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Authors: Jacqueline Sheehan

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BOOK: The Center of the World
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he room in the hotel had been her sanctuary for months. The table was covered with her papers. Her test results of the lake water were stacked in glass containers under the window. She wondered if she could write instead of sleep, but the pull to be outside overrode all else. It was Saturday. She could sleep in tomorrow.
Even in Guatemala, with its banana and avocado trees, its green arms reaching toward the equator, the December nights had grown longer. Darkness sank ever earlier on the back side of the volcanoes into the bottomless lake.
It had not been all that long since Kate had regained some traction in her life. Her father had offered her a lifeline when she was sixteen, yet the road had not been without turmoil. She went straight from her mother's death to a steady intake of beer, interspersed with pot, all held together with sex. The mix of all three had been her pharmaceutical remedy and giving up on any of them had been frightening.
UC Davis was three thousand miles away from home, and she had hoped that the West Coast would be a respite from her grief. It was not until she had taken her first biology and botany classes that a bright light turned on. Her mother had been a biology teacher at the high school. Everyone thought that she should love science because her mother taught it, so she had made a huge point of avoiding it.
Her mother used to say, “Katie, we're all made of the same stuff—the fish, crickets, coyotes, and us. It's all the same gooey, beautiful molecules. And we're mostly made of water.”
In the science classes, she had felt her mother again. She sometimes caught the scent of her mother's hair, a combination of water, sunshine, and the artificial peach smell of her shampoo. Yes, they were all made of the same stuff. They all needed water, sunlight, and food. They all thrived if touched, even the tomato plants. Even Kate.
Now Kate was uneasy, rattled by the presence of the militia and even more so by Manuela's news that her husband had not returned home. Sleep would not take her.
Kate's job was to study the ways that the lake contributed to the life of the villagers, but there was no way to study the stories that the Maya swore were the biggest truths, that the lake was beyond measurement, like God. Everyone had a story about the lake, almost always starting with the claim that no person had ever reached the bottom. Scuba equipment, lights, gadgets, all the things available to outsiders had brought no one near the bottom. It remained elusive, a place that hung close to the center of the Earth. The other story that Kate had heard a half dozen times was that a river gushed far below the surface, leaving the bottom of the lake and traveling westerly, under the mountains, emerging in the flat lands of the Pacific coast.
It was near sunset on Saturday and the encounter with the soldiers still unsettled her. She pulled on a pair of cotton pants, white T-shirt, and sweater. Her restlessness drew her down the stairs, past a small black scorpion that clung to the stucco wall. It curled its tail into an aggressive circle. Kate's startle factor had dropped off dramatically when she saw scorpions, from three months ago, when she had run to the owner of the hotel shouting, “Scorpion!” Now she walked past the creatures with the same degree of notice that she might give to a bumblebee.
In California, she might not have opted for a stroll near nightfall, but here she had attained a feeling of life happening around, below, and above her, but not to her. The Maya observed her as they might observe a gazelle, and as an oddity, she had a certain distance from interpersonal danger. But most convincingly, Manuela had told her that she'd have no trouble with the Maya. Perhaps Manuela had put in a good word for her. But should she alter her habits with the increased presence of the militia?
Kate's hotel was not far from the church. A walk around the perimeter of the town center would calm the chattering fire in her head. She stopped once when she heard the kitten birds that normally sang their mewling songs in the morning. She hadn't learned the real name of the birds and had at first thought they were kittens, stuck in a tree. Now, something had disturbed them.
As she turned a corner, a steady churning of voices hit her like a wall. Most of the villagers stayed home after dark. Now she saw the flash of the men's clothing, the abrupt cut of the traditional Mayan pants for men that ended a few inches up from the ankles, and the silhouettes of women, their long hair wrapped in fabric tied around their heads in a woven halo. She caught a glint of red cloth. These Maya weren't from Santiago, they were from Santa Teresa, where Manuela lived. There was the bulge of a child tied in a sling around the back of one woman and one in her arms. Was that Manuela?
