The following is excerpted from Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne), winner of the 2016 English PEN Award and out tomorrow from Scribe US. Set in an unnamed land that could be the Mexico-US border reimagined by Breughel and Dante, the story follows a group of immigrants and traffickers, themselves victims of a generations-old purgatory. Throughout, the narrative is interwoven with quotes from Dante’s Inferno and testimony from real migrants, set apart in offset text. This is a look at the opening pages of the novel.
The Book of Epitafio
It also happens by day, but now it is night. On the expanse of wasteland that neighboring villagers call El Ojo de Hierba—The Eye of Grass—a clearing ringed by gnarled trees, primeval liana and roots that snake out of the earth like arteries—there comes an unexpected whistle, the clatter of a diesel engine revving up, and the darkness is suddenly ripped by four huge spotlights.
Fearful, those who have come from afar stop, cower, and try to look at each other: but are blinded by the powerful spotlights. Then, drawing nearer, mothers to children, children to men, those who have been walking now for many days begin to sing their fears.
Someone whistles and spotlights
suddenly blaze . . . We cannot see . . .
We huddle against each other . . .
sheer fearful bodies.
The words of these creatures whose bodies strive to merge into a single being cross the space, the man who whistled does so again and advances two paces. Confronted by his body, the thrumming of the jungle, like the shadows a moment earlier, falls away and for a few seconds all that can be heard are the whisperings of the men and women crossing the borders.
Some say we are already fucked
that we are not worth shit . . . Others
talk but say nothing . . . as though
praying or swallowing their words.
Listening to these whisperings, paying them no heed, the man in command removes his cap, wipes a hand across his brow, turns his body, and reveals his face. As yet, it is impossible to discern anything particular about this man who now raises both arms and, whistling once more, sets in motion the boys operating the powerful spotlights.
Having advanced several meters, the four pushing the powerful spotlights hear another whistle from their boss and halt their advance across the grassy clearing. Yawning contentedly, the man in command turns his head, looks up toward an old truck, and smiles at the woman dozing there.
For their part, when the cage of light in which they find themselves ceases to close in, the men and women who left their lands some days, some weeks ago, feel something drain from the entrails and huddle ever closer to each other, their tremblings merging into one, their hollow voices fusing into a single voice. The shock is passing and the terror is charged with questions.
We did not know what had happened . . . or knew what had but
not what would . . . They began:
Who sees something . . . those who are
on the other side . . . who?
The glare of the spotlights that fashions the intangible bars makes it impossible for those who have come from afar to see anything; not the mountains they crossed some time since, nor the jungle where they were so recently, nor the thick wall of vegetation they breached in order to enter this wasteland and stumble on their waiting captors, whose boss is still looking at the woman sleeping in the truck.
Removing and replacing his cap, revealing his large nose, the man tears his eyes from the woman he first met in El Paraíso, turns his head and reflexively makes another inventory of his things and his people: all his men are here, his huge trucks, his large trailer, two ramshackle vans, three motorcycles, the blazing spotlights, and the diesel generator that has just begun to sputter.
The sudden belching of the machine signals that it is about to stall, and the commander, the man with the big nose and bushy eyebrows whose name is Epitafio, says: “I told you that thing was on its last legs!” Shaking his head, the man with the nose and the eyebrows, who also has two disproportionate lips, takes off his cap again and waves away the smoke enveloping him as he approaches the generator, lights a lamp, hunkers on the ground, and begins to tinker with various levers. Seconds later the machine’s hiccupping stops and Epitafio gets to his feet and extinguishes the lamp, and listens doubtfully to the clanking gears as a doctor might listen to a patient’s chest.
It won’t hold out much longer . . . We don’t have much time today, thinks Epitafio and, turning on his heel, he walks toward the old truck: his ears, intent on nothing, take in the sounds that emanate from the dark jungle: the screeching of the howler monkeys, the singing of the frogs on the riverbed, the shriek of bats in the air, the drone of cicadas in the grass.
An hour at most . . . There’ll be no time to do the selection today, thinks Epitafio, as he reaches the old truck and scowls to see his reflection in the window. Then he turns away and stares at the cage of light and sees the creatures that now form one single being whose voice chants the fears that suddenly teem inside its multiple heads.
I knew it back in Medias
Aguas . . . we aren’t worth shit . . . I saved
myself by sheer luck . . . They will beat us . . . They
will drag us away and beat us again.
