Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's About Time

Writing from London

In these dark days at the end of the year -- twilight begins between two and three p.m. here -- I treasure the light even more than usual.  A few days ago I watched the winter solstice sunrise at Avebury, a village of sacred stone circles about 19 miles from Stonehenge -- but even older than that more famous site.

In those fields of crop circles, cows and sheep, appreciation for light in winter reaches near-mystical levels, a throwback to the relatively recent times when families closed their doors as soon as dark fell, and only jumping flames from cook fires and candles lit their nights.

My friends were astonished I chose to be in England. "You've written a book about the Maya, spent years in their lands.  Why aren't you going to be at a Maya site?"  As the last day of the 5,126-year Maya calendar, 2012 was a very special solstice indeed in Maya country, in the rain forests and highlands of Central America.  But I reckoned sacred sites the world over shared something, that the priests and commoners of ancient Maya lands would understand those who worked to place giant stones just so among Avebury's green fields, both peoples honoring Mother Earth and the sun that warmed her, providing them with food.

Exactly one year ago, in 2011, I did go to a Maya site for the winter solstice.  Earlier this month, the travel writing site,, ran my account of that visit.


WINTER SOLSTICE, 2011 – The darkness enveloped us like a warm blanket as we walked carefully toward the center of the ancient ruins of Izapa. We carried a flashlight but did not turn it on, believing our eyes would adjust to the dark. With no warning, from the direction where I thought the royal throne should be, light shot into our eyes, blinding us to a halt.

                                    To continue reading, please go to Gadling

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gore Vidal's Old House

By Mary Jo McConahay

In later years...President Theodore Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Longworth, congratulated me every time we saw each other: "You got out. So wise."
"Reflections on Glory Reflected,"
-- Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992

The day Gore Vidal died rain fell hard on the roof of his old house alongside the ruins of Our Lady of Carmen in Antigua, Guatemala. Braids of thick plaster twisted gracefully around chipped columns, dripping after the downpour that signaled the end of the canicula. Those golden weeks of sun and hummingbirds in the midst of the rainy season were over.
                   Read the rest of the story on

"Anais Nin visited her dear friend Gore in this house, even nursed him through a near-fatal case of hepatitis caught eating from pots in the market..."

"The day Vidal died, I stood on the curb across the wide street and considered the rich life in the author's house at the beginning of his career: sex, politics, the magical work of writing..."

 "You need only read him to see he understands the concept of "empire," because he lived in an outland of the American imperium..."

Read the entire story on:

Saturday, June 30, 2012

What is Creative Nonfiction? Let's Talk...

A discussion coming up for members of Left Coast Writers: 
Currently, many of our best magazines - The New Yorker, Harper's, Vanity Fair, Esquire - publish more creative nonfiction than fiction and poetry combined. Universities offer Master of Fine Arts degrees in creative nonfiction. Newspapers are publishing an increasing amount of creative nonfiction, not only as features, but in the news and op-ed pages, as well.---Lee Gutkind
So what is Creative Nonfiction?
A start:

Monday, July 2, 2012 || 7pm
Book Passage-Corte Madera || 51 Tamal Vista Dr.
Corte Madera ||
Join Mary Jo McConahay in a discussion about “The Varnished & Unvarnished Truth”.  She will be speaking about her experiences writing award-winning creative nonfiction, as well as the genre as a whole.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Agent and Author

Friday, May 18, 2012

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican

                                 SEE THIS MOVIE!

            I always knew there was a place for a woman at the altar besides in a coffin.
                              --Newly ordained woman priest

