His white shirt caught the moonlight, lighting him up like a flare, which Liliana used to guide her down the gravel path. She followed him to the truck and when she reached for the door handle he stepped in front of her and opened the door himself. He spread a towel over the seat to cover up the grease and dust and then Liliana slid in.
It was quiet—the sound of the wind sliding across the windows the only indication that they were even moving. Liliana leaned her head against the glass. It was cold against her skin and she could feel the pressure of the wind outside—gusts carrying the last breaths of summer, fierce and tearing after them. She looked up. The moon was bright and the dark clouds were strung along the sky like giant ink smudges.
She tried not to think about her mother, about the fact that she had another life before she married her father. She knew it was impossible and even a little selfish to expect that everything her mother had done, everything she had said, and everything she had wanted before Liliana, had been wiped clean the moment she was born. But it was the illusion and not truth, as much as she didn’t want to admit it, that had always been the thing to guide her, to giver her strength in those moments when she needed her mother the most.
She had never been mad at her mother before, she was gone before Liliana could grow into those teenage feelings. But she was angry with her now and being angry with her dead mother only made her angry with herself. The more she dwelled on it the sicker she felt until she couldn’t even bare to keep the journal hidden under her mattress anymore, so close to her as she slept, for fear that somehow this man named Ben would creep into her dreams and corrupt them too.
She wasn’t ready to read more, for the illusion to be completely shattered. Instead, she was ready to try and settle into her life here; she was ready to make friends and to start school. Maybe that would start tonight with Jo or Diego. She didn’t feel like the same ghost she’d been in the States, absorbing her lecture notes and the pin thin type of her textbooks with more ferocity than she did any kind of social interaction. She had always been distant from her classmates, and it was an independence Nita had never understood, and as if it was some kind of vulgar flaw, could never seem to forgive her for.
But Liliana knew it had been born from a place of impermanence. The second her mother was taken from her, the entire world turned to fragile finite sand, the flecks constantly shifting and the shapes they once created being lost within the folds. And when they moved to the U.S. it was as if her soul had already walked the path back to Argentina’s soil and knew no other place would ever be its home. She had been safe in her solitude but every night she spent in her mother’s room, reading her mother’s journal beneath those pulsing southern stars she could feel something rising in her. Something reaching.
Liliana suddenly felt strange sitting next to Diego as if maybe she shouldn’t have asked him to drive her. She had felt comfortable talking to him but what did she really know about him? Ana had told her that Diego and his father had worked at the vineyard for a long time. Diego had grown up there. It was more his home than it was hers and it made her trust him almost instinctively. But regardless of how she felt, the truth was they didn’t know each other, not yet anyway, and Liliana just hoped that her instincts wouldn’t turn out to be wrong.
She turned toward him, watching his face. His skin was dark and it glowed red under the moonlight drifting in through the windows—stark against his raven-colored hair bleeding with the night.
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and she quickly shifted her gaze back to the dark road in front of them. She fought the need to examine his features more closely until the silence hanging between them was too thick, and then she spoke.
“Thanks for driving me,” she said.
“I didn’t want to,” Diego said.
She tensed against the seat, watching him, and he shook his head.
“I mean I don’t know what kind of school club would meet out there.”
“Jo, the girl who gave me the address, she said it’s where the journalism students meet.”
“The journalism students or the Montoneros?”
Liliana leaned her back against the window. “Who’s that?”
“The Montoneros, the ERP, they were socialist anti-government groups. They were big during the war. The military called them terrorists.”
“Terrorists?” Liliana sat up on her knees.
Diego shook his head. “Actually a lot of the founders were students, mostly young guys in their early twenties.”
“And el Molino was one of their meeting places? What does that have to do with the University?” Liliana asked.
“Not the University. Journalists, writers, artists, musicians—anyone considered liberal. When the military took power, suddenly they all had a common enemy so they decided to try and work together and the Montoneros and the People’s Army joined forces with a lot of the University students. You’ve been there. Why do you think everything is under construction? It’s because everything was shit to pieces during the war.”
“So they had to meet somewhere else.”
“But the war is over. Why would they still be meeting there?”
A long breath cut Diego’s lips. “Not everything’s been set right. People are still fighting, every day, in their own way. It was bad.” He met her eyes. “And the worst part is it wasn’t the first military take-over and it won’t be the last.”
