The Men on the Fence

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The boy watches them from the outdoor pool, the men on the fence, perched like birds on a wire. They are present every day, from the moment the boy opens his shutters in the morning until his parents send him to bed at night. The chain-link fence is the resort’s southern border, and men are sitting on it everywhere, in clusters of five or more. They balance with both legs on one side or sit as if on a saddle, feet dangling. Although the men are far away, the boy believes he is being watched. A paddling white mouse in a blue box of water. Perhaps they dream of his movements, the freedom of his limbs, how it feels to be submerged, clean and cool.

The African sun is relentless. The men on the fence must be baking in heat.

With soft strokes the boy swims in the heavily chlorinated pool. He is alone, as usual. There are no other kids in the hotel, or he hasn’t seen any, and he operates under his mother’s strict instructions not to behave like one: no diving, no splashing, no yelling, no urinating—as if he would dare.

The first time he approached the oasis of water, one of the uniformed staff stopped him. Swimming wasn’t allowed for children unaccompanied by adults. OMAR, the man’s nametag said. His face was kind yet disconcerting. There was too much red in the white of his eyes, and the wrinkles around his mouth could easily be scars. Things had happened in his life.

That evening, the boy’s father set Omar straight about the pool. An exception was granted for their entire stay: the child could swim whenever he wanted. The boy knew, though, that if he caused any trouble, he’d be banished to his room and his books. His father had only brought him along after he promised to study hard and practice Spanish with the staff.

But how? Omar and the other people working in the hotel barely spoke Spanish, their mother tongue being Arabic or Berber or something else entirely. Except for the manager, they were all black, from sub-Saharan areas or parts deeper within the continent.

Swimming back and forth, the boy wonders why he was so keen on being brought here. A Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast. He could be in Greece on a catamaran, sailing with his best friend and his best friend’s parents. Or at his grandparents’ estate, combing the beaches of the Côte d’Azur. It must have been his mother’s eyes, the silent pleading in them, a kind of sadness that is also a challenge.

Another turn, another dip. His days unroll in moments of boredom and short-lived bliss. There is a slowness of heat, of repetition. The water opens in front of him, then closes in ripples once he has passed. Are the men on the fence always the same? Whenever he explores the grounds of the resort—so groomed, its plants nitrogen-fed, glowing in unnatural greens—and takes the path closest to the fence, the men always look the same to him. Dark-skinned, wearing colorful shorts and baseball caps against the glare. But what does he know? Through the meshed wire, he can make out their encampment behind the fence, a wasteland of shabby tents staked amid wild grasses and parched earth.

He remembers the first time he gazed into his mother's eyes and saw their transcending quality, a presence that made him realize she was as lonely as he. It was on the morning of her birthday, a few years back, as she leaned against the kitchen table, opening presents, pretending to be lively for his sake.

The pool carries a shimmering film of grease from the UV protection creams. At times, he catches a whiff of coconut or citronella above the chlorine sting. Other guests tend to flock to the water in the late afternoons. The women, manicured and slim, and the men, stiff and squat. Before they arrive, the boy swims and swims until he gets tired and towels off, the cotton always fluffy, washed daily, folded and stacked in perfect squares. Children aren’t exactly forbidden in the hotel, but guests are not encouraged to bring them: there’s nothing for kids to do around here. His parents, along with most of the other adults, play golf all day long, and watching their game gets tedious after a while. The swing of their clubs. The sun scorching everyone equally. He isn’t allowed to drive the cart or play caddy for the golfers clad in pristine white gear. When you’re older, his father said.

At the resort, the sky hangs high at every hour of the day, out of reach. Chasing his shadow over the greenest of hills, he thinks of the men on the fence and dreams of going home.


At night, the boy and his parents usually leave the hotel’s realm. They stroll in the small town filled with restaurants and baroque churches and duty-free shops. There are many tourists eating at tapas bars, sitting on the open squares drinking wine, cocktails, beer. And there are soldiers, off-duty yet in uniform, coming from the military base in the west of the Spanish enclave.

