Nobody really knows how it began. Word first started getting around on a Thursday, but that doesn’t prove anything: it might have all begun days or weeks before that morning in early summer when the cigarette and the newspaper vendors at the train station reported that the soldiers were coming home and that they had seen Diego Uriarte getting off the train that brings the milk cans, the previous day’s newspapers, and the packages of orders from wholesalers.

Jiménez, from the magazine kiosk, and Kentros, the cigarette vendor, started spreading the news that same morning, and that’s why everyone in town believes that that was the day the soldiers started coming home, but it might have begun earlier: the previous day, or the previous Thursday, on another train, or on that same train, the one that always pulls out of the capital just as it’s getting dark and arrives early in the morning, the one they call the night train.

That they had seen Diego Uriarte get off the night train. That they saw how he said goodbye to a group of soldiers with splints and bandages and leaped onto the platform from the mail car, and how two other men, also in uniform, jumped off after him. That Jiménez thought one of them must have been Miguel Sanders, but that neither he nor Kentros recognized the other, a slender man with a dark complexion.

That’s what they told everyone, and they also said they saw the three boys wave goodbye to the other soldiers and walk toward town already illuminated by the rising sun, though lights still shone in the square and at the station and in the windows of some of the bigger businesses.

Then the three boys parted ways and each went on alone: Uriarte down the main street toward his house; the dark stranger to the road leading toward the orchards; and the other man, the one Jiménez said must have been Miguel Sanders, up the embankment and toward the limestone quarry. Kentros hadn’t recognized him, but it could well have been the Sanders boy, he said, because the Sanders family lives on the other side of the quarry, past the white hill, and that was the way you would go to get to his mother’s house.

And it all began that morning. At least as far as anyone knows, though it could well have begun days or weeks before. But it was widely discussed that morning, because the two men who were at the station waiting for the train to arrive recognized Diego among the three returning soldiers. As a boy, Diego Uriarte had been beloved by all, because his father ran the buffet at Club Social, which also housed the casino; because he’d been captain of the basketball team and a champion pelota player; and because everyone in town thought that Diego Uriarte had died two years ago on the front, and there had even been multiple funeral Masses. That, more than anything else, is why word traveled so quickly and why everyone remembers and agrees that the soldiers started coming back that Thursday, the fifth of December.

Of course, nobody was going to tell Diego that they’d given him up for dead and had even attended his funeral. In his family’s shock and jubilation at seeing him alive and home, nobody mentioned it. He must have shown up at his father’s house, taken off his uniform for the last time, and gone straight to sleep, exhausted from the journey, happy to finally lie down in a clean bed. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that he was spotted downtown, on the sidewalk in front of the soda fountain and around Club Social’s card tables, and by then everyone knew he was back and they were already starting to forget the eulogies and funerals.

Later, though, there had to have been someone who, out of curiosity or as a joke, told him—or one of the others who returned—about the funerals. Not Miguel Sanders, though; nobody told him. The Sanders family lives on the other side of the sierra, past the limestone quarry, and they almost never come into town; they shop at Santiago Nasar’s country store and go to parties and dances in another town, where Miguel’s mother’s sisters live and where he and his siblings went to elementary school. But somebody, some joker or busybody, must have told Diego Uriarte, or one of the others, that everyone in town, even their own mothers, had given them up for dead.

There are issues of logic: Federico Ortiz’s mother reportedly received condolence telegrams from the military, the edges dyed black, and then an indemnification check that she cashed at Banco Provincia. Most of the mothers, if not all of them, probably received checks or telegrams regarding their deceased sons. But it was to be expected: sooner or later, Ortiz’s mother or Uriarte’s mother, if she’d also received a telegram or a check—or some other mother who received a check or a telegram—must have mentioned the whole thing to her son, and more than one of the mothers had probably been going around wondering if the money—a few lousy pesos—would be reclaimed by the government.

But there’s no way to know for sure whether Ortiz’s mother or any of the other mothers ever said anything to their sons or to their friends or to their friends’ sons. When it came to the subject of the telegrams and the checks, they maintained silence, the way mothers maintain silence about many things. Or did they intuit everything from the beginning  … ?

It was the December 5 train that was the first known case, but it might have all begun earlier. Throughout the summer, the Wednesday-night trains—always arriving between five thirty and five forty-five on Thursday mornings—continued to drop off returning soldiers. And soldiers’ mothers, who knew their sons might be discharged, began going out to wait on the platform. They would wait, and later, as the train continued on its way, slowly climbing the sierra baja, a group of weeping women would crowd around a few dead-tired soldiers. All of them weeping: some with joy because they’d just welcomed their sons home; others because the sons they’d been hoping would step off that train hadn’t returned to them.

These things come with war, and mothers, who willingly resign themselves to bringing children into the world and to raising their own children and the children of others, do not know how to resign themselves to their children going missing, and so they kept heading out to the platform to wait and to hope, many with their husbands or with stepchildren or daughters-in-law or grandchildren, and so, early every Thursday morning, a crowd would gather at the station to await the arrival of the night train.