She sleeps with the bedroom door open because her children have night terrors. It’s how Nina hears the intruder in the hallway. Less than a week in this new house and they’ve found her.
The clock/radio says it’s 4:08 AM.
Nina planks in bed and bites her tongue to stop from yelling: waking her son and daughter in the next room would just get them killed, too.
The recent spate of death threats ricochet through her mind. She left Guatemala before but work drew her back. Thirty-four years old and she doesn’t want to die like this, not like this, not when she’s finally making a difference.
Already it’s too late to search for a weapon and the intruder pauses in the bedroom doorway shapeless as spilt ink, then clumps his steel toecap boots across the yawning floorboards toward her bed, lighted now by the claret haze of the clock/radio, this man stands to her right and leans his face toward hers. He wears no mask. Wants her to see him. The whites of his eyes full-moon bright, glossy as hardboiled eggs.
No point calling the Policía Nacional Civil because this man is a uniform-wearing officer. He’s one of the You-Don’t-Know-Me. In every level of government. Used to be the Civil Defense Patrols back when the death squads operated with impunity.
He leans closer, their faces almost touching now, and stutters hot breath on her wet skin.
He has eaten hotdog. Drank guaro.
The officer moves back a step, towers over Nina, studies her supine form wearing panties and bra, too hot at night in this house to have sheets. She moves her hands onto her belly, covers what little she can. And waits.
Oily cologne lingers.
Nina stands at the kitchen window and watches vehicles conga line at a roadblock. Mixed Army and PNC on patrol. A daily occurrence.
Eight-year-old Jairo and his younger sister Flor are sitting at the breakfast table.
“Was someone here last night?” Jairo asks.
Nina moves a wall of black hair behind her shoulder. It’s middle-parted like a grade school teacher’s, and everything about her features seems crumpled like an overworked checkout operator, everything except her espresso-dark eyes.
“Yes, a man was here.”
“Did you know him?”
She bites her lip and turns back toward the window and the tears are hot and wild in her eyes.
Jairo stabs the fried egg on his plate and mops the yolk with a corn tortilla. Flor pastes refried black beans on her tortilla but gets most of it on her hands. Nina wets a dish cloth under the tap then remembers the water isn’t safe and instead uses a wet wipe.
“Does this mean we have to leave again?”
“This is 2005,” the caller says. “It’s almost nine years since the ‘96 peace accord. The only thing changing is everything’s getting worse. More people poor. More Mayan farmers killed and displaced.”
The line clicks dead.
Nina’s morning show on Radio Universidad, nine-to-noon daily, has no one waiting on the switchboard to speak. When she started a year ago, there were always too many. But the recent trouble, the murders, has scared them off.
“The terror structures remain as they have during the war,” she says into the mic. “Operating with impunity. Their members hold key positions in political parties, the Supreme Court, the media. Unless we fight for reconciliation through truth, this evil will never leave our country. Our memories, your voices, are the only way we can ensure history does not repeat itself. These evil people are hidden and they think that because we don’t know who they are they’re safe to keep doing what they’ve been doing forever. But we know who they are. We know.”
A switchboard light blinks with a caller.
“I was there in 1982 when Montt’s military personnel attacked my village, Dos Erres. Montt was looking for Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes. There were none. We were ladinos, mixed white. A small village with two churches, Catholic and Evangelical. Carlos Antonio Carias, the army commander, gave us a proclamation. Join his civil-defense patrol. We refused. Two hundred and fifty were slaughtered, men, women, and children. I was twelve. They let me live because I was lighter skinned and have green eyes…”
He stops speaking.
“How did you survive?”
He weeps, chugs like an engine turning over. The call ends.
“Without strong individuals like that we will never know the truth… Our next caller, please, take your time, tell us anything you want.”
The woman says, “What makes you qualified to ask these things?”
Nina’s father dies in an accident. He’s a university professor. Her mother is distraught, has five children to provide for. Nina is nine.
She’s thirteen and in the library. Researching. Nina always asking questions. She finds an article about her father that says a death squad entered the college and cut down seven professors, knocking them like bowling pins, and it happened out in the open for all to see. Her father was murdered.
Her mother, traumatized by the incident, has lied all these years.
Nina graduates from university with a degree in journalism. She still has no way to get the truth about her father out. She goes to the biggest radio station. Nothing.
For three months she pursues the director of Radio Universidad. She gets a meeting.
“Your listeners need to hear someone young, a woman.”
He laughs. “And who is that going to be?”
She smiles and raises her hand as if answering a question at school. “Me!”
“Some records suggest that over two hundred thousand, mostly Mayan, lost their lives during the civil war. But no one knows for sure. We need the victims, those who have witnessed, endured and suffered to call in and tell us their story. The truth is the only weapon we have.”
Nina enters Jose Miguel’s office. He’s the editor of Prensa Libre newspaper, has thick plummy lips and a solid eyebrow across his forehead like it’s been drawn with an eyeliner. He is sitting on the edge of his desk, waiting for her.
“I’m worried you’re making too much trouble for yourself.”
“It’s the truth.”
He lifts a printout of her previous article and reads: “Since 2001, in just four years, a thousand women have been murdered. Ninety percent have been raped first.”
“I have a daughter. I don’t want her growing up in a world like this.”
“If she ever gets to grow up.”
Nina pulls back her hand to slap him. He doesn’t blink but his cheeks redden.
“I shouldn’t have said—”
“Maybe I should just run back to the US?”
He places the printout on the tabletop. Sucks his teeth while he thinks. “This other article you have sent me…” He lifts another printout. Scans through it.
