The following excerpt is from Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández's Roza tumba quema, the story of a peasant who dares become a guerrillera at a young age, and the daughters she will have to raise, protect, push forward during constant rural turmoil. The story is inspired by events surrounding the civil war in El Salvador, which raged from 1980 to 1992.
When she turned fourteen, three men came for her at her maternal grandmother's house, with guns. They said her father had sent them to tell her he was ill, near death, and that he wanted to see her. They would take her to him.
She recognized one of them, even though he'd shaved his head and his features had hardened since the last time she saw him: a year earlier, he'd been in one of the many camps her father had visited. She'd never seen the others, but could place them from the description she'd heard from one of her neighbors. Just three days ago her neighbor had warned her to leave and hide in the hills or in the gorges because there were three guerrillas with rifles wandering the area and raping any woman they found. They raped me then asked me where you lived, she said. They asked and I had to tell them.
At the time, she hadn't believed the girl. She thought it might all be a dirty trick since that neighbor was one of the girls she'd struck with the guamas that time in the river. She couldn't rule out that, though long delayed and a bit excessive, this could be the girl’s way of getting even. Besides, she had a hard time believing that one of the men who'd organized and gone to the mountains to fight for them could be going around doing a thing like that. To her mind, it was soldiers who raped. They were always the culprits in the stories she’d heard of assaults. But what her neighbor had said was true, at least partly. The boys had been at the camps. But as soon as they'd earned the guerrillas' trust and their weapons, they'd set off on their own path and followed their own goals. They took advantage of the fact that everyone was busy running from soldiers and advancing their positions to go to unprotected zones and take as many women as they could.
They'd take the girls to the hills for three or five days. Then they'd bring them back and take others. They'd rape grown women in their homes and make them cook for them while they raped their young daughters. Later, it became known that just one of the boys also raped elderly women. His compañeros abstained, one out of fear it would mean some additional kind of punishment at the final judgment (if it ever arrived) and the other because he found no pleasure in a woman without the strength to resist or a future to compromise.
Nor did the boy rape all the elderly women he found or come down from the hills to search them out. It was more a matter of circumstance, of making the most of their efforts, so long as the woman looked at him badly for it. He'd never touch her grandmother, for example, because, even after he'd provoked her a little, he didn't see in her the sort of response that inspired him to humiliate. Her granddaughter didn't much interest him either. He recognized that she was pretty, but didn't find her attractive, like his compañero, who hadn't stopped talking about her since they'd set off on their own venture. She was too skinny for his taste. And he didn't like her hair or her attitude. Had his compañero not insisted on having her, he would’ve passed her over. But he'd backed his compañero’s choice and so he’d protect him as he tried to convince the girl to answer her father's supposed call.
She said she wouldn't go. She said that, if her father had to die, there was nothing she could do about it. Unless they could do her the favor of bringing him here, to his home, where there was medicine to treat him and people to look after him. Impossible, the boy said: she had to be the one to go. It was the right thing to do. She—who knew her father was fine because she'd seen him a few days ago—said that she couldn't, she was in charge of collecting water for the house and for her grandparents. They'd seen it for themselves. She'd just filled the pitcher when they found her. She'd stopped a moment at her grandmother's to rest.
When the boy, who'd seen at the camp just how much she loved her father, couldn't convince her to go to him, he put his rifle to her chest. He'd tried to persuade her, he said, he'd asked nicely, but she'd left him no choice now but to take her by force. He said it was time she went with them, and there was no need to worry, it'd only be a matter of three or five days. They told her it was so she could make them tortillas in the foothills where they were camping, that was all. She refused. She couldn't make tortillas. Her mom could attest to that. She was always scolding her for it.
She responded calmly but, inside, she was shaking. She knew what the boys were plotting, and she wasn't about to allow it. She also knew that she had to keep them entertained for as long as she could because, being deserters, it wasn't in their interest to spend too much time in one place. The punishment for deserters was just as severe, if not worse, than it was for enemies. She knew because she'd witnessed it at the camps. She also knew the insurgents weren't the kind to forgive a person who hurt civilians. She hoped that if she stalled the boys who were trying to take her just long enough someone would warn the guerillas in the mountains, and they'd come down and kill them then and there. But no one budged, not to warn anyone, nor to defend her. Not her uncles who were present, nor any of the kids who were nearby, nor the women who watched them through their windows, did anything except watch in silence as she resisted what everyone knew was bound to happen and lay out obstacles for all the excuses they gave her.
The boy who raped elderly women got annoyed. He said they had no more time for her, to cut the nonsense and come with them immediately. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and got ready to grab her. But she threw herself on the ground to make it harder for him, even though, in reality, it wasn't tough at all—her height and weight, short and slight, were no struggle for the boy. What did complicate matters was that she grabbed onto the railings, the branches, and anything else she could reach. This gave her grandmother the chance to send a kid they hadn’t noticed off to warn the girl’s mother about what was happening. She resisted so much it gave her mother enough time to reach them, with her six kids clutching her hand and her skirt, and ask what was going on and why they wanted to hurt a girl who'd done nothing to them and could do them no harm.
