The women had been coming to the same place in the stream to wash clothes for as long as any of them could remember. The occasion was as much a social event as it was a day to do laundry. Washing clothes in this part of the stream was a tradition that had been handed down from mother to daughter for countless generations, and had remained unchanged in location and in its secondary social function.
Mari, one of the younger married women of the group, was new to the Tuesday laundry day social group and to the local community. Her marriage at the age of fourteen had been an arranged one of sorts, even though this practice was not as common as it was in previous generations of the Kekchís of eastern Guatemala.
About a year before, after an absence of nearly a month, her father returned from one of his temporary job sites, bringing with him a man nearly twice Mari’s age. Before the two men returned to their job four days later, it had been decided she would join her new “husband” as soon as he could build a place for them to live in his village. There was no actual wedding, her hand was simply given by mutual consent.
Her recent marriage brought her to the community in which her husband was raised. A few short months later she found herself pregnant and left alone for weeks at a time as her husband hired out for any hard labor jobs that could be found, just as her father had always done.
Time often passed unbearably slow. She longed to visit her own family who lived only sixty miles away, but the trip cost money which was always in short quantity. Besides, she had no desire to find out what effect frequent visits to her own family would have on her new mate’s male ego. So, during the week, she created busy work for herself and looked forward to laundry day.
It was a Tuesday in late June when Mari left the solitude of her bamboo hut and headed toward the stream. Her disposition was as it always was on Tuesdays—borderline euphoric. Like all Guatemalan women, she carried her bundle of laundry on her head as she padded bare-foot down the trail that led to the stream. She made a conscious effort to slow her pace since none of the other women would be there yet. She didn’t mind arriving first, but she had decided the anticipation of socializing with the others ought to be savored too.
As she passed the other huts along the way, greeting those who acknowledged her passing with a wave or an occasional verbal salutation, she was incapable of noting the usual twinge of envy she felt for those who had children at home, and especially for those who had a man in the house more than on occasion. That was all forgotten on Tuesdays.
It was mid-morning when she arrived at the stream. Exact times had no place in her life, but she knew other women would be joining the group one by one over the next hour or so. She eased herself down the embankment to the waters edge and carefully laid her bundle on the same flat rock that she had been occupying on Tuesdays for the few months. Other rocks were larger and allowed easier organization of large amounts of laundry, but with the few things she had to wash each week, size of the rock carried very little importance. That particular rock had another distinct advantage. It was a prime location. It was situated midway along the wide part of the stream where all the washing was done. From that position she was not likely to miss out on any of the gossip that typically dominated the conversation.
She sat down on a smaller rock allowing her feet to cool in the soothing current. She was feeling heavy on her feet as she began the eighth month of her pregnancy, but she was still able to make the mile-long walk from her home to the stream without stopping.
As she began laying out the clothes to be washed, the first of the other women appeared at the top of the embankment.
“Good morning, dear,” she said in the usual flourish of the Kekchí dialect of the ancient language of the Maya.
“Good morning, Tomasa,” replied Mari. “You look well today.”
“And you, dear, are beginning to look like a shining example of motherhood.”
Mari simply smiled. She was proud of her current state.
Idle chit chat continued between the two for several minutes. Even though there was a difference of about fifteen years in their ages, they shared some common ground: absent husbands, heat rashes and swollen ankles. Though Tomasa was not pregnant, her portly build caused an occasional swelling of the ankles, a condition Mari was beginning to notice on herself now.
The next two women arrived together. After the usual greetings and inquiries regarding the health of each, they began laying out their articles of clothing to be washed. All of the women also removed their loose, hand-knitted outer shirts, or huipiles, and their undershirts which were added to the piles of items to be laundered. Mari was the only exception. She was never able to bring herself to go half naked in public, even though it was a very common practice in the tropical climate. The other women respected her feelings and never mentioned it.
“I expect Juana will not be here today,” offered one of the women, suddenly turning the conversation to gossip. “I hear her husband was back for a few days and he won’t let her out of his sight while he’s here.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she won’t come because of a new black eye. That man and his drinking!” Tomasa accentuated her statement with a humph of disgust. The others nodded.
