Steven ran quickly, making his steps nimble and quiet. He clutched the bag in his left hand and used his right to peel through the brush along the slope leading down and away from the buildings above. His mind was clear and his body moved steadily, like a machine. He believed completely in what he had done.
In the distance he could hear the blare of sirens from la policia. They were different than los camiones de bomberos, which emitted deeper and longer groaning rings that seemed to match the great size of their truck bodies. For a minute he stopped running and listened to them. His heart competed with their cries. He moved on and passed the water tower he grew up throwing rocks and sticks at with his friends. These days, none of those friends were still around. Most had moved their families away from Tabernas as a way to escape the incessant subjection overwhelming the city. The general belief was that the further away one could get his family the better. Stephen and his family were one of very few below the poverty line that remained.
Suddenly, he tripped. The black canvas bag he had been clutching went careening into the river at the bottom of the gully. It was a mighty artery of water, and it stood as the only lasting object in the great city with force and determination that was not also repressing those who relied upon it. It simply remained, flowing with power.
Steven panicked for a moment. He wiped away sweat from his brow and allowed himself to breathe out heavily to catch his breath. Then he quickly peeled off his jacket and dove into the river. The body took him instantly and he coughed loudly at the frigid chill that it ran through his body. He had grown up swimming in this river, and so with his head down with the same kind of determination found in the river, he swam toward the black canvass, now barely recognizable in the blackened sky reflecting down upon the water. He pushed down the river, moving at an incredible rate. Trees, rocks, and streetlights raced by above. Finally, he reached and felt the now sopping canvass between his fingers. Again he could hear the sirens above.
Forging across the river was never an easy task. To stand and attempt to walk across was foolish and futile on account of its tremendous force. To do so would mean certain death. Fortunately, its course throughout the city was generally quite smooth as most rocks and small boulders had been washed away in a great storm decades earlier. Steven knew he would be safe from these impediments and slowly edged closer to the shore. When he finally made it to the other side he looked up to the Northern hills to gather his location. It appeared that the river had pushed him close to a mile south. This was acceptable, and even charitable since he needed to get as far away from the scene of the crime as he possibly could. Jumping into the river was not part of his plan, but it made for a great getaway vehicle all the more.
Upon the riverbed, time seemed to drip from his hair and brow like water. He had to act swiftly. He darted up the embankment in front of him and made his way north-west into the night, taking back trails and paths known only to coyotes, and local boys like himself.
The sun was beginning to rise as he woke. The heavy oak tree above covered him from sight and acted as a suitable resting place before he would make the remaining five-mile walk to his village. He yawned and stuck his fingers in his ears to loosen dried water, and as he did he remembered the canvass. He swung around and parsed the earth and tree frantically. Panic began to pour over him again. He thought of his family, his mother, hermana, and abuelo who would be counting on his return. A small lump that had been working its way into his thigh all night suddenly reminded him of its existence and he shot his hand beneath his legs and welcomed the cool, damp canvass bag back into his possession.
“Aye Dios mío…” he whispered in relief. He gazed around quickly to make sure he was alone and then tenderly brought the bag into sight. He watched it for close to a minute, knowing its immeasurable significance. “El valor de esto es mas de lo que yo pueda comprender,” he quietly said.
The Spanish sun beat heavily upon his long, dirty black hair. Hunger seemed to turn on him and beckoned loudly with frustrated groans for appeasement. Thirst all but glued his throat shut and his head and body had grown quite weary. The canvass bag was indiscreetly tucked between his skin and front-right pocket. While quite apparent, he thought it was the safest place for it to be held. He walked with an awkward limp, and with time a rash began to form on his upper thigh where the bag rubbed. After a short while he desperately wished he could relieve the pain and reposition the bag, but he was out in the open and knew he could not dare the risk.
The vast Spanish desert laid dead and familiar before him. He watched los liebres jump quickly from their holes and into bushes to take cover from the heat. He thought about how this was a daily task for them and that if they could somehow find contentment in it—if they could manage to get by and continue to live and move, then he could too. As often as he could he ducked beneath bushes to try to hide for a few moments from the beating sun.
In the distance he could see a large group of buitres swimming in circles together in the air. Some made quick dives and then seemed to change their minds and swoop back into their circles. Whatever they had found had clearly not passed yet. It was not uncommon to see tens and twenties of these swarming above a single, dying carcass, all hoping to be one of the few lucky buzzards to land a decaying meal. As he neared he began to make out the appearance of the body. He expected a coyote, or even one of the buzzard’s own, but with each step he made out a more defined figure of a human body. The oddity of such a sight was surreal. He recalled the memory of his dying abuela when he was seven. His mother assured him that she would be waiting for him “en el cielo,” which he did not understand. Later that week he came home from school to see a tightly made bed with pillows and abuela’s knitted blankets methodically placed upon it. He never saw her again. As for a dead body, this was something he had never seen before.
As the body came more fully into view he considered simply moving past it. He feared that if it was still conscious it might notice the canvass, which was something that could not be risked. But the closer he came, the stronger he felt a sense to make sure the body was in fact dead. While keeping his eyes on the still, quiet figure, he slowed his step and deliberated with himself.
If it was dead, then his conscience would be clear and he could keep moving. But if it was not, then he knew he would have to help the dying soul. A deep sense of conflict rose up inside of him. If he moved past the body he could help his family sooner, but there would always remain the lingering chance, the haunting idea of a body laying pecked near to shreds whispering, Agua, por favor. He would hear it for the rest of his life. Fine, he thought. I must.
With reluctance he approached. Each step felt like the lightest he had ever taken, his eyes remained on the body, attempting to see if it stirred. He waited for the expansion of the chest, for signs of breathing.
It was a man. His jeans were dirty and tucked into his boots. His long-sleeved shirt was opened to the middle of his chest and a pool of blood had overcome his lower right stomach. The man lay still but his chest rose pathetically every few seconds. Steven took a deep breath as he came into yelling distance. He clutched the side of the bag with his right hand and then called out to the body.
“Amigo, estas vivo?”
No answer. He took a few steps closer. In so doing he made out the pale skin and complexion of the body. This is no Spaniard, he thought to himself. “Hey! Are jou ‘live?” This time Steven’s voice seemed to rouse the figure. It let out a deep groan, which seemed to confirm to him that the man was cognizant. “Hey jou gimme an answer. Lemme hear jou say something’.” The body still did not respond. The thought of simply walking on crossed Steven’s mind again. The man still had not seen him, and even more important was that he had to keep the canvass from sight and conversation. He kept his eyes upon the man and moved over to a tree to sit and think things over again. He knew of a hospital a few miles west and considered figuring out how to drag the man there and then just leaving him collapsed outside so he would not have to be seen by anybody inside. Surely somebody would walk by and take him in, he thought. I would have done my part in getting him there. That is good enough. Still, the thought of not helping the man at all and simply walking on did retain its appeal. But leaving a man to be eaten by the buzzards did not sit well with him. I must do it, he finally decided. I must find a way to get this man to the hospital at least. Just then the body moved and let out a mouthful of mumbled words Steven did not understand.