“Bajadas” by Francisco Cantu c. 2018 (pages 50-62 in The Pushcart Prize XLII–originally published in Ploughshares)

A gut-wrenching short story about immigration told from the perspective of a border agent.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Then, wrapped in blankets, we laughed and drank eggnog and brandy until the conversation deteriorated into discussion of my impending work. / Look, my mother said, I spent most of my adult life working for the government as a park ranger, so don’t take this the wrong way—but don’t you think it’s below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop?” (51).
  • “Below us, an expanse of sunlit plain stretched westward from the base of the mountain. I watched as the landscape shifted under the winter light. Behind me, my mother placed her hand on my shoulder and pointed to a cloud of gypsum sand in the distance, impossibly small, swirling across the basin desert” (52).
  • “He told me he’d call the tribal police to seize the vehicle, but I knew he wouldn’t. Even if he did, they wouldn’t come for it, they wouldn’t want the paperwork either. They, too, would leave it here to be ransacked, picked over, and lit on fire—evidence of a swirling disorder” (54).
  • “There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks full of food and clothes, how to explain what we do when we discover their layup spots stocked with water and stashed rations. Of course, what you do depends on who you’re with, depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become, but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze, and Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out of their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped they’ll realize then their situation, they they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue on, and they’ll quit right then and there, they’ll save themselves, they’ll struggle toward the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent or they’ll head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone’s door, someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in—that’s the idea, the sense in it all” (56).
  • “Then, quietly, as if whispering to me or to someone else, he began to speak of the rains in Guerrero, about the wet and green jungle, and I wondered if he could have ever been made to imagine a place like this—a place where one of his companions would meet his death and another would be made to forget his own name, a landscape where the earth still burned with volcanic heat” (58-59).
  • “He told me they still needed to interview the women who were picked up with the girls and asked me to stay and translate. I can’t help anymore, I told him, I have to go home. As I drove away from the station, I tried not to think of the girls and my hands shook at the wheel. I wanted to call my mother, but it was too late, it was the middle of the night” (60).
  • “You know, my mother said, it’s not just your safety I worry about. I know how the soul can be placed at hazard fighting impossible battles. I spent my whole career working for the government, slowly losing a sense of purpose even though I remained close to the outdoors, close to my passion. I don’t want that for you” (62).
  • “There were supposed to be twenty of them, they were supposed to be slow, but still I couldn’t catch up, I couldn’t stay on the sign, I couldn’t even get close enough to hear them in the distance, and so now they remained out there in the desert: men, women, and children, entire families invisible and unheard, and I was powerless to help them, powerless to keep them from straying through the night and the cold” (62).

About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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