A Hero’s End || Ben Davies



Credit: JoyUsGarden

A Hero’s End

by Ben Davies

It’s the light that hits hardest. Couldn’t remember what a full day's worth felt like before, but now it all comes back. So much so that you just want to grab it as it streams in through the windows of the camioneta. A bright green and red one that bundles its way down Guatemala’s broken roads, direct from the city to the beach. You used to talk to everyone on these long journeys but that was all before. Before that night. Before everything changed. Now you just sit and stare at the light. Face smudged against the window, watching the fumes of the exhaust extinguish under the cool clasp of the midday sun. Sat all alone because no one came to collect you but that’s only because you never asked. Jenni would have been there in a flash, that’s what little sisters are for, but you needed the time. To breathe. Because you don’t think you’ve taken a proper breath in sixteen years. You can’t when you’re inside, because to breathe means to be free and you haven’t been free for a long time. Ever since those ruined seconds on the beach when the gringo’s finger pointed at you and your sentence was sung. A chorus of boos, taunts and jeers. Guilty, guilty, the song of the day. From the foreigners, the police and those you once considered a friend. People you head back to now, just an hour now until you arrive. Nervous to what awaits. Knowing all too well how a small village works and what they still say. The stares and the scorn. A sunset story passed down from one generation to the next. To some you’re a hero, or so Jenni says. The one who fought the fight when no one else dared. To most however, you’re a wretch. That includes Dania and your little girl too, not that they live at the beach anymore. After what happened they were the ones who had to sponge all the abuse because no one could direct it at you. That was the part that hurt the most. Not what you did because that’s a hill you’ll die on. The gringo deserved to die, it was just how it then struck them. Dania lasted a few months before she packed all their things and headed south into El Salvador. You’ve never heard a word since. No one has, bar her family, and they’d never share a word with you. You never deserved Dania anyway, that’s the honest truth. She was always better, kinder, stronger, whilst you dragged her down into your pit with the late nights, the drink and the drugs. She didn’t deserve any of that and you don’t deserve a second chance. She’ll have no idea you’re even out and you’re glad it’s that way. To let her live her life without ever having to think of you again. The same can’t be said for your little girl but that choice is no longer yours and it’s a stamp in the sand that you can accept. Just thirty minutes to go now and already you can spot the differences on the road. You’d make a game of it if it wasn’t so easy. A ball of string that never runs out. New apartment blocks, new houses, new restaurants, new hotels. All sprouted out of the dirt while you were away. Makes sense, the world spins fast, but the change takes even you by surprise. Not that you didn’t know it was coming, but it’s still a shock. The gold miners’ new frontier. The kind of thing you would have once cried against, hunched over beers with the boys at Luis’s tienda. Ranting your way into the night as you drank your gringo beers using your gringo paid coins. And of course it hurts now to see it, but you’re not the person to fight that fight. It’s not yours anymore. You’re a stranger who just happened to be born here. A stranger whose stop is called and so jumps off the chicken bus. Feet no longer planting into the sand but bouncing off the newly laid tarmac. Keeping it all inside, you hoist your bag over your shoulder and start to walk, eyes darting. You were scared of the reaction you might face when you disembarked but now that you’re here you quickly realise you gave yourself too much credit. No one bats an eye because you’re nothing now. No one remembers the man who took a life – he’s just a story. Instead of this wounding you however, that thought gives you peace. You start to move, one foot after the other at a dazed pace. At first your steps stagger you towards Ixchel’s, the old muscle memory kicking in, but then you remember she’s no longer here. Another piece of the old swept away by the new. Jenni told you old age got her, but you know that’s not true. Ixchel was born old; she could handle it. It was the change that killed her, and you only wish you’d been by her side to watch the tide change together. Another regret. And it’s that thought that finally directs your feet and you’re at the cemetery before you know it. Searching among the brightly painted headstones and the tilted crosses and the grand old mausoleums of the wealthy few. But you can’t find her. Back and forth, up and down. You search everywhere but Ixchel’s last sleeping spot isn’t there. By now the heat’s hug is tight but it’s not that which sends the drops down your face; it’s the stress. Of not being able to find her, to say your thanks. To say goodbye. And it slowly starts to dawn on you that maybe she wasn’t ever buried here or in fact anywhere. She didn’t have any real family, only your sister and you who kept an eye; and Jenni was in the US when Ixchel went and you were in the gutter. So maybe she never got the resting place that she, above any other human in this dirt-crusted town, deserved. Yet just as you start to accept that fate you spy the one grave you missed, proud on the crest of the hill. The perfect spot, gazing out across a beach you no longer recognise, full of umbrellas and sellers and lovers rolling in the sand. Beyond that however you finally capture some normality, for the ocean changes for no man. Still there and wild, its rolling peaks littered with afternoon surfers catching their last rides before the sun says its goodbye. The sight warms you and propels you on towards this final grave. Lunging across the cemetery, the dead at your feet, towards this final spot. One made out of care and love, with a headstone for the ages, fresh flowers at its feet. Bougainvillea sprinkled across it which makes you think it might be Ixchel’s because they were always her favourites. Panting, you reach it, nervously excited to say your words. Legs bent, you lean forward and then you see the name. 

