Once upon a time, in a land that is farther away than we imagine, yet closer than some of us might wish, there lived a boy named Necio. He was an agreeable child, as ideal a son as parents could ever hope for. Sadly, he possessed none. His parents had been killed in an unusual accident involving a stationary bus and a moving brick wall when the boy was barely old enough recite his parents’ full names. In other words, he knew from whom he had come, but not from where. As the child appeared to have no other family members, the task of raising him was left to the neighbor with whom he had been left for the night, a childless widow who was known in those parts as Doña Lágrima.
The widow was more than happy to take over the rearing of the little boy, as Necio promised to fill a gap in her life. That promise was kept, for the child embodied everything she had lost. And because she did not want to risk losing even more, she took the child to a place where, if by chance a curious aunt should happen to remember a long-lost nephew, he would never be found.
Necio grew into a comely lad, tall and straight as a palm tree, with hair the color of night. He was respectful of his elders, obedient to the point of docility, and so even-tempered that most of the villagers considered him simple. Necio was the light of Doña Lágrima’s eyes, so even if he had been given to testing his limits, she would simply have forgiven him. There was only one boundary that Necio was not, under any circumstances, allowed to cross, and that was a line snaking across the southern end of the village, defining both its beginning and its end. This narrow dry line served to separate the land of the living from the territory of ghosts, and it was off-limits to every villager in Dondequiera. None had ever ventured beyond it.
One bright summer morning, Necio was walking along the straggling outskirts of Dondequiera, which, in contrast to the grandeur of its name, was an insignificant, dusty little place. The settlement, though sparse in population, spread with chaotic abandon over a landscape that might charitably have been called uninviting. The trackless, nameless desert that surrounded the settlement existed only as a blank spot on the map. It was so trackless that none of the village’s inhabitants could remember how they had gotten there, much less contemplate how they might leave. In fact, not one of them had left, though a number had enigmatically arrived. This was one of the noteworthy characteristics of the region: sudden unexplained appearances.
On this particular morning, Necio was up to nothing more complicated than finding a flat, clear area in which to practice dribbling his soccer ball. It was the first day of August, so the monthly community meeting to be held that afternoon had ousted the village boys from their usual playing field. Necio, because he never refused a task, had been appointed to find an alternate location, while the rest of the team went home for a second breakfast.
Dondequiera, with its steep slopes and rocky ravines, lent itself more to heroic rescue missions via helicopter than to team sports. There simply was no open flat land. Yet, despite the odds, Necio did not resent the impossibility of his assignment. Impossibilities are the stock in trade of youth, and as far as fifteen-year-olds are concerned, the more impossible the goal, the more intensely it should be pursued. Necio’s pursuit of the moment was the dream of becoming an internationally renowned soccer star, reaping the adoration of the crowds and bestowing fame and glory on his village.
As he meandered along the village perimeter, his mind strayed, as it frequently did, into fantastic realms, occupying him with pleasant thoughts of spectacular games in which he would single-handedly defeat the giants of sports history. He could see himself, dancing past his opponents with the speed and accuracy of a jaguar, delivering the final driving kick, and being lifted high above the field of victory by his wildly cheering team-mates, while the crowd roared Goooooooaaaaal! It was an enticing daydream, and one that served to separate Necio’s head so thoroughly from his feet that he had no idea where he was going. And so it was that Necio, pure of heart and absent of mind, crossed the forbidden boundary and stumbled upon the ideal location for a soccer game.
It was an absolutely flat stretch of ground, free from the mounds of sharp cholla and claw-tipped maguey that could effectively ruin any sport. There were a number of large rocks, but these were conveniently located around the edges of the flat area, leaving the rest of the field completely open. Necio was intrigued. How had such a place remained unknown to him? Except for the boulders strewn along the far side of the field, it was perfect. And at second glance, even those proved not to present a problem: their smooth surfaces would make excellent seats for spectators. He was examining one of these rocks with interest, envisioning how it might accommodate the rumps of the village girls, when it moved—or rather, something beside it moved.
Necio stood frozen, staring at the rock until he made out the shape of a small hunched creature with dark fur. The glare of the desert sun blurred his vision slightly, but it seemed that as he gazed upon the creature it transformed itself into a person. A young girl was folding up clothing, which she had spread upon the hot rocks to dry. She had a wealth of mahogany hair that streamed in rivulets over her gleaming round shoulders and flowed in a smooth shining cascade down to the small of her back. She was obviously a mermaid.
