We numbered five when we entered these caverns, not counting Coyote. I am the last. Time does not reach this deep underground and without a sky to count the days, who can say how long it’s been. Many, many footsteps, an entire age of walking by lantern light.
We were Lupita and Adolfo, a young couple escaping together with their daughter, Muriél. She’d lost a tooth just before the journey began, right up front in her bright smile, so that her tongue poked through all of her esses. She eased the crossing for all of us. We were also Eusebio and myself, each running alone.
And of course, Coyote guided us.
The spell of this counter-country entranced us quickly, and the longer we traveled, the more we surrendered. When the meager yellow light we carried flickered against the irregular walls, they came to life, endless limestone tunnels undulating snake-like all around us. The ceiling breathed above us when we rested. By degrees the world above became less real.
It is so easy to lose yourself when you can only see what lies a few feet ahead. All you know is the next step, and then the next.
The bargain was simple. Beyond belief. Coyote charged no fee, wanted nothing from us in the way of money or worldly goods. The other smugglers were all too willing to take everything, to squint at and bite heirlooms to ensure they were sufficiently precious. And of course people gave eagerly in exchange for the merest hope of survival. But if you came to a smuggler with too little, they would only sneer.
“Let the war have you,” they said.
Fear made a seller’s market. So, desperate as we were, rumors eventually found each of us, hesitant mentions of one who would take anybody, whose hunger was not for wealth but for information. Even those who passed the rumor on to us weren’t sure if it were true, but we had to take the chance. Follow the eastern road. Where it crosses with the Indio trail two miles into the foothills, wait until the moon is high. When you hear a quetzal call three times, look about you.
And there he was.
“Who knew such a place existed?” Lupita said shortly into our crossing. “All of this beneath our lives, right under our feet.”
Coyote had already led us down several shallow sets of stairs etched into the stone itself, and we’d walked like ducks with our knee bones popping through passages so narrow that even Muriél had to scrunch up. Then we’d marveled at wide auditoriums gaping before us, where the cavern surface rippled in damp silken waves and the sounds of our own movements echoed thick in the motionless air.
“Have you never heard stories of this place?” Coyote asked in that soft voice. Wind over acres of maíz.
“No, never. Are they widely known?”
Eusebio whistled. “Who could forget this?”
“Many things are forgotten,” Coyote said.
Older than the rest of us, easily of grandfather age to Muriél, Eusebio nonetheless moved through the tunnels with much energy and little complaint. He was a loud man, but not unpleasantly so. He reminded me of my own tios, whose laughter boomed like thunder through our home once they were full of beer. But this secret path had an insistent presence of its own, a hush that acted even on him. By the time we stopped for our first rest, he spoke more quietly and less often.
“All I ask of you are answers,” Coyote said.
“You will know when the time comes.”
“But what if we don’t have the answers you’re looking for?”
“You will know.”
And when we finally all agreed he led us to the entrance, a latched door buried in lush undergrowth between two balsam trees.
As I follow alone, I think I am like the faint halo of light I bring through these caves. Behind there is only dark and there is only dark ahead. What can I say of myself except that I walk?
He does not whisper. Yes, it is fine and delicate as smoke from a snuffed candle; it is weightless. Yes, his words are drifting tendrils that slip inside our ears, but no, he does not whisper.
To listen when he speaks, all else must stop. We must give all of our attention. We are forced to remember that the difference between hearing and listening is how much we lean in.
He wears a hood. He is a hunted man, no doubt, in this line of work. Who knows how many he’s guided along this ancient path, out of the grasp of those who would kill or conscript them, or worse?
The hood is a coyote’s head—an emblem and a title. He is Coyote. He is a coyotaje. The animal was large in its life, a pack leader, formidable, and well-fed. Its long snout is our compass point. Not just our true north, but our only truth for the moment. He’s inserted two large ball bearings into the eyes, so that they flash silver when caught by the firelight.
We have yet to see the face beneath the hood.
It falls past his knees, a style I can’t remember ever seeing on the streets, surely too warm except if one delves underground. I think it is a faded olive color, a military pelt.
The coat is covered in dust.
The coat is covered in keys.
The keys dangle from him like fringe, stitched on in no pattern at all, bare spaces and torn threads where some have fallen or been removed. It didn’t take long for us to look at the keys with more appetite than the food parceled out for our meals. At times their tinkling is the only sound accompanying the crunch of dirt underfoot. It is a strange, hopeful sound: one promising doors ahead waiting to be unlocked, the potential lives waiting on the other side of them.
