In a political climate in which undocumented immigrants are painted as criminals and rapists and half the country is crying for deportation, this week’s story reminds us that immigrants are fathers who love their daughters, who work hard and send money home to dying mothers, who will go to the ends of the Earth for their loved ones—they are normal Americans with normal hearts, just like the rest of us. “A Thousand Hundred Years” by Michael Wehunt at Recommended Reading tells the story of Jandro, a man whose daughter disappears from an empty playground in an impossible span of mere seconds while Jandro is doing what author Brian Evenson, who introduces the story, calls the “typically American act of scrolling through his phone.” Jandro also happens to be an undocumented immigrant, a detail that does not define Jandro’s character or dominate the story but that informs the story in subtle and powerful ways. Far from being the villain, Jandro is the sympathetic protagonist, the aching father who never gives up, the hero.
“A Thousand Hundred Years” comes from Wehunt’s debut story collection Greener Pastures, published earlier this year by horror and dark fantasy small press Shock Totem, but Wehunt’s work should not be relegated to any genre box. “A Thousand Hundred Years” is a story that evokes a palpable mood of disquiet, desperation, and yet also tenderness, and Wehunt’s prose is a gentle as it is eerie as Jandro searches for his missing daughter every day and is haunted by the same recurring nightmare every night:
He enjoyed the same haze of whiskey, but the dream changed. Redrew its lines. Jandro came out of the woods a few seconds earlier than before, almost soon enough to reach his daughter. His life was full of almost. He watched En float away into the long pale sky, a bright smudge from which her yellow coat tumbled back to the earth like a shed skin. But now, all around him, a dozen or more Virginias lifted off the ground, the sleeves of those fallen coats reaching up for the arms that had filled them.
He thought he could hear their voices, but the cellophane static of radios drowned the words. Behind him, vaguely, was the sense of pursuit. The crackling of transmissions and dead pine needles. The cops were rounding up Mexicans all across this dream Delmar.
One of the most powerful aspects of “A Thousand Hundred Years” is the way Wehunt evokes Jandro’s desperation and guilt. He plays the seconds leading to his daughter’s disappearance over and over again, the audible loop of her footsteps on the slide’s stairs, her settling onto the top, her whoosh down the slide to the bottom, and repeat, and repeat, as he looked at his phone. Jandro was intimately familiar with his daughter’s noises and patterns; he could track her by sound. And that’s why, when he heard her climb to the top of the slide but never heard her slide down, he immediately looked up. She was gone from the deserted playground, disappeared in a moment from the tiny playhouse at the top of the slide.
This is where the horror comes in, but a horror so much more disturbing than any old bump in the night, any routine haunting, any fantasy monster. This horror is reality. “A Thousand Hundred Years” does also have dark figures moving in the night, strange footprints of children leading into woods, and, most importantly, a mysterious film projector given to Jandro by his Taiwanese neighbor, who knows what it is to lose children and who tells him, “They are no dreams you have, Mr. Jandro… You need my projector. I hear the movies of your daughter through your wall at night. I hear you cry.” Who tells him, although she does not know Spanish, “Tu hija te espera.”
(Your daughter waits for you.)
But these creepy elements are only trimmings on the true horror of losing a child:
He thought of the life that had been taken away from his daughter, the great puzzle of traits and decisions she would never get to be and the quirks she would never grow into. She’d hated milk — what kid ever said that? And where might that dislike have led her? Jandro remembered stealing a candy bar from Cordava’s Mercado as a teenager, how Cordava himself had chased him across the street and knocked him down. He’d lost two teeth against the wall of the auto garage, which had made him too self-conscious to really smile until he’d gotten a bridge seven years later. He’d been sullen, bashful, a virgin until he was twenty-two. How much of his life, his path, his character came from that stolen Mars bar? What mistakes and the arcs of those mistakes would never be allowed to shape En?
The specter of deportation lurks throughout the story, seeping through in the necessity of Jandro maintaining work connections despite his grief, in the threat of Immigration discovering Jandro through the missing persons investigation, in the static radio sound that occasionally floats through Jandro’s dreams and waking consciousness, in the echoed dream line Tu mamá te espera. Though Jandro’s illegal status is not central to the story, Virginia’s disappearance and Jandro’s pain at their separation is informed by the political climate. The reality of American immigration, in which undocumented immigrants live in fear of separation from their American-born children, lies just under the surface of “A Thousand Hundred Years,” a parallel horror story of separation and loss in which a thousand hundred parents may not be able to witness their children’s growth and all the small choices that will shape them, won’t be able to be a part of their lives. In “A Thousand Hundred Years,” Michael Wehunt creates an impressive horror story of love, grief, and disappearance that resonates on more levels than one.
A shadow, pooling on the grass beside him. A looming hand. The INS badge gleamed as he was jerked around and a voice growled, “Alejandro de Garza, you are under arrest. Tu mamá te espera.”
His shoulder ached under that hand. But he could only crane his neck, watch his daughter — more than a dozen daughters, now — borne away into the sky. He could only wake. The waking was the awful thing.
Logo art by Max Winter.