Nothing Here Will Grow Again
I limped down the dirt road into El Salto. The entire town appeared to be abandoned. I passed a brick house with broken windows that once belonged to the town’s doctor, an empty home with weeds grown around it once owned by a childhood friend, and a circle of massive stones that had once surrounded the house of my uncle. With the house gone, the rocks appeared as if they'd been left in a circle by some mysterious ancient race. I saw no sign of life. No one came outside to welcome me home.
At the end of a side street, I reached my family’s house. Boulders stood waist-high to act as the perimeter of the property. Our wooden home on the left-hand side of the courtyard still stood. The south and east walls were burnt out from ground to roof, like they’d been when I left El Salto eighteen years earlier. Somebody had stolen the newer sheets of corrugated metal we’d used for our roof. The front door was boarded up with nails and lumber.
Surrounding the boulders was a barren dirt plot about six times the size of the courtyard. The plot had been my family’s avocado farm before it had burned down. Nothing–not even weeds–had grown to take its place. I never thought I’d stand in front of my family’s home again. It was a place I was used to seeing only in my dreams.
My wife and I had been deported to Mexico a year earlier. We’d been reluctant to return to El Salto because we knew of the danger. We’d gone from city to city, town to town, to look for work and a place to live. Only after the cartel kidnapped Josefina did I decide to come home. The town was the only chance I had to find her again.
I thought to walk deeper into town, look for people. But asking too many questions too quickly was the fastest way to get killed. Walking around El Salto after dark was a death sentence.
I stepped through the blue metal gate into our courtyard, pulled back a piece of charred wood on the south wall and squeezed my way inside the house. The first room had a cold cement floor. It was the only room where the roof was still intact. We’d kept chickens here so they wouldn’t freeze during winter. The birds and their cages were gone, but I could still smell their feathers and droppings. Spider webs claimed the ceiling. Termites moved through the walls.
I walked through the next doorframe and passed my parents’ bedroom and the bedroom I’d shared with my six siblings. All the furniture inside was gone—not that I expected to come home to the cot I’d shared with my brothers.
In my parents’ bedroom, I set down my backpack on a bird shit free section of the floor and rummaged through my soiled clothes, water, toothbrush, and rotting apple to find my wallet. I took out a picture from inside. The image had been taken at the party to celebrate my youngest daughter Victoria's confirmation. Josefina, my oldest daughter Isabel, and I were surrounding Victoria as she cut her cake. We froze in that moment to smile for the camera. I hid a beer behind my back. It was hard to look at the photo and not wish I could go back in time. Back to San Antonio, before the deportation, before the kidnapping.
I found a loose nail on the wall near the door and impaled the photo. I knew I was home.
That evening, I sat on my sweater outside and leaned against the boarded-up front door in the hope that I’d see someone walk past down the road. I wished the sun would stay out all night—at least this first night. The thought of sleeping in my family’s abandoned house with no electricity frightened me, the way the dark scared me as a boy. I took a deep breath and reminded myself I’d been in Mexico for a year. I’d slept in worse places than this and I’d always managed to make it through the night. Tonight would be no different.
A figure appeared on the road. It approached me as I leaned up against the door. I prayed that by some miracle, it would be Josefina returned to me. But as the figure came closer, I knew it wasn’t her. An old man who wore a dirty button-up shirt walked with arthritis filled steps. He looked familiar—someone I must’ve known in childhood—though I couldn’t place him.
I rose to my feet. “Can I help you?”
The old man stopped at the boulders. He squinted like he was trying to place me as well. “We saw you walk into town. What’re you doing here?” He spoke with an authority that belayed his crippled appearance.
“This is my home.”
“Nobody’s lived here in twenty years.”
“Eighteen. My name is Ignacio García.”
He put his hands on his hips. “Ignacio García lives in the north.”
“They deported me last year.”
The old man stepped through the gate to the porch. Marble-like cataracts filled his eyes, a condition he’d had since I’d known him as a boy. “Irepaní,” he said. It was my Purépechan name. Nobody called me Irepaní except my wife.
“Padre,” I said. I hugged the old priest.
I followed Padre Díaz to the church in the town center. On the way, we passed a clothesline with laundry left fading in the sun, a rusted old truck with its motor ripped out, and a charred pile of trash behind a house.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
Padre Díaz waved for me to keep walking. “It’ll be dark soon.”
