by Rebekah W. Olson
“The waters encompassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
When Habib stepped into the road in front of the Santa Marta Airport his shoes sank into the mud up to the knobby bone in his ankle. Two women selling odds and ends on the concrete beside him clucked their tongues.
“You see,” one whispered to the other in Spanish, “he is not Colombian. To step into the mud, and in white shoes…”
The other, on a bucket beside her, swatted at flies over the plantains. “Then he is a tourist,” she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the man with her chin, “and he needs new shoes.”
“Meester!” she cried in English, standing up to wave a long, saggy arm at the assortment of plastic sandals they sold, “Meester, we have shoes!”
Habib sighed. The clinic in Philadelphia felt very far away.
While he scraped the mud from his shoes on the concrete, the women watched him. Habib was short, shorter than any of the other medical students in his year. His name and darker skin often led those in Philadelphia to believe he was Indian, but he wasn’t. Habib was a name his mother found in the newspaper, a paper half-submerged in mud. He was Colombian; he was home.
The women watched with lazy curiosity, one standing and the other seated. Once he had both shoes on and was clapping the mud from his hands, the first woman hobbled to his side.
“Meester, you need shoes?”
Habib smiled, but shook his head. In Spanish, he replied, “No, thank you. I can wash them.” Both women blinked in surprise, and then laughed and laughed, patting his shoulders, his back, his head.
“Where are you from?” they asked. When he just smiled weakly and looked at his hands, the women decided not to press the issue. They patted his shoulders again. “Welcome,” they said, and then walked back to their buckets.
Habib waited an hour for a taxi, a duffel bag with a few clothes and his medical supplies tucked under his arm. He looked down the road to the north. That’s where he was expected.
The medical clinic for the Red Cross was in the middle of the northern hills of Colombia, an area lush with bamboo, ivory nut palms, and orchids. He had tried to apply to residencies everywhere else but here—the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Venice Regional Medical Center—but couldn’t outshine the competition. In the end, he used his birth certificate and fluent Spanish to secure a last minute position with doctors in the Colombian Red Cross Society. The country was always at war with itself in some way, and American medical volunteers and professionals had been in the country for years. Habib had avoided the memories and mud of his country for more than fifteen years, and within thirty minutes of his plane landing, both were already firmly secured to his white American shoes.
When Habib was a boy, Colombia was always red. Mud, beans, blood. When he was nine-years-old, his father came into their shanty with a rusty revolver in the basket of goods he brought back from the village. Habib remembered that he watched his father’s short, square fingers as he lifted the gun and turned to his wife.
“Sophia,” his father said, “I will go to Riohacha in the morning.” He put the gun high on a shelf above their matted blankets. “My brother is there. He’s in trouble.”
Habib remembered that his mother stiffened, then turned away. She picked up a plantain with her thin fingers and as she peeled away the thick membrane from the fruit she nodded her head without speaking. Three weeks later, when his father’s body was sent home, they could not recognize it. Habib had to peel away the clothing before they could wash him for burial.
More than twenty years later, the memory still sent a dull buzzing down his spine and he shivered, looking away from the road toward his home.
When the taxi still had not arrived and the sun had begun to set, the two women pulled out great tarps to roll their goods in, placing the large parcels on their broad, bony backs. As they walked away, one turned and called out to him.
“If you want to get somewhere, you should cross the street and ask the truck driver. He is taking a load of laborers to the fields in the south, and will help you if you ask.” She turned and waved her hand over her head. “Or wait for the bus heading north. It should be here when the sun sets.” Then she hobbled to catch up to the other, their bodies bent from the weight of their loads; old women bobbing through the crowd like wounded crabs.
Habib looked to the horizon and determined that the bus should be there in a few minutes. In a few moments he would head north and would arrive at the clinic by midnight.
He followed the road with his eyes, the red of the mud diminishing into a needle-thin line as it got closer and closer to the horizon.
Red. It would always be red here.
His shoes, his father, his profession.
He felt the buzz in his spine again and realized, finally, that it was fear. He knew he was not strong, or talented, or determined. He’d known it for a long time, but in this place he could not hide from it. His father, and eventually his mother, died believing he would save his family, but he became a doctor to escape.
He was a doctor, and he was afraid of blood.
At this thought, he turned away from the horizon, away from the direction of the clinic and away from the bus that would carry him there. He couldn’t get back on the plane, but he could stall until he figured out what to do.
He stepped gingerly through the mud until he found his way to the other side of the road to the truck. A tall man—taller than any Colombian he had ever seen—stood at the back of the vehicle, connecting a large metal frame and tarp cover to the bed. As Habib approached him, the man stopped, wiped the sweat from his sun-tanned forehead, and put a hand on his bony hip.