             When I was a young girl, I used to help after school by banging erasers together to get the chalk dust out. One day the Catholic nun who was my teacher said, "Let's stop now.  I want to show you something."
           We walked across the empty schoolyard, she in black habit and veil, a long rosary swinging from her waist, I in a uniform blue jumper and white blouse, hurrying to keep up with Sister's long stride. We entered the parish church by a side door. 
            The simple stone chapel that had served the town for decades was being absorbed into a modern design. Inside, by the dusty half-light of a building under construction, I could see a brand new stepped altar that would be visible from three sides by the congregation. I followed Sister all the way to the front, walking around scaffolds. When she bid me mount the altar with her, I was astonished.
            This was before the momentous changes of Vatican II, a time when a young girl knew she had no place on the altar where mass was said.  I had memorized the Latin responses, but unlike my brothers, I would never serve mass.  I was not a boy.
              Inside the new parish church, I hesitated about stepping on the altar. "It's all right," Sister said. "It's not consecrated yet."
            Vatican II called on all members to participate more fully in the life of the Church, carving an opening for the voice of the laity and communities of the faithful to be heard, although women priests was not on the agenda.  Nevertheless, by showing how the Church might remain the same even as it changed, Vatican II opened the door to fresh thinking that even today's conservative hierarchy is finding hard to overcome.  And let's not forget the beauty of synergy: Vatican II's effects unfolded at the same time a wave of feminism was breaking over much of the world.

    Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, filmmaker Jules Hart's compelling new documentary, uncovers the history of women priests in the Catholic Church from its beginnings, showing how an increasingly patriarchal institution squeezed out women from formidable roles over the centuries.  Churchmen wrote laws that said an exclusively male priesthood was so central to doctrine that it was a given, a rule that could not be broken. Nevertheless, some clear-eyed bishops have begun again to ordain women, believing that the unmistakable interior call to the priesthood, a vocation, is not restricted to one gender.
            Where there is smoke, of course, there is fire. The bishops who ordain women -- they can be counted on one hand -- are considered renegades. As insistence grows, especially from the laity, to ordain women openly and with joy, the Church digs in its heels, lashing out at the new priests and their supporters.

           When she was ordained, a South African nun who went to jail under apartheid for quietly accepting all races into the school of which she was the principal, was kicked out of the Dominican community that had been her home for decades.

Fr. Roy Bougeois, awarded the Purple Heart for military service in Vietnam and a Maryknoll priest for almost forty years, is being excommunicated for his support of the women, the most severe punishment the Church can inflict.
            This is a strong film, although for me, using the stereotypical "Pink" in the title is a minus.  So is a brief section, too facile, I think, suggesting priests' sex abuse crimes would have been fewer or non-existent had women priests been accepted in the Church.   I believe more gender balance in the priesthood would obviate many difficulties, enabling it to minister to, and with, the faithful better. The sex abuse crimes are not about "men," however, but about the arrogant, hurtful behavior of some priests and a hierarchical system riddled with corruption and impunity.
            You will learn from Pink Smoke and even laugh with it. No matter what you bring to the movie from your own history, it's difficult not to admire the women aspiring to ordination, to answering their call, and their Catholic brothers who support them.

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican - Eye Goddess Film


Friday, May 11, 2012

No More Sister Moon: THE NEW CLARE

Remember Zefferelli's almost hallucinatory "Brother Sun Sister Moon?"  There's another take out there now.
St. Clare of Assisi, for eight hundred years regarded as the "little plant" who grew alongside the great mystic poet saint, Francis, is emerging as a towering figure in her own right, thanks to a burst of scholarly interest by medievalists and feminist historians.  The wealthy girl who fled her father's house to work and pray alongside Francis and his friars, founded an order of religious women that continues to follow the first Rule written by a woman.  From the period that produced the scholar and linguist Héloïse (of the tragic couple Héloïse and Abelard), and the theologian and visionary Hildegard von Bingen, Clare's writing and the disinterred oral testimonies of several who knew her in life are drawing attention to this woman who found a path to the divine through a life of voluntary poverty.

On May 10, Santa Clara University presented one of a growing number of symposia dedicated to the new work on Clare, headlined by Franciscan scholar Brother Bill Short, academic dean at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, with discussion and reflections by five other speakers before an audience of more than a hundred persons.

My small contribution, as spoken:

I have been educated in the Ignation tradition, and I am a journalist -- in Central America I covered war, displaced people, regional militaries. It is natural for me, as it might be for any of us, to look for dimensions of the life of Clare, of the spiritual tradition she represents, in the life of the world I know.

And she is present.

In some areas where I work, poverty is as extreme as you will find in the world. Clare chose her life of poverty, indeed had to struggle for it. Residents of Brazilian favelas and the ungiving countryside of Chiapas do not choose their poverty. 

