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Authors: Jacqueline Sheehan

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BOOK: The Center of the World
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wo full days passed before Kate emerged from her delirium, abdominal cramps, and bouts of sleeping. Her head cleared and she ate a welcomed breakfast of tortillas with Marta.
“So now that you've gotten medical treatment for the little tyke, will you be returning to her village?” asked Marta as she dipped her warm tortilla into refried beans. They sat at a small wood table topped with ceramic tiles.
What? Kate had almost forgotten what she told Marta when she first appeared at her door. Of course, she had said that Sofia needed medical treatment. What could she tell her now? She liked Marta; couldn't she just tell her the truth?
“Turns out that she might have to see a specialist in Guatemala City. A cardiac specialist,” said Kate, hoping to move on.
Marta put her hand on her chest. “Oh no! It's horrible when innocent children are faced with illnesses meant for adults.”
It's horrible when innocent children are killed, when women are gunned down, when boys wear automatic weapons across their chests.
“Yes. Um, you'd never know it to look at her.... I couldn't tell until she saw a doctor,” said Kate, pushing away from the table. “Can Sofia stay here for a bit while I run down to the plaza?”
Marta's eyes welled up. “Don't even think twice about asking me! Of course she can.”
Prior to running for her life in Guatemala, lies had been only a social lubricant in Kate's world, like the lies she told friends: your hair looks beautiful, your butt doesn't look big in those pants, no really, this turkey is not the least bit dry, in fact, it's the best I've ever tasted. But there had been the lies of omission, the unspoken agreement between Kate and her father after her mother died. “Are you doing okay, Katie?” he had asked her through the remainder of high school. Everything that she thought he couldn't bear to hear had gone unsaid.
In the underbelly of Guatemala, the lie of omission was the ticket to survival. She saw that now. Say nothing. Do not respond. Don't blink, don't flinch when a seventeen-year-old soldier walks by with his automatic weapon dangling from his hand, ammo strapped from shoulder to hip. Swallow the sound that threatens to erupt from your throat. Don't let it out.
Today she'd go to Fernando's again, to the one place where she did not have to lie. He knew she had the child and why. She wore a denim skirt, sweater, and sandals. The December mornings were cool, even in Antigua. She pushed open the heavy door to his café bookstore, ready to feel the tender caring that he offered with the palm of his hand on her forehead.
Seated to the right were five soldiers, each with a plate of tortillas, beans, and fresh cheese. Their guns leaned against the wall like lazy bicycles back at UC Davis. Kate could not shift quickly enough, rearrange her face, or shrink her lips down to the neutral zone. She froze in place, unable to breathe. Fernando appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. With a nearly imperceptible movement, not even an entire shake of his head, he answered her unspoken question.
“Your book is not here,” he said in Spanish so that the soldiers could hear everything. “Come back tomorrow,” he said sternly. All his warmth from yesterday was stripped from his voice.
She sighed and feigned annoyance while blood pounded in her eardrums. Kate turned and left the café, walking with exaggerated slowness along the covered walkway in front of the shops. At the end of the street, she crossed diagonally and walked along the front of a Guatemalan bank, stopping to catch her breath. She looked back to see if she could see the entrance to the bookstore. Thick wood pillars lined the walkway around the park and Kate stood behind one, waiting for the soldiers to leave, waiting for her heart to stop pounding like a crazed drum.
“Here are your options,” said Fernando, after the soldiers left and Kate returned. They sat in the small courtyard where empty tables waited for customers. The first room of the café was heavy with two walls of books, for loan or purchase, giving the room a scent of molding paper. The courtyard was bright and filled with fat terra-cotta pots of flowers.
Fernando's voice was smooth and round, soft. “The child is now an orphan. Her mother, father, and brother were killed. Most men from that village have either been conscripted into the army or killed. But there could well be aunts, uncles, or grandparents nearby.”
Kate waited for the spasm of hiccups to arrive with the Coke. Does a constant state of fear preclude hiccups? If she had allergies, would they have also fled in the face of the massacre? She nodded to Fernando so that he would continue.
