When the Guerrillas Came to San Juan
It was a cool, clear, moonlit night in the springtime of the guerrilla war. Chico Xol and Cu Tut were doing their monthly civil patrol duty in the thatched-roof guardhouse on the Coban road – their country’s first line of defense against the growing guerrilla insurgency. They were huddled over a little fire they had started to warm themselves, when suddenly they heard a clatter of footsteps outside, and someone stumbling and falling with a crash, and a yell,
Startled, they jumped up and grabbed their rifles.
“Is anyone here?” a voice asked.
“Yes, we’re here.” Chico replied.
A shadow reeled into the guardhouse. It was Jorge Fernandez, one of San Juan’s half-dozen full-time drunks. He grabbed Chico’s arm to lift himself and exclaimed with a waft of alcohol breath,
“The guerrillas are here! The guerrillas are here!”
Chico felt a jolt in his stomach.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I had stopped to pee by the side of the road,” Jorge Fernandez explained patiently, “and I was looking across the barranca towards Barrio San Luis, and I was looking at the corn, when all of a sudden I saw all these men moving in the corn! I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
“How many men?” Chico asked apprehensively.
“Maybe thirty, maybe fifty, maybe more, I don’t know, it was hard to tell. But they all had guns and knives!”
“What were they doing?”
“They were sneaking through the corn, as quiet as could be!”
Chico and Cu were stunned. They tried not to look at one another. They stared at the ground.
“And so … ?” Chico asked.
“And so I peed as fast as I could and then I came running back here to tell you that the guerrillas are here!”
Having accomplished his mission, he plopped himself down on the bench and began warming his hands over the fire.
“The guerrillas?” Chico asked wanly. But he knew. He had known all along that the day the guerrillas finally decided to come would be the day that he was doing civil patrol. He knew that, so he wasn’t surprised, only he had hoped that maybe it wouldn’t happen quite yet. He felt numb in the pit of his stomach.
“Are you sure it was guerrillas?” he asked. Jorge Fernandez was a bit tipsy and unsteady on his feet. On the other hand, he was a ladino – the mayor’s brother-in-law, no less – whereas Chico and Cu were only Indians.
“Yes, guerrillas!” Jorge Fernandez was positive. “They’re here!”
They all stared in frozen silence at the fire. Then a thought occurred to Chico, and he asked Jorge Fernandez,
“Did you see the guerrillas near the pasture of Catalina Caal?” Catalina Caal’s pasture was where Chico had tethered his new little bull.
“Yes, that’s where they were!” Jorge Fernandez replied. “They were at Catalina Caal’s land.”
“Did you happen to see a little black and white bull tied up in the pasture? By the big avocado tree in the corner?”
“No, I didn’t see any bull.” Jorge Fernandez replied.
So that was it! That’s what the guerrillas were up to! Chico jumped to his feet and grabbed up his rifle and jerked Cu’s sleeve.
“Come on, hurry!” he said, and raced out of the guardhouse.
“Where are we going?” Cu called, struggling to catch up.
“To Barrio San Luis!” Chico called back.
“No, Chico, stop!” Cu commanded, grabbing Chico’s arm forcibly to wheel him around.
“Come on, Cu, there’s no time!”
“We can’t go to Barrio San Luis, Chico! We have to tell the commissioner first. Do you want him to report us to the Military Zone?”
No, Chico didn’t want that. He stopped for a moment to think. Something in him wanted to go straight to Barrio San Luis, to see about his bull. The little bull had cost him 150 quetzales just the month before, and it was Chico’s pride and joy. But Chico was also petrified of the guerrillas, now that he had a chance to think about it. He wasn’t even sure if they were men like himself, since although he had heard some people say that they were men, he had also once heard someone say that they were gigantic monkeys, with enormous teeth and claws. So something else in Chico was relieved by the idea of reporting first to the commissioner. Perhaps the commissioner would send men to see about the bull.
Then Chico thought about the commissioner, who in his civilian life was a butcher, and one of the town’s chief sons-of-bitches. Chico didn’t really want to report to the commissioner; but he certainly didn’t want to get into trouble for not reporting to the commissioner.
“Also,” Cu continued, “our wives will be worried about us. It’s not right that our wives should have to worry about us. So listen: you go and tell the commissioner, and I’ll go home and tell my wife, and then she can tell your wife, so that way our wives don’t worry. And then I’ll meet you at the commissioner’s house. Okay? Goodbye!”
