Grave Secrets 1
I AM DEAD. THEY KILLED ME AS WELL.”
The old woman’s words cut straight to my heart.
“Please tell me what happened that day.” Maria spoke so softly I had to strain to catch the Spanish.
“I kissed the little ones and left for market.” Eyes down, voice toneless. “I did not know that I would never see them again.”
K’akchiquel to Spanish, then reversing the linguistic loop, reversing again as answers followed questions. The translation did nothing to blunt the horror of the recitation.
“When did you return home, Señora Ch’i’p?”
“A que hora regreso usted a su casa, Señora Ch’i’p?”
“Chike ramaj xatzalij pa awachoch, Ixoq Ch’i’p?”
“Late afternoon. I’d sold my beans.”
“The house was burning?”
“Your family was inside?”
I watched the speakers. An ancient Mayan woman,
her middle-aged son, the young cultural anthropologist Maria Paiz, calling up a memory too terrible for words. I felt anger and sorrow clash inside me like the thunderheads building on the horizon.
“What did you do?”
“We buried them in the well. Quickly, before the soldiers came back.”
I studied the old woman. Her face was brown corduroy. Her hands were calloused, her long braid more gray than black. Fabric lay folded atop her head, bright reds, pinks, yellows, and blues, woven into patterns older than the mountains around us. One corner rose and fell with the wind.
The woman did not smile. She did not frown. Her eyes met no one’s, to my relief. I knew if they lingered on mine even briefly, the transfer of pain would be brutal. Maybe she understood that and averted her gaze to avoid drawing others into the hell those eyes concealed.
Or perhaps it was distrust. Perhaps the things she had seen made her unwilling to look frankly into unknown faces.
Feeling dizzy, I upended a bucket, sat, and took in my surroundings.
I was six thousand feet up in the western highlands of Guatemala, at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge. The village of Chupan Ya. Between the Mountains. About one hundred and twenty-five kilometers northwest of Guatemala City.
Around me flowed a wide river of green, lush forest interspersed with small fields and garden plots, like islands. Here and there rows of man-made terraces burst through the giant checkerboard, cascading downward like playful waterfalls. Mist clung to the highest peaks, blurring their contours into Monet softness.
I’d rarely seen surroundings so beautiful. The Great Smoky Mountains. The Gatineau, Quebec, under northern lights. The barrier islands off the Carolina coast. Haleakula volcano at dawn. The loveliness of the backdrop made the task at hand even more heartbreaking.
As a forensic anthropologist, it is my job to unearth and study the dead. I identify the burned, the mummified, the decomposed, and the skeletonized who might otherwise go to anonymous graves. Sometimes the identifications are generic, Caucasoid female, mid-twenties. Other times I can confirm a suspected ID. In some cases, I figure out how these people died. Or how their corpses were mutilated.
I am used to the aftermath of death. I am familiar with the smell of it, the sight of it, the idea of it. I have learned to steel myself emotionally in order to practice my profession.
But the old woman was breaking through my determined detachment.
Another wave of vertigo. The altitude, I told myself, lowering my head and breathing deeply.
Though my home bases are North Carolina and Quebec, where I serve as forensic anthropologist to both jurisdictions, I’d volunteered to come to Guatemala for one month as temporary consultant to the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala. The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, FAFG, was working to locate and identify the remains of those who vanished during the 1962 to 1996 civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin American history.
I’d learned a lot since my arrival one week before. Estimates of the missing ranged from one to two hundred thousand. The bulk of the slaughter was carried out by the
Guatemalan army and by paramilitary organizations affiliated with the army. Most of those killed were rural peasants. Many were women and children.
Typically, victims were shot or slashed with machetes. Villages were not always as fortunate as Chupan Ya. There they’d had time to hide their dead. More often, bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves, dumped in rivers, left under the ruins of huts or houses. Families were given no explanations, no lists of those missing, no records. A UN Commission for Historical Clarification referred to these massacres as a genocide of the Mayan people.
