Jen Ross Laguna
Chilean-Canadian storyteller Jen Ross Laguna is a former foreign correspondent and UN staff member who now consults from Aruba. Her poetry appears in Better Than Starbucks, the other side of hope, Descant, The Poet Magazine and Last Stanza Poetry Journal. Her short stories appear in Mslexia Magazine, The Global Youth Review, Isele Magazine, The Pine Cone Review, Arlington Literary Journal, Evocations Review, and her novella “The Chasquis” was published in the Everlast anthology.
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/Jen-Ross-author-112803057976375
The day they came, Ximena was busy aligning her tiny green plastic soldiers between stones on the path in the backyard. Her two younger brothers, Juan Carlos and Xavier, were squatting under the shade of the coffee and banana trees, carefully arranging their grey figures for battle with the greens.
Not far away, their parents were collecting firewood in the foothills of the surrounding jungle, as they did every Saturday morning when father didn’t have to go to town to work at the gas station.
Low clouds hugged the lush mountains around their cozy yellow farmhouse, tucked beyond the small town of Restrepo in Colombia’s Cauca Valley. The seemingly endless forests, teeming with exotic birds, spider monkeys, and tree frogs, were their playground.
Today, the squawking of parrots fills the crisp morning air, but the serenity is soon interrupted by the sound of Xavier and Juan Carlos arguing.
“There’s only one lying-down soldier, and he has to go here!” Xavier insists while Juan Carlos yanks it out of his hands.
“No way, the enemy will see him there, dummy!”
Ximena knows they’ll start pulling punches soon if she doesn’t intervene. Covering her eyes so as not to peak at their hiding spots, she holds up an extra figurine that has been gently chewed by their German Shepherd, Romeo. “You guys can have him if you just stop arguing!”
Having a one-soldier advantage over their sister is enough to sway the boys into submission. They’re soon back to their plotting.
Romeo starts barking frantically in the distance. The commotion is followed by a shrill, haunting scream from the direction where their mother and father are gathering firewood. Then, gunshots ring out, sending their haunting echoes through the forest.
The boys look over at Ximena with terror in their eyes. She’s about to run over to make them fall to the ground when a tall man wearing combat fatigues and rubber boots comes barreling through their yard, right towards them. He’s yelling something Ximena can’t make out and looking over his shoulder. He runs past the children into the backdoor of their house. Ximena notices the large black machine gun strapped to his back.
But before Ximena can run over to the boys, three men emerge from the bushes and bullets start spraying the house. She’s forced to shelter behind a wheelbarrow. From between the wheels, she spots her brothers running off behind the house, until she can no longer see them.
When the gunfire finally stops, the three men whistle at one another. Emerging slowly from the bushes, they walk stealthily toward the house. Ximena watches their boots crush the plastic soldiers as they pass. She holds her breath, trying not to make a sound.
Moving in slow-motion, the men take turns ducking into the backdoor. She can hear their boots squeaking against the kitchen tiles, then moving onto the wooden floorboards of the living room. Moments later, Ximena is startled by another spray of bullets and the sound of crashing glass. The windows, she guesses. She hears two loud thuds, and the shooting stops.
The men start yelling from inside, and two more rush in from the bushes. One is a woman with a long black braid dangling down her back. Shifting so she can get a better view, Ximena sees two men who had entered the house emerge carrying a third draped over their shoulders. His shirt is bloody and he’s grimacing in obvious pain. They start walking him back toward the jungle.
“And the children?” she hears the woman ask from inside. Ximena freezes and ducks back down, hoping her brothers are well hidden somewhere.
“No sign of them,” she hears a man reply, pausing. “Actually... it looks like there are two boys lying outside the window. Dead. They probably got shot while trying to look inside.”
Ximena’s heart starts hammering in her ears as she imagines their lifeless faces. She was six years old when the twins were born,, and she had always doted on Xavier and Juan Carlos. They were the best of friends, most of the time, and even when they fought, she could never stay angry at them for long. She can’t fathom the idea of never hearing their voices again.
But could the rebels just be saying that as a ruse to get her to come out from hiding?
