A Long Walk, part three

The officers are waiting for you at the roadside. One of them stands beside the truck, his face shadowed by sunglasses and the broad brim of his hat. The other’s still in the truck. The windows are rolled down and the sound of the air conditioner is the loudest thing in the desert; you can almost feel it from where you are. You feel yourself smiling as you approach the officers. You hear dry, gasping laughs from some of the others. As you near the standing officer, he holds up a hand.

You keep going, assuming it’s meant to be a wave in greeting.

He barks something at you and puts a hand to the gun on his belt.

You and all the others stop where you are.

You’re the first to speak. You say something friendly, calming, or meant to be. You realize belatedly not one person but your daughter understands what you said.

In reply, the officer says something that neither you nor any among you appear to understand.

One of your companions says something, in the language everyone but you understands. Everyone but you and the officer. He barks something again, louder, more slowly, and also does some pointing and gesticulating.

No one responds at first. You all look to one another. There are a few in your group who understand little bits of the officer’s language. But not enough that they can make sense of it and translate before the officer loses patience again.

He’s taken his gun out. He’s yelling again. He’s not pointing the gun directly at any of you, but he’s pointing with it, using it to give more emphasis than his fingers could. His yells are louder and more aggressive, a little slower, the better for you to understand him, you presume. But you don’t. Not a word.

The semi-lingual ones in your group give their best approximation of translation, fast, and pantomime instructions. You look to your daughter for a second translation, but she’s too shaken, too exhausted, too out of it to do anything. With panic, hoping you’re reading the others correctly, you imitate them, and get on the ground.

The officer barks something, and this time his shaded eyes and the line of his gun are on you. You look around for help, not understanding. He does it again. Panicking, you almost miss it. You’re sitting on the ground. The others are lying, face down. The officer is mad you’re not pressing your body and face to the hot pavement. With no resistance now, you comply.

Your daughter is motionless. She surely understands at least how the words tie to what’s going on, but hasn’t the capacity to act, it seems. You try guiding her down. She doesn’t resist, but nor is she as compliant as she needs to be, so you’re rougher than you want to be. You make her lie down beside you.

The officer eases his posture and doesn’t bark anything additional. He walks around the prone group. One by one, he kneels beside each of you. Something makes a noise. Almost like a tearing sound. You turn your head to the side, trying to see what he’s doing, but can’t, and make no additional efforts out of fear. You don’t understand until he gets to you. You hear the sound again and feel a sharp pinch of plastic around your wrists. Zip-ties.

The other officer is still in the truck. Apparently his job is to sit there, and this one’s job is everything else.

When everyone’s wrists are bound, the officer barks a fresh order. Our translators do their best. You intuit from the others’ movements that you’re meant to get up, so you do. Slowly, cautiously, just in case you’ve misunderstood. Or on the chance that sudden movement might startle the officer to violence. You help your daughter to her feet.

The officer barks and waves. No one needs translation to get his meaning. He wants you all in the truck.

You remember now, you’re supposed to say it. You should have said it already. All of you should have. You’re surprised no one else has. You don’t want it to come down to you, to fall as your duty, but it is.

“Asylum,” you say. You think you have the pronunciation right. You say it loudly and clearly. It’s one of few words in the officer’s language you know. To be sure you’re understood, you say again, “Asylum,” and add a “Please.”

The officer barely looks at you in acknowledgement.

You want to be sure you were heard correctly. It was made clear to you how important this is. You practiced. You say it again.

“Yeah, yeah,” the officer says, speech like a pained groan. He takes you by the arm, leading you, making you walk more quickly to the truck. You have no way of knowing whether your word bought anything more than that special treatment.

There’s not nearly enough room for everyone in the truck. This doesn’t seem to bother the officers. The one whose job it is to do everything stands there, saying things, sounding impatient, looking it, too. The one whose job it is to sit in the front of the truck, in the driver’s seat, looking ahead out the windshield at the desert, continues to do that. You squeeze yourself in, pull your daughter in after and hold her close to you, almost on your lap. There’s so little room. Even with that, with how tightly packed in you are with the others, the heat of all your bodies crammed together, it feels so cool. It feels wonderful. You can’t believe how cold the officers keep the truck interior, the AC frigid and blasting, but you can’t complain. It would be a bad, self-sabotaging thing to do, and no one would understand you anyway.

But after all you’ve endured, after the hell on Earth you stepped out of only a moment ago, being thrown into snow and tundra would feel a pleasurable relief. At first, at least. Doesn’t take long before the shivers hit you. Still, so much better than the alternative. You hold your daughter closer. The cold of the truck and the warmth of her skin. Couldn’t be more perfect.

You’d almost forgotten what it’s like. To be happy. To feel good.

Without realizing you’re doing it, without sparing proper thought to the safety or common sense of it, you start to drift, and soon you’re asleep.

The truck is pulling into a parking lot when you awake. A small lot. In front of a bland municipal-type building. Border patrol offices.

