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from the November 2006 issue

A Soldier’s Vigil

You'll be coming soon, I'll hear your bike on the gravel, pedaling slowly, the headlight out. You don't need light, you don't need to see us to know who we are, you know me by my smell, what do you smell like, soldier? Like a goat, Lieutenant, like a tulip. I smell like whatever you want me to, Sir.

You're coming, it's your watch, you've been waiting for this all week, you can't sleep at night, you take pills, tonight you don't need them. You think all the time, Lieutenant, and you're turning pale, turning green, I figure a lot of things go through your mind, but who am I to question you.

I'm the same way, I think too much, but I sleep just fine at night, and sometimes I even fall asleep when I'm on guard duty. I'm sleeping right now, for example, lying by the side of the road, the road you're coming down, coming down on your bike.

I know that it's wrong, a sentry shouldn't fall asleep, he's supposed to guard the camp and report the news. But the thing is, Lieutenant, there isn't any news; the enemy is a hundred and twenty years from here and there's never anything to report, the sky is the only thing moving. The Three Marias were behind the pine tree when I fell asleep, now they're over the road where the trucks rumble by.

My rifle is right there waiting for you, my hand's not even touching it. It's loaded, with the safety on. If the enemy comes, we're out of luck, but what can I say, Lieutenant, the Chinese and the Russians are far away, I don't think they'll be coming tonight, Sir.

I know it won't do any good to tell you that this time it wasn't my fault, nobody ever gave me orders to kill the ants in the Colonel's garden. I know it won't do any good to tell you that this Saturday I was supposed to be on liberty instead of out here standing guard.

Maybe if I explain it to you, you'll let me go, but how can I explain that somebody's stealing away my Julia tonight, he's already stolen her away, I'm sure by now he's screwing her.

Don't laugh, Lieutenant, with your looks I'm sure you get plenty of women, but I had to talk her up for three months with blue balls and now this civilian jackass comes along and takes her away from me, while I'm out here fighting World War Three.

It's not true that the Sergeant ordered me to kill the Colonel's ants. It's not my fault if he doesn't remember, but out here truth starts at the top, you believe him and you don't believe me, the weakest one always takes the fall.

It's wrong for a soldier to leave his weapon lying in the grass, within reach of anyone, and to fall asleep thinking about Julia, but a lot of things are wrong and nobody cares.

You make fun of me and say I like to argue and that I must think I'm a lawyer like everyone from Cordoba, maybe because once you caught me reading the regulations, but I'm no lawyer and I'm not about to tell you what shack I was born in.

Julia's got reasons, what good is a man who's only around once a week, what she needs is a guy who'll take her out and sweet-talk her, not just take her to the square for a quick look at Garibaldi before jumping into the sack.

What's more, this jackass got himself a pick-up truck, how do you like that, and me I can barely afford to take her out for a beer. He's been after her for two months and if you check her out you'll see that this chick is ripe for a guy on four wheels.

The Three Marias have followed their path, Lieutenant, now they're over the hangar, behind the eucalyptus trees, and in a little while the moon will come out.

It's too late now to catch the bus, I wouldn't even make it by two, she said she'd wait for me until ten. I'm sure she's screwing him by now, biting the pillow and whimpering.

You have to come, because I'm tired of counting fireflies and listening to the insects chirp in the grass.

How hard would it have been for the Sergeant to tell the truth?

It's not easy to find yourself another bitch, you monkey-faced bastard. No Sir, Lieutenant. You're a monkey-faced bastard, aren't you? Yes Sir, Lieutenant, and that's how I know it's not easy.

I think I can hear you now.

You're coming down the slope nice and slow, without pedaling, but the rubber tires go crich, crich on the gravel. You take the bridge over the ditch and the planks go jrom, jrom. Here you have to pedal a little because you've lost momentum, just a push or two and it'll go by itself, weaving in easy curves, skirting the noise.

I don't have to open my eyes to know that you're coming without a light or a cigarette, the brightness of the sky is enough for you, and you're counting the fence posts just in case: because you think of everything, and sometimes I imagine you think so much that you can't sleep at night.

But me, I can fall asleep anywhere.

