The first chapter is important to any book, but especially a mystery novel, right? It needs to be a royal tingler. This first chapter didn’t exist until several drafts of Border Field Blues had been completed. My original first chapter had to be tossed out. I rather liked it, but it had to go. I killed it. It’s dead. If you’re interested, you can read the original below, after the line break. If you’re not interested, then move along. There’s nothing to see here.
Beyond the fence it was Mexico. Tijuana. Beyond the fence stood a looming black shape, an elliptical shadow of concrete. It was the bullring, the last happy memory she had of her old life, the place she had gone with the other girls on that Sunday before she deserted them, the day before she climbed into the trunk of the little man’s car, before she was locked in the dark and the car began moving, taking her north, across the border. It had been a bright day at the bullring, una dia del fiesta. But tonight was the moon, shades of gray shadows. She ran up the hill towards the fence, back to Mexico. Behind her, a truck engine rumbled to life, like a bull pawing the ground, el toro enojado. The man inside it had wakened. He would come after her.
On that day at the bullring, she walked up to thefence, touched it. A border patrolman, La Migra, sat in a green and white truck on the other side, staring back at her, his dark glasses an unreadable wall. She slipped one hand through the wire, waving at him, teasing the Californio air with her fingers. La Norte, the rich air, America. The people who breathed it could make their own life. The least among them wore beautiful clothes. They lived in glass mansions.
On that day, at the fence, she’d made up her mind. She would go with the man. The other girls wouldn’t know. She would leave them a note, like the women in the telenovelas, a gloating promise of a mysterious stranger who would appear to them many years later. The girls wouldn’t know who the stranger was, this beautiful women in a long flowing dress and diamond necklaces, the woman who doled out favors and vengeance in exacting proportions. She would return to that house someday, driving a velvet-lined Cadillac. She would have money. She would tear down the house, build a new one, and the children who lived there would never be beaten or starved.
Behind her, she heard the truck’s rumble, the snapping of branches as it broke through the brambles. A trace of headlights swung across the hill and surrounded her, stretching her shadow across the road. The sound of its engine roared up behind her, overwhelming the soft slap of her bare feet on the asphalt.
Squeezing the crumpled paper bag in her hand, she stepped off the side of the road, plunged down an incline into murky blackness, the smell of salt marsh and rosemary. The ground felt easy under her feet, soft and silent, but soon it gave way to deep sand. Crawling vines snagged at her feet. She tripped and fell, losing her grip on the bag. seabirds shrieked. A pair of them danced on the air in front of her face, then vanished like wind-blown ghosts. She put out her hands, searching for the paper bag, felt a tiny depression, like a hollow sand bowl. Inside it were two perfect eggs. She pulled her hand back, carefully so as not to break them.
Light flashed across sandy bumps as the truck turned down to search for her, the beams of its headlights scratched by the uplifted fingertips of the plants. She heard a new sound now, a soft roar – the ocean. The smell of it drifted in over her. She stood up, looked back. The truck turned off the road and crashed down the gully towards her, chewing up dirt like a great charging toro, kicking up great clouds of dust. The man inside it would kill her. Or worse.
There were two hills ahead, berms of sand on either side of the path to the beach. The lights from the truck had pointed the way. She turned and ran. The truck drew close again, spitting and spewing behind her. She dodged to her left, heard the truck sliding past, leaving darkness in front of her. She reached a hill, climbed to the top and looked back. The truck had stopped moving. Its’ engine revved loudly, whining like a gigantic hornet as the tires spun in the sand. She watched for a moment, catching her breath. The truck door opened.
“Come back,” the man called to her, climbing out of the truck. “It’s a game. I’m not going to hurt you. It’s only a game.”
She ran down the hill towards the ocean, across the beach to the firmer sand at the edge of the water. She turned towards the border, towards Mexico. He wouldn’t follow her there.
On that day, long ago, at the bullring, she’d seen the broken wires, holes in the fence a girl her size could squeeze through. The fence on the beach seemed to be different. Dark, heavy pillars loomed over her head. She reached out to touch one, felt its rough steel. The fence here was thick, rusted poles, offset only inches apart, too close together for her to slide between, too heavy to push to one side. She felt her way along the metal wall, searching for gaps, but there were none. She looked back up the beach, saw the dark shape of the man as he came along the sand towards her.
She turned into the ocean. Cold, churning water splashed at her ankles, up to her knees. It slide up her thighs as she pushed through the waves.
“Come back,” the man cried after her, “you stupid fucking chica. It’s only a game.”
The water came up to her waist now. She put her head down, started to swim. She had swum in the ocean, many times, with her friends, on the beach below the bullring. The water was calm. It was easy. But tonight was different. The waves were strong. They were moving in many directions,swirling sideways. Inside her, waves pounded as well. Rumbling shades crashed down on her eyes.
She put out her hand, pulled herself into to one of the metal posts and hung on, trying to clear her head. Splashing sounds came from the beach. The man had entered the water. She heard him panting and cursing. The panting came closer. The man grabbed her ankle, reeled her in like a big fish, grabbing her hips from behind, like the men in Tijuana, the ones who came to the house, all masculino, the men who did not face her when they pushed their way in. She thought of those men, and felt their hot breath. She reached back and swung at the man behind her, raking her fingernails. He screamed and let go.
She drifted back into the fence. Water came in over her head, filling her mouth. She gagged, cleared her throat, tried to swim again, straining against the tide for the end of the fence where she could pass around it, return to Mexico. The next wave pulled her down. It slammed her into the iron posts, pulling her back towards the shore, and dragging her down below the surface. The water ran into her mouth again. A sickly darkness bore down on her eyes.
A pinpoint of light appeared in front of her, growing brighter, expanding. Her sister appeared in the light, calling her name. Her sister stood in bright daylight on the beach in Rosarito, laughing, holding up two giant lobsters she’d pulled from a fisherman’s traps, telling her how much the gringos would pay for them. Don’t be afraid, her sister said, don’t be afraid. Her sister, the brave one, who’d gone into the doctor’s room first, the doctor who cut them, who made them look like the girls in the telenovelas, new and beautiful, whole again. Her sister, who was gone.
Her sister looked like an angel, with dark lips the color of guava jam. The angel drew close. The light faded. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel called, but there was no sound. You could only see the angel’s lips now, her sister’s lips. They called her name, then receded, along with the light.