"No surrogate war here. Human emotion and violence roil the characters in this historical drama. Gripping."
The second novel of the three-part series, Los Chapin!
Wilhelm Hoffman’s mission is to pick up the fight that murdered his German father and his brothers. Returning from a residency in the United States, he takes his assigned post in a small hospital near the western highlands of Guatemala. Within a week he is introduced to the escalated violence of the 14-year civil war. His stepmother, an Indio Indio woman who raised him from his first day knows he is not cut out for the fight. But William, as he calls himself now, persists and reveals a rift in his oligarch family as wide as the country’s own social chasm.
A “Surrogate War” for the U.S., the gut issues in the Guatemala Civil War reveal the oligarch’s willingness to do anything to maintain their inherited entitlements. William’s highly placed uncles suspect his commitment to the oligarch government and plot to reveal him from his first day back. Treachery, courage, persistence and the power of love pervade this rich tapestry of family history that follows the historical events themselves.
William’s highly placed uncles suspect his commitment to the oligarch government and plot to reveal him from his first day back. Treachery, courage, persistence and the power of love pervade this rich tapestry of family history that follows the historical events themselves.
A third novel, Twelve Days, due out in 2015, wraps up the story of the civil war.
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Chapter 1 TRUST
A hamlet, 15 kilometers NE of Retalhuleu, Guatemala, Early April 1974
The younger man lay flat on the thick mat of brown pine needles. A fist sitting atop his other hand held his chin as he studied the scene. A black leather bag lay on one side of him and a large paper sack on the other. Two hundred feet away and a hundred feet down clustered five wooden houses. One of them smoldered. The walls collapsed onto each other in a teepee of charcoaled boards suspended in a dune of white ash and rimmed by blackened thatch. Thin lanyards of smoke arose in soul tracks until fading into glare at the level of the two men. From the left came the light sound of a waterfall as a little stream plunged over the limestone into a pebbled bed, making its way to the ditch beside a road.
They saw no one and the scene was silent except for the cascade and the wind-rustled pines. The light breeze carried a scent the doctor knew but could not yet name. He saw about 30 meters of the two-track road as it terminated in gouges where some large vehicle turned around. Something light colored lay on the slope of the ditch and he trained a pair of Zeiss glasses. Each eyepiece had to be screwed to bring the site into focus.
"It looks like clothing."
He handed the glasses to the older man who had guided him there.
"It is certain." The man said without taking them.
"I don't see anyone. Shouldn't we go down?"
"There might still be soldiers."
"I don't hear anything, do you?"
His guide shook a ‘No’ but did not move.“This is your village?” he looked squarely at his now rigid guide. "You brought me here so I could save someone. I can't do it from here."
"I am afraid to look." The old man said
"So am I." The doctor rose to his knees, tossing the binocular strap over his head. "Unless you have a better idea, we’ll stay in the tree line and work our way down to that nearest house." He picked up the leather bag.
The evenly spaced Australian pines had enough foliage to provide cover as they shuffled sideways downhill, holding the flexile branches like ropes for support. About fifty feet above the first house they stopped, the figure of a man lay sprawled at the corner of a house. His guide was breathing heavily now.
"You know him?" the doctor spoke in a stage whisper.
"It is certain."
"Let's move to the right to see what we can—not too close," his breath labored.
Twenty more feet and they saw three corpses stacked in a grotesque pile. The arm of a man propped skyward by the shoulders of another; he looked as though he might have been waving gaily when he died.
They started the final shuffle down when the older man sat suddenly, hyperventilating. The younger man waited for him.
The doctor tried to speak but he found his own teeth clenched; it took a moment to pry open his locked jaws.
"Take a deep breath and hold it a moment, abuelo."
The guide did as instructed. "Those are all men," he croaked. "The others will be in the burned house." He lowered his head to the forearms crossing his knees. The buzz of hundreds of flies now reached them from below.
