I remember Carmen.
I remember that perfectly proportional face. I remember her round clear eyes, those intelligent hazel color pupils
that could dazzle anyone she gazed upon. I remember her care-free laughs, her melancholic moments, her
determination to achieve whatever she sets herself to. And of course I remember our passionate moments: her
body, her abandon, her cries of pleasure.
And I remember seeing that face on television the day she was reported killed in action, in an ambush in the middle
of an obscure river called Rio Santa Lucas.
That was three years ago.
I was in New York, working on an article about another conflict in Africa.
I was stunned, but not surprised.
I remembered her once told me that she had dreamed dying in a jungle, as a fighter for people she cared for, for the
ideals she believed in. By that time we had been lovers for nearly six months; well, part-time lovers at least, for I
knew she slept with other guys too, for her clandestine activities. That list included high positioned government
officials, army officers, bankers and some professors to mask her true identity.
I was the only one whom she felt safe to confide in; my reputation for being a sympathizing journalist for the
oppressed had long been established. Looking backwards, I now come to realize that she had chosen me because
she wanted someone to write justly about her in the event she was killed. No, I have to rephrase that. She chose
me because she knew somehow she would soon be killed. It might be her instinct, or her judgment based on the turn
of affairs, it really does not matter so much. She wanted me to put into letters a Carmen Cortes that she wanted the
world to remember by.
The girl starring back at me on the television screen was more a co-ed student, or the girl next door at her teens
than a rebel fighter. She was way past her teens of course. But you would not suspect her to be one with fingers on
triggers of an AK-47. She was pretty of course, and charming, without being dazzlingly beautiful to attract over-
attention. And judging by the fact that she had worked over five years among the top brass, the bourgeoisie and so-
called intellectuals in the capital of that Andean republic without ever being detected showed how careful she had
been all along.
What had she done wrong? Why did she make that fatal mistake, leading her team into that ambush and allowed
them to be slaughtered?
Eight of her team of twelve died that day. The rest were captured but they found only seven bodies, riddled with
bullets. Her body was not among those.
That glint of hope that she might have survived the ambush was dashed later by army reports that a female body
was discovered downstream two days later. The face was badly messed up.
“There are piranhas in that area, you know.” The captain giving press release was reported to have casually
I refused to believe that. I refused to believe that a kind-hearted angel like her should suffer such a sad demise. Not
until I can see her corpse with my own eyes.
I booked a ticket and flew to Qureto.
Though I am not exactly a person whom the government of Qureto would welcome with open arms, I have enough
powerful connections in many areas that made my entry into the country without hassle.
I made a few calls and in a few hours’ time, I was flown in by an army helicopter into the mountains and found myself
sitting face-to-face with Major Roberto Santiago, the commander of the ambush operation.
He was young for his rank, being no more than in the early forties. But such was not unheard of in this part of the
world. He was also very arrogant, and obese
“Mr. Portman, what is your relationship with Carmen Cortes?”
“Of what nature?”
“What are you trying to get at?” I made my best effort to control my temper.
“I am sure you understand what I am suggesting. Carmen Cortes had been sleeping around a lot and I would not be
surprised to acquaint with a past lover of that bitch.”
“Major,” I took a deep breadth before responding. “As far as I know, Carmen Cortes has been a very good friend of
mine and I have great respect for her.”
He chuckled. “You call a rebel woman respectable?”
“Yes, much more respectable than those who got fat
I saw the color on his face changed blood red.
“Mr. Portman, do you know what would have happened if you do not have connection with the high places?”
“I would have been more discreet if I do not. And major, do you know what will happen if I make a call and say the
cooperation I am given today is, let ‘s say, not very encouraging?”
He eyed me intently. In a flick of a moment, he must have weighed the consequence of my accidental
disappearance. Obviously he considered it not something he could afford to face.
“So, what do you want me to tell you?” He was still curt but he finally came to realize that it was better to give me
what I wanted and had me on my way.