But I have met many who do not despise it.

Instead, in Latin America are those who see a pattern and purpose to their lives in reflection upon the very poverty in which they live, asking questions about what they might expect of a dignified life in this world.  The faithful often ask questions rooted in the Gospel, which they have heard their whole lives and in many cases study with each other, even those who cannot read, dynamically making connections with their own lives.  

In countless interviews, I have heard ordinary Salvadorans, for instance, identify their station with that of Jesus, much like Clare wrote to her dear friend Agnes of Prague, looking at "that mirror suspended on the cross."

The very first story I reported in El Salvador was in the capital where some two hundred peasant families fleeing the violence  in the countryside camped with torn blankets at a church on the floor of its patio.  It was Advent.  A boy had drawn a picture of the creche in the stable, and written underneath in a child's hand:  "Even the Baby Jesus had no house to be born in."

Over the years I realized the highest praise that could come from the struggling people was to say of a particular bishop, or someone from the outside,  "Esta con los pobres.  He is with the poor."

Franciscan scholar Regis Armstrong has written, "Clare's experience of poverty taught her to open herself completely to God, to come before God with increasing confidence."

In Central America, where 50,000 people died in tiny El Salvador in the 1980s, 17,000 in Nicaragua -- most as a result of the Contra war managed and funded by the United States -- and some 200,000 died or disappeared in Guatemala, almost all unarmed civilians, it has been women, sometimes indigenous, invariably poor, who have risen above stereotypes, and led the post-war quests for justice and healing. 

I have been to many exhumations, where the remains of those massacred in numbers are disinterred from anonymous burial places, so they may have proper burials, their names and very existence acknowledged by a wider world.  Almost always it has been the women of the community who have faced authorities, brought in the forensic scientists, to make sure these extraordinary processes take place. 

Armstrong has said of Clare, "vulnerability leads to strength." But who would choose to live on less than the minimum daily caloric requirement as most Central Americans do? Or in one of several countries where income is less than $1000 a year? If we are not poor, knowing Clare might inspire us to being with the poor, and learn from the poor of our own day.

As a reporter, I always wrote what is called the first draft of history, getting a story as quickly as possible and putting it out.  Now as an author on Latin America, I feel I may be writing second drafts. I have also come to realize how much history is a collection of stories, of life stories.  Some are so outstanding, rich with valor and self-examination, they serve as models, like that of Clare.

But they must be true.

The first draft of Clare's story, the medieval woman, the "little plant" that grew near St. Francis, the Clare that we know from her canonization decree written by churchmen, was not untrue.  

However, recently we are seeing a burst of scholarship based on Clare's own writing, and on oral testimony of many who knew her in life, scholarship that is going deeper.  The moment could not be more timely, to shed light on the dynamic Claretian spiritual tradition.

Witness the shocking and complex recent Vatican assessment of American sisters, which begs the questions, not for the first time:  What is the place of religious women, or any women, in the Church which does not grant them the space, time, even a few words of their own to dialogue on the priorities of their lives? To what extent do U.S. women religious (with their vow of poverty) represent women in the Church?

Not as a journalist who has investigated this with independent sources, but as a woman educated in Catholic institutions who is a practicing Catholic, I have a hunch.  I'll go out on a limb here, and suggest that yes, the vision and priorities of our women religious is not unreflective of those among Catholic women, and of men among our Catholic brothers.

I regard Clare as a saint for a lifetime.  As a young girl I was enchanted by the other young girl from the far past with the -- let's face it -- radical, unconventional behavior, a girl who followed her soul. 

Now, much older, older than Clare was when she died, I am most amazed and respectful of her consistency over a lifetime, her unwavering position in the face of challenge, and in the face of vulnerability she might have escaped at any moment of her choice.

Early on the morning of Nov. 17, 1989, I was among four journalists first to arrive at the scene of the massacre in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter.   Four bodies were on the grass of the priest's yard, covered by white sheets. Fr. Jose Maria Tojeira, then Superior of the Central American Jesuits, quickly took me to see the others who had died.  When we returned to the bodies on the grass, two photographer colleagues had arrived.

