El Pueblo Vencerá by James Winter, short story book cover artwork

“El Pueblo Vencerá” by James Winter

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She never thought they would come for her family. Now, on a mission for answers, Beatriz helps other mothers summon the courage to make a stand.

About the Author
I’m that guy, the one who gives my students their tuition’s worth, who pushes their writing until they want to wring my neck. That’s okay. They know sometimes I’d like to wring my neck, too. They know that I sweat it as much them, and that writing and reading is a nasty business, and that as a boy writing and reading helped me to see the nastiness in my life, and it helped me out of it by dumping me in muck. So, I write about the nastiness, and the beauty in nastiness, too.
El Pueblo Vencerá

Argentina, 1977

Beatriz heard them pull up to her house. Her husband, Adelmo, did not stir. He slept soundly, his stink filling the room. She heard truck doors open and shut, and men talk in hushed voices below her bedroom window. Beatriz looked at the watercolor portrait of the Savior hung above her headboard and prayed for Him to drive the men away. He usually watched over her with warmth and caring, but that night He had lifeless, empty eyes.

Over the past year, whenever Beatriz heard these men whispered about at her diner counter, she dismissed it as mere stories and gossip. Articles about the men did not appear in the newspapers. The radio did not broadcast these horror stories nor were they reported on the evening news. Who was to say they had taken place?

But as these stories moved closer to San Miguel, Beatriz grew afraid. Mr. Rizian, a former suitor of one of Beatriz’s high school girlfriends, left the paper mill one Sunday and was not heard from again. Rita, the bright girl who managed the summer market, disappeared from her apartment. The previous autumn, Luciana’s son was snatched from his bed. Luciana, Beatriz’s best short-order cook, quit work and now lived in Salta with her sister.

On Christmas the men came to Beatriz’s neighborhood and took Eva Numez’s girls. Numez’s shrieking brought the entire neighborhood outside to see what had happened. When Beatriz realized what did, she counted her blessings and went back to bed.

Still, Beatriz never truly believed the men would come for her family. She and Adelmo ran a barely profitable diner. Their oldest son, Ignacio, a philosophy major at NU Cuyo, was by no means the sharpest boy of his class. Their oldest daughter, Marcena, had not yet graduated high school. Their baby boy, Pichi, could not yet sit up. The men had no reason to come here.

But they had.

Beatriz sat up in bed when she heard the men march up her front stairs.

Then it sounded as if her front door exploded.

Beatriz was already on her feet and in the living room when the men invaded her home. One grabbed her by her hair and clubbed her to her knees. He kicked her in the stomach until she doubled over, screaming. He put his boot to her back and pressed her to the floor. She craned her neck, everything in her body afire, and looked toward the bedroom hallway.

Adelmo stood there, gripping the walls. Stamping his bare feet, he gave a high-pitched shout and charged the men. A baton lashed, lifting her husband off his feet. Stumbling like a drunk, he fell face-first to the floor. As one of the men slipped a black bag over Adelmo’s head and handcuffed his wrists behind his back, Beatriz saw the man was in uniform. He wore high boots and jungle fatigues. He was a soldier.

A soldier knelt near Beatriz, stabbed the couch, and spilled its stuffing. He examined the cushions, yelled “Nada,” and then stabbed the recliner. Beatriz heard another soldier smashing plates in the kitchen. A third one, the one who’d assaulted Adelmo, went down the hallway to the back bedrooms and Beatriz heard her children scream.

A man behind her barked an order and the soldiers who’d been pinning her to the floor and destroying her furniture jogged down the bedroom hallway after their comrade.

Beatriz got to her knees and looked at the fifth and final soldier at her front door.

He was undoubtedly the commanding officer. Numerous stripes and bars were sewn on the collar of his shirt and he had a white cross pinned to his red beret. He was handsome. Thumbs hooked in his belt loops, his tall frame stood ramrod straight. He had a square jaw and a block-head, but a thin nose and high cheek bones dotted with pockmarks.

The officer’s eyes darted toward the bedroom hallway, where there came the sounds of a scuffle, but they came back to her as she knelt there, trying to catch her breath. She thought he pitied her, so she leapt to her feet and grabbed his uniform front and pleaded, “Don’t do this. Don’t do this.”

He pushed her and she tripped. As she fell, she saw him stop himself from reaching out to catch her.

