Sudden Handcuffs

A short story about a day at work in Washington.


Camila shows up without an appointment. The receptionist calls my desk in the social work office and informs me that she is waiting. Something personal is going on, I intuit. If she came for help with welfare forms or letters, she would not have waited in the lobby through my lunch. She is asking for someone she trusts.

I call her from the lobby into an empty office where we can talk in private. Baby Diego wiggles happily on her lap when I smile at him.

“Necesito que me ayude con mi hermano,” she says.

“Ok?” I ask. “En qué sentido?”

“Necesito que me ayude a escribir una carta.”

Now she drops her eyes and straightens baby Diego’s little hat. At her full adult height she is four feet tall like her mother and grandmother, and wears clothes she buys in the children’s section at Walmart. All of them, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and a growing band of cousins have come from a remote mountain village in Mexico. They live together as they did before they stole across the border, in a decrepit three bedroom trailer heated by a wood stove in the living room. I have been there. I sat with her every month on the sagging bed in the living room, in that intimate chaos, discussing baby Diego’s growth from the time he was nothing but a little lump.

“Está en la cárcel,” she tells me.

“Qué pasó?” I ask.

He’s a good man, she tells me, and the family is very sad. She wants to write a letter telling the judge that he should be allowed to come home. He is not a bad person. He is a hard worker and he doesn’t drink. Will I help her?

“Sí,” I tell her. But why is he in jail?

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque su esposa es muy joven. Ella tiene trece años. Y lo metieron en la cárcel.”

“Lo metieron en la cárcel porque la esposa tiene trece años?”


Ah, I say. Yes. In this country it is illegal for a man to have a thirteen year old wife.

“Ya sé,” she tells me, “Pero para nosotros, es normal.”

“Yo lo sé,” I say, and prop my head on my hand, looking at her.

I hate this.

“Como está la esposa?” I ask, trying to understand. If he is in la cárcel, something happened. Something.

“Ella está muy triste,” Camila says. “Ella quiere que lo dejen ir.”

“Ella lo ama?”

“Oh, sí. Mucho,” she earnestly nods.

“Él la trata bien?”

“Sí, la trata bien. Es un hombre muy bueno. No toma licor, nunca.”

“Cuántos años tiene él?”

“El tiene 21.”

Well, yes. Indeed.

“Tienen niños?” I ask. I realize I don’t need this much information to write the letter she wants, but I can’t help it. Throughout her pregnancy with baby Diego, we developed a sort of lopsided friendship, and I care about things for which I can offer no remedy.

“No, she says, “Pero está embarazada.”

Quietly, a sigh deflates me.

I can see it perfectly: the thirteen year old girl who speaks no English and very little Spanish goes to the doctor with her mother, or mother-in-law, where it is confirmed that she is pregnant. They do not show their delight or any other emotion in front of the large white strangers. Their round faces are stoic, expressionless, and the nurse sends them directly to speak with a social worker. They do not know what a social worker is, but they know to cooperate with large white strangers.

They answer the interpreter’s questions in broken Spanish.

How old are you?

Are you in school?

Where is the father of your baby?

How old is he?

Where does he live?

The large white strangers note his name, his age, that his address is the same. They do not ask her if she is married, if her baby’s father is her husband, betrothed to her when he was fifteen and she was a child of seven. They read flickers of fear on the face of the older woman and they misunderstand.

“El es muy bueno, y queremos que lo dejen ir,” Camila says. The sadness in her is bottomless.


I write the letter to the judge, stating that Eduardo is a good man, that his family misses him very much and that they need him. That the pregnant child is his wife and that she needs him. That he is a hard worker who doesn’t drink liquor or consume drugs. That the judge may please consider that he is not a criminal and let him go.
I realize, of course, that by my country’s law, he is.

Camila hugs me gratefully and leaves carrying the letter in one hand, clutching delighted baby Diego to her small hip with the other.

I go back into the little room where we can talk in private and sit there by myself, immobilized by a sorrow that seems to expand in all directions. I say a prayer for rain in the high plains of Mexico, that corn may germinate and grow, that the goats may have milk enough for everyone’s babies, that people may find hope in their homelands far away from large strangers with our clipboards, prying questionnaires and sudden handcuffs.

Jungle Problems

My town is having some jungle problems. In case you’re wondering if this is about crocodiles again—yes it is. Sorry. I’m a little stuck on that. But we’re also having a problem with the estuary. You will see, if you don’t already know, how the two are related.

What To Do About The Crocodile(s) is causing firestorms all over facebook—The Estuary Problem, not so much. Not yet, anyway. And hopefully it won’t. I hate facebook firestorms. It’s so easy to type hurtful things onto a screen from the comfort of your hammock, and then lie back feeling smug. I doubt any serious problem has ever been solved by a facebook firestorm. And we have a serious problem.

