I thought about taking a day off from El Salvador. I start teaching next week after a long break and I could be paging through The Curious Researcher, sixth edition, the words “Includes MLA Guidelines!” (exclamation point mine) on a gold star on the front cover. I could be digging a new vegetable bed or calling our insurance company to find out why my sleep study bill is so enormous. I just finished writing a short story, but I could be starting a new one.
It's better not to kid myself about why I’m hesitating. I don't know yet what I need to say about the village and how we conducted ourselves there, only that I feel a tremendous pressure to say it.
Greta and I stayed with Blanca and Carlos. Both husband and wife had been war combatants, so they qualified for a two-room instead of a one-room house, built of cinder blocks and roofed with tin, as nearly every house in COO was. Like many other families, they’d built an open kitchen by attaching a fiberglass roof to one of the exterior walls. Behind the house was a water pump with a big basin, where household drinking water came from, the long-horned cow drank, dishes and clothes were washed, and everyone bathed, Greta and I with acute circumspection. There was an outhouse as well, which we didn’t use much. We sweated through our clothes all day long. There was no liquid left in our bodies to pee out.
During the war, the FMLN trained Blanca to be a medic. Now she was COO’s health worker, dispensing whatever medicine was available from a closet in the community center, teaching hygiene, delivering babies, helping people die. Because she earned a small salary, she and Carlos didn’t depend entirely on farming or raising animals. They were a little better off than most.
If I were a bigger person, a person who could hold onto the project of reconstituting herself, I wouldn’t say this: when I met Blanca, she was wearing shorts.
Beds on frames were rare in COO—most people slept on palettes on the floor or in hammocks--but Blanca had two twin beds with mosquito nets ready for Greta and me, in the room where the kids slept, farthest from the kitchen. We began by putting the kids out, and we went on that way. Electricity is expensive, Blanca said in Spanish, translated by Greta, then brought in a fan when we went to bed. I think I’ll kill a chicken, she said before dinner the last night, and I can’t tell you how guilty every bite of that chicken made me feel, or how delicious it was.
Greta had to translate just about everything for me except what the kids said. “Don’t pet the dog,” the smallest one told me. “He has fleas.” Loud and clear.
I couldn’t figure out what the dogs were for. Protection, maybe. All the families locked their houses up tight at night, doors and windows, closing in the wood smoke that drifted in all day from the kitchen.
Greta and I offered to do the dishes, and Blanca led us to the basin that surrounded the pump, where we dipped the plates in the water and scrubbed them with tiny pieces of steel wool. I didn’t know whether to use the liquid soap sitting on a plastic table nearby. I’d have to rinse it off in the basin—I couldn’t see a dishpan or bucket—and then the cow, huge and oblivious, would drink the soapy water before it drained out. Greta and I were trying to reason our way through this when Blanca came out to check on us. She took a plate from my hand, poured some soap on it, scrubbed it hard with the steel wool, rinsed it in the basin, and handed it back to me.
Blanca and Carlos’s teenage son, David, played in the village band and looked like a movie star. He slept in the other room with his parents while Greta and I were there. Like his father, he smiled constantly but said very little. We asked him about his plans. “Music,” he said.
On the night we attended church, songbooks were passed out. We sang hymns to the tunes of “The Sounds of Silence” and—I think I’m remembering this right—“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” No mass was offered because priests rarely made it to COO. One of the older women had studied to be a “Delegate of the Word.” She had a short message for us, which I didn’t understand. The band was finished by then, and David sat down next to me. Several women turned around and glared. Did they think I was coming on to a sixteen-year-old?
“This is what lives in the Lempa,” Blanca told us one afternoon, holding up a dried fish on a line. The fish had two sets of eyes, one on each side of its head. “This is why we can’t drink the water.” I concluded that a little soap didn’t matter much.
We told Margaret about the fish, how much it said about what the people of COO were up against. “If Blanca is telling the truth,” Margaret said, mysteriously.
At least I was clear on the soap thing.
Definition of community, from the center in San Salvador where Octavio Ortiz was killed. "Todos" means all the people.