Ernesto cut into the night waters with fine slices of his arms, splitting the river waves with elbows like knives.  Beneath him were the creatures of that place.  His wheezing, the asthma, called to them beneath the surface.  They waited and Ernesto continued.

With each stroke he came sideways out of the water, a glimpse of the starless sky, a pulling in of air, and an ear to the sounds of the lepers calling out his name from the other side.  From behind him Mother Superior, Dr. Alberto and the others cursed wildly into the darkness, cursed at the sounds of him swimming.  Demanded he return.  No one since the colony formed had swum the wide belly of the river from one side to the other.

If he could do it, the night would be spent with them, the people.  The fingerless, the armless.  The rebellious woman, Silvia, who a day before was forced to have a thick, dying nerve pulled from her arm.  Ernesto told her to look into his eyes, think about his eyes.  Don’t look.  See my eyes?

He had asked the evening before surgery, Does the arm hurt?

Life is pain, was her answer.

Thirty feet out Ernesto lost the rhythm, and when that happened all the creatures beneath him must have shuddered, sensing his weakness.  That weakness spreading through inky water, a late night signal for all the river’s inhabitants hoping he would fail.  If he did not make it and sank like a rotted log it would save them the time and energy of going to him and burning calories to kill him before digestion.

But, thirty feet out and now flapping at the moving face of the Amazon, Ernesto thought of Papa Catalonia and how he insisted on playing soccer without shoes, only worsening his condition so that his calves and feet had to be soaked with medicated rags.

Please wear shoes if you play again, okay?  And next time don’t forget to invite me.

He refused the gloves the first day at the colony and Mother Superior reprimanded him for thinking he was above the rules.  She approached him after he greeted several patients, some of them staring at the ground as they extended half-hands, twisted thumbs and stumps for him to shake.

She pointed back across the river.  On that side are the operating facilities, the lab, your rooms.  Then she pointed at the ground, at the place where she stood rigid amid the raindrops.  This is where we have the ill.

The second week of his stay, he was called down again.  No lunch if you do not attend mass.  Haven’t you read the rulebook?  He held out his plate in any case.  When denied again, Ernesto went to the river’s edge.  Thought to himself: I’ve never seen a rulebook.  If I found one I’d eat it.

Silvia arrived soon with a plate of stolen food.  Then Papa, and then came another, and another.  He and the lepers sat on the bank and sang, banging out the songs of their hearts with rocks and stolen plates.

Ahead of him, Ernesto hears Silvia and Papa and all the rest, their arms raised, waving him in.

Andale!  Andale, Che!  Andale!

Dog paddling, more floating than swimming, more levitating than floating, Ernesto glided to them, his throat a pinhole.


Sheldon Lee Compton lives in Kentucky. His work has appeared or will soon in Keyhole, PANK, Fractured West,
>kill author, DOGZPLOT, Thieves Jargon, Metazen, JMWW and elsewhere.

This story came about after I watched a film based on the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara.  I wanted to capture his early life in this story in much the same way they had managed to in the film. I have often leaned on history as inspiration and this piece was a prime example of that obsession."




Copyright 2009