They kept him in a cell, separate from the rest of the detainees. He didn’t speak English, he didn’t speak Spanish—he didn’t speak any language as far as they could tell. To all their attempts at communication, he merely inclined his head to one side and fixed them with a steady, inquisitive gaze. From this, they concluded that he was either mute or mentally deficient, so in accordance with official regulations, he had to be kept apart from the general population.
He now lay on a low cot, his hands supporting the back of his head, seeming more like a tourist relaxing in a hotel room than a migrant caught wandering the desert. For the first few hours, he spent his time gazing dreamily up at the ceiling, but now he appeared to be sleeping, despite the constant din of ringing phones and creaking doors and the general commotion of agents taking care of business in the room beyond the 6 x 8 feet enclosure.
One agent, an older man with a fixed look of despair, glanced up from his laptop, and said to a younger agent at a desk to his right, “I wonder where that guy’s from. He doesn’t look Mexican or Guatemalan or even from anywhere else I can think of,” to which the younger man replied, “You know you can’t go by how they look.”
Another agent, a young woman, sitting in front, nearest the cell, turned to the others and said, “Wherever he’s from, I think he’s kinda cute. A little beaten down, maybe. Who knows how long he’s been out there.”
“Don’t get desperate on us,” the older agent said. The two men liked to joke with the woman in this way, especially about her love life, which she generally took in stride. She was new at the job and wanted to fit in as best she could.
Other than this one exchange, the three desk agents on duty that day didn’t concern themselves with the man in the cell. Their main order of business was to finalize the departures of the fifty or so other detainees caught by the border patrol earlier that day and who now filled the holding bay to capacity at the back of the facility. Their work entailed an enormous amount of data checks and data entries, which they needed to complete before going home for the night.
As the sun began to set, the cell in the far corner, in line with a window on the opposite side of the room, brightened. Apparently in response, the man in the cell pushed himself up, swung his legs in their tattered jeans over the side, and sat on the edge of the cot. He looked past the wooden desks, past their occupants, into the intense glow of the desert as framed by the wide window.
The female agent, curious about the man’s sudden show of activity, stopped working at her laptop to examine him more closely. In the spotlight of the sun his face appeared even more attractive than before and far more youthful. Earlier that day, when they had been trying to interrogate him, it had struck her for moments at a time that he resembled someone she knew, someone from her past, but she had never quite arrived at just who that person was. And now as she looked at him, again that feeling of recognition arose. If he would just look at her directly, just once, she thought, maybe then she might recover the memory (or so it seemed possible in her mind), but no matter how much she hoped for this to happen, nothing of the sort did. His wide brown eyes remained fixed on something else, something far in the distance, as if he were in a trance. Who is it? she kept thinking. Who is it that he reminds me of? She was determined now to remember, so she focused her thoughts as best she could with the same sort of effort she used when trying to remember a dream, and ever so slowly an image began to rise to the surface. Actually, it was an image bundled up with a feeling—something about swimming in a creek or jumping off a rope into a creek. But she had never swum in a creek, let alone jumped off a rope into one. What a funny image to have, she thought. Or maybe it is just a dream that I’m remembering…and while she was considering this possibility, the man looked away from whatever he was looking at before and locked eyes with hers. The abruptness of it made her literally jump up in her seat, and at the same time the memory that had been hovering for so long came rushing at her with full force: he looked almost like her father!
The occupant in the cell now smiled at her obvious surprise, as if to say, don’t worry, it’ll be all right—and this change in his demeanor further unnerved her. She looked away then, refusing to engage any further. She made a show of returning to her previous focus, to the long and tedious spreadsheet displayed on her laptop, to another go over of the data she had compiled.
Later that night, after the other detainees had been loaded onto buses and driven away, this man remained because they had no idea where to send him. At the last minute, the head office gave the order that the man would stay where he was until the following day when a higher official would arrive to make a determination. Moreover, the two agents lowest in seniority, already on duty, were to spend the night watching over him. That responsibility fell to the woman and the young agent who had earlier observed that appearance alone was not enough to determine a person’s origin. The man in the cell still hadn’t uttered a word. For the last few hours, he had just lay curled up on the cot, facing the wall, almost immobile, his small frame easily discernible beneath a thin blue blanket. The cheese sandwich and child-size carton of milk delivered earlier, placed just inside the cell door, lay untouched. He hadn’t even gotten up to relieve himself in the portable toilet that day.
Strange, the female agent thought.
She and her partner conversed a bit that night, but not about him. They spoke about the toll the job was taking on them and their families, the fact that some of their family members had stopped speaking to them entirely. “Well,” the male agent said, “What do they expect? If you break the law, you pay the consequences. Plain and simple. If my sister-in-law doesn’t get that, to hell with her.” The woman nodded, not entirely disagreeing.
