A work of fiction




          That was the day the little girl got her leg caught in the drain.  It had been cool in the morning, and cloudy, but now there were some big, blue holes in the gray and the sun was beginning to punch through.  I had always felt that this sleepy Mexican city could hold no ill for me;  its gentle people, its clean streets and beautiful, old buildings, would protect me, I thought, and let me rest and draw.  Oaxaca, in the basin of a wide valley high in the mountains of southern Mexico.

          The first I heard, I guess, was a loud scream or squeal, of fright, I guess, or pain.  A little girl or boy, it sounded like.  I hardly looked up, and certainly didn’t think again of it as I continued my sketching.  The zócalo, the town square, was full of little ones, tossing and romping around, occasionally bumping into a tree or each other or scraping a tow or knee.  One grimaces slightly at the sight of the little ones performing their death-defying stunts in the big Laurel trees or straddling the metal rails around the fountains, but the bounce back with a happy resilience we brittle adults can only admire.

          I was sitting, as I often had, at my table under the colonnade, having a beer and drawing, with various degrees of purpose, the people, the columns, the life slowly flowing around me.  They say the zócalo of Oaxaca is the most beautiful in Mexico.  They say you will never lack for inspiration in Oaxaca.  They say if you ever taste of the red, spicy grasshoppers sold in the market here you will always come back to Oaxaca.  They say …

          But the little girl was crying louder now, with no sign of stopping.  She had hurt herself.  I looked up and saw that she was on the pavement across from me and down a little from my table.  Her mother, I assume, was crouched over her and trying to sooth her.  Others around were looking up too, and some moved closer to see the child and what had happened.  She was really screaming now and the mother, to be heard over her cries, had begun to yell for help.  There was an urgency, a panic in their voices as the child began thrashing and struggling.  The cries drew others, some running, all adding their voices to the cacophony of Spanish I couldn’t understand and mostly obscuring my view.  I sat staring at the increasing crowd of noisy adults and running children and felt a tightening grip around my stomach.  Through it all the continued, terrified cries of the little girl cut the air.

          At the tables under the columns the customers were watching the scene with concern, like me, and nearby the waiters had stopped their work and stood in a knot looking out and calling across the street.  Queries and replies shot back and forth and through the air.  My Spanish is poor enough in quiet conversations with friends; in a mob of shouting hystericals, it was useless.

          The waiters were sadly shaking their heads and returning to their duties, glancing back again and again.

          “Mauro, ¿qué pasó?” I called to one.  Again a jumble of words gave me little more than I already had guessed.  Something had happened to a little girl, a “niña.”

          I asked again.

          “The little girl is caught in the drain, her leg,” someone replied.  I suppose I felt a certain relief, at first.  She would be freed soon, and it wasn’t really so bad.  But all the while her screams of pain were real enough and I felt an unsettling sickness in me.

          A fat policeman came running up and blowing a little, useless whistle.  Perhaps he would bring a sense of order to this mad scene, but I was not so sure.  Attempts were made to calm the girl, from time to time, and the mother, and the crowd, but after a short time the cries and screams would begin again.  I was looking at the backs of the crowd, grown quite large by now, and watching the people approach, studying their faces, their solemn frowns.  The words told little.  Only that she had caught her foot in the drain.  Her cries told another story, of intense pain, of panic and fear.  A chilly wind rustled the giant Laurels.

          I looked down the street and my eyes found another drain, similar, I assumed.  It was a rusty cast-iron affair with square openings in it, embedded in the concrete of the curb.  Further on was another, and another, sitting innocently in the shade, waiting.

          Yes, it would be possible for a little limb to enter there, however unlikely, as prams have been known to strangle the cares and Teddy bear eyes have choked the little owners.

          A doctor came, and an ambulance.  The crowd had quieted, mumbling and shaking their heads.  The children of the zócalo were most changed.  After laughing and romping under the trees and through the flowers, now they were silent with eyes agape, some hiding in the skirts of their mothers, others cautiously advancing between the legs of their adults.  The zócalo had profoundly changed.  Where a thousand gentle sounds of voices, of laughter, of music had blended in the morning breazes, now one voice sang, sharing only the cold wind that swept down from the mountains of Monte Albán.

          The minutes dragged on painfully and attempts were made to return to other matters.  Some walked away, glancing back.  Diners stabbed at their food.  I took up my pencil and scratched around the edges of my drawing.

          Suddenly a piercing, grating rasping sound cut my thoughts.  Someone had produced a hacksaw and was attempting to cut the child free.  I looked over to the brother grating down the street.  How formidable it looked.  How long it would take too saw through even one piece of that heavy metal.  And when that was done, what then?  Another must be cut, surely.  My mind raced on, imagining the task.

          There were cries of “No!  No!  No!”  The sawing stopped.  There was discussion.  The child’s cries.  The sawing resumed.

          I could not draw.  I finished my beer, paid the waiter, and convinced myself the child was in good hands.  I determined to leave the zócalo and return to my studio.  I stood and walked the distance of the colonnade.  I would have turned up the street but I looked back.  She was crying in pain still.  The Mexican was hacking away with his saw.  The mother’s quiet sobs could be heard under it all.

          How foolish not to leave this scene, to return to the quiet of my studio several blocks away.  And yet I lingered, watching, listening.  Finally I put my foot against the steps and leaned against a solid column.  How long I was there I do not know.  I know that even in the chilly breeze, drops of sweat formed above my lip.  My hands felt hot and sweaty and they bothered at my books and pencils and each other.

          I heard later her leg was fractured in the struggle to free her and the saw cut into her flesh at one horrible moment shortly before the last.  But she was going to be fine, they said, and that was that.

          I wandered on through the afternoon and a few more beers.  I did a nice drawing in my studio and had a bowl of soup at El Mesón, but I never could quite get that little girl´s leg and that damn drain out of my mind.