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Hard Red Spring

Hard Red Spring

by Kelly Kerney


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An ambitious and unforgettable epic novel that spans a hundred years of Guatemala’s tumultuous history as experienced by four American women who are linked by the mysterious disappearance of a little girl
In 1902, a young girl watches her family’s life destroyed by corrupt officials and inscrutable natives. In 1954, the wife of the American ambassador becomes trapped in the intrigue of a cold war love affair. In 1983, an evangelical missionary discovers that the Good News may not be good news at all to the Mayan refugees she hopes to save. And in 1999, the mother of an adopted Mayan daughter embarks on a Roots Tour only to find that the history she seeks is not safely in the past.
Kelly Kerney’s novel tells a powerful story that draws on the history of Guatemala and the legacy of American intervention to vividly evoke The Land of Eternal Spring in all its promise and all its devastating failures. This is a place where a volcano erupts and the government sends a band to drown out the sound of destruction; where a government decree reverses the direction of one-way streets; a president decides that Pat Robertson and Jesus will save the country; and where a UN commission is needed to determine the truth. A heartrending and masterfully written look at a country in perpetual turmoil, Hard Red Spring brilliantly reveals how the brutal realities of history play out in the lives of individuals and reveals Guatemala in a manner reminiscent of the groundbreaking memoir I, Rigoberta Menchu.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525429012
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/29/2016
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Kelly Kerney’s first novel, Born Again, was listed among the best debuts of the year by Kirkus Reviews, was a Book Sense Pick, and was recognized by the New York Public Library as one of the best books of 2006.  A Virginia Commission for the Arts fellowship recipient, she lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Kelly Kerney


The cave in Father’s mountain was just big enough for a little girl to walk inside, though Evie had never done so. She could barely bring herself to look at the cave, let alone breathe its air. Its cold limestone jaws, frozen open, perpetually dripped water. She had never seen anyone in the cave, only the things they left behind, near the entrance: candles, coins, clay trinkets, fragrant half-burned bundles of grass, sometimes still smoking. The Indians came there, trespassing on Father’s land, to talk to their dead ancestors. And these sad offerings, cheap even to an eight-year-old’s eye, were the presents left for the ghosts.

Once, Evie had been compelled, had been feverish enough with want, to try to take something from the cave: a baby doll set far back beyond the fire ring. Dressed like a miniature Indian, the doll was made from an eaten corn- cob with the husk pulled down into a painted skirt. Its burned silk clung to the top to mimic black Indian hair. Clutching a long stick, trying to snag the doll by the hair, Evie inched close enough to feel the cold cave breath leaking from a small hole, like a throat, in the back. Just big enough for a little girl to be swallowed. Startling herself, she dropped the stick and could not bring herself one inch closer to retrieve it.

She never told anyone about the gifts she saw in the cave. Mother didn’t even know the cave existed until Evie informed her. It was too far into the forest, beyond her daily range, which kept her close to the house. Evie had told her long ago, hoping she would order Judas to burn it, which was how she dealt with any trace of Indian activity on their land: corn plantings, al- tars, huts. Their woods were perpetually on fire. But could you burn a cave away? Could you burn ghosts? Evie suspected not. Now that she had turned eight, she was beginning to understand that some situations were hopeless, beyond even her parents’ powers.

Father knew about the cave and generally ignored it, since he had no use for it. Only his fields mattered: wheat and prickly pear, on which he raised cochineal bugs to be killed and dried for dye. Strange Indians using his un- cultivated land didn’t bother him very much, though these trespasses kept Evie awake at night, praying to the American God she wasn’t sure could hear prayers outside America. Half the time, she feared only the ghosts them- selves could hear her pleas for protection. And when she did finally sleep, the ghosts came to her in her dreams.

