The Americas Share Their Passion and Warmth, Sorrow and Resilience
Gather the Fruit One by One brings together stories from 50 years of Peace Corps service in the Americas. From those first days, beginning with Colombia One, Volunteers began bringing home their stories about living and working with our nearest neighbors. The countries and cultures south of our frontera have since 1961 tested our assumptions and lit up the complex mixture of indigenous, European, and African languages, food, music, dance, and religion that makes up the Americas. What seems familiar often is not. Theses stories take you to journeys to the Amazon basin, to a Honduran village terrorized by the army, and to the playing fields of Ecuador for an unusual game of beisbol. To say “I was there” sometimes catches in the throat like a well-loved old song that aches with history and hope.
This captivating collection of stories—the second in a series of four—once again allows readers to feel the extraordinary power of America’s grassroots peace offering.
The postmen suffered the uncertainty many long months until finally he broke.
“Miss Elena,” he said, standing beside his bicycle, fingering the nailed-on wooden seat in anxious anticipation of my maybe-really-bad-news response, “what has happened to our Samuel?”
I had no idea to whom he referred, but this is not unusual. “Our Samuel?” I repeated, a question, as in, “You and I, who see each other so rarely, only when you bring me my opened and peered through letters, we have a mutual Samuel?, whomever this Samuel is?”
“Yes,” he said, and leaned against the stone-wall casing of my door, which might hold him up when the horror of the truth swept out of my mouth and erupted all over him. He wore a woolen tam, which he took off, and put the edge in his mouth and bit it like a man preparing to be hurt grievously without the blessing of anesthesia. His old wrinkled face wrinkled worse, for clearly the fate of Samuel tormented him. “Frst hgt schtik,” he groaned, but I had to coax him—
“Come now, take the hat out of your mouth, I can’t understand these things you are saying,”
—before he pulled the soiled fabric from his lips and said emphatically, “First Samuel got sick, then he got sicker, then he went to the hospital…”
But still I did not follow him or understand anything of which he spoke. I geared up to give him the Scarlet O’Hara stare, the right brow furrowed, the left arched, the look I practiced for months in the bathroom mirror after seeing Gone With the Wind for the first time in the sixth grade, but ultimately the postman said,
“…then Samuel had surgery, and then the telegrams stopped!”
Oh, yes. I finally caught on.
Samuel is code.
Poor old man, fretting all this time. I didn’t get it either at first, but at least I only suffered a short time before I figured out the Samuel gig, the pall of his sickness hanging on me just a few days, whereas it had been with the postman for months and looked to have spread. Too much vicarious agony can torture a soul and wreck the complexion.
Samuel is a ruse.
The Samuel telegrams all arrived within two weeks of each other, toward the end of May or the beginning of June, and because the postman had opened and read them all before resealing them with unsticky tape and delivering them to me, he remembered the contents well. First the note that Samuel was sick, and me wracking my brain wondering, “Do I know a Samuel?,” rifling mentally through the endless retinue of extended friends and family, and the friends and family of my extended friends and family, finding no Samuel among them. Then I felt worse!, because clearly this Samuel wanted me to be aware of his illness and yet I could not even think whom he might be. The anxiety built through the week with each new post, for Samuel deteriorated quickly, got rushed to the hospital, underwent emergency surgery, hung tenuously to life in intensive care.
Samuel is not a real person.
This maybe should have occurred to me at the beginning, but I suffered too much with the mystery of his identity to notice—until I lined up the telegrams all together in a row on the kitchen table to divine their purpose—that each was sent by a different person, people whose names, like Samuel’s, I did not recognize. Important-sounding people, with government-issue names (sometimes it takes surprises like this to remind me that I work for the government, that I am not my own independent entity in Zataquepeque). I got out my embassy notebook and there, after some searching, found all the names in the section on “Internal Threat,” meaning attack from within, which coups count as. We had three coups at the beginning of the summer, three in two weeks, and the lady’s name on the first telegram—the message itself being absolutely irrelevant—meant evacuate the capital (which I had done, all on my own, without needing to be directed by a surreptitious signature on a coded document). The subsequent signatures meant not to leave my site, to check in by telegraph or telephone to verify my safety, to prepare to flee under cover of night, and finally to ignore all previous telegrams for everything turned out fine and reverted to normal.
It had all ended before I figured out what any of it meant.
I burned the telegrams in the trash the next day, stenographic testaments to a non-event which had not touched my life in any lingering way. The coups passed; their only measurable impact came these months later in the form of this profound and lingering dread which the invented Samuel inspired in the postman.
“Samuel is fine,” I said at length, and because it seemed both accurate and honest within the confines of this make-believe situation, where the truth got danced around as if it barely existed, I added, “Samuel recovered fully, with no visible scars, and in fact hardly remembers anything about what happened.”
