Tell The Mourning Birds They Can't Sing

Erik Berg
The sun had just crested above the eastern foothills, scattering pallid light onto the desert, when Tom and Colby began their ride. The desert was hushed and still, like a tired soul reluctant to wake at such an early hour--even the debris kicked up by the horses listlessly died in the breeze. It was still cool, but by afternoon it would be hot, well into the hundreds except beneath the slivers of cactus shade.

They rode diligently south toward the border. At times Tom whistled the “Star Spangled Banner”, and smiled. They followed the plain until it dropped into a dry canyon, and then into a series of lowland knolls. By mid-afternoon they could see the brown river, and beyond it, the bleached Mexican plain, still and quiet as a dead sea.

“This is where they cross,” Tom said. He dismounted from the horse, and began to walk her into the shade of a high ravine that forged a divot into the plain. “This is where all them bastards come running through. They come in hordes sometimes, all their families with them, and kids, and uncles, and grandparents. The whole bunch of them.”

Colby kept his mount, and looked off into the distance. He studied the land beside the muddy river--the quiet sea of dirt on both sides that appeared to go on forever into a white foam horizon, wavering slightly in the heat. Tom sat in the only shade of the dry shallow ravine. The sun was inescapably high in every direction, and the sky cloudless, azure.

“It doesn’t look any different to me,” Colby said. “Mexico, Arizona. Arizona, Mexico. I don’t get the fuss.”

Tom grunted from the shade. He had tied the horse to a large stone, and now he sat and held his rifle at his shoulder, aiming at little pebbles in the dirt.

“It looks different to me,” he said. “Place is filthy over there--and I’d expect that kind of talk from a traitor.”

Colby rode into the ravine and dismounted. After he tied off the horse, he walked to the shade, and took a drink from the canteen dangling at his waist.

“Knowing the language,” he began, “doesn’t make a man traitor. It just helps him get along. It’s useful.”

“Yeah, well that shows the difference between them and us,” Tom said. “A man like you goes out of his way to learn a language, but look at them. None of them speak English. They don’t even try. And it’s the whole lot of them. We don’t need people who don’t try. We just don’t.”

“Why do you take it out on them?”

“Cause it drives me crazy,” Tom said, this time adamant. “They’re without sympathy, Colby.”

“It still doesn’t make much sense to me, cause I know a lot of people here without any sympathy too.”

“But that’s different. This is a different kind of sympathy--I’m not talking about murderers and robbers. I’m talking about people. These are unsympathetic people.”

Tom got up and took a drink from his own canteen. He stretched and kicked at the pebbles on the floor. A cool desert wind blew through the ravine, and they heard the rush of the river in the distance.

“Do you remember that story in the news?” he said. “About the girl and the baby.”

“Yes, I do.”

“And doesn’t that hurt your heart a little? Just a little.”

“Yes it does, but I don’t see your point.”

“A little baby thrown into a trash can, and left there to die, and you don’t see my point? That wasn’t one of us. That wasn’t something we could do. That girl had been in the country for three weeks, and already they made a mess of it. There’s just no compassion, and it drives me crazy. Remember the old woman who got mugged in the park? People are afraid to leave their homes. And it’s not because of our people. Do you think that’s okay?”

Colby startled at the sudden break in conversation, and he looked up to see Tom with a headstrong expression. He’d heard the same words before, to where he knew one after the other, and was expecting the monologue to continue for a few more minutes. He picked up his own rifle, and aimed it at a cactus growing on a rocky outcrop atop the ravine.

“Está bien,” he said. “That’s how they say it. Está bien. It means okay.”

“Está bien!” Tom shouted. “This world is headed for disaster. Oh, the good world shudders.”

Suddenly Colby sneezed, and the rifled fired. The sound of the blast seemed to fill the ravine, echoing off the stone walls into the stillness of the desert. The horses moaned and pulled at their ties. The cactus above the ravine exploded, and fell wet and dead on the desert floor. Tom held his ears, and listened to silence return in the wake of the incident.