As she rose to put the clothing away in a basket that had materialized at her side, she glanced in his direction, straight into his eyes. She was beautiful beyond belief. Necio stood petrified, afraid to move, not daring to utter a sound or even breathe, for fear of disturbing the enchanting vision that stood before him.
The girl did not see him at first, but when she was finished folding her laundry, she glanced up. She spoke not a word, merely gazed at him with huge, liquid eyes, and Necio realized that this marvelous apparition was the answer to a question he had not yet had the inclination, much less the opportunity, to ask.
As he started forward to close the distance between them, perhaps to speak or perhaps merely to assure himself that she was indeed real, a call came echoing and bouncing among the stones. The girl hurriedly gathered up her basket and ran, lightly and gracefully, toward it. She flashed a smile over her shoulder as she retreated, a dazzling smile full of promise. Necio’s heart swelled with hope. Then she dashed up a shallow incline and disappeared into emptiness.
Necio was struck with loss. Where had she gone? As he traced her path with his eyes, shading them with his hand, he saw, much to his amazement, a wall. It seemed to spring directly up from the earth even as he stared. At first Necio was perplexed, for here was a sign of human habitation in a place where there should be none. Then his confusion turned to gratification. All was not lost. He knew where to find his mermaid now, and he knew her name.
From the Field Notes of Dr. J. Johnson, courtesy of the BSA Foundation
Entry 1.1, July 1, 1:30 PM, 98 degrees F
Colonia #314 is an Unofficial Settlement located in the far southeast portion of US Geoservices Map, Indian Hot Springs Quadrant, approx 30.5 degrees N and 105.3 degrees W, in south central Hudspeth County. Area is bounded on the west by the Quitman Mountains, to the north by the Sierra Blanca and the Sierra Diablo, and to the east by Eagle Mountain (altitude 7,516 feet). Approximate elevation in basin 3,300 feet. Population roughly 500. Will conduct genealogical research in this settlement over the next six weeks.
John Johnson was making his way to the Semiotics of Postmodern Dissertational Angst Seminar—subtitled “Committee as (B)Other?”—when he was halted by the departmental secretary, a squat, frazzled woman whose name nobody could remember. She handed him a note requesting his “immediate presence” in Professor Ryder’s office. The Semiotics seminar, for which he was already tardy, was offered only once every ten years. It was a requirement for all post-quals, post-proposal, but pre-diss doctoral candidates, and it was uniformly dreaded, as much for Professor Sans-Piti’s incomprehensible lecture style (which naturally had nothing to do with the fact that he had never bothered to learn English) as for his arbitrary grading policies, which could delay the completion of a Ph.D. for a decade or more. Being late would result in a reprimand, but missing a class might result in failure, and so John became understandably anxious.
“What the fuck is this?” he asked.
The secretary—her name might have begun with T: Tina? Tricia? Troglodyte?—scuttled away without answering. The summons did say “immediate,” and John, no stranger to departmental politics, realized that in the long run he would be better off offending Professor Sans-Piti than Professor Ryder.
Ezekiel Ryder, Professor Emeritus and holder of the prestigious Windsor Chair, was the spearhead of the department. Despite his humble origins in the back hills of Arkansas, his intellectual brilliance and daring ideas had won him an unassailable position in academe. His feats of prowess included several works regarding the Theory of Relativity, a theory which, fifteen years ago, had redefined modern Anthropology, a discipline then suffering from numerous irreparable schisms.
John had been a mere infant in those dark times, during which the battle between pro- and anti-materialists had threatened to tear the field apart. Was culture to be explained by the material assets and economic realities of any given group, or was it better defined through its beliefs and mythology? Each camp bolstered its defenses, claiming the support of Anthropology’s great voices—Geertz, Levi-Strauss, Harris, Darwin—in an unprecedented marshaling of intellectual partisanship.
Feelings ran high. Name-calling broke out at the national meetings during several brown-bag lunches, leading to an escalating series of reprisals and counter-reprisals. Peer-reviewed journals, normally unreceptive to the free expression of ideas, were wracked by arguments, counterarguments, and counter-counterarguments. In departments dominated by one of the two camps, those who held the minority position found their staff parking permits revoked, forcing already embittered junior faculty members to make long treks from undergraduate parking lots. Academic violence broke out. Departmental meetings were boycotted, espresso machines were sabotaged, and, in an unprecedented act of barbarism, a professor was denied tenure based on the “outmoded tone” of his publications. Most disturbing was the fact that, while undergraduate enrollments were up, grad-school applications were rapidly falling, undercutting the system of debt-servitude that forms the economic bedrock of the budget-poor humanities. Students seeking less dangerous fields deserted en masse, attracted to more secure disciplines such as Medieval German Lit and Museology.
