Dear readers, welcome to this month’s Galli Books story reprint: Sin embargo by Sabrina Vourvoulias!
I first read this story in the anthology Latin@ Rising (edited by Matthew David Goodwin), where it originally appeared, and it made such a strong impression on me that I had to stop reading and take a break. This is a story about migration that captures so much subtlety, in so many ways. My own migration background is very different both from the author’s and the characters’, but this story spoke to me, directly to the heart — as it will hopefully speak to you too.
This is not a lightweight story by any means. The protagonist works with migrant survivors of persecution and genocide. I will not say it is “timely,” because it has been timely for the entirety of human history. Instead, I will say that it is a really important read.
It is also concurrently being reprinted in the international, multicultural anthology Sunspot Jungle, edited by Bill Campbell of Rosarium Press. Sunspot Jungle has two volumes, both coming this month, and I strongly encourage you to check it out. (I also have a reprint in the second volume.) Look at the awesome covers — art by John Ira Jennings:
I personally really enjoy Rosarium books and would like to take this opportunity to warmly recommend them 🙂 I hope Sabrina’s story will also further increase your interest!
Content notices: immigration trauma, genocide, ableism. Mentions of torture and sexual assault.
Sin embargo by Sabrina Vourvoulias
That is the word that starts nearly every statement I make to my clients as I’m detailing what they can expect during treatment, or during a forensic evaluation should they ever be permitted to witness in court.
I say it in Spanish because though many of them have been here for decades and no longer speak first in Spanish, most of them still think first in it. Their children, when and if they accompany them to the First State Survivors Center, roll their eyes at me.
Nevertheless. Sin embargo.
Now say it with an English accent and an American reading of the interlingual homographs — sin embargo — and it becomes policy. Banned and barricaded, it says, because of transgression. Your transgression, your community’s, your state’s.
For the Guatemalans and Hondurans; the Salvadorans and Colombians; the Cubans and Venezuelans I work with, each originating transgressive circumstance may be as distinct as an owl is from a hummingbird. But the sin embargo falls on their head the same way, righteous as a curse.
Is your fear credible?
Do you (who got away with no more than the breath in your chest) have documentation?
And how is it, anyway, that you got away?
The First State Survivor Center is privately funded. We treat both immigrant and asylum-seeker, because immigration trauma can manifest in ways remarkably similar to survivor trauma. Also because the government’s designation of which countries produce refugees and which produce immigrants is a lesson in politics, not psychology.
Anyway. You know (or if you don’t know, you can guess) there is more than one way to translate “sin embargo” from Spanish to English. Sometimes instead of nevertheless, I go for this: the fact remains.
The fact of report; of U.N. statistics and special procedures; of federal applications, deferred action and memoranda.
There is fact of flesh, too. Here, by Istambul Protocols: thickened plantar fascia; perforated tympanic membrane; rectal tearing; keloids and hyperpigmentation; chronic lung problems. I know how to translate these flesh facts into words, even when the government claims it cannot: bastinado; teléfono; rape; necklacing; wet submarino and waterboarding.
Sin embargo, sin embargo, sin embargo — the fact remains. In Spanish, in English, in the hauntingly untranslated gulf between.
Someone famous, I can’t remember who, once said that when a language dies, so does memory.
I wonder about that whenever María José Manrique comes to the center and sits across the desk from me. She doesn’t come regularly, and no longer makes the impression she once did. In the early days of her counseling, she not only wore her traditional blouse and skirt, she wound a bright, twenty-meter ribbon around her head in imitation of the sun.
The headdress is called a tocoyal in Tz’utijil, but it’s been at least a decade since she’s spoken it. And today, when I ask her why she doesn’t wear the headpiece anymore, she refers to it by the Guatemalan Spanish word for all such ornamentation — tocado — then skillfully avoids answering my question.
Tocado, in case you were wondering, also means “touched.” Touched has an odd set of meanings in English. Those seven letters convey the straightforward tactile, intangible compassion, and assumed mental illness or incompetence all at once. Survivors of torture, no matter how touching their testimony, are often written off as touched.