“We don't know yet exactly who else was killed in the massacre. We can find out, but it will take time. The military uses mass graves to hide their crimes.”
Kate thought back to the English lessons in the church with Manuela. They had worked on English words for mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, and uncle. They had learned the word for
“Dead,” Manuela had said when they came to
“Your father is dead?” asked Kate.
Manuela had lowered her head, then looked up with the slightest movement. It had taken weeks of the lessons for Kate to learn that Manuela's father and her father-in-law were both “missing.” Both men had traveled along the Mayan trade routes to northern villages and they had not returned.
“Dead,” said Manuela when they came to her mother.
Now Kate wished she had asked about every single relative that Manuela and her husband had.
Tell me what you want me to do with your daughter
; that's what she wanted to know more than anything.
“And here is the other issue,” continued Fernando. “The child is a witness, a terribly young witness, but that may not matter to the soldiers. And Kate, you are a witness. You may think that being white and North American will protect you, but I am long past believing that any of us are protected. You could not go back to Santiago. It would not be safe. It would be much easier for the government if you disappeared also. Do you understand?”
The massacre cut a moat in her memory. She remembered everything except the sound of the gunfire and walking over the bodies to get to the child. Surely it had been louder than the popping of marbles, which is all that she remembered.
“If Sofia has a relative, taking her back might endanger them,” said Fernando. His voice hovered in the sacred octave of unbearable truth. “And yet if they exist, they will want nothing more than the return of the child. Family ties are powerful.”
“She has no living grandparents; Manuela told me this.”
Kate pictured Sofia back at the guesthouse with Marta's son, Felix. She might be toddling after the boy, nibbling on food that Marta provided. Surely Sofia wondered where her mother was, the familiar smell of the lake, the flight of the blue heron over the water. How did a two-year-old contain the ache of death? Was sending Sofia back the right thing to do? But these were her people.
“I don't pretend to come from the heralded, pure Spanish lineage. I am mixed, part Spanish, part indigenous, part who knows what? But I know enough about the life in the villages to understand that there has been no childhood since the war began, not as you know it. The government has been at war for thirty years with the Maya and age makes no difference to them.”
Kate took a sip from the bottle of soda. She immediately hiccupped. Maybe these would be the sorts of hiccups that went away quickly; she never knew.
“There is something else to consider. If Sofia goes back to the remains of her village and if she does not have family to protect her, she could be kidnapped or sold into the
casa de engordes
The house of fat? Kate's rough translation made no sense. “What is that?”
Fernando placed both palms on the table and took a large breath. “They are the fattening houses for stolen babies. They are sold into the adoption system. The international demand for young children is strong and war breeds orphans. The black market for orphans looks for unprotected children.”
Kate felt the soft pat of Sofia's hands on her ribs.
“But who would adopt a child from the black market?” She hiccupped with a powerful convulsion in her throat.
Fernando glanced at the door, constantly checking.
“There are many routes for a black market child, but by the time that a North American or European came face-to-face with a young child, they would see all the papers in order, and they could believe that everything was legal.” He paused. “Or the child could be sold as a servant in Guatemala City. Or the military could take the child for other purposes. . . .”
“Stop,” said Kate, hiccupping madly.
Kate pictured Sofia's dark eyes, her small hands, and her sleek black hair. The child's scent filled her, as if she was sitting in her lap at that very moment. A fear gripped her that was unlike anything she had felt before, unlike helicopters or soldiers, or the pain of carrying a child up a mountain.
“What if I adopt her?” she said, for the first time. “Many people come to Guatemala to adopt children and surely there are legal routes and not from the
casa de engordes
Fernando pushed back in his chair. “This is something you should spend a long time considering. But you do not have a long time before your presence here is noticed by the wrong people.”
She left Fernando with the mandate to make a choice. Should she adopt Sofia to save her? She walked into the side-street open markets, filled with color, fabric, fresh coconuts, and a dense cloud of food aromas.