“Jesus!” he shouted. “That could have been me, you know that?”

“Sorry. It was an accident. I sneezed, and the trigger just pulled naturally.”

“See,” Tom said, in childish excitement. “There’s another thing too. All that sickness they bring with them. All of them are sick all the time, and they don’t care nothing for hygiene. And we have to share all that sickness with them. I mean, my God! There was a case of T.B. up north. Do you remember that? Hasn’t been T.B. here since Lincoln, and now its popping up everywhere. You know what I mean?”

“How does pointing a gun stop any of that?”

“It does more than you’d think. It lets them know we’re not just gonna hand over the country without a fight. It puts a little fear into them. It lets them know we care. And besides, we’re not gonna hurt them.”

As he spoke, Tom walked in circles, gesticulating fiercely with his hands.

“It just seems strange to me,” Colby said.

“It’s harmless. It just scares them. It scares anyone to have a gun in their face. Just ask that old woman who got mugged.” Tom stopped in the center of the ravine, where the shade from the wall cast a shadow over half his body. His cheeks were cherry red, and his damp shirt clung to him from his armpits and belly. He looked like a preacher excited and exhausted from a long sermon. “Let me have a drink of that, will you? And then we can get started. I bet there’s already been hundreds over that river with us just sitting here.”

As the desert breeze slowly died among the rocks in the ravine, they mounted their horses, and rode up from the shade. The sun had reached its afternoon zenith. Everything appeared dry; the cacti were stiff and pointed; the ground was caked and hard as stone; and the river was so shallow its banks were almost level with the plain.

The river water was muddy, the color of coffee, and the two men followed its languid weave through the sand. Occasionally Tom dismounted and checked the mud for prints. Colby observed the vegetation that grew along the river bank--the small brown patches of brush, the bright yellow and blue cactus flowers--he was sure no human had ever set foot where they now rode, let alone the hundreds Tom claimed crossed here everyday.

“We just missed them,” Tom called out. “We shouldn’t have rested.”

Colby hesitated, “We’ll follow the river. It’s quiet out here.”

“I knew we shouldn’t have rested.”

They continued for another hour in the heat. The horizon held its course in every direction. They moved, but the land stayed the same.

Tom rode the horse close to the mud of the flat bank, and dismounted. He looked excitedly in every direction, like a lost man in search of a familiar landmark. He did not find one--only the stagnant heat, and the tepid flow of the brown river. Disappointment flashed across his face, and his eyes filled with the eagerness of a hound surveying an empty field.

Then there was an awkward movement in the water somewhere down the way--a splashing easily detected in the constant motion of the river. Tom’s demeanor changed entirely. His jaw hardened, and his eyes glinted. He glanced at Colby, and they quietly led their horses in search of the splashing.

Further down the bank, a man and a young boy crouched by the river. The man gathered water in his cupped hands, and splashed it on his face. Nearby, the boy lowered his head to the river, and drank. They had crossed the river earlier that day. Their clothes were dry except for damp patterns in the creases of their jeans, and they both wore tattered baseball caps to shade their faces from the sun. They startled as the horses approached, and the boy came to the man’s side.

Tom moved forward, with his rifle aimed at the man.

“Tie the horses to those boulders,” he said to Colby. “And then follow my lead.” To the man and the boy he shouted, “Sit down, on your knees.”

They did not move, but stood frozen, watching the rifle. Their eyes turned to the other man as he settled the horses by the boulders. When Colby finished, he joined Tom, and he repeated the command.

“Sentarse,” he said. “El dijo sentarse, de rodillas.”

The man and the boy dropped slowly to their knees. Colby took note of their dark skin--a leather shade from one of the southern states of Mexico--though it told him nothing. In the desert, the sun made southerners out of anyone.

“Where are you from?” Tom said.

“De donde son ustedes?”