Past the crowd, the military truck and a glint of moonlight spun a reflection of metal, the automatic weapons that the military carried like umbrellas. Hunched in a doorway to her right was an old man. She crouched down next to him and asked in Spanish, “What is this?” Kate could not tell who understood Spanish or who had stuck to their native languages. She bent toward him and hoped.
“They pulled a man from his home in Santa Teresa this afternoon, and then another tonight. They shoot our men. They kill our two men in jail,” he said in Spanish. He pointed to the people who marched to the military barracks.
Kate had a horrible feeling; a stab of dread. “Who were the men? What were their names?” she asked.
“Jorge and Miguel,” said the man.
Kate had never been a protester of anything. Her generation existed in the dust of another that was notorious for political marches, and she did not want to be like them. At least not in that way. And yet here was a sudden swell of people who were headed straight for the police station.
“The soldiers can kill us and there is no one to stop them,” said the old man. The skin on his face was star-clustered with the wrinkles of high altitude sun, his eyes as dark as lake water. He had a solid seriousness beyond even the normal stoicism of his people. Kate put her hands over her heart in what she hoped was a sign of commiseration.
Past the veranda a block away, she caught a flash of Kirkland's long-legged stride. What! Why was she here, of all places? How long had she been here? Longing to speak English with someone to understand what was happening, she stood up, leaning in the direction of Kirkland's sureness. The man grabbed her hand, an unheard of thing for a man in the village to do; their sense of propriety guided every touch and glance.
“No!” he said, pulling her down to the ground in a powerful tug. A rapid-fire popping of weapons filled the air, something like shattered marble rising above the crowd. Howls of outrage came from the street, shrieks, and the skittering of footsteps. Bullets hit over her head and chunks of adobe fell into her hair.
She was going to die, here in Guatemala. She thought of her father, how this would destroy him, how they only had each other and now he'd be alone. She felt like she had fallen from an airplane and hurtled to a certain death. She covered her head with her hands, crushed into the side of the old man.
When the sound of gunfire ended, he released her and she pulled her hand through her hair to take out the bits of clay. There was no sound. Nothing. And now everyone in the square lay on the ground. How did they all fall down? No, they had not fallen at all. Kate struggled to regain her senses. A paralysis threatened to take over her limbs.
In the second before all the gunfire, Kate had seen Kirkland trotting along the village center looking like a giraffe compared to the short, compact Maya. Had the soldiers shot her too? Kate's heart pounded against the leg of the old man who had pulled her hard against him. She pushed up to a crouch. The air was infused with hard metal and the scent of mass terror, rising up, reaching for the night sky. The old man covered his face with his palms and groaned.
“Are you hurt?” Kate asked him. She could barely speak; terror choked her vocal cords.
“Forever, all of us are hurt,” he said in a language that was failing him.
“Are you shot?” she insisted. Was she shot? Kate ran her hands along her torso and legs. No. But the soldiers were still there in the square. She wanted to hide, to run away.
He shook his head.
A sound rose up from the pile of fallen-down bodies, a strange muffled sound within a familiar child's voice. No one moved, no one was running into the center of things; the world was frozen in place. From across the square, she saw the four soldiers who had been in town all week with their guns. Her legs turned into logs, immobile with terror.
She needs you, Katie. Get up. You can do this.
The unmistakable tone of her mother's voice, coming from deep beneath her collarbone, released her.
Do the unexpected
. What would be the unexpected in the midst of bloodshed? She stood up and shook out her long blond hair. Kate wanted the soldiers to see her. She wasn't sure why or if it would work but she couldn't think of one thing else to do. They were going to shoot her anyhow, but before they did, she could reach the child who beckoned her.
Kate took off her sweater, tying it loosely around her waist so they could see her white T-shirt. She walked slowly, keeping her eyes on the four of them, following the only sound that existed, the sound of the child who had worked into a crying, hiccupping wail, echoing in the square. She waited for one of the soldiers to move, to aim his gun at her.
