In our backwoods clinics, the Holiday Season is anything but a holiday. Often we pass days and nights without sleep in our efforts to patch together the results of other people’s festivities. In a previous newsletter, I related how Miguel Angel, Martín and I “saw in” one New Year stitching together the severed tendons of a young man whose wrist had been slashed in a knife fight in Ajoya. In a later newsletter, I told of the Christmas night I rode to Chilár to patch up a total of 18 bullet holes in 3 men, plus a little girl struck by ricochet . . . A year ago, Christmas Day, dawn broke upon us as we were excising the bullet mangled testicle of a musician who had been playing that night at a dance in Chilár. He had been hit by a misdirected “vivo” (joy shot) of an artificially cheerful youth with a wooden leg, the gun having gone off in his pants as he tried to draw. The wooden leg, I should explain, was the consequence of a Christmas night gunfight three years before.
Our clinical records show that by far the most dangerous night of the year is Christmas Eve, ironically referred to as La Noche Buena.
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I watched the dappled vermilion sunset fade as dusk settled over Ajoya this last Christmas Eve. As dark fell, the breeze dropped and it began to rain, a gentle, welcome rain—the first since late September. The trampled dust and dung of the village streets lapped up the heaven sent moisture, exhaling such a vital, virile odor that mules and men alike unwittingly flared wide their nostrils, the better to savor the primordial scent, as if the moist aroma had awakened some germ of passion long asleep. The rain—not the date—made the eve holy, and everyone felt it, and was glad.
Miracle of miracles, the peace and quiet remained. There were no brawls, no “panderas” (wild processions), no shooting of “vivos”. I would give credit to the rain. But the rain was not the biggest damper on the traditional bacchanalian festivities of La Noche Buena, for in spite of the cloudburst, Ajoya remained “dry”!
This remarkable circumstance was due to the fact that, a few days before Christmas, Daniel Zamora got “busted”. The Judiciales (State Police) had ambushed his mule train en route to Ajoya, had confiscated 72 liters of “vino”—more than enough to have made it a very merry Christmas indeed—and had thrown him, although briefly, in jail. As he has done many times in the past, Daniel promptly bought his way out. Once liberated, however, he was so deeply in debt that he was forced to sell everything, including his lead mule. And that is how, a few weeks later, Project Piaxtla came by Heraclia.
The rain on Christmas Eve did not last long. After it stopped, the air was too fresh, the night too glorious to remain inside. I had a sudden eagerness to be alone. To those who recently arrive from California, Ajoya seems the end of the Earth. But after they have spent some weeks in the yet more remote ranchos of the high sierra, Ajoya becomes “the big city.” At night at my mountainside clinic of El Zopilote, I have grown fond of having no other company than the stars, of hearing no other voice than those of insects, owls, whip-poor-wills, the breathing of the pines and the muttering of the mules. It is here (for I am writing this in El Zopilote) on this mountainside, alone in the common bond of night, that I feel closest to other people.
Conversely, in Ajoya, surrounded at night by people, I often feel distant. I need the pines and the huge silent sky. I suppose I have become so familiar with solitude that I soon grow lonely without it. Man has strange friendships.
And so, on La Noche Buena, when the rain stopped, I bid leave for awhile of the popular village and made my way to the river. There, on a big rock, I sat in company with the night -overwhelmingly sad, yet overwhelmingly happy—without asking why. The clouds parted just in time for me to glimpse the world’s new comet, like the Star of Bethlehem, kneel down on the westward horizon.
If Christmas Eve was unnaturally tranquil in Ajoya, it was not so in the little village of Güillapa, two hours upriver. The first we knew at the Ajoya Clinic that something had happened was shortly before dawn, Christmas morning, when someone began thumping heavily on the front door.
“Who is it?”, I called out, still half asleep.
“Nasario” called a muffled voice.
Nasario Fonseca, gaunt and in his sixties, is one of the old-timers from Güillapa. He and his ailing wife live by the river in a simple adobe but made majestic by a huge twining bougainvillea that perennially festoons the trellised porch with its flaming wine red garlands. A hard worker, over the years Nasario and his older sons have built up an extensive orchard of oranges, mangos, bananas and sugar cane, irrigated by a hand-dug ditch nearly a mile long, connecting with the river upstream. Each summer, during the monsoons, the enraged river washes out the ditch and, each dry season, Nasario and his sons have the leviathan task of digging it out anew. But hard work, and the
fruit of it, have kept the family close and strong.
Ten years ago, before I had even dreamed of assisting the villagers medically, and the very first time I passed Güillapa, Nasario’s son Chano, a thin, soft spoken lad then in his teens, had seen me tramping past with my knapsack and had invited me to lunch. Since then, as I ride by Güillapa on my way to El Zopilote, Nasario, his wife or one of his sons often call me to their shaded hut, sometimes to see a child who is ailing, but more often to give me a papaya or a stalk of sugarcane for the trail. They have grown to care for me, as I for them. They are—like so many here in the barrancas—solid, warm, good people.
