Handcuffs. Handcuffs. She just wanted what everybody else had. Why does Fate hand life to some people and make others have to fight for it? Why do some people receive joy and hope and love just by sitting on their sofas, while others have to climb Mt. Everest to find a toilet? Why does manna fall out of heaven for some people, while others have to dig into the vaults of the earth through uncaring stone to find a meal, a meal locked in some worthless speck of geological vomit they call a jewel? Why is the treasure of flesh and blood thrown under the wheels of the diamond, and the emerald, green as the trees that hide the snake? One half of the world materializes gold by pushing a button on its TV remote, one half carries the threat of bombs falling from the sky on its back, and spreads its legs of flowers for sleepwalking pillagers to pluck; or else, it says no, the password to oblivion.
Handcuffs. All she wanted was what everybody else had. Some people who want receive towers, palaces rising up like smoke from a burning earth, mansions in the clouds that seem to float above the pigsty, disembodied stomachs of the earth. Inside their doors are carpets fit for kings, and delicate paintings of flames. Pet cats slink like little tigers amidst magazines and figurines, they, too, sailed into the sky aboard Noah’s Ark, the ship of the few. They are loved more than the hands that lit the sun. Some people want, and they hear the sound of rain clawing at the roof, they hear the sound of angry landlords waiting in the mailbox, the sound of children’s eyes coming out to see if there are presents on Christmas morning, the sound of jobs landing like a single coin in a tin cup, the sound of aching hands and aging faces condemning them from the mirror, condemning them for cowardice, the cowardice of being good, of playing by the rules, of obeying the law, of lying down with their family in a coffin.
Who wrote the book? a vengeful angel asks, charging from Heaven with the sword of a free thought. The book of law is but a tomb! The strong lifted up their leg and urinated on the world as it was, they marked their territory with a law and a jail, ejaculated a priest into the vagina of what they stole to impregnate the crime with a broken will.
See it in the faces of the former slaves, they never recovered from their chains, the whip marks remain inside, on the backs of their souls!
See it in the faces of the proud indigenas, they fought like jaguars, like pumas, until their blood turned into stone; then they remained silent like birds who vowed never more to fly. We will carry our intestines to you, you shall have your silver and your gold, but never more will you hear the jungle the way it used to be. The trees deny you! The mountain peaks look down on you, our frozen tears forever loom above you. Our snow-peaked defeat.
Handcuffs. When wars are over, crime begins. They call it crime, but it is only the reaction of history, the instinct of the patriot who has been dragged into another world.
Invaded by the windows of your stores, his mind sees freedom like you see freedom, he wants his heart back from behind the glass. He wants to learn to speak the language of the dollar bill, and the plastic card that the altar eats and then obeys with gifts of green paper, the paper words the world speaks, which end hunger and loneliness, which resurrect the impotent man and restore the petals of his withering family to the stalk of his pride. Without this Eucharist, men are ghosts. They wander through every desire without substance, cannot touch a face, cannot lift a glass of water to their lips.
Handcuffs. Her ancestors, long ago, were Paez Indians, they fought and lost, they were pressed into cages deceived by the open sky, helping hands came to lift them up without their land, farms awoke on the other side of a piece of paper; cities and haciendas beckoned with breakfasts of sugar water, and lives of crawling. Babies of the damned cry like arrows aimed at the hearts of the ones who love them. Good men don’t listen. Bad ones pick them up, and blow out the candles of deaf saints.
Handcuffs. Miranda, wasn’t she a princess in the middle of a storm? The money was in the side of a carry-on, nice Colombian leather. It was going back, back from the noses of America, back to a little outfit of perverse, angry men with insatiable d**ks, protective stags of the wounded herd that wanted the revenge of living. They were bandits, all right, these pint-sized capos, like crumbs of broken glass left behind by the shattering of the chandeliers of the great cartels. The giants were dead, shot and displayed like the animals hunted by Hemingway, or carted off to gringo prisons in their pajamas. But the laws of physics remained. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. You will not pay us with the green land God gave us, pay us for the mere fact of being human beings by leaving us masters in our own country? We will pay ourselves with the harvest of the white genie, we will serve the despair of paradise with our carnivorous leaf, our sacrament turned into a bomb. History is like water, it will flow into any form you give it. Conquest and self-defense will pursue each other forever, like butterflies that change into birds, then into wolves, then into rivers roaring with the voice of native warriors who have become water.
