As the 3:06 train to Bogota made its way through the thick jungle, it seemed to Modesto that the trees that lined the tracks were more than just alive, but seething, an endless garden of mystery and bliss. As he stared back at the vanishing white buildings that made up the train station skyline, he wondered aloud if the gods had taken refuge in the canopies overhead, and the engineer clucked his tongue softly in agreement. The sun lazed in the midday sky, soaking up the luxurious offerings of the Amazon.
Modesto had been raised in a small village on the outskirts of the jungle. It had served as a hub between the tiny hamlets on the rural mountainsides and the large ports to the north. His father had been a business liaison, arranging deals between the gringos and Cubanos who made their way to Colombia to trade their wares and the hidden people of the jungle. Modesto had grown up learning the give and take of the commercial world, the acumen of survival, the art of the deal. Now he was spending his first summer at a real job, a conductor. His father had raised his eyebrow critically upon hearing the news, but Modesto, ever the negotiator, had convinced his father that he would use his traveling to make friends and work with people. It had been a reluctant approval, but his father's parting handshake told a truer story.
Modesto had not told his father the real reason for taking the job: his secret love of trains. The power of the locomotive, the perfect harmony of the wheels, its gliding grace, they had all intoxicated the young man and he wanted to be a part of them badly. He did not care where they were headed (or who was on them) - as long as he was on a train, his happiness was ensured. He had found himself in the workings of the marvelous beasts, and he had been nothing short of ecstatic upon being offered the conductor's hat and jacket.
He checked his pocket watch - a gift from his father - and nodded silently to himself, standing up with a restless demeanor. "3:26. Time to make the rounds," he offered, but the engineer only gazed out into the endless green before him.
He walked proudly down the aisles of his traveller cars, peeking his head in gently so as not to disturb the sleeping guests. He took a head count and confirmed it with the papers he had filed at the beginning of their journey. Eighty six - a perfect match. He instinctively smiled and made the slow trip back to the main engine, stopping once when the sharp cry of an unidentified bird pierced the windows of the train. He considered the intrusion thoughtfully and resumed his course.
By 3:45 they had reached La Puente de los Perdidos - the Bridge of the Lost. Some 350 years earlier an entire Spanish expedition had vanished into the jungle. When a second team was sent out after them, they had discovered a small handmade bridge, but that was of only secondary interest to the severed heads being used as impromptu watchmen. Since then, relations with the small indigenous tribes of the jungle had improved, and a railroad bridge had been built on the spot.
Again, Modesto heard the distinct crying whoop of his mystery bird as the train slowed to cross the chasm. In his youth Modesto had been seduced by the lullaby of the wilderness, caressing his senses into oblivion as he and his father had traveled home to visit his abuelos. Now he sat at full attention, every sound interrupting his thoughts, distracting him from his duties. He heard the engineer call out to him timidly, "Hombre," and grunted acknowledgment. He knew it was almost time for his second run. Lately, there had been a string of castaways on the trains, jungle dwellers who had come on one-way tickets to the cities seeking employment, only to be turned away. It was common policy to evict them immediately upon sight, but Modesto was often kind enough to stop the train before helping them off, frequently slipping them a piece of silver or two.
Suddenly he snapped to his senses; something was amiss. The train - it was stopped, just on the other side of the bridge. He looked over at the engineer, who stood wide eyed, staring out the window into the steamy forest. Modesto joined him, and saw a large group of men standing with pistols and rifles pointed at the front car, teeth bared in mild antagonism. One of them - apparently the leader - turned and pointed towards the rear of the train. A young man beside him faced that direction, and offered a shrill bleat. Modesto's mysterious bird.
Modesto squinted hard at the end of the railroad, and saw nearly every passenger's head leaning out a window, inspecting the situation. Their anxious chatter suggested their earlier naps had not been as deep as they had let on. The smallest children watched with keen interest, their mothers clutching at them tightly with a weary caution. Some of the men began emptying their pockets, hoping that their tribute would be enough to let them pass. The sun appeared frozen in the sky above, beating down with relentless ferocity on the train and its riders. The engine continued to hiss as the leader approached the front car.
"You," he said, pointing at Modesto, "you're the conductor?"
Modesto nodded. The man boldly walked up to him, pistol jutting out from his side, demanding respect. He stuck his hand inside Modesto's coat pocket and pulled out the manifest. He viewed it nonchalantly, making minor mental notes with the click of his tongue. Finally he finished and gingerly replaced the papers in Modesto's pocket, patting them gently back to sleep.
"Ochente y seis," he cried out, and the number was passed on in a rough wave to the back of the train. Some of the bandits had begun to board the train from the rear, and now began pushing their captives towards the main exits at the middle of the train. The leader stepped past Modesto into the first railcar, a small pack of armed men following in dogged silence. Soon they had rounded up the entire group, who now stood in a tight corporation near the span of the bridge. Despite the intense heat, several of them shivered uncontrollably. Modesto eyed the leader carefully as he swaggered over to address his prey. His red skin bore a faint glow of light as his words snapped off his tongue.
