Infinite Country Page 1

Author: Patricia Engel

Genres: Fiction


It was her idea to tie up the nun.

The dormitory lights were cut every night at ten. Locked into their rooms, girls commanded to a cemetery silence before sleep, waking at dawn for morning prayers. The nuns believed silence a weapon, teaching the girls that only with it could they discover the depths of their interior without being servants to the temptations of this world.

To be fair, the nuns were not all terrible. Some, Talia liked very much. She even admired how they managed to turn the condemned penitentiary population into mostly orderly damitas. It was a state facility. A prison school for youth offenders. Not a convent and no longer a parochial school. The lay staff reminded the sisters to aim for secularity, but on those missioned mountains, the nuns ran things as they pleased.

During the day, under the nuns’ watch, the girls practiced their downcast gazes. They attended classes, therapy sessions, meditation groups, completed chores uniformed in gray sweats, hair pulled back. Forbidden from gossip and touching, but they did both when out of sight.

At night, in the blackness of their dormitory, they gathered to whisper in shards of windowpane moonlight. When the nuns patrolled the hall outside their room, they became masterful mutes, reading lips, inventing their own sign language, moving quiet as cats, creeping like thieves. They listened for the nuns’ footsteps on the level below, sensing vibrations on the wooden floor planks; the search for rule breakers, disruptors their guardians would schedule for punishment at daybreak.

The night of the escape, the girls made purposeful noise so the nun on duty would come tell them to be quiet. Sister Susana was on the nightshift. There were many latecomer nuns at the facility leftover from some other failed life. The rumor was Sister Susana was married until her husband divorced her because she couldn’t have children.

The plan originated with Talia. Or maybe her father deserved the credit. That afternoon she was given rare permission to phone him from the administrative office. Family contact was restricted, since the staff believed they could be a girl’s worst influence. Talia hoped to hear Mauro say he found a way to free her, have her sentence lifted. Paid a fine or convinced one of the rich residents of the apartment building where he worked as a janitor to call in a favor on her behalf.

One never knows who might be listening, especially in a quasi jail for minors, some of whom were murderers on the verge. Talia and Mauro were careful with their words. He’d tried everything, he said. There was nothing more he could do. She understood. Liberating herself from the prison, and the country, would be up to her.

With the help of another girl, she spent an hour ripping bedsheets, twisting them tight as wire, thin as rope. She counted to one thousand in the darkness, then gave the signal for the other girls to start shouting, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Sister Susana appeared in the doorway. Talia waited to catch her from behind with a pillowcase over the head. They’d cut breathing holes because they weren’t trying to kill anyone, only to paralyze with fright. Talia held the nun while the others tied her to a chair with the shredded sheets, her breath hot on Talia’s hands as another girl shoved a sock between her teeth to gag screams.

When Talia arrived to the prison school a month earlier, Sister Susana had called her into her office and told the fifteen-year-old she’d studied her life, as if that file of police jottings and psychological assessments on her desk could reveal anything that mattered.

“You’re not like other girls here,” she began.

Yes, I am, Talia wanted to say. She didn’t want to be singled out, treated as an exception if it meant putting the other girls down.

“I believe it was your desire for justice that led you to do an awful thing. But you badly injured a man. You could have blinded him.”

A pause. The rattle of voices in the cafeteria down the hall. She knew Sister Susana was waiting for a response. A denial perhaps. More likely an admission of guilt. The nuns were always scavenging for remorse.

“Do you want to change? With faith and discipline anything is possible.”

Talia was not stupid, so she said yes.

* * *

The girls locked Sister Susana in their room with the same key she used against them each night. Nobody would look for her or for the girls until morning. The sisters and lay staff were in charge of their correction and safety. There were security guards on the property, but they were all men, so the nuns made them stay by the front gates to prevent the girls from developing crushes and the guys from trying to seduce them, as if that were a greater menace than an uprising, the girls taking the building under siege as happened all the time in men’s prisons; the illusion that women are safer among women.

The girls returned to their silence. Twelve to a room, the building held four dormitories in different corners of the building, each under the patrol of rotating nuns and staff. They knew the other girls. They had classes and meals with them every day. That night they wouldn’t worry about them, though, and Talia no longer worried about the girls with whom she planned her escape. The careless or slow would jeopardize her freedom. They would flee to boyfriends, friends, or relatives willing to hide them. But she had less than one week to get back to Bogotá, to the airport and out of Colombia.

When they hurried down the service stairs, out through the back garden to run across the sports field and over the concrete wall spiked with broken glass to the road as plotted, she broke away from the cluster, hustling east past the courtyard, through the gate into the forested hills spiraling down toward the valley.

Halting in a shadow before her final bolt, she saw the guards in the watchhouse by the prison driveway, hypnotized by the glare of a small TV. She’d assumed them to be some kind of police. They carried guns, and the girls believed they could chase and shoot them in the legs if they were caught trying to escape.

She ran alone in the fog, through dirt and thicket. It hadn’t rained in a few days, so there was little mud. She heard night creatures. Frogs. Owls. Hissing insects. Through the tree canopy, the rustle of rodents or bats. An hour passed. Maybe two. Lights congealed. An illuminated road laced the forest curtain. She followed until she heard barking dogs warn she’d come too close to the fences of a finca, so she moved down the hill to the street.

If you’d passed her in a car as she walked, small in her baggy captivity uniform, an expression more lost than determined, you might not have thought her a fugitive from the school for bad girls up the mountain, the place said to reform criminals in the making.

She came to a gas station far from any route the other girls would have taken, approached a grandfatherly man in worn jeans filling up his truck tank, and asked for a ride.

“Where are you headed?”

“Anywhere but here.” She only knew the facility was somewhere in Santander and the nearest town was San Vicente de Chucurí.

The man scratched his beard. “A word of advice. Don’t ever tell a stranger you’ll go anywhere.”

“I need to head south. I hope to make it all the way to Tunja, but I’ll take any route to get there.” She didn’t want the man to know she was headed to the capital in case police asked him questions later. At least from Tunja she knew she could find her way home.

The man said he was going to Aratoca but would drop her off in Barichara. Lots of tourists and buses passed through, so she could likely find a way south from there. He wasn’t leaving until sunrise though. He needed to sleep a few hours before getting back on the road.

She didn’t want to return to the woods. Before long, the police would have turned over every vine on the mountain searching for girls. She told the man she’d wait with him if that was okay. When he finished fueling, he pulled the truck into an unpaved lot behind the station and invited her to follow. She waited as he reached to open the passenger door, then dropped his own seat back, leaning into sleep.

“You can do the same,” he said, eyes closed. “I won’t touch you. I give you my word. I have two daughters. Not as young as you, but they’re still my babies.”

Her hesitation was mostly for show. Even if he hadn’t made such a pledge she would have done the same, climbing into the truck, nudging her seat as flat as she could so her head fell below the window line. Disappeared.

* * *