Twelve Days: Day 1
“Itzel!” her roommate stuck a head out of the dorm room and boomed her name down the hall.
“Jesus! I’m right here. What is it?”
“Your Mom’s on the phone.” She stepped aside from the doorway, hand covering the speaker. “She sounds upset,” the roommate whispered.
“Hi, Mom. What’s up?”
“Pack your bags, Honey. We’ve got a funeral to attend in Guatemala.”
“No way. Exams start tomorrow.” She waited for her mother’s sharp retort but all she heard was a muffled sob. “Mom…who is it?”
“Aunt Dolores. They shot her.”
“Shot?” Itzy stood open-mouthed. “But sh-she’s an old lady, Ma.” She said. “She was.”
Her mother made a muffled sound then cleared her throat. “This is not a negotiation, Honey. Your father is ready start the fight all over again. I need your help. Your tickets are bought. You fly out of Logan tomorrow noon on Aero Mexico.”
“What about exams?”
“I’ll call the dean. They’ll give you a delay…they damn well better. You’re already accepted to college. With as much money as we’ve paid that damn place they should just mail you the damn diploma.”
“Okay, Ma. Cool it. It’ll be alright.”
“Get to Logan two hours early, Itzy. I’ll meet you at the airport in Mexico City mañana.”
“He’s on his way down to the so-called amnesty—.”
“We thought Dolores was okay. I’m worried, Honey. I haven’t seen him this upset in years. I need you, Itzy. We need you.”
The Aero Mexico flight was direct but long. The big and heavy ticket agent read her passport aloud, “Lela Itzel Hoffman Rodrigo,” in an impressive North Boston accent, “You gotta’ a lotta’ countries in that. What kind ‘a name is Itzel?”
“Injun,” she said, and gave him her Jaws-like, ‘one-more-word-and-I’ll-flatten-you,’ smile. She wore her hair in a long pigtail to keep out of her face when rowing, now she flipped it into view to make the point.
She had brought a text for her honors earth science class. It was dry except the parts about climate and American indigenous populations. When the old guy next to the window excused himself for the bathroom, for the umpteeth time, she thought, the book closed and stayed that way. She pulled out the two photos she carried in her wallet.
One was an early family photo of her parents with her as a three-year old, vacationing in Maine. They sat at a picnic table on a dock; her father waggled a lobster at her. She was laughing and could almost remember the thrill that ugly beast gave her. Great pic, wonder who took it.
The second was a black and white of her mother, Elena, and her great aunt Dolores. She wore her nun clothes, as Elena called them, and she stood a head above her mother. No question about where my height comes from. In the background stood the volcán that her mother said was “important” to the family.
Just “important” was all she had said. Even as a middle-schooler, Itzy remembered being intrigued by that word. “That’s a story for another day,” her mother had said. Maybe she would get to see the “important” volcano on this trip. Her family had not been back to Guatemala since before her birth.
The pictures sobered her into reflection. She was excited for the obvious reasons. Worry was not a common state of mind for Itzy, but this situation had a different feel than just exciting. I should be thinking about making the boat faster, she thought, and exams. The adventure felt inconvenient for getting on to the important things in life, but the word no sooner emerged than she thought, it’s a hell’uv a lot more than inconvenient.
The oarsmen and oarswomen shared the boathouse and were always in wet t-shirts and clinging nylon shorts when practice ended. Supple bodies and see-through clothes made it easy to imagine whatever you wanted from sex even when tired. Sometimes it started before workout and energized your effort, and other times the opposite.
The guy who rowed stroke in the boy’s boat had become attentive, finally. He was browner than most of the boys and she thought he might be Indian or Paki. Her roommate disconfirmed that guess but did not know what he was. “Maybe he’s just brown,” she said. “You take this Injun stuff too seriously.” At 5’ 11,” he was an inch shorter than Itzy.
The tribal boundary of her crew’s dining hall training table was inviolable for an outsider, but this guy had walked over as the sisters were leaving the table with some made up question about a class they shared. Her crewmates watched her reaction. If he had arrived 15 seconds earlier, before they had pushed their chairs in and begun to separate, she would have blown him off. But his timing was perfect and she didn’t.
She had seen him off and on for the three years she’d been in school. They had spoken, made some eye contact, but he never paid her much attention and she did likewise, until that day, the day before her mother called. Now she was gone, for who knows how long, she thought, three days, five days? He’ll be gone by the time I’m back. Talk about crap timing.
