One day, as we’re baking in our cells, Silvio does the unexpected and asks me a question.
“Why were you going to Esmeralda?”
I am laying on my back in the corner of the cell that doesn’t have a sun beam blasting through it. The floor is cooler but not by much. After the shock of hearing him speak wears off, I consider his question.
“I made a promise to a friend,” I say.
“A dear friend?” Silvio asks.
“Yes. It was his dying wish,” I say.
He is silent again.
I lose track of time. Days and nights blur together. The heat is oppressive and feels like a man sitting on my shoulders, on my stomach, on my back, pushing me down. My hair is down to my shoulders and my face has grown a fair bit of hair of its own. By comparison Silvio looks like a wild beast with his untamed tangle of hair and beard. Every other day there is a fight and most times I am lucky not to be involved, but whenever I am I barely escape with my life intact. The boys in here only know how to fight and lie and hide from the jailmen. This place is a kiln, and my clay quickly hardens.
Then one day…
“You. Get up,” the jailman says. I rise from the floor.
“Time for brick making already?” I ask.
“Grab your things. You’re out of here,” he says. I do not hear him at first. My mind refuses to believe what it has heard.
“What?” I ask.
“The cities of Sanhles do not want you here anymore. Go. Be free,” the jailman says, getting annoyed.
I wonder if it is some cruel trick they play on the jailed. This can’t possibly be real. But before I know it, I am free. They practically push me out of the jail unto the street. I almost fall in a mud slick.
I look around. The sky is blue. The sun is hot and fierce. The birds sing their morning song. I stand. The air is dusty and sharp with the smell of manure, but it is the most beautiful smell I have ever smelled. I am free. I whoop and holler for joy. I am free! I pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming. And I am not!
“Hey! You!” someone says. I turn to the sound of the familiar voice. A girl approaches. A girl with golden eyes.
“You? What are you doing here?” I ask.
“Do I know you?” she asks. I remember that my hair is long and shaggy and my face is a dark shade from the summer heat.
“Oh. Yes. I stayed at your inn. That day that Zapata came and…” my words trail off. It had been so long that her father’s death nearly slipped my mind. I let the thought hang like bad air. I see in her wonderful golden eyes that she doesn’t remember me, though the day I speak of is emblazoned in her mind.
“I’m sorry. Your face is unfamiliar,” she says.
“Why did you call after me then?” I ask.
“I saw you come out of the jail and was hoping I could ask you about someone,” she says.
“I’ll help if I can,” I say.
“I want to know if the basurero’s still in there.”
“You mean Silvio?” I ask.
“I do not know his name. Only that he is a supremely adept fighter and spoke with a voice of authority when he had no station to,” she says.
“That sounds like Silvio. Here, maybe we can…” and then I remember. Silvio is still in there. I was so happy to be free that I’d completely forgotten he wasn’t! “Oh no. How did I not notice? I am a terrible friend,” I say.
“So you do know him. My fortune is turning around,” she says.
“Should we go in together?” I ask. She looks at me like I’ve grown another head. “They just let me free and I’m nervous about going back in so I was wondering if…”
“I don’t know you,” she says.
“Oh, my name is Rio. I stayed at your inn the day that Silvio fought all those men.”
“Many people stayed at the inn. I still don’t know you,” she says. I think for a second and remember something. I reach in my pocket and pull out a small blue potsherd. She recognizes it right away.
“This helped get me through the bad days,” I say, handing it to her.
“You kept it. Why?” she asks me.
“It was something familiar. In my village we work with clay and make all manner of pottery, bricks and the like. The feeling of it between my fingers helped me remember my home,” I say. It also reminds me of her, but I keep that to myself.
She holds the potsherd for a minute, her eyes tearing up at an awful memory. She hands it back to me.
“We don’t need these anymore. We lost the Burro.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say. Then, “What happened?”
“We couldn’t keep things running with my father gone so… we sold to Zapata’s family. We’ve been living with my abuela since then and-” She says no more. She can’t.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. I wished then that there was something I could do for her, but again I come up empty. I conclude that the only balm to her grief is that I make myself scarce so I don’t remind her of that day.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“Oh I… I was going to stretch my legs and enjoy my freedom,” I say.
“You change your mind on coming inside with me then?” she asks.
“Well, if that’s what you’d… I thought that maybe… because I… but if you’d like I would be happy to… yes. Yes I can go in with you,” I say. She shakes her head and fights off a smile.
“How is it that I don’t remember you? Or this at least?” she asks gesturing to me. I shrug.
“I changed a lot in there. I don’t know if my own mother would recognize me now,” I say. The thought catches me off guard and my face drops. No journey leaves a man unchanged, but I had not considered the meaning of it until that very moment.
“Okay, Rio. Lead the way,” she says.