I expected the reek of mildew, a moldy film that would stick inside of our nostrils. But the cave only smelled of dust and of minerals ground fine by the patient attention of mountain waters. The fumes from our oil lanterns were far stronger.
The lanterns Coyote uses are makeshift. Small tin pails with holes cut into their sides so the oil candles can slide through. Their light is directional, shining wherever the pail’s opening points. Coyote lit the first of them and then we each lit our own, borrowing the flame of the one before.
“Careful,” he warned. “Mind your neighbors in the narrower passages. No one wants to bring a singed backside across the border.”
We laughed then, though nervously.
We were resting at one of many way stations, where Coyote kept bundles of provisions secured in shadowed hollows, when he made his first real request. We’d swapped our candles for fresh ones, eaten and drunk of the supplies left for us, and sat exhausted together on woolen blankets. We turned our lanterns to the center of the circle to better see one another.
“Eusebio. Tell us a story,” El Coyote said.
“A story? What kind?”
“Whatever you like.”
Eusebio ran thick fingers through his greying hair while he considered, tidying the crisp part he kept on the right side. “Okay, how about this one?”
Then he told the story of the wailing woman. A story we all knew, even Muriél. To our surprise he told it haltingly, pausing to remember certain details. Did she wear white or black? Did she mourn a lover or her children? We helped him through this uncertainty until his tale was finished.
“You know, I thought I knew it inside and out but now I’m struggling to remember the smallest things,” he apologized.
“You walk a strange road and your mind is busy,” Coyote said. “Will you remember it now?”
“Yes, I think so.”
The hood nodded slowly. “I believe you.”
Threads snapped as he plucked a key from his shoulder and offered it to Eusebio across the circle of lanterns. Eusebio hesitated, looking from the glinting metal of the key to the gleam of silver eyes. Coyote sat still as the very cave around us. Finally, Eusebio curled his fingers around the key and held it close as we went on to our first dreams underground.
When we woke the next morning, Eusebio was gone.
When does leaving end and arriving begin? Where? Could you find it on a map?
Why we ran—
Eusebio ran because both of his beloved children left the city to join the resistance in the countryside. His son was shot and killed by the army only a month after, while providing covering fire for the escape of a farming village’s women and children. Three rounds from an M16 pierced his chest. Eusebio’s daughter commands a brigade of guerillas who operate in the south. Weeks before leaving, he’d received a letter from her that said she’d written her brother’s name on the stock of her rifle. Her letter also warned him to be especially watchful, that patrols were targeting the families of known fighters and using them as collateral for demands of surrender. Or as means of reprisal. He was beyond proud of the woman she’d become, of her courage, her dedication to her country and ideals. He knew that if he didn’t figure into it she would never surrender. And he knew that if he died for her actions she would never forgive herself. So he decided trying for the northern borders was best for her.
Eusebio ran so she could keep fighting.
Lupita and Adolfo ran because of Muriél. They’d seen how young the soldiers were becoming as the fighting raged on. They’d heard the word-of-mouth lists of the dead, of massacred grandmothers and grandchildren. The definition of what should be held sacred slipped further into confusion every day. A little over a month before leaving, they were on their way to Mass. When they arrived, they saw the battered bodies of three students accused of sedition displayed as propaganda on the steps of the church. Though the parishioners had washed the blood away, every time Lupita walked by since then she found herself looking into the cracks between the paving stones, knowing some must remain there.
Muriél ran because she still follows wherever love leads. May it remain so.
I ran because I don’t want to kill anyone, regardless of the uniform they wear. Even if I had a clear shot at the polished-up men in suits who first kicked over this bucket of shit we’re forced to wade through, I still would not take it. Some have told me this makes me a coward and I don’t care. I won’t be made into something I’m not. I helped in other ways, passing messages, providing a bed or a meal for others on the run. But because the appetite of war demands constant feeding and I’m a young body capable of pointing a rifle, a time would eventually come when one side or the other presented an ultimatum—kill for us or die.
I ran because I do not want to answer that question.
‘We’ is a word without end. It contains both past and future. We are myself and the four who started with me. We are also every traveler this path will ever know.
