When death came to Angel Hervias on a rock outcropping seven miles north of the border, he barely recognized it. It wasn’t a jaguar’s cough. It wasn’t an owl perched on a limb alongside the path. Nor was it the vision of his sister dressing his own grave with pine boughs on the Day of the Dead, the premonition that had so often appeared in his dreams. Rather, it was a common buzzard—mud brown and circling the valley below him, wings hanging in a lazy ‘v,’ sloppy pinion feathers outstretched like fingers.
The scavenger was still far away. It seemed to ignore him. It dropped over the pale rock of the valley floor, and Angel rolled onto his side to look down on it. The buzzard was so low to the ground that he could see its shadow tracking the rocks beneath it. He squinted through the melted glass of shimmering heat.
The sun was straight overhead now. He felt it cooking him, sucking out the last traces of moisture. He realized that living things are really made up of the wet stuff: once that runs out, it’s all over. The bullet hole above his knee had long since stopped bleeding. His mouth, which had been coated with a sticky paste an hour earlier, was now completely dry. His tongue was cracked and it rattled against his teeth every time he exhaled. His lips were split open and swollen.
Given the bird’s distance, one might assume that it had no interest in him. But Angel knew the patience of vultures. He’d seen them sit for days on the carcass of a cow waiting for the hide to soften enough to tear into the stinking flesh. This bird was in no hurry.
“I’m bone dry, cabron,” he said, “I hope you like jerked meat.”
He knew that his mind was going. It had been going for some time. He couldn’t even remember why he’d climbed the mountain. Was it to signal a plane? Had he intended to start a brush fire? Had he expected to catch sight of the highway and regain his bearings? Whatever the reason, he was now glad he’d climbed because he liked being able to look down on death.
He laughed again.
And so death was here and his mind was leaving him. The pain would end, which was good. But he was loath to give up his mind. The thought panicked him. Out of desperation, he tried to picture the girl, but couldn’t conjure the details. He could trace her outline…the shape of her silhouette in the moonlight, the curve of her hips, the taper of her calves…but everything between the edge lines was a blur. Her eyes…what color are they?
His heart pounded. Her name? What is her name?
He felt a strange pain in his head, even through the heat that simmered the fluid in his braincase. The new pain blossomed up from the inside, from behind the bridge of his nose. His lips pulled up into a weird grimace, and he felt them splitting deeper, flesh cracking like old leather. Then he understood that he was crying. He had been unable to recognize the sensation because there were no tears. His body was too dry. This left only the strange burning behind his nose and the ugly grimace. The buzzard would think that he was still laughing.
“What is her name?”
She was the reason he was here. That much he still remembered. It was why he’d crossed on his own. “The Migra will just send you back,” the others told him. “The polleros will shoot you and take your money.”
He reached down and pulled at the leg of his pants. He touched the bulge against his calf. A year’s wages were stuffed into his socks. They were good, wool socks. He had good boots. He’d filled his belly in Sasabe before striking out across the desert. He purchased three gallons of water. He left his mother down in San Cristobal and told her that he was going to El Norte for good this time. He assured her that he knew where it was safe to cross the border. He promised to send money. There was work for him in the north. There was a girl that waited for him. He had money. He had good boots.
But he also had a hole in his leg and he couldn’t walk. Death circled the valley, waiting patiently. And his mind was cooking. And the wet stuff was gone. And he couldn’t remember the girl’s name.
He was eighteen.