“Pobrecitos!” she hears the woman say. “But at least they won’t be orphans.”
The words slice into her. Orphans? Did that mean her parents were dead, too? Ximena feels her heart pounding and a terrible heat rises from her stomach to her head. She feels dizzy, cold, sick.
“Found one!” a voice startles her from behind. A bearded man with a machine gun and combat fatigues has spotted Ximena and is inching toward her.
“Please don’t kill me!” she cries, letting all the tears she’s been holding back flow freely. Her body starts shaking uncontrollably as she curls herself into a ball on the ground and weeps.
The man and woman come out to join the man who has found her. She notices that the left sleeve of their uniform has been replaced with the bright yellow, blue and red stripes of the country’s flag. The three of them stand in front of Ximena for a while, perhaps deciding what to do with her.
“Do we really need another kid on board? She doesn’t even look old enough to fight yet,” one of the men says.
“Would you rather leave her here by herself, with no family, and risk the paramilitaries taking over the outpost?” the woman responds.
“How old are you?” the other man finally asks Ximena.
Peeking through her fingers, which are outstretched as if to stop an attack, she whimpers: “Twelve… Are… Are my parents dead?”
The three of them look at one another in silence.
“Were they in the forest?”
Lip quivering, she nods, already knowing the answer.
They look at each other in silence for a moment, then one of the men ventures: “Then... we are sorry to tell you that they were killed by the paramilitaries that attacked us. We belong to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.”
Ximena isn’t listening to anything after the ‘yes’. All she can imagine is her mother and father lying bloody and dead in the jungle, with firewood sprawled around them.
“And my brothers?”
The man nods with a solemn look.
Ximena wails this time, a deep, mournful cry that echoes across the valley.
“We’re taking her with us,” the woman finally decides. “But we need to go now, before the paramilitaries come for their guy inside.”
She looks over at Ximena and reaches out to help her up. Ximena doesn’t budge. She had overheard her parents talk about the guerrilla, the rebels, the paramilitaries and the army, but she didn’t really understand who was on which side, or which were ‘the good guys.’ Now, faced only with the decision to join them or fend for herself, the fear is immobilizing.
“Look, we know you’re sad,” says the man who’d spotted her impatiently. “But it isn’t safe here anymore. We can give you protection, and food, but if you’re going to come with us, you need to get up, NOW!”
His thunderous voice jolts Ximena to her feet. As the rebels motion for her to follow, Ximena looks back at the bullet-riddled yellow house where she’d lived her entire life. She stares around her at the familiar forests that had suddenly become dark and foreboding. She looks down at the ground, at the toppled plastic soldiers littered around her, and picks one up, shoving it into her jean shorts as she runs after the rebels.
The trek through the jungle is long and hot. And although the surroundings are familiar, Ximena feels lost. Like a boat that has lost its anchor and is drifting out to sea. The guerrillas lead her past her old stomping grounds, deeper through the taller trees, deeper into the darkness.
As she trudges through the increasingly wet jungle, her white sneakers are soon brown. It reminds her of the time she’d dirtied her white dress shoes in a puddle after church, and the memory brings tears to her eyes. Ximena can’t stop thinking about her family and about how she is now the sole survivor. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were killed by a car bomb when they went to get some paperwork done in the city. Her mother was just a teenager at the time. Her other grandmother, Sofia, died of cancer two years ago and Ximena had never met that grandfather. She had a couple of aunts and cousins she’d met once at a wedding, but they lived far away. She didn’t know where.
When she was still living, Abuelita Sofia had told Ximena that Colombia had been at war ever since she could remember. But sometimes it raged far away, and the campesinos like her family could live their lives almost unphased. Ximena’s childhood had been in one of those periods of relative calm, at least in their corner of the countryside.
But Ximena had heard her parents whispering lately, with worried looks on their faces. And she’d noticed them turning off the news on the radio whenever she or the boys were around. Maybe they’d known the conflict had drawn nearer and didn’t want to scare them.
