Without thinking twice, I step out into the abandoned airstrip.
A pair of chestnut horses and a foal calmly feed on the fresh grass sprouting between mud and sand.
I knew a couple of kilometers to the west were the ruins of a half-built baseball stadium, which once served as a precinct for the Independent Coastal Police Force.
The stadium was an infamous facility for interrogation, especially after the collapse of the last single-party government.
Vestiges of torture can still be seen on the fishermen’s skin as they return from high seas each morning.
Their scars shine under the sun like sardine scales.
The fish population has rebounded after the last hotels and resorts closed down. I have seen, week after week, the nets come back loaded with an ever-growing, convulsing and silvery mass.
When I was a child, my parents and I visited these beaches, at times every or almost every weekend.
I used to run off with the village kids. If it hadn’t been for my much lighter, almost white skin, I would have seemed like one of them.
This shore was like a sanctuary, isolated from the rest of the coast, thanks to the precarious dirt road that led to the highway and its empty, virgin beaches, which lacked the amenities the typical tourist demands.
As a university student, I was haunted by a recurring dream. After years of not having returned, I arrived to find the hills seized by hundreds of make-shift buildings, seemingly about to collapse at the water’s edge.
To get to the stadium, you have to take a narrow path that runs through sea grape trees.
As I climb, I notice how the flora changes rapidly and the clash of the waves becomes the sound of a hot, dry tropical forest.
A few birds leap over fallen leaves, making noises that resemble footsteps.
I keep turning my head, expecting to find a large animal or a silent attacker.
I was warned to tread carefully. After the downfall of the Party, rapid urbanization turned neighboring towns into lawless cities.
The abolition of labor unions produced an atomized society of depressed individuals wandering aimlessly.
Unable to reclaim the ability to fish and farm, they turned to robbery, extortion, and banditry.
Nevertheless, the relationship between these emerging cities and the town is generally peaceful and purely transactional.
Every now and then, a flock of motorcycles arrives looking for locally-grown produce and insisting on paying inflated prices.
As I come to a clearing in the forest, I see the stadium for the first time. I decide to walk around it to get a better look.
The heat reverberates with such force that the steel and concrete seem to tremble.
Riddled in the side-slope of the road, I see hundreds of holes, surely the result of mass executions carried out by the police.
With the help of my knife, I manage to extract a golden bullet. It surprises me that it’s from a nine-millimeter. (Who uses pistols for a mass execution?)
I think of the fishermen’s scars, marks of a recent past suffocated in the nets of history.
I continue to walk around the stadium and come across the crumbling barracks of the last watchman.
Once I make sure that I am alone, I enter the half-built stadium.
The stories of the fishermen spin inside my brain like the blades of a beat-up outboard motor.
I draw my Canon T5 and take the first shots.
Someone has painted a mural of skulls and handprints on the concrete in white and red with the phrase: “The dead dance, the blood weeps.”
I imagine bodies tied up with cables and faces disfigured by the same tools used for the construction.
The incandescence of noon makes the photographs seem flat and too homogenous.
I think about how limited representations are, how difficult it is to reproduce, not reality, but our perception of it.
Thin clouds momentarily cover the sun, making the sky seem like a faded photocopy.
Now that shadows appear lighter, almost transparent, the stadium takes on a new body.
I take the opportunity and shoot new photos.
I zoom in on an image on my Canon to examine the mural’s details and notice another phrase written across the bottom: “In Memory of Our Protectors – ICPF.”
The discovery is alarming.
In the next photo, protruding from behind a column, I see the small arm of a light-skinned child.
A sudden gust of wind makes the palm trees rattle.
Startled, I race down the path that leads back to the beach.
I am not sure if I am running away from the child or the child from me.
In the distance, I hear shouting and the rumble of countless motorcycles.
The boy finds me crouching behind a pile of pebblestone.
On his neck, I see the scar from a bullet wound. His right ear is just a shard of skin.
He wants to know if I shot his father, the policeman.
I tell him it’s the police that shoot fishermen.
He comes closer and asks if I killed his family.
I hold on to my knife.
The motorcycles roar louder and louder.
The ants climb my legs with the voracity of a righteous horde.
I think of the nine-millimeter bullets, of the executions I now see as collective vengeance.
“The dead dance, the blood weeps.”
The nine-millimeters shine in the bikers’ fists.
In the child’s eyes, the bodies of policemen shot in a spontaneous uprising.
I had been warned to tread carefully.
The fishermen’s stories crash in my brain like waves beating against reefs of steel and concrete.
Santiago Acosta is a Venezuelan scholar and poet based in New Haven. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. Acosta’s work is situated at the intersections of literature and other practices such as critical theory, political economy, and environmental history. His fourth and most recent poetry collection, El próximo desierto (The Coming Desert), won the III José Emilio Pacheco Literature Prize “Ciudad y Naturaleza,” awarded by the Guadalajara International Book Fair (FIL) and the Museum of Environmental Sciences of Guadalajara University. Acosta’s poetry has received the support of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program and he was an invited poet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow.
Tiffany Troy is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.
“The Policeman’s Son” is a poem from The Coming Desert / El próximo desierto. The poems were translated into the English in a collective workshop which included poet and translator Tiffany Troy, the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author. The bilingual edition of the collection is forthcoming from Alliteration Press.
The 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison convenes scholars from across disciplines and institutions as part of a collaborative translation praxis. It aims to make texts and related ideas that are only available in Spanish also accessible in English – and vice versa – to benefit writers and readers around the world.