There is no romance in Patsun, Guatemala. There is nothing romantic about washing dishes with dirt. And the exotic Indians with their bronze cheeks and guttural dialects—there is nothing romantic about not understanding them. The first days, yes, when you wind up the mountain road to the village and look down from the bus window to a canyon of misted, moss-draped trees, there is romance. The first nights, when the fireflies are so thick and white in the cornfields that they seem to reflect the stars, there is romance. But it does not last. You learn quickly that fireflies are not the only bugs to come to life at night; fleas are also ready. You feel them prick you in the dark and you awaken in the early morning burning wherever skin was exposed to them. Wrists, ankles, neck. And you soon see that the green canyons hold emaciated, dead dogs as well as misted trees. There is nothing romantic about a condor inspecting a dead dog from the rear.
My father, a linguist, had brought us to Patsun for his sabbatical leave. I had learned to hate the place by the end of my first week there.
During the piano lessons I gave nightly in the church, I would tell my anxious pupils-Efrain, an old Indian who taught Sunday School and spoke fluent Spanish, and Jose Ibarra, the chubby, twenty-two year-old branch president-how stupid they were, my English inflected as though forming a compliment. They did not understand, of course, and accepted my insults with pleased, embarrassed shrugs. One night I waited at the church for five minutes, then labeled Efrain and Jose habitually late and punished them with my absence. Efrain arrived early the next night, smiling to an oriental squint as he apologized for his past tardiness, not mentioning that he lived three miles from the church. I accepted the apology smugly and taught Efrain and Jose Ibarra three more notes on the scale. They laughed at each other when they missed their notes, and I complimented them for their ignorance.
The night I went to the hut of the first Mormon convert of Patsun, Tomas Kuku, I went begrudging the time I could have spent reading Melville.
The missionaries had mentioned Hermano Kuku, and explained that he was not inactive, only too sick to come to church. At dusk my brother and I walked the cobblestone to the hut of Tomas Kuku, my high heels slipping in the crevices.
It was the first time I had been inside an Indian hut. The sickbed filled half the room. From inside I could see the thin roof supports and bamboo set in a triangle to brace the dried grass above us. Adobe was packed between bamboo sticks. The floor seemed to be of adobe, too. Hard, cold, uneven dirt.
The missionaries had said that Tomas Kuku was sick. I could tell at first glance that he was dying. Even by candlelight, I could see the deep yellow of his skin.
Church members, all Indians, filled the hut, and the wife knelt on a bamboo mat beside her husband ‘s bed, arms folded. Her hair was white and braided around her head. She, and all the female Indians present, wore the costume of the village: red and white striped rectangles sewn together at the sides and down the front, openings left for the arms and head, and another at the chest, where a breast could be offered to a hungry child. Around their waists were thick sashes of similar fabric, around their hips a bolt of multicolored, striped linen. Many had woven their clothes on their own looms; all had embroidered flowers on the blousy rectangles. The men wore white pants and shirts. No hats where death was.
Tomas Kuku asked for water. I understood only that word in the Indian language, Cakchiquel. “Yah.” Water. The other sounds the Indians made were like starts and stops of coughing engines. Sounds from deep in their throats, braked at their uttering. Sounds bounced off their palates or flicked off their tongues, like spitting from the tonsils.
They sang hymns which they could not read and probably could not understand, since the lyrics were Spanish. Their notes were strained and badly aimed. Like children they belted imitations of melody, as though sincerity could compensate for decomposed music. I sang alto, and held my hymnbook right side up (not like the Indian woman beside me) and read the words and knew what they meant. “El Espirtu de Dios,” sang the Indians who had never seen a temple. “Cantemos, gritemos,” they shouted as if the chorus had been written for them. The dying man smiled as though hearing a serenade of angels.
