What You Have Heard Is True

Remembering the fight for Salvadoran freedom

Carolyn Forché
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

In 1972, through her interest in the work of the Nicaraguan-Salvadoran writer Claribel Alegría, the poet Carolyn Forché met Leonel Gómez Vides, a Salvadoran political activist, and became involved in the fight for Salvadoran freedom. In her forthcoming memoir, Forché shuttles back and forth between then and now, with “Written in pencil” entries from 1972 and remembrances composed forty-five years later. Alegría died on 25 January 2018 at the age of ninety-three.

Written in pencil

On both sides of the road there was smoke it was blue and still rising when we passed although the fields were already black from being burned everything was burned they had shot the cattle yes even them and the pigs they had also shot so they were lying there already bloated and there was a smell of meat as well as death and a howling that couldn’t actually have been heard but it was there the wattle in the houses was burned and the corn in the cribs we didn’t stop we slowed down the turkey vultures were above us many also already on the ground they don’t sing they hiss some things we saw through the field glasses some with naked eyes we couldn’t tell how many people we didn’t know how long it had been that’s all I told them.

Leonel had driven as slowly as he could through the smoke.

“Look, Papu. Look at this. Remember this. Try to see."

Written in pencil
This is the village abandoned a pitted road stretches between burned shacks in the mud there is a saint’s picture decorated with foil stars there is no smoke rising from cook fires where women would have turned the family’s daily tortillas nor any from the fires that chewed through this village during a “search-and-destroy” operation the people returned here briefly and held orange rinds wrapped in cloth over their mouths as they gathered the dead listing their names and where this was possible sex and approximate age they poured lime over the assembled remains until the bodies seemed covered with hoarfrost a woman who had hidden in the branches of a tree worked her skirt into knots as she told the story of what happened but she had so rubbed her eyes from grief that all she had seen could be seen in them in a different village a man told the story of having pretended to be dead in place of the cries of children for their parents a light rain ticks against the corrugated roofs that have slipped into the wet palms of the ravine. In Salvador, death still patrols, wrote Pablo Neruda in a poem. The blood of dead peasants has not dried, time does not dry it, rain does not erase it from the roads.

“Yes,” Leonel said, “but Pablo Neruda also wrote The poet gives us a gallery full of ghosts shaken by the fire and darkness of his time.

I was lying in the dark when the telephone rang. We had developed a signal to let each other know when all was well: two rings followed by silence. Now, after three rings, I picked up. He didn’t say hello. He spoke as he had on the day he called to say that Colonel Chacón was dead.

“Remember Texas, Carolyn? Well, ha habido un golpe. You have your coup d’état.”

Without a good-bye, the line went dead, the room dead. The aperatura had been made.

Written in pencil
At first it was thought that the younger officers had taken control but there was too much shuffling within the military some officers could be cashiered yes but not others and there should be assurances that no senior officer would be prosecuted for his crimes however a blanket amnesty would mean that the butchers would remain in control and the kickbacks would continue and even though yes there could be a few civilians on the junta those civilians would have to resign for moral and political reasons to be replaced by others who were let us say more practical and so over the months the crack in the wall was repaired until it was almost impossible to see that an opening had ever appeared and yet use could be made of the fact that it had and so in hindsight all manner of explanations could be proffered as to how it happened and why it happened but rather than buying time for reforms from within rather than preventing all out civil war rather than showing that change could come about through these means it was shown that the coming war was inevitable and this was the lesson taken from it.

Written in pencil
It is summer we are driving along a highway that turns into a mirage of water ahead of us there are now two weapons one of a caliber strong enough to stop a vehicle he had taken me finally to the coffee finca where he showed me how to breathe while shooting how to brace the weapon in both hands a bottle set upon the rock in the distance finally shattering and then it was time to take apart the weapon with eyes closed then put it back together rain ticking on the banana leaves and above the shimmery highway the birds almost too heavy to fly rising and falling from something on the side of the road it was a man lying facedown but the birds were also interested in something on the other side of the road and as we slowed we drove over what appeared to be a water hose but it was the man’s entrails stretched out across the road maybe carried across by the carrion birds and I think I cried out stop but we couldn’t stop he said not anymore and there was nothing we could do for that man and other things happened like that it was the time of the death squads the time of the devil’s door where the bodies were dumped the time of “the beach” where they lay sprawled, skulls half-stripped flesh half-eaten torn clothes and nearly in each other’s arms they lay the stench hanging there the ground giving off the whine of flies so we covered our mouths it was no use they are unrecognizable it is no use this is how the end will come if you are taken do not be taken make your own decisions Margarita said what he is doing is dangerous and he knows it and you should know too and learning to shoot won’t help you are a poet there is the sound of gunfire at night near the garrison we can hear it as we lie on the floor talking between the beds a skirmish they said the guerrillas are training now in the mountains using sticks for rifles they have had enough do you know why it has come to this do you understand how innately cautious these people are what would get them to fight am I afraid yes will I continue yes will I die it is likely so tell me what better gift to give than one’s life?