“It was hard to find out anything while we were in the U.S. It was never on the news. No one seemed to even know there was a war going on.”
“Trust me, the lack of media coverage, the segregation from the rest of the world, it was all under their control.”
Liliana felt a fierce blush rising across her cheeks. Sometimes she felt like she had no right to be asking questions. Like she was some kind of traitor because her father had money and connections and friends who helped them escape. But even though they had been lucky and had gone somewhere safe she had longed for Argentina, for her home every day, and didn’t that count for something?
There was a part of her that felt so unbelievably lucky that they never went to bed afraid that they’d be snatched up in the middle of the night during a raid or of being killed on a routine trip to the market. But there was also another part of her mad with curiosity and completely fixated with filling in that gap of her life where the war should have been. The war was a thing—a living, breathing beast that had taken her mother. All she wanted was to give that beast a face.
“You see that light?” Diego nodded to something up ahead.
A small light bulb was dangling from a wooden post. Liliana looked in both directions. On one side was an empty field and a hazy horizon line and on the other was a row of short brick structures that were so low to the ground they seemed to be sinking into the earth. The truck rounded a corner and there were other cars parked askew in front of a row of broken floor to ceiling windows.
They stepped out of the truck and Diego led Liliana down a narrow stairway that plunged straight down into darkness. She stumbled and reached for some kind of railing, her fingers catching on Diego’s shirtsleeve instead. He stopped and Liliana let go. Something was in front of them. Diego used the toe of his boot to knock four times and then a board slid out of place, light flooding from the hole. A pair of pupils, dark with bright veins bleeding from the irises swelled within the frame. With a slight quake in her voice Liliana asked for Jo and then they were led inside.
Lamps hung low from the ceiling casting a red dusty glow over everything and the walls curved up into stone arches making the place seem less man-made and more like it had been formed naturally by the slowly shifting stones. There were four metal tables with mismatched wooden chairs, a gray couch with exposed springs, and a couple of wooden crates with red lettering stamped on the sides. There were cardboard boxes stacked from floor to ceiling and a group of people sat on the various chairs as well as the floor with piles of papers in their laps. One girl had an entire box sitting between her legs and she was fiercely wetting her fingertips and flipping through the pages.
“You’re here,” Jo said when she spotted Liliana. “Grab a box.”
“What is everyone doing?” Liliana asked.
Jo led them to a table and Diego grabbed a box for each of them. He carried them to the center of the room and they sat behind the girl marking every page with her saliva. Jo grabbed a box for herself and sat across from Diego.
“These are militant newspapers printed by the Montoneros. Some of them were circulated, but most of them never made it out of the rabbit houses.”
“The rabbit houses were a cover. They transported the newspapers with the rabbits.”
Liliana’s confusion began to swell and Jo seemed to sense it.
“See, that’s the problem with you expats,” she said, “you don’t have a goddamn clue.”
“Hey, watch it,” Diego said. “She came here to help you.”
“Yeah,” Jo said, shaking her head, “I’m sorry. Ok, I’ll start at the beginning. Newspapers weren’t allowed to publish anything negative about the military, even if it was true, so it was pointless and impossible for journalists to write about the war or the disappearances. You do know about the disappearances?”
Liliana nodded. “My mother,” she said.
Jo looked at her, all impatience for Liliana’s lack of knowledge melting from her face. “Mine too,” she said, “and my older brother and his wife.”
“I’m sorry,” Liliana said.
Jo frowned, eyes placid. “My father fought with the rebels. He was a Montonero. I used to go with him to deliver the newspapers. No one suspected a little girl and a truck full of bunnies to be dangerous.” Jo fell silent for a while.
“And all of these boxes?” Diego asked. “What is the University going to do with them?”
“Not the University, exactly, not officially.”
“But I thought,”
“I know. But we’re all students, that part’s true. I just didn’t think you would come meet me at a place like this unless you thought it had something to do with the University and we could really use the extra pair of hands and eyes. What we’re doing, it’s important. It could change everything.”