For all her terror, she felt no surprise when she awoke one morning inside the cave, with her head on a rock. The inevitable, the thing she’d always dreaded, that she knew would happen, had finally come to pass. Had she walked in her sleep, had she been carried? It didn’t matter. And there was no use screaming or trying to escape. Feeling a strange calm, she considered the possibility that she had died. That her soul, too far from home, had not known where else to go but where Indian souls went. But once she saw the Indian coming at her with a raised machete, she realized that she was not dead yet, but about to die. His sunken leather chest, his black matted hair and blazing eyes: this was not a ghost, but a man. Filmed with sweat and dirt, he approached, smelling horrifically familiar. At this, she screamed, and that was when her father began to shake her awake. His hands on her were the Indian’s, attacking her. Molesting, disgracing. Words she heard al- most daily but never understood until that moment. This was what it was to be disgraced by an Indian.

“Start moving, Evie. Get your shoes on! The ash is going to kill the bugs!”

A dream. Only a dream, but she could not place herself. Had she woken again, into another dream? The lumpy handmade walls seemed like another cave. She could not move at first, though she willed it. She began to consider again the possibility that she had died. It could be like this, death, it could certainly be like this in Guatemala.


“What?” she asked in a strangled whisper. The Indian’s hand still on her throat.

She rubbed her eyes, confused. The smell held her back: corn. Warm and slightly sweet, it lingered on her tongue. She blinked again. Her room looked strange to her. Not the things, but the light. The light was strange.

“Evie, Santa María’s erupting. We’ve got to save the cochineal!”

Mother flashed by the door, then Father ran out after her. Things became clearer, but not why she was awake so early in the morning. In her bare feet Evie shuffled to the front door, peered out through the thick brown morning light, and saw what looked like snow. For a moment she thought they were back in New York. It made sense: the slow flakes, the unidentified drifts of darkness all around, the cold bite of highland air. But then Father grabbed her shoulders and shook her again.

“Evie, wake up!” He tried to push her outside. “If we lose this crop, we’re finished! The volcano—”

She clung to the doorframe, resisting. “But what about the lava?” “There’s no lava here, just ash. The ash won’t hurt you, but it’ll kill the cochineal. We’ve got to protect them.”

They all darted through the prickly pear fields, still in their nightclothes, arms full of papers, clothes, blankets, anything they could find, to cover the cacti, where the cochineal bugs lived. Evie folded newspapers over the stiff leaves like a hat. Once harvested, these bugs would make the most vivid red dye, in high demand around the world. Mother, Father, and Ixna rushed around in the dark, with tablecloths and sheets, while Judas—the only field worker who slept at the farm—worked the far side of the field, doing the same with burlap sacks. Evie heard Mother arguing with Ixna, who refused to sacrifice her extra Indian blouse. They were expensive, she protested, a blouse took months to weave and she only had two. Accusations of vanity were exchanged through the flurries and smoke.

“I’ll buy you a new blouse! From the Frenchman’s shop!” Ixna balked, offended.

“Oh, you’re too good for our clothes, I see. Too good for anything of ours! But I know you stole my last tin of face powder, Ixna! And my mirror!” Mother shrieked. She always pronounced Ixna like a sneeze—Icksna—when in reality it was pronounced Ishna, like a secret. “I know exactly where I left it, I remember!”

“Mirror?” Ixna repeated the word with difficulty. “What’s mirror?”

This ignorance made Mother even angrier. She called Judas over, away from his work, for a translation.

“There is no word for mirror in Quiché,” he said. “How can there not be a word for that?”

Judas shrugged. Father ran to the scene, arms flailing. “What’s going on? Judas! Get the southwest corner covered!”

“How do your people know if they look respectable?” Mother pressed, waving away Father’s insistence. “If they have food in their teeth?”

Judas glanced at Ixna, who was leaning against the house, hugging her extra Indian blouse, which she had succeeded in wrenching away from Mother.

“I guess we just rely on other people to tell us.”


With all their blankets, pillows, and sheets draped over the cacti, they could not go back to bed. They had no choice but to stay awake, marveling at their situation and shivering, for they had sacrificed their coats as well. The old church, their home, had been completely emptied of comforts in the effort to shroud the cacti. Evie thought the prickly pear plants—now dressed in linens, pants, and dresses—looked like a crowd of people amassed outside their house, demanding something.

