A hamlet, 15 kilometers NE of Retalhuleu, Guatemala, April 1974
The younger man lay flat on the thick mat
of brown needles. A fist sitting atop his other hand held his chin as he studied the scene. A black leather bag lay on one side of him and a large paper sack on the other. Two hundred feet away and a hundred feet down clustered five wooden houses. One
of the buildings was burned, the roof and walls collapsed onto each other in a teepee of charcoaled boards rimmed by blackened thatch. Thin lanyards of smoke arose like soul-tracks until fading into the glare at the level of the two men. From the left
came the light sound of the waterfall as a little stream plunged over the limestone into a pebbled bed, making its way to the ditch beside a road. They saw no one and the scene was silent except for the cascade and the wind-rustled pines. The light breeze
carried a scent the doctor knew but could not yet name. He saw about 30 meters of the two-track road as it terminated in gouges where some large vehicle had turned around. Something light colored lay on the slope of the ditch and he trained a pair of Zeiss
glasses on it. Each eyepiece had to be screwed to bring the site into focus.
"It looks like clothing."
He handed the glasses to the older man who had guided him there.
"It is certain." The man said without taking them.
"I don't see anyone. Shouldn't we go down?"
"There might still be soldiers."
"I don't hear anything,
His guide shook a ‘No’ but did not move.
“This is your village?” he looked squarely at his now rigid guide. "You brought me here so I could save someone. I can't do it from here."
"I am afraid to look." The old man said
"So am I." The
doctor rose to his knees, tossing the binocular strap over his head. "Unless you have a better idea, we’ll stay in the tree line and work our way down to that nearest house." He picked up the leather bag.
The evenly spaced Australian pines had enough foliage to provide cover as they shuffled sideways downhill, holding the flexile branches like ropes for support. About fifty feet
above the first house they stopped, the figure of a man lay sprawled at the corner of a house. His guide was breathing heavily now.
"You know him?" the doctor spoke in a stage whisper.
"It is certain."
"Let's move to the right to see what we can—not too close," his breath labored.
Twenty more feet and they saw three corpses stacked in a grotesque pile. The arm of a man propped skyward by the shoulders of another; he looked as though he might have been waving gaily when he died.
They started the final shuffle down when the older man sat suddenly, hyperventilating. The younger man waited for him.
The doctor tried to speak but he found his own teeth clenched; it took a moment to pry open his locked jaws.
"Take a deep breath and hold it a moment, abuelo."
The guide did as instructed. "Those are all men," he croaked. "The others will
be in the burned house." He lowered his head to the forearms crossing his knees. The buzz of hundreds of flies now reached them from below.
They found the hole that the soldiers made the men dig in a tilled bean patch—wide and deep enough to cover a body. A patch of corn, the milpa, stood next to the beans. All had been leveled by machete. A couple of half-starved curs snapped
and pulled at the bodies of men.
“We must keep them from the animals Don Doctor, until I can bring the shaman.” the older
man said. They dragged the four bodies to the hole. The old man checked for anything salvageable, but if there had been any they were already taken.
"Something must have scared them off before they finished the job," the doctor said.
"There are guerrillas on the volcán."
The younger man looked eastward, through the trees to the crest of the volcán. Two fumaroles curled smoke from adjacent
vents near the top but the mountain looked peaceful. Below the cone the west facing slopes wore a coat of sage-green jungle.
know the guerrillas?" he asked as they walked toward the burned house. "They should have buried them."
"They do not
take time for rituals. Some say they are as bad as the army, others say not." The sweet smell of burned flesh irrupted as they neared the house. The doctor could see more clothing behind it, all of it traditional, cortes and huipiles.
"I do not know them. They have a name. I saw it on a notice. But I do not know them." He grasped the younger man's arm, rooted, staring at the burned
house. "I cannot talk about this right now."
After the old man
recovered, they used poles to pry smoking boards from the pile revealing a blackened, fleshy lump. Four children comprised the most of it, covered by two mothers. The doctor's lungs seized; he forced them to suck air. "Breathe William," he muttered. For an
hour, they extracted and carried the innocents to join the men; for now, the abuelo was more in control than the medic. Afterwards the doctor wanted to ask more about the guerrillas; too soon, he thought.
It was a disagreeable business and when the doctor washed his hands in the little cascada, his mouth so tasted of metal even his teeth
ached. No bullet wounds in the women, the doctor thought as he walked back.
The old man sat hands crossed over his knees, his back to the houses.
They walked back using the road. On arriving they had parked the geep in the brush
about three hundred meters away and the old man cut small trees and laid them against it. They circled the village, climbing above it through the jungle. The younger man noticed the way the old man moved easily uphill, finding the path of least resistance
yet staying on a course that brought them to their first view of the houses. He could walk me into the ground, he thought now that they were on level ground and he could keep up. The doctor wanted to ask about the guerrillas but
it occurred to him that he did not know how the old man had escaped, or how he had even known what happened. I should know more, ten cuidado.
"I was hoeing the patch back of the village, when I heard the truck. I saw the soldiers and I ran." The older man sagged against a tree, slowly sinking to the base of it. "Leave me here." The doctor could hear him keening as he walked down the road. William
cleared the brush, hoisted his bags and himself into the geep and started it. He attempted to shift to reverse but the grinding gears stopped him. He hesitated then both hands slapped the steering wheel and he leaned his head onto it for several breaths. He
sat up, turned off the engine and walked back to the old man. He stood a few feet away, waiting until the abuelo looked up. The old man's face was wracked with the misery but his cheeks were dry.
"Come on abuelo, it is not good to stay here. We'll find a place for you."
They bumped slowly over the
rutted road back to the main highway. "How did you find me?" the doctor asked finally, "I've been Retalhuleu barely a week."
are the new doctor," the man said, He slumped against the geep's low sides, grasping the handhold; each year of his life showed in his face. "Everyone knows who you are. Even the guerrillas."
"Why did the soldiers do this? Were you helping the guerrillas?"
"No, but..." He looked straight ahead, "No." He sat up a little, his voice quickened, "That was my son, the one waving to us from the other world. He was helping to start the cooperativa, so that we could sell some beans and corn and buy supplies."
"The army doesn't like that?"
"The army.... is afraid of our working together in any manner. They want us to depend on them and be in their civil patrol."
“It's new, they want us to be the army for them. If you don't want to be in the civil patrol you are suspect. My son said no, 'I'm
working for the cooperativa' he told them."
They were quiet again.
"I've been gone a long time," the doctor said, "this is all new to me."
The road improved near the main highway. "The guerrillas have
been here," abuelo pointed to a flyer on the first power pole, "that is their paper." His eyes fully open now.
The doctor pulled it off the pole. It carried a famous visage of Che. "Unite! Fight!" it said below the mimeographed picture, and was signed, The "Organzación Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas." Below that, "Brigada
"ORPA" Doctor William said quietly. "Are these the guerrillas you
“Yes, Don Doctor.
“Do you know these people abuelo?”
"Yes." The old man's eyes lit a little, "Yes. I do know them, now that I think about it." His face reflected a tentative trust but his words came with an edge of defiance, should trust alone fail.
It was enough. "Could you introduce me?" the doctor said.
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