Families and neighbors referred to their missing members as the “desaparecidos.” The disappeared. The FAFG was trying to find them, or, more accurately, their remains. And I had come to help.
Here in Chupan Ya, soldiers and civil patrollers had entered on an August morning in 1982. Fearing they’d be accused of collaborating with the local guerrilla movement and punished, the men fled. The women were told to gather with their children at designated farms. Trusting, or perhaps fearing, the military, they obeyed. When the soldiers located the women where they’d been sent, they raped them for hours, then killed them along with their kids. Every house in the valley was burned to the ground.
Survivors spoke of five mass graves. Twenty-three women and children were said to lie at the bottom of the well behind Señora Ch’i’p.
The old woman continued her story. Over her shoulder I could see the structure we’d erected three days earlier to protect the well site from rain and sun. Backpacks and camera cases hung from metal uprights, and tarps covered the opening of the pit beneath. Boxes, buckets,
shovels, picks, brushes, and storage containers lay as we’d left them early that morning.
Rope had been strung from pole to pole around the excavation to create a boundary between spectators and workers. Inside the restraint sat three idle members of the FAFG team. Outside it stood the villagers who came each day to observe in silence.
And the police guards who’d been told to shut us down.
We’d been close to uncovering evidence when we received the order to halt. The soil had begun yielding ash and cinders. Its color had changed from mahogany to graveyard black. We’d found a child’s hair clip in the sifting screen. Fragments of cloth. A tiny sneaker.
Dear God. Did the old woman’s family really lie only inches below the point at which we’d stopped?
Five daughters and nine grandchildren. Shot, macheted, and burned in their home together with neighboring women and children. How does one endure such loss? What could life offer her but endless pain?
Shifting my gaze back to the surrounding countryside, I noted half a dozen farmsteads carved out of the foliage. Adobe walls, tile roofs, smoke curling from cooking fires. Each had a dirt yard, outdoor privy, and an emaciated brown dog or two. The wealthier had chickens, a scrawny hog, a bicycle.
Two of Señora Ch’i’p’s daughters had lived in the cluster of huts halfway up the eastern escarpment. Another had lived on top, where we’d parked the FAFG vehicles. These women were married; she didn’t remember their ages. Their babies were three days, ten months, two, four, and five years old.
Her youngest daughters were still at home. They’d been eleven and thirteen.
Families, connected by a network of footpaths, and by a network of genes. Their world was this valley.
I imagined Señora Ch’i’p returning that day, perhaps descending the same dirt trail our team struggled down each morning and up each evening. She had sold her beans. She was probably happy.
Two decades is not long enough to forget. A lifetime is not long enough.
I wondered how often she thought of them. Did their phantoms walk with her as she trudged to market, following the same course she’d taken the fatal day? Did they slip past the tattered rag covering her window when darkness claimed the valley each night? Did they people her dreams? Did they come to her smiling and laughing as they’d been in life? Or bloodied and charred as she’d found them in death?
My vision blurred, and I dropped my head again, stared at the dirt. How was it possible for human beings to do that to other human beings? To helpless and unresisting women and children? In the distance, I heard the rumble of thunder.
Seconds, maybe years later, the interview stopped, an untranslated question left dangling in space. When I looked up Maria and her interpreter had shifted their attention to the hill behind me. Señora Ch’i’p remained focused on her sandals, hand to cheek, fingers curled like a newborn’s.
“Mateo’s back,” said Elena Norvillo, an FAFG member from the El Petén region. I turned as she pushed to her feet. The rest of the team observed from under the tent.
Two men were working their way down one of the many footpaths that meandered through the gorge, the
leader in blue windbreaker, faded jeans, brown cap. Though I couldn’t read them from where I sat, I knew the letters above his brim said FAFG. The six of us waiting wore identical caps. The man following was suited and tied and carried a collapsible chair.
We watched the pair pick their way through scraggly corn surrounded by a half dozen subsidiary crops, careful to damage nothing. A bean seedling. A potato plant. Minor to us, but critical food or income to the family that owned it.