The “stroke” as the boat position was called, is a trope for skill and attitude. The stroke in her boat was one of the lightest of the eight oarswomen but her sense of stroke rate was perfect; her power could enforce it to the other seven. If need be, she could stand up to the cox sitting directly in front of her, but that rarely happened. It wasn’t just skill, Itzy knew that. It was attitude.
This guy had his share. He wore a red bandana tied behind his head that never came off while he was in the boat or around the boathouse. At other times he wore it around his neck. He must have 50 of those things. She was intrigued, obviously, butput thoughts of him aside. Time to focus on this, whatever ‘this’ is.
It’s time for some stories, she thought, I’m headed to college this time next year. Then the thought, Aunt Dolores—shot dead at 60 or 70…80? How old was she? Shot, now there’s a tale. At that moment she knew the stories would happen. She would make them happen.
Itzy had gained an hour but the sun was below the mountain horizon when she passed through the immigration/customs gauntlet and into the bright fluorescent-lit outdoor portico. Elena strode to her and they hugged tightly. “Do you want help with this, Honey?” She eyed the big backpack but turned with Itzy’s wry grimace and sent the porter on his way with a token tip.
The only physical trait Itzy got from her mother was her brown, Mayan face. Itzy marveled, again, like every other time she returned home. She could feel the impact of herself reflected in Elena’s high forehead and spinnaker nose that looked like it was way too important for just air. Her sculpted mouth had lips defined as though she wore lip-liner, which she did not. Her skin was browner than Itzy’s and she was a midget compared to the father and daughter. Seeing her the first day back from a long separation always delivered a charge and today was the same. Itzy scooped her mother up into a half-swing and kissed the top of her head. “Great to be here, Ma. What happened?”
We can begin now,” her mother said as they fixed dinner together, “but there is too much for one talk. We have an early flight tomorrow and I don’t want to stay up late.”
“Why didn’t we just meet in Guate City?”
Her mother just gazed up at her, patiently, she thought. “The ceasefire has been for a little over a year,” she said. “There is an amnesty, of sorts, but things are still unsettled. We need to stay together and make sure we are safe.”
“Yes. Obviously.” She gazed again at her daughter, “Don’t push me, Itzel. I’ll tell it the way I want to, the way I can. You can push your father, but I don’t want to deal with it.”
Her mother had limits. Always had, and she’s right about that, papa is pushable.
Elena took a deep breath, “I’ll start with how I first met Sor Maria Elena—Aunt Dolores. I was so scared at the time I couldn’t even remember it for years. She is how I got my name, Elena. My very first name was Eme (Eh-may). It’s Kaqchiquel, like Itzel.”
Eme? Itzy riveted to her mother’s story.
Over the next hour Itzy re-heard a more detailed version of the vigilante murders of her maternal grandparents and her mother’s siblings. She heard how Eme, the catatonic 12 year-old, was rescued by Sor Maria Elena, a nun that had been visiting that day. She heard more about her adoptive maternal grandparents, and how her mother had met William at the government hospital her adoptive father directed. Her mother had not found out that William’s aunt Dolores, Sor Maria Elena, was the woman who extracted her from the vigilantes until the earthquake of 1976. Dolores herself had only begun to suspect who Elena was a few weeks before they talked about it.
“By that time, Dad was a rebel.”
“He was from the start, Honey. But not long after the quake, I was too. And so was Aunt Dolores. There’s a lot more to say. We can catch up as you meet the people involved.” The chopping paused and she looked out the kitchen window, “The ones that are left.” Chop, chop, chop, the hands resumed.
“Will there be lots of people?”
“If your father has his way. I know him. He wants to push her funeral in the government’s face.”
“That doesn’t sound like my old man.”
“Please refer to him as your father, Itzel,” she said and took a clarifying breath. “Those days were special, Itzy. Dolores was special. Your father is agitated about this.”
“You can tell me on the plane.”
“No.” Itzy heard the abruptness, then her mother’s hesitation. “No, it’s way too soon. We don’t speak of these things in public. You are not used to it, but that’s the way it is in Guatemala, still.”
“Whoa…. I was right about one thing Mom, this trip will have some stories.”
After her mother went to bed, Itzy found a just-arrived magazine with a piece about Bishop Gerardi’s murder. He had been leading the Church effort to document the atrocities of the Guatemalan civil war and was beaten to death a few days after it was published. And that was just a few days before Aunt Dolores was found shot as she was getting out of her car.
Itzy wrote her mother’s tale in her journal. The next day, she bought a thick spiral notebook in an airport store. Why would they kill an old lady, even if she had been a rebel? Her mother’s story carried enough bait to hook her into the trip. Now aunt Dolores was someone other than just a person in a picture. But who was she?