One missionary brought the battery-powered filmstrip of Man’s Search for Happiness. The pictures above the deathbed were dingy against adobe : a white baby being born in a hospital. A skinny blonde with too much makeup glaring at her date in front of roller coasters and tilt-a-whirl rides because he had dropped her ceramic doll. A finely dressed family visiting a cemetery where a marble headstone marked the grandfather’s body. And then a scene beyond the veil, where the grandfather’s spirit, dressed in white, embraced the grandmother’s spirit. The grandmother’s hair was silver, curled in a bouffant style of the sixties.
The Indians watched the pictures move. They sighed and nodded as if they could understand the Spanish narration.
Afterwards, two men lifted Tomas’s torso. The missionary beside me, a yellow-haired ex-surfer from L.A., said, “He wants to bear his testimony.” And Cakchiquel sputtered from the dying man a few words at a time between gasps. The wife offered him water from a clay jug beside the bed. I heard sobbing from the rear of the hut. It was Efrain. His cheeks shone in the candlelight, wet.
Again the Indians sang, though it was past midnight. Again I tried to match harmony to their ever-changing estimates. I left after two songs, too sleepy to harmonize any more. The Indians stayed with Tomas. He died before dawn.
“They want you to play the piano at the funeral,” the ex-surfer told me the following day.
I knew the church piano well, of course. Besides trying to teach Efrain and Jose Ibarra on it, I had played hymns during Sacrament meeting and cringed at the tinny, off-key notes. Nearly one-fourth of the white keys would not sound. Most of the black keys were half-painted stubs of wood. A scale from middle C had only five working notes, all off tune. “That piano…” I murmured.
“We’ve never had a funeral here with piano music,” winked the Californian.
“You use the term ‘music’ loosely,” I said.
“Sure,” I agreed, shrugging and shaking my head dubiously. “This afternoon.”
“This afternoon?” I repeated.
“There’s a twenty-four hour burial law in Guatemala,” he explained.
“Sure,” I said.
I looked at my music after the missionary left. Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, and Handel ‘s Messiah. I decided to turn “Behold the Lamb of God” into an off-key dirge in memory of Tomas Kuku.
I wore my best dress, peach crepe, and entered the chapel just as the Indians, carrying the coffin on their shoulders, began their procession from the nearby Kuku hut. The notes echoed inside the piano as I pressed the pedal down and held “Lamb” in a three-note chord. A little girl with uncombed braids and dirty clothes brought a white peony to the podium. Outside the high, barred windows I could hear the sound of the Indians’ sandals on the cobblestone. The doors opened and a rectangular shaft of sunlight fell over the unvarnished benches at the back of the chapel, illuminating their brick-red grain, distinguishing them from the dull brown benches at the front.
Eight Indian men in white with the coffin on their shoulders entered. Then came the widow, her clothes unchanged from the night before. Then children, dressed the same as the adults, entered carrying flowers. Finally the rest of the branch members seated themselves. Everyone was crying, the men as freely as the women.
Efrain came towards me, pressing a crumpled handkerchief to his eyes, and explained that he would be leading the music. Jose Ibarra shook my hand and stood at the podium as the congregation slid noisily into the benches. I made a crescendo for “That taketh away the sins of the world,” and Efrain squinted as if in recognition.
“Messias,” he said.
“Como?” I asked.
“Messias,” he repeated. “Handel.” He made the “H” sound from his soft palate, and breathed through the “L.”
I kept playing, but glanced at him suspiciously. How could he know’ How? “Como es que vos sabeis?” I asked. He answered in English:
“Man know,” he said, pointing to his head.
“English?” I questioned, missing my note. (No one noticed.) He held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and said, “Leetle.” I began the piece again and read as I played: “Behold the Lamb of God.” Tin-toned but still recognizably Handel, I was his reluctant medium.
“Behold the Lamb of God.” Despite the distortions of poverty, this was the Messiah.
“That taketh away the sins of the world…”
The music seemed to sound from some distant place within the piano. As if it knew what it wanted to play. As if the Messiah were in its wood.
“That taketh away the sins of the world.”
The notes blurred and I tried to end the piece from memory, but could not find the right chords. Efrain offered me his dirty handkerchief. I took it, and the notes came back into view.
“Hermanos y hermanas,” said Jose, and then spoke the language I could not understand.