The postman let loose with a long breathe of air, as if he’d been holding it these many months, waiting to exhale.
“Oh, thank goodness,” he groaned, exhausted with relief. “Walk with me, we must let people know—we have all been so worried!”
He held my hand in one of his, pushed his bike with the other. We first strolled past the tavern where he spent his weekends, then to the comedor where he took his breakfast. We went to all the places where for many months the postman had tormented the assembled townsfolk’s ragged nerves with unceasing, climaxing worry for the health of my imaginary friend. At each door we now paused; the postman raised our clasped fists high in a victory salute, and shouted through the open doorways, “Elena’s friend Samuel is recovered!,” to which, to a man, the people gathered inside would lift a hand either to heaven or to their hearts and with a collective sigh of pure joy and the sign of the cross, shout to me their encouragement and glee:
“What a blessed relief!!”
“Hurray for Samuel; praised be his doctors!”
“Ay, Dios bendiga, it is a miracle from God!”
“Long live our friend and compadre, the estimable Samuel!”
As the day wore on, in the Latin way, their relief became more palpable, their exuberance more boundless, their gestures more effusive and their emotions more taxed. By that evening, grown men cried. Chests got pounded and bottles got raised and dogs howled and children quieted before the profound spell of collective rejoicing. Long into the night, and for many nights thereafter, from the off-canter barroom tables and the dirty ditches, from the unlit street corners and from the faces pressed, regrettably, against the opposite side of my bedroom wall, a lone or accompanied voice would arise in toast: “To Samuel!”
Samuel never went away, as imaginary friends are supposed to do with the passage of time. Samuel stayed with me and consumed the rest. They asked about him always, and guarded his tenuous return to health as if his recovery signified a chance for us all. Do not be fooled into thinking the villagers had no more realistic things on which to hang their worries. Calamity surrounded us: Breast milk dried up and crops withered. It did not rain enough, or it rained so much that houses and bloated beings floated past. Men went to work in the morning and never returned. Lookouts hid in the hills and watched for guerrillas, armies, police and shouted their warnings to an unprepared town. Governments changed hands three times in two weeks. Satraps ruled. Women got violated.
Children got taken.
I heard stories of the sweeps. With the civil war over, all should have changed, the massacres should have stopped and the kidnappings ended. Guatemala wanted its aid back from the rest of the world, and its media blitz made everyone else (who did not live there) believe in reform and in newly enacted social justice. They plastered the world and their own people too with propaganda. I have one of the flyers, pressed on me by a camouflaged man with an Uzi, and it reads verbatim, in faltering English:
Do you know that in Guatemala there are places where you are discover new and unforgettable experiences, miscelanous corner of natural atractives, santuary of the mayan breed, where popullation and army work for the defence of the peace. Our compromise, to guarantee the peace and to protectits confort. Guatemala’s Army...Basic recommendations follow when you are visiting Guatemala.
1. Have an English-Spanish dictionary.
2. Obtain a tourist guide booklet of the country (it can be adquired the Guatemala’s institute of tourism—INGUAT)
3. Carry the necessary items for the type of region to visit (according to weather).
4. In case of emergency approach the detachment of army commands. They will be willing to serve you.
5. In case you need any monetary transaction address to Guatemala’s bank, 7th Avenue 22-01 Zone 1 or to banks system.
6. In case of robbery, accident or if you need transportation information approach the national police that will be located in different places of the country.
7. In case of accident communicate to the fire department, phone 122.
8. If you wish to communicate to the United States dial 190 direct USA.
9. For information services communicate to phone 124.
Each phone call is free of change.
Everything here is free of change. We know better than to expect otherwise, which is why what happened scared but did not surprise me.
“Elena!” Lucinda screamed, and though I could not see her yet, for I toiled out back, I recognized her voice even at this unaccustomed pitch. She beat upon my door.
“They are coming!” she yelled and lunged at me as I stepped into the street. I must have looked as if I would question her, but time ran short so she anticipated me: “The army,” she said. “They are coming to recruit boys.” They are coming, she meant, in their trucks to steal away the sons ages twelve and up, whom mothers might never again behold. People darted franticly around us, but Lucinda held my gaze and stared at me deeply. It is an historic look that has repeated itself too often, passed from woman to woman, from one who must plead to one who has privilege; it is the look of a mother begging, expecting, that her fellow female will behave as one.
“Take my children,” Lucinda pleaded, pressing her two boys into my arms. She turned then and fled without pause for she trusted me and knew my heart. She had nothing and therefore no place to hide her children. I would hide them for her.
The army men swept through quickly, one into each home, taking the boys. I stepped back as the stout man in the shiny boots clicked across my stone floor. He went right to the altar room, the room I kept padlocked due to the spooky sensation the relics and artifacts and statues within inspired in me. “That room is hexed,” I said. “You should not enter.”
