Fragile Messengers

The weather changes quickly at the top of the world.

Joel and I had ridden up the mountain for an hour and a half before we dismounted and hiked on a freshly cut path into the forest. He sat down on a steep incline and patted a mossy patch next to him, where I joined him and looked at where he was pointing into a stand of fir trees. These trees were abies religiosa, I would later learn, named for the three-fingered tips of their branches, reminiscent of a cross. To me, these conifers had the triangular shape of a child’s drawing, except their branches were bowed by fantastic shapes, clumps of dull brown leaves that belled out in the middle and tapered on the ends. Simplified hands poked out from these dark swollen masses, beckoning in the breeze. My only relationship to nature as a child had been through fairy tales, where witches and wolves lurked in the woods. Unlike the forests of my imagination, this one felt gentle and safe.

The clouds shifted, and the sun touched the branches and the leaves started to quiver open. First one, then another, until the trees were festooned with spots of iridescent orange that blinked on and off, opening and closing. A few more moments of sunlight, and one leaf took to the air. It was followed by another and then another. Suddenly thousands shuffled out of the tree like a deck of cards flying free from the constraints of gravity.

As the air filled with butterflies, I heard a sound like running water. “Eschuchas,” Joel said, cupping his hands behind his ears. I put my hands around my ears too, and the watery whisper got louder. Now the vibration sounded like rain pattering on a distant rooftop. I realized it was the sound of thousands of wings flapping all at once. My face broke into a huge grin as we sat there holding up our mouse ears in a storm of monarch butterflies. Joel was smiling too, square white teeth gleaming in his brown face, even though he must have seen this spectacle hundreds of times. “Nunca me canso de verlas,” he said. I never get tired of watching them.

We only had to lean back slightly to lie on the uneven ground. Pulling up my knees, I dug my heels into soft soil to keep from sliding down the slope. I was very aware of the warmth of Joel’s shoulder near mine and oblivious to the moisture of our mossy bed, slowly seeping through my sweatshirt and jeans. The twigs and pebbles poking my back didn’t bother me either; I’d left myself behind as we watched the monarchs darting here and there above us, in random flight patterns that seemed more celebratory than purposeful. Each butterfly looked like a tiny stained-glass window, its orange panes edged in black shot through with sun. The sky’s blue touched the treetops’ green as the orange emissaries flittered between these two fields of color, connecting heaven and earth.

icon, butterfly

Two days earlier, I hadn’t even heard of the monarch migration. I only ended up going to see it because Diana Kennedy wouldn’t let me into her house. I hadn’t heard of her either, but my friend the food journalist was going to interview her in Mexico, and she’d invited me to tag along on the trip. My foodie friends who swore by Diana’s cookbooks were thrilled that I would be meeting the grande dame of Mexican food. I started to get excited too.

Diana was far less excited about meeting me. We had just started dinner in the dining room of Zitácuaro’s only high-end hotel when Diana bustled in, waving a tiny blue veined hand in protest while announcing to the room, “No, no, no, I’ve already eaten,” in an accent that still sounded crisply British. She was ancient and spry, her sharp features crowned by a halo of white hair. Well past ninety, Diana told journalists that she was still in her eighties.

My friend Beth introduced me to her as, “Ellen, the anthropologist.”

“The anthropologists never pay attention to food,” Diana sniffed. The conversation moved on to food world gossip, and I didn’t have a chance to clarify that I was just an anthropology grad student and not an anthropologist yet. Diana’s quick dismissal reminded me of academic conferences. My fellow attendees would squint at my badge, and once they determined that I wasn’t faculty, they would look past me, scanning the room for someone worth talking to.

On our ride from Mexico City, Beth had enthused about Diana’s homestead, an eco-retreat she’d been building since the early 1980s. La Quinta Diana was heated by solar power, watered by a rain catchment system and surrounded by herb-filled gardens and fruit orchards. As Beth and the photographer made plans to cook with Diana there over the next three days, Beth suggested, “Maybe Ellen could come along.”

“Oh no, that’s absolutely impossible.” Diana fixed her gaze on me for the first and only time that evening and declared, “You should go see the butterflies. Are you a good horsewoman?”

“No, not really,” I muttered.

