Flanking the procession of those who only recently crossed the great border, tramping beneath the thin, constant drizzle of rain that has begun to muddy the paths through the jungle, the two boys who were born here and who live nearby move at a brisk pace, without approaching or speaking to each other: travelling with them is the pregnant woman on whose face the night is darker than it is on the wet stones.

‘How many times do I have to tell you? We’re not supposed to bring back pregnant women,’ said the elder boy as they passed the outskirts of Tonée, though what he really wanted to say was very different: I’ve got a bad feeling about that woman… I’ve seen her somewhere before. ‘What the fuck are you talking about?… When did anyone ever say that?’ says the younger boy, turning towards him, and although he wanted to say something more, he was cut short by the boy who serves as leader: ‘Shut up and get to the back of these fuckers!

‘Today it’s your turn to make sure no one gets lost,’ the elder boy said, and so began the long silence in which they are now immured. Moving away from the boy who serves as lieutenant, he ordered the group following them: ‘Stick together and no talking!’, before setting off through the towering cuajilotes and the smaller flame trees that separate Tonée from the great forest, through which they have now been walking for an hour and a half: an hour and a half during which he has not stopped thinking about how and where he met this woman he finds so troubling.

For his part, the boy who serves as lieutenant has spent the hour and a half prodding those who have just arrived from other lands, who are constantly seeking some excuse to stop for a while and catch their breath: the first was Hewhostillbearsaname, who stopped next to a towering amate on the pretext of changing his shoes for trainers; next it was an elderly woman who held them up, stopping to babble a prayer next to a chujume, whose branches seemed to form a crucifix: ShewhostillcallsonGod had barely begun her supplication when the younger boy caught up with her and shoved her back on to the path.

Further on, it was Hewhostillboastsasoul who wandered off the path, taking his daughter’s hand and using her as an excuse: ‘She needed to pee… She couldn’t hold on,’ he said, but the younger boy angrily bawled him out: ‘We said no one fall behind… Piss yourselves if you have to!’ Later, it was a small boy who suddenly stopped and started gasping for breath: he wanted to search his rucksack for the little inhaler that would open up his bronchial tubes, but instead collapsed on the grass: the younger boy, furious, strode over to Hewhostillhasabody and smashed the inhaler with his flashlight.

Now it is the pregnant woman about whom the older boy has been thinking, who clutches her swollen belly, slows her pace, leans against one of the huge sapote trees and, clawing at the bark, tenses every muscle in her shadowed face and lets out a muffled howl. ‘Jesus fuck!… How many times do I got to tell you!’ says the younger boy, trembling with rage and, grabbing Shewhostillhashershadow by the arm, he wrenches her from the tree and rants: ‘Shift yourself… I’m not letting you cause us problems!’

US-Mexico Border west of Jacumba in San Diego County. Perdelsky/Wikimedia Commons

‘I’m not going to spend my time prodding you lot… The next one to stop is going to pay dearly!’ warns the boy who serves as lieutenant, already bored of the task he has just been assigned, and thinking – much to his own surprise: Poor thing… She’s probably going to end up giving birth here in the jungle. Then, shining his flashlight on those who crossed the border only today, grips the wrist of

Shewhostilhashershadow, feels a stabbing in his chest and broods about what he wanted to say an hour and a half ago to the boy who serves as leader: All you had to say was: She’s not coming… We didn’t have to bring her if you didn’t want to… You should have said something back in the churchyard instead of making up shit later about how we never take pregnant women!

Releasing his grip on Shewhostillhashershadow now that she is steady on her feet again, the younger boy repeats his threat: ‘First one of you to stop will be left behind, I swear… and anyone who’s left here will never get out of here.’ The power of his words harries these men and women who still cling to hope, then he cuts a path through the mist and, fighting his way through the stubborn drizzle, reaches the boy who serves as leader, who turns to him, thinking: That dumb fuck is bound to show up soon.

Couldn’t hack bringing up the rear any more, the older boy thinks silently, then, turning and using the beam of his torch to find the face he has seen so often, he roars: ‘Shut the fuck up! Stop shouting!’ The power of the leader’s voice startles a troop of howler monkeys; they rise up on their branches and hurl their cries like stones at the ground; terrified, those who recently arrived from other lands suddenly stop and cower, turning their faces to the sky.

Move it, the lot of you! the sons of the jungle are about to roar, but just at that moment the sweet, supple drone gives way to a sound they have never heard, one that startles them and puts them on their guard.”

