In her right hand, Martina held the ankle of a teenaged girl, running her fingers over the contours as she examined it closely. How old had she been? Seventeen? Maybe eighteen? No older than nineteen, that was for sure. Certain bones had not yet fused.
Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war reached a high — or perhaps low — point in the early 1980s, when General Efrain Rios Montt decided that the Mayas were sheltering the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. In retaliation, or perhaps as a preventive measure, he destroyed the indigenous villages, killing everyone in his path. Now it was Martina’s job to sort out the remains.
A young girl’s ankle. An old man’s skull. The legs of a toddler. The rib cage of a teenaged boy.
Martina spent her days putting the pieces together, figuring out which bones made up which skeletons. DNA, of course, was the deciding factor but that took time and money that she preferred not to squander. Old-fashioned forensic anthropology was her best bet, and that was what she relied on most of the time. In some cases, it was easy. This arm and shoulder belonged to this torso, and then all she had to find was the missing left leg. Sometimes the body was nearly intact. Most commonly, she had a lot of heads that had no bodies, all showing the marks of machetes on the vertebrae.
The bones told their stories more clearly than words. A bullet hole through a ribcage showed her a woman running for her life, trying to outrace death at 5000 feet per second. Repeating death; the cowards had used automatic weapons. An infant’s smashed-in face brought a vivid picture of a screaming baby held by its ankles, swung high into the air, and brought down hard on the concrete wall of a house.
Martina wiped sweat from her face and eased the ankle against the tibia and fibula of a skeleton of about the right age and build, then smiled as the bones snuggled into place. A near-perfect fit, which after twenty years, was the best she could hope for.
The girl was small, like most of the indigenous peoples, maybe about 5’1″. Her bones were delicate as crocheted lace, a slight framework to give shape to the muscle and fat that would have filled out her cocoa-brown skin. Black hair, brown eyes, definitely a Mayan face, but a unique face, her own face, a face that was lost to the world forever.
Martina had the bones put together, but identifying the girl would be another matter. In the deep jungle, there were no birth certificates and in the wake of General Montt’s scorched earth policy, odds were good that there might not be any living relatives to claim her. Her father, mother and siblings were probably among the bones still awaiting Martina’s expert care. Still, there might be someone who remembered her.
The girl had broken her left front incisor. That would be a big help because it would have made her smile quite distinctive. What else? Lots of fractures, but the girl had been tossed carelessly into a mass grave and buried equally carelessly. One break, though, was old and well healed, probably a childhood accident. Right front metatarsal. Probably she caught her foot on something when she was running.
Her pubic bone was broken. Martina bit her lip, took a deep breath, made herself to look at it. Hard, blunt force from below.
What the hell had they used? And why? Wasn’t rape enough?
She started, and looked up. “Jaime!”
Her lab assistant smiled, his flat Mayan face lighting up in an array of wrinkles. “It’s time for dinner, boss,” he said.
“Right,” Martina said, shaking herself. She was, she found, suddenly hungry, or perhaps she had been all along. She had a tendency to lose herself in the work and without Jaime’s nagging, would go all day without eating any more than breakfast and a quick snack before bedtime. “Give me just a minute.”
“Five,” he said, still grinning. “No more.”
Martina shut her workstation down and looked up, surprised at how tired she was. Still, it was a good kind of tired. She’d put a body together, someone who might possibly be identified before she was given back to the earth with more dignity. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered because that’s what was going to happen to all of those bones. They’d be sent right back to the ground. Hers was not the kind of job that created happy reunions. The best she could hope for was closure for the families, if they could be found. It didn’t matter, though. Every body reconstructed, every new grave, felt like a victory over tyranny itself. Martina lived for those victories.
When she and Jaime reached the home of their hosts, Martina stared open-mouthed at the table. It was loaded with food beans, rice, chicken, cheese, two kinds of soup and a mountain of steaming tortillas. “What is this?” she asked wildly.
“It’s Christmas Eve, boss,” Jaime said, holding a chair for her and laughing at her confusion. “How did you forget?”
“Christmas Eve,” Martina repeated stupidly. She had forgotten, but without snow and lights and pine trees, it just hadn’t felt like December at all.
The village hadn’t forgotten, though. Martina’s Spanish was still weak, but she was able to join in the celebration anyway, with Jaime translating in her ear when she lost the thread of conversation. And it was a celebration. Even the morbid work of disinterring the old bodies could not stop the village from wearing its best clothes, bringing out its best food.
“Who did you find today?” an old woman asked slowly. She had, by a miracle, escaped the death squads and she was, for all intents and purposes, the village memory.
