Ian Colford is an author and librarian (not a bad side occupation for a writer) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has had stories and commentary published in about 20 different print and online literary journals including “Laurianne’s Choice” in Numéro Cinq. His 2008 story collection, Evidence, was shortlisted for several prizes, among them the Thomas Raddall, the Danuta Gleed and the ReLit. It won the Margaret and John Savage Award for best first book.
The Crimes of Hector Tomás is a novel the action of which takes place in an unnamed South American country during a period of political turmoil in the 1960s. Hector is fifteen. He has committed an assault, and rather than risk his arrest his parents are sending him away to live with his aunt and uncle on their farm in Envigado. For a number of months his father’s behaviour had aroused Hector’s suspicions, and the assault was motivated by Hector’s jealousy of another boy, Jorge, on whom his father had been lavishing attention. Nadia is Hector’s girlfriend. Hector’s brother Carlos is also mentioned. A few years earlier Carlos became involved with a resistance group. One night he was abducted by armed thugs. He has not been seen since. Parts of the novel were composed at writing retreats in the US (Yaddo) and Scotland (Hawthornden Castle).
From The Crimes of Hector Tomás
By Ian Colford
The rickety train skirted the mountains, passing villages that were no more than clusters of huts and shanties, occasionally winding its way up into the hills and chugging laboriously across a high plain. There were frequent stops. Hector could hear and see, in the warmth of greetings and in the eyes of children trying to sell plastic Virgin Marys, molasses drops, and dried figs to the passengers, that the train’s arrival was a momentous event for the people who inhabited these parts.
Progress was slow. He had plenty of time to drift from one sweltering compartment to another, to watch the ocean pass by on his right and the mountains on his left.
His belongings filled a single small valise: clothes, toiletries, a deck of cards, a few prized superhero comic books: The Flash, Spiderman. He wore his only pair of shoes, which still bore traces of Jorgé’s blood. The lazy swaying of the train made him restless and he did not like the way his traveling companions looked at him—sullenly, as if he represented all that was troublesome in their lives. The soldiers in particular, of which there were many, seemed annoyed by his presence. He did not trust any of these people and when he roamed from one compartment to another he carried the valise with him. He took it with him to the toilet. He saw how the other passengers watched him and knew they did not trust him either, and for the first time in his life he began to suspect that the black hair and swarthy complexion he had inherited from his mother’s family marked him in some way. The man who examined his ticket did so with a wary frown, as if he could hardly believe there wasn’t some trick being played on him. Sitting by the window half dozing, Hector inadvertently met the glance of a young mother, and at the moment of contact she gathered her baby close to her breast as if to protect her from the evil eye. What did they think? That he was dangerous? A murderer? Many people had black hair and skin darkened by the sun. It did not mean they were murderers. He smiled at the woman with the baby, but she lifted her chin and did not smile back. A few moments later she stood, collected her things, and left the compartment.
The landscape was parched. The sun beat down without mercy and Hector recalled the geography lesson in which his teacher had told the class that certain regions of the country had not seen a drop of rain for a hundred years. In some areas people working the fields paused and stared as if mystified, watching the train pass them by. Hunched and motionless, they seemed like stumps from huge felled trees. Oxen and goats huddled behind sun-flayed wooden fences had a look of doomed resignation about them.
He had been told the journey would take three days, but among the delays they encountered was an unscheduled twelve-hour stopover in a town he had never heard of where they waited for the delivery of an engine part, and then waited further as the part was installed and tested. To amuse himself he left the train and wandered through the town, where there were almost no people and where each and every one of the cinder-block buildings had suffered some sort of earthquake damage and none was more than a single story in height. He had some money that his father had given him for everyday use, and a further stash of bills that his weeping mother had pressed into his hand at the last moment as he was leaving the apartment, his father having been distracted on some pretext by one of his sisters. But instead of using his limited supply of funds he targeted a shop away from the main street and helped himself to what he wanted while the ancient shopkeeper snored behind the counter. He didn’t take very much. The ease with which he was able to steal a bottle of orange Fanta, some peppermints, and a string of jerky left him maddeningly alert to his own guilt, and he was not able to enjoy his booty while he consumed it. Later in the day, when he returned to the shop, he made sure to waken the shopkeeper by scuffing his feet noisily across the wooden floor. This time he purchased a bottle of spring water and a tin of lima beans in tomato sauce, which he asked the man to open and warm for him on the hotplate he had seen in the back room on his first visit. While the man was doing this Hector browsed the store shelves, contemplating further thievery, but was almost grateful when a woman entered, thus saving him from having to decide among the meagre produce on display.
He was drowsy when the train resumed its journey and dozed intermittently while the car rattled and shuddered along the tracks. The events of the last few days had left him shaken. Though he had clenched his teeth and given the impression of blasé acceptance of his fate, he still felt an occasional tremor in his gut when he thought of where he was going. Having forbidden the rest of the family the privilege of a formal farewell, his father had seen him off at the station, his face paler than usual in the evening light. There were no embraces.
