softly lit the wide-open car just managed to illuminate. The possibilities for death were expanding now, and this thought made him turn to Josefina.
She was shuddering so putting his arm around her and pulling her toward him felt like the most natural thing he’d ever done. That’s when he looked up and saw the edge of a blanket dangling in the back door of the car. He jumped up to get it, and that when Josefina said, don’t touch that.
Why not? We’re freezing.
Do you hear that sound?
That’s when he focused on the noise that had accompanied them out of Lecheria, the grinding, crackling, angry sound of high voltage wires. Nacho stepped carefully out of the car, and looked up past the blanket to the power lines that cracked by less than a meter above the top of the car.
Why are all these power lines out in the middle of nowhere? he asked.
Who knows? Maybe it’s so they can electrocute the migrants on ride on the tops of the trains.
Nacho flinched as he snatched the blanket down.
I should’ve told you, Josefina said as he covered her with the blanket and then slid in under it himself, that you don’t have to touch the line to die. The electricity somehow comes out of the line. It can kill you if you’re a half-meter away. They call it an arc.
Yes, you should’ve told me, Nacho said, but with a little laugh intended to put her at ease. Now she was warm enough to talk (though in truth it was still pretty cold), and she told him about her experiences riding the train. But as a warning rather than a boastful adventure story. She told how migrants fell asleep on the tops of the trains and rolled off to their deaths. About the human bodies she’d seen mangled on the rails. About the robberies and the killings. (She didn’t talk about Beki.) About how you had to sleep with your shoes on so you’re always ready to run. About how you need a partner, someone to watch while you’re sleeping, to share food and pesos with, and vice-versa.
Listening to this catalogue of disasters, Nacho began to wonder if he hadn’t made the biggest mistake of his life, setting out on this adventure without giving it any real thought. But then he felt the warmth of Josefina’s flank against him, and saw her fine etched features in profile (he could look at that nose for a solid week!), and felt that he had made the right decision.
Not everyone is a demon, she said. When we pass through the state of Veracruz, people run out to the tracks and throw us plastic bags with food. Bananas, tortillas, hard-boiled eggs. They look as poor as we do, so their sacrifice is very moving.
Why do they do that? Nacho asked.
They shout out something about the book of Matthew. It tells them to help the strangers.
She turned then and looked Nacho in the eye. They were almost nose-to-nose, and he felt almost overpowered by her face. He had never seen such features. He felt like he was in the presence of genuine beauty, for the first time in his life. He wanted to put his face into hers, to put the tip of his nose against hers, and then brush his fingertips across her cheekbone, when she asked him about his dead twin.
He turned away to look at the shipping container and said, His name was Hector. I guess he was gay. He got killed out in the streets.
I’m sorry, she said. Do you abuse drugs?
Lots of the guys do. They say it’s because they can’t cope with the difficulties of life. But I can’t travel with someone who uses drugs.
He looked at her again and said, No. Never. I barely even drink. Though at that moment he was feeling a little drunk with the sculpture of her nose and and the feeling that the feeling that something amazing was about to happen to him.
And it did. Josefina pulled his face down and kissed him with her mouth open. He felt her tongue all way the inside his chest. Deeper and deeper it went. That’s when they heard angry shouts and frightened cries from the next car. Josefina jumped to her feet and pulled out her knife. The migrants on the other side of the container stood too and they all approached the open side of the car were the wind came whipping in. The screams continued, mixed with the crackle of the power lines above.
A man leaned out of the car behind them. He pointed and shouted You’re next! We’re going to take everything. We’re going to kill you.
Nacho backed against the shipping container and put up his fists, but felt more stunned amazement than anything else. His heart wasn’t ready to fight. Then Josefina grabbed the blanket and his wrist and pulled him though the back door.
We have to go on top, she said. They won’t follow us up there.
What about the power lines?
Keep low. Press yourself against the roof of the car.
They climbed the metal ladder which burned his hands in the cold. Josefina was on the roof first. Pressing herself down, she slithered ahead like a snake, not lifting her head, just forcing herself forward with her forearms. Nacho did the same until he’d pulled up beside her.
They rolled carefully onto their backs and watched and heard as the power lines whipped overhead, one every few seconds. The crackling was maddening. It almost exploded in Nacho’s head. Josefina murmured a prayer and Nacho said, Jesus Christ.
At the sound of that name the wires seemed to pop even louder.
The bandits were in the car below them now. Nacho and Josefina heard the blows beneath them, and the cry of a migrant as they criminals threw him out of the car. We know you’re up there, one of the bandits called out in the voice of a cruel animal. We’ll get you.
Come on up, Josefina shouted up into the wires, loud enough for them to hear her below. I want to see you fry like an egg.
The bandits were quiet for a moment, then Josefina and Nacho could hear them moving on to the next car. The pair shuddered so much in cold that Nacho was afraid his body would jerk him up inside the wire’s deadly arc.
But Josefina still held the blanket in one hand and oh-so-carefully pulled it up over their bodies. Still they shuddered, and they pressed into each other’s sides.
Don’t fall asleep, she said.
Nacho laughed nervously, perhaps hysterically. Sleep!
Through the power lines he saw the enormous night and its tiny stars. He’d often crossed through the La Raza metro station in el centro, with its planetarium that covers your head for at least a kilometer as you hurry to make your transfer between Line 5 and Line 3. He had thought that artificial sky was vast until tonight.
And then—a miracle. They passed beneath one last overhead line. The horrible crackling ended, and the sky opened completely. Nacho was thrilled and frightened at the same time and he moaned loudly with relief. Mexico City was both vast and compressed. He had always felt the city pulling him out of himself, and then cramming him back in. But this, this heaven…there was no word to describe the sky. So bright. So white. So distant. And cold, cold beyond the rigors of the night. The universe is made of invisible ice, he thought. We live in God’s igloo.
But somehow infinity did not frighten him. He felt no need to divide it into levels, the way his ancestors had. The night was big enough to hold all of them, the criminals and the migrants alike. When he died he would have all the room he needed.
He didn’t say any of this to Josefina. These thoughts were too intimate to be shared, until he got to know her better at any rate. What about the criminals? he asked.
They’re probably asleep now, she answered, sounding a little tired herself.
Hey! Don’t go to sleep. Remember?
This he did with great pleasure, slipping one arm beneath her and then pulling her against him. The train rocked beneath them and the stars took on a mysterious quality. They seemed to call him and ignore him at the same time. Not even God himself could fill such an expanse. If he exists at all, he must be a local deity, Nacho reasoned, in charge perhaps of the earth, the moon, and the sun.
Nacho’s thoughts returned to earth when Josefina slipped her hand beneath his shirt. I’m freezing, she said. Me too, he answered.
He managed to roll on top of her and keep the blanket over him at the same time. He looked into her eyes, and then rubbed his face against hers. Then he kissed her neck and began to open her shirt. Carefully, though, so he wouldn’t tear it. There was no question of taking all their clothes off, so they undid them just enough. Nacho rubbed against her until he felt like someone had struck a match inside him, and then he pushed himself, relatively gently, inside her, hoping he was doing it right.
Am I doing it right? he asked.
I think so, she said in a voice that was a cross between a pant and a laugh. Keep trying.
Then they stopped questioning themselves and did the best they could.