We arrived at the church. Padre Díaz led me through the nave and behind the altar to the kitchen. I watched from a small table in the corner as he used twigs for kindling to make refried beans and tortillas on the stove. He went outside to wash out a bowl using well water. After ten minutes, he served me dinner and sat across from me. The only light came from the sun setting through the window.
“You were deported a year ago?” he asked.
I put a spoonful of beans in my mouth. My appetite had not returned, but I ate everything as a courtesy. “A year ago this spring.”
“And your wife and daughters?”
“My daughters are in San Antonio with Josefina’s brother. Josefina…” I paused. I wanted to tell him what had happened. I trusted him. Maybe he could help me rescue my wife. Or perhaps he would tell me to leave, pull my bowl away and order me out of town at the very mention of the cartel. I’d only heard stories of what he’d been through since I left. Presiding over funerals of more cartel victims than I could imagine. Burying his own brother. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth and involve him in one more tragedy.
I averted his eyes and scooped beans with my tortilla. “She got a sewing job in Morelia.”
“When do you return to Morelia?”
“We agreed to meet here.” This part was true. We’d agreed to meet in El Salto if we were ever separated.
Padre Díaz stared at me. I leaned away, afraid he’d see through my lie. As if God gave him these powers. “Do you have money?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“They won’t let you live here for free.”
“How long till they come to collect?” I asked.
“First of the month.”
Three weeks. I didn’t care about paying the cartel, they wouldn’t see a cent from me after what they had done to my family. I’d wait for them to collect their tarifa so I could confront them face-to-face. My only chance to save Josefina. “Plenty of time to get the money,” I said.
“I knew people who had more time than that.” He crossed his arms. “We both have.”
He was referring to my parents. To neighbors and childhood friends whose fates I didn’t even know. “I have nowhere else to go,” I said.
He stood and took my empty bowl to the sink. “You can sleep here tonight. But you’d be safer in Morelia.”
That night, I lay in the dark on a dusty cot in Padre Díaz’s office. I heard a motorcade of engines driving past outside. Laughter. Shouting. I didn’t need to ask Padre Díaz who could be driving through this ghost town so late at night. I knew it was cartel. El Salto was a shipping route. Between which cities, which drop zones, I didn’t know. All I needed to know was that all the stories I’d heard about this place were true. It’d been reduced to nothing—a community where people stayed inside at night if they wanted to live.
I looked at the doorway and imagined walking outside. Where is my wife? I’d shout as they drove past. Bring her back. I’ll do anything. But I doubted they’d meet a stranger on the road at night with kindness. I would wait until the first of the month. Speak to them when they came for the tarifa. Maybe the idea was no better than standing in front of their vehicles, but it was my only hope to find Josefina without getting killed. If there was a safer solution, I couldn’t think of it.
I remained in bed. The engines drifted into silence.
A week earlier, Josefina and I had been on a bus from Morelia to Acapulco. I’d heard of work in a fishery by the coast, and because I’d cleaned a slaughterhouse in San Antonio, I thought that qualified me for the job.
The bus was driving down a rural stretch of highway, past nothing but trees and shrubs, when a black pick-up truck sped past the window. The truck got in front of the bus and braked hard. Our driver floored the brakes and Josefina and I went flying into the seat in front of us. I looked over the rows of heads to see what’d happened. Another truck stopped outside the left-hand window. A third truck stopped behind us, locking us in.
Six men dressed in military-grade fatigues jumped out of the left truck bed wielding AKs. They ran to the bus entrance and the driver opened the door for them before they asked to enter.
The men boarded the bus. Ski masks covered their faces. Sunglasses covered their eyes.
The man who I thought to be the leader opened a trash bag. “Dinero, dinero, dinero,” he said. He hurried down the bus aisle and ordered us to put in our valuables. He walked like the inside of his clothes were infested with ticks.
His partners aimed their rifles at us. I crouched and pushed Josefina down into our seat. The leader stopped in front of us. Josefina yanked off her wedding ring and I threw my wallet and cell phone into the bag. We thought that would be all, a simple highway robbery. We had nothing left, but at least we were alive.
Once the leader finished collecting, he tied up the bag and gave it to one of his men. “We need some workers,” he said, running back down the aisle. “For an important project.” He looked over the group. “Volunteers? Anyone? Vamanos, vamanos, vamanos.”