Handcuffs. Miranda’s mother and three sisters lived in Popayan, divided between deaths, and a new generation was clamoring beside their skirts, from within their bellies, and in the eyes of irresistible boys who would not stay. One brother who had not come in from the land had been sliced open like a fish by the paramilitaries, they filled his body with stones to sink him in the river, under the shadow of helicopters that did not care. The other brother was maybe with the guerrillas, maybe with a wild girl who used to sing in bars. They had vanished around the same time. Miranda imagined them fleeing like Adam and Eve from Eden, as God hurled the lightning bolt of her brother’s death at their frail farm, a last drop of Paez history. Meanwhile, two more sisters lived in the Big Apple, as did Miranda.
Miranda remembered when Ofelia first came to New York. It was in the middle of the winter, and the wind was spitting out the people of the tropics, lashing their brown and black faces with ice and sleet, brutal rebuffs from a gray racist sky. Then the snow came, mountains of it pouring down from a helpless heaven. Miranda was working near home, cleaning offices, washing away her dreams from the floor with a mop. Ofelia, in high heels, completely unprepared for the weather, was due to be returning from a job interview at that very moment. Excusing herself, Miranda struggled back through the snow to retrieve an extra pair of boots from home – Ofelia had left when the skies only seemed to be bluffing. Tortured by the thought of her sister’s frozen feet, the overly-idealistic heels trying to navigate their way through huge drifts of snow already up past the ankles, Miranda stumbled back out into the storm, heading towards the street her blinded, ice-pelted sister must be trying to follow back. "Aiay!, it’s like we’re being stoned!" Miranda said. "Like we were adulteresses!" She wondered why the Bible, with its abundant stories of calamity, had no blizzards to add to the torments of sinners, then remembered that the Holy Land was a desert; sandstorms were as close as it could come. Above her, the elevated train track lay silent like a prehistoric beast beaten into submission by the ice age, icicles hung like fossils from its impotence, the periodic roar had not been heard for over twenty minutes. "Aiay!" A huge cascade of falling ice shattered by her feet, while another collapse merely disappeared into the snow with a heavy thud, like a falling body, like some poor soul finally giving into what they all felt, and choosing a day of white to leave the impurity of the world. With her head down, pushing against the wind, she passed by men with shovels, standing still like statues as they tried to smell the time left to the storm, to decide whether they should resist it yet or just wait.
Painfully, the extra boots in a bag in her hand, she blinked her snow-crusted eyelids. A taxi glided in and out of view, seemingly free of the laws of gravity – a ghost car driven by a ghost, somebody’s shortcut home that was going to take hours. "Dios mio, where the hell is Ofelia?" Miranda asked herself. "Her poor, poor feet!" And she began to cry.
But not long afterwards, she finally saw her sister, she recognized the "Inca cap" that Ofelia didn’t wear before the interview, so as not to disorder her hair. But now the interview was over, and the hat was on her head as tight as could be. Seeing the cap – it was like Columbus seeing land! (Columbus, that hijo de puta. But the land was beautiful.)
"Ofelia! Ofelia!" cried Miranda, joyfully. As though destined to alarm her sister even more than her high heels had already been able to accomplish, Ofelia chose that very moment to lose her balance in the middle of an intersection, suddenly spinning wildly about and hurling her arms out to the sides in a melodramatic effort to keep herself from falling. She was an utter novice walking on ice, this was her first time; she was like a virgin, who the first time hurts.
"Ai, no!" gasped Miranda, rushing towards her falling sister. But somehow, heels and all, Ofelia persisted, against her will she skated in the street like Oksana Baiul, she imitated the tragic acrobatics of their race which lost its footing but not its life, which lost its grace, but not its spirit, even when that spirit had to hide, and fire had to assume the form of stone.