Last year’s genocide trial in Guatemala is a good example. The Ixil women who stood and recounted gang rapes and massacres that wiped out full villages, were discredited with arguments of hysteria, of confabulation, of the childish inability to distinguish protective action from oppressive.
María José and I watched some of the live-stream of the trial together in my office while it was happening. My client sat dry-eyed and unmoving even when one of the testimonies — recounted in a different indigenous language and translated into Spanish — was remarkably similar to her own story.
The live-stream winked in and out, and each time it did, I studied la Marijoe (as she’s come to be known after so many years in the United States).
“¿Qué buscas?” she had finally asked when she noticed my scrutiny. What are you looking for? As if that wasn’t a question to be answered in a lifetime instead of a 50-minute session.
“I guess I’m looking for a reaction,” I had said. “I want to know if this serves as proxy justice for you.”
What you’ve got to understand about la Marijoe is that she smiles a lot. A wide rictus of a smile that you can never be sure is about something good. She hadn’t answered my question that day, just smiled and smiled, and months later, after the genocide verdict was vacated and we all understood that no one was going to be serving a sentence for crimes against humanity, her only comment was that smile.
I can’t remember if I smiled on that rescinded verdict day. Maybe later, at home, as I was carving a figure from an apple I had on hand. Maybe when I bored a hole through its chest with the tip of my paring knife. Maybe every time I hear that the tough, old ex-president and military man from Guatemala has started having some trouble breathing.
I’ll be having pie de pie.
Pronounce the first pie in that sentence in English, the second in Spanish.
It means I will be eating pie standing up. Although … I could be telling you I’m going to be eating foot pie.
But, I’m not. I’m going to be telling you about my girlfriend, Daiana, who is a pastry chef and makes the best pie. Never foot pie, just so-good-I-can’t-even-wait-to-sit-down-to-eat-it pie.
Right now she is flattening dough with an antique glass roller she fills with ice water. And raising her perfect, threaded eyebrows at me. It’s not the fact I’m talking into empty space (she believes in the paranormal, as do many of her fellow immigrants from San Mateo Ozolco) it’s just this monologue-ish style that bothers her.
It sounds like I’m chiding, she tells me. Her convos with ghosts and ancestors and saints are always a back-and-forth, and as she tells me this, her words adopt the rhythm of the roller over dough, smooth but firm, perfecting everything beneath it.
After an hour, when the oven buzzer goes off, she looks at me before opening the door. Her eyes are what I first loved about her: letter Ds resting belly-up and barely containing the Abuelita-chocolate-discs of her irises.
“Magic,” she says. “Pay.” And hands me a perfect slice.
P-a-y is how we transcribe the English word “pie” so Spanish speakers know we don’t mean foot. And so we create yet another homograph, thorny and confusing for the translator. Do we mean pay or pay?
“You can’t get a loan to eat.”
When I first met Daiana this was the way she explained her decision to immigrate. Now that she has her green card and works at the top boutique bakery in Philly, she and her cohorts (“The Bank of Puebla” they call themselves) leave sunken brioches and imperfect cannoli on the loading dock where those whose credit is hunger know to seek them out.
I’m not chiding now. Consider this a benediction instead. There are many innate, unschooled magicks — love, food, compassion, solidarity. May your mouth fill with them.
My grandparents were Nipo-peruanos, which is how I come to speak some Japanese, and Spanish as well as I do. Not a native speaker, by any stretch, but good enough to confuse. Before you mistake this for boasting, know that in addition to French, my colleagues at the Survivors Center collectively speak Tigrinya, Amharic, Zigula, Khmer, Nepali, Arabic, Cantonese and Kreyòl. I am clearly the underachiever of the bunch.
My boss, a chino-cubano whose years as an imprisoned dissident have left him with limited movement in his shoulders, tells me that the fact I’ve just turned thirty but look eighteen, more than makes up for my unexceptional Spanish or contextually useless Japanese language skills.