The boy looked at Tom, and then to the rifle. His face turned a shade of pallor, and he moved closer to his father. The man watched Colby, surprised to hear him speak the way he did. He spoke briefly to Colby in words completely incomprehensible to Tom.

“They’re from Senora,” Colby said to Tom. “Just south of here. That’s their desert across the river.”

“Well, it’s Mexican all the same, isn’t it?” Tom said. And to the man and the boy, he shouted, “Do you have any identification? It’s against the law to cross that river without any identification. And it’s our right to maintain the laws of our country.”

“Vinimos para encontrar trabajo,” the man said. “No hay nada atrás para nosotros.”

“What does he say?” Tom shouted.

“He’s looking for work,” Colby said.

“There’s nothing here.” Tom called back.

“No hay trabajo aquí.”

“Quiero mi madre,” the boy said. He spoke in a cold, frightened voice, and he spoke only to his father. “Quiero mi madre.”

The man looked at Colby. “Su madre está aquí,” he said. “Y mi esposa. Su familia. Nuestra familia ya están aquí.”

“What is it?” Tom asked.

Colby felt the warm desert air sweep between the two parties, and then quietly disappear.

"What is it?", Tom asked again.

“Nothing,” Colby said. “Just talking.”

“Tell them to go home. This isn’t their home. It’s our home and we don’t want them here. Let them know.”

Colby shouted Tom’s order to the man. As if considering the order the man paused, glanced back at the desert they’d come from, then towards the desert in front of them, and finally looked up at the sky. He exhaled, then turned to the boy who clung tightly to his moist hand, and in the direction of Colby shook his head. There was no translation needed--it was a certain, emphatic no.

“No hay trabajo atrás,” he said. “No hay comida.”

“Necesitan volver.”


“They’re being difficult, aren’t they?” Tom said. “Now we scare them. Tell the boy to come with me.”

“What are we doing?”

“Nothing harmful. It just frightens them. They won’t be back after this. You watch the man. Don’t let him try anything funny.”

Colby turned to the duo planted in the river bank. “El muchacho necesita venir consigo,” he said. He saw the boy’s eyes begin to water, and a sense of urgency overcome the man. “Con el hombre. Rápido.”

For a moment the two kept very still, then Tom stepped forward with the rifle, and the boy jumped to his feet. With one hand on the boy’s shoulder and the other on his rifle, Tom led the boy away from the river bank. Colby kept his rifle fixed on the man, with his hand steady at the trigger. Now that he was alone, he felt frightened, though he was not sure why. The man did not speak, but watched him with sullen eyes. Colby looked into his--at their coffee-maroon tint--and for the first time in his life he felt scared of a helpless man.

Tom walked with the boy about twenty yards through the desert sand, and stopped near a row of flowering blue cacti. They were too far away to comprehend, but Colby could make out the commanding sonority of Tom's voice. He watched as the boy disappeared behind a cactus.

“No vamos a volver,” the man said. He spoke as much to the desert as he did to Colby, and his voice swept into the distance as if from something more profound than his lips. “No hay trabajo. Un hombre necesita trabajo. No hay comida. Una familia necesita comida. No podemos volver atrás. Habrá más.”

“Lo siento,” Colby said.

“Habrá más. Es la gente.”

The man’s words circled in Colby’s head, and he became aware once more of the heat and the afternoon sun. He looked over at the line of cacti where the boy crouched, only partially hidden. Tom stood conspicuously above the brush and tumbleweeds, aiming the rifle straight ahead.

Then, suddenly Colby sneezed and fired the rifle. The blast blotted out the sound of the slow flowing river, and the horses took to loud kicks and moaning. The boy squealed from the behind the row of cacti, and came running through the sand. Tom followed quickly behind, rifle lowered, and looked first at the stricken Colby, then at the man lying still in the mud. A scarlet band of blood flowed out from beneath the man's tattered cap into the river.

“Papá!” the boy shouted. “Papá!”

