I first met Marcella, Norma’s daughter, weeks before the 1996 election. I was watching the television news one evening in the Pancasán house where my wife Violeta and I lived at the time with Pedro, our son. I had been half aware of Pedro’s voice and that of two or three of the members of his large circle of friends chatting in the corridor leading off the sitting room. They were deciding how and where they would spend the night.
I forgot about them altogether when a story about the forthcoming election began. Contrary to my will, it grabbed my wholehearted attention, obliterating my hearing of the youngsters’ voices. I sighted my face on the screen – why did the networks ritually dredge up that photo of me? – as mention was made of the previous week’s proclamation of my candidacy in the presidential race.
Footage from the gala event where I announced my intention was intercut. I saw myself smiling, shaking hands, shoulder to shoulder with our three children, Pedro, María and Bianca, sundry well wishers and friends lurking in the background and on the sidelines. The walls, festooned with flags, orange globes hanging from the ceiling, the cries and shouts of jubilation – glory awaits! – the revolutionary songs sounding loud.
How ridiculous, I thought. My chances of success were nil. In the six years since our electoral defeat the country had again divided. People failed to see how the fact of my having split with my former allies the Sandinistas provided a valid alternative to the two on offer: the return of the Sandinistas or a continuation of the present corrupt government, a government whose methods reminded them to an uncomfortable degree of the dark years of the Somoza dictatorship.
I could not blame them if they thought that way. I bore too much the taint of former ties dating back to long before the decade when we tried to put into place our revolutionary concepts. The photos from the time, both in the lead-up to the revolution and the years in government, the interviews, the speeches; people were sceptical when I declared that many of my former compaňeros had let power go to their heads and that if they put their trust in me and my team we might restore the balance.
“Mr. Martínez?” At the sound of the voice I looked away from the moustachioed news anchor, who had segued to a story about a fatal traffic calamity in the south of the country, and beheld a striking young woman gazing at me with an inquisitive, friendly expression. She reminded me of someone I had met long ago.
“I’m Marcella,” she said, extending her hand. I slid forward in my chair and had half a mind to rise. But with a gesture she bid me not bother with the formality; she had only a moment to spare. “Marcella Figueres,” she added, seeing my vague look. “Norma’s daughter.” I remembered at once. Of course, this one reminded me of Norma. The resemblance to her mother was remarkable. It was like meeting the sister Norma never had. “Is it true you knew my mother?”
I removed my glasses and appraised her. “Yes, but we only met the once, to my regret.”
“Could we chat sometime? I’d like you to tell me something about her, if you still remember her that is.”
“Of course. After we talk I’ll be curious to hear what you have to say.”
Some events, certain people, in our lives we’re destined never to forget. It had been more than seventeen years ago, in Panama City. I had travelled there with the eleven other members of our ruling delegation, at the invitation of Panama’s then President Torrijos, an avid, long-time supporter of our soon to be triumphant cause. Norma was nearing the end of a period of recuperation from a serious hand wound sustained on the southern front toward the end of the previous year.
She still wore a bandage and had not long since arrived from Costa Rica, where she had passed weeks receiving treatment at a makeshift hospital in San José. Slender, beautiful and dark-skinned, she radiated life. She laughed often and every time she did her head went back, her eyebrows arched and light filled her black eyes. She was decided in her ways, quick and shrewd in her judgements and a woman of irony.
Like many engaged in the conflict, she had trained in Cuba. She carried a Magnum pistol with her at all times. She took the pistol from her pack and showed it to me. I felt the weight in my hand and in the depths of the eyes fixed on me glimpsed the restive soul of one eager to rejoin the battle. “When will you go back to Nicaragua?”
“In a week or two.”
“Do you have a family?”
“A little girl. Her father’s from here. We’re divorced.”
“Where is the girl?”
Norma looked away for a second. I had touched on something that pained her. Pained her even more, I guessed, than any physical wound or travail she might have to endure. Nothing could be worse than enforced separation from the fruit of her womb. “She’s with her grandparents in the United States.” I took and held her sound hand for a long interval. I too could relate to the heartache of separation from children.
She returned to the front within weeks but would not live to witness the final insurrection. In mid-April, two months after our one and only meeting, members of the National Guard and the dictatorship’s security service, armed with rifles and machine guns, launched an assault on a house in León, a base for the young members of cotton growing consortia sympathetic to our cause. They broke down doors and other impediments. Jeeps blocked the streets outside and a tank aimed its cannon at the house.