Kate stepped over two teenaged boys and the man who had rowed her out to the center of the lake yesterday. Dead. She stepped over José's younger brother, who had tried to sell her a dustpan that he had pounded out from a large soup can. Dead. She followed the voice of the child like a ship sailing through thick fog.
Kate had seen the silhouette of the woman with the one kid tied to her back and the other kid holding her hand, and she came upon her. This was Manuela, her friend, the young, beautiful mother who told her that the children were twins. Kate's throat constricted and she pinched her lips together to keep from crying out. Dear, sweet Manuela. She lay faceup with a coin-sized hole over her left eyebrow. Her eyes were open, the moonlight playing a final reflection. One child lay motionless, facedown beside her, spread-eagled and silent with a darkening puddle beneath him. Mateo, oh God, the boy. He wasn't moving. The crying sound came from underneath Manuela.
Kate knelt down and stole a glance at the men with guns. Were they as shocked as she was? Were they as frozen by what had happened? The four soldiers watched her and seemed to sway like snakes. She willed herself to be the snake charmer, offering them a mesmerizing tune. She nodded to them as if they had agreed on something. A whisper began in her brain, tiny but clear. Kate had to pick up the child, even if she didn't make it out of there, even if she had to die with the toddler in her arms. It was Sofia, Manuela's daughter, and she had to do this. Nothing else mattered but saving one child. Everything in the universe squeezed down to this moment.
Manuela's instruction from the class was fresh in Kate's mind. She untied the sturdy knot at the front of the shoulder and loosened the cloth. Her hands trembled and felt liquid. She rolled Manuela over to one side, her flesh warm. There was the girl, gasping for air. Kate pulled the cloth, unwrapping it from Manuela. Layers of smell rose to meet her, defecation, the high notes of urine, and the smell of blood that billowed out all around her. She picked up the child, loosely wrapped the red cloth over her, and held her to her chest.
One soldier broke free of his daze and pointed his gun at her, raised it to his chest. The sound of a bottle breaking on stone made him turn his head. The scream of breaking glass seemed to come from the direction of the old man. With a nod to the soldier next to him, he lowered his gun and walked toward the sound.
Was Kirkland among those on the ground? All the cloth on the ground was from Santa Teresa, brilliant, intricate thread woven by women like Manuela, like a bed of flowers. Kirkland's solid machine-made coat was not here. She made her way around the other bodies and walked past the four soldiers. Her breath came out in gasps, pumping. Kate turned down the first alley that led to her hotel and ran.
“Kate! Stop!”
Kate whirled around and there was Kirkland, eyes wide and terrified. Kirkland looked at the child in Kate's arms. They backed into the darkest part of the alley.
“Is this kid hurt? What are you doing?”
“I heard her crying. It's Sofia. She was tied to Manuela's back. Manuela . . .” Kate's body shook, first her hands, then her entire body.
“Is Manuela her mother? Is she dead?”
Kate pointed back to the square. “Yes. She's . . . on the ground.”
“Jesus Christ. She's dead. This kid is a witness. You're a witness. Is the kid old enough to talk?” Apparently Kirkland knew less about children than Kate. But wait, could the child talk? Yes, in Kaqchikel. She had heard her singsong voice with the silly song that Kate had sung to her.
“Yes, some. I don't know. What if they try to kill her?”
Kirkland's rapid breath blew cold puffs of clouds into the dark alley.
Realizing that Kirkland was truly standing next to her, Kate said, “What are you doing here?”
“Purely coincidental, sort of. I was in Pana and I knew you were over here, so I came over this evening. I was going to find you tomorrow.” Kirkland ran her hands along her face. “Okay, I'm a terrible liar. Your adviser called me when I was in Oakland and asked me to please check in with you if I was in the area. I was in the area.”
The tendrils of Kate's life prior to blood and murder startled her. Why had she ever come here?
“You've got to get out of here before the goons realize what this means,” Kirkland went on. “I will never in my life know why they let you walk across those bodies and out of there. Can you get yourself out of Santiago?”
BOOK: The Center of the World
11.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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