The 341st slammed into Cosala about an hour before daybreak. I was in that first wave, ma’am, the one that took the forward batteries. Resistance was heavier than we expected but it was really only a matter of having patience and applying steady pressure on our part to crack the city open. By the end of the week major fighting was finished, and we set out on regular patrols to pacify the city, maintain order, and win hearts and minds.
I was in Bravo Company and at first we were given the commercial quarter to patrol. It wasn’t bad. The streets were really narrow and the buildings created steep canyons with limited sightlines. Any one of those thousands of windows could be home to a sniper and the first time I went out I’m sure I looked like I was about to throw up or wet myself. I definitely felt that way, ma’am. I’m from a little town, you see, so those city blocks were smaller than I think any house I’d lived in, and each one was filled with more people than my whole town.
But the commercial quarter was good. I got used to it. The people, you know, they just wanted to get back to their lives. It didn’t matter to them who was sitting in the government house: a local, an occupier, a horse, whatever, they had kids to feed, things to sell, lives to live, right? We kept the streets open and kept looters out, and they appreciated us. Me and some of the guys tried to speak to them in Spanish, and I think that helped a lot, too. I tried to pal around with Gooty–that’s Corporal Gutierrez, we called him Gooty–cause he spoke Spanish from growing up. A different Spanish from theirs, so sometimes they laughed at him, too, for getting things wrong. But little things like that, we made friends.
The city itself was beautiful. It was nothing like we’d been taught to expect, like what we saw on the news. Like I said, I grew up in a little town that looked the whole thing was built in an afternoon thirty years ago. Have you ever been out west? It’s pretty but the buildings are nothing to write home about. But once I got over the fear, Cosala was something. It’s about five hundred years old and shows it, in good ways. I imagine it as a–excuse me, ma’am–but as an older woman. The city, it’s an elegant and sophisticated old woman, and when she was young she was rich and beautiful and danced with princes and presidents from all over the world, and now her fortune’s gone and she’s old but she still does her hair and puts on pearls and jewels and still pretends that’s she’s beautiful, and in a way she isn’t pretending. You get what I mean?
Anyway after a month or so Bravo Company was sent to Barrio Este. This was the Cosala that we saw in pictures before the invasion. The people here didn’t have anything, before or after we came. They had themselves, and the dirt they stood on, and nothing that happened was ever going to change that. They resented the government before we came, and they resisted us.
Kids everywhere. Even a lot of the parents were just kids. And everything was dirty. The government had made it a point not to provide services to the Barrio as some sort of punishment, so the people did without schools, police; they made their own sewers by digging trenches in the middle of the road. Have you ever been out there? The buildings are all hand-built and start crumbling before they’re even finished.
It’s funny, though, because the way Cosala sits on the mountain, Barrio Este is on high ground. Every now and then there are gaps in the streets and I’d always stop there and look out. From up there the commercial district looks like something out of a postcard, and then on the hills you see the government offices and the palaces of the rich. I can’t even imagine what it must be like growing up on those streets with that view.
On patrol we were always tense. There were rebels everywhere, and we didn’t really have to worry about snipers but the kids would throw rocks and sometimes things would escalate. You’d never know who had a weapon hiding under their clothes. And the Spanish they spoke there was hard and fast, filled with words that only existed in their neighborhood.
The few rebels that were left were hidden in the Barrio, and so we were always knocking down doors to follow leads. It wasn’t like downtown at all, where we stopped to have cafecitos in the outdoor restaurants and let the kids try on our helmets. Here we were scary, because we were scared.
I don’t know what it was about him–that, you know, the guy you asked me about–what it was about him that caught the general’s attention. We heard about his group from time to time, I think even in the commercial district I heard people mention it, some crazy guy in the hills. One day my CO called me in and said the orders came from General Welland himself. No, ma’am, I didn’t see the orders themselves or General Welland’s signature. But that’s what the CO said to me. He wanted to find out who this guy was and what threat, if any, he posed to the occupation.
I took Gooty with me and we went up into the Barrio. There’d been a dust-up earlier in the day between some Americans and locals, and so the neighborhood was especially unfriendly. We went up to one of the few contacts we had and asked about the guy, all we could get was the name and a clear sense that the locals did not want us messing with him.
They called him Jesus Hidalgo. He’d appeared in Barrio Este some years, maybe decades, earlier, nobody knew for sure. I asked if he was a gang leader or a rebel or something else, and my contact was cagey. All he would say is that Jesus Hidalgo was of no concern to the Americans.
