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from the December 2008 issue

The Sarima’s Mission

Bulul! Tununun! Bululululu! Tununununun! Bulululululululul! Tunununununununu! The voice of the hill resounded in the blue sky, as if several thunderclaps had occurred at one time, or as if a group of stars had collapsed over our heads. I can still hear that echo and feel the great terror that came over me at that moment. Yes, I was very frightened, so much so, that when I became aware of what had happened, I buried my head in my grandmother's shawl.

I remember clearly when Maruca, who had also been terrified by the clamor, hid in a little avocado shrub and stretched her neck as far as possible, so she could see what had happened. All this with her baby strapped to her back!

There was only one thing that made me laugh when I looked back on it: the sight of Rolando carrying both Maruca and the baby so that they wouldn't step in the pile of excrement made by the little pig that was tied to a tree while it was eating. Maruca didn't know whether to laugh or grumble, or hit Rolando, which was what she really wanted to do. Instead, she was shouting and waving her fist in the air. But at least they didn't have to walk through the mud because Rolando was holding on to them so tightly.

Back then, the whole village was troubled and fearful. The local sisterhood gathered at Doa Micaela's house. She was our neighbor across the way. They also called on my grandmother, and she went with them. I can't remember where they all wound up, but they brought incense, roses, candlesticks and matches. They were gone for a long time.

When the villagers from Chichicastenango came over here to Comalapa to sell their produce a few days later, they asked us, "What happened here five days ago? We heard a great clamor coming from here. It frightened the children, the dogs howled, the chickens crowed day and night. The people who came from Tecpan told us that a mountain had cracked wide open into two pieces. Is that what happened?"

"No, said my grandmother. It only thundered."

"Ah, so you are aware of all this? Because of what we heard, we are waiting for something to happen. Is it all true, Señora? Is it true? Even if that hill of yours only thunders, surely it means that something is going to happen?"

"Yes, Madam," said my grandmother. "We know this perfectly well."

My heart was pounding just from the sound of the thunderclaps. But when I heard my grandmother admit that she knew something was about to happen, I felt tremendous fear. I felt like my heart was about to burst out of my chest, as if I wanted the earth to swallow me, or a strong wind to blow me away. My head began to hurt; my stomach started to ache.

By the time we returned home, I couldn't feel my hands or feet, my heart was beating too fast, and my breathing was irregular. Of course, my grandmother noticed that something was wrong.

She said to me, "Rosa, I can see you're not feeling well. Something made you feel bad. What happened? Are you frightened because of what you heard?"

"No, Grandma, I have a headache, that's all. I think the sun at the market was too strong for me."

"Are you sure you're telling me the truth?" she asked me, (at the same time she was looking carefully at my face).

"Yes, Grandma, don't worry," I said with all the strength I had left. "Don't worry about me, Grandma."

"Your face is as white as milk," she said, grabbing me by the elbows. "Rosa, look at me, look at me, Rosa. I'm telling you to look at me."

While my grandmother was saying this to me, I felt like my blood had turned to water, all my strength left me and I fainted. From far away, I heard her calling out, "Rolando, Maruca! Help me! Rosa has fainted. Rosita…"

I woke up stretched out in bed, with my head spinning. Since it was already nighttime, they had left me a torch glowing in a jug. I felt hungry. Then I asked for food. Boy, did I stuff myself! As if I hadn't eaten for a whole week. But as I finished, I started to feel that same fear. Only now I had strength in my body. But in my heart, I felt a mixture of fear and sadness.

Luckily, my grandmother came in to bed. "Are you feeling better, Rosa?" she asked me.

"Yes, thank you, Grandmother. But I still feel fearful and sad." I answered.

"I understand, my child. I felt the same way when I first heard the thundering of the hill. I was about your age."

"You also heard the same sound when you were a little girl?"

"Yes, my darling. I think I was your age or perhaps a little younger. I will tell you a story of how many times I heard that hill, and what happened after the thunder.

But first, go and urinate, so that you don't wet the bedclothes like you usually do."

I left the bedroom feeling frightened, almost trembling, because I was scared of going out to the patio at night. This was the reason I almost always wet the bed at night even though I tried not to. This time I urinated outside the door so I could return to my grandmother as quickly as possible. When I got back inside, the light was about to go out, so I quickly got in close to my grandmother. Her presence filled me with joy, and as her warmth comforted me, she started to tell me this story.

"This is how it happened, my child, I was a little girl when I heard the voice of the "Sarima" for the first time. I remember that morning well. It was well after four o'clock in the morning, and the sunrise looked like it would be spectacular. My mother was grinding cornmeal on the stone and I was helping her. Suddenly, we heard a great thunderclap from the hill… Tunununununununn!"

