American Sister, by Jerry McGahan

American Sister

By Jerry McGahan

I am indebted to my daughter, Anna Hillman McGahan, for some of the background material in this story.



    Has she waited too long for this?  Luisa’s perennial misgiving cycles on.  How far off the mark are her expectations?

Luisa and her husband, Willy, are passengers on a Delta jet landing at the Guatemala National Airport in the pre-dawn darkness. Thirty-eight years before, Luisa’s adoptive parents went to Guatemala and brought home a daughter three months old.  Luisa knew the name of her biological mother, Flori Alvarez, and that she was from the village of Xil, pronounced ‘she’ll’ as in ‘she’ll be coming around the mountain,’ this according to her adoptive mother, Marilyn.  Luisa’s Pennsylvania mother assumed the girl would someday return to visit the country and the parents of her blood.  But for most of her life, Luisa did not want to know anything more about this vast, overt unknown she carried like an infection.  Who, she wondered, would?

Black hair, brown skin, large nostrils spread above her full lips like half-parted wings, the differences setting her apart have always been obvious.  But what of those that are hidden, an entire country, tribe, and family’s worth of obscurity stashed off over the southern horizon?  She’s the ultimate outsider, an expeditionary force of one.  Yes, Willy is here, standing behind her, ready to disembark with her, but in this exercise of something like self-dissection, he has to be an onlooker, purely un-implicated in this absurd station of alienated blood and contravened instincts.

What would it be to breathe Guatemalan air?  Would some particle of her rouse, shove through this shroud of exile and detect something familiar, here in this body where nothing has ever been truly familiar?  Are the consequences of a surrogate identity endless?  Luisa yearns for a rooted past, the home she carries with her like a talisman.  Nope, she nearly says aloud.  Get over it.  It’s taken thirty-eight years to quit waiting for the fairy-godmother moment, for the erosion of that otherness within.

She’s read a shelf of books about the adoptive experiences of a foreign child.  Perhaps the most sobering and condemning of her research had been a documentary film about the return visit to Viet Nam by the twenty-something daughter of a peasant native and an unknown American serviceman, one of the mixed-blood babies saved by the “orphan” airlift.  Thrilled at the prospect of meeting her mother and half-siblings, the thoroughly Americanized woman is blasted first by the stink and bluntness of poverty and then, more gradually, by the voracious expectations of her new family for the wealth she is expected to rain down upon them.  The daughter, once the prodigal she must have imagined herself as, sheds tears of surprised anguish, flees the country and the grasping nest of aroused kin, and severs all ties.  Forever?  Maybe.  It’s taken five years since that film for Luisa to overcome the massif of accumulated inertia to go out and disturb the past, and all for the purpose of establishing a sort of validity that’s already factory damaged.

“Good grief,” Willy cries.  “Look at this welcoming committee.  Is the national soccer team on board?”

They are walking a roped lane through the concrete underbelly of the airport, where hundreds of native faces crowd at them, scrutinizing the line of passengers.  Garbed in colorful skirts and blouses and scarves, the crowd of mostly women must outnumber the passengers by a factor of three or four.  Are they here for deported relatives?

“You’re taller than all of them, a lot taller,” he says, his voice tapering discretely.    She doesn’t answer.

“That can’t be just nutrition.”  But he’s asking.

“I don’t know.”

“I guess that’s what we’re here for,” he says.


“To see how tall your parents are.  All those things, if they hum when they’re scared. Or poke their cheek with their tongue when they’re sad, like you do.  The genetic watermark of your wonderful design.”

She rolls her eyes, then shivers with the chill.  It’s cool in the early morning air.  A half light of dawn sketches a line of mountains east of the city.

The taxi driver eyes her, wondering, of course, at her accented Spanish and her white escort.  “Antigua?” he asks.  As the guide book says, all the drivers know the tourists bypass the octopus sprawl, the diesel roar and smoke and pickpocket throng of the capital and head directly for the resort town a half hour or so south.

Luisa’s Spanish is good and ought to be given that Marilyn saw to it that her adopted daughter took the language every year of middle and high school.  On her own, Luisa chose to minor in Spanish in college.  She will buy a cell phone in Antigua and call Marilyn to update her, Marilyn who is a third partner in this endeavor.  Marilyn never met Flori Alvarez—the mother whose baby she took—but she pushed all the buttons and paid all the tabs needed to get the name, and then asked on every one of Luisa’s last twenty birthdays when she was going to go back and look for her mother, for the one who would be thinking of her on that day.  A child’s birthday is a mother’s birthday, too.


“It’s so green,” Luisa says, bending at the taxi window to see the upper slopes of a volcano in the verging light.

“What’s the guidebook say about putting our luggage in the trunk?” Willy frets.  “He could drive off with it.”

“We won’t get out the cab until he does.”

“What if he takes us to the same woods, you know, where Paulie took Adriana?  To do what Paulie did?”

“This is not the mob.  Think about your birds instead, Willy.”

Willy’s a birder.  He’s got his shirt-pocket Zeiss-Ikon binoculars, a new copy of Birds of Guatemala, and a list of prospective quarry with names Dr. Seuss would admire:  barbet, motmot, potoo, monklet, treerunner, leaftosser.

“Remember,” he says, “if any of your biological countrymen decide to cut out my white liver, you tell them I’m the father and protector of your children.”

Luisa and Willy have two boys, seven and four, both pale skinned and with the features of their father.  They are staying with Marilyn and Ted.

In the taxi, Luisa surveys the horizon to count volcanoes.  One, apparently active, generates a cloud shaped like a comic-strip caption-balloon.


Antigua appeals to Luisa, even as she knows how quickly the white walls, iron rails, tiled roofs, cobbled streets, the upscale restaurants and hotels, and the sidewalk gangs of tourists might lose their shine and invitation, that flattery of newness.

The market, however, is another matter.  It’s not there for gringos.  Bags of many colored seeds, piles of herbs, baskets of orange shrimp and dried minnows, wet slices of watermelon and pineapple, the violets and blues, reds and yellows of native clothing; Mayan faces blinking through the squares of sunlight and shade cut out by rope-stretched, blue and silver tarps; women with babies slung on their backs and baskets on their head, regally erect even as they squat to sort among avocados, tomatoes, and passion-fruit.  Luisa and Willy do-se-do their shoulders from one side to the other, as they slip through the body-crammed channels.

“Whoa,” Willy says, “my sensory system is tanked, so much to see and smell and hear.  They do this every day?”

“I think,” she says, faintly troubled by the chaos of it all.  She’s still waiting for that flicker of recognition within her marrow, the implacable residue of millennia.


In the evening, they wander the colonial streets.  “This is nice enough,” Willy says when they crane back to survey the high stone arch clad in the gold of klieg light, “for looking at butts, that is.”


“All these supposed facades, I mean, they’re more like butts than fronts.”  He gestures down the dark street.  “Rolling steel walls like garage doors to cover the windows and doors and fences made out of spears, instead of boulevards.  The courtyards are shut off inside.  Those smiling faces and flowered bosoms, you know, are turned inward.  No one’s sharing.”

“It’s typical Spanish and Latin architecture, Willy.”

“Or what happens when there’s no middle class to speak of.  The poor get mooned, right?”

She eyes him.  “Weren’t you the one worrying the taxi driver would steal our luggage?”

“Those observations aren’t necessarily contrary.”