His father has traveled here for the past ten years, visiting with loyal clients and meeting new ones. He’s a Dutch investment banker, a sleek adviser, with or without his business suit. His mother is English and works from their home in Zurich. She runs her family’s art foundation and often flies alone to Paris or New York. The boy tends to think of her as an aging ballerina, an angel whose wings have withered away.

They order grilled swordfish and gambas with garlic. They order Japanese steaks and tuna tartare. If the boy asks for a pizza or a plate of fries, his father laughs yet lets him have it anyway. Compassion, the boy has learned, often comes with contempt.

One evening over dinner, he mentions the men on the fence. Are they refugees? he asks, looking at his mother.

No, his father answers in a voice like an iron rod. They are drug dealers and illegal migrants.

Geert, his mother says.

What? You want me to lie to him? Listen, these men are trying to cheat the system. If they were real refugees, in real need, they would come to our door and knock politely, like everybody else. And you know what? We’d let them in. We have quotas for those who follow protocol. We’re not heartless. But we’re not stupid either, which is why we’ve built that fence. We’ve worked hard to get where we are and can’t let just anybody in. We have to stand our ground, defend ourselves, you understand? Protect our territory, like in the old days. Remember the old city wall I showed you?

The boy nods, recalling the beautiful yellow stone crumbling with age. The way things are is always different from the way things seem.

That wall exemplifies the history of the conflict, his father says. How old it is. We didn’t invent it overnight.

But why do they do it? the boy asks. Why do they sit on the fence all day long, if they know we won’t let them in?

His father makes a dismissive gesture; he’s done talking about the subject. But his mother puts a hand on the boy’s arm and says, They’re waiting for their chance. A stroke of fortune. If one of the guards is called away, or if there’s a disturbance that requires their attention, the men may jump and make a run for it.

Where would they go? the boy asks.

To the coast. The harbor—

They’ll never make it, his father interrupts. They don’t stand a chance. There are cameras everywhere.

The boy wants to say something clever about how determination leads to results and so forth, something his father used to tell him whenever he struggled over his piano scales, but he isn’t brave enough to give his thoughts a voice. Instead, he forks up a bite of paella and surrenders to the indifference that will protect him.

Paella is a Spanish word his father knows.

That night, before the boy goes to sleep, his mother tells him there are many people around who need help. Ugliness is always happening, she says. Behind each door, a human drama. And although it’s our duty to acknowledge what is harsh and unjust in the world, we shouldn’t waste our life feeling bad about those who suffer. It’s simply impossible to help them all.

Under the sheets, the boy listens to the zoom of the air conditioning, then to the shouting in the room next door. His parents are good at shouting. Especially when their shouting sounds like whispering. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but the tension of their words floats above his bed, keeping him awake. Who are these men on the fence? What brought them here? Where do they hope to go?


He eats breakfast with his parents under a parasol, his plate heaped with everything he might want. Cookies and cured ham. Too many eggs. The hotel terrace overlooks the pool, the fence, the rocky hills beyond. Although it is early, the air already quivers in the heat. The boy examines the faces of his parents, who pretend nothing has happened between them last night. Each time he tries to catch their eyes, they shrink into themselves even more.

Not the men on the fence. They don’t recede under observation. They want to be seen. The boy comes to believe this is why the men sit there, day after day. To be seen.

Throughout breakfast, he models his behavior after his mother’s. Shadows her to the buffet. Unfolds his napkin as she does. Shares his slice of watermelon with her. We are a team, is what his behavior says, but he doubts she understands.

His parents sit with the newspapers in agreed-upon silence, stirring their coffees. The newspapers are in Dutch and English, which baffles him. Why are there Dutch and English newspapers in a Spanish resort in Africa? Up in the trees, the parakeets call raucously, trying to impress or scare one another, fighting for space on the branches. In a rush of wings the birds take off.

The boy grabs another piece of cake and sighs. He, too, wants to come out of hiding and insert himself into the world where things are happening, ugly or not. When he reaches for a section of the newspaper, his father looks up from his reading long enough to mock him wordlessly. But the boy can read as well as anyone. He eats his cake and reads stories about people far away, living lives so different from his own. He reads and doesn’t understand why this printed world of paper and ink seems more real to his parents than the men on the fence.

