Although our safe-conduct papers were in order, the captain smiled and denied our request.
“There is fighting in this sector; we could not guarantee your safety.” Another smile.
Later, we considered sneaking around the checkpoints after dark and slipping up into the liberated zone. But the Bishop advised us not to. “Wait, just wait,” he pleaded, moist and haggard from his diabetes, from his daily struggle to navigate the political minefields of his ravaged diocese. “You may stay at the convent until they say there is a lull.”
El Salvador was often like that: waiting and sweating and living on the margin of thin assurances. We slept on sacks of rice in a storage room behind the convent, where a young mother sat on a stack in the corner, nursing her sick baby while waiting for treatment at the hospital clinic, barely moving for hours.
Three days we waited, circling through the deflated town like disappointed pilgrims, taking note of the nuns who moved apart with tired efficiency, a few shuttered storefronts, an empty school, the cracked plaza fronted by the cathedral, long and low and round-roofed like an aircraft hangar. Inside, a dark alcove off the altar held garish painted panels, condemned souls consumed in sheets of flame. We listened for percussive sounds of war, and detected none, only the sporadic burr of far-off helicopter. At dusk, we reread our paperbacks by candlelight, while bats looped through the rafters, the mother and baby nursing silently in their corner.
On the third morning I found a path that spun off a corner of the town. There was no checkpoint. I followed its meandering down to an abrupt sprawl of cemetery, weedy and unattended, and I wandered up and down dusty rows towards the far corner, a plain, waist-high mausoleum where the American nuns are.
Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Carla Piette, I hadn’t realized they’d been interred out here. I traced their whitewashed names, sat down on a gravestone opposite, and bowed my head, listening for a pulse, a murmur, a benediction.
“…until they say there is a lull.”
El Salvador was always like that: waiting and sweating and trying to extricate plausible meaning: the sun a white-hot zenith; the sky so uniformly blue and solid as a wall; far hills undulating in a hazy-printed camouflage; boxy pastel rows of graves; and to one side, framing the sparse diorama in the middle distance, a single, dark, towering broad-leafed tree.
But no! When I looked closer, the tree was bare, the leaves were actually vultures perched close on every branch, greasy-black and motionless, heads all turned my way, as if expecting the nuns to rise up from the tomb so they could flock down and devour them once more.