My sincerest thanks to all of you who read VSVEVG. I look forward to another year of sharing stories with you.
Dinner and a Swat Team
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Joan Didion, The White Album
On the other side of our small town in the foot hills of the Sierra Hualta, a four-year-old girl is having nightmares, she dreams of armed and masked men. She has begun to wet the bed. Even daylight she is afraid of shadows. She is afraid to be alone.
The child’s father stands on the path behind my house. Seeking healing for his daughter, he beckons to our houseguest, a practitioner of Santeria. Our guest visits the girl in the mornings before he and Felipe go off to work; he leaves before daylight, before coffee. Three days into the girl’s treatment I am told her tale…
One week before a trip to the US to renew my Visa, Felipe and I were enjoying a special meal; we had wine, and were using the fancy glasses. Suddenly, so suddenly the dogs didn’t have a chance to erupt into their usual cacophony, our patio filled with armed men, soldiers, some of them wearing facemasks. Snipers. They wear masks because they executioners. Our reaction was –this the shocking part, casual . We looked at each other, shook our heads and laughed at little.
The captain stepped forward and asked for Felipe’s papers. He went into the house to retrieve them while I waited in our enramada, a nine by five meter area enclosed by six-foot high chain-link fencing, with approximately 15 armed men and exactly 2 snipers. I smiled at them. It was a genuine smile. It seemed like a good idea to be congenial with a sniper. One of them was wearing glasses, I mused to myself; how odd, a sharpshooter with corrective lenses. Felipe emerged with his papers, as the soldiers searched our garden. I speculated whether the garden search was prompted by information that the last time the military had visited our land there were two marijuana plants in our garden which Felipe’s mother had asked us to grow for her. She uses it in her arthritis remedy and was concerned about growing it in town.
There’s a military encampment near us and soldiers tramp through the campo regularly for exercise. They assault a defenseless hillside with deafening automatic weapons, (an incongruent backdrop to our pastoral existence), and conduct routine checks of unusual looking circumstances; like pirated (such as ours) electricity heading out of town. We had a crack factory as a neighbor for a while, which I guess warrants their vigilance. So perhaps our reaction, or lack thereof, was not so dubious. Perhaps.
Maybe our jaded response can be attributed to ten years of living in questionable neighborhoods in Chicago—ten years of children on the south side caught in the crossfire as they jumped rope, or were shot thru the window of their home as they studied for tomorrow’s science test. Or maybe, as Felipe felt, it’s a powerful response; you cannot enter our world and scare us, it takes more than a ski mask and an assault rifle to disturb our dinner.
For seven days our friend visited the little girl after the soldiers invaded her home. The troops had entered everyone’s property in La Tigra. They were looking for a kidnapping victim. It must have been someone important; there were no military the last time there was a kidnapping in the area, just waves of trucks racing onto our land at high speed, full of police, then friends and finally the sobbing family.
My friend told me the girl had an infirmity called Espanto. It’s triggered by fear, and was likely provoked by the invasion. The fright causes a part of the victim’s soul to leave their body. The healer must create a safe place within the wounded one to encourage their spirit to return. I asked him how he did it. He pantomined as he explained the ritual in simple terms: by drawing crosses on the person’s body, invoking the aid of saints, massaging the joints of the limbs with enchanted oil, burning candles, cleansing the victim with herbs, and a series of prayers. After a week of receiving this therapy he reported the little girl was sleeping thru the night and had quit wetting the bed.
I cannot get the disparity of our reactions out of my mind. The girl’s terror seems saner, more whole to me. Yes, we understood the situation and she didn’t, but is that not an argument for a more extreme response from us? Is there a part of my soul that fled long ago from too many horrors, too many things I could not understand? Has it been gone so long now we no longer notice the void?
In The White Album, Joan Didion asserts that “we live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, (i.e. how odd, a sniper wearing glasses) by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” During the years of 1968-1971 such inexplicable events occurred; the Kennedy assacinations, the massacre at My Lia, the La Bianca murders. Didion was unable to apply that which she came to know as the “script of the norm”, a collective narrative of reason, thus she “found it necessary to revise the circuitry of [her] mind”. She was diagnosed with various symptoms of mental illness during this time; I assert it was self imposed Espanto.
She concludes with this irony for our consideration. Paul Fergusson, a perpetrator of one the eras horrors, won the Pen Fiction Awardwhile serving life in prison for the murder of Ramon Navarro. After winning the award, Fergusson announced his intention to continue his writing because, “It had helped [him] to reflect on experience and see what it means.”
Didion’s own sentiment, the last line in The White Album, “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means,” is one I share.
*Santería is a system of beliefs that merges the Yoruba religion (which was brought to the new world by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations) with Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions. Santería does not use a central creed for its religious practices; it is understood in terms of its rituals and ceremonies. When I asked my friend what he thought of this definition he raised his eyebrow, and shrugging told me he didn’t know how he had come by his knowledge. It was all a gift from his saint, Santo De Muerte.
© 2013 Abby Smith, Writer