Many of the survivors I work with are older — think the first wave of Central Americans fleeing torture and civil war in the 1970s and ‘80s — and the fact I look to be the same age as their grandchildren are (or would be) makes most of them warm quickly to me.
Most of them.
Today, la Marijoe comes in unscheduled, storms past the gatekeepers at registration, and upturns her handbag on my desk. A flood of scraps torn from matchbook covers, business cards, receipts and lined notebook paper streams out. No wallet, no sunglasses, nothing else.
I poke at one of the scraps, flip it over. There is a name written on it.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Each is a child detained at the border,” she says. “The ones you want to deport.”
“You know I don’t want to repatriate them,” I say. I play with the bits of paper; they all have different names written in pencil, in pen, in something that looks like it might be halfway between a crayon and brow pencil. “Anyway, how can you know their names?”
“People have names,” she says. Then she turns her back and leaves before I can say anything else.
I sweep the paper bits into plastic baggies. I count some of them at the break room as I eat the empanadas Daiana has packed for my lunch. My colleagues help me count, even without an explanation. And later, at home, Daiana does the same.
There are 60,000 scraps of name.
Magic isn’t instinctive, at least not for me. I have had to learn it as carefully as at one time I learned the alphabet and vowel sounds in Spanish. A-E-I-O-U.
And in English, A-E-I owe you.
Sale, as Daiana says.
It is slang, in Mexico, for “agreed.” In other Spanish-speaking countries it means “to leave,” and you already know its definition in English.
Which do I mean?
The translator’s dilemma.
I go get la Marijoe a full two hours before our appointment, because PTSD makes survivors unreliable about keeping time. Plus, we’re taking public transit.
She comes out of her apartment wearing new plastic shoes and a fuschia-print dress. The mostly grey hair she usually pins high on her neck is loose and falls heavy past her shoulders. The smell of almond oil wafts up from it. Before almond oil hair treatments became hipster, they were old school. This I know from my own mother.
Today there is a creature riding la Marijoe’s shoulders. It is a man-bird, ungainly despite the strong, wide wings it extends. Its long toenails puncture the skin just above la Marijoe’s clavicles and sink straight through muscle to bone. The creature’s ugly pin head turns to meet my gaze.
“Vamos, pues,” la Marijoe says to me.
She knows I see the creature, have seen it from the first day she became my client. If I’ve earned any respect from her it is because I didn’t run out of the office screaming that day.
Marijoe calls it her zope — after zopilote, vernacular for the vulture from which the creature takes its shape — and these days I only see it riding her when something has pushed her beyond survival and deep into her core, where fear still lives.
It is the appointment that’s done it. The notice that perhaps they’ve located her brother living in a small town in Oaxaca these 30 plus years he’s been disappeared and she’s believed him dead. This is why I’m accompanying her. To help her through her first meeting with him, via internet hangout, at the State Department office.
That’s why her zope comes too.
The past is carrion memory, and the three of us — client, shrink, the monster given vulture shape by survivor guilt — live by picking at it.
Voice comes before image.
The community library in Juchitán has broadband, but the image of the librarian leaning into the computer freezes with Rolando just a shadowed bit of background pixelation, even as the sound comes through. The librarian nods at me, then tries adjusting on that end, while the State Department functionary and I make strained conversation, and la Marijoe and her brother repeat each other’s names in a circlet of syllable and breath.
Rolando’s voice through the monitor is soft and sibilant; he still sounds like the youngster orphaned, then separated from his older sister and forced to find his way out of a place of fantastic, inconceivable violence alone, first by trailing after scavenger birds, then following migratory ones as he made his way north.
The internet coughs up a perfect image. The librarian seated at the computer is a muxe dressed in the huipil of the indigenous population of the town. Standing behind her, in western wear and twisting his hands in expectation, is Rolando. He looks much older than his voice, older even than la Marijoe. It is a quick impression, really, because our screen goes to black as the feed buffers, and this time the sound cuts out too.
