In Guatemala cannas grew wild, sloping
up the twisted
path to the hilltop where men slit
roosters on altars. One flapped headless
in a man’s hand, and its voice spilled
out of its cut
neck along with its blood, proving something
does not have to be whole to speak
or even wholly alive.
In the dark I listened
to the parts of the truth that I could know.
Beside me in her sleep my sister ground her teeth.
I thought of her cold blue eyes. Waking, kindness
and coldness marbled in them so hard
nothing could separate the strains.
I listened to her correct herself in her sleep.
I thought: maybe this is funny—she was a dentist–
but if it was, we needed
someone to put it together,
to interpret the humor.
On my left the translator snored softly.
Every day I trudged behind my sister
up the path, while she led the way,
as necessary as Jesus. All the poor and hurting
came to her, and she healed them,
or at least pulled their teeth.
She twisted them out by their roots
till they plopped, bloody and small,
in the outstretched pan I held.
She talked to the translator and laughed,
over my head, while I scrubbed the blood
from her tiny chisels.
“I don’t know what your problem is,” she’d said.
“I think you have boundary issues,” she’d said.
I studied her sentences in the dark.
They felt true. I tried to remember
why I had wanted to come.
There was something I had wanted to learn.
Something about love, I remembered
something about being close.
I thought about all I had seen there, from a distance–
through the windows of a bus:
the night we arrived—Saturday– just after sunset
driving out from the airport, into the highlands, passing fields where
workers came flowing down, on paths, like mighty streams,
like human water, carrying their sickles, their hoes, their tools,
into the highway, walking along the side of the road, walking home.
No tractors here. Though for those who could pay
there were buses, bright yellow, piled high with riders
and their belongings, still bearing the words:
Chattanooga Public Schools.
These are the things a tourist can see.
I was one of those. I saw a man carrying a refrigerator
strapped to his back.
Later, in my sister’s office,
a room with a table and a dirt floor,
I saw an older, child-size man with an impacted tooth
who came with an ax. (Did he think she needed it, to cut it out?)
But, afterward, when she had cut it out, he offered it to her,
the translator said, to pay.
“No, thank you,” my sister said. “You need it for your work.”
These are the things a spectator can see, from across a room,
a spectator with busy hands,
still at a certain safe, protected
distance, one who has come
to be enlightened, one who has come believing she will return
home, who thinks she has one.
This was their home, before I came there: you probably knew that.
You probably knew that the CIA overthrew their democratically elected
government in 1954, a government that was returning the land to these people
who had worked it for thousands of years. You probably knew
that the CIA worked to take that land back, again,
to give it to United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands.
You probably knew that soldiers of the dictators
the US helped install
were then sent back to the School of the Americas
at Fort Benning, Georgia, and trained
to kill their own people, and then came back
and caused civil war. From 1960 to 1996.
140,000 people died, disappeared, dropped from helicopters.
Villages died. You probably knew that.
I didn’t. “This year,” our guide said –it was 2003–
“twelve people have been killed
for just asking the names of people who disappeared.”
You probably know that’s why people from there, walk here,
now, in 2023: landless, homeless, because of that ripping them out
by their roots: the unrest, the gangs, the klepto-narco government
that the US caused. I didn’t. Maybe Biden didn’t either.
He sent Kamala Harris there
to figure it out. But by the time I left there, I knew that much.
I knew it from the voices of the dead,
and from those who kept their names. Before we left
my sister assembled the village. They stood listening,
for what wisdom she had to give.
She gave them a lecture about sugar: “Avoid sugar and Cokes.”
No duh. I remembered the Cokes had also
come from US. Before we left
we dropped her sharps
container in the community privy: archaeological evidence
for the future, of our gospel
of personal choice, of American
rugged individualism. We drove away
past the flowers, out of the hills, away from the sacrfices,
the beggars, the child-size men
and women with hollow eyes, their blankets smothering them
with colors. The children,
their faces, their entreaties to buy.
one called to me through the streets, our last day there.
She followed me. I locked
on the longing in her eyes. Even through the glass
she called me, when the driver had shut
the window, latched the locks.
“You can’t save everyone,” my sister said.
“For some of them it becomes a game.”
The lesson for her was limits. (And borders. And walls.)
But now twenty years have passed
and through the clear glass of the past
my sister seems no closer, and the girl
who begged for my kindness
seems no more far.