“A storm is coming tonight, a large one,” the man said, grabbing the tarp cover and shaking it to check that it was secure. After a moment he wiped his hands on his pants and pointed at Habib’s luggage. “They sent you over.” It was more a statement than a question, but Habib nodded.
“The women said you were going south,” Habib said. “I’ll pay you to take me with you.”
At that moment, a group of young men in thin, faded shirts and dirt-stained jeans came out of the building in front of the truck, laughing and raising dust.
“If you can find a place in the truck,” the driver said, “I’ll take you.”
Balancing himself on tools and old woolen blankets between the others, Habib gripped the side of the truck bed and listened to the conversations of the young men. The ribbed tarp above the truck shielded them from the cool night breeze. Most of the men casually ignored him. He could tell they had worked together for a while. They had a way of relying on nods and winks to tell jokes, hiding the punch line that everyone knew except for Habib. The sunset over the hills and the jostling of the truck, combined with the friendly banter of the laborers brought Habib to a fitful sleep.
In his dream he saw himself at the clinic in Philadelphia, the blinds of the windows cutting strips of sunlight across IV drips; rough, thin blankets; anguished faces; empty chairs. He marveled at his hands, which seemed bloated and pink. He watched himself, with a clipboard at his side, lean over a patient. With a bump of the truck his dream shifted, and Habib found himself holding a torn cloth, blood on his hands.
“They took her behind the trees,” he heard someone say. He turned to face the voice and watched himself move as if in water. The cloth in his hands rippled in unseen currents. There was no one behind him, but water flowed under the door of the office and swirled around his feet. Habib could hear the sound of the truck and the men, but could not escape the foggy hold of his dream.
“Your mother was at the post office waiting for your letter and they took her behind the trees,” he heard again. In his dream, he took a step back and tripped. He stumbled, looked behind him, and saw his mother standing beside the hospital bed with her eyes closed. Her long, thin fingers were clasped in front of her chest, her lips were moving as if saying a silent prayer. She opened her eyes, looked at Habib, and said nothing.
Habib startled awake. The men were gathered around him in the truck. Habib felt his own forehead and closed his eyes. Rain thumped agains the tarp above them.
“Here,” A man across from him held out a beer, “To bring you back to earth.”
Habib nodded weakly, took the beer, but did not drink it.
Another man, nearer to the cab, whispered under his breath, “He was whimpering like a child. Like a stray dog.”
The man who had given Habib the beer beat the side of the truck and pointed at the man near the cab.
“Shut your mouth, Luis! You embarrass yourself with your stupidity.” Luis jumped at the unexpected reprimand. After a moment he curled his lip in disgust, and shrugged.
“Drink it,” the man prompted Habib again. “It will help. I’m Ramon.”
Habib shook his hand and took a swig from the beer can. He hadn’t had a drink for ten years. He felt the liquor reach his fingertips and buzz beneath his nails.
“You’re not a laborer,” Ramon stated.
Habib nodded. “I’m a doctor for the Red Cross. I just got here from America this evening.”
The men around him started to whisper excitedly. Habib put down his beer and looked around the group.
“Excuse us,” Ramon said, “but we were just talking about the revolt in the North. We all have family there. We heard a doctor would be coming.”
“It’s getting worse there,” another man whispered. “They say the revolt has left hundreds dead. They are left to bleed in the streets. The volunteers refuse to leave the clinic.”
Luis brought a cigarette to his lips and turned to Habib, Luis’s eyes narrowed to thin, dark slits. “If you are the doctor for the Red Cross clinic in the North, why are you heading south?”
The men were silent. Habib felt their eyes on his face, his shaking hands, his chest as he breathed. He looked down at the beer he held. He thought of his dream, of his own bloated hands. He thought of the bloody strip of cloth rippling at his side. He looked up at the men watching him.
“Because I am a coward,” he said.
The wind whipped the truck around the slick mud road and the rain fell so steadily and violently that a metallic hum began to fill the truck bed.
“You should not be here,” Ramon said quietly.
Luis grabbed the metal frame of the tarp above his head and stood up in the truck bed. “This man is running away from our families. There are people dying because of him,” He looked at Habib, the cigarette between Luis’s thumb and index finger now. “You can be a man and choose to go, or we will choose for you.”
The men looked from Luis to Habib. There was a clap of thunder and the truck swerved in the mud. Each man grabbed the truck side.
“Perhaps we should vote,” one man ventured. He looked at Luis. “To be fair.”
