The young man’s head had been freshly severed when they put it on the spike. Blood turned the wood dark red and then pooled below, turning the grass into a black swamp.
Yes, his face was frozen in terror. But what struck Sister Agnes was the permanent blankness of it. The permanent blankness.
His name was Miguel and he was twenty years old. She had known him almost since she arrived in El Salvador in 1980, at the beginning of the civil war, before he became a guerrillero. He had come to Mass every Sunday with his mother, Tatiana, and his three brothers and two sisters.
That was why she was here, in this park. Neither side would attack her, a Sister of Charity, neutral and benign. Only she could tread upon land dedicated as a place of terror and leave unscathed. Only she could retrieve the head and bring it home.
She had been initiated into this errand two months ago by a more tenured sister, Helen. The first man had been older, in his thirties, his long hair tied back. His face lived forever in her mind. His name was Fernando.
Then Sister Helen left, a month ago, after her seventh head, and the other sisters in town could not bring themselves to take over this task. They would have left the head to drip and decay in the afternoon heat. Agnes would not allow such a thing. Thus, when the young boy knocked on the door that morning to tell them what he had seen in the park, it was Agnes who acted, on her own for the first time.
Soldiers loitered at the edge of the brown lawn, smoking cigarettes and eyeing her. They were not allowed to harm her, but that was not always enough to stop them. She could feel their young men’s desire for violence trained on her. For all she knew, it was these same soldiers, boys really, who had done this to Miguel last night, and now they were enjoying the sight of the American nun cleaning up. Townspeople slunk by, trying to see what was happening but too afraid to stop.
Recalling what Sister Helen had done, Agnes performed the sign of the cross and said a silent prayer, for peace for Miguel, for strength for herself. Then she pushed back the sleeves of her habit and, with a white sheet, used both hands to grab his head and pry it off the stake as gently as she could. She would not gag or vomit or cry, would not take any more dignity away from him. Then they would win. The head slid off and she wrapped it in the sheet. Holding the head in front of her but not against her, arms already beginning to ache, she closed in on herself so the soldiers would not see any reaction, would be disappointed that they weren’t getting a show. She could not do this but it had to be done, so she would do it as someone other than herself, as the messenger.
Agnes walked back to her truck and placed the head in the passenger seat. She drove toward the barrio where Miguel’s family lived, monitoring the package in her periphery to ensure it was not jostled. In the distance, bullets rattled off. Sometimes they were just warnings and sometimes they were not.
As she drove, she thought of his mother, whose life she would soon change forever. Agnes had tried to teach her to knit once because Tatiana claimed she didn’t know, and then a few weeks later she had produced a knitted purse with a zipper and a handle and Agnes’s name embroidered on it—something Agnes herself would not have known how to make and certainly had not taught her. That had been years ago, and Agnes recalled laughing with her and bending down to kiss her on the cheek in thanks. Tatiana had replied with her typical Vaya pues, the Salvadoran version of you’re welcome, a self-deprecating Go on then.
The sound of the shots grew louder as she approached the barrio. She pulled over and the familiar sensation of her body’s instincts took over as she identified the risks. Ears perked, eyes unblinking, heart beating. How keen her senses had gotten in the last few years.
The popcorn sound of bullets, then an explosion. They were far enough away, she decided. She could not do this later. There was nothing she could do with a head that seemed reasonable. And to keep Tatiana waiting any longer would be wrong.
Agnes put the truck back in gear and kept going. Her hands on the steering wheel looked like someone else’s.
Outside Tatiana’s home, powdered debris rained from the sky. Whatever was happening, it was not on this street, but that could change at any moment.
When Agnes lifted her hand to knock, she saw that it was stained with blood. She clenched it into a fist and knocked with the knuckles that were marked only by her own freckles—too many, the doctor said. Irish skin wasn’t meant for the Central American sun, but what could she do?
She knocked again. Behind the door, Tatiana told the children to stay down, stay away. Spanish reprimands rattled off a harried tongue.
Tatiana, short and round, with the slightest lines forming on her face, answered the door wearing a soiled apron. Buenas, Hermana Agnes.
Her eyes traveled down to the bundle in Agnes’s arms and stopped there. Blood had leached through the sheet in places. Agnes wanted to cover up the spots but it was too late. Tatiana would already know.
I have to tell you something, Agnes said.
Tatiana was frozen, but Agnes ushered her into her house, closing the door behind them. Tatiana’s other children, none more than ten years old, peered from the next room with wide eyes. Agnes closed the curtain that separated the two rooms and returned to Tatiana, who hovered in the corner farthest from her children.
It’s about Miguel, Agnes said.
She spoke slowly and rested a hand on Tatiana’s shoulder, remembering too late that there was blood on it.
I am sorry, Agnes continued. I found him this morning and I am bringing him back to you.
Tatiana slumped against the wall, eyes still locked on the bundle in Agnes’s arms. Then she snatched it, unwrapped it, and fell to the ground, clutching her son’s head close to her. The chaos of mortar explosions and collapsing buildings did nothing to keep the children from hearing the wails that racked the cement floor beneath their feet, the stucco walls of the house, Agnes’s own bones.
Agnes felt herself retreat, floating away, away from Tatiana’s cries. The shell of her remained, holding Tatiana.
The first time, Agnes had asked Sister Helen if it were not better for the mothers and wives not to see the heads. Helen had explained the importance of the physical to Salvadoran culture, how close they lived, how much they touched, how they were buried next to one another. She told Agnes that so much had been taken from these people, it was wrong to withhold anything more. Besides, Helen had tried it, and the mothers and wives always begged to see what remained, did not believe her unless they saw the proof, touched it. Agnes wished only that there had been someone else who could have gone ahead and given Tatiana the news first.
Eventually Agnes helped her stand and wrapped up the head so the children wouldn’t see. She made coffee and sat with Tatiana as the mother somehow composed herself to tell the children. Tatiana held Miguel, what was left of him, the whole time, whispering Dios me ayude. Behind the curtain, the children were silent.
At home, Agnes slipped off her habit, which she wore only for tasks like these, her own version of armor. It reeked of blood and tears and terror. She would have thrown it away if she could. But that would be frivolous, an act of emotion, not of practicality, when she could not easily acquire another habit, when it could be cut into strips for bandages.
The numbness, which had been a reprieve, was drifting away. In its place, anger filled Agnes and hardened inside her. She clung to it, because anger was power.
She placed her habit in the stone basin with water and soap, soaked it, and scrubbed it until her fingers were raw, until one of her sisters came home and gently pried the brush out of her hands.
Shannon St. Hilaire spent four months in a town in El Salvador that was deeply affected by the war, and in turn it deeply affected her. This piece is an excerpt from “The Ones Who Stayed,” a novella she wrote on the subject. In 2020, she placed first in the Forge Flash Nonfiction Competition. Her work has appeared in New Delta Review, Hobart, Entropy, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at www.shannonsthilaire.com and @SLStHilaire.
Art by Five South