El Refugio

 

He was found in the country nine days ago a medicine salesman his tongue was rolled up in his mouth a bruise on his head by a river his arms had been broken she denounced it in the streets her mother died of the shock they took off all his fingers no peace at all through the wall bullets and through the head of a baby they took her from her mother’s arms in Apopa she still cannot find his body since March he is missing in all the police stations on the radio his name is Mario he was 18 captured disappeared pins driven into his eyes and his ears because of his activities because she worked in a cooperative she is asking and asking he never hurt anyone in tears he brought to her money every day...

 

Hand motions, children whining, low buzz of gossip. The mood is plaintive, but not desperate, the room is full. They are here now and maybe something will happen. It is good to sit down in the chairs lined up along the wall. To wait while putting forward remedies, arguments, directions. Easy enough on the first day to translate the obvious questions. If they are inarticulate, sometimes inaudible like Luis, it’s nothing alarming, nothing to report to a Truth Commission on war crimes. No. So far it’s about work, it’s about papers, the sequences of life, antes, despues, and you know, you really need a phone number, a friend maybe, a cousin, sure. There’s a bilingual form to fill out which helps, and I learn some of the lingo. I sit at a card table in the middle of the room as we sort things out. Blank forms, blank faces. Why should they trust me, a gringa, my Spanish left over from high school, not subtle enough. I’m stumped more often than not, though strangely this can be a bond between us, even sometimes a joke, which must be what makes me willing to come here, bullied by friends who think I’m going to kill myself. As if I had the courage. As though I were wearing a sari. I’m here, OK? What is it, a couple of hours, once a week. The kids call on Sunday. Drawers, shoe rack, one whole side of the closet empty. I have nothing to do.

 

Rufina Gonzales, Julia García Lopez, Adolfo Rodriguez, Francisco Ramirez. The forms pile up. They have names, they have faces. And perhaps I can come in twice a week since there is no one at home? That’s right. Of course. I remember to roll my r’s half the time, learn where to place emphasis, to say fuerza armada, clandestines, and carcel with accent on the first syllable, just like prison. I thread my way among seekers after justice, asylum, apartments and employment, missing persons, and the way to obtain and prepare food in Los Angeles. I begin to be at home here. I have moments of ease. And they come back for more, though seldom on schedule, seldom on time. It takes days, sometimes weeks, to complete a testimony, raw and bewildering, which may or may not contain some useful fact. This is my fault, but so far no one has complained. The staff at El Refugio is glad to have me. A psychologist. Someone with credentials who speaks a little Spanish. A body. Someone to sit with these people, dazed and still wandering. In the morning they reach for their guns without which they feel insecure.

 

I am still a man of the mountains.But that is the wrong end of the stick. I mean the recent past. Mutilation, torture, rape. Death. These must recede. Tell me about the life before. Antes. Even if you cannot read and write and don’t know what year you were born. Games, for example. Ball and cup. I know that one! Where have I seen that? In Mexico. In Tijuana. Just across the border. That close. Ladron livrado. Something like prisoner’s base. Hopscotch. Fútbol. I changed games as I grew. Soccer, of course. That’s what we call it here. It’s popular. It’s the latest thing.

 

Their fathers were farmers, corn and beans, their mothers housewives. I teach them this word which word. They took lunch to their fathers and brothers in the fields, searched for firewood, learned to use a machete, bathed and washed clothes in the river with their mothers. When I was a child I used to cry a lot. I played dolls with my friends. We played in the street using sand and dirt to make tortillas and bread. We pretended to sell fish. We used broken plates for money. We made shoes out of corn husks, and once a pig thought it was really corn and tried to eat our feet!

 

There, you see! You do remember. Hang on to that. When you’re feeling overwhelmed. Go back to that. Do you have a photo? No? Could you draw a picture? Say to yourself, I choose. I pick up my pencil. Creative resistance, we call it. I speak with authority. Will you bring your drawing next time? Because I would like to see it.

 

Or. Let’s take a break. Let’s talk about the weather. About the strange fall we are having this year. Leaden days, more like gloomy June than October. Weather for coats and sweaters, too expensive.