“I want to know how she died, where she was buried.”
“Why? Are you planning to write an article on her?”
“A book, perhaps, with contents that include a very cooperative officer in an interview, possibly.”
He took a deep breath. The he began.
“We got information that a guerilla group was operating in that area and Carmen Cortes, who was finally exposed for
what she was, was among them. So, we mobilized three battalions of our rangers to cut off the area and set up
ambushed. They obviously realized what we were trying to break out. There was hard fighting, with losses on both
sides. My men reported that Carmen Cortes was among those who managed to get away.”
“Wait a minute. How do your men know she was Carmen Cortes?”
“It is not difficult. First of all, she was young and beautiful. And secondly, she always went into battle wearing a red
scarf. Legend has it that it was presented to her in Cuba. She was wearing that scarf that day.”
I choked back. I knew that scarf.
“We tightened our ring. Even if they did not try to make it across the river and fell into our snarl, we would have got
them anyhow. There would be no escape and we had advantage of a hundred to twelve. As it was, they walked
right into their death. Our men had selected the spot with care, nesting three machine guns there They did not
have the least chance.”
“How did they die?” I tried to hide the sorrow in my voice.
“Well, Carmen Cortes was in the lead, the lieutenant in charge of the ambush told me. He could see her clearly with
his field-glasses. She was wearing a white shirt with blue stripes and that red scarf. Her hair was tied back into a
pony-tail and she was carrying her rifle over the head as she had to wade into the water. Behind her was her team
in single file, eight men and three women. We waited till they were half across and then open fire. Carmen Cortes
was hit three times in the chest but she still managed to fire a burst before she went down. We lost four men, two of
which was killed by that bitch.”
He was aware of my glare at him. “I mean, that friend of yours.”
“We wiped them out, killing eight of them right away, capturing three.”
“You mean you have three prisoners, right?”
“Had. Two of them were shot, trying to escape.”
“And the other man?”
He paused for a moment. “It is a woman.”
I immediately saw the picture. The men were killed for convenience. They wanted to have some sport with the last
one because she was female.
“I want to see her.”
“I am afraid it is out of the question. This is inappro…”
“Major, do you need me to make a call?” I faced him, eye to eye.
He made great effort to put off his rage. “Mr. Portman, I must warn you that in a wild country like this, sometimes,
high connection cannot prevent you from accidents.”
“I am aware of that. But I am not sure if General Alfonso Ricardo will buy your story.”
It was his turn to swallow hard. Alfonso Ricardo was in charge of the state intelligence and was not reputed for being
a kind gentleman.
“And besides,” I decided that it might be better to throw him a sweet to soften the blow. “I heard you had been
passed over for promotion several times, right? If I put in a few words in your favor….”
His face immediately brightened up. “Very well then, I trust you will be discrete, in your report of course. Make it
brief. That girl you are talking with is going to be shot within the hour in any case. Order from the military tribunal,
Mr. Portman. And not even your friend the General could stop that.”
He called in a sergeant and told him to escort me to the make-shift cell where the only surviving rebel was being
held. Surviving, that is, until my time with her is over.
My heart sank as I walked in. She was very young, and pretty.
How would it be like to die young like that? How did Carmen feel as the bullets drilled holes in her magnificent body?
If she did not die instantly, what thoughts would have run through her mind as the current carried her body
I refused to think that she might still be alive when…
The prisoner edged back as she saw me enter.
I tried to calm her down. “Do not be afraid. I am not going to hurt you.” I said in Spanish.
She eyed me and somehow she decided that I was someone she could trust.
She calmed down.
“Can we talk?”
She nodded, then threw a glance at the sergeant behind me.
“You wait outside.”
“Do as you are told or you will be sorry for it.” I spoke in the coldest voice ever in my life.
The men left us and stood outside the door.
“Tell me your name.”
“Good name. How old are you?”
That was young, too young to die.
She sensed my silence.
