This story is by Nick Aleman and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On my Way Home
A plea could be the difference between dying or staying alive. Beto, the seminarian, thought this with the cannon of the colt M16 on his bloody head when he heard one of the two men dressed in olive green yell: “This one says that he wants to die!” to the other guy who had Mauricio face down, kissing the wet and salty tar with the asphalt just thrown on the street. Had Beto known that this would happen to him after leaving the seminary, he would have stayed.
Perhaps, Beto’s idea of asking for permission to leave the seminary temporarily was not very smart. He was risking his life and putting his religious vocation in jeopardy due to the civil war that had just begun in El Salvador in the 80s. However, his belief that it was anathema to embrace the priesthood not feeling devoted to God made him take that decision. It was the lack of devotion for the spiritual reading, the attraction he felt for the sensual Margarita, the choir girl, and the social isolation he felt made him doubt if whether or not he was on the right path of his life.
Beto promised Father Melquiades, his superior, to return in two weeks if he felt convinced of God’s call. The priest didn’t want him to leave just days after becoming deacon, but he thought he had no choice. He did, though, under the condition not to return without having lost his virginity.
Beto hung the habit on May 3; he felt sad and lonely in the seminary. Ironically, he didn’t know what to do with the time in his hands now that he was at home. He felt like a bird just out of the cage, confused, and disoriented. It seemed strange to him feeling more in prison today than when he was cloistered, living alone with his companion Francisco and Father Melquiades with whom he spent time praying, meditating and reading, before leaving for mass in the morning when they got up. What they did in the afternoon was quite similar to what they did in the morning, except for the two hours they spent playing soccer or basketball inside, in the back of the seminary. Still, it seems that this was what made Beto sad and lonely, the routine.
The day he left the seminary was a special day for Salvadorans. It was the Day of the Cross for Catholics, and it was also the day that peasants expected the first winter rains. They made sure to sow the land three days before it rained so that the seed would germinate on time. When it rained, it rained heavily for five or seven days in a row, like a deluge. Sometimes the country entered into an economic crisis, and everything when up in price, especially corn and beans; it happened when it didn’t rain as expected.
This way of preparing the land for farming happened about three decades ago. Today everything looks different in El Salvador, especially with climate change. The Poisoning and contamination of air and land by chemical fertilizers must have changed the environment drastically, so much so that today people do not hear the birds sing as they did before. It’s not because they stopped singing or because they mutated; births don’t sing anymore because they are dead. The chemicals killed them.
The first four days were terrible for Beto in his new life in Primavera, his hometown, after six years in the seminary. Despite being at home, he became lonelier than ever. It didn’t help that the boys of his age, in their twenties, saw him as a useless, and gullible petty-bourgeois either. No one was interested in knowing who or how he was, and the girls, they saw him as a trophy to be conquered. Beto did not realize this; in his pedantry or ignorance, the girls admired him because he was God’s servant. He went to bed with this thought in mind, still not knowing how to feel with his deep anguish, if like Judas Iscariot or like the prodigal son.
The next day he woke up saying: “Father, I have sinned against God and you. I do not deserve to call myself your son, but …, “and with this, the alarm clock rang, taking him out of the trance he was. The clock also let him know that it was time for his morning prayers, though, as he had been doing since he left the seminary. What he remembered most from today’s reading was the phrase that said: “This Jesus is the stone that the architects rejected;” he identified himself with those architects. It was his conscience that did not leave him alone.
Beto’s anguish was so great that if he looked a knife, he would throw it as far as possible. He would also tear a rope apart, afraid that he could hang himself. Desperate, he walked up and down, back and forth, and with his hand covering his forehead. Suddenly, he raised his head when he heard someone kick a soccer ball; it was Zacate. He told Beto that he was going to the Invasor soccer field and asked him if he wanted to go; Beto had not seen Zacate for about six years and gladly accepted the invitation. Six years was also the time without haven’t seen Mauricio since they were classmates in the Rafael Paz Fuentes Middle School.
There were twelve or fourteen more players in the field when Beto and Zacate got there, including Mauricio. Besides Mauricio, there were also Justi and El Negro, Zacate’s brothers. He found a great camaraderie among them all, something Beto urgently needed, and that didn’t expect.
The players warmed up for ten or fifteen minutes, kicking the ball around, doing crunches, or any other type of calisthenics so as not to play cold and thus avoid some muscle tear before the game. They formed two teams of seven players each. Knowing how dangerous it was because of the civil war, they played for about two hours before it got dark. It was the custom that at the end, the team who scored the last one won, regardless of which side was winning.
After the game, everyone said goodbye. Only Beto and Mauricio stayed behind, remembering their experiences like when Mauricio fell asleep in class, but that at the time of the tests, he was the first to finish and the one who got the best grade. The teachers thought he cheated, but no one was able to prove it. They laughed, remembering all these fun memories. After fifteen minutes, they felt it was time to leave because it was beginning to get dark.
To get to or leave the Invasor, one had to go through two coffee plantations to get to the street. Beto and Mauricio had just gone out into the road with the backpacks on their backs, when they were reached by a gray, lightless military truck, from where they heard someone scream, “Down!” Two men smelling of alcohol and marijuana got out of the vehicle; one stayed with Beto and the other with Mauricio. One of the men hit Beto on the head with the Colt M-16, while asking for their identifications and names.
“I am Roberto Quinteros,” replied Beto. “In my backpack, I have a letter that Father Melquiades gave me.”
“Aha, so, you are the priest’s son!” Beto didn’t know what to say.
Meanwhile, the other man said to Mauricio, “You’re the one we’re looking for, Mauricio.”
Then, the man who was taking care of Beto says, “He says he wants to die.”
“Well, let’s kill these sons of bitches,” replied the other.
The guy with Beto put his heavy right foot on the nape of his neck, with a boot that weighed about twenty pounds. He then extracted from the backpack the letter that the Father had given to the seminarian and read it with the help of a flashlight and threw it at Beto’s head. When Beto heard the snap of the rifle, he shouted: “No, gentlemen, please, don’t kill us,” to which the guy who was with Mauricio replied:
“That saved you, for now, Mauricio. We give you two days to leave the country. If you don’t, we’ll look for you and kill you. This time we’re going to let you go. Don’t get up until we’re two kilometers away.”
The seminarian waited for about five minutes before getting up, making sure that the men were gone. And with his bloody head and face, he picked up the letter, also covered with blood, put it in the envelope and his backpack; Mauricio did the same. The next day they both left the country, quietly.
Some people say they fled to the United States on foot; others, that they never left. The truth is that no one knows if they are still alive and that Beto didn’t get back to the seminary.