“Doesn’t it look like snow, Evie?” Her mother sat beside her in the parlor with a lit lantern, drinking tea. Her coarse black hair hung like curtains parted to show her pale face, reflecting the flame. They sat watching the artificial night through the open front door. “Remember in New York how quiet it would become with the snow? The whole city would just shut down. No noise at all.”

Evie nodded. She did not remember much about New York, but snow she did remember, especially the cozy deprivations and disruption it brought to daily life: sleigh rides in the streets, the thrill of not having a stocked pantry when the storm hit. Like refugees, they all three would huddle over a can of peaches for dinner, secretly pleased by the necessity of sharing.

In Guatemala, however, catastrophes were not cozy and did not bring out the best in anyone. In Guatemala, roads were not just impassable in bad weather but could completely slide down a mountainside, burying entire towns alive. No sleigh could glide over the sucking, killing mud of the rainy season. When catastrophes happened here, the Indians believed the earth was angry, and the only way to appease the earth was to feed her more bodies. So in times of distress, like when a bridge in Totonicapán collapsed from the rains, more disturbing developments inevitably followed. Kidnapping, killing. Travelers on the road would go missing and their headless bodies would be found days later. The heads, supposedly, buried at each end of the bridge to “stabilize” it. At least that’s the word Judas used to explain the situation.

These, of course, were stories that Evie was not meant to hear, but they always, without fail, came out during Mother’s weekly teas with her friend Mrs. Fasbinder, who lived on the other side of the volcano. Since she owned a coffee plantation that employed hundreds of natives, Mrs. Fasbinder knew much more about Indians than they did.

“You know that’s how I met your father, don’t you? In the snow?”

Evie shook her head and squeezed a point of blood from her finger. The cactus plants were unforgiving.

“He’d arrived from Charleston on the train just before the storm and had never seen snow before. He just wandered the streets, taking in the white- ness and the silence, and then he heard me playing the piano. He followed the sound and that was the first time we saw each other, through a window in my parents’ parlor.”

“Was he handsome?” Evie asked, knowing the answer. Father was still handsome, with ice-blue eyes, but she liked to hear other people say so.

“Oh yes, but more than that, I loved his accent. I’d never met a boy who wasn’t from New York. Who wasn’t afraid to go places and talk in his funny way. He was so confident. My mother called him a tramp and chased him away with an umbrella, but she was too late. Ten minutes too late.”

“What time is it?” Evie asked, peering out the door into the inscrutable brown night.

“Ten in the morning.”

“Where is Father?”

“He and Judas went to climb the ridge, to see if we should be worried.”

Yes, Father certainly wasn’t afraid of going anywhere. At any moment, he could be on top of an erupting volcano, or eating caviar with ladies at a fancy dress ball. His whereabouts often surprised Evie, who had a hard time envisioning a world beyond their lonely mountain.

Ixna appeared, sweeping ash off the porch with hard, sure strokes. A sixteen-year-old house girl, she was beautiful and peculiar, with large liquid eyes and a dimple like a thumbprint pressed into her chin. She’d been cooking her corn tortillas behind the house when the ash began. That’s what Evie had smelled in her dream. Why did she eat those flimsy Indian things, when she could have pancakes and pies and bread for breakfast? Father called that the question of the new century. But Ixna was a pagan and did not like questions, though she moved with the calm confidence of someone who knew exactly why the ground rumbled beneath her, why the sun was blocked out, and exactly why a human head needed to be buried underneath a fallen bridge.

Ixna, as far as they were concerned, came with the mountain. When they arrived three years ago she had been waiting at the top, standing there with nothing but her square basket. She was thirteen at the time. At that age, Indian girls in Guatemala got married and had children. But she had other ideas.

Ixna worked without complaint or enthusiasm. Though she had basically forced herself into their home, she seemed to be somewhere else most of the time. Evie could not imagine what Ixna could ever daydream about. She’d never been anywhere, not even to the capital. When Evie asked her about her goals, she didn’t seem to understand the concept. She was doing, she said, exactly what she wanted and what she was meant to do.

