25-years-old, white, female, a poet
I walk down a cobbled street
in Antigua, Guatemala.
Buildings squeeze shoulders,
form a chute for a procession.
Male pallbearers carry a coffin,
black clad mourners walk alongside, trail behind,
clasp rosaries, Bibles and the closed wooden box.
I press the wall to escape the current.
The funeral streams past
as death flows toward the cemetery.
Murmur of voices, chant of prayers recede.
My hands touch cold adobe, rough over stone.
Keep me safe, I pray,
inhaling urine splashed on the wall
where a man relieved himself.
* Title from "My Poem" by Nikki Giovanni
I and three linguists visited a highland village.
We drove a rented jeep over mule tracks in late fall,
invited by Manuel, Florentino and Lucas.
We arrived on the feast day of Santa Catarina Ixtauacan.
Cofradía leaders greeted us at Florentino’s home,
we drank mixed grains from decorated gourds.
I admired the fine weaving of Florentino’s youngest daughter.
We moved on to view the religious procession
of Santa Catarina carried through corn fields.
Priests wafted incense over the statue carried on a litter,
swung ancient ornate turibles made of gold
that cofradía members took turns guarding in their homes.
After the parade, we strolled beside a line of women
crawling on knees to church.
Our passage on the road raised dust clouds.
Squat adobe buildings bordered the whitewashed cathedral,
We entered the door to cool darkness,
walked down the aisle alongside a human rope
advancing to the altar to pray.
Outside again, I looked up.
Perched high on the belfry walls,
Manuel leaned out a window and waved,
he wore a silk mini-skirt and head scarf,
instead of the usual black-and-white wool kilt.
One of a group of cavorting men,
he sported the ceremonial white-and-red dress
of this village where men danced only with men.
Lucas’s crying aunt found us in the street.
Her mourning hands tugged mine,
tears and lamentations poured
in Quiche I couldn’t understand.
Teenage Manuel rescued me away
to his house, a small open room.
No water, no electric.
Dirt floor swept clean.
Open cook fire, dead and black.
Thin bamboo walls, thatched roof.
Trunks and sleeping benches lined bare walls,
sunshine slanted through the open door.
Manuel introduced his young wife, their baby girl.
He held a plump eleven-month-old up for inspection.
I praised and named her una angelita, que bonita,
pestanas tan grande, una princesa. No, una reina.
Wound in layers of her mother’s shawl,
knit hat over raven hair, round cheeks tinted rose,
we applauded the thriving, healthy infant.
Not yet twenty, they already buried two others.
Laura’s thick long lashes fringed black eyes that sparked.
I removed new film, loaded the camera,
snapped the baby’s picture.
Stick huts and fields covered a steep clay hillside,
volcanoes shook cracks in church walls and floor.
Geologists warned the village was prime for a landslide.
In this place, too many children starved
on tortillas and raw jalapeños served only at noonday,
some smothered on tapeworms
and the Quiche paid the government to stay out.
Manuel’s baby caught a cold at Christmas,
he carried her over the mountains
four miles to the nearest nurse.
Antibiotics came too late,
they lost Laura like the first two.
Manuel asked for her photo
but I’d loaded my camera wrong,
developed film came back blank.
After the visit, war and a mudslide struck.
Santa Catarina deemed remote,
was targeted by the government for eradication
lest mountain guerrillas find sanctuary or food there.
My friends had the misfortune to live
in the shadow of high Quiche culture.
All that remains are washed out photos
of a place that no longer exists.
I cross the cobblestoned road, mount the sidewalk.
On top of the house wall lining the street,
broken glass studs sparkle in rainbow colors.
I imagine what’s behind layers of brick four feet thick
constructed to withstand earth tremolos.
Adobe under a red clay roof covers a throb of heartbeats.
The blank face of the wall along the street
conceals Don, Doña y sus hijos inside a villa.
Doña Maria exits the front door, escorted by a maid.
I peek through a polished heavy door to rooms
arranged around a fresh air garden courtyard,
fronted by a roofed hallway, floored by polished red tiles.
Rooms where the family lives, sleeps and eats are closed.
Classical pillars line the marble fountain in the courtyard.
I hear running water trickle in the fountain,
admire orange tropical flowers in the formal garden,
bright pink bougainvillea hangs from the wall.
Pet green parrots - one large, one pocket-size -
stand on a perch feeding each other tortillas.
Genaro, the oldest son, keeps a pet chicken in his bedroom.
At the back of the house, four Indios work in a spacious kitchen,
two more `` labor in a connected walled vegetable garden,
another wall surrounds an orchard where free range chickens scratch.
Beyond the villa, a tangle of alleys hide a warren of passages.
Will and Nora, two Peace Corps workers,
tell me about Mayans in this second city invisible from the street
where a Cachiquel and Mam child died today from lack of medicine
and Spanish and English are not welcome.
I walk back to Segunda Avenida Número Dos,
unlock the entry door to my garden apartment off city square.
At two in the morning, echoes off stone walls shake my bed.
Chants and dance wake me on a moonless night.
Feet pound stone around a fire nearby,
a rooster crows to chirimilla flute, drum beat and sacrifice.
Date Published: May 27, 2019