Two decades is not long enough to forget. A lifetime is not long enough.
I wondered how often she thought of them. Did their phantoms walk with her as she trudged to market, following the same course she'd taken the fatal day? Did they slip past the tattered rag covering her window when darkness claimed the valley each night? Did they people her dreams? Did they come to her smiling and laughing as they'd been in life? Or bloodied and charred as she'd found them in death?
My vision blurred, and I dropped my head again, stared at the dirt. How was it possible for human beings to do that to other human beings? To helpless and unresisting women and children? In the distance, I heard the rumble of thunder.
Seconds, maybe years later, the interview stopped, an untranslated question left dangling in space. When I looked up Maria and her interpreter had shifted their attention to the hill behind me. Señora Ch'i'p remained focused on her sandals, hand to cheek, fingers curled like a newborn's.
"Mateo's back," said Elena Norvillo, an FAFG member from the El Petén region. I turned as she pushed to her feet. The rest of the team observed from under the tent.
Two men were working their way down one of the many footpaths that meandered through the gorge, the leader in blue windbreaker, faded jeans, brown cap. Though I couldn't read them from where I sat, I knew the letters above his brim said FAFG. The six of us waiting wore identical caps. The man following was suited and tied and carried a collapsible chair.
We watched the pair pick their way through scraggly corn surrounded by a half dozen subsidiary crops, careful to damage nothing. A bean seedling. A potato plant. Minor to us, but critical food or income to the family that owned it.
When they drew within twenty yards, Elena shouted.
"Did you get it?"
Mateo gave a thumbs-up.
The injunction to suspend excavation had come from a local magistrate. According to his interpretation of the exhumation order, no work was to proceed outside the presence of a judge, the Guatemalan equivalent of a district attorney. Visiting early this morning and finding no judge on site, the magistrate had ordered digging halted. Mateo had gone to Guatemala City to have this ruling overturned.
Mateo led his companion directly to the two uniformed guards, members of the National Civil Police, and produced a document. The older cop shifted the strap of his semiautomatic, took the paper and read, head down, shiny black bill reflecting the dimming afternoon light. His partner stood with foot thrust forward, a bored expression on his face.
After a brief exchange with the suited visitor, the senior cop returned the order to Mateo and nodded.
The villagers watched, silent but curious, as Juan, Luis, and Rosa stood and exchanged high fives. Mateo and his companion joined them at the well. Elena followed.
Crossing to the tent, I glanced again at Señora Ch'i'p and her adult son. The man was scowling, hatred seeping from every pore. Hatred for whom? I wondered. For those who had butchered his family? For those who had come from a different world to disturb their bones? For distant authorities who would block even that small effort? For himself for having survived that day? His mother stood woodenly, face impassive.
Mateo introduced the suited man as Roberto Amado, a representative from the judge/district attorney's office. The Guatemala City judge had ruled that Amado's presence would satisfy the requirements of the exhumation order. Amado would be with us for the duration, observing and recording in order to validate the quality of work for the court.
Amado shook hands with each of us, moved to a corner of the covered area, unfolded his chair, and sat. Mateo began issuing orders.
Copyright © 2002 by Temperance Brennan, L.P.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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