This story is by Maximiliano Garcia Berriochoa and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Xochitl fell into a panic as she slid onto her back, wedging herself in between a shrub and a boulder. The Wolves were upon them, the sounds of their thunderous engines echoing throughout the desert valley.
Darkness consumed Xochitl in a matter of moments. The group had surely scattered and their only guide was not obligated to engage with the authorities as it would put the entire smuggling operation at risk. Eerily closer now, the cars shook the gravel around her like the tremors of an earthquake. Only one night ago, Xochitl had questioned the existence of a God, the Sonora having stripped away her last vestiges of faith. With her and her baby now completely on their own, she surmised there was indeed none.
Xochitl walked over heaps of moonlit sand, tugging at the tight collar around her neck. Her mouth was severely parched and her knees groaned with every step as scorpions scuffled over her bruised feet.
The desert had truly taken its toll on her. Barring Pilar, their guide, or Coyote, she couldn’t even remember the names of the others, only that two of them were Ecuadorian. Rather despondent, Ohtli, her baby boy strapped tightly to her chest, was the only spur Xochitl had left. It was paramount to make this journey for him, if not for her.
Though, with all the torment that the environment brought, it paled in comparison to the most dangerous threat lurking these desert plains: The American Wolves.
While Mother Nature tended to be merciless, she possessed neither the inclination nor the desire to inherently punish those who trekked through the bowels of the Sonora. The Wolves, however, did. They played their own game, hunting down those who sought a better life, those who sought freedom. And in their wake, piles of bodies higher than the dry mountain peaks were left to rot and smolder in the heat, forever. One couldn’t make it a mere fifty yards without stumbling upon a corpse, Xochitl had sorrowfully noticed. As they passed another mound of the perished, she wondered if they shared the same fate.
“Let’s pick up the pace, we have to make it to the Wolf’s Den by daybreak. After clearing that passage, you all are home free.” Pilar said.
The hairs on Xochitl’s neck rose. Pilar had underscored this section ever since she led them through the border crossing weeks ago. As dread coursed through her veins, she rubbed Ohtli’s soft newborn hair for comfort, yet all she could think about was the wretched machinations the Wolves had waiting for them. Looking at the others, she noticed clutched palms, narrowed gazes, and panicked breaths. Fear had seized hold of everyone except for Pilar, whose hands remained steady, her posture composed and level.
Xochitl observed her razor-sharp demeanor, which was sharper than the other Coyotes that had led the group in the earlier stages of the trek. Her body even moved like that of a real coyote, progressing through the Sierra with an intrinsic steadiness about her that only the native animal possessed. No signs of dishevelment either. Her distinct ponytail, which sat high on her head, was flawlessly wound. In the conditions that engulfed them, Xochitl was sure they would all be dead without her.
Curious, she upped her steps and caught up with Pilar.
“Does the desert intimidate you at all, Pilar?” Xochitl said.
“I’d like to think not.”
“But don’t you, I don’t know, get scared?”
She took a minute to answer the question. “Sometimes. But does that matter? Fear is felt, always. But if I let it control me, then I wouldn’t be able to guide all of you. I have to believe that this place is, in a way, my home. Do you, in whatever place you call home, feel scared?”
Xochitl sat with this for a few moments. How could anyone call this wretched place their home? It didn’t click for her and Pilar seemed to notice.
“Have you ever heard of the Naguals?” Pilar said.
“They’re shape-shifting beings, capable of transforming into animals. The Toltecs, and Mayans, say they lead us through this valley of death, guarding and protecting us from threats. In our case, the Wolves.”
Doesn’t seem like they’ve done a very good job, thought Xochitl, as they passed yet another decayed corpse.“I don’t think I believe in such tales.” She said.
“Miaktin tlasokamati, nopixkiuh.” Pilar whispered.
“What was that?”
“It means ‘many thanks, my guardian’. They watch over us Xochitl, never take them for granted. Without them we would be lost.”
“But where are they? I don’t see some mystic mountain lion guiding us through the dark.”
Pilar laughed. It was the first sort of glee Xochitl had seem from her.
“Don’t be so naive, you’ve already seen one. Have faith.” Pilar said with a glint in her eyes, before moving farther up ahead.
This left Xochitl bewildered. She thought that Pilar’s hardened manner had left nothing for interpretation. Yet here she was preaching myths and fairytales like some crazed zealot. Such madness, she thought. Their plunge into the wolf’s den was only a days away, and the only thing she, and the others, supposedly had to hold onto was faith? Faith in something fictitious, something made-up. What would that do against the steel claws that sought to ensnare them. Trudging into the desert depths, she could already feel them burying into her back.
Xochitl covered the ears of her baby and slowly slid deeper into the tight crevice. Blood ran down her leg. The jagged rock had shredded the side of her thigh. Trying not to cry out, she ripped a piece of cloth from Ohtli’s sling and bit down hard onto it.
The engines from the Wolves’ vehicles shut off. Dozens of heavy footsteps then quickly followed. Xochitl’s breathing intensified. Oxygen was scarce in a moment like this, as was sensibility.
The footsteps picked up and one of the Ecuadorians cried out. The accent was discernible among the gut-wrenching screams for help. She managed to peek through the shrubbery and saw the man jostled to the ground like a lamb to the slaughter. It took multiple Wolves to restrain him, but they eventually did, shoving his face into the dirt as they tied his hands with zip-ties.
Xochitl choked on her tears, her body shaking from the violent thumps of her heartbeat. Not long after, unsurprisingly, Ohtli began to wail. She desperately rubbed his back trying to calm him down, but there was little she could do. A baby could only bear so much.
And with a fierce bellow from one of the wolves, their boots started to march in their direction. This was it, thought Xochitl, the end of the line.
Suddenly, a sharp rising howl rang above her head. She jolted her head up. It was a coyote. A real, breathing coyote. It tugged at her hair gently. But when Xochitl tried pushing it away, it wouldn’t budge. It kept pulling and pulling and pulling, until it finally bit down hard on her hair and began dragging her down a small split in the rock. Xochitl shrieked in terror. Had her fate been thrown into the hands of the nature’s wrath?
She didn’t have time for questions, however, as the coyote had brought her into a dark winding tunnel. Letting go of her hair, it scattered into the depths of the black just ahead. Xochitl stumbled to her feet and brushed off the dirt that covered Ohtli’s face.
Another sharp howl reverberated between the cave walls. She looked behind her as the Wolves’ shouts grew louder. Then, without a second to waste, she followed in the steps of the small canine.
Xochitl ran with every fiber in her frail being, never peering back. The rays of the moon pierced into the cave through small slits above her head. Picking up speed, the light whizzed past her like street lamps on a highway. Had she already died, she asked herself. Was she getting closer to the gates of eternity with every step she took? Before she could ponder that any longer, the tunnel opened up to a ridge high above the vast landscape of the Sonora. The coyote was waiting for her near the ledge.
Bending down to get a better look at the creature, a familiar glint glistened across its eyes. It yipped softly as Ohtli’s tiny hands reached out to touch its nose.
Though, in a gentle manner, it nudged its head into Xochitl’s leg, pushing her in the direction of a path that carved through the cliff leading to the ground. Understanding the coyote’s aim, Xochitl made her way down, not noticing its disappearance.
Arriving to the desert floor, she looked back up and scanned for the little creature, but saw only the moonlit silhouette of a woman retreating back into the cave. Xochitl’s heart skipped a beat. She recognized that ponytail anywhere.
Miaktin tlasokamati, nopixkiuh, Xochitl thought, before escaping into the darkness.