Their bus leaves before dawn.  When the sun first crests an hour later, the bus stops at the edge of one town and takes on more than enough to fill the remaining empty seats.  Among the half dozen or so passengers standing in the aisle is a large native woman in western dress accompanied by a girl who looks  somewhere  between five and nine.   When the bus starts up again, the two of them posted then at opposite ends of the aisle break out in a startlingly synchronous spiel, each of them holding aloft key chains with a small circular frame for a tiny photo.  At one point, still in perfect synchrony, the pair breaks into song, a jingle, after which they force one of the key chains into each passenger’s hand, and then without pause, reverse their positions on the bus to retrieve those that don’t sell and to collect money from those who are buying.  The girl, Luisa apprises, can’t be three feet tall and yet she sorts through her tiny fist of bills and coins, counting out change, while at the same time attending to the status of all chains she has yet to retrieve or sell.  When the bus makes a stop for a man alongside the highway, the woman and girl disembark.

“Too bad they left,” Willy says in Spanish.  He cranes to watch them through the window.  Willy learned Spanish from books and tapes.  Willy’s great-grandfather was a Mexican, a man he never met.  But he learned the language for Luisa, because he knew it linked him with her in a basic way.

Four hours later, they change buses in Tilaltenango.  Not far from the city the bus climbs steep switchbacks up a ridge.  After a long climb to the crest, they come out above tree-line.  A wide back of meadow is broken with what look like stone fences but are instead walls formed by the clumped roots of a particular flower.  Bannered with orange and yellow plumes, the flower fences arrow off over each horizon.  Blossoms notwithstanding, this top-of-the-world expanse seems desolate to Luisa, a frontier crossing.  When they descend the other side of the ridge, scarves of mist lash up the slope.  Small trees blink bent silhouettes through the white.  An hour later breaking out of the fog, they see the town of Rio Santos across the canyon, shelves of small, tile-roofed structures terracing a green half-forested slope.

Half the passengers disembark in Rio Santos and with their bags and baskets vanish almost as fast as the moil of blue exhaust when the bus blasts off down the muddy street.  Luisa and Willy climb above the plaza to the Hotel Xela, where they check in.  The worn floors, dark narrow halls, and meager rooms with two cupped beds remind Luisa of a western movie.  “Bed bugs, fleas?” Willy says.  He flings back the covers on one bed but finds nothing.

After they settle in, Luisa leaves Willy paging through his bird book and goes back down to the small lobby, where she asks Blanca, the clerk, about the village of Xil.

“Four hours by truck,” Blanca says.  She’s a short, solid woman with a shape and density that reminds Luisa of a gizzard. She squints, “Why do you ask about Xil?  There are no hotels there, nothing but a village.”

“We’ve heard that it’s beautiful there.  And my husband is interested in birds.”

“Ah, the quetzal.”  Blanca brightens.

“Oh?” Luisa says.  “Ah yes, right, the quetzal.”

The resplendent quetzal is the national bird, the name given the currency, as well, this bird the most well known and revered of Central American avifauna.  Luisa knew from her research that Xil bordered a cloud forest, but she hadn’t known that the quetzal lived in this forest.

“Yes,” Blanca says, “some come from the capital to see them.  There is talk of a park for them, but the people of Xil don’t know if they want a park.”

“Do you know any of the people of Xil?”

“A few who come on market day to sell.”

But Blanca does not know Flori Alvarez.  She tells Luisa that the market day is the next day and gives her the name of a Xil woman likely to arrive, Estela, one of the few from there who speaks some Spanish.  Most in Xil speak only Quiche, the Mayan dialect in that area.  Luisa gets a recommendation and directions for a place to eat and goes back to the room.

“A four-hour trip and no place to stay?” Willy grouses.  He lies in the saucer of bed.  “What the hell do we do about that?”

“There are quetzales.”

“Quetzales!”  Willy creases at the waist, rises and pivots, plants his feet on the floor and stands, one motion.  “Really?  Do you believe her?”

“She has no reason to lie.”

“Good god, quetzales!  We have to find someplace to stay.  Rent a room, a stall, a porch.  Anything.”

“Show me,” she says, “the picture in your book.”

The bird looks like somebody’s fantasy:  emerald green above, pomegranate beneath; two tail feathers several times the length of the bird’s body in symmetrical arabesques of some musical notation; a dark mocking eye and a small, precise bill, smug sufficiency in the company of all that other pageantry.

In the morning, Luisa finds and greets Estela at the market.  She has a basket of avocados, another of potatoes, and a wary eye for this obvious outsider who has sought her by name.  “We’re hoping to visit Xil,” Luisa tells her.

Estela seems perplexed, wary certainly.  If five hundred years of oppression has left a mark, the hundreds of thousands of Mayan Indians killed in the last, recent civil war has savaged that wound between the rich few, their army, and the old nations of native people.

“Do you know Flori Alvarez?” Luisa persists.  She doesn’t know what else to do.  “In Xil?”

No answer.

“She’s a friend of my family,” Luisa says.

“No, I don’t know her.”

“You don’t.  How can that be?  In tiny Xil.”


“Flori Alvarez.”

Estela shrugs.

“But you must know her.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“What?  You don’t believe me?”  Luisa leans at her.

“No.  You don’t know Flori.”

“How can you say that if you don’t know her?”

“I know you don’t know her,” Estela persists.

“How can you say that?”

“Because I know.”

“How?  Why?”  Luisa can hear the loudness in her aggravation.

Estela glares at her.

“Please tell me what you’re not telling me,” Luisa begs.

“Flori’s been dead for eighteen years.”

“She’s dead?”

“How do you have her name, and why do you want her?”  Estela asks this with a sudden, vindicated ferocity.

“I told you.  She was a friend of my family.  But I’ve been living out of the country for all those years, so I didn’t know.  What happened to Flori?” Luisa says, faltering.

“Where are you from?”

“The U.S.,” she says, hoping that the inertia of habit will carry her through this.  Can one be much of anybody from much of anywhere if, in a place they never saw, the mother they never knew, is dead?

“You live there?  You are legal there?”

“Yes, I’m a citizen.  I was born and grew up there.”  A lie Luisa hadn’t intended, but she has too many fronts to manage, too many demands, to stop and elaborate a partial truth.

“Your parents went up through Mexico and crossed the desert?”

“Yes.” Luisa falters, scrapes at her eyes with the back of her hand.

Estela studies Luisa head to toe, inhales lifting, then shuffles to move her basket of potatoes.  “She was killed in the massacre,” she says, her face turned away.  “When the army came.  In 1990.”  She turns back, her eyes thinned.  “And Narciso, too.”


“Her husband.  You didn’t know about him?”  Estela’s suspicion flares again, but Luisa says nothing, keeps wiping at her welling eyes.

“And their little boy, Amilcar,” Estela says.

“Xil was attacked in the war?”

“Yes.  You don’t know that either?  Twenty nine killed.”

“You were there?”

“Not in the village on that day.  I was at my milpa planting.  We left Xil, ran to the forest and hid.  And we stayed there hiding for three years.”

Luisa can’t think of anything to say.

“They had three children, you know, two that lived.”

“In Xil?  They are in Xil now?”

“No.  They lived with all of us in the forest, but then when we went back, those two lived with a friend of Narciso’s, but they didn’t like it.  They left for the capital as soon as they were old enough to live on their own.”

“Their names?  What are their names?”  Her sister, her brother, she realizes, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket.  She blows her nose.

Estela studies her, appraising still, it’s clear.  “Sirio and Julio,” she says finally.  “I was told Sirio had a stall on the Sexta but that’s been a few years ago.”


“The big street with all the vendors.  It comes off the Parque Central.”

“Could we find her there?”

“I don’t know.  Walk around and ask for Sirio and Julio Alvarez from Xil, I guess.  There are hundreds of stalls.  Maybe you could find them.”

