The rainy season, which had arrived like clockwork in Remedios since time immemorial, was late. Almost June, and haze and clouds hung oppressively in the sky but were unproductive—like Braxton Hicks contractions during pregnancy (Don Fernando, as a father of four, knew something about labor), or like a dry cough. Heat rose to epic proportions in Don Fernando’s office at the university, causing even the insects that bludgeoned their way through his open window to circle dizzily and lie, prostrate and panting, on his desk.
It was hardly surprising. The climate was changing (everyone knew that), causing the great nations of the temperate zones to wrangle, create protocols, accuse each other of malfeasance and greed, miss treaty deadlines, etc. etc., everything except curb their appetites for comfort. Who could blame them? Don Fernando himself, sweat patches staining his formerly crisp short-sleeved polyester shirt by early afternoon, would have welcomed an air conditioner, if it were obtainable and affordable in the provincial capital Huehuetenango. However, those who were born in small countries in tropical latitudes had to resign themselves to hot tempers, rapid corruption of the flesh, and ronrones—the thumb-sized flying beetles that swarmed in streetlights and committed wanton, wholesale suicide against sidewalks, walls, tables, whatever surfaces their crazed, armor-encrusted primitive bodies found. They crunched under your feet, fell into your soup, dashed into your forehead—evolution’s mistake. Those that survived their springtime awakening burrowed into the ground to become the farmers’ scourge.
Farmers’ scourge? Worry over the Rattlesnake was addling his brain with such high-flown language, because really, after the last student left his office—a pretty girl with a mind like cement—and Don Fernando unbuttoned one more button of his shirt, the heat was not apocalyptic, not when he thought back over his forty-eight years on the planet. Hot days were normal this time of year. So why did he feel so oppressed? And what had he been thinking when he took that loan, an avowed Marxist showing off like the bourgeoisie? Just as he finished putting away his papers his door opened again to admit a visitor.
It took Fernando a moment to place him. His wild mop of curly hair had been trimmed to a close cap, starting to gray, but his eyebrows still crawled like fat black caterpillars above small, hard eyes. Scrawny as a youth, always hungry as Fernando recalled, he’d filled out, but not the way Fernando had, as soft and rounded as a comfortable armchair, but with wide shoulders and a broad chest that bulged under a well-cut, light blazer. “Memo!” Fernando exclaimed. “Memo Golindo, by God. You just about gave me a heart attack. When did you get into town?”
“You remember me. I thought you might not.” His thin lips stretched into an uneasy smile. “I’ve just come from the bus terminal, actually.”
Fernando came around his desk, took the small suitcase out of Memo’s hand with his left, so that he could shake with his right, a series of enthusiastic pumps. “Hombre! How long has it been since we horsed around in Father Reilly’s math class? Thirty years?”
“Where are you staying? I was just about to go home for lunch. Join me. We’ll catch up.” It was an impulse, the most natural of impulses, because hospitality was second nature to Fernando. Whatever misgivings he might have had, based on a quick appraisal of his old chum’s appearance coupled with vague rumors over the years, gave way to small stirrings of excitement. Striding across the courtyard to the line of parked cars, carrying Memo’s suitcase in one hand, Fernando pulled out his phone and called his wife. “We’re having a guest for lunch. Set an extra place.” Sandra would provide; she was practiced at last minute invitations.
The midday traffic between the metropolis of Huehuetenango and its smaller and older satellite Remedios was insane as always. Fernando steered his lumbering SUV past slow-moving, fume-spewing buses and pickups, dodged potholes, braked for axle-destroying speed bumps. “Can you believe this?” he asked Memo, who sat quietly peering out through the dark glass of the car windows.
“Little Huehue has grown up,” Memo said dryly.
“Fucking politicians,” Fernando said. “They’ve been arguing for years about a ring road. It’s not going to happen until the mayor of the day makes a bundle off it.” He hoped Memo was impressed by his late-model Toyota. Last time he’d seen Memo they’d been kids hitching rides, sneaking into the movies to smoke pilfered cigarettes in the balcony and throw the glowing butts over the edge, into the audience below. “What have you been up to? I heard you were in the special forces.” He didn’t want to say the name Kaibil, because frankly, the business of biting the heads off live chickens, not to mention the massacres of innocent civilians, repulsed him. In his side vision he saw Memo swivel his head toward him without moving his shoulders. He had removed the blazer and laid it across the back seat when they got into the car, but there were no sweat stains on his black polo shirt. His biceps confirmed Fernando’s initial impression. His hands rested lightly on his thighs.