At this critical juncture in academic history, “Easy” Ryder appeared—a deus ex machina in tweeds. In a radical re-evaluation of the entire field, Ryder proposed that the time had arrived to take another look at the whole idea of culture. In his view, culture was a joint project, a product of the relative distance between the Observed and the Observer, rather than of the specific traits inherent to any particular culture. The concept revolutionized the discipline. Within months, heated discussions of adaptation, cultural materialism, and cosmology were replaced by a sensitive acknowledgement of shared intimacy, summed up tidily by the phrase Symbiotic Co-Dependency.
Luckily for John, who had come to Anthropology during the enlightened, post-Ryder era, most of the tedious, time-consuming prep courses for field work had been eliminated. Now that culture studies had been redefined as a relationship, the important thing was to satisfy one’s own needs, and therefore all one really had to do was to observe oneself. Detailed, place-specific observations had become passé. What was truly important was not what existed but how you felt about it. This was a task that grad students embraced with total enthusiasm. Time spent in the field was cut back, first to a semester and then to summers, which freed grad students to return to their regularly scheduled duties as TAs. Administrators were happy, professors were happy, grad students were happy, and the privacy-challenged peasants in third-world countries were ecstatic.
As John loped across the U.T. campus, he called his girlfriend.
“Beth,” he said, “You’ll never guess.”
Chewing noises. “You sound winded. Are you running?”
“I’ve got a meeting with Ryder.”
Silence. Sometimes Beth’s lack of interest in his career bothered him.
He filled in. “I think it’s about my proposal.” Stopping to catch his breath, he added, “Pack your bikini.”
He held his phone at a distance while Beth squealed, “Cancuuuun!”
In spite of his projected confidence, John was experiencing no little amount of trepidation. He prayed that his proposal had not been rejected. He had entitled it “(W)Rites of Passage: Borders as Liminal Spaces.” He thought it a snappy title, though his advisor had cautioned him that the inclusion of the concepts of borders and spaces might be considered outdated, unless, of course, he was referring to personal space and relational boundaries. John had rewritten the proposal, carefully removing any reference to actual physical spaces and redefining borders as “juncture points in the continuum of jointly determined relational culture.” Though the proposal never actually mentioned where the research was to take place, John was envisinoing a sunny stint in the Yucatan peninsula.
He reviewed the proposal in his mind. Perhaps his advisor had been right. He should have replaced “borders” with a more upbeat term. “Interstices” would have been better. He took a deep breath and patted his pony-tail, then checked to see if his ribs still protruded. Rumor had it that the professor preferred thin, long-legged students of the pale-haired variety. Several of Ryder’s students who had been fortunate enough to possess those qualities had been rewarded with publication.
The professor’s door hung slightly ajar. John knocked tentatively and, thinking he heard a muffled “Come in,” pushed the door open, entering the hallowed realm.
The office was immense, bigger by far than any other in the department. Smack in the center resided a large mahogany desk, its surface shiny and almost completely bare. John immediately noticed that it was missing the mainstay of any other professor’s office—a computer. The walls on either side of the door were covered by bookshelves that completely occupied the space between floor and ceiling. These were stacked alternately with expensive-looking leather-bound volumes and pieces of Southwestern pottery. In stark contrast, the wall facing him was completely devoted to masks, whose highly exaggerated features stood out grotesquely from their flat white faces.
On a low pedestal in front of the masks stood a mannequin dressed in some sort of ritual garb that John could not identify, though it looked vaguely familiar. It reminded him of something he’d seen in a mini-series about Napoleon—calf-length buttoned breeches, a flashy red jacket with a hip flare. The fuzzy, cone-shaped hat and sunglasses looked a little out of place, though the sunglasses could be French. He wasn’t sure about the hat.
“Well, come in, come in!” a voice exclaimed. “And shut the door behind you!”
To John’s astonishment, the voice seemed to be coming from the mannequin’s fur hat. It waved an arm at him.
“Have a seat!” it cried. “Make yourself at home.”
John advanced to the nearest chair and sat facing the mannequin. It took several steps forward and collapsed into an enormous armchair. Once settled, it removed the tall fur-covered cone that had covered its head and face. The mannequin was indeed Professor Ryder. John recognized the goatee made famous by book covers and academic news articles. The goatee was no longer black, but its wearer was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the great man himself. John stifled the urge to make obeisance.