“Yes,” Luisa says, tapping her mouth with two fingers, sucking and blowing air through them.  She bows her head.  “Thank you, Estela,” she says.

“What are you going to do?” Estela calls after her.

Luisa shrugs, then waves an arm without looking back.

At the hotel, she waits in the room for Willy who has gone to look for birds at the edge of town.  When he finally arrives, he reads her expression before his foot gets through the door.  He sits with her on the bed, arm around her shoulder, while she tells him; he says nothing, just holds her until she gets up to blow her nose and wipe at her eyes.

“Maybe we can find them,” he says, “Sirio and Julio.”

“We have to go back to the capital.”

“Sure.  What if we do?  What do we tell them?”

“Suppose…”  Luisa sits up, pauses.  “If we can find them, it’ll be by way of somebody who knows they’re from Xil.  So we say we’ve been looking for somebody from Xil who we can hire to guide us to that village to look for quetzales.”

“Oh.”  He straightens.  “We go and come back.  In the company of family, no less.”

“I wonder if they have any photos of Flori and Narciso,” she says.

Willy touches her face with the backs of his fingers.


    In the capital, The Sexta market is a dozen or so blocks, a wide street made narrow with the tarp-roofed, vendor stalls shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides.  People thread themselves by one another on the clogged street among the perpetually halted cars and trucks and carts and on the dark, narrow walkways squeezed between the stalls and the canyonlike fronts of three- to ten-story buildings.  Guatemalan rap, cumbias, rancheras, and mariachi blare distortion from pirated CDs.  Shelves of running shoes, boots, and slippers are backed with stacks of hats and umbrellas, others with used books, powders and lotions, nails and staples, ropes and belts, pants, blouses, blankets, and all sorts of colored-plastic pails, stools, bowls, and utensils.  It’s like hundreds of old-time general stores, Luisa imagines, accordioned together.

Upon returning in the capital, she and Willy checked in at the Hotel Primavera downtown, an old colonial structure with a flowery courtyard, rambling and creaky colonnades, high ceilings and sun-filled windows   They left directly on foot for the Sexta.

The other streets of the city are arteries of din, studded with kiosks of cigarettes and gum and many colored fruits and cut flowers, contrary tones set at each other under the bluest sky Luisa has ever seen.  Within the spaced plumes of bus exhaust, the blue dims, then leaps back.  On their way to the Sexta, they wander through the Parque Central, a fountained expanse walled with the pillared government buildings and the domed cathedral where the doors are so immense they have other doors cut into them, all of this reflected in field-sized pools centering the plaza.  Men and women in native garb sell chocolate-covered frozen bananas-‘choco-banano’-bags of peanuts, oranges, and freshly peeled pineapple stuck on a stick and drenched with salsa, bird seed for the wheeling clouds of pigeons perpetually settling and rising.

On the Sexta, they ask various vendors for an hour or so if they know anyone from Xil, but no one has heard of the village.  “Let’s try Tilaltenango or Rio Santos,” Willy suggests.  “See if we can narrow anything from there.”  This plan works, and in minutes, they find a running-shoe seller from Tilal, who sends them to a woman from Rio Santos selling blouses and scarves.  She remembers a woman from Xil who once sold CDs in the first block off the Parque.  “Three degrees of separation,” Willy says.  Straightaway, Luisa and Willy make their way to the CD vendors.  The first one Luisa questions points across the street.  “There,” she says, “that’s her.”

Luisa is stunned.  “Her?”

“That’s her,” the woman says. “Sirio.”

“Oh,” Willy says.  “Wo.”  He turns to Luisa, who stares across the street.

Luisa balks.  Maybe she’d never believed this would happen, that she only set out to look for what would never be found.  Sirio looks to be in her late twenties.  She’s wearing a green blouse and a native dress cross-striped with purple, lavender, light blue, and green.  She stands quite erect and moves with a degree of certainty.  Her single braid is coiled and fastened to the back of her head.  Maybe her nose and mouth resemble those of Luisa’s; or maybe not.  Maybe it’s only a matter of race.  Because family is only race anyway, just more of it.  In some things there is no knowing to be had, nothing you can put your finger on, but that woman over there is her sister.  There’s too much meaning in that and too little as well, all at the same time.  “I’m afraid,” she tells Willy.

“Do you want to come back tomorrow?”

Luisa says nothing.

“Will she be there tomorrow?” Willy asks the vendor.  “Sirio?”

“She’s there every day,” the vendor says, openly incredulous that anyone would think it differently.

“No, I’m going now,” Luisa says.  Willy follows her across the street.

“Yes,” Sirio says when they enter her stall.  “Can I help you find what you want?”  She regards them with an unconcealed curiosity, her expression asking who is this native clad in western garb with a gringo in tow?

“We were told that you are from Xil.”

Her alertness sharpens.  She says nothing, no sign of admission.  “We are looking for someone to guide us to Xil, to see the quetzals,” Luisa says.  She watches Sirio’s mouth, her hands and how they move, how her eyes follow her hands and how both eyes and hands frame the suspicion it’s clear Luisa and Willy have aroused.

“How do you know about Xil?” she asks.  “And the quetzales?”

“My husband.  He’s interested in birds.  He talked to someone at the museum here, and they told him.  Your name is Sirio, the woman across the street said.”


“Yes, we take trips to see birds.  We can pay for a guide.  We like to find someone from the area we visit, so we know we are welcome.”

“There is no place to stay in Xil.  It is a little place where some families live and nobody goes.”

Luisa can see their hands are alike.  She wants to examine the hands of other native women to see if they are all alike, or if this is the likeness of real sisters.

“Yes, well that’s another reason.  Someone from Xil might know of a home where we can stay at night and take meals.  We will pay for this, of course.”

Sirio lifts her brows.

“We’re offering two hundred quetzales a day for guiding, and that much more for a bed and several meals.”  She and Willy are willing and capable of paying more than the twenty dollars that two hundred quetzales approximate, but she doesn’t want to jolt anybody with money, displace their lives in uncharted ways.

Sirio’s study of them is openly skeptical.  She doesn’t offer an answer.  “I grew up in the states,” Luisa fills the gap, “and that’s where we live.  Do you know any others from Xil?”  Luisa is thinking of brother Julio, (their brother, she marvels), but she dare not say it.


“You’re the only one, on all of the Sexta?”

“I am.”

Luisa glances at Willy to see if he’s as perplexed, but she can’t tell.  “If you’re not interested,” she asks Sirio, “do you have any relatives who might be?”

“No.”  She picks up a whisk broom and brushes dust from a display rack.  “If I did this, you would pay my bus fare?”

“Of course, and for your meals and for your board, too, in Rio Santos and for whatever we can find in Xil.”  Without thinking, Luisa brushes the cloth wallet under her blouse.

Sirio follows the movement.  “You should leave that at your hotel.”

“No one can pick my pocket when I have it inside here.”

“They can do it with a gun.  It happened yesterday, here on the Sexta, in the daylight.  Give me your money or I will shoot you.”

“Really?” Willy says, glances about.

“Stay out in the street in the sunlight.  And take taxis at night,” Sirio says.

“We will,” Luisa says.  “Do you know where the quetzales are?  Have you seen them?”

Sirio doesn’t answer.

“Do you have family in Xil?”

“Not anymore.”

“No brothers or sisters?”


“Nor here?”

“Not now.  I told you.  There is no one from Xil, not on the Sexta.  You know, there are hundreds of villages in this country, maybe thousands.”

“Ah, yes, true.  So, will you do it?  Will you take us?”

“For three hundred a day, I will.”

“Yes.  Good.”