Ixna did not smile and talk predictably, like Judas, who’d been studying white people for years. She was very definitely Indian and made no effort to act otherwise. She did strange, shameful things that Evie could not even bring herself to mention to her parents. Once, Evie had walked behind the house to see Ixna kneeling and kissing the ground. Kissing the dirt! Not saucily, not like a joke or a greeting, but slowly, with reverence, intimacy. Ixna would not eat their food or even pretend to understand their stories, stories that Mother called universal, like the one about the tortoise and the hare.

“How did a turtle ever win a race?” Ixna had asked in irritation. She then told her own story, about a jaguar and a deer, who had each decided to build a house on the same spot, though they did not meet for a long time. The deer cleared the site with his antlers and left for supplies, then the jaguar arrived, saw the clearing, and built the frame. Then he left and the deer came back and built the roof. They each were so happy to have a helper that when they finally did meet, they decided to live together to make life easier. But one day, the jaguar came back with a large deer he’d killed. Let’s eat, he said. The deer became very afraid. In the morning, he went and found another jaguar, then found a bull and said to him, That jaguar over there was bad-mouthing you. The bull gored the jaguar, and the deer dragged the jaguar corpse home and presented it to his housemate. Let’s eat what I have killed! The jaguar became very afraid. That night, neither could sleep, thinking of the other in the next room. Deer killing jaguars and jaguars killing deer. The deer had a bad dream and his antlers struck the wall, making a big noise. Both were so frightened by the noise that they ran out of the house and did not stop. And did not return.

“That’s all?” Evie had asked.

“What else? That is everything,” Ixna told her.

Evie considered Ixna her one and only friend in Guatemala and did not believe she had ever stolen anything from Mother. Though she was poor, Ixna didn’t envy any of them or their things. Because of this, she and Ixna could be friends. When Mother first accused Ixna of stealing her last tin of ivory face powder, Ixna had laughed.

Evie had been bold enough to look in Ixna’s basket once and had found pine needles and a red Indian blanket inside.

They lived in an old, gutted church on the farm that had been run by a priest years ago. Before this, the mountain had been communal land for the Indians, where anyone could plant or graze or pray. But the government seized it and sold it to the Church. The resident priest then divided the land into small plots that the Indians rented to plant food. But with the regime change twenty years ago, the priest had been thrown out of the country, and the land confiscated by the President, along with all the other “excessive” Catholic landholdings. After that, the government sold the land to a cochineal farmer, who moved in, planted cacti, then failed, or disappeared. Or both. Stories in town conflicted.

The church they lived in was small. Except for the cross on the roof, from the outside no one would even know it was a church. But still, Father had built a porch on the front, where steps used to be, and painted the white- washed exterior brown, to make it all look less holy. The inside, which had been dark, was then whitewashed for the same effect. It was like the window- less church had been turned inside out.

As the afternoon grew strangely dark, Father was still gone on his ridge climb. As they waited for him, Mother instructed Evie to watch for lava out the one window they had. Father had cut this window to cheer up Mother, but it was almost always used to watch out for disaster: early rains, thieves, wild animals, and now the lava. How would lava come? A sudden lake of fire washing around them, a river cutting through their fields? And more importantly, what would Evie do if she did see lava? Because Judas said once you see it, it’s too late to escape.

So many terrible things in the forest: criminals, lava, ghosts, animals. “What about jaguars? Father left his gun.” Evie’s fear amplified, seeing her own worried face in the dark glass.

“But he has Judas with him,” Mother reminded her.

Judas was Father’s number one man because he spoke Spanish, English, and Quiché. And because he would sense a jaguar stalking them. Father said Judas’s Indian mother had at first named him in Quiché. He had gone by this name for the first few years of his life. But when his mother became a Catholic, the nuns had encouraged her to rename him from the Bible. And they never could dissuade her from her choice.

When Judas did arrive, around dinnertime, Evie had mistaken him at first for lava. His torch bobbing in the distance was everything she had been dreading. A bright, seething eye seeking them out. Paralyzed with fear, she stood at the window and watched the flame appear intermittently, weaving its way leisurely toward the house.