As the later arrivals trickled in, they usually asked for an update on what had been discussed, but, as Mari noted, they rarely got the full story if anything at all. All the more reason for her punctuality. Mari rarely contributed to the conversation, but she silently reveled nonetheless.
Mari slowly washed the few articles of clothing she brought to the stream that day. As she listened, she wondered if anybody had ever noticed she sometimes brought some of her husbands clothes to be washed, even when he had not been at home for some time. She would have felt silly coming down to the stream and spending most of the day washing one or two articles of her own. Occasionally she would throw in a few of her own clean items instead, just in case someone may have figured her out. This ploy even seemed childish to her, but she saw it as the best of all the alternatives.
“I hear Pilar’s oldest son, Mario, is driving a taxi in Puerto Barrios,” said one of the ladies in a cheerful voice. “In fact, they say he is soon going to buy the car for himself. She told me it even has a cold air blower.” The descriptive terms for the vehicle’s air conditioner sparked a different image in the mind of each of the women present, none of whom had ever seen or felt air conditioning. In fact, the Kekchí dialect does not have a single word for such an item. Mari didn’t even try to picture it. She simply imagined it must be wonderful, and she felt genuinely happy for the mother of the young man who had made a life for himself in the city.
By 11:00 AM, eleven women formed the group in the stream. Soap suds gave a lacy lining to the stream as far as they could see in the direction of the flow. Standing in the cool water of the stream made working in the hot, Caribbean coastal weather somewhat more bearable.
“Look,” Tomasa said quietly to Mari who was standing close to her.
The other women continued immersed in a story of a young local woman who had managed to marry a shop owner in Guatemala City, and none had noticed the point of Tomasa’s interest.
“There is someone in those bushes over there.” Tomasa indicated the general direction with a nod of her head and pointing with puckered lips instead of using a discourteous and, in this case, a more obvious finger.
Mari looked in the direction upstream. “I see no one.”
“Keep looking at that clump of bushes. I’ve seen a head peek out of the thicket several times.”
Mari avoided staring directly at the spot, stealing only momentary glances in that direction. Then she saw. Someone was looking through the bushes at the group of women from a distance of no more than forty feet.
“How long has she been there?” Mari asked.
“I first thought I saw something there about ten minutes ago but was not sure, so I said nothing. By the way, I think that is a he, not a she,” Tomasa added firmly.
He? Mari hadn’t considered that. Even though Tomasa seemed convinced of her statement, it still seemed incredible. Men often passed by the place while the topless women were washing clothes, but none would ever stare. It was not a respectable thing to do.
“What shall we do?” Mari inquired of her older friend, expecting advice for a reasonable reaction.
Tomasa reached for a shirt and put it on. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Bring your things and come with me.”
The two bundled up their belongings and excused themselves from the others. They sidestepped up the embankment amid questioning looks brought on by their unusually premature departure. They again waved farewell to the group when they reached the top of the embankment and headed down the trail as if towards home. A short distance down the trail, Mari could contain her curiosity no longer. “What are we doing, Tomasa? Why not tell the others?”
“I wanted to find out who it is and why he is there.”
Tomasa furrowed her brow a little. “I still don’t know yet, but I am going to try to see. Will you come with me?”
Mari only nodded her assent. She trusted Tomasa’s judgment and besides, she was curious too. She mulled over the possible scenarios as they circled back to the spot travelling about fifty feet above the trail that ran along the embankment. No matter who the unknown voyeur was, she was sure this would be interesting enough to share at the gathering the next week, and she found herself anxious with anticipation. This little mystery had the makings of an exciting advent in her pitifully dull life.
They continued under the concealment of the foliage well beyond where the unidentified man crouched in the bushes. Once they emerged onto the trail, they began to move slowly and as quietly as possible. Mari noticed the sound of her quickened pulse in her ears and the rush of short breaths from her lungs.