They found the hole that the soldiers made the men dig in a tilled bean patch—wide and deep enough to cover a body. A patch of corn, the milpa, stood next to the beans. All had been leveled by machete. A couple of half-starved curs snapped and pulled at the bodies of men.
“We must keep them from the animals, Don Doctor, until I can bring the shaman.” the older man said. They dragged the four bodies to the hole. The old man checked for anything salvageable, but if there had been any they were already taken.
"Something must have scared them off before they finished the job," the doctor said.
"There are guerrillas on the volcán."
The younger man looked eastward, through the trees to the crest of the volcano. Well below the cone, the west facing slopes wore a coat of sage-green jungle. The two fumaroles venting near the top spoke to the mountain’s true purpose.
"Do you know the guerrillas?" he asked as they walked toward the burned house. "They should have buried them."
"They do not take time for rituals. Some say they are as bad as the army, others say not." The sweet smell of burned flesh irrupted as they neared the house. The doctor could see more clothing behind it, all of it traditional indigenous.
"I do not know them. They have a name. I saw it on a notice. But I do not know them." He grasped the younger man's arm, rooted, staring at the burned house. "I cannot talk about this right now."
After the old man recovered, they used poles to pry smoking boards from the pile revealing a blackened, fleshy lump. Four children comprised the most of it, covered by two mothers. The doctor's lungs seized; he forced them to suck air. "Breathe William," he muttered. For an hour, they extracted and carried the innocents to join the men; for now, the abuelo was more in control than the medic. Afterwards the doctor wanted to ask more about the guerrillas; too soon, he thought.
It was a disagreeable business and when the doctor washed his hands in the little waterfall, his mouth so tasted of metal his teeth ached.
No bullet wounds in the women, the doctor thought as he walked back.
The old man sat hands crossed over his knees, his back to the houses.
They walked back to the ancient Land Rover using the road. On arriving they had parked it in the brush about three hundred meters away from the hamlet, and the old man cut small trees and laid them against the vehicle. They had circled the village, climbing above it through the jungle. The younger man had noticed the way the old man moved easily uphill, finding the path of least resistance yet staying on a course that brought them to their first view of the houses. He could walk me into the ground, he thought now that they were on level ground and he could keep up. The doctor wanted to ask about the guerrillas but it occurred to him that he did not know how the old man had escaped, or how he had even known what happened. I should know more, he thought, ten cuidado.
"I was hoeing the patch back of the village when I heard the truck. I saw the soldiers and I ran." The older man sagged against a tree, slowly sinking to the base of it. "Leave me here." The doctor could hear him keening as he walked down the road. William hoisted his bags and himself into his “jeep,” as he called it and started the engine. He attempted to shift to reverse but the ancient gnashing gears fought back. Both hands slapped the steering wheel. He leaned his head onto it for several breaths then sat up, turned off the engine and walked back to the abuelo. William stood a few feet away, waiting until the old man looked up. His face was wracked with the misery but his cheeks were dry.
"Come on abuelo, it is not good to stay here. We'll find a place for you."
They bumped slowly over the rutted road back to the main highway. "How did you find me?" the doctor asked finally, "I've been in Retalhuleu barely a week."
"You are the new doctor," the man said, He slumped against the jeep's low sides, grasping the handhold; each year of his life showed in his face. "Everyone knows who you are. Even the guerrillas."
"Why did the soldiers do this? Were you helping the guerrillas?"
"No, but..." He looked straight ahead, "No." He sat up a little, his voice quickened, "That was my son, the one waving to us from the other world. He was helping to start the cooperativa, so that we could sell some beans and corn and buy supplies."
"The army doesn't like that?"
"The army.... is afraid of our working together in any manner. They want us to depend on them and be in their civil patrol."
"What is that?"
“It's new. They want us to be the army for them. If you don't want to be in the civil patrol you are suspect. My son said no, 'I'm working for the cooperativa' he told them."