Civil Defense Patrols. Paramilitary groups. Countless murders. Control of supreme court, customs, immigration, import/export, the drug trade. Refusal to be dismantled as per the 1996 peace accord. Evidence of terror structures still operating with impunity as they had done during the civil war. The main difference: instead of acting directly for the state, they now have free reign. Powerful enough to have breached political parties and the media.
“I would ask you not to publish it,” he says.
“Are you scared?”
“Nina, the fallout from this will be terrible. You would need to leave Guatemala first.”
Nina kisses Jairo’s forehead; he sleeps with his thumb in his mouth. Flor clutches a stuffed lion. Nina watches her sleeping children for a long time in the hard light of the naked hallway bulb. Their breathing is slow and regular like ocean waves.
She steps into the hallway and the rough-sawn floorboards creak.
“I don’t want to move again,” Flor says. Nina faces her daughter but she has rolled onto her side and is looking away. “I’m tired of moving.”
“Is the man coming back tonight?” Jairo asks. “I can stay up and keep guard.”
“Are you not afraid?” the caller asks.
“You have a family. Do you not worry for their safety?”
“I had to publish the article,” Nina says. “And I can’t keep running. None of us can keep running.”
“What if they take you?”
“They won’t,” she says. “I’m in the public eye. Media attention is keeping me alive. But the people I ask to call into this show, the ones without protection, they’re the one who are in danger. Calling in, telling what happened, that takes courage I don’t have.”
Nina is at a market stall.
“Licuados en leche. Sin hielo.”
The man next to her is staring. He’s watching her and is making a point of letting her know he’s watching her. She avoids eye contact, snatches her fresh fruit shake and rushes off.
The man follows.
She darts through a gaggle of students.
Outside the market, Nina crosses the street. She checks to see the man is gone and takes a breath. She had forgotten to breathe. A police officer collides with her and she clatters to the pavement. A young couple come to her aid, demand to know why the officer did this. The officer spits on the ground and sets his hand on his holstered pistol.
Nina springs to her feet and runs.
The single room hut is constructed of bare blocks and contains two beds for five people. A single rack of shelves behind a curtain contains everything Nina owns, everything she could grab before fleeing her home. There’s a single bare bulb for light and a portable TV in the corner with aluminum-foil rabbit ears. The kitchen is outside and has a wood fire. Water for the pila comes from a hose in the street.
Jairo and Flor are playing in the backyard. It’s walled in. Relatively safe.
The day after Nina’s article appeared in the Prensa Libre, her radio show was canceled. Intimidation escalated. Bullets pinged her car. She was uninjured.
“I have nowhere left to go,” she says, “nowhere to turn. I can’t go outside because they’ll find us.”
The man who has come to help her doesn’t respond, keeps watching out the window, scrutinizing the street.
“I want to leave,” she says. “You can get me and my family across the border?”
“You have friends here,” Eliseo says. “We have arranged a meeting with Amnesty International. They want to help, maybe they can make you into a spokesperson. The others won’t dare hurt you then.” He carries a holstered sidearm and they have arranged to take turns manning the perimeter.
Lunch is a chicken taco and a little pile of shredded lettuce topped with two slices of tomato – all that ever passes for a fresh garden salad. Nina is getting used to it. In the US they had a never-ending array of vegetables, but here they are surprisingly rare.
“You have been staring at the lettuce for an hour.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“Get the story out,” he says. “Same as you always have.”
“But there’s no radio station. No newspaper.” Her hands tremble. Couldn’t help but think about her father, how hard it had been to get to where she was, to get her story out.
“You already have a radio station. And a newspaper.”
She glances at the laptop which was given to her by an anonymous friend. There was no box and the charger was from a different model.
The first post on her blog is about Nelson Hernández López, an indigenous union and campesino leader murdered on return from a protest march.
An hour later, a reply to the post reads: It doesn’t matter if the guerrillas were going to turn Guatemala into another Cuba. Rape, torture and murder of all civilians, whether they supported the guerrillas or not, is indefensible. Montt must be brought to justice and tried for these abominations he carried out on behalf of the state.
Nina receives an email: Encarnación Quej, indigenous Tzutuhil leader, is murdered by masked men on his way to work today. She broadcasts the news on her website.
More emails. Gerónimo Ucelo Medoza, leader of the minority Xinca indigenous group, is murdered and five colleagues kidnapped. They are still missing. The group had been demonstrating against mining operations by a Canadian company.
The next day, Nina starts Familiares de Desaparecidos which is a forum in memory of the disappeared. She writes, “After decades of questions without answers, and a growing list of victims, we create this forum so that the memory of the disappeared will remain. Their stories will be remembered.”
She conducts an interview with the New York Times: “Forced disappearance in Guatemala still happens. In fact, it has expanded. And it relies on silent collaboration. It’s a means of social control and political dominance which has gained the power of impunity because of the vast political and commercial powers that finance and conceal these crimes.”
Knuckles rap the door. There is always someone knocking. Nina opens it. Outside is an injured woman, a woman who has come from the protest at Cuatro Caminos intersection. Her head is bandaged with a man’s white cotton shirt and there are freckles of blood. She wants to speak about the army killing unarmed protesters. Today it is a friend outside but Nina knows one day they will come for her, same as they did for her father. At least she will know who they are.
Michael McGlade grew up in an Irish farmhouse where the leaky roof didn’t bother him as much as the fear of electrocution from the nightly scramble for prime position beneath the chicken lamp, the only source of heating in the house – a large infrared heat lamp more commonly used for poultry. He has had 36 short stories appear in Green Door, J Journal, Ambit, Grain, Downstate Story, and other journals. He holds a master’s degree in English from Queen’s University, Ireland. You can find out the latest news and views from him on McGladeWriting.com.