Tomasa decided they should be able to view the entire scene from the trail at the top of the embankment just a few yards upstream from the visitor. The plan was simple enough. With a quiet approach, she hoped they would at least be able to make sure if it was a man and, with a bit of luck, maybe even be able to tell what he was doing there and who he was. Once they satisfied their curiosity they would backtrack and head home with a new bit of information that the two of them would be eager to share with the others in one week. Tomasa hoped it was not a family member of one of the ladies in the group. She knew she wouldn’t be able to share that with even the closest of her friends.
Tomasa had not explained to Mari the course of action she had devised in the last few minutes, but she knew Mari would follow her lead. They inched closer to the edge of the embankment and stretched their necks attempting to get a view of the bushes without exposing themselves unnecessarily. As they leaned over the edge, they were easily visible to the women still washing the clothes in the stream, something they had not considered. That proved to be a mistake. Before they had a chance to get a look at the stranger, one of the women in the stream looked up from her work in their direction.
“Well now,” she called to them. “We thought you would be home by now. Did one of you forget something?”
Tomasa and Mari froze. Tomasa quickly glanced down toward the bushes beneath her. The young, fair-skinned man turned with a jerk as he realized the woman was directing her question to someone behind him.
His response was panic. He looked for the quickest way out of this embarrassing situation. The best way to avoid a face-to-face meeting with any of the women would have been to cross the stream, but the bank on the other side was too steep to climb. Upstream on the same side was also far too rugged, so he pushed through the bushes toward the women and started up the slope in full view of the group.
The women had all looked in the direction of Tomasa and Mari and had seen the first movements in the bushes. By the time the stranger crashed through the bushes, several of them had moved up stream a few feet to see what had attracted Tomasa’s and Mari’s attention.
“Who is it?” someone shouted angrily from the group. “What was he doing there?”
Tomasa moved down the trail at the top of the embankment to get a better look at the man as he scrambled up the bank toward the trail. Mari remained transfixed and watched in horror as the first stone flew from the group, striking the man on the side of the knee.
More shouting. More stones came from the group of angry women. The man was no longer running from an embarrassing situation, but was running to save his hide. He felt a sharp pain in his lower back over the left kidney. A second later another stone caught him just behind the left ear. He cried out in pain and dropped to his hands and knees to regain his balance. He did not feel the warm trickle of blood from the wound behind his ear.
He gained his footing and started up the bank again. As he looked up to see how much farther he had to go, Tomasa stepped into view. The little rock she threw at him was not intended to do damage, but the surprise, combined with the reflexive jerk of his head as the stone struck him between the eyes, caused him to again lose his balance. This time he fell backwards. He landed on a large stone, the back of his skull making a sickening thud on the rough surface. His limp body rolled off the stone and came to rest face down in a few inches of water at the edge of the stream. A ribbon of blood stretched beyond where he lay and mixed lazily with the suds that had been trapped in the still, small eddies between the stones at the women’s feet.
The group stood silent. Most just stared at the still figure lying a few feet away. Others looked from one person of the group to another and another, hoping to find a prompt for some sort of appropriate reaction.
Mari, who had been unable to move as the horror unfolded before her eyes, now felt a violent wave of nausea overwhelm her. She reeled toward the bushes beside her and vomited.
“Is he dead?” came the inevitable question in a quiet voice from among the group.
“Go see. I haven’t the nerve,” said another.
“I haven’t the nerve either,” replied the first in a wavering voice, “but he’ll drown if he’s not already dead.”
This sudden realization brought urgency to her voice. “Hurry! Somebody turn him over! He’ll die, he’ll die!”
Eyes darted from face to face as this new sense of panic seized the group. Tomasa was the only one to move. She skidded down the bank of the stream and quickly grasped one of the man’s shoulders and pulled. The limp body turned easily, one arm splashing next to the feet of one of the women. She jumped back.
Tomasa could not help but to shudder at the sight of the half-opened eyes staring blankly past her. He was bleeding from the mouth, nose and ears.
Tomasa, knowing of no better way, placed her ear to the man’s still chest and listened for a heart beat or breath sounds. There were none.
“He is dead,” she announced.