When they drew within twenty yards, Elena shouted.
“Did you get it?”
Mateo gave a thumbs-up.
The injunction to suspend excavation had come from a local magistrate. According to his interpretation of the exhumation order, no work was to proceed outside the presence of a judge, the Guatemalan equivalent of a district attorney. Visiting early this morning and finding no judge on site, the magistrate had ordered digging halted. Mateo had gone to Guatemala City to have this ruling overturned.
Mateo led his companion directly to the two uniformed guards, members of the National Civil Police, and produced a document. The older cop shifted the strap of his semiautomatic, took the paper and read, head down, shiny black bill reflecting the dimming afternoon light. His partner stood with foot thrust forward, a bored expression on his face.
After a brief exchange with the suited visitor, the senior cop returned the order to Mateo and nodded.
The villagers watched, silent but curious, as Juan, Luis, and Rosa stood and exchanged high fives. Mateo and his companion joined them at the well. Elena followed.
Crossing to the tent, I glanced again at Señora Ch’i’p and her adult son. The man was scowling, hatred seeping from every pore. Hatred for whom? I wondered. For those who had butchered his family? For those who had come from a different world to disturb their bones? For distant authorities who would block even that small effort? For himself for having survived that day? His mother stood woodenly, face impassive.
Mateo introduced the suited man as Roberto Amado, a representative from the judge/district attorney’s office. The Guatemala City judge had ruled that Amado’s presence would satisfy the requirements of the exhumation order. Amado would be with us for the duration, observing and recording in order to validate the quality of work for the court.
Amado shook hands with each of us, moved to a corner of the covered area, unfolded his chair, and sat. Mateo began issuing orders.
“Luis, Rosa, please sift. Tempe and I will dig. Juan, haul dirt. We’ll rotate as needed.”
Mateo had a small, V-shaped scar on his upper lip that broadened into a U whenever he smiled. Today, the V remained narrow as a spike.
“Elena, document and photograph. Skeletal inventory, artifact inventory, photo log. Every molecule goes on record.”
“Where are Carlos and Molly?” asked Elena.
Carlos Menzes was a member of an Argentine human rights organization who’d been advising the FAFG since its formation in 1992. Molly Carraway was an archaeologist newly arrived from Minnesota.
“They’re driving the other truck out here for transport. We’ll need another vehicle when we’re ready to leave with all the equipment and artifacts.”
He glanced at the sky.
“The storm is two hours off, maybe three if we’re lucky. Let’s find these people before there’s more legal bullshit.”
As I collected trowels and placed them in a bucket tied to a length of rope, Mateo zipped the court order into his pack and hung it over a crossbar. His eyes and hair were black, his body a fire hydrant, short and thick. Tubes of muscle bulged in his neck and arms as he and Luis flung back the tarps covering the mouth of the excavation.
Mateo placed a boot on the first of the dirt steps we’d terraced into a pit wall. Edges crumbled, sending dirt two meters to the floor below. The cascading particles made soft, ticking sounds as Mateo slowly climbed down.
When he reached bottom, I lowered the bucket, then zipped my windbreaker. Three days had taught me well. May was pleasant in the highlands, but underground the clammy cold knifed straight to your marrow. I’d left Chupan Ya each evening chilled through, my digits numb.
I descended as Mateo had done, placing my feet sideways, testing each makeshift tread. My pulse accelerated as the gloom closed around me.
Mateo held up a hand and I took it. Stepping off the last riser, I stood in a hole no more than six feet square. The walls and floor were slick, the air dank and rotten.
My heart thumped below my sternum. A bead of sweat raced down the furrow overlying my spine.
Always in narrow, dark places.
I turned from Mateo, pretended to clean my trowel. My hands trembled.
Closing my eyes, I fought past the claustrophobia. I thought of my daughter. Katy as a toddler. Katy at the
University of Virginia. Katy at the beach. I pictured my cat, Birdie. My townhouse in Charlotte. My condo in Montreal.
