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Authors: Jacqueline Sheehan

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BOOK: The Center of the World
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he rain lasted well into the next day. They drank the rest of one bottle of water and ate some of the tortillas that had stayed miraculously dry. By midday, the clouds rushed along on a new path to the east and the sun broke through. Kate took off her pants and hung them on a bush outside the shelter. Her spare pants retained some dry places; the seat was dry but the legs were drenched in water that found its way into the bottom of the pack, possibly through the seams that Kate had not bothered to seal.
Sofia was awake and wide-eyed, watching every move that Kate made, including the pee squat not far from the front of the shelter. Kate unwrapped her to see how wet she was and what needed to be dried out. Manuela had said her kids were about two years old, more or less. So the girl could be as old as two and a half, maybe. Or she could be less than two years old.
Kate had no idea. She had never been a babysitter, and she was an only child. Her entire knowledge of young children was based on an elective psych course on child development and on the babblings of one of her professors in grad school who had a new baby at home and continually complained of sleep deprivation.
As soon as Kate unwrapped her, the girl stood and looked straight at Kate, eyes unblinking and warm. A sweet gust of wind bringing dry air blew past, rustled the palms. Something fluttered in her breasts, a tightening that she couldn't account for scientifically, but she knew what it could be, having heard it enough from her own mother. How the nearness of a child can cause a chemical change in adults, an evolutionary mandate to care for babies and young children. She wanted only to get Sofia to safety, to protect the child against retaliation. She held out her small brown arms to be picked up. Kate bent over and enveloped the girl, carrying her on her hip.
“Let's get you out of the wet things and into my beautiful T-shirt so that we can dry everything.” The decision to speak English to the child came as a surprise. Yes, she would speak English to the girl. Certainly Sofia had heard her mother and Kate conversing in English. On the surface, it was the worst possible idea, obliterating her most familiar language and Spanish. But if the child had words for soldiers or guns, Kate didn't want to hear them—or more to the point, she didn't want anyone else to hear them. She counted on the malleability of a toddler's brain.
The girl was remarkably compliant, not fussing, never crying, and yet the lack of sound, the complete absence of her voice continued to worry Kate. Of course it was the soul-searing trauma of the massacre; it could burn the voice out of anyone. The girl held up her arms for Kate to pull off her shirt and her skirt. She wore no underclothing. As soon as she was naked, the child took a few steps and squatted. A watery slew of diarrhea shot out and the girl winced as she voided her bowels. Dysentery. A health worker had said that nearly all the villagers had dysentery at one time or another. It was a disease that saps the energy of people, feeding the parasites and not the hosts. Children fared the worst, many dying from dehydration before they passed their fifth year.
Kate wrapped her in a warm T-shirt and a jacket. The two of them sat together until more of their clothing dried. The land along the lake was steep and rippled accordion style. Fifty square miles of water, ringed by dormant volcanos. The rocks were dark gray volcanic and frequently loose to the touch, ready to come tumbling down the steep terrain. They were clearly far from the road, but in the distance Kate could hear the occasional rumble of a truck or car as it motored into San Marcos. Sofia pointed to the lake with her hand, palm up, as if asking a question. “We are going up the mountain,” said Kate, pointing upward, “not back to the lake.”
From their vantage point, the lake looked far too beautiful for so much death. White clouds billowed around the volcanic peaks of San Pedro, Tolimán, and Atitlán. Sun filtered along a strip of the long lake, slicing it with a silver band of light.
By midday, she tied the child to her back and then laced her arms through her day pack so that it hung from the front of her body. Her calf muscles tightened with each step, forming metal cables that made her wince. Her thigh muscles were not used to a steady steep incline and they felt like they were bleeding. Was this possible? Was there a tipping point for muscles when they began to tear?
“Here we go, little one. You get the express ride on the gringo donkey,” she said, gasping for breath.
The child would hear English words but smell the indelible scent of her mother on the cloth. What strange mixture would this produce?