Later, the agents decided to take turns sleeping two hours at a time in one of the offices down the hall. The woman took the first round of rest. The two hours went by quickly, of course, and when it was her turn to stay awake, she found herself thinking a bit more about the memory that had surfaced earlier and about her father. Again, it wasn’t really a memory. It was an image and a feeling, and the short rest had somehow aided in assembling the odd pieces of this puzzle. What she was recalling was a picture in an old photo album that her grandmother had kept stowed away in a closet. She hadn’t seen the faded color picture since she was a child, when her grandmother would occasionally share the photo with her without her mother knowing. That particular picture, for some reason, had always made her mother angry or sad or maybe both. Her father was still in his native country when the photo was taken. It showed him standing near a body of water—yes, possibly a creek. And now that she was able to see the picture with more clarity of memory, she visualized a thick rope hanging near the left edge of the photo. So, she realized now, it was her dad who had had all the fun swinging and plunging into that creek and not some dream experience of her own. It made her happy to think that he had had some fun in his life. For his life in general hadn’t turned out to be much fun, being that he died in a motorcycle accident soon after her birth. And just as she was remembering all this, the man in the cell began to stir. First, he turned over on his side, away from the wall. Then he rose up on one elbow, and in the dusky light falling through the far window, she saw that he was staring straight at her.
Immediately, she looked away, down at her desk, not taking much in beyond her half-eaten sandwich. She picked it up and began to nibble on it intently. His look had bored into her, if a look can do such a thing. Maybe it was true, she thought—he was mute—and he had mastered the art of looking and demanding and thus communicating his needs simply through his wondering eyes.
But how he looked just like her father!
When a few moments later he stood up and approached the bars of the cell, she knew he had done so but she felt as defenseless as a child who refuses to believe what she knows to be true. She pretended to be back at work on her laptop, reviewing the list of detainees, their names, their countries of origin, their ages, their family relations, their health status…
“Miss,” he said, barely above a whisper. “I’m truly sorry to disturb you. But it’s time for me to go.” His voice was low in pitch and flat, but with no accent at all.
She looked up then, her hands quivering, nearly knocking her laptop to the floor. She steadied it, steadied herself, and managed to say, “You speak English?”
He said, “I do now. I just needed a little time to learn your language to better express my thoughts. I have learned many languages, actually. I speak Spanish, Icelandic, Swahili, whatever may be needed. Now I speak English because that’s what you understand.”
“Okay,” the woman said, finding herself speaking just above a whisper as well. “Let me get this straight. You pick up a language just like this?” and she snapped her fingers, despite her shaking hand.
“Well, not exactly. It takes a certain amount of thought and will and the right circumstances. It finally came together in this cell, but now that I’m rested it’s time for me to leave. Would you like to open the door for me?”
The woman, who now felt woozy, as if awakening from a drugged sleep, wasn’t sure if she should run from the room, scream at the top of her lungs, or simply go ahead and unlock the cell door. He seemed to sense her dilemma. “All right. I understand. You don’t want to be blamed. I just wanted to give you the opportunity, that’s all. I will let myself out.” He then placed his hands on two adjacent steel bars and started to pull as if he could actually separate them. He pulled at them gently, his face concentrated but otherwise showing no strain, and in less than a minute he had indeed created space enough for his slim body to slip through.
He now stood outside the cell, several feet from her desk, erect and self-assured—a commanding presence even, despite being clothed in the same soiled white t-shirt and ragged jeans they had found him in. Through all of this, the woman had barely moved, and she was not sure if she was literally unable to move or simply unwilling. The man said, “Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this in the morning. No one will. You won’t remember finding me in the desert, a little worn out but not nearly as bad off as you might have thought. You will, however, continue thinking about your father. You may not understand why you are thinking about him, but the trajectory of his life may start to concern you more than it has before. You may recall that when he left his mother and father behind it was to escape a war, a war that had already caused his country’s ancient cemeteries to overflow with bodies they had no room to bury. And either awake or in dreams you will then feel what it is like to leave a home you both hate and would do anything to return to. All this and more you will come to know.”
With that, the man turned away from the woman and headed for the front door. He walked at a measured, nonchalant pace, evidently confident that he wouldn’t be stopped. Although the woman had double-bolted the door earlier, it didn’t surprise her when he simply pulled it open without turning the locks. After the door had creaked to a close, her eyes shifted to the large window through which she watched him grow smaller and smaller until he disappeared altogether into the desert’s moonlit expanse.