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Nelo


Nelo sat on a rock overlooking the small valley spread out some eight hundred feet below.  His ration of two tortillas and a smattering of refried beans wasn´t near enough for what his growing fifteen year old body demanded.  Using one tortilla as a plate, Nelo deftly torn bits off the other and scooped up some of the beans, trying to make them last to the last bite.   He chewed slowly, taking in a dab of salt from a moistened fingertip between bites of the tough day-old tortillas.  It was frustrating, being stuck here.  By now he should have arrived at his post in the Front, as a technician for the Radio Venceremos.   The guide of the group of new recruits seemed a little too unsure of himself; this was the third day of waiting in the same spot for word from someone with instructions on the route to take to join up with the assigned units.

Nelo´s future lay in the hills stretching out before him.  Home, which his family had been forced to flee at the beginning of the war, was not far away, nestled between those hills close to a town called Jocoaitique.  Vague memories came back, of his grandfather´s cows and a dangerous bluff he was always warned to stay away from.  Nelo was six years old when the family fled to Honduras.  Now he was back as a man, ready to take his place in the revolutionary forces.  The courses on Imperialism and Socialism and Justice and Oppression and Revolution back in the camps were okay, they gave a sense of purpose and of belonging.  But the training as a radio technician was Nelo´s real passion.  His quick mind and nimble fingers quickly absorbed the details and mechanics and created sense of pride in him of being able to offer a valuable contribution.  It was a foregone conclusion that he would go to the Front someday.  His father Milton, his grandfather Tano, his uncle and aunts were all enlisted.  Even his mother Timo had done several periods as a missionary behind the lines.  Nelo´s doubt could only be expressed to his younger sister.  Several days before leaving the camps, he asked the six-year old, “Ena, do you think I should go the Front?”  “I´m too small for that size of a decision, you´ve got to make up your own mind”, was the reply, the first person to put the responsibility back on his shoulders and the only one that did not assume that of course he would go.

Nelo´s thoughts drifted Demy, such a sweet girl, left behind in Las Vegas.  Only a four-hour walk away across a few hills.  So close, yet a world away.  The Honduran border with its constant military patrols, which tightened even more around the Colomoncagua refugee camp, was not to be taken lightly.  The soldiers had orders to shoot to kill and they had carried out those orders quite efficiently before.  Nelo brought his knuckle up and briefly touched the still-smarting scratch on his right cheekbone.  Demy had gone straight for his face the night before he left, those loving hands turned into vengeful claws.  “I hope you die over there”, she managed to scream through her sobs.  Not a favorable sendoff.  The goodbyes to Carmen, Miriam and Canda had been more amicable, worthy of a departing warrior.  They understood that he had to take his place as a man in the war and so they gave of their bodies and comfort so freely and unconditionally.  It was the thought of Demy though that brought rueful regret, “Why doesn´t she understand, why isn´t she proud of me?”  “Que Dios y la Virgin me aparta, may God and the Virgin set me aside” he muttered, remembering Delmy´s parting curse, as he quickly crossed himself and kissed the black string crucifix around his neck.

Shaking off the remorse, Nelo brushed his hands off on his pants and dug into his pack for the macaroni bread his mother had sent along.  The refugee camp had received a donation of a container full of macaroni from Italy.  Apparently, in Italy all they eat is macaroni, at least that’s what the Internationalists working in the camp said.  The camp kitchens, responsible for the food preparation for the some eight thousand refugees, had tried all sorts of ways to fix the macaroni to the liking of the Salvadorans.  All to no avail, until someone discovered that they could be ground back into floor for bread baking.  The Internationalists working in the camps had discovered another way to make the macaroni edible; they deep fat fried them and sprinkled salt on top and called them beer nuts.

In spite of being baked dry and hard, the bread was starting to go stale.  Nelo contemplated going ahead and eating the parcel his mother had sent along to his uncle Tanito.  “If we don´t make it into the Front by tomorrow, I´ll dig into it” he thought, “no sense in letting it go bad”.

A shrill whirling sound shattered Nelo´s contemplation.  He swiveled his head back over his right shoulder just as a blinding flash stunned his senses.  A slight stinging in the mark left by Demy, the trees and rocks blending together in a drunken swirl, and Nelo felt himself spinning into a misty abyss of uncanny silence.

As the mist cleared and the sounds of battle were faintly regained, Nelo found himself some twelve feet off the ground.  He could see the rest of the group scrambling through the pine trees and skidding pell-mell down the bluff overlooking the valley.  The explosions from the grenades were oddly muted as they rained down on the camp site, as well as the gunfire from the advancing soldiers.  Glancing down, Nelo noticed the crumbled unmoving body of a young guerrilla.  “Poor compa, he must have been hit at the beginning of the attack, never had the chance to run.”  Slow realization came to Nelo as he recognized the curly head of hair, the yellow boots he had stained brown and the morsel of macaroni bread half-clutched in the bleeding hand.  “Wake up, Wake up”, he screamed soundlessly at the body lying below, “Wake up, Wake up, he repeated to himself, trying to will himself out of the nightmare.  The sounds of battle faded off into the distance, and with it most of the anxiety.  Numbness slowly set in, as faces and memories floated in and faded out of the surrounding mist.


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