"Ofelia! Ofelia!" cried Miranda, embracing her in the middle of the street.
A car, unsure of its brakes, honked, Miranda dragged Ofelia to the corner as the car did stop, bowing down to the love of the two sisters.
"Ofelia! Ofelia! Are you all right?" demanded Miranda. "Look - I brought you boots! Here, you have to get out of those heels right away! Can you feel your feet?"
But Ofelia just laughed, it was like being a child in a world of magic, she stuck out her tongue and tasted a snowflake, then remembering that she had heard that no two snowflakes are alike, said: "There goes the last of its kind! Melted on my tongue!" Stoically she stood still as Miranda struggled to get the boots onto her feet.
"Are you all right?" Miranda asked again.
Ofelia hugged and kissed her and said: "My first day of snow! A sister who loves me! My feet can fall off, for all I care!" And leaning on each other with love, they fought their way back through the storm to the little apartment, the cuchitril they had decorated with their tastes and souls until it had become a mansion, a little mansion in the cold.
Handcuffs. But life does not linger on the peaks of its unsustainable highs. It flows downwards into the masa of every day, the flour of the ordinary with which you make the food you eat to live. Cleaning. Watching kids: rich kids with the innocent hands of utterly different lives which cling to you in the middle of the night, as old dreams sit heavily upon your chest. Buried alive like a Vestal Virgin by equal aspirations in an unequal world, by a tired soul that wants spice. Days, grueling without a rose. Ofelia has a boyfriend, a swollen belly, Miranda’s boyfriend has left, she’s alone with the songs they danced to, and now, this guy Pedro, a cousin of Angel, who’s Ofelia’s muchacho, drops in with his Leon Trotsky glasses and starts talking shit about the gringo brainwash. "They’ve turned us all into colonies. We dig up the ground underneath our feet, and put it in a ship bound for America. Do you know the international division of labor? Bananas and coffee don’t stack up against machines. We sell cheap crap, they sell shit that costs. We need a product that can command a high price, not this shit that keep us in the Third World."
"Well?" she asked him.
He pointed to his nose and sniffed. Since she didn’t get it, he did it again.
Pedro was an intellectual, he wouldn’t put what he preached into practice, he had chosen criticism, not risk. He would whitewash the controversial, bless it, but not carry it.
She didn’t think too much of what he said at that time, but somewhere in her mind, which loved books, but mainly novels and metaphysics, not politics, he had made an impression. Where others saw a devil, she now saw an act of self-defense. Where others saw a sin, she saw only a gamble.
Handcuffs. Geraldino was the New York boss of Lilliput. The cartel fragment’s great recruiter. At first, over drinks in a club that was a whirlpool for the lonely, who flaunted their depression with low-cut blouses and tight-fitting jean, he just joked about it. "The Great White Way – Broadway, or is it powder? Nice guys, these Americans, they help us out a lot!" He took her to have a bareto, a good deep smoke of pot in the parking lot, then drove her around in his car which was like a God’s chariot. "You know, this girl Alicia made $10,000 last month," he told her.
"Oh yeah, how?" she asked him, becoming nervous.
He motioned with his finger to his mouth. "One airplane trip and some Ex-lax."
She looked out the window stoically.
"That was manteca. Heroin. Coca gets less, but hey, it beats mopping floors. Say, you know – your sister is pregnant, and your family is rolling the giant bolder up the mountain like Sisyphus. It’s something to think about."
But the idea of going down there first and coming back with bags of drugs in her intestines was horrendous. "I’m afraid of the dogs," she said. Ever since she was a child, the big dogs. Neighbors had had one who mauled a boy sneaking onto their property to get a fruit, he was covered with scars for life. Another one had chased little Betina on a horse, she had fallen off into the river. The thought of the dogs.
"They won’t smell a thing, you chew gum and use deodorant. You just don’t want to sweat a lot."
"What if they x-ray me?"
"They don’t do that unless you’re shaking in your boots. All you need is a little nerve. You’ve got nice tan skin, you won’t turn red."
But it was too much. Miranda said no. He didn’t ruin the nice time out by insisting.