“What can I offer you? Gin and tonic, scotch, whiskey?”
“Oh, uh, water will be fine, unless you’ve got a…coke.” What John really wanted was a bottle of Cabron, but he was hoping to project an image of competent sobriety.
“Don’t drink the real stuff, eh!” The professor seemed to find John’s request hilarious. Nevertheless, he reached back to open the door of a small dorm-sized fridge and drew out a can of coke. “A little stint in the field will soon remedy that! As for me, it’s time for my medicina.” He withdrew a bottle from the fridge and poured some clear liquid into a glass. “Got hooked on this stuff when I was down there,” he remarked. “Well, now, what can I do you for?”
“Um, well, I received a message from the secretary that you wanted to see me immediately. I’m Johnson.”
The mannequin leaned forward. John could just make out a moist flash of teeth. “Jane, is it?”
The professor paused and removed his sunglasses. His teeth were no longer in view. “Lástima. Well…anyhoo…I have excellent news for you. You’ve won this year’s BS Award from the BSA! Congratulations!” He rose and came forward to shake John’s hand, who offered it confusedly.
“BSA?” John stammered.
“Yes! Yes! Wouldn’t mind getting one of those myself. But I’m too old.” Ryder laughed at his own joke. Then he turned and fished a piece of paper from the desk drawer. He handed it to John with a flourish.
The letterhead was embossed with the words “Borderline Scholars Association.” John had never heard of them, but it was indeed an award. The letter stated that his proposal had been evaluated and that he was to receive full support for six weeks of field work on the border.
Ryder was smiling enthusiastically in John’s general direction. “Speak Spanish?”
“Um,” said John. “Sí?”
“Good. Didn’t have much luck with the lingo myself. Can’t carry a tune either. My mother always said I had a tin ear. Heh, heh. Never prevented me from having a good time down there, though…”
John was no longer paying much attention to the professor, so transported was he by the sudden realization of his dreams. Visions of palm trees, white beaches, and piña coladas danced in his head. He could picture himself in Cancun, Beth beside him in that little pink bikini, oiling his back slowly and sensuously, with the beating of the waves in his ears. Then abruptly he returned to the present, called back by a word that had made its way into his roiling mind.
“Oh, yes,” said Ryder, pouring himself another drink. “It gets cold in the mountains. Most people don’t realize that about southern Mexico. You’ll have to be prepared. Oh, yes, and you’ll have to learn Tzotzil. Never learned it myself, of course, but all my students did. It’s a cussed language. But the natives don’t speak Spanish. They’re kind of stubborn that way.”
John must have looked nonplussed, for the professor gave him a sympathetic smile. “Stunned, eh? Well, there’s not much in the way of funding for this type of proposal lately. What impressed them was the way you handled the concept of ‘borders.’ Now that I think of it, your proposal was the only one that actually mentioned them.” He leaned forward, as if to make a confession. “I think it’s a stipulation of their charter—border scholars, you know, have to support border studies. Heh, heh! Anyway, good luck to you! You’ll have a grand time down there—I know I did! And say hola to Don Fracasio for me.” He nudged John in the side. “Runs the best little bordello south of Texas. Just a joke, son. Heh, heh!”
John spent the remainder of the semester in a state of quiet shock. His fellow grad students didn’t believe what he told them, and neither did Beth.
“What the hell is Tzotzil?” she said. “And there’s no such thing as ‘Border Studies.’” She was getting her Master’s in Narrative Deconstruction, so she was in a position to know.
“Well,” said John, struggling valiantly with the inconvenient truth. “It’s a little Jurassic, but these people—who are giving me money, by the way—apparently believe in physical borders. And a proficiency exam in Tzotzil is required.”
Beth picked up the monstrous blue dictionary that now occupied most of his desk and opened it. “Huh. This thing won the Golden Fleece Award from Congress. Says right here, ‘Biggest waste of taxpayers’ money.’ I can believe it. Imagine making a dictionary this size for some obscure dialect!”
For reasons John could not articulate, he felt compelled to contradict her. “Tzotzil is a Mayan language,” he said. “They don’t have a word for ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ And their greeting rituals are highly complex.”
“So how do they say hello?”
