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Chapter Five: Agustín

Isabel was furious. Her eyes were red with outrage, with hours of crying. Years. Salt tracks of tears dusted her high, cafe con leche cheekbones.

¿Porque, Agustín? ¿Porque?

"I had to, Isa. I had no choice. It was my oath."

— Bullshit, your fucking oath. You took an oath tambien conmigo, pendejo. What about the oath you took with me?

"I had to, Isabel."

— "I had to, Eesabel."

Her mocking tone cut deep. The person closest to his heart, she needed but flick a fingernail to wound him mortally, and here she was stabbing wildly with words like those.

— The pinche bruja says "jump," you jump, como el sapo.

"English, Isabel. This is the North."

¡Chingalo! I see your "North!" Esa puta traviesa, filthy whore, naked in that truck yesterday, howling for you.

"Gorrioncita. Mi alma. Querida. Lo siento. I had to do it. Had to do it."

¿Por alguien extranjero? Some stranger?

"He would have died."

— And how many people are dead already? How many of us?

"Isabel."

They will find you now, you stupid asshole!

"Isabel, I had to help him."

— And who will help you?

"Isabel, the gringa thinks I am from Guatemala. She has no clue."

— And what if she talks to someone who isn't stupid?

"His femur was broken, Isabel. What could I do? I had to do my job. No, no my job. My duty!

— They will find you. They will break you. Like your father. Like your sister.

"I know."

— I want you to live, my husband!

She was sobbing in earnest now.

— I want you to live. That is all I want. All I ever wanted. They came and I said nothing. You saw what they did to me. You saw what they did!

She pointed an accusing finger. He took it, brought it to his cheek, kissed her wedding ring. Agustín looked closely. Her hand was severed at the wrist. Radius and ulna looked roughly sawn, as if the procedure had been done in a hurry on a very uncooperative patient. Bits of muscle hung loosely from the site of amputation. A long muscle, the patient's Abductor Pollicis Longus was intact, as if wrenched with great force from its posterior ulnar attachment. Other muscles, the extensors and flexors, had given way more or less at the point of injury. Agustín wrote a few notes on the nearby clipboard.

Gustavo cleared his throat, coughed. His breath steamed in the chilly air of the morgue.

"Lo siento, Profesor. I was just examining another set of remains."

Gustavo peered over the worktable. "Hmmm. Female. Yes, yes, I know, that's easy with the nail polish. She appears to be about 25 to 30 years of age. Educated. No calluses... no, wait. Odd calluses on the fingertips. A typist?"

"A musician, Gustavo. She was a musician. She played the guitar: she sang. And she was 33 years old."

"¡Ai! The birthmark on the finger. This is Isabel, then. Que lastima."

"I thought it would be different. I thought I would feel at peace. I have waited so long. And now it ... it is like I kissed this hand just this morning.

"I have no peace, knowing. Only desolation in my breast."

At least you doknow now, mijo. All these years you wondered. All these years not seeing the body. Her hand looks so fresh, like it was yesterday. I don't see how that can be: it's so hot out here."

Agustín looked up. The vulture that had followed them from Los Vidrios had gone out to get his ten closest friends. "Rest, Gustavo. Don't talk. It's almost night. The canal is only fifteen miles, and then the road."

Gustavo breathed heavily in the sparse ironwood shade. Agustín checked his pupils, his pulse. There was no longer any doubt. Insuficiencia cardiaca congestiva.

Isabel screamed.

— Do something! He's dying!

"He should not have come with me, Isabel. All those diuretics for his heart! He was dehydrated before we started across."

— Why did we bother to send you to medical school? You should have been a mechanic like your father wanted. He never killed anyone in his life. How many bodies do you have now? How many corpses make a career for you?

"Isabel. You're upsetting Gustavo. He needs to rest."

— He is already dead. I am already dead. And you show off your training to that fucking whore! Splinting a dead man's thigh! You can heal the dead now? Why did we die, Agustín? Why did your whole family die? So you can play doctor with some Norteña?

"She rescued me. I was going to die, not two days after Gustavo did. I was drifting away. I wanted to die. I missed you so much, gorrioncita. Mi vida. I wanted the desert to kill me. And she, she plucked me out.

"Don't you see, Isabel? I want them to find me, to send me back for my bones to be broken. I want them to tear my flesh from my body, to grind my fingers in their vises, to burn out the pain with their electricity. None of that would hurt like this, Isabel. They took you from me. They took my wife, my soul. Why should I live? How can I live? The whole world is dark with you gone."