She heard a man cry, “Damn it,” from the back bedrooms.

There came a gunshot.

Beatriz lay frozen, her mouth open. She dug her fingernails into the floorboards.

One of the soldiers dragged Ignacio from the back bedrooms. He wore only white briefs with the black bag over his head. He was fat; everything on him jiggled as he struggled against the handcuffs. Another solider followed, cradling baby Pichi. Pichi screeched and kicked his legs. The solider whispered, “Shhh, child. Everything is fine. No tears, please.”

The soldiers brought their quarries to the commanding officer. Beatriz reached for Pichi. The soldier holding him kicked her. She held her side, weeping, and called to Adelmo.

“I’m here, honey. I’m here,” he croaked through the black bag.

Beatriz watched the soldiers take Ignacio and Pichi down the front steps and out of sight.

The last two soldiers came into the living room, one pressing his hand to a bloody gash on his shoulder. The other holstered his pistol and said to the commanding officer, “Little bitch stabbed Alomar.”

“Get in the truck,” the officer told them.

The soldier with the pistol snatched Adelmo off the floor by his manacled wrists and pushed him toward the front door.

“Fucking pigs!” Adelmo cried. “Goddamned sons of whores. Goddamned cowards.”

The soldier kicked Adelmo’s feet from under him.

“Shut up,” he ordered. “It’ll be easier for you.”

“Fuck your mother!” Adelmo bellowed.

Beatriz watched the soldier hoist Adelmo to his feet and throw him down the front stairs. Screaming, she hurried on her hands and knees to the front window and saw her husband lying on the sidewalk. The soldier hustled to Adelmo, baton held high, and struck his head until it bounced off the pavement like a fútbol.

“Stop,” the officer barked to his man. “Victor, stop!”

With a sly grin, Victor put away his baton. He dragged Adelmo to the humvee parked on the street and tossed his body in the boot. Beatriz heard her children screaming inside the vehicle. Victor climbed into the back and closed its doors. All was silent.

The commanding officer jogged down the front steps, but stopped midway to look at Beatriz through the living room window streaked with previous washings and flecks of dirt. He looked at her almost as if he wished to apologize for the inconvenience he’d caused. The front stoop light came on at the house across the street. Its sudden brightness blinded Beatriz, and by the time the light went out, the officer and the humvee were gone.

She stared out the front window, cotton-mouthed, surrounded by upholstery stuffing. The soldiers did not return for her. The night dragged on.

Though Beatriz watched the sun peek above the houses across the street, she did not see the dawn. She did not see her neighbors crowded at her front door. She did not see her sister arrive or feel her take her by her shoulders and lead her to bed. Instead, her world flickered like a movie skipping frames, like at the Cine de la Luz, where she, Adelmo, and their children spent so much time giggling at Harpo’s faces and at Chico’s fingers tumbling over piano keys.

The Cine de la Luz had been their favorite spot in San Miguel before the government closed it. Beatriz’s family loved Westerns. Ignacio had become fascinated with John Wayne at a young age. He mimicked his drawl and hefty, surefooted stance wherever he went. He’d waltz into his parents’ bedroom and say, “Well…what’re you makin’…for dinner?” Beatriz and Adelmo would laugh and applaud and Ignacio would waltz back out of the room and return for another performance.

Beatriz dreamed of Ignacio. In her dream, her son leaned against her bedroom doorjamb and did his John Wayne impression, but she couldn’t hear him. There were too many people talking in the room, yet when Beatriz told them to shut up they only talked louder. Finally, Ignacio turned and went back down the hall, his shoulders slumped and head hanging.

Beatriz slept late the following morning, and started her day like any other. Groaning, her hands pressed to her sides, she knelt at the foot of her bed and prayed. Her sister came in with a cup of tea and pleaded for her to get back in bed. Ignoring her, Beatriz went to Marcena’s bedroom.

Marcena’s slim body had been wrapped in white sheets. Her bedding had been stripped and her pillow turned over. A smudged brown-red streak covered the wall by the open window.

Beatriz took one step into the room. Her sister moaned, “Oh, Bea, I—”

“Where is it?” Beatriz whispered.

“What?”

“The knife she used to stab the man.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Beatriz hissed, “Cecili—.” Sharp pains in her sides choked her.

Cecilia reached into the folds of her dress and handed it to Beatriz: a butter knife.