 

I am stirred, much moved. I care far more than I thought I would. I search for cognates as my teachers taught me to, struggle to get things straight in my lousy Spanish, to put it all down clearly. Expressions remain blank. I must be crazy is what they’re thinking. They don’t know how to put a spin on things. No one wears makeup. Or glasses. When I read back to them in the simplest English sentences what together we have composed, they are seized with laughter, some of them. Is it pleasure? Embarrassment? A case of nerves?

 

That’s OK. It’s good to laugh, isn’t it.? But we must go on. You might think of me as your secretary. I walk along with you. You talk, I listen. Don’t stop now. Your story is important.

 

Displays of pride, shy moments of happiness. I coax these out. No longer myself, I am Miss Natalia. Miss (pronounced Meece). No more a widow. I am a girl again. Free to adopt a new language and a new vocation. Energetic, conversant in politics, newspaper photos in my purse of the presidents of Central America in a row upon their knees, praying. We study the picture and imagine the day when the bells of all the churches in the capital will ring out, and in the streets, even here, champagne will flow. I explain daylight saving as the days grow shorter. We look forward to La Navidad. We toast the future. When it will be safe to return to El Salvador. To the life before. The life of walking barefoot, reaching up to balance a water jug, of dozing on a bench in the plaza, eating at the pulpería, of sweeping dirt floors, of falling down drunk in the dust of the road on a Sunday afternoon, of kicking mongrel dogs and licking ices, of strolling with a sweetheart hand-in-hand to the local cine, the only ones moving in the quiet streets.

 

So peaceful and soothing are these images that, like a fool, I begin to think of a future for myself as well as for the patria. I can do good. I can be good. As though it were possible to reattach a phantom limb.

 

That’s when they dump her on me. A weirdo with a saucepan on her head, the handle to one side, its tilt jaunty, almost rakish. A young woman? An old crone? I can form no idea. Twisting in her hands a lurid pink reboso.

 

Maybe you could put those on the floor while we talk. While we get acquainted.

 

Even to tell me her name she refuses.

 

I am the writer here, she announces.

 

And what sort of writing would that be exactly? My back up already. The reboso was putting me off. It smelled.

 

Treated probably, with lanolin.

 

Poesía. Shit and cadavers. That’s what I write about.

 

I see.

 

On certain days I long for the capucha.

 

Is that so? Now listen, what we want is your story. I should say your testimony, to use a better word. Poetry has nothing to do. As though you were in a court of law, you understand me, so it helps to know who you are, your domicile, as you see it’s nothing difficult, your age, are you married, is there someone you work for, that is, place of employment?

 

Her eyes like the volcanic lakes her country is famous for. In the middle of a sentence, blindfolded, a cord around my neck, I could barely breathe. Just when I know I am on to something like evidence, she drifts from the room. Impervious, a sleepwalker. Probably just as well. Because it’s drizzling, it’s getting late. A storm moving in from the Pacific, according to the weather report.

 

Hallucinations, intrusive recollections, a habit of denying things, switching stories, paranoid thinking, sleepiness, insomnia, loss of memory, of concentration, of trust in humanity. Lack of emotion, lack of attention, nightmarish associations with ordinary substances, water for instance, or objects like boots or glasses, or electric cords. Talk of evil winds. Typical responses of people who have seen terrible things, who have undergone torture. Days of nakedness. Days of blindness. Days without water. It’s not as though I am uninformed, haven’t read the textbooks.. But to get a jump on her, I look it up as soon as I get home: capucha sf hood.

 

Let’s start fresh, I say to her on another day. Never mind the form. It’s important, but we can do it later. Tell me whatever you like. Your children, for example. Because every mother likes to talk about her children, isn’t that right? Dead or alive. I go right to the quick.

 

But they are here. That’s her answer.

 

Where? In this room?

 

Yes, they are here.

 

Well I, for one, would like to meet them.

 

She shrugs. Points a finger to her head.

 

Is that why you wear it? Because I was wondering.

 

Is protection.

 

The pot protects you?

 

Sí, sí. She has no patience for the sort of trivia I have been recording.

 

From the time I left the house.

 

When was that? Tell me about that.

 

It happened in the night.

 

OK. I get that. I left the house in darkness. In obscurity, she repeats. But that’s not right. The road had become a river of blood.

 

Like a dream, it sounds. Or a nightmare. I can see that this is hard for you. May I get you a glass of water?

 

But she hardly hears what I’m saying. Wants nothing, needs nothing. Here is the pot. Here is the reboso. She appears utterly calm.

