Wamblan

While my mother dozed I sat there thinking about Wamblan, which I’d also been thinking about on the commuter train that morning, a jungle river town near the Nicaraguan border with Honduras, and about Jacinto, who thought this mole in the middle of my left hand was a stigmata. Jacinto commanded the small FSLN base in Wamblan, a sort of special forces unit that would head out into the tropical forests and mountains hunting the Contra for weeks at a time. I’d ridden up from the Wiwilí base to Wamblan with a convoy of supply and IFA trucks, and almost as soon as I got there, Jacinto had agreed to let me accompany the troops headed out in pursuit of Contras who’d ambushed another Sandinista patrol in the area, the one true experience of jungle warfare I ever had. Over one night and two days, we chased them, marching in a long single column of troops through often dense jungle, crossing rivers where the currents came up to our chests, so close on the enemy’s trail that we were constantly in danger of falling into an ambush ourselves, and sometimes, when the German shepherd tracking dog leading the column had picked up a scent, or when the scouts up ahead had sent back an alert, we’d slow to a crawl, barely inching forward for hours though the soft green leaves and steamy buggy air. Once we came across a still smoking campfire, a lean-to of freshly hacked branches, we even found a piece of rolling paper tremblingly clinging to a spindly blade of grass, glowing in the sunlight like a tiny snow princess, I remember how Jacinto and some of the other soldiers stood around the piece of rolling paper staring at it as if it might blow us to smithereens, until Jacinto brought his boot down on it and everybody laughed. I saw an emerald toucanet, and imagined myself on a sixth grade morning telling Mrs. Tollander about it and earning my silver star. The Contra escaped into Honduras, deeper into that country than Jacinto wanted to follow, we’d already crossed the border anyway. The night after we got back to Wamblan, I lay in my bunk in the cramped little barracks, covered in insects bites and scratches, feet blistered, my bad knee stiff and swollen, listening to the pulsing electronic-sounding pandemonium of the tree frogs out in that jungle pitch darkness and stillness. Was that really me, lying in that bunk, having made it on my own to a Sandinista special forces base? Yes, that was you Frankie Gee, only a bit more than twenty years ago. And so what. What proof is there that a remembered event is any more meaningful than a fantasy that resembles it? Prove it. Prove the lasting value of experience. How is it better than reading about it? In the predawn dark, I was woken by a stirring in the barracks, someone had abruptly come inside, a light was turned on and I saw them, three soldiers, they wore the long beards often sported by Contra fighters and fatigues with the grey-beige-green tiger stripe pattern and pale green floppy hats of Contra uniforms, and I glimpsed haggard faces, one much paler than the other two, with long orange beard. They spoke in low voices to some of the other soldiers, by then the lights had been switched off again, and I heard a low voice say, The bodies are up on the hill, and another voice mumbled, though I was less sure of this, Son nueve, maybe he’d said, No mueven or No les mueven. The intruders slept in the barracks with the rest of us, quietly sliding into empty bunks, maybe with their boots and uniforms on. I was exhausted and slept deeply, and when I woke the trio of bearded soldiers dressed as Contras were gone and nobody in that barracks of mostly teenaged draftees said anything about them. Later in the morning a mist lay over the river, and Jacinto, his torso muscular and slender as a male ballet dancer’s, stood in the gleaming green water up to his waist, holding a tiny round mirror up to his face and shaving, while the Cindy Lauper cassette with “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” I’d donated to the base was blasting from the base’s loudspeaker, I’d given them my DEVO cassette too, the soldiers were happy to have rock music to listen to. I undressed on the riverbank, and, carrying my own bar of soap in a little sandwich bag and a razor, waded into the cool, slow moving river water, so green and rich with jungle minerals. Finally I asked: So those are dead Contra up on that hill? I heard them say there are nine. Jacinto held my gaze for a moment, then barely shook his head no in a way that somehow suggested he really meant yes, maybe it was the way his eyes slightly widened. Do you remember what Jacinto did next, Frankie Gee? How could you ever forget. He held up his left hand, and with his razor touched the back of that hand in the same place where my mole is and held it there, and speaking emphatically if softly, he said: Nuestro Señor watches over you, and I responded: I wish, but it’s not true, Jacinto. That lunatic Sandinista—but a lot of them were religious like that, crazy Catholic Marxists—responded in that same calm tone: No Goliberg, God doesn’t do that by accident, put a mole like a nail head in the same place where the Roman’s nailed the Son to the cross. I was thinking, But didn’t those nails actually go in closer to the wrists? But I also knew that it’s popularly believed that people with stigmata bleed from the middle of their palms. Does this have anything