As the dense jungle gives way to a clearing, Ximena has no idea how long they’ve been walking, but her feet are sore by the time they arrive at a clearing where the rebels have set up a camp of rugged tarps and wooden poles. It smells of coffee and damp leaves.
They lead the injured man to what Ximena guesses is their nurse. They lie him down on a tall wooden bench and draw a large shower curtain around it. The man cries out in pain a few minutes later.
“Let me show you around the camp,” says the woman guerrilla, perhaps noticing Ximena’s despair.
“I’m the Commander here: Comandante Maria.”
“I’m Ximena,” she says, venturing a smile. “Can I ask where we are?”
Smiling back, Comandante Maria leads Ximena away from the infirmary. “This is our base camp, at least for the next while. We have to move around a lot. We have two squads of combatants, but there are 35 of us here in all—36 with you.”
Ximena swallows hard and stares around her at the three improvised wooden houses in the middle of the clearing, the first of which is the infirmary. A hose hangs as a makeshift shower behind a hinged plank of wood. The rest of the camp consists of a series of wooden benches with rucksacks propped next to 20-or-so dark green tents.
The second house has a roof made of thick plastic sheets and dried palm tree leaves. A framed portrait of a man with a big, bushy white beard dominating the center of one wall. There are several tables and chairs inside this partially open hut, with two laptops nestled in a corner.
“This is our training area,” says Comandante Maria. “Here, you will learn all about our fight—the revolution, and other important things you need to know. Think of it like a school.”
Ximena balks at the suggestion. This place looks nothing like her classroom back home, with its brightly coloured walls, immaculate whiteboard, and student artwork dangling overhead. She starts imagining what her teacher and classmates will say when she isn’t at her desk on Monday.
They continue along the short tour, stopping at the last of the three houses, which has a sink and a high table with metal pots piled high in a corner. What looks remotely like a kitchen is surrounded by a series of logs, with the tops carved flat to serve as tables and benches.
“This is where we prepare and eat meals together,” says Comandante Maria. “Do you know how to cook?”
Ximena shakes her head.
“Really?” asks the Commander, looking surprised, and a little annoyed. “Well, you’ll learn fast.”
At the edge of the clearing, a series of wooden poles are arranged like a jungle gym.
“Is this a playground?” asks Ximena.
“Not exactly,” says Comandante Maria, smiling. “It’s where we do our exercises and training. But I suppose you could use it as a playground too.”
Ximena is about to ask where the bedrooms are when a black woman about the same age as Comandante Maria zips open one of the tents. She is followed by a copper-skinned man who reminds Ximena a little of her own father. She closes her eyes for a few moments to keep from crying. Both clad in combat fatigues, the two rebels pick up their rifles hanging from a tree branch outside the tent and walk toward the houses. They tip their caps in greeting as they pass Ximena and their Commander.
Realizing these tents are their bedrooms, Ximena sighs and looks around nervously, wondering which will be hers. She wonders how anyone can sleep without worrying about all the bugs and jungle creatures. She’s been regretting her decision to join them ever since leaving her home, but the conditions of the camp are even more intimidating.
Making the rounds of the camp, Ximena gets formally introduced to each rebel, whose names she is sure she’ll forget. She is surprised to find almost as many women as men in the camp, and that they seem to be doing all the same chores and exercises.
Ximena also notices three boys and a girl who look like they’re school aged. The girl, Paola, looks like the youngest, although she’s probably still older than her, Ximena guesses. Comandante Maria tells her they’ll share a tent as the only ‘girls’ in the camp.
Ximena is alone for the first time when she goes to the outhouse, which smells so pungent; she can’t imagine ever getting used to it. While carefully suspending her jean shorts between her knees, she feels the toy soldier poking her leg and takes him out, noticing it was the one that had been mangled by the dog. Naturally, the one belonging she had of her family had to be that soldier. The one she’d used to stop her brothers from fighting that morning.
That evening, after a dinner of rice, fried plantain, and a bitter green vegetable Ximena doesn’t recognize, Comandante Maria sits her down for a talk on a large rock just beyond the camp.
“I know today has been a horrible day for you. You lost the people you cared about most in this world,” she says.
