José! The Migra, José, the Migra! Hurry up, just as you are, don’t even dry yourself off!
What? The Migra!
Come on, butthead, hurry, there’s no time for you to dry off! They’re on their way up to Doña Cira’s door!
OK, OK, I’m coming!
Hurry! Hilario and your brother are already in the basement; you’re the only one left. No one’s going to see you, c’mon naked just like you are, grab that towel.
Vicente, what about my brother Raul?
I told you, he’s already down there; you’re the only one left. Don Zoilo’s waiting with the padlock!
But it’s Sunday, they never look for us on Sundays! I’m barefoot. The black widows!
The padlock clicked and they heard it slam against the wooden door when Don Zoilo let go of it. He whispered for them not to make any noise, went up the cellar stairs and then up the wooden stairs to the back door of his house.
Doña Cira waited and waited until she could see the Border Patrol agents peering into the window as they climbed the front steps of her house. Their heads appeared first, followed by their torsos; they knocked on the front door.
She pulled herself together and began walking down the long hallway to the front door, followed by Don Zoilo. They had experience dealing with the Migra, but they always felt their skin crawl with apprehension when they had to talk to them.
They got used to the darkness of the cellar. They heard the knocking above, then the voices. They greeted each other in English. The migras knew them and didn’t try to offend them with their insufferable Spanish.
Can we look around?
Yes, go ahead.
Light filtered through the boards, enough to make out the figures.
Did you turn off the water?
They’re gonna see your wet footprints.
They heard the agent’s boots go down the stairs. The front steps were made of cement, their boot steps resounded with heavy authority. Black boots, military boots. The two immigration agents walked very slowly. From the basement, between the cracks, they could see out as the light filtered in.
The trousers of their green uniforms came down around their boots. They walked without speaking toward the narrow sidewalk between the house with its basement and the next-door property that belonged to Don Camilo, where the four small rooms were left with their doors open.
Each of the four men knew they could not make a sound. Each one had to repress his fear while the words sped through his mind.
I hope the lock’s not still swinging.
My money’s under the pillow.
This place is full of spider webs.
Hang on little brother, hang on.
The only thing they could hear were the boot steps and the rustle of fabric.
They’re not saying anything; they suspect we’re near. Vicente left his door open.
If they go into my room they’re going to find the envelope with the money for my parents.
If I stand straight, I can touch them. I’m all wet and I don’t dare move.
Hang in there, little brother, don’t shiver so much, it makes me think they can hear you. If they catch us, it’s the corralón, little brother. We’ll lose both our salaries. Hang in there, for our folks’ sake. They’re counting on us.
Don Zoilo’s basement was almost the size of the whole house. He kept his tools and lumber there. In the middle, there was a small room made out of concrete with a solid door where Doña Cira kept her homemade preserves. The former owners, Italian-Swiss immigrants, had used it as their wine cellar. Don Zoilo spent many hours in his hideaway, under the small naked light bulbs, making furniture or toys for his nieces and nephews. He wasn’t afraid of the many spiders, and even less of the clouds of cobwebs everywhere. It never failed; he would come out of there swiping away at them with his bare hands. Every once in a while he gave the room a good cleaning with a broom, but that only lasted a few days. The cracks between the boards let in shafts of daylight amid the dust, cobwebs and all the insects that served as food. Without lights, the basement remained dark during the day with the floating dust as a screen for all the piercing shafts of sunlight.
Someone ratted on us, but it wasn’t the bosses. They don’t do it until the last week of the picking season, so they can keep your last week’s wages. They never come on Sundays. They suspect we’re near, that’s why they’re so quiet. If they catch us, we’ll miss the best part of the harvest.
All the doors were left open; mine too. They’ve got to see them, they know we’re close by. Tomás, the blind man, had his door closed, but he’s got documents. We’ll get two weeks in the corralón, a Voluntary Departure, then another week or so to get back here from Tijuana. We’ll miss almost a whole month of work.
I can’t even dry myself off. Even the slightest noise will tip them off. It feels like every drop of water is a spider. My leg is starting to cramp. I have to change position.
