I woke up to the sound of yelling, my head pounding, and pounding on my door. My friend Phillip, yelling, pounding on the door and yelling. I opened my eyes and the sun was up and bright, what was Philip yelling? it was so bright and my head was spinning. Dead waves in this small, Guatemalan town had us board to the point drinking ourselves stupid the night before. I felt like I was gonna be sick. More pounding… “Get out! Run! you have to get out of here!” He sounded like he was almost crying. I slipped on my shoes to go see what was going on when I heard a crash and loud voices. “Donde esta el?” Repeated in voices horse with anger.
“I don’t know where he is! No se! No se!” was Phillip’s reply. He had told me to run, he told me run.
I opened the window to jump out just as I heard the angry voices again, “Mira en la habitacion!,’ they were coming to look in my room. My feet crunched on the gravel in the alley behind our little hotel and ran around to look at our rental car, there were three men standing around it and I didn’t have the keys anyway. What was going on? I didn’t understand why they wanted me. My mind raced back through the night, it was a whirlwind of drinking shots and my memory had holes.
I heard steps coming around to the back of the little hotel and I knew I needed to move. I slipped between two buildings on the other side of the alley and tried to think. Those guys near the car; one had a bat and another had a long pipe or something. What was going on, whatever they wanted with me it wasn’t going to go well. I got between the two buildings and looked to the next street. It seemed quiet and people were carrying groceries or just walking down the street or eating at a street vendor. I turned right to go toward the edge of town and forced myself to walk so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself.
The pounding in my head made it so hard to think back on the night before but I had to try to figure out what was going on. There was a girl… guys were bugging her. Those guys! They were shoving her in the bar and yelling. I got in their face. I looked to the knuckles of my right hand, they were bruised and cut. Wait did I hit one? Is that what this was about, I remembered he shoved me and I hit him hard, and again. He went to the ground, I was so drunk, when his buddy bent down to help him I kicked him into the wall and he hit his head pretty hard. Was that what this was about? Those guys trying to get revenge? Oh man, maybe I hurt one of them, maybe I was in trouble.
As my memories were falling in and out of place I was starting to get worried; people were looking at me and whispering to each other with heads close together. I could see the edge of town where the jungle took over quickly. I heard a commotion behind me. The men that were standing near my car had found me, they were yelling and pointing. The time to blend in (as much as a blond headed surfer could blend in here) was over and I sprinted for the treeline.
I heard steps running behind me and my stomach was heaving with each step. It was about 88, humid, no breaze, and the alcohol in my system was rebelling. I made it to the trees where I was hoping I could sort of lose myself but my pursuers were too close. Dry heaves now turning into strong cramps as I ran a little harder, I knew the river would be close and I was hoping that I was a better swimmer than these guys.
Halfway across the lazy brown water I took a peak behind me. There were now about 15 men chasing me but they were all waiting on the bank. A couple of whispered words drifted over the water and reminded me why they wouldn’t chase me. “Cocodrilos… cocodrilos.” My mind filed through the recent internet stories of people going missing here, and that the crocodiles were the main suspect. The heat of fear flushed the back of my neck and I felt for the first time that this could be life or death, I swam as fast as I could for the far bank and looked back just in time to see the crowd dispersing. Most now had bats or pipes or tire irons or something heavy, one carried a rope, and a few had chains.
I kept my pace at a jog because I didn’t know how long it would take them to get across the river to continue the chase or if they even would continue the chase, maybe they just wanted to scare me. Maybe they’d had a good laugh at scaring the gringo and they’d get bored. It was then that I started worrying about Philip. I didn’t think he was even around when I hit those other guys, he should be ok. Those guys, they were bugging a girl. The girl.
I remembered that after I had kicked that guy into the wall the girl grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the bar, she looked worried and insistent so I followed. I got a better look at her in the light of the street and my hazy memory was that she was beautiful. It seemed like she took me somewhere quiet, I remember sitting close to her. I remember kissing, her Esper… Esperanza? Her name? It meant hope.
The sound of voices getting closer brought me back to the present. I walked and jogged until nearly dark just trying to put distance between myself and the town. I started to realize I would need some sort of plan. I hadn’t had a chance to grab my phone or wallet when I jumped out the window, I only had my t-shirt and shorts on and the pair of shoes I hastily slipped on. I stopped and leaned on a try to catch my breath and threw up in stead.
I had drank so much tequila the night before and now every step brought a wave of nausea. I didn’t know how much longer I could run, but the guys chasing me, I could tell now that they wanted to hurt me, or even kill me. This was crazy, all this for a little fight?
What had the girl said about these guys? Her English wasn’t great and my Spanish not much better. I think she said they were her cousins, they were mad at her for going out with a boy they thought was no good for her. She was so grateful that I got her away from them she kissed me, or did I kiss her? I know she held my hand and hugged me, I remember our bodies pressed together, I remember feeling so much passion.