“I just want to go home,” Ximena laments, tasting the saltiness of her now-falling tears.
Holding her shoulder to comfort her, the Commander says nothing and kneels next to her. Once Ximena’s whimpers subside, Comandante Maria continues:
“I know this place is very different from the life you had in the valley. And I am so sorry about what happened. But it isn’t safe for you to go home. The paramilitaries will surely return, and we have seen them kill hundreds of families like yours.”
“Why?” Ximena blurts out between sobs, feeling a rage rising deep within.
“We can teach you all about that,” answers Comandante Maria. “And, if you want, when you’re older, you can train with us. Learn how to fight. That way, one day, you can return home and defend yourself. Or maybe you will want to avenge the killing of your family. But whenever you are ready, we can teach you. You can join our revolution.”
Carefully threading the string through the narrow tunnel of the metal casing, Ximena pulls it gently to ensure it won’t get tangled in the inner gears. Once she’s done, she places the round explosive delicately in a wooden box next to the bench she’s been working on. It’s nearly noon, and she’s already made a dozen of these landmines. Nearly twice as many as Mateo.
She looks over at the neighbouring bench to gloat at him silently. Mateo doesn’t look up. He’d joined the camp nearly a year after Ximena, and his birthday was a month later than hers, making him the youngest after that.
By now, they were both 13, and fierce competitors. Ximena would race him through the jungle and try to do more push-ups. When she would beat him, he would put on a pouty face and ignore her. He didn’t like to lose. And neither did she.
But the two male Squad Commanders seemed more intent on encouraging him and preparing him to think like a fighter. Probably because he was a boy, Ximena assumed. They used words like “tough”, “strong” and “brave” with him, but called her “smart” and “resourceful”.
Even in class, Ximena noticed a difference. One of the rebels who came from abroad and spoke broken Spanish volunteered to teach her, Mateo and the other three teenagers still at the camp. She mostly gave them books to read. Ximena prided herself in being a much faster reader than Mateo. But the teacher didn’t seem to care about speed.
Since there wasn’t much else for her to do when she’d finished washing the dishes, cleaning the rifles and doing her other chores, she would read. Or look for spider monkeys in the jungle. Sometimes she would just sit and stare longingly as the rebels did push ups or practiced combat exercises.
Over time, Ximena had grown accustomed to the monotonous camp life, but she yearned to be out there in the trenches, fighting alongside the other rebels. The closest she’d come to helping them so far was making the landmines that the others carefully placed around the forest to protect the camp from intruders. She tried to be patient. She knew her time would come.
This morning, amid the usual hum of tree frogs, Ximena hangs in a hammock reading a translation of Das Capital, a classic book about the class struggle by Karl Marx—the Santa Claus-like man in the framed portrait in their ‘ school.’ This one is hard to understand, so she makes mental notes of what she’ll need to ask the teacher.
The silence is interrupted by a male voice yelling and swearing at another rebel from a tent nearby. “Hijueputa!”
Ximena looks over to see one of the teenagers, Juan, stumbling over a rock as he tries to belt Diego, who is running away. “Not another fight!” she mutters. Their constant bickering now interrupting her reading, Ximena runs over to intervene. She plants herself between the two boys before they can pull their first punch, lifting her hands up in front of each of their faces without a word.
“Get out of the way Ximena!” yells Juan. “Or you’ll get hurt when I nail this culero!”
“You’re the culero,” Diego taunts.
Juan tries to dodge Ximena, but she manages to keep herself between them with a defensive boxing move one of their teachers had used in combat training. Keeping her arms outstretched between the boys, she waits, firm and undaunted.
“Hey, what’s the problem?” she asks calmly, looking at Diego. He tries to lift his fist over her head to hit Juan, but her surprisingly steady arm and stern voice stop him: “Use your words!”
By now, most of the other rebels have gathered around to watch how this will play out. It’s unusual to see a dispute between the boys not devolve into a fistfight. Or to see a girl playing peacemaker.
“Ask him!” Diego says, cocking his head at Juan. “He’s the one always picking on me.”