“Open this door,” he said, and though I had the key hidden in my hand—the men came upon us so quickly, I had not had time to replace it yet—I acted as if it still hung in the kitchen basket, as if it had been so long since I used it that I forgot the key’s precise place.
I pretended to fumble around, looking first in one basket and then the other; when he cleared his throat impatiently I said, pertly, “Here is the key,” and extended it to him, not wanting to make the situation worse.
“Open this door,” he repeated, but I responded:
“Oh no! I will not open that door, I will not go near that room!” I made myself animated—“Act!” I willed myself. “Act well!”—and let my very real fear creep into my voice. “I have been told that the last person to enter that room choked to death on a chicken bone that very night,” I lied, “and before that the mistress, having looked through the open doorway, died in childbirth with her baby stillborn the very next day. The shamans now say that anyone who opens that door will look upon the very face of death, and death itself will haunt him and come for him within that very same week.”
His look says he does not believe in shamans, but I suspect this is a false front; he must be a superstitious man. Superstition is the religion every Guatemalan is born to. I press on in my scary voice.
“So open the door yourself,” I say, “for you are far braver than I!” Backing up against the wall, covering my eyes with my hands, I say: “I cannot even look, but tell me, sir, if it is true, if you see death’s face when you open the door.”
I feel now a sense of community, and horror, at how close we came to getting caught.
He turned the key, pushed on the door, and though I expected the crash it terrified me just the same. I jumped; the soldier jumped. I felt all the blood in my body pound at once on the walls of my heart so hard it caused me actual pain, but the boys did not scream, bless them, and the soldier ran so fast from my house he didn’t even bother to re-lock the door (which to me would be a dumb thing, you know, not even trying to lock death back in, leaving it free to tear after you).
I didn’t wait too long, but only long enough, before going inside the altar room, winding through the statues to the back, helping the boys down from their perch on a gilded edifice. I had lifted them up there, had said, “Trust me, and be quiet, I will keep you safe.” On my way back out I had grabbed the life-sized plaster Lucifer statue that had at one time likely been part of some religious depiction of the great heated battle for a tormented soul. The archrival, Michael, is in the room too. But it is Lucifer I tugged with all my might, propping him finally beside the door. After exiting I wedged my arm back in and dragged the very edge of the statue into the path of the opening door, so that when pushed against this devil might totter, off balance, and topple (fly, if you will, with his frightening face) toward any person daring to enter. And finally, just as I heard the voice from beyond and the hard rapping that said, “Open up! This house is to be searched,” I winked at the boys, a playful, whimsical gesture, so that they might think we were engaged in a game and not a war.
Lucinda’s boys hid in my house once more, and with them many other boys, too. I could have hidden a whole village worth of teenagers in my altar room from then on, for the unsettling story—which by now must have become old army lore!—kept all subsequent marauders from setting so much as a foot over my threshold. Clearly the mothers knew, that is why they sent their boys to me, but they never spoke to me of these incidents. No lament, no thank you, no acknowledgement of a kind that anyone else might have recognized, for as I said, this is a place where the truth is danced around, where enough is bad that the bad stuff does not get discussed.
Instead, the mothers, and the fathers, too, they ask me about Samuel; more so, I noticed, after these misadventures. Samuel is still code, and we all learned to readily decipher his missives.
“I have been thinking about your friend Samuel,” someone would say as she passed in the street, and I knew this to mean, “You are in my thoughts and in my prayers, Elena.”
“Give my regards to Samuel,” meant, “Thank you, Elena, for this thing you have done for my family, this thing of which I am too frightened to speak.”
And, “How is Samuel doing?” meant, “What do you think? Are we safe? Will all turn out well?”
I had no choice. Hope required I create a good, safe life for Samuel, for us all.
So it is that not only did Samuel recover, he fell in love and married. Moved to Miami. Everyone begged then for a photo, and at first I did not know what to do, but eventually I passed around a picture from a distant cousin’s wedding that I had recently received in the mail. The postman brought it to me. It is a happy picture.
Who is to say the beaming bridegroom is not our Samuel? Who is to say what is truly real? I say, thank God for the subterfuge of our Samuel. He gave to us a good and sheltered subject on which to rest our troubled thoughts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Urbani is a Yankee by birth who ventured west to Oregon via Alabama (college) and Guatemala (Peace Corps). Having grown up in a family of Irish/Italian immigrants who all speak loudly, at once, never on coordinating subjects, she can talk fast and must work hard not to interrupt.
“Our Samuel” is excerpted from her first book, WHEN I WAS ELENA, a memoir about the years she lived in post-civil war Guatemala. It was published in March '06 as a BOOK SENSE NOTABLE selection. For more info, check out www.ellenurbani.com
She is currently working on a novel set in the South in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.