“I don’t know how much you heard about what was going on when you were in the States,” Jo continued. “I’m guessing hardly anything considering nothing was allowed to be published let alone written about the war that showed the military in a negative light or had any ounce of truth in it at all. But some people did start keeping a record of the things that were happening, of the people that were disappearing and when and how they were taken. Some journalists started writing in secret and then sent their articles to the Montoneros to be printed in their underground newspaper so that people could stay informed and prepare for what might be coming next. University students started writing about the war too and working with the Montoneros. See, when people were starting to go missing they were usually just picked up by soldiers in civilian clothes…”
“Snatched right out of their bedrooms,” the saliva girl chimed in, “or in the middle of the town square.”
“Then the police would say they were never arrested. Even if a hundred people witnessed them being dragged into the back of a falcon the police denied every single one,” Jo went on. “The newspapers didn’t just inform people about what was really going on they also reported on the missing. They printed every faded and wrinkled photo submitted by a desperate parent or sibling of the disappeared. They wrote descriptions of the missing too and towards the end they were adding a hundred new photos every week.”
“So after you pull the articles, then what?” Diego asked, staring at the wall of cardboard boxes.
“Publish them, finally. But what we’re really hoping to find is clues.”
“Clues,” Liliana repeated. “What kind of clues?”
“Suspected ‘terrorists’ or ‘subversives’ weren’t the only people disappearing during the war. Children, infants mostly, went missing too. The military had this sick idea to not only torture and kill their prisoners but to also take their children and place them with a military family who would raise them as their own. They were already building the next generation of their regime. Thousands of children went missing but we know they’re not dead. We know they’re alive somewhere thinking the monsters who are raising them are their biological parents. If we can finally publish these articles, even if all they say is the child’s name and the day they were taken, maybe there will be one person out there who remembers and who knows where they are.”
Liliana looked to Diego, her skin pallid and her eyes wide. “Did they?” she asked.
“Yes,” Diego nodded.
“They had to hide the articles to keep them from looking too ‘subversive’ so they were printed in pieces and camouflaged by other material. An article may start in the middle of a cooking recipe and then end on the back of another sheet in another box in the middle of a child’s nursery rhyme. That’s why we have to read through every single one.”
Liliana looked at the piles of boxes, the stack of papers in front of her, and then at Diego. It wasn’t exactly what she had been expecting. By the time they had left the vineyard it was already almost midnight. Diego had a leather watch on and Liliana could see that it was now past one. But her father was staying at the hospital with his brother tonight and everyone else had been asleep before she had even left. So she pulled the papers onto her lap and slowly started scanning each one. She read through eight pages of camouflage before she found an article about the war. It began with the words Blut und Ehre. That’s German, Liliana thought, isn’t it? The rest of the article was in Spanish and Liliana followed the lines with her finger as they wound around the page.
General Rossi has hired retired World War II Nazi Generals to train his military. Soldiers have been seen wearing Nazi memorabilia and interacting with each other in simple German phrases when amongst civilians. An anonymous escapee says the junta has adopted the Generals’ forms of torture as well. Speaker systems at the Naval School and other camps and holding areas play a constant stream of anti-Semitic recordings that include speeches, broadcasts, and other Nazi propaganda. Argentinean Jews are now making up the greatest percent of those reported to the Ministry of Special Cases as missing persons.
Liliana flipped the page over and saw another short paragraph with much the same information. For the next hour and a half Liliana found six more articles. Most of them were short providing facts and information that was straight to the point but there were a few that were less formal, more like personal testimonies—one article sounded like it was written by a mother. The paragraph was short but the lines were long and the words escaped Liliana’s lips in deep sighs—twisting into a scene that sent her stomach reeling.
Her son had disappeared. He was a student like Liliana and he was at the University late one night, studying in the library when the power had suddenly shut off. The blood caked around his mouth and nose and the marks on his skin were the only pieces of evidence the police could recover, the only means with which the article’s writer could revive the scene. Maybe it had startled him, sending him to his knees. Or maybe, in the darkness, he’d bent down to reach for his things, accidentally knocking them to the floor. Then, crouched down on all fours, his fingers padding the carpet and sliding between the desks, his skin slid across something cold. And as his eyes were still struggling to adjust to the synthetic night something shiny, like a piece of metal glimmered just below his chin. Maybe it disappeared for a moment into the darkness again and as he tried to get to is feet, the steel toe of a soldier’s boot drove itself into his stomach and limbs shuddering with the force, he collapsed.