            Luke “Lukey” Rogers

Gone too soon

1991 - 2015 

Your knees collapse into the sand with a curse and cry for anyone who dares hear and you fall straight down atop the grave, bougainvillea jabbing and scratching into your tightly drawn skin. Skin that can’t remember the fury of the sun, so now burns under its unrelenting squeeze. But that is nothing, nothing, compared to the burn that rages inside. The perfect spot, the king of the cemetery, all for the man who put you in your cell. A creature worse than you given a true hero’s end. No one ever believed what happened that night, not even your friends who found you and him on the beach and saw the poor girl run off screaming. Still they didn’t believe you, that you took the gringo’s life, this “Lukey” Rogers, because he stole something greater from her. And now this. No judgement for him, no shame or scorn. That was all saved for you whilst he rode free. And you can feel that old anger rising inside. An anger you thought you’d lost, now bubbling inside like one of Ixchel’s old bagre stews cooked on the open flame. And the thought of her again slices you through. She, the woman who nurtured you, guided you, saved you from your papa’s swinging fist, all forgotten. And this gringo, the rapist, given a hero’s end. And you can’t deal with that. It’s not fair. You’ve already suffered enough and he doesn’t deserve this. An eye for an eye, as the Mayans like to say. An old saying, yet one that you’ve carried since young. Revenge is never two steps away. Holding that thought you spy a large, stray rock on the floor, one born in the throes of the sea. You pick it up, lift it high above your head with both hands, only one thought in mind. To bring it down on this fancy gravestone and him who lays below it because that is what is right. What is justice. Yet just as your hand begins to drop, crashing downward in a rekindled ferocity, you catch a figure in the distance. There, bobbling along the beach, the suns’ last hello reflecting kindly off her face. Your sister, her hand in hand with her little boy. The boy she called Juanito. A name for you. And as your gaze covers them both, the stone drops from your hand and plants its toes into the sand and you start to run. 

You hurtle down the dune onto the beach, kicking up black sand like the spray of a wave, until they’re a just a football pitch away and you sprint onwards until finally Jenni sees you and first she looks confused and then her face changes into an expression you’ve never seen in all your days and so you run straight into her, wrapping your arms around both her and the kid and all three of you crash to the sand in a great explosion of joy and there on nature’s bed you rock and roll in each other’s embrace, tears splashing together and Jenni is laughing and you are laughing and Juanito doesn’t really know what’s going on, doesn’t understand the gravitas of what is happening, but he’s laughing and crying too, a body of three, caught together in happiness, and all thoughts of revenge, of justice, have vanished from your body, fallen in the drop of a tear that evaporates in the clutch of the sand for that’s not you anymore. This is you. 

Ten minutes later you all rise from the sand. Down as three, up as one, Jenni peppering you with questions all the way to her home. Her new, happy, beautiful place. And you walk inside, hearing the hum of air con as she lights up a flame and begins to cook. Bagre stew, just how you like it. And then Julio walks in, Jenni’s husband, a friend who left you on the beach but this time he doesn’t turn his back and instead holds you tight. Cries into your shoulder in a way men never used to and says, lo siento amigo, lo siento, lo siento, lo siento. And you tell him it’s alright before laughter lights the night as you drink down your coca and listen to all that’s been. Later that night when everyone has gone to bed you wander out onto the front porch and collapse into one of Don Lazaro’s hand-made hammocks. There you sway back and forth under the gentle stroke of the stars and realise you have something to do. Moving secretively even though you’re doing nothing wrong, you dart back to the cemetery and to the gringo’s spot. His beautiful headstone goading you under the soft glow of the moon though this time you ignore it. The mausoleum of the unworthy. At the end of the day, aren’t they all? Through the history of time, murderers, rapists, thieves, and crooks all given a legacy they never deserved. Well, not this new grave. You pace a few yards in front of the gringo, right to the crest of the dune for the best view any stone could get. One that gazes out onto the beach and to the sea beyond. That will capture every balloon of orange that rises each morning and falls each eve. And there, a perfectly round rock of the ocean clasped in your sweated palm, you knock down a small wooden cross. One you forged using the unbreakable red wood of the mangroves. Trees that were here long before any man and will last so many moons longer, now used to make a cross with a simple name carved upon it. One that now stands tall in the grip of the wet sand below, bougainvillaea carefully decorating its arms, and there you crash down into the black sand next to it and wait for the light to rise.

Ben Davies is a writer based in California. Originally from the UK, Ben has had fiction published or forthcoming in LeftBrain Media, Downtime Review, MiniMag, Firework Stories, Unlikely Stories & more, with articles published in magazines including Huck, Lost and The International Times. He is currently finishing a short story collection, And So I Took Their Eye and debut novel, A Question of England. He is the co-founder of Guatemalan artist-in-residence programme, Studio Luce.

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