The day they shot him we crawled under our beds. His death was sudden and everyone knew it would happen. Some people said he was a dangerous man. Others claimed him to be their only hope. I was six years old in 1980.
At that time San Salvador was almost as loud as the rest of the country. At night, in the comfort our beds, we’d listen to the gun battles. My older brother and I shared a room and we’d converse the early night away. We talked about things that were as far away from reality as possible.
“Does Mickey Mouse live in Miami?”
“No, he lives in Orlando.”
“I wish I had a kingdom. His kingdom is so great. I bet Mickey Mouse never gets bored.”
“Well, of course he doesn’t. He has all those rides.”
“I hope we go to Miami next year. You think mom will take us?’
“Yeah, she’ll take us. Why wouldn’t she take us?”
“And we’ll get to ride on an airplane?”
“What do you think? That’s the only way you can get to Miami. You have to ride an airplane.”
“Be quiet. Listen.”
The bombs like fireworks popped without order and the rattle of gunfire permeated in between their distance. At that time, I started developing an obsession with my own death. I wanted to die on my stomach. It would be unromantic to die in any other position. I could not picture a girl running to me, sprawled on the floor, face to a doomed sky, with my arms and legs, my scrawny legs, crooked and broken from some blast. When they bombed during the day I would mimic the fighting with toy soldiers for the sake of realism, and the hero would always fall on his stomach.
“Why did they kill the priest?”
“They killed him because he was a communist,” he said.
“What’s a communist?”
“A communist is very bad. Russians are communists.”
“Why are they so bad?”
“They take all of your money and don’t let you leave the country. Aunt Clara said they kill people and lock them up and you have to make lines to get food. They don’t even let you have toys.”
“Really? No toys? They are bad.”
“She went to one of the masses and heard him say that he wanted the poor to steal from the rich.”
“Like Robin Hood?”
“No. Not like Robin Hood,” he said. “Like the bank robbers on television.”
After the fighting died out my brother and his friends would start going to the hole again to recruit kids for soccer. I tagged along and he hated that but I didn’t care. The hole was a crater-like cavity spread out over a quarter-mile.
It dropped off from the land behind my Uncle Ernesto’s neighborhood la colonia Layco. There were holes all over El Salvador; they were pockets of poverty where the poorest people in the country lived. My friend Marco lived in the hole. I thought about him when the fighting broke out and we couldn’t leave our house.
Down in the hole the women cooked tortillas, children played and the men with machetes hanging from their belts drank and worked under the sun. Most of those people were dirty and lived in shacks. They seemed used to it. There were times they disgusted me.
Marco had two younger bothers, who were twins, and an older sister who I secretly longed for. His father, a dark and diminutive man, worked in San Vicente as laborer, spending entire weeks away from the family. Marco’s mother was a fat enchanting woman who had the presence of a giant. To me, she seemed unbreakable.
I ran into Marco in front of the shack were his family lived. He was a short, homely-looking boy with very dark skin. His skin was so dark that it looked dirty in the clean spots. He wore a faded out Star Wars T-shirt and blue shorts. He was always barefoot and I knew, although I never told him, that he must have had the hardest feet in the world because they were so used to the ground.
“Hi,” I said.
“My brother came to get some people to play soccer. Wanna go watch?”
“Sure,” he said. “But do you think they will let us play?”
“Maybe. I doubt it. But we could play soldiers or something.”
“I don’t want to play soldiers. We’ll just start our own game. Wait here. I’m gonna get my ball.”
When Marco came back with the ball we followed my brother and his friends to the park. As soon as we arrived my brother began a quick pick-up game with the older boys. We watched them play for a few minutes before we started kicking the ball around ourselves. After some time passed there were enough kids our age so that we could play.
We ended up on the same team. Marco scored two goals and got into a scuffle with an older boy. After the opposing team tied, I scored the winning goal by mistake. It was pure luck. I wanted to pass it and instead, it went past the goalie. I acted like I knew what I was doing.
After that, they started a new game. Marco and I decided to sit it out and I asked my brother for some money to buy a grape soda. We shared it and lay on the grass staring at the clouds.
“It looks like a castle to me.”
“That’s no castle. It looks more like a pyramid.”
“Yes. Just look at the way that part peaks,” he said, pointing. “Do you see it?”
“I see. It does look like a pyramid,” I said. “It could be a castle too.”
The mountains were dark and green. I could hear the screams of the older boys as they kicked the ball. The only thing that scared me at that age was Earthquakes.