“You have disgraced each and every one of us,” Enrique told his son. “I wouldn’t be doing this but for your mother, who is quite out of her mind with the trouble you have caused.”
Hector gazed without feeling into his father’s eyes, which were at a level with his own. He had heard of the word hypocrisy, and though he was not sure of its precise meaning, he suspected he was being shown an example of it at this moment.
“Your Aunt Claudia and Uncle Francisco are old and frail and they have seen every one of their ten children into their graves. I hope that you will not be the cause of further heartache for them.”
Hector said nothing. He had not apologized and was not inclined to do so. In his mind he had done nothing but defend the honour and good name of the Tomás family. Indeed, he believed he deserved thanks and congratulations for what he had done and that it was his father who had earned a punishment far more severe than the exile that he was being forced to undergo.
“I can see you have nothing to say for yourself,” Enrique observed dispassionately. “You are fortunate the boy did not die. If that had happened I would be in no position to help you.”
Hector continued to meet his father’s eyes.
“You are the type of person who does not learn from your mistakes. You have a temper and you lack self-control. I suspected the same of Carlos, but I failed to act and we continue to mourn that loss. Well, my boy, you are being given the second chance your brother never had, though I dare say you do not deserve it. If you attract the attention of the local authorities in Envigado, then God be with you because I will not.”
With that, his father turned on his heel and walked quickly away, leaving Hector to await the arrival of the train on his own. Hector rubbed the tears from his face with clenched fists. The feeling with which he struggled was grief mixed with the shock of betrayal, for while he suffered keenly the child’s loss of his home, he also sensed that his offence was a minor one and that more could have been done to place it quietly to one side until everyone forgot it had happened.
Even now, as he drowsed in an overheated train compartment many miles and many days from home, Hector did not believe he had been treated fairly. After the encounter with his father and Jorgé at the café, he had returned to the city with Nadia at his side, their hands linked in a desperate grip. In the shelter from the sun provided by a storefront awning, they embraced and pressed their lips together and explored each other’s mouths with their tongues. Nadia pushed herself against him, every inch of her body in warm contact with his, her small breasts flattened to his chest. Afterward, he escorted her to her front door with a promise to seek out some private space where they could shed their clothes and partake of a ritual that they both saw as inevitable and necessary.
But Hector could not shake the image of Jorgé regarding him serenely across the café table. Thoughts of the boy’s indolent gaze stoked the fires of his anger, and against his will he retraced his steps until the café was once again within sight. He concealed himself behind the stone wall where he and Nadia had exchanged their first kiss only an hour earlier and kept vigil over the café entrance. Eventually the light of late afternoon began to dim into evening. The air grew chill. In a short while his father emerged from the doorway and with glances up and down the street, directed his steps toward the city. A few pedestrians strolled back and forth, but for a long time there were no other signs of habitation. Then it was dark. Hector was missing his supper and he clutched his belly as his stomach groaned in protest. Still, he kept watch and was soon rewarded by the sight of Jorgé leaving the café in the company of another man. They exchanged a few words and the man laughed, but all he did was touch the back of the boy’s head and ruffle his hair. Jorgé was fully dressed now, wearing sandals, jeans, and a white shirt. He took the man’s hand and together they walked up the street. Hector allowed them to gain some distance before abandoning his hiding place to follow. He kept to the edge of the road and walked carefully, as the only illumination to guide his way came from the houses lining the street. He stopped when he saw the two turn and follow the walkway to the front door of a small house. They entered. Hector’s anger had dissipated as his hunger grew, but he forced himself to continue his watch, and after a time his stomach, convinced there would be no supper, ceased its protests. He took up a position behind a tree across from Jorgé’s house and stayed for a period of time that he afterward guessed was several hours.
Stray dogs approached and sniffed his legs, but he remained still and they lost interest. A group of young men went by. They passed a bottle back and forth and spoke and swore in loud voices. Hector was not afraid. The moon had risen and with its silver tongue licking his back he crept across the street and around to the rear of Jorgé’s house. He wasn’t certain what his next move would be, but when saw two open windows he knew at once that he was going to steal into the house. He approached without a sound, stepping carefully among the debris littering the property. Through the first window he saw two adults sleeping in one bed. Through the other he saw two smaller beds, a child in each one. Hector searched the ground at his feet for a weapon and found a small piece of wood with the tip of a nail protruding from one end. He inserted this into his pocket and hoisted himself up on the window ledge. Without making a single sound he pulled himself inside. When his feet touched the floor he remained in a crouched position for a moment, utterly still, watching. The two children slept on as he rose to his full height and circled the beds. He pushed the door to the bedroom into its jamb, shutting out the rest of the house. He could see them clearly now in the moonlight, a boy and a girl, and his breath caught at the sight of Jorgé asleep, his body curled as if for protection, his thumb in his mouth.