She had seen the face of evil in Santiago and it would never wash off her. The tiniest bits of it had crawled under her skin and gripped her bones. But she could stand between Sofia and the bits of evil.
Were there other Maya selling goods in Antigua who knew of the massacre? The question more likely was who would not know of a massacre? If she told them that she had rescued the girl from the massacre, would they understand, or would they insist that the girl stay among the Maya? Would the temptation of getting money for an orphaned girl prove too great for someone if she returned the girl?
If she told any of the gringos, could she trust them? There had been talk of infiltrators, even Americans, who gave information to the military government. Kirkland had sounded so outlandish when she suggested that the CIA were involved, too much like a conspiracy theorist. Now she wondered if Kirkland was right. And maybe, just maybe, Kirkland could help her.
he western sky turned dark in the sudden advance of the storm. The thick roll of clouds looked like an army thundering into the town. The active volcanoes on the outskirts of Antigua glowed and sent up a steady snake of smoke against the indigo bank of clouds.
When Kate was in sixth grade, her parents had taken up using a pressure cooker after friends returning from a trip to France brought them a gift. “Everyone uses them in France,” they said. The back-and-forth motion of the rocker, clicking away with regulated shots of steam, made all of them uneasy, especially the family dog, Ben, who had panted in anxious time to the pressure-release rocker. The following year, the pressure cooker was sold at their annual yard sale, to everyone's relief.
The volcanoes that squatted at the edge of Antigua continued to relieve the gas and heat boiling beneath the cone, ticking away with shots of fiery heat, much like the family's old pressure cooker. Kate longed for the simple fears of childhood—would the pressure cooker explode with lentils, splattering them on the ceiling? As a geologic metaphor, the active volcanoes of this small city were perfect. Guatemala boiled and glowed red with the syrup of molten rock and at any minute, all hell could break loose. Earthquakes and molten explosions rocked in syncopation to the instability of both land and politics.
Kate hadn't felt earthquakes in the highlands around the lake where the ring of volcanoes were dormant. Aside from her initial entry to the country, when she had stayed in Antigua for only a few days to catch her breath, she had spent little time in the old colonial city.
The ruins of the massive earthquake that struck Antigua in 1976 still dotted the city. The cathedrals remained only partially repaired, walls were in tumbled disarray, cracks in buildings went untouched, and the narrow streets still tilted at precarious angles. And yet the beauty of the city was undaunted, still dappled with flowers in every courtyard, still serenaded by flocks of brightly colored birds.
She slept with Sofia snuggled next to her despite the second twin bed in their room. Mayan children slept with their mothers, never more than an arm's length away. One look of fear in Sofia's eyes as she lay in the strange bed alone had been enough for Kate. She put the child into her own bed with her.
At first Kate tried not to move at all with the small girl pressed against her. After a few more days, they had found a rhythm, a dance, with Kate eventually getting more sleep. When she woke now, it was to stare at the child, watching the tiny movements of her eyelids as REM sleep visited her dreams.
Kate was asleep when the bed shook, jumping in a strange side-to-side jig that matched the sway of the walls, the door frame, and the cloth that hung over the door. Everything in the guesthouse clattered and tapped, the massive adobe walls groaned. Earthquake.
Kate scooped up the girl in a blanket. She had not accounted for the dizziness, her own equilibrium rolling with the room. The urge to run was overwhelming, compounded by the fear of going to the wrong place, being crushed in the street by falling roof tiles or entire walls.
She lunged for the staircase, which rolled like liquid. She had nothing with her except for Sofia: no shoes, no money, nothing. And then, suddenly, stillness and silence. She was in the center of the interior courtyard, both arms wrapped around Sofia, panting like a terrified dog.
Marta stumbled out of her apartment on the ground level, her brown hair tousled, wearing only her husband's T-shirt.
“Are you all right?” she said. “That was big. I've not felt a tumbler that big before. They'll be aftershocks. I'd better go check my boy; he's a deep sleeper, but something might have tipped over in his room.”
Kate didn't move, frozen in her island of safety, nearly crushing the wiggling child. Sofia was fully awake, eyes wide, drinking in all of Kate's terror.