 

In silence I contemplated the stars, she tells me. In darkness. In obscurity.

 

Yes, yes. It is I who am breathless. Please go on.

 

Not without stopping. With gaps when she stumbles, when she cannot think of a word, or remember the names of her children. But they will tell you themselves. They must be here somewhere. She skips around. A bus preoccupies her. An explosion. Tremendo! She marches through an animated forest with the pot on her head. The spirits in stones can speak if they so decide, she confides. As can radio transmitters loaded with dynamite. Traps, she explains, she leaves them behind her. She mines roads which turn into rivers of blood. Though that’s not right. It was dark. It was in the night. It was in the silence.

 

But you said it was loud. The explosion, I mean.

 

She is almost asleep. The pot slips forward. Still twisting the shawl with its fevered fringe. She twists it in knots, she smooths them out.

 

Perdón? Please speak up. I can hardly hear you. That incident with the bus. You said there were children inside, their faces pressed against the windows. What day was that? Date, I mean. What was the date? Don’t worry. You can see I write nothing.

 

Yet she mocks me.

 

You call this a refuge? she hollers. Bueno, pues. Let’s see you. Let’s see you bring the dead to life. A kind of rasping laughter bubbles up out of her. We become the center of attention though seconds before we had been all alone, on the inside as it were, of her mind, of the story endlessly unreeling there.

 

My interlude at El Refugio comes to an end in an uproar. Phones ringing unanswered, children crying unattended. The saucepan clatters to the floor where it belongs. They escort me, a couple of staff members, letting me know that they see how it is, it is all too much for me, an abuela, that’s what it is. Old and bereaved. What I need is a glass of water. That and a good long rest. Clearly. Yes. Que usted descanse. Proper, not intimate. Cúidese. Which I know to be a term of dismissal.

 

Out on the street in a hurry, in the dregs of the afternoon. Rain coming down. Commerce in dusty pinatas, in overripe fruit, in garish paper flowers is over for the day. The gutters are running with water and trash. Bloated graffiti on every surface. A weaving drunk loses a beer from his backpack, the noise when it smashes, a small explosion. The moist air reeks. A child drags a toy on a string. Through filth.

 

What do I think of on the way home? Far away from here in a gated community on the Westside. Where I live alone, where I do not prepare rice for which fourteen people are waiting, in a plug-in cooker next to the toilet. Of André Gide of all things. Of one of his titles: La Porte Étroite. Of the heady delight I felt reading it as a teenager, though only half getting it, because my French and my apprehension of homosexuality were equally limited. The allusion in the title is all that remains. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way. But is it the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven?

 

The capucha was filled with the fumes of lye. Her genitals singed, her nipples burned away. Because she was leaking, her milk still flowing long after her baby had died. All this she keeps in the pot along with her name. Concepción Hermosa. So unlikely. And the terrible things she has done. We fucked with the infrastructure. Claro. We were bound to destroy it. Those children were on their way home. Safe. With their mothers. Soldiers she maimed, who were only young, like her own boy Manu, who joined the army because he liked the uniform, wanted those jungle boots. This is what she twists in the fringe of the reboso. I could not bear her. Meek and mild was how I liked them. Fatalistic. Los humildes de la tierra. Who believed that since God had deserted them, they must have had a hand in it somewhere. Who wanted to return to their country, to bloody their knees on Good Friday with the other penitentes. Ni modo.

 

What else to do? Well, in brief -- for there is always more than meets the eye, more than I can account for here -- I record the arc of her story, a series of transformations: young mother, servant girl, guerilla, captured, tortured, raped, escaped or released, who knows, she winds up in L.A., lives to call herself a poet. No doubt I will hear from her on KPFK.

 

And in spite of this model before me, I cannot relinquish anger, look at pictures, entirely benign, of my husband at a party with a drink in his hand. I forbid others to pronounce his name, nor will I. Slick trade in drugs and false papers must be in progress now that darkness has fallen in MacArthur Park. Surrounded by the deracinated and the discontinuous, I remain rich in greed, in condescension, in desire. I refuse to heal, to reach closure, to move on. Slothful, envious, full of self-pity. No pot, no reboso. No old green country to return to. This is Los Angeles. It is 1981. I am fifty-five years old, a widow with grown children and so forth. I will pour myself a glass of chardonnay, put my feet up, watch the news. Ni modo.