Luis sniffed and sat back down.
“Please,” Habib stood up shakily and put out his hand to calm the men, “You… you don’t need to vote. I will get out myself.”
Ramon shook is head. “You can wait until we reach Ciénaga. That’s where we stop tonight.”
“No,” Habib shook his head, “Luis is right. I deserve this.” He pointed at the storm, at the wind whipping the rain against the tarp. “I’m afraid of the North and the people there. I’ve been running away when I should be rescuing your families.”
Luis folded his arms across his chest and inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “Then jump,” he said, “Prove you’re not a dog.”
“Luis!” Ramon shouted. “That proves nothing—what’s the point of forcing him north if he dies before he gets there! We will stop at the next town.”
It was silent in the bed of the truck. The other men looked from Ramon to Luis; both men sat rigidly staring at the other from opposite sides of the truck. No one looked at Habib.
Eventually, Luis exhaled a puff of smoke and closed his eyes. “Do what you want. I don’t care about stray dogs. They carry viruses.” Ramon stood up in a rage, one fist raised and the other rested protectively on Habib’s shoulder.
Habib looked down at Ramon’s hand. It was the hand on his shoulder that was the worst insult of all. In that instance he knew how the men viewed him. Despite Ramon’s kindness, he was not equal to them. More to prove something to himself than anything else, he pushed his way to the end of the truck, knocking knees with several men, and jumped headfirst into the storm.
The hum from the truck was instantly replaced by the gust of wind and rain. When his face hit the mud, he felt a shock of sudden pain as his cheekbone and jaw absorbed the impact of his fall. He rolled violently for several feet, his arms and legs whipping wildly. When his mind caught up with him, he pulled in his arms and straightened his legs in an effort to reduce damage. He slowed down a few moments later; mud caked his clothes, his nose, his hair. He turned his head to look for the truck. Through the rain he made out red brake lights in the distance, and heard distant shouting. He did not move. He allowed the rain to beat his bruised face. A moment later, the lights disappeared and the sound of the truck’s engine bounced haphazardly through the wind.
Habib forced himself to stand. With the adrenaline he still had, he began walking down the road in the opposite direction, rain pounding his shoulders, mud between his teeth. As he took a few steps, he felt the air begin to vibrate with the sound of another truck. He saw the headlights move over his back and light the path before him. With a screech, the truck swerved to a stop beside him.
“Are you crazy!” the driver shouted through the rain. Habib was relieved to see it was not the driver from before. “I almost hit you!”
Habib raised a hand and apologized. “Do you have room for me in your truck? You’re heading north, no?”
The driver was a fat man, with splotched, stretched skin. Empty beer cans rolled around his passenger seat.
“You have a strange accent,” the fat man said.
“I’m Colombian. I studied in America. I need to go north.”
The driver rolled his small black eyes at Habib and jabbed a finger toward the uncovered truck bed. “You’re too dirty to sit up here. You can ride in the back as far as Santa Marta.”
Habib walked slowly to the back and pulled himself into the truck bed. A second later the driver sped off, the tail whipping in the mud. Habib struggled to grab the side of the truck. The driver seemed unaware of the wild slipping and jerking of the truck in the mud and wind. Habib felt himself grow green from the shifts and jerks of the drive and threw up as he grappled for a steady handhold. Through the cab window the driver laughed and called out to Habib. “How are you feeling, little minnow? Are you done swimming in Colombia? Does it storm like this in los Estados Unidos?” He laughed heartily to himself again and drank from a can in his car.
Habib trembled from the effort to hold on in the rain. As the truck swerved along the road, Habib closed his eyes and wondered what time it was.
As the truck sputtered wildly up one of the hills, a flash of lightning illuminated the entire landscape. The driver gasped and choked on his beer, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left. Habib clung desperately to the rusted holes in the bed of the truck as it flipped through the rain. He felt the tires under him lift off the ground, his body floating in the tumble of dirt and metal. When the truck crashed a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crushed and the bed of the truck caging Habib in a box of metal and mud. Habib still held to the rusted holes in the truck bed, which were now above him, and realized he was still screaming.
When they found him later, Habib did not intentionally tell them his name. They found the truck three hours after the crash, when the storm had stopped, and it took eleven men to lift it enough for him to crawl out. They gathered around him, gently patting him on the back as he stumbled between them.
“You are a real hombre,” they said excitedly. “Trapped in a smoking truck for three hours!” They watched him intently, waiting for him to explain.
Habib looked down at his hands, bleeding and raw. He looked at the mud on his clothes, his white shoes. Then he looked up at the crowd of men around him.
“I’m Colombian,” he said.