I played the game. First song to pop into my mind. Neil Young. “Harvest Moon.” I ran through the lyrics.
My breathing eased. My heart slowed.
I opened my eyes and checked my watch. Fifty-seven seconds. Not as good as yesterday. Better than Tuesday. Much better than Monday.
Mateo was already on his knees, scraping the damp earth. I moved to the opposite corner of the pit, and for the next twenty minutes we worked in silence, troweling, inspecting the ground, scooping dirt into buckets.
Objects emerged with increasing frequency. A shard of glass. A chunk of metal. Charred wood. Elena bagged and recorded each item.
Noise reached us from the world above. Banter. A request. The bark of a dog. Now and then I’d glance up, unconsciously reassuring my id.
Faces peered down. Men in gaucho hats, women in traditional Mayan weaves, toddlers clinging to their skirts. Babies stared with round, black eyes, secured to their mothers by rainbow textiles. I saw a hundred variations on high cheekbones, black hair, sienna skin.
On one upward glance I noticed a little girl, arms above her head, fingers curled around the restraining rope. Typical kid. Chubby cheeks, dirty feet, ponytails.
A stab of pain.
The child was the same age as one of Señora Ch’i’p’s granddaughters. Her hair was bound with barrettes identical to the one we’d found in the screen.
I smiled. She turned her face and pressed it to her mother’s legs. A brown hand reached down and stroked her head.
According to witnesses, the hole in which we worked had been intended as a cistern. Begun but never completed, it was hastily transformed into an unmarked grave on the night of the massacre.
A grave for people identical to those keeping vigil above.
Fury swirled in me as I resumed digging.
Focus, Brennan. Channel your outrage to uncover evidence. Do that which you are able to do.
Ten minutes later my trowel touched something hard. Laying the implement aside, I cleared mud with my fingers.
The object was slender, like a pencil, with an angled neck ending in a corrugated upper surface. Above the neck, a tiny cap. Surrounding neck and cap, a circular cup.
I sat back on my heels and studied my find. A femur and pelvis. The hip of a child no older than two.
I looked up, and my gaze met that of the little girl. Again she whipped away. But this time she turned back, peeked through the folds of her mother’s skirt, smiled shyly.
Sweet Jesus in heaven.
Tears burned the back of my lids.
I pointed at the little bones. Mateo crawled to my corner.
Along most of its length, the femur was mottled gray and black from exposure to fire and smoke. The distal end was crumbly white, suggesting more intense burning.
For a moment neither of us spoke. Then Mateo crossed himself and said in a low voice, “We’ve got them.”
When Mateo stood and repeated the phrase, the entire team gathered at the edge of the well.
A fleeting thought. We’ve got whom, Mateo? We’ve got the victims, not the assassins. What chance is there that any of these government-sanctioned butchers will ever face charges, let alone be punished?
Elena tossed down a camera, then a plastic marker stamped with the numeral “1.” I positioned the case number and took several shots.
Mateo and I went back to troweling, the others to sifting and hauling. After an hour I took my turn at the screen. Another hour, and I climbed back down into the well.
The storm held off, and the cistern told its story.
The child had been one of the last lowered into the clandestine grave. Under and around it lay the remains of others. Some badly burned, others barely singed.
By late afternoon seven case numbers had been assigned, and five skulls stared out from a tangle of bones. Three of the victims were adults, at least two were adolescents. Number one was a child. For the others, age estimation was impossible.
At dusk, I made a discovery that will stay with me the rest of my life. For over an hour I’d been working on skeleton number five. I’d exposed the skull and lower jaw and cleared dirt from the vertebrae, ribs, pelvis, and limbs. I’d traced the legs, found the foot bones mingled with those of the person beside.
Skeleton five was female. The orbits lacked heavy ridges, the cheekbones were smooth and slender, the mastoids small. The lower half of the body was enveloped in remnants of a rotted skirt identical to a dozen above my head. A coroded wedding band circled one fragile phalange.