“I wonder,” said Nasario when I opened the clinic door, his voice hard with control, “if you would do me the favor of bringing the bodies of my sons from Güillapa so I can bury them here in Ajoya. I’ll pay you what—”
“Which sons?” I blurted out.
Nasario lifted his scarred calloused hands and stared at them. He replied, almost inaudibly, “Marino and Chano.”
These had been his two oldest, each now in his late 20s. Both had wives and children; Marino 7 children, Chano.
“What happened?” I asked, already guessing the answer.
“There was a dance in the casa de Cipriano and . . .”, Nasario turned his coarse hands upward as if testing for rain. What more needed to be said?
Before we could move the bodies, the scene had to be investigated by Quico Mánjarrez, the Juez Civil (Civil Judge). Dawn had fully broken by the time we had rousted him and set out. In our Power Wagon, with Miguel at the wheel, we bumped and jolted up the riverbed to within a mile of our destination, then proceeded on foot up the peaceful wooded arroyo to Cipriano’s small hut. Not two, but three bodies lay where they had fallen, within a few feet of one another and bathed by the friendly winter sun. The third body, we learned, was that of Asunción Gonzáles, one of the four opponents of the Fonseca brothers in the gunfight. Before the dance, they had all been good friends.
‘The blame lies here!’ I pointed to the ‘vino’ still trickling out of the belly of the cadaver and soaking into the earth.
Old Nasario, his deep-set eyes dry and his face taut, bent over the bullet ridden bodies of his sons, first Marino and then Chano, their quiet eyes staring upward past his. At last he slowly straightened and in a voice as empty as an echo said, “Pués, ni modo, Madre. ¿Ya que podemos hacer?” (Well, no way, Mother. What can we do now?)
Quico, the Judge, went about his investigation, counting the wounds and judging their caliber and angle of entry. He also asked questions. It was his job to find out who had started the fight, who had shot whom, and who was to blame. Cipriano had ready his succinct report—Yes, there had been a dance. An argument had started, over what he was never quite sure. No, there had not been much to drink . . .
So said Cipriano. But when Quico tilted up one of the stiff corpses to examine its back for exit wounds, from a .45 caliber hole in its stomach, a clear fluid streamed out as from a keg. The smell was unmistakable. Nobody seemed to notice.
It made me reel. The waste of life, the needlessness of the suffering, the absurdity of the Judge’s measurements and questions suddenly overwhelmed me and I blurted out, “Do we really think that one person or another is to blame for these deaths? The blame lies here!” I pointed to the “vino” still trickling out of the belly of the cadaver and soaking into the earth. “It lies in the custom of drinking and carrying arms at the dances. And until the people as a group change the custom, these deaths will keep happening. This isn’t a matter for the law, but for common sense!”
My words offered little solace to anyone. Quico gave me a hard look. No one else listened. I shut up. Old Nasario asked me to take photos of him next to his dead sons, which I gladly did. A Gringo must stick to his guns.
We loaded the rigid bodies onto improvised stretchers. Nasario himself forced the outstretched arms of each of his sons to their sides and bound them there with leather thongs to keep them from springing back out. “As if they were animals”, muttered one of the spectators, appalled. I marveled at the father’s control. He held his feelings with a grip of iron and did what he must. Eleven years before, two daughters, ages 8 and 9, as dear to him as the river and sun, had died on the same day of what sounded like diphtheria, but what his neighbors had assured him was witchcraft. But whether the will of God or Satan or both or neither, to him it had come to the same thing. Nasario learned long ago that whatever a man’s losses are, short of his own life, he can—and must—keep going.
Arriving with the bodies at the Power Wagon, we encountered the silently waiting wives and children of the dead brothers. The cadavers, covered with blankets, were loaded onto the bed of the truck and the wives, children, remaining siblings, Nasario, Quico the Judge, the Síndico (Sheriff), and several deputies crowded in around them. As we took off, Marino’s wife, Maria, peeked under the blanket at her husband’s yellowed face and began to wail. Somebody ordered, “Put back the blanket!” She meekly obeyed. As we bounced along, the children, understanding yet not understanding, crouched like newly caged animals, silently staring at the lumpy, blanket covered heaps . . . Their fathers. Young. Strong and in the prime of life . . . Dead!
And for what?
Tomorrow the children will again perform their chores; within a week they will remember how to laugh and play. They know by instinct what adults have to learn. Go on! Go on!
The wives will suffer longer. And the parents.
Must this be?
After the burial, things remained fairly quiet until the New Year. New Years, like Christmas, had its usual casualties. In Ajoya, the only mishap was that of a 15 year old boy, very small and underdeveloped for his age, who swiped his father’s gun and succeeded in shooting himself in the foot. He took it, of course, like a man. Also, not far from Ajoya in Campanillas, at the New Years Eve dance, a youth with one drink and one pistol too many under his belt, while trying to draw to fire “vivos”, managed to shoot two girls with one bullet—one in the leg, the other in the foot. On sobering up, the young man was very apologetic and offered to pay amends. But with what do you pay an eleven year-old girl who has had a bullet lodge in her ankle and may have received permanent damage?