Hang on, little brother. Don’t you dare move in this direction, little brother. I hope he doesn’t feel this spiderweb, this one does feel strong, this one is a widow’s web. Don’t you dare move in this direction, little brother. I hope they leave soon. He’s never been through anything like this back home, no jail, no nothing.
The dank, damp, dark unfinished basement exuded the rich, bare earth of the Salinas Valley.
This snot-nosed José kid, he’s so afraid of spiders and most of all the black widows. I can feel him trembling all the way from here. I can see him shake even in this dim light. If he feels any little thing, he’s liable to yell. Gonna get us arrested. The Migra’s gonna take us right in the middle of the season. Shit! Scared kids, they’re way too young to come work the fields.
I’ve worked too hard to save that money just to lose it. The migras will take it and my dad can kiss goodbye those cows he wanted, for now. If José yells, that’s it, it’s all over, and they’ll find us and take us all to the corralón. Poor old Zoilo and Cira, they’ll get arrested for hiding us. I better move over to steady him.
I can feel the earth churning to mud between my toes. And the cobwebs, even with my eyes closed, I can see and feel them. Please, Don Zoilo, don’t forget us down here; don’t leave us.
Assholes. They’re moving very slowly, very very slowly. Like hunting rabbits. You wait until they get scared of the silence. Wait until they panic, jump and, bang! Don’t move, little brother, don’t move in this direction. You’re shaking and moving so much, you’re going to brush against that web, that widow’s web. If I push him away, he’ll scream; if I say something, they’ll hear me. Hold him, Vicente.
Two, three steps and they stop. The boots and the bottom of the green uniforms were all that they could see through the weatherworn grey cracks in the boards. The four boots would come together and remain still for a while. Then they would separate, two stepping ahead and two remaining behind. It was a ballet without music; movement without visible force; like leaves that move in the air and etch their movements on the ground with their shadows. Those sinister boots, as they came and went, crept nearer and nearer to the cellar entrance. They were signaling to each other.
In their underground hole, the terrifying silence unsettled them.
We’ll see who else can hold out the longest. Vicente is tough; he’s not going to crack.
That old Hilario, he’s got what it takes, he can take it. Let’s see if I can be like him. As long as José doesn’t crack. So many cobwebs down here, it would scare anyone. I can feel them in my hair and I don’t even want to move my hand to get them off. I feel like they would see the movement even in this dim light.
Jesus Christ! Vicente has his head covered with cobwebs. I don’t want to rub my hand through my hair because my towel might fall off. If I lose the towel, I won’t put it back on. If I shake it out, they’ll hear me for sure. Why don’t they leave? After that, let’s see how long it’ll take Don Zoilo to open the door for us. He’s not going to let us out until he’s sure they’ve gone and aren’t coming back. My leg hurts so much from crouching. I don’t want to touch anything or even budge. That’s one for sure; yeah it’s a widow’s web. The light that shines through it, it’s like crystal; the others are cloudy, but theirs are glass threads. And behind them those black boots. I have to control my shaking. I’m so afraid of falling and rolling naked on the bare dirt in the dark.
They say that you can’t feel the bite. Then it starts to burn, a little later, by then the poison is already inside you and the heat spreads little by little until it turns into a burning sensation you can no longer endure. They say you can’t breathe after a while; suddenly you feel a terrible pain in your heart, and then you’re dead. The day Don Fermín was telling us that, José was there and he began trembling and shaking; we got real scared. When he calmed down, he said that a couple of black widows had climbed onto him. One he slapped from his neck and the other was climbing up his socks. He didn’t sleep for two days until he was sure every little corner of our room was free of spiders. And what’s worse is he found two more in the closet.
They are blind, it is said; they are found even in pitch-black spaces where they feed on unsuspecting prey hiding in the dark.
