"Please tell me what happened that day." Maria spoke so softly I had to strain to catch the Spanish.
"I kissed the little ones and left for market." Eyes down, voice toneless. "I did not know that I would never see them again."
K'akchiquel to Spanish, then reversing the linguistic loop, reversing again as answers followed questions. The translation did nothing to blunt the horror of the recitation.
"When did you return home, Señora Ch'i'p?"
"A que hora regreso usted a su casa, Señora Ch'i'p?"
"Chike ramaj xatzalij pa awachoch, Ixoq Ch'i'p?"
"Late afternoon. I'd sold my beans."
"The house was burning?"
"Your family was inside?"
I watched the speakers. An ancient Mayan woman, her middle-aged son, the young cultural anthropologist Maria Paiz, calling up a memory too terrible for words. I felt anger and sorrow clash inside me like the thunderheads building on the horizon.
"What did you do?"
"We buried them in the well. Quickly, before the soldiers came back."
I studied the old woman. Her face was brown corduroy. Her hands were calloused, her long braid more gray than black. Fabric lay folded atop her head, bright reds, pinks, yellows, and blues, woven into patterns older than the mountains around us. One corner rose and fell with the wind.
The woman did not smile. She did not frown. Her eyes met no one's, to my relief. I knew if they lingered on mine even briefly, the transfer of pain would be brutal. Maybe she understood that and averted her gaze to avoid drawing others into the hell those eyes concealed.
Or perhaps it was distrust. Perhaps the things she had seen made her unwilling to look frankly into unknown faces.
Feeling dizzy, I upended a bucket, sat, and took in my surroundings.
I was six thousand feet up in the western highlands of Guatemala, at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge. The village of Chupan Ya. Between the Mountains. About one hundred and twenty-five kilometers northwest of Guatemala City.
Around me flowed a wide river of green, lush forest interspersed with small fields and garden plots, like islands. Here and there rows of man-made terraces burst through the giant checkerboard, cascading downward like playful waterfalls. Mist clung to the highest peaks, blurring their contours into Monet softness.
I'd rarely seen surroundings so beautiful. The Great Smoky Mountains. The Gatineau, Quebec, under northern lights. The barrier islands off the Carolina coast. Haleakula volcano at dawn. The loveliness of the backdrop made the task at hand even more heartbreaking.
As a forensic anthropologist, it is my job to unearth and study the dead. I identify the burned, the mummified, the decomposed, and the skeletonized who might otherwise go to anonymous graves. Sometimes the identifications are generic, Caucasoid female, mid-twenties. Other times I can confirm a suspected ID. In some cases, I figure out how these people died. Or how their corpses were mutilated.
I am used to the aftermath of death. I am familiar with the smell of it, the sight of it, the idea of it. I have learned to steel myself emotionally in order to practice my profession.
But the old woman was breaking through my determined detachment.
Another wave of vertigo. The altitude, I told myself, lowering my head and breathing deeply.
Though my home bases are North Carolina and Quebec, where I serve as forensic anthropologist to both jurisdictions, I'd volunteered to come to Guatemala for one month as temporary consultant to the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala. The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, FAFG, was working to locate and identify the remains of those who vanished during the 1962 to 1996 civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin American history.
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