Handcuffs. Funny how some ideas live inside you like an animal, like a tapeworm in your gut, they wear you out, they get their way. Miranda’s world had cracks in it, Ofelia and Angel had been fighting, Ofelia had to rush to the ER with some terrible pains in her stomach. "My God, the baby’s dying!" she cried out.
"Maybe you’re giving birth!" shouted Miranda.
"No, it’s only seven months!"
"Maybe it’s premature!"
"It’s like someone stabbed my baby with a knife! I’m feeling it! That damned Angel, he’ll be the death of us yet!"
It was a false alarm, but things were shaky. Then, there was the giant toy tank in the store window that their cousin Linda’s boy wanted. It had a rotating turret with a little guy you could put in or take out, flashing lights and a barrel that fired plastic pellets. You could steer it with a radio signal by remote control, and it could climb up a ramp. "Oh please, mama, buy it, buy it for me!" he begged Linda, over and over again, like a vine climbing up a tree with tears.
"No, baby, not now," she said. "Damn!" she told Miranda. "why do they make such expensive toys these days? Remember when we were kids, we used to play with a stick? A stick and a hoop? No!" Linda said as the boy persisted.
"But it lights up in the dark!"
"So, what good is that? The bad guys will see it and blow it up."
"No they won’t, it’s too strong, their bullets will bounce off!"
"Our country is already violent enough," Linda retorted, "we don’t need any more violence. This time for your birthday, I’m going to buy you a Barbie – no, just kidding!" she said, as he began to wail.
Miranda thought, why do we always have to be counting pennies in this cornucopia? Why when paradise is filled with fruit trees, do you have to cut off your arm for a coconut, and cut off your leg for a mango? The child’s disappointment outraged her, it was like they whipped you with other people’s joy, flagellated you with thirst you could not quench, shoved your face into gold coins you would never own; in the eyes of your kids they turned you into parents who didn’t care, or weaklings who could not provide. They branded you with the burning hot poker-iron of loser.
Geraldino came back.
Handcuffs. This time he told her there was another end to the business. "There’s there and there’s here. Here’s where the money’s made There’s parties down there to be paid. They smuggle the drugs in, we smuggle the money back."
"Don’t you launder the bucks?" she asked him, enjoying the church of the car where all was forgiven by the god of reality, all that could be hidden.
"It’s not that easy to work with banks these days," he said. "You need a real in, and we don’t have it. For a while, we had this damned Russian Jew in the jewelry shop, till he lost his nerve, and quit on Yom Kippur. So now we move it down in money belts, bags, suitcases. Dogs don’t smell money," he added.
Miranda couldn’t stand the idea of having bags of dope inside her, that could break open and hammer her to death from the inside; and having to pass the gauntlet of dogs, that was like going into Hell, and she wasn’t Hercules. But moving the money in the opposite direction?
"No," she said. "I’m not cut out for this. I don’t have the guts. They’d hear my heartbeat from a mile away, I’d bite my fingers off along with my fingernails."
But Geraldino ony smiled. "They say one of your brothers became a guerrilla."
"Nobody knows that," she retorted. "Maybe he just went to a safe place to be with his girl, to love her and have kids like people are supposed to do."
"Or maybe he’s a real man with balls," said Geraldino. "If a guerrilla kills your brother you become a paramilitary; if a paramilitary kills your brother you become a guerrilla. The politics doesn’t matter, in the end, it’s only about being a man."
"Those ideas are bringing our country to ruin," Miranda protested.
"Maybe you’ve got it in your blood," he suggested. She didn’t acknowledge his idea. "Paez?" He saw a flash leap into her eyes, a spark. "Your ancestors knew how to fight."
She said "I’ll think about it."
Handcuffs. She was dressed-up that day in a stylish white suit with white slacks, a pair of sunglasses fit for a movie star, that was always one step ahead of the glare. Glasses of a chameleon, changing color equal to the tricks of the light. The bag smelled fresh, recently crafted, singing praises to the artisans of Colombia with every step; cosmetics, a comb, two magazines, and a water bottle protected it. The money was sewed into layers inside the fabric, undetectable. Five others were part of the mission, three women and two boys, they would swim together to their country like a school of porpoises, swim through the sky in an airplane, which was as magnificent and fragile as their plan.