The zope fans its huge wings, digs its claws deeper into la Marijoe’s flesh. In fact, I see the wicked ends poking all the way through her back; dark, blackish blood caught in the tips. I wonder about the State Department guy — Frank — and whether he sees something because every time the zope moves its wings, he seems to flinch.
The computer screen in front of la Marijoe lightens again, then fills with smoke.
I can smell it. Wood smoke. Pine, resiny and hot. Frank grabs my shoulder, crushes it in his grip. The smoke on screen clears after a second, two, three … and then we stare at a stand of pinabetes — Christmasy, quick-growing trees prone to lightening strikes — rooted in a ground of charred bodies.
There is a child, maybe six, standing in front of the pile. His eyes dart from the corpses to whomever is holding the recording device from our point of view. La Marijoe puts her hand to the screen and the small one on the other side meets it. She says one word in that language she hasn’t spoken in a decade, and even though the glottals are foreign to my ear, I understand the word means hide.
The child scoots toward the bodies. He picks his way gingerly among them, drops to his knees, then to his back. He grabs an arm to pull the body closer to him. The flesh comes off the bone as if it were a glove, but the torso doesn’t budge. He drops the mass of charred skin and semi-liquid tissue, and starts inching his body closer to the body on his other side. He whimpers a bit as he pushes under it, and I wonder how long a burnt body holds the heat that killed it; and if the child, too, will be singed while hiding beneath it.
The child is completely hidden by the burnt corpses when we hear the crack of gunfire. The image shakes violently, dives, captures a minute of tilted ground then fades to black. The hangout site pops up a static image onscreen to indicate the connection has dropped.
“Rolando,” la Marijoe says one last time, then goes silent as the zope’s huge, dark wings curve forward to cover her eyes.
Frank lets go of my hand at the same time as the zope plunges its curved beak into the crown of la Marijoe’s head. The monstrous creature pushes its ugly head so deep inside the old woman, its beak temporarily bulges out a spot on her neck.
She turns to me. Zope feathers are coming through the skin beneath her eyebrows and behind her ears, but it’s what’s happening on her forehead, cheeks and chin that gets my attention. Fine particles of whatever powder or foundation makeup she’s been wearing slough off from the pressure of feathers prodding at the skin from within. Under the flaking cover-up, la Marijoe’s face is hyperpigmented, shiny, and her skin is too thick for even the big vulture quills to get through.
Like my girlfriend Daiana’s wrist, where a third-degree burn from one of the bakery’s commercial ovens has healed into a bracelet of contracted skin.
By Istambul Protocols ….
“We can try this again a different day,” Frank says.
“No,” la Marijoe answers. “I see Rolando is alive. That is enough.”
Frank stops me on our way out. “I can’t begin to understand what happened here today. But if you convince her to come back and try this again, make sure the appointment is with me.”
After a moment he adds, “Was the librarian with Rolando—” but I stop him before he can say anything else. “I’ve got to catch up with my client.”
“You’ve been telling tales,” I say to la Marijoe when we’re on the bus. “All these years in treatment, you’ve been lying to me.”
“No,” she answers. “Everything I told you happened exactly as I recounted it.”
“But not to you. Rolando’s sister was shot dead if that digital translation of memory is to be believed.”
She smiles. “You should know better than to trust a translation.”
“If you are not Rolando’s sister, who are you? Why search for him, to what purpose? And what’s your real name anyway?”
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t speak, until her stop. “So, now that you know, will you still see me?” she asks as she gets to her feet after signaling the busdriver.
“Of course,” I answer. “I’ve got an opening Tuesday, I’ll pencil you in.”
She doesn’t show that week. In fact, she doesn’t show at the First State Survivors Center ever again.
A month into her absence, I set aside my injured professional pride, and go to her apartment to talk to her. After I knock, a young woman with three children clinging to her legs opens the door. I give her my name and ask about la Marijoe and she invites me in, offers me a lemonade.