In the inner courtyard, in full view of the household’s domestic servants, four of our men, caught entirely unawares, were killed in cold blood. Norma and another woman were dragged elsewhere and raped before being executed. A third woman would also have died but for the fact that she heard the clamour and ran unseen toward one of the other houses. There she took a child in her arms, passing herself off as a domestic.
Weeks after the killings, a photo appeared in Novedades. A photo of Norma’s bullet ridden, violated body, lying shredded in pools of blood. By then we had taken Managua and prevailed. Somoza had flown to the country that bankrolled him for so long. His former henchmen had disbanded or vanished. But none of this alleviated the devastation I felt thinking of Norma and all the others.
Early in 1997, months after the fruitless election, I was offered a literature professorship at a university in the United States. Bianca, my youngest, took the news with much better grace than she did the announcement of my candidacy the year before, despite knowing that acceptance of it would lead to more familial dislocation of the kind that irked her. Preparing my departure for Maryland, it still grieved me to rehash a conversation of the recent past.
“It’s absurd,” she said, summing up even before outlining specific grievances. She had called the day before and asked to speak with me. I had announced my plan with regard to the election but the date for the act of proclamation was yet to be fixed. We met over coffee. Her large brown eyes never left mine.
Her displeasure with me was deep rooted. Bianca and her siblings were born in Costa Rica in the years when Violeta and I lived exiled from Nicaragua. The three of them were mere tots when we left San José for Berlin. A writing scholarship of two years duration precipitated the move.
At the outset in Berlin they pined for San José, the capital city of a country not rightly theirs. But they quickly adapted, as children will. With our two years in Germany about to end, they expressed unease at the prospect of returning to Latin America. In many ways they had become like their German friends and acquaintances. In contrast to Violeta and me, who communicated in Spanish, they spoke only German among themselves.
They tasted in full measure the bitter disenchantment, the disruption, of life born to exiled parents. How often – young as they were – they must have asked themselves whether they would ever settle anywhere in the world. Everything went from bad to worse on our return to San José. I put the fight against the dictatorship ahead of my wife and children. I distanced myself from them literally when I returned alone to Managua in 1978, determined to be present when the increasingly inevitable transition occurred.
I abandoned Violeta and the children not knowing when, or under what circumstances, we would meet again. We were gaining ground by the day but Somoza was leaving no stone unturned in his bid to quash the uprising. The stench of death permeated every corner of the country.
Bianca threw all this and more in my face that morning. She pilloried me on the grounds that I always had to have the last word when it came to family matters. She referred to instances when I chose one course of action instead of another on the basis that it would stand me in better stead with the party faithful.
“It’s absurd,” she repeated. “Again it’ll be like we don’t have a father, Mum a husband, our kids a grandfather.” In recent years Bianca had given birth to a boy and a girl, María a girl. She leaned forward in her chair and went on. “I’m fed up. And I’m sure Mum, María and Pedro would say the same if you gave them the chance.”
I thought of Violeta and our two eldest. Violeta had stuck by me through thick and thin. She had not always agreed with my decisions, but on those occasions she had been tactful enough never to make a song and dance about it. María too had personified loyalty every step of the way. She, and Pedro, worked tirelessly in distant corners of the country to educate and otherwise empower the campesinos when our family reunited in Managua months after we took power. My son, unlike María, never said much. But was what Bianca telling me now true, in essence, of all three? Had I been too much of an egotist to see it?
“Isn’t it time we lived another kind of life? Like a normal family that gets together on Sundays, with a father who doesn’t waste his time and energy in faraway places preaching a message nobody’s interested in hearing any longer?”
Bianca knew as well as I the probable outcome of my shot at the presidency. Yet she sounded as if she were afraid I might emerge victorious. I could not find the words to explain that I deemed it necessary to act for those who never stopped believing in, and working for, our cause, those who, like me, felt betrayed by what had happened.
“All any of us have ever wanted is for you to concentrate on your true calling, writing. Why don’t you do that, once and for all?”
She concluded by swearing that she would not attend the proclamation, an oath repeated on the phone over the following days. Knowing how stubborn Bianca could be, I had no reason to doubt her word. When the day came I expected neither her nor Pedro, my son for reasons unrelated to disaffection with my life priorities. That, at least, was as far as I knew; I was never entirely sure with him.
I was in for a surprise on both accounts. Sitting on the stage with Violeta and María, gazing out at the assembled, who should I see a moment before the ceremony began but Pedro. Meeting him with an embrace at the top of the platform steps, I indicated an empty chair. He drew it next to mine and gave his mother and sister a nod.