As Miranda took back her ticket and stepped into the waiting room, a security woman made-up like an Avon representative passed by, spreading leaflets into every hand she encountered. On the leaflet, in Spanish and English, it warned that any money brought back to Colombia over the personal amount allowed to travelers must be declared.
Miranda began to sweat. Why this warning? This was not a standard feature of travel, as far as she knew. Did federal agents have a tip? Were they setting up a crystal-clear legal environment in which to prosecute Geraldino’s money-bearers? She wanted to call him, but maybe undercover cops wanted to see who went for a phone. She must wait to call. But the flight was ready to board.
Out of the corners of her eyes, she could see one of her co-conspirators on her cell phone. The woman nodded with a tight face, submitting to an invisible pep talk, and proceeded to board the plane. Miranda, who was pretending to perfect her eye-liner, the sunglasses raised like a lookout on top of her head, packed up and followed.
They were all sitting down in their seats, clearly intending to leave the country, when five men in FBI jackets and six or seven security personnel, including two women, suddenly barged onto the plane like terrorists. A man with a New York Yankees jacket, corduroy pants, and shades as dark as the night, came on board with them. He had a Latin face, but wouldn’t show it. "Ladies and gentlemen, we need to ask a few passengers some questions," an FBI operative said. "Please remain seated and cooperate fully with our agents."
The New York Yankee then proceeded to walk down the aisle pointing out members of Geraldino’s team to the cops. He found four of them, but passed by Miranda who felt her heart was about to jump out of her chest like a frog.
They took them out into the connectible tunnel that joined the plane to the terminal and began to question them.
Horrified, yet also hopeful, like someone who has found a good hiding place during a massacre, as the people all around her begin to fall, Miranda waited in her seat.
"No, no!" she heard one of the women screaming, "the people will see! Don’t take my clothes!"
In wretched Spanish, seemingly spoken with a mutilated tongue, but then, this was their country and what did they owe the Spanish language?, a female agent was saying, "Nobody’s going to see you." And in English, she was saying to someone else, "Nobody wears underwear like that anymore. Looks like she’s wearing an inflatable life jacket, gonna float all the way to Colombia! Here, mamma, gonna make you skinny, come on, we’ll make you more shapely now, let the padding come off! See, she’s not chunky anymore, just became J-Lo."
"No, no! I’m naked! I’m naked!" the woman was screaming hysterically. Miranda imagined her make-up coming off, washed away by tears, while the agent was saying, "This don’t count as naked in nobody’s book. Maybe the pope’s. Lotta money here, huh? And look, here’s the leaflet we gave you, right along with your ticket. Do you know what the word ‘jail’ means?"
"You got it. Car-sul on the way."
Miranda became aware that she hadn’t moved for ten minutes, she was frozen as though impaled on a stake in the Tower of London. Her Indian face was as pale as a Spaniard’s, her mouth was dry like a country where it has not rained for months and all the corn has wilted. "Come on, airplane" she thought. "Rev up those engines. Get us the hell out of here. Deliver me to the sky. Carry me above this crazy world, ruled by thieves where people who loved are turned upside down into criminals!"
Handcuffs. But just then, like a priest to deliver the last rites, one of the captured women came back into the plane with an FBI agent. "That one," she said, pointing at Miranda with a finger that seemed like a gun. Miranda could see the flash, hear the explosion, smell the gunpowder, feel the bullet flying into her heart, look down and see the blood. She should have maintained the impassive face for which her race was known, the mystery that enraged and terrified the Spaniards. But she could not prevent herself from exclaiming, "Hijo de puta sapo!" You son-of-a bitch snitch!
"Miss, we need to talk to you," the agent said, indicating that she rise and follow him.
Miranda’s head was spinning, she was dizzy, falling in her own mind, though she stood up with surprising command of her body. "This way – with your bag," the agent said.
"Too bad, such a nice, well-dressed girl," somebody was saying in English.