“A girl in her teens,” Martina said, equally slowly. “She had broken a bone in her foot and one of her teeth.”
“Where?” the old woman asked.
Martina pointed. She had never heard the Spanish word for “incisor.”
The old woman closed her eyes, then spoke in rapid-fire Spanish to her nearest neighbors. The buzz spread down the table, then swarmed back up. “Could she have been nineteen?” the old woman asked.
“Yes,” Martina said. “If she grew up slowly.” The words for “late bloomer” were lost in the same ether as “incisor.”
“Then I think she is Porfiria Estrella de la Cruz. She was nineteen but young for her age. She broke her foot trying to play soccer with the boys and she broke a tooth in an accident.”
Porfiria Estrella de la Cruz. The girl in the lab had a name now, and a personality. In her mind, Martina saw a carefree tomboy. “Does she have a family?” she asked.
The buzz traveled down again, then up among a wave of shaken heads. “No. The village will see to her, though. The priest will pick up the body.”
Martina smiled, thanked the table at large, and discovered that her dinner actually tasted good.
Afterward, she went out for a walk, wandering aimlessly down the mix of two-tracks and footpaths that connected the various parts of the village. People smiled at her and she smiled back, but she was in no mood for conversation and they knew her well now, knew that she wasn’t rude, just a crazy foreigner with crazy ideas, and they let her be.
She still wasn’t used to the stars. The constellations were strange, unidentifiable, she was too close to the Equator for comfort. It really didn’t feel like Christmas Eve. For that matter, it didn’t feel like planet Earth. She was trapped in a place where everything normal and good had gone, and there was no hope of it ever coming back. The villagers lived in fear and so did she. She could be killed for what she did. In this place, memory was a crime.
She walked past the village church, and was startled to see a figure standing in the doorway. It wasn’t anywhere near time for Mass yet. Then the figure moved, and she realized that it was Jaime.
“Hey!” she called softly.
“‘Ey, boss!” he called back, his voice glad. “Come look.”
For Martina, a lapsed Protestant, the village church bordered on assault. In Guatemala, the Crucifixion wasn’t cleaned up before being put on display, and painted blood ran so freely from the body on the cross that Martina fully expected it to drip on the floor. There were Christmas lights, but instead of illuminating trees, they illuminated the sculptured tragedy on the wall and the glass coffin that contained yet another version of the tortured Christ. Martina balked.
Jaime grabbed her arm. “Come on, boss,” he said. “You’ve seen worse.”
“I’m not so sure,” Martina said without thinking.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she lied. Perhaps if they had a gentler religion, would these people be gentler? “Do you like it?”
“Yes,” Jaime said.
“Why?” she asked. Jaime had not let go of her arm, and she found his touch comforting and oddly familiar.
He was silent for a while, looking up at the body on the wall. “I like the idea of rebirth,” he said. “I like knowing that death is not the end. Look at this village. In the bodies we find, you see the village on the cross, bleeding to death, buried wherever a place could be found, but then we go home to see it come back to life again. There are people here and they are afraid, but they have come back to their homes, to their lives, and to those they lost. The tyrants cannot win as long as people are willing to come back from the dead.”
Martina blinked, startled. She hadn’t even considered it that way. “Have you ever held a gun, Jaime?”
“Yes,” he said, “when I was a boy. I was told that the more people I killed, the more chance there was for peace. Luckily, I lived long enough to learn better.”
“How old were you?”
Martina stared at him. “How did you survive?”
“I grew up,” he said. “I got old enough to know when I was being lied to. They told me that killing would make me a man, but I knew I was a man when I was brave enough to stop.”
Martina looked up again at the bloodied wreck on the cross, and fragments of an Appalachian carol drifted through her head _…why Jesus our Savior was born for to die…_ It was the innocent, she realized, who made up the machine of war; only an innocent could fire a gun at another human being and believe it would do any good. Innocence wasn’t such a precious thing at all. In it, the seeds of destruction had their best chance of germinating. “Which side were you on?” she asked.
Jaime smiled, but not his usual, broad smile, just an upward quirk of his lip, nothing more. “I was one of the guerillas,” he said. “I was fighting for my country’s freedom, at least that was what I thought at the time.”
“I am still fighting, except now, I fight against both sides.”
