The Long Night of White Chickens is a novel born of two worlds: It is the story of Roger Graetz, raised in a Boston suburb by a patrician Guatemalan mother, and his relationship with Flor de Mayo, the beautiful young Guatemalan orphan sent by his grandmother to live with his family as a maid. When, years later in the 1980s, Flor is murdered in Guatemala, Roger returns to uncover the truth of her death. There he is reunited with Luis Moya, a childhood friend, and together they venture on a quest into Flor’s life that will have unexpected, and unforgettable, repercussions.
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When I was five years old, and still in quarantine for the case of tuberculosis I'd picked up in Guatemala the year before, Abuelita, that is my mother's mother, sent us an orphan girl to be our maid, and this was Flor de Mayo Puac. Her passport and working papers said she was sixteen, but she was pretty positive she was thirteen. In the Guatemala City convent orphanage where Flor had lived since she was six (pretty positive of being six), the nuns had let her celebrate her birthday every May 10, the anniversary of her baptism there, which might actually have been her second baptism, though her father, when he was alive, had never once taken her into a church that she could remember. But the date seemed accurate enough, and not only because of the evidence provided by her name. She'd lived with her father in the department of Chiquimula, on the desert side of the mountains there where the first of the year's two or three heavy rains usually fell in April or May, inciting the locusts' racket, and it was always around that time that her father would suddenly change her age, saying, "Now you are five, mijita," and then, "Now you are six." Flor lived in the convent orphanage for seven years, and then one day my grandmother came and picked her.
What had happened was that my mother had left my father when I was one and had taken me back to Guatemala, where I was going to grow up as a rich person, as she had, which is, of course, just one way of putting it. But then I caught TB from one of our maids and we went back to Massachusetts for the better hospitals in Boston, and also because Abuelita had my mother convinced that my illness was punishment from God for having abandoned my father up there, for three years, in the little suburban ranch house on Codrioli Road in Namoset that my mother had never really liked. My father was still living there, alone, when we came home. Me, tubercular, browned by three years of tropical sun and then yellowed by illness, speaking no English, but still — his son. Abuelita, being a devout and ebulliently authoritarian Catholic, was against divorce, but she'd been just as against the marriage. My father is Jewish, and seventeen years older than my mother. He was raised in the poorest Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of Boston.
And because he was never comfortable with the idea of having a maid in the first place, and did not think a thirteen-year-old girl should spend all day housecleaning in a house where there wasn't all that much to clean, my father decided that Flor should go to school. We were enrolled in the first grade together at the beginning of the next school year, and Flor eventually graduated from Namoset High four years ahead of me, in 1972. After that she won a full scholarship to Wellesley College, which is in the town of the same name, right next to Namoset.
But in 1979 Flor ended up back in Guatemala City, where she was eventually hired to be director of a private orphanage and malnutrition clinic called Los Quetzalitos. On the seventeenth of February, 1983, towards the end of General Ríos Montt's highly successful counterinsurgency campaign, which according to what I've read in the papers and elsewhere added tens of thousands of new orphans to Guatemala's already huge orphan population, Flor was found murdered. She was discovered by some of her orphans lying on her bed in her room at the orphanage just before six in the morning, wearing pajamas, and dead from a single deep knife gash in her throat.
And the very next day the two major Guatemala City dailies came out saying that just two days previous the National Police had uncovered a clandestine safe house for hiding babies — also called a casa de engordes, or fattening house — many of them not even orphans but illegally purchased and even stolen babies, and that they were being kept there until their illegal adoptions could be arranged. That is, until they could be sold to childless couples in Europe and the United States, this apparently being a highly profitable and widespread business in Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America — "a business angle to civil war and violent repression," as one human rights publication I read phrased it. The newspapers ran photographs of a house full of crowded cribs. And close-up shots of the frightened face of a captured niñera, or nursemaid, who was quoted as saying that her employer, or rather one of her employers but the only one who ever came to the safe house in person, was Flor de Mayo. And the newspapers and police theorized that behind this lay the probable motive for the murder, since Flor couldn't have run that kind of business all alone: so that it must have been her partners, tipped off somehow about what the niñera had said, who had silenced Flor forever, before the police had been able to procure the order for her arrest. The police said they were searching for these anonymous partners and that justice would be done, not just for the crime of an internecine murder but for the defamation and disgrace that all such baby-selling rings brought upon the patria.
