At the side of Josefa’s kitchen stood an empty casket. When I had first noticed the casket, it scared me. The women of the community organized a group that provided caskets—free—to those who needed it, just in case, as if just in case could come any day, and it could. The casket was made by a carpenter—it was plain—and reminded me of Stacie’s grandmother’s Jewish burial. The tradition called for no cushiony case as if bodies were instruments and their strings might get bent, but simple and plain pine—not much separating the body from earth.
Attention: The ritual of death.
In this village in northern Peru, you draw attention to death in order to honor the departed and show how much you loved them. You wail for days; people wail with you. A wail is more than a cry—it is such a strong weep that the voice breaks into a rising and falling like song. It is part of a whole ritual that surrounds death to help the spirit ease its way away. For forty days the spirit walks and talks, believes itself to be alive. It’ll wait by the highway, try to climb into combis to get to the city except it has no money. So, then it’ll try to sell its crops or livestock: squash, beans, and goats. When that doesn’t work, it’ll go to the polladas, dancing cumbia in funeral shoes, uncomfortable in the thick sand. It will try to drink with the men, but the men will never hand it a cup. The family prays and wails for it to move on. You can’t live with ghosts. It’s not the natural way of things. The family makes a big meal for the memory of their loved one after mass the first month, the third, the sixth, and at the year mark. And after that, it’s not mandatory except it is if you want to prove how much you loved them. On Dia de los Muertos, families pilgrimage to the cemeteries. They get drunk (those skeletons can’t hold liquor), wreath them (only the best flowers and rue), and even camp out near a grave. Sleeping with the dead is not scary—it is love, being beloved, imagining them beside you, in you, among you, of you just for that day. Ghosts are saints and permitted for one day a year. After that they become demons and selfish—they should know to move on by now.
Christmas Eve Part One
It was the year of the drought. Maybe that was why all the deaths started to occur. They always occurred but it seemed there were more this year than last. As an outsider and an insider of this small village, I was keeping track—listening to the loudspeaker in order to tell the gynecologist at the local health post which babies made it or not. But Christmas, no one had expected anything. Christmas is summertime in South America. Christmas is hiding from the sun time and hoping that rain will come this year, at least by March—the day of San Jose, Josefa’s birthday. It is hoping that El Niño, the flooding phenomenon named for the Christ child—for the time of the year it occurred and the giver of life allowing seeds to sprout—comes. Still no one expected something to happen on Christmas Eve—the night of gathering, hot chocolate and rich paneton (fruit cake). Sometimes there was bubble-bath tasting champagne and a dinner of goat, potatoes, and rice. No one expected my neighbor Faustina’s brother to die. People suspected pastillas, pills, done wrong (perhaps he ate them with pork or drank them with Coke) or maybe it was a heart attack, but he was so young. He had red cheeks like a Latin Santa Claus. People say he knew he was going to die the day before—the way he tipped his hat, the philosophical mutterings on weather. Mercedes, his daughter, my student, sat outside in her black dress, baking in the sun. She ran to get hot chocolate and paneton for Christmas, excitement stirred into grief. The villagers talked about getting the kids gifts—their father died suddenly and on Christmas, too— imagine the bad timing to die—didn’t he know his schedule.
Christmas Eve Part Two
As Mercedes and her siblings sat cooking in the sand in their black attire, I realized that I never know what to say at these times. One time I asked a grieving widow at visiting hours, “How are you?” She seemed a bit taken back. Her husband had unexpectedly died across from her at the breakfast table only days before. She had a long line of hands to shake during the visiting hours, so I just said, “I’m sorry,” many times and hoped she forgot my awkwardness. Maybe I could tell Mercedes how my great-grandfather died on Christmas. I was five and couldn’t see into the casket. I saw people from the waist down—all in gray slacks, black shoes, and badly fitted floral skirts draping down. I was sure that Great Grandpa was just playing a game of hide and seek, and I just had to find him to make everything all right. We could open our Christmas presents, and I could crawl unto Great Grandpa’s legs in his wheelchair while he gave me candy and talked to my parents. I wanted to look in to the casket, and my oldest brother lifted me up, “I found you, Great Grandpa.” But I found death, and I waited for it to smile, and it didn’t, and it wasn’t my Great Grandpa. It had his face but not his emotion. I don’t remember presents that year, but surely, I must have opened them, strung the ribbons on my hair while my parents and grandparents pretended to be happy. Imagine the bad timing to die, to press death into a memory of a holiday. I was too young for it to really make an impact.
The Casket Part Two
The casket in Josefa’s kitchen, moved from the living room, grabbed the journalist’s eyes. The American reporter, who visited me to write about “the Peace Corps experience,” all of which she gathered in one day, categorized the scene: “Her kitchen looks like a diorama from a natural history museum exhibit on primitive living. Today’s lunch is fried white rice with peas, steamed chicken and lemon-colored Kola Real. Behind Heather, an empty white casket, donated to the community for future use, is slowly being eaten by termites as it rests against the wall.”1 I wanted to tell her that the soda we were drinking wasn’t the norm—that my family especially bought these for her with their livestock money. I usually got hot tea or chicha or hot powdered fruit drink, which doesn’t quite refresh you like soda. I wanted to tell her that I actually insisted her lunch be served in the family kitchen rather than the front room, designated for guests, so that she could have a more authentic experience. I wanted to tell her that I no longer remembered to see that casket. I imagined that she thought someone was inside it or that it was unbelievably creepy. While understandable, she made me wince at her observations. This casket by the unused stove was not meant for burning (they never do that here) or burying (they can’t; it’s being eaten by termites) but for remembering. The same way my grandmothers sift through old photos of friends and family, thumbs pausing on black and white expressions—that was your Aunt Cottie, your Uncle Howard. Without the memory, without those boxes, do we exist? Without those who remember us by stories are we ants underground—mounds but no names?
