A few years back, I spent three months in Saltillo, Coahuila, in northern Mexico, where I studied Spanish philology and literature. For a good part of the time I was alone, and I didn’t mind it. The other lodgers in the boarding house, university students, had left for summer vacation, so I often sat at the big table and ate by myself. The language institute was changing its focus from advanced studies in language to a bilingual secretary program, so I was the only student in most of my classes. To get my exercise, I went on long afternoon marches, by myself, through various parts of the city. I would lace up my hiking boots, put on the straw hat I bought in Chihuahua, and set out, not concerned about whether people took me for an extranjero—a foreigner, or stranger. For the most part, no one paid me much attention and I went on my way, comfortable in the city that called itself “the Athens of Mexico.”
Several of my routes had good uphill climbs, which I enjoyed for the exertion, and one of them led to a place called El Mirador—the Lookout—which offered a fine, broad view of Saltillo. The site had a parking lot, then a terraced area with a low wall around the edge, a raised flower bed in the middle, and picnic tables and benches flanking it. I understood from one of my professors that this place and a couple of others like it were traditional parking spots for young lovers, but with the rise of youth gangs, the places had become dangerous at night. In broad daylight, however, the Mirador looked as innocent as it might have in any era. Couples strolled, mothers wheeled their babies, and children ran around.
On one Sunday in July, I put on my hat and set forth. After a half hour of good walking I came to the base of the Mirador, then climbed the steep set of stone-and-dirt steps on the west side. I came out on top, walked across the terrace, and admired the city spread out below.
As I stood there enjoying the view, three boys of about six to nine years old came up to me, and one of them surprised me with a question. At first I didn’t understand him, because I wasn’t expecting him to ask me that kind of question. If I was expecting anything, it would have been that he would ask me for money, but since I never took along anything but the house key on my walks, I didn’t even think much about that kind of an encounter. But his words were about something else, so I had him ask again.
From his question, now that I heard it, I imagined he did not take me for a stranger.
“Is it true that some man got it in the ribs here?”
I said I didn’t know, and I asked him if it had happened the night before.
He said yes, that his grandfather had told him the assault was committed by a young man fifteen years old.
I said I didn’t know anything about it.
The boys wandered away, having found in me, I supposed, nothing to satisfy their curiosity. I went back to looking at the scenery for a few minutes. Then as I turned to leave, I noticed something I had seen before I talked to the boys. Some recent visitors had strewn a mess of styrofoam plates and cups. I was wondering what kind of an outing had taken place, how many people there had been, and why they threw their trash around like that, when I noticed some drops on the geometric pattern of paving stones. I forgot about the trash.
The deer hunter in me recognized the drops of blood. They made a trail. It looked as if the wounded man had been going in the same direction as I now was. There were drops and smudge-like stains, both at regular spaces. I thought the smears had been imprinted by the sole of a shoe. From the length of the intervals, I guessed that the man was moving fast and that the drops fell ahead. They were about the size of a peso, a little larger than one of our dimes, and in front of each one, tiny drops had splashed on the flat cement stones.
All of this I saw and understood as I walked alongside the tracks of the injured man. I followed his trail for about fifty yards until I came to a set of steps that led down to the parking lot on the southwest side, not far from where I came in. On the second step I saw a shallow pool of blood, coagulated now. From the imprint of a fabric like denim pressed into the blood, I could make out the spot where the wounded man must have sat, leaning against a low cement column.
I stood there for a long moment, thinking about the life of this unknown person. I felt a kinship with him, a man who had sat in this spot, worrying for his life, seeing the darkness, and being conscious of this place perhaps for the last time. Now, within a few hours, the whole atmosphere had changed. Life went on as before, with people going out for a Sunday paseo, having picnics and tossing their litter.
I did not know whether the man had died at the Mirador, had been able to make it to his car, or had gotten help in some way. But I did know that I was there, in broad daylight, in the spot where treachery had struck a fellow human being. In that way, at least for a moment, our lives touched and I felt a relation with him. I could form only the vaguest picture of either the victim or his assailant, but I had the clear notion that the person who shed the blood would forever be the stranger.
I originally wrote this piece in Spanish when I was studying in Saltillo in the summer of 1994. Later on, I rewrote it in English, and in 2006 it was published in Emerging Voices, a creative writing magazine at Western Nebraska Community College. I express my appreciation to my friends in nearby Nebraska, and I am happy to share this story with a new audience.
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