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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
In the lead up to the 2012 Summer Writer’s Workshop, we bring you a favorite faculty alumni, Luis Alberto Urrea. His reading last year, which was recited from memory, is the stuff of workshop legends.
From issue 47, a legend of a different sort. Enjoy.
The last shot fired in the Battle of Chametla hit Private Arnulfo Guerrero in the back of the head. It took out the lower-right quadrant, knocking free a hunk of bone roughly the size and shape of a broken teacup. This shot was fired by a federal trooper, who then shouldered his weapon and walked to a cantina on the outskirts of town, where he ate a fine pork stew with seven corn tortillas and a cup of pulque. The shot was witnessed by Guerrero’s best friend, Corporal Angel Garcia, and by Guerrero’s dog, Casan. Casan was a floppy-eared Alsatian he’d stolen from a federales base the year before.
“Por Dios, Arnulfo,” Garcia muttered as he stuffed straw and a long strip of his tunic into the gaping head wound. “What have they done to you?”
Guerrero writhed on the ground, his teeth clenched in a silent rage, froth collecting on his lips.
Garcia stanched the bleeding and wrapped a dirty field dressing around and around his friend’s head.
Casan stood to the side, whining and fretting.
Troops were everywhere, and though the Battle of Chametla was over, Garcia didn’t know it. So he pulled his comrade onto his shoulders in a straining carry—for Guerrero was at least a foot taller and many pounds heavier—and struggled to a copse of cottonwoods beside a muddy creek. He put his friend down gently on a bed of leaves and cottonwood fluff, and he tied Casan’s rope leash to the trunk. Then he snuck down to the creek and filled his hat with water. He tried to wet his friend’s lips, but the dying man was already too far gone to drink.
Wasn’t this a fine turn of events.
They’d come out of the mining lands of Rosario, Sinaloa, full of revolution and fun. Men were raised to fight and enjoy fighting. None dared admit they were weary of it, weary of fear, and each had learned to dream, and dreamed at all hours—dreamed while sleeping, while awake and marching, while fighting. Only dreaming carried them through the unending battles.
They’d drunk their fill, slept with country girls in every village, ridden trains to battle. Both Guerrero and Garcia were excited by the trains—their first train rides! Then they were sickened by the rocking of the freight cars and choked by the smoke boiling back over the roof, where they fought for space and tried not to be forced off. They coughed black cinders at night.
Casan was just one of their treasures, one of the fruits of their exploits. They’d stolen guitars, rifles, horses. Guerrero had stolen underwear from haciendas, and Garcia himself had stolen a cigar from the pocket of a sleeping federal captain. They’d seen men hang and watched villages burn.
“Don’t die now, you bastard,” Garcia grunted as he peeked out through the bushes to see if their enemies had fled. “We have so much to do!”
But Guerrero only moaned and kicked his feet.
As night fell, Angel Garcia gathered wood. He was, frankly, surprised that his friend hadn’t died yet. He peeled back the sullied bandages to let air and moonlight in. The ugly black cavern blown out of Guerrero’s head leaked slow and watery blood. His face was pale. His skin was cold. And still he drew breath and occasionally stirred and mumbled.
Garcia lit a small fire and moved Guerrero nearer to the flames. He tore long strips from his friend’s shirt and rewrapped his head. Why waste a swallow of tequila on him? There was a bottle in his bedroll. He lifted it in a silent toast and drank.
He must have drifted off to sleep, for it was Casan’s whimpering that awoke him.
The big dog had worked himself free from the rope, and he stood over the prone body of Guerrero and whined.
“What is it, boy?” Garcia whispered.
Casan tilted his head and stared down at Guerrero. The dog yelped. Then he backed away.
Garcia crawled over to Guerrero and said, “Arnulfo? Are you awake?”
The wounded man didn’t stir.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Garcia chided the dog. “Nothing here.”
Then he heard it, too. The faint whistling. He inclined his head. There was a plaintive hooting coming from under Guerrero’s bandage. Were poor Guerrero’s sinuses blowing air out of his skull? Christ. What next? Garcia pulled open the wrapping and was startled to see a small puff of smoke rising from out of his friend’s head. He crossed himself.
“Ah, cabrón!” he said.
The whistle again, then another puff of smoke. Casan barked. Garcia sat beside the dog and stared. Then, was it? It couldn’t be! But—a light—a small light was coming out of the ragged hole in Guerrero’s head.
Garcia bent down, but then had to leap back because a small locomotive rushed out of Guerrero’s wound. It fell out of the wound, pulling a coal car and several small cattle cars as if it were falling off a minuscule bridge in some rail disaster. The soft train fell upon the ground and glistened, puffing like a fish. Casan pounced on it and took it in his mouth, shaking it once and gulping it down.
“Bad dog!” said Garcia.
But by then, Guerrero’s childhood home had squeezed out of his head. It was quite remarkable. The walls were soft and pink, and the furniture was veiny and tender. Casan ate the back porch. Garcia, starving after the battle, skewered the couch, the bed, and the oven on a wire and roasted them over the fire. They tasted like pork.
Guerrero grunted once and a pile of schoolbooks plopped out.
Soon, Garcia was appalled to see Guerrero’s parents and boyhood friends. Their cries were puny and heartrending when Casan ate them. And naked women! Good God! He didn’t know Guerrero had mounted so many naked women! He looked carefully—they came out in a parade of breasts and asses, small legs waving. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear his own lust and his own hunger, and he couldn’t bear Casan’s insatiable mouth, and he couldn’t bear his own loneliness. If he had tried to make love to them, he would have torn them apart.
All these small beings mewled and quickly expired.
It was the worst night of his life. He found himself praying that Guerrero would die. But he didn’t die. And Garcia decided, finally, irrevocably, that he had to leave his friend to his fate. The damage to his own soul would be too great if he sat there any longer watching children, priests, grandmothers, goats, wagons, and toys ooze out of Guerrero’s bloody head and die on the ground. So he put the rope through Casan’s collar, and he tucked Guerrero’s pistol in his own belt, and he put Guerrero’s boots on his own feet, and he made his friend as comfortable as possible.
Birds gathered. First, crows. Then magpies and robins. Finally, gulls came from the coast. They seemed to be praying to Guerrero, for they bowed to him repeatedly. They stayed there and fed on his dreams until they were too heavy to fly.
Luis Alberto Urrea has published extensively and is the critically acclaimed and best-selling author of thirteen books, including The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, which won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and TThe Hummingbird’s Daughter, which won the Kiriyama Prize in fiction. Urrea lives with his family in Naperville, Illinois, where he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.