"I jumped from fright…" and while saying this, my grandmother shook herself with such energy that I jumped up in the middle of the bedclothes. She continued, "I knocked the nixtamal1 on the floor. My father gathered us around the fire, saying, èKids, when the Sarima thunders, it's because something is about to happen. So kneel down, and ask God for forgiveness for your sins, and then maybe nothing will happen.'

"That same morning, men and women got together, and went to greet the hill."

"Is that why you went there that day? Is that the reason?"

"Yes, my darling, we went to greet the Sarima so that nothing bad would happen to us."

"And when it thundered that time, did anything bad happen or not?

"Something did happen."

"What was it?"

"Well, what happened that time was that….wait, wait… I think I have a bedbug in my armpit. I think it came in with you. Wait! Wait! I've got it, I've got it. Cursed flea. It's dead. Did you hear? It exploded."

"Yes, Grandma, it exploded in your mouth," I said to her. And because she thought it was funny, we both laughed for a long time.

"What happened that time is very sad. About a month after the hill thundered, a great fever infected the entire village. I will never forget how many died: children, young girls, young people and adults, all dead from the great fever. Even domestic animals died from it. Everyone was buried beneath the ground. Every day, they were carried on carts, on boards, in fruit boxes, or wrapped up in mats. Others were thrown into agave fiber nets and taken directly to the cemetery."

"But nothing happened to you?"

"Well, I did get sick. Sick with a fever. I think I was in bed for a couple of weeks."

"And how many people died, Grandma?"

"Oh, let's see, about half the villagers died. That's why I'm telling you that they were carrying dead people almost every day, and it went on for almost a month. Many people died."

"Were any of them from your family?"

"Yes, my grandfather died, my youngest aunt, and also one of my uncles, along with his four children and his wife. My oldest sister died, and one of my brothers. Ay, my love, what happened to us that year was so sad and pitiful."

While she was telling me this, my grandmother started to cry.

"Please don't cry, Grandma, please don't cry. Thank God you survived. If you hadn't, who would take care of me now?"

"Yes, my darling, thank God."

On another night, I was almost asleep standing up, because at that hour sleep usually overtook me. In spite of that, my grandmother proceeded to tell me more.

"The next time the Sarima thundered, I was already a young woman. I couldn't forget what I heard about it even though it happened while I was on a trip to Guatemala City with my father. I also remember it because it was during the time when I had a young man very interested in me. He died during the earthquake that also killed your two aunts."

"My mother's little sisters?"

"Yes, my child."

"Ay, Grandma. You lost so many of your children so close together. And my mother died so recently, too."

"Yes, my darling, and your mother died in such a strange way. It wasn't disease or old age. Nor was it a natural disaster that took her away. If a natural disaster, an illness, or old age takes someone away, one can accept it. What can be done? Who can you blame for it?"

"How well I remember my mother. Although it was a long time ago, I remember how she used to carry me in her arms, how she made her tortillas, how she would take me to the cornfields."

"Don't feel bad, my darling. Thank God you still have me. I'll take care of you as long as I'm able."

I didn't even notice I had started to cry. I was thinking of my parents. I don't know why, but I was also thinking of Juan. When his father gets home from work, he picks him up, he kisses him and caresses him. He rubs his moustache on the baby's arm and his throat. He throws him up in the air. Sometimes I wish somebody would caress me like that, even if it was only Juan's father. My grandmother hugged me tightly, held me against her breast.

"Now, my child, please don't cry anymore," my grandmother said lovingly.

"No, grandma. You have to tell me what happened the second time the Sarima thundered."

"No, my child. We are going to sleep. I am very sleepy. Until tomorrow."

A moment later, my grandmother was snoring happily. I remained awake, tossing and turning. I wasn't sleepy. Little by little I began to hear the crowing of the little chicks, who were probably trying to push each other out of the way so as to get to the warmth of their mother. Maruca's piglet groaned now and then. Ricardo's cow chewed its cud and blew air out of its cheeks every so often. My grandmother's little singing doves were spinning around in their cage. A dog barked on our side of the street, and another dog answered him from across the way. The leaves on the trees were singing to the rhythm of the wind and the moon. The moon, high in the sky, watched us through the cracks in the roof that covered our little room.

Without being aware of it, I fell into a deep sleep in the midst of all this nighttime activity, and I began to dream. Much later, I remembered having seen my mother in front of the fire. She was patting tortillas, toasting sunflower seeds and roasting tomatoes. Watching very carefully, I realized that she was in another house and I couldn't communicate with her. She couldn't see me either, and she was wearing my grandmother's new dress.

