They came on a Wednesday to execute my father. Looking back, I should have sensed something amiss during morning Mass three days earlier. The new priest’s maiden sermon had left the congregation divided – some bored, some irate – never a good omen in a small Colombian town.
When the congregation rose to leave, Señor Muñoz, the father of my girlfriend Camila, paused briefly in the aisle and leaned towards Papá.
‘May I talk to you outside?’ Glancing at me, he added, ‘In private.’
I was fifteen years old and in adolescent limbo: not old enough to be included in adult discussions yet not young enough to run off and play. While the grown-ups talked, I stood shiftily on the church steps with Camila and my best friend, Palillo, waiting for them to finish.
Palillo, or ‘Toothpick’ – whose real name was Diego Hernandez – liked provoking trouble. And he liked pushing others into it, then running around them in figure eights like a dog in long grass.
Half a head taller than us, he now draped his arms over our shoulders, placed his hands behind our heads and twisted them towards our fathers. They were deep in conversation, breaking only to scratch their chins and cast significant glances our way.
‘¡Pillado!’ Palillo declared gleefully. ‘You two are so busted!’ ‘Don’t listen to him, Pedro,’ said Camila, shrugging out of Palillo’s grip. ‘If my father was going to snitch, he’d have said something to us fi rst.’
Camila was a year younger than us and as magazine-beautiful as always, despite a hangover from the previous night. While Palillo made it his mission to stir up my life, Camila worked to reassure me. She had a magical way of protecting me from the world without criticising anyone else.
‘They’re staring at you, Pedro,’ Palillo insisted.
‘At all of us,’ I countered.
I was prepared to accept my share of blame for the previous night’s party, although it was Palillo who’d demanded we drive down to the rope-swing tree, and Palillo who’d produced a bottle of Cuban rum and pressured Camila to skol ‘just one more shot’ six more times.
‘They’re probably trying to figure out who buried Farmer Díaz,’ Camila said, using her thumbs to smooth out the creases on my forehead. ‘Or discussing the new priest’s sermon. Wasn’t it pathetic?’
She continued speculating. I continued frowning. I knew Camila’s father held me in begrudging esteem. So long as I respected his curfews and his daughter’s chastity, he would tolerate me.
The trouble was, I hadn’t obeyed last night’s curfew. Palillo had insisted Camila would be fine; they’d lined their stomachs with milk. He said he would take personal responsibility. But come ten o’clock, I was the one left with an inebriated girlfriend and battling a dilemma: drive her home on time but stumbling drunk, or wait until she was at least somewhat sober. From his window, Señor Muñoz had watched me pull up two hours late.
‘Busted,’ gloated Palillo, leaning right into my face and tickling my cheeks with his long, black fi ngers.
‘Fuck it!’ I said, slapping his hand away. ‘I’m going over.’
‘No fucking way! They’ll crucify you.’
‘Yes fucking way. Watch me!’
I hated people who refused to confront things. I strode towards our fathers, emboldened by the fact that Camila was watching.
‘Good morning, Señor Muñoz.’ I greeted Camila’s father politely, shaking his hand.
‘Pedro.’ He nodded and forced a smile.
‘Is something wrong, Papá?’ I asked.
‘We’ll discuss it later, hijo.’
Both men now stared at me without blinking. Although vanquished by the adults, I returned victorious to my peers, who looked at me questioningly for my conclusion.
‘Camila’s father knows she was drinking but he didn’t snitch,’ I stated confidently.
‘Told you!’ said Camila.
‘What exactly did they say?’ asked Palillo flatly, folding his arms. I couldn’t tell whether he was unconvinced or simply disappointed.
‘It wasn’t anything they said. I can just tell. They were discussing town business. It was political.’
Papá signalled that it was time to leave. I kissed Camila goodbye and drove us home. Mamá was with us, so Papá still couldn’t mention what was wrong.
Papá’s conversation with Señor Muñoz on the church steps that day was merely the latest in a series of warning signs that had begun gathering like slow-circling vultures over an injured animal. First, the 3.30 am cylinder bombs that had rained down on Llorona’s main street a month earlier. Second, the clandestine night-time burial of Farmer Díaz, who’d been kidnapped and then murdered by the Guerrilla. And third, the bullet through the church’s stained-glass window that had prompted the old priest’s transfer to Bogotá for reasons of personal safety.
It was all big news. It was all connected. And it was all leading up to something bigger.