“I’ve always wondered about her,” Anabelle — that’s the new tenant — says as she mixes tap water with the drink mix, then puts the can of mix back into a cupboard that holds just it and four tins of evaporated milk. “I found something of hers jammed up behind the pipe under the sink in the kitchen when I moved in. I thought she’d come back for it. I’ll go fetch it.”
She disappears into the next room and one of the toddlers trots after her, but the other two stay and watch me with big, wary eyes. It takes Anabelle a long time — long enough for me to notice that there isn’t much furniture in the apartment, and that what is here has the look of hand-me-down or Goodwill.
She comes back with a cigar box which she hands to me. Inside is about $1,000 in crisply folded bills and a sealed envelope with my name on it. When I open it, a torn matchbook cover with the words “sin embargo” and a string of what look like library call numbers written in grease pencil flutters out, followed by the primary feather of a vulture.
“A mystery wrapped in an enigma,” Anabelle says with a shrug when I look back at her. “But that’s definitely a turkey buzzard feather.”
Never underestimate people. Never figure that the young, or the poor, or the humble don’t have something important to teach you about your own assumptions. I stay long enough to find out that the public library is Anabelle’s favorite haunt, and that she can not only paraphrase Churchill and quote chapter and verse of the Stokes’ Field Guide to North American Birds, but knows that if the numbers are Dewey call numbers, they are all over the place — from occult to salvation, psychology to philosophy.
I go back to my office, put the feather in my pencil cup and stare at it for a while. Then I dial Frank’s number.
The hangout connection is much better this time.
“Where is my sister?” Rolando says when he sees only us onscreen.
“Let me ask you something, Rolando,” I say. “So many years have passed, how can you be sure the woman sitting in front of the monitor last time we talked is really your sister?”
He looks confused for a few moments, then gives us a smile. It is so like la Marijoe’s it lands a punch to my gut.
“I could never confuse her voice for another’s,” he says finally. “I still have dreams about being buried under bodies. It was my sister’s voice that reminded me I wasn’t dead. Then and now.”
“All those years ago … was she there when you ventured out from your hiding place?”
He shakes his head. “Nobody was there. Just the burnt bodies and the vultures feasting on them. But I knew my sister would find me. I knew that she would never stop looking for me.”
He sounds just like the other survivors I treat, whose hopes — no matter how infinitesimal — cling like a burr. Just last week, when there was news that one of the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina had been reunited with a grandson missing since the dirty war, all of my clients spoke again about their own disappeared loved ones, their own future reunification days. One spoke of that to me even though we both know her husband was pushed out of a helicopter over open sea.
“Are you sure all of the burnt bodies were dead?” I ask Rolando, picturing la Marijoe’s contracted skin as I say it.
“Yes,” Rolando says. “All of them.”
Frank clears his throat. “Last time we tried the hangout, what did you see when the video part wasn’t working?”
I translate the question into Spanish.
“What do you mean ‘what did I see?’ A dark screen. My own reflection, and la Tere, the librarian, reflected on it too. May I talk to my sister now?”
“She’s disappeared,” I say, before I can reconsider my word choice. “I don’t know where.”
“At least I know she is alive,” he says after a moment. “That big empty space her disappearance left in my life can fill up now. I imagine it is the same for her.” He starts to get up to leave.
“Wait,” I say, fishing the scrap of paper out of my pocket. I hold it as close to the computer’s camera as I can. “Do you have any idea what this number is?”
I hear him call the librarian closer to the computer, and then their quick consultation in a Zapotecan language quite different than the Tz’utijil he and la Marijoe spoke together. Not for the first time I feel dazed by the sheer number of languages in the world, the sheer number of opportunities for translation to leave out that one element that gives real meaning to what is being said.
“We don’t have any idea. But we’ll think about it some more,” Rolando says as the librarian writes down the numbers in a spiral-bound pad.