I said, "Father, you have to take off the sheets."

Something like alarm seemed to cross Tojera's features but passed quickly. He said, "Promise me these photos get to the Jesuits." 

When the sheets were taken away and I saw the faces of those I had known in life, my first impression was not, "They received the martyrdom they sought."  

Instead, a thought came strong and clearly to me: "They died because they were consistent, unwavering. " 

Eight hundred years ago, Clare, our contemporary, wrote:

What you hold, may you always hold,
What you do may you do and not stop,
but with swift pace, light step, feet unswerving so that even your steps stir up no dust, may you go forward, securely, swiftly and with joy. 


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Faces of Devotion

ANTIGUA:  For all the glitz and tourism that has come to this highland town since the end of Guatemala’s civil war in the early 1990s, its heart remains the same: the devotions and processions of Holy Week.

Like that of Seville, Spain, Antigua’s outpouring of public displays of traditional Catholicism is a spectacle that hearkens back to the days when the Church was not simply a place to frequent on Sundays, or to ignore altogether, but a powerful force that ruled imperiously while it brought communities together in their own ways of sharing beliefs.  

Neighbors construct a carpet of colored sawdust.

While others watch, and wait for the procession to pass.

In these forty days of Lent the images of the suffering Christ, his mother the Madonna and saints immediately recognizable by the faithful are taken from the churches where they reside. 

 It is a huge effort, but an honor to carry the statues through the streets amid clouds of incense on heavy platforms called andas, walking upon carpets of sawdust, pine needles and flowers carefully constructed over hours by neighbors. 


As local bands march along with the procession, music floats over the town. 

The exertion and piety are themselves a kind of prayer.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Award: It's the Sauce

By Mary Jo McConahay
Solas 2012 Best Travel Writing Gold Award Winner Travel and Food

The small restaurant on the island in Lake Petén Itza was so dark I thought it was empty. As my eyes adjusted, I saw Drafter, the only diner, sketching on lined paper with a pencil bearing chew marks, beneath the unblinking stare of an antlered deer’s head. The waitress, a young, dark-haired woman wearing a light cotton dress, stood at his table holding a menu glued to a tablet of wood. Drafter did not look up.  He gently waved away the plank, all the time shading something on the paper with the side of the graphite point.

“Armadillo,” he said.

Si, señor,” said the young woman.

She turned to me and indicated a place a couple of tables away. I sat beneath another antlered head. She approached with the oversized menu.

Behind her in the dimness, high on the opposite wall, I saw a jaguar’s face taking shape. His body sliced away, the head and broad neck came out of the wood panelling like a creature emerging from dark foliage. He roared silently, tongue rich pink, amber eyes open forever. Waiting next to the table, the waitress seemed small and waif-like among the jungle animals.

“Uh, give me a moment,” I said, taking the plank off her hands. “Por favor.”

“Take all the time you need,” she said.

The great Mesoamerican rainforest once called Gran Petén has never been known as a gourmet’s paradise. On the other hand, the continuous tropical land that spreads across parts of three countries was a gastronomical democracy. Whatever might be plucked from trees or picked from the jungle floor, or brought down with gun or bow, is what landed on all plates from southern Mexico’s Chiapas across Guatemala’s northern Petén region to Belize. Beans and rice might accompany the deer, rodent, nuts or bird, but roughly the same meals appeared on the laps of indigenous Maya, and after the sixteenth century, the plates of conquering Europeans. By the 1990s, things had not changed much.

Tepesquintle,” I said when the waitress returned.

From the corner of my eye I saw the blonde Drafter lift his head and regard me. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties, younger than I, but not too young. I figured he knew I had been staring at him, so I did not return his full-on look. He flipped a page of his notebook and began to draw anew.
The waitress served our meals. Mine looked like pot roast in thick, red-brown sauce, but the light was so poor anything might have looked like stew. Tepesquintle is a 40-lb. rat that roams the jungle at night. I knew it was edible. Old books about Petén wrote of the animal as the occasional food of chicleros, men who tapped jungle trees for chewable sap, boiled it into blocks and sent it by plane to the Wrigley gum factory in Chicago.

