On a Sweet River

On a Sweet River
Picture Credits: Andreas Riedelmeier

Josua walked around the outside of his house and small garden twice as he always did, every night.  The first time around he spoke softly to the demons of mischief and disease, asking them to spare his family.  He touched the maize and the beans climbing up the corn stalks, and asked for abundance.  The second time he spoke to his companion, the earth, thanking him for life. He returned some drops of water from the jug to its source, the creek that ran to the river, and touched each banana tree while looking at the moon. You must know how to give to our Mother Earth, and she will give back. He lit the copal resin, its smoke respecting the earth, water and maize.

Later, lying in his hammock warm enough in t-shirt and cotton pants, his internal dialog continued, putting into quiet words his fears for his elderly mother. She had lived a very long time in uncertainty and as death’s companion. He asked for understanding of the troubled times and for news of brothers and an uncle disappeared during those years.

He remembered the evangelistos who had come to town by bus earlier in the day. Right there, as the sun beat down on the dusty road, they told of a just and merciful God.  They told the story of the extermination of the Canaanites.  Their all-loving God had ordered the killing as punishment for their sins. Did that god order the soldiers to rape the women and kill the men and boys in Josua’s ancestral village in the Altiplano? Josua had faith that his spiritual guides were protective, but he wondered where they had been while the government forces spent more than thirty years hunting down his people, the peones, believing them to be rebellious.

Lastly, just before sleeping, he spoke with his ancestors, dedicating his work of the day to their memory.  He thought of his friend David, and asked Mother Earth to watch over him too.

David had stepped off the morning bus from Guatemala City, months earlier.  He wasn’t a tourist; he carried only a backpack and small duffel bag.  He wasn’t an evangelisto; he had copper wires braided into his red beard and a few ceramic beads in his hair, and he did not wear a white shirt.  By sundown of his first day, everyone in town knew about David.  Without actually looking at him, they knew the color of his eyes was identical to the color of Santa Maria’s dress in the Iglesia Isabel la Catolica nearby. They saw strong muscles and rough hands.  He didn’t go straight to Holly’s, the one bar in town where the tourists went to feel at ease with their own kind; he went to the tienda.  In effortless Spanish, he spoke of the rains last month and of the odd circumstances surrounding the misplacement of the funds to repair the bridge over the river.  He drank a few Gallos quickly, since quickly was the only way to enjoy them while the beers were still relatively cold.  He sat alone at the edge of the road and watched the chickens peck in the dust and village life pass by.  He sat quietly, without checking his watch or fidgeting with his clothes. He bought Chiclets from one of the smaller boys.  The locals observed him impassively. After a while, he stood up and looked around him. Josua, shaded by his straw hat raveled at the edge, was buying tortillas across the road, and David left his gear and went over and spoke to him:  “Amigo, con permisso.”  He asked Josua if there was a place to stay, not a hotel, but a place to rent, maybe a room or a small house. Josua led him away from the river, where the forest began, and where Maria Kok had a one-room house for rent.

He settled in with little fuss.  He didn’t ask for anything, he didn’t pry.  He ate rice and beans and tortillas and slept in a hammock.  He charmed the children with his tricks with a Frisbee, and they brought him to their homes. That’s how everyone in town came to accept David.


*   *    *    *


When Josua walked down the dusty path to town the next day, everyone greeted him.

“Que tal, amigo?”

“Bien, bien.  Y tu?”

Everyone knew everyone in this small pueblo and was bound to everyone by the weight of memory. All the neighbors, every one, had come from the highlands, like Josua’s family, and each was trying to make a new life in this place where the growing season was different, familiar plants for food and medicine didn’t grow, and where the men and boys were still learning how to hollow the trunk of a ceiba tree to make a cayuco in order to fish in the river to provide protein for their families.

At dawn shopkeepers opened their stalls, and a profusion of bright plastic brooms, tarps, and kitchen utensils spilled into the street. Transistor radios were turned on, each to full volume, each to a different station. Fishermen set out their catch, and fish scales glistened on their rough tabletops. Pickup trucks from other villages offloaded crates of melons, bags of onions and habanero chiles, baskets of small apples, limes, and pineapples.  Also in those pickups were young women with babies tied to their backs, grandmothers and grandfathers, short and bow-legged, and others come to shop in the tiendas or to sell scant produce grown in their small milpas.  Some spread out blankets or pieces of cardboard and arranged peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers for sale.  Mothers with babies swaddled in perrajes carried their laundry to the river. The day was like all others.

The morning bus roared to a stop, its fumes and music accompanying the sunrise. When strangers got off, they were either tourists come to see the river and the falls or evangelistos in white shirts come to sell Jesus.  This morning only the bus driver got off to pee behind the tienda and to buy himself one cold Gallo.