In the pool, he practices his underwater swimming. Just in case. One day. You never know. Back home, he loves it whenever the school coach throws him fully dressed into the pond to rehearse Ice Rescue. You must hold your breath and swim underneath the cover of plastic, not toward the ovals of light as you’d assume, but toward the patches of darkness. There, where the shadows lurk, will be the hole to the surface.

Time passes, and the world happens. He is defenseless against its truth, its pretense of blindness. He studies his Spanish and counts the days. The boy knows best who he is on snowy afternoons alone in his Swiss bedroom where even his smallest possessions have a place of their own.


One morning, exploring the hotel grounds, he draws close to the fence, closer than he has ever been. He’s not supposed to leave the cemented paths and wander through the grass. Don’t go there, Omar tells him. There are snakes and scorpions everywhere. Yet he goes there, not believing what Omar says, or only half-believing it.

The chain-link fence is six meters high. He stands at its base, hand shading his brow, looking up at the eleven men sitting on top. They look sad and exhausted in their sunlit limbo, suspended between desert past and unsure future. Where do they belong? The boy’s own frustrations fall flat against the urgent yearning he spies in their faces.

¡Hola! he says.

¡Hola! the men echo. One of them waves in greeting. Another hoists a chin.

Do they speak Spanish? The boy yells up a question that remains unanswered. He tries it again in English. Where are you from?

A sparse conversation ensues, consisting of smiles and gestures more than words. The breeze feels as hot as his mother’s blow dryer, making his eyes sting. How do they not die of thirst?

The men begin to argue among themselves in a language the boy doesn’t recognize. Two of them scale down rapidly on their side of the fence and walk away. The boy worries he has said or done something offensive and figures he should probably go. He feels too visible, etched sharply. Still, he stands there looking up at the remaining men, not knowing how to leave without losing face, without insulting them.

A third man changes his position on the fence, perhaps preparing to scale down as well. Or is it a man? He seems much younger than the others, still a teenager, just a few years older than the boy. During the maneuver on the fence, the kid’s cap comes loose and drops into the resort at the boy’s feet. There it lies, upside down, a dark rim of grime lining the inside.

The boy is hesitant to pick up the cap, afraid of lice and disease. Yet he feels obliged to do so and therefore does. It’s a yellow cap with a company’s black logo. CIMARRO CONSTRUCCIÓN. He tries to throw the cap back to the kid, again and again, but the fence is too high. The kid grins; one of his front teeth is missing.

The boy picks up a stone, folds the cap around it, and tosses it up once more, ineffectually. He’s terrible at throwing, much better at swimming, a sport you can practice all by yourself.

Every man is watching him now, and it becomes essential to the boy that he succeeds. If he hadn’t addressed them. If he hadn’t interrupted their day. His thoughts race with regrets. It’s his fault this poor kid has lost his cap, so it’s his responsibility to return it. As he keeps failing, he wants to blame the sun, blinding his eyes.

It’s then that the first man jumps off the fence, landing on the boy’s side. Or perhaps he falls. The boy can’t be sure. Perhaps the man simply reaches out to catch the baseball cap and loses his balance. But more men follow, four, five, six, and then they come in twos and threes, from other parts of the fence as well, farther down, left and right, twenty at least, no, thirty, plunging into the artificial paradise.

The men land on their hands and feet like cats, or asprawl, or twisted. As soon as they hit the grass, they get up and scatter into the vast grounds of the resort, trampling over the flowerbeds. They are not all going in the same direction and are not moving at the same speed. Some have difficulty running, having sprained an ankle hitting the ground.

Not knowing what else to do, the boy runs with them, away from the fence and toward the hotel. His running is a muscular intuition, an encouragement of sorts. From out of nowhere, armed security guards appear and chase the jumpers through the grounds. Batons jostle from their belts, handcuffs, guns.

Some jumpers run in a steady direction, as though they have decided long ago what path to take and refuse to be dissuaded by the guards coming their way. Others zigzag, glancing left and right, dodging.