Sirio’s head bobs back a little, a jerk of surprise, it seems, at the speed with which Luisa has accepted.  No further bargaining.  Does Sirio regret not asking for more?

“Can we go tomorrow?” Luisa presses.  “Would that be too soon?”

Sirio seems to ponder, then accedes by lifting her brow slightly.

“In the morning then?  We could meet you at the bus station, at…is seven too early?”

Sirio squints.

“Earlier?” Luisa hurries to ask.  “Later?”  Generally, a bus leaves every hour, Luisa knows, during that time of day.

“You are the ones to say.”


At the hotel, Willy is in the bathroom brushing his teeth.  Luisa stands in the doorway.  “You going to tell her soon?” Willy asks through the mush.

“How can you ask that when we both know how badly it can go?”

“I know, but it doesn’t feel right.”

“I don’t want to ruin it, before we can be any kind of friends.”

“What about the woman at the hotel in Rio Santos and Estela from Xil?  We have to tell her we’ve been to Rio Santos, or she may find out from them.”

“I know, I know.”  Luisa winces.  “I’ll tell her we started off before we knew what we we’re doing.  We had to go back to the capital to get a map and some supplies, you know, batteries for your camera, which is true.”

“What about Julio?  You’ll want to know about him.”

“I do want to know about him.  Tomorrow on the bus, it won’t seem out of place to ask more about her family.”

Willy wipes his face with a towel.

“I’m going for a walk,” she says.

“Good God, Luisa,” he turns, pulls out his brush.  “That’s dangerous at night.  You heard what Sirio said.”

“I won’t go far.  I’m leaving everything here, glasses, watch, money, and I’m wearing the shawl I bought.  I look like I belong.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, then I won’t belong.  Not with you.  I just want to think a bit.”


“About Flori and Narciso.”

“I understand, but go down to the lobby or something.”

“I’ll stay in the light where there are people. And I’m not going far.  I won’t be long.”  She leaves him standing in the bathroom doorway, grimacing, holding the towel like he doesn’t know what it’s for.

Outside, Luisa finds herself headed toward the Sexta, the lower zone nearer their hotel.  On the way, the sidewalks are mostly empty.  One taxi driver slows, but she signals him on.

She’s astounded to find Avenida Sexta nearly cleared, two-thirds of the stalls and a significantly greater fraction of the people gone.  But what remains is still plenty: naked scaffolds, dismembered shelves, boxes, crates, barrels, dollies, carts, wheelbarrows, gurneys, every manner of wheeled cycled trussed with bales of fabric, netted conglomerations of merchandise, topped with tarps and ropes.  Although the chaos could resemble a terrible wreckage, Luisa is taken by the loveliness of it all. The limbs of the men and women remaining, most of them looking to be in their twenties or thirties, glisten in the streetlights, the sweat of their naked arms, necks, and legs gleam. In lamplight, up Avenida Sexta as far as she can see, replicates of the scene before her diminish into the distance like the sets of a thousand stages.

The Sexta is a city within a city, all of this inner one dismantled in the night, trundled off to who knows where, and then trundled back before dawn, Luisa assumes, and resurrected again.  A woman unthreads the pipe scaffold of her stand.  Another is filling a burlap bag with nested cylinders of baseball caps.  Their work is silent and deliberate, and it’s clear they are tired, but there’s more than simple weariness involving the way they move, a surrender of sorts, it seems, to the inexorable.  Practiced and professional as they are to this tide of sameness, there’s something of a scarred devotion here, Luisa divines, the adamant futility made wise long ago, a legacy to the uselessness of any regret.


On the bus the next day, Sirio leans across the aisle.  “Do you have any children?” she asks Luisa

“We do.  Two boys.”

“Why aren’t they here?”

“We left them with my mother.  We wanted to do this alone.”

“Why?” Sirio asks, her brow muscles thrust into a W.

“We didn’t want to take them out of school.  I don’t know that they’d be as interested in what we are, and it would be harder for all of us, moving about as much as we are.”

“Two moving is the same as four moving, two more seats on the bus, that’s all.”  She tosses one hand.  “Rich people here are the same.  They want to be alone.  They pay other people to raise their children.”

“We aren’t rich, and even if we were, we wouldn’t pay other people to bring up our children,” Luisa flings back.

“Do you have family anywhere?” Luisa asks her.

“I am alone.  What do you do in America?”

“We are teachers at a community college.  English teachers.  You have no parents or siblings living?”

“I have a brother in America.  You teach English?”  Sirio’s smile is one of incredulity.

“In the states?  Where?”

“He is illegal.  He went to Mexico, then walked through the desert across the border.  He works in Georgia on a chicken farm.”

“Really?  He’s older or younger than you?  How long has he been there?”

“He’s a year older, and he’s been there twice, a year and a half before and again now.  He will come back at Christmas this year.  His wife and three children live here in the capital.”

“He’s been gone all that time?” Willy asks, leaning out around Luisa.

“Yes, his youngest is three, so he won’t know his father.  Half his life missing with no father.”

“Why did he go?”

“There’s no work here, nothing to work for, to build and leave his children.  A parcela, a hut, that’s what he wants.  A place to plant corn, a papaya tree, maybe enough to plant a little cacao or coffee to sell.”

“Can he stay when he comes back this time?” Willy asks.

“I don’t know.  Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why maybe?” Luisa asks.

“Last time he came back, the second oldest had cut his leg with the machete and it turned bad.  To save that boy’s leg took all of the money.  So Julio went back.”

“They saved the leg?”

“Yes, he limps, but he’s good, Roberto, the five-year-old.”

“Where are they, his family?”

“In the capital, in the big squatters’ camp out by the airport, but they are all right with the money Julio sends.  At that camp they can save most.”

“And you?” Luisa asks.  “Are you married?  Do you have children?”


“Is it impolite for me to ask why?”

“I don’t want that life, a husband who wants children one after the other, and all I do is clean and cook and work, too.  Alone, I am more free.”

“Free,” Luisa whispers.

“Yes.”  Sirio says, her face tipped up, a defiant expression for the irony they both address.  “So why can’t Julio walk around in your country?” she pursues the idea, inverts it.  “He can only work there, in secret.  But you can walk here.”

“I know, Sirio.  It’s because of the difference in the wealth of our countries.  That’s what happens.”

“I know that.  So the wealth your people pile up, and the wealth mine have made for others, sometimes they have been the same, don’t you think?  What your people take and what we give?  It’s been going on for hundreds of years.”

“That’s true, but it’s not easy to tell people today they must pay for the mistakes of those who are dead.  But look, in this situation, Willy and I are interested in your world, both the natural and human one, and we’re paying you something to share it with us.”

“So what if I were paying you to show me America?  I’d offer you two hundred quetzales a day but you’d say no, three hundred, and then I’d say okay, let’s go.  What do you think of that?”

Luisa and Willy exchange glances.  “I’d love to show you around.  But that’s not what you’re asking,” Luisa says.

“What would you do,” Willy asks Sirio, “if you were us?  I mean born to it?”

“I would do the same,” she says matter-of-factly.  “Probably,” she agrees with herself.  “What you’re born to,” she murmurs.  “Yes.”  Then she watches out the window on her side.  When she doesn’t turn back, Willy and Luisa turn to gaze out theirs.  Diagonal planes of green land lift and fall as they pass.

An hour later, Sirio points out a hospital in a compound their bus passes. “They have doctors and nurses, but nobody goes there.”

Luisa waits for her to elaborate.  “Why?” she asks finally.

“The army tortured people there.”

“In a hospital?”

“In the war, that’s where they decided if you were sick and would live, or if you weren’t sick but had to die.  People waiting for the bus could hear the screaming.  The bus doesn’t stop here anymore.  It is marked, that place.”