“Me? I had a desk job,” Memo said. “Anyway, I’ve been out of the army a long time. Working abroad.”
“Well, you’ve stayed in shape.” He decided not to ask him about his work abroad. Rather, he balanced Memo’s silence with his chatter, pointing out landmarks along the route and their associated dramas, new business ventures, old families fallen to ruin, until he pulled up the narrow cobbled street and stopped in front of his house. It was a long, single-story stucco façade in a row of similar façades, punctuated by narrow doors and ironwork grilled windows, on its right solid metal double gates barely wide enough to admit a car. He honked for the servant girl.
“Remember the old place, Memo?”
La Tona swung the gates open and Fernando maneuvered the big car up the short driveway and parked in the carport. Leaving the suitcase in the car, he led Memo through the courtyard garden, noting with satisfaction that it was looking lush, the hibiscus and gladiolas a symphony of red and gold. He casually pointed out the fine second-story brick addition he’d just built onto the interior wing of the house for his growing family. Accomplishment, not hubris after all. “Lots of changes since my grandfather’s day. I’ll take you upstairs after lunch. There’s a view of all Remedios.”
The Chihuahua bounded toward them yapping furiously and attempted to hump Memo’s ankle. Fernando yelled, “Get lost, Mozart!” but before he could scoop the dog up, Memo thrust it away with a convulsive kick. Fernando thought once again of the chicken heads. But Mozart was unharmed, trotted off unperturbed and chipper as ever, and Lord knows Fernando had been ready to strangle the irrepressible little animal often enough himself. His eleven-year-old daughter Leti emerged from the kitchen to announce that lunch was served.
The dining room in the old part of the house, with its thick walls and high ceilings, stayed cool even in the afternoon heat. They kept the electric light off, and daylight filtered in through the window from the courtyard. The dark mahogany furniture of his grandparents—the breakfront, the long table, the stiff high-backed chairs—and the murky religious paintings stood sentry in the gloom, as if the ghost of his grandfather still lingered to reprimand bad boys. In defiance of the ghost, Fernando took his accustomed seat at the head of the table, put Memo on his right, and as the family filed in and sat in their places he poured red wine into Memo’s glass. “I brought a whole case of this back from Italy,” he said. He too was a man of the world, not just a small town player who’d never left home, he wanted Memo to know. “To springtime in Roma,” he toasted. “Bellissimo.”
“Never been there,” Memo said. “I was in Israel.”
“Some good wines there, too, I hear. It’s the Mediterranean climate that counts.”
“Mmmm. Perhaps. I didn’t have time to sample them. I was . . . working.”
“Too bad! My brother, Elías, has been to Israel. Great wines, great oranges, great beaches, eh Elías?” Elías, the doughy-looking man to Memo’s right, nodded.
“You remember Memo, soccer star of San Francisco Javier!” Fernando said to him, and to the tall thin brother Edgar. Both much older, Edgar had been off teaching in the mountains and Elías at university when Memo had frequented the house in Remedios. Fernando grew more ebullient with each glass of wine, and kept filling Memo’s glass. Sandra moved back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen with easy grace, bringing in dishes of food, directing the children to help. The two middle children, Leti and Walter, sat at the far end of the table, elbowing each other until their mother told them to stop. The toddler was napping and Félix, in high school in Huehue, didn’t come home for lunch. Fernando as host and lord of the manor steered the table talk onward. “So, what’s the news of the day? You tell us, Edgar. You’re always watching the telly.”
“Only this,” the thin brother said, using a tortilla to wipe up the sauce from his plate. Probably his sixth or seventh tortilla; Edgar could eat and eat and never get fat, a source of annoyance to his plumper brothers. “The president wants out of the drug war. Fíjese! He’s calling on Central American leaders to legalize drugs. To be discussed at the big summit next month.” He chuckled. “That will get some attention.”
“Ridiculous!” Sandra exclaimed, frowning at her brother-in-law. “Is this how we safeguard our children?” She was perhaps more concerned with appropriate topics of conversation in their presence than the specter of their drug use.
“Where’s his iron fist?” Elías referred to the emblem of the president’s party. “And his promise to rid Guatemala of drug lords?”
“Every Guatemalan president makes and breaks that promise. You thought this one would be different just because he was a general?” Fernando didn’t say genocidal general as he normally would have, not with Memo sitting at his side.
“That’s just his point,” Edgar said. “To put the drug lords out of business. Portugal has tried it, with great success so they say.”
“Hah!” This from Elías. “The narcos have plenty of other businesses—protection, kidnapping, assassination. Right, Memo? You’ve been living in Mexico. Look what happened there when the government went against the cartels.”