“No, Cu, come back here!” Chico called. The wives weren’t being threatened by the guerrillas; it was the bulls. Besides he certainly didn’t want to face the commissioner alone.
“If you go home, he’ll be sure to report us to the Military Zone. Come on, we’ll go to the commissioner’s together.”
They started off together towards the commissioner’s house. As they crossed the deserted plaza in front of the church Chico looked up at the moonlit churchfront and crossed himself.
“Don’t be afraid, Cu.” Chico said. “Don’t ever be afraid. The little Virgin of Guadalupe is protecting us always.”
That thought buoyed him up. But as they left the plaza and approached the commissioner’s house, Chico felt his belly tighten. As they neared the commissioner’s door they slowed their pace, tucked in their shirttails, lifted their hats and patted their hair down straight. They hesitated before the commissioner’s door, and looked at one another. Then Chico rapped softly on the door. Immediately a fierce dog began barking within. They waited, and the dog barked and whined and rattled a chain, but no one answered the door.
Chico knocked again, louder this time, and the dog went into a frenzy of howling. There was a loud crash, and then a shout,
Chico winced. A light came on in the window. In a moment the door opened and the dog was there snarling up at them and the commissioner was there snarling down at them, and tucking his undershirt into his trousers. Chico and Cu removed their hats.
“Well?” the commissioner demanded indignantly.
“Buenas noches, commissioner.” Chico said politely.
“Well?” the commissioner scowled at him.
“Commissioner, there are guerrillas in the corn.”
The commissioner stopped to think about this. He had only just gotten to sleep after a night of heavy drinking, and he had awakened with a splitting headache, and he couldn’t remember if he was supposed to be angry or not.
“Guerrillas?” he asked.
“Where are they?”
“In the corn.”
“In the corn?”
“Yes, the corn.”
“Over in Barrio San Luis.”
The commissioner thought about this.
“Who saw them?”
“They saw fifty of them, commissioner.”
The commissioner tried to think. He had been trained for this very moment, but he was having difficulty concentrating. He knew that the first thing to remember, which they had reiterated over and over during the week-long workshop for military commissioners which he had attended at the Military Zone, was to stay calm. It was most important to stay calm. He took a deep breath. He looked out the doorway, past Chico and Cu, to the moonlit cobblestones of the street. He felt nauseous and his head hurt him. He knew he had to summon the deputy commissioner.
“You!” he barked at Cu. Cu jumped. “Go get the deputy. Now!”
Cu turned and raced down the street towards the deputy’s house.
The commissioner remembered that there were three important things to remember besides staying calm, but his head throbbed and he could only remember the third one: “Wipe them out!” He couldn’t remember the two things you were supposed to do between “Stay calm” and “Wipe them out!”
“What are the guerillas doing?” he demanded of Chico.
“Maybe stealing our bulls, commissioner.”
“Our bulls? What bulls?”
“They’re stealing our bulls. For beef.”
“Ah, for beef.” Him being a butcher, this made sense. “What bulls are they stealing?” He thought of his own bulls.
“All of our bulls, commissioner!”
“All of them?” This made the commissioner very angry. He stepped back into his house and retrieved his pistol and jacket while the dog glared and growled at Chico. When the commissioner emerged he beckoned to Chico to follow him to the armory, where the rifles and ammunition were stored.
When the arrived the commissioner reached into his pants pocket for the key, but he couldn’t find it, and he realized that he must have forgotten it.
“Mierda!” he shouted, kicking the door. Chico winced. Well, nothing for it but to wait for the deputy, who also had a key. The commissioner tried to think. Stay calm, he told himself. He thought about his bulls, but since he had no bulls in Barrio San Luis, his own bulls were probably safe for the moment. He gave out a little grunt of satisfaction. Then he thought about dispatching a messenger to the Military Zone for help, though it would be hours before they could arrive, and he wondered if they would commend his alertness or reprimand his presumption. He wondered where the guerrillas were. Then he got a sudden inspiration:
“Listen!” he said to Chico. “Remember this: stay calm; observe their movements; something else; and then wipe them out! Have you got that?”
“Could you say it again, commissioner?” Chico asked, anxious to comply correctly.
“Stay calm! Observe their movements! Then something else.”
“Check our bulls?”
“No, not check our bulls. Something else; and then wipe them out! Now, repeat that.”
“Not check our bulls. Something else; and then wipe them out.”
“No, fool!” the commissioner said angrily. “What came before that?”
“Before what, commissioner?”