I pushed the food around on the plate, cut a small piece. Itdidn’t taste like chicken. It wasn’t gamey or beefy. It tasted like nothing I had ever experienced, rich without being heavy, meaty but light. The aroma was delicious, herbaceous. Finishing, I told the waitress to give my compliments to the cook, and asked for the sauce recipe. She hesitated as if she didn’t understand, but my Spanish is pretty good. She walked toward the kitchen.

“You’re absolutely right,” said the Drafter from his table.

"I beg your pardon?" (Of course, I did not know his name then. Later, when he told me it was Edwin, I told him I’d rather call him Drafter, which to me fit him better. “Yes, it calls up ‘Drifter,’” he said. “It calls up ‘Daft,’” I said.)
“It’s the sauce,” he said.

The lithe waitress returned, followed by a portly woman in a grease-spotted apron. Wisps of salt and pepper hair bristled out from her blue headscarf. The cook, for that’s clearly who she was, placed her hands on wide hips and recited the ingredients for the sauce.  Like the most competitive international chefs, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give their precise measures.

“Write it down,” said the Drafter.


“Write it down.”

I took out my notebook and asked the cook to repeat. I thought she might be annoyed, but instead she seemed proud that what she said was being registered, taken down in words. I wondered whether, like most women in these parts, she had never learned to read and write.  This time she gave the recipe a title.

Tepesquintle Rodent Sauce
Thyme, laurel, cumin, black pepper, garlic, green or red pepper, tomato, onion, V-8 juice, white wine, cinnamon, honey, consommé, Saborin (like Accent).

She looked over at the Drafter, who was listening intently. Turning to me again, she winked and whispered, “For armadillo, replace the wine with vinegar.”

When I left the restaurant, heading for my hotel, the Drafter followed, catching up and speaking as if he were continuing the thread of a conversation we had begun somewhere, but I had forgotten.  “They can be farmed, you know,” he said.  “Those raised domestically are indistinguishable to the palate from those in the wild, when prepared in the same sauce.”

He went on about seasoning and spits, chattering in a vaguely public school accent embedded in origins I could not exactly pinpoint. India? The Caribbean? His light skin argued against them, but he didn’t seem British either. I negotiated puddles on the road. I felt confused. My face must have been saying, “What in bloody hell are you talking about? Why are you even talking? Who are you?”

Rounding a corner, he saw my expression, and stopped.  At first, his look said the problem was mine, then slowly, his deep brown eyes lost their sparkle. “The tepesquintle,” he said.I thought you’d be interested.”

That’s when I made my mistake.  Or set the course for one of the most memorable week of my life. We faced each other on the walkway that runs a ring around the island, which is only a mile across. Modest old houses with pastel color walls were turning luminous in late sun. Waves lapped softly against the malecon.

“Look, let’s have a coffee, shall we?” I said, feeling apologetic about my snooty attitude.

Travelers tend to skip the thousand small steps that begin the journey of social communication, because they already share the road. In Petén, they know they also share interest in, or a need for, a place off the tourist path; the rainforest ruins of fallen civilization; an atmosphere on the edge of isolation. When travelers meet in Petén they already know a lot about each other, before either says a word.

“I haven’t seen Ceibal or Altar de Sacrificios,” I said, “But I want to go because it means travelling the river that runs past them, the one with the wonderful name, Passion, Rio Pasión.”

We sat on a pier drinking tea laced with the local rum called Zacapa, not the cheap stuff but the aged honey-colored kind, in the bottle encased with woven sisal. The toddy was his idea. I told the Drafter I had been coming to Petén annually for five years, enamored of Maya ruins since I first saw the grand site of Tikal. Stepped temple pyramids rising into hot, blue sky. Carvings of sacred animals, and of lords dressed in fine feathers and jaguar hides. Glyphs, dots and short lines that once spoke to men and women in a language only now being decoded. And jungle, threatening at any moment to hide again the fallen rainforest cities.

“After two weeks I go back to the office feeling like I’ve really been somewhere, you know?”