They said that Flor's job as director of a legal orphanage had merely served her as a front, and as her introduction into the whole business of adoptions. And, as one newspaper put it, it was people like Flor, "a woman of pocos escrúpulos," few scruples, who were "desprestigiando," de-prestiging, the entirely honorable and necessary occupation of taking care of orphans and legally finding them loving homes abroad. The newspapers highlighted Flor's beauty, though not to any specific purpose. And they made very much of the fact that, although she was Guatemalan born, this alone could not account for her corruption as she was a United States citizen who had spent more than half her life in her adopted country and had graduated from one of its most elite colleges for women. Direct U.S. military aid to the Guatemalan military government had been cut off by Congress since 1978 because of the human rights violations, considered the most excessive in the hemisphere, and no one since in Washington who had tried had succeeded in coming up with the right words to persuade Congress to fully turn it back on. But the military, and many in the Guatemalan press, and many Guatemalans who considered themselves patriots, such as my relatives, liked to think of that cutoff as a kind of blanket violation of all Guatemalans' human rights and as a new and hypocritical form of imperialism, and now the newspapers posed Flor's case as another form of hypocrisy and imperialism: a highly educated U.S. citizen selling, for personal profit, the surviving victims of the alleged human rights atrocities that North Americans professed to be so concerned about.
It was into that scandal that my father and I flew together, to bring Flor's body home for burial.
It is something of a long story, what happened those two days in Guatemala, and I will come to it. But I will say that nothing happened to convince us that what the papers and authorities were saying about Flor wasn't true. Nothing. And it is what I'd more or less believed since, for over a year, about Flor, until the day just over a month ago when Luis Moya Martínez looked me up in Brooklyn, New York, where I was living.
I'd known Moya when I was of elementary school age, from all the summers that my mother and I spent back in Guatemala visiting Abuelita. (Flor stayed home in Namoset all but one of those summers and wanted to, or at least pretended to want to, not that Abuelita would have offered to pay her airfare too. Abuelita had her own maids, no need to bring ours and so on — Except my father had made Flor not just a maid.) Because Guatemalan schoolchildren don't get their long vacation until October and my mother had her own idea about why attending a Guatemalan private school would be a great thing for me, I was enrolled every summer in the Colegio Anne Hunt, the school that all my cousins have gone to. Moya — and even then everyone but the teachers called him nothing but that — was one of a handful of scholarship students there.
But since then I'd only seen him twice. The summer after my junior year in college I drove down to Guatemala by myself in a Ford Mustang that belonged to my roommate, who was in Italy, where his girlfriend had gone to study art history. He'd told me I could use his car while he was away, though of course taking it down to Central America wasn't what he'd meant. But he wasn't the type ever to even notice the mileage on his odometer, and when I got back in August, just days ahead of him, I took it to the car wash and then in our driveway used a sponge and his portable blow-dryer to steam the Mexican tourist stickers off the windows and he never noticed a thing. I'd taken that car for the crazy adventure of it, because I was infatuated then with what just this degree of recklessness might mean about me (though if it meant anything of value, I can't say I've lived up to it since). But mainly I'd gone down to visit Flor. And on the unforgettably chaotic day that the government reversed the direction of all the major one-way avenues in Guatemala City, I ran into Moya in the cake shop — café called Pastelería Hemmings. He was still a university student himself then, studying to be a lawyer at San Carlos, the public university.
Then I saw Moya again, even more briefly, outside La Verbena morgue, where my father and I, accompanied by U.S. Consul Joseph Simms, had gone to claim Flor's body.
* * *
But when my mother phoned to say that at a Latin American Society of Boston event she'd met a young Guatemalan man who was studying at Harvard now and who said he'd known me at the Colegio Anne Hunt, it didn't even cross my mind at first that she could mean Moya. I thought I knew what he was doing now: he'd become not a lawyer but a Guatemala City newspaperman. And though I'd never read anything of his and didn't even know which paper he was working for, my experience of the newspapers there in general, which have to be read to be believed, made it impossible for it even to occur to me that anyone from that background could get accepted into any kind of program at Harvard. Not that I could imagine anyone from Anne Hunt being at Harvard, certainly not any of the boys. (I might as well admit now that Harvard has always been a somewhat touchy subject with me, given my father's long obsession with the idea that his son should go there, a cause I did not help along very much by graduating from Namoset High with a 62 average, which placed me near the top of the bottom fifth of my class.) The Colegio Anne Hunt is a rich kids' school, but not one of the very best ones. It isn't like the American School or even the Colegio Maya, where they have teachers from the States and you have to take an aptitude test to get in or else have parents with enough cuello or pull, something like a supersignificant last name, to buy you in anyway. And of course I remembered that among the boys at Anne Hunt it had always been such a point of privileged macho pride to do badly that most never even graduated unless they went back during the school break to take the special and expensive course that allowed them to. (And allowed Anne Hunt to design her school's annual graduation ceremony to be as feminine, delicate, and expressive of the same values as high society coming out balls.) So who, in all that crowd of Anne Hunt cabroncitos was at Harvard now? And why would he remember me and be asking my mother for my telephone number?