Handing the knife back to Cecilia, Beatriz hurried out of the house.

She went in the small cubby beneath the front stairs and came out with Ignacio’s bicycle. He had ridden it home from NU Cuyo that May. Beatriz managed to swing one leg over the seat before she started shaking.

Ignacio had scratched “El Pueblo Vencerá” on the handlebars. She had told him not to. Someone was bound to report him. The wire basket behind the seat still held his college textbooks, protest pamphlets their bookmarks. She had demanded he throw them away. He told her he had. He’d lied. Pichi had lain in that basket two days earlier as Ignacio pedaled them up and down the street, Pichi squealing with delight. How could Ignacio put his brother in this basket while ignoring her warnings? Didn’t he realize what he’d bring upon them? Beatriz got off the bicycle and pushed it from her. It rolled a few meters before it wobbled and fell.

Putting her hands to her face, she whispered, “Sorry, Ignacio.” She righted the bike and put it back in the cubby beneath the stairs.

“Come back inside,” Cecilia called from the front steps. “Please. Come back inside.”

Ashamed at how she’d treated Ignacio’s bicycle, Beatriz refused. She turned from her sister and looked at her neighborhood. The houses were similar: two-story concrete squares with dented aluminum front doors and chipped slate roofs, their eaves hung with bright flower baskets. Only Eva Numez’s home was different. Her yard was brown, her flowers wilted.

Beatriz stepped toward Numez’s house and cold water stung her feet. She looked up the sidewalk and saw water running from under a pile of soaked newspapers. It flowed past her front stairs and washed down a sewer grate near the curb. She went to the newspapers, threw them aside, and found the source: a garden hose, Mr. Leon’s, her next door neighbor. The mustached old man appeared from behind the potted shrubs at his front door, his hands in his pockets. He barely met her gaze. Scowling, she dropped the hose and turned from him. Then she saw dark spots on the sidewalk and knew Mr. Leon had been trying to wash away Adelmo’s blood.

Trembling, Beatriz saw families watching her through their front windows. Once more the world flickered, its frames skipped. Beatriz felt light-headed, but when she saw her sister crying on her front stairs, this dizziness left her. She went to Cecilia, took her hand, and said, “Let’s have breakfast.”

The undertaker laid Beatriz’s daughter in a rough pine box and they buried her on Esperanza Hill. Beatriz refused to spend family savings on a plot in San Miguel’s Catholic cemetery. Cecilia rebuked her, but Beatriz countered: “I need that money. Travel is not cheap.” So, she had a small, quiet funeral for Marcena. Daniel Salazar, defrocked priest and neighborhood handyman, read from Job at the graveside.

Dr. Quintana came later that week with a chest compress, gauze, and explicit instructions for Beatriz not to get out of bed or go back to work at the diner. One broken rib was dangerously close to her lung. “The NRO took my David for treating one escapee,” Dr. Quintana said, stuffing her medical supplies in a little black bag, “but he’s not dead. I remember him.”

The next day, ignoring the sharp pains in her side that brought nausea whenever she breathed, Beatriz rode Ignacio’s bicycle to the town police station. It was a one-floor brick building behind a rusty chain-link fence, its gate always open. Inside, there was no one at the front desk. She called “Hola?” until Chief Braulio appeared. Fat, sweaty, Braulio fidgeted with a set of keys on his belt loop as he came toward her and embraced her. Braulio and Adelmo had been close friends. Their children had played together before the Braulios moved to a neighborhood uptown.

Beatriz began to speak, but Braulio told her, “I don’t know.”

“You do,” Beatriz said. “They come here for names and addresses.” She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from shouting. “They come to you.”

“They tell me nothing,” he said.

“You tell them everything. They must tell you where they take—”

Braulio sighed. “Bea, my family—”

She spit on the gold star pinned to his chest and left.

That summer Beatriz searched San Miguel and the surrounding province of Tucuman for her family. She rode Ignacio’s bicycle over hills and trails, only sometimes darting through city streets and busy squares. Mostly she stuck to back roads and never moved at night. Her ribs pained her. She knew they were not healing, but she did not care.