When the howls of the monkeys have faded to an echo, the men and women still clinging to their dreams find their ears suddenly attuned to the ordinary sounds of the jungle: the crack of a branch that can no longer bears its own weight, a ripe fruit falling, the thunderclap that announces that the drizzle will soon become a downpour. Then their hearing returns to normal and can no longer distinguish the drone of the jungle from the rustle made by their own bodies.

Why the hell have you stopped?… Move it, the lot of you! the sons of the jungle are about to roar, but just at that moment the sweet, supple drone gives way to a sound they have never heard, one that not only renders them speechless, but startles them and puts them on their guard. ‘What the fuck is that?’ older and younger say as one, and, feeling their flesh creep, they walk towards each other: ‘Where is it coming from? What can be making that noise?’ they repeat as they walk, shining their torch beams at one other and meeting in the middle of the huddle of those who have come from other lands.

‘What the fuck is it?’ mutter the sons of the jungle and, raking the sweltering darkness of the forest with their flashlights, prepare to move on, but the shriek turns into a raucous howl and their unease turns to dread. There comes a sound of running footsteps and both boys turn their torches: from the tangle of ferns and orchids lit by the beams comes a shadow that almost knocks them over, leaps on to a branch and scrambles into the treetops.

The drone of the jungle is suddenly drowned out by the terrified chattering of those who have crossed the border, and if they do not turn and flee it is only because their fear of getting lost is even greater than that instilled by the screeching they can still hear, by the shadow they have just glimpsed. The two boys turn their torch beams on each other and, seeing each other’s startled faces, wonder what the hell is going on, then glare at the men and women following them: they need to shut the fuck up right now.

‘Shut up, all of you!’ orders the boy who serves as lieutenant, and, turning his attention to the elder boy, brings his free hand up to his ear, turns towards the jungle and waits to hear what his leader has to say. The older boy turns to those who have recently arrived from other lands and, dragging the younger by the arm, barks: ‘Get on the ground, keep quiet and wait until we get back!’ He clenches his jaw and sets off towards the ferns that vomited up this shadow and, pointing his torch beam towards the distant howling, says: ‘You and me are going to see what’s going on.’

The shrieking that draws the boys on, as dried blood draws insects, swells as they set off and find themselves crossing an area thick with branches, dense foliage and tall grasses. As they move, the boys, who know this jungle as someone knows the garden where he grew up, unsheathe their machetes and slash a path through the undergrowth, feeling their hearts beat faster:’ You should go first… I’ll cover your back,’ says the boy who serves as leader and the younger boy walks on: ‘Shit… I always have to go first.’

Their machetes in one hand and their flashlights in the other, the two boys plunge deeper into the jungle, heading towards the source of the wailing and away from those who still believe they are fortunate, and who for the first time now turn to each other: ‘What if they don’t come back?’ asks Shewhostillhashershadow. ‘Why would they leave us?’ says Hewhostillboastsasoul. ‘What if that noise was a…?’ begins Hewhostillbearsaname, only to be silenced by a peal of thunder.

The echo of the thunder and the sound of the lightning as it splits a jacaranda tree silences the wailing for a moment and sets the boys’ hearts racing faster still, and they wander a short distance off track.

Trembling with anxiety and impatience, the two boys wade across a ford thickly carpeted with moss and, stepping out of the stream, their hearts about to explode, they finally come to the place they have been searching for.”

‘It wasn’t coming from this direct… I’m sure it was coming from over there,’ the younger boy nods, turning and pointing the beam of his torch to the left. ‘You’re right, it came from that side,’ says the elder boy as the space is once more filled with the keening lament that both alarms and excites them.

Retracing their steps, the two boys skirt a thicket of philodendrons, slash their way through a wall of orchids, and jump over a clump of shrubs and aloes, advancing towards the sound. Trembling with anxiety and impatience, the two boys wade across a ford thickly carpeted with moss and, stepping out of the stream, their hearts about to explode, they finally come to the place they have been searching for. ‘It’s coming from behind that fig tree,’ says the younger boy, pointing the beam of his flashlight.

US–Mexico border south of San Diego where it meets the Pacific. Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

‘We’ll take opposite sides,’ orders the elder boy with a pang of jealousy, illuminating the thick trunk of the Banyan fig from whose sides strangled vines and great broken branches hang like moth-eaten curtains. Then, raising his machete into the air and gesturing with his hands, the boy who serves as leader says: ‘We have to pounce at the same time.’ When they are within a few steps of the source of the wailing, the younger boy, still crouching in the tall damp grass, turns to the older, marking a rhythm with his weapon that signals the countdown before they leap.

