Being on this land, seeing its people, digging for artifacts, going off his meds—all of it was spitting Joseph out into a new sense of clarity. Following is Elizabeth Kadetsky’s story behind the story, “It Was Only Clay” from the Summer, 2014 issue of The Antioch Review.
He’d arrived on the isthmus after the earthquake struck—in Yucatán. Short wave radio reported a million homeless over the border in Guatemala, the crumbling of dozens of highland villages. For his own purposes, Yucatán was yielding nothing. He became anxious, impatient. The land was spitting him out of it like a language it didn’t like speaking.
On “It Was Only Clay”
by Elizabeth Kadetsky
In 1994, The Village Voice sent me to cover a story set in a small highlands village in the Cuchumatantes mountains of Guatemala called San Cristóbal Verapaz. By the time I got to Guatemala City and checked into my hotel, however, a travel advisory had been issued. The advisory was intended for female travelers like myself—solo and American—so I dutifully avoided travel to the countryside and spent the next several days exploring and digging up facts for my story in the capital city.
There was a feeling of menace pervading everything. Once, as I was walking by myself at sunset near the grand municipal halls of the city center, a young soldier carrying a rifle and bayonet gave me an up and down. His eyes read fear, death, and other things it seemed I could not comprehend. Another time a man stared and heckled sexual harassments at me in a crowd that had gathered to watch some street performers. Another man—an American—came up to not so helpfully inform me I was in danger. The story I was covering related directly to the travel advisory: an American woman had been attacked by a mob in San Cristobal. The crowd, made up of young indigenous men, believed she had kidnapped a baby and was carrying it in her backpack to be absconded to the developed world and harvested for kidneys.
When the advisory was lifted a week later, I made my way to the highlands town. The younger brother of a friend of a friend accompanied me and acted as my interpreter, translating from the local Mayan dialect—Q’eqchi—to Spanish. We checked into the town’s only hostel and spent two days interviewing everyone in the town in any position of leadership. One was a bible translator from the capital city and his American wife, who had adopted several local, indigenous, children. The couple implored us to leave the hostel and stay with them, which we did. We also met an aid worker and a missionary. And we met a Guatemalan human rights activist who had relocated to the town to investigate the hidden atrocities of the civil war in the 1970s and 80s and to spearhead ongoing exhumations of mass graves.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I had spent the prior week in the capital living in a state of dissociated, unacknowledged fear. This fear was accompanied, for me, by a paradoxical elation and giddiness, an otherworldly feeling that may be common among those who seek out extreme danger, for instance war correspondents and other risk takers. I began to wonder if I was one of those people.
The human rights activist described the exhumations then taking place throughout the highlands in light of a current truce in the civil war and declaration of the war’s end, which, as it turned out, was premature. During the civil war, the next town over had been wiped out, the activist told me. It no longer existed. The survivors of that era had witnessed great atrocities, but they were reluctant to speak of them. In the mornings, corpses would line the streets. Everyone knew someone who had been assassinated in the war, usually by someone associated with the military or its paramilitary death squads, the Mano Blanca. The town, the entire highlands, was suffering PTSD on a mass scale. People had kept their stories secret now ten, twenty years owing to fear.
Listening to the activist was the first time on that trip I noticed that I was floating. Later I heard similar stories from local people, and the same thing happened. I felt giddy and outside myself, swept up in fear and incredulity.
Many years later I read the news article on which Joseph di Napoli’s story in “It Was Only Clay” was based. It was about an archaeologist, Peter Tiscione from Queens, who came to Guatemala to finish his dissertation and wound up a mysterious and unexplained death by machete wounds in a hotel room in Guatemala City.
I used only the broad outlines of Tiscione’s story to craft a narrative around my own experience visiting horror in the Guatemalan highlands and capital city. For me, the experience had been surreal. In real life, Peter Tiscione was manic-depressive and had possibly quit his meds. I imagined he also experienced the setting as less than tangible. The minor characters in my story were inspired mostly by people whom I’d met, while I imagined that Joseph’s experience of manic-depression might somehow echo, in an exaggerated way, my own giddy feeling of placelessness while I was there. I cannot fathom what others endured in Guatemala during those years, but I could say that it was illuminating and exhilarating for me to put my own sensations into a related narrative and learn about the setting through the lens of a different character.
Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir of a year spent in India studying with the yogi BKS Iyengar, First There Is a Mountain; and a short story collection, The Poison that Purifies You, which was chosen by Vogue.com as one of the best under the radar picks of 2014. Her personal essays and short stories have been published in New England Review, Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, the New York Times, and many other venues. She is assistant professor teaching fiction and nonfiction at Penn State and splits her time between New York City’s East Village and State College, PA. Her work can be found at elizabethkadetsky.com.
© 2015 The Antioch Review