Luisa twists in her seat to get a parting view, but it’s already gone.


In Tilal, they push through the throng toward a bus where a man on the roof loads boxes and duffels. Positioning a burlap bag of chickens with holes cut where their heads stick out, he calls, “To Rio Santos, Santos, Santos.”  The chickens glower at him.  Luisa thrusts over Sirio’s shoulder and says, “I want you to know we’ve been here.  We went to Rio Santos a few days ago.”

“What?”  Sirio turns, mouth partly open.  Her alarm is clear.

“We were going to try it on our own, but then we found there was no place to stay in Xil.  We gave up and went back to the capital before we thought of hiring a guide.  We needed to get a map, camera batteries, and some other things in the city, anyway.”

“Why would you find me?  There are more people from Xil in Rio Santos.  Others you could pay to take you, when it’s only the truck ride?”

Luisa and Willy look at each other.  Willy drops out with a single, barely visible head shake.  Luisa says, “We wanted to know we had someone for sure.  We didn’t want to go all the way back unless we knew it would work.”

“Yes,” Willy adds.  How lame it all sounds.

Other people are pushing around them.  “You’ve taken this bus?” Sirio asks, puzzling still, it’s clear.

“That’s right,” Luisa says.

Sirio brushes her lips with two fingers.

“To Rio Santos, Santos, Santos,” the man on the bus roof calls.


The truck for Xil leaves the plaza at six.  Even though it’s still dark, there are a half dozen others waiting.  They greet Sirio, then murmur among themselves.  Sirio does not introduce anybody.  The flame of a burner flutters at a breakfast cart on the corner; they each buy a hard roll and a paper cup of hot atole, a corn-mush drink.

They’re sipping and chewing when Sirio says, “There was a toilet in my room.”

“Yes?” Luisa returns.   “A private bathroom.  Is that your first experience with that?”

Sirio doesn’t answer.  They can hear the trunk coming, a sound like small explosions stifled under a pillow.

“Do you have anybody in mind, a home where we can stay?” Luisa asks.  If Sirio does, and it’s Estela’s, Luisa needs a little time to assemble her phrases.

“I do.”

“A place that can rent us a room?”  A family?”


The truck, lights off, draws up alongside.  The group files to the rear and clambers in.  They sit on wooden benches bolted to the sides of the bed.  As the truck pulls away, all but Luisa swirl their cups to get what’s settled and then down the last of their atoles.  When dawn comes, they are on the east side of the canyon so they can follow the sun’s progress in the orange light sliding down on the other side.  By and by, the road switchbacks down into the canyon, crosses a noisy wooden bridge, then switchbacks up and suddenly they are in the sun.  Luisa turns her face into it.  Not long after dust kicks up where the road surface dries flourlike, especially at the hairpin curves.  The other passengers joke and laugh in Mayan. Occasionally, they talk to Sirio and make small ricochet glances at the company she keeps.

They arrive in Xil at noon.  The village sits on the rim of the canyon, twenty or so structures of stone and tile and timbers and corrugated sheet metal.  In the mountains behind, the texture of forest is like the bumpy weave of a sweater, blue flecked with green and brown.  Willy pays the driver and they follow Sirio down the only street toward the sound of sporadic shouting.  In a field, four women are playing basketball.  A netless hoop is wired to a crooked pole.  They call to Sirio.

“Do you play basketball?” she asks Luisa then, when she gets no answer, to Willy.

“How did basketball get out here?” he asks.

“The refugee camp during the war.  One of the women learned it there.”

“No, we don’t play,” Luisa says.  The women players, she notices, are holding nothing back.  They leap, elbow, shove themselves to the basket.  One of them has an infant tied to her front in a shawl.  Nursing?

The smallest of the four stops playing suddenly and approaches.  “This is Juana,” Sirio says. “We are staying with her.” Juana bows slightly and smiles at them, her mouth behind her hand.  Then she wipes the sweat from her forehead with her wrist.

On the street, Luisa scans furtively for Estela.  Luisa can feel her jaw muscles working.  If only they’d told Sirio who they were in that first meeting on the Sexta.  Since then, their sin seems to compound.  She glances at the side of Sirio’s face, that strong profile.

Juana’s house is spare, mud-chinked stone, a tile roof, two rooms formed with a bamboo-mat divider, two pallets in one room, a wooden table, a pallet, and two benches in the other, with a stone fire-pit in the corner.

Juana Molina’s husband, Diego, works in a meat-packing plant in Iowa.

“Where are the guys?” Willy asks.  They haven’t seen any men yet.

“In America.  Working for you.”

“Really?” Luisa exclaims.  “All of them?”

“Many.  Here, we are villages of women.”“Diego, is he in America illegally?” Luisa asks.

“How else?  If he’s a Quiche Indian, who wants him there?” Sirio says.  She and Juana squat at the fire Juana just built, the two of them slapping wet tortillas back and forth in their wet, glistening hands, the motions forthright and gentle at the same time.

When Juana’s three children appear, they introduce themselves and say their names, the two girls speaking so quietly Luisa can’t hear them.  Ramon, the boy, looks about twelve, his sisters a few years younger.

Juana and Sirio fry eggs and serve them with tortillas and salsa.  They pour boiling water in mugs and pass around a jar of Nescafe instant coffee and another of sugar.  Luisa, hungry as Willy, is a little embarrassed at how quickly they wolf it all down.

“More, have more,” Juana cries, as if she’s served them nothing.

No, no, no, they say over and over, push at the barrier of space between them.  “Thank you, thank you,” Luisa fairly pleads.  “Shall we pay for this now?” Luisa asks Sirio, “or later all at once?”

That night, she and Willy have both pallets and the one room to themselves while Juana, Sirio, and the three children sleep together under one blanket in the other.  When Sirio wakes them at five in the morning, the two women already have eggs, tortillas, and coffee ready. The children heaped up along the wall do not stir.

The three of them leave before light, Sirio in front with a flashlight, Willy and Luisa following with their headlamps.  An hour and a half later, when they turn off their lights, they can hear the roosters crowing deep in the valley below.  Presently, they reach a break in the forest, a plot of tilled and terraced earth on a steep slope.  Out of the furrows, ferns grow in manicured rows.

“There.”  Sirio points at the top of the clearing.  “Those three trees.  They are aguacatilla, where the quetzales feed.  We will wait beneath them.”

“What are these?” Luisa asks about the cultivated ferns.

“Americans use them in flower shops, to put with their flowers, leather-leaf fern.  The plantation owners grow them and ship them to America.”

They climb a path along one side of the plot.

“Is this a Quiche plot?”

“This is Quiche work, the Matias plot, but it is not Matias land.  They have none.  The patron can take it back whenever he wants.  They sell their ferns to him.”

“That’s a nice arrangement.”

“He makes a lot more money from their work than they do.  He pays them hardly anything.”

“Can’t they ask for more?”

“He could kick them off this plot.  Then he’d pay somebody else nothing to do it.”

“The best place is here.”  Sirio sits on a large excavated root.  Luisa hesitates at the slick of cold dew.  But when rapt, obedient Willy sits, she joins him.

“I don’t think they’re here,” Sirio says.

Willy sucks in a breath.  “You mean…”

“No, they can still come,” she reassures him.

“I thought they’d be in the forest,” Luisa says.

“Yes, that’s where they live, but they come here at the edge to eat aguacatilla.  That’s all they do is eat and then hide.  They are as lazy as they are beautiful.”

The sun has lit part of the mountain above them.  Soon it will crest the ridge across and sideswipe them with tropical light.  Shreds of mist nest in the dripping canopy.