Martina would someday go home to Wisconsin, to the snow and the pine trees and the illuminated reindeer, where death was something that happened in private and every grave had only one occupant. This was Jaime’s world; he had no other home to go to. She had thought herself brave and noble, walking away from safer work at home and coming down to lend her superior skills to his battle, but that bravery was ashes compared to Jaime’s. Reborn as a man of peace, he would die here, probably at the hands of those he bore witness against. He had no embassy to protect him, no superpower government to intervene, only the faith that he could somehow outrun death long enough to make a difference. He had that faith. She could see it in his eyes as he looked up at the cross.
“Come on, boss,” he said, finally letting to of her arm. “Let’s go home. You need sleep.”
The house was quiet when they got back. The children were tucked into bed and their hosts were napping in anticipation of Midnight Mass. Jaime sat her down at the kitchen table and got a bottle of water out of the refrigerator for her. It was lukewarm; the electricity had gone out again. She took a sip, felt Jaime’s hands on her shoulders, and stiffened.
“Relax,” he said. “I know it’s not easy for you.”
“How do you know?” she asked as his fingers dug expertly into the knotted muscles.
“I’ve been working with you for three months. You push too hard.”
She was suddenly ashamed to realize that she had worked with him for three months, too, and could barely remember his last name. “Are you married?” she asked.
she heard the reason in his voice, that he would not put anyone else at risk, and the pain it caused. “I’m sorry.”
He said nothing, only moved his hands down to her deltoids, still massaging.
“Jaime, I can’t,” she said, feeling desire and panic arise in her together. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t stop. “Because of Porfiria?”
“How did you know?” she asked.
“I examined the bones, too,” he reminded her.
“But you’re not…”
“An expert like you?” he finished. “I don’t have a degree, but I know the difference between a post-mortem break and a broken, living bone.”
“Why did they do that?” she asked.
It was a rhetorical question, but Jaime’s hands stilled for a moment. “Fear,” he said finally, as his hands resumed their motion.
“Fear?” she asked, twisting up to look at him.
His face was almost unfamiliar in its distance, the lines of it hardened to basalt. “She was alive, and they were dead. They thought they had to kill her, too.”
A slow welling of horror rose in her gut. “You were dead once.” It was the closest she could get to asking, _Did you do it, too?_
“Yes.” And there was her answer.
The horror crashed in on her, and she let her head fall into her hands, tears welling in the corners of her eyes. Nothing here was ever what it seemed. Not even Jaime.
His hands tightened on her shoulders. “Come here,” he said.
With nowhere else to go, she stood, hating herself for it, and he wrapped his arms around her. Jaime was barely her height, she had to drop her head to his shoulder, but that shoulder was hard and warm. So were his arms, and she let the tears soak into his shirt as she inhaled the slightly stale smell of his body. Nobody bathed daily here, including her, so it was familiar, even comforting. So was Jaime. For three months, he had been her bedrock, always there, always solid no matter how stressful things got. If they had a good day, Jaime was calm. If they had a bad day, Jaime was also calm. He had the peace of a Buddha in him, and only then did she realize how much she relied on it.
How could she find comfort in the arms of a rapist? She tried to pull away, but his grip tightened. “Jaime, I really can’t.”
“Do you think she won’t forgive you?”
“You don’t have to die for anyone’s sins,” he said, “especially not mine.”
It was obscene to her, in light of the abused body on the table in her lab, that she should have any pleasure at all. Her whole, pampered life seemed suddenly disgusting and the fact that she was even contemplating sex with this man was grotesque. “No,” she tried to say, but it didn’t come out that way at all. What she thought was right was losing to something else that she didn’t understand and feared far more than the bones lying in her makeshift lab.
It was the first time she could ever remember hearing him say her name. Usually, he just called her “boss.” “Why?” she asked.
“Because you’re a good woman, a caring woman. I want you to live.”
Martina was surprised at how close his lips were. All she had to do was move her head just a little to meet them.
Jaime’s kisses were surprisingly gentle. Even when they became open-mouthed and passionate, they were still gentle. His hands, too, were gentle, and under her hands, his body was strong and warm.
“Martina.” This time it was a whisper as he disengaged, took her hand, and let her to his bed.
He undressed her slowly, patiently, breaking off his kisses only when he needed to, just long enough to remove her shirt, then his. He let her deal with her bra. He unbuttoned her jeans and tugged on them as she wriggled free of both them and her panties. The heat of his hands soaked through her skin all the way down to her bones, turning her insides to water. She had to bite her lip to keep silent, to keep from waking the rest of the house, and even still, tiny sounds escaped from her throat, a rhythmic counterpoint to his breathing.
