This story, like many in The Last Word collection, is based on a true incident. See more stories in this collection and others at the Short Stories &c. link above.
The jungle was not quiet that morning. I don’t remember it being quiet, not quiet like maybe it would be, as they dragged the two of them to the center of us.
The boy was just 16, the girl not even. They were surrounded, encircled by the rest of us, and they stood, scared and dejected, their hands bound by rough cords in front of them, their eyes cast down at the reddish earthen floor on which we all stood.
Their crime, we were told, was that they had the temerity to fall in love. This was an anti-revolutionary act. They were not there to be lovers. They were there to be revolutionaries. Love had no place in the struggle, no place in the heart of a guerrilla. They had broken the rules, rules they well knew when they joined the movement, and there could be only one punishment for them. So said our jefe.
“Do you have anything to say for yourselves, before I pronounce sentence?”
There was no trial. They were caught in the act, caught doing what young lovers do. That was their trial, the proof of guilt contained in the very act, and all that remained was exposing their crime to the rest of us, so we might see what love leads to for guerrillas, among revolutionaries, amid the struggle, and to pass sentence.
Each, in turn, and together, shook their heads, no. No, they had nothing to say. No, their love was between them and not to be put before those who would not understand. No, there was no defense they could make that would save them. No, what they shared transcended revolution, not that it had replaced it, but they were who they were and felt what they felt. And no, they were too terrified to speak, even in their own defense. I couldn’t help but feel badly, terribly, for them.
“Very well then,” our jefe said. “You are each condemned to death. The sentence will be carried out immediately.”
I could see, sense more than see, the boy tremble at the leader’s words, and a trail of tears make a thin furrow in the jungle dust on the girl’s light coffee-brown face. Their love, so strong, was to be put down with their lives, and this was to be a lesson for the rest of the band.
And then our jefe turned to me. Directly to me. Only to me. Me, no older than the boy, maybe a year older than the girl.
“Here,” he said, his hand holding out a pistol. “Take this. You are chosen to carry out the sentence. You are newest in our group, and must prove your loyalty and your willingness to follow orders. Fail, and you will join them.”
I was frozen in place. Me? How I could I do this? Why not one of the more experienced, more hardened members of our band? I had never killed anyone before, much less two of my peers, two not much different than myself, who had committed no crime other than loving one another. I am sure our jefe saw how wide my eyes had become, how now I also was trembling. If there was one thing he was very good at, it was sensing fear or reticence among those in his band.
“Take it, mi hijo. Then take them off somewhere and do your duty. Are you a man, or a worm?”
That’s the word he used. Gusano. Worm. A worm too cowardly, or too sentimental, perhaps too bourgeois, to do what was demanded of him. A worm unsuited to be called a revolutionary.
I stared at the pistol the leader held out to me, knowing that one of those bullets it contained would be put in my brain if I refused. What was I to do? What could I do?
I reached out, slowly, unsurely, and felt the weight of the weapon as it passed from the leader’s hand to mine. In accepting it, I was accepting my mortal duty. I had no doubt of this, knowing there was no escape from it, either in life or in death. Death I was not willing to go into. Not now. Not like this.
Someone handed me the ropes that bound the wrists of the boy and the girl. In my right hand was the pistol, in my left the ropes. All eyes of the band were upon me, no less the eyes of el jefe. No words needed to be spoken. I heard the birds calling between them in the jungle that lay outside our camp, that came to its very edge. I could feel the sweat running down my sides beneath my rough shirt. I pulled on the ropes.
No words needed to be spoken as I pulled on them, leading the condemned couple behind me. I held the pistol at my side as the circle of revolutionaries opened to let me pass, me and what were now my two charges. No one jumped forward to stop me. No one questioned the leader’s words. No one challenged the sentence that was handed down. Eyes met mine and did not turn away, defying me instead to carry out my duty. The birds sang, the air was still, and hot, and I walked, numbly, toward one of our tents, the boy and the girl pulled along by the ropes in my left hand, the ropes wrapped tightly around their wrists.
I pushed aside the canvas door with the hand that held the pistol, my finger off the trigger, the flap heavy to move, the smell of stale canvas and jungle rot strong as it came from the tent, the rustle of the tent door now the only sound I could hear. That, and the blood pounding in my temples.
I pulled the couple inside the tent, pointed to the ground, the soil that was the floor of the tent, in a gesture for them to kneel to accept their sentence. I could feel their eyes on me, me who had been picked as randomly from the group as they had been randomly discovered in their love, randomly, and not randomly. I knew they sensed I didn’t want to do what I was about to do, but knew I would do it, anyway.
Both resisted my gesture to kneel, both remained standing, a last gesture of defiance, their eyes trained on mine. The girl was first to speak.
“Kill me first,” she said, tears now freely flowing down her cheeks. “I don’t want to have to watch him die. I love him too much. So kill me first. Por favor.”
I looked from her face, young and tear-stained but so earnest, earnest and pleading in what she desired, her wet eyes as clear as her words, to that of the boy. He was silent, lacking anything to add to what the girl had said. I knew he didn’t want to watch her die, either, I could see the torture contained in his expression. But there was only one pistol so one would have to go first.
“I don’t want to cause her any more pain than I have already,” the boy finally said. “I love her too much to do that.”
“Kneel. Both of you. Now do it.”
I spoke as the executioner. There was no point in dragging this on. I was not willing to die, as I would as certainly as these two would, whether at my hand or the hand of another, if I refused the jefe‘s order.
“I’m sorry,” I said, putting the pistol near the girl’s forehead. “Please forgive me.”
El jefe, the others in our band, heard the two shots I fired. One for the girl. One for the boy. I had done my duty. Proven myself. And now I was fully one of them. The birds fell silent for a moment, and then resumed their singing.
Por la nueva Colombia, la patria grande y socialismo. Viva la revolución.
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