Written in pencil
Leonel has brought me to El Playon. We park and walk it is early morning and no one is here before stopping he had made sure there were no other vehicles we are alone but as he always cautioned: don’t be too sure a loud hum of flies rose pulsing in the hot air Leonel passes a handkerchief to me take this take it turkey vultures hopped from corpse to corpse grunting and hissing they don’t sing he said they lack vocal cords they have no predators they pull flesh in long strips from the corpses a ribbon of intestine hangs from a beak they are so fat with flesh they are unable to fly their name comes from the Latin vulturius for “tearer” it is almost a play on words isn’t it and it is easier don’t you think to talk about birds? the stench soaks the handkerchief but still I hold it to my mouth and almost trip on a broken bottle of Flor de Caña El Playon is a lava bed a skirt of black spongelike stone in the lap of the volcano there is a graveyard beside it El Playon “the beach” is a rock strewn with refuse and sea wrack a body a tin spoon bottle glass purple from the sun a paint can a skull with hair a shoelace trousers more bodies flocks of vultures fattening themselves on the ground a stripped spine a broken plate a palm open to the rain. El Playon is a body dump. “Yo lo vi,” Goya wrote beside his sketches. “I saw it, and this, and also this.”

I awoke lying on a bed of ice like a fish or a corpse, the window flickering day, then night, then day. A few turkey vultures curled their talons around the bed rails, one of them hopping onto my stomach and even though I recognized their red masks and their hissing I knew they weren’t actually there, these belching, oil-colored birds. They could not be. Saline dripped through a tube from a glass bottle inverted over the bed. Silver. My arm was taped to a splint, a spot of blood on the tape. My other wrist was fastened with gauze to the opposite bed rail. I had pulled the needle out more than once, as even I could remember. I had been delirante or whatever it was, crazy, unable to make myself understood, and I had nothing left, I knew that. Everything I had was in the toilet or in the basins but the fever was not out. My bones were still on fire and the fire was also in my head, burning behind my eyes. I couldn’t think, and there was some confusion about who was in the room and who wasn’t, how long it had been and why. In the darkness, Leonel had talked to me again about jaguars: Why there is a jaguar on my woven bag, why he had given me a small weaving of a jaguar on a torn piece of cloth. He sometimes also called them wildcats. “You are a wildcat, Papu,” he said, “you just don’t know it yet. That is why I gave you these things. The wildcat can camouflage itself. It can hide anywhere. It doesn’t roar like the other great cats. It is solitary and nocturnal and can adapt to many environments. The Mayans call it b’alam. Certain humans have jaguar characteristics. They help with communication between the living and the dead. They are said to be extinct in El Salvador but they are not. Someday you will understand why I’m telling you this.” A nurse laid a cold washcloth over my eyes. She put something else in the tube, something to help me sleep, she said, something for the pain, just lie quietly. Just rest. Again in my thoughts we run over the man’s entrails with the car until there isn’t anything left to think about. My dreams are a coffin with a small window cut into the lid over a girl’s face. It is not my own. Someone had written on the glass I will not forget you. Many times I asked Leonel how it all began for him and finally he told me that when he was a young boy he had come upon a foreman beating a campesino. He went into the house, took his father’s shotgun, aimed it at the foreman, and shouted Strike him once more and I’ll blow your balls off. The foreman stopped beating the man. “And that is when I learned that something could be done,” he said, “that there was not nothing we could do.” It was quiet. A chance to ask him about the red horse. “It’s really quite simple,” he said. “The man you met in Guatemala told me several years ago that there would soon be war, and that I would have a lot of work to do, but I would not have to do it alone. Someone was coming who would help. A young person with a red horse. And I thought ‘horse’? Puchica, I have no need of a goddamn horse. The young person who is coming will have to leave the horse behind–which, as it happened, you did.” And then he asked if I could hear him. I nodded my head yes and the wet cloth slipped from my eyes. “It seems you have dengue fever, Papu, and also dysentery. You’ll be here for a while.” On the ground in front of me there is a skull with the lower half of the jaw missing and beside it an empty jug that once held cooking oil. There is a picked-clean skeleton splayed flat as if it were dancing with the ground. A shoe filled with blood. He’s going to ask me if I know where I am. Yes, I do know. This is where they throw the bodies.