Diego noticed Liliana’s face cut by the article she held in front of her eyes. It was dark, her brown cinched low as the words hovered there on the edge of her lips. He wondered what it was like for her to be reading about what happened instead of having lived through it—seeing the war in fading calibrated text instead of in blood. He always thought reading about it would never do the war justice—that words were incapable of saying what it was like, of saying anything at all. But looking at Liliana’s face just then, mist forming at the edge of her lash line, he suddenly felt the need to take the page creased between her fingers and rip it up into nothing. Maybe words could never express the gravity of what had happened, or the darkness that still lingered over the city but by the dark flux in Liliana’s eyes it was obvious that they weren’t harmless either.
Diego looked around at the clusters of people sitting with their legs propped up on crates, arms submerged in a sea of cardboard and fading black text. He looked at the floor—the same black cement he remembered, but now carved with long gray cracks spreading from wall to wall like petrified lightening strikes. There used to be a small bar across the room with a makeshift step covered in maroon carpet jutting out from beneath the tall wooden stools. Diego used to sit there, his knees under his chin, both hands gripping the legs of one of the barstools. Then when they would dim the lights he would slip into the darkness and watch his parents perform from behind the dusty soles of work boots and between the bare legs of prostitutes trying to pick up customers who were already dazed by alcohol.
Diego was six, maybe seven the last time he had been at the mill. His parents were good enough to play in the city, and they did most nights, but that was before the war, before Flamenco was banished to the outskirts of the city. It was still dangerous to play anywhere, the troops were always patrolling the bars looking for musicians who were spreading anthems of their demise, but for people like Diego’s parents it was the only way they could make a living.
Diego’s parents met when they were fourteen, the eternity of their union solidified the second Diego’s mother Marina led them into a cante jondo so startlingly beautiful that no other tocaor had been able to follow its complicated melody. It was in that moment that Marina became Andrés Vargas’ dancer and he became her tocaor.
Every Flamenco player has a dancer. They’re the one pulling the strings—like the conductor of a symphony. The music comes from somewhere inside her and the player just follows her lead, tuning into her rhythm and mimicking it. Finding the right dancer is like finding your soul mate. Only it’s more than that. Until you find her life is like walking through a desert. You see glimpses of her, mirages, and divine visions. You hear her, the hard stomping of steel nail heads against the floor. But it’s as if you are both prisoners to some invisible fate and just when you’ve collapsed, the side of your face sinking into the steaming sand, the blue sky fading, an angel appears, wiping your brow with the train of her skirt.
Diego hardly remembered his mother but he did remember that she would always leave the red imprint of her lips on the arch of his cheekbone and he remembered the way his father looked at her, watched her. His eyes would follow her, always full of anxiety and anticipation. She was precious but he knew she was also wild and they married too young to know who they were and who they would be together. They fought every day. Sometimes it was about performing—Diego’s mother wanted out, she was tired of spending every night in a bar, not because it was dangerous but because she was restless. She hadn’t loved Diego’s father and Diego often wondered if she was immune to the love of her own child as well.
He remembered the scene and his eyes darted to different corners of the room letting his memory fill the familiar space. There never was a stage. His father had been sitting on a low stool, his back hunched over the guitar. The room was dark and Marina’s red skirt fanned out around her absorbing the darkness until she looked like she was twisting inside a blood-filled cocoon. Marina pinched the corner of her skirt and slowly lifted her arm into the air. Her hand reached its apex and the cascading ruffles were shimmering like a giant wing poised for flight. She kept her eyes closed, inhaled deeply, and then stomped out a harsh combination that set every body shivering in reply. She waited a moment and as she began lifting the steel toe of her shoe Diego’s father began to feel for the strings.
But as she opened her eyes they spotted a man entering the bar and it shattered her concentration. He was kneeling and whispering to a little boy, her little boy, who was crouched beneath a barstool. The man slowly turned his face toward Marina and he smiled a smile Diego had never seen before. But it was the kind of smile Diego recognized later in life, on the faces of soldiers as they were dragging prisoners from their beds and pushing them into the backs of green ford falcons. It was the kind of smile that didn’t say hello, but goodbye.