Though the colors were faded and stained, I could make out a pattern in material adhering to the upper torso. Between the arm bones, atop the collapsed rib cage, lay a bundle with a different design. Cautiously, I separated a corner, eased my fingertips underneath, and teased back the outer layer of fabric.
Once, at my Montreal lab, I was asked to examine the contents of a burlap bag found on the shore of an inland lake. From the bag I withdrew several rocks, and bones so fragile at first I thought they were those of a bird. I was wrong. The sack held the remains of three kittens, weighted down and heaved into the water to drown. My disgust was so powerful I had to flee the lab and walk several miles before resuming work.
Inside the bundle clutched by skeleton five, I found an arch of tiny vertebral disks with a miniature rib cage curving around it. Arm and leg bones the size of matches. A minute jaw.
Señora Ch’i’p’s infant grandchild.
Among the paper-thin cranial fragments, a 556 projectile, the type fired by an assault rifle.
I remembered how I’d felt at the slaughter of kittens, but this time I felt rage. There were no streets to walk here at the gravesite, no way to work off my anger. I stared at the little bones, trying to picture the man who had pulled the trigger. How could he sleep at night? How could he face people in the day?
At six Mateo gave the order to quit. Up top the air smelled of rain, and veins of lightning pulsated inside heavy, black clouds. The locals had gone.
Moving quickly, we covered the well, stored the equipment we would leave behind, and loaded up that which we would carry. As the team worked, rain began plinking in large, cold drops on the temporary roof above our heads.
Amado, the DA’s representative, waited with lawn chair folded, face unreadable.
Mateo signed the chain of custody book over to the police guards, then we set off through the corn, winding one behind another like ants on a scent trail. We’d just begun our long, steep climb when the storm broke. Hard, driving rain stung my face and drenched my hair and clothes. Lightning flashed. Thunder boomed. Trees and cornstalks bent in the wind.
Within minutes, water sluiced down the hillside, turning the path into a slick, brown stream of mud. Again and again I lost my footing, hitting hard on one knee, then the other. I crawled upward, right hand clawing at vegetation, left hand dragging a bag of trowels, feet scrambling for traction. Though rain and darkness obscured my vision, I could hear others above and below me. Their hunched forms whitened each time lightning leapt across the sky. My legs trembled, my chest burned.
An eon later I crested the ridge and dragged myself onto the patch of earth where we’d left the vehicles eleven hours earlier. I was placing shovels in the bed of a pickup when Mateo’s satellite phone sounded, the ring barely audible above the wind and rain.
“Can someone get that?” Mateo shouted.
Slipping and sliding toward the cab, I grabbed his pack, dug out the handset, and clicked on.
“Tempe Brennan,” I shouted.
“Are you still at the site?” English. It was Molly Carraway, my colleague from Minnesota.
“We’re just about to pull out. It’s raining like hell,” I shouted, backhanding water from my eyes.
“It’s dry here.”
“Where are you?”
“Just outside Sololá. We were late leaving. Listen, we think we’re being followed.”
“A black sedan’s been on our ass since Guatemala City. Carlos tried a couple of maneuvers to lose it, but the guy’s hanging on like a bad cold.”
“Can you tell who’s driving?”
“Not really. The glass is tinted an—”
I heard a loud thump, a scream, then static, as though the phone had been dropped and was rolling around.
“Jesus Christ!” Carlos’s voice was muted by distance.
I heard agitated words that I couldn’t make out.
“Molly, what is it?”
Shouts. Another thump. Scraping. A car horn. A loud crunch. Male voices.
“What’s happening?” Alarm raised my voice an octave.
A shouted command.
“Fuck you!” Carlos.
“Molly! Tell me what’s going on!” I was almost screaming. The others had stopped loading to stare at me.
“No!” Molly Carraway spoke from a distant galaxy, her voice small and tinny and filled with panic. “Please. No!”
Two muted pops.
Two more pops.