Well at that point, ma’am, he left, so we went back out onto the street. There was someone else, deeper into the neighborhood, who had been useful to us in the past, so we went there. This was a young man, a hustler who taught himself some basic English and was looking to get out of the neighborhood. He saw us an opportunity and tried be helpful but he was young and didn’t know much about anything, but he was as good a place to start as any.
We found him at his house and asked him point blank what he knew about Jesus Hidalgo. He asked us back, “What do you know about him?” I said I didn’t know anything but I wanted to find out. He looked at me and at Gooty. We’d been in his house a dozen times before but this time he looked down at our rifles and started to get worried. “You don’t need to worry about Jesus Hidalgo,” he said to us, and then Gooty snapped back at him. “You let me decide what the United States Army needs to worry about.” I don’t even think he said it hard or anything, just trying to intimidate a little.
It was a mistake. The contact started hollering back in Spanish. He was loud enough that a crowd gathered outside the house. He didn’t have any windows, just open holes, so everyone could look at the two Americans harassing a kid. We needed to get out of there so we lifted our weapons and went out the door.
I don’t know what the kid, said, ma’am. I asked Gooty and he said the boy was cursing at us but he didn’t understand much either.
We tried to walk away back down the hill, calm but in a hurry, and the crowd began to follow us, shouting out. I saw some kids break off and run on the parallel street, gathering a bigger crowd and running up ahead to cut us off. We picked up the pace. Through gaps in the buildings we could catch glimpses of the crowd on that street, and could see the one behind us growing bigger.
Finally Gooty said we had to run, and we took off. Both crowds surged, and then they began closing in all around us and we were surrounded. I’d never seen anything like it, maybe a hundred people: men, women, old people, kids. They were mad but they were scared, too. Mostly scared. I knew enough to get some of what they were shouting. Some of them were saying anti-American things. Others telling us to get out of Barrio Este, or threatening to kill us, stuff like that. But what I heard most was people telling us to leave their guy alone.
I don’t know what happened first, ma’am, but I know for a fact that I didn’t start it. There were rocks, and what sounded like a gunshot, and then Gooty either fell or took a knee. I heard someone scream, and all around me people started to shout. Then more rocks, and more gunshots, almost definitely gunshots. And then Gooty pointed his weapon in the direction of the way out and started shooting. He opened a path in the crowd and tried to charge through it. I followed behind but there were so many kids I didn’t start firing my own weapon until I felt I had to, just to survive.
We didn’t get far together. The whole Barrio rose up and the people surged over us like ocean waves. Gooty and I were separated. I only learned later that he died. I didn’t see it happen.
I ended up in some alleys and ran through them as fast as I could for as long as I could. I ran through houses that looked empty and ducked behind whatever trees or things I could. I guess they assumed after a while that I’d escaped because I could hear people cheering and the crowd stopped running. They didn’t go back home, though, and I’d run a few streets further up the mountain. There’s only one street that leads back through Barrio Este, so I was stuck. I needed to get off those streets, though, so I went further up.
At the top of Barrio Este there’s a park. It’s part of the Parque Nacional, really, but out that far instead of playgrounds and gardens it’s an untended mess, and rivers and gorges cut it off from the rest of the city. It’s actually an ancient hunting ground, where the old Indian kings hunted deer, mostly. It wasn’t really a suitable escape route but I figured I could hide there until dark.
I got spooked in the woods so I found a clearing with a big tree in the middle and thought I’d sit there for a while. Nobody had followed me in here so I thought it’d be okay to be out in the open.
I sat for about an hour when I thought I’d stretch my legs, and when I went around the tree there was a man there, sitting on the ground, looking out onto the city.
I drew my weapon. He just sat there. So I told him to put his hands up, in Spanish, right, and he turned his head slowly and looked right at me. “I mean you no harm,” he said, in English, and then put his hands up.
He wasn’t old but very weathered, like he’d lived a hard life, but at the same time he had a very gentle face.
I asked him if he spoke English, and he nodded. I asked him who he was, and he said it didn’t matter.
And I don’t know why but it seemed right, so I asked, “Are you the one they call Jesus Hidalgo?” And he got this look on his face, like I’d used a nickname he didn’t like, or thought he’d outgrown. Not like a grimace, or annoyance, but sort of a resignation. He said he was.
This wasn’t what I expected and I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest, but I thought it would be a gangster or someone to be reckoned with. This guy, he was just a regular guy. Poor, but not as poor as a lot of the people in the Barrio. He probably weighed a hundred-forty, maybe, stood about five-six. I could see he had been in good shape when he was younger-there was still a trace of muscles on him–but he hadn’t worked out in a long time.