The sun was shining brightly when I opened my eyes. I jumped up and went to look for my grandmother, but she was not around. I asked Maruca and she told me, "Your grandmother went to get herbs to sell in the market. She will surely be back soon because she didn't go very far. In the meantime, you should light the fire so that it will be ready for her when she gets back."

"That's good, thanks," I said and went to do what I had been told.

My grandmother returned a few minutes later with a big handful of herbs. We quickly began to cut them a little, we cooked them, and then happily had breakfast. Sitting on her personal mat (because she was the only one allowed to use it) my grandmother started to tell me what had happened the second time the Sarima thundered.

"This time I had gone to the capital with my late father. We made the trip on foot and on horseback. This is why it took us a week to get there. We went only to sell our ears of corn, and we were there for two days. When we left the capital, a heavy and steady rain had begun to fall. Two days of our return trip were spent almost under water. When we reached the mouth of the Pixcaya, we could hear the echo of the river. Arriving at the edge of the Pixcaya, it was almost like the Motagua!

"We were returning with about a dozen merchants we didn't know when we reached the banks of the river. After a while, the men walked along the shore until they found an area where the river widened. Then they cut down some pines, lay them across the water, and this is how we got across.

When we reached our town, people told us that, three days after we left, the Sarima had thundered again. As before, there had not been a cloud in the sky that might have explained the thunder. So, the villagers thought they should go and greet the hill. When they returned, very heavy showers started to fall. After noon, the rain slowed down some. People thought it might be the end of the storm, but it wasn't. Darkness fell, and it continued to rain. Dawn broke the second day and the third, and the rain didn't stop falling.

After our arrival, the rain continued. My father went to check on his cornfield in the country, but he returned very quickly. The roads were impassable due to landslides. People who passed by told him that the Xenimaquin had almost been destroyed. There were new pools of water everywhere you looked. All these small streams converged to form a river just like the Kupilaj right in front of our house. A wide river emerged from the side of the hill, and throughout all this, the rain continued to fall.

In front of our house a great river of water appeared. Darling, that river almost took our little house with it. Luckily, that ravine down here drank up all the water. That was where all the rivers were forming. But the river didn't just roll by. As it passed, it left great pits on all sides. At the banks of the ravine, it took with it what looked like a rope of earth. Before all this happened, the edge of the ravine was further over, but after the heavy downpour, it wasn't there anymore."

As I was listening to my grandmother, I was watching her. The expression on her face and her gestures were constantly changing. She looked sad, happy, smiling, angry. She would be quiet for a while, then continue. She would speak loudly, then lower her voice, whatever matched the story she was telling me. Until that morning, I didn't really know how old my grandmother was. Of course, I could see the wrinkles on her face, and how few black hairs she had left. I felt like a little child in her arms, a very small one. I thanked God that I still had the opportunity to be with her and for her to be with me.

"How many days did the rain last?" I asked her.

"Six. The rain fell for six days. We nearly died. Ay, my child, I don't know what we humans want. When we have no rain, we even have processions so that the rain will fall. But this time, we did everything we could to stop it.

"And when the sky finally cleared up, how happy we were to see the blessed sun again! We all came out on our patios, in the streets, in the plaza. We burned incense, sprinkled the street corners with roses, took out our image of San Juan and paraded it through the streets. Men got drunk, the women cooked and sent food to their families and friends. Finally, people were happy. Finally, life could go on."

When we finished breakfast, we picked and washed herbs so we could sell them at the market. After we did that, we bought tomatoes, chiles, sunflower seeds, onions, a little meat and some oranges. While we were doing that, my grandmother was chatting with people going by. Almost all of them wanted to talk about the Sarima's thunderclap. Some said, "Nothing happened, it was just thunder." Others said, "We have to wait for something"; Still others claimed, "Something is surely going to happen because we are all such sinners, and we are always doing something bad." Meanwhile, others argued, "But what else could happen to us? We are in bad shape, we don't have land to farm or plant, we have no clothing, we have to buy food, our parents couldn't give us the opportunity to study, we have no money, we have no work. What else could happen to us?"

I for one was pretty happy, but when I got back to the market, I started to feel the same profound fear. My little heart was beating fast, and I could not stop thinking about what my grandmother had told me as well as what I had heard people saying. That's why I started to question my grandmother again.

"Grandma, did you hear the Sarima any other time, or just the two times you told me about?"

"Why do you want to know, Rosita?"

"Because people were talking a lot about it at the market."

"Yes, my darling. You are already a young woman and you will never forget this. I will tell you more. Please, blow out the flame, and lay out the firewood. We'll eat when we finish baking the dough."

"Yes. Grandma. How many times did you hear it?"