“She hid some money away,” I say then. “I figure she’d want you to have it. Tell me where we can wire it to you—”
He puts his hand up to stop me. “I don’t want it. I have what I need,” he says, then signs off so quickly I can’t argue it with him.
“That’s it, then,” Frank says. He takes the scrap out of my hand, squints at what’s written on it: b52:b122:b131:b211:b215:b501:d150:e234.
“Looks like an i-p-v-six number,” he says. When I shake my head, he adds, “Internet protocol version six, which is what currently routes all the traffic over the web. Could be what you have is a location and i.d. number tied to some service provider. Is Marijoe tech savvy?”
I snort, which prompts a smile. “Well, I hope you figure it out,” he says handing back the scrap.
I can tell he thinks it is an intellectual puzzle to be pieced together and solved, but it’s not. It is another translation calling for memory, ear and soul to complete.
Will you still see me?
Those were la Marijoe’s last words to me, and I understand them differently now.
I try, I really try. She may not be who I thought she was, but she is la Marijoe, and she is someone. Someone tied — however tenuously or fantastically — to massacre victims from an ossuary that the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation has probably already exhumed and catalogued.
So, that’s my first step. I call the tech our Center has worked with before, and read him the numbers I want him to check against their registrar’s catalogue. The quantity of pieces they’ve catalogued is huge — every bone chip, every piece of tooth — and includes not only the victims of the genocide and three decades of armed internal conflict, but the remains of the more than 6,000 migrants dead last year alone. Many of the old and the new don’t have names, but some do, and maybe hope clings to me like a burr too.
The second step I take is to get Frank to ply his government muscle and find out if the numbers are, in fact, IPv6 numbers and, if so, which provider bills them, and to whom.
Third step: After I chance upon Anabelle in the stacks of the Ramonita de Rodriguez branch of the Free Library, I enlist her help in searching through all the books under the call numbers that coincide with la Marijoe’s sequence. I pay her a bit of a stipend, so her lunch and bus fare doesn’t tip her budget into deficit, and once a week she brings me what she finds stuck between the pages. A prayer card of St. Gall; the yellowed clipping from a newspaper from 1974; an Amtrak ticket stub, round-trip to New York City; a small feather from a cedar waxwing — a bird, Anabelle further informs me — she has never seen in the city.
The objects don’t all — or any? — belong to la Marijoe, she knows it and I know it. But it is a catalogue anyway, and I treat the objects with the respect my friends at the Forensic Foundation accord their remains.
Anabelle comes to the apartment to deliver the items to me because if I went off to see another woman on a regular basis, Daiana would see red. Another homograph, by the way. In Spanish, red means net or web, and that is what is being woven every time Anabelle — kids in tow — stops by the apartment. Daiana has started baking special treats to coincide with the delivery of book findings.
The fourth step I take in trying to figure out la Marijoe and the clues she’s left me, is actually taken for me not by me. The Juchitán librarian emails me an invitation to a private hangout — no Frank, no Rolando. She sends it to my work email because that’s the one attached to my digital footprint. I’m actually not that easy to find, but she is a librarian, after all.
I don’t respond right away, and not only because the Center’s emails are automatically saved and archived for accountability and transparency. I think I know why Tere-the-librarian has contacted me privately, and it has nothing to do with my quest to find la Marijoe. I believe it is curiosity that has prompted it. The desire of a muxe in Juchitán to understand the life of a trans man in Philly; the desire to confirm that her small, indigenous community is — and always has been — less hesitant about the everydayness of transgender folk than any U.S. metropolis.
I let Daiana know I’ll be staying late at work, and she’s fine with it, mostly because it’s an evening Anabelle and her brood are scheduled to stop by. Daiana is making the kids the new cake she just introduced at the bakery, flavored with dragon fruit and iced in the fruit’s distinctive dark pink hue. For the children’s sake she’s going to try baking it in shape of a flying dragon.
When the hangout window on the computer opens up, Tere looks around with interest. “So that’s what the inside of a psychiatrist’s office looks like,” she says.