Less than two minutes later the fanfare began. As if responding to a cue, Bianca walked in. She had her daughter by the hand. With her other hand, she was leading her niece, María’s daughter, the oldest of my three grandchildren. My grandson trailed a little way behind them. All four joined us on stage, Bianca giving me a look that touched deep. As we lined up for the requisite photographs, I thought to myself that there are stories that begin where they end.
“How does it feel to be living in the same suburb as the notorious colonel? Doesn’t that strike you as ironical? Did you also know he stood for the Senate but failed?”
I gathered my thoughts for a moment before laughing out loud. Reyes was a journalist for the Washington Post, a native of Mexico who had emigrated to the United States years ago. He specialised in Latin American current affairs and politics. Not even a week had passed since the beginning of my professorship. The marine colonel he was referring to had played a pivotal clandestine role in the American administration’s ongoing attempts to bring us down.
“Much in life strikes me as ironical,” I replied, employing the same jocular tone as Reyes. “You too, surely?”
I adjusted the phone cord and offered my old friend further confidences. “You know the longer I live the more life seems like a theatre piece. The actors come and go and the public assigns those of us who are in the limelight our roles. You and your colleagues in the media are the middle men.”
“Would you run for the presidency again?”
“At the last election the public found no further role for me to play. Enough, they said. They wanted me off the stage and off I went. I think it’s highly unlikely they’d want this old ham back. What do you think?”
“You don’t bear any resentment?”
“Jorge,” I said, speaking slowly. “Losing an election is not the end of the world, regardless of the fact that those on the losing side might think it is. I found that out for the first time when the people rejected us in 1990. We were completely unprepared for the eventuality. Every single one of us wandered around in a fog for at least a week. How could life go on? Life did go on.”
Yes, it had. The world had not come crashing down. But there had been moments imbued with melancholy in the nine years since, the most vivid of all shared with Nicaraguan friends living at home or abroad. Other times I was alone with the cheerlessness. I fell into the trap of looking back on the revolution – our thwarted experiment – as I sometimes did loves of my life that were unrequited or whose star shone but flickered and faded in an instant.
A glass or two of white wine enhanced the mood. When we replayed the revolutionary songs we sang in the seventies and eighties, those of Carlos Mejía Godoy, for instance, we augmented it. I smelt again the odour of insecticide that at the time set my country apart from every other nation I had been to in the world.
Sadness soon overshadowed any delight felt at being ‘back’. An oppressive, heavy sadness that coloured everything I touched and saw. The feeling was of something searched for but not found despite having hovered tantalisingly near. As time passed I resigned myself to never encountering the likes of it again.
I all but forgot about Marcella and the chat we loosely committed to having. I saw her once in a while when I returned home during breaks from my teaching commitment in Maryland, but as often as not I reappeared when she was in America, visiting her grandparents or friends. She had begun studying at the University of Managua, Pedro told me once.
When I least expected it she called me in the States. It was early in 1999, toward the end of winter. She was about to fly back to Nicaragua to resume her studies, she hastened to point out. I had a month-long book tour in Spain – my new novel having been released by a Spanish imprint – commencing later that week. It so happened that lunch the next day suited us both. We arranged to meet at a fast food restaurant in the heart of Washington, DC.
It was on the ground level of a huge office complex. To judge by the constant coming and going of patrons, it served as the venue of choice for many of the staff employed in the building. I could never understand the popularity of the depressingly bland fare on offer in such antiseptic surrounds. Marcella, clearly, was more familiar with the likes of it. We sat opposite one another at a Formica table.
“You’re so like your mother,” I said, rapt in my lunch companion. She had, if possible, become even more like Norma.
“You have her dark hair and skin, the same eyes, the same smile.”
“You remember her well.”
“She was not the sort of person to be forgotten.” We unwrapped our utensils and began eating. I revealed what I knew about Norma, our meeting in Panama, the dinner our delegation hosted for many of the combatants at the Hilton in the capital, the hand wound that kept her out of action for weeks and her eventual return to León.
“I hardly remember her,” Marcella said, after hearing me out. Her most vivid memory of the flesh and blood human stemmed from the time Norma’s parents brought her to Costa Rica for a meeting with her mother. But all that Marcella preserved from then were diffuse images – a voice that spoke to her, caressing hands. Of Norma’s face and figure … scarcely anything.
What lingered longer for the young girl was a dream she had after returning home, a dream of bloodshed, a dream in which blood featured at every turn. I wondered if Marcella had seen the photograph of her mother’s blood-spattered corpse. If she had not, she must surely have been exposed to countless similar photos. In our country even the ugliest atrocities did not long stay hidden from the public.