“Are they going to shoot me, Senor?”
I would like to ease her by lying, but my tongue was tied.
She smiled. “Do not worry. I am not afraid.”
“Tell me what happened that day, or the days preceding that. Tell me about Carmen.”
“She was great, and brave. We would have followed her to hell and not regret it.”
“I know. Tell me.”
And here is what Gabrielle the rebel told me about Carmen Cortes.
I was from the same village as Carmen. We were very poor; all of us were poor. The land was all owned by the
wealth and we had to sweat and toil all day just to keep us from hungry. Carmen’s family was not so poor and their
children could go to school. Carmen was the brightest and she earned her way to college through scholarship.
Some said it was not just that. Carmen was so beautiful. You know what I mean. May be that is true, may be it isn’
t. It does not matter. She did not turn her back on us, even when she climbed higher and higher in the social
ladder. She always came back, once or twice a year to visit her parents and her siblings. Then for a few years, she
did not come back and we could not understand why. Now it was clear to us. She went to Cuba to be trained, as a
revolutionary because the higher she climbed socially, the more she could see the oppression and the injustice.
After that few years, she came back again, even more beautiful. But she was changed inside and she began to
teach us how to fight for our own rights. It was done all very secretly because if the land-owners knew, she would
get into trouble.
Gradually, more and more of the peasants listened to her and joined our cause. Her parents were also sympathetic
to us and did not stop their daughter, though they kept the other children from active participation.
Two months ago, Carmen suddenly came back to this region and joined our secret training camp. She seemed
frightened, not being cowardly, no, she would never be that, but if was as if she felt being hunted. One night, when
we were alone, she told me that there was something she was keeping which she must pass onto someone trust-
worthy and must not fall into the hands of the government. I now know that the government forces were hunting us
down because someone wanted to have their hands on that something
Anyway, we were surrounded and Carmen was wounded in the left arm. I knew, I dressed her wound. It was not
very serious but caused her great pain. The enemy was getting nearer and nearer with passing hours and there
was no way to go but back to our own village. She led us there, though we knew we could not stay for long. The
government would kill everyone if they knew we had been hiding there. Carmen went to her own house. May be she
wanted to say farewell to her folks. After an hour or so, she left the house and led us back into the jungle. We
spent a night, in fear. She did not talk much. We all knew there would be no escape, that all of us would have to
die. But she calmed us down and said our sacrifice would not be in vain. We followed her.
We tried to cross the Rio Santa Lucas. Carmen insisted to take the lead. I was placed in the rear. When we were
half across, they open fire. I heard Carmen shout a warning, then lowered her rifle and shot back. Then she was hit
through the chest. I think she died almost instantly. So did Maria who followed close behind. The rest tried to turn
back but were mostly shot down. I ran with two others but we were captured. They shot my comrades. Now they
are going to shoot me.
She began to sob. I wished I could bring more comfort to her. But I knew there was nothing I could do.
After a while, she regained her calmness.
I asked her, “So, Carmen could not get that special thing away after all.”
At that she registered surprise.
“No, may be she did. I asked her after leaving our village if that thing was safely put in her house. She smiled and
said to me. “No, it is all here and they cannot take it away even if they kill me.” I could not understand. But now
when I come to think of it, Carmen acted strange that day. It was as if she was forcing herself to be killed, that she
could not care less.”
We heard the sound of marching feet. We both knew what that meant.
“Senor, please do not forget me.” She was sobbing again.
“I will not. You are a very brave child. God bless you. I will make sure people will remember you along with Carmen.”
Then the soldiers walked in and two of them took her by the arms and semi-dragged her out. I followed her to the
door, watched them march her towards the low wall. She was forced to stand alone, her eyes were not even blind-
folded. She looked so alone there. An officer took off her camouflage-color jacket. Now she was wearing only a
white T-shirt, her busts showing under the thin fabric.
Five muzzles were pointing her direction.