I’ve got to set an example. These boys don’t know what it is to be afraid. Being afraid is knowing if they find you, they’ll drag you out and shoot you in the back of the head. The widows are beautiful, and like all widows, the prettiest are the deadliest. Shiny like gleaming black marbles with their bright red bellies. Because they’re blind, they take on all comers – that’s a real widow. DAMN! Hold on, Josélito. You and your brother Raul are becoming men; he’s hiding his fear worrying about you. Us, if they catch us, well, it’s off to the corralón and then they’ll boot us out. We lose our jobs, money, and then we’ll come back again. Zoilo and Cira will have it much worse. They didn’t have to stick their necks out, much less hide us. This kid, he’s moving and shaking around so much he looks like a drunken sailor. He’s getting more and more tangled up in the webs. He doesn’t realize that what he feels are the drops of water because he’s all wet. If we’re discovered, the Migra won’t kill us; if we’re not, soon the black widows will. As long as this kid doesn’t get us caught. I need the money. We all need the money. It goes a long way back home.
The silence in the basement was like a tomb. Only the heavy boot steps and the rubbing of the green trousers were the counterpoint to the intensity of the moment. Even the sparrows in the garden remained quiet. They hopped around in silence, looking and signaling to each other. The black widows felt the intrusion. Their webs were their sensors; they detected the most discrete intruder and were guided by the crystalline silk threads to their victim, even a tiny ant. But the widow’s movements were uncertain. Two steps forward, two steps back. They would start down, but when they felt a strong pull, they would beat a rapid retreat; they dropped down a different thread when they felt the presence of the tangled prey. Another violent tug warned them that the intruder was big and could harm them; they then retreated to the safety of one of their abundant dark knotholes.
Cornered, the four unwitting choreographers swallowed their panic and waited for their ballet to end.
What was that?
I didn’t hear anything.
We’re sunk. Damn kid. I think he crapped himself.
Be cool, be cool… Hope they didn’t hear that. José really lost it.
I’ve gotten us busted. But I felt something roll down my back. I can’t feel anything now, I hope it was only a drop of water.
Hang on, little brother. They were about to leave. They heard you.
Let’s check out the rooms; they’re not going to call the cops. It’s Sunday. Do you want to do the processing paperwork?
Hold him, Vicente, before he falls to the floor. Hard, so he doesn’t shake so much. He felt something and couldn’t control himself.
This Hilario is tough. That poker face of his gives me confidence, he doesn’t even blink. If I can control Joselito here, maybe we’ll still make it.
Don’t let me fall, Vicente, please.
Oh! You little scaredy-cat brother, what if you gave us away? Maybe they were leaving. They heard something, now they’re gonna stay a while longer. Wish I had Hilario’s guts. Damn old man, always joking around and now cold as steel. Hold on, little brother; be like Hilario.
The boots halted in mid step; they did hear something. They came down quietly. They didn’t want to scare the rabbits with their loud footsteps. Now the only thing left was to wait for the rabbits to jump and make a run for it.
It’s a trap. They’re not far.
They’re gone. My arm hurts from holding José.
They’re gone. Hurry up, Don Zoilo.
They’re gone. But, hold on a little longer, little brother, Don Zoilo won’t open until he’s sure they’re not coming back.
They heard footsteps throughout the house.
That’s Doña Cira.
I hope they’re really gone.
Hurry, Don Zoilo, please. Open the door. If it bites me, if a widow bit me, I’m dead.
Please God, let them be gone, my little brother can’t hold out any more.
They felt more footsteps crossing from one side of the house to the other from back to front above them.
That’s Don Zoilo. He’s going to look out the windows and the doors.
I hope they left.
Don Zoilo, please hurry up and open. I can’t stand it, to be here buried alive down here among black widow spiders.
Almost, little brother. Hold on like Hilario and thank Vicente. Don Zoilo won’t open the door till he’s sure.
This one, yes, this is the key. There you go, guys! They’ve gone for today; I thought they would never leave. They stayed talking to each other for a long time outside by their patrol car. They suspected something but finally left.
Don Zoilo, you’re a brave and courageous man to help us; you know how much these jobs mean for our families back home.
I can’t see nothing in this bright sunlight. Thanks, Don Zoilo, may God bless you. I felt my arm was falling off from holding up this kid. I better go see if my money is still there.
Don Zoilo, I’m so glad to hear your voice, see the light of day, and know that my brother is coming out.
Move, I’ve gotta take another shower!