Lake Atitlán rested in a caldera at five thousand feet altitude. Kate had been accustomed to the sea level altitude at Davis when she first arrived. She had gradually acclimated, but her ability to hike for long distances was still minuscule compared to the Maya. Their lungs had to be absolute bellows compared to her puny lowland organs.
To get to Sololá, she'd have to climb an additional two thousand feet in altitude. She estimated that she had gone one-fourth of the way up. Estimating distances in the rugged highlands was deceptive.
“We'll be in Sololá in time to eat a plate of beans and tortillas tonight. It's going to be all right,” she said with her head turned as far back to the child as possible. She reached one hand back and patted the girl in the pouch.
How much can one diminutive child weigh? The Maya were a small people, but Sofia's weight felt condensed, like granite. The extra weight on Kate's back multiplied with each step. Kate's sporadic running, three days a week at Davis, at sea level, felt inadequate to power her along. Whatever hopefulness she had mustered to talk brightly to Sofia withered as she dragged one foot after the other.
She stayed in the deeply vegetated areas, thick with scrambles of smooth-barked trees and tangles of brush. Small lizards trying to sun themselves after the cold night skittered out of her path. When she needed to catch her breath, she stopped and looked down on the lake. She could no longer see Santiago because it was tucked behind a turn in the shore, but she saw no plumes of smoke rising from it. The vast lake shone brightly. At least the entire town had not been torched. But what was happening? Had more people been massacred? Had more military arrived? What about Kirkland?
Kate emerged into an open area and chanced a rest stop. She let the pack fall off the front of her body and swung the child around and untied the knot. Both of them needed a breather from their tight connection. The girl stepped over the sharp rocks gingerly. By the time she was five, she would have soles tough enough to run over any of the hillsides. But even at her tender age and with her novice walking experience, her feet were still more hardened than Kate's, not so easily stuck and stabbed by thorns and rocks. Kate wanted nothing more than stillness, her legs craved a rest and her chest burned with the extra effort of pulling in enough oxygen. She wanted the remaining bottle of water to last for the rest of the afternoon.
The whop-whop-whop sound arrived just as Kate finished a sip of water. Helicopters? She hadn't considered them. What direction were they coming from? They had to be military helicopters; she'd never seen any other sort since she'd been in Guatemala. She and the child were in the open, unprotected. Kate dropped the water bottle and dove for the child. She scooped her under one arm. They weren't safe anywhere!
The water bottle had landed on its side, and water poured from it. Kate bent deeply, grabbed the water bottle, and ran for the cover of thick brush. She stashed the girl under a bush and went back for the pack and the cloth. The sound of the helicopters grew louder; a giant drumbeat in the sky.
The cloth was impossibly long and it caught on something, a stick that protruded from the ground. At the last second, Kate let it go when the helicopters crested the hill. She slid into the gulley as if she was sliding into first base. She pushed the child farther under the brush and lay over her. She turned her head and watched with horror as the red cloth flapped like a flag, thirty feet away.
If there is a soldier on the copter who knows the fabric designs of the villages, they will know that this cloth is from Santa Teresa. Mayan boys had been conscripted for years, when they were twelve, even ten years old. Please not this time, not now, she prayed. Then her fears multiplied: It was two helicopters, not just one.
One helicopter flew straight across the lake, straight for Santiago. What were they doing? She pulled her knees up and around Sofia, her arms wrapped around her. She tried to say something to the girl but if she did, even she could not hear it. Her ears vibrated as if they were being struck. The second helicopter was directly over the flapping red cloth with an earsplitting hammer of helicopter blades. Kate pulled the pack against her face. Dirt and pebbles flew into the air from the powerful machine.
The helicopter hovered, pulled up, and turned facing the steep hillside. Suddenly the air exploded in machine gun fire. Dirt and rocks flew through the air and screamed with the assault. It was over in seconds. The helicopter swooped and turned and followed its partner across the lake. Adrenaline surged anew, exploding throughout her system. A deep guttural sound rose up from her belly. More than a scream, deeper, darker.