The look on Beth’s face was clearly a dare. John had no choice but to rise to the challenge. “‘Are you there?’ followed by ‘Are you okay?’ followed by ‘Is your heart happy?’” Just saying the translation out loud made John feel foolish. He didn’t dare try it in Tzotzil. Beth could be snarky about glottal stops.
“Is that all? Couldn’t they just say hola?”
“They don’t speak much Spanish,” he mumbled.
Beth gave a little snort. “Neither do you.”
John drew himself up. “Hey, I got an A in Spanish in high school!” The fact was the “True People,” as these Tzotzils liked to style themselves, not only didn’t speak Spanish, they hated anybody who did. Oh, yes, and they absolutely detested anthropologists.
But luck steps in where wise men fear to tread, and John received a reprieve—of sorts. The check for his summer grant arrived along with a detailed letter specifying three possible areas for his research. All three were on the U.S. boundary with Mexico. The border that the BSA wanted him to study was not to the south of Mexico but to the north.
It was a short-lived reprieve, however.
“This is important. It’s for my career,” John explained, slipping his hand around Beth’s waist. “And field work is hard. I’ll need backrubs.”
Beth swatted him away. “Hell-o! It was supposed to be Cancun. Nothing is going to convince me to spend my summer in some god-forsaken, mosquito-infested border slum.”
John foresaw a long dismal summer ahead of him.
When I was living in El Paso, I noticed a peculiarity. None of the windows of any of the houses faced Juarez. In fact, nobody even talked about Juarez, although it was right across the river, in plain view. It was as if Juarez were invisible. That oddity formed the basis of my novel, Tales from the Land of Sal Si Puedes, which is both an allegory and a shameless satire.
In the land of Sal Si Puedes, there are two towns: Dondequiera (“Wherever”), a colonia on the American side of the border, and Comoquiera (“However”), located in Mexico. Though they are situated side by side, the towns are invisible to one another. What’s more, each town lacks an important element of time: Dondequierans cannot remember the past, and Comoquierans have lost the future.
When a young boy named Necio wanders across the forbidden division that separates the two towns, he encounters a beautiful, and thoroughly wet, young girl, whom he mistakes for a mermaid, even though Dondequiera is located in the driest desert on earth. Determined to find her again, he enlists the aid of a visiting Anthropology grad student, John Johnson, who has received a BS grant to do research on the border. What follows is a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to the uniting of the two time-challenged towns, restoring them to mutual visibility and trust.
Tales from the Land of Sal Si Puedes is structured in a non-traditional format. The chapters alternate between the Mexican side and the American side, and each storyline is told in the style appropriate to the location. The Mexican side is narrated in the Latin American magical-realist style, complete with a beautiful ghost who walks the town at night in a wedding gown, looking for her lost groom—who, sadly, has been turned into a ghost as well but is stuck on the American side. In Comoquiera there are miracles, immortality, transvestite murderous nuns, and a conquistador with no sense of direction.
On the American side, the hapless American student finds himself at a complete loss and becomes the butt of jokes by Dondequiera’s residents, who are amused and puzzled by John’s presence. It is only when he encounters Necio, and Necio mistakes him for an angel, that the two narrative lines coalesce into one. Assisted by the unwitting John, all of the disparate inhabitants of the two towns eventually come together in an epic soccer match, followed by a flood of biblical proportions. After their rescue by a band of Antiguas, the two towns—including their ghosts, their long-lost heirs, and their two young lovers—are finally united. And, instead of building a wall, they build a bridge that they call the Puente de Sal Si Puedes, and that we call the Point of No Return.
Erica Verrillo lives in Whately, Massachusetts. She is the author of three MG fantasies: Elissa’s Quest, Elissa’s Odyssey, and World’s End (Random House). Her short work has appeared in over a dozen publications. She is the author of the definitive medical reference guide for treating myalgic encephalomyelitis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide, now in its 2nd edition (1st edition, St. Martin’s). She holds degrees from Tufts University (BA, History) and Syracuse University (MA, Linguistics), and has been enrolled in Ph.D. programs in Anthropology and Speech Communication. Ms. Verrillo’s professional life includes working as a classical musician (Oxford Symphony Orchestra), Spanish-language editor for Mesoamerica, linguistics teacher (Dartmouth), director of a non-profit NGO for Mayan refugees, translator for the Archbishop of Chiapas, Mexico, and Mayan linguist (SUNY Albany). She spent several years living and working in Latin America and Texas, and has played an active role in the Sanctuary movement. Her blog, Publishing … and Other Forms of Insanity, provides a wealth of resources for aspiring authors.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017