“I’m a clinical psychologist,” I say, “but, yeah.”
“You need more colorful artwork.”
I smile a bit, wait.
“So I wanted to talk to you,” she says, “about the numbers. I found something that if not significant is at least interesting. Have you ever heard of the Aarne-Thompson Index?”
“It categorizes folk and fairy tale types and motifs that recur in mostly Indo-European folktales,” she says. “Though I think it has started including stories from other cultures as well. Anyway, most of them are two, three or four digit numbers preceded by an AT.”
“Well that doesn’t fit.”
She makes an exasperated noise. “But some of them are instead subcategorized with the letters A, B, C, and so forth, to indicate that they are tales that involve mythological motifs, or animals, or tabus.”
“Okay,” I say, “cut to the chase — which do our numbers coincide with?” I don’t know if she knows that expression, but she does what I ask.
“B 52 is under the general bird-men category of tale, but is specifically about harpies, or bird-women.”
So, I’ll be honest, this seems an unlikely concordance for la Marijoe’s numbers, but that doesn’t keep me from feeling a weird sort of unease. I don’t have much of a classical education, but I kind of remember that harpies chased one of the Greek heroes to his death.
“B 122 is code for tales of birds with magic, and B 131 is all truth-telling birds,” Tere continues. “B 211 and 215 are both tied to animal languages and animals that can speak. B 501 is a category of tales where an animal gives part of its body to a human as a magical talisman.”
“Jesus,” I say. I tell her about la Marijoe then, including what we saw during the half-failed hangout, the bit about her sprouting feathers and even that she left me one of those feathers in a cigar box she could have no certainty I’d ever find. Of course I sound like a nutburger as I recount it. Tere doesn’t say anything for a while, then drops her eyes to the spiral-bound notebook open in front of her.
“So, maybe I copied one of the other numbers down wrong,” she says finally. “Is it really D 150 not D 152?”
I pull out la Marijoe’s scrap of paper. “Yeah. 150. Why?”
“Because D 150 stories are about humans transforming into birds; D 152 tales are about birds transforming into humans,” she says. “Given what all the other numbers are keyed to, I think the latter would better fit the narrative we’re piecing together.”
“You can’t really mean to tell me you think that la Marijoe is a bird turned human.”
She laughs at me. “Because a human turning into a bird is easier to accept?”
“I do deal with the most inventive forms of human denial at my job.”
The laugh is genuine this time. Then she grows serious. “You don’t think even a vulture can grow weary of the dead we leave for them to clean up? You don’t think a great mother bird might adopt another’s fledgling found living among the hundreds, the thousands of corpses?”
She sighs. “Is there a difference really? Whether one of the vultures at the massacre site took pity on Rolando and magically turned itself human for him, or his sister’s dying spirit hopped into the body of one of the birds that was already there, it was to the same end. To protect him.”
“Nice thought, bad job.”
She shrugs. “He got out of there alive.”
“Fairy tale magic,” I say. “Not the kind I believe in.”
She grins. “No? Me, I believe in every kind. I couldn’t be a librarian otherwise.”
When it’s clear that’s all she has for me, I thank her and sign off quickly, then sit in the quiet of the Survivors Center emptied of survivors and staff. I don’t want to go home yet, I can’t go home yet, and I’m not sure why. I wander out to the break room and let my eyes rest on the world map that takes up one full wall. There are pins color coded for each of our clients at their country of origin, and then at every country they’ve landed for a time on their journey here, to us. I find la Marijoe’s pin in Guatemala and trace the unbroken line to the one in Delaware.
Thousands of miles as the crow — or vulture — flies.
There’s another homograph for you. Miles means thousands in Spanish. I go back into my office and get back on the internet. I search for the Aarne-Thompson index and look for the last number on la Marijoe’s string, the one Tere-the-librarian had forgotten to translate for me.
Am I surprised when I read the description of the motif that ties together the E 234 tales? Not really. Nations are built on bones, so is it any wonder there are so many stories that revolve around those who return from death to avenge it?