Kate waited for nearly an hour, soothing the shaking girl, holding her as she rocked. She sang a Beatles song that her mother said was popular when Kate was a little girl, “All You Need Is Love,” forgetting half the words, making up new verses. Then she crept out and found the cloth, pockmarked with bullet holes. Part of the long cloth was still serviceable and she could use it to carry the child, but they were not going to budge from this spot until night. The assault had drained her last reserves of energy.
She suspected that the decision to shoot at the cloth was a lark for the soldiers, a practice moment. Would killing a child be as easy for them? Were the soldiers looking for them, a white woman with a Mayan child? Would the soldier on the helicopter have killed them? Any doubts that she had about this possibility had evaporated. She had to get to Antigua.
This is what had been happening right under her nose. If you were Maya, the wrong color cloth on a mountainside meant death. Kate's universe shuffled and rearranged. She had not seen beneath the thin veneer of village life, even after Kirkland's stern warnings, even after Manuela said,
They take what they want from us
Did Sofia know that they were lost? Kate had been lost once when she had ventured too far from a campground with her parents. She had been six, lured from the tent by a path that disappeared when she tried to retrace her steps. Her voice had been swallowed whole by the forest when she yelled for her parents, coming out in thin strands of sound. When panic overwhelmed her and the late afternoon sun gave way to dark, she heard her mother. “Katie! Katie!” Her mother emerged wearing her tie-dyed T-shirt and cutoff shorts, her legs strong and tanned. She picked her up, patting and rubbing her back, swaying in time to a heartbeat. “I will always find you, Katydid.”
Kate knelt in front of Sofia. “I promise, I will take care of you. I promise Manuela. I promise my mother.”
Kate slept under the bushes whenever the child napped, curled in next to her. They waited until night and she prayed for clear skies with a generous moon. She was not disappointed. Kate loaded up as before, the child on her back, her day pack hanging from the front of her body. She could not straighten up entirely, feeling more like a cartoon version of an upright turtle. The child sipped the last of the water. Dehydration was far worse on children than on adults; that much Kate did know about kids. As night fell, Kate began again, picking her way along her own trail, ever upward.
The temperature dropped, and a new danger loomed: hypothermia. The only defense was to keep moving. But the child was not generating any heat from movement and she would suffer. She had the heat from Kate's back, true, but it was not enough. Kate felt Sofia's hands grow colder.
They made two major stops during the night. First Kate stopped to stuff most of her clothes around the girl. Then when her throat turned to sandpaper and her head pounded, they stopped at a stream to fill the water bottles. There was the slightest chance that the water might be clean and free of parasites, and it was a chance that Kate held on to. It was better to have water, contaminated or not, than dehydration.
She remembered an outdoor training workshop that she took when the instructor said that every person they'd ever had to rescue suffered more from dehydration than hypothermia. She could deal with amoebas or giardia later. Kate tipped the bottle of water to her lips and drank. “Well, Professor Clemson, I don't have Italian shoes or even my running shoes and I've never owned a cashmere sweater. But I've got water. You were right, there's nothing like it in the entire world.”
She'd already had one bout of the intestinal assault since coming to Guatemala and she knew how to deal with it. The
in Antigua would write her a script for the powerful drug Flagyl. She wasn't sure what the child would require, but she'd find out.
The temperature continued to drop during the night, the result of the cloudless sky. She walked for hours until the predawn time of despair. The smell of humanity reached out to her through the smoke of hearth fires. Dogs barked, and roosters announced the dawn. They were alive and she had put two thousand feet of altitude between them and the lake. Her head pounded and her throat felt like it was swelling from lack of moisture. She'd been breathing through her mouth for the last hour to suck in as much oxygen as possible in the thin atmosphere.
Kate and the little girl spent the last few hours of darkness on the edge of the mountain town, Sololá, too afraid to ask anyone for help, too afraid that the black-booted militia would come here also. What would the villagers do if they saw the deranged looking white woman with a Mayan child?
BOOK: The Center of the World
6.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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