She put photographs of her family, black-and-white headshots cut from the pictures in the bedroom hall, in Adelmo’s money clip. The clip was a golden donkey’s head, buck-toothed and smiling, a joke from her to Adelmo on their fifteenth wedding anniversary. When Adelmo laughed, he snorted and honked, his wide upper teeth jutting over his lower. She and the children always gave him a hard time about it, Marcena most of all. She’d mimic her father’s laugh and it would then become a game between her and Ignacio of who did the best impression, her of their father versus his of John Wayne. Beatriz wore the money clip on a silver chain around her neck and kept it inside her dress. As she pedaled Ignacio’s bicycle, the cold metal tapped at her breast.

Beatriz first checked the hospitals, pictures in hand. She refused to leave until someone answered her. Doctors did not. Instead, they nodded to nurses, who shook their heads and said, “We’ve seen nobody, had nobody by those names. Sorry, senora.

Then Beatriz went to the police stations, but never alone. She waited to go inside them with groups of strangers. The police, like Chief Braulio, could not be trusted.

Policemen wouldn’t answer her either. She overheard them groan from back offices, “Another mother? My God, send her away.” Always the secretaries had the duty of frowning and telling her, “Sorry, senora.”

Finally she went to the churches, the ultimate refuge for those who escaped the death squads. Yet churchmen in silk robes and gold rings only offered her forgiveness and salvation, never an answer, never a place to turn.

“Forgive,” the Father at San Miguel told her, motioning to the pews of praying mothers. “Ask Him to protect your family, wherever they are. Pray for hope.”

“I do.”

“Then what more is there to seek?”

Dr. Quintana advised, “Go back to work. It might ease the pain,” and at the New Year, Beatriz reopened the family diner.

Beatriz prayed for the strength to forget her family. Dwelling on what the NRO might be doing or have done to them was driving her insane. She would not give the NRO, if they even cared she existed, the satisfaction of breaking her. Although she’d contemplated suicide, what had saved her was her hope of finding her family. After six months of searching, that hope seemed lost. If she could not find them, she wanted to be rid of their memory. It was too much of a cross to bear. So, she vowed never to be like Eva Numez, who sat home alone so beaten by her loss she wasted whatever life she had left.

Her diner reopened to two kinds of people: those who avoided her and those who ate quietly and left generous tips. She could stand neither.

That spring did not pass quickly. It was the season of Pichi’s birth.

On what would’ve been Pichi’s second birthday, Beatriz turned off the diner’s lights, locked the front door, and flipped the sign on the door to “Closed.” Sitting at the counter, she wept for lacking the strength to forget Pichi and her family.

Months passed. The summer seemed endless. The rag Ignacio had used to wipe the counters stayed dry in its porcelain dish by the sinks. She let none of her staff touch it.

June turned into July. It had been a year since they’d been taken, a year since Adelmo had shouted, “I got it, Bea,” after she called an order to the kitchen, a year since Pichi had opened his chocolate eyes to the morning and woke them all.

Autumn hit San Miguel in a harsh blast of wind and rain. Beatriz found herself working at the diner more. She covered her waitresses’ shifts no matter their excuses. She stayed later to clean the counters one last time. She even began opening on Sundays. One Sunday, as a customer chatted callously with her about the NRO as if her family had not been taken, she remembered what her grandmother said to her mother when she had told her family she was leaving Beatriz’s father for a younger man. “Women who forget their families aren’t women.” As Beatriz filled more of her time with work, she wondered what her grandmother would think of her.

Walking home from work on the Day of the Dead, Beatriz stopped at Eva Numez’s house. She crept up Numez’s front stairs and peeked in her living room window. A lone candle burned inside. Beside it, asleep in a rocking chair, was Numez. Although she was only four years older than Beatriz, she looked like a crone. Her chin rested on her chest, her graying hair wiry and tangled. Both hands were folded in her lap, and in them she clutched a ragged purple scarf.

That night, like every night, Beatriz prayed. She glared at her watercolor portrait of the Savoir and demanded He assure her she never became like Numez. She asked for forgiveness for trying to forget her family and wanted to know what she should do. She awaited His reply. The watercolor’s creamy, rosy-cheeked face remained expressionless. He had those empty, lifeless eyes again. But when the night quieted and dreams overtook her, Beatriz heard an answer, not from the heavens, but from inside: she had to know where they were. She had the right to know.