“Before ‘wipe them out!’”
“I know that, but what was it?”
“Not check our bulls?”
“No, not check our bulls, stop saying ‘not check our bulls’, fool!” His head throbbed and he felt like punching Chico. Chico winced. “Just get out of here! No, stay here!” Idiot! Now he couldn’t remember any of it, except “Wipe them out!”
The deputy commissioner raced up breathlessly, with Cu at his heels.
“Buenas noches, commissioner.” The deputy saluted.
“The key!” the commissioner demanded of the deputy. “Where’s the key?”
“Don’t you have it?” the deputy asked.
“Oh, this is wonderful!” the commissioner threw up his arms. Open the door now!” he screamed at the universe, rubbing his temples.
The deputy examined the door. It was fastened with two screw-eyes held together by an old padlock. He would have to smash it open somehow.
“Go get a rock!” he commanded Cu. “A big rock.” he added, so there would be no mistake.
Cu took off in search of a big rock, and as he ran along the moonlit street he spied various rocks, but he wasn’t sure it they were big enough. He veered in the direction of his house; there were a lot of big rocks near his house. Meanwhile the commissioner briefed the deputy:
“There’s a band of fifty guerrillas over in San Luis!” the commissioner informed the deputy. “We have to stay calm!”
“And observe their movements.” continued the deputy. “Then encircle them with superior forces, and wipe them out.”
“That’s right!” the commissioner was pleased. He had forgotten that the deputy had attended the workshop with him.
“Also we should send a message to the Military Zone.” the deputy continued. “I can borrow my cousin Guicho’s car and be there in half an hour.”
“All right.” agreed the commissioner. “But don’t leave yet. So, the first thing to do, in order to observe their movements, that is … .” His head hurt him.
“Who saw the guerrillas?” the deputy asked.
“They saw fifty of them stealing cattle over in San Luis.”
“Has the San Luis patrol reported?” the deputy asked.
“No.” the commissioner replied. “Maybe the guerrillas captured them.”
“Probably sleeping when the guerrillas came.” the deputy conjectured.
“Cowards!” muttered the commissioner indignantly.
“Surrendered without firing a shot.” added the deputy.
“Cowards!” exclaimed the commissioner angrily, balling his hands into fists. “Have them sent to the Military Zone immediately!”
“Maybe they’re dead already.”
That thought brought a chilling sense of peril.
“Maybe I should report to the Zone,” suggested the commissioner. “while you observe their movements.”
“No, no.” protested the deputy. “Guicho won’t lend you his car. He won’t lend his car to anyone but me. Moreover, I should leave immediately. ‘The Military Zone must be notified immediately of any … .’”
“All right.” grumbled the commissioner. “But what message are you going to give them?”
“I’ll tell them to send help; that the situation is desperate.”
“It is desperate.” agreed the commissioner. “But they should also know that we are staying calm. Staying calm, and observing their movements, and encircling them, and wiping them out.”
“But if I tell them that, they won’t send help.” protested the deputy.
“Well, then, maybe … .”
“I could just say that you are staying calm and observing their movements.”
“But what will you tell them if they ask if we are encircling them?”
“I’ll say that you are in the process of encircling them, but don’t have them quite encircled yet.”
“And we desperately need help to finish encircling them.”
“No, I think you are supposed to encircle them by yourself. I don’t think it’s the Zone’s job to help encircle them.”
“We’ll encircle them! Tell the Zone we’ll encircle them, not to worry! But although we don’t need any help encircling them, we desperately need help anyway, in order to, um … .”
“Collect the bodies.” suggested the deputy.
“That’s a good idea!” agreed the commissioner. “But don’t mention it unless they bring it up. Just say that the guerrillas are here! And we are desperate, but staying calm!” The cold air was helping his headache.
“Okay!” the deputy saluted, and turned to go.
“No, wait a minute!” called the commissioner. He looked at the door to armory, and then down the street. “Where is that Indian?” he screamed in frustration, banging the door with his fist, and even starting to consider the idea of going to get a rock himself. Then he remembered Chico.
“You! Go get a rock! Now!”
Chico ran out the door in the direction he saw Cu go, and he spied a man a block away staggering under a heavy load. Getting closer he saw it was Cu carrying an enormous boulder cradled in his arms.
“Come help me!” Cu grunted. Chico took a hand. The thing must have weighed sixty kilos, but between them they hustled it down the moonlit street to the armory, where the two ladinos were still discussing the plan of battle.
“At last!” the commissioner snarled. He pointed at the door. “Smash that lock!”
Chico and Cu looked at one another; heave-ho’d; and hurled the boulder against the door, tearing one of the screw eyes out of its socket. The commissioner threw open the door and raced to the arms closet, which was also locked with a padlock. He reached into his pants pocket for the key, and then remembered he had forgotten the key; and then he remembered he had put the key in his jacket pocket. He was starting to sober up, and also to feel a little more sense of urgency.
He took the key from his jacket pocket, opened the door to the arms closet, and started passing rifles out to Chico and Cu until they had eight or ten each, and then he barked at the deputy,
“All right, go to the Zone now. Tell the commander that we are desperately calm. Okay?”
“Okay.” the deputy saluted smartly, turned, and left.
“Wait!” called the commissioner. “What do we do first?”
“Send out a patrol,” the deputy called back without stopping. “to observe their movements.”
The commissioner grabbed a rifle for himself and raced out of the armory towards the plaza, with Chico and Cu stumbling under their loads behind him. When he reached the plaza he took up his rifle, aimed it at the sky, and cut loose with a volley of shots, to summon all the men of the town together.
Now when the commissioner fired the shots to summon all of the men, all of the women heard the shots and sat up straight in their beds and crossed themselves and thought about their babies and listened intently; but strange to say not one man in the town heard the shots. All the men to all appearances continued sleeping soundly. So after a few minutes of impatiently stomping around the plaza waiting for the men to come, the commissioner fired another volley of shots.
“Cowards! Where is everybody?” he shouted, stumbling around in circles and kicking the ground. He wasn’t about to face the guerrillas with just two men.
“You say there were fifty guerrillas?” he asked Chico.
“Fifty, commissioner. Maybe more.”
That settled it. The commissioner knew that the Indian was probably exaggerating; but even if there were only fifteen guerrillas he’d be outnumbered five to one. If any other man were to be captured, the guerrillas might or might not kill him; but if he, the commissioner were to be captured, there would be no question. The situation was indeed desperate; yet he had to encircle them and wipe them out. Well, the first thing to do was to observe their movements by sending out a patrol, and then he could rouse the men and start the encirclement later.
“You!” he barked at Cu, who jumped. “Head out on the back path to Sotzil, and then double back towards the San Luis guardhouse. And you,” he pointed at Chico, “take the main road to Barrio San Luis. The guerrillas captured the guardhouse. Those cowards in the San Luis patrol were asleep and surrendered without firing a shot!” The very thought made his blood boil. “Find out where the guerrillas are now. Go!”
Chico and Cu were dumbfounded. They dropped their rifles. The blood pumped in their temples. They stared at the ground, and tried not to understand.
“Well? Get going!” The commissioner gave Chico a rude shove in the right direction.
“But, commissioner … .”
“Go!” the commissioner shrieked at them, and made as if to kick them, but Chico turned, grabbed up his rifle, and marched off; and Cu followed.
“Faster!” the commissioner yelled at them, “Or I’ll … .”
He pointed his rifle at them. Chico and Cu scurried off as the commissioner cut loose with another volley of shots in the air.
When they were out of the plaza they slowed down again.
“Chico, I’m just going to run home quickly and tell my wife where we’re going. I’ll be right back.” Cu said.
“You can’t do that. The commissioner would kill you.”
They walked slowly towards San Luis. At the point where the footpath branched off for Sotzil they stopped and looked at one another in the moonlight. Then they looked at the ground.
“You’re supposed to go that way.” Chico said.
They looked up at each other. Cu had a tear in his eye which glistened in the moonlight. He looked down at the ground again, and then crossed himself. He stood there.
“Goodbye, Cu.” Chico said softly.
Cu looked up again. His eyes were full of tears. He said nothing, but heaved a deep sigh, and then he turned and walked slowly towards Sotzil.
Chico took a deep breath. He turned and faced San Luis. He crossed himself and then started walking. He thought of his wife. He saw her face, and his children’s faces. They were laughing. They were all seated on the ground around the fire laughing up at him, and he was laughing too. They were all laughing together.
Then another volley of shots came from the direction of the plaza, and dogs started barking. Chico snapped to attention. The road ahead of him was deserted. A gust of wind blew in his face and he felt a chill run up his spine.
Then he thought about his little bull, and what the guerrillas might have done with it. That thought made him angry, and he forgot all about his fear and began to trot, keeping to the side of the road where the shadows of the trees blocked out the moonlight.
A hundred paces from the San Luis guardhouse he stopped and listened. Dogs were still barking back towards town. He could see the guardhouse silhouetted in the moonlight, but there was no sign of movement either in it or around it.
He dropped to the ground and crawled slowly towards the guardhouse on all fours, gripping his rifle in one hand, and keeping to the shadows. Ten meters from the guardhouse there was a large pine by the side of the road. He crawled to it and took up a position behind it. He stared at the thatch-roofed guardhouse, frosted in the moonlight, and while he saw nothing moving, he thought he could hear voices murmuring urgently within. He felt another chill. He didn’t know what to do. He was supposed to find out where the guerrillas were. Well, he had found out. Now what? He strained to listen. There were voices all right, but he couldn’t tell what language they were speaking.
He shivered as he crouched behind the tree, waiting and wondering what to do. Report back to the commissioner? That idea had its attractions; but he didn’t want to get into trouble for returning without having fired a shot. Fire a shot? He was trying to consider what the possible consequences of that might be, when all of a sudden he remembered his little bull, which had been tied up not two hundred meters the other side of the guardhouse.
He felt a surge of anger. He felt angry at these guerrillas, who came into a peaceful town like San Juan to attack poor people and to steal their little animals. The little animals never hurt anybody.
He involuntarily stood up, braced himself against the tree, took aim squarely at the guardhouse door, and called loudly:
His own voice startled him. His heart was pounding in his chest and head. He heard a moan, “Jesus Maria!”, come from the guardhouse. The blood pulsing though his temples made the guardhouse seem to ripple in the moonlight. He strained to listen.
“Guerrillas! Surrender!” he called again. Waves of nausea flushed through his body. He felt like crying, but was too stiff. Dogs were barking; they seemed very far away. There was a rustling sound coming from inside the guardhouse, and the thwacks of a machete. He felt a surge of impatience.
“Guerrillas! Surrender!” He raised his rifle up and fired a shot into the air. A scream, “Aiyyyyyyy!”, came from the guardhouse, which sent a shiver through his heart. Dogs were howling, and he strained to hear what was going on in the guardhouse. He could hear rustling and banging sounds, and then loud thumps on the ground behind the guardhouse.
He had a moment of uncertainty, and then an angry realization. He rushed into the guardhouse with his rifle pointed forward, but it was empty. They had escaped! He felt cheated. He looked up and saw the moonlight streaming down through a large hole in the thatch, illuminating a pile of straw on the floor beneath. He jumped up on a bench and peered out of the hole to see which way they had gone. He could only see stalks of corn, waving in the moonlight. His heart was still pounding and his legs were shaky. He wondered what had happened to the San Luis patrol – whether the guerrillas had killed them or captured them. He was angry at those cowardly guerrillas, who only pick on innocent people and little animals, and then run away the moment they’re caught.
Then he remembered his bull. He ran out of the guardhouse with his rifle in his hand, down the moonlit road to Catalina Caal’s pasture. He crawled through the barbed wire and raced panting towards the big avocado tree. And there, under the tree, was his little black and white bull. It looked up at him and gave a low “moo” of recognition.
Chico was overjoyed. He dropped the rifle and ran to the bull and embraced it and petted it, and scratched it behind its ears. It licked his hand. He wished he had brought some salt, and made a note to do so first thing in the morning. He crossed himself, and gave thanks to Jesus and Mary and St. John the Baptist for having saved his bull, and for having chased the guerrillas away from town.
It was getting on towards dawn by the time he got back to the plaza. There was a small crowd of people and dogs milling around. As he approached the group a flashlight played upon his face and the commissioner’s voice rang out:
“You! There you are! Where have you been? Where are the guerrillas?”
“They left, commissioner.”
“Left? Where did they leave to?”
“How many of them were there?”
“Who knows? Maybe fifty.”
“Yes, that’s about what I figured too.” agreed the commissioner.
“They must have captured the San Luis patrol.” Chico ventured.
“No, I just saw those cowards myself. They ran away without firing a shot the minute the guerrillas showed up!”
Later that morning it was reported to the Military Zone that a band of fifty guerrillas had been observed, encircled, and routed.
The commander of the Military Zone placed a red pin on the map on the wall behind his desk, and nodded thoughtfully to himself.
In the newspapers in the capital the next day it was reported as a “massacre”, but it was difficult to determine from the published accounts precisely who had massacred whom.
Bob Makransky’s Astrology Corner © 2001