“He shoved me in the tent!” says Juan defensively.
“Liar!” yells Diego, pushing his body into Ximena’s hand, but going no further. “I was just getting my stuff.”
“Look, guys, this sounds like a simple misunderstanding,” says Ximena. “I know the space in the tents is small, and sometimes we accidentally bump into each other. I bump into Paola a dozen times a day, right?” she says, smiling over at her tentmate. “We need to focus on fighting the enemies out there, not in here.”
The two boys stir and smirk at one another. Juan eventually slinks away, making a sucking noise between his teeth. Diego heads off in the other direction, dismissively.
Left standing there alone, Ximena puts her arms down and the crowd of rebels who’d gathered to watch the spectacle applauds. Mateo even looks impressed.
“The girl has skills,” she hears someone utter as the rebels return to what they were doing. Ximena had settled countless scores between her brothers over their years together. She’d tried to stay under the radar during her first year at the camp, but something about the fight today had reminded her of her brothers and forced her out of her shell.
Feeling for the little toy soldier still tucked loyally in her pocket, a triumphant smile peels across her lips.
From that day on, Ximena became the go-to girl for settling arguments, even between adults. At first, she would interject herself. Later, the adversaries started coming to her. Once, one of the visiting Commanders even asked her to be an impartial moderator in his argument with a new recruit, who was upset he couldn’t go home to visit his family.
It became a running joke that Ximena was the youngest peacekeeper among the rebels. And she quite liked the recognition. It made her feel like she belonged and was needed by the group. If they wouldn’t let her fight, at least this was something she could do to help.
Several months later, Ximena wakes to the sound of Paola vomiting. The smell is dreadful, and Ximena gets stuck cleaning up the mess. Paola was 16 by then and constantly falling in love with different rebels. She’d tell Ximena to go read a book outside if she wanted some alone time with them in the tent.
When Paola returns from the infirmary, she is wearing a look of concern and confusion. When Ximena asks what’s wrong, she looks off into the distance for a while before answering.
“I have a baby growing inside me, but I cannot fight this way,” says Paola, looking forlorn. “They will have to get rid of it.”
“What? How will they do that?” asks an alarmed Ximena, mouth gaping. Paola had told her about sex, so she knew how babies were made, but she had no idea how they could ‘get rid’ of one that was already in your belly.
Paola shakes her head and stares off into the jungle in silence. She returns to the infirmary that afternoon and rests in the tent for the next few days.
On one such morning, when Paola has nearly finished braiding Ximena’s long hair, which she faithfully wore to emulate her idol, Comandante Maria, the loud boom of a landmine exploding in the distance startles everyone into action.
The paramilitaries! Ximena panics, wondering what to do.
“Stay here and guard the camp!” yells Paola, reaching for her gun. She runs behind the other rebels toward the jungle and the boom.
Mateo, who has also been left behind, motions for Ximena to follow him to the kitchen, where they duck down behind the counter. The wait is excruciating.
When they hear the familiar voices of their comrades approaching, they peek over the counter to see them all rushing toward the infirmary. Two of them are helping carry a groaning man in a military uniform whose left leg is mangled and bloody. Two other men donning the same uniform are also carrying him, with their guns slung behind their backs.
“Is it bad?” a voice they don’t recognize asks.
“Relax, we’ll do what we can,” answers the camp nurse.
“Just keep still,” another unknown voice says.
Once Ximena and Mateo decide it’s safe enough to come out, they join the other rebels in the infirmary.
“What happened?” Ximena asks Paola.
“Those men are with the Colombian army,” says Paola, a mix of dread and concern on her face.
“The one behind the curtain stepped on one of our landmines. He might lose his foot.”
“So why are we helping them?” asks Ximena, confused. She’d made hundreds of those mines, but she’d never stopped to think about how they would hurt somebody. They were the enemy after all, so why would it matter? But seeing this man here, so pained and vulnerable, she finds herself feeling guilty. He might be someone’s father.
“They only came to deliver a message,” answers Paola. “To invite us to the peace talks.”