Beatriz began searching outside Tucuman. She hired neighborhood men who’d been laid off from the American clothing factories to cover her shifts at the diner. She assured them she’d only be gone on weekends. Soon, however, weekends turned to weeks as she went north to Jujuy, across the mountains to the high rises of Misiones, and south to Santa Cruz’s cold tip. No matter the province, whether from the mouths of nurses, secretaries, or barroom rebels who claimed to have heard a rumor, Beatriz endured, “Sorry, senora.”

She spent most of her money on bus fares. Soon, with only enough money left in her bank account to buy food, she resorted to riding Ignacio’s bicycle once more.

That winter outside of Catamarca, a beat-up sedan ran her off the road. Beatriz abandoned the bicycle and jumped in the ditch. When she recovered her breath and the car had sped away, she found Ignacio’s bicycle mangled in the opposite lane. She left it near the ditch and hitchhiked back to San Miguel.

Not having the will to work the diner, she sold it for a small sum to three Rosario businessmen. She had decided to leave San Miguel. Having grown tired of fiddling with the body of the snake, she wanted to go to its head: Buenos Aires.

Her sister stopped by the morning Beatriz intended to leave. While Beatriz packed a knapsack of food and drink, Cecilia came into her kitchen and said, “I got something for you.” She laid a small length of white cloth on the stove. “I took it from Marcena’s burial sheets. Just felt like something I should do. You should have it.”

Beatriz thanked and embraced her sister.

“There’s no changing your mind?” Cecilia asked.

“No.”

“You can live with me and Pablo. You have nieces and nephews.”

Beatriz shook her head. “I don’t have my family. I’ve tried to forget and I can’t.”

“You can’t leave it be? How can you hope to make the NRO listen?”

“I don’t know. But I can’t keep living like this. I have to know.”

“And if they turn you away, will you come home?”

Beatriz nodded. Cecilia took her to the bus station and paid her fare. They said their goodbyes. As the bus pulled out of the station, Beatriz didn’t dare look out the window at her sister. If she did, she might never leave.

It looked just like the pictures of the American capitol building in her elementary school books. Made of white marble, parts of it streaked with green and flecks of brown and black, the Capital Federal rose above the Plaza de Mayo. Beatriz stood in its shadow, the morning sun blocked by the lime-green dome with its bronze Lady Liberty pointing to the distance behind her.

A tall iron fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the Capital. Beatriz gripped it and peered through its bars. Between the fence and building were rows of palm trees, budding flower gardens, and government officials going to and from various vehicles. Guards dressed in blue and white walked the grounds, rifles on their shoulders. They were big men, well fed, young.

Beatriz turned away and walked to the center of the Plaza, weaving between hoarse-throated vendors and tourists with their cameras clicking and beggars with Styrofoam cups so used to being ignored they did not bother to ask for change. She leaned against the base of the Pirámide de Mayo, the two-hundred foot white obelisk that commemorated her country’s independence from Spain. It, too, had a Lady Liberty atop it. This one looked down on the Plaza, its expression calm, reserved, somehow wiser.

Beatriz took a wax-paper bundle from her knapsack and unwrapped it. Sitting against the Pirámide, she put the wrapping aside and ate the last slices of a loaf of bread.

To the east, behind the Casa Rosada, heavy morning traffic echoed from Bolívar Street. Regarding the Rosada, the three-story brick compound where the NRO’s most powerful kept their offices, Beatriz felt she no longer had the strength to climb its fence, find the monster Videla, and demand to see her family. She looked at her calloused palms and turned them over. Thin veins lined the backs of her hands. Her knuckles were wrinkled. Her feet were sore. She was tired. Everything on her body sagged, pulling at her aching knees and back, clinging to her tender ribs. She suddenly felt how old she was.

She studied the Plaza’s buildings. They had seen women like her come and go. Faced with the enormity of this history, and with the anonymity of her situation, Beatriz longed for home. Old, alone, she sat in the Capital’s shadow, defeated.

Across the Plaza, between a bronze monument of a general on horseback and a new American café was an old phone booth. “Cecilia,” Beatriz muttered as her bread scratched its way down her throat.

She sat there a long time, weeping.

A bell rang in the Catedral Metropolitana on the western side of the Plaza. A line of statue saints stood on either side of its doors, their arms out. They looked as if they begged her to rise. She looked at the Lady Liberty atop the Pirámide. Staring down at her, it seemed to ask: “Well?”