He walked in the front door a few minutes later, holding a much smaller lantern that brightened the whole room and threw his dignified shadow on the wall. Despite his dark skin and flat Indian nose, Judas always wore European pants, shirts, and shoes. Sometimes Father and Evie went into the men’s shop in town and selected pants, a shirt, and shiny lace-up shoes for him. Evie had the idea that Father paid Judas in these elaborate outfits.

Seeing Judas alone and in filthy disarray, Mother clutched herself and cried, “Where’s Robert?”

Saber.” Saber meaning something like, Who knows? in Quiché. Only, Judas never said it like a question.

“What? You’ve no idea? You lost him?”

Judas was immune to any tone of voice, even that of desperation. He shook the ash from his shoes, tapping the points on the floorboards, as Evie’s world crashed all around her. Imagining life without Father, no jokes, no songs, no funny stories about important people drinking too much. Then, just as quickly, everything returned to normal.

“Evie, go get a chicken crate! Hurry!” Father’s familiar voice, from the far end of the field, brought everyone to the front door. They could not see him at first. He did not have a lantern and blended into the dressed cactus field like he was on a crowded street.

He mounted the front porch, cleared all three steps in a single leap, with a half-full burlap sack bucking and heaving in his hands. Something huge and powerful, with what appeared to be fists, punched at the fabric. Father held it up triumphantly.

The first thing Evie believed upon seeing this was that Father had found her a sister in the woods. Just last year, her parents had announced to her that she would be getting a new brother or sister. How? She had asked just this. How will my sister arrive? Well, Father explained, she or he will come in a burlap sack. Like the ones we use for shipping? Like the ones for coffee? Yes, he had told her, exactly. But she had waited a long time and the bag never came. When she asked again, they seemed disappointed she had remembered the conversation. “We thought you were getting a sister,” Father explained, “but the mail in Guatemala is terrible. You know we’re always having problems. They delivered her to someone else, Evie.”

Then Mother cried.

“Robert, what is it?” Mother asked now, hugging herself, keeping inside the doorway.

“All I saw was red, blue, and green in my torchlight. Just these fabulous bright colors, down low in a bush.”

“But what is it?”

“I thought I was hallucinating. It’s the most incredible thing, Mattie. The most beautiful creature. I knew you’d never believe me if I described it to you, so I jumped on it with the bag.”

So, not a baby. A creature. With this, a more terrifying possibility occurred to Evie. A ghost. Father had caught one of the ghosts that lived in the cave. In Guatemala, everyone believed in ghosts. Indians—adults and even respected leaders—came from all over to talk to the ghosts on their mountain. Only, they did not call them ghosts, but ancestors.

“You see something beautiful, an animal, you have no idea what it is, and your first instinct is to jump on it and bag it?” Mother asked, amazed.

“It worked on you.” Father winked, and Mother blushed with pleasure. That was definitely a part of the story Mother had not shared.

“Evie, hold the bag tight over the crate. Hold it tight and don’t let go until I say.”

Evie hesitated, then did as her father told her. She imagined a dead Indian ancestor in that bag. A shrunken old mummy man without teeth. It was too late to do anything else. It was in the bag, angry. The only thing to do now was keep this thing prisoner, to make sure it didn’t come back for revenge.

Father shook the bag. “Okay, now.”

Evie let go, the top of the crate slammed shut, and everyone stepped back. The thing looked at them and they looked at it and saw that it was not a ghost, or an old man, or a baby, but a bird. Just a regular-sized bird, but with two fantastically long tail feathers, nearly a meter long, crammed into a crate. Now out of the bag, it did not buck and punch, but maintained a calm dignity. How had such a small bird made such a scene, how had it filled the bag like it had? “What is it?” Mother lifted a lantern, putting a hand on Father. Though she scolded his recklessness, she was often half pleased with the fruits of his bravery.

“I have no idea.” Father panted with excitement. “I think it’s lost. Maybe its home was destroyed by the volcano, maybe he was confused by all the ash.”

The bird’s spiked green head gave him the air of alertness, his blue neck the posture of calm. His entire breast, a brilliant jeweled red, pounded with breath, like a large, pumping heart exposed to the air.

“It’s gorgeous. What are we going to do with it, Robert?”

“Of course, we’re going to keep it.”

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