“She sent me many cassettes,” Marcella continued. “She recorded messages and then sang and strummed guitar.” At the time thousands of tapes must have been recorded and dispatched to loved ones living in other parts of the country and abroad. This form of communication had been in vogue, a moving article of faith.
“She sang and played guitar for us too in Panama City.”
Neither of us ate much of our unappetizing burgers and fries. We pushed the remaining morsels and our two red plastic trays aside. A young black employee of the chain removed everything with our permission. “I still have some of her letters,” Marcella said, reaching into a colourful cotton shoulder bag and withdrawing several well-worn pages. “She wrote the last two in March 1979. That’s just before she died, isn’t it?”
“In the first she starts by explaining why she committed to the revolution. Then she writes: ‘I tell you all this in case no one gets to say it to you. Or in case I don’t get to say it to you. That may be so because I know – we all know – what we’re up against and what the enemy is capable of. I don’t want to leave you with words, promises or moral edicts. I want to leave you an example to live by.’”
Marcella handed me the letter. The noises in our midst, the to and fro of patrons, the clatter of trays, the humming of drink dispensers, had subsided. “Maybe she sensed her time had come.”
Marcella was unsure her mother had experienced some kind of premonition of death. “This one’s not like that,” she said, holding up Norma’s last letter. “It’s full of hope, encouragement and motherly affection.”
She read me an excerpt. “’When all this is over and we’re at peace I’m going to send for you. We’ll play together. We’ll buy a Masaya rag doll and carry it with us when we walk in the park. In Monimbó or Subtiava we’ll play lovely children’s songs and revolutionary songs on the guitar. When we’re together again in Nicaragua everything’s going to be different. We’ll be happy and you’ll go to school and learn lots of things.”
Sunk in our jackets – hers a warm woollen one – we departed the restaurant a few minutes later. I walked Marcella to an underground entrance a hundred metres away. We advanced slowly into the bitter wind. Somewhat embarrassed I posed the question uppermost in my mind. “Do you think her sacrifice was worth it?”
“I would’ve done the exact same thing,” she answered, without a second thought. “She acted from the heart, out of love, but a love that wasn’t selfish. She put the good of others before her own welfare. And what mattered to her wasn’t the result but the ideal.” Very serene, she smiled. “In an age not notable for ideals.”
She gave me a searching look, kissed me near the mouth and ambled down the stairwell, stopping and turning after a few paces. “Don’t you think it was worth it?”
Suddenly, the thought of the people who had lost their lives in the conflict, and those who had been scarred and still suffered, weighed less. I thought of them with less remorse and guilt. I nodded at Marcella. “It was an extraordinary time. We achieved a lot against enormous odds. To think I might’ve been born a little earlier or a little later and not been there to witness it.”
Marcella smiled again – Norma’s smile – and waved goodbye.
The promotional tour for my novel began in Zaragoza. Can there be a greater bane in the life of a pen pusher than a book tour? Probably not. Many of my writer friends and colleagues would share the view. What torture to sit at a table previously prepared by the staff, there to twiddle one’s thumbs waiting for zealous readers to appear in droves.
I once fantasized that a pack well nigh toppled over each other in their determination to seize a copy of one of my books and obtain my signature. Alas, it was more commonly the case that few bothered to show. Hours would pass in a vain wait for an interested reader or failing that a sympathetic face. What relief when the allotted time ended and one could retire to a nook, glass in hand.
At the librería in Zaragoza I sat at the designated table and steeled myself, with no reason to believe I would experience anything different to the norm. But no sooner did I think this than they began appearing. The bell attached to the door, which sounded each time someone entered or left, rang repeatedly.
Many of them were couples leading children of a shade of complexion different to the elders. The children’s brown or even darker skin, their smiles, the smiles they gave me, I knew well. They were children from my country who had survived the turmoil but been abandoned or orphaned.
Their adoptive parents told me in a few words each how they responded to the call of the revolution as younger men and women, inspired by what they saw occurring in another part of the world. Some helped vaccinate the population and eradicate disease. Others built schools, taught, or tended crops. And they continued working for the revolution after the electoral defeat because the cause could never be confined to the decade during which we tried to transform the country for the better.
Every time one of the orphaned or abandoned kids looked at me and smiled it crossed my mind that it was the good fortune of the revolution that it lived on in their smiles, which were identical to the smiles Marcella gave me in Washington, DC – the smile of a woman who courageously offered her life for what she believed in.