When the truck comes to a stop, the officer that does stuff gets out, goes around to open the door. You don’t know what he says, but the hand motion he’s making is obvious, and everyone else is getting out so you follow. The officer continues saying indiscernible things and clarifying with points and waves. You get into a line, as apparently instructed. It’s about as hot here as it was out in the desert and on the roadside, but somehow feels alright, not quite as oppressive, assaulting. Coming from the cold truck, knowing you’ll be in the cool offices soon. It’s all about variety. Contrast. You’re all marched into the station.

It’s cool in there. And while not the cleanest place you’ve been, it looks like it’s trying to give that impression. Sterile. Not to the level of hospitals, more comparable to public school nurse’s offices.

You and the others are led to a cell.

You look around at the others, imploring. This can’t be right. They can’t be putting you in a cell. You’ve never been to jail. Never done anything that would’ve landed you there. You haven’t done anything to deserve it now. This has to be a mistake. You don’t know how to ask. Don’t know how to explain that this is wrong. That you came here for help. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’ll do whatever they want, whatever you have to, but you only came here for help. You didn’t do anything wrong. You came here for your daughter.

She can help you explain. You’ll tell her what to say to one of the other translators and then they’ll tell the officers and guards and whoever else what you can’t in your own words. You look for her, but she isn’t there.

Like icy claws round your heart, fear seizes you.

But there she is. One of the officers, a woman, is holding her by the shoulder, talking to her, trying to.

You try to break yourself from the others, go to her, but an officer stops you, barks to let you know you’re wrong; you can’t do that. You try to explain, smiling, speaking calmly as you can, explaining that that’s your daughter. They don’t understand, of course, and reply to your entreaty with another bark, and a shove in the direction of the cell.

You spend more than a day there, all the time trying to understand what’s happening and where your daughter has been taken. No one has answers, presuming anyone understands.

Then they move you. They take you and all the others out of the cell, leading you single file, your wrists zip-tied behind your back. You’re lead through the border station and outside, towards a waiting bus. The whole way and while, you’re asking questions, in a broken mash-up of the little bits you’ve gleaned from the others in your cell and the guards, a mix of their languages and yours, the latter of which there’s now no one around who understands a word.

You’re asking about your daughter as they usher and shove you into the bus. You ask about your daughter, ask anyone and everyone as best you can. No one says anything, other than to tell you to shut up in one language or another. That much you understand. No one knows anything, or if they do they’re not saying. You can’t control your breathing. Each breath hot, short and shallow. They can’t do this. They don’t understand. If they take you somewhere else, your daughter will have no idea where you are, how to find you. Already you don’t know where she’s been taken, but so long as one of you stayed in the same place, there was hope of getting back to one another. If you’re both off in completely different places, how will you find each other? You hope they’ve kept a record, but can’t even imagine what would be on that or how useful it would be. All you were ever able to provide them was your name, your home country and town, and birthdate. Maybe that’s enough. God, you pray that’s enough, as you’re made to sit on a plastic seat beside a woman who looks as though her own turmoil has taken her past the point of fretting. No longer able to beg and bargain as you try to do, she looks blankly at the space between the window’s edge and the seat in front of you both.

The bus takes you onto the desert road. You ride for hours. Along the way, you try to take note of landmarks, but there are few, and none you’ll remember well enough to be of use later. Anxiety swells. You fear you might pass out. If you weren’t already sitting you’d collapse. Tears come with each breath and you’re frightened to think of which will stop first.

Not for a minute of the trip do you sleep, nevertheless you feel as though unawake for any of it. Hours are lost and a day gone by the time the bus trembles to a stop. You’re taken off the bus, brought into a very large building that looks like it must once have been part of a shopping mall. Inside, they lead you and the others through a gate and into a cage already filled with people.

There’s nowhere and no room to sit or lie down. The spots against the wall and the fence are all taken, people already leaning or milling there. So you find a place to stand in the midst of the crowd, unavoidably touching the people beside and behind you. After several hours, an informal line, more a cluster, forms, and you wait your turn for a cold sandwich and a cola.

Days pass. Each is an eternity. Every morning you wake, it takes you a moment to recall where you are, why, and to remember the reason you feel so horribly despondent, like you’re dying, like an organ was removed from your body and replaced with dry sunbaked earth. Then every morning you break again. The whole of your day is spent on her. Thinking of her. Worrying for her. Struggling in whatever little way you’re able to learn what’s happened to her, where she is, how to get her back. You’re learning, picking up little bits of the languages from the others locked in the cage with you and the guards outside it. Almost enough to have some understanding of what’s happening.

When they call your name, you come to the front of the queue, to speak to an officer through the fence. You nod at the things they say, hoping compliance and affability will benefit you. They give you a piece of paper and tell you to write your name. You do.

It’s not until later, in broken talks with another prisoner, that you understand. The paper you signed was a voluntary deportation order. Feeling bloodless and like you’ll collapse then and there, you ask your new friend what this will mean for your daughter. To which they shrug, unable to meet your eyes.