He tried to focus his thoughts. Should he take the boy outside and beat him senseless under cover of night, or assault him where he lay? Which of these actions would cause his father the most grief? He stood looking down at Jorgé and tried to make up his mind, but in the end, since it seemed either approach suited his purpose, he decided to let the episode play itself out as it would.
With his finger he prodded Jorgé in the region of his abdomen through the thin blanket. There was no response. He leaned in closely and with his hand shook the boy’s shoulder. The eyes fluttered open, but there was no immediate sign of recognition. He put his finger to his lips. Jorgé seemed not to understand. As if he meant to speak Jorgé’s lips parted, and to silence him Hector placed his hand over the boy’s mouth. Still, Jorgé showed no signs of knowing who he was.
“Come with me,” Hector whispered. “We’re going for a walk.”
Beneath his hand Hector felt the boy’s lips moving. He took his hand away and leaned over.
“I’m afraid,” the boy said, speaking into Hector’s ear. He closed his eyes.
Hector shook him slightly to get his attention, but, as if he were suffering from a fever that had numbed his brain, Jorgé seemed to fall back into a deep sleep. Hector shook him again, this time more roughly, shook him until his eyes snapped open. A whine issued from between Jorgé’s lips, and with this Hector clamped his hand over the boy’s mouth. Jorgé seemed to struggle, but his movements were sluggishly inept and not those of someone who has been rudely awakened and in fear for his life.
Confused now, Hector tried to pull Jorgé from the bed, but the boy’s foot was caught, and when Hector drew back the blanket, revealing Jorgé’s thin body clad only in underwear, he saw that the ankle bracelet, which he had assumed was a decorative accessory meant to heighten his appeal, was attached to a small chain and that the chain was fastened to the metal bed frame.
The worst that could happen, Hector had thought, was that he would lose his resolve—that, faced with the tears and entreaties of a small boy whose only crime was a desire to profit from a physical allure that men like Enrique Tomás could not resist, he would relent and allow Jorgé to escape the beating he so richly deserved. What he had not anticipated was that his sympathies would betray him utterly, that he would find himself stricken by conscience and tempted by the idea of placing himself at risk in order to help the boy. He saw now that Jorgé was watching him, his eyes wide open and tearful with understanding. He began to struggle, pushing at Hector and biting his hand. Hector lost his balance and felt Jorgé slip from his grasp. The boy’s yelps and shrieks filled the room, and as he tried to flee toward the door he pulled the entire bed behind him. The legs scraped noisily along the rough wooden floor. The girl in the other bed was screaming. Hector leapt on Jorgé and, trying to silence him, wrapped his arm around his neck. They both slipped and fell. The metal frame of the bed banged into the wall and reverberated, making a sound like heavy chimes being struck by a mallet. Recalled to his original purpose by the struggle, Hector pulled Jorgé to his feet and punched him with his fist, first in the stomach and then in the face. Jorgé’s nose erupted in a copious flow of blood. He fell silent and crumpled to the floor. Hector pulled the stick from his pocket and landed a blow across Jorgé’s back. In the moonlight he saw blood gush from the wound. The girl shrieked and struggled with the chain holding her leg. Hector was aware of voices and of someone pressing against the door, trying to enter the room, but Jorgé’s bed blocked the way. He hit the boy again, on the head this time. He kicked him in the face and the chest and delivered more blows with the stick. The danger of his situation made no impression upon him as he continued to kick wildly at the boy, who was now lying unconscious on the blood-smeared floor. All he knew was the heat of blood behind his eyes. He could not stop. It seemed his anger would never be quenched. And when at last the door burst open and a man entered and struck him across the head, Hector made no attempt to fight back. He could not remember leaving the house and had no idea how he made his way home.
The train had stopped again. Hector gazed through the window at the dusty landscape and the mountains hovering in the distance. His father’s anger had followed swiftly upon the event, along with shrill recriminations and a sense of anguish and desperation that pervaded the apartment while preparations were made for his departure. He remembered his mother’s tears and the flash of hatred in her eyes as she regarded his father, and him turning away, either in shame or disgust. He remembered his sisters tiptoeing around, afraid to acknowledge his presence, and Julio, silent and troubled as only a ten-year-old boy can be. Hector had been lying on his bed. His mother had given him ice-cubes wrapped in a towel, and he held this to the welt that had risen on the side of his face. His father had entered the room and stood looking down at him as he removed his belt. Without a word he struck him, flogging him across his legs and chest. There were tears in his father’s eyes. As the flogging continued the tears welled up and overflowed so that Enrique’s face dripped tears by the time he retreated from the bed and, with laboured breathing, looped the belt around his waist and left the room. Hector had not cried out and had lain very still during the beating. But once his father was gone he curled into a ball and closed his teeth on a corner of the towel and bit down hard to prevent himself from weeping aloud.
In the end the journey took five days. At each stop Hector had listened as the man who had examined his ticket at the beginning importantly strode the length of the train announcing the name of the station, and when he heard the word Envigado being bellowed in the familiar tuneless baritone, he grabbed his valise and prepared to disembark.