“Right,” he said, staring straight across the water into the setting sun. It burned orange-red in color, like the circular bands on ancient Maya pots. Only when a boat approached did the Drafter drop his eyes to the lake.

The skipper tied the bow to a piling and jumped from deck to dock. He walked past us toward shore with a friendly Buenas tardes.  Empty, the wooden craft left behind rocked slowly in the water, red hull with chipped paint, a faded look to its striped canopy that sheltered passengers during the day.

“I’ve walked to El Mirador, three days from the nearest settlement,” said the Drafter. He was the first I’d met who had been there, the largest ancient Maya city yet discovered, far to the north against the border with Mexico’s Yucatan.

“Wow, and three days back,” I said.

“Not if you are continuing on to Mexico,” he said.

Before I could respond another boat pulled close, but its skipper merely called out, “San Jose?  Lake tour?”

“No,” said the Drafter, which suited me fine.

By the next day we were traveling companions. We discovered we both liked going to Tikal, about fifty miles north of the lake, even though we each had seen it before. He knew things, and I knew things. For instance, I knew how we could travel at one tenth the cost of the Tikal tourist shuttle. Just cross the causeway on foot from the island to the mainland, and grab the twice-daily local bus that runs to the village of Uaxactun, where the gum tree tappers and xate gatherers live.  Before the bus heads into deeper rainforest on a dirt road, get off at Tikal, and, voilà.

Once at Tikal, the Drafter knew how to avoid the ticket kiosk, where a hefty entrance fee was levied on foreigners. The bus stopped on the old runway, unused for thirty years since archaeologists decided the rumble of propellers was destabilizing the thousand-year old temples. We left behind the bustle of visitors arriving by vans and private cars. Drafter led me around a pond with a sign warning Beware of the Crocodile, up a narrow path through giant matapalo trees, past a corrugated metal house where the resident shaman lived, and beyond, through a palmy grove once home to a family of indigenous Maya Lacandon. Emerging from the steamy forest, we saw the Temple of the Great Jaguar before us, rising into the sky. We were in.

By the end of the day I felt rather bad about not having paid an entrance fee, reckoning the money went to a good cause—keeping up the lawns, fixing stairs on lofty temples so ascending visitors depended less on grabbing tree roots for balance. When the Drafter wasn’t looking, I slipped the amount of the ticket into a donation box near the park’s exit. No use telling him, I thought; we were, after all, almost perfectly compatible for strangers who met on the road.

On the return bus, we watched another foreigner—French, I think—plunging one tortilla after another into his mouth, smearing each first with a dark substance from a small jar.

“I hate it when travelers make an exhibition,” I whispered. “I take it personally.”

“It’s the sauce,” said the Drafter.

The young man wore a shirt made from a huipil, embroidered in a dozen colors and typically Guatemalan-looking, but, please! Huipiles are women’s clothing. His jeans were fashionably ragged with holes at the knees. Even the poorest peasant farmer dons his single decent pair of pants to travel.

“He can’t help it,” said the Drafter. “Nutella.”

That’s the way the Drafter was, as perspicacious and forgiving as I could be critical. In the next days, waiting for meals, for buses, for sleep to come, he drew, and I read. We didn’t talk about where we came from, or how we earned our livings, not from lack of curiosity, at least not on my part, but because such details would have pushed the conversation to a different plane. We were quite satisfied, I suppose, with the air we breathed.

Anyway, it was clear enough we had grown up in different places. He never put his knife down when he ate. Discussing the classic Maya Ball Game, where players re-fought the transcendent battle of the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh against the Lords of the Underworld, his metaphors came from soccer, mine from football. At night he placed his shoes—they were leather, not canvas boots like mine—outside the room wherever we stayed, as if he expected to awake to them clean and buffed. It never happened. He blew dust from the shoes in the morning, although the pale powder of Petén paths covered them again once we were outside.

We departed by a local bus from the area of Lake Petén Itza, heading for southern Petén, a remoter region with less rainforest, where fewer tourists ventured. We would see the Passion River, but we were unlikely to find surprisingly good restaurants like the one on the island that had served the delicious tepesquintle.
“From here on any meat is road-kill,” said the Drafter. “‘Road-kill,’ right?”
“Very good, very colloquial U.S.A.,” I said, and watched him smile.