“How long will we wait?” Luisa asks.

“Shouldn’t we be quiet?” Willy commands.

They sit silently for a half hour, Luisa and Sirio settling into themselves, while Willy leans and twists, his binoculars rustling from his lap to his eyes and back again.  Luisa, pondering the old dilemma, sorts imaginary reactions by Sirio to the revelation she and Willy have withheld—somewhere between eternal rage and a mindless, unexamined affection, a range so wide it’s meaningless.  What’s true is that Sirio can’t even seem a sister, until she knows she is.  What she is instead is their dupe and in other strata, by way of an indiscriminate history, their hireling.  Gunga Din Din Din.

“Something’s there,” Willy says, rising, slanting out, priapic.

“Yes, it’s the quetzal,” Sirio says.  “A female, I think.”

Hembra, the word itself couldn’t be more female.  “Where?”  Luisa scoots to sight off over Sirio’s extended arm.

“Shhhhhhhh,” Willy hushes.  “Oh, oh, oh,” he whispers.

“Whe-ere?”  Luisa’s frustrated vehemence calves off an extra syllable.

“There’s another,” Sirio whispers.  “The male.”  El macho.

The three of them arch and strain.  At length, Luisa sees the male, a limp wavering line that vanishes suddenly when he alights.  Fixing on the point where he disappeared, Luisa makes out his dark, unadorned profile in stillness.  She’s about to complain when he takes flight and crosses through the canopy into a sunlit patch, whereupon flashes of emerald and red-purple trail out like of rays of fireworks.  She and Willy gasp simultaneously, and Sirio laughs with a gaiety so unlike her, laughter both happy and proud, as if she’d made the quetzal, and this was her first showing.

Then the female flies, the same flash of colors but without all the light tethering behind.  In flight, the quetzales pluck fruit from the tips of limbs, then return to lightless coves near the trunk where they perch and eat what they have retrieved.  Luisa does not detect any movement until Willy loans her his binoculars.  Without hurry, the birds turn the grape-sized fruit in their small beaks.

Twice more, they fly out into the light to retrieve fruit, before they merely vanish back into the forest

Willy does not speak.  He stands, slanting still toward where the birds came and left, his partly spread arms a design of reverence and longing.  The two women wait.  Sirio seems pleased, that sense of the fulfilled creator about her, or perhaps something humbler, Luisa revises, the good guide.

When Willy turns, he’s gripping his chin with one hand, his eyes sightless, as he affixes those last images into the album of his mind.  When he does emerge from his trance, he finds Sirio.  “Thank you,” he says softly.

Luisa smiles at him.  Sometimes there’s more to enjoy, Luisa apprises, watching it play through another.

“You should tell her,” Willy says to Luisa in English.


“You should, I think.  Here, I mean.”  He’s in his ardent state.

“That’s so impulsive, Willy.  You’re just caught up in the moment.”

“I know I am.  But it’s a moment that couldn’t be truer, truer than what we do when we try to weigh and measure.  Tell her straight out, right now, and then we’ll deal with whatever it brings.”

“What,” Sirio asks.  “What are you talking about, that you don’t want me to understand?”

“Ha,” Willy says.

Luisa scratches her head furiously, then turns on Sirio, and snatches her hand, clasps it between her own.  “Sirio,” she says, her mouth gaping in the hesitance that follows.  “Sisters,” she spits out finally.  “We…are…sisters.”


    Sirio scowls.  “Are you missionaries?

“No.  Our mother was Flori Alvarez.  I was adopted thirty eight years ago.”

Sirio shakes her head, then laughs, the sound scornful.  “Someone told you that name.  Flori had four children, one that died a month old, another killed in the massacre, Julio and me.  That’s all.”

“She was only sixteen when she had me.  She gave me up.  My American mother never met her, but she got Flori’s name and the name of her village.”

“I don’t believe that,” Sirio says, mulish, her forehead beveled with new edges.  “Narciso, too, she told you that?”

“No, my adopted mother didn’t know who the father was.  Flori was only sixteen then, so I don’t know.”

Sirio shakes her head again.  “No, you got those names from somebody in Rio Santos.”

“I talked to Estela in the market, Estela from Xil.  I asked her about Flori Alvarez.  She told me that Flori and Narciso were killed eighteen years ago, but I didn’t know his name until then.  Or the boy’s name, Amilcar.”

One side of Sirio’s face twitches.  “I don’t believe you.  You come from America and tell me you’re my sister.  It’s crazy.  Maybe they stole you from another woman.”

“No,” Luisa says.

“They do that, you know.  It’s a business.  Some foreigners have even been killed over it.  When the villagers thought they were there to steal babies.”

“No, I wasn’t stolen.  Ask Estela.  I asked her if she knew Flori Alvarez. I said the name before she told me anything.  And I have more than her name.  Flori would’ve been fifty four this year, if she had me when she was sixteen.”

“It’s true, Sirio,” Willy says.  “Would there be any reason to make this up?”

“What I regret,” Luisa inserts, “what we both regret is that we didn’t tell you when we first came to you.”

“You knew this then?”

“Yes, we came from Rio Santos to find you.”

Sirio turns a contorting face toward the ground, then pivots, showing them her back.

“This is all new for us, too,” Luisa adds.

“But you’ve always known,” Sirio, still facing away, “if this is true.  You’ve always known you had family here in Guatemala.”


Sirio faces them again.  “And then after thirty-eight years, you come to see?”

“Yes, I was brought up American.  I took Spanish.  My adopted mother has always wanted me to come back, but I was scared.”

“Scared?  Of what?”

“It’s hard to explain.  Mostly, the unknown, I think.”

“But you didn’t want to know?”

“It took me this long to get over some things.”

“I can’t believe all this.”

“That’s so understandable.”  Luisa wants to touch her but falters.

“My mother wouldn’t give up her baby.”

“It must have been hard for her.  And it must have stayed hard, or she would have told you, I think.”

Sirio frowns.  “How can I think this?  You are from America here to tell me about my mother?”

“I’m sorry, Sirio.  Especially about not saying anything right from the start.”

“Why didn’t you do that?”

“It’s hard to explain.  We wanted to feel our way along, I guess, is the best way to put it.”

“To see if you wanted me as a sister?”

“No, no, no, it can just get off on the wrong foot.  We knew about other people that did this, and when there’s such a difference in cultures, it’s best to go slow.”


“It’s so very complicated.  I’m hoping you can trust me for now, so we can go from here and make the best of it.”

“You know, I’m thinking,” Willy intercedes, “it might be good to start walking down and let some of this stuff sink in.”  He motions with his hands.  “And then pick it up again.”

Sirio seems deaf to him.  She says, “All the time you knew we were here, while we never knew there was anybody else.  You came to the Sexta and hired me to bring you here but didn’t want to say who you were.”

“That was a mistake,” Luisa says.

“That’s what you can do when you are from America.  You can feel bad about somebody else whenever you want to.”  Sirio starts back down through the plot of ferns.

“We . . .” Willy starts, quits.  They hurry behind.  When he sees Luisa is crying, he tries to touch her, but she waves him away.

Not far into cloud forest, Sirio turns on them.  “You didn’t know if you wanted me to know.  You didn’t know if you wanted me for a sister.  You wanted to see first.”

“No, no, no, Sirio,” Luisa wails, “that’s not it.”

“You came here to see me like an animal at the zoo.  I’m not good enough to be in your family, but you want to poke at me like a monkey on a string.”

No, Sirio.  We were afraid…I was afraid of what you might expect from us.”

“What does that mean?”

“That if we were family all at once, you might expect certain things from us.  Before we knew each other even.”

