Mother of God

by Ulf Pike Read author interview June 18, 2018

They move like an amoeba between soldiers, collecting whatever they are offered. Candy, markers, patches. When handed plastic bottles of Gatorade, still cold from the cooler, they press them to the bare skin of their arms or cheeks. Some run off so not to be seen savoring theirs.

Marquez looks across the road to see Dawes lobbing a handful of Starbursts into a flocking group of mostly boys. A cloud of dust envelopes the frenzy until a couple of them emerge with their spoils, stuffing their pockets and tearing at wrappers. Sufficiently entertained, Dawes yells, “Did you see that girl take an elbow to the face? Little savages!”

The resolve of those violently dispossessed is no less frenetic. They reassemble near the corner of a structure where Marquez is pulling security, their unfamiliar, urgent voices betraying their isolation and futility, their extended hands betraying his.

He shows them his palms, “I don’t have anything. Sorry.”

After pleading briefly most of them move on in search of better prospects. A couple of the smaller kids linger, one of them the little girl who had been elbowed. Marquez reaches in his pocket and feels for something to give her. The others notice her waiting with a hand outstretched and respond magnetically. He finds a black permanent marker and hands it to her quickly, trying to encourage her to hide it. She doesn’t smile but has a look of fated acquisition, and then of futile grit as an older boy seizes her by the wrist, plies back her fingers and snatches the marker from her hand. Marquez watches her run off around a corner, the boy in pursuit.

The rest of the afternoon is spent sweeping through the area, talking with locals and eventually patrolling back toward the vehicles. As their squad approaches the center of the village the same group of kids emerges and walks alongside them, milling between columns, soliciting soldiers, though less fervently. When Marquez sees her again her face is covered in black circles. But she still seems eager as she watches him climb back into the truck.

He crawls into the turret and sits behind the machine gun feeling his whole body vibrate inward from his skin to the pit of his stomach. As they wait for the word to move he hears Dawes cursing and gives him grief for eating fruit from one of the villagers. Ignoring him, Dawes tries to fight it off but soon asks for an empty bottle. Marquez grabs the Gatorade bottle he’d been using for a spitter, makes sure the cap is secured, crouches down and slings it back. Dawes fumbles to open it, holds it under his mouth and expels three pinkish streams, nearly filling it.

Their squad leader’s voice drawls staticky in their headsets telling Dawes to pass the bottle back up as soon as he gets “the sand out of his vagina.” Marquez feels in his gut what is about to happen, as if he’s already thrown it. That voice always makes his skin crawl with the inevitability of defilement. As Dawes hands the bottle back up into the turret the voice says it with the casual authority of someone used to being obeyed, “Win us some hearts, Marquez.”

They are the trail vehicle and he can see the group of kids running after it as the wheels start kicking up dust. She outruns them all. He can just make out her face, the black concentric lines expanding like ripples from her eye, the flash of her smile as she emerges from the cloud, clutching her prize.

*

Sitting on the bank of a river in eastern Peru, Marquez drops small stones into the muddy water below him, each one in the same spot just before the last ripple disappears. The older soldiers advised him not to go home for R and R. “Only makes coming back worse,” they said. So now he’s waiting for a boat to take him up the Madre de Dios into the jungle. It wasn’t a random choice. For one thing, it was the opposite of the desert. Plus, back in Sacramento, his family had always claimed they could trace their bloodline through an Incan princess to a Spanish conquistador. It was reason enough.

While he waits, a toothless man sells him a little plastic bag half full of guava juice. Marquez is grateful. The juice is bitter and acidic though and burns his throat. Downriver the sharp rise and fall of the boat makes him ill and wind carries exhaust from the outboard motor under his nostrils. His stomach swirls. He watches its contents trail away behind him.

Days later he and his guide sit under a palm-thatched ranchero at dusk getting drunk on Pisco. They listen to the jungle come alive like one incessant, enveloping pulsation. Darkness reveals luminescent insects hovering and darting at every height and distance. From the riverbank eyes of caiman glint briefly as they catch the moonlight.

Humidity hangs like a dead presence on Marquez’s body. He becomes delirious watching undulations in the river repeating, over and over, going nowhere.

“She smiles,” he says, to whom or what he doesn’t know. “Every time.” He wants to feel the water on his skin, holding his weight, carrying him away from memory.

His guide drinks from a bamboo cup and points to where he says there are no caiman, insisting his companion need not worry, for he learned to swim in the river at night when he was a boy. His eyes glimmer when he glances to see if he is believed. He holds up his palms then rousts himself out of his chair and starts walking. Marquez gets up and follows him, trailing his voice in the darkness, trying drunkenly to translate. He believes he understands him, believes he hears him say, “She has not forgotten you.”

About the Author:

Ulf Pike enlisted as a U.S. Army Infantryman in 2008. He still considers it the greatest mistake he’ll never regret. After getting out he fought wildfires for four seasons while using his G.I. Bill to read books and write about them at Montana State. He currently spends his summers as a fire lookout in Idaho with his dog, Zuul. Every morning they follow fresh wolf tracks down dusty service roads. They have never seen a wolf. Ulf writes for those traces of things unseen, things somehow most powerful in their absence, compelling him forward. He has work in The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

About the Artist:

Find more photography by Kunj Parekh at Unsplash.