Later, after the bombs went off, after the monstrous black clouds they sent up dissipated in the gentle breeze, after the shooters, whoever they might have been, pocketed their stubby handguns and vanished into the crowd, after the police ceased returning fire and attempted instead, with their superior presence, to control a multitude run amuck, it would be clear it was a bullet to the head that killed her.
But for now, she was alive. Until the shooting, the crowd had filled the cathedral to overflowing; it had backed up against the doors, spilled down the broad steps and out into the plaza, where tens of thousands of El Salvador's faithful drove elbows and shoulders into each other, where but a dozen held umbrellas over their heads as a hedge against the sun, and the majority stood acceptingly in the heat, sweat staining half-moons under their arms and triangles over their breastbones. Everywhere there was the stale odor of humanity pressed together in mourning.
Because she and the boy had come early, she had won for them a coveted spot: they stood against the iron-railed barricade separating the general crowd from the cathedral doors and from Archbishop Romero's casket, positioned there, plain and unadorned, on the landing above the steps. The casket gleamed in the noonday sun. It rested beneath a banner draped over the church entrance, a banner imprinted with Monsenor's beloved bulldogish face.
When the bombs went off, the solemn silence maintained by the multitude was debased by shouts and cries pitched high with surprise and then with terror. When the pakpakpak! of pistols started up, the brrrttt! of automatic weapons began, the crowd broke apart and scrambled for cover. She and the boy were pressed instantly against the barricade, but she held his arm in a fierce grip lest the swell and sway of the people sweep him from her. She tried scrambling over the barricade because it was only waist-high; she thought they both could make it, but there were people jammed against the other side, too. Bullets whizzed by from both directions. Because he was not a husky boy and there was only so much they could do against the riptide of the people, he folded at her feet, his slender back against the barricade.
She used rapid blows from her elbows to gouge a space around him. She dropped down upon him, draping herself over him as if she were a truce flag. She did it because she was his mother. She did it because just yesterday she had gone to fetch him from Chalatenango, the region to the north where he lived with his grandfather; because this morning she had brought him on the bus to San Salvador, a dangerous journey over guerrilla-held land, but a necessary journey if her son were someday to state "When I was nine I attended the funeral of a martyred saint."
She spoke directly into her son's ear, her words vying with the madness surrounding them: "I am here, Nicolas," she said, struggling to keep hysteria at bay. She did not know if he could hear her, but she continued nonetheless. "Do not fear. La Virgen is with us. Monsenor is with us, too." The archbishop, newly dead, his body only meters away and not yet a statue in a niche, and already she was petitioning him for a miracle. She turned her head a bit to get a sense of things: the railings of the barricade were like prison bars. How long had she and the boy been tucked in this position? How long since a shoe had been torn off her foot? How many people had trampled her back, used her as a stepping stool to vault
over the barricade? A bullet caromed near, so close the impact of it hitting the railing reverberated in her ears. She pressed her cheek once more against her son's, sought to spread herself more completely over him. "Holy Mother, protect us," she uttered.
Nicolas strained to decipher the sound of his mother's prayers. He was now lying on his side where he had tilted over, both legs drawn up to his chest, arms holding his canvas backpack against himself. He felt the soft pressing weight of his mother, her arms cradling his head, her words one hot breath after another against his cheek. The smell of her was like sweet damp earth. He imagined himself away from here. Imagined himself back home, inside the cave he had found carved into one of the hills behind his rancho. In his secret place he was confined like this, encaved, but it was a condition that brought him comfort. His cave was shadowy, but the shadows did not frighten him. On the contrary; shadows and even the deep dark were an advantage over the light of broad day, the light that could expose you and point you out as accusingly as a finger.
Copyright Sandra Benitez, 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher Hyperion Books.
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