Ahead of the boy, a running figure drops to the ground and flattens his body. It’s the kid who’s lost his cap. A sharp-boned face, scrawny limbs. He scrambles into a thick shrub and peers out from within.

The boy slows and stares. Their eyes meet, a point of contact. Terror and distrust flicker in the kid’s face. He brings a finger to his lips. Hush. The boy gives the OK sign and hurries off, knowing that if he lingers, he’ll give the kid away.

Out of breath, the boy continues the chase, his blood racing, the yellow cap still clutched in his hand. A guard near the pool tackles a limping man and chokes him with a headlock. Another jumper escapes around the corner of the hotel. The boy now understands that the men on the fence could never break out alone or in pairs. They must all come in a rush, a mass migration, hoping that while some get caught, others will make it through.

A shot is fired. Then another. A man falls to the ground. Guards come running, black batons in hand. The guards yell at each other and point at the boy, shooing him away, cursing. The boy stops running and stands frozen. From fear? No. His fear is numbed by something worse, something crushing.

This is all his fault.

Blood flows red on the greenest of hills.

The jumpers are shouting now, too, running and shouting, calling out to each other. Shouting to confirm their bravery or deny their fear. Shouting in defiance. The boy opens his mouth to join them. Run! he screams. Run! Run! Run! He screams it in all the languages he knows, hoping his voice will carry far and reach all the ears around the world. While screaming, he feels a burst of redemption, his life intertwining with the fate of these men.

But it’s short-lived. Omar rushes toward the boy, grasps him by the arm, and drags him back into the safety of the hotel’s lobby. Together, panting, they watch through the window how the guards chase the men who have jumped off the fence. The men who are captured do not fight. They merely raise their arms to protect themselves, until their hands are cuffed behind their backs.

What will happen to them? the boy asks.

Moroccan police, Omar says. And he shivers as though reminded of a bad memory.

Once the hubbub dies down and most of the men are caught, the boy retreats to his room, angry and defeated. His life is his again. It has been returned to him, inept, ineffective. Fretting the dirty baseball cap in his hands, he waits for his parents to come back from the golf course. As soon as they do, the boy confesses what has happened, his role in it.

What the hell were you doing down there? his father asks, shaking him by the shoulders.

He has never beaten the boy and does not hit him now. The boy regrets it. In his heart and in his head, in the marrow of his growing bones, he knows he deserves to be punished.

That night, the resort is gates and walls and armed guards. The boy and his parents stay inside and eat. The known world may end, but dinner is still served on oversized plates.

When his mother kisses him goodnight, he whispers into her ear: I hope some of them made it to the harbor. I hope some of them will travel far.

His mother smiles and ruffles his hair. Me too, she says.

But when he looks into her eyes, she isn’t there.


In his room, the boy lies curled on his bed, uncovered, no solace to anyone. He gets up, turns off the air conditioning, and opens his door to the dark. On his private terrace he waits, his eyes adjusting to the night.

A rare cover of clouds has lowered the sky and brought it near to him. He stretches his arms as though to touch it. Without the moon, the yard is black, except for the fence in the distance, caught in the light of prison lamps. Nobody sitting on it.

The boy watches the grounds for a long time, the night growing deeper and more silent as he waits. Unthreatened by the dark are his hopes. At least one of the jumpers should be uncatchable. At least one should find a new home.

When the boy finally goes back to bed, he turns on a side lamp, and leaves the door to the terrace wide open. He puts the yellow baseball cap on the threshold, hoping the kid who scrambled into the shrub is still out there, hiding, and will take it as a sign. Of what, the boy isn’t sure.

He waits and listens. What would he do if the kid came inside to take refuge? He flips off the light, then turns it back on, repeating this action as though it’s a code. The boy thinks about the word refugee. What would he do if the roles were reversed and he was the kid outside? He breathes in deep. The same air and the same earth. Still, he hasn’t a clue.

He gets up to move the baseball cap. This time he places it on the shrubbery bordering his private terrace. That, the kid will see.

Back in bed, the boy doesn’t try to fall asleep. He keeps his eyes open and watches the dark. Staying awake is the least he can do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017