Bad enough, there’ve never been so many before, thinks Epitafio still staring at the floodlit mass in the center of the night, then, taking off his cap, a red cap emblazoned with an albino lion pouncing, he walks away from the old truck: Still, at least I get that big guy there.
In the center of the cage, between the bodies of a stooped old man and a big-headed girl, he can make out a young giant.
Imagining all the things this giant can do for him and for his boys, Epitafio is excited and is about to whistle when from somewhere in the jungle there comes the roar of the panther of these latitudes. When the jaguar is silent again, Epitafio finally whistles and the four men operating the powerful spotlights begin to move once more.
When each has counted to fifteen, the four men stop, turn toward their boss, and for the first time whistle in return. This startling chorus causes two children to collapse and heightens the terrors of the men and women whose bodies are illuminated by the approaching spotlights.
Be careful not to fall . . . They shoot at
anything on the ground . . . That is how
it was in Medias Aguas . . . Then they wrapped
them in nylon . . . Do not buckle!
This is it . . . We will not have much time today . . . We have to beat this lot and quickly! thinks Epitafio, watching as those who have come from other lands drop their bundles and fall on the ground. Turning away and putting on his cap, the man whose men secretly call him Thunderhead walks back to the ramshackle truck and the still sleeping figure of the woman who is in command here when he is at rest.
Perhaps he should wake her, thinks Epitafio staring at the window, and he is about to tap on the glass when the panther of these forests once again roars in the distance. But it is not this roar that numbs the arm of Epitafio: gazing at the woman he loves so much has brought to mind what she said a little while back: “Remind me that I have something to tell you . . . When you wake me, say to me: ‘You said you had something to tell me.’”
If I wake her now she will not want to tell me, thinks Epitafio, and turning away he focuses all his energy on his cage: with that one there, we have nine . . . and those three make eleven . . . plus the six there, eighteen . . . There have never been so many . . . and with those five there . . . and those ones on the other side . . . I don’t even know how many there are . . . there must be about forty . . . more, maybe fifty.
Removing and replacing his cap again, Epitafio shakes his head, contents himself with knowing that these creatures he is looking at are fucked, and putting his fingers between his lips, for the first time, he whistles a sequence.
These whistles, short and knotted, alert two boys camouflaged within the crowd. Clearing a path with elbows and shoulders, these boys, who were born in the jungle and will drag the men and women here into its depths, surge from the crowd, screaming: “Here we are!”
They tricked us . . . those two
little shits who are hardly more than children . . .
and they ran off laughing . . . I heard them
they were laughing . . . I never saw them again.
Without turning their faces, the two sons of the jungle break through the border where the light meets the shadows: we are breaking out! Then, once outside the luminous enclosure, both boys stop, allow their eyes to adjust to the darkness, seek out the silhouette of Epitafio and, having found it, go to join him.
But before they can reach the man who commands here, a colossal shadow rises up before the boys who fall on to the ground. Protected from the laughter of Epitafio, by the ear-splitting flapping of wings of the flock of birds that had been sleeping in the grass and is now taking wing, the two boys leap to their feet, set their legs to working, hiding the shame of having been trounced by their kingdom.
“Don’t be scared!” roars Epitafio, his laugh dying away.
“We didn’t see them.”
“You kept your part of the bargain.”
“I told you,” says the older of these two sons of the jungle.
“You told me.”
“So when do we do it again?”
“First you have to keep your side of the deal.”
“If you pay us what you promised, whenever you like,” says the younger of the sons of the jungle.
After a brief silence, Epitafio brings his left hand to his pocket and, as he takes out a wad of money to give to the boys, he feels a pressure in his bladder. I’m pissing myself, he thinks, handing over the money, then, unbuckling his belt, he adds: how about we say same place, next Thursday? Fine, we’ll be here, promises the older of the two boys, who, dragging the younger boy by the hand, heads back into the jungle.
As his body empties, Epitafio watches how the two boys hop over a root and how they pull back the curtain of liana. But he does not see the two disappear beyond the wall that separates the clearing from the jungle, because at that moment the diesel generator belches again and he looks anxiously at the old truck: Puta madre . . . I’ll have to wake her up.
Excerpted from Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge, published by Scribe Publications. © 2019 by Emiliano Monge. Translation © 2019 by Frank Wynne. By arrangement with the publisher.
Emiliano Monge is appearing at the sixteenth Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, which runs from October 23 through 27, 2019. WWB is a Media Partner.