They were quiet again.
"I've been gone a long time," the doctor said, "this is all new to me."
The road improved near the main highway. "The guerrillas have been here," abuelo pointed to a flyer on the first power pole, "that is their paper." His eyes fully open now.
The doctor pulled it off the pole. It carried a famous visage of Che. "Unite! Fight!" it said below the mimeographed picture, and was signed, The "Organzación Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas." Below that, "Brigada Che Guevara."
"ORPA" Doctor William said quietly. "Are these the guerrillas you spoke of?”
“Yes, Don Doctor.”
“Do you know these people abuelo?”
"Yes." The old man's eyes lit a little, "Yes. I do know them, now that I think about it.” His face reflected a tentative trust but his words came with an edge of defiance, should trust alone fail.
"Could you introduce me?" the doctor said.
The doctor, William Hoffman Zelaya, wondered if he should take the flyer to the police commander who showed up at the state hospital on William’s first day. It might show the proper civil spirit he thought. The visit resulted from a deep splinter in the fleshy part of the policeman’s hand. It had broken off the day before and the hand was in such pain from infection that the cop told him not to waste time with an anesthetic before lancing the wound. William administered a local anyway and the policeman was generous with his gratitude.
The surprise came when the man said he recognized the doctor from the University of San Carlos, the university of Guatemala. William did not remember the policeman but as he reflected on the formal but cordial parting, he thought that he might remember a dark and serious young man from one of his classes. I hope it wasn't one of the social science classes, he thought, there is no telling what I might have said in those days. It was the policeman's job to know the important people in the town and he commented, without making a request, he hoped the doctor would assist in reporting suspicious occurrences. "Like wounds," he clarified.
William remembered two days after the visit when they passed each other on the street. The policeman gave him a nod and small smile and memory flooded back. He was the dark and serious young man. They had shared two classes that first year and while they never became more than acquaintances, the young man had nodded and smiled to William in just that manner, every time they saw each other for the remainder of their college careers.
The police capitán seemed to welcome his company, as though university graduates might be hard to find in Retalhuleu, "Reu," he called it. His name was "Ā-bans," he said in the Spanish manner. "In the police we use last names. I'm in the habit."
"Evans? E-V-A-N-S, " William spelled it in English.
"My grandfather was Welsh, an engineer living in Canada. He came to build the railroad for the fruit company. Apparently he had a few affairs," he said smiling. "I think I remember that there were foreigners in your family."
"My father," William said, "and a great-grandmother on my mother's side. All Germans." They were quiet for a moment, this guy remembers a lot more than I do, William thought. "What classes did we take together in those days?"
"History. The history of Central America." He looked at William, "You've mellowed a little since those days." He chuckled at William's blush.
William reddened to the roots of his hair. "I was afraid of that. I have mellowed—being a doctor and all that. I must have been a jerk in those days."
"No. Not at all. Why would you say that? I thought you were the smartest man in the class, including the professor who was really a jerk." They both laughed remembering the little red-headed man who wore bow ties regardless of the weather.
The next day, they had the first of what became monthly lunches in Evan's office.
The doctor replaced the flyer. No need to court questions. He liked the policeman and it crossed his mind that the civil war might not tolerate the friendship. We have suspicious wounds here but a massacre by soldiers is not what the cop has in mind.
"Massacre." He said it aloud, for the first time. "Massacre." The word filled his mouth.
"What did you say Don Doctor?"
Five days later, the abuelo waited for him during the blue hour as he left the clinic. "Don Doctor," he said, "there is someone who would like to meet you. Perhaps, we might share a little food at your house."
"A private meeting, no?"
William mulled the possibility for tonight. The only one at home was his mother, María and they weren't expecting anyone. "You know where my house is?"
The old man nodded.
"Wait until an hour after full dark then come to the back door."
The abuelo nodded again and returned to his seat on a low rock wall.