After the day in July when Jon was attacked by a crocodile in the Las Baulas estuary between Tamarindo and Playa Grande, a bunch of meetings were held order to determine what could be done about The Crocodile Problem. The Crocodile Problem, in a nutshell, is that the area is now populated by a large number of salt water crocodiles that have been fed by humans for the last 15 years. Folks who have lived in Tamarindo since the 70s and 80s, back when it was a beach with no town, say that caimans have always been normal in and around the estuary, but that salt water crocs are new. That concurs with my experience of the last 20 years. So this leads to the argument: Are Crocodiles Native or Non-Native to The Las Baulas Estuary? Perspectives vary. No firestorms, please.

The result of the meetings was the declaration by the Environmental Ministry (I wasn’t there. I was at my sister’s wedding in Colorado) that:
–The crocodiles cannot be exterminated. They are wild animals and to kill them is illegal.
–The crocodiles cannot be moved to another place. The Las Baulas Estuary is a wildlife refuge, and they are wildlife.
–We can put up signs to warn people about the crocodiles.

Meeting adjourned.

Let me esplain The Estuary Problem, now, before I circle back around to The Crocodile Problem and to my own personal proposition. From the beach, the estuary looks like a river mouth, but it’s really the connecting point of an enormous salt water swamp system with the ocean. Its components are water and sand. When I first saw the estuary, as best I can remember, in 1996, it intersected the beach at something like a right angle. Imagine a T, with the top being the beach and the stalk being the estuary. But being as it’s sand and water, it moves. I’ve seen it snake all around during the years I’ve watched it. I remember it curving to the north toward the rocks by Casitas on Playa Grande. I remember it curving to the south. I most prefer it the way it was when I found it, but clearly nobody is asking me.

What I have never seen, is the like of what the estuary is doing now. It is not making the shape of any letter in my alphabet. It hits the sand headed due south and keeps right on going, finally emptying into the ocean directly beside Pico Grande. What does this mean? It means that the beach is bisected by the estuary, that Playa Grande is mas grande que nunca and that the natural habitat of large snaggle-toothed reptiles is right smack in the middle of Tamarindo Beach.

The ironies. Just now, when we have The Crocodile Problem. In fact, if it wasn’t for The Crocodile Problem, I wouldn’t have named The Estuary Problem a problem at all. The estuary is allowed to do whatever it wants. It took out the lifeguard stand, which sucks. Beachfront businesses are nervous about how far inland it will curve. But the thing is, no matter what it is doing today or where it’s path takes it, it’s temporary. For all we know, this is it’s “normal” path, and those 10 or 20 years when it didn’t head straight south are an anomaly. We are privy to all of about 40 years of the history of this beach. We know nothing.

What do we do about The Estuary Problem?  Nothing.  Wait.  Appreciate the mysteries of Mother Nature.  Take photos.  I will  confess that configuration of the estuary, the beach and the saltwater crocs is not to my liking. It has, to some degree, ruined surfing for me. It’s hard to do something for pleasure while trying to ignore fear. I do my best.  There are other places to surf, but not for girls who have long boards, day jobs, and no car.  I take more beach walks on my two good legs.

So, back to The Crocodile Problem. We’re not allowed to kill them. We’re not allowed to move them. Somebody posts a picture of one on facebook with a kind warning for everyone to be careful, and a war of the words ensues. Somebody says we should kill them. Somebody else replies that they were here first and we are in their home. Then we hear the part about how they really aren’t native to this region. Then it turns into Costa Ricans against foreigners and if foreigners don’t like Costa Rica the way it is and can’t leave it alone, then we should go back where we came from. It got ugly. Why do you say we can’t kill a crocodile but you eat cows and chickens? But crocodiles are wild animals and it’s not the same… And so on and so forth.

I think about it a lot. I’m a little obsessed, maybe. But that’s what happens when, one lovely morning in July, you find at your feet a destroyed human being that the crocodile chewed up and spit out. Everything in your spirit stops.
You have to start from scratch.

Starting from scratch:

I’m a farm girl. I grew up on a chicken farm in Pennsylvania, and I have eaten one hell of a lot of chickens. My dad is a hunter. He fills the freezer (even now at age 72) with venison, and sometimes elk from trips to the west. We never ate beef in my home, and my mom hates fish—it was venison, chicken, or breakfast—point being, I have also eaten many many, many wild animals. I’m not a big carnivore anymore. I’m not a vegetarian either, except in my heart. I eat meat because my husband is a fabulous cook, and at my house the cook chooses the menu.

In all honesty, I personally would like to see a significant number of the crocodiles “harvested.” Not out of hate. Out of common sense. Out of the life experience of being a farm girl and a hunter’s daughter. We’re both at the top of the food chain, the crocs and us, and if we use our superior intelligence to choose to let them harm and potentially devour us, what sense does that make? What kind of intelligence is it? And, um, we just took ourselves down a peg.

So in order not to disrespect the life of the crocodile who attacked the man I found looking up at me from the shallow waves that morning, I have a proposition: I will volunteer to eat it– same as it would do to me if given half a chance.  Mammal against reptile.  No hate.  No disrespect.  No life wasted.

It will be a tough chew, I expect.  Maybe I’ll share with the cats.  I have no idea how to cook a crocodile, but bring it to me. I’ll figure it out.


I took this photo shortly before sunset on an incoming tide in Aug 2016.