Guatemala, Syria, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, Angola, Kurdistan and all the other genocides I know about from the Center’s clients: there must be miles of E234 tales waiting to be found.
The past is never as simple as we’ve been told it is. In some languages there is an admission of this in a verb aspect without any certainty of completion.
La Marijoe is my past imperfect.
My friend at the Forensic Foundation finds a match for the numbers I’ve given him, identifying an ossuary and the date of exhumation. It is one of several mass graves that have been tied to the massacre that left María José and Rolando orphaned and on the run, but barring further identification by the FAFG, we can never know if the specific numbers are keyed to the Manrique family members they lost.
Neither can I tell you if la Marijoe’s numbers are what Frank believes they are, or what Tere-the-librarian does, or even what Anabelle thinks them, as she collects her evidence of life in books from every library branch in the city.
Perhaps the numbers are all of these, or none.
I mail the vulture feather to Rolando care of the Juchitán library. The $1,000 from the cigar box I give to Anabelle because I know she’s hurting enough that even that little bit will seem a godsend, and hey, she’s got fledglings too, so I think la Marijoe would have approved.
And one weekend when Daiana is working a double in preparation for the Fat Tuesday before Lent, I rent a car and drive about forty-five miles out of Philadelphia, to a little town — the internet is my informant — where there are four trees that hold near as many turkey vultures as leaves.
I watch the birds for hours, riding thermals, landing and hopping from branch to branch. They watch me too, and despite the sympathetic magic I attempt in their language of whines and gutteral hisses, I get no answer.
Because there are no answers in this tiempo, this time, this present tense. It is filled with infinitives instead — absolutes and constructs; marked and unmarked; active and elliptical.
Today, Jamila, who speaks the best Arabic at the Center, finagles shelter and the promise of a job for a Middle-Eastern client so her hand can heal from its session in a meat grinder.
Today, my boss brings the staff a coconut pound cake baked by a client who has finally set up the dessert shop he dreamed about during his years at a Cambodian refugee camp. When my boss sets the cake on the break room table, he tells us we’re totally worth the two-hour drive to go get it.
Today, the DART train comes exactly three minutes late so I am able to catch it and get back to the apartment in Philly before Daiana comes home. I place some flowers in a vase so they are the first thing she sees when she opens the door.
Today, she tells me that although she is mexicana, someone assumes she’s Asian while she’s in line at Hai Street Kitchen and asks her to check the status of their order.
Today, I tell her I don’t see it, that she’ll never look like me, and we bicker about whether I’m Latino or sansei or both or none and I tell her that what I am is a trilingual homograph, and let’s leave it at that.
Today, she rolls her eyes at my verbal conceit, and we lounge on the couch eating Hai Street’s expensive sushi burritos and rub our feet together, watching reality TV neither of us can relate to because it has nothing to do with what’s real.
Today, I remember that the word relate is another homograph.
Today, I weigh credible fears, burden of proof, deportation orders, detainers and directives against several plastic baggies filled with 60,000 scraps of paper.
Today, the names are an incantation as they leave my lips.
Today, I feel the feathers pushing their way through the walls of my heart.
Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer and digital storyteller.
An American citizen from birth, she grew up in Guatemala during the armed internal conflict and moved to the United States when she was 15.
Her news stories have been published at The Guardian US, Philly.com, Public Radio International’s Global Voices, NBC10/Telemundo62, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia Magazine, City and State PA, and Al Día News, among others. Her journalism and editing have garnered Edward R. Murrow, José Martí, Keystone, Pen & Pencil Club of Philadelphia, and New York Press Association awards.
Her short fiction has been published by Tor.com, Strange Horizons, PodCastle and Uncanny, Mithila, GUD, and Crossed Genres magazines, as well as in multiple anthologies, including Kaiju Rising II, Sweet and Sugar Tooth, the Latinx Archive and Sunspot Jungle — all upcoming in 2018 and 2019.