"My name is Lucero Esperanza. For many years, we of the jungle have been pitied by you all. We are the lost children, and you have seen fit to save us from this hell. And how do you save us? You destroy our way of being, force us off our land, ostracize us, patronize us, demonize us. To see the error of our ways! You, the great gods of the ocean, do well enough off our backs. You have the power to do great things, and yet you only use it to grow more powerful. This," he said, pointing to the endless wilderness that had swallowed them all, "this is our past. But this, this is our future!"
He reached into his pocket and dramatically pulled out a small white ribbon with the soft yet distinct image of a fruit basket stitched into it. The dye was rich, its weavings intricate and labyrinthine, profound in its simplicity and modesty. Everyone instantly knew what it was: a pelolita, a hair ribbon. The women of the jungle made them by the hundreds, sold them in the towns for pennies to survive. Here in the jungle, though, this sole ribbon became a dark myth, a brilliant story of string and cloth.
"This was my daughter's. When she came down with a fever, I boarded a train like this one. I sought out a doctor, one who would give me medicine to save her life. I searched and searched, but in vain; there was not one doctor who would help me. I did not have enough money for a train ride back. By the time I walked into my village, she was dead. Taken from me, not by the gods of the jungle, but by yours, greed and power!"
With all of the nobility he could muster, he wiped away the few tears that had run down his cheek. He now spoke more forcefully, waving the ribbon over his head, a mock flag. "This is our future. We cannot turn back time. There is only one answer: that we must have no future."
He gave a brief nod to his second in command, who barked an order to a few men standing off in the distance. They nodded a cautious assent, bent over, and suddenly an explosion rocked the ground beneath the group's feet. They all collapsed, unable to stand up to the forces of the blast. Modesto was one of the first to regain his feet. It seemed like it took hours for them all to recover. What they saw was pandemonium.
The bridge had been detonated; the rear of the train was on fire. So were the trees around it, a funeral pyre for Modesto's beloved. Small globs of flame dripped from the leaves overhead, ash and dirt filled the air, and the pungent smell of brimstone emerged from the smoky rubble that lay at the bottom of the valley. Thick grey fingers of smoke curled around the group, slowly squeezing them tighter and tighter.
Lucero and his men now surrounded the group again, guns raised, the hairs on their neck raised in anticipation. Slowly they came forward, encircling the group, eyes flashing with danger, their muscles twitching with tension. Finally, one of them stepped forward and snatched at the group. He pulled back, a small girl of six or seven wearing a bright red dress in his grasp. She struggled weakly, staring in disbelief at her chaperone's menacing face. Another hand struck out, and then another, and another. Several of the mothers cried out and clung to their brood, but soon the dozen or so children had been freed from the group. Lucero smiled sadly as his soldiers walked the little men and women off into the secret folds of the woods.
The remaining men began corraling the group, pushing them southward along the ridge of the valley. The jungle had grown dangerously quiet - most of the animals had been frightened off by the explosion. Occasionally, Modesto would look back in the distance at the small gash of fire in the jungle, slowly burning itself out. It was nearly a mile before they heard the first gunshot, a tiny burst that seemed to travel in all directions at once. One of the mothers fell to her knees; but those escorting her gave her no comfort, forcing her to her feet and dragging her along.
The distant exclamations of ammunition came in a steady rhythmic dirge, the distant drums of victory setting the pace for their journey. After an eternity, they had reached a place where the valley dipped low enough to cross over. A switching station was visible across the way. Lucero fired his gun listlessly in the air. He seemed tired, his energy spent. He sat down on the edge of the ridge, his mouth open, his tongue lolling out as he gulped in the warm lush air of this place he no longer knew.
Modesto began quickly helping the women and older men across the valley, scrambling towards the safety they had abandoned. As the last of the men climbed up the other side, the huge leader called out: "Conductor." Modesto turned around slowly.
"How does it feel to be the chosen son of the jungle? They do not let us in, do nothing for us, but you are welcomed into their world. And to what? Drive their trains? Count their heads? You know their power, and yet you are a slave to it all the same." Lucero rose to his feet now, gathering his resolve as he spoke. "You are just a puppet for the gods. Out here, though, I am the god. This is my domain. This you must tell them: that all of the bridges will burn; that all of their children will die; that their future is in the hands of an angry god, who will not rest until once again, his people are lost forever. Go. Tell them. And in case you forget, here is a reminder of this day." Lucero clasped Modesto's hand, and when he released it, the pelolita lay inside. He clenched it tightly in his fist and thrust it into his pocket. Then the man let him go with a wave of his hand.
Modesto trudged across the valley, waded through the soupy water that lay at its bottom, and finally arrived on the other side. Within the hour, he and the rest of the group had made it to the outskirts of the city. The sun had slowly began to set on the majestic capital, and as Modesto made his way back to the ivory walls of the train station to tell them the bad news, he paused and pulled out his watch. 5:09. As he watched, the dedicated machine pushed its hands ever forward, forever damning them all with its cold truth. And he wept.