All day and night I can hear the trucks full of bio-suited army men collecting the dead. The rumor is that the dead are taken to an enormous open-air pit where men with flamethrowers incinerate them. I have seen dense clouds of black smoke billowing like laundry flapping in the breeze near the mountains to the east, but I have no idea if it’s from the burning of the dead or something else. I can’t remember what this place was like before all the craziness. I don’t know who is in charge of this city, this state, this country, but the added confusion lends an air of nightmarish surrealism to the situation. I’ve been waiting for some sort of spasmodic explosion of civil unrest…waiting for the panicked crowds to storm the barricades, attempt to flee, something.
Two weeks now and the northern part of the city is a disaster area. There was an explosion four days ago, some sort of gas-line erupted and destroyed thirteen entire city blocks. The fire raged all night and most of the next two days because the water was shut down by the explosion. No word on casualties. The nightly news used to run a daily count of the plague deaths but that stopped around the same time the fire broke out. The news is getting more vague, less information is flowing from somewhere to the rest of us. But it’s pretty easy to see that things are not going well. The taxis have completely stopped running, the historical center of town is deserted, and the church bells no longer ring. It’s only been two weeks since the disease first appeared here, and the devastation it has caused has effectively crippled all social services. I can’t imagine what the hospitals are like; they were overcrowded, under-funded and understaffed before, when there was no national health emergency.
I’ve decided to take a walk to the east edge of town today and see if I can determine the source of the endless black smoke circling the sky from that direction. I head out early, around 7:30, and I haven’t walked a mile before I’m spooked by the deserted streets. And not a single dog, which is actually more unusual than the lack of people. For that matter, there are still no signs at all of animal life; no birds, insects, cats, dogs, nothing. Only the sound of the hot, dry winds blowing the trash around the empty streets.
I started seeing a few people on the sidewalks near the mega-mart, which cheered me somewhat, until I got closer to them and their appearance became more distinct; they were the walking dead, at least they looked that way to me; street urchins in rags and their adult counterparts, the poor of Cuernavaca. I stopped to try to speak with a withered old white-haired man who, I knew, supported himself as a shoeshine.
“Que haces?” I asked. What are you doing?
He shrugged and it was the sign of monumental weariness. “Nada.”
“Donde esta su perro? I asked him. Where is your dog? He always had a small cream-colored mongrel with him.
His deep-set brown eyes filled with tears. “Muerto.”
He hung his head. “Si, mi perro esta Muerto.”
I bid him adios and continued my journey. One glance at the shattered front windows of the mega-mart told me it was a waste of time trying to buy anything there: apparently the masses had been getting out of hand, the news just declined to tell anyone. I wondered how much civil unrest had already occurred. I had noted with alacrity the presence of heavily armed, blue-uniformed policemen throughout the city and was surprised to learn that they possessed no social status at all. Coming from a brutal prison culture and the general barbarity of America, I was naturally taken aback when told that the only people walking around openly armed were considered the dregs of society and treated with contempt. I had been caught more than once surreptitiously eyeballing their weaponry, and always tried to be double-damned polite to them. They had my respect; they had guns.
And no one else did.
I wondered what the police were doing in instances of looting and rioting; perhaps they were the ones doing the most damage? In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and in a city of a million people cracking apart under the dreaded assault of hemorrhagic fever, the men with guns — hombres con armas — would naturally rise to the top of the heap.
I was in a small street, waving the black smoke away from my eyes and the throat-clenching stench from in front of my mouth, when I saw a man wrestling with one of the soldiers. He was attempting to retrieve something wrapped in a burlap bag that the soldier was trying to toss into the back of a truck.
I thought the man was saying it was his pet, but then the Spanish words became clear and I understood; it was his daughter. I think the soldier finally calmed him down by telling him that there were plenty of people’s daughters in the truck, including his own.
When the soldier saw me he told me to go back home. I may not understand much Spanish, but his tone and the shotgun cradled in his arm made it very clear that I should disappear.
And so I did…
Man, today I feel like shit; I must have the flu, or something. I have a fever and a headache and a backache and a sore throat and my arms and legs hurt. Sounds like the flu, doesn’t it? It hurts when I take a piss, too.
TV tonight said that President Fox will make a special announcement at 9 PM.
There are scorpions all over my apartment; I’ve killed one in every room. The last one was hiding in the kitchen sink. Things are falling to ruin, everywhere. My little statue of Santa Muerte, Saint Death, sits to my right on the kitchen table, watching me, waiting.
President Fox said that over a million people had already died from fever in Mexico City; the army had been called in to put down unrest. The southern state of Chiapas had declared autonomy…tanks were seen rolling down the highway, headed south. It looked like Mexican society was on the brink of total collapse…and I didn’t have the energy or inclination to seek out news of my old homeland; I’m sure in the United States things are similarly out of control.
It never occurred to me that I could get sick, not with the fever. I check my spit in the sink; there’s blood in it. But if this were the plague, I’d be bleeding profusely from my nose, my eyes, my throat. My temperature would skyrocket; I’d lose consciousness, fade in and out… Twenty-three hours of sleep a day and no rest.
Leave me alone, I am the king of Mexico and I have no throne and there is nowhere on this wretched earth where I can feel at home.
I am not quite sure what to do anymore. The country has gone mad. For the last three days and nights, soldiers have been massacring rioters, looters, and people crazy with fear trying to break through the barricades. The mob mentality has finally taken over. I haven’t left my apartment since the shooting started. The last time I tried to walk anywhere I didn’t make it four blocks before I saw a burning taxi and a dead man in the middle of the road.
No one needs a coca cola that badly.
My landlady died yesterday. I was still asleep when the soldiers came for her. They woke me up as they were knocking on her door. I saw them carry her out, limp and lifeless, and I watched as they tossed her into the back of their truck and drove away. I wonder what I should do? There’s no way to leave the city.
I walked to the Centro today and didn’t see a single person. Well, maybe that isn’t an accurate description; I saw plenty of people, dead people. I don’t think the soldiers are even collecting corpses anymore.
The city appears to be deserted. Could I be the last man alive in Cuernavaca? I find it hard to accept, but after walking the city for hours I have found nothing except corpses, smashed cars, and piles of smoldering rubble that once were buildings. There is no longer anything on TV. All the channels are just hissing white noise and static.
It’s so quiet. I walk the streets and not even the wind makes any noise. I need to get back to my apartment and take stock; I am starting to really worry about running out of gas. I need to boil my drinking water or I won’t last three days…my apartment is just around the corner. I keep walking — but I’m lost in the maze of winding streets — and so thirsty…so thirsty…
Raegan Butcher is the author of Stone Hotel: Poems From Prison and Rusty String Quartet. He lives in the Pacific Northwest, and has regularly contributed fiction and poetry to Verbicide since 2003.