Beatriz got to her feet. She took the white cloth Cecilia had given her from her back pocket. It still smelled of Marcena’s greasy hair and knock-off American perfume. Beatriz tied it around her head in a bonnet, hauled herself onto the base of the Pirámide, and reached into her dress. She held the pictures from Adelmo’s golden money clip aloft and began chanting, “Dondé estan?”

Her voice gave out at sundown. She went to the American café for a cup of water and drank it alone at one of the tables outside. No one had paid much attention to her that day; however, a few people had looked at her as if she was crazy. Beatriz didn’t blame them. Although she didn’t feel the excitement that David must have felt when he contested Goliath, asking “Dondé estan?” had made her feel better than working the diner, better than traveling all over Argentina.

That night she lay against the Pirámide wrapped in a homemade blanket, her head on her empty knapsack, rolling from side-to-side in restless sleep.

*

Day after day she rose, bought a coffee from the café, and chanted on the Pirámide. Slowly, the crowds stopped ignoring her. She didn’t know if they were actually listening to what she said or if they knew why she said it, but finally, to her relief, she had a voice.

Not long afterwards, the Capital’s soldiers gave her their attention. They began to pace the Plaza in small groups. Some seemed amused, some angry. One soldier was especially interested in her. She could never get a clear look at him. She often saw him watching her from the tables outside the café. When she’d go over to chant at him, to show the crowds she was unafraid of men like him, he would be gone.

Two weeks later, Beatriz was joined by three women. They were her age, although they looked much older. Beatriz had not seen herself in a mirror lately and thought she must look as old as them. She had not washed her hair since she left San Miguel. Her fingernails were long and dirty. She smelled of body odor. Her cotton dress was frayed. Her ragged appearance only drew more people and for that she was grateful.

As she chanted one afternoon, the three women stepped out of the crowd and onto the base of the Pirámide. Each of them had pictures of sons, daughters, and husbands. Without any prompting from Beatriz, they began chanting, “Dondé estan?”

When night fell and the crowds left, Beatriz asked them who they were. They told her their families had been taken. The pirate radio station out of Córdoba had mentioned what Beatriz was doing and they had come to see if it was true. They said at first they were afraid, but found when they chanted “Dondé estan?” they felt better than they had in years.

More mothers joined Beatriz. They came in buses, taxis, on bikes and on foot from around the country. There was Adelgonga from Patagonia and Elena from Cuyo and Diana from Posadas. There was Eva and Rayen and Paula, Martina, Elizabeth, and Natalia, all holding Rosaries and pictures of their disappeared loved ones, all burning with the desire to know, “Dondé estan?” They told Beatriz she was in the news. The pirate radio station had joined the Underground and some of its members had infiltrated the newspapers. They reported the activities of Beatriz’s group, stating clearly the group’s intentions, but never encouraging anyone to join. The mothers who joined Beatriz told her they did not need encouragement. The knowledge that one woman possessed such strength was enough.

When Beatriz’s group began to number in the dozens, she decided they needed better organization. They began chanting in eight-hour shifts so the Capital and the Rosada heard them day and night. They made cardboard signs with enlarged pictures of their families. They talked to reporters. At the behest of Mother Luciana, they decided to make and wear white bonnets similar to Beatriz’s. Beatriz could not get over the sight of the mothers, her sisters now forever, chanting in white bonnets.

The breathtaking moment for Beatriz came when the crowd at the Pirámide parted and Eva Numez walked toward her holding pictures of her daughters. Tied around her head in a makeshift bonnet was her youngest daughter’s purple scarf.

Beatriz and the other mothers bought a full-page spread in the political section of l‘Opinion. It showed a black-and-white grid of pictures of their disappeared loved ones. Above it, in bold print, was “Dónde están?”

Soon after the newspaper was distributed, soldiers began bothering the mothers.

One morning, a young soldier pushed his way through the crowd, some of whom booed him, and took Beatriz aside. He told her, “If you don’t stop loitering at the Pirámide, we’ll arrest all of you and you’ll get six months in jail.”

Beatriz assured him their loitering would stop. The soldier left, and Beatriz and the mothers began marching around the Plaza, moving from monument to monument.

The next day, the young solider returned and took Beatriz aside once more. He gripped her elbow and hissed, “Do you want to end up like your families?”

