Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Scenes from Another Country

by Mark Brazaitis


Maria, on a gray sheet, on a skin-thin mattress,
in the public hospital in Cobán,
a silver-haired doctor, stern as a priest,
at her side.
She’d drunk pesticide because she was pregnant
and Reinaldo refused
to marry her.
From a window at the back of the room,
sunlight slashed across the eighteen beds,
all hosting two patients, strangers to each other
before their illnesses made them intimates.
It’s a sin, the doctor told Maria.
What you did is a sin.
Maria promised him she wouldn’t
try to kill herself again
and, furthermore, she assured him,
eager to leave this place
and its crowded beds and its judgments
and its nighttime choir of nightmare screams,
she had a life to live for,
although of course she wasn’t speaking
of her own.

She was fifteen, and with her baby on her back,
she marched to the molino
with girls her age and women twice
and three times and four times her age,
all of them carrying corn in palanganas on their heads,
all of them waiting until the kernels were ground up
into the masa they would smash between their palms
and lay as circles on comals
and watch warm into tortillas
above the eternal fire.


He was six years old.
Dressed in camouflage,
in a camouflaged army patrol cap
a size too large,
he led the parade.
He carried a rifle, although presumably
it bore no bullets.
But in Guatemala, one survived
by never presuming.
He wore black boots,
the kind whose click against concrete
Lucia, one of my neighbors
(whose husband, a lieutenant, beat her blue
the last time he’d left to fight the war),
said she heard sometimes in nightmares
and sometimes when she was only hanging
clothes in her courtyard.

He was six years old.
He led the parade.
Behind him were the real soldiers,
although they were only a little older than he
and, unlike the boy,
they weren’t smiling.


I laughed when Hector said,
“You could be CIA.”
We’d worked together half a year,
teaching campesinos to use garlic as insecticide,
to gather hair from barber shops
and spread it around their fields
to scare deer from devouring their corn.
This, we said, would spare them the debt and danger
of real poison, although most of them
bought the killer chemicals anyway.
“Your president,” he said, “is the former CIA jefe.”
It was true, but what, I asked him,
did this have to do with me?
I was ten months out of college.
If I had three thoughts in my head,
two were about Alida,
who worked at the hotel on the highway
where I sometimes stopped on my return
from distant villages to drink a Coke
and see if I could, in my fumbling Spanish,
seduce her into smiling.
“You know me,” I assured him. “You know
I would never deceive you.”

A year later, at a 4th of July party
on the lawn of his house in the capital,
the U.S. ambassador, drink in hand,
said, “The final reports you write—I always learn
a great deal from them.”
We’d been promised the embassy would never
read our words, intended to help
the volunteers who followed us.
Someone spoke a tentative protest,
but the ambassador pointed to the bar, the pool,
the pair of volleyball courts, their sand golden
in the sunlight shining within the high white walls.
“Please enjoy,” he said.