"A very charming young man, muy elegante, muy bien educado" is how my mother described him over the phone, though I guess she'd say the same about Porky Pig if he was a Latin American at Harvard. She is the vice president of the Latin American Society of Boston this year, which has a floor of a brownstone on Newbury Street as its headquarters, and she told me how she'd met this elegant young "stranger" when, during the milling round over coffee and pastries following a Venezuelan diplomat's lecture on the intellectual history of Latin America, he'd approached her to ask, completely out of the blue, what had ever happened to the antique electric train that for years had decorated a window of Arrau, our family department store in Guatemala City, at Christmastime. My mother's laugh over the phone must have matched the one she'd given the stranger then, full of pleasure and surprise over having her family's business prominence so unexpectedly evoked within earshot of so many of the society's patrons — real Boston blue bloods, she has often reminded me. Which gave her the chance to recite for the stranger the cheerful and nostalgic homage I of course know by heart: ... Well yes, claro, that wonderful toy train, her father used to say the elves made it to escape Switzerland, where they'd been enslaved for centuries in an underground cuckoo clock factory. Because it was a Swiss toy train, you see, though her father bought it in a Hong Kong market during his buying trip through the Orient in 1932. Back then Arrau's toy department must have been the equal of any in the world! General Ubico had no children, of course, but he used to walk over from the National Police just to say hello to her mother and look at the toys. Yes, of course, Ubico was a dictator and that is wrong but the times were so different then and he was a friend of her mother. But that train was special, her father wouldn't sell it, not even to Ubico. Though unfortunately it ceased to exist the day the Arrau store in Quezaltenango caught fire, she's sure it was an accident because, you know, why would anyone? caught fire during a student riot coincidentally soon after that train had been brought up there for a special window display of antique toys in honor of Children's Week in Quezaltenango. Ay no, the treasures, the absolute treasures that were lost in that fire ...! Though of course at Christmas you can still hear the tape recording her father made, the one with bells from Tchaikovsky's something or other and the Negro opera singer from Belize with a deep, deep voice who her father hired to do the voice of Santa Claus, you can still hear him! The Guatemalan stranger would have nodded with enthusiasm here, would have known of the annual event if not the actual history, would have known that my mother's brother, Jorge Arrau, still plays that recording over the loudspeakers at Christmas while the little man who plays the part of Santa Claus stands on the store balcony pantomiming along to the Belizean's operatic and Caribbean ho ho hos and throwing candy to the children below, always so many children that the police have to close Sexta Avenida to traffic. — That recording is nearly forty years old! And do you know that little man who plays Santa is the very same man who has been doing it now for nearly forty years? (the stranger gapes in astonishment, he'd never realized) He must be able to act along to that recording in his sleep! Two hours of ho ho hos and Feliz Navidades and if you watch you'll see that he never misses a single ho, he opens his mouth for every single ho! Which just proves that any job worth doing is worth doing well, my dear! (Later Moya confessed to me that while his inquiry about the train had been an effective conversation opener, he really had madly desired that train as a boy and had even fantasized about talking me into stealing it for him.)
"... Well, tall, dark, about six feet, I think," said my mother, trying to describe the elegant young stranger.
"Oh good, tall, when I haven't seen this guy in like twelve years probably. Brown eyes too I bet. Speaks good Spanish I bet. This is helpful, Mom."
But she couldn't remember his name because she'd assumed that if he'd gone to the Colegio Anne Hunt then she would at least know his mother, but of course she didn't because Moya's mother has never been anything, or rather anybody, more illustrious than Anne Hunt's seamstress, and back then when we were in school his father was an officers' mess waiter on a cargo ship owned by the Somoza family of Nicaragua.
"Well, he said he knew Flor de Mayo too," said my mother. "Of course I didn't tell him that you are working in a restaurant, my dear. I told him you are applying to graduate schools. Have you? Are you?"
Nervousness can bring out a breezy petulance in my mother's voice, as well as suddenly make her native accent much stronger, and the more or less native attitudes she reverts to when she is feeling like that can seem malicious, though they really aren't meant to be, though they can certainly be irritating. I mean, no, I hadn't applied to anything, and was pretty much paralyzed by the whole idea, and she knew that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Long Night of White Chickens"
Copyright © 1992 Francisco Goldman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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