“But you knew who I was.  You made sure you could look and see first.  I think it must be like going to the market and buying a sister, if there’s one you like.”  She starts walking again.

“No, we were warned, about what might happen.  From others who went back.  When children of poorer countries get adopted by people in richer ones, the poor relatives can want a lot.   It’s not the best way to start.”

Sirio fairly lopes down the trail.  They have to run to keep up.

She stops, whirls.  “What do they want?” she demands.

“Things, opportunities, what they think an American life can give them, I suppose.”

“Ah.”  Sirio crosses her arms.  “Ah,” she says again.  “That’s what you Americans would think, that we’d all want to be like you.”

“Not that, Sirio, the freedom, what we were talking about before, that you have to sneak into the States, while we can come down here and pay you three hundred quetzales a day.”

“You knew how much you wanted to pay me, didn’t you?  Is that what a sister is worth to an American?  Three hundred quetzales a day?”

“No we didn’t want to dump money on you and make everything false.”

“But you knew how much money you wanted to dump on me?”

“We wanted what would be fair for the situation,” Luisa says.

“Is that what you thought would be fair for a sister?”

“That’s the problem, Sirio.  We didn’t want that complication involved until we had better footing with each other.”

Sirio shakes her head, juts her lower lip.  “You have the money.  You can go anywhere you want.  You knew who I was to you.  Then after a couple of days, you decide when I find out who you are.”

“Yes, we did Sirio, and I know what you’re saying,” Luisa bows as she speaks.  “But you have to see something of what we feared happening.  I mean, we didn’t have to come at all.  This is frightening for me, all this discovery, whether I can handle it.”

Sirio shrugs.  “You have two families, the one of blood, you could throw it away.  Who can do that?  Is that what America does to you?  You could come and look at me and go away, so I wouldn’t take any more than my three hundred quetzales a day.  We are poor here, but we don’t do things like that.”

“Oh oh oh.”  Luisa squeezes her own chin with both hands, then digs at her eye with her wrist.  “We just didn’t want everything to go wrong.  We didn’t want to be the sudden gringo relatives before we could be friends.”

“Friends?  Are we friends?  When you didn’t want to come here for all these years?  Go back to America and buy some relatives there.  For as much as you want, you can get plenty for three hundred quetzales a day.”  She heads down the trail, her motions silent, mothlike.

“Damn,” Willy says.  “Damn, damn, damn.”

Luisa dashes after her, thinks to catch Sirio by the shoulder and stop her, but she doesn’t know what to say or do if she does.  Yes, to all their mistakes, but there’s something of good faith Sirio won’t see.  If they came to find her, that has to mean something.  “Wait, Sirio,” she says and does catch her shoulder.

Sirio yanks away and whirls.  “We are different people, too different to know each other. When I know that you could look at me and then leave, I see how strange and different anybody can be.”  She cants her head and then says, as if to herself, “A baby born of Flori?  All these things?”  Her mouth flutters but then nothing comes out.  Sirio slips away yet again and wings her way down the mountain.

Willy catches up to Luisa.  They stop to watch her descend.  “Let her go,” he says.  “She’s been hit by a truck.”

“The truck you told me to hit her with.”

“I know.”

“But she’s right about us, how American we are.  When I think how we must…how I must seem…”

“Well, we are American, but we’re trying.  Don’t beat up on yourself anymore.  I don’t think we should try and catch up.”

“All right.”

They walk, their silence towing a darkness along with them.  When they get back down to Xil, the street is empty except for an old woman, a load of crooked firewood tied to her back.  At Juana’s, they find the two women behind the house washing clothes in a large concrete sink.  Juana stares at Luisa with what seems predatory interest.  “Can we stay the night?” Luisa asks.

“You’ve already paid for it,” Sirio says without looking up.  She scrubs furiously on the washboard ruffling molded into the concrete.

“I have a big question,” Luisa says, “that I can’t keep from asking.  Even if it is a bad time.”

Sirio scrubs on.  Juana, draping colored garb on the bushes, stops to stare.  Willy hovers behind Luisa’s shoulder.  “I need to know if you have any photos of them?” Luisa asks.  “Of Flori or Narciso, or anybody in the family.”

“I have one little one,” Sirio says without slowing in her labor.

“Will you show it to me?”

“It’s in the capital.”

“Will you show it to me?”

Sirio compresses her lips as she scrubs on.

“You can’t imagine how much it would mean for me to just see it.”

“I didn’t even know who she was last night,” Sirio tells Juana.

Juana lurches, as if poked out of a trance.  “No.  But I can see it now.  She looks like you.  And Narciso even more.”

Sirio studies Luisa; she squints, her head and shoulders plunging and lifting.

“You’re going to scrub that blouse in half,” Willy tells her.

Juana hoots and then covers her mouth.

Sirio, blushing a little, wrings the blouse, hurls it into a wadded pile, snatches up a skirt, drowns it in suds, and resumes her scrubbing.

“She didn’t say no,” Willy says in English.

“That’s when they don’t want us to know what they are talking about,” Sirio tells Juana.

“I said you didn’t say no about showing Luisa the photo.”

Sirio turns her scrutiny on Willy.  “What do you think, Juana, about this gringo husband?”

Your brother-in-law.”

“Don’t call him that,” Sirio snaps.

“You don’t think he is?” Juana asks, her tone earnest.

“There’s more to it than that,” Sirio says.

“Than what?  Than knowing he is.”

“Yes,” Sirio flings back.

Juana frowns at this.  She seems ready to ally with Luisa in this argument.  Sirio glances at Juana and snorts.

“What?” Juana cries.

Sirio glowers.

“She can be my sister then.  My American sister,” Juana says and laughs an odd stuttering cry.

Sirio flings the rope of wet dress at Juana and stalks off into the house.  Juana fetches the dress and rinses it in the sink.  “I would,” she says, unruffled.  “I’d like to have an American sister.  Who wouldn’t?  I don’t know what she’s thinking.”

“It’s because we didn’t tell her for two days,” Luisa confesses.

“I think it’s because she thought she knew everything about her family,” Willy says.  “This got thrown at her from out of nowhere.”

“Yes.  And Sirio likes being angry.”  Aping defiance, Juana puts her hands on her hip and juts her jaw and brow.

Willy smiles at her.  Luisa leans to see inside the house.

“Have you seen their graves?  Or the place they were killed?” Juana asks.  “Narciso, Flori, Amilcar?”

“No.”  Luisa stiffens.  “No, we haven’t.”

“It’s not far,” Juana says.  “I can show you.”

“Oh, would you please?”  Luisa is still wiping at her eyes.  “And can you show us their house, where they lived?”

“There’s nothing there.  The army destroyed it.  Anything that would burn.  But the place, it’s there.”

“Were you here?” Willy asks.

“No, I was at our field.  With my father.”

“Did you lose family?”

“All except for my father and me.  My mother and three sisters.  Their names are on the Xil pillar in the Parque Central, along with Flori and Narciso and Amilcar.”

“In the capital, you mean?  There are pillars with names, right there near the Sexta?”

“Yes, there. In front of the cathedral.  Why didn’t Sirio show you?”

“She didn’t know…”

“Oh, right.”  Juana dries her hands on her skirt.  “We’ll go now.  I’ll show you those places.”

“I’d be grateful,” Luisa says.  “We’d be grateful.”

They circle Juana’s house and walk down the narrow street.  “Did you know I’ve been to America?”

“To work?” Luisa asks.

“Yes, but I didn’t like it.  I picked fruit.  There was a week when I was sick, and it was time to pick pears.  I had cramps.  Pears are bad.  Like gathering rocks.  It was so hot and my bag weighed almost as much as I did.  I kept throwing up.  That was the week I decided.  When I finally got enough to pay back what I borrowed for the coyote and enough money for the bus, I left that work and came back.”