Marta started for her son's room, then stopped, looking back at Kate.
“I said, are you all right?”
Kate's teeth chattered and her body shook. She wanted to reassure Marta, to say something, but when she tried, she got to the letter
and could not get past it. “G-g-g-.”
Marta crossed the distance between them and pulled her arm around Kate. “Here, come over here, you two. If the gas lines are still connected, I'll make us some tea. But even a devoted tea drinker will check on the kiddos first,” she said with a wink. “You need a blanket. You're okay. Sh, sh, shush. It's going to be okay.”
No one had said that to Kate since the massacre, and the words sounded like crystals illuminating the night. Whatever she imagined for Sofia was shaken into clarity by the earthquake. She would adopt Sofia. She would protect her from earthquakes, amoebas, and men with automatic weapons. All the missing parts to her decision were knocked into place by the trembling earth.
Marta brought a pot of strong tea to the courtyard. “I can't sit with you, although you look like you need a companion. I've got breakfast to make. Can you manage?” said Marta, pausing to put her hand on Kate's shoulder.
“We're already better,” said Kate. There it was, she already said
. They were a pair.
But there would be a cost, and it was little Sofia who would pay the price. Until now she had not allowed herself to consider the full impact that Sofia would endure. If there were extended family, then yes, that cord would be severed. The subtle richness of the culture, gone. Language, gone.
There was a list of more precious things that Kate couldn't know, that Sofia held in her two-year-old body, in the secret chambers of her nose and the folds of her lungs where the warm scent of her mother and brother lingered. Would there be a day when a miraculous combination of scents merged, when Sofia was a sulky thirteen? Would all the elements of her mother, the warm corn scent of her breath, the oil of her dark silken hair combine to bring Sofia to a screeching halt and shatter her from incomprehensible longing?
Kate didn't know when memory began; she was just a scientist who studied water. She had been looking for some essential element in its creation, its use, the way we craved it, the way we can't live longer than seven days without it, the way her mother loved to float along a wide river. She had come to the deepest lake in Central America to see if the answer would rise up like a giant sea creature and quench her.
But here is what Sofia will never see again—the night sky over Lake Atitlán.
Kate had arrived in August when the rainy season still drenched the land. It was not until a night in October that she looked up and saw the red glow of Mars, twinkling like a ruby. Was it a plane, a satellite? No, she was told, she was simply seeing the sky for the first time over Lake Atitlán, where a paucity of electricity revealed the clarity of the stars without the gauze of ambient light. It was filled with a brilliant light show unlike anything she had seen before.
The universe unfolded over the lake, shining with outlandish abundance. The reflection in the lake magnified the show. Other stars had colors as well. Who could have known this? Blues, greens, and yellows. She watched satellites scuttle across the sky as clearly as headlights on the California freeway.
It had taken her weeks to find a fisherman from the village who understood enough Spanish to agree to Kate's request. She hired the man to take her out at night during the dark of the moon, in his
, to the center of the lake. She brought a blanket and she lay down on the bottom of the small dugout canoe and watched the stars until she became dizzy with the feeling that she could touch them and float away. She could almost feel her mother with her, arms folded under her head as she embraced the night sky.
This is what Sofia will yearn for in the hidden world of preverbal memories, the complete wonder of a sky thick with stars, bouncing off the still waters of the lake, held snug by a ring of volcanoes, and the cocoon of Manuela's arms as she held her. There was no denying the depth of what Kate would take away from Sofia.
Kate's mother told her once that a parent's love for a child was unlike anything else she had ever known. So unlike romantic love. When Kate was fourteen, before the cancer exploded into their lives, her mother told her, “When you were five and played with your friend Hannah on the porch, I lay in the hammock and watched you. And I realized that I had never loved anyone as much as I loved you. There was nothing like it in the universe.”
Kate had listened with discomfort. Now, her mother's words lanced her heart. How can she be a thief of all things that Sofia loved? How could she not?
BOOK: The Center of the World
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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