“No! Tomasa, you can’t be sure!” gasped one woman in disbelief. “He’s just hurt real bad. He can’t be dead. They were just small stones we threw at him.”
“I am sure, Inez. He is dead. It was not the stones we threw that killed him. Did you see how hard he hit his head when he fell?”
“It was an accident, then,” interjected another as they all closed in around the still unidentified body.
“I suppose we could call it that, but what if the authorities do not see it that way. He had caused us no harm.”
“He should have never been there to begin with. This is all his fault. He deserved what he got. Nobody can blame us for trying to make him leave.” The icy contempt of this speaker was shared by several of the group who nodded firmly. Others agreed out loud.
“Listen!” ordered Tomasa. “What we think will make no difference to anybody who may ask questions. Look at him. He may be an American. Do you think his people will believe that this was an accident?”
“It does not matter what his people think of all this. The Americans can do nothing to us.” Tomasa explained her reasoning further. “Do you think we have a greater chance of convincing the local authorities of our story than his people do? Power and money can speak louder than the truth.”
This, suddenly perceived as stark reality, left them all silent again.
“What do we do now?” someone asked.
Tomasa looked up at the group from a kneeling position beside the corpse. “First, we must all swear silence about this. Tell no one-- ever. Do we all agree?” Nods and verbal assents were unanimous.
“Good. Second, we must move the body. If anyone sees it here they will know we did it or will assume we at least knew about it. We can’t take it anywhere in broad daylight, so we will have to hide it somewhere away from our spot in the stream until dark. We can decide what to finally do with the body later. Help me now before anyone sees.”
As they prepared to lift the body, someone finally asked, “Who is he? I have never seen him before.”
The ten women looked blankly at each other. None recognized the face as familiar. Odd, Tomasa thought, that she nor anyone else had asked that question sooner. Though it didn’t logically matter who he was at this point, to not wonder about his identity somehow struck her as inhumane.
Pushing the thought aside, she rotated the young man’s hips just enough to check the back pockets of his pants for any evidence of his identity. She found nothing. Then six of the women hoisted the body and began a slow ascent of the embankment. They crossed the trail and continued into the thick jungle growth where they laid the body no more than fifty feet from the trail. It would have to do for now.
They returned to the stream and began to gather their belongings in pensive silence. In a few minutes, they all climbed the bank to the trail and headed toward the village. All except Mari. Even Tomasa, whom Mari had always considered her closest friend, failed to notice her absence among them.
Mari now sat at the edge of the embankment hugging her knees to her chest and sobbing quietly. From where she sat she had been able to see and hear all that transpired. She could still hardly believe that what she saw had really happened. Through her tear-blurred eyes she was still able to see the crimson hue of the once-white soap suds that remained idle in the still parts of the stream. So, yes. It had happened. But the reality of it all seemed... untouchable. She felt far away from the events and even the people that only a few minutes before were the only pleasant reprieve in her solitary life. She felt so very alone.
How could this have happened? she wondered. They killed him. How could they have killed him?
She swallowed hard. Was I as responsible as any of the others? she thought.
Maybe he’s the one responsible just by being there. It was an accident, wasn’t it? Yes, she decided, Tomasa had said so herself.
She then remembered something else she had heard Tomasa say. Later, after dark, someone was going to have to move the body. She shuddered at the macabre images, and quickly decided that where she sat, only a few yards from where that body lay, was the last place she wanted to be. She retrieved her bundle of damp laundry from where she had dropped it on the trail and started for home.
The sun was still high and the Caribbean coastal weather was still hot. It was still the same, beautiful day, but now nothing was the same. She could not imagine returning to that place ever again. She now had no desire to see anyone from the group. Not even Tomasa.
She stared at her bare, leathery feet as they seemed to plod automatically along the trail toward home. She mulled the unanswerable questions of blame and guilt over and over in her mind. Conscious effort kept visual images of the horror from dwelling there for long, but she could not stop thinking about the events that were still to come. There was still tonight. And then what?
One thing that was certain was that sleep would not come easily for Mari for a long time.