Josua walked to the dock to check on his little boat and to listen to the last argumentative voices of the egrets on the small island opposite, before they settled down in the branches of the mangroves to sleep the hot day away. The heat would suck the smells out of the packed earth:  rotting fruit, excrement, spilled spices, stale beer.  Josua hoped a tourist would hire him to make the trip upriver to visit the falls and to bathe in the hot sulphur springs that bubbled through the cracks in the rocks close to shore. The day seemed cooler if you lay your body in the hot water in the shadow of the thick vines.  Or maybe David would need a boatman and a translator for one of his trips into the remote villages.

Often he asked Josua to take him up and down the river in his small boat. He told Josua he had come to take testimonies from families about the bad times so that all the world’s people would be witnesses. The word spread with the river current, and one by one David, with Josua translating from Q’eqchi’ to Spanish, listened to the stories, wrote them in a notebook, felt the anguish, and sometimes visited the mass graves.

David would pay him ten quetzals for a day’s work, and Josua would go to the tienda in the evening to play dominoes with the other men, who spent their days sitting outdoors under a blue tarp, nursing beers, moving the flies through the still hot air, waiting. Then Josua would walk home to his dinner and, afterwards, would again walk twice around his house and elaborate on his conversations with his spirits, before sleeping, fitfully.

Earlier Josua had asked David whether he thought the evangelistos were correct in their beliefs. Without condemning their opinions, David told him that he believed there was a lottery to life. Each individual’s place was defined by chance, not by being born in God’s image. Each individual’s legacy was determined by his choices:  what to deny, what to applaud, when to be silent, and how to exercise responsibility. He saw his work as the obligation one brother has to another. Josua had a lot to think about.

David also had much to think about – not only the horrors to which he was bearing witness, but also the miasma of despair that hung like a dense storm cloud over Josua’s family. Each evening he would eat his dinner alone and write in his journal. One evening he wrote:  “Josua’s mother has taken me into her heart, even though she is too shy to look at my face. She came out of her doorway in bare feet and gave me a pumpkin today, and I know she has only a few. I fear that she will die of heartbreak, not knowing the fate of her two oldest sons and her brother. I hear Josua’s love for her in the one word I can understand him say to her, Mami.  I don’t know how to help her.”


The next day David and Josua traveled up river into Lago Izabal and to the small village of El Chapin where they heard and documented more testaments.  As they often did, they stopped at the hot spring on their way home to soak and to soothe their burdened memories.  They tied the small boat to a vine and slid into the warm water.  Often a dugout would paddle by:  a fisherman checking his crab traps or a workman moving supplies.

The stillness of the midday forest echoed a voice: one man in his cayuco calling out to them. He asked for permission to join them, as he was hot and tired and wanted confirmation of his directions. In his boat was another older man, slumped in the bottom, clutching a woven shoulder bag. He was bare but for shabby trousers.  Josua grasped the older man’s hands, then gently raised his chin to see his face more clearly.

“Mi tio,” he whispered, and tears quickly welled and spilled over. My uncle.

Josua and David took him to the village, to Josua’s mother, the old man’s sister.  For days the brother and sister sat together in the shade of her doorway quietly talking, sometimes keening, their backs bent. When all the words were spoken, the old man reached for his bag. It was the one he had carried since boyhood, black and white, woven by their mother, made to carry tortillas wrapped in banana leaves. As though he was a spirit releasing the winds, he took out one item after another.

First, the collar of an old shirt, so threadbare that the white background was like dust on a cobweb. Still visible were the stronger polyester threads of gray and blue.  Josua’s mother reached for it with trembling fingers, stroked the edge, and fondled the one button.  Next, a belt, grimy with years of wear, sweat-stained, scratched and nicked, but unlike any belt in the world for the name scratched near the buckle: Checha.

There was more. He took the strap of another bag out of his bag; this one green and black, made long ago by her own hands for her second son, Herson.

These pitiful bits were the remains of her sons. They were all she had to remind her of their existence and of their deaths; all she had to know of their fate. But now she knew, and that was the gift her brother had brought home in his black and white bag.

David went with the family and the neighbors to the sacred burial ground. They returned the remnants that had been Checha’s and Herson’s to the earth, restoring dignity to the family and honoring their spirits and their ancestors.  He wondered about the choices and the beliefs that led to these young men’s early deaths. He thought of responsibility and brotherhood and justice; and he speculated that their similarities outweighed their backgrounds – his of privilege, theirs of want. When he looked up from the newly dug hole in Mother Earth, Josua’s mother held his gaze.

Back at Josua’s house, the only sound was the chickens rummaging in the yard.  The crying and the words were over.  Anxiety and tension had given way to sadness and resignation.  The day’s rituals would continue – coffee beans would be hulled, maize would be ground, eggs collected.  Josua would talk with his companion, the earth, and, in the village, the evangelistos would sell their merciful god.


About Elizabeth Morris

Elizabeth (Betsy) is a retired banker who thinks of herself as a sailor, having spent five years sailing along the wet edges of South and Central America.

Elizabeth (Betsy) is a retired banker who thinks of herself as a sailor, having spent five years sailing along the wet edges of South and Central America.

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