“The Cemetery”


Brown and black shapes appeared in the valley ahead and for a moment Ignasio thought he was looking at a boulder field. Then the shapes took form. Little square hovels, their roofs all caved so that the homes sat like opened boxes next to each other in an almost perfect rectangle with a pasture in the middle. Some of the walls were crumbled and Ignasio saw heaps of rain-packed ash and metal scraps turned sepia from flame and rust. It was a village, dead and burnt.

“So there it is,” Ignasio said.

They approached it in silence and entered as if through cemetery gates; even the boy grew solemn.

Ignasio walked between two adobes, the smell of charcoal filling his nose. “Did you know I helped build some of this? I had a say in its design.”

“I helped too, Papá. Don’t you remember? I carried mud from the river. We all did. Do you really not remember?”

But Ignasio was lost in memories. They weaved through the outer buildings until reaching the center to what was once the plaza. They halted. Long mounds of earth blanketed with weed and brush filled the old plaza from one end to the other. There had to be more than thirty, each one staked at the head with two sticks wrapped crudely together with twine; unmarked crosses that leaned in all directions as if in mass celebration of the very confusion of the place.

“Who did this?” Ignasio asked.

“Me and Mamá, and also Padre Montoya but he did not help much with the digging, mainly just said the prayers and went back to Abiquiú. Mamá said it was because he is old, but he is not that old, Papá, just fat.”

“You and your mother did this? All of it?”

“And Padre Montoya but, Papá, he mostly sat during the digging.”

Ignasio strained to picture the boy and his mother dragging and shoving thirty-some corpses into graves.

The boy sensed his father’s confusion. “We smelled the smoke before we saw it all the way from home. When we stepped outside we saw it pluming in one single string into the sky. Mamá knew what it was right away but she would not let us come until fetching the padre. We brought the muzzleloader with us but everyone alive was already gone and everyone here was already dead, except for one man. When Mamá and I had his grave dug we went to drag him but when we picked up his feet he opened his eyes and kicked at us. The man was bleeding in his chest and his scalp was cut so we had thought for sure that he was dead. Mamá had to shoot him. It took us four days to dig and cover all the holes. I did not mind except that we slept here during the nights to keep a fire going to ward off the coyotes. And, Papá, how it stunk. I hated sleeping with so many dead.”

“Come,” Ignasio said, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder, turning him around. “This is not getting us closer.” He walked behind the boy through the narrow alleys until they reemerged in the openness of the valley.

“Blanco left us alone though, Papá. The Utes would do nothing to us.”

“No, they would not.”

“Because I am their friend.”

“Because that was our deal.”

“What deal?”

“The deal I made with Blanco. I gave him almost all the money we had. You didn’t know this?”

The boy stopped.

Ignasio looked over his shoulder. “Keep up with me. Why do you look hurt? Did you never wonder why they killed every other Mexican, even the women and the babies, why they burnt and scalped the entire town but never bothered you and your mother?”

“Because we are friends.” It was almost a whisper.

En absoluto. Friends bought and paid.”

“Even the food? All the meat they left at our door? All the things they gave us, Papá?”

Ignasio whirled on the boy, hooked a palm behind his neck, knelt, and pulled his face close. “Look at me, Felipe. You are done with those savage boys, with Blanco and his Utes. Do you understand?”

Ignasio saw acceptance slowly forcing its way in painfully. He felt the neck relax, shoulders slump. The boy nodded.

The rest of the way they said very little. Around noon they forded the Río Grande. Beyond that the land remained flat, dry, and unforested. Shortly after sunset they came upon a great sprawl of tiny firelights in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristos. A mile out of the village, they ate a cold dinner, smoothed out places in the brush with their boots, and laid out their blankets.

Ignasio lay a long time with his eyes open. The meat had never been part of the deal.