I kept my weapon at the ready. He didn’t seem to mind.
I asked him who he was, and why the people in the neighborhood tried to keep me from him. He said he didn’t know the answer to the second question, but the answer to the first question could be very long or very short. I asked for the short version. He said, “I am nobody.”
So I asked for the long version.
He never knew who his father was. According to his mother, once in a dream a great white bull came to her and pierced her side. He was conceived then. His mother was very young then, and very religious. Her own mother had died before she could remember, and so she, like he, was raised by his grandfather.
Yes, ma’am, I read the reports afterwards. His grandfather was the warlord Portillo. At the time he was an American client. I know. But I didn’t know that then, though it makes sense. The daughter’s name was Maria Teresa, but the man I met called her Maite, which I guess is a nickname.
This is a deeply Catholic country, and Portillo stood out for not being religious. He’d been educated in Paris and New York, right, and belonged to those intellectual circles.
Am I religious? I suppose. I grew up surrounded by people who all said they were Christian, but not everyone practiced deeply. My mother went to church fairly regularly, my father didn’t, but except for Christmas and Easter it just wasn’t a big part of my life. But if you asked me I’d’ve said I believed. I didn’t put much thought into it after that.
It isn’t like that in Cosala. You can see it just walking the streets. It was founded as a mission, and the city is still centered on the cathedral. Even in Barrio Este the strongest, best buildings are churches. The people pray for and bless each other in just about every sentence. They cross themselves whenever they pass anything that looks like a cross. And into this society Portillo tried to introduce modern ideas on religion. Somehow it didn’t hurt him too much politically.
According to the man in the park, Portillo’s wife died at the start of the Coastal War, and for the next few years Portillo spent more time away from his daughter, who was raised then mostly by the servants, all of whom were deeply religious. When Portillo came back from the wars he found that she had transformed her bedroom from this typical rich girl’s treasury of expensive toys and fancy clothes into something more like a convent.
What are you supposed to do in a case like that? Portillo was a classic Latin American father in some ways. He spoiled his daughter, and when she said she was giving her life to God he let her, even though it offended him.
They had intellectual discussions about it, at least as much as he could with a child. Years went by, he said, and they both got wiser and more firm in their convictions.
I guess that because they were so rich and prominent they were expected to have a coming out party, and Portillo convinced Maite to attend the party for him. After that she could go to the convent if she wished. So she did, and everyone agreed that she had a good time, drank champagne for the first and only time in her life, and went to bed early, by herself.
Whatever actually happened is a mystery. Even the man in the park said so. He said it like this: “By the time the story came to my ears, much of it had been sculpted by time and pressure, and it was impossible to tell what was the original.”
Maite swore that a bull had come to her and pierced her side. Portillo accused a rival of his of sneaking into her room and raping her while she was passed out.
Either way she became pregnant. She and her servants kept it a secret, and Portillo didn’t know at all until she gave birth in her room. He wouldn’t have even known that except that everything went wrong, and she died. Her last wish was that her son be named Jesus
He fired the servants and shut himself in his house. He buried his daughter in the garden, raised his grandson in her old bedroom, and never left. By then he had almost absolute control of the city, and ruled it from his house.
The boy was educated here in the lap of Third World luxury. If even half of the stories of Portillo’s wealth are true, the kid had everything. He never left the house and never wanted to.
When he was older his grandfather selected a bride for him, some political arrangement probably, and she moved in and they got married and had a kid, I think.
According to the man in the park, the wife made a passing comment about his mother, Maite, and the guy didn’t know what she was talking about. So the next day she took him to a little church in Barrio Este, where there was a shrine to her. He spoke to the priest, who had I guess been her personal priest or something like that. He described her as the most holy person he had ever met, and said that there was talk of having her declared a saint, though they would have to wait until Portillo died.
The priest told the guy about his mother’s beliefs and the plans she had before she died, and I guess it ate at him. He confronted his grandfather and eventually moved out. He moved into the little church and began studying what his mother had studied, and became the zealot she had wanted to be.
That’s how he described it. “Zealot.” He abandoned his family, gave up his wealth, and put on the most miserable clothes he could find. The guy actually laughed when he told me this. “It may be a sin to wear luxurious clothing, and simple colors show humility, but I don’t know what was gained by making the clothes so ugly.”