The scene illuminated by the light of their torches as they drop down on the other side of the banyan brings a surge of relief and also disappointment; their teeth chatter as they let out a laugh that not only relieves the tension in their gut, but rids them of their terrors and fears: dangling from the ravening roots of a strangler fig is a howler monkey, its legs have been severed, its arms dangle limply and there is a gaping wound in its belly.

Despite the intensity and the proximity of the flashlights, they do not startle the monkey, whose face is expressionless: there is not a trace left in its features, in its eyes, that this is a living creature. All that remains is the howl, a lament that does not even seem to come from its throat: it hisses from the gaping wound that has slit the creature’s stomach like air from the neck of a balloon. And the sound is more a herald of death than a promise of life.

‘I told you… I said it couldn’t be human,’ says the elder boy when he has stopped laughing and, approaching the monkey, he adds: ‘Son of a bitch… You scared the shit out of me.’ ‘When did you say that?’ asks the younger boy, also taking a step forward and, shining his torch on the one who serves as leader, adds: ‘Neither of us said anything.’ But the elder boy is no longer listening to he who serves as lieutenant: ‘I don’t like being scared… piece of fucking shit.’

‘Let’s get back, we’ve wasted too much time,’ says the older boy, wiping the blade of his machete against the trunk of the banyan. Then, as he lights the path by which they came and listens to the rustle of the jungle, he once again takes possession of this space.”

‘Why did you say that you said that when you didn’t say anything?’ the younger boy perseveres, but his brother ignores him and, raising his machete towards the darkness, says again, ‘I don’t like being scared! And I won’t stand for being fooled… Certainly not by a fucking monkey!’ roars the boy who serves as leader, raising his weapon higher still and, to the astonishment of the younger boy, bringing it down on the animal: as the creature is split like a ripe fruit, a piece of the howler monkey falls on to the grass, and the wailing dies away.

‘Let’s get back, we’ve wasted too much time,’ says the older boy, wiping the blade of his machete against the trunk of the banyan. Then, as he lights the path by which they came and listens to the rustle of the jungle, he once again takes possession of this space. Still in the grip of his astonishment as he stares down at the severed hand of the howler monkey, the younger boy cannot manage to voice an objection – much as he would like to – and so tramps along in the footsteps of his leader.

Wading across the ford again, and jumping over the fallen trunk of the Guanacaste tree, the two boys hurriedly follow the path they cut through the jungle. Meanwhile, the men and women who crossed so many borders convinced that they might change their fate, have once again begun to talk amongst themselves: ‘I told you they weren’t going to abandon us here,’ says ShewhostillcallsonGod. ‘What if that’s not them?’ says Hewhostillhasabody. ‘Why wouldn’t they…?’ says Hewhohasnotyetsunghisfears, but his words are cut short by a roar.

‘I told you to shut up! Fucking hell!’ shouts the older boy when he hears the murmuring voices and, quickening his pace, he turns the flashlight on his brother. ‘We need to hurry before they get fucked up…’ ‘Not in my eyes!’ the younger boy interrupts. ‘Shine that bloody torch in my eyes again and you’ll see what happens,’ he says, sucking in air and spitting on the ground.

‘Nobody fucking threatens me!’ snaps the elder boy, stopping in his tracks and, smiling, he turns around and the younger boy laughs and shines the beam of his torch full in the face of his leader: ‘So, tell me, what are you going to do?’ ‘You spiteful little son of a bitch!’ says the older boy, laughing harder and hitting the boy who is supposed to obey him: the metallic sound as it strikes home stirs both boys with a memory of their childhood games.

from Among the Lost (Scribe, £14.99)

 

Emiliano Monge is a multi-award-winning Mexican novelist, short-story writer, essayist and reporter. In 2011, the Guadalajara International Book Fair FIL chose him as one of the top 25 best-kept secrets in contemporary Latin American literature, and more recently he was selected for the México20 list of important young Mexican authors chosen by The British Council, FIL, Hay Festival and Conaculta. Among the Lost, translated by Frank Wynne, is published in paperback original and eBook by Scribe.
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@MongeEmiliano

Author portrait © Oswaldo Ruíz

Frank Wynne is a prolific, award-winning literary translator from French and Spanish, and is the translator of, among others, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder, Boualem Sansal, Javier Cercas, Tómas Eloy Martinez and Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
frankwynne.com
@Terribleman

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