I’d been held up on a bus before in my teens. They stole my wallet and ran off. This part wasn’t normal. We all stayed still. I feared that so much as scratching my head, so much as looking up at them, would be interpreted as volunteering.
At the back of the bus, the leader grabbed a girl—maybe eighteen—and pulled her out of her seat. His men uttered: She’s perfect. Too skinny. Good, she’ll eat less. The girl kept her eyes down and trembled. The leader shoved her to walk down the aisle and ordered her to hurry. One of the men took her off the bus.
The leader continued to walk back down the aisle, getting closer to our seats. He taunted us for not volunteering. “None of you wants to make money?” he said. “We’re going to a chili farm. We got crops to pick.”
He pulled two more girls off the bus, one away from her little brother, one away from her mother. Nothing’s going to happen, I told myself. My wife is old. These men won’t want her.
The leader stopped at our aisle and pointed the rifle at Josefina. “What about her?” he asked his men.
Too old. She’s ugly. Looks like my grandma.
“Bet she can cook.”
He pulled Josefina out of line. I grabbed her other arm and held her back. The leader leaped toward me and jammed the muzzle of his AK into my cheek. The force sent me back, slamming my head into the window. He looked at me from behind those impenetrable tinted glasses for longer than I could bear. I imagined what a bullet caving my head in might feel like. The moment I thought about myself, I lost.
Josefina backed into the aisle.
“Even your wife needs to save your dumb ass,” the leader said.
Josefina stood beside him, her eyes shut, head down. Was she praying to God for my life? Hanging her head in shame because I could not protect her? I wasn’t sure. I remained frozen, pressed against the glass, as the leader pulled his AK away. He shoved Josefina to exit the bus with the men and three girls. None of them spoke or looked back. Once the doors closed, my motor skills returned. I ran to the front window and watched the men lead the women to the front pick-up truck. They pushed them by their butts onto the bed. Josefina pulled herself up before they touched her.
I wanted to run out of the bus and take them on single-handed. Or put the bus in gear and run them over, somehow sparing Josefina’s life. But if I tried, I and everyone on the bus would be killed.
Josefina looked up at me. I think she saw my face. She mouthed something to me. Her tongue behind her top teeth. L. Her lips over her teeth. S. An L again. An O.
The leader sat beside her, obscuring my view. The three trucks drove ahead down the highway. I only stood and watched them leave.
I woke up on the church cot at dawn and walked back to my family’s home. Everything in El Salto reminded me of Josefina. I passed the abandoned remains of the school where we’d had classes as children, the town center where her family sold the avocados grown on my family’s farm, and the turn off to the road where we’d shared our first kiss.
As I got closer to my family’s home, I imagined that by some miracle, the motorcade I’d heard last night was not the cartel, but a taxi. A taxi bringing Josefina back to me. I imagined she saw my picture on the nail and knew I was in town. I’d find her in the house, asleep on the bird shit floor. I’d shake her awake and hold her. I love you, I’d say. I never want to be apart again.
The sound of someone calling my name disrupted my fantasy.
“Irepaní?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Ignacio?” said a man’s voice.
I turned to see two people standing in front of a house I’d passed. I thought the house was abandoned, but now realized the glass on its windows was intact and noticed that chickens were eating fresh feed off the ground. A fat man who wore a wife-beater two sizes too small for him and an old woman who stood with her back hunched over at forty-five degrees walked toward me. She had hazel eyes—her family was the only one in town whose eyes weren’t brown.
“Ephraim,” I said. “Señora Iglesias.”
I hugged them. Señora Iglesias held my cheeks and craned her stiff neck to look up to me. “You’re so grown,” she said. Señora Iglesias had been the teacher in our one classroom school. I hadn’t spoken to her since I quit school to work on my family’s farm at age six.
“You leaving town already?” Ephraim asked.
During the summers, he’d work our family’s farm to earn a few extra pesos. He got a job driving trucks around the time Josefina and I went north. We never said goodbye.
“I’m going to my family’s house,” I said.
“I’ll go with you.”
“Come by my house soon,” Señora Iglesias said. “I’ll cook for you.”