“I stay away from politics,” Memo said. “For my health.”
“No kidding!” Fernando said. “Politics in Guatemala is an unhealthy game. Have more fish. A little more salad? More tortillas!” It was time to turn the conversation, which had wandered into dangerous territory. He wanted to fill Memo up with his wife’s good cooking, his good cheer, his beautiful family—Sandra, who had once been his student, was still dark-haired and whippet-thin after four children; Walter and Leti looking dapper in their school uniforms and showing their manners—and let whatever it was that Memo had on his mind rise to the surface. Because surely, something was on his mind, to appear without warning after thirty years of silence.
“The kids have to get back to school,” Sandra said when coffee and dessert had been served and only crumbs remained. “Memo, so nice to have met you.” She looked to the children and there was a chorus of “Gracias, buen provecho” around the table as Leti and Walter cleared their places. Elías also left, to go back to his store, a small room in the front of the house with a separate entrance onto the street, where he sold beer, liquor, and soft drinks. Sandra stood to follow the children.
Memo touched his lips with his paper napkin. “Delicious meal, Doña Sandra. Congratulations, Nando, on achieving such domestic fulfillment, something that’s sadly lacking in my life.”
Fernando used this cue to leap up and grab a bottle and more glasses from the sideboard. “A little brandy, for old time’s sake, Memo. It’s never too late,” he added, now that the room was clear of women and children, “for a young and handsome guy like you.”
Memo didn’t even smile at the compliment. He leaned back in his chair and stared into his brandy snifter. Then he raised his eyes to Fernando. “I’m retiring. Work has been . . . stressful lately. I’m looking for a quiet, secluded place. To work on my memoirs. You know, I don’t have family in Huehuetenango any more.”
“I heard. Condolences on the loss of your mother. A good woman, Doña Tina.”
“Thank you. Would you know of someplace? I can pay rent, of course.”
So there it was: the purpose of the visit. Fernando had been waiting for it, with dread and anticipation. Hoping it wouldn’t be too risky (he was a family man after all, and had to put the well-being of his wife and children first), but that it might help him get out of a sticky situation. Memo wanted to hide out. Who didn’t these days? What with small government planes circling every morning at daybreak searching for marijuana or poppy fields hidden in the pinewoods or milpas, armed assaults on buses on the rise, extortionists ever more brazen, everyone was on edge. But carrying on, as chapines did, because violence was nothing new to Guatemala. It took a clever man to prosper and keep his family safe these days. Fernando was a clever man. “I have the perfect spot for you. On family property, just out of town, four kilometers from here—Edgar walks there all the time, don’t you?” Edgar, who had moved to the chair to Memo’s right, shrugged.
“A charming spot, Sapoclok,” Fernando continued. “A valley at the foot of the mountains, nothing in it but some cornfields and a couple of country houses. The whole thing belonged to our great grandfather, and it’s been divided into inheritances, so there are cousins out there de vez en cuando. At the head of the valley is our eldest brother’s house, we call it the Pink House, but he’s never there, he lives in Mexico. An excellent retreat, don’t you think, Edgar?”
Edgar agreed that it would be convenient to have someone staying in the house, to discourage the burglars that were a constant problem. Even with the Doberman they kept on the premises, thieves had managed to break in just last month and make off with an old set of cookware they kept for weekend barbecues.
“You can see it from the roof deck. Come along for the house tour,” Fernando said, rising from the table. The servant girl Tona had cleared the last of the dishes. Edgar excused himself to go run an errand in town, and Fernando led Memo up the grand staircase set with sparkling ceramic tile made to imitate wood parquet, and showed off the airy master bedroom with its shutters open to reveal a view of the face of the mountain range that towered five thousand feet over Remedios. “It gets better further up,” he said. Passing a glass case with Sandra’s collection of porcelain bird figurines and open doorways on two modern bathrooms of which he was intensely proud, they continued up the stairs to the roof door, which like all the woodwork in the addition was naturally golden-toned and gleaming with varnish.
The door opened onto a flat roof edged by a low brick wall. Several large-leafed plants grew in big pots, but as yet there was no other furnishing on the roof, although Fernando had plans. Certainly there were no clotheslines, so typical of rooftops; they were downstairs in the back courtyard of the house where the laundry sink and old wood stove were. Up here nothing obstructed the view of the Cuchumatanes shimmering in the afternoon heat, rising to the altiplano, a flock of birds circling high overhead, and the town clustered below. Behind Fernando’s house, where in his grandfather’s time there had been open fields and orchards, houses abutted each other in every available space. Fernando pointed out the houses of his brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins until Memo commented, “The Granados family seems to be overpopulating the town.”