He wept.

— Agustín.

He could not take his eyes off his feet. His hands jammed in his pockets. He shook with grief.

— Agustín. I am sorry. I should not have scolded you.

— Look at me.

¡Míreme!

He raised his head.

— I was upset. I'm sorry.

Agustín nodded.

— I wish I cold soothe your pain. I wish I could take it for you, to carry it in this cold afterlife so that you could go on. I gave everything for you because I love you. They did not kill that.

Isabel's eyes. As brown as chocolate. Rimmed red with tears. Her lips. Her beautiful teeth. She smiled sadly.

Solo por tu amor...

He had so missed her singing.

Solo por tu amor yo me moriré...

Her voice covered him.

He awoke in a sweaty tangle of sheet. His heart fell with a near-audible thud. One more god damn day in El Norte. One more aching, arid day in this pointless life.

He looked at the clock. Four in the morning.

Two agonizingly long hours before he could start working, before he could drown the pain in the meager solace of repetitive and menial labor. Every knuckle skinned on a slipped socket wrench, every spasm in his lower back brought her to mind.

Every night he drank until he could no longer feel. Every morning he poured coffee into his suffering gut, fought off the bitter bile and the queasiness. Six years. Six years! and every day as bad as the one on which she disappeared.

He found himself longing for just one day, just one day where he did not think of her.

And immediately the guilt rose up in him. He ran for the bathroom, vomited up the shameful, momentary betrayal of his wife.

He gripped the toilet seat hard enough to cut his fingers. The floor, linoleum half-missing, ground into his kneecaps. One more job. One more useless pastime to fill the empty space between widowhood and death.

It would fill an hour, perhaps.

He found the linoleum knife, ran its sharp, curved blade along the thirty-year-old flooring. The kitchen's linoleum came up in long strips.

The sun began to color the eastern sky. A thin line of red formed along the horizon, behind the dunes that fringed the Colorado's ancient floodplain. A tall cottonwood shaded Agustín's double-wide on that side. A raven sat in its branches, barely visible against the dark sky.

Six years! Another ragged strip of flooring came free. When does this end? And another. If I survive until a hundred, and die then? A narrow piece ripped partway. Where is the virtue in endurance for its own sake?

Resignation. He stopped. "I am sorry, Isabel. I am so weak. I cannot stand any more of this." He went to the bathroom mirror, made the skin of his throat taut with his left hand, and brought the linoleum knife up to his jugular.

He studied his reflection. Once, he thought, a beautiful young woman looked into those same eyes. Hers were so dark. He could never tell where the irises stopped and the pupils began. Looking into them was looking into the depths of the earth. What did she see looking into his? Flecks of green on gray. Eyebrows that faded ever so slightly before meeting. Nose broken in a teenage soccer game. Six years of lines and scars and world-weariness layered over all.

No. His last sight on Earth would not be of his own tortured face.

He went to the bedroom, took his father's pocketwatch from the nightstand. He hung the chain on the bathroom mirror, opened the watch, brought knife to throat again, gazed at the photo of Isabel mounted inside. She stood in their old garden, in front of a big bougainvillea blooming purple. She wore a white dress. Her head was cocked to the left, black hair cascading over her shoulder. She smiled crookedly at him. They had been late for a party, and she had said "vamonos."

This was it. "Let's go." He tensed.

A sudden thud from the right, and loud squawking. The window screen fell out of the frame and into the bathtub. Startled, Agustín dropped the knife. It slid a few inches and fell through a hole in the floor. There was a raven in the tub, its talon caught in the screen. It yelled, screaming bloody murder. Agustín made to grab the bird, which brandished her nasty-looking beak. Rebuffed, he grabbed a towel from the rack, tossed it on the raven's head, folded it down around her and lifted. She came free, a swatch of window screen in her claw. He stepped into the tub, tried to shove her through the open window. The bird shook her head out from beneath the towel. She turned, reached around, clamped her beak down hard on the flashy part of Agustín's hand, between thumb and forefinger.

"¡Pinche pajarraco!" He dropped her back into the tub. His blood was all over the towel, dripping onto the floor. The raven croaked at him reproachfully. She hopped up onto the sill, pushed off out the window, and landed in the cottonwood branches.

By the time Agustín finished cleaning the bite wound, it was time to go to work.