“Viva la Revolution!” She made her last shout of defiance.
The volley threw her against the low wall. Eyes wild open, she slid down onto the muddy ground, her white T-shirt
ripped into shreds by the impact. One of her breasts was exposed. Blood was spurting from at least four wounds on
Two soldiers dragged her by her ankle towards a hastily prepared shallow grave.
I was not a religious person but I said a prayer for her.
I went back to the major.
“Yes. But I want to see where Carmen is buried.”
“I want to see her body, to make sure it was her.”
“I do not think…”
“Let me do the thinking.”
He wanted to refuse but then he changed his mind. Surely, to let me see a corpse was a small price for his
I was led to the grave-site. Two soldiers began to dig. It did not take long. It was a shallow grave anyway.
The body was badly decomposed. Given this heat and humidity, it was no surprise. They put their hands over their
noses. I ignored the stink and turned her body over. Yes, I remembered that face, at least what was left of it. I held
her body by the arms and bowed my head in grief. The soldiers jeered and someone called me a fool. Perhaps I
was, perhaps I was not.
“Is it her?” The major had arrived.
“Yes. It is her.”
“Good. Bury her again.”
I did not object.
It was just a corpse. And the name of Carmen Cortes had become the symbol of a martyr in the eyes of the
oppressed, around the world.
I thanked the major and told him that I would fulfill my promise about putting words in his favor. He became much
more friendly after that. I asked for an army horse as I wished to roam the country for a day or two, writing up the
book, I told him. He obliged and gave me a map, and a pistol to protect myself, just in case.
I left the camp and after making sure I was not followed, I headed for the village.
I asked for the house of the Cortes.
It was not difficult to find, being the best house there.
I knocked and after a while, the door was open.
A young man greeted me.
He eyed me first suspiciously but then after I gave him my name, his eyes lighted up with recognition.
“I know you. Carmen told me you will be coming.”
I nodded, understanding.
“Follow me.” He said.
I followed him to a small abandoned farmhouse not far from the village.
The door to the hiding cellar was lifted and we went down the dark stairs.
Even before he pointed his torch at the corner, I knew who was there.
Carmen Cortes was sitting in the corner, her left arm lying limp at her side. A bullet had passed through it. There
was no sign of any wound on that corpse.
“So, you come. I know you will come.”
I held her close. Her body was so thin now. It used to be full of life but now I knew her end was not far away.
“Who is that girl leading the team across the river.”
“My elder sister, she was willing to die for me, to make them believe I am dead.”
“For what purpose?”
“For this.” She handed me a piece of paper. “These are the names of the enemies who have infiltrated into our
organization I learnt them by heart. Where can there be a safer place? I was supposed to go to Cuba and tell them
myself but now it is not possible. I wrote it down last night. Can you help me?”
I could not decline.
“I will get you to hospital. You need help.”
She shook her head sadly. “You know better than I do not to try. What if they find out that the real Carmen is still
alive? They will not hesitate to kill anyone associated, including me.”
I wanted to protest, to persuade her, but I knew it would be useless.
“Help me.”She said
She turned her gaze to my gun.
I close shut my eyes to stop the tears from falling.
“Don’t feel sad. This is my chosen path. Just stay by my side until the end.”
“Carmen, how can I? We were…”
“We are more than that. You are my friend, the best that I had. I do not want to go alone.”
I handed her the pistol.
“Bury me unmarked. Carmen Cortes had died, a heroine. Let her stay that way. Now, step back.”
I turned and walked across the desolate room, then turned around to face her.
She made a weak smile, turned the muzzle of the 9mm towards herself and pushed it into her mouth.
There was a muffed crack and her brain was splashed onto the wall behind. Her body slumped and then fell
Her body and I buried her behind the farm house, in an unmarked grave.
That was three years ago.
Things moved so fast after Carmen’s death. Or should I say, after I delivered the list to Havana. The traitors were
weeded out. The revolution gained momentum. And finally, the junta was swept into the dustbin of history.