“Well, it’s just an old nag,” she scoffed. With that, she turned back to Beth and launched into a diatribe about the current crop of successful women chefs. “Long hair and long nails have no place in the kitchen,” she declared while pounding the table. “If I had shown my bosom on the covers of my books, I could have sold a million copies too.”

The last light of day filtered through the pastel stained-glass windows of the restaurant. I picked up my fork thinking that I should eat my greens and toyed with the cold vegetable medley instead. Of course, this imperious old dame would be a confident horsewoman. Not me. I’d tried to be an outdoorsy, horsey girl once, and failed. Just the thought of getting on a horse made my stomach hurt. Clearly seeing the butterflies was not for me. I wasn’t that kind of person.

My mind wandered to a memory of a guy I once knew who flirted with women at parties by asking, “Horses or holocaust?” My answer was definitely holocaust. I devoured Anne Frank’s diary along with young adult novels about the martyrdom of the White Rose and trials of traumatized teens washing up in post-war Palestine. These stories of suffering made me feel like things could always be worse. See, you could be hiding in an attic waiting for the Nazis to get you. The comparison made my own lot as an isolated only child seem not so bad after all.

This self-consolation strategy stayed with me well into adulthood. I worked so that I could travel, and eventually my trips turned into longer stays in an especially beautiful, decidedly traumatized town in the highlands of Guatemala called Todos Santos. The Guatemalan military spent 36 years murdering the country’s leftists and massacring its large Mayan population. The genocide officially ended in 1996, but its damage still played out, and I’d just spent the last year documenting these reverberations in Todos Santos. Now it was time to re-read my field notes and make sense of what I’d seen. I had plenty to occupy me over the next three days alone at the hotel.

Diana rose from her chair, pointing a finger at the photographer. “Whatever you do, don’t make me look all hunched over like a 101-year-old woman. See you tomorrow, eight o’clock sharp.” With that, she scuttled out while shooing away the attentions of a nervous staff.

We widened our eyes at each other. The photographer fretted, “How am I going to make her look not old? She’s old.”

Beth topped off our wine glasses. “Oh, well,” she sighed.

I lifted my glass to her. “Thank you for trying, anyway.”

icon, butterfly

The next morning, I ate alone in the empty dining room, and then walked slowly across the well-groomed lawn back to the room. In my absence, the scratchy blankets the color of sheep had been pulled taut across the double beds. The walls of the room were exposed grey stonework, the floor clay-colored tile. Nubby, off-white curtains covered the wooden panes of a floor-to-ceiling window. I pulled them back in hopes of brightening the room, but ivy and trees shut out the sun.

In Spanish, the word rustico often connotes cheap and basic. That was not the case at this place, with its boutique, lavender-scented toiletries and $150 USD night rooms. The European owners were friends with Diana, and she had a rule that she would only talk to journalists who stayed there, as the walled hotel compound was just down the road from her place.

But I wasn’t thinking about Diana. I was thinking about Carmen, the con artist I’d met nine months earlier in Guatemala. More than anything else that happened during my fieldwork year, I kept trying to make sense of her situation and why it preoccupied me so much. I set up my laptop on a roughhewn vanity and got to work rereading my notes.

Carmen was a young bilingual schoolteacher, the daughter of monolingual Mam Maya speakers who eked out a living selling vegetables. She was a smart, ambitious woman, and she’d taken advantage of her fellow teachers’ aspirations with an elaborate tale about scholarships for advanced studies. A dozen of her colleagues entrusted her with their documents, which she then used to take out $50,000 USD worth of loans in their names. Carmen gave all of the cash to her accomplice, a married man who lived in a larger town nearby. And then she waited.

When the banks dunned the teachers for the loans they weren’t aware of, they took the matter to their local security committee. These vigilantes apprehended Carmen and her partner, holding them captive and beating them for three days in front of a large crowd. Finally, the local police snuck the hostages out of town in the middle of the night. Carmen went to jail, while her partner in crime paid his bail and fled Guatemala.

That February, I’d caught an early morning bus to the state capital to visit Carmen in jail. Her bewildered parents had given me a colorful mesh bag stuffed with cabbage and a bitter green called chu’nix to take to her. I carried another gift, an inspirational memoir by a Puerto Rican evangelical pastor about surviving her husband’s very public infidelity.