That night, the evening of the fourth day, I caught myself looking at the Drafter in a certain way, as he bent over pencil and paper in a crummy cantina in Sayaxche, a town on the Passion River. We were waiting for our food.

I looked at at his blonde hair falling over his forehead, in the low-watt light of a bare bulb hanging from the thatched ceiling, and I wished him to raise his face. I wished him to give me that smile again, the one I had seen on the bus in the morning.  I stared at his hands. I couldn’t help it. Their daytime paleness was gone, replaced by an olive cast that seemed to take over in dim light, a tone so warm to the eye and attracting I lifted my fingers from the table, but stopped. If I touched him, the pencil would slip, and I could ruin the picture.
The waiter delivered two plates of the daily special. I was glad to hear it contained no meat. Just squash flowers on melted cheese.

“It’s the sauce that makes this one rich,” said the Drafter. The special gravy was neither thick nor thin, slightly lumpy, black as tar. Liquified corn fungus. Tasty.

When the table was cleared, the Drafter took a few drawings from his bag and spread them before me. They were impressively detailed, but carried something other-worldly, too, as if my friend saw not just shape and line, but the possibilities of his subjects, their other selves. An antlered head looked alive even missing its body, not hung on a wall but suspended in mist, not trophy but forest lord. A canopied boat, unmanned, self-contained, floating as if at will. A candle and mosquito coil like those we placed on the cement floors of rooms where we stayed, the smoke of each joining the other in the air to create a vision serpent with open jaws.

Before dinner, I supposed, he had made the drawing of the vintage juke box standing near the bar, all chrome strips and rounded shoulders, with colored lights (you knew they were colored, even rendered in black and white).  You could almost see those lights flashing on the bass tones, almost hear the ranchero songs. And the old corridos, given we were so close to Mexico.

On the last day I would see him—had I known it was the last I would not have enjoyed myself so much—we drove toward Laguna del Tigre, another lake, near the border with Mexico. We rented the car in my name because the Drafter didn’t drive.

By this time I knew his German father had died in a flying accident in the Guatemala mountains, and his mother was half-Kekchi, one of two dozen Maya indigenous groups whose roots reach back more than a thousand years. “That’s why I don’t like to pay to enter the sacred sites,” he said, meaning, I supposed, Tikal. “They should not belong to the government, but to the Maya.”

It was the closest to a political statement I ever heard him make. I knew “German” in the mountains could mean someone who was not German at all, but light-skinned Guatemalans whose families had lived in the country for more than a century, since the government invited Europeans to plant coffee on Kekchi land. The invitation had been an official effort to enter world markets, which worked, and to “purify” the race at home, which didn’t. In his case, the Drafter said, English came from British tutors in Belize next door, and two years studying art in America.

“I’m Guatemalan enough so they won’t give me another visa,” he said. “I don’t own a house or a business, and we don’t have bank accounts.” No collateral to ensure he would return. I guess the Drafter could not say to the consul at the U.S. Embassy, Of course I won’t stay there forever.  My mother lives here.
I liked the idea of knowing he would be in the country when I visited, year after year. I didn’t think to ask how he received permission to live in the United States when he had. Didn’t cross my mind. 

What was important was seeing a world foreign to me, alongside him. We watched porters offloading boats on the beach in Sayaxche, stripped to the waist, carrying covered baskets, square tin boxes, squealing pigs. A girl dressed in white, seated on the back of a motorcycle, miraculously unsullied by splattering mud, like old Maya royalty whose feet never touched the ground.

About midday, on the way to Laguna del Tigre, Lake of the Jaguar, some time before we crossed the San Pedro River, I stopped the car in front of a house with a painted sign, Comida, the rural promise of cooked food. In the doorway stood a Kekchi woman, recognizable by her full cotton blouse, loose and lacy where most indigenous women wore heavily woven huipiles tucked tightly into wide cumberbunds. Many Kekchi Maya migrated to Petén when they lost land in the Verapaz highlands, the Drafter’s home. The woman served us a dish I never thought I would eat: beans, rice, and spaghetti heaped together in a bowl.