“I saw Monsignor gunned down at the cathedral,” he said, without warning.
I sat up and looked at him. “You did?”
“Yes. Right before the Holy Communion. As he prepared the chalice, he fell on his stomach and everyone jumped to the ground. My mother and sister grabbed me and my brothers, and kept us down.”
“Did you see who shot him?”
“No, but I smelled the gunpowder,” he said, sitting up. “We were in the second row and there was so much blood he was soaked in it.”
He sat Indian-style with his arms resting on his knees staring at the mountains.
“I believe I was meant to see him die.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“We never attend the six o’clock mass. We always go in the morning. It’s like I was supposed to be there.”
He looked sad like when his father died.
“My brother told me he was a communist,” I said.
“That’s a lie,” he said. “Monsignor wasn’t a communist. Why would a man who prays so much and might even know God himself be a communist?”
“He doesn’t know god himself. No one knows god himself.”
“Yes he did! Monsignor was a friend of the Pope, and the Pope knows God personally. My mother told me that the Pope is the direct connection from the Earth to God. Monsignor was a good man. Your brother is a liar.”
“My brother is not a liar! Don’t call him a liar.”
“Why does he have to talk badly about a good man?” he said. “Monsignor helped a lot of people.”
“I don’t know why they killed him. But why would they kill an innocent man who hasn’t done anything to anyone? There must be a reason. He must be wicked in some way.”
“You idiot. Why do you think they crucified Jesus? You think good always prevails? Why would a wicked man pray so much?”
He paused and sighed. “You’re my friend but you just don’t understand. You believe anything people tell you because you think it’s right and that’s all you know.”
His round, dark face broke, and tears raced down to his mouth. It was an angry face, and I didn’t know how to react. I felt like catching rain in my hands.
One of the boys we were playing with stood in front of us. “What are you all still doing? Are you going to sit and talk all day or play?”
Marco rubbed his eyes and stood. I stood up and followed him and we headed to different teams.
My team scored first with a pass from me to a forward and then a header by a short kid name Lango. The kid was so happy he scored he did cartwheels. Marco stared me down.
Marco fouled me and came close to scoring. I slowly stood as the rest of the boys surrounded us. “That’s an obvious foul!” a kid yelled. Marco just looked at me. I got a free goal kick and I missed wide. Close to 20 minutes after my team scored, Marco made a sweet, beautiful goal. He kicked the ball right in the center, he was in front of the goalie and the ball went to his left swiftly like a starship passing through a sliding door.
By minute 36 Marco got a nice pass from a fat kid they called the Globe and made it 2-1. The pass came down as he stood to the left of the goalie and he brought it down nicely with his chest, bounced it with his right knee once and softly kicked the ball in. That goal got a big cheer. Even I was impressed and I made like I was going to go congratulate him but he kept walking with the other boys.
The sky was getting darker and I had the ball. I passed and got it back. Passed it again and ran near the goal. Went back for it, got opened and received the ball and it was the perfect ball. I only had one skinny kid in front of me and I passed him with such sweet skills that I laughed inside myself. I had an opening, it would have gone in, and then I felt hands on my back shoving me down on my face and I came down hard.
“Foul! Free kick!” my team yelled.
Marco stood above me looking down at me with hate in his eyes. My nose was bleeding.
I stood up. “What’s your problem?!”
He got on my face. “You are, you fucking gringo!”
“What did you say?”
The kids made a circle around us again.
“Why are you people fighting,” Lango said.
“I’ll tell you why,” said Marco.
I stayed quiet.
Marco pointed a finger in my face and addressed the circle of slum kids.
“He insulted the memory of Monsignor! He called him a communist, a child abuser, and a blood drinker!”
“You what?” kids started saying.
“I didn’t say anything,” I began.
Marco kept talking, exaggerating our discussion adding even more vile words, speaking eloquently, like a leader. The kids started shoving me. I fell to the ground. Other kids tried to put a stop to it. I was on the floor and felt kicks to my ribs and legs. I curled up in a ball and started crying and yelling for my brother. I couldn’t see the rain clouds and just kid’s faces like demons laughing. I couldn’t see the dark mountains either and I began to pray and calling out louder for my brother. It all became a huge brawl.
I continued to yell my brother’s name. I heard loud running, I saw the crowd of kids disperse and my brother’s long arms coming down from above, lifting me up, and Marco stood behind them all.