Memory Part One
The journalist created a different sort of memory. She made note of the music in the background, how little I ate due to stomach parasites, and my phoneless boyfriend in the regional city. She wrote an article striking a debate in Peace Corps about how unsafe it is for us and how useless we are. The article tallied the amount of deaths, assaults, suicides, and fatal injuries that there have been in Peace Corps since it started in 1961 to 2003. There had been 250. Even though it is exceedingly lower than any major city in the United States, my grandmothers gasped and worried about my welfare. She wrote the most recent death in Peace Corps of 2003 as “a 23-year-old man who hanged himself in Mali in July.”1 She will not interview his best friend (later my friend) who will carry his death with her, blame herself, and cringe at every film that uses the noose to get the audience’s attention about the gravity of the situation.
Hay Golpes en la vida, tan fuertes yo no se
During my time in Peru, I had a lot of ailments happen to me. Beforehand I always used to pride myself on being hearty and strong, from Irish farming folk. But during my time in Peru, I passed out from a migraine, had stomach problems for four months where I vomited once a week, and cracked my skull in a bicycle accident. During one episode of particularly painful stomach problems, which happened at the town’s anniversary, the women from my host family took a break from the festivities to doctor me. They had me lie down on my host brother’s bed while they rubbed the cross symbol on my belly and prayed over it. They lifted up my shirt, exposing my belly, to do it. Afterwards they made me drink a large cup of oregano tea.
This hadn’t happened yet when the journalist stayed the night in my abode room, a poster board nailed to my wall documenting my attempt to solve my problems. She wrote in her article, “At the top of Heather’s problem/solution board is; ‘Not sure if I joined because I wanted to, or just to prove how good I actually am to peeps.’”1 I honestly never thought about taking that poster board down when I gave up my room and bed to the visiting journalist, and slept in my host brother’s bed, who moved to share a bed with my youngest host brother. However, my health ailments showed my desire to be there; a Peace Corps friend of mine had once told me that anyone else would have left after all that, especially the cracked skull.
It had been an exceptionally dark night with no moon or stars to distract me from the fact that I was biking on the Pan American highway where semi drivers were often sleep deprived and drove off the road, killing people. This was a common occurrence, and I knew I would be biking by one of the places that it had happened before at the bottom of a hill. This is where my bike accident occurred. I don’t remember much after being hit by two men biking home drunk. Everything is in flashes. I had forgotten where I was, what language I should be speaking. Until a family ran to get me, I had been passed out on the highway—my glasses flown from my face but miraculously recovered whole. The family said they saw me by the headlights of a semi approaching from the distance. I don’t remember if I was left in the highway as I was told because I think I remember the men running to get the family and then leaving, afraid that they had killed the gringa. On that night, two members from the family got out their motor taxi to drive me home. Half way there, they ran out of gas and pushed me back. When I got home, my host mother was waiting for me, worried; she took care of things quickly, and had my friend and her niece Esther bring mother’s milk (she was nursing) to dab in my eye in order to prevent infection. The next day I woke with a black eye swollen shut, dizziness, and problems concentrating. After a 12-hour bus ride to Lima, I found out I had a cracked skull, and that I had been lucky that there was no bleeding in the brain. While I was gone, the rumors escalated, and I found out that the high school students I worked with thought I was in a coma. The teachers had everyone do a prayer for me every morning with their national hymn. During my time in Peru, death was all around me. And on my more somber days, I can admit that I very well could have become one of the journalist’s statistics. But a statistic is not a person or a community. Although I would always be different in my small community, and I would always stand out to the outsiders driving on the Pan American Highway, my village a blur of little consequence to them, my skin a pale ghost, I became family.
Memory Part Two: Christmas
Months after the journalist left—months after we had made the combi bus stop so that she could have a traditional picture with her and me in it and goats screaming on the roof, months after she had played in the sand with the children and told me with joy how much this experience meant to her, how she never expected to have an experience like this again (a detail left out of her article), I walked 45 minutes in the desert. Faustina’s brother’s body was carried by four men, who would hesitate and have four other men take over every once in a while. The sand was hot at first, and I almost lost my flip flops as we climbed over the dunes. When we got to the cemetery, the sand began to cool. I walked close to Josefa; I held a child’s hands, and we walked like a flock of crows with sweating armpits. I watched as the men lowered the casket into the grave and lifted him up to make sure he was facing the right way to give him peace in the other world. I watched as grains of sand crept into his grave as they lowered him down. There was a hum about the crowd of wailing—like an electrical wire tripping. The sun was setting, and the dunes looked like they could hide us all. The graves were scattered crosses, not unlike a pet cemetery. Names had been blanched out by the sun and repainted. Most were well tended except the flowers on the graves were scattered by munching goats that would wander from their herd. The casket disappeared from view as the grave was shoveled closed. We all walked back, and I forgot I was white, now folded into the communal verse, even though I could tell my skin would be reddened by tomorrow. I played with kids and listened to stories well after the last lantern had been blown out. Josefa remembered when one old man died in the village. She asked him to come back and tell her what death was like. One night she heard a man that sounded like him calling her name at the side of the door by the corrals. I asked her, “What did you do?” She answered, “I didn’t answer it.”
1. Ko, Claudine. The Peace Corps Never Warned Me What I Was Really in For. In JANE Magazine. October 9, 2003. http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/