"Twice more. Three if you count that day. The first of the three times was before the earthquake. Your father and your grandfather had left to gather beans from the little field. They were very frightened when they returned because a flying serpent had whizzed right past them. They were also upset because they heard the thunderclap of the hill. But besides that, the earth shook where they were working. As before, people were very disturbed and came together. The old and the very old decided to go and pay homage to the hill. The young ones, the kids, didn't even seem to notice.

"About three weeks later, we were awakened by the great earthquake. As we already know, all the houses in the village collapsed. At dawn, the village looked like a deserted field. There were no houses, and many people had died. That's when your two aunts died, along with your grandfather, Rosalio, Maruca's oldest son and her parents as well. Death had visited us! We suffered so; it was very hard to survive all this. We did because people who lived on the other side of the world stretched out their hands. They sent us food, clothing, and trailers.

"Unfortunately, not everything they sent got to the people who needed it most. There were a few people who took advantage of the situation. It was said that the most valuable things were appropriated by them. But we got wood and laminate so that we could start to rebuild our houses. As usual, we helped each other. In three weeks, we had built a house for each of the ten neighbors on our block. This is how it came to pass."

My grandmother told me more details about this natural disaster. She remembered many people, and she told me everything that was in her heart about this event. I listened to her without saying a word. Her tale seemed to be untied from her mouth, step by step. Then she told me about the next-to-the-last time that the Sarima thundered.

"The next-to-the-last time that the hill thundered you had already been born. But you were very little. In fact, you were still nursing. No, no, no, you had already been weaned, and were walking very well.

I will never forget it, though some people gave it very little importance. They did hear it, but almost no one was frightened. One man said èLet's not do anything. Don't you all remember what happened before the earthquake? We all got together and went to pay homage to the hill and what happened? I'll tell you what happened: very soon, the houses we had built with such effort, came apart like paper and collapsed to the ground. And the earthquake took our parents and our children. So I don't think we should do anything. We shouldn't kneel down before God, or do anything else.' Soon, one by one, the villagers were gone. Some were killed in their houses, others were buried in the woods, or were thrown into ditches. Some were never found, like your mother. We never found her. We don't even know where she died, my child."

"Grandma, Grandma, don't tell me any more about what happened to my mother. It hurts too much. My heart is so full of sadness, I have to cry. Let's leave it at that," I said to my grandmother.

"Fine, my darling, it's fine. We'll leave it at that. But, please, remember what I have told you, keep it in your heart. It's been a week since we heard from the Sarima, but I can assure you that something will happen. Something will happen to us. Because when the Sarima thunders, it's a warning. This hill has a mission, it has a duty given to it by God. That's why I say we have to expect something. What it is, we don't know. That's why I have told you what we have seen in our lifetime. I've told you, little one, what we have lived through, what your parents and grandparents have lived through. I urge you, if I die, to live as happily as you can. I want you to be a good person, who works hard, who has joy in her heart, who is grateful, whose heart sings, whose lips whistle, and who has a smiling face. This is life, my child, this is how life is."

My ears heard my grandmother's words, but my heart was asking itself what we were waiting for, what was the Sarima warning us about? What could it be? Could it possibly be something good? Could the Sarima tell us anything that wasn't sad, or about death and destruction? Which people would talk about it after it happened? Would we live long enough to talk about it to our children? I was very frightened. My grandmother was too, although she wanted to hide her fear. She didn't want me to know how scared she was. It was the same with Maruca. She was always singing loudly, but now she wasn't rupturing our eardrums as she usually did. She was as sad and frightened as the rest of us.

We were discussing all this when we suddenly heard some noise coming from our front door. "I beg your pardon, I beg your pardon, is anyone home? Mrs. Tola, Mrs. Tola…."

"Someone has arrived, Grandma," I said as my grandmother went to look.

"Elvira! Elvira! It's you! Ay, Elvira! Am I awake or asleep? Is this happening?"

"Mama! Mama! It's me Mama! It's me! I'm alive, I'm alive!"

The two women were locked in a tight embrace for a long time. I could see that the other woman bore a great resemblance to my grandmother, but she was much younger. Then, my grandmother let go of her and asked, "My darling, where is my Rosita? My little girl, where is my darling girl?"

I felt as though someone had sprinkled my head with a jar of cold water. I pinched myself hard. I thought to myself, "Am I awake? What's happening to me? Am I sure of this? Or am I dreaming?"

I started crying while I was in my mother's arms, as she kissed me and embraced me. The three of us were crying tears of joy.

Now I am happy and believe with all my heart that when the Sarima thunders, something big will surely take place. If what happened to me was what the hill was predicting is something I will never know. Maybe it was something else. But it doesn't matter anymore. With my heart fulfilled, tranquil and happy, I prefer to believe that the Sarima announced the return of joy to my life.

1 Ground cornmeal used to make dough for tortillas or tamales

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