‘We’ is a shared experience of walking between worlds.
“Do you think anything lives down here?” Muriél asked her mother.
“Sure. The world has a home for everything,” she said.
“Like what, then?”
“Clear little spiders,” she answered and tickled Muriél’s shoulder with crawling fingertips. “Lots of them!”
Muriél squealed with a smile and swatted at her mother’s hand.
“Yes, the spiders. And an Adolfo and a Lupita and an Andrés and even a small Muriél, too,” Coyote said.
No one spoke for a long time after.
While we’re in these caverns, we’re nowhere at all. When we step inside we uproot ourselves from the known world, and until we emerge on the other side we do not exist. We have no nation, no home, no identity.
This is a world built of dreams, one invented with each step forward. The solid ground is only a story beneath our feet. If we stop listening, we can’t go on.
It felt as though Eusebio had been gone for days when Coyote asked again. We’d slept several times under the dancing roof of the cave.
“Muriél. Tell us a story.”
She flinched and scooted closer to her father. He wrapped his arm around her and reassured her with a squeeze.
“Can…can my parents help?”
“By all means.”
“Why not El Cipitío, mija? You know that one well,” Adolfo offered.
Twisting up the hem of her shirt, she began to tell of the troublesome and big-bellied child spirit. Her confidence blossomed as she spoke, even imitating some of his antics. But, as with Eusebio before, she found herself forgetting details of the story. Whether his father was the sun or the morning star. What shape his hat took. Her parents helped her through these hiccups.
She finished with an enthusiastic flourish, and then said, “Sorry I forgot some things.”
“Will you remember now?” asked Coyote.
She gave an earnest nod.
He laughed. “Very good. I believe you.”
Then he plucked three keys from his coat.
Without a word, Coyote tells a story of his own. We feel it surrounding us, trickling from every stalactite. It is the promise of a new life—one without violence, without struggle, without pain.
We have to believe or we are lost.
Who we are is made of so many floating islands that we stitch together into a story that we call an inner world.
I walk alone behind Coyote for another unknowable stretch of hours or days or weeks. Even though I wonder where my fellow travelers have gone, and how long ago, I don’t worry for them. They claimed their keys.
Then, the request finally comes.
“Adrés. Tell us a story.”
Now I do feel fear. I was just thinking about all this space we’ve wandered through, about where it came from, how the earth itself could get this hollowed out, this empty. I was thinking about how the longer I stay, the more I feel that way myself. Erosion takes time. Pieces are missing in the memories I try to call up. The colors and scents and sounds of home aren’t as sharp as I’d imagined they always would be.
“What if I forget, like the others…”
“Then I will help,” Coyote says.
I search for a tale I’ve known since childhood, one I’ve carried for so long it is practically part of myself. I settle on the one my father used to keep me from wandering too far away from the house when night approached.
I begin to speak of El Cadejo, the hell hound. I tell Coyote about its thick black fur and its eyes that burn like two seething volcanoes in the darkness, about how it stands as tall as a bull. Then, despite hearing the devilish thing described to me in gruesome detail on so many occasions, pieces come up missing.
“I…I think there is more than one?”
“There are two,” Coyote says.
“That’s right! At odds with one another, vying for the lives of travelers. And the evil one, its feet are strange, the feet of…of…”
“The hooves of a goat.”
“Yes, the hooves of a goat and if you speak to it you are driven insane.”
I go on, with Coyote’s help, describing how the cadejos are brothers, long ago transformed by a curse for their laziness and greed. In the telling a distance closes between my body and my mind. Memories of home return, spilling over one another vibrant and clear, but more than memory—a sense of connection, of continuity. I remember that I’m not just the body here in these sunless depths. I’m not only what I left behind or what I might find ahead, but all of it at once. I realize home is something I carry and once I realize this everything becomes vivid again, both within and without. I feel restored. Whole.
“Will you remember now?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’ll bring it wherever I go.”
“I believe you.”
He holds out a slender silver key. My key.
“Build upon it. It’s strong enough to support the new stories ahead,” he says.
I sleep with the key clutched against my heart. I wake once, briefly. Coyote sits facing the future. He yawns with a whine, his long jaws stretched wide and his pink tongue curled to the ceiling. He licks his chops and sniffs the air, then turns to me. His eyes flash luminous green and I sink back into dreams of unlocking a door to tomorrow.