A dystopian near-future. A diasporic Indigenous response. A Mothering Earth Sanctuary.
PART 1: On the Road
She bites her lip and feels the sting of blood as she pierces the skin of her top lip. Reaching up she dabs the stinging spot and looks down to see a tiny Rorschach of red expanding on her pointer finger. Mesmerized by it she watches it build a tiny collage on her fingertip.
“Hey,” the rough voice next to her says, jolting her out of her private universe of pain and thoughtfulness, “Take this.”
The callused hands of the stranger next to her, driving down the dirt country road without headlights, into the darkness, shoves a crumpled piece of paper into her hands.
“What is this?” she asks as her hands shake, her adrenaline being on overdrive since she snuck out of her house right after sunset.
The gruff laugh next to her seems strained, like the vocal cords expressing it, haven’t tried this particular action in a very long time.
“It’s your treasure map, hon’.”
Eyes look over at her and soften, as if seeing through to her core, like a thread of understanding and sameness passes between them. The idea they would have something in common seemed impossible at the start of their night together — being two strangers from different generations, with seemingly wildly different lived experiences.
The older eyes, wizened by wrinkles and sparking with some kind of knowing, look her over, top to toe and inside-out.
With a sigh the stranger says, “Listen, you’re gonna get through this kid, but there is still a ways to go. I can’t take you further than the main road goes, this beast of a truck won’t fit on the narrower paths and it’s better if you’re less visible anyway. Where I leave you is the edge of the forest, but it isn’t to the line for the federally protected lands. You aren’t in the clear until you reach that border here.”
A sun-worn finger reaches out and points to a dotted line on the crumpled map in her lap.
“It’ll be about three more miles once I drop you before you hit that line and you gotta be real careful on this here last stretch. This is where they hunt — the Angels. What a joke that is…anyway, they are an unpredictable bunch and very well armed. You know the laws. They can shoot on sight and ask questions later, so you be as quiet as you can moving through this path here, but if it comes to a point and you’re stuck, don’t worry about quiet just run. Once you get over that line here and past the signs for federal land you won’t have to worry no more about those dickheads. If no one meets you at the border, don’t worry, just keep following the path another mile and you’ll be at the edge of the Refuge. They’ll take care of you there. Good people, they are.”
There is a wobble at the end of the voice next to her, a breaking open of something, and the girl looks over to see the glistening of unwilling tears at the edges of the stranger’s eyes. Before thinking about how little they know each other she instinctively reaches over and squeezes their right hand, that’s resting on the center console of the truck.
“What is it?” she asks, feeling there is a story in those eyes and the unshed tears holding at the edge of release.
“Mi preciosa, mi amor, Maria, she…well she was the one who used to do this work, you know. I always gave her a hard time about it, told her what can one little person do against so much power…too much hate. I’ve always been the more cynical I guess, of the two of us. All thirty years we were together, she was always the light, you know?”
The stranger doesn’t seem to be expecting an answer so the girl stays silent, waiting for them to continue, worrying about how it ends.
“Anyway, one night, she and three poor girls she was taking to the border — so young I remember, I think one of them was only twelve — they left later than usual and by the time she got over this way it was already getting light out. They were just sitting ducks, and mi Maria, she isn’t much with a gun, she refused to use the ‘weapons of the oppressor’ she said and never came with much more than some mace on her runs. Well, those Angels, ángeles my ass, they got her right at the edge — shot up her car good. Her and the girls, well there wasn’t much left for the funerals. So, here I am. I ain’t no less cynical than I was, but I will do this shit ‘till I die because she did, although I come with my Pateador de Pollas, here. I ain’t like Maria that way either.”
“Pateador…?” she asks, letting the syllables roll sloppily off her tongue, unfamiliar to their rhythm.
“Yeah — it means dick kicker — that’s what I call my rifle. It does the job.”
With a huff that sounds like half a laugh the stranger wipes the edges of their eyes and then steadies their focus on the path ahead of them again.
She stares down at the map, squinting in the darkness to see the lines clearly — marking the steps she has to take before sunrise.
Three miles, then one mile.
Quiet, then run.
Get to the borderline. Get to the borderline. Get to the borderline.
It becomes her mantra, soothing her mind with its finely honed focus. She can’t think about before, she can’t think about after. Just get to the borderline.
With her heart and her mantra beating like a drum in her chest, she fingers the paper in her lap, memorizing the outline of her path. Before she is ready the truck comes to a halting stop and she looks out into the darkness. The map makes it seem so clear — just follow the path — but in reality it’s the deep darkness of night with a nearly moonless sky overhead.
She knows because her contact told her these nights were chosen on purpose because they obscured travel. They are called the Dark Moon Nights, chosen for the purpose of concealment.
But in this kind of darkness she worries she will lose her way, and if she does the Angels will have that much more of a chance to find her before morning. What happens after that is a menu of horrors — bounty or death are the end results, but she’s heard the stories.
She knows what happens in the woods, in the long Dark Moon Nights, for those that don’t make it to the border. Not fully but she has heard enough of the whispers and the rumors to be terrified of losing her way. There are lots of nightmares that can come before death or bounty. There is no option but success.
She hears the stranger shifting to the left of her and looks over. This person, unknown to her only three hours ago, has risked so much to get her to this point, and has lost a lot already to this work. She has no idea what to say or how to thank them. Words don’t seem enough for the breadth and depth of her thanks, even stronger in this moment than her fear. Her words, however, are lodged in her throat along with all the unshed tears she has been holding inside through this whole journey so far.
“I…,” she begins, clearing her throat to unclog the emotional blockage.
“Now, now,” the stranger begins, leaning over to grab her hand this time.
“I don’t need you getting all emotional on me, not before all that good cardio you got ahead of you.”
The stranger squeezes her hand and offers up a small smile, only visible in the upturning at the corner of their mouth and the crinkling at the corner of their eyes.
“I won’t forget you,” she rushes out and before she can overthink it or the stranger can back away she reaches over the console and holds them tight in a hug, as much for her own soothing as for thanks.
What if, she thinks, this is my last night? What if this is my last hug? I won’t not give it because I was afraid. I’m so tired of being afraid.
She hears something like a strangled sound come out of the stranger and when she pulls back she sees those tears creeping at the edge of the stranger’s eyes again.
“Now go on, get out of here! You only got but so much night, girl,” the stranger says with what seems like a contrived attempt at gruffness.
She smiles a little, glad to have offered her thanks, and slowly pulls on the door handle, then pushes out, holding onto the sides of the truck to get down, her short legs needing to jump to make it to ground. The earth beneath her hiking boots is soggy and slippery from the recent rain and she steadies herself on the truck door, adjusting her backpack on her shoulders and tightening the strap for the best equilibrium.
She closes the truck door and turns around for one last look at the stranger she will likely never see again. Lifting her hand in a wave goodbye, she holds her map closer and turns around, staring ahead into the darkness, seeing the outline of the dirt path ahead of her.
As she turns again, for what, she doesn’t know, she hears the sound of the engine as the truck begins to turn around, and she can see the stranger beginning to make a u-turn, coming back the way they came. As the truck moves forward, she begins to lose visibility to the front of the vehicle, as the light fog beginning to form on the road seems to swallow up the front of the truck. The stranger turns around, lifts a hand in a choppy wave and points towards the forest, a wordless reminder that time is ticking down to daylight.
Get to the borderline. Get to the borderline. Get to the borderline.
She has heard they also call the Sanctuary Pachamama. She isn’t sure why, but she hopes she makes it there. She hopes she‘ll find out.
NEXT UP: Part 2: Into the Woods