For two days I lay awake thinking of death. I blamed the election first, but time on Facebook had a hand in it. I was alone. Then he visited me. A Dream Bird usually brings herbs. That is how you know you have been chosen to be a medicine man. This one brought a ticket for Spirit Air.
Three quetzals appear in the sky
In my window seat, heading for Guatemala, studying Spanish phrases, I glanced out the window at the wing and saw them in brilliant blue, green and red, their long tail plumes trailing like colorful smoke. It seemed strange to have birds flying around us so high.
We landed. I walked alone through the crowded entryway at Guatemala City airport. A boy approached, saying something in a language that did not sound like Spanish. He grabbed my sleeve and hurried me to a waiting cab. When I got in, I slid across the seat to make room, but the boy did not join me. I sat alone and stared at the back of the driver.
“Will you to wash a hotel?” I apparently asked the cab driver in Spanish.
“I will take you where you need to go,” he replied in English.
Walls made of leaves, cardboard, and cane stalks
We drove for hours in the night. I looked up at the sky and tried to say a few things about the stars (estrellas, a word I knew in Spanish) and mountains (montañas, another word). But what I really wanted to say was that I almost had it. I felt that I finally knew what everyone was talking about. For a minute there in that cab, looking at the stars, I was on the precipice of understanding the universe. But I didn’t know how to say precipice in Spanish and pretty soon the feeling left.
We dropped down from the mountains and into a field. The driver stopped the cab and opened my door in silence. A small hut sat alone in the middle of this field. The driver got back into his cab, and drove away, back up the mountains. I stood there, looking at the hut.
In Mayan, they say txol, the ordering of time
An old woman came outside. She spoke like the boy at the airport, a language called Q’anjob’al. We communicated in gestures. The first gesture said she was my grandmother.
I said, “Grandma, where were you when my mother told my story to every asking stranger, when my father played the “Mexican Hat Dance” at each birthday party, when the guy at the car dealership called me a spic.”
She told me I was taken from her daughter by a well-meaning couple from Arkansas who’d arrived sad from infertility. She said: my daughter died of sadness. The day after you left, your mother and I worked on the farm just as we had the day before you left. Your mother was born in this hut on a day when three quetzals flew around the window.
And this: saying spic is not a problem. The destruction of 626 villages, 200,000 people, a 36-year-long civil war – that is a problem.
We ate tortillas, tamales, and beans
This was our good day.
So I’m a bad Guatemalan
On my last night, I spoke with the spirits of my dead.
“You don’t speak Q’anjob’al?”
I told them no, but despite this I am really starting to dig my grandmother.
“How many children do you have?”
They said, “Let there be Mayan names.”
I told them I would rename myself Txaj, the word for prayer, if that would help.
They said, “Everything helps.”
Txaj back home
I see my neighbor sweeping leaves off his front steps. He has lived here for three years, but we hardly speak. The morning after the election, he got drunk. He came over to my porch, where I was smoking a cigarette.
He said, “We are done. What do we do when they come to round up the workers at Chipotle?” I imagined a line of disappointed college students waiting for their tacos, their guacamole and chips, their rice and beans folded into delicious wraps.
I said, without believing it, “It won’t be as bad as you think.”
But today, I step outside and say hello. The wind picks up and the leaves fly around us. I grab my broom and help him sweep his steps.