“Why did you shoot him? You killed him.”

Colby stood perfectly still, the man's last words still swimming through his mind.

“It wasn’t my fault,” he said. “I didn’t kill him. It was an accident. I didn’t kill him.”

“Papá!” the boy cried once more.

The boy looked at Colby, and then to the rifle dangling at his side. There were tears on the boy's cheeks, and new ones forming in the dark pools under his eyes. He turned away from his father. He glanced back to the river, and then into the distance, toward Arizona. Then he ran, his feet kicking up white sand, in the direction from where the men had come.

Tom knelt to turn the man over, but Colby startled at the boy’s running. He took up his rifle, with his hands trembling, and he aimed at the boy in the distance.

“What are you doing?” Tom said.

“The boy’s leaving.”

He fired, and a cloud of sand leaped up near where the boy ran.

“Jesus!” Tom shouted. “What are you doing? You’re gonna kill him.”

“He can’t get away,” Colby said. “He’s going to tell. They’ll find the horse tracks. They’ll trace them to us.”

Colby fired again. The bullet tore through a pile of dead brush, and erupted in the sand. Before Colby could fire again the boy disappeared behind a rise in the plain.

“It wasn’t my fault,” Colby said. “He knows where we are. They’ll track us. It was an accident.”

Tom didn’t respond, but looked up at Colby’s distant face. Then he turned the man over in the sand, so that his face pointed into the dirt. The desert was quiet once again, and the river seemed to slow.

“He can’t go to the police,” Tom said.

“But they’ll find the body. Somebody will find the body. You said it yourself; hundreds of people come through here. We have to hide the body.”

“We can’t do that.”

“We have to,” Colby said. “I didn’t kill him. It was an accident. That wouldn’t be fair. My life shouldn’t be ruined over an accident.”

Colby looked once more to the plains, but the boy was long gone. They wouldn’t catch him even on the horses, he thought to himself. The boy ran to live, and that was something beyond speed.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” Colby said. “It just wouldn’t be fair to ruin my life. Would it?”

“No,” Tom said. His tone was more sullen than it had been in the ravine. “It wouldn’t be fair. You take his ankles, and I’ll carry him from the shoulders. We’ll hide him from sight. He won’t last days in the heat.”

Together they carried the man's body to where the horses were tied off to the rocks. They placed it in a space between the boulders. Colby stood over the man, looking into his dark eyes, while Tom scoured the sand for something to cover him. His voice again returned to Colby, whispering his last words to him, "Habrá más. Es la gente." Tom returned with a handful of dried brush and tumbleweed, and they covered the space in between the boulder until the body was hidden from the desert.

“It just happened,” Colby said. “It wouldn’t be fair to me.”

“It wouldn’t. Get the horses ready to leave.”

Tom walked back down to the river bank. The blood had hardened atop the mud where the man had lain. Tom dug his heel into the stain until it became moist and disappeared completely. Several strands of black hair stuck to mud in the river undulated slowly to the quiet current. It was all that was left. The river had taken the rest.

Then he returned to where Colby stood with the horses. They were loose from the boulders now, and the two mounted slowly onto the saddles. Colby drank warm water from his canteen. His face was pale, and his eyes desperately scanned the empty plain for the boy. Tom sat still on the horse, and let his eyes scan the landscape; from the purple of the Arizona hills in the distance, to the brown of the river, and on to the bleached earth of the Mexican horizon. At that moment everything coalesced into a finite picture, uniform in a tangle of sand--the earth was one big white mass, whichever way he looked.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” Colby said. “It wouldn’t be fair to ruin my life. Would it?”

“No.” Tom said. “It wouldn’t be. Está bien.”
<td><a href=""><img src="" alt="" width="150" height="150" /></a></td>
<td><em>Erik Berg is an author of short fiction and poetry publishing in magazines such as Southpaw, Blue Lotus, The Stray Branch, and Badlands. He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.


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