"Don’t cut my bag," said Miranda, in a voice that was more the twitch of a corpse than an act of life, though it came out clear and bold. But she had no hope, she had heard from friends how Customs slashed through bags of coffee, ripped heels off of shoes, and dismantled radios in such a way that they could never be put back together again. It wouldn’t be any different here, in this direction. A nearly invisible blade was out, in someone’s hand, the black inner lining of the bag was cut, green blood oozed out, blood of paper, the reward of thieves, and the lifeline of good hearts living behind glass walls, on the other side of the world. Who wouldn’t smash the wall? Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t lift up the hammer of a crime to live?! Like a surgeon performing an operation, removing a tumor, the hand extracted a giant wad of hundred-dollar bills from the bag – then more. "A lot of our boys blowing their life out of their nose," one of the security ladies said, staring at Miranda disapprovingly.
Maybe, thought Miranda, they want something more in life than walking around with a walkie-talkie like you. And she said, "Nuestros muchachos faltan mucho para vivir." Our kids are missing a lot they need to live.
The woman told her, "This isn’t the way to right the world."
"This is war," Miranda said. "The war to be happy. – Once upon a time, we were happy in the green forest, if the trees had fruit and the streams had fish. You took that happiness away from us. You changed happiness and took it back to your own land. You put it on a high shelf, out of the reach of the children."
"Tell it to the judge," the woman said. "Add some years to your time."
"Sapo!" Miranda spat at the traitor.
"No use to hate me now," the woman said. "Why should my life be ruined, and not yours?"
"You’re already licking their shoes to get less time," Miranda told her.
"And what of it? We’re going to prison now, compatriot bitch. We’ll be doing a lot of licking, might as well start now! Puta!" And she broke down, crying.
"Put your hands up against the wall," someone was telling Miranda. As she stood there, exposed and vulnerable, she felt someone’s hands patting her down; already her flesh belonged to someone else.
"Put your hands behind your back."
She didn’t want to obey merely because following orders seemed so cowardly, a confession of inferiority, and yet, she did exactly as she was told, like a machine, a machine of submission; her body was enchanted by their power which began to caress her muscles from the inside, to quiet her, like land sung to sleep by a corral.
She felt the embrace of the first cuff about her wrist, and then the other, her hands were chained together like twins, devoured by circles of steel that were passionate in their devotion to her helplessness.
She felt conquered, like a woman naked underneath a man who rides horses in the day; a terrible sexual electricity she did not understand flowed through her body, her knees felt weak, she felt like collapsing, her captivity reached her clitoris. Weren’t there pictures of hangmen having erections? It was like an act of sex, this being eaten alive, this being prey, this being kissed by the jaws of the lion, a form of sexual intercourse between police and criminal, winner and loser, this was the shameful core of human beings and the secret of history.
"You’re going to be doing a long time," the security lady told her, now that the cuffs were on, a hard, iron face that looked like a lot of men had done her wrong, when her badge was on the table. "I hope you like orange jump suits. This nice white suit’s gonna have to come off, till sooner or later, you’ll be just another naked bitch standing in the shower."
For a long time, Miranda had held out, but this last little bit, this last unmistakable proof of where the power lay proved too much, the gates finally blew open, she burst into tears and wailed like a baby. "Oh no! Oh no, God, no! No! No!"
"Should’ve thought of that before," the tough lady told her.
A strong hand grasped Miranda’s incapacitated arm, she heard a voice tell her, "Come on," and followed the rest of them, well-dressed young Colombians who had just ruined their lives, led out of the terminal to a waiting police van, like captives in a Roman triumph, while mobs of travelers headed to happy reunions and exotic vacations pressed their faces against the vast windows of the lobby to observe the spectacle.
And at that moment she wept for Ofelia’s feet, and Ofelia’s unborn child, and for the tank dreamt of by Linda’s boy, and for her large and creaking family and for her dead brother and her missing brother, and her country torn by war and broken by poverty and for her Paez ancestors and five-hundred years of being lost.
As she stepped into the police van, far weaker than she had believed, but also far more beautiful, she thought "Handcuffs do not lie!"
Short Fiction Contents
Creative Safehouse Contents