Jaime’s body was solid, not the ripped body of a weight lifter but the powerful one of a man who spent much of his time in motion. His legs and ass were hard as packed earth. His chest was smooth and almost too broad, his pectorals curving to meet deltoids that were just as strong and firm. His belly was soft, not a young man’s, and below it, his cock rose hard from its thick nest of hair. She ran her fingers up the length of it and smiled to herself when he had to smother a groan.
He rolled up, wrapped both arms around her, let her get her left arm around him, and wrapped her legs around him for good measure. His body settled easily on hers, his cock sliding over the swollen folds of her cunt, but he simply kissed her, thrust against her, nothing more. She felt the anxious welling of the very earliest hints of orgasm, whimpered before she could stop herself, and he kissed a trail down the side of her neck to her breast.
He sucked, and she arched up hard against him, the near-pain of it sending her anxiety into the stratosphere. The head of his cock left a slippery trail on the inside of her thigh and she reached for it, felt it fall thick and heavy into her hand. Her touch coaxed the ghost of a groan from him and he thrust forward, the head brushing her groin. Still, he did not push for penetration, only moved his mouth to her other breast as her fingers played with his balls.
He rolled off of her, back to his side, his hand sliding down over her belly to her cunt. He went straight for her clit, a broad caress that couldn’t miss, and although it wasn’t the precise touch she was used to, nothing like her own, the sheer thrill of being touched by another pushed her anxiety to a fever pitch. She felt that hesitation, as if her nervous system was holding its breath, then she came, burying her face in his chest and shuddering in his arms.
Only then did he nudge her gently onto her side and she felt his fingers on her cunt, then the blunt head of his cock. It felt too big just before it went in, then just right as it filled her, and his hand caressed her hip as he buried himself to the hilt. It felt unbelievably good, even better when his fingers coaxed one of her nipples back to hardness. He thrust very slowly, as if savoring it, and she relaxed, warmed to the core by it, as his lips brushed the back of her neck.
She was in bed with a rapist. This bothered her less now than she thought it should, and she wondered what his victims would think of her.
She was no longer an innocent.
In the soft glow of Jaime’s fucking, she realized that she came to Guatemala believing that she brought moral superiority, as an American and a non-combatant, as well as her skills. She was all but gloating over the battered bones, so certain she was that such things could not happen in her world, that Guatemala and Wisconsin really were different places inhabited by different people. She was not a better person, she realized suddenly, only someone who had not been so tested and who had, in her blind innocence, avoided such tests. They were there, in Wisconsin, just as they were in Guatemala. She had simply chosen not to see them, had clung to her innocence, mistaking it for virtue. She could no longer condemn Jaime. Whatever he had been, whatever price He’d paid, he was now as he was now and she was no better.
Through all of this, Jaime kept up that slow, steady rhythm, off in his own world as she was in hers, but what jolted her out of it was the change in his pace that let her know that he was about to come. She came back to the moment and found that she welcomed it, that her hand was already resting on his hip, her fingertips following the flex of his ass. Then he thrust hard, froze, and she felt him pulse inside her as he sighed into the nape of her neck.
No pillow talk; he simply pulled her close, not bothering to pull out, and they drifted, perfectly content, into sleep.
Martina woke later to the sounds of the household making hushed preparations for the midnight Mass. She had to use the bathroom, but she stayed in bed waiting, not wishing to be invited to go along. Jaime was no longer inside her, but his body was still pressed firmly against her back and she relaxed into him, savoring it.
She didn’t feel any different. That was strange because she expected to, she thought that such epiphanies were supposed to leave a mark. All she felt was the glow of a woman with a new lover, that rich peace that filled both body and soul like homemade hot cocoa.
Tomorrow was Christmas and she changed her mind; she would not work. She would celebrate. Then she would go back to the lab and finish her tenure there, if not the job itself, before going back home, and she wondered idly what she would do when she got there, if her newborn self would survive the inevitable hero’s welcome. It was not easy, being born for to die, when one lived in a world where lights sparkled in store windows and Crucifixions were scrubbed all tidy and clean before being put on display.
She heard the front door close, waited a moment, then got up, pulled her clothes on, and went to the outhouse. There was a faint chill in the air, but only a faint one, drowned out by the humidity that gave her the most persistent acne she’d had since she was sixteen. Jaime, bless him, had made her forget all about it.
She shed her clothes and crept back into bed. Jaime, still sleeping or perhaps half-asleep, held the light blanket open for her and drew her back into the curve of his body. “Merry Christmas, boss,” he murmured.
On a table in the lab, Porfiria Estrella de la Cruz slept.
© 2004 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.