Beatriz laughed. “To us, what more can you do?”

Candles encircled the Plaza, lit by members of the Underground. They flickered as the mothers marched past them. Beatriz held her sign high, chanting, the mothers following her.

Hurrying from the back of their line, Mother Numez tugged at Beatriz’s sleeve, pointing. A large man was talking with Mother Ramona and Mother Luciana on the other side of the Plaza. Beatriz squinted. She could tell he was a soldier by the stiff way he stood. “What’s he want?” she asked.

Numez shrugged.

Beatriz sighed and made her way to the soldier.

Ramona and Luciana saw her coming. “He’s here for you, he says,” Luciana told her, pointing to the soldier. “Only you, that’s what he says.”

“Fine, fine,” Beatriz said and pushed past Ramona.

She saw his feminine nose, his pock-marked cheeks, his hard body. His lips had thinned and there were more wrinkles around his eyes, but he was still the handsome man who’d stood at her front door and ordered her family’s destruction.

The officer turned to her.

Neither of them spoke.

Finally, the officer cleared his throat and said, “Can I speak to you?”

They went in the darkness by the Capital’s fence. He stood close to her.

“They want to be rid of you,” the officer said.

Beatriz stood a bit straighter and said, “Try.”

“I’ll give you what you want,” he whispered, “but only you.”

“Why me?”

“Because you want to know. Because you have the right to know.”

Beatriz pointed at the mothers and said, “Do they have that right, too?”

The officer shrugged. “You can decide.”

He picked her up on Bolívar Street in a jeep with government license plates.

They drove all night. She lost track of time in the silence between them. She removed the golden money clip from her dress and gazed at the cut-out pictures of her family. She caught him looking at them and put the pictures back in the money clip and the clip back in her dress.

The high moon aided the jeep’s headlights. It threw dancing, jagged shadows inside the cab. The air grew cold. Beatriz hugged herself and shivered. She figured they were heading south. Eventually, they turned off the main roads and onto dirt ones lined with thick foliage. Beatriz wanted to sleep, but wet branches kept slapping the windows, making her jump.

At dawn, they stopped at a guard post. The post was nothing more than a chain-link fence with a padlocked gate and a brick guardhouse. The lone guard, a clean-shaven boy in his late teens, lazily emerged from the guardhouse and walked toward their jeep. The officer rolled down his window. The boy saw him and his eyes widened. He stopped, stood tall, and saluted.

“Open it,” the officer told him.

About a mile from the guard post the road began to crumble until it became a slender trail that snaked through heavy jungle. They drove carefully.

Beatriz caught the officer looking at her and said, “I know you.”

He did not reply.

She showed him the pictures of her family.

He looked at her and said, “I don’t remember.”

The jungle clinging to the trail widened and gave way to a clearing atop a grassy rise. The officer parked the jeep. Through the windshield dotted with mud and grimy with dead bugs, Beatriz watched a line of black clouds roll toward them.

The officer turned off the jeep. “Get out,” he said.

She fumbled with the door handle, wheezing.

The officer went to her side of the jeep and opened the door. “Get out,” he repeated. She didn’t move. “This is what you wanted.” There was a weary bitterness in his voice.

Beatriz clenched her fists. She would not let him see her fear. She stepped out of the jeep and tried not to flinch as he slammed the door behind her.

He took her by her elbow. “This way,” he muttered. He led her across the clearing, taking the rise slowly. Her body shook, her lips moved in prayer, and now, more than they had in months, her ribs pained her. She closed her eyes and gasped for breath.

They stopped.

“Open your eyes,” the officer said.

She did.

Before her was a large hole. She could not see its bottom, just hundreds of tangled limbs and gaping mouths. The bodies were covered in lime, the powder thick in some places, thin in others. Men and women and boys and girls unnaturally embraced. Babies lay white and face-down, tiny fingers and toes. Stiff arms pointed at the coming storm.

The wind picked up. It began to rain. Faces became clearer, twisted, gaping. The rain revealed tattered clothing, nakedness, rot.

Beatriz looked back at the officer. She said, “You will tell the others?”

He nodded. She could not tell if there was any truth to it. “Turn around, please,” he said.

Beatriz turned. Her hands found Adelmo’s money clip. She held it tight. She heard the officer draw something from his belt.

She heard a metallic click.

Then, her world flickered and unspooled.


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