They have taken blood again. The ceiling comes closer and the doorway shrinks to a smaller box of light. This will help me to sleep. “It is only a tremor,” Leonel had said, when the sofa I had been sitting on galloped across the tile floor to the other side of the room. The tiles clattered like stones in a surf and settled into place again. “We have many tremors here,” he said. “The earth is moving beneath us, sending fire through any volcanic aperatura it can find and many of these volcanoes are asleep, but don’t kid yourself. Izalco had been sleeping too until the night of the uprising. When I was a young man there was an earthquake in Ixcán not far from where my adviser lives, the man who predicted you. This is how we met. I had gone to Ixcán to offer help and what should happen but a city landed by helicopter in a remote place near a ruined village, a city made of heavy rubber balloons filled with air, balloon walls and roofs, everything pumped into place, balloon medical tent, balloon canteen, even the food rations the Americans sent were made of air. I helped, what else would I do, and that is how we met, the Mayan elder and me, and ever since he has allowed me to talk to him and even though he doesn’t have a telephone he always seems to know when I will come to the day, almost to the hour and always he takes a nap then so I have to wait. I was never a patient man until then, I am still impatient. The reason they are taking your blood is that they have to monitor your platelet count. It can’t go below a certain number or you will develop the hemorrhagic dengue. Your fever is high now, Papu, so you might see people who aren’t here. They will come and go, so let them, it is normal.

All night I had heard cries of agony coming from somewhere close, a woman crying out as if she were being beaten, begging someone to stop, crying through the glass louvers all night like that as I lay awake and didn’t move. In the morning, I learn that the cries were those of a parrot in a mango tree, like the parrot saying hello to me from the terrace of the colonel’s house on the night I was called upon to answer for my country’s new policy on human rights, the night the colonel drank, and I learned that what my former husband had told me was true: To prove a kill, or for some other reason, parts of the body were cut off, dried, and kept. I asked Leonel why bodies are mutilated both living and dead, and he answered, “To show disrespect or for some other reason. Fingers, breasts, ears, genitals. They don’t wipe the blood from the knife. Read your Eduardo Galeano, Papu. When the Portuguese Captain Bartolomeu Bueno do Prado came back from Rio das Mortes in Brazil he had thirty-nine hundred pairs of ears in his saddlebags. And this was 1759. The Scythians collected skulls and drank from them. The Tibetans had a musical instrument made from a human thigh bone. In Vietnam, as your former husband could have told you, soldiers used to string the ears of the dead on their dog-tag chains. Why be sick about this night? It is something for your poetry, as the colonel said. You can write about this.”

Written in pencil
This was after they assembled the parts on the ground into a man it was the time when there were three choices: leave the country wait for them to come and kill you or go to the hills and fight I was given one choice and that was to write a dead woman cannot write we were sitting in the dark as we did then by that time the guerrillas were training in the hills but they were not killers he said they were farmers how far would they be able to take an armed struggle some had no guns they practiced with sticks they had no choice there was also a revolutionary group within the army yes they would come to think of themselves as guerrillas within the army they were behind the coup you saw what happened with that even Monseñor Romero’s persuasion couldn’t hold the first junta together it was the beginning of the counterinsurgency operation invented by your country wherein the people were seen as the enemy in the beginning they flew small helicopters with glass domes it was the time of flies above the blindfolded dead he said can you describe this? I said I didn’t know he said well you have to describe it their throats were cut their eyes half open half-closed the Guardia had practiced their beheading on coconuts their saying was eyes and ears open mouth shut.

Written in pencil
One morning I woke and everything had returned to normal: the door was the size of a door the ceiling where it should be no bottle above the bed a nurse tore the tape from my arm pulled the needle out and left a square of gauze where it had been you are going home she said the fever has broken your friend is coming here are your things get dressed do you need any help she asked everything was too bright.

Carolyn Forché is a poet, memoirist, translator, anthologist, and professor at Georgetown University. Her books include In the Lateness of the World, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and winner of the American Book Award, and the memoir What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and winner of the Juan E. Mendez Book Award.
Originally published:
January 1, 2019


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