Ximena hadn’t heard anything about these talks, but she is excited by the idea of peace. Maybe there was a chance to end the war. Maybe she could go home then.
They’re interrupted by the crackling sound of a transistor radio: “Your position? Delta gamma?”
Silence befalls the camp. The rebels look at one another tensely. The two army men, who are standing alongside the one with the mangled leg, look around at the rebels’ faces nervously. Then Comandante Maria steps forward and outstretches her arm.
The army man carrying the radio plucks it from his pocket and holds it up high to show her he isn’t answering. Then he turns the dial off and hands it to her.
The rebels breathe a collective sigh of relief.
The nurse spends several hours working on the injured army man’s leg. When she’s done, she draws the curtains and the rebels can see a heavily bandaged leg that looks shorter than the other. Paola later confirms that only one of the man’s feet could be saved.
The three army men spend the night at the camp, taking turns sleeping in the infirmary. In the morning, the injured man is strapped onto a stretcher made of two hefty sticks and a blanket, to help his fellow soldiers carry him through the jungle.
There’s a nervous tension around the camp. As soon as they’re out of earshot, Comandante Maria calls everyone to the schoolhouse.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard by now that these men came to invite us to the latest peace negotiations,” she begins. “We’ve been promised peace before, only to be betrayed, or see our demands unmet! But I spoke with our leadership, and many of them are taking part in the negotiations in Cuba. And they are hopeful this time.”
A low murmur begins. Some look skeptical, others have a glimmer of hope in their eyes.
“Our Commander-in-Chief has asked us to nominate a representative to the negotiations,” adds Comandante Maria. The rebels look at one another, wondering who could fill such a role. Some look at Ximena momentarily, then look away.
“What about Ximena?” her teacher finally suggests.
The question is met with snickers and a few uncomfortable pauses.
“She’s just a girl!” yells Diego. “Negotiating peace is harder than stopping a fistfight.”
There are whispers, chatter, but no one backs him up. Ximena herself is unsure of what she’s being considered for.
Comandante Maria interjects: “We don’t have to decide on this right away. It will give us something to think about in the coming days... I also want to put to a vote whether we should shut down the base camp because it won’t take long for the army to figure out our location once the soldiers return. I would have done this automatically before. But now, given the progress with the peace talks and the way our visitors behaved, I’m not so sure. So, I want you all to have a say.”
Some yell out “stay!” and others “go!” but most are silent, looking just as torn as their Commander. Sensing their unease, she resolves to ask her superiors. But before doing so, she takes Ximena aside to explain what the peace talks are all about, and what negotiations would involve. Ximena can’t believe she would even be considered for such a responsibility at her age. But she knows she could do it, and she can’t hide her excitement at the prospect.
A few hours later, after the rebels have finished their dinner, Comandante Maria announces: “I spoke with the Company Commander for Cauca, and he recommends keeping our base camp here. I also told him we have an excellent negotiator in mind, but she would be far from a traditional choice. He told me times have changed and women make up half of the people at the peace talks—a historic first around the world!”
Paola and the other women smile at each other in solidarity, then look at Ximena.
“But how can a child negotiate with adults?” protests one of the Squad Commanders.
“We all know she has done it many times here. At first, I didn’t mention how old she is,” adds Comandante Maria. “But after describing some of the fights she’s diffused, our Commander insisted that we send her. When I told him she’s only 14, he laughed out loud.”
The rebels laugh awkwardly, sympathizing with the reaction.
“Then, when the Commander realized I was serious, he actually gave it some thought. He said it would definitely be different, but that younger voices are good, and being encouraged. In the end, he said if Ximena is who we want to nominate, then he’ll support our decision.”
The rebels look at one another, stunned. Then, some start nodding.
“Yes, then! Send the girl!” cries out one of the women triumphantly.
Once a few more rebels have voiced their support, Comandante Maria chimes in: “I personally think Ximena would be an excellent choice. I believe she can handle the pressure and contribute a different perspective – that of this conflict’s youngest victims and allies.”
As the rest of the rebels agree, Ximena smiles and thumbs her plastic soldier.