Now you're twenty meters away and you don't see me, so you start looking. The curves get a little wider. You don't want to brake and you don't want to stop before you see me. Maybe you're starting to get suspicious. Maybe you think this monkey-faced bastard is getting cocky and trying to pull something on you. Why would you think that, Lieutenant! Can't you see that I'm sacked out here, that I just fell asleep thinking about the ants? Because there was nothing to report, what could there possibly be to report?

Now you finally see me and you stop, braking with your foot, you get off the bike and set it down in the road. Easy now, you don't want to break it. I can't hear you anymore, but I'm sure you're coming this way, feeling about in the brush with your foot, and any minute now you'll discover the carbine.

It's all yours, Lieutenant, I know that a soldier should never abandon his weapon, but a guy forgets about those things when he's sleeping. You slide open the bolt, the metal barely making a sound, you pull it back slowly, the bullet falls to one side into your hand, now you remove the clip. You load it and count the bullets just to make sure. Are there five, Lieutenant? There are. Now you can leave the carbine as it was, with the clip in your pocket.

You come right up to me and stand by my face, you're so close I can smell your boot leather. This is the hardest part because I don't know if you're going to kick me in the face, or if you're going to do what you did last time when you caught skinny-ass Landívar napping. I have a terrible urge to cover my face with my arm, but I control myself. I don't know what to do with my eyes, if I should shut them tight so they won't move, I feel like sand is running behind my eyelids. Relax, man, take it easy.

You crouch down and look, I don't have a thing, not even a cartridge belt, you can pat me down. I'm just a guy who fell asleep.

Now you stand up.

You leave.

But you'll be back.

A hundred meters away Cornejo calls out for you to halt and you identify yourself and chat with him for a minute. Another hundred meters and Sampietro shouts out to you with that bark of his. They're good soldiers-subordination and valor-and besides they were expecting you.

Now you're at the other end of the camp, and you have to turn around. In five minutes you'll be back here.

The sky is a fiesta, Lieutenant, and the grass smells sweet. I'll bet Julia's asleep, curled up in that guy's arms. It won't be easy to find another girl like her.

You're within earshot now, Lieutenant, I like hearing you sing "Curupaity" and "the billy goat knows there ain't nothin' like a nanny." You passed Cornejo and you're coming like a shot, now you're just fifty meters away.

I'm dreaming about what Landívar told me, how you unloaded his carbine and on your way back ran him over with your bike, and then smacked him around and gave him a week in the stockade for falling asleep, abandoning his weapon and being a worthless bastard. Well, that's what Skinny-ass gets for snoring when he's on guard duty.

But I'm not like Landívar, I'm what you might call a thorn in your side. A black troublemaker, Lieutenant, a troublemaker from Cordova, like you said, sir.

You sing so nice, Lieutenant, if I had a voice like yours, I bet nobody could steal my Julia away. If you're a little off-key it must be because you're shouting and because now you want me awake like a good sentry ought to be.

But if I stay where I am, you'll break my ribs for sure, with the momentum you've gained and the way you've got it in for me.

So I call out for you to halt.

Because I'm wide awake now Lieutenant, now I'm on my feet, don't you hear me Lieutenant, I'm taking aim at you now, why are you laughing Lieutenant, now I've set my sights on your head, I don't know you, I tell you to stop, now I've cocked the rifle the way they taught me at the firing range, halt you son of a bitch, just a little squeeze and that splatter of red trickling down your forehead, and as you raise your arms and begin to lurch into a zigzag you're not going to finish, and as all the dogs in the world begin to bark, I've already jacked the bolt and another splatter of red, though this time I don't aim at you but at the Three Marias, who's to say it won't hit the mark.

And now no one can say that I didn't call out for you to halt, like I'm supposed to, and that you didn't respond, no one can say I didn't follow regulations, fire a warning shot, and then kill an unidentified suspect charging at me on a bicycle. Even if that suspect is you, Lieutenant, gulping your last breath on the grass and whimpering while I grope you as if you were a woman, as if you were Julia, and I find the clip you took from me and toss it into the ditch before the other sentries arrive, white with moonlight and fright.

If you had a little more time, which you don't, I would tell you about the other clip that I hung between my legs, you know where.

First published as "Imaginaria" in Los oficios terrestres, 1986. Copyright Ediciones de la Flor. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2006 by Cindy Schuster. All rights reserved.

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