The women’s jail was in an unmarked building on a residential street near the bus terminal. I rang the bell and a guard let me in without question and left me to wait in a garage turned bench-lined vestibule. Carmen emerged from the rooms beyond the courtyard, wearing a tremulous smile and a faded purple sweat suit. When I’d seen her from the distance during her captivity, she’d looked like an adolescent girl. Up close, I could see that her narrow face, half hidden by thick glasses, had lost its baby fat. She pushed up the sleeves of her voluminous sweatshirt, revealing thin wrists above delicate hands. She perched on the bench opposite me.

“I’m an anthropologist and I saw what happened to you and I was wondering if I could talk to you about it,” I explained.

“You saw what they did to me?” I had to lean forward to hear her. She blinked rapidly and I thought that she might cry. In truth, I’d only ventured into the center of town once during her ordeal, but I told her about what little I had seen.

It was a Wednesday, and women and children from outlying hamlets had come to the county seat for the market and stayed for the lynching. Onlookers packed the main square, standing atop benches and planters, peering up at the balcony of the office building that bordered the park, which was where the wrongdoers were being held. Vendors worked the crowd, selling french fries in greasy brown paper bags and pink ice cream cones that ran in rivulets down the arms of wide-eyed children. In the silences between the squeals of babies and the greetings of neighbors, I could hear a soft defeated sob drifting across the plaza from the balcony. From the distance, I could see what looked like a large doll in traditional clothing slumped on the ground, her head and arms flopped across a chair.

A friend had warned me against going to the center, saying, “If something happens, they won’t want any witnesses.” Town folk were used to foreign visitors. But these rural dwellers were not, and the sun splotched faces of women in faded huipiles turned to stare at me unsmilingly. Someone murmured, “At jun gring.” There’s a gringa. My Mam Maya lessons weren’t going well, but that I understood.  I hurried home and barricaded myself in my apartment.

“Do you think what happened to you counts as a lynching?” I asked Carmen.

Her voice lost all of its hesitancy when she replied, “Si, fui linchada.” I was lynched.

There had been a lot of gossip about Carmen’s relationship with her accomplice, the handsome crook from Soloma. Nobody believed that she’d stolen the money just because he’d threatened her, as she claimed. People narrowed their eyes and shook their heads when they declared, “They had to have been in it together.”

When I circled around to asking Carmen about her relationship with the Solomero, she gave me the same version she’d given her captors: she met him on a bus and he’d told her he’d hurt her and her family if she didn’t procure large sums money for him. “I’m innocent. Everything I did was to protect my family,” she said guilelessly.

A week later, when I went back to visit, Carmen thanked me profusely for the book about romantic betrayal. “It helped me a lot.” I wondered if the gossip was true. We stayed in touch after she was released and started teaching in a different community. She was always happy to see me, introducing me to others as, “the anthropologist who’s writing a book about me.” When I was with her, I believed in her innocence. Her wispy voice and shy smile, close-lipped to hide crooked teeth, made her seem charmingly vulnerable. But every time I got back on the bus home after our chats, I wondered if feigned helplessness was all part of the con. She never explained why she’d stolen so much money so creatively and then handed it all over her co-conspirator, keeping nothing for herself.

The murmuring of gardeners pruning the trees outside the window pulled me back into the relentlessly rustic room. My fingers slowed on the keyboard as I reread my work, making fussy little edits. Finally, I gave up on writing. A trio of logs had been carefully placed on the hearth, two below and the third above. As we’d discovered the night before, this was just enough wood for a fifteen-minute fire. I could hear Beth’s rhythmic sleep breathing from the other bed by the time the flames turned to embers. Listening to the last crackles, I’d felt annoyed by my insomnia and the stinginess of our log allotment.

Like Carmen, I too had trusted someone I shouldn’t have trusted. While I couldn’t articulate the pain of my betrayal either, I could certainly hear it, whether I wanted to or not. Silence was never silent anymore. I always carried a sound in my head, a high-pitched whine layered on top of all other sounds. There it was, more needling and insistent than the whirr of weedwhacker on the hotel grounds or the whoosh of traffic beyond the thick stone wall. Tinnitus is usually caused by a physical trauma like a loud noise. But in my case, there had been no boom. Just a soft admission that blew up my life as I knew it.

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