Suddenly I heard leaves crunching under foot very near. I saw some this undergrowth and dove under it, hoping to hide. Angry calls in Spanish echoed back and forth through the trees. I tried to breath calmer, quieter, but my heart and head were thumping together, sweat was stinging some scratches on my neck. Footsteps so close, there were two men right next to me. Boots not more than ten feet away, I could see them through the brush as I lay on my stomach. The boots crunched to a stop. Their owner must have seen me or marks I left crawling into my hiding spot.
“Lo encontre! Esta aqui!” A voice triumphant. They found me, the bushes erupted with motion as hand grabbed me and roughly lifted me up. My arms were yanked behind my back and I felt my hands being tied. I looked up, the boots belonged to the man I had hit the night before, the cousin. That was it, they wanted revenge, I was hoping they just wanted to mess me up.
I was walked and dragged to a boat, it was now nearly totally dark and my throat was dry not just from the running but from fear. They had me and could do anything they wanted. I forced myself to think of the conversation I had with the girl… Esperanza, she said they were Devout Catholics and were mad that she wanted to date. I was raised Catholic, still wore a crucifix if only out of habit, but maybe it would help.
“Lo siento, amigo, I’m sorry lo siento…” I wanted to apologise but couldn’t remember how to say I was sorry for hitting him.
The cousin looked right into my eyes, he glanced at the scratches on my neck, he looked to be almost crying. His face was so close to mine I felt as much as heard his whisper, “Calliete, solo Dios pueudo perdon que hiciste.” What was that? Only God could pardon… pardon what I did? I only punched the guy, why was he so upset?
He threw me face down into the boat and a short ride across the river later and I was standing on a dock in front of what looked like the whole town. I felt sick again, not from the hangover, but from seeing that my death may be near and that I was helpless. I saw a familiar face in the crowd, “Phillip! Phillip help me! Oh shit man help!” His shoulders slumped and he turned and walked away. What the hell was this?
It was then that I saw another familiar face, it was her. Esperanza, she was crying but she was focused on me, her chin up, she looked like she was leaning toward me, her fists… her fists were clenched. In a flash she was blotted out by the face of her cousin, he was there in front of me grabbing at my shirt.
He snatched my crucifix and held it in front of my face, “Esto significa algo para ti?” My mind was trying to translate, was it significant? The cross?
“Yes, Si si, I’m Catholic, soy Catolico!” I was desperate, willing to say anything to buy time to think.
“Bueno. Realmente lo sientes?” he was asking if I was really sorry.
Maybe they did just want to scare me, “Yes yes I’m sorry I hit you! I’m so sorry!” But when I said it he reached and hit me in the mouth with the back of his hand he had drawn his arm back to the opposite shoulder and hit me hard enough to ring my ears.
His voice was like a roar, “NO para mi, para ella, para me cosina!”
What, for her, wait… wait, what did I do to her, wait espere…. epsere no. She never said her name was Esperanza, she was telling me ‘espere’ she was telling me to wait. She was saying no. All strength fled my body, as if it was ashamed to be a part of me. My legs gave out and as I dropped to my knees sobs shook my body when I realized what I had done.
I looked again at Espera… at her. She was sobbing now as well, but her jaw was set, she was determined to see this through.
Her cousin let me go and I fell to my side sobbing, “Lo siento, lo siento, oh my God I’m sorry, what did I do? what did I do?”
Through eyes blurred with tears a face came into view, the cousin. “Do… do you believe. Jesus do yo believe he die for you for you sins?” He was talking slowly, in English so I could understand. Tears marked the pain on his own face.
“Yes, God please help me yes I believe that Jesus saved me.”
He placed the boot of his heal on my back, “Then go to him,” he breathed as he shoved.
I dropped off the dock into the water. Brown water closing in, blackness closing in, chains dragging me down. My last thoughts, “Forgive me, forgive me, please God….
I first got the idea for this story about 25 years ago while taking Spanish at the University of Houston. There was a controversial case in the news about a woman who said she had been rapped by high profile athletes and several people were saying she had falsely accused them.
My Spanish professor was a small albino man from Guatemala. He said that there is really never any false accusation in the little town where he was from because the accused would not survive the night. The town would get justice. Women in his town knew that a man they accused would be killed so they would never make such a false claim.
I don’t know what to think about the justice he talked about but I do know that the answer isn’t to blame the victim, or ridicule her, or tell her she shouldn’t have been there, or drank that, or worn that, or that she shouldn’t have waited to tell anyone.
I do also think that if we took victims seriously and did thorough investigations then the fear of false accusations would fade.
In the bible we are told about bearing false witness,
Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.
And as important as it is to remember that we also need to remember that in Deuteronomy we are told not to blame or ignore the victim.
The real challenge is to honor all claims and investigate while we also understand that in our country a person is innocent until proven guilty. If we can live in that tension and find that ground then there is no fear of false witness and guilty parties will still be found by justice.