to do with what happened last night? I asked. Sometimes what we call an enigmatic smile in reality is a loud shout, that’s how Jacinto smiled, and he pointed his index finger at me and went: Ahhhhhh, voice rising as if he was saying, You’re not going to trick me into talking. Jacinto thought my stigmata and the dead men on the hill were connected. Oh come on, vos, I pleaded, tell me what happened. Jacinto said: We came close to being ambushed the other day, chavalo, they were all around us. We had another column out on patrol on the other side, but I didn’t think they could reach the area in time, but joven Goliberg, they did, so it was the Contra that had to retreat, but not all of them, some followed us back to Wamblan, do you understand? We shouldn’t be here right now, Goliberg, in the river having our bath, and Jacinto gave a little shrug, as if it was obvious. I said: And this has something to do with the soldiers with the beards? They looked like Contras. Jacinto didn’t answer. But obviously they weren’t Contra, I went on, because they came into our barracks. Jacinto visibly laughed, or chuckled, but no sound came out. I said: So there were nine Contra up there on the hill. Plus three more who were ours, said Jacinto, his voice slightly louder than a whisper. Twelve Contra up on the hill, I repeated, and I posed the dumb question: Doing what? Jacinto said: They’d set up their mortars, they had RPGs, and they were about to fuck us, Goliberg. Jacinto held up his left hand again, and again tapped the middle of the back of his hand with his razor. I thought, He thinks Jesus intervened to save us, but then who were those three infiltrators, were they the Divine Swords of Our Lord or something like that? Jacinto had already turned and was wading out of the river and up onto the bank. So there are nine contra lying dead up there, I said to his back. Jacinto held up a hand and tick-tocked his index finger side to side. I looked over the rooftops of the little base, over the whitewashed headquarters built on sturdy stilts, “Uncontrollable Urge” blasting now from the loudspeaker nested beneath the bent eaves of the metal roofing, and up at the steep forested ridge or hill overlooking the town and the river, and up higher into the morning sky that was still a pale gray, where I don't recall seeing vultures still circling over the blood soaked ground where the bodies of the dead Contra had been left by their killers, ground I imagined swarming with ants and maggots and other insects, which made me wince. Probably they’d already been dragged off and buried by soldiers sent up at the crack at dawn, Jacinto must have supervised that operation, then come back down to have his contemplative bath in the river, following whatever trail of thoughts had led him to the conviction that the mole in the back of my hand had some relation to those Three Divine Swords of Our Lord, as if beaming them strength and blessing in their swift deadly work, saving us from a mortar and rocket barrage; three bearded Sandinista soldiers, infiltrators who’d been living at the side of those Contras, marching and fighting with them in the mountains and jungles on both sides of the Nicaraguan and Honduran border for who knows how long; in the Contra camps they would have undergone training by CIA masters in killing and infiltration long after they’d undergone similar training in Cuba, or East Germany, even Lebanon or Angola, their destiny being to finally arrive one night at their moment of ultimate testing on a hilltop overlooking Wamblan. Had they turned into whirling dervishes who slit the throats of their brothers-in-arms in a matter of seconds, snapped their necks with lethal karate blows, or was there was gunfire and we didn’t hear it? Later that afternoon I found out from some of the soldiers that the bearded men had left Wamblan by jeep just before sunrise, headed down to the military base at Wiwilí and back to Managua. To be debriefed by Sandinista intelligence, one impressed young officer told me, he said that probably there’d be secret ceremonies too, honoring their heroism and the success of their mission. “Now they’re going to pull in the net,” he said. He meant that the three bearded infiltrators would have collected information on Contra collaborators throughout that sweep of northern Nicaragua, and when that net was hauled in it was going to full of spies and informers drawn from the rural, mountain and jungle population, and I thought about what that was going to mean for many of them, and for those they left behind. A jungle Cold War spy novel set entirely among peasant farmers, I thought, imagine it written by Juan Rulfo, how cool would that be. I’ll always remember standing in that cool green water up to my waist after Jacinto got out, while Devo blasted out over the river, and looking up at the ridge and thinking about those nine who’d been killed up there, and about the children that at least some of them would have gone on to have if they hadn’t been killed that morning, and about the children those children would have had and so on, an infinitely-branching tree of non-existence climbing into the sky, war’s cosmic orchard. I wondered what the tree of my descendants was destined to be like, how high it was going to rise into the sky, or if this was as high as it was going to get, just me and my shimmery reflection in the river water.