“How old were you?” Willy leans around Luisa to ask.

“Seventeen.  It was before I was married.”  She smiles.  “Viviano, my husband, is there now.  He picks and plants all things for different owners. He doesn’t like it there either, but we lost our plot here, when the patron sold his cattle and planted cardamom.”  They pass a handful of small houses made of adobe, stone, and wood to a lumpy, grassy plot where Juana points.  “There,” she says, “where Sirio’s house was.”

They stare in silence.  “My god,” Willy intones after a moment, “we’re looking at the swatch of earth where Luisa was born?”

“If she was born in Xil,” Juana says.  “I don’t think there’d be any other place.”

Luisa is unaccountably skeptical, not because there’s anything or anybody to doubt, but only because she’d never imagined her beginning associated with any fixed volume of space on the planet.  It never seemed she had a beginning like other people.  She just came in and out of existence as a kind of disturbed spirit, assigned a permanent alienation.

“Why are you showing them this?” Sirio demands.  She strides up behind them.

“I’m showing them where your home was.  They want to see where the graves are, and where they died.”

“They don’t get to see those places,” Sirio cries, her eyes wide and white and lunatic.

“Why?” Juana says.  “Those places aren’t secrets from anybody else.”

“Sirio.”  Luisa faces her.  “I was born there…I think,” she says, her voice diminishing to a whisper.  “Where you lived.  I started there,” she stresses these last words with a spacing of wonder.  “No matter how badly we’ve gotten off, I have to see where I came from.”  She touches Sirio’s shoulder.

Sirio does not fling Luisa’s hand away, folds her arms instead, turns her face to the ground, and watches from the corner of her eyes.

“Let’s begin again, Sirio,” Luisa whispers.

“Even when I am nothing but a Sexta vendor?”

Luisa ignores the sarcasm.  “That makes no difference.”

“But you said you were afraid to find me because of what I would expect from you.”

“That’s true.”

“Then you are like the rich in this country, afraid of those who do the work.  And yet here you are, wanting to know who we are and what we do.  You say you’re part of my family, but I’m thinking with what you have to fly from America to here, you would be the king and queen in our family.”

The rich, Luisa is thinking, their obsession, their enemy.  When a rainstorm enveloped their bus on the way to Rio Santos, Sirio gestured at the lightning and said the rich thought God was taking their picture.  Willy laughed so hard the bus driver glanced back.

“We have more than you, I know,” Luisa tells her, “but not like the rich you’re talking about.  If I asked, what would you want from us?”

“To say who you are.  From the beginning.”

“Yes, Sirio, we’ve learned that.  I can’t change that now.  But we want to know where to go from here.”

“Help me to go to the United States,” she says, lifting.

“To visit, you mean?”

“No.  To work.  To be legal.  So I don’t have to hide.”

“I don’t know what I can do,” Luisa says, “but I’ll find out.  Whatever we can do, we will do.”

“That’s what I want.”

“There’s maybe nothing we can do, Sirio to make that happen.  You need to know that.”

“There must be a way,” Sirio persists.  “And Julio,” she continues, “maybe there are things he will want.  And his family.”

“I know,” Luisa says.  “So we’ll do what we can, won’t we Willy?”

“Yes, we will.  Of course.”

“This is scaring you?” Sirio asks Luisa.

“Yes.  I need you to know we aren’t rich by those standards where we live.  We have our family and our home, but we have two jobs and nobody works for us.”

“So this is what scared you, this asking?”

“I’m a little scared.”  Luisa is a little stymied at the variations of truth called for here, whether a version on a lower shelf violates any of those higher.  She doesn’t want to say that it’s complicated.  “When will we be able to contact Julio?” she asks instead.

“Julio and I talk every Sunday night.  You can talk to him on the phone.”

“Oh.”  Luisa inhales smartly.

“What would be better?” Sirio asks, as if she’s misread Luisa’s expression as dismay.

“Nothing,” Luisa says.

“So you’re not thinking of us as something like servants?”

“No, Sirio.  But we can’t be just sacks of money either.”  Luisa regrets the bluntness.

But Sirio seems unruffled.  “If there was ever to be a sack of money, it would have to come from you, wouldn’t it?”  Sirio smiles.

Luisa is uncertain how much humor is intended in this.  “Can we not talk about it for a while?  Can we just go do some of these things and see what happens?”

“All right,” Sirio says.

Luisa balks for a moment at the next thought.  “You know,” she says to Sirio, “I don’t think you believe it yet, that I really am your sister.”

“No,” Sirio admits, “not in my heart.   You have everything you want, why should you have my mother, too?  I don’t want to let you have her.  Not yet.”

“I understand.”

Sirio turns to Juana, who watches on with her mouth open.  “I will take them to the graves,” Sirio says.

“Can I come along?” Juana asks.

“Of course,” Sirio returns.

It’s not far.  A trail off the road drops to a knoll with a view of the canyon.  The monument is a desk-sized block of concrete with fourteen names scrawled into one face.  “Is this a mass grave?” she asks.

“No,” Sirio says; they are both shaking their heads.  “Narciso.”  She motions to a place on the ground, and then one on either side.  “Flori and Amilcar.”  We dug the hole wide and buried them at the same time, but they each have their own place.  They are not in a pile.”

“So you saw them?  And helped bury them?”

Both women nod.  They offer no elaboration and refuse eye contact.  “Are your people here, too, Juana?”

“Yes.”  She steps to the side of the monument and cuts out a space with the blade of her hand.

Wordless now, the four of them look out into the canyon.  On up-tipped wings, a vulture courses toward them and then catching an updraft ascends and diminishes to a fleck.

They return to the road and round two curves where Juana stops and stands for a moment in each of the four places where her mother and sisters fell.  She seems resolute, settled with the memory, as if standing in each of these four places is something she’s done every day since.  On the slope above, Sirio points with both arms at the sites where they found Flori, Narciso, and Amilcar, small bare spots a mere three strides apart.  Luisa is perplexed then angered at how achingly indistinct this place is where seven died.  Mute, stupid dirt.  She’s stymied by the poverty of meaning.  Is that bird shit?  It would not be surprising to learn in the thousands of years preceding, others just as cherished fell on these same indifferent, utterly bereft places.

Did Sirio and Juana drag the bodies to this knoll?  What must it be recalling that horror?  Where were the wounds?  How certain was it that they were all dead?  If the survivors feared the soldiers could return at any moment, which they surely must have, then any debilitating grief would have been a luxury they could not have chanced.  Dragging and burying their parents and sisters, would’ve needed some kind of Novocain of the interior, something brute and bestial and deadened on the inside to answer all of that on the outside.

It’s still dangerous here, Luisa sees, on this hillside of this planet.  If she’s found a sister, she’s found lost closets and cellars inside herself.  Too much can spill out in a place like this; doors busted open, she can feel all the anger and hatred and grief this other world with its laconic urgencies and detached, obscured, and tidied sufferings wants to pour through her.  If she lets it.

Willy hugs her from behind.  Squeezing her hard, her arms trapped, he must sense how much she craves the strength of his clasp.  She wants it to hurt.


Jerry McGahan, 72, is a retired beekeeper and lives with his wife in Arlee, Montana, where he writes short fiction, essays, and novels; gardens; and paints. Ploughshares, North American Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, and The Gettysburg Review, among other literary journals, have published his stories and essays.  He had a novel with Sierra Club Books and a collection of short fiction is forthcoming this summer from Schaffner Press.  His paintings can be seen on