Ephraim and I walked to my family’s house. On the way, he told me that he was the only man of our generation who still lived in El Salto. Everyone else our age had either left or been killed. Some of them even joined the cartel. Ephraim mostly lived off the land, chilis, and eggs laid by two chickens he’d bought in Morelia.
“Why’d you stay?” I asked.
“So I didn’t end up like you. No place wants us. At least here’s home.”
We arrived at the house and I peeked through the burnt-out wall. Not that I needed to, I knew Josefina wasn’t there.
Ephraim kicked his shoe in the dirt. “None of us thought you were coming back,” he said. “We destroyed the farm.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It was still producing avocados. The Templars thought someone was still making money off the land. We figured nobody could get killed over it if nothing grew.”
I looked at burn marks that lined the edges of the roof. The cartel had set fire to the farm eighteen years earlier. They’d burned an informant alive in the woods. The fire spread across our fields and destroyed half the house before we could put it out. But the cartel still expected my family to pay their tarifa. They kidnapped my parents. We collected money from everyone in the city to pay the ransom, but never got my parents or their bodies back. For this reason, Josefina and I fled El Salto. It was an event my family no longer spoke of.
Ephraim put a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up old memories.”
I looked at him. “Josefina will be here soon. If I help you with your farm, will you help me fix this place?”
Ephraim tilted his head. “Ignacio, I’m glad you’re here. But you can’t move back.”
“I know the consequences,” I said. They would demand money. They'd ask why I moved back here from the north. But I could ask questions too. I could ask what happened to Josefina. And if they were able to provide me any information about her location or fate, everything would be worth it.
“You can’t grow anything,” Ephraim said. “You have no way to make money to pay them off. You can’t live here.”
“I know.” I looked at the house. “But if I don’t have this place, I have nothing. We don’t need to make it look nice. At least help me repair the wall?”
Ephraim sighed. He looked at the house. “Your funeral.”
That week, Ephraim helped me scrape the bird shit off the floors, take the spider webs off the walls, and tear out the burnt planks of wood. He drove me to Huandacreo to buy wire cable and concrete mix to reinforce the foundation and paid for the materials himself. I had no idea where he’d gotten the money, but felt wrong to ask.
“I’ll find a way to repay you.” We loaded the concrete mix into the bed of his truck.
“Consider it a welcome home present for you and Josefina...”
For a moment, I thought there wouldn’t be a welcome home for her. But I reminded myself not to lose hope. I wouldn’t be fixing our house if I thought all was lost. “Thank you,” I said.
“I'm just happy to have someone who isn't sixty years old to talk to.” He walked to the driver's side. “We should go into business together. You help work on my farm. We could expand the field.”
“I’d like that.”
I imagined that somehow everything would work out. Ephraim and I would repair my family’s home. Josefina would arrive in El Salto. We’d live here again and work the land that belonged to Ephraim and Señora Iglesias. It’d be like when we were young.
To return Ephraim’s favors, I picked chilis grown from the fields of the house he shared with Señora Iglesias. I fed his chickens and picked the eggs they laid. I didn’t understand how he’d ended up living with her. He was one of the worst students in school. He never tried to read, he spent most of his time looking out the window. Padre Díaz mentioned to me that in the time I’d lived in the north, the population of El Salto had gone from 4,000 people to twenty-five. I supposed they lived together because they were lonely. I tried not to speculate.
One morning, I walked from the church to their house. Señora Iglesias opened the door for me. Her back was straighter, like she’d been cured overnight.
We said our good mornings. “Is Ephraim ready?” I asked. We planned to pour the concrete that day.
“He’s in the shed.”
“Did you kick him out?”
“He sleeps there when my grandson visits.”
Their relationship was getting weirder and weirder. I was too embarrassed to ask if they were lovers. I walked behind the house to the shed. I knocked—no answer—and knocked again. “Ephraim?”
I opened the door. He sat on a cot in a shed filled with rusted tools and building equipment. Three pillows and a collection of chips and soda lay beside him.
“I thought you slept in the house,” I said.
“Is he gone?”
I glanced back at the house. “I think.”
He stood and rolled up the blankets. I wondered why he hid from Diego. A boy I’d only known as a baby. A boy I remembered Josefina babysitting while his grandmother taught.
Señora Iglesias invited us into the house for breakfast. We sat at the table as she cooked eggs over a wood stove.