They had dug up the remains of Carmen Cortes, or what was supposed to be her remains, and would give it a
national burial. I kept my mouth shut. Though not really the Carmen being honored, Maria was in every sense a
heroine in her own right.
I did not go back to the village.
It was too painful an experience for me.
I knew though her remains were under that unmarked piece of earth, her spirit has long since been set free.
Perhaps one day, I will tell the truth, when telling the truth will no longer hurt other people. Right now, when the new
republic is young, they need an icon, a myth, a heroine.
When I was flying yesterday, the passenger, a young lady in her early twenties was sitting next to me. She was a bit
curious of what I was doing, scribing down lines and lines between my sobs.
“What are you writing?”
“Ah, you are a writer! What is it about?”
“About a woman, brave, beautiful, mysterious.”
“Your lover.” She guessed.
“Sort of. But I think I still do not understand her completely. Perhaps one day, I will.”
“What is her name?”
Yes, I m going to find her---Carmen.
And I do not mind if it take my whole life to do that.
Comment from: Nastassja
Date: January 14, 2012
Back at last from holiday break -- I have missed your stories, Hitomi! What a
fine story to come back to. "Finding Carmen" has a very mainstream feel to it,
and the setting, I thought, was done very convincingly. Quite an achievement
for a Hong Kong writer to evoke a Central/South American environment so well.
As always, your writing captures a powerful, woman's empowerment. I was
fascinated to read Carmen's story. Is she based on someone real, as many of
your tales are?
Comment from: Chris B.
Date: January 14, 2012
I really like this story Hitomi. I am a lover of descriptive tragedy like this. As I
read this morning, I knew that my mind would be racing a mile a minute piecing
the words into cinematic visions. I was actually picturing Salma Hayek as
Carmen huddled in the corner bleeding from the arm when Mr. Portman
entered the room. What a brave woman, and of course she had to give her life
for the revolucion!!!
Thanks so much! I could go on forever about how fantastic this story is. Well
done and I cannot personally thank you enough for your contribution to this
website, and this community! Chris B.
Comment from: Grace X
Date: January 15, 2012
Hitomi, I wanted to say that I enjoyed this story too...I have a lot of latina blood
in me, and I thought your story of Carmen was very moving. I agree with Chris, I
saw Salma Hayek in my mind's eye playing the role of Carmen in a movie
version. I don't always leave a comment on your stories, but I read them all,
honey! You're an amazing writer.
Comment from: Othello
Date: January 15, 2012
I always get a flutter of emotion in my chest as I read your stories of bravery
and sacrifice, Hitomi. Over and over in your tales you bring to life characters
that I admire and become attached to...those destined to die are filled with
pathos and courage, like your Carmen here. Like Carmen, you and your tales
are "brave, beautiful, mysterious". I admire your skill as a crafter of souls, my
Comment from: Hitomi
Date: January 15, 2012
I never expected so many comments.
Thank you, all of you.
Natassja, the story was loosely based on Tania, the woman revolutionary who
fought and died in Bolivar under Che.
I respect her too much to use her real name (as some sections are from my
I am at work now. So, will write more later.
Comment from: Hitomi
Date: January 16, 2012
Sorry Nastassja, I have spelt your name incorrectly. And I put down Bolivar too,
instead of Bolivia.
Lesson: never post anything if you are worried your boss may be standing
Anyway, thanks for all the nice comments from all of you.
This really makes my day.
Just in case you did not notice, I have put up two more stories during the
holidays: Ghosts Stories and The Second Button and I would love to read your
Hope you enjoy them too.
And Chris, thanks for everything you have done for me here.
Comment from: Nastassja
Date: January 17, 2011
Don't worry about the misspelling, Hitomi! It actually made me smile. My friends
call me Nat, so I didn't miss the "s" one bit. And I am definitely going to go back
and read the two stories I missed while I was on holiday vacation. They look