He said he spent the next fifteen years living in squalor. He studied and preached and did nothing else. He said he wanted to speak directly to God, and had to give up everything about this world to do it. It sounded to me like he was describing suicide.
The cult around him grew, and because Portillo was his grandfather and he was the son of the saint Maite there were clashes. The people in the Barrio protected him, and Portillo answered by trying to destroy them. This went on for years.
And then one day he sat in the church, in front of the big wooden crucifix they had there, and realized he felt nothing. It was just a room. It was just a piece of wood he had carved. Whatever value it had was something he had put into it himself. When he took a step away from it, its holiness went away, too. And what does that have to say for holiness, right?
So for him that was the end. He got up, he got dressed, and left.
The people who had listened to his sermons for all those years kept following him, but he pushed them away as nicely as he could. Finally he found this spot out in the woods, and he sat down and thought about his life. He had lived in comfort, lived in misery, with and without God, and in the end he was still here, still himself.
By the time he was done with his story I had put my weapon down and sat beside him. The view from that hilltop is magnificent. The hills roll down to the city, which is so peaceful from up high. And then the hill start up again on the far side, but not so high as before, and instead of mountains on that side there’s the ocean. You can see it from up there.
He pointed it all out to me but it was more than I could understand, so I focused on the tree that we sat under. He said it’s what he focused on when he sat there, too. Because the tree was beautiful. When you look at it carefully it’s more impossibly beautiful than any statue you could make out of it, or any building you can make. But we–people I mean–cut it down, carve it and shape it into the things that we can imagine, and then declare those things divine.
The tree is divine. That’s what he said. The tree is something that no man can make, no matter how skilled. It is more complex and unbelievable than anybody can imagine. And it is only one tiny part of the world. The mountain it sits on defies understanding. The city below. The seas.
I closed my eyes and thought about that. He kept talking. Quietly, as much to himself as to me.
The tree was planted there by accident. A seed scattered by the wind. So he and I had found ourselves there by accident. So our countries were at war, by accident almost. How far out does this go? Our planet? The universe? Is there more?
I told him it was overwhelming, and he smiled. “It isn’t, though,” he said to me. “Not at all. It’s liberating.”
The man had sat there for years, just sitting, looking out at the world. He got up when he needed to, of course, but he always returned. And he told me that in time some of his old followers started following him again, and he told them what he told me. Some of them got it, and some of them didn’t. Some stayed with him for a while, some brought him food and fresh clothes, some just sat and talked. They all knew him as Jesus, but now they called him Hidalgo, too. It’s Spanish. It means “son of something.” It’s what they used to call their nobles in Spain. Here they used it as a sign of understanding. He was the son of something. Something big, undefined, real. I don’t know.
They sat with him and he told them what he knew, but if they tried to copy him he told them to stop. He wasn’t someone to copy. He came to that spot on his own particular journey, and what he did was in keeping with his own experience. He told them–he told me, too–that we had all come along on our own particular journeys, and he had as little understanding of those journeys as we had of his. So they could learn from him, but not copy him. Their journey had to be their own.
When it was dark he stood with me and walked me out of the neighborhood. I didn’t know that there was search party out for me, that Gooty’s body was found and half the division was coming to take the Barrio. Funny, we invaded here to remove Portillo from power, to save Cosala from their dictator. But nothing obsessed him more than trying to starve the Barrio into submission, and after we took the city from him we did the job for him.
It wasn’t about me, of course. They had me back in custody in the first half hour of the operation. And it wasn’t about him, either. They–we–killed him early, too. I saw him. He just stood there, his arms at his side, and the bullets tore through him. I tried to stop it, I promise I tried, but they took me away. The operation continued through the night. I don’t think the people in the Barrio knew that Jesus Hidalgo was already dead. They fought to protect him, and they lost. They’d lost before they’d even started.
I don’t know what I feel. What right did I have to meet him on that night, to hear his story? What right do I have to retell it? What am I supposed to do with it?
I tried to tell the story in a bar of all places, and the barkeep said I should talk to an investigator so in the morning I called you and you came. But I don’t know what else to say. I feel like I got a glimpse of something beautiful, and then lost it, and there was nobody I could tell. Some sort of crime was committed that day. Maybe not the kind that falls under your jurisdiction. I don’t know what else to say, though. I’ve put in my papers, I can tell you that. I thought about going back to Cosala, maybe renting a house in the Barrio or something. But that’s his journey, not mine. I don’t know where mine will take me. But I think talking to you has been a step in it, at least. Thank you.