“I know,” I said to the Drafter. We sat at a plain table outside the house. “It’s the sauce that will make the meal.”

“It’s true,” he said, as the woman spooned it over the food. “It makes the ordinary memorable.”

Homemade tomato sauce, fresh of course, thickened with flour, tarted up with half-inch slices of hot dogs.

”Not bad,” I said.

We crossed the San Pedro River on a hand-cranked ferry, driving from the boat onto a badly pocked road, still on the Guatemala side of the border, but not far from Mexico. Wetlands, inundated in the rainy season, now appeared as low forest, and open savannah. Slim, elegant egrets walked on their stilts of legs among tall grass. The road’s poor condition meant we drove slowly.  In my romantic period, when I had read everything D.H. Lawrence had ever written, I vowed to myself I too would become familiar with the names of flowers and trees, as the master had. I did not, but I wished I had gone at least as far as the primitive palms, to know what to call the myriad kinds swaying now on all sides, so different one from another in heights, fronds, trunks, capacities to bend.

In an hour, when we could go no farther by road, we walked the rest of the short distance toward the lake under double canopy forest, dark and cool. Somewhere the border ran nearby, but in this wild land there were no markers or fences, no sign of other visitors.  As we followed a curve, a dashing movement rustled low foliage just off the trail. We stopped. Probably it was not a jaguar—although that would have been thrilling—because the big cats are nocturnal. Perhaps a peccary, or a brocket deer.

At the lake we lay on our backs, unspeaking, but communicating, it seemed to me, our ease with the moment and place. We didn’t point or cry out to each other when we saw the pair of scarlet macaws fly overhead, electric red and blue with fine yellow collars, their long tails like fiery rays in the pale sky. But I heard the Drafter take the same deep breath as I.

More birds cried softly and flapped their wings in passing, but I don’t know what they were because I had shut my eyes, keeping them closed despite some curiosity. I liked more the dreamy feeling of experiencing the forest through its sounds.

I thought I heard a deep human voice calling from a few feet away. I jumped to my feet in a single move, startled. The Drafter stood too, saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

He waved to the caller, who waited at the forest’s edge with two young indigenous men, and a woman with two children, a boy and a girl. The woman and girl wore pants. This struck me as unusual, because here females wear dresses or long skirts.

“You know that man?” I asked.

“The leader, coyote, guide,” he said.

Figure it out, I thought. Figure out what is happening.

I could not change all these moments, these good moments, by telling you,” he said. “The road is safe.  You’ll be alright.”

From his bag he drew out a piece of paper rolled in a tube, tied with a thick blade of grass, handing it to me as he turned to join the others. Understanding flooded my mind as fast and overwhelming as a tidal wave, and I felt helpless against it. For the next weeks this small group would traipse through Mexico and sneak across borders, aiming for destinations in America. The Drafter would walk through my country’s back door, since he had been turned away from the front.

I watched him walk across twenty feet of marshy shore to join the band. I heard him speak to one of the young men in a language I did not understand. He turned and called, “Kekchi!”, smiling, waving, but missing not a step, melting into the forest with the others.

I gazed for a while at where he had been, but saw only trees, huge and brooding. I felt no sense of betrayal, because there had been no promise. I did feel that something of value was disappearing, but whatever it was had never been mine, so I could not say to myself he stole it away.

Inside the car I took the grass tie from the paper tube and unrolled it. I saw myself at a table in a dark room, the head of a great deer on the wall, the figure of a woman looking more sensuous than I had ever believed myself to be. I tossed the paper into the back seat, too brusquely. I drove so fast the tires raised a cloud of dust. I ignored thin figures waving me down, hoping for a ride.

Like a survivor tossed upon shore, I felt whole, but shaken. I was not the same person who—was it only a week before?—had stepped into a dark restaurant on an island floating in a deep blue lake.

That night I returned the car and went back to the cantina in dusty Sayaxche, even though I was not hungry. I did not want to be alone, even though I talked to no one. Black flies studded a sticky yellow strip hanging above the table.

I ordered meat—why not?—picking it slowly from the bone.  It tasted dry.  There was no sauce.


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