They were hiking down the hill when they first heard the singing--a distant, lone man's voice that seemed to echo off the river, or maybe off the canyon walls that rose at the trail's end. Shelly said she thought the singing might be a radio, and Josh, her husband, said he wasn't sure.
The hike was short, just over a half mile from the parking lot to the opening of Boquillas Canyon, where you were supposed to stop and watch the river pouring between the sheer cliffs. The singing had started after they mounted the hill, and it continued now as they descended to the river's edge, where the reeds kept them from seeing anything but the trail itself and the sky above. Cuando, the voice said, pleading.
"One of those guys in the shelter?" Josh said.
"I don't think so. They were just sitting."
At the top of the hill, they had looked across the river and seen a small shelter made of sticks with four Mexican men squatting beneath it. Shelly had felt a pang of guilt while studying them--for being invasive, for being the privileged white woman peering into someone else's hardscrabble life--but she couldn't help looking. Mexico itself didn't so much fascinate her as the simple notion of a wholly foreign place just across the river. Earlier, before they had even arrived at the parking lot, she and Josh had stopped at an overlook and, through their binoculars, watched a tiny village perched above the river's edge. Brown adobe houses, others pink and blue. Something that looked like a half-constructed tower. "Hey, a truck," Shelly had said, as if it were a novelty, simply because it was over there.
They hiked on. The trail bent and rose. Ahead of them the reeds and brush cleared, and in the trail's path lay a row of painted walking sticks and colored crystals on a blanket. In front of the blanket sat a milk jug weighted with change and bills. Oh, Shelly had thought, guessing now the job of the men in the hut--to run across and snatch the goods and the day's takings if the border patrol came over the hill. On the far side of the river a little metal boat was tied up. She now discovered, too, the source of the singing. Near the boat a man stood on the sandy bank, serenading them. He looked about 50, wore jeans and a green shirt, and had binoculars at his eyes, alternately watching them and then turning to watch the hill, to see if anyone else was coming over. Beside the jug was a plain rock painted with the words: The Mexican Singing Victor. Your Donations Help Buy Supplies for the School Childrens.
Shelly stopped and took a dollar from her pocket and put it in the jug. "Gracias," the Mexican Singing Victor called across the river. It was only about 30 feet wide and shallow. Shelly waved her hand and then looked up toward the rising canyon walls.
"Why'd you do that?" Josh said with a slight scowl.
"There's border agents in the parking lot," he said. "The signs said not to give these guys anything."
"Please," Shelly said, coming up to him and then passing by. Josh didn't say anything, just stood behind, giving her room. Shelly had learned over the years how Josh hated public fights--even though it was usually he who started them. She didn't mind the Singing Victor seeing them. But Josh wouldn't speak, and later, when he returned to the fight in the safe confines of their car, he would say that he could feel the man's eyes pressing into him. When she turned around, though, Josh was walking with his hands in his pockets, calm, and Victor was watching the hill. He'd stopped singing now that he...