It was only a zipper Diego thought; a narrow metal zipper was all that was between my father’s chest and the blade. The man who came to see Diego’s mother was a businessman, wealthy. Diego remembered wondering why he was so shiny and his hair so slick. It turned out Marina was more desperate to leave her life than Diego and his father had thought. She knew the man had money. She started seeing him. He called her Marlena. He was planning a trip to the states and she was promised a spot next to him on the plane. But her plan soon began to unravel, the final source of her demise being an old Gypsy woman emigrated from Spain who sold herbal remedies and performed readings for rich tourists in the square.
She was an older woman, though a faint glow still flushed her cheeks and a fierce flame still lingered in her large eyes. Each week, after the war started, there were less and less tourists in the plaza and more arrests. Mothers of the disappeared, las madres, were beginning to gather there, and in the beginning, when the group was small, the military could eliminate them with three falcons and one sweep of arrests. But as their presence grew, the low cadence of their chanting as permanent as the soft warble of the fountain, as permanent as the wind—sighs echoing off the cobblestone steps, the more impermanent their freedom became.
One day the old Gypsy woman was leaning against a tree, watching the women in their silent protest. Like the Jews, the Gypsies were targeted by the military. Beneath the politics la junta was trying to bring the holocaust back to life on Argentinean soil and that meant a widespread extermination of diversity. Soldiers were surrounding the mothers, taunting them, and the square suddenly grew quiet. Then something deep and grating escaped one of the soldier’s lips, the echo imprisoned within the plaza and circling the spectators on the crowded street. Lead bullets sliced through brick and flesh—chaos casting a crimson veil over everything.
The woman kept her hands clasped against her breast as the cold barrel of a gun was hugged against her neck and the thick calloused hands of a soldier were guiding her towards a car parked away from the plaza and camouflaged by the low hanging branches of a willow tree. She kept her eyes closed, motivated only by his touch and then there were voices, deep and rustling with the leaves. When she opened her eyes she saw a man in a suit—his hair slicked back and his oily skin glistening in the light passing through the trees. He looked down at her, face flushed and fierce as he pieced together her familiar eyes, large, cunning, and her full lips that he knew could spread into the most tantalizing smile he had ever seen.
“Is this her?” the soldier asked.
She felt the man’s fingers cutting into her collarbone, trembling as he spoke.
“You have a daughter,” he hissed at her.
At first the woman didn’t speak—the only sounds the anxious click of her teeth. Her lips began to quake as she felt the hot sting of tears. She was afraid. She looked down at her clasped hands and shook her head.
“Have they taken her?” the woman said.
“What is her name?”
“Marina,” she said, “Marina, and she has a little boy. Where is he? Where is the little boy? Did they take him too?”
Her entire body began to shake then and the man gripped her tighter in an effort to steady her. She began to cry, a cry so deep it wasn’t a cry at all, but a howl—a plea to God from the most basic, animal part of herself.
He turned away from her, just for a second, and then the back of his hand was grating across her cheekbone. She twisted, knees buckling, and collapsed on the ground. When she finally opened her eyes the trees were fragmented as if she were looking at a world made of broken glass. She waited for air, rolling and reaching, the grass damp against her skin. Then her fingers, still curled, began to unlace themselves and she laid her palms steady in the grass. The breeze blew across her fingertips and then, though she could barely make out the golden glinting outline, she felt the caterpillar begin to inch its way to the edge of her hand and onto a stray leaf floating in the grass.
The man in the suit finally found Marina.
Diego’s father watched as a trail of sweat slid down his wife’s neck, her blood soon following. Then her skirt, fanned out like a giant flame, fell to the floor, settling like a pile of ashes around her feet.
“Get Diego,” she’d whispered.
Diego’s father kicked back his stool and lunged for the man’s throat while a blade six inches long, por Dios engraved and glistening on the steel edge, sliced through his vest, catching on the metal teeth of his zipper. Andrés drew back his right arm and delivered a blow to the man’s face as another came from behind and wrapped his arms, snake-like, around his neck. Both men fell to the ground and Diego, still crouching under the stool, looked straight into his father’s eyes. They were red and his face was blue. Diego reached for him, his tiny palm outstretched and trembling. Then, just as his father’s eyes began to slide closed a shower of glass floated down around his face. Marina pulled Diego out from under the stool and wrapped him in the train of her skirt before grabbing his father by his torn shirtsleeve and leading them both up the stairs and into the night.