Fernando laughed. “Not any more. I’m stopping at four. And three of my brothers have no kids at all. The ones who live here with me.”
“It’s good to have family around.” He said nothing more, and Fernando didn’t ask about his younger siblings. As he recalled, there had been a lot of them, and they’d been very poor. Only Memo, the eldest, had gone to high school, and he’d been on scholarship.
The birds circled lower, seemingly focused on a point nearby. The clock in the town square struck four. “I have to be getting back for my evening classes soon,” Fernando said. “You’ll stay here tonight. My brother Luis is in Mexico; you can use his room. Tomorrow Sandra will take you out and get you settled into the Pink House. There’s Sapoclok, behind that ridge.”
He pointed to the left of the clock tower and double domes of the church, just visible above the trees of the square, to a pine-covered hill opposite the mountain range, in the distance beyond the town.
“It looks very peaceful.” As if to emphasize tranquility, the birds wheeling overhead cooed.
“They’re looking for their dinner,” Fernando explained. “My wife feeds the pigeons.”
The flock turned in unison, flew up, then dipped down again in a tightening circle.
“Remember how we used to shoot at them with slingshots, when we were kids?” Fernando asked.
Memo smiled, drew a small black contraption out of his pocket, and unfolded it. A molded handle, a steel fork, a yellow tubular sling, it looked like an updated version of the twig and rubber band.
“I don’t believe it! You’ve got one,” Fernando said, feeling his youthful devil kicking in. He looked around the rooftop for ammunition, and spied the gravel lining the planters. He picked up a pebble and offered it to Memo, who refused it. Instead, he handed Fernando the sling saying, “You first.”
Fernando laughed. “OK!” He fitted the pebble into the sling, and stared up into the sky. The pigeons rose and fell, circling closer. It had been a long time since he’d done this. He picked one bird, a dark charcoal, almost black one, and tried to draw a bead onto it, following its movements with his arms poised to shoot. The birds seemed oblivious to the threat and kept wheeling lower. He felt his heart race, let fly the pebble, and missed.
“Oh well! I guess I need some practice.” He felt strangely disappointed as he handed the sling back to Memo.
Memo picked up a pebble and looked up at the birds. They seemed ready to alight at any moment. “The white one,” he said. With a movement so swift Fernando couldn’t follow it, he raised the slingshot, released the pebble, and the white dove dropped to the rooftop and lay still. Fernando couldn’t tell if it was dead or just stunned. Memo picked it up by the head and swung it sharply to break its neck.
“Not bad!” Fernando congratulated him. “You’ll never go hungry in the jungle.”
Memo put the little weapon back in his pocket and grunted. “Shall we give it to the servant girl to take home for her supper?”
More About Remedios
Deborah Clearman’s new novel Remedios is forthcoming from New Meridian Arts Literary Press, and available now for pre-order. From the publisher:
Fernando Granados is a university professor in financial trouble when a boyhood friend he hasn’t seen in thirty years reenters his life. Memo Galindo, now part of a notorious Mexican cartel, soon persuades Fernando to build a meth lab on his country property, just outside the ancient town of Remedios. Fernando’s strong-willed wife Sandra and their beloved 18-year-old son Félix each fall under Memo’s charismatic spell. The cascading family crisis plays out on a larger stage, from its roots in Guatemala’s civil war in the ’80s to corruption in the Guatemalan army and American DEA, in a country where even the forces of nature wreak vengeance.
About the Author
Deborah Clearman is the author of Remedios (New Meridian Arts Literary Press, 2020), Concepción and the Baby Brokers and Other Stories Out of Guatemala (Rain Mountain Press, 2017), and Todos Santos (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. She wrote and illustrated The Goose’s Tale for children.
Since her first visit to Guatemala in 1978, Deborah has been back many times, living for a year in the village of Todos Santos in 2001-2002. She continues to maintain a close connection to the country and her Guatemalan friends to this day.
For eight years Deborah was Program Director for NY Writers Coalition, a nonprofit organization that offers free writing workshops to underserved communities throughout New York City. Since 2011 she has led ongoing weekly writing workshops for women and men in jail on Rikers Island. A member of PEN, she serves on its Prison Writing Committee. A mother of two grown children, she lives in New York City and Guatemala.
This excerpt appears with permission of New Meridian Arts Literary Press. Copyright 2020 Deborah Clearman.