The boys told her not to fret, they'd bring her daughter back soon enough, to go home and look after her other kids. Her mother asked them to let the daughter go and kill her instead, if it was blood they wanted. And she asked them to, please, kill all the little ones who were with her at once, too, because, without their mother none of them would manage. There'd be no one to feed them. No one to care for them. No one to watch over them. Best if they all met their end together.
No, they answered. It was her daughter they wanted. No one else. Her mother grew furious when she saw them put the rifle to her daughter's throat and said something to the boy that drove him to reach his rifle out to her and say Go on, lady, take it. Kill me. I can see you're real angry. You'll burst if you don't. Her mother said he'd best give it to her daughter. Seeing as her dad had taught her how to handle guns, she'd figure out how the rifle worked in no time at all and finish him, even if the other two finished her, too—that is, if they didn't scare and run off like the cowards they were. But he knew who he was giving the gun to. He said he was only giving it to her because she looked angrier than her daughter. He offered it to her again and she decided to take it. Even if she didn't know how to use it, she could at least hit him with it. She knew you didn't need much to kill. She'd done it herself once long ago. She hadn't liked it, but she’d do it again if necessary. Then her daughter spoke. She told him to stop. She swallowed her pride like her aunt had taught her you should do with certain men and begged them to leave.
You've raped them all, she said. I owe you nothing, there’s no reason for you to want to hurt me, too. She was acting then like she'd been taught to with dogs: showing no fear, even though she could feel it in her fingers. She did what she could so her body wouldn’t give off the smell of terror. She said she knew who they were and what they were doing. She even called the one she knew by his name. His cover blown, he told her he was sick of fighting for her and, if he couldn't take her with him, he'd kill her right there. He pushed her against the wall and made her spread her arms out in the shape of a cross.
He gave her one last chance: she had until the count of three to change her mind. After saying the number one, he said Only two left. After saying the number two, he loaded the clip. Then he said Three. She didn't close her eyes. She looked straight at him, without a single tear. He said You're a brave one, you fucking bitch. Her mother would've rather she said nothing, that she stay quiet like the rest of them. Instead, she said: I’m not. But I don't owe you a thing. There's no reason for you to come bothering me, she continued. I don't know why you want to kill me. He said it was because she didn't want to come with him, even though he wanted her. How hadn't she noticed, all those times she'd seen him at the camp? Hadn't she seen him smiling at her? No. She hadn't noticed. She was just there to see her dad. She didn't have eyes for anyone else or room in her heart for another. Not even then. She didn't like men as men yet. They didn't interest her and she didn't plan on having a life with one, like the other girls in the area. She didn't even pay any mind to the boy who often stopped by her mother's house offering to help her with anything she needed, ingratiating himself, even though everyone in town said he was a good kid, strong and handsome, though being handsome didn't mean much in the country, since it was no use at all in working the land. Her mind was still on dolls, even though she didn't have a single one because there wasn’t the money for it and everyone said she was too old to play with them.
She didn't mention the thing about the dolls or about her suitor to the boy with the rifle. All she said was that she wouldn't go with him. Then your uncles are coming with us, he said. He ordered his compañeros to tie them up and take them up the mountain, where they beat them and reminded them they were doing this for her.
A moment came when one of her uncles said That's enough. If you're going to kill us, kill us. Her suitor liked his show of courage. He said that, because he was brave, he'd let them all go, even though the truth was that his quiet compañero, the one in charge of calculating how much time they could spend in each region, was just about to tell him that it was time to move on somewhere else if they didn't want to get caught. They were being followed by the military who thought they were guerrillas and by the guerrillas who considered them deserters. They couldn't keep risking their necks on account of his whims.
They said they had five minutes before they started shooting. They told them to run as fast as they could and to always remember that everything that had been done to them was because of the girl. Neither her grandmother nor the rest of the family ever forgave her for it. They never came by to see her again or let her rest in their homes when she was on her way back with the water, nor play with their kids. They never again brought her mother and her little brothers and sisters some food. The one thing they did do was give her the message the boys had sent: that they'd come for her in three days and they didn't want her acting up like she had last time.
She began to cry and didn't stop. Not even when her village suitor found out and, determined to protect her from them, took his gun and posted himself in front of her house next to her brother, the one who earlier had confronted the soldiers and been named the new man of the house. She only stopped crying after the arrival of her father, who’d come down after being informed of what had happened to confirm whether what he'd heard was true. He didn't think his daughter was capable of putting up such a fight or showing such courage. He asked her several times if they'd done anything to her. She and her mother swore they hadn't. Then you're coming with me, he said. To the mountains. She asked for how long. About fifteen days, he said, while they tracked those guerillas down and killed them. She shouldn't bother taking anything with her, she'd be back soon enough. So she obeyed (and, in the mountains, she waited). At the fifteen-day mark, they informed her the three boys were dead and thanked her for the coordinates she'd given them.
From Roza tumba quema. © Claudia Hernández. By arrangement with Casanovas & Lynch Literary Agency. Translation © 2017 by Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.