Peace Corps Writers
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by Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 1992–96)

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THE HOUSE IS ALONG the highway, just a few miles from the nearest town. It sags at the top of a cliff so steep that it can’t be seen until I’ve come out of the bus and hiked up a slanting path. There are no trees, and the Nicaraguan dry-season sun beats down.
     In helping the local health authority establish child-health outposts in each hamlet, my days are filled with these home visits. Inside, the house is dark except for the light beaming through gaps in the adobe. After inviting me in, Doña Senovia goes back to stand over a sooty cauldron on the mud stove. She stirs with a rectangle of wood as small bubbles burp at the surface. The green-grey muck is corn that’s been mixed with ashes to soften the kernels that will later to be ground into masa and flattened into tortillas.
     Doña Senovia brings her hands to her chest and fidgets with the top button of her blouse when I ask about the teenage daughter’s health. “Me podía morir anoche,” she says. She could have died on me last night.
     Coming to stand in the kitchen with us, Tánia’s leg twitches and bounces. Her face glistens a waxy shade of grayish green, the color of the boiling corn-ash mixture.
     I rest my elbows on the table and listen. Doña Senovia runs her palm up and down a groove in the tabletop as though polishing it. She describes her daughter’s nighttime convulsions. She can’t even walk across the room without pain, Doña Senovia says. “Pero no hay reales.” But we’ve got no money for treatment.
     Doña Senovia begins to weep. It is a choking cry.
     Tánia’s little sisters and her younger brother, Alonzo, are in the next room sitting on folding cots, watching.

ON THE DAY AFTER Tánia dies, I ride the bus out and make my way up the path. Alonzo is standing outside, looking down at me with reddened eyes. I walk toward him, thinking that this undersized twelve year-old boy has always been there with her. Always. I’d see him, barefoot, sitting on the front steps of the Red Cross in town. His heavy black hair jutting out like paintbrushes from his frayed Coca-Cola cap, his neck and clothes coated with dust from the long walks along the highway. Once, he took my hand and — not bothering to ask the nurses for permission — led me to Tánia’s bedside. She lay on her back, body thumping up and down against the bare mattress. Alonzo and I knelt, and he rested his hand on her temple, slowly stroking her hair. I stared down into her eyes, the only part of her being that was still.
     Doña Senovia invites me into the open room where the cots had been before. Now there is a wooden coffin, painted gray, resting on two chairs. Flowers are spread out over the floor and across the top of the casket. I follow Doña Senovia, feeling as though I’d cut to the front of the line of mourners.
     Would you like to see her? She asks.
     “Pues, yo no sé.” Well, I’m not sure . . . .
But Alonzo and Doña Senovia have already begun to pick the flowers off the coffin and lay them on the floor.
     Doña Senovia and Tánia’s father, a slow-moving, vacant man, take opposite ends of the wooden coffin lid in their hands. As they lift it, the father loses his grip and an edge drops on Tánia’s forehead. It slides across, from eyebrow to eyebrow, until he raises it again, and together they lower it to the floor.
     Alonzo goes to stand by her, brushing away the flies that try to rest on her face. I watch him run his hands across her neck and along her forehead, pausing as though to assess the texture with his fingers. Seeing him standing by her resting body, where he had always been, I start to feel less uncomfortable.
     Doña Senovia leaves the room and comes back with a plastic bag. She pulls out a bridal veil and a pair of new, bright-white athletic socks. Two of Tánia’s friends arrange the veil, lifting her head, tilting her to one side, and fitting the headband around her forehead. When Doña Senovia lifts Tánia’s foot to put on the new socks, the whole leg goes up, from the hip.
     The father and the younger siblings have come together in the room. “Rodrigo,” Alonzo says to me. “Pudiera sacarnos una foto?” Could you take our picture?

Roderick Jones is an infectious disease epidemiologist in Chicago. He served as a health PCV in and around Somoto, Nicaragua during 1992 to 1996. He is a frequent contributor to Backstreets: The Boss Magazine.
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