I watched Rosalyn slide her thumb between the binding and the back page. She split it open as if returning to a passage in a book. It was a familiar blue. How small a document, I thought, and in this post-corona world of Zoom and Skype and WhatsApp, what a very tangible thing. On her hands, Rosalyn wore the rings of her daughter. At seventy-two, she was the eldest of the nine women in the Lake Atitlan writing group.
Because of the virus, many had chosen not to travel. Their absence had made it an intimate affair. Joyce sought out Aloe Vera to soothe poison ivy welts, and Betsy danced around the kitchen to the Piña Colada song. We tried to hold one another without holding one another. The occasional hugs were accidental. Most of the time we really tried, when communicating with the villagers, to respect the Social Distancing Order.
Joyce had invited me to the lake with the idea that the treehouse on her property would be the perfect new room of my own.
“You have a book in you,” she had told me that December. We’d been sharing a beer, not in Boston where I paid the rent, but tits out in the sun on Boston beach, Jamaica.
“Fishing”, she explained to the nine of us on day one in Guatemala, was the process through which she would help us to see our best selves through our best stories. Uniformed agents at Sheldon asylum tribunal had used the same term when they talked, among themselves, of the best way to “take down” a “bogus asylum claim.”
“So, what is it you do when you reach the border?”, Joyce probed.
I knew from the way she leaned towards me that she had carefully assessed the size of her question. Of course she had. Joyce was a writer. As well as being a writer, Joyce was a baker of pie. She weighed her words like her ingredients: salt, sugar and a large slab of butter. Subject, verb—but no: the border was an impossible object to digest at this time. It wasn’t barbed wire that came to mind. It was the plastic chair without a bottom wiggling upon it in the classroom, and the packed lunch with the Kit-Kat that would gather mold.
“The thing is, Joyce,” I responded, “the borders are everywhere.”
My voice rang out louder than expected. Our ears were still attuning to the quiet that had descended on the lake since the major had prohibited the lanchas.
“Huh,” said Joyce.
She folded her fist into a palm and touched her face. Usually, when she listened, Joyce held her hands before her.
My students sometimes struggled with the idea too; but now, there it was in Rosalyn’s lap, as flimsy as a beer mat: the border.
It had been a week since Joyce’s question, and the corona pandemic had gone global. My colleague Kenta informed me that in China, the law enforcers who had previously carried guns and questions spent patrol duties drinking.
Now borders had gone from being the container of my story, to a central beat in our collective angst.
“Jenny, what would you do in our position?”
I took off my polka dot hairband. This was not a question for fun-loving Jenny who had come to write about her love for a former husband, this was a serious question addressed at the 1 and 5 on my enneagram: the leader and the scholar. It was the kind of question that would usually land in my Harvard inbox.
When they came, the words were unfamiliar guests in my mouth.
“I would stay put”, I responded. “Call the embassy and do not cross the border without state permission.”
Last week, I had met four smart career women: Betsy, Bev, Rosalyn and Saleha. That day I spent with four mothers separated from their sons and daughters. Their stories were no longer about finding a retreat from home, but a return to it.
In the academic world, we referred to such a journey as a nostos. It typically involved an epic hero returning home by land or sea. In the last twelve years, I had travelled to twenty-two countries to document the pain of exile, and for my labours, I had earned a PhD. The heroes and heroines of the nostos I experienced did not resemble the classical Odysseus or Dante. They looked like these women.
I still carried in my pocket the text that E. sent me after he had reunited with his mother in Ireland the previous Spring. It had been twelve years since he had traveled from Afghanistan to England as a boy, and it was as a man that he had written to me: “she sits there next to me and strokes my hair. She says she cannot believe I am real.”
Along with the text message I had a photo. E. was sat in the middle between his mother and elder brother. Mum had prepared balloons, and a cake, of course. In the icing, and I know not how, she had placed a photo of his face. The frosting read, “Welcome home my son.”
Overnight, the airport had disappeared from our lives. Now, like E.’s mum (whose name, I was repeatedly assured, was ‘E.’s mum’), they were women separated from their children by a border they had not foreseen.
I immediately recognized their pain. I had seen it in Szeged, Beirut, Nairobi. I had seen it not one hundred, but one thousand times. It didn’t matter now the way these women were dressed, what language they spoke, or the way their grief expressed itself – perhaps in a late-night phone call, perhaps in a glass or three of wine. At that moment, the mothers would do anything to get their name on The List.
“I’m scared of getting stuck at the border”
“Is it safe to travel by night?”
“I need to get through Mexico A.S.A.P.”
These were the kind of things I had come to Guatemala to write about. But the map had folded. Now, four documented American women were asking for my help to move north.
Could I perform an act alchemy to make the borders disappear? No. Would I try? Yes, of course I would.
Lans Corporal Vavala received my midnight call from the flat where he was quarantined with his wife and daughter.
“Maam,” he called me. I stopped myself from correcting him.
Before I made the call, I had made a list of my work words. I spread them out before me like a painter’s box.
Knowing how and when to tell which story is the craft of all good human rights work.
‘Vulnerable’ ‘hysterical’, ‘unsafe’, ‘in crisis’. This is how I described Betsy, Bev, Rosalyn and Saleha. These were strong women, but during my career I had come to learn that in the business of crossing man-made borders, some mothers make it, and some do not.
Just two weeks prior to the retreat, I had been writing in my office when a colleague asked if I would be willing to give ten dollars to help the parents of Miriam Stephany Girón Luna reunite with the body of their daughter and an eight month old fetus. I imagine Miriam imagining her daughter or son being born in an American hospital.
It was Betsy, Bev, Rosalyn and Saleha, but I knew it could very well have been Eden, Rose, Fatima and Maria. I thought about the rapes. I pictured Betsy on her back in Eden’s clothes, and then I pictured Betsy without them. I vomited. In Calais, I had seen the mess a police dog’s teeth can make of a child’s hand; In Szeged, I had smelt the pig blood smeared across the Afghan woman’s brow.
The women in the Lake Atitlan writing group had passports, and this is not their story and it is their story.
“So, you have the details and promise to contact them when they make the list, right? Me, I’ll contact the private travel company to make sure we have cars on standby to get them to the airport’.
“Exactly, very succinct.”
“Thanks, I’ll tell my writing teacher.”
Lans Corporal Vavala’s laugh entered the room and kept me company awhile.
The